Kitchen Garden

Watching and Waiting to Plant

Greenhouse FillingRURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— Three of us were working in the greenhouse this week, and the weather forecast was for more cold weather. The season is running late, late enough that when compared to recent years, it is difficult to distinguish it as a season rather than another series of random freaky weather days. Said one grower, “we can deal with drought with irrigation, but cold weather is something else.” There is always a different worry for a farmer.

A few early items, spinach and lettuce, are in the ground, but most of the action continues to be growth in the greenhouse, and hoop house. It is early in the season, getting on later.

029The ground thawed in our garden, but because of the rain, it is too wet to plant. When conditions ease, there will be a lot of work to get the soil prepared and planted. For now, we work inside and wait.

One can’t help but be excited about the abundance of new growth, even if we had a hand in planting the seeds and nurturing them in the artificial world of the greenhouse.


The Customer is Always Right — but they lie

Veggie Burger
Veggie Burger

LAKE MACBRIDE— A friend worked at a fast food restaurant and spoke about their policy of replacing food items that were wrong when the order was prepared. For example, if a person asked for a burger with no pickles, and pickles were found when the package was opened. The restaurant replaced such items without hesitation, and free of charge. After all, he said, “the customer is always right.” He added, “…but they lie.” Customers frequently abuse the well-known make it right policy to get extra food. He knew because of his experience of properly preparing an order, only to have the customer return with half-eaten food, wanting a replacement for reasons that can only be described as lame.

Complaints are up at large franchise fast food restaurants, and given the scale of some operators, it is no surprise. In order to run a global restaurant business, with thousands of outlets, a company has to focus on the service delivery process. There is plenty of room for deviation from corporate standard operating procedures.

A focus on process means well-defined procedures for everything. With high employee turnover, some believe if the service delivery process is bulletproof, any employee, with limited experience, can step in with minimal training, and make sandwiches that delivery corporate quality.

Customers learn to work such delivery systems to their advantage. My friend was just calling out what in other social circles is an accepted practice of getting what one can from society without ethical concerns.

It may be a bit scandalous to say, but often the customer is not right. It is one thing for a starving person to work the system to get an extra sandwich from a company that can afford to provide one. It is quite another to go through life expecting that what are exceptions should become rules for exploiting businesses for personal gain. Whatever is wrong with corporate businesses, there is something more fundamentally wrong with a culture that produces both employees that are rude and deceitful customers. It is tough to blame that on corporations.

As a business owner, it can be comforting to focus on process. It is abstract, and works toward efficiency, employee safety and improved margins. But not everyone owns a business, and that leaves those of us in the fray of daily restaurant operations to fend for ourselves.

Bad customer service and deceitful customers are two sides of the same problem. Some of us are loathe to complain about service, because of the time it takes  and the negativity it can introduce into daily life. The customer who lies about a sandwich order for personal gain is an example of what is worst in society. The idea that we are not in life together, but that it is each individual for him or herself, any semblance of a moral compass abandoned.

We are on our own in society, emphasis on our. There is a proper place for honesty in our relations with people. It is something we can and should work on everyday, even in ubiquitous settings like fast food restaurants.

Kitchen Garden

Wetlands are Wet

LAKE MACBRIDE— Water stood in low lying areas of the Atherton Wetland off the Ely blacktop this morning. Lingle Creek was up to its banks, and the ditch near 600 acres, the ATV park, had about a foot of standing water. The rain is doing its job.

I spent some time with a hoe shifting the flow of runoff in the ditch in front of our home. The fall grass planting did not take so there is a mess of exposed roots, and leaves embedded into the soil mix applied by the contractor. The home owners association is negotiating for a re-do, but I plan a self-do to get things done the way I want in a timely manner. The prerogative of retirees.

Today is my work day at the farm, so I won’t miss being in the garden here. When the soil is tillable, I plan to turn one plot over, apply corn gluten meal and plant radishes. The indoor seedlings are growing at a rapid pace, with significant leaf formation while I was working in the warehouse yesterday. Spring is definitely here, and we embrace it.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Dreams of Marble and Granite

Bonnie Swearingen - Photo Credit: Jet Magazine
Bonnie Swearingen – Photo Credit: Jet Magazine

LAKE MACBRIDE— Right on schedule, thunder and lightning began to build around midnight as I crossed the lakes on Mehaffey Bridge Road. The county funded reconstruction of this road, and in a week or so, the direct route to the warehouse won’t be available until the roadwork is completed. The thunderstorm moved in after retiring to bed, and I followed the sound and light until I fell asleep.

I spent some time in the garden yesterday, although not much. The ground was too wet for planting radishes— the next outdoor vegetable. The lettuce and arugula have not sprouted yet, and I drove the fence posts into the mud-like soil, inspected the garlic, chives and oregano, and went back inside. The chives are big enough to split, which I will do when the soil dries.

Indoors, my basil, arugula and lettuce “bombs,” have sprouted, and the trays of seedlings need watering. The tomatoes are showing the third and fourth leaves, and soon will be sturdier than their current spindly presence. Planting my own tomato seedlings, and growing them to this stage is new ground, and it looks promising.

Either waking, or dreaming— maybe somewhere between— the Standard Oil Building in Chicago was on my mind this morning. I viewed it being constructed while in college, and worked there for the oil company. The bad decision to clad the exterior of the building with 43,000 slabs of Carrara marble was being rectified while I was there, replacing it with Mount Airy white granite. It was a big project, and ongoing for my entire tenure working for the then ninth largest corporation. The company easily afforded the $80 million price tag for the project.

Some say it was Mrs. John E. Swearingen, who wanted the marble. The spouse of Standard Oil of Indiana’s chief executive officer, Bonnie Swearingen, was active in the Chicago art culture, and was photographed with Mayor Daley, a host of celebrities and art patrons, such pictures appearing regularly in the Chicago papers. She likened her husband to Napoleon saying, “Napoleon isn’t really dead. He’s alive and well and disguised as my husband.”

One can’t blame her for the problems— the marble was too thin, the effects of acid rain were too harsh— but the building itself seemed a tribute to ego, hers and her husband’s. The marble slabs started falling off during construction.

Working with our hands frees a mind to wander, and mine is wandering down a lane that includes much of my past life. I don’t know if it is my life passing before my eyes during a steady march to the grave, or if memory is loosed, distracting me from present work, and saying something else. Exactly what, is not clear, except for the persistence of dreams about marble and granite.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Rainy Monday

LAKE MACBRIDE— Rain fell against the bedroom window, framing the day for inside work. The forecast is for showers to end in an hour or so, with a chance of thunderstorms tonight. Today’s high temperature is expected to be 73 degrees. We need the rain, and welcome warm temperatures. Now that the ground thawed, moisture should soak into the topsoil for gardens, lawns, trees and field crops. I would have preferred to work outside this morning, but there is plenty to do inside. We’ll see how things go as the day progresses.

Yesterday, I made up more seedling trays. The CSA provided some used plastic trays which are now planted in yellow squash, cucumber and zucchini. They are situated near the south facing window in our bedroom, and there is not much room for more on the folding table.

To water the seedlings, I set up the lid of the recycling bin on a table in the garage and filled it halfway with water. I dunked the trays, one at a time, watering from the bottom. Each tray was warm to the touch as I carried it downstairs, evidence the south facing window was beneficial.

There is a significant investment of time in this year’s seedling experiment. Too, if the seedlings don’t sprout and mature properly, there will be the additional expense of purchasing from the farmers markets or grocery store. After cutting soil blocks at the CSA and seeing plants grow in the greenhouse, I gained confidence, and there is promise of success in most of the cells.

It has been 27 days since beginning my temp job at the warehouse. At the beginning, it wasn’t clear I could hack it, but that feeling has been overcome, and physical adjustments have been made and assimilated. With a start time of 3:30 p.m., the best hours of the day are mine to work on a multitude of projects at home. This inner focus, coupled with gardening, is what is needed most for the time being, while working toward a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie.

Work Life

From Middle to Working Class

Construction Site
Construction Site

LAKE MACBRIDE— Today’s usage of the phrase “middle class” is meaningless. It is a marker for a world dreamed up while writing talking points for political campaigns. A middle class so created, never existed. It was as if we took the broken theories promulgated during the rise of mass society, and switched things around so that economic means was the determinant of whether one was or was not in the middle class. With the one percent of wealthiest people at the top, and roughly 15 percent of people who live in poverty at the bottom, the 84 percent in between are now dubbed middle class.

In our cultural background is the idea that we were all created equal, and have innate talents, some more so than others, that could and should be developed so that by application of native skills we can rise and fall in society. The so-called American dream is centered around this notion.

To some extent, the story is re-enacted as occasionally a mail room clerk rises to become chief executive officer of a large corporation. Such instances of rise in a workplace are limited in number, increasingly so, as businesses consolidate, on a global scale, under fewer corporate CEOs. In this world, the society of business is better served by increasing the number of people available to become mail room clerks, at the lowest possible wages, than by creating opportunities to get out of the mail room. Such stories are important to keeping people in their place in the economic pecking order, and I suspect that is why they are so popular.

If “middle class” is a meaningless phrase, “working class” is not. The long story of immigration to North America includes countless people who traded work for passage across the Atlantic and a chance for freedom and prosperity. I am thinking of my own ancestors and their cohort, who arrived in the 17th century in what would become the state of Virginia. They came, not as landed gentry, but as working people, delaying start up of their own farms to work for someone else who needed labor, and to secure it would pay travel costs to secure indentured servitude. This story is also part of the American dream— that through individual efforts and sacrifice, a person could become a landowner, and thereby rise in society. There were likely more indentured servants that rose to become landowners than mail room clerks that became CEOs, but their story is told less often.

Indentured servitude doesn’t exist in the same way in the 21st century, but it serves as an example of how people will make deals with the capital class to get ahead. Such deals include working for a labor broker to earn less than a living wage, in some cases, less than minimum wage, so that business can have sufficient low-cost labor to meet its needs. Without a sufficient working class, the capital class would be out of business. Working class rights, not middle class rights, should be the focus of our political leaders. It’s not, at least that I can see.

If one sits in lunchrooms and listens to working class concerns, the conversations are not about the minimum wage, unions, or much at all to do with the relationship between labor and capital. The discussions are about personal relationships, health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder of veterans, and addiction to tobacco, crack and sugary drinks.

While being a member of the working class doesn’t provide a pension, or health insurance, or security of almost any form, it is how a large segment of Americans live. We ought to be hearing more about it from the corporate media, from politicians, and from each other. If we believe in the possibility of social progress, our focus should rightly be on the working class, as it is here that the American dream was born. Neglected, it is where the dream will die.

Work Life Writing

Sustaining a Creative Life

Barn WallLAKE MACBRIDE— Today, the key element in sustaining a creative life in Big Grove Township is magnesium sulfate, or Epsom salt. A thirty minute foot bath provides a form of relief few other things can provide. I recommend it, although for the most part, people already know about it, and for some it works, for others, not so much. Well-cared for feet are something we take for granted, but shouldn’t, because they are an important foundation to creativity.

When I was at university, I shared a house with a constantly changing group of creative people. We had our own rooms, and shared the living room, bathroom, and kitchen. Every once in a while we had a joint clean up activity, although housekeeping was not a priority. My contribution was to attempt to keep the kitchen clean, and recall doing a lot of everyone else’s dishes. I didn’t mind and enjoyed seeing pots and pans my grandmother had given me mixed in with everyone else’s kitchen gear.

Writers, poets, musicians, artists, a drum maker, a publisher, an aquarium builder, a travel guide and emerald seller, an auto mechanic, and guests of all kinds passed through the doors of that place. Some found notoriety in what would later become the city of literature, but mostly, people were not well known, except to each other.

I briefly shared my room with some buddies from Davenport. One went on to become a librarian. Another, who practiced martial arts, moved to California, and eventually got a credit on the Hollywood movie “The Matrix.”

A woman arrived halfway through my stay. She found a part time job, and spent every morning at a table in the entryway writing. As an early riser, I often ran into her, but tried not to interrupt. She hooked up with a poet, and eventually left with him for California, taking one of my grandmother’s saucepans with them on the train. I don’t think we called it hooking up during the early 1970s.

Later, the poet was known to sit at a typewriter with a gallon of cheap wine and write until he finished the bottle. This lifestyle is said to have led to his early death. I don’t know what happened to her.

That house was a place to camp out while pursuing other things. For me it was finishing a mandatory, but uninspiring bachelor’s degree. It was there I spent a morning tie-dying T-shirts while listening to my commencement address on the radio. I declined a job offer from the Oscar Mayer Company, which had provided a four year scholarship. When the summer ended, my sparse belongings went into storage, I took what money I had, converted it to American Express traveler’s checks, and went to Europe with my backpack for what began without a plan, but ended being twelve weeks of youth hostels, art museums and train rides. My backpack was stolen when I arrived in France, and that is another story.

There is no defined path to sustaining a creative life. Instead, we secure food, shelter and clothing, protect our health and well-being if we are able, and go on living. If we are creative, it is that spark of interest in society that sustains us, or can, if we recognize it— and Epsom salt and other common elements to help ease the pain of living.

Kitchen Garden

In the Greenhouse

Bedding Plants
Bedding Plants

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— It’s the fifth week of making soil blocks for the farm, and flats of seedlings are filling the tables. It is warm inside the greenhouse, and most days I work in jeans and a T-shirt. There is a sense of accomplishment, even though nothing has been planted in the ground except a few items in the hoop house.

There is a small community of growers and talk centers around plants and ultra-local events. Soil quality, weather, temperatures— all leading to a bigger question— when to get into the ground during this cold spring? On a farm there will be a practical answer to this question. Here’s hoping to get out of the greenhouse soon, and into the fields.

GARDEN NOTES: On the home front, I dug, raked and planted the first seeds in the garden. A two foot by ten foot patch where I broadcast Arugula (Rocquette) on the eastern end, and the remainder in a mix of three 45 days to maturity lettuce seeds (Black Seeded Simpson, Gourmet Blend, and Simpson Elite). The watering cans went missing, so I dumped dishpans full of water into a colander to diffuse the initial flow. It worked well.

Inside, I set up a table near the only south-facing window, where I consolidated all of the indoor seedlings. Things are coming along nicely— for the most part. After consulting with the CSA, I abandoned the project of starting onions from seed and replanted those cells with Cayenne pepper seeds. The Rosemary mostly did not take, so I marked the ones that did and planted broccoli in the rest of those cells. I made what I am calling “bombs,” planting all of one kind of seeds in each of several old flower pots. A basil bomb, a mint bomb, and an arugula bomb will hopefully be available for the kitchen. Some have already sprouted.

Social Commentary

Main Street Today

Main Street
Main Street

SOLON— The city recently upgraded the street lights, sidewalks and business entryways to make Main Street more appealing. Mostly successful, Main Street is welcoming… and more handicapped accessible.

With the rise of our automobile culture, combined with an ongoing movement from rural to urban areas,  Main Street suffered. What was a stable rural community developed into a place to live away from work in nearby Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids— a bedroom community.

Main Street Shops
Main Street Shops

What’s left on Main Street is a conglomeration of businesses: places to eat and drink, a grocery store, a hardware store, a barber shop, a newspaper, and insurance and financial services offices, all serving the needs of locals. It is typical of this part of Iowa.

The city bought a property on Main Street and is expected to tear down the existing structure to build a city hall. A microbrewery with a newly imported chef from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley is under construction, scheduled to open in July. It’s not like Main Street is dead, it’s not.

Main Street
Main Street

What Main Street isn’t, is a place for a person to open a business with the idea of earning a living from the local population. Do the math. The city had 2,037 people during the 2010 U.S. Census. Add in nearby rural subdivisions outside city limits, and there are maybe another 4,000. In order to generate revenues of $100,000 per year locally, that is about $17 from every man, woman and child in the area. Parting with a 20 dollar bill still means something here, and creating a local, sustainable business seems challenging at best.

The key to success in any business is finding customers. There is no foot traffic to speak of here, so a beginning assumption is that every customer will have to be attracted to a business as a destination. With so many destinations, a Solon business must have a unique offering, and that is the challenge for entrepreneurs. In order to start a business with prospects of success, the work must necessarily begin with two elements that are more important than capitalization: a unique offering and customers willing to come to Main Street.

As we search for a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie, one considers opening a business on Main Street. It is possible to open. The better question is can a local business endure? During the coming months, I will be working on an answer.

Kitchen Garden

Getting Started in the Garden

Greenhouse Seedlings

LAKE MACBRIDE— Thursday will be the day to get started in the garden. Temperatures have been above freezing for a few days, so by then, the ground should be thawed enough to turn over and plant lettuce. I use the broadcast method for lettuce— a local tradition.

Six kinds of lettuce seeds are germinating in a seed starter. These will be grown into heads of lettuce, a first for me this year. Although it is a late start, it’s time to get going.

The garden is already active, with garlic, chives and oregano overwintering. The daylilies sprouted, as have other bulbs. This year I plan to relocate some of the bulbs from the garden to other places around the property. I say that every year, but this time it may be for real.

Spring has sprung, and it is about time.