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24 March 2017 06:30PM
Mark Scherzer

turkanafarms.com

Departures come in many different forms. There are those you know will happen eventually but you don’t know precisely when. There are departures you think are likely to happen, but are not inevitable. And then there’s a third category: departures you know are coming, and you know exactly when, but you just don’t know how you’re going to cope with the new reality when the event takes place.

In the first category of certain departures at uncertain times we can put death, one’s own or someone else’s.

In the second category of uncertain departures is one I’ve lately been watching for: the seemingly likely removal from the USDA’s website of that wonderful blueprint for confronting climate change, Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry (https://www.usda.gov/documents/building-blocks-implementation-plan-progress-report.pdf.) I have regularly checked the website in the two months since inauguration. In light of last week’s news that the President wants to take government out of the business of fighting climate change, and that he proposes slashing the budgets of the Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection by over 20% and 30%, respectively, I fully expected the document to have been taken down by now. But I found this week that it’s still there. Irony of ironies, so laggard has the White House been in appointing bureaucrats to run the agencies that there may never be anyone put in place to do the dismantling the President has in mind. He may be surprised to learn that in order to undo the administrative state you have to actually appoint administrators to undo it.

In the third category of departures with certain timing but uncertain consequences Peter and I would include the imminent departure of Turkana Farms’ mainstay, the man who has helped to keep it smoothly functioning for the last four years, Kyle Griffin. Kyle is leaving us at the end of next week. The date has been set for months now, by mutual agreement, for a time when he could safely transition out knowing that we had someone to cover the major work he’s been doing, even though he is of course himself irreplaceable.

Kyle, an artist by training and occupation, moved back to this area about 8 years ago, after many years pursuing his career in California and later Michigan, in order to care for his beloved mother, Roberta, in Germantown. He did so selflessly and devotedly throughout her last illness. Roberta died last year. As Kyle in recent months began to reclaim his own life, a former girlfriend from California came back into it, and so it was clearly time for Kyle to head back west and pick up the strands he had previously left behind.

When he moved back here, to sustain himself while caring for his mother, Kyle started picking up work at several farms in the neighborhood. He had some quasi-agricultural background in his youth, having helped his grandfather keep pigs and his father cultivate a huge vegetable garden, but it seems to me that the main attraction of this work for him originally was that it afforded highly flexible hours and was close to home. His first job for us, some four or five years ago, was repainting our white picket fence, which he did meticulously. From there, he progressed to the more traditional responsibilities of farm labor.

Peter and I have often written derisively about our student interns and other ad hoc farm help — from the guy who thought the best way to eradicate weeds was to smash them with a hammer until they came loose in the ground (and who liked to weed the vegetable garden wearing only a thong to maximize sun exposure), to the guy who we belatedly found out was on probation for setting a road on fire, to the very privileged Bard student who managed in the course of a three month summer gig to skip out for short vacations in Italy, Iceland and the Hamptons. It is in some ways much harder to write about someone like Kyle who became such a vital part of the farm, without it sounding like some kind of maudlin obituary. But there is no exaggeration in what we both feel Kyle’s contribution has been.

We think its worth trying to describe his contribution because the qualities that made us so value Kyle’s participation say a lot about the qualities that need to be instilled in future farming generations if there’s a hope for small scale farming in America. Some of these qualities are generic ones that any employer would seek out in an employee in any business. Promptness, dependability, trustworthiness, an understanding that he or she is not just there to put in hours and get paid for them, but to make sure that essential tasks are accomplished. Add to that a fair dose of common sense, a friendly and outgoing demeanor with customers, co-workers, and bosses (that’s us), and a healthy sense of humor and you’ve already got the components of a universally useful letter of recommendation.

That we have been able to entrust the farm to Kyle while we went on nearly month long trips to Turkey, with full confidence in his ability to handle pretty much whatever would arise, tells you a great deal.

To these qualities I would add a few qualities especially pertinent to the farm environment. First is Kyle’s clear devotion to the welfare of the animals in his charge. He has always kept an eye out for their well-being and when he recognized an animal ailing or in distress did everything he possibly could to nurse them back to health. A couple of years ago, the leader of our sheep flock, the wether, Orhan, developed a tumor on his leg that our vet said would probably prove fatal. But she suggested a homeopathic remedy that Kyle administered assiduously, changing a turmeric paste and tea bag compress twice or more a day, which returned Orhan to good health. We’ve given up Orhan for dead a couple of times already. For his continuing presence with us in his geriatric but still happily active state we largely thank Kyle.

In recent months, Kyle and I have taken to reserving Monday mornings, before I leave for the City, for what we refer to as the “nail salon,” during which we trim as many sheep hooves as possible. We take the opportunity to check them out, remove stones and debris between their toes, treat any foot dermatitis, and try to generally maintain the health of the herd. There is a friendly ease about these sessions. As we trim, Kyle recounts neighborhood gossip, talks politics, and tells stories of his grandfather and of his own former work detailing Nascar racing vehicles, among other wide ranging topics. The work of hoof trimming is often uncomfortable. We contort our bodies, often trying to work with freezing hands, and fend off involuntary kicks. The feet we confront are sometimes smelly and caked with gross debris. But Kyle treats it as a job that needs to be done right, and an occasion for camaraderie. I shall miss those hoof trimming sessions with Kyle.

The hoof trimming sessions reflect not just Kyle’s devotion to the animals’ welfare but also the pride Kyle has always taken in his work. He has a distinctly “man of the people” approach which takes the view that what others might demean as unskilled manual labor is in fact dignified and important work. And by taking that humble approach he makes it so. Kyle’s admiration has always been reserved for those who do the dirty work over those who pay to have it done. Such willingness to get one’s hands dirty, and indeed pride in getting into the dirt, is an essential quality in my view for successful farming.

Kyle values what is basic and modest in other respects as well. He has always seemed to prefer improvising structures and fences over building them new with fresh materials. The improvisational instinct is one he says he acquired from his grandfather. One of the treasures Kyle has left us with is a beautiful and delicate box, one of a series he created by gluing cross-sectional slices of a fallen hornet’s nest into a beautiful collage covering the box’s exterior. Creative and improvisational re-use has a long and venerable history in farming. It is another element, I would say, in the skill set of any successful farmer.

All this is not to say that Kyle always has always done everything just the way we wanted it done. We know that he, in the manner of an overindulgent uncle, has tended to spoil the sheep and cows by sneaking extra grain treats to them, in particular to favorites like Daisy, Orhan and Nilufer. Yes, it cemented a bond with them, but sometimes at a cost of upsetting the delicate balance of their ruminant digestive systems. .

Kyle’s devil-may-care habit of blithely piling up heaps of recyclable and discardable material all over the farm, creating what Peter refers to as “Kyle piles,” has not always smoothly jibed with Peter’s vision of an orderly and picturesque landscape. Despite Kyle’s obvious artistic appreciation off the beauty of other aspects of his world, this particular aesthetic blind spot has sometimes driven Peter to quietly wring his hands. And we would have been happy if Kyle’s horticultural skills and plant recognition had matched his innate talent at animal husbandry, which far outstrips that of anyone else we’ve employed in the history of the farm.

But in the larger picture such concerns have been insignificant in comparison with Kyle’s extreme devotion to the animals, to the farm, and to our welfare. We are very happy for him that he has rekindled an old romance and will enjoy a far more fulfilled, reconnected life in California than he has had while dislocated here. To be honest, we know it will not be easy for us to cope with daily life at the farm without him, so integral has he become to its operation. But life inevitably involves change.

Peter and I hope those of you who have come to know Kyle over the years will join us in wishing him well deserved success and happiness on his continued journey.

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