Monday, July 28, 2008

Hay, Good Looking!

Or, if you'd rather, "Good looking hay!"

Today is a Significant Day that is hard to really define. It just IS. I know because I'm here at the end of it, and as God said in the Beginning, "It was good."

There is hay in the new barn.

Not just any hay, but 90 nice, tight, heavy bales of excellent quality, virtually weed-free brome hay, acquired for a very VERY reasonable price because I took the whole* (well, almost....) trailer load straight out of the field** (well, almost....). Enough to last MORE than a year, as part of our current management program. We use small squares of brome as bedding and feed for ewes at lambing, and for other situations where sheep are held in individual pens. At a rate of 1 bale per ewe per year, this may be even 3 or 4 years' worth. It's like money in the bank.

Not just in the barn, but on pallets in the east wing of the barn, newly cleaned out. The ground under the pallets is leveled, and there is plastic on the ground under the pallets to keep damp from coming up and spoiling the hay over time.

Starting a little after 8 this morning, we tackled the south portions of the east wing, virtually untouched since I bought the place in Dec. It was full of a jumble of old lumber scraps, antique car parts, fishing rods, bicycle parts, storm windows, moldy upholstered furniture, old heaters, power line insulators, you name it. Some really neat stuff, probably pretty collectible and worth some money. Also some frightening stuff: A large can with white crystalline matter oozed out of it (now solidified) on which the only remaining readable print says "Danger! Poison! For professional use only!" (Figures. I made my run to the Household Hazardous Waste disposal site last week. Now I get to go again already.) Everything veiled in cobwebs, dead leaves, and dust.

The rest of the barn is now a maze of piles of stuff for further sorting, disposal, organization and storage. But for a short time, the south two-thirds of the east wing was vacant, with a smooth floor and clean walls and ceiling, neatly swept of all cobwebs. "Wow!" I excalimed as we surveyed the result of our hard labor. "It really does look like some place a horse could live someday!"

Then we began to unload the 90 bales.

We rolled them off the trailer, then rolled or end-over-ended them to the east wing. That way we never had to lift the full weight of a bale. I CAN lift these bales (I'm guessing about 70 lbs. each) but they are awkward, and lifting one bale is a far cry from lifting 90 bales. Rolling them isn't as picturesque as picking them up and throwing them--the conventional time-honored farmhand technique--but for my physique it's a lot more sustainable.

I can't say exactly why, since we threw a pickup load of hay in the main bay of the barn last winter, but today's work seems to mark the official transition of the barn from warehouse (as it was used prior to my purchase) to eventual horse barn, even though there is a lot more cleaning and other renovations to do before I can even consider horses. But someday I hope it will house a team of Haflingers (draft ponies large enough to ride) and all their gear and feed.

We'll keep working on the barn, so that when we buy a trailer load of alfalfa in the fall, the barn will be ready and waiting for it. Trying to clean the barn and unload and stack the hay all in one day was a bit strenuous.

*I thought 120 bales was a) not something I could afford at the moment and b) biting off a little more than I wanted to even think about chewing, if my volunteers didn't show up as planned. So the hay guy offered to take the top layer off, leaving 90 bales on the trailer.

**Actually, I saw the hay when I went to his farm to pick up a few bales of alfalfa. He's having a new barn built, and the builders didn't have the roof on yet, and had left for a long weekend or maybe summer vacation for all he knew. Meanwhile he had just put up a bunch of hay on shares (for a good friend of mine, as luck would have it--so one reason I wanted this particular hay is that I knew it hadn't been sprayed with anything), and he had his share--a bumper crop--sitting out in the open on trailers all around the barnyard. Rain was in the forecast, of course. So he was willing to give me a great price if he didn't have to worry about it or unload it long as he could get his trailer back by Sunday evening.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Simply Exhausted

I've been getting a bit bolder and firmer with my Intro to Simple Living lecture, giving it a bit sooner in the process of working with a new volunteer/student.

Like, the first time they say something about wanting to learn how to live "the simple life."

Kindly, gently, I begin as we stroll out to the barn. "Take the word 'simple'," I suggest, "and lovingly put it in a box and wrap up the box and seal it and put it w-a-a-a-a-y up there on the shelf." We walk a few steps in silence, enjoying the morning. "This is not "the simple life". "Simple" is going to a boring job, doing exactly what they tell you, going home to your apartment, heating up a frozen microwave pizza, and spending the evening watching TV."

The lecture then shifts to answeringsome or another question that was previously raised, like getting a drink of water.

In the city, you turn on the tap and you get water. Every tap, same water. Here, you have choices. The sillcock on the east of the house had pure well water, not even filtered. The cold water in the bathroom, the water in all the farm hydrants, and the little "drinking water" spigot on the kitchen sink are filtered but not softened. All the other household taps, and the sillcock on the front of the house, are softened which means that the traces of iron and calcium have been replaced by sodium. Which water you use depends on what you're doing and on your personal taste. If you want to wash something, use the softened water because the homemade soap curdles in the hard water and doesn't clean. For drinking, I like the unsoftened "mineral" water.


Just wait until we add a graywater system to reuse wash water, and a cistern for rainwater.

Another example of "not so simple". Today's calendar bore the simple note: "4 sheep to Bowser."

In other words, I'd scheduled an appointment to have 4 cull ewes slaughtered and processed into chops, burger, and summer sausage (mmmmmm summer sausage!).

Simple enough. Load sheep, take to Bowser, pick up finished meat next Monday morning.

Well, ok. A bit more complicated than that. Also need to decide which sheep. Hours pouring over pedigrees and production records go into the decision.

Also need to move the sheep to the barn and sort them. The ones I want include the ones that are hardest to get through the chute, so I decide to "just" crowd everyone in the barn, grab them out, and shove them into the loading pen. "A" goes into pen. I grab "B" and try to shove her in. She eventually goes, but by then "A" is out again. Well, I'll try "C" next. Get her in the pen, now "B" is out and there are two spare lambs in the pen. Etc. An extra pair of hands to work the gate would have cut the time to a mere fraction (and a lot less sweat). But--I'm doing this after work, which means it's 10:00 at night. A little hard to find volunteers.

Also before that had to get the truck ready. Unload scrap wood from a project. "Throw" spare tire back up on top of cab, untangle the strap, strap it down...oh, yeah, the cable securing the ladder rack to the truck is loose, tighten the bolts, oh, this one is missing the washer and nut, find washer and nut (note to self: need lock washers), install. Unhook side panels from their stowed position on top of the ladder rack and bungee to truck sides. Oops, bungies have deteriorated in the sun. There should be more in the tie-down box behind the front seat, but evidently I've been too generous with "extras". Hunt for bungees in the barn in the dark (too lazy to sort out the umpteen extension cords to figure out which the light is hooked to), find some (hanging in their right spot, no less!) but they are missing hooks. Eventually figure out that I can transplant hooks from bad bungees to good bungees, and secure rack sides. Look in 4 different places for the back panels for the stock rack, eventually find them. (Right storage place has not yet been determined. 4 wrong ones have been eliminated from consideration.) Bungee them on. Check oil. Top up oil. Remove spinning wheel from front seat.

Words "get truck ready" = 3.

Time to "get truck ready" = 1 hour.

That's AFTER having figured out the whole ladder rack/stock rack transformation from scratch last year, and having figured out stowage for the straps and bungees, and gotten in the habit of actually keeping a spare quart of oil in the truck most of the time--because it only needs it at 10:00 at night when I'm loading sheep.

Etc. I don't think I need to go into the rest of the details of the process.

Sufficient to say that I was in bed by 12:30, then up again at 5 because sheep had to be at Bowser's, 30 miles away, at 6:00 a.m. (beautiful sunrise!).

All in all, things went very smoothly. Sheep eventually trotted right up the ramp (pre-ramp, we would have had to lift each of the nearly 200 lb. ewes onto the tailgate. One of them would have crawled under the truck and escaped.) Herded their lambs back out to pasture with the rest of the sheep, giving them a new paddock to distract them from their separation.

All in all, I've been up for 20 hours on about 5 hours' sleep. Why I took the day off from driving the bus.

"Smoothly" and "simply" are not synonyms, by the way. "Smoothly" is my goal. "Simply" would be...well...not worth writing about.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Life and Seasons, with Potatoes

A lifetime is a long time, or a short time...and it's all the same time, the same life, just a matter of your perspective. It's one of those relative units of measure, like a cubit or span...varies from individual to individual, but is basically unchanging in and of itself. Today I find myself in the odd place of feeling I am smack at the middle of my life, while knowing that one of my bus customers came suddenly to the end of his life on Saturday...and that could happen to any one of us, any time.

Not that it always makes a difference, but--please wear a helmet, or hard hat, or whatever. It's the only head you've got. Life's dangerous. But for heaven's sake go out and DO it, with gumption and gusto, just take care of yourself.

A season is a long time, or a short time...depending on where you are in relation to it, and how much remains on your "to-do" list that really MUST be done, and on the other hand depending on how nice or miserable the weather is.

This current time is a shifting of seasons, the "dog days" of summer (downtown side walk sale this Thursday--a frenzied shopping ritual I avoid) easing their way into prominence. The early cicadas, shrieking in the trees. The advent of blister beetles in the garden, helping to reduce leaf area on drought-stressed plants (not many of those this wet season!). In a predictable turn of the seasons, the springtime "fair weather" volunteers gradually fade away to air-conditioned rooms, cozying in with good books until after Labor Day, or plotting get-aways to cooler climes. Like sand slipping through an hour glass, the announcement of travel plans dwindle the work crew week by week. By and by, they'll return with cooler weather and busy fall schedules.

The dedicated ones plug away at it with me. "When I do have my own farm, it won't be in Kansas," one comments--and that's on the pretty cool morning of a not-as-hot-as-it-could-be day. I laugh. I have to agree with her--and the sheep also would agree, if they understood her words. But God had other plans--He lured me to this piece of land and let me fall in love with 12 acres of perfect soil. A bit hard to transplant to a new location. They say real estate is about location, location, location...well, I guess farming is about dirt, dirt, dirt, and here's where my dirt happens to be, August and all.

But it's all good. We have a lot of potatoes and tomatoes in...a lot of garden pretty well mulched...most of the fences pretty well mended...a lot of routines pretty well in order. The heavy push of spring and early summer has faded into a slightly saner, steadier routine for summer. We have acheived a lot of progress this season. There is a lot of work to be done, but now is the time for slacking off a bit, taking longer breaks, looking around at what we have created and saying, "This is good".

The main occupations are harvesting, weeding, mulching, mowing, moving sheep. We have new tools and tehcniques for some of these this year, especially the mowing. As crazy as the weeds are looking with all this rain, I can see hope that we are prevailing. And next year will be even better. Instead of maximizing profits this season, we are "farming for next year"--focussing on things that will make next year our best season yet.

There is a certain rhythm emerging this time of year; every task has worn into a sense of familiarity for the season. Next year they will seem new again, at first, but then quickly settle back into routine. That will happen earlier in the year, since we won't be starting from scratch with so many of them. Then the season of summer will be even more relaxed.

We took about 40 lbs of potatoes to Farmer's Market on Saturday--rummaged out of half of each of 4 beds. There more than 20 far...and each bed has 2 rows... that's more than 40 rows that will be harvested at least 2 or 3 times each. We are perhaps 3% done with potato harvest! Harvesting potatoes will be one of the steady rhythms of the next several months.

Washing potatoes.

Admiring potatoes.

Selling potatoes.

Eating potatoes.

And it IS good.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Things Are Hopping...

...This little guy, for one. A young man visiting the farm found it hopping through the grass in the front yard. Without my glasses handy, I couldn't get a good enough look to identify it, and I didn't want to detain it too long. Better to encourage youngsters to "catch and release". I suspect there are more of these around.
There are also MANY baby grasshoppers appearing around the place. The thought of them ALL, grown up, is a little frightening. I've seen heavy grasshopper years when the 'hoppers have eaten holes in vinyl window screens...paper signs and labels...the weathered layer of wood off a tool handle. So glad I did not live in the times of real locust swarms eating everything green in sight!

Speaking of locusts, I heard my first cicada of the season today. I guess it IS half-way to August, even if it is only in the mid-60's tonight. Strange cool weather, but I'm NOT complaining! The cool, wet weather may encourage grasshopper diseases.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Turning Over the Land -- or -- The Emotional Rototiller

You have not heard much about the water main project for awhile.

Partly that is because I have not heard much about the water main project for awhile...since the public meeting June 12, to be exact. The City has been utterly silent. I have no idea what that means...this time of year, perhaps it only means that almost everyone is on vacation, and those remaining are busy filling in for each other and supervising work on projects already in the construction stage. Maybe they really ARE "back to the drawing board". Maybe they are waiting for my next move.

Mainly, I have been working hard (and having a great time doing it!) FARMING, and working my bus-driving job. I’ve often quipped, "I can either farm, or defend my right to farm"...and right now the focus is on farming. Where I hope to keep it.

One means of keeping my focus on farming–on achieving my own (and God’s!) long-term goals for this beautiful, rich, living land–is to enlist the aid of others in defending my right to farm, and the land’s right to be farmed. I deeply appreciate those with expertise in various areas (geologists, hydrologists, economic analysts, policy-makers, etc.) who have let me pick their brains, and continue to call me with thoughts on angles I would never have thought to consider.
Attorney Kathy Kirk has enthusiastically agreed to handle the various legal angles of the situation for me and the farm. What a blessing! She comes to this situation with a great background–I’ve known of her originally through her mediation work, so she brings the ability to work for win-win solutions to the table–and she has direct experience with eminent domain proceedings for public utilities. I cannot say what a relief it is to welcome her to the Pinwheel Farm Community, and to surrender the idea that I have to wade through the legal swamp alone.

On the other hand, it’s a bit of a weird feeling...I’ve just turned over primary control of the land’s (and my) future to "someone else". Letting go of control is scary...even if all I’m really letting go of is my illusion of control. While we will be working together as a team, it’s a new thing for me to remember that I need to consult with her before speaking or acting in areas related to the situation. Among other things, that means TURNING OVER the blog--letting her review, and potentially edit, any blog entries pertaining to the water main project.

THAT will be a challenge, as much as TURNING OVER the legal journey. Not because I mind someone "criticizing" my writing (coming from a fine arts background, I’ve always thrived on constructive criticism), but because I’m such a perfectionist and obsessive reviser that it will be hard to let an entry lounge around for approval for a few days, then post it without making extensive cosmetic changes after she’s approved it. That will be good practice in self-discipline, for sure!

Of course, this paper exercise in "letting go" of control is a great reminder that really, GOD is in control...whatever happens, He will use it for His good, and we pitiful humans really haven’t much of a clue what He has in mind, anyhow.

As good as I am at "taking things back" after I THINK I’ve turned them over to God, I’m sure this "turning over" will be a lot like riding an emotional rototiller!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Harvest Updates

I have not been doing well at noting the crops ripening, other than in passing.

We have transitioned from spring greens and green onions to early summer things. Wheat, garlic, and shallots all reach the natural end of their life cycles and begin to wither as the days grow hotter and the nights begin, imperceptibly, to grow longer after the solstice.

We've cut some wheat, but more to go...and the sparrows are beating us to a lot of it. But, it's been a great experiment with cover cropping, and I'll surely write more about what we've done and learned in that regard, as well as what we do with the grain we harvest with a hand sickle.

Several crops have gone to seed, and we've saved seed from them. First, I noticed that turnips were germinating in profusion under a bolted volunteer turnip that was still in flower...and I realized that the volunteer turnips that were blooming had all started to "shatter"--their long, slender pods dry enough to bust open in the hot summer sun and scatter seeds nearby. So I pulled those plants and put them in a plastic tote in the barn to dry. We'll thresh them out and have them for both cover and cash crops this fall.

I used pruning shears to cut all the bolted cilantro that's nearly's full of round coriander seeds. That, too, will be dried in the barn and threshed, partly for replanting (these are the plants that overwintered, so in saving them we're selecting for hardiness), partly for use and sale as the spice. It's a refreshing taste treat to nibble on a few while I'm working in the garden.

The shallots suddenly declared their senescense by somehow ejecting themselves from the ground and mulch, lounging about on the surface to be picked up effortlessly! I want garlic to be this easy! There is a vast difference in how the several varieties did, but I think a lot of that is luck of the draw on soil history...part of one bed was long ago a sheep waste compost pile, and clearly is still much richer than the other end of the bed.

Haven't dug the garlic yet, but I need to soon. It's hip deep in foxtail and lambsquarters, and we need to put late potatoes in those beds.

Kale is doing well, some cabbage worms but not many. We pick and pick, and it doesn't seem to show in the lush bed. Today's 95 degrees had it drooping, but tonight it was straight and stiff again. Many plants droop in the heat of the day no matter how much you water minimizes leaf surface and reduces water loss. I just try not to look at them in the hot afternoon!

In other parts of the yard, we've moved from mulberries and apricots to black raspberries (along the front fence, seeded by the birds 3 or 4 years ago) and "Pristine" apples (by the parking spaces in the driveway). The apples are especially exciting--this is our first real harvest from them! At this point I'm picking up windfalls for applesauce. Since I'm not canning the applesauce but rather freezing it, I can do small batches in the evenings rather than making it an all-day ordeal. A colander half-full, quartered and cooked in a medium saucepan and run through the Foley Food Mill, yielded a quart jar full that has been supplementing breakfasts and snacks. Simple and satisfying.

Raspberries are accumulating in the freezer for fall jam-making, along with the apricot puree. But I took some and crushed them with a spoonful of honey from the farm's easy, tasty spread for a piece of toast, or topping for yoghurt!

It's easy to snag a few new potatoes from under the mulch on my way to the house for lunch. Then easy to slice them and fry them in a little oil--and top them with a little fresh sage and oregano. Nice with a fried egg, or some slices of mutton and pork summer sausage.

Suddenly I realize that, other than my convenience food indulgences, I'm eating mainly from the bounty of the farm.

It satisfies an appetite that has been hungrey since I left the farm, nearly 4 years ago.

Better Late than Never

It's taken a week to get this posted.

Also, we usually shear the llama at least several weeks earlier in the season. Usually we plan ahead. This year, Danny, the shearer, called the night before and asked if he could come the next morning...and it happened to be perfect timing.

A picture is worth a thousand words. First, "Why It Helps to be Tall when Shearing Llamas"--by reaching over and shearing the far side, if Freckleface kicks, Danny is mostly out of harms' way. Llamas can kick 360 degrees with their hind feet.

Second, "The Photog Gets Away With A Stupid Move"--a.k.a. "Why Danny Didn't Want to Be Kicked." "If this foot gets loose, it's like being hit by a jackhammer," he nonchalantly comments when I become so absorbed in getting the shot that I forget my own safety for a moment. Freckleface's claws have not been trimmed in a LONG time, and they are about the same size and shape as the claws on a common hammer.

Third and fourth, "Who the.....?" Several sheep reacted in similar manner to seeing Freckleface in his newly shorn state. It's a very different posture than the sheep take when checking each other out after shearing. Reminds me of the dogs' classic "snake in the grass" close can their curiousity get while their caution is as far away as possible?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

My "F" Word

An acquaintance--as in someone who hasn't known me long or well--signed off in an email with the thought that "we could all use some fun."

Folks who've know me awhile are more circumspect about throwing the "f" word around without proper consideration. The rant gets old (if I forget they've heard it before), or they get tired of that certain puzzled look I give them. "The look" that says, "I thought we WERE having fun!?!" Only they didn't think so, apparently. And they still can't see it. In that moment, we realize we live in different universes that somehow intersect but don't connect. Those moments aren't so fun because there is a certain bittersweet loneliness to having fun alone in the midst of a crowd of people who aren't.

There seems to be a cultural understanding of "fun" that excludes "work", and vice versa--and an idea that "fun" is desireable, with few reservations, and that "work" is not, in and of itself, desireable except as a means to the end of having the "fun" that the money from working can facilitate.


That didn't even make sense to me BEFORE I started farming.

I guess the closest I've ever been able to translate the word "fun" in my world view is "enjoyable" and/or "exciting"...and just about EVERYTHING, pretty much, can be enjoyable or exciting or both, for me. Even bookkeeping, once I get started on it (my plan for tonight). Doing chores in the pouring rain, once I'm out there, as long as I'm not hypothermic yet or being bludgeoned by hail. Pulling weeds--fun to test my strength if they are tough ones, fun to make progress if they are easy ones, fun to see the livestock scramble after them, fun to see the happy plants in nice tidy beds where I've finished. Fun to eat the yummy weeds. Fun to abolish the bad ones.

Fun to hear the birds, fun to think that the neighbor with his gas-powered weeder (rototiller) is missing the birds' free concert, fun to pet the cat when he wanders by, fun to feel the sun/wind/rain on my back, fun to stop and watch the biplane droning overhead, fun to throw a stick to the dogs, fun to look around at this beautiful farm that has created itself over the course of 12 years with my help, and the help of many others.

Fun to see the shadows shift as the day passes, fun to realize they have changed with the passing seasons, fun to see the cycles and the patterns of it all.

Fun to be an intimate part of it all.

Fun for everything I do to be a part of being a part of it. Therefore fun to drive the bus, fun to visit friends, fun to build things, fun to clean things, fun to tear things down, fun to throw things away.

Fun to go to Farmer's Market, fun picking the vegetables, fun washing them, fun getting up that early, fun being that tired, fun in the rain and snow and sun, fun hanging on the canopy so it doesn't blow away, fun dashing home to unload and turn into a bus driver. And fun taking a day off from that, as I did today.

Fun setting boundaries, fun insisting that rules be applied fairly, fun pointing out blind spots and inconsistencies, fun being a pain in the neck to people who take it all too seriously or not seriously enough. Fun dotting the Is and crossing the Ts...and dotting the Ts and crossing the Is. Fun persevering until nonsensical situations are resolved to everyone's benefit (today, can you imagine Farmer's Market without meat sales? Fun overturning that old rule a few years back!).

Fun everywhere. Nearly all the time.

But don't ask me to set my real life aside and go looking for fun at the amusement park...the city pool (Fun? Have you read all the warnings and disclaimers posted there about water-born illnesses?), the movie theatre, the bar...anywhere else removed from my daily life. I'll give you "the look."

Or--I might just say, "That sounds like fun!"

Tomorrow, part of my fun will be mowing...weeding...mulching...working on fences...working on the house. And part will be a combined Shape Note Singing, picnic, and carillon concert by one of the singers at the KU Campanile, starting at 4:00.

Anyone's welcome to join me for any of it. The more, the merrier!

Friday, July 4, 2008

README before farming

I'm writing this for those readers who are settling in to enjoy their Independence Day holiday tomorrow, dreaming that someday they, too, might have their own little bit of a farm like mine. Dreaming of the simple life. The slower pace. The reduced stress. True independence.

Most of all, I'm writing for the dozens if not hundreds of single women (frequently with small children) that I've met who envision doing this ALONE, way out in the country "away from it all."

Forget it. Please. Quit while you're ahead, before you've sunk your life savings into it.

Farming is pretty much an all-or-nothing least an integrated farm like this one. Once you've got the system figured out and up and running (more or less), the seasons just roll around in orderly fashion (give or take a late hard freeze), the chore cycles ebb and flow predictably, one thing leads to another. Momentum keeps it going. It keeps YOU going. Most of the time.

But then HUMAN things come up. Like getting sick.

Wednesday I woke up feeling not very good. I'd eaten a light supper the previous night, so maybe I was just extra hungry? I cooked my usual breakfast. The toast tasted great, but somehow I just didn't feel like eating the eggs. Not very good at all.

I dragged through the morning, getting a few long-delayed tasks done like hitching up the scrap metal trailer and taking it to the recycler's a few blocks away. It's not entirely a bad thing to procrastinate on a few non-critical, unintellectual, fiscally rewarding tasks like that so that you have something useful to do on days when you are not feeling up to par. Most of the morning was spent trying to evaluate whether I felt good enough to drive a bus for 7 1/2 hours.

As I went through the morning, what little energy I'd awakened with waned. I decided to call in sick to work--something I really hated doing, because I think they think I'm yet another irresponsible driver taking an extra day off before the holiday. Trust me, I REALLY would rather have been at work!

Good call. About the time I'd have started driving, breakfast came up. And maybe part of dinner. The rest of the afternoon I drifted between sleeping and heading to the bathroom again.

At some point I remembered that the sheep needed to be moved to fresh pasture. Thankfully, two of my volunteers had planned to work here that evening. So I tried to give them instructions for where the sheep were (over on Chaney's pasture which is west of the shady area where the swing is, which is west of the little corner pasture....), where they needed to be (in the main pasture north of the willows but not through the central lane, through the 16' panel gate on the west end of the willows) and what adjustments needed to be made to the electric fence in order to contain them (go through the little panel gate to the left just after you go in the 16' panel gate, then follow the 4-wire fence back to the green-cote fence and hook it up to the green cote).
We got out the aerial photo of the farm and pointed. I repeated directions as clearly as possible with my foggy brain. They went trouping off into the wilderness.

If you DO try this at home, be sure everyone has cell phones. It's maybe a 5 minute walk from those pens to the house, including the time for opening and closing gates along the way. Not so far? Multiply that by several questions and clarifications in the course of the task...cell phones saved a lot of time and energy that day.

Several calls later, we all felt reasonably sure everything was as it should be. One of the volunteers graciously ran to the gas station 4 blocks away and brought back Gatorade...lots of Gatorade. By that point I was seriously concerned about ending up dehydrated from the afternoon's activities.

Today I'm feeling much better. Even so, it took the better part of the day to get around to dragging myself out to the pasture to check on the sheep and make sure they had enough grass for the night, and figure out their rotations for the next few days.

I rarely get sick like that. And as time goes by, the farm is better laid out and more organized for people to be able to help me. And I have more people available to help out. It is still a sobering experience. If I were sick for several days, how long could volunteers manage the rotational grazing and the web of electric fences? What if I get sick in late July, when nearly everyone is planning to be on vacation?

Speaking of vacations, that's another thing to think about before you commit to farming. Vacations are a LOT of work.

I was planning an overnight Independence Day visit to friends in Jamesport, MO, about 2 1/2 hours away. Even for less than 24 hours away, the arrangements get complex.

You who can just jump in your car and take off, appreciate it! First I arranged to borrow a car--the key to the whole trip, since I can't afford gas to drive the truck there, at 10 miles per gallon. When that was arranged, I called my friends to let them know I was coming. I called the Farmer's Market coordinator and let her know that I was taking the day off from market (a significant loss of income, but sometimes I just need a break since I'm doing market totally solo this year). I arranged for someone to come get the dogs and take them to a relatively fireworks-free location for the evening, since both dogs are terrified of fireworks. And I made arrangements with my evening chore person to handle chores a bit differently since the dogs would be leaving. I made plans to rotate the sheep right before I left, and to return from the trip with plenty of time to rotate them before heading off to drive the bus Sat. afternoon.

This evening the car-loaner called to let me know that it wasn't going to work for him to loan me the car, after all. Too late for me to try to borrow a different 6:30 on Thursday, probably everyone who was planning to take off for the weekend and leave their other car unused in the driveway, had already left.

So I had to un-arrange as many arrangements as I could. I'll still skip least that will be like a little mini-vacation, even if it's less than unpaid.

A farm is NOT a permanent vacation. When you need a break--and you WILL need a break-- who will cover for you? When you are sick or injured, who will care for the livestock and keep things going? A farm doesn't stop when you do. It is crucial to keep these things in mind before you even start. Maybe the best time to dream a farm is when you are flat on your back with the flu. In your delirious state, try motivating yourself to go out to break ice off a water tank in a blizzard...mend an electric fence in 99 degrees, 99% sheep out of the garden in a hailstorm...and there's always the classic call from the neighbor way down the street, "I think your goose is walking down my driveway."

A wise friend once said, "The real distance of a country house from town is 3 times the round-trip distance to the nearest hardware store...because that is how far you will have to drive every time you fix the plumbing." So true! Now I'll add to that--consider also the distance to the nearest purveyor of Gatorade. And the nearest troup of AWESOME, much-appreciated, essential volunteer chore-doers.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Touching Your Food

I'm sure some readers are picturing me eating those windfall apricots off the ground and thinking, "ew, gross". And others are retching at the very thought of eating something (even apricot preserves, twice boiled and THEN carefully processed with the Boiling Water Bath method) that a squirrel had held and even nibbled. After all, squirrels could carry rabies (and there's probably a deadly Squirrel Flu going around that hasn't hit the media yet).

Those are food boundaries that each person has to set for themselves. And we need to respect one another's boundaries. Just as someone being vegetarian or vegan doesn't offend me as an omnivore, someone not wanting to eat something a squirrel has nibbled on doesn't offend me. If you ever eat at my house, you are welcome to ask what has touched your food, and I will give you the most honest answer I can, and try my best to serve you food that doesn't push your boundaries. But I do invite you to consider your boundaries mindfully, and see if there are perhaps some inconsistencies in them. Most of us let inconsistent boundaries needlessly limit our possibilities.

I've been thinking about the issue of touching food a lot lately, because of a situation at Farmer's Market a couple weeks ago.

I plant my lettuce varieties in separate beds, because they grow better that way. Each one needs harvested a little differently, so I like to give them individual attention. I harvest them separately (usually) and display each variety separately at Farmer's Market, complete with variety names. Folks enjoy the names and the colorful display--you can really appreciate the different textures and colors in a row of 5 or 6 tubs of red, green, smooth, frills.

I harvest the lettuce into net bags (dollar store laundry bags, to be specific--there, a trade secret!), and plunge the filled bags into cold well water to rinse off any sand and to remove the"field heat" from the important step when picking in 80-degree weather. A 15-minute soak, then stacking the dripping bags in mesh crates in the shade, is all the refridgeration my lettuce gets. You'd be amazed at how well it freshens up and keeps that way, even if it's starting to be a bit "tired" in the garden by the time I'm picking the last variety on a hot morning. At any rate, it's hardly a careful washing--just a good dunk and swish.

I sell my lettuce by the pound, mix and match, often with interesting non-lettuce options available for adventurous salad-eaters. The customer "takes what s/he likes and leaves the rest", and I put it on the scale and calculate the price. Other vendors mostly sell pre-weighed, pre-packaged "large bag/small bag". Some customers like that they don't have to buy an entire "small bag," which may be quite big to someone cooking for one.

At first, I tried having tongs for customers to use. They proved clumsey, damaging to the lettuce, easily broken, and easily lost or left behind at home. After some thought, I just dispensed with the tongs. Now, customers are invited to use their hands "as a reminder that you need to wash it yourself when you get it home...I can't give it the careful attention you can when I'm picking so much."

I've observed that very few customers handle any lettuce but what they put in their bag. It's not a crop where one sorts out a particular size or shape (as with potatoes), and it's already sorted by type. The customer's hands are likely more clean than my own, since I'm handling more money as well as all the vegetables and wool products. Normally customers are perfectly happy with this arrangement.

But one customer stopped in horror when she was asked to use her own hands. "You mean people have TOUCHED this? Oh, I CAN'T buy it!"

I went through my "you need to wash it anyway" spiel, but that did not mollify her.

"No, I just can't shop at your booth! Here, I don't want these green onions after all." She dropped the bundle of onions, dirt still clinging to the roots, back onto the pile as if it were contaminated, shuddering in horror at the thought that someone might have touched food she had been hoping to eat.

"Yes, perhaps that would be best. You might want to try Dillons or HyVee." I tried to be gentle and friendly as she walked away, still muttering and shuddering.

I tried to think of vegetables never touched by human hands. Vegetables grown in factory-like conditions, with automatic sprayers and waterers and harvesters and packagers. Maybe organic, but industrial organic.

And THAT is the sort of production environment where the disease-tainted spinach came from a few years ago, and was shipped all over the country!

Many veggies are hard to harvest by machine. In thinking of conventional large-scale vegetable crop production, one must picture an endless monoculture field, rows upon rows of some crop dotted with workers bending over the rows picking. They are touching your food. Maybe they are in a foreign country where there is little regard for sanitation. Maybe they are very poor and not very healthy. Maybe they have Tb--migrant farm workers aren't required to be tested. Or some other contagious disease. Maybe toilet paper and hand sanitizer aren't part of their culture. Maybe they just finished spraying a crop, or smoking.

But you don't see it. It's remote, removed. All you see is the nice, uniform stacks of veggies in the supermarket--how pretty! The stocker tends the display, turning the most beautiful pieces up, fluffing and organizing, handling your food. Customers come there, too, and paw through the stack, touching your food.

Just personally, I want my food to be touched: by a farmer who loves growing it, and smiles into my eyes when I buy his/her gorgeous labor of love. By myself, gratefully picking out the perfect pieces I'll enjoy eating. And yes, by another customer who loves fresh veggies as much as I do, if that happens by chance. I think the people in my community are better qualified to touch my food than strangers half a world away. And the squirrels are part of my community, too--so the apricot thing doesn't bother me.

If the shuddering lady would rather have her food touched by a malnourished, uneducated child laborer in a far-off land, I guess that's her choice. But I pretty much guarantee many people have touched her food.

I hope she doesn't give it too much thought, and stop eating entirely.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Apricot Answers

God is wise. I am not so wise. I think I'll keep working on trusting His wisdom even when it doesn't mesh with my ideas.

Thus I am up at 1 a.m. typing this.

I've been reflecting on God's subtle and infinite wisdom as I washed up the almost inconceivable pile of utensils after rendering apricots into puree and putting it in bags for the freezer.

Last year, we had a bitterly hard freeze in late April...the legendary "Easter Freeze". It killed ALL local (and regional) fruit except for a few raspberries, grapes, and persimmons. How sad a summer (and fall, and winter) without apples!

But last year I was a year younger, a year more stressed, a year less experienced a bus driver, a year less adapted to balancing the work of the farm with the work of driving AND with taking care of myself physically, emotionally, spiritually. And I had a lot less of a support community around the farm to help me balance things.

As much as I chafed at not being able to make applesauce last year, I now soberly realize that I COULD NOT have tried to do any food preservation (beyond throwing tomato chunks in the freezer) and stayed sane.

THIS year, this year that is blessed with the most bountiful fruit crop in Pinwheel Farm's history, I CAN balance all this...after a fashion. And this year is the first, in about 5 or 6 years of production, that the squirrels have left any apricots for me.

It's a "Sweetheart" apricot--bred so that the usually-inedible pits can be eatenlike nuts. The squirrels did not have to read the Stark Bros. catalog to figure that out, right off the bat. Usually they strip the tree bare of fruit while the 'cots are still hard and green, throwing little chips of green flesh onto the ground and eating the nuts. Before this year I had eaten exactly HALF an apricot from it...and that was salvaged from the ground, dropped by a clumsy squirrel.

This year there are many whole, ripe windfalls--even ones without worms! They are incredibly delicious! There are also a LOT of large fragments of fruit that the squirrels are discarding in their quest for the nuts.

I had asked God if please maybe I could get enough apricots for one batch of jam, please, evenif the squirrels had the rest. Just one?

As I picked up windfalls the other night, I kept looking at those lovely big seedless chunks. I started picking them up--a little brown on the edges, but otherwise fresh-seeming. An idea started to form, and I called to consult with Mom: Would YOU let all that apricot rot, or would you pick up the pieces and stew them half to death and make jam with them? Mom gave the go-ahead.

So I carefully trimmed the bad spots off, and boiled up the scraps with some windfall green apples. Sweetened to taste, WOW is that ever good! I ended up with 4 1/2 pints, which is already being shared with the main farm volunteers.

Tonight I just trimmed, cooked, and pureed the harvest of scraps, and put three bags (= 3 batches of jam = about 15 pints) in the freezer.

God MORE than answered my plea for apricots, but I had to be willing to accept His terms: His squirrels eat, too. I'm so grateful that I was able to see that there was enough for all of would have been so easy to think they had gotten all the fruit again.

I'm also accumulating black raspberries in the freezer for jam. By freezing fruit or puree, I can do the hot, steamy work of making and canning jam when I WANT the heat and humidity, not when I'm running the air conditioner. And I can do it around my work schedule more easily.

It's a lot of work. But so satisfying. And SO delicious.