Thursday, April 16, 2015



It's been a while since we've shared much news from the farm.  One very visible project we've been at work at through the winter has been felling trees.  Our property is over half woods so we're slowly trying to open up land that is closer to the house and barns to convert to pasture.  Of course, livestock require a lot more care and time than timber, so it makes sense to keep the animals closer. We were also motivated to start working on clearing land adjacent to the electric line right of way after the power company came through to do their periodic clearing.  We realized that by clearing land adjacent to the right of way we weren't just gaining more usable land there, but we were also eliminating the need for the power company to run its big equipment through the right of way itself, allowing us to make better use of that space as well.  We generated a lot of firewood from the project which will keep us warm for a long time.  Some of the wood was put to good use inoculated for shitake logs.  And some of the logs headed to our friend's sawmill where he's sawing them into boards to be used for a number of projects on the farm, including better housing for the combine. Other logs, like sycamore, walnut, and cherry we have hopes of selling to furniture makers or possibly doing some fine woodworking ourselves.

  But for as many trees as we've cut, we've probably planted even more.  Eric has a continuing passion for fruits and nuts and continues to plant the farm to edible trees and bushes.  You can't walk far on the farm and he'll point out something he's planted or grafted in place to a volunteer seedling.  Persimmons, figs, pomegranates, hardy citrus, improved black walnuts, chestnuts, mulberries, apples, pears, pecans, jujubes, pawpaws, blueberries (20 different varieties at that!)... most anything that might be able to survive and produce in our climate is being trialed, and we're expanding those plantings that have already shown promise.  So this early spring included walking around to find space for more, and then more planting and more grafting.  The tame (but thorny) blackberries have proven themselves easy maintenance and delicious so we planted a long row of them near the now cleared power right of way.  Figs are a great treat but the chickens think so, too.  So we found a space for more of them in a fenced in garden space. Unfortunately, for the second year in a row now, winter was cold enough to seriously injure the figs, so they've been set back again.
  Another winter project was to finish raising up a hog.  This is the second time we've raised hogs and we were quite encouraged this time especially by how little feed we needed to give him that was grown specifically for him (i.e. grain).  Instead, he feasted on discarded vegetables (pumpkins with bad spots, too small sweet potatoes, over-ripe watermelons...), whey from cheesemaking, the milk from the day the cow stepped in it... enough acorns collected in just part of one afternoon to provide the main part of the feed for over a month... To see our waste turned into lard and bacon was to see the real usefulness of a hog on a farm like ours.  Empty milk glasses and every other dish in the kitchen were first rinsed into the slop bucket for the hog before washing.  (Throwing scraps out on the compost pile doesn't feel as rewarding!)  We then had a group of friends help us butcher him on the farm.  It felt quite like the community butcherings of back in the day must have felt.  Doing it ourselves, nothing went to waste.  We even cooked up the head, heart, trotters, and snout into some of the best tasting scrapple we've ever had - it was pretty much the only scrapple we've ever had!  We rendered the lard which has been a treat to pop popcorn and for frying in, especially hush puppies and sweet potato chips.  Some of the meat we froze and some of it we canned.  And some of it we cured - one ham, the jowls and the bacon.
Just some of one year's seed saving efforts
  Sorting seeds is another routine of the colder days.  The floor of the upstairs room was completely covered in jars and envelopes swollen with seeds as we went through and decided what to grow this year, what seeds to store away, and which were old enough to retire (either to the compost pile or to animal feed or to eat ourselves as with peas and beans).  Germ testing at this time of year helps us decide which seeds are good.  It's a false high to see bean and corn seeds germinating in mid-January!  We continue to hone our seed saving skills and would say we are now planting about 75% of seed we've saved ourselves.  This is extremely rare among vegetable farmers like ourselves.  And it's not easy by any means.  Planning ahead where varieties will go and making sure isolation distances are enough between varieties, not harvesting crops for market because they are for seed saving, making sure to actually get the seed harvested and processed before weather or insects make it unusable... the challenges are numerous.  But when it's all laid out on the floor like that mid-winter, jars of seeds that we've saved, varieties that we've grown to love that won't just disappear at the whim of some big seed company, seeds that have been handed down from people we know... it's all quite the opposite of patent protected seeds owned by big chemical companies.  And it's really nice when the seed order for the whole year is less than $100 (and much of that is for new varieties and new crops that we just want to trial, varieties from which we can save seed if we like them.)
Can you guess which one is the goose egg?
The daily winter project is chores, even when winter hits it's most miserable.  Eric likes to say the cow can wait to be milked until it's above freezing, but whether it got above freezing soon enough or not, she still needed to be milked twice a day.  It often takes extra time and care in the winter to make sure the cattle, goats, chickens, geese, and dogs are all fed and watered.
Red corn tortilla chips and salsa

Slicing sweet potatoes to fry for chips
Frying sweet potato chips

   Our winter to-do list is long and ambitious each year.  It's the time of year to build and repair, to study and plan, to clean and organize, to visit and host other farmers.  And of course to eat well.  Come Christmas time the garden crops had frozen out.  But the larder was full: canned goods double stacked on the shelves, freezers jam packed, big bags of peanuts hanging from the ceiling, boxes and boxes of sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squash, yacons, and turnips, and a daily supply of milk and eggs coming from the barn. Yes, we feasted through the winter, but now it's time to earn another year of eating.  We're looking forward to seeing you all more regularly very soon.  Or make plans to come see us at the farm.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New arrival

This broody hen hatched our first gosling of the year for us.  The geese deserve some credit, too!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Saturday, November 15, 2014


   We thought it might be helpful to those of you interested in eating more local-organically to tell you about what our diet looks like.  Our goal is to eat as much from local-organic sources as possible.  That means we mainly eat from our own farm, but we also buy/barter/forage/hunt/scavenge other local-organic foods, and compromise on just a few foods we feel like we haven't figured out yet: oats, millet, oil, vinegar -- we buy those things from USDA organic sources -- and very rarely some wild fish.  We also buy salt, baking soda, and some spices, although we're fairly content with those food purchases.  For our young family of six we spend well under $1000 per year on food, which includes the local-organic foods we buy (pecans are a big one in the years we can find them), which we say just to put how much we're eating from our own farm and other non-purchased sources in perspective.
   Millet might seem like an odd thing to keep buying when we've let go of rice but a big part of the reason we started eating millet was because we wanted to begin by learning how to enjoy the foods that we aspired to grow.  In other words, eating millet is for us a very small step towards growing millet.  We use millet mostly as something of a rice substitute, and we see more hope in the local potential for millet than we do rice, but we're not there yet.  Our most important grains, though, are the corn and wheat we grow ourselves, along with non-local purchased oats.  (We did grow both oats and millet this year, but we're still in the experimental stages with those crops.)  We use wheat mainly for bread, pancakes, pizza, biscuits, in lesser amounts in desserts and sauces, and occasionally in pasta, but homemade pasta is time-consuming enough that we don't eat pasta very often.  We use corn mainly as cornmeal and grits for cornbread/muffins, corn mush (for breakfast), grits and fried grits (for breakfast but more often as a starch/grain to go with a main meal), cornmeal casseroles, cornmeal pancakes, and, when we have enough lard, as hush puppies.  We also make hominy from our corn, which we mainly use whole mixed with vegetables or beans like pintos, but we also really enjoy tortillas made from grinding fresh hominy, but as with pasta, that feels too time-consuming to do on a weekly basis (even though lots of central Americans do it daily.)  Buckwheat is the other grain we grow for ourselves, and so far pancakes are about the only thing we've made with buckwheat flour, which, however, we really enjoy, commonly with sorghum syrup, that we get from neighbor-friends.
   Although eating local-organically means we don't eat anything like granulated sugar or brown sugar, we do eat plenty of sweeteners.  We'll eat some sorghum syrup on bread or biscuits, in addition to our standard buckwheat pancakes, and we'll buy a little bit of maple syrup when we're visiting Melissa's family in Michigan, but we mainly eat lots of honey, about a quart per week.  If we eat ice cream, it's sweetened with honey, either as just plain honey ice cream or flavored with black walnuts or strawberries or mint...  If we bake a pie or a persimmon pudding or a custard (like flan) those things are all sweetened with honey.  Of course, we also use honey for the more obvious uses of sweetening tea (which for us mostly means mint or roselle) and on toast and biscuits.  We particularly like creamed honey on biscuits.  Perhaps our biggest use of honey, though, is with yogurt.  Yogurt and honey, often without anything else, but sometimes with fruit or pecans or granola... is one of our most common afternoon snacks as well as a fairly common breakfast. Popcorn and peanuts, boiled when we're digging them fresh and roasted the rest of the year, are our other two main snack foods.
   We eat a lot of yogurt, probably over two gallons per week, some weeks maybe three.  Dairy is probably our most important protein source.  As with the rest of our diet, that's not determined by any health theories or taste preferences so much as the simple fact of what our farm can most efficiently produce.  (We believe that eating whatever our farm can produce is, however, leading us to food that's healthier and tastier than anything we could buy.)  Most of our farm is too rolling to be suitable for us to use for anything other than woods or pasture, and dairy seems to be the best way we can eat grass, which is an outstanding crop in terms of sustainability anyways.  In addition to yogurt, we drink two or three gallons of milk each week, plus what we use in cooking.  And we make a few simple cheeses.  We make pretty much all of our goat's milk into a simple, soft cheese.  With cow's milk we make cottage cheese, mozzarella, and ricotta.  We would certainly enjoy hard/aged cheese, but we need to build a press and construct some kind of "cave" (aging room/space) first, and we haven't made that happen yet, so we do without hard cheeses in the meantime.  Most of the milk we drink and most of the things we make from milk are made from skimmed milk -- we simply ladle the cream off the top with a measuring cup, so our skimmed milk still has a decent amount of fat left -- because butter is our first priority for the cream.  Even with rich Jersey milk, it probably takes four gallons or more of milk to make a pound of butter.  Butter is the most efficient local-organic fat we can produce (because it's made mainly of permanent pasture that the cows harvest for themselves), but butter is only efficient so long as we're able to realize substantial value from all the gallons of skimmed milk that comes with every pound of butter.  Still, hand milking a cow to make butter is no way to compete with supermarket prices.
   Other fats (lard and oil) are even more costly.  Our supply of lard is limited by our supply of hog feed.  Although swine are great at making use of various farm and kitchen byproducts and surpluses, we haven't had enough of these things to be able to do without substantial quantities of crops grown and harvested particularly for feed, especially not year-round and for the full life and breeding cycle, so we use butter for a lot of uses we might otherwise use lard.  We still buy oil, however, to make salad dressing and mayonnaise.  Birds seem to make sunflowers too difficult to try to grow for oil, but we're currently trying to figure out how to grow significant quantities of sesame seeds.  Of course, if we can grow enough seeds, we'd still need an oil press, but growing the seeds seems like the most challenging hurdle to local-organic salad oil.
   At least as important to our diet as anything we've discussed so far, however, are all the vegetables we grow.  We frequently eat meals that consist primarily of vegetables, especially counting starches like sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes as vegetables. Perhaps we wouldn't eat quite so many vegetables if there weren't always extra vegetables that we were bringing home from the farmers' market, but there are other vegetables we enjoy so much that we'll only sell them after we're sure we have enough for ourselves. Homegrown hand-picked vegetables just offer so much great taste and variety of tastes, and there are very few vegetables that simply won't grow well in our location and without chemical inputs.  So we eat a lot of vegetables, often in very simple preparations: boiled butterbeans, whole roasted Asian eggplants, tomato sandwiches, lettuce salad, boiled "green" peanuts, etc.  We also eat a lot of stir-fries, simply chopping up whatever is in season and stir-frying it together.  We've joked that stir-fries are actually all we eat: either a standard stir-fry on top of millet or fried grits, or the topping for a pizza, or the filling for an omelette, etc.
   Fruit is more limited for us than vegetables (by what's locally and organically practical and by the fact that most fruits take years to reach bearing age whereas most vegetables only take a year to do everything they're ever going to do), but we still probably enjoy a greater variety of fruits than most people, some excellent quality fruits like figs or satsumas (a citrus fruit similar to clementines or tangerines) and other lesser fruits like azaroles (an edible hawthorn) or tiny wild-type strawberries.  We've eaten fresh regular (fuzzy) kiwis as late as March, and we often get our first strawberries in April, so we eat most of our fruit fresh, but we also freeze a lot of blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries to eat throughout the year, as well as persimmon pulp (mostly for puddings) and cantaloupe puree (mainly for ice cream -- if it doesn't sound really good, try it!)  We dry Asian pears and figs. Drying Asian pears doesn't have much preserving value for us, because dried Asian pears mostly get eaten before the fresh fruit would have gone bad, but most years we manage to dry a good number of figs, and they're our primary dried fruit, which we use in most things that might otherwise contain raisins: on salads, in oatmeal, and as a straight up snack.
   Roselle isn't a fruit -- it's technically a flower part -- but we use it as a cranberry substitute, which once cooked very closely resembles cranberry sauce.  Besides as a sauce to go with yogurt or desserts or meat/poultry, we make a lot of roselle tea.  We haven't found fruit juices very doable local-organically, although we occasionally find some cider to drink.  We've made mead (honey "wine") since before we ever started farming.  That's a simple if slow process.  We've grown barley and hops with aspirations of making beer but that whole process is pretty complicated, and we've been more motivated to pursue other things lately.  Of course, we don't grow coffee -- there are some non-caffeinated coffee substitutes we could make, but we were never much into regular coffee -- but we do grow true (Chinese type) tea, although that's another crop that we haven't yet really figured out how to use, particularly not the fermentation process of turning fresh tea leaves into black tea.
   We eat plenty of eggs, although our free range flock is pretty seasonal, so some seasons are full of omelettes and flan and whole wheat angel food cake (although that may be an oxymoron) and other seasons we ration our egg consumption tightly.
   Beef and veal (by which we simply mean beef butchered while it's still drinking milk and hardly eating any grass yet) are our main sources of meat besides game, especially deer meat, but also the occasional rabbit or wild turkey.  We eat much less chicken than most Americans nowadays.  We don't eat a lot of pork but we put a little bit of cured pork or fatback in a lot of things.  After hesitating for too long, we finally realized we love young goat meat, which is tender and very mild flavored, but our young dairy breed goats aren't very big (especially at the age we'd otherwise wean them, which makes for a good time to butcher them), so a young goat typically only makes one main meal plus leftovers for a little while.  We'd like to increase the size of our goat herd, but parasitic worms make higher stocking densities challenging in organic systems in our climate.
   We eat a variety of dry field peas (most of the same peas we harvest as fresh shelling peas except left to dry on the plant) as well as October beans, pinto beans, and black beans.  We tried chickpeas a time or two without any success.  Besides the field peas, October beans are perhaps our most productive dry bean, and we really like them, so we grow more of them than other types.  There's a lot of work to harvesting and shelling dry beans, besides all the work of growing them, so they're not something we eat multiple times per week, but we do enjoy them somewhat regularly.
  This isn't a diet we sought out; it's what following local-organic ways of farming led us to.  In a lot of ways it's very similar to the way people in this region would have eaten three or four generations ago.  A goal next year is to produce some local-organic soy sauce to add to our diet, especially for deer jerky.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why the CSA model?

     Whether you're a member of our CSA already or whether you don't even know what a CSA is -- you can find the answer to that question here -- we'd like you to consider today some of the most important reasons we value the CSA model.  We hope to increase the value you place on partnering with a particular farm that you can get to know and trust such that the way you eat is defined primarily by what comes from that kind of farming.  Getting to know people that you can trust that work the land to produce the things you need is at the heart of what we think a CSA ought to be all about.
     The opposite of getting food produced by people you know and trust would normally be the kind of food sold in supermarkets. Whether you actually buy it at the supermarket or elsewhere, this is pretty much complete mystery agriculture. You might sometimes have some information about the country of origin, and in those instances you could find out what laws and regulations farmers were supposed to comply with in that country, but even then you're only dealing with extremely limited minimum standards.  And since there are so many details you don't know about, and since the farmers really have no means of communicating any of those differentiating details to you, the law of competition pretty much guarantees that all those details will be decided on cost, i.e. the cheapest way to produce that item will prevail.  Of course, cheap is a good thing, but there are lots of things that get sacrificed for cheapness, and the supermarket model is pretty helpless to let farmers or consumers make choices about what's worth sacrificing and what isn't.  For the sake of cheapness chemical fertilizers are produced from non-renewable sources (mining, fracking, etc.), displacing organic wastes that are now concentrated to the point of pollution in waterways and elsewhere.  For the sake of cheapness most of the farm work in our country is structured into jobs that we would never consider fit for any of our own children but only for an immigrant underclass.  (Only 18% of farm workers speak English as their first language.)  For the sake of cheapness highly erodible soils that ought to be protected by permanent stands of trees and grass are bulldozed and plowed to produce cheap (in the very short term) annual crops.  For the sake of cheapness, fruits are picked under-ripe thousand of miles away.  For the sake of cheapness pesticides are sprayed on crops that correlate with behavioral and mental disorders in children, contaminate drinking water sources, correlate with higher incidents of cancer, etc.  And on top of that, those same pesticides sprayed on one crop destroy honeybee and native pollinator populations, increasing the cost of producing many other crops.  (Cheapness often isn't really cheap even in the short run.)
     Whole books could be filled and many have detailing these sorts of agricultural issues, but our point here isn't that any of these issues ought to be decided one way or another.  Our point is merely that there are questions worth considering, and the cheapest answer certainly isn't automatically and always the best.  Any good system of food/farming/land use (i.e. agriculture) inevitably entails lots of important and complex questions, and the supermarket system basically decides all these questions strictly on cheapness.  Even if a farmer fully recognizes a better way to farm and even if consumers have sufficient agricultural knowledge to be aware of and understand the issues and want to pay for something that would cost even just a penny more per pound, the supermarket model leaves both farmers and consumers pretty much powerless to unite and make those choices.  When farmers' profit margins are only pennies or fractions of a penny per pound -- we've read that only about 10% of the average food dollar goes to farmers -- farmers selling to the kind of markets that serve supermarkets can't stay in business doing things that add even a penny to the cost of their product.  And most farmers have gotten used to and now take for granted that cheapness is the name of the game.  At the other end, consumers are generally far too far removed from agriculture to understand or even hear about most of the decisions that define our agriculture, so, of course, they're powerless to support things they're not aware of or don't really understand.  And even if they had the awareness and understanding, there's no way to support a farmer doing something one way when his product is pooled together with all the farmers doing it the other way.  And the systems of transporting and processing and packaging and distributing are so extensive and complex that keeping any kind of differentiated product separate is almost always cost prohibitive.  In other words, even if it would cost very little for a farmer to make a change on the farm, the cost of keeping that product separate all the way from the farmer through all the middlemen to the consumer is almost always enormous, so any product differentiation (i.e. real consumer choice in farming decisions) is mostly just superficial fluff added on the retail end to mislead consumers (for example, different brand names added to products that are all coming off the same processing line.)
    And these decisions compound over time.  Traditional foods are forgotten over time.  Industrial substitutes become the new normal. Our tastes and preferences are shaped by supermarket shopping habits together with corporate advertizing.  And the real richness and quality and integrity of our food supply declines all the while. While we pretend that we're in control as the consumers, buying what we want when we want it, in reality our tastes and preferences grow out of that system, being shaped by that system: we learn to want what the supermarket system wants to feed us.
    We hope you can see how everything we've just described operates as a system.  And if it's all not a path you're too sure you want to follow, then the question is if and how you can get out of the conundrum.  One idea might be to turn to the organic label.  We've written more about the organic label before, but we'll just make some brief points here.  We definitely think the organic label is preferable to the conventional supermarket system, but we see some severe limitations.  First of all, there wouldn't be an organic label at all if it hadn't been for homegrown resistance to the supermarket model, which is how organic agriculture as a distinct alternative came about.  Having begun as a defense of homegrown ways and a revolt against the industrial model, can the organic movement now abandon its homegrown ways and trust the supermarket model to be properly constrained by a set of rules?  And will the supermarket model of organic not modify and adapt those rules over time to conform (further and worse) to the logic of industrial style agriculture?  If homegrown ways of agriculture exposed the need for a distinct alternative to the supermarket model in the first place, will homegrown ways not also be essential to keeping the organic movement honest?  And even if the organic rules system operated perfectly, it would still only be a narrowly limited, legalistic system.  Organic rules say little or nothing about a majority of the things we question sacrificing for the sake of cheapness (as in the paragraph above.)
    So if the organic label isn't worth much apart from the homegrown style of agriculture from which it came, what about farmers at local farmers' markets?  If those farmers are also committed to providing a real alternative to the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals of the supermarket model (which is to say they're practicing the basics of what organic ought to mean), then we think we're starting to talk about significant progress.  But we see major limitations in the farmers' market model, too.
    On the one side, bureaucrats and lawyers and insurance companies and tax officials, etc., etc. are poised to make selling at farmers' markets too complicated, burdensome, obnoxious, and costly (particularly in terms of both civil and criminal liabilities) for most of the farmers selling at local markets now.  The changes that are happening don't bode well for the farmers' market model.  Where these pressures aren't squeezing farmers out of the market altogether, they're effectively squeezing them out of local, organic practice, because the farmers are forced to specialize and scale up in ways that practically necessitate non-organic inputs.  For example, of all the animal products sold at all the farmers' markets in the whole state, except for all-grass-fed beef -- that leaves all the cheese and dairy, all the eggs, all the poultry, and all the other meats sold at farmers' markets -- we're not aware of any that aren't fed commodity (supermarket style) grain.  Many of these same farmers believe in organic principles enough not to use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, GMO seed, etc. on their own farms, but their markets force them to specialize and scale up such that they have to depend on outsourcing the growing of feed to farms that represent very different styles of farming from their own.  The result, as with other types of food, is that markets fall well short of local, organic potential.
    On the other side, relationships between farmers' market customers and farmers aren't deep enough for customers to recognize, value, and support the practices they would choose if they were producing their own food for themselves.  Customers lives are busy and full of enough distractions that it takes a concerted effort just to connect with one farm deeply enough to let it begin to affect their supermarket-bred food ways.  Spreading those relationships thin by dealing a little bit with one vendor and a little bit with another is a recipe for defaulting to supermarket habits and expectations, largely forcing farmers at farmers' markets to follow them into supermarket style farming.  Significant change from the supermarket model will depend on both customers and farmers together changing their food and farming ways.
    And that brings us back to the CSA model.  The basic idea of our CSA is that it would enable us to farm more like we would if we were growing simply for ourselves instead of conforming our farm to broader market demand (together with all the chemicals and other industrial inputs and shortcuts that make it possible to compete in that market), and on the customer side, our CSA enables our CSA members to be able to eat food more like they would if they were growing for themselves instead of limiting their diets to the kind of food and farming that can compete in the global marketplace.  The CSA concept means we try to grow as many different things as we can for our CSA members and they try to eat as many different things from our farm as they can.  The idea is that we sell first to them, and they buy first from us.  That frees us from catering to less informed customers and allows us to farm in the way we believe best, and it enables those that share our beliefs to obtain and to eat food grown in ways that largely wouldn't be available otherwise.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Putting up the harvest

Pulping the persimmons

Just one more step to persimmon pudding!

Processing roselle for drying or sauce

What to do with an abundance of eggplant?  Peel, slice, and roast with salt and garlic.  Freeze.  Use in casseroles or on pizza.

We're having a great pumpkin year.  For the ones that don't seem to be keeping we've been canning the pulp.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Homegrown snacking

Boiled peanuts