Farm Dog Philosophy: What My Dog Taught Me About a Kinder Approach to the Land

Jocelyn Engman with her dog Soup (photo by Juliet Jarmosco)

“Oh, and you’ll  want to take Soup to the vet as soon as you can get her there,” Dad told me as we sped toward the Des Moines Airport and the plane waiting to whisk him off to Minneapolis, then Amsterdam, then Kenya. “She has some kind of bloody sore on her belly. I would have taken her in today if I didn’t have to make this flight.”

“I’ll take her tomorrow,” I told Dad. We pulled up to the terminal, I wished Dad the best of luck with his mission farm in Kenya, and then I drove the two hours back home with Soup on the brain.

I remember the exact moment I began to question my farming values. We were standing on the fruit-tree ridge, my brother-in-law and I, watching a rabbit nibble at the perimeter of our market garden. My brother-in-law had a shotgun propped on one shoulder.

“You want me to shoot it now?” he asked. The little guy froze at the sound of our voices, pink shimmery ears perked straight and true.

“Um,” I said.

The rabbits were having a fine party our first spring of gardening. They dined at their leisure on our May Queen butterheads and uprooted whole English pea plants when they wanted a little extra fun. Their antics launched a crusade in us, to the point that Dad kept a shotgun on the tractor, just in case he came across one of those hungry little buggers while driving around the farm. But as I contemplated the timely end of this little adolescent rabbit who stood stock still and one finger-squeeze away from death, it hit me that this enemy was just another creature of nature going about the business of survival, and in that way he wasn’t very different from me.

“You want me to shoot him?” my brother-in-law asked again, gun still aimed and ready. And as I hesitated once more, the rabbit sprung into action, diving into the safety of the nearby alfalfa field.

To my knowledge, no rabbit has died in our garden since that day. We still had the problem of decimated lettuce and pea crops, but then we hit upon the genius idea of scaring off the rabbits by keeping a couple of farm dogs around the garden. Instead of killing the rabbits, we simply persuaded them to take their party elsewhere. And thus a little black lab puppy named Soup came to live at the farm.

Before that spring day in the garden, the killing of rabbits just seemed the natural order of things. Growing up in a conventional corn and bean farming family, I didn’t ever stop to question the mentality of control that often defines the interaction of agriculture with nature. We were farmers. Control was our birthright. We fought for survival, for the right to make a living and to keep our land. We embraced the miracle of Roundup, wielding it like a sword against all unwanted life daring to spring up in our fields. Insects were dealt with as needed. We fought and we conquered, and every step we took toward control rewarded us with gains in production.

And of course when unwanted animals got in our way, we trapped them and killed them. My 90-year-old grandma took care of a problematic possum one Sunday morning by running it down with her Buick on her way to church. When we heard about it, we just laughed and said, “That sounds like Grandma. Grandma does what needs doing. Grandma is a farm woman, through and through.”

In its beginning, agriculture was about understanding plants well enough to control and eventually optimize their growth so that we humans could have a reliable food source. We benefited immensely, of course, metamorphosing from hunters and gatherers into settlers and expansive societies. And it’s possible to argue that the plants we grew benefited as well, since our interactions with them guaranteed the survival of their species. In modern day, these thousands of years later, control is inherent, pervasive, and ubiquitous in agriculture. I remember sitting in a waiting room at the doctor’s office my senior year of high school and overhearing a conversation between two older gentlemen whom I recognized as distant farming acquaintances of my Dad. They wore seed corn-branded ball caps, stiff blue jeans, and work coats. Pleasant, patient, and polite, they nodded and smiled as I took my seat in the waiting room.

After a couple of moments, one turned to the other. “Well, how’s it going?”

“It’s going. Wish this rain would hold off until I get the rest of the beans in.”

“Know what you mean. If only we could take care of the weather like we do the weeds.”

“Yep. The weather’s about the only thing we can’t control these days.”

It’s an interesting concept, the role of control in agriculture, if you take the time to think about it. On my land I can control, I can dominate, I can even extinguish thousands of lives. I don’t know how to grow food without exerting some sort of control. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put more thought into what I’m controlling, into what role I play as human, as farmer. Maybe there’s a way to optimize not just my life but all the life fighting to survive on my few acres of land.

Jocelyn and Tim with their dog Soup (photo by Juliet Jarmosco)

In her heyday, Soup was at least a 50-pound dog. She was the shy puppy no one else wanted. She made up for her shyness with extreme loyalty. Once she warmed up to you, she was your dog. She was always on your heel, wanting nothing more than to go wherever you chose to go. She used to lie next to my husband Tim for hours while he dug up purple potatoes. She liked to sniff at the white potato grubs that popped up every time Tim turned over the soil. Originally Tim thought she seemed like a “Sammy,” but “Sammy” turned out to be too phonetically similar to “Jammy,” our other resident farm dog. You couldn’t ever call one dog without getting the other. So “Sammy” became “Soup.”

We found Soup hiding out in the west hoop building, buried within a pile of wheat straw. She licked at Tim’s hand and didn’t fight much as Tim swaddled her in a blue flannel sheet and carried her to the old farm car, the same trusty Buick that Grandma used to take out the pesky possum. Soup huddled in the corner between the door and the backseat, quiet and shaking, the whole way into town. When we got to the vet clinic Tim gently lowered her to the examination table and again she just laid there, gaunt and trembling, fur and eyes sad and dull.

The vet peeled up the flannel sheet and we all stepped back, covering our noses as the odor of old dog sweat magnified 10 times over assaulted the room. On her underside was a growth that started in the chest and bulged toward the belly, a heterogenous mass that was oozing and bloody and hard to take in all at once. After a couple of cursory pokes, the vet left the room and came back with a printout on canine oncology. The outlook for Soup was not good. With a tumor that was rapidly growing, infected, and ulcerated, all signs pointed toward aggressive cancer. The vet left the room again and came back with a printed estimate for surgical removal of the tumor. It was clear that the survival of Soup would spell death for our rainy day fund.

Of course there was another option, the vet reminded us gently. We could put her down.

“How do you put dogs to sleep?” I asked. “What do you use?”

“Pentobarbital, a barbiturate. And if the animal is particularly nervous, we can perform sedation first. Soup won’t feel any pain. She’ll just close her eyes and go to sleep.”

My questioning of the role of control in farming was the first step down a slippery slope. I kept coming back to it. Who was I to control life? Soon it was not only the rabbits but also the squirrels, and the mice, and eventually the spiders. And then it was the other bugs as well. Eventually it was about the weeds. I know it seems a little crazy, but every time I looked at any one of these vibrant beings, all I could think was that they were just trying to survive, just like me. We were all trying to make a living off this land.

I began to conceptualize my role in agriculture not as a controlling force but more as a persuading suggestion. In everything, I asked, how can I do more to fight less? How can I optimize for all of us? Agriculture became about shaping the land and its inhabitants through little pushes and pulls. It became about planting herbs along the fruit-tree ridge to discourage the bugs instead of killing mass infestations later on down the road. It became about putting down brown paper to dissuade weed seeds from sprouting instead of uprooting growing weeds later on down the road. Production was still in the equation, but there was also a new variable to take into account: the preservation of life, all life. In short, we started shifting more control back to nature.

“I’ll give you a moment to talk,” the vet said, and she left the room, closing the door behind her. Tim and I stood over Soup and took a turn at stroking her ears. We didn’t have much to talk about. We already knew what we were going to do.

Had I been faced with a cancerous Soup a decade ago, I probably would have put the dog to sleep. Grandma was still alive back then, and I’m fairly certain that Grandma would say to me, “She’s just a dog, Jocey. Dogs get sick. She’s had a good life. The best you can do for her now is give her a quick and respectful death. Go ask your dad to shoot her in the head.”

But that was then—that was before the questioning of control and season after season dedicated to the preservation of life. I know that I can’t save all life. I know that death will still happen. It’s just that through working my land I developed a deep respect for life, all life, and I can’t help but question my right to control that life, and especially my right to control that life without thinking carefully about it first. No longer is there any such thing to me as just a dog.

The surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, but Monday was not good. Soup wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t drink. We weren’t a hundred percent sure she would survive the night. I started to wonder if I was making the right decision.

But the choice was between life and death, and it was in my hands, the hands of a girl who hates to kill a weed. I was going to do what I could to preserve that dog’s life.

We were grateful the next morning to find a still-breathing Soup. The surgery was uneventful, though the tumor took longer to remove than anticipated. Then came weeks of forcing more antibiotics down poor Soup. And the surgeon had to cut so much off that he couldn’t pull the skin back together; a gap remained slashed in her belly. Waiting for the gap to scar over meant weeks of daily bandaging and multiple follow-ups with the vet. But the preoperative X-rays came back clean. There was no evidence the tumor had metastasized. And Soup was eating and drinking, both good signs. By her third follow-up, she had gained back so much weight that we had to let out her collar. When the sutures finally came out, the vet stood back and said, “When I was working on this girl I wasn’t sure about her, but she’s doing well, really well. If I could have seen then how it was going to turn out, I would have been pleased, very pleased.” By the time Dad got back from Kenya, Soup was practically bouncing instead of walking, jumping around like a whole new pup.

Jocelyn Engman, Tim Engman, Pickle Creek herbs

Jocelyn and Tim with Soup.

It’s March now, a month full of waking life. I look forward to this spring, to greeting new creatures as I walk the fields, to working with nature and doing the good work of making the farm a better place for all of us who live there. Soup will be there beside me, also enjoying the smell of fresh soil in the air. I’d like to think that she agrees with me in my farming paradigm of less fight for control, more fight for life. I’d like to think that my land, that my whole farm feels as I do, and that together we will thrive.

Jocelyn (the Pickle Creek girl) Engman and her husband Tim are the owners of Pickle Creek Herbs. For the past 10 years, she and her husband have been growing organic herbs on the small Iowa farm on which she was raised. In the spring, the Engmans sell hundreds of varieties of herb seedlings at local markets. They also use their herbs to create infused oils, vinegars, soaps, salves, salts, and lip balms, which they sell at local markets, online, and in several Iowa retail stores. Before returning to the family farm to grow herbs, Jocelyn received an M.S. degree in chemistry from the University of Iowa. She spent a year working as a research chemist, until she came across a book on the biochemistry of the soil. Further reading convinced her to embrace the world of organic gardening, and herbs quickly became her favorite thing to grow. In her spare time she writes about herbs, gardening, and cooking for her blog, which can be found on the Pickle Creek website.