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  Down on the Farm
April 22, 2010

I’ve been out of town for nearly a week, so the E-FORUM has been sparse to non-existent, something that many of you probably appreciate.

We spent a few days in Arkansas at Deepwood, taking care of some of those chores that plague rural absentee property owners. We had a long to-do list that seemed to focus on livestock. There are about ten acres of pasture at Deepwood that without either grazing or annual brush-hogging would rapidly return to forest.

The first night, we were eating dinner with high school friends and ran into a couple of others I hadn’t seen in nearly half a century. They had been in Oklahoma boar hunting. Turns out, wild hogs are a big problem for farms in the Ozarks. Entrepreneurial individuals trap them for a fee, transport them to hunting venues where someone else pays to shoot them, making a profit on both ends and providing a useful service at the same time. I haven’t ever met anyone who has actually eaten a wild hog, but everyone swears they are delicious. My friends gave theirs to the guide who “knew someone who would appreciate them.”

Our former neighbor, Dr. Nolan Arthur, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Agriculture, used to graze sheep on our common pastures. The rent he paid for our portion of the pasture was a spring lamb for enjoyment of the culinary type. We usually gave it away because it cost a lot to have it butchered, and we had nowhere to keep the meat. The real payoff was how good the pastured looked. Several years ago, a pack of pit bulls from the other side of Mount Kessler wiped out Nolan’s herd of 30 or so prize sheep. I think it broke his heart. He died a couple of years later.

Nolan’s widow, Bobbi, died just last week after years of battling cancer. They were great neighbors.

Our caretaker and innkeeper, Christina Lawrence, was an animal science major at the U of A and agreed to help bring back grazing animals to the pasture. She acquired five sheep and a goat. The lower pasture has a pond, so the animals have water, but the upper pasture has only a seasonal creek. We needed to get the animals into the upper pasture so they wouldn’t eat the grass to a nub.

Nolan used to tell me that if I opened up the creek with a backhoe, an old spring would also be revived and provide year-round water. I called an old high school buddy, George Pense, whom I had not seen in 48 years, to bring his backhoe and go to work on the creek. Nolan was right. We opened up a substantial hole in the creek, including the long lost spring. Nolan would be proud.

The next chore we attacked was shearing five sheep. If you are looking for a career, I recommend sheep shearing. It is a seller’s market in an otherwise dismal economy. The only sheep shearer in northwest Arkansas is currently on assignment in New Mexico and Texas, working the real herds. Shirley contacted a distant relative who lives in Fayetteville who used to be a weaver. She still has a couple of sheep and offered to help us out. She said we didn’t need a $250 power shear, just some sharp scissors would do. A quick trip to Walmart for the scissors and a stop at the feed store for a sheep halter, and we were ready.

Dell (the weaver), allowed as how she had actually taken a course in sheep shearing but found the electric clippers heavy, cumbersome and hot. She preferred the scissors method. Currently, she had moved on to a career in hoof trimming – apparently another good career path.

Dell showed us how to deftly cut the wool close to the skin without cutting the sheep, an effective method if you have a few days to spare. After about 30 minutes, the one sheep we had worked on looked like a bad hair day, and we gave up and resolved to redouble our efforts to find a professional sheep shearer.

Photo one

After spending the last day burning brush piles left over from the January 2009 ice storm, we headed to St. Louis for a couple of days of ASTM meetings. ASTM is kind of like a City Council for material and product standards. The task groups I work with write standards for exciting things like vapor retarders, water resistive barriers, window installation and stucco application. Eventually, these find their way into building codes. See So You Think City Council is Slow, October 31, 2009.

Downtown St. Louis has some great early Twentieth Century architecture, but I wouldn’t rate it way up there as a great urban attraction. The historic Union Station rehabilitation into a hotel and shopping center is a truly outstanding project, but the recession is already robbing its vitality.

The soaring Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is supposed to symbolize the opening of the west. If you look through the arch back east across the Mississippi River, you find that it frames – a casino on the Illinois shore! Prophetic? While we debate urban casinos, it turns out Illinois already has them. Illinois was the second state to legalize riverboat casinos – beginning in 1991. However, all Illinois riverboats remain dockside and do not cruise. It doesn’t look like it’s done much for the St. Louis economy.

Anyway, we’re back in Richmond where the sinkhole is the latest news as well as speculation about who will run for mayor and what will happen to Point Molate. Those sheep are literally two thousand miles away and somebody else’s problem for now.

I spent most of today at the ABAG General Assembly where Richmond received one of four Bay Area awards for our Civic center rehabilitation.