My Project

Three or four weeks ago, once I was satisfied that I’d completed enough of my long overdue “winter projects” around the farm, I finally got serious about working on a new writing project.

My idea was to write a history of this community in 1918, with the hope of publishing it in 2018.

Our memories of the past dim quickly, and that is only natural I suppose. Current events demand our attention and their importance is magnified by their immediacy. The past is, after all, past.

My hope was to draw some attention to life one hundred years ago, if for no better reason, to shine some light on the path we walked to get where we now stand.

I spent a few days in the library, reading the local newspaper from 1918.

There were some fascinating things occurring in 1918. The U.S. was preparing to enter the deadliest war in human history and, as if that wasn’t enough, the world was on the eve of the deadliest pandemic in human history. Here in the U.S. the states were in the process of ratifying constitutional amendments granting women the right to vote, and prohibiting the use of alcohol. As a result of the coldest winter in recorded history, and the demands of war, there was a severe coal shortage, leading the federal government to order all American businesses to close for five consecutive days in January. There were food shortages too. In January the President called on Americans to have two “meatless” days per week and at least one meatless meal per day. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of southern black folks was underway as they moved north for high-paying factory jobs. Virginia was debating whether to require compulsory education of children, with our local paper complaining that to do so would be “a hardship on the people” and a denial of the right of self government. Evangelist Billy Sunday was drawing huge enthusiastic crowds around the country. And so on. These were just some of the headlines in the first month of the year.

I never got around to reading the rest of the news from 1918. This story from January 4 stopped me in my tracks.

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For a while I plodded on, but the story kept coming back to haunt me. I started dreaming about it at night.

I wondered if that story should be my writing project. Who were these people? What happened to them? Maybe that’s what I should research. Maybe that’s the story I should be telling.

I ran down a few fruitless rabbit holes searching for them, then something unexpected happened.

The story started coming to me. And then it came pouring out. I started dictating voice memos as the details emerged, sometimes in the middle of the night, and now I have hundreds of them. I’ve been typing it out a little each day, but my fingers can’t keep up. Still, they’re trying. I have about 25,000 words now and I reckon the story is about 1/3 told.

It’s not the “real” story, of course. I don’t know what happened to the actual Mrs. Scruggs or her children. But there is a story, a family and a set of lives that I am trying to capture, and in a bizarre way they seem real to me.

It’s strange. I don’t feel like I’m inventing the story. I genuinely feel like it was already there and I’m just writing it down. Those of you who write fiction are probably thinking, “Well of course. How did you think it happened?” But this is new to me. And exciting.

I don’t know if this story will ever be published or not. But it has become my writing project.

 

 

Rowan

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We had no intention of owning livestock when we first moved back here. But our daughter was horse-crazy, so we agreed to buy her a horse. So she would have a riding buddy, we also got one for her friend who lives down the road.

We bought the horses from a nearby girls boarding school. Often when the girls graduate they’re unable to take their horses with them, so they donate their horses to the school. Our daughter got a black mare named Domino and her friend got a big gelding named Rowan.

I have great memories of seeing the girls riding, and the lessons our daughter learned from taking care of her horse have been beneficial to her in the grown-up world.

About 8 years ago Domino contracted a rare disease that caused her to lose her ability to balance. We had to have her put down, breaking our daughter’s heart. And Rowan’s.

He eventually adapted to life among the goats. Occasionally affectionate, often grumpy and always amusing, Rowan has been featured in plenty of my posts over the years.

Rowan passed away on Wednesday. Although he was entering horse old age, his death was unexpected.

We buried him in the pasture next to his old friend Domino.

He will be missed.

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The Sunflower Verdict

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Thinking about this year’s garden rotation this morning and I have sunflowers on my mind.

Since the plan is to have far fewer gardens in the rotation this year, we’re not going to have enough space for everything we’ve planted in the past. So what about sunflowers? Do they get the ax?

We grow a large garden of them every year and, truth be told, they don’t do much for the farm economically. We sell a few of them. They feed the pollinators and the chickens. They’re a good biomass summer cover crop. But they’re not making much of a contribution economically. So should we replace them with something that might have more marketing potential and still be pollinator-friendly?

Nah. They’re staying. When I weigh all the pro’s and con’s, the pro that carries the day for the sunflowers is simply that we like looking at them. Whenever I see the sunflowers I get the sensation that the garden is smiling at me. What’s that worth? Enough to keep them.

We’re going to increase significantly the  size of our onions garden. It seems we never have enough of those. And as soon as they’re harvested in July, we’ll follow them with sunflowers. A cheerful image on a cold February morning.

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Feeding a Hungry Planet?

This morning I read this in an industrial ag publication:

Overall per-capita meat consumption (pork and poultry) was up 5% in the U.S., the biggest increase since the 1970’s. The big driver in 2015 was the 7.3% increase in pork production….The production of meat in the U.S. is expected to grow 2.5% this year (2016) with similar increases in 2017 and 2018. Odds don’t favor foreign markets absorbing our production increases. Instead, the industry will be looking for further consumption growth in the U.S. By the end of the expansion cycle in 2018, however, producer profits may be harder to capture as retail prices will have to be lowered to spur consumers to eat more meat and poultry.

Let’s translate that. Despite already having the highest per-capita meat consumption on earth, Americans just bumped their meat eating up another 5% and are set to increase it yet another 5% over the next two years. Despite the nearly universal consensus that Americans need to reduce their meat consumption (for lots of reasons, not the least of which are the adverse health consequences of meat-rich diets), the industry expects that after a 3-year ten percent increase in consumption, they will have to lower prices to “spur consumers” to eat even MORE meat.

And here’s the biggest and most important take-away of all: even as the industry says this out of one side of its metaphorical mouth, out of the other side it continues to repeat the mantra of industrial agriculture: “Our high-intensity animal confinement facilities, our assembly-line slaughter houses, our taxpayer-subsidized GMO pigfeed corn, our massive ‘lagoons’ of liquefied pig shit–all are necessary because we have to (wait for it) feed a hungry planet.”

Shaking my head.

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Eating Well

I saw a blog post about new years resolutions. The blogger said she wasn’t going to make her usual “lose weight” resolution. Instead, her resolution was to change some eating habits that contribute to poor health and weight gain–things like “go on less outings that involve eating,””eat less white bread,” and “get more exercise.”

Her reasoning made sense to me. Don’t focus on body weight–focus instead on healthy living. The latter will take care of the former.

A lot of times a person will set a weight loss goal, and adopt some severe or unusual diet to reach it. But unless that person makes permanent lifestyle changes, any weight loss will only be temporary and it might not be accompanied by an improvement in overall health.

I’m no doctor of course, nor do I play one on TV. But it seems to me that a person who wants to improve his health, whether that involves weight loss or not, would do well to consider eating seasonal whole foods. The foods that are ruining our health don’t appear in nature–they’re created in factories and laboratories. The foods that nature has provided for us are rarely harmful to our health.

Because we grow our own, good food is readily available to us. Friday night is our once-a-week “pizza night” treat. Last night the pizza was topped with sauteed spinach, grown here, and wild oyster mushrooms we found growing on a tree in front of our house. I don’t know what an pizza topped with organic spinach and wild oyster mushrooms would cost at a restaurant. Here it was nearly free. Cherie usually has pizza, but last night she passed and just had sauteed spinach and mushrooms instead.

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Wild oyster mushrooms. Delicious and nutritious.

For those who don’t have the ability to grow their own food (an aside–for most of us, it wouldn’t be as difficult as we think), good food can be found at your local farmers market. Shopping there is a great way to both eat better, and to support the local farmers who are supplying the foods are bodies crave.

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We’ll be leaving shortly for our market, and today we’ll be bringing spinach, kale, turnips, radishes, lettuce, sweet potatoes and three varieties of Asian greens–tatsoi, mizuna and maruba santoh.

Just plan meals around foods like that and no special diets are necessary.

The Last Two Days

We were reluctant to leave the amazing chateau in Arc-en-Barrois, but it was September 16 and we had an early flight on the 18th. We decided to get a room at an airport hotel on the 17th, so we wouldn’t have to worry about traffic and depositing the rental car on the morning of our flight. That meant we had one last night to explore.

So we turned toward Provins, an ancient walled town located technically in Ile-de-France, but within medieval Champagne.

We had no reservation but were fortunate to find a room at a B&B/farm on the edge of town. It was the only time we stayed on a farm during the trip. If we ever go again, we’ll have to be more deliberate about finding farm stays. The owners were pleasant and seemed genuinely interested in swapping information about our farms, but after nearly two weeks of effort my brain was beginning to refuse to process French and they spoke no English. Cherie had some simple conversations with them, but I unfortunately I had to mostly sit them out.

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Our room at the farm

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After a nice day in Provins, which was pleasantly uncrowded, we drove to CDG, returned our rental car and took a room at the airport.

With one last day to enjoy before our trip home, we took the train into Paris. There we went on long walks, and had a nice meal. We visited Napoleon.

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Notice the well-played photobomb

We even saw Mr. Jefferson there.

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Then it was back to the hotel to rest for a day of travel.

For those of you who found these posts boring there is good news–this is the last of them! For those who enjoyed them, I’m sorry it took me so long to wrap them up.

We no longer have the travel bug the way we once did. I’m happy to have landed on a place I love so much that I’m content not to leave it. On the other hand, after having stayed in one place for so many years, it was fun and invigorating to see new places again, and to tickle parts of my brain I’d been neglecting. So we’ve decided, at least for now, to put vacationing back into our budget and our farm plans. Of course it is VERY difficult for homesteaders to travel–both because of the expense and because of the difficulty of leaving the farm. But for those who can manage it, there is much to be gained.

I’ll close with a couple of quotes from Mark Twain.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

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Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except Heaven and Hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.

Seeds and Spring

Our seed order has arrived and I’ve mapped out our planting strategy for the year.

For the spring, our principal garden will be about 7500 square feet (app. 1600 row feet).We’ll also plant about 1000 row feet of Yukon Gold potatoes. Our raised beds will be planted with lettuce and tatsoi (mostly lettuce).

Our spring crops will be collards, English peas, arugula, chard, three varieties of kale, romaine lettuce, beets, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, broccoli, radishes, turnips, spinach, lettuce mix and tatsoi. Of course we’ll also continue to harvest the over-wintered lettuce, spinach, kale and turnips in the hoop house.

We don’t have a greenhouse and have limited capability for seed starting. So we’ll start our kale seedlings here, but we’ll get our collards, romaine, broccoli and Chinese cabbage from a nearby nursery. We’ll direct seed everything else.

That ought to give us plenty of production in the spring.

I’ve mapped out the summer and fall schedule too. We like to experiment a little each year. This year we’re trying Blue Hubbard squash for the first time, as well as BHN-589 tomatoes, a variety from Johnny’s intended specifically for hoop house growing. Despite my many prior failures, I’m also going to try carrots again. We’ll plant them in our raised beds in the late summer.

I’m still not sure what we’re going to do in the hoop house next fall. We’re still learning, so I’m going to stay flexible on that.

It’s almost time to get the party started. We’ll start sowing seed trays in a little over two weeks.