Death and mayhem

getaway route

That path through the oats, the getaway route, was the only evidence. No feathers, blood, or other carnage were left as evidence.

12 hours after burying our family dog, we discovered that 80 chickens had been carried away. If it weren’t for this obvious path, I might have thought the boogeyman did it. Gobs of time and energy wasted. What a bummer. I wrote a column about this for the paper, Death came a-knockin’, which you can read here.

Animal husbandry has always been an interest. For years I had over 100 animals in my childhood bedroom, after all. It seems natural to direct this passion into vocational channels. Next year we might try again after tweaking the fortifications. The stakes are just really high, so it’s difficult to comprehend getting back onto the horse. For now, 11 survivors are in a small chicken tractor back at home.


We made room for them by finding a great home for the ducklings. If we hadn’t separated the ducks from the chickens when things got crazy, these offspring could have wound up being a chicken-duck cross. While shuttling birds around, I got a chuckle while hearing potential names: Chucks and Dickens. Of course Chuck is a nickname for Charles, as in Mr. Dickens. That guy wrote a lot about hard times, even penning a book called Hard Times.

These are hard times. It feels like all this recent adversity is here by design, however, and not a result of injustice. For a purpose. To learn, develop perseverance, etc…

I’m grateful to not be alone. Please pray for our family and the difficult path ahead. Perhaps for courage to fail….again. Along the way, however, we have to figure out a sustainable income, and I’m feeling weary.




Sometimes you’ve got to dig a big hole


Digging a hole like this is a ton of work. Nothing about death is easy. It shouldn’t be.

Our family dog died only four hours ago. I rushed home from my job at the farm, and was actually going to drop the dog off at the vet clinic to have them take care of putting her down. Then, just 5 -10 minutes later, I planned to be high atop a ladder to finish a house-painting job and collect the cash. A dog dying in your arms has a way of knocking some sense into you. Death is never convenient.

Rather than rushing off to a job, I picked up a shovel and commenced digging. Resisting tears, I drenched this soil with sweat instead. It was really cathartic.

Then, each of us wrote our favorite memories of Tillie on this note, and placed it atop the cardboard casket we fashioned.


Our kids filled the hole back up. Tears were shed and feelings shared. It blows my mind to think that I nearly deprived my children of this.

We’ve been saying goodbye for about the past week. Here’s a note my daughter taped to the wall at Tillie’s height a couple days ago:

note 1

There has been lots of loss lately. Friendships, broken appliances, financial distress in multiple areas, and now this. Leading up to the dog’s death I was starting to feel sorry for us, and how life has seemed like a sad old-time country song of late. Now, not so much. Death, and any kind of loss, really, isn’t something to handle clinically, or somehow, sealed off and wholly other.

Perspective. Gratitude. Fortitude.

Well, now we’re having a little family night,  so I must go and be present. Until next time, take a look at our dog who was in this ancient blog post that has me cooling off in my underpants at the beginning of a typical workday for a telecommuter:

Multiple Sclerosis as a catalyst from being a burnt out cubicle jockey to self-taught artist and entrepreneur.

I continue to be amazed by the sheer quantity of great stories that are all around us. It seems that everybody has an incredible story to tell. You just need to ask the right questions. Unable to conceal a mid-life crisis, my queries tend to revolve around vocation and identity. This story originally appeared right here, and is hugely inspirational. It demonstrates, among other things, how major obstacles can actually be beneficial over the long term. As long as we don’t quit, these handicaps force us to think outside-the-box. This brings to mind my conversation with Gaelynn Lea. Her comments that people with disabilities are twice as likely to start their own businesses seem particularly relevant. These stories give me hope that maybe, just maybe, the problems I continue to face just might contain the very solutions I seek.


Perhaps you’ve wondered what it takes to open your own retail space. Here is the formula that worked for one of my neighbors: intense physical pain + $7,200 in startup costs + burnout and restlessness + a debilitating medical diagnosis + a whole lot of elbow grease = one art gallery.

The story behind Lakeside Gallery, located at 4431 East Superior Street, is surprisingly fascinating. Aaron Kloss, the business owner, says, “I wouldn’t recommend people buy a house, sell a house, move, and start a business, all within a month.” He not only accomplished all this in entering my neighborhood as both a neighbor and business owner, but he did it with his three kids (14, 11, and 10 years old) in tow on a daily basis! One of the driving forces behind launching this venture, in fact, was a desire to involve his kids. His daughter, Autumn, in an effort to pay off library fines, occasionally sets up a highly profitable lemonade stand out front. On one particularly slow sales day for Aaron, Autumn made bested him by selling $60 in liquid refreshment to passersby.


Circumstances, be it family, career burnout, or a crippling disease, have long forced him to think outside-the-box. His experiences have the potential to provide inspiration to anyone wanting to reinvent themselves. Aaron’s simple advice to anyone seeking a career change is, “Change is good. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else…Find creative ways to overcome obstacles to follow what you’re passionate about.”

Kloss’s very first job out of college, in 1999, just happened to be with the Duluth Budgeteer (The paper I write for!) as a graphic designer. Some of his tasks included updating the Piggly Wiggly ad and classifieds each week. Five years of this led to serious boredom and restlessness.

In 2004, Aaron was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. 10 attacks over the next two years caused him to nearly lose the ability to walk. Physically, he wasn’t capable of holding down a job.

While working through this challenge, he pursued graphic design as a freelancer, and even flipped nine houses with the help of a family member.

Incredibly, he hasn’t had an attack in ten years. He has gone from nearly needing a wheelchair to now having zero disability, an apparent healing that he attributes to God.

Aaron values the lessons he learned while enduring the disease, saying, “Going through something like that has made me willing to do things that maybe other people wouldn’t. When you live through a traumatic experience, it does change you.”

Eventually he found himself looking at paintings in art galleries saying to himself, “I wish I could do that. I want to be an artist.” He goes on to say, “Finally I just decided, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ And I did it.”

That was in 2011. The first posts in his blog are from that year, and they show the work of a beginning painter. They aren’t particularly good, to be honest. Here is a splendid example of, well…., early unremarkable work. Keep in mind that when he first painted it, Kloss felt good enough about it to post it on his blog. I suppose he was figuring out perspective, light, etc.


By the end of that first year, however, you  can see that he uncovered his trademark style. Then, in 2012, he made the commitment to being a full-time artist. To go from beginner to making a living as an artist in the span of one year seems impossible. This should give hope to all of us, regardless of our chosen vocation, that practice and perseverance pays off.


He has since achieved significant local and regional renown for his artwork, and has 220 original works featured in 10 galleries. Kloss continues to supply pieces to them, often painting behind the counter of his own gallery during slow times, but was becoming burned out by all the sitting and tediousness of his work. Thus, Lakeside Gallery came into fruition.

His own gallery actually features very little of his work. Conveniently, Amity Coffee occupies the space adjacent to him, and is filled with his paintings! Lakeside Gallery displays the work of dozens of artists across a variety of mediums. From the outside, the space appears small and diminutive, but step inside and the square footage is truly impressive. Artists like Adam Swanson, Ryan Tischer, Betsy Bowen, John Peyton, and Shawna Gilmore, grace the walls.

Yes, that Shawna Gilmore. As in, my wife. A large body of her work, a sort of cabinet of curiosities, comprises the gallery’s main summer exhibition, “A Curious World,” for the summer season.

Here I am—dressed as a guy in mid-life crisis, who, though he boasts a master’s degree, must sometimes appear out in public in grungy painter clothes or begrimed in soil from head to toe—beside the artist. This is no costume party. I share this, because I felt completely at ease in the gallery looking like a working schmuck. If this place lacks one thing, it is an inflated sense of self-importance.

me and Shawna

Aaron is committed to advancing the careers of area artists, and not only himself. It’s really quite refreshing. The unique atmosphere and neighborhood feel of Lakeside Gallery is something you should experience for yourself.

Take in the art, enjoy the finest cup of coffee in town next door, and mail a letter. These are three of my favorite places, and with Marshall Hardware immediately adjacent, you have just about everything you need WITHOUT driving to the Mall area, which my hippie friend, Dan Proctor, refers to as Mordor.

lemonade 2



A mob of poultry in the city, and swimming with ducklings.

I met Joel Salatin at an agricultural conference recently. Afterward, I was stunned to realize that there was nobody else on Earth I would’ve rather met. Not the President. Not Bob Dylan. No sports figure.


Though he was due to speak to a large crowd in mere moments, he was fully engaged and animated in our conversation about raising chickens. What an experience! He’s the main farmer featured in the documentary Food Inc, which you can see on Netflix right here. Michael Pollan also wrote about his farming philosophy in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He is a huge influence in the local agriculture movement, and also on me. What a thrill, and not just because he’s some sort of celebrity.

His style of farming is what I would do in a heartbeat, but I live in the city on a 50 X 140 foot lot, so I can only do bits and pieces wherever I can find land to borrow. Recently, I expanded to protein, and will raise meat chickens on grass in a manner similar to Joel. Doing this with my available resources and network is a real challenge.

I picked up these day-old chicks at the post office sorting facility at 6 am. 100 birds were confined to these shipping boxes, and they all arrived alive and active just 24 hours after hatching. What a miracle! Chicks are made to be shipped in the mail. They eat the yolk just before hatching, and this has enough nutrition to sustain them for three days without food or water. The USPS has been delivering baby chicks in the mail for nearly a century. Here they are in their shipping boxes at the post office. It sounded like all the birds of the forest were confined within these two boxes. It was that loud!

post officeEverything started out swell. Here’s a short video I filmed after getting them home into the brooder:

That very first night, Duluth was hit with its worst storm in decades. The power was out for days, and 80 – 90 mph winds blasted into the open garage window. WHAT A DISASTER!!!! I went out into the tempest and closed the window, but it wasn’t until three hours later that I boxed up all the birds and placed them beside the woodstove. It was kind of surreal to build a roaring fire on a July day that would later reach 95 degrees. But, you do what you’ve got to do…

Unfortunately, I waited three hours before doing this. I had no idea the power would be out as long as it was. The temperature in the brooder was down to 70 degrees, and they were all huddled up. Chilled. Not good. 90 – 95 is what they need in their early days. This is especially critical since these are being raised without medications, vaccinations, or antibiotics of any kind. The poultry industry pumps these into their birds in an effort to mask poor management.

chicks woodstoveEverybody survived this initial disaster, but we have seen some mortality since then that I think is related. We’re down to 91 birds. This is still within normal mortality rates, but not what I’d like to see at this stage. You live and learn. I’ve had a lot of experience with small batches of chicks, but management at this scale changes things entirely.

Within a few days or so, I’ll move these birds out to the pasture you see here. I’m building a movable hoop house portable pen for the chickens, and they’ll be moved to fresh grass daily. This does wonders for the health of the meat. For example, studies show 100% more omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed chicken.


These cattle panels, arched, will form the underlying structure. A tarp atop this arrangement for the drive back would have given this setup a perfect covered wagon appearance!

wagon lighter

We also have five newly hatched ducklings in our home, which is complicating matters considerably! I filmed this short video to provide a tour of our ridiculous animal menagerie confined to our city lot.

Thankfully, most of this is a short-term arrangement, but I’d like to figure out how to move these ducklings to new homes. They are the cutest things ever, however, and they love to interact with people. Thus, my daughter is completely attached to them. The other day she and my son were in the bathtub with all five ducklings. They make the best bath toys ever! The ducks learned to dive underwater, and were swimming like seals!

ducklings in bath

Farming should be kid-friendly, not that five ducklings in a bathtub has anything to do with agriculture, but I’m affirming Joel Salatin’s thoughts on this. 100,000 chickens breathing fecal dust in a confined facility is definitely not child-friendly, nor healthy. Just saying…

My pasture-raised chickens will be available on or around September 19th, and can be reserved with a small deposit here.

Wrestling with a $90 turkey

Ninety dollars for a turkey. Are you kidding me??? When I agreed to take the extra bird off the farmer’s hands, I assumed it might cost about half that. At the time I was working for minimum wage as a part-time farmhand at the Food Farm, an organic farm located in Wrenshall.  I traded nearly two days of work for this bird, and probably half that in bike time just to get to and from the farm. Was the tremendous cost in blood, sweat, and tears, worth it? The story that follows was originally printed right here.

This just might be the very bird that grew into dozens of satisfying meals, along with farmer and son…


Lunch has been extra-special lately. Sacred even. I look forward to that short break on the farm owner’s porch for hours. When the moment arrives, I nestle into a chair on the cool, shaded porch, remove my confining work boots, and savor every bite of the meal that follows.

My nourishment is the fruit of last year’s labor, cost me dearly, and is worth every ounce of sweat equity that went into it. Who knew a simple sandwich could be so satisfying?

It’s all in the turkey. The price tag on this bird was $90. My cost was even higher, though. Twelve hours of hard labor at the Food Farm comprised my part of the deal. This time was passed—joyfully, mostly—while toiling under blistering sun, persevering relentless wind, and while enduring rain and cold. Lets just say that it wasn’t like trading a dozen hours of Netflix binge-watching. I earned it.

Was 12 hours a fair exchange for a pasture-raised bird that now resides, mostly, in my freezer? This turkey lived a full 22 weeks on pasture, foraging on healthy grass, upon which I have walked. Farmers manually moved their portable pens to fresh grass every day. There are no automatic feeders out there on pasture, so these must be monitored twice each day.

turkey snap

And, holy cow, is their feed ever expensive. Janaki Fisher-Merrit, owner of the Food Farm, pays more than twice the rate per pound for his organically grown grain than what you’ll pay for a 50-pound sack of conventional feed at the local feed store, even though he hauls in a thousand pounds at a time! Kelp and minerals are also added to it. Janaki says, “Stuff like that gives the meat more of the “good fats” and less of the bad, and also makes for a healthier bird that can handle being out in the elements and staying alive for a longer period of time.”

Raising turkeys outside on pasture for 154 days requires a significant investment of time, money, and energy, on the part of the farmer. It simply costs more to raise a bird traditionally on a family farm than to employ the “efficiencies” of a factory farm, where the animals are de-beaked and pumped full of antibiotics simply so they may survive, never see the light of day, and as seen in numerous undercover videos, routinely endure shocking abuse.

If $90 still seems outrageous, consider the life of the turkey. What’s that worth? I think of Laura, one of the farm’s interns from last year, who felt grateful to be with the turkeys in their pen during their final moments. One by one they were selected for processing, and as their numbers dwindled, she wept.

(Here are the birds in their final portable pen as the end draweth nigh. Young Truman, the farmer’s son, keeps watch.)


I might talk big about my 12 hours of hard labor, but does this even compare to the turkey’s level of sacrifice? That animal, quite literally, laid down it’s life so that I might live. We should never be glib about such a thing. Frankly, it is only right that such sacrifice would cost us dearly. And we should be thankful. Every day, on that cool porch on the farm, I feel tremendous gratitude for the life of my turkey. A life that was spent living as a turkey should, expressing its innate turkeyness, until its dying breath.

These animals are raised to be the centerpiece of a family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Would anything less befit an annual celebration that purports to be a celebration of all that the Maker has provided? On this of all days, it behooves us to source food grown in a manner in which it was designed to be grown.


I’m glad it took me over six months to finally cook up this enormous 26-pound bird. Having spent more time farming since then, I find myself appreciating both the farmer’s labor in producing such high-quality food AND the life that was sacrificed for me.

Every day is an opportunity to express thanksgiving for the blessings showered down upon us from above. Begrimed in sweat and dirt from working down in the earth each day, I am filled with gratitude for every mouthful. This is worth $3.50/pound.

Here you can take a gander at what is considered more normal and conventional. To loosely quote Joel Salatin, this is the intersection of pure capitalism, amoral science, and a complete lack of foresight. Is this a more fitting centerpiece for your Thanksgiving table this year? Conditions like these create the need for overdosing our food supply with antibiotics, and also the rise of superbugs that may soon result in the end of the antibiotic era.

I realize that most of us cannot regularly afford a pastured turkey like this. Amazingly, the going rate in many other markets is about double the cost. With a little planning, however, and perhaps through sharing the cost with others, you might be able to have a more meaningful Thanksgiving this November. Go visit the farm that is raising your turkey. Meet your farmers. Then, when you gather with loved ones later this year to celebrate this season’s bounty, give thanks for both.

FYI, I’ll soon be raising chickens on pasture in a similar manner. These will be available to you in September. Stay tuned!

June highlights and a midlife crisis update

Hell just about froze over when I made the switch. No, we’re not talking transgender here, but the change was revolutionary on a cosmic scale. You just might have sensed a small tear in the space time continuum, in fact.

I finally broke down, in 2016, and bought a cell phone. Being rather Amish-like in my approach to adapting “new” technology, it was super hard to leave the roughly 5% of folks confined to just a landline. Having previously thrived without any phone at all back when I lived in a cabin near the Canadian border, I never found this confining. Perhaps I even felt superior to all you folks carrying around those annoying gizmos, constantly looking down at them, never experiencing the real world. I had my grandmother’s rotary phone, which contains an actual bell, and loved it.

Now I’ve got more computing power in my pocket than Bill Clinton had in the Whitehouse. THAT’S CRAZY!!!!!! And I have to admit, I love it. It really is a game changer having one of these smart phones. I’ve heard more than one farmer claim that the Iphone is their most used tool on the farm.

The midlife crisis rages on. Just about everything is on the table. I need to change in many areas, and sense a strong need to whittle life down to the essentials and FOCUS: father, husband, farmer, writer, friend, child of God.

During a recent trip to an impressive scrapyard, my friend and I felt like Sanford and Son as we drove up onto the tipping scale with an old van and trailer. The guy waiting behind us was pulling 65,000 pounds of scrap (who knew that was possible?). My little operation felt pretty ridiculous, but I did clear out some distractions, while also netting $57 in the process.

junk 5

It was super interesting with all the trains, cranes, and ships around. The super touristy part of town, Canal Park, is just a half-mile in the distance across that open water. The scale of this place is amazing.

junk 8

It’s essential to focus on others, rather than myself. While striving to find my niche in the community, I want to be useful. Too often I feel obsolete like all this junk waiting to be melted down. I try not to dwell on that, feebly pressing onward.

me and junk 4

junk 6

It’s difficult to balance finding my niche while also feeding a family. I’m currently working three full-time jobs, essentially, and feel behind with all of them. My main job these days is as a farmhand, which is providing valuable experience. The farm’s owner left me in charge of the place for two weeks while she was in Europe recently. My own farm was sort of put on hold. I’m painting a house for some cash-flow as well.

I’ve been so busy that my first harvest at my budding urban farm, Tiny Farm Duluth, completely caught me off-guard.

rad lettuce

It’s rather comical, but I’ve been schlepping lettuce and these gorgeous Easter Egg radishes around, often with a cooler in my bike trailer. My small deliveries have grossed between $3 and $12. I realize it’s kind of asinine, but you’ve got to start somewhere. This morning I’ll be harvesting for my very first delivery to a restaurant, Bulldog Pizza. Man, are those folks ever supportive. I left our little meeting resolved to get more things going. Between running the other farm while my boss was away, the side job of painting a house, and messing up the seed density of my other crops with a precision seeder, I had given up on turning a profit this season. However, this small harvest has inspired me to redo some of these garden beds so I can offer more to my super small customer base. All of the beds should look like the lettuce, which retains moisture and crowds out weeds. Above that lushness you see the spinach. In those two beds the seeds became clogged in the seeder, so they were only planted sporadically. The only way you’d know would be to weigh the seed bag before and after planting, because you can’t see the seeds going into the ground. I should have turned these under a couple weeks ago and started over. In this business you have to identify failures quickly, and start over. A lesson for next time…


I’ve run into some obstacles with rock in that area under the tarp, which covers 2,000 square feet. The adjoining plots, still in the process of being smothered, are more promising for the future. For now, I plan on putting a cover crop into that area while slowly figuring out how to proceed.That’ll buy time while building soil, suppressing weeds, and attracting beneficial insects.

My wife has a splendid art exhibition at the new Lakeside Gallery, located next to Amity Coffee, right here in our neighborhood. The pieces will be featured all summer, and I think she’ll have a permanent presence there going forward. I missed most of her opening on Saturday, desperately needing to paint that house, and showed up filthy near the end. I just love that I feel comfortable going into this place dressed like a hillbilly. It isn’t the least bit pretentious. Art should be accessible to the common man, and this place goes a long way toward accomplishing that. Along those lines, Shawna has prints available for $25 down there, super inexpensive greeting cards are in the works, and small original paintings (not appearing in this image) for around a hundred bucks.

me and Shawna

Watch for my column in the paper this weekend. It’s a good one about a $90 turkey we’ve been consuming that cost me nearly two days of hard labor last Fall. I’ll post that story here next week.

Hope and life rising from the ashes


Somehow this little tree sprang to life in my fire pit, even though we last had a fire a little over a month ago. It’s firmly rooted on a piece of charred wood. Talk about resilience! I found some inspiration in it while walking with my head down, deep in thought, rushing between chicken chores and heading out to some responsibility for the day. I probably spent a good five minutes with the little guy, potted him up, and might even spend a few decades with this new friend. Hope and inspiration spring up in the most unusual and unexpected places.

I sprang to life at 3:45 this morning, eager to get going on the day. I’ll hop on the bike and hopefully put some beans in the ground at Tiny Farm Duluth. Then I head off to my job on another farm located just a couple miles outside the city limits. It promises to be a big day with work done on two farms, setting the stage to start painting a friend’s house tomorrow, racking up 20 miles on the bike, a little time spent writing, and family duties.
Attempting to build a farm from scratch in between moments at my other farm job, heavy rain, shuttling kids to soccer games, washing dishes, doing laundry, and all the other basic necessities of life, has been rather hectic. The need to stay sane has me scaling back expectations for Tiny Farm greatly this year, using this time to put systems in place for next season. The learning curve is just nuts. Also, time management, discipline, and organization, are all growth areas for me. Slowly, I’m whittling down to the bare necessities and building FOCUS.
Today’s great task is to find joy in the journey, choosing to be pleased that the family car is unavailable, and refusing to regret what I did not accomplish at the end of the day. There’s a chapter in my book called Joy in the Journey. It begins with a sentence describing life on the train:
Riding the rails is a feast along a bountiful reservoir of time.
Today I will strive to recover this mentality in everyday life. Ironically, you’ll find yourself being far more productive while existing in this mindset. You experience clarity, and are able to focus on what really matters.
Now 40 years old, I envy the 20-year-old embarking on a journey like this through apprenticeships and similar hard knocks, but without all the responsibilities. There’s no time for regrets or whining. We only have this one life to live. Time is ticking.