Sunrise, Sunset

“Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,

Swiftly flow the days;

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflow’rs, Blossoming even as we gaze.

Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,

Swiftly fly the years;

One season following another, Laden with happiness and tears.”

Fiddler on the Roof, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Those lyrics and the haunting melody that accompanies them made a huge impression on me the very first time I heard the song years ago.  It still does.

One recent morning, I stood in front of my kitchen window sipping my coffee, and I thought again of that song as I watched the sun rise.  And I remembered another morning, another cup of coffee, and another sunrise.  It was also in November, and it was also near my birthday, but that morning was our very first morning after our very first night in our newly-built farmhouse.

Is it possible that morning was nine years ago?!  Swiftly flow the days.

By that morning, we had already lived on the farm for almost two years, but we made our home in a tiny farm cabin while we built our larger, permanent home.

Is it possible that we left town almost eleven years ago?!  Swiftly fly the years.

I remember that morning so well.  I was preparing to celebrate my 54th birthday, and as I watched the sun rise, I remember thinking that if I got thirty good years at the farm, I would have totally gotten my money’s worth.  At the time, it seemed like a reasonable and fair expectation.

Roughly a third of that time is gone.  I wonder if it’s too late to renegotiate that deal?

I also remember, as I sipped my coffee that morning, that I hoped I would never, ever take our beautiful Kansas sunrises or sunsets for granted.  And while I don’t think I take them for granted, the reality is that there are quite a few that I have missed.  And I know that many of those were breathtaking.

And so, as I celebrate my 63rd birthday, I will renew my vow to never take for granted our beautiful country sunrises and sunsets.  And I vow to make the most of my – God willing – twenty-something years I have left on the farm. 

Because even though twenty years may not sound like much, if I do it right, that may be all I need.

(Our move into our new farmhouse is described in the November chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Mystery Solved

Preparing for Winter

During the thirty-three years I lived in town, summer was my favorite season.  Not because of the weather – because fall weather in Kansas is, without a doubt, the most pleasant – but because of what summer meant.  Summer meant a three-month vacation from school – a three-month vacation from the demands of the classroom for me as a teacher, and for our two sons as students.  We traveled, we went to sporting events, we relaxed by the pool.  I had the freedom to garden, visit friends and family, and read for pleasure.  I had time for none of those things during the frenzied, hectic school year.

But since our sons are grown and gone, since our move to the farm, and since my retirement from teaching, I find that summer no longer embodies the same sense of freedom and relaxation that it once did.  In fact, summer has become my busiest season.  With the demands of gardening, canning, mowing, watering, weeding, and additional heat-related animal care, “summer” is now synonymous with “work”.  Often physically-demanding, back-breaking work.

In addition to that, summer is when we receive the vast majority of our farm visitors.  Why would anyone want to visit a farm in winter and spend all your time inside a house?  You can do that in town.  As much as I love our farm visitors (and I do!) there is no denying that there is preparation before a visit, and clean-up after.

None of this should have come as a surprise to me.  Having grown up on a farm, I needed only to think back to my childhood days when my father and mother would rise before daybreak early on a summer morning, work all day in the searing heat, eat supper, go back outside and work several hours longer until finally, after sunset, they would shower and then drop, exhausted, into bed only to get up the next day and do it all over again.

But in winter, once the animals had been fed and cared for, and cows milked, there was very little reason for them to be outside when the weather was cold and blustery. It was only in winter when I remember my dad, in the middle of the morning, sitting in our living room, visiting with Mom while warming his hands in front of the furnace.  It was only in winter when a farm neighbor might pop in unexpectedly for a quick game of pinochle or checkers.  It was only in winter when Daddy would agree, with no objections, to spend an entire afternoon in town while Mom shopped.

I thought about all this recently as I was preparing our farm for winter.  As I (with Junior’s help) cleared the garden, …

…picked the last of my rhubarb, …

… and clipped the asparagus…

…and the basil.

I thought about the upcoming winter as I removed, washed, and stored all the window screens…

…and when I replaced my tack room fan…

…with a heater.

And it appears that I completed all my fall farm prep just in time. 

So now that the snow is flying, what will I do all winter?

Ahhhhhh.  Whatever the heck I want to do.

(I share some unique winter memories in the January chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Sunrise, Sunset

Fall Harvest

Our milo crop has been harvested. 

While I feel very blessed, thanks to the abundant moisture we had this past summer, for the great crop we brought into the bin, I also feel a little sad saying goodbye to the beautiful fall color.

Milo is a grain sorghum.  It grows well in Kansas where there is typically less moisture than in the corn belt.  In the United States it’s used mostly as cattle feed, but it is also palatable for humans, and used for that purpose in other countries.  Depending on the hybrid, it grows two to five feet tall, with large, heavy heads filled with grain.  It’s harvested using a combine with the same header as used for wheat.

Planted in spring and harvested in fall, the milo hybrids are designed to grow on shorter, thicker stalks that make the crop less susceptible to the strong winds that typically accompany a summer thunderstorm.  But in virtually every field you will find a rebel stalk – some throwback to an earlier generation – that refuses to conform, and instead, still reaches for the sky.

Unlike wheat harvest, I have no cherished childhood memories of milo harvest.  That could be because school was in session during milo harvest, but I think it is more likely that my father simply didn’t plant milo.  Because he ran a dairy, he planted forage sorghum instead of grain sorghum.  This type of sorghum can be shocked and stored like hay, or made into silage.  It is finely chopped, then pressed into a pit and covered by plastic.  Nature converts it into a succulent feed through the process of anaerobic bacterial fermentation. 

I do have memories of our silage pit, but I’m not sure that I consider them “cherished”.  I remember how steam would rise off the pit on a cold, winter day.   I have memories of my dad using a pitchfork to toss the silage to our dairy cows in winter.  And I remember the sickly, sweet smell of the fermented sorghum as the dairy cows greedily devoured the tasty treat.

But without a doubt, my favorite fall harvest memory occurred during the fall of my senior year in high school.  Danny and I were already dating steadily, and had planned on a Saturday evening date.  But my dad needed help shocking feed, so I had to tell Danny the date was canceled.  Instead of being upset at either me or my dad, he offered to help with the shocking.  I think it was his willingness to forego dinner and a movie to instead help me with my farm chores with which I first fell in love.

Or it could have been that wavy, blond hair.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available from Kansas Originals through my website, yearonthefarm.com)

Next week:  Preparing for Winter

Meet (the other) Ethel!

In a blog last spring entitled Fred and Ethel are Back, I introduced two wild Canada geese that return to our farm each year to raise their babies.  I had affectionately named them Fred and Ethel after the famous TV sitcom couple.

This blog is about a different Ethel.

Early last summer, my 11-year-old great-niece persuaded her parents into letting her raise rabbits.  They purchased two rabbits, hoping they were male and female, so that she could raise one litter of babies.  As I stated in an earlier blog Our Dog Ate the Easter Bunny!, determining the sex of rabbits is not as easy as it may sound.  They named what they thought was the female Ethel, but they opted for an alternative TV sitcom character for the male’s name.  They named him Archie.

As it turned out, they were named appropriately!  Ethel became pregnant and the entire family waited anxiously for their new arrivals.  Unfortunately, Ethel’s maternal instincts left a little to be desired, and the first litter died.  As did the second.  And the third.

Ethel got pregnant easily enough, but did little to nourish and protect her babies.  Finally, with the help of their human owners, my great-niece was able to raise a litter to independence.

Now, what to do with all the rabbits?  My great-niece kept a couple for herself, then gave each of her young, female cousins at least one of the babies.  Her uncles and aunts were all thrilled.

There were no plans to raise any more litters, so my great-niece’s parents suggested she give away one of the adult rabbits as well.  Let’s see, who else do we know who might be willing to take a rabbit?  Who else do we know who is a sucker for animals?  Do you see where this is going?

I chose Ethel.  I was concerned that introducing another male into the herd, particularly one that was not fixed, might cause discord in the pen.  My two rabbits, Salt and Pepper, are both fixed males and, as littermates, are quite compatible with each other.  I hoped that they would find a female intriguing, knowing that I was in no danger of raising a litter of my own.

My great-niece and her father (my nephew) delivered Ethel to our farm one Sunday afternoon.  We had cleaned the pen and replaced the bales when they arrived with our newest addition.  My two males were initially a little intimidated by Ethel because she appeared to be a bit aggressive towards them.  But after a few days in the pen, she relaxed, and now the three of them are best of friends.

I like Ethel.  She is quite a bit tamer than my other two and she lets me pet her while she eats.  She hops out to greet me as soon as she hears my voice, most likely because she knows I always show up with food.

When Ethel first arrived, she was quite a bit thinner than my other two, and I now understand why.  Ethel, as it turns out, is a veritable garbage disposal.  She eats constantly!  She ate the enormous cucumbers from my garden that I had missed when picking, she ate the potatoes from my refrigerator that had gone a little soft, she ate the spinach that had gotten a bit old, and she ate the entire watermelon rind that I tossed into the pen. 

The grasses and weeds that were growing through the screened pen floor are now nibbled to nubs, and I have more than doubled the daily rabbit food allotment.  I’ll let you do the math on that one.

About a week after Ethel arrived at our farm, my great-niece texted me one day checking on how Ethel and the other rabbits were faring.  I told her that they all got along great now, and Ethel appeared to be putting on a little weight.

My great-niece responded to my text with, “She probably likes not getting pregnant every time she is with a boy.”

Hmmmm…Perhaps every prepubescent young girl should raise rabbits.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available from Kansas Originals through my website, yearonthefarm.com)

Next week:  Fall Harvest

Searching for Zip

I introduced my horse, Zip, in my second blog, It’s Springtime on the Farm!  In it, I stated that instead of a robin, my first sign of spring was a bucketful of Zip’s hair from his shedding coat.  Other than that, I haven’t really talked much about Zip.  In today’s blog, I plan to remedy that.

I purchased BB as a yearling in 2003, and BJ was born on our farm in 2009, but Zip was already seven years old when I purchased him in 2006.  At that time, I was already riding BB, and I was looking for a trained horse that could be ridden by someone of moderate riding ability as a companion to me and BB on our trail rides.  I found Zip in another county through an ad in our local newspaper.  I was immediately impressed by his looks, his pedigree, and his training.  He had actually gone through two phases of training – once to ride, and then to show.  He had a calm demeanor and was very respectful.  We took him home the first day we met him.

I did, however, wonder why, after paying for additional training to show him, did the original owners decide to sell him?  I soon found out.thumbnail_IMG_0627

Zip, as it turned out, was lazy.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a horse.  It depends on how you want to use him.  A lazy horse can make an awesome kid horse.  You certainly don’t want to put a youngster on a high-strung, energetic horse that constantly wants to run.  Zip is not that.  In fact, as Zip has aged, he has become even more mellow, as impossible as that sounds.  He is now virtually bomb-proof.  When the first shotgun blast pierces the air at dawn on the opening day of pheasant season, BB and BJ will startle and charge out of the corral, snorting and bucking, tails flying.  Meanwhile, Zip, munching on hay at the feeder, will lift his head, stop chewing for a few seconds as he rotates his ears to hear better, then decide all is well and go back to eating.

The little kids in my family are appropriately cautious around BB and BJ, but as one of my great-nieces affectionately proclaimed, “I love Zip! He is fun to play with.”thumbnail_IMG_0619

Personally, Zip is not my favorite mount.  While lazy horses are great for little kids, they can be a source of irritation and frustration for a more experienced rider.  For example, Zip is a grass-snatcher, not an uncommon trait for a lazy horse.  On a trail ride, Zip will stop every few steps to snatch a few blades of grass, a tantalizing weed, or a low-hanging leaf.  He will then munch while he’s walking, then snatch again.

When I discovered this annoying habit shortly after Zip’s purchase, I was determined to break him of grass-snatching.  I consulted various training manuals and discovered that horses, like dogs, are highly intelligent and very trainable.  With an intellectual capability comparable to that of a two-year-old human, they have the ability to make cause-and-effect associations if the “effect” occurs within two seconds of the “cause”.

The training manual suggested that the rider allow the lazy horse to snatch at will (the cause) but then immediately (within two seconds) make the horse work by running tight circles (the effect).  Eventually, the horse will make the connection (if I snatch a bite, I will have to work) and will hopefully decide on his own that the bite of grass is not worth the extra work it causes.

Early one Saturday morning, I took Zip for a ride.  I was prepared.  I knew the key to training would be immediate and consistent response.  (This is also true for human two-year-olds, by the way.)  He snatched, I made him work.  He snatched, I made him work.  Over and over and over.  I was beginning to get discouraged, until…

I deliberately rode him past a freshly-cut round bale of sorghum.  Zip stretched his neck and opened his mouth to grab a bite…then closed his mouth and continued walking right past the bale.

I smiled, patted him on the neck and said, “Good job, Buddy.  Let’s go home now.”  I looked at my watch.  It had taken exactly two hours.

He tested me once or twice on later rides, but after the same run-tight-circles response from me, he hasn’t tested me in years.  I’ve noticed he still tries to snatch grass with other riders however.thumbnail_IMG_0503

I’ve told you all this as a prelude to an incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago.  You need to understand all three of my horses’ personalities in order to fully appreciate what happened that night.

It was a beautiful, star-studded fall night, and as Danny and I were changing into our pajamas, I opened our bedroom windows to let in the crisp, fresh night air.

Danny heard it first.  “Is that the horses?” he asked.  I listened.  I too, could hear them neighing.  Their calls were high-pitched and frequent.  Distress calls.  I turned on our central yard light and could faintly see the outlines of horses running along the fence in the pasture.  I grabbed some shoes and went outside in my pajamas to get a closer look.

I called back towards the house, “It’s BB and BJ!  Danny, I don’t see Zip!”  He then grabbed some shoes also, and came outside by me.  We listened, but could not hear Zip answer back.

Zip is our oldest horse.  It is not unheard of that an aging horse will, with no prior warning, die of a heart attack.  That was my fear that night as we began our search for Zip.

Danny ran to get the tractor so he could use the lights to search the pasture.  I ran to get our Ranger out of the garage.  He was already driving his tractor along the pasture fence as I passed him in our Ranger.  I motioned for him to join me in the Ranger.  It was much more maneuverable, and I could shine a searchlight out the side window while he drove.  We could cover more ground more quickly together in the Ranger.  Danny left the tractor running, with the lights on, near the fence by our house.

We didn’t talk much as we drove, each of us thinking our own thoughts.  Mine were fearful, but also puzzling.  Our three horses were constantly together.  If Zip were injured or dead, I couldn’t believe that the other two would knowingly leave him.  When I saw them racing around, calling to Zip, it appeared that they also had no clue where he was.  How could that be?

As we drove around that night, we checked every gate.  Dead or alive, Zip was somewhere in that pasture.  Of that we were certain.

“I saw something move!” Danny exclaimed.  He had seen the shadow of what appeared to be a large animal move in front of the brightly shining tractor lights.  We quickly drove back towards the house and barn.

“There’s Zip!” I told Danny.  Sure enough, all three horses were now contentedly grazing side by side near the barn as if nothing whatsoever had just occurred to disrupt the calm of a star-studded autumn evening.

I puzzled on it for days.  How had the horses gotten separated?  And why did Zip not answer the other horses’ calls to him?

It was my farrier, several days later, who gave me the most reasonable explanation.  “Here’s what probably happened,” Barrie said.  “BB and BJ are slowly grazing their way to the barn to get a drink of water.  They think Zip is right behind them.  When they get to the barn and don’t see him, they get freaked out.”

Even though horses have excellent night vision, Zip could have easily been out of sight behind one of the rolling hills in our pasture.  But that still didn’t explain why Zip didn’t answer their calls.  And then it occurred to me – Zip is lazy.

He was probably grazing his way to the barn when he first heard his high-strung friends calling to him.  Another high-strung horse would have answered immediately.  But Zip’s response was, “Yeah, yeah.  I’m coming.  But first, just one more bite…”  I’m sure he eventually answered, but by that time we couldn’t hear it over the sound of the engines.

Even though it was filled with anxiety and fear, the pajama-clad, nighttime search for Zip did have one positive outcome.  It definitely clarified something for me – lazy or not, I was awfully glad to get my Zip back.thumbnail_IMG_0487

(Before BJ, there was Pokey, a sweet-tempered Shetland pony.  You can read about her in the February chapter of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Meet (the other) Ethel!

It’s Not Exactly Labrador

I’ve mentioned many times, in previous blogs, our two yellow Labrador retrievers, Russell and Fern. 

Litter mates, Russell and Fern have been companions since their birth in May, 2010.  Until recently, I was under the mistaken impression that the breed originated in Labrador.  Actually, the breed descended from St. John’s Water Dog, an English breed taken to Newfoundland by English fishermen in the eighteenth century.  It had a short, oily coat, was as comfortable in water as on land, was unaffected by the icy waters off the coast of Newfoundland, and was eager to please the fishermen for whom they worked.

Sound familiar?  Everyone who owns one of these wonderful dogs is nodding right now.  If you would like to read more about the origin of this breed, you can check out the website Where Do Labradors Come From.  My only guess as to the origin of their name is that Newfoundland is relatively close to Labrador, and the name “Newfoundland” for a dog breed had already been taken.

As our dogs have aged, I have noticed that they tolerate the heat of a typical Kansas summer less and less.  When they were younger, they would romp and play until about noon, and then ask to be let into our house, where they slept all afternoon in a totally-enclosed, temperature-moderated porch.

Nowadays, they will want to go outside around 7:00 a.m. on a summer morning, do their business, sniff around a bit, then come back panting and wanting inside by 7:15.  They spend virtually the entire summer day inside the porch, although, as Fern can attest, it’s not exactly a huge sacrifice.

Winter (understandably, considering their ancestry) has always been the dogs’ favorite time of year.  Contrast the previous photo of lethargic Fern in summer with this photo of ecstatic Fern rolling in the snow.

Then this past week, it happened! Fall arrived in Kansas! And with it came brisk, cool, dewy mornings just perfect for long walks with Fern and Russell.

I have not taught my dogs any tricks.  It’s not that they are not intelligent enough to learn them, it’s just that I’ve always felt that balancing a treat on your nose was overrated and, well, quite frankly, more than just a little demeaning.

I do, however, talk to my dogs.  And they know a number of words, with their favorite being, without a doubt, the word “walk”.

So, on that brisk, cool, dewy morning I asked our dogs, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

Fern leaped, literally leaped, into the air.  Russell, instantly infected by Fern’s enthusiasm, began chasing her around our yard.  While they playfully dodged and darted, hither and yon, I stood back and smiled.

I got my dogs back!

On our walk, they immediately reverted to a familiar, tag-team hunting routine:  Russell, with his better nose, sniffed the tall grass for the scent of a hiding or burrowing rabbit.

Meanwhile, Fern, with her better athleticism, watched and waited for Russell to flush out the prey.  At first glimpse of the rabbit, she took off, racing towards it at full speed.  Russell also took up the chase, heading it towards his sister.

In the old days, they would sometimes actually catch the rabbit.  These days, they rarely return with any bounty.  For them, the joy is now strictly in the chase.

I know that there are many out there who are lamenting the return of Old Man Winter with its bitter temperatures and biting winds.  Not me.

Because I got my dogs back!

(Before Russell and Fern, there was Wilson.  You can read all about it in the May and June chapters of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Searching for Zip

Everyone Needs a Mirror

“A sister is both your mirror – and your opposite.”  Elizabeth Fishel

I recently returned from my seventh annual “sister trip”.  I, my two sisters, and our three husbands spent almost a week in Michigan, a state to which we had never before traveled.  But the “where” is not as important as the “why”.  This annual traveling tradition began in 2013, shortly after we buried our last brother.  It became painfully obvious to us that life is short, and we wanted to make as many memories with each other as we could, while we could.

The quote by Elizabeth Fishel describes the three of us perfectly.  We are so very alike in so many ways, yet so very different in others.  That statement applies not only to our physical characteristics, but also to our personalities.  While physical characteristics are widely understood to be genetic in nature, there is ongoing debate as to how much of our personality is genetic, and how much is environmentally driven.

Regardless of cause, having both a mirror and an opposite can lead to some interesting personal revelations.  You know that one personality trait that drives you crazy?  The one you thought was totally opposite of your own?  Oops.  Turns out it was a reflection all along.

Physical similarities are much easier to analyze.  Over the years, I have been mistaken for each of my sisters at different times.  My favorite incident happened a number of years ago when my hair style happened to be very similar to that of my sister Joyce.  A woman came up to me while I was shopping, grabbed my arm, and said, “Hi! It’s so nice to see you again!”

I was fairly certain I had never seen this woman before in my life.

She continued chatting merrily for a minute or two, then asked, “How’s Stan?”  It was then that I knew.

I smiled and replied, “Just fine, last time I checked with my sister.”

The expression on her face began as confusion, slowly transformed to understanding, then was immediately followed by embarrassment.  I assured her that there was no need for embarrassment.  It happened all the time.

Yet, as much as we physically favor each other, the three of us, for whatever reason, tend to focus on our differences.

“I’m sure I have Grandpa’s eyes.”

“I think my facial structure is the most like Grammy’s.”

“You look the most like Joe.” (One of our brothers.)

“You remind me the most of Vernon.” (Another brother.)

And so it goes.

On our Sister Trip last year, after a lengthy, robust analysis of the origin of each of our physical characteristics – one by one – my sister Sherry’s husband, Olen, finally said with more than a little exasperation, “Who cares?  What does it matter who you each look like?”

The three of us immediately stopped talking and stared at him.  Did he just say, “What does it matter”?!  We each then gave him a “What planet are you from?!” look.

Oh, right.  Mars.

But the truth is, the physical characteristics really aren’t what matter.  Or at least they shouldn’t.  Do you want to know the one thing that does matter?

Animals and small children know what matters.  They know what’s important and what’s not.  Because they know that how a person treats those from whom they have nothing to gain is the truest test of character.

Animals and small children don’t care about the shape of your nose or the color of your eyes.  They also don’t care about what you do for a living or how much money you make.  Nor do they care about who you know or where you live.

What they absolutely do care about is how you make them feel when they are with you.  Are you kind?  Are you gentle?  And do you give them attention? 

Animals and small children are drawn to my sisters like bees to honey. 

And that’s really all I need to see in my mirror.

(My favorite “sister” story is “August – The Shopping Trip” in A Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  It’s not exactly Labrador

A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 2

Last week, I shared some of my favorite autumn photos of our farm in Ellis County, Kansas.  I would like to continue with my pictorial tribute to autumn in this week’s blog.  And so, without further ado…

(Autumn has always been my favorite season.  My favorite autumn story, called “The Hunter”, can be found in the November chapter of my first book, A Year on the Family Farm. )

Next Week:  Everyone Needs a Mirror

A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 1

Autumn has always been my favorite season of the year.  As a child, it might have been because my birthday was in autumn, and it signaled the approach of Christmas, with all the joy surrounding that season.

I still love autumn, but since our move back to the farm, my reasons for loving it have changed.  Shorter days and cooler nights mean less outdoor work and longer walks with my dogs.  It means time to take a leisurely ride on BJ.  It means open windows and fresh air.  It means the sound of melodic meadowlarks in the morning and the soothing, rhythmic chirping of crickets at night.

It’s a time of calm; a time to reap the rewards of all our hard work during the growing season.

In this blog, I want to share with you some of the reasons why I love autumn on our farm.  But how to describe it in words and do it justice?  That is the dilemma.

There is some disagreement over who first coined the phrase, “A picture is worth 1000 words.”   But there is absolutely no disagreement in its truth.  And so, having used only 214 words, I now give you some of my reasons why I love this season.

(Every photo in this blog was taken on our farm in Ellis County, Kansas)

Next Week:  A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 2

Bracing Up

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”  John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century English writer said that. 

Of course, he did not witness the recent devastation of Hurricane Dorian. 

Nor did he ever visit the plains of Kansas.  I have referenced Kansas weather in earlier blogs, namely our cold, snowy winter in It’s Springtime on the Farm and our wet spring in Be Careful What You Wish For

Brace yourself.  Today I will be writing about wind.

Wind is one of the feature characteristics of the plains of Kansas.  With no mountains and few trees, there is little natural shield from the often-blustery prairie winds.  This is not always a bad thing, however.  I ask you, when the mercury climbs to the upper 90’s in the middle of a summer afternoon, would you prefer it to be still and sultry outside, or would you prefer a brisk, cooling breeze?  On those days, most of us are grateful when nature’s fan is turned to the “high” setting.

It’s only when the wind becomes destructive that I disagree with Ruskin’s assessment that “there is really no such thing as bad weather.”

Thanks to The Wizard of Oz, everyone is familiar with Kansas tornadoes.  In fact, for many people, that movie is the first thing that comes to mind when people hear “Kansas”.  I have, over the course of my lifetime, heard 758,931 Wizard of Oz jokes.  Just recently, I flew to Rapid City, South Dakota to babysit my grandchildren.  On my return flight, as I was checking in, the conversation went something like this:

Airport check-in guy: “Going to Kansas, huh?”

Me: “Yup.”

Airport check-in guy: “Hope you packed your ruby slippers!”  (He chuckled heartily.)

At this point, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was referring to Dorothy and not the original owner of the slippers, who was, of course, the Wicked Witch of the East.

Me: “Oh!  I get it.  The Wizard of Oz.  Good one!”  (I also chuckled heartily.)

I did not tell him that I had just been told my 758,932nd Wizard of Oz joke.

The reality is, I have lived in Kansas, in “Tornado Alley” my entire life and have never been personally affected by a tornado.  I have seen some, from a distance, but most were small, and did little damage.

The following photo was taken from our front porch one spring afternoon.  When I saw it, did I rush to gather my valuables, and then seek immediate shelter in our basement?  No, Silly, I ran to get my camera.  How else would I get the photo?

Unless it is a massive wall cloud, or too dark or rainy to see the tornado, that is the response of most locals.  The small rope tornado in the photo disappeared back into the clouds as quickly as it had appeared, and it did no damage.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Tornados can do serious damage, and should not be taken lightly.  On May 4, 2007, 95% of the town of Greensburg, Kansas was destroyed by a massive EF5 tornado 1.7 miles in width with wind speeds over 200 miles per hour.  That tornado made history.

But every thunderstorm doesn’t produce a rotating tornado.  Instead, straight line winds account for most of the wind damage that occurs.

Recently, we lost two trees in a thunderstorm that clocked winds of 78 mph for thirty minutes.  I was watching from a protected window as one of the trees was nearly bent in half.  Finally, it snapped.

“Well,” I told Danny, “we just lost another tree.”

That is one of the reasons there are so few trees on the prairie.  Grasses don’t break in the wind.

But, in spite of the potential damage, there is nothing quite as awe-inspiring as the sight of a majestic thundercloud.

Especially if you’re not under it.

(I describe encounters with thunderstorms in the Palm Sunday chapter of A Year on the Family Farm, in the April chapter of Another Year on the Family Farm, and in the April chapter of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 1

An Update on Junior

Remember Junior, the newest member of our farm family?  Sherlock, Jr. to be exact.  A couple of months ago, I described in a blog how two of my granddaughters selected our newest barn cat at our local Humane Society. 

Junior was an instant hit with every adult and child who met him.  He was super-playful, super-friendly, and super-cute.  I had a really good feeling about this cat.  However, at the time, I wrote that “the jury is still out” on how he did his job – namely, keeping our barn clean of unwanted pests.  More on that later.

During the past two months, I have gotten to know Junior pretty well and I can honestly say that his personality is different from that of every other cat we have ever owned.  For one thing, he is quite vocal and talks to me constantly.  As if he were carrying on a conversation.  And if I respond to his mews in “human-speak” he continues conversing indefinitely.

His meows have very different intonations. For example, his “meowwww” sounds rather whiny when waiting to be fed, his “meow?” sounds very curious as he follows me while doing chores, and his “meow, meow, meow!” sounds very excited as I call him to the barn for a treat.

Another difference is that he is the first cat that we have ever owned who licks my hand incessantly.  As I walk past him, he will grab at my hand just so that he can lick it.  When I pet him, he will quickly twist his body around so he can lick my finger.  I haven’t quite decided whether this is a complement or an insult.  Is he licking me because he loves me or because he thinks I’m too filthy to pet him?

In spite of Junior being a full-grown cat, possibly as old as two according to our vet, he is kittenishly playful.  He will leap high into the air to knock down a flitting butterfly, then race through the corral at top speed, only to end up high in the branches of the elm tree next to the barn.  All because he can.

Incidentally, I have removed the bird feeder I had hanging from that tree in my pre-Junior days.  Come winter, I will hang it in a different tree out of Junior’s territory.  I don’t want my beautiful songbirds to succumb to the same fate as the low-flying butterfly.

I held my breath the first time Junior leaped into the rabbit pen.  But it turned out, Junior was not aggressive, and the rabbits were not afraid.  Instead, they were both very curious.

Junior loves our dogs, but the feeling is not equally reciprocated.  One day, I saw Junior playfully bat at Russell’s face in order to get his attention.  Russell flinched, eyed Junior for a second, then turned and walked away.  Evidently, Junior’s bold attempt at friendship was a bit too forward for our meek, aging lab.  Russell now simply avoids Junior whenever possible.

The only times I have needed to scold Junior is when he has gotten into mischief in my garden.  He leaps onto my garden plants, pursuing a buzzing beetle, or – gasp! – one of my garden toads.  In doing so, he crushes the leaves of my cucumber plants, flattens my schwartzbeeren plants (described in my last blog – What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?) and tears my garden netting.  I have found that the most effective deterrent is a quick spray from my garden hose.

He is slowly getting the message.

In another one of my earlier blogs I likened our cats’ personalities to male actors that we all know and love.  Badass Jack was our Clint Eastwood cat.  Likeable Sherlock, Sr. was our Tom Hanks cat.  And unpredictable Simba is our Al Pacino cat. 

Without a doubt, Junior is our Jim Carrey cat.

As for Junior’s job performance, a verdict has now been reached.  Junior is a keeper.  Since his arrival in our barn, I have found one dead lizard and one dead snake, but absolutely no evidence of a single mouse.  Not one mouse turd.  Not one nest.

Evidently, the mice just aren’t into comedy.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available on my website through Kansas Originals.

Next Week:  Bracing Up

What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?

That literally means ‘blackberries’ in German.  But unless you live in Ellis County, Kansas, I’m pretty sure the blackberry you are thinking of right now is not schwartzbeeren.  You’re thinking of a bumpy dark purple berry that looks similar to a raspberry, right?  That berry is well-known to most Germans also, who call it brombeeren.  So, what the heck is schwartzbeeren, you ask?  Before I can explain this berry and its bewitching hold on the locals, I need to give you a brief history lesson.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, but born a German princess, enticed German immigrants to settle the untamed Volga River region with promises of freedom of religion, no taxation for thirty years, and perpetual freedom from military service.  The hard-working Germans who accepted her offer maintained closed communities, retaining their German language and customs.  A century later, long after Catherine had died, the Russian government reneged on Catherine’s promises and began to draft the young men into military service.  Disgruntled, many of the Germans immigrated again, this time to America, where quite a few of them made their way to Ellis County, Kansas.

They brought with them the seeds of a plant they had discovered growing wild along the banks of the Volga River.  For want of a better name, they called the smooth, round, blackish berry schwartzbeeren.

It is a tart berry, delicious in baked goods such as pies and kuchen, a German coffeecake.  It grows on annual plants that can reach four feet in height in a single season.  The plants grow naturally along creek and river banks with the seeds spread by birds who eat the berries.  If grown in a garden, the plants require regular watering in order to produce an abundance of large, plump berries.

Each berry is filled with tiny seeds.  Berries naturally fall off each plant and re-seed themselves annually.  The climate of Western Kansas is very similar to the climate of the Volga River region, which is one of the reasons why the Volga Germans chose to re-settle here.  It is also why schwartzbeeren thrive here.

Every year, I reserve fully half of my garden space for schwartzbeeren.  We love them that much.  I freeze the excess berries I pick each summer for use during the winter.  The first year I planted my garden after our move to the farm, I sprinkled seeds from berries I had saved and dried the previous year.  Since then, the plants have re-seeded themselves.  Abundantly.  In fact, most of the “weeds” around my cucumbers, beets, etc. are actually schwartzbeeren plants growing where they are not wanted.

Schwartzbeeren are not easy to pick.  The plants are home to chiggers, minuscule blood-sucking bugs that crawl inside your clothes and give you a bite that itches like the dickens for several days.  And the berries grow low to the ground so it is also slow, dirty, backbreaking work.  And the berry itself is fragile so it requires a firm, yet gentle plucking technique.  If you squeeze the tender berry too hard, you end up with a handful of seeds for next year’s schwartzbeeren crop instead of berries for this year’s pie.  It can take an hour or more of picking to get enough berries for just one kuchen.

So, you ask, why on earth would I put myself through all that for a few berries?  Simple. Because my family loves them.  And this particular berry will never be found in any supermarket.

We, Ellis Countians, are not alone in our obsession over local berries.  In August, 2002, Danny and I took our family on vacation to Whitefish, Montana.  It happened to be peak picking season for the wild huckleberries that grow along the mountain ridges of northwestern Montana.  While we were there, we purchased huckleberry cookies, huckleberry-flavored candy, huckleberry-flavored tea, even huckleberry-scented soap.  One afternoon, Danny and I stepped into a small, locally-owned café for a little refreshment after a morning of sight-seeing.  The friendly woman behind the counter obviously knew every person who lived in the town and did not recognize us, so she asked us where we were from.  After a pleasant chat, she asked what we would like to order.  We pointed to the chalkboard advertising homemade huckleberry pie, and we each ordered a piece.  The previously-smiling waitress now paused and looked at us warily.  She then proceeded to explain how difficult the wild berries were to find and pick.  And that not everyone liked and appreciated the berries the way the locals did.  It was an acquired taste, she explained.  I sensed a bit of a warning when she asked us, were we certain that we still wanted huckleberry pie?  Two pieces of huckleberry pie?

We were certain.

We were quite convinced that we were the only non-locals in the café, because every eye in the place was watching us critically as we each took our first bite.  Thank goodness, we loved it!  It was delicious!  To the approval of all the observing locals, we cleaned our plates of every last crumb.

I totally got it.  I, too, feel almost obsessively protective of my schwartzbeeren.  You don’t work that hard just to see someone throw it in the trash.  So, if I offer someone a piece of schwartzbeeren pie, and that someone graciously declines saying, “No thanks, I don’t really care for schwartzbeeren,” I am never offended.  In fact, just the opposite.

Mmmmm. More for me.

(My mother, descended from Volga Germans, made entire meals out of schwartzbeeren and dumplingsIt was a simple, summer staple loved by our entire family and I still make it for my family to this day.)

Next Week:  An Update on Junior

Aw, Shucks

Have you ever picked corn in the morning, shucked it that afternoon, and eaten it for supper that evening?  If you were born after 1920, the answer is probably “no”.  That’s the date of the first U.S. census that indicated over 50% of Americans were “urban” versus “rural”.

Aw, shucks.  You don’t know what you’re missing.  We rural folk may not have easy access to 5-star restaurants with world-renowned chefs, but trust me, that doesn’t mean we don’t eat well.

Imagine this: It’s early spring, and the sun is barely visible above the horizon as I step out my back door on my way to the barn for morning chores.  I happen to glance at my asparagus patch as I pass by and Lo, and Behold!  Three shoots have sprung up overnight, the first of the season.  Now, that is not nearly enough for a meal for Danny and me.  I could pick them and store them in the refrigerator until the crop produces enough shoots for a meal, but that might still be several days away and these three spears would lose some of their just-picked yumminess. 

So, I make an executive decision.  I snap the spears, shake off the dew, and eat them raw right then and there.  You know that eyes-closed look on the face of a chocoholic taking the first bite of a designer-made truffle?  That’s the look on my face as I take my first bite of my first spear of the season.

I do feel a twinge of guilt for not saving them and sharing with Danny, but that quickly disappears with my second bite.

That “just-picked yumminess” is the reason why I no longer purchase asparagus from a supermarket.  Or cucumbers.  Or beets.  Or basil.  Or dill. 

Or corn.  I have been spoiled.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  “Fresh” corn from a supermarket is good, but once you’ve tasted corn the same day it was picked, you just can’t go back.

 A couple of weeks ago, one of my great-nieces visited our farm with her friend.  They just happened to be here during our annual sweet corn harvest.  They helped us clean and preserve the corn, and in return, we gave them just-picked sweet corn to eat for supper.  They thought it was a very fair trade.

They helped shuck:

And they helped wash and preserve:

Even the horses enjoyed the leftovers!

Every spring as I prepare my garden for another season, I ask myself:  Is it worth it?

Is the fresh produce worth all the hours spent in my garden and in front of the kitchen sink and a hot stove?  Is it worth the muddy knees and sore back muscles? 

And every spring the answer is the same.  Yes.  Definitely, yes.

(Growing up, raccoons were an annual threat to our corn harvest.  Read the July chapter of Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?

It May Not Be Capistrano, But…

…The Swallows Have Returned.

And this year I was happy to see them.  Well, maybe that is a bit too strong of a statement.  Let’s just say that I was not unhappy to see them.  Because, rest assured, there have been many years in the past when I was unhappy.  Very unhappy.  Let me explain.

Masterful engineers, barn swallows build mud nests that cling to ceilings or, as in our case, the fluorescent light fixture on the ceiling of our barn.  When we first built our barn twelve years ago, the swallows selected what they considered an ideal spot inside one of the stalls.  But swallows can be aggressive when protecting their nest.  They squawk and swoop towards your head as a warning to stay away.  Plus, they poop on the floor.  And the hay bales.  And the horse waterer.  And the…you get the idea.

So, on a daily basis, I would knock down the mud nest before they had a chance to lay any eggs.  I was persistent and determined that they not soil my new horse stalls.  Unfortunately, they were just as persistent and determined to raise their babies in their “ideal spot”.

It was finally Simba, perched on our newly-stacked hay bales mere inches from their nesting site, who would convince the swallows that the spot they had selected was, perhaps, not as ideal as they first imagined.  They would finally give up and go elsewhere.

After several years of this same routine – me knocking down each day’s progress on their mud nest until the hay bales were stacked and Simba claimed his own “ideal spot” – the swallows finally acquiesced.  Last year, for the first time, they began building their nest in the open loafing area instead of inside the stall.  When I saw that, I acquiesced also.

We have now reached a multi-species compromise.  The swallows have given up nest building in the stalls, and I have given up knocking them down.  They now get an undisturbed nest in the loafing area and I get a clean stall and a bug-free loafing area for my horses.  It wasn’t the first choice for either of us, but both species are relatively content.  That’s how a compromise works.

If only Congress would take note.

When the nest was completed this year, I was curious as to the size of their potential brood.  Although the nest was too high for me to peek inside, with the help of a ladder I was able to reach high enough with my phone to take a photo.

Later, I took another photo after the birds had hatched.  One of the hatchlings was obviously prepared just in case a bug happened to drop out of my phone.

Here’s one more photo of the hatchlings in their nest:

Oops.  Sorry.  False alarm.  That was BJ checking out my phone.

Let’s try that again:

The babies are out of their nest now and flying with their parents.  When fall arrives, and the birds migrate to South America for the winter, I will remove the nest and wash the mud off of the light fixture.  I want no obstructions to the light when I do my chores during the dark winter mornings and evenings. 

Now that the swallows have raised two consecutive broods successfully in our loafing shed, I am certain that they will return again next year to that same spot in our barn.

I look forward to it.

(Swallows were a regular summer fixture in the barn of my youth.)

Next Week:  Aw, Shucks

August Reflections

I think about my parents a lot in August.  It’s not that I don’t think about them other times of the year, but I am particularly contemplative in August.  My father died August 12, 1998 at age 84 and my mother died August 8, 2011 at age 96.  So, August just naturally lends itself to remembering and reflecting.

Everything I know about farming I learned from my parents.  From my dad I learned about livestock, machinery and crops.  From my mom I learned about chickens, gardening and food preparation.  But I would be doing my parents a huge disservice if I limited my comments to those things that I could have just as easily learned from a textbook, or in these days, the internet.

It was my parents that taught me about honesty, integrity, and the value of hard work.  And it was also from my parents that I learned about gratitude.  How an ungrateful heart is an unhappy heart.  That true compassion and willing sacrifice for others stems from gratitude for one’s own blessings.

You won’t find that on Wikipedia.

Our parents didn’t teach my siblings and me about gratitude by setting us down each evening and lecturing us about it.  Although, truth be told, I do recall hearing, on more than one occasion, my mother quickly squelching our various complaints with “You know, it could be worse!” And then she proceeded to inform us how, exactly, our situation could indeed be worse.

Mostly, however, they used a more subtle approach – teaching through example.  For instance, I learned to appreciate each and every meal set before me by observing my dad savor every mouthful of what he lovingly referred to as “mom’s good cooking”, no matter how hurried or simple the meal had been.  It was only later in my life when I learned from my mother that there were many nights during my father’s childhood when he and his siblings went to bed hungry.  Without even knowing it, he taught me to be grateful that not once during my childhood or since – not once – did I ever go to bed hungry.

From my mother, I learned to appreciate each and every family member, even when I become irritated and exasperated with them.  (Which is roughly as often as they become irritated and exasperated with me.  I have never claimed to be a saint.)  My mother had a cool head and displayed emotional restraint in even the most trying of times, and it is probably for this reason that I remember so vividly her silent tears as she buried her mother and only sister.  After that, since her father had died when she was twelve, her only remaining immediate family member was an older half-brother.  So now, even if I have a disagreement with one of my sisters, I am filled with gratitude that I even have a sister with whom I can disagree.

Several days before my mother passed away, we spoke about her impending death.  Mom had, with full cognitive function, refused additional medical treatment that could have increased the quantity, but not the quality, of the time she had left.

I asked her, “Are you scared?”

“Oh, no!” she replied happily.  “I know God loves me or he wouldn’t have given me such a good life!”

At the time, I just smiled and nodded in complete agreement.  It was only later that I thought more about her “good life.”

After her father died, her mother single-handedly used a horse-drawn plow in the fields by day, and a sewing machine by night to feed and clothe her children. 

Then the Depression hit.  And the Dust Bowl.

When she wed my father in 1934, they had only their meager wedding gifts with which to start a new life.  Five years and four sons later, they still lived on a rented farm, saving every spare penny towards a down payment to someday purchase their own place. 

“Someday” finally came fifteen years into their marriage, during which time they sent off relatives and friends to World War II and spent a year nursing a bedridden son stricken with polio.

By the time Mom died, she had buried her husband of 64 years, three sons and four grandchildren, some of them through tragic circumstances. 

Any one of these heartbreaks could have turned the stoutest of souls bitter.

But it was not her heartbreaks upon which my mom dwelt in her last hours.  She chose instead to be grateful for her life’s blessings.  And there had been plenty of those as well.

Now, when I think of my parents, I realize that they are still teaching me life lessons, like gratitude.  I wish I could tell them that.

But I’m betting they know.

(My parents play a huge role in all three of the books in my farm series.)

Next week:  It May Not Be Capistrano, But…

The Prairie’s Tree of Life

Most people are well aware that Kansas is nicknamed “The Sunflower State”.  With good reason.  Various varieties of sunflower are found in virtually all parts of the state, growing wild in pastures, and along roadsides and creeks.  Cheery, bright yellow heads follow the movement of the sun for weeks in late summer and early fall, and herald the arrival of a new season filled with cooler, milder temperatures.  

Most non-Kansans would not be aware, however, of the fact that the Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas.  In this photo, the sunflower may take center-stage, but it is the cottonwood in the background that shades the emerging flower in the heat of a summer afternoon.

It was for this very reason that the Kansas Legislature, in 1937, proclaimed it as the state tree by saying: “The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas.’”

Imagine you are a pioneer, crossing the rolling prairie grasslands of western Kansas to claim a homestead.  How do you choose the location of your new home?  What do you look for?  You look for a mighty cottonwood, rising majestically anywhere from 70 to 100 feet above the prairie landscape, easily visible from miles away.  Not only does the cottonwood supply shade and windbreak in the often-brutal heat of summer, but it signals something even more precious – water.  The cottonwood tree requires adequate moisture in order to grow naturally.  A healthy cottonwood tree has discovered and tapped into a water source that can also be used to supply the needs of a budding farmstead.

The cottonwood tree was a symbol of new life for the pioneer.

The cottonwood tree can grow as much as eight feet per year and reaches full maturity in about forty years.  But it can live as much as 100 years or more after its initial growth spurt.

That’s why I love this giant cottonwood that lives near the creek on our farm. 

It is a fully mature tree, and hasn’t changed in size for the almost-quarter century that we have owned the land.  It’s hard to know exactly when it was a seedling, when it first took root, but my guess is that it was already a large tree when my father was a young boy swimming in the creek with his brothers.  In fact, it could very possibly have already taken root when my great-grandfather first purchased the land in 1900.  There are several young, developing cottonwood trees growing along our creek now, but this tree is the only still-living fully mature cottonwood tree on our farm, and I consider it our family tree.

That is why I felt a tinge of sadness when I discovered the fallen branch one morning during a walk with my dogs.

Danny and I both knew the branch had been dead for some time.  It had not shown any sign of life for several years.  But it was a long, heavy branch and connected to the trunk high up on the tree.  We thought it might be dangerous to remove the branch, so we agreed to let nature take its course.  It would fall when it was ready to go.

But the tree itself still survives.  And good will come out of the fallen branch.  The jagged remains left on the trunk will make an excellent nesting area for the native birds.

And the branch itself will benefit us.  Danny cut it into firewood that will supply much-appreciated warmth when the harsh north winds howl this coming winter.

Turns out that our “pioneer tree”, our “family tree”, is also our “giving tree.”

(Cottonwood tree leaves turn a shimmery, golden yellow in late fall. Check out the October chapter in my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week: August Reflections

“The Wheat’s Ready!”

I can still see my father rushing into the kitchen, exclaiming those words to my mother as she stood in front of the sink washing the breakfast dishes.  There was such urgency in his tone.  It meant that everything else on the farm now took a backseat to harvest.

As harvest drew near, as the fields transformed from green to gold, as the heads filled with kernels began to droop under the weight of their precious cargo, Daddy checked the fields daily.  He waded into the interior of the field of waist-high wheat, because he knew the edges ripened first.  He picked a few heads and squeezed out the kernels with his fingers.  He popped a handful into his mouth and chewed.  If the kernels were still soft enough to chew into a gummy, pasty blob, the wheat wasn’t ready.  But if they were dry and hard and crunchy, it was time.

The weeks leading up to harvest were occupied with servicing his combine and truck, the only equipment he needed.  He greased gears, changed oil, checked tires, replaced worn parts and cleaned his truck bed, which he also used to haul cattle.  Then he waited, filled with anticipation and anxiety.

I remember great harvests after which my mother could afford to replace the worn living room sofa.  And I remember somber harvests when Daddy announced at the breakfast table that the thunderstorm the previous night had destroyed two thirds of the crop.

So much depended on that harvest.

As a child, I loved harvest.  Our normally quiet farmstead was filled with activity – Mama busy cooking, my sisters hauling meals to my dad and brothers in the fields, uncles visiting to help out and give my dad a break, cousins to play with.

As a teen, I still loved harvest, even though it now meant work, not play.  But it was interesting work.  It was beneficial work.  It was family work, and I was part of the family.

Nowadays, harvest for me is different.  I still love the sight of the “amber waves of grain”.  I will never stop loving that.  But I no longer play with my cousins in the wheat truck.  I no longer haul the wheat to the elevator and eat fried chicken in the fields.  We rent out our cropland, and it is the renters who do that. 

Since our move back to the farm, harvest commences for me with a casual text from Danny instead of an urgent rush into our kitchen.  His text will simply let me know that the harvesters are moving onto our field.  From our front porch, I watch as multiple state-of-the-art machines with air conditioning and GPS devour the wheat in giant swaths.  Sometimes, if my own work for the day is done, I’ll sit in my porch rocker, observing, as I sip a glass of merlot.  There are no harvest tasks for me anymore.

As I slowly rock, I can’t help but wonder what my dad would think if he could see these metal monsters clean up in a few hours the same field that used to take him a day and a half.  But, I guess, that’s progress.  I take a sip of wine.  And I sadly realize that harvest, for me, has lost its magic.

Until this year.  Until I got the chance to see harvest again through the eyes of a child.

Our son, his wife, and four children visited our farm the weekend following the Fourth of July holiday.  They came from Phoenix to see family, and let the kids experience a few days of farm life.  They didn’t come for the wheat harvest.  That turned out to be an unexpected bonus.

Danny and I both agree that in all our years, we don’t ever recall a wheat harvest in our area that wasn’t completed by the Fourth of July.  But this year, due to the wet, cool spring we had, many fields were not yet ripe until after the holiday.  The wheat on our own land had been cut several days before our son and family arrived.  But Danny was determined to give our grandchildren the opportunity to witness a wheat field being harvested.

He called our tenant farmer and asked if he still had fields to cut.  It turned out that they had not yet cut their own.  “Would it be okay if the grandkids got a combine ride?” Danny asked.

“Absolutely!” was the response.

The 8-year-old and 10-year-old granddaughters put on their boots and cowboy hats, and along with our son, drove with Danny and I to the field.  We watched from our vehicle as the massive machine made its way around the field towards us.  When Travis, the driver, saw us, he stopped, got out of his cab, and welcomed us onto the field.

Danny and our son stayed in our vehicle while our two granddaughters and I climbed the ladder into the giant cab.  There was room for all of us with the 8-year-old on my lap and the 10-year-old sitting cross-legged on the floor of the cab, directly behind the top-to-bottom glass windshield.  She had an unobstructed view of the entire process.

During our ride, the 8-year-old constantly asked Travis all sorts of questions that he skillfully answered to her complete satisfaction.  Meanwhile however, the 10-year-old was silent, totally mesmerized by the whirring blades of the header, the rapidly oscillating sickle, and the spiraling auger feeding the cut stalks into the belly of the beast.

I touched her shoulder.  “What do you think of all this?” I asked.

Her face beamed as she turned to smile at me.  “So cool!” she exclaimed.

I nodded.  It really is.

(Read about my childhood harvest memories in A Year on the Family Farm and my adolescent harvest memories in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: The Prairie’s Tree of Life

It’s About Preservation

In my second blog, It’s Springtime on the Farm! I mentioned that I had planted my beet seeds.  I don’t have a huge garden, but there are several things that I plant every year because I simply cannot live without them, and cannot tolerate the inferiority of the purchased product.  Beets are one of those.  I love beets.  I could eat beets every day.  I could eat an entire pint jar of my beets at one sitting.  My mouth waters and my heart rejoices when I see my canned beets stacked neatly on my pantry shelf.  I am a beetaholic.

But I am also a beet snob.  I have a discriminating palate.  It has to be my own tender beets, nurtured by my own hand, nourished with our own horses’ manure, and canned with my mother’s recipe.  Beets in a salad bar?  No thanks.  I would rather drink boxed wine.

So, it was extremely satisfying this past week when, after a long, back-breaking day spent in my garden, then in front of the kitchen sink, and lastly over a hot stove, I could say, “My beets are canned.”

I really don’t mind those long hours.  It gives me time to think.  One of the things I thought about was how food preservation has changed through the generations.  My preserved beets are a luxury.   In my grandparents’ day, canned foods were a necessity.

Have you ever stopped to think about what you would eat if there were no electricity?  Out here on the Kansas prairie, electricity wasn’t commonplace until the 1940’s, and on some farms, the 1950’s.  Towns might have been electrified, but electrifying the outlying, rural areas took much longer.  What would you do if you had no refrigerator for your milk, or freezer for your hamburger?

Every farm at that time had dairy cows and chickens to supply their daily staples of milk and eggs.  These were kept cool in kitchen ice boxes.  Blocks of ice were cut from creeks and ponds during winter, insulated with straw, and stored in underground cellars for use in ice boxes during the summer.  Till the day she died in 2011, my mother referred to her refrigerator as “the ice box”.

Fruits and vegetables were canned and stored on shelves in the cellar.  Pork and beef were butchered in late fall, after the weather turned cold.  Most of the pork was smoked and hung on hooks in the cellar, and most of the beef was cut into cubes, boiled, placed in stoneware crocks where it sealed with its own congealed fat, and also stored in the cold cellar. 

Transportation was provided by horses, and only late in the pre-electric era did cars and trucks appear.  Roads were poor and often impassible after a heavy snow or rain.  Because of this, there were no weekly trips to a supermarket.  In fact, there were no supermarkets.  If you expected to eat during the winter, you had better prepare for it the summer before.

As I scrubbed my beets at the kitchen sink, I thought about the old days, and what a tragedy it would be if they were forgotten.  I want to do whatever I can to preserve those memories.

In earlier blogs, I have mentioned that I come from a large family.  Danny and I are very fortunate to be invited to the birthday parties of my great nieces and nephews, the grandchildren of one of my sisters.  These parties are always joyous family gatherings, and everyone has a wonderful time.  For years however, I struggled with ideas for birthday gifts for these adorable children.  A Walmart gift card seemed lazy and highly inadequate.

After our move back to the farm, it occurred to me that I had something I could give to them that no one else could.  A farm experience!  Since then, I have given, as a birthday gift, a handmade gift certificate for a 3-day, 2-night stay at our farm.  The kids love it!!!

I mention this because a couple of weeks ago, two of the cousins came at the same time.  During their stay, they helped me preserve my rhubarb jam.  (The first photo shows my uncut rhubarb.)

They clipped the leaves off the stalks…

And they sliced the stalks before cooking.

After I had filled the jars with the cooked jam, they helped place the lids and rings on the jars.  As a thank you for their great help, I sent a jar of jam home with each of the girls.

Every year, when we take the girls back home, their parents always thank us for giving their children such a wonderful opportunity.  The children give us warm hugs and a heartfelt “thank you” for the great time they had. 

But you want to know a secret?  We get as much enjoyment from sharing our farm as they do.  Because in doing so, we preserve more than food.  We preserve precious farm memories.

For all of us.

(Each of my books has been written with this purpose in mind:  to help preserve farm memories for those who experienced farm life themselves, and to share farm memories with those who didn’t.)

Next Week:  “The Wheat’s Ready!”

Hay There!

Our hay is in the barn.

To the urban majority, that statement may seem as mundane as, let’s say, “I bought groceries today” or “I did a load of laundry.”

But farmers and ranchers who depend on that hay to feed and nourish their beloved animals for an entire year get it.  Plus, this was no ordinary hay crop.  Let me put this year’s hay into perspective for you:  Imagine that you have secretly hoped for a particular birthday gift, but realistically do not expect it, because it’s just asking too much.  Then, when you open the present, there it is!

This year’s hay crop was like that.

Believe me, it isn’t always this good.  We’ve had years when we got plenty of hay, but the quality was poor – too tough and stemmy, or too seedy, and the horses find it unpalatable.  Then we’ve had years with great quality hay – sweet, leafy and the horses love it – but there just isn’t enough of it.

Last year’s crop was like that.  We knew when we stored our bales in the barn last summer that we ran the risk of running short come spring, so we budgeted our daily feeding through the winter very carefully.  But we never expected the cold, snowy winter we got in 2018/19!

By early spring, 2019, given the rate of consumption, we knew we would run out of bales before the pasture grass was edible.  We tried purchasing bales from area farmers, but they were running short just like we were.  So, to stretch out the hay we had, I cut back on my horses’ daily allotment, and began supplementing with a mixture of hay pellets, corn and oats that I purchased from Orscheln.  It was expensive, but what other choice did I have?  By the time I finally turned my horses out to pasture in late spring, I had one bale left.

The one positive effect of the heavy winter snow and spring rains was that they produced what we knew would be a record-setting hay crop this summer – if we could just get it off the field at the right time.

We need three days to get our hay crop off the field and into the barn: one day to swath it, one day to rake it, and one day to bale it and haul it.  That may sound like no big deal, but finding three consecutive days in Kansas with low probability of precipitation at the same time that the bromegrass is at peak nutritional value and that don’t interfere with wheat harvest, is no easy task.

I began intently listening to the weather radio two weeks before we cut the hay.  Several times I thought I found a 3-day window only to have rain chances increase to 40% or more as the days approached.  Too risky, we agreed.  Even a light shower increases the odds of moldy hay, and decreases the nutritional value because of added drying time.

Meanwhile, the local farmer who agreed to do our swathing and baling was on stand-by, along with some fit, young men who could easily toss a 60-pound bale.  They all waited for our call.

Finally, we found our window!  Three dry, sunny days with only a 20% chance of overnight rain while the hay was at peak quality.  And the local wheat was still too green to cut.  Bingo!

As it turned out, it didn’t rain and the bales were perfect.  However, on the evening we were to haul our pristine bales off the field, two of our strong, young men became unavailable!  We scrambled, and found one replacement.  It would have to be enough.  Our team of five would now have to do the work of six.  Overnight rain chances had increased again, and the hauling could not be postponed.

We knew that our replacement had already put in a long day of hard, physical labor, but he agreed to help us that evening anyway.  It’s what we do.  We help our neighbors in need even when it’s inconvenient.

Luckily, the weather that evening was cool and mild, saving the workers from the exhaustion that accompanies triple-digit temperatures or 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts.  Just one more blessing for which to be grateful.

Farm events like this can be compared to an Amish barn-raising.  Yes, there’s hard work, but there’s also a social aspect and shared pride in a job well-done.  After the bales had been neatly stacked in our barn, we all sat around eating pizza, drinking pop, and sharing jokes and fish stories.

My favorite after-bale-hauling memory occurred four or five years ago.  It had been a very hot day, so we started later than usual to allow the temperatures to cool a bit.  It was almost dark by the time we finished.  We all sat on the concrete driveway pad outside the barn, drinking our pop and beer and waiting for the pizza to arrive.

The overhead barn light was attracting all sorts of flying bugs.  A toad hopped out of my garden onto the driveway next to us.  Randy grabbed a buzzing June bug with his hand and asked me, “Have you ever fed a toad?” 

“No, never,” I replied.

For the record, I hate June bugs.  They are noisy, nasty things that swarm around your head, land in your hair, cling to your clothes, and fly down your shirt.  “Watch this,” Randy said as he tossed the June bug towards the fat, motionless toad.

I watched the arc of the tossed June bug as it approached the toad, and then…it was gone!  Just…gone!  It all happened so fast that I never even saw the toad move!

I think it was in that instant when I fell in love with toads.

“Let me try!” I said as I grabbed one of the disgusting June bugs.  Every tired, sweaty bale hauler that evening was completely and happily entertained the entire time until the pizza arrived.

This year, the weather forecasters had been right about the rain.  That night, hours after our bales had been safely stored in the barn, it rained.  But Danny and I slept so soundly that we never even heard it.

Because our hay is in the barn.

(I first learned to drive at age eleven while hauling bales for my dad.  Read about it in the June chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  It’s About Preservation

Meet Junior!

Two weeks ago, my blog took on a very somber tone when I described BJ’s bout with colic.  At the end of the blog, I listed the ages of our farm animals and stated that, with aging pets, loss is an inevitable reality. 

Mere days after I wrote that blog, Danny and I said goodbye to Sherlock, our gray tabby, in our vet’s office.

We knew his health had been failing, and the day before we took him in, I saw evidence that his condition was deteriorating very rapidly.  Plus, I suspected that he was possibly in pain.  We waited a day to see if he would recover, and when he did not, we took him to our vet to euthanize.  We know we did the right thing, and we will miss him, but we will treasure our amazing memories of Sherlock, our “Tom Hanks” cat.

Danny and I both agreed that we needed another cat.  The perfect opportunity arose when two of our granddaughters, cousins to each other, visited our farm recently.  I first took them shopping at Orscheln (my favorite store!) where I bought them each a pair of boots (one can hardly visit a farm without proper boots!), then it was on to the Humane Society to shop for a new cat.

Unfortunately, there were far too many from which to choose.  As much as I wanted another cat, nothing would have pleased me more than to have them tell me, “Oh, so sorry! All of our cats have already been adopted!”  That wasn’t the case.

I told the girls that I didn’t want a newly-weaned kitten.  Instead, I wanted a youthful cat, but one old enough and smart enough to protect itself against wild animals should it wander into our pastures.

As we strolled down the aisle, looking into each cage, both girls were immediately intrigued by the same cat – a butterscotch yellow tabby with white socks.  He was keenly aware of us, and appeared quite playful as he stuck his paw through the cage door.

“I want this one!” they both exclaimed.

I too, thought he was not only very pretty, but his personality seemed quite friendly and playful. 

“Let me see what his name is,” I told them as I flipped over the card on his cage.

“Sherlock?!! Are you kidding me?!” I exclaimed.

There was another woman in the room with her daughter, also looking at the cats.  She stared at me with obvious confusion at my reaction to his name.

I quickly explained.  “We just recently lost a cat.  His name was Sherlock.”  She smiled and nodded in understanding.

I turned to my granddaughters.  “Girls, I think it was meant to be.”

When Danny met him, he too fell in love with our newest family member, but hesitated at calling him “Sherlock”.  I agreed.  Somehow, we both felt that our other Sherlock, the one we buried, deserved that identity.  Yet fathers and sons were given the same name all the time.  How did they avoid confusion?

“Let’s call him Junior!” I told Danny.

So, what kind of a cat will Junior be?  This much I know:  he is playful,

loves people, and the dogs, but is cautious around the horses.  (That’s a good thing.  I don’t want him stomped on.)

He has also shied away from Simba.  (Who doesn’t?!)

As far as being a mouser, the jury is still out.  He caught this mouse, played with it awhile…

…and then let it go.

Sigh.

(We met Sherlock Sr. in the May chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm)

Next Week: Hay there!

Be Careful What You Wish For

Danny and I moved permanently to our farm in January, 2009.  We sold our house in town, and totally committed ourselves to living the rest of our lives on the land that had been in my father’s family one full century, plus a quarter of another.

During our first two years, we lived in a small cabin while we built a larger, modern house.  During that time, there were many memorable weather events: thunderstorms, blizzards, heat waves, and high winds.  But there were also many sun-drenched days and star-studded nights that were so beautiful, we had to pinch our own arms to convince ourselves that we had not died and gone to heaven.

In a word, it was typical “Kansas”.  And it was why we loved it.

We moved into our new home on the farm in November, 2010.  Ironically, it was also in November, 2010 when our typical weather pattern changed.

That winter, we got no snow.  The following spring of 2011, we got no rains.  Or at least, not nearly enough.  With no grass established around our newly built home, the prairie winds blew and swirled the bare dirt into every nook and cranny.  Instead of using our snow shovel for its intended purpose, I used it to scoop dirt off our porches.  We planted some shade trees that spring, but struggled to keep them alive.  Their leaves wilted in the scorching summer sun.  And still no rains.

Oh well.  There’s always next year, everyone said.

But 2012 was even worse.  Stories my mother had told me of the Dirty Thirties haunted me as I checked my horses’ water in 112-degree heat.  Creeks and ponds had hard, cracked bottoms.  Water wells dried up.  Wheat fields had record low yields.  Cropland was left unplanted because farmers needed rain before they could seed.  Rains that never came.  Cattlemen hauled water for their cattle daily and reduced herd numbers so they could survive on the sparse pasture grass.  There were feature stories about grass fires in the newspapers and on the nightly news.  No conversation between locals was complete without mention of the drought. 

It was on everyone’s mind and affected everyone’s psyche.  I taped my Prayer For Rain to the front of my refrigerator and recited it daily.

As much as I had wished for it, by 2014 I began to doubt our decision to move to our treasured family farm.  Life in the country was just so hard with no rain! 

Then on June 4, I visited my sister and brother-in-law in town to celebrate my brother-in-law’s birthday.  When I began to complain, once again, about the drought, he stopped me.

“Mary Kay, it will rain again someday.  You know it will.  And today, you’re one day closer to the next big rain.”

I sat silent, absorbing his profound insight.  I’m not sure why his words affected me so, but my spirit had been immediately lifted!

Little did I know that his words were also prophetic.

Within the week, we received over an inch of rain!  Although certainly not a drought-buster, it was the first big rain we had received in far too many months.  Farmers smiled again.

By the end of June, we had received over twelve inches of rain!  That is almost half a year’s moisture in a typical year!

Of course, after four years of drought, the thirsty soil, trees and grasses greedily soaked it all in, so creeks were still not running.  But then we got more rains in August!  Finally, by the end of 2014, creeks and ponds held stored water for the upcoming winter, and it appeared that our drought was officially over.  Things were back to normal

Until this year. 

Life is filled with cycles.  Wait long enough, and even bell-bottom jeans come back in style.

This past winter, we received more snow than we had in the previous decade.  Snowmelt caused our creeks and ponds to spill out of their banks.  But it didn’t end there.  Our spring was also wetter than normal, and since Easter on April 21, we have had over fourteen inches of rain. 

Now, flash flood warnings have replaced wildfire warnings.  Instead of shoveling dirt, I pick up flood debris.  Instead of watching their crops wither and die from lack of rain, farmers now watch their crops mold and rot in fields too wet to enter with machinery.  Instead of hauling water, cattlemen search for calves washed away by flood waters. 

And, for now, I no longer recite my daily Prayer For Rain.

But life will get back to normal again.  I know it will.  And today, I’m one day closer.

(Weather – blizzards, thunderstorms, even tornadoes – play a major role in many of my farm stories in all three of my books.  One cannot live on a farm without being intrinsically affected by weather.)

Next Week:  Meet Junior!

No Humor Today

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly – thank you.  If the reason you read it is because you enjoy my sense of humor – thank you again.  It is to you faithful readers, that I wish to apologize in advance.  For there is no humor in today’s blog.  There was simply none for me to find.

I could have lost BJ last week.  BJ, my youngest horse, my corral clown, my hat-stealer.  That BJ.

There is no single word that strikes fear in the heart of any horse owner more quickly than the word “colic”.  To most people, that word conjures up images of crying infants and sleepy, distraught parents.  To far too many horse owners, it means death.

When I was eighteen, my family lost a yearling to colic.  Arapahoe was born to our mare Strawberry, who we had raised from a foal.  Arapahoe was a member of our farm family, and we were all heartbroken.

Eleven years ago, Danny and I lost Pokey to colic.  Pokey was a sweet-tempered pony loved by everyone who knew her.  I still treasure the crayon-drawn sympathy cards sent by some of the young children who mourned her loss with me.

So, you see, my knowledge of colic is personal, and my fears are not unwarranted.

Unlike dogs, cats and humans, horses cannot vomit.  When a dog or cat has an upset stomach, they can vomit and relieve their own discomfort.  Since a horse cannot do that, the offending substance must pass through the entire intestinal tract in order to bring relief.  If there is gaseous build-up along the way, or if the intestine becomes blocked, the situation can become very serious, very quickly.  When a horse is experiencing colic, they have a tendency to roll and twist their bodies on the ground, trying to relieve their pain.  Unfortunately, this can lead to the intestines twisting and closing off the offending material.  When that happens, gas continues to build, creating more pain. If caught soon enough, emergency surgery can save the horse.  If not, it inevitably leads to death. 

It is imperative that a horse experiencing colic not be allowed to roll.

It was right about noon.  I was washing my hands at the kitchen sink when I glanced out the window and saw all three of my horses grazing.  Suddenly, BJ lifted his head and began trotting circles around the other two.  At first, I thought he saw something – maybe a deer – that excited him.  But the others kept grazing.  Then he began running more erratically, kicking out behind him with his hind legs.  Although his behavior was quite unusual, I still thought he was just being playful.  It was only after I saw him turn his head and bite at his own sides, that I understood.  He was in pain.

I immediately went outside and watched him more closely from the pasture fence.  I had not called to him, but when he saw me, he immediately came running toward me.  It was a very cool day, but as he ran past me, I could see that he had broken out in a sweat.

Suddenly he stopped, dropped to his front knees, and began to roll onto his side.

“No BJ!” I yelled as I shimmied through the rails of the pasture fence.  As I ran towards him, waving my arms and yelling, “Get up! Get up!” he lifted his head off the ground to look at me.  He got back up onto his feet as I approached him.  I had no rope, nothing but my hands, but I hoped he would follow me to the barn.  He did.  I truly believe he knew I was trying to help him.

As we hurriedly walked together to the barn, I pulled out my cell phone and called my vet’s office.  When the receptionist heard that BJ had colic, she understood the emergency and promised that a vet would leave immediately.  It’s about a twenty-five-minute drive to our farm.

I put a halter and lead rope on BJ and we began to walk.  Walk to help relieve symptoms, walk to keep his blood flowing and intestines working, walk to keep him from rolling. 

By this time, both BB and Zip had responded to BJ’s predicament, and both came running to the barn as well.  BB walked beside us, and periodically nickered softly to BJ.  She did not interfere, but she also did not leave our sides.  I truly believe that she, too, knew that I was trying to help BJ.  Zip stood a distance away, but watched every move we made, also nickering periodically.

I could tell that BJ was in intense pain.  He was sweating more profusely and his eyes were wide with terror.  Several times, he attempted to drop to his knees, and I knew he wanted to roll.  Somehow, I managed to keep him on his feet and walking.  Several times, he bit at his sides, as if the monster attacking him and causing such pain could be crushed by rolling, or scared away by biting.

Twelve minutes had passed since my first phone call to the vet.  I called again. 

“Has he left yet?” I asked. 

“Yes,” she reassured me.  “He should be there very soon.”  We kept walking.

About fifteen minutes later, I saw the vet’s pickup truck turn onto our farm’s driveway.  I had walked BJ, with BB walking beside us, for the entire thirty minutes.

The vet gave BJ two shots, one to relax him, and one to aid his digestion.  The effect was almost immediate.  He stopped biting his sides.  His sweating lessened.  His eyes looked more normal.  His muscles relaxed.

And then he pooped.

The vet stayed about twenty minutes longer, just to be sure that he would not relapse, but the crisis was over.  At least it was for BJ.

For me, the repercussions lasted a bit longer.  What if I hadn’t looked out the kitchen window when I did?  What if I had gone to town to get groceries?  What if…?

The reality is, when you open your heart to love, you also open it to the pain of loss.  The two are inseparable.  With three horses aged 20, 17 and 10, two dogs aged nine, two cats aged twelve, and two rabbits aged seven, there will be losses.  And it will be painful.

But I would rather live a life filled with love and loss, than no love at all.

(There is a photo of Arapahoe with Strawberry in the July – The Filly chapter of my first book, A Year on the Family Farm andI talk about Pokey in the February chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Be Careful What You Wish For

Note to Self: Next Time, Wear Gloves

Do you know what is the shortest measurable time period known to humans?  Are you thinking millisecond?  Nanosecond?   Nope, you’d be wrong.  It’s the length of time needed for a contentedly purring feline to transform into a hissing hellcat that scratches your hand. 

The photo you see below is a photo of my hand after an encounter with Simba, one of our two barn cats.  Before I describe the encounter, let me give you a little background on my experiences with cats.

Remember the movie 101 Dalmations with dogs running and leaping, coming out of every nook and cranny? Well, if you replaced each one of those cute, furry, spotted puppies with a mostly feral, shaggy, yellow tabby cat, that is what our barn looked like when I was growing up in the Sixties.  Back then, we didn’t bother with spaying, neutering or vaccinating barn cats.  If Frontline or Heartgard existed back then, we certainly didn’t know about it, and wouldn’t have spent money on it if we had.

Our multitude of farm cats lived wild, lived free, and – in return for shelter and a daily feeding – they kept our many farm buildings clear of mice, rats, and other undesirables. 

But let me make this very clear – they were not friendly, and they were not pets.  If we kids discovered, hidden among the hay bales, a new batch of kittens before their eyes were opened (and if the mother were not around!) we could hold and cuddle them.  But once their eyes were opened and the kittens were mobile, they hissed, bit, and scratched just like their elders.

I loved our dogs; I tolerated our cats.

And then…Jack entered our lives. 

Jack, ironically enough, was also a yellow tabby.  I talked Danny into getting a cat in 1991 after we moved into a new house in town directly off a golf course.  Rodents coming off the course were a real nuisance and I knew the right cat could take care of that problem.  Jack was more than I could have ever hoped for.  Not only did he take care of our home and property, he taught me that cats could be just as lovable as dogs – but with a personality entirely unique to cats.

Jack was a badass.  And I say that with the utmost admiration.  A Clint Eastwood type of badass – cool as a cucumber, quiet, calculating, and he always got his man.  Yet, just like Clint, he sometimes displayed evidence of a softer side that could almost be described as sweet.

One summer day, my niece stopped by our house with Tuffy, their family dog.  A cockapoo, Tuffy was sweet-tempered, smart as a whip, but evidently, inappropriately named.   While my niece and I were chatting on our driveway, Tuffy began barking furiously as Jack crossed the driveway towards us.  Tuffy approached Jack and began circling him, barking constantly.  Jack ignored Tuffy as he nonchalantly strolled ever closer to us.  Tuffy was now emboldened.   His circles grew smaller, and his barking grew ever more ferocious until Jack stopped, only a few feet away from us.  Tuffy was now barking within inches of Jack’s face.  Jack’s eyes narrowed to slits, and then…

Remember that time period I mentioned in the first paragraph?  Like greased lightning, Jack swiped his paw across Tuffy’s face.  Tuffy let out a yip! thenleaped vertically into my niece’s arms!  Even LeBron would have been impressed with Tuffy’s vertical leap.  Luckily, my niece’s reflexes were also cat-like, and she caught Tuffy before he fell back onto the driveway.  Tuffy stayed in my niece’s arms for the rest of the visit. 

Meanwhile, Jack casually continued his jaunt across the driveway into the sunset, tail held high.  Badass.

Unfortunately, Jack died of old age before we ever moved to the farm.  As soon as we got our barn built, Danny and I both agreed we needed another cat.

Enter Sherlock.  A gray tabby, I got Sherlock from the Humane Society where he had been appropriately vaccinated and neutered, 21st century-style.  Sherlock, we soon discovered, was more affectionate and sensitive than Jack had been, turning out to be more of a Tom Hanks kind of cat.  He loves adults, leaping with no warning into any suitable, available lap.  He loves kids, even those who squeeze a bit too tight, or love a bit too much.  He even loves our other farm animals, and is often seen rubbing against the horse’s legs and snuggling with our dogs.

Unfortunately, Tom Hanks isn’t really known for always getting his man.  When I witnessed Sherlock sitting quietly, detachedly observing as a mouse ran between his legs, (Yes!  Between his legs!) I realized that we really needed someone more like Clint back at the ranch.

Instead we got Simba.  A once-feral cat, Simba came to me via our vet, who had planned to take him to his own farm rather than euthanize him.  Also appropriately vaccinated and neutered, Simba is smarter than the inbred cats from my childhood, more ruthless and unpredictable than Jack had been, and more of a hunter than Sherlock.  But the line between good and evil is sometimes blurred with Simba.  He is definitely more the Al Pacino type.

Simba, Danny and I have reached a mutual, legally-binding agreement.  He shall catch unwanted mice, and in return we shall feed him and provide shelter.  He shall not, however, be expected to offer any snippets of affection.  If any human and/or feline interaction is desired, we shall each be referred to Sherlock (who loves everyone). 

This works really well for about eleven months out of the year.  The problem is, Simba has long hair.  He is beautiful in winter, and I can’t help but admire him (from a safe distance).  But in spring, when he starts to shed, his coat gets these gigantic clumps and he simply can’t manage his own grooming.  The poor cat looks miserable.

So, for the past few years, I have started grooming him in the spring.  Believe me when I tell you, I did this very carefully at first.  But then I realized that he kind of likes it!  That is, until he doesn’t. 

And there you have it.  Now you understand the genesis of my hand scratches.  I know it doesn’t look much.  But it stung – my feelings more than anything, I guess.

I think I need a snuggle with Tom Hanks.

(Oh, I have more “Jack” and “Sherlock” stories! Read the May chapter in my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  No Humor Today

Hey! That’s My Hat!

In previous blogs, I have written about Zip’s propensity for growing a thick winter coat and about how special BB is, but I have yet to tell you much about BJ, the youngster in the herd.

BJ is the only one of our three horses who has never known an owner besides me.  And he never will.  I promised BB before I had her bred that if she did this for me, she would have her foal beside her always.  I try very hard to always keep my promises.

The foal was due around the same time that our second granddaughter was due.  My daughter-in-law asked me point blank one day, if both babies were born at the same time, which would I choose to be present for?

Thank goodness I didn’t have to choose.  I was present for both.  BJ was born first on May 14, 2009, and our granddaughter arrived on May 29.  It was a very good year.

BJ was born in our corral, about mid-morning.  Danny and I were both present.   I had been watching BB closely, and when she couldn’t seem to make much progress, I called the vet.  He ended up having to pull BJ.  Now, just so you know, our vet is not a small man.  In fact, in another life, he could probably have been a lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs.  He struggled to pull BJ, and, after the birth, told me that BJ looked like a month-old foal.

BJ is still huge.  The average height of a quarterhorse is 15 hands, or 60 inches (one hand = 4 inches) from hoof to withers (highest point of the front shoulder).  BJ is 16 hands high, or 64 inches.  That is actually the average height of a thoroughbred.  But BJ is not slender like a thoroughbred.  He has the thick, muscular features of the quarterhorse.  So, bottom line, I always get the feeling when I’m riding him, that if he really wanted to, he could toss me like a rag doll.

But honestly, BJ is pretty darn sweet.  And he is beautiful.  Really.  A creamy buckskin with thick, wavy black mane and tail.  His maternal grandsire was a racehorse, and his paternal grandsire was an award-winning showhorse.  He is a sight to behold as he races through the pasture.

It is his personality, however, that I love most.  BJ talks to me.  When I call the horses, he is the one who answers back.  When I come out of the house and walk towards the corral, he is the one who nickers in anticipation and greets me at the gate.  

He is still trying to establish his place in the herd.  Zip will calmly put up with BJ’s ear-flattening, tail swishing and foot stomping for a while, but will eventually get fed up with it.  Clearly not intimidated by BJ’s size, Zip will flatten his ears, bite BJ on the shoulder or rump, and quickly put the youngster back in his place.  BJ’s constant testing of boundaries reminds me of some other young males who used to live in our household.

BJ is funny.  He’s my corral clown.  If I laugh out loud at one of my horses, it is always BJ.  One day I got a facetime call from my grandkids while I was in the corral with the horses.  As I was holding the phone, talking to the kids, BJ came up behind me, put his head on my shoulder and watched the phone.  He was so curious!  He sniffed the phone and put his lips on it, trying to figure out how those tiny people got into that small box!  On their end, the grandkids were seeing huge nostrils, a huge tongue, and huge teeth.  They thought it was hilarious.

But in my opinion, the funniest thing BJ has ever done involved my new hat.

Normally, I wear a large-brimmed straw hat when working outside.  But if it’s rainy, I have a water-proof hat that I wear instead.  That hat is a cobalt blue.  Now, I am convinced that horses can see some form of color.  It may not be exactly what we humans see, but my experience is that they respond to color.

For instance, before we moved back to the farm, I boarded BB in town very near our home.  As I rode her around the area where she was boarded, she would stop at every newspaper holder in front of the neighborhood homes.  She ignored the mailboxes, but was fascinated by the plastic newspaper holders.  She sniffed them, licked them, and I generally had a difficult time pulling her away from them.  It suddenly dawned on me.  They were all green!  The same green color as her grain bucket.

Back to the blue hat.  BJ noticed it.  As I was sweeping and shoveling that day, he kept crowding me, sniffing and nibbling at my new, out-of-the-ordinary, blue hat. 

I pushed him away.  “Get out of here.  I’m busy,” I told him.

He persisted.  He grabbed at the brim of the hat with his teeth. 

I waved him off.  “Quit it, BJ!  Leave my hat alone.”

The hat had a chin strap which I had tightened under my chin.  He again grabbed the brim with his teeth, pulled up, and almost guillotined me. 

I gave up.  “Fine!  You want my hat so bad?  Here, take it!”  I took the hat off, placed it on the top of his head between his ears, and wrapped the chin strap around his ears so that it would not slip off.

I honestly thought he would try to shake it off.  He did not.  Instead, he paraded around the corral, head held high like an ingenue balancing a book on her head at Miss Priss’ School for Young Girls.

I laughed at his silliness, but he didn’t care.  He stood and posed as I took his photo.  He continued to wear it the entire time I did my chores.  Not once did he try to shake it off. 

When I finally took my hat back, he let me.  He had accomplished what he had set out to do.  For a while, it had been his hat.

(Growing up, my horse’s name was Strawberry.  Read all about her in July – The Filly in A Year on the Family Farm and August – The Secret in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Note to Self:  Next Time, Wear Gloves

Ouch!

Our two sons were born in 1981 and 1984.  At that time, new mothers were strongly encouraged to attend Lamaze classes to learn natural birthing techniques.  Danny and I attended faithfully for weeks, never missing a class.  I learned how to breathe (Deep breath in through the nostrils, exhale slowly through the mouth.  Deep breath in…) while he learned how to soothingly wipe my forehead with a cool, damp washcloth.  (Okay, there were a few other details we both learned, but those are pretty much the highlights.)

Anyway, towards the tail end of my first labor, the cool, damp washcloth on my forehead no longer soothed me.  In fact, it began to have the opposite effect.  Danny swears to this day that my normally baby blue eyes turned a reptilian yellow as I grabbed his wrist in a vise-like death grip and snarled through clenched teeth, “Touch me again and you’re a dead man.”

He slowly backed away from the bed and took his washcloth with him.  Lamaze breathing techniques only go so far.

I mention this because I recently had cause to resurrect those breathing techniques.

We have a large, wild mulberry tree growing along the fenceline of our pasture.  There are times when we need to drive a tractor or swather under that tree, and the branches had become prohibitive.  So, one morning last week, I decided to fix that.

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I loaded a tree saw and long-handled clippers in the Ranger and parked directly under the tree branches.  I stood in the back of the Ranger and began to saw a branch with a diameter of about two inches.  I positioned myself in a way that, according to my mental calculations, would keep me from harm as the heavy branch fell.  What I failed to anticipate was that the tips of the branch were intertwined with other branches in such a way that the cut end of the branch would swing towards me as it fell and … hit me right on the bridge of my nose.

Deep breath in through the nostrils, exhale slowly through the mouth.  Deep breath in…

It could have been worse.  The blunt side of the branch hit me rather than the cut edge, so there was no blood.  It hit directly below where my glasses rest on my nose, so my glasses were not broken.  There’s always a bright side.  Sometimes you just have to search a while for it.

By the way, I did not tell Danny about the branch incident.  He will find out about it when he reads this blog.  The reason I did not tell him was because I knew exactly what he would have said.

“Why didn’t you wait for me to help?!  I would have helped you!”

All true.  However, I would have had to wait for his help.  He works all day at his office, and the few hours of daylight that he has after he gets home are entirely spoken for with other honey-do items.

For those of you who don’t know me, I will share this about me.  While I know that patience is a virtue, it is not one of my virtues.  (Dear Lord, please give me patience.  And give it to me NOW!)

So, bottom line, I sometimes put myself into a semi-dangerous situation in order to get my work done.  When you work with half-ton animals and heavy machinery with many moving parts, any situation has the potential to become dangerous in an instant.

Every farmer and rancher who is reading this blog right now is nodding his or her head.  You get it.  In fact, according to Time, Farming and Ranching is Number Eight on the Top Ten List of Most Dangerous Jobs in America.  This list is based on fatal injuries per 100,000 workers.  The tally for Farmers and Ranchers is 23.1.  (Be thankful you’re not a logger.  They are Number One at 135.9!  Wait a minute.  When I cut that branch was I a farmer or a logger?)

Growing up on a family farm, I witnessed one brother get his fingers crushed after the jack slipped while changing a tire.  I witnessed another brother fall off the back of a trailer stacked high with hay bales when the young driver turned too sharply.  (Ahem.  I was the driver.)  Thankfully, neither of these brothers was seriously hurt.

I myself had a finger broken from a slammed gate, a lip split through and through from a fall, and got serious road rash from a fall off a horse.  (Note to self.  Don’t wear shorts when running a horse bareback.)

Thank goodness we had mentholatum – my dad’s cure for everything.

Since my return to my farming roots, I have had a cracked rib, a bruised tailbone (twice) and numerous cuts that probably would have been stitched – had I gone to a doctor.

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When BJ was still a youngster, he tossed his head one day as I was grooming him.  His nose hit my glasses, they broke, and cut my eye socket immediately below my eyebrow.  Around the cut, my eye turned a dark black and blue.  For about a week, it looked as though I were wearing an extremely dark eye shadow on one eye.  I refer to it as my semi-Goth phase.

I saw one of my daughters-in-law the day after the accident.  She asked if I had gotten stitches.

“No,” I told her, “It wasn’t bad enough to go to a doctor.  I just used some steri-strips.”

She stared at me for a few seconds, then said, “You have steri-strips?!”

I shrugged.  Not my first rodeo.

She then said something I’ve never forgotten.  “You know, Mary Kay, we worry about you out there by yourself.  We worry that you will really get hurt – or worse.”

So, to my family and friends, know this: If that ever happens, you can rest assured that I have left this world happy, on my own terms, and doing exactly what I love.

How many people can say that?

(I relate more stories about childhood incidents in September – Forgiveness in A Year on the Family Farm and May – Memories in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Hey! That’s My Hat!

Fred and Ethel are Back

A lot of people call Kansas “fly-over” country.  That is, it’s only good for flying over as you pass from one coast to the other.  I’m okay with that.  Our slower-paced, simple, quiet lifestyle does not suit many big-city dwellers just as their frenetic lifestyle does not suit me.  But variety is the spice of life, is it not?

“Fly-over” country has a different meaning for me.  Every spring and every fall, thousands of birds migrate over our farm.  Canada geese, snow geese, sandhill cranes, and several species of ducks pass over our farm on their way to their breeding grounds.  Often, they stop and spend the night, or even several days.  They feed on the short, green blades of winter wheat in our field.  They search for early-hatching bugs in our pasture.  They sleep on our pond.

One recent morning, I awoke to several hundred Canada geese sleepily floating on our pond.  They became agitated and began honking noisily as Russell and Fern exited our enclosed porch and walked across our farmyard.

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When our dogs were still pups, they learned very quickly that they got scolded if they chased the migrating geese.  So, on that morning, like all other mornings, the dogs sat quietly and watched the geese, but did not attempt to chase them off.

Later, after completing my morning chores, I used our Ranger, an all-purpose utility vehicle, to fill the various wild animal feeders that I have scattered around our farm.  One of those feeders is very near the pond.  I knew the geese would take off as I approached the pond with the Ranger, and I was right.

It was a sight to behold.  After a cacophony of raucous warning honks, the geese lifted off the pond in unison.  The flapping of those mighty wings overhead so greatly disturbed the air, that it sounded as the whirring blades of a hovering helicopter.

They all took flight.  Except for two.  I smiled.  Fred and Ethel were back!

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Canada geese typically mate for life and can live up to twenty-five years in the wild.  They often return to the same breeding grounds year after year.  Fred and Ethel have raised their babies on our land for almost a decade now.  When the rest of the geese noisily took off in fear, Fred and Ethel remained, calmly and quietly swimming on our pond.  They knew me, they knew the dogs, they knew the Ranger.

Often, the dogs will jump into our pond to cool off (they’re Labs, remember?), swim around a bit mere yards from Fred and Ethel, and each species will pretty much ignore the other.

I refuse to explain where the names Fred and Ethel came from.  Many of you, I am sure, will recognize the monikers immediately and smile at the memory.  For those of you who don’t, well, any explanation simply would not do them justice anyway.  You just had to be there.

When I see Fred alone, or Ethel alone, it’s very difficult for me to tell one from the other.  Their markings and coloring are identical.  When I do start seeing one without the other, I know the eggs have been laid, and one of them is watching the nest.

When together, Fred is obviously larger than Ethel.  And when they are all together with their babies as a family unit, their behaviors are different too.  The goslings tend to cluster around Ethel, mimicking her, feeding where she feeds.  Meanwhile, Fred will stand alert a slight distance away.  Head held high, he spends his time surveying their surroundings.

The nurturing, instructing mother and the vigilant, protective father, together with their brood.  Isn’t that how we would like to picture our own families?

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We can learn a lot from Fred and Ethel.

(I share a touching Canada goose story in the February chapter of my third book The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next week:  Ouch!

 

It Was Worth Getting Up For

A while back, Danny and I were preparing to leave for Rapid City, South Dakota.  It was not a vacation, and we weren’t going to take in all the tourist sites, although Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and Wall Drug are all worth the trip.  No, we were headed to see our youngest son, his wife and our two youngest grandchildren, who reside in Rapid City.  Sometimes we fly, but this time we had decided to make the 9+ hour journey by car.

Although our family visit was everything we had hoped it would be, that’s not what this blog is about.  Instead, I want to tell you about the morning we left our farm.

It was still dark when I got out of bed.  With the long trip ahead of us, we had planned for an early departure, so I rose promptly at the sound of the alarm and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  (I call my stiff, early morning walk “the coffee shuffle”)

The eastern horizon was barely beginning to lighten, but when I turned on the porch light I could see that it was foggy.  I turned on our weather radio to listen to the forecast while I was making the bed and getting dressed.  Every farmer has a weather radio.  It would be absolutely foolhardy in tornado alley to not have one.  Cities have their sirens, but out on the farm we rely on our weather radio, our instinct, and our common sense.IMG_6486.JPG

Anyway, the fog was expected to burn off quickly, so it would not be a travel hazard.  What it was, however, was beautiful.

When I left the house for my morning chores, the sun had still not risen above the horizon, but I was able to walk to the barn without artificial lighting.  The farm had an ethereal, surreal quality about it.  There was not a stitch of wind, and the fog captured and absorbed each sound wave so that every noise seemed close and magnified.  I became aware of the crunch of my boots on the gravel path as I walked to the barn.  I heard the trill of a meadowlark, the cackle of a pheasant, and the honking of a goose on the pond.  I knew all of these birds were far from me, yet they sounded as if they were right beside me as I strode to the barn.

I stopped for a moment and looked around.  Through the fog, I could faintly make out the fuzzy headlights of one lone truck about a half mile away – an early morning commuter or oil-field pumper on his rounds.

My dogs were trotting beside me, but when I got close to the barn, I saw that the horses were not in the corral.  They typically spend the night in the pasture, and were not yet expecting me at the barn.  My arrival at the barn was about an hour earlier than my typical routine.

When I entered the barn, I immediately turned on the exterior barn lights.  I figured that the horses would see the light and come to the barn.

I fed the dogs and cats, and the horses still hadn’t come to the barn.  So, I stood in the corral and called their names.  With no wind, I knew they could hear me call, even in the farthest corners of the pasture.  I called and I waited.  Then I heard it.  The pounding of hooves on the pasture ground, and I knew that BJ would be first.  A horse in full gallop, mane and tail flying, is always poetry in motion, but the vision of him as he burst through the early morning mist literally took my breath away.

It was definitely worth getting up for.

BB followed next, then Zip, but they both approached at a much slower pace than the younger, fitter BJ.  Even when the pasture is lush with green grass, I still call my horses in twice daily to check them for injury, illness, etc.  As I ran my hand across them that morning, I felt the dampness on their bodies, and I knew they had been lying down when I had called.  Horses periodically doze while standing up, but they still need to get off of their feet for about four hours per day.

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On my walk back to the house after my completed chores, I noticed a yellow-headed blackbird sitting on the ground near the corral fence.  I hadn’t seen one of them in years!  As if the fog hadn’t been enough of an early-morning gift, I had just received another!  I hoped that meant that the blackbird had returned, would stay awhile, and would bring some friends.

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When we leave the farm for extended periods, as we planned to that day, my adult nephew feeds and cares for our animals.  He lives only a few miles from our farm, and he checks on them at least twice daily.  I know how lucky I am to have someone I trust care for our farm when we are gone.

The drive away from our farm that morning was bittersweet.  I was so anxious to see our children and grandchildren again, but I felt just a twinge of sadness at leaving the farm.  And I was reminded of my father.

Years ago, shortly after my parents had retired from dairy farming, Danny and my dad were sitting on the farmhouse porch one beautiful summer evening.  Danny asked my dad if he planned to now, finally do some traveling.  Dairy cows need to be milked every twelve hours, rain or shine, winter or summer.  There are no vacations.  And finding someone to take over the milking can be harder than just staying home and doing it yourself.  My parents left the farm only a handful of times in their thirty years of milking.

But when Danny asked my dad that question, Daddy raised his arms and opened them wide as he slowly swept them across the horizon.  He said to Danny, “Why would I ever want to leave this?”

Indeed.

(My favorite story of my dad is in the June chapter of my second book Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  Fred and Ethel are back