Saturday, August 23, 2008


We had a sighting of an unusual traveler in our area. This past week, Tom and I spotted a Monarch butterfly in our garden. These beautiful butterflies, though widely distributed in the eastern US, are fairly uncommon in this area. It has been many years since I've seen one. Their scarcity here is partially due to their dependence on milkweed as a food source.

Most farmers try to eliminate milkweed because it is toxic to livestock. In fact, it is toxic to pretty much everything- except Monarch butterflies, for whom it is nature's perfect food (you know, like pizza). But because these butterflies are so dependant on milkweed, eliminating it also eliminates the butterflies. An important role that Monarchs may play is that of an "indicator" species in the environment. Monarchs show strong sensitivity to the pollen of genetically modified (Bt) corn, demonstrating that there are, indeed, potential environmental consequences to the genetic alteration of food crops.

Another factor in the Monarch's local scarcity is that Nottoway County is somewhat off of their migration route. Monarchs are known for their annual migrations from the northeast to the southwest. So finding them in Southside this time of year is unexpected. They should be heading to Mexico and California. Apparently, this guy or gal has just wandered a little off course.

But sighting this pretty creature really brightened our morning. It made me rethink our plans to spray the small milkweed patch in the front pasture. Maybe we'll just concentrate on the Johnson grass, an invasive species that will take over the world one of these days (assuming that kudzu doesn't do it, first). I am sure that Johnson grass has at least one redeeming value... somewhere. I have yet to find it. At the moment, it is the only grass that thrives under drought conditions in this area and it is outcompeting even the fescue. If we don't spray it, it will end up in our neighbors' fields, too, which will make them cranky.

Heirloom Tomato Report: To-date, the "egg yolk" variety has outperformed every other. These cherry-sized, yellow tomatoes are both prolific and low acid. They are drought-resistant and nothing seems to faze them. This one is a keeper! The "cream sausage" ivory variety is delicious, crisp and sweet, and also low acid. They are small and shaped like Romas and make great snacking tomatoes. We've had to water them a lot to combat blossom end rot, but it was a terrible year for tomatoes and we had the same problem with the normally-dependable Romas. This one was my taste-wise favorite and another keeper. The "coer de boef" are round, pink tomatoes of medium acidity. They are sturdy and fairly drought resistant, but not as prolific and have a tough skin that I don't care for as much. We are still waiting for the "homestead" and "Arkansas traveler" to ripen. We'll keep you posted on these, as well as the "mystery" variety that I planted and can't remember the name of. Next year, we'll try a few more out of the billions of seeds that we still have.

Monarch Photo: Paul B. Southerland, who was apparently much quicker than I was. Photo posted to

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"It never rains, but it pours"

Here we have been wishing for rain, and we get the other sort. You know, when one thing after another happens. Telephones used to be such easy things. At first you just lifted the black, bakelite earpiece, cranked the handle, and asked Emily for the Smith place. Later, you dialed three letters and three or four digits. That was nice and easy to remember, as it comes under the "seven plus or minus two rule" and is "chunked" into letters and numbers. Once you get more than nine digits, however, unless they chunk into memorable sequences say 123-1999 our poor old human brains have difficulty in memorizing them. Especially when there are so many to remember. Consequently, when my cell phone decided to go to the big telephone exchange in the sky, taking with it my electronic directory, I became speechless. Not only couldn't I get calls, and voicemail, I didn't have all those important numbers (my tailor, the Governor's Office, etc.) so that I could let everyone know.

Now for the "... but it pours" bit - our house phone goes down as well! C'est la guerre! Actually, the language was riper, more Anglo-Saxon. Having stirred ourselves into action the day before, we had calls out to the plumber (leak outside the tack room, and the dairy to plumb in), the cow farrier (?), and sundry other important people who just happened to be out when we called. We were incommunicado to the world except for, amazingly, our DSL, which continued to hum away into the ether on the same unresponsive phone line. The phone guy said it was because it only needs a single wire, and the phone needs two (one of which had been cut a mile down the road!) but that sounds way too glib for me. it's those Hertz, electricity has never been the same since they switched from cycles per second. The wonders of modern technology. Come back Emily, you would have remembered all my phone numbers! The awful thing is I now know I have a long, long session in Radio Shack, trying to get my numbers onto my backup phone, getting my old number transferred, and get out without leaving an "arm and a leg" behind.

If you have been trying to call us, well you know why we didn't answer, it never rains but .......!

Photo curtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From Lettuce to Artichokes

Continuing on with my gloomy ruminations on the state of the economy, here are a few statistics to make everyone want to send me email that says “Shut up, already!” Yes, I know, some of you were already thinking of doing that. I’ll bet if I check my inbox, some of you have done that.

According to the Associated Press, wholesale inflation surged in July, with prices rising at the fastest pace in 27 years. The Labor Department reported that wholesale prices shot up 1.2 percent, pushed higher by rising costs for energy, motor vehicles and other products. The Commerce Department reported that housing construction fell in July to the lowest pace in more than 17 years, the weakest showing since March 1991.

Tom and I saw some of this coming and we took a few steps to reduce our expenditures. We had already suspected that our environmental footprint rivaled Bigfoot’s, anyway (no, we do not believe that the picture of the ape costume in the freezer produced by Darrell and Darrell is Bigfoot), so this was a helpful exercise in making us not only more frugal, but greener. We:

1. Stopped eating out, started eating cheap - which means maximizing what we can produce, ourselves. Bugs and grass yield eggs and yogurt, and we can trade the excess milk and eggs for other things. Too bad our garden was such a bust this year. We’re hoping that, next year, Southside will return to its regularly scheduled climate.

2. Reluctantly gave up driving the Boss Hawg diesel truck. I think we threw in the towel at about $3.50/gallon. If the next calves turn out to be steers, we may consider driving oxen to buy groceries. Yes, we are kidding, sort of.

3. Stopped feeding the dogs gourmet dog food. We figured if we can’t eat out, they can eat food that is merely “very good” rather than “organic restaurant quality.” We hope we didn’t pick the one that considers melamine to be a form of protein.

4. Started watching the thermostat. That’s right, at the moment we are just watching it because there isn’t much else to do with it. But when it gets cold, we’ll use more firewood, more sweaters and more alcohol.

What we propose for Virginia to do: Address the state’s energy problem by harnessing the hot air emanating from the General Assembly Building and fueling huge turbines located not in our neighborhood. Alternative energy is the wave of the future, especially if it is located somewhere else.

What we hope you’ll do: Find a way to keep your horses and other animals safely at home, through any of the above measures, or through your own ingenious money saving ideas. If you come up with anything clever, we’ll trade you some eggs for it.

Really, there is some good that can come out of all of this. As someone (Tom, I think) once pointed out to me, there is no earthly reason why humans need to eat lettuce in December. We can eat something else. We can grow more of our own food and even learn to like the Jerusalem Artichokes that are taking over the southwest corner of the yard. Maybe we will all make better decisions, like the ones we made in college when we were really broke. Remember when you could take one paper product and make it into any other? Think about it. I’ll bet I can still make coffee filters out of, well, you get the idea.

Lettuce photo: University of Massachussetts Amherst
Chart photo:

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Green Mile

During the last couple of years, Tom and I have followed economic developments in this country with grave interest. When the housing market went bust, we were unfortunate enough to be caught between real estate transactions, having bought this farm but not having sold the last one. It took us nine months of sleepless nights to finally cut our ties with our Fauquier County farm, and we have felt a sad kinship ever since with everyone caught up in this market. From that start, the credit companies moved to tighten their loan criteria and raise their interest rates, and inflation took a firm hold on the economy. Gas and food prices shot up, lines of credit were canceled and people already on the edge of financial insolvency were pushed off the twin cliffs of foreclosure and bankruptcy.

Among the most poignant victims of this economic perfect storm have been the pets of the families who could not and cannot cope. The shelters are filled to capacity with abandoned cats and dogs, as well as tearfully surrendered canine and feline family members. So, today’s post is about shelter dogs and why one might want to adopt one.

I often ask myself that question. Especially when 12 year-old Bridget forgets that “outside” is a better choice than “inside” at important decision points. Or, when Shandy runs in blind terror from the vacuum cleaner, demolishing everything in her path like a tan cyclone. The mild-mannered, sensible Jack is the epitome of gentlemanly aplomb. But a thick cloud of hair billows permanently behind him like Krakatoa in mid-eruption. How can he actually grow hair fast enough to shed it like that?

The picture above was taken in the Memphis Shelter in 2003. At that time, we were canine rescue volunteers who helped to transport dogs from shelters to rescues, and we also alerted breed rescues to the presence of one of “their” dogs when we spotted one on-line in a kill shelter. This dog is not any particular breed. She is probably several. She is no longer young enough to be cute, not old enough to have been trained. She was nothing special. She was one of a hundred in this shelter and she was out of time. But the fear and confusion in her eyes haunted me and I couldn't put away the image of her desperation. So we made the decision to spring her from the “Big House.” Through the complicated system of rescue volunteers who “pull,” quarantine, shelter and transport, we worked with perhaps a dozen different people to free her from the shelter, have her spayed, vaccinated, and transported, all within the extremely short time frame that shelter dogs live and die in. We drove the last 3 hours of the transport chain to pick her up.

Today, Shandy panics if she even sees a vacuum cleaner. She hides and shakes during thunderstorms. But her enthusiastic welcome is every bit as energetic whether you return home after 5 hours or 5 minutes. She loves for you to come home. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, it improves instantly when you walk in the door. Shandy lives with her best friend, Jack (Graduate of Westmoreland County Shelter, 2003) and Bridget (Hurricane Katrina survivor). All are members of our family that we would not be complete without.

The shelters are full, and there are too many dogs out there just like them. They are just as special and just as deserving of a good home. For anyone who has never considered adopting from a shelter, now would be an excellent time to do so.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Christmas in August

Friday, while driving home, I noticed bright yellow splotches in the poplar trees along the highway. Even though it’s only mid-August, fall is arriving. Fall is my hands-down-favorite time of year. I wilt through August, slumber into September, then about the middle of the month, my whole system gets a reboot and I suddenly feel like I’m twenty again. I love the smells of autumn and the crispness in the air. But this time of year also brings with it the need to plan for the winter months

Despite the lack of a second cutting this year, we believe we have enough hay from the first cutting to last us. We will need to make some changes to the “seating arrangement” in the barns, to make sure that each horse has a warm, dry place to sleep and that the cows can be milked in hygiene and comfort. We also have a few minor repairs still to make to the barns and plumbing, a stable door to hang and some other barnkeeping activities.

The biggest event for us, though, will be the completion of the home dairy we have been working on. We have outfitted one room of the guesthouse with stainless steel sinks, a vinyl floor, a commercial cooler and other amenities to process the gallons of milk we are now getting from the girls. This has been long in coming. Our milk-producing activities will have a home and any guests that come to visit can help themselves to midnight dairy snacks in various stages of development.

Our house was built in the 1920s. At that time, apparently there was not much thought being given to kitchen space. At least, not here. I know people with hot tubs that can accommodate more people than our kitchen can. Making a sandwich requires moves that Martha Graham would have been proud of. And that’s on a good day. For the last month, the kitchen has been stuffed with milking equipment- surge tanks, hoses, storage cans, bags of dairy detergent and a claw that lies creepily submerged in the kitchen sink like a big metallic crab. And it doesn’t end with the kitchen. Our dining room table sports a cream separator, a basket full of cheese-making supplies, six back issues of Equus and a stack of mail we need to keep, but aren’t sure why. The floor is buried under boxes of filters, dairy wipes and stainless utensils. We know other people whose d├ęcor includes a gallon jug of teat dip, but we won’t name them. They know who they are and they understand about all of this. Probably no one else would.

Recently, Tom proposed hiring someone to help clean the house.Tom and I aren’t really the sort of people who would normally hire someone to clean our house. We are more likely to clean it up before the cleaning person gets here (okay, that would be me, but not Tom), and then offer them a cold drink when they arrive (that would be Tom). But this was a practical suggestion, generated in no small part by the aforementioned piles of dairy paraphernalia, but also by the two parrots who hurl seeds across the living room at each other, the three cheerfully shedding house dogs and the ridiculous pace we’ve kept up over the past month. But the sad truth is that we’d need to clear out all the dairy supplies before this house would be navigable to anyone else (except maybe the teat dip jug crowd). In fact, also need to clean it. So, we have temporarily abandoned the idea.

But we await, with keen anticipation, the completion of the home dairy.Somewhere in here is a nice house with a floor and furniture. While uncovering it will not generate quite the excitement of an archaeological dig, it will approximate the joy of Christmas. So we are preparing now, for the winter months, when our animals will be safely tucked away, the house will be clean, and both Tom and I can fit in the kitchen at the same time, possibly with a glass of eggnog. But only if there isn't a coffee cup sitting on the counter.