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”?

Seed Ordering Madness

I didn't have a suitable picture to illustrate this post so I just chose one I thought everyone would think was pretty. The lovely looking lady here was one of our helpers from a few years back.

Sometime around mid December of every year beauty begins to appear in the mailbox at the end of my lane. As the days continue their steady descent towards the winter solstice, the fields exchange their vibrant green color for a bleak shade of brownish gray and occasionally glistening white, and the weather becomes less conducive to outdoor activity. Then the flow of mail order seed catalogs steadily increases to a flood and as the pile grows ever higher on the dining room table, so begins my annual ritual of delightfully perusing their colorful and enticing contents.

The best ones always put on the front cover a stunningly beautiful close up photo of one of their latest vegetable varieties such as a tomato or melon at the peak of ripeness, or perhaps a pile of assorted fruits, vegetables and flowers of varying size, shape and color lying on a table or in a wheelbarrow with an attractive young woman or a three year old child standing by it. The effect on my senses is similar to what I may experience when I see pictures of whopper burgers and submarine sandwiches on the price marquees at the fast food establishments I infrequently visit.

It begins as a flight of fancy as I leisurely browse through the pages. My favorite catalogs have rows of photos glowing in living color of all of their offerings, and scattered throughout are profound quotations by famous persons or pertinent quotations from the Bible relating to the virtues of caring for the land and working in the soil. Those that do not use color photos usually have nicely done illustrations by talented artists, and if I care to read some of the finer print, I often find delightful stories about how the seeds of some obscure heirloom varieties were meticulously saved and passed on by the immigrant ancestors of someone with whom the owners of the seed company had made contact. I think the one thing that really sets my fantasies rolling is that no where among the pictures does one see a bug or worm or the evidence that they have been there. Tomatoes always look perfect and there is never any blight on the leaves. There are not even any pictures of weeds growing healthy and defiantly. Dream on!

Sometime in early January the realization hits me that the time is at hand to seriously get down to business and get some seeds ordered. So I wander out to the back room and dive into the freezer to retrieve the boxes of old seed left over from last year. I dig the latest copy of my computer generated seed inventory out of the desk drawer, pry open the still chilly seed containers, carefully count the seeds I have on hand, and jot down on the inventory sheet how much of what I have and how much of what I need to buy. I spread out across the kitchen table a half dozen or so of my best seed catalogs and begin flipping pages, trying to decide what I should or shouldn’t grow this coming year, and I comparison shop in search of the best prices.

This is a job I can easily spend a full day working on. I have to repeatedly bite myself to keep from doing something crazy. Spread out before me are:
· 40 – 50 varieties of lettuces in varying colors and types
· More than 100 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes in eight colors
· 40 varieties of beans of all types
· Lots and lots of oriental greens and vegetables with funky names
· Close to 100 American, Asian, and European melons in all kinds of size, shape, color and texture
· 75 varieties of squash and pumpkins
I usually trial a different tomato variety or so every year along with a few other things that I am curious about. Despite my fascination with oddball melons and squash I have to repeatedly remind myself that the soil here is not the ideal for those things and I will do best limiting my selections to the few tried and true hybrid varieties I already know will perform satisfactorily here. The bills have to be paid!

Despite all the caution I usually find myself in the growing season wondering why I didn’t plant this item and wondering “what in the world was I thinking when I ordered this much of this seed?”

After the decision making is done, I whip out the checkbook and write several hundred dollars of checks to preferably not more than three seed suppliers. Before the season is completely underway I will spend another several hundred dollars at our local garden center and greenhouses for more seeds and plants. Along the way I will also likely swap seeds (usually heirloom seeds) with friends and acquaintances.
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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Crossing Creeks

Yesterday I took a 20 mile trip over to a farm near the town of New Market to participate in a community work day for a fledgling organization known as “Crossing Creeks”. The Crossing Creeks organization began about ten years ago as a dream of a friend of mine, Earl Martin, who I had gotten to know following my years as a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer. Though he and I served MCC in different parts of the world, we became acquainted through local MCC alumni gatherings following our service terms. Earl had a son who became mentally ill during his teenage years and benefited significantly from a year spent living and working at Gould Farm in Massachusetts, an intentional community farm founded 80 years ago for the purpose of continued rehabilitation of persons recovering from mental illness. Earl’s dream was to found an organization modeled after that of Gould Farm to serve the needs of the transitional mentally ill in our area.

I became involved with Crossing Creeks during the organization’s formative years as they were looking for a local farm to purchase. The home farm where I had grown up near Singers Glen was coming up for sale and I had tipped Crossing Creeks that they might want to consider that farm as a suitable place to locate. Though efforts to negotiate with my family for the sale of the family farm to Crossing Creeks did not work out, I continued my interest and support when they successfully closed on the farm where they are presently established.

About fifteen volunteers met at the Crossing Creeks farm house around 1:00 PM. A few people were needed to do some painting and electrical repair work in the farm house basement and the remainder were going to do some outside work in the woods clearing out an old fence, weather permitting. I was already dressed in my most worn out work wear and insulated coveralls so I joined the half dozen or so gathering outside and trekked with them up the mountain.

It was not nice work. The fence was old and rusty and overgrown with thorny briers. There were places where wire had been nailed into growing trees and the trees had overgrown the wire. The fence had been patched several times over the years with rolls of fence wire overlaid on the original fence. Tree limbs had fallen on the old fence in many places. Our job was to cut the old fence wire off the posts and trees, clear away the debris, and roll up the wire the best we could and carry it to the edge of the woods where it could be loaded with a tractor.

As we began working another four or five people joined us. We were a pretty motley crew. There was one older couple who looked to be in their seventies. There were several middle aged women and one girl of about fifteen. The rest of us were fit as a fiddle guys ranging in age from 30ish to 60ish. I found myself working along side of a guy in his thirties who I soon realized was Crossing Creek’s only current resident. There have been about three other residents in the past two years who are now out and living satisfactorily on their own. Two others had to leave because Crossing Creeks did not yet have the kind of professional support they needed. He came from a rough family background and has struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and schizophrenia for much of his life. As we cut and pulled wire and thorns, he talked freely of his background and current struggles and how thankful he is of being at Crossing Creeks, of the help he is getting, and of being able to attend several local churches. As we worked I began to reflect on some of my own experiences and knowledge of stories I’ve either read or heard told by family and relatives.

Several generations ago, before the time of easily available modern machinery, good roads, and easy to access stores and medical facilities, it was common practice for people in rural communities to work together. Men from several farms would get together to organize crews for making hay, threshing grain and husking corn – work that was often hot, dirty, and hard. After working at one farm, they would go to the next one, and so on down the line until all the farms in the vicinity were done. Since they were largely exchanging work they didn’t always worry about paying one another with money. Similar things were also done to take care of animal butchering. The women would gather and prepare sumptuous meals for the hard working men and share the work of tending gardens and growing children. In some communities if the work was an all day affair they might get together a square dance in the barn and have some fun. A lot of socializing went on over and around hard work. When disease epidemics struck or someone was seriously hurt in an accident neighbors would pitch in to do chores for the ones laid up.

It’s not that way any more. Everyone has insurance to take care of the major difficulties in life and some live in fear of litigation if they become involved with someone outside of themselves and something goes wrong. Fast cars, good roads, and available money take us quickly to wherever we need to go to get what we need or want. All sorts of modern machines and tools have made it possible to reduce or eliminate much of the manual work that once was done. Significant segments of our society now spend time and money for exercise to keep their bodies strong and healthy. For the past several generations we have morphed into a culture that encourages us to go our own way, do our own thing, and keep our opinions to ourselves. We live in a strange world where modern technology enables us to both communicate instantly with someone on the other side of the world and to live in total estrangement with the folks living on the other side of the fence or wall.

I like to think that little by little we can recapture some of that community spirit that once held our rural communities together and made them tick. Crossing Creeks could have hired a bull dozer that would have cleaned up that fence row in an hour or two. The alternative was for ten people to get to know each other a little better, to knock out a nasty job that nobody minded all that much, and to be a part of a healing process that no one knows how far will spread. Eighty some households in the greater Harrisonburg – Rockingham area could just as cheaply buy their summer’s supply of vegetables at the Wal Mart Supercenter. But there would be eighty some less friendships in this world and I doubt that they would be as well nourished in body, mind, or spirit.

So I am deeply thankful for CSA’s, organizations like Crossing Creeks, and who knows how many other groups out there striving to work together to meet needs and to improve our world.
And yes, I’m even thankful for some of the strange sort of community that is emerging as a result of the Internet even though it is connecting people across the far reaches of cyberspace.
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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Second Granddaughter!


Dear Family,

Rhonda and Kerwin are the proud parents of Ana Marie. This is the sixth baby girl, within a year, to become a part of our Morning View Mennonite Church family.


Early this morning (4:18 A.M.) Kerwin telephoned to let us know that they were on the way to the hospital. Around 6:00 o’clock Kerwin phoned again. “You don’t have the baby already?” I queried. “Yes, we do.” Kerwin responded. (I guess Rhonda could easily handle a 7 pound 4 ounce baby.) About a half hour later Rhonda telephoned excitedly, “Hans is here in Harrisonburg. Kerwin went to eat breakfast with him and Brian…” About an hour later Hans telephoned us from the hospital.


When I walked into church, Heidi motioned to me to sit with her. She had photos which Dwight Heatwole had taken of Kerwin, Rhonda and Ana Marie. So what an unusual morning! Some folks congratulated me. Well, it is really easy to be a grandma. All I had to do was answer the telephone and lose a little sleep.

God has certainly blessed us/them. I keep marveling (in awe) about the timing of Ana’s birth and Hans’s driving through Harrisonburg. Unbeknown to us, Hans was driving in a U-Haul with a friend who was moving his sister’s belongings from DE to KY. About 5:30 A.M. Hans got the idea that he could stop for breakfast in Harrisonburg; so he started telephoning friends asking them if they wanted to meet him for breakfast. Kerwin’s brother was one of those friends; so when Kerwin phoned his brother about Ana, Hans was with him! Why would God care about such a small matter, but what would be the chances of it just happening?

Thanking God,
Grandma Christine
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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Confessions of a Procrastinating Luddite


Who ever wanders onto this blog today probably has already noticed that the past two posts which were also posted on January 2, 2007 are a bit late in being posted as they are about events pertaining to the middle of the summer. That is because (You guessed it!) I do not make new years resolutions about overcoming my habit of procrastinating. How could I? I always put off until later the act of making the resolution, assuring that I am going to miss getting it done on the first day of the year sooo – What’s the point? Now if I could just get into the habit of procrastinating procrastinating – hmm! Well – back to my main point. One of the reasons why I have waited this long to get those two summer stories posted is that I actually did attempt to post the story "More Than Vegetables" two times at the proper time and failed. Both times something went wrong with the way I had set it up or the picture program crashed and because somehow I had missed something essential I had to do to save the draft, I lost it when I hit the “publish post” button and it didn’t publish.

So this brings me to the second point of this post. I reveal the fact that I am a genuine, honest to gosh, died in the wool, bona fide luddite when it comes to doing anything with most technological gadgets which have been invented in the past 20 years in general, and with virtually all techy gadgets that have been invented in the past 5 – 10 years in particular. I get along fine with things like shovels, hoes, and crowbars which are usually sure to work if I am sure to work. And anything I can’t fix with baler string or duct tape pretty much loses me. I proved my klutzy incapabilities nearly 40 years ago when I barely passed a high school typing class with a max of 30 words per minute and a minimum of 3 typos in the same time frame. I can assure you that I am no better today on a computer keyboard! Soon after I graduated from high school I quickly reverted back to the old slow but sufficient LPC keyboarding method – Look, Peck, Cuss. This gives me a good excuse for putting off my blogging until winter when I am more likely to have more time. I’m not only slow but I am usually sure to screw up somewhere every time I sit down at a computer. When I blew it two times in a row trying to post the "More Than Vegetables" story, I made one resolution – never again try to write something for the blog without writing and saving it first in MS Word. So this evening I spent well over an hour just copying and pasting two stories I had dutifully written up in “Word” into my blogger. I must have typed that d_ _ _ _ _ user name and password two dozen times before I got them published!

Why do I go to all this trouble to have a blog in the first place? The primary reason is that I feel that I have a story to tell that some one somewhere wants or needs to hear. Several times in the years since I started Glen Eco Farm I have been approached by persons wanting to do a newspaper or magazine write up about my activities and the story about my getting into market farming. Several times I have made presentations at sustainable ag conferences and church gatherings. I did not seek them out because I wanted attention and publicity. They sought me out because they were interested in what I was doing. I readily admit that my farm management style could stand a lot of improvement, so the fact that there are people out there wanting to write or read about my farm cannot be based on the fact that they are impressed with the quality of my work. It has to be that they are interested simply because there is a real need in our world for real food, for a cleaner and more natural world, and for people willing to strive to make it all happen. I did not have people seeking me out for speaking or writing when I was a commercial dairy farmer and neither do I know of anyone wanting to tour commercial poultry or hog farms or wanting to write stories about them. On the contrary I have been hearing more from the general public that they would like to be rid of this kind of farm. Unfortunately many of these same people seem to want their Wal Mart and Target stores. This all tells me something.
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More Than Vegetables

A familiar event regularly takes place around 3.00 PM on Saturday afternoons on our farm during the months of July, August, and into September. About two hours after I have returned from a busy morning at the Harrisonburg farmers market, grabbed a bite to eat, and (if fortunate) gotten a brief early afternoon siesta, our Kurdish friends begin pulling into our driveway for fresh “pick your own” tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and Swiss chard. I have seen as many as three or four cars turn into our driveway at one time. Most of these cars now contain whole families and suddenly our market garden is transformed into a scene of colorfully dressed men and women happily walking up and down the rows, plastic bags in hand, chatting away in a language I’ll probably never learn to speak on a conversational level. A few minutes later they reunite in our garage and lay their bountifully laden bags on the table and floor, as they await checkout. Sometimes it gets rather hectic as we try our best to sort through their selections, making sure the right bags go to the right persons, and try not to make calculating mistakes as we tally up their purchases amidst answering queries about prices for specific items and children asking for permission to pet the cats. As children cavort in the driveway and all around our feet, the adults visit with each other in what can only be described as a joyous party atmosphere. Indeed our farm has become a regular meeting place for the rapidly growing Kurdish community of Harrisonburg, VA.

So how did this all begin? About five or six years ago we had found ourselves once again in the first week of August with the whole tomato crop ripening like a house afire. Everyone who has ever been in this kind of business knows that when the tomato glut hits one farm it hits them all. So there I was at our local farmers market with my truck loaded with beau coups of 25 pound boxes of dead ripe tomatoes, hoping to get rid of a few of them for $10 per box. All around me were other vendors trying to do the same thing. About then I began noticing men of apparent middle eastern descent walking up and down our market talking loudly. Soon they were at my booth asking me if I could sell them a box of tomatoes for $5.00. There was no way that I was going to let them have my precious “love apples” for $5.00 a box so I dickered with them and ended up letting a few go for $7.50. Knowing that there still remained bushels more still unpicked in the garden that were going to waste if not picked soon, I told some of them that if they were willing to come out to the farm and pick them themselves, they could have them for $5.00 per box.

The first to come were just men, usually several together. It wasn’t long till they noticed that I had a good supply of Swiss chard, and peppers. They especially got excited when they saw the small amount of okra and some dill growing around the house. By now I had sensed that they came from a cultural background where price dickering was a common practice (something I had gotten used to during my years of living in South America) so I was able to accommodate to that habit with a little bit of firmness. I was a little irritated when they would pull into the driveway and toot their horns (considered rude in American culture) if I was out in the field a distance from the house, but again I found it not hard to pass it off as a cultural indiscretion as it was apparent that their intentions were not to be rude. They always began with a friendly greeting and a handshake. At first their English speaking skills were weak and we both were a little nervous but those things all improved as with repeated visits we became better acquainted. Soon they began bringing their wives and along with them came the children.

As the Kurdish traffic to our farm gradually picked up and the list of sought after items grew beyond, chard, peppers, and tomatoes, we settled into a general routine of selling things that they picked themselves at 60% of what we would sell the same thing for at the market. On several occasions they brought me seeds of things they especially wanted me to grow for them that are hard to find in American stores (cutting celery and Armenian cucumbers) and once or twice their wives brought us samples of Kurdish prepared food. Though we began selling them tomatoes for 15-20 cents per pound, we have gradually gotten to the level of selling “pick your own” tomatoes for around 80 cents per pound early in the season and 50 cents per pound in tomato glut season.

In the weeks following the events of 9/11 we were glad to know that our farm had become a safe and friendly haven for a people whom we knew felt some of the animosity of Americans towards anyone of mid eastern descent or followers of the Islamic religion. By this time we were beginning to share our views and concerns of political events occurring here and in Iraq and to talk about our religious similarities and differences. We have given several of them Kurdish New Testaments and various other Christian materials written in Kurdish and have also accepted an English copy of the Quran and have looked at several Islamic websites and videos that our friends have given or told us about.

More recently we have felt honored to stand with our Kurdish friends when four men (all whom we know and trust) were investigated by the FBI, tried, and convicted of alleged illegal money transfer activities in federal court. We have visited in their homes, heard their stories, and are firmly convinced that they committed no serious crimes. We are thankful that they received relatively lenient sentences.

To bring this story to an end we know that our Kurdish friends have gotten a lot more than vegetables from us and we have gotten a lot more than money from them. Isn’t that wonderful?
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The Good Stuff Is A Rollin


It is now mid July and we are now entering that most delightful time of the gardening season when most of what we have been toiling for since early February is now coming to fruition. The picture says it all. Well not quite, someone missed getting a quart of those luscious blackberries in there.

The season started out discouraging enough. The first thing that happened was I screwed up by not cleaning out the poop and litter from the greenhouse after I had finished using it as a chicken brooding house during the winter. I planted onions as usual inside the house on the grow racks in mid January and had them up good. When I set them out into the greenhouse in February they just flat out died. Apparently onion seedlings are sensitive even to a little ammonia vapor in the air. I’m normally pretty sensitive to chemical smells and could easily detect the smell of ammonia in the greenhouse, but I was not alarmed if it was not strong enough to knock me flat on my butt. Instead I had some idiotic notion that a little ammonia in the air might be a good thing inside a greenhouse and would stimulate plant growth. You live and learn!

After I thoroughly cleaned the greenhouse I started over and planted a bunch of lettuce, brassicas, and early tomatoes. I was all excited as I had bought several bags of “organic” potting soil from our local gardening center and it looked like good stuff, OMRI approved and all that. It all came up good and looked good for a couple of days. Then I waited, and waited, and waited. The lettuce never got much more that ¼ inch tall. The broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower got about 1 ½ inches tall and turned purple. Two weeks from emergence the tomato plants had never shown signs of developing the first true leaves, and the baby leaves were purple on the undersides. The second planting of onions came up and went dormant. Despite all the hoopla written on the bag about how this premier organic potting soil would stimulate and sustain vigorous plant growth for nine months, nothing I had planted in it, and I mean nothing, was growing.

I had been through this scenario a couple of years before. After two to three weeks of watching my alive but dormant plants, I would pull up a few and discover virtually no roots. Now I was doing the same thing! Then I had thought the problem was caused by soaking my Winstrip planting trays too long in chlorine solution, causing a lingering chemical contamination problem. I felt by now that the Winstrips should be safe but I had planted in a bunch of them so I decided the time had come to throw them out. Meanwhile I continued watching some new conventional trays that I had planted a little later. I eventually concluded that they were doing no better. Fortunately I had planted some of my early tomatoes in some other potting soil I had left over from the previous year and they were OK. This left me with no other conclusion. Everything I had started in the new potting soil was not growing! Lesson II learned. Don’t ever buy potting soil in a pretty bag!

I salvaged about ½ of my sick plants, threw out the rest, and ran off to town to buy new potting soil similar to what I had been using before. From then on my greenhouse thrived. There was pretty obvious evidence from the appearance of my brassica and tomato plants that I had phosphorus deficiency in the organic potting soil and a tell tale sign as evidenced by a firing of leaf margins on my now month old lettuce plants that were not yet ½ inch tall, that I probably also had a soluble salt problem in the organic soil. I sent off samples to our state land grant university soil testing lab and a letter to the company that made the potting soil, explaining the problem and demanding a refund. The lab samples came back showing sufficient nutrient levels in the potting soil and no salinity. The refund came through several months later.

The dormant onion plants began growing when I slid them all over on fresh potting soil and I eventually got them transplanted to the garden, alive and healthy, but way too late for an early crop. Once again I failed to have “ready to market” lettuce by mid April and a lettuce glut in late May. June turned into a drought and I spent the last half of the month dragging drip tape and hooking up header lines instead of getting mid summer salads going. When it finally rained we got about 10 inches in three days. Now you know why I am exulting in a bountiful mid summer harvest!

The tomatoes were a little late getting started due to a cool spring and I am having to address some potassium deficiency problems (greywall) in the tomato hoophouses, but it looks like they are going to throw a decent crop (maybe the usual August glut). Peppers are loaded and have never looked better despite some dry rot in the middle of the patch. And those delightful Zephyr summer squash-they are a PITA to pick but fabulous to eat and they sell well. I pick them at 3 – 5 inches, put ½ lb in pint berry tills, and get $1.75 a pop. I planted a new and very promising muskmelon, Eclypse, which looks like it is going to mature later than my beloved Earliqueens and spread out the harvest. It looks like a very good year for melons. I’m starting to become well known for my habit of driving up the road for a mile in either direction and leaving a slightly cracked but still good enough to eat melon in everyone’s mailbox. And sweet corn! It’s much better than waiting for Christmas! Hey I’ve got to get to bed!
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