March 2018

                Each January we look back at what we’ve done and try to discern a way forward for our mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture. The ways we do that have evolved over the years since our arrival in 2001. Some changes were made by our decision and others by circumstances beyond the farm. Our commitment remains and the needs persist as does the difficulty of communicating and making constructive connections. We still seek to make the farm accessible to children and elders and people who face various obstacles. Having been told by so many visitors through the years how peaceful they found the farm, we try to maintain that spirit of peace for ourselves and whoever comes.
              Ting and her son Kevin first visited in the fall. Kevin, almost 2 years old now, loved sitting in a leaf pile. His mother enjoyed walking the woods and field paths. In January they came on a sunny day to go sledding for their first time and when it is too cold to go outside Kevin enjoys playing with blocks and wooden trains inside. Through Ting Joanna heard about the Pregnancy Care Center in Pulaski and met a woman there who is interested in visiting with her sons and thinks others at the PCC would welcome opportunities to enjoy nature with their children.
            This is the first winter in over 10 years that we haven’t been making wooden toys for refugees. Joanna took puppets made by Toni Hall and wooden toys we’ve made to the PCC. The woman who received them was especially pleased with the ‘acrobat’ which she said would be helpful to her son who had some difficulty with hand-eye coordination.  We had been told the same thing by another mother a couple years ago and offered to help her or the school therapist she mentioned make the toys, but she didn’t get back in touch. Having someone with time to make the connections is essential to meeting needs. Hope has been that for us with the refugees. Loss of such connection ended the Growing Season Summer Program that we ran from 2006-2011 and the family days at the farm we hosted from 2011-2013.
             Because we believe the farm can help with real needs, we keep reaching out. Joanna met David, a peer counselor  with a health program working with substance abuse disorders, at her community meetings. He would like to bring people to help in the gardens and walk on our paths during the green time. Heather, who visited several times last year, works at a L’Arche house in Syracuse and hopes to bring a group from there for a day visit this spring. The L’Arche community made a pilgrimage  to the farm in 2005 and spoke of smaller groups coming again but we lost contact as personnel changed. A van from the Brady Faith Center in Syracuse brought young people on their way to a boat trip on the St. Lawrence in our first years here. These visits were never scheduled, but the women in charge told us that the stop at the farm for a picnic and tour were a highlight of the trips. We encouraged them to arrange visits when they had more time and we were prepared but that never happened. This winter after listening to a radio program  on the limited access inner city kids have to nature, we tried again to contact the Center. Soon the slow time will give way to the green time—we pray that whoever finds their way to the farm will find a place of peace.
  by Lorraine

Zach's Work

         This winter people have asked if we’ll have enough firewood to keep warm here in the barn.  Mostly we are able to keep the barn in the low 60s, which feels quite warm compared to the first couple of years when we sometimes could only get to the mid 50s.   The main woodshed is will be empty by the end of February but there is a pile of extra wood in the new barn which should see us through the really cold weather, and then we can start burning wood we normally use in the summer for domestic hot water.  Ten years ago when we had our timber sale our consulting forester told us the volume of firewood we use was not being replaced by regrowth in our woodlots.  As I recall his standard calculation was that an acre of mature woods produces 1/4 of a cord of firewood per year, but we realized that our situation is very different.  Commercial firewood production only uses wood 6 inches and larger in diameter, while we burn everything down to 2 inches.   The forester also did not count the hedgerows and other areas where we cut firewood that are not considered to be forest land for his purposes. 

             We also get some of our firewood from slabs from logs I cut at our sawmill, but when a log is sold all of that is lost to the landowner, and becomes a by-product that is sold by the commercial sawmill.  Having our own sawmill lets us use each tree more efficiently for lumber and firewood.  The other benefits of having the mill include selling lumber to provide a substantial part of the farm’s income, offering wood for sale locally to people who have small businesses or are working on their own houses, and bringing people to the  farm who become interested in other things we’re doing.

              Since the writing of the last newsletter I finished putting the log arch together, and then had to make a heavier boom to lift the logs since the first boom was made from an old piece of pipe that wasn’t strong enough.  The new boom is made from the frame rails of an old tractor and is much stronger than could ever be needed.  I used the arch enough to know that it worked well and could lift the logs right off the ground, as I had hoped.  Since the new year because the snow has been too deep to allow the tractor through, but in the spring it will go back to work.  I sold the crawler I had been working on for the past few years which I had intended to use for log skidding.  It was not as useful in the snow as I had hoped and needed continual work to keep it going.  I think the arch will be much more useful and easier to maintain. 

             We inoculated  logs with shiitake mushroom spawn in each of the past two springs, but won’t start more this year since we still have logs started last year left to sell.  We’ve been having much more reliable harvests from our logs in the past couple of years after changing the variety we grow and going to an outside storage system that keeps the logs from drying out.  We sold a lot of logs in late 2016 and early 2017, but fewer more recently.  When we can find a market for them the shiitake logs are quite a good way to raise money, but like everything else the level of demand is impossible to predict. 

             This winter I have been able to spend more time in the workshop, where it is nice and warm.  Since we are no longer producing wooden toys for refugees as we used to in the winter I have begun to make sumac tree slice coasters and twig style nightstands with the intention of selling them online to support the farm.  I used to make these things in my evenings and other free time and sell them on my own behalf, but since my musical instrument business has expanded to fill my free time I had let the other things lapse.  Our newest board member, Sarah, has come to learn more woodworking skills.  She is a very quick learner and has helped with replacing a window and making a bookshelf and a banister among other things, and has gotten some practice with different tools.  I enjoy working with someone who is able and interested in learning to do things. 

             In December I cleaned out rusted metal fragments along the cutting edge of our snowblower and welded in a new piece of sheet metal, and in January I had to replace the auger chain and idler sprocket.  It’s an old machine but it still gets the work done and lets me keep the sawmill open through the winter. Sales at the sawmill have been good overall this winter, and I have done more custom sawing of other people’s logs.  In December one of the main shaft bearings failed and I had to replace the pillow block too, so I wasn’t able to run the mill for 10 days or so.  The bearing had held up for 10 years of use, so I guess it was not surprising that it finally gave up.

              In January we had a very strong thaw with temperatures up to the 50s and then an overnight drop into the low teens. Part of the sawmill driveway flooded over a foot deep and backed water up into the wing where the big tractor is parked.  The morning after the cold arrived I found that the snowblower sitting in about 6 inches of water and the tractor in about 4 inches.  Luckily it hadn’t frozen solid yet so I moved the tractor to higher ground so it wouldn’t get frozen in with the snowblower.  I will have to try to think of a way to improve drainage in that area. 

             Late in January when we had a good crust on the snow I went up on the hill and burned the pile of rotten boards with nails in them that has been growing again over the past couple of years.  I am very glad to finally have it gone completely, and in the spring I will go over the ground again with a magnet to pick up any last nails I may have missed. 

             In February on a warm day I brought down an old trailer frame from the hilltop and made some minor welding repairs to it and fitted a wooden platform to hold the 275 gallon tank that we use to hold water for the pig in the summer.  I had gotten the trailer for $25 at an auction in the fall, but hadn’t taken the time to work on it then.  I won’t need it till May or so, but it’s nice to get things done ahead of time when I can.

Joanna's Farm Report

             The snow is deep, the days short, and I miss the outdoor work which I enjoy during the other three seasons. But even in the fallow time I’m aware of all the new life waiting to emerge when the conditions are right.

             The lettuce, tatsoi, kale and chard in soil boxes in the greenhouse are growing again after going into stasis for the coldest, darkest time. Garlic, asparagus, strawberries, herbs and other perennials sleep under the snow, which has stayed on the ground since November and protected them from constant freezing and thawing. Come April we’ll have herbs and flowers to divide and give away.

             Our seeds have arrived from Fedco, and I’m scrubbing plant pots; in the first week of March I’ll begin planting onions, peppers and eggplants for the summer garden.  I'm already starting new sweet potato slips from the tubers we grew last year from the slips Sarah VanNorstrand gave us. Besides the usual vegetables, I’ve ordered extra seed for cover crops and perennials. This year I hope to plant the rest of the weedy slope that lies below the garden proper but inside the garden fence with perennials and self-seeding annuals that make good rabbit feed. 

             We’ve kept two young doe rabbits and a young buck through the winter in addition to our proven buck and two proven does. We’ll begin to breed them in February, hoping that when the first kits arrive in March the worst of the cold will be over and by the time they’re big enough to need a lot of food we’ll have fresh stuff to cut for them again.  Through the winter we’ve been feeding the adults on carrots from the garden, dried willow from the stream bank and fresh wheatgrass grown hydroponically in the greenhouse.  We’ve kept selecting animals that grow and breed well on natural feed. We’re stockpiling rabbit manure to spread on the garden in spring—this boosts the fertility of the soil, and I wonder if it’s contributed to the increased disease resistance I noticed in our plants during the very wet summer of 2017. I enjoy being able to cut more weeds and buy less feed, spread more manure and buy less organic fungicide.    

         The hens we raised on natural feed and without a heat lamp starting in spring 2015 are still thriving. They kept laying through most of the winter so we’ve had to do much less egg-buying than we expected.  We’re figuring out whether or not we need to order new chicks this spring. Lorraine just heard from a homesteader who says that naturally raised hens tend to keep laying much longer than their commercially-raised contemporaries. 

             Our younger goat Amada is thriving, and we’re expecting kids from her around April 30. Our older goat, Dora, had a difficult kidding last spring, and while she seemed to recover at the time her appetite and her milk production have been unreliable since then. I tried switching her back from whole grains to commercial premix and she ate happily for a while but then went off feed again. She’s still eating hay and willow consistently and grain intermittently and she doesn’t seem uncomfortable or sick, but we’ll look for a more reliable producer come spring.

Screen-Free Week        (by Joanna)
             Our mission at St. Francis Farm is to live an alternative to the consumer culture. This includes stepping back from advertisements and inducements to market ourselves, instead taking time to savor life’s free gifts and listen to the still small voice within. We try to do this year-round, but the annual Screen-Free Week celebration sharpens our focus. Screen-Free Week is an international holiday which began as TV Turnoff Week. This will be our ninth year helping groups in the Pulaski area coordinate free non-electronic activities. 
             Lately I’ve heard more public discussion about the problems of screen-time. Most online content is designed to keep us staring and clicking so that we’ll see more ads. Wespend more and more time in a state of distraction—neither focusing sharply and thinking critically, nor resting our minds and allowing our creativity to surface. This perpetual distraction takes a toll on us.  
              Social media divide us as much as they connect us. Chains of clickbait lead us to increasingly polarizing political content. Politics aside, we often look at others’ glittering images of their lives, feel envious and depressed, and post our own glittering images...  
            The barrage of ads increases our dissatisfaction. Ads, commercial or political, often exacerbate our underlying anxiety or dissatisfaction, and then promise that we’ll feel relief if we buy Product X or vote against Candidate Y. Whether or not we buy the particular message, we tend to buy the underlying message that we’re not okay.     
         Electronic diversions also take time and energy away from talking with people, reading books, making music, praying, walking in the woods or looking at the stars. Most of those activities aren’t advertised, so they get crowded out by other activities that clamor for our attention.   
           Here at the farm we make a space where people from different backgrounds can work together, find common ground, walk, pray, read, and savor the goodness that is already present.  We’re pondering how to invite people in without becoming another noisy distraction. Back when student groups came here we asked them to leave cell phones behind. We don’t ask that of volunteers now, but we still invite them to be mindful. Some volunteers decided to limit the time they spend on electronics at the farm; they found that both disconcerting and freeing.  We invite our neighbors and readers to experience this freedom as well. International Screen-Free  Week is April 30-May 6, but here in the Pulaski area we’re observing it during the school break week, April 23-28. We’ll offer sunset nature walks and daytime volunteer opportunities at the farm, and we’re helping organize a barn dance at the Half-Shire in Richland, called by Sarah vanNorstrand. Game nights, craft projects, hikes and more will happen around   Pulaski/Richland/Orwell. There’s more information (oddly enough) on the web at

    In observing the present state of the world from a Christian point of view, one would have to say: It is a disease. And if I were a physician and someone asked me “What do you think should be done?” I would answer “Create silence, bring about silence.” God’s Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy means, then it is not God’s Word; create silence. Everything is noisy...even the most insignificant project, even the most empty communication is designed to jolt the senses, to stir up the crowd... And we humans, we clever fellows, invent ever new means to increase noise... The means of communication have been perfected, but what is publicized with such haste is rubbish. Oh, create silence.                 Kierkegaard, Provocations    

Life is increasingly unstable, inconstant and hectic. Too much information and not enough meaning, too much happening and not enough time to process it.             —Mary Pipher, The Shelter Of Each Othe