Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Being Prepared

Way back when I took a semester off university and traveled to East Africa. I was having a hard time getting inspired by textbooks and wanted to see some of the work that was being done with wildlife firsthand. So I decided to go check out where Jane Goodall started out working with chimpanzees - Gombe National Park in Tanzania. I worked for two months to pay for two months of travel. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity. It was a life-changing experience for reasons I hadn’t expected. As the trip required the ability to carry everything I needed on my back, I learned about rationing. I also met numerous people who were happy though they owned very little. Food availability was different from what I was used to (understatement) and I often traveled hungry. I learned something about assigning value to tangible things.

Many of the people I visited with owned almost nothing in terms of material goods. On Zanzibar island a mud house with a partial straw roof and a dirt floor was something to be very, very proud of. A boat made of a carved out tree and some rope was a great asset. Some people were apathetic to the stuff attached to the one white girl on the beach. These folks wore no shoes, only smiles. Some would follow me around for days asking me to give them my camera, my shoes, batteries, my pen. To them I was the white girl with all that stuff. Even though all that I had with me fit into a bag on my back.

The interaction I remember most was with a small girl who had braids coiled up around her head. I had a particular fondness for this girl and we spent a lot of time together. Before leaving I pressed a small deck of cards into the palm of her hands. She looked up at me blankly, turned on her heel and walked away with the cards. There was no mention or gesture of gratitude and this was, however curious, fine with me. An hour later she returned and held something out in her hand. It was a pile of shells. She grabbed my hand and dumped the shells into it and then turned on her heel without a word and walked away.

A few days ago I did my hike up a mountain in the Adirondacks in New York. As it was still a very wintery time of year and there was lots of snow and even more wind, we were required to bring extra warm clothes and lots of food and water should an emergency occur. So I took the very backpack that trekked around East Africa with me and packed it full of everything down, wool, fleece and polypropylene that I owned. Well, not really, but it felt that way. Then I put cheese, raisins, almonds, veggie pate, cucumbers, apples, tortillas, a jar of peanut butter, oatmeal cookies, salami, and some carrots into the backpack. Like a whole package of each of those things.

It was to take 7 hours of hiking up and down the mountain on snowshoes, in the cold, carrying a pack. Here is the thing I learned. I took up WAY too much food. Perhaps if I had fallen down a crevice and got my hand stuck in a rock for 127 hours, this would have been the right amount of food. But it seemed I felt the need to bring enough food for 5 men for 3 days on this day hike.

During one of our short stops, my hiking partner and I came across a team of skiers heading back down the mountain. I took out my food bag and offered snacks all around. Some of the fellows partook, I think out of pity. Others just thought this crazy offering lady probably needed some oxygen due to the 4500 foot in altitude. They obviously didn’t know me. People that know me know that I never, not ever, go anywhere, at all, without a huge bag of food. Knowing that, how can I do a hike that requires some 3000 calories and not bring the entire contents of my fridge along?

I am a hoarder. I greatly fear that deprivation is around every corner. I watch for the possibility of losing it all any minute. For this reason I am almost always more than prepared. I have enough snowsuits and winter boots for my kids to clothe a small daycare (all bought for a handful of dollars at second hand stores of course). They use most of it, between the barn set and the ones they take to day care and the ones that we play with in the yard at home or at Nana’s in the city. But looking at the mountain o’ things sometimes makes me feel nauseous even though it gives me a strange comfort.

I recently read an article about how women like me (consumers? hoarders?) need to find a way to flick the abundance switch without stockpiling enough food or gear to fill a warehouse or spending enough money to keep a credit card company in business. One of the ways to turn this switch on is to focus on gratitude. When we are grateful for something, we are looking at what we have and not what we are missing.

Another way to embrace abundance is to become a farmer and try to grow all of your own food. Your husband will even encourage you to buy a second freezer so that you can fill it with your harvest. And if you are grateful for it you get bonus points.

But here is the thing. I do assign great value to the farm goods. I certainly understand how nutritious our food is, how fresh, how tasty, how handy, how much money we save in growing our own food. But I assign even more value than that by making it my life. It is my job. It is my worth. And it’s a darn good bit of worth if you ask me. And I know it. That’s the thing. That’s a kind of abundance and gratitude that no money can buy.

I must say that I think I’ve found a way to surround myself with a mountain in a way that is acceptable and almost coveted these days. I have enough food for my family to last a year (in order to make it back around to the same season again) and we grow enough to feed numerous families with some left over to give away.

I can only imagine what happened to that deck of cards that I gave to the little girl. Perhaps she cherished it for many years or perhaps she gave it away before I even received my pile of shells. She taught me something about the value of tangible things. With her lack of fuss, or need for ceremony, the quiet exchange, the way she seemed so happy without any shoes on and so proud to show me the home that she lived in that had no roof. She basked in all that surrounded her and didn’t need a deck of cards to make it better.

I work to be that girl who builds her life on something other than a house of cards. And I’m grateful I don’t have to fit all that I have in that one backpack.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Land Line

When I was a teenager I remember describing God as the string that connects all living things together. This metaphor still holds true for me today. If we look inside of ourselves to the part that is linked to every other living thing, we see God. In this way God is not a separate entity from us. Yet we are not God. We are empty vessels if we do not reach out to other beings. If we think we can do it all alone, we lose God’s frequency. That’s just what I think.

Yet I find myself tempted to judge people who see God differently than I do. And worse, I want to judge those that judge others for seeing God differently than they do. But I am concerned about people that want to put God in a box and keep Him for themselves. My idea of God doesn’t work without everyone on board. My Pastor has helped me through this. Treat people as I would want to be treated, leave the judgment to God.

If the connection we are looking for requires an intact telephone line to get through to the purest part of ourselves and each other, then what does that say about this day and age of cell phones? I wonder if we are ‘cutting out’ on each other more and more often. If we are finding ourselves in need, but out of range, out of batteries or out of time?

I recently heard travel tales from people who had visited The Gambia in West Africa. They spoke of how there was not a great deal of wealth circulating the villages, but there were a great number of cell phones. Last summer when I traveled up near the North pole I was astounded to see the number of people carting cell phones around and using them with the same addictive quality that you would see on a New York City street.

I read recently that people moved from rural areas to cities to come closer together. Next came the Internet and cell phones with the same goal. The author astutely noted that what is bringing us together is tearing us apart. This idea that we should be able to reach everyone always and get information immediately ends up being counter-intuitive to the idea that God lives in a quiet space inside of us. And that it is only the “land line” that can reliably connect us - pun definitely intended. I don't suggest we all move back to the land. But shall we take a moment to consider if this new age of advancement is working for us?

Essentially we need to be grounded to hear God’s voice inside of us. Buzzing around with a never-ending to-do list and piling more and more onto our plates with all of the ‘free’ time that technology has given us is causing us to unravel - from ourselves, our families, our communities, our land. What I find is what used to take a day of research in a library can now be uncovered in a matter of minutes from the comfort of my own home on the Internet. And what used to take a walk over to the neighbours house, can now look like an email. I am surprised at myself how often I use email to farm. No face, no chitchat, just right down to business. Do you have any extra hay this year? Can you give me a good source to buy firewood? Anyone need some extra eggs? The business is attended to here but the connection is lost.

Like all progress, it is necessary to figure out a way to take the good from what has been learned and let go of the parts that don’t serve humanity for the better. That is tricky on a continent where greed has turned into an almost unconscious state. We no longer know when enough is enough. We eat too much, buy too much, have too many cars in our driveway, consume, consume, consume then waste, waste, waste and wonder why we feel empty at the end of the day. I might not be speaking for everyone here but I certainly find that the more I accumulate and focus on this amassing of goods, the less fulfilled I feel. The more I reach out to my fellow human beings and tend to the living things around me with care and consideration, the happier I become.

Cell phones were once considered to be useful for emergencies. Either we are experiencing a lot more emergencies these days or using a cell phone (Blackberry, iPhone, Internet…) has become as regular as eating and pooping in our day.

Is it possible to connect to the true God within us all if we are driving down the road with a headset babbling about which kind of pants we bought today? Or have we turned God into something we want handed through a car window when we need to feel nourished? Fast food God in a box. Buy one get one free God.

In the case of amenities in the home, women no longer have to slap laundry against rocks in a creek, we have appliances to do our elbow work, our cleaning, our kneading, mixing and chopping. We don’t have to handle our food as intimately as we used to. If we choose, we can have a pre-made meal waiting for us in the freezer when we get home. We have people in other countries to do our sewing, knitting and weaving, depending on cheap fuel and labour to bring it all to us at a cost much less than what it would take to make it ourselves. Supposedly, our lives have gotten easier. We don’t even have to get out of our chair to turn the channel on our soap operas.

Now instead of being physically exhausted and having hands that are worked to the bone, we are breaking apart in other ways. Our bodies are fighting back. Where there were once villages of people working together, we now have gadgets and pharmaceutical companies to attend to our dis-ease. Don’t get me wrong. The right prescription in the right case or the right gadget at the right time saves lives. But can we admit that we are getting frivolous in our usage? I think overuse of these external ‘helpers’ that supposedly make things easier is disrupting our ability to seek unity and balance. We are indeed losing our connections – to ourselves and to God.

Okay, I have no solutions here I know. I'm going to quit preaching for now and take a walk over to my neighbour’s house and see if she needs a dozen eggs. But first I will call her on my land line to see if she is home.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Sweet Taste of History

One of the benefits of living in a ‘slow-growing’ agricultural area (some say economically depressed) is that there is history everywhere you look. Very few of the homes on our road have been bought up and torn down or transformed. The sad point is that many of them are abandoned or cared for only by relatives in the area. The people come, they cut the grass, leave a light on and lock the gate behind them. The ghosts of the past are left to play freely in the space they have always known. The woman who lived directly beside us was in her nineties when she moved away to an old age home. She lived in that log house for her entire life, and could recall the day when she was 2 that they moved the cabin from back against the mountain to a spot closer to the road.

Our home was originally built 150 years ago. Since then a new addition was put on close to 100 years ago. And another major addition was added on 5 years ago. The place had remained in the same family for 5 generations and we were the first to change the name on the title in over 100 years. Because we wanted to preserve some of the history, we retained the previous owners name on the mailbox and put our new and shiny letters around the outside of them. The builders that had come to erect our timber frame addition asked if we had plans to demolish the old log cabin that was the original house. I was slightly insulted by this question but understood his point. Our house was on such a great angle that we could not use any chairs or tables on wheels without losing them to the other side of the room. The doorways are less than 6 feet high. I explained that part of the attraction of this place to us was that there was a lot of history in it.

When we moved in we swallowed any stories that the previous owner was willing to share with us. We learned that his uncle had died while logging up on the mountain. We learned that his wife had died in this house. There was a time that the road stopped at our house. Earlier still there was a mail road that passed our house and went up and over the mountain. I have since found a rusting old mail truck back in the woods on an old overgrown path. We have also had people dropping in to tell stories of how they were involved in the life of our home. One fellow in his eighties remembered our barn being resurrected and described a spider that he used to look forward to visiting in the mow when he was a boy. On the ceiling of our kitchen there is a name, Dave Young, carved with 1917 as the date. The wood was taken from a dock that was torn down on the river down from our place.

As I made the hole from the old log cabin for a doorway into our new addition upstairs, there turned out to be no less than 5 layers of wood and two layers of insulation. There was one layer of wood panel, two layers of old barn board (this was once an outside exposed gable), one layer of tongue and groove pine, one layer of chip- board, some shingles and that black board you put under them and the drywall painted apple green that I had put up a few years back. Sawing through these layers was like peeling back the layers of time. Each of those many nails had been driven by others in a different time so hopeful with their own new additions. There was no way to salvage the wood, so I decided to use it to boil down our maple sap this year.

I can’t believe that maple syrup season is already upon us! Sap season is the mark of the beginning of production for us unless you count planting seeds for the greenhouse that happens in late February. For me syrup is the first real harvest of food that goes from our land to our fridge. Those seeds will only come to fruition in some number of months from now so I prefer to count those chickens later.

I also knew of a pile of old cedar fence posts that were rotting in the woods at the back of our land that I thought would be great for boiling sap. We took the trailer back today over the frozen morning snow and filled it up with help from the kids. The wood was also covered with fencing staples and old fencing wire. Being cedar, it burns hot!

We try not to buy wood to boil the sap because it’s a good time to burn things that can’t be burned in our outdoor wood furnace. We scatter the ashes from that onto our fields and could not do this if it were full of nails. Our rig includes a pair of old stainless steel commercial sinks nested inside an old oil container on its side with the top cut out, and a door and chimney put into the sides. My husband was the handiworker and it cost us less than $50 for the set of sinks (the oil tank came from the dump). We used an old woodstove chimney. The syrup ends up slightly smoky tasting with this method and the sides of the sinks get a little burned so it is not one bit of fun to clean up but all in all it is a pretty effective method.

It takes anywhere from 5 to 20 hours to do a sink load of 170 L of sap which results in around 5L (over a gallon) of syrup. Seems to depend on the type of wood we use and the amount of draft in the air. Overcast days are the worst to boil, rainy days of course can be ineffective, and sunny, windy days are my favourite. We aim to do around 2-3 rounds in a season that results in 10-15L of syrup for ourselves (what we seem to use up no problem). Any extra makes excellent gifts but we have learned the hard way not to give it all away, however tempting it is to share it.

Once the sap is down to a sticky watery syrup consistency we haul it out (usually less than 8L) and do the rest inside the house on the stove. This step can take anywhere from 1 to 6 hours depending on how far we let it get down in the sinks. Some nights we have been known to not stoke the fire anymore once we go to bed, place plywood partially over the sinks and let whatever is left of the fire work overnight. One time we literally woke up to a vat of syrup already made for us! One more hour and it would have been lost and burned to the sides. This is the lazy mans method to not get up in the middle of the night to stoke it. We know it is ready by placing a small amount in a metal container in the freezer. If it is the right consistency within a few minutes when it is cool, it is ready. That’s how technical we get around here.

They say it is around 40L to make 1L of syrup but we find we get thick syrup with 35:1 or sometimes 30:1. This must be related to the kind of trees we have. The sugar maples too are rich with history. They line the winding road that our house is on and can be over 1 metre (1 yard) in diameter. The trees apparently had been planted by so-and-so’s greatgrandmother and I would guess they are well over 100 years old. As someone who has planted many kinds of trees around our property in hopes that one day there will be a story about them too, I love imagining that woman with her handful of seedlings (transplanted from elsewhere?). She is my hero and I visit with her every other day for a few weeks every year in March and April.

As the temperature is now diving below zero each night and rising into single digits (Celsius) during the day, we are in perfect sap running conditions. The season could last a couple of weeks or has gone as long as 6 weeks for us. It started March 1 last year but some years we don’t even start until early April. I have learned not to try to predict anything and just go with the flow (pun intended). We have around 30 taps set up and collect every other day or so, keeping it in a big fridge until we have enough to boil. The sap starts off light and gets darker and richer as the season goes on. When the buds start to break on the trees the season is over.

With all of the work it takes to make maple syrup you can see why the finished product is treated like liquid gold. I once underestimated a pot on the stove and ended up spending hours cleaning syrup out of my oven, under the elements and inside the pots and the pot drawer. It was one of my most devastating losses of the year!

Expenses each year include the replacement of a few buckets and spouts that have broken or cracked and a few cone paper filters for straining the syrup. As in all things farming, it takes a lot of time. But like many jobs it is hard to know when the clock is punched in or out. Especially when you’re having fun and doing what you like. We seal the syrup in 1L mason type jars. It’s not a bad deal for over $200 in syrup.

Year after year we have collected the sap with our children. First with a two month old baby strapped underneath our coats, then a one year old in a backpack, then a 2 year old with a newborn strapped under our coats, then a 3 and a 1 year old toddling along with us, and so on. This year was the first year my daughter is old enough to help pour out the buckets and hand me the hammers, the lids, the buckets, the spouts during the tapping season. All the while some number of dogs are attached to the stroller or wagon that has come with us. It is quite a party on the street!

My favourite part this year is letting the history of those fences that once kept animals on this very farm many moons ago reduce the sap along with the wood from my new (almost finished) passageway above the kitchen.

And that is how you turn history into something sweet.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Sacrifice

They say that bad things happen in threes. I don’t know who ‘they’ are and I don’t know who is tallying these things up but in my experience there is some truth to this. Is it because we are expecting it? Are we watching and counting from the moment one bad thing happens to us?

Two weeks ago I turned on our tap to find that there was no water pressure. Upon inspection Rob noticed that the hot water tank was leaking and there would be no water to the house until a new one was installed. At the time I had an oil change appointment scheduled in the nearest town where Rob had a meeting. Thinking I could maintain some semblance of productivity in our day, we kept our commitments and headed off to the big town. I bought my hot water tank ($350 with fittings, excluding the cost for installation as my dearest husband was to handle that task). With two excited children in tow we headed for my oil change. Not far into the appointment I was called in to talk to the mechanic. I asked if something was wrong. Yes, they told me. While I tried to keep my little ones from derailing the cars that were up on jacks and playing with the power tools they told me my brakes were gone and there was a rod about to snap that controlled steering. The estimate was $400.

After explaining that I was on my second emergency of the day, he told me it was probably safe enough to get to my local mechanic to do the repairs. I made it home with the tank and waited out the next 8 hours while my husband endured grueling conditions in our crawl space to bring our house back into water. As you may know, not having water to drink, wash hands, flush toilets, rinse potties, wash dishes, etc. etc. is very, very difficult if you are not used to it. I found myself rinsing my hands with ice and snow from outside to try to feel clean again. My sink was filled with congealed grease and dishes piled high (I’m not one to leave my dishes to hang out very long). The tension that was building subsided as we finally saw the return of a productive tap by nightfall. The other fun part was that our house uses radiant heat from an outdoor wood furnace. A good portion of this time we were also without heat and the damp winter air was starting to penetrate into my bones.

Another week passed and we braced ourselves for the season of great expenses. Every market gardener doles out the majority of their expenses in early spring as they purchase seeds, plastic mulch, pay market fees, heat their greenhouses and upgrade equipment as needed getting ready for a hopeful season ahead. This was that time for us. Credit cards were maxed and they were being stressed even more by our unexpected mishaps.

Fast forward a week to an office dinner party that Rob has organized for the dairy cooperative that he works for. Grandparents meet us in a quaint town central to all of the farmers to scoop up our children so that we can feast on local and organic fare with Rob’s colleagues. After a lovely, but distracted evening, we collected our tired selves to drive the 1.5 hours it took to get back home. In the morning we enjoyed an extra half hour of sleep without our kids (7:30am!) before we were needed for chores and getting on with a half day to ourselves before picking up the kids. Within minutes we discovered a very sad, limping puppy dog outside our door with porcupine quills marking a constellation across his face and a couple of dozen concentrated so heavily in his knee he could not walk. Sunday – no local vets – means a trip to the big city and emergency fees, of course.

Off we went with an uncomfortable, helpless doggie in the back of our van. Relief was upon him within a few hours and it was off to pick up the kids. We were accustomed to taking quills out with needle nose pliers ourselves (don’t try this at home because if they break off you are in deep doo doo) from calves and dogs but this time it was clear we needed assistance. $632.

I kid you not that these events happened during the time I was giving my supervisor the leave form stating that I would not be returning to work indefinitely. I was giving up my salary because we had decided we could ‘make it’ on one income. Was I being tested? Was this a sign that I was making a mistake? The form went out in the mail as I navigated these 3 huge (to us), unexpected bills.

A wise uncle weighed in on the situation. The broken hot water tank could have been found after our house had burned down. The van, including my children and I could have lost control of the road and been in a serious accident due to loss of brakes or steering. My dog’s misfortune could have equaled that of the woman at the vet’s office I heard wailing behind a closed door. She kept repeating ‘but he is always there when I get home.’ She would not be going home with her dog, not even for $600.

There was once a time that people believed (and maybe some still do) that sacrifices must be made to appease a jealous and angry God. Animals were killed in hopes that bad things would be kept at bay. If bad things were to happen in threes, perhaps you could control which 3 those were and spare your children, your family’s health or your sentimental possessions.

The sacrifice that I see worth making to what I think is a compassionate God is one of gratitude for the abundance that is bestowed upon us. I have heard tale (well, to be honest, it was Oprah in the latest Oprah magazine but I don’t usually like to incriminate people in my blog posts), that regularly expressing gratitude led to blessings multiplying. In her words: what you focus on expands. What does that say about bad things happening in threes.

As my first Lent approached I was wary of the idea that I would be giving up something. Deprivation for me has always led to an equal and opposite (or greater) binge. If I cut out chocolate, I would surely end up eating more than usual because of it. So I did something different. I wrote a letter to God telling Her that I would lean on Her instead of reaching for chocolate. I imagined that I might be complete and already have the forgiveness and acceptance that I continually hope that chocolate will bring. Mostly I admitted that I did not need something outside of myself to make me whole. That Great Love from a higher power did this already.

We are now close to 2 weeks into Lent. I have passed on every kind of chocolate in every corner that it has presented itself. And unlike every single time I have turned away from the elephant in the room in the past (not thinking of chocolate usually leads to thoughts of nothing but), I have felt entirely fulfilled in this ‘sacrifice’. Because this exercise to me was about learning to look in the right places for what I need in times of frustration, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, elation… Chocolate tastes so darn good on the tongue and who could go without all of those health benefits? But it doesn’t bring love. Only She can do that completely.

So in a way, I did sacrifice something to God. I gave Her my disillusionment. I let her have my stubborn, unyielding self-righteousness about thinking I can do this thing called life alone, if only until Easter Sunday. Technically I am able to feast on Sundays from now until Easter but my body is telling me otherwise. It wants to know whether I will choose feeling whole over feeling suffocated (which is what my drug of choice ultimately does).

And with this sacrifice, I write down my gratitude for the lives of my children, an intact vehicle in my driveway, a house still standing in the winds with water flowing to it and my body, my health and the health that blesses those I love.

For now, I suppose it is possible that I have used up my three bad things. And taken up a few mighty good ones too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Virtual Farm Tour

Living on a farm, we get a lot of offers from people to come and help. Often they want to show their children where food comes from. This includes everyone from city slickers to back-country folks. I guess we all have an interest in food in the end. We’ve not figured out yet how to accommodate the requests we get for tours or to come and work for the day. We do have respectful friends who we invite and we make our way through a series of tasks together. Having our own children with us when we work brings a different pace to the work. Other families seem to bring the workload to a screeching halt. We happen to have a diverse operation that runs on a relatively small scale across the board so it does make for good educational opportunities on the one level. On another level, our farm isn’t very representative of how food is generally produced these days.

I know that there is an idyllic vision out there of how it is to be on a farm. The wide open pastures with sleek animals grazing about, dogs running freely and chickens laying eggs in their tidy nest boxes. The barns are spotless with only one token cobweb for the star spider and there are healthy barn kitties running about lapping up milk from clean bowls. The row of apple trees is impeccably pruned and full of red, shiny apples. The fences have fresh paint on them and the well is always full of spring-fed, drinkable water. All of the equipment is neatly displayed and always functional.

On our farm, we often have to jump start the truck or the tractor. We are constantly repairing our fences with bandaid solutions using whatever is on hand (we ought to rebuild those fences some day soon). Although I prune the apple trees every year, they always seem to have too many branches. My barn houses many families of spiders, bats, mice, rats and you name it. My barn kitties smell of manure (of course they do, what did you think?) or disappear in the jaws of fishers or coyotes. My dogs run away if I don’t tie them up. My chickens lay their eggs in secret corners or under the cow’s manger no matter how much I re-teach them where their egg boxes are. Our well is always kicking up a drama – a whole blog post in itself – my favourite of which was the time it filled up with snakes that died and my laundry stank of rotten reptile for weeks. In the winter, my cows are splotched with manure. A few of my chickens have been pecked down to the skin around their necks by each other or the rooster we have. That’s just the way it goes.

Other times what you see is beautiful enough to take a photograph that will take your breath away. And I do take these pictures all the time, sometimes only in my mind.

Certain tasks are conducive to having a crew on hand. Planting thousands of strawberry plants, raising a barn, collecting sap, filling greenhouse pots with soil, maybe seeding or transplanting – all of these tasks are better shared with company. Unfortunately they are not always the most exciting tasks, they are often repetitive and insular and not representative of the ‘wide-angle’ view people are looking for. They do, however, show the continuous, hard work required on a farm. And for many jobs, explaining what is needed to a new helper can cost more time and effort than is gained.

That is not to say that showing people around the farm isn’t enjoyable. It surely is! We are proud of what goes on here and love to share it. The trouble is that if we obliged every request for a visit, we could have people here every day of the year. What is hard to relay to people is that this is a functioning place of work and that we are not set up to teach in the middle of our workday. Nobody would visit a lawyer in their office while they are up against a deadline and expect a tour of their job. And though the deadline looks a lot more like a crop of tomatoes needing harvesting or buckets of sap that will spoil if not boiled down, the conveyor belt just keeps on moving.

There is a fine balance required between enjoying the company of others on our farm and accomplishing what needs to get done in a day.

Of course, one way to deal with this would be to invite a slew of people out and show them around on an official farm tour day. Yet, that would involve having extra time to clean up the farm, a variety of organized, well-thought out stations to visit and visible structures to go with the plans that reside in our heads on future improvements. Basically, we never get caught up around here. As soon as things are tidied, made safe and clean again there is a whole other round of poop waiting in the wings.

I don’t know how to reconcile this. It is important to share the knowledge of farming to anyone who will listen. Before I moved to a farm, I did not understand what it took to grow food. I never knew what a combine was or what the difference between round and square bales were. I didn’t know what rye looked like, or wheat or oats. I couldn’t tell when a squash was ready to harvest. I also thought a farm was a great place to bring my dog for a run – our experience with this has led to dead chickens in our yard and horses being chased through fences so that we have banned canine visitors.

I also never knew that chore could be used as a verb – to chore. And that a man oughtta marry any woman that chores with him.

But what is true for us right now, perhaps because we have too much else going on, we don’t have the time to make a farm tour happen properly and safely. And ironically if we organized a tour at this time, we would not be able to get through the essential tasks that we have on our plates. I don’t think that is what anyone wants to see happen. It also often comes to wanting to use our down time for rest and quiet family time. Rare but precious.

What is tricky to explain to our unannounced visitors is that our work schedule for the day may well go until 1am as it is. With the visit, even if ‘help’ is included here, now it might go until 2am. The wheels keep on turning with or without us.

My husband has a great strategy for the unexpected farm visitors. He just keeps doing what he does and tells people they are welcome to come alongside him while he works. Rob is a patient man. He is one who easily goes with the flow, takes what comes and isn’t caught up in predictability the way I am.

So if I knew how to keep on top of things and remain sane while inviting you all out at your convenience for a tour and some tea, I would. Until then, I’ll work on finding a nice way to say that the best way to help is to respectfully accept that the farm tour will be a virtual one, in written word, here in a blog.

And we'll keep bringing food to the farmer’s market as a result.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Alternative Middle

I used to work in an 'alternative' bookstore in downtown Ottawa. Part of the reason that I got the job there was because I knew the owner. It was not because I knew a lot about the subjects inside those books. I was a city girl who enjoyed my daily exercise and daily dose of popular television (my favourite, Oprah). When customers would come in asking what book would best lead to healing their heart chakra, I would tilt my head and bite my tongue to keep from telling them they should go for a run.

In time I got to know those books, their authors and the subjects to the point that I was able to recommend some on a few of the topics. I didn’t get to the edge of ‘out there’ but I did wade in deep and found myself intrigued with what people believed about the world. There were books on fairies, angels, healing with sound, colour, light, stones and fasting, chakras, Sufism, Buddhism, Rudolph Steiner/Waldorf, yoga, vegan cooking, juicing, meditation, astrology, Wiccan practices, homeopathy, women’s studies…you get the idea. This was not the store to find best sellers nor could you find much about ‘western’ religions. As far as alternative thinking went, however, this was the popular place to be. The pop star Alanis used to come in and buy herself a library of books, often many copies of each to give to others. So when popular people preach the alternative, does that render it mainstream?

What turned me away from organized religion for many years were the folks that tried to convince me that I was going to be in big trouble if I did not get the proper belief system in place. Religion was presented as a private club with a secret code, and once I was part of it, everything would be all right. But if I did not join, whatever was on the other side of the hidden curtain would make me very, very sorry. Like a long row of black market salesmen in an alleyway, I grew weary and untrusting of anyone who tried to sell me something without first showing me the goods.

Recently I discovered that there is no hidden curtain. There is no secret code and there is no private club. Those that whispered ‘psst’ in the dark alleyways were only ever selling a knock-off anyway. I started to talk to people who didn’t believe they needed to sell me on anything. They would walk with me wherever I wanted to go until I found my way home. They would show me the way if I asked, but they would never tell me what to do.

It’s funny how much easier it is to have an opinion about a raving lunatic than it is to ask a reserved, respectful person why they do what they do. It turns out the silent ones who were nodding their heads at me when I said I didn’t go to church were not judging me after all. They were only letting me find my way. And the ones who tried to convince me of my doom got all of my attention.

I once met a fellow hitchhiking on his way to protest on a logging road on the west coast. Another old growth forest was at risk of being logged. He explained how he always went to these protests and managed to get a lot of media attention for his efforts. Then he went on to list the numerous reasons why clearcuts were bad. As someone who was heading up to do some treeplanting, I understood the ‘treehugger’ side of things, but I was open to discussion and thoroughly believed that employment for folks was always part of the consideration.

As a student of biology, I had my points to make about the importance of biodiversity and preserving ecosystems as a whole but I absolutely did not believe a word that came out of this guy’s mouth. For example, he explained in great detail how bears were unable to travel across clearcuts and were, therefore, cut off from surrounding habitat. As someone who has been chased across clear cuts by bears, I didn’t agree that they did not have the stealth to climb over debris. Their ability to do so kicked butt, in my opinion. My bipedal navigating was a clumsier site to see, I assure you. And here was the guy who was making it onto television.

The point here is that the wacky people always seem to make great news. In every field you will find extremes of people who do not play by the rules, live outside of the box, cheat, lie, pressure, rape, pillage, sensationalize, rant or choose the alternative route. This is definitely true for farming. It is true for parenting. It turns out it is also true for religion. But somewhere in the middle you will find the average everyday folk using common sense to the best of their ability and passing down stories and knowledge in the fairest way they know how. These people don’t make good television.

So I have learned not to believe what I hear on popular television or books easily. But that doesn’t mean we should swing off into left field assuming everything alternative is the best option. Somewhere in the middle are the regular folks, doing regular things and changing the world for doing it.

And every now and again you might see one of those extreme people making the way for the rest of us to follow in time. I have never once burned a bra, but I am grateful to those who did so many decades ago. I don’t assume I’ll find truth just because it is the belief of the masses but I’m not going to ignore popular thinking either. I also think that new ideas are worth paying attention to but it is necessary to ask questions and consider the sources.

Somewhere in the middle of both extremes, you will find me. Raving lunatic part of the day and regular folk the rest of the time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Other Room

I once told a good friend about a bin I had been storing with pants that had fit me prior to having children. As I am a tall girl with odd proportions, it is not easy to come by pants that fit me properly and when I find a pair that do, I hold on to them and never let them go. I keep them even if I am a whole bunch of sizes bigger. My friend kindly said to me that I should consider getting rid of my bin of pants because if I should ever become that size again, I may want to celebrate by getting myself a new pair of pants. She is so right.

I have a very real dream that has visited me regularly while I sleep since we bought our house and farm 7 years ago. Somewhere hidden in my house I find a door that opens up to another room. Sometimes the room is vast and full of potential uses or already filled with excellent things. Sometimes it is as simple as an extra closet or a hallway that I had not noticed before. In every case, I spend the whole dream wondering why I have lived in this house so long and not found this space. I always appreciate the new addition, yet can’t help but wonder how I missed something so obvious in my very own home.

As my year of unpaid leave from my job draws to a close in a handful of weeks I have to make a decision whether I will return to my job or not. I made a lunch date with my supervisor this week hoping that I would come to some kind of final choice before the meeting. Minutes before I saw her, I still found myself going over options in my mind. I usually make decisions very quickly – taking risks and trying new things is not hard for me – so the fact that 50 long blog posts and an endless amount of mind chatter later, I have still not found a solution boggles my mind. There is no easy way to turn on the staircase that you have worked so hard to make it up and descend back down to start your climb somewhere else.

What my job offered was a place to go to that I was paid to sit and think and read and offer my advice, to discuss projects with other adults, to worry only about feeding myself, and learn what was going on in the world while applying a bit of myself to it. At home, I talk to myself all day long, prepare meals for all manner of living things constantly, run circles around myself to keep things in order and often don’t know what goes on in the world until 3 days after it happened. These are two very different existences. My job also offers a pay cheque that provides not only additional security to my husband’s income, but the ability to spend freely on things like holidays, gadgets and home repairs. Because it is a federal government position, it also offers financial stability for retirement that cannot be matched by any other employer as well as health care and other benefits.

I do know that having the option to quit one’s job and forgo a pay cheque and the associated benefits is a total luxury. I am blessed with this opportunity it is true. This decision comes with responsibility, however, to run the household on less money and make productive use of my time doing things we might otherwise have paid someone to do. I have come to believe that saving money is a full time job. This is especially true with a couple of kids and a farm. I am expected to be resourceful and frugal in place of that pay cheque. If I have learned anything over the past 11 months it is that I do not need more money in my life. What I need is time. And time is what having less money has given me. Put another way, earning money took me away from my children, my home, my life, my husband and eventually my peace of mind. Nothing I buy could possibly be worth giving that up. And not spending money, it turns out, is the exact same difference as earning money.

Giving up my position at work (which is what I did) was like giving up my bin of favourite pants. I had worn those pants well, and although some days they were too tight or got dirty or someone laughed at me for wearing them, I began to feel comfortable in those pants. How can I throw that all away for an uncertain future? What if I never find pants like that again? But I had to admit the only truth that mattered was that the pants just didn’t fit me anymore. And like my friend says, if there ever comes a day where I am ready to jump into pants like that again, perhaps I will reward myself with a new pair. Maybe there are better pants out there when the time is right down the road.

Today I very literally began to make a hole in the wall in a room above our kitchen that we only use as a storage attic. There is a very narrow, dangerous staircase that I can barely make it up holding onto a toddler so I only manage to get up there once a month to find something or throw something up there that I won’t need for a while. The hole is going to be a doorway between our new addition and this attic on the second floor. Right now the only connection to the new addition is through one single doorway on the main level. We had always intended to join the children’s bedroom with the ‘storage’ room above the kitchen, but knew it would be years before we ever had the time or energy to make it a priority. The day has now come. Once the doorway is made, I will remove the staircase from the kitchen and build myself a much-needed pantry in my tiny kitchen.

So I can’t help but notice that the day I opened up access to a new room has come on the heels of leaving my job more permanently. If I could make sense of my dreams perhaps that was what they were telling me all along. Did they want me to look beyond the obvious into a space that was waiting there all along for me to use and enjoy? It does feel very cathartic to clean out the space and throw away a mountain of things to make room for a new beginning. Its not that there is anything wrong with the things I am moving along, it is just that they no longer fit into my life anymore. Do I feel relieved to have made this decision? Yes, but not in the way you would think. Rather than removing a burden, it feels a lot more like opening up a space and the relief is related to an ability to breathe into new possibility. Entering that space feels like coming home.

And yes, I did still keep that bin full of pants that don’t fit me. Some things take a little longer to let go of, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lard – The Underappreciated Fat

When my pigs came back home last fall I was surprised to see how much fat the butcher left on the pork chops and roasts. We had chosen a place that preferred the ‘old way’ of doing up pork that I had absolutely no familiarity with. My usual reaction to a huge hunk of fat on the side of my meat is to cut it off and throw it into my dog’s bowl. That was until I learned about the health benefits of pork lard. Yup, you heard me right. Now I happily remove those strips of fat with a smile on my face knowing that I have something very precious in my midst.

Firstly, when you raise pigs outside (with access to cover of course, but giving them the ability to spend some time in the sunshine) they will synthesize Vitamin D into their skin and become an excellent natural source of that elusive vitamin. Note that most pork you buy from stores will not have this benefit so you will likely have to seek your pigs from specialty shops or directly from farmers. Over 70% of our children have a deficiency in Vitamin D. It is also not possible to make Vitamin D from the sun during our winter months at this northern latitude so we are at further risk of not getting enough of this essential nutrient.

The controversy over fats these days is extremely complicated but I’m going to try to outline a simple version the way that I see it. I am not a nutritionist or a doctor but I do fancy myself as someone who can sense when something just isn’t right, even if I can’t put a finger on it. What this means is that I get really uncomfortable with companies who tinker with my food for a profit or for ease of storage, transport or increases in yield. Those traits in and of them selves are fine. But don’t be adding funny stuff I can’t pronounce and telling me it won’t hurt me if you’re not sure. And if it makes me feel awful, lethargic, moody or bloated, I don’t think I should keep eating it no matter what you say. I guess there is something to be said for intuition and common sense (which isn’t so common anymore, I know).

So here goes:
There are 4 kinds of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Every fat or oil contains a mix of these but the dominant one will govern the characteristics of the fat.

Everyone seems to be in agreement about trans fats - or partially hydrogenated oils (often found in vegetable shortening or margarine). They are bad as they increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol levels in the body. Partial hydrogenation is done to solidify an oil. A fully hydrogenated oil acts more like a saturated fat and is considered less harmful than trans fats but it won't be 'spreadable' (what makes margarine so attractive to people). I learned that mixing butter and olive oil half and half and storing it in the fridge gives the same result without the unknown process leading up to it. It wasn't so very long ago that I thought shortening and lard were the same difference. Shame on me. To confuse things more, naturally occurring trans fats such as Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) found in dairy, and higher in grass-fed animals, has been shown to have health benefits - the difference being that nature came up with this configuration.

Next comes polyunsaturated (eg. flaxseed, sunflower). They are healthy and contain all of those essential fatty acids we hear are so good for us (omega-3 and omega-6). They’ve been shown to improve immune system functioning and actually decrease risk of disease. They seem to be the darling kid that can do no wrong. Except they aren’t stable in heat so you can’t cook or bake with them. An altered fat is the scariest kind of fat of all. Burned or smoking, rancid or compromised by light – for me, this is exactly where my fear of fats comes out to play. These behaviours mark the point that toxins (often carcinogens) are being formed.

Monounsaturated (olive oil, avocado, canola) are also excellent and have been shown to reduce the bad dude cholesterol (LDL), while increasing good (HDL) cholesterol. You can cook with these oils but best to cook with olive oil on a lowish heat. Canola can withstand a higher heat before it starts to turn.

Now here is the one touted as the greatest villain (after transfats) – saturated fats. These are animal fats and are the most stable in heat: dairy (cheese, butter, cream), beef tallow, pork lard, and chicken fat. They have been linked to heart disease and high cholesterol and weight gain and yet, they are the ones we ate for thousands of years without trouble. It is only in recent decades that we are seeing increased rates of cancers and heart problems. Something is awry here I believe.

Technically pork lard isn't even a saturated fat as it is predominantly made up of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. The majority of its composition is monounsaturated fat which is my favourite choice because it has health benefits AND the ability to remain stable in heat. In addition to lard being one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D, it contains no trans-fats.

There are actually many studies out there that show high fat diets can be linked to weight loss. This kind of information could turn the diet industry on its head.
Basically we’ve been told for decades now that low fat or no fat this or that was always the best choice. Now very controversial information is pointing to the fact that saturated fats may not have been the culprit all along. There is agreement that some kind of fat was being linked to cancer, cholesterol and heart disease but on more careful examination, it may well have been the more ‘altered’ fats that were causing all of the havoc. Fats in their natural states, unfettered by heat may actually improve one’s state of health. If nothing else, a deficiency in certain nutrients often carried in fats and oils can cause far greater concern.

Note now that French fries in fast food joints are made with high heat vegetable oils that should be changed daily due to rancidity or smoking (although I'm guessing this doesn't happen). Beef tallow was the choice of old and those tanks could apparently last a month or so before the oils went funky - again, the benefit of the oil not being altered with heat. The change was made because it was thought that ‘vegetable’ oil was the healthier choice. Sounds better, doesn't it? Look more closely...

I am not about to dive into the deep end of an argument that is going on between people who spend their lives studying these things. Their positions are valuable. But my common sense keeps returning to the same point. Please don’t tinker with my food. Please just leave it as it exists naturally as much as possible. Because I am not only afraid of what that will do to it and consequently, do to my body, but I am also concerned about what will be taken away from the processing and rearranging of these foods.

Against the better judgment of many, I render my hunks of pork fat every time I cook up the pork. First I cut the fat into cubes about 1 inch thick (even if it is just 2 pork chops worth). Please note that lard made from pastured raised pig is what brings on the benefits - I wouldn't bother with any pig fat you don't know the history of (most large stores sell 'barn'/factory raised pork). I place them in a pot on medium heat stirring them about often enough so that a layer of oil starts to form under the cubes. Once this happens, they won’t stick as much. Some will put these cubes in the oven on a cooking sheet for 20 minutes at 375F – I’ve not tried this method before. Basically you want those fat cubes to turn into little shriveled crunchies floating in a sea of oil. When that happens (and before it burns), pour the oil over a metal strainer or funnel into a jar holding the crunchy bits back. Some folks like to put these in salads or eat them as snacks. They are cracklings. Not my treat.

Leave the oil on the counter covered at room temperature overnight and then put it into the fridge once it has solidified. Use it in piecrust or to stir fry things. It also works well to grease up the corn tortillas for enchiladas. Pork lard actually has very little taste (despite that smell that rendering the lard creates in your house), and can be used for sweet or savory. Mostly I just use it up like a vitamin supplement because I know how hard it is to find a natural source of Vitamin D these days.

That’s all for now. Don’t go binging on every fat you can find now and blame me for your weight gain (when I touted my whole milk spiel – another blog post - to a friend he gave me angst for gaining 10 pounds in a week from trying it). But do consider seeking out natural fat sources, including those from animals, again. They may not be the bad guys we’ve made them out to be.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rules for Children

One of the most important issues facing our world today is the need to secure a healthy, consistent, fairly-distributed, environmentally-friendly and humanely-raised source of food for the future. We are a society that depends on oil at a rate that can’t be sustained, makes land use decisions with only the short term in mind, and wastes literally tonnes of food every day (either by throwing it in landfills or into our already satiated and overweight bodies). There are not a whole lot of us who respect food, know where it comes from or care what it is really doing to our bodies (good or bad). In addition, conflicting information is constantly circulating and will confuse even those with the best intentions.

After a discussion on facebook about food production, I jotted down some rules that my tiny mind thought to be helpful as we go forward as producers of food. As a mother of 2 small children, I have come to rely heavily on outlining rules.

Yet as I made my list, I quickly became aware that the rules that apply to food production could well be the same rules that are used at our children's day care facility. If there was to be such a list posted on the door in crayon, here is what it would say:

1. Wash your hands. Keep the environment clean and don’t contaminate the play area. Do not use toxic materials.
2. Prevent illness by ensuring proper nutrition, regular fresh air and movement. Use common sense when determining which foods are good and which are not.
3. Treat illness or disease with appropriate medicine. Stay away if you are sick. Consider what worked for your grandmother.
4. Ensure a proper ratio of caregivers to dependents. Provide space that allows for an appropriate density of individuals in every room.
5. Don’t take more than you need and leave some for others. Don’t take or destroy things that don’t belong to you.
6. Listen to your elders. Obey the authorities but ask questions out loud if you do not understand.
7. If a new food is put in front of you, try it first before you say it is yucky.
8. Don’t call each other names or push each other around. Especially if you are one of the bigger kids.
9. Dispose of waste in proper containers. Designate an area for the use of the potty. Clean up accidents properly.
10. Incorporate joy, play, exploration and creativity into every day. Allow children to be children. As Joel Salatin would say: celebrate their ‘kidness’ (although he usually refers to chickenness or pigness but you get the idea).

I do not for one second mean to imply that taking care of a cow is anywhere near the same thing as taking care of a human child. But humour me for one second, open your mind and imagine this set of guiding principles on a farm.

I think that we all need to take responsibility for our choices and stop judging the other guy. We have to find out everything we can from a variety of sources and make educated yet intuitive choices. Further, we should lean more on a higher power or some kind of natural cycle. After all, whether we believe in it or not, it has been ticking along without our ‘help’ for thousands of years and like our grandmothers, probably learned a few things along the way that we don’t know yet. We should question everything we hear and don’t take any information for granted – whether from a shocking documentary or directly out of your friendly neighbourhood farmer’s mouth.

It’s child’s play really. Though I wouldn’t guess for a minute it could be that simple.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Raising Meat Birds

the chicks at a few days old in late May
graduating to a modified baby crib turned upside down in the barn in early June
out to pasture in mid June - this mobile pen was moved once a day - this way they got bugs and a variety of grass and weren't eaten by predators
the fateful day in late July at 12 weeks old, approximately 6 pounds

The Whole Chicken

My grandmother enjoyed food. She lived to be almost 96 and ate with great vigour her entire life. She was a simple cook and made the same dinner every single time we ate at her house.- meatballs, boiled potatoes and peas. Every single time. The Dutch have been better known for their cleaning skills than their culinary skills. As a child, I recall being slightly afraid of sitting beside her at meal times. She would consume entire apple cores and gnaw the meat off of bones in a manner that could have been set to music.

I also came from a generation of abundance. Our eating culture in the west reminds me of the grizzly bear’s fishing habits during the salmon run. At the beginning of the season these bears voraciously consume the entire salmon and as many as they can catch. Towards the end as the number of salmon far outweigh the amount of available stomach space, you see them sleepily grabbing fish out of the water and biting off only the head, chucking the rest of the fish back into the stream.

Many decades ago it was considered decadent to eat white bread. Who needs to bother with the gritty bran and strong-flavoured germ when you can literally nip off the head of the grain and eat the more palatable parts (preferably with the crusts cut off). Further, there is no need to be concerned with cheese that might go to waste when a jar of processed cheese business will keep in the fridge for more than a year. This was considered progress to have food so easy to prepare and store and eat (and eat and eat and eat). As a kid in the 1970s, I used to love Cheez Whiz sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, if only because we never got them at home. My mother was a whole foods cook of her era that didn’t get onto the processed food bandwagon.

On the heels of my vegetarianism (likely caused by the graphic way my grandmother ate), I made my initial foray back into chicken by doing what most thirty something bachelorettes did. I bought two neatly displayed chicken breasts, packaged without any clues as to where the clean, white meat had come from. My kind of meat. It could have been grown on a plastic scaffold a la Margaret Atwood for all I cared.

I stayed this way until last year. Seven years into living on a farm surrounded by meats of my own raising, dairy and vegetables of all kinds, I still had not overcome my fear of the whole chicken. I had never once taken apart a carcass of any bird in my life. I just couldn’t. My grandmother’s sound affects still rang in my ears.

Yet the summer she died, I made a commitment to grow some pastured meat birds. I built a mobile pen, bought some day old chicks, set myself up with the heat lamp, the watering equipment and everything else I needed to get some whole birds into my freezer. Raising the little gaffers and participating in the day of their slaughter was not half as daunting for me as carving and eating it.

If you’re like me and are unfamiliar with the parts and pieces that make up an entire chicken, here are a few tips for making the bird go a long way. Our family of 4 (2 plus 2 halves really) eats one chicken a month. We manage to eat chicken often but it takes us the month to get through the 5-6 pound bird. If you’re a real farmer’s wife type (city-dwelling kind or no), then you need not read on. You’re the one who has been laughing at me for being such a phony Farm Mama, aren’t you?

First, I thaw the bird in the fridge for a couple of days. Around two hours shy of when I want to eat I put the bird breast side up in the oven at 375F for an hour. Then I flip it over and cook it until my thermometer inserted deep into the chicken breast reads 160F (often only an additional 30-45 minutes - go to 170F if you want to be sure but it will be more dry). For dinner that night, I carve off some breast meat and we eat just plain meat with some sides. I then stick the whole pot in the fridge as I get lazy in the evenings with the plan to take off the meat and make soup stock the next day.

It takes about 15 minutes to tear the meat off the legs and wings (unless you have someone in your household who, like my grandmother, who prefers meat off of bones), clear the meat from the back, sides and breast. I put all of the meat in a container and stick it in the fridge until inspiration strikes again. Then I take the carcass, wing and leg bones and boil them for a number of hours in the roasting pan with water. Once the stock has boiled, I use a flat ladle with small holes to sift through the bits and pull out bones, skin and inedible parts. I keep the dog’s bowl handy at my feet during this process (for skin and cartilage but not bones). If you can let it cool down enough, wading through with your fingertips is the best way to break up the final bits and find sneaky little bones and cartilage. If I already have a slew of chicken soup in the freezer, I ladle the stock into jars and freeze it for other soups, to add to shepherd’s pie or make gravy. I plan to make a round of chicken enchiladas with the extra shredded chicken that will overwhelm my stock jars.

The rest of my ‘cleaned’ chicken pieces will be distributed evenly into three medium sized Ziploc bags and I'll throw it in the freezer. One bag will get chopped onto nachos with cheese, peppers, onions and olives, sour cream and guacamole on the side. Another bag will go into a chicken pot pie or Chicken a la King or stew or a stir fry (usually two dinners out of that one). And the last bag likely gets tossed together with some mayonnaise, onions, celery, peppers, cucumber and mustard to put inside a tortilla wrap with some cheese (2-3 lunches for 2 out of this bag). This works well in a pinch when an unexpected guest arrives for lunch.

I determined the cost of raising an approximately 6 pound bird on partial grain and partial forage (grass, bugs etc.) to be around $10 each (it will probably be cheaper this year as there won’t be the same set up costs). That’s a whole lot of chicken for $10. Then there is the additional gain of the unbeatable taste and nutritional benefits from this bug-eating beast and its browner, fattier pieces.

Here is some more on this from the Radical Homemaker guru herself, Shannon Hayes. Included here is great information about the definition, value and use of ‘grass-fed’ chicken.

My grandma would have surely partook and she would be so proud.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Finding an Audience Organically

Out of interest I bought a magazine about writing which included articles on how to get published, how to get an agent, how to get your blog read and so on and so on. It was an interesting read but I found myself uninspired by the whole process. I know I like to write, whether masses of people read what I write seems to be a secondary concern. It is, however, important to me that a small group of interested people is reading. Also it is important that I am as honest and truthful as I can manage about the process of mothering, farming, aging, creating, cooking and seeking higher powers. As a goal, that seems plenty to me. I didn’t read that anywhere in that magazine.

Last year, Sarah Harmer, one of my favourite singer/songwriters from Kingston, Ontario, released a CD (Oh, Little Fire) after a number of years of being out of the spotlight. From what I can gather from friends on facebook and in my opinion, it could well be her best CD yet. Her new CD literally played in my car player for 6 months straight, whether my children were with me or not. After a far too long bout of listening to ‘Best of Both Worlds’ by Miley Cyrus, over and over and over, this was a welcome release for us all.

What I found interesting was that I later learned that Sarah Harmer had done what few artists are brave enough to do these days when she finished her new album. In a world where music is all about internet ‘hits’ and concert ticket sales, she didn’t push it and she didn’t tour. She did a few shows and held a basic presence more reminiscent of the mid 90s (when she released her first with her band Weeping Tile). It is hard to remember the time before the internet swept the music business off of its feet with the beginning of Napster (file sharing/stealing software), You Tube, My Space etc.. In my view, she promoted this new piece of stellar art organically. This is by far one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time and I bet it is getting just the right amount of listening by just the right folks.

At the beginning of her much anticipated follow-up to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ – in another memoir called ‘Committed’ - Elizabeth Gilbert takes the time to make what appears to be an apology to her audience for having written the book that became one of the best selling books of 2006. Prior to writing these two memoirs, Gilbert had written some excellent works of fiction with small, loyal audiences, mostly and ironically about very strong male characters in typically male oriented environments. They are great pieces of fiction and the fact that she pulled off one of the most popular Chick Lit books in history seems to surprise her most of all.

Organic farming is about letting things happen naturally as much as possible. You grow a certain thing in a specific place and try to work together with the land to make it happen. That’s my take on it anyway. I have to admit that as a mother, writer, whatever-you-wanna-call-it, I can’t imagine why in the world I would approach any kind of creative project differently than I do farming.

What inspires me most is that it seems that one of my favourite writers and one of my favourite songwriters believe in the value of a small, relevant audience. I don’t know how one’s marketing approach reflects on quality of work. When I did my short stint as a singer/songwriter, the act of promoting my music killed my ability to write songs which was the one thing I enjoyed doing the most. I also learned that without creation, the performances and promotion alone had a very negative effect on the quality of my life.

I was living my life in strange towns, late at night, in places that I wouldn’t normally hang out, away from the people I most cared about. I tried to tweak the process so that the lifestyle would be more in line with how I wanted to live (outdoors, in the middle of the day) by seeking out daytime, outdoor festival type gigs but even that left me homeless and alone.

So despite all of the fabulous advice this writing magazine has given me, I have to admit that I’m just going to keep planting my little seeds on this little blog in whatever way I am inspired to do. All I can hope is that I am reaching out serendipitously to people who matter because they relate to what I am saying, not because I tweetered (Twittered?) my head off about it all.

Maybe one day I’ll feel compelled to seek a larger audience. Until then I will just keeping doing what I do and let things happen naturally.

Thanks for reading. You know who you are.