Tuesday, August 28, 2012

She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain

Last week my family was together vacationing in Twin Lakes, Colorado.  It was as gorgeous as I had expected (or even more so)!  
This was the view from our house.  
I at times wondered why I live in Illinois when such landscapes as this can be seen right outside the window.  
(I'm still chewing on this one...I think it has something to do with corn...and beans...and chickens...but I'll get back to you.) 

So anyway, on Thursday of last week we decided to hike Mount Elbert.  Haven't heard of Mt. Elbert?  That's no surprise. Neither had I!  Nestled next to Twin Lakes, Mt. Elbert is what hikers call a "14-er"...it's the highest mountain in Colorado and the second highest in the lower 48 States.  Who knew?? Right?!  Definitely missed that in Geography class.  

So a handful of us decided to hike it since we were in the neighborhood.  

A bit of background on the crew- my brother-in-law, Brian, is a regular hiker of tall things. And my twin sister and her husband, Leslie and Pat, are avid runners in great physical condition.
Ryan and I...we are....
hmm...we are...???
Well, put plainly, we are a devastatingly handsome farmer and his somewhat active wife.  
But we were told that anyone with "basic fitness" could do the hike. 
No problem.  We got this.  

Not being able to sleep the night before should have served as a forewarning.  
My unconscious trying desperately to warn me of ominous things to come.  

Not to be thwarted, we started out early, leaving the house at 5:30AM.  After getting through the Aspens, both Ryan and I fell to the back of the pack and started huffing.  

The conversation went about like this:
Leslie - Are you guys doing ok?
Lin - *GASP*  Yep...*GASP* Totally hanging in there...*GASP*
Leslie - We can stop if you guys want a break.
Lin - *GASP* Ok...*GASP* A break might be...*GASP* a good *GASP* idea.  

 Here's the team during one of our breaks.  (Did I mention that I love..seriously L.O.V.E. breaks??)

Are we there yet???!!?  It was at this point that I seriously questioned my sanity in even starting such a venture.   I was whipped, and not even in sight of the summit.  

After four hours of steep uphill climbing, my legs and lungs revolting, desperate prayers for mercy, numerous liters of water, untold breaks, a near heart attack (just kidding...I think) and tender encouragement from my Sweetheart, we finally arrived at the summit.  

While pretty heady stuff, I was suddenly struck by the urge to crawl.  A precipice on either side, I feared falling off the side of the mountain.  Not quite the pinnacle experience I expected.  But Brian and Ryan had no qualms about dancing with danger...

One thing I took away from the hike - a change in perspective can change so much.  When we realize our feet are planted on the biggest and most secure Rock, the other mountains and challenges don't seem so big.  

Friday, August 17, 2012


Let me give you a little background from the past week - 
Sunday night, Roxanne, the woman who boards her horses behind our house, came to our door with a coffee can full of eggs.  Evidently, the girls had been laying their eggs in the horses' hay in the barn.  Ryan and I had been wondering if they had been laying eggs outside of the coop, as we seemed to only get one egg each day (which seemed a little too...coordinated?!..shall we say, for our chickens).  

So I was distraught. 
The nail-biting and lip-chewing commenced.  
Why didn't they want to lay in their home??  

I felt like Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore...
"Are you too good for your Hooommmee??"  

Ryan and I pondered.  And we deliberated.  And then it struck me - they hadn't had a chance to make the laying boxes (which we had recently added) home.  Many a' pregnant woman can tell you - the nesting instinct can be strong.  Who wants to bring home their child (or in our case, their precious egg) to a unprepared, muddled mess??  

So Ryan stuffed the laying boxes with even more straw and we left the girls in the coop for two days straight.  They needed some concentrated time to make these boxes "home".  And nesting they did! 

So much so, in fact, that the second day this is what Ryan found - 
THREE EGGS IN THE SAME NEST!!! Evidently, there had been some competition for this particular box.  Everyone wants the corner lot, I guess.

And today, this is what I came home to - 
An egg (or two) in three out of the four laying boxes!!  

That goes to show - with a little nesting...a little effort to make one's environment "home"...we can let down our guard, and eggs, to relax in comfort and familiarity.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I Can Can!

If visions of french saloon girls doing high kicks in black stockings have entered your mind - 

Forgive me.  This is a farm life blog.  
I am not about to do the Cancan. Nor should anyone with the limited flexibility and balance that I experience.  

No, I mean, I can can. And so can you! 

Not I cancan.  

In fact, my sweet friend (and lucky for me, my sister-in-law) Sara came over on Friday to do some canning.   Neither of us had formerly done any canning.  But we decided it was for us.  I have an abundance of tomatoes and have always wanted to try my hand at making strawberry preserves.  Now, after having finished two rounds of canning, I am definitely a fan!  And I wanted to share the general process for those of you who also might be interested in partaking in this centuries-old practice.  

The general process is as follows - 
  • Clean/sterilize jars and lids
  • Prepare food to be canned
  • Fill jars and cover with lids
  • Process in boiling water bath
  • Cool and test lids

Here are the ingredients for the strawberry preserves (aka strawberry jam).  Get yourself some jars (we used Ball and Kerr) with lids, strawberries, fruit pectin (I used Sure-Jell), and sugar....LOTS of sugar.  Actually, copious amounts of sugar.  

Wash and rinse the jars thoroughly.  This recipe calls for processing jars in the boiling water bath for 10 minutes once filled, so there is no need to sterilize them ahead of time.  However, if you are using another recipe where the jars are not processed for 10 minutes or more, you will need to sterilize the jars and lids ahead of time.  You can do this by boiling them in water (water needs to be an inch above jar tops) for 10 minutes.  Regardless, once the jars and lids/bands are clean, throw the lids and bands in a pot of boiling water to keep them hot until you're ready to use them. 

Prep strawberries by washing and stemming them.  Crush berries one cup at a time, leaving bits of fruit intact.  I used a pastry blender instead of a potato masher - just personal preference.  I stole a few bites of the strawberries because they were just too good to pass up...but that isn't a required step.   

Unless you're in the Wood household.  Then...it is.  
All for the sake of quality control, of course.

Meanwhile, get water simmering in a large pot (like the one below, right) so it's ready to go when the jars are filled.  
Just FYI - in order to use quart jars (we used them for other produce), you will need a very tall pot.  I borrowed this one from my aunt and uncle, because my regular stock pot wasn't tall enough to accommodate the jars plus the required 1" covering of water.  

Once berries are mashed and ready to go, throw them into a stockpot and stir in one box of pectin.  I also added 1/2 teaspoon of butter to minimize foaming.  I'm not quite sure it worked, but how could butter be wrong?? Really?!?  
Bring the fruit mixture to a full rolling boil - keep stirring, too!!  

While the fruit mixture is getting to the rolling boil, measure out all seven cups of sugar.  (In the Bible doesn't the number 7 represent completion or perfection?!?!...hmmm???).  

Once the fruit mixture is at a rolling boil, stir in the sugar quickly.  Here's what the fullness of goodness looked like...

Stir that puppy all up!!  And return to a full rolling boil.  
And here's where things get a bit tricky... Ready?!?!

Once at a full rolling boil, boil for exactly one minute...that's uno minuto.  (How to know when you've entered the realm of "rolling boil" and then to calculate exactly one minute...I'm not sure.  Just do your best.  That's what Mom always said!)

Once the minute is up, remove from the heat and skim off any foam.  (Again, this was a little difficult to do because I had more foam than I anticipated, since I had added the butter to reduce it...but you get the idea).

Now to filling the jars.  Fill your jars (I used a variety of pint jars) up to within 1/8 inch of the top (for those of you who may one day be serious canners - this is called the "head space").  

Wipe the jar rims and threads.  You can see Sara doing that to her tomatoes here...

Here the jam jars are without their lids...

Pull your lids and bands from the hot water and apply them to the jars, screwing the lids on tightly.  

Then lower them into the large stockpot of boiling water you have ready.   Here's sweet Sara - they're ready to go! Make sure the lids are covered with 1-2 inches of water.  

Now they stay in there for 10 minutes.  If your water isn't boiling when you put them in, start the time once the water is boiling.  Also, for higher elevations, the time needs to be adjusted.  

Pull out the jars and allow them to cool upright.  This may take quite some time.  

Once your jars are cooled, test their seals by pressing the middle of the lid.  If it springs back, then it didn't seal.  While disappointing, it's not a complete loss.  You can refrigerate the jar and use it right away.  This happened to me.  My oldest jar (one I believe my grandmother used) that is tinted blue didn't seal completely.  I think it's because the rim or threads of the jar weren't completely clean before I placed the lids on.  Oh well...I'm eager to try the jam anyway!
Who knew canning is so much fun!?!?  Do it with a friend and the pleasure is doubled!  

Ryan and the chickens came to offer encouragement...

And here are the fruits (pun intended) of our labor...

Now go can.  Because you can can, too! 

Sure-Jell Cooked Strawberry Jam Recipe

5 cups crushed strawberries (this was about 3 1/2 lbs for me)
7 cups sugar
1 box Sure-Jell Fruit Pectin
1/2 tsp. butter *optional*

Helpful canning websites:

www.freshpreserving.com - the Ball website for preserving with good recipes!
nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_home.html - National Center for Home Food Preservation

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dixie Chickens

Check out the article from Southern Living magazine - Raising Chickens in the South.  It tells of the growing popularity of raising chickens as well as some of the reasons why.  Who knew chickens allowed to run the lawn eating bugs lay eggs that have less cholesterol and saturated fat?!?  
(How cute is this coop?!?)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Drought

The thunder is rolling.  I hear the sound of heavy drops on the windows and roof.  The dogs are barking at lightning and running around like the crazy animals they are.  The hens are running for cover.  It's raining.  


God's salve for our thirsty land.
(Here is a picture of the corn bending under the wind and rain.) 

If you live anywhere in the Midwest, there is little chance you've missed the news about this year's drought. Here is the latest drought monitor.  If you look closely, our area (West Central Illinois) is considered to be "severe" to "extreme".  What's incredible is that much of the country is also.  

Signs of the time - Crop yields are expected to be significantly below average.  Farmers with livestock are selling off their animals because it's too expensive to buy feed and their pastures are burned up.   Corn stalks literally baked in the sun without relief.  In town, usually green lawns are brown and crisp.  On the news, reporters talk about the possible increase in the price of food and other goods.  Countless prayers for rain.  

This brings to mind an Arab proverb I heard recently - "All sunshine makes a desert."  
It certainly has felt that way this year.  

But an interesting thing happens to corn when there is little rain.  Because there is no moisture in the top soil, its roots must drive deep in search of water.  Strangely, the (temporarily) dry weather can serve to strengthen the plant and its root system.  A larger root system then allows it to absorb optimal moisture when it does rain.  What a beautiful metaphor for life.  

The dry times in life - the difficult or "desert" seasons where Jesus may at times not feel close, can, with His help, serve to grow and deepen our faith.  They force us to dive into His Word...to cry out for His help...to press into His Presence in order to find the solace, reassurance, and relief we need.  These spiritual "roots" that are formed can later steady us during hardship, and ultimately will help us grow more mature in Christ.  

So while we pray for showers of His Spirit, love, grace, and blessings, let us praise Him in the "drought".  It, too, God can use to grow us.