Blackberry Time!

Blackberries are ready.

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The blackberries have been bright red for what feels like forever. They grow in the fence line which I climb over on my way to the barn so every morning the bright red berries stand out on the green leaves, saying, “Not yet, not yet”. But finally some of the red have turned dark and they are sweet to eat.

We did not plant these berries. We have not watered them. We have not done much for them. It is like free food. Until you start picking them and you are reminded that NOTHING is free. These plants don’t give up their fruit so easily, they bite as I pluck the sweet berries. They have thorns which seem to snag and sink into the skin and hang on.

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But thorns or no thorns, we pick berries, usually as a family. The kids start out with great enthusiasm. But after the first few buckets it starts to get hot, fingers and arms get a little scratched (remember these are biting berry bushes), and there may be a pesky deer fly or two. But Chris and I cheer them on, “We only have to fill our containers, then we can go home.” The younger two might not make it. They often disappear to explore the nearby pond or go sit in the shade of the truck.

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Finally our buckets are full. A drink of cold water, a shower and thoughts of blackberry cobbler with ice cream fill our heads as we pile into the farm truck.

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The cobbler recipe I use comes from The Pioneer Woman. I love her site!

Pioneer Woman’s Blackberry Cobbler #1:

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1-1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups blackberries (frozen or fresh, even better if you had to pick them yourself)

Preparation:

Melt butter in a microwavable dish. (We do not have a microwave, so we just melted the butter in a sauce pan on the stove top). Pour 1 cup of sugar and flour into a mixing bowl, whisking in milk. Mix well. Then, pour in melted butter and whisk it all well together. Butter a baking dish.

Now rinse and pat dry the blackberries. Pour the batter into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle blackberries over the top of the batter: distributing evenly. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the top.

Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 8

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What is your favorite thing to do with blackberries?

 

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There was Supposed to Be a Waterfall

Let me start at the end. We found a waterfall.

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Now that you know how the story ends let me tell you how the story begins.

The innkeeper told us it was the first July he could remember that the waterfalls were running and we should make it a point to see them…assuming we were outdoors-types. He found my blog somehow and knew we were.

We decided to start at the waterfall marked on our map furthest from our hotel. Clever, eh? We drove to Burden Falls. There is a small parking lot at the trail head. Ours was the only car. The trail looked nice enough. We were at the top of a hill. Julie and I started on our way. Much of the trail was under dense canopy of a forest that appears to have been planted 30 years (or so) ago.Trail1

The path was nearly covered in places by thick growths of poison ivy and, clever young man that I am, I was wearing shorts.

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But we soldiered on through. How far could it be? We followed the trail through the tall trees.

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The trail went down and down the hill. Poison ivy everywhere. The path blocked by innumerable spider webs. Julie cut a hickory branch and I used it to knock down webs in our path but eventually the branch became a waving mass of webs and unhappy spiders. The trail worsened. The spiders worsened. And horseflies. Did I mention the horseflies? Oh, there were horseflies. You can be sure of that.

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Our only comfort was the few smashed plants in the path, evidence that someone had traveled this path before us, even if days ago. So we continued.

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The path just kept on going. No sounds of water falling. No sounds of anything, really. Just more steps to take.

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15 minutes. 30 minutes. Should we turn back? Surely we are almost there. Look! A grove of tulip trees!

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The path worsened. Still, someone had been here. We continued.

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The path worsened again.

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The path continued to worsen.

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At this point the trail was mixed with a trickle of water rolling down the hill. Not a waterfall. And then the trail became little more than a deer path.

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I suggested that it was a joke. They must tell us carpetbaggers to follow the trail to the waterfall. Or maybe it’s a contest. “How dumb are you?” Hidden cameras along the trail as unwitting contestants show how willing they are to overcome poison ivy, fallen trees and dense spider webs to follow a trail to nowhere. Or to big rocks by a stream at the bottom of the hill.

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And that’s where the trail ended. Or maybe we missed a turnoff uphill. I don’t know.

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There was nothing else to do. An hour into the depths of Southern Hillinois we were unable to continue.

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No waterfall.

We spent another hour trudging back up the hill, Julie’s feet wet and blistered. She even found a deer tick on her jeans. The trip uphill took seemingly forever. Was this the way we came? Had we found another path? The way down we chatted. We enjoyed ourselves. We fought off the spiders bravely. On the way back we were quiet.

A minivan full of carpetbaggers pulled up just as we emerged from the trail. They were pleased to see us but looked disappointed when we told them about the poison ivy, spiders, rough trail and complete and total lack of waterfalls.

They were looking at their maps as we left. We drove back the way we came. A mile back down the road we had crossed water in the road. There was a parking lot, a car and the sound of falling water. Not 10 feet from the road was the waterfall pictured at the top of the post and nothing to mark its presence.

Our adventures did not end there. We continued to explore Shawnee National Forest. There will be other stories for another day. I’ll end this by admitting that we noticed, as we were driving away, we could smell ourselves. Ugh.

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Cows are in the barn these days. The pasture is a little behind and I want to give it a moment to rest. The summer sun is unbearably hot so we are grazing the cows on open, flat ground during the night then returning them to the barn in the morning. That way they are still getting fresh greens but they are also protected and have easy access to fresh water. Finally, it makes pinkeye treatment a snap. Salt and kelp are in the feed trough and we can easily spray the infected eyes without fear of a multi-acre rodeo. It is costing us a little hay right now but I think it is worth it.

All that to say, chores are pretty easy these days. So Julie and I kissed the kids goodbye for a short anniversary getaway.

Did you know we live next to my parents and near to hers? Yup.

Julie and I are currently (as I write on July 4) in Anna, IL at the Davie School Inn. We have a big classroom all to ourselves. King-sized bed, couch, giant bubbly bathtub and even a kitchenette with real dishes!

I brought a stack of books. Julie brought her notebook and a book she has been reading about writing: Jump Start: How to Write From Everyday Life.

One of the exercises is to write about what is around you in detail. We had dinner tonight at the Rustle Hill Winery. Julie had a glass of sweet chambourcin as we sat overlooking the water.

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Julie wrote the following while we enjoyed our dinner:

The sky is overcast but I can still feel the sun coming through the clouds. The chairs are of black iron – yours was broken in the seat. You exchanged it for one at the next table, fearing it would snag your jeans.

There is a small group of people on the balcony chatting and laughing. I can hear frogs creaking – sounds like rocks being struck together, crickets, a few birds chirping, light jazz music in the background and far away a soft thunder boom – must be fireworks.

There is a brick patio under my feet, a small decorative pond next to us, a larger pond down the hill. The hill is neatly mowed with a few trees sloping down to the pond below. I can see the rows of grape vines on the top of the next hill.

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The restaurant is empty except for the group upstairs. I wonder if it is the family who runs the vineyard or the employees.

They had events here Saturday and Sunday – the restaurant has a laid-back feel. I wonder if they are all exhaling after a very busy weekend.

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Even the menus looked tired with a “N/A” sticker covering many of the selections. I don’t mean tired in a run-down kind of description, but more of an exhaling, like a well-deserved rest.

That is somewhat edited from what she wrote in her journal but that’s it. She misspelled some words, crossed through others but that doesn’t matter. What do you think? Can you see it? Were you there with us? Did she succeed in taking you to Rustle Hill Winery on July 4th at 5pm? Can you taste the sweet glass of chambourcin? Could you hear acris crepitans chirping next to us?

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Maybe. Maybe not. But Julie is trying. And if you want to learn to write you have to write…and you have to write every day.

One of my initial goals with the blog was to write daily and I succeeded for a long, long time. I began by imitating the style of writers I enjoyed. Now I seem to have found my own rhythm.

But I think it is time for me to grow again. It is time for me to be challenged further. It is time to improve as a writer. (and the people said, “Amen”.)

It is a little bit like work.But the act of writing is itself an escape…one that does not require willing grandparents or long trips in the car.

What did you write today? What is holding you back?

19 Years of Freedom

Jean Valjean paid 19 years of his life for stealing a loaf of bread. 19 years in the prison and in the galley. A slave. He emerged a bitter, angry man in an unsympathetic, unforgiving world. It wasn’t until he stole from a priest that Jean Valjean experienced love. His life was forever changed.

Julie married me but did not enslave me. Quite the opposite. Julie gave me love and acceptance and forgiveness. Julie filled an emptiness…satisfied a need. I married Julie and my life was forever changed.

It is counter to our culture for me to equate my marriage with freedom. We typically refer to our mates in disparaging terms and to continue with the prison example we may refer to a spouse as “the old ball and chain.” In our media husbands are presented as dopey, wives as narcissistic. Why did that self-obsessed woman marry that idiot?

I joke sometimes that Julie married me because I am intelligent enough to get a good job and dumb enough to go to it every day.

But that is not fair to either of us.

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I was twenty when we were married. Looking back 19 years I can’t define what, specifically, I was looking for in a spouse. We dated for years. It was pretty casual. She was intelligent, pretty and shared similar values and family culture. But that describes other girls too.

Could I have married any of those other theoretical women? Maybe. But Julie and I selected each other. I can’t tell you why. But I would suggest to you that I would not be “me” if I had married anyone else.

I can also tell you it has been wonderful.

My reference to Les Miserables is finished. There really is no further comparison. No person from my past hunting me down to reveal my true identity. Julie knows everything about me.

There is no effort to fulfill a vow, protect the innocent and sacrifice myself for the sake of others. Oh. Well. There is that, isn’t there.

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I vowed to love, honor and cherish her. Richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Forsaking all others.

Honor is an interesting word…as in, “Honor your father and mother that you may live a long, full life…”

Respect is earned. I respect my chainsaw. It can kill me. Julie can kill me too but that’s no basis for a relationship.

I honor my wife. Not because of what she did but because of who she is. She is my wife.

But what does “Honor” mean?

It means I hold her up. It means she is special to me. It means I take time in my day to tell her how important she is to me and how lost I would be without her. Her. Specifically her. It means I am patient. It means I listen. It means I consider her needs, her wants, her dreams. It means I take time to find out all I can about her…who she is…today.

The woman I am married to today is not the girl I married 19 years ago.

But I am not the same either. And we have suffered through things I never imagined we would go through.

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I am more free now than I was when we were kids. I am loved now in a way I was not loved then. I am able to love in a way I was unable to love then.

Julie has been married to me for fully half of her life. That’s kind of a big deal.

And it’s the kind of a big deal I don’t take for granted.

I love you Julie.

The #1 Reason We Farm

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I can respond to the title in one sentence but that’s not what we do here. I have to use 1,000 words. Bear with me, please. You know I like to talk.

Last year I kept a reading journal on the blog. My reading journal continues, I just don’t share it with you. I wrote out a list of books I wanted to read/re-read on January 1. Here is the list:

Do you know what I did with that list? I read some, I put others aside for another time. I appended to the list. Good Profit and Superforecasting seemed, at the time, to be impactful but I would have a hard time telling you what they were about without flipping through the pages again. Landscapes & Cycles was preaching to the saved and I set it aside. Lean Farm and I couldn’t seem to meet up. High Output Management continues to challenge me. Louder and Funner was quietly hilarious and somewhat accusational. I have read enough of Wodehouse that when I re-read Malabar farm I heard the narrative in the voice of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, bragging that he was asked to speak at the meeting but had declined because he was too busy with the farm, old horse.

So what happened to MacBeth or Republic? Were those failures?

Maybe. Kinda. But mostly I think I got the idea of the first 100 pages of Republic then decided that now was not the right time. And that is true of a good number of books I run into. Today’s Chris Jordan doesn’t need that book. Tomorrow’s might though. I have never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Look, I know. I get it. But they don’t seem to scratch an itch.

Is this failure? Maybe. But not the kind of failure we are looking for.

BTW, my current active stack (piled to my right) includes:

The book Turn the Page discusses the importance of reading several books at once and finding connections between them, discovering ways reading one book impacts your thoughts of another. How will Algorithms to Live By impact Tale of Two Cities? I dunno. It may not.

But Turn the Page also talks about the importance of sampling many books and setting the majority of them aside. Also, the author of Turn the Page is a bit of a bore, referring to himself in third person and constantly quoting himself in bold print.

Chris Jordan thinks the author of the book Turn the Page is a bit of a bore, referring to himself in third person and constantly quoting himself in bold print.

If you read the book you’ll understand that joke. There are some good things in the book but you have to get past the writing style.

So what is this all about, Chris? Why are you sharing this with the world? Why are you, who just finished bragging about how humble you are and what a complete flop you are as a farmer, now list out the books you haven’t read? What is the point?

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If I were to ask you, “What do we grow on our farm?” you might answer, “Well, Chris, you seem to have cattle and chickens. Sometimes pigs. There are bees out there somewhere but you don’t talk about that much. I guess you grow hay. Your dad has horses. So…is that what you want? Or are you looking for a more clever answer like, “money”. That’s the answer Henry Galt gave the judge when asked what he farms.”

You are not technically wrong. We grow grass. There are cows. Those things are here. And, yes, we pay a little tax on a very little income each year. But that’s not what we do here.

We grow people.

Our farm is a ministry more than anything. It’s about people.

And not just the six of us.

Jesus boiled life down to two simple tasks:

  1. Love God
  2. Serve People

Cows are a fun extra.

I can’t make you grow. I can’t make you read my blog. But the hope is that you, reader, will happen across my blog and I will grab your attention long enough to plant a seed. I tell you about the things I wrestle with. I tell you what I am reading and thinking and enjoying and experiencing. I ask you to celebrate when our marriage survives another year. I ask you to cry with me about our daughter’s illness. I ask you to share my burden when I lose a calf through ignorance or inaction. I embrace you as a part of my extended family. I want to hear about your struggles. I want to read what you are reading.

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So I lead by example. I write about the things that make the farmer. ..the things that make the marriage. …the things that make the family. …the things that add meaning to our lives.

We home school our children but we don’t do school at home. There are no classrooms, no desks, no ringing bells. No schedule. We read. They read. We discuss. They participate. We sell farm products. They stand beside us at every step.

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I write about my reading list in the same way. I think this is how I can serve you. I scatter seeds. Life is not easy, on the farm or in town. My days are long. I get tired. Julie gets tired. We work through difficulties together. We read books together. We walk through life together. My post about humility and failure was not seeking sympathy from my small group of readers/friends. I was sharing. This stuff is hard. Someone recently told me that I make everything look easy. I am, indeed, very blessed. But it is not easy. I meant that post to be an encouragement to the reader. This stuff is not easy. But I continue to plug away, trying, failing, trying again. Failure, we learned in church this weekend, builds faith.

I am a man of faith. And I do this to serve you.

I write to bless you. I hope you write back.

Chris Jordan hopes you will write back.

 

Modest Enough Not to Know

If you were uncertain what the message of the blog is I want to be clear:

I. Don’t. Know.

I have no idea.

I am totally, entirely, utterly clueless.

I read books. I make notes. I actually do stuff in vivo. I make more notes. I talk to other farmers. I make more notes.

But it’s hard to make a plan from those notes. I can’t copy from Steve or Matron or Salatin. They are not me.

The formula seems so simple:

  1. Do stuff
  2. Stop doing stuff that doesn’t work.

But what does that really mean?

I’ll tell you what it means. I really do know the answer to this one.

It means humility.

It means you are going to stand on top of a mountain (or a blog) and shout to the world that farming is awesome! That you, along with your trusted companion, are going to solve problems both economical and ecological by harnessing sunlight and rain to make fat cows. And, shortly afterward, find out that it takes maybe a little longer than you had initially imagined. …that things don’t play out like they do in your head. …that well pumps break. …that one of those heifers you bought is a freemartin and two just won’t breed, that pinkeye runs through the herd like wildfire, that a heifer dies quickly and unexpectedly, that you cut hay then the forecast changed to 5 days of heavy rain. It means watching the escaped cows run down the road in the rain storm and feeling tired. Old. Foolish.

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It means learning how much can go wrong, how quickly it can happen and how miserable it feels.

Remember that house we used to own? The one with three bathrooms? What I wouldn’t give for an extra bathroom. I didn’t know we would need an extra bathroom with three teenagers in our house.

Remember when it rained in the kitchen? I didn’t know raccoons would try to dig through the roof to get into the house. Heck, I didn’t know we had a legion of raccoons living in the shed.

Remember that morning we found 30 dead birds in the chicken house? I didn’t know we had minks here.

Remember that time the water source leaked and 300 chicks caught pneumonia, dressed out without any fat on their bones and the meat was so tough we lost a bunch of customers? I remember that too. Totally clueless.

Remember trying to pluck ducks? Great idea. Poor execution.

You would think I would have learned a little about humility by now. And maybe I have. It is clear that I don’t have any answers at this point. But my inquisitiveness still hasn’t been beaten out of me.

I had a boss once on a roofing job. He told me not to ask him “Why” questions.

But I really want to know WHY!

For example, Why can’t I make money with hogs? Is it me? Is it feed costs? Is it worth keeping pigs anyway? What is the value of the manure? What is the value of customer exposure? What is the value of the experience for me? …for the kids?

I have a few ideas about how to answer those questions and some of my answers depend on my mood. But if you pin me down and demand an answer I have to cry out:

I don’t know!

But I want to know. And I am looking for answers.

In spite of the lack of posts recently, I continue working to clearly define my ignorance…but maybe more quietly. Reading the book Algorithms to Live By over lunch recently I found something that explains why I have the cows that I have. The authors are discussing a mathematical solution to a theoretical problem: how to hire the best secretary you can when you have a number of them to interview and you only get one shot at each.

The math shows that when there are a lot of applicants left in the pool, you should pass up even a very good applicant in the hopes of finding someone still better than that – but as your options dwindle, you should be prepared to hire anyone who’s simply better than average. It’s a familiar, if not exactly inspiring, message: in the face of slim pickings, lower your standards.

Well? Mission accomplished. The difference here is I expect my cows to breed so I can hire their daughters (cows, not secretaries) and each subsequent generation that I don’t eat will grow slowly closer to my ideal. Slowly. Slowly. How slowly? I don’t know. I think it’s going to take a while. Maybe never. Maybe I hired the wrong group entirely. That takes us into limitations of time, the whole point of the book. But this isn’t a book review post and I don’t know when I’ll have time to write one. The point is, wrong cows. Wrong, wrong cows. Or wrong farmer. Whatever.

Having written 900 words describing my ignorance I don’t want to leave you without hope that I, Chris Jordan, might someday overcome my limitation. I’ll leave you with what I do know. I know that I do not know. 39 years of ignorance has come at a high cost but I can’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. So I keep plugging away. Scratching my way forward by reading, listening, studying and reflecting but also by getting out there every day to keep learning what doesn’t work. Thanking God that I have a job in town.

The month of June thoroughly kicked my behind. Today is July 1. I don’t have the courage to be optimistic about July but I am overflowing with humility this morning.