Category Archives: Patrick Slattery

Ali: My Iraqui Brother

by Patrick Slattery

Last week while packing cabbage in the root cellar, I entertained two visitors. The first was Jaris, a very polite, well-dressed, 24-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. After pleasant conversation and giving him a bag of free squash, I took Jaris upstairs to share his message with Peter Drake and Terese’s mother, Grandma Cummings. They both received copies of “The Watchtower”, and after my coaching, were supposed to have shown “The Watchtower” to Terese after she came home from school and tell her they had converted (they failed to execute my plan).

But the fellow I wanted to tell you about was the next visitor, Ariat. He is a bald little fellow, aged 53, a member of the very small Arab community that resides nearby in LaCrosse. They all know one another, and hang out at a gas station owned by a Pakistani. Ariat was  looking for onions and garlic, which I gave him along with a package of frozen venison.

“Where’s Ali?”, I asked of him, “haven’t seen him in a long time.”

Ariat replyed: “He’s gone from LaCrosse. Living in Rockford, has a new wife.”

“That’s too bad”, I said, “because I’ll miss seeing him.”

But before he fades from memory, I’d like to tell you about Ali, as a fellow farmer and occasional visitor here at Sweet Ridge Farm. Ali grew up on a farm in Iraq. He was one of twenty-three children (his father had four wives). He didn’t like Sudam, and had spent some time in jail in Iraq. Somehow he got to this country, and after living in Chicago and a number of other big cities, ended up in LaCrosse. Ali is a Halal butcher, meaning that he kills and processes livestock according to Islamic law. He worked in a number of Halal slaughter houses. “Despicable work”, he told me. And although he wasn’t employed in that capacity while in LaCrosse. He none the less continued butchering Arab style, and thus was always on the lookout for sheep to “do in”. I don’t remember how we connected several years ago-Ali just showed up in our driveway one day and asked if I knew of any sheep or goats that were for sale. As a city-dweller, he was always in need of a place to butcher on the farm, which is illegal of course, but that makes it only more fun to say yes when he suggested that he might do so at our place. We didn’t do it often, maybe a half-dozen times, but I do remember his excellence and skill with a knife. I believe his ritual was to face the animal  east, shout “Allah is great!” and then proceed to slit its throat. He could entirely process a sheep in 10 or 15 minutes. I well remember the time he pulled into our driveway, honking the horn of his old Cadillac with three lambs and various fowl in the trunk, yelling out the window, “Hello brother!”.

Ali had the most gravelly voice that I’ve ever heard. A most impressive fact about Ali is that he never spent one day of his life in school, yet somehow he passed a driver’s test in the U.S. and was able to find his way all over the interstate highway system. Ali had lived in some pretty rough neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere, and was grateful for how safe LaCrosse, WI was in comparison. He especially liked being around farmers, as he considered himself a kindred spirit. He like the “Ameesh” (Amish) but they used to haggle ferociously over price. He could tell how old a sheep was by looking a the number of teeth in its mouth. He prepared us a lamb and rice dinner one Sunday, and my son Raphael well recalls it as one of the most delicious meals he ever ate. I also remember him once eating here with his cousin, and they twittered in Arabic and pointed to my wife Terese, who was barefoot at the time and sweeping the floors and had also poured them coffee. “She is just like the women in my country”, Ali pointed out with marvel in his voice. Ali’s wife in LaCrosse was American, and this proved to be his undoing. She was a nurse who worked odd hours and didn’t share his rural interests. I had never met her, and Ali seldom talked about her, but I can only presume that she wasn’t very satisfied with her husbands way of life. He did however bring out his daughter, Alia, a pretty, well behaved little girl. We were all struck by what a fine father he was.

So we can only presume their marriage bond had dissolved and Ali went elsewhere to find a new bride. Ariat said Ali had come back to Lacrosse several times to look for his daughter, but mother and child had disappeared, and there was no tracking them down. Ariat promised to come back next spring and help with the garlic. If the need arises he is welcome to slit a lamb’s throat now and then. I am sure he is good, but no one I suspect will do it with as much grace and style as Ali-my lost Iraqi brother.

This article is part of an occasional series written by Patrick J. Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan. Pat was a journalist for over 30 years, writing about faith, farming, and family. For the past few years he has stepped away from the keyboard and into the fields as a full time farmer. The first articles in his series are available here:

Gary Elsen: Son of Middle Ridge Soil


Cute Tractor

Gary Elson: Son of Middle Ridge Soil

By Patrick Slattery

Not many farmers are fortunate enough to have a silent sidekick. I do in the personage of Gerard (Gary) Elson. Gary is a genuine farm article. Born and raised just over the hill west of Middle Ridge, he has had a lifelong love of all things agricultural. Unfortunately, in later times his farming life unraveled: he suffered a stroke about 12 years ago. As a result, his dairy herd went down the road.

The farm which had been in the Elson family for four generations was sold to a childless cohabitating couple, and Gary moved into a subsidized senior citizen housing complex in West Salem, Wi which is about 12 miles away from his home farm.

Gary is not the kind to sit and do nothing. I tried to help him though his divorce, and when it was clear that the subsidized housing complex was where he would reside, I suggested he come and help out here in the neighborhood if it were to his liking.

It has proven to be an option to his liking, and most days Monday through Friday, Gary can be found here. A senior citizen bus provides very convenient transportation to my house. In previous times,  he drove a Polaris ATV 12 miles back and forth from West Salem, but alas! The sheriff’s office pulled him over and put an end to the 5 times a week drive.

Let me state emphatically that I am a big beneficiary of Gary’s regular visitations. Gary is a true farmer and has helped fill some of my knowledge gaps especially when it comes to mechanical understandings. Gary pays attention to the likes of dipsticks and tires, things that don’t seem to capture my attention. He has saved my neck more than a few times. I especially enjoy Gary’s company because we don’t have to talk too much.

Gary’s stroke impeded his speech. I can understand him most of the time, but most people cannot. Hence, I do a lot of his business transactions. A lot of his sentences end with oh, sheete…. There are times that I am glad that he can’t talk because then he can’t say oh shit, I told you so!

Gary has settled into his own groove, and has ended up on his own two feet pretty well considering the life blows that he has taken. He likes livestock and the first thing that he does when he arrives each morning around 8:15 is to feed the chickens. He had got a real nose for finding egg nests in the strangest of places. Whatever the undertaking, Gary has a practical knowledge of how to set up work and get it done. He did a masterful job of organizing my barn’s basement, and spends many a happy hour down there, hammering, sawing and chopping things.

It is a wonderful male domain. The only point of contention is that Gary loves country western music. This doesn’t sit well with my wife. She turns it off when working with us packing produce in the basement of my barn. Detoured, Gary turns the Cow Country station right back on when she isn’t around. To be truthful, I have developed a whole new appreciation of  the socio-economic observations provided by county music artists.

Gary and I often times work on projects together in the morning. Things always go better when you have two sets of hands. Gary is a chow hound and is quite appreciative of good fresh food. He communicates thanks to the chef. Afterwards, a half hour nap on our tv room couch is in order, then it’s time for more work.

I knew Gary’s parents who were really beautiful people. His Dad had the kindest look about him and a gentle soul. Gary has much of that in him too. He comes from good stock. I trust that Gary and I have a mutually beneficial relationship. I know that I am grateful for anything that he does. He may not live on the Ridge any longer, but he is and always will be a son of the soil of Middle Ridge.

This article is part of an occasional series written by Patrick J. Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan. Pat was a journalist for over 30 years, writing about faith, farming, and family. For the past few years he has stepped away from the keyboard and into the fields as a full time farmer. The first articles in his series is available here:

Cute Tractor



by Patrick Slattery

We’ve just finished up a nine day work stint by my farmhand nephew, Christopher Pundzak. Christopher is no stranger to our house, a frequent weekend visitor. He lives in Sun Praire, about two hours away. The first time he came for a longer haul in order to work and obtain more money than his per usual occupation of four hours per week washing windows at the Catholic parish where his mother, Cecile, is the Music Director. Chris is no ordinary farmhand because since birth he’s had cerebral palsy. Movements that come easy to you and me don’t come easy to him. If I had to exert the energy to get through a day that Christopher does, I might consider not getting out of bed. He takes some hellacious falls on a regular basis, but always gets up and keeps going.  So while Christopher doesn’t have a farmers arms or back, he has the heart. He loves the life, and not just from afar, and wants to contribute in any way that he can. For this week Chris’s primary occupation has been to break apart garlic cloves for fall planting (you know of course that garlic should be planted in October). He spent most days in the barn alone doing his garlic work, slowly, patiently, but always with steady determination. I heard him singing at times, which was a good sign, so he must have enjoyed his solitary work.  The beauty of it was that he got the job done- the garlic is ready to plant.

Working with garlic wasn’t the only thing Christopher did this week. He also got involved with other tasks, such as harvesting Napa Cabbage and packing butternut squash for delivery to Organic Valley. But the romance and highlight for him, undoubtedly, was his work driving our New Holland Tractor, Babe.

You might think that I’m crazy to allow this to happen, but believe me, Christopher was a willing accomplice. In times past he used to drive a lawn tractor at his mother’s home near Rockland, WI, and was pretty darn good at it. He’s ultra careful, and in a way I trust him more than a cocky teenager like my son James when he’s behind the wheel. So we put the tractor in first gear low and Christopher climbed up and took command. He did a fine job. Seeing the huge smile on his face was a fine payoff for allowing it to happen.

I feel strongly that all kinds of people, including the disabled, should have a chance to get their hands dirty and do some farmwork. Christopher is normally a high spirited fellow, but it seems that farm work especially put wind in his sails. I’m glad we had the opportunity to have him here and contribute to the autumnal harvest at Sweet Ridge Farm.

This article is part of an occasional series written by Patrick J. Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan. Pat was a journalist for over 30 years, writing about faith, farming, and family. For the past few years he has stepped away from the keyboard and into the fields as a full time farmer. The first article in his series is available here:

Cute Tractor

By Patrick Slattery

[Editors note: As the Slattery clan slowly heads back across the country from the wedding, Pat Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan returns to journalism here. After a 25 year career in journalism interviewing countless farmers, bishops, and every story in between, he has been relishing the peace and silence of the fields as a full time farmer for several years now. His inimitable style and worldview has clearly formed the prose style and lifestyle of his children. It is great to see his words in print again. Pictures and stories from the wedding will follow soon. -Kate]

Talk about an insult, well, I tell you, it was a big smack to my male ego.

There I was last week, pulling out of our driveway, driving my New Holland tractor hooked up to a five-foot disc, feeling pretty grand as I headed to the field for my first go at tillage, when my sister-in-law, Cecile, also in the same driveway, exclaims in passing, “Cute tractor!”

Trust me, no red-blooded heterosexual male wants his tractor to be called “cute.” Tillage of any sort has an element of mass destruction  inherent to it. Mother Nature must step aside, when it’s spring and time to do some sod busting.

Let us acknowledge that the tractor is a symbol of male virility. No wonder for the enduring success of that classic Country Western tune, “She think’s my tractor’s sexy.” My wife Terese hates that song, and truth be told, I would have felt more than a little uneasy had my sister-in-law sang that in our driveway.

A few words of defense  for my New Holland TC 25 tractor.

I’ll admit that my little blue tractor, which goes by the name of “Babe”(as in Blue Ox), is no mean machine. Compared to the monstrous tractors that regularly go past out house on Hy. 33, our tractor is little more than an overgrown lawn tractor.

But by gum, Babe’s got game, and so far has done everything I’ve asked of her.  Almost two years after buying her and I still delight in her being mine. Oftentimes in her saddle I find myself singing aloud, my song drowned out by her gentle diesel roar. Her fuel miserliness and reliability helps make me a happy agrarian.

In addition to the aforementioned disc, I have a mower and field cultivator that are right sized to Babe. With these implements I’ve been able to do so much more than in seasons past when I was under equipped for commercial garden farming. Do I wish that Babe had more horsepower? Sure, and a loader would be a dream come true.

But nonetheless for all Babe’s capabilities I am grateful. I count myself unfathomably blessed to work up land with a tractor instead of a team of horses, as do my vegetable growing Amish compatriots for Organic Valley.

These big tractors, manure spreaders, and  sprayers, my, I think they’ve gotten out of hand, and industrialized a very important cultural undertaking than nurtures the human soul. The size of our agricultural machines have emptied the countryside of people in the fields. The big machines allow for the land barons to farm ever more far-flung land. Seeing them go by and blow their black smoke is akin to watching military-like maneuveur in action. I and other organic devotees suspect the soil’s biotic community – the countless earthworms, fungi and assorted other microbes – must suffer under the assault of the weight of the heavy metal and chemicals.

As for me, I seek to sow peace, and if that means driving a “cute” tractor, so be it.

More guest posts by Patrick Slattery are located here:

Ali: My Iraqui Brother

Gary Elson: Son of the Middle Ridge Soil