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Farming as Ministry

At least four times during the past year ministry colleagues who serve in different parts of the state have asked me how retirement is going. This happened again yesterday while I attended The Bishops Day of Prayer in Birmingham.  I replied, “I am not retired. I am appointed and I serve full time at Decatur First Church.” Then I ask “What makes you think I am retired?”

My age could have something to do with it. I turned 62 last November. The number of consecutive years I’ve served churches could lead one to think I should be retired.  I’ve been serving churches since 1973, so this makes 45 years.  But more than anything else colleagues say, “I keep seeing pictures of you and your grandsons on the farm and pictures of gardens you helped plant and tend on Facebook, so I assumed you were retired.”

Aha! Therein lies the source of the mistaken assumption that I am retired. Few preachers still serving full-time appointments raise cattle, bale hay, grow vegetables in their own and 2 community gardens, and serve on the local Farmers Market Board, and share that with their grandchildren as much as possible. Maybe a preacher in a rural farming community church, but not the pastor of a downtown First Church in a thriving city.  But oh, yes. That’s where I am. And our church is not winding down but  gearing up implementing a ministry plan focused on discipleship and extending the reach of our church by 300% by 2022.

So how do farming and gardening and sharing both with grandchildren as much as possible fit with full-time pastoral ministry? Are they diversions, activities for days off only, and if not how are they not a distraction from ministry?

I am so glad you asked! I grew up farming and left it behind as a young adult in 1976 to prepare for and practice full-time ministry. I began my return to farming in 1995 when it became increasingly evident to me that my connection with the soil and livestock, the entire land community, is at the core of my identity and a primary source of my vitality as a human being. And as the years have passed, I have discovered that there has always been a deep connection between theology and agriculture, the church and farming. My modern theological education in the 1970s and 1980s basically ignored the connection. That was not only an oversight but bad theology.  If I profess belief in the Trinity then I believe we cannot separate the Creator from the Redeemer from the Sustainer and Sanctifier of life.  Therefore I believe we cannot separate the care and salvation of human beings from the care and salvation of the earth God gave human beings to care for and to be our source of sustenance and growth.

So there you go. I do take days off from ministry to go to the farm and work on fences and treat cattle and bale hay. But I unapologetically help organize volunteers and help grow food in our church’s Urban Acre Community Garden and  Sumatanga’s Farm to Table Garden as a ministry activity.  In fact, our church’s community garden grew out of a class I taught titled An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Those who participated in the class wanted to do something with the knowledge they had gained and put it to work tending the earth and growing food from the soil to share with the hungry.

And the same with the garden at Sumatanga.  Sumatanga Camp and Conference Center had bought a farm adjacent to its property, and it was lying dormant. Since that seemed like such an obvious waste, someone asked me if I thought we could grow food there. “Can we grow food there? Why, yes we can.” And so it began.  Tending the soil and taking produce from it to fill hungry stomachs is a ministry, a calling, a command of God,  a community-building and life-giving way of life and work. I am more alive and energized and connected with people in other functions of my pastoral ministry because of the time and study and work I have shared with them in the garden.

So, I am not retired but I am pretty busy in all facets of ministry, including caring for and being sustained by the soil. And thank God it is not all behind a desk or in committee meetings.  So if you see soil under my fingernails and callouses on my hands just know they are signs that I am alive and healthy and happier and more fulfilled in ministry than I’ve every been. 

 

 

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The Faith and Fortitude of Farmers

“Moreover, the farmer is in a very special sense made to see his dependence upon God from season to season. He is never done; his labour is never ending, still beginning; and his hopes are never all fulfilled. From the time he sows the seed to the day when he sees the corn in the ear he is every hour dependent upon the Lord for sunshine and shower; and even when the grain is ready for the garner a stretch of rainy weather will take his harvest from him and leave him mourning at the last” (Charles Spurgeon).

My Christian Agrarian friend Scott Terry who farms full time in St. Lawrence County, New York on an organic dairy farm posted a longer quotation from the 19th century English preacher Charles Spurgeon about faith and farming. You can read Spurgeon’s entire sermon here.

Surgeon’s words led me to research what was happening to farmers in Great Britain in the late 19th Century. The Great Depression in British agriculture was underway, triggered by imports of cheap grain from the United States resulting from the expansion of farming on the American Plains. Add the impact of globalization and the potato blight devastating Ireland and parts of surrounding countries to all the challenges farmers faced then to eek out a living from their God-dependent vocation and you can see the forces that caused the mass exodus from farming to the factories of the Industrial Revolution.

Some see this as evidence of natural selection leaving only the largest farms and wealthiest farmers in food production. I see it in Spurgeon’s terms as the removal from the land of men, women, and whole families whose faith in God was most vital and costly. They had been the dikes that held back secularization and the caretakers who prevented the devaluation and prostitution of the land to economic greed.

This is the challenge Christian Agrarianism now takes on, to find again our place in God’s land community and to live again in reciprocal dependence with the land and with God. A growing number, like my friend Scott Terry who brought my attention to Spurgeon’s words and Noel Sanders who wrote Born Again Dirt, are among the new pioneers who live every day on the edge in total dependence and vital faith in God.

I accepted God’s call to preach and serve churches 45 years ago. For twenty years I thought I was called away from the land and farming to serve churches that had nothing to do with the land. For twenty-two years now God has progressively called me back to the land, not away from the church but by way of the church, to connect God’s people to God’s land through God’s church.

God willing, my second-half-of-life vocation after retirement will be farming full time. This requires more faith than I now have, but God is still working on me.  I say with the father who asked Jesus to heal his son, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Luke 9:23-25). I aspire to the faith and fortitude of the farmer who lives in loving dependence on God and the land.

 

Daddy’s Legend and Legacy

Made a correction to my earlier blog based on a recorded conversation I had with Daddy in December of 2012. Someone his daddy had lent money to could not pay but insisted he take his 2 plowhorses in payment. That sent them out of town to live at the Barfield farm and use the horses to feed the family.

The Land That Calls Me Home

The Rev. Lavelle Reynolds died at age 102 on March 4, 2017. Lavelle was the first of four children born to John Thomas Hughey and Inas Octavia Whatley Reynolds. He was born at their farmstead home in Barfield, Alabama. Before Lavelle started school, Thomas Hughey and Octavia moved their family into the nearby town of Lineville and lived in rental housing until they could build a house on property they had purchased on 2nd Avenue, which was close to downtown and to Lineville schools.  Thomas Hughey had lent a farmer money and the farmer unable to pay his rent because his crops had failed. The farmer insisted that Thomas Hughey take his plowhorse for payment.  Thomas Hughey refused but the farmer insisted. Having no way place to keep the mules in town, the family moved  back to the Bafield farm in order to keep the mules and put them to use…

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Growing an Organic Ministry

This blog site has been dormant since September of last year. The absence of blogs does not mean my interest in and convictions about the intersection of theology and agriculture have waned. Sandy and I did move last June from Huntsville, AL where I had served as pastor of a church for ten years to Decatur, AL  where I became the pastor of Decatur First United Methodist Church.  Is First Church less receptive to my agricultural musings than my last congregation? Actually, I have written less on this blog site about farming and faith because I have been given so many other opportunities for proclaiming and putting into practice the words of our Creator God who said, “by the sweat of your face you will eat bread–until you return to the fertilue land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return” (Genesis 3:19 Common English Bible).

Over the past year I have been given opportunities to live and speak out of my conviction that reconnecting to the soil is central to biblical faith.  The first thing I did before unpacking much of anything was build raised beds in the back yard of the parsonage to grow some of the food Sandy and I eat.  At church I have preached numerous sermons that address the close relationship between faith and farming, agriculture and theology. In December of last year the Decatur City Council  appointed me to the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market Board. I have also been honored to serve on the National Board for the Society of Saint Andrew, a gleaning ministry committed  to ending hunger by also eliminating food waste. During the spring, I was invited to teach a weekly class at the church called “Reading the Bible through Agrarian Eyes” using Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture as a guide to study biblical texts that honor and seek to preserve a healthy agrarian culture wherever God’s people live.

No teaching is complete without complementary action, so the most fulfilling development currently in full swing is a community garden called The Urban Acre located about two miles from our church. A group of thirty church members volunteered to start and maintain this garden. The first concept of the garden was for a 25 x 25 ft. area that  6 people who agreed to help could maintain. When many more church and community members than I expected showed up on May 24 to help, we started expanding the garden so that it is now over 4 times as large as our first design. It is approximately 50 x 65 ft. and contains a great variety of vegetables and fruit. The sign shown below tells the purpose of our community garden.

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Down on the Reynolds Farm, which is three hours south of Decatur in Lineville, AL, I have had an active year of keeping the farm going while working full time in ministry. To do that, I employ a part time helper who checks on and feeds the cows 3-4 times a week and I usually spend a Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon there twice a month. I maintain a small cow-calf operation there that, the Lord willing, I plan to quadruple in size when I retire and move closer. In the meantime, I am caring for the land as much as I can, and having cows keeps me working to provide good grazing and hay. I spread 82 tons of lime on the pasture and hay fields this year and fertilized my hay fields in hopes of some drought ending rain. I want to put up 400-500 square bales for the winter but will need the help of the Good Lord with rain and family members and hired help with good backs and heat tolerance to make it happen.  I do this because I love to farm, I am committed to caring for the land that has been in my family for 3 generations, I plan to retire there, the Lord willing, and I plan for my sons and grandsons to know, love, and care for this land.

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One thing I am now more aware of than I have ever been is the temptation for ministry and church life to become sedentary, and  in the process kill us as human beings and kill the church. The more technology we have at our fingertips the less engaged we are with the physical world God created and called us to steward. We think we are doing God’s work through virtual encounters with it, and we miss the Incarnation of God as we do.  I make this promise to myself, my supervisors, and to the church I serve: As long as I have the bodily capacity to do it, I will not conclude my years of ministry primarily sitting behind a computer or standing behind a pulpit. My ministry will be more and more out in the community with people of the world and the church putting our hands and sweat into the miraculous, life-giving soil God gives us to grow plants for food and to share that food with the hungry.  In that process, we and everyone who joins us in this endeavor will discover and feast upon the Bread of Life. Life began in a garden. The Lord commands us to garden. Jesus was raised from death to eternal life in a garden. We belong in a garden!

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Why Farms Are the Church’s Business

In a speech given during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis named climate change as an urgent and critical issue for world leaders to acknowledge and take action to stop.  One politician who took issue with the Pope’s statement was Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who claims to be a devout Catholic and to love Pope Francis. “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science,” Santorum said on a  Philadelphia radio program. “We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” He said further, “I’ve said this to the Catholic bishops many times — when they get involved in agriculture policy, or things like that, that are really outside of the scope of what the Church’s main message is, that we’re better off sticking to the things that are really the core teachings of the Church as opposed to getting involved in every other kind of issue that happens to be popular at the time.”  Santorum has plenty company among politicians, including Democrats, who want to confine religion to the realm of the spiritual that has nothing to say about the physical or material world.

Someone needed to tell the writers of the Bible that the spiritual and physical world are separate and that one has nothing significant to contribute to the other.  Using the science of their day, the Biblical writers related spiritual and eternal truths to all facets of physical and temporal life as they knew it.  The science of their day was limited to their available tools and methods of discovery.  No one at the time had disproved that the earth was a flat landmass floating on the underworld, that the sky was a dome separating heaven from earth, and that the earth and underworld were supported by pillars. Many biblical passages assume this view of the world limited to what is seen with the unaided physical eyes of observers who had no access to the world beyond their locale.

As science has advanced to further clarify and make discoveries about many facets of physical and temporal life, spiritual and eternal truths relate no less than before to the expanded and more detailed understanding of our world that science presents.   Santorum is right when he says the church has gotten it wrong a few times when it comes to science.  When the church has held to  cosmologies and theories of creation that ignored or denied the findings of science, we have driven a larger wedge between science and religion and made the church’s message less believable.   As a Jesuit priest, Pope Francis studied science extensively and takes the findings of science seriously.

The debate among politicians is really over whose science to believe regarding climate change, the science underwritten by multinational corporations and billionaires whose industries contribute significantly to air and water pollution, or science that is dependent on no funding from those corporations.   We could start by identifying which politicians are receiving campaign contributions from the same corporate giants that are funding the research on climate change.  My observation is that those politicians embrace the scientific research espoused by their corporate benefactors, which is the same thing the church has done when we “have gotten it wrong a few times on science”: we rejected the science that challenged our world view and threatened our source of income.

I went out on a limb a year and a half ago when I published a book titled The Land That Calls Me Home: Connecting God’s People to God’s Land through God’s Church.   I base claims in that book on biblical principles and on science that is not beholden to multinational corporations that support and profit from large scale farming and the billions in U.S. taxes funneled through farm subsidies that keep them viable. In one 29 page chapter of the book titled “Why Farms Are the Church’s Business,” I take on the challenge like the one Rick Santorum made to the Pope’s agenda. We need leaders in the church and in Washington who are unafraid to address the health of this planet God created not merely from a political and economic perspective but from a theological, moral, social, and an objective scientific perspective as well.  If they lose funding for it, so what? They are doing what is right.  One much shorter chapter in the book titled “Is the Empire Striking Back or Listening” addresses efforts by corporate industrial agricultural to hijack the small but rapidly growing locally grown and agrarian movements while still advancing the science that says farmers must farm on a large scale to supply the global market if they want to survive

BuyFresh

It is time for moral discourse in all our communities about issues related to farming, the soil, and yes, all the environment as well as the economy. We have previously left these topics to politicians.  My book is an invitation to start or advance that conversation between you and members of your community, with me, and nationwide through social networking.  You can purchase The Land That Calls Me Home on Amazon. The paperback is $11 and the Kindle version $7.  Visit my facebook page devoted to the promotion of small-scale farming and conversation about issues related to farming for local consumption and let me hear your views and concerns on this topic.

One Year Later

The_Land_That_Calls__Cover_for_KindleThe Land That Calls Me Home rolled off the press one year ago this week on March 25.   I published it independently through Creaetespace, an Amazon company.  I was also in charge of publicizing the release of the book.  I reached out through social media and email to friends, family members, ministry colleagues, church members, locally grown food advocates, high school and college classmates, and writers I knew to promote the book.  I started a blog and a Facebook page associated with the book to promote growing your own food and buying locally to support area farmers.  The initial response was favorable.  A couple hundred books sold in a few weeks through Amazon and personal sales.   I ran out of books a couple of times at special events where I had the opportunity to sell them.

Between my full-time work of pastoral ministry and farming and gardening as much and often as I could, I had limited time to promote the book. Sales plateaued and declined.  When interested friends would ask me how the book was selling I told them, “As well as I promote it.”  I spent hundreds of hours over a five year period developing the book that finally went to press after more edits than I cared to count.  I was tired of writing and relieved to finally tell the publisher to print the book for distribution and make it available on Kindle.  But the real work for which I was not prepared was promoting the book past the initial three-month wave of interest.  I have come to understand why Henry Ford said that trying to save money by cutting advertising is like trying to save time by turning back the clock.

In his books Tribes and The Icarus Deception, bestselling author Seth Godin stresses the importance of targeting the market for your product and message.  General publicity is no better than publicity to the wrong market.  I have made several friends over the years through cattle farming who are into industrial farming.  Because they know me, they bought the book.  They read enough to know that it was not for them but advocated an alternative to the way they farm.  They did not tell their friends to buy it.  The best advertisers for the book have been people who bought it, resonated with the stories and ideas in it, were helped or encouraged by it, and who told their friends about it and reached out to network with me because we are espousing similar or compatible ideas.

The tribes I have connected with most are agrarians, churched agrarians, and more specifically evangelical churched agrarians.  I am a mainline churched agrarian, which sets me on the edge of the tribe that has embraced my book, the way of life I advocate, and me the most.  I have yet to find evidence of many mainline churched agrarians, which leads me to conclude that almost all farmers left in my own denomination are still pursuing and espousing industrial agriculture.  The book I wrote challenges the core assumptions of industrial agriculture, so I surmise that I am at best a fugitive of their tribe, and at worst a turncoat.  I realize too that any big money from farming is derived from industrial agriculture, although most of it is enjoyed not by the farmers themselves but by the big corporations that supply equipment and chemicals to large-scale farmers. None of these have been big fans of my book or of my challenging the mainline church to promote local small-scale farm sales rather than the global food market.

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I do still hold to the hope that a growing number of restless souls within the mainline church will get it that the way we on earth farm in the future has to change for the sake of our planet and its inhabitants. When they do, the message of my book to the church will have been heard.  If in the next generation we do not reduce the distance between the people of earth and the soil, a distance created through my generation’s infatuation with the industrialization of agriculture, the words of Lamentations 4:9 will become our reality: “Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.” 

There is irony here that I address in The Land That Calls Me Home.  At first glance, the industrialization of farming appears to be the answer to increasing the food supply. Farmers can farm larger tracts of land with heavier modern equipment and crop yield has increased exponentially since the advent of chemical fertilizer.  Genetically modified seed for row crop production and the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones that cause livestock and poultry to grow bigger faster are putting millions of tons more food on supermarket shelves than we would have without them.  There is a hidden price we are paying now for these practices and that generations after us will pay in the diminished quality of our soil, water, and physical health.  The way we farm now is not really efficient because it is not sustainable.  There is another way that requires some changes in the way we live, what we eat, and how we relate to the soil.  For more on the these topics, read The Land That Calls Me Home available in print and on Kindle through Amazon.

Untamed Bovine

I have encountered cows with bad temperaments in my life, but none like the mama cow and two of her offspring that I finally caught, loaded, and sent to the sale at the end of the summer of 2014.  Before telling you about the worst ones I have encountered, let me tell you about some bad ones.

When I was growing up, Daddy had a Holstein milk cow we named Pansy. I was too young at the time to understand the irony of her name.  She was a good milker or Daddy would not have kept her, but she was mean.  Pansy was agreeable enough to enter the milking stall for the sweet feed she’d eat there. We milked the cows by hand back then. As soon as the bucket was almost full, Pansy would try her best to kick it over, or better yet kick one of us.  She could swish her tail like a whip and liked to slap us in the face, especially if her tail had manure on it.  She was so frequently successful at toppling the milk that bringing in a full bucket of clean milk from milking Pansy won the applause from the whole family at the breakfast table.

In 1997, my friend Keith Watkins introduced a Hereford Bull someone had given him to my herd of heifers that needed to be bred.  Keith told me the bull had charged him before, but I kept my distance and we got along OK in the open pasture.  One day we were tagging and vaccinating calves and  inoculating cows when I decided it was the Hereford bull’s time to be de-wormed .  At that very moment the bull decided he wasn’t getting a shot that day.  I picked up a 2 x 4 to persuade him and he shook his head and scratched the ground one time before he charged to persuade me to hurdle the fence and leave his comfort zone.  As I jumped the fence of the catch pen, I caught a metal post with the soft side of my thigh ripping the new pair of Carhartt work jeans I was wearing. I ended up getting a shot myself, a shot of the local anesthesia the doc injected before sewing up the gash in my leg.  I didn’t bring that bull back to breed my cows after that.

In 2006 the livestock yard owner Justin McCollum bought me a replacement heifer and dropped her off  in the feedlot so she’d get acclimated to the farm before I let her out in the big pasture with the rest of the herd.  Problem was, I had moved the herd to another pasture and this cow was alone with no other cows in sight for 24 to 36 hours in a strange feedlot and nothing but a water trough before my helper David went to check on her.  I’m not sure if she was wild on the farm where she was raised or if the isolation made here crazy.   When David opened the gate and walked in, she panicked, and rammed a bull panel fence of the feedlot repeatedly until she broke a post and fled through the pasture and through the pasture fence.  A neighbor called me two weeks after her great escape saying he found her hiding down in the woods beside his bottoms but inside his pasture fence.  I opened a gate between his pasture and mine and she eventually joined my herd.  Her flight zone was about 100 feet, so the first day she came into the feed lot and I was able to close the gate on her was the day she went on the trailer and to the sale.  A flighty cow spreads anxiety to the entire herd, and anxious cows and calves don’t grow as fast as calm ones.  She had to go.

I would prefer to ride bareback on any or all of the bovine described above than to be in the the same feedlot, not to mention a loading alley, with the cow, or any of her offspring, that  I recently sold.  I originally bought her after the April 27, 2011 tornadoes ripped through Alabama causing so much destruction.  The livestock buyer told me she came from the Phil Campbell area that was hit hard by the storms.  A lot of pasture fences were yanked out of the ground by the storm and livestock wandered for days while farmers tended to the loss of human life and loss of homes.  I surmise that this cow was traumatized by the storm which left her spooked.  She perceived the slightest movement as a threat and had a flight zone of 50 yards.  A farmer actually wanted to buy her yearling bull as a herd bull but the bull was as anxious as his mother.  The buyer had come twice to load him. The first time my farm helper David tried to load him, but the bull broke a feedlot fence post, ripped through a heavy gauge bull panel, and escaped.  The next time, I herded him into the alley leading to a waiting trailer.  Before he reached the trailer, he hurdled over a 6-foot high cattle panel and escaped.  The buyer decided then and there he did not want the bull even at a discounted price.

My helper said the wild mama cow and her calves would come into the feed lot if he filled feed troughs on both sides and then walked away from the area and hid.  I did that one day late this summer,and was able to crawl back unseen and close the gates on the trio I wanted gone.  I had reinforced the feedlot catch pen, added a row of 2×10″ boards to raise the height of the entire loading alley, and had six gates counting the head gate to close behind the cows as they advanced in the alley toward the trailer. I first loaded 2 calmer weaned calves I was ready to sell.  The yearling bull of the wild trio walked onto the trailer with them.  Eddie Borden, new owner of the livestock yard, had brought his heavy duty trailer that had 2 seciton gates and 3 separate sections. We closed the first 3 in the front section.  We tried to load the heifer calf next but she got out the alley side gate into a corral.  Next was wild mama herself.

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I got into the open catch pen with her and walked around the edge until she passed the pivot point of the crowding gate. I pushed it forward as fast as I could so the only way she could go was into the alley.  She ran all the way through the alley. I closed the alley gates behind her in case she decided to retreat. The last one I closed was the head gate of the working stall.  Wild mama took one look at the trailer, managed to turn around and charged the closed head gate. She was trapped and was bellowing loudly.  I stepped into the alley between her and the trailer. She was 30 feet away. She could feel me closing in on her, so she lowered her head and charged. I jumped onto a board I had nailed onto the loading alley fence high enough for the cow to run between my legs. My son thought she had crushed my legs against the alley fence, but her flesh and the heavy wire fence gave enough that I was not hurt but merely smeared with manure that she had accumulated on her sides from all her thrashing about. She ran under my legs and onto the trailer. I jumped down and closed the back gate of the trailer.  “She’s loaded,” I said. “Take her with you.” Eddie said, “Her calf would bring you $1000 tomorrow. You gonna leave her here?”  I agreed I wanted to send her calf too, so we had to move wild mama up a section in the trailer so we could load her calf in the back.  That would have been no problem, but by this time wild mama was turning in circles counter clockwise throwing herself against the steel rails of the trailer sides and back gate. The gate opened counter clockwise too so we were unable to open it.  We finally provoked the cow to start turning clockwise and when she was closest to the hinge side of the gate we opened it enough for her to squeeze around the latch end of the gate and advance into the middle section, bawling and bellowing and foaming at the mouth as she did.  Eddie pushed the gate.  My son was outside the trailer on the latch side and he locked it tight.  Getting the smaller calf in after that was a cinch.

Eddie said after we had them all loaded, “I’m gonna kill her.”  I said, “Good. How much you gonna pay me before you kill her?” He estimated she’d bring $1400, but she acted up at the sale the next day and brought $1150.  Considering that I would have paid someone that much to take her before sending her away, that was pretty good money.  I typically have some remorse when I send cattle to the sale, or at least some sentimental thoughts about having enjoyed interactions with those that are leaving.  Not with this trio.

Handling bad tempered cattle gets my adrenaline flowing and creates excitement in farming, but I can tell you one thing for sure: I will personally screen all the cows that come to my pasture from now on.  Flighty, ill-tempered, mean cows need not apply.