Friday, February 26, 2010


There was a raucous ruckus at the compost bins this afternoon. The three barn chickens had ventured out and were scratching through the frozen goodies in the compost, but apparently this crow wanted first dibs.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

We All Live Downstream

Next month I am joining a social mission trip to Guatemala, where a group of Minnesota women will be taking energy efficient, clean-burning wood stoves to a Mayan village. Why stoves? Wood burning stoves are used both for cooking and indoor heating in the villages and there are many serious health problems caused by the smoke from the inefficient stoves. Also, wood is scarce and expensive, and the new stoves will require only 1/10th as much wood for fuel.

This will be my first trip to Latin America, but many of these women have been making this journey for many years. Some are teachers and health care professionals and will teach women's health classes and provide women with reading glasses -invaluable because many women in this very poor country earn money from their beautiful weaving. The group also hopes to dig some latrines and assist with some construction. My main role (I feel sort of guilty because it is such a dream job) will be to photograph and document the trip.

Some of the women in our group are developing a manual for the workshops. Because the villagers are mostly illiterate, the manual must be mostly in illustrations. I offered to create simple drawings, if needed. I have just completed my drawing assignments for the manual, which ended up being about parasites, clean water and hand-washing. The women gather water from the river--this image is about what happens upstream and why water must be boiled before using. I have never created images of animals and people defecating before--kind of awkward.

Coincidentally, the downstream drawing resonated with an initiative I am volunteering with here, focusing on water issues in our own South Zumbro watershed, and called "Water Matters.". Although many people assume Minnesota doesn't have water issues- we are the land of 15,000 lakes, after all - I am learning about the many complex issues we face, including chemical and nutrient run-off from both agricultural and urban areas that gets into our ground water and ultimately contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico , pharmaceuticals and estrogen-like compounds in our water, increased flooding from so much impermeable surface and tiling, the drawdown of our precious aquifers - to mention just a few.

On Tuesday, three of us attended an amazing art exhibit opening Friday at the Katherine Nash Gallery in Minneapolis, entitled "Women and Water Rights." Throughout most of the world, women are responsible for hauling the water used for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, and I learned that the average distance women throughout the world have to walk for water is 4 miles! (I will no longer complain about hauling water form my house to the barn for the cows.) Estimates are that by 2025, 2/3 of the world's population will face moderate to severe water shortages.

I left with a renewed resolve to make significant water conservation efforts at Squash Blossom Farm, which I promise to post about on this blog. I am adding a "Water" tag.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sunrise, Sunset

Just playing around with a new lens. Sunrise this morning....

Sunset last night.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


This morning the sun rose through a heavy bank of fog on the eastern horizon. The fog rolled over us shortly after.

While I did the chores, the fog enveloped the farm and I could almost see the frost forming on the trees as the moist air hit the cold branches.

Cocoa's eyebrows, chin and ruff became frosted.

Even the cows were whitened with frost where they must have been breathing on each other.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Crestfallen Cardinal

Although we are enthusiastic backyard bird-watchers and can identify most of the types of birds that frequent our feeders, we aren't the kind of folks who can tell each individual bird apart. Except, that is, for one bird- a cardinal who began showing up a couple weeks ago. He is distinctive because he is bald, he has no crest.
Did he have a close call with the northern shrike that occasionally terrorizes our feeders? Is it a recessive gene? A nasty fight with another male cardinal? Will it grow back? You can't help but speculate.

I have pondered whether I should attempt to knit or sew him a little cone-shaped cap (they say you lose most of your body heat through your head.) But, so far, it hasn't seemed to affect him too negatively - he seems perky and adjusted. But every guy I have told about this cardinal has responded, "Oh man, how's he ever going to attract a mate?!"
I am so tickled to finally have a telephoto lens so I can take bird-feeder photos!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Time for a Chicken Post

The chickens don't seem to be getting their fair share of blog exposure lately, so here you go, a little chicken update.
This month marks one year since we got our first chickens, a motley assortment of uncertain heritage. We still have most of them, including Hawk, still the sweetest hen of all. She is the only chicken that seems to prefer the company of people to other chickens. It is hard to take her portrait because she always moves in so close to the camera when you get close to her.
The first thing every morning, I take a bowl of vegetable trimmings and leftovers out to the hens. This is the highlight of their day and they get so excited. Just before Cadence left for Mexico, she and Sara made a chocolate-beet cake. I took the chickens a bowl of beautiful, magenta beet juice, leftover from pureeing the beets. Such disappointed hens! It turns out they do not really care for beet juice. Too bad --I was curious to see whether beets affect the color of the yolks.

Speckles, a black and white hen that came with the broiler order last summer, and one of the two sneaky black roosters who escaped harvest last fall took up residence with the cows in the loafing shed all winter. They prefered the cold to the crowd in the coop, I guess. They seem very happy to have sunnier days and have been venturing out into the pasture a bit.

Wisdom of the Elders

Poor Sara has been under the weather for a week now, fighting a sore throat and cold. Last year when I had a horrible, unrelenting cold, my friend Flo brought me elderberry syrup and within a day of adding it to my tea I felt much better. Coincidence? I can't prove it helped but I was persuaded. I have since found studies supporting its effectiveness.

You can purchase elderberry syrup (called "sambuca")at the co-op but it is quite pricey. So, last summer when we found wild black elderberry bushes growing along the roadside nearby, we made sure to harvest some when the berries were ripe.

First, I washed and towel-dried the umbrels of berries. Then I tried dehydrating the berries (still on the stems) in three different ways:
- air dried by hanging upside down in bundles
- on a baking sheet in a very low oven
- in the food dehydrator

Once dried, the berries are easily separated from their stems and can be stored in a container in the cupboard. The berries that were dried in the food dehydrator dried within hours, look plump, glossy and beautiful, and were the easiest to separate from the stems - I will dry them all using that technique next summer.

Many recipes can be found online for making elderberry syrup. Last night, I concocted my own recipe and it is my favorite version so far:

Elderberry Syrup

Combine in a saucepan:
1/2 c. dried elderberries
3 c. water
Bring to a boil, then reduce temperature to a simmer.

3 T. Mulling spices (or, a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves, a star of anise, an orange peel)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Simmer 40 minutes.

Stir in:
1 cup honey.

Allow to cool. Mash the berries and strain the syrup. Store in a covered glass container in refrigerator up to 3 months. The syrup can be eaten by the tablespoonful or can be added to tea, cranberry juice, or poured over ice cream, yogurt or waffles.

Sara hates to go to the doctor or take any drugs; she was very appreciative of this traditional medicinal. I hope it helps--and if so, I think I will plant a row of elderberry bushes this spring.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Extravagance of Egg Cartons

With longer days, our hens are starting to lay eggs much more frequently - we are getting 9 to 12 eggs a day from our 20 hens. That is more than we can keep up with, especially since we haven't been baking for the Farmer Market this winter. We have been making yummy, rich puddings, making deviled eggs for potlucks, and gifting neighbors and friends with farm-fresh eggs in an effort to keep up.

Every dozen eggs requires on egg carton, and we totally ran out. So, I put a plea on Facebook. My FB friends came to the rescue to the tune of 76 egg cartons! That ought to last us through May. Thanks, everybody!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dinner with Dear Ones

On Monday evening, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Prescott's with our dear friends Vera and Earl and daughter Cadence. The occasion was celebrating(celebrating?)Cadence's imminent departure to Mexico for 3 months to intern on a sustainable farm and Earl embarking on his imminent journey through a bone marrow transplant.

Earl's journey will be much longer and more grueling than Cadence's. Lucky for him, he has the finest doctors in the world working on him at Mayo Clinic and he has Vera, his fiercely devoted, savvy and detail-oriented patient-advocate wife. Not to mention his unsinkable spirit and the scores of friends eager to help however we can.

Our hearts are going to be a bit knotted up until these adventures are complete and they both arrive home, healthy and safe.

Flowers in February

Alas, the tulips are done.
But happily, we won't be without blooms. The housewarming orchid our friend Barb gave us a year and a half ago is blooming again - for the fourth time in 17 months! It must love living here as much as we do.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another Frosty Morning

We have been having foggy days and nights lately. So much moisture in the air creates lovely hoarfrost. The field across the road beyond the mailbox is a wonderland- the dogs' favorite rabbit-chasing grounds.
Speaking of rabbits, this one has been hanging out around the chicken coop and on the patio, feasting on birdseed. He provides the dogs with hours of exercise every day.
I love weekends when Rog and can putz around the farm. As soon as we finished our morning coffee yesterday we took a little tromp through woods and prairie to enjoy the beautiful frost.

This sign is just a reminder for visitors to drive in slowly and watch out for oblivious dogs and chickens and geese. If cows are ever crossing here, that means they are loose and we have trouble.

Rowdy Rueben

This Saturday morning Rog wanted to working on the granary, which meant starting a fire in the wood stove to warm up the granary, which meant hauling wood. We have some nice dry wood stacked in the corner of the loafing shed since last year.
The cows were in the granary eating breakfast. Reuben was especially curious about the wheelbarrow entering his space. Almost as fast as Rog loaded small pieces of wood into the wheelbarrow, Reuben pulled them out and swung them around, bonking Lasso in the head.
Then he got into one of his bucking bronco moods. This is why I always enter the loafing shed armed with a manure fork!

Toulouse Goose Abuse

Without very much human-goose interaction over the winter, one of our three sweet Toulouse geese has become a bit obnoxious. Even when you are feeding the geese, she displays her authority. This is how she (we think she is a she) looks when she comes at you, head lowered, hissing.
The other day she grabbed my glove and pulled it off. She can't really hurt you, but one day she did pinch my leg and make a little black-and-blue mark. Once spring arrives we will have to spend lot of time rebuilding trust.

Monday, February 8, 2010

More Granary Grandeur

We found some wonderful oak flooring a few weeks ago on Craiglist, for sale by somebody who was remodelling. This weekend, Rog got very ambitious and installed the floor in the granary, with a little help from me, a lot of help from Cadence, and close supervision by Nutmeg.

We rented a power stapler and compressor, which probably reduced the work by three-fourths. Because the lengths of flooring had previously been sawn to somebody else's dimensions, the trickiest part was finding pieces in lengths that required minimal cutting and didn't waste much.
Last weekend Rog had taken out the wood stove and cut out the floor below the brick hearth. He re-installed the bricks so they would be nearly flush with wood floor. The granary has no heat or electricity, but we strung a very long extension cord from the barn for light and power and the little parlor stove did a great job keeping the building warm. We plan to re-chrome the decorative metal trim on the wood stove and we still need to grout the bricks and cover the fireboard behind the stove - perhaps with tile, or maybe old decorative metal ceiling tiles, if we can find some.
The finished floor! We had planned to leave the barn board walls rustic and natural, but now we are thinking they might need some sprucing up to match the elegance of the floor --and to make it not feel like you are inside a wooden crate. This building is shaping up to be pretty darn cute, and nearly every building material has been purchased on a shoestring, salvaged and recycled.

Clever Egg Crate

On Friday night we had a fabulous dinner made by our friends, Jim and Carla, who found their sweet little dream farm and moved here last fall from the Twin Cities. They don't have any chickens (yet!) so I wanted to take them some eggs from our hens. However, the hens are now producing faster than we can scrounge up egg cartons and I had given away our last carton-full.

I was trying to figure out how to transport them when I remembered this little antique egg crate given to me by another Savation Army thrift store regular (we Sal's regulars watch out for things we know each other will treasure!) There are no clasps or latches and it took me some time to unlock the ingenious secret for opening the crate. I think the eggs look especially lovely in it.

Oh, if anyone in my neck of the woods has spare egg cartons, I will happily put them to good use! You might even get some farm-fresh eggs out of the deal.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Nutmeg's beloved pillow was getting kind of dog-smelly, so I unzipped it and tossed the cover and the liner in the washing machine. I piled the fiberfill stuffing on the loveseat while they washed. When I returned, Shamu had discovered the stuffing and made herself a cozy nest.
Shamu on Cloud 9.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Something Scary Out There

For most of the last 48 hours, Cocoa (our anxiety-attack dog)has been very agitated. Running to the edge of the woods, barking relentlessly. But not joyously running into the woods as she does to chase rabbits or squirrels. She is sleepless and pacing all night, breaking into barking frequently enough to keep us awake all night too. Eventually we get out of bed, put on our robes and glasses, go downstairs to peer outside but see nothing, baffled about what has her so concerned.

Finally, this morning as I was doing the chores, I got a clue to what the trouble might be --I heard coyotes yipping out in the woods. Then, tonight when Sara left for her class, she called from her cell to tell us she had just seen the silhouette of a dog-like shape run quickly along the outside of the barn and into the woods - a coyote? So now we are a bit less annoyed by Cocoa's behavior--she is doing her job -- and we are a bit more worried about the safety of our poultry.

Tonight after the possible coyote sighting I went back out to double-check that the chicken coop and barn were securely shut. Yep, they were. Hopefully the coyotes are just passing through and won't settle in and drive Cocoa totally bonkers.

A Blast of Color

The tulips burst into bloom yesterday! Winter has been feeling so-o-o-o gray and so-o-o long, and spring still so far in the future- we needed this promise of spring.

Goose Watering

I gleaned a great tip for watering the geese and ducks from Katiegirl. I had replaced their leaking metal water fountain, only to have the water heater base stop working. I gave up and decided to just provide bowls of water for the rest of the winter. But most bowls get tipped over too easily, creating a treacherous ice skating rink when the geese step into them. Then I tried small rectangular plastic storage bins, but they cracked after a couple days in the freezing-thawing cycle. Finally, I read about the rubber bowls Katie uses- all you do is tip them over and stomp on them to pop out the ice; they are pretty much indestructible. I found some on sale at Tractor Supply. They have flat bottoms so don't tip over and the geese seem to like them too.

I have been filling the bowls with tepid water, thinking it will help warm the geese up from the inside out and take longer to freeze up. On cold mornings, the warmish water creates a fog around the geese.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Early Morning Snowblowing Adventure

We awoke to three inches of fresh snow this morning. So, we got up at 6 a.m. and while Rog snowblew out the long driveway, I shoveled the paths to the barn and chicken coop, fed the animals, and hauled water. (I don't mind shoveling in the dark --I enjoyed when we lived in town and after a storm all our neighbors would be out clearing their driveways together before breakfast so they could get to work.)

Rog finished before I did and went inside to shower. When I finished my chores I discovered he had inadvertently locked me out! I knocked and hollered for quite some time before he finally exited the shower, heard me, came downstairs and let me in. I was glad it was +20F, not -20F! (He sweetly atoned by making me breakfast and my favorite iced mocha.)

By 7:45 a.m., we had snowblown, done the chores, fed the cats and dogs, washed a load of laundry, rinsed the sprouts, showered, and eaten breakfast. We should get up this early every day and accomplish so much.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Midwinter Night

Tonight it is snowing, but last night when I went out to take out the garbage and close all the barn doors it was a clear, crisp night.
The Wolf Moon was barely past full. The trees glow warmly by the yard light.
The air smells indescribably clean and delicious on a cold winter night.