Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Growing Under Glass

These cold frames are full of little onion plants which will be planted into the gardens in mid-March for bulb onions. We'll then plant sweet potatoes into the cold frames to grow our sweet potato plants

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cover Crops

A cover crop is a crop not grown for the sake of harvesting but rather to benefit subsequent crops. Because we don't use any synthetic fertilizers cover crops are especially important to us for the role they play in "fixing" atmospheric nitrogen and retaining and recycling nutrients from previous crops. Of course one of the most important functions of any cover crop is to keep the soil covered, therefore protecting the soil from erosion. For summer cover crops this year we planted sunflowers, cowpeas, and buckwheat. We really enjoyed the sight of all the cheery sunflowers, and the bees sucked up their nectar along with that of the buckwheat blossoms. Currently we're planting crimson clover -- another pretty flowering cover crop -- and small grains (barley, oats, and rye). Crimson clover, like cowpeas, is a legume and a nitrogen fixer so it is an important cover crop to precede nitrogen-hungry crops like corn. Small grains, in contrast, are great in terms of the amount of organic matter they add to the soil and their general improvement of soil tilth. Small grains also offer succulent winter grazing for our milk cows to enjoy. A neat concept we're still trying to work out is the use of oats as a winter-kill cover crop. Potentially oats can yield much of the value of any small grain in the fall and early winter before dying back to a straw like mulch on the soil surface. This offers the possibility of planting directly into the dead cover crop without tilling first. If this doesn't work as planned, we may harvest some oats next spring.


That's a grandiose question, but implicit in the big question is whether farms like ours are frivolously inefficient or whether they're a model worth supporting because of their better care of people, communities, and ecosystems.
Certainly big, industrialized farms free up/displace lots of workers. Lots of small, family farms would require lots of farmers and that means fewer people doing other jobs. A shift to small family farms might come about in part by farmers replacing workers in pesticide manufacturing plants or global food transport workers or food marketing specialists, but that would only be a part of the shift; small farms can really only become mainstream in America to the extent that mainstream Americans become farmers again.
But what if the workers were willing and able? How much food could such farms even produce? To try to answer that question, we must confront the reality of synthetic fertilizers. In the case of garden crops, which take up very little land, there are reasonable alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, particularly in the presence of all the organic waste materials that our current economy generates. On the other hand, the yields of the crops that take up a lot of land -- the crops that ultimately really feed the world -- depend much more heavily on synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers allow for supplying practically unlimited nutrients to crops, at least so long as the fossil fuels and other mined nutrient sources required to synthesize the fertilizers -- fertilizers are a major part of our entire fossil fuel consumption -- are plentiful. Growing crops organically means the only nutrients available to the crop are what can be recycled (through manures, kitchen scraps, animal bones, mulches, etc.) When it comes to the crops that produce the calories that feed people, crops like corn and wheat and oats and forages for livestock, synthetic fertilizers make a huge difference, perhaps doubling potential yields per acre or even more.
Does that mean small, organic, family farms could only produce half the food as big, industrialized farms (and would be at least twice as expensive)? Some of big ag's proponents might suggest that, but that ignores the great efficiency with which small, diversified farms can make use of land, land that is too sloping, too varied, or divided into plots too small to suit big machines and extensive management. Even vacant lots in large cities have proven fertile ground for small, organic farms and gardens. Our own farm was long ago abandoned by mainstream agriculture as too marginal; yet to us it offers overwhelming potential production. The biggest difference may be that small farms are so much more flexible in terms of how they can convert sunlight into food. For example, instead of growing (and devoting land solely to) genetically modified, herbicide-resistant soybeans for chicken feed, free range chickens on small farms can scavenge 100% of the worms and grubs they need for protein, along with much of their energy needs, all from land devoted primarily to other uses. Hogs, similarly, are wonderful at utilizing what would otherwise be waste: crop residues from the field, acorns and beechnuts from forests, leftover whey from cheesemaking, etc. The dairy goats we bought this spring, as another example, have thrived all year on nothing but unwanted weeds in fencerows and along the edge of the garden. In contrast, industrialized agriculture devotes a majority of America's most productive cropland strictly to growing animal feed. How uneconomical!
Even if a predominantly industrialized agriculture can currently more or less feed the world, one must ask whether current practices can be sustained. What will industrialized agriculture do without cheap and abundant fossil fuels for its machines and for synthesizing its fertilizers? What will industrialized agriculture do when the weeds and insects and disease organisms develop resistance to the current array of synthetic poisons? Of course, the only answer is blind faith in the prospect of newer and higher-tech poisons and machines, meanwhile assuming that the pollution and side effects of yesterdays poisons will prove negligible. As for us, we maintain hope in a different kind of agriculture, a culture of small, organic, family farms.

The Value of Small

We've been harvesting peanuts lately, digging the vines and then hand-picking the nuts off. We gained a little efficiency by cajoling Eric's parents into helping while they were visiting last week, but what took us several man-hours would be accomplished in a matter of seconds by a conventional farmer. Of course, the conventional farmer has to finance hundreds of thousands of dollars of special machinery, along with paying for fuel, whereas all we have invested in harvesting is labor, but more than enough cost advantage remains to have all but eliminated small-scale peanut growers. So why do we hand-harvest peanuts, hand-milk a cow, or hand-pick feed corn? What's wrong with labor-saving machinery? In theory, there's very little wrong with labor-saving machinery, and we use plenty of machines on our farm: a honey extractor, a grist mill, an old tractor, an electric butter churn, etc. -- but where machines have displaced small family farms tremendous harm has been done. We could stand up for the small family farm on many, many fronts, but where we want to focus our attention now is the question of consumer choice. How many other changes have accompanied the shift from diverse family farms to industrial-scale monoculture? If the connection between people and the source of their food hadn't been severed by labor-saving machinery, if communities had retained direct control of how their food was grown, would you have chosen to give artificial hormones to milk cows for a marginal production boost? Would you have chosen genetically engineered corn? Would you have chosen high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener? Would you have chosen to feed chicken litter to your cows? Would you have chosen the fruits and vegetables with the better shipping quality over the ones with better flavor? Would you have chosen to offer the kind of employment fit only for an immigrant underclass? Would you have chosen routine antibiotics for your livestock? Would you have chosen Chinese concentrate for your apple juice? Whether or not you object to these choices that the system made no longer matters, because you're not given any choice. And that's one very big reason to value small, locally controlled farms.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The larder

Watermelon feasting

What's happening on the farm these days

Though the cool weather of the past few days probably isn't here to stay, it reminded us that the seasons are starting to change. As the days get shorter, we've been enjoying the longer evenings, and probably sleeping in too long in the morning! This week we just wanted to give you a glimpse of what is happening at the farm these days.
Our chicken flock is nearly to 100 birds now, many of which are hens and will hopefully lay well come next spring. It is a fun morning chore to let the chickens out, watching them scatter to find some early treats. The mothers and their chicks follow. We have two hens that recently hatched some chicks and there are about four more hens sitting. We continue to have loses due to hawks so these broody hens will hopefully help us keep our numbers up.
The bees have been in survival mode since the summer honey crop never happened. We've lost a few weak hives. The fall wildflowers are just starting to bloom (golden rod and aster) so this should hopefully help them start building up some winter stores. We'll also soon start to collect fall pollen, some of the best tasting we've found. We also will soon start testing all of the hives for mite levels in the hives. We do this by putting a board covered with sticky grease under the hive, leaving it 48 hours and counting the number of mites that have fallen out. This then tells us which hives are in need of mite-reducing manipulations and which should be fine as is.
Our small herd of goats continues to clean up the fence lines and the pastures. This past week, we've also added a new milk goat and a new milk cow to our animal collection. Both are starting to get used to the routine here. Our other cow, Elsea, is due to calf right around Christmas.
Before the rain came, we spent a day watering all of our new perennial plantings. We've lost a few of the blueberries bushes, but most of the plants are growing great.
And the garden is still producing well, so we've been busy preserving much of the harvest, canning tomatoes and freezing okra, peppers, and summer peas. Much of the fall garden is now planted and we're looking forward to those crops as well.
We always love visitors so come out and see for yourself. We'll even put you to work if you'd like!

Summer harvest salad

We've found a delicious way to enjoy many of the summer crops together in this refreshing salad. Just toss some summer peas with a colorful assortment of vegetables, sprinkle with a vinaigrette and enjoy!

2 cups shelled and cooked fresh pink-eye peas (or other green summer field peas)
1 or 2 ripe bell peppers, chopped (optional)
1-1/2 cups cooked sweet corn cut from cob (optional)
4 large, meaty tomatoes, chopped
4 medium onions, chopped
2 stems basil, cut into strips

4 tablespoons vinegar, balsamic or other
approximately 3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil

Organic fruit

Since our move to Iredell County last fall we've been taking advantage of our expanded acreage to begin planting all sorts of fruit trees and vines and bushes and brambles and nut trees, too. Of course, most of these things take a number of years to begin bearing, so we haven't had any new fruit on our farmers' market stand yet, but we're wanting to slowly move in that direction. While there are presently a few other organic farmers around offering a variety of vegetables, organic fruit is a lot sparser yet. We've been able to find blueberries and muscadine grapes locally that are fairly organic, but that's about it in terms of what we've found commercially available. We've grown a small amount of strawberries and raspberries, and we've enjoyed wild-harvested blackberries and persimmons, but that still very much leaves us wanting. Conventionally, peaches, apples, pears, plums, and cherries would round out the array of local fruit, but we haven't found any halfway organic growers of these crops. So what's the local solution to organic fruit? We suspect the best answer lies largely in finding crops that don't, when grown in our part of the world, depend as much on synthetic insecticides/fungicides/etc. Friends' backyards offer some promising possibilities like mulberries, figs, and sour cherries. And although we've never eaten a locally grown pawpaw, Asian pear, or jujube, these fruits have also been recommended to us for organic management. Of course, we really like eating all the conventional fruit crops, but we also recognize that our conventional fruit eating habits are grown out of a dependence on pesticides. Following a desire for organic production will inevitably lead to changes in consumption, and we think, in terms of taste and variety, there's a lot more to be won than lost. We're eager to enjoy all sorts of new tastes that mass production and mass marketing haven't befriended. That's not to say we've given up hope in the conventional crops. We've planted a couple apple varieties, 'Liberty' and 'Enterprise,' that are supposed to be substantially more disease-resistant than the mass-market standards. Some delicious, local, heirloom varieties, like Limbertwig and Magnum Bonum, may similarly fit better in an organic system. So we're trying lots of things, getting all the rootings and seedlings we can from friends and neighbors, and reading all we can find on organic fruit production. We've planted enough of some of the more promising organic fruit crops, like blueberries, Asian pears, pawpaws, and figs, to hopefully be able to offer to you, our customers, soon. Meanwhile we're experimenting with more things than we've even mentioned here with hopes of finding many crops suitable enough to organic management to expand and offer for sale later.

Soil nutrients and fertilizers

A couple months ago when strawberries were still in season we drove by a popular conventional strawberry farm and were struck by how thickly the strawberry plants had been planted. There must have been fully ten times as many plants per acre as in our strawberry patch. Sometimes we forget how radically different it can be to farm with synthetic fertilizers and intensive irrigation. Unlike our plants, the strawberries at that conventional farm didn't have to rely on the fertility of the soil; all the macro-nutrients (e.g. N-nitrogen, P-phosphorus, and K-potassium) could instead be synthesized from fossil fuels and other mined materials and fed to the plants through irrigation lines, limited only by the depth of the farmer's pocketbook and the depth of the mines. The organic ideal, in contrast -- not to be confused with "USDA organic" as legalistically defined to suit big business -- requires that nutrients be continuously recycled through natural processes like excrement, shedding, death, and decay. On the surface those processes may not sound like things we want to associate with our food production. Poop and dead animal parts are things we in our "developed" consumer society pay big business to make disappear for us; they're certainly not treasured nutrient sources. And so we've cut ourselves off from any knowledge of or responsibility for the nutrient essentials of organic agriculture. Meanwhile one of the costs of maintaining the consumer's illusion of disconnectedness from these natural processes is that animals have been concentrated in extremely unhealthy ways. All sorts of pollution to soils, water, and air have resulted. What, then, is the alternative? How can nutrients be recycled organically? There are some first order nutrients that nature can recycle apart from human transfer of materials to the farm: water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and atmospheric nitrogen. Bacteria that live in the root systems of leguminous plants can, for instance, convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms of nitrogen useable by plants. All these natural processes work within limits, of course. Most of the plant-necessary nutrients aren't in the air, though, and so nature on her own has very little means of recycling those other nutrients when farmers sell those nutrients and they leave the farm in the form of produce or eggs or meat. One of the macro-nutrients that's especially of concern to our circumstances on this farm is phosphorus. Everything we sell out of the garden or from our chickens or livestock contains phosphorus, for example, and when we sell those things we're parting with the phosphorus they contain (along with all sorts of other nutrients). We could go on for a while without replenishing those nutrient losses, but the fertility and productivity of our soils would all the while decrease. Therefore we try to bring as much organic matter back to the farm as possible. Plant matter like hay mulch, for example, has wonderful attributes, but plant matter is relatively low in nutrients like phosphorus. Manure contains very roughly ten times the phosphorus of vegetable matter, and animal parts, particularly bones, contain something like a hundred times the concentration as plant matter. Of course, manure from our own animals is a wonderful organic fertilizer, but whatever manure we use in the garden must first be robbed from the pasture, and so as much as we're selling things off the farm we need to be bringing nutrient-rich materials back to the farm in order to maintain the fertility of our soils organically.

Substituting honey

We feel a lot better about eating honey than granulated sugar. We believe that foods that are less processed and more homegrown are generally a lot healthier than their conventional counterparts (not just healthier for us directly, but healthier for communities and ecosystems, too). Perhaps you share our inclinations, and so the question we want to address here is: how does a person go about substituting honey for sugar, i.e. using less sugar and more honey? Some of the answers are as simple as realizing where the sugar (or corn syrup) in your diet is.
Honey is great for sweetening hot and cold drinks. In the summertime we like to keep a gallon of honey-sweetened peppermint tea in the fridge. Honey can, of course, be used to sweeten any kind of tea as well as lemonade or homemade grape juice. Honey is especially nice for mixing in cold drinks like lemonade, because honey's already fully liquid, so you don't get the granular mouth feel of sugar added to cold lemonade. It's easier to mix the honey in if the liquid isn't fully chilled, but when we make tea we do like to let the tea cool down a little before mixing the honey in so as to better preserve the floral aromas of the honey.
One of the honey substitutions that most consistently impresses guests at our table is our standard salad dressing. We'll fill a quart jar about a quarter full with olive oil (that's 1 cup), then add half as much honey and cider vinegar (or 1/2 measuring cup of each). Then we add about a teaspoon each of salt and ground mustard, plus a little black pepper, and shake it all up. That's our standard recipe, but try substituting honey for any of your own dressing recipes or marinades.
Where our family probably consumes the greatest amount of honey, though, is as a substitute for store-bought breakfast cereals. One of our favorite breakfasts -- and it's quick and easy -- is a bowl of "quick" oats ("quick" oats are cut more finely, so they're less chewy and pasty than uncooked regular rolled oats) with cold milk or yogurt, sweetened with honey, and enhanced with whatever fruit (fresh or dried) or nuts are handy. Even simpler and a common snack for the kids or for us is a bowl of plain yogurt sweetened with tulip-poplar honey. (Plain yogurt, by the way, is cheap and easy to make, if you're so inclined.)
Another easy way to use honey in place of sugar is in canned goods, especially canned fruit. When making syrup to can peaches or pears, for example, we use honey in place of all the sugar. We also use a little honey in our pickled beets and sometimes in applesauce, if we want to sweeten it any further.
Honey has more concentrated sweetness than granulated sugar, so a little more than 3/4 cup of honey (about 10 ounces by weight) will sweeten a recipe as much as a full cup of sugar. If you have a good kitchen scale, it may be easier to pour out a given weight of honey instead of trying to measure out the honey by volume -- it can go straight from the jar to the mixing bowl without anything to stick to in between. Just put your mixing bowl straight on the scale, tare out the scale if that's easy, and pour the honey straight in until you reach the right number of ounces.  One cup of honey will weigh very nearly 12 ounces.
Baked goods can be a slightly trickier category for substitutions because more chemistry is at play than just sweetening effect. With a lot of baked goods recipes we'll substitute just a third or half of the sugar with honey. Flan (a simple custardy dessert) is greatly enhanced by the flavor of honey when substituted for the sugar.
And, last but certainly not least, honey makes for delicious homemade ice cream! We like to use about a half pound of honey (7-1/2 ounces by weight, to be exact) for every quart of liquid (milk/cream/pureed fruit).

Arsenic in chicken production

The above article discusses an arsenic-based additive used in the diet of 70% of all the chickens raised for meat in the U.S. It seems like such an obviously bad idea. Why would anyone expose people and the land to the risks discussed in this article? It seems like the profit incentive for the producers isn't even especially great. What we find telling about this story isn't anything particular about arsenic. What we find telling is what the story says about how the conventional food production-marketing-and-consumption system works. We've had enough exposure to conventional beekeeping to know that the same kind of -- from our perspective -- foolishly shortsighted and irresponsible chemical and pharmaceutical use is common in beekeeping. Clearly, comparable practices are at play all across the spectrum of our mainstream agricultural system, a system which, unfortunately, encompasses the modern "USDA organic" movement. The fundamental problem as we see it is a soulless, dollar-driven production system too far detached from the community to be accountable to down-home common sense. Consider, for instance, did you know before today that arsenic-based additives were used in the diets of most meat birds raised in the U.S.? It was news to us, but shockingly to be expected. If you, like we do, find that practice unambiguously wrong-headed, is there any other conclusion than to say that the whole faceless, industrial food system is inherently untrustworthy? Will you join us in rebuilding all across our county and region a fundamentally different and adversarial system of agriculture?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Food Safety

[We wrote the following 2 years ago. The same story is currently repeating itself with a different food (tomatoes) and a different bacterium (salmonella).]
You’ve all heard about the spinach contaminated with e. coli by now, right? Several days later the FDA is still advising that no one eat any spinach anywhere in America, because they haven’t been able to identify the source of the problem yet. One of the suspected culprits was apparently a processing plant for “certified organic” spinach. This particular plant apparently processes 63,000 servings of spinach each day from 150 farms. Somehow, somewhere, at this processing plant or maybe somewhere else, a whole lot of spinach came in contact with fecal contamination from some person or some animal. One person is dead and over a hundred are ill from Minnesota to Arizona to Oregon. So what is safe food? Is there something wrong with the system that produced this spinach?
One approach to food safety is to illegalize fresh food, like America has done with milk or apple cider or cured meats. We could mandate that all food be sterilized in industrial pressure cookers. No more fresh spinach. If food contained fecal matter, it would be sterilized fecal matter. If vitamins or other nutrients were destroyed, we could try to figure out what pills to give people in their place.
A compatible approach would be to increase regulation and inspection, like we’ve done with butchers, dairies, wineries, and other value-added operations. The trouble with that approach is that it puts small producers and processors out of business (which tend to be the highest quality producers.) The more special equipment and facilities and inspectors we require, the bigger the operation needs to be to justify their cost. And so we wind up with huge, untraceable problems like with the spinach, not to mention the bland uniformity of the food, the death of local farming communities achieved by putting farmers out of business, substituting menial jobs that only illegal immigrants will take, reliance on drugs and chemicals, soil erosion, the pollution of waterways, etc.
So what do we think is the best answer to safe food? We think the answer is smaller rather than bigger. We think the answer is closer to home and more visible rather than far away and out of sight We think the answer is involvement rather than pure consumerism. We think the answer is farmers that share their own surpluses with their neighbors rather than low-wage immigrant laborers in massive processing plants. We think the answer is more care and better stewardship rather than sterilization and irradiation.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Growing garden

A place for children

While working on a farm project the other day, Eric commented, "Do you think we're too wrapped up in our career to have time for the kids?" Especially this time of year, when there is everything to do on the farm, it seems there's not even time to read a book to Nora and Paul. But in truth, the kids are never far from us, many times enjoying our "workplace." That day, in fact, Nora had led Paul into the strawberry patch and was picking "all the way red" berries for him to eat.
We've been amazed to see how much Nora, now three, is capable of and how much she really understands about the farm. She helps water the newly planted fruit trees, plant seeds, gather eggs, and she'll milk herself a cup of milk while we milk out the other quarters. She peeks in the incubator to see if the chicks have hatched. When it's time to squish potato bugs she knows which bugs are the good ones and which are the bad ones. And she knows we should share the harvest with the people at the market, because we're growing too much to eat ourselves.
We mention all this to say that we believe a farm that has a place for children is the kind of farm that benefits more than just children. When we advertise that we sell "good, honest, low-tech food," we're saying much the same thing. Children can help crush potato bugs with their fingers, but you wouldn't give children sophisticated insecticides to dust on the plants. Of course, there are plenty of tasks on any farm that aren't for children, but keeping a place for children on the farm -- like maintaining a connection between people and the source of their food -- is an important part of a healthy, balanced farm.

Stacking up - the spring honey flow

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sampling Honey

With the warm dry days, the bees have been busy gathering nectar and we've been busy adding more honey supers to keep up with their harvest. Our little samplers said one thing about the honey - "more please."

Organic brush control: our goats

Last fall after our offer to buy our current farm was accepted but before we had even moved we took our first step into mammalian husbandry with a young dairy-type goat. We named her Ronda after our community in Wilkes County, and we tethered her at the back of the garden where she cleaned up the privet, greenbriers, multiflora rose, and brambles. This spring we purchased three more just-weaned female goats -- which we aspiringly named after traditional goat's milk specialty cheeses: Bucheron, Garrotxa, and Majorero -- and a young billy to breed them all early next year. We're really just toying with the idea of milking them for maybe just a month and using the milk to make enough cheese to last us through the year -- we have a cow now to supply us with our regular milk -- but our leading purpose in buying goats was for clearing and cleaning up hard to control areas: poison ivy around buildings and in fence lines, brambles growing in ditches, and wilderness just generally encroaching from the edges and trying to swallow our whole farm. Of course, most other farmers don't find themselves in need of goats, but most other farmers freely use chemical herbicides. We wanted a more elegant and organic solution. If you had been watching the inefficiency of our efforts to move and contain our goats these last months "elegance" is probably not the word that would come to mind, but we're learning what doesn't work and the whole process is leading us to solutions and ideas that we never would have found otherwise. Meanwhile, the goats have really shown their potential in clearing various perimeters of unwanted and -- apart from goats -- unprofitable vegetation. What wonderful alchemy, turning poison ivy and thorny brambles into cheese and tender, young goat meat!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mother Hen

It is a sure sign of spring when the chicks arrive - either hatched from our incubator or sent to us in the mail from a mail-order poultry catalog. This year though we were thrilled to have some of our chicks arrive the natural way. One of our hens sat on 10 eggs for 21 days and 7 of them hatched a few days ago. She has since been taking them for walks in the farm yard teaching them how to scratch and search for worms and bugs. Though they wander some, mother hen's protective wings are never far away.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Farm Family

Taking a break from the week of spring planting - potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce, asparagus, radishes, and kale. All this followed by a nice rain.
Here the kids are playing on a sod pile we made to clear room to put in the asparagus patch.
Our newest farm addition is Scout, a lab/hound puppy, who hopefully will be a good scout to keep the deer out of the gardens.

Great Garlic

This is a picture of part of the 'house garden,' one of 4 garden plots on the property so far. Here is our garlic crop, planted last fall about a week after we moved here! It will be ready to pull mid-June. Mulching is nearly essential because weeds even grow through the winter. With hay in such short supply this winter for area cattle, we felt bad using it as mulch. Also in the picture are our onion cold frames. We plant onion seed in them in October then they grow all winter and are nice sized plants, ready to plant out mid-March. We're putting out about 4000 onions this year. Probably 1/4 of those will be for us!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Free chickens

Our flock of free range chickens have really taken to being free. Here they are sunning themselves on the steps of one of our buildings. At our previous farm, we kept the chickens in an electrified net fence to keep them from wandering into the neighbors yards. Here, we only have to fence them out of our own gardens. This means they wander everywhere else on the farm looking for delicious morsels - even my back porch! It has been fun to see how our animals get along. You can see the cat at the top of the steps hanging out, too. The dog, Red, an Australian Shepherd, would rather herd the flock of chickens back to the barn and away from his bones.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ida - our Ford Redbelly

Our first purchase after finding this farm was to buy a tractor, a Ford 8N Redbelly. We've put her to work pulling down trees, plowing, and discing so far. Here is Eric and Ida plowing some of the pasture up for garden space.

New Calf

We've added a Jersey calf to our assortment of animals. He is a great help, stripping out the last of Elsea's milk at the end of each milking. Elsea took to him right away as if he were her own.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Elsea our cow

Where does milk come from? Nora knows first hand after milking herself a glass the other night from our new Jersey cow Elsea. Her name from her previous owners was Sea so we lengthened it to Elsea. She was once a 4-H show cow so is very sweet, leads well, and gives wonderful creamy milk. We're making lots of butter, yogurt, and hopefully cheese soon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How we manage pests and disease

We strongly believe there are too many unknowns to safely use toxins in our food production, and we’re hopelessly optimistic when it comes to finding local solutions. This week we want to tell you about the local solutions we employ.

Before dealing with the biggest problem, varroa mites, we want to touch on some others. Unlike varroa medications, the antibiotics that other beekeepers put in their hives generally aren’t used in response to any particular problem. In other words, antibiotics are typically used to treat diseases that aren’t even there. These problems are easy for us to deal with naturally. It’s incredibly simple and it takes us practically no extra time to inspect for the foulbrood diseases. As is the case with most smaller scale beekeepers, we have never had a case of foulbrood, and we certainly won’t put antibiotics in the hive for a problem that’s easy to diagnose and isn’t there. Other diseases like nosema are rare and mild enough that doing without the antibiotic for that disease is even easier yet.

The parasitic varroa mite, on the other hand, is not an easy problem to deal with naturally. Yet, by taking advantage of all the little things we can, breeding our own queens, and keeping the scale of our farm under control we have been able to deal with the mites very successfully. To help minimize the problem we keep close records on mite levels in each of the hives and use the most mite-resistant colonies for breeder stock. We also use special screened hive bottoms that let some of the mites fall out of the hive. Then, the most important thing we do to keep mite levels under control is called drone trapping. Varroa mites prefer drone brood (brood=the bees in the developmental stages) to worker brood, so we keep one frame of all drone brood in each of our hives. We keep a record of when each frame is added, and then remove the frame after the drone cells are sealed with wax (10 days) and before the drones hatch (24 days). We feed the drone pupae to the chickens, place the empty comb in the freezer to kill any remaining mites, and then repeat the cycle. By cycling drone brood through our hives like this we have managed to keep mite levels below the treatment threshold in all but two of our forty-eight hives. Another point to note is that we test each of our hives for mites this time of year. Without testing we wouldn’t know where to target our treatment and would probably be left having to treat everything, but with only two hives to treat we can easily forego the quick and easy chemical treatments. What we use on the hives with marginal problem levels is a spray synthesized from coconut oil and regular table sugar and diluted heavily with water. It’s chemically identical to a compound found naturally in the leaves of some plants. The spray, sold under the name of sucrocide, requires removing each frame one at a time and spraying the bees on each side, and then repeating two more times over the course of a brood cycle (21 days). Instead of poisoning the mites, the spray creates a soapy-oily film that simply suffocates the mites but leaves the relatively larger bees unharmed. In general, our disease and pest management methods take substantially more time, but they save us money on chemicals, benefit other parts of our farm (like the chickens), give us a better and more up-to-date knowledge of conditions in the hive and the field, and they yield a product we’re happy to eat and to sell.

Honey quality: harvesting

We've advertised our honey as unheated and not more than coarsely strained, but that probably verges on techno-speak for many of our customers. We wanted to take a little time here to explain some of what the techno-speak really means.

So here’s a quick overview of the process that takes honey from the hive to your jar: to get the bees off of the honey frames we use a combination of escape screens (a board with a built in maze that the bees find their way out of but not back through) and a soft-bristled brush with which we simply brush the bees off the frames. (Other beekeepers commonly place foul-smelling chemicals on top of their hives that repulse the bees and cause them to move away off the honey frames.)

In order to get the honey out of the comb, the cells that the honey is in have to be uncapped (the wax cappings have to be removed to open up the cells for the honey to come out.) Most beekeepers use electrically- or steam-heated knives. Because these knives can heat and scorch the honey, we simply use a well-suited serrated knife. The next step is to extract the honey: this is where the honey frame is spun around inside a stainless steel tank in order to sling the honey out of the comb.  The honey collects in the bottom and flows out the gate into a bucket.  (Honey is too thick and the cells are too small for the honey to simply run out on its own before absorbing moisture out of the air that would lead the honey to later spoil.  The only real alternative is to crush the comb, but spinning it out leaves the comb intact for later use.)

We keep a strainer (about as coarse as a regular window screen) on top of that bucket to strain out things like the random bee that finds its way into the extractor. That honey then goes directly into a larger stainless steel settling/bottling tank and a week later, after the smaller bits of wax have all floated to the surface of the honey, we bottle the clear honey from the tap at the bottom of the tank. By taking advantage of the natural density of honey we avoid having to use any fine filters. We also avoid the heat normally associated with filtering: honey flows very slowly through fine filters, so large-scale honey packers typically heat it to enable it to flow better.

Another practice that we completely avoid is heating the honey that gets removed with the cappings. Some beekeepers will heat the cappings in order to get the wax to melt and rise to the surface. This would require heating to around 150˚ or more with “hot spots” sure to reach even higher. We simply let the honey strain out until we're done extracting that day (without any added heat).  Whatever honey strains out after that we keep for ourselves, mainly for mead making.
The other typical source of heat for honey is intentional heating to melt down any honey crystals in the honey. For producing liquid honey we’re fortunate to have honey varieties that don’t crystallize very readily, so we mainly avoid this heating by simply bringing you the honey before crystallization ever begins to set in. We also induce fine-grained crystallization in our “creamed honey” to bypass any undesirable crystallization.

The end result is honey that hasn’t had the flavor or the goodness cooked out of it; nor any off flavors cooked into it; the trace elements (including the traces of pollen that naturally occur in honey) haven’t been filtered out; it hasn’t been exposed to any chemicals; and it’s briefly stored in stainless steel before bottling in glass to insure that the container doesn’t add or take away anything from the honey.

The varietal scoop

Honey must be one of nature’s most varied foods. Around the world bees collect the sweet essence of hundreds of different plant species, most of which produce no other human food besides honey. We really enjoy these unique tastes and try hard to capture all the unique varieties of honey we can. It’s not possible to completely prevent the bees from mixing different nectars together, but to some degree varietal honeys can be harvested. Sometimes, as in the case of the sourwood tree, a flower will bloom at a time of year when very little else is in bloom. And not everything that blooms produces nectar or, for that matter, nectar that is sweet enough to attract bees. Some flowers, like the white Dutch clover that grows in many of our lawns, tend to produce very little nectar on high acid soils like we have in the Southeast. Maples and fruit trees bloom early in the year and are a great asset to the bees, but bees are rarely ready to produce a harvestable surplus that early in the year. If you were to collect pollen, the other foodstuff of bees, you would probably notice that at any given time almost all of the pollen would be the same color. This is because bees in a colony communicate with each other and will collect mostly from one species at a time. If we know that a particular plant is coming into bloom that generally produces a honey surplus we will put empty comb on our hives, and if weather and circumstances favor us we will harvest the honey as soon as the bloom ends and the bees have finished converting the nectar into honey. These are our varietal honeys. This spring (2004) the bees produced a very unusual honey, probably from the blackberry brambles, which bloomed prolifically this year. So much blooms in the spring that we can’t say this with certainty. Its uniformity, however, indicates that it is a relatively pure varietal, and we did our best to keep it separate from the subsequent nectar flow. We hope to produce one more small crop from the completely different set of flowers that are blooming now. Goldenrod has a reputation for producing a very strong, robust honey.

New ways to use honey

Sadly, some people don’t really know how to enjoy honey, and others have tragically limited their honey consumption to a small category of uses. We thought that sharing some of our favorite uses for honey might help to alleviate this sore situation. We’ll focus on perhaps the noblest use of all, which may also be honey’s most neglected use: the finishing touch. Just a hint of honey sweetness can completely transform a white sauce as in fettuccine alfredo, and it’s the perfect way to bring out the full flavor of the tomatoes in any red sauce, it blends beautifully with oriental flavors like soy, and it’s essential to an authentic bbq sauce. But don’t limit yourself to sauces: drizzle a touch of honey on a well-aged cheese with a crystalline texture like gruyere, parmesan, or aged gouda, or put just a few drops on your tomato sandwich or grilled-cheese, or drizzle over fruit or ice cream. If you’re reluctant to believe in honey’s power for a finishing touch, consider that almost every industrially prepared food has corn syrup in it. And what is corn syrup but a sorry, lifeless, unnatural substitute for honey? And remember, because honey is full of lively flavor, whenever possible wait until you’re done cooking to add the finishing touch of honey, so as not to cook off the nuances of the honey. And, of course, there are all the uses for honey where the sweetness can stand out more. A favorite light summer meal is raw quick oats with fresh fruit and either yogurt or milk, topped with a mild honey. We consider honey the only proper way to sweeten a salad dressing because of honey’s depth of flavor. And to state the obvious, honey is wonderful as the central flavor on biscuits, on toast, on bread, or on a spoon.

Creamed honey

One of the tastiest and most unique products we carry is creamed honey. In many parts of the world creamed honey is the standard, but bees in the Southeast rarely produce honey well suited to creaming. 2004 was such a year for us. Creamed (or set) honey is a soft, spreadable honey. It is nothing more than 100% pure honey where the natural crystallization process has been carefully encouraged. The unique chemistry of each honey variety affects how rapidly it will crystallize and what sort of crystal it forms. All we do to make creamed honey – and this is something you could do yourself if you were so inclined – is take honey that we already creamed and mix that with about five times as much liquid honey. We then keep the jars at 57 degrees, flipping them twice daily to make sure they crystallize evenly. This produces a fine, smooth, crystallized honey that’s ideal for spreading on bread and biscuits. (Heat will return the creamed honey to its original liquid state.) It’s a wonderful treat, especially if, like many in the Southeast, you’ve never tried it before. Most of our family now prefers it to liquid honey and consume more of it than the liquid.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Honey the conventional way

Unfortunately, honeybees have a number of serious pests and diseases. The worst of the problems have been illegally or accidentally imported from other parts of the world in the last twenty-five years. We see this as one of the ugly and inevitable side effects of producing our food all over the world.

Probably the worst of all the pests is the parasitic varroa mite. Our honeybees have little or no natural resistance to these mites, and so the mites have the potential to kill every one of a beekeeper’s hives in a single season unless the beekeeper intervenes. For about ten years after the varroa mite’s introduction to North America most beekeepers used fluvalinate (trade name: apistan), a synthetic pyrethroid, to control varroa mites. Fluvalinate is a moderately toxic chemical which at least has the advantage of being much more toxic to mites than it is to most other animals. However, overuse, misuse, and perhaps just the natural course of chemical use has led to enough resistance in varroa mites that most commercial beekeepers have moved on to even more toxic chemicals. The worst is also the most common today, namely coumaphos. Coumaphos (trade name: checkmite) is an organophosphate. Organophosphates interfere with naturally occurring enzymes called cholinesterases, which are essential for the proper working of the nervous systems of both humans and insects. Coumaphos is highly toxic by inhalation or ingestion and moderately toxic if absorbed through the skin. The symptoms of poisoning include diarrhea, drooling, muscle twitching, toxic psychosis, fluid retention of the lungs, bleeding, and even paralysis of the extremities. Symptoms can continue for up to 6 weeks, and they can continue to appear up to 4 weeks after exposure. Both fluvalinate and coumaphos are extremely persistent in the hive. They are detectable in the wax of honey supers for years after use, EVEN when the honey supers were removed at the time of treatment. Because of chemical build-up in the wax, it is illegal to produce comb honey from hives treated with coumaphos, but that’s a technicality most beekeepers are either unaware of or unconcerned with. Admittedly, much of the chemistry and toxicology of these chemicals is far above our heads, but we consider that all the more reason to avoid them. In other words, we really don’t understand the risks involved with these chemicals, but we believe no one else really can either. This is more or less our motivation for doing the very labor-intensive things we do as an alternative to the chemical-intensive norm.

Monday, January 14, 2008

No-knead bread

When this recipe came to me last year via my mother-in-law's neighbor I was thrilled. I'd been trying to make artisian type bread (chewy with a firm crust) with some luck but found the recipes long and the process slow. I was far from being able to share the bread with anyone beside our family. Then I tried this recipe and right away I knew this was a bread I had to share. I bake the bread in 2 1/2 quart white Corningware round casseroles. I can fit four in my oven at a time. If you're heating up the oven you might as well make some extra loaves to share! We've also had great fun with many variations including herb; cinnamon, nut and raisin; olive and cheese, and multi-grain. This is the original recipe but I use a bit more salt and bake it at about 425 for around 20 minutes with the lid on and another 12 minutes with the lid off. This will depend on how hot your oven runs.

New York Times No-Knead Bread
(adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery)

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1 5/8 cup water
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Stone ground heirloom cornmeal

By the time our corn is ground into cornmeal it might not look like anything out of the ordinary, but there’s hardly a step from the selection of the seed to the grinding that isn’t markedly different from the modern norm. We first grew this variety of corn cooperatively with our friend Larry on his mountaintop farm. The seed is an heirloom from that farming community, which means it has been grown there for many years and seed has been saved over from each year to the next, a tradition we’re now continuing. Heirloom corn, like most heirloom crops, has a well-deserved reputation for exceptional flavor and quality. Unlike most conventional corn, which is yellow, this variety is white (although about one in fifty ears is red.) Because we didn’t have access to any land to grow the corn again ourselves this past year, we arranged for another friend, Jake, who lives near our new farm, to grow an acre for us. Jake grew the corn without the use of any synthetic fertilizers, and instead of using chemical herbicides to control weeds, he and his sons scraped out the weeds with the tractor and then by hand with a hoe. We stored the corn in our crib until it was dry enough to grind, but before we could grind it we sorted out any less than perfect parts, shelled it through a hand crank sheller, and winnowed it to blow out anything that wasn’t corn. We grind the fresh cornmeal more or less weekly using a granite stone grist mill. We hope you’ll enjoy the product of everything that went into this very special cornmeal. Once ground, cornmeal is best used promptly or stored in the freezer.

Buttermilk Corn Bread

2 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon bacon fat or butter

Preheat oven to 375. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Pour in the buttermilk and honey and beat in the eggs. Melt the fat in a cast-iron skillet. Pour in the batter and bake in the skillet for 20 to 25 minutes, until risen and browned.

Cakey Corn Bread

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons honey
2 eggs
1 cup milk
¼ cup butter or lard

Mix together the dry ingredients. Add honey, eggs, milk, and fat. Beat until just smooth. Pour into greased 9x9x2 pan. Bake at 425 for 20 to 25 minutes.

Corn Griddle Cakes

Melt a couple tablespoons of fat in a cast-iron skillet. Mix cornmeal and a bit of salt with enough honey and water to make a sloppy batter. Spoon into hot fat and cook on one side until solid enough to flip. Cook on other side until done.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Milk and Honey Flan

2 cups milk
1/2 cup honey
3 eggs and 2 egg yolks
Warm milk. Beat eggs with honey. Stir in warm milk. Pour into 4 ramkin molds. Place molds in 9x13 pan with warm water. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve with fruit or honey.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Spoon bread with leeks

3 large eggs separated
2 1/2 Cups milk
1/2 Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Teaspoon salt
1 Cup cornmeal
2 Teaspoons baking powder
1 Cup fresh corn (cut from 2 or 3 ears)
2 leeks halved lengthwise, and sliced
fried ham or bacon
honey to drizzle

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 6-cup baking dish. Lightly beat egg yolks; set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring 2 cups of milk, cayenne, and salt to a boil. Sprinkle cornmeal into liquid, stirring constantly, and cook until thick and smooth, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup milk, baking powder, and egg yolks.

In a mixing bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Stir 1 large spoonful of whites into cornmeal mixture, then gently fold in remaining whites.

Pour half of the batter into prepared dish. Sprinkle on corn and leeks. Add ham or bacon. Cover with remaining batter. Bake until set and golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. Drizzle lightly with honey. Serve immediately.