Reflections on The One-Straw Revolution

A fellow farmer and blogger, Jason at EdibleEarthscapes, recently recommended the book The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka.  Fukuoka’s ideas about natural, “do-nothing” farming and about quality of life align with a lot of our practices, including the use of green manure instead of synthetic fertilizers, the avoidance of all chemicals, and the no-till method for minimal soil disturbance.  While it may not be realistic to implement everything he did, it has caused me to consider what we do here.  Something I love about this field of work is that you never know it all.  There’s always something else out there to explore.  (And as with everything in life, take what you want and leave the rest.)

Early in the book, regarding quality of life, he writes that farmers in Japan once spent the off-season writing haikus, but that people don’t make time for this anymore.  When I was a music teacher and performing musician, I worked SO much. I would be out the door before the sun was up and would get home well after the sun went down.  We lived in a city.  Sometimes I miss our city apartment, and sometimes I miss the noise. But more often than the nostalgia, I feel gratitude for our lifestyle on our farm.  With the recent changes in my life, especially leaving the fast-paced “professional” world and becoming a mother, I often have to remind myself to relax, to take quiet moments, to listen to the sounds of nature, to write, to paint, to cook.  I don’t get as many moments like that with a baby in the mix, but I still have them most days.  In our region, being a vegetable grower affords me time each winter to rest and regroup before planning takes hold again.  This past winter has been extra special, as a newborn baby required me to slow down.  There were many quiet moments to feel peace and gratitude once we were settled in together.  When Fukuoka spoke of the haikus it made me want to reconnect with my hobbies of painting and writing poetry. I can’t think of a better way to spend a quiet, snowy winter than snuggling my daughter and reflecting on all we have to be grateful for.  I think we could all use this reminder to find balance in our lives, regardless of our occupation.

Fukuoka’s writing about his orchard caused me to reflect on my identity as a farmer.  My parents were the ones who first taught me that chemicals and food do not mix and are bad for the long term health of the earth, if not people.  Dad keeps pear and cherry trees and has had blueberries and raspberries off and on throughout the years.  Not once has he ever sprayed…yet he gets fantastic harvests each year.  If you look to the soil, like in Fukuoka’s orchards, there is a lot of clover as natural ground cover.  If my parents notice any pests, mainly certain non-native moth caterpillars, they usually pick them off and toss them in a bucket.  Besides in the first few years after they were planted (mid-1980s) the trees have only been pruned when branches die.  These practices, which are very “hands-off”, are much like the ones discussed in The One-Straw Revolution.  The general idea is that we need to let trees (and all plants, for that matter) grow in their natural state.  It’s not that there is literally no work to do but rather that the work you do needs to be purposeful.  I have been thinking of it like nature-guided growing.

Whenever we have company over, when giving them a tour of our farm we are almost always asked what we spray our trees with.  And everyone who asks is shocked to find out that we do not spray our orchard (or anything else).  My husband and I are fascinated that even people who have never grown a plant in their life seem to think it is impossible to grow fruit trees successfully without these types of products.  Clearly this notion is somehow engrained in our society.

When on a walk with a friend the other day, she was lamenting that her in-laws are obsessed with sprays and powders in the vegetable garden, the berry patch, and the orchard.  At the start of the season they apply insecticides; at the first sight of any bug they add more.  And yet each year she has noted that they are in a constant battle with plant disease, at times losing whole crops.  Last year they couldn’t harvest any plums, for instance.  In addition they only utilize synthetic fertilizers.  It irks her that they fail to see that unnatural methods have led them to have much more work to do but with poor results.  And regardless of your thoughts on the use of such chemicals on human health, it is clear that these things have a negative impact on the microscopic life forms in the soil and the ecosystem as a whole.  You have to stop and think, “Why bother?”  It requires more effort and doesn’t work very well in the long-term anyway.

My friend and I compared her in-laws’ set-up with my father’s, and it got us thinking about old orchards we’ve both had the pleasure of stumbling upon.  Growing up, my parents’ property was backed up to a big old family farm.  My parents got to know the Long family over the years of being neighbors.  When my sisters and I were young, as he and his wife retired from growing for profit, Mr. Long used to let my dad take us for walks around their property.  I have fond memories of the day we found a few old apple trees.  Mr. Long told Dad that nobody had cared for these trees since his children were young, but you wouldn’t have known.  They were incredibly productive and had exquisite apples.  My favorite of the apples was supposedly Winesap, which I still love to this day.  It is a romantic childhood memory, but my friend has shared similar experiences on her grandparents’ property in Canada and at her husband’s grandfather’s property in Western New York in more recent years.  These trees, having likely been given a solid, natural foundation years ago, continue to thrive without any interference from human beings.

In our orchard, there is already a mix of field onions and perennial grasses on the ground, but I now plan to introduce clover and hairy vetch as well. We have loads of clover in the vegetable area and the soil is especially rich because of it.  I’ve pruned the trees minimally so far, only eliminating branches that would eventually cross or entangle stronger ones.  Although we’re going to be growing in wood-framed beds this year (they’re the future beds for perennials), I’m looking forward to re-expanding our normal 30-inch bed system with cover crops next year.  In the future I’d also love to experiment with a self-seeding vegetable garden like the one Fukuoka speaks of, although it certainly wouldn’t be our main production system.  We’re only in our second season on this property but it seems we may be on the right track for a natural, “do-nothing” microfarm.

Nature has a way of demonstrating the most efficient way of growing things.  Fukuoka isn’t the first person to talk about it, nor will he be the last.  I remember that Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch discussed the forest floor as the ultimate compost system in their show Gardening Naturally.  So again, it’s not about actually doing nothing.  It’s about looking to nature to guide the work you do and making sure you give yourself time to breathe and regroup, too.  I’ll be reminding myself of this often this season.

A Productive Weekend

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I thought I’d start by sharing a photo of our growing hens.  We’re expecting sunny weather in the 60s and 70s this weekend into next week, and so with the girls going into their 5th week of life they will be transitioning to their new home.  They’re mostly feathered out and the brooder is looking tight (even though it technically fits the size requirements and no one is pecking).

Last weekend we had company, my husband’s best friend and his wife, visiting from out of town.  It was the first time they got to meet the baby, and with the extra hands on deck we were able to accomplish a lot on the property while also having plenty of time to catch up.

The first thing the husbands did was work on clearing a good chunk of the brush behind the house.  There were a few dead trees that had been completely overtaken by grapevine and tons of wild raspberry and blackberry (both of which are delicious, don’t get me wrong – but we have over an acre of the stuff and it is incredibly invasive!).  Luckily this is the kind of thing these guys love to do anyway, so they managed to have fun.  The result is that we finally have a clear shot of the beautiful old willow that sits down by the creek, not to mention a gigantic pile of wood that we can either burn or chip.  It’s hard to tell from the photo but the cleared area is about 20’x30’.  The soil is loamy, dark, and full of worm castings – a feast for a farmer’s senses.

When the baby went down for her first nap, us wives got to work on planting the plum tree.  I had already measured and staked locations so this was a pretty quick job.  The peaches, due to a cold snap today, have been pushed back until April 11th.  It would have been nice to get that done while we had two extra adults but we’ll manage just fine.

Although Sunday’s forecast predicted another grey day, we ended up with blue cloudless skies and the guys got an early start on the chicken coop.  My husband found a good deal on a kit for up to 8 chickens that would cost less than building one from scratch, so that’s

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Job well done, guys!

what we went with.  While we worked we saw a stoat (a.k.a. short-tailed weasel) in the nearby wood pile.  They are so stinking cute but it reminded me how important it is to keep our animals safe.  With a few adjustments to the coop, I’m pleased with the security.  We built the coop on a frame of 2x4s with 1/2-inch hardware cloth lining the bottom.  We’ll be filling the frame with sand before the girls move in.  Some other mods will include hanging food and water, trays of forage, and a door for the coop.  We do plan to free range (possibly with a mobile run), so for now this is a stationary set-up.  My husband set up the 2×4 frame so we can add wheels in the future if we want to.

The last project for the weekend was finding a location for those two honeyberry plants I mentioned a while back.  My husband and I put the baby in her carrier and walked around the property a few times, but we were stumped for a while.  Finally my husband suggested adding them as edible landscape plants where they’ll receive direct sunlight for at least 6 hours (more in the summer).  As these are shallow-rooted shrubs that grow 4-5 feet tall, they make for a nice foundation plant.  I’m really excited about this addition to our farm because they fruit in May.  This means we will have a fruit crop before strawberries in two or three years!  Their flavor is supposedly like a cross between blueberry and raspberry with notes of elderberry and wine.  Sounds pretty darn good to me.

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Hubby-of-the-year prepping the honeyberry bed

 

Seed Swap Stories + Germination Progress

Now that we have some things planted I thought I’d share another template that we use to keep records. This form is for taking notes on seed germination.

So far most of the tomatoes have emerged, but we’re still waiting on most of the tomatillos and all of the peppers and eggplant.  The seeds that have performed the best and germinated fastest – Aunt Ruby’s, Cherokee Purple, Marglobe Supreme, & San Marzano – are all ones that my friend saved from the fruit of extra plant starts I shared with her in 2014.  In 2015 and 2016 she continued to save seeds from the strongest plants of each variety.  She lives about three hours away in Western NY, so our hope is that her seed-saving efforts in a nearby region with the same hardiness zone will have the best results yet.

We swap seeds and extra seedlings with one another every year.  For this season, I shared seeds from Katanya watermelon, Kansas melon, and du 18 Jours radish.  Last year we swapped beans (Good Mother Stallard, Snow Cap, Vaquero), sunflower (Mammoth Grey), and winter squash (Hubbard True Green Improved, Galeux D’Eysines).  It’s a little nerdy but it’s a great excuse to get together and gab about our plans and dreams over a cup of coffee.

Anyway, back to our note-taking.  You certainly don’t need to be so formal but we find it’s helpful.  Each winter we can review this information and, combined with crop yield records and notes about quality/flavor, it helps us decide what varieties to continue to grow and which to replace.

For example, last year we grew two different kinds of eggplant: Beatrice F1 and Fingerling.  I sowed 8 blocks of each, two seeds per block, and only two of the Fingerling blocks germinated compared to seven Beatrice F1.  In this case the Fingerling seeds were ones that my father-in-law purchased from a smaller local seed company and the Beatrice F1 were from a much bigger one.  While I would typically be wary of the company itself I also had almost 100% germination on various kinds of broccoli, turnip, kohlrabi, and radish.  So for now, no more Fingerling eggplant on our farm!

And this year, just from germination thus far I’m feeling excited about the 3rd generation home-saved seeds.  Time will tell if the plant growth and fruit quality match up.

Homestead Updates

1. The month of musicals has finally come to a close and I have my husband back. Phew!  He has had a hard time with his career this month, as he often left just as the baby was getting up to eat and got home after she was put to bed at night.  I waited up for him if he was able to get home before 10:00, and although it’s been tiring I’m glad that I did.  Being a stay-at-home parent to a young baby can be isolating, and if not for our quick chats over a glass of wine each night I’m sure I would have felt more lonely.

He has missed out on so many baby milestones and doesn’t even feel fulfilled by the work he is doing, so the long hours in a suit and tie don’t seem worth it to him anymore. I know plenty of people who think we’re crazy for it but we would do anything to work side by side each day!  It motivates me to work more diligently on our farm.  Maybe someday we can grow our operation enough so he can join in full time.

2. I made a giant batch of pastured pork trotter stock. This stuff is liquid gold!  It is so gelatinous. Maybe that’s not an appetizing word, but it’s the right one. It is so rich, buttery, and satisfying. Tonight for dinner I used it as a base for one of our family favorite meals, build-your-own noodle bowls.  I also froze five more quarts.  We’ve got happy, warm bellies.


3. I got a head start on our stash of baby food since that adventure will be happening in a month or so.  Right now I have apple, Asian pear, sweet potato, parsnip, and carrot, all of which were storage crops purchased in bulk from local farmers.  (Did you know that you can’t give home-canned fruits and vegetables to babies?  I am so thankful for our year-round market so we have access to these products even in the cold months!)  I froze them in ice cube trays, then transferred them to freezer bags.  Each cube is roughly one tablespoon in size.  I can easily use them in soups and smoothies, too!

IMG_20170327_080759_1634. Good stuff going on with the nightshades we started a week ago.  So far almost all of the tomatoes have germinated, but we are still waiting on peppers, tomatillos, and eggp
lant. I started more than I originally planned so I can have more seedlings to share with my parents.  Later this week I will share more specific germination notes.

5. The fruit trees have been pruned, and now we are just waiting on the four new additions. They were originally scheduled to arrive yesterday but sudden below-freezing temperatures (14°F) delayed them. Right now it’s looking like April 1st is the day.

A busy weekend but a good one nonetheless.  I hope everyone’s week is off to a great start!

Disappointing Email + Reworking the Orchard

Well, I’m bummed.  I just got an email that the pear trees we placed an order for back in January are no longer available this year and won’t be again until spring 2018.  I know my husband was looking forward to getting the orchard completed this year, somewhat because he’s excited about homegrown fruit but mostly because he wants to be done digging holes in the yard.  But regardless, I took to my notepad and sketched a new plan that would make for easy expansion next year.  Here’s what I’m going with:

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Last year we planted three semi-dwarf cherry (1 each Montmorency, Hardy Giant, Black Tartarian) and six semi-dwarf apple (2 Cox’s Orange Pippin, 1 each Northern Spy, Spitzenburg, Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious).  This year we’re adding three dwarf peach (Elberta Queen, July Elberta, Early White Giant) and one dwarf plum (Stanley Prune).  Next year we’ll finish with three dwarf pear (Beurre Bosc, Bartlett, Anjou) and one more dwarf plum (hopefully Green Gage!).

But here’s the silver lining!  I was $9 away from free shipping, and shipping was going to be $20, so I decided to use those $20 more wisely and pick more plants!  Needless to say we’ll be getting two honeyberry plants with our fruit tree order.  Don’t ask me where they’re going to be planted, though.  I’ll figure it out before they get here this weekend.

Starting Seeds Indoors: Nightshades

Every year we get to the first planting day of the season and I wonder where the time has gone.  Just a few years ago, around this same time, we were planting a hodgepodge of things in plastic cups for our tiny balcony garden.  Now we’re starting our second season at our farm property and we’re gearing up to grow many of our daughter’s first solid foods.  Time flies too fast, but it feels good to be so connected to the changing seasons.

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If you had the chance to look at our small garden plans for this year, you’ll notice that almost everything can be directly sown in place.  The only exceptions are nightshade crops, like tomatoes and peppers.  In typical seasons we start spring brassicas (like broccoli and kale) indoors, but I’ll just be direct sowing them to save space inside.  We also usually grow eggplant, but because space is limited in the garden and we don’t get comparable yields we’ve decided to purchase these from other farms this year.  We’ll just be growing tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos for transplanting.

My rule of thumb is to seed roughly an extra 33% of each transplanted.  For example, if I’m planning on planting tomatoes in the field, I’ll start by multiplying six by 1.33.  This equals 7.98, so I’ll seed eight paste tomatoes.  This accounts for any seeds that may not germinate and allows us to choose the best plants.  (I could sell the extra plants, but usually I just bring them to my parents for their “empty nester” garden.  It saves them some hassle, and they get a much wider variety than what they’d find at the nursery!)

So with that in mind, here’s what we’re sowing indoors today:

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And I will also note that I usually grow in soil blocks, but because I’m seeding so few transplants I’ve decided to keep the equipment clean, save myself some time, and just grow in plug flats such as these.  I’m keeping the mix the same, which is based on Eliot Coleman’s soil block formula, as it has yielded strong results in the past:

  • 3 quarts compost (I use my father-in-law’s homemade vermicompost)
  • 3 quarts coconut coir
  • 1 quart vermiculite
  • 6 tbsp fertilizer (such as this blend)

I can’t wait to see those little sprouts over the next few weeks.  Hopefully it’ll hold me off until warmer spring weather arrives.

Happy planting!

2017 Planting Schedule + Template

I love to organize, especially when it comes to our farm plans.  Excel is my best friend.  Because our family’s food supply is so reliant on our own growing, it’s crucial that we put a lot of thought and care into our plans not only so we can have a successful growing season but also so we can make future plans based on the year’s experiences.

Now that we have our mini-garden layout finalized I thought I’d share a tool I made for keeping track of the season’s planting schedule.  Here’s an image of this year’s:

2017 planting schedule sample.jpg

I’m a very visual person, so I’ve found it helpful to create a schedule like this (instead of a list or calendar) so I can imagine the whole season from start to finish.  In our area, the last frost date in spring will be around April 30th (highlighted in green) and the first fall frost will be around October 15th (highlighted in red).  As you can see, I’ve chosen Sunday as my planting day of the week because it works best around my husband’s schedule.  I used the formula tool in Excel to make it easy to estimate the maturity date for each crop based on the planting date and days to maturity that I input.  There are separate colors for sowing indoors, direct seeding, and transplanting so I can keep track easily.  And finally, you can see my notes on the right about succession rates, harvest notes, and planting directions.

This tool has worked really well for our family for the past two years, so I thought I’d offer a blank template for anyone who’s interested!  Let me know if you check it out!  And as always, feel free to change it to fit your family’s needs.

Click here to download the Visual Planting Schedule template.

Baby Humans and Baby Chickens

Today, my husband went out to run errands before his show this afternoon.  He told me he was going to swing into Tractor Supply Company to see what chicks they had this weekend.  Last weekend, they had unsexed assorted Bantams and Leghorns.  But this time they had unsexed Rhode Island Reds and ISA Brown pullets.  So after some reading, despite having my heart set on the Australorps, I decided to go with the ISA Browns because their description fit the bill and we don’t want males.  My husband came home with six of these little cutie pies.  I think they’re adjusting to their brooder box well.  Thanks to The Cape Coop for these DIY brooder box plans!

ISA Brown chickens are a hybrid, bred to be extremely productive layers of large brown eggs.  I’m certain that we’ll get our Australorps eventually, but these seem like good first backyard chickens.  They’re apparently very quiet, docile, and friendly, plus they lay eggs sooner than other breeds.  Or so I read!  Time will tell.

Now, when I first wrote that I thought I was up to the task of raising baby chicks for the first time, my baby was being a rock star sleeper.  She had just wrapped up a growth spurt and was back to a few long naps and was sleeping 9-9.5 hours straight during the night (and yes, I did have a glass of red wine after I was certain she had fallen asleep!).  However, last night was atrocious, and today hasn’t been much better.  Hey, I have off days, too!  I figured if things were going so beautifully sleep-wise I was owed a curveball.  My sister said there is a 4 month sleep regression.  Is that a thing?  Anyway, now my husband has set up a space for these precious little creatures and I’m sitting here typing this and hoping I didn’t bite off more than I can chew.

“Every day is a new day.”  That’s my new motto.

Raised Bed Plans

Recently I wrote about my plans to utilize companion planting and vertical growing methods to maximize the space in our small garden this year.  I was asked to post my plans for these 4×8 wood-framed beds, so here they are!  These are packed tightly, as it’s an experiment to see just how intensively I can plant.  The books I used to come up with the spacing parameters can be found at the bottom of this post.

Note: “SP” stands for succession plantings.  Green lines indicate trellis.  Areas in red will be sown with my 4-row seeder.  Areas in yellow will be planted using homemade seed mats.  (Click here for more information on how I make hexagonal spaced seed mats for direct-seeded crops.)

Bed 1: 8 half-sheets of parsnip, two 8-foot hormanova trellises with 8 pruned indeterminate tomatoes each spaced at 12″, 4 sheets of SP lettuce, 4 sheets of SP chard, various herbs (will be purchased from the local nursery)

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Bed 2: two basketweave trellises with 6 plants each (6 determinate tomatoes, 2 determinate tomatoes + 4 tomatillo) spaced 18″, 8 pepper spaced 12″, 8 watermelon spaced 18″x24″Nightshade 2.jpg

Bed 3: 8 melons spaced 12″ along hormanova trellis, 31 cucumbers spaced 3″ along hormanova trellis, 12 summer squash spaced 18″, 6 okra spaced 18″ or 8 okra spaced 12″ (will be planted at 6″ and then I’ll decide when I thin them)

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Bed 4: 12 winter squash spaced 18″x24″, two 8-foot hormanova trellises with 31 pole beans per side spaced 3″ (total: 124)

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Bed 5: 8 kale spaced 12″ (spring/fall), 12 cabbage spaced 12″ (spring/fall), 8 half-sheets SP carrot, 8 half-sheets SP beet, 8 half-sheets SP radish, 4 whole + 4 half-sheets SP kohlrabi (spring: fresh, fall: storage)

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Bed 6: 9 broccoli spaced 12″x18″, 9 cauliflower spaced 12″x18″, 6 Brussels sprouts spaced 12″x18″, 8-ft SP mesclun with 4-row seeder, 4 half-sheets beet (spring), 4 half-sheets carrot (spring), 4 half-sheets turnip (fall), 4 half-sheets rutabaga (fall)

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Resources:

Fava Beans + Mama Thoughts

img_20170304_135717_405Over our cold weekend I got a row of fava beans planted.  Half are Broad Windsor and half are Extra Precoce a Grano Violetto, both of which happen to be heirlooms.  They’re tolerant of the cold so they’re a good choice for us northern growers.  For others who are finishing up their winter, it might be nice to see that some of us are already getting seeds in the soil.  I have a sandy patch where a shed used to be, and the clear soil has been nice for random root and legume crops here and there.  Last fall it was radishes, turnips, and carrots.  Now it’s favas.  It was so good to get out and breathe that crisp air, even if I thought my fingers and toes were going to fall off in the process!

I’m taking a break from all the gardening talk to write about motherhood.  I should preface this with the fact that March is school musical season, and as my husband is a music teacher, he doesn’t have any free days or nights or weekends until March 27th.  Needless to say I have a lot of free time to think (read: talk to myself).

Today, our baby girl is four months old.  Someday I’ll write on here about my birth experience and the first two months of her life, as we didn’t have the easiest time and I think other new moms might feel better knowing they’re not alone when it doesn’t go as perfectly as they had hoped.  But today, seeing how she’s grown, I’m just looking forward.

It’s amazing to see babies develop their personalities.  She’s such a social little creature and loves to watch people have conversations, try to communicate back and forth, and smile.  She’s been able to roll from tummy to back for a while now, but when we play on her mat she has recently started to do bridge and downward-facing dog, and it makes me want to get back into yoga so we can share that with each other as she gets older.  I never could have imagined the love I have for her.  The hardest thing for me right now is not having family nearby.  It’s been especially hard that my mom is far away.  Although I love playing and reading and singing with her all day, I’ve got a bad case of cabin fever and it can get a little bit lonesome.  I know the warm weather will make a difference.  The prospect of setting her next to me on the grass while I tend to our garden makes me itch for spring and summer.  The teacher in me is just dying to help her explore and appreciate nature.

She will be starting solids in about two months.  I’m admittedly way too hyped to make her baby food.  Thinking about it and planning it has given me a new perspective about farming and homesteading.  As parents we feel such responsibility to provide the very best in life for our children, and as food is such a central part of our lives here, we feel inspired to provide her with the best and most natural foods from the start.  So to be able to grow many of her early foods (peas, carrots, broccoli, beets, kohlrabi) right here in our soil is incredible.  Even those vegetables and fruits that won’t be ready yet on our property (sweet potato, potato, apple, pear) are at the weekly market right now because they’re storage crops, which means I can plan ahead and fill the freezer with purees for her.  By June our strawberries will be ready to harvest, and I can’t wait to see her taste them for the first time.  And when she’s ready for animal products, we’ll offer her full-fat Jersey cow yogurt and cheese from our local dairy as well as grass-fed lamb and beef from rotational grazing farms.  Lately I’ve been reading books about natural baby food and I’m getting so excited for that stage.  (Don’t worry; I’m loving this stage, too!)

Is this extreme?  Probably, but it’s such a big part of our livelihood and our values that I can’t imagine doing it any other way.  I hope she loves growing up here as much as we love raising her here.