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The Accidental Farmer


No Garden This Year

April FreemanI am beginning to accept the fact that I may not get an official garden this year. Now that we have the time do get it in, we’ve had so much rain that we can’t get into the garden spot. Turning over mud just means that it’ll bake hard in the sun when you have so much clay in the dirt.

The big problem is what to do with the plants that I sprouted from seed. I’ve been tucking them here and there in my beds near the house. I can’t grow them too close the house because we treated the house for termites. But there are several places where I could stick some plants and not fear that the veggies will have some weird poison in them. I did the same with my sweet potato plants. The vines do look pretty and maybe I’ll get lucky and get a few sweet potatoes from the plants.

Out in the yard, I have two small oval beds where I grow spring veggies. Lettuces and sugar snap peas mostly. I dug up one of these beds with a shovel a few weeks ago (the tiller is still broken) and put in a tomato plant, planted some bush beans, bell peppers, okra, and some pole beans too. This bed looks pretty good. I hope the plants do well, but there’s a lot growing in a small space. I guess we’ll see. I’m hopeful that the generous application of partly composted manure that I applied before turning it over will help feed this abundance of veggies.

I have another bed that’s overgrown with weeds. This week, I plan on planting the remainder of my tomato plants there and my pepper plants. It’s going to be slow going. This morning I got out and dug it with a shovel. The ground is so wet and heavy that I only made it through about a third of it before I had to call it quits. Maybe in the cool of the evening I can tackle another portion of it.

I put the most desperate-looking plants out this morning. They are aching for a bit of dirt in which they can spread their roots and really GROW.

I’m saving the center of the bed to put in some more pole beans. The idea is that the pole beans can grow up above the other, lower growing plants, and the other tomatoes and peppers can snuggle together and smother out weeds. It seems to be working fairly well in the other bed. I think it’s sort of an adaptation of the square foot gardening idea.

I’ll still miss out on the cucumbers, melons, and sweet corn, but I suppose you gotta do what you gotta do. This way, at least I’ll get some garden produce.

Gardening in a small space

Back to the Basics

April FreemanWe’ve been doing some re-thinking here on the farm.

When we first started farming, we were excited about the possibilities. We read lots of books, learned everything we could about sustainability, and plotted our course. Every day was fun and interesting.

And now, things are still fun and interesting. But there’s so much work.  Lately, we’re evaluating what’s most important. Of course, we still love the farm. But we want to continue loving the farm … and each other. So we’re making hard choices.

See, my husband works a full time job.

We have four kids. The kids are homeschooled and they have interests that aren’t just farm-related.

I work part time.

It’s just hard to make it all work. We go to work to work and come home to work.

Work.

Work.

Work.

And it’s getting overwhelming.

When it’s all work, where’s the fun?

So we’re cutting back. We’re probably going to drastically reduce our flock of sheep. They just take too much time and care. The horses probably should go. Nobody really rides much anymore. We’re through buying animals for the kids. Of course, we want them to love and enjoy the animals here. But that needs to be a side benefit for my husband and me. We don’t need to buy these critters and expect the kids to love them like we do. That breeds resentment when the kids just aren’t as excited about it as we expect.

We’re thoughtfully considering our direction here on the farm. We have to face it. We only have a limited amount of time each week to pursue our farming dreams. We need to spend the time on things that we truly enjoy. Once we stop enjoying it long term, we need to be able to let it go.

So we’re looking at things and trying to think hard, “What brings us the most joy?” We need to get out of doing the next thing because that’s what we’ve done for years. We need to do it because we want to.

Here on the farm, it can’t just be about an idealistic view of how life is supposed to work. We have to love it. Once it’s not love, we have to be able to move on.

Peaches

Garden Envy

April FreemanI’ll admit it.

I’m jealous.

We’ve been running about a month behind in everything these days. Usually, by now my sweet corn is at least hip high. My green beans have been producing for a while. I’m often getting my first juicy tomatoes from the garden and chopping them into fresh, tangy salsa.

But this year, none of that is happening right now. My garden should have gone in about six or seven weeks ago and because other stuff didn’t happen, it didn’t get planted.

Even my suburbanite friends have little garden patches that are producing and I am so jealous I can’t stand it. I want to be the one with baskets of green beans on the porch. I want to be putting up pickles and cutting corn off the cob. I want to be carefully tending my watermelons and being on the lookout for squash bugs.

I didn’t realize until this year how much I enjoy tending my vegetable garden in the summer. I love going out to the garden in the cool of the morning and planning my day’s work. I love picking green beans and watching the tomatoes turn from green to red.

Thankfully, since I live here in the South, my growing season is long. I can probably still have some veggies growing for the year, but it won’t be soon enough for me.Red Front Door

However, the delay has been helpful in other areas. I’ve been tending to the landscaping near the house and doing some long-awaited home maintenance tasks. The doors of the house have been needing paint for far too long. The shutters on the front of the house were damaged in a storm two years ago and should have been replaced.

So, I’ve tackled these much less satisfying but still needed jobs while I’m waiting on my garden.

I’ve primed and painted two of the three entry doors to the house. They’re now a cheery red. This is a project that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. The outside of the house looks much better.

But I still have garden envy.

When to Call the Man

April FreemanOne thing about farmers and homesteaders: They have a hard time paying someone to do things that they feel they can do themselves. If something breaks, they want to be the one to diagnose the issue, order the parts and repair it.  But, sometimes this can be a problem.

It reminds me of an old Andy Griffith episode. Aunt Bea, frugal as she is, buys a secondhand freezer. She also buys a side of beef to take advantage of the lower price per pound. Things get dicey when her freezer breaks in the middle of a heat wave. Andy tells her to “Call the man!” to come repair the freezer, but stubbornly, Aunt Bea can’t stand the thought of paying someone for this repair. One thing after another happens, and Andy keeps repeating himself, “Call the man, Aunt Bea. Just call the man!” Finally, Andy takes over this project and eventually just buys her a brand new freezer.

It’s hard when you want to remain independent. And, we all know that by repairing something yourself, you not only save money and get the satisfaction of taking care of your own problems, but you learn things too. And yet, when things begin to break on the farm, it’s wise to honestly evaluate whether you need to tackle this repair or just Call the Man.

Time

It’s getting to the place on our farm that time is actually a more valuable commodity than money.  It’s not that we’re rolling in the dough, but we do have a little saved back for unexpected expenses. But, wow, is it hard to dip into that stash! Sometimes, though, it’s worth it. We’re in a very busy season of life with four kids, two of them teens, the farm work, my husband’s full time job and my own part time work. Sometimes, it is better to just go ahead and pay someone else to fix our broken stuff and get on with our lives. A skilled repairman can often fix something in an hour that would take us all morning to tackle.

Specialized Tools and Equipment

Having the proper tool for a job can make all the difference in the world. But, there’s no reason to buy a $200 specialty tool for a job that you won’t be doing very often. Skilled laborers do have these tools and probably use them every day. Those tools can mean the difference between a frustrating battle with the broken object and a simple repair. Sometimes, for your own mental health and your relationships with your spouse and children, you just need to call the person with the right tools to get the job done.

Electronic Components

One frustration for many homesteaders is that too many “simple” household objects have become electronically integrated. Have you recently tried to buy a washing machine or a dryer? It’s quite hard to find something that doesn’t have an electronic panel. And once the electronic panel goes out, your washer is out of business. (As a side note, I’ve heard great things about Speed Queen washers. I’m considering that when my 20-year-old washer finally is beyond repair.) Many household appliances are much the same. These appliances with a small computer as a major part of its operation can’t be repaired by the homesteader. You pretty much HAVE to call the man.

Mental Health

Each day, the average homesteader is faced with an enormous to-do list that can sap the joy right out of life. If you’ve had a season where every time one thing is repaired two more things need work, you may want to just bite the bullet and call the man for your own mental health. It’s so discouraging to wake up with more things to fix than you have time to repair. Get ahead of the game and leave some time to enjoy life.

You’re not a failure as a homesteader if you end up Calling the Man. Thoughtfully evaluate the things that go wrong on your farm and decide what is the best use of your time and money. While it is possible for people to learn to do their own repairs, don’t feel that you’ve broken the Homesteader’s Code of Conduct if you opt out of doing your own repairs.

Plumber

Photo by Fotolia/Petrik

Homemade Microwave Popcorn

April FreemanSeveral years ago, we stopped buying microwave popcorn. We were concerned about the artificial colors and flavors and we also decided that we preferred the flavor of stop top popcorn. Of course, with stove top popcorn, you have to get out a pot, heat the oil, add the corn, and shake it till the corn is done popping. Some nights, after I’ve cooked supper and washed the dishes, I’m just not up for that. I made a rule that whoever wants to eat popcorn has to wash up, and that pretty much squashed all the popcorn requests after supper. Nobody wants to wash another pot after supper.

Popcorn in a brown paper bag

Photo by Flickr/Jaynneandd

My second daughter absolutely loves popcorn. So when I found a new technique for making microwave popcorn in a plain brown paper sack, I knew she’d love it. I tried it and it works marvelously. While it doesn’t make quite enough for each member of our family of six to have a full serving, it’s easy enough that we can make several bags of popcorn. I think even my eight-year-old son could do this.

Here’s what you do.

You’ll need a brown paper lunch sack, some cooking oil, and a half cup of popcorn.

Measure out the popcorn and drizzle a teaspoon of cooking oil over it. I do this while it’s in the measuring cup. Dump the popcorn into the sack and shake it to coat all the kernels with oil. Add some salt if you like. Fold the top of the bag over twice and fasten it with a length of masking tape.

Stand the popcorn in the microwave and start the microwave just like you would for a commercially produced bag of popcorn. I have a popcorn bag on my microwave, and it cooked my popcorn perfectly.

Remove the bag when the kernels stop popping or slow down. Don’t overcook it or your house will smell like burned popcorn for days!

Carefully remove the bag from the microwave. Open it with caution because the steam will be VERY hot.

Serve in bowls in front of the television while watching a John Wayne movie.

Enjoy!

The Good Old Days

April FreemanSome people persistently talk about the “Good Old Days,” when life was better. Not as much crime in the good old days. People worked together better in the good old days. You could leave your doors unlocked in the good old days. Community helped one another in the good old days.

I don’t know. I’m just 36 years old, but sometimes I believe that these folks prefer to look at the past through rose colored lenses. It’s easy to idealize a time when Mom and Dad, grandparents, and treasured friends were all alive and together in one place, especially when you’ve lost many that you care about. But I’m not convinced that the good old days were as perfect as some say.

Yesterday, I was cleaning up one of our fields and found a small, decorative banner. I knew it had blown off of one of the grave decorations in the small cemetery that adjoins our field, so I entered the fence to replace it. This cemetery reminds me all the time of my mortality. It was a small family-owned burial ground from the original homesteaders of this area. Many of the graves are from the early 1900s, and a few are even older than that. Over the years, people other than family members have been buried here, but it’s a stark reminder that no matter how hard you work each day, you can’t take it with you.

The graves that always give me pause are the babies’ graves. And in this small graveyard there are plenty. Child after child lost before the baby was even five years old. I can count on one hand the number of friends that I know who have lost babies, but these graves remind me that there was a time and day that it wasn’t uncommon for babies to die. Some of these children didn’t even survive long enough to have a name. These tombstones simply read, “Infant son of …”

I stop at the tiny tombstones that are lined up neatly in a row. Apparently one family lost one baby after another. I think about these mothers from so many years ago. I consider it carefully because I have negative blood. Were it not for medical science, I could have buried baby after baby due to Rh disease. Now, thankfully, I have four healthy children, and I’ve kind of taken it for granted that they’ll grow up healthy and strong.

Cemeteries remind us of our humanity.

Photo of Woodlands cemetery by Flickr/Simon

I think what people mean about the good old days being better is that they were simpler. Many of the decisions that we grapple over just weren’t an option back then.

Should Mama go to work after the baby is born? Not really an option due to the lack of women’s jobs, and besides, who would scrub out these clothes, feed the children, keep the fire in the cookstove burning and do all the hundreds of other jobs that a woman on a farm was needed to do?

Should Aunt Myrtle go to a nursing home or can we take care of her at home? That’s another option that wasn’t available for the average family of the  early 1900s. The wealthy had private nurses and sanitariums for their ill loved ones, but most families just muddled through. At any rate, often sick people either got better or died within a few months. Most elderly didn’t have decades of slow decline, needing assistance, before they passed.

Should Mama call in hospice or take a few more chemo treatments to prolong her life? In the good old days, people had no other option than to take the few treatments available to them and trust the Good Lord to help them pass with grace into the next world.

Should Junior go to college or stay home to work the farm? In many cases, finances dictated this decision in the past. Many fine, brilliant young people never reached their full potential for a host of reasons. I know of an older fellow who planned on being a medical doctor when he was young, back in the forties. He was at the top of his class with a bright future. The untimely passing of his father meant that he was needed at home to take care of his mother and provide for her on the farm. He accepted his lot and had a good life, even with his unfulfilled dreams.

I am not naïve enough to think that the people of yesteryear didn’t agonize over their decisions and grieve when things were taken out of their hands. However, with medical science being what it is and the availability of so much information, not to mention disposable income, I think that many of us today have more options to consider when making decisions for our family and our future.  We also seem to cling to the illusion of control over our lives. This makes us wade through masses of information in our quest to figure out the perfect solution for our problems. When things go wrong, we retrace our steps and engage in the futile “What if-ing” that will drive us crazy if we let it.

I’m pretty sure though, that the good old days were about like they are today. There were some good days and some really hard times. In between, there were a whole lot of average days where the families of yesteryear just plugged away at life, wiping the baby’s nose, cooking the supper, weeding the garden, and feeding the fire.

Despite the major differences in the way that we live our lives over the decades, we’re all the same. People, families, living, loving, losing, laughing, crying, singing, and praying — that’s the essence of the human experience, whenever and wherever you go.

Are You Cut Out to Be a Farmer?

April FreemanOn a beautiful spring day when visiting a friend’s farm, it’s easy to get farm envy. You imagine yourself picking tomatoes, plowing fields, and running your own hobby farm. You know mentally that there will be difficult days and hard times, but somehow, it’s easy to envision yourself overcoming the odds and creating a successful, independent homestead from nothing but bare dirt.

If you’ve been considering buying a farm or starting your own homestead, here are a few character qualities that you may need when you are the one getting up early to milk the cow, dealing with bad luck, and facing droughts.

Farming is hard, but worthwhile

Resilience.

Farmers have to be resilient in the face of trouble. When things don’t go as planned, they are able to look for the silver lining in the clouds that brought the hailstorm. Farmers don’t get bogged down in the one “master plan.” They are mentally flexible enough that they can figure out a way to make the farm work even if things didn’t go the way that they had hoped.

Toughness.

To be a farmer you have to be tough, and it’s not just physical toughness, although that’s a part of it. To farm you need a kind of mental toughness to overcome what Nature and Luck sends your way. Whiners need not apply for this job. That doesn’t mean that farmers are insensitive or overly harsh. They just know when to be soft and gentle, and when it’s time to rub some dirt in it and keep on going. Farmers can weep over the body of a beloved milk cow one night and be back on Craigslist looking for another cow the next morning.

Optimism.

It takes an optimist to sow seeds in the dirt and expect a harvest. When you think about it, it’s a wonder that mankind has gotten so far because Nature can be hard. Disease, drought, insect plagues, and hailstorms can destroy thousands of dollars of crops. And the optimistic farmer always thinks, “Well, maybe next year …”

Energy.

Farmers aren’t lazy. At least good farmers aren’t. While many enterprising farmers will find a way to create a labor-saving device or farming method, this is so they can spend time doing other kinds of work on the farm. In fact, the original work-a-holic had to be a farmer.

Love of the outdoors.

If you’re not crazy about dirt, sweat, sunshine, and fresh air, farming may not be for you. Farmers have to love the outdoors. Planting, mowing, tending animals, and almost all other farm chores take place outside.

Sense of humor.

Sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from crying. The good farmer works hard, prays hard, and laughs hard as often as possible. You can’t hold too tightly to your dignity in this job. Sooner or later, you’re going to be covered in manure, fall into the mud, or take a crazy tumble. You may as well learn to laugh about it. Goodness knows the rest of your family is going to laugh at you. You should join in with them and lower your blood pressure a bit.

Farming is a hard job, but for those who have this special blend of character traits and the desire to produce products from the land, there’s no other lifestyle as satisfying.







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