A Story contribution to 2011: The Year of Idaho Food
Twelve-hundred pounds of beef stare us down. The cow is six feet from the tractor, and its posture says, â€śCome closer, I dare you.â€ť Joe Pickett dares, and calls the cowâ€™s bluff by creeping a foot forward. She rears up, turns, and darts off, followed closely by her calf. â€śThatâ€™s the one,â€ť says Joe, pointing at the calf as it sprints away, â€śThatâ€™s Annie.â€ť
My name is Annie, and thatâ€™s no coincidence. When Joe finally brought home a girlfriend, his grandfather was so tickled that he named one of the new calves after me. Joeâ€™s mother, father, and grandfather all live here at Dixie Creek Ranch in Midvale, Idaho. Joe and his sister Melissa grew up here. The Pickett family has owned, worked, and lived on this land for five generations.
In the past, the ranch has kept dairy cows, chickens, pigs, horses, and sheep, but these days the animals have been narrowed down to a herd of beef cattle, two dogs, an ancient horse named Candy, and a barn-full of cats. Once or twice a year another familyâ€™s goats reside on the farm for a few days and eat the weeds. The time, money, and equipment that must be invested in farm animals today has become too much for some farms, in part due to regulations for food production. The Pickettâ€™s did have chickens when Joe and Melissa were toddlers, but a nasty rooster attacked Melissa one day. Grandma Pickett cut its head off then and there and turned the whole flock into pies soon after. Not a cluck has been heard on the ranch since.
Due to new technologies and equipment, the nationâ€™s food is now produced by fewer farms than ever before, and many of these farms are now huge, industrialized agribusinesses, rather than family farms. In the 1930s, there were close to seven million farms in the United States. According to the most recent US census, just over two million farms remain today. The family farm, once an important part of American culture, is dying away, and this makes Dixie Creek Ranch an increasingly special place. In my time spent visiting Joe here over the summer, I will learn a lot about a way of life thatâ€™s slipping away.
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One of my first visits to the ranch comes in early July, and the place seems like something straight out of a fairytale. The hilly pastures are still green from springtime and scattered with wildflowers of yellow, blue, and purple. Curious, energetic calves chase the tractor and each other. We pick raspberries and play with barn kittens, climb on hay bales and watch sunsets. At night we lie on the lawn and stare at stars which are a lot brighter than the ones I grew up with in Tacoma, Washington. Everywhere we go we are followed by Joeâ€™s light-hearted mutts, Denali and Barack.
Joe gets up before the sun each morning to process hay or to move the cows to a new field. The ranch, which is seven-hundred acres in size, has about fifty head of cattle which must be moved periodically to prevent overgrazing in any one area. These cows are lucky- many of their kind are raised not in a wide open, grassy space, but in concentrated animal feedlots (CAFOs) where conditions are dirty and crowded. Besides being cruel to the animals, these circumstances contribute to sick cows and infected meat- just one faulty aspect of the large-scale companies that have replaced family farms.
Throughout the warm months, a variety of hay is grown to feed the cows during winter and spring. Over the summer Joe must help cut the hay, bale it, and transport it, spending a lot of time on the tractor or baler. He never complains about getting up so early, or about the hours of work his parents expect from him each day.
During my visit in July, I usually sleep in. There isnâ€™t a lot that I can help with as I donâ€™t know anything about running farm equipment. I visit again in August, and this time Iâ€™ll learn a little more about the work involved in farm-family culture. The fields are toasted brown, and Grandpa Pickettâ€™s garden is waiting.
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I find myself excited for every meal at Dixie Creek Ranch. Almost everything we eat comes right off of this farm or a neighborâ€™s. The Picketts donâ€™t grow fruits and vegetables for profit, but they produce plenty for themselves and to share with family and friends. Behind Grandpa Pickettâ€™s house is a garden the size of a large swimming pool. Next to the garden is a gated field where Candy the horse is kept with two bulls. â€śI grew up during the Great Depression,â€ť Grandpa Pickett tells me, â€śand there were ten of us kids. That whole field was our garden and we never went hungry.â€ť Sometimes people would come by the farm looking for work to do. Theyâ€™d help out for an afternoon and the Picketts would feed them.
The garden no longer takes up an entire field, but itâ€™s plenty big. Corn, squash, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbages are all ready to be harvested. Two bushels of apricots picked by Joeâ€™s parents sit in the garage, waiting to be canned. At first, this simply seems like a paradise of home-grown food, but in a few days Iâ€™ll know how much work keeping up a paradise can be.
Itâ€™s Monday morning, about eightâ€™ o clock. The sun is shining insistently through the window, but Joe and I stayed up late last night and would like to close the blinds and sleep a while longer. This is not to be. The back door creaks open, and we hear the thump of Grandpa Pickettâ€™s cane as he enters. Heâ€™s been up and around in his house across the dirt road since five or six, and he hates to be idle. â€śWe better get up,â€ť mumbles Joe, â€śor heâ€™ll come in here and get us.â€ť Joe goes to tell his grandpa weâ€™re on our way as I pull a pair of old jeans out of my bag.
Twenty minutes later I stand between two walls of corn, watching a ladybug crawl across my hand. Joe and I hold large bags and follow behind Grandpa Pickett, who decides which ears are ripe, picks them, and hands them to us. There are six rows of corn, and weâ€™ve only gone through three before our bags are too full and heavy to carry. We retreat to a corner of the garden and set them down, then begin husking. â€śSquiiiiiickâ€ť says the corn as I pull off several layers of husk at once. I pick at the long, silky fibers that wonâ€™t fall off. The hill of corn husks grows at our feet and the day becomes hot. Occasionally I pull back the husk to reveal a chubby green worm that has turned the corn into brown mush, and I try not to cringe and jump back. Joe and I sweat and work mostly in silence, trying to finish the chore as quickly as possible. It takes over an hour to husk the corn, and the work isnâ€™t over.
Joe and I take the corn into the house. We wash it, steam it on the cob, cool it in a water bath, and use circular corn-cob knives to cut off the kernels. Corn juice squirts out as I run the knife down each ear. My arms and the front of my shirt are soon coated in a sticky film. Joeâ€™s cat, Moonshine, sniffs the bucket of discarded cobs, leans in, and pulls one out, proceeding to nibble off the kernels that I missed.
We break to eat an ear of corn each. Hot and slathered with butter, salt, and pepper, itâ€™s the sweetest, juiciest corn Iâ€™ve ever tasted. â€śMy grandma used a regular knife to do this work,â€ť says Joe, â€śShe did it twice as fast as the rest of us, and there was nothing left on the cob.â€ť Grandma Pickett died four year ago. Iâ€™d never met her, but after two hours of cutting corn I know enough to fully appreciate her skill. We scoop the corn into zip-lock bags and freeze it, then dump the cobs outside on a compost heap next to the garden.
â€śWe can our fruits and freeze our vegetables,â€ť Joe explains to me as we float down the ditch, enjoying a swim after six hours of corn labor. Denali swims circles around us as we let the current move us along. â€śBotulism is more of a concern with vegetables, so itâ€™s safer to freeze them.â€ť Speaking of safety, I ask about the e. coli risk associated with swimming in ditches. â€śYeah, they say youâ€™re not supposed to,â€ť says Joe as we drift past the garden, â€śbut I learned to swim in this thing when I was five, and Iâ€™m still alive.â€ťÂ A corn cob floats by.
On Tuesday we do it all again, finishing off the last three rows of corn. Wednesday morning, I watch TV and enjoy a slice of toast with home-made apple butter, then another slice with home-made pear butter. Iâ€™m just finishing off a bowl of home-canned apricots and hoping to never see corn again when Joe walks in after moving the cows. â€śI love these.â€ť I say, pointing to the apricots.
â€śGood, because thatâ€™s what weâ€™re doing today.â€ť
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Slice. Pit. Slice. Pit. Cut out bruise. Slice. Occasionally I eat one. We boil the jars and the lids, and make syrup with sugar and water. We fill the jars with apricots and pour in the syrup. Thereâ€™s a lot of precision to canning. We run knives down the insides of the jars to make sure there are no air bubbles, and wipe the lip of each jar with a paper towel to make sure it is absolutely clean before placing the lid. We put the jars, eight at a time, in a hot water bath for twenty-five minutes. Later, we hear the lids seal, one by one. â€śPingâ€¦. Pingâ€¦. Pingâ€¦â€ť
â€śMy grandma used to do almost all the canning,â€ť says Joe. â€śWeâ€™d help out sometimes, but she did most of it while we were at school. Weâ€™d come back and thereâ€™d be jars all over the place.â€ť
â€śAnd it smelled so good!â€ť adds Melissa, whoâ€™s just come home for a visit. â€śBut sheâ€™d tell us not to open the door, because if a draft of cold air suddenly came in it would make the jars crack.â€ť Joe and Melissa continue reminiscing about their grandma. I gaze around the kitchen at jars of bright, colorful apricots that shine like topaz.
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I visit again on a hot weekend in early September. We make applesauce and pick plums in the shady, green oasis of Grandpa Pickettâ€™s back yard. A black and white barn kitten darts around a rusty, broken down swing set, eyeing Denali curiously. They touch noses.
This kitten is big and healthy, bound to make it to adulthood. His tiny brother lies in the sun by the side of the barn, a pathetic little creature. His eyes are crusted over and he wheezes as he breathes in and out. He wonâ€™t survive. To me this feels like a tragedy, but Joeâ€™s family is used to it. Kitten litters show up periodically on the farm, and natural selection is necessary to control the cat population. Sometimes the Picketts take a liking to one and save it with bottle feeding and antibiotics, which is how Moonshine became a house cat. â€śMy Grandpa named him,â€ť says Joe, â€śbut Grandma didnâ€™t approve of naming the cat after alcohol, so we took in another kitten and called her Sunshine. Like we were just talking about the light.â€ť
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â€śWhere are we going?â€ť I ask Joe as he drives the pickup down the dirt road.
â€śSomewhere special.â€ť He replies.
Each time we pass another vehicle, Joe and the driver exchange a wave. Joe knows most of the faces he sees. We turn, drive to the top of a hill, and stop. An old iron fence surrounds a grassy square full of gravestones, some of them very old. Twisted, ancient trees grow near the fence, producing a spotted shade.
Midvale is a small town, and Joe knows all the families whose members are buried here. Many of the graves belong to Picketts. Unlike the massive cemeteries of cities, this one feels personal, intimate. Joe names each grave we pass. â€śThis one is from the familyâ€™s farm next to oursâ€¦ this is my basketball coachâ€™s dadâ€¦. My great auntâ€¦ my great-great-grandadâ€¦ my great-grandadâ€¦â€ť Many people donâ€™t know where their great-great-grandfather is buried or even what his name was, but, here, people arenâ€™t so easily forgotten. These families are still connected to their roots.
We stop at the grave thatâ€™s most special. â€śMy grandma,â€ť says Joe softly. Itâ€™s been four years since the stroke that took her without warning, but her presence is still visceral at Dixie Creek Ranch. Itâ€™s a peaceful, sunny day. We gaze at the gravestone quietly.
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The smell of pot roast embraces the air as I enter the house in late September with my grandpa and step-dad in tow.Â The Picketts have invited us for dinner, and as we sit down to eat I see my grandpaâ€™s eyes light up at the food in front of us. Melissa has been cooking all day, and we praise her skill as we dish up meat, carrots, potatoes and corn that were all grown right here on the farm. The rolls are home-made, and I once again take advantage of a surface on which to spread a thick layer of pear-butter. All the food is good, but itâ€™s the apple sauce I canâ€™t seem to stop eating. Tart and spicy with a smooth texture, each bite makes me crave another. Melissa made this batch, but it was Grandma Pickett who once taught her how.
Grandpa Pickett sits at the end of the table with my own grandpa at his right. My grandpa grew up on a farm himself, and they chat about old times as they take second helpings of the tender, savory pot roast. My step-dad chimes in with memories of summers spent working on his grandparentâ€™s ranch in Minnesota. Their recollections of stubborn livestock, hard work, and good food make everyone smile. As laughter rings throughout the kitchen, it strikes me that I can finally relate to some of these stories Iâ€™ve heard them tell before.
Annie Morrison is from Tacoma, Washington and is a sophomore at the College of Idaho. She is pursuing a major in Environmental Studies and a minor in journalism. Annie likes to cook and would love to have a garden of her own someday.