Country Moon

The Harvest Changes Everything

Country MoonHarvest is the time of year when all things come together. It is the time when one tiny seed planted in the spring matures into a plant that gives back — sometimes a thousand-fold more seed and food than the original seed. Multiply that one plant by a billion to make a field, and those fields feed a nation.

It is truly miraculous! Farming is the only occupation where a person invests a year of work and can only reap the benefits during a few short weeks in the fall. To make it even more miraculous, each farmer’s story is different. Two can plant exactly the same variety of seed at exactly the same time and have two completely different yields. It becomes very personal.

This year, I was privileged to take an active part in harvest again after being away from it for over 30 years. Ron let me help him. To be quite honest, there were a few moments when the word “help” did not apply! But I had all but forgotten how fulfilling harvest can be. It’s not just about getting the crop in; it’s about harvesting memories, too.

I had also forgotten how meticulous you have to be, even in the smallest details. I pulled the wagons up from the field for Ron and unloaded into the storage bins. Driving up so that the chute of the wagon is positioned just so over the hopper of the auger is critical. Too far left or right and the grain tends to pile up and go over the sides; too far back and you lose some on the ground. Every kernel is money, so you don’t want to lose any. Laugh if you may, but I had markings on the ground to show where to position my front tire and where to stop. It sure made life a lot easier, and, in this business, time is the name of the game.

I haven’t progressed far enough yet that Ron could “dump on the go” like many farmers do with grain carts. Unbeknownst to me, one time we tried this, and let’s just say it did not go well. Remember what I said about every kernel being precious? Enough said.

So I had to know where to meet him in the field so he could dump. Sounds simple, right? Well, here in Indiana they have waterways, which are strips of land that cut up into the fields to let the excess water run off. This means that combining isn’t as simple as going around through lands or back and forth. Sometimes Ron would need to dump at the far side of the field, sometimes in the middle of the field, and sometimes at the lane. Basically, he needed me at the opposite place of where I was. Yep, not quite so simple!

OK, I can hear some chuckles from some folks now. You may think that I am poking fun at something that seems so elementary. What is hard to grasp until you do it is that every little detail is important when it's crunch time for the farmer.

Now, back to what I said, that “harvest changes everything.” Anyone who is a farmer, is married to a farmer, or knows a farmer will attest to this fact. Harvest is harvest. Period. Unless it is a matter of life or death, nothing else matters during these few short (or long, depending on your view) weeks each fall. That husband, father, brother, or friend changes into someone you don’t recognize. He doesn’t hear half of what you say, if anything; he is a little bit on the edgy side, he doesn’t sleep, only eats on the fly, and has generally no idea what is happening outside of the agricultural community.

I’m just saying that this is how it is; it’s not right nor is it wrong. After all, it is their once-a-year payday. It's hard to fathom how not cut-and-dry this whole business is. Moisture content of the crop and the weather are the two dictating factors that decide when crops are taken in.

Different varieties of corn and soybeans have different maturity traits, so they ripen at different times. How much rain has fallen over the summer, what kind of fertilizer was spread, and type of soil all play a role as to when the crop is ready. Combined with the fact that that a field may not all ripen at the same time all adds to the complexity of harvest.

Each day is different, too. You may have a real good drying day where the moisture content is down and you can run grain from morning to dusk. The next day may seem the same but, if there is more cloud cover or the humidity is up, the grain may pick up too much moisture and become tough.

The days when the sun is shining and yet conditions are not right to harvest are the absolute worst. It brings out all kinds of fidgety and pessimism. There is nothing worse than knowing that you should be in the fields and, at the same time, knowing you should not be.

Farmers in any given area are a pretty close-knit clan. They are constantly keeping tabs on their neighbors to see if they are in the fields or not, how much have they gotten done, are they storing grain, are they loading it out, etc. This brings up a whole other aspect. Grain market reports are scrutinized not daily, but sometimes hourly. Farmers constantly gauge their yield and market price to decide if they should store their grain for sale at a later date, ship it right out of the field and sell, or store it and put it on delayed price. In addition to this mix, they also have to decide if they have enough storage space according to the yield they are getting. For every farmer, every year, this is the gamble.

Yes, farmers definitely have just cause for grumpiness and pessimism at this time of year. It’s a way of life. Yet, it is a rich way of life, for no other vocation lets one get so in tune with the earth. Every farmer knows that the piece of land that he has been entrusted with, the piece that he calls his own, will only be good to him and give back according to how good of caretaker he has been. It’s give and take.

Yes, for a few weeks each fall, harvest changes everything. Not to worry, though, soon everything will be back to normal, and the cycle will start all over again for next year. That’s a farmer’s life.


A Yooper For Life

Country MoonEvery once in a while a person needs to get away and leave all cares behind. That is exactly what we did for a few days last week as we headed north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, my favorite getaway destination.

Michigan is unique in that it is the only bi-peninsula state in the country. Both land masses separated by the mighty Mackinac Bridge are considered peninsulas. The north is bordered by Lake Superior, the east by St. Mary’s River, the southeast by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and the south by Wisconsin. Michigan even gets her name from the Chippewa Indian word meicigama, which means “great water.” When in Michigan, one is never more than six miles from a natural water source or more than 85 miles from one of the Great Lakes. The Upper Peninsula has 12,000 miles of rivers and streams and 4,300 inland lakes, giving it the distinction of having ten percent of all the fresh water in the world and the most coastline in the continental United States. Hello, fishermen!

It has been a long standing joke that if you live in the lower part of the state (under the bridge) you are affectionately known as a “Troll,” while those in the Upper Peninsula are “Yoopers.” Incidentally, the word Yooper was first published in 1979 and was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2014.

Besides all this water, the Upper Peninsula has acres and acres and acres of pristine forests and more than 100 waterfalls. Even though the UP (as the Upper Peninsula is known to us natives) has twenty-nine percent of Michigan’s land area, only three percent of the state’s population lives there. From its most northern point to the most southern is only 125 miles, and from east to west is only 320 miles. Yet, driving anywhere in this area, one can go for miles upon miles and never pass another vehicle or see any human life.

There are two thoughts when it comes to this vastness: either there is nothing up here, or everything is up here. To me, there is everything. It's a whole different way of life here. People take their time and are not always in a rush. After all, where and what is there to rush to?

The best example of this nothing/everything is in Whitefish Point, located on the rugged Whitefish Bay on the southeast corner of Lake Superior. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and the Upper Peninsula Bird Observatory — which is the premier migratory bird hotspot in Michigan — is here, as well as shipwreck diving opportunities. Outside of these, there is nothing: no restaurants, no places to stay, no shopping … nothing except miles of rugged shoreline.

We spent hours walking that shoreline that offered the most varied array of rocks I have ever seen. Because of so few local inhabitants, this shoreline is clean, and the water is so clear you can see the bottom. If you are real lucky, you can find Lake Superior agates — semi-precious gemstones with rich bands of color.


My personal favorite is the smooth, round, black rocks that washed on shore. They are perfect for painting and using for decoupage. But perhaps the best part of this corner of the world is the end-of-the-earth feeling you get here. It is a great place to reflect and gather your thoughts. The crashing waves have a humbling effect that helped me remember that I am only a small part of something so much larger. We all need that reality check once in a while.

Driving back down the coast, we stopped in a little store in Paradise. When we mentioned rock-hunting to the store’s owner, he told us to wait a minute while he got his wife, Joann. He said that she loves to talk to passers-by and show them her rock collection. We left 30 minutes later. What is so great is that this is the norm and not the exception in the UP. People take time for each other, just like it was meant to be.

It’s almost like stepping back into another world. Two nights we stayed in small “Mom and Pop” cabins. They weren’t locked, the keys were laying in the room waiting for us while the owners were going about their business. One place only dealt in cash. Can you imagine no credit cards? It was nice to see that there was still a part of the world that knew another way besides plastic.

This is a rugged area. We saw dozens of signs about places for sale. It's a nice thought to go back to nature, to live in this rugged vastness, until you actually try it. So many people find that it is a nice place to visit, but they don’t want to stay. Others come for a visit and never go back. Kim, my bonus daughter (I despise the word “step”), is a prime example. She moved up right after school and is now in her 40s and a true Yooper. It’s all what you want out of life and where you see the real beauty.

I was pleasantly surprised when we got back home and discovered that, although we packed them, we never once took out our laptop or tablet. Yes, you can live without them. This is not to say that they don’t have their place in life, but sometimes we get too wrapped up in being connected all the time.

It rather said it all when we stopped and asked where we turn in Munising for the Pictured Rocks tour boats. The gal told us to just turn right at the light. I asked which light. Her answer was, “There is only one light in town. As a matter of fact, there is only one light in the county!”

Although life and family dictate that I live in the lower, my heart resides in the UP. Yoopers like to say that they have Paradise (the town) and the lower peninsula has Hell (the town). I try to remember each time I come back from the UP that I don’t have to actually live there to be there. “Up north” is more a state of mind than an actual location.

When you feel the cares of the world begin to slip away … when you find yourself breathing a little deeper because the air seems purer somehow … when you notice that the sky is bluer, the pines taller, and the people smile a lot more … it’s then that you know you’re “Up North.”


Don't Let Your Garden Sleep This Winter

Country MoonAs the air turns crisp and days get shorter, everyone turns their attention to the harvest. I love this time of year. I love to see the bounty from spring’s planting come full circle, whether it be in the garden or field.

However, it can also be a time to think of planting again. I know most gardens, including mine, look barren about this time of year, but there is a ton of produce that can not only be grown during the winter, but actually thrives during the cold months. As some crops are living out their last days, others are waiting to begin growth.

For areas where the ground doesn’t completely freeze, winter is a great time to plant right in the garden. For those of us who live further north, where the ground does completely freeze, we just have to be a little more creative.

Winter gardens are a little different from those grown in the warm months, and there are some definite advantages. For one thing, plants are dormant during winter, which means that they are not actively growing. Being in “sleeping” mode means that they suffer less transplant shock when planted now than if they were “awake” and actively growing.

Plants in the dormant state require significantly less water than when they are in the active growth state during spring, summer, or fall. There also tends to be more moisture in the forms of both rain and snow during the winter months than in the other three seasons. Watering is still crucial, just not as much is needed.

Bugs and plant diseases are not active in cold weather — this is a big one for me. Imagine gardening without the hassle of fighting pests. You get a reprieve from insects eating the produce before you have a chance, or black spots or mildew appearing from seemingly nowhere.

Winter planting gives plants a chance to acclimate to their new homes and start early root growth in the spring before the summer heat arrives. Woody plants in particular, like trees and shrubs, respond well to fall and winter planting. Amanda Campbell, manager of Display Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, explains “because plants are already dormant when they go into the ground, at the first onset of spring — many times imperceptible to people, but picked up by trees waiting for the right signals — they begin root growth. Beginning this growth early in spring gives them a good, solid start going into spring and summer. The soil around them has settled from planting and, if you mulch in the fall, this helps regulate soil temperature and moisture.”

Winter planting and fall mulching puts plants planted in winter a step ahead when spring comes. Smaller perennials can also be fall/winter-planted, but they sometimes struggle just a bit more than larger ones, as they tend not to be large in size or rooted quite as well as trees and shrubs. They take a little more TLC.

Now, for those of us who live in the northern climates where the grounds freeze during winter, it takes a little more creativity to be a winter gardener. However, by no means is it impossible. Plants need to be insulated against the cold — that is the bottom line. If you have a greenhouse, you should be set to go, but for the rest of us it takes a little ingenuity. You can make a cloche or makeshift greenhouse with old windows, hoops of PVC pipe with greenhouse plastic strung over them, or even old milk jugs cut open to slide over growing plants to protect them from the cold.


You will have a tough time growing delicate summer crops like corn, thin-skinned squash, tomatoes, strawberries, and the like without a commercial greenhouse and being willing to spend a great deal of money on heating and lighting to force your garden to grow. However, there are some crops that are partial to the colder months. Here are just a few:

KALE: Kale has recently gained a reputation for being trendy and has probably reached its social saturation point, but give it another shot. It is rich in vitamins and minerals and makes a robust winter crop, thriving in a variety of conditions. There are many different varieties like Redbor kale, kamome red kale, and others that walk a thin line between edible and ornamental so you can have splashes of color in your garden and also a healthy snack.

KOHLRABI: This plant will give you flavorful leaves and a nice root to boot. It likes cold weather and tends to mature rapidly. Once that root is large enough, you can pickle it, use it in stir fries, eat it raw on salads, and a lot more. While you're at it, don’t overlook kohlrabi’s cousin — the winter radish — to add a little flair to your winter salads. I even peeled some of these delicacies last year, cooked them until tender, and then sliced, rolled in flour, and fried them in olive oil for a different kind of treat.

WINTER LETTUCE: Lettuce can be grown at almost any time of the year, including winter. For us northerners, this is where we will need a cold frame, greenhouse, or warm area of the house with some sunlight, but it will be so worth it to have fresh, crisp greens at your fingertips. This is especially appealing to me since I got not one nibble of lettuce this year due to the deer dining first on the tasty morsels. I just dare them to try and get my winter crop of lettuce!

SPINACH and ORACH: These related greens taste great and love winter weather. Orach is a rich maroon color, so it will provide a colorful splash in your winter garden, right beside that red kale that you planted! Like lettuce, they can be harvested a few leaves at a time to keep the plant producing for weeks.

POTATOES: I was so proud of my potato crop this year, like every year; I have had a good crop that keeps me well supplied during the winter. However, I know it is not my prowess in the garden that produced such a good crop, because potatoes are not fussy. You can toss them in a five gallon bucket with soil or straw as a growing medium and keep them producing all winter. When it gets cold and the weather is bad, just move them indoors or to a sheltered area on the porch.

HERBS: Don’t forget your herbs. Thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon, oregano, and chives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to varieties that you can grow right on your windowsill. How nice to have greenery growing during the dreary winter months, and they add fresh zing to winter soups and casseroles!

Winter gardening lets you keep your green thumb going year-round. It doesn’t take much to provide enough shelter for plants to thrive in your winter garden. Who says you can’t have fresh produce right at home all year long?

Glassblowing is Art in Itself

Country Moonblown glass1

I look at my west-facing front porch when the sun sets, and I always see a rainbow of colors. Jim, the avid collector, had jars upon jars of marbles. He separated them by color and put them in fancy bottles (which he also collected). There is nothing prettier than them sitting on the windowsill with the sun streaming through them.

Glass. Do you ever stop to think how much easier, richer, and more beautiful it makes our lives? Though not a collector myself, I do appreciate glass and how it dresses up our lives. Like most other things, glass is more than it seems.

Quite simply, glass is quartz silica, which is basically refined sand. It occurs naturally in the form of obsidian at the mouth of volcanoes. Glass-making began around 4000 BC, and modern glass is created in furnaces that burn at 1700 degrees Celsius.

There are various forms of glass, although they are all created in the same manner. The impurities in it are what gives different pieces the different colors and characteristics. Depression Glass is one of the most vintage and one of the most collected. It is characterized by the process used to manufacture the pieces through stamping or forming the pieces in a mold. It was basically the everyday tableware made from machine-pressed glass during the 1920s and the 1940s, thus it got its name from the Depression era. It comes in a variety of colors ranging from light green to yellow, pink, and clear. It was often put in cereal boxes or offered as a prize for visiting certain establishments.

Crystal is another type of glass that is highly collected and prized. The distinction of crystal over glass is that crystal must contain at least 24 percent lead, whereas glass contains no lead. Waterford Crystal — the leader in the industry — may often contain 32 percent lead. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between crystal and glass; usually the tell-tale signs are that crystal will have a distinct ring to it when tapped, and it is heavier than glass.

Blown glass — my favorite — is made by a technique that involves inflating molten glass into a bubble with the aid of a blowpipe. The discovery of glassblowing is the subject of debate for some historians. One legend suggests that ancient sailors discovered glass when they started a campfire on a sandy beach. Some say prehistoric man used volcanic glass to make weapons and jewelry. Either way, once humans discovered that they could make glass, they began to make beautiful pieces of art. Early glass was created by shaping molten glass around a form, letting it cool, and then removing the form. Glass containers became readily available. Around 50 BC, glassblowing was discovered as it is known today.

Glassblowers, also known as gaffers or glassfish, are very accomplished artisans. They begin by combining the ingredients for creating glass in a heavy metal cauldron. These are heated to extremely high temperatures in a furnace or kiln.

Their main tool is a long metal pipe called a blowpipe. Once the ingredients have melted, they dip the blowpipe into the molten glass and rotate it to create a blob of molten glass. Then they blow short puffs of air into it. Depending on the desired finished product, flat graphite paddles and calipers can be used to press, pull, squeeze, and twist molten glass into desired shapes. After the desired shape is achieved, the piece must be cooled properly to prevent the glass from shattering. This is done by heating the glass in 2025-degree F furnaces and cooling it repeatedly.

Once the glass is stable, it is carried to a steel table called a marver to further shape the piece by rolling it. The marver will absorb a lot of heat from the molten glass, because the surfaces touch as the glass rolls over the table. If the sides of the glass get too thin, then it must be chilled further by rolling it on the marver. If the bottom of the glass gets too thick, the glass must be put back in the glory hole (the oven that reheats the glass to keep it malleable) and heat must be concentrated on the bottom of the glass. It is crucial to consistently turn the piece while it is being heated.

Shapes are made on the marver. If the artisans want the bubble to move down the glass and make it longer, like a vase, they marver the sides and not the bottom. With the sides cooler, the bubble will push the bottom down even further when it is blown on.

If a bowl is the desired effect, they want the bubble to move out of the glass so the sides expand. For this shape, they marver the bottom and not the sides. With the bottom cooler, the bubble will push the sides out even further. Once the piece is shaped, they create score lines in the piece’s neck with large tongs known as jacks.

The next step is finishing the piece, and although this step can be tricky, there is a secret to it. The piece of shaped glass is transferred to a punty (another rod). With a small file dipped in water, they etch a line around the neck of the piece. This action weakens the glass and makes it brittle, separating it from the original pipe. They cover the hole where they were blowing and dip the pipe in a bucket of water. Voila, another work of art!

When broken down, this whole process seems simple, but it takes a lot of patience to create the finished product. What makes blown glass really unique is that no two pieces are ever exactly alike. Sometimes, as in the case of glass art, the simpler a piece is, the more elegant it looks. I know that my vases on the porch brighten my days.

Don't Blow Leaves, Mow!

Country MoonNo one can deny that one of the brighter aspects of autumn is the abundance of color. We who live in the northern states are blessed to have the changing of the seasons. I am always sad to see the current one go, but anxious for the next one to come. Best of these for me is autumn. I love the crisp days and nights, and especially the colorful autumn foliage.

I still think that leaves turning color in autumn should be one of the wonders of the world. Just saying. The process that causes this is pretty amazing. In a nutshell, leaves are nature’s food factories. Plants take water in through their roots and take carbon dioxide from the air. They then use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose. They emit oxygen and use the glucose for food for energy for themselves.

Photosynthesis, which literally means “putting together with chlorophyll,” is this process, which plants do day after day. Chlorophyll is the green color in the leaves. The amount of light in a day is what triggers this whole process. During autumn, as the days get shorter, the plants “know” it is time to get ready for winter.

When there is not enough light or water for photosynthesis to occur, plants rest and live off the food they have stored. As they begin to shut down food-making, the chlorophyll disappears. As the green fades, the yellows and oranges appear. They have actually been there all along, but have been covered by the chlorophyll. Reds and purples are actually made in the fall after photosynthesis stops. The sunlight and cool nights cause the glucose to turn to the red color. Brown hues come from the waste left in the leaves.

Autumn leaves 

Sunny autumn days and cool nights give us this brilliant color show. However, after the show, leaves fall and then the chore starts of what to do with all the fallen leaves. I have always liked the job of raking leaves and burning them in the fall. There is just something about the smell of them. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling.

However, there is a better way, both for your back and your wallet. You can rake them, blow them, vacuum them, ignore them, or mulch them. Mulching is clearly the better choice. It not only saves time, but also money. It is definitely faster and easier than raking and gives your back a break. Yes, raking is good exercise, but after going over a whole yard, most backs begin to feel the stress, not to mention the blisters you’ll get on your hands.

Shredded leaves control certain weeds and also provide soil with much needed winter nutrients. The best part is that you do not need a special mower, rather just buy mulching blades for your current mower. Mulching blades are serrated blades that chop leaves into fragments as tiny as confetti. As the leaves decompose, they act as natural fertilizer and as a weed control agent.

Mulching works because microorganisms that live in the soil break down organic material like leaves. Worms also play a crucial role in this process. Roots of some grasses like fescue grow slowly in fall and winter, and the decaying action of mulched leaves provide vital nutrients. Mulching keeps soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Studies by Michigan State University students show that homeowners can attain a nearly 100% decrease in dandelions and crabgrass after mulching leaves for only 3 years. A typical lawn needs up to 4 pounds of nitrogen annually. Recycling grass clippings back into the lawn can account for up to one pound of a lawn’s nitrogen requirement.  Thus, the combination of mulched leaves and grass clippings can add up to less fertilizer required to have a luscious spring and summer lawn free of dandelions and crabgrass. Oak leaves have been in the middle of a controversy as to whether to mulch them or not because of their acidity. However, recent studies suggest that their PH balance is neutral and not acidic, making them perfect mulching candidates too.

Fall is the optimum time to mulch. Many folks like to wait until spring when they begin their yard cleanup. A buildup of leaves on a lawn turns to a soggy mess under winter’s rains and snows, and the leaves also block sunlight and air from reaching the grass. This lack of air and circulation can cause turf diseases or smother grass out completely. Also, if you put the mulched leaves on landscaped beds in the fall they will biodegrade almost completely. In spring, the decomposition process will compete with plants for nutrients.

Turf grass specialists at Michigan State University show that up to 6 inches of leaves can be mulched at one time. That takes care of a lot of leaves in a hurry. Even so, there are still people who, for one reason or another, prefer not to mulch. This isn’t always bad. If you prefer to either rake or blow or vacuum your leaves, you can still give them a second use.

Put the leaves in a pile that won’t be disturbed totally, but also where they will get wet occasionally and where they can decompose naturally. After two years you will have real and crumbly compost, with your pile shrinking to half its original size. This compost will be ready for flower beds or shrubs. What’s better than free fertilizer from something that was originally a waste product?

Many people grumble about the falling leaves in autumn. Yes, they do cause work, but if you choose wisely, they can be repurposed into a rich nutrient for next year’s crop. I will always love the smell of burning leaves, but mulching makes so much more sense. Perhaps this year I will mulch; next year’s crops will thank me. But I will also save a small pile to burn. Some traditions are just too hard to break.

Autumn leaves

4-H Isn't Always About Competition

Country Moon




From time to time, nearly everyone looks back on their life and regrets a few things that they didn’t experience. Mine is 4-H.

I never really knew what it was all about until watching Wyatt grow through it. Last week marks the seventh year that he has shown a starter calf at the Calhoun County Fair in Marshall, Michigan. Through the years, I have not only watched his progress during competition, but also seen that there is much more to 4-H than this aspect.

4-H is an American thing. It is a club for youth with a primary goal of developing citizenship, leadership, responsibility, and life skills of youths through experimental learning programs and positive youth development approaches. Although it is for all, it is more closely tied to rural youth, with the original purpose of instructing rural youth in improved farming and farm-homemaking practices.

The 4-H concept was “born” in 1902 as a focal point for youth to have hands-on experience in practical matters. The desire was to also make the public schools and educators more connected to rural life.

During this time, the United States Department of Agriculture noted that adults were hesitant to accept new agricultural discoveries and practices, but educators found that youth were more open to experimenting with new ideas and sharing their experiences with adults. Thus, 4-H became a means to introduce new technology to adults.

The official 4-H emblem is a green four-leaf clover with a white “H” on each leaf. Oscar Herman Benson of Wrights County, Iowa is credited with originating this design. He was noted for awarding 3-leaf and 4-leaf clover pennants and pins for students’ agricultural and domestic science exhibits at school fairs. The four H’s represent four personal development areas of focus: head, hands, heart, and health.

These four areas were developed into the official 4-H pledge by Otis E. Hall in 1918 in Kansas. The pledge further exemplifies these four areas:

"I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
And my health to better living,
For my club, my community, my country, and my world."

Wow — these are words we all would be wise to adopt in our lives.

No matter what a person does in life, each task usually has a particular end goal. It is no different in 4-H. Whether a youth chooses to do projects or livestock, all are judged and awards are presented accordingly.

Judges are the link between the 4-H project, the 4-H member, and the standard of performance. Although judges have standard rules to use as guidelines, it is still basically their personal opinion on which is the best.

Livestock is judged in two different classes: showmanship and market. Showmanship is the ability to show an animal to its best ability. This class does not take into account whether you have a prize-winning animal or not; it is solely about how you present yourself and your animal. This is why preparation for showmanship starts at home weeks prior to the fair. It is pretty evident each year which kids have worked with their animals and which have not when you see how “in tune” kids and their animals are, and which animals walk and behave according to their owner's commands.

Judges look for three things in showmanship. First, the participant should be clean and wear suitable attire, which includes a button-up or polo shirt, good jeans, boots, and belt. They should also keep their eyes on the judge at all times. Secondly, the animal should be clipped, trimmed, washed, and clean. Thirdly, the animal is judged on how well it responds to the owner and shows itself.

The second part of the judging is market class, where the animal is judged according to the animal breed and industry standards. Again, this starts weeks before the fair, with many variables affecting the animal’s final appearance. Much of this has to do with its weight, how well it is filled out, and its form (straight back, height, etc.)

Of course, this goes back to bloodlines. All livestock is based on ancestry, and most times a “good” animal is the result of good genes. In 4-H, this can be a good or a bad thing. Some parents will literally spend 10,000 dollars or more on one animal so that their child will have the best to show. Of course, the grand champion and reserve grand champion represent the best animals in each class. I would much prefer to see an average specimen chosen for one of these titles, simply because the youth has chosen the right feed and nurturing practices instead of the winner being chosen because of predisposed characteristics.

Although the competition and the ultimate sale of the 4-H animal on sale day are the highlight of fair week, it is about so much more. I wish there were a way to reward the kids for how much character they build through 4-H.

I can see personally how 4-H has helped form Wyatt and his fellow members from children into caring, reliable young men and women. Even though they work together as a club all year, when it comes showtime they are basically competitors, not only with strangers from other clubs, but also with each other. Even so, I have seen Wyatt and the others be the first ones there to help another member in need. That makes them all winners in itself.

Like I said earlier, all of a member’s hard work is culminated in one judge’s opinion. Just being human, some judges are better and fairer than others. This year was a case in point with the judging of the dairy starter calves.

It was evident during showmanship that the judge was partial to girls over boys. Naturally, the boys were disappointed when they had performed just as well as the girls and were not rewarded accordingly, Wyatt included. Even though he surmised that market class would go the same way, he went in the ring prepared to win, not lose. He did not win in the ring, but he did win by learning the important lesson that life is not always fair. You don’t give up, you keep trying. That’s what makes a real winner. Thank you 4-H.

The camaraderie that these kids have is amazing.  A group that spends 7 days a week, 24 hours a day together is bound to be close. Because of this, they will do well in any group in life. Wyatt was involved in pee-wee competition this year, helping little tykes to get used to the show ring. He does equally well with tots or 90-year olds. Thank you again, 4-H.

There are 6.5 million 4-H members in the United States, aged 5 to 21, in approximately 90,000 clubs. Their motto is “To make the better best” and their slogan is “Learn to do by doing.” Now, if that isn’t a recipe for life, I don’t know what is.

Preserving This Summer's Bounty

Country MoonWhen it comes to summer produce, nothing tastes better than fresh, hands down. It is also the best for you nutritionally, because fresh always has the highest concentration of nutrients and antioxidants.

Although the harvest season is short, people have been preserving its bounty for years. The most popular methods are canning and freezing, but there are other options. There is no right one; the choice depends on personal preference, length of planned storage, and the particular type of produce being preserved. As with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

Canning is the process of sealing food tight in various containers, usually canning jars. It alters the food chemically by changing the PH balance and moisture levels to protect against microbes, bacteria, mold, and yeast. Combining these processes with the physical barriers of glass jars, seals, and lids prevents decay. Canned foods, whether store-bought or home-processed, can be stored for years. Food will not spoil as long as the seals are not broken, although flavor and appearance may be compromised.

The downside of canning is that foods lose 65% of their nutritional value as compared to fresh. Of course, being able to enjoy the foods in the winter and getting 45% of the nutrients is better than not having them at all. However. improper processing and poor sanitation can result in deadly botulism. For this reason, a pressure canner is always recommended, as well as using sterilized jars, lids, and utensils.

Freezing perishables is a relatively quick process and only requires freezer containers and time. The texture of processed foods is a big reason why people prefer freezing over canning, or vice versa. Personally, I like green beans better canned while I like peas better frozen. Freezing also allows you to spread out the processing of fresh produce. Garden veggies usually all ripen at the same time, regardless of when planted. I am always hard-pressed for enough time to preserve corn, tomatoes, green beans, beets, and a host of other veggies simultaneously. Tomatoes and peppers especially lend themselves well to being washed, chopped, and frozen until later in the season, or even winter. It is much nicer to make salsa, chili sauce, and spaghetti sauce at a leisurely pace.

Blanching vegetables, which is simply the process of plunging them into boiling water and then into cold water, stops the enzyme activity and helps maintain the nutritional value by preserving some vitamins better than canning. Although vitamins B and C are lost in frozen foods and antioxidants are lower in frozen than fresh, vitamins A and E, carotenoids, fiber, minerals, and protein retain their values in frozen foods.

Other down sides to freezing are that most fruits and vegetables lose their crispness and, if left too long in the freezer, foods are subject to freezer burn, which affects flavor and texture. Of course if you live in rural areas then power outages are always a possibility, which could result in a whole freezer full of spoiled food.

There you have the upsides and downsides of canning and freezing, the two biggies when it comes to food preservation. Some of the lessor popular methods may merit a try, too.

Drying food is merely removing the water content, thereby inhibiting bacterial growth in foods. This method has been around since ancient times because, essentially, all that is needed is air. Modern dehydration does add convenience.

Dried foods keep indefinitely, which makes them perfect candidates for the type of food to pack for hikes, military missions, and the like. Another reason dried foods are favorites of hunters, fishermen and other outdoorsmen is that they are so light to carry, weighing only 10% of what the fresh food originally weighed. Dried foods, especially fruits, are a healthier sweet alternative to processed sugary snacks. Most spices and dried versions of original herbs add flavor to many dishes.

Of course once a food is dried it cannot be restored to fresh, and the flavor and texture are permanently altered. Dried meat can be excessively hard, as with jerky. However, sometimes this texture is preferred over the original. The other down side to drying is that, if all the moisture is not removed, the food is still subject to spoilage.

Pickling foods rivals freezing, canning, and drying for preservation. Pickling does add unique flavor, which the other methods do not. All of the dill pickle and pickled beets and olive fans out there know just how much flavor pickling can add. It puts the “zing” into ordinary foods, and the sky is the limit when it comes to choosing foods to pickle with a vinegar base. I have eaten pickled asparagus, green beans, and my Mom’s green peppers stuffed with cabbage and spices in a brine.

Many pickled or fermented foods provide a good source of nutrients such as vitamins, amino acids, and healthy bacteria. A little known fact is that pickle juice can help with hydration and can decrease muscle cramps caused by heat.

Although most pickled vegetables are canned, the process does not require a pressure canner since the vinegar is acidic enough to keep botulism at bay. However, usually salt is a main ingredient when pickling, so pickled foods have a high sodium level.

The process of burning or smoldering plants for the purpose of adding flavor, to cook, or to preserve foods is known as smoking. I remember as a kid, when our family would butcher, the wonderful aroma that would come from the smokehouse as my uncle smoked the hams and bacon. Nothing rivaled it. Smoked flavor can be altered by the type of wood used for the process. Mezquite, hickory, cherry, apple, and other fruit woods are popular.

Smoking extends the shelf life of foods by killing certain bacteria and slowing the growth of others, preventing fats from becoming rancid and preventing mold from forming. Smoking usually changes the color of meats by making them redder and giving them a shine. The smell and flavor of smoked meats are appetite enhancers in themselves.

Commercial smokers are regulated, but with home smoking it is hard to regulate the right amount of smoke and heat, which can result in meat spoiling before it is fully cured. Some scientists are of the opinion that the smoking process contaminates food with Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogen, although the jury is still out on that one.

Another method of food preservation that most people overlook is root cellaring. It is probably the oldest and simplest form. Root cellars keep foods at fairly constant temperature and humidity levels. Food stays pretty much as it comes out of the garden, making storing in a root cellar a greener alternative to freezing. It is pretty simple because you do not have to depend on external sources. Many folks use a section of their basement that is not heated, or dig a space underground.

This method is not intended for long-term storage. Different foods require different temperatures, and some foods shouldn’t be stored together — like apples and potatoes. The saying goes that one rotten apple spoils the rest, and that saying probably started in a root cellar!

The closer foods can be kept to the original source, the better they taste, and the better they are for you. Eating fresh from the garden is nature’s take on fast food. Especially here in the northern climates, our “fresh” season is short. Combining the various food preservation methods is the best way to enjoy summer’s bounty all year round.

Photo by Lois Hoffman