Solstice Celebration & Christmas Preparation

In the early hours, a couple of Great Horned Owls were hooting across the grove as I headed down to the chicken coop to turn the lights on for the ladies. At -8 degrees, I won’t be opening the trapdoor for them today; they won’t walk out in the snow anyhow, so I might as well keep what heat they make inside and hopefully keep their eggs from freezing before I collect them.

A number of them have started laying now–little pullet eggs from the Silkies in a bed on the floor, and a deep brown “big girl” egg in a nesting box from who-knows-which hen. A couple of weeks ago I bought two dozen eggs from our food co-op, so we wouldn’t run out, but my girls keep filling up one side of that first carton so that we haven’t got to the second carton yet. Time for some holiday baking!

DSC06174It takes awhile for the coop light to warm up, and for it to be light enough in there for me to see (and not step on) the eggs–while it seems like the Silkies have decided on one particular corner to lay in, I’ve found eggs near the door and by the water fountain, too. I haven’t stepped on one yet, but I do have a horrible habit of sticking the eggs in my coat pockets and forgetting them by the time I’ve got inside the house. I haven’t broken one in my pocket yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Turns out I have two friends who’ve killed cell phones this way (and one with a long-forgotten rotten egg–blech!), and come to find out, their phones were killed by eggs from the same flock–the one friend having bequeathed his chickens to the other during a move. This makes me wonder if, during subsequent chicken adoptions, one should inquire into whether their eggs have killed [phones] before, and might be likely to kill again.

It’s solstice-time–the longest nights of the year–which means it’s also officially winter, though we’ve been suffering from the season’s bitter cold temperatures for a couple of weeks now. Monday was a heady reprieve–up above freezing and water trickling from the eaves. This morning, we took the below-zero temps with a modicum of good cheer because of the lovely hoarfrost.

DSC06159Not so cheery is the feral cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-chicken: A longer-term resident of this farm than us, she was raised around a previous flock, and if she had her druthers, I’m sure she’d be “cooped” up with her current batch of feathered friends. I don’t mind her milling about with them in the summer and scavenging in the compost for whatever they leave behind, but I don’t want to chance her stealing eggs or pooping in the coop.

She has found a warm place to stay (when she’s not patrolling the barn or piles of buckthorn in the grove) between the basement windows we haven’t yet replaced–the outer one has a pane missing, and I’m sure we’re losing heat through there or she wouldn’t be hanging out. It’s driving the dog crazy to have a “foreign animal” so close to the house [practically IN it!–growls our vexed guardian], but Vega is smart enough not to stick her nose too close to a critter she knows is sharp.

John and I broke down on our no-feeding-feral-cats resolve, and I gave her a little dish of food this morning, which she gobbled like a champ once I moved a safe (by her reckoning) distance away. I am hoping so long as we put it out when she’s there and limit it to what she can eat in one gobbling, we’ll have less chance of attracting other, less desirable hangers-on about the place. Once the bitter cold has broken, she can find enough calories to keep warm through her own devices.

DSC06164Meanwhile, we’re wrapping presents, anticipating the arrival of our boys, and doing some cookie-baking and chili-making (OK, mostly John is). The long nights make us sleepy early, but we staved off the early-hour doldrums last night by attending the annual solstice fire at the farm of some friends, leaving the string of white lights on the porch railing plugged in to brighten our arrival home.

The coincidence of the long nights, fullness of the moon, clear skies, and snow cover have also brightened our mood and provided plenty of opportunities for “mooning” about with our cameras both morning and night. John sets up his little bird blind in the yard some days to shoot images of the abundant visitors to the feeders, as well as tromping off to the various patches of prairie to catch the subtle light gleaming ’round clumps of Bluestem and Indian grass.

Me, I mostly stick close to home, freezing my fingers off for a few amateur shots around the farm.

DSC06156Happy Solstice, dear readers! May your winter nights be warm and full of love, and your coming year gentle and kind.

Cleaning Up the Grove

I started the process of cleaning up the grove today. It’s a little bit of a joke because all I did was take a five gallon bucket and go for a stroll.

DSC06035It didn’t take long before my bucket was full, and I was returning to the point of entry to dump the bucket full of rusty cans, broken bottles, and small car parts into our garbage cart.

And then I went in again. And again. And again. There were some neat unbroken bottles in there, as well as a 1964 Minnesota license plate. But, it comes to a point where you have to quit collecting and start cleaning.

DSC06034After about five buckets-full, it started to sprinkle, and I decided I’d done enough trash-picking for today, but I couldn’t help going back in to simply walk around and look. The grove is old, and it has deteriorated to the point where there is a) a lot of buckthorn, and b) a lot of dead, downed trees that make it hard to pick a trail. But it’s still a “woods,” and being a woman who grew up more-or-less in the woods, there’s still that attraction to walking amongst the trees.

DSC06038Closer to the road (and farther from the outbuildings), there’s not so much trash. I mostly took that route by default because I was trying to get around the tangle of downed limbs. But then I wove my way back toward the farmstead, and found the worst of the smaller trash (there are some bigger car parts and machinery chunks in one area I didn’t get to) right near the old monitor-roof hog barn we’re considering restoring. Diet Pepsi cans galore, lots of old bottles, and some rusted-out pesticide containers.

DSC06039 DSC06041Somehow, I think the MPCA might frown on this sort of disposal these days.

There’s a part of me that is truly galled by the trashing of old farm groves. But I don’t know anyone who has purchased an older farm and not had to contend with this sort of problem (unless the people who lived there before them cleaned it up).

There wasn’t an organized system of waste collection nor recycling when this trashing took place–the grove was where stuff that didn’t decompose got tossed (and maybe where stuff that did decompose was tossed–though food “waste” was fed to the chickens or hogs). I’m not finding much plastic, after all–most all of it is metal and glass from at least 20 years ago–and much of it is quite a bit older than that.

Old habits die hard, after all–if grandpa threw all his cans in the grove and there’s already a pile of cans in the grove, well, then chances are you’re going to throw your can in the grove, too. I’ve heard from some families who’ve spent years taking trash out one section at a time while they also clear out the dead trees, control the buckthorn, and plant new trees to take the place of the fallen. It’s an ongoing process.

So, my forays into grove-cleaning today were pretty insignificant in the face of what it’s going to take to really de-trash the place. But a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, and it was a lovely day for a walk in the woods.



New Farm. New Projects.

As many of my readers will know, my fiance John and I purchased a farmstead in Prior Township, Big Stone County back in March, and started the process of gutting and remodeling the place in early April. While we’re still working on it, the bulk of this enormous project was accomplished in two short months.

I’ll write more about that later–suffice to say, many folks have commented that it typically takes a couple of decades to do all that we did (and I use “we” loosely–I was working my day job much of the time John, our contractor Steve, and the rest of the crew were banging away out here).

The long winter and chilly, rainy spring might’ve worn us down, but they were a blessing in disguise: Steve had a lot of other jobs he’d hired on to do but couldn’t tackle when the weather was crappy, and the rest of us weren’t much tempted to go putter outside during the blizzards, rainstorms, and drizzly, gloomy days.

It’s different now that we’ve been graced by the sun and warmer temperatures in the last few days (and by warmer, I mean 70s–it has been a bear of a spring for getting warm weather crops in the ground). John’s mowed the lawn three times now (and only got two flat tires!), and I’ve done some serious weed trimming and brush hauling. The tick pressure seems to be letting up–at first, we couldn’t even walk out the door and to our cars without doing a tick check; now, I can circumnavigate the entire yard without parasite protection.

I planted one of the big gardens and a couple of the raised beds at the Clinton house this spring, and by chance and connections found a good summer renter who’s just fine with that arrangement. It was hard to tell the extent of the work I needed to do in the farmstead gardens with a few feet of snow on the ground, but I had a (proven accurate when the snow finally melted) sense this season would be more about observation and reclamation out here, and I’d need to retain some of my old planting space.

After moving five times in less than three years, being able to use the same garden space more than one year in a row is a pretty big deal! Now, I’m dearly hoping that I’ll have use of the farmstead space for (at least) most of the rest of my life.

I want to note here that when I show images and talk about the work I’m doing on this place, that I am not in any way passing judgement on the previous owners and their work. Yes, there are a lot of things I would’ve done and some I wouldn’t have, but I don’t have three kids and a job that ties me up completely in the summer months (well, summer IS looking pretty full this year, but…).

I know the previous owners, and they are dear friends. My kid spent many hours out here playing with their kids, and I was always welcomed heartily and fed wholesomely here, and even once took a nap in the hammock before supper and after a particularly long and stressful day. All that (and much more) contributed mightily to my sense that, even though John and I were not farmstead-hunting in Big Stone County, this was a place that felt like home.

All that said, we have some exciting plans for the place, and it’s about time I started writing again, and writing about how it’s coming together.

The biggest plan is to turn the seven+ acres of what’s commonly referred to as “tillable” surrounding the farmstead back to native prairie. We are working with our local SWCD office and Pheasants Forever on that project, and after waiting out the cold and wet, we’ve seen some action on that in the past week.DSC05482 DSC05475It is incredibly humbling to witness this soil cultivated and bare for (we hope) that last time in our lifetimes. I’m not sure of the timeline, but I’m guessing it will be seeded sometime in the next couple of weeks with a high diversity mix of native prairie grasses and forbs.

As the prairie gets re-established, I look forward to it providing a good habitat not only for mammalian and avian wildlife, but also for native pollinators. It was an unsettled spring, but I noticed that even with some excellent pollination days when the chokecherries were in bloom, there are very few cherries setting on the clusters. There were just no bees out here to do the job.

While we are lucky to have a sizable portion of prairie, parks, Wildlife Management Areas and Waterfowl production areas in Big Stone County (which is why we’re considered by those who value such things as a bird-watcher’s, prairie enthusiast’s, and sportsman’s paradise), the vast acreages of row crops and dwindling islands of grove, prairie, wetland, and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands are taking a toll on the pollinator population.

Widespread use of broadleaf herbicides kills off the forbs (flora) that these pollinators depend on for their sustenance, and diminishes the productivity of our orchards and gardens as well. I know it’s a tough sell in this time of high commodity prices to persuade landowners to keep their acres in CRP and even expand the diversity and resiliency of their farms by looking at grazing systems and perennial pastures, but I also know there’s plenty of folks up here who hold values for the land besides what it can make growing corn and beans.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether we should also become domesticated beekeepers, but that’s a decision that can wait at least another year. I’ve got a couple of friends looking at getting into it, so maybe I’ll let them figure it out and then learn from their experience!

The farmstead’s grove also needs a great deal of work–buckthorn has almost entirely taken over the understory, and I’ve been in contact with a goat producer in the region to see about “borrowing” some to fence in there and work on taking it out.

The only problem is that most of the buckthorn in there is already too big for them to reach, so manual take-down is probably the first step, and then we can look at goats to deal with the re-sprout. It’ll also be a lot easier to run fence through that grove once we do some cutting! Right now it’s so dense and there’s so much dead and downed wood in there (yes, and trash from the old farmsteaders before there was garbage service) that we’ll have plenty on our plates for this summer without worrying about importing livestock.

Oh, except for chickens! I picked up a few layer chicks who are getting big fast–my project for the day (among other things–laundry and something to deal with our rhubarb abundance) is to clean the coop and get them out there.DSC05435 DSC05240And no, it’s not still snowy in western Minnesota. I took this coop image back in February.


Keeping the Community in Healthy Food Access

Accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in rural communities can be a real struggle. Helping people in Big Stone County build those healthy, local food systems has been my work for the past couple of years, and we have seen some good results from it, along with some economic revitalization in the local food sector. There’s always more to be done.

Production of and access to fresh, affordable produce in a rural “food desert” is a problem with many facets: producers cope with weather stresses, low prices, and lack of markets for their product; retailers deal with quality, pricing, and sourcing issues, and consumers may not always be able to get what they want for a price they’re comfortable paying.

So, it seems like any strategy that can help community members increase their access to and intake of fresh fruits and veggies at an affordable price would be a real boon. Bountiful Baskets, a buying club with chapters across the western U.S. and now starting up in Ortonville, purports to do just that. For a $15 (or $25 for the organic option) “financial contribution,” local residents will be able to place an order online for a large portion of produce and pick it up every other week.

Bountiful Baskets calls itself a “Food Co-op,” and its local organizers refer to it as a “non-profit volunteer co-op.” But Bountiful Baskets does not appear to be incorporated as a co-op nor registered as a non-profit in any of the several western states’ records I searched. It was started in 2009 as a for-profit corporation in Arizona, and it was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011 for failure to file annual reports.

Still, Bountiful Baskets organizers refer to the service in the language used by its administrators, and those administrators are careful to indicate that you are not “ordering” the merchandise, you’re contributing to a pool of money to, well, order something with a whole bunch of other people:

“Making a contribution is sometimes referred to as ‘ordering’, but this is not accurate. We call it contributing or participating, because Bountiful Baskets is not a business that you buy from, but rather a co-op where we all pool our money to buy things together.”

So, why does it matter that they are not incorporated as an actual co-op or non-profit? Because being a real co-op actually means something beyond putting your money in a collective pot to purchase a basket of goods–specifically, a co-op is a member-owned, democratically controlled enterprise that operates according to a specific set of principles. The Granary Food Co-op in Ortonville is one such incorporated cooperative, serving its member-owners and community since 1979.

Being a non-profit actually means something, too. Actual non-profits must report how their money is spent–but Bountiful Baskets is silent on the subject of staff, profits, or anything fiscally related other than the above-quoted “contribution” piece. Being a non-profit does not simply mean that you’re relying on local people to do work without being paid, which is a part of the Bountiful scheme.

Bountiful Baskets and its organizers talk about this service being a great community-building enterprise, and there certainly does seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers at pick-up sites from the comments and reviews I saw online. But, no money is retained in the local community from these online “contributions.” Food from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. comes in on a truck and gets sorted out and taken home by individual “contributors,” bypassing local grocery stores, local farmers markets, and yes, the local food co-op.

In short, Bountiful Baskets is simply a buying club–and one in which you’ll for the most part be purchasing things you can already get locally. Calling it a co-op or a non-profit or comparing it to a CSA (you never know what you’ll get!) or farmers market (all that produce!) is simply disingenuous–capitalizing on the good feelings people have for those things while not actually doing the things that make people feel good about them.

This is not to disparage those unpaid local organizers attempting to set up chapters in their communities–I can certainly empathize with the strain of sourcing good food on a budget–it is simply to tell the truth about what this business is and what it isn’t.

And it is also to ask specific questions: Where do the “contributions” go? Where does the food come from? Who is making money from this enterprise, and how much are they making?

Yes, ordering through Bountiful Baskets can save you money. But the money you’re saving over buying locally is money that pays for local jobs and local infrastructure in your community. It’s money that keeps the rent paid, the lights on, the coolers running, and the farmers farming. It’s money that pays for employees and the merchandise they stock on the shelves.

Building local food systems and increasing access to healthy food isn’t just about the food itself–it’s also about the role of healthy food and local grocery stores in a strong and diversified local economy. Sourcing cheaper produce by circumventing local retailers may be a boost for your family’s budget, but it should not be confused with real strategies for building and investing in community.

Candy Culture

gummy bears

As a kid, I frequently went on errands with my mom–the typical stuff like bank, library, offices of various kinds, supermarket, meat market. Occasionally, if I was really good, she’d buy one of those little square chocolate bars with fruit and nuts, and we’d share it.

Otherwise, candy wasn’t a feature of my day-to-day childhood, and soda was not a regular beverage in our household–we’d have a bottle or two of ginger ale stashed for illnesses, but it was a real treat to get a root beer or a Hawaiian Punch. Holidays and visits to grandparents’ houses were exceptions, of course.

I try to follow that same policy with my son when it comes to treats, but it’s a lot harder to do these days. It seems that in every office, every bank, every place I stop on my errands, there is a bowl of candy sitting there. Heck, in a lot of places, if you are going through a drive-through, they’ll put a sucker or Tootsie Roll in with your receipt if they see you have a kid in the car.

Not only that, but in a lot of schools and at a lot of kids’ activities, prizes for achievement are candy and soda (sometimes three liter bottles!), and many of the fundraising drives done by schools focus on selling sweet treats. You just cannot get away from it.

You can respond, “well, just tell him he can’t have it.” And yes, I can, and I have. But when your kid returns from a field trip with a half-consumed pop in hand, or he wins a prize for reading and comes home clutching a bagful of candy (a large amount of which he’s already stuffed in his mouth), what exactly is the right thing to do?

Great job, kiddo, now give me that soda, so I can dump it down the sink!

It’d be one thing if it was an infrequent occurrence (and if well-meaning adults didn’t think it’s “better” to hand a kid a zero-calorie chemical cocktail as a “healthier” alternative to HFCS-laden pop), but it’s not. Kids today have far greater exposure to sugary treats on a daily basis than most of us ever did. And it’s wearing on parents to constantly say no, no, no to the sweet barrage.

Still, I don’t think the answer is more government regulation of treats. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the health community about whether making sugary beverages “controlled substances” could help alleviate the obesity epidemic in this country–especially among children.

Frankly, I doubt such regulations would pass (as NYC Mayor Bloomberg has discovered), and as a colleague of mine commented, the last thing you want is people holding up a 36oz. soda as a sign of independence or victory over Big Government.

The Ortonville Early Childhood Initiative took a laudable step in the right direction earlier this month by offering healthier treats, like real fruit leather, as prizes at the annual Sports & Leisure Show kids’ carnival. Parents and others who are concerned about the health of children should take an active role in limiting the amount of treats kids are exposed to–by (politely, of course) asking businesses to put away their candy bowls and insisting that schools and organizers of kids’ activities provide healthier treats and prizes.

Stashing the public candy dishes and offering health-conscious prizes and fundraising activities are small steps in the fight against childhood obesity, and government and the health care industry most certainly have a role in the bigger picture, as well.

It will take work on all levels to cut down on the pervasive presence of unhealthy snacks and to curb the candy culture that exists in our country.

What do you see as appropriate roles for parents, educators, government, and others in this fight?