Life (& death) on the farm

A new calf on the farm!

Late Friday afternoon, we walked out to see the cows with visiting farmer friends. We’ve been anticipating some births but hadn’t seen any true signs of labor yet, so what a surprise to arrive and see … a standing calf! She must have been born in the two hour window between when Casey finished animal chores and when we arrived. How wonderful when a heifer (first-time mom) can calve so easily that it’s a surprise.

Pouring colostrum into jars for storage -- the extra went into the freezer for future use.

We named the calf Spring and later that evening carried her back to the shed near our house, where she will live during her bottle feeding babyhood. Last year, we left the calves with their moms, with the assumption that they would care for them better than we knew how. But that plan turned out to be much more complicated than we anticipated, so we’re taking the other approach this year — remove calves from moms soon after birth and bond with babies as their moms and with the moms as their babies. So far, this is going well — Spring eagerly takes her bottle full of beautiful yellow colostrum from us.

Anyhow, new life on the farm exciting, to say the least. And, spring (the season) is all about life returning everywhere. Plants that have rested dormant (or grown very slowly all winter) are bursting with life — over-wintered kale is growing tender leaves; radishes are putting out flowers and setting seed already; the earliest of our plum trees are blooming; lambs are jumping … walking in the fields these days always brings new treats. Freshly born calves are a rarity, but other sights delight, as the fields and animals are in a state of rapid change. As flowers open, we are reminded of this next stage of the yearly cycle, when all the plants take their turn to reproduce and bring more and more life into our environment.

Life, as such, has always been a part of our farm. That feeling of everything bursting forth and growing, growing, growing is perhaps the defining characteristic of a healthy farm to me. It’s what makes me love this work and this place so deeply. My whole life, I’ve claimed that blue is my favorite color, but in my environment, green is what really makes me smile. Right now, I’m writing this at the golden hour before dusk, and the green field outside our window is glowing even as the shadows grow longer across it. The world is alive! What joy!

But, then, there’s that other side of life. The part that makes these sights a turn in a cycle. The part that’s hard for us to accept as a society (or species perhaps).


Death, too, has always been a part of our farm, although perhaps not quite as transparently as it is now. All that green growth in our fields? The kale leaves that grow bigger every day? The grass blades reaching for the skies? The apple buds that are swelling? What invisible power is fueling all of these forces, and where does it come from? What powers this abundant life?

Death. As I touched on briefly in my newsletter two weeks ago, plants require death and decomposition in the soil in order to grow. Tilling is one way to achieve this process (speeding it up for the purpose of annual crops that have a limited window of opportunity), but it happens in healthy undisturbed soil and ecosystems as well. Plant matter falls onto the ground and decays, feeding soil organisms, feeding more plants. When animals eat the plants and leave manure behind, this speeds the process up as well.

When organic vegetable farmers talk about “feeding the soil,” they are talking in short-hand about death — about the decay that feeds the soil, via compost, manure, or other organic type inputs. These processes have always been here, fueled ultimately by the sun (a force for energy and destruction). These processes are necessary. Without death, life is not possible.

And, even before we added animal husbandry to the farm, animals died here. Mouse traps are a necessary part of our farm tools — especially in the greenhouses, where at times mice have loved to dig freshly germinated seeds out of flats. We’ve never intentionally killed animals in the fields, leaving gophers in their place and such, but certainly our tractors have done damage in the course of their work. I will always remember mowing down tall over-wintered crops in the spring of 2008 and watching birds fly away from their hidden nests. Meanwhile, insects flew into the air as well and swallows circled in the air, following behind the mower to partake of the abundant feast. Clearly, many small animals and insects had made homes in the habitat we had provided over the winter, and there I was destroying it so that we could plant again. It was a hard moment.

But, today, with animals in the mix, death occurs on the “macro-scale” as well. It is no longer just a matter of composting leftover summer squash or buying bags of feather meal or tilling under spent kale plantings or emptying mouse traps. Death is now present in terms that are more real to us humans — kindred species dying, here on our farm.

Since meat is a part of our Full Diet CSA, we have to make this choice every week: who will die? More accurately, who will we kill? Just writing that sentence forces me to breathe deep with the hard truth of it. How greatly we humans want to deny the reality of death. Even as a confirmed meat eater, it still feels like a stretch to admit how integral death has become to our farm today. Again, death (even of animals) is necessary for any human diet (even a vegan one), but to really face that fact with a knife in hand — it is a different level of embracing the cycles of life. It is hard because there is a deep need to honor the life being given (through conscientious killing and handling and grateful eating), but there is also the challenge of facing our own mortality.

We too will die. If we are lucky, our death will be honorable and come at the end of a long, full life. And then we will feed the organisms that feed the plants. The cycle continues.

For Casey and me, facing these questions still takes a pause. As with most Americans, we grew up disconnected from these cycles in any real sense. “Food” came from the store, wrapped in plastic. In its most extreme form, how does one even begin to see the chicken in a chicken nugget? On many plates today, the life that nourishes our bodies has been processed into unrecognizable (and less nourishing) form.

In contrast, Casey and my children are growing up here on the farm, seeing all aspects of the story of life first-hand. I realize that children react differently to these things, but so far Rusty has been unfazed by witnessing death or dead animals. Since Casey and I grew up without these kinds of exposure, we are not exactly sure how to navigate certain experiences for Rusty. So, we tend to just stick to the basic facts, and he accepts them as a part of our life. We talk about these things when they come up, and although I’m not always sure about his comprehension of the details, he does seem to understand when the life force is present and when it is gone. He regularly watches all parts of the process and is intrigued by the different parts of the animal. When we eat meat at the table, he knows that it was once part of an animal living in our fields. As he grows, it will be fascinating to watch how his relationship with the farm evolves as his comprehension grows.

For Casey and me, the more emotionally complicated deaths are the unintentional ones. The reality of keeping animals is that some of them will die of causes outside our control. Or, even more humbling, through our own mistakes as we learn how to best operate our farm. Sometimes their deaths are clearly preventable, such as when we’ve lost chicks because of not-quite-reliable enough brooder heat situations. Other times, their deaths are completely mysterious, such as when Annie’s two-day old calf died last year without any symptoms or signs of cause. I think the way to avoid unintentional animal deaths on the farm is to never have babies or breeding stock — reproduction is complicated and babies are vulnerable (the smaller the animal the more so). Aside from poultry (losses due to brooder failures and aerial predators), we’ve actually lost very few animals on our farm — you can count them on the fingers of one hand (and we have 76 living non-poultry animals right now). But, each loss stings.

I hope that my own end is many decades away, but I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about it in recent months — at least, more time than I probably spent in the prior three decades of my life. Last year, Casey and I both came closer to our personal deaths than ever before: me, when I hemorrhaged after Dottie’s birth, and Casey, when he had an aggressive melanoma removed. It’d be a stretch to say that these were “near death” experiences, but we were certainly made conscious of the true miracles of western medicine (something we can be very critical of at times). Combine those experiences with the profound reality of raising children, working the soil, and managing animal lives, and you’ve got a good recipe for “being aware” of these cycles. Life, death, life, death — right now, I am immersed in both. Life is all around, stirring my soul, nourishing my body, fueled by its counter-part death. Right now, my role is to take in. Someday, my role will be to return all that life energy. Someday.

This upcoming Sunday, is of course Easter. We will be celebrating with family but skipping the formal parts. For us the message of Easter is complicated — the traditional message is one we once held dear, but these days we tend to see the Gospels as though they’ve been turned into impressionist paintings. The details get lost but beautiful patterns emerge — among them death and rebirth. The question remains — for all of us creatures — about where the spirit resides. I am sure that every person who has ever witnessed it extinguished (in an animal or person) wonders about that spark that so clearly distinguishes the living from the dead. The spirit. Are we all pieces of One and consciousness is just a trick of existence? Are we eternal souls, destined for some future home? Is spirit a part of the body, the energy that holds the pieces of our atoms together?

I personally don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I increasingly appreciate and respect the importance of death — on the farm, but also for all of life as a whole. This reality brings me to the dining table with great reverence. I come with appreciation for all that sustains me: the sun, the grass, the animals. Perhaps this gratitude is the closest thing to an answer that we’ll ever have.

Enjoy this week’s vegetables!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

~ ~ ~

A poem for you. This hangs on our wall on a limited edition letterpress print by Margot Voorhies Thompson.  The last I heard, this poem had never been published elsewhere, so likely this will be your first time reading it. It is fitting for many occasions, but especially for Easter I think. Enjoy …

Wendell Berry

As timely as a river
God’s timeless life passes
Into this world. It passes
Through bodies, giving life,
And beyond them, giving death.
The secret fish leaps up
Into the light and is
Again darkened. The sun
Comes from the dark, it lights
The always passing river,
Shines on the great-branched tree,
And goes. Longing and dark,
We are completely filled
With breath of love, in us
Forever incomplete.

~ ~ ~

Meet this week’s vegetables:

  • Purple sprouting broccoli
  • Kimchi
  • Salad mix
  • Rapini — These are the edible shoots and buds of over-wintered cole crops. They are a “mange tout” item — that is, you can eat it all. Chop up the stalk, buds, and leaves and treat as you might broccoli or kale. You can also roast them whole with olive oil and salt. These are a perennial favorite with long-time CSA members. Enjoy!
  • Kale! — Red Russian
  • Carrots
  • Sunchokes
  • Potatotes
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