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What happens when the farmer gets injured…?

Early morning thoughts…

I like to write and document thoughts for several reasons. These include the possibility of helping someone else if they relate to what I am going through, and to reflect back on how I felt at this moment in time – thus gauging my improvement or decline, and so on. Today’s thoughts… What happens when the farmer gets injured or falls ill? Well, it seems complicated by the very nature of the farm itself. Caring for animals that are solely dependent on the farmer for their well-being means that there is no down time for recovery, unless others handle chores in their stead. Of course, others certainly CAN feed and water our critters, but there are extra little things farmers do to really care for them: special treats or attention, and even words of affirmation and love. If you think this is silly, then you’re not the kind of farmer I am, and you need read no further. Because the truth is, when the farmer is injured or sick, they feel that their farm may suffer, too. The farmer does not “call in sick” to anyone but themselves.

On our farm, I quite possibly bring these complications on myself, in the very ways that I prefer to handle chores. While my contractor husband seeks out tools and automation to help run things smoothly, I prefer to tackle most chores by hand. From using a broadfork to till the garden, to carrying fresh clean (and warm) water to the dairy goats, I like the close connection I feel with the land and the animals. So many early issues (health, nutritional needs, rising conflict within herds/flocks) are noticed and addressed well before they become a crisis, thus saving much time, energy, and frustration. Those early morning walks around the farm, coffee mug in hand, simply observing how all the animals and plants are doing, provide insight that may not occur if feeding & watering routines were all automated.

I understand and appreciate my husband’s efforts, as he does mine. I know that when he procures a tool (whether it’s a small device like a water trough float or a hopper feeder, or a big item like a firewood splitter or a tractor) he does so, in great part, to make farm chores easier. He notices, and is grateful for how hard I work, while kindly never noting the extra time that my hands-on approach borrows from domestic tasks. He supports the farm and our labor and inputs in his own way, and we all benefit from what we produce. But as I sit here this morning, chores all done in just an hour after dawn, coffee still in hand, I ponder the future of our farm. You see, as we age, injuries and illnesses seem to come faster, harder, and with more down time needed than when we were stronger, younger, and more resilient. While we aim to age in place, and age gracefully, we occasionally ask, “when will keeping up this farm be too much… what does retirement from homesteading look like?” And I find myself asking that more often lately.

In just a few days, I face a risky, but necessary, surgery on my spine. I am optimistic it will help me, but maybe it will not… I am also worried and fearful. Not only of the medical outcome, but for my farm and animals. There WILL be necessary down time for this recovery, and others WILL be caring for all things in my stead. The questions in my head range widely. Will the critters be well cared for? Will others be observant and address and intervene for those early concerns? If I don’t heal well, should we sell some? Likely enough, all will be just fine, and I’ll be feeling better than new in no time, but these questions swirl in my mind nonetheless.

Let’s talk a bit about pain. It’s like an awful emotion that you can’t convey to anyone else, so they can’t truly relate to how you feel, though they may sympathize or even empathize. Pain is so intrinsic and unique to each one that there can be no comparison to others’ pain. It can range from intermittent and bothersome, to unrelenting and debilitating. Pain is exhausting – physically and mentally. Pain can be deceivingly silent (I insist on suffering quietly) or excruciatingly loud (my husband hollers for the whole world to hear of his discomfort) or even stoic (like my son who sobs quietly.) And unless there is a grimace or tears, pain can even be invisible. It isn’t like a bandaged wound or a limp or a brace; it isn’t something we ask each other about. And often, it is not something we can claim to relate to, or even understand. Pain is insidious and an unpleasant sensory experience. Pain does cause incredible emotion.

I don’t like to talk about my own pain. For over 30 years, I have developed, fine-tuned, and employed many coping techniques to help relieve or distract myself from pain. Even as a teen, my mother supported my holistic approach to mitigate my pain in the most natural way possible, and paid for numerous naturopathic and alternative medicine appointments and consultation. I have suffered from various physical pains all of my adult life, ranging from internal issues with my reproductive system (another story), to long-term dysfunction resulting from a motor vehicle collision (more on that later). Yet my body has served me well. I am strong and capable and carry on, proud of my endurance and ability to not let pain hold me back. This body has achieved great things, supported new life and been for the most part, fairly reliable. Obviously, I know my own body well, and I know when things are not right. As I mature, I heed the warning signs a little better. I stop working before exhaustion. I hydrate. I allow myself to rest. And just like I observe the changes in my garden, herds and flocks, I make note of concerning changes and try to address them. I strive for good health through prevention of illness and injury, and also through a lifestyle that includes fresh air, exercise and abundantly nourishing food.

Last spring, I took an ambulance ride to the ER, after enduring 12 long hours of the worst physical pain in my life. Pain worse than childbirth. Pain that stopped me from moving or thinking rationally. Later I learned that I was experiencing an acute diverticulitis attack from a severe infection. The treatment was swift and effective at resolving my pain and ill-health, and I now strive every day to ensure that I do not suffer a relapse. A year of good health ensued, and I was fit and vibrant, and supported both my son and husband during a winter of recovering from their own knee surgeries. I took care of most things on the farm for 6 straight months.

And then, several weeks ago, upper back pain that I have suffered with intermittently for over 20 years, suddenly became a new beastly sort of pain – unrelenting and all-consuming. The kind that you can not relieve, escape, or even sleep with. I was very concerned, but stoically carried on, performing most of my normal daily tasks. I made an appointment with a family physician, but it was weeks away. Though I tried to mitigate the pain, I became aware that this may be the kind of agony that people choose not to live with. In my small logging community, men younger than myself, who have injured themselves in the woods, have chosen to take their own life rather than live with relentless pain suffering. Was this that sort of pain?

I tried nearly everything to get relief. Hot water bottles, ice packs, flat on my back, slept in the reclining chair, stretches, got a massage, saw my chiropractor, used topical analgesics, and even took one of my husband’s leftover pain pills from his knee replacement surgery. But nothing eased the pain I couldn’t escape. A week after enduring more than I could stand, and increasingly suffering symptoms of sleep-deprivation, I lowered myself into the hot tub one weekend morning, prepared to bask in the comfort of hot water jets the rest of the day if need be. But just a few minutes in, and my pain became unbelievable. The word I used to describe it was “nuclear”. If you have children, you’ve likely seen the kids pain chart that ranges from 1-10 with various descriptive words and facial expressions, and so you will understand the saying, “my pain was off the chart.” Pain in my entire left side radiated into my arm, my back, my chest, and up into my jaw and ear. I began to shake with what felt like chills and muscle spasms. Except for not being short of breath, I had many symptoms of having a heart attack! Once out of the hot water, I seemed to relax a bit, but my husband took one look at me and rushed me to seek urgent care.

During the drive there, I faced one of my own, personal, worst fears – that I would be told there was nothing wrong with me, and that I was wasting my husband’s time on a perfectly good weekend spent in a medical crisis. After all, I have been known to not prioritize my own care or health needs in a timely manner; yet I decided that even if this acute attack was stress-induced or just some idiopathic or non-specific illness for which rest was the only remedy, I absolutely had to see a doctor! The wait was short, and the doctor assured me that I was not having a heart attack, but was in a pain crisis with high blood pressure from a suspected issue in my neck. Something was wrong in the range of motion tests she asked me to perform, and I didn’t understand why my head wouldn’t move to the left. Strangely, my neck didn’t really hurt, but the pain was radiating (known as referred pain) and concentrating itself into an area under my left shoulder blade. She prescribed me her “triple whammy” for spine pain – steroids, muscle relaxers and a narcotic, and ordered me to follow up with our family doctor right away.

I rested for the rest of the weekend, and felt some relief from the muscle relaxer and the narcotic, but the steroid caused severe water retention and seemed to increase the pain in my shoulder exponentially. Still, I carried on, and even arrived at work on time on Monday (I had recently started a new job and felt that I should prove my reliability) but I did call my doctor first thing that morning. Amazingly, there was an immediate opening, and I rushed over to the clinic for a full exam and an X-ray, which revealed narrowing of all my neck vertebrae, likely causing spinal cord compression. The nurse reminded me that I had X-rays and an MRI for comparison from 6 years before when I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel, for which I underwent a simple surgery so I could continue to hand milk our goats.

We recalled those older images which showed bulging cervical disks (cushions between each neck vertebra) consistent with degenerative aging changes. But at this doctor visit, my blood pressure was still critically high, with my pain nearly completely unmanaged, as I had chosen to head to work without taking medication. I broke down with emotion, and the doctor ordered pain control and muscle relaxing injections, and called my husband to come get me, take me home, and have me rest for the remainder of the week. But I did not, as I felt I could not disappoint at my new job. I enjoyed the work very much, and the distraction from the joys (and challenges) of my job were a welcome distraction from my great discomfort. So my doctor changed the prescriptions, and increased the narcotic dosage, and I carried on. And sometime during all of this, my husband made me call my mother, who of course, because she is amazing, totally “has my back” through whatever I will endure.

With my pain still not relieved with the medication “triple whammy,” I was immediately ordered to receive a new MRI and referred to a neurosurgeon. Things escalated very quickly, and less than a week later I was diagnosed with herniated cervical (neck) discs, bone spurs, and such stenosis (constriction of my spinal cord) that I had developed cervical radiculopathy – where compressed nerves send waves and jolts of radiating pain through the upper body – from my neck to shoulders, arms, and fingers. Even worse, I was experiencing severe numbness and left side weakness to the point of stumbling and falls. I was dropping things, unable to carry much weight or even a coffee cup with my left hand, and a painful fall actually occurred at the neurology clinic when I was unable to get up onto the examination table.

The neurosurgeon performed a thorough exam, and we were both shocked to observe that the reflexes on the left side of my body were non-responsive, and that I was down to 10% strength (resistance) on my left side. The doctor went from my left side to my right, and back again, seemingly perplexed to not be able to elicit nerve responses. I laughed about it in my nervousness and confusion. But my doctor was not laughing, and instead was looking at me very seriously and with pity in his eyes. While unrelenting pain, numbness, and the inability to sleep were my primary complaints, the doctor expressed concern that permanent nerve damage was likely ongoing in that moment, and that conservative treatments were not an option if I were to retain the remaining function. He said it would be unethical of him to recommend anything short of emergency surgery to remedy my condition. What began as a short referral visit turned into nearly 4 hours of exams, counseling, and lab work, and by the end, I concurred with the doctor, that the risks of surgery (infection, spinal fluid leaks, even paralysis) were far less than losing function in half my body. The doctor said I was well on my way to experiencing additional issues (including with internal organs) if untreated; so he consulted with colleagues, and they cleared the schedule for me to have major surgery.

While he won’t know the extent of the damage and repair needed until surgery is underway, the least he is expecting to perform is a cervical discectomy (removing herniated disks in my neck between the vertebrae), and a posterior cervical foraminotomy & laminectomy – performed through a surgical incision in the back of my neck – enlarging the channels the nerves pass through in the vertebrae and removing parts of the vertebrate to decompress my spinal cord, with or without fusion or plates. The most he expects to do includes an anterior procedure (via the front of my neck), with bone spur removal and grafts from my own hip, but that comes with a longer hospital stay and recovery time. I am cautioned that additional surgeries may be needed.

While I was initially scheduled for surgery just 3 days after my neurology consult, insurance approval took a bit longer and I was rescheduled for surgery 7 days later. The extra time has provided more time to prepare myself, my family, and my farm, for my recovery time, but also more time to research the surgery and conclude that this is a realistic option. After 20 years of upper back pain, I never allowed myself to include narcotics in my tool kit for relief, and even these past weeks, the narcotics are not only NOT very effective at achieving pain control, but the side effects are quite unpleasant. I do not wish for a life spinning by on heavy pain killers or addiction, nor do I wish to become crippled, so I am willing to risk the surgery.

When presented with the statistics, it is clear that not promptly treating the spinal cord compression could result in debilitation and physical handicap, yet the risks of complications in surgery are very slight, in a surgery that has been performed (and nearly perfected) since 1829. Thankfully, they now use anesthesia, and may wake me up to test reflexes mid-surgery (which I’m told I won’t remember) because 200 years ago, the operation was performed on patients fully awake to ensure that their spinal cord was still functioning. Still, I am making contingency plans in writing, and am talking with family & friends, to make my wishes clearly known about preferences for my own care and for that of the animals, if anything doesn’t go as expected.

Incidentally, my auto accident isn’t something I think or talk about much these days, though it certainly has been on my mind a lot lately. And ironically, the collision involved nothing else than a farmer, a truck & horse trailer, a dog, and a cherry pie. You really can’t make this stuff up! Here’s what happened that November morning back in 2001. I was on a rare day off work, a hardworking single mom, and had just dropped my son off to spend the weekend with his father. On my way to deliver a freshly baked cherry pie to a friend, I crested a small blind hill on a back country road, and to my horror, discovered a truck and dual axle horse trailer broadside in the road, blocking both lanes. The farmer’s truck had become stuck while pulling the horse trailer out of a pasture and he was trying to reposition it.

I was driving a brand new little pickup, at 50mph, and cresting that hill, I will never forget the things that went through my mind in the split-second I had before the collision. More of a triage of worst case scenarios, really. I noted a steep ditch on my side of the road, and the certainty of flipping or rolling my truck if I veered in that direction. I noted the horse trailer and decided I could not crash into it and injure any horses inside. I even saw a dog, sitting on the farmer’s lap as he was behind the wheel, and I just knew I couldn’t hit the truck. So in that moment, I opted to steer straight toward the trailer’s hitch and try to stop if possible. I locked the brakes, and moments later, the collision totaled both rigs.

In the end, my truck had 3 flat tires, the engine was nearly on my lap, my driver’s seat broke down flat, and I was trapped in a cab with doors that would not open, airbag dust choking me, and that damn cherry pie all over everything. The first responders were certain that pie was actually parts of my body. Life flight was called, but I refused transport. I was dating a local fireman who heard the call over the air and came to drive me to the hospital himself. And quite amazingly, I felt ok, though neck & back stiffness would creep up in the following days. The farmer was cited as the cause in the accident, as he had no flagger or flares to alert drivers while blocking the roadway. Investigators determined that I had just 70 feet of stopping distance to make that split-second decision about the location of the impact. My attorney secured a settlement for me that was supposed to provide care for the long term effects of the accident, but those funds were used up in the first few years for frequent chiropractic care, counseling, and expenses that came with single parenthood. I have had regular chiropractic care since, due to the loss of lordosis in my spine from the crash (the natural curvature of the back.)

Fast forward to the present, and my surgeon thinks the level of deterioration & degradation in my spine is very likely related to that accident. But as I said, this body has treated me well enough, and I look forward to giving it a fighting chance to support me another 46 years. After all, I still have a lot of life to live, and a lot of farming yet to come. I have just 3 more short days to get through, with no pain medications to help (the surgeon wants my tolerance restored so that post-op medications work well) and one more goat due with her kids tomorrow. Baby goats have been a very pleasant distraction from my agony lately.

Say a prayer for me, or send me your positive vibes, for I will undergo this alone, as visitors are not allowed to join me in the hospital. Please wish me well, and if things don’t go so well and I am no longer able to “be a farmer,” please give my animals a loving home.

Post-script: this long essay was started at 7am, but due to my inability to type very well right now, it has taken nearly 6 hours to complete (plus the time spent dashing to the hospital for my pre-surgical COVID test, because, you know… we’re still in pandemic times.) Ugh.

New favorite pantry staple… dried wild mushrooms!

I recently discovered this Oregon company, producing “100% Natural, Premium Quality Air Dried Mushrooms,” since 1999. On the History page of their website, they detail their origins – here is an excerpt:

“Pistol River Mushroom Farm is a family owned business started by Brian, Wilma, and Mike Hewgill… on the Southern Oregon Coast in a small town called Pistol River, approximately 25 miles north of the California border on US Highway 101. The Farm was started… packaging 7 different varieties of dried mushrooms, imported from all over the world and manufacturing 4 types of Mushroom Seasonings right here at the farm. In October 1999, we completed our first growing room for fresh Shiitake mushrooms and Oyster mushrooms. We produced 350# a week of fresh Shiitake mushrooms and 200# of fresh Oyster mushrooms. In 2007 our Dried Mushroom and Mushroom Seasoning side of our business had grown to the point we could not keep up with demand so the fresh mushroom side was scaled back and we concentrated on importing 15 Varieties of First Quality Dried Mushrooms from here in the United States and all around the World.”

Mushrooms have always been an important ingredient in my meals, not only for the flavors they provide, but for their health benefits. All mushrooms contain substantial nutrients, including protein, enzymes, B vitamins (especially niacin), and vitamin D2. Mushrooms are excellent sources of antioxidants as they contain polyphenols and selenium, which are common in the plant world. But they also contain antioxidants that are unique to mushrooms, such as ergothioneine, which scientists are now beginning to recognize as a ‘master antioxidant.’ 

I really am enjoying using these dried mushrooms! They are dried perfectly and packed well, so as to remain fresh for up to two years, but they rehydrate to replicated fresh mushrooms in hot water in about 20 minutes! Just 1 oz. of dried mushrooms equals 8 oz. fresh, so the $ value actually exceeds purchasing fresh mushrooms in the grocery store! The only less expensive mushrooms, therefore, are those that we forage for ourselves.

The soaking water is SO flavorful that I save it to add to soups, stews, sauces, or rice. Soon I will share my recipes for a quick mushroom quiche and for our favorite homemade fried rice! You can purchase these mushrooms online directly from Pistol River, or from our favorite co-op delivery service, Azure Standard, right HERE.

A real (and really good!) apple fritter!

December 31st, 2021. A fine ending to a really rough year! Snow has been on the ground since Christmas Day, temperatures have been well below freezing, intermittent power outages, a huge downed tree that also caused a broken facet, and many days without internet or phone (at the time of this post we are still out, but using a cell phone hotspot.) While I love the snow, the chore load here has really increased, especially since I am the only able-body right now. But no complaints… and I’ve really enjoyed extra time spent with family, my animals, and especially in the kitchen!

Happy New Year, everyone! I woke up this morning at first light, restoked the fire, filled my usual 8 buckets with hot water for the animals (I am hand carrying 24 gallons of water twice daily out to the herds & flocks on the farm these days), started our coffee, and then thought about how much I wanted a simple sweet treat to enjoy, too. (Right before New Year’s healthy eating resolutions kick in, right?)

However, we don’t eat too many sweets, and I certainly wasn’t making a trip to town (the snow melted just enough yesterday that all the slush is solid ice today) so I would have to make something yummy for us to enjoy on my own. There has been a recipe circulating online for an “Amish Apple Fritter” but it calls for an obscene amount of sugar, and in fact, doesn’t turn out the way intended (picture black, smoky fry oil… and black, gooey, fall-apart fritters… yuck!) I know this, because I tried it. Oops. Felt awful wasting all those good ingredients, too!

I should have known better. The scientist in me understands how baking works and how ingredients interact… and I should have know that 1:2 parts sugar to flour was unnecessary, even in a confection like an apple fritter. So, what to do, but create my own! A bit of trial and error, but the resulting recipe turns out a simple, healthy and very enjoyable fritter in just a few minutes. In fact, the recipe comes together even before the frying oil is hot!

A real (and really good) apple fritter!

Sonia’s Fritter Recipe:

In a small bowl mix together 1 cup flour (I used Azure’s OG Unifine Bread Flour), 1 tsp baking powder, ½ tsp sea salt, and 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice.

In a separate medium sized bowl, mix together 1 egg, 2 TBSP cane sugar and 1/3 cup milk. Gently incorporate the flour mix into egg mix – but don’t overdo it or the fritters will be tough!

Gently fold in 1 cup apple pieces (peeled, cored and diced into ½” uniform sizes) – and again, don’t overdo it – just fold in gently until evenly dispersed.

Meanwhile, heat 2” oil (I used a high heat coconut/olive oil blend) to exactly 375 degrees – you WILL need a thermometer for this – in a deep pot (I use a deep cast iron skillet).

Carefully scoop out a dollop of dough (about 1/3 cup or so) and gently place in the center of hot oil, then quickly and carefully use two forks to spread the dough out into a disk shape. Mine were about 4″ across.

Cook ~ 1 min. until golden brown on the bottom (the fritter will float in the oil) and then carefully turn over with tongs. Cook ~ 1 min. more, then remove from the oil to drain on a cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining dough.

(This makes about 6 large fritters, but the recipe may be easily doubled.)

Optional: while the fritters are cooling, but are still warm, glaze them by drizzling with a powdered sugar glaze. (I make my own powdered sugar using OG cane sugar blended with a dash of cornstarch in my food processor or blender.) Mix 1-2 TBSP milk into ~ ½ cup powdered sugar with a small spoon, then drizzle over the warm fritters.

Serve with your favorite hot beverage (and in our case, alongside eggs and sausage) for a completely awesome breakfast treat!

This fritter recipe can be made with other fresh or dried fruits such as strawberries, apricots, or blueberries. Did you make this? If so, please let me know! Especially if you have any tips/tricks to add to the instructions. ReaganAcres@gmail.com.

Happy New Year!!

Farmer’s Little Helpers

(Gadgets, not kids, though they can be super helpful, too!)

In September 2020, I wrote about “apps for farmers” (remember – estimating protein & digestibility in forage… with just a photo of cow poop and your cell phone?)  Now, let’s talk about a few super helpful gadgets that can make farming and homestead chores just a little bit easier.  Besides the “heavy lifters,” like the tractor, utility vehicle, or my husband, these smaller implements may be useful for you!

First, a money saver gadget!  If you keep chickens, you may be interested in a treadle feeder.  While it takes some time to properly train them in its use, a feeder that requires your birds to stand on a platform and open the access to their feed may result in substantial savings when you aren’t sharing with wild critters!  It sure has for me!  These feeders can be purchased assembled, or you can find plans for a DIY design online.

Next, I keep a small dairy goat herd, which I have milked solely by hand for 10 years.  Recently, I was milking up to 14 gallons weekly, and THAT chore was really causing some soreness in my hands and back.  A small investment was made in a portable, battery-operated (A/C rechargeable) milk machine.  The goats like it just fine, milking is even more hygienic, and I can reallocate my hands/back energy to gardening!

For all of our animals, we have found float valves for the water troughs to be essential in keeping keep them full of clean water.  Tips: use a potable water hose (i.e. for an RV), and take them apart weekly for a good cleaning.  Flat-backed buckets work well for water float valves and they come in all sizes, for chickens to goats to cows & horses!

Goat Milk Machine!

Speaking of buckets… pails with handles and screw-top style lids are quite handy for toting, storing, mixing and stacking all the foodstuffs that come with feeding farm critters.

Ah, the critters… and not the ones we WANT to feed & water.  For the mice and rats (and others) that follow the feed around, having deterrents and/or traps (and knowing how to use them!) is essential on our farm.  We also have had great success using solar “night eyes” to deter bigger predators that may come after our farm animals at night.  Besides having REALLY good enclosures, livestock guardian animal companions (dogs, llamas or even donkeys) may be a consideration for your farm, and what a fun “gadget” to employ!  If strange things seem to be happening when you’re away or sleeping, game cameras may be worthwhile investments as well.

Some of my other favorite must-have helpful items include a rechargeable headlamp… hands free light at night is always so, um, handy; motion-activated solar lights inside structures that don’t have electric lighting are equally so; and I can’t imagine not having a trusty old-fashioned hand cart to tote farm & garden supplies around in.  For my shorter stature, some favorite long-handled tools keep me safely on the ground, such as an apple picker, telescoping pruners, and an extendable net (great for fish – even better for runaway chickens and bunnies!)

What little helpers do you employ around your farm & garden? 

Summer Garden 2020

What a year! 2020 has been a roller coaster… global pandemic… back into goats… working in the garden more than ever…

This year, I expanded the garden area into an old pigpen, and am preparing another large area for next summer – I’ve covered sod with old metal roofing anchored down by about 40 potted trees for now.

I will continue to update this post and add photos along the way!

Perennial Vegetables Are a Solution in the Fight Against Hunger and Climate Change (Civil Eats August 2020)

 

“Although perennial vegetables may not become widely planted crops anytime soon, they could play a valuable role in making the food system more resilient.” Courtney Leisner, a global change plant physiologist at Auburn University says, “The goal is not to find a single “superfood” within the perennial vegetable list… we should take a more holistic view focusing on highly nutritious crops that are resilient to shifting temperatures, those able to grow on marginal lands or as part of agroforestry.”

perennial veggies

Read this full article here.

Looking around my own garden, I see grapes, raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, fruit trees, and many varieties of perennial herbs (including horseradish, rosemary, thyme, mint, sage, lovage, chives, jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts, angelica, yarrow, comfrey) and several more that self-seed to replenish their own stock. These plants require little care in that they don’t need replanted or special treatment through our mild winters… rather just fertilized, watered and occasionally divided and shared with friends!

asparagus seedlings

New asparagus starts from seed!

In my raised beds and a couple of larger garden areas, the annual fruits and veggies that my family enjoys are rotated through new areas every year: summer & winter squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, basil, cucumber, peas & beans, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, parsely, celery, onions, bok choi, broccoli, and several types of greens (chard, kale, lettuce, spinach and more!) Flowers are intermixed to attract pollinators and beneficial insects – I haven’t had to battle any pests (besides slugs) this season yet!

What will YOU be adding to your garden this season? Will it be a perennial plant?

rhubarb-plant-1406455

The Christmas Conundrum

How do we bridge the “disconnect” of the modern Christmas Holiday? How do we practice what we are preaching, as farmers, as parents, as members of our small local community? How do we live the life we envision? How can we truly value local, seasonal and handmade everything?

The answer is at least three parts big, all of which have to be answered together… not one of them can stand alone to solve the problems at hand. The answers actually bring up yet more questions that need their own answers. However, here is a beginning to this conversation: First, we must place a priority on local, even if it means doing without certain things. Secondly, local businesses must find a way to compromise on their prices so that we CAN shop locally without sacrificing too much of our hard earned money – and we know this is most difficult when local businesses cannot compete with outside corporations. And thirdly, we must change our mindset so that we do not feel as if we are sacrificing at all!

What parameters are we defining? Local… yes. But in what sense? Locally purchased or locally produced? Just because we shop in our own small town does not ensure that the products we can acquire are better than those at big box stores. And in that situation, do we settle on paying more for the same items that we can get at the bigger stores, but feeling more at ease about it because we are contributing to “local” economy?

Case in point. Today, we went to the big city, Portland, on a mission to find some Christmas gifts for friends and family. We lacked enthusiasm and joy as we were constantly met by foreign made junk that nobody really needs or even wants, and which just drains the pocketbook needlessly. We even coined it all “C.R.A.P.” (Christmas Re-Action Presents), meaning nothing in it is useful, rather it is just the obligatory items that show up on everyone’s list: toys, electronics, gift cards. Or, Crap. We came home mostly empty-handed. On the return trip, we discussed how we are so hypocritical of not living the way that we feel is right, and living the way that we know we need and want to, and often, of living differently compared to what we suggest to others to do! It felt just awful to come to this realization. But why do we feel this way?

Each time we shop at Winco instead of our local grocery store we are sending a message, that we value lower prices and do not value local economy or local employees. (But that is not how I really FEEL, I protest!) Although we prepare made-from-scratch meals more than anyone we know… the “scratch” ingredients, by and large, are neither home grown nor local. We do purchase them in bulk… but they arrive from far away farms. While we do have meat from animals (and milk, and eggs) that were raised, produced and harvested on our farm, and we “assembled” the feed for those animals… the ingredients are purchased in bulk from suppliers who get them from far and wide. Yes, we have hundreds of home-canned foods: much of it homegrown and wholesome, but we still require (or think we do) so much more food in the form of bulk inputs and staples to complete our meals. And where is it all coming from? Just because we purchase it at Safeway rather than Winco doesn’t mean it is any more local or healthier… it just means we are supporting local “economy” and ensuring that our Safeway employees still have jobs so they can sell their overpriced food.

But wait, I say! Our hens eat a homemade diet – oh, but do they really? Our goats produce amazing milk… but on what, really? Eastern Oregon alfalfa and non-local grains? The only truly local, organic, sustainable food in our house might just be the wild-harvested game meat that we have in our freezer and the jars of canned fruits & veggies that line our pantry shelves!

So, where do we begin to bridge these huge gaps? How can we start to live a life of local consumerism, of loyalty to our fellow community members, or live a truly non-hypocritical life? There is no time like the holidays to assess this fundamental symptom of hypocrisy in our lives than when we are spending countless hours and money in search of what? The perfect gift? The one that nobody wants or needs? The one from an overseas producer that does not nurture, favor or contribute to local economy?

Ok. Patrick needed new jeans. So, he went to the local hard-goods store here in our little town and bought a couple of pairs. But were they made locally? Nope. They just were resold by a local family trying to hang on to their business. In Portland… well, we saw the same jeans in another store… half the price. And, hence the Conundrum. Trying to do the right thing, but paying for it in multiple ways.

This conversation is not new, however. This is something my husband brings up every single year. He empowers me to the notion that Christmas gift-giving is really about two things, and two things only: family… and the kids. Christmas is not a time for adults to swap useless presents or share gift cards and money back and forth. (Though sadly, that usually seems to be the case.) Christmas is about spending time with family, friends and loved ones… creating memories, not credit card debt. Christmas IS about the kids… about showing them the joy of giving and receiving gifts.

For the umpteenth year, my husband tries to convince me of these truths… and I follow along heart and soul until I am overtaken with ill-placed guilt. I suddenly envision gifts flowing our way from friends, my sister, mother, in-laws… and feel the urgent need to return the gesture with nonsense gifts as well. So, my resolve weakens, and I rush out to purchase gifts that will not be appreciated, only really buying them appease my inappropriate guilt.

It isn’t about the money, really. IT is about the gesture. The act of giving and receiving, over and over again. We have the money this year to buy lots of gifts. But… I can’t find anything worth buying to give! So, I will bake. And make Irish Cream. And spread my Christmas Cheer with handmade cards and lots of hugs. Right?

Even as I write the words, I feel the weakness spreading. I feel the resolve wavering. How can I change that? How can I stick to my (compromise) plan of JUST doing some holiday baking for my gift giving efforts? Maybe by simply writing this down? Perhaps by the courage of my own admission? Maybe if I look forward enough, maybe if I envision myself on the receiving end, and maybe if I can picture the joy of receiving a homemade loaf of cranberry bread and a bottle of handcrafted liqueur – instead of the cheap made-in-China fleece blanket – that I am certain to receive (er… make and give as gifts) this year? Maybe. Maybe.

But until then, I need to plan my shift gradually, in little increments, so as to ensure possible success. Maybe I could shop at Safeway for those last minute baking ingredients. Maybe I can skip running to Dollar Tree for gift wrap and use newsprint instead. Maybe. Can I? Will it really help?

What if those things are not the answer at all? What if there was a real, lasting solution?

A real solution just might be to apply permaculture design principles to answer these questions.

After all, the design system illustrated by permaculture uses ecosystem principles to meet human needs. What are the human needs at Christmas, really?

While conventional thinking asks, “How we can meet our own needs?” permaculture asks the broader question of, “How can we meet our needs while also taking ecosystem health into account?” Permaculture looks closely at how ecosystems work and condenses those functions into twelve general principles. These in turn inform our design decisions about shelter, food, water, energy, and waste management. They also rest on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. Humans are a part of the planet and cannot be separated from it.
  2. Humans can be a positive force that leaves things better than we find them.

If we are willing to learn from and work with nature, we can make smarter decisions to inform how we live. These choices can prevent the wasteful use of fossil fuels or the unnecessary need for environmentally and economically costly foods. They can help us tread more lightly on the environment while saving us money and keeping us healthier and happier in the long-term. And in the instance of Christmas, they can keep us focused on what is truly important and sacred.

Human beings cannot live in a physical world without having an impact. We consume resources, generate waste, and alter our surroundings. But what we can do, as an ethical and responsible species, is to optimize that disturbance. As a global industrial society, we are very ignorant of the consequences of our actions and are causing a lot of damage. Permaculture offers us a framework and the tools to align our creativity with actions that can repair and regenerate both the natural and human world.

At its core, permaculture is an optimistic discipline. Research has shown that negative thoughts can shut down our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain we think and design with. If our mindset constantly revolves around doom and gloom, it becomes very difficult to find solutions to the challenges which we face! By looking to the wonder and complexity of nature, permaculture allows us to reframe problems as opportunities. In the natural world, disturbance brings about new cycles, niches, and possibilities for species to adapt and prosper. When we approach things with this optimism, problems become much easier to deal with. As permies often say, One never has a slug problem in the garden, but rather a duck opportunity waiting to be exploited.” These feelings of Christmas gift-giving dread are my slugs. Where are my ducks?

Modern society’s metrics for success are fundamentally flawed. Did GDP go up or down? Did quarterly results increase or decrease? Did employment rates rise or fall? As Steven Stoll writes in the Orion Magazine article, The Mismeasure of All Things, a lot of these indicators tell us nothing about the things that are truly important in life. They tell us nothing about ecosystem health and biodiversity, of farmer livelihoods or community cohesiveness. They offer us no advice on how to create a happier and healthier world. They certainly don’t define, or offer a fix, to the current Christmas Conundrum.

What are the metrics that will define success during the holiday season? Did we contribute to local economy? Did we spend our hard-earned money on useful valuable things? Did we support local artisans, crafters and vendors? Are we contributing to the poisons of our modern age by excessive consumption or are we focused on making sustainable choices? Are we contributing to a vibrant and thriving community? These are the things that truly matter, because just as we cannot thrive without clean air and soil, we cannot truly survive without real community, no matter how large the GDP becomes.

Permaculture helps us establish many of these metrics. It helps us identify opportunities to make change and to inspire others. It promotes actions that increase diversity, health, and balance. There’s a lot of exciting work that can be done through the permaculture lens.

And it really doesn’t matter what we are designing – permaculture’s system approach represents a way of doing things differently. Permaculture design is universally applicable because it reflects how the real world, a world of interdependence and complexity, works. It makes available the tools we need to become aware of those connections, always with the big picture in mind.

Permaculture is just one big solutions matrix. For any problem, there are a huge number of potential solutions. Permaculture provides the principles so that we can choose solutions that are optimized for us and for our surroundings. An example, then, in the area of this holiday conundrum:

What is the best holiday gift to give? Store-bought? Hand-made? Consumable (food) gift? Gifts of time and memory-making?

The solution depends on the needs of the recipient: How old is the intended receiver of the gift? Can we identify the critical difference between need and want? Between an essential item and a desire? Which gift will provide the most true enjoyment, usefulness or nourishment? Which gift will be treasured, remembered, long-lasting and least likely to be discarded?

Perhaps this isn’t the same for all of us, but when I think back to periods of gift-giving in my life, I can hardly recall the items which I gave that were purchased with little thought in mind, compared to the items that I handcrafted or carefully chose and gave to the recipient with love and care. I cannot recall which items cost what, rather I only remember with regret the years that I went over my gift budget and rang up credit card debt that had to be dealt with in January. Likewise, nor can I recall the giver of gifts that did not mean much to me, or gifts which were not necessary in my life or were discarded, useless or meaningless. What I do remember is holidays past where I gave loved ones goodies baked in my kitchen, books with a personal inscription, or hand-crafted items that are still treasured to this day. I also recall receiving gifts which have been truly cherished through the years, and even who gave them to me. I recall the excitement I felt when I received gifts such as living plants, useful tools, kitchen implements, and cook books. Handmade cards, family photos, tree ornaments and cookies. My blueberries and broad fork are two of my most prized possessions!

I particularly recall Christmas’ past where I have given my own children expensive gadgets and toys… their heart’s biggest desire… and now those remote control helicopters and video games just gathering dust, are seldom played with anymore. What does that mean?

Therefore, gift giving can be based on systems thinking and focused on optimization strategies. Permaculture is engineering, physics, biology, anthropology and architecture all rolled into one. Obviously we don’t become an expert in all these fields just by studying permaculture, but we can gain a solid foundation in these areas while gaining perspective on how human beings fit on this planet. With this broad knowledge base, we can get started designing around our life’s needs while creating positive change.

As Christmas nears, we can apply these principles to our gift choices and see what kind of positive effect we can create for our community, our families, and even for ourselves. May the Conundrum end and the joy of gift-giving and peace begin.

*Permaculture principles adapted from Films for Action

Getting Back Up

I can hardly believe that is has been several weeks already! Some days it feels like months ago, but other times it seems like just last night. However, each time that I close my eyes, I can see, smell and hear the horrific events of that night. The nightmares are increasing, I am sleeping very little, and probably need to pursue counseling. This is why: on the evening of May 21st, 2014, we lost part of our farm to a disaster that we were not prepared for, and honestly had not given enough thought to: a terrible fire. This fire destroyed our shop and barn, and damaged outbuildings, gardens, the orchard and our home. We lost our Silver Fox rabbit does and their kits. The dairy goats are all okay, as are the poultry and their houses, but most of the farm’s infrastructure, implements and tools, and literally everything besides the majority of the home was destroyed or damaged. All machinery, tools, supplies, and surplus resources, except what we had in the garage, are gone. The fire took our ATVs, lawnmowers, saw mill, and workshops for archery, reloading, woodworking and canning. Some of Patrick’s equipment for his business was in his truck, but the rest of it is lost. All hunting and camping equipment, all holiday items and seasonal wares, and so much more that we haven’t considered yet is gone, and damages and loss assessment will take some time. Some items not burned completely have been damaged in the firefighting efforts or melted due to heat, including an SUV, and the boat. 

Although the house is very livable, spared by the cement fiberboard siding, there is some minor damage and a mild odor. The door to the attached garage kept the fire out even as it melted and some water was driven inside, but we don’t expect damage to the contents – except a freezer that stopped working after trying to deal with such increased moisture on the cement floor. Our neighbor and dear friend, Dale Tofte, lost two of his outbuildings and their contents, including his own ATV, lawnmower and tools, etc. He is the neighbor who alerted me to the fire just in time to call for help before the transformer and phone lines went down. Dale attempted to stop the fire’s spread with an extinguisher, but the fire was burning from within the shop; and with the power down there was no water pressure even as he drug hoses around. What an indescribable feeling of utter helplessness to hold a limp hose toward a raging fire… and no water flows. My older son, Damon, sprang into action and tried to move ATV’s, but when the fire grew intensely and rapidly and a burning timber nearly fell on him, he gave up the effort. When propane tanks and welding equipment started to explode in the shop, we woke the other children and evacuated to the far side of the property, with Dale doing his best to keep the 3 Labradors from getting in the way of the firemen and their equipment. 

From our vantage point, the fire appeared to be consuming all of the structures, and though terrified, Damon and I worked together to calm and distract the kids (my younger son, Killian, as well as the two young girls in our care that night) and once the bulk of the fire was contained, I was briefly escorted into the house to retrieve blankets, snacks and books to further aid our efforts to keep calm. We alternated between time sitting on the lawn or in a rescue truck, at times praying or singing or just petting the dogs. After 3 hours, and during a shuffle of the numerous fire trucks, they retrieved one vehicle from the driveway and I was escorted in again to grab one more armful amid smoke and darkness: shoes, coats, teddy bears… and a brooder box of newly hatched chicks that traveled with us to the hotel… along with one dog who insisted she keep watch over the kids! The fire trucks were held up long enough for us to get down our half mile gravel road and make our way into town to meet up with the Red Cross. As we came to the paved road, we were amazed to see tanker trucks lined up, waiting their turn to deliver water to the scene of the fire. Neighbors reported that the crews filled up tankers in the river well into the night. In the end, our reassurance and peace is knowing that the items and buildings can be replaced, and we are all truly unharmed and okay!

The continual show of support and concern from our family, friends, and neighbors overwhelm us with an endearing sense of community. We are sad and shocked right now, but time will heal. One day at a time. Here is a press release about the fire, and of Dale’s heroic actions. I am ever grateful to this dear friend who helped me through this and shared my initial shock and grief. Patrick and Dale have been best friends for most of their lives, with Dale joining us here in Clatskanie as our next door neighbor a couple of years ago. THANK YOU, Dale!! We will all repair and rebuild together.

http://tdn.com/news/local/fire-near-clatskanie-destroys-shop-two-outbuildings/article_0c7b3cec-e219-11e3-b619-001a4bcf887a.html

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