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?