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Cow Pie Kid

Winter in the Garden

Robert PekelJanuary is an excellent time to prepare for the new gardening season by setting goals and ordering seeds. I have two gardening goals for 2017: expand winter production of vegetables, and increase wildlife habitats with native plants.

Searching the seed catalogues for old favorites and new selections is great activity by the warmth of the wood stove on a chilly day. I prefer ordering most seeds and some plants via catalogues because of the access to reliable organic dealers, the wider selection, and more information that includes quality native plants. I also like to get seeds early because I start cold crops in February — inside of course.

Seed selections can be overwhelming, with stunning pictures of luscious vegetables that jump out from the pages begging to be tried. However, I have wasted too much time, energy, and space growing varieties that do not get eaten or do not produce sufficiently. Therefore, I have decided to follow several gardening parameters that just make sense. First, grow what we will eat and grow more of it. I do like to try one or two new varieties some years, but overall I stick to what works.

It is also valuable to expand recipes. For example, yellow squash grows well in Arkansas, but will get old unless presented in new ways.

Second, grow crops that do well in local conditions. There is a reason why certain items grow well here: Climate and soil conditions are right. If any fruit or vegetable requires heavy maintenance — especially chemicals — to survive local conditions, it's not worth it. Indigenous crops work best.

It proves helpful to keep notes on lessons learned from the previous growing season, what grows well, and what does not. Was it because it was hot and dry, or cooler and wet? Conditions are changing quickly. Climate change is here, which brings us to the benefits of hoop houses to help control these elements as well as provide fresh vegetables year round. I garden in 3’- to 4’-wide beds. This makes it easy and inexpensive to apply hoop house technology. I construct a hoop house from 1/2” PVC pipe, 3.5 mil plastic, and a frost cover for approximately 30 dollars for an 18-foot long bed. This winter I am harvesting spinach, kale, and mustard even after single digit temperatures.

I have concluded that the healthy mental, physical, and spiritual benefits I get from gardening make it more than a hobby — it is a way of life. Working with  indigenous plants and the cycles of nature secure my place in the natural world.

Winter on the farm

The Power to Heal: Walking

Robert PekelI began walking 2 miles a day about a month ago, after my once-every-five-year visit to the doctor. I had gone to the same doc for over 30 years, and he always thought I was doing fine. Well, he retired, and I was handed over to a young girl.

She seemed very nice, but she constantly wanted me to take tests, blood tests, c-scans, etc. I guess she was certain I was going to die. Well hell, I already knew I was going to die someday.

Anyway, I have always been blessed with good health, but decided because I was getting older it was time to concentrate on a few lifestyle changes. So I fired the doctor and started walking.

I like to walk. I feel good doing it, feel even better after a walk, and always look forward to the next walk. My back is stronger and my energy level is higher. I have found walking is much like floating down a river. Life slows down, and the inner clock shifts into the natural flow of real life — I repeat: real life. Thinking is clearer when I walk. Thoughts flow freely into and out of my mind, and I enter the world of the eternal now. I think this is where my trusty dog, Beau, lives. It’s a cool place.

Anyway, my walk takes me past lovely, green, farm fields, newly-built subdivisions, and patches of dense woods. One particular patch of woods has bushes near the road where I stop to enjoy a few fresh blackberries. This year, the berries tasted off. I didn’t think about it much, but about a week later I noticed all the brush alongside the road was brown and dying. I soon realized that our electric company had sprayed poison on the all flora to keep it from growing into the lines. Whereas they used to cut the brush back, they now just apply herbicides. I hope no unsuspecting children eat those berries. The electric company has a long history of being a bad neighbor.

A little farther down the road, I pick up the delightful scent of wild rose. Around the next bend, a couple of horses lazily grazing stop to look at me; finding nothing interesting, they go back to eating the fresh grass. I always wave to the cars driving by. Sometimes I know them, sometimes I don’t, but they almost always wave back. I like that.

Sometimes other folks are out walking. They are always friendly and happy. I wonder if more people walked, would the world be friendlier and happier?


Scars From Honey Creek

Robert PekelMish-qua-woc, the native name for Honey Creek, flows 75 miles through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, eventually emptying into the Lake Michigan Basin. Honey Creek was so named for the many bee trees lining the banks. The bee trees no longer exist, nor do the native Potawatomi Indians.

I grew up hundred yards south of Honey Creek in the 1950’s. Cousin Tom lived about a mile farther south. From sunup to sundown, we spent every waking moment spearing carp, trapping turtles, or fishing for what ever would bite. Riding a river on a raft, kayak, or canoe is the ultimate high. Flowing with the current has the power to immerse the spirit with the majestic pulse of Mother Earth. It is a peaceful and free sensation that I wish all youth could experience before being saddled with the burdens of the white man's world.

 Water Fun

Tom and I were defenseless to the seductive lure of Honey Creek, which led to trouble more than once. One morning, Mom had gone somewhere and I had orders to stay home. That same day, Tom rode up on his bike and said, “Let’s go to the creek.” Without a second thought we were on our way. I figured Mom would never know.

We were spearing carp, walking upstream, and taking our shots when carp tried to get past us. A lagoon near Blanks Bridge usually produced a few carp, so we detoured into the marshy chasm to try our luck. All of a sudden, Tom stopped and said, “I am standing on a turtle.” Now, a turtle was a pretty big prize, so we wanted it. Spears wouldn’t penetrate the tough turtle shell, so Tom stood on top of the turtle while we debated how to secure our treasure. Tom seemed willing to stand on the turtle in the murky water all day. After about 20 minutes I finally said, “Tom, we need to do something.” He said “What?” Fortunately, I had an idea. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very good one. “Tom,” I said, “I figure he’s heading toward the main flow of the creek, so I think his tail is on this end and my guess is he isn’t a snapper or he would have bit you by now. So I’m going for the tail.”

I was wrong on both accounts. When I grabbed for the tail, vice-like jaws clamped down on my fingers. Ouch. Not good, because a snapper usually never lets go of his prey — me. I yanked my hand up out of the water, getting ready to say goodbye to my two favorite fingers, when unexpectedly the snapper let go, dropped back into the water, and swam away. Problem solved except for two bloody, chewed-up fingers, but bad as my fingers looked the thought of facing Mom looked worse. Anyway, we hightailed it back, and I was washing off the creek mud when Mom showed up. I tried to hide my wounds, but moms in general are pretty sharp; not much gets past them. It didn’t take her long to get the story out of me.

“Why wouldn’t you tell me you were hurt?” Mom asked in a shaky, hurt voice. “Well, I was scared you would be mad that I went down to the creek.” Well, Mom got all teary-eyed and said, ”Don’t ever be afraid to tell me you hurt.” Good Old Mom. I guess that’s why moms around the world are cherished. Dad was a different story.

Peace of Mind

Robert PekelPeace of mind. Nothing is more satisfying, no possession more priceless.

Have you ever noticed the many products in advertise peace of mind? All I have to do is buy their product and peace of mind will flow into my life. It warms my heart to know the corporate world can supply an abundance of peace of mind. It’s hard to believe I lived 64 years without knowing the peace of mind that a doorbell hooked to my cell phone could bring.

Conventional medicine is an interesting study. Somehow all the prescription drugs my doctor wants me to ingest is supposed to bring good health as well as peace of mind from reducing the risks of high blood pressure, cholesterol build up, heart attacks, and anything else they can think of. Yet I can’t help but notice the doctor’s waiting room is filled with pale, sickly, comatose folks that look like they need to be buried. These poor souls follow the doctor’s orders to the tee. There is a lesson here.

native New England Aster 

I also have noticed that I have never left the doctor’s office feeling better than when I went in. I have to ask myself why is that? The doc always searches until they find something wrong and, guess what, for a mere sum they will try to control, not fix, but try to control the problem which will, of course, give me peace of mind.

Pond life - frog

I also observe back home on the farm, the paranoia of a doctor’s visit wears off as I pump fresh air into my lungs and feel the healing warmth of the sun as I do the chores. Watching butterflies dance among the flowers, and dragonflies hover over our pond while the catfish break the surface is comforting. My trusty black Lab, Beau, is always at my side only wanting my love. Life in all its glory surrounds me on the farm and with it comes peace of mind.

baby goats

God gives peace of mind, corporations just take the fee.

The Pursuit of Excellence

Robert PekelFoundation Farm is an adventure into alternative farming. Generating 20,000 pounds of healthy, organic produce a year on a little over one half acre leaves conventional farming in the trail dust. The growing power of Foundation Farm is a blueprint for urban farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners to produce the maximum amount food with minimal land.

Patrice Gros, owner/operator of Foundation Farm, is a pioneer in winter production, supplying farmers markets, local restaurants and CSA’s (community supported agriculture) with fresh, nutritious food through out all the seasons. Harvesting during the cold months of December, January and February is made possible with high and low tunnel technology. This was my second visit to Foundation Farm with the purpose of capturing its uniqueness on film.

Patrice Gros 

Foundation Farm is a well-oiled machine. Actually, there are no machines. There is no tilling. This is a low input system that requires only sixty man-hours per week to achieve his incredible production. The sixty hours are divided between four people working three, five-hour workdays a week. This is more than a farm, it is an odyssey. The helpers are much more than hired hands. They are interns with dreams of duplicating this unique system on their own land with hopes of feeding a hungry world. How do you capture that with a camera?

 Rows of lettuce

It was a warm, humid day in the hills of Arkansas. Patrice was busy working his teaching magic along side his interns weeding, mulching, and harvesting the multiple beds of chard, kale, green beans, garlic, and summer squash. Patrice is high energy. There is no wasted time or motion as he moves through his garden. His teachings are efficient, clear, and make sense. Foundation Farm illustrates a workable solution to feeding an overpopulated world struggling with shrinking resources and climate change with ultimate growing power.

 Patrice checking the crops

Listen to Patrice’s own words at Farmer to Farmer podcast.

Patrice has also put together three, concise pamphlets clearly describing how to put his farming practices into action from easy to build garden beds to production planning, as well as keys to a successful winter harvest.

Patrice can be reached at:

Mother's Day 2016

Robert PekelI had a productive day planned for Sunday; unfortunately I forgot it was Mother’s Day. Fortunately my wife’s a trooper. The good news was the whole family was able to get together. The bad news was I had the day scheduled to butcher chickens.  My wife does love bringing the family together and she enjoys raising chickens, but butchering on Mother’s Day wasn’t my best idea.

Butchering chickens can get a bit intense. Plucking feathers can get old. It’s one of those jobs that can’t wait until tomorrow once begun. The best way to tackle the butcher day is with teamwork. There were seven of us to do the job. My wife, daughters, and soon to be daughter-in-law (I think, maybe not after butcher day), did what I call the fine-tuning. This means getting off all the pinfeathers to the point the bird is feather free. It is is a tedious job and they do it well. It’s fun to listen to them laugh and carry on throughout the process.

My son and son-in-law scald and do the quick pick, which is stripping the bulk of larger feathers off in handfuls. They then hand the chickens over to the girls for the fine tune.Before the boys can scald and quick pick some has to do the nasty job of the kill. My method has evolved to what I feel is the most merciful option to end their life, which is to use a chicken cone.

A chicken cone to designed to hang the chicken upside down with its head and neck exposed through a hole in the cone. Hanging a chicken upside down somewhat pacifies the bird. I guess you can all figure out what happens next. It is a quick, and clean system that is as painless as possible for the bird.  

The chicken cone

Scalding and quick pick area

The girls

I need to point out that my birds have a good life. In an industrial farm complex, 52,000 birds will be stuffed into a metal building without ever seeing the sun, or being able to forage in the fresh air. Industrial feed is a special concoction that contains goodies such as arsenic to increase their appetite. The lights are left on 24/7 so they never stop eating. After five weeks of this torture, they are shipped off to slaughter.

My birds, on the other hand, are fed normal food without poisons, get outside to forage for a natural diet, and sleep at night. It takes close to twelve weeks to get them up to size this way, but they are much happier chickens.

When the job is done we cool them off in ice water for a couple of hours, then package them up in freezer bags. Everyone takes chicken home. Butchering is a good job to have done, and the game changer is teamwork, but the lifesaver was that I remembered to buy a Mother’s Day present.

Small Farm Ingenuity

Robert PekelThe morning at Foundation Farm was enlightening, and just plain fun. Foundation Farm is an incredibly productive, profitable, and low maintenance farm that lies on the Arkansas — Missouri border north of Eureka Springs, owned and operated by Patrice Gros. I had listened to Patrice’s presentation at the Midwest Winter Production Conference in Joplin this January. His no till farming immediately caught my attention. His system was so simple and appealing it was difficult to believe, but Patrice extended a gracious invitation to visit his farm to reassure doubters. I decided to take him up on the offer.

The drive to Eureka Springs was an adventure in itself. The highway twisted and turned, up and down through the rugged Ozark hills. Cliffs dropping hundreds of feet were to my right, a rock wall to my left and no shoulder meant zero margin for error. Anyway, I arrived safely at Foundation Farm just as Patrice and his farm hand, Nazar, pulled up. We were greeted by Patrice’s’ two friendly farm dogs that live at the farm and protect the crops from deer.

 Nazar spreading rabbit manure

Patrice started the day by having Nazar prepare the 4 by 100 foot beds with rabbit manure. Patrice has a friendly, easy to be with manner makes him fun to be with. “It’s all in the soil,” Patrice emphasized. “Healthy soil is essential to maximum production as well as disease and pest resistance. Just as a healthy body with a strong immunity system wards off sickness, healthy plants do the same. Healthy soil means healthy plants,” he explained as he brushed back the straw mulch to expose the rich, organic soil beneath. “See the earthworms, worms are good. Rototilling destroys worms and the infrastructure of the soil,” stated Patrice “We do no rototilling at all.”

Next we headed for the high tunnels. A high tunnel is Quonset-like structure covered with polyethylene that keeps cole crops in prime condition for harvesting through the winter months. The rows of mature, Red Russian Kale, Bak Choy, lettuce, spinach, and cilantro that filled his high tunnels were a sight to behold. Patrice wasted no time or motion as he checked his crops. He explained the various aspects of his system while momentarily pausing to talk to his plants. He would praise some plants for growing well, or scold others to encourage improvement.

 Patrice checking the crops

The bottom line is that Foundation Farms requires only 60 man-hours a week, four farm hands working 15 hours each. No powered machines are employed. Patrice’s farming system is organized, simple, makes money and is fun, or as he prefers, “sexy.”

We wrapped the up morning with lunch. Foundation Farm has an outdoor kitchen area shielded by a roof and walls on two sides. Patrice is also a good cook. He created a hearty, delicious dinner from fresh picked winter vegetables. “It’s important to learn how to cook what you grow,” said Patrice.

 Cooking winter harvested veggies

Ingredients included:

• 3 medium turnips
• Several heads of Bok Choy
• Cilantro
• Organic noodles
• Vegetable broth
• Salt, turmeric and cumin for seasoning

Patrice cubed up the turnips while Nazar chopped the Bok Choy.

The olive oil was heated in a cast iron skillet over a portable gas stove. Patrice added what looked like a tablespoon of turmeric, a little less of cumin and a small amount of salt. It was hard to tell because nothing was measured. The turnips were added and cooked over a high heat for several minutes. Patrice added about a half of cup of vegetable broth keeping the heat high. To make sure the turnips were starting to soften, Patrice tasted one. Satisfied, he added more vegetable broth (a cup or two) then a package of noodles. When the noodles where only minutes from done, the Bok Choy was added. Two more minutes the creation was ready. Fresh chopped cilantro was sprinkled across the top and lunch was served. It was a wholesome treat that made the whole experience complete. Thanks for a great day, Patrice.


To learn more about Foundation Farms go to: Foundation Farm

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