Blog Archive

Friday, September 30, 2011

The week started out pretty dreary, with heavy rain on Monday and more dreary on Tuesday.  So when the weather broke on Wed., before I hit the road for the long drive up to Washburn, WI, I decided it was time for a few new pics of Brigid's cria, who is now about a month and a half old.

Unfortunately, he was hanging around the back of the barn where the composting hay and dung lies in steaming piles on cement slabs.  Not a pretty backdrop.  But when you're photographing in a barnyard, there's not always much you can do about the background.

We've nicknamed this fellow "Mr. T," in reference to his little white goatee chin.  He was a big boy at birth and has grown nicely ever since. Brigid is a very attentive mother, and Mr. T is never far from her side.

I only wish I had more time to spend with them and the herd. There is still so much to learn, so much to observe. I suspect these large brown eyes, watching me attentively as I pass among them snapping photos, know more about my body language than I know about theirs. 

But in the meantime, I will have to be content with snapshots and glimpses as I move through the herd and my busy fall schedule, living in two states on two farms, missing home when I'm with Brigid, and missing Brigid when I'm at home.

This too shall pass. 

Next spring, we will all be together again.  Next spring, after our time in Hawaii, we will park our little silver bullet travel trailer on a hill with a view of the valley, breathing in the fresh air, memories of this summer apart fading slowly into the dusk.

Blessings -

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Last Saturday afternoon, in less than an hour, Papa Bear and I purchased our next home - a 1971 31' Airstream Travel Trailer. One giant silver piece in my Gypsy Farmgirl plans, complete.

After three+ months of living in two states, splitting my time between our rented 2-acre Little Farm outside of Minneapolis, MN and the 170-acre Big Farm in Ontario, WI, it is nearly time to begin the next phase of my Gypsy Farmgirl journey – leaving the mainland!

At the end of November, Papa Bear will start a leave of absence from his job which will enable us to spend 3 months away this winter. We decided to cross several items off of our collective "Bucket Lists" and head to Hawaii for two months, staying and working at Earthly Delights Farm, a member of the WWOOF program (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), in Honaunau, Hawaii, on the western coast of the Big Island.

There we will spend two months helping harvest tropical fruits, nuts and Kona coffee beans in exchange for room and board and a whole new set of farming skills, plus easy access to the Pacific Ocean, surfing (my bucket list), snorkeling (Papa Bear's list) and lots of beautiful Hawaiian sunsets (both of our lists).

We will be returning to the states some time in mid-Feb. (which we realize  be too cold in rural WI to move into our little silver bullet).  Having a "mobile home" will allow us to have a place to live on bare land until we build a permanent, year-round structure, and will allow us the option of escaping our Midwestern winters any time we feel a great need (hopefully on a regular basis!).

We haven't yet figured out exactly where we will park it next summer - hopefully on a little plot of land that we own.  Plans for that are still in the works. I'm sure something will manifest itself, as it always does.

PB's already making plans for refurbishing the 70's interior of our new little home, brightening up the cabinetry and capitalizing on clever storage options to maximize use of the roughly 200 square feet of living space.

I've been drooling over some of the beautiful ideas on the Hoffman Architecture website, where, it seems, this LEED-certified architect has drummed up quite a demand for refurbished Airstream campers and has several more in the works already including one he will be shipping “down unduh” to Australia by the end of the year.

Who says "tiny" can't be practical AND beautiful?

All of this is very exciting for us. Our plans for this have been in the works for several years now (probably in one form or another ever since we met in 2000), as we worked our way through piles and piles of debt, raised a child, sold our duplex and acquired a location independent salary.

We resisted telling folks about it for a long time because of, well, the "lobster-effect."  Some lobsters will try to crawl out of a pot on the stove, but their buddies still in the pot will pull them back in.  If you've seen the movie Revolutionary Road you'll understand what I'm talking about. 

We had no intentions of becoming Frank & April by prematurely discussing our newly hatched plans before they had a chance to grow into something so real and attainable, nobody could pull us back into the pot.

We are at that point now. The leave of absence is approved, the farm in Hawaii is confirmed, the plane tickets are purchased.

There are still a few {major} obstacles we need to overcome however.

Such as, where to put all our stuff when we move out of our house this fall. And what to do with 6 alpacas, 3 spoiled cats and 14 chickens, for three months.

But we are confident that will all come together, just as all of the other details have. Things have a way of working themselves out when you truly believe they can and will.

{Who wants to chicken-sit this December?}

So, what about you? Have you buried your Wildly Improbably Goals  under the piles of clutter in the basement of your comfortable home in suburbia, convincing yourself this is all you ever really wanted to do with your life?

Or are you one of the rare and brave souls who still cling to your dreams of travel and adventure and a life of your own design?  Are you trying to climb out of that pot?  Do you need a boost out?

If so (and I truly hope you are!), here are some of my favorite links and resources to get you thinking and dreaming of your own personal Paradise:

Drop me a line if you find these links helpful, and if you're going to be on the Big Island this winter, please please look us up!


Monday, September 19, 2011

For most of my adult life I've been struggling with how to simplify things.  Everything from how much "stuff" I have to how many hours a week I work to how many hobbies and activities I pursue.

This summer I have been living a "simplification" experiment as I work 4 days/week at the Big Farm in WI, taking with me only the basic necessities for the week ahead. 

Four work shirts, a pair of work pants, a warm long-sleeved shirt, a cooler packed with food for the week, one bowl, one fork, one knife, one skillet.

There are a few other things - minimal toiletries, a warm jacket, gloves, a hat. And of course my computer gear, for my "real" job.

I have been doing this for over three months now.  And you know what?  I haven't missed any of my "stuff" at home. 

Not once.

Not only has my "stuff" been simplified, so have my routines.  After I arrive home (in MN) Wed. evenings, I throw the weeks' worth of clothes into the wash.  When they're done, I fold them and put them right back into the suitcase.

{Yes I've worn the same 4 t-shirts over and over all summer.  And didn't die from it.}

We shop for groceries Fridays, prepare the weeks' meals Saturdays, freezing them in individual portions until Sunday when I leave again for WI.

Meals are, by necessity, simple. Breakfast quiche made from our own chicken eggs and herbs from our garden. Lunches and dinners are simple salads made up of locally-grown pastured meats that I precook and toss with fresh spinach greens and other organic veggies and local fruits.

My daily routines are also simplified. There are morning chores, then my computer work, then noon-hour chores, more computer time, then dinner and evening chores.  In exchange for chores, I get a bed in the bunkhouse, access to the kitchen and bathroom (and shower!), and boarding for two of my alpacas.

There is no "what's-for-dinner" angst anymore, as I have already pre-planned, pre-pared and pre-cooked all my meals. I reheat my daily portions in a tiny cast-iron skillet (my favorite cooking tool!) on the stove top in the bunkhouse kitchen while I prepare my salad. I'm not much of a salad person, but these salads are amazing.  After dinner, I wipe the skillet and rinse out my bowl and fork and I am done with dinner and cleanup.

Because I have so few, if any, distractions in the evenings, I am free to spend as much time as I want up on the steep hillsides of that lovely valley, watching the mama alpacas grazing in the cool of the dusk, keeping a close eye on on their babies (crias) who spend the time romping and chasing one another (something we call "pronking").  I hear them munching on grass, the quiet humming of mamas to their babies and to each other. I smell the sweet damp night air and fresh grass. 

At this time of the year, it doesn't take long for dusk to turn into night.  But I am not afraid. 

Me who was terrified of the dark for most of my adult life, will walk out into the pitch black night without a light, through gates and over electric fences, climb a hill and shut the chicken coop door while the coyotes howl and the chickens murmur ghost stories to each other into the night.

There is no rush to come back inside. All the chores of the day are already done.  If I could stay up on that hillside forever, believe me, I would.

The problem is, when you're up on a hilltop and all the world seems beautifully simple, eventually, you have to come back down that hill. If you're lucky, what awaits you at the bottom will be a cozy bunkhouse, a warm bed, and just enough "stuff" to make it through the week.

For most of us however, what awaits is usually a long list of chores and responsibilities that come from owning a house (or farm) that is probably more space (and acres) than we really need, filled with stuff that needs to be fixed, cleaned or taken care of, and debts that require both of you to work off the homestead and leave little time or energy to pursue what you really enjoy - family, friends, even the farm and animals themselves.

And yet, the images of my simple living experiment are never far from my mind.

When Papa Bear and I decided to check out rural WI as a potential place to set down roots, we had a clear vision in mind - a small parcel we could buy with cash, with a lot of daylight and a view of the sunset.  We felt we'd be happy with just 5 acres and no debt and no house at all (perhaps we'll live in an airstream trailer first and build a tiny house or grain bin home later with the cash we saved), and we can certainly grow a large garden and run a few animals on 5 acres and probably even find farmers in the area that would let us run a few more animals on their land in exchange for our labor.

Since we first started visiting properties a year ago, that vision hasn't changed.  What has changed is other peoples' perceptions of what we should want or need. 

Instead of a small parcel for cash, we're being encouraged to look at big beautiful farms that come with  big scary mortgages and require two incomes to support. Farms that would easily eat up all our free time  AND cash. 

Sure, it would be pretty cool to own a 40-acre farm.  But, is that what we really wanted, or needed, or asked for?

How much is enough?  How much land?  How much house?  How much debt?

My experiment this summer has given me a glimpse of a much simpler way. A way that allows for us to work in community rather than solitarily, to work collaboratively rather than everyone recreating the same wheel.

And what I have learned is that when we can work together in community with others to ensure that not only our needs are met but so are our neighbors, what we really need is far, far less than what we think we need.  When we pool our resources and help each other, we all grow exponentially. 

So that even a little bit of land can feel like an empire. 

And even a little bit of land can be simply, "enough."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Somewhere deep in the heart of Monroe County, WI, the Wild Ginseng grows.  The locations of ginseng and morel mushrooms are carefully guarded secrets of the deep woods in this region.

This spring during our (legitimate) property search we often came across land owners that warned us we had "better not touch (their) morels while we were out looking around!"  With a price tag of $135/lb dried, I can see where folks would be a little protective about their famous fungi.

But even morel prices pale in comparison to the $200-$400/lb price tag of dried ginseng.  Ginseng locations are such carefully guarded secrets I had to be taken blindfolded in a car as they drove around in circles to confuse me.

{Well not really, they kind of figured I was already confused enough and even if they led me right to it, I'd never find it again. And they were right.}

I've heard there is something called "getting your eyes on" when searching for morels.  I think there is something similar to searching for Ginseng.  It seems impossible to find, and you can wander for an hour and turn up empty-handed. But if you're lucky enough to go with someone who knows what they're looking for, and will point the plants out to you, suddenly you'll see the plants appear where previously all you saw was the nameless green undergrowth of a dim forest.

The bright red cluster of small berries on a slim stem are the dead giveaway this time of year.  But don't let the May Apples fool you - they are abundant, and their red berries will certainly catch your eye and fool you into thinking you found something else!

If you see ferns growing, you are in the right type of environment.  Ginseng needs about 70-80% shade to grow well.  You will almost always find ferns where the Wild Ginseng grows, but not always the other way around.  If you're seeing grass, the area is too sunny for ginseng - move along to a shadier area to search.

Once you find one plant (we didn't harvest anything with less than three prongs - there are typically 5 leaflets on each prong) you will likely find more plants in the same area, so look carefully around the plant you found for more.

I was taught to take the red berries and squish out the seeds, burying them slightly under the soil first near the harvested plant, then a little bit farther down as well.  Spread them out a bit.  Give 'em a chance to sprout in more than one location. Since the plant takes time to grow to harvestable size (6-8 years), you don't want to take it all when you harvest an area.  Leave some plants for future harvest as well, and always plant those seeds!

Removing the root can be done carefully with your fingers, brushing the soil from the root and following it carefully into the ground.  It may have several branched rootlets so be carefully not to break those off as you expose the root.  Breaking them off will decrease the roots' value, if you're planning to sell it.

Take your harvested roots and wash them gently, but don't scrub. A little dirt on the growth rings can also add value.  Let them air dry out of direct sunlight.  Small roots may dry in a few days, large ones can take up to three weeks.  Dry them until they just start to snap when they bend enough to break them.  Once dried, keep them in a dry, airy, rodent-proof location until you are ready to use or sell them.

I found a lot of good information here on the Wild Grown website, but most of what I learned just came from following someone around the woods for awhile and having them explain it to me.

If you can find someone that not only knows Where the Wild Ginseng Grows and will take you there to find it, you are doubly blessed.

What have you been foraging for this summer??

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tonight, a lifelong ambition of mine came true.

No, it wasn't finishing my novel or discovering a new way to make electricity.

I milked a cow for the very first time.

I mentioned earlier this week, on our way to harvest grapes at Nordic Hills Farm, we passed by Daffodil, the Olsen's milk cow, on our way to the vineyard. I love Jersey's, their color, their huge brown eyes, their sweet nature. 

Not that I've personally known one before mind you.

But I was about to.

After calling her in from the pasture, lured by the rattle of alfalfa pellets in a bucket, Daffodil was led to a post where a lead rope was clipped to her halter and the pellets were deposited in a feeder.

While Jim went for the milking tools, I stood watching Daffodil eagerly lap up her alfalfa and munch on the 3 apples Jim gave me as a "getting-to-know her" gift. (The mattress pad is to keep the flies off of her while she's being milked).

From time to time, she'd pause in her eating and gaze at me with her unbelievably big brown eyes as if to say, "What are you standing there for?"

As I watched and waited, I was not alone.  There were the kitties, too.  The sweet calico and the Siamese kitten I saw the other day.

I love this Siamese kitten.  She (at least, I think it's a "she," but I can't say I'm an expert in sexing kittens) lets me pick her up and hold her, purring like crazy and rubbing on my hand the whole time.  She is sweetness wrapped up in a bundle of cuteness.  I could hardly stand it.

{Have I ever mentioned what a sucker I am for a beautiful kitten?  Oh, I have? Never mind then.}

She would make a perfect addition to our own barn.  If we had a barn.  But I don't think Jim & Mary are quite ready to give her up.  So for now, I'll just admire her when I visit. And love on her as a replacement for missing my own bundles of feline furriness.

But back to Daffodil, who is still standing patiently in the barn.

Jim returned with an ice cream pail and a enamelware milk canister, and began his instruction.  An old milk crate turned upside down (how ironic, eh?) became a milking stool. His agile hands quickly got her to let down her milk, and streams of the palest creamy yellow shot right into the pail.  He could even do this two-handed, although the flies were bothersome enough that Daffodil would take a step forward or back from time to time and he had to grab the bucket and pull it out of the way lest it get kicked over.

Finally, it was my turn.  I gripped her teat exactly as Jim had shown me and tugged, extracting exactly nothing.  I tried again - nothing.  And again.  Finally a short stream shot out and missed the pail.


From then on, the milking was easy peasy.


Sometimes it seemed I had the system down, and the milk came out in a nice stream.  Other times, I tugged, to no avail. I tried doing it the same way every time, when I had success, but it was still very intermittent.

Jim suggested I place my forehead into her flank.  I tried that, too, but I think she could tell it was not Jim's.  A cow, I'm sure, gets used to her milker, and she knew I was not him.  She swiped her tail into my face, which managed to get behind my glasses and get me in the open eyeball.


But she was still patient and calm and beautiful, despite my clumsy attempts, and I was in heaven for being there.

At the end of it all, I got to take home a quart of fresh, still-warm Jersey milk with the cream rising up on it.  And a sack of zucchinis.  And a grocery-bag full of apples.

And I have another date with her tomorrow.  Maybe I'll even get to meet her calf, a Jersey-Holstein cross named Fudge.

Fudge & Milk - what could be better than that?

Cheers -

Friday, September 2, 2011

I am so blessed.

I live on two farms.  Our Little Farm, in MN, and the Big Farm in Ontario, WI, shuttling back and forth, splitting my time between them every week. 

On our Little Farm, we get to play at being farmers, with our 3 male alpacas (fiber boys), 16 15 laying hens (one of our Rhode Island Reds mysteriously disappeared on Wed., the same day our neighbor's bird dog went missing) and three spoiled house cats who pretend they are outdoor cats.

On the Big Farm, I help tend a herd of 150 alpacas (including two of my girls and our new baby boy), 150 chickens, a couple of horses, and several beef cattle.

And sometimes, I get to do other things.  Like this week, when we visited a neighboring farm, Jim & Mary Olsen's Nordic Hills Farm, where we helped pick organic grapes.

To get to the vineyard, we had to pass through a couple of gates.  Guarding one of the gates was a beautiful Siamese kitten with bright blue eyes. 

{Have I ever mentioned what a sucker I am for a beautiful kitten?  Especially, a beautiful, Siamese, blue-eyed kitten like this one at the Big Farm?}

Then we waited as some of their lambs ambled by in front of the truck.  As we started to climb the hill towards the vineyard, I noticed their Jersey cow, Daffodil, heavy with milk, staring at us with her large brown eyes.  Daffodil came from an Amish farm, I was told. They wanted her to be calm and gentle and able to milk her from both sides.  She is. They can approach her in the field, tie her to the ATV, and two people can milk her at the same time.  I will be back to meet her again in the near future, I can tell already.  I have never milked a cow before.

At the top of the hill lies the vineyard, with a magnificent view of all of Kinney Valley. It was breathtaking. I have never picked grapes before.  I have never even been in a vineyard before.  With that view, you almost forget about the heat and humidity and the stream of sweat running down your back.

They grow Edelweiss, a sweet white wine grape, and Bluebell, a purple grape great for juice and jelly. We were harvesting the Edelweiss variety, and the vines were loaded. I have never tasted such sweetness in a grape before. These grapes even smelled sweet, just sitting in our buckets.

Justin's 5-year old son was helping me.  He was good with the clippers, and, he decided, I was good at cleaning any mushy grapes or spiderwebs out of each bunch he handed to me.

Once the vines had all been picked, we headed back down the hill to the house, past Daffodil and the lambs and some cows and the cats, and we sat outside and drank homemade rhubarb juice and chatted about farming.

When we left, we were loaded up with fresh chicken eggs and a quart of Daffodil's milk.

It was about the most perfect day a person could have.

Did I mention how blessed I am?

I am. 

I truly, truly am.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I often wonder where the time flies off to in between my blog posts.  I mean, it's been over a week since my last one, for goodness sakes!  What the heck have I been doing with all of my spare time?

Driving 8+ hours a week back and forth from our Little Farm in Mayer, MN to the Big Farm in Ontario, WI takes a chunk of it. Throw in packing, laundry, grocery shopping and cooking a weeks' worth of meals and the remaining hours of the few days I'm at home every week quickly shrink.

And then there are the other normal things - dishes, errands, paperwork, tending animals, weeding, watering, learning to use our new scythe, moving the coop, moving the boys' grazing area, and the hours diminish even further.

But hey, you ask, what about all those hours you're at the farm every week?  You should have lots of time in the evenings, without your family there to distract you.

Yes, I should indeed.

But Sunday evenings I arrive from MN right around dark, and after a hurried unloading of the car, there are chickens to be put away, including a few minutes standing on the hillside in the gathering dark, watching and listening to the night gather in around me.

After that, and that 4-hour drive, I'm beat, and I retire to bed early, sometimes with a book.

Week nights, after the Radloff's retire to their own homes for the night, I have dinner to warm up, then the chickens to feed, then a wander over to the hillside pasture where the large female herd is hanging out, to check on the pregnant dams and watch the babies pronking.  This task alone can sometimes take an hour, especially if I sit on the hillside among them, watching and listening to the night gather in around us.

After that, the chickens need to be tucked in for the night, which requires another long climb up a steep hill, stopping afterwards to inhale the clean valley air and watch and listen to the night gathering in.

Then it's time for a shower, and then, it's almost time for bed, and long past the time I feel productive or creative.

The days are always full and busy, with farm chores and my regular job. No extra time to write or read.

So, this living life in two pieces.  It has its benefits, for sure, but it has a price, too. It has severely cut into my available hours of writing time.  And reading.  And that makes me sad.

But I know this too, shall end.  Summer is almost over.  Days are hot but nights are getting chilly. Soon it will be time for us to pack up the Little Farm and start the next part of our Big Adventure - somewhere hot and sunny for the winter. And when we return next spring, hopefully it will be to begin our adventures on our very own farm.

I watch my farming friends here and I see how hard they work and what long hours (they joke, "I only work half a day.  12 hours at the most!). I truly hope PB and I can create a farm life that doesn't require working all the hours of every day.

Because there is always another story that needs to be told, photos that need to be taken, critters that need to be enjoyed. 

And what would a farm life be without the time to enjoy it?  Just another job.  

So my friends, please be patient with my lapses.  I am still thinking of you all, dreaming up stories to tell you, even when my pages remain silent.

I am still snapping photos, hundreds of them, that I can't wait to share with you.

And on the nights that I am silent, I am probably still high up on a hillside, watching and listening to the night gathering in around me, breathing in the clean valley air.

Blessings -

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