Thursday, December 24, 2009

December for the Keppers

We are busy in December. There is still much to do, but only so much daylight. Working in cold weather with big boots and lots of clothes slows a person down a bit.

When we had some nice sunny weather, we spent a chunk of the afternoon buzzing up some longer wood to 16" lengths for the cookstove. We filled the garden carts and our fleet of wheelbarrows. Somehow Ken fit them all into the kiln shed, so they are ready to be wheeled up and unloaded as needed

Ken got the big ski trail mowed before it snowed, and we are ready for friends to come and ski or snowshoe (we have extra snowshoes). There is also outdoor skating and a warming house in the Turtle Lake Village park. So call ahead and we'll put the kettle on for tea and treats.

Pigs in Winter

The pigs are looking and gaining weight. They are romping through snow and leaf piles, and have trails. They have LOTS of straw in their shelter, and they burrow down each night. They are ready for Ken and the dogs to appear morning, midday, and late afternoon to check on feed and water. As we juice apples,they get the pulp, and they really like it.

he chickens are on vacation as far as egg production. Peak production is during at least 14 hours of daylight and temperatures well above freezing. Ken is considering adding a light on a timer to the coop to see if egg production picks up. The geese love the snow, and they are in heaven. In cold weather all geese want is a windbreak and some bedding.

Animals in Winter

Although Judith was worried about the new puppy, Oscar seems to love the snow and can't figure out why his people don't want to be out with him outside all day. Jack the dog is acting younger than his ten years. Smoky the cat is making peace with the pup, but Hazel the older cat, prefers to remain inside. On cold nights she curls up behind the wood cookstove. When the cookstove cools down, she heads for the bed. She moves closer to Judith as the night continues, and may end up perched on Judith's anatomy while purring in an alarm clock capacity.

Greens in December

Here we are in December. We are so glad we got snow before the subzero temperatures hit. Once the days stay below freezing, we no longer harvest from the hoopettes, but Ken has been experimenting with cut and come again greens. We cut them for the December CSA boxes, and we shall see how they come again for the January CSA boxes.

Ken read about rutabaga tops. If you cut the stem end at the shoulder and place it in a dish of water it will sprout for winter greens. And you can eat the lower part of the rutabaga.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Saga of Getting Online

In 2009 Ken and Judith reconsidered getting a computer. Judith had been using other people's castoffs for the weekly vegetable newsletter, and the yearly Christmas letter. Their hope was to reach people and explain what they do and how and why.

So October 28, 2009, they went to a big box with Celia Wirth, their tech support lady to guide them through the vast array of options. They bought the computer and went home and raced around getting the farm ready for winter. On November 14th Judith got everything out of the boxes and plugged things into each other as the diagrams indicated. When she went to get the printer set up, the computer did not recognize the disk. She called tech support and they decided to wait until Tuesday for the internet connection so the computers could link up to each other.

Tuesday the modem lit up, but that disk didn't get any reaction from the computer. Judith called the big box and was told the 14 day warranty had expired. She called Celia Wirth who offered to go to bat for Ken and Judith. Celia may not wear a Wonder Woman costume, but she is certainly our superhero.

Meanwhile the old 1995 MAC and HP printer were malfunctioning. So Judith wrote out longhand with the intention of using the printer in its photocopy capacity. Paper jam, New paper. Jam. Turned paper around, fanned it, and kept trying. No success. Called Celia Wirth as there was nothing in the manual. Celia explained, "No, one has to go online to get that info..." So our superhero went online, looked it up, called with step by step instructions, and Judith tried to clean rollers, etc. No luck. BUT with a call to the company, they would send a new one. So Judith did just that and was told it would arrive in three business days.

Seven business days later Celia Wirth, A.K.A. Wonder Woman got the tracking info. The printer was delivered and signed for by someone at 235 Hwy 8 EAST not west. Judith called and left messages. The following Tuesday the business east of town called. He had just bought the business and wondered if the previous owner's maiden name was Keppers. Judith went over to the east side, explained she and Ken were the two people behind the 16 x 20 foot sign at 235 Highway 8 West, and she picked up the printer.

On December 16th the computer and printer we bought October 28th and tried to set up November 14th is up and running. Hurrah!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pottery made by hand and fired with wood

Ken discovered pottery in high school art class. No one else was having success centering a pot on the wheel, but Ken did and he enjoyed it. The next summer he left his construction job and went to the pottery studio at the Art and Sciences Center in St. Paul.

Ken attended Bemidji State and figured he could "keep his sanity" if he got into a pottery class. The instructor was looking for an assistant to mix glazes, load and unload the kiln, and other studio tasks. Ken was ecstatic as accepting this position gave him a key to the studio!

After school Ken worked two jobs to earn money to buy land. Then he continued working for money to build a basement on the land. He built a Japanese noborigama two chambered kiln and did twenty craft shows each season for three years. He built a mailing list and finally could sell at his studio rather than doing shows. After thirty plus years Ken is proud of the number of families that use his dishes every day.

Ken makes his pots on a Leach treadle wheel designed in the early 1900's. He believes foot power gives him a closer feel to the clay. Since the glaciers came through this area, there are very few large deposits of local clay. He mixes his clay from several components; some are local, others from the Midwest like Ohio. He starts with dry clay. It takes less energy to move dry powder. He likes to mix clay ahead so it can freeze and thaw. That freezing and thawing brings back the elasticity to the clay.

Ken creates glazes from local materials. Many glazes start with our woods and vegetables -corn stalks, bean husks, raspberry canes, maple wood, walnuts, etc. They are burned to an ash and then testing begins. Glazes need three components in balance: something to stick the glaze to the pot, something to melt the glaze, and something to form glass.

We fire the pottery in a kiln we built from used fire brick. Ken says, "Sears doesn't make 'em, and UPS doesn't ship "em." Our current kiln holds 2,000 - 3,000 pots so we usually fire once a year. Firing takes four days. We use wood harvested from our land. Firing is a group effort that requires 24/7 work. And enjoyable work it is. Once the kiln reaches 2400 degrees, it is sealed to cool slowly to avoid pottery cracking from thermal shock. Cooling takes about a week. The pottery is removed and cleaned.

During the firing the pottery is in a river of flame. As wood is placed in the kiln, the ash flies through the kiln. Both ash and flame affect each piece differently to create unique qualities.

The Keppers Story

Greetings and welcome to Keppers' Pottery and Produce. We are Ken and Judith Keppers. We make and sell wood - fired pottery and vegetables we grow on chemical free soil.

Ken grew up gardening. He can only remember two seasons when he didn't garden. Ken's grandfather was a farmer in rural Minnesota, and some of Ken's fondest memories are time spent on his grandfather's farm - a small, diversified farm with dairy cows, pigs, chickens, small grains, and a large kitchen garden.

Ken found art in high school. He went to Bemidji State University with the intention to go into forestry, but discovered there would be more paperwork and less forestry than he wanted. He got a job in the art department, and a key to the pottery studio! Upon graduation he discovered people were hesitant to buy a painting from a twenty something, but people would buy pottery from the same young guy.

Ken worked and saved and bought land. In this glaciated area finding local clay was a long shot, but finding land with wood to fire pottery was possible. So forestry became an avocation. Ken moved out with his shovel, bow saw, and wheelbarrow. He carved out a garden space and camped. He had read Small is Beautiful and Silent Spring and was organic. Fortunately this property had been clear cut for cash during the depression and pastured. It had never seen chemicals.

Ken spent weekends at pottery shows for three years to establish his business. He built a mailing list. He gardened and built soil. He got a dog, Abby (like Dear Abby, she was a good listener), then chickens, and then a draft horse, Nina. He and Nina pulled culled wood off sections of the property each year. He cut dead and dying trees for heating his house and firing the pottery. He developed glazes from ashes he made from trees, bean husks, raspberry canes, corn husks, etc.

In 1990 he met Judith while folkdancing.

Judith grew up in Massachusetts with grandparents who had a dairy farm in Vermont and grandparents who ran a guesthouse (precursor to B & B) on Block Island, Rhode Island. She felt constricted by the small town where she grew up and graduated form high school in three years so she could get out into the big wide world. She attended college in Baltimore and St. Paul, and got a very practical degree in theatre. After several menial jobs in several locations, she landed a job in a law firm in St. Paul. Judith shopped farmers markets and joined a food co-op. She bought a house and loved growing many flowers and a few vegetables.

Ken on the other hand grew many vegetables and a few flowers. Now they grow a lot of both! People knew it was serious when Ken planted more carrots (a favorite of Judith) and Judith started moving perennials to Turtle Lake.

She and Ken married 1993, and had the opportunity to go to Japan for a year through a sister city program. They met a natural farmer who intoduced them to what is known here as Community Supported Agriculture. In Japan this is known as "farmer with a face". Consumers pay ahead and the farmer grows for them. Each farm is different, but the concept is the same.

Once home from Japan, Ken wanted to farm, and Judith agreed, In 1995, Keppers' Pottery added Keppers' Produce. As Ken says in jest, "Now we have two high paying professions."

Vegetables with NO Chemicals

Ken has grown in accordance with organic standards since buying the property in 1976. Prior to that the land had been logged during the depression for cash and pastured into the 1950's, and left until Ken bought it as young woods. The fact it had not been farmed conventionally made the land really attractive.

During an early season of CSA we experienced problems with the strawberries - the dreaded tarnished plant bug. Judith pulled the Rodale Organic Gardening Encyclopedia for suggestions.
The only listing was for an organically approved treatment was sabadilla. Not only did it kill the tarnished plant bug, IT KILLED HONEYBEES!! We decided not to use it. And we stopped using any "rescue chemistry."

Instead Ken continued to focus on growing, not killing. When there is a problem, Ken looks to how he can improve the soil to grow healthier plants that can resist disease and insect problems. In addition to continuing to build soil, he began encouraging beneficial insects with insectiaries. He found a biodynamic group and began making and using biodynamic preparations. He did extensive soil testing and started adding soil amendments like trace minerals. As Ken says, If it isn't in the soil, how can it be in the food? The results have been dramatic - the plants are so much more vibrant.
People can taste the difference. And the deer can, too.