Cleaning Up My Act

If you live in the country, and you don’t bicycle into town or own an electric car that you charge with renewable sources, or if you haven’t learned to be entirely self-sufficient right where you are, you probably have a sizeable carbon footprint.  That includes me.

I can feel self-righteous because I use no poisons in my garden.  My chicken pens and runs are treated with DE, diatomaceous earth.  I rotate in the garden, leave wild patches to invite in insect variety, and plant extra.  Electronic gadgets discourage rodents, and horse apples (Osage orange, the fruit of the bois d’arc) deter insects.  I compost and recycle.

I plant crops for bees and butterflies.  I buy local. I eat grass-fed beef and eat yogurt from grass-fed cows.

And I drive hundreds of miles a month.  Even the recycling center is fifty miles away.

I’m part of the problem. I may have traded in my lovely gas-guzzling truck for a Subaru, but it isn’t enough.

How does one live “far from the madding crowd,” and still be part of civilization?  I started a poetry reading a few miles from my farm, but the poets often drive in from afar, at least as far as I have to drive to attend their readings.

It doesn’t help that my small town doesn’t have rural mail delivery.  Or a library.  Oh, I can get mail delivered, including boxes of books, if I’m willing to make a post office even farther from the farm my home PO.

I raise chickens, but I don’t raise their feed.  I buy from two milling companies within a 50-mile radius of the farm.  Neither supply organic feed, at least feed I can afford.  I pick up organic millet from the Oklahoma Food Cooperative when it’s available, but I have to drive 45 miles for the pickup.

Maybe I can decide to pick up mail and other items I need from town no more than once or twice a week.

Perhaps I can fence in enough land to let the chickens graze and grow supplemental crops.  I need millet and turnip greens and a good hay pasture.  And a good tractor.  Wait!

What is a worried person with a big footprint to do?  I need answers.

 

 

Beets

I don’t remember eating beets

when I was a kid.

Maybe they don’t grow well

in the humid heat of Zone 7.

 

Now, it’s one of the staples

of my pantry.  We eat them

pickled,

roasted,

just out of the boiling water and sliced,

as a side dish,

on a salad.

 

Remember the discovery!

I was experimenting with pickled beets

and sliced off the rough edges,

popped them into my mouth.

Yum.

Ate a bunch.

 

Next day, thought I was dying.

No tummy ache,

just the mistake

of looking into the toilet

when I flushed.

 

This year, though,

after a couple of dry years,

a friend asked if I wanted beets.

 

She planted two rows,

and did they grow!

 

Two bushels.

Maybe three.

I’ve canned,

Frozen.

Pickled.

 

Now I’m giving them away.

 

Wait!

What if next year is another dry one?

Maybe another canner full,

a few more jars,

one more day boiling water,

slipping skins,

slicing off the rough edges

and popping them into my mouth.

Okie Farmer’s Lament

July reminds me why Oklahoma was the 46th state admitted to the union, and why, before that, it was offered to the tribes whose homelands had been stolen.  This beautiful center of our beautiful continent is simply a miserable place to be in July and August without a lot of powerful technology.

Did you know the humidity can still reach 90% in a drought, although the drought has been broken by a tenth of an inch here and a tenth of an inch there?  A light rain has fallen as many days as not in the past month. It’s too wet to mow, but the grass has no trouble growing.  Other things aren’t doing so well.

Instead of a long growing season, Oklahoma has two short ones, spring and fall. Most years, tomatoes, okra, and peppers bridge the divide of summer heat.  Sweet potato vines spread out between the rows. This year is different.  I’m losing tomato plants at a frightening pace.  I’m not sure I’ll even plant the sweet potato starts in my kitchen window.

I’m not the only gardener who is struggling.  Friends greet with me, “Are you still getting tomatoes?” instead of “How’s your garden coming along?”

Still, I’m out early to clean out chicken coops, clean and fill water founts, muck out runs and remove what’s left of watermelon and cantaloupe rinds the chickens have cleaned to the nubbin.  I gather what’s still growing, grateful for what I can get, and grateful, too, that the chickens seem to handle the humidity better than I do.

Even in this miserable season, there is okra.   And at the farmers’ market, there are cantaloupes if you get there soon enough. In my thick-walled rock house, there is air conditioning.

My old dog snores on the couch, dreaming of squirrels and cooler weather.

Summer Food and Some Good Advice

Everything changes in the summer.  For starters, I get up early to beat the Oklahoma heat.  I’m a morning writer, but in summer I’ve had to learn to work in writing in short sprints.

Although my usual MO is to keep going until a job is finished, in summer I work in fits and starts. After half an hour, or when I can’t see because my glasses are salted from sweat, I go in to wash my face and get a drink.

I still love my black coffee, but mineral water is my best summer friend.

I don’t plan meals based on what’s thawed or in the pantry but on what is fresh and available. This week it’s yellow squash, the first tomatoes, and new red potatoes.

And cabbage! You may think of soup as a winter meal, but cabbage, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes make a divine soup.  It’s good with lean ground beef, if you have it, or beef broth, but the vegetarian version is mighty fine.

I spend more time in the kitchen in summer, and I sing the praises of a good air conditioner because I am cooking from scratch instead of opening jars and freezer bags.  There are more dishes to clean, but fresh food is so worth the effort.

Canning season has started.  There are roasting beets in the freezer and pickled beets in the pantry.  Corn will be here any day.  My first jars of tomatoes, mandatory for winter soup and spaghetti sauce, are labeled and stored.  I’m making cucumber dills this week.

I planned to process peaches this week, too, but Oklahoma happened.  Last year, a pumpkin plant that sprouted outside one of my chicken runs was already spreading its vines in March.  This year, we had a freeze in late April, the coldest April on record, and peaches are hard to find.  Peaches are a staple in my winter kitchen, and I’m considering what we will use instead when the cold winds blow.

Dale loves peaches canned in a light honey/vanilla syrup.  I love them frozen whole and only partially thawed.  The skins slip right off, and the texture is like sorbet.  Thanks to my friend Linda W. for that lovely trick.

The lack of peaches this year makes me think of the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh’s dream. When your essential foods are plentiful, save the extras.  When they are scarce, you’ll be glad you did.  Man, I wish I’d canned and frozen more peaches than I needed last year!

Take your homesteading advice where you can find it.

Hopefully, apples will be in good supply this fall.  2019 could be an apple winter.

 

 

When You’re Privileged

I got out early one morning this week to feed and water my chickens before the temps hit the 90s. While I was out there, I mucked out one of the pens.  I pulled chickweed, dandelions, and various weedy greens from the potato bed and tossed them to the girls.  Almost two hours later I came in soaking wet and happy.

Chickens and a garden are the best mental health professionals I know.  Only long walks in good weather can come close.

I grabbed a bottle of San Pellegrino and drank about half of it down.  One of my favorite songs from My Brightest Diamond ran through my head.

When you’re privileged, you don’t know you’re privileged.  When you’re not, you know.

I know how lucky I am. I live in the country surrounded by tall trees.  I’ve spent years trying to turn a clay creek bank into a garden.  While I don’t grow nearly enough food to feed my family, I enjoy the fruits of my labor.  When my labors fall short, there are well-stocked grocery stores within a few miles.

Before we get complacent, here are a couple of things to think about:

Almost a quarter of the children in Oklahoma are food insecure.  That’s a function of our politics, but how does one get out the vote when people are struggling to just get by?  How does one change the mindset that hunger is all ones own fault?

We’ve just come off one of the coldest Aprils on record and THE hottest May on record.  Coupled with drought, what will this do to our food supply? What will it do to food prices in a state where too many already have trouble feeding their families?

We all need to appreciate our own good luck.  We also need to think about what we can do to share our luck and our know-how.

From Idea to Fruition

It’s always easier to get an idea than to execute it.

I live on the bank of a deep creek bed.  A couple of dry creeks flank the back yard where I raise a garden and chickens.

Because there are so many trees surrounding the place, sunny spots go for a premium.  A few years ago I put a small greenhouse in one of the sunny spots to replace my cold frame.  I wish I had the cold frame back.  Or the sunny spot.

The green house isn’t big enough to be self-sustaining during the winter cold, so I had an idea. Directly behind the garden and the chicken coops, one of those dry creeks is man deep and two-men wide.  What if I chiseled out straight walls and set them with blocks to the top of the bank?  I’d add a few feet of repurposed windows for height and a clear roof. The two ends would be double paned for insulation and include doors and vents.

When the trees are bare, there is more sunlight.  Because summers are so hot here and spring is so short, wouldn’t winter be a good time to plant potatoes, cabbages, and other cool-season crops in a greenhouse?  Would the depth and the dirt help control the temperature?

This idea resurfaces every so often, like it did today when I was cleaning out a chicken coop and wondering where I was going to put all that dirty, half-composted hay from the run.

You know what I need?  I need someone by whom I can run my ideas, someone who isn’t cleaning chicken coops and weeding garden beds and killing potato bugs.  Maybe that person could say, “Hmm, let’s give that idea a try.”

I’d be glad to help…if I have time.

What I have instead is a son-in-law with his own ideas.  He thinks I should turn that deep, dry creek bed into an aquaculture setup.

Of course, about every ten years we get so much rain that the deep creek backs up into the dry creek beds.  What then?

 

What’s in Your Pantry?

When I first started thinking of the unthinkable–food shortages because of climate change, political turmoil, or natural disaster–I bought a few bags of wheat.  Man does not live by bread alone, but bread would certainly help with survival.  Wouldn’t it?

Then, I started getting a little older…and a little achier in the joints.  I not only did my gardening homework, I read widely about the relationship between diet and health.  I gave my buckets of good organic Oklahoma wheat berries to another person with a long-term pantry.

Now, instead of wheat and sugar, I had rice, quinoa, beans, oats, corn and honey.  These were backups for my real plan, of course.  I was building the humus in my acidic clay-bed garden and raising chickens for meat and eggs.  And I continued to do research.

My diet isn’t the result of fad but of desperation. My mother lived for sixteen years with dementia.  My dad, a minister, cared for her.  He also worked at the church’s food pantry.  The diet of his poor…and the food he brought home to mother…were laden with wheat, sugars, dubious fats, and a long list of unpronounceables.

In his eighties, he was diagnosed with dementia. He was healthy, active, and sharp. Then, he wasn’t.  What role did the catch-as-catch-can diet play in his and mother’s conditions?

Certainly genetics plays a role, but our lifestyle can often override our genes.  We all have health risks.  My mother and her mother were crippled by deteriorating joints, and this is why I gave up wheat and sugar.

I asked my dad once, “Don’t your joints ever hurt?”

“Nope,” he said.

Well, mine did.

You can do wonders with achy joints these days. Now I am determined to do what I can to stave off the broken brain.  Once again, I’m rethinking my pantry.

I’m convinced more than ever that the garden and the chickens are the real key to security.  Here are your necessary vitamins and minerals, your proteins, carbs, and fats.  Here are the foods necessary for survival and for more than that, good health, tantalizing tastes, and good times with friends and family around the table.

More research is required.  I have decisions to make about what goes and what stays in my emergency stores.  Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure soil building, gardening techniques, seed saving skills, and animal husbandry are the real long-term pantry.