Good Enough for Chickens

My new barn doors are securely in place, and a passerby might take note of them for a second or two in passing. They might remember the original doors, weathered and worn as they were, or perhaps that we now have color coordinated doors hanging in their place. Like a book cover, there is bit more there than meets the eye. And, I can blame that on my dear mother. Here is why:

As a college graduation gift, my mother and a handful of her women friends climbed into a sedan and motored off toward the Carolinas  on the first leg of a cross country, two-country car trip. They ventured north along the coast to New York City, then north into Canada, eventually making it back safely to Missouri. In our family this was known as the “Trip of ‘39” and was a defining experience for more than my mother.



The original doors were in rough shape, and were too short to keep the chickens at bay.

That spirit of adventure, that doing something even if you don’t know the eventual outcome, was a defining characteristic she passed along to her children. Women just didn’t do these things back in 1939. Besides being “unladylike” and dangerous, cars, and the tires they rode on, were quite inferior to what we now have, and there was certainly no interstate highway system. Blue highways and back roads. Little did these hurdles matter. That, as many have said, was my mother. Why let a little thing like not knowing you can do something stand in your way? “You won’t know unless you try,” she was fond of saying. If there is a problem, then figure it out.

She also insisted on constantly having a “hand hobby” … for if you work with your brain, use your hands for relaxation. So we grew up with hundreds of hobbies, various puzzles, and a growing checklist of odd skills. She cautioned against worrying about what others might think because you had to be true to yourself. Oh, and always be curious.



The components were sawn and pre-painted before being put together.

As I sturdily stride into my 70s, I still find much blame to place on my mother. And, I should add, my blame comes not from one of those soul searching therapy sessions but rather from another jump into something I have not done before. This time it was building that set of barn doors.

Over my many years there are numerous things I’ve done that started simply as a whim if not a necessity. Because either I didn’t have the money to buy something, or to have someone else build it, or that I just wanted to see if I could do it. Rarely did I know what I was getting myself into, or even if I had the skills to do a passable job. Take remodeling houses, each with unique projects and jobs that needed to be accomplished. Hanging and mudding drywall, for example. Laying tile, or putting down a hardwood floor. What about building of my own fly rods, and wood strip canoes? Or, to be highly specific, even becoming a writer and photographer simply because I wanted to.

And now, building barn doors.

To be frank, this wasn’t a task I was either anticipating or yearning to do. When we bought Listening Stones Farm, the previous owner told us that if we ever replaced the old barn doors on the “goat barn,” that they wanted their doors back as keepsakes. They’re in rough shape, actually. And, they were too short to keep chickens out of the barn, so we have kept a large cattle fence panel across the front of the opening to discourage their attempts to get inside.

It was not my intention to build them. Initially I meant to simply install an ordinary overhead garage door in the space. I just happened to mention that idea to Rebecca moments before calling our local lumber dealer for a quote. Apparently our ideas for filling that opening were quite different. Since there didn’t appear to be much room for compromise, I ended up with the task of building them myself.

On a morning when our internet was actually working, a search secured a simple concept of a plan, and before you could start and finish a marathon I was outside with my trusty tape measure and a blank sheet of paper writing down measurements to go along with my scribbled sketchings. Yes, I did call the lumber man, and a few days later their muscular “grip”, Lyle, arrived with a pickup load of one by fours and two exterior wall panels. Paint and screws were fetched and off I stepped into the blissful tape measured abyss.



Finally painted and pieced together, the doors are about ready to be placed on the barn.

Among the oddest aspects of any of my new projects are the visualizations, particularly those that come sneaking into my consciousness in the darkness of night! This happened once again, and I actually confidently began sawing the pieces that would become the framework over the wall panels thanks to those sleep distractions.

Some of those midnight visualizations was in making a secure framework. Long impact screws might work, although even my longest ones were too short. A builder buddy told me when we were remodeling the house that the strongest ties using the screws was to put them in at an angle. The first corner was perfect coming in from an angle. Strong and secure. The second, though, caused the pine to split so much that the cross piece had to be replaced. Longer screws that would cover the width and secure the distant boards came in the next midnight awakening. My hardware people over in Milbank had five inch impact screws which would get through the 3 1/2 in. width with enough length to pull the two boards securely together. Great in theory, wrong in practice, for each of the long screws would ricochet somewhere in the drilling and come blasting through the wood somewhere. So much for midnight visualizations.

In the end, the panel pieces were simply scrunched together and screwed onto, and partially through, the panels from both front and back. It seemed to work, as did pre-painting all the wood components prior to piecing them together. Finally the framed doors came  together, and my friend Rick came over to help hinge them onto the support beams of the little barn.


almost after

The new doors are now up, and “good enough for chickens.”

I can look at them in pride, and note the mistakes without knowing exactly how to cure them. Several years ago back in rural Hastings, I was shadowed constantly by a neighborhood girl before she was stricken by puberty, who had a saying I’ve used numerous times since: “Hey, John,” she’d say. “It’s good enough for chickens!”

From the vantage point of the deck I think my mother would be proud of how those new barn doors look, and of the various puzzling challenges that were overcome in the building. It wasn’t as adventuresome nor as dramatic as her  Trip of ‘39, but … as little Naomi would say … they’re “good enough for chickens!”


Autumn 2015: Photography Blog

After considering posting a grouping of seasonal images since late last winter, I’ve finally bowed to doing so. A grouping from this past fall …

10.9.15 tripping16

Milkweed seeds stretched by a prairie wind.

11.2.15 road3

After sitting in the prairie grasses for nearly an hour waiting for another one of those glowing red sunsets, I came away feeling pleased with the soft, muted beauty of the cone flower heads.

Ardie's Pond

An autumn portrayal of Ardie’s Pond … where Rebecca and other friends of Ardie’s come to swim.

Autumn Roadside Celebration

Mixing the colors of roadside prairie grasses with the reds of sumac in the background.

Buck at Bonanza

A whitetail buck peeking through the timber at Bonanza … Big Stone State Park.

Cloud Leaks and Cottonwood

Cloud “leaks” and a lone cottonwood …

Cottonwoods on Lost Creek

Cottonwoods along Lost Creek … Yellow Medicine County.

Forest Etchings

Forestal etchings of autumn ….

Geese in Bluestem Sunrise

A pre-dawn flight of geese through the shadows of Big Bluestem on our home prairie …


Rich, early morning light on the grasses and trees at Bonanza …

Hilltop in Autumn

A pastoral early autumn hillside …

Layering of Sumac

Layering of sumac and prairie grasses at Bonanza …

November Bluestem

Layering of colors of Big Bluestem at the Big Stone Wildlife Refuge …

Oak and Grass

Oak and prairie grasses …

Oaks in Yellow

I love the strength of the burr oaks … with the accent of yellow poking through.

Outcrops in Autumn Red

Outcrops in red … sumac and granite

Poplar Treetops

The morning after a huge prairie wind had taken all the leaves from poplar trees along the Minnesota River near Granite Falls … leaving on the few on the treetops.

Prairie Dawning

The morning after the corn was harvest adjacent to our prairie … our first vista since early July was a sunrise celebration.

Sunflower Dawn

Delicate … sunflowers in our prairie stand stark against pre-dawn pinkish clouds.

Technacolor Autumn

Technicolor Autumn at Bonanza …

Staghorn sumac delicately poking through Bonanza's prairie grasses.

Staghorn sumac delicately poking through Bonanza’s prairie grasses.

A tern fights harsh winds at the Minnesota headwaters ...

A tern fights harsh winds at the Minnesota headwaters …

Maxed Out

“Give to the Max” is an annual ritual where folks voluntarily provide tax deductible donations to non-profits deemed worthy of our true, deep-seated investments. Each year we choose among the many available options, then divide our $200 between them in various chunks. Certainly our contributions are not sustaining by their small stature, and are intended more of a monetary vote of confidence for a job well done.

In the past years our choices haven’t been difficult. We made donations to the organizations we were either linked with, or felt quite strongly about, and divvied up the cash.

This year more thought and discussion actually went into our donations. For example, we support both Land Stewardship Project and Minnesota Public Radio with “sustaining” monthly contributions. We balked, though, with a couple of organizations we’ve had long associations we feel have let us down. One, initially an advocacy group, has seemingly veered far off course from its initial purpose, and the other has taken a stance on an water quality issue we simply cannot back.

A well planned buffer strip near Montevideo.

A well planned buffer strip near Montevideo.

This is one of the two major farm organizations, and the smaller of the two national agricultural policy umbrellas. On a sunny and windy day last spring the area field woman and county president came to the door seeking a membership. As they stood in the kitchen I offered my objections to their organization’s public stance on the buffer strip controversy in Minnesota, which surrounded a stance by our governor, Mark Dayton, who was suggesting that the state legislate mandatory buffer strips on its waterways. If you’ve canoed the southwestern Minnesota rivers, or even stood on the bridge in Prescott, WI, to see the difference in siltation loads between contributions from the upriver Minnesota River contrasted with that of the clear water St. Croix, one could safely suggest there are issues with drainage and ditching over the breadth of the farmed prairie.

A winter blow ... what will become

A winter blow … what will become “snirt.”

At the annual county meeting of the farm organization the previous fall, buffers and water quality issues were raised. One of organization’s stateside lobbyists noted that the organization was working with the other major farm organization to address what it considered an “unfair” legislative package. This raised some momentary hackles, and we left realizing that the only farm organization that was directly addressing soil and water conservation issues was Land Stewardship Project. When Dayton came forth with his announcement, both of the large, mainstream farm organizations sang in concert about how the proposed legislation was unfair and too costly for their farmer members despite cost-share funds through the federal USDA farm program.

Along a roadside after the snow melted last spring ... a huge contribution of dirt from the adjacent field.

Along a roadside after the snow melted last spring … a huge contribution of dirt from the adjacent field.

When this was mentioned to the two in our kitchen, both said the “one size fits all” approach … meaning the publicized 50 ft. buffer on either side of a ditch … wasn’t a proven methodology and was unfair to farmers in terms of cost and lost production acres. I argued that the bill, as written, provided plenty of leeway that took into account soil types and terrain, and that the “one size fits all” was a gross misrepresentation of Dayton’s bill. In the end a check was written for the annual membership fee, with the caveat that if the organization didn’t back off their stance and cooperate with the passage of buffer legislation, the organization had received our last membership donation.

Just a few days prior to “Give to the Max” day their membership magazine arrived with contributions from the  organization’s president and two legislative lobbyists, all providing arguments against buffers. They also joined in the chorus that private, on-farm drainage ditches shouldn’t be part of the buffer legislation. Say what? Private, on-farm drainage ditches are a significant part of the problem. So are the works by some “innovative” farmers who each fall cut shallow depressions in the low areas of their cropping fields for quick spring runoff drainage that are too shallow to qualify as legal drainage ditches that would be required to have grass buffers.

A shallow cut to circumvent drainage laws.

A shallow cut to circumvent drainage laws.

Obviously, no money went their direction on Give to the Max from our meager savings. And, when the county president and the field woman next appear at our doorstep, they will be sent on their way empty handed.

In March, winds whipped up the unprotected soils north of Clara City ... you can see the

In March, winds whipped up the unprotected soils north of Clara City … you can see the “skyline” in the background.

We are farming the “last frontier” of tillable soils planet-wide. Meanwhile, we watch our soils blow and wash away. Little if any effort nor investment is being made to hold these human-sustaining soils in place. Very little conversion to no-till. Fewer winter cover crops and very few fields with residue left standing post-harvest for protection from wind erosion. A nearly complete, prairie-wide fall plow-down in what is called “the black desert” here in the countryside. More patterned tiling. And little adherence and oversight of current buffer laws  … coupled with a strong stance against common sense legislation that might make a difference in the future. An environmental free pass for industrialized farming continues without any voice of reason from either a water quality advocacy group or one of the two major farm organizations.

At Prescott, WI, where clear water from the St. Croix confluences with the runoff waters of the MIssissippi .... a silt load carried some 30 miles downriver from the Minnesota River, and one that eventually will dump into Lake Pepin.

At Prescott, WI, where clear water from the St. Croix confluences with the runoff waters of the MIssissippi …. a silt load carried some 30 miles downriver from the Minnesota River, and one that eventually will dump into Lake Pepin.

Amazing, although hardly surprising. While we realize it is unrealistic to expect our meager contributions to have mattered monetarily, or that a such a small contribution would have influenced either organization toward acceptance of our philosophical and soil saving goals, at least we can feel comfort with where we spent our Give to the Max dollars.


Ever since the first frost, I’ve been saying that I need to get my garlic planted. Looking at the weather this week, and realizing that the end of all possible planting will come any time now, I determined that this weekend was IT–come hell or high water (or blizzard, or heatwave).

That kind of commitment might’ve caused me to be a bit curt with some generous and friendly people in the past few days, who extended invitations for goings-on over the weekend. “I’m GETTING MY GARLIC IN!” I’d say, and then sort of apologize for being so rude–without, of course, giving one inch on my scheduled plan.

John has been building new doors for the barn, and he’s been trying to hang them on his own. I might’ve suggested that he FIND SOMEONE ELSE TO HELP HIM because I AM PLANTING GARLIC this weekend. It might’ve been my imagination that he looked at me a little strangely–like, OK, so you pop the garlic in the ground and then we hang the doors. Hmm, yes, well…

It's not exactly like waltzing into Mordor...

It’s not exactly like waltzing into Mordor…

The first issue was the garden it was going in. The upper field garden is a new garden this year, with all the attendant weed catastrophe along with chicken depredations to the raised rows. Bindweed? Check. Canada thistle? Check. Smooth brome? Got it. At least I pulled the tomato plants and mowed the aisles last weekend. That part was done.

Now I just had to go along the rows (both sides, and the middle) with my digging fork to loosen the soil. Next came working all that soil with the hand cultivator, up one side of the row and down the other, painstakingly removing as many weeds, roots, and root hairs as possible, and throwing them in a bucket for the chickens to scratch through. Rocks get tossed in the aisle for later removal to the rock pile.

photo 3(12)

On to amendment–opening up the long-cooking compost by the chicken pen and filling three big contractor wheelbarrows for each row. Those get spread down the row and worked in again with the hand cultivator. Oh, look! More weed roots I missed! None in the compost, though–there’s nothing in there but goodness from the coop, and when I cracked the center of that pile, it steamed. A quick check with my soil thermometer…



Once the beds were prepped, I “cracked” the garlic heads (broke apart the cloves in the heads I’d saved for planting)–six varieties for planting this year: Music, Chesnok Red, Indiana Brown, German Extra Hardy, Montana Giant, and German Red. Last year I also grew Inchelium Red, but it did poorly in our heavy soils, so we’re eating the pitiful amount I harvested and leaving the growing of it to those whose soils are better suited.

I’ve gotten my seed stock from several local growers over the past couple of years–some varieties started with only a couple of bulbs, some with a more generous supply. The idea is to start with those small quantities, trial them, and build up both eating and seed stock of those that we like and that do well on the farm–potentially to bring some to local markets in the future. I don’t anticipate being a major garlic grower (I’m an incurable generalist when it comes to growing vegetables, and I’m an incurable perfectionist when it comes to prep and planting), but it’s nice to have garlic as part of the market mix.

Montana Giant, ready for planting

Montana Giant, ready for planting

Once cracked, the garlic gets planted 2-3″ deep and 8-10″ apart in the row. The beds themselves are about three feet wide, so I plant two rows per bed, a foot apart. Name stakes are hammered in, and the whole bed covered with a couple inches of straw. I prepped and planted one thirty foot row yesterday afternoon, and one this morning. Not exactly massive commercial scale or efficiency, but the care these beds receive now will benefit future crops planted there (and mean less labor for me in the future).

The rouge chickens had already scattered the straw on the first bed within an hour of my having mulched it, so I came up with this (hopefully workable) solution to their depredations: I laid lengths of snow fence over the top of the rows, using the variety stakes, as well as a couple end stakes, to anchor it in place.

Poultry Protection

Poultry Protection

As you can see, there’s a lot of fence roll left over that I might clip off and use…as actual snow fence. It’s not like it works as chicken exclusion fence in an upright position (my tomatoes and I sadly learned this summer), though maybe after a winter of snowy drifts the pullets will have put on enough heft that flying over the top won’t be such an easy feat. Remind me to never again pick a breed of chicken described as “perky, sprightly, and energetic.” What they mean is, “flighty, wild, and prone to escape.”

The garlic planted, we did manage to get away for the afternoon–an invitation to a five-course Slow Food meal at Moonstone Farm is really not a thing to be dismissed. A little clean-up, and a little preemptive ibuprofin for the road, and off we went to wine, dine, and converse with friends, coming home just as the chickens needed shutting in for the night.

There’s a lot more fall prep to be done in the gardens–a lot more clearing and compost-spreading and bed-prepping, some of which probably won’t get done before the snow falls and the outside work abruptly changes to winter chores. It’s tempting to say that now that the garlic’s planted, the rest of it is all gravy–but it’s probably more like the side dishes to the main course–or courses. And like the meal we enjoyed today, all of the courses contribute, and are meaningful to the whole.

Still, there is a satisfaction to getting the thing done, and there is a sense of commitment, of continuity and increase, in planting a more bountiful crop this fall than last, and in ground that next summer will yield even more sustenance to our family and our community, as well as more seed for the fall planting.