Some days are simply for the birds and more

Amish farm
The farm. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Some days are simply for the birds.

Recently, I had a couple of days that were exactly that. I helped out a friend by leading a few birding field trips to a local farm.

The target birds were young Barn Owls, a couple of fuzzy baby American Kestrels, and bubbly Bobolinks. In a rather rare situation, both Barn Owls and Kestrels had hatched their young in nesting boxes the farmer had erected in his old bank barn. The meadow across the road remained uncut so the tinkling Bobolinks could frolic and flourish.

The farmer and his family went out of their way to accommodate both the birds and us. Their farmstead was neat as a pin. Flower beds and gardens were nearly pristine. The three generations that called this place home welcomed us with open arms and hearts.

Both the farm’s setting and the intentional agricultural techniques employed accounted for the diversity of birds and other wildlife. Surrounded by rounded hills dotted with emerald woodlots, the land rolled away from the farm buildings more like waves than fields.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I imagined in a birdseye view a quilted panorama. Broad patches of variegated greens and tans from forested hills, alternating fields of pasture and croplands stitched together by brushy fencerows created a pastoral patterned effect.

Such a landscape also enhanced the desired habitats and food sources needed for the various avian species. It was obvious the farmer, typical of many in our area, understood the balance between conservation and productivity. Sad to say, some deem that approach as inefficient or even old-fashioned.

The days were precious in so many ways. Cottony clouds hung in salient skies over windswept grasses nearly as tall as the weathered wooden fence posts that delineated their boundaries.

The meadow’s high grasses mingled with seedy weeds, and wildflowers danced in the wind beneath while the Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Song and Savannah Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds let loose. The birds’ melodious chorus easily drew the attention and appreciation of each group. All the birders, spanning three generations, thought the birds and their songs beautiful and luxurious.

(Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Though he said he wasn’t a birder, the kind farmer had erected nesting boxes in his ancient barn for the owls. That is what attracted folks from near and far for this special chance to view the birds. It was indeed rare to have both owls and falcons nesting in the same barn.

Participants hailed from cities. Others lived nearby. Their ages ranged from preschoolers to octogenarians. A courageous woman on crutches in the midst of cancer treatments even ventured forth. I drew strength from their enthusiasm.

Atop wobbly ladders, we viewed the baby birds one by one through a pencil-sized peephole drilled in the plywood boxes made by students at a local vocational school. A small, square hole cut into the barn siding permitted the adults to enter and exit to feed their young.

Below, hushed conversations ensued in each group. Sunlight streamed through the intentional spaces between the horizontal clapboards. Still the barn was dark and steamy.

No one complained whatsoever. All realized what a privilege it was to view the birds and enjoy the genial hospitality of this marvelous family who welcomed all of God’s creatures.

These glorious days were definitely for the birds, obviously in a juxtaposed sense. The smiles on the faces of all the birders declared each visit a joyous success. None of us could have asked for more.

meadow, Amish farm
The meadow. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Remembering to be grateful for each new day

Amish buggy, Holmes County OH
Horseless carriage. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

On my morning walk, my neighbor’s grandsons exited the house well before 9 a.m. They each had their necessary baseball gear in tow, gloves, bat, and ball.

I called out to them, “Baseball for breakfast, boys?”

They just smiled and ran to their imaginary Major League park, the grass groomed immaculately by their grandfather. I walked on, lifted by the sound of bat striking ball.

Because the local greenhouse was having a sale, more traffic than normal traveled the tiny rural road. Believe me, they were busy.

eastern meadowlark, songbirds
Eastern Meadowlark. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
The chorus from the Song Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Red-headed Woodpeckers helped balance the roar of engines and jake brakes accelerating and descending hills on highways a mile away.

That’s one of the luxuries of living in the country. The sounds of life’s contrasts become all too obvious.

Young Amish girls, all three sisters that I knew, pulled an empty wagon toward the greenhouse.

“Going shopping this morning?” I asked them. A simple “Yes” and a few giggles was their retort. I silently lauded the mother for allowing the girls to pick out the desired plants.

This opportunity gave them responsibility, decision making, and experience in money exchanging, all valuable life skills. It was just one example of raising children in the way they should go.

As I reached Jonas’ farm, his wife walked down the sidewalk to the gravel driveway where her husband waited in the buggy. I waved, and Jonas returned the common greeting.

All the while I strolled and interacted with these good folks, I kept thinking of my friends far away in Syria, Iraq, Honduras, Texas, California, and other foreign countries.

How I wished they could be walking with me to experience this goodness that I take for granted far too often. Instead, some of them were just trying to stay alive, work diligently for peace, help the needy, and recover from massive flooding.

Amish, Amish boy, bicycle
Biking by. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
At that point, I embraced them and the day the only ways I knew how. I thought and prayed for them as I walked along on this lovely morning. I hoped it was as divine for them whatever their current situation.

When I passed by the greenhouse on the return trip, there was Jonas again. He was sitting in the buggy while his wife looked for flowers and plants.

I kiddingly cried out to him, too. “Don’t you like shopping, Jonas?”

“I trust my wife,” he said. I bet he helped her plant whatever she bought though. That’s the kind of betrothed devotion I admire.

Potting shed, landscape decorations
The potting shed. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Down the homestretch, where traffic gets busier and louder, an Indigo Bunting sang from deep within a woodlot. I stepped to the road’s side to let the vehicles zip by, and to listen to this magical sound. I wished the drivers could hear it as well.

When I reached our property, my heart sang in harmony with the birds. My energetic wife was watering a variety of colorful flowers, some she had purchased at the greenhouse sale earlier that morning.

The Eastern Bluebirds flew from the birdhouse I had put up for them. My heart rejoiced all the more. I was glad they had won out over the pesky House Sparrows. A House Wren chattered atop another birdhouse nearby.

I have a lot for which I am grateful. This walk reminded me that each morning I open my eyes I need to say a joy-filled thanks.

rural sunset, Holmes County OH
Rays of hope. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

At long last, summer has arrived

summer flowers, flower gardens
Early summer flowers. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Summertime. Isn’t that an absolutely gorgeous word? Let it roll off of our tongues and past our moist lips slowly, magnificently, joyfully.

Those of us who reside east of the Mississippi River and north of Disney World endured a long, hard, cold, snowy, record-setting winter. It’s truly a blessing to say that lovely word, summertime.

It’s not like we’ve earned summer either. We just have longed for the expected warmer, more pleasant weather, plus its immeasurable benefits.

Though the summer solstice doesn’t officially arrive until June 21, that’s become insignificant, even obsolete. Here in commercialized America, we’re accustomed to the definition of summer as the days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I know I am not the only one that is thankful that June is here. With apologies to Walt Whitman, I can indeed see and hear America singing. All I have to do is be attentive.

The early summer flowers, the irises, poppies, and petunias are or soon will be blooming. So are the weeds.

raking hay, Amish, making hay
Making hay. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
The days are not only longer when measured in daylight hours; they are warmer and more humid, too. That is the norm.

Of course as part of America has already experienced, we’ll likely have our share of hazardous weather. That, too, is within the season’s nomenclature.

The first cutting of hay, whether by horse and sickle or tractor and big round baler, has commenced. School years have ended, except for educational institutions that offer additional classes. They are appropriately called summer school.

Bobolink, song birds
Male Bobolink. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
We humanoids aren’t the only one’s happy about the transformation. The birds and the bees have gotten a head start on articulating their predestined survival behaviors. Shorebirds, songbirds, and yard birds will fledge their young, and begin a second brood if there is time.

Soon lightning bugs will be rising from fields and grasses, blinking under spacious, starry skies. It’s a scene of which I hope I never tire. If the grandkids visit, we’ll fill jars and watch the incredible insects glow, and then release them to do their thing, the bugs not the grandkids, that is.

Boats big and small will cut temporary wounds into placid waters, which will heal themselves with no thought whatsoever by either the offender or the offended. The squeals of a toddler’s first catch of the year or the rich laughter of children diving into tepid water at dusk will confirm summer’s presence.

boat at sunset, wake
Slicing through. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Produce stands have already begun to present seasonal rewards. Patient diligence will yield even juicier, tasty results. I gladly anticipate fresh buttered beets, succulent heirloom tomatoes and savory, sweet mint tea, leaves right from the garden.

Long-delayed chores can finally be completed. Weathered house siding will be revived with fresh coats of brightness to complement immaculate gardens full of rainbows of color and busy insects and critters.

I’ll sit on my back porch on a luxurious summer’s Sunday evening and listen to the clip-clopping of the horses as they carry home families early and courting teens late. I can hear the latter coming from a half-mile away, boom boxes blaring.

Vacations will bring thousands of tourists to Ohio’s Amish country, where I live, to witness some of those native interactions. Wise locals will flee to beaches or mountains or solitude.

As I write, a framed placard on the wall of the summer home of a friend succinctly summed it up. “Miracles are as close as the heavens above and the blossoms beneath.”

Amen to that and a hardy welcome to all that summer has to offer.

pastoral scene, Holmes County Ohio, sheep grazing
Pastoral scene. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Little red schoolhouse

one room school, little red schoolhouse, abandoned school
Little red schoolhouse. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

The red bricks of this abandoned one room school a few miles from my home stood in sharp contrast to the season’s first snowfall. Long since closed, this little red brick school once served as the incubator for future lawyers, farmers, housewives, teachers and business owners.

The outhouse on the right also played an important part in the school’s history. Right after World War II, the students gathered in the morning for class, but their usually prompt teacher wasn’t in the building. After several minutes, the oldest student, an eighth grader, went looking for the teacher, and found him sitting in the privy dead.

I always think of that story when I pass by the old Beechvale School. “Little red schoolhouse” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

The extraordinary benefits of a beneficial Saturday

sunrisebybrucestambaugh
Benefit Saturday began with a beautiful sunrise.

By Bruce Stambaugh

This was to be benefit Saturday for my wife and I. I simply couldn’t have projected just how beneficial it would end up being.

Before dawn a delightful aroma wafted across the landscape from the Amish farmstead behind our rural Millersburg, Ohio home. A congregation of people was barbequing chicken on portable grill wagons. A generator cast a harsh, artificial light upon the busy group, creating predawn silhouettes.

The benefit barbeque was for a couple that needed financial assistance due to extreme medical bills. She had cancer, twice. He had had surgery that kept him off of work for six months. To help out, we ordered six quarters of chicken to be picked up after 11 a.m.

mongolianhutbybrucestambaugh
A Mongolian hut is called a ger. (Photo by Kim Kellogg)
That was but one of three different fundraisers in which we participated that day. The first began at 7 a.m. with sausage, ham and pancakes. My wife ate the meat. I ate the pancakes. The breakfast was held to raise money for a mission project in Mongolia. An authentic, completely furnished Mongolian ger, a felt lined hut, had been erected in the church fellowship hall for all to inspect.

As tasty as the food was, the fellowship that buzzed around our table was even better. We reminisced with old friends about how our lives had intersected during the ups and downs of life. Breakfast doesn’t usually come with dessert, but that’s what this conversation ended up being.

Though the chicken cooking was literally in our back yard, we had to pick up our order at a residence a mile up the road. For lunch, Neva and I each downed a quarter of the flavorful hinkel, as the Amish refer to it. We enjoyed the chicken so much I returned to buy more, only to be told that they only had enough to fill the presale orders.

barbequingchickenbybrucestambaugh
Our Amish neighbors hosted the grilling of the barbequed chicken.

I drove back my neighbors’ long graveled lane to where the chicken was being grilled. I got the same answer there, but discovered the full measure of devotion of this gracious act of charity.

More than 80 friends, family and extended family members gathered to do the chicken. A total of four tons or nearly 8,500 quarters of chicken had been barbequed to sell on behalf of this family in need. The charcoal was lit at 5 a.m. The grilling began at 6 a.m. and finished up at 2 p.m. It was an all day deal.

From the looks on the workers faces, they were both elated at the success of their selfless efforts and fatigued from their long hours of hanging around the smoky grill pits. A total of 36 Amish churches helped sell the chicken, and they indeed sold it all. They may have barbequed lots of chicken, but in the process they also cooked up a liberal batch of compassion.

honeytownbybrucestambaugh
The band, Honeytown, performed at a local coffee shop to help raise money for our church youth group.

In the evening, Neva and I headed into town for a concert by a renowned, local quartet. Honeytown sang and played as a fundraiser for our church youth group. The kids were raising funds to attend a church wide conference in Arizona this summer. Only Mennonites would hold a gathering in the desert in July.

Each of these three benefits had a specific purpose, and each achieved success. Love comes in many shapes, sizes, and means, pancakes, barbequed chicken, and inspirational song among them. Though independent of one another, a common purpose and generous acts of human kindness bound the benefits as one.

We had been thrice blessed. Beneath an umbrella of golden sun and cloudless coral sky, this benefit Saturday had truly been extraordinary.

© Bruce Stambaugh

Inspired at the produce auction

Colorful lineup by Bruce Stambaugh
The lineup of produce waiting to be auctioned was colorful in more than one way.

By Bruce Stambaugh

For inspiration this time of year, I love to frequent the local produce auction located just two miles north of my home. It’s a carnival, traffic jam, town hall meeting, commerce hub and art museum all rolled into one.

I like to arrive midmorning just as the auction is about to begin. When it’s peak harvest time, the place is abuzz. Men, women and children seem to have caught the same exciting spirit.

Produce trucks by Bruce Stambaugh
Trucks of all sizes back up to the loading docks to both deliver for the auction and to load produce purchased.

Vehicles of all sorts line up to empty and to load the produce and associated items. Box trucks, pickup trucks, and pickups with flatbed trailers, tractor-trailer trucks, tractors with loaded wagons, horse drawn wagons, vans, cars, carts and bicycles all congregate at the Farmers Produce Auction west of Mt. Hope, Ohio.

Their drivers are there for one of two reasons. They arrive to sell their fruits, vegetables and flowers or to buy them. A few of us, of course, show up to simply admire the proceeding. The exuberant energy and shining beauty are both contagious.

Lining up by Bruce Stambaugh
The drive through auction creates an unusual traffic jam.

Amish men and teenagers steady their team of horses, standing patiently in line under the strengthening sun. Most have traveled miles with their cargos of colorful produce, neatly packaged and ready for the sale.

The assortment of trucks carries interesting payloads, too. The season’s last sweet corn and melon, huge boxes of the season’s first pumpkins, bright red and yellow peppers, and flat after flat of budding burgundy, gold and crimson mums are just some of the offerings.

Produce auctioning by Bruce Stambaugh
Buyers and sellers alike gathered around the auctioneer as bids were taken.

The syncopated rhythm of the auctioneer echoes from the open-sided building, announcing the sale’s start. Buyers quickly abandon the food stand and squeeze in to catch any bargain they can. The pace is quick, and if you snooze you lose. People pay attention.

The buyers themselves are a joy to watch. Young and old, male and female, they represent their own produce stand, local restaurants or a supermarket chain. This is their livelihood. They are daily regulars, and the astute auctioneer knows them well. A wink, a nod, a twitch and particular hand gestures signal bids and it’s on to the next lot.

Two auctions by Bruce Stambaugh
So much produce arrives each day that two auctions, one inside, one outside, are held at the same time.

Soon the drive through auction simultaneously begins outside. Double rows of boxed and packaged produce or flats of hundreds of flowers are sold straight from the wagon or truck on which they arrived. They pass by the canvas-covered auctioneer’s stand two-by-two until the last one is through.

Sellers know they have to be on time. Despite the disjointed configuration of vehicles, the sale runs efficiently, making buyers and producers both happy. To be first in line, one driver arrived at 6:15 a.m. for the 10:15 a.m. sale. That’s the dedication of effective and productive commerce in action.

Sold produce by Bruce Stambaugh
Amish teens help move the sold produce to staging areas until the buyers claim their purchases.
Hand-printed tags on the purchased commodities tell the tale. The number in black indicates the producer. The red number is the buyer. As soon as the lot is sold, young men and boys transport the goods with tow motors to designated stations where the merchandise is parked until claimed. Once the buyer is all in, the purchased containers are loaded into his or her vehicle.

By lunchtime, teamsters mull their successes on the slow, rattling ride home. Truck drivers secure their load, and head to their predetermined destinations where the fresh goodies will be sorted, washed and prepared for consumption.

The fascinating organization, the polished production, the gregarious people and the artsy produce combine to create one rousing show. What an inspiring performance to start the fall.

Loads of produce by Bruce Stambaugh
Growers are taught how to package their produce to ensure both quality and higher prices.
Rows of produce by Bruce Stambaugh
The produce is neatly lined up in rows as it arrives to be sold at the auction.
Double rows by Bruce Stambaugh
The outside auction is done by selling the produce in double rows that slowly pass by the auctioneer’s stand.
Decorative produce by Bruce Stambaugh
Seasonal decorative produce like these gourds and pumpkins add to the auction’s peak season success.
Amish worker by Bruce Stambaugh
Besides the Amish farmers, the auction employs several Amish men and women to help with the sale.

This column appeared in The Bargain Hunter, Millersburg, OH.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

All abuzz about beekeeping

Bee hives by Bruce Stambaugh
Brian Miller, 17, of Apple Creek, OH checked out some bee hives before a recent meeting on beekeeping held near Mt. Hope, OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Beekeeping is on the rise, according to Dr. Jim Tew, recently retired bee specialist at The Ohio State University Extension Services in Wooster, Ohio. He just doesn’t know why.

A meeting held recently at the residence of Mark Miller near Mt. Hope, Ohio seemed to be proof of that. Men, women and children, many of them Amish, nearly filled the several rows of church benches set up in Miller’s spacious outbuilding where the beekeeping meeting was held.

Miller said beekeepers’ meetings like this one are held three times per year. He said there are two such groups in Holmes County, Ohio. They are geographically split into northern and southern groups, with U.S. 62 being the dividing line.

The meetings are held to keep area beekeepers informed about the latest information on beehive maintenance and keeping the bees healthy. They also lean on the informal approach to allow for extensive question and answer times.

Bee keepers meeting by Bruce Stambaugh
Dr. Jim Tew shared his expertise on beekeeping to a group of beekeepers in Holmes County, Ohio. Many of those in attendance were Amish.

Tew was asked to share his expertise on beekeeping. The gregarious and modest Tew kept the group relaxed with personal stories of his more than 40 years of beekeeping. He retired from the OSU Extension after 35 years.

The Alabama native told the group that beekeeping is extremely popular right now.

“But I don’t know why,” he said. He suggested one explanation could be that honeybee husbandry fits into the popular universal interest in providing a dependable, wholesome food supply.

Busy bees by Bruce Stambaugh
Honeybees scurried in and out of a hive across from Mark Miller’s residence near Mt. Hope, OH.

Related to that sustainability idea, Miller told the group, “I like the concept of producing our own bees here in Ohio.” Normally, purchasing commercial kits and commercially raised queen bees, which are essential for hives to thrive, starts bee colonies.

“Having meetings like this,” Miller said, “will help us toward that goal.”

Indeed, Tew indicated that when the Varroa destructor mites began to invade honey beehives in 1987, the industry took a huge hit. The killer bee scare followed that, and bee husbandry began to wane.

Mite zapper by Bruce Stambaugh
Dr. Jim Tew showed the group a mite zapper that could help control destructive Varroa mites.

“It’s unnerving,” Tew said of the disease, officially called colony collapse syndrome. “Happily those initial dark days have gone away, and I no longer have any fear of all of my hives dying.”

He shared various ways beekeepers could help deter the mites and how to properly inspect hives for any possible problems. He said the most recent die off of bees made headlines because information spread rapidly on the Internet.

“This die off was not new,” Tew said, “though it may have a different cause.” He explained that there could be many causes for hives not thriving.

“Too many of us want to find one reason for a die off,” he said. “Each of you who keeps bees will have to talk amongst yourselves to determine what system to stop the mites works best.”

Miller said the meeting was not limited to those who live north of U.S. 62. In fact, 17-year-old Brian Miller came from Apple Creek to learn about bees. He just began keeping bees last year, and said his hives are thriving.
Bee on daisy by Bruce Stambaugh
The Tri-County Beekeepers Association in Wooster awarded Brian Miller a $500 scholarship for an essay he wrote on “Why I love beekeeping.” He said the money enabled him to purchase needed beekeeping supplies and equipment to maintain and expand his hives.

Mark Miller, who began beekeeping in 2009, said he also received an award to help him get started.

“I was honored to receive the Don Meyers East Ohio Apiculture Project prize of $75,” he said. That amount helped him buy two hives and equipment to operate them.

Though he retired from his OSU Extension position, Tew continues in the bee business both personally and professionally. Besides keeping bees himself, he also serves as a state beekeeping specialist for his home state of Alabama.

He kidded the crowd by saying that he now has a 900-mile commute to work. In actuality, he travels to Alabama five times a year to complete his beekeeping responsibilities.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012