Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What a Year It Has Been!




The old house (photo dated 2000-2004)

History has its pivotal dates (usually marked by cataclysmic or highly significant events) which serve as reference points used to separate one time period from another. In Biblical history it was the great flood in Noah’s time, the Babylonian captivity, and the birth of Christ. In world or national history such markers are usually major wars which change history by causing political, sociological, and economic upheaval.

On the morning of February 22, 2007
our house and most of our personal possessions were quickly destroyed by a fast moving wind driven fire storm. We now refer to our recent personal history as “before the fire” and “after the fire”. The fire occurred just as we were gearing up for another busy year of market garden farming. We lost not only the house and most of the contents, but also a market delivery van, a car, an all terrain vehicle, a greenhouse, virtually all of our shop and garden tools, and our saved and “just purchased” seed supply. A tractor and another greenhouse were damaged. We had begun construction on a new packing shed and pole barn which we were hoping to have completed by early May, the beginning of our CSA and produce marketing season. Suddenly, what had begun as a fairly normal year with daily routines of farm chores, beginning of year planning, and getting a little extra rest, had been literally blown apart.

Two days after the fire (Feb 24, 2007)

We were deeply touched and blessed by the generous response of the community around us, the extent of which we hardly realized we had. One week following the fire our son and law organized a group of about 30 carpenters, cooks, and willing workers from our local church and neighbors to do a “barn raising” to get enough of our packing shed, pole barn, and greenhouse up and under roof, allowing our growing and marketing season to proceed somewhat on schedule and the first hay cutting to be stored out of the weather. Several weeks later another group, including some EMU college students, assembled to help clean up the garden strips and help prepare for spring planting. Friends and relatives in the local Old Order Mennonite community, in addition to our local church, donated used clothing, home canned food, frozen meat, tools, and heirloom seeds, and helped us financially to purchase expensive tools like a chainsaw, weed trimmer, and even some furniture. CSA members gathered together a used computer, and a riding lawn mower in addition to money. The local Kurdish community planned a picnic and made financial contributions. Several of my seed suppliers donated some items and replaced some of my lost seed at no or reduced cost. Several of my brothers took it upon themselves to haul away the damaged tractor and to repair it. Another group organized to assist with demolition of the ruined house and a neighbor whom Christine has helped with milking chores over the years, lined up a contractor to begin the house reconstruction. To all of these people we owe a deep and heart felt “Thank you!” not once but many times over. What they all did collectively made a tremendous contribution to our recovery and reassured us that even in our time of social and economic independence, community is alive and well. We are grateful for the efforts we have made to build community in the past and somehow we will find ways to return some of this help to others in need in the future.

For weeks following the fire I would return to the farm to face the daunting task of cleaning up the mess, picking through the ruins in search of salvageable items, trying to repair damaged tools and machines with damaged tools, and trying to get some things growing. Seeing daily the piles of debris and the ugly charred and stripped foundation of my house for months afterward was tremendously depressing. We held our annual CSA kickoff and signup meeting as scheduled one week after the fire and signed up over 60 shares. At that meeting I heard that a five year old daughter of one of our members, upon learning of our disaster, had queried “Mommy! Does that mean there will be no vegetables this year?” Deep in my soul I replied “Yes Ellie, there will be vegetables this year!”

The new house near completion (Dec 18, 2007)

House reconstruction began in earnest in early July and both the sight of walls going up and harvests coming in picked up my spirits. We had our usual struggles dealing with drought, weeds, insect pests, and a new four legged pest, deer. At season’s end I sat down and evaluated results of our labors. Here is the summary:
· Crops that did well and produced abundantly—12.
· Crops that produced something but were not worth bragging about—18.
· Crops that failed—13.

Despite it all we had enough to eat, there was something to put into the CSA boxes every week, and I had something to sell at the farmers’ market until late November. It has been tough, but God is taking care of us. We are blessed!

May this letter find all of you who are receiving it also blessed this special season.

Marlin for all of us
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Monday, November 26, 2007

End of Season Finale (Finally!)


On October 29 we finally had a frost after most of the month had unseasonably warm summer like temperatures. I couldn’t protest much as this helped to facilitate the maturation of my fall garden which was already as much as a month behind schedule for several of the crops I normally plant for fall.

Not only was it the first frost (normal first frosts occur early October in this area), but it was a killing frost, meaning that according to local weathermen, the growing season had officially ended. I had just begun harvesting the first heads of a larger than usual cauliflower and broccoli crop (approximately 1000 plants covering more than ¼ acre). Broccoli is more hardy (can tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees before damage occurs), but I was a little concerned that the cauliflower might be damaged some by the cold. Fortunately it came through in relatively good shape despite the fact that, following that first frost, we had about four more nights of what I would consider as killing frosts.

Ever since I first successfully grew the varieties “Cheddar” (bright orange) and “Graffiti” (brilliant purple) cauliflower several years ago I have vowed that I was going to grow in addition to these two, “Fremont” (a superb white variety) and the ever so spectacular lime green with a conical and spiraled head, “Romanesco” and have them all four, along with some broccoli, on my farmers’ market table at the same time.

The problem is that information on the seed packets show as much as a three week difference in the “days to maturity” between “Cheddar” and “Graffiti” and despite the statement that “Romanesco” is supposed to mature in about eighty five days, my own past experience with this variety has been that maturation occurred spread out all over a range of 80 to 150 days.

So the trick is to guess how far apart to seed these varieties in the early summer in order to have a decent shot at having them all ready to pile on my market table at the same time to build my spectacular display. Throw in a few more variables like some “no see um" pests that get on some of the plants before I ever get them out of the greenhouse, midsummer drought and heat as I am transplanting them to the field in mid July, two weeks of nonstop rain and an onslaught of weeds in early August, and a voracious attack of harlequin bugs and cabbage worms throughout August and September. Then one begins to see how challenging it is to even get a crop, not to mention getting it to mature when you want it to!

Well the white cauliflower was heading up nicely by mid October and in fact presented me with some 5 – 6 lb heads that brought nearly $10 each at the market, a record! The orange variety was next to come in (right along with the broccoli) a little more than a week later and also did quite well. I was able to put white in the CSA boxes on Oct 16 and orange in on Oct 23, the last CSA day. The purple variety was still looking quite puny and pathetic at this time and had not even begun to head up, leading me to think that it would probably be a complete failure. The Romanesco was just beginning to slowly develop small heads and I knew that if I was patient it would get there eventually.

Well guess what! On November 10 I finally found enough purple cauliflower to put together with a still fairly abundant amount of orange and even a few remaining heads of the white, together with some nice broccoli and the now emerging green Romanesco, to build my long dreamed of market display. I must admit that I felt really proud to have such a nice display on my final day of the 2007 farmers’ market season. When I go back and add up the tallies of farmers market and restaurant cauliflower and broccoli sales since Oct 13, and estimate in the values of these crops I put into the CSA boxes the final two weeks of the CSA season, I come up with a total value well in excess of $2000. Friday I went out right before dark in my insulated coveralls and harvested another bushel or so of a mixture of purple and green cauliflower which I still hope to sell at the upscale restaurant in town, not bad for a second crop on that little more than ¼ acre plot.

I’ve been spending much of the past few weeks laying ceramic tile in the basement of the new house and building fence connecting the packing shed and barn to the house and yard. The over winter garlic, onion, kale, and spinach crops are up near the house and the clover cover crop in the remainder of the garden field, though planted late, is up. I would like to get some hunting in before the end of this week. If I get the chance I may shoot a couple of those pesky deer that tried to fatten themselves on my edamame soybeans this past summer. The end of the growing season finale has arrived! Finally!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Venerable Patriarch of the Harrisonburg Farmers' Market

It is a typical summer morning at the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market where I go on Saturday to sell some of my farm produce. I have had a busy morning and now somewhere between 10:30 and 11.00 o’clock business has begun to slow down somewhat and I pull out from the back of the van my folding wooden chair and sit down a spell to rest my tired legs and lower back. An elderly man with a wavy grayish blond beard and hair that flows out from under his worn red farmer’s cap and reaches down over his shoulders and partially covers his faded flannel shirt and black suspenders that loosely hang his khaki trousers on his slender frame, slowly ambles over to the front of my canopy and greets me with a cheery “Hello”. “I see you still have plenty of everything.” is his quite predictable comment. To which I usually reply with a grin, “Yeah, plenty of everything but money.” “Oh I have never had much money either but the good Lord has always taken good care of me ever since He gave me my land and told me that He wanted me to grow vegetables.” he tells me once again. He usually soon gets around to telling me that it’s getting about time for him to slow down a little but that he has no intention of retiring. I always remark that “I have already been retired for fifteen years but that I keep on working in order to keep from getting bored and to earn enough money to live on.” Then follows his oft repeated story of how he came about buying his 20 acre farm in the 1940s, how the late Dan Stickley sold him at no interest the farm equipment he needed to get started, and how Earl Wetsel allowed him to purchase seed and pay him back with S&H green stamps when the harvest came in. “I was so poor I couldn’t have bought a settin hen if she was fat!” He chuckles.

At the age of 87 Clarence D is the oldest vendor regularly present at the market and quite arguably the original vendor at the market long before it came to be known as the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market. Clarence began selling vegetables from the back end of his battered pickup in 1960 when the Harrisonburg Police Department gave him permission to set up at the upper west corner of the then Harrisonburg municipal parking lot. Sometime in the early 70s a bi-level parking deck was built on the site and Clarence joined as one of the original vendors when the HFM was organized in the summer of 79 and set up on the lower east side of the deck. Today Clarence proudly declares that he has been in business for over 45 years and that he is able to pass for organic certification because “he has never used no chemicals since he began growing vegetables”.

I first vaguely remember seeing as a kid Clarence set up at the municipal lot when I would come to town shopping with my parents in the 60s but I was not all that interested then. I really came to know Clarence when I began selling at the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market in 1992. At that time he would wear a cone shaped hat he had made from a piece of cardboard bent and glued to an old adjustable hat band. When he wore it he looked kind of like an aged hippie crossed with a Vietnamese coolie farmer. He drove a 1958 vintage Ford Econoline pickup-van with a covered bed homemade of two by fours and weather beaten plywood. That old van finally died on him sometime in 2005. He still uses an ancient cast iron balancing scale that looks like something dragged out of the ruins when the Visagoths sacked Rome. He tells me that a friend of his was going to “haul it to the junk” when he squirreled it from him. It would really be interesting to be around to see what it brings someday when it comes up at an auction with a couple of antique dealers competitively bidding on it.

Yes, Clarence is a simple and humble gentleman who never had a lot of education but who possesses a lot of old fashioned wisdom and a heart of gold. He has never had a lot of money nor a desire to get it. He proudly tells me that he feels that he has been blessed with a good season this year on his one half acre of market garden. He started out the season with a goal of making $500 and when he reached that goal he set another one of making another $500. Then the good Lord allowed him to make that one too. His homemade coolie hat has worn out long ago, but I can still picture him in my mind wearing it and standing behind his old balancing scale with his old Ford pickup loaded with bags and boxes in the background, making quite a picturesque scene. He is almost as photogenic today with his red cap replacing the homemade one. He is a perfect picture of contentment.

He once told me that he once spent a few days in a nursing home following a brief illness. “I wanted to get out of there as quick as I could because I think that a nursing home is nothin but a place where people go to wait to die!”

I am thankful that I have had educational opportunities that Clarence never had and that I was able to take advantage of them. I am thankful that I am still relatively young, can grow vegetables on three or four acres instead of one half acre, and can take advantage of the newest technologies to work my land and run my business. But when it comes to growing old, the example that Clarence is setting is very much the one that I would like to follow.
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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Singers Glen, a Heritage to Treasure

Joseph Funk's house in Singers Glen near the place where the Harmonia Sacra was printed and published

“Good music, like sublime scriptural poetry, is inexpressively sweet and nourishing to the soul and tastes strong of heaven”.

(Written by Joseph Funk in a letter to his married daughter, Mary Keiffer, who was living in Missouri during the 1850s, the time when Funk printed and published the earlier editions of Harmonia Sacra.)

On September 15-16, 2007 a significant community event took place in Singers Glen, the rural Virginia hamlet where I spent most of my growing up years and still live today. This event is the Singers Glen Music and Heritage Festival which has been held in Singers Glen roughly every five years since 1978. The highlight of the festival is the performance of the folk opera "Singers Glen", a theatrical performance written by Alice Parker, a well known writer, musical arranger and graduate of the Julliard School of Music in New York City. This drama celebrates the life of Joseph Funk during the early and middle years of the nineteenth century when he compiled and first published the shaped note hymnal Genuine Church Music, better known in this area as the "Harmonia Sacra", and conducted singing schools up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Christine and I were actors in this drama during the early years of its performance and it is from this experience that we deepened our familiarity with the "Harmonia Sacra" and share a passion for it today.

Mr. Funk was a well educated, deeply spiritual, and talented musician who left not only a unique collection of songs which are challenging and fun to sing, but also an enduring tradition of shaped note singing which is celebrated in Harmonia Sacra sings regularly held in churches and community centers in this area. Originally known as Mountain Valley, Singers Glen gets its name from the rich legacy left behind by Joseph Funk.


The Harmonia Sacra is but one of several shaped note hymnals which were used along with the promotion of singing schools on the advancing frontier throughout the South during the early nineteenth century. Others are Benjamen Franklen White’s Sacred Harp and Ananias Davisson’s Kentucky Harmony.


Several characteristics make the Harmonia Sacra stand out as unique when compared to other hymnals.

In most of the four part music of European origin with which most of us are familiar, the soprano voices carry the main melody. In many songs in the Harmonia Sacra these parts are reversed so that the tenor voices carry the melody. This gives the music a flavor uniquely peculiar to the Harmonia Sacra.

Second there are the robust rhythms which not only give the music life and vigor but speak eloquently to the strength and stamina that those pioneers of the early nineteenth century had to have in order to survive the rigors of life on the early American frontier.

As one sings these songs he cannot help but notice the recurrent themes which allude to the joys of heaven and the release from the pain and sufferings of earthly life. Virtually all families were touched repeatedly by death brought on by illness and other dangers of life on the frontier. In a life devoid of most of the comforts and securities which most of us take for granted in modern times, one can more easily understand our ancestors’ humble reliance on the “mercies of God” and their looking forward to a better afterlife.

And finally there is the beautiful poetry, fascinating forms of archaic expression, and the occasionally stark phrases that jump out and grab your attention. Where else but in the Harmonia Sacra will you find titles like "Divine Adoration" or "Sweet Affliction" and phrases like “Strengthened thus I still press onward, singing as I wade to Heaven” or “Oh this dreadful heart of sin, it may deceive me still, and as I strive for joys above, may plunge me down to Hell!”?

One of the more endearing Harmonia Sacra sings takes place on the first Sunday in August at the old Mauck Meeting House Church in the village of Hamburg near Luray, Virginia. The setting is a rustic and beautifully restored old log church building which has stood since the late 1700s-early 1800s. This is an all day event complete with several hours of singing in the morning, a potluck picnic (“dinner on the grounds” as the old folks would say) under the majestic old maple trees in the church yard, and several more hours of singing in the afternoon.

As folks enter the building, furnished with narrow and crude wooden benches and an ancient cast iron pot bellied stove in the center of the room, the moderator of the event greets them with a hearty handshake and asks some of them if they are able or willing to lead a few songs. If they say "Yes" they are likely to be called upon to lead several songs of their own choosing sometime during the service. The singing begins informally with the moderator leading the fist several songs and announcing a succession of several following song leaders, allowing them a little time to prepare to lead their songs. Each one typically leads about two songs, announcing the page numbers and song titles in both the old edition (the long book) and the “Legacy” edition (the new book). All singing is done “acapella” with no instrumental accompaniment. Occasionally breaks are taken to take a roll call of distant states where attendees may have traveled from to attend the singing, or they may announce the ongoing schedule of upcoming sings. This is the general pattern followed at most Harmonia Sacra sings.

The mid day picnic is an experience in itself, featuring the best of Mennonite home cooking and lots of joyful visiting.

When one considers all that makes the Harmonia Sacra unique, the robust rhythmic harmonies, the poignant imageries and sentiments, and the colorful poetry, and joins in a gathering of several hundred souls of the most experienced of four part harmony acapella singers, they can revel in the best of congregational singing and appreciate what makes the periodic Harmonia Sacra singings such an enduring tradition and the history of Singers Glen a legacy of such treasure.
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shingles on the house, Shingles on my bottom


The house is definitely taking shape. They shingled the roof this past week and hung most of the drywall. From what builders tell me that means the house project is half way to completion. There still seems to be an awful lot to do yet. Just cleaning up debris still remaining in the yard (including what the builders are now adding to the piles) and relocating the fences will be a monumental task in itself. Despite the mess, we feel good about how the house is turning out.

We did most of the architectural design ourselves after being advised by one prospective builder to hire an architectural firm to draw up plans. To do so would have added about 5% to the cost of the house, something we immediately balked at. We got out a number 2 lead pencil, some graph paper, and a foot long ruler and went to work. We figured that if one has a skill worth $10,000 he had better use it.

What we came up with is basically a modified cape cod style with a one story 16' section on the south end, a one and a half story 36' mid section with an eight foot deep porch across the front and a two car sized garage-shop with a 5/12 pitch roof (same as on the south end) and one roll up door for a car entry. A walk in door was spaced between the roll up and the house so that if someone decides later that they need the second roll up, all they will need to do is to knock out a few studs. The entire east side is one open great room including a parlor with vaulted ceiling on the south east corner, family room in the middle, and dining room-kitchen next to the garage. The upstairs portion of the Cape Cod section is one long 16' x 36' room which will be used initially as a guest bedroom with ample attic storage along the sides. This room is big enough to allow a bathroom and two medium sized bedrooms to be inserted in the future if needed. An eight foot wide bay window graces the east side of the parlor. Master bedroom, master bath, steps to basement and upstairs, sewing-work room (can be used as a bedroom if needed), and laundry-half bath room occupies the entire west side.

The basement area has been rearranged and plumbed to accommodate a kitchen-dining room, bathroom, living room, and bedroom and will be usable as an apartment (Building codes do not allow us to call it this.) The painting, flooring, and kitchen will be completed as we have time and money. (Christine has already purchased used kitchen cabinets.) In the near future we will likely use this space to house exchange student-farm trainees or possibly renters who would be able (or willing) to help with farm work or do farm sitting as part of their rental arrangements. If our intentions to avoid moving to assisted living and/or nursing home when Christine and I become too decrepit to care for our selves carries through, this basement may become our dotty quarters. This will depend upon our success to attract family (our own or someone elses) to take over the rest of the house and be able to meet our needs.

Aside from mentioning on a previous post that much of my planting got into the ground as much as a month late, the growing season proceeded as normal, extreme heat and drought through July and the first half of August and monsoon like rains in the last half of August. The tomatoes took off with a bang in late June-early July and are mostly dead from blights by the end of August. The cucumbers suffered a similar fate. The melons mostly ripened within a few days and, because I didn't have the walk in refrigeration up and running yet, I lost about half of the crop because they over ripened before I could get them marketed. I fought deer, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, and harlequin bugs with varying levels of success and failure. I am experimenting with more varieties of edamame soybeans and am having a little better success marketing them this year. Three varieties of heirloom pole snap beans and one heirloom lima bean with extra long pods are maturing now and doing well. Red raspberries are coming in now and if the monsoon rains hold off and we get no hurricanes, we might have a good crop.

Last week I got the Shingles. The shingles on the house are pretty. The Shingles on my bottom are not pretty! When somebody once told me that Shingles hurt, they wudden kiddin! It began with extreme sensitivity on most of my right thigh which felt like a heat rash as I was working. I would take down my pants expecting to see a rash and see only normal healthy skin. After a few days an angry red rash of blisters finally appeared on the inside of the thigh dangerously close to the privates (definitely not a nice place to have shingles). I thought initially that I would ride this one out but more rashes erupted and intensified over the following days and by Friday my leg felt like it was scalded and every five minutes or so I would get shooting stings that felt like I was being stung by hornets. Despite the fact that Friday was a "get stuff picked for market day" I realized that this thing was getting too hot and limped off to Emergicare (my regular doctor was out) and killed most of the day fighting heavy traffic and stewing in waiting rooms.

Finally I walked into a pharmacy with two prescriptions to hear the druggist say in a halting voice with a "Are you sure you want to do this?" sound that “This is going to cost $266”. I immediately hit the roof and made a few inquiries about possible alternatives, then reluctantly began writing a check. When the druggist finished processing my bill and then told me the total would be $297 I really went ballistic! "I thought you told me it was going to be $266!" I exploded. "No! That was just for the first one" she replied. "The second one is $31." Fortunately I was within walking distance of the doctor's office and I was able to go back to talk to him personally. He apologized a bit about not being aware that I had no insurance and that he had prescribed the expensive one because it is to be taken 3 times per day and that most people find it easier to take properly. Yes, he had one that had a generic version that would be less expensive but would need to be taken at 4 hour intervals five times per day. I dug into him a little more, inquiring how the cost per day would work out considering that the cheaper medication would need to be taken more often. He spent a few minutes pecking on his calculator, and then sheepishly told me that this medicine would be considerably cheaper, about $40. "This is going to save you more than $200 on your pharmacy bill.”

So much for how the American health care system works (or not works)!

I got home around 5:30 and helped Christine pick raspberries and beans for a couple of more hours.

The medicine seems to be working as the rashes have stopped spreading but I still feel yucky. It is difficult to tell how much of the yucky is being caused by the Shingles and how much is being caused by the medicine. Now you know why I wanted to avoid going to a doctor in the first place.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Stuff Dreams Are Made of



(written on May 29, 2007)

Every once in a while I have a vivid dream.

I am getting ready to go on a big trip. I’m in process of packing my stuff in preparation for leaving and finishing up a few chores. But things keep on popping up to delay my departure. Something is wrong with the car and has got to be fixed first. The cows are out and rampaging all over the farm and there is no one around to help me get them in. I’m confused and not sure what I should be getting together and I have no idea how to go at it. All I really know is that I was supposed to be there several days ago and I have not even left yet and have no idea when we are going to be able to leave. For some strange reason I don’t even know where we are going or the routes we are going to take to get there! But there is enough of the eternal optimist in me to assure me that I will get it all figured out somehow. Though I am feeling frustrated, I realize that there is a part of me that doesn’t really care because I realize that it must be that way if I am to keep from going completely crazy.

Then there is the “going back to college” version. I have enrolled in a twenty some credit hour course load in one of our nation’s largest universities. I have signed up for a bunch of courses that are way over my head and am faced with piles of thick textbooks to read and term papers to write. I am doing all this while working at an off campus job in order to pay my expenses. I haven’t had time to go to any classes yet and in fact have never met any professors. I don’t even know where on campus the classes are meeting, not to mention knowing my class schedule. I suddenly realize that the semester is half over, I still haven’t been to class yet and I’ve only cracked a few books enough to realize that they are full of undecipherable mathematical problems and deep philosophical ramblings that run way beyond anything I can ever hope to understand. I am not even sure I care about knowing this material, only that I’ve made a commitment and somehow must get over there and pass some tests. But first I must figure out where my dorm is, remember my room number, and find the key. I don’t know how I am going to manage all of this but somehow I am going to because I have to.

Everybody has these kinds of dreams don’t they?

Now perhaps I can write the vegetable farmer’s version. Here goes. I am at the farmers market. There is a bustling crowd of customers and vendors. Several vendors have fresh summer squash and melons and there is even one with ripe tomatoes. There are none of these things on my table as I have only managed to get half of my tomatoes transplanted yet. I’m not even close to having melons or squash as I don’t even know where I will plow the ground to plant them. I am suddenly appalled to realize that this coming Tuesday is another CSA day and there is nothing to put in the boxes as I haven’t gotten around to planting anything yet. It’s not like I’ve been playing around and sleeping. I’ve been quite busy doing all sorts of things that are also important to get done, things like building and repairing the things I must have in order to get the garden stuff done and helping the neighbors with things that they need help with. Maybe this year I might have to settle for harvesting ripe tomatoes from the greenhouse because I couldn’t get them into the garden soon enough. They won’t get as big as they would in the garden because of the crowding in the greenhouse flats. Hey! Why have I been fooling with growing cherry tomatoes? I can just leave some in the greenhouse and save myself the work of transplanting them to the garden. What a great idea! Uh oh! Tomorrow night they are calling for a killing frost and my green beans are just now coming up. The problem is that this is not the last frost of spring—it is the first frost of fall! Where in the world has all the summer gone?! What am I going to do?!

OK. It’s not quite that extreme, but there might be a good explanation why I haven’t dreamed this one yet. It is uncannily close to reality. The fact is that I did have two foot tall tomato plants in my greenhouse before I could get them planted out and this year was the first year ever that I had to put up tomato trellises with posts and the first run of strings before I put in the transplants. Tomorrow is Memorial Day and I have not planted summer squash or green beans yet. If I am lucky and nothing breaks I might get the peppers, eggplants, and pole limas transplanted this coming week. Last week folks all over the county were making hay like crazy and I had no idea when I could get to making mine as I have all this other stuff pushing to be done in front of it. And I am just now realizing that the time is here to get some lettuce plants started in the greenhouse for mid July-August production (people need salad greens to eat with all those tomatoes and cucumbers during those hot weather months) and some cauliflower and broccoli seed started for fall.

Fortunately the fava beans look better than they ever have, the potatoes look good, and I have a nice crop of spring cabbage and broccoli that seem to be quite happy. The tomatoes in one of the high tunnels are hopping and ready for the third string. Most of them have up to three ping pong ball sized fruits on and if I can get the irrigation lines hooked up soon I have a decent chance of picking ripe tomatoes by the end of June. The neighbor is picking some nice strawberries and we will likely be picking peas next week. And that was some really nice lettuce that came out of the high tunnel closest to the house site the last two weeks.

Several days ago Christine and I burnt some midnight oil drawing up house floor plans and elevations. It has been exceedingly hard for me to get this done this spring due to all the other work connected with dealing with the fire aftermath. However this is something I love to do and it feels good to finally have some drawings in hand that help one to visualize what hopefully will eventually be built. Last fall I was engaged in drawing up plans and elevations for the packing shed and pole barn. That building is not yet completed but the packing shed end is mostly done and is already in use. Grounds grading is roughed in and the building is far enough along that the visions of last fall are in focus. I can already see the new house with a Cape Cod style mid section and front porch setting on the now ugly foundation. Seeing first the packing shed and now the new house plans beginning to take shape gives us new hope. Now that is the kind of stuff I wish more dreams were made of.


(addendum: The preceding blog entry was written in late May and edited in mid June. Since that time our lives have proceeded much like the dreams I described and this explains why it is now late July and is only now about to be posted.

Much has happened on the farm since this post was written. We started picking and selling ripe tomatoes by June 30th, a little later than I had originally hoped, but still sneaking just under my goal of having tomatoes before the end of June. Pole beans, okra, summer and winter squash, eggplant, and pepper transplants got into the ground three weeks to a month behind schedule but will have ample time to produce before the return of cold weather. Construction on the new house began on July 2nd and by the 20th it was framed and under tar paper covered roof. It is indeed exciting to see it taking shape day by day.

We are experiencing severe drought conditions and needing to use the drip irrigation extensively. Tomorrow I will tackle the task of setting up more header lines and drip tape on the acre or so of land I will need to set out around 1000 cauliflower, lettuce, and Chinese cabbage plants and seed fall carrots, beets, endive, turnips, arugula, mizuna, etc.

Deer are ravaging the soybeans and the sweet potatoes. I am fighting them by spraying a concoction of concentrated hot pepper extract and Basic H. I'm not sure it is working but I keep doing it if only for spite.

Life is proceeding, a bit difficult, but it is proceeding.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Last Wednesday I spent much of the day down at the farm putting on the finishing touches (taping the thing together with postal tape) on the 100’ field high tunnel frame and putting in tomato stakes. By evening I came home bone weary and depressed as I usually do after spending the day toiling at the farm and seeing once again the barren foundation walls and crumpled concrete slab that was my house and garage, covered with tattered plastic tarps, muddy concrete blocks, and rusting remains of tools and other metal objects I think may be salvageable.

I got in late as I was determined to get those tomato stakes in before dark and have every thing ready to put on plastic early the next morning before the wind gets up. Christine wanted to get away earlier to go to Wednesday evening prayer meeting at church and it was probably a good thing she did as I am usually grumpy by evening and not much fun to be with anyhow.

I got home around dark to find the house to myself. What better time to rummage a little leftover food from the fridge, turn on the old stereo I had salvaged from the fire ruins and regenerated with a repaired electrical cord and speakers I had procured at a yard sale, and find something good to read. I tuned in evening classical music on our local National Public Radio station, flopped into a Lazy Boy recliner, and flipped open the pages of a little paperback entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. What better way is there to rest a stressed body and mind?

The opening chapter began by the author describing his quest to put in simple written form his personal statement of belief or Credo. After many years of trying to get it condensed to less than one page, he finally succeeded. Here it is.

• Share everything.
• Play fair.
• Don’t hit people.
• Put things back where you find them.
• Clean up your own mess.
• Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
• Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone.
• Wash your hands before you eat.
• Flush when you are done. (My wife sometimes says I haven’t learned this one yet.}
• Live a balanced life—learn and think and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day.
• Take a nap every afternoon.
• When you go out into the world, look both ways when you cross the street, hold hands, and stay together.
• Remember the seed in the little paper cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why.
• Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the seed in the little paper cup—all die. So do we.
• Finally remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned to read—the biggest word of all—LOOK.

Need I say more?
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Sunday, April 08, 2007

ResurrectionPutting the Pieces Back Together

Written on April 8, 2007 (Easter Sunday) 6 ½ weeks after the fire

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust (and fire) destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for your selves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matt 6:19-21 “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt 6:31-34

“He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted . . . To comfort all who mourn . . . To give them beauty for ashes . . . The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness . . . the planting of the Lord that He may be glorified. And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations. And they shall repair the (damaged farm)”. Isa 61:1-4

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, My soul shall be joyful in my God . . . For as the earth brings forth its bud, As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isa 61:10-11

It seems only fitting that I write this post on Easter Sunday. Easter is a special day with a special theme—the regeneration of new life and hope out of suffering and loss, as exemplified by the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Old things have passed away and new things are taking their place. Most of the artifacts of our past life and memories are gone. We are replacing some of them with the things most essential for the continuation of a purposeful and productive life. The half finished packing shed and pole barn will be completed. Another house will be built. Five days after the fire we signed up more than 60 renewing and new CSA shares. The trials of the past weeks have undoubtedly changed us emotionally and perhaps spiritually. We have been deeply touched by the compassion and generosity of our neighbors and friends from family, church, CSA, Kurdish, and Internet communities. These communities represent broad diversity in culture, values, wealth, religion, and political orientation, yet they are united in supporting us in a time of need. It behooves us to continue supporting them (and those who have not yet helped us) with our energies and resources as God has blessed us. As God so loved us that He gave His only Son that we may have eternal life, so we must love our God with all our soul, heart, and mind and our neighbors as we love ourselves.

I now write a brief summary of what has happened over the past few weeks.

• We have procured a used Chevrolet work van, a new all terrain vehicle, and the most essential hand and power tools needed for the continuation of our farm work and business.
• Two volunteer community work days have occurred at our farm, one on Saturday March 3 to get most of the new packing shed constructed and under roof and a greenhouse rebuilt, and another on Saturday March 31 to clean up garden, dismantle trellises, do more work on the packing shed, and assemble the framework for a field high tunnel.
• A community benefit concert was held at a local Unitarian Universalist church on March 17 to raise money for our farm and for the church.
• Demolition of the house site has been completed and assessment has been made of what can and cannot be done to rebuild. We are in process of trying to decide how and what we are going to rebuild.
• Members of the Kurdish community have visited in our rented home and they organized a community potluck picnic at the Singers Glen community center on March 25.
• Peas, fava beans, onions, spinach, herbs, lettuce, kale, and broccoli have been planted in the field. The field has been limed and soil tillage has been underway in preparation for more planting in the coming weeks. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, and onions are thriving in the greenhouse.
• The first day of our farmers’ market was held on a very chilly, windy, and snowy April 7. The temperature didn’t get above freezing until the afternoon. I sold over wintered spinach, water cress, eggs, and bagged compost. Considering the kind of morning it was with a low turnout of customers, I couldn’t complain (much).
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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why did it Happen? What does it Mean?


So Satan answered the Lord and said “Does (Marlin) fear God for nothing? Have you not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person. So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord” Job 1: 9 -12
As I begin to reflect upon and try to make sense of this whole experience, the following frequent thoughts and statements from myself, my friends and my wife come to mind.

It was only stuff! Once as we were picking through the rubble, I saw the char edged page of a booklet I had brought back from a trip I had taken years ago to south Florida to help rebuild houses damaged by hurricane Andrew. The page contained a panoramic photograph of blocks of residential housing completely flattened by that terrible storm as far as the eye could see.

As I stood in the midst of the devastating wreckage of my own house, my thoughts went to the remarks of one of my brothers who has been helping rebuild in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina a little more than a year ago. “For about four blocks in from the beach front there was nothing left but bare slabs, and for another six blocks in there was nothing but heaps of rubble—and it was like that for 100 miles!!” I thought of the destruction wrought by the Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean about two years ago affecting not only single communities but multiple countries. My own disaster pales in comparison to that! Not only was there mass destruction of unimaginable scale, there was also loss of life, in some cases, whole families. I had both the assurance that we would have a bed to sleep in that night at the next door neighbor’s house, and word from another that there was a nice house available for rent about 1 ½ miles up the road—all before the firemen had left the scene.

One needs to keep in mind that his possessions really belong to God. God allows us to have things in order to be productive and to derive a certain amount of joy from life. My thoughts continually go back to those few seconds I had to decide which items to take with me as I fled the house. I grabbed the two most visible things, my own and Hans’ guitars sitting on the couch and an easy chair. Why did I grab his relatively low value guitar instead of the $300 digital camera I had just bought about two weeks ago resting on top of the china closet near the kitchen door, or my prized dulcimer resting on top of the TV cabinet? Hans would tell me later that he was glad that I saved this guitar because it was the one that he had learned on and the one that inspired him to reach for the level of accomplishment that he has today. This made me feel a lot better about this impromptu decision. The question of deciding to choose to save items on the basis of monetary value was irrelevant in this situation. This fire has been a dramatic demonstration of how quickly one’s possessions can be taken away. It also demonstrates that our real value is not measured in how much we have but what we are. Certainly there has to be more meaning and purpose to life than the quest to acquire and hold material possessions.

I won’t even begin to try to understand why God would allow such a thing to happen to me or to anyone else. I don’t feel that my wife or me deserved such a calamity. Neither do I feel that it was God’s fault that it happened. I do feel that despite all the shock and pain, God is still there, He still cares for us, and that life will still go on.

It could have been a lot worse! If I had followed my usual routine that morning, I would have parked the big tractor in its usual place beside the diesel fuel tank and the little Farmall Cub tractor would have been parked inside the woodshed by the feed bin. I would have most likely been a distance from the house when the fire really took off and not near enough to warn my wife. We could very easily have lost all of our tractors and all of our motor vehicles and possibly some one’s life.


Is there anything we can do to help? The community response has been overwhelming! And not only have people asked if they can help, they have helped. Members of our local Old Order Mennonite community, with whom I have been swapping heirloom garden seeds for several years, have come forward with seeds to replace some of what I lost, garden tools, and a variety of home canned and frozen food. Our CSA members have offered things like a computer and telephone, a bed, and other furniture. Members of our church organized a barn raising work crew to rebuild the greenhouse and to get the packing shed-pole barn I had started constructing this winter, up and under roof. The local Kurdish community is planning a gathering and meal with us. Numerous persons have given money. My wife is a deeply caring person who is constantly thinking of others and wanting to give and to help out whenever she can. Suddenly she has found herself in a position where the help is coming to her and she and I both struggle to know how to receive it. I am glad that I had spent an hour or so a week earlier running up and down the neighbor’s ice encrusted lanes with my big tractor and disc harrow in order to cut the ice up enough to remove it. I am glad for all the energy we have invested in working to cultivate friendships and community in a diversity of cultures. Now as we find our selves in need, we are grateful to find that community coming to our aid and helping to assure that we will continue to be able to keep on giving back and to keep the circle going.

We have a lot to be thankful for! My wife keeps on exclaiming, “I feel so blessed!” We have a nice house to live in with lots of basement space to clean up the things we saved! We have friends! We have food and clothes! We have enough! We have hope! Thank you God!

We could so easily complain that God or the Devil really did us in but in reality God has provided sufficiently. None of us were injured physically and the emotional injuries, though painful, will heal and probably leave us stronger. More than two weeks after the disaster I still feel burned and battered inside. Like the cold snow squalls that have periodically swept our area for the past week, waves of depression have repeatedly blown into my soul with their chilly fallout and I struggle to keep my head together. Many times I have felt perilously close to emotional breakdown but giving up will not help the situation. There are too many people who need us and too much work that needs to be done.

Fortunately the sun comes out and the sky clears after the snow shower has ended. Emotional bruises are sort of like physical injuries such as sprained joints, deeply bruised muscles, and fractured ribs (all things I have experienced). They will heal with time and they heal best when one goes ahead with purposeful but careful activity despite the pain. Lying around and bawling over emotional pain or refusing to walk with a sprained ankle will cause it to stiffen and hurt worse. I am thankful that God is giving me the strength to work through the pain.

Tomorrow I am going to plant some seeds and transplant some lettuce.
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Picking Up The Pieces




(Written Thursday March 1, one week after the fire)

We began assessing the damage and carrying a few things out of the basement by early afternoon. The firemen had gotten most of the fire out and were ready to begin the mop up. I consider it remarkable that the firemen would give me permission to enter the burned out ruins so soon.

The intense fire had raced through the attic and burned its way down through the upper rooms but had not reached the basement. We immediately realized that there would some furniture and clothes that could be salvaged from there before dripping water from above would take its toll. The solid preformed concrete basement walls had never felt the heat and gave every indication that they would be sound enough to rebuild upon.

My spirits lifted a little out of my state of shock when I saw some more flats of undamaged plants on the four tiered plant germinating and grow rack located just inside the sliding glass doors on the south basement wall. I added these to the dozen or so already resting safely on the other side of the yard and returned to begin dismantling the grow rack. At least there would be a few living plants to start off the new gardening season. Craig backed his pickup up to the edge of the yard as Ric, Joy, and their two children arrived and the six of us began carrying bed frames and mattresses, an antique walnut typewriter desk, and Christine’s upholstery sewing machine to the bed of his truck. The grow rack, heat mats, and florescent fixtures went to the old goat shed at the corner of the yard.

There was little we could do for the remainder of the day but to stand around in shock and watch the firemen bury the site in fire retardant foam, meet briefly with our insurance adjuster, and try to answer questions. Christine and I spent much of the next morning checking out the rental house located about a mile and a half north of us, moving some essentials in, and running into town to buy some basic supplies, a new pair of insulated coveralls, rubber boots, and a few tools. On Saturday Kerwin, Phillip, and I went to town to buy a few more tools, and a new “scratch and dent” chest freezer. Sunday brought us six-eight inches of wet snow, canceled church, and an opportunity to spend some very quality time with my three children, resting and healing. Considering the stress we had been through for the past several days, only God could have provided the strength that sustained us.

On Monday morning Christine’s brother James and wife Doris visited and the day was spent moving some stuff to the rental house and trying to recover some more items from the ruins including our computer. Our neighbor advised us that it might contain a salvageable hard drive. He would check it out. The following day he gave us the good news that the damaged computer worked when he plugged it in and that he was able to back up the hard drive onto his data retrieval system. We met with our insurance adjuster again on Tuesday and Wednesday to do a room by room inventory of our losses and to continue looking for salvageable items. Hans went shopping for a digital camera and to pick up a donated computer and printer. He was then able to reload the hard drive from the old computer onto the donated computer and by the following weeks end we had a computer back up and running.

As we took inventory of our losses we realized that we were richer than we had thought we were. As the grim awareness of what we had lost began to soak into our consciousness we had to try to focus on what we had not lost. Considering the extent of the devastation, it amazed us what was beginning to appear as salvageable. However I could not keep from thinking of the mementos from my past that were most likely gone forever. There was the little wooden box from my long deceased grandmother Burkholder that contained among other things, a magazine article written in 1948 (the year of my birth) by my namesake. Marlin S. Burkholder. There was the high school algebra test I had passed with a grade of 104 one rare day when my neurons happened to be firing in just the right order; and the Phi Theta Kappa pin I had earned in junior college. Somewhere in the rubble there might be remnants of the bowling pin table lamp and the lathe turned footstool I had made in 9th grade industrial arts class. Various books I highly treasure came to mind—the new collegiate edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (replaceable at a price), Heck’s Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration (most likely difficult to replace), and James Foster’s Bible Pictures and What They Tell Us, a personally autographed gift to me from a third grade teacher, published in 1897 and full of beautiful woodcut illustrations, (irreplaceable). Christine mentioned her grandmother’s china set, now shattered amongst the ashes on the living room floor, and her mother’s china, stored in the attic for her sister Darlene.

The main floor was a scene of sickening destruction. Broken and charred furniture lay everywhere. The remains of two china closets, magazines, and old phonograph records littered the floor. The solid walnut lathe turned floor lamp that Christine had bought for $3.00 at an auction, stripped and refinished, lay charred almost beyond recognition beside the remnants of my favorite leather covered Lazy Boy recliner. The walls and room partitions were still standing but ruined. In the library room an entire wall sized bookcase had toppled, spilling its charred contents into the ashes. The acrid stench of smoke permeated the air and everything we touched. Here and there stood a piece of scorched but otherwise not deeply burned furniture that appeared to be possibly salvageable.

The kitchen was the least damaged. In one corner stood a smoked but otherwise not apparently damaged refrigerator. Four flashlights lying on top still worked. A house broom sitting in the eight-inch space between the wall and refrigerator showed no sign of having ever been near a fire despite the fact that directly above, the ceiling was completely burnt away. Food in the refrigerator was still cold and the icemaker was still full of unmelted ice. Much of the food and utensils in the cabinets was salvageable. The smooth top electric range, though a mess, looked like it might work again. The antique buffet sitting at the end of the kitchen, though covered in wet ash, had little fire damage.

The main bedroom sustained the most damage within the house. Here were two large built in closets containing most of our clothes, a large recently built cedar closet full of woolen garments, two chest of drawers full of clothes, and our bed—plenty of food for fire. All that remained standing and recognizable was the ornate and antique chest of drawers containing my underwear and work clothes, where we would make the most amazing discovery.

The chest was deeply charred and ruined. The tight fitting drawers were apparently sealed shut from melted polyurethane varnish and impossible to open. I squirreled a pry bar from the garage area and pried them open. Inside one drawer was most of my underwear. Several new packs had never been opened and the plastic was not even melted! Another contained four pairs of “Hippo sized” chore gloves and some extra heavy insulated socks I had special ordered from Gemplars for about $6.00/pair and $12.00 a pair respectively—not the kind of things one can run to town and pick up at Wal Mart. A small coin collection in the top drawer containing a large silver piece from Spain dated 1804, four buffalo nickels, and a handful of more recent 50 cent pieces was undamaged. By now I was beginning to feel that God was going to take care of some of my most basic needs. At least I was going to have clean underwear to put on tonight and I wouldn’t have to go around with cold hands and feet for the next few days.

As we moved from the bedroom into the breezeway and garage area we entered into a zone of total destruction. Here everything was burned to the ground. Nothing stood but the hulks of burned out refrigerators, a fuel tank, and the wood furnace. A long workbench on the back wall and all of my shop and garden tools was gone. Three chest freezers containing our stored food and my entire garden seed inventory had imploded in the intense heat and appeared as if a giant hand had crushed them, much like I would crush a soda can. Nothing remained of the market van, a car, a riding lawn mower, and my four wheeler, but sagging hulks of twisted and rusting metal.

As we began digging, a few treasures reappeared. Someone had removed the drawers from the large old desk I had repaired and refinished years ago and among their contents were seed catalogs, garden records and recent purchase invoices I would need to replenish my lost seed supply and carry on my 2007 garden plans. The desk itself survived with possibly the need for another refinishing. Beside the desk I found my lathe turned footstool buried beneath a fallen slab of drywall which had protected it from serious fire and water damage. Fire and water ruined my Bible but various photos, cards, and papers I didn’t want to lose and habitually placed temporarily within its pages were not harmed. The dictionary appeared with minor water damage. The Encyclopedia of Illustration was more seriously water damaged but I am trying to restore it. The bowling pin lamp turned up in the basement and now graces the end table by the sofa in the house we are now renting. The little wooden box was burnt up almost beyond recognition but the contents inside, including the old algebra test, were still intact.
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Trial By Fire!





Feb 22, 2007

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though (our possessions) be removed, . . . Psalms 46: 1,2

This morning I got up around 8:00 at the usual time, a little later than I should have. The sun was up and it appeared to be a nice day in the making, the second day in a row with much warmer weather than we had been having. Much of the icy snow had melted off the fields and I was looking forward to getting back to laying up the cinder block wall on the packing shed building we had started building during the Christmas holidays. I went out to the garage to check the furnace as my first chore of the day. I had not put any logs on since around noon yesterday and the fire was out cold. I figured I could leave the furnace shut down today so I switched off the circulator pump. One partially burned piece remained in the firebox so I decided to remove it. It appeared to be completely out with no sign of smoke or glowing embers so I tossed it across the wood pile stacked along the west side of the open lean to shed attached to the garage. (I have no idea why I would have done anything so stupid!)

The chickens would need to be moved today so I had made sure to close the doors to their shelter the night before so I could do it first thing in the morning. I would need to warm the engine block on the diesel tractor in order to start it, so I plugged in the engine block heater and went inside for breakfast. I would need to give the tractor some time to warm up so I killed some time after breakfast making some phone calls and studying a supply catalog I had picked up yesterday at a soils management workshop. Around 10:00 I fired up the tractor and went out to move the chickens. This involved taking down the electronet fence surrounding the shelter, pulling the shelter with the tractor to a fresh location in the field, reassembling the fence, and moving feeders and waterers to the new location. Normally this task takes about 15-20 minutes. This morning it took me at least forty five minutes as it was difficult to push the fence stakes into the still partially frozen ground.

As I was working I noticed a small wisp of smoke in front of the hoop house. There is a 50 gallon drum sitting there which Christine often uses to burn kitchen trash. The smoke appeared to be coming from the barrel so I was not alarmed. I finished the job and came back in on the tractor. Normally I would have parked the tractor at its usual spot between the fuel tank at the northern edge of the woodshed and a small Ford tractor parked about 15 feet away. This morning I parked it behind the hoop house as I intended to carry fresh feed and water to the chickens, and then go back out on the tractor to feed hay to the cattle. The wind had picked up a lot in the previous half hour and was blowing hard from the west. As I walked around the back of the hoop house and turned the corner towards the woodshed I suddenly found myself looking with horror at a good sized fire at the base of the wood pile blowing into the pile with the force and intensity of a gigantic blowtorch!

My first impulse was to grab the garden hose, turn on the water hydrant nearby, and try to extinguish the blaze but it already was looking pretty hot so I quickly decided to dash around to the front of the house to warn Christine first. I burst through the front door and barked, “Christine, call the fire department immediately!! We’ve got a fire in the woodshed!!” I dashed back around to the woodpile to find the fire engulfing the entire pile. I turned on the water hose but quickly realized as the intense heat drove me backwards that I had already lost it. With the fire roaring into the garage attic I frantically dashed back to the front. I flew through the door and shouted to Christine (she was just getting off the phone) as I grabbed my guitar off the sofa with my right hand and Han’s guitar off the rocking chair with my left, “We don’t have much time!!” As smoke poured into the hallway, Christine dove under the desk to retrieve the safe box containing our most important papers and her pocketbook. “Let’s get out of here!!!” I shouted above the roar of the fast approaching fire storm. I threw our things into the back seat of the car as Christine jumped behind the wheel and sped down the driveway to safety. (We would later discover the tail light lenses warped and blistered from the gathering heat.)

Things were beginning to go “Boom!” in the now fully engulfed garage as I headed down to the bottom of the lane to where our next door neighbor and pastor, Ric Gullman and Christine were gathering. We looked up to see the plastic melted loose and blowing up from the house side of the hoop house and the Ford Taurus parked in front of the garage in full blaze. Christine asked with concern in her voice, “Shouldn’t you move the tractor farther away?” I took a circuitous route up the hill to move the tractor, ducking low to avoid the immense cloud of black smoke billowing a few feet above my head. As I returned I saw two more neighbors, Roberta Moore (hereafter known as “Bert”) hugging Christine, and Brandon Davis watching. Christine, Bert, and Brandon then walked up towards the burning house and began removing plants from the far end of the small greenhouse located a few feet from the south end of the house. Ric walked up and we began talking. A few minutes later Bert walked past me and I heard her say, “Dust Bunny has exploded!”

The next scene will be etched forever in my mind. I briefly shifted my gaze from the house fully engaged in fire to see Bert’s prized eight months pregnant mare lying dead in front of her barn, guts spilt out on the ground, and a trail of blood leading across the yard from the fence line and sharpened post where she had apparently disemboweled herself in her panicked flight to escape the dense billowing cloud hurtling through their pasture paddock and towards the horse barn. I would later learn that Bert had seen the stricken horse shortly after she had gotten out of her car and, realizing that there was nothing she could do for the horse, came on up to help us get the plants moved to the redbud bush on the far side of the yard. Minutes later a piece of flaming roof debris landed on the ground beside the greenhouse, buckling the bows with the heat and cooking the remaining flats of plants inside. By now the fire trucks were arriving and we had to move all of our cars farther up the road to make room for them.

News people arrived and began plying me for information. Bert returned with her digital camera and offered it to me to record the terrible scene. I was in no shape at the moment to concentrate on operating unfamiliar technical instruments so she graciously took some pictures. The fire marshal came up to interview me and the two of us walked around the rear to where the fire had started. At first I was bewildered at how the fire had started and could only offer two possible theories—spontaneous combustion or a spark from the burning trash barrel. Neither of these theories is plausible as stacked wood is generally not known to spontaneously combust in the winter time and the trash barrel was down wind and a distance from the source of the fire. Then I remembered the piece of charred wood I had chucked out. The 50 mile per hour winds that came up an hour later had evidently found a spark of life in that dead piece of charred wood. (I would later learn that Christine had not burned any house trash this morning.)

By now the community news grapevine was abuzz. Ric’s wife Joy was on the phone calling family and church friends. Craig Good, son in law to my eldest daughter Celia, was the first to arrive and help the firemen to hook up fire hoses. Celia called second daughter Rhonda and gave us the word that she and Kerwin would get here tonight. My son Hans called from Berea Kentucky that he would be here before morning. One of my brothers heard the call on his emergency scanner, came to the scene, and began calling out to my extended family on his cell phone. Joy brought a bowl of vegetable soup which I could hardly eat. Bert returned from burying her dead horse to assure us that we would have a place to sleep at her house tonight. Several other neighbors from farther down the road, some of whom I had never met, came by to offer help. One called Craig to tell us that he had an unoccupied house about a mile from us that we could rent.

Several hours later the fire was under control and firemen gave us permission to carefully enter the now gutted structure and to begin recovering a few salvageable items. One fireman handed me my soaked but otherwise undamaged wallet which he had found somewhere in the rubble. They had gotten most of the fire out before it had had time to settle into the basement so we would be able to recover some furniture, clothing, and greenhouse supplies from that area. Now the mop up phase of the operation was underway as the firemen sprayed fire retardant foam all over the burned area. As the late afternoon daylight began to wane we crept through the ankle deep foam, which lay over the charred debris like a ghostly shroud, and gazed into the familiar rooms to view the vestiges of what had been our personal possessions. Out in the garage and shop area laid the sagging hulks of the market van, a car, the four wheeler, and a riding lawn mower. Several freezers and refrigerators, the wood furnace, and a diesel fuel tank teetered like mottled blackish-gray tombstones covered with snow. The Ford tractor sat at a crazy angle just outside the perimeter of the enshrouded area with the tires burned off the rims on the side nearest the fire. It was a truly surreal scene!

One of my first cousins, Raleigh Rhodes, drove up and suggested that we find a hammer and nails and some scrap wood, to temporarily fasten down the hoop house plastic now flapping in the wind. As we worked in the deepening twilight the topic came up. “What happened to the cat and her half grown kitten?” We both agreed that since we had not heard or seen them around, that they had most likely perished. “Meow”. Was it my imagination? “Meow” No, it can’t be! “Meow” Yes, maybe it can be! “Meow” Yes, no doubt about it! But where is it coming from? Over in the calf hutch! I ran over and peered into the darkness amidst boxes, empty milk crates, and rolls of used drip tape. “Meooow” I reached with my hand like a blind man, groping with my fingers into the darkness, feeling beside and under a pallet until I touched a bundle of rough damp fur. I gently lifted it out. The little fellow had most of its hair singed off and he pulled his front feet up and down painfully under his quivering body. “Meooow!” My first thought was that Bert had a compassion for animals and would gladly nurture it back to health. But Raleigh insisted that his 12 year old daughter would be eager to do it also. I sent Smokey with him.

We have just gotten back from eating supper at Craig and Celias. I still did not feel like eating much and felt it wise not to push myself to eat. I am exhausted and feel myself at the point of collapse. Running all day on adrenaline has been a new experience and it is causing strange sensations in my body and mind. We are at Bert’s now and trying to sleep. Sleep will not come! The emotional fires that have been searing my guts all day are still smoldering deep within. If someone were to offer me a shot of valium or whisky at this moment I would almost take it. But it is much better that I don’t have this crutch to lean on. I just need to rest and heal. I try to visualize Jesus standing by the bed with his warm hand on my burning stomach and chest. Oh God! Can you reach down and touch me with some healing balm? Finally I drift into a few hours of fitful sleep.
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Saturday, February 17, 2007

What do you do in the winter months?

I wonder how many times I have been asked this question by my farm customers and friends during the busy summer months. My standard answer is "I spend a lot of the time repairing the damage I did during the rest of the year." That may be a bit of an overstatement but, if one reflects on it, it is not that far from the truth. There really is a lot of cleanup work in the fields that needs to get done in the off season, things like cutting out and burning the old tomato, pepper, and bean vines, dismantling the trellises, and pulling up the plastic mulch and drip tape. And there is always something that needs to get fixed ranging from major mechanical repairs on a tractor to patching that slow leaking tire on a garden cart.

Most people assume that during the wintertime I can kick back and relax from all of the busy activity of the summer. If I'm really honest I will admit that I do a little of that. I regularly enjoy the luxury of getting up between 7:00 and 8:00 AM every morning. Compared to the old days when I got up between 4:30 and 5:00 AM seven days a week no matter how bad the weather, how late I had been up the night before, or how big a snoot full of snotty cold I had, getting up at 7:00 is major sleeping in. That I like! The reality is that, rather than being less busy, my busyness just changes phase. For much of the early part of this winter that wasn't a winter, I kept hoping for some bad weather so I could justify doing some of the inside things that you do when it is too bad to work outside. Choosing what to do other than the things I have to do or the things my wife is trying to get me to do, is like choosing what to eat at a church potluck. Your plate can only hold so much. So you have to do a little of this and a little of that and to leave a lot of things undone that you thought you would have time to do during the winter. The book on autobiographic writing remains half read and I have yet to begin writing any of my stories or the article for "Gardening For Market" that I intend to get done in 2007.

Well this week we finally got the bad weather I've been hoping for. One thing I didn't do was to immediately go out in the cold to chip the snice (mixture of snow and ice) off the car and make the daily commute through all that mess to a job in town. Instead I chucked another log on the fire and went inside to turn on the TV and watch the news reporters showing all those graphic scenes of intrepid travelors struggling through the storm. I didn't even try to clear the driveway until yesterday afternoon and only then because an idea had come to me in my sleep the night before that running the big tractor and disc harrow up and down the lane a few times might cut the compacted snow and ice loose. It worked like a charm! That has to be one of the greatest things I like about farming!

The other nice thing about being a farmer is that when snow and ice prevents you from
working in your fields, you can go play in it. That is a lot better than driving in it.

The pictures show me trying to ride the bump jumper I built more than 20 years ago from an article and pictures I had seen in a magazine. Riding it is sort of like riding a bull in a rodeo. The ride is sure to end with a good spill. The longer you stay up or the farther you get down the hill before dumping the better you are. The photographer had to be fairly quick to get this one of me while it looked good.
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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Miracle of Seeds

Seeds are wonderful things! They come in a myriad variety of size, shape, and color. However, all seeds hold two things in common. Externally they all appear to be dry and lifeless. Yet deep inside each of them is a tiny germ sized spark of life. When the right combination of light, moisture, and heat is present, that spark will cause the germ to divide and divide again and then to differentiate into root, stem, and leaf until a growing plant is formed. The emergence of life in this way is a miracle that always fascinates me.

I now share with you a bit of seed trivia. Have you ever wondered how big the world’s largest seed is? I have always thought a coconut would get that honor. The prize goes to the single seed of the “coco de mer” palm, measuring about three feet in circumference, a foot in length and weighing in at a respectable nearly 50 pounds! How about the smallest seed? It is not the mustard seed mentioned in the Bible. The smallest I have appears to be about the size of a grain of salt and numbers an average 45,000 seeds per ounce. The real winner is an orchid seed which numbers 35,000,000 to the ounce! What would be the longest time for a seed to retain its viability and be capable of sprouting? Most seed will remain viable for several years. I have some that is still fairly viable after being in storage for more than 10 years. A number of years ago I read that some amaranth seed found inside an ancient Aztec pyramid in Mexico sprouted and grew after an estimated 500 years. In 2005 some archeologists dug up some date palm seed from a Herodian temple in Masada, planted it, and watched it grow. Carbon dating estimated this seed to be about 2000 years old! What would be the greatest discrepancy between the size of a seed and the size of the plant that grows from it - an acorn sprouting to become a mighty oak tree perhaps? Are you ready? The seed of the giant sequoia measures a mere 1/16 of an inch in length, (about the thickness of a dime) and has produced a tree whose trunk is 20 feet in diameter and more than 300 feet tall, the most massive living thing known to exist! Now isn’t that something?!

I hold in my hands two containers of seeds.

In my left hand I hold seed descended from the seeds of a highly valued bean variety that was given to me by one of my farmers’ market customers about eight years ago. He told me that this bean variety had been grown by one of his aunts living in Tennessee since the days of his childhood. Because this particular variety of bean yields an abundance of long and wide superbly flavored pods, it was highly prized and saved from year to year by his family. He gave me some of these seeds because, as he said in his own words, “I think you will like them”. I have saved seeds from this variety myself for the years since he passed on to me this special gift and have given some to numerous gardening friends. I intend to continue saving these precious seeds and to pass them on to others.

In my right hand I hold some seed of one of my most noxious weeds. Most productive food plants have to be carefully planted at the proper time in the growing season into well prepared fertile soil, watered, pruned, weeded, and cultivated in order to obtain a worthy yield. When the harvest is over some of their seed needs to be properly harvested and stored in a safe cool dry place in order to be good enough to plant the following year. Weeds, on the other hand, do not need to be cultivated in order to thrive. If allowed to produce seed, weeds will pollute the field with seed that can be buried deep in the soil by the plow and lay dormant for decades until the right conditions allow it to sprout and grow uninvited in the midst of a planted crop. If the farmer neglects to remove them, they will overtake the good plants and either choke them out entirely or substantially reduce their yield potential. Many weeds are poisonous or have thorns that imbed themselves in our flesh and are painful to remove. Others produce underground roots or stems that break into pieces and are quickly spread all over the field or garden. These pieces will then sprout into more weeds wherever they fall and spread like wildfire. Weeds of some sort will grow in soil both fertile and infertile and will resist the farmer’s most persistent efforts to eradicate them. If broken off or uprooted from the soil, a crop plant will usually die. If a weed is angrily jerked up by the roots or whacked off, it will usually reroot or grow back from the stump. It takes effort to plant a crop, to keep it free of pests, and to nurture it to production. It takes effort to keep weeds from growing and spreading. Fortunately if the farmer succeeds in controlling the weed growth while the crop is young, the crop will grow big and strong enough to overcome the weeds and to grow on to a bountiful harvest.

We all are aware of the many kinds of obnoxious weeds that exist in our lives. Things like fear, worry, jealousy, greed, prejudice, hate, and anger pollute our lives, threaten to choke out our happiness, and interfere with our success if not kept under control. The seeds of these weeds can lie dormant in our subconscious minds for years to spring forth with a vengeance when circumstances favorable to their growth arise. They are the source of much pain and discord. These seeds are all around us, spread rapidly, and are difficult to get rid of. Fortunately they can be controlled.

I like to think that the positive values passed on to us by parents, teachers, and friends are like good seeds. Qualities like honesty, thriftiness, love, dedication, reverence, perseverance, loyalty, and respect, are planted into the soil of our lives to be cultivated and nurtured until they mature into the fruit of happiness and productivity. To grow a good crop a farmer needs to manage the soil in such a way as to maintain its health and fertility, and to prepare seed beds properly before planting seeds. The growing crop is cultivated, weeded, pruned, and trellised as necessary. The values we plant in to the well prepared soil of stable marriage built on Christian principles will grow and thrive if we tend that soil, remove the weeds, and apply rules and discipline as needed to control the growth of the crop, our children. As God supplies the sunshine, warmth, and rain necessary to sustain a growing crop, He will supply the blessings we are unable to provide in order to sustain our growth. The values needed to produce a crop of healthy, well adjusted, and productive God fearing persons need to be cherished and passed on from generation to generation or shared with friends just as we cherish, save, and pass on seeds of our best plant varieties.

Aren’t seeds wonderful?!
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Monday, January 22, 2007

Work Versus Workout

I recently read an article in our local newspaper about the growing popularity of health and fitness clubs this time of year when people need to lose weight and improve their overall physical wellness. Several times in the past several years I had occasion to visit a fitness center, and was always amazed to peek into their workout rooms to see large numbers of dedicated and highly motivated people pumping away on a broad array of exercise machines designed to help them achieve their various health improvement goals. Apparently these people shell out a range of $30-$50 per month for the privilege of working their muscles and burning off unwanted body fat in hopes of being “the better off for it”. How wonderful, I would think, if I could find a way to harness some of this energy and put it to work on my farm. Then perhaps they, and I, would end up with real benefits.

The program I would offer would be radically different from that offered by a health-fitness club. There would be perks that I doubt any of them could offer. Instead of exercising to the beat of rock music and the odor of everyone else’s sweat, participants in my program would inhale fresh outdoor air and be soothed by chirping crickets and singing birds, punctuated by an occasional crowing rooster or a barking dog. Rather than set them up on a $5000 “do nothing” machine, I would hand them a $15 hoe, shovel, or rake and teach them how to dance with it. The beauty of it all would be that they could move as slowly or as fast as they would need to in order to achieve their particular exercise goals, much like they would in any fitness program. Although on a farm there would be no fancy instruments to measure their heart and respiration rates, there would be ample opportunities for one to toil until muscles ache, the heart beats faster, or breathing begins to be deeper and faster–all things that benefit overall health if not overdone. And hopefully when they are done, they could look back and admire something they had actually accomplished.

I could offer a considerably better deal than $30-$50 per month to any one interested in joining this program. In fact it wouldn’t be a bad deal for either of us if I offered the program for free. However, even if I offered to pay them something to work out on my farm, I still doubt if I would get any takers. Isn’t it interesting the difference in the meaning between “work” and “workout”?