Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Oh, but anyway, Toto, we're home. Home! And this is my room, and you're all here. And I'm not gonna leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all, and - oh, Auntie Em - there's no place like home!

I have been feeling a little bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz these past few weeks, ever since arriving back in the Midwest after living on a Hawaiian coffee farm this winter.

Have you ever noticed when you leave some place then come back again, everything seems bright, shiny and new?  Or maybe just fresher, greener and sunshiny-er?

I always tell my husband, "The best thing about traveling is coming home again."

Not that we don't enjoy our adventures, mind you.  We do.  And there will be more, I'm sure.  There will always be more adventures when half of your spirit wants to constantly be on the move, and the other half wants to plant itself firmly in farm ground.

We've been busy little beavers since our return to western WI, where I have taken up residence once again in my friends' bunkhouse - this time however with my sweetie beside me (and our kitties!).

{Note: Our friends here are pretty much saints we've decided.}

Together we have been doing a lot of fenceline clearing since it's high tensile electric and even tall grass will take the charge out of it.

{If you ever want to freak out your grown child, walk into the bedroom carrying a scythe like the one above. She will run screaming from the room in no time. I blame too many scary movies myself.}

Unfortunately most of the brush growing along the fence is now raspberry brambles and buckthorn saplings.  Ouch.

My arms have never been so scratched but it was a great excuse for Papa Bear and I to go shopping at the Amish Walmart, which is actually just an Amish farmer that sells everything from machetes (we got two - his & hers - at $3.50/ea) to scrap metal to lambs (we put a deposit down on a small flock) to overstock produce (we bought an entire BOX of bananas for $6.50).

Really people, where else can you buy machetes AND lambs AND bananas, all at the same place?  The farmer also tried selling us 400 laying hens but we declined. You've got to draw the line somewhere, and after all, we had just bought an entire never-ending-box of bananas.

When we're not outside working the fencelines we've been inside feverishly slicing and drying bananas in the new dehydrator given to us recently by Papa Bear's mom (thanks again for the early birthday gift - I love it!).

{Note to Self:  Before buying an entire box of never-ending-ripe bananas in the future, please invest in multiple dehydrators.}

We got through 7 batches (at 10-11 hours/batch) before the bananas turned too soft to cut, then froze the rest for banana bread yumminess later.

We attended our first ever cattle auction (grass fed) and were astounded at the prices they were fetching (up to $1.90/pound!). There were a few conventionally grown cows sold at the end who went for $1.02-$1.22/pound, a testament to the fact that more and more people want clean food and are willing to pay top dollar for it.

We've been doing a bit of farm-sitting  here and there and taking every chance we can to run next door to visit the neighbors cows, sheep, new lambs and of course their bottle-baby Puppy, who has completely stolen my heart (and hubby's too I think).

{Yes that is a beer bottle above. And no, we had nothing to do with that.} 

We've also been enjoying the 2 newly hatched chickens (Vim & Vigor, since they were the only 2 to survive) and everybody knows peeps RULE in my cuteness category, right up there with baby lambs and alpacas.  And kitties.  And bunnies, although I haven't gotten any of those.


Oh, and of course, in the evenings and weekends, we're still farm shopping.  This time however it is much easier with sweetie beside me to check out our favorite listings.  We hope to have good news on how this is progressing very soon.

Whew.  Are you tired yet?  I am.

That's the news from Western Wisconsin, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.  (I know I know, that's actually Lake Wobegon in MN.  But it still applies.)

Until next time -


Thursday, March 22, 2012

This is Frank's Sugar Shack.


As in, tapping, collecting and boiling down maple sap to make maple syrup.

As in, real maple syrup, not the fake stuff made of genetically modified corn and food coloring made to look like real maple syrup.

(Don't believe me? Check the labels people.  Only, you won't find "GMO" listed in front of corn.  Big Ag doesn't have to label its genetically modified ingredients. They figure you don't really need to know what you're eating.)

Me? I like eating real food, not GMO-derived.

There's no GMO in Frank's Maple Syrup. It's the real stuff.  The good stuff.

Some years Frank has had 600 taps in his sugar bush.  And if you didn't already know what I was talking about that sentence would sound a bit... strange.

(A sugar bush is a stand of maple trees being utilized for maple syrup production.)

At peak production they can turn out 120 GALLONS of maple syrup. And when you do the math, about 30 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup, that means about 3600 gallons of sap were collected.

One bucket at a time, like this:

As if it weren't enough to spend all day long collecting and boiling down maple sap into syrup, Frank and his family were also running the rest of the farm and milking cows, too.

Farmers work harder than just about any other group of people I know.

The next time you visit the local farmer's market, shake a farmer's hand and say "thank you" for working so hard to produce your food.  Then buy everything you can directly from the hands of the farmers that produced it.

Because you know what happens when you bypass the farmer's market and decide to buy the cheapest food available from the big chain store instead?

You get GMO-corn fake maple syrup.

And really, who on earth needs that?

Who grew your food?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I'm so excited I could squeak. And I think I did when MaryJanes Farm Magazine first contacted me back in December to say they were going to publish one of my essays!

One of my essays!

In my very favorite magazine which I own every single issue except the Premiere issue!

A magazine which is published nationally!


I've had to keep my mouth shut THIS LONG PEOPLE.

I'm SO glad I don't have to keep it a secret any longer.

If you're in the vicinity of a good book store or a whole foods type of grocery store this month or next, be sure to look for her April/May issue.  You'll find my little story about being a Farmgirl on page 24.

Oh, and if you've never perused this magazine before, be prepared to fall in love. This gal was raising 2 kids by herself on nothing but 5 acres and a house with no running water.  From that humble beginning she created an organic line of foods, a U-Pick CSA, a Farmgirl revival movement, wrote 3 books (#4 on the way), opened two stores,  runs a Tent & Breakfast, and has a magazine.

In other words, this Farmgirl rocks.

I can't express what an honor it is for me to have my very first published piece be printed in her magazine.

Please check her out and visit her website.  You'll be glad you found her.

Cheers -

Thursday, March 15, 2012

So, if you haven't already guessed it, we're back on the mainland after spending most of the winter in Hawaii.

I understand the winter here was very mild, much more so than normal.  And for that I say, "You're Welcome."  I'm sure if we had stayed here it would have been a typical Midwestern winter.

So, what next?

Although this question occurred to me every now and then throughout our stay on the Big Island, I spent surprisingly little time or energy worrying about the answer.

In fact, I spent surprisingly little time or energy worrying about anything at all except how we were going to get to the grocery store to restock our pantry every week.  It was a refreshing break from my normal gerbil-ball-brain.

I just kept reminding myself, after all, we do have a 1971 Airstream Travel Trailer. We won't be completely homeless when we return.

We do actually have some real Farmgirl plans however.  Such as, find a parcel of farmland to call our own. We have resumed our farm hunt with vigor.

Nothing like a little vigorous farm-hunting to get the blood flowing, eh?

In between shopping for farms I've been reacquainting myself with the Big Farm. My girls are both here, and we brought our cats, too, who are sharing the second floor of my friends' bunkhouse with us.

{the cats, not the alpacas}

I have completely fallen in love with the neighbor's lamb named Puppy who was brought back to life by their dog.When I go over to help bottle-feed her, I call out and she comes running through the paddock and across the barn to me, bleating all the way and sucks down her bottle with a gusto I can only admire and occasionally emulate. 

I've helped catch and move this flock of 65 chickens - twice - and enjoy their pastured-eggs every morning.  And now I am also enjoying two new peeps hatched from this very same flock. 

I've hauled firewood and cut raspberry brambles and pitched hay and hauled water and grain and visited a maple syrup sugar shack and taken sunset hikes into the hills and sat with the alpaca herd for no reason other than just to sit on a hillside with a beautiful view surrounded by beautiful animals.

But mostly I've been enjoying the company of new and old friends we have in this area, friends and mentors who have taken us under their wings and are helping us get our Farmgirl feet planted squarely on the ground.

{or Farmboy feet, for my hubby}

In other words, life is grand, and we are blessed beyond measure.

What blessings are you counting these days??

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

photo by Annie Crawley for Manta Ray Bay
It is night.  I am floating on my belly in the black ocean waters off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.  I'm shivering slightly, some of it anticipation and nervousness, some of it from the chilly ocean water seeping into my wetsuit.
My hands cling tightly to a floatation device rigged with lights, and I peer into the eerily lit water below, telling myself to breathe calmly through my snorkel.  Divers with lights and cameras swim in and out of view far below us, positioning themselves to catch the excitement on video.
I hear muffled murmurs and shouts coming from the snorkelers farther down the line - they've spotted something!
Before long a large creature swims into view several feet below us, gliding gracefully.  It's Big Bertha, a 16' female manta ray and a regular visitor in these waters.  She's here for the plankton, which are attracted to the rings of lights.  We're here to witness one of the largest but most docile creatures of the sea feeding in her natural environment (well, almost natural), far away from any zoo or aquarium.
Moving her wings slightly, she curves her enormous body up towards the the ring of floating snorkelers and lights, her white gill slits visible through her 36" gaping mouth, her belly mere inches away from our hands as she barrel rolls beneath us. After several rolls she swims off and another manta ray swims into view.

An hour later we're drying off on board the Sea Wolf, marveling at the experience and the fact that we are even in Hawaii at all.
How did we, a couple of middle-class, pasty-white Midwesterners, end up spending an entire winter in Hawaii, for free?  And if we could do it, couldn't, well, just about anybody?

December, 2008

There's nothing too special about our story up through Dec. of 2008. My husband and I lived the life of many typical middle-class Americans: two white-collar jobs, a mortgage, multiple school loan debts, two cars, some credit card debt, kid, pets.

Commute, punch a clock, unfulfilling cubicle jobs. Dreams of an engaging, creative life buried beneath a sea of responsibilities, debts, and no knowledge of how to change our lives for the better.

That December, after saving for ten years to do it, we took a dream vacation, a two-week cruise around New Zealand and over to Australia. From a Sydney airport bookstore I perused the offerings of new releases and best-sellers on the store's shelves in preparation for our 14-hour plane ride back to the US (in coach seats).

My eyes landed on a copy of Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.  I had seen this book before, and although the title had caught my eye, I had passed it by at that time, thinking it sounded too good to be true.

The thought of fourteen hours of airplane movies made me reconsider, and this time I opted to buy the book, hoping it would take my mind off the plane ride and entertain me if nothing else.

Boy, did it ever. I could not put the book down.

I was immediately engaged by Tim's writing style, a mixture of humor and humility peppered with a lot of life experiences I could relate to - namely, the problem with a deferred-life plan, the one most of us are currently living, the one where you spend most of your productive years trading time for money, in hopes of living out the best years of your life at the end.

I was lucky - at the time I read Tim's book, I was already 25% of the way through the process of becoming a member of the New Rich, possibly the hardest part of his DEAL process - Liberation - since 100% of my job could be done from any location in the world with a decent cell phone signal.

But back to 2009. When we returned from that trip, after finishing Tim's book, I was fired up. I began dreamlining, eliminating and outsourcing. I bought a second copy of 4HWW for my husband, hoping he'd jump on the bandwagon with me (and because I didn't want to give up my copy long enough for him to read it). I learned to accomplish more in a day than I normally accomplished in a week.
But despite my flexible work arrangements and new efficiencies, I wasn't really free to go anywhere yet, as we still had a child in high school with special needs, a spouse with a non-telecommuting job whose income we needed desperately, an income-property to manage, and a huge pile of debts to clear off before we could really be "free."

For the whole of 2009 and 2010 we worked diligently at paying off the rest of our debts (using many of the automation methods described in Ramit Sethi's, book I Will Teach You To Be Rich, which I learned about via Tim's blog).

Our child graduated from high school, stabilized, and moved out. In the fall of 2010 we sold the income property that we had been managing for twelve years which was only marginally profitable and a real time-sucker when things needed fixing and renovating (constantly), and which also tied us down to living close enough to it to take care of sudden emergencies.

January 2011

And then one night at the end of January 2011 (which also happened to be the coldest, snowiest winter on record since 1983 in Minneapolis), sitting across from each other over the dinner table in our rented farmhouse, we decided to tally up the remainder of our debts and were shocked to discover we were now within five months of paying off what was left - car and school loans totaling $11,404.

We would be debt-free by June!

I remembered reading a guest post on Ramit's blog by Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, entitled Travel Full-Time for less than $14,000/year, so I grabbed my computer and located the article online (still sitting at the dinner table) and read it aloud to my husband.

I don't think we had fully grasped until that moment the opportunities that were now in front of us.

We would spend a few more months in MN, finish paying our remaining debts and down-sizing our belongings into storage. We could then take my job anywhere with internet access, and my husband could quit his job (or take a leave of absence).

My sole income would still be more than enough to cover our expenses according to the ideas Nora laid out in her post. We could save up some travel money through the summer and fall, and then, for the first time in our lives, could spend a winter somewhere with sunshine and surfboards rather than snowstorms and shovels.

We had a plan, a timeline, and a goal.

So we immediately both got on Facebook and Twitter and told all of our friends and family members what our exciting new plan was, asking for their input.

Umm... not.

We knew better than to put our new baby (our plan and goal) out there where people who knew even less than we did about what we were about to do would have plenty of ideas about why it wasn't such a good idea. We'd seen the movie Revolutionary Road. We had no intentions of ending up another Frank and April.

We put a white board up on the kitchen wall, with the goal - $11,404 to FREEDOM in big bold letters. Every month as we paid off our remaining debts in $2200 chunks at a time, we drew a new red line on the FREEDOM board.

In June of 2011, we crossed the final debt off of our FREEDOM board. And started looking for a place to spend the winter. Some place warm. Some place that did not stay below freezing for weeks at a time. Someplace without shovels.

One of my husband's Bucket List items was visiting Hawaii, and one of my Bucket List items was learning to surf, so we focused on Hawaii as our winter get-away location.

Referring back to Nora's article, we decided to look into WWOOF opportunities which offer free room, board and training in exchange for labor (farm chores). A perfect fit for us, seeing as we are both keenly interested in farming.  We contacted several farms in the Hawaii WWOOF program and it wasn't long before we had our winter living arrangements figured out.

Of course, as with anything worth doing, there were complications and obstacles. Over the course of the last four years we I had acquired a number of farm animals including a 6-pack of alpacas and a dozen chickens, not to mention our three spoiled house-cats.  We also had a house, garages and a barn full of possessions, ones we could not easily rid ourselves of as we'd need them upon our return.
These obstacles were not easily eliminated. Which is why it was important that we had chosen an "unreasonable and unrealistic goal," as Tim explains in Chapter 4 of 4HWW:

"Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal."

Through friends, family, bribes, and the willingness to think out of the box, we found places for all of our critters, and storage unit(s) for all of our possessions.
(Did you know it's possible to transport a few alpacas in the front end of an Airstream Travel Trailer, if you don't own a livestock trailer?)
And so here we are today, three years after first picking up Tim's book. We are debt-free and recently returned from a winter on the Big Island of Hawaii. The money we didn't spend on mortgage, rent, utilities and food went into the bank every month with the rest of the money we're saving up to buy a farm this spring.
Instead of a winter of cold and snow, our activities included beachesvolcanoes, surfing, swimming with dolphins, parasailing, snorkeling with manta rays...

and absolutely NO snow shovels. 

Aloha -

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