Friday, September 28, 2007

It's not just that we are what we eat...

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollen sums up one of his chapters by saying that it is not only that you are what eat but that you are what you eat, eats. Think about it for a second...

Oh okay, I can't wait - ADD and all. I really I want to tell what that means in my understanding because I think this concept is vitally important to understanding why organic makes such a difference.

I used to think that food had nutrition almost by magic and that it was pretty much all the same. Some of it was probably better because it didn't have additives, but otherwise nutritionally speaking, it was all the same. But then, was talking about grain-fed beef vs. range cattle just all marketing hype?

What I have found out is No, not really.

Grain fed beef, for example has fat marbled throughout the meat and actually has more fat than pasture or range fed beef. Why is that? Mostly because grain fed beef stays put in one spot and range fed beef gets to roam. More exercise means more lean, even for cows. But that's not all. When a cow eats pasture, it (we are talking about steers here) doesn't just get grass. It eats other meadow vegetation, including herbs and such. There are actually quite a few things cows cannot eat. The Extension Office has more information on that under Poisonous Plants. Whatever nutrition is in the grass and herbs is picked up by the cow during digestion and goes to build the meat that we eat. Good grass - good cow.

What's in the corn that the cows are eating in the feed lot? Antibiotics to prevent disease in close quarters. Growth hormones to speed the process. And whatever nutrition is in the corn. Well, what would be in the corn? How was it grown? Most of the feedlot corn is grown in huge fields. To prevent diseases and weeds, it is sprayed with pesticides. The field has an herbicide application schedule. The field has probably been growing corn for some time and requires chemical fertilizers to produce a good crop. I may not have a complete grasp on the molecular science of what combines with what during the corn life cycle but up to this point I count three different classes of chemicals. Once the corn is harvested, shipped, stored and shipped to the feed lot, those chemicals are not necessarily gone or used up. And what kind of nutrition is in the fertilizer? When I read a fertilizer bag, I don't see a list of vitamins and minerals. Some things I can figure out, like it may have some kind of calcium something or other in it, maybe an ammonia compound or a nitrate. That is taken up by the plant during growth and transformed into the nutrients that are then passed to the animal that eats the corn. In this case a cow. Whatever nutrition the cow absorbs is then passed to us when we eat it. That was a long explanation for something that after while appears pretty self-explanatory.

Studies have shown that organic food has higher amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. Why is that? It's in the soil, baby. Organic farmers do not rely on the chemicals to prevent disease, pests, weeds or to promote growth. They have to rely on the innate health of the plant and the soil which it grows in. A healthy plant is much less susceptible to disease and insect damage. A plant is only as healthy as the soil it grows in. If that soil is living, rich with organic matter, beneficial microbes, etc. then the plant has much larger amount of nutrients to absorb to begin with. Which means we can absorb more nutrition from that plant. If we eat the plant at the right time, we maximize the nutrition we receive from that plant. In general, the more processing, the less nutrition. Tomatoes are one exception where slight processing releases lycopene.

There you have it, in a nutshell, tied up in a little box with a bow, Take it to the bank, take it to the grocery store with you. Visit your local farmer's market and get to know the people who grow the food you want to eat. Find out what they do and how they do it. Enjoy the food.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tracking the Eggs of the Famous Houdini Hens

If you live in the Ashland City area and would like to order eggs laid by our 'Can't Fence Me In' Houdini Hens, make a comment below as to how many dozen you would like and your preference for day and time. I can deliver eggs weekly, either morning, afternoon or evening.

Chickens are relatives of jungle dwelling birds. No, really. They don't fly much. It's more like semi-controlled falling or jumping. But that's because most domestic chickens weigh a bit too much to fly. Of course, in our modern agroindustry, most chickens don't even get a chance to spred those wings to find out how much they can fly. They prefer moderately warm temperatures. Think California. Chickens also tend to be home-bodies. They like to nest in the same place night after night. Being able to jump, however clumsily, up the limbs of a tree protects them from predators.

Staying in the same place every night doesn't seem like the greatest predator protection. For predator fooling tricks, we have to look at a hen's nesting habits. She prefers a secluded area. She will wallow out a shallow depression and scratch the ground up causing bits of grass, feathers and other stuff to form a sort of nest. Typically hens will look for places to nest that are screened by vegetation. This provides a cover of sorts from predators. A hen's nesting profile is very low and its coloration will blend in with the vegetation, no matter what colors are involved. Once the egg is laid, the hen will move off the nest and strut away from the nest making the characteristic chicken sound: Bowck Ba boc boc bawk or something similiar. (It is hard to translate chicken into English and each one sounds a little different) She is deliberately leading any predators that may be thinking of eating a nice chicken or eggs away from the nest. The attention will be focused on her at that moment.

Roosters have an important role to play here. They spend most of their time watching for predators and potential food sources. I have many times seen George, our Bantam rooster, find a spot of food on the ground, investigate it, and make a certain type of cackle until hens come over to eat what he has found. George is also fairly protective of his s and will attack anything that looks like it's getting near and shoulodn't be. The dogs definately leave him alone.

Now for the Houdini part. Our hens like to slip through any hole that doesn't look near big enough for them to get through and find those secluded little spots to lay their eggs. They have some very nice nesting boxes made from plastic planters and lined with straw, but I think they are a bit too exposed for the birds' liking. So out they slip, while I figure out what size hole is just too dang small for them and where to put the nesting boxes this time. One small wrinkle is when I collect the eggs in their little hideaways, the hideaways move. I get to figure out what other places are also inviting. If I am lucky I will come around when the hen is strutting and I can easily figure out where the nest is, this time.

The hens seem to prefer shallow depressions in the dirt surrounded by vegetation. I am trying a new experiment with the nesting boxes. Since straw and hay are in short supply this year, I am using some of the dry rotted wood mulch mixed with leaves as bedding in the boxes. Now all I need to do is move them to a more secluded spot. I will look for a spot near some mounds of grass and place woody stems and small branches around and on top of the nesting bozes and see how that works. I also have a few more escape holes to cover up on the fence. The idea here is to make the nesting boxes as close to the natural setting as possible.

If you have chickens, you know the egg count fluctuates from day to day and season to season. Check to see if you have some Houdini Hens if the count is off for a couple days. When you find their nest(s), it will surely be loaded with eggs. These are not the eggs I sell or eat for that matter. I grab the ones that are laid in the proper places, one of our six nesting boxes. I check for eggs three times a day because each hen has their own optimal laying time. Some like to lay early and some like to lay just before they tuck in for the night.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Starting with Sustainability

One of the primary values here at Mule Shoe Farm is to be sustainable. This is not necessarily a goal but rather the process of developing habits. The way I understand it, sustainability describes a system of agricultural production that supports itself - indefinately. Sustainability is a method ofliving because you cannot do one big project and achieve sustainability. You must keep at it.

I came across this concept from several different angles. One angle was through organic gardening methods, another was researching Community Supported Agriculture; and a third angle was researching native methods of cultuvation. The fourth way I approached the sustainability question was from a cost basis. And finally I looked at from he basis of simplifying my life.

Organic Gardening methods are characterized by an emphasis on building soil quality, thereby avoiding chemicals to control weeds and pests. An essential element in building soil health is compost. When soil is healthy, plants are healthy and nutritious.

Other Organic Gardening methods include intercropping, raised beds, companion planting, varying varieties of a vegetable, using predator controls, growing green manure crops and mulching. I will discuss each of these in more detail on Wednesdays. Next week, I will discuss composting. I invite your questions posted in comments of course, so I can answer them next week.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Exotic Invasives Part 1 - The Escaping Hedge

Today, I am starting a multi-part series of blogs regarding exotic invasives. These are plants from somewhere else that have become part of our wild landscape in Tennessee and are crowding out the plants that are native to the area. In each blog, I will discuss the origin of the plant, the naturalization process it went through, what plants it threatens, common locations, dangers of that plant, and how to get rid of it. Not necessarily in that order.

Tennessee has an organization devoted to informing people about exotic invasives and native plants called Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council. If a plant adapts to the local climate, exhibits rapid growth, matures quickly to flower and set seed, spreads rampantly and has no major pest or disease problems, it is an invasive plant. An exotic plant means is one that is not native to the area.

There are three types of privet that have made themselves at home in our backyards and wild places. They are variously named Japanese, Chinese and Common privet. Privets escaped from untrimmed hedges. As colonists came to this continent, many brought plants from Europe. Privet hedges are quite common in places like England and France where they are meticulously tended and trimmed. There is the key to the escape. When privet is allowed to flower and set fruit, birds flock to the berries. Through the bird's digestive process, privet seeds are scattered far and wide. The fragrant white blossoms can can escalate symptoms for seasonal allergy sufferers. Deer and other ruminants who forage the leaves, branches and berries of the privet are exposed to toxins in the plant. It is an attractive forage in the winter because it is an evergreen.

Privet is a midstory shrub that thrives in full to partial sun and can even grow in shade. In shady areas, it has a tendency to be leggy in appearance. It grows in many of the same places as Inkberry, Mountain Laurel, Devilwood, Limerock Arrowwood, Southern Waxmyrtle and Possumhaw Vibernum. Through rapidly spreading runners and berry production, privet quickly chokes out other plants in the same forest level.

I have tons of this stuff at the edges of my woods. It has also taken over areas that typically have hill cane growing. I noticed that the late frost we had this year caused the more tender growth to die back. That was very nice. But to get rid of it, you have to be diligent in removing it whenever you see it. Do not compost this plant! Branches, roots, stems and berries can all give rise to new plants. If you cut it back in the spring, cut after it has just put out a bunch of new growth. Cut the trunks back and soak with your choice of commercial chemical herbicide or diesel fuel. Do this when the weather is predicted to be clear and 72 degrees or better. Diesel fuel is considered to be a biologic or organic friendly control because it will breakdown into less toxic material. Commercial herbicides will not. Plant any of the above mentioned native plants in the place of the privet and give it a run for its money.

Monday, September 24, 2007

It is a Wee bit Frustratin'

from Wikipedia: common ragweed - grows between 1-3ft at the farm
So here we are, almost to the end of September, and no fence for a new goat pen. Needless to say, I am mulling this lack of fence over and over in my mind. I want a fence, but when I go outside, I am good for about15-30 minutes tops. Then the golden haze of ragweed pollen mixed with everything else starts to tickle my nose. I'm toast for the rest of the day. If I push my luck, which I have been known to do, and go out after an hour or two of rest in the house, then I am having major allergy problems for at least two days, if not more. Ugh.

Say it through your stopped up sinusitis nose -- Ugh. Don't feel any better? Me either.

I used to say, in college, that I wanted someone to give me a wooden spoon so I could dig out the offending body part - my sinuses. No one took me up on that offer. Too bad. So here I am with my hyper-active super vigilent immune system centralized about my nose and sinuses.

from Wikipedia: grand ragweed, also called buffalo or horse weed, grows 6 ft and beyond in the field

Over the years I have tried countless remedies, both mainstream and not so mainstream. I've had allergy shots. Had an allergic reaction to them after about a year. Ate bee pollen - no change. Ate local honey - no change. Took prescription and over the counter allergy medicine - only works for a lmited amount of time if at all and has to be strong enough to knock me out to work. Went to sleep with a wet warm washcloth on my face - aaah nice but allergies would come back pretty quick. Drank or ate extremely cold drinks - some temporary relief. Worked in computer rooms 8-12 hrs. per day - worked well, but I was cold most of the time and a bit stressed. Sleep always worked pretty well, but I missed a lot of interesting stuff.

Now I have begun to change my diet and my lifestyle as part of this farm experiement and I have had limited success. Ragweed season starts in the middle of August. I usually start sneezing uncontrollably with watery eyes, itchy throat and stuffed sinuses within a day or two. I also get welts when I handle ragweed. They go away after about 15, 20 minutes. This year with my local, organic diet, I pushed the inevitable sinusitis back until about a week ago. That is progress, but I am still allergic. I have recently researched the role of various vitamins in boosting your immune system. Key players appear to be Vitamin E, C, B12 and zinc. It will take a bit longer to work those things into my diet and perhaps the vitamins and minerals would be more effective coming from local food. We will see. One thing I know for sure is... I'm looking for that wooden spoon. Maybe I'll be back out in October or November.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

That's What Friends Are For

by Stu Seeger
Sometimes friends show up at the most serendipitous times. Once we told a friend of ours at Thanksgiving that we would be in Disney World around Christmas. He was going on vacation at the same time and thought he might swing by Florida. On a whim, we said, we're planning to be at Epcot on this day and and so on. One month later, we were at Epcot walking past the Norweigan Exhibit when we here someone calling our name out of a crowd of about three or four thousand people that were in that area at the time. It was our friend. Amazing, huh. Well, that night we all had a fabulous leisurely supper in Morocco at Epcot with plenty of talking, laughter and jokes.
I called another friend today because I hadn't heard from her in about a week. This is really not that unusual because we both get busy. But she was getting ready to to call me when I called her. She needed to visit and talk. So here she is. It's wonderful that it works like that.

I want to say to everyone, value your friends. Since my family moved around a bit when I was young, I don't actually have any lifelong friends that are not somehow related to me by blood. My sweetie on the other hand, has friends he's known since kindergarten. I have to say that's pretty special.

To develop friendships and maintain them is imperative for our mental health. When family passes away or moves on, it's our friends who are there to support us. We are there to support them as well. As Barbra Streisand sang, "People who need people are the luckiest people." The people who are needed are lucky too. Since we humans are social creatures, we need companionship. I love my animals and they are wonderful beings to help restore my spirits when I'm down. However, it's not the same as friend who has laughed and cried with you and you with them, who knows just where you're at and you know when they need you.

Please say a prayer for my friend in need.

Late Night Nonsense

'Twas the night before Tuesday and all through the farm,
various creatures were stirring with no alarm.

Backpacks and papers lay here and there,
On the counter and tabletops, without a care.

The children, those two, were sleeping warm in their beds,
While thoughts of heroes and songs filled their heads;

Poppi in his hair tie, and I by the screen,
In bed he did lie, while I was typing,

Away I wrote with abandon, verve and flash,
While cats opened the unlatched living room window sash

As time wore on, cold air would blow,
While I worked feverishly for the flow,

Of words and inspiration to appear;
But the web traffic was not so clear.

With whirling circles and blank tabs,
All I could see were bits of inline ads.

More rapid than taxes, drowsiness did arrive,
As I struggled with 'div class', template and Analyze

What composition would inspire my blog,
but a classic poem arrived in sleep-addled fog.

Then with a quick search, the text was found,
words arrived and swirled around.

Onto the virtual page they soon were written,
Yet into the night, I went on sittin'

Until, at long last, the creation was complete,
As I kicked my shoes off my feet.

Before I turn in to bed,
one thing more is to be said,

Thank you to friends and family,
Good night, God bless and ZZZzzzzzzzz...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Attention Challenged People Need Routines

Ahh Sunday - The traditional day of rest
My grocery shopping day with some Mommy time and no major projects. Even Sunday has its routine. While it's not the same as the rest of the week, it is still a routine. In an attention challenged household, such as mine, anytime we create a routine, or ritual, the better organized we are.

Although the animals must be fed at more or less the same time every day, Sunday is my one TV watching day. In the morning, I like to take in CBS Sunday morning and John Seigenthaler's A Word on Words on PBS. A Word on Words is particularly interesting as various authors are interviewed about their recent books and John Seigenthaler is himself, a Nashville legend.

Today was pretty similar to most Sundays, in that nothing was planned but shopping until later in the afternoon when we planned to visit my friend Leslie. But My Sweetie decided to take The Boy for some Daddy-time, leaving Jewel and I to procure the food stuffs.

We get into our shopping clothes, brush our hair and fix it up nice, make sure we have our shopping lists and money and out to the car we go. We get in our seats, looking forward to this female ritual of shopping, when I realize that the key is in the car and it's turned to the on position before I ever touched it today. I give it a try anyway. Nothing. What's this?!

I explain the situation to Jewel who is naturally a bit disappointed. I try to roll-start the car in reverse - it's a manual transmission, so it is possible. It almost works twice, but I can't get up quite enough momentum before I hit the ditch at the end of the driveway that was created by the spring monsoons, a couple years ago. So we get out of the car. I put up the hood, so the men will know when they get back that I need some help. I can't jump start the car by myself, you know. Our closest known neighbor is a couple miles away and usually not home on such a lovely Sunday morning.

I am sitting in the kitchen racking my brain about how it came to be that my keys were in the ignition and the switch was on. Then I remembered. Yesterday, when I returned home from the football game, I left the windows down in case I needed to take the car out again later. (So it wouldn't be so hot.) Later when I decided I was calling it quits for the day, I went out to the car and turned the key to put the windows up, since it's all electric in there. Obviously I didn't remember to finish what I started. I can't think of what distracted me, but obviously I spaced out. Which brings me back to the attention challenged bit.

Obviously, I need a better routine that what I got, for keeping the car cool while parked. Perhaps, I will finally break down and purchase one of those sun shields for the windshield. I've been avoiding that purchase for years, because it means old people to me. Whoa, before you start sending indignant emails, let me explain that my PARENTS - lovely people - started with those things by cutting up the refrigerator box in 1975 and carefully shaping it to our car's windshield. Am I scarred for life or what? Hmmm. Probably doesn't even cost that much to get one at the store. I can see something on my list for next Sunday.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hometown Hoedown at the Co-op

Last night, after we trimmed a new customer's horses (Charlotte & Jackson) we went to the Ashland City Co-op's Hometown Hoedown. It is the first time to my husband's recollection that the co-op ever did something like this and it was great family fun. First, supper was free and plentiful. They did not run out of hot dogs, hamburgers or BBQ the entire night. I know my son went back for fourths and fifths in addition to staking out the drinks. Then the entertainment was free and very good. I don't remember the name of every group by the Briar Patch folks were amazing. And last but certainly not least, many folks we knew were there even though there was a pretty major home football game going on at the same time (Sycamore vs. Cheatham Central).

The trimming job was for some new customers who were just the sweetest. The Mrs. invited us in and we talked about babies and rooster decor and fun video games. It is always lovely to meet people who are pleasant to be with. Don't mistake trimming for shoeing. We don't shoe horses because it is not good for the horses. Many will disagree but first things first.

Let me tell about trimming horses. Most folks believe that "real" working horses are and have to be shod and that leaving your horse barefoot is somehow somewhat negligent or at least underclass on the part of the owner. Not so. There are plenty more experts out there on this than me, but here's how I understand it.

A horse's hoof expands and contracts as it moves. This expansion and contraction allow blood and oxygen to flow to the hoof and thus help it grow which in turn protects the horse's feet and allow them to carry weight and absorb shock more effectively. When you pick up a horses hoof to clean or trim it, it is contracted while you are holding it, because there is no weight on it. When you put it down and the horse stands on it, the hoof expands to absorb the downward thrust of the horse's weight.

Horses are shod, by necessity, by lifting up their hooves in turn and nailing the shoe on. So the shoe is fitted and applied when the hoof is contracted. Then you let the hoof down and the horse is standing on the shoe. The hoof doesn't expand because the shoe holds its shape. The force of the downward pressure is increased by 70-80 percent, I'm told.

I keep thinking of glue-on fingernails. When I put these nails on for the first time, it was cool. I had long fingernails and they looked absolutely fabulous. Later, like 6 weeks later, I decided that long nails and housework just were not working well together, so I took them off. Well, started to, anyway. My nails underneath were longer than they would usually have been but they were so thin and flimsy, I had to trim them back right away to keep them from tearing off. So my plan to secretly grow my nails, did not work out so well. I think shoes are like that. The hoof can't grow right with a shoe on it. It's just that simple. Go Barefoot by contacting at (WARNING: we work in the middle Tennessee area, so if you live in Oregon or someplace like that, we probably will refer to another farrier).

Back to the hoe-down (I feel so much better for getting that out there). I loved it, the kids loved it and I'll bet the co-op made a little money, too. Benny, the assistant manager, has a lovely daughter who is also very talented. She played her fiddle and sang with Briar Patch. She was wonderful and performed many oldie but goody bluegrass tunes. It was foot stompin' toe-tappin' time. My sweetie and I even pretended to dance for the camera. She was also working on her stage patter and told some hilarious blond jokes. Here is one she did with her teacher, who fiddles with Briar Patch.

Young girl: "You just got back from vacation didn't you."

Teacher: "Why, yes we did. We were supposed to go to Disney World for two weeks."

Young girl: "You told me you came back early because when you got there and saw the sign, it said Disney World, Left. So you did, too."

he he he

Great showmanship in a small town is not to be missed. We saw several notable folks there and got to talk shop with almost everyone. The folks I got my goats from were there and I was able to get information on Buddy's ever growing horns. Apparently billy goats' horns continue to grow out after they've been removed but the goat typically sloughs the growth off in play. Does do not grow anymore horn once they've been debudded. I saw their daughter taking photos for the local hometown paper. Thank you to the Pennick's for their community support.

Mr. Tom was there, too, camera in hand, talking with folks. We touched base on the regrowth of our poor vegetables that managed to survive this summer's lack of rain. He's been eating squash blossoms daily, also. And his okra has revived itself for one last burst of energy. Thank you, Mr. Tom, for your dead chicken story.

My good friend, Leslie and her gang came out a little later after chores were finished. Her tweens and teens had great fun socializing with their friends, while we made plans to get together for some riding and swapping on Sunday.

Also sighted were several city officials, including the sheriff and his wife. Our friends Allen and Teresa were helping out by selling t-shirts. The boys who load up my weekly feed order were there and were thoroughly enjoying the evening. Mr. West was there talking about how the drought affected his turnip green crop, but he sure enjoyed the fiddlin'.

It was so good to get out and relax, eat and visit. We all hope the Co-op does this again in the future.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

So Much to Do, So Little Time

I've been told by several older women that this is the way it is for middle age. Kids going every different place, trying to get ahead in your career, participating in civic activities, professional organizations and changing roles with your parents.

Whew. That makes me tired just thinking about it. How did we get in this mess?

I think we get into it a little at a time. If you can afford it, no one wants to deprive their child of good experiences, like sports or scouting. So you say only one extracurricular - only one. per kid per person in the house. Okay only one for the kids and two for the adults. Well, really we'll go and do whatever activities the kids get us into and the ones we promised we would do. plus work, plus family, plus friends, plus housekeeping, plus...

Juggling all these things or trying to causes a lot of stress and a lot of sleepless nights. If it seems like you have to be a superhero to do all of this well, you're right. This expectation that we have to do everything and be everything all at once is very damaging to our physical, mental and emotional health. It is imperative that we slim down our busy schedules. And there's the rub. It's easy to say, "I've got to do less" and very hard to actually do less.

So we cope and compensate. Plan our day. Put our make up on in the car. Schedule our time and our children's time. Grab convenience food. Multi-task. Let a few things slip. Buy special treats for the kids. Eat some extra ice cream. Buy an expensive pair of must-have shoes on an impulse. Drink copious amounts of caffeine. Hire a maid. Hire a babysitter. The list can go on.

STOP. Enough already. Sit down. Leave the dishes. Say, "No." Why?

Because we have gotten stuck in the hamster wheel.

I like taking a moment in the fall to reflect on what it is that I am doing with my time and what does my family need. Some people do this at New Year's, but for me it's the fall. I think because I know winter is around the corner and the family can get closer in the winter and also busier. The Fall is a transition time also. So here is the formula I am following at the moment.

1. List what values are important to me

2. List what activities create the most joy/happiness

3. Look at my commitment list and compare it to what I would prefer to be doing

4. Mark the things I am committed to that don't match up

5. Choose a date in the future to bow out of that commitment or change my level of involvement.

6. Let people who are affected know ahead of time that my schedule does not allow me to continue participating after a certain date.

7. Wrap up any loose ends in that area

8. When the date comes, move on


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Diggin' Dirt

I love late season deals. Just the other day I was at the Ashland City Mall (those of you who live here know what I mean, the store that starts with W*) looking at all the different Clearance racks that I could and I wondered into the garden center. I had just recently cleared the weeds out of the front flower bed and fixed it up. I thought it needed another color besides green, so I was poking around for a cheap plant. I found one for three dollars which had actually become four plants, well grown, too. Yippee and I liked how it looked. So I bought it. And I brought it home.

There it is, looking just like it's always been there. That's my favorite kind, you know. The kind that's always been there. Or at least looks that way.

But as I was clearing mulch and digging holes for these new additions, I was getting philosophical. I remember reading the Secret Garden over and over again when I was young, trying to connect with how Mary felt when she first discovered the garden and started weeding the early bulbs. To connect with the newness and what I imagined to be the satisfaction of knowing that your actions were helping another living thing thrive. I didn't get that feeling when my mother assigned weeding chores to me and I don't know why, It just never occurred to me that way in the heat of the summer.

Now I know the difference, especially today. It's the rain, the mist and the coolness. Today wasn't exactly early spring cold at 68F this morning but it is a good deal cooler than a couple weeks ago at 96F. It's been drizzling and the mist has come back to the hills. The soil is wet and easy to move without choking on the dust. Getting my hands in the early soil is something that I have always loved doing. It connects me with the land, with creation.
I remember working in computers a few years back and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with work in general. Many of the engineers I worked with felt the same way. It occurred to me one day that this vague dissatisfaction was the result of a general disconnect in our culture. It's the disconnect that happens when what you do for a living has nothing to do with what you need to live. Fixing computers all day is not in any way related to preparing supper or feeding an infant except by money. Money that is not even tangible anymore. Easy come, easy go. And the pundits wonder why there is so much debt in America. How often do others feel unconnected to living? Don't we all long to make an impact in some way - a tangible impact? For me, it is farming, sustainable farming. What is it for you?

Monday, September 10, 2007

I Think I Shocked the Children

My daughter found her dirty clothes from this morning, washed and waiting for her to put them away. Her response,

"I just returned these to laundry and now I got them back!"

"Mom, I put these in the laundry this morning and now they're clean!"

Complete surprise in her voice and lots of giggling, too.

On a farm, the laundry often takes a back seat to more pressing matters, such as, the goat is in the chicken tractor or the dogs have no water. I have been trying a new schedule of work at the house this past week where I actually spend a full uninterrupted hour every day doing housework, regardless of what the four-leggeds are up to. You would think that would be pretty easy and I had been doing it all along, but again the goat in the chicken tractor thing...

I have done a load or two of laundry every day since last Tuesday and when the kids come home from school, it is sorted into piles on my bed for them to put away. I am almost caught up on the laundry as of today. There are still some major dirty items, like bathroom rugs that require "special" handling, but I can get to them tomorrow.

My children now have responsibility and privilege lists on the refrigerator they can reference when their homework is complete or non-existent. This is supposed to save me from trying to remember what they have to do and then arguing about whether it needs to be done or not. One of their responsibilities is to put away their clean clothes. My daughter actually finished her homework with only 10 minutes of complaining today and went to her responsibility list and saw she had to get her clothes put away. She didn't have to be reminded because I was in the middle of a reminder session with her brother.

The comment was completely unexpected and I did not at first even know what she was talking about. It seems that my system is working well. I am on a mission to spend less time doing things I don't care about and more time doing things I love, using tips from Zen Habits.

One very helpful thing I learned was to make changes in your habits slowly. Try 1 new thing a week and don't try to do something new until you have that one new habit down. That advice really helps when you are trying to keep things simple on the farm. And it helps get the laundry done, too.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Hard Work Never Hurt Anybody

by Josef Steufer

It is something your grandpa or father would say, usually at the point where you complain about some tedious chore that pales in comparison to a day playing hookie or doing nothing.

"Hard work never hurt nobody," he would calmly say handing you the tools of the trade.

In my case, it would be my mother who say this and then she would follow it up with "Too bad."
after further complaints. Out I would go to weed the garden, rake leaves, split wood, scrub
the floor, whatever needed to be done.

I learned there is a rhythm in hard work. There a steady pace you achieve in the process. A flow. It requires more than a 5 minutes to achieve. In today's microwave world, how often do we actually set about doing a "mindless" hard work chore without wishing it would take less time, be easier to accomplish, that we didn't have to do it at all?

It is one of the keys of sustainability to relish the meditative spirit that hard work induces. Some things cost less when we do them by hand. Sure our time is worth something, but we are not throwing it away by engaging in the long or hard way to do something. I am reminded of story I once read, probably in Reader's Digest.

A grown son would watch his father mow grass with a hand mower and then
rake it up every weekend when he came to visit.

Out of concern for his father's age and health, the son purchased a riding lawn mower with a bag attachment. (I guess this was before the days of mulching mowers). Anyway, the father expressed delight with a bit of bewilderment.

"What do I need this for?" he asked, "There is nothing wrong with my

"Well, Dad," replied the son, "I see you working so hard mowing and raking the grass that I thought you may want to spend your time doing something else, like relaxing."

As the son returned each week to visit, he noticed that his father always seemed to be finishing up mowing the yard as he arrived and each time in the same spot. Thinking something was up, the son came early one day and found his father raking the grass into rows and then piles. He went out to his father.

"Dad, why don't you use the mower I gave you? Don't you like it?
Doesn't it save time?"

"Sure, son. It's a fine mower and does a good job. But something is
missing. Come help and I'll show you."

The father explained how the grass rows were lines of soldiers at the battle of Waterloo. As he raked each unit into position, the son understood that mowing the lawn and raking the grass was less about getting done than enjoying the process of the work.

When I undertake to pack the mulch in bags with a pitchfork by hand and so move the hill from one spot to another I do it from the necessity of not having a box blade for my tractor yet, but at the same time I am indulging in the meditative rhythm of hard work.

Meditative hard work is part of the romance of farming. Hard work is also what makes small farming sustainable. I know I can move mulch with a pitchfork. I know I can scrape together the cash from selling at the market to purchase one or borrow one and somehow move things around by hook or by crook. I do not have to go into debt to do it.

Modern farming, industrial agriculture, is predicated upon huge cash outlays for the latest equipment. These cash outlays are usually in the form of loans. When a small farm does work by hand, they avoid the large cash loans that large farms depend on. This often means their produce will cost a little more. But it's more honest, better quality, fresher. It is bought and paid for by the sweat of the brow. Nobody owes anyone anything here. The farm product can be freely given and freely acquired. The economic impact is on the positive side of the balance sheet every time.

What is the value of doing something by hand that restores the mind and spirit and in the end enhances the life of the person who buys it? Is it 60 cents a pound or 1.20 a pound? The next time you are at the grocery store, notice the price difference between organic and conventional products. Know that when you buy organic, you are paying a more honest price for a better product in a situation where everyone and everything does better in the long run. You are paying for something we all can afford.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Ode to Rain

I did not believe the thunderstorm cloud on the forecast at 5:30am. Rain does not happen here, in the land of drought, the region of a 13 inch rain deficit, of no second hay cut, of short-lived stunted crops and livestock sold too early, of 20% chance of rain.

But dawn snuck up in a twilight kinda way and stayed like that while we made tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for school lunches. As we put together backpacks and lunchboxes, the raindrops arrived. First, a rumble of thunder in sync with footsteps across the kitchen floor. Then, a flash of lightening illuminated everything. So bright, it left a violet-red after-image of the back yard behind.

The downpour was torrential as we went to one school and the other, sending out car-high sprays of water. We were a silver grey coach enroute to the event of the season on wings of shining spray.

As I return home, the rain is lighter, the hills are clearer but this place is now misty, mysterious, haunting and familiar. It strikes me that one of my very favorite things about being here is how the mist rises up from the hills and hollows. The rising water vapors create a feeling of home, of protection and shelter. Of specialness, of living in the very first place ever created. And that is of course just how you want your corner of the universe to be.

Welcome Back, Rain.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

What's it Like in Your Neck of the Woods?

Every yard, garden and farm has a unique micro climate.

Here at Mule Shoe Farm our micro climate is influenced mostly by the natural topography - the Cumberland River and steep limestone hills. I can also take advantage of man-made disturbances, such as my house to can maximum usage from my micro climate.

Since the river water changes temperature slowly, our micro climate also changes more slowly than surrounding areas. This means our last frost can be a bit later than tax day. Generally I wait until at least May 15 to start summer crops from seed or plants. On the back side, in autumn, my last frost date isn't until mid-November and the weather stays relatively mild until January.

The limestone hills not only make sure I have plenty of small rocks to fill the holes in my driveway, but the hills also mean that the water rushes toward the bottom of the hollow where I plant. To work with this fast flowing water (esp. in March) there are several tactics we employ here at the farm. I plow in a specific direction designed to minimize wash if it rains after plowing and before plants come up. I can create water breaks, catchment areas and enhance natural drains. I can also practice no-till agriculture and use raised beds to allow the water to slow down and stay closer to the vegetables.

Man-made disturbances in the area are mostly confined to my house. The placement of the house creates a natural cool and shady zone on the sides and a very warm spot in the back. I can use the sides to grow Shitake mushrooms and ferns, while tomatoes and peppers are grown in a hot space created by a concrete patio, afternoon sun and the white paint on the house.

Take some time this year to get familiar with your microclimate. When is your last frost - really? How does the sun cast shadows during the day? What kind of wind(s) can you expect? Do you need to manage runoff? Which side of the house is warmer? etc. Then place your plants accordingly. Not everyone can have tomatoes until mid-November but chances are you can plant something that will grow before or after the regular season or something unique to your area.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Send that Kid to School!

He has the perfect bored teen look down, doesn't he?
My son is modeling his bandana and sunglasses which he cannot wear at his school. I promised I would record every single potentially embarassing moment of his tweens and teens. This was not one of them but he was sooo cute this morning I couldn't resist.

Today was a picking day - a vegetable picking day. I pick vegetables down the road about a mile and half at our friends' place twice a week. I sell theirs and mine on Saturdays at the local Open Air Market. I have always been partial to okra blooms. Here's a good one.
Also picked squash blossoms for supper. Yes - fried and stuffed please.

I thought they were for a late breakfast. But my sweetie convinced me to get dressed up to take the garbage to the dump with him. Since we were all dressed up with no place to go, we decided to eat lunch in town at the Chinese buffet which has excellent sushi. Good day all around.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Floating Down the River like Tom Sawyer

Yellow Boy doing his job guarding the cannas.

Oh Happy Day! Nobody got out of their areas - no Houdini Hens - no wild goats eating my flowers and the dogs were all home this morning.

This is my husband hard at work catching an elusive people-shy Duchess the night we first got her.
AND this is Duchess posing for the camera this afternoon. Ain't she just cute!

We had to work with her to get her used to us. We plan on her being a mommy next spring and how the heck am I going to milk a goat that I can't get near?

I also saw our two fashionably aloof kitties: Charcoal and Larry. They are not allowing any photos today.

I even slept in, but not too much. My friend Sarah came over this morning and we moved some wood, drank coffee, picked tomatoes and squash blossoms and made some kick-butt omelets. She brought some righteous steak biscuits and cinnamon buns from a local restaurant which we added to the great home-made super-fresh omelets. Did I mention the eggs were from own very own Houdini Hens? At least their eggs can't get out.

HINT - add a little baking soda to the omelet to get a good fluff to it. And use large or jumbo eggs. I made ours with 8 pullet eggs - so cute and sweet in their miniature size. BUT - I digress...

Later this afternoon we went canoeing down Sam's Creek toward the Cumberland River with friends - two canoes and two kayaks - 3 adults and 4 children. We saw a heron and another bird with a red head, long beak and black feathers. We also saw a hawk and my daughter saw a turtle. I did not, of course, remember to bring the camera, so too bad. You'll have to get in your own canoe at the boat dock and paddle it yourself to see what I saw. If you are definately not into that, then take a Blue Heron Cruise ( which docks at RiverView Restaurant in Ashland City. Captain Jim gives a terrific wildlife tour up the Cumberland.
When my daughter to stopped making up songs for a moment and I stopped paddling, the stillness of the backwater crept in and it was just beautiful and perfect. It took me back to my childhood summers, fishing with my brother on the bank of the Okmulgee River. I could have sat there forever but my son tipped his kayak for the third time after complaining about being hot. We went back to help turn him over and continued on. We did not quite get to the Cumberland but turned back when we were close. Never go further than you are willing to paddle back is excellent advice in this situation. My son had enough of paddling and we towed him back to the starting point.
We enjoyed us some D-licious watermelon and curry rice when we got back. What a great Labor Day and that's why we are livin' the dream! Oh and did I think about the new fence? - a little - I at least imagined myself digging a posthole. We'll see what happens tomorrow.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Moving Chickens and Fencing Goats

Today's the day - Time to move the chickens. Last week we moved them into their brand-new modern chicken tractor constructed of PVC and plastic net. So, this being Sunday, I tra-la-la down the road with goat concentrate and an egg basket, thinking this will be a piece of cake.

That's what I get for thinking...

Situation Room - Code Red - We have a SITUATION here.

Goats - have no water but are in a big hurry for their special feed ration

Chickens - The Houdini Hens have made themselves at home in the goat pen even bedding down in the mass of sticks-n-stuff I pulled out to the middle yesterday.

Dogs - totally not interested - OK

Now it's time for the 100 yard chicken dash which consists of a grown women in overalls chasing very young and nimble chickens in circles. I'm lucky it's hot in the middle of the day because the chickens get tired and what they don't know is that I just drank a marvelous cup of free-trade coffee with my shaved dark chocolate, butter, cherry preserve, all whole wheat organic toast for breakfast.

OK, now the chickens are back in their happy little home. How did they get out, you ask? Oh well.. It's like this, see... um... last didn't close the net door all the way and they figured out how to slip out. But enough about me - how 'bout them chickens.

I built this chicken tractor with the idea that I could move it all by my wee li'l self so it's pretty light but it's also pretty long. The length was kinda dictated by the number of chickens and the width of my recycled PVC. So I'm moving it taking care to keep the net doors on either side secure. The chickens who had been panting in the shade - now you know it's hot - are getting kinda spunky, chasing newly uncovered bugs and trying out the new grass to see if it tastes all right.

That's Good! Livin' the dream, baby! Happy chickens and ha--- Oh look at the goats! How cute! They're playing that head butt game they like.

No - not cute - dangerous. They're bored. I haven't got the new fence up yet for the next pen, so I am cutting down weeds in places I don't want and feeding the cuttings to the goats. I head on over to the lively lad and the rake - Oh yeah I forgot - the goats and the chickens need water, so it's off to the water with buckets and stuff. The hose is in the raised bed garden so I can water the beds with the excess water generated by rinsing out waterers. Small problem here, the hose has created holes and compacted dirt in the raised garden from that leak I've been meaning to fix. Time to move it to another bed. Finally I get two chicken waters, two five gallon buckets and one five gallon stock pot I use for the dogs, scrubbed, rinsed and filled with fresh water. It's off to get the water out there. Now we're three hours into the whole operation and I'm thinking I'm kinda hungry. On with the show. The goats get their water and their green weedy "hay" mostly ragweed this month, and I'm in the house cooling off with a sandwich and some water.

I am impressed with my air conditioner and the cool darkness of the house. Ah the simple pleasures of life... mmmm. Let's all pause a moment and enjoy cold air conditioning on a hot day.
OK - now the goats have been tied up on one end of the pen to keep them from trampling the chicken tractor and it's time to let them move around a bit. But I'm tired just now and my husband disappears somewhere. The kids want lunch and are full of questions about things they do not have permission to do just yet - like watch TV, play on the computer. There are chores to do that are waiting for an adult to come in and demand they be finished instantly. I am not that adult at the moment but I am the adult who says, "I'm sorry, do what? Oh no, honey, you forgot to pick up your toys in the living room." with as much sympathy as I can muster.

After awhile, I get curious about where my husband has gone off to. I heard him working in his blacksmith shop around back but now the hammer was silent. I go out and head to the goat pen. The wonderful man has - mark your calendars, ladies - read my mind. He is securing a divider fence between the goats and the chickens and is nearly finished. We are recycling some 2"x4" welded wire to create the barrier turning a hundred foot by fifty foot pen into two fifty foot square pens. He had created some iron straight posts the hold the top of the fence down and provide it with more stability than it would otherwise have.

Let me backtrack a bit - this part of the pen had been a garden plot with a partially completed wattle fence in its past and so there were posts every five foot but some of them were no longer stable enough for the goats. So Jim took scrape iron from projects and created fence holders that we drove in the ground to hold the fence. The gate between the pens is part of the fence itself and secured with an iron pin and a clip where the goats can't get to it. Those were some happy goats when we freed them from the lines. Only Buddy maybe wasn't too happy 'cause his lead rope was tied on and he had to be pinned down so we could untie the super knot holding him. He fussed a bit but finally he was free, too.

OK, now it's time for supper and back to the house we go to scare up some grub. Fresh squash, celery and carrots combined with rice, a little bacon and seasoning make an excellent supper for a long day. It's nice to make headway on the never-ending to do list here at the farm. I think tomorrow we will enjoy Labor Day with friends and think about putting up more fence.
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