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Just a Little Update

Well, spring arrived here in Iowa…and then it quickly slipped back into winter. The last couple days temps have plummeted back down to the high thirties. It was seventy-five last weekend, just to give you perspective. And while the rain is keeping us out of the fields, it is a necessary blessing. The radish, carrot and spinach seeds we planted last week have all sprouted, and our broccoli, kale and lettuce are enjoying the cooler weather (although not really the steady wind).

The rain has also given us the opportunity to get caught up on a few things. We’ve been seeding inside the house and repotting transplants like crazy the last couple days. We’ve fallen a bit behind on those things and its good to get that going again. I’ve also gone virtually silent on the blog for the past month, so I wanted to take this chance to catch you up on what we’ve been up to.

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In March we started planting seedlings inside under lights. To see how we do that click here We’ve started around 300 tomato plants, 100 pepper plants, broccoli, melons and a few flower varieties. We have more tomatoes to seed and a few other things that will transplant better rather than direct seeding in the ground. This has been a new adventure for us, as we’ve never really started seeds indoors before. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift grow room! But its been fun, and we’ve learned so much that we will take into next season when hopefully we will be able to add a greenhouse to expand our seeding efforts.

What will we do with all of our transplants? We’ll plant many of them in the market garden, but we also plan to sell some of these at the first couple farmer’s markets of the year.

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In March we also began raising a flock of 15 chickens. These girls (and a few unexpected roos) brooded in our front room until they were big enough to go outside. And just a couple of weeks ago they all moved into their new coop. FYI, it smells a wee bit better in the house now, thank you very much.

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They’ve made the transition without any problems, and they love the new space to roam around. Although it took some coaching from “mom and dad” to teach them how to go in and out of the hen house. I used to think that I would never have chickens. I’ve taken care of other people’s chickens before, and it kind of turned me off on the idea. But there is something to raising our own that has changed my mind. And I can’t wait for those fresh farm eggs every morning!

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We’ve broken ground on the 3 acre market garden. This plot of land had been used for soybeans in the year past, but last year was so badly overtaken with weeds that it was hard to imagine how this could ever become a garden. But we mowed, we plowed, and we ran a disc and a harrow over the ground more than a dozen times to get it in shape for making beds.

Our plan is to put in 10 distinct garden plots made of 12 beds each. Each bed is 100 ft long and 20 in wide, with 18 in space between. This will allow for a 10 year rotation between crop types, which will help alleviate disease and aggressive pest issues.

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We’re adopting a permanent bed model to eliminate compaction of the soil. We’ve tilled each bed this year, partially to help line each one out and to help with weeds, but we hope to move toward a no-till process in the next couple years. Our goal is to build up healthy soil, and limiting how often we disrupt it, or turn it over, will help preserve those beneficial microbes we are trying to nurture that live in top six inches. Iowa has incredible soil to begin with, so we are already starting in a good place.

After each bed is tilled, it gets a healthy application of compost around 3 in thick. Starting next year, we’ll rotate our compost application, giving preference to the heavy feeders like potatoes and tomatoes, while applying every two years to the lighter feeders like leaf crops and legumes. Compost is expensive, and we’ve been bringing it home by the truck load. We have a place locally we can get it, but it would be in our best interest from a cost perspective if we can figure out how to provide the amount we need from our own operation.

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Part of the 3 acre garden has been reserved for permanent crop. We’re putting in almost 60 raspberry plants this year, and will likely double that next year. We’ve also got around 300 strawberry plants coming and about the same amount of asparagus over the next two weeks. We hope to expand on these depending on the market in our community.

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In addition to laying compost, we’re laying shredded oak chips in the pathways around each garden plot. Hopefully this will aid in weed suppression, while also giving the garden definition. Another expensive resource that I need to work on sourcing cheaper. Any arborists out there who want to donate their wood chips?

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Part of our overall plan for the farm is to incorporate fruit trees throughout the property. When we bought the house, everything was so overgrown that it will likely take the next couple years to clean it up the way we want. But once we do that there will be plenty of space for small orchard plots around our 12 acres.

So far we’ve added 10 trees. 4 apples, 3 pears and 3 peaches. We’d like to double this yet this spring, with the plan on adding at least another 20 more next year.

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The reason we named our farm 16 Hands was because we have 6 children. Add me and my wife and that’s plenty of helping hands, right? This is a lifestyle that we are hoping will offer our children beneficial skills and experience that will help shape their character as they grow older. Our greatest responsibility in life is to raise healthy, compassionate children who are willing and able to contribute to their community. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by growing up on a farm and sharing in the daily responsibilities.

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This rain has not only been good for our germinating seed, but look at all the weeds popping up in the field! We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’ll show you how we plan to handle these weeds a little later. But I’m very excited with how this project it turning out. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned that nothing worth having is ever achieved without working for it. And we’re happy to do so.

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Apart from the 3 acre market garden, we’ve also started to put in so raised beds across the property for extra growing and research opportunities. Right now these boxes have cold weather crops growing in them, most of them direct seeded and started under the hoop frame I built in the picture above. These are great for protecting young starts and for extending your growing season. To learn how to build your own click here

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When I pause to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish I sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy that will be necessary to pull it off. But when I look at all we have already done, I’m encouraged. It doesn’t feel like work when its something you are very passionate about. Are there unknown risks? Of course there are. But the reward is greater than any of those risks. And I’m blessed to have the people I love most at my side working toward the same goal.

It’s been a crazy ride, let me tell you. How did we get here? I’m not even sure anymore. But we’re loving it, and that’s all that matters.

To see how things progress, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And if you’re in the Ames, Iowa area, we’ll see you at the market!

 

 

 

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Remember a hero

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On August 21, 2004, this man walked his daughter down the aisle. I was waiting there, in the half-light of a partially raining afternoon, scared to death. Doug put his daughter’s hand in mine, and he gave her to me to cherish, to love and to protect for the rest of my life.

I remember the talk Doug had with me before the wedding. We talked about God and the responsibility of being a good husband, and he gave me his blessing and his love. He cried. Well, to be fair, he bawled like a baby, but that was classic Doug. All raw nerves and awkward emotion. He cried when he toasted our marriage as well, but he was beaming with joy when he set his gaze upon us and lifted his glass. He came to the wedding alone, was there for every ceremony, and he was the last person to stay behind after everyone else went home.

It was a great day.

Fast forward ten years later. We’re all sitting around Doug’s hospital bed. We’ve been saying our goodbyes every time we see him because we don’t know how much longer he has, and there are so many things left unsaid. There still are.

He’s gone now. The man who gave me his daughter is gone. He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.

And we remain.

I could tell you about the way Doug cherished his grand kids. That he was a great grandfather. I could tell you that he accepted my two older boys that day in August, accepted them as his own and never once treated them like they were outsiders. I could tell you these things, but I’m not going to. I could also tell you about the many times Doug dropped everything to come help me. Fixing the sump pump in the middle of the night while it was pouring down rain because the basement flooded. Twice. Or the many times he helped me wire electrical outlets in the shop and the house. I could talk about the fishing trips and the shooting trips and the sledding trips. The birthdays, holidays and everything in between. The times he used to come over just to wrestle with the little boys, or the way he held his granddaughter for the first time. But I’m not going to talk about those things either. Those things are mine to keep, to take out and look at like old pictures anytime I feel I need to.

What I want to talk about is the day he handed his daughter to me, and asked me to take care of his little girl. Because, in Doug’s death, I’ve been trying to find a way that would best honor him. And the only real way I know how to honor him the most is to live up to the promise I made that afternoon 13 years ago. Because I plan to see him again, and I’ll have to look him in the eye, and he’ll want to know if I did it. If I fulfilled my promise. And I’m not going to disappoint him.

There are so many things that have gone through my mind in the last several days. Regrets. Words I wish I would have said. Words I wish I hadn’t said. I wish I had more fishing trips. I wish I had more time. But one thing I can say with certainty. Doug touched my life in more ways than he ever knew while he walked this earth. His convictions and faith were unshakable, right up to the end. That will stay with me forever. I want to be a better person because of Doug. A better husband, son, father. A better man. To live with more conviction and less bitterness. To be more open and less closed off.

That, if you ask my opinion, is the true essence of a hero. To live in such a way that you inspire others, that even in your death you are creating change in the people around you.

Doug is a hero. He served his country. He served his God. He served his family.

There will come a time when I will leave this earth. Maybe I’ll find myself walking down another aisle, to another kind of wedding. No tuxedos and photographs this time. I know who will be there waiting for me. He’ll be the first one to meet me at the door, to welcome me home. He’ll ask me about his little girl, and how well the kids have grown. He’ll put his arms around me and we’ll cry, we’ll laugh, and then this distance between us will be no more.

In a little while.

Note: this was first written and published 2 years ago from Hood River, Oregon

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Experimenting with gardening: The Core Method

Happy Saturday! The weather here in northern Iowa has been off the charts. Yesterday was in the low seventies and its supposed to be in the high sixties most of this week. It’s hard to believe we’re still in the middle of February! But we know its only short-lived, so we’re making the most of the sunshine.

We’ve started putting in raised garden boxes, where a lot of our cold weather crops will be grown, with a transition into beans, and I wanted to quickly share the gardening technique we’re experimenting with this year. It’s called the Core Method, and its been around for some time. But this is the first year we’ve used it in our own garden.

The method is simple. The idea is to incorporate organic material down the core, or center, of your raised bed before planting. As this material breaks down it will release vital nutrients to your plants while enriching the soil. Most of the time this is done with rotted straw, but we’re using rotted grass clippings and mulched leaves.

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We have this great space in front of the old brick barn, nestled on the southern side of the hog shed, where the ground is relatively flat. This picture was taken yesterday late afternoon, but we get at least 8 hours of direct sunlight here, and the hog shed provides decent wind break. Our plan is to put in nine raised beds this year, and to incorporate some flowers throughout the space to attract those necessary pollinators.

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Once the box is built and placed, I’m laying cardboard on the bottom, right over the grass. This allows me to not have to dig the grass up (its warm but the ground is still frozen 4 inches below the topsoil) or lay down plastic. I want my plants to have access to the rich soil below and for their roots to not be restricted to the depth of the box (16 inches). The cardboard will kill the grass and act as a weed barrier as it breaks down over time.

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After the cardboard is placed and soaked really good, I’m putting down a thin layer of mulched leaves from our fall pile. Then I’m placing the rotted grass clippings right down the middle of the bed in clumps about six inches deep. The grass is rotting but still green, so it should be a nice source of nitrogen for my spring crop.

Many people use straw instead of grass clippings. I don’t have access to straw without going out and buying it, so I’m using what I have readily available. The important thing to remember is that whether you use straw or grass, it should be partially rotted already. Don’t use it if its wet and slimy, as this will work against the balance you’re trying to create in the soil (think composting; same principle), and could contribute to plant disease or hinder growth. You don’t want to use fresh straw either, as you might not see the benefit of it breaking down until the following year. Using material that is already in the process of breaking down will give your plants a continued source of nutrients throughout the season. Just make sure you don’t use material that has been sprayed with a herbicide, or grass that has gone to seed! (I wouldn’t use hay either, as most hay has seed in it and will create unnecessary weeding.)

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After the grass clippings are placed, I’m adding native soil from the property. Our soil here is a rich blend of sandy clay and I want to use it as much as possible. We had a new septic tank put in last summer, and after the leech field was excavated we ended up with a large pile of black earth. This is what I’m using to fill our boxes.

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I’m starting at the sides and spreading the native soil throughout the box. I’ll cover the grass and mulched leaves and then follow with a layer of compost, which we’re having trucked in from a local business within the week. Once I add compost, I’ll mix in more native soil. Then I’ll be ready to plant.

We hope to sow cold weather crops like kale and radish over the next couple weeks. I’ll put up plastic hoops over the boxes to keep the soil warm and to protect the plants from late winter flucuations in weather. Any snow we get will hopefully serve to insulate the boxes as well. At least that’s the idea!

By the way, you don’t need to have raised beds to incorporate the Core Gardening Method. If you already have or are establishing raised beds on the ground, whether permanent or annual, you can use this method to enrich your soil. This is a neat and organic way to let nature do the work for you, and works well on a no-till garden plot!

Happy gardening!

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Dare to dream big

local-grownI sat down with a local agronomist to go over soil samples he pulled from both of our fields. I was encouraged, but not necessarily surprised by the results. For the most part, our soil is pretty healthy. Nitrogen levels are good, which is to be expected after years of conventional soybean and corn rotation. Potash and Phosphorus are a little low, but nothing to worry about. Organic matter is good and our ph is pretty neutral.

So why did I walk away from our meeting feeling a little discouraged?

The average ph of our soil is 7.1, which on a scale of 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) is right in the middle. Many of the vegetables we intend to grow in the market garden thrive in more neutral soils. Think peppers and squash and green beans. But raspberries, blueberries and strawberries? They prefer a much more acidic soil type, down in the 5-5.5 range. And these are really the crops we are most excited about bringing to our community.

So I asked the agronomist what he would recommend we do to lower the ph of our soil where we intend to grow berries, and this is where the meeting kind of took a strange turn. He looked at me with a crooked smile and kind of shook his head. That simple gesture told me everything that was going through his mind without the need for words. It’s not the first time someone has looked at me as if I was nuts.

“We just kind of grow what the soil lets us grow here,” he said. “And that’s corn and  soybeans.”

I know that’s at least partially true. There are other variables that go into that, and a lot of it has to do with the commodity market. But with corn dropping well below $4.00 a bushel, there are many farmers looking to diversify their crops. And what about the regional market? The desire for fresh, organic produce on a local level is growing rapidly.

Our agronomist went on to tell me that it wasn’t worth the effort to lower our ph, that it would cost too much and probably wouldn’t work anyway. And I could tell he was uncomfortable with the discussion, that this was well out of his wheelhouse. And that’s okay. I get it.

We came here with the intention to go against the status quo. We don’t have enough acres to justify field corn or soybeans, and that’s not where our heart is anyway. Our heart is in being a resource within our local community for quality and diversified fresh vegetables and fruits, and in contributing to the education and preservation of small acre farming. And what we are trying to accomplish isn’t necessarily traditional in the Midwest. We’re in the heart of big agriculture.

I walked away from the meeting and began to do my own research on soil amendment on a smaller scale. Composting and mulching with wood chips shows promise, as does some sulfur application, but the key seems to be in creating a rich environment for the right bacteria to thrive. I’ll be studying this pretty hard over the next couple months.

But as I left that office, a little deflated, a little unsure, I had two choices. I could stop pursuing what we wanted to accomplish, or I could dig in and go deeper.

My point is this: More often than not, if you are working towards accomplishing anything worthwhile you’ll find yourself at odds with those around you. There are always people who are stuck in the rut of “we’ve always done it this way.” Don’t let that discourage you! There is always a different perspective, and if you’re willing to be open-minded and realistic, you’ll often find success. But it won’t be without skeptics!

The inclination of many is to walk away, to abandon the dream, or to conform to normal standards. Each comes with their own kind of death, in my opinion. How many of us live with regret of the risks we didn’t take, especially as we grow older?

If we are to follow our heart, we have to dare to dream big. And we have to prepare ourselves to be challenged; by the people around us, by reality, and by our own expectations.

Luckily we are not necessarily alone on this path. There are others who have gone before us, who have dared to dream. And from the experiences of others we can glean our own success. Here are a few thoughts on making your dreams reality:

Be grounded by reality, but not limited by it

I may never be able to successfully grow berries on our property. That may be a reality. But it’s not going to keep me from trying to do it. I refuse to stop just because it hasn’t been done before (there are a few farms that grow berries here in Iowa; its not like this is a completely foreign idea). The agronomist might think it isn’t worth trying, but why should that limit my desires?

We have to be willing to work within the realm of possibility, and not be limited to what is only commonly accepted. Some things might be beyond reality. I will never be a famous singer. No matter how much effort I put into it, I still can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Amending my soil enough to have healthy berry production might be scientifically and financially out of question, but I’m not convinced of either yet.

Don’t let the skeptics define your success

You will always have someone tell you it isn’t possible. Challenge them. Ask why? Maybe something isn’t possible, but don’t determine your own limitations by the opinions of others.

I’m not saying that we ignore the advice of others. Actually, I believe in seeking the advice of many. But what I have found in my life is that there are too many out there who have refused to follow their own dreams, and have become jaded from it, and so are willing to cripple the dreams of others. Or, more often, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who have become comfortable with a certain kind of conforming. They’ve accepted the status quo, and anyone who comes along challenging the accepted norms will make them uncomfortable.

Don’t be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Challenge the common status quo. When people ask you why, ask them why not.

You’ll have to work for it

I read a quote from Colin Powell that I love: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”

You can seek help, but if you’re going against the grain you’ll often have to pave your own way. You can be inspired by those pioneers of innovation who came before us. You can learn from their stories of grit and resistance and challenge. But often times, as a dreamer, you’ll find yourself alone and doubting your resolve. You’ll have to figure things out on your own. Do your own research. Learn from your mistakes. It takes work to make a dream reality, but the payoff is well worth it.

Many dreamers have crashed and burned because they weren’t willing to do what it takes to realize their dreams. Think of all the failed writers and musicians out there among us. These are the skeptics.

Be willing to work hard, to be humble, to learn and grow with determination, and success will eventually come.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Many of our great leaders and innovators learned through their own failure. Think about Abraham Lincoln. His life was wrought with failure, but in the end he was able to achieve more than he could ever dream. Think about Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa. All of them risked failure time and time again. All of them felt disappointment and rejection. All of them challenged the status quo.

I did not grow up on a farm. I don’t have an agronomy degree. Many of the things I want to accomplish on our farmstead seem out of reach. Statistics are against me. But I am inspired by the opportunity to learn, to grow and through my own experiences help show others that growing food on a small-scale is possible, profitable and healthy for the community.

Be willing to adjust and be flexible

We may need to alter our expectations of what we grow and how we will grow it. That’s okay. It may prove too difficult to amend our soil enough to grow healthy berries. This isn’t a deal killer for us, because our aspirations are much larger. We’re willing to be flexible in our own expectations for success. That’s part of the enthusiasm we have for the market garden. Experimenting with different techniques, growing methods and varieties. Seeing what we can accomplish, and not being held back by our own fears and inexperience. We’re not afraid to change our thoughts or direction.

And neither should you be. Stay the course, yes. Keep your eyes on the end goal. But be willing to adapt to the challenges and to the revelations you experience on the journey. This is how we grow. This is how we make dreams a reality.

Don’t forget to have fun

Striving for the sake of striving doesn’t make sense. Is your dream really what you want in your heart? If so, then you will enjoy the process. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself, and your mistakes. I know I will. Are others laughing at you? Laugh with them! Don’t take yourself, or your dreams, too seriously. In the end, its in the process, or the journey, where character and skill are defined. That’s so important to remember.

Share what you learn with others

This is important. Share your experiences, your struggles, your lessons learned. Enrich your community and help others accomplish great things. Knowledge is power, but its wealth is only found in giving it away.

Our dream may seem simple to others. Everybody gardens right? It’s not like we’re trying to break the DNA code, split an atom or determine the Theory of Gravity. But to us its a revolution. It’s not just about gardening. We’re rethinking how we eat, how we view the food industry and how we engage and can serve the community. We’re redefining what it means to farm, and we’re not alone in this. This is a growing movement that we are happy to be a part of.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, whatever path your are on, don’t be afraid to dream big. Enjoy the journey. Life is an adventure, or at least it should be.

 

 

 

 

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Taking The Dream To Reality

 

 

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So we’re starting to figure some things out. When we first started this adventure last year, we only had a vague idea of what we wanted to do with our acreage. We had a vision, a dream, but the details of how that dream would evolve into reality were pretty soft and vague. Over the past couple of months we’ve done a lot of research, talked to a variety of people, and really tried to narrow down what it was we wanted to accomplish this year, while working through the bigger picture of what kind of farmstead we want to build over the next several years. In other words, who are we going to be when we grow up?

We dream big, and that’s good. Dreams are meant to be inflated and conceptual. But when it comes to bringing those concepts to market, I think we have to be intentional about focusing on what matters most to us, which is producing quality food that our family can share with our community.

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We have all kinds of crazy ideas and there are many things that we want to try. We’ve often dreamed of having a UPick location for fresh berries. These operations are very popular and successful back in Oregon, and we frequented them often every summer. Also popular in the northwest are orchards. We come from the Hood River Valley, where a lion’s share of the pears grown for North America are produced. So we’ve always known whatever kind of operation we grow, tree fruit would have a part of it.

We’ve talked about raising goats and chickens and feeding out pigs for meat. We’ve even talked about beekeeping. All of these things excite me. But as we look forward to spring, I have to be realistic about how much time we have to commit, and the scope of each of these projects. Each will bring its own learning curve, which will add to the complexity of its success. If we want to succeed, I believe we have to narrow our scope and hone in on doing one project right, instead of spreading ourselves too thin and perhaps never achieving success in anything at all. That sounds like a good way to burn out to me, and I think it’s where several before us have grown frustrated and quit.

So our primary effort this year will be establishing a sustainable and profitable market garden that will be the centerpiece of our farmstead. We’ll do this on the 3 acres south of us, while planting a cover crop or perhaps alfalfa on the northern 6 acres and reserving it for future rotation.

Proper rotation is a part of the solution to our biggest challenge, which is soil fertility. Building a plan that will increase the quality of our soil over the next several years will be imperative. We have great soil here in Iowa, but the ground we are working with has been used for conventional corn and soybeans for many years, and it will take a little while for us to build the kind of organic matter and tilth necessary to provide a healthy, long-term environment for the alternative vegetables and fruits we want to specialize in.

Most of what we plant this spring will go in permanent beds. The idea behind this is to adapt a no-till strategy that will allow us to introduce organic matter and nutrients to the soil on a smaller, hyper-focused scale and only where necessary, while minimizing weed growth. When you till or deep plow, you risk bringing invasive seeds to the top surface (in addition to losing vital plant resources such as nitrogen). Only disturbing the topsoil at a few inches to incorporate organic matter and compost, you’ll still get weeds, but they’ll be easier to manage . At least that’s the idea. We’re choosing to minimize the amount of mechanized machinery we use (partially to limit compaction as well as cost) and with a labor force of three, we need to keep weeds under control as much as possible. Mulching will also help. We’re still contemplating the best kind of mulch, and where to find it locally in the quantity that we’ll need.

We hope having a good rotation plan will also keep weeds, pests and disease to a minimum. There will be permanent crops, such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. We’re also going to grow lavender. But the tomatoes, corn, beans and squash will all need to be on a three-year rotation. This will mean we have to be intentional about where we plant this spring, while at the same time thinking forward to where things will go in 2018.

Head spinning yet?

The breadth of this can seem enormous at times. Once we started to really narrow down on what we wanted to accomplish, it was easy to see there were several parts of the “dream” we had to let go. That’s okay. There will be time to incorporate those things back in, slowly and methodically. The market garden has to flow from year to year, and establishing it right in the beginning is essential. This is the part of the “dream” that can potentially be the most profitable for us, which will lead to growing other parts of the farmstead. So we have to give it every bit of time and energy we have to make it work.

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It’s all good. This whole journey has been exciting to me. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. We strive to be good stewards of what we have been given, to make the most out of these opportunities, and to learn and grow everyday.

I can almost smell the dirt. Can almost feel the spring sun on my face. I can’t imagine another way of living.

 

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Learning To Sit Still

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It’s an icy mess outside. We’ve been getting freezing rain at the house since last night, our version of the storm that has been pounding the Heartland over the last couple days. I’m watching as the rain falls, hits the window and almost instantly freezes, leaving icy fingers down the glass. Everything is coated with what looks like translucent glass, which makes for a picturesque scene. But it also makes doing anything outside almost impossible.

To top it all off, I was hit with a stomach bug over the weekend. Its been going around, and when you have 4 young kids who forget how to wash their hands, it’s almost a certainty it’ll show up in some form at our front door. Always does.

So I’ve been physically down for the last couple days. Watching the world freeze outside the window isn’t as peaceful a way to dwindle through this sickness as you might imagine. As a matter of fact its kind of terrible.

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I’ve noticed something about myself over the last couple days. There’s a nervous energy flowing through me, and being stuck in the chair (the one closest to the bathroom, mind you) has created a kind of anxiety that seems to hum in my ears like electric wires. I want to do something, anything. And sitting here feels purposeless and impotent. A waste of time.

Since we moved, almost everyday has been filled with doing things. Organizing, woodworking, fixing the boy’s bunk bed, remodeling the wood shop, the bathroom, painting, cutting down trees, etc. You get the idea. We’ve been busy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s healthy to work and to see progress, and there’s certainly plenty to do. Even now, as the winter weather digs in, we’ve been preparing and planning for all the things we want to accomplish in spring.

So it feels foreign to…just sit here. To do nothing.

I don’t think its supposed to be that way. Aren’t we supposed to take time to rest? To be intentional about it even. So why can’t I do that without feeling anxious?

I don’t have the answer to that. As a child, I used to wonder at how long the days seemed. The hours seemed to stretch on forever and there was no sight of where the day might end. Now I find myself very conscious of the clock and how little time there is. I’m always trying to cram as much into each hour as possible, making the most out of EVERYTHING. Being efficient. Does that have something to do with aging? I’ll be 40 in a couple of months, and I’m very much aware of how precious time is. I don’t know how much of it I have left. There’s so much I want to accomplish, and its this passion that fuels the flame burning inside of me everyday. To get up, to get dressed, and to engage the world. I was made to do things.

But I realize now that eventually I’ll reach the point where the wick is at its end. Eventually the candle will burn out, and perhaps all the things I’ve done won’t have been for nothing, but maybe they could have been more sustainable if I had just taken a few moment each week to rest. To enjoy the moments a little deeper. To find a place to just sit, and maybe watch the rain. Without guilt. Without fear.

Charles Spurgeon said: “Rest time is not waste time. it is economy to gather fresh strength…It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less.”

I need to learn how to do this.

 

 

 

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5 Corn Varieties To Consider Growing This Spring

It’s January and the temps are plummeting again outside. The last couple mornings here have been below zero, something we’re still getting used to. The land is still frozen, there’s left over snow in the fields,  but I’ve got my mind on spring.

I’ve been flipping through the seed catalogs, trying to put together our 2017 planting strategy. I’m excited for the all the varieties of vegetables and fruit we have planned for this year, but I think I’m the most excited about sweet corn.

We used to buy our sweet corn from a couple of farm stands in Washington, and it was always delicious. We’d buy them by the sacks and we’d freeze what we didn’t set aside to eat on the cob. Because of the timing of our move last summer, we weren’t able to freeze as much corn as we wanted. And this year we get to grow our own!

So I’m doing research on a couple of varieties we’ll experiment with this year. And the more I learn about corn, the more I realize how versatile a resource it really is. Sweet corn is great in summer, but what about growing varieties that will allow you to make your own corn meal or flour? What about popcorn?

Here’s a short list of a few varieties outside of the norm that you might consider growing this spring:

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Glass Gem – This is a newer, late maturing (105 days) variety that has quickly created a buzz in the seed world. Its unique colored kernels are translucent and are supposed to sparkle in the sun when dried, just like rare gems. Used as an ornamental, this variety is also supposed to be very good for popcorn (don’t think big fluffy puffs that taste as bland as Styrofoam like you get at the store; these are smaller puffs that are packed with taste) or can be ground into meal or flour. The stalks are also strong, and grow up to ten feet, which is another fall ornamental plus.

We plan on experimenting with this variety on a small-scale. You can buy seed from many of the organic or heirloom seed companies, including SeedSavers Exchange (seedsavers.org) or Victory Seeds (victoryseeds.com). Cost will be around $2.99 for 50 seeds.

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Smoke Signals – Another multi colored, ornamental or popcorn variety, but this one is USDA certified organic if that’s important to your planning. Kernels will grow in shades of blue, pink, mahogany, white and yellow. Most plants will grow up to three ears. This is also a late maturing variety (100 days).

You can order this from Seed Savers Exchange for about $2.99 per pack of 100 seeds

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Sugar Buns – This yellow variety has more going for it than just its name. It’s a super sweet, early maturing (70 days) variety that boasts of its long harvest capability, remaining tender even two weeks after maturity in the field. It also has shown leaf blight. A perfect option for colder, northern regions. And yellow corn is high in Vitamin A!

You can buy Sugar Buns from Johnny’s Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) for $4.10 for a packet of 150 seeds, or buy in bulk at 1000 seeds for $7.35.

 

 

aces-3Aces – Another early maturing (78 days) sweet corn variety. Good flavor and tender bi-colored kernels. Also shows high tolerance against leaf blight. This would make for great grilling or freezing for winter meals. High yield potential.

Harris Seed Company (harrisseed.com) has this at $16.20 for 1000 seeds.

 

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Cherokee White Eagle – This variety is a great option if you want to make your own corn meal. Blue and white kernels at maturity (110 days), but yellow and white when young. You can also eat this as a semi sweet corn if picked early. Should be prepared quickly after harvest, or else the flavor diminishes quickly.

These seeds are rare, but you can find them at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) at 75 seeds for $4.00.

 

There are a lot of different varieties of corn available to the small gardener or farmsteader today. Make sure you choose to order your seed from a reputable company. The companies that I’ve listed here have been in business for many years and have great reviews for their quality and customer service. Also, make sure you talk to your local extension office or agronomist about what varieties would do best in your climate.  And whatever you do, don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun.

Happy seed hunting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Where Do Ticks Go In Winter?

 

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A couple of years ago, we found a tick behind our Aussie’s ear. The sucker was hidden well and had been latched on for a while. The only reason we found it was because Oscar’s eye had begun to swell, which caused us to take a closer look at what would be causing such a strange thing. After we pulled the tick off, Oscar got sick very quickly, to the point where we were concerned we might lose him. We took him to the local vet in Hood River, who eventually referred us to a specialist in Portland, and after many tests they still couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. As his health continued to decline, we kept thinking back to that tick. What if it was Lyme disease?

For whatever reason, the vet didn’t seem concerned about Lyme Disease. But the classic signs were there: loss of appetite, stiff and lame joints, lack of energy. And that tick seemed to be the beginning of all Oscar’s problems. Finally, the vet consented to treat Oscar for Lyme disease. And guess what? He got better.

Since then we’ve been pretty religious about treating the dogs (to be fair, we treated the dogs before, but we were kinda hit or miss with it). So we treat the dogs early spring through summer, but what about winter? Ticks die in the winter, right?

Huh uh.

Most ticks become active as the weather warms up. And even though its less likely to encounter a tick during the late fall and through winter, they don’t necessarily die off from the cold weather. Ticks will burrow underground or make their home under decaying leaves and other debris, which insulates them well during those frosty and frozen days, even in the snow.

One variety of tick, the Blacklegged or Deer Tick, will even venture out during winter months when daily temps fluctuate above freezing. And its this tick that is the most concerning, as its estimated that 50% or more of these ticks carry Lyme Disease.

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Blacklegged ticks are a three cycle tick, meaning they will latch onto three separate hosts during their lifespan, which is generally two years. Larvae will wait on plant leaves or on grass blades until a small animal, usually a mouse, passes by. It’ll feed and by the time it drops off it has become a Nymph. Still too small to be seen in most cases, Nymphs remain active through the summer, and are often the most dangerous in spreading Lyme disease as they will bite any kind of mammal, including humans. It only takes 36 hours to transmit the disease, and by the time the host has been infected, these nymphs are usually long gone.

By fall the Nymph will molt into an adult and will be looking to attach to anything large that will sustain it through the cold months. This is when deer are most active, which is generally the Blacklegged tick’s favorite host. But they won’t rule out latching onto a dog sniffing through or rolling in the leaf pile.

Blacklegged ticks are found almost anywhere in the United States, from the Northeast through the Midwest and all along the Pacific coast. They are very common here in Iowa.

Year-long prevention is the best way to protect our pets. Talk with your vet about recommended treatment plans. Make sure your yard is free of fallen leaves and other debris. Cut back wooded areas to create more open space. Consider keeping dense plants away from your home, especially around entry areas. And check your pets regularly. I know I will be from now on. There’s nothing to fear about ticks, as long as we’re well-informed and have a solid defensive game plan.

Oscar is doing well, by the way. He’s slow to get up sometimes, and we can tell his joints are still stiff. I’m told these can be lasting symptoms of Lyme disease. He’s only 4 years old, and we’re kind of fond of him, so we’ll be much more dilligent in preventing future exposure.

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Side Note: Where did Lyme Disease come from? It’s widely reported that the first confirmed cases came when several children and adults in Lyme, Connecticut started having strange symptoms, including swollen knees, skin rashes, headaches and severe chronic fatigue. These symptoms went largely undiagnosed until two persistent mothers did their own research and eventually contacted outside scientists to investigate. By the end of the decade, anyone with the symptoms was referenced as having Lyme. But it wasn’t until the 80s when scientists studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever made the connection between Lyme and ticks. Today, Lyme Disease is one of the fastest growing vector-borne illnesses in the US.

Another, more controversial theory, connects the Connecticut outbreak in the 70s to an accidental release of infected ticks during experiments at Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Long Island Sound, about 8 miles south of Lyme.

That certainly makes for a great story!

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The Universal Wonders of Eggshells

 

 

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I was cleaning out my dad’s garage last summer, and I came across a container of crushed eggshells.

Now, my dad was a borderline hoarder. He called himself a “collector” but that’s really a soft way of saying he just didn’t throw anything away. Newspapers, old stamps, coins (he had coins of all kinds stashed all over the house; in vases, glasses, envelopes stuffed in boxes, you name it), model cars, empty coffee cans, empty soap buckets, shot glasses… You get my point. He “collected” many things. But so did my mom. After they both passed, my sister, my cousins and I were tasked with cleaning out their house and allocating their many belongings (a really terrible thing to have to do, actually; root through your parents’ things). Picture a small two bedroom home stuffed with items acquired over the 30 or so years they had lived there. It was an interesting challenge, to say the least.

The bulk of my dad’s things were crammed into the single car garage, which was also his wood shop. Wooden crates full of tools, old cassette and 8 Track tapes, his Conan comic book collection, plastic bins crammed full of old coffee stained receipts.

And this container of crushed eggshells.

I don’t know why I took a pause with the eggshells. Maybe it was because they looked oddly enough like old, crushed bones. Maybe it was the weirdness of finding them among all the other things in the garage. But I did pause before throwing the container in the trash. And the thought of those eggshells has been with me ever since. I mean, what a silly thing to hold on to, right?

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Since we’re planning on adding chickens to the farmstead this spring, and since we already eat a lot of eggs (when you have a family of 7 living under the same roof, you can’t get away with just buying a dozen eggs to make it through the week), I did a little research on how to better utilize this abundant resource that usually just goes in the trash. And it turns out dad was on to something. I’m not sure what he was using those crushed eggshells for (I suspect he was using them to kill the slugs; he was always waging war against the slimy things), but his little coffee can of eggshells led me to discover how useful they actually are.

  1. Put ’em in the compost. This is something we did religiously in Oregon. Throw them in the compost bin and forget about them. Each eggshell contains roughly 750 mgs of calcium, which will help to make your garden and potting soil nice and rich. I’m sure many of you already do this.
  2. Supplement your tomato plants. Tomatoes are prone to blossem-end rot, a common skin disorder that comes from a calcium deficiency. Cucumbers, peppers and squash are also susceptible to this problem. Use crushed eggshells when you plant these vegetables in the ground to give them a good, sustainable boost of calcium.
  3. Pest deterrent. If you live in an area where slugs and snails run amuck, then crushed eggshells might be your best friend. I remember my dad used to do this when I was a kid. Sprinkle eggshells around your garden, or around the plants themselves, and these pests won’t cross over them. I’ve even heard that they will keep deer away, although I can’t swear to that personally.
  4. They make your morning cup of coffee less bitter. I like bitter coffee, but if you don’t then try mixing crushed eggshells in with your coffee grounds. They’ll make your cup of joe a little more tolerable. Then just throw the grounds and eggshells in the compost bin afterwards.
  5. Homemade cleanser. Eggshells are naturally abrasive (duh). Crush them up and mix them with soapy water and you have yourself a great non-toxic cleanser. Use this concoction to scrub your pots and pans, or scrape paint off old paint.
  6. Canine mineral supplement. Bake your eggshells in the oven at a low temperature for 20-25 minutes. Then grind them down with a rolling-pin to a fine powder. Sprinkle a little at a time over your dog’s food each night as a calcium supplement. If your dog has diarrhea, eggshell powder will also help settle their stomach. The calcium carbonate in them acts as a natural antacid (good for humans too!).
  7. Make your own sidewalk chalk. Add crushed eggshells with flour, hot water and food coloring, and you can make your own sidewalk chalk. The kids love chalk, and if I don’t have to buy it at the store then it’s a win for everyone.
  8. Sharpen your blender blades. Mix with water and run some crushed eggshells through your blender to keep those blades sharp. I’ve been told this works well for the garbage disposal too.
  9. Feed them to the birds. The extra boost of calcium is great for birds in the spring when they are laying their own eggs. You need to sterilize the shells, so bake them in the oven and then crush them up, then mix in with your wild bird seed.
  10. Cats supposedly don’t like them. We used to struggle with the neighbor’s cats using our raised garden beds as litter boxes. I’ve been told that if you sprinkle a good amount of egg shells in the garden boxes, this will deter cats from making it their own. Wish I would have known them back in Oregon!

So maybe my dad was on to something. And yes, I’ve even started my own container of crushed eggshells. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree after all.

What about you? What do you do with your eggshells?

Share with us what you would add to this list.

 

 

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To The Person Who Hit My Dog

This morning started out normal. Pretty much the same as every morning has started this week. Eyes open to a semi-kind of-daylight leaking through the window. Coffee downstairs followed by the pattering of little feet and impish giggling in the hallway. Cartoons on the television, cereal pouring into plastic bowls, the house suddenly coming awake.

But as the morning began to unpack itself, things took a sharp turn.

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Our dogs were out front doing what they normally do (sniffing each other, barking at invisible things in the woods and peeing on anything they possibly can pee on).  They’ve been “trained” to stay away from the road, so we’ve become less of the “helicopter” dog owners and let them do their thing outside for short periods of time. They have plenty of acreage to run on and for the most part the road lacks interest to them anymore. That hasn’t always been the case.  Canela, our chocolate lab, was a tire chaser when we first moved to the country. Every tractor, motorcycle, bicycle, unicycle and skateboard that went by would send her into a feverish charge. Sometimes she’d go into the road, sometimes she’d come to an abrupt stop at the edge of the property and bark her face off. She’s still essentially a puppy and the first couple months here she just couldn’t help herself. We knew we needed to do something about it, and so we considered our options (electric fencing was highly recommended) but after some time she just stopped chasing tires, and pretty much avoided the road entirely. Or at least became more wary of it.

Until this morning.

It must have been a rabbit or a squirrel. Could have been a purple elephant. It was something. Both dogs suddenly darted into the road, one on the heels of the other, like they were chasing a bat out of hell. They could have done that same thing a hundred times any other day with a different result, but this morning the planets were aligned (or maybe they were misaligned) and timing wasn’t on their side. Canela was hit.

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We don’t get a lot of traffic by our house, mostly tractors and trucks hauling hogs. But it is a paved country road so when people use it they don’t normally drive very slow. I’d guess the car that hit our dog was easly doing 55. And they didn’t slow down, didn’t slam on their brakes, didn’t stop. Ever. But I’ll get back to that.

I want to stress here that this was an accident. We live on the crest of a small hill, which makes it difficult to see if you’re coming from the north. And you know what? We probably should have put in the underground electric fence (I’ve been told dogs will still cross these if provoked or stubborn, but we should have tried it). This wasn’t a malicious thing, and I don’t hold the person who hit our dog responsible. Dog darts out in front of you, what do you do?

You stop. That’s what you do. You stop, you make sure the dog is alive. I don’t expect you to drive off the road or do something that will injure yourself. But you should at least make sure someone is home to get the dog help. Show some minutiae of kindness, that you’re at least partially human. Something. But whatever you do, you don’t just keep driving like nothing happened.

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Canela was T-boned on her left side. Direct hit. It all happened so quickly (like all accidents do), but we watched as she went up over the hood and came down on the road. Luckily she didn’t go under the car, didn’t go under a tire, and for that grace alone she is still alive. Amazingly enough, after getting hit, she got up and ran to the back of the house as I charged out the front door, our Aussie Oscar hot on her heels. It was a surreal moment, like a reel from a black and white movie.

And the car kept chugging along. I never saw the brake lights flash once.

When Canela came inside, she took a hoarse gulp of air and kind of folded in on herself on the kitchen floor. It was a slow motion collapse, like her last bit of will to move just evaporated, flowed right out of her. She had road rash, bleeding gashes on her head and her legs, and was going into shock very quickly. I picked her up and put her in the back of the car and we drove her to the vet, who put her on IV fluids and took x-rays and kept amazingly calm throughout it all. Again, lucky dog because there were no sign of broken bones. But there was internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen and possibly a ruptured bladder. Back in the car and then down to the ISU Veterinary Hospital. More x-rays. Long waiting time in an empty room that smelled strangely of new paint and astringent. Frantic flashbacks to four years ago when we had to put our yellow lab Charlie to sleep on New Year’s Eve (what is it about this time of year?). Lots of pacing, empty phone checks, deep breathing and cursing 2016 until FINALLY the doc came in. Prognosis? She’s alive. And she’ll probably stay that way. She’s still at the hospital, will be there tonight and maybe longer. But she’ll make it through this ordeal. Internal bleeding is still a concern, and she’ll likely get a blood transfusion. But… she’s alive.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think about things throughout this whole process. You get to do that while sitting in a waiting room. Think. The experience in a waiting room is really no different if it’s a dog or a child. At least not for us. I’ve done both. And our dogs are part of the family. That’s why we spent an ungodly amount of money trying to save our lab Charlie, and it’s why we’re going to make sure Canela will get whatever she needs to heal. But that’s my point. There’s a sense of violation that comes when you spend most of the day anxiously standing on the edge of a needle wondering if your dog is going to survive, and you keep thinking about the car that didn’t even stop. It’s a contradiction of values, really. While rushing our dog to emergency care, we were painfully aware of what her loss would mean for our family. And the person who hit her didn’t care enough about her, or how their actions might affect us, to pull over.

I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m tired of trying. I’m not angry, not anymore. I was this morning. Livid, really. Perhaps even hostile. But now I’m mostly sad. My dog is going to continue to fight to survive tonight in a foreign room without her people, and the person who hit her will never know the amount of anxiety, fear, frustration and sadness they have caused. I said before that this was an accident. Our dog getting hit wasn’t a malicious act. Not caring enough to pull over and make sure things are okay was.

I don’t ever want to be that kind of person. Maybe it was inconvenient to stop. Maybe the person was frightened over the ordeal, or embarrassed. Maybe they were late for a meeting. Maybe they had just robbed a bank. Whatever. I’m talking about character here. We live in a world where too many people just don’t have empathy anymore. For anything or anyone. We are too busy, too callused, too important. Should have kept that dog locked up and out of the road. Not my problem! We rationalize everything without thinking about how the things we do, or don’t do, affect others. The love of many has grown cold. This to me is our biggest threat. Not climate change. Not Russia. Empathy for one another that has grown cold.

If a person wouldn’t stop after hitting a dog, would they stop if they hit a child? Think about that for a little bit.

Because I have been all day.

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Finding the Christmas Spirit

 

 

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This Christmas will be the first of many things for us. It will be our first Christmas in the new house. Our first Christmas celebrated as Iowans. It will be the first Christmas without my mom and dad, who both passed away last summer. My oldest son will be flying out from Oregon to spend the holiday with us, but we won’t have any extended family at our table this year. That will also be a first.

I’m not afraid of firsts. We’ve had many of them in our family. And I’m genuinely looking forward to Christmas this year. But that hasn’t always been the case for me.

I’ll admit it. I’ve approached Christmas most of my life with a kind of ambivalence that falls somewhere on a spectrum between utter bitterness and cold, numb indifference. My wife loves Christmas. I’ll let you figure out how well my lackluster enthusiasm works in our house.

Why am I such a Grinch you ask?

Christmas is weird for me. I’ve struggled with it. I’ve struggled to find the meaning in it. I mean, I know what Christmas is supposed to be about. In it’s truest sense, its the time we celebrate the birth of Christ and the redemption of mankind. In a more holistic sense, it’s a time for families and loved ones to come together. But making that connection between ideology and reality has been tough for me. And frankly it’s been disappointing.

We don’t live in a Hallmark movie. We live in a world where the cartoon network quickly turns into the news on a regular basis. Think about all the terrible things we’ve read about or watched on TV this year. I heard a story just today about a mother who beat her children with the buckle of a belt after finding out they opened a few Christmas presents early. She actually bit one of them several times. This isn’t discipline, its rage. It’s insanity. These were her children. Seriously? But how often are we exposed to this kind of thing on a regular basis?

And what about the “war on Christmas” we hear about every year? People miffed because Starbucks went to a solid red cup. Do I say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? Does it matter? And do I need to talk about Black Friday? Mobs of people leaving their families on Thanksgiving to go push their way in line to buy…what? Cheap television sets?

( Please note: If you’re one of the many who looks forward to Black Friday, don’t get me wrong. I don’t get it, but I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad.I’m just looking for something…more.)

The past few years, Katie and I have worked hard at trying to bring simplicity into our Christmas celebration. I think what pushed me over the edge was the year we had so many presents under the tree that they took up half our living room. Granted, we have six children, and these presents were a combination of what we bought and gifts from extended family. But…but…I struggle with excess. I struggle with excess on Christmas. I struggle with the glazed over look I’ve seen in my children’s eyes as they move from one present to the next without ever really appreciating what it is they just opened. Or knowing who it was from. And then to find the toy broken and disgarded merely weeks after they were taken out of their package.

What are we doing to our kids?

I come from a generation whose parents worked hard to give their kids the things they never had. My mom and dad went into debt every Christmas to make sure my sister and I had plenty of gifts. And I’m grateful for their sacrifice, although I certainly don’t advocate going into debt to buy Christmas presents. But it was all they knew how to do. My parents had nothing when they were growing up, and like many of their generation they simply wanted to spare their own children from ever wanting anything. (Sidenote: I have actually come to beleive that going without can be a good thing, but I’ll save that conversation for another time). Somewhere along the way, we’ve taken their good intentions and turned them into something completely different. Something worse. Christmas has become a commercialized march toward excessive consumerism.

It’s a reflection of our society really. We’re a Throw Away, Buy It Cheap, Accumulate As Much As We Can generation. It’s ingrained in our minds from the time we are very little through well placed and high-priced marketing campaigns. Want more, consume more, waste more, repeat.

Maybe there is a war on Christmas. But I would take it even one step further. There is a war on the contentment of our hearts and minds. Think about that for a moment. Are we really content? Really?

I realize that I’m not speaking for everyone here. There are some who have shunned the fanatical commercialism of the holiday and have tapped into the heart of what it’s really supposed to be about. I’m still trying to figure it out.

So how do we protect our children from both the raging lunacy of the world outside our doors and the subtle erosion of values happening on the inside?

Here’s what we are doing. They’re little things, but big steps for us.

  1. Katie and I have decided to buy our family presents without excess. What does that mean? Instead of being wrapped up in matching dollar for dollar in the exercise of gift giving, we are focusing on quality and meaning over quantity. Turning our focus on the person we are buying for, thinking about what matters to them, why they matter to us and how we can truly bless them. This is so much different from just buying them a widget or a thing-a-majig that happens to be on sale. It’s also why I’m a litle adverse to giving gift cards. When we make Christmas about blessing the people in our lives, it’s the act of giving, the thought and energy put into it, that matters and not the sum of what’s actually exchanging hands.  Does that make sense? I care for you, and I want to show you how much you mean to me by sharing this gift with you that further expresses how much I appreciate you being in my life. This is what I’m after.
  2. We’re making some of our gifts. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and will do more of in the future.  When you spend your time making something with your own hands for another person, you’re investing something in that person, and I like the idea of that.
  3. We’re moving toward a toy rotation system. Cleaning out the old toys and putting some of them in bins to rotate out later. Some will be donated. Making room for the new stuff so our kids can enjoy their toys a few at a time. I read an article last week exploring the idea that excessive toy consumption can actually create PTSD-like symptoms in children. Too many choices, too much information, too many things demanding our kid’s attention. By rotating toys out every season or quarter, our kids will always have something “new” to play with and we can focus their attention on just a few toys they can enjoy. Hopefully this will instill in them a better sense of caring for their possesions too (and mom won’t constantly be picking up as much as she does now).
  4. We’re not traveling over the holiday. This was a hard rule we had set a few years ago after moving to Las Vegas and then to Arizona. We realized how stressful it was to travel with a caravan of kids (our first Christmas after leaving Oregon was one of the most peaceful and enjoying holidays we had in a long time), and how much this diminished the holidays for us. So we’ve chosen to stay planted, and have asked our extended family to come spend the holidays with us in our house. Is this fair? I don’t know. But for our kids its extremely important. (Side note: last year we rented a house on the Oregon coast over the holidays and invited our familes to join us; this was really our first attempt to do something different and bring the focus of the season back to the people that matter to us, and it worked!)
  5. I’m going to be intentional about decorating. This brings so much joy to Katie and the kids, and I’ll admit I’ve been a Scrooge about it in years past. Also, I’ve learned that if you just get out the decorations its hard not to get into the “Christmas spirit”.

The key to it all is simplicity. The more we can simplify in our lives the more time and energy we have to spend with each other. And this is a process for us, one that we’re only beginning to figure out.

This is going to be an evolution for me. I told you I struggle here. But I’m hopeful about this Christmas because I think we are making the kind of changes that will benefit our children, and our own mental health. I can’t change how quickly this world is slipping into maddening chaos. But I can quiet the chaos within our own walls. After all, the Christmas Spirit isn’t something you can find in the store. It’s found in the presence of those who matter most to us, and the sense of peace we can find in our own hearts and minds.

After all, as the Grinch soon found out:

It came without ribbons, it came without tags, 

It came without packages, boxes or bags.

And he puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?

What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

Merry Christmas everyone!

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This Sudden Change Of Weather

When we first told our family that we were moving to Iowa, my grandpa asked me if I knew that Iowa gets “weather”. That wasn’t the first time we were asked that question, nor was it the last. Even when we finally did make the move, well-meaning Midwesterners asked us if we’d experienced Iowa winters yet. When we said no, not yet, they’d kind of nod and smile with a knowing gleam in their eye. Just you wait, sonny, that look said. You’ll see.

Yeah, Iowa gets “weather”. Summer brought its humid downpours and electrical storms and straight-line winds. But they eventually gave way to an almost uncanny autumn, where temperatures were more than pleasant. It was almost unfair how beautiful the weather was just a month ago, when midday temperatures were still in the high sixties!

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Now comes winter with its hoary vengeance. The temps have plummeted and the ground has essentially fossilized with a frozen rigor mortis. Everything is white with crystalized snow. Yesterday arctic winds drove the windchill down to thirty below, and we watched as drifting tufts of snow rolled across the fields like waves. It was kind of amazing.

Somewhere a seasoned Midwesterner is looking out their window with a gleam in their eye. He’s grinning, I think.

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So we got a little “weather”. To be fair, half the country got blasted with a version of this storm. So the weather fairy seems to be sprinkling her wares less judiciously than perhaps some would care for. However, thirty below wind scald is an all time new thing for this native Oregonian. But it didn’t keep me inside. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t wait to get out in it and mess around.

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Yesterday would have been out of the question. The wind was bitter cold and almost dangerous if exposed to it for any length of time. But the sun was out this morning and all was calm. Sometime in the night the clouds scuttled off and the sky was scrubbed clean.  There was a kind of peace across the land that only a freshly fallen snow at the wake of a storm can bring.

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I took the dogs out and puttered around the property for a while, basking in the solitude, experiencing the bone chilling cold of Iowa winter really for the first time. There’s something incredible about fresh, unmolested snow. Banks of white that kind of soften the otherwise hard angles of the trees and the buildings at the point where they crash into the earth and stab into the sky. And there is a beauty in that breath-stealing chill and how it leaves its mark upon the earth, like time itself has frozen still.

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I took pictures as I walked and while the dogs scavenged ahead of me. While I walked, I thought about how strange this place can be, and how strange it is that we are even here. What’s more, I thought about how strange a thing it is that we are enjoying it all. All of it. Every part. I think maybe there were loved ones that we left behind that had thought, maybe even hoped, that wouldn’t be the case. That’s a sad thought, actually, to consider. But most likely true.

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This has been a year of changing seasons. Not a turning of the page or even another chapter, but more like a whole new book. Written in different language. Its funny, because at the beginning of this year I had the sense that 2016 would turn out to be a year of change, but I had no clue what that could possibly mean.

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But sometimes we need our lives to dramatically change to remind us of the things that are truly important. We certainly have come through some terrible things this year, but we’ve experienced good things too. Great things.

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Iowa may not be heaven, but it has still become something transcendent for me. More than an ideology. More than a place. Its become a medium for reflection and growth. This place, with all its quirky unfamiliarity, has become a living and personal therapy for me. And the changes that have followed us since moving here, personal and professional, have been the best kind of counsel. Stepping outside of what is comfortable and facing the unknown encourages the only kind of evolution that matters. Evolution of the heart.

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There will be weather. But instead of hiding away, instead of ignoring what I can’t control, I want to go out and be in the middle of it. I want to be exposed by it. Because that’s where I am challenged. That’s where I am brought closer to where I want to be.

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And the storms don’t last anyway. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far from living in Iowa. If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it’ll change.

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