Monthly Archives: May 2009

Is it worth it?!

This has been a hard weekend for me. For the past 4 days I have not been home a significant portion of the day and the week before that I had at least one thing going on every day. Slowly the children’s schedule have been getting more and more off until chaos seemed to rule their actions. In the midst of it all I was still trying to cook our own food mostly from scratch, maintain a household, including laundry for 3 children under five that has to be hung outside on the line and learn the ins and outs of farming. Part of the problem was a plethora of family committments (its graduation season after all) and work at my other part time job as a writer.

Monday was supposed to be a holiday, instead we worked on the farm and fixed our car. By the end of the day there was no energy for anything. The kids wanted to go for a bike ride. We don’t do that very often since having both parents present is a must in our busy neighborhood. I knew the dog hadn’t been walked for at least 4 days and I couldn’t really remember when. So we thought OK, only to discover one tire on Two’s bike was flat and wouldn’t hold any air we were trying to put in it (a burst inner tube perhaps?). Ugh is my new favorite word, or something like that. Vegging out seemed the only solution, but the kids wanted to play baseball and swing and there were plants to be watered and animals to be fed.

I found myself thinking is this worth it? What exactly are we trying to accomplish. Our family by definition seems to avoid definitions. Conservative hippies maybe. Tree huggers that hunt. Homesteaders that live in the city. Who knows what we are really, just a mixture of ideas and identities that make us a family. I do know that we are beginning to really crave self-reliance. Proeun can fix cars and build things out of scratch, even come up with interesting solutions to problems he calls, “going MacGuyver.” I can make food from scratch, clothes from scratch and have my babies at home. We are trying as a family to reduce our waste through reusing, composting and sharing our food with our animals. This weekend we were at my aunt’s house. Two tasted a grape he didn’t like and asked aunt Janice if he could give it to the animals. “We don’t have any animals,” she said. “What about the ants?” he said. Anyway I digress.

So what is the value of taking things slow, doing things as a family, like work, knowing that we are working towards a more sustainable future and raising children who will view this as the norm. In the end I had to admit, it is worth it and here’s why

But you will each have your own reasons.

Two and Best Friend Carrie

Two and Carrie taking and afternoon nap.

Two weeks after Mavis was born we were out running errands. Proeun’s paternity leave was almost up and we wanted to get as much done as possible so I wouldn’t have to go anywhere by myself during the first weeks after her birth. One of those errands was to pick up some chicken feed. We had seen a small independent place not too far away and wanted to try it out. When we arrived we saw some animals in a rabbit hutch by the door, I assumed they were rabbits and kept walking. Of course the children didn’t.

Turns out they were a couple litters of kittens that someone had dumped at the store. When Proeun asked how much the cats were and reply was, “they are free take them all if you like,” I knew we would be leaving with at least one cat. In the end we decided on 2 one for each of the older children.

Two had his eye on a cute gray one. Proeun was eyeing a black and white tom that showed particular spirit. We had been having mouse problems in the spring and fall and wanted to ensure that we had at least one mouser. On the way home Two announced that their names were Austin and Carrie.

Both have been beautiful additions to our family. While they are a little extra work the pay off is much higher. For weeks the children had their babies and I had mine. They carried their kittens around the house like proud parents. Carrie and Austin grew to be highly social with each other, our dog Hiro and us. But while Austin spreads his love around we noticed pretty early on that Carrie preferred Two and Two alone. She knows who her boy is and loves him to death. Two also knows who his cat is, he told me, “Carrie is my best friend.”

The two even sleep together at night and for naps. If for some reason we don’t nap at home or miss a nap Carrie is especially eager to sleep with Two the next day. I have been trying for days to get a picture of them sleeping together and yesterday I finally got one.

We haven’t seen any mice since they moved into our home.

1,000 Tomato Plants

This weekend made all the plastic mulch worth it. Somehow turning all that shiny plastic into rows of budding tomato plants validates all the work of laying plastic. While it will still be several months before we taste the fruit of our labor the sight of it is getting more and more beautiful everyday.

The first day we spent entirely outdoors laying plastic and planting I went home with an odd feeling in my body. Whereas I would have expected to be completely sore I really wasn’t. It was more of a tingling feeling. I told Proeun I thought it was all that oxygenated blood coursing through my body. The old sluggish blood was being replaced with a vibrant life giving force provided by healthy labor outside. In several months the fruit of our labor (literally) will provide only the best food to continue to power our body as we work the fields.

Don’t get me wrong, I am exhausted. After several days on the farm the neglected house needs some serious attention. Today it was all about getting caught up on laundry (ala the clothesline), making bread, planning meals for the week and cleaning up all the dirt we tracked in over the weekend. But to see those fields, to know what they will become and that they will provide countless numbers of tomatoes for our family and friends, plus a little income and that we did it, there is really nothing like it. Our farm manager told us each of those plants could potentially provide 25-30 pounds of food. That is 25,000-30,000 of tomatoes. Obviously our work isn’t done yet.

The varieties of heirloom tomatoes we are growing are Brandywine, Black Brandywine, Rose, Ark Traveler, Prudens Purple, Great White and Striped German (my favorite). We are also growing Red Grape and Mojo cherry tomatoes.

This weekend, will plant our direct seed items like corn, carrots, radishes, beets, beans and cucumbers. It is a wondreful to look at a field and be hungry and satisfied all at the same time.

Plastic Mulch–ugh!

Last year we planted 9 tomato plants in our backyard. The season before we had invested quite a lot (or so we thought) in raised beds. For each of our 9 plants we had a tomato cage and a square foot reserved in our bed. I thought that was a lot of tomatoes. This year we are growing 1/8 of an acre of tomato plants–that equates to something around 800 plants. Obviously tomato cages and raised beds are not going to work on that scale.

Thanks to our training program we have learned about plastic mulch. Plastic mulch is just one of the many ways that modern organic farming works with nature to control nature–if that makes any sense. It works in this way. You buy a role of plastic (agricultural approved). Then start at one end of the row, dig a trench, then put the plastic in and cover it up. Now start unrolling the plastic and shovel dirt onto the edges, all the way down the row. At the end cut the plastic, dig another trench and bury it.

Now you have a sleek looking row of plastic. Aside from aesthetics this plastic serves a purpose. It warms up the soil, keeps weeds out and water in and protects the plants from dirt. As odd as it sounds tomatoes are prone to soil borne diseases such as tomato blight. As it rains and the soil splashes up on the plants the blight can spread. Pretty quickly you can wipe out a whole tomato crop. Who knew? You just don’t have to deal with this when you have 9 plants in raised beds filled with perfectly mixed (and hopefully blight free) soil.

When it comes time to plant you cut a hole in the plastic, dig a hole in the dirt and plant as normal. To complicate things a little you can put t-tape under the plastic. This is used to water your plants under the plastic since rain probably won’t do the trick anymore. The tape is around a 1 in width, flat with holes on one side. When connected to a hose at the end of the row it will provide nice steady water to your plants.

So I know this is really necessary if we hope to recoop any expenses from our tomato crop this year. But let me tell you–Ugh! After working on plastic mulch that will probably be all you can say. Last week we went out and spent 4 hours trying to figure out how to lay plastic. We were not prepared and didn’t have the right equipment, but we made a valiant attempt. It didn’t look pretty but at least we had a row done, 3 more to go. Knowing that this weekend we would have to finish the plastic and get a good start on planting we returned to the farm Thursday morning before work. We knew we would only have 2 hours but hoped to get another row done. When we arrived in our field we found the the wind had riped out Sunday’s work–ugh! We were able to get a row done but now we still have 3 to go. This time we had the right equipment and we are keeping our fingers crossed that it will still be in the field when we arrive. I was exhausted after 1 row, now we have to do 3 rows and plant in one weekend–ugh!

Broken Dryer, No Problem!

I definitely have to be careful what I wish for. Last week I had bought clothes pins and clothes line. In the most recent issue of Countryside Magazine there was an article about hanging clothes on the line. I remember my grandmother doing this frequently and have many fond memories of helping her.

When we moved into this house there was a clothesline in the back as well as a winter one in the basement. These have rarely been used.

However this last weekend I decided I shoud try hanging at least a couple of loads on the line each week. I was hoping to save money and energy cost as well as become more self-sufficient. If we lost our power or chose not to use it, what were my options for drying clothes? Even with my new resolve a week after purchasig the clothes pin and lines they were still in the packages.

Until last night. After trying to dry a load of diapers 3 times I had to face the truth–something was wrong with our dryer. We ended up scrambling to find enough diapers at bedtime.

In any case it appears that this is a new skill I now have to learn. We may be able to fix it still or we may have to buy a new one but in the meantime we are going to hang clothes on the line.

Cross Cultural Eating

When you are a bi-cultural family there are some things that are definitely a challenge. Proeun and I decided early on that we would do our best to maintain elements of both cultures, thus giving the children a strong sense of who they are and both their backgrounds. We knew the value of food to convey a cultural identity and so try to eat food from both our cultures frequently (and a few others for variety).

I started cooking Cambodian food when we were first dating. Our first official family meal at my house involved my mother and I going on-line to select Cambodian dishes and cook them for my betrothed (we only “dated” for 10 days before Proeun asked me to marry him). He still laughs at our attempts. Since then I have been learning many traditional meals and the children really seem to enjoy them. Though I try to eat a Kosher diet we decided that the children could eat what their father eats. This includes bone marrow, tripe and many other things.

On our honeymoon to Hawaii we met an elderly Hawaiian man. Proeun had easily been fitting in wherever we went. I was the one that stuck out. Hawaii is very multi-cultural with some families coming from 5 or more traditions. Their family meals helped inspire fushion food. This well meaning man was concerned about Proeun and asked me if I cooked Cambodian food. I said yes, then he looked at Proeun to make sure. Proeun affirmed me.

Even with all this good eating going on there are times when I get really excited about a meal–which generally means my family is not. Tonight I made homemade whole wheat bread (which I cut thick), mashed potatoes, gravy and left over roast which had been cooked slowly with onions and spices and then shredded. I remember my grandmother talking wistfully about open face roast beef sandwiches smothered in gravy. Take a thick slice of bread, big scoop of mashed potatoes, roast beef and rich gravy. I sliced cucumbers and put them in salt water and had watermelon for dessert. I eagerly waited for dinner. Then dinner came and no one ate. I was so disappointed. As we start our new life I am eagerly anticipating good fresh food to use in all our cuisine. However the problem will be getting my children to eat. 

Child Sized Tools


This is our first year farming on a larger scale. While we are growing tomatoes for whole sale the majority of our crops will go right to our own table, larder or family and friends. We chose to take a year to build our farm slowly; familiarizing ourselves with the variety of crops available and the special techniques each need as well as the farming lifestyle. With 3 children under 5 we knew that there would be some unique challenges to our situation. However we intend this to be a family lifestyle as well as business—an opportunity for us to grow together as we grow our own food. To help us in our goals we chose to invest in some child sized tools. Real tools, made of metal and wood but sized for children. We also bought a child sized wheel barrel.


Last night was the first night we broke them out. We are improving and moving our compost pile and cleaning up some winter damage. At first the children were demanding to be pushed in the swing or play baseball. But then the tools came out. Two grabbed a shovel, Avril a rake and went right to work. While Avril lost interest after about 8 minutes Two stuck with it, helping us dig up and haul left over plants from last year.


Proeun said, “let’s see how long this lasts,” but he actually lasted longer then me, well  Mavis. After about a half hour Mavis was ready to go inside. I said I was going in with her. Two said, “You go inside, the boys are going to stay out and work.”

Two working on our compost pile.

Mavis, Two and Avril in our backyard.



Two showing off his patches.

Why might a busy, “modern” mother of 3 young children take 30 minutes to hand sew patches on the knees of her 4 year old son’s jeans. For such a straightforward activity the answers are complicated–To save money, To see if I could do it, To save a favorite, broken in pair of jeans, I like the look and so on.


For weeks the problem has been growing. What started as a little worn spot on one knee quickly grew to a hole, which again quickly grew. The problem spread to the other knee. This favorite wardrobe item (worn at least 4 times a week when clean), was on its way out. I wondered the best way to handle it. They were still mostly good and I hated to throw them away knowing how much they were loved. I thought about cutting them off for shorts, however in our northern climate and a winter that started early, was very cold and refused to end shorts were far from my mind.


Just buy a new pair, my modern brain told me as I was helping him put them on while trying to keep toes out of the hole. However I knew my propensity to overspend when going shopping. I don’t shop much because I know when I go I always buy things I didn’t intend to. So now I go very infrequently which makes the problem worse because I think, “I won’t go shopping again soon is there something else I need.”


Then I remembered—You know how to patch. I learned the couple summers I worked as a “costumed interpreter” at Historic Fort Snelling. I hated it then, but I wondered can I do it still? I had ample fabric and a problem a patch would fix. Normally I dislike fixing and prefer to make new but new didn’t seem to be desired in this case, who likes new jeans anyway?


I selected blue corduroy. I cut pieces big enough to cover the entire weak spot (i.e. the knee). I tucked the raw edges under and pinned it in place on the inside of the knee then whipstitched around the entire patch. Then turn the jeans right side out, cut all the strings and again tucked the raw edges in around the hole. Whipstitch again. Voile totally reinforced knees and a solved problem.

Peace Stealers

Peace is perhaps the most sought after commodity in the world. It is the most priceless and yet the most devalued. People on a daily basis make decisions to give up their peace. One common route is through the pursuit of worldly possessions. By choosing to spend our time pursuing the things the world offers rather then the eternal profit of good character, relationships and eternal life the daily choices wear and wear away at you.


Before we made the commitment to live debt free we tried to buy our financial freedom through business and our own efforts. We invested a great deal of borrowed money in a business venture that seemed a for sure thing. We hadn’t evaluated the business from a biblical standpoint or asked God’s guidance. Instead we followed the crowd.


We convinced ourselves we were attempting it for different reasons. We wanted desperately to be able to live off of one income, thus allowing me (Amy) to focus on my real job of raising and educating our children. We also didn’t want Proeun to have to work the massive amounts of overtime he had been doing to make that happen. After nearly a year of working 10 hour days 7 days a week we desperately wanted a change. We hadn’t taken out any new debt since our marriage, other then a mortgage. Paying off our debt was still years away however.


We bought 2 houses to fix up and sell. Suddenly we had quadrupled our debt. We used credit to fix the houses and were certain they would sell quickly. They didn’t, and then the market collapsed. When we were finally able to sell one house it was for less then we owed on it. Suddenly we learned new lingo like, “short sale.”


Now we find ourselves working just to keep afloat. We are still attempting to buy more and more time together, as well as pay off our debts. As our family grows it becomes more and more apparent that more time then money is needed to raise children well.


The question is how do we handle this problem in a biblical way? Do we make paying the debt the number one priority while our young children languish in neglect? Do we totally ignore our debts? We know this is not biblical but how do we find a balance while starting a new business to support our family. This time we will take it slow, refuse to use credit and allow the Lord to lead.


Choosing to make the right decisions now, does not save us from the consequences of poor decisions in the past. Our families have even suffered from our decisions. Our good name has been tarnished. My sister’s in-laws have even received calls from creditors claiming that we used them as cosigners. Of course we had not but they totally believed the creditors and not us.


So now we move on, leaning on the Lord, trusting him to protect us and our reputation while profiting our farm and the simple life. Proeun has said, “nothing is ever simple.” That may be true but I hope that through the Lord’s guidance and now using his word as our guide we can continue to repair our past mistakes. Perhaps this is a test, an exercise to help us build our peace muscles. Only by gripping the Lord as tightly as we can will we truly have peace.


“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 NKJV

Cake Disaster

As our family grows the cost of birthdays keeps going up.  Now we have 3 birthdays to plan throughout the year though we do hope that number will grow. Luckily so far our birthdays are spread out nicely.


I am growing though and getting better at planning. I realize the day is for my children and for family to spend with them and while I try to provide a nice meal for our guests I make sure it is something that will require little prep time the morning of and attention from me once the guests arrive.


This year I decided to make our own cake. While the perfectly formed and decorated cakes look nice in pictures I couldn’t justify spending upwards of $15 on the cake alone. Last year I got a Kitchenaide mixer. So far I have only used it for the weekly bread making and macaroons a couple times. Time to pull out the accompanying recipe book and wow my guests with a fabulous home made cake I enthused.


Saturday night, the night before the party. It is getting late and I am strapped for time to make the cake. I had planned a plain white cake and frosting. I was surprised to see shortening in the recipe. I haven’t used shortening since last year Christmas when we made tamales. When I pulled out the shortening it was more yellow then white and smelled strongly. Could shortening go bad? I didn’t think so and since it had been so long since I used shortening I decided it must be OK. The fact that it was getting late and I had guests coming over the next day at 11:00 am I made a hasty decision, hoping that once the cake was cooked it would be OK.


My first sign of trouble was when my husband asked, “What’s that smell?” as I was beating up the batter in my handy mixer. Baking it didn’t help the smell and the cake tasted slightly greasy. I hoped a good frosting would mask it. I did make a good meringue frosting that I was pretty proud of. I liberally frosted the cake, put sprinkles on and waited till cake time.


My guests are all there, after a mediocre meal—we had other problems I hoped the cake would remedy it. We lit the candles, sang happy birthday then cut the cake. The smell came out, It was awful. My husband’s family asked him in Cambodian about the smell. He said, “does it smell like plastic? I know nothing about it.” My dad asked, “is there a different spice in here? There’s a taste I don’t recognize.” Luckily we had ice cream and our guests filled up on ice cream and threw away cake.


I am sure that this cake will go down in family history, like my aunt’s tough pie crust everyone still talks about. Next time if I make a cake again the family probably will think twice about eating it.


I have compiled a list of tips


  1. use only the best and freshest ingredients. When in doubt don’t use it. Run to the store if you have to, substitute or don’t make a cake.
  2. don’t over frost. If you are making a layer cake it can cause the top layer to slide.
  3. trim off the top of the bottom piece to make if flat for the top piece.
  4. Put pieces of waxed paper around the edges of the bottom of the cake. After frosting remove the paper and you have a clean plate.
  5. Try, try, try again.

So would I attempt a cake again–definitely. I simply have to own my mistake and laugh at myself.