Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Or the horse may talk..."

We got the official news last night, the company where my husband works is shutting down the print facility of which he is Operations Manager. He and some 200+ others will be losing their jobs in the 4th quarter of 2012. (We had initially heard the numbers were higher, and are glad it's not 300, but J is still one of those who will be looking for work.)

J is almost 61. We were hoping his career would carry him through to retirement (we are not ready yet.) He's been in the newspaper industry for more than 40 years, it's all he's done in one form or another, all his life. My job, as lovely as it is, will in no way provide enough income for us to retire now. And by this time next year we'll have not one but two children in college.

It's an interesting time to be middle-aged, interesting ala the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and once married my mom didn't have to work. She kept house, and did an inordinate amount of volunteer work all her life. I wanted to live a life like hers, and to an extent, I have. I gave up a lucrative career to stay at home and raise my children. Oh, I've always done some part-time work or another all along, mostly computer related. But never full time, and never outside the house. So for me to try to re-enter the workplace now, in the midst of the worst recession in decades, is not particularly viable. But I've tried, applied for jobs I know I could do well, at a salary far, far below what I ever made even 25 years ago. But so far have found nothing.

An old expression I've always believed in is "Do what you love, and the money will follow." What I do now, working with the amazing collection of vintage ephemera that my mother left behind when she died, is amazing, satisfying, and just my dream job. I love it. I'd like to keep doing it. But will I be able to? I dunno.

It's not like we haven't dealt with this sort of thing before, sadly. In 2002, when the economy tanked and businesses were pulling back, my husband was told the giant print facility he was to build and run wasn't going to happen, and the company he worked for then let him go. Prior to that, a paper he worked for brought in a new publisher who systematically fired every single middle manager she had, J included, for no good reason other than she could.

So it's a situation we've been in before, and have made it though. And each time what came after was always better than what had been before: better job, better home, better life. So I have faith that the same thing will hold true this time. It's just the "getting through" it all that can be stressful. In times like these, I am reminded of a story my family told when we were growing up, often enough so that the tagline has become enough to bring the whole thing home. It goes like this:

A man had offended the king, and was sentenced to death. He fell to his knees before the king and implored, "Oh your majesty! Spare me but for one year, and I will teach your horse to talk!" The king was amazed, and granted his wish.

The man's close friend and brother upbraided him, saying, "Why did you make such an absurd promise?"

The man shrugged and replied, "In a year, the king may die. In a year, I may die. In a year, the horse may talk!"

The point of the story being, one never knows what will happen in the future. Something amazing could happen that you'd never consider. And since we've been given time (nine months to a year) to figure this all out, who knows what could happen? Hell, the horse may talk!

At any rate, despite all the ups and downs of the past year, our family wishes all of you a very happy holiday, whichever one you celebrate (and even if you don't,) and we send you light and love, and hopes for peace and joy in the coming year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Teach Our Children Well...

Last week I got a call from daughter A's FFA teacher at school asking if I could come in and make a presentation on what it's like to be a poultry farmer. Now, strictly speaking, I'm not a "poultry farmer." When I hear that term, I think of the folks who own the big battery farms, and raise ten thousand broilers or laying hens. That's definitely not me. I told Ms. W that, and she said it was fine, she just wanted to give the kids some idea of what it's like to raise poultry. That I can do!

Production White Leghorn
So in I went today to make a presentation. I had nothing prepared, no notes or Powerpoint, just a chicken. I had grabbed up one of our Production White Leghorns (which A got for her 4-H project and County Fair this past summer.) Popped the hen into a crate and off to school I went. I've done lots of presentations and demos in my life, so winging it was just fine with me, I can extemporize with the best of 'em, on any number of topics (being able to spout bs at length and sound like you know what you're talking about is a gift, not a skill, I'm just lucky that way.)

Off we went, the chicken and me, up to school where I did my presentation for a 7th grade class (when did 7th graders get so old looking, by the way?) We live in a very rural area, and I admit I was surprised at how few of the kids in the class live on farms, only 2 out of the 25 in the room. Most of the kids were from "in town", and few had ever gotten close to a live chicken. It brought home to me how disconnected most of us are from how our food is raised (those of us who eat meat, that is), as the average 7th grader really only thinks of chicken as something that comes as a nugget, or is wrapped in plastic in the case at the grocery store. I think this is a Very Bad Thing.

Fresh eggs are so much better than store-bought!
Part of my presentation was to answer eight questions the kids had on a worksheet, and as we worked our way through the sheet several things became clear. The first was, the kids were eager to display what they did know about chickens (several weeks earlier A had done a presentation for the class on a different breed we raise, called Buckeyes.) Most of them were happy to share what they already knew, and were interested in learning more about what it takes to raise chickens. We talked about doing chores; every day, twice a day, sometimes three times a day if it's really hot and the animals need extra water. One of the questions was "What is the hardest part about raising chickens/living on a farm?", to which I replied "Finding someone reliable and knowledgeable enough to do chores if we want to go on vacation" which surprised many of them. But the thing I came away with, is that most of those kids would be perfectly happy to not ever be a farmer. And that makes me sad.

Children in our communities need to get more involved with production of their food, not less. We need to have more community gardens, more cooperative animal projects, not fewer. Kids need to get dirt under their fingernails, mud on their shoes, pull an egg out from under a chicken on the nest, to really appreciate what it means to raise food, to connect with the process. We do our children a disservice if we keep them from that, raise them to think food comes from Wal-Mart or Kroger, rather than the back yard, or the neighbor's farm. I have no answers, just concerns. How do we reconnect people to the food they eat? I wish I knew. But I think it needs to happen, somehow.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Birding by ear

One of my earliest memories as a child is of lying on my stomach on the floor of the living room of our second house, the one I grew up in. It was spring, and my mother had purchased some small albums of bird songs, to learn to identify them. Mom loved that house and yard, it was mostly wooded, and filled with various critters. I think that must have been where she began her love of birding, and it spilled over onto me.

Mourning Dove
In the mornings now, when I let the dogs out after breakfast, I often stand on the back porch and just listen. Look as well, of course, but so much birding can be done by ear, and if you have a good one you can identify many breeds that you would seldom see.

This summer I saved my pennies and finally splurged on a set of birding by ear modules, which I downloaded into my iPod. Being the bird nerd that I am I often listen to them while driving or sometimes while I work (although it is odd when I accidentally hit the Shuffle button and have the Dave Matthews Band followed by bird sounds of the Southern New Jersey Salt Marshes.)

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
This morning I could tell something large was moving through the back woods. Not because I could hear it myself (my ears aren't quite that good), but because I could hear the various watchdog birds letting the forest know that a predator was on the move. It might have been a fox, or perhaps coyote, but whatever it was, it had the Jays and Crows in an uproar, and several Flickers flew north complaining loudly as they left.

The Hummingbirds at the feeders were too busy stocking up for their long flight south to pay much attention, and the House Sparrows and Starlings and Robins just went about their business as usual. An Indigo Bunting sat atop a tree and called "Sit, Sit, Sit, Sit", several Barn Swallows dipped and dove, and most of the morning sounds were normal. But I knew something was back there, just from the sounds.

Earlier in the morning a doe with her triplets came close to the house to browse, and seemed unworried. And although I've heard Black Bears are back in KY now, I've yet to see one. My bet is a fox, although if they're smart they'll stay in the woods, as our Livestock Guardian Dog Toby has no patience with foxes near his goats.

Song Sparrow
Eventually the noise died down, and whatever it was had moved along. I went back into the house and back to work, leaving the Hummers to squabble and cuss the morning away.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Life is funny

As I sit here on a muggy, overly hot Sunday in Kentucky, I am bemused by life's coincidences. I am listening to my "Bluegrass" custom channel on Pandora (which I love!) and loading music onto my iPhone from my CDs.

It's interesting, when I think of it, that I wound up in Kentucky. I grew up in Ohio, and my mother's family has lived there for many years, since 1847, when my great, great, great grandfather Jabez Vodrey moved there. Jabez came to America in 1827, seeking to start a pottery here. For ten years he lived in Louisville, KY, and his sons (including my great, great-grandfather William) were born in Kentucky, and spent their early childhood in Louisville before moving to Ohio.

As a child I have memories of lying on the floor of my grandfather's home, listening to music. My grandfather adored music of all kinds, from classical (he had a special love of Bach) to Bluegrass. I can only wonder what happened to all those albums he had, wish I knew who it was I listened to. I remember being told it was early Appalachia music, it was very spare and plain, not a lot of production (this would have been in the early 1960s, and the albums were likely very old.)
My grandfather.

It's funny that I now live in Kentucky, and have such a love of Bluegrass, as I was a solid rock and roll grrl growing up. Funny how life comes full circle in so many ways. Funny how I can feel my grandfather nodding with approval at the music I am playing (I like to think he would have loved having an iPod!)

Life is just funny...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mrs. Peters Chocolate Chess Pie

Yesterday was the first day of summer (although here in KY it feels like summer a lot sooner than the end of June, I assure you.) Both C and A have been working this vacation, and C is taking time off to go to the beach house owned by my maternal relatives and me in Nags Head, NC. I've been going to the beach since I was six months old, and being 53, that's a long time. I've seen things change over the years on the Outer Banks, many of which are less than pleasing.

View from the front porch at dawn.
As a child summering at the beach, life was so simple. Nags Head was not a popular vacation spot then, and the island was relatively undeveloped. There was no "French Fry Alley", no chain grocery store, no Wal-Mart (perish the thought!) If you wanted groceries you went to Harris's, where Mr. Harris ground his beef by hand, twice! When I was very young, there were only two stoplights on the whole island. A far cry from what it is now. But I can still go to the cottage, put my feet up on the front porch railing, and look at the sea, forgetting how built up it is, thank goodness. 

As a teen, I was privileged to meet Mrs. William Peters (Louise), who was affectionately called Wheezy by her friends. Her family owned the cottage three south of ours, and she had five sons. She was one of the old breed of southern women, who would move to the beach for the whole summer with her kids, her husband staying in the city to work, only visiting on weekends. My mother recalled meeting her at Harris's grocery store one day, where mom complained that the way we all ate, she had to shop every day! Mrs. Peters looked at her and plaintively said "Only once a day?"

We met because of her little Beagle dog (whose name I forget), which had been in a fight with another dog. My friend R and I took him home to her, and she brought us into the cottage, plunked us down in front of the television (a rarity at the beach at that time) and gave us cool glasses of lemonade. She told us all about her family, including her sons (of course, we were teens then) and generally was the epitome of southern graciousness.

Louise "Wheezy" Peters
I got to know her better as the summer went on and our mutual affection grew. She had no daughters, and took me under her wing, treating me with love and affection (it didn't hurt that I wound up dating one of her sons for about a year.) Being a southern woman, she cooked all the time. She had many recipes for traditional southern foods, and one special dessert recipe that she shared with me. I've made it over the years for special occasions, and it is a family favorite. The recipe is really very simple, based on a Chess Pie, but with chocolate added. Here it is, in memory of Wheezy Peters, a truly gracious Southern Lady:

Wheezy Peters' Chocolate Chess Pie
(serves eight)

  • 1 stick butter
  • 2 squares unsweetened baking chocolate (or 5 TBSP cocoa)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Unbaked 9" pie crust

Melt the butter together with the chocolate and place in a medium bowl. Add the brown and white sugar, mix until smooth. Fold in the eggs, the vanilla, and the salt.
Bake in the unbaked pie crust for 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees until the top poufs up, and/or a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. To die for!

NB: if you're using 9 1/2 inch pie pans, increase the ingredients to match. I use the following for two 9 1/2 inch pans:
  • 2 1/2 sticks butter
  • 5 squares chocolate
  • 1 1/4 cups brown sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups white sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 5 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 and 1/18 tsp salt.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Memorable falls

I learned to ride as a small child, taught by my grandfather, saddle seat in one of the families American Saddlebred horses. The farm on which I learned to ride was about two hours south of where we lived, so I didn't actually have my own horse on which to take lessons as a kid. I lobbied for a horse to keep in the 'burbs of Cleveland where I grew up, but my parents both nixed that, saying "There are horses you can ride down at the farm, why should we buy you one here?" So I took lessons to the point until it was necessary to have a horse of ones own, and then stopped.

But many weekends of my youth I went to the farm and went trail riding, bombing through the woods with friends and siblings. We never thought about danger, we wore the invincibility of youth and had no fear. I would ride the tallest, rankest horse and never think twice. One of my cousins, who lived in a town near the farm, was lucky enough to ride with my grandfather almost every weekend, which she did not enjoy, while I would have happily committed crimes galore to have such a chance. The grass is always greener I guess.

Dixie and me, circa 1984
In my youth I had several glorious falls from my favorite horse, one Dixie. He was a persnickety horse, if he didn't like you, he dumped you. You had to have a gentle hand on his mouth, and a good seat to ride him. But once you made him your friend, he would teach you to fly!

One of my memorable falls was down along the creek, where R. and I were riding as teens. The trails were often overgrown, and I didn't notice as we galloped along that some of the overgrowth was thick vines. One got between my leg and the horse (we sometimes rode with saddles, sometimes bareback.) The horse was going fast and furious, and the vine was thick and sturdy. I was dragged off Dixie's backside and plopped onto the ground. The bruise that developed along my thigh was large and glorious to behold, purple and green. But I still had no fear.

Another legendary fall happened the time I had taken my church youth group to the farm for the weekend. D. wanted to ride, so I thought it would be a good idea to have him up behind me on Dixie and take a quick turn around the arena. Dixie thought this was a very bad idea, and with the slightest of effort bucked us both off. D. landed on the ground and lost his breath, I was tossed into the fence, and surely must have had a concussion, although I wasn't aware of it at the time. But still I had no fear.

Many years passed, and I was married and living in Duluth. J and C and A took riding lessons with our friends the Ns, and we had several horses by then that we boarded there, along with our goats and chickens. One day we went for a trail ride in the snowy woods (glorious!) and I rode Buddy bareback that day. Now Buddy is an older horse who has done many things; Western Pleasure, Dressage, a bit of Hunter Jumper work. He knows it all and then some. But he is not over-fond of crossing water, far preferring just to jump creeks he comes upon. That day we were about to cross a creek, and I said to Buddy, "Don't jump, don't jump!" But here's the thing about horses, they don't get the concept of "no" and "don't", so the term has null value to them. If you want them to not do something, you have to tell them to do the opposite.

So, of course, Buddy jumped the creek, and upon landing I did a glorious somersault into a snow-covered bush. It was hysterical, and I sat and laughed and laughed, as did everyone else. Since that time I've made a point of being sure to use positive terms when asking for things, had I said "Walk through the creek Buddy" I would have been much better off.

J with Mac on the Ns farm
One of the things that the Ns insisted on for their borders was helmets. Which turned out to be a very good thing. J was riding his horse in an arena there one day, when another riders horse got agitated. J's horse Mac is a large and meaningful horse, and very protective of J, so when the other horse lost his mind, Mac made some sudden maneuvers to move J out of the danger zone. Unfortunately, when he did so, J was ejected and went flying.

Now, the Ns take very good care of their farm, and keep the arena shipshape. But naturally, J managed to find the one rock in the place on which to land on his head. His helmet cracked right along the front, but saved his skull, as it was designed to do. Before that time I was a rather surly wearer of helmets, although insisting the kids wear them (I considered myself too good a rider to need one, don'tcha know.) But since then, I've always worn one, and anyone who rides here on our farm will too (well, at least any kids.) I've still got that cracked helmet in a box in the basement, and I pull it out from time to time just to tell the story of how it saved my husband from catastrophic brain damage, as it surely did. It's really simple folks, if you're riding, you should wear a helmet, I don't care how good a rider you are. Just do it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Growing Things

I think of myself as a farmwife. But I am not the biggest success at growing things. I am a huge success with critters of all sorts: horse, goats, chickens, geese, and I know I'd rock at raising swine if J. would let me, but he won't. Plants though, well, I have mixed success with those.

When we moved into our house in '03, the previous owners had created a huge, gorgeous flower garden in front. I mean, HUGE. Now, not being a green thumb kind of girl, and being really busy that year dealing with making pens for the livestock and doing fences and getting the kids settled into new schools, I let the garden go.

I would rather clean a chicken coop than weed a garden. That's just who I am. Over the years, the flower garden has deteriorated. I have killed some of the plants. I have removed others. I have, some years, just let the weeds take over (which makes me annoyed, as I hate the way it looks, but I reach a point where doing anything at all to it seems overwhelming.)

Several years ago I paid a guy to come and redo the whole garden. When he was done it looked great. Cleaned up, weeded, new mulch applied. Looked lovely until fall, when the usual fall high winds blew all the mulch into the east pasture.

Next summer we were back to weeds. ((sigh))

This year I am going to throw in the towel and plant ground cover. I just have too much else going on to deal with it, and it's not my thing (even though I will admit to love playing with my virtual flower garden on my iPhone.) So if you ever come to our house to visit, just avert your eyes from the front flower garden, at least until the ground cover has taken hold and done its thing, ok?

In the meantime, here are some pics from my various Rose of Sharon bushes (my mom used to call these Mallow Trees, but whatever you call them, the blooms are lovely.) I've also uploaded these to my Facebook page, which you can see (and "like") here: https://www.facebook.com/FarmwifesDiary

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Musings on Mothers

"Dixies" from my daughters
for Mother's Day
Today being Mother's Day, I am, naturally, thinking of my Mom, who passed away suddenly in 2007. As well, the day brings thoughts of what it means to be a mom, as I am to my two daughters.

Some people have sublime relationships with their mothers. Others have mothers who are a nightmare. I think the majority of us have relationships that are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes.

My mother and I were very different. I was (am) the quintessential tomboy, and my mom was very much a girlie-girl. She loved flowers and pretty clothes and everything feminine. I, on the other hand, was the kid who brought home every stray dog in the neighborhood, who filled the fountain in the back yard with tadpoles, who was, when I wasn't reading, a pretty athletic kid - sandlot baseball with the neighborhood boys, riding my bike for hours on end, or bombing through the woods on horseback with my friend Rachel.

Mom and I loved each other, no question there. I adored her, and my aunt tells me she called me her "treasure." But I think who I was baffled her sometimes. I flatly refused to "come out" at the local debutant ball. I didn't like shopping (which was as food and drink to her), I could have cared less about shoes (we often joked my mom was the Imelda Marcos of Ohio.) I know when we moved to Kentucky to have our own farm, she was altogether bemused at the idea of her 40-something daughter leaving a comfortable suburban life to go be "a farmer."

But for all our differences, we shared many common interests. We both love to collect things. One of my earliest memories was trailing along behind Mom at the beach as she searched for good shells and frosted glass. She had an eye for the treasure among the trash (at the beach as well as antique stores), and could pick out something fabulous even after other people had been through the area before her. From her I learned to train my eye in pattern recognition (or from her I gained the skill, not sure which.) Even now, as she did, I can walk down the beach behind other collectors and still find treasures others have passed by.

Orchids from my husband
for Mother's Day.
I get my artistic bent from my mother as well. She majored in Art History in college, and although she never made a working career of it, she was the consummate artistic scholar. She had enough information in her head to write probably ten books; on silver, porcelain and pottery, jewelry, ephemera, early American furniture, American and English painters and illustrators, authors and books (particularly children's books), vintage linens and early American quilts, the list goes on. When she died, aside from mourning her (as of course we did!) I also mourned the incredible store of knowledge that was lost. I wish she had taped some of the lectures she gave for the various societies she was a part of. I wish she'd written at least one book, so I could hold it in my hand and know it was a small part of her depth and breadth of expertise. Alas, all we have to go on is the things she left behind, not the least of which are definitive collections in several areas.

My mother also had a very green thumb (unlike me.) Her house was always filled with plants and flowers, a plethora of Christmas cactus, orchids, and always cut flowers from her garden. She had a collection of tiny antique bottles she kept on the kitchen window, into which she'd stick the blossom of the day, even if it were just a wildflower from the woods outside. Many years before her death, I purchased a number of such little bottles, which sit on my kitchen windowsill now, and into which I put tiny flowers too.

One of the plants left
from all those years ago.
When I was about twelve, my mother and I planted a bunch of cactus and succulent seeds together. My bedroom in the old house had a huge window that filled the eastern wall, with a lovely wide sill, and mom wanted to take advantage of the light. Plus, cactus were about my speed, not being the most attentive waterer. Of all those plants, several still exist. A couple are still at Dad's house, and one lives here. It's terribly overgrown and needs to be repotted, but it has several "daughters" that I am going to send off with my own girls when they get places of their own, to continue the thread binding us all together, mother, daughters, grandmother.

This past summer my younger daughter mowed a path through the south pasture to a clearing on a rise which we waggishly call "the helicopter pad" (not that we have one, but if we did, it would be the perfect place to land it.) I like to walk out there with the dogs to get their ya-yas out at least once a day. Some days, as we walk through the grass, I will see a perfect little daisy poking up out of the newly mowed area. When I was very little, I called daisies "Dixies", which amused my mother no end. So when I see such a one, I know it's my mom looking down and smiling, and sending me a Dixie to say hello.

Happy Mother's Day Mom. We miss you so...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring has sprung!

I've been seeing signs of an early spring this year, although I am somewhat behind with farm chores. Spring is a time of mixed emotions for me, as it's when my mom died suddenly four years ago, but it's also my favorite time of year. Spring brings thoughts of newness: new livestock babies gamboling in the fields, new chicks hatching in the incubator, new grass and flowers sending up shoots. But since Mom died, spring has also been a time of ending, which is hard to correlate with how I normally have thought about the season.

Be that as it may, spring has sprung, and life goes along tickety-boo here at the farm. The hens have finally started laying more, (I don't put lights on my large fowl birds to stimulate their production) and I've set some hatches, better later than never I suppose.

The grass has started growing in the yard and pastures, and soon James and I will have our annual disagreement about when we should start to mow. I like to start early, to avoid having it get too high and not being able to mulch. James likes to wait, as he feels once you start to mow, the grass grows much faster, and you have to mow all the time. I am not convinced that mowing makes the grass grow faster, just dunno about that.

And this year, for the first time since before the girls were born, we're going to plant a vegetable garden! We had one when we lived in Saskatoon before the girls were born. We grew all sorts of things that year, including tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, all sorts of lettuce, potatoes, peppers, squash, pumpkins, melons, the works.

At any rate, this year I purchased some wonderful organic seeds for heirloom tomatoes through Local Harvest, from their listee Happy Cat Organics, and was lucky enough to win the seeds for free during LC's birthday celebration! I'm working on finding some nice, organic seed potatoes, as those are the two things we want to focus on this year, other than the obligatory sweet corn, of course.

Not sure how we'll keep the local deer/raccoon population out of the garden. I've considered planting it right next to the goat pen, where Toby the Anatolian Shepherd Dog lives, but that area doesn't get as much sunlight as I'd like. I do have some extra electric poultry netting I might try, normally I use it in the chicken pens, but it might work around a garden. We'll see.

DD#2 and I recently discussed getting back into goats, which has been very tempting, especially since seeing the kids born to friends, especially the cute buckling born to my soaping friend, who runs Simply Eden, where you can see pics of her goaties. But James put the kibosh on that, which is probably a good thing, as I don't really have time to do dairy these days, especially if I'm adding a garden. Maybe some other year...

Not much new going on here other than the usual spring stuff, which is pretty well typified by one of my favorite New Yorker magazine cartoons, which can be seen HERE. Well, enough blathering here in this blog, off to get some work done!