Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mom's Nativity

I am a sentimental sap; I admit it, especially this time of the year. I find it amazing the things that trigger those sentimental moments, and the trip down memory lane that follows. Such was the case last week when my friend Mary posted a picture of a nativity set that my mother had made for her.
My mother was an artist, and a really good one (proving that artistic ability is not genetic). She made clay sculptures, often people would send her pictures of special memories, pets and people and she would custom make a sculpture based off of the picture. I have heard from many people over the years about how they cherish those sculptures, but what Mom was most known for was her nativity sets.
She gave nativity sets out for graduation and wedding presents and often I enter the home of friends and those very sets greet me. Mom gave Jennifer and me one when we got married. It is a white glazed set just like the original set that goes up in Dad’s living room each year. Mom even included Jennifer’s dog Cisco in our set, because who better to guard Baby Jesus than the best dog ever. My nativity set is one of my most cherished possessions.
Mary posted the picture of her set on Facebook and that picture and the comments by others sent me down memory lane. Mom has been gone for over ten years now so any excuse to pause for a moment and remember her is very much welcome and is a great blessing. I miss Mom everyday but Christmas is one of those times I realize just how much.
Mom made Christmas special. She didn’t make it special by lavishing us with lots of presents or rushing from this event to the next. No, she made Christmas special by reminding us of what was important and making sure we kept our priorities in the right place. Sure there were special things about the season but they never overshadowed the reason for Christmas.
Mom lived a simple, orderly life and she celebrated Christmas the same way. Our tree was a simple cedar tree that we, as a family, would go out and cut down from the pasture. Mom and Dad would have a couple of trees picked out from frequent trips to check cows. The decorations were simple and few in number, most were handmade by my sister and I. Most importantly, I got to put the elf on the tree each year, no exceptions.
Christmas cookies were another one of Mom’s traditions. To this day I can still smell the sugar cookies, date rolls, chocolate peanut butter chip and jello cookies baking. A few presents would be under the tree but Andrea and I knew the big present was hidden in the house somewhere and we dared not go look for it. We also knew that we would get one big (in a relative sense) present and some years, based on the farm, would be bigger than others. We learned the importance of being thankful for what we received.
The biggest moment of the Christmas Season was Christmas Eve. The day would be spent preparing to spend Christmas Day with family. Chores had to be done and extra needed to be done in anticipation. We also knew that sometime before noon, Dad would leave for town for his annual Christmas shopping for Mom. We would eat supper before Christmas Eve service and it would usually be oyster casserole (it would have been fried oysters like my great-grandparents but frying oysters was a mystery Mom would never unlock) and then we would go to Christmas Eve service. We always had to wait on Mom in the car when we left. Why she took so much time that one night of the year was a mystery.
To this day Christmas Eve service is the highpoint and the most important part of Christmas to me. I am pretty sure that was what Mom would have said too and that is why I feel that way. No Christmas is complete without singing “Silent Night” in candlelight. We would return from Christmas Eve service to find Santa had come while we were gone. Mom always explained that Santa always came to the dairy farms on Christmas Eve.
Often during Christmas Season I will spend a few moments looking at my nativity set and reflecting on my memories of Mom and Christmas. I worry that as time goes on my memories of my mother will dim, and I work to keep her in the forefront of my thoughts. I cannot thank friends like Mary enough for jogging my reflections and sending me down memory lane. I hope each of you will take a moment to remember cherished memories and celebrate the important things this Christmas Season.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

I am Dreaming of a Warm, Dry Christmas

We are into one of my favorite times of the year, the Christmas Season. Often I think I like the anticipation of Christmas the best. Too many times it seems that we can’t wait for Christmas to get here and then in a flash it is gone and we are left waiting another whole year. I want the season to last longer so I can savor each moment, but somehow each year I manage to pack more and more onto my calendar.
This year is no different. I had plans to clear my calendar and spend time in preparation for Christmas. Enjoying the sights and sounds of the season, but just yesterday I looked at my calendar and I have something on every day until the 21st. To make matters worse, I did it to myself. Well at least I can enjoy Christmas music as I drive to the various events, parties and basketball games.
I enjoy Christmas music about as much as anything during this season. My family will tell you that I enjoy singing along but I am the only one who enjoys my singing along. Eleven months out of the year my radio is firmly tuned to AM but from Thanksgiving to Christmas I leave the dial on the all Christmas music station.
Such was the case yesterday. Tatum and I were driving into town, listening to Christmas music and I was holding myself back from singing along. Somewhere on the road to town “I am Dreaming of a White Christmas” came on. I turned the radio up and we were both enjoying Bing Crosby.
After the song was done, Tatum mentioned that she hoped we had a white Christmas and asked if I agreed. I didn’t hesitate. “No,” I said, “I am hoping for a dry, brown Christmas.” The look she gave me indicated that I had once again lost my bid for Dad of the Year and she viewed me as the Grinch and Scrooge all rolled into one. I might as well go ahead and told her the truth about Santa Claus and that Frosty the Snowman had melted. I knew what she was thinking, “the guy who can’t get enough Christmas doesn’t like white Christmas, how can that happen?”
Maybe my answer was a little jaded, after all we had just come off of an icy Thanksgiving and a white Christmas didn’t  really sound like a good idea. Between the stress of worrying about Dad doing chores by himself while I was out of town and the treacherous drive home, I just wasn’t very crazy about the thought of any more precipitation right now. Especially precipitation of the frozen variety.
It could have been because I was still in my knee boots and I could smell the odor of muddy lots and see the grime of slop on my coveralls. I am sure that the reality of feeding cattle and sheep in the snow didn’t help my attitude either. A snow looks really pretty until you have to go out in it and feed hay. Of course wet chore clothes and gloves didn’t help my outlook either.
OK, before I get labeled as a curmudgeon and a fun hater, let me explain. Some of this was definitely tongue in cheek. At times I do enjoy a white Christmas. When it is the kind that could be made into a Norman Rockwell painting of a white Christmas. There is nothing that gets me in the Christmas spirit more than watching snow come down and seeing the new blanket of white on the ground. I love looking out my picture window, sipping hot chocolate and listening to Christmas music. I like it as long as there is no wind, I don’t have to drive in it and it doesn’t get too deep. If we meet those criteria, I am all for a white Christmas.
I am also aware that I am whining a little bit and we all know that Santa doesn’t like whiners. So I guess what I am asking for is a little time to dry up after this last storm and time to prepare for the next one. Then maybe I will be ready to whole heartedly wish for some snow toward the end of December (as long as it lays right, doesn’t last too long and behaves itself while it is here).  After all the chorus of “I am dreaming of a warm, dry Christmas” just isn’t as catchy.

Make Mine GMO Salmon

Frankenfish  is coming! At least that is what we have heard from the media all week. After many years of testing and debate the FDA has approved genetically modified salmon. Thus the popular media and anti-gmo groups have adhered themselves to the term frankenfish. It is kind of hard to win the public opinion war when the first thing the consumer hears is frankenfish.
The true name of this salmon is AquAdvantage salmon. This gmo salmon is the first animal to come to the market as a gmo. It was developed using genes from a Chinook salmon and an eel. The main benefit of this salmon is a higher growth rate of somewhere around two times that of a non-genetically modified salmon. This development has been in development for years and this week the FDA approved it saying it poses no threat to human health or the environment.
Of course the anti-gmo crowd has come out in force to oppose this release and has asked for the gmo salmon to be labeled. The FDA was very clear in its statement on the AquAdvantage salmon saying that it isafe for human consumption as non-genetically engineered salmon and just as nutritious. However, this did not stop the anti-gmo groups from passing along unfounded fears and theories about the safety of gmo products like AquAdvantage salmon.
In addition to making sure the salmon was safe for us to eat, environmental concerns had to be accounted for also. Would this superior fish over run wild fish if it were to be released? The FDA also assured the public that this would not be a concern. The fish are to be raised inland were they cannot be released into the wild. The biggest safeguard to environmental concerns is the fact that more than 99% of the fish are rendered sterile because of the genetic modification. The very minute percentages that are fertile are not really a threat either because they are not nearly as fertile as native, wild salmon.
Of course fishermen were also opposed and very leery of the genetically modified salmon. I certainly understand their trepidation. This new fish will come to the market much faster and at a much lower price thus undermining their business. I have sympathy for their plight but I think that probably a strong market for wild caught salmon will always exist.  How else would you make the menu at a high end restaurant sound sophisticated? I also think that it is important to have choices for the consumer.
However, just as with other foods that come from genetically engineered plants and animals, I wish people would do their homework and understand that it is perfectly safe and affords us many benefits. First, this allows us to produce more food, quicker and with fewer resources. We desperately need to increase food production in the near future just to keep up with demand. This allows us to do so while still be able to responsibly manage the wild population of salmon.
Secondly, from a nutrition viewpoint, it allows more people to purchase salmon. OK, this may seem odd coming from a beef producer, but I do appreciate the health benefits of fish and specifically salmon. Salmon at a lower price and greater abundance allows more people to purchase a safe, nutritious product. As for its competition with beef, I truly believe that we need to eat a varied diet.
The trick to this debate comes with the idea of mandatory labeling of gmo products. Here we walk the fine line of giving the consumer what they want and generating unneeded attention and adding to unfounded fears. GMO products and non-gmo products are no different when it comes to food safety or nutrition and therefore do not merit a difference in labeling.
The main issue with AquAdvantage salmon is the same as the issue of gmo corn or soybeans. There is a lot of misinformation floating around and many unfounded fears fueled by groups and individuals with their own agendas. We must continue to help the general population understand that food derived from genetically modified organisms is safe and is highly regulated, debated and researched before it ever comes to the market.
Finally, I admit that I do enjoy a good piece of salmon and I have no qualms about eating AquAdvantage salmon. In fact, I would bet that none of us could tell the difference in a blind taste test. Many grocery stores are now shying away from carrying this product in their meat case. I will give my business to stores that do not cower to the fear mongering of a few activists and I will have no problem purchasing and grilling that salmon for my family.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Life Well Lived and Thanksgiving Thoughts

Over the past three weeks I have been profoundly affected by the news of four people who passed on.  On the surface all four people were very different and the situations were very different. However, in many ways they were very similar and they all carried a message that we would all be well served to learn from this Thanksgiving.
Luke Schemm was the All American farm kid we all wanted our sons to be like. He died way too young and his death hit me hard. He was the same age as my son, Isaac and had a lot of the same interests and aspirations for the future. By all accounts he was the type of young man everyone looked up too, young and old. He lived each day to the fullest and accomplished an amazing amount in such a short time. I marveled at the strength, poise and dignity his parents displayed in what had to be their worst nightmare.  Luke reminded me that our time on earth is short; we should make the most of it.
I had the privilege of working with Ann Religa. She was a 4-H Agent with amazing talent and even more energy. She worked hard and spent more time taking care of everyone else than she did worrying about her own needs.  I can only imagine the number of lives she touched and the influence she had in the success of so many. No one worked harder or cared more than Ann and those are rare qualities. I worked alongside of Ann a number of times and admired her greatly. Ann showed me that a job should be more than a paycheck and that the legacy of the lives touched is more important than titles or personal success.
The third passing was that of Dr. Mark Bettencourt. I had the privilege of getting to know Mark a couple of summers ago when our daughters were on the same softball team. We shared many beliefs and ideals but more importantly we both shared the love of family and for our kids. Our daughters are both tough, hardnosed competitors who play for the love of the game. I truly enjoyed the time I spent with Mark but more importantly I marveled at the father and husband he was. Mark’s passing drives home the reality that nothing is more important than family. A man’s greatest accomplishment is his family, nothing is more important. Mark lived that every day and it was evident to all who met him.
Just this morning I received word that Justin Fouts passed on. I consider Justin a neighbor, his son’s land borders mine and we often talked along the road. Justin was one of the most upbeat, positive, fun loving people I have ever known. He lived a long full life and accomplished much during those years. He was always quick with a smile and a joke. I learned to enjoy life and to laugh often from my neighbor.
The news of all four rocked me and affected me profoundly. One I had never met, Luke, but in a way I had. I lived for two and a half years in Wallace County and served as the Extension Agent. I knew Luke’s family, they are good, salt of the earth people and Luke embodied the type of young person I worked with during my time there. I had worked alongside, Ann, and tried to live up to the example she modeled. She truly portrayed the saying, “find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.  Mark, who showed me what it meant to be a man, a father and a husband. He was a good man who put his family in the forefront of his life. Justin showed me how to enjoy each day and find joy in everything.
As we sit down at our tables this Thanksgiving I ask that you keep each of these four and their families in your prayers. Pray for their families to find peace and to know that they have communities of support to fall back on. I cannot imagine how tough these next couple of months will be for these four families and my heart breaks for them.  Holidays are hard after the death of a loved one; I would imagine they are much tougher if the memory is still fresh.
However, I hope they will also take comfort knowing that each one lived a life of purpose and left behind examples that we all can model our lives after. We can all pause to look inward and strive to live our lives in a manner that will honor their memories. No matter what has happened in the previous year we can strive to live life to the fullest and leave behind a lasting legacy through our families and the people we touch every day.

Happy Anniversary

This is a monumental week at our house. Yes, basketball practice starts but that is not it. We should have everything buttoned down and in place for the winter and while that makes me happy that is not it either. This week, Wednesday to be exact, Jennifer and I celebrate twenty years of wedded bliss. OK, so it has been twenty years of wedded bliss farmer style.
The very day of our anniversary is probably a shining example of what is like to be married to me. The morning will be a rush to get chores done before she goes off to work and I take off for the Governor’s Water Conference. I will try to check in that night as I rush on to Session meeting at our church leaving Jennifer in charge of chores for the night. We farmers are incredible romantics.
However, it is not much different than what she has come to expect over the past two decades. Quiet nights at home are often interrupted by a crisis of some sort.  A tough day at work, yes, the very same work that most farm wives must go to. It is mandated that we have health insurance. As I was saying a tough day at work when all she can think of doing is falling back into her chair and relaxing. Only to have me meet her at her car and ask her to help me get the cows back in.
Then there are those mornings during lambing season when the alarm goes off extra early so we can go out and check ewes before she spends eight hours at her other fulltime job. Luckily there are weekends. Yeah right, weekends when you are married to a farmer are far from relaxing.  Chores and projects are never ending around the farm and farmer husbands are always needy when it comes to weekends.
At least she gets vacation days at work. Workers are given vacation days as a time to recharge and get away; that is unless you are married to a farmer.  Then your leave time is spent working calves, hauling cows to pasture and building fence. If you do get away there will be many farm related stops thrown in.
The most difficult part of being a farm wife is knowing that the farm comes first. Everything must wait until the end of the year. Whether or not the kitchen gets remodeled or the car gets traded off is at the whimsy of the weather and the markets. We all know that good years are few and far between. It is not fair, but that is the way farming is. Too often she has heard, “well maybe next year will be better and we can do…..”
There are long hours during lambing, calving, planting, haying and harvest. Often I am out the door early and back late. Projects that need to be done are often tagged with “I will do it on the next rainy day.” It is really funny how often we are in a prolonged drought. At least that is what one would think if those projects were really waiting on the next rainy day.
I am not sure if this is what Jennifer signed up for twenty years ago. I do know that she has went back and looked at the fine print of our wedding vows and found out that picking up rocks was not part of the deal. She also often wonders out loud when the richer part is going to get here too. Lord knows the better and worse parts of those vows have cycled through. Farming is all about the highs and lows.
I think she might be able to get me for false advertisement. I am sure I might have oversold the whole farming is a wonderful lifestyle thing during our courtship. I know this because the subject has been brought up from time to time. Like all farm wives I know Jennifer deserves more and better and I am certain there is a special place in heaven reserved just for farm wives.
To be honest I am not sure why she has put up with me or the farm for the past twenty years. I am not sure which is more frustrating (I think I know but I am afraid to ask; only one of us has increased in value). All I know is that I feel incredibly blessed to have spent the twenty years with her and I cannot imagine this crazy life without her.  I am not sure what the next twenty will bring (I am sure they will be better) but I know they won’t be dull.