"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

July 29, 2014

Farmwifery – An Update

I originally wrote this piece in January 2011 when I was just starting the blog. It needed a bit of updating, so here goes: [in RED] My family was also recently featured in a "Huffington Post" article on our journey from New Hampshire to our Kentucky ridge farm. The piece tells a bit more about our story.

Farming is not something out of the pages of a magazine, although old stuff and a big country kitchen helps. A lot. Here are some of the things I've learned so far in the past few years on our farm:
  • On a farm nothing happens overnight, except for frost (or a newborn animal).
  • When it first frosts, Johnson grass produces cyanide so you can't let your cows near it for at least 24-hours. Fortunately, a nice neighbor told us this.
  • Doublewides are not (technically) trailers, but they're not real houses, either. [But the local water department and everyone else calls them trailers.]
  • Young fawns are all too easily maimed or killed by haying equipment. Soft-hearted, but insane, farmers care for injured deer, much to their joy and, sometimes, sorrow.
  • Free-range chickens are adorable, until they poop all over your porch.
  • When a neighbor says 'you be careful!' as you're leaving, they're not cautioning you about a hillbilly hit. It's a nice, friendly form of 'goodbye.' [But 'you come back when you're ready' is really less obtuse.]
  • Clean cattle tanks make excellent places for a good cool bathe in a pinch. [Click here: view #11]
  • Robert Frost was right: Good fences do make good neighbors. But he didn't say anything about when those fences are moved without permission or boundary lines are altered on maps.
  • If you throw on an apron when someone is coming to the door, it goes very far towards tidying up.
  • If you wear an apron around the farm, you don't have to wear a bra.
  • Biscuits and sausage gravy make the best breakfast––and easy to make (the biscuits and the gravy, both). I can't believe it took me 45 years to even learn of this combination!
  • Supper at 10pm is not uncommon during hay season when every ounce of daylight is utilized. [And fortunately, this is my more 'manic' time of year.]
  • Boys love tractors. So do their fathers. [But on our farm I am only allowed to drive a riding lawnmower. There is good, but arguable, precedent for this.]
  • A mud room is a must-have on a farm, ideally with a shower, or at least a nearby fire hose.
  • The sound of absolute silence is absolutely lovely.
  • It's great to have neighbors, but it's even nicer when they can't see you.
  • If I didn't have satellite internet I could probably not be a farmwife. On a quiet ridge. In Kentucky...that is, until lightning strikes and knocks it out (August 2012) and you are promised DSL "soon." [As of May 2014 we now have DSL!]
  • Do not name your animals if you intend to sell them or eat them.
  • Learn how to put up a lot of your own food––canning or freezing––and buy a generator.
  • Beware the reality that you might be conflicted about raising animals, caring for them, and then selling or eating them.
  • Do not expect to make a regular pay check farming––or freelance writing.
  • Learn to roll with the punches, the losses, the sorrow, the weather, the fickle income, or you won't make it as a farmer (or for that matter, most weather aside, as a freelance writer).
  • When you see a rainbow or a newborn calf, the barn is full of hay, or cool breezes are blowing, say "AH!" and be glad: there might be a windstorm or drought another day, or a sickly cow.
  • Enjoy the moment, plan for the future, but do not look back...EXCEPT when a bull is in your vicinity.
You come back when you're ready!


May 27, 2014

Strawberry Girl

Did you ever read Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski? She wrote and illustrated many books of middle grade historical fiction about children and their lives in various parts of the country. This book was about a girl in Florida and her family––"Crackers," a term for early settlers and now more associated with a derogatory name for poor white people––who moved there to farm strawberries. The book won the Newbery Medal in 1946. I loved reading Lenski's many books, and still have them, and delighted in her unsentimental depictions of other lifestyles––her illustrations were always fine and engaging, too. Whenever I read this book, just as when I'd read Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal, I wanted to eat those sweet berries right then. 

May is strawberry season in Kentucky and this year there were some beauties. After a late spring, the first berries were huge and Wilson's Cedar Point Farm on nearby Tick Ridge announced on Facebook that it only took seven minutes to pick a gallon basket full! Despite their size, they were sweet and juicy. Before the weekend we bought ten gallons and put all but one into the freezer (for enjoying fresh). I got 20 quart bags full (and about 2 gallons of hulls: I don't actually hull them, I just carefully remove the tops with my trusty serrated paring knife, as close to the leaves as I can get: usually I give them to my chickens but we are chicken-less right now). And I'd say we easily ate about half a gallon in the car on the way home.

A huge bowl full of fresh local strawberries: note that this bowl is about three feet wide! 
Ready for the freezer with two quarts to slather with whipped cream and Angel food cake.

I love to sit on our porch at the farm cottage and "put up" produce or prepare to can, especially in the cooler weather that we were enjoying before the weekend: just like I remember a New England summer, hot in the sun but not too humid and with a light breeze. I can work there and see what's going on, who is coming and going, and the west porch stays fairly cool until the sun comes around in the afternoon. My husband and I like to joke that in Hancock, NH we also had an east porch and a west porch but on a much grander scale.

At this point we wouldn't trade this farm, and it's more ramshackle porches, for the world. It's a centering feeling to be here and what is remarkable is how well-sited the house was when it was built over one hundred years ago. The breezes come down over the knob and wrap around it, and through the open doors and windows on all sides. It is always much cooler than the doublewide that is in a bowl where no air stirs: instead it goes right over (which is, admittedly, a good thing in tornado weather). [Sometimes we do have to air-condition during the day but usually at night I just throw the windows open and fans on in all but the most humid weather.]

My trusty French serrated paring knife.
OK, so it's also color-coordinated!

I'm currently macerating some berries for jam––a two-day recipe––and I will post on that in the next few days. Son Henry especially enjoys strawberry jam and I like to make enough extra to tuck away for Christmas gifts, too. It is always spring in a jar.

By chance we discovered another nursery over in western Casey County the other day: I've been scrounging around for plants since returning from Colorado. If you don't get them before Mother's Day in Kentucky, or even by late April, they can be few and far between (unless you like a lot of wave petunias and marigolds). [Next year I am determined to grow my own favorite heirloom annuals from seed!] Anyway, the Amish-Mennonite family who operate their farm-based nursery will have blueberries in a few weeks––entirely organic––and I ordered about 20 pounds of those (affordable and pre-picked by them). Fortunately, they will be easier to freeze. On the way home I will stop and see my friend Diana at her produce farm (where her specialty is heirloom tomatoes) and perhaps share a nice gin & tonic on her porch.

You come back when you're ready!


May 26, 2014

The Open Road and Home Again

The beautiful prairie of eastern Kansas where the only vertical punctuations
on the horizon of clouds and land are churches, grain silos and windmills.

I was recently in Colorado for a few weeks to see our daughter and then we drove back across the wide prairie so she could spend some time here at the farm between ski and summer seasons (and before starting a great new job). It's been such a good stretch of time together. While Addie ended the season with her job I was productive during the day in her cozy condo: I sent a children's book to a publisher (on spec), got an article assignment for Early Homes (from Active Interest Media which also publishes Old-House Journal and other magazines) and reviewed my manuscript for The 1950s American Kitchen for Shire Books in England which was submitted to my editor in April. [I also have a new book-related blog, The 1950s American Kitchen]

Yet despite my occasional love of the open road, there is something so comforting about being home on the farm with my husband and all three of our children and our many animals and pets. As a mother it is immensely reassuring to have your chicks all safely back in the nest for a bit. I feel centered and as if we are an impermeable unit tucked into the hills and haven of our farm. When the world seems like a challenging place, as it often is, the rhythms of our days here seem to be a small contribution to a larger wholeness or sanity. There are struggles, yes, but I have reached at midlife, at long last, a kind of Zen-like contentment with where we are and in what we are doing.

I'd never spent so much time in the high mountains before: 9,600' altitude took
some adjustment but I was fine after four days. Didn't sleep much, however.
This is the Continental Divide at over 13,000 feet just south of Breckenridge.
It snowed on Mother's Day: over a foot from Zephyr in the Colorado Rockies!
Addie and I made carrot soup and Mexican food and caught up on Bravo television shows.

Silly Mother's Day "selfies."
A view of our farm looking east from the top of the Pennywinkle Field
(named years ago by the former owner for the snail-like shells found in the nearby creek).

Eli getting ready to ted the hay fields. He designed the work shirt that he is wearing.

The Pennywinkle Field with Eli tedding.
Henry finishes the mowing of the first hay on the farm (more down the road to do yet!).
Temple with a new baby lamb and Alice, our rescue deer (she was one of triplet fauns
that her mother abandoned last summer in a hay field after leaving with the other two).
[NOTE: this is before Temple was shorn for the summer!]
"Sheep and lambs may safely graze..." [for now]. Eli bought ten pregnant hair sheep (no wool to shear) and most have had their lambs. Trying not to get too attached as the babies will be in our freezer this winter. [We love lamb meat.]
Henry with the brand-new baler: we decided to do our own baling rather than hire it out.
Edgar surveys his domain (and his new harem of yearling heifers).
My husband Temple and Edgar, our beloved bull, who he found and rescued from the mud on their shared December birthday in 2011. The view is looking southeast towards the farm and above one of our many natural springs.
Loading hay to be wrapped.
Henry counts bales.
The great county wrapper guy cometh! The view of our farm is from part-way up our knob field and looking southeast.

The boys and my husband are done with first haying––and before the next stretch of rain––and that's always a good feeling. I'm catching up on the gardening in this coolish May weather after being away for several weeks during prime garden time (and our very late spring pushed everything back a bit). School has been out for the summer for over a week. Sports are done.

Storms can rage or equipment can break down, someone you love can be hurt or in need, you might not get a job "off farm," when needed, but always there are things for which to be so grateful. There are the green rolling hills, the proximity of good neighbors and friends (but not too close by: we can't see another house from our farm but we know there are neighbors just over the hill and down the lane), the breezes coming over the knob, the chortle of bird song all day, and the long stretch of summer ahead. It is like heaven on Earth and we are so blessed to be here. No matter what is happening in our lives, I seem to always be a "glass half full" kind of person. There is always another way to look at any circumstance or even sorrow. And while I was in Colorado when I thought of home, I thought of Kentucky. It has taken six years to say that but it is true. Now each day feels like a gift, every moment a song.

We are almost all back in the cottage––with recently repaired plumbing after our January 6th pipe burst (where we fortunately had the doublewide to return for a few months)––and DSL is now fully operational! No longer do I have to trek to the nearest town to blog or email (not that I did a lot of blogging in the past eighteen months but I have missed it). I've learned how to manage without ready access to the Internet here and need to continue to pretend that it isn't here for much of the day when I really should be doing other things around the house and farm. But it is handy for being in quick touch with friends, family, and my editors.

We are home. As I wrote under my blog heading, above, Wendell Berry said it best:
"It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey...And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here."
If you are still out there, dear reader, in blog land, you come back when you're ready!


April 2, 2014

Living in the 50s

"Our house, in the middle of our street." 2024 Ayers Avenue, c. 2009.
The house was built in the post-war housing boom of 1949 and we lived in it
from 1961-1974. The Japanese maple, planted in 1961, now looms over the yard.
A wonderful "Little Golden Book" from the 1950s.
Lately I've been living in the 1950s. As I was born in 1962, this isn't much of a stretch: we had the 1949 post-war house that my parents purchased in Akron, Ohio in 1961, complete with pink-applianced kitchen, "atomic" flecked linoleum (black with white, pink and gray flecks––I thought it was the entire universe on our kitchen floor!), and pink-outfitted bathrooms. We had all manner of barbecue gadgets and funny aprons that my father used alongside the charcoal grill outdoors. We were your typical 1960s suburban family living beneath a post-1950s gossamer web. I spent my childhood years blissfully removed from any details of the Vietnam war, riots, protesting, the Civil Rights movement.

A Marcelline Stoyke tray from the 1950s.
My parents had one. They have an
interesting design history: read here.
The only hippies I ever saw hung around Sand Run Park in large gatherings and I only learned of anything to do with any sort of national unrest a year after the Kent State students were killed in May 1970. I was in second grade when the incident happened and read about them in Reader's Digest a year later. Kent State was where we would later go ice skating with my cousins. So you could say I had a rather protected post-50s childhood. When my parents abruptly separated and then divorced in 1973-74 it all rather ended as childhood is want to do at a certain point in one's life. You move on, or at least try to do so.

The only politics in my book will be a mention of the Nixon-Kruschev "Kitchen" debate
at the American National Exposition in Moscow in 1959.
We didn't have the 24-hour news cycle that we have today on more than one television channel or the constant presence of the Internet. We didn't watch television when having dinner. We didn't have "smart" phones in our pockets or at our dinner tables, either. As children, we really didn't see or hear any news. Extended family gatherings included lively dinner table discussions of politics and humorous kidding. Politics was decidedly right leaning and I knew, even then, that the direction of my belief system would make a gentle, more moderate departure from that which I had been exposed.

There could be no 1950s kitchen without Betty Crocker.
I was more interested in kitchens and pantries and food, paintings, old houses, music, singing and reading books. When I wasn't building townscapes out of American Bricks or Lincoln Logs, I was doodling house plans. I wanted to feel, experience and define the diverse architectural spaces and the suburban landscapes where I lived. It's still true today.

I've been finishing a book for Shire Books in England on The 1950s American Kitchen. It will be available in Fall 2014. I'm holed up in a Hampton Inn as I write this to complete my image gathering and fact-checking. This process has been a bit daunting with still no DSL at home (although a Facebook friend said that they are getting theirs on the ridge as we speak––I remain hopeful). I even brought in my trusty, fast iMac from home (as my laptop is so slow on the Internet). Like our two cars, both were purchased almost ten years ago so trying to get as much mileage here as I can! However, technology has long ago passed me by––even Internet marketing is changing each year. Blogging is even being replaced by some with Vlogging but I'll stay with the "print media" delivery system of the Internet, just as I stay true to books and magazines and have no interest in purchasing an e-book. Call me old-fashioned.

Pink was a prevalent color in 1950s kitchen decor.
I realize one thing about not having regular access to the Internet in the past eighteen months is that I haven't been writing as regularly on my blogs. Blogging keeps the pencil chiseled and sharp. It's like a warm-up for my other writing. I might develop another off-shoot blog for The 1950s American Kitchen, depending on DSL access in the near future. **Either way, I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, on the farm, we just got ten pregnant "hair sheep" (no shearing!) to raise our own lamb meat (this is our youngest son Eli's plan––he will be fourteen in a few more weeks). We eat a fair bit of lamb throughout the year but don't like to purchase it too often given how expensive it is (and I realize I haven't reconciled the cute lamb thing yet––one part of farm life is that you deal with constant loss and death and you just have to deal with it if you wish to remain a well-tempered carnivore). We have about fifty new calves and many more on the way. I'm down to one chicken (long story). And, we're finally going to break ground this spring for that once and future farmhouse we've been planning.

The hay fields are greening up. The rhubarb is poking its reddish shoots through the soil. The forsythia is just about to burst after a very prolonged, cold, dreary, drizzly, and frozen Kentucky winter. Did I mention the water has been fixed at the cottage (it burst in the severe below-zero cold of Epiphany, January 6th)? We'll be moving back there (from the doublewide across the way) by Easter...once I get the book and images to my publisher on April 15th. A nice day for deadlines, don't you think?

**YES! There is now a blog to coincide with The 1950s American Kitchen: check it out here. I will continue to post on this blog, too, especially when DSL arrives on our ridge..."in the spring"...

You come back when you're ready!