Harvesting Potatoes

Dateline: 18 October 2006

Picking potatoes in Aroostook County, Maine—back in the day.

I have a special affinity for potatoes, not because I like to eat them (though I do), but because spuds are a big part of my family history.

My mother’s father (the man pictured with me on the cover of this book) was a potato farmer in Aroostook county, Maine. “The County” as it is sometimes called is an enormous expanse of land covering a good portion of northern Maine. My father, who is from the same town as my mother, did not grow up on a potato farm, but both his parents did. So I am one generation removed from potato farming on one side of my family and two generations on the other side.

Back then, agriculture was the major “industry” in Aroostook county. The economy of the area rose and fell with the success or failure of the potato crop. Potatoes were so important that every fall, as far back as people can remember, the schools were recessed for three weeks because the kids were needed to help harvest the potato crop.

A potato digging machine would go down the hilled rows, leaving the potatoes on top of the ground. Cedar-stave potato barrels were positioned throughout the field. People picked the potatoes up and put them in big baskets made of woven ash. When the basket was full the picker carried it to his or her barrel and dumped it in. Pickers were paid by the barrel. Acres of fields were harvested by crews of pickers in this manner.

Boys and girls, men and women, young and old, they all worked together to get the crop in. My grandfather’s 1967 diary reveals that, at 71 years old and retired from farming, he spent time during the harvest season picking potatoes for his neighbor, Roy Webb—and my grandmother picked too! It was an opportunity to make some decent money. But there was something else...

When so many people labor together, for long hours, over many days, in the hot sun, or the cold and rain, to achieve a common goal, and they do this year after year, generation after generation, the shared experience draws them closer. Strong, caring, community develops. It is a good thing. It is the right thing. I believe it is an important element of the way God intended for His people to live their lives—in close agrarian community.

Sadly, with the corporate-industrial takeover of farming, and ever-sprawling urbanism, strong agrarian community bonds are nowhere near what they once were. The exception would be within close-knit agrarian religious sects, like the Amish, who wisely and deliberately separate themselves from any technology that they see as a threat to the unity and strength of their community.

My mother once told me that the best potato picker in her family was my aunt Irene who, incidentally, is the only child of ten in the family who stayed in northern Maine. She still lives just outside the town of Bridgewater.

When I went to my grandmother Kimball’s funeral a couple years ago, my family stayed with my Aunt Irene. I told her what my mother said and asked what her secret was. She said, “I picked with both hands.” I think that is only part of it. I think that to be the best picker takes a very focused, determined attitude, along with both hands working.

Unfortunately, I never picked potatoes in Maine, even though they were still hand-picking when I was a boy. I recall it being suggested that I could (and should) go up and help with the harvest. But Aroostook county is a long way from central New York State (it’s a long way from most everywhere), and I would have had to miss a few weeks of schooling. So the idea was never seriously pursued.

I have, however, harvested my own potatoes, and that’s what I did here a few weeks ago. I planted three 70-foot rows last spring. I hilled them up with a hoe and kept the weeds under control. Incredibly, I did not have any blight or bug problems. It was a great year for growing potatoes.

My potato digger was a stout, four-tine digging fork. I started early in the morning (I’m a morning person). The rest of my family was still in bed. Annie (my mongrel dog) was, as always, close by to keep me company.

Hand-digging potatoes with a fork is downright hard work, and my lower back has, in recent years, become my weakest link. After digging up two rows, I was hurting. So I laid myself down on the grass by the garden. The heavy, cool dew soaked through my clothing and I didn’t care—it felt good.

I was there less than a minute before my son James suddenly appeared, looming over me with another fork in hand, anxious to get digging. Robert was right behind. I love it when boys are eager to work! I only wish I had the same freshness they had. Nevertheless, I struggled to my feet and we worked together on the last row.

Hand-digging potatoes with three people is a whole lot easier and more fun than working by yourself. Two of us, one on each side of the row, foot-pushed our forks into the soft ground and levered them up in unison. As the once-hidden spuds came into view, the third person, on hands and knees, grabbed them and laid them on the just-dug soil behind him.

Here is a picture showing part of our three rows of potatoes on top of the ground, where I left them for a few hours to dry off. Annie is raising her head to the morning sun, soaking up the warm rays.

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You can not build community in a broad sense by digging potatoes with your kids. But you can build a stronger family by working together, sharing in the experiences of planting and preserving and preparing the food, your own homegrown food, year after year, as part of your own unique family culture. Such a way of living brings a richness to family life that no modern amusement can match.

So many modern parents shuttle their children from one outside-the-home activity to another because they want to give their children a variety of opportunities and enrich their lives, preparing them for the future. This is well intentioned and, I suppose, a good thing, but only to a degree. Most, it appears to me, exceed that degree.

Such busyness can never substitute for the benefits that come when the entire family works together at home to provide for the family’s needs—growing food, cutting firewood, building fence, caring for livestock, repairing the barn, hunting, and so forth. Do you want to build a strong family? Park the car. Stay home more. Work together at home more. Play together at home more. Establish traditions in your home. Make memories at home. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Later in the day, the potatoes were picked into crates. The following picture shows our entire potato crop packed into my extremely handy garden cart (plans for which should be in print next spring). The tubers are now stored away in our cellar where they will keep very well through the winter, and into next summer. I think my grandfather would be pleased.

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P.S. The greenery you see growing in the background of the pictures above is buckwheat in blossom. It is growing as a "green manure" where I harvested this year’s garlic. That buckwheat has now been tilled under and I will broadcast some winter rye seed on it, probably this weekend

Diggin', Bluegrass, Bibles, & RIP Grinners

The Big Dig
When I was probably five years old my recently-divorced mother and I lived on the second floor of an apartment building in Springfield, Massachusetts. One day some other apartment boys and I decided to dig a hole out behind the apartment. Using our sandbox shovels and some sticks, we worked away , and I remember one boy saying that if we dug far enough we would end up on the other side of the world, which would be in China. That sounded pretty neat and the thought of it spurred us on.

After awhile, I guess we got bored with that, decided to take a break, found an old metal door knob, and started throwing it at each other. That was a lot of fun until I got hit in the head with the doorknob. It hurt and an alarming amount of blood poured down my face. When I realized what had happened to me, I ran upstairs to the apartment crying hysterically.

My mother assessed the damage, decided I did not need medical attention, cleaned me up, and, like all good mothers, loved me till I calmed down and felt better.

I was reminded of that incident a couple weeks ago when I was planting my garlic. I could hear a lot of activity in the brush over by the woods. I knew my son, Robert, was doing something. After awhile, I decided to take a break to see what was going on. This is what I found...

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The photo shows James at the top and Robert at the bottom. James is mostly watching and Robert is doing all the work. It was his project. He decided that he wanted to dig a big hole, cover it over with brush, and make it into a fort. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the size of the hole and his enthusiasm. After looking it over I headed back to my garlic planting.

A little while later Robert came out to the garden holding a small measuring cup of water. He had hit a spring and clean water was pouring into the side of a post hole in the bottom of the big hole. So I followed him back and took this picture of Robert in the bottom sipping a hard-earned cup of spring water.

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My Good Country Neighbor
Speaking of garlic, I wrote a few blogs back about how I plant garlic. The only thing I didn’t get done when planting was put straw mulch on the wide rows. Well, yesterday I was visiting with one of my neighbors who is a farmer and I asked if he might have some bales of straw that I could buy. “Sure do.” he replied with a big smile. “How many thousand do you want?”

I said I was only looking for 30 and that I wasn’t looking for a deal—I would pay him whatever he felt was a fair price. He asked if oat straw was good and I said it was. Then he told me 30 bales was about a ton and said I could have the bales for $2.50 each. That was good with me, especially since he offered to bring the bales over to my house as soon as he and his son could get them loaded. Now that’s a good neighbor for you!

I met my friend and his son at the garlic bed, Robert and James helped us unload the straw, and we talked for awhile. It’s always a nice thing to visit with your neighbors over a load of straw. I ended up showing them my short row of mangle beets. They had never seen such things. We talked about the growing season. We talked about local politics. We talked about the decline of dairy farms in our area. We talked about the price of land. And more. It was cold and windy, so we didn’t talk long, but we covered a lot of territory just the same.


My New Neighbor
Speaking of land, I blogged awhile back about a real fine parcel of woods-and-field farmland that went up for sale just around the corner from me. I was hoping that land would not sell any time soon and the price would drop. But that was wishful thinking.

The land sold fast. I heard (from the fellow I bought straw from) that it was purchased by a father and son who intend to build two homes and raise some beef cattle.

I don’t know who these people are but already I’m liking them—two generations living on the same land and working together on an agrarian enterprise. It’s a beautiful concept. I hope they will prove to be kindred spirits and good country neighbors.


What’s A RIP Grinner?
My aspiring trapper sons, Robert and James call possums “grinners.” And a roadkill possum is a “RIP grinner.”


Bluegrass Birthday Present
For James’s birthday yesterday I gave him a Kruger Brothers bluegrass CD that I purchased from Rick Saenz at Cumberland Books. The Kruger Brothers play some real pleasant, down-to-earth music. We’ve had their album “Up18North” for some time and James really likes it (I do too). He was thrilled to get another bluegrass CD. I’ve also purchased the Ed Snodderly CD, “Brier Visions” and we like that too.

None of the music is particularly Christian (though the Krugers have a gospel CD). But, like I said, it is, for the most part, very pleasant music to listen too— unlike rap and rock and whatever else your typical modern youngster is blasting into his or her brains these days. I’m delighted that James and I can enjoy bluegrass together.

You can check out Cumberland’s bluegrass music selections here.


Buying Bibles
...And enjoy the bluegrass we did as, after a birthday lunch of chicken wing pizza, James and Robert and I headed to a Christian bookstore in Syracuse. We were on a mission. I have been intending to buy each of them a new bible for some time. I gave my oldest son, Chaz, a bible a couple years ago for Christmas. But I had not yet given one to the younger boys. It isn’t that they do not have bibles because they do. There is no shortage in this house. But they did not have a bible that was specifically given to them by their father.

Now they do. We spent quite awhile looking over the good selection the store had. We even did a couple of sword drills there in the store to try them out. We had a good time. Now I’ll write in the front of each, with a verse or two for each boy.


A Rare Photo
I’m going to show you a rare photograph. Here it is....

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The short fellow on the right is my youngest son, James, who has been pictured on this blog many times. The bigger lad on the left is my oldest son, Chaz, who I do not think has ever been pictured here. So that’s what makes this a rare picture.

They were working together, stacking our winter supply of firewood. James had his CD player on the woodpile, playing his new Kruger Brothers music. It was a beautiful thing to see my oldest and my youngest working together. I just had to take a picture.


Please Don’t Forget The Fullers
A few blog entries back I wrote about the unexpected news that Brian Fuller has been diagnosed with very serious pancreatic cancer. I asked for prayer for Brian and Christina and their young family as they go through this difficult time. Many have lovingly and prayerfully responded. I’d just like to remind you to please continue keeping this family in your prayers.

Christina has written more specifically about their situation here.

Twelve Years Old Today

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I believe it is good to give children family names or name them in honor of virtuous people. In the former case it connects and grounds a child to the family. In the latter it connects them to persons that you hope they will learn about and whose character they will emulate.

With that in mind, my youngest son was named after two brave and notable Christian men: Dr. James Dobson, stalwart defender of Christian civilization (the family in particular), and George Washington, the great agrarian general who, by the grace of God, led a ragtag group of farmer-soldiers to victory over what was then the greatest military force in the world, then selflessly served as the fledgling republic’s first (possibly even it’s finest) President.

James Washington Kimball, was born twelve years ago today. I remember that it was a sunny day and Marlene remembers that he, who will forever be her baby, came into the world easier than the other two. I remember also that, unlike with the others, my mother was present to see this child born. That was special.

And he is a uniquely special boy, just as his brothers are. God has blessed James with a healthy body, an active mind, better than average intelligence, incredible confidence, a loving heart, and an outgoing personality. He is also a son who honors his father and mother. It is an amazing thing to watch this child grow up. He is, simply put, a miracle and a blessing to his family.

Today I give special thanks to God for James. My prayer for this young boy is that he will grow and mature into a man who knows Jesus Christ as his Lord and loves Him with his whole heart.

In the midst of this rebellious culture we live in, where the masses of merely-mortal men exalt themselves, their strength, and their intelligence above the everlasting, holy, sovereign God of the universe, I pray that this son of mine will be a warrior standing steadfast in his Christian faith, doing that which is pleasing to the Lord, loving His law, regardless of what men may think or say.

I pray that my son will know the fear of the Lord and develop a humble spirit, acknowledging God, not himself, as the source of all that he has and is.

I pray that he will reject sloth and embrace the virtue of hard work; that he will employ his natural talents with creativity and due diligence to provide for himself, his family, the body of Christ, and others as God leads him, not for earthly praise, but because that is what men of God do—for His glory.

I pray that my son will one day be a godly husband and father, leading with love, wisdom, strength, and courage, raising sons and daughters to know and love the Lord as he does, unto many generations.

That is my prayer for you, James, (and for your two older brothers). Please notice I did not pray that you would be famous, that you would win the praises of men, that you would make a lot of money, that you would live in a big expensive home, that you would own a fancy car, that you would travel the world seeking thrills, or one exotic experience after another, that you would achieve a position of power and authority in the world’s structure, or even that you would live a life of ease. I did not ask the Lord for those things for you because they are not what is most important in this brief span of days we are allotted here on this earth. It’s all about faith, family,and living the good life—the good life as defined by He who created you and the world you live in. It’s all about loving and blessing others and serving as He leads you. Never forget that

And never forget that your daddy loves you!

Happy Birthday “Jimmy George.”

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How I Plant My Garlic

Dateline: 11 October 2006
Updated: 10 April 2013

Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, is the traditional target date for planting garlic here in the northeastern United States. The objective is to get your cloves in the earth so they have time to put down roots (but not much topgrowth) before winter dormancy sets in. Then, first thing in the spring, often with snow still on the ground, vibrant green shoots emerge with their promise—spring is about to arrive; tulips and daffodils will follow. Garlic knows.

In past years I have planted my garlic as late as the second week of November and it still turned out just fine. But November-cold ground pulls the heat out of your fingers as you work, leaving them stiff and aching. Things are not usually much better above ground in November. Such weather takes the pleasure out of planting and that is a shame. Planting should be a joyful process, even if it is work. This year I had an absolutely perfect day for planting.

I walked out of my house that morning and, like every good agrarian, paused for a visual drink of earth and sky. There was a chill in the air but the sun was coming up strong and confident. The proverbial frost on my deck pumpkins was just starting to melt. A fading-white, spectral moon hung in the clear blue northern sky. Only hours before, that moon had been so full-orbed and golden in the blackness—a quintessential harvest moon.

Yes, it would be a glorious autumn day in which to plant 1,200 cloves of German Allium sativum. That is my usual planting. It is not a lot but it is as much as I can properly care for as a part time garlic farmer. Next August I will harvest enough bulbs to make around 1,000 ounces of gourmet stiffneck garlic powder. After setting aside for my family’s needs, every granule of the wholesome, flavorful powder will be sold, typically within a couple of months. And I’ll use a portion of my bulb harvest as seed for the next year. Sustainability is a beautiful thing.

The evening before planting day, I spent a couple hours in my shop, carefully pulling the bulbs apart. I set the largest cloves aside for planting. The smaller cloves went into a different pile. They will be peeled, sliced, dried and ground into powder. Cloves with even a hint of mold or spoilage were thrown away. Blemished cloves render sick plants. And only the best cloves make the best powder.

Two days before my day of planting, the 20 ft by 50 ft patch of ground I had selected for growing the garlic in was covered with a dense, lush stand of green buckwheat. I planted the fast-growing, weed-choking grain about a month ago. Prior to that, the ground had been an old hay field, untended for many years. It is my neighbor’s field. He graciously allows me use of it. I pay him with garlic powder.

I mowed the buckwheat down with my push lawnmower. Then I chopped it up and tilled it under with a couple passes of my rototiller. The next day I tilled the ground again, leaving it soft and unmarked by any footprints—a perfect planting bed.

I have planted my garlic in garden beds and I have planted it in single rows but my favorite way to plant is in wide-rows. The beauty of a wide-row is that the plants, once they are grown act as a “living mulch,“ holding moisture in and depriving the underlying weeds of nourishing sunlight.

I have written about my wide bed planting approach in the book, Making Great Garlic Powder: Homegrown And Homemade Secrets From A Garlic Powder Guru. What follows is a quote from the book. Pictures to illustrate then follow:

”I admit to being a little obsessive about how I plant my garlic. Not only do I want the garlic bulbs to grow well, I want them to be visually pleasing in their arrangement. That means I plant my garlic intensively (close together) in wide rows and space the bulbs with geometric precision. You can do this too, if you like, without a lot of trouble, by following my simple planting system. I’ve used this system to plant several thousand garlic bulbs, but it will work just fine for a small planting too. An alternate planting approach is to just space your bulbs by eye in a bed—they won’t mind a bit if they aren’t perfectly aligned, and they’ll taste just the same too.

I start with a tilled-up section of garden space. Then I measure and drive a stake to mark the centerline of each wide-row bed I want to create.... The stakes are spaced [42 inches] apart. I string a line between two stakes, about one foot off the ground. The string serves to help me align my planting template.

The planting template is a piece of 1/8” Masonite (a.k.a. hardboard) twenty-four inches wide and eight feet long. Onto the template I have carefully marked out the bulb spacing I want in the bed. Seven-inch spacing in alternating rows of two and three bulbs results in forty garlic spaces in the template. Using a hole saw in a drill, I make a hole where I’ve marked for each garlic clove to be planted.

To use the template, lay it on the tilled ground and position it so the center holes line up directly under the string. I then mark each planting space by dusting some white powdered lime over the holes. That done, I pick the template up and move it down the row, repeating the process....

In the book there is an illustration of the template. This next picture shows the string line with the planting template centered underneath. At the other end of the row is yours truly planting garlic cloves (the cloves are in the white bucket). My incredibly handy homemade garden cart is clearly visible, as is my faithful dog, Annie. She likes to stay close by when I’m working in my garden. In the background is my home. The trees beyond are quickly approaching peak autumn color. The yellow and red leaves are just beginning to fall. I know that one good storm, with wind and rain, can strip most of the leaves away in a matter of hours, so I made a point that day to observe and appreciate the beauty around me.

And in so doing I saw my first-of-the-season V-formation of Canadian geese fly over. I stopped to count them. Twenty eight, heading southeast. By the way, you can see the nicely tilled ground in the left of the picture.

planting garlic 1:
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I plant German “stiffneck” garlic. It has large cloves arranged around the central stem. So each clove is triangular shaped in cross section, like the wedge-shaped slices of a pie. When planting, I cradle the clove with three fingers. My thumb is on the outside of the bulb (the crust edge of the pie piece) with my index and middle finger on the other sides, as shown in the next picture. the pointed tip of the clove is facing my palm. You want the pointed tip aiming up when planted. If you plant the clove upside down, the greens will emerge under the clove and have to fight their way upwards to the sun.

I plant by pushing my fingers into the earth until the bottom of the clove is seated down into a firm bed of soil. Around 3” deep is good, and that is about up to my knuckles—a little deeper than shown in the third photo below. Notice also in the right side of the pictures you can see the tip of a planted clove.

planting garlic 2:
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In this next picture you can see across several planted and cratered wide rows. Each 20-foot long wide-row contains 95 garlic cloves and there are thirteen rows.

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And here (below) is a close up of me, taken by my son, Robert (who took most of the pictures in this essay). I’m enjoying myself. Planting garlic on a warm, sunny day in October beats working in a factory, which is what I do for a living. I actually got a bit of a sunburn that day.

If you are particularly observant, you will have noticed that in the first picture of me planting (when I was starting out) I am standing and bending over to place the cloves in their allotted positions. But in this later picture, I am planting on my knees beside the row. That bending over can be hard on a back!

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After the planting is done, it’s time to cover the cloves and fertilize the crop. I do this all in one operation by putting a handful of compost on top of every “clove crater.” The next picture shows my compost pile, with son, James.

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This compost pile is located adjacent to my chicken yard (the fence in the background). It is actuallypositioned right where last year’s chicken yard was. Some of the fence posts are still there and visible in the picture.

I build my compost pile by tossing all organic matter from my yard, garden, and kitchen into the chicken yard all summer long. The chickens scratch through and add their contributions. Then, in the fall, I fork the perimeter into the center and end up with a big heap. The pile in the picture has been rotting down, undisturbed for about a year. It is dark, crumbly, absolutely beautiful compost.

I usually sift my compost through a mechanical compost sifter that I invented. But I recently took the motor off to power an apple grinder (another invention I’m working on). So I didn’t sift the compost before putting it on my garlic. I just pulled out larger sticks and stones and bits of plastic baling twine, and I even found the good paring knife we lost last year. The resulting compost was almost like sifted, as you can see in the next photograph.

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What you can’t see in the above photo is the dried blood meal I mixed into the compost with a hoe. Altogether I used a 50 pound bag of the dried blood powder to fertilize this year’s garlic. The blood is a slow-release organic source of nitrogen that the garlic will utilize to grow healthy, lush leaves in the spring.

This next picture shows me putting a liberal handful of compost onto each clove.

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The final planting step is to cover the rows with a blanket of straw mulch. I don’t have a picture of that because I am publishing this essay two days after planting and I don’t yet have the straw to mulch with. But there is time yet to get that done before the snow and bitter cold of winter arrive. The hardest work of planting is done and it is always a good feeling when your crop is in the ground.

I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to how I plant my garlic. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below.


I invite you to read more of my garlic-related blog essays:

Making Pickled Garlic Scapes

Selling My Garlic Powder At The Farmer’s Market

Home-Based Agrarian Enterprises & Garlic Powder Profits

Curing Garlic Bulbs

Finding Good Land Cheap

A few blogs back I told you about a nice section of woods-and-field farm land around the corner from me that was up for sale. I thought the price was high at around $1,000 an acre. Those who responded to the matter said that, compared to where they live, the price was cheap.

I mentioned this to a guy I know who sells real estate. He told me that real estate in Central New York is priced comparatively less than many other places in the country, but taxes are a whole lot more here. I asked how other states raised the money they needed to run the government. He replied that they don’t need as much to run the government in other states because the government is not so big and wasteful. This is, after all, New York State.

So I looked at the assessed value of my little home on 1.5 acres out in the countryside. My property is assessed just shy of $40,000. When I figure in the equalization rate, the actual full value of the property comes out to $86,500. Based on that value, my school taxes, which I just paid, were $800. My property taxes are around $1,200. So I’m paying a couple thousand bucks for taxes each year on this little homestead.

I’m curious to know how that compares to other rural places in the U.S. I’m not asking for personal info. I’m just wondering if my real estate friend is correct. Does my property tax burden sound high, low or comparable to what you are paying?

As for how to find good farm land cheap, I have a theory for determining where to begin looking.

First, get a map of the United States and focus on the general area you would be willing to live in. For me, that would be from the Northeast, down to the Virginia/North Carolina border, and over to the Mississippi river.

Then take a compass and mark a 150 mile radius circle around the major cities, like New York. Draw a 50 mile radius circle around the large cities like Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester (I’m thinking of N.Y. geography). Draw a 25 mile radius around small cities like Auburn, Cortland, and Ithaca. Trace the coast with a 50-mile swath. Do the same with 50 miles down each side of any major interstate roads. Color in all the marked-out areas. Identify where farmland is within any remaining area. Highlight and start looking there.

Maybe, if I did that, I’d find a rough in the diamond, like this.

Goin’ To The Trappers Convention

“I grew up in the suburbs and never did any of this stuff when I was a kid.”

That’s what I said to one grizzled old trapper I met at the trapper’s convention my two sons and I recently attended.

The man’s expression changed from a friendly smile to furrowed-brow mock concern, as if I had just told him of the death of a family member or, perhaps, the demise of my favorite cur coon hound (if I had one).

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” he replied.

I chuckled at his response but it made me think... it is a sorry thing. For so many generations, rural men have trapped for food and fur and to protect their livestock from predators. These men taught their sons to do the same. Together, they shared in the experiences that come with this ancient agrarian rite of passage.

I know several men who learned to trap from their fathers. But almost none of these men have taught their sons. Only in recent history has this multigenerational skill declined so that it is now almost extinct.

Many fathers these days are too preoccupied with conforming to the industrial system of laboring away from their homes for long hours. They simply don’t have time to teach such things to their sons. And so many sons are too busy conforming to an aimless youth culture defined by rebellious inner city hoodlums.

Besides that, in our “enlightened" modern age, animals now have new rights. They are people too, you know. They have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Incredibly, in some people’s minds, some animals have more of a right to their lives than does an unborn baby in its mother’s womb.

Fur trapping is now politically incorrect. Nevertheless, two of my sons have, by God’s grace, expressed a great interest in trapping animals for their fur. I say “by God’s grace” because, with so many popular culture opiates vying for a boy’s attention, I dare say it has to be something of a miracle that any boy would desire to trap and harvest wild animals for their furs.

Though I can not teach my sons to trap, I can encourage their interest and, together, we can learn. With that in mind, early this last spring, the three of us took a New York State trapper’s certification course. I wrote about it here.

I also bought the book, Trapping North American Furbearers, by Stanley Hawbaker. I bought that book because Scott Terry, who is a real farmer/trapper recommended it. I also bought a couple trapping videos. One is all about trapping coons with Tom Miranda. The other video has four hours of fur handling instruction (skinning, fleshing, etc) for all kinds of critters from coyotes to skunks. The Stanley Hawbaker book is now dog-eared. It was the one book, besides his Bible, that James took to Bible Camp last summer. And the videos have been watched many times.

Last month we expanded out knowledge of trapping by going to the New York State Trapper’s Convention in Frankfort, N.Y. The convention consisted of a lot of vendors selling all kinds of trapping supplies. Some of the vendors were professional trap supply retailers, but many were tailgate sellers. We made several rounds of the show and discussed among ourselves what we needed to get and where it would be best to get it.

There were also seminars to attend throughout the day. One seminar we went to was about coyotes. we learned that, back in the 1800’s, there were no coyote east of the Mississippi. There were, however, timber wolves. As the wolf population was destroyed (because they preyed upon farm animals) the coyote moved in.

Many coyote are so big (up to 80 pounds) that they are mistaken for wolves. The way to tell the difference is by the feet. Coyote, even the biggest examples, have dog-size feet. Wolves have much larger feet.

At another seminar we learned about hunting and harvesting ginseng from a ginseng hunter. That was interesting.

Then, right after the ginseng seminar, a couple of fellows showed up with some tools to give an unscheduled trapping demonstration. It turned out to be Andy Stoe, of buckwheat hull and trap-dip fame, and the renowned Adirondack trapper, Johnny Thorpe. Here (below) is a picture of Johnny making a dirt set. Me and my boys had a front row seat, and learning from Johnny was one of the highlights of our day.

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Another neat thing about the convention was the “grub stake” trapper baskets they gave to kids throughout the day. The baskets were stocked with traps and supplies and they gave one out every couple of hours. After they announced a winner, the drawing started all over again and we would head back to the main building so Robert and James could get their names in the box again. There were a few kids at the convention with their dad’s but not too many.

Even still, James and Robert did not win a grub stake. So we started buying some supplies. James bought himself a pack basket, a couple conibear 160 traps, and some of Andy Stoe’s trap dip (this is where his farm market earnings came in handy). Robert bought some used #1 traps from a tailgate seller. I bought three coon-cuff traps, which are designed to catch coons but not dogs. Then I bought a dozen #1 traps which will also get a coon, but will work for mink too. We’re focusing on coon and mink because we know they are active along the creek that runs behind our house.

I also bought a Johnny Thorpe video (which was good but not great), a book about ginseng, and a thin pamphlet-like book telling how to make and use “wooden egg” traps for catching coons.

The wooden eggs are nothing more than plywood boxes with a small diameter hole in the top and a trap inside. Bait is put inside. The coon reaches in the top and the trap snaps. Wooden eggs work on the same principle as coon cuffs but are cheaper and allow the use of #1 traps. I have some scrap 3/4” plywood in my shop and it’ll be a good project for us to make the boxes together.

I guess we did our part to help the economy by buying those things and some other ancillary equipment that day. In theory, trapping should pay for itself. Robert and James hope for a profit and I hope they do make some money at it. I understand fur prices are up after years of being down. Whatever the case, in my mind, it really isn’t about making money. It’s about anticipation, adventure, having a good time together, and making memories.

Stay tuned....

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If you like hunting, trapping, guns, and stuff like that, I invite you to read some more of my essays...

How Not to Shoot The Bull

Trapping Class

The Charging Woodchuck

Boys Will Be....Warriors (Part 1)

Boys Will Be...Warriors (Part 2)

Rabbit Hunting Boy

Life Lessons From an Old Maine Woodsman

Needed: More Americans With Guns

How to Butcher a Chicken

The Fun, Fast Way to Skin a Deer

Industrialized Christianity

Dateline: 4 October 2006

As I've stated in my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian, and in other places, the Industrial Revolution of the mid 1800's led to the total upheval and near destruction of traditional, Biblically-based, predominantly agrarian, family life. A way of life which, I hasten to point out, had been lived to various degrees by Christians for centuries. My point being— the typical way of life for families in our modern culture is a complete historical abberation.

The Christian church was inexorably reformed by industrial thought and attitude too. Take, for example, the modern-day evangelical alter call. These days, syncretistic and scientific psychological methods are often used to achieve high numbers of "decisions for Christ" within the shortest amount of time. But such decisions are often shallow, short-lived, and, ultimately, counterproductive.

I suspect modern Christianity, as practiced by the masses, is so far divorced (in time and practice) from true Christianity that we who call ourselves Christians, and see the error, have a hard time understanding how it should be and how to get back to where we belong.

Our 2006 Family Vacation

Last year I wrote a blog titled, Great Agrarian Vacations. Today’s story goes perfectly with that one....

Genesee Country Village in Mumford, New York is a living history museum that my family visited last weekend. The village is less than two hours from our home. We have been there before but it’s the kind of place that you can go to often and enjoy every time.

The village consists of 68 historic buildings with heirloom gardens, period interpreters, and demonstrations. There is also a wildlife art gallery with Remington bronzes and paintings going back to the 16th century. Last weekend, the village was hosting an old time agricultural fair, which was all the more reason for us to be there.

After paying the fee and getting into the village, Marlene and Chaz headed in one direction, while Robert and I headed in another. James, The Independent One, blazed his own trail. That is what he usually does. I had the camera and managed to get a few pictures:

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Above is a picture of two impressive oxen. When I went to school in Vermont back in 1976-77, the school’s farm had a couple of red oxen like these. I drove them with calls of ”Git up.” (get moving), “Kimme a haw” (turn right), ”Gee over” (turn left), and ”Whoa.” (stop). They are intelligent beasts and I’ve had a special regard for them ever since.

There were lots more animals at the fair, including a poultry barn and the two beautiful creatures in this next photo. They are Indian Runner ducks.

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Robert and I took our time as we went from place to place. At 15 years old, he is far more observant, interested, and understanding of things than he was when we were at the village several years ago, and that pleased me. After a couple hours, we ran into Marlene and Chaz at the 1848 octagon home known as Hyde House. Then, a little later, we crossed paths with James. He had been to the tinsmith shop, where he made a simple punched-tin Christmas tree ornament, as pictured here:

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The three of us explored together for awhile. We spent a lot of time watching the cooper as he made a piggin. I’ve been intrigued by the cooper’s craft since I was a little boy and helped my grandfather (the man on the cover of this book) repair cedar potato barrels in the basement of his barn. When I was a teenager, I made some small pine-stave canisters.

James and Robert both enjoyed watching the cooper and, again, that pleased me. The blacksmith shop and pottery shop were also particularly great places to spend some time watching, asking questions, and learning.

At one corner of the village square there were old time toys and games for kids (and adults) to play with. Here’s a picture of Robert on stilts. I walked with the stilts too but we didn’t need a picture of that.

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We stayed until the village was about to close. The last thing Robert and I did was visit the art museum. Outside were several bronze sculptures of animals like the bears in this next picture.

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Unfortunately, I was not a good photojournalist that day. I never got a picture of Marlene and Chaz! And there was one other thing I should have taken a picture of. It was a “make do” we saw at the tavern. The interpreter pointed it out to us on a shelf behind the bar. It was a pottery pitcher with a broken handle. Instead of throwing the pitcher away, it was repaired by sending it to the tinsmith. He affixed a tin band around the top and the bottom of the piece and connected a carefully-fashioned handle between the two bands.

People in the 1800’s did not throw away things like we do today. They made do by fixing, and not only with pottery but with everything else. It was, to my way of thinking, one of the best things I saw at the village that day and I was so glad that Robert saw it and heard the story. Later, as I commented on the “make do” Robert told me that one of the old wooden folding chairs we bought from the Moravia Grange Hall last summer had been nicely repaired on one leg with a metal plate and that was a “make do.”

After we left the village we checked in to a Fairfield Inn and went to dinner at a Cracker Barrel. The next day we drove to Marlene’s brother and sister in law’s home in Lima N.Y. for a nice lunch. The house they live in is an 1840 cobblestone structure that was originally a schoolhouse. We left with several bushels of apples from their trees.

So it was a two-day trip focusing on history, agrarian themes, and family. That made it a short but sweet vacation. Sometimes those are the best kind.


If you are ever around Rochester, New York, treat yourself to a day at the Genesee Country Village and Museum. Here is the link.

You Know You're An Agrarian If....

I've been intending to post here asking readers to finish the sentence, "You know you're an agrarian if....."

But Marci over at her blog, Down On The Farm sort of beat me to it. She is running a contest asking the question, "You might belong on a homestead if...." and she has gotten some good answers.

A couple of my own answers to the question would be:

....if you know what a chicken tractor is.

....if you have a chicken tractor on your front lawn.

....if you would rather talk about chicken tractors and poultry processing and gardening and making compost and stuff like that instead of current television programs and sports and stuff like that (which you don't have a clue about).

....if all your family vacations involve visiting some sort of living history museum (i.e. Sturbridge Village) or an agricultural fair.

....if you grow your own ammo for your spudgun(s).

If you have your own ideas for finishing the sentence, please click on the link to Marci's blog and contribute it there.

Mary Jane’s Bed & Breakfast

I received the most recent issue of the Acres U.S.A. magazine a few days ago and there was a familiar face on the cover. It was Mary Jane Butters in her field, digging garlic.

I was introduced to Mary Jane a couple years ago when I discovered the magazine, Mary Jane’s Farm at a bookstore in Syracuse, N.Y. Though geared more toward a female readership, I was smitten with Mary Jane’s Farm because it was a celebration of so many things that I hold dear: good homegrown food, a simplified rural lifestyle, organic and sustainable agriculture, physical work, creativity, family, and close community relationships.

Another thing I appreciate, and I think Mary Jane has done it in every issue of her magazine, is that she writes stories about her parents, honoring them for their simple down-home virtues. MJ frequently does the same thing with elderly people she knows or has known.

The only thing missing from Mary Jane’s Farm that I would so love to see in such a publication is an overt Biblical worldview. Mary Jane grew up Mormon and her current theology, as expressed through the magazine, is unclear to me. Nevertheless, so far, I’ve really enjoyed looking into the artfully crafted and vary carefully presented world of Mary Jane’s Farm.

I saw in my first issue of the magazine that Mary Jane was a devoted garlic grower, so I sent her a copy of my book, The Complete Guide To Making Great Garlic Powder, and a jar of my homemade garlic powder. To my surprise, Mary Jane published my letter, a picture of my book, and a hearty
endorsement in the next issue of her magazine. It was in the “Plateful” issue. All back issues, except the first, are still available (and I have them all).

Mary Jane is exceptionally good at promoting herself and her business. That is self evident when you read the magazine or click your way through her web site. Earlier this year she published her first book, an expanded agrarian celebration, much like an issue of her magazine but considerably bigger. I understand that Mary Jane got a 1.35 million advance from the publisher for that book.

I once got a $10,000 advance for a book I wrote for The Taunton Press. At the time, I thought that was a lot of money. But I had not yet written the book. After I got it done, I realized the advance wasn’t much at all. Obviously, Mary Jane is in a different league than I am! I don’t begrudge her the success. In fact, I am
delighted to see it because I think MJ is a sincere woman and, like I said, I like most of the message she is so capably communicating.

Well, I guess what I’ve written thus far is an introduction because I haven’t yet told you about what I posted this blog for. My actual purpose for telling you about Mary Jane is to tell you about the Acres USA article.

It so happens that, along with everything else she does, Mary Jane has a most unusual Bed & Breakfast on her organic farm in Idaho. Mary Jane’s B&B guests stay in tents. No kidding. But these aren’t your typical Coleman nylon camping tents. They are big canvas wall tents. Here’s a quote from Mary Jane’s daughter, Meghan:

“We have five secluded wall tents nestled throughout our orchards,” said Meghan, “each with a salvaged barn-wood floor and a full antique iron bed blanketed in organic sheets and piled high with goose down pillows and comforters. The tents are lit with oil lanterns and warmed by wood-burning stoves that can be used for cooking. Each tent also has front and rear decks for enjoying a good book to the chorus of crickets, and a fully functional outdoor kitchen with propane stove, cold-water sink and campfire. Our guests share our environmentally friendly outhouses and shower houses.”

You can (and should!) see the tents here. And check out the prices too.

How many people would have thought that putting guests up in tents would be so popular and profitable? Such an idea is a tribute to Mary Jane’s practicality, resourcefulness, and ingenuity.


Back in the summer of 1977 I lived in a small tent in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I was working for Bruce and Patty Womer, helping them restore a large, old, New England clapboard building that would become part of the Craftsbury Inn. My tent was a two-man backpacking tent—far smaller than a 12-foot by 14-foot wall tent. I didn’t have goose down pillows or any other fancy amenities. But I was still cozy and comfortable and dry (even in the rain). Sleeping outside close to the night air was so refreshing. It’s a nice memory.


In my dreams, one day, perhaps, when my family gets ourselves some field and woodland acreage, we will find an appropriate spot, build a platform, and put up a wall tent. It can serve as an inexpensive family getaway, a base camp for the kids to hunt from, a place for us to stay as we work and improve the land. In time, we
would think about building a home for ourselves. You gotta have a dream. That’s what we are working towards and I think a wall tent will fit into it very nicely.

Oh, and here is another really great thing about a wall tent base camp-- you don’t have to pay taxes on a tent!