Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Style of Christmas Shopping


I have always hated going shopping with my wife. She always has her list of things she must buy and considers it an inefficient waste of time doing anything but focusing on what must get done and what must get bought. If I ever get stuck shopping with her I usually tag along, bored and frustrated to tears.

I love to do my kind of shopping, especially at Christmastime—browsing around in my favorite stores, savoring the smells and sounds, and enjoying looking at the kinds of things I would never buy. The secret is to be able to sneak away and do this without my wife being fully aware of it. It never works if she is along.

Before leaving for the holiday farmers’ market the morning of December 13th Christine had told me that I would need to be home by 4:00 because we were invited to a wedding reception of one of our friends at 4:30. I figured that I would probably be out of the market easily before noon, leaving me a nice chunk of time to do my Christmas shopping. One of my favorite haunts is a multi store market a few miles south of Harrisonburg. That’s where I headed as soon as farmers’ market was over.

The first thing to do after walking into the Dayton Farmers’ Market (not even close to being a farmers’ market but really a collection of specialty stores) is to walk by the Coffee Klatsch and smell the $3--$4/ cup gourmet coffee. I always think to myself that if they were smart they would figure out a way to charge everyone who walks through there 50 cents just to get a sniff and I for one would probably not mind paying it. But fortunately it is still free and I surely would not want to pass that one up.

Next to the Coffee Klatsch is Country Village Bake Shop where one can draw in the heavenly aroma of fresh baked bread and cookies still warm from the oven and gaze at the pretty young Mennonite ladies flitting about doing their jobs.

I walk on a little more and wander into an art store where among the first things I see are prints by several unknown to me artists and of one who I know fairly well, priced in the range of $60--$200. I would consider buying one of those if I had a good place to hang it and it had some special meaning to me. Then I see a few more priced $500--$600 and “Oh my gosh! There is an original P Buckley Moss for $7,500!” I keep looking and there are several more around the same amount and a really big one for over $11,000! Well thank goodness that I can appreciate some kinds of art and can have the privilege of perusing some occasionally without getting myself in hock in the process.

Next stop is “Zolas”, a specialty shop where lots of really nice dried flower arrangements, wreathes, and dust collectors of every sort imaginable can be had by those who are abundantly blessed by lots of the green stuff. Another thing I like about “Zolas” is the nice smelling potpourris along with the tasteful displays of colors and textures throughout the shop. Of course another good reason I drift by her nook is the fact that she is my sister and the least I can do is to drop in and say “Hi”.

I turn a corner and there is “10,000 Villages”, a fairly big store originally started by Mennonite Central Committee to establish markets in North America for artisanal products made in 3rd world countries where MCC workers are located. There is lots of nice stuff here. I’ve never bought much at 10,000 Villages but I have worked as an MCCer in a 3rd world country and I can readily appreciate what is being done to boost the income of highly deserving skilled artists living in parts of the world where their economic opportunities are limited. If I could justify spending serious money on artistic objects it would be here.

I pause awhile along a wall full of highly ornate wall clocks long enough to check the time and to hear several them play a preprogrammed melody on the hour. There is a different tune for every hour of the 12 hour cycle. They are pretty, but $700-$1000 per clock? The $5.00 Wal Mart wall clock at home will get the job done.

Then I drift into the store that draws me to this place every year—Crafty Hands Toy Store! This is a toy store of real character, featuring toys that challenge you to think creatively and if you do that you might even learn something. I have quickly walked through many a toy store but this one I always linger in. I know Ric Bowman the owner personally and he knows me. I have heard him admit with a twinkle in his eye that the reason he has a toy store is that he has never managed to grow up.

Along an aisle near the front of this store is a row of hanging wind chimes and I always make sure that I bump several of them with my elbow as I walk by. My favorites are the “Corinthian Bells” which have long and wide chimes which keep on ringing with the richest deep tones for at least a minute after being stroked. If I didn't have one already, I might buy one but the one I like most is $350 and I still have the $60 one I bought here about five years ago. That one I dug in pieces out of the fire rubble a year and a half ago and paid $20 to replace some of the lost parts and a few parts I didn’t buy, I made myself. It hangs on my porch today with some scars and blemishes but it sounds pretty good and I am satisfied with it.

Strategically placed right inside the entrance is a large table piled with a bunch of scientific puzzles, stacking blocks, and various other interesting gizmos with magnetism and other mysterious forces in them, lying around calling out for people to play with them. It is no small surprise that many of the persons playing are pretty big kids! I mess with the Kapla blocks for a few minutes until I knock down part of the tower that someone had dutifully stacked up a few minutes before. Then I pick up something called a Whacko. It is a ball of rare earth magnetized tetrahedrons that can be pulled apart and reconfigured in all sorts of different ways. It’s about as magnetizing of my attention as a Rubic’s Cube and maybe more so. I think, “Should I buy it?” Then I see the price $30. “Nah, I have enough to do with my time. But maybe if I drop a few hints in the right places someone might get me one for Christmas.” Then out of the corner of my eye I see Ric blowing a marshmallow at someone with a shooter made of pieces of ½ inch PVC pipe and elbows stuck together. “We used to have one of those things! For $6.00 I”ve got to have it! The grand kids will love it!”


On the way out of Crafty Hands I noticed
lying on a small pedestal a fairly thick book entitled “Exhaustive Encyclopedia of Fun Things to Do for Those Who Never Really Wanted to Grow Up” for $29.95. I must have killed more than a half hour flipping through that thing! Definitely not the kind of book I would buy but I sure would love to borrow it for a few days.

Then I looked up and the thought hit me. “I’d better be checking the time!” I rushed to other end of the market where the fancy wall clocks were displayed. It was five minutes after four! “I’ve got to get my butt home!” I had a 20 mile drive ahead of me and Christine had said that I should get home around 4:00! I could see her now standing in the doorway with that dark glowering look on her face, ready to launch into that “Your irresponsibility really breaks my heart!” speech. I must have hit 70 mph at a few straight stretches on that section of country road between Dale Enterprise and Singers Glen.

As soon as I spun into the driveway I quickly sneaked down to check the feed and water for the baby chicks instead of going directly into the house so that when Christine would tear into me I could at least say that I had done something since getting home.

I walked into the front door and Christine looked up with a cheery smile on her face. “Good to see you home! You just made it in time.” I peered up at the clock, 4:35! “Weren’t we supposed to be there around 4:30?” I queried. “Well yes, but it is a drop in occasion so the time we get there is not that critical. I was a little behind myself in getting some things done before we go so everything will be OK.”

When Life Gives You Frozen Cauliflower Make Alegria

We had a hard time this fall growing cauliflower.

It’s not unusual for a disappointing crop to have its beginning when something goes wrong with getting the crop started. Oftentimes there is something wrong with the seed like low germination if the seed is too old or perhaps disease organisms in the seed that causes it to germinate poorly or to become sickly after it comes up. If the seed does come up properly there are many ways to screw up if it was started in a greenhouse like many of my crops are started. Sometimes I have inadvertently gotten something out of whack with the way I had mixed or selected my seed starting medium resulting in disease or chemical imbalance in the medium. Assuming that I have gotten everything right up to that point, the next common way to fail is to lose control of temperature, light, or air flow fluctuations inside the greenhouse. All it takes is one night of letting the greenhouse get too cold in the early spring or one day of letting it get too hot or dry in early summer to lose or to seriously set back the growth of a bunch of tender but otherwise healthy seedlings. If the temperatures are kept in the proper range it then becomes important to know when to set up fans inside the greenhouse to simulate the action of wind or to move the plants outside for a few hours per day in order to expose them to natural wind and temperature fluctuations, a system otherwise known as cold hardening, usually done in the last week or two prior to transplanting into the field. Most greenhouse started plants need to transplanted by six weeks after their germination in the greenhouse. If field preparation or other work scheduling delays result in greenhouse plants sitting in the greenhouse much beyond six weeks, the plants can become root bound and will not start off well once they are transplanted.

Compared to last year’s more successful cauliflower crop which had gotten off to a much slower start in the greenhouse and even more pestilence after transplanting than this year’s crop, I should have seen cauliflower doing at least as good as last year. I had done a better job with the plants keeping them growing on in the greenhouse and had even set up curtains of protective cover and window screen to keep out the yellow and white butterflies that often lay eggs of the imported cabbage worm on the plants while still in the greenhouse. I transplanted mostly healthy well started cauliflower on schedule in late July and early August. Except for a marauding groundhog that repeatedly raided one end of the patch, most of the plants took off vigorously following transplanting. I had to dust them a few times to keep off the cabbage worms but the harlequin bugs were not nearly as bad as they were last year and everything pointed to a good harvest beginning in early October.

October came in and steadily went by with no evidence of heading up in my otherwise healthy looking cauliflower crop. We finished up the CSA season on October 20 and still there were few cauliflower heads big enough to harvest. I waited and waited and waited. November came in and finally I was able to cut a few small to medium sized heads for sale at the farmers market. Then it started getting cold—unusually cold for this part of the country in November! I watched helplessly as we got several nights in a row with temperatures in the low 20s and teens. I tried pulling frost protecting row cover over some of the rows but this effort proved futile as we were getting a lot of wind and without a good way of holding down the cover over two foot tall rows, much of it ended up in the road and on the neighbor’s fence. Broccoli can handle freezing temperatures down to 20 degrees without serious damage but cauliflower is in real trouble if the temperature gets below 30. The killing frosts that began around Oct 20th had pretty much stopped the cauliflower from growing any further and now the November freezes had turned the whole unfinished crop ashen white and weeping on the ground.

I pretty much gave up hope with the beleaguered cauliflower and began threshing out the heads of grain amaranth I had cut and spread out to dry in the greenhouse in mid October. By now the colorful heads had dried nicely and a few hours of rubbing them over wooden frames covered with hardware screen separated the grain and chafe from the coarse stems. The next step was to rub the grain and chafe over window screen. The grains and fine chafe goes through the screen and the coarse chafe and any remaining stem pieces come off the top. Following this I winnowed the mixture by pouring it slowly in front of a box fan set at medium speed. A large stainless steel dish pan set directly beneath where I was pouring caught most of the grain as the wind from the fan blew the chafe onto a tarp spread out on the ground behind the pan. I had to repeat this process several more times with the caught grain before I got most of the chafe out of it. Two 150 foot rows of amaranth yielded about three quarts of straw colored grain. I scooped up the chafe and put it in feed sacks. This chafe is wonderful for sopping up oil spills in the shop and spreading on ice in the winter.

I finished up going to the farmers’ market on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year would be different though. The farmers’ market board decided to hold holiday markets on the three Saturdays before Christmas. I decided that it would be cool to make some “alegria” to sell at one or two of those holiday markets. Well it turned out to be way too cool to go to the first holiday market on Dec 6th. In fact it was ungodly cold! Not only that, Christine needed me to finish trimming out the basement rooms of the house in preparation for a party she had been planning to host on Dec 7th for our local Kurdish community. I didn’t get a chance to make my alegria that week. While a few intrepid souls stood around shivering on Saturday morning at the market I finished installing baseboard and closet shelves, something I didn’t mind one bit.

Okay, by now you probably want to know, “What in heck is alegria?” Would it help if I told you that alegria is the Spanish word for happiness and joy? It is also the name that Mexicans use for a candy made by mixing popped amaranth grain with a little molasses or honey and pressing it into cakes or bars. It looks a lot like those seed cakes sold at pet stores for feeding to parakeets. Alegria is commonly sold by street vendors and in open air markets throughout Mexico and has been made since the days of Aztec civilization. It is simple to make and it is a tasty and nutritious snack. So why not make some alegria and share some happiness and joy at the Harrisonburg holiday farmer’s market?

It’s a lot of fun to make alegria. You start by finding a clean and dry skillet. It is very important that it is clean and dry. Use a large stove burner and set it at high heat. Use no water or oil in the skillet. You will need a cover over the skillet, preferably made of glass, so you can see the popping amaranth grain. Have a clean dry brush near by and a large (no plastic) pan to dump the popped amaranth into. Once the skillet is hot, scoop about a ¼ cup of grain into the skillet, cover, and immediately begin sliding the skillet back and forth on the burner as the grain begins to pop. The objective is to keep the grain rolling as it pops in order to avoid sticking and burning. The popping will continue for about 30 seconds to a minute, and begin to slow down. Dump the skillet immediately once the popping has slowed and brush out any grains still sticking to the bottom or sides of the skillet and return to the burner to repeat the process. This process moves rapidly once you start and requires some practice. You will most likely burn a few skillets full until you get the hang of it, knowing when to dump and how to keep it moving smoothly.

When the dish pan is about ½--3/4 full add about 1—2 cups of honey and stir until the mixture is well mixed and sticky enough to press into balls or squares. Press firmly into a lightly buttered pan and chill. One can form the candy and lay it out like cookies on a sheet or cut it into desired shapes after it has chilled.

Now back to my story. I made my alegria on Thursday night Dec 11th with plans to go to the market on the 13th. On Friday afternoon I got to thinking, “I should have something else to sell besides eggs and alegria tomorrow.” So I go tramping down to the cauliflower patch just to see if there might be something there worth salvaging. I immediately saw some exposed heads that obviously had frozen and thawed several times and were a little soft on the surface but, I figured, “We could probably still get some good out of them,” so I picked them, about a five gallon bucket full. Then I got to pulling the wrappers off some more small heads and lo and behold there were some pretty little baseball sized heads, still firm and with little freeze damage, apparently sufficiently protected by those wrapper leaves. They were not full sized but they would sell! I ended up with about three buckets full.

The more damaged heads were taken up to the kitchen and I realized within a few hours that I had made a mistake. The whole house stunk! After a few more days of eating frozen and cooked cauliflower in about everything my wife could think of putting it in, I would realize that I had really made a mistake! By then other things besides the house were stinking.

I went to the holiday market the next day and I was pleasantly surprised. It was a little cold but I had dressed for it and the wind was not blowing, so it was not all that bad. There were a good number of vendors there and enough shoppers to make it all worth while. People loved the alegria and I could have sold more. Several even thought my slightly frozen cauliflower was beautiful. And I sold most of it!
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Monday, December 22, 2008

An Eight Cow Wife


My wife Christine and I found this story years ago not long after we were married. We liked it so much that we want to share it now.

The value you put on a person greatly affects the way they value themselves. The story of Johnny Lingo shows how you can bring out the best or the worst in a person.

An Eight Cow Wife

My trip to the Kiniwata Island in the Pacific was a memorable one. Although the island was beautiful and I had an enjoyable time, the thing I remember most about my trip was the fact that "Johnny Lingo gave eight cows for his wife."
Johnny Lingo is known throughout the islands for his skills, intelligence, and savvy. If you hire him as a guide, he will show you the best fishing spots and the best places to get pearls. Johnny is also one of the sharpest traders in the islands. He can get you the best possible deals. The people of Kiniwata all speak highly of Johnny Lingo. Yet, when they speak of him, they always smile just a little mockingly.
A couple days after my arrival to Kiniwata, I went to the manager of the guesthouse to see who he thought would be a good fishing guide. "Johnny Lingo," said the manager. "He's the best around. When you go shopping, let him do the bargaining. Johnny knows how to make a deal."
"Johnny Lingo!" hooted a nearby boy. The boy rocked with laughter as he said, "Yea, Johnny can make a deal alright!"
"What's going on?" I demanded.
"Everybody tells me to get in touch with Johnny Lingo and then they start laughing. Please, let me in on the joke."
"Oh, the people like to laugh," the manager said, shrugging. "Johnny's the brightest and strongest young man in the islands. He's also the richest for his age."
"But …" I protested. "… If he's all you say he is, why does everyone laugh at him behind his back?"
"Well, there is one thing. Five months ago, at fall festival, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a wife. He gave her father eight cows!"
I knew enough about island customs to be impressed. A dowry of two or three cows would net a fair wife and four or five cows would net a very nice wife.
"Wow!" I said. "Eight cows! She must have beauty that takes your breath away."
"She's not ugly …" he conceded with a little smile, "… but calling her 'plain' would definitely be a compliment. Sam Karoo, her father, was afraid he wouldn't be able to marry her off. Instead of being stuck with her, he got eight cows for her. Isn't that extraordinary? This price has never been paid before."
"Yet, you called Johnny's wife 'plain?' "
"I said it would be a compliment to call her plain. She was skinny and she walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked. She was scared of her own shadow."
"Well," I said, "I guess there's just no accounting for love."
"True enough." agreed the man. "That's why the villagers grin when they talk about Johnny. They get special satisfaction from the fact the sharpest trader in the islands was bested by dull old Sam Karoo."
"But how?"
"No one knows and everyone wonders. All of the cousins urged Sam to ask for three cows and hold out for two until he was sure Johnny would pay only one. To their surprise Johnny came to Sam Karoo and said, 'Father of Sarita, I offer eight cows for your daughter.' "
"Eight cows?" I murmured. "I'd like to meet this Johnny Lingo."
I wanted fish and pearls, so the next afternoon I went to the island of Nurabandi. As I asked directions to Johnny's house, I noticed Johnny's neighbors were also amused at the mention of his name. When I met the slim, serious young man I could see immediately why everyone respected his skills. However, this only reinforced my confusion over him.
As we sat in his house, he asked me, "You come here from Kiniwata?"
"Yes."
"They speak of me on that island?"
"Yes. They say you can provide me anything I need. They say you're intelligent, resourceful, and the sharpest trader in the islands."
He smiled gently. "My wife is from Kiniwata."
"Yes, I know."
"They speak of her?"
"A little."
"What do they say?"
"Why, just …." The question caught me off balance. "They told me you were married at festival time."
"Nothing more?" The curve of his eyebrows told me he knew there had to be more.
"They also say the marriage settlement was eight cows." I paused. "They wonder why."
"They ask that?" His eyes lighted with pleasure. "Everyone in Kiniwata knows about the eight cows?"
I nodded.
"And in Nurabandi, everyone knows it too?" His chest expanded with satisfaction. "Always and forever, when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for Sarita."
So that's the answer, I thought: Vanity.
Just then Sarita entered the room to place flowers on the table. She stood still for a moment to smile at her husband and then left. She was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen! The lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the sparkle in her eyes all spelled self-confidence and pride. Not an arrogant and haughty pride, but a confident inner beauty that radiated in her every movement.
I turned back to Johnny and found him looking at me.
"You admire her?" he murmured.
"She … she's gorgeous!" I said. "Obviously, this is not the one everyone is talking about. She can't be the Sarita you married on Kiniwata."
"There's only one Sarita. Perhaps, she doesn't look the way you expected."
"She doesn't! I heard she was homely. They all make fun of you because you let yourself be cheated by Sam Karoo."
"You think eight cows were too many?" A smile slid over his lips.
"No, but how can she be so different from the way they described her?"
Johnny said, "Think about how it must make a girl feel to know her husband paid a very low dowry for her. It must be insulting to her to know he places such little value on her. Think about how she must feel when the other women boast about the high prices their husbands paid for them. It must be embarrassing for her. I would not let this happen to my Sarita."
"So, you paid eight cows just to make your wife happy?"
"Well, of course I wanted Sarita to be happy, but there's more to it than that. You say she is different from what you expected. This is true. Many things can change a woman. There are things that happen on the inside and things that happen on the outside. However, the thing that matters most is how she views herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. As a result, that's the value she projected. Now, she knows she is worth more than any other woman in the islands. It shows, doesn't it?"
"Then you wanted …"
"I knew that I loved Sarita...”That I wanted to marry her.”
"But …" I was close to understanding.
"But," he finished softly, "I have always wanted an eight-cow wife. And if I couldn’t find an eight cow wife, then I would make myself one!"
The above story was based partially on an article found in Reader's Digest (February, 1988). The original work was copyrighted by Patricia McGerr in 1965.

An important note from Marlin:
Out on the hillside at my farm are approximately 20 head of beef cattle. I would be glad to give up those cattle and maybe even the flock of 50 laying chickens too if I had to in order to keep my wife Christine.
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Monday, November 17, 2008

Happy Reunion with a Special Former Teacher

Several weeks ago Christine and I had the good fortune to visit one of my special elementary school teachers for a special occasion.

I had Miss Mabel Horst as my 3rd and 4th grade teacher in the 1957-58 and the 1958-59 school years at the old Singers Glen elementary school. I was nine years old the first year I had her and I remember sometime in one of those years she announced to the class her 40th birthday. She taught one more year at Singers Glen after the last year I had her, and then taught another 20 or so years in private Mennonite schools in the Hagerstown, Maryland area where she had grown up. I had not had any contact with her for most of the 50 years since I had had her as a teacher. It was a joy to find her at a relatively healthy 90 years of age residing at a Mennonite owned retirement home in Maugansville. MD.

Miss Horst was a highly dedicated teacher who always began the school day with a Bible story and prayer back in the days when those activities were still permitted in public schools. She taught both third and forth grades in the same room for both of the years I had her. At the beginning of the school year the Bible story book she read from began with the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis and by the end of the school year it had covered most of the Bible, ending with the stories of Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

During my growing up years my parents took us to a conservative Mennonite church but there was ongoing tension within that church over conservative-liberal issues relating to worldly dress and entertainment, resulting in our family not being well accepted in the church. I do not remember going to Sunday school regularly during those years or having many positive memories of my parents relating to the church leaders. This span of my life paralleled the years of the civil rights movement, hippies, student unrest, and the Vietnam War. I passed through my teenage years uncertain if I would remain connected with the Mennonite church and at times unsure if I really believed in God. Looking back I acknowledge that even though my church experience wasn’t what it should have been, it still was better than no church.

Miss Horst was a very conservative Mennonite lady but she modeled genuine Christian character and made lots of effort to instill in her pupils Christian values that went beyond mere adherence to conservative custom and tradition. Once during my years in her classroom she had her students competing for a prize for memorizing the Christmas story in Luke chapter two and I won the prize, a book entitled Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster. It was the Bible stories remembered during the two years I sat in her classroom and the brief descriptions of the roughly 400 illustrations in that book that laid the foundation for much of what I know today about the Bible.

The book I had won was just a simple Bible story book written to a level of mid
elementary school understanding, but it was a reprint of an edition first copy written in 1886 and as I grew older I began to realize that the artwork of those 400 woodcuts and lithographs was superb and although I didn’t look at them often, I began to cherish them when I did.

This precious book was among the wall full in the library where the house fire of last year burned the hottest and it was among the first that I thought about and wondered if I would find any traces of as I dug through the rubble a few days later. There were many books in that collection that I valued a lot and would miss, but this one was special because Miss Horst had written a short note and her signature on a flyleaf inside the front cover. Finally I found a fragment of the front cover with part of the title and the name of the author still visible.

I knew that this book might be difficult to replace due to its being an antique edition long out of print but even if a copy could be procured it still wouldn’t really replace the memories I have associated with it. But I was fortunate to be living in an age of Internet access and I couldn’t resist the urge to pull up Google and type in the title of this lost treasure to see what might come up.

Lo and behold there were indeed websites that listed book sellers throughout this country where copies of this book or something close to it could be ordered online. I finally settled on one that looked like what I was looking for and advertised to be in good condition. The only difference I could see from the thumbnail picture on the Web page was that the covers would be brown instead of blue like the copy I had lost. When the book arrived in the mail I opened it and “Yes indeed, everything between the covers was pretty much exactly as I had remembered it!”

So now we go back to our recent visit with Miss Horst. The picture says it all. She autographed once again the replacement copy of a simple book that represents the influence that she most likely left on my young life that may have helped to keep me from rejecting the Christian faith. And now I can look forward to sharing this regained treasure and the story behind it with my grandchildren.
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End of Season Finale-a Year Later

Here we are at the middle of November, a little more than a year later than the last time I posted on this theme. For the benefits of those who won’t spend much time digging around in the archives of old blog posts, I will remind them that I had been gloating a little on the success of last year’s fall planting of cauliflower. I had posted spectacular pictures of about three colors of the various varieties I had grown. Sometime during the ensuing months something screwed up the server that allows the pictures to load. I’m either too dumb or too impatient to figure out how to edit pictures on old posts in order to fix the problem. Since I am fairly confident about posting pictures to new posts, I am just going to do them again on this post. I’m telling you though, that this year’s cauliflower crop has not done nearly as well so no more bragging this time around.



The first killing frost occurred about a month ago. There were several of these in succession, the last of which caused the last planting of tomatoes to bite the hay mulched compost enriched earth on a Sunday night. Those tomatoes were in a plastic covered high tunnel and I was assuming that they were safely protected so I had spent that Sunday afternoon reading and sleeping instead of going out and placing additional row cover over the plants—an activity which might have saved them for another several weeks of production. Of course I was disappointed and ashamed of myself when I discovered the frost blackened plants the next day but I didn’t need to complain long for that planting had produced abundantly throughout September and halfway through October—a time of year when we normally don’t expect much from our tomato patches.

The highlight of this year’s fall garden has been the abundance of greens, two kinds of kale, early mizuna (Japanese mustard), white Hakurei (Japanese) turnips, Napa Chinese cabbage and, ah yes, the Asian pears! Some of those puppies sold for over $2.00 a pear! I admit that it was kind of fun to set a bushel of those things from the back of the truck onto the market table and within a few hours to turn them into about $160! Oops, am I bragging again?

Several weeks ago they staged the grand opening celebration for the new Harrisonburg Farmers” Market pavilion, complete with speeches by the city mayor, blue grass music, cake and apple cider, face painting, clowns—the whole enchilada. There was a scarecrow contest among the vendors with each vendor pitching in a few dollars or some of their product to a kitty for the winner to take all. My live in hired man and market helper decided to paint himself up and pose like a frozen statue, changing position occasionally, to freak people out. It was a real hoot to stand back and watch people walk past him. Of course he won the contest, hands down.

This past Saturday I went to the market possibly for the last time of the season. I still had a lot of Chinese cabbage which I have been holding in the walk in cooler, plenty of fall greens, and as much of the belated cauliflower crop as I could harvest before serious cold weather sets in this coming week. I actually was able to make a pretty impressive pile of bright orange “Cheddar”, dark purple “Graffiti”, and snow white “Freemont” cauliflower on one of my tables. I sold most of it and went home with less than a dollar short of $400 in total sales for the day—not bad for mid November. If I could have gotten another dollar for each time I answered the question “Does it taste like cheddar cheese?” I probably would have cleared $1000 for the day! I really had to suppress the urge to stick my tongue way up into my cheek and respond “Oh yeah, just slice it onto a hamburger along with a slice of onion, add the mustard, tomato, and dill pickle, and away you go!” When the seed supplier that now sells “Cheddar” cauliflower first offered this variety about five or six years ago, they called it “Citrus”! Yep, you guessed it. “Does it really taste like citrus fruit?” “Why of course! Just add the bananas and coconut and a little whipped cream or ice cream and you are all set.”

Aren’t people a lot of fun?
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Farming On MY Prayer Bones

I originally wrote a version of this article in 1994, a few years after I had started Glen Eco Farm. I hadn't attempted writing anything since college days way back in the early 1970s. I had spent several days diligently working on the manuscript with thoughts of sending it to one of our church publishers or maybe to some small "country living" magazine. Finally I proudly handed it to my oldest daughter (then in her senior year of high school) for her evaluation. Her response: "You have got to rewrite this! Its full of word junk!" She then proceeded to go through the document marking out what seemed like 3/4 of the content and writing in suggested changes. "For gosh sake" I protested. "Its no longer my writing!"

I printed off one hard copy and then laid the thing aside for awhile with the honest intentions of working on it again another day. Before long a busy spring season took my mind away from writing and the saved file containing the article eventually went the way of virtually all used computers after one has had them for several years.

Ten years and several computers later I got inspired once again to resurrect "Farming On My Prayer Bones". Copies of my original writing, both electronic and hard copy, were no where to be found. I decided to rewrite the whole thing as much as I could remember and several weeks after completing a draft that I felt fairly satisfied with, I found myself at a sustainable agriculture conference in Pennsylvania, shaking hands with the publisher of a small circulation country magazine from the heart of Amish country in central Ohio. "Sure, send me a copy! I would like to see it" he replied. "Farming On My Prayer Bones" became my first and thus far only attempt at writing for publication. It appeared in the summer edition of "Farming Magazine-Land,Community,People" in 2006.


Farming On My Prayer Bones

About ten years ago, I had just finished spending a long morning down on my knees weeding a large strawberry patch and putting in transplants. I had come in for lunch and one of my brothers in law had dropped in for a short visit. Noting my morning activity, he told a story he had recently read about some naughty boys who had tried to get revenge on a neighbor by seeding his strawberry patch with hay chaff from his barn floor. The boys had gotten caught and had to pay for their mischief by spending much of their summer vacation down on their “prayer bones” undoing the results of their misdeeds. My own knees were feeling a little sore at the time, and the threadbare condition of my blue jeans bore witness to the reality that I too had been “farming on my prayer bones”. The metaphor appealed to me and gave me the idea for writing this story.

My story begins on the family dairy farm that I took over in 1975 and operated for sixteen years until a chronic and debilitating illness forced me to sell out in early 1992and begin anew with a different style of farming built on principles of healing and sustainability. The five year struggle with this illness literally brought me to my knees both in an attitude of humility concerning my abilities and in practice as I performed much of the work on my new farm, transplanting, weeding, and picking vegetables on my prayer bones. The story continues with the lessons and observations I’ve made while transitioning from the style of farming which wrecked my health to the style of farming which is restoring it.

I took over the management and work of the family dairy farm immediately following my return from an overseas agricultural mission assignment with the Mennonite Central Committee in the mid 1970’s. I was working with my dad in a partnership which began with me providing most of the labor input and he carrying all of the real estate and most of the capital investment. It was a typical conventional farming operation, following the pattern of most dairy farms in Virginia. I grew silage corn and alfalfa hay in the summers and immediately following the corn harvest; I would plant rye for a fall and winter cover crop which was often harvested for silage the following spring. The fields would then be sprayed with a mixture of herbicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers in preparation for planting the corn crop into the dead rye stubble without further tillage. Most of the crops were put into silos for feeding throughout the year along with a little hay and pasture. Our 50 Holstein cows spent most of their time in a free stall loafing barn and were milked in a modern milking parlor.

Like most dairymen, I constantly struggled to control numerous herd health problems endemic to modern dairying: mastitis, milk fever, ketosis, uterus infections, cystic ovaries and various foot and leg problems. These herd health problems resulted in my need to cull cows nearly as fast as I could raise replacements. Though I felt that these problems were environmentally related to the way we handled cows, I accepted them as a normal “cost of doing business” in modern dairying.

As my dad got older and less able to work, I systematically bought into the operating capital and took on increasingly more of the most difficult, dangerous, and dirty work. On two occasions in the 1980’s I became acutely ill following massive exposures to airborne molds while working inside silos. The first time I toughed it out. The second time I went to the doctor three days later when I realized that I wasn’t getting better. I now believe that these illnesses set the stage for the multifaceted illness that would put me out of the dairy business a few years later.

In the late 1980’s, came a major and much needed remodeling of the milking parlor, expansion of the cow loafing barn, and installation of a computerized supplemental feeding system. Despite the upgrading of the facilities, I still found myself disappointed with improvement in the work load or the herd health problems and knew that the production model I was following was still seriously flawed. The long hours of frustrating and strenuous work impressed on me the realization that I was still spending too much money and energy putting out the fires caused by an unhealthy environment, both for the cows and for myself. I tolerated this situation primarily because it was the norm for all the dairymen I knew in our part of the country and because I was deeply invested in the operation and breaking out of the pattern seemed difficult and risky.

It was during these years that I had begun reading Rodale Institute’s New Farm and other magazines devoted to sustainable agriculture, and had been inspired to experiment with farm scale composting, alternative soil management practices, and more intensive pasture and crop rotations. I began adopting integrated pest management (IPM) practices which allowed me to reduce by 50% and more my use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the crops. I learned to use hot water baths and “Absorbine” veterinary liniment on swollen udders to reduce the need for antibiotic treatment of mastitis. In response to improved herd genetics and better control of feed utilization, the herd’s production climbed steadily. I took pride in my work and saw my farm as at least partially successful in transition to a more sustainable operation. Compared to other dairymen in this area, I was among the more successful (as measured by milk production per cow). Deep down I knew that I was headed for an eventual breakdown or burnout, but I continued to press on, assuring myself that I was doing some things right, was physically strong, and could take anything. Little did I realize that major changes in my life were about to occur as the 80’s drew to a close.

The first hint of trouble began during the winter of 1989 when I developed a dry and persistent cough. At that time I was tearing apart and hand feeding to a group of calves some large round hay bales with a few moldy spots. I suspected then that my exposure to this hay mold might be causing my cough but I didn’t become concerned because I was otherwise not feeling sick.

The symptoms gradually worsened during the following year, leading me first to the family doctor, then to an allergy specialist without any fruitful resolution to the problem. Two years after my illness began it reached a climax with a four day hospitalization in late September of 1991. I would later tell people that on the day that I entered the hospital, “I felt like I had chronic fatigue syndrome, smoke inhalation, and a nervous breakdown all rolled into one”. All diagnostic tests were negative except for one which indicated that I had reactive hypoglycemia, a condition exacerbated by stress and my other underlying illness, I would later learn. I was discharged from the hospital with a diagnosis of “Panic Disorder” (a type of psychosomatic illness) and a nerve medicine prescription which I refused to have filled. I then proceeded to seek out a clinical ecologist in Washington DC who diagnosed “multiple environmental sensitivities” (also known as “environmental illness”) brought on by long term and frequent exposures to molds, diesel fumes from tractors, and various other chemicals used around the farm.

I knew then that I would have to get off of the farm and proceeded to hire someone to do my work for the remainder of the year until I could complete arrangements to have an auction sale for the liquidation of the dairy on Jan 1, 1992. God had allowed my farming career to be derailed and would soon be setting me on a different track. The long journey up the road to healing was about to begin.

One of the hardest challenges for me in the coming months and years would be to face my vulnerabilities. I had been raised to endure pain and discomfort and to not complain or back off from work because of minor illness or injury. A few years earlier I could pick up 200 pounds and walk away with it. Now I could feel thoroughly exhausted walking a short distance to help one of my children collect a few leaves for a school science project. Once I could work in any kind of hot, dirty, and smelly situation. Now all it took was one whiff of a woman’s hair spray or body perfume to send me fleeing out of a church service in search of an open window or door where I could stick my head out for fresh air. The world I lived in had apparently become a hostile place where I could no longer go anywhere or do anything, including being inside my own house, without finding myself reacting. Many times I could be reacting and have no idea what was causing it. Doctors had proved themselves to be of little help. Well meaning family members would try to convince me that I needed to “get in control of my emotions” or to “go get some exercise”. Sometimes I could sense the Devil taunting me with the thought that I would probably continue feeling like this for a few more years until I would die with something like cancer. Several times I wasted money on questionable alternative health modalities in a desperate search to get relief. I found some solace in reading the book of Job and being assured that I was not the first person in history to go through this kind of experience. At least I still had a good wife and healthy children. It was even still possible to find someone who would pray with and for me. Then there would come times when some of the symptoms would go away and I would feel healthy again. It was these periods of remission that gave me hope and carried me through the numerous periods of relapse that would return during the following months and years and occasionally still happen even today.

I now end the account of my journey through environmental illness to tell the story of my transition from being a conventional dairy farmer to becoming the ecologically oriented market garden farmer that I am today.

In order to adequately articulate the magnitude of adjustment I had to make in my thinking as I made this transition, I will quickly summarize my background of involvement in agriculture. My parents both came from a farming background, and they in turn reared their family on a farm where I learned to do farm chores from early in my childhood and began driving tractors around 12 years of age. I took vocational agriculture classes in high school and was an active participant in the “Future Farmers of America” organization. Following high school, I attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, one of the better known land grant agricultural universities in the nation, and earned a BS degree in Dairy Science and Agronomy from that institution in 1972. I spent the next two years in Bolivia teaching Bolivian farmers and Mennonite colonists to care for dairy livestock which had been imported to Bolivia through the Heifer Project International organization. Following the Bolivia experience, I returned to run the home farm for the next 16 years. Shortly after I had liquidated that farm in early 1992, I attended a sustainable agricultural conference or two and did some reading about alternative agriculture in an effort to prepare myself for the new style of farming I was about to undertake. Only then did I come to the humbling realization of how pathetically little I actually knew about agriculture! It is now 12 years later and I still feel that I have much more that I need to learn.

I started out small, feeling very much that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I began by planting some perennial crops like asparagus and raspberries and a modest variety of conventional garden vegetables which I sold at a local farmers’ market two days per week. From my experience as a dairy farmer, I knew lots about producing but nothing about marketing. As a novice market garden farmer I had a strong tendency to overproduce certain items and would end up running around town and walking into the back doors of restaurants hoping to sell them some of my surplus. Invariably I still ended up giving lots of good stuff to local soup kitchens and food distribution centers. I pretty much learned by the seat of my pants the intricacies of retail marketing and how to talk to restaurant chefs. Later I added to my marketing venues by starting a Community Supported Agriculture Program and by accommodating Kurdish immigrants who began appearing at my farm gate preferring to buy produce directly from my farm.

As I grew in my hard won knowledge about what does and doesn’t work in marketing (and also growing things without weed and insect killing chemicals), I developed a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of people and the need to understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. A similar interconnectedness also exists among the complex mixture of microorganisms, plants, insects, birds, and animals found in a farm ecosystem. Understanding this interconnectedness goes a long way towards one’s success in managing and cultivating a healthy diversity among the diverse life forms on the farm without having to deal with pests (any life form which can harm crops) by applying toxic materials (the equivalent of warfare). Likewise among the human population we are sometimes affected by pests (any fellow human being or group who offends or threatens us in any way). Our choice is to respond with force (complaining, litigation, or warfare) or something gentler like peacemaking (mediation, forgiveness, or nonexclusive defense tactics). Like the farmer who has to accept some pest damage in order to avoid spraying toxic chemicals on his farm and thus putting himself and others at risk of toxic exposures, we also are challenged to absorb some injury from other persons without striking back at them and risking our own peace of mind and soul. As a practicing organic farmer I have learned that some weeds are even more nutritious as food and possess greater healing properties than many of the crops I cultivate, and if managed appropriately, can do other beneficial things like cycling soil nutrients, and providing habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. Some pestiferous insects are needed to support beneficial insects, bats, and birds. As we transfer this understanding to our interpersonal relationships we can then realize the extent that we need one another, need to appreciate and cultivate our diversity, be patient with our differences, and forgive when necessary. Thus an organic farm becomes a good laboratory for learning the principles of applied peacemaking needed in many of our interpersonal and international relationships.

Having learned in a new way the reality of interconnectedness of the various elements of a farm ecosystem and how that relates to how humans interconnect with each other and to the natural world, my next step has been to enter more deeply into the concept of relationship marketing and building of community. Many of the problems affecting modern agriculture and the environmental degradation so well known in our world have to do with the separation of people from their agricultural roots and indeed the natural world itself. This loss of connectedness has been hastened by widespread industrialization throughout modern civilization, especially the industrialization of agriculture. This has resulted in increasing tensions and alienation between the urban and rural elements of our society as they now increasingly encroach upon each other’s space. I now find myself seeking ways to restore that broken connectedness by building bridges of understanding and relationship to my urban and suburban customers.

This process started when I stopped letting the milk processing plant market my product and I began producing something which I could sell directly at a farmers’ market. I was now free to invite my customers to come out and visit my farm if they desired to do so and it wasn’t long until some actually did that. Later on as I began organizing the Community Supported Agriculture program, this process took on new meaning as the process of building closer relationships with my customers became a primary purpose and focus of my work. Offering some of my CSA clients the option of working on the farm for a part, or their entire share, became an essential part of making the operation of the CSA program possible. Then the Kurdish immigrants began coming. The result has been the formation of numerous new friendships, not only with neighbors from a nearby city, but also with people from the other side of the world. This has indeed become an enriching and gratifying experience to know that I am not only healing physically, emotionally and spiritually, but I am also contributing in a small way to the healing of our society and world. This is well worth the price of sore knees and worn blue jeans.

Whenever I work on my knees, my thoughts go back to the rural conservative Mennonite church my family attended years ago during my childhood. That church had a custom that would appear to many modern folks as peculiar and quaint. During the course of a typical Sunday morning worship service, when a call was made for a congregational prayer, the congregants would turn around in the pews and kneel on the floor, facing towards the back of the pews with their arms resting on the hard wooden benches as the prayer was led. I vividly remember this somewhat uncomfortable yet humbling exercise.

In a sense I had to do something similar when I transitioned from dairy farming to the kind of farming I do today. God brought circumstances into my life that made it necessary for me to turn around and to face a different direction, looking backwards and taking some cues from the wisdom of earlier generations, not only for the restoration of my health, but also for the healing of my farm. I not only had to turn around and face another direction, but I also had to get down on my prayer bones in order to see what God needed to show me and to be humbled enough to be teachable.

At a time in my life when most people are moving forwards and growing their businesses and financial investments, I had chosen to divest and to start over on a smaller farm and at a much smaller scale of operation. I had sold most of my tractors and equipment and was now preparing to set out on a new farming endeavor with little more equipment than the average suburban homeowner owns for the maintenance of his yard. Occasionally during the first years following my departure from the dairy farm, I would walk onto other farms, look at all the equipment they had, and realize how radically I had divested. Then when I would go home and go out to my field to pull some weeds I would feel small and somewhat ridiculous and wonder if I had downsized too far.

My little farm has an 8 acre field alongside an 800 foot road frontage where I planted my first market garden. From the vantage point of one driving up that road in a pickup truck, the field looks small. It was in this field that I first began kneeling on the ground to plant rows of strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce in little subdivided patches, making the field to appear even more diminutive. A year earlier I had traversed that same field with a 90 horsepower tractor pulling a four row corn planter. Now as I knelt on my knees in the middle of that field which looks so small from a pickup or tractor seat, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in perspective that one gains when he comes down off that tractor and sees the same field from on his prayer bones. What a difference it makes to move one’s vantage point from nearly eight feet above ground to eighteen inches above ground!

The first thing that always hits me when I set out to weed a 200 foot long by 20 foot wide strawberry patch, especially if the weather is a little hot, is how big it appears from down on the knees. Now 200 x 20 feet is hardly enough width and distance to get a tractor turned around and well revved up, but while kneeling on your prayer bones that little plot can look as big as a Texas ranch.

The other big difference a farmer experiences while looking at his land while on bended knee is what he can see, hear, and sometimes feel going on near the surface of the soil. Now he can see and hear earthworms, ladybugs, spiders, ground beetles, bees, and other interesting creatures going about their busy lives and know that their presence means that the soil ecosystem is alive and well. He can enjoy the sweet aroma of healthy soil instead of enduring the acrid smell of diesel fumes. He can be warmed by the sun shining on his back and at the same time be cooled by the dampness of the moist earth. While kneeling on his prayer bones in intimate contact with the land, he is closer to God, and in an appropriate position to communicate with Him in an attitude of humility and gratitude. In this position God can give the farmer the guidance he needs to cultivate his land in such a way that it nourishes and sustains all of the life that lives on it. The guy on a tractor easily misses much of this.


One can now ask. “What effect does farming on our prayer bones have on our lives?” It has much to do with our feeling of intimacy with the earth, our quest to understand and work with the natural realm, and our reverence for the God who created it. Like the small child who finds comfort and nurture while sitting on his mother’s lap, soothed by the sound of her voice, her breathing, and her heartbeat, the gardener can kneel on the bosom of God’s good earth and sense the vibrant pulse of life carried on by the myriad variety of microorganisms, insects, birds, and animals living there. Feeling nurtured by this good earth, he can respond by recycling organic matter, and by using discretion in decisions to do anything that might endanger the farm’s complex ecosystem. As we try to comprehend the incredible complexity and diversity of a healthy web of life in and near the soil and also throughout our farm and the universe, we are humbled to an appropriate level of smallness and honored with the awesome responsibility to treat this land and all who depend upon it for their sustenance with love and respect. It is our hope that the efforts we expend here plus our personal witness and testimony, will point others to God.
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Monday, September 22, 2008

Albiolomy


Out in my garage on the right end of the workbench sits one of my latest home made contraptions. It consists of a fifteen gallon plastic barrel (originally used as a container for acidic cleaner used on a local dairy farm) with part of the top cut off. Suspended inside this recycled container is a three gallon capacity bag made from a piece of plastic window screen folded and sewed along its bottom and one side and with a hem around the top threaded with a drawstring so that it can be filled with compost, drawn closed, and hung from the handle left on the top of the jug. Two aquarium pumps hang on the wall behind the apparatus, each with an air tube that snakes down through the filler hole on the back side of the top and on down to the bottom where they are threaded into quarter inch holes drilled into opposite sides of a twelve inch diameter loop of stiff garden hose which fits snugly into the inside diameter at the bottom of the jug. More and smaller holes are drilled all around this loop at approximate one inch intervals. A drain tap is fitted into the bottom of the jug.

So, what is this contraption called, what is it for, and how does it work? It is called a compost tea brewer and it is designed to make aerobic compost tea. It works by having the bag filled with freshly made compost and hung inside the jug and the jug filled with water. Several fluid ounces of unsulfured blackstrap baking molasses are added to the water and the aquarium pumps are plugged in. All of a sudden this machine starts making this delightful gurgling sound as lots of air bubbles begin rolling out through the perforated hose loop and making their way to the surface. Turning this thing on leaves one with the feeling that something good is happening.

So why do we want to make aerobic compost tea? First one needs to think of what happens when we hang a teabag inside a coffee cup filled with hot water spiked with a half teaspoon of sugar and left to steep for three to five minutes. It’s the same idea multiplied on about a 100X scale. Valuable plant nutrients and microorganisms leach out of the compost into the water which is becoming the compost tea. The purpose of the aquarium pumps is to aerate the tea in order to ensure that beneficial bacteria and micro fungi (which need an oxygen rich environment in which to thrive) are favored. The molasses of course is to feed the organisms and to help them grow and multiply. If we didn’t run the aquarium pumps there would be a greater chance of the tea becoming anaerobic (oxygen deficient) which favors the growth of pathogenic (disease causing) organisms. I let this thing run for two to three days, then shut it off and promptly drain off the approximately twelve gallons of tea into my twenty five gallon field sprayer and go straight to the garden to spray it onto my cherished plants. The theory is that beneficial micro flora sprayed onto plants colonizes leaf space and compete with pathogenic organisms to suppress various blights and mildews. Plant nutrients dissolved in the tea are absorbed through the plant foliage and help to boost stressed plants. Any of the tea which runs off the plants onto the soil adds nutrients and beneficial microbes to the soil.

The concept of making and using compost tea was not new to me. I had read about it years ago in some of the late J. I. and Robert Rodale’s writings and had always been scared of trying it, especially on tomatoes (one of my favorite and blight prone crops). Somehow the idea of making up a concoction from plant debris that had been stirred upon, mixed with, and stored on soil and then spraying it on plants that are susceptible to a variety of blights which are known to originate and move onto the plants from the soil seemed like a sure fire way to spread blight not prevent or suppress it.

Then last winter one of the more cutting edge scientists in the field of soil microbiology, Elaine Ingham from Soil Foodweb Inc., gave an informative and inspiring presentation about the making and using of aerobic compost tea at our annual Virginia Association of Biological Farmer’s conference and got me all fired up about doing it myself. Her presentation convinced me that my previous fears about using compost tea made by steeping compost in unaerated water were probably well founded.

There was a vender at the conference trade show who had set up an impressive display and demonstration about making aerated compost tea. He would have been glad to sell to me for $60 a simple compost tea brewer made with a five gallon plastic bucket and one aquarium pump.

I thought to myself, “I have plenty of those fifteen gallon acid jugs lying out behind the tool shed and a squirrel cage fan salvaged from the greenhouse destroyed in the house fire. I can use it to blow air into my tea and have a considerably more capacious brewer for almost nothing.” When I got home and started to put my tea brewer together I soon found out that the squirrel cage fan was not going to work to pump air into my tea. So I ran off to Wal Mart to buy myself an aquarium pump for about eight dollars and since I was going to be aerating 15 gallons--not 5 gallons of water I decided that it might be a good idea to get two of them. That meant that for sixteen dollars plus a few dollars more for a drain tap on the bottom of the jug I could still have my three times more capacious brewer for one third the cost of the five gallon version, well under budget.

With busy spring work coming on with the speed of an afternoon thunderstorm, I never got around to completing my compost tea brewer until mid summer. I kept putting it off partly because of all the stuff I felt I absolutely had to do and partly because I had some difficulty getting compost of the kind of quality that I felt confident would work. Meanwhile early blight was getting a head start on my early tomato crop. Finally I decided to go ahead and finish the project, use the compost I had, and hope for the best.

Once I got it all set up and running I felt so proud of myself and the sound of the water gurgling away out in the garage had a soothing and calming effect on my soul much like those artificial waterfalls one often sees in offices and hospital lobbies. As I listened to that beautiful sound I kept thinking “Alchemy!” This place sounds like an alchemist’s lab where magic is about to happen! So I dug out from underneath my office desk the old faithful Webster’s unabridged and looked up the word and discovered phrases like “form of chemistry and philosophical speculation practiced in the Middle Ages” and “search for methods of transmuting baser materials into gold” and “finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life”. I really liked that “elixir of life” part! So the concept of throwing together garden debris, lawn clippings, and kitchen slop and watching it transmute into “black gold”, (Yep, I’ve known some garden writers to use that very phrase to describe compost.) seems to fit. Somehow there has got to be a connection between what those early alchemists were doing and what I am doing messing around out in my garage! Not only that, but I am also taking my “black gold” and carrying it a step farther and turning it into something even more valuable by brewing it into “aerobic compost tea”. But this is not much chemistry but a lot more biology! I need a different word to convey that idea. “Albiolomy” is the best I can do. Nope! You won’t find that word in any dictionary!

While I was putting off completing the fabrication of my compost tea brewer I desperately mixed up and loaded my sprayer with a copper based fungicide and headed out to the tomato patch to bomb my ailing plants. After spraying the tomatoes and cucumbers a couple of times I watched the blights continue to spread, apparently unabated.

I have always hated spraying. And this includes many so called “organic” or “biological” pesticides. They all are a mess to handle and mix and they all stink! In addition to these two non endearing qualities, “organic” sprays are usually more expensive and need to be applied more often, making their “cost effectiveness” questionable. It is this disdain for using the spray materials I have been using in the past that has motivated me to play around with compost tea.

I will always remember the time I loaded my sprayer with the first batch of compost tea. It came out of the brewer the color of American coffee and it had this nice and sweet earthy smell. All I had to do was to drain it into my sprayer-- no donning of protective clothing, no calibrating, no mixing, and no triple rinsing the measuring cup I use to pour chemical into the sprayer. Why I didn’t even need to go looking for the cup! And most gratifying of all I didn’t need to panic if I accidentally spilled a little on my skin. I didn’t hate spraying this time and I was even a little surprised at how far 12 gallons went.

It is still a little too early to tell how effective this spraying of aerobic compost tea has been. I have yet to see anything dramatic happen as a result of using it. I will know more after using it over an entire season and after tweaking my compost making process and brewer operation procedures a bit. One thing is for sure. I’m going to keep trying.

There is something about this whole thing that just seems right, kind of like voting for a Republican political candidate! Well maybe I should say voting Republican feels right to some people and just leave it at that.
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Monday, September 01, 2008

Oh Where Has the Summer Gone?!

The reader may notice that the most recent posts, done over the past several weeks, are really stories that are months old. I seem to have been unusually busy this summer and have gotten way behind in my blogging. I like to have plenty of distraction free time when I sit down to blog. At the end of a busy day I am usually tired and if there is time to blog either my wife or my son (home from college for the summer)needs to use the computer. So it just didn't get done! Now I am still busy but not "crazy busy" like I was a few months ago so I am making a little time to blog. The posts are still in rough chronological order, just clumped together in some of my more recent "blogging frenzies". As you scroll down you will still have a sense of reading back into history.

There is something going on this summer that simply doesn't make sense! I am having as much of a struggle keeping up with the farm work this summer as I did last summer! Last summer I was living off farm and helping to build a house! I had begun the growing season having lost most of my tools and having stuff to repair and patch up. I had good excuses for not keeping up with the work as well as in previous years. So why am I having such a time this year? The only thing I can think of that is different is the indisputable fact that I am now one more year closer to that stage in every one's life called "old age", the age at which even the best of men begin to fall apart at an accelerating pace. An elderly friend of mine once stated rather succinctly, "Life goes by like unrolling toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end of the roll the faster it shrinks." Should I be depressed by this revelation? I would rather not think so!

It seems that I got a lot of stuff planted a month behind schedule just like I did last summer. I just about lost the battle to keep up with "tomato stringing" in May and June and as a result most of the early planting blighted prematurely. Winter squash plantings got done way too late and either did not come up or much of what did come up blighted and died. There was a heavy fruit set in the orchard this spring so I did have to spend some time spraying the trees and thinning fruit but the spray program didn't work well and the thinning was too late and not thorough enough. As a result I lost most of the apricots and the Asian pears have not sized up like they should have. Today I finally got most of my fall garden planted. It included some carrots which should have gone in before the end of July!

A brighter spot about this summer has been the "up and running" walk in cooler which has been a real life saver especially for the melon and berry crops. Having the cooler really gives us a lot more flexibility handling anything like left over from market like snap beans, squash and sweet corn which can be held a few more days and put into the CSA boxes in good shape.

And we have reached the lofty goal of an "over $1000 sales on market day" not once but three Saturdays in a row! If I do it again next Saturday I will have done it for a month! Wow! Part of the difference of course is that we are charging a little more for most items. I remember just a few years ago when our first daily sales topped $500 and I was thinking that once the daily sales pass that mark, the work of running the market booth starts to get tiring.

So how about it? Time to stop griping, count our blessings, and get to bed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Story About Four Musical Instruments

 

The pictures show four musical instruments-two guitars and two Appalachian lap dulcimers that currently reside at our house. The guitars are nice factory made instruments. The dulcimers are hand crafted "instruments of distinction". All of these instruments are special to me and all have a story behind them.

The guitar pictured on the right side of the guitar picture is the second guitar I have owned, bought in the summer of 1969 right after I had been discharged from the hospital following surgery on my right hand. I had suffered a complicated fracture of the index finger of that hand almost two weeks before and had gone without a positive diagnosis for a week following the injury. After X-rays finally revealed the true nature of the injury, doctors failed two attempts to set the shattered finger and had scheduled me for surgery to splice the broken bone together with wire. I can vividly remember my going to the music store right after leaving the hospital out patient department on the second day the doctor had failed to set my finger, and trying out that guitar. The salesman apparently was both amused and astonished to see me trying out guitars with my right hand wrapped with bandages and a splint. I think I was at least partly trying to assuage the mix of physical and emotional pain I had been enduring and still facing right after receiving the bad news that I would have to make yet another trip to the dreaded hospital for admission and surgery. The next day I was admitted and I was operated on the following morning. I spent the remainder of that day in agonizing post operative pain and immediately after being discharged the next morning, I went straight to the music store and bought that guitar for seventy dollars.

Several months later I faced the need for extraction of two severely impacted wisdom teeth, removed in separate operations spaced about a week apart. Both times I spent the evenings following the extractions in the upstairs of the old farmhouse singing and playing my guitar to take my mind off the throbbing pain in my jaw.

The guitar on the left side of the picture is one I picked up about twelve years ago for twenty dollars at an auction. I had paid thirty dollars for my learner guitar right after graduation from high school in 1967 and as my son Hans was then beginning to show some interest in learning the guitar, I saw this one as a considerably better instrument than the one I had started with and I bought it for him. He took to guitar playing like a young duck takes to water and today is dreaming of owning a $2000(?)Martin or something similar.

As I fled my exploding house over a year ago these two guitars were lying on a sofa and easy chair in the living room and I grabbed them, one in each hand, seconds before bolting out the door. I could have grabbed more valuable things like my dulcimer(It has a story behind it too.)or the $350 digital camera I had just bought several weeks before. Hans would later tell me how grateful he was that I had saved that guitar because it was the one that got him started with a passion that will take him to much higher levels of accomplishment than I will ever attain.
 
The instrument on the left side of the dulcimer picture is one Hans made himself in an inter term class on instrument making he took several years ago while a student at Berea College in Kentucky. He built two dulcimers in that class-a lap dulcimer and a small hammered dulcimer, and he did a fine job on both of them. I only wish the picture would show in more detail the most interesting and original tree shaped sound holes he cut into the face board. Another interesting feature is the walnut wood grain pattern showing a graceful curve of contrasting heartwood and sapwood in the strum cradle at the lower end of the instrument. Most important of all it has a really nice mellow sound. I still regret not taking this instrument with me to show to Warren May when I went to buy my new dulcimer from him this past spring.

The other dulcimer of course is the one I recently bought from Mr. May when our family traveled to Berea to attend Hans' graduation. I had first visited his shop and showroom in downtown Berea about six years ago when there to attend my daughter Rhonda's graduation. I was so impressed by his craftsmanship with not only dulcimers but also furniture, and wowed that if I ever have a reason to buy another dulcimer, I want to get one of his.

I had decided in advance that I would probably buy one of his middle of the line instruments which would cost in the range of $450-$500 but I walked out of there with one of his top of the line instruments which set me back monetarily for about $700 including sales tax and a few amenities like a songbook and a carrying case. That's ten times what I paid for the other dulcimer during my student days at Virginia Tech way back in 1971! Several things that make it special is his signature engraved into the strum cradle, several flowers wood burned at intervals onto the fretboard, book matched face and backboards, and an inlaid strip down the middle of the backboard. All of his instruments sounded fabulous, but this one, made of walnut back and sides with a Brazilian rosewood face board, sounded just a hair more fabulous. What really made this experience special was chatting with the guy who made it and watching him put on some extra finishing touches(some of which I specially requested)like the extra fret between the sixth and seventh frets and extra grooves in the bridges on either end of the instrument which allow alternative spacing of the strings for some special tunings.

Will I care what I paid for this work of art a few years down the road when its tone will have mellowed and matured even more from long hours of being played? Nahh!!
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Craft of Grafting



I have always wanted to try the art of grafting trees. The concept seems simple enough. You take a small twig from the tree you want to graft from, cut the lower end into a wedge, cut a slit into the tree you want to graft to, fit the wedge shaped twig into the slit in a way that the sap wood of the two are in contact, and cover everything up good and tight with grafting tape and wax. Should work shouldn't it.

I remember first trying it as a teenager. Somewhere I had gotten my hands on a book or magazine which featured these neat diagrams of various grafting techniques--whip grafting, cleft grafting, bridge grafting, bud grafting etc. Bud grafting looked to be the simplest of all, just peel a bud off the tree you want to graft from, cut a T shaped slit into the bark of the tree you want to graft to, lift up the bark on the vertical part of the T, fit the bud under the bark, and wrap with tape. So that is what I decided to try. I don't remember if I was ever successful.

During the ensuing years I never had a good reason to try grafting again. I went to college, got married, and became a dairy farmer. Out of sheer necessity I learned how to do such things as assisting complicated calf births, giving intravenous injections to cows down with milk fever, and doctoring foot rot or acute mastitis, but I never messed with fruit trees much. Oh I did learn how to prune trees in a "learn by the seat of your pants" sort of way, but I never needed to do any grafting.

Then about ten years ago I started planting some pear trees. Well it turned out that several of the varieties I had selected turned out to be real duds. They were susceptible to fire blight and they just wouldn't ripen right. I fooled with them for a couple of years after they reached bearing size without ever getting a decent crop and finally decided that they were not worth messing with any more. I did have one variety that I was happy about. This variety grew into a nice shaped tree that was relatively easy to prune (not true for most pear trees),resistant to fire blight, and it produced wonderful tasting and nice sized fruit that did not turn to mush as it started to ripen. In short it was everything you would ever want in a pear tree.

So last year I decided to turn all of my dud pear trees into Magness pear trees. I had also planted a bunch of Asian pear trees that, although difficult to prune, thin, and keep free of fire blight, their fruit so enamored me that I decided they were worth keeping. So I had my excuse to play with grafting again. I decided to take scions off my Magness trees and graft onto the duds on the upper end of the orchard and to graft scions off the Asian pears onto the duds on the lower end.

It was already too late to be grafting when I went out in late April to early May and sliced off some scions and stuck them into some trees. The trees were already leafing out and every one of my attempted grafts promptly wilted and died.

Last winter I decided to try again. I got on the Internet and pulled up some nice diagrams and read up on the subject. My biggest mistake had been my failure to collect my scions when the trees were still dormant and to do the grafting in early April just as the buds are beginning to swell.

I already had one strike against me. Most of the trees I wanted to graft onto were past the age for optimum grafting success and had been so damaged by fire blight and repeated hacking back that I no longer had nice rootstock to graft onto. Most would need to be cut back to a one to two inch stump and cleft grafted. One offered only a good sized water sprout that I decided might work for a whip graft. A whip graft is considered to be one of the more challenging to execute, but if successful, makes a smoother and stronger graft and is the preferred choice of professional grafters. The main thing of importance is that the scion and the rootstock needs to be approximately the same diameter, no more than one half inch.

So I bought some grafting wax, sharpened my pocket knife, cut my scions in early March, and stuck them into the ground cellar. When I brought them out to do the grafting a month later, the buds on the scions were already starting to swell despite being cut from the tree. I got along okay but found it necessary to melt down the estimated amount of wax I would need ahead of time instead of trying to soften it in my hands like the instructions said. It was a cold day and the wax incredibly sticky and difficult to work with. I ran out of melted wax when I still had a few more trees to do. I had poured the melted wax onto some waxed paper laid into a small dish. I was getting tired and frustrated and did not want to run back to the house to melt more wax so I decided to take a shortcut on the last few trees by wrapping the grafts with the sticky wax paper instead of properly sealing them with copious amounts of wax like I was supposed to. I thought to myself, "If this works I am going to be surprised!"

I eagerly watched my grafted trees daily and after about a week one or two grafted twigs began to show signs of coming to life. Meanwhile the remainder of the trees were leafing out nicely. Over half of my grafts were showing no signs of growth and appeared to not be taking. However I consider myself a patient man and thought it prudent to give them plenty of time. Every couple of days I would check again and each time I would find another twig or two beginning to bud out. It must have been about two weeks before the whip graft started to show signs of taking. I had all but given up hope and when it became clearly evident that it was going to succeed I was elated. Meanwhile I watched the trees that I had done the "quick and dirty" job of wrapping the grafts on and they too began taking. Somewhere I had read or heard that professional grafters can expect 80 to 90 percent success. I considered that if I achieve a 60 to 70 percent success rate I will be doing bloody good. I kept watching my grafts and a few finally began growing as much as a month after I had made the grafts. When it was all over every one of the eight trees I had grafted onto had succeeded and of the 15 or so twigs I had grafted only one failed to grow. Eventually I will have to prune away some of the grafted material. Not bad for an amateur eh?

You know what? I just recently read in an issue of "Growing for Market" that someone is successfully grafting heirloom tomatoes! Really?! Will I ever try it? I'll surely let the world know if it works!
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What a Difference a Year Can Make!



The two pictures of our house site were taken a little more than a year apart.

The first was taken in late March or early April 2007 soon after the debris was cleared and the foundation covered with tarp. It would remain looking this way for another three months as we sought to work out the details of preparing to rebuild. The winds of springtime did their best to try to take the tarp off and the site became even uglier as the tarp became increasingly tattered and we desperately tried to hold it in place by piling on dirty cinder blocks and scrap metal to hold it in place.

The second was taken in early May 2008 after the front yard landscaping was nearly completed and enough grass became established to make it possible to walk across the yard without getting muddy feet.

As I write this we are about one year removed from the time that we were finalizing the process of drawing up workable blue prints and lining up a contractor to get the rebuilding started. The actual building started in the first week of July and we were ready to move in by the end of December.

One year ago we were living in a rented house about a mile and a half away and burning $2.00/gallon gas to run 15 – 20 miles per week back and forth to tend our farm. Today we are burning $4.00/gallon gas to run our vehicles as little as possible.

For most of the past year piles of demolition and construction debris clung like scabs to the broken and scarred landscape surrounding the house and were finally sloughed off and hauled away as springtime approached. Slowly but surely the yard and our emotions are healing.

This coming weekend we are looking forward to a family trip to Berea, Kentucky to attend our son Hans’s graduation from Berea College. We have rented two cabins at Red River Gorge state park located about 50 miles from Berea where we and some church friends, who are going with us, plan to lodge for about 3 nights. Red River Gorge is a beautiful wilderness area noted for its many rock climbing sites. My son-in-law Craig Good is talking of indulging himself in some rock climbing on Saturday afternoon. I’m looking forward to visiting Warren May’s woodworking shop in downtown Berea and purchasing one of his handcrafted Appalachian dulcimers. We will be attending Baccalaureate services on Sunday morning and the graduation in the afternoon.

The busy season in the garden is hard upon us. As usual I feel about a month behind in doing everything. Right now I cannot imagine how we coped last year, but we did, and we are going to do it again this year. The tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans, lima beans, soybeans, corn, summer squash, winter squash, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and watermelons, all ought to get into the ground this week. This may not sound like much until I tell you that at least half of all of these categories are transplants represented by an average of 500 transplants per category. In addition to all this we are harvesting strawberries, lettuce, peas, fava beans, and asparagus, spraying the pears and apricot trees for fire blight, leaf curl and brown rot, looking after a few PYO customers, going to farmers’ market and fighting weeds. It is time to make hay and the steers need to be castrated.

Hey, I think I am going to stop writing about all this busyness and talk about looking forward to sitting at dusk in the recently bought rocking chair on our nice big front porch, strumming my dulcimer, and watching the fireflies.
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