Sunday, November 27, 2011

The hill is alive, with the sound of laughter

Beginning on the Friday after Thanksgiving, this farm goes from a sleepy little place to a hustling, bustling hub of activity. This weekend it has been warmer than we can ever remember, and with the doors and windows open, it's easy to hear the children playing and laughing. This period of time is something we look forward to all year, and we all work together in some way all weekend long. Even the kids help when they can be home from college. Today Molly was learning the chainsaw and Rob got wireless to the shop. During the week it is much more manageable, so that any one of us could handle it alone, but on the weekends... well, I was asleep by 8:45 last night.
The front room of the soapmaking workshop is where during the other 10 months of the year we stage shipments, stack things for upcoming shows, and store some finished products. Along the one wall, my sister has her lamp-working torch and kiln set up. In November, we drape it and set up a little shop where people can pick up small gifts for themselves or others. All of the things on the website for The Essential Herbal are in the shop too.
The guys handle the saws, the netting, and the drilling. Santa and his reindeer are atop the main workshop area, and when you can see it lit-up, it is time to come down from the fields because it's too dark to be safe from tripping on stumps or falling into a hole. There is space for about 35 cars, and on the weekends people are moving in and out of those spaces pretty quickly.
Since it was mellow during the morning hours, I set off into the woods on the other side of the farm. I was a little nervous because of all the hunters out shooting, and when I saw something that looked sorta, kinda like a dog flash across the trail up ahead, I just turned around and headed back. The woods were very muddy from the rain earlier this week, so it wasn't a great loss. I did stop and inspect the underside of this tree that fell during the hurricane earlier this fall. There's something so mysterious and fascinating about the roots of a tree.
Closer to the shop, I gathered some sweet Annie seeds for a friend. She'll be surprised because I told her earlier that they seemed to be all gone. They were still growing under this corkscrew willow tree. I was thinking of all the interesting things those branches could be used for...
Most exciting of all to me at the moment, is this little Meyer lemon tree, and the blossoms that have opened today. It isn't very big, so it couldn't bear the weight of any fruit yet, but the scent of these blossoms are simply amazing. A lot like gardenias with a little sprinkling of citrus. I'm in heaven!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another side of the coin

When my sister and her family moved to this Christmas tree farm 20-some years ago, we were surprised on Thankgiving day to have a few people show up in the afternoon to cut a tree. At the time, it wasn't a particularly pleasant surprise, but not really a big deal. It isn't like we had to do much - Bob just hands them a saw or a ribbon to mark their choice.
Over the years, this has become a source of amusement. It has also become the official start to the season for us, and we've come to realize that it is a very special part of some families' holiday tradition.
I've been thinking a lot about it over the last couple of days because the Black Friday situation is so distasteful to me. I'm trying to figure out just how much of a hypocrite I am, I suppose.
To me, there is a big difference. The families come out after their dinners to walk off their full bellies on the beautiful hillside while they choose that perfect tree. It is a joyous occasion, and we get to be a part of it. Over time, we've watched the new generations arrive, and we've mourned along with some of them as they've lost loved ones that we've come to know. We don't have to leave our family, change our clothes, punch a clock, or engage in contentious discussions about prices and terms of sale.
The fact that everyone is happy and having fun is the critical difference to me. A little money changes hands sometimes. Sometimes they are only here to choose the tree and will come back in a couple of weeks to cut it and take it home. That they choose to spend part of their special day here, walking on these hills, kids running ahead and laughing, moms taking pictures, dads carrying the littlest ones... well, that's a blessing to us, and an honor to be where they want to be on this rare day of togetherness. Another difference is that we are home and this IS our life.
In the end, I'm okay with this situation. We don't go out of our way to encourage people to come today, nor do we tell them to go away. It just is. Some people watch football after they eat. We just do something a little different, and we love it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Spending Money

This post has been rolling around in my head for a while now. It has nothing to do with herbs, but everything to do with how we (and I think a lot of other people) get through life, so indulge me for a moment.
Recently there have been three instances where a bit of calling around has turned up huge savings for the same product or service. It seems to me that we, as consumers, need to do a little more of that conscious spending.
When I was very young, things were different. Businesses and service providers were made up of people "like us" and because of that, there was an element of fairness. If it became known that a business in town was gouging or treating customers badly, they weren't around very long. We just didn't put up with it and we didn't give them our money. We railed at the bills from monopolies like the phone and electric because we could not demand better service or better prices. All we could do was choose options that were less expensive (party line anyone?) or use them conservatively. When cable became available for tv, that was the first service that I can think of that was a non-essential thing that people wanted A LOT. They treated their customers like they were doing them a favor, and people accepted that. We took a day off work to wait for the guy to come hook up the cable. All day. Soon we came to accept that sort of service from everyone.
In a lot of cases, we've just become too busy to notice things. People rush to work, maybe dropping the kids off at day-care, scooping up groceries after work before picking up the kids and rushing home to cook dinner (or pick up some take-out), getting everything done at home, and falling into bed exhausted at the end of the day. Convenience is no longer an extravagance for a lot of folks - it is a necessity. And we pay dearly for it.
The worst thing I've been seeing in this latest round of "investigative shopping" is that when I fire a current provider after finding someone better, the old one offers me something similar, price-wise! This is infuriating!
A good example is my trash collector. My mother had chosen this company when she lived in this house, so when I moved in it came with the place. The price has gone up every single quarter in the past 6 years. Every single quarter. And then there' the fuel surcharge... it only goes up, no matter what the price of fuel does. This company has been cannibalized by ever larger companies, so when a small family owned company put door hangers up last week (LOVE their cost effective advertising, by the way...) with a price that was fully half of what I'm paying for better service, I jumped. The old company offered to see if they could "do better". I suggested they should have done that while I was still a customer.
We are currently in the process of changing out fuel tanks here on the farm after finding that since the ones we have are owned by the company, we are hostage to whatever price they decide to charge. We will again save over half on the cost of fuel, paying for the tanks in less than 2 deliveries. The old company *would* adjust the charge if we called and complained every. single. time. But why? Why not just treat people right?
Are customers really so easy to come by?
The last one (for the time-being) is the credit card processor I use for my business. After finding a less expensive option, my processor offered to beat the new price and reimburse me for an overcharge over the last 6 months. The check should have been here yesterday. If it isn't here by Friday, they will lose their chance - again.
Many of my friends are small business owners and we have several businesses here on the farm. We can't treat customers like this, and we wouldn't want to. So why would we accept that treatment?
I'm not asking the businesses I deal with to go into the hole to keep me, I just don't want them to continually cheat me. Apparently we need to start protecting ourselves with vigilance.
And here's the best part... I just got a 10% raise with these changes. That will make a real difference. It will also make a big difference to the companies that I've chosen because they aren't big faceless companies - they are small businesses. Do yourself a favor and look around a little bit. You might be very surprised (and maybe a little horrified).

And to add just a bit of humor, I just got the following in an email.....

Dear Sir:

I am writing to thank you for bouncing my check with which I endeavored to pay my plumber last month.

By my calculations, three nanoseconds must have elapsed between his presenting the check and the arrival in my account of the funds needed to honor it..

I refer, of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my entire pension, an arrangement which, I admit, has been in place for only eight years.

You are to be commended for seizing that brief window of opportunity, and also for debiting my account $30 by way of penalty for the inconvenience caused to your bank.

My thankfulness springs from the manner in which this incident has caused me to rethink my errant financial ways. I noticed that whereas I personally answer your telephone calls and letters, --- when I try to contact you, I am confronted by the impersonal, overcharging, pre-recorded, faceless entity which your bank has become.

From now on, I, like you, choose only to deal with a flesh-and-blood person.

My mortgage and loan repayments will therefore and hereafter no longer be automatic, but will arrive at your bank, by check, addressed personally and confidentially to an employee at your bank whom you must nominate.

Be aware that it is an OFFENSE under the Postal Act for any other person to open such an envelope.

Please find attached an Application Contact which I require your chosen employee to complete.

I am sorry it runs to eight pages, but in order that I know as much about him or her as your bank knows about me, there is no alternative.

Please note that all copies of his or her medical history must be countersigned by a Notary Public, and the mandatory details of his/her financial situation (income, debts, assets and liabilities) must be accompanied by documented proof.

In due course, at MY convenience, I will issue your employee with a PIN number which he/she must quote in dealings with me.

I regret that it cannot be shorter than 28 digits but, again, I have modeled it on the number of button presses required of me to access my account balance on your phone bank service.

As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Let me level the playing field even further.

When you call me, press buttons as follows:


#1. To make an appointment to see me

#2. To query a missing payment.

#3. To transfer the call to my living room in case I am there.

#4 To transfer the call to my bedroom in case I am sleeping.

#5. To transfer the call to my toilet in case I am attending to nature.

#6. To transfer the call to my mobile phone if I am not at home.

#7. To leave a message on my computer, a password to access my computer is required.

Password will be communicated to you at a later date to that Authorized Contact mentioned earlier.

#8. To return to the main menu and to listen to options 1 through

#9. To make a general complaint or inquiry.

The contact will then be put on hold, pending the attention of my automated answering service.

#10. This is a second reminder to press* for English.

While this may, on occasion, involve a lengthy wait, uplifting music will play for the duration of the call.

Regrettably, but again following your example, I must also levy an establishment fee to cover the setting up of this new arrangement.

May I wish you a happy, if ever so slightly less prosperous New Year?

Your Humble Client

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Earnestly Autumn

Mornings around here are usually pretty laid back. As I pushed back the curtains to let in the day, it was clear that this would be a beauty. Staggering out to the kitchen to start the coffee, the sun shining though the maple cast a decidedly autumnal glow in the room.
One cup down, and the sun pulled me outside to look around.
Fortunately for all of you, there is no picture of that. Various layers of seriously unmatched clothing, hair sticking out at odd angles, and that whole, "what? I just got up!" look combined for what I am certain would scare children and small animals. A lack of neighbors can do funny things to a woman.
There are still a lot of violets growing in the yard. Mostly violets work on seeds at this time of year, but there is always a very small fall bloom, making the beauty of those blossoms all the more sublime.
The leaves have left the fig tree, but there are a few figs hanging on. These are the sweetest of the season. The buds are already waiting for next spring, and I admire the strength of them.
Blueberry leaves have a clear jewel-toned red that looks almost like fire at the far end of the yard. They are more striking than almost any flower that blooms in the summer, made even more so because they show this color when the landscape becomes nearly stark.
An echinacea somehow found her way to the back border from the front garden. The extended sunshine out back has suited her well.
The vitex berries stand against the vibrant blue sky. I've harvested a couple of times so far this year, and will probably gather some more later today to start another jar of tincture.
Tiny leaves of cleavers clump close to the earth. I adore the way this plant grows. Stem, then a row of leaves like a green flower, stem through the center of that, and it repeats all the way to the end. Even these tiny plants have that tacky feel when you run your fingers through them, the tiny prickles are already there.
The shaggy cones of the Douglas firs are covering the trees. It is an odd year out there. Some of the conifers have lots of cones while others barely have any. Not sure what to make of that - particularly since we were so flooded during the woolie bear caterpillar time this year. Never did see one of them! Usually I combine what they look like with the cones to come up with my own personal forecast. It's going to be a surprise, I guess.
I am THRILLED that this little stinging nettle plant is here. It is my third try at this plant, and the other two didn't pan out. This one is tucked in between the anise hyssop (could be a problem later since the leaves are vaguely similar...) and the porch so I can keep an eye on it. Earlier in the fall my brother-in-law lent a hand at the end of year garden chores, and this poor plant was whacked to the ground (along with my witch hazel and experimental hardy passionflower), but hopefully everything will recover with good strong roots.
The Bradford pears out front will eventually be replaced by some useful trees. One of them was split during the hurricane this year, and they just aren't very strong. It would be better to have fruit or medicinal trees out there taking up space. In the meantime, I have to say that their foliage is a thing of beauty. So many colors and shades on a single tree.
Next to the door, a barberry is a riot of reds, oranges, and yellow. A rusty colored mum plant struggles to compete.
It won't be long before the yard turns a pale straw color and the sky tends to steely gray. Winter is coming. The tree fields here a filled with families choosing the trees that they will come back for in another few weeks to decorate in their homes. Each day is so very special right now, so filled with the last precious glimmers of plant life for the year before they snuggle down into their roots to regain strength for another growing season. As they do, in some ways we humans will do the same. We'll settle in for the winter, planning and regrouping, learning and studying, so that we'll be ready for them when they return.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stocking the Herbal Cupboard for Winter

I haven't posted for a little while. We were so busy here getting out the last issue of The Essential Herbal magazine and keeping up with wholesale soap orders - and then setting up the little shop at the Christmas tree farm that there hasn't been much time.
So it should come as no surprise that *some* of us ignored the signs of impending illness in the rush of everything. As I watch folks cough and wretch around me, I've been busy making sure I don't join their ranks.
A couple of our favorites are syrups, and they are now bottled and ready. You can find the recipes HERE.
Syrups are really easy to make. The great part of it is that you can use any herbs that you would use for teas, tinctures, or any other preparation, and turn them into a syrup. It is very much like the herbal candy recipe I posted last year, but you can use only sugar or honey, and don't cook it nearly as long.
We also have tinctures on hand of the herbs we use most often. It is great to use foods as medicine, but when everyone around you is spewing germs, you may not have the time (or appetite!) to eat the amount of anti-virals necessary. Additionally, once you have become ill, it's good to have what you need already made up.
Blend up some teas so they are also ready (we have tinctures and teas available on our website, as well as the magazine and books that will help you learn to use and prepare herbs).
Lastly, be sure and listen closely to what you're telling your body. You'd be amazed how closely your body listens to you. Yesterday I was running some errands. The sky was heavy and gray. It was spritzing out, and everything felt heavy. I realized I was starting to feel a little achy (you know what I mean...). Immediately, in the brightest voice I could muster, I loudly, cheerfully said, "I feel GREAT!" Then I turned on the tunes, cranked them up, and sang along. Turned that vague feeling right upside down. And when I got home, I took a healthy slug of elderberry syrup.