Sounds of spring

It has begun!

I realized recently that it’s not the sights of spring that make me happiest. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the bursting buds, greening grass, or dancing daffodils. I do. But it’s the sounds that make my heart really sing in the spring.

It’s usually a chilly, gray morning sometime in March when I first hear “kronk-a-REEEEE!” I’ll look around in surprise, and there he will be, high in a tree—a red-winged blackbird. The males migrate first, I learned as a child. They start staking out territories as they wait for soon-to-arrive females. If you’re traveling the interstate, watch the grassy roadsides and you’ll see one male here on a fence post, and an eighth of a mile or so later, another one there in a small tree.  And then another, and another. Roll down the window as you pass and you’ll hear them informing all passers-by of their territorial boundaries. “Kronk-a-REEEEE!”

As the mornings begin to brighten earlier, I notice a sound upon waking that’s difficult to hear, muffled by still-closed windows. But robins are persistent and loud, and their early morning voices penetrate glass. “Cheerio-cheerio-cheep-a-cheep-cheerio…” (Later in the season, the robins and other birds will create an impossible-to-ignore 4 a.m. cacophony.) Robins may be the most well-known herald of spring in our latitude, but my bird expert friends tell me some robins stick around all winter, foraging for berries in wandering flocks which stay mostly hidden from human view.

Thunder is a spring sound, too. I think of it as mostly an evening and nighttime sound. It may seem fanciful, but I’m convinced I can feel thunder well before it can actually be heard. Stormy spring evenings just seem to vibrate long before they rumble and flash. Of course, thunder is eventually accompanied by the racket of rain and wind, too. And you really know it’s a doozy of a spring storm when hail clatters against the windows and roof.

When spring storms leave ponds in patches of woodland and edges of fields, another bunch of critters makes themselves heard. The first time I hear them each year, it stops me in my tracks in delight. “Spring peepers!” I will exclaim out loud, even if I am alone. (I probably look a little bit batty when I do this.) For a creature about as big around as a quarter, a spring peeper can make an enormous noise. Its call is a piercingly high-pitched “preep, preep, preep,” but I’ve almost never heard just one at a time. Spring peepers are a species of chorus frog, thus they sing in deafening gangs. Stand near a swampy spot in early April, and the peepers will make your eardrums throb. Move too quickly or loudly, however, and they all fall silent.

Later in spring, when it’s warm enough to leave a bedroom window open overnight, yet another animal makes its presence known. Yipping and yowling, coyotes call across the open fields. After lifting my head from the pillow to confirm that our two dogs are, in fact, safely in the house, I relax and listen until the coyote concert ends. While I know many a 4-H poultry project comes to an untimely end in the jaws of these pesky predators, I can’t help but enjoy their wild, brief serenade.

planting snip

Photo © DeKalb County Farm Bureau

Open-window, dry spring days bring another auditory treat I treasure. Caused by neither a creature nor a weather phenomenon, this sound nevertheless seems to belong to the natural landscape of northern Illinois. It’s the sound of a distant tractor as it pulls a planter across the field. When the weather is right, the hum of planting continues through the day and into the night, when I fall asleep listening to the sound of another growing season beginning.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April-May 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

img_2567“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” ~ Unknown 

This wisdom has been running through my mind a lot lately. And not just because of our currently heated national conversation on what kind of a country we want to live in. It’s also because of something that’s been taking place right here at DeKalb County Farm Bureau, something that takes place every year at this time.

That “something” is our Ag in the Classroom program for first through fourth grades. As I write this, I’m in the midst of an ongoing give-and-take with dozens of volunteers—people who are “voting” right now about the kind of community in which they want to live. By volunteering to deliver Ag in the Classroom presentations, I believe they are voting for DeKalb County to be the kind of community where:

  • Students and teachers understand why farming matters.
  • Farmers and others who work in agriculture are valued for their contribution to society.
  • Consumers can go to the grocery store and feel a personal connection to someone who produces the food they buy.
  • The agricultural community cares about the education and well-being of all our children.

img_2336It’s not just the classroom volunteers who are voting to shape our community. It’s the retired Ag Literacy Committee members who call me to say, “What can I do?”—and then spend an entire afternoon in my office labeling teacher thank-you gifts and gift bags. It’s the Ag Literacy Committee spending an evening counting, bundling, stuffing, and labeling—all while discussing other ways to increase agricultural understanding in our county and beyond. And it’s also the teachers who reserve precious classroom time to focus on agriculture.

I never feel as though I adequately thank these individuals for the time and energy they devote to Ag in the Classroom. I try, though. I love it when I can catch volunteers returning supplies after their presentations. That’s when I can say “thank you” in person, and hear stories about their classroom visits.

I often hear that both students AND teachers learn surprising new facts from the lessons. “The kids thought the ear of popcorn was Indian corn,” volunteers will say, or “The teacher said she hadn’t realized that hand sanitizer is made with ethanol from corn.”

By the end of this month, over 100 people in our county will exercise democracy by volunteering for Ag in the Classroom. I know they’re busy, but they step forward and take the time to do so anyway. For that, I am grateful.

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”  ~ Elizabeth Andrew

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the February 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

christmas-1849263_1920Grandma’s Christmas tree was always covered in gold. Gold tinsel, gold ornaments, and gold lights. I don’t know where she and Grandpa found all-gold Christmas lights (deep yellow, really), and I wonder if my memory is playing tricks on me. But I swear they were gold.

It was a fairly large tree, but it wasn’t big enough to shelter all the gifts for over a dozen grandchildren and all my aunts and uncles. In my mind’s eye, once everyone in the family had arrived and added their gifts, it was physically impossible to even reach the tree. The gifts occupied almost half of the living room, in a riot of tantalizing colors, shapes, and sizes.

A nativity scene was always located at the other end of the living room, next to Grandpas’ recliner. Grandma would set it up on a small table—I think maybe it was a TV tray table—so that it was just the right height for us cousins to rearrange baby Jesus and his entourage.

Perhaps even more inviting for us than playing with the crèche, however, was the basket of homemade red and green popcorn balls that Grandma made and placed under the little table. We were told (perhaps to stave off any thoughts of being greedy) that there were enough for every cousin to have just one. I can still remember the exact flavor of those popcorn balls, and the way I’d spend an hour or so undoubtedly making strange faces as I used my tongue to pry the chewy, gooey fragments out of my molars.

The farmhouse would be bursting with people and noise. In her small kitchen, Grandma and my aunts would elbow past one another, arranging dishes on the counter. Every so often, an uncle would appear, carrying another “dish to pass” from the car. His glasses (I think all my uncles wore glasses) would be foggy from the sudden transition from the icy outdoors to indoor warmth, and his coat would be stiff and radiating cold air. “Where would you like this?” he would say, and Grandma would rearrange the counter to make room.

I suppose every family has trademark dishes that are a prerequisite for a complete holiday experience. Two stand out most vividly in my memory. The first is Grandma’s deviled eggs. My grandparents had an egg farm, and deviled eggs were Grandma’s specialty. Hers were sprinkled with paprika, decorated with sliced olives, and contained just a hint of sweetness amidst their savory eggy-ness.

The other dish I remember well is a dessert everyone referred to as “Gap ‘n Swallow.” It was a creamy, pink, fluffy treat served in squares cut from a cake pan. As far as I know, it was simply a chilled mixture of vanilla ice cream and red Jell-o. When it came time for dessert, it was a light and jiggly accompaniment to the cookies, brownies, and Christmas-decorated ice cream squares which were also traditional to our family gatherings.

Although he’s been gone for several years, I can still see Grandpa’s face and hear his voice clearly in my mind. His hair is fluffy and white, he’s wearing a red flannel shirt, and he shakes his head bemusedly as he says “Well, I’ll be darned.” I see him on his hands and knees near the Christmas tree, peering at labels as he passes out gifts.

Grandma is gone, too. But in my mind, her tiny frame is still crowned with brown hair in a “beehive” style. Though her hands shake slightly, she is seated at her piano playing “Willy Claus, Little Son of Santa Claus” for us.

I hope the ghosts of your holidays past are warm and happy memories.

Merry Christmas!

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the December 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

My autumnal paradox

Fall isn’t my favorite season.

There. I said it.

Many people proclaim their fondness for fall. I get it. There is much to appreciate: lower humidity, gorgeous colors, crisp mornings and even crisper apples. Of course autumn also brings the grandeur of harvest. On sunny fall afternoons, golden leaves dance in the air and combines roar across dusty fields. I yearn to stay outside, lifting my face to the sun, breathing deeply, soaking it in.

My perpetual struggle with fall is that no matter how glorious it is, I know how it ends.

It’s impossible to ignore the signs. Just outside my window is a bird’s nest. Last spring, I watched the endeavors of a motherly robin carrying grass and twigs to build it. As the tree’s leaves grew denser, I caught glimpses of Mama Robin as she nestled in, warming her eggs. By the time the eggs presumably hatched, fully-grown leaves obscured my view. Now that it is fall, the tree is nearly naked. There clings the empty nest, ragged and forlorn.

Parenting a young child involves a number of obligatory seasonal traditions to which one must adhere. In fall, that includes visiting a pumpkin patch, playing in leaves, and picking apples. To skip these activities is to ensure a nagging sense of guilt that you are shunning your parental duties.

img_8290Thus, one windy October Saturday found our little family in the midst of a friend’s enormous pumpkin patch. It was a struggle just getting there. Neither my husband nor my daughter felt well and consequently both were crabby. But I knew it was a now-or-never moment: If we didn’t go then, our schedules or the weather would prevent us from going at all. No pumpkin picking would mean no pumpkins, no pumpkins would mean no Jack-o-lantern carving—another skipped tradition. So we went.

It turned into a joyful treasure hunt. Nestled among shriveled vines was an assortment of pumpkin varieties, ranging from adorable orange fruits that fit in the palm of my hand to good-sized pumpkins our 3 year-old could barely move, much less carry. The three of us tramped to and fro, tripping over vines as we carried our treasures. Naya liked the “baby” pumpkins. I picked several medium-sized pumpkins to decorate our front steps. My husband chose some larger ones for carving.

Our next stop was to surprise my parents by scattering decorative pumpkins around their property: on their front porch, near the mailbox, at the base of a tree. After lunch, we checked off another fall ritual by picking apples in the orchard behind their old barn. Later, I would make homemade applesauce.

After 46 years, I’m still trying to come to grips with fall. On one hand, it saddens me because it signifies the end of so many things I love, like listening to katydids through open windows at night or reading on the front porch swing on sultry summer days. It’s the end of relaxing into warmth instead of bracing for cold, the end of wearing t-shirts and flip flops.

On the other hand, fall marks the magnificent culmination of another growing season. It’s the time when fields and forests yield their bountiful crops and beautiful leaves so that they may rest. I’ve often mused that the brightly-colored leaves of fall are God’s way of blasting us with beauty to carry us through the long, dark winter.

Despite the paradox that autumn presents, my heart knows it should be celebrated. Celebrations, after all, make difficult things bearable. Maybe that’s why seasonal traditions matter, even if at first we do them out of guilt. Picking pumpkins was a way of compelling myself to embrace and enjoy this season. Eating homemade applesauce from our freezer will remind me of fall’s bounty for months to come. For all of us, our Thanksgiving gatherings will be celebrations of another growing season, successful harvest, and family.

Besides, if there were no autumn and subsequent winter, there would be no spring.

And when spring returns, my robin will build another nest.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the November 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

She’s only 3½ years old. But my daughter is at the “why” stage and actively soaking up any and all information we have the patience to share with her. This, coupled with my job in ag literacy, prompted me to think about what I want her to know about agriculture at this age.

So here goes. Here are six things I want my child to learn about food and farming while she’s still young, and how I will explain each (if I haven’t already).

  1. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store. It comes from farms. I’ve explained to Naya that before food gets to the grocery store, farmers grow or raise it on farms. Then some things–like bread, applesauce, and bacon–go to processing plants to be made into the foods we eat. They are then shipped to the grocery store where we buy them to take home and eat.
  2. Farms are places where plants are grown or animals are raised for all of us to eat. It doesn’t make sense to say food comes from farms and not explain what a farm is. We also point out farms as we travel and talk about what might be grown or raised at each one.
  3. Farmers are the people who raise our food. I want my child to know that farmers are essential to our lives. Why? Because without them we would all have to grow our own food. Most of us don’t have the time, knowledge, or space to produce everything we eat.
  4. The fields around us aren’t just scenery; they are our food. I often call my daughter’s attention to the beauty around us. Our rural landscape of corn and soybeans is peaceful, open, and pretty. It’s also where some of our food comes from. I will explain to her that the plants growing in farmers’ fields are called crops.


    My daughter, exploring a cornfield at the age of two. I want her to know that the field around us provide some of our food.

  5. Animals that farmers raise for food are called livestock. They are not pets. I want Naya to understand that pets and livestock serve different purposes. Pets like our two dogs are meant to be our companions, and livestock provide us with food. However, just because farm animals aren’t pets doesn’t mean humans don’t have a responsibility to keep them safe, healthy, and comfortable. Farmers provide their animals with special food, special places to live, and even special doctors–called veterinarians–just like we do for our pets. When the right moments arise, we will help her understand that everything living, people included, relies on other living things to survive. (One such moment recently presented itself when she caught a fish which hours later appeared as a fried filet on a plate. “Daddy,” she questioned, “where’d his head go?”)
  6. Chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows. I don’t know why adults persist in saying this. Some must think it’s funny, and a few apparently think it’s true. Either way, if you tell a little kid that chocolate milk comes from brown cows and don’t quickly explain that you’re just being silly, they will believe you. Unless they live on a dairy farm or someone has already told them otherwise, they don’t know any better. I want my daughter to know better. She doesn’t yet seem interested in chocolate milk, but when she is, we will explain that all cows give white milk, and humans add the chocolate later on.

As Naya continues to grow and ask “Why?” the information we can share with her will obviously become more complex and in-depth. But this seems like a good place to start.

What do YOU think a preschooler should know about agriculture?

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the Sept.-Oct. 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Nothing makes my hair stand on end like the words “I can’t.” In my years of conducting lessons, I’ve encountered more than a few children who, when faced with a simple task, too quickly drop it in frustration and say, “I can’t do it.”

I also have a three-year old who’s learning how to put on her own clothes. I hear “I can’t” a lot. Usually the words “I can’t” are tinged with a whine. Sigh.

She’s only three. I get that there are truly some things she isn’t yet capable of doing. As a parent, it’s my job to help her find the line between “I can’t” and “I can” and keep moving it forward. Take socks, for example. It’s much faster to simply put a toddler’s socks on for her and call it good. Some days, that’s all I have the time or patience for. But every time I do it is one less opportunity for her to develop the skill and confidence to do it herself.

Naya shoes

Shoes and pants are complicated for 3-year-olds to put on. Our rule is to say “I can try” instead of “I can’t.”

So when we have time, we talk it through. “Here’s the heel of your sock. Where’s your heel? Here’s the toe of your sock. Where are your toes? Okay, so when you put your sock on, your toes need to end up in the toe of the sock, and your heel in the heel of the sock. Remember, ALL of your toes have to go into the sock, otherwise it’s not going to work. Yay, Naya! You did it!” And she’ll do it again, and again, proving she can.

Invariably, a few days later, she will halfheartedly try to put on one sock, snag a toe in the opening, then whine, “I can’t do it!” And no amount of “Yes, you can,” and “Remember, you showed me you could do it yesterday” will overcome her self-defeat.

Recently, I found inspiration to try a fresh tactic. It was a Facebook meme of the words “I can’t” written in crayon, then transformed with a different color to read “I can try.” A lightbulb popped on in my brain. I decided to try something new.

I first tried my new approach at bedtime. Naya got frustrated while trying to put on her nightgown and wailed, “I can’t do it!” “Wait,” I said. “It bothers me when you say you can’t do something. Let’s try this. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t,’ I want you to say, ‘I can try.’ If you try and still need help, say, ‘Mommy, will you please help me?’”

By golly, it works! (Some of the time.) Now, when she says “I can’t,” I give her my “Oh, really?” look and she’ll correct herself, saying, “I can try.” She knows that “I can try” means she has to actually try. Quite often, she succeeds on her own or with just a little help. Parenting win!

Sometimes, though, “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” This is a harder nut to crack. I’ve noticed this is as true for adults as it is for toddlers. But adults are savvier. To avoid saying, “I can’t” or “I don’t want to,” they invent reasons why they don’t need to learn new skills, new technology, or new information. They attack the thing itself, as in, “We all got along just fine before smartphones and they don’t work as well as regular phones.” Some go further yet, disparaging users of new tools as lazy or stupid. “In my day, we didn’t need GPS because we knew how to read maps.” It’s a bit like if my toddler threw down her sock and said, “Socks are silly, and people who wear them are, too.”

naya strider

My daughter had her balance bike for a year before she finally said, “I can try” and ventured to ride it.

I’m not arguing that we all must learn every new thing that comes along. But I believe we should recognize and admit whether we can’t or don’t want to learn something, and not disparage the thing or those who do learn it. Figure out, for example, if you find social media frustrating because you struggle to learn it (can’t), or because you simply would rather not deal with it (don’t want to). If you realize you can’t, you recognize your limitations. If you acknowledge you don’t want to, you choose to limit yourself. Either is okay. Just don’t try and disguise those limitations by expressing disdain towards the thing or the people who use it.

Besides, whether you can’t or don’t want to do, there’s no harm in saying “I can try,” and “Can you help me, please?” You might surprise yourself.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the June 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Waste not?

The crisper drawer in my refrigerator is mislabeled. It reads “Fruits and Vegetables” on the front, but it should say, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In our household, there ain’t nothin’ coming out of there alive, or shall I say, edible.

The other evening, in a burst of unexpected ambition, I decided to clean out the fridge. There was a little bit of room left in the dishwasher, and I recalled seeing a couple containers of leftovers of dubious vintage in the refrigerator. If I threw those leftovers away, I reasoned, there was just enough room in the dishwasher for the empty containers.

Several smelly containers and a bottle of moldy apple juice later, I was still feeling energetic and decided to tackle the crisper drawer. I knew there was a package of aged celery in there that was probably ready to hit the compost pile. I pulled open the drawer and was abruptly faced with several weeks of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

There were two packages of baby Portabella mushrooms, one still unopened, both exhibiting impressive growths of furry white mold. (Reflect on that for a moment: fungus, growing on another fungus.) I had purchased them on sale with the vague idea of using some in omelets and the rest for an as-yet-to-be discovered recipe on Pinterest.

There was a shriveled orange still in its woven nylon bag, and no fewer than four plastic produce bags containing two to four wrinkled apples each. There was a half a bag of sprouting baby carrots. There was a large green pepper turning grayish and pitted with age (also intended for the omelets I never made).

There were several restaurant-issued, single-serve condiment pouches. (Why these were in the crisper drawer, I have no idea.) The unopened package of celery I had first thought of was there, the stalk ends turning yellowish-brown.

And on the very bottom of the drawer, partially flattened under apples and oozing a greenish, pinkish, brownish slime, was another produce bag containing something I could neither recall nor identify. Yuck!

I hate wasting anything, especially food. I hate having wasted the money spent purchasing it, and I hate that while others go hungry, food is going uneaten in my fridge due to my bad planning.

Recently, my food waste frustration intensified when I joined a Facebook group called My Job Depends on Ag. Founded by farmers in California, many of the group’s members are produce growers. Now my social media feed includes glimpses into the work of growing, picking, packing, processing, and shipping products like cherries, watermelons, or tomatoes.

It’s one thing to know that growing food is challenging and labor-intensive. It’s quite another to actually see it happening. I find it humbling to see the passion that farmers, farmworkers, truckers, and others have for their work to bring us food. Now, when a half-eaten bag of sweet cherries goes bad in my refrigerator, I am ashamed. I’ve seen the labor, time, energy, and resources that went into getting those cherries into my hands, and I feel like I’ve squandered it.

wasted food2

Wasted food that I discovered in my fridge. I took this photo in August of 2016, meaning the item on the left had been in my refrigerator for TWELVE YEARS.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten.” That’s nearly a third of our food! And the lion’s share of that—21 percent—happens at the consumer level. Yikes, that’s me. Me, my slimy forgotten carrots, and that leaky can of tomato sauce that expired seven years before my daughter was born.

Food waste is obviously a bigger issue than what happens in the far reaches of my refrigerator. But I can be a part of the solution. We all can. For my part, I plan to try these things: 1) have specific meals planned before deciding what groceries to buy, 2) take inventory of what is already in the fridge, freezer, and cabinets and use those items first, 3) buy less than what I think we need, and 4) stop purchasing perishable items with only vague ideas of how I might use them.

I need to clean out the freezer. Does anyone have a recipe for freezer-burnt fish?


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.