Commitment

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.

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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…

Steamy!

Steamy!

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.

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Season of the Tomatillo

photo 1(20)It hasn’t been a great year for tomatoes here at the farm. Or should I say, it hasn’t been a great year for me taking care of my tomatoes. I planted them out in a newly-established garden that promptly got choked with weeds (and I didn’t get around to staking them, either), and although the garden was fenced, it was also inside one of the paddocks the chickens frequent.

The chicken-tastrophe that is (was) my main tomato patch

The chicken-tastrophe that is (was) my main tomato patch

Those young pullets know how to fly, and they also know how to take advantage of the woodchuck holes in the fence that keep re-opening in new places after I fix the old ones. Pullets are almost like hogs the way they constantly test the fence. And, having been dumb enough to throw all the rotten tomatoes just over that fence to the waiting chickens, I should not have been surprised that eventually they decided to just help themselves to the bounty.

Eight feet tall...and no chickens in sight!

Eight feet tall…and no chickens in sight!

That’s alright—I still harvested plenty enough to do a few roasters full of smoked eggplant-and-tomato sauce, and a bit of salsa, too. And, I have a few choice varieties staked up nicely in the raised bed garden, as well as all the volunteers that made it through the first few rounds of weeding in the lower field garden. We’ve got plenty left for fresh eating, and to be honest, my appetite for canning is waning now that October is well underway. Somehow, I thought living up here in Minnesota might shorten the season, but climate change just keeps on keepin’ on. Soon, I’ll need new excuses not to go on preserving into November. Christmas canning? Oh. My. Lord.

Naked and ready for processing

Naked and ready for processing

But, even though they’re planted in that same garden, the tomatillos have fared much better. Apparently, the chickens aren’t aware of what goodness lies beneath that papery husk, and even though there’s only one row, those big, weedy plants have held their own with the other weeds to provide a real bounty.

The first time I grew tomatillos, I put in three or so plants in a little bed I’d newly broken out in front of a run-down rental house on Cottage Avenue in Vermillion, South Dakota. The house has since been torn down, but when I lived there, the goal of the gardens was part production and part hiding how beat-up the place was. I had morning glories twenty feet up the south side, and sunflowers more than half that height. It was a riot.

The old Cottage Avenue house and garden

The old Cottage Avenue house and garden

The tomatillo bed was right in front, and I remember when the mailman (always kind of annoyed at how the un-latchable storm door would whack him unexpectedly when the wind came up) asked me what the heck they were. At that point, I knew what they were, but I’d never done anything with them. Then came the harvest—these weird little green tomatoes inside a sticky, papery husk with a decidedly citrusy “twang.” But there was a Ball Blue Book recipe for salsa verde, and one night, my friend Matt and I decided to try it out—making a few small amendments as we went, as we’re both prone to do.

The result was seven half pints of a salsa so delicious that we declared it magical and ate it all up much faster than was reasonable. It had been much, much too long since I have grown them again. This was the year, and the variety was a big green one from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They’re huge—some of them bigger than golf balls—and they’re juicy and tangy and I’m in love with them all over again. I’ve re-visited the salsa recipe (thankfully, I’ve still got the notes from my sooty old Blue Book edition that went through the house fire), and I’ve also made a chili verde sauce with tomatatillos, chiles, onions, garlic, and our own chicken stock that gets pressure-canned in quarts and stored for pouring over winter roasts in the crockpot.

The beginnings of a chili verde sauce

The beginnings of a chili verde sauce

Yesterday I pulled from the garden what might be the last fifteen or twenty pounds and did another batch of the chili verde sauce for canning tonight. There are more tomatillos out there, but the nighttime temperatures are dropping, and I’m not going to bet on the last of them sizing up and splitting their husks before the frost hits. And the chickens may develop a taste for them yet. The oven at 450 degrees knocked out the nighttime chill and sent a delicious scent wafting throughout the house.

Our own frozen chicken stock, melting into the pureed roasted vegetables

Our own frozen chicken stock, melting into the pureed roasted vegetables

I won’t claim that this is the last thing I’ll can this season, but it might be. The end is creeping ever closer, and the killing frost can’t be far away now. The projected low tonight is 36 degrees…though it looks like it’ll creep back up into the 40s and 50s the rest of the week.

We might not have as many cases of “red” this year, but the shelves of canned goods are still looking well-stocked in a festive shade of green.

Winding Down; Winding Up

It’s forty-five degrees this morning on our little patch of the prairie.

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Long underwear weather, and last evening’s rain coupled with the later morning light gives me not-enough-time to prepare for today’s expected-then-abandoned foray to the farmers market. I can’t even see to clean out my car of the various beverage containers, road food wrappers, gallons of water refills, and cases of canning jars both purchased and scored from a friend’s trunk during a chance meeting at the liquor store yesterday–after she and I had forgotten them on multiple trips to each other’s farms over the course of more than a month.

So many details to remember this time of year. When did we last put salt in the softener? How many days after the last pick-up will it take to get the trash cart back up from the end of the driveway? Who has looked in the mailbox in the past week?

These are all the regular chores of day to day living. But there is also, who can we find to scale the peaks and clean out the gutters? When will the outer door be re-framed so the snow doesn’t blow in? Another load of straw for the chickens’ winter bedding, and the gamble of leaving the ripening squash in the field for another week. The last of the onions need pulling (have needed pulling for a month now) from their vast bed of weeds, which also need pulling—and transporting with their full seed heads out of the growing space. The chickens are in the tomato garden again—the groundhog must have made another hole in the fence that needs repair.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

The Meander approaches—that great Upper Minnesota River Valley art crawl that provides a big boost to the income of artists, cafes, grocery and gas providers all over the region. Three days of hosting hundreds of visitors to our farm, the preparation for which takes place over the course of months but really winds up in the last couple of weeks.

This year we have the new timber frame studio space to welcome people—a feeling of relief after last year’s set-up took over the entire lower floor of our home, reducing meals to an awkward few bites over the table/check-out area crammed against the wall to open up the “gallery” of the dining room. Easier just to snack on sister Ann’s cookies all weekend and drink too much coffee. I suppose that’s what we’ll do again this year, though excuses for that behavior won’t be as easy to come by.

At 6:30, light begins rising—enough to silhouette the farmstead trees and outline tassel-tips in the cornfield to the east. Venus still shines in the upper darkness, and a lone bat makes a last pass. No birdsong yet—except that Oskar is crowing in the coop, and Wilson, one of our “surprise” cockerels, is emulating with his adolescent cackle. The lower gardens hold deep shadows—protecting rabbits free to forage now that the cats have come in, eaten their kibble, and dozed off in the piles of unfolded laundry on the couch.

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Canning is almost a daily affair now—all the food preservation equipment should probably just live upstairs until the gardens give out. The 18 quart roaster’s on the table in front of me; the food mill and pressure canner in boxes on a chair behind, and the boiling water bath is still on the stove-top after last night’s quadruple batch of salsa verde. The dehydrator hasn’t yet made its yearly appearance, but celery leaf is on the agenda (a two-part process, as the stalks get chopped and frozen), and the shell beans will need finishing after the season’s ample rains.

And then there’s the shelf-stable produce–onions, once pulled, need time on the sun porch table to cure—squash is likely to fill up the rest of the area where we ate when daylight was long enough for working late and supping at sunset. At least the garlic is dug, cleaned, cured, and put away—though bags of heads labeled and sorted for seed are waiting out there for re-planting in the next month.

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At 7:30 it’s finally light enough to let the chickens out. My toes feel frozen and I’ve resorted to my earflap cap, but they seem immune—even energized by the sudden drop in temperatures. That’s good—the coop is unheated, and it’ll be a lot colder than this come winter, even with their deep layer of straw. I’ll give their house a final cleaning-out (and my compost pile a top-dressing) before we start creating that heat-generating pack of manure and straw that gives them a little extra insulation against the extremes of the dark season. But not this morning—the early half of the day is prime laying time, and I’ve been scolded enough by perturbed hens to know I should just stay out until the sun shifts west. It’s their house; I’m just the cleaning crew.

Gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Ridiculous gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Since I’m not at the farmers market, and I’m not allowed in the chicken house, the morning will have to shift the other work. Will it be the twenty pounds of wild plums in the studio fridge, waiting to be turned into jam? Should I attempt the celery project? What about harvesting the squash or pulling the onions? A deep cleaning of the cold storage room would be useful progression.

Best to think on it a bit over breakfast, then take out the compost, wash the dishes, put salt in the softener, and finally bring the trash cart up from the road. I’m sure after all that I’ll figure out something useful to do with my time.

Pinfeathers & Needles

I’ve been watching with great concern the outbreak of H5N2 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Minnesota turkey confinements. As of yesterday, seven facilities in five counties have been affected, including in Lac Qui Parle County, which borders Big Stone, where we live.

I raise what the MN Dept. of Agriculture refers to as a “backyard flock” of free range laying hens, whose eggs I market at our local food co-op. While it’s only a couple dozen hens (and a couple of roosters), twenty-five more hens are in the brooder growing into their role on the farm. The broilers will arrive at the end of the month, and we’re trying a few turkeys this year, too. The demand for my farm-fresh eggs has grown since I started selling them last summer, so I am expanding my flock to accommodate that market. The meatbirds are for our own consumption, but we’re considering exploring that market as well.

However, we also live within three miles of a turkey confinement facility, and since I heard about the H5N2 outbreak and 6-mile “control area” for all poultry flocks (not just turkeys–though they are most susceptible) in Lac Qui Parle County, I’ve been on pins and needles. What if my birds get sick? What if there’s an outbreak down the road?

From what I understand, if a flock gets infected, it gets slaughtered. Being in the control area near an outbreak area means testing of the birds and a quarantine on them and their products for at least a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had to figure out what to do with all our eggs for a few weeks, but the collective effect on producers and markets in affected areas could be a lot bigger.

USDA-APHIS recommendations on biosecurity precautions for cage-free poultry include “Identifying high risk areas that include wetlands along migratory flyways or other areas where wild waterfowl or shorebirds congregate” and “implementing preventive measures for these high-risk areas [including] keeping birds indoors or restricting outside open access by maintaining outdoor enclosures covered with solid roofs and wire mesh or netted sides.”

We live in the Mississippi flyway in the prairie and pothole biome, which is one of the biggest waterfowl migration and production areas in the country. In the past month, thousands of geese and ducks have passed over our farm, and over the region as a whole. According to the recommendations, poultry in our area should simply not be allowed access to the outdoors–or if they are, they should be fully enclosed–basically, confined.

Except the worst outbreaks of this disease in our region have not been in free-range poultry; they’ve been in large scale confined flocks that have implemented the above protective measures. Three large scale turkey barns in Stearns County have tested positive, but so far none of the approximately eighty backyard flocks in the control area around those confinements have shown signs of H5N2. Thirteen backyard flocks in the control area of the affected Lac Qui Parle County turkey operation were tested and found disease free. The thirty backyard flocks tested in Pope County were released from quarantine as well.

In this morning’s Star Tribune, Mike Hughlett closed an article about the latest outbreaks in Kandiyohi and Stearns Counties with this quote:

Curiously, back-yard turkey flocks in Minnesota haven’t been hit hard by the disease so far. “They are at greater risk,” a puzzled [DNR Wildlife Health Supervisor Michelle] Carstensen said. Unlike commercial birds, they don’t spend their whole lives in barns and are more exposed to wild bird droppings.

With my fingers crossed for the health of my, and my neighbors’ flocks, I want to suggest that maybe non-confined birds are in a better position to avoid or overcome illness because unlike commercial birds, they don’t spend their whole lives in barns. They have shelter, but they also get outside, they get fresh air and exercise, and they get exposed to beneficial (and also not-so-beneficial) microbes that help them develop a healthy immune system. They are not crammed into a “disinfected” space with several thousand birds of the same breed, waiting for a pathogen to sneak (or get tracked) through biosecurity and wipe them all out.

We live on a major migratory waterfowl route, and that isn’t going to change. Neither is the problem of human error and breaches in biosecurity.  Avian influenza outbreaks will keep coming with the migrations–are we going to slaughter and quarantine hundreds of thousands of birds every spring? What about the fall migration? What is the cost to taxpayers, affected producers, and markets?

Instead of racing to plug gaps in the existing system, maybe it’s time to question the system itself. Raising thousands of birds (or cows, or hogs) in a confined space may be considered “efficient” in some circles, but it results in a high stress environment that sets out the welcome mat for disease, as well as concentrating waste in a way that pollutes rather than enriches.

Meanwhile, the market for free range and heritage breed turkey and poultry products continues to grow, as more consumers turn away from Broad Breasted Whites produced in a building alongside twenty thousand of their “closest” friends. What if, instead of being the state that produces the most turkeys, we became the state that produced the best?

What if, instead of cramming more turkeys into bigger barns, we tried having more farmers on the land to raise them?

 

 

 

 

Spring-Pong

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The skies above Listening Stones Farm have been filled with murmurations of blackbirds and cries of waterfowl on the wing. The cacophony in the slough just east of us is louder than a Friday night frat party, though it starts before dawn instead of finishing just then. Every so often amidst the hundreds of geese honking their hearts out comes the cartoonish quacking of one indignant duck.

Winter “as we know it” did in fact end on March 6th, as Paul Huttner bravely predicted. What has come between then and now wavers between something approaching summer (75 degrees a week ago) and an unwelcome flashback (high of 34 today, with s-n-o-w predicted for late afternoon). I put peas in the ground March 16th, but I doubt they’ll poke their tender tendrils into the open before the end of the month.

All this seasonal ping-pong has led to constant task-switching around the farm, as we attempt to match up what needs to get done with what the weather is doing, and is projected to do in the next few hours and days. Onions, leeks and celery are up and growing in the house, and peppers and eggplant are seeded in their germination flat, warm and cozy on top of a heat mat. I’ll check through the seed supply for something more to start today (not tomatoes…not yet).

We spent Friday morning, which dawned clear, calm, and slighty moist, pulling and burning brush on the south lawn as fast as we could, knowing the wind would come up in the early afternoon hours. We stopped adding branches at noon, but I still had to douse, and douse, and douse again to get the pile safely under control as the breezes started to build an hour later. It made the low 60’s early that afternoon, but the wind that came up soon swung around to the north, and before nightfall it was back down into the 30’s. Cue unhooking and draining of all the hose I’d used earlier, so it wouldn’t freeze in the night.

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Calm weather and close containment are key when you’re burning in an open area.

Last weekend, on a gorgeous 65-degree Saturday, John and I cleaned out the extremely deep litter of the chicken coop. I’d assembled a 5x5x5 bin the night before, using scavenged u-posts and woven wire from around the farm, and by the time the coop was empty, the bin was full to mounding and overflowing, and we were both exhausted. The next morning I moistened the whole thing, inserting a watering wand with the rose taken off into the center of the pile.

By Sunday night, it was steaming like crazy, and it was still steaming (though more subtly) this morning–almost a full week later. I added another wheelbarrow-full of rakings from the ground around the bin, and even with that, the level has sunk down below the top of the wire enclosure. I would love to stick my 18″ probe compost thermometer in there if I could find it, but I did find a bunch of other stuff I’d lost while looking for it!

Vega inspects the coop compost

Vega inspects the coop compost

Along with finding things I wasn’t looking for, the other thing weather ping-pong does is kick my farm-induced ADD into high gear. I don’t know if it’s a diagnosable illness, but it can work to advantage if you let it. There is just so much to be done that it’s hard to waste a day even if you only accomplish part of each of the fifteen tasks that you had on your list.

That was yesterday, when I hauled the tractor battery out of the basement where it has lived since the night of our first snowstorm last November. I opened the goat barn (a process in itself, as the doors are rickety), opened the tractor hood, and connected it. No luck. So, I pulled the battery, hauled it back to the mudroom, and hooked it up to the charger. Ten percent. OK, I’ve got time to run eggs to the co-op and take the dogs for a walk. Twenty-seven percent. Well, I can finish pruning the apple trees, and while I’m at it, that branch on the black walnut tree that snatches off my hat every time I walk under it. Forty-one percent. Huh, I can pick eggs and move that pile of rotten wood and branches by the chicken coop. Sixty percent. Hmm. I’ll re-walk the areas I intend to mow and look for potential obstacles.

Seventy-two percent! I’m going for it! I pulled the battery off the charger, hauled it back to the barn, wired it up, and backed right out–knocking over an enormous pile of bamboo stakes in the process. Ahh, well. I’ll pick those up later. Off we go, down the yard to mow that snarly old raspberry patch! And now to the sunflower and broom corn stalks in the lower…uh-oh, too wet! Almost stuck! Back up to high ground to tackle the tall grass by the crab apple trees!

I was making good progress when the Very Bad Sound came. The Very Bad Sound is known to anyone who owns an old farmstead with lots of tall grass and grove areas in which one hundred years of previous owners have tossed various things they had no use for. Or, maybe they just set the thing there fifty years ago and wandered off in a fit of farm-induced ADD, and they forgot about it, or they couldn’t find it (kind of like my compost thermometer). By the time I got the PTO switch flipped and the tractor shut down, I had a long section of heavy-gauge wire wrapped around two out of three of the mower blades. I should add it was the two out of three mower blades that were hardest to reach.

So! Guess I’ll let that sit until John gets home and tells me where the jack is hiding! Off to turn under the winter rye cover crop in the raised beds!

Joe Pye chews on a raspberry stalk while I turn the winter rye cover crop.

Joe Pye chews on a chunk of raspberry cane while I turn the winter rye cover crop.

I eventually got impatient with waiting for John, and propped up the mower deck with broken pieces of pavers in order to reach underneath. Another half an hour rolling around on the ground on alternating sides of the tractor and the wire was out (I made a special trip to stow it where it can do no more harm) and I was back mowing stalks in a small area where the grove meets the prairie, and which has a particularly nice stand of nettles. They’re already poking up, so now it’ll be easier to get back in there and harvest wild spring greens.

But today…well, spring greens harvesting is not in the cards Mother Nature is dealing. After a morning where the skies did not seem big enough to contain the geese in them–a morning of stowing tools, tarping equipment and re-securing the barn doors–we’ve ping-ponged back into winter with the swirl of airborne waterfowl replaced by swirling snowflakes.

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Time to settle my farm-induced ADD inside for the afternoon. I might try looking again for that compost thermometer. Who knows what I’ll find instead!

 

It Begins

Paul Huttner, Minnesota Public Radio Meteorologist Extraordinaire, wrote on the Updraft Blog recently that, “winter as we know it will end Friday afternoon March 6.” That’s a pretty bold statement from a typically conservative forecaster, and one that might compel him to go into hiding if it’s wrong.

But winter this year in these parts has been mild. We’ve had little snow, and the ground has gone bare on multiple occasions due to the lack of precipitation and periodic melting of what we have gotten. I’d say we’ve been spoiled, but I was really looking forward to using my snowshoes more than once this season, so it feels more like being cheated.

But, what’s weather for, if not to complain about? It’s pretty much a universal sport.

With warmer days, and the possibility of temperatures in the fifties (Fifty! Fifty Degrees!) on Monday, my feelings remain conflicted. Regular readers know about the terrible soil erosion in our region caused by farmland being left bare over the winter months, and no doubt you’ve seen the snirt both in images on this blog and on the landscape anywhere you’ve traveled over the past few months.

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One of John’s many snirt images from this winter.

But aggressive snowmelt in the next week is when we’ll be flushing the shame of poor management practices down the drain. If we warm as quickly and aggressively as Huttner predicts, hundreds of tons of topsoil that have coated ditches and streambanks–that have been left exposed to the elements on hilltops and in open fields–will go running over the top of the still-frozen ground and into our rivers, streams, and ditches, settling into our lakes, and flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico.

With the Des Moines Waterworks suing three Iowa counties for nitrate runoff and Lake Pepin being nicknamed “Lake Willbegone” due to erosive ag drainage tiling filling the waterway with mud, it makes me wonder when the lawsuits will start hitting closer to home. How close does the reckoning have to get before individual farmers will change their ways? Maybe this close:

Gov. Mark Dayton stunned but delighted Minnesota’s leading conservationists Friday by announcing that he’ll push for a new law this legislative session that would require every lake and river in the state to be buffered by a wide strip of natural land, a significant step toward protecting both water and wildlife.

“I recognize this will not be well received by some private landowners,” Dayton said Friday to a packed room at the Department of Natural Resources’ annual meeting for conservationists. “The land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us.”

Minnesota has required buffer strips on farmland for years, the only state in the country to do so, but the law is often not enforced. Demand for enforcement has risen in recent months, from hunters, anglers, beekeepers and environmentalists worried about precipitous declines in wildlife and rising agricultural pollution in the southern half of the state. [Marcotty, Josephine. “Dayton wants tougher water and wildlife protection law.” Star Tribune, updated 17 Jan. 2015]

And now, just today, there’s this disheartening story from MPR News about the state of waterways in one corner of the state: “Study: Pollution leaves no swimmable, fishable lakes in southwest MN.” If you read the related story, you’ll see that there is a new coalition of legislators who think the best way to deal with the MN Pollution Control Agency’s bad news is simply to change the standards. Sulfate from mines above the levels determined hospitable for wild rice? Well, that sounds expensive for our mining companies! Let’s let the legislators rather than scientists determine what the wild rice can take! Farming methods causing nitrate pollution and sediment? Change the definition of pollution! It’s really just “nutrients,” and we know those are good for us!

Of course, not all legislators think they make better scientists than…well, scientists, and not all farmers leave their land barren and vulnerable to erosion that causes pollution. I know many, many good stewardship farmers who implement conservation measures to keep the soil in place whether on their own or with help from government programs.

But there aren’t enough of them, and there hasn’t yet been a clear and pervasive message from all sectors of society (including and especially from fellow farmers and everyone else in the agricultural field) that if you don’t conserve your soil then, no matter how many bushels per acre you harvested last season, you are not a good farmer. You are not a skilled farmer. You are a wasteful and negligent farmer, and farmers like you are the reason that voluntary compliance is turning toward strict enforcement.

If you want less “government intrusion,” the answer is not to elect people who make up their own “facts” about the severity of the pollution; the answer is to operate in a way that minimizes pollution and saves the soil you depend on for a living. It may not be the most convenient or most profitable way to operate (that is, until enforcement and fines make it so), but it’s the right way to operate, and IT’S JUST NOT THAT DAMNED DIFFICULT. At the very least, leave the stalks in the field overwinter. Follow the law that’s already in place about buffer strips; grass (and maintain) the waterways. How hard is that, really? There’s plenty wrong about farm policy as it is, but it doesn’t help lighten the load of regulations when some farmers don’t even do the bare minimum to keep their soil, nutrient, and chemical in one place.

Stepping off my soap box and kicking it aside along with my pissed-off mood (sorry, but from where I sit, I can actually SEE a brown-tinged miasma of snirt-clouds rolling around the horizon), I’m still glad that winter as we know it is coming to an end. We’ve got runoff control and water-saving measures to implement here, too, and the warmer weather will help set those plans in motion. The cautionary statement overshadowed by Huttner’s pronouncement about winter’s end was that this could be the year our spring rains fail us, and that is a sobering thought amid the excitement over shedding layers and feeling the sun’s warmth return.

Is there good news? It seems like this post just keeps getting gloomier, but never fear: seed starting season is here! Last weekend, I cleaned out a tray in my vermicompost bin and re-assembled the light shelf, which are the first steps in a three-month-long orgy of planting, nurturing, and rejoicing (hopefully) over the emergence of green and growing things.

Peat moss goes in...

Peat moss goes in the vermicompost tray…

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Black gold comes out!

Seed starting medium was assembled during the first part of the week; in addition to the usual spaghnum peat moss, the aforementioned worm compost, and a little sand, I’m using a new component for my starter mix this year: PBH, or par-boiled rice hulls. They are a substitute for mined perlite (those little white styrofoam-like “pebbles” you see in many commercial mixes) and add loft, pore space, water-holding capacity, and drainage.

I continue to use peat moss (about 4 cu ft/year) as the base for my seed starting mix and as a base for my worm bedding because I have had good results with it. I’ve read a few articles suggesting that coir (coconut husk fiber) is a viable and more sustainable alternative to peat, but I’ve also read otherwise. I’ll take a small risk with trying out rice hulls (which are about 15% of the total mix), but changing out the entire base component doesn’t seem wise considering what I’ve read. The time may come when a substitution is either viable or necessary (or both), but the time has not yet come.

Last night, I went through my seeds and pulled out those items to start 10-12 weeks before the last frost. I was beginning to get panicky because it was already March 3rd, and I didn’t have anything started yet!

Actually, I started my first seeds on the exact same day last year.

Actually, I started my first seeds on exactly the same day last year.

Yeah, I probably was panicking last year, too. So, I seeded Blue Solaise leeks, Mars celeriac, Conquistador celery, and Talon F1 yellow storage onions, which are still the best storage onions I have grown, as evidenced by the fact that I still have about forty pounds of gorgeous, sound bulbs from last year’s crop down in our cold storage room.

I’m growing fewer storage onions this year, though, because I’m only growing them for us. Last year I put in about double what we needed, and lugged a 70lb crate of them to the farmers market each time I went. I sold maybe ten pounds total, in quantities of 1-2lbs.

Most people don’t grow onions from seed (if they grow them at all) because–I don’t know–because they think it’s hard? And also probably because onion sets are so readily available. Onion sets are crap, in my not-so-humble opinion, because when you plant a little tiny onion in the spring, it has to expend its energy making a root system and top growth before it can start making a bigger bulb, and often will form a seed stalk, which creates a hollow core that makes the bulb rot more easily. Onion plants are better, but they aren’t as available, the varieties are limited, and often they are dried up by the time they arrive in stores.

Growing onions from seed is not hard; it just takes time. I start them (and leeks) in the first week of March, so that by the time I need the space on my growing rack for other things, they can mostly hang out on the porch or outside hardening off, at least during the day. I give them regular “haircuts” in their flats, so they don’t get too spindly and fall over. I transplant them in blocks of four (that’s how I plant them) instead of rows, so they’re easier to hoe around. And I get to try different varieties, grow them with care from day one, cure them sufficiently, and produce the best damn onions money can’t buy (well, it could at the farmers market last summer).

But most people don’t worry about running out of onions, and I guess they don’t need to because there onions at most stores, and they’re relatively cheap. Onions don’t tend to have heavy pesticide loads, so even conventional ones aren’t terribly tainted. They’re always on the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 list of the least contaminated produce. But, you know, if you have cool storage space in your house and you’d bought storage quantities of onions from me last year, you’d still have some really nice, cleanly grown onions. At least you would if you hadn’t eaten them all!

While I’m on my onion soapbox (my onion crate?), I don’t understand why people want to grow or buy massively huge onions. Besides making a few onion rings once in awhile (and I grow enough big ones to more than satisfy this need in our household), big onions don’t store as well, and they’re hard to use up in one dish for a small number of people. So, then you have a stinky partial onion sitting in the fridge, which for some reason no one remembers to use even though you can smell it in there every time you open the door. (Oh, you have a plastic onion-keeper? Congratulations. I bet it stinks like onion.)

As you might’ve guessed by now, I much prefer a small to medium-sized onion for daily use. Just use the whole thing, and no leftover onion bits migrating to the back of the fridge. Next day, grab a new onion from the bowl you replenish periodically from cool storage (or from the grocery store), and use that one up, too.

Anyhow, I started (24) 4-packs of onions. Every cell in each 4-pack has five seeds in it (with the goal of a block of four onions), for a grand total of 384 onions. Barring utter disaster, let’s say I end up with somewhere between 300-350 storage onions. That’s around an onion a day, six days a week, for an entire year.

OK–maybe I will have a few to sell! We’ll see how it goes. I also have a row of perennial bunching (green) onions transplanted last fall (descendants of those I started from seed 10 years ago now), and I’ll start a few red Italian torpedo onions when the seed arrives. Those I don’t mind selling because they’re a fun specialty item, and they don’t really keep. Leeks went well at the market last year, so I’m starting about twice as many and will force myself to actually sell them rather than hoarding them jealously, as I tend to do with my blue-flagged beauties.

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I love leeks.

Otherwise, I’m planning the seed-starting schedule for the next couple of months, and I finally submitted my last seed order in the past couple of days (See! I am behind!). That one is mostly cover crops (oats, buckwheat, field peas, and tillage radish) and a few supplies, though, so it’s not really anything to panic about.

Except that there are potatoes in that order, too, and with winter being over on Friday, well, who knows? I see that last year I planted peas, spinach, and arugula out in the raised beds on March 30th, and the arugula was up just about a week later. The year before, on the first day of spring, I wrote that there was no thaw in sight–two weeks later we still had plenty of snow, but a cold rain was slowly eating it away.

When will digging-in-the-dirt commence this year? Paul Huttner won’t say, but just like every year, I’m sure I’ll know it when I feel it (and when my soil thermometer tells me). Until then, there’s plenty of (inside) planting, a little panicking, and a lot of planning to keep me occupied.

It begins!

Lazy Folks Work the Hardest

Can you think of a way to express this sentiment without coming off as a self-righteous jerk? I’m not sure there is one.

Unless, that is, you are saying it to yourself, which is what I was doing at about seven o’ clock this morning, after a half an hour of turning straw bedding in my chicken coop, and the realization that I was going to be at it quite a while longer if I expected to do a thorough job.

You see, I began a system of “deep litter” bedding in the coop this fall, tossing down layers of locally-grown wheat straw with the understanding that as I added more layers, the chickens would scratch and blend it all together and magically it would turn into the most gorgeous compost ever created. What could be easier? Let the birds do all the work!

Turns out, it’s not as easy as that. Turns out, if you keep adding more layers of straw and you don’t help the turning process along, you get something quite different–a fact I discovered when, after a glorious thaw this past weekend, I walked in the coop and was knocked back by the sharp odor of ammonia.

If the smell was bad for me, it was much worse for the chickens who, although granted plenty of access to the outdoors, still expect to spend the long winter nights inside their cozy, 100-year-old abode. Not only that, but the smell of ammonia equals the loss of nitrogen–nitrogen I’d prefer to lock up with the straw’s carbon and spread in the garden come spring. There wasn’t much I could do about it last night other than crack the window, but when I woke at 5:30 this morning, I figured I could get in a couple of hours of work before…well, before work.

After coffee and letting the dogs out and feeding the dogs, the cats, and then the chickens, I started to dig. If it hadn’t been such a ridiculous monster of a project to dig down through all those layers of compacted straw, I might’ve been laughing about going overboard off the extremely deep end of the deep litter system. Just keep adding straw! The chickens will do all the work! By the time I dug down to the floor of the coop and flipped and fluffed the first 3′ x 18′ strip along the back wall, the rejuvenated litter was waist-high to where I stood in my hole. We’re talking deep litter.

I’m glad I didn’t take the advice of the folks on a certain Facebook group I asked for help. The mantra about ammonia smell in a deep litter system is that either the litter is too damp, or there’s not enough of it. In fact, if the litter is too damp, it also probably means you don’t have enough of it.

I enjoy Facebook, and I follow a few different groups there. I like the West Central MN Birders, and I shadow the posts on the mushroom ID one, too. I hope to get better at identifying edible ones, and I hope the other posters do, too because I don’t know how many more Lion’s Mane mushroom pictures I can see without making a snide comment about participants either never having looked at any of the other posts, or simply showing off to those less fortunate.

I do feel absolutely confident about morels, a fact I like to advertise in case my services are needed for identification (and eating) purposes. That happened a couple of years ago, when I got a call from a friend in the southern part of the county one balmy late spring evening. I was working in the garden when he called, and he asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for me to come down there (about a twenty minute drive) and inspect these fungi popping up in a food plot he’d mowed the previous fall. I was about halfway there by the time we ended our five minute call.

And yes, they were.

Anyhow, I’ve been a member of this regenerative agriculture group on Facebook for a couple of weeks. There are members from all over the world, and it seemed like the kind of place where a gal could get some systems-thinking, down-to-earth advice and trouble-shooting. And indeed, I got advice.

I got advice from across the planet about magical products I might buy or prepare (from plants that are dormant under snow at the moment), the mantra about ammonia smell meaning my litter wasn’t deep enough, and also instructions to change my whole system to a different carbonaceous material that I don’t have ready access to without spending a bunch of money. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, and certainly the comments were offered in a helpful spirit, but I do understand the basic tenets of the deep litter system, and it shouldn’t require rare and expensive inputs to work correctly.

The best advice I got through the group turned out to be from a friend and former colleague who lives about an hour down the river valley from here. Julia told me my litter was compacted and anaerobic, and what I needed to do was turn and mix it to incorporate oxygen and trigger aerobic composition.

In other words, Get your fork out honey, ’cause you’ve got a big job ahead of you.

She was right. After about two hours of digging and turning (and sweating and grunting) this morning and another hour this evening, I’ve got that litter thoroughly mixed, and it smells just lovely and earthy in there. There was a nice pancake of beautiful moist humus at the floor level beneath the roost, and the rest was just dry, compacted straw. It wasn’t too wet, and there’s sure as heck enough litter.

In fact, there’s so much poofy litter that it’s seriously awkward to walk on, and it’ll be impossible (OK–an insane amount of maintenance) to keep aerated. I know now that I can’t just lazily throw more and more straw on top and let the birds do all the work (though they sure loved getting access to all those buried “treasures” today, and I found my pie plate that went missing a couple of months ago). By spring, my current system would’ve required a stepladder to climb into the coop, the hens would’ve been laying in the rafters, and I’d need about fifty more straw bales than I have stockpiled.

I decided this evening that the “easiest” thing to do would be to go out again early tomorrow morning and fork out at least a third and maybe half of the litter that’s in the coop now–moving it to the run outside where there’s only a patchy veneer of ground cover left under the snow. Aerating what’s left will be a lot easier if there isn’t three feet of it to dig through.

Even removing half of what’s there, it might be a couple of weeks before I need to break open any more bales and leisurely strew fresh straw over the top–allowing my chickens to “do all the work” of mixing it in.

In the meantime, I’ll be working a little harder on my “lazy folks” method of winter bedding in the coop!

 

Winter Journal

Up early and at it hard. John’s down south all day in a Southwest Arts & Humanities Council meeting, and while that cat’s away, this mouse is playing catch-up. The sun is shining, and NOAA says we might hit 12 degrees above zero this afternoon with a less than 10mph wind, which seems like a certifiable heatwave given the past week’s brutal chill.

The chickens are finally outside after several days of being shut in. At one point earlier in the week I opened their coop door because the real temp was above zero, but not one of them took advantage, and then the wind came up, and down I went to shut them in again. The two Americanas are finally laying their pretty green eggs (both of them started on the same day!) after a six week hiatus–they are not dependable winter layers like the “Buffies” (Buff Orpingtons) and “The Coven” (Black Australorps), but I know my customers like to see those “Easter Eggs” in the cartons.

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Overall, laying is down even with supplemental light, but the few more minutes of day length we’ve gained since the solstice are giving us a couple more eggs than we got back in December. So far, everyone is doing fine in the unheated coop–last year’s hens proved themselves during the Polar Vortex (and Polar Vortex II), and this year’s batch are even heavier, hardier breeds.

John and I are planning our late winter travel. For me, it’s important to get out (if I’m going to get out) before seed-starting season commences in early March. I haven’t been to Seattle in five or six years now, and my dear friends out there should not have to wait any longer! That, and it’s always rejuvenating to visit the west coast in winter and to dream of what it might be like to live in a place where rosemary and lavender grow as luxurious full hedges rather than having to be potted up and brought inside or buried under bales for the winter.

Yes, it’s possible it might be cold there when I go…if by cold you mean, like, 35 or 40 degrees (it’s 46 there right now!). Maybe I’m nuts, but it seems a little safer, if I only have a week or so to travel, to go to someplace that’s only marginally warmer so that the contrast of returning to the northern prairie doesn’t send me into a deep-freeze-induced depression. The shock of returning to the cold climate should not be a problem for John, as his travel plans include a foray up above the Arctic Circle to visit a former exchange student and hopefully capture some aurora borealis images.

Seed and tree ordering has commenced, with our St. Lawrence Nursery order going in first of all since Bill MacKentley is retiring and there seems to be no clear succession plan at present. The first iteration of that order was pared back quite a bit, but I still got in a few things I’d been keen to try, but had cut from orders in the past: some hardy shagbark hickories, sweet sap silver maples, and blight-resistant American chestnut, as well as a couple of apples, a pear, a plum, and a few grapes.

The only thing I am having second thoughts about is leaving off a Northrup Mulberry, but I guess if I really want a mulberry tree (or fifty, or five hundred), I could get Harry’s permission to head down to the old farmplace in Vermillion and dig along the fencelines and then see what makes it through the winter up here.

I’ve also begun my regular winter session of being a pain-in-the-ass to my local SWCD guy by e-mailing him every other day to ask if he can get this or that native tree or shrub that’s not on their (really, kind of disappointingly short to a native planting fanatic like myself) list. So far he’s located bundles of Homestead Hawthorn and Nannyberry Viburnum for me, and we’ll add to that a few more oaks, hackberries, cottonwoods, cherries, hazelnuts, and maybe a few evergreens. My poor husband will think I am trying to kill him (again). I swear I will help more with planting this year, even if it means taking a couple of days off.

Seed orders are also taking shape–Pinetree is already done and submitted–I like their smaller size packets of herbs and flowers, plus squash and other things I just don’t need a ton of seed for. Their Summer Dance cucumber is the best, most productive and perfect-looking bitter-free cuke I’ve grown. I’m almost afraid to say that publicly, since a couple of other great F1 varieties I’ve raved about over the years (like Lavender Touch eggplant and Papaya Pear summer squash) have reportedly been bought up by Seminis (a subsidiary of Monsanto), and now I won’t grow them anymore. I grow very few hybrid varieties–if I grow one it has to be better (in my estimation) than anything else I’ve seen. When Summer Dance gets bought up, well, I’ll start trialing open pollinated cukes like I did O.P. eggplant and yellow summer squash. Not the end of the world.

Territorial Seed Company will be a small one–a few things I can’t get elsewhere (LOVE the Talon onion and wild garden mustards!), and Johnny’s is the biggie–though most of the volume is several kinds of organic cover crops–buckwheat, oats, field peas, winter radish. I’ll pick up a few other things from Prairie Road, High Mowing, and Seed Savers Exchange too, but I have quite a bit of seed that’s still good from the last couple of years. Everything from 2012 I’ll try to use up this season, and there’s no seed older than that because of the house fire in 2011.

In my fever of catch-up and planning ahead today, there’s still plenty of time for strolling the prairie and running the dogs. Vega will always be my “saint” dog–the one who’s stuck with me through some incredibly trying times in my life–but I am getting immense pleasure from Joe Pye’s company these last few weeks. I’ve nicknamed him “my shadow” because as soon as I get up from my chair, he’s right on my heels (sometimes literally!)–and especially if I head toward the outside door. No matter how brutal the day, he’s game to keep me company during chores and check-ins, and although I’m still working on training him not to rush the chicken pen fence just to see the “girls” scatter and squawk, I thoroughly appreciate his playful (and occasionally peaceful) presence.

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John and I have been taking the two of them for “prairie galavanting” twice a day almost every day since Joe Pye came to live with us, and the exercise has made a huge difference in Vega’s (and our) energy levels. Still, sometimes the “old lady” (Vega, not me!) needs to retreat and spend the afternoon stretched out napping on her upstairs bed in the sunshine, away from the attentions of her too-eager little brother.

I brought my camera on today’s morning walk to document some of what everyone in the region has been talking about since Thursday’s “big blow.” We took the least-used path that runs through the lower prairie along the west side of our property. It goes unused because it’s the most open to the prevailing winds, and snow drifts deep in those paths, making the way difficult for Vega with her small paws, long legs, and aging hips.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

We live on a graveled county road, so we get a fair amount of dust rolling off from traffic. Our own vehicles are constantly coated in it, and this time of year it’s hard to get rid of because the car wash isn’t open and gas station squeegees are frozen solid from the intense cold. But road dust is an easily recognizable grayish-tan. What’s accumulating in our prairie is our neighbors’ good black dirt–topsoil, that is, pulverized, ridged, and bared by fall tillage, and eroding by the truck-full.

This ain't road dust, folks.

This ain’t road dust, folks.

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There does seem to be a little more stubble on the fields this winter–a few more roots left intact to hold the soil in place. I don’t know if that’s because farmers and landowners saw how bad the erosion was last winter and nixed fall tillage, or because the cold and snow came on too fast this year for the ground to get turned. I hope it’s the former.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago. The corn stubble holds the soil and snow cover.

Absent a federal farm policy that actively and forcefully discourages practices that seriously damage the land, we are, all of us, counting on individual farmers and landowners to do the right things. By “right things,” I mean those practices that are proven to preserve and protect the soil & water–cover crops, no-till (or at the least, no fall tillage), grass waterways, buffer strips, and keeping marginal lands under perennial cover.

There are more, of course, and many of these practices are eligible for cost share and technical assistance. But they don’t work unless farmers and landowners use them, and it sometimes amazes me how hard Soil & Water Conservation District staff has to work to get farmers and landowners to sign up. I’ve heard conservationists say that farmers who are good stewards of the land will do the right thing regardless of programs and payments, but farmers who are only in it for the bushels (or dollars) per acre won’t do the right thing even if you offer to pay them (but they might if you fine them for not doing it).

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I don’t know if it’s that simple, but I sense there’s a grain of truth in it. Still, farmers, like everyone, need to make a living, and because we have a federal farm policy that encourages and even rewards practices that cause environmental degradation, we can’t only point our finger at farmers if what we get what we paid, and voted, for. We all have a stake in a better food and farming system, and unless we all push for policies and practices that encourage what we say we want (soil and water conservation, protecting pollinator and wildlife habitat, limiting the amount of toxic chemicals in the environment and in our food, and…you fill in the blank) and discourage what we say we don’t want, it’s just not going to get better.

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One more thought before I leave this depressing track: did you ever think there would come a day when we’d have to consider listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species? That day is sadly here.

Aside from documenting the collection of our neighbors’ topsoil, we’re doing a significant amount of farm planning for the coming year. With tree and seed orders going in, we’re also having to figure out where all this stuff will get planted, and how we’ll clear out more of the windrows of cut-and-dropped buckthorn in the grove to make room for things we’d prefer to have growing. If you’re feeling sorry for that invasive species we love to hate, don’t worry–we’ve also got a generation’s worth of buckthorn seeds just waiting to sprout that are causing us to consider (gasp!) getting a couple of goats. The final decision has yet to be made on that thorny subject.

We’re also hoping to remove a bunch of old fence from various parts of the grove–layers of fence in woven and barbed wire–fence that has become part of the living wood of the trees that have grown up through it. It will not be pretty (it’s not pretty now), and I’m guessing it will take many an afternoon with fencing pliers, wire cutters, colorful language, and probably a come-along to heave those old metal posts out of the ground.

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Doesn't this look like fun?

Doesn’t this look like fun?

And did I mention the chickens? An expansion of the laying flock and another round (maybe two?) of “Drummies” for the freezer are on the to-do list. A couple of rain gardens, maybe some rain barrels, too, and, oh, I think I want to take out the entire front lawn to build for a terraced rock garden for perennial herbs, flowers, and maybe a few vegetables, too.

I know that all this might not seem like enough to keep us busy, but I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few of the major projects on the list.

It’s going to be a busy year.

Oh, Christmas Tree!

I love a real Christmas tree. The fragrance, the prickly boughs, the bringing-it-in-the-door in a shower of needles and attempting to screw it into the tree stand so that it is at least passably straight. Adjusting so the inevitable patchy side faces the wall. Decorating it. And oh, the fragrance!

I love my husband, too, of course. And, my husband is allergic to real Christmas trees. That was one of those things revealed fairly early on in the relationship—a terrible secret to be unearthed and considered as a possible deal-breaker. I may never have a real Christmas tree again. OK, I can deal. We’re actually not big celebrators of Christmas anyhow. It’s more the solstice—the lighting up of the longest nights of the year and rejoicing that the wheel of the year is turning toward lengthening days (and gardening season) again.

I have very few allergies, and for that I’m extremely grateful. My mother suffers from a lot of them—most anything that has a strong/perfume-y fragrance, plus a number of other substances as well. I joke that I grew up in a scent-sory deprived household. I remember as young kids, out exploring the fields and wetlands in our little town (fields and wetlands that no longer exist, I’m sad to say), my brother and I were returning from an afternoon of catching frogs, jousting with milkweed stalks, eating wild berries, and assorted other free-range adventures, and we decided to bring back a big bouquet of flowers to make mom’s day.

After selecting the biggest, fluffiest heads of goldenrod and arranging them “attractively” into what was basically a big yellow club of allergens, we marched home thinking how pleased mom would be at her adorable (and muddy, and burdock-coated) offspring. What happened when we got home is not as clear in my mind as our glorious intentions, but I don’t think the bouquet ever made it in the door after mom spotted us coming down the road with our gift. Hey, at least it wasn’t a snake…nevermind—we don’t say that word in front of mom, either. 😉

A couple of participants in our Thanksgiving feast share an allergy to all members of the onion family. John’s sister is one of them, and it has been an interesting challenge to cook when she visits—being so used to starting every savory recipe with an onion, a couple cloves of garlic, and/or a whole leek. I like these kind of challenges, though, and it’s a much better option to eat in anyhow—can you imagine trying to go out to a restaurant with that kind of allergy? Every spice blend and condiment poses the threat of closing your throat and sending you to the hospital. You can ask for no onion or garlic, but you take your chances on the kitchen staff actually reading the labels for anything they’re not preparing from scratch (sadly, much of the menu in most places these days). Ann has also become quite creative at enhancing flavor in her own recipes, and her green chili-blue cornbread dressing is one of my favorite dishes alongside the turkey every year. I’ve decided to try my hand at making it for dinner tonight—but, yeah, I’ll probably put onion in mine.

Now that freezing temperatures have descended and the ground is covered with snow (though next week’s forecast looks potentially revealing), many allergy sufferers are breathing a sigh of relief—which is to say, they’re breathing normally. Aside from indoor issues like dust and pet dander, allergens are at a minimum. I am incredibly thankful that neither I nor John, nor any of our offspring are allergic to those, what with a laissez-faire approach to dusting, two cats, a dog, and tentative plans for a puppy.

The onset of winter means it’s coming up on the holidays, which means it’ll soon be time for the tree to go up. With John’s allergy, we’ve compromised with a fake tree—in fact, one of the most obviously fake trees money buy—the kind with pulsing, glowing, multi-colored fiber optic lights built right into the tips of the plastic branches. I think the thing might even spin or jiggle or do some crazy acrobatics. I’m sure it’s known by the State of California to cause cancer, blindness, and uncontrollable Barry Gibb impressions.

But it’s also a tree on which to hang the family ornaments, each with a story behind it. We can put presents underneath it for the cats to mangle, and it doesn’t require struggling with a separate string of lights, since they’re already built in. It also doesn’t make John sneeze, or give him headaches (except perhaps, if he were to stare too long at its pulsing colored needles).

On the front lawn, there’s a small spruce that I’ve strung with lights, and once I find a long enough extension cord, we’ll be able to enjoy its cheery twinkle from the warmth of the house, without fear of allergies or getting needles stuck in our socks. I could trim a few branches from the big spruces bordering the orchard and affix them to the deck railing as well. A wreath on an outside door would be safe.

With the question of holiday greenery settled, we can retire to the warmth of the house, lighting the pine-scented candles and relaxing in the glow of our artificial and allergy-free tree, addressing holiday cards and humming along to A Very Bee Gees Christmas.

I’m Voting

I’ve told this story before, but it bears re-telling on the eve of Election Day.

On my eighteenth birthday, my mom took me to the town clerk’s office so that I could register to vote. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet (that was later in the week, as I recall, on account of the governor having a heart attack and the state offices being closed). So, my mom drove me into town, and I went in to fill out the paperwork and to take the Freemen’s Oath, which is a thing you do in Vermont when you register to vote.

The Freemen’s Oath (now called the Voter’s Oath) is a pledge that no one is buying your vote or coercing you to vote in a certain way. In other words, you are voting your conscience, and for what or whom you deem to be in the best interest of the state.

It goes like this:
You solemnly swear (or affirm) that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.

Three little lines. I said them, and then turned around and smiled at my mom, who was fighting back tears. I guess it’s that same feeling I get when I see my own child take a big step toward adulthood.

Wikipedia tells me that Vermont is the only state to require such an oath. I think that’s unfortunate because standing there in the town clerk’s office and saying those words made me feel that voting is not only a right; it is a solemn duty. Yeah, it felt a little cheesy in an era where everything solemn feels slightly cheesy. But it also felt real and important.

I can’t imagine not voting. And while I tend to vote by mail in other elections, I pretty much always vote in person for the November elections. There’s something about being there—of standing up in public and taking part in that process—that makes me feel like Election Day is a special day, and that I am participating bodily, concretely, in an amazing, important process. I like to see the election workers’ faces and the people coming out from the booths ahead of me. Here we are, doing this democracy!

I understand that some people just want to get it done, and I understand that some people are uncertain about being able to get to the polls on the actual day. I get that. You mail it off or you go in early, and you know it’s done. What I don’t get is people who don’t care—who say their vote doesn’t count, or it’s choosing a lesser of two evils, or it’s all screwed up anyhow so why bother.

I’ve voted in a state where there was no way in heck pretty much any candidate I voted for would get in. I’ve voted in a state where my vote was a drop in an ocean of support for my candidates. I voted for an outsider candidate in a national election in an urban precinct that went something like 97% for that candidate when the rest of the country said, “who?”

And I’ve seen elections in this state go to recounts that went on for days and came down to a few dozen votes.

Every vote counts that gets cast and gets counted. Whether you’re part of an ocean swell or just a single raindrop that wears away at the powers-that-be. Lesser of two evils, you say? Yeah, I vote for less evil. Because less evil is better in my book than more.

All screwed up, you say? Yup, I think that’s something that we should work on together, and the way we start (start!) to work on it is to vote.

See you at the polls.