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Archive for the ‘Growing’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: Our 1970s-Style Summer

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAThis summer has been one of revelations for me, which I attribute to several things: I’ve been working at a breakneck pace for my job and at home; this is the first year in many that I’m not going away for a summer vacation; and it’s also the first in many that I don’t have a garden.

Since we only moved in a couple of months ago, I didn’t have time to prep and plan a large garden like I’d wanted to do. I thought I’d be fine with that but, boy, was I wrong! My small garden and containers just aren’t bringing me the satisfaction I usually feel. More importantly, I was missing out on crucial mental health sessions. As most of you can surely attest to, a certain degree of restlessness takes hold when a gardener doesn’t get his or her hands in the dirt.

In addition to this, over the last few weeks I’ve been feeling the epidemic that affects many, if not all, working parents at some point of their lives: mommy guilt. I’ve gathered that no matter how committed I am to my simple lifestyle, at some point, societal expectations creep in. I’ve been anticipating it and should have known it would grip me during the one summer we’re homebound.

I know that, realistically, we’re not going away this summer because we bought a homestead. I know this makes perfect sense. But for some reason, it bothered me: not being able to take my kids somewhere great, not sending them to a fun camp, or buying a plethora of toys to keep them occupied. The odd part is, I’ve NEVER sent my children to camp and I’ve never believed in buying them things that feed into a materialistic mindset. Not only did my feelings baffle me, I realized I had lost some of my grounding and coping skills. Between moving and trying to successfully land and integrate into a new job and life, my true priorities got lost in the mix.

What to do? I got back to the dirt, and I made the time to do so, which may have been the biggest but most important challenge. I planted TEN fruit trees in my orchard. I took walks in our woods and harvested wineberries. I made sure I cooked a good meal, which conveys so much. I planned a few short staycations and started to focus on having what I refer to as a “1970s summer.” By that, I mean a summer resembling the ones I had growing up. Simple—or at least it was for us kids!

 

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I scheduled our first tent-camping trip in many years, complete with a trial run in the backyard. In the meantime, I instructed my son to hone his tent skills by building a fort indoors out of any sheets and cushions he could find. You’d think I had handed him the keys to the castle. I realized at that moment, in many ways, I had done exactly that. How many times are kids told no these days? Everything is seemingly off limits or too dirty or takes too long. So instead of saying no, I tried to say yes as much as possible, if it wasn’t life threatening.

I took the kids to nearby NYC, and we ate cheaply. (Restaurant.com allows you to buy gift certificates for a fraction of the value.) We walked in Central Park for free and we explored the American Museum of Natural History at a glacial speed. When the kids asked to see practically every exhibit, read a billion plaques, and discuss everything from gems to Easter Island, I said yes. We ate food from questionable hot dog carts and, in general, we took our time. It’s hard to remember when I had last taken the time to just exist.

 

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Back at home, after the kids spent the first hours of each day completing their chores, I allowed them to spend the second half doing whatever they wanted. They watched lots of TV (usually a no-go in our house) and eventually grew bored of it and opted for the outdoors (WIN!). I invested in a Slip ’N Slide, despite my fear of pointy rocks. The kids made an awful mess, only to clean it up afterwards without being told.

 

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My son asked to learn how to cook and has now taken over making omelets in the morning. He has also provided many hearty laughs, especially when he encountered the act of cracking a rotten egg. I let boredom take over, only to find that it led to imagination triumphing once and for all.

I realized that, after all was said and done, my kids were raised to make the right decisions. In turn, they remind me to do the same when I let life run away with my good sense. I firmly believe that’s what family really is. They helped me remember that sometimes it’s OK to get dirty and then clean it up rather than letting the thought of dirt hold us back.

Most importantly, I know I’ve done well with them, and my guilt is a waste of time. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to achieve everything I put pressure on myself to accomplish right this very second. My kids reminded me that time is best spent hand in hand, strolling through life at a turtle’s pace.

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.

PHOTOS: MICHELLE WIRE

HOMEGROWN Life: Summertime and the Farming is Steamy

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, summer on the farm. The tomatoes and peppers are coming along. The squash and zucchini are booming. And the cows are trying to get their fill of grass at sunup, before the heat of the day sets in.

Sounds perfect, right? The very picture of abundance, joy, and prosperity so many people think of when they hear “family farm.” The truth is a little more complicated. Sure, summer has its strong points but it also has its downsides.

First, let’s talk temperatures. So far, we’ve only had a few days over 90 degrees, but July and August are the usual boilers around here, in West Missouri. We also have high humidity. In fact, nearly every day I’ve watched a World Cup match, I’ve heard that the brutal temperatures and humidity in Brazil make soccer hard to play. And yet our temperatures and humidity in Missouri have actually been higher than those in Brazil. While farming is not a 90-minute endurance of speed, like soccer can be, it certainly takes a lot longer than 90 minutes each day to get our work done. And pretty soon it’s gonna be 100-plus degrees, with hot winds and high humidity. It’s like carrying buckets and hoeing in the middle of a furnace.

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Our pigs keep cool by hanging out in the water, too.

Second, weeds. By now, summer weeds are sharp and tough. When weeding the veggie patch, you can hardly pull anything without getting a sticker stuck in your hand or finger. Oh, and don’t forget the poison ivy.

Third, mowing. Sometimes we mow pastures and bale it up (that’s hay) so that the cows, sheep, and goats will have something to eat in winter. Sometimes we mow so that the grass quality will improve for the next round of grazing. Sometimes we mow to kill the weeds starting to go to seed. We also have to mow our yards, which, unfortunately, are usually too large. I hate mowing, but it has to be done. It just never seems to end.

So, how’s a farmer to cope? Easy. Do what every farm family does. Get yourself a cheap little swimming pool. It’s hours of fun for the kids and it takes the edge off. It keeps me cool—and sane. Plus, even for us organic farmers who hate chemical fertilizers and such, the chlorine in the pool can be a very good thing when it comes to killing potential rashes. Yes, here at our house we try to keep the chlorine to an absolute minimum, but it’s still in there.

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The Oates family watering hole

I know. I know. It would be nice to live in a place with cool and clean spring-fed creeks, the idyllic “swimming hole” of so many songs and poems harkening back to the good ole days. But not everyone can live along the Current River in the Ozarks. In fact, if more of us lived there, it wouldn’t be very clean and pristine. Not to mention the fact that it’s rocky, with very, very thin soil. In other words, not great for agriculture.

So, those of us in the Farm Belt cheat. We fill up our pools with water and blast that water with chemicals to keep it clean. It might disappoint some of you who think us farmers are strong and hardworking and stoic in the face of summer’s adversity. But we all need a coping strategy. Mine, and that of most farm families I know, is to pop open a beverage (I prefer Boulevard Beer from KC) and to take a dip.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: BRYCE OATES

HOMEGROWN Life: My Goats Have Green Thumbs

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENBack before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren’t monocroppers. They ran a closed system, and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm, animals and crop diversity fell out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.

Before we had animals in the garden, we couldn’t produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small, it was nearly impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead, we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately, with commercial compost, you don’t know what’s in it. Studies report that persistent herbicides are showing up in “organic” compost. On top of that, there’s no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard-waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I wasn’t entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.

Our animals, eating weed trimmings from next door that we know aren’t treated with anything

To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost, we had to bring in at least five full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time, and money. It wasn’t cost effective for us and it simply wasn’t sustainable.

When we got chickens, I wasn’t prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot, it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy, we found we weren’t able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and nontoxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats, they joined in the fun.

This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure, we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread, taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance, as we have all that we need and don’t have any extra. And we feed our animals organic feed, so we know what goes in and out of them.

After our final harvest each season, we spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits, they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot, it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We don’t use it on root vegetables, of course, unless we amend very early, allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops, such as melons, squash, and corn, this homegrown compost was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.

But it’s not just fertilizer that the animals provide. The chickens and turkeys, in particular, help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant, the birds get to go out and dig around, eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting, we fence the birds off from the beds, but they still have access to the area on the north side, where our orchard is. We allow the weeds to grow there as a trap crop for insects, which the birds eat while they also keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

The animals around here definitely earn their keep and provide us with food, directly and indirectly. I can’t imagine doing it without them now.

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!