Sunday, July 31, 2011

Compost to cantaloupe

We compost our garden waste, our kitchen waste and our barnyard waste. We have two twenty foot long compost piles. Each year we spread the oldest one on the fields and start that pile over again.

Every weekend all summer, when each lamb buyer is done, we clean up after them – salt the skins and throw the lungs, feet, and sometimes stomachs and intestines onto the compost pile. Then we cover the remains with some of the manure pack from the barn and let nature take its course, converting the remnants of dead animals to wonderful, rich compost that looks amazingly like the potting soil you buy at the store (except for the occasional leg bone or ear tag).

Gourds frequently grow on the compost pile, but this year, a melon plant is blooming there. If we can keep the lambs off the pile, we should have a big crop of delicious cantaloupe in about a month.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Farming on shares

This spring we decided that our hay field needed to be replanted. We have never invested in planting equipment or in harvesting equipment for anything besides hay. We contacted local farmers to see if anyone was interested in planting our fields on shares. Planting on shares means that we invest the land and some other farmer invests time, seed, fuel for his tractor, fertilizer and herbicide if necessary. Then we share the crop.

We had hoped to plant oats or wheat, feed that we could use for our sheep during lambing, but only one farmer had the time or the interest in our land, and he only wanted soybeans. Roundup ready soybeans, drilled into the ground and sprayed with Roundup to control weeds. Roundup Ready soybeans have had a gene added to their chromosomes that makes them resistant to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).

We needed the weed control badly, but we had not imagined using a genetically modified seed to do it. The first time our share farmer sprayed for weeds, Dave had marked the edges of the field, but we still lost lilacs, raspberries, walnuts, several apple trees, an apricot tree, and part of our lawn. Last week he sprayed again. The soybean plants were six to twelve inches high and a lush green before the spraying. They were still lush green after the Roundup application, but the weeds in the rows between the bean plants rapidly turned brown and shriveled.

In 2010, the Land Stewardship Newsletter ran an article about Roundup Ready crops that was very disturbing. Glyphosate has been considered safer for the environment than the pre-emergent herbicides that it replaces, based on the belief that it is chemically unstable and only remains in the environment for a short while, not long enough to create human or environmental problems.

Now research implies that the herbicide glyphosate may make the soil itself unhealthy for growing plants. In a summary research paper, Don Huber, a plant pathologist from Purdue University reports that glyphosate changes the nutrient availability and plant efficiency, either directly through toxic effects or by changing soil organisms.

One of the indirect effects of glyphosate use is that it ties up the micronutrients in the soil necessary for healthy plants. The plants seem to mature earlier, thus not gathering as much energy as possible before they shut down. Huber feels that glyphosate does build up in the soil and will continue to cause problems long after it has been applied. He cites research that shows that fields which have been sprayed with glyphosate for ten years yielded 46% less wheat than a field where glyphosate had been used for only one year.

We have found a different farmer to plant shares with for next year. He wants oats or wheat for his animals and will till the soil to control weeds rather than spraying with Roundup. It will be nice to share with a farmer whose agricultural philosophy is closer to ours.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sound of rain

Sound of rain all night long. The sky is overcast and the air is moist and cool. A perfect summer day for gardening.

Our vegetable garden is burgeoning. I’ve harvested four big heads of broccoli in the last four days. Dave had sprayed the plants with bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) at just the right times this year and there isn’t a cabbage worm to be seen. The spinach and leaf lettuce are also at their peak. So we’ll have broccoli and home made bread for supper one night and a chef salad the next for as long as the greens last.

The cucumbers are climbing the arch and although they aren’t blooming yet, they look healthy, as do the squash and the corn. The weeds have been hoed and intimidated for the time being.

My flower garden has not done as well. Somehow, between my weeding in early May, and mid July, the grasses took over. They now tower over everything. Dave and I attack the garden with shovels for an hour or two every day and are pleased to find bare ground when the grass is removed. Yesterday I bought a pickup truck load of wood chips to spread over the bare ground. The mulch will give our gardens a more formal look than I like, but I think four inches of mulch will slow down the grass and that will save my sanity.

Today, with the breeze from the east and the sun hidden behind a solid blanket of clouds, is the perfect day to dig grass and then spread mulch. I’ll download an audio-book and get to work.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Many years ago, following one of Euell Gibbons books and advice from a wild foods friend, I harvested a lot of milkweed buds along the side of our gravel road. I boiled them in three changes of water and served them with salt and pepper.

The soggy, dull, gray-green clumps neither looked, nor tasted appetizing. Even the surface texture was a little odd, sort of suede-like. By popular demand, I didn’t pick anymore milkweed.

However, the milkweed moved from the roadside to my garden and I love seeing it there. The buds change from a light moss green to a greeny pink as they swell. A tiny cross appears in the surface, and then the tiny pale pink flowers appear, hanging almost like droops on their heavy stems. I delight in the Monarch butterflies that rest on the blossoms, build their gold tipped chrysalis’ on the underside of the leaves and then, as caterpillars, feed on the plant.

The story of the monarchs fascinates me. How in the fall, the insects gather in huge masses on trees and then fly south across the United States, across the Gulf of Mexico and into the highlands of Central America where they hibernate over the winter. The next spring, it takes several generations of butterflies to get back to the milkweed plants on our farm.

The milkweed beside the road are cut by the township as part of their weed control effort. But I save the milkweed at the sides of our fields and in my gardens for the monarchs. And I now savor them also.

For the last two years, I’ve been a part of a collaboration by the Friends of the Pelican Rapids Library, the Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee and the Pelican Rapids School District to create a book of stories and recipes. In that time, over 100 people contributed recipes to the project. The recipes came from farmers, hunters, fishermen, young people and old people, new immigrants and old immigrants. We collected recipes from 25 countries. We interviewed the recipe contributors and wrote stories about them for the book. Finally we tested all the recipes.

One of those recipes was for a milkweed bud gratin. That recipe is delicious! The buds, although cooked three times, are bright green and beautiful, the gratin is smooth and cheesy, and the taste experience is wonderful.

All the recipes in the book Many Cultures, One Community; a book of stories and recipes, are delicious, and the stories are as moving as the story of a monarch butterfly migrating across a continent and an ocean to find a new home.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Scent of peony

Every nice weekend during the summer, we sell lambs. This Fourth of July weekend, morning two men came. “White lambs,” they said.

“The white lambs are small,” I explained. “They cost $105 if they weigh less than 70#. The black lambs are a better deal because they weight more.”

The youngest buyer climbed into the pen and began feeling hips and spines. “What about that one,” he said, pointing to the largest lamb in the pen. I explained that the one with two tags was already sold. He continued checking lambs. “Too skinny,” he said, “you should feed corn.”

“I don’t like to feed corn,” I told them. “I don’t think it’s as good as grass for the lamb.” I could also have said that the price of corn right now would force up the price of my lamb, or that feeding corn might increase the number of nasty bacteria in the lamb’s gut, or that most of my buyers told me that they liked the taste of pasture fed lamb better.

They finally chose the biggest white lamb without two tags. “Aren’t you going to weigh it?”

I shook my head. “The biggest white lamb weighted 65 pounds yesterday and I sold that one. I know this one is smaller.” I went into the house to write up a receipt. When I got back, the lamb was dead. “$105,” I said.

“I already pay you,” the younger man said with a grin, looking up from the body of the lamb.

“You did not!” I said, hands on hips. He shook his head and handed me the money.

The next day, the young man came back with three friends. We put the lambs in the barn. “You can’t buy the lamb with two tags,” I reminded him as I left to find my weighing bag. When I got back, the younger man pointed. “That lamb is bleeding,” he said, “Can I buy it?”

That lamb had had two tags yesterday. It was bleeding today because it had either gotten its tag stuck in the fence and pulled itself free, or someone had torn a tag from its ear. “No,” I said. "That’s the lamb with two tags. I already sold it.” After a bit more discussion in Bosnian, they chose three white lambs. When they were done butchering, they honked their horn to call me back to the barn yard.

“Now, a lamb for me,” the younger man said. “Your husband promise me $85 because I bring you so much business.”

“No, he didn’t!” I said, by now quietly furious. “$105 for any white lamb that is left except the one with the torn ear.”

He shrugged and selected a white lamb. “What about a flower for my wife? Your husband promised,” he said as we carried the lamb out to the barn yard.

“I’m pretty angry at you right now,” I told him.

“Why? What I do?”

“You tore that tag out of my lamb’s ear,” I said.

“No I didn’t. It was like that when we got there.” He looked at the other three men. They shook their heads. “No, he didn’t. “He didn’t” “No.”

"I hope that’s true,” I said, as I left the barnyard, “I didn’t want to believe that of you.”

Dave had asked me about the peony several weeks ago when the younger man had last bought lambs. They had been in full bloom then, their fragrance filling the yard. Now they were done blooming. The flowers dried and brown, still clung to the ends of their stems. I don’t like digging up flowers, but it seemed unfriendly to refuse. And if the lamb really had torn out the tag on its own, I felt guilty of accusing him of the deed. I dug up a small peony with its rhizome and potted it for him, leaving it next to the driver side door of his car. When they left, they left the potted peony beside my peony bed.

‘I hate selling lamb to the Roma, the Gypsies,’ I thought. But my mind ran a self check. I knew some Roma who I trusted to pick out their own lambs, weigh them, and leave the money, even when I wasn’t home. I was characterizing an entire culture based on the actions of one man.

‘Okay, I hate selling lambs to the Bosnians,’ my mind muttered. But I have lots of Bosnian friends, so I can’t generalize like that either.

‘It’s the refugees,’ I thought, ‘I can’t communicate with them.’ And yet, some refugees seem to communicate quite well with their hands and their smiles. The young man who had started my thought train communicated with sly grins and mis-truths, an entirely different thing.

‘No, it’s the immigrants. They do things differently.’ It’s true, the immigrants do have different cultures than Americans, but they are gradually adapting to us as we adapt to them. Without the immigrants, I would be hauling lambs to the stockyards in West Fargo, a process I gladly gave up sixteen years ago when we began selling lambs to the immigrants. Now, our lambs are killed quickly and humanely in my barn yard, no sales barns and hot pens in the merciless sun, no frightened animals and manure bedded feed lots, no assembly line into the abattoir. Just a quick catch, a short carry and a quick death.

It’s not the immigrants, the refugees, the Bosnians or the Roma that I hate, it’s the selling. I’m not a good salesman; I just don’t enjoy it. But if I’m going to have the joy and wonder of baby lambs, it is my responsibility to see to their deaths, and that means selling lambs. And occasionally, replanting a peony