Chickens, like children, matured slowly on the farm
Author Mychal Wilmes writes about the fast pace of spring on the farm.
She was, in Dad’s words, happier than yearling heifers turned out for the first time in spring pasture on the day the straight-run Leghorn chicks arrived from the hatchery.
New sawdust was laid down, waterers disinfected, and heat lamps hung in anticipation of their arrival. The chirping chicks tenderly placed on the sawdust carpet huddled beneath the lamps before finding their way to the waterers and feed. One or two had been lost in transit and now it was our shared responsibility to protect all the rest.
Check to see the lamps are working and don’t let them run out of water and pellets, Mother often said when she was dough-deep in breadmaking, washing clothes, or gardening.
Spring had its own rhythm.
The aroma of bread pulled from the oven was a weekly occurrence and so, too, was the sound of grease-stained clothes repeatedly worked over the washboard. A soap cake cut from the bottom of the Red Wing crock could conquer just about anything, but not without lots of elbow grease.
Frost had recently departed, and plants were awakening. Mother was among those who dug horseradish in spring because winter added to the roots’ flavor. Others harvested in fall for the same reason. Parsnips — delicious fried in butter — were also dug in spring when sugar content sweetened them.
Horseradish demanded the most attention. The kitchen became much like a scientist’s laboratory. Several washed and sanitized baby food bottles crowded on kitchen shelves. The horseradish shredded in a meat grinder emitted a smell that caused eyes to water. The smell could not in any way be compared to the welcome aroma of cabbage fermenting in the basement crocks.
Mother did not look forward to processing the horseradish, which would be kept frozen in the massive basement freezer. The freezer was of the type that lasted for decades without repair.
Dad could not do without horseradish served on ham. Mother had been rightly offended when the grandchildren rejected it and asked for ketchup on their steaks.
“Who in the world uses ketchup on steak,’’ she said after fetching homemade ketchup from the refrigerator. She became even more convinced that her grandchildren were hopelessly spoiled when they wouldn’t eat bread crusts.
“That’s the best part,’’ she’d say.
The garden demanded much attention as spring continued.
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The strawberry bed was marred by quack grass and aggressive raspberries threatened to take over the garden. Tulips — among the first to show their beauty — softened the blow. The apple tree in the corner of the garden that produced the best-tasting fruit among all the others was preparing to blossom.
We now could have chives, which added color but not much taste, with scrambled eggs. The rhubarb stalks, which seemed to grow ever so slowly, promised sugary sauce, upside down cake, and bars. A dare to eat a raw stalk without sugar often ended in defeat.
Vitamin-rich rhubarb provided earthly salvation in northern climates for those weakened by never-ending winter. The plant, first cultivated in Asia, is often credited with weight loss, improving digestion, bone growth, circulation and heart health. Its leaves are high in oxalic acid. Which if digested can cause severe illness.
For all its benefits, several rhubarb beds in the neighborhood are ignored. The temptation is great to ask them if I could have a few stalks because the two plants in our yard haven’t been productive. Thus far, I haven’t summoned nerves enough to do so.
Mother’s busy spring extended to all seasons. Bread was baked each week, clothes washed, fruit and vegetables harvested, and children disciplined. The chickens — much like the children — matured slowly.
Mother’s ultimate reward for what she did is a love that will endure until the end of earthly time. The family bond, so wonderfully constructed, will never be broken.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.