Auntie Annie's Fields, LLC

  (Dundas, Minnesota)
Doing our work with as much grace as we can find
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Squash and Salsa

I was reading about winter squash in the Fedco Seed catalogue. These writers add serious romance to their descriptions. After describing the Sweet Dumpling variety’s “inherent buttery richness and sweet-tangy taste,” the catalogue makes this recommendation: “To experience its sweet dry and memorably rich deep orange flesh, make sure your Dumpling is ripe.”

A dry, academic description of these varieties would cause me to light up as I imagined wild rambling vines with big sweet squash swelling into strange and wonderful shapes under a canopy of leaves. I would picture them emerging, steaming from my oven and then sitting on my dinner table like a symbol of everything in the world that makes me feel grateful.

This year, I want to try the Sibley variety of banana squash. It is apparently slate blue and grows to be a foot long. You aren't supposed to eat it right away though. You have to keep waiting for it throughout the winter as it dries and sweetens while sitting on a shelf. Finally, in January, it will come into its own, the catalog says. In the bleakest months of winter I imagine it will be like sunshine that I can embrace by eating it.

The Winnebago Indians apparently developed this variety, and then the Sibley family faithfully grew it for many generations, finally making its seeds more widely available. I felt thankful to these people and was picturing all these diverse generations enjoying this strange wonderful squash in the middle of winter.

As I read and daydreamed, one of my Zumba albums played Latin dance music in the background, and my favorite salsa song began. It starts with a syncopated riff, and then intricate tropical drums layer themselves over it. Horns join in, measured and powerful, and finally the vocalists top it off with another rhythm sung in percussive Spanish.

I had already been hovering near my capacity for delight, and this song I had already been hovering near my capacity for delight, and this song pushed me over the edge. My face and ears grew hot, as they always do when I blush, but instead of heating up and then settling down, they kept feeling warmer. They heated up until they were so uncomfortable that I had to set the catalog down, leave the room, and splash my hands and face in cool water.

I returned to the Fedco catalog and the salsa music with a new sense of clarity: For reasons that only partially understand, we should have a large patch of squash this summer and that strange blue banana squash should be part of it.

 
 

Collegial chickens

We have an unusually collegial batch of chickens. The other night, one of them stood by Ian and pecked at his boots. Ian stooped over and to stroke the chicken, and it just stood there calmly. They stayed that way for a long time. I have been troubled by the birds’ friendliness because I have taken to wearing some plastic flip-flops when I step into their yard to take care of them, and they all rush over to step on my feet with their sharp toenails.

The ducks are fully feathered out, and they look magnificent. When I let them out of their pen in the morning, they all run across the driveway, flapping their white wings. My yard is filled with the sound of air moving under many strong feathers. We have granted the ducks a week of reprieve before they go to the processors because we want them to be able to attend our potluck on Saturday. It is at 5 PM. Can you come?

 
 

Kids remember

As I cut up a watermelon for my children, I realized that they had visited the place where it grew.

“Was that the farm with the pigs in the silo?” my daughter asked.

“No,” I said.

“Was it the one where there were all those ducklings crossing the driveway?” my son asked.

“No,” I said, realizing that as I have been taking educational farm tours and trying to learn about farming methods, my children have been having dream-like adventures.

We finally identified the farm where the watermelon was grown. According to my kids, it was a farm that had a swing hanging from an impressive tree that had been struck by lightning. A whole bunch of people walked around following a big tractor, and that tractor sometimes changed direction unexpectedly. This was alarming for the children, who did not like the idea of being in front of the tractor, even if it was quite far away. That afternoon, children were scolded for climbing into the back of our pickup, and we all used an impressively smelly latrine.

The farm with all the ducklings also left a deep impression on the kids. They remember a huge and rather scary male turkey on the loose, along with many beautiful birds. The children were worried for a while because they lost track of us, but they found us again. My son admired a smashed up truck, and my daughter was licked by a calf. There was a potluck full of food my kids did not like. (I and everyone else thought the food was amazingly delicious. It was home grown, and organic. Our contribution was potato chips we bought at a gas station, and nobody else touched it. I have felt ashamed every time I thought of that potluck, and I am relieved to have a different way of remembering it.)

Another farm, which my family visited without me, apparently has an on-farm store. My daughter remembered vividly a large, empty room with two people standing behind a counter. A door led from that room into a “normal” bathroom. “I always remember the bathrooms,” my daughter said.

I’m not sure I want to know what visiting children remember from our farm.

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hot birds

It is hot, and the chickens are hot. They open their beaks to pant like dogs and their little necks wiggle with each breath. They hold their wings slightly away from their sides to let the cool air next to their bodies, which makes them look large and proud, and would give them an air of grandeur if they did not also look uncomfortable.  This afternoon, I watched one little chick purposefully scratch the ground, then the sink down onto it, and I imagined that the soil felt cool and damp on her hot little belly. I almost felt cooler just watching her. She kept panting, though, and I decided the chickens could use some help.

I walked back to the house and turned on the hose, knowing that many chicken farmers spray their chickens with a gentle mist of water to cool them on the very hot afternoons. My husband has done this several times, but it was my first time. I could not shake the idea that I was causing some kind of mischief, and I tried to make the water come out slowly, gently, and soothingly. The water burst out from the hose in a big, wide mist, and the chickens peeped with surprise and fled to the other side of their shelter. I sprayed them as though they were plants, and when they were all damp, I turned around made sure that those in the yard were not left out. As soon as the water stopped they settled down quickly. None of them were panting. Either they were cooler, or they were too surprised to pant.

 

 
 

Rip van Winkle

I came back from a short trip to Iowa yesterday and found that things had changed here. Ian had come back a couple days early to take the big chickens to the processor, so they were gone, and in their place out in the field were the little chicks from the brooder. I feel like Rip van Winkle. An entire generation has passed while I was away for what I thought was a long weekend.

The new chicks seem quite merry in their new home. We are keeping them inside the floorless shelter for a few days so they are more likely to think of it as an inviting place to go when the rain comes. Today the chicks burst out of their shelter by pushing under some chicken wire when they saw it Ian coming towards them with a family who was visiting the farm. They suspected he was going to give them feed, and they did not want to waste a moment of time.

The ducks are so huge that they dwarf the sleds we have filled with water for them, although they use them faithfully for their morning cleaning, patiently taking turns. If they were chickens, the most prestigious birds would go first, and the downtrodden would be pecked and have to wait. Because the sleds seem inadequate, we have tried several ways of making ramps up to the lip of a small plastic swimming pool, but the ducks are still wary of going in it. Today, during the heat, several climbed up our makeshift stairway of sandbags and splashed jubilantly in the water.

 

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Frustrated as a wet hen

Our elder chickens are forsaking their new home for nights spent under the stars. This has been working out all right when they are actually stars overhead, but when it rains, we have a problem. I discovered this one rainy morning when I went out to feed them and found that one of them slept outside by the feed bin. It was too cold and wet to even squawk when I picked it up, but I took it to the brooder with an almost equally wet buddy and placed them both in a box under the heat lamp. They napped in the warmth until they felt better. By the time everything was settled down, the insides of my rubber boots were so filled with rain that I made a little splash with every step. The next evening, all the chickens bedded down by their feeders outside, and I saw lightning in the West, so I carried them all into their shelter. It was a dramatic time to be outside, trying to beat an approaching storm. If I had been doing something other than carrying around a bunch of sleepy chickens, I would have felt quite archetypal and heroic.

The little yellow chicks are growing up and sprouting little white feathers on their wings. One chick has a few black feathers on its shoulder. I have inspected these several times to be sure they look healthy, and they do. The poor chick is almost getting used to being lifted and fingered. This evening, it peeped tragically at first, then calmed down so much that it actually caught a mosquito in mid air while I held it.

We have decided that we cannot keep the ducks over the winter, and we will likely butcher them within a couple weeks. Our decision made my daughter cry. We are hoping to raise more ducks next year, when we have spent some time planning how we will take care of them. I will miss them. I had no idea they were so fun.

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High corn

The corn that our neighbor planted on our land has grown so tall that we cannot see the land that dips down west of our property, where the sun sets. Instead, when we stand beside the old lilac bushes, by the huge rocks that must’ve been the foundation of a barn, we look west into a green wall that is much taller than we are. I have stood in the corn with my arms stretched up to the sky, and beside me, the corn stalks stretch taller than my fingers. My narrow, reaching arms seem to imitate the plants around me.

A couple of days ago, when some cousins came by for a visit, my children wanted to show them the wild cherry tree that grows on the south border of our property. We had to walk between two rows of corn to get there, with the wide slightly furry leaves rasping  against our faces. I almost felt I had to hold my breath, and that our walk would never end, but of course it did. We admired the tight green fruits on the cherry tree, then turned back to press single file through the corn again. A baby, who made the trip in his mother’s arms, cuddled his face into his mother’s shoulder to hide it from the reaching leaves. The baby’s father called out, “it smells like corn!” I had not noticed the sweet smell because I had been so absorbed by the feeling of the leaves against me.

My daughter likes to play in the corn, but only for a little bit, if I am outside and not far away. She and my son have found rooms in the field, where no corn grew, and where they are surrounded by walls of green. They have given the rooms names such as “14 through 17” based on the number of rows they must cross before they reach the rooms. I am glad that my children play in the corn, and I am glad that they never play very long there.

 

 

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Celebrities

We picked up a new batch of chicks at the post office, and I felt like a celebrity. The elderly gentleman behind me in line exclaimed, “I haven’t seen that in years! We used to get our chickens off the train.” He smiled, then stood with his mouth agape. The woman behind him in line said, with a tone of authority, “Yes, more and more people are getting chickens now. I read about it.” She had apparently considered keeping them herself, and we stood out in the parking lot discussing hatcheries. While settling the box of chicks on top of my children’s laps in the truck, another car pulled up beside us, and its driver greeted us with enthusiasm usually reserved for old friends. He said he had kept chickens once, and took a peek at our fluffy birds before I excused myself, saying the baby chicks needed to go home and drink water.

To make room for the new chicks, the big chickens have moved into new digs. Our more mature birds are living out in what looks like the top of a covered wagon. The advantages of this are that we don’t have to rush to put them inside at twilight to keep them safe from predators, because an electric fence, which surrounds their yard, keeps them safe. They don’t have to wait for us to let them out in the morning either. They can go right out at the crack of dawn and start browsing for food, while we are still in bed.

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Evening light

            Because of the chickens, I am aware of the evening light. There is a certain time in the evening, when the shadows are long and stillness settles over the fields. The chickens appreciate this, and they all go outside to peck their feed or browse through the grass like discriminating customers at an upscale grocery store. Slowly, the light fades, and the some hop inside their coop, then more join them. When the light is so dim that I am certain predators must be out and about, then two or three chickens are typically hanging around outside as if they don’t want the evening to end. On these nights, I endlessly say “Go to bed!” first to my children, and then to my birds. It is like the chorus for the long, lovely summer twilight. At some magic point in the evening, an unseen balance tips, and all the chickens go inside. I’ve been trying to tend to them immediately after this happens, and so I have been watching the light carefully.

            I went to a family reunion for three nights in northwestern Minnesota while my husband took care of the birds, and when I came home it seemed as though the ducklings had grown up it turned into ducks. During my absence, they also took the following my husband around in the evening before he gives them food. He strides purposefully through the yard followed at a little distance by waddling ducks, which also have a very purposeful air about them. He says he feels a little bit like a mother duck.

 

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Morning show

As the daughter of two actors, I often see the world through the lens of theater. In the morning, when I let the young chickens out of their shelter, I feel as though I am watching a show-stopping song and dance number. The space in front of me erupts with sound, color and movement as all the chicks run through the greenery as fast as their little legs can carry them. Their little bodies shift from side to side with every step, and their wings sometimes flap for emphasis as the ensemble traces patterns of white through the green clover. They all gather into perfect lines, facing each other, with their feed troughs between them, and they keep singing as they wait for me to deliver their food. I’m never sure whether to applaud or start singing myself. Usually I don’t do either, but I consider it as I scoop their grain into their troughs.

We lost a couple of ducks to predators during the last week, which was hard. Each time, we made changes to their pen, and I think they will be safe at night now. I was talking about my ducks with someone at a Fourth of July party, and she knew just how I felt about them. “Ducks have heart,” she said with a knowing nod. We fill up a couple of the children’s sleds with water so they have a place to splash. They curve their necks and dip gracefully so that the water falls down on their backs, and then they wiggle their tails with what looks like delight. They make those old plastic sleds look almost elegant. Clearly, we are going to have to look into the possibility of selling duck eggs.

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Loudmouth

One of our chicks has a very loud peep. We first noticed that when we were driving the little flock home from the post office. As the car rolled over some railroad tracks, one chick’s voice rose from the little cardboard box of birds with shrill authority and volume. He has not lost his touch. When I am feeding them or stirring up their bedding, I am always startled by his strident voice, which seems as though it were announcing an emergency. I study the little group of chicks, expecting that one of them is being squashed by something, but this is never the case. It is just our loudmouth expressing himself.

The chicks are still balls of yellow fluff, but they are growing feathers on their wings.  These birds are earthy types that are not destined for flying. When they are still so small and light, they and they flutter a little bit on their new wing feathers, flight seems almost within reach.

The ducks are amazing. They march around in a fluffy yellow herd, deciding their direction collectively. They are so vital that they vibrate as they forage for food in their little grassy yard. Soon they will be moving out of the brooder.

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Ethereal

“Ethereal chicken” is almost always an oxymoron, like “plastic silverware.” For just a day or two though, when they are tiny and completely covered in golden down, chicks can be ethereal. Our new birds are in this brief phase of their lives. When they stand under the red light of their heat lamp, they almost glow. Watching them, I remember the lightness of their little bodies as we lifted them out of the boxes on Thursday. They could almost be like little wisps of air, except their tiny little feet make the quickest little pattering sound as they dart around the brooder.

My mother-in-law helped me construct a cardboard wall across part of the brooder so that we could have a separate “room” for ducklings. The ducklings came on Thursday, the day after the chickens, and we have been amazed by them. Picking them up is a completely different experience then picking up the ethereal little chicks. The ducklings are more substantial, with a long neck, active feet, and a bit of softness cushioning their belly. Ian described them best when he called them “purposeful.” They seem driven in their pursuit of any bug that has the misfortune to wander into their part of the brooder.

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Hefty Handfuls

The chickens have a new pasture now. We are letting them out the door on the east side of the coop (instead of the south side), and this is especially exciting to them because this yard includes both tall and short clover. When we mowed, we left a strip of pasture untouched, and now these plants are knee-high. The chickens love to nestle into the tall clover and munch on it or settle down next to it. We can see white faces peeking up from a green tangle of plants. Even though they enjoy the tall clover, we mow their pasture because we understand that they are able to eat more greens when the greens are shorter. When the plants are taller, the chickens tend to trample them more.

This group of birds has two more weeks to live. We will try to make sure that they are good weeks. When the birds stay out late, and I have to pick some up and put them inside their coop at night to protect them from predators, I can no longer pick up two at a time. Each chicken takes two hands, and some of the larger ones already feel like very hefty handfuls. This evening, a little rooster was so determined to sleep outside. I must’ve put him back in the coop 5 times because he kept wandering back out as I went to fetch another wayfaring chicken from the yard. He felt huge in my hands.

 

 
 

In the clover

The chickens are finally in their clover pasture because weather has turned warmer, and they have finally feathered out. On Friday, I herded all the chickens in from their temporary yard by our garage, and Ian chained the little coop to the back of our tractor. The coop slid behind him on skids as he drove out to the pasture. Then we set up a fence for them and let them out into their new world. The chickens seem to be making up for lost time by eating lots of greens. Their yard has become a honeycomb of little paths through the clover, and near their coop, they have eaten all the leaves off the plants, leaving stiff stalks bare and pointing up at the sky. We will need to rotate their pasture much sooner than I expected.

The flock seems much more relaxed in the warmer weather. I feel relieved for them. On the first warm night this week, when their coop was still near our garage, a bunch of them bedded down in the grass, and something felt just right about that. Even so, I had to move them inside to protect them from predators, so I ended up picking up half the flock, one or two at a time, and setting them inside their coop. It was a little bit shocking. They are completely feathered out on top, but when I reached my hands around their undersides to lift them, my fingers sank very slightly into warm, soft skin. Apparently their bellies have not feathered out yet. It was not at all what I expected, and I felt surprised every time I picked up another chicken. The chickens felt surprised too. They squawked piteously, but then calmed down quickly when I set them down again. I admire how quickly chickens seem to recover from emotional upsets.

 

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Give them what for.

The USDA is considering new regulations that could put small meat processors out of business and cripple the production of locally raised meat. The new rules would make the processors do expensive tests on every product they offer, and a well-respected meat processor in my area has said that many small processors will not be able to keep up with the cost and the work involved. If you would like more information, see http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/alerts/10/newsr_100422.htm

As someone who sells chicken, I am really worried about this. This is a version of the e-mail I sent to the USDA. If you share my concern would like to use some of my words in an e-mail of your own, you are welcome to do that. Comments need to be e-mailed to DraftValidationGuideComments@fsis.usda.gov by June 19. Here is my letter:

Dear Sir or Mdm.

I am very worried about the USDA’s drafts of new meat testing regulations for small processors. I am really that these new regulations could put small processors out of business. Without those small processors, small farmers would not be able to sell their meat to people at a time when folks are really excited about local food. The number of tiny farms has grown greatly in recent years, and those small-scale farmers are selling their products to a small but enthusiastic and quickly growing market.                             

I do not believe that these regulations will make the public any safer. Most people who get sick eating meat are not eating meat from small processors. These processors also do not face many of the conditions that make the larger processors more vulnerable to spreading foodborne illness.                                        

Please make exceptions for small processors in your rules. People want a choice about the kind of meat they buy, and small business people (processors and farmers) deserve a chance to make a go of it. They don’t need any more obstacles in their way, and their work is not making the American people unsafe.

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