Mail Call March/April 2016: Remembering Loved Ones, Grinding Grains, Homemade Bread, DIY Projects and More

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Whether picking fruit or tilling the garden, Dan Schrag passed along his love for rural life to his daughter, who still maintains the property today.
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Dan Schrag tilling his gardens.
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Alexander Gregory’s do-it-yourself project, called The Hovel, that is complete with a fireplace.
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From left, Issac and Ethan, grandsons of Cindy and Glenn Wika, pose with the gourds Cindy grew, which she determined to be the result of an accidental cross-pollination between Atlantic Giant and Cinderella pumpkins, which she calls “Giarellas.” The largest of the Giarellas came in at 92 pounds, perfect for decorating in front of the house. Cinderellas, though, remain her favorites.

Tribute to Dad  

The year my father was 71 years old, he bought a 10-acre wheat field in central Kansas. He and Mom built their retirement home there, and then he put all his energy into developing his new homestead. That first spring, he planted more than 40 fruit trees and berry bushes. Besides his orchard with a wide variety of fruit, he and Mom also had a large garden. Along with the usual tomatoes, corn and beans, they grew long rows of carrots, stored them in sand for the winter, and made fresh carrot juice every morning. Dad also experimented successfully with peanuts. I remember piles of peanut plants covering the garage floor in the fall. Those peanuts made some mighty good peanut brittle for the Christmas holiday.

During those first years, Dad worked tirelessly. He spent hours tilling and watering the garden and his young orchard. He was a do-it-yourself kind of person. To fertilize the garden, he bought a small old manure spreader and completely rebuilt it, finishing it off by painting it John Deere green. His welder was his right-hand helper, and with it, along with a few scrap pieces from the junk pile, he could fix or make just about anything. His auction outings usually produced another box of possibilities.

After about 15 years, though, things began to change. Dad quit doing as much outside. Instead, he spent a lot of time reading in his rocking chair. I had a hard time persuading him to do regular chores like mowing. One day, I asked him to till the garden, being careful to show him where I had just planted new strawberry vines. When I went back out, the weeds were tilled under, but so were my plants. Dad was completely oblivious to what he had done. It became obvious that he was no longer thinking clearly.

As Alzheimer’s stole Dad’s abilities, I needed to take over his little farm. At first, I resisted. I thought I didn’t have time to mow the lawn. I couldn’t get the tiller started. I forgot to keep an eye on the ripening fruit, and the birds got the cherries. During three years of drought, I lost most of the fruit trees, not realizing that they should be watered. Many times I felt like I was stumbling along, not knowing what I was doing, afraid of failing. However, since I wanted to keep Dad and Mom in their own home, I persevered.

Gradually, I made changes. Dad’s tractor was sold, and we rented out the 7 acres he had been planting to wheat. My brother came from out of state and helped me clean up Dad’s work space and the yard. Together we decided what to keep and what to sell or toss. We took a truckload to the local community auction and another truckload to the metal recyclers. It was nice to have more room for my things, and with Dad’s piles of scrap and “junk” out of the way, mowing was easier. I replaced the old mower with one that was easier to start. I bought a wagon to help me haul heavy bags of mulch. In the process, I discovered that outdoor work was the best relaxant after a full day in the office.

As Dad grew weaker, I cared for him, and for his place, as best I could. I often wished I could ask his advice, but although his body was here, his mind had forgotten how to do all the things he used to do so well.

At the age of 93, Dad left us. He died at home, on the place he had created with his own hands.

As I care for Dad’s place now, it doesn’t look quite like it did for him. I have quit fighting with the stubborn tiller. Instead, I mow and mulch. I have only a few fruit trees. Last summer, I used a tiny portion of his former garden and grew lettuce in the flower bed. When I discovered that I enjoy keeping chickens, I added a hen house.

I don’t think Dad minds the changes I’ve made. In fact, I think he’s smiling with joy at how this little farm has worked its way into my heart. The confidence I’ve gained will always make me grateful, not that Alzheimer’s took Dad’s ability to tend his own place, but that it pushed me into doing more than I thought possible. I have found joy in caring for Dad’s little piece of land.

Ann Schrag, Hutchinson, Kansas

Moving On

Hank — In January 2014, my best friend kept her appointment to depart this life, at home, in her own bed as I promised her. She was a city girl found by a country boy through the most miraculous circumstances. She brought three children, and I brought four to our new life. Carolann took to farm life as though raised there — her own family was amazed, and then even her parents moved to a farm. Gardening, canning, chickens, ducks, geese, goats, pigs, cows, horses, 4-H shows, county fairs, goat shows in four states. Petunia was her huge Chester White who loved her back, and once even fearlessly attacked a Jersey bull, only stopping when told to knock it off.

She loved the many horses and cared for them in all kinds of weather. She even raised an orphan Fox Trotter in the face of all odds. She milked goats and cows. Her wonderful cooking was famous. The tender love, gentle compassion, and kind advice for her own; an unkind word never passed her lips. She, as did I, viewed the old farm as more than a place to live — it was, and still is, a place of comfort and protection throughout our lives together, even some-how surviving and sheltering her and our oldest daughter when a vicious tornado took our barns, drove tree branches through our roof, and devastated the area. Once just rich prairie land with few trees — a lifetime of planting trees, orchards, flowers, all to please her — turned into refuge not only for us, but for our animal and bird friends. Time, that great healer, always has a raw edge to it. But one does find that it can be tempered by the good memories.

Joel Monteith, Preston, Missouri

Building ‘The Hovel’

I just finished your recent issue of Guide to Modern Homesteading. It was very interesting, informative and helpful. I am writing in response to your column “My Ancestors Did It.” I have a project that I’ve been working on at my friend’s farm. It began in April 2013, and this year I’ve done a great deal of work on it. I’m building a small stone house behind the barn, down by the creek. I call it “The Hovel.” Most importantly, it has a fireplace.

Basically, it’s just a place to which I can get away, and even have a roof over my head — like a permanent tent. It took much thought about the location of The Hovel. This is sort of unrelated to the other projects written about in your magazine, but nonetheless, it is a project. I hope to have a garden back there someday, and a bridge crossing the creek, and a small tandem outhouse. There is plenty of stone scattered in the fields that I have gathered using a wheelbarrow. The project is more at a standstill for this month, since it’s time for a short rest.

Alexander Gregory, Boone County, Illinois

Grinding Grains

We want to thank you for your article on grinding your own flour. I stopped into a Wal-Mart I never shop at on the off chance of getting some milk, and the Grit issue on bread making caught my eye. We already make our own bread, but the idea of grinding our own flour never occurred to us. It was shocking to read what had happened to flour over the years.

We now grind our own flour. We never knew there were so many kinds of things that could be ground, and we’ve had delicious experiences grinding, cooking and eating them! We have also started to churn our own butter, which we eat with our fresh-baked bread. And, we’re drying and using stevia leaves instead of sugar — yet another idea from Grit.

We had never heard of Grit magazine, as I was born and raised in New Zealand, and my husband, Paul, in Australia. We have never wanted to get magazine back issues before, but will be ordering the Grit archive USB stick – and can’t wait to get it. We are even going to subscribe — and we have never done that before. Your magazine has great articles that we feel are aimed at us — average, working people wanting to live a healthy life and help the environment, without being obsessed.

Great articles, recipes and photographs!

Raina and Paul O’Connor, Boynton Beach, Florida


On Page 67 of the January/February issue, in the article “Farrowing on Pasture,” we states that pigs raised on pasture from birth have a very good immune system, rarely need copper shots, and are hearty. Instead of copper, the mineral deficiency we meant is in fact iron. We regret the error, and we appreciate all who have pointed out our oversight! — Editors

Hopped Up

I enjoyed Chris Colby’s article “Hop to It” in your January/February issue, and I just wanted to add one more useful tip: the hop shoot.

The shoots of hops are edible as a spring vegetable, usually emerging from the ground in March or early April in east Tennessee. Similar to asparagus in shape and flavor, hop shoots can be covered with a blanket of soil to keep them white, or left alone to green with sunlight. The white shoots are reported to have a fresh walnut taste. The green shoots, when cooked, are reminiscent of asparagus crossed with arugula. The hop shoot is snipped from the ground shortly after it emerges at 6 to 8 inches. They can be eaten raw, blanched or sautéed. They may be served as a side dish after sautéing in olive oil, added to salads, or thrown in a stir-fry or soup.

Once a hop plant is established, 20 to 30 shoots can be harvested per plant each spring, still allowing for full plant growth and cone harvest. As mentioned in “Hop to It,” all of the first set of shoots can be cut back, and the subsequent emerging best three to four shoots trained. Rather than discarding the shoots, they can be harvested for a fresh, bitter seasonal delicacy.

Keep up the good work!

Chris Neglia, Backyard Hop Farmer, Kingsport, Tennessee

Friends and Neighbors

I wrote to you in January 2014 about finding a source for milkweed seeds, and on December 24, the mail started coming and hasn’t stopped. So far, I have received more than 25 replies — and many also sent seeds. I now have enough to share with the neighbors. Hopefully, they will all grow and help the monarch butterflies to flourish. I have received so many responses that I want to express my gratitude — your readers are the best!

John Dornheim, Northport, New York

Our Friends and Neighbors department offers a chance for GRIT readers to either reach out for help with a request, or help a neighbor in need, wherever they may be. We are always thrilled to hear about our community of rural people helping one another find seeds, sewing patterns, collectables, recipes, long-lost friends, and so much more. Thank you all for making it a success! — Editors