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Welcome to Forest Hill Farm, Iowa's only certified organic farm offering 100% grass-fed beef and lamb. Our farm is certified  through OCIA!

The beef is from our organic Red Angus steers. It's 100% grass-fed, dry aged, and rotationally MIG grazed. The Sheep and lamb are also certified organic, 100% grass-fed, and rotationally grazed.  The pastured hogs are heritage breeds; Gloucestershire Old Spots and Berkshire. They graze our pastures along with chickens, turkeys and ducks.  There are a few goats in the pasture, too who cause trouble when they can. We'd love to serve you as a customer, please email for details.

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On an old oak stump in our front yard grew a Hen of the Woods mushroom. Keith would watch it grow and mature until it was the ready to pick. It was just about perfect.

We were sitting on the front porch when a car pulled up. The dogs were sleeping in the autumn sun, they didn't notice. The driver ran from the car, cut the mushroom, and drove off.

Apparently someone else was watching the mushroom, too. Keith walked around the stump in disbelief, “Who steals a mushroom?”

“Probably the same type of person who tries stuffing a goat into the hatchback of their car.” A few weeks earlier a nicely dressed couple tried driving off with our goat, Midnight and a few of the laying hens.

Poor Keith, I empathized with him. He'd been waiting to enjoying this mushroom for a long time.

Our neighbor, Mike watched the same car pull up to his ditch and cut weed stalks early each summer. One year he flagged them down to ask what they were cutting. What they thought were wild rhubarb stalks in reality was Burdock. Mike just smiled, shook his head and waved them on. He loved re-telling that story.

Here in Iowa folks park along the roadside searching for wild asparagus or morels. The asparagus seekers carry sharp knives and plastic bags. They walk along the ditches and fence rows searching the grass around utility poles.

For some reason the commercial morel hunters irritate me, they don't ask for permission, they're dropped off in an area to begin scavenging the timber and underbrush for saleable product. They wear camouflage and carry handheld GPS devices. Morel's bring a hefty price.

Growing mushrooms is one of our latest projects. We're growing Oyster mushrooms for fun.  Keith loves mushrooms. One year I bought him a shiitake growing kit which was fine, but about the difference between owning a plastic model of a Corvette or the real thing.

It was time for an up-grade, so this year we're growing two varieties of organic Oyster mushrooms; Grey Dove and PoHu.

Keith cut logs from dormant Aspen trees. Each log is about 3 feet long, 6 – 8 inches in diameter. There are about one hundred logs for this year's mushroom project. He used a special bit to drill the holes. Cookie inoculated the logs with sawdust spawn and then capped each with wax. The logs are stacked in the timber, when it's dry this summer we'll use a water tank to soak the logs. The first mushrooms should start growing within a few months. This first year's yield will be sparse, but should increase each season for many years.


Tap Into Something Good: Walnut Water!

Collecting Walnut sap
Collecting Walnut sap

The local NPR station had a program about tapping trees. Michael Farrell, author of The Sugarmaker's Companion talked about collecting sap from different types of trees. Keith liked the idea of tapping walnut trees and birch trees to make syrup. The Black Walnut trees are abundant in our timber. After reading the book we became interested in the benefits of sap water as a healthful drink.

Keith and our local forester, Jeff  marked trees for tapping. Not wanting to ruin marketable timber, or veneer, the two of them selected twenty-six crooked or damaged trees for this first season's experiment.

The trees cover a larger area so tubing wasn't an option. Instead, collection bags hang from the taps. Walnut's have about the same brix (sap sugar content) as maple trees. The volumes of sap is less, though. Walnut sap is nutrient rich, slightly sweet, with a nutty flavor. It's power packed.

In other cultures tree sap is a valued health drink. Fresh sap is good for five days, after that it needs pasteurization and filtering. It will last indefinitely when it's frozen. To get the benefits throughout the year I'm freezing it in ice-cube trays and glass jars for later use.

Depending on how much sap we collect there might be enough to make walnut syrup, but with a sap to syrup ratio of 40:1, we'll see.

The sap runs for only about five-weeks each spring. When the walnut sap finishes flowing the birch trees are ready to tap. Birch flow starts later in the spring and runs until the trees leaf out.

Sugaring is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and spend time together.

Collecting Walnut Sap
Collecting Walnut Sap

IMG_20140904_143708987Every now and again I have a bad day on the road. A couple of months ago my beautiful drive in the country turned ugly. I had three flat tires; one blow out, one flat, and a nail sticking out of the sidewall of the third tire. With the tires fixed I was back on the road. A few miles later the alternator failed. It wasn't a great day.

Last Saturday we hit a deer. Not a great day, either.


IMG_20141215_103711159 3Yesterday it was foggy with rain falling steadily. As I drove down the highway I saw a sign that read, “Next 2 miles...possible cattle on road”

My heart went out to the farmer. His cattle got out, It was very foggy and there's heavy traffic along this stretch of highway.

The next time I feel sorry for myself because I have a flat tire or a breakdown I'll remember that I've never had a day this bad. Even my worst day is better than a herd of cattle who've gone missing in the fog and worrying about the safety of both drivers and livestock on the road.


DSCN2746One of the highlights of Thanksgiving is the newspaper's publishing children's turkey recipe's and their drawings of Thanksgiving scenes. They're colorful, creative and so much fun to read.

 "Research shows that 90 percent of five-year olds are creative, but only 2 percent of adults are."  -Lee Lilber

One year our friend's son, (I'll call him Chip, even though it's not his real name) entered his school's turkey decorating contest. He came home excited to share the rules with his parents and tell them about the turkey he'd designed. After a trip to the craft store he assembled his turkey. It was terrific, it looked exactly as he planned. When our friends tucked their son into bed that night he told them how much he wanted to win the contest.

While the boy slept his parents looked at his turkey. It looked like a second grader had made it, which is exactly how it should have looked given the boy's age. They couldn't see it for what it was. They decided to improve it. Changing the design, they added more feathers, re-glued the eyes, and fixed the sagging head. Adding a guitar and sideburns it became a rock star turkey. They went to bed assuring themselves that their turkey was going to win, but it wasn't their turkey. It wasn't their contest to win.

In the morning when Chip saw the re-designed bird he burst out, "That's not my turkey!" His parents assured him that this turkey was the winner. He headed to school with the turkey stuffed in his bag.

After school he ran through the door grinning, "The teacher loved my turkey!" His mom congratulated him and called his dad. Chip, overhearing her on the phone, interrupted her, "Mom, your turkey didn't win. I showed the teacher your turkey and told her that I wasn't entering it in the contest. She gave me time to remake my turkey from the picture I'd drawn. Here, she wrote you a note." He handed his mom an envelope.

The teacher's note read:

 Dear Mr. and Mrs. _________,

I am proud of your son's effort and outstanding attitude on the turkey decorating contest. He followed the instructions and created a wonderful turkey.

I appreciate your enthusiasm however, your entry was ineligible.

You have both completed the second grade and are not currently enrolled at this school. In addition, you sent a demoralizing message to your son that somehow his creativity and artistic abilities are inferior to yours.


Chip's teacher

As an eighteen year old our neighbor, Don built his own barn. He sent away for a set of plans, cut the trees, made them into board lumber, and constructed the barn. Seventy years later it's still in great shape.  Can you imagine kids doing their own work? They'd either celebrate their accomplishments or learn the consequences. And here's an even bigger stretch ...What if dad's allowed their sons in Cub Scout's to build their own Pinewood Derby cars?

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DSCN2837And now, another lesson from a very bad beekeeper...

Sugaring bees for mite control is a great alternative to chemical treatments if the mite count is manageable. In the battle of bees vs Varroa Mites my weapon of choice; powdered sugar. I calculate the mite load by capturing a couple hundred bees and placing them inside a jar with a few tablespoons of powdered sugar. The jar is fitted with a screen placed over the mouth. The bees are shaken vigorously to loosen the mites clinging to them. The mites fall through the screen lid, onto a sheet of white paper (they're easy to see against the white background) for counting. A quick calculation gives the mite load for the hive. This calculation  determines if I need to treat the bees aggressively (for a large infestation) or if the sugar will take care of the problem. I'm reluctant to use chemicals for treating Varroa Mites because it could cause resistance or weaken the bees.


DSCN2827Using an old window screen, placed over the hive body, I dump a pound of powdered sugar on top. It's important to have the smoker ready to force the bees away from the screen. Using a bee brush to gently spread the sugar across the screen so it falls between the frames, I continue to apply smoke. You don't want the bees clinging to the screen because the brush will damage the bee's legs, sometimes amputating them.

The sugar dust clings to the bees causing the mites to fall off or get groomed off by other bees. I use a screened bottom board which the mites fall through. I repeat the sugaring process two to three times in the fall.

Once the hive's been dusted and sealed back up again the jarred bees are let loose to fly back inside the hive. They're angry and unhappy after being shaken. Never free the bees from the jar before all the frames are sugared or they'll work the rest of the hive into a fervor. You don't want to work with agitated bees, I've learned this the hard way. Bee venom supposedly cures arthritis, I don't have arthritis but I think I'd prefer it to being stung seven times in the hand. Learning new things is important, I just wish I'd learn before it becomes a painful reality.


The off-season.

As a gardener there comes a day when even the heaviest frost blanket can't offer protection. You resign, relinquishing the garden until spring. Maybe it's because of this resignation, probably not, but nothing could satisfy the melancholy feeling of the garden shutting down like a fresh picked tomato. Fresh tomatoes are gone until next year, this is the off-season.


There's a group of small, like-minded farmers who network together. Barter and trade are frequent among us. Last year we traded a young Gloucestershire Old Spot boar for hen and tom heritage turkey's. This spring the hens were late to set their eggs, some never cycled into egg laying. Talking with a turkey raiser he determined last winter too severe. Turkey hens, regardless of their care, just weren't up to the task of laying, at least not fertile, viable eggs, anyway. That is until this week.

In front of the machine shed door a Narragansett hen sat sunning herself. She puffed her feathers, called in a high-pitched whistle and seven small turkey poults scooted underneath her. Doesn't she know this is the off-season?

Later in the day I collected pumpkins for the sows and boar. Among the vines and fruit another Narragansett hen is sitting on a clutch of eggs. One of the Muscovy hens hatched eggs last week. Five ducklings follow here through the pasture every afternoon. We haven't found where she's hiding her brood, hopefully a weasel or owl won't find them either.

The peach trees, all but one, have been dormant all summer. Scratching the surface bark there’s life under the cambium layer so they weren't cut down. Maybe next spring they'll surprise us with buds, it's doubtful, but I remain optimistic. In October of 2012, following one of the worst droughts in our area, the lilac bushes started to blossom for a second time in one season. The October flower clusters were sparse, but the following spring they were full of flowers again as if the off-season blossoming hadn't interrupted the cycle.

DSCN2720The oak tree along the lane is dropping bushels of acorn that go uncollected. The oak in the pasture is dropping a heavy crop for the pigs to feast on. They've gleaned the fallen nuts leaving the ground underneath bare. One pig in particular stands sentry, he won't let the sheep near the tree. He doesn't realize the sheep want sweet clover not bitter acorns. Between the pumpkins, clovers, apples, and nuts the pigs diet is diverse. Their commercial feed goes untouched when there's so much they can harvest themselves. This is one of the benefits of pastured hogs; a healthy diet.


I grew up on a beautiful tree-lined street where towering Elm trees canopied the yards. One day a tree trimming company drove up the road marking every Elm with a bright red X. The following week they cut them all down, the branches and leaves thrown into a giant chipper. The street was bare. The shade gone. The cool breezes and sounds of birds disappeared. It was so quiet; not a squirrel's chatter or bird's song greeted us when we stepped out of the house. The town replaced the Elm trees with small oak and maple, which wouldn't cast shadow, provide shelter or shade for years. Today the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer is at the threshold of our county. But there's an incipient disease in the rural countryside that's a greater threat than all other tree diseases combined. It's erodible land versus the yellow Caterpillar.

IMG_20140801_115314803 - Version 2

This particular caterpillar takes down a tree in seconds. It can wipe out a tree line or decimate a timber with no regard to the years it took to mature. It's nerve center focuses on destroying every living plant in its path. It doesn't discern old growth hardwoods from fast growing scrub trees. Do you remember learning taxonomy; Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Well, this yellow caterpillar isn't in the kingdom Animalia. It's a manufactured machine, its nerve center is the operator. This yellow caterpillar is a bulldozer. Eight dollar per bushel corn brought bulldozer's disease to our county. I thought the falling price of corn would stop the disease, but it hasn't. If anything, it's made otherwise reasonable people into fiends pushing over trees to eek out another row of corn.

Here in north-east Iowa a high percentage of the crop ground is erodible (click here for the Iowa Daily Erosion Project). Decades old trees, some centenarians, that once held ground in place, drank up excess water, provided habitat, shade, oxygen, beauty and so much more are pushed into gullies and piled at the edges of farm fields. Some farmers in our area don't find value in trees. They buy cheap land and 'sculpt' it to their needs. In the process destroyed habitats, uprooted trees, and the bare sloping hillside releases valuable top soil into waterways, never mind the toxins that follow after a crop is planted. Adding insult to injury, some of these farmers have received millions of dollars in government subsidies over the past ten years for maintaining crop ground. It's unfortunate, but often, this short-sighted nature passes down to the next generation, the destruction continues.

Having a passion for trees, especially since moving to this farm, it saddens us to see the vacant ground eroding where towering trees once stood. A previous owner of our farm hired a local 'sculptor' to clear this land. Uprooted trees filled a ravine, the remains mounded into piles for burning. We've planted orchard trees and over three hundred hardwoods with a direct seeding of Chestnut, Oak and Walnut. These will hardly mature in our lifetime, but the planting continues. Dutch Elm and Emerald Ash Borer have nothing on the yellow Caterpillar.



Bee Quiz


Knowledge is power - the more you know about bees the more conscientious you’ll be of their habitat.  Here’s another bee quiz.

Q.  How much honey does one worker bee produce in her lifetime?

 a)  1 quart of honey
  b)  half a cup of honey
  c)  1/12 of a teaspoon

Answer: c

Q.  How much honey does a small colony of bees need to survive the winter?

a)  50 pounds of honey
b)  35 pounds of honey
c)  75 pounds of honey

Answer: b  
A productive hive can make 2 pounds of honey a day. Thirty-five pounds of honey provides enough energy for a small colony to survive the winter.  

Q.  There is enough energy in one ounce of honey to supply the needs of one bee flying a distance of..

a)   100 miles
b)  from the Florida Keys to the Pacific Northwest
c)  around the world

Answer: c  

Q.  Queen bees lays up to how many eggs each day?

a)  2500
b)  500
c)  2000

Answer: a  
A queen bee lives for about 2-3 years. She is busiest in the summer months when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength, she lays up to 2500 eggs per day.

Q.  How fast does a honey bee fly?

 a)  10 miles per hour
  b)  15 miles per hour
  c)  18 miles per hour

Answer: b 

Honey bees fly up to 15 miles per hour. Their wings stroke 11,400 times per minute which makes their distinct buzzing sound

 Q.  The sting from a drone bee is more potent than the sting of a worker bee?

a)   true
  b)  false

Answer:  false

Drone's don’t have a stinger. A dron's role in the bee colony is to mate with the queen. Immediately after mating the drone dies. There are very few drones within the bee colony. Drones do not contribute to the hive, other than to mate with the queen.

 Q.  In 1947 there were 5.9 million managed bee colonies producing honey in the United States. How many managed bee colonies producing honey were there in 2008?

 a)  6.5 million
  b)  755,000
  c)  2.3 million

Answer: c

In 2008 the USDA reported 2.3 million honey producing colonies in the United States, a decline of 61% since 1947

Well, how did you score? Learn more about bees at the Iowa Honey Produces website

Baling Hay

It's hot inside the tractor cab. The fan works but there's no air conditioning. Keith took the door off so I'd have some relief. When I head west into the afternoon sun the cab heats up fast, It's like sitting in a fishbowl without the water. Turning east, the open door catches a breeze, and it cools down. I wish I could bale the hay only heading east.

DSCN0026(7)My companion, Esme is always happy. She loves riding along with me. The cha-chunk, cha- chunk, cha-chunk of the baler picking up hay is hypnotic. The constant rhythmic cycle, along with the warm air, and quiet music from the radio puts me into a trance. Every now and again the sound changes; cha-chunk, cha-chunk, cha-clink.  Sometimes shear pins break while baling the thickest hay. Esme and I get out of the tractor. She runs off in search of snakes and mice. I take the wrench, bolt, washer, and nut out of the toolbox to repair the pin. In a few minutes were back to work. Esme's in her seat, I'm in mine. I have to sit sideways facing backwards so I can watch the windrows and the baler. In the thickest rows I adjust the tractor's speed or the speed of the power take-off (PTO). Again, the rhythm of the baler along with the warm sunshine puts me into a trance. Cha- chunk, cha-chunk, cha-chunk. Esme sits up, looks out the window, starts barking. Cocking her head to one side she barks happily and wags her tail.  As I glance out the door I notice a tire rolling past us. “Where would a tire come from way out here, Esme?” It took me a second to realize that the only tire out here had to be from either the tractor, baler, or bale basket full of hay. Pressing on the clutch and brake pedal I downshifted. The tractor stopped. The baler tilted awkwardly to one side. The hub was buried into the earth. The tire continued rolling down the hill. I watched it curve. Circling, it rolled into the tall grass of the waterway, wobbled and fell over.

DSCN0024(10)I  made a call to my pit crew, who weren't happy to hear from me. They bombarded me with questions. The first, “Did you check the tires before you started baling?”

“Of course I did.” If you consider walking past the tires and noticing that they were attached to the equipment checking, then I checked.

“Did you notice the tire wobbling?”

It's hard to notice a tire wobbling when you're fidgeting with the radio. The signal's very weak out here. I don't say this out loud, that would be suicide. "Nope, I didn't notice a thing."

The discussion escalated, “How does a tire roll past without you noticing it for 50 yards? Look how long it took you to stop.” He continued with increased volume, “I hope the axle didn't crack. The hub looks alright, but we have to dig it out.”

My response is lame, “I didn't notice any problem with the baler, and it wasn't 50 yards.” Looking at the bare ground where the baler dragged across the field I calculate that it was only 45 yards. 48 yards at the most. I hate when he exaggerates.


They unhitched the bale basket, moved the tractor and baler to level ground and began the repair.  Adding insult to injury they weren't happy when I took out the camera. They gave me 'the look'. The one that says, 'Are you seriously taking a picture? Don't you have anything else to do? Let's recap why we're here...You called us to help you fix a tire. You never mentioned that it fell off and rolled away or that the hub was buried. We've been working our butts off in the hot hay mow to get this put up before it rains. It's sweltering. We're hot. We're uncomfortable. We're very CRABBY! You've been riding in a tractor with an open door and fan blowing on you. You're drinking ice tea. You're listening to the radio. You're driving through the field with that irritatingly happy dog and enjoying yourself. Are you seriously going to take our picture, now?'

After a couple of shots I put the camera away. I brought them cold drinks and walked around the equipment pretending to inspect every inch of it. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I wanted to look efficient.

After refilling my drink, adjusting the radio and getting Esme some water we were back to baling within an hour. Our friend, Rusty Little had the hay curse but I have the equipment curse.





DSCN2521It's quiet when I work with the bees, I work alone. Every move is choreographed ahead of time. The bee suit is too hot, the veil makes my head sweat, and I will NEVER wear gloves again.  So, I wear shorts, a t-shirt, and worn out tennis shoes. I'm not brave, actually I'm afraid of getting stung, but with everything you enjoy there are consequences. Getting stung is one of them.


The best weapon is a calm attitude and a heavy plume from the smoker. One of my hives isn't as strong as the others. I had to re-queen it. Earlier in the spring I was installing a second package of bees and I made a mistake. I lost the queen. Well, she wasn't really lost, she flew away. Worried about getting stung, I wore a full bee suit complete with thick gloves. After shaking the bees into the hive body I got the queen cage ready. I carefully removed the plug end and stuffed a mini marshmallow into the opening. I placed my gloved finger over the opening and moved two frames apart, hung the cage, and removed my finger. Looking down I noticed the marshmallow stuck to the glove, "Damn!" I tried to push it back into the cage, but before I could get it back into the opening the queen moved to the end and lifted herself into the air, "Damn, damn, damn!"  I watched, dumbfounded, as she flew higher and higher until she disappeared from sight. I let out a desperate cry, "Oh no. Stupid marshmallow!"  I thought, there goes my queen, $90.00 just flew away because I was afraid of getting stung. Fear, a glove, and a mini-marshmallow brought my hive's production to a halt.

We covered this in beekeeping class. The instruction was very clear; "If your queen escapes stay very still. She won't recognize her new surroundings. She won't know the bee yard, or hive. She doesn't know the workers, who've surrounded her cage on her trip north, they only met a day ago. Sometimes, if you're lucky, she'll fly in a circle taking a mental picture of the area. The queen will view you, the beekeeper, as a fixture of that area. In her mental picture you belong where she belongs. It's very important to remain still and leave everything as it was when she flew off." 

I waited.  No queen in sight. Two minutes - no queen. Three minutes, still no queen. Five minutes, no queen, just sweat running into my eyes and trickling down my back. Bee suits are incredibly hot. Keith was headed to town. He saw me standing still in this ridiculous outfit and called from the truck, "Hey, was there a nuclear accident at the plant?" he laughed and drove off.  I'd have given him the finger, the gloved one with the marshmallow stuck to it, but I was standing perfectly still waiting for the queen's return. Lucky for him I couldn't move for a few more minutes.  After ten minutes I gave up. I remembered one last piece of advice from class, "Never, EVER, let your queen escape."  If she does its goodbye, queen!