Living Small In New Mexico

Dog Tales

Virginia HawthornWell, in April, winter made one last swipe at us just a couple of days after the average last frost date in our area. That’s why the weather forecasters are careful to say average, I guess. We had not planted any tender things yet – we wait at least until May 1 regardless of what the Almanac says about frost dates. However, our little fruit trees thought spring had arrived, and the apricots had even set some fruit. As our neighbor said, her fruit trees got “thinned” quite a bit, and so did ours! A few small trees were really set back and a couple may not make it, but that’s the way it goes around here, and probably just about everywhere I suppose.

Anyway, it seems that spring has finally sprung and things, especially weeds, are growing like mad. Our new baby chicks arrived in the mail – Pearl-white Leghorns and Black Stars, plus a bonus free chick of unspecified but “rare, exotic” heritage. Hopefully, all female. The baby chicks are also growing like mad, graduating from their child’s wading pool in the sunroom to the big retired stock tank in the barn.

A Tiny Chick 

 A sweet little Pearl White.

Chicks at Dinner

Chicks in their wading pool home.           

Tales of the Farm Dogs

Now and then I have mentioned our dogs, and it’s time to formally introduce them. Our first farm dog was our darling Millie. She was a Jack Russell, very smart, very active (of course), fast as the wind, and a bit large for her breed. Millie could do anything, even spell, I believe. Her favorite game was when her mom would hide little bits of dog treats all over the living room – under rugs, behind cushions, in corners and nooks and crannies. Then Millie would scurry around looking everywhere until she had found every last one.



But Millie’s quick mind, athletic abilities, and urge to run proved to be her downfall. She was an escape artist, and probably always had been, since she turned up as a stray in the animal shelter in Santa Fe, where she was rescued by my daughter. There was no fence high enough or secure enough to keep her in – not even when the fence was hot-wired and she wore a shock collar. Neighbors would call us, or we would come home to find her outside the fence with the gate still securely fastened. We never could figure out how she did it. And as you may have guessed, my daughter came home one afternoon to find Millie had been hit by a car right outside the front gate. She is buried under the big cottonwood in the backyard.

Not too long after Millie came here to live, the Farmer and her husband decided it would be a good idea to have a larger dog to provide a bit of protection, at least with a big bark to discourage intruders or other dogs from coming onto the property without an invitation. And one day here came Buddy, obviously some sort of shepherd mix, with beautiful light coloring, a soft, fluffy coat, and a big smile. He came before the perimeter fencing was even completed, stayed around for a couple of days, and then disappeared again just at the point where my daughter had decided that perhaps he could stay. Oh well, back to the computer to check the listings at the animal shelter – and there he was, looking for a home! Obviously, some Good Samaritan had taken him to the shelter. So, he became ours after all, and took on the name Buddy because he was Millie’s buddy, as well as anyone else’s, dog or human, who came along. Not exactly a guard dog, but he did have some size and a big bark.


Buddy is a handsome boy ...

Buddy on Guard Duty

but not a ferocious watchdog!

In spite of his friendliness and lack of much in the way of smarts (he is sometimes known as “Buddy with no Brain”), Buddy can be protective of his family. He chases off any vehicles, especially white pickup trucks with dogs in the back, that have the nerve to drive along “our” road or ditch bank access. Thank goodness there is very little traffic along here except during chile harvesting season. He is an ardent critter hunter, along with the two Jack Russells (introduced below), and can dismantle a rock or brick pile, a stack of pipes or lumber, or just about anything else in no time flat in pursuit of a squirrel, gopher, lizard, mouse, or any other intruder. He’s a one-dog demolition crew, a talent that might be very useful if only we could channel it to tasks we wanted done instead of un-done.

One time, after Buddy had been living here for several years, he and the other dogs cornered something in an irrigation culvert and were creating quite an uproar. Finally, the Farmer decided to see what the problem was. There were eyes gleaming in there, so she went to the far end of the culvert with a stick to encourage whatever it was to go out – maybe not the wisest thing she has ever done! Husband and dogs were at the other end, when out popped a skunk and back jumped the hunting party. Except for Buddy. He flexed his muscles, told everyone to stand back, and WHAM! He jumped at that skunk, grabbed it by the neck and flung it to the ground, picked it back up and flung it down again, all in less time than it takes you to read this sentence. The poor skunk never had a chance to spray or run, and Buddy certainly proved his courage in an emergency.

In his younger days, Buddy was very fast, and displayed his heritage as a herding dog by running in circles to try to head off those cars and trucks he was chasing, although with no success since they were on the road and he was inside our fence. It was funny to see Buddy run to get ahead of the truck to “turn the herd” while the other two dogs ran to get behind the truck to chase it off. Now he’s getting pretty old and slow, with hip problems typical of larger dogs. But he still puts on a bit of speed now and then, he still has his smile, and he enjoys life in the sunshine.

Soon after Millie left us, my daughter decided that a Jack Russell had become a necessary part of her life. She really missed Millie, so back to the computer to search for another little speedball doggie. Bingo! Meet Sally and Rex. They were a special pair, not litter mates but raised together in a rescue shelter, with Rex being about a year older. But yikes! – they were in Cortez, Colorado. That’s 321 miles away, one way! However, after more unsuccessful searching, and more conversations with the rescue folks, it became obvious that Sally was the one … but the only one, please. Arrangements were made to meet the rescue family in Farmington, New Mexico, a mere 251 miles from here, with the promise that Rex would stay at home, since my daughter knew that once she saw him there would be no way to leave him behind. So, little white Sally came to Lemitar and Buddy had a new buddy.


Sally, built for speed and sitting on laps.

Rex was out of sight, but not out of mind. My daughter kept checking the computer and finding that he still had not been placed. The situation was becoming rather desperate, since the rescue family was planning to move to another state and really needed to find a home for him. Need I say more? Soon it was off to pick up Rex. This time I went along and we drove all the way to Cortez, where Sally and Rex had a happy reunion and we started on the long road back home. It was somewhere along the way that the Farmer’s husband, riding in the back seat with the dogs at the time, discovered that Rex suffers from car sickness. Oh, my …. Fortunately, we were well supplied with napkins and water, and Rex managed to settle down on the floor and make it back to his new home without further disasters. Poor Rex still has difficulty riding in cars, although he would really love to be a regular traveler.


Everyone loves Rex.

The three dogs get along well together, sleeping in the sun, digging for gophers, running races after cars and other dogs, and following us every step of the way as we work in the fields. Now I know where the term “dogging” someone’s footsteps comes from.  Rex and Buddy are especially good buddies, hanging out together doing guy things. 

Our farm is fairly close to the railroad tracks; near enough to enjoy the sound of the train whistles and far enough away so they aren’t intrusive and don’t keep us awake nights. But there is something about a train whistle that brings out a dog’s primitive ancestry. As the freight trains toil up or down the valley, they blow a warning at each grade crossing of each little farm road – and there are many. As the sound grows nearer, the dogs gather in a circle, point their noses at the sky, and howl: Sally is the soprano, Rex the tenor, and Buddy the baritone. Dogs are still only modified wolves, no matter how long they have been human companions, and even if they are little white terriers small enough to pick up and tuck under your arm.

Wolf calls 

Channeling their inner wolves.

Gopher hunt

Gopher hunt!

Jack Russells never give up when on the hunt, and they will go right underground after their prey. They were originally bred for going in after foxes that had "gone to ground" (into a burrow) during fox hunts in England. The fox would usually go out another entrance to the tunnel and the Jack was then retrieved by its stubby little tail. However, a cornered fox would sometimes turn and engage them in ferocious fights, and the intense little dogs were sometimes seriously injured, but they never give up when going down after anything – fox, gopher, mouse, whatever. Ours are a terrific help in controlling the rodent population here on the farm.

Enough with the dog stories – there are many more to come. Like the time they treed a squirrel in the engine compartment of the pickup. Or Sally’s pig races. And the times other lost dogs have arrived at our gate asking for help. Meanwhile, I need to proceed with my promised living small segment:

Learning to Live Small – Making Maximum Use of Space

When I first moved into this home, there was a large pantry closet beside the refrigerator, which had lots of space – big, empty space, unfortunately. The pantry closet is still there, of course, but I did some modifying which helped make that big, empty space much more useful. Since the top and bottom sections each had only one shelf, I immediately set about adding some shelving, simply using pegs in the pre-drilled holes and cutting some shelves to fit. I also put a half shelf at the back of each section, which provides space for smaller items while not blocking the view clear to the back. Getting those two small shelves put in was a bit tricky for me to manage, but they are very useful and well worth the effort.

Pantry door Pantry open

Views of the pantry.

Next, I struggled with the trash and recycle bins for a while, putting two large bins one behind the other on the very bottom shelf. They held a lot, but I had to pull the front bin out entirely to get anything into the back bin – something of a pain in the neck. So I shopped around on the Internet and discovered the somewhat smaller bins you see here, which are set in a rack that glides in and out with the touch of a finger. Better yet, I realized that I could mount the entire mechanism on the far right of the cabinet while still allowing it to glide freely. That left space on the left, where I store the garbage bags, extra cat food, and hang the dustpan and brush on the wall beside it. That dustpan had been driving me nutty for months because I use it frequently and needed a quick and handy spot to put it where it was accessible but didn’t fall out on my feet all the time. Finally – success!


Trash out

Bees, Bees, Bees!

We have now become beekeepers! Or perhaps I should say bee landlords, since the bee care will be provided by some good friends who had a bee overflow problem and have placed some of their hives at the far end of our pasture. They will do all the bee work while we provide the space and the flowers – the yellow hive is reserved just for Lucky Us. Such a sweet deal, and we could not be happier with the arrangement. I can’t wait to taste our very own honey!


Spring Projects and a New Shed

Virginia HawthornGoodness! I started this posting as a New Year’s message and here it is, spring already. I was feeling guilty in January because I had skipped December – but now I’ve managed to skip January, February, and a good part of March. It has been a busy, busy winter: Holidays; cataract surgery; getting ready for income tax time; several messy, snowy, muddy storms; and a lot of personal and farm projects that keep begging for attention. The weather has been a roller coaster ride: cold, miserable and wet, then warming up and drying out, then the wind comes screaming along, then back to cold and miserable, then 72 degrees and lovely sunshine.

SnowNearly 5 inches of snow.

In spite of discomforts and muddy footprints, I should not complain about cold and wet weather. Our winter up to February had been dangerously warm and mild, so this late build-up of snow in the mountains will be an enormous help, as we have been in a severe drought period for several years. In the past two months, snow has been measured in feet rather than inches in the high northern mountains of New Mexico and southern Colorado, a definite cause for celebration down here in the valleys, where the melting snow will feed our streams and rivers and fill our empty reservoirs. These late winter storms are good in yet another way, because spring was trying to spring too soon, so these periodic cold spells help hold the trees back and also keep us from submitting to the temptation of planting things too early. That way lies disaster!

Snow on Porch

Our front porch railing.

Snow on the mountain

Snow on Ladron Peak, our favorite mountain.

Spring farm chores are keeping us occupied. It seems like everything needs trimming, cleaning, mowing, and attending to in one way or another. Lessons learned while trimming brush: Always wear long sleeves and gauntlet type work gloves; never wear a fuzzy sweater, even if it is your oldest, rattiest one. And take an antihistamine before you start.

work gloves

Defensive gear.

One of the best things about approaching spring and longer days is that our chickens are laying again. During the darkest winter days production dropped down to as few as only one a day for a couple of days, but now we’re back up to about a dozen or more daily, and one of our lady ducks is also giving us an egg each day. Our egg customers are happy again, and so are we.

The plan is to bring in a couple dozen baby chicks very soon to build up our supply of layers. During a lovely warm break in the weather, the Farmer and the Farmer’s husband cut and baled the back pasture, which had been allowed to winter over uncut. These bales will make wonderful garden mulch and thick bedding for the chickens and ducks and dogs. There is nothing that makes our ladies happier than having a new bale of hay to rip to pieces, spreading it all around and picking out the tasty bugs and seeds.

Hay Bales

Another sure sign of spring is all of the activity around us as the bigger farms are made ready for planting. Large equipment rumbles around, even into the night. Workers are cleaning out the irrigation ditches and burning debris, and some fields have already been irrigated for the first time this year. Our sandhill cranes and snow geese are heading north, the hummingbirds will arrive soon, and doves are already looking for suitable nesting places on our porch rafters.

Learning to Live Small

Living Small is the guiding theme of my blog offerings, sometimes more obvious than at other times, but the idea is there all the same. I’ve decided to add some ideas for “Learning to Live Small” in every installment. We live on a small farm – less than 4 actively working acres. My daughter and her husband live in a fairly small home, a straw bale and adobe place she designed and they built, with a large sunroom across the south side. Their heating bills are small indeed. I live in a very small home designed by my daughter and myself, built with large double pane windows facing south, and high R-value insulation. And now that solar units have been installed, the electric bills for both houses are less than small. They are negative!

Solar Installation 2

Solar panels going up!

In order to squeeze myself, my possessions, and the kitty into these small quarters, we built a small 3-by-6-foot shed at the back of the house, which holds a remarkable amount. I ordered the plans on the Internet from iCreatables Home & Garden, which worked out just great. They have tons of plans and ideas, and I received great service. The plan came with clear instructions and a detailed materials list. When I decided on a narrower door, the modified plan for the front wall and door came flying back almost immediately at no extra charge!

Building this magnificent structure took much longer than I had hoped, but then, what doesn’t? Part of the problem was a very wet fall, with several rain delays. But with a lot of help from family, it’s finally done, painted to match the house, and chock full of my stuff.

Luckily, there was enough leftover material to build the inside shelving. I have made a vow, now made public and in writing, that this shed shall be used for things that I want and need, NOT for stashing boxes of stuff that I plan to sort through “someday.” So far, I have successfully stuck to my resolution, and the shed is nearly full and fairly well-organized. In future editions I plan to report on my methods of painless (well, mostly painless) downsizing.

Shed Building Back Wall

Starting on the back.

Shed rain delay

After a long rain delay.

Shed finished! 

TA DA – it's done!

Shed inside

Already full of stuff.

Shed Guard Cat

Kitty on shed guard duty.

Cooking to Save Money and Work at the Same Time

I’m always amazed at the high price for store-bought granola, which is often not so good anyway. So it’s time for a quick and easy recipe for super delicious homemade granola using only one pan and a big wooden spoon. No more spreading the mixture out on cookie sheets, trying to stir it now and then without spilling some of it in the bottom of the oven, and spending the rest of your afternoon cleaning the kitchen. I actually saw someone on TV showing how to make granola using a small bowl, a large bowl, a skillet, and three baking sheets, plus the storage container. The advantage of being a celebrity chef is that you don’t have to do your own dishes.

A few simple rules:

1) Use a large, deep skillet. My favorite is a wok, which has nice sloped sides, giving you plenty of stirring room.

Granola Wok

2) Assemble all your ingredients first. This process goes as fast as a stir-fry once you get started – less than 10 minutes, start to finish.

3) Don’t worry about details and measurements too much. Granola is very forgiving, so be creative and feel free to improvise and try new ideas. I’ll give you my basic recipe and then some suggestions for variety.

Ginny's One-Pan Granola

4 cups rolled oats – use old fashioned if you like a hefty chewy granola, try quick cooking for a softer style
1/2 cup chopped nuts – mix or match any you like, maybe part sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon flax seed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup canola or other light oil
1/4 cup honey 

Optional add-ins before cooking:

  • Chopped crystalized ginger – I always add a big handful, so good!

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons wheat germ

  • Other spices instead of or in addition to cinnamon – apple or pumpkin pie combination? Cardamom? Try your own special favorites

  • 1/2 cup coconut flakes

  • Substitute maple syrup or agave nectar for the honey

  • I’m thinking of using some crunchy peanut butter and reducing the oil somewhat. I hope it won’t be too messy

  • How about the few odds and ends of crunchy breakfast cereals at the bottom of the boxes

  • Use your imagination

Directions: If you wish, you can toast the nuts in the dry skillet first and pour them onto a plate to add at the end. I don’t bother to do this because everything seems to toast together, and I’m a lazy cook. Thoroughly mix everything together in the skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes.

You’re done!

Remove from heat and stir a bit to help cool the mixture and keep it from continuing to cook. My wok cools very quickly, but a heavy iron skillet will probably hold the heat much longer, so adjust time accordingly or pour the mixture into a bowl to cool. Store in an air-tight container.

Optional add-ins after cooking:

  • Chopped dried fruit, your favorite(s) – you may want to add these as you use the granola so the fruit doesn’t dry out and the granola doesn’t get soggy or sticky

  • Chocolate, butterscotch, peanut butter or vanilla chips – granola should be cool first.

  • Use your own inspiration


Yum! Yum! Yum!

Happy Springtime, everyone!

Turkeys And Tomatoes

Virginia HawthornAnother month, another posting – and this was intended to be weekly!? I must have been delusional because it certainly has been a busy month.

We had a beautiful, but rather short fall, and now winter has entered with a roar, thanks to the Polar Vortex. This morning there was a dusting of snow on the mountains around us, and that wind is COLD! Record low temperatures are being set all over the state. The farm animals are hunkering down, our hummingbirds and other migrants are long gone, and the Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese and Snow Geese are back at the nearby wildlife refuges. I’ll have to dedicate an entire posting to those wonderful places sometime soon.

Millie's Tree

Meanwhile …

The Great Tomato Mystery

This year’s meager gardening efforts have all been cleaned up, which brings me to the topic of our Mystery Tomato. Last spring we started a number of different tomatoes varieties, carefully labeling them with permanent (we thought) markers on plastic tabs. Unfortunately, most of the labels faded away almost immediately (what happened to the “indelible” part?) so most of our seedlings were strangers to us. Nevertheless, we planted them in rows at each end of our baby orchard, where the violent spring winds and then an early blazing hot spell did them no good at all. I’m happy to report that starting in late June the weather finally moderated, and we had some modest success, especially with the sweetest cherry tomatoes I have ever tasted – but we don’t even know the variety!

When we had filled the rows with our tomato seedlings, there were two anonymous leftovers that I could not bear to dump in the compost. So I took them over to a small space next to the tractor shelter and planted them with good intentions but not a lot of hope. Sure enough, the spring winds promptly broke one off right to the ground, and she ended up as compost after all. But in spite of all odds, the other one immediately took hold and proceeded to grow, and grow, and grow – mostly outward rather than upward.

Thanks to the blast of heat in May and June, it took a long time for any fruit to set, but once the weather calmed down, my lone plant really got going! I nipped and snipped bushels of stray branches and suckers to give the young tomatoes more air and sunlight, but more just sprouted seemingly overnight. Our roving chickens started nipping off low-hanging fruit so I wrapped the plant in bird netting to discourage them, and on we went!

Tomatoes on the vine

August arrived, with lots of green tomatoes – some of them quite large, but still green. In September, some light shades of yellowish orange blush appeared, slowly working its way from bottom to top of the fruit and gradually turning more orange. Finally my daughter had the good sense to reach in under the bird netting to test one, and in spite of its lingering green hue, it was soft and seemingly dead ripe. We took a couple in and sliced them, finding them soft and juicy with the inside in the same color scheme as the outside. They are very mild flavored and low in acid. They also seem to ripen quite slowly and in varying sizes, one of the largest weighing 9 ounces, while other ripe fruit weighed half that. When you turn a large orange one upside down it looks exactly like a ripe Fuyu Persimmon, both in color and shape.

Various colors 

These are fully ripe, in spite of their colors.

big orange and ripe

And here is the colorful inside, still showing some green, but sweet and mellow.

Big orange and heavy Big Boy still slightly green

This big boy (left) weighs 9-plus ounces.

Hmmm, so what is it? When I planted them we speculated they might be our only two surviving Black Krim seedlings, but while the size and shape are similar, the color is all wrong and so is the taste. We have searched seed catalogs and the web and can’t find anything that fits the description.

I was watching a segment of “Growing A Greener World” a few days ago, which featured a tour of a large farmers' market in New England. The camera panned across a table covered with wonderful produce, including some tomatoes that looked very much like these, but unfortunately they didn’t stop to identify them.

This mystery is a bit frustrating, but more of a curiosity than anything, since the flavor is fairly bland, but I have saved some seeds to try next year just to see what happens. They certainly are easy to grow and quite prolific – I still have some ripening on my kitchen counter and it’s almost Thanksgiving! Meanwhile, if anyone out there recognizes our Tomato Surprise, please post your opinions, wild guesses, or ancient wisdom. All information will be greatly appreciated.

Speaking of Thanksgiving …

Curious turkeyDid someone say Thanksgiving??!

Midget White Turkeys

As new farmers, one of our major objectives has been to experiment with various types of livestock to find what seems to work the best for us, given the small size of the farm with less than 4 working acres, our climate and geography, the amount of work three not-so-young people can accomplish, potential profit, and our own personal preferences.

My daughter is officially The Farmer, aka The Boss, and she is very knowledgeable about nearly all phases of small family farming and always researching more. But there is really no way to find out for sure about almost anything unless you get hands-on, boots-in-the-dirt experience. Which is what we are doing all the time! There is simply no end to the work, trying this, experimenting with that, sometimes hitting dead ends and sometimes having remarkable successes.

We build fences and then take them down to rebuild in another way or place. We plant things here, then decide it would be better to have the garden over there. But overall, things seem to be coming together, and it is very fortunate that we all love what we are doing. One encouraging discovery is that we seem to be able to sell every bit of everything we produce, with folks asking for more.

In the livestock department we have, so far, tried chickens, ducks, geese, two remarkable pigs named Oscar and Meyer who will certainly be the topic of a future chapter, and this year a dozen Midget White Turkeys.

From the outset, we were warned by the seller as well as in Internet and book research that the mortality rate among the newly hatched Midgets is high, but after that the survivors grow up to be tough as nails. Sure enough, these predictions were accurate: We almost immediately lost four babies in spite of our best efforts. Then the survivors grew like weeds in the rainy season.

Turkeys looking around

The babies grew quickly.

Strutting males 

Our two strutting boys show off.

They also began flying fairly soon and fairly often, and since our small farm has a road along one side, irrigation ditches and fields on two others, and other private properties to the south, we had to devise a flight-proof pen. This we did by converting our ever-useful and versatile carport shelter, but the gang became quite restless.

So began our twice daily “Turkey Walks” in the back pasture, where the turkeys did a fine job of gobbling up grasshoppers. But the walks were also a big time drain on our already over-crowded days, so if we try turkeys again we will have to devise a better system or find a breed that is not inclined to fly.

Turkey walk

A Turkey Walk in the back pasture.

Meanwhile, our chatty and curious turkey friends were recently taken to a local processor and are now in the freezers of various friends and neighbors – and us. As I said, we can sell anything we produce; we just have to continue the process of deciding what works the best.

Only four more months 'til spring!

Meet the Chickens

Virginia HawthornIn my last posting, I mentioned that Hurricane Norbert had bypassed us last month. Well, I spoke too soon about the relative rarity of Pacific-side hurricanes bringing moisture to our part of the country. The last remains of Hurricane Odile came sweeping our way in late September, bringing heavy rains throughout the Southwest and then proceeding onward through parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and into the Midwest. Usually our local weather reporters are dancing and singing every time there is the slightest chance of rain, so it was a rare event to hear them apologizing for predicting more rain day after day. Rivers overflowed, streets and highways washed out, and crops in the southeastern part of New Mexico are rotting in the fields because it is too muddy to get harvesting equipment and crews out to them.

We had about a week of lovely drying-out weather after Odile finally traveled onward, but now Hurricane Simon, yet another Pacific storm, is lashing his tail and flooding things again. Our Monsoon Season officially ended on September 30, but evidently hurricanes pay no attention to the rules. It has been raining off and on since yesterday afternoon and thunder is rumbling and black clouds are gathering again as I write this post. Irrigation boots are the local fashion statement, and some folks joke about switching to rice as a cash crop.

And More Mud! 

Mud, Mud, Mud 

Muddy Shoes

Wet weather aside, it’s time to start introducing our farm animals, beginning with the chickens, our first and most numerous “livestock” so far. In the early spring of 2013, we acquired 24 Buff Orpington chicks, which rapidly outgrew their box in the sunroom, then their temporary home in the barn – a stock tank equipped with a warming lamp, clean straw, and everything a growing chick could want. We lost only one chick when she was just 3 days old; the rest grew up strong and healthy. Meanwhile, we completed their A-Frame coop, which was placed in the front pasture area of the farm where the hoop houses are scheduled to be built. Eventually. But for the time being, we installed a temporary solar-powered electric fence to keep the Buffies in and other critters out, and after a few months, our first beautiful brown egg appeared. Since the brood included only two roosters, we soon had a rather surprising number of eggs every day.

Our Buffies

A few Buffies in the morning sunshine.

Our little flock flourished, and soon the two roosters, Dagwood and Herb, became fierce rivals. Dagwood emerged as the dominant male; in fact, he grew to be a real menace to Herb, whose love life, as you may imagine, was a real disaster with the town bully in charge. To make Herb’s life even more miserable, every evening Dagwood refused to let the poor guy go into the coop to get a bit of rest. Big D would stand at the door, urging “his” girls to hustle their bustles and get settled on their perches for the night, but when Herb tried to go in, Dagwood would chase him out again. Around and around the coop they would go. Sometimes Herb would make a dash in the door, Dagwood right behind, and in a moment both would burst out again to resume the race. This would go on for quite some time, until Dagwood evidently tired of the game, the coop would go quiet, and Herb would tiptoe in, probably settling somewhere as far from Dagwood as possible. Only then could one of us manage to stop laughing long enough to shut and latch the door.

Dagwood aka Big D 


Handsome Herb 


But Herb wasn’t the only one to endure Dagwood’s bad temper. For us, his well-meaning owners, the bringers of food and water, the openers of the coop in the morning and the lockers of same for the night to protect the flock from intruders, daily WE faced the wrath of that big rooster. Such ingratitude! Given the nature of most males who are competing for female companionship, we could, to a degree, understand Big D’s behavior toward his rival, but we had to enter the chicken yard armed with bamboo sticks to keep from being attacked by a flying rooster with a wicked pair of spurs and a strong beak. He was especially enraged if we foolishly forgot we were wearing something red. It didn’t take us long to learn that one should never turn his or her back on Dagwood, and when possible, we went into the pen in pairs, one to do chicken chores, the other to stand guard. At long last, enough was enough:

Dagwood Made Wonderful Broth!

Dagwood made delicious broth!

So now Herb was the new leader, by default. He was really the handsomer of the two, and had a much better crow – Dagwood’s had been somewhat croaky and unmelodious, but Herb made you understand why it is spelled out as Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! He sang it gloriously, and loudly, and frequently. Herb also grew much larger, and unfortunately much meaner, even though he now had no rival, and his attacks were even worse than Dagwood’s. Herb charged silently, slamming into his human victim in the middle of the back or legs with no warning. Now we definitely went in pairs! Perhaps this was Herb’s revenge for our cruel laughter when Dagwood chased him around the old coop. However, by now we knew better than to let this torture continue for long – we traded him off to a neighbor who wanted new blood for his flock, although Herb tended to give an entirely different meaning to the term “new blood”! However, our neighbor is a frequent visitor to the farm and was quite familiar with Herb’s wicked ways, and took him anyway.

Lucky us – as part of the trade we got Clarence, the funniest little white bantam you ever saw. He is just a delight. He struts – well, he waddles around in his fluffy little pantaloons like he is king of all he surveys. Which he is, of course, in his quiet, gentle way. The Buffies are all bigger than he is, but that doesn’t bother him a bit, or the girls either, evidently. Confidence must be his middle name, and all is peaceful again in the henhouse. Clarence keeps a fussy eye on everyone, and welcomes the morning with a modest crow that is not as fancy as Herb’s, but we love him dearly and would not give him up for anything. Clarence is a Model Rooster.

Our Clarence


Meanwhile, in the middle of all this activity last spring we acquired some more chicks: four Hamburgs and six Ameraucanas, all female. They have now grown up to join the flock in their newly completed permanent henhouse, and are just starting to produce eggs. The Hamburgs regularly lay small white eggs and the Ameraucanas lay colorful bluish-green eggs, so we have a lovely mix and our customers are delighted with the novelty of Easter eggs every day, or green eggs and ham for Saturday breakfast.

Our Ladies Lay Colorful Eggs

A Beautiful Spangled Hamburg 

A pretty little Hamburg.

An Ameracauna Lady - Either Fluffy or Muffy 

Muffy (or is it Fluff?), one of our identical twin Ameraucanas.

Also last spring, one of the Buffies went broody, so we saved up about a dozen eggs for her. She managed to hatch only four chicks, two of which survived – a male and a female. This was a bit disappointing, but our Mama turned out to be a wonderful mother. She watched over her two babies, fed them choice morsels, and showed them around their chicken world, keeping them warm and happy and healthy.

Once the twins were fairly grown, we traded off the little rooster to avoid too much in-breeding. Given the behavior of his father and uncle, someone must now have a mighty aggressive boy. Unfortunately, his sister has some aggression problems of her own. We noticed that she was busily whisking every bit of straw from all the nests and scattering it on the floor of the coop. Renewing the nests did no good – she just got up there and tossed everything out again. And again! To make matters worse, someone started destroying eggs, leaving egg mess and scattered shells. Given her unusual behavior, suspicion soon fell on our nest destroyer, now named Princess Sophie. So Sophie was put into solitary confinement in the old A-frame coop. The egg destruction stopped for a few days. Sophie was allowed back into the flock and the scrambled egg syndrome started again. Back to solitary. To make absolutely certain we weren’t mistaken about her murderous behavior, a decoy egg was placed in the A-frame coop and Sophie smashed it flat. Guilty As Charged! Buffie egg production in general has been declining, so we’re going to assess the egg-laying habits of a couple of other ladies before we get out the butchering equipment to do some flock thinning and freezer filling.

The New Chicken Palace - Finally, Their Permanent Home

The new Chicken Palace with the A-Frame Jail at the right.

Enough for now – we have ducks, turkeys, two pet geese, three dogs and a cat to introduce in the future, plus the great Hoop House Project coming along. Until next time,


September In New Mexico

Virginia HawthornEvery state has its State Bird, State Flower, and so on, and if New Mexico had a State Month surely it would be September. The summer heat has tapered off and the sky is as blue as any sky can ever be. If we are fortunate to have a good monsoon season (I’ll say more about this below), as we do this year, the rains will have brought out acres of wild flowers, particularly along the roadsides where water collects. Yellow seems to be the primary color of this early fall season, mainly native sunflowers and chamisa (rabbitbrush), intermixed with asters, and smaller white and orange spots of color from any number of blossoming plants, all accented with the soft plumes of various grasses.

Front garden 

Chamisa, sedums and grasses near the front gate.

Globe Mallow

Globe Mallow blossoms

Last spring when the native sunflowers started appearing everywhere, I was amazed that they were even able to find enough moisture to sprout at all. Between January 1 and July 31 this year, we had less than an inch of rain here at the farm, and yet hundreds of tiny plants popped up and grew rapidly. Since our rainy season started in early August, they have really flourished, some growing to more than 10 feet tall and covered with buds that are now starting to bloom.

We treat these native sunflowers both as weeds and as welcome friends – when they threaten to overwhelm our gardens and walkways, we turn them into compost, and when they are growing where we want them, we let them grow as large as they wish. Since sunflowers provide a great winter food source for birds, we let them stand after the frosts arrive, and enjoy watching the finches and other songbirds all through the cold months. Birds not only enjoy the seeds, they scatter them as well, so next spring there will be sunflowers all over the place again.

Sunflowers (768x1024)

Water in the Desert

The general weather pattern in the Southwest is a very dry spring – no April showers to bring May flowers – with rainy weather starting around July 4, just in time to wash out local fireworks displays. This year the rains were about a month late, so everyone was quite anxious and very thankful when the weather finally changed. The monsoon pattern brings moisture up from the Gulf of California and Gulf of Mexico, typically resulting in bright, sunny mornings with huge, dark clouds piling up in the afternoon, as they are as I write this, and I can hear thunder rumbling. The resulting rainstorms are usually spotty, popping up here and there particularly in the mountain areas, sometimes producing violent lightning and thunder with heavy rains falling in a very short period of time.

Obviously this type of storm can be dangerous, but it is something we have to deal with sensibly. The rules are to get out of open fields quickly when lightning starts drawing close; stay out of dry washes (“arroyos” they are called here) that can suddenly turn to raging torrents that can easily carry even a large vehicle tumbling downstream; and never drive into water covering a road during or after one of these downpours – there may be no road left under there!

Rainstorm 2014-09-15 001 (1024x609)

A thunderstorm approaches.

Another source of summer rain here is more infrequent and unpredictable. If a hurricane happens to stray into the Gulf of Mexico, swirling around the Corpus Christi, Texas, area especially, or even more rarely into the Gulf of California, the remnants can move north over our part of the country, dumping huge amounts of rain as the air is forced to rise and cool. That is what happened just a few days ago when most of southern Arizona was deluged with record-breaking rainstorms brought on by Hurricane Norbert. Norbert missed us, but a few years ago the remains of another hurricane made its way inland up the Rio Grande, catching El Paso and the southern New Mexico mountains the same way. Usually around the end of September, it mostly clears up, dries out, and we are on track for gorgeous fall weather.

The State Fair

Rain and fall and farming bring me to the topic of the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque, which this year started September 10 and runs through September 21. It’s a big one, with all the usual fair attractions: livestock and farm produce judging, horse racing, midway rides, incredible food, concerts, and a nightly rodeo followed by a fireworks display! Over the years, planners have moved the Fair dates around from early to late September and back again, trying to come up with a way to avoid the rainy season – all to no avail. No matter what, several days of rain, and sometimes a real washout, arrive with the Fair. I think they have finally given up on the idea and everyone has just learned to live with it, although the midway is often forced to close down as a precaution against lightning danger.

Green Chile

New Mexico has no State Month, but it does have two State Vegetables – doesn’t everyone? These are chile, in both red and green form, and pinto beans. Pinto beans are simply a speckled “painted” variety of dried bean which is commonly grown here and found either in, or as a side offering, with nearly every local New Mexican dish, usually spiced up with garlic, onions, red chile powder, and either with or without meat – usually pork.

pinto beans (1024x768)

But chile, and particularly green chile, is probably the closest to our hearts. It is what we dream about when we are far from home, what we miss, what we demand the moment we get off the plane at the Albuquerque Sunport. Please note the spelling, which is a sore point with New Mexicans: it is chile, not chili, and native Spanish speakers pronounce it something like cheeĀ­-lay, with the accent on the first syllable. That isn’t exactly right phonetically, but close.

Anyway, chile is in the pepper family, along with green peppers, jalapenos and the like. When picked in its green stage it is roasted to loosen the tough transparent skin, which is peeled off, and the chile is then ready to be put in salsas, on your hamburgers, stuffed with cheese and then deep fried or baked in a sauce. It can be anything from fairly mild to blistering hot, depending partly on the variety and partly on soil and weather conditions.

Green chile is a major money crop here in New Mexico, and given the extended severe drought, last spring there was serious doubt that there would be enough water to meet the demand for the chile growing season. In fact, there was some talk that farmers should skip the year entirely rather than waste their money and effort on planting the fields when the irrigation water would probably be unavailable. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay any attention to this doomsday talk, and this year’s crop is quite a success.

Chile fields & Ladron

Nearby chile field ready for harvest.

Our farm is bordered on two sides by large fields of chile. For the past couple of weeks, crews have picked like mad, and huge trucks and trailers loaded with burlap bags of green gold are making their way up the ditch roads and off to markets, just in time for major chile roasting at the State Fair, chile festivals, super market parking lots, and backyard barbecues. We keep hoping that a bag might roll off the back of a truck and land in our yard, but so far no luck!

Chile Fields - pickers

Workers bringing in the harvest.

Some of the harvest will be kept back and spread out or tied into ristras (like onions) to dry until it turns a beautiful bright red. The flavor of red chile is entirely different from the green. The pod becomes crisp and crumbly, and can be reconstituted by cooking it in a stew or soaking it to make into a sauce. Some of the dry pods are finely ground and become red chile powder, which is sold here in bulk and flavors the red sauce for enchiladas and other Mexican food dishes.

Chile (845x1024)

This brings me to my final topic for this chapter:

The New Mexico State Question: Red or Green?

Your state doesn’t have an official question? Every single restaurant server who wants to keep his/her job asks the question many, many times a day, and hears the New Mexico State Answer, which can be Red or Green depending on your taste, or perhaps Christmas, which means both! That’s red or green chile, although you may notice that the word itself is not part of the Official Question. You are just supposed to know. Of course, if you look at your server with a blank stare and say something like “Huh?” you are instantly branded as an outsider, a mere tenderfoot, someone who has not been initiated into the mysteries of New Mexicans’ love of chile, both red and green. That’s usually my preference: cheese enchiladas made with blue corn flour (a topic for another time) with both red and green chile sauce. It doesn’t get any better than that!

A last word here about chile (for now): it can come in salsa, which probably everyone, maybe even in Norway, is familiar with. That’s the stuff you get at any grocery store, or it can be freshly made if you are lucky, for chip dipping. Then there is chile sauce, which is either red or green chile cooked with other ingredients such as garlic and onions and a thickened broth to form sauces for enchiladas, chiles rellenos (green chile stuffed with cheese), and other goodies. 

State Symbols Website

And finally, finally final, if you want something that will keep you awake at night, glued to your computer, try out this site: State Symbols USA. You can click on any state and find an illustrated list of all the State Everythings – birds, flowers, trees, animals, etc. Who knew that New Mexico had an official State Tartan? I thought I must be the only person of Scottish ancestry in the state! Do you have a State Cookie? How about a State Soil (many have this), or Amphibian, or Rock, or Folk Dance? The list is endless, and sometimes quite surprising or quite funny. Enjoy.

Until next time – Happy September!

First Steps on a New Journey

Virginia HawthornHello Everyone,

Here I am, Virginia Hawthorn, a retired woman with grown children and grandchildren. Time to settle back in my twilight years, maybe travel a bit, work on some hobbies, get back to my much-neglected passion for genealogy, write the Great American Novel. Right? Wrong! I’m just getting started on a new journey, one more time and step by step.

I recently moved to Beso del Sol Farm in the Rio Grande Valley of central New Mexico. The farm is owned by my daughter and son-in-law, who have worked to get this 4-acre piece of land into shape for several years. They finally reached the point where they could quit their day jobs and focus on making a go of actual farming for a living – my daughter’s lifelong dream. Since I was living in Albuquerque, some 70 miles away, it made sense for me to move here to the farm and do my part in this effort by keeping the books for the business, as well as helping out here and there wherever I can. It’s good when families can work together like this, and in future blogs you will meet our menagerie of feathered and furred animals and get a look at our many projects in various stages of completion.

Sunflower and pasture
High Summer on Beso del Sol Farm

As we go along, you will find that New Mexicans speak, read and use a mixture of Spanish and English quite freely. For one thing, Spanish speaking people have been here since the 16th century, and most of our natural features and towns, as well as some of our favorite foods, have Spanish names, or often freely mixed names. Hence, Rio Grande Valley: the “Rio Grande” means Great River in Spanish, while “Valley” is tacked on in English – a hybrid. In Spanish it would be more correct to call it “El Valle del Rio Grande.” We did the same thing in naming this farm. Beso del Sol means Kissed by (or Kiss of) the Sun. As time goes by, these Spanish words and combinations will pop up fairly frequently, and I will try to remember to translate as I go along.

But first, it seems appropriate to give you an introduction to New Mexico in general, since there are so many misconceptions about this state, or even whether it is a state at all. For as long as I can recall – and that is a long time! – New Mexico Magazine has been running a column called “One of Our 50 Is Missing,” where people send in their experiences with statehood denial: “Sorry, but we can’t deliver outside the United States.” “Do I need a passport to cross the border?” “Do they have phone service there?”

When I moved to California back in 1987, I was told by an employee of a major insurance company, which shall remain unnamed, that I could not get insurance on my car until I had been back in the United States for at least six months. Really? All that time I thought I had been living in the 47th State, driving on U.S. federal highways, voting in presidential elections, using a U.S. passport, receiving mail through the U.S. Postal Service. Had I been mistaken? That episode made the statehood denial column, and trust me, I DID get insurance immediately!

But I digress. Yes, New Mexico really is a state, the fifth largest actually, right there on the map between Arizona and Texas. We live in High Desert country. The lowest point in the entire state, 2,842 feet above sea level, is down in the far southeast corner, while the highest point, at 13,161 feet, is atop Wheeler Peak, way up north near the Colorado border. That’s a lot of elevation difference, as well as more than 350 miles from south to north. There’s a world of difference between Red Bluff Reservoir and the summit of Wheeler Peak! Most of the state, some 85 percent or so, is over 4,000 feet in elevation, and that relatively high altitude makes for a four-season climate statewide, and a much cooler average temperature than most non-Southwesterners expect. Just for contrast, the highest point in Iowa is Hawkeye Pt. at 1,670 feet.

Native plants, wildlife and farmers, have had to adapt to both cold winters and hot summers because of this generally high altitude and the temperature differential due to the distance from north to south. Simply looking at a U.S. map and discovering that New Mexico is in the southern tier of states, roughly in line with North and South Carolina and the upper parts of Mississippi and Alabama, does NOT make us climatically a “southern” state. We don’t have a panic attack when it snows here – we just throw the pickup into four-wheel drive!

November snow
The Chickens Are Suspicious of Their First Snow

One thing newcomers usually expect, but are often not really prepared for, is our dry climate. We are far, far from any oceans and the moisture they provide elsewhere. In addition, our prevailing winds are from the southwest, and mountains running along the coast of California and Mexico, plus ranges in Arizona and here in New Mexico, effectively block much of the ocean’s moisture from that direction, leaving us in what meteorologists and geographers call a rain shadow. And just to make things more difficult, our prevailing winds really do prevail! In fact they howl for most of the spring, from as early as late February to early May, frequently at speeds of 30 to 40 mph, with gusts even higher. Time and again this past spring I would check the outdoor thermometer and find that it was up in the 80s or more, with the humidity at 1 percent. Yes folks, that’s ONE percent. Even the Sahara can’t get much drier than that! Now imagine that the wind is also blowing 35 or 40 mph, and think of those poor little seedlings you just planted a few days ago.

Given these rough conditions, you can well imagine the difficulty of open field farming, and over many hundreds of years, farmers in the southwest, starting with Native Americans more than 2,000 years ago, have developed numerous techniques for protecting plants from Mother Nature’s wrath. That will be a major ongoing theme of this blog in future chapters. But please don’t get the idea that this part of the world is one big agricultural disaster area, something like the surface of Mars. This is a state of haunting beauty, brilliant colors, unimaginable sunsets, clear skies, high mountains, a wide array of native plants and trees, and old cultures with deep roots, successful farms, and a clear understanding of how to live here in harmony with Nature rather than fighting her. You just have to learn how. And that’s what this little family is trying to do every day by working, experimenting, inventing, failing sometimes, changing our minds lots of times, reading, listening, asking questions, imagining, and eating plenty of hamburgers with green chile and cheese up at the Truck Stop – the best in the state!

Making Hay
Life is Good: Making Hay Where the Sun Almost Always Shines!

So please stick with us. I already have a bunch of good stories to tell about life on a small New Mexico farm, and something new happens every day.