Category Archives: Motherhood and Farming

Animals off Farm

photo 1The alpacas and kitty have left the farm. A friend took two of our girls down on Sunday, and we hauled the other two down to her yesterday. This is a good move for our alpaca friends, but it was hard to say goodbye after so many kissy and derpy faced moments shared with our four-legged friends. They have gone to live with the Shetlands, which made for a fun experience watching them adjust to life with sheep neighbors.

On the way back through town, we stopped again at the farm and picked up Watson, who appeared confused about the missing alpacas in his domain. He wasn’t terribly happy about the prospect of being in the van, but he quickly snuggled into daddy’s lap and is adjusting well.

photo 4 (1)As for us, as we drove away from the alpacas, whose ears were alert and forward, watching us carefully back down the drive, I felt a pang of anxiety. It was the realization that for the first time in a very long time, we are not farming. Not really, at least. And while I know this is temporary, it was a strange realization.

We leave Sunday for New York to close on the house. And while there, we’ll be visiting a couple of farms and families we’ve met along the way. It’ll help to focus on the next step, but in these quiet few weeks before the big move, it also gives us time to really reflect on these past four years. What a strange and wondrous ride it has been. photo 4

As we walked away from the alpaca enclosure, Chris put his arm around me, leaned in
close and said, “Now, the next leg of this journey really begins.” And I am reminded of the of the following:

“But what if I fail of my purpose here? It is but to keep the nerves at strain, to dry one’s eyes and laugh at a fall, and baffled, get up and begin again.” -Robert Browning

photo 3

Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

photo 5
Identifying cool mushrooms…

June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

Something from Nothing

DSC_0026Ten years ago, I was living in the rural outskirts of Traverse City, building garden beds as a leisurely summer activity with my three toddlers. I could never have imagined how much my life would change in the coming decade. By the end of that summer, I began feeling ill with trouble breathing and nightmares about dying. In September of that year I was diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma and began immediate treatments, lasting into the following year.

Little did I realize that a single event, a phone call that I picked up while standing at the kitchen counter, in which a surgeon very plainly announced the diagnosis with little emotion in his voice, that my life as a farmer would truly begin. Not out of a desire to farm, specifically (although I have always wanted this life), but out of a need to find answers; alternatives to biocides used in fruit production.

This morning, I looked out at the calm waters of Lake Michigan and the sunlight spilling
over the hilltop through the windows, and felt my heart swell for the little apple whips beginning their first full season as individual trees. These trees represent so much more than the salvation of a single apple variety. They photo 4 (1)are also the culmination of a decade’s long effort toward restorative agriculture. Progressing toward a desire to save not only rare apples, but also to satisfy my own desire to see my children play among the orchard trees the way I once did as a child, but free from the worry of toxins.

Farmers, generally, whether they spray or use alternative growing methods, are some of the best people I’ve ever known. And this little travelling orchard is representative of not only my hope for the future, but of my admiration for my fellow farmers. I know the struggles we each endure regularly, the set-backs and failures that make this business challenging, and the pioneering spirit that keeps it all moving forward. Because this business of growing is as much about growing food as it is growing from within.

Comfortably Numb

housewife-1940s-washing-dishesI seldom get very personal on this site, unless it’s in the expressed failings on the farm, which are a regular part of our farm-grooming. Lately, though, taking up more of my time than those pesky alpacas are the concerns for my mother.

A few weeks ago, she traveled downstate to attend a meeting related to another family matter, when she lost her balance at the top of a flight of wooden stairs. Unfortunately, her head broke the fall and many of the bones supporting the right side of her face, along with her arm, were broken.

Yesterday afternoon she underwent one of the first of a few surgeries to reconstruct her face. Her doctor described it as the second worst displacement of the orbital floor he had ever seen, and said they pushed the limits of the surgery in hoping for a positive outcome. She did well during the surgery, but in coming out of the anesthesia-induced fog, she was in a world of pain. Her vein had collapsed, not allowing the pain medicine to enter. There was panic. After a few hours, the problem was corrected, multiple IV starts made. And we were finally permitted an opportunity to see her.

At that point, the new IV failed and there was a rush to locate another viable vein. Nurses ended up bringing in an ultrasound to locate a vein that would allow her to receive relief from what I can only imagine is horrific pain.

This was the first time I had really seen vulnerability in my mother, and witnessed our roles reversed so necessarily in those moments when the threaded fragility of her veins threatened to unnerve her. I had a very hard time sleeping, having so recently lost my grandparents and pushing out thoughts of my parents’ own mortality to the far-reaches of my brain.

In the sleeplessness that followed, I thought about the love we feel for our babies when they are born – that unconditional, unwavering love you feel looking into your child’s eyes and knowing you will be there for them for the rest of their lives. There’s a vulnerability in that child that you feel an urgency to protect, nurture, while fostering in them a sense of independence as they grow. In growing old, it seems we play that role again, only with the familiar faces who nurtured us and taught us to be these healthy adults, seeing the vulnerability and knowing it is our turn- as if all the rocking and cradling and nurturing is grooming for the care we will provide to those who cared for us.

So much to contemplate these days, and the sleep deprivation is definitely catching up! In the spirit of her comfort and relief, I’m thinking a little Pink Floyd is apropos…

Vunerable Courageous

I just recovered from a morning of home-schooling and crazy toddler interactions which typically include repetitive games, multiple readings from the same storybook, and wiping of butts after poohs. (And you thought you were reading an ordinary farm post). I love my kids, but damn, sometimes I need a break in the other room, while they play outside or do anything that doesn’t involve the crazy din that regularly overwhelms my senses.

It’s not them; it’s me. It’s this year. This crazy year of losses and giving up and holding out hope. It eats at me.

I’ve never had trouble admitting vulnerability. This year, as I watched trees and garden die from drought and voles, had to deal with a run-away flock, and lost our broilers to two different predation incidents, then some of our layers, too, then my back, I began to feel vulnerable. I shared. I told our story. Didn’t hide from it. Tried to embrace losses with lessons gained. I’m strong; I can take it.

Then came the alpaca. The four gentle souls, who though timid in their new surroundings, walked beside me in trust. Something in my soul reignited. Something I felt with the sheep and in planting each of the nearly two hundred apple trees by hand. It was a feeling of hope. And I think I had lost it somewhere in the settling dust of this season.

This year highlighted many beautiful things about the people who visit the farm. Visitors helped carry buckets up the long hill to water, volunteers worked to plant and tend guilds, friends and family came on my birthday to whitewash the entire sheep barn, and I wasn’t alone in planting those 200 hundred trees.

What went right: This year we planted an orchard with more than 31 antique apple varieties, then planted two hundred apple whips within the orchard, which we also helped graft, that will become part of an orchard restoration project within the boundaries of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore (80% of the grafts took and are thriving). We raised sheep, chickens, processed our own fiber from start to finish, helped plaster the farmhouse, hosted multiple classes and workshops in fiber and permaculture, worked with the Edible Trails project to design the DeYoung Trail garden, launched the Permaculture Progress online publication, and had a little courage left over for alpaca. This doesn’t account for the time we volunteered on other farms, or the work unrelated to farming, the parenting, and the balancing of two properties.

And yet, I was constantly reminded of what I did not do. By people who were probably well-intended, but unaware. Comments that, isolated, do little to affect, but in sequence are grating. The one that surprised me the most – brought me so close to the edge – always came on the heels of my admittance to the awareness of where I fell short of my own expectations. It was the question that punched my gut every single time. “Oh yeah? When is your lease up?”

Vultures? Or maybe they’re intending mercy. Hard to say. But it did nothing to encourage. I found myself second-guessing, trying to appease others, worrying and slipping into a haze of overwhelming depression. Had I failed?

How could I even expect to answer that question?! It’s far too soon. The trees are newly planted. I am a student of my own process. I am one woman shouldered by a wonderful many. I am vulnerable, but I am also strong. I am the pioneer who is near starvation seeking out that one last chance at growing grain. Maybe not so desperate in reality, but in heart.

When asked at the fiber conference what it was we needed as farmers to get a fiber-shed off the ground, I answered simply, “Courage.” It’s the common theme interwoven within the vulnerability. I rely on courage to say yes to opportunity, to try and fail and try again, to be vulnerable in the face others. This is not a race. This is not about the speed in which I accomplish the most; it is about the goal that lay at its finish and the slow and steady process that unfolds to achieve its end.

Really, it’s about knowing those noisy children who look up to me see me follow this dream with every bit of energy and might, to seek out joy, to share. I owe it to them more than to myself. Because my daughter once said the thing she liked about me best was that I never give up.

Three Ethics, 12 Principles, a chicken, and an apple tree… and Zone 00

Permaculture is an integrative system design approach inspired by highly evolved, productive ecosystems. It’s not simply a spiral herb bed or layer composting, but about interactions that take place within the soil and bio-web within a space, and how those interactions relate to place, time, other elements within the garden, people building the system, neighboring community, wildlife, and the ecosystem surrounding the garden space. That makes not only for a dynamic food forest system, but also for some pretty dynamic external thought processes, and hopefully, a huge amount of introspection.

There are plenty of designs out there that are “permaculture inspired,” but permaculture, as described through the principles, is a process, not simply an implementation of design. When someone says (or when we say to ourselves), “I want a permaculture…,” we, as designers, have to pull back and examine the, “I want.”

While Zone 0 is centered on the place where we spend the majority of our time, Zone 00 represents intentions, ego, learned knowledge, intuition, dreams, etc. It envelopes all things us. And while most of us have no problem evaluating our zones and sectors during the design process, we’re not often asked to look within; to take time to observe our intentions within a space; to keep our ego in check and hold our designs accountable.

That would take time. RealTree-white-BG time.

And time is something our egos fight against in favor of immediate gratification. So, rather than work against ego, we need to inquire about the urgency. Is there a need that is essential and must be met? Or are we eager to see a certain tree planted, so we can enjoy the fruits as soon as we are able? Working with this sense of urgency, we can loop back around to those useful elements of the existing landscape, and highlight areas that must be addressed. Take one step forward, then look back and see how the system responds. Short, concise feedback loops.

While in appearance, working from Zone 00 out appears to take longer, in the long run, it requires fewer additional inputs and results in a system well-suited for participants, whether a helpful microbe in the soil, a cedar waxwing perched on the branch of an apple tree, or you, the budding permaculturalist seeking a better way of living. In reality, permaculture is a philosophy that doesn’t just work externally. When examining a site, we ask ourselves why certain plants and animals are thriving within that environment; it’s time to seek the same answers from within.