After writing for numerous magazines, volunteering with the local fire department, hitchhiking through Europe, answering a suicide hotline, being a physical therapy aide, and working numerous other gigs, Michael Perry now calls himself an author, humorist, and singer / songwriter living on a farm in western Wisconsin. His second folk album, Tiny Pilot, was released this March. Perry’s latest memoir, Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg, comes out in paperback May 4. On the same day, Perry will be visiting Minneapolis for a reading at Magers & Quinn Booksellers at 7:30pm.
The Heavy Table’s Aaron Landry sat down with Michael Perry to talk about the book, to learn about what’s happening on the farm, and to get some food recommendations.
How did you end up living more self-sufficiently and sustainably?
Basically my wife and I are just a couple of farm kids that wound up married, living on a farm, and raising food on our own. I grew up on a small dairy farm, had a big garden, and we remember that from our childhoods and wanted that to be part of our lives.
I avoid the term “sustainability” as some people use it at a bludgeon. I was raised as an evangelical fundamentalist Christian so I’ve had enough preaching. I’m now a gentle agnostic and we’re doing it because it works for us. What we do has meshed with the “sustainable movement” and we’re fine with that.
People think I’m joking, but one of the highlights of my marriage, and I wrote about this in Coop, was the night we butchered the chickens the first time. We stood at 10 o’clock at night in our garage looking at our old clunky freezer filled to the brim with food and chickens that we had raised. It really, without irony or any jokiness, it was a meaningful moment to stand there with my life partner.
We also trade chores. We had a guy help with the plowing because we didn’t have a plow and we paid him in pork chops.
The reviews for the hardcover version of Coop have been positive except for one I read on Amazon.com. It said “if you are looking for a story of poultry and pigs, start reading past page 181 because that’s where I am at and still no poultry or pigs to any serious extent!” What would you say to that reviewer?
I would say “It’s a memoir!” People ask me advice and I tell them they should start reading Michael Pollan. Read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Read a guy that’s much less known but my favorite, Gene Logsdon and his book All Flesh Is Grass. That’s the book we use specifically in raising our pigs.
So I’m guilty as charged. I’m a mildly humorous memoirist and if this poor fellow hung in there to the end, it is a book about a coop I started before we had chickens and by the time I was done, they were already laying eggs. My wife started saying, “Which came first, the chicken or the coop?”
What are some of the challenges you’ve had on your farm?
I got guinea hens to protect the chickens and to eat all the ticks. I managed to lose them all in the middle of the night. I have some oats right now that are really pathetic and I think the reason they’re failing is because it’s the second year I planted them. The first year they went gangbusters and this spring not so much.
We got a mix of heritage breed laying hens and I messed up by not having the coop set up properly so they started roosting in the trees and I couldn’t get them to stop. Half of them got eaten as I couldn’t get them to come into the coop.
Last night my 10-year-old went out to the chicken coop where there’s about 20 chickens and she brought in 20 eggs. That’s what’s fun. The pigs have worked out great. We love having our own bacon and pork.
Bartering has been fun too as a dozen eggs will get you a lot of help. We get raw milk for eggs and we pay for wood-splitting help with pork chops. My wife is co-gardening: bartering labor with another garden.
Have you heard of Yards to Gardens? It’s a project based in Minneapolis where gardeners who need land and those with extra space match themselves up. I was connected recently with a neighbor three blocks away who is now growing her own food in extra space in my yard.
That sounds terrific. You don’t have to get 37 acres in the country, you just need your or someone else’s backyard. The urban chicken movement is the perfect example of this too. In Eau Claire, they are fashioning a chicken ordinance where people can have up to five laying hens. One of the things I love about the example you gave about sharing people’s available space: When my dad started farming in northern Wisconsin in 1966, that’s exactly what farmers did. The two farmers next to him saw him as a newcomer and they co-farmed. With one of them, my father farmed back and forth for 25 years. They never kept a list of who spent what and who worked how many hours. One of the nice side effects of this whole sustainability movement is people working together again and sharing things.
Along with everything you’re doing at home and with your book, you’re also making albums and performing live. How did you get started in music?
I learned a few chords and I’d write for several hours at the keyboard. Then I’d sit up and grab the guitar and work out a song. I had 25 songs written and a buddy of mine talked me into playing at a little coffee shop in Hayward. I ain’t saying I was nervous, but I ripped out a 60-minute set in about 32 minutes flat. I was sweating like I was splitting firewood but it didn’t go off the rails. In fact I enjoyed it.
From there I started doing a few more coffee shop shows and I started gathering a band. Justin Vernon played in the band for a while too before he went off and perused his silly little side project [called Bon Iver]. We did an album with the band in Justin’s basement next to his clothes washer called Headwinded and I started selling it at readings. What really helped was events where I come out for an hour doing a reading and humorous monologue, then we’d take a break and a band comes out for an hour. Now they’re incorporating a few music events in my book tour.
Have you found any good food on the road recently?
I was just in Michigan at Calvin College speaking at the Festival of Faith & Writing about being an agnostic. I was very nervous but they were very nice to me. They took me to Marie Catribs, an organic cafe in Grand Rapids and I had the most amazing reuben. It was tremendous. I also had their hummous, baba ghanouj, and minty cucumber yogurt sauce, and man, I’m still longing for more. That was the most memorable restaurant recently.
If someone were traveling through your neck of the woods, where would you tell them to go?
Right on the main drag in Hayward, the Wine Cave has an amazing wine cellar and they do a tapas bar. People don’t expect to find a place like that there. Right up the road is Turk’s Inn, which is a whole story on its own. It’s like going to dinner in 1972. They have photos signed by celebrities from the 70s and it’s meant to look like a Turkish… something, and it has the padded seats and velvet. It’s amazing.
In Foster, go to the Foster Cheese Haus. The only other thing there is a feed mill. The Cheese Haus is local food, it’s organic, and we just had breakfast there the other day.
I make sure to go to the chicken barbecue at the New Auburn Fire Department, my old fire department. If a fire department is ever cooking food, it has my unqualified recommendation. Never mind where the food came from. It’s not about sustainability, it’s about hanging with your neighbors.
What’s next? What do the next couple of years look like for you?
I have no idea. I know what I want and I’ve already got it. I’m blessed to do something I love and when I’m not out on the road doing what I love, I’m back home with my dear family with some green acres and a big old coop full of chickens. Honestly, what more could you ask for?
Michael Perry’s latest album, Tiny Pilot, was released this March. Perry’s latest memoir, Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg, comes out in paperback May 4. He reads from it in Minneapolis at Magers & Quinn Booksellers on May 4, 7:30pm.