Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.


Twitter: betsyfreese

December 9, 2014

Country Christmas cards

Do you send Christmas cards? I still mail a few dozen each year. This year I selected two of my favorite scenes from our small farm. The first shows Warren and Caroline stacking hay while Bob drives the old tractor. Our pond is in the background. In the second, our ewes are enjoying a winter snow. I say enjoying, because the barn was open and bedded for their shelter. They chose to sit outside. Wool helps. When I posted that photo on Facebook one reader was upset that the sheep didn't have any shelter.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all! -- Betsy

December 1, 2014

Home for the Holidays

I flew to Maryland for Thanksgiving this year. Back in Iowa, Caroline cooked a turkey and all the fixings for Bob and Warren (who says she is a better cook than me, and I'm absolutely fine with that).

It would be hard to beat my mom in the kitchen. I especially enjoyed the creamed mushrooms, as well as the sugar cookies, orange rolls, and cranberry relish. When I left to fly back to Iowa she was baking fruitcakes. One will arrive by mail soon. I can't wait.

It snowed the day before Thanksgiving. Right before I took this photo there was a clap of thunder.

By the next day, most of the snow had melted. Mom's Christmas cacti are unbelievable.

Dad found this tiny wooden yoke (for a goat?) in a local antique store. I bought it for him as a Christmas present and he hung it over the fireplace.

A second after I took this photo, the white rooster flew up and attacked my head. I screamed and then had a good laugh. The relative who owns the chickens (I will call her "Laura Jensen") wondered about his breed. I put his photo on the Facebook page for Living the Country Life and got hundreds of guesses. He's a crossbreed.

These mushrooms were picked fresh in Oxford, PA, and delivered to Mom's front porch one morning. She made creamed mushrooms and mushroom-pumpkin soup.

Fruitcake production began at 7:00 a.m. Fisher prepared the many pans while Meghan mixed the nuts and fruit. Mom handled the sugar, flour, butter, and eggs. Mom keeps a list on her fridge of who gets each fruitcake. When I called her from Iowa that evening she still had the last batch in the oven.

Close up of the nuts and fruit. The night before, I chopped the dates, figs, pecans, and walnuts.

Raspberry jam and blackberry wine gives the raw dough a purple color.

The final product.

We did our Black Friday shopping at the local estate auction.

I rolled out the refrigerated dough for Mom's thin, crisp sugar cookies, decorated with sprinkles by grandchildren. A tin of these made it to Iowa in my carry-on bag.

We visited a local artist and found this wonderful sculpture on her porch.

My friend Robin came over one night to cook a special mulled cider brew on Mom's stove.

Mom deserves a good book and a nap after the busy week.


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November 19, 2014

Lots of Lamb, coming and going

Our rams are busy now. We weighed and sorted all the lambs and sent the young replacement ewes (below) to meet one ram, while sending the second Hampshire ram to breed the experienced ewes.

Bob let that group into the alfalfa field behind the barn where they found an open gate and got into my garden. Something had to eat the frozen Brussels sprouts.

The heaviest wethers went to the auction market where they averaged 125 pounds and got the top price of $1.60 a pound.

On Monday, we shipped boxes of frozen lamb on dry ice to family in Maryland and North Carolina. Merry Christmas!

New baby lambs are due in April.

November 10, 2014

Tillage radish harvest

I've been growing a few tillage radishes in the garden, just to see how big they will get. I dug them yesterday because the ground is going to freeze solid by the end of the week. They can withstand a few frosts, but they will rot once the ground freezes.

I peeled one and roasted it in the oven with olive oil and salt. It was mild and delicious. The sheep will eat the extras.

Please send me your tillage radish photos:


November 5, 2014

Hedge apples

Our pasture fenceline is full of hedge apples. Is that what you call them? Other names are Osage oranges, horse apples, monkey brains/balls, and more.

I always put a few in the basement as an insect repellent. Bob uses the wood from the trees, cured a year or more, as fence posts.

You can read about the facts and myths about hedge apples here: A few highlights:

1. The trees were named for the Osage Indians and widely planted in the Midwest as a living fence.

2. The wood is extremely hard, heavy, and durable. It shrinks less than most other wood.

3. Iowa State University toxicologists extracted and concentrated compounds from hedge apples and they were found to repel insects. However, the natural concentration in the fruit was too low to be an effective repellent.

October 28, 2014

Top 2 Fall Plants

I planted dahlias for the first time this year and they are stunning. The flowers started blooming in early July and got bigger and bolder each week in October. A hard freeze will zap them in a few days, but I will cut the blooms and bring them inside for another week of show.

The variety I planted is here:

My second favorite fall plant is Brussels sprouts. This crop takes off in late summer and can stand a frost or two. I picked these beauties yesterday.

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October 24, 2014

Letters from Vietnam

I was visiting my parents in Maryland last year when Mom's first cousin Jim Crothers (far left) stopped by to say hello. As we reminisced about family history, Jim mentioned that he had served in Vietnam in 1969-1970. I hadn't known that. I started pestering him with questions.

"If you are really interested, I have all the letters I sent home to (wife) Judy from Vietnam," he said. He also had an old master's degree thesis he had written about his Army service. He brought it over and I quickly determined that, with a little work, it could be a book.

So Jim mailed all the old letters to me in Iowa and it became an evening project. Over the course of a year, I read every letter and slowly put the book together using his thesis as the backbone.

As Jim explains in the introduction, "These letters hold all the intimate thoughts, dreams, emotions, and philosophy two people shared during a turbulent era in American history. They show how the constant emotional pressure of wartime life affects real people. But, quite simply, these are love letters."

The final product is now available on Amazon: Free Mail: Letters from Vietnam.

(Special thanks to friend Matt Strelecki,, who spent a weekend designing the cover and interior of the book.)

As a postscript, I also tracked down one of Jim's Army buddies, Mike Thomas, shown above on the far right. He was surprised when I called to introduce myself and tell him about the book. He and Jim have not seen each other since serving in Vietnam.

I love history. It's so important to preserve it, learn from it, and share the experiences.


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October 21, 2014

New Kittens!

Don't stop by an animal shelter if you don't want this to happen.

We've always had a cat or two on our small farm. The first, Max, lived to be 15. Another cat, Marvin, lived to be 17. During those years, other cats came and went, including Mario. After Marvin and Mario died within a month of each other, our oldest son, Nowlan, asked us to keep his cat, Rin, while he lived in Europe for a year. We did and Nowlan came home to collect Rin, who now lives with him in North Carolina.

This fall, mice invaded our house (we caught five in 24 hours). But that's not the main reason I stopped by the animal shelter on Saturday. It just doesn't seem right not to have a cat, or two, around.

Meet Mickey and Mia. They are about two months old, undernourished, and of feral origin. I locked them in the bathroom to tame them, and I sit on the floor with them each morning and night. Within two days, Mickey (yellow) went from hissing to climbing over me and purring. Mia (gray) is more shy.

My husband, a vet, wishes I had let him select two tamer, healthier kittens, instead of these homeless shelter cats. But he'll come around.

October 16, 2014

Butterfly habitat

I let the milkweeds grow in the back of my garden to provide habitat for monarch butterflies. Jodi Henke, radio editor for Living the Country Life, brought some milkweed pods to the office last week so everyone could let the seeds grow on their property. The butterflies lay eggs on the leaves.

Habitat projects are designed to benefit a wide range of wildlife species. Pheasants Forever used to focus on birds, but is now promoting its habitat projects for bees and butterflies, as well. Here is a video that explains The Life History of Monarch Butterflies

If you have been pulling "weeds" in your landscape that can help wildlife, leave a few next year.


October 13, 2014

Big Bass

This bass was caught in our pond on Saturday. What a whopper! I debated posting this photo because we don't want people hopping the fence and fishing in our private pond. But I am so happy to see our pond healthy. Five years ago we had a winter fish kill that destroyed everything except snapping turtles and tiny bluegills. We restocked the grass carp and bass. Here are the results.