The Yellow Barn

New Life to the Old Barn: Reviving the Heart of the Farm


Nothing embodies a farm like a barn. If you ask anyone from school age to old age to conjure a visual of a farm, I’ll bet the vast majority of these mind’s-eye images have a red barn featured prominently. Maybe it has a silo or a cupola; it might be two stories with doors aloft to load hay bales; it may have a lean-to with farm equipment sheltered underneath. There is likely a fenced-in barnyard for livestock. I’m not implying that many farms don’t have barns, in fact our barn was so far in disrepair and unsuitable for our intended purposes that we may as well not have had one at all. 

But it turns out that barns are important if not vital to most farm operations. Providing a place to maintain and repair equipment, fabricate parts if necessary, build with wood or metal, store tools, feed and/or house livestock; the barn is not only iconic, it is the hub of farm activity. Ours was dark, damp, spider and critter-infested, increasingly dilapidated and in dire need of repair.


Convention said tear it down and put up a modern metal pole barn. Our neighbor who instead helped with salvaging the original structure aptly deemed the project “straight lines on a crooked barn”. Even my cousin, a contractor said that a refurbishment “couldn’t be done”. But it is (getting) done, it’s just taken years of patience and tenacity in equal parts. It’s been repurposed and renovated a little at a time as the structural bones and spirit of the old barn have been incorporated into a new incarnation of the building. At last, I’m here to report and celebrate our first year with our barn back in use and proclaim that it’s a whole new world!

The biggest benefit is ease of function. We opted to build our chicken coop and run right onto the barn so that we didn’t add more outbuildings to the property. The barn is now flanked with the chicken housing on one side and a lean-to buttressing the other. This spring we are raising Cornish-Cross chickens to provide our own meat and processed the chickens under the lean-to where water and electricity were at hand.


Efficiency and morale have skyrocketed with the function of the barn.  Machinery has been overhauled and repaired, workbenches built to house saws, planers, routers, anvils and drill presses. Equipment used instead of buried away God-knows-where. The space is organized and bright whereas countless many hours were previously spent finding the tool much less fixing the problem. Long-envisioned raised beds have been built for the vegetable garden, flower planters have been fabricated. With the strong heartbeat of the farm pumping, we are propelled ahead with gardening, landscaping, investigating niche crop farming and on to the next phase of the repurposed building- the studio loft. Cabinetry and furniture for upstairs will be constructed downstairs. 

Machinery, equipment and tools have a place to live sheltered from the elements and free of risk of ruin from nests, hives, burrows and clods being built in them. Birds, wasps and flies don’t assault us anymore which used to be commonplace in the old chicken coop we used as a work shed. There are spaces dedicated to construction materials, metal and wood work, fasteners, even household storage (which was admittedly a big motivation for the renovation) instead of hodgepodge here and there.  Inventory can be taken at a glance instead of on a treasure hunt through multiple spaces.


We wonder how we got along for so long without this critical functional space. The truth is, we didn’t. Projects were deferred and progress lagged. We’re finding that a working barn is synonymous with and supports thriving on the farm. We celebrate the productivity and a balance of form and function.

Living Well by Making Do

Photo by Sarah Joplin

Long before the saying “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” came into being, there was a common phrase which simply said: “Make do.” It goes hand in hand with “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and implies making use of what you have on-hand, items and materials you have readily available. Making do with what you have to accomplish a given task has been the prevalent approach for eons. Now we “up-cycle” as a work-around when really we are finding an item with which we can make do, using something we already have rather than feeling compelled to buy the “right” item for the job. After all, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And making do is an essential, if unspoken part of self-sufficiency not to mention a great way to employ creativity and ingenuity.

It’s gratifying not only to find a way to achieve your end by employing, reusing or repurposing an item but it is also a joy to utilize long-neglected things that still have perfect utility which you’ve either saved for a rainy day or long forgotten.

For instance, we’ve been renovating our antiquated barn for several years and have saved stacks and piles of wood cut-offs from various parts of the re-construction. These include odd shaped and sized 2x4s and other dimensional lumber, scraps of OSB board, and nail-ridden old-growth oak and walnut used to build the barn in the first place. The construction crew wanted to burn or trash these remnants but my boyfriend insisted on keeping them. It turns out they come in handy for all sorts of projects! When it came time to build out his shop, many of these cast-offs made perfect small shelves, drawer bottoms and sides, and bench materials. Instead of wasting this perfectly usable wood, we saved money, made space and had JUST the right pieces for a variety of applications.

Photo by Sarah Joplin

Similarly, we got chickens and made do with our old barnyard watering trough as a brooder for the chicks. The same lumber cut-offs make perfect “risers” to lift waterers and feeders as the chicks grow. In fact, much of the lumber also came in handy to build a divider in the coop separating the roosting area from the supply area.

Another example of the frugality and practicality of making do came when my boyfriend was in need of substantial lumber material for his woodworking bench. Instead of paying a premium for such wood, he scrounged up stray lumber laying around in an old shed. It took hours to plane, chisel and band saw some of the pieces into straight and square bench legs but the end result is not only handsome but he made use of what would be expensive materials that were lying there to rot! It turns out the four legs were all cut from an individual tree; you could see how all of the rings aligned into growth rings as if premium wood from custom milling.

Photo by Sarah Joplin

When I took to gardening with gusto, I was looking for containers to start seeds. Not being able to resist some of the annuals in the garden centers, I purchased some 6-packs. Once the starts were transplanted, the containers made great vessels to start my own seed and it got me thinking about what people do to recycle these. Come to find out, Lowe’s had a program where people can give or take these plastic containers, so I was able to acquire a good number. I’ve now used these over 7 growing seasons! Of course, egg cartons can also be made into seed flats as just about any plastic vessel can become part of a container garden. Another way to make do in the garden is to propagate your plants using your existing “stock”. Many perennials transplant well when you dig a small portion of them to plant elsewhere. Others thrive after cuttings have been rooted and allowed to establish before transplanting. You can also collect your own seed at the end of the season and re-seed the next spring.

Perspective is so important when approaching a subject. We are fortunate to have abundant (actually invasive) Eastern Redcedar on the property, so we have taken to cutting and chipping the trees to yield copious amounts of mulch (and push back the onslaught). And though the rocky hillsides can be difficult to landscape and thin soil horizons challenging for planting, they do yield generous amounts of valuable decorative rocks for making stone walls and walkways as well as edging specimen plants, shrubs and trees. 

It turns out we can get by and even make out pretty well when we take a fresh look at the materials we have available and envision how we can make do with them.

Old-fashioned Reminders Brought Home by COVID-19


As many in our nation and around the world face unprecedented challenges which understandably bring about fears of the unknown, some notions still commonplace in the country that are often considered old-fashioned seem worth revisiting as possible mitigation to some of these hardships and angst and as valuable reminders moving forward.

Keep a stocked pantry

This is a practical reality for many who live in a rural setting and a good idea for one and all. When stores aren’t nearby it becomes habit to keep enough staples on hand to last a little while. Growing and/or canning your own food also affords availability to fresh produce and the ability to preserve it yourself.

Take a breath and slow down.

Patience is still a virtue and can be trying, especially when times are hard. Keep breathing; the only constant is change so this, too, shall pass. Life in the country is not centered on convenience or speed, so patience is required. We live on gravel roads where travel is slow and sometimes precarious; rural living puts us a distance from towns making access to commercial goods a little more involved. We don’t have the fastest internet, nor FedEx delivery service. Inherently, we operate a little slower than our urban counterparts and expect things to take longer. This is no time to be in a hurry but then again, when is?

 You are not anonymous or alone

It is easy to feel anonymous in a concrete jungle in a sea of humanity, but remember that you are not an island; you are not alone.  Many people are getting to know their neighbors now that they are home from work with some time on their hands. Enjoy building these new connections.  In the country, you are outdoors as a way of life, so you naturally tend to see your neighbors. A spirit of collaboration still exists in rural communities where mechanical projects that require many hands on deck (think barn raising) still occur and where community hubs still include widespread churchgoing (complete with picnics and sewing circles), little league games, hunting and fishing seasons, and where large family gatherings are still commonplace. Meet your neighbors. Respect boundaries, but check in with them. Find out what you have in common.

Spend time outdoors

Get some fresh air. Many urbanites rarely touch the ground. The vast majority of their time is spent indoors. From their houses or apartments they walk out through their garages or directly onto sidewalks, climb into cars or buses and exit out onto parking lots or paved streets and proceed to work in buildings. The recommended social distancing practices to avoid contraction of the COVID-19 virus encourage outdoor activity either alone or in small groups. Take advantage and get some grass under your feet. Maybe it’ll become a new habit.

Treasure seeds


Grow something, if not from seed then from seedling or start. Not everyone has space or resources for a large garden which provides access to fresh food. Nearly everyone, though, has the ability to grow a container garden, even on a windowsill or patio. Gardening has multi-fold benefits including exercise (depending on how much you do-weeding, transplanting, bending, lifting, stretching), providing a sense of empowerment, exposing you to sunshine and ultimately providing something healthy to eat.

Partake of old-fashioned pleasures

When was the last time you played a board game? Went for a walk? Literally stopped to smell the flowers? Read a book? Did something creative? Played an instrument? Tackled one of those D-I-Y projects that sounded interesting? There are many “old fashioned”, low-tech, slow-down activities that we forego in favor of stimulation and consumption in the modern world. We do a lot of shopping and not as much creating. We do a lot of talking, chatting, texting, messaging, tweeting, emailing and less meaningful face-to-face conversation. We take less time to be quiet and listen to nature, to reflect and be in tune with the natural rhythms of seasons, even determining the time of day based on position of the sun rather than digital numbers on our smartphones. It sounds cliché, but there is value in remembering to take pleasure in the simple things. As we are learning, the more complex “things” and activities are not always an option.

Exercise community-mindedness


Thankfully, this comes naturally to some, whether in a rural or urban setting. Much of urban life goes on with the individual relatively isolated, anonymous. It is easy to put your ear buds in and go through a day in your private bubble. This is not so in the country. Even though we live physically apart, we are more interconnected and rely more heavily on one another. Join a club. Volunteer. Find a civic organization and get involved. We all have a lot to offer and everyone benefits from good citizenship.

The list goes on to include home cooking, “waste not, want not”, bartering and exercising common sense. For some of us living in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic may not be quite as much of a hardship because of the very nature of our way of life. Some of the resources many lack in cities are necessities in the country; some of the hardships people will endure are already commonplace to us; some of the behaviors necessary to combat the virus are just business as usual in rural America.

Country Turns of Phrase

Heyday- really hay season

Given that I’ve long been a writer and interested in language, it’s little wonder that when we moved to the country I was struck by how many turns of phrase originate from rural living and in turn intrigued or amused at the context of their origins. According to, the expression “turn of phrase” itself was first used in 1779 by Benjamin Franklin referencing how words could be “turned”, like wood on a lathe, in order to craft their unique meaning.  Following are some of the phrases that have struck me along with an abbreviated Merriam Webster (or comparable) reference and their corresponding country context. As for me, I’ll take the country any day but keep my mind open to many perspectives as I listen and learn.


Merriam Webster states “a period of prosperity or vigor” while those of us in the country know that it is more of a season than a day. We struggle to find the right stretch of dry weather long enough to cut, wind-row, bale and haul in the season’s yield. Often, unexpected rainfall (a shower or a deluge) will foil one or more of these steps and lessen the quality of the hay or ruin it entirely. Of course, you also have to account for some of your machinery breaking down in the process. It’s tricky business and an art more than a science; some might say it’s mostly luck. We all agree, though, when the hay is baled and put up for the season, it’s time to celebrate!

Tough Row to Hoe indicates this to mean a “large, challenging task” while for those gardeners among us, this expression conjures rocks, roots and dirt clods situated along the line you choose for establishing a planting row. Such terrain humbles us and can be infuriating not to mention physically draining and daunting.

Going to Town

When you live deep in the country, often on gravel roads, sometimes off the grid, mostly off the land and definitely off the beaten path, days can stretch on when you don’t get in the car to go anywhere. Everything you need is right there on your property, in your pantry or root cellar, in your meat locker or library. Country living tends to be more self-sufficient than urban life so actually venturing off the homestead and into town gets to be a big deal. There’s always an important motive for your trip so you rise to the occasion and as James Rogers in his “Dictonary of Cliches” (Ballantine Books) would say, you go with gusto.

Growing Like a Weed

Merriam Webster indicates “growing very quickly” for this turn of phrase. Again, for those who garden, our experience of the growing behavior of weeds is quite a phenomenon. Weeds can double overnight and their growth is exponential the larger they get. Weeds can grow in the most prohibitive places and under the most impossible conditions. Drought? No problem. Clay? Not an issue. Drowning rain? No trouble. Weeds exhibit extraordinary tolerance, vigor and adaptability in their growth. It seems all we need do is turn our backs and weeds flourish.  We can only dream that our prize plants would grow so well.

A Breath of Fresh Air

  Part of the reason people choose to live in the country is for the air quality; most rural people spend a lot of time outside and enjoy the fresh air and quiet of the country. Fresh air is a vital component to living on the land. Urbanites, on the other hand, use this phrase to mean that something or someone is refreshing, new, different or exciting (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, Cambridge University Press), as if it is a rarity or anomaly. Once again, the rift between urban and rural is crystal clear.

Top Notch

 My boyfriend and a neighbor were recently using a farm jack to repair a tractor fender. They wrangled the jack every which way, raised the front end loader bucket and lowered it and repositioned the jack in hopes of getting enough torque to repair the spot. Each time, they’d crank the jack all the way up and try to crank it back down, but they were at the top notch, the most leverage, the best they could do. Where the Oxford dictionary claims top notch to be the best quality, first-class or excellent, in the country, the top notch is often a physical point with implications on the working function of the apparatus which houses the notches. It’s true that you often can’t go any higher, but in the practical world, that is not always a good thing!

From the Ground Up

When people talk about their ground in the country, they are referring to their land or their soil, even the terrain of their homesteads. If you are building from the ground up in a rural setting, you may be starting with soil improvements, you may have to deal with earthmoving, in any case with very foundational components including dirt.  City dwellers have a more sanitized meaning for this turn of phrase. Their ground is often paved and infrastructure further along, so they are working with the building blocks of, say, growing a business. Frames of reference vary wildly between the more feral nature of country folk and a more domesticated urban understanding.

The next time you are listening to someone speak, stop to listen more keenly and note the underlying foundations of various turns of phrase. You’ll be surprised at the breadth of experience we draw on in our day-to-day language and how indicative it is of our roots and perspectives.



Reminiscent in both spirit and design of the beloved Whole Earth Catalog, Country Wisdom & Know-How is an unprecedented collection of information on nearly 200 individual topics of country and self-sustainable living. Compiled from the information in Storey Publishing's landmark series of "Country Wisdom Bulletins," this book is the most thorough and reliable volume of its kind. This title is available at our store or by calling 866-803-7096.

Backaches & Blisters: Ingredients For Improving Poor Garden Soil

Starting with clay 

Not every gardener starts off with the gift of good soil; some of us have to grow our garden from the ground up before we even venture into planting. If you are dealing with clay soil like we were, prepare yourself for a tedious process of amendments and backaches as you augment the clay to make it friable and root-friendly. 

Fear not for you will be richly rewarded for your efforts and surprised at the resilience of plants.

In 2011, my boyfriend spent a day plowing up the plot of field that would become our garden. He leveled and heaped and smoothed and repeated for hours, establishing a 30’x70’ plot.

The site suited us being close to the house and barn. We felt the presence of former stewards of the land upon finding a pristine spearhead that had likely been long buried by the Osage Indians who hunted in our Buck Hollow here in Osage County. 

In order to enjoy any yield, though, our garden would definitely need fencing to deter the deer, raccoons, turtles, rabbits, ground hogs, possum and the occasional armadillo who frequented the field and couldn’t read a “Keep Out” sign if we posted one.

First Attempts and Suffocating Clay

I’d started a number of vegetables from seed in the abandoned south-facing chicken coop but couldn’t imagine subjecting these fragile little babies to the virtually solid clay in our newly-established garden.

Driving PVC to create planting holes

The first gardening season was humbling as we sunk PVC pipe into the clay ground with a post hole driver to create a “plug” in which to place my starts, tucking them in with a handful of potting soil mix and wishing the plants well.

Next year would be better, we vowed. That first year, we placed all of our grass clippings on the garden as mulch to minimize weeds and add organic matter to enhance the clay. This was a modest effort considering we had a push mower and bagger at the time!

Clay holds nutrients but is so compacted that the roots can suffocate for lack of oxygen. It also gets waterlogged or makes impenetrable hardpan surfaces. Mid-Missouri is prone to downpour rains which make for rough growing of plant starts. Larger plants can absorb more water, but still suffer from the pummeling.

It was astonishing that we had any yield at all that first year, but plants can be amazingly resilient. Every bite we enjoyed was appreciated as we schemed on what actions to take next to improve our “lot”.

Amending the Soil

As the end of hay season came around our first gardening year, we set aside several round bales to tear apart and cover the soil once the growing season ended. Once spread and broken down some, we burned the hay and left the charcoal to incorporate.

Biochar is an ancient amendment that is said to date back to pre-Colombian Amazonians. Bob made some of that by burning small twigs in a 20-gallon drum within a 50-gallon drum and we incorporated that as it is believed to help hold organic matter in soil.

The following spring, we got serious and enlisted a neighbor to deliver several truckloads of cow manure. Unfortunately, they came with rocks varying in size from rototiller-tine- breaking to bucket and wheelbarrow loads picked to be picked out by hand for many years to come.

We maintained a compost pile and incorporated that as well as wood ash from the stove. The wood ash can have significant effects on the pH level in the soil, so keep that in mind.

Adding river sand

Next we ordered a truckload of river sand. This was most critical to the break-up of the clay and to maintain ongoing aeration in the soil. We spread the load by hand and rototilled it all in, overjoyed by the change in color and texture of the ground. Despite the hard work, I wish we’d incorporated 2 truckloads!

The soil was finally a browner tone, smelled like earth instead of ceramics and was friable to the touch.

Solarizing with plastic

Next, we solarized the soil by placing black plastic over the surface and keeping it flat over the soil for 6 weeks or so when temperatures were in the 70s and 80s. This essentially sterilized the soil, killing weed seeds, insect larvae and resetting the soil. Worms dove deep aiding the aeration effort. Be careful in handling the plastic and you will be able to reuse it several times.

We rototilled again after the solarization to mix the soil one more time before planting our second season. I grew 80 heirloom varieties from seed that year and harvested about 1300 pounds of produce!

Fallowing and Beyond

Each year, we’ve continued to mulch with grass clippings and wood chips. The soil continues to improve, though it is interesting how much organic material it seems to need to maintain its fertility. The predominance of clay seems to want to return so we forge on with our amendments.

Last year, we employed another age-old practice for soil health: fallowing. I’d planted buckwheat as a green manure cover crop and we let the garden go. We rototilled that in and then did another round of solarization to kill any weed seeds that sneaked in during the fallow.

Worth the effort!

I’m eager to uncover the soil, rototill again and embark on a new growing season. With the effort it’s taken to build the soil, the garden yield tastes all the more delicious! Despite the backaches and blisters, it’s a commitment worth keeping with all the benefits of organic, garden-fresh vegetables.

Snow Custard

Sarah JoplinThey say that tastes and smells are evocative of early memories. That was certainly the case when I was inspired to make a recipe from my childhood.

Snowy, Mid-Missouri winters in the 1970s often stretched from December through March or April.  In our “neighborhood”, which consisted of 5 farms spread over nearly 500 acres, families came together and devoted entire days to sledding down the steep hill which connected our homesteads. Such occasions would culminate at a neighbor’s kitchen table with steaming hot chocolate shared in high spirits.  Other neighborly happenings were more somber and occurred when someone slid off the ice-rink-like roads into a ditch and needed to be rescued with a tractor or when pipes froze and whoever still had running water would share their good fortune.

I didn’t know then that snow could be an ingredient. At 5 years old, I rarely concerned myself with cooking at all unless Mom engaged me in kitchen tasks, asking that I mix a bowl or stir a simmering pot while she fed our wood-cook stove. One snow-day, home from school as I hovered around her, she showed me how to knead Irish Soda bread and braid Challa strands into their traditional loaf shapes prior to baking. Other times when she enlisted my help, we made egg noodles from scratch to complete her signature chicken soup.  With her kind gestures and loving ways, my mother taught me some of the most vital ingredients for the recipe of a contented life—humor, gratitude, and patience.

One wintry day, as fresh snow accumulated on already-fallen mounds and drifts and I made a snowman in the yard, Mom got a gleam in her eye and said that we were going to make something special. Then she did an odd thing, getting two bowls and directing me outside to do as she did, scooping fresh snow into her bowl. “No yellow snow”, she chuckled, as our dog poked around nearby! I happily followed instruction, filling my bowl and trotting back inside behind Mom. I remember the house was warm from wood-heat and smelled of sweet vanilla. Once in the kitchen, Mom showed me the custard that she had lovingly concocted made with sugar, eggs from our hens and milk from our neighbor’s cow. In turn, I proudly held up my bowl of snow. She nodded approvingly and told me to set it outside by the front door, nestled in the snow next to hers. Now was the time for patience, as we waited for the mixture to cool. All the while I salivated in anticipation. To pass the time and expedite the process, she brought the custard pot outside and nested it in the snow. We both delighted in making snow angels to pass the time. Finally, Mom did a surprising thing; she fetched the bowls of snow, returned to the kitchen and invited me to help mix the two ingredients together. I squealed with pleasure, thrilled by the novelty, eager for the treat. And in that first bite of snow custard, I could taste the mellow flavors of country living and the secret ingredient of love.

Mom’s Snow Custard Recipe


  • 3 cups Milk
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • 2/3 cups of sugar
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla
  • 6 cups Fresh Snow


snow custard

1. Combine milk, sugar, and vanilla in a medium sauce pan. Whisk eggs together and then add to the aforementioned mixture over medium heat.

3. Beat mixture while cooking over medium heat. Heat until mixture starts to rise. DO NOT let boil.

4. Scoop fresh snow into a mixing bowl.

mixing snow custard

5. Once liquid mixture is ENTIRELY cooled (you can leave covered in snow to cool), pour mixture over snow and mix thoroughly.

finished custard

6. Serve immediately and Enjoy this rare treat!


Photo credit: Copyright Sarah Joplin

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