Wednesday, June 10, 2015

In the CSA box this week


Nothing beats a pile of beets!


A cup of tea

   We enjoy a lot of tea here, hot in the winter and cold in the summer.  A half-gallon jar full usually waits for the thirsty on the counter.  Sometimes it's the bright red of roselle (hibiscus) and other times it's the faint green of mint, both lightly sweetened with honey.  For no particular reason, we mostly pair lemongrass with stevia.  And we were excited to add tulsi basil to the mix last year with its licorice-like flavor.  New in the garden this year are anise hyssop, catnip, chamomile, lemon basil, and bergamont.  We are looking for good flavors in tea and these all come recommended.  Our basic method for herbal teas is to harvest a handful of the herbs we want (sometimes a mix), bring the water to a boil and let it sit for just a couple minutes, and then pour the water over the contents in a bowl.  We give it about 5 minutes to steep then pour the liquid through a fine sieve into a half-gallon jar (using a canning jar funnel), then sweeten with honey (if we didn't already use stevia). All of these teas we also dry so we use the same method, just taking out a comparable amount of the dried herbs.  We've mostly been content with teas we could grow, but Melissa still had cravings for black tea.  Maybe it's the cream and honey that pair so well with black tea or maybe it's the caffeine!  In any case, years ago we planted a 4 inch tall Camellia sinensis (Chinese tea), the camellia from which regular black and green tea are made.  C. sinensis, although it sizes up slowly like other camellias, does fine here. It's hardy enough to take the winters and has no pest trouble that we know of.  It's evergreen with small leaves and pretty but not showy white flowers.  Regular harvesting actually helps promote a compact bushy habit.  Our bush has now reached 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide and we were overdue to actually put it to use.  We're a bit hesitant to share our process because we're still very much experimenting.  If you have any personal experience processing C. sinensis from fresh leaves, we'd love to hear from you.  The basic process we followed for regular black tea was to harvest new growth, the youngest two or three leaves.  Then we laid the leaves out to simply wilt for a day.  This helps the leaves become more pliable for the next step of rolling/crushing them.  By doing this, the now bruised leaves begin to darken, somewhat like bruised basil.  We left the leaves out on a tray for another day and then finally put them in the dehydrator to completely dry out.  And the result for us: a light brown liquid with the characteristic bitterness of black tea and for someone who rarely consumes caffiene, a bit of a caffiene jolt!  It was delicious, especially with cream and honey. We're planting more Chinese tea as well as herbal teas and hope to soon be able to help you more regularly enjoy a good cup of local Chinese tea.  In the meantime, be sure to try the tulsi and roselle this year if you haven't already, and, of course, enjoy the mint, too.

Forcing mushooms

  



They call it 'forcing' mushrooms, but this sounds a bit strong. Coaxing, tricking, encouraging, giving opportunity ... these seem more appropriate to explain what we've been doing to our mushroom logs lately.  Normally, good soaking spring rains stimulate shitake logs to fruit and within a week of one of these rains all of our logs will be covered in mushroom buttons that soon expand to lovely brown mushroom umbrellas.  As you may have noticed, though, rains like those have been in short supply this month.  So how are we offering mushrooms for sale?  Here in comes the practice of getting mushroom logs to 'fruit' when the weather itself doesn't initiate fruit set.  Fortunately, it's pretty straight forward to imitate a good rain when it comes to shitake mushrooms.  A simple soak in a water bath for 24 hours can start them on the path to mushrooming. We've tried limited experiments of this in the past but as this spring has come at us hot and dry with no mushrooms, we decided we didn't want to watch a season of unproductive logs.  Shitake logs will last about 5 years, degrading with time whether they've fruited or not.  So we put an old broken chest freezer to use as the water bath and started somewhat daily soakings.  It's not the perfect set-up.  For one, it only holds a half dozen logs at a time at best, limiting the quantities to small pickings.  Many of the logs are too long, which means only half fit in the water and so only that half ultimately mushrooms.  Some of the logs are old enough they've lost most of their weight and therefore float, requiring that we gingerly weight them down to keep them submerged.  And some of them are old enough that the bark is brittle and knocks off easily in the communal bath.  This may indeed shorten their remaining life. Despite the extra effort, it's been with great excitement that we're harvesting a regular supply of mushrooms.  The definition of forcing is to make someone do something against his will.  In this case, the mushroom logs are likely not opposed to mushrooming, they're just needing a little help until the rain returns.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

FARM UPDATE

  

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