The months since the last newsletter have been our slow time. Winter weather means fewer visitors and less work outdoors, time to clean and sort, to reflect and discern. Since January 2002 we’ve spent a week at the start of the year looking back to evaluate what we’ve done and looking forward to plan what comes next. Some questions recur year after year, such as how we balance our basic life and work at the farm with inviting other people in to share that life and work.
One thing we’ve thought about over and over but never really done is inviting people to come for discussion at specific times, what many Catholic Workers call “clarification of thought”. This year we decided to host simplicity circles during Lent since simplicity is the root of our mission and Lent is still sort of the slow time. We came up with ideas for 6 sessions and sent out invitations to area churches and to the local weekly newspaper. Only one couple signed up but they are enthusiastic about simplifying their lives and we’ll be meeting Saturday mornings through Lent.
While cleaning, sorting and filing (never my favorite job) I realized how many art supplies we’d accumulated during the years various children were coming weekly right through the winter months. We used them then but children come now when they can get outside to enjoy what is unique to a farm. So I kept what I could picture using and boxed up the rest. When Hope, our friend who works at the Refugee Assistance Program in the Syracuse City School District, came to visit we offered them to her. We’re very grateful to have a refugee contact who is willing to tell us what she can use and what she can’t. She was pleased with the paper, paints, markers, colored pencils and crayons and told us she had just begun doing artwork with some of her clients with rather limited materials. This is also our best time of year for making toys so we also had doll sets, nesting rainbows, duck puzzles, and rabbit acrobats to send with her for distribution at the school.
During January I revise the website and brochure, struggling to communicate clearly what it is we do and why–and why someone might want to come be a part of it. This winter I dug out the old brochures, starting with the one in use when we arrived which contains a quote from Fr. Raymond McVey, “This farm began as an absurdity . . .” I wish we’d arrived in time to know him, to ask him some of the questions that have arisen over the years, to find out how he saw the farm as absurd and what questions he’d have for us who carry on what others began. We don’t have as many scheduled events as the farm used to have and we spend more time learning about and doing the work of farming. Partly that’s because we (as well as others we’ve talked to about this) find it hard to get people to attend even those things they have said they want to have offered. And partly it’s because the land is such a wonderful resource and we keep seeing new possibilities.
Those possibilities involve work and thought and we could use help with both. During March we’ll be boiling down syrup, starting seeds in the greenhouse, working on the renovations in the house, and still making toys. Sometimes that is the best month for getting to parts of the farm that are too wet in summer and too deep in snow in winter. In April we’ll start the outside planting, get in firewood for next winter, divide perennials, maintain trails, put out nest boxes, and inoculate a new batch of oak logs with shiitake spawn to continue our supply of mushrooms. April also brings wildflowers, frog choruses, woodcock displays, fiddleheads and wild leeks. May is a flurry of preparing beds, planting, keeping the bedding clean in the goat shed for the kids expected around the 17th. Harvest begins with greens and asparagus. Zach makes sure the haying equipment is ready and this year will be draining and dredging silt out of the pond as soon as the spring surge is down. The wildflower progression of bloom continues in May and the return of migrating birds and nest building reaches its peak.
So that is what will be happening here on the farm and you’re welcome to be a part of it. Come and work, come and learn, come and rest, walk, look and listen. Bring a friend, a child, a grandparent. Bring your ideas and questions, your stories and hopes. Call ahead to find out what is going on the day you plan to come and because, very occasionally, we’re not here. –by Lorraine
We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give up, to forget it all, to just walk away in despair. We need someone to discourage us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly to a nebulous goal. –– Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen
Manual labor is physical, repetitive, never finished, always needing more attention. The most suitable work for a contemplative is hidden and necessary. —Humility Matters by M. Funk
The most valuable form of activism in this day and age may be to explore a lifestyle based around simple living and simple joy. It may take toning down our materialistic demands and figuring out how to live on less income, but that process itself will begin to save some of the world’s resources and thereby address many of the world’s pressing problems, as well as give us more time with our families and communities. — Deep and Simple by Bo Lozoff
Maintenance by Zachary
I was grateful for the warm spell we had in December since it enabled me to get the new sugar house behind the sawmill building built much more easily than I had expected. I had meant to get it built earlier in the fall, but it was completed before Christmas. It is the smallest and the funniest looking building I have put up here, but I think it should be suitable for our evaporator and will make the boiling process much more convenient. The evaporator sits in the back part of the building with the stovepipe going up through the peak of the roof. Directly above the evaporator there is a cupola which has solid sides that can be opened to allow steam to escape while boiling. I have cut up the waste wood that has been sitting on the ground in that area and stacked it inside to burn in the evaporator this spring. Before boiling begins I need to set up some pulleys and cables to control the cupola shutters and put in a light bulb or two that can be connected to an extension cord. Having an enclosed building with lights will be a great advance over our previous custom of boiling outdoors under a tarp and using a flashlight.
I had a breakdown with my larger tractor while plowing snow in early January. I had to separate it into three sections and take the transmission completely apart. I am thankful that the tractor did not break down while I was working in the woods up the road and across the stream, since it would have been difficult to get it home. I did not run the sawmill for a couple of months partly due to the colder temperatures and partly because the tractor that was available to move logs around the yard did not have enough traction to move them through the snowbank that slides off the roof. I recently shoveled it away and am now sawing the log pile from the trees cut in November. Last year we had much less snow and I was able to easily keep sawing right through the winter. The mill being blocked has meant that I had more time this winter to make toys than I had expected, but the wood for sale in the loft of the sawmill building was quite diminished. We were given a GPS device by Andy Nelson which we are hoping may be a convenient way of marking down the locations of trees that I come across that need to be cut relatively soon. I have made lists or tried to keep track in my head of just where each tree is but with the GPS they should be more easily found again. It will probably take me some time to learn how to use it but I hope to start noting trees this spring. In our timber management plan that was given to us by the DEC the schedule is based on having a large sale of timber or a commercial thinning every five years or so. Now that we have the sawmill we are cutting much smaller amounts of timber on a much more frequent basis, so we have been trying to follow the schedule as best we can. Up to now I have been cutting trees that were marked but not cut in the 2008 timber sale and I have finally almost finished that job.
The new wood boiler has done well through the winter so far and seems to have been a good choice. In the spring I will be able to fill the woodshed more rapidly than previously because all of the slabs from the mill can now be burned here. Due to the larger firebox I will be making fewer stacks of firewood in the shed because each piece of wood will be longer, so I will have to experiment with how to make the best use of the space. There should also be a savings of time because each tree will have to be cut into fewer pieces. I am working on an old belt driven buzz saw for cutting slabs to length. I have never used one so I am not sure if it will be faster or not, but I hope to find out this spring.
Integrity and Permaculture: Making Things Whole by Joanna
I came to St. Francis Farm partly because I was looking for wholeness. I wanted to close the gap between my convictions and the consequences of my daily consumption. I sought a life in which work, worship, prayer and community life were integrated rather than existing in competing compartments.
We’ve tried to farm in a way that fits into this wholeness, so that our different agricultural projects support each other. Goat manure enriches the compost that feeds the garden. Leguminous weeds and cover crops from the garden feed the goats. Extra goat milk and cull apples from the orchard feed the pigs. This approach reduces waste and the need for purchased inputs. It’s also intrinsically satisfying to us and to some of our guests. We’ve had visitors who were excited by the idea of composting food scraps instead of paying to have them hauled away as trash and then buying fertilizer.
We’ve been able to teach some things about integrated agriculture, but we still have a lot to learn. This came to my attention during the 2012 growing season. The price of grain for our goats, chickens and pigs rose rapidly. The price hike was unsurprising given last year’s record drought in the grain belt. As climate change continues to destabilize weather patterns, and as more water is taken for hydraulic fracturing and other non-food uses, I expect there will be more droughts and more price hikes. And our friend Bob Bartell, who has visited us during the growing season for the past 6 years and who wrote the article “A Pivotal Time of Help and Hope” in our December 2008 newsletter, told me he’d been reading up on permaculture
I’d heard of permaculture before, but I had dismissed it as a popular buzzword mostly used by people who didn’t seem able to define it. After talking with Bob I borrowed Peter Bane’s Permaculture Handbook from the library. As Bane described it, permaculture seemed to be a matter of making things whole–closing loops to eliminate waste and expense, and working as closely as possible with natural cycles. His book and others that I read afterward, suggested ways of doing that which hadn’t occurred to me, including some that offered a partial solution to our animal-feeding problem. During the next growing season I’ll experiment with some of those methods
I’ll try to make better use of pests and weeds. Goats need less commercial grain mix if they get forage and hay with higher protein content. I’ve known for a long time that legumes were good protein sources. I just learned that comfrey and burdock contain more protein than alfalfa, don’t cause bloat, and are high in vitamins and minerals. Every year we spend a fair amount of time trying to tame the comfrey that encroaches on the garden and the burdocks that take over garden edges, hayfields and paths. We cut them back and dig them out over and over and they come back. Now we can dry the cut tops to add to our hay crop and consider the regrowth an extra protein boost instead of an unmitigated nuisance. I’ve also learned that many of our persistent weeds are high in nutrients that feed plants and help ward off plant diseases; instead of trying to eliminate these I’ll try to cut them off before they go to seed and either add them to the compost pile or lay them down as mulches. We’ve also been vexed by an infestation of Japanese beetles, which can do a lot of damage to the vegetables and the roses, but now I’ve read that they can be a good protein source for hens. We’re going to set up a beetle trap connected to a tube leading to a dish of water in the chicken yard and see if the hens will come and eat the beetles before they crawl out, dry off and fly away.
I’ll explore growing more animal feed crops. I had always thought that grain-growing required plowing up land, and I’d seen how much damage that could do to our sandy stony steep fields. Now I’m learning about garden-scale techniques for growing grain intensively without plowing. This year I’m going to do some small-scale experiments with growing amaranth, barley, bell beans, buckwheat, oats, field peas, fodder pumpkins, sorghum, sunflowers and turnips. Some of these will go in our garden beds where we have extra room or a short open space in a rotation (for instance, we can get a crop of buckwheat in between harvesting the last spring peas and planting garlic in the fall), and others in new beds which we’ll establish on the fenced slope below the main vegetable garden, which is currently wild and weedy. Once I’ve learned which crops I can grow and store well, and which ones our animals will eat, I hope to expand our fodder-growing land without having it plowed up. Zachary plans to dig nutrient-rich sediment out of the bottom of our pond, and if we mix this with sawdust to amend its carbon-nitrogen balance and spread it thickly on the sod where we want to establish a grain plot it should smother weeds and break down into healthy topsoil by next year.
Like the rest of our farming, I’m sure these experiments will work less smoothly in my garden than they work in my mind ahead of time. But I’m learning how to learn from my mistakes and keep moving a little further into wholeness.
Freedom from Fear by Joanna
In the official church calendar we are just entering Lent, but I feel as though I’ve already been wandering in the desert for a while. In the short dark winter days I struggle with anxiety. I’m learning how to deal with that more constructively in my own life, and to see how my anxiety relates to the fearfulness that is so widespread in our society.
Five years ago I was beset with worries about things that hadn’t troubled me before. I checked and rechecked doors to make sure I’d shut them, washed and rewashed my hands to make sure I wasn’t spreading germs. I recognized this as obsessive-compulsive behavior. I tried pretending that it wasn’t happening, but the frantic attempt to appear normal only worried me more. Finally I admitted what was wrong to myself and to my family, did some research and talked to a wise friend who has been a resource on various mental health issues. I didn’t stop worrying altogether, but I learned to step back from my worry and see it clearly. I learned to tell myself “The problem isn’t that there might be germs on your hands; the problem is that your brain is cramped up with anxiety. You can deal with this. Breathe deeply, do the next thing that needs doing, and in time you’ll feel better.” Worries that had been terrifying became merely annoying. I could get on with my life and work.
Those particular fears have subsided, but I still clench with anxiety at times. I crave other people’s approval and am disproportionately upset when I don’t get it. This naturally tires other people and pushes them away. When we have to say no to other people’s requests I worry about whether they needed something that we could have given them. Sometimes I worry instead of doing the small things I really could do for them–listening, praying, perhaps recommending other resources.
To some degree this seems to be a neurological problem that can be dealt with by biofeedback and habit-changing. But there’s more to it than that. The fear of spreading germs, the fear of saying no to people, the fear of losing people’s approval, all reflect a false story that I tell myself: “If I don’t do everything right, bad things will happen to me and to the people I love.” The implied converse is, “If I do everything right, bad things won’t happen to me or to the people I love.” This false promise of control is so appealing that I cling to it even though the resulting anxiety makes me less clear, contented and useful.
The truth is that I will fail in my work repeatedly. I will do things wrong. I will disappoint the people I love, and they will disappoint me. And however well I tend my garden, I may lose the harvest to bugs or blight or drought. However much I care about other people, I won’t be able to meet all their needs. I don’t like this truth, but when I shut my eyes to it I also lose sight of the good things that are true: the love that endures letdowns and misunderstandings; the beauty of the world; the satisfaction of good work; the presence of God.
When I widen my focus, I see that our society is driven by fear. Our country fears terrorist attacks, so we launch attacks against people in other countries, doing great harm and making some people angrier at us, more willing to risk their lives to do us harm. Parties within this country fear each other’s agendas, so they engage in strident campaigning: The Republicans are waging war on women! The Democrats are waging war on religion! The resulting polarization makes compromise, mutual listening & good government less likely.
Advertisements play on fears of being unattractive, unloved, unpopular, unsuccessful and unhappy; they imply that sadness and failure are unnatural and intolerable, and that they can be warded off by buying the right stuff. I remember a group of nervous girls who explained that they had to wear makeup all the time, even at the farm, because otherwise they’d totally lose their self-confidence.
It’s not only advertisements that always define enough as more. Financial experts urge people to save enough money to provide for all their needs during retirement. As pensions become rarer, the stock market fluctuates wildly, and interest on savings accounts falls while interest on debt remains high, it’s hard to know what it would mean to save enough. Medical experts urge people to undergo more screenings and take more medications and supplements, but there is disagreement about how helpful (or harmful) these may be and basic health is sometimes overlooked in the push toward more.
The truth is that there’s nothing we can do to secure ourselves against the things we fear. Sometimes we will be lonely. Sometimes we will fail. Sometimes we will be sick. Eventually we will die. But we don’t need to let the fear of these things dominate our lives. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves and alienate our neighbors with futile precautions. We can give thanks for each day, make ourselves available to our neighbors, choose work that we value for its own sake as well as for the results we hope it will bring. We can live in a way that hallows the present and doesn’t create obvious problems for the future.
Most importantly, we can shift our focus to something larger than ourselves. I think that is the most basic message of Lent. If we let go of our petty fears and cravings, if we accept that in the end we die and we lose all the things we wanted to hold onto, we are set free from ourselves. We are able to see and love our neighbors and the created world. We are able to participate in the life of God which goes on forever and is always new.
“You can’t outwit death anyway by ‘progress’ or accumulating wealth; so why not accept your fate, choose values which are authentic, and let yourself delight and believe in the being you are and the Being you are part of?”–Rollo May, Love and Will
Wish List: (by Lorraine)
This spring I have perennials to share–thread-leaf coreopsis, bee balm, chives, chrysanthemums (purplish pink) and sedums. Wanted–lemon balm and artemisias to put in my gardens. Also wanted–cloth bags for toys (doll sets and puzzles) that go to refugees so the pieces don’t get lost, sized from 6”x6” to 9”x9”
The last newsletter seems a very long time ago. The farm was still in the grip of winter and we were skiing and planning and waiting for spring, which came late. Now the slow time is a dim memory, the garden half planted, the grass high and green in the fields, and the air fragrant with lilac and apple blossom. We had early volunteers who scheduled and canceled and we’re expecting a young man just out of college this week and a young woman just finishing high school for the last week of May.
Last time I wrote we had just started our Simplicity Circles during Lent (see participant article below). Although they were very small and took a bit of planning, they offered challenges, insights and the opportunity to get to know Mike and Valeda. Since then they have come back to visit and volunteer. Once again we were reminded that our ideas and way of life may be unfamiliar and surprising to others. And we were reminded of our many blessings as we saw the things we take for granted enjoyed and appreciated.
The first week of April, though still quite wintry, was spring vacation and ScreenFree week. We again offered sunset nature walks, hoping that the snow would melt in time. That didn’t happen, but nine children and six adults came Tuesday afternoon to help in the greenhouse and make birdhouses to take home. The children enjoyed getting their hands in the dirt, and Joanna found them careful and helpful in planting and transplanting. The children enjoyed putting together the pieces Zachary had precut for wren or bluebird boxes. The families played with the wooden toys we make, looked at photos of the farm in other seasons, and listened to Zach play a fiddle and banjo he had made. In spite of the cold, most visitors got out for a quick look at the goats and chickens, pond and brook. All signed up to get updates about what’s happening at the farm but none have been back yet.
Because the spring was so slow coming, many of the jobs done in early spring got piled up together. I didn’t get out to mark the trails that Andy had mapped for us last year until late in April. I got a late start in my herb and flower gardens but was pleased at how well they had wintered. The sage and lavender I had layered last year did well. I shared some of those new plants along with divisions of other flowers and herbs with several people during April and the start of May. We enjoyed wild leeks and fiddleheads and added dandelion greens and early flowers to meals. I’ve started gathering and drying herbs–willow bark, violets, elder flowers, nettles, and burdock roots so far, and we’ve tried teas from them for sore throats or aching muscles.
In May everything seems to happen at once. Our annual meeting was held May 4. The leaves came out fast just as all the songbirds returned, making it hard to spot who is singing among the foliage. The asparagus is coming in and finally a satisfying amount of lettuce. We’ve made rhubarb sauce and pie. The goat that isn’t pregnant is giving a lot more milk since they got out onto fresh grass. We went to Syracuse May 13 and helped Anola plant a garden for Fr. Tony and his sister Joan. Anola helped in their garden last summer and enjoyed having her hands in the dirt and fresh vegetables on her table. She mulched the beds with straw last fall so we had an easier start this spring. Joanna is kept busy setting out seedlings, watering the ones still in pots and sheltering them when the temperatures dive. The woodland wildflowers came late and are fading as the leaves come out.
Most mornings in May I’ve been up with the sun, getting out for a walk before prayers, beginning the day in golden light and birdsong. When someone calls or comes with their stresses and burdens, I want to offer them what the farm has offered me–the miracle of each new day and season, work for my hands, a place for prayer. –by Lorraine
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing make you afraid,
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
–Teresa of Avila
Reflections by Melinda Kurowski
I have been visiting St. Francis Farm since 2003 or 2004, which means that I have known the Hoyts for about 9 or 10 years. It seems hard to believe that much time has already passed since we first met. (I have had many different kinds of roles and relationships at the farm during these past years and my overarching friendship with Lorraine, Joanna, and Zachary has only deepened with time.) When I first came as a visitor I had lots of questions about Catholic Worker Farms, was filled with budding ideas about social justice and curiosity about sustainable living. I was able to borrow books about those things and share my questions and thoughts as I helped out in the garden, during meal times, and around music making by the bonfire. I have gone to the farm when I needed rest and renewal. I walked the woods paths and across the fields enjoying the sights and sounds and smells while finding comfort in the solitude there. I have swung in the hammock by the pond after I broke my leg and have learned how to make lavender wands and greeting cards by pounding out fresh flowers on paper.
After I had completed my internship in music therapy I lived at the farm for a few months. Although I was not there during the busiest part of the season, there was still so much to do. I helped in the garden, learned how to milk the goats, to make meals with what was in season, and how to reroof a farmhouse (my help there was minimal). It was hard but good work that made sense to me. As I learned about my outer world, I also learned about my inner world. As I dug and weeded the garden, I dug and weeded my inner stuff, too. As I cleaned garden pots and the barn, I cleaned out my inner cobwebs. It seemed that one went hand in hand with the other.
Now, as part of the Board of Directors, I try to visit once a month. During my visits I hear stories about visitors and the ongoing work of the farm. I enjoy going early enough to be there for morning prayer and spend a good part of the day with the Hoyts. I help where I can and enjoy when we ski together, go for a walk in the woods, sand parts of toys that are being readied to share with refugees and, honestly, the list is endless. I thoroughly enjoy my time at the farm. I have taken plants home for my yard and seedlings for my garden. A couple years ago I learned about worm composting and took home a box, some worms and wood shavings to start my own worm composter in my basement. Recently, I sat in on a couple of the simplicity circle meetings and enjoyed having time to reflect and share with others in a focused way about my evolving desire for simplicity and how it is already a part of my life. There are so many ways to be at the farm. All are treated with thoughtful care and attention as the Hoyts listen deeply and offer insight and encouragement. They are so generous with all that they have and I am so grateful for them and for how the farm is an extension of who they are.
Simplicity Circles: a visitor’s perspective
My wife Valeda and I attended the Simplicity Circle program at Saint Francis Farm this past Lenten season. We were interested because we wanted to simplify our lives, improve our resource use and increase our knowledge of the natural world. The program helped us in these and many more areas. The sessions were different than anything I had ever been through. My background is business, so in many ways I was a fish out of water. We were asked to speak from our own experience and listen respectfully to each other during the sessions. This worked well and resulted in many frank and open discussions. Early on we explored our personal values from the perspective of our family, religious and cultural backgrounds. This set the stage for future discussions. I was amazed at the impact my background had on my world views. It is important to dialog with people of different backgrounds in order to gain perspective. I found that my faith also affected my outlook. I believe that many people today are too materialistic and consume wastefully and excessively. Live simply so that others may simply live, as the saying goes. Simplifying our lives helps to unplug from the harmful influences of the modern world. The session on time built and expanded on this theme. I gave up watching television in April of 2010. Stepping away from the frantic pace reduces stress and allows for more and deeper reflection. We choose to spend our time on what is important to us.
One of the best lessons that I took away from the Simplicity Circles was sharing resources. It sounds odd, but I was not getting it. I kept wanting to trade or barter and that is not sharing. Sharing is the giving with no expectation of something in return. This lesson was extremely valuable to me personally. It was a missing piece in my spiritual journey. Another valuable lesson was the quote: “care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner”. Anyone who tries to be different from the modern culture will face social pressure and persecution. This was well said and very much in line with our Lord’s teachings: be in this world but not of this world. A third lesson I received was shocking: it was the story Lorraine told of the migrant worker who had lost his fingers in a machine. The supervisor refused to stop the machine that had jammed. Rather, he told the worker to “stick his hand in” and the result was tragic. But even worse was the essential discarding of the disabled worker after he was injured. Such a low regard for human life is appalling. This is one of the social justice issues that SFF addresses.
Another reason we attended was to improve our eating habits. Modern food and the industrialized food industry is literally killing us and our planet. Sugar, salt, fat, carcinogens, MSG and many other unwanted additives cause us great harm on a personal level. In regard to the earth, finite resources simply cannot be consumed on an infinite basis. We must give more than we take out or future generations will have an impossible debt to pay.
Valeda and I continued to be active at Saint Francis Farm after the Simplicity Circles ended. Our friends the Hoyts showed us how to gather wild leeks and recognize fiddlehead ferns. I helped inoculate oak logs with shiitake mushroom spores. We worked in the garden, walked on the trails, cut fire wood and even helped to build a stone wall! Yes, it is physical work and not for the lazy. But to a reflective mind the work is meaningful and healing. Living close to nature eliminates the need to work out or go to the gym because gardening is one of the best physical activities people can do.
Saint Francis Farm is a life refuge, a calm place in a frenzied world, a respectful place where one can retreat to work out one’s problems both literally and figuratively. The Hoyt family are the perfect instructors because they teach by the very way they live their lives. We look forward to many future visits and the Simplicity Circles next year. Peace and joy, Mike Simmons
Maintenance by Zachary
This year we had quite a late spring compared to last year and I was not able to start cutting firewood till the middle of April. Once I got started I was pleased to find that the job went faster than in previous years because of the new boiler being able to burn softwood as well as hardwood and taking longer pieces of wood. Before the first of May the main woodshed was full.
This was our first year using the sugar house which I built last fall. It was much nicer to be inside while tending the fire and the pan boiled more vigorously because it was out of the wind. We made about 34 quarts of syrup this year from 25 taps and hope to set some more next year. This year’s sap run was long but it had gaps in it when we would not get any sap for over a week at a time.
With the help of Mike Simmons and Joe Morton I rebuilt the small stone wall by the front door of the barn one day in May. I had been meaning to do that job for years but had never gotten to it. The rocks are not falling off the top anymore, at least for now. Later that day we put flat rocks in a circle around the oak trees in front of the house and dug them in so they are level with the grass. We are hoping that they will help to keep the grass out of the flowers that my mother has planted under the trees and make it easier to mow the lawn.
I have sawn most of the logs that I brought in last fall from across the stream and by the time this goes out I should be finished with them. It is best to get them done as soon as possible since they begin to deteriorate in warm weather. This year we have sold about $2200 of lumber as of mid-May. I cut a large oak tree in April that was marked to have been cut in the timber sale in 2008 but was not taken. We used the top parts for the new shiitake mushroom logs that we started and the log is still in the woods till I get out there and winch it up over the bank and skid it to the mill.
I went to a consignment auction in May in Sandy Creek and bought a hay baler for $200 which is mostly the same as the one we have been using for the past ten years. I am hoping to use it this summer since it appears to be in good condition and has a longer tongue which would be more convenient for our larger tractor. If it turns out not to be easily gotten into working order I can use it for parts for the other baler.
In April I visited an elderly lady in Sandy Creek whose well pump was not working and made a second trip with Bear who solved the problem quite easily. I made another trip to build a small enclosure over the well and pump. This was my first time around a shallow well pump system and now I will know what to do if I need to work on one again.
I have begun the process of clearing out the pond across the road from the barn and I have found it to be quite a learning experience already. I cut three willow trees that were leaning over the water quite severely and removed them from the pond, then I started fishing out other sticks and small trees that had died and fallen in over the years. I am now forking leaves, silt and small sticks off the bottom and into a wheelbarrow and piling them where they can sit and compost for however many years they take to break down. I am starting by removing all that I can while the pond is full and once I have done that I will start looking into drawing the water level down so that I can get at the deeper areas. In some places there is well over a foot of debris on the bottom, especially toward the inlet end of the pond.
The Good-Enough Garden by Joanna
When I was struggling with anxiety, alternating between excessive confidence and excessive worry, a social worker and friend told me to remember that many things are imperfect and good enough. I think of that as I look at this year’s garden.
This year the spring came late and suddenly. I usually plant peas in late March, but this March the garden stayed under snow. In early April I planted peas, greens, oats, fava beans and barley, set out onions with help from Valeda Simmons, and started establishing beds on the fenced but weedy hillside below the garden. We also inoculated a new batch of shiitake logs with help from Mike Simmons.
Late in April we went abruptly from highs in the forties and lows in the twenties or thirties to highs in the seventies and lows in the fifties. At the beginning of May I planted potatoes, two weeks later than usual, and set out most of a bed of brassicas (which are supposed to be frost-tolerant) and a whole bed of tomatoes which I planned to cover at frost danger as we did last year. We started to harvest asparagus and rhubarb. We stopped getting rain, so I laid out drip irrigation on most of the beds and was out early and late sprinkling things less suited to the drip system.
I began to see which of my early plantings had succeeded and which had failed. The lettuce throve. One bed of peas came up thinly because I’d planted them in a bed thickly sown to annual ryegrass in the previous year. As the name suggests, annual ryegrass is expected to winter-kill in the North. Thisyear it didn’t. The allelopathic effects generated by its roots hindered the germination of the peas. The other garden peas did well. So did the fava beans and field peas I’d planted for the goats. The oats and barley that I’d broadcast didn’t do well at all–I suspected some combination of drying out and being eaten by blackbirds. I replanted those grains in rows and buried them deeper.
Then the weather turned cold again. On the night of May 13 the temperature dropped to 26 degrees. I covered the early-out tomatoes, but we still lost six of the thirty-two. I covered the asparagus, and we didn’t lose any spears. I thought the brassicas would be all right without covering, but most of them died. I couldn’t cover the grapevine, which had leafed out. Many of its shoots are dead; enough are still healthy so that I think the plants will live, but we may not get fruit this year.
I’m frustrated. I’m aware that as the climate becomes less stable we can expect wilder weather, and that we have had an easier time of it than farmers in many states. I’m making notes of things to do next year: plant grains in furrows instead of broadcasting; frost-cover tomatoes with frames and blankets not buckets; get rid of ryegrass well before planting; look into grape pruning systems that would make it easier to lay the vines down and cover them when frost threatens…
I’m grateful for the things that are doing well. We’re enjoying lettuce, rhubarb, kale and asparagus, and we’ve just started sending herbs, rhubarb, eggs and goat cheese to the soup kitchen. The garlic and onions are growing well. We had more than enough compost, for a change. We have the best seedlings–big but not too leggy, and healthy in color–that we’ve had in a long time: tomatoes (two and a half more beds’ worth, plus enough to replace the dead ones, plus enough to share with Melinda and Anola and Father Tony Keeffe), brassicas (enough to replace the ones we lost), sunflowers (for beauty and for fodder), amaranth (greens for us, grain for the animals), squash and cukes and basil. I’ll err on the side of caution in choosing when to set them out. Imperfect. Good enough
Our goat Shasta had twin doelings May 15 before we got up. Do was healthy and vigorous but Re had trouble getting up and nursing. After research and a call to our vet, we gave both kids selenium shots in the early afternoon. Re improved quickly but Do who seemed fine in the evening died the next morning. Last time Shasta kidded we lost one kid inexplicably over the first night; our other does have all had healthy kids. Re is now eating well and moving around energetically. We’re still learning.
Still in the middle of the busy summer season, it is hard to get a perspective for writing about it. Summer is the hardest season for keeping balance, but it is so full of bounty. This year we had overnight visitors from May into June and then none until late July and August. And I was slowed down for several weeks in that middle time with cellulitis in my foot. As always we are grateful for all the unexpected blessings along the way and for the prayers that support us when we’re weary or confused.
However much we attempt to be clear, visitors often express surprise about what they experience here. One volunteer works far beyond our expectations while another finds the lightest task exhausting and complains of aches and blisters. Some eat the farm food with relish while others don’t eat cheese or beans or berries that aren’t made into pies. Some want to work mostly with animals and are unhappy that most of the actual work is in the garden while others don’t want to touch a goat or go near the pigs. Those who have no religion may come to prayers while others who come from faith communities do not. Some express surprise at how much just the three of us get done while others see our life as leisurely and our work as insignificant or invisible because of its scale. We are grateful to those who communicate clearly with us and who are willing to hear and see us clearly too. I come to realize more and more that clarity is necessary for me to keep my balance and to maintain a place of peace for those who seek it.
Mid-July, just as we were starting to can green beans, I got stung between my toes and developed an infection in my foot. I snapped beans with my foot soaking in cool water or elevated to ease the swelling. Zach took over much of the standing up part of the canning. When the second antibiotic prescription failed to work, I had to go to the hospital in Oswego for a weekend of IV antibiotics. I hadn’t been hospitalized since Zach was born and being there for those few days made me very grateful for everyday life at the farm–fresh whole food, restful sleep, the sound of the brook and the owls, people who know and love me. The experience left me more grateful for good health, more compassionate toward those who are medicated and bed- or house-bound, more aware of the importance of seeing the whole person encountered instead of just their problem.
The beauty and bounty of the natural world replenishes energy and helps maintain balance. The wet season has meant many bugs–a problem in the gardens but a feast for nesting songbirds. On a cloudy dark morning in June, from my swing by the pond, I saw a mink hunting fish or frogs. Mostly what I saw was a rapidly moving trail of bubbles, but occasionally the head would surface, then the whole body arch up out and into a new dive. Walking the field loop, we meet grazing deer or start up fawns who have bedded down in the grass. Joanna met newly hatched turkey poults on the pasture path and we all enjoy listening to the barred owls. The stream has kept flowing enough to sing all summer, and we notice the stars or the sunsets between the bouts of cloud and rain. As the season turns toward autumn I am grateful for early song and blooming, for harvests tame and wild, for the work and the grace to do it, for daily worship and weekly Sabbath. (by Lorraine)
Ashley and Marjorie’s story, told by Marjorie:
My name is Marjorie Yerdon and I work with a young woman named Ashley Kinney who enjoys volunteering. Our quest for volunteer opportunities brought us to St. Francis Farm at the recommendation of a trusted friend, Margaret Weigel. Margaret had positive experiences with Lorraine and Joanna, and knew that it would be a great fit.
Ashley and I do not stay overnight at the farm, instead we live locally and set up a few hours ahead of time to volunteer, usually on Wednesdays. Lorraine, Joanna, and Zachary have always been welcoming, accommodating, and ready to teach and help with all ability levels. Their flexibility in accommodating me, now 7 months pregnant, and Ashley who has Downs Syndrome has been a wonderful pleasure because we still get to contribute our efforts, and have always felt valued and welcomed. Ashley and I have been fortunate to get to help with many fun tasks, such as weeding the spacious garden, helping to naturally treat tomato plants for mildew as well as tying the plants up for healthy growth, sanding wooden toys to be donated, cleaning freshly picked garlic for storage, picking apples, snapping beans for canning, picking blackberries. We enjoy the beautiful grounds that include a pond, walking trails, livestock and woodland animals to be observed. On a recent walk, we spotted two fawns, and later on down the trail, their mother jumped up and gave us a fine show of her strength and speed as she bounded out of the field.
At St Francis Farm we can enjoy our lunches outdoors or in, and the company is always pleasant and relaxing to share time with. They have given us much tasty fare from the farm, including delicious goat cheese wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves, dried tomatoes, blackberries, strawberries, nasturtium [a colorful and edible flower], green beans, squash, cucumbers, and fresh garlic to enjoy at home. Lorraine shared a small sachet of dried lavender that she weaves with colored ribbon that smells amazing. We really enjoy their company and their generosity and I would highly recommend volunteering at St Francis Farm to any age or ability level, as there will always be something you may help with, and kind folks around to meet and collaborate with.
and others, told by Lorraine:
Part of my job is to show people around when they drop in, whether they are first time visitors or returnees. This summer we’ve had a few visits from a young man who came as a 14-year-old back in 2005 and likes to reminisce. A new customer for lumber brought a son, Gibran, and daughter, Solange, who were pleased to visit the goats and explore by the pond while their father was up in the loft with Zachary selecting boards.
Irene Joyner likes to come visit when the weather is good to sit outside. In June she enjoyed watching the goat kid and a phoebe that was carrying bugs to its nest in the pole barn. In July she sat by the flower garden and watched birds flying into the nearby oak tree while she helped snap beans to can. We enjoy her stories during lunch and she seems to find the farm food satisfying. I take her for a walk around to look at the herb and flower gardens or to see how the pigs have grown.
A mother called one Saturday in June and said she was looking for more nature opportunities in the area for her family. She had picked up our brochure at the end of year school picnic where Joanna had a table. That first visit was a rainy day but the children met the goats and played with some of our wooden toys and ate their picnic lunch and some strawberries from our garden inside. When the rain stopped we went out with them to see the pond and stream, to swing and look for frogs and feed the fish. They came back one day in July to help some in the garden, to walk along the field loop and pick raspberries, to eat a picnic by the pond. This week (mid-August) they came and helped husk hazelnuts and clear and replant a bed in the garden before eating their picnic lunch by the pond. Then Joanna and Bob Bartell took the boys exploring through field and woods and across the stepping stones while Lorraine collected eggs and picked flowers with the mother and toddler. They swung and climbed trees, ate cherry tomatoes for a taste of the farm and borrowed books.
Anna Tyshkov’s Story:
I traveled to St. Francis Farm as a WWOOFer, with some farming experience, but mostly interest in sustainable living. I spent a week at the end of May, working about 7 hours a day. The family made sure that I was satisfied with every task they gave me, checking in and asking me what I wanted to really do. I spent most of my time in the garden both weeding and planting, but I also had the immense pleasure of milking goats and making cheese. While at the farm, I felt very exposed to the traditions of this family and the lifestyle that they embrace. It was a much deeper and more wholesome experience than I was expecting. I felt a culture-bump when I first arrived, but the family’s warmth, sincerity and generosity allowed me to quickly adjust.
While there, I learned to be more thankful for everything that I have, and was very grateful for all of the resources and knowledge that they gave me to understand this seemingly basic concept. Since I spent five nights there, we had lots of time to engage in deep conversations concerning religion, psychology, and many other subjects that are difficult for me to condense. I let myself be very open-minded, and embraced the information they provided and the philosophies that they spoke of. In the end, I enjoyed myself greatly, nurtured my sense of self-awareness and familiarized myself with the concept of humility. I strongly recommend any eager visitors/volunteers to carefully read their website (the “Volunteers” page) before going, and to email Lorraine and/or Joanna with any questions. Prepare yourself for an unforgettable, deeply spiritual experience–my week there taught me things that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
I told my family all about the farm as soon as I came home. They were very intrigued by my stories and loved all of the pictures. I did feel a bit thrown-off and impatient when I first arrived home: of course my routine was completely different. I craved fresh air and the time to gather my thoughts without feeling distracted by my ever-growing to-do list. I also felt a little overwhelmed as I drove home and saw city skylines all around me and the chaotic drivers. It was a bit hard going to work the next day, mostly because I had to snap out of my pensive/relaxed state of mind and instead think very quickly and multi-task. I spent time in my garden that morning, helping my grandmother and sharing with her what I had learned. Whenever I felt that “culture bump”/aftershock that first week back home, I paused and remembered what was important. I think one of things that stayed with me most was the idea of “breadth and depth”. For some reason, it’s the phrase that I keep coming back to, and what helps me focus on my center and block out what’s not important.
I feel as though I learned a lot about myself while I was at the farm, both in terms of how I come across at times, what I valued both before and after the experience, and how much I benefit from routine tasks that also allow time for self-reflection. I realized that I felt very healthy from being outside all day in the sun, breathing fresh, garden air and eating delicious, fresh food that was a result of (some of) my efforts. My level of self-awareness was heightened, and I feel less compelled to “prove things” to both myself and to others. I have learned to keep certain thoughts and feelings within and not necessarily share everything. I’ve learned to value my alone-time and to feel more comfortable with feeling independent. I still channel the idea of “depth” when I’m overwhelmed by things that seem much more important than they actually are. I’ve definitely gained more perspective. Finally, I value humility much more now–I respect it in others and feel more conscious of it.
and others, told by Lorraine:
Kevin was with us for more than 3 weeks from May into June. Recently graduated from college where he worked on the grounds crew, he helped Joanna get the big garden planted, mowed the lawns and had my flower and herb gardens in better shape than ever before. He also helped Zach build pig and goat sheds and improve fencing. He’s the only guest I can recall who ate more healthily than we do, choosing more oatmeal over scones or muffins, brown rice over homemade bread. He enjoyed having a bike and used his days off to ride over to Lake Ontario or up to the reservoir. We were very grateful for his help in that very busy time of year and wish we had been able to understand and help with his concerns and struggles.
Kenton came through WWOOF at the end of July, taking a break from his architectural work and trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. He chose this farm because it sounded fun and because we grow mushrooms. Our old shiitake logs aren’t producing much this summer and the new ones haven’t finished their spawn run but we found over 20 pounds of oyster mushrooms on the downed owl tree in the woods which he helped to eat and dry. He enjoyed time by the pond and learned that even the lighter garden jobs were a stretch for someone used to a desk job.
In August Catholic Workers in Akron, Ohio who had started community gardens asked to come to the farm to learn more about gardening. In spite of some confusion about when they would arrive, how long they would stay, and why they had come they enjoyed the quiet and the stars and helped in the garden, picking berries and preserving the first of the apple harvest. One of them wrote the following reflection:
Coming to the St. Francis Farm, even for just these few days has provided a much needed opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the peaceful patterns of more natural environments. I am committed to the inner city ministry of the small Catholic Worker community which I joined 3 years ago. So many positive and healthy relationships form in our efforts to provide hospitality in the model of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Yet, being witness to tragic death, drug abuse and family dysfunction requires an occasional stepping away from our neighborhood. Seeing the cycle of life played out at so many different levels within and around the activities of this farm has been reinvigorating. Coming to this place of peace where street-smarts and urban survival skills are not required has been a blessing. Thank You—Lyn
Maintenance by Zachary
This summer the unusual weather patterns made it a little hard to get the hay cut and dried, but in the end we made more hay than ever before and sold all of it we didn’t need for the goats out of the field rather than having to bring it in and stack it in a building. I was able to cut one field in June during the one dry window we had, and I cut all of the rest of the hay in July during a one-week dry period. The new $200 baler worked quite well after I made some repairs, and I did not have to get the other baler out of the shed at all. I had a lot of breakdowns with both tractors this summer, but I was able to find ways to keep going without losing too much time.
I made a new pig pen and shed this spring and they have been easier to move than the old ones. The pen has pivoting corners that mean the entire pen can flex more easily without breaking, which is handier since I can only move one side at a time. This is about the 5th pen we have had in 11 years of raising piglets and I think that it is the best design yet. The old shed had been in use since 2003 and was getting rotten on the bottom where it sat on skids on the ground. The new shed is a little bit smaller and lighter and has been continuing to get lighter over the course of the season as the wood dries out more fully. Another new thing in the pig area is a 275 gallon water tank on a wagon, which has been in use for about 2 months so far on the first filling. I used to use a 55 gallon plastic barrel, but it had to be brought back across the road and filled about every 10 days, so this tank is much more convenient. The only down side is that the inside of the tank smells like artificial cherry flavoring, but over time the smell seems to be fading a bit and the pigs don’t appear to care anyway. I also built a small goat shed for the pasture by the garden and replaced the barbed wire there with field fence. We now have three pieces of goat pasture and they have been sufficient to keep the goats fed this summer.
I did some work in the pond in June and the early part of July and made some progress, but there is still a lot left to do. I have now finished removing fallen elm trees from the pond bottom, and most of the large sticks are gone too. The largest tree I found was about a foot in diameter, and there were several smaller ones. There is still a lot of muck to be removed, especially at the inlet end of the pond. I bought another plastic culvert from Craigslist and am planning to install it on the inlet from the stream to the pond. There is currently an opening under the driveway there but it is starting to cave in. I hope to be able to control the inflow by putting a cap over the end of the culvert. During high water when the most sediment is being brought down by the stream I could close it and then open it when the stream calmed down. This summer we have had consistently high water through the whole season, which is quite unusual. I am hoping that the weather will dry out in September so that I can dig up the area and put the culvert in.
In May I bought a utility trailer kit and a trailer hitch for the car. Since we sold the pickup truck in 2006 we have been moving things in or on the car or with the tricycle but the trailer has more capacity. I have been filling some small orders at the sawmill over the summer and have finished the pile of logs from last fall. I have been spending more time in the garden than usual this summer since there have been fewer WWOOFers to help with that work. I am looking forward to bicycling to the Adirondacks for the last two weeks of August. I am very thankful to my family for taking care of things here so that I can go for such a long trip.
Garden Update (written August 10) by Joanna
Last winter I read about permaculture and biodynamics and planned an expanded garden, experimental patches of feed plants for goats and chickens, and better use of weeds. Then the growing season began, with the usual unpredictable weather,and I felt myself scrambling just to keep up with the basics. Sometimes I look at the garden and notice mostly bugs, diseases, weeds. I’m grateful for volunteers who help me catch up with the basic work and do some extras. I am also grateful for all the guests who notice, and help me to notice, the satisfying harvest and the ways in which different parts of our farming work together.
The peas bore well despite the planting problems noted in the last newsletter. We froze all we wanted, and then Maria Kurowski helped us by picking the remaining peas and sharing them with friends. Last week we finished canning green beans and began sending them to the soup kitchen and the senior meal site. The plants are blossoming again, and soon we’ll be looking for people willing to come pick beans to take home. We’re struggling with the tomatoes; the very wet weather has encouraged septoria and early blight, and late blight has reached a neighboring county. But we’ve gotten a good start on drying small tomatoes, and we’re beginning to can large ones. I hope we can get all we need before we lose the vines. Next year I’ll experiment with different pruning and support systems. Our spring-sown broccoli rotted instead of forming heads.The broccoli we planted for a fall crop looks healthier, and we’ve had good cabbage and kale. The onions escaped the downy mildew that has decimated them in recent years, and they’re almost ready to harvest. The garlic was trouble-free as usual, and we pulled it early enough so cleaning was quick and easy. We’ve sent seed garlic home with guests and will share some with Amish neighbors. We have cukes, squash, cherry tomatoes, herbs and greens to share with the soup kitchen.
It’s been a good year for fruit. We had our best strawberries yet, perhaps partly because I actually did the post-harvest maintenance correctly last year. The grapes recovered from being frost-nipped and they set fruit, though not as much as last year. In this wet year the apples and the blackberries are large and abundant, and we’ve started freezing both as well as drying apples and making applesauce. Soon it will be time to gather elderberries. I’ve done some small experiments with growing animal feed, mostly in new beds established on the weedy slope inside the garden fence. Oats, field peas and fava beans have produced well and been harvested. Sorghum and barley failed to thrive. Forage turnips, pumpkins and sunflowers look good but aren’t ready for harvest. The thread-thin amaranth seedlings I started in the greenhouse have turned into thick-stemmed six-foot-high reddish-purple plants with large flower heads that ought to produce plenty of grain. I’ve sown buckwheat after garlic and early peas; we’ll see if it matures before frost. Early in the summer I dried and bagged some burdock for the goats. Then the rain settled in and I gave up on that. I hope to dry one more batch this fall, weather permitting. The goats are enjoying their expanded pastures and the brush we feed them as we clear out field edges; the goat kid throve and was sold.
Lorraine has added to her collection of herbs dried for use year round–calendula, clover, chamomile, thyme, mint, lavender, lemon balm–and has a whole plant echinacea tincture that only needs root added this fall. Various visitors have been interested in looking at the herb books and trying some of the teas.
After Lorraine had the visitor and volunteer pages set up Sr. Louise came for a few hours and had supper with us–we enjoyed the opportunity to reconnect with her. And Bob Bartell is with us for his 7th week-long August visit as we get this ready to go to the printers. He helped with our first hazelnut harvest, picked and processed apples, helped Zach repair a sickle-bar mower and then used it to clear tall grass and weeds around the garden fence and in other hard to reach places, turned a spalted elm bowl on the lathe, and sang with us in the evenings. We still hope Tom McNamara will get to the farm for a visit before he leaves for his new assignment in Central America.WishlistWe keep giving away copies of Deep & Simple and The Shelter of Each Other and welcome replacements. This year as always we could have used more helping hands to do the work that is ever before us. Gleaners would also be welcome–anyone who would be willing to come and harvest what we don’t need, to use themselves or to pass on to someone else.
Living an Alternative by Lorraine
The mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture becomes clearer as the holiday season approaches. We’re moving thankfully into our slow time just when many folks become busier. Our celebrations, like our work and our lives, are so simple that they may seem invisible. People ask me what’s new, where we went for vacation, whether we’ll be getting away to someplace warmer for a break this winter. These questions feel awkward as do the ones about what we really do here and where the money comes from. Not that there’s any secret–it just isn’t always easy to explain what we’ve chosen, how we live.
The fall was golden with enough good weather to get the outdoor work done, show visitors a variety of farm walks, and spend a couple days enjoying other beautiful places. In late September we spent a day in the Black River Wild Forest, hiking to a couple lakes and exploring cliffs. In October we hiked trails on one end of Wellesley Island with views of the river and woods and boulders that reminded us of Maine. Visitors have come to take fall vegetables, apples, and plant divisions and have helped us with our fall work. Ashley, who has come to volunteer each week since June, has enjoyed the fall weather to walk more of the farm and has been teaching Joanna more sign. Joanna has located on- line resources for visitors who needed to get forgiveness for student loans, apply for health insurance, and cope with compulsive playing of on-line games. Zachary has built one wheelchair ramp each month this fall. I’ve listened to those coping with difficult family issues–alcoholism and other addictions, troubled children, or aging parents. I pray for them, offer books or other resources we or others have found helpful. I’m grateful to those who give advice and resources when we’re stuck and help me keep my balance.
Soon we’ll be putting up a large paper on the chapel wall where we list our blessings for a Thanksgiving morning litany. Among those blessings we count the satisfying work of our hands, the people who help with it and share their stories, the natural beauty just outside our doors that refreshes us, and the prayers and gifts that support us. We’ll give thanks for full woodshed and root cellar, pantry and freezer and for the darker colder months for rest and reflection. And while we’re thankful for this place and the work we’ve chosen, we’ll miss extended family round the table–remembering those who’ve gone before us and those living far away.
The starkest contrast comes in December as the headlong rush toward Christmas begins in earnest. This fall Joanna put out invitations to an Unplug the Christmas Machine workshop. (We had given Melinda the material to do one at the local parish several years ago and it was well received.) The reaction this time was that help with simplifying the season was needed, but no one had time to attend. We wonder if there was a better time or way or place to have offered it and then we let it go and slow down. We’re making toys for Hope to give to refugees, not for Christmas but because with the outside work done we have more time. Sewing the dolls or cutting out the wooden pieces, sanding and assembling and putting on a finish made of beeswax and oil is satisfying work that visitors with different skills can do with us. By the time you’re reading this we’ll have made an Advent wreath with greens from the balsam fir we planted early in our time here and with beeswax candles that were a gift from a visitor this summer. As we tell the stories and listen to the silence and look up at the stars, we pray that each of you will find the simple things that create a space in your life for clarity and grace.
Family Time at the Farm
My name is Melissa Groff and I’ve been visiting St. Francis Farm with my three young children and sometimes my nephew. My boys and nephew love being outside playing, and on rainy days enjoy playing video games or watching television. They often complained they were bored unless they could play one game that requires building and farming, raising chickens and pigs and growing crops. All these things that can be done in real life, they were doing on a screen at the push of a button. I wanted these boys who were so interested in the game aspects of farming to experience a farm in the real world. So on a showery day in late June, I called and we made our first visit. We’ve been back several times, enjoying old favorites like the swing and making new discoveries as the seasons changed.
During October I took my 3 younger children for an eventful day at the farm. Picking up rocks where the pigs once were located was a nice time to work together and talk. We were all surprised by how many buckets we filled with rocks and it felt great to know our time was well spent and helpful. Next we headed by the pond and everyone grabbed a rake to help clear leaves. My 2 boys each took a turn pushing the wheel barrow to the garden, where Joanna uses the raked leaves as mulch. This was a fun job to help with. At home we have a leaf bagger the older guys use with the tractor. I find using a rake more satisfying, and the younger boys and my daughter like to help.
When we finished my daughter and I looked in the pond for frogs and fish. While we waited for the boys and Joanna, Loraine let me borrow books about identifying critters and plants in our backyards. We brought our picnic lunch and Lorraine joined us at the picnic table by the pond. I had a glass of fresh pressed cider Zachary had made. Lorraine offers fresh vegetables and fruit grown on the farm. We never knew you could eat a flower, but I found that nasturtiums taste delicious on turkey sandwiches. Although my children are picky eaters, they found the idea of edible flowers interesting and I hope when they see me try new things that will encourage them to try new foods.
After lunch we each found a place to sit. My daughter and I used a swing seat and everyone else used mats on the ground. Being asked to listen, look, and smell was a lot for my young children, but it was fun. After a few minutes we each took turns telling what we could hear, see, and smell. This is an activity I have since done at home, and I think it helps teach my children to just sit still, slow down, and think.
One of my boys got a push on the swing while the other needs to work on his manners and following rules. We all went together for a walk along Trout Brook where we hadn’t been before. The children enjoyed picking up different leaves, throwing rocks in the brook, looking for salamanders and crossing the smaller stream on the stepping stones. While the boys visited the goats with Joanna at the end of our visit, Lorraine and I talked and I admired her flower beds and herb gardens. She mentioned the abundant apple crop this year and asked if I would use some apples. My youngest boy and Joanna picked a lot of apples. At home we used them to make a pie and a crock pot full of apple sauce.
Lorraine has been very helpful with ideas to make my life with three young children easier. By coming to visit and help we have learned a lot about ourselves. Every time I leave the farm feeling inspired to try new things to make our life more balanced. I love the togetherness and helpfulness I have seen in their family. I think so many families would benefit from a visit to St Francis Farm. Sometimes I feel alone in a fast paced world and a day at the farm is just what I need. I turn the cell phone off and focus on the children and enjoy the great outdoors and great company. I think my children have learned so much and I look forward another visit.
Things we enjoyed: planting peas, weeding, raking leaves, swinging, feeding the fish, finding salamanders, seeing snakes, picking apples, pushing the wheelbarrow, seeing the pigs,chickens and goats, shelling hazelnuts, tasting a flower, borrowing books, fresh picked berries, company, help with the children, nature walks with a guide
Good weather this fall has made my work much easier. I have been sawing logs at the mill and now the loft is full of lumber again after having become nearly empty over the summer. Lumber sales have been a bit slow during the fall, but they are picking up again as the winter closes in. We bought a new engine for the sawmill; it cost a little under $300 and has made a great improvement over the old engine which was getting rather worn out.
I have finally taken time to put up some old panelling in the attic room above the pantry to cover the exposed insulation. It will make the space more useful and I am planning to build some shelves so that we can use the space more efficiently. Another project that has been on my list for years is the kitchen in the farmhouse. We gutted it in 2010 when we had a dumpster here to remove debris from the trailer sites, and ever since then I have been meaning to get it refurbished. I have begun to clean it out thoroughly and will begin work on the floor soon. Once the floor is stabilized I will be able to insulate the walls and roof and hang drywall. We don’t use the house kitchen for anything, so it has been a low priority but now it is time to do something about it.
This summer we had a yellow jacket nest in the wall of the house above the front porch. I had thought I would wait till winter and tear out the wall on the inside to remove the nest, but when I had the car at the garage in Pulaski the proprietor told me that his father had dealt with a similar problem by running a shop vacuum next to the entrance of the nest to suck the bugs in. I tried it and it worked very well, after about 5 hours I was able to shut off the vacuum and seal its openings with all of them inside. This was much better than having to tear apart and repair the wall.
Our new boiler has substantially reduced the amount of firewood we need per year, because it is more efficient in the summer and is able to burn pine slabs from the sawmill and sawdust from the shop that our old boiler could not tolerate. This means that I will no longer have to stack summer firewood under the pole barn and I will be able to do something about the woodchuck holes that go under the storage trailer.
In November I did some work in the well house. The pipes were all so rusted together than it has been difficult to work on and I have been wondering for the past few years if something was going to fail. I removed a large old pressure tank that has not been used for years and put in new piping in a simplified arrangement. This new setup should last for the foreseeable future and will make it easier in the event that I need to replace any of the well controls.
In September one of our Amish neighbors was kind enough to let us use his cider press and I pressed about 6 gallons. I bought a small old cider press and an apple grinder at a yard sale in Orwell at the end of the month, and since then I have pressed cider four more times. I put an electric motor on the grinder in place of the hand crank and that sped up theprocess a lot. Before next fall there are a few more changes that I need to make, but I have really enjoyed having our own cider and having a way to use some of the apples which were so plentiful this year.
I spent some evenings in October helping a local man who wanted to make a mandolin for his son for Christmas. He builds jewelry boxes and such so he already had good woodworking skills, but some of the tasks involved in building a mandolin are more specialized and he had not tried them before. Years ago he gave us the pattern for the zigzag toy we make for refugees.
Agriculture (written November 11) by Joanna
After the warm golden days of October November has come in wet and cold. The garden is very nearly ready for the winter, with empty beds mulched and cover cropped. I’ll miss the outdoors work and the wide variety of fresh produce. I’m enjoying the chard, kale and lettuce which we’re harvesting from the greenhouse in spite of a recurring aphid problem. I’m looking forward to the slower time to look at the things I’ve learned, the things I need to do better next year and the things for which I give thanks.
My fodder-crop experiments had mixed results. Sunflowers, oats, field peas, buckwheat, turnips and pumpkins were easy to grow and to harvest and produced a decent yield. The amaranth plants were big and gorgeous but they bore a small amount of grain that was challenging to harvest and thresh. To grow enough to meet all our animal feed needs I’d have to fence, mulch and plant a substantial area. We’re not there yet. I’ll keep growing small amounts of the easy fodder crops to help a bit with feeding and to maintain seed and practice in case the price of commercial grain becomes unmanageable.
I made some mistakes and had some problems. The cukes and squash didn’t bear very well; next year I need to put them back on drip irrigation and trellis them so they may be less susceptible to soilborne diseases. The fall cabbages were a little on the small side; I need to start them earlier next year. The fall broccoli was eaten off by a woodchuck. We’ve added chicken wire around the base of the cattle-grid fence that keeps deer out of the garden.
There’s a lot to give thanks for. We had a copious apple harvest–we dried apples, froze apples, canned applesauce, made cider, gave boxes of apples away to anyone who’d help pick them, and still had a lot of fruit left on the trees. We got plenty of tomatoes canned and dried and had some to give away before the late blight came and killed the plants. Our potato harvest was the best yet–I think ample compost helped the plants to grow, and it may be that the comfrey we buried along with the potatoes actually did help to protect them from scab. We had plenty of fall snow peas to eat, freeze and give away, and also an abundance of late lettuce; we were sending a variety of fresh produce to the soup kitchen through the end of October. And the gentle fall has given me time to collect mulch and compost materials to improve the soil for next year’s plants.
Bearing Burdens by Joanna
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. –Galatians 6:2
For each one should carry his own load–Galatians 6:5
These two instructions have been in my mind as I try to figure out how to live and work well here at St. Francis Farm. Both are valuable and necessary. Either one, taken alone or wrongly, can lead to distortion. I’m still learning to balance them.
I came to the Catholic Worker both because I wanted to help others and because I wanted to carry my own load. I realized that I had a privileged life: safe housing, good food, access to parks and museums, no fear of violence, a strong and loving parent-child relationship. Like many guests at SFF I wanted to give back.
I also realized that I benefited from an economic system that damaged other people; that I ate cheap food grown by migrant workers and bought clothes made by sweatshop laborers. I realized that just by my daily life and consumption I was forcing other people to bear my burden. I wanted to learn to make and to do more for myself, to carry my own load. I wanted to help other people to see how they laid burdens on others, and perhaps to learn to do more for themselves.
Over my twelve years here, I’ve become more aware of the ways in which I need help. Part of this is material. We are fed, housed and transported partly by our own labor, partly by donations and volunteer help. I’m grateful for those who give. I’m comfortable with this form of burden-sharing in which people give freely to us so that we can give freely to others. There isn’t a hard line between those who give and those who receive. People in tight economic circumstances make donations to the farm and people who are tired and stretched take time to help us with our work. My dependence on Medicaid is less comfortable, since it requires people to support me whether they want to or not, and more uncomfortable is my dependence on fossil fuels and other neighbor- damaging goods.
My struggles with anxiety and obsessive/compulsive tendencies have shown up my dependence on the insight and patience of those who live and work with me. Those struggles have also shown me something about the limits of helping. In my more difficult times I wanted to be understood, sympathized with, accommodated, not challenged. (Those were same things I tried, in my better times, to do for people whose lives were harder than my own.) Sometimes this was really what I needed. Sometimes instead I needed to be challenged and held accountable. I needed to stop focusing on myself and be aware of what the stronger-seeming people around me needed. A wise friend told me once, “It can’t always be your turn to be having a hard time and to be carried.” At first I resented this admonition. Eventually I came to understand the balance it implied.
It’s true that people who are stronger should help those who are struggling. But when we only acknowledge that part of the truth we can fall into the distorted belief that need entitles people to help and excuses them from doing what they can. People get defined as helpers and helped, the helped become weaker and more demanding, and the helpers become exhausted and resentful or self-righteous.
People observing this problematic pattern may decide that helping is pathological, that they should hold onto what they have and not take responsibility for their neighbors. This distortion ignores the ways in which we all depend on other people. It makes us narrow, selfish and disconnected.
The way between can be hard to find. I’ve been grateful for the people who have challenged me to do things that felt difficult, helped me to find resources and guidance, and borne with me when I was really unable to do some of what needed to be done. I’m beginning to learn to do this with other people. Instead of asking “What can I do for you?” I am learning to ask, “What do you value? What do you choose? Where are you getting stuck?” Sometimes I’m able to offer physical help, moral support or information to help people get unstuck. Sometimes once they’ve framed the question clearly they are surprised to see how much they can do to get themselves unstuck. Either way they are more likely to come away feeling clearer and stronger in themselves instead of dependent on/grateful to me. Some of these folks have also helped me with my physical or spiritual work.
It doesn’t always work. It’s clear to me that people are helped when I expect them to do all that they can, and when I don’t expect them to do what they can’t. I can’t always tell what I am capable of, and it’s much harder to know other people’s capabilities. All I can do is to keep paying close attention, both to the other people and to God who knows us better than we know ourselves, who bears all our burdens.
Thanks to all who have helped with the labor, made donations, and supported us with their prayers.Please contact us if you would like to change the way your receive the newsletter, paper or e-mail. We welcome feedback at any time and especially as we undertake our annual review and revisions of our website at the start of the new year. Thanks to Maria who has been sewing them, we have cloth bags with drawstrings to hold some of the toys we make. We cut up fabric that we had here for the first couple batches but have now used all that was appropriate and large enough. We’d be glad to have more fabric and more folks to sew.
Advent and Christmas are times when we speak of Jesus being born anew in our hearts. We commend to you any practice of voluntary simplicity that creates a space in your life for Emmanuel, God with us. We offer the following queries for you to ponder.
What would make more space for you to receive the gifts of Advent and Christmas? What clutter could you clear to make more room for Emmanuel?How would a focus on God’s abiding presence change how you celebrate Christmas?Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli’s book Unplug the Christmas Machine offer some suggestions for uncluttering Christmas celebrations.