Hay Feeder Rings

Photo Credit - Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment

Hay Feeder Ring Photo Credit – Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment

Something is wrong when the garden produces tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in Iowa the fourth week in October.

I’ll dice tomatoes for breakfast tacos later this week, Bangkok peppers are in the dehydrator, and cucumbers and jalapeno peppers in the icebox waiting to be used. There is chard and kale, oregano and chives. Those leafy green vegetables usually survive until November, but tomatoes and cucumbers?

Call it what you want but something is happening and we know exactly what it is.

I spent most of Friday working with hay feeder rings.

After re-resurfacing the outside lot where farm equipment is displayed at the home, farm and auto supply store, I assembled and re-merchandised the stock of feeder rings.

I don’t know if it was a day’s work, but spent a day doing it, working slowly and as safely as possible. I was tired after the shift with a hankering to leave everything and head west to work on a ranch — day dreams of a low-wage worker.

The garage was cluttered after a summer of intermittent work.

I checked off each item on the to-do list on my handheld device before heading to the orchard for a shift. I disassembled the grass catcher and stored it; re-mixed bird seed and filled the feeder; checked the air pressure on our auto tires; brought in salt and paper products from the car; stored 40 pounds of coarse salt in tubs for winter ice melting; cleared a work space on the bench; and swept the entire floor. It took about two hours. I wanted more, but time ran out.

Yesterday’s political events had me thinking of Gettysburg, Penn. My parents, brother and sister went there before Dad died. I remember reading President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on a placard near where he read it himself. With deep roots in rural Virginia, and ancestors fighting on both sides of the Civil War, it was a seminal experience for me. It began the process of turning me from being a descendant of southerners enamored of romantic notions about plantation life to being an American eschewing the peculiar institution and those who stood for it. To my mother’s probable dismay, I brought home a Confederate flag and hung it in my bedroom. Visiting Gettysburg helped me understand the reality of the Civil War and those who fought and lived through it. I was coming of age.

My parents pointed out the house and farm where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower lived after his presidency. Eisenhower hosted world leaders there, including Nikita Khrushchev, Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. He also raised Angus cattle. We thought favorably of Eisenhower even if he was a Republican. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II he was a well known part of our culture. Seeing his farm enabled us to touch reality in his celebrity.

My life is here in Big Grove. I’m not heading west to work on a ranch. I don’t display the Confederate battle flag or think about it much any more. I will re-read the Gettysburg Address as I did this morning and wonder how my ancestors got along with each other after fighting in the Civil War. Perhaps there are lessons for the United States in 2016. I’m certain there are.

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Sea of Humanity

Work Bench

Work Bench

Each week I dive into a sea of humanity and end up alone, in the morning, writing about what I have experienced.

Whether the output is political, journalistic, scientific, culinary, agricultural or just being alive, what I write is grounded in a contemporary life viewed through sixty-plus years of personal experiences. It’s all the same process.

Humans are a rough and rowdy bunch. It’s challenging to capture modern life in a way that does justice to its complexity. Photos are not enough, naturalism is fraught with issues. Endemic to it all is the platform and perspective our lives create which position us to view society in the raw.

It can wear a person out. It can also invigorate us.

Each week I’ve been exposed to thousands of people from all walks of life. It is difficult to understand every experience, nor would I want to. It is hard not to cling to positive experiences and ignore negative. Some I meet don’t get outside home much. Others spend much time in the public arena. There are friends, neighbors and relatives with everyone mixed into a seasonal soup of life. Each week represents different ingredients, different flavors.

What matters more to a writer is having something unique to say. We know better what is not unique — set pieces, articles written on contract, photos of cats posted in social media. What it is, and should be, is articulation of experience that creates an understanding of an aspect of a complicated society on our only home and water planet.

It is modern to take raw materials of life and craft them into something readable, usable, and of value. The process is not always positive and writers should be cognizant of their impact in a constantly changing society.

I recall June Helm with whom I studied anthropology. It is impossible for an anthropologist not to influence the culture he or she studies, Helm told us. I took two lessons from this. The transient writer must tread lightly where we travel and work hard to do justice to what has been studied and experienced. The emphasis should always be creating something of value to subjects and readers alike.

As I prepare for this week’s dive into humanity I’m not nearly rested enough. My bones and ligaments ache from age and overuse. My cardio-vascular system seems okay, but one never knows. I can’t see as well as I once did and the looking I’ve developed has me ignoring much that would engage me previously. Imperfect though my platform and perspective may be, I’m ready to jump from the cliff it represents, hoping to avoid the rocks, and go deep into the sea of humanity once again.

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Garden Plot Two 2016

Frost Under the Locust Tree

Frost Under the Locust Tree

Garden plot two was productive this year.

Nothing but prairie grasses was on this, or any of the garden plots when we moved here in 1993. Shortly after we dug plot two, I planted mail order trees about 12-inches tall to grow them for transplanting. Due to neglect, the locust trees grew and grew and became a 40-foot giants. One of them blew over in a 2013 extreme storm that passed through. I cut it up and sold it for firewood. The remaining locust tree provides shade for the three northern plots, and adds value to the backyard landscape.

Hosting the two compost piles, the locust tree, and a bed of day lilies, plot two is challenging because of the tree root structure. Pieces of roots as big a two inches in diameter had to be removed for planting. The tree suffered no apparent ill effects after cutting some of the roots.

Radishes and turnips were the first crop, followed by onions. All produced well. After the root vegetables finished, I installed four four-foot tall meshed wire containers to grow cucumbers — pickling and slicers. They produced well. High winds blew one tower over, pulling the roots from the ground and killing some plants. Lesson learned from this experiment is to spread the cages out more and better stake them. After 2016 there is no question cucumbers grow better in the air than on the ground.

Kennebec and Yukon Gold potatoes were planted in big plastic tubs as an experiment. I got the tubs from a friend who gets them with her animal feed. The technique served the purpose of keeping rodents from eating the mature vegetables before I did. Production was okay, although we don’t eat a lot of potatoes in our kitchen. It was enough. I’m not sure the soil composition in the containers was the best. It was mostly compost with some dirt spaded in. Harvest was easy once I turned the weighty tubs over and picked through the dirt for the potatoes. There was no fork or shovel damage to the crop because of the technique.

Burying four more containers about 12 inches in the ground, I planted four types of carrots. The purple ones were a disappointment, but the others produced enough to justify another year. I made a second planting of daikon radishes which produced enough for eating fresh and pickling.

Plans for next year: think and plan more about this plot; move the compost bins to different locations; dig up and move the day lilies to a more decorative place in the yard; plant Belgian lettuce and other early greens; re-mix the soil in the containers and move them along the southern border of the plot for potatoes and carrots; plant radishes and turnips again, adding beets; a second planting is in order after the greens and root vegetables: more thought needed on that. These ideas may change as I give the plot additional consideration.

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Garden Plot One 2016

Bur Oak Acorns

Bur Oak Acorns

It’s time to write about this year’s garden — plot by plot.

Dedicated gardeners reflect on the past year and I am mostly serious about gardening.

As the garden has grown, so has my knowledge of how to care for the soil and grow crops. Evaluation of the year just past is part of learning.

Plot one was the first dug during spring 1994.

It is dominated by three Burr Oak trees planted from acorns collected the year our daughter graduated from high school. One tree for each of us. It is adjacent to a row of lilac bushes plants in 1994.  As drought conditions often plague Iowa, accompanied by scorching heat, it is better to plant some vegetables in a partly shady area. Shade creates a longer growing season for lettuce and reduces the amount of watering needed. The three oaks and lilacs are staying for now, although eventually may be thinned.

On the north side of the plot are some spring flower bulbs transplanted from the Indiana trucking terminal where I worked. They grew in the ditch near Highway 41 and were likely planted by a previous owner. They bloom faithfully each year and need to be dug and separated.

Next to the flowers is what used to be a row of iris. They are dying and what’s left needs to be dug and separated. Only an occasional flower now appears.

The rest of the plot was planted in garlic rescued from the town library. It eventually spread to cover the entire plot. A few years ago I placed tarps over the middle of the garlic patch to store stakes, cages and fencing. Each spring garlic pops up around the tarp perimeter. I harvest it for spring garlic, otherwise let it grow wild.

This year I pulled up one of the tarps and planted Turk’s Turban and Acorn squash. Both produced and some wait on the counter to be used.

This is the first year I tried an annual crop in plot one, and based on the results, I might try more. The near continuous shade makes crop selection the essential dynamic. While we enjoy the spring garlic, we should convert production to a regular, annual cycle of planting and harvesting garlic cloves. It is not too late this year, but with continuous daily work outside home until November, it is doubtful I’ll get a crop in.

Plans for next year: dig up the bulbs, separate and move to a more decorative spot in the yard; try an early spring crop like turnips, beets or radishes; till the entire plot after spring crop, evaluate, and likely plant beans to fix nitrogen in the soil; plant garlic in the fall.

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Full Ballot Box, Coming Frost

Vote Democratic

Vote Democratic

I drove to the county seat to vote after my shift at the home, farm and auto supply store. There were six or seven poll workers — plenty of staff to handle the day’s last half hour of early voting at the auditor’s office.

The orange ballot box was so full the poll worker had to jostle it for mine to fit in.

Surprisingly, or not, this shit show of an election didn’t pull the final curtain after casting my ballot. The proscenium arch has no curtain after this godawful exposition of what politics has become. Trump may burn the theater down before he is through. Throngs of his supporters would cheer.

My next door neighbor called out as I arrived home. In jeans, a sweatshirt and stocking cap she was gleaning her garden before an imminent frost. She offered hot peppers. I declined as our ice box already has more than needed for winter. We conversed for a while about produce and ideas. We didn’t talk about politics.

This morning I left the glow of the computer screen to go outside.

It’s not going to frost this morning. My weather app tells me 32 degrees in the last half hour before sunrise. Ambient temperatures may dip to freezing, but not long enough to damage much in the garden. Experience tells me it won’t get that cold in the micro-climate of our yard. There’s less chill in the air than when I spoke with my neighbor.

As days move through the calendar experience also tells me election day won’t bring the end of politics as we know it. The body politic is ever changing, ever re-inventing itself, sometimes by design, sometimes by unintended consequences. Those of us who believe the framework of society is enduring also see an opportunity in today’s bedlam for positive change.

Not the hope and change Barack Obama touted in Iowa eight years ago. His administration will leave us with mixed reviews and something different. The clear knowledge that for change to come, we can’t lose hope. At the same time, we must work for change that is much needed in the American society we call home. Many of us will find hope in the ashes of the 2016 campaigns and are willing to work to bring change we know is needed.

Our work has already begun.

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Toward Election Day

Bumper Sticker

Bumper Sticker

People are weary of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Voting began Sept. 29 in Iowa and we can’t get to Nov. 8 quickly enough.

For the most part, decisions about who to support are made. While there have been many surprises this cycle, and might be more, not much can change minds as we move toward election day.

The strength of Clinton’s campaign is in its organizers.

I met Janice Rottenberg more than a year ago in Iowa City. Today, she’s leading the Clinton organizing effort in Ohio, where Clinton stands a 60.6 percent chance of winning 18 electoral votes.

I worked with Kate Cummings, senior program director for Florida Democrats, during the 2012 cycle, She was also in Iowa for the 2016 Iowa caucus campaign. Clinton stands a 71.2 percent chance of winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

Some swing state numbers are looking good for Clinton Pennsylvania 86.6 percent, Colorado 84.1 percent, North Carolina 66.7 percent, Michigan 90.0 percent, and even Republican-leaning Iowa shows her with a 55.4 percent chance of winning. Overall, Hillary Clinton stands an 83.5 percent chance of winning the electoral college with 334 votes. That Clinton tapped the best organizing talent in the country to staff her campaign is making a difference.

For his part, if Donald Trump has political organizers it’s not clear who they are or what role they play in his media based campaign. He’s running as if it were a professional wrestling promotion. The WWE hall of famer knows how to run down and dirty and would drag us all to his level if he could. If the Commission on Presidential Debates would allow it, I expect he would call for a 1960s-style professional wrestling cage match like I saw with my father at Municipal Stadium in Davenport. Trump is more a promoter like Vince McMahon than a politician.

George Will wrote this week the Republican post-campaign autopsy can likely be written Nov. 9 in one sentence, “Perhaps it is imprudent to nominate a venomous charlatan.” I’m confident a majority of Americans feel the same way.

It’s all over but the voting, and if there are some surprises, the biggest one will be that Donald Trump receives tens of millions of votes. Republicans who plan to vote for him do so with a sense of duty to their party. After all, the Republican grass roots had the candidate they voted for and feel some obligation to vote for him in the general. They own that and many of us won’t let them forget.

As for Hillary Clinton, it seems like nothing will stop her now. It’s not over, but it’s over.

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Season’s End



Yesterday’s harvest yielded kale, some cucumbers and hot peppers.

I sent another box of kale to the library for workers. It has been filled with kale countless times in recent years. It’s better quality than what’s available at grocery stores and they use it almost every day — good use for an abundant crop.

The aroma of Bangkok peppers in the dehydrator pervaded the kitchen air as I prepared a simple dinner of spaghetti with tomato sauce made of canned tomatoes, garlic, onion, basil, olive oil and oregano. I peeled and diced cucumbers to make a salad with Kalamata olives, feta cheese, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. There was fresh apple cider from the orchard.

I tasted the pickled red onions and decided to stop at two half-gallon jars. There are plenty to last until spring. Three crates of onions remain — more than enough for our small family.

The solace of kitchen work occupies hands and mind to help us forget what seems intolerable in society. At season’s end it is welcome relief.

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