Longtime gardeners grow family, faith and fingerlings on Muncie farm
By Emily Cox
Headed west on Bethel Avenue, an indistinct gravel driveway leads to the Kirklin family farm. To the right, a worn barn with a cow and chickens that like to ride on sheep, named Feynman and Bernoulli, after famous physicists. To the left, rows of rhubarb line bushes of blackberries. Across the way, there’s a plot that rotates from lettuce, tomatoes and peas early in the season to corn, sweet potatoes and asparagus in the fall.
Planted in the center of their property is the couple’s home of 20 years, where they’ve raised kids and battled everything from cancer to creek floods. It’s a cozy home, and the Kirklins are salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners — humble, generous and diligent with their work.
It’s dinnertime, and Mark sits next to Pam on a sturdy bench he made to accompany the sturdy table he built. He folds his arms across a faded gray Menards T-shirt and smiles: “On a hot July or August day, when Pam is drenched in sweat, she always looks incredibly pretty and incredibly happy. When I picture her in my head, I always picture her weeding or gardening. She always looks so content.”
She laughs. He smiles.
Pam grew up on a cattle farm and at a young age began to help in the garden — a labor of love she brought into their lives. Feeding a family of four required dedication and patience with the land, which she used to teach her kids lessons about going with the flow and adapting when plans don’t go as expected. Mark said their kids remember “slaving out there for hours,” but it mustn’t have been all that painful since their daughter, Shelly, now guides her kids through pruning their garden — harvesting life lessons along the way.
“While I garden, I work through problems in my head, things that are stressful for me,” said Pam.
The Kirklans produce far more than the two of them can consume or store in two giant deep freezers in their basement. The abundance enables them to give fresh produce generously to friends and fellow members of Lutheran Church of the Cross. Gardening is tied with their faith, Pam said, as the hard work they invest in growing and raising food makes them more grateful for the cycle of life and beauty of each season.
“The Bible says there is a time for every season, and having a family farm encourages us to eat with the seasons, truly appreciating each phase of the year,” said Pam, who only goes to the grocery store for some dairy and grains. “In late summer, I look forward to giant leafy salads, but by fall, I am ready to be done with greens and start crunching on asparagus, which is one of my favorites.”
The confidence Pam has gained after decades in the soil has encouraged the Decatur, Indiana native to explore unconventional produce, like aronia, one of the healthiest fruits in the world. The two said that sometimes it feels like anything that can go wrong does, but that doesn’t stop them from pursuing their passion. Certain crops, Mark said, are like people, some pairs grow best together (zucchini and corn, peppers and tomatoes, for instance).
Mark finds joy in raising animals
Then came the animals, Pam said. Mark fell in love with reading “Heidi” to their daughter when Shelly was in kindergarten. “It’s a heartwarming story about Heidi sharing her goat’s milk with Clara, who has physical ailments, and as a result, Clara becomes stronger,” he said. “I couldn’t let it go, and the next thing I know we’re milking goats.”
The pair has continued to raise and slaughter meat, which they freeze and preserve to use year round. Pam said they are respectful of the animals, using almost every part of the animal. Mark does the killing and said he doesn’t feel bad about it because he knows they’ve given their cows, chickens and goats a better life than most.
“I’ve been to the sales where the Hormel folks drag in their pigs barely able to walk because they’re so full of hormones and such,” Mark said. “Our animals have a great life, are fed well and roam freely. You know, I don’t put much thought into eating organic or not, but I am glad we raise and eat our own meat.”
Gardening helps Pam grow
Pam works hard as an environmental manager, and gardening allows her to enjoy the quiet and exert herself in a productive, meaningful way. A self-proclaimed Type A, she also derives satisfaction from planning and coordinating the crops.
Her garden is deeply personal, though. Some of the fruit trees, like peach or apple, are special because the seeds are from her aunt. When her grandkids come visit, they spend time together in the fields or making cider from apples picked from their trees. She learned, and she hopes they learn, great life lessons covered in a bit of dirt.
“Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t,” Pam said. “The joy comes in seeing what will work and persevering.”
- Meat, steak, chicken breast, pork chop or shrimp
- 1 Tablespoon sesame or canola oil
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon pressed garlic
- 1 teaspoon chopped ginger root (or garlic powder and ground ginger)
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- Vegetables that are in season (onions, asparagus, zucchini, red pepper)
- ¾ cup chicken or beef broth
- 3 Tablespoons canola oil
- Basmati or other rice or store bought chow mein noodles
- Oyster sauce or sambel oelek
Directions: With meat still slightly frozen, slice 1 pound of steak, chicken breast, or pork chop with the grain into 2-inch strips and then across the grain into 1/8-inch slices. May also use shrimp. Toss meat with 1 tablespoon sesame or canola oil, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Let meat marinate while you assemble the vegetables and thickening sauce, about 30 minutes.
Prepare vegetables that you like and that are in season. In the spring, we do onions and asparagus. In the summer we like onions, zucchini and red peppers. Cut onions in half and then in slices. Cut zucchini into ¼-inch rectangles 2-inch long. Thinly slice red peppers. Cut asparagus into 2-inch pieces.
Mix together 3/4 cup chicken or beef broth, 1 T soy sauce, and 1 T cornstarch for thickening sauce.
To cook, heat wok or large skillet. When hot, add 3 T canola oil and rotate to coat wok. Add meat, 1 t pressed garlic, and 1 t chopped ginger root (or garlic powder and ground ginger). Stir fry until meat is cooked, about 3 minutes. Remove meat from wok. Add 2 T canola oil to wok and rotate to coat sides. Add onion (and pepper) and stir fry for until tender, add zucchini or asparagus and stir fry until tender. Stir in thickening sauce and bring to a boil. Stir in meat and cook for about 30 seconds. May kick up with oyster sauce or sambel oelek.
Serve with cooked extra long basmati or other rice or homemade or store bought chow mein noodles. Make homemade chow mein noodles by placing fresh linguini or spaghetti egg noodles in deep fryer and frying at 375 F until golden, about 1-2 minutes.