The Body Farm

This spring and summer I have been jokingly calling our farm “the Body Farm.” I am referring to the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility called “The Body Farm.”  It is a research facility for studying human decomposition.

Every year brings it’s share of dead bodies at Small Wonder Farm, but we are way over our quota for the year.  We have had dead baby birds, adult birds, snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, moles, a young raccoon and a few chickens.  Yes, sometimes it can be quite gross–especially depending on the state of decomposition, but you get used to it.  One of the gifts of the farm is the lesson of death and decomposition.

This picture of Frida, from today, shows the latest corpse.  Most of the deaths are from natural causes.  Most of the moles, however, (like the one pictured below) are dug for and captured by the dogs who then play with them until they expire and then leave them all around the yard.  Frida, in particular, considers a corpse a real treasure.  Earlier this summer she made it in the door with one.  Luckily I saw her scoot past me with it.  This one she laid at my feet on the porch.  Her contribution to the family stew-pot for the day?  I doubt it.  She does not want to share.  She wants to gloat.  When it became clear to her that we were going to strip her of her prize, she turned her back to Paco and made it quite clear she was not going to give in easily.  Poor kid.  Sometimes co-habitating with humans really stinks. 


A Woman and her Sickle

Back in September, we celebrated my 40th birthday at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.  I attended a workshop there about bio-intensive growing with heavy use of cover crops.  The speaker, Cindy Connor, was a woman I’d guess to be about 15 years older than I.  She recommended a Japanese sickle for cutting down cover crops.  The vendor she recommended, Purple Mountain Organics, had a booth at the fair so I bought a sickle.  When I did, it felt a bit strange to be buying such a serious looking weapon and putting it in my purse–like I should need a permit or at least fill out a mental health questionnaire or something.

This spring, I have been using my sickle a lot to chop down the cover crops I broadcast seeded last fall.  The first time my husband came into the garden and saw me with it, he offered to do the work for me.  In his defense, he was being sweet and also knows I have a 40 year history of clumsiness and haste–2 traits probably not best for the task. However, I made it clear that the sickle was mine and I would be the one using it.

I was out cutting down cover crops so that raised beds could be placed on top of the beds and filled with great soil from another great lady grower’s compost business, Soilmaker, when I almost hacked one of my garden’s resident garter snakes.  I was startled and she was spared.  

My sickle has become a liberating symbol of  power.  I love chopping up cover crops and weeds with it.  I know many great lady farmers that have a serious amount of years on me and they are going and growing strong.  They are inspirational to me and I plan to follow in their footsteps.  I am feeling great recently due to some dietary changes and I know the best is yet to come.  I have every intention of going into the future wielding sickles and axes as well as vegetables and flowers.  I was recounting my sickle adventures to a friend recently and she said I sounded like She-Ra.  Exactly.  She-Ra moments are amazing!

Perhaps every woman should get a sickle for her 40th birthday

Find the Kitchen, Change the World

The most empowering thing that a person can do right now in our culture is not just the farming, but discovering your own kitchen…We are a culture that has never spent more money on kitchen remodeling and gadgetry and been more lost about where it is.  —Joel Salatin

I love this quote and I love the idea that the world can change by making dinner.  Not everyone will or could grow their own food, but we can all care about where our food comes from.  Living in a capitalist society, money has the final word.  We can stop buying processed, toxin grown, corporate food and heal the planet, our bodies, and our economy along the way.  Pretty powerful.

We had soup for dinner last night and I was so thankful my daughter was eating home grown potatoes, kale, carrots, celery, onions, and local beef.  A simple and good meal that left her and I both satisfied.  I knew her body was being truly nourished and that I was serving her a real bowl of goodness.

The Mother Earth News Fair

So, the fair quickly became too hectic and physically overwhelming to keep an ongoing blog journal. There was so much to see, hear, and do, and I wanted to absorb as much as I could. We are now on our way home, 3 hours to go and here are my first reflections:

First of all, it was so nice to spend 3 days in a place surrounded by pretty like-minded individuals. I spoke with a few fellow fairgoers and could overhear conversations about ducks, making nut milks, and the like. These are my people. The only other time I really feel that way is at the farmer’s market when I get to see my farmer friends. Farmers are absolutely the most brilliant people I know. They are also the most spiritually grounded and happiest. I am convinced that a connection to the land is what is missing in many lives. If you are farming or involved in the sustainable food movement and aren’t getting the big picture and embracing the joy of life, you aren’t paying attention.

There were roughly 130 different sessions covering everything from cover crops, getting started with chickens, solar energy, herbal medicine, to the grim state we are in environmentally, disaster preparedness, GMO’s, and inspirational thinkers. Sessions ran back to back from 10 AM-7 PM Saturday and 10 AM-5PM Sunday.  There were 14 stages (some indoors, other outdoors)–all holding sessions every hour.  The fair is massive.  Around 9,000 attendees were at the 2010 PA fair.  One estimate this year I heard was 15,000.

I studied the program for days at home, cross checking the speakers to make sure I was not passing a ho-hum sounding description and missing a great speaker. I decided I was going to pass up classes focused on the negative–like the very possible (and already happening) disasters and whether humans will endure humankind. I chose to focus on seeing visionaries and learning some new skill sets.

I knew this was possibly my only chance to hear speakers like Joan Dye Gussow, Frances Moore Lappe, Ed Begley Jr, and the great Joel Salatin. I am so glad I went to every one. They were all wonderful in different ways. Gussow, the mother of the local food movement, talked about how she created the first college courses looking at the issues decades and decades ago and said she had to teach them because no one else was. She also related her recent gardening struggles with poor soil and how the humble sweet potato saved her. That was a had to be there moment. In her discussion of the soil building sweet potato, she talked about glomalin (the stuff that helps hold soil together, just discovered in 1996) and that there are billions of residents in every teaspoon of soil. There are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth. This soil fact, one that I was aware of, became a recurring theme over my weekend. If an instructor wanted a essay from me about the conference, the connecting thread would that below our feet is the key to life itself. Not only does a teaspoon of soil hold billions of living organisms, but millions of different ones, miles of fungal hyphae, and more.  We know very little about them and how they work interdependently.  Soil is alive.  As we kill it by dumping toxins on it, we are threatening our own existence.

I was most surprised by France’s Moore Lappe. She wrote Diet For A Small Planet, which was published exactly 40 years ago. I have of course heard of it, but have never read it. I went to her talk on reputation alone. It was clear from all the conference materials, that she was a big, big, deal. I think her presentation was the one that probably made the longest lasting impression. Her message was a positive one and hard to sum up here. She certainly recognized the reality of where we are, but she asked us to re-frame our thinking in an ecological mindset instead of a scarcity mindset. We already have all we need and all the solutions we just need to think as an ecosystem-interconnected and throbbing with life.  Here is a review of her latest book that helps explain better than I can:

EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want is one of those repercussive works that thinks outside the box. The same old arguments about sustainability and food politics aren’t recycled here. Instead, Lappe looks at the conceptual frameworks that lead to the same old arguments, the same old walls and the same old reasons not to try. Lappe’s ‘thought traps’ explore the ingrained beliefs that prevent people from thinking in a way that would move food policy (among other environmental policies) forward. Her ‘thought leaps’ are the restorative, rejuvenating jolts forward that the environmental movement needs. ‘EcoMind’ refuses to submit itself to barriers, and changes the environmental game with its forward-thinking perspectives.

The message that the solutions are already here were supported by Ed Begley Jr and Joel Salatin as well. 40% of ready to consume food globally each year spoils-much of it due to the fact that we store and ship it too long and too far. A local food community can be more efficient and responsible. 35 million acres in the US are currently lawns and could be gardens and edible landscaping. The sun is already making all the power we will ever need. It is washing over us every day….

Joel Salatin is such a great speaker and his message so unapologetically bold and true that you know when you hear him that you would vote him president, follow him into battle, and pee your pants rather than give up your seat. In fact, it was clear that his arrival was eminent when the stage he was speaking at began to fill up halfway through the speaker before him. My mom and I got seats about 25 minutes before he was to come on. By the time he got going, the entire (very large) tent was entirely full with many people standing and the grass area surrounding the tent was 5 people deep. People carried chairs from 3 tents away. If the sustainable food movement has a rock star, he is it. The audience, my mother, and I were all on the edge of our seats for the full hour. All sessions were 45 minutes and Mother Earth News was great about keeping speakers on schedule so that the whole thing didn’t start to break down. Salatin was the one exception. He used the full 60 minutes and Mother Earth News did not shut him down. He was at his most entertaining talking about those billions of soil organisms. Another had to be there moment. He assured us that the battles going on underground are far more thrilling and dramatic that any Spielberg battle scene.

I left with the conference feeling better about the outlook for life on earth than I usually do.  I am more resolved than ever to carry on my work.  For our time and place, what we are doing with our land and our restaurant is breaking ground.  Our mission of producing safe, very high quality food for ourselves and our clientele is important not only as far as nutrition and taste, but also as an example of what is possible.  This year we quadrupled the amount of food being grown for La Scala at our own farm and people are taking notice.

Even more importantly, the volunteer work I am doing at my daughter’s charter school is essential.  Last year, I met weekly with the three kindergarten classes.  This year the program has expanded to 6 classes to cover the first graders, some second graders, and the kindergarten kids.  My most vivid memory of my kindergarten year was of watching some bean seeds germinate.  I love every one of those kids and am more resolved than ever to help them grow into caring citizens of planet earth.  I spent every moment of the conference looking and listening for items to share with my students.  I believe, to my core, that the lessons I am teaching them are among the most important they will receive as they grow.  Not because I am some amazing teacher (not at all), but because I think that the topic is of the utmost importance.  I have been waiting years to get my mitts on these kids!

So there you have it.  There is my first post of reflections on the fair.  The vision and energy that I eagerly absorbed.


I am in a life or death (theirs, not mine) competition with tomato horn-worms.  Found one on the peppers on Saturday and 3 more today.  1 on a pepper plant and 2 on tomatoes.  It was IMMENSELY satisfying to toss them to the chickens and watch them dismember him in a frenzy.  A big juicy caterpillar like that is a real prize to the hens.  The first one there grabs it and runs, and a gang chases her.   The caterpillar is all gone in a minute or so as they pick it apart.  If this does not sound like sweet revenge to you, you have never been to battle with these guys.

I know there are many more out there.  My rivals for tomatoes are well-equipped for battle.  Evolution has made them look so much like a curled tomato leaf that they are nearly impossible to spot.  The best way is to look for the damage (almost always defoliation) and then search in that area.  Frass, the fancy word for bug poop,  is another tell-tale sign.  These guys are such voracious eaters that they form a lot of frass.  They are eating, and therefore, pooping machines.

There is an organic control for them (and all caterpillars) called BT.  I may resort to that, but we will see.

The lesson I mulled over in the garden today was rivalry.  The horn-worms and I are rivals and the chickens and the horn-worms are rivals. Unfortunately, if  I let the chickens in the garden, they would be much bigger rivals for the garden crops–eating nearly everything.  However, it sure is nice to turn those disgustingly plump caterpillars into a nice lunch for a hen.  Gardens are a matter of life and death.  Who eats who is the name of the game.

Horn-worm frass (poop)

Life and Livelihood

I have been picking a lot of raspberries over the past month or so.  It is tedious, slow, hot, and thorny work.  It’s not my favorite garden chore, but not my least either.  I’m not quick about it.  I look under every leaf and branch, where they like to hide.  I wade into the hedge a bit to make sure I get them all.  Of course, I have to wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves.  The majority of the berries go into our freezer and some to our restaurant for cocktails and desserts.  One particularly hot morning spent picking, I was pondering why I was there.  The obvious reason is the berries–fresh, chemical free, and nutrient dense. Raspberries such as these are worth a lot and having picked so many of them, I never begrudge local farmers the prices they charge.  It’s a bargain.  I could buy them locally.  Since I run a restaurant, I could also order them for a song through wholesalers.

I was trying to explain to one of my nephews this past week that picking them is not cost effective, but it is not about cost.  I don’t think I did a very good job, so I will attempt a clearer explanation here.  I can buy them much more cheaply, so why all the hard work?  We make our livelihood from running a restaurant.  My husband is the Chef and I am the farmer (and reluctant accountant).  We both wear many hats in our myriad roles of running the business, but my favorite “hat” is my gardening one.  I could have an employee out here picking berries, but I think that misses the point.  I want to be the link between food and customer.  If we looked at the restaurant as purely a business, hours spent per week picking raspberries are probably not maximizing profit.  However, that is not the goal.  Sure, we need to make a living and we try to run an efficient business.  More importantly, we try to run a business we are proud of.  We both feel strongly that customers are taking notice to the difference between restaurants that cook real food from whole (often local) ingredients which are few and the vast majority that are just assembling factory made pre-prepared food.

In the end, I would be growing these berries anyway. They are a small wonder and that is what it is all about for me.  Growing, harvesting, and preparing nutritious and non-toxic food for our family is my passion.  The work that goes into them is what makes them so special.  It is about creating a life, not just a livelihood.  We are so incredibly lucky.  A chef and a farmer that get to work together and pursue their passions while creating a real life.  For both of us, the journey matters the most.  If I was not out there sweating and picking I would not be witness to the small wonders around me–like this golden tree frog pondering his next move in the strawberry patch.  I hope some restaurant customers enjoy a raspberry chocolate mint mojito or a panna cotta with Small Wonder Farm berries and really appreciate the work behind it.  Even if they aren’t aware of the work that goes into it, we are.

The Cruelest Month

Lest you think our life here on the farm is idyllic…..

T. S. Eliot declared April the cruelest month.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  March is the cruelest.  March is the month that is just too much for me.

In March, it is no longer winter, but certainly not yet spring.  It is a depressing chasm in between the frozen and the living.  There are just enough true spring moments to excite and panic the gardener with the promise of what is coming and the knowledge of the immense amount of work to be done.  Small Wonder Farm becomes a soggy debris field.  The blanket of white retreats and the melt and the rain turn the farm to mush.  Sometimes, it is the kind of mud that wants to keep your boot, and at other times it is a crusted, frozen moonscape of churned earth and composting plant matter.  The charms of winter are gone–no more pristine white blankets, no more crisp cold starry nights where you can hear your boot crunch in the snow, and no more feeling of time to spare.  The best of winter is in the long weekend feel of it when I can dig in to all the projects I can never get to in the height of growing season, make slowly simmered stews and cuddle Lily under a quilt.  In March, we have no more hoar-frost encrusted trees or any green vistas to rest our eyes on. The barn becomes a mucky, smelly disaster to be avoided if at all possible.

There are other reasons I dread March.  Taxes.  The slowest restaurant month.  Cabin fever at an all time high.  55 one day, 22 the next. During the cold, cold of winter we become sloppy–leaving softener salt on the porch, the generator there too in case we will need it.  Everything melts and I feel like we live in a junkyard.

I especially hate this March.  My Pepita is getting ready to leave us.  She has been going downhill for weeks now and we are within days of calling an end to it now.  I should not say we, it is I who will make the decision, I who will call the vet, and I who will hold her for the last time.  In my experience, men do not have the stomach for such things.  I really wanted her to have a last snooze under a warm sun.  She loves to sleep that way on her back–belly up to the warming rays, but I know that is not going to happen.  So,  I am spending as much of my weekend as I can holding her, thanking her, massaging her spent body, feeding her steak and carrots,. and letting her sleep on my lap.  I feel the heavy weight of knowing she spent 10 of her years devoted to me in every way.  I don’t feel worthy of that right now.  One of the greatest small wonders of this farm and this family is a homely little mutt named pumpkin seed who devoted herself to us with uncommon ferocity.

A MUCH younger Paco and Pepita. Circa 2002


Michael Pollan Speech

Today, Paco and I went to Indianapolis to hear Michael Pollan speak.  If you would like to know more about his work, here you go:   I didn’t expect to hear a lot that I did not already know, but I very much wanted to hear and meet Pollan–someone I admire greatly and wanted to thank personally.

Not long after we moved to the country, I was listening to an audiobook called The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  I remember exactly where I was driving when I heard  that there are 37 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget, that one of them is butane, and 13 of them are derived from corn.  I was already no fan of the McNugget, but that information was transformational to me.   To me, that is the kind of information that you can’t ignore.  My then 1-year-old was in the back seat and I knew that I needed to kn0w and do a lot more in order to feed her safe and healthy food.  I wasn’t feeding her fast food, but if a McNugget has 37 ingredients, what about everything else?   After finishing both Pollan’s book and Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I said goodbye to the ease of buying “big organic” products at supermarkets and haven’t looked back. 

I have learned a lot and I keep at it.  It’s not all about the food.  It may have started there, but now I know that the process is as important, (perhaps more important), than the product.  Our family has found balance with our increasingly agrarian life.  The work that goes into producing, locating, and teaching about local, healthy food is good work.  The kind of work that you can be proud of at the end of the day.  We are working hard and our souls are satisfied. 

 Every week that I am able to spend 20 minutes teaching kindergartener how and why they should grow food and know farmers, I know that I am making an investment in a brighter future for them and all of us.   Paco and I know that every time we add a new local supplier to our restaurant “family,” we are doing good work. 

Here are the points in today’s speech that I walked away with:

We need to start defining health not as the health of an individual body but as the health of the soil + animals + humans + plants.  Imagine if we and our governments did define health this way.  Of course they are all related.  The whole is only ever a sum of its parts.  We experience this daily at our farm.  Our health is directly tied to the health of our soil, the animals, and the plants. I know that the “combined health” of our farm is also directly related to our spiritual health.  So why is man working so vehemently to create artificial human “health” at the cost of the soil, animals, and plants? 

He spoke a bit about the new health care reform and its potential to greatly improve true health.  The current model motivates insurers to exclude higher risk individuals.  If everyone must be insured, insurers will be invested in improving overall health.  There are already some models out there–heart patients being prescribed healthy food instead of drugs and more drugs. 

When someone asked about eating animals, he paraphrased Wendell Berry.  Diversified, smaller farms were a perfect balance between animals producing fertilizer and plants feeding animals.  It’s nature’s brilliance, at it’s finest.  Industrial farming split the two apart in order to make the products as plentiful and cheap as possible.  A perfect solution has become 2 major problems which we have “solved” by dumping in lots of chemicals, cutting “corners” that circumvent safety and morality. 

You don’t have to look farther than a Chicken McNugget to see the evidence. 

Humans, being omnivores, have a natural place in the cycle of animals to fertilizer to plants to animals.  We harvest both plants and protein from that cycle and have the responsibility to do it well and in moderation.

At the end of his talk, I told him thank you.  I told him that hearing about 37 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget has led me to a place where I can teach kindergarteners about real food.  I wanted him to hear from me that he helped inspire good work.

Master, Shmaster

Lily helping pick blackberries

Three years ago, I took the series of classes offered by Purdue Extension called “Master Gardener” training.  I learned a lot, wished I had learned more on certain subjects, and found out I knew a good bit to start with.  It is a wonderful program.  I am very thankful for the opportunity.  BUT, people hear the term “Master Gardener,”  and they take it literally and think I am a one stop source for everything growing.  I am no Master at this gardening game folks.  75 % of what I have learned has been gleaned from jumping in head first.  I have made huge mistakes and still do.  But in three years of gardening (dare we call it farming?– I think so), I have learned a tremendous amount.  The steep uphill learning curve is part of the attraction.  Mother Nature will always have more to teach me.  Each year brings its own challenges, but it also gets easier. 

My response to the increasing ease is to add more onto my to-do list.  I love the new challenges.  The first year I had the big garden (3600 square feet), I knew I was in love and in trouble.  That first garden was so poorly planned, run over by crops too closely planted, and drowning in weeds.  I had no idea that I would produce as much as I did and quickly realized that growing it was only half the battle—I had to use it, preserve it, or send it to our restaurant. That first year, when a hard frost finally came, I was jumping for joy.  That winter was like a delicious long weekend–one that was sorely needed.  Each year since, I have gotten better on all these fronts, but new challenges arise all the time–whether they are in the form of a tomato blight epidemic, tropical temps, or an army of potato beetles.  The challenges have to be seen as part of the process. 

Four years ago, I would have laughed to think I would be doing all this.  I never could have believed I would farm for our family and the restaurant.  Now we are finishing a high tunnel so that I can grow (nearly) year round.  I wish I could have all those years back I spent being bored.

Along the way, I have gotten to know many farmers I admire and consider personal friends.  Like me, they are all learning as they go.  Most have FAR more experience than I and have mentored me.  What we all have, I believe, is the fever that drives us to grow, no matter what.  It is a spiritual pursuit for many, including me.  I get a lot more than I take.  The produce is a fringe benefit.  The process is the real reward.  In no way, do I want to gloss over the fact that farmers need that produce to keep households afloat, but rather, if money was the main goal, farming would not be the best means to that end. 

I digress. My point is, I am no Master Gardener.  I prefer to think of myself as an Enthusiastic Gardener.  I encourage anyone interested to jump in.  I don’t have any special talent–just enthusiasm.

Tomatoes grow in Indiana?

Gardening puts you in your place.  You might think you know it all, have done everything perfectly, and still end up with almost nothing.  My adventures with tomatoes over the past 2 years are the perfect example of this.  Last year,  had 42 hand raised plants.  I started my seeds indoors in March.  By midsummer, the plants were dripping with tomatoes.  I was starting to get the first ripe ones, when late blight hit my farm.  There was an epidemic of this particularly heartless fungal disease last year.  It was spread through transplants at big box stores (another reason to dislike big business!) and then quickly spread through the air.  I was well aware of it because it was big news in the garden world.

One morning I went out to do my morning picking and saw nearly every plant covered in it.  I called the county extension agent to report the disease.  Hours later, he was at the farm bagging up an entire plant and taking it to the Purdue plant pathology lab for confirmation.  I did not wait for the official word, I did what I had to do–bagged all the plants, fruit and all–hundreds of pounds of it.  It would be dead within days anyway. 

In the end, mine and one other case were the first official cases in Indiana.  My farm made the local newspaper.   When the plant pathologist called me with the news, she said she was calling Red Gold as soon as we hung up.  I wanted to say:  “tell them to send me a check.”  When I went to tell neighbors, most of them had it too.  I mourned those tomatoes, which I had cared for over 5 months.

This year, I scaled back.  27 plants.  I have used an organic spray called Serenade, to help the plants resist the blight, which I have not gotten.  But, the other thing I have not gotten —– are tomatoes.  This summer, as all of us know, has been so consistently hot that the plants have just about nothing.  When days are consistently hot (90s and above), the plant does the logical thing–going into survival mode.  Blossoms drop and the plant focuses on surviving.  According to one study, only 4 hours of 104 degrees, will cause the plant to abort the fruit.

So, I start to wonder, can we even grow tomatoes in Indiana anymore?  We are the second largest producer in the states, or we were…..

I don’t know if this is caused by global warming, but the weather seems more erratic than ever–this summer so horribly hot and last year’s so cool.  But, I do know that gardeners have to roll with the punches.  I am lucky that my tomato crop is not our livelihood. 

Late Blight 2009
tomatoes with cat face and splits 2010


By some twists of fate, I have become the person primarily in charge of a wine menu at our successful (who knew!) Italian Restaurant.  I knew nothing about wine, let alone the intricacies of Italian wine and pairing it with food, but I am a nerd and librarian.  If info and know-how can be gleaned by study, I will be ok.  So, I studied and we have a nice wine menu.

One of the often talked about aspects of wine, is terrior.  Terrior refers to the characteristics of a wine that come from the soil, water, air, etc. of the place it comes from.  In other words, if I grow pinot noir on my farm here in Indiana and someone else grows it in Napa, the two will be different because of different places they come from.  (And mine wil be very bad.)   Everything from the quality of sunlight to minerals in the soil influence and add nuance to the flavors of wine.

What does this have to do with my farm blog?  As I was scanning the produce this evening with an eye toward the summer camp lunch I will pack for my daughter tomorrow, I reminded myself about the awesome carrots I picked up from Daniel and Melissa Fagerstrom–the farmers at The Green Gate Garden at Fair Oaks Farm.  Not only have I been able to see them at my local farmer’s market, I made the trip to Fair Oaks to see their beautiful gardens and to see firsthand how they are working to make a beautiful and self-sufficient teaching garden at the growing local attraction.  They are an amazing little family of three (they have a Lily too!) and I have had a couple enjoyable philosophical conversations with them. 

Having walked their garden, I know how beautifully tended it is, how diverse, and how well amended with the more than ample manure available to them.  So, as I glance at those beautiful carrots and remind myself to tell Lily where they came from tomorrow, it dawns on me that one of the most amazing aspects to my locavore journey is the ability to appreciate how terrior deepens our appreciation of our food.  The Fagerstroms’ carrots will not only taste different from the ones we grow, but I get the added value of remembering the earth they came from, rich in compost, and know the people who sowed, grew, and picked them. 

The terrior of a carrot.  What a joy!

Ugly Betties

tomatoes with cat face and splits

Tomato time is here.  Many of those I am picking are quite unattractive.  I am getting lots that are cracking and many that are cat faced.  The orange tomato in the foreground is cat faced–having ugly brown scars.  These are caused by cool temps during fruit formation.  Our erratic weather this summer caused this.  As far as the splitting, weather wins again.  Temperature swings, extremes, and plenty of moisture are causing the fruits to crack.  Neither of these change flavor and are completely cosmetic, but they are annoying.  I am still sending plenty of cherry tomatoes down to the restaurant, but I may not be able to send as many heirlooms for slicing as I had hoped. 

Here is a link about cat faced fruit:
and here is one about splitting:
Here is Cornell’s Tomato disease Identification site: 
I am ever aware of how lucky I am to not be trying to sell at market–to a public that is trained to look for perfect, unblemished fruit. Today’s lesson is that the we need, as consumers, to look beyond the package and look for quality.
In the end, after losing 42 plants to blight last year, I am happy to be harvesting at all.  I will use my ugly tomatoes gladly.

From the Woods to the Meadow and Back Again

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“A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule. “-Michael Pollan, author, journalism professor (b. 1955)

I recently heard the statistic  that 5% of all greenhouse gases come from lawnmowers.  It seems to me that manicured, weed-free lawns are a symbol of the American dream.  You buy a house, you take care of your lawn, and you find comfort in the fact that you fit in with the ideal.  I think grass is boring.  Not only boring, but just a shame.  It makes for a great carpet and having some to run around on is nice, but I am trying to do my part to cut down its hold–at least in my yard.  The slideshow illustrates our nature walk yesterday in which we visited the woods and the meadow.

We let the back 1/2 acre of so of our yard grow up into a meadow.  We cut a walking path through it so we can stroll there.  It provides a great place for wildlife to eat, reproduce, and find shelter.  It is like an oasis in the American desert of lawn.  We find frogs, toads, turtles, rabbits, all manner of insects, and deer there–along with all we don’t see. 

We also have a few spots of woods on our property.  Going into these places always feels like hallowed ground to me.   I feel like the intruder in these wild places–and, I guess, I am. 

Of course, the garden, fruit trees, and soon to be high tunnel also take up about another 1/2  acre.  The chicken yard and goat pastures take up another half.

So, we are getting there….and mowing less.


This morning I rose early to get out in the garden before the heat was unbearable and my day really started (ie–husband and daughter awake).  I found some wonderful treasures–summer squashes, the first cucumbers, spring onions, and a few cherry tomatoes.  During my inspection of the cucumbers, I found a pink nose and tiny pink feet poking up out of the ground.  At first glance, I thought it was a baby mole.  As I uncovered, I realized it was a baby rabbit.  Below him, 2 others.  All dead.  They had not been wounded.  I knew instantly that they had drowned.  2 days ago we had the most intense storm I have ever experienced.  Along with strobe-like lightning flashes and hail, we received more than 3 inches of rain in a matter of hours.  Those poor rabbits, eyes still closed, didn’t have a chance.  The nose and feet sticking up out of the ground a sure sign that the little guy on top tried to find a way out.   Without thinking about it, I took a moment of silence for these little lives that had been taken away so soon.  One more reminder that life is fragile and miraculous at the same time.  For those moments, their passing was recognized by me and became part of my knowledge of this place and the story of this farm.  We all recognize how events affect us and perhaps others, but usually not how they affect the rest of the inhabitants of this planet.  Certainly many more lives were taken as fields and yards all around here flooded. 

Now, what to do with these little bodies?  I did not want them decomposing in my garden.  The logical thing to do was to toss them out of the garden into an area where the dog’s had access to them.  There was no reason not to let these rabbits complete the cycle of life into death into life once again.  And so, I did. 

Yesterday, Paco came to tell me that our outdoor kitten, Luciano, had caught himself a baby bird.  This chick was naked and his beak still ridiculously oversized for his little body.  He was very likely a victim of the storm as well and crash landed into the path of this 3 month old kitten.  The minute he left that nest, his demise was inevitable.  As we all well know, a cat, especially a kitten, will play with his supper.  And so, that is the scene we came upon.  The poor chick squawking pitifully as a very excited kitten batted him around.  It was gruesome to watch and I wanted to end the poor chick’s life swiftly instead of knowing he was tortured.  We talked about it–daughter, husband, and I, and decided the best course of action was to let nature take its course.  So, we went in the house, and let Luciano savor his prize.  His mother has been teaching him to hunt and I am sure he took pride in his first kill.

Surely, these tragedies are small.  Upsetting, yes.  But, in a bigger sense, I find them humbling and also reassuring.  Humbling in that they take me out of my own head and remind me that rain falls in every life–literally and figuratively.  Life itself is not an easy thing.  We struggle, we learn, and sometimes we lose  for no reason at all–and we keep on going.  I am reassured because I get to witness everyday that all the deaths and all the lives are connected and the cycle goes on and on.  I know this to be true:  all the answers to the big questions are in the very small details.  If you don’t pay attention to the tiny lives and deaths around you, no peace can be found.

Other tragedies are huge.  Gigantic.  Overwhelming.  Criminal.  The Gulf oil leak is emotionally overwhelming to me.  I do not understand why our species has evolved into beings with enough grey matter to poison the entire planet, but not enough spiritual and emotional intelligence to know better.  Money and control are always the reasons.   Money and control are mercurial and false goals.  If we raised our children to be in harmony in the world and not to “make a good living,” we would not be where are now.  I believe that so many people are out of touch with the real workings of the world and of themselves, they are lost–lost in a sea of TV,  fast food, and shopping where they feel no real connection to anything and are simply looking for their next fix.  People who have a connection to the land and what it gives and takes, could never make the decisions that have brought us here.

 I don’t know that I can feel hopeful at this point.  I am unsure if money and politics can be overcome in the final hours and we can save our planet and ourselves.   What I do know is that I can honor all the small wonders that I encounter and raise a daughter who can understand what really matters and what does not.  I can feel hopeful about here and now.  With some luck, I will be around to witness the cycle of life and death on this farm for a long time.

Sap to Syrup??…..Sap to Syrup!!

I am not going to give a how-to of tapping trees and making maple syrup.  There are lots of places that can tell you that.  I am going to recap our adventures.  Last year at this time, friends who have a farm podcast called Geek, Farm, Life  recounted their adventures in  making maple syrup and I decided that was something we could try too.

Soooooo…I, of course, procrastinated.  I ordered the taps, called spiles, last Wednesday from a company called Leader Evaporator. I immediately realized that we might miss about half the season waiting for the order to arrive. When I have a plan, I have no patience.  I wanted to tap trees NOW.  So, I explained my plight to hubby and said there must be a way to make your own spiles.  So, we found some online instructions and, with the help of our local Ace Hardware, used 3 inch segments of copper pipe, flexible vinyl tubing, hose clamps, and 5 gallon buckets to tap our trees.  AND, IT WORKED.  But, it also leaked pretty badly on a few.  We did 7 taps before running out of hose.  we waited for the real spiles to come int the mail which they did on Tuesday.  Putting those spiles in was easy and they do not leak at all.  The ones we ordered :

Getting the taps in and the sap out was only the first hurdle.  We had decided to purchase a large commercial outdoor burner from one of the Mexican markets around here.  They sell them for making tamales, quesadillas, etc.  We will use it for syrup, processing chickens, canning, tamales, parties, etc.   After about an hour of me cursing and not getting it working Paco came home, cursed a bit, and then figured out that we needed a  different connection.  So, batch one started to boil.  We had 5 gallons from the first day and a half.  I checked it regularly.  It took about 3 hours to cook down.  Inside, it would have taken twice that time.  I was monitoring temperature.  It needs to get to 219 degrees.  At 212 degrees, I went to take Lily to bed, came back downstairs and had a scorched mess.  I was almost in tears.   So I turned off the burner and went to bed.

Next day, we get about 8 gallons of sap.  After an hour of scrubbing the pot (no exaggeration), we started again.  This time the plan was to transfer it inside when it starts to get close for more careful monitoring.  I was checking frequently, but it STILL went too far.  This batch was not scorched, but it is closer to maple sugar than syrup. 

Yesterday, we have 12 gallons of sap! Our large pot holds 5 gallons so a lot of adding was down to ge the whole batch evaporated down. Started boiling at 2 and by 9 PM we have about 1/2 a gallon of something close to syrup.  We transfer to a smaller pot in order to decrease the surface area and slow down the process a bit (thanks for the tip Andrew!).  I cover the pot with a cloth and go to bed.  I easily finished the syrup this morning by not leaving it’s side and taking the temp constantly.  It took about 40 minutes. 

Strained it, put into canning jars and sealed them.  1 full quart and 1 cup!!

I expect to repeat the process this afternoon.  WE DID IT!!!!

drilling with 1/2 inch drill bit--about 2 feet up the tree
inserting pipe and attaching hose
watching the wood expand and fall of the bit
our homemade system
boil, baby, boil

Thinking Green…….

A tide has shifted.  The topics I have been interested in for a while are now taking off in a big way in my community of mom-friends.  It is exciting to me that truly healthy food is an idea that more and more people are getting motivated to take action on.  Now everyone wants to talk about the things going on in my head all the time.

The fever to grow has got me in its grasp and I am planning and planting (which it really is too early for, but I might just pull off some very early greens if I channel Eliott Coleman in just the right way). I am also putting as much nutrition into my family’s mouths as possible.  Our Saturday lunch of shrimp and veggie spring rolls was enjoyed by all (most noticeably by “Mr. give me a big plate of meat” Paco).  He said he thought it was delicious and filling. 

My late fall rush to buy and dehydrate tons of kale before the market closed has paid off big time.  Dehydrated kale goes into our meals 3-4 times a week.  I am buying some fresh kale and chard too as well as cabbage to get fresh greens in our diet too.  I am truly torn between buying local produce only (which there is none of basically) or upping the nutrition level with some fresh produce.  We are eating lots of dehydrated summer squashes, beets, etc.  We still have winter squashes that were purchased last fall at market which have hung in surprisingly well and should last us until we start getting some asparagus and greens off of our own farm.  Despite my stores, the pull of some fresh produce is strong and justified.

So, this evening, as I feel I am getting Lily’s case of bronchitis, I am fortifying the soup with dried kale and the tomato sauce with fresh chard.  I think one of the greatest disservices we can do our children is to not feed them well and teach them how to cook, grow, and appreciate truly good food. I have often said that Lily’s food sensitivities (and mine) are a blessing in disguise.   When a family has to avoid gluten, dairy, processed sugar, and soy (among other things!), there is no way you can eat processed food.   At first those restrictions seemed so limiting, but now I see them as freeing.  We can eat real food, great food, and healthy food and we make it ourselves.  Just like the often heard Pollan quote: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”

—–next day—-

It is not lost on my me that the things Lily and I can’t tolerate are many of the main building blocks of the industrial food complex’s greatest achievement–processed “non” food. When it comes down to it, standard American fare is repeated helpings of wheat, dairy, soy, sugar, and corn accompanied by lots of meat (fed the by-products of the industrial production). No wonder we can’t tolerate it, it has been so overused in this society for so long that our bodies are rebelling.  Corn is the only thing on that list that we don’t come up sensitive too, but we work hard to avoid it also in it’s GMO form. 

So, in the last few years our diet has grown increasingly better and bigger.  My latest thinking is to do our best to avoid processsed food everywhere, not just at home.  The more we take out of the “usual suspects” the more choice there seems to be.  New avenues of taste are everywhere.  Many traditional diets have wonderful things to offer us. For instance, last night we had purple rice with our broccoli and bell pepper stir fry.  We have been feasting on sushi and veggie spring rolls too.  I am about to go make myself a breakfast smoothie with kefir and our own frozen raspberries.  I will throw in a little kale too.

The kale and lettuces planted several weeks ago now are doing well and I will have some micro-greens ready to go in a few weeks more.  The magic of taking a tiny seed and fostering its development into a plateful of food never gets old with me.  I know planting is what I was meant to do.

Not for the faint hearted….


Well, I had reported that we had nipped a potentially catastrophic goat problem in the bud, or so it seemed.   Charlie perked up and then went downhill. He seems to be slowly getting worse.  He has been increasingly lethargic, eating sparingly, and by Saturday had a fever.  Goats temps should run between 102-103.  Once his temp went to 104.5, we started penicillin immediately. Just like us, not eating or drinking normally will cause dehydration–making the situation worse.  By Friday afternoon, it was clear we were losing ground. We brought Charlie into the barn for a little specialized care.  I also called the vet, only to find out she was gone until sometime on Sunday.  On Saturday, we started penicillin and that brought the fever down quickly.  It did not seem to improve his overall health.  We also started electrolytes to attempt to rebuild him.  By Monday, I was talking to the vet and she came on Tuesday, scooped him up, and took him back to her place.  She was as stumped as we were. 

She called the very next morning to report he had passed away.  It’s comforting to have a vet who is obviously broken up by the news.  She said tests showed him as severely anemic.  We have no idea why.  We fed the right things, dewormed, etc.  She and I agreed that sending the body to the Purdue Lab was the best thing.  After the loss of 2 goats last fall and Charlie this fall, we need to find out what is going on. 

It is easy to have livestock when you get to feed them, scratch under their chins, and watch them play, but it is quite another when you have to nurse them, watch them suffer, and even have to put them down.  Having livestock is no game and they are not pets.  Most people remove themselves from the equation of animals living and suffering and often dying to insulate themselves from the realities of our food system.  I know Charlie was not a food animal, but he could have been.  It is hard to go out to the barn 3-4 times a day to give shots, force electrolytes, and watch suffering.  The bad comes with the good and both have their lessons to teach. 

We miss you Charlie. You were our favorite–the one that always ran up to us, loved to be scratched and cuddled, and was carefree.  We want to know what happened and why. We never thought coming to be part of this farm would cost you your life.

Goat Health

375Nearly 2 weeks ago now I went out to do the evening chores and discovered that 2 of the 3 goats had swollen cheeks.  I then inspected their gums.  Puffy faces or necks and very pale gums mean one thing–a high worm load.  This is caused bottle jaw. I called the vet the next morning and got 3 doses of dewormer–1/2 given then and then 3 weeks later.  Puffy cheeks are gone and they get their last dose this Sunday. The mystery that neither the vet or I can solve is why their worm load would be so high after only 2 months on our farm.  The zoo from which they came said they were screened and treated monthly. 

This past Saturday I was out there taking pictures and noticed that Charlie was a bit stiff in his back legs and not moving as usual.  Charlie is the friendliest and will always run toward me.  He did do that, but it seemed like he could not get his motor started.  Paco agreed and so we started penicillin shots and Vit B injections 4x day.  He bounced back immediately so we knew he was suffering from Goat Polio and not Listeriosis.  Find out more about both these diseases here:

Goat Polio means he has been eating too much grain and not enough green stuff.  His rumen, the “stomach”  that breaks down a nd digests food, is not functioning properly and cannot produce B vitamins.  Untreated, it can cause severe neurological damage and death.  We caught it very early on and he will be fine.  Thankfully, we learned a lot from having goats before and are smarter now.  We discontinued penicillin after 2 days and have been tapering off the B shots.  I have given him probiotic paste every other day to get his rumen back in shape.

So, the lesson here is you need to read and know what the possible problems are so that you can catch things early and they can be treated.  AND, if you need to inject a goat–put the grain down and then do it.  The goat may not even notice.


Life and Death (and Compost)

Here is the compost part:

I have been listening to the NPR podcast “You Bet Your Garden” this year.  Mike McGrath is quite a character and is relentless in his promotion of using a leaf blower in reverse to shred and gather leaves.  The shredded leaves can then be turned into the best imaginable compost or used directly on the garden as mulch.

So, I investigated (nagged hubby) and found out that our blower does indeed do this.  I just spent 2 hours filling 2 gigantic trash bags–the REALLY big ones.  It was great to be working outside on this perfect fall day.  After filling the bag on the blower about 9 times, I felt like my shoulder was going to dislocate and I had to stop.  Hopefully I can put another couple hours in this week and have a decent amount to spread on the garden. 

I am sure that the neighbor who was also busy with leaves must have thought I was an idiot.  Who would try to suck up and bag 5 acres worth of leaves?!  If only he knew the method to my madness. 

Here is the Life and Death part:

I am constantly amazed by the calm and perspective I always gain by being engaged outside.  Today was a day to ponder life and death and what a better lesson could I have had then engaging in the cycle of life right here on the farm.  As I gathered leaves, I thought of the rich soil they would make in the garden and how useful their deaths would be.  Next spring, they would be followed by a whole new avalanche of beautiful leaves that would do their jobs on and off the tree and the cycle goes round and round. The ending is necessary for the beginning.  Or perhaps, there is no beginning or end–they flow into each other.

Today and tomorrow (Nov. 1 and 2)  is the Day of the Dead (more here: ). This celebration is a very dear one to this family.  On November 2, 1996 my husband and I lost our first daughter, Adele, who was stillborn at 22 weeks.  In a poignant twist, we have a holiday that perfectly commemorates the birth and death of our first girl.  As I collected leaves this afternoon I thought of life and death and the circumstances of my own family.  I do not pretend that what happened to us and Adele was meant to be or served some higher purpose.  But this I know, her life and death was enveloped into our lives and changed us forever.  I also know, the promise of her in the womb gave my own mother the strength she needed to survive her cancer.  It is also true that the loss of Adele brought us to the circumstances that brought our 2nd daughter, Lily, to us.  And I know, she was meant to be here and with us. 

So today, the land taught me yet another lesson.  Our lives are not a line that starts with birth and ends with death, but a river that flows from one body of water and into another.  Earth and sky are all the religion I need.  



For What It’s Worth

010011Producing your own food is a great lesson in the value of what we put in our mouths.  I have a cold.  Probably a sinus infection.  Wake up in the morning feeling like someone has been stuffing my head with cotton while I sleep.  THe cold has my fibromyalgia acting up and my whole body hurts. I knew this morning that today was my last chance to pick raspberries before they would mold on the canes.  So off I went this morning with my large colander and my gloves. 

Picking raspberries from your own garden may sound romantic in a rural ideal kind of way, but it is tedious work.  Raspberries are the most delicate of the dedicates.  Each berry has to be gently pulled off the cane.  Those that put up a fight are just not ready to be picked.  Nature knows to give up its goods when they are perfect.  As the sun and humidity began to make me sticky and uncomfortable, I questioned whether this is really what I want to be doing with the few precious hours of solitude I will have all day.  Shouldn’t I be cuddled up under a quilt somewhere? Once my husband and daughter return, I will be inundated with their requests and needs to tell me in glorious detail the adventures of their day so far. 

But, I know.  I know this is where I should and want to be.  The garden re-engerizes me, focuses me, and always teaches me a lesson.  Producing food for my family is a labor of love that rewards me in many ways.  Raspberries, in particular, are well worth the tedious picking.  Yes, they are time consuming, but I estimate I picked $60-$75 worth of organic, local raspberries–and that is just today!  Raspberries rank in the top echelons of nutrient dense super foods.  They also are so delicate, they are very likely starting to mold by the time you pay $5 for a pint at the grocery store. 

When you grow them yourself, the cash saving is obvious.  The bigger lesson is the realization that those outrageous prices are worth it.  When you have done the work yourself, you know how much labor and sweat went into those berries.  From the tilling, planting, watering, weeding, mulching, organic control of japanese beetles, all the way to the tedious, careful harvesting (while watching out for the bees who are more important to the process than you), you understand why they are among the priciest of fruits.  So, when you visit the farmer’s market and want to balk at the high prices, realize you are getting a bargain. 

I often think of the working poor put to harvest the fields here and around the world for wages that they can barely survive on.  Go pick berries for one hour.  Imagine multipling that by 10 and then think how much you would have to get paid to do that.