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Oh Sweet Mama!! or Minnesota Local Foods Compulsions in April

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Friends. I hope this note finds you doing well on this blustery spring day. The grass on the burnt off prairie is just starting to show the first signs of green. We've had a couple inches of rain this week, but it is still dry on the western edge of the state. Unlike friends to the east, we had no snow cover this year. But our alfalfa field is starting to green up, so our fears of winter kill are lessoning.

The cold, wind, and rain meant there was no gardening or yard work and so... we ventured to the pantry to see what was left of last year's produce and to curb my compulsion

Potatoes
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The remainders of last year's potatoes will be used for seed in a few days. They've already proven their 'storability' since they still taste perfectly delicious.

But it is the squash that I had to get off the shelf and cooked or lose them all together. My boys are now 9 years old and perfectly suited to the job of "Go get the rest of the squash from the pantry!"

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Sweet Mama Squash- April 26, 2014- that's a good storing squash!

The boys were a little uncertain about whether to touch some of the squash. In case you are wondering, the white is, well, fungus/rot/mold. We started out with about 100 of these squash and only had to toss a few into the compost bin.

Big call out to our local veggy farmer Jan for her generous unloading of extra squash. We made good use of it Jan!

Since they are 9 year old boy, we had to take a scare mom and SCREAM!! break with a fake spider. How many times can a mom fall for this old gag?

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But overall, I am so grateful that I have this window of time where I have sweet boys who can haul my soggy, smelly, questionable produce up from the 100+ year old pantry.

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And then the fun begins. Chopping out the rotten parts and getting the squash ready and baked.

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This squash, named Sweet Mama, is fleshy and stores well. I would highly recommend it to gardeners and foodies. It's a great tasting squash to eat baked with salt and butter or to use in hotdishes. Yesterday's batch was destined for some Oh Sweet Mama Chipotle Soup!

And the squash is ready to go into the oven-- WARNING CUTE PUPPY PHOTO BOMB BELOW!

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There's something I'm rather compulsive about- I don't like to waste food and I like to use as much of my food as I can. So this soup started with last Sunday's Easter Ham juices. First, I have to say that the ham we got from Big Stone County's newest farmers, Peter and Anne Schwagerl, was fabulously delicious with a very special, unique and mild flavor. The quality of the heritage breed hog they raised really come through in that ham.

I had decanted off some of the fat (1/4 cup) from the ham drippings along with about 1 Cup of the juices that I didn't use in the gravy. I saved it in the fridge and used that delicious, rich and flavorful based in which to fry the onions for the soup base.

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Onions simmering in ham fat and juices and squash waiting to be added to soup base

To that, I added the very last cloves of garlic from 2013's crop (thank you Theresa, Russ, Les, and Jess!). What's more, I dehydrated the last of the garlic that would have been rotting before I could use it fresh and then ground it up into garlic powder. That is simply the best garlic powder imaginable. In fact, I almost prefer it to the fresh garlic- it has a strong but richer flavor than fresh garlic.

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Last cloves of 2013 garlic and the resulting garlic powder made from the last of the garlic remaining.

I added the garlic, smoky Chipotle spice, and the squash to the simmering onions. The soup needed a bit of sweet to balance the savor and so I opened a can of candied crab apples that had been on the pantry shelf a couple years. The crab apple tree is well over 50 years old and still grows and produces on the north side of our house, depositing apples on the garage roof. I pulled the apples apart, removed the seeds, and tossed them into the soup as well.

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Candied apples added to the soup

I'd also saved the water that I poured off of the potatoes from last Sunday's dinner and stored that in a quart jar in the fridge (this is the compulsive part- I don't even like to waste the potato water). And that was used to thin the soup so that it went from hotdish consistency to thick soup consistency.

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Potato water in fridge

Use the hand blender to whirrrrrrr it all together and VOILA'! You have Oh Sweet Mama Spicy Chipotle Soup! Top it with some crumbled blue cheese and you have a meal fit for, well, a well deserving farmer. I guess that means I should bring some over to Jan!

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Pretty soon the sun will come out, the nettles and dandelions will come up, the garden will go in and we'll start the whole process over again. Plant. Grow. Weed. Weed. Weed. Harvest. Eat. Store. Prepare. Enjoy.

Mike asks me what the return on investment is. I'd say it is a day well spent. String a bunch of those together and what to you have? A life well spent.

RECIPE: Oh Sweet Mama! Spicy Chipotle Squash Soup

- 5 Sweet Mama Squash, baked and removed from skins
- 2 onions
- 4-8 cloves garlic or garlic powder
- 1/4 C oil (Ham fat ideally)
- 2 t Chipotle spice
- 2 cups of candied crab apples
- 2-3 C of potato water

Simmer. Blend. Enjoy.

The Real Happiest Place on Earth

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Gallup poll results came out this week ranking the Happiest States in America. And despite the endless days of subzero weather and blizzards Minnesota ranked among the top Happiest States in America.

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Big Stone County, the bump on the western edge of the MN, is kinda in the middle of the cluster of Happiest States in America- in green. Why do you think that is? Wide open spaces, 4-H, bowling leagues, highest per capita farmers, a "could be worse!" culture? Maybe it's our pleasant winters.

One small thing that makes me happy living in Clinton, MN is that my grocery bags are colored by the elementary kids- most of who I know. With messages about reduce, reuse and recycle. And the kids (Kindergarten through 6th grade) put a lot of effort into these bags, which turn out both beautiful and artsy!


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I just love the children's art put into useful everyday items and then spread throughout the community-- again and again. And these bags can be and are used over again because they are too special to toss and you feel like you need to handle this child's art with care. I'm bringing all these bags back to the store for the next lucky customers. And frankly, that's something you might not be able to do in a large city. The grocery store might not take bags from some random person wanting them to be restacked at the checkout line and reused.

There was one bag I liked in particular--a watercolor with fall leaves and a message "Don't Litter. It Makes the world bitter." Imagine my delight when I found out that it was painted by one of my own sons. And it's no coincidence that I got that bag--Bonnie and Holly at the grocery store tucked that one away to make sure that my groceries would end up in it.


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Let me tell you a little story about a Kindergartener whose name was on the bottom of one of the grocery bags. I make it a point to meet the bus every afternoon when it pulls up to the end of my ½ mile long driveway. One afternoon the bus pulled up and off jumped my two little boys and one of their friends, for a planned Friday sleepover. And then off of the bus comes the sweetest, cutest little 5 year old girl. I looked at the bus driver quizzically and he said she was to get off at our house.

Now, it was a completely blameless situation. The little boy was her brother and they had gotten on and off the bus at our house before. So when the bus driver saw the note giving the brother permission to get off at our farm, it made sense when the little girl, we'll call her Izzi, said she was to stick with her brother. And Izzi herself was quite convincing to the bus driver that she was to go to our farm with her brother.

But what an unexpected treat for me! My own Alma and I got to walk down the driveway with little Izzi - "1, 2, 3! SWINGing" Izzi up into the sunny sky. And once at home it was "Raise High the Roof Beams! Break out the Candy Land and Dust off the Barbies!" Can you imagine such luck and fun on a Friday afternoon out on the wide open prairie? Now Izzi's home is the absolute other side of the 40+ mile wide school district, so we had a nice block of time to play before someone came to pick her up.

So I invite you to try living in a world where the little things, the bag you get your groceries in, can bring such simple pleasure and invoke such sweet memories. A place where a child's hand crafted artful bag can make its way into your home and your life--occasionally accompanied by the child themselves (both on purpose and on 'accident'). To experience the delight of reading the names of each precious child on the bottom of your bag can bring smiles and a cry of delight.

And remember these messages from the children of Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley Elementary
• Recycle or your ecosystem will fall apart (reduce, reuse, recycle. Save me for Christmas)
• Recycle- Batman does
• When you toss out paper, you're killing trees. DO NOT toss out paper.... RECYCLE
• Go Green, Recycle, Recycle, Recycle

Maybe the Happiest Place on Earth isn't a place, or if it is a place, it might be a place that is small enough to care about. But wherever it is, it is about noticing and appreciating the small things.

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Rising from the Praire- Abbey of the Hills

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Stained glass window in the small chapel

Last weekend the kids and I went to the open house at the former Blue Cloud Abbey, now Abbey of the Hills, near Marvin South Dakota. This place is a gem upon the prairie. It somehow captures so much about this place and its prairie beauty and foreshadows some of the past century of this place.

Abbey of the Hills rises up out of the Prairie Coteau. You can see the Prairie Coteau rising up out of the prairie from where we live, on a crisp clear day. The first time I drove west from our farm, with my mom and kids to buy vegetable from the Hutterite Colony, my mom said "what's that rising up out of the prairie." "Must be a bank of clouds," I said, because I hadn't heard of any hills or mountains on the other side of Big Stone County, MN. But I was wrong. The Prairie Coteau is hauntingly lovely "Alps of prairie" as described by the early 1800's explorer Joseph Nicollet.

It is in these hills that a group of Benedictine monks built their Blue Cloud Abbey in 1950. This place is just 40-some miles from our farm. A refuge.

I'm not Catholic and so won't claim to know the heart and spirit that went into these monks, whose stained glass window says "Pray, Read, Work", finding and building this place. There's a good story (click here) about how they found this piece of land on their way from one place to the next.

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And they built this place both simple and glorious. An Abbey in the Prairie Coteau- a place of subtle and astounding beauty in which to seek G-d under blue skies. They built it, really, at the peak of its population and maybe hopefulness. Or before we even knew we needed to be hopeful. Because family farming was still thriving all around them out on the prairie and there were still young men and women inspired to live lives of "Pray, Read, and Work."

But things have changed since 1950, haven't they? The independent farms that dotted every section of land have been consolidated and the homesteads are coming down. The number of young people going into full time religious life has plummeted. And both of those demographics meet out here on the prairie.

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And so it was exciting news that after more than a year and a half of looking for people to buy the Abbey, that a group of 6 local families decided to buy it. It was bitter sweet news to learn that our inspiring grape growing and biodynamic farming neighbors were among the visionaries stepping up for this great adventure. They have relocated there are applying their skills and innovation to this place.

Here's the kayak that Dan built as a fundraiser for the Abbey. Now imagine that kind of craftsmanship and heart going into a place.

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What's remarkable to me is that Abbey of the Hills is being remastered, in part, on a hope for this place that is a palpable hope for so many rural and family farm advocates--that we can find a way to thrive out in the country. What is that way? Well, for one thing, that is by having a healthy and local food system that nourishes our bodies, souls, and communities. Because when we lost those family farms, we lost the small town creameries, butcher shops, as well as the kids who attended schools, and the Masons who built sturdy and lovely brick buildings on Main Street. So those folks at Abbey of the Hills are looking at their sustainable farming operations, their greenhouse, their wood shop, art lofts. They are baking bread in their commercial kitchen and selling it in local grocery stores. They are hoping for a rural renaissance that includes a people landscape with good food and satisfied souls.

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I found this butterfly on one corner of a wall of stained glass. It spoke to me of that transformation that I hope for our rural places and prayers for the success of Abbey of the Hills. The chapel was completely full of well-wishers for last Sunday's prayers and hymn.

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On the way out, I had to wait for my kids. They'd met up with their friends and were having a great time catching up and exploring. I was standing in the concrete hall, the working part of the Abbey, between the greenhouse and the mechanic shop. I lingered there wondering where the heck my kids were. And then I looked up at the ceiling with the exposed pipes. And what did I see?

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Even this 'industrial' corridor of the Abbey was touched by the spirit, where some Brother had discreetly put Leonardo da Vinci's Creation of Adam and the hand of G-d reaching towards humanity in between the electrical conduit.

A few good hours of farming

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There were about 24 giddy hours where we felt like we had finally done something right on the organic portion of our farm (about 40 of the 320 acres). We've had a few trials and errors compounded by both floods and droughts. Seems like if we are committed to any particular thing, it is a commitment to experimenting. Problem is we got skunked a few times with our experiments. The tillage radish was good, but no income. We gave organic corn a shot, but ended up plowing it under. So this year, lo and behold, we got our first crop off the 40 acres.

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Alfalfa bales

It's an absolutely gorgeous crop of lush, green, alfalfa. One heck-uv-a yield. I kinda get that whole "waiting to exhale" idea. We've been holding our breathe on so many of our farm ventures and finally one of them turned out well. Sigh.......

The other precious thing about this hay crop is that part of it was harvested with a lot of family and neighbor hands at work. The kids and I drove in from an evening of roller skating to find a couple haying efforts underway-- though it was growing dark. The kids ran down and pitched in with Mike, Russ, Theresa, and kids. Pumping out small square bales and putting them on a hayrack. Just a couple hundred that way, but still-- a perfectly wholesome farm and family night.

Last night, we jumped in the car and went to the street dance in Clinton, MN. When asked how the farming was going, we beamed. "Great!" "Excellent!" "The alfalfa crop was great and it's baled!"

We had a solid 24 hours of farming we could brag about.

And then the phone rang over breakfast-- cattle out of their paddock on the US Fish and Wildlife land. Mike has spent the last few weeks toiling to fix 50 year old fences so that we could graze our cattle on the adjoining federal land (we've worked out a lease with the US Govt).

As it turns out, our cows can swim. Even the little babies it appears. They swam around the fences that went up to the edge of the slough. So we geared up with waders, fence post, wire and headed out to separate our cattle from another herd they had decided to 'mingle' with and set up fence into the slough.

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Getting fence post set so the cattle will stay put

It was 94 degrees, hot and buggy. But we got the job done- new fence up, cattle herded back. That's a good feeling.

All in all, it is a joy to see this farm in grass. The cattle barely visible in a sea of shoulder high, tall grass prairie grass. And it looks like we now have enough hay to get this herd and a few more through the winter. Plus, we're going to butcher our first two steers- Trouble and Bill (yes, they have names). So stay tuned to order some grassfed beef from us. We're going to try it before we start to sell any.

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I'll be back in the coming days with more cattle tales. In the meantime there are community celebrations to attend and fireworks tonight in Clinton, Minnesota. I am grateful for these days and this place. And I'll savor those hours when the farming is good, the grass is green, and we are living in the lushness and abundance of life on the tallgrass prairie.

Minnesota Traveler

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Have you had enough of this long winter? It starts to wear on a person. Minnesotans have winter travel weather tales. And this has been a good winter to accumulate more- it's been a long, some might say brutish, winter. My work involves a lot of travel and I try to arrange it between winter storms. That didn't quite work out this week. But, obviously, I made it home alive and so all is well.

It hadn't been a good day at work in St. Paul; I was vexed, largely because of my own doings, and just wanted to be home. I had calculated that I'd have about 78 hours at home before I needed to leave for another 5 day trip. So I pointed my car west and headed heedlessly into the storm in the midafternoon. The schools had all closed like dominos ahead of me and many places of work, including some offices of my own organization in greater MN, had shut down and sent people home early.


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Thanks to Alma, my road crew, who kept updating me on the MNDOT 511 road conditions the entire time (via hands free car phone, mom). All of which were "hazardous" and "no travel advised", with the occasional "difficult" to look forward to.


And it was an exciting trip those first 150 miles. When I stopped in Glenwood to pry my white knuckles off the steering wheel (now 5+ hours into what normally is 2.5 hours of travel), a guy at the gas station looked at my frozen and ice packed car and said "wow- what have you been driving through?" "HA!" I said- "hope you aren't heading east! It's brutal." There were cars all over in the ditches- on the MNDOT road condition map (above) all those purple diamonds are spin outs. In just the five miles before Morris, there were 3 cars newly in the ditch. How did I know they were "newly"? By the surprised and still faces of people still sitting behind their steering wheels.


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Found my car iced over when I pulled into Glenwood


But the real excitement- the kind that makes you forgot all of your troubles- started when I turned south onto the Chokio road. I heard this "crrrrrrrrrr" sound under my car and realized that the snow on the road was up to my bumper and my chassis was pushing it down as I drove through it. If I slowed down now I would be stranded- 16 miles from home.

Note: This whole trip had a sound track and it was loud and thumping. I don't know about you, but Public Radio was not what kept me sharp and confident to keep my foot to the pedal. It was a Phillip Phillips HOME kinda trip, with some Mumford and Sons for emphasis.


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View on the main road- between Sauk and Glenwood


Maybe it's kinda, you know, sick to enjoy this. But I did. Those last 16 miles were pure white out blizzard driving through snow that was up to and above my bumper. As I crashed through, the snow came up my hood and over the windshield so that I couldn't even see. I had to open my window and put my head out. It's almost sensual with the mist of the blowing snow pelting my skin, melting on my face and my hands on the steering wheel. Every sense is alert- with time slowing down intensely. There are no curves on this road, I couldn't see the edges of it on the prairie and in the white out- so I pointed straight and kept my foot firmly on the gas pedal. If I had met a single other car those last 16 miles and had had to slow down, I would have been stuck in that snow overnight. There was still just barely enough light that I could see apart from my headlights.

And then -- a flashback to an earlier trip Mike and I had taken in with his brother and sister, home from Arizona. Same deal- we drove from the Cities in a blizzard, turned south on the Chokio road, but it was night. We pointed the car south and gunned it. But this time we veered ever so slightly to the west and got sucked into the 10 foot deep snow of the ditch. Buried. After some time another car came along, luckily, and we waved them down. They stopped and took the five of us into Chokio where we were put up for the night by a big hearted older couple. And this is the part of the story that makes me laugh every time. Mike and I were put up in the 'doll' room, which displayed the many dolls made and collected by the woman of the house. Mike's brother, being the single guy, got put in the Cuckoo Clock room. So all night long, every 30 and 60 minutes, more than 100 Cuckoo Clocks went off. See, I'm laughing again. We got the car pulled out of the ditch and made it to the farm the next day.

Back to this most recent adventure. I had to turn west off the Chokio road now - keeping enough speed to bust through the snow, but not so much as to slide through the turn and into the ditch. It was close and like spinning a wheeley on purpose. It was 100% white out as I climbed the glacial moraine past where I knew the township hall would be sitting, could I have seen it. By the way, during this entire last 16 miles I'm driving in the middle of the road as there are no lanes, no line, and barely any distinguishable road out on the flatland prairie.


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Note: this picture was taken close to home, AFTER I was through the worst of the driving


And the tale might have just ended like this. "Kathy made it home safe into the arms of her loving family." And, in fact, that is precisely what happened. But there's something else. Honest to G_d- as I closed in on home, a pair of swans flew up from the side of the road- nearly hovering as they were trying to take off into the 30+mph wind. Two white swans hovering just in front of my car. And as I drove over the slight hill, I broke through the actual edge of this blizzard and into a pink sunset on the horizon. Have you have ever felt that G-d or the universe is sending you a message? It was the Welcome Home for my soul. I had been wiped clean of any cares while I just focused every cell on surviving and then BOOF! You break through into beauty, peace, nature.


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The trip wasn't done- I still had the final four (miles). And I'm happy to report that I burst through the last drifts on our ½ mile long driveway and made it to within 10 feet of the garage when I hit the final drift hard enough to basically, as Mike told me the next morning, lift the car off of the ground and set it on top of the drift so that the wheels didn't touch the ground.

And (back to the happy ending) then she made it home into the loving arms of her family. The table set with a glass of Dandelion wine; roast chicken and potatoes held warm in the oven.


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Note: I actually have three children, but only one which throws himself in front of every camera. So while there are a disproportional number of pictures, there is proportional amount of love for all.


I made that dandelion wine with one purpose- to drink it after a couple snow days when I needed to remember and hope for lush, green, flowering spring. Back in 2011, Jens and I sat outside one spring day picking the abundant crop of dandelions growing in our 'organic' yard. Buckets of bright yellow flowers, my boy in the green grass, sunshine, and blue sky over endless prairie. I have now finished off the last bottle and I'm ready. For spring.


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Mike pulling my car out yesterday morning


I hope this note finds you well and hopeful for spring. What are your winter stories?

Everything that is Good and Right with the World

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One of the songs sung at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings by a group of young girls

Tonight everything that is good and right with the world can be found in Aberdeen South Dakota. Just so you know, I'm sure it's not the only place. But this minute I'm sitting with hundreds of farmers and farm families. Not just any old farmers, but that creative, passionate and talented group that makes up the self-proclaimed 'sustainable' farmers at the Saturday night banquet of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings. Looks like it will be a record year with over 500 people attending.

I'm sitting among old men who still carry hankies and young guys wiping tears from their faces as a 20-something year old man sings the song he wrote for the farmer dad he lost at age 13. A lament for the father he wishes could take him around the field to plow a couple more times and teach him more about how to run the tractor- the hum of which is like a hymn. And, ultimately, how his faith comforts him in his bereavement. And then you should see the smile and joy that come when our kids, from toddlers to teens, put on a show for us singing and marching and then ending with the call out:

"Sustainability for the Future!
Sustainability for the Future!
We are the Future!"

These talented and unselfconscious kids stand up there with a confident based on scooping up chickens in their arms, milking cows, driving tractors, and in general being a needed and helpful part of running a family farm.

This is the Home Grown music event and these farmers have basically just pulled together a show in a couple days. Poetry, fiddles, harmonica, singers of all ages, a bass and a couple electric guitars. I said to my daughter "what do you think these families do for fun?" "They play music and sing together." So not only do these folks farm their own counter-industrial way, but they are raising their kids differently and in some ways better than I am able. Music- it is just woven, woven, woven into these children. We should all be thankful that these kids are being raised to farm independently and entertain themselves, their families and their communities independently. Here they are singing:


I'll Fly Away, sung by Home Grown Music at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society

What I love about these farmers is that they thrive on being creative, innovative, poetic and spiritual. I was at the Grain Breeding Roundtable break out session for the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society's Farm Breeding Club on Saturday morning. Farmer extraordinaire David Podoll placed in our hands a bag of oats that he had been growing out for a dozen plus years. The remarkable part of that bag of oats is that it is a collection of 1200 oat varieties that had been selected by farmers (and more recently agronomists/scientists) over the past 7,000+ years. It's called a landrace and it is a rich, diverse set of genetics. In a time when the gene pool is getting more and more narrow, having a keeper of this range of diversity is invaluable. It is exactly the level of diversity needed to adapt to a changing climate- wetter, dryer, hotter, more erratic.

Let me tell you something about that Grain Breeding Round table, which was attended by farmers, PhD Agronomists, and more. We talked about the usual grain breeding stuff- like what is needed for grains in organic systems, things like a fast growing canopy that can shade out and out compete weeds; more straw/taller plants; and a good root system to withstand drought. But then the tones got hushed. David passed around the 1200 variety mix of oats- which we held in our hands- then we talked about how it feels to run your hand through your harvested crop. What it feels like to have the grains run between your fingers- and how all farmer do that. That there is a spirit in some plants/seed- like a certain variety of flint corn--there is something else there. David says it is the choosing of beauty--not just the needed traits but the beauty that draws us to certain plants and their seeds. There are farmers and plant breeders that, in our long evolution of crops, have put their life force into their plants. And so we have an obligation to make sure it is not lost--that spirit, passion, and (I'll say) the loving attention. An attention that comes from doing one thing and doing it season after season- farming.

Then our conversation turned to not just the loss of genetic diversity, but that greatest tragedy of the last 20-30 years- the loss of knowledge and skills in cropping systems. There is a dependence that grows, after just a few years, on the packaged farm input that expert advisors provide and GPS guided tractors plant .

Do you have a sense of how precarious our 14,000 year evolution of farming has been and on whose shoulders it rests? We have such a fervent belief in progress, science and technology that we forget all the subtle skills and knowing that have successfully brought humans to the year 2013. I believe that there is a balance- that the scientific understanding of the world has brought us tremendous good and prosperity. But not at the expense of losing 100's of generations of built knowledge, skills, and connection with the natural world that got us to this point. Now, I don't think that everyone should be farmers- it is a calling like other callings. Some people who farm were simply never meant to farm- there were people who were thrilled to leave the land and become accountants. But there are also people for whom the connection and work of farming is in their blood- they can feel it in their bones (in a good sense). Those are the folks who attend the NPSAS winter conference.

There was a speaker at the conference that I was surprised to find that I really loved and
enjoyed--Amanda Brumfield, Mrs. North Dakota. Mrs. North Dakota spoke of her experience representing rural women at a national pageant. She is a domestic violence nurse educator who works with children. One story that she told is especially important to repeat. The loss of young adults from our rural communities is something that many people would like to reverse. One day she was talking to a group of 8th graders and asked them to anonymously write down whether or not they would want to back to their small rural town. 18 of the kids said 'no.' Amanda asked the crowd to guess the reasons that the kids gave for not moving back. The crowd shouted out "jobs" "entertainment".... But those weren't the answers--15 of the 18 kids said "gossip" was the reason they wouldn't move back.

Gossip.

The kids she surveyed had seen and heard the adults in their community tear each other apart. Because of that, they wanted to live safe away from prying eyes and harsh tongues- someplace where their foibles, weakness, shortcomings, and mistakes would be anonymous. That is an important message for those of us in small communities. We should demonstrate to our kids, over the supper table and in our conversations, a generosity of spirit towards those around us and a gentleness of words toward our neighbors.

Back to the Home Grown music entertainment and the farmer poet. I'm hoping the folks
at NPSAS can post his poems on their website. Each poem ended with a twist and with the poet a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his face- poems on bulls, -30 degree weather, the intelligent and strong women in his life who understand compassion, beauty and creativity. To which I say "back at'cha farmer poet." And ending with the abundance that comes from a jersey cow milked for a family and neighbors- and how you reach that balance between what you need and what you get.

I could go on for pages on what I learned, enjoyed and felt. But I will end with a simple "Thank you" to the staff, board, and members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society. See you next January in Aberdeen South Dakota.

Coming Home to a Very Proud Community

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CLINTON-GRACEVILLE-BEARDSLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT
2012 STATE 9-MAN FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS

It is a good time to be living in Clinton, Beardsley and Graceville Minnesota. Our small towns, together, won the 2012 Nine-Man State Football Championships. What a tremendous community building experience. What sheer, unadulterated joy if you are willing to just give yourself completely over to the experience of small prairie towns bursting with pride over the collective efforts of its children. Let's just go with that feeling. Hopefully for months and years to come.

The last time one of our three towns won a state championship was the 1926 boys basketball team from Beardsely, MN. So once every three + generations or so we strike upon the ingredients that make for champions. What are the odds that our family would be here to enjoy such good fortune? But here we are. And enjoy we will.

Even the State HS Football League officials were impressed by the turnout of our small communities. If my math was correct, there were about 1,000 people in the stands cheering on CGB. Keep in mind that the total population of our three towns is about 1200 (Clinton 400, Beardsley 225, and Graceville 575).

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Among those 1,000 were a number of 'exiles'- the folks that have built their lives elsewhere after growing up among the good people of our prairie towns. A few of the exiles didn't know what the consolidated school districts new colors were (they are blue and silver) as they may have graduated from the town with the green and the gold shamrocks. There were rivalries and even some cultural divides among these small towns.

There was a fair amount of pain that came with the necessity of closing down schools and busing kids across what is now a 50 mile wide school district. Not a choice any of these towns wanted to make. But this win- this collective win- is possible because we brought all of our children together into this one CGB school district not by choice, but by necessity. And after all these years, the old alums of their respective villages are now excited, happy and know the 'new' school colors. "Go Wolverines!!" They all shouted together. All 1,000 of them. A lot of healing took place on Friday. Healing that was decades in the coming. A good thing.

But oh! the breathe taking fun that was to follow the game. We drove the four hours back to our small town. It was night now and the prairie was dark. There were cars and people lined up waiting to wave on the team starting many many miles from home. People from Cyrus (40 miles east), Morris, Chokio, Alberta--wearing parkas and waving at the cars. The Morris, Chokio and Graceville fire departments had their trucks out and were waiting to escort the team the last miles to their hometown. And in Graceville, MN the Case tractor dealership had turned on the blinking lights on all the tractors in the lot. It was a treat to the senses and to the heart.

It was nothing short of thrilling to watch the cold, dark and quiet nighttime prairie come alive with lights, sirens, and people. Watch this: (start at 1:31 to avoid hearing me yell at my kids)


I am going to digress. I'd lived an adventurous life before settling down in Big Stone County. My work as a Soil Scientist has taken me to every continent except Antarctica. I've traveled through war torn Colombia, hitchhiked alone on the Golan Heights of Israel, meditated in the Taj Mahal in India. But it is this adventure- this adventure in farming and rural life - that is my best. It is moving, grasping, heart rending, and exhilarating. It is profound.

And if you take some still, calm moments you will recognize much good in the people around you. I loved senior football player Ethan Chase's talk to the crowd and his teammate at the Welcome Home party back in the high school gym. I liked how he came to say it, as much as what he said, because in his moment of glory Ethan quoted the bus driver. The nameless bus driver. The bus driver told those boys that they were coming home to a very proud community and that they should cherish every moment and those around them. Ethan typifies these good plains people who know that wisdom resides in everyone- that we don't need to look to people of distinction to find truth and inspiration. That it can be found in all of us in our everyday. And so listen here (for the first minute):

Ethan Chase responds to crowd


This morning in church we all gave not just one, but two rounds of applause for the football players sitting in the pews. And after church those strong boys were put to good use hauling the Christmas decorations up the stairs for the ladies to begin decorating for the season.

What's left to say? Go Team!

A Saturday in Big Stone County-- a day in the life

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I set out a couple Saturdays ago to take one picture every hour of my life in Big Stone County. It's a rich and sometime busy life. If you're under the impression that small town and rural life is slow paced and without opportunities, you might be surprised. Here's a view of a day in the life of a farm mom in Big Stone County.

It started early with taking Alma into Clinton for play practice. The school is doing the musical Oliver!

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While Alma was at practice, I headed down to the Harvest Fest at the Apple Ranch on Big Stone Lake. There were lots of friends to talk to, artists and artisans, and apples to be bought. Any U of M students at Food Day at the U? You may have enjoyed those apples on the Regional Partnership's table. Last year I met a woman who raised her own alpaca, spun their wool into yarn, and knit lovely hats and scarves. This year I marveled at Liz Rackl's granite carvings. I couldn't stay as long as I liked because it was time to pick up Alma from play practice and so I headed back to Clinton.

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Alma and I had a bit of time to spare before we went to a friend's house and so we stopped to visit Doreen at the Cabin Cafe. We split a homemade caramel roll and I enjoyed a good cup of coffee. People! Go out of your way to eat at The Cabin Cafe- Doreen is a great cook and committed to using healthy food. Organic oatmeal for breakfast and secret recipe pie crusts made with canola oil-- and delicious! Open 7am to 2pm Tuesday - Sunday. Pie on Sunday only.

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On the way to our friend's house to help them move, we passed what looked to be 3 or 4 generations of one family combining corn. Alma got a good look at the guys in the combine- and older man with a very old man. Looked like an aging farmer with his own elderly dad bringing in the harvest. What a great touchstone for a farm life and a family on a crisp autumn afternoon.

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Alma and I went on to our friends JoAnne and Simon's house- for a fun and sad time helping them move. JoAnne and her family had to move away because the DNR cut her hours as the Big Stone State Park ranger. We need this beautiful state park! We need this young and active family! Just think- the weekend they moved out we lost .1% of the population of the county. So this was not a happy event- but I'm sad to say it is indicative of the state of the county. (Let's change that)

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We stayed for sandwiches and apples at JoAnne and Simon's and then off to the big game! Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley had a Saturday afternoon football game. Met the rest of the family there and we all stood with hands on heart as the Star Spangled Banner was played by the school band.

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An hour later I was cold and warming up in my car. Check out the great view of the game with a fieldside parking spot! And me- after my gushing thrill of football post a few weeks ago- now reading the Energy Bulletin on my cell phone.
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At last back home to hang out, process tomatoes, and cook up a batch of ham and veggy soup. This tomato squisher/de-seeder is the best invention EVER! We make great seedless sauce in no time. What's more, the chickens get the seeds and the tomato skins and think of all the healthy nutrients there- not a bit wasted.

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This takes some time and makes a big mess. So got the whole family involved including in the clean up, which made for some crabby moments. The sun was going down in the west.
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As the tomato sauced cooked down and the ham and veggies stewed- I had a few moments to myself.
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Dinner together:

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And upstairs to bed- but first a couple games of hangman.

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String together a bunch of simple pleasures and you get something of a life well lived. The trick, I think, is to pay attention-- every hour sometimes.

On FIL's and the (made up) Sin of Overwork

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Homesteaders- 1890 (from MN Historical Society).

A few days ago I was driving east from our farm home to my work in St. Paul. I had the first 100 miles under my belt when my cell phone rang. It was a family emergency. My car was still heading east as I asked for more details- "which hospital are they taking dad too?" I found out Mike's dad was in an ambulance on the way to Sioux Falls, SD- which is the third hospital away from his home (150 miles) and a level up in providing trauma care.

I pulled over. Pointed my car north. Stopped. Cried. Pointed my car west. And went back home to take care of my husband and kids.

Pretty simple equation right? Family emergency - work= Taking care of the right thing at the right time.

And it was absolutely the right decision. But it was not without some internal struggle. I am always reluctant to take the "non-work" option, even when it is without a doubt the right option to take.

I wasn't raised Catholic, but know of the seven deadly sins through our cultural lexicon. Surely, I thought, overwork would be one of those 7 sins. I thought I would find some strictures about not putting work above all else on the list, which I now know reads: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Unfortunately, I also learned that the Roman Catholic virtue that 'remediates' (my word- not theirs) the sin of sloth is "diligence" or the Latin equivalent "Industria." That actually sounds a lot like the virtue is work and the other side of the equation, well..., is a deadly sin. Oh good Lord.

My father-in-law (FIL), David, is a second generation American--his grandpa and grandma hailing from Denmark and Norway. Part of my heritage is as a 3rd generation American. When I called my birthmom to ask just now (we're friends), she said that my great-grandma was two of the four children that survived the crossing from Norway to America. One was buried at sea- the other buried on land they think.

I'm guessing it was the most "industrious" and probably desperate immigrants who got on those boats heading west to America. Hard work- hard scrabble- good years- bad years- make hay while the sun shines- droughts- dust bowl- dreams- and a farm. That has to imprint on one's being and through the generations. This is no work born out of ambition or ego- this is the desperate work needed to put your children to bed under a blanket and with food in their stomachs. This is the work needed to see those you love survive.

My FIL was a dairy farmer no less, until a few years ago. As hard working breed of farmers as there's ever been. Especially the way that David and Jean did it- on their own. A family farm. Just a couple days before the heart attack that landed David in the hospital he was helping a family friend, a widow, get her house painted before the winter. Industria is a virtue; but not entirely.

It's my opinion that there is a lot of modern Western drama and even fake dilemmas about our overworked and strained lives. It is born of a luxury and privilege to even consider. And yet, it is an age old issue that humans have grappled with throughout the millennia. How do I know? Well, I look to an ancient book of wisdom that tells humans that they need to rest on the 7th day. Even the land is given over to rest in fallow the 7th year. I am a person of faith and intellect, who some days is weary, heavy laden. And within weariness I try to remember that we are sentient and spiritual creatures who are meant to be, and who are, so much more than our life's work.

Those hard working ancestors and immigrants who proceeded all of us to this time and place worked hard to survive and their work secured a more comfortable present for many, though not all, of those who may read this. I made the right decision to turn back west and to abandon my place of employment in order to return to my farm and family. My family will remember and benefit from my attention for generations to come.

David is doing fine today and is back home recouperating. And I think now we'll see him slow down, just a bit, to get some needed rest.

Bliss and Adventure in Big Stone County, Minnesota

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Cross my heart. Hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye. Plus a pinkie promise that the kids could spend 5 Wednesday nights this summer roller skating at the Sioux Historic ballroom located on Big Stone Lake north of Ortonville. Truth is... I love to roller skate so it's nothing but fun.

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There ain't nothing, people, like going into a dark ballroom filled with kids, loud music spanning 60 years from last week to 1952, and strapping on a pair of skates for a few hours. The whole world narrow down to this one great place and time. I make the boys hold my hand for the couple skate.

But last night I was in need of a little time to myself. So I walked the few feet over to the Lakewood Lodge. This is a great and beautiful place right on the lake- with a great patio and a dock to moor the pontoons that come down the lake for a good meal and nice drink. I found myself with a nice, pink drink in my hand. Blissfully looking at the pelican rookery and sun reflecting on the water. Complete peace and calm as the sun set to the west over the lake. Ahhhhhh.

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And then it was time to herd the boys to the car (the girl is at Farmer's Union camp) and head the 18 miles back home. A lovely night with a half moon in the sky, thunderheads lit up by lightening in the dark sky. We begged the clouds to rain on our farm, but they were too far east.

I turned onto the last gravel road to our house and had to slam on the brakes, sliding in the gravel, as I came face to face with large, lumbering, grayish animals. I stopped within feet of them and was actually sputteringly dumbstruck. I didn't know what those animals were. .........................................................

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