Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"How Do You Do It All?"

You would not believe how many times I am asked this question.  And each time, I have to honestly answer, "I don't".

From reading my blog, you may think I am some sort of super human, someone with more hours in the day than average people.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but that's not true.  Most days, my head is spinning, just trying to keep up with the daily chores (I'm here to tell you the "simple life" isn't simple or relaxing or easy!)  I'm most certainly not super and I sure don't have more hours.  What I do have, though, is priorities.

Everyone has priorities.  We all get to choose each day how we will schedule our 24 hours.  Some of us have more flexibility than others, but in the end, it's all about choices and what we truly value.  In our household, our priorities are:

  • Being together as much as possible (even if that means working on jobs around the farm together - in fact, that's what it usually is.  We don't have much "recreation" time - working together is our "quality" time)
  • Eating healthy, nourishing meals together (my husband is gone for breakfast and lunch, but we almost always eat dinner together).  We do NOT eat fancy meals (any recipe calling for more than 5 ingredients makes my eyes cross), but we eat well.
  • Being good stewards of the gifts God has given us - family, friends, money, food, land, possessions, etc.

So here is what I DO:
  • Spend my days wrangling my 2 lovely children and teaching them how to love God, love others (translation: I break up lots of fights) and love the earth.
  • Manage a large 4,000+ square foot garden
  • Preserve goods from said garden to use year around (which is pretty much what I do all summer)
  • Work really hard during the spring, summer and fall... and then relax and hibernate in the winter
  • Waste way too much time on Facebook 
  • Read.  All kinds of books - novels and books about food, health, farming, animals, gardening, stewardship, sustainability, faith, parenting...
  • Read to my kids.  We read every night before bed and often in the afternoon.
  • Cook/make almost all our meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) from scratch.  Yes, this takes up a large chunk of my time each day.  However, eating well and using our money wisely is important to us.  Cooking from scratch allows us to eat nourishing meals on tight budget ($115 a week for a family of 4 - this includes any eating out... which is infrequent, because it costs too much).  
  • Work hard to fight my perfectionist nature.  I call myself a "recovering perfectionist".  Slowly, I'm learning I can't do everything the way I want it done.  Slowly, I'm learning to delegate responsibilities to my children.  
  • Manage the household budget (we use a "zero-based" budget, in which every penny we earn is recorded and allocated into a category... so we actually DO track every. single. penny), pay the household bills, keep all the farm and garden records and manage household paperwork (school info, appointments, etc.)
  • Attempt to keep up with the laundry, cleaning, dishes and other domestic duties. I handle 95% of these chores and I am happy to do these things to bless my family.  My husband works a full time job, plus a part time job AND works several hours on our farm each day, so it's not like he's sitting around drinking beer and watching TV while I do these things :)
  • Expect too much of myself.  This is hard for me to shake, as I've been raised in a culture where your worth is directly tied to how much you DO.  I feel like a failure when I don't accomplish what I wanted to.  I know this is stupid, but I can't move past it.  

Here is what I DON'T do:
  • Watch TV regularly.  I have no patience for it.  My husband will occasionally watch a baseball game or a special on PBS, but that's it.  We don't have cable, so we get about 4 channels.  My kids are allowed to watch one TV show/movie a day.  (Maybe this actually does give me more hours in the day... according to this article Americans spend 34 hours a week watching TV.  That's almost 5 hours a day!!!  And that's "live" TV, not including shows people watch on DVR, which adds another 3-6 hours per week.  Yikes.)
  • Spend time on Pinterest.  Or Twitter.  Or Instragram.  In fact, I don't even really know what those things are...
  • Work outside the home.   I have so much work to do here, I can't even imagine having to drive to work and be away from home!  My husband and I are well aware that almost our entire way of living hinges on me being home.  There is no way we could live out our priorities if I wasn't home.  This is not to say that I won't ever work outside the home!  But for right now, I need to be here.  
  • Have a Smart phone.  I'm too distractible as it is!  And good grief, they're expensive...
  • Play video games.
  • Have a clean house.  Our house is always, always dirty.  I've pretty much given up.  Once a week, I sweep and vacuum, and we try to pick up on a daily basis, but our house is just. Plain. Dirty.  Like, chicken-poop-on-the-floor-dirty.  Plus, our house desperately needs a remodel and walls are literally falling down in places, so cleaning our house is a bit like polishing a turd.  You can shine it up as much as you want, but at the end of the day, it's still a turd.  A turd that I love despite it's "turd-iness".
  • Entertain my children.  A few years ago, I sat down and defined my role as a mother.  It is my job to love my children unconditionally, to teach them to love the Lord and to teach them to love others.  It is not my job to play with my kids (but I still do sometimes because I like it), it is not my job to be their social coordinator, it is NOT my job to entertain my kids.  Left to their own devices, kids will start to use their *gasp* imagination.  I think parents are afraid their kids will get bored... and they will if they are used to constantly being entertained.  As a result of my "neglect", my kids are pros at playing on their own and using their imaginations.  
  • Have my children enrolled in sports, lessons, classes, etc.  My kids are young.  Life will be chaotic enough soon (it already is - why would I want to make it more so?!?).  We're enjoying this time of togetherness.  And quite frankly, we don't have the time or money for these things.  Every hour spent off the farm is money lost (gasoline, lost of productivity in the garden or kitchen, having to buy expensive convince foods because driving around doesn't leave me time to cook, etc.)  We did sign up the kids for classes at the Rec Center this past winter (our "off-season").  My son loved his gymnastics class, but my daughter cried though 4 dance lessons until the instructor told us we should try again next year... It was pretty traumatic for her!
  • Relax very well.  I have a hard time turning myself "off" and just sitting.  While I'm sitting, my mind races with the hundreds of things I should be doing instead.  I wish I could shut my brain off once in a while. 
  • Spend enough time reading my Bible, memorizing scripture and "being still".  See above.  I'm thankful that God hears all kinds of prayers, not just the ones said in quiet moments.  Most of my prayer time takes place in the garden or while I'm doing morning chores watching the sunrise.  What better place to recite Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands." 
  • Work out.  Between animal chores, tending a garden, running a household and caring for small children, I hardly stop moving for more than 3 minutes at a time.  I'm moving all the time (just like our ancestors did), which may not raise my heart rate, but I sure feel like I'm in good shape.  And I weigh less than I did in high school and I've never worn a clothing size this small, so I must be doing something right.  
  • Travel or vacation during our busy season (spring, summer and fall).  Occasionally, we can take a day trip during these times, but it's very difficult to be away from the farm for more than 24 hours (we have to find someone to come check on the animals 3x a day).  Even being gone more than 4 hours at a time is hard.  There are always animals and plants that need to be cared for.  No lazy days at the beach for us...
  • Write short blog posts.  My husband is always telling me "short and sweet", but I find myself writing too much.   I can't help myself.  Sorry.

Time management is a big issue for me.  Most days, I stare at my list of tasks to be done... and I don't even know where to start. I have discovered that I thrive on daily routines. Routines help me get over the "I'm so overwhelmed I can't even move" stage. Yet, after having children, I found establishing routines to be incredibly difficult.  Just when you think you've settled into your groove, the kids move onto a new stage in life... and then I'm back to figuring out a new routine.  That is life, I suppose.  

With farming, our life is dictated by the growing season, so I'm slowly learning how to create new routines that incorporate my children's age/ability levels and the seasons of farm life.  I'm tough-talking that perfectionist in my head that says "If you can't do something right, then don't do it all" and telling her she's full of crap.  I'm discovering that even work done "imperfectly" is better than not doing it... and I can't afford to NOT do all the work around here.

So, I came up with a simple, flexible system for us.  First, I sat down and jotted down all the regular activities we engage in each week.  I kept these activities pretty simple, something that could be described in a few words.  

Then I cut out small pieces of cardstock paper and wrote each activity on a piece on the paper.  Each activity also has a little drawing, as my children have not yet learned to read.  

Next, we took a trip to Staples and had the pieces of paper laminated (which cost about $3).  A trip to the craft store for magnets, and we were in business.  I Super-Glued the magnets to the back of each little card and plunked them on the fridge.

Now, each day before we go the bed, we make our " Daily Routine" on the fridge.  The kids love it, because they know what is expected of them each day, and it helps to provide some much needed structure for our days (this not a "chore chart" - there are no rewards for completing activities).  Since the cards are on magnets, it's easy to rearrange the cards if our plans change throughout the day (which happens often).  Some cards we use every day, some are only used once a week.  We use the "???" card whenever I don't have an appropriate card for an activity we're planning for the day.  Some days, we don't use this system at all - we just wing it.  And that's ok.  

I also keep a little notebook on my desk, which I use to unload my brain when it gets too full.  It's full of lists, notes, menu plans, reminders and what-not.  Nothing fancy, just a journal from the dollar store.  My 4 year old daughter routinely swipes it and fills it with drawings of princesses, so I have to jot my notes around hilarious sketches of Rapunzel and Princess Jasmine.

So, how do I do it all???  I don't, but our Daily Routine cards and my Brain Dump Notebook sure help keep me from losing my head. On those days when I'm feeling especially overwhelmed, I mentally review my priorities and  figure out which activities are essential and what can wait for another day.   How do you do it all???  What do you "DO" and "DON'T do" ?  Have you found a rhythm that works for your family and keeps your priorities in the forefront?  Do tell!  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Food, Glorious Food!

Every where I look, I'm surrounded by food!  Food in the garden, food in the pasture (hogs and goats), food strutting around in the backyard (the chickens), food in the nesting boxes (eggs), food in the woods (wild blackberries and raspberries), food in the beehives...  I thank the Lord each and every day for showering us with such an abundance of good, nourishing food.  And every day, I feel filthy rich, rich beyond measure.  To  our family, good food is a huge priority, much more important than clothes, cars or a nice home.  So despite the fact our 1880's house is falling apart in places, both our mid-90's vehicles are dented, dinged and running on borrowed time, and most of our clothes and shoes are hand-me-downs or from the thrift store....we still feel overwhelmingly rich.  Nourishing food equals wealth in this household!

And what good food we have so far!  The garden is pumping out more produce than I can handle.  Our grocery bill has been cut down significantly.  Dinner is always a fun challenge for me, finding new ways to use up our produce.  Here is what we have right now in the garden:

Produce in my garden carrier I bought from a gentleman at the farmers market.  The bottom is mesh, so it's easy to spray down produce before bringing it in the house.  
  • Radishes - Cherry Bell (for salads, potato salad or fresh eating with ranch dip)
  • Romaine Lettuce - Jericho (it tolerates warmer weather better than most lettuce)
  • Swiss Chard -Bright Lights (I use this recipe)
  • Kale - Red Russian and Dinosaur (try this recipe for a lovely kale salad - it tastes even better the next day)
  • Carrots - Dragon, Danvers and Colorful Carrot Mix  (the kids love them raw.  I also slice and dehydrate lots of carrots to throw into soups/stews over the winter)
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes -Yukon Gold and Russet (I've been digging up a few as needed for a meal)
  • Broccoli - Belstar and Early Green (kids like it sauteed for dinner or fresh with dip)
  • Sugar Snap Peas (To die for!!!  We eat about a quart of them each day, plain or dipped in hummus)
  • Shelling Peas (I shell these, then blanch and freeze them in bags, so we have fresh peas all winter)
  • Beets -Colorful Mix (only I like these!)
  • Strawberries (the June-bearing berries are done, but we still get a handful of berries every few days from the Everbearing plants)
  • Herbs, like Parsley, Cilantro, Basil and Thyme

"Cherry Bell" Radishes

Strawberries and Sugar Snap Peas

Carrots - red, orange, yellow and white!

Colorful carrots, ready to be dehydrated

The kids and I went to the local berry farm to purchase our year's supply of strawberries, seeing as how we didn't allow our berries to produce much the first year (we pinched off all the flowers, which allows to plants to grow stronger and ensures a good harvest next year).  We picked about 25 quarts of berries.  Some berries were used to make 24 jars of jam, while the rest were chopped, frozen on cookie sheets and then dumped into freezer bags.  We use these chopped berries to sweeten yogurt and oatmeal.

For the jam, we used Pomona's Universal Pectin and were thrilled with results.  Unlike most pectins that require you to follow the recipe exactly and use ridiculous amounts of sugar (sometimes it's more sugar than berries!), Pomona's allows you to experiment with low sugar options.  Each batch of jam called 4 cups of berries and then a sweetener of your choice, in varying amounts. We tried:

  • 1 cup of Apple Juice Concentrate
  • 3/4 cup of honey
  • 1 1/4 cups raw Organic sugar
After a taste testing session, the kids and I decided all 3 were delicious!  

As for the rest of the food on the farm..... The bees are hard at work in the garden! We opened up the hives a few days ago and were astonished to see how well they were doing.  Last summer was a hard season for bees.  Several beekeepers we talked to told us it was the worst year they could remember for honey, and to make matters worse, almost all the beekeepers in West Michigan lost their hives over the winter. After a rough start to our beekeeping endevour, we're excited to see how the bees will do in a good year!

Honey bee on a Borage flower

The new laying hens are growing up and we expect them to start laying in the next few weeks, which will bring our laying flock up about 27 hens.  We could be getting 2 dozen eggs a day soon!  Unfortunately, 6 of our "hens" turned out to be roosters, which I have little patience for.  They run the ladies ragged, chasing them all over the yard to "play leapfrog" with them (that's what I tell the kids).  It's time for them to go!  I just got off the phone and there will be some folks coming tomorrow to buy them and butcher them on site.  Good ridance!

So many pretty birds!

Our 25 meat birds will be ready for slaughter in about 3 weeks.  We'll team up with some friends and have a butchering day and fill our freezer with enough chicken to last us the rest of the year.

The hogs are putting on the pounds every day.  They continue to delight us with their playful antics and friendly personalities.  They especially love it when I spray them down with the hose on hot days.  I wish you all could see how funny they are and hear their grunts of happiness!

The goats are content in their pastures.  They are very gentle and my children spend hours playing with them.    We appreciate having them around and laugh as they bleat at us excitedly whenever we arrive home.  What fun animals!

Well, that's it for now.  Before we know it, the tomatoes and cucumbers will be ready and my canning pot in the kitchen will become my best friend again!  We're looking forward to filling up those nearly empty shelves of canned goods.  Again, feel free to stop by any time and take home some produce!


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Swiss Chard Recipe

First of all, I'm guessing most of you are asking "What IS Swiss Chard?  And why in the world would I want to eat it?!?"  Don't worry.  I didn't know what it was until a couple years ago either. If I'm being completely honest, I have to tell you that I've grown Swiss Chard for years simply because I was awestruck by it's beauty.  It truly is the beauty pagent winner of the garden.  Nothing else can compare to it's jubilant colors and lovely textures.  But for many years, that poor Chard would go uneaten.  Poor lonely Chard, just wanting to be loved for who it really is, not simply for it's stunning good looks.

Swiss Chard is very closely related to beets.  Their leaves are almost indistinguishable from each other, so Swiss Chard can be substituted for any recipe that calls for beet greens.  Unlike beets, Swiss Chard does not grow an edible root.  It is simply grown for it's green leaves.  The baby Swiss Chard leaves can be harvested as a colorful addition to fresh salads, but most Chard is used when mature in cooked dishes.  Chard is an accomodating plant - it's not fussy, can be planted just about anywhere and it's quite cold hardly.  Here in Michigan, I've been able to harvest Swiss Chard in the middle on January.  The leaves can be harvested individually or you can cut off the whole plant 1 inch from the base - and then a new plant will grow in it's place!

I tried cooking the Swiss Chard and serving it as a side dish, but we found the flavor to be lacking and we decided we just were not fans of cooked greens.  Then I found ways to sneak it into meals - it seemed to disappear into stir fry dishes and it was lovely in omelets or baked egg frittatas.  I liked the fresh leaves on a breakfast egg sandwich.  But I still wasn't using enough of the Chard.  It still stood out there in the garden, looking beautiful and dejected.

And then a friend introduced me to this recipe.  Jackpot!!!  I couldn't get enough it.  The recipe calls for 6-12 leaves, which makes a serious dent in the Chard supply in the garden.  I used about 8 leaves the first time I tried it (which is giant pile of leaves!), thinking it would make a large side dish for dinner.   Wrong.  Those leaves cook down to almost nothing and I was left with one tiny little (delicious!) bowl of cooked greens.  I gobbled it up by myself and wished I had more.

This is a recipe that can be tweaked and played with.  The amounts are rough estimates, since I'm not a big fan of measuring things.  Just try it and change it until it suits your tastes.

  • 1 Bunch of mature Swiss Chard (6-12 leaves)
  • 1 Clove of Garlic, finely chopped or crushed
  • Butter (about a tablespoon?)
  • Red Wine Vinegar (a splash)
  • Kosher Salt (a pinch)
  • Egg (this is an optional addition that transforms it from side dish into a meal -great for breakfast or lunch!)


1.  Wash the Swiss Chard and dry it with a clean towel.

2.  Fold a leaf in half.

3.  Cut off the stalk/rib.  I usually discard it, but some people enjoy eating it.  If you decide to chop it up and use it, make sure you cook the stalk about 3-4 minutes before you add the leaves, because the stalk takes longer to cook. 


4.  Roll up the leaf.


5.  Slices the rolled up leaf into ribbons.  Repeat this process with all the remaining leaves.


 6.  Melt butter in a large non-stick pan (you can use a cast iron pan or a wok). If you are including an egg in the recipe, now is the time to cook your fried egg.  Set it aside on a plate once it is done.  Then add the minced/crushed garlic to the pan and sauté for about 1 minute, until fragrant.  If you are not cooking an egg, then simply sauté the garlic in the butter.


7.  Add all the Swiss Chard to the pan at once.  Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt and add a splash of red wine vinegar. 


8.  Keep moving the Swiss Chard around in the pan.  It will cook very quickly, in about 3 minutes.  Stir constantly and cook until Chard is wilted and still green, but not "dead", soggy and brown.
9.  Serve immediately.  If you made an egg to go with it, then slide the Chard over top the egg and enjoy!  If you have a piece of crusty bread to sop up the butter and vinegar that will be left on your plate, even better.  Yum!

There you go - a super quick and easy side dish or meal that will do justice to the lovely Swiss Chard in your garden!  What is your favorite way to eat Swiss Chard?  Do YOU have a recipe to share?!?

Disclaimer:  I ADORE this recipe.  My husband thinks it's "meh".  He will eat some, but just because he loves me and makes me want to feel appreciated.  My kids won't touch it, despite my attempts to have them try it.  One time, I got my 4 year old daughter to take a bite because I called it "Pretty Ribbons".  She spit it out.  Just being real, folks - I don't want you to think that my family willingly eats all the food I make!