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This Is What Environmental Stewardship Looks Like When You're Farming: Eckenfels Farms

Eckenfels Sue
Sue Eckenfels, taking time out on a Sunday to give us a tour of their farm.

By Lisa Brunette

We purchase most of our meat directly from farms, a practice we began in 2015, when we lived in Chehalis, in Washington state. Back then our beef came from the Olsons, just outside of that small town. Here in Missouri, we had to source meat anew, so we hit the local farmer's market and found two excellent locals: Eckenfels Farms and Farrar Out Farm.

Eckenfels Sign
A colorful sign entices you to explore the rolling hills beyond.

We've been buying meat in bulk quantities from both farms for four years now, so I figured it was about time to visit... at least one of them! The Eckenfels Farm is located in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and with that tiny burg's proximity to primo hiking spots (my big draw) and its National Historical Park (to feed Anthony's history obsession), we couldn't not go there. Besides, we just really enjoyed chatting with Bob and Sue Eckenfels at the farmer's market. So we scheduled a trip to charming Ste. Genevieve, and the couple graciously agreed to give us a tour of their farm during our stay.

Eckenfels Wagu
Eckenfels' herd is pasture-raised.

Eckenfels Farms is a "Century Farm," meaning it's been in the same family for 100 years or more. In this case, the Eckenfels have been farming their 300 or so acres for 170 years. But Bob will quickly tell you of neighboring farms that have been around for 200 years, an important marker, as Missouri celebrates its state bicentennial this year. In a place like Ste. Genevieve, history is a long game. As Missouri's first European settlement, its roots stretch back to at least 1750, and some of the historic homes you can tour as part of the National Park Service site are one of only a handful of remaining examples of rare French architectural techniques.

Eckenfels Pond
Pasture stretching down toward a pond at Eckenfels Farms.

A few fun facts about Eckenfels Farms:

  • Winner of the beef industry's 2009 Region III Environmental Stewardship Award
  • Herd is free-range, grass-fed, with no antibiotics, hormones, or unnatural growth stimulants
  • Practice rotational grazing on a mix of fescue, over-seeded millet, rye, and clover as warranted, with native warm-season grasses providing food during the hottest summer days when the fescue doesn't do well
  • Raise South Poll cattle, well-adapted to Missouri's heat and humidity
  • Animals have continuous access to well water
Eckenfels Wagu Watering
The herd gathering at one of several wells.

Though it was a steamy day in late August, the temps climbing into the 90s, we enjoyed the chance to get up close and personal with the animals who become our nourishment. The Eckenfels were kind enough to drive us out to see their pasture-fed herd of 50. Their South Poll breed is so docile and easy that we were able to gather around them in close proximity while provoking only curiosity in the cows. 

Eckenfels Wagu Mama
A cow regards me with what I took to be some level of interest. The South Poll breed is known as the "Southern Mama."

Bob runs a superior operation, as evidenced by the recognition the farm has received, but you can also see it in the health and beauty of the herd. Grass-fed diets are better for the animal and for us, too. Grass-fed beef is leaner, with fewer calories, but it contains more nutrients. "If all Americans switched to grass-fed meat, our national epidemic of obesity would begin to diminish," as the Eckenfels explain to their own website visitors. Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed.  

Eckenfels Tour
Bob and Sue on the tour, with my husband, Anthony, staying in the shade in the cab.

Cows are meant to eat grass, not grain, and they're healthier on their natural diet, in less need of medical intervention. Attention is also paid to the pasture itself, as Bob employs several techniques to ensure a healthy pasture environment. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Cattlemen's Foundation awarded Eckenfels an award for environmental stewardship, citing the following practices:

Eckenfels plants his crops using no-till, which has proven to increase his returns and minimize erosion. He has utilized rotational grazing by cross fencing his fields using a combination of barbed wire and electric fence to maximize production. He’s also fencing his ponds to exclude livestock. By implementing these conservation practices, Eckenfels Farm provides wildlife habitat and improves pastures. 

Eckenfels Bob Anthony
Bob and Anthony.

Calling Bob a "progressive adopter of new ideas and technologies that benefit and protect soil and water resources," the industry groups sponsoring the award praised him for a number of initiatives, such as installing ponds and stream buffers, creating quail habitats, and volunteering to educate others on conservation principles and practices. And of course this is a family effort; Bob's son Matt is already a key part of the farm, daughter Kayla can often be found staffing the farmer's market booth, and both of their other children have been involved at one time or another. All four live either on the farm or in close proximity. Eldest Matt has even custom-built a grain silo home.

Eckenfels Silo House

Farm life is not without its challenges, as you can imagine. The Eckenfels have struggled with a lower water table from which to draw well water. Consolidation in the slaughterhouse industry has led to disadvantages for small independent farms like this one. And while clearly fixtures in the Ste. Genevieve community, you can't actually purchase Eckenfels meat at any of the town's stores, or even find it in restaurants. This strikes me as a sorely missed opportunity, as someone who's used to Seattle restaurants and specialty grocery stores routinely listing just such an "origin story" for their meat as the Eckenfels give in spades. Bob and Sue drive the hour to St. Louis a couple times a week to sell to customers there instead.

Eckenfels Wagu Walk
Using corridors like this one, Bob rotates the herd to different parts of the pasture, giving it a chance to regenerate between grazings.

It was personally quite satisfying to get my farm fix with this tour, and I thank the Eckenfels for their hospitality and time. While unlike both Bob and Sue, I didn't grow up on a farm, I have often wished I had. Instead, I've had to live vicariously through others as a writer who chronicles this work, whether as editor of the oldest independent fishing publication on the West Coast, author of a book about a century-old dairy farm, or the writing I do as a volunteer for this little old blog. I hope you enjoy my stories.

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The Best - and Perhaps Last - Cat Toy You'll Ever Buy

Leather_spider
A handmade cat toy. Image courtesy DementedDesignsShop on Etsy.

By Lisa Brunette

Let me introduce you to what we around the farmhouse like to call "the leather spider." Now, Chaco has typically been pretty hard on any toy I've ever brought home, usually breaking it the same day the toy arrives. It's rare that any make it past a few days of play. But I don't actually blame Chaco for this; he's just doing what cats do. The problem is, like too many things these days, most cat toys are cheaply made out of low-quality materials. They ain't built to last. 

Chaco's life changed for the better, however, the day our handmade leather spider arrived. It's lasted not hours, not days, not weeks, but MONTHS. Yep, that's right. I ordered it back in February, and it's still good as new. Good. As. Freakin'. NEW. Take that, cheap world of things!

Chaco_play
Chaco action shot!

The toy is handmade, the "spider" part fashioned out of leather. The wand is wood, and then there's a string made out of sturdy nylon, with a vinyl cap. Usually with a "thing-on-a-string" toy like this, it seriously takes hours if not minutes for Chaco to rip the thing off the string. But this one's still intact after more than six months of frequent play.

It's high-quality, and I think because the "spider" part is leather, it approximates real prey better than most cat toys. While Chaco has often grown bored with other toys, this one he never tires of, and he asks for it pretty much every day, by sitting next to the closet where we keep it and looking up at it, then us, longingly.

Leather_spider2
Image courtesy DementedDesignsShop on Etsy.

Now the leather spider probably costs more than the typical cat deelibob you'd find hanging in the big box store, but add up all the deelibobs you buy each year, replacing them when they constantly break, and I guarantee you this one's a better buy all around at USD 13. Besides, you're supporting a small, independent maker of fine quality things when you purchase the toy from Etsy.

You're also supporting this blog and its free content. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission from qualifying purchases of this cat toy. We are happy to turn you onto "the leather spider" and find it actually kind of satisfying to rave about it here. It's a product we personally love, and so does Chaco!

We wish you and your cat hours of ceaseless joy.

Chaco_play2

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Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem


Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem

Potato_1
Part of last year's potato harvest.

By Anthony Valterra

Let me tell you a weird story about our cat. We had some problems with water seeping through our basement walls. When this happens, the water is muddy. Even if you clean it up, it leaves a very fine silt behind. One place that ended up having a pretty thick layer was behind the furnace. It was out of the way and hard to get to, so it just sort of built up. We fixed our gutters and created a water garden in the backyard. Our roof runoff fills some drums, and then when they overflow, it runs out to the water garden, as does a French drain to draw water away from the basement. After we did that, we haven't had any problems with water in the basement. But that silt just set back there getting dryer and dryer. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and finally found a nice pile of poop behind the furnace in that lovely soft silt. Well, I guess you can't really blame the cat. The silt is a soft as down, and the furnace makes that spot nice and warm. But still I had to clean up the cat poop and then clean up the silt. The cat went back to his litter box, and all was well.

Potato_4
I ams what I ams, says the cat.

Now I tell you that story so I can tell you this one. We dug up our potatoes last year and had an OK crop. We really don't know that much about growing potatoes, so the soil was probably not the best. We planted on ground that the previous year had been lawn. I read that there is a pest that lives well in lawn and also loves potatoes. So, a lot of our potatoes had suffered a bit. But we planted a good variety, and some came through OK. It makes you realize how important it is not to monocrop when you are trying to grow organically. Anyway, we had enough potatoes to fill a few 5-gallon buckets and felt that we had not grown enough to carry us through winter but certainly enough to reduce our potato purchases. But how do you store potatoes?

Sadly, I should know this. I grew up with parents who backyard-farmed. My dad still grows corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. I should have paid attention growing up, but I didn't. I was too busy reading the latest adventures of Daredevil, Batman, or the X-Men. I had zero interest in gardening. So I started reading various blogs trying to figure out the best way to do it. It is surprising how many ways there are to do a thing. I might write a blog post about storing potatoes and put it in a form that would have helped me. Maybe it will help others.

Potato_2
Into the bucket.

The method we ended up going with was to put the potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket in a layer. Then cover them with sand. Then another layer of potatoes and then another layer of sand until the bucket is mostly full. We read that the sand should be damp but not wet. That was likely a mistake. We think that that might make sense if you are in very dry environment, but it made our potatoes soften. I think this year we will cure them and then try the egg carton method (put the potatoes in egg cartons). We will try to keep the potatoes as cool as possible in the basement without going below 48 degrees. Likely it won't be cold enough for maximum life, but we will see how we do.

Potato_3
Little did these potatoes know what fate awaited them.

But last year it was the sand-in-the-bucket method. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and... I'll bet you know where this is going. Yep, he was POOPING IN OUR POTATOES. If I didn't love the little beast, I might have strangled him. He was pooping and peeing in the buckets and had done a terrific job of getting all the potatoes well desecrated. After a very short debate, we dumped them all.

Potato_5
The best-laid plans...

And that, dear readers, is how we lost our potato crop last year. I'm sure there is some deeper moral or philosophical lesson to be gleaned from all this. But I'm hornswoggled if I know what it is.

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Happy Mother's Day to All Those Who Mother

Mom and Me
Mom and me.

By Lisa Brunette

I want to wish a happy Mother's Day to everyone out there who mothers, in all the senses of the word. As someone who has not herself had any biological children, I know there are many opportunities in our world to mother, as I have had with my stepson, Zander. I've been in his life for half of it, and I like to think I've been a good influence on him. Stepmothers and other caretakers often get short shrift when it comes to the cult of motherhood, so let's not forget all the "mothers" in our lives today. 

Mom in Classroom
My mother, Pat, in her classroom, pre-COVID19.

My own mother is a strong survivor who's weathered more than her share of hardships. Even though her 'bio' mothering years are mostly done - though you're a parent for life, truly - she also nurtures the religious lives of the young children in her catechist care. Though I've taken a different spiritual path, Mom's committed Catholic faith is a real inspiration to me, as I'm sure it is to the young souls she guides with her wise teachings.

Mom in Classroom2

She gave her young adult years to raising four kids and living the nomadic life of an Air Force wife, only to find divorce and years out of the official workforce left her with only service jobs as an option. She worked in a convenience store, a bakery, and a retail store for years, and she still today finds time and energy to work for little pay as a catechist. She's also given freely of her volunteer hours to her church. She is a mother to many.

Mom and Statue

With love and pride for my own beautiful mother, I say to all: Happy Mother's Day!

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A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire and Mike Schosser
Claire Schosser and Mike Gaillard.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You call your way of life "voluntary simplicity." For Cat in the Flock readers, explain how you live, and how it's different from mainstream expectations.

CS: Voluntary simplicity means that we decide what our values are and how to live to express those values instead of allowing mass culture to tell us what we are supposed to value and how we are supposed to live. It also means doing our best to live within the limits of what the earth can provide. 

The less time we spend on earning money and on all the activities, like commuting, that are required to earn money, the more time we have for our own interests. Spending less time earning money means we have less money to spend, so we limit the goods and services that money buys to the lowest level that we can manage. The less we spend on any particular good or service means the more we have to spend on something else we might need or want, so we prefer goods that are high quality and last for a long time and/or require little or no maintenance and/or are secondhand and/or are human powered. We do our own cooking and cleaning and as many other basic household services as we have the skill to do. These choices generally entail using less energy and less energy intensive materials than we would otherwise use, which also means we cause less pollution and waste to be produced so we come closer to living within the earths limits.

Violets
While others might see wild violets as weeds, Claire regards them as an early spring source of nibbles, as well as a food for pollinators.

LB: That sounds great. I have two followup questions for you on this. First, removed from the dependence on a job, how have you spent your time instead? Second, what sorts of modern conveniences have you decided are not important? Do you wash your dishes by hand? Line-dry your clothes? I ask because Anthony and I began hand-washing our dishes last year since dishwashers are so weak these days that we ended up washing them ourselves after a wash cycle anyway, and we wanted to save money as well as use the wash water in our garden afterward. We were surprised to find we both actually enjoy washing dishes - it's meditative and satisfying. 

CS: The house didn’t include a dishwasher when we bought it, and the kitchen is so small I didn’t want to lose any space to a dishwasher, so I decided I would wash the dishes by hand. Although I had a dishwasher most of my adult life, I find I don’t miss it at all. I often mull over ideas while I’m doing the dishes, or I listen to music.

After washing the dishes, I put as many as I can on a rack and let them air-dry. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but it’s satisfying to find a way to arrange the dishes on the rack so I don’t have to dry any of them myself!

Dish Rack
The dish rack at the Schosser/Gaillard household.

While we have a clothes dryer - it came with the house - I dry our clothes on clothes racks most of the year. Because they aren’t abrading each other as they tumble around in the dryer, our clothes last many more years than they did when I used the clothes dryer all the time. My three pairs of fleece-lined blue jeans that I wear for five to six months of the year are well over 10 years old, and I can still wear them in public!

I don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Our floors are wood and linoleum, so I sweep them with a broom and mop them to clean them. We rake leaves with a rake and shovel snow with a shovel. I dig garden beds with a shovel instead of a tiller. Mike splits wood by hand. Sometimes he saws it by hand, too, although he uses an electric chainsaw when sawing by hand becomes too difficult. 

We don’t have a television. Instead, we each read a lot and have particular interests that we pursue.

As for what we do instead of a job, we have lives. Granted, part of the time we do the not-so-fun things like cleaning, paying the bills and keeping track of expenditures, and mowing the mix of grass and weeds that isn’t part of one of the gardens. Most of the time, however, we are doing something that we enjoy and that furthers our life goals. This includes each of us having an active spiritual practice and doing volunteer work. We enjoy reading and creative pursuits such as writing and playing music. I spend a lot of time working on the various gardens and watching the birds who live here or visit.

Birdhouse
A birdhouse beckons over Claire's garden plot.

LB: You and Mike shifted to this lifestyle back in 1994. Taking such drastic steps as you have to get off the hamster wheel was, I'm sure, rarer back then. What made you decide to do it? How hard was it, initially? What are your biggest struggles now?

CS: I came to St. Louis in 1984 to work as a research chemist for a large multinational corporation. If I had been happy with corporate life, perhaps Id still be working and we wouldnt be having this conversation. But I wasnt happy. It wasnt just that I didnt like my job; nothing about corporate life appealed to me. I could see how every step up the corporate ladder restricted further what employees could say, do, or think. The only question was how long I could stand to continue working there. The answer: eight years.

When I quit my job, our household income dropped by almost two-thirds. We adjusted our spending downward, but within a year, it became clear that we were spending more than Mike earned. We tried to determine where we could reduce expenses enough to live on Mikes wages, but we couldnt seem to find any place where we could cut spending. 

Luckily I found the book Your Money or Your Life in early 1994. By applying the nine-step program in the book, we learned which expenses really were fulfilling and in line with our values and which werent. Knowing that, we dropped or reduced the most unfulfilling expenses. Within six months we were saving money, which by itself was a big boost to morale. Since we had dropped unfulfilling expenses, we felt better from that as well. 

Mike retired in 2001, when we calculated we had enough income from savings to cover all of our expenses. Then we moved in 2002 to our current house, drawing on savings to make energy-saving improvements. Interest rates declined in the early 2000s, reducing our income further. We went through some lean years, until we aged enough to begin drawing our pensions. Right now were doing well, while we continue to increase our resilience to economic fluctuations.

Canoe and Red Buds
A canoe under the red bud trees at Claire and Mike's place.

LB: That's an incredible life trajectory, Claire! By the way, Anthony's mother used Your Money Or Your Life (YMOYL) to retire early at age 55, pursuing a spiritual path and involving herself in a community called The Red Door that she helped found. She was active in both pursuits until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. So Anthony has read YMOYL as well. The problem for our generation, however, is that a lot of the advice in that book is no longer valid. Generation X has seen a dramatically widening wage gap between corporate leadership and the worker base. Pensions are no longer a thing (no employer has ever offered either of us one). Ours is the first generation in many to do less well than our parents. Finally, there are no longer any safe investments; savings accounts, CDs, etc., earn next to nothing, so we're left with very little besides the (rather volatile) stock market, and even today's 401Ks are tied to it. All that said, is there any advice you can give us as we work toward a hopeful kind of retirement? Also, I'm curious whether you had ever thought about leaving corporate life to go into a softer career, such as non-profits, or teaching? I've done both although in the end I had to opt for corporate work in order to pay off heavy student loan and other debt. 

Garden
A view of the tidy food garden.

CS: YMOYL worked for Anthony’s mother and for us because we could take advantage of pensions and good interest rates on safe investments. Without those the YMOYL goal of living off of interest from savings for many years becomes impossible; ordinary people cannot save enough money to do that at the current very low interest rates. 

I think the changes you’ve described are likely to continue and bring with them further changes that make the kind of retirement that my parents’ generation experienced a rare thing. To put it in ecological terms, previously stable economic patterns have been disturbed and are becoming more so with time. One of the things that permaculture teaches, a concept it borrowed directly from ecology, is that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance: they handle it better, it doesn’t tear them apart. 

Dogwood Blossom
Dogwood blossoms.

 What you and Anthony are doing and what Mike and I are doing increases resilience to economic disturbances by increasing our options to respond to it. The only form of resilience many people know is to earn more money. That is becoming more difficult to do. However, a more potent form of resilience is to need, and spend, less money and to increase our skill base so that we can more easily adapt to changing conditions. By growing some of your own food, you spend less at the grocery store; you eat better so you are healthier; you learn a skill that you can share with others; and you enjoy the satisfaction of gardening. By refurbishing patio gliders you saved the money you would have spent on lower-quality patio furniture and their replacements when they broke, you learned another skill, you have sturdy and beautiful patio furniture that will last for as long as you have a patio, and you have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Everything you write about shows the different ways in which you and Anthony increase your resilience and maximize your options for later in life. The best advice I can give you is to keep doing what you are doing!

You asked if I considered other options for paid work such as teaching or working for a non-profit organization. Although I enjoy teaching on an informal basis, I never considered teaching in public schools. Even when I attended them in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear that you couldn’t teach what or how you wanted. In grad school I did my research with a professor who began his career the same semester I started, so I had a front-row seat to watch the pressures that are involved in obtaining tenure. That was enough to discourage me from becoming a professor. Non-profit work didn’t seem much different from corporate work to me, except that it didn’t pay as well.

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Part 2: Suburban Homesteading

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space