The running of the sap.

maple sugaring
Maple syrup season came and went at Penelope Jane Farm. Michigan late February and early March temperatures mean harvested sap is hauled in quickly and quietly from the back five, barely documented by the bundled-up people. This year’s evaporation system was fueled by the house’s gas service, which worked well for replacing a pesky fire (whose temperature is difficult to maintain and control). Mr. farmer kindly processes sap outside the house (in the cold) until it reduces to fitting into a stock pot.  Being able to put away just under two gallons will go a long way to a year’s sugar supply.
And just like that spring descended on Michigan, the memory of winter fading by the minute. One is forgiven for being easily seduced by the fragrance of this new season, especially when the attraction begins, vicariously on the social media, with springs around the world- bursting forth sometimes months earlier. Even just a few hundred miles south, @KayDubsTheHikingScientist was posting images and information about spring ephemerals weeks before they could be spotted in mid-Michigan. And thank goodness because temperatures for the most part remained under 50°F until the end of April. Northerners needed to look forward to those flowers.
While the sunshine and heat could not have come soon enough, we aim to remember 70°F is sweeter after the long winter’s sleep. Just as a walk in the woods is welcomed after a day spent in high heels and meetings, often the experience of great loss allows one to appreciate life with a renewed vigor. So, we put back, put up, and stock away; the whispering of changes soon to come.
Check out the impressive use of horse power for sap collection at Stitchdown Farm’s Instagram. Much appreciation to Stitchdown for keeping old skills alive. Similarly, LaLa Earth  (@lala_earth) makes mouths water with their mushroom infused maple syrup. And you have to love a limited offering. Maple trees can give the gift of sap for a small window in late Feb-early Mar when temperatures exceed 32°F during the day and recede to freezing overnight. Syrup is an opportunity to experience closeness to the sources of our food. The more we know about our food, the better choices we can make about what is fueling our bodies.

Double Burden

Dried Super Health Food

An interest in eating well naturally led to taking some courses in nutrition. The following is a look into nutrition from the perspective of the microbiome:

The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies the coexistence of malnutrition in overwieght/obese persons and individuals stunted or wasted (due to undernourishment) as a double burden*. This double burden includes individuals suffering from non-communicable diet related diseases, and the inclusion of these forms of undernourishment at an individual, family, or population level.

In a family unit, members can experience varying forms of this double burden. One family member’s food access might be insufficient for growth, resulting in low weight for height or low height for weight. Later in life, and upon increased access to food sources, this individual may suffer from obesity due to an over abundance of nutrient deficient foods and the body’s compromised ability to process a diet of highly processed, high fat foods. Another family member may experience diet related auto-immune disorders, like allergies. These varying experiences, even among individuals with similar genetic makeup, can be investigated from the perspective of the gut microbiome. Early life plays a major role in the composition of microbiota of the digestive system, from type of delivery (vaginal or caesarian section) to breastfeeding to the use of antibiotics. The composition of an individual’s gut microbiome is continually evolving throughout life- being affected by diet, lifestyle, and environmental influences.

In an effort to promote health, policy makers have enacted taxes on sugary drinks to discourage consumption of certain nutrient deficient foods. These efforts are met with mixed feelings- some are supportive of regulation and others are concerned with increased regulation. WHO, and any health organization with influence, has an opportunity to share information for possible health related diet and lifestyle choices. It is credible organizations sharing data and research as it becomes available, which keeps the public well informed. Because of the transfer of gut microbiota from mother to child during childbirth and through breastfeeding, the education of prospective parents is key to giving children a diverse microbial start in life. Aside from education, possible strides toward the reduction of malnutrition might include making nutrient dense foods accessible and commonplace.

Accessibility and promotion of nutrient dense foods is the ongoing focus at Penelope Jane Farm.

* The World Health Organization The double Burden of malnutrition Policy Brief WHO/NMH/MHD 17.3

Bring on the Fall Harvest

IMG_1078Fellow sustainability foodies have likely swooned over Kevin West’s Saving the Season, because a recipe book that includes poetry and historical references is rare. Rare and welcome.

The author provides information on the origin of dishes, and when necessary, refers to a plant by its scientific/botanical name; features a curious reader appreciates. Historical notes are included, like the journey of the Blenheim apricot to American tables, as well as interviews with food writers and a recipe for Nocino (a beverage made with immature English walnuts), all of which provide distinction on the crowded food scene.

On to the pickled beets.

A combination of red wine and star anise transform the earthy beet. Mr. West prepares the vegetable with a scrub, a trim, and a boil. Once soft, the roots are peeled and chopped while the vinegar, wine, sugar and spice come to a boil. The beets are packed into sterilized jars, covered with pickling liquid, and processed in a hot water bath.

With peaches ready for preservation, a jar of cherry brandy in the cupboard alongside dilly beans and sweet pickles; Saving the Season has been a reminder that not only is preserving food at the peak of ripeness worth the trouble, it’s a privilege. The winter is looking pretty yummy.


Cooking up a Storm

Farm to Table sounds simplistic when one stops to think about the many people and processes were involved to put a potato onto your plate. All systems are subject to analysis, and our industrialized food system has had its fair share of negative attention of late. The humane treatment of animals, debate over genetic modification, and concern over widespread sugar addiction are all topics getting recent attention. Debate aside, how lucky are we to walk into any grocer in North America and find bananas, regardless of the season?

Systems can be improved upon, and there’s no real need to reinvent the wheel. So, how will the current culture and societal norms around food evolve? Instant disappearance of all fast food chains and processed foods are unlikely. Is it cheesy to think that someone notices when you bring your lunch to work, or when you pull out a snack brought from home instead of grabbing a bag of chips from the convenience store? Is it silly to assume that if more of us were demonstrating an evolved food culture, those around us might be influenced to do something similar?  Will food be the gateway to other conscious environmental change?

Whatever our relationship with food, there’s room in the market for the idyllic. The big names in the food industry are watching how consumers spend their food dollars. When demand shifts toward say, local sourcing or high quality ingredients, it’s likely the new demand will be met, and perhaps even with gusto.

If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me in the kitchen, cooking up a storm.

What wild means.

“Children still long to experience the freedom of the day; I am convinced that the inclination survives, even if they aren’t given license to follow it. They want to confront the world on their own terms. They want to discover what ‘wild’ means, and to find it for themselves.”

-Robert Michael Pyle, author of The Thunder Tree

–Quote found in Richard Louv’s Vitamin N, who also authored Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

The Plain Jane Cream

Technically a lotion because of the inclusion of water; I prefer to call it a cream because of the thick consistency.

Birthed out of necessity for eczema relief and because my dad taught me that if something’s worth doing well, you’d better do it yourself. Allow me to demystify this personal care product for you. There’s nothing to it.

If you need a refresher on the basic process of an emulsification, check out Serious Eats’ recipe for a vinaigrette, both yummy and a perfect example of what you’re making with your cream.


Ingredients to gather:

  • 1 oz beeswax-pellets, shavings, or chunk
  • 1 c or 8oz of a base oil/carrier oil: This can be olive oil, almond oil, sunflower oil – Note: you’re going to all this trouble to make something, let’s use quality ingredients
  • 1/2 c extra virgin coconut oil– the kind that is solid 76 degrees F
  • 1/2 c distilled water – reverse osmosis is fine, warmed for ease of combining into the oil mixture
  • 16 oz worth of space in glass jars with lids


The process is to melt the beeswax with the oils, in a bain-marie. Once the wax is completely melted, remove from heat and vigorously whisk in the warmed water. I use a kitchen whisk, but an immersion blender or a handheld beater works, as well. Don’t feel the need to continuously whisk. Come back to the mixture while it’s cooling, scrape the sides of your bowl with a spatula, and whisk again throughout the cooling process. Once completely cooled, your mixture will be a creamy consistency and ready to transfer into jars.


After you master the basic technique, have fun with the addition of essential oils, herbal infusions, and altering base oil choices.

I link products back to Mountain Rose Herbs because I’ve used their ingredients and I trust the quality of their product. Quite often, I use herbs grown from my garden, EVOO from my kitchen cupboard, and coconut oil from my grocery store in my personal care products. You can be the judge of your ingredients.

Recipes to use up the beeswax and carrier oils you’ve purchased to follow. Waste not, want not!


Muffins that make a statement.

In a recent email to Sherman County, Oregon, while balking their idea of eradicating noxious weeds by spraying the entire county with herbicides, I found myself saying  things like: “…forcing to fund and deploy {herbicides} is heavy handed at best, and dictatorial at worst.” and “Let us not think that such a gross overstep of regulation would go unnoticed.” and “Removing obstacles for the ease of growing corn and soy does not justify regulation, even for beloved {local/familiar} mono-crop farmers.”

Given the fact there is no current food shortage, no famine*, I cannot see the justification for spraying toxins on farmland. Sometimes, in matters such as these, it’s all about who is louder, and you can bet corn and soy farmers are pushing for higher yields. And why not? Managing thousands of acres and supplying the world with ethanol, corn syrup, and animal fodder; these farms are leveraged with the expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, the value of their commodity always in flux, and their biggest obstacle is mother nature, who may as well be a god.

If the demand were to shift, I do not doubt that these growers would adjust, just as they do now with changing weather and fluctuating prices. So, let’s focus on shifting the demand by being conscious of what we’re eating and continuing to vote with how we spend our grocery dollars.

This concept is easily demonstrated when it was my turn to bring snack to Girl Scouts. It’s no lie that making three dozen muffins from scratch took only slightly more time than popping to the grocery store for fruit snacks, packaged cookies, and juice boxes. The muffins contained zero undesirable ingredients, were pretty stinking healthy, and were devoured with equal enthusiasm of any pre-made packaged goodie.

The recipe is from Cedar Ring Mama blog, where the blog does not appear active, but the Puffin song is awesome!  I’ve tried apple cinnamon, lemon poppy seed, chocolate chip, and orange cranberry. All delish. And for our vegan friends, I did have success with substituting eggs with a flax egg or two.

What are you cooking up that is making a statement?



*EDIT – A broad-brushing comment of famine was not appropriate and deserves an edit, because malnutrition exists. Even if we’ve eradicated famine from developed nations, lack of nutrition exists in parts of the world. As infuriated as that is, in these days of advancements in food production and food access, nutritionally dense food is not as globally accessible as it needs to be.


Work it.

“I could never do that!”, is the response I hear most when I tell people that I home educate, or when I tell them that I home educate and work, or when I tell them that I home educate, work, and hobby farm. I feel like what they mean is, “Why would you do that?” or “How do you make that work?” or “I would not want to do that.” Their sentiment is understood; this life choice is not for everybody.

Women leaving the workforce for a child’s early years is a familiar concept. They commonly return once those kids are school-age, with 74.8% of mothers of children age 6-17 working*.  Many women even before that, with over 60% working by the child’s ninth month**. And where are these children while their parents work? Likely, in a day care or a school.

With so many factors at play, life for a home educator is custom fit to each family. Family size and ages are a factor because younger children would need a care giver while mom and dad were away at work, but an older child may be able to manage at home during some of the work hours. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) calculates that most two-parent home educating households maintain with one working parent, however a striking 34% of two parent home educating households manage with both parents in the work force.

Over the years, the way our family has managed the work/school/life responsibilities has evolved: early in our business we hired a nanny who helped with lessons. Once the business could support it, we replaced the nanny with an administrative person, and I moved to a home office. The kids have taken online classes and co-op classes. We maintain a pretty fluid schedule to accommodate the changing needs of the business and the education. The hobby farm is just that, a hobby and much lower in priority.

I’ve worn many of the hats: single working parent, married working parent of a public-school child, stay at home parent, stay at home parent/home educator, and working parent/home educator (and hobby farmer!). It sounds exhausting, but any decade of work crammed into one sentence sounds exhausting. As with any evolution, the change is small and over time.

My contention is that this life choice is very much possible! And I assure myself that there are other women who are taking jobs with flexible schedules or putting their career on the slow track  or using those fringe hours to home educate. We may not be the majority, but we are out there.  What I want to know is, who are you and how are you making it work?


*Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2014

**Monthly Labor Review, June 2008

An bunny trail in art.


I don’t plan the school year in advance, nor do I purchase a year-long curriculum, so I occasionally ask the kids if they have any requests for our next topic of study. This time the answer was art.

We began with an art resource stored in the back of my brain, a recommendation from Brave Writer, Sister Wendy. A few of the Sister Wendy videos were not hard to find on YouTube, but the kiddos were far from interested, even as I was quite taken with the adorable nun. I handed Penelope the copy of Discovering Great Artists, a book I bought ages ago for simple child-friendly art projects using a variety of techniques.

Sometimes you start with ideas and supplies you already have.

The YouTube bunny trail continued with Art with Mati and Dada, and five or six of their short animations introducing various famous artists throughout history. These shows led to some Jackson Pollack inspired paintings and pointillism experiments. Who can resist trying to paint like Pollack?! A few weeks have passed and the red paint is still splashed in the wall, but we persevere.

Pollack painting

After the initial topic request, I grabbed a few books from the library. My library had a copy of The Art Book for Children and Usborne’s book of Famous Artists, both of which were useful for an initial dive into paintings throughout history. Penelope practiced with drawing and expressed interest in a drawing class. She used the YouTube videos by Paul Priestley which kept her going one afternoon.

During this time I was reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, my first read of this author. It accidentally tied into this general topic of study, I couldn’t have planned it better. His take on art in the current economy is powerful. I was left inspired to keep on keeping on: with this blog, with the farm, and not afraid to change things up when necessary.

Over the course of a couple weeks, a handful of conversations took place philosophizing what it means to be an artist and to create art. Frederick declares that artists can be musicians and dancers and such, and I breath a sign of relief that even as a kindergartner he understands that an artist doesn’t have to be a painter or an expert in drawing.

“Art is personal. Art is untested. Art is intended to connect.”  Seth Godin


I would love to continue this topic with clay tree faces and a few pictures books . We started watching the Netflix series Abstract, which features an artist per episode from various specialties; I’m sure we’ll continue to watch. And from the adult perspective, I hope to continue modeling an artist’s mentality and lifestyle for the kiddos, therefore opening up space for them to explore their interests.

Bunny trails can lead to new places of learning, even without formally constructed lesson plans; you need only trust to follow the kids who are following the trails.
A few honorable mentions. Things we enjoyed along the way:
  • A YouTube video clip of a dot taking a walk led us to The Dot, a beloved story which was recently covered in a song by Emily Arrow. We then felt the need to watch many Emily Arrow videos.
  •  The kids are big fans of the violin performances of  Lindsey Stirling.
  • We lucked out at a free 6 month membership to the Flint Institute of Arts, our closest museum, and Frederick is now old enough to be trusted near the art. Our recent visit alerted us to an upcoming LEGO competition and Frederick ended up entering!
  • Spring was just coming on during this study, so naturally the cameras were documenting the bright greens and the first buds were being adored. These observations were posted to Instagram and blogs. Note: the more often I notice how a field of study bleeds into daily life, the easier it is to be aware of this phenomenon. The watercolors also find their way out during this season; spring is a season of watercolor.


Your kitchen is fine.


Photo from Just Vintage Home

I do love a witchy kitchen.

You know, the kind of place you might see bundles of dry herbs, hanging upside down in the rafters. A place where the untrained eye wouldn’t know a bundle of catnip from a stick of sage, but the shelves are lined with amber colored bottles of tonics and extracts alongside jars of grains and seeds; the eating and growing side by side.

I’m speaking of a style, if nothing else. A dream of a kitchen from days gone by. Days before the electric mixers and packaged processed boxed foods. So, dreamy isn’t exactly what I see when I look around my own kitchen (the place where I spend at least an hour every day and the functioning heart of our home); I see a modern mix of gadgets and tools, hand-me-down dishes, food from all manner of farm market/CSA, mega-store, and backyard herb garden. But I go easy, because a kitchen with only what I need, nothing more, nothing less, that’s a thing of beauty in its own right.

We can have our fantasy kitchens, right now, with what we already have. Does your kitchen have produce hanging about in wooden or glass bowl? When is the last time you admired this simple luxury? The seasonal fruit, changing weekly and therefore evolving the look and feel of the kitchen using bananas, oranges, avocados, and sweet potatoes. We have to eat the plants anyway so some of it is bound to don your counter during the week. All I’m saying is make it noticeable, appreciate it.

Squeaky clean work surfaces have their own charm and you deserve to have space to work, even if your apartment has the counter space of a camper trailer. Pairing down the the essentials is making room for art to happen in the kitchen. Check out The Minimal Wellness kitchen as an example of the bare basics of kitchen needs.

The pantry and spice cabinet has such aesthetic appeal when the bags of seeds, nuts, grains, and beans are moved from their grocery store plastic to a glass jar. But, don’t do this if you don’t already have glass jars to reuse. A pantry with only the essentials is an equally beautiful thing. Toss out those expired foods, donate items that were purchased on a whim, and take good care of the ingredients you need and use regularly.

If we can agree that eating in is thriftier than eating out, our kitchens are then the necessary spaces to prepare daily meals, even if for only 30 min a day. Those with time crunches are already cooking most efficiently, perhaps even in large batches. You know what works best for your family, diet, and habits. I feel confident that paring down to a few trusty recipes and saying thank you and goodbye to tools no longer needed, we can enjoy our kitchens without the guilt that comes with comparing ourselves to photos in magazines and on Pinterest.

Speaking of viewing picture-perfect homes, have you seen Bea Johnson’s zero waste home ? This concept of creating little to no waste is fascinating.

Some kitchen inspiration to continue the conversation:

Check out the Nourishing Minimalism kitchen, a home of a family of 8, keeping only what they need, and clearly breaking down the kitchen to only the most useful tools.

Can our families try to produce less waste?

Have you seen this zero waste Austin grocery store ? Using your own containers, you can buy as little or as much as you need, example here. One store, In.gredients, shows some of the ins and outs I was dying to know. A German grocery store with a similar model shows their take on this shopping concept.

Kitchen renovation and you didn’t spend a dime.