These unexpected gifts

The summer morning air is cool and heavy. I instantly feel it resting on my forehead and arms as I cross the yard to let the chickens out. My yellow farm clogs leave dark footprints in the grass, proof of life in the quiet, early hours. I open the coop and watch the chickens pour out in a flurry of feathers and straw, then turn to the bigger coop housing the ducks and meat chickens. Something green hanging on the barn catches my eye.

Every so often in the summer, and usually after a rain, the farm becomes home to some amazing moths. We’ve found various Polyphemus types resting in the grass, but this moth was new to me. Her wings were a perfect creamy green, with four small, yellow markings, and her antennae were like an intricate ivory lattice that twitched gently.

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I finished chores and came back to check on her, and, knowing how excited the girls would be, decided to bring her inside. I gently reached my hand under her wings and waited until the delicate legs grasped my finger, and then slowly carried her into the house. The girls were thrilled, and no matter how many times I reminded them to move slowly and quietly, they shrieked and jumped with excitement.

Picturing a sticky preschooler foot as an untimely cause of demise, I scooped up the moth, which I later looked up and discovered was called a Luna, and set her back outside. After a wobbly start on the grass, the moth suddenly started shivering (a precursor to flight), and then caught the breeze and fluttered into the sky, looking for all the world like a delicate leaf suddenly come to life.

I stood back up, brushing my hands on my knees, and watched the grays and blues of the clouds marble the sky. And in that moment, I decided it would be a slow day for me and the children. A day for margin, for space. A day for looking for the extraordinary in the framework of our normal lives.

***

We spent the morning sprawled on the rug, playing games, clapping for the baby who practiced his squats and stands with the dogged determination of an Olympic athlete. His strong legs pushed him up and down, and I marveled at how tall he’d grown, and how much work it must be to learn the art of balance and motion.

We moved outside to the swings, the bikes, the trampoline. The baby joined me in the garden and learned the sheer joy of smearing, squashing, and raking his way through the dirt. I staked peas, pulled weeds, spent time staring at the intricacies of the flowers in bloom. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, I slowed down. Took notice. Enjoyed.

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The rest of the day flowed steady, easy, like water from the garden hose. Please don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect. The girls fought over stuffed animals. The baby cried and messed an extraordinary amount of diapers and clothes. I still did dishes and laundry and sweeping and the lego-to-heel dance of pain.

But somehow, those things were okay too. It seemed that having margin for both joy and error was equally important. After all, life doesn’t favor one or the other. Could it be that joy and error were necessary partners in the everyday?

***

Later, we piled into the van and headed for the library, where we ran into our neighbors and miraculously both had time to chat. A surprise text landed us next to my best friend for supper at the local Drive In, where our kids ran circles around the fountain pond and chowed down on hamburgers.

Out of nowhere, someone anonymously paid for our family’s meals. I looked up from wiping food off the baby’s face, and stared incredulously at the waitress when she told us. I couldn’t have been more surprised, or more grateful. We hopped back in the van and left the radio off, making time instead to talk about the about the gifts of thoughtfulness, of generosity, of blessing.

Later that night, I kept thinking, “I could have missed this entire day.” And in a sense, it was true. Yes, I would have lived and breathed for the same 24-hour period. But it would have been easy enough to hurry my way through chores before diving into house tasks, and miss the experience of the Luna moth delicately spiraling into the sky.

I could have skipped playtime to fold and put away laundry. I could have thrown together something quick for lunch instead of making my daughter’s favorite meal. I could have said no to the library, which would have then been easier to decline meeting up with my best friend, and not afforded me the chance for sharing an unexpected object lesson on generous living with my kids.

I could have missed it all.

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When I create space to say yes, to be awake, stay present, and actively appreciate the good things in my life, I rarely feel as though my minutes pass me by, or that they’ve gone too fast. Savoring my days ensures that even if I look back and yearn for a certain time period again (newborn stage, anyone?), I can know I lived those moments to the fullest, leaving no space for regret. Conversely, time moves slowest when I put the blinders on, doggedly pushing forward, bound by my own perception of duty in lieu of enjoyment.

And some days, that might be reality. Some days are meant for doing, moving, accomplishing. Some days run beautifully on a schedule. But when we’re given the opportunity and reminder to slow down, to watch, and to feel grateful, there’s endless surprise and delight waiting in life’s simple, unexpected gifts.

Amateur Farm Hour: Meet the Meat Birds!

Yesterday, I bought an extra-large dog kennel at a garage sale in Stillwater. I could tell the owner was ready to ask me a barrage of dog-lover questions, so I decided to head any awkwardness off at the pass. The conversation sounded a little like this:

Hey! Great day for a sale! Say, I’d like to buy your dog kennel.

No, I don’t have a dog. It’s for my meat chickens. 

Yes, I said MEAT chickens. I’m going to use it to transport them to the butcher.

No, they aren’t ever going to lay eggs.

No, I’m not going to butcher them myself. I’m 33 weeks pregnant.

Yes, we’re going to eat them.

Yes we named them.

Nugget.

Have a great day!

We’ve kept backyard egg layers for the last three years, and it’s been great. According to Hobby Farms, the eggs we get from our little flock contain less cholesterol, less saturated fat, increased vitamins A, E and D, more omega-3 fatty acids, and more beta carotene. As a bonus, we can also thank our ladies for entertaining our girls, keeping down the deer and wood tick population, and for, ahem  *fertilizing* our yard.IMG_20160513_185053750 (764x1280)

A few months back, sprawling in our chairs in front of the fire, Jason suggested we infuse the flock. Our egg laying chickens were coming into their later years of production, and wouldn’t it be nice to have the new birds already laying before the old birds quit? Oh, and by the way, what did I think about meat birds?

He went on to extol the virtues of home-grown birds: hormone-free, yard ranged, fed a good diet, killed humanely by a local butcher, and delivered direct to my freezer. And of course we’d get 25 of them. It should be worth our while, right? I tentatively agreed those were all true and good things, though I wasn’t sure where I was going to put the meat from that many birds in my already-full freezer.

Fast forward to this spring, when I got a call from the post office. Your live animal shipment is here and ready for pick up. I had a peek at them. They’re so cute! And noisy!

Small town living at its finest.

So we made a quick list, piled into the van, and picked up our new farm babies. As I leaned over the same counter I normally weigh ebay boxes on and bent back the cardboard, I couldn’t stop my own gigantic smile. They were indeed adorable, all yellow fluff and tiny beaks. I couldn’t wait to show the girls.IMG_20160426_160713635 (724x1280)

Predictably, Ellis loved them, Gabby said she loved them but immediately threw the one I gave her to hold on the floor, and Lucy regarded the chick I placed in her lap with a mixture of fear and glee and refused to touch it.

We made a quick stop at the feed store for another heat lamp, two bulbs, and a sack of feed I thought for sure would last almost a month, given that the chicks weighed less than a golf ball, and were roughly the same size. We were ready.

The next twenty-four hours were a circus. It was April in Minnesota, and temps were still dipping below 40 degrees at night. We opted to keep the chicks on the front porch in Rubbermaid storage totes lined with wood chips. Each tote had a doll-sized gravity waterer and a small dish of chick crumbles which resembled grape nuts.

We positioned the totes under the heat lamps and prayed the whole setup wouldn’t melt or spontaneously start on fire. There was also the issue of the girls.

After they got familiar with the chicks, there was no end to the requests to go in the entryway and see the babies. Rules, admonitions, and threats about not dropping, squeezing, or throwing them in the air were mostly ineffective.

Oh. There was also the time I almost killed every single one of them by putting them in the bathtub and cleaning off their bellies, which had gotten dirty from being in such tight quarters in the totes. Unfortunately, this also brought the chicks’ body temperature dangerously low and resulted in me on the bathroom floor with a towel, a blow dryer, and a lap full of pitifully noisy wet chicks that looked more alien than animal, but we don’t need to talk about that.IMG_20160520_102057918_HDR (896x1280)

Three weeks later, the meat chicks are more like awkward middle schoolers. They are growing so quickly that their feathers can’t keep up, which results in some weirdly patchy looking birds. They’ve also now gone through TWO fifty pound bags of feed. Apparently they are almost half grown at this point, which means my $10 dog kennel is going to come in handy in about a month.

Very soon, we’ll be letting them out into the fenced in chicken yard to scratch, peck, and eat weeds to their hearts content. The egg layers will lose their comfy quarters for a month, but Jason’s been hard at work building them a portable coop with egg boxes and nesting racks, so really, I think they’re getting the better end of the deal.IMG_20160510_195415244 (1280x765)

And us? Well… we’ll see. I’m keeping track of expenses because we want to make sure this venture is cost effective before we get any more ideas about doing it again, and in the meantime, I’m filling our five gallon chick waterer and gravity food bin every day like a BOSS.

Stay tuned. Or better yet, make dinner plans with us in July and ask for chicken to be on the menu.

***

PS! Recently, two very kind teachers at Taylors Falls unexpectedly gifted Jason and I with this sign. Dear Erin and Laura, we love your work and your generous hearts – thank you!

If you’re in the market, Wood Pallet Treasures creates some fantastic, customized stuff. Definitely check them out!

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The Amateur Farm Hour series

A few weeks back, I told you how I realized that sometimes, the only way to start is to START. Meanwhile, I’ve had an idea in my head for a couple of months now. I’ve waffled over the best platform for it, and have learned a couple of things along the way. 1. I belong in the blogging-for-dummies camp, technically speaking. I can talk a little talk, but when it comes to SEO and monetizing and GIMPing up my pictures, I’m too busy sniffing out the culprit of that mysterious stench upstairs (you don’t want to know) and scrubbing crayon off the kitchen floor. And 2. I have about thiiiiiiiiiiiis much time to focus on developing new ideas. See #1.

That was a long, roundabout way to tell you that for now, we’re simply starting a new series around here called Amateur Farm Hour. 

Yep.

Amateur Farm Hour. Because let’s be real.

What I’m doing is all amateur. I’m not trendily clad in buffalo plaid and shooties when I’m cleaning the chicken coop. (Okay. Shooties might not even be a thing anymore. I’m that behind.) I’m wielding a shovel that’s actually dirty, and a pair of worn out garden gloves that barely keep crud off.

My children aren’t always instagram-ready. Half the time, my eldest is in some sort of off brand pajamas. Ponytails are wonky, pants are too short. Shoes are a crap shoot.

What I put on the table is 50% awesome, and 50% overcooked/underdone/fallen/substituted/unpinteresting fare.

And pictures. Let’s talk about pictures. Because you know there’s the crop tool. The lightening, brightening, color temperature filtering options. Yes, good pictures tell a story. But rarely is it the whole truth.

The whole truth is that I could sell you on my attempts at a sustainable family lifestyle. I could talk blithely about our free-range chickens and their glorious golden-yolked eggs. I could probably manage some stunning shots of our heirloom Wealthy and Honeycrisp apple trees. I could show you my freezer full of labeled bags of garden veggie sauce from our raised-bed garden. Hashtag. Hashtag. Hashtag.

Meanwhile, you might think I have it all together, and follow this series because it’s a pretty place to find funny farm stories and fall recipes and to see cute kids.

And we’d both miss the point.

***

Yesterday, I grabbed an extra gallon of milk from the store. (For the record, that made four gallons of milk in my cart. Apparently we need a cow.) My goal was to make yogurt since the girls have been on another one of their crazes, and the new mantra/chant at breakfast is now MORE. BIG. YOGURT. PWEEEEESE.

We got home, and somewhere in the middle of the chaos, I pulled the soup kettle out of the cupboard, dumped a gallon of milk in it, plopped it on a lit burner, and put the lid on. Homemade yogurt is a multi-step process, and since it was already 4:00 pm, I needed to get moving.

And then I glanced out the door. The girls were rolling down the hill in the front yard, busting out peals of laughter.

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My oldest called out for me to come and join them, and it took all of three seconds to abandon kitchen ship, grab my camera, and run outside for the next hour.

We finally all piled back in the door around 6:00 pm, red-faced and covered in grass. I issued an immediate bath edict, but my nose was already starting to smell something else: the odd, semi-sweet fragrance of boiling milk. Boiling. Crap. 

Boiling means the milk is at least twenty degrees over the 180 degree desired warming point. Which means I’d basically annihilated my chance at having the yogurt culture.

Double crap.

I should have dumped the pot and moved on. A trained chef would not have thought twice about starting over. Unfortunately for me (and everyone around me), I’m not a trained chef. I’m a product of frugal parents and depression-era grandparents, and if there’s one thing that irks me, it’s waste.

After all, I could make…. a lot of hot cocoa with that milk. *gulp*

Which is why I added the yogurt starter, agave nectar and vanilla anyway. You know, because instead of wasting one item, it’d be better to waste four. Brilliant, I know.

Three hours into incubation, the yogurt refused to set.

I had also reached max capacity for any task involving real energy (mombie zone) so I haphazardly rearranged a fridge shelf, shoved the entire soup pot of warm yogurt-not-yogurt in, and went to bed kicking myself for ruining the batch.

_20150926_065517The next morning, I opened the fridge and stared at the pot. It was time to start getting creative. What could I use sweet, yogurt-laced milk for? Right. Muffins of some sort. I pulled out the mixer and got started. I made it halfway through the recipe before I took the lid off the pot to grab a cup of milk.

Miracle of small miracles, it had cultured.

I practically danced it to the counter. The yogurt wasn’t thick, but it was rich, creamy, and sweet. And aside from my failure to tend it properly, it still made something good. It was allowed to become something good because I didn’t give up. I waited for another angle. A new idea.

Maybe that’s how it goes in your kitchen, or in your office, or at your table too. Great ideas, good intentions, and then wham. Distraction. Need. Real life headbutts creative life and suddenly everyone’s knocked out on the floor.

Please don’t let that stop you.

Don’t throw away your messes, your failures, your imperfect attempts. You are not defined by these things. I believe you are fluid, and your definition rests in the cupped hands of God – God the creator, God the author, God the perfecter and finisher.

He doesn’t give up on you. He doesn’t see you as failed yogurt. He does not see your bad day at work or your temper with loved ones as who you ARE.

He understands amateur.

He knows sometimes, it’s the best show in town because those folks are having fun. They may not be doing everything right, but they have a good time trying.

That’s what we’re doing around here. Having a good time trying. It’s not always picture perfect or hipster-worthy, and that’s okay.

It’s amateur farm hour. And you’re invited.

In between posts, you can laugh along at my #amateurfarmhour pics on Instagram (@rachelriebe). Like how this series is starting off? Share it with a friend! See you next week!

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Because fashion blogging is slightly hilarious to me… tank top – past season Gap outlet. Pants – worn out Athleta jeggings. Little girl hairband/wrist bracelet – Walmart. Blade of grass kazoo – sustainable product of Riebe Farms.

June and the Perfect Imperfection

June was full of moments. Moments that filled me, steady and constant, like a green water hose in a plastic bucket. I wanted summer every day. I wanted sun and the relaxing drone of the lawnmower cutting fresh tracks across the yard. I wanted little girls bursting out of the front door, ready for play. I wanted LIFE – vibrant greens, newborn kittens curling into my elbow, the violet clematis unfurling wide into every morning.

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I wanted summer legs and bare feet. I wanted trip after trip to the garden to watch the plants coax their growth from dirt. I wanted to hear the satisfying grind and crunch of the pea gravel we hauled in to complete our raised bed garden, bag by fifty pound bag.

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Most of all, I wanted to eat outside. There’s nothing so free and wonderful as laughter and wind and food eaten out of doors. Who cares if the lawn is perfect, the menu is summery enough, or the tablecloths match. It’s the act of eating in the same place the food grew that feels all at once wild and perfect.

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Then there was the other side of June. The side no one photographed. The sad blueness of a sprained ankle. The way my husband’s eyes could barely stay open after surgery. The camera was put away while we coughed and sneezed, and felt our cheeks flush with the pink heat of fever. There was no one taking pictures during the phone call when our renters gave us notice instead of buying the house as formerly planned, and our world fell off kilter as we raced to put our former home back on market.

No cameras. No lenses. And yet, I couldn’t show you all the good things without acknowledging that there are two sides to every coin. That life isn’t always freshly minted, gleaming and perfect in organized rolls. That even in the most perfect of seasons, imperfection is present, and it’s up to us to figure out how to live with them both.

Perfect. Imperfect.

Both hedging in, threatening to glorify or nudge out the other.

And it’s up to us what to make of them. Every time. Every. Single. Time. Because no matter how many things I read or prayers I pour out or conversations I have, the decision of what to dwell on in my mind is as constant as the nagging need for coffee first thing in the morning.

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That whether the moment is picture perfect or camera shy, how I choose to perceive it in terms of the whole is what makes all the difference.

So with that being said, June was wonderful.

Bring on July.

The Kitten Connundrum

I recently caught my three year old daughter sneaking out of the house, still in pajamas, before she thought we were awake. The reason? She wanted to “see” the six perfect baby kittens that were born in the chicken coop. Translation: she wanted unmitigated access to do something she wasn’t supposed to.

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6:58 am. This is a new level of sneakytown, even for Ellis.

There’s a long-standing farm rule I’ve heard since I was kid: Never touch kittens until their eyes are open. Kittens that take on a different scent may be abandoned by the mother.

Unfortunately, I’m having the hardest time enforcing the no-touchy touchy rule with a certain young member of the household.

The kittens are barely a week old, downy and delicate, mewling quietly with their eyes closed. Ellis can’t resist them. I find her sneaking in the coop at all hours of the day – so much so that we’ve had to start locking it. She talks about the kittens constantly. She wants to show them to everyone who visits.

I’m torn. The mother is a baby herself – part of our spring litter last year. She doesn’t seem to mind us being near, and welcomes attention whenever human visitors are around.

But the rule.

The interwebs are full of mixed messages about the rule. Some sites say it’s okay to touch them if the mother allows it. Others take a strict hands-off approach.

All I keep coming back to is the advice of the apostle Paul in Corinthians 10:23 – I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. 

(The whole passage really has nothing to do with baby kittens. It’s the principle that’s standing out to me.)

Seriously. How do I resist this face?

 Seriously. This face. Can anyone understand my dilemma? 

Certainly, we can touch the kittens. Is it the best thing for them? Probably not. But do we risk the mother abandoning them at this point? Probably not.

No clear answer.

But if I stop to look at what’s beneficial for everyone involved (kittens, Ellis, my sanity), the answer is simple. We need to wait. Free access to the coop – denied. The kittens need time, and Ellis needs to go another round in learning the wait/reward cycle of patience.

Wish us luck. It’s going to be a long week.

Raised Bed Gardening

I’ve always been a lazy gardener. Ask my husband. The lawnmower made a weekly pilgrimage through my old garden because I never kept the edges under control. Weeding is not my forte. Watering is an afterthought.

But eating? Eating is something I’m really good at. Hence, we keep a garden.

We’ve looked at raised bed and square foot gardens for a few years now. The magazines promise easy, carefree produce. The people we talk to raved about the easy organization and lack of weeding. And our master gardener friend who lives down the road was still asking us if we wanted carrots in NOVEMBER.

IMG_3725 (800x507)So. This year is the year of raised bed gardens at our farm. We’re doing it. Okay, Jason’s doing it. He built the beds, shoveled the compost and manure, hauled the giant bags of vermiculite, and planned the whole thing out. I, uh, helped carry the boxes.

Here are the basics:

  • Soil isn’t really soil. The stuff in the garden boxes is 1/3 compost, 1/3 animal organic matter (manure), and 1/3 vermiculite. Aside from being fun to say, this is basically just the stuff that helps the mixture retain moisture.
  • The raised beds are 2 x 4’s (I think) that Jason measured, cut, and hammered into place. Pretty simple. You can buy cute ornaments to decorate and hold the corners square, but we’re going Swedish utilitarian this year.
  • The benefits are less weeding, organization, better moisture retention, and bigger veggies. (So I’m told. Like I said – this is our first year.)

IMG_3814 (800x533)The pre-babies me would have started seeds a long time ago, but the realistic me knew that dirt in cups not kept under lock and key would be fodder for toddler temptation. So we’ll be starting from seeds and scratch…except for tomatoes. I like to buy tomato plants. (Honestly, because in the beginning nothing-is-growing stage, it keeps me from despairing that I’ve killed the plants before they even had a chance to grow.)

I’ll check back in with a few progress reports when something’s happening.

(Hopefully something happens and we didn’t just shovel a bunch of cow poop in our garden for $%#ts and giggles.)