Saturday, December 17, 2011

Corn harvest and corn mush

  We recently finished harvesting our open-pollinated white corn.  The shucked ears are now drying in the corn cribs.  We've enjoyed incorporating cornmeal and grits into our everyday diet.  Corn mush has become a favorite breakfast food.  It's quick easy and delicious, similar in taste and texture to cream of wheat.  We cook ours in a ratio of one cup of cornmeal to two cups water and two cups of milk with some salt to taste.  Cook until thick, about 20 minutes. 

Pig update

Our two pigs are eating a lot and growing incredibly fast.

Small potatoes

  Lately, we've been enjoying our little sweet potatoes.  Maybe it has to do with the increased surface area of sticky sweetness.  When we need a quick meal, we'll fill the whole oven with the little guys.  At 400 degrees it doesn't take long.  They are easy to peel.  When we cook a mix of colors, the kids have fun peaking under the skins, trying to find their favorite kind (the pale orange Porto Ricos).  Then any leftovers go in the fridge, a wonderfully easy snack.

Homegrown tea

  With the cooler weather and a bit more relaxed schedule we've been enjoying some homegrown teas.  The dried roselle/hibiscus makes a beautiful red tangy tea.  Mint is our other favorite, made with dried peppermint.  Both of these we lightly sweeten with honey.  This year we planted two Rosa rugosa roses as they are known for their large rosehips good for tea.  And we also planted a Camellia sinensis, the camellia from which black and green tea is made.  We continue to search for more good tasting tea plants.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What's in a Vegetable CSA share?

  There are some marginal options for our CSA members to customize their weekly CSA shares, which would certainly affect what the share would look like, but here's a link to a series of photos taken at random times during the Vegetable CSA season of CSA shares (shares for which there weren't any custom requests) to give you an idea of some of the things we grow and how shares change according to the time of year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Do we farm organically?

   Not very many years ago, farming exactly as we do now, we could have answered this question with a straightforward yes.  What's changed is that farmers can now only legally use the word "organic" to describe their farming practices if they're part of the USDA program that the government recently set up to regulate the definition of "organic."  So if, by "do you farm organically?" you're asking whether we take part in the USDA-regulated program, the answer is that we don't believe in and don't take part in that system, but if you mean to ask about how we actually farm -- what things we do and don't use, how we maintain fertility, how we deal with pests and diseases, etc. -- then the answer would be yes, except that farmers like us aren't allowed to say so any more.  We'll save the question of what we have against the USDA program for another week, but we'll address the question of how we farm here.
   As far as not using pesticides or synthetic fertilizer or genetically modified crop varieties on our farm, we would fully meet and exceed all the USDA requirements for organic farmers.  We never use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or grow genetically modified crop varieties.  Just generally speaking, perhaps the most important thing we do instead is to accept some losses.  For example, if some strawberries have holes chewed in them, we'll cut the bad spots out and save those for our own family.  On a family farm like ours, it's not a bad thing to have some strawberries that we can't sell!
   We never use any herbicides; instead we manage weeds by mechanical methods (hoeing, hand weeding, mowing, discing, etc.) and by use of mulch (mainly straw or hay) to suppress weed growth.
   Instead of using fungicides or antibiotics to control disease organisms, we mainly just avoid problems by selecting crops and varieties not prone to problems.  With some crops we also use trellises or pruning or mulch to improve air circulation or increase exposure to the sun or reduce leaf contact with the soil, although we don't find it necessary to even go that far with most crops.
   Avoiding problems and simply accepting marginal losses are likewise the main ways we deal with insect problems.  We keep our eggplants in pots in the cold frame until they're big enough to simply outgrow the flea beetles when we put them in the garden.  We grow squash mainly in the first part of the summer before the squash bugs get very bad.  Potato beetles are one insect problem that often threaten to get out of hand.  We deal with them by squishing them between our fingers -- yes, it's gross at first (and labor-intensive), but when the only other way to produce a crop would be to use insecticides, it's a simple choice.  We deal with earworms in sweet corn by telling our customers there will be a worm in the tip of almost every ear and that they'll need to cut the tip off.  We do sometimes use a "natural pesticide," dipel (which is OMRI approved for use on USDA-certified organic farms) on some cole crops (e.g. cabbage, broccoli.)  Even though it's officially organic, it's our last choice for dealing with insects.  It's the only purchased product we use for insect control, and we only use it on cole crops.
   For maintaining fertility, instead of using synthetic fertilizers (e.g. 10-10-10), we depend on manure from our own cattle and chickens and goats and also horse manure from a neighbor, lots of leguminous cover crops, and ashes from wood and bones that we burn in our stove (for potassium and phosphorus.)  We recycle crop residues and leftovers like corn cobs back to the soil, and we recycle other surpluses through our animals like the sweet potatoes that are too small for our own use.  Using natural hay and straw mulches also helps to improve the fertility of our garden spots.  We never use amendments like oilseed meal from genetically modified soybeans or cotton for fertilizer (although USDA-organic rules allow the practice and a lot of organic produce farms do.)  We try to scavenge a lot of nutrient-dense things (manure and other organic waste) to bring back to the farm, but we don't actually purchase anything to use as a fertilizer or soil amendment, except for the hay and straw we use mainly for mulch, and lime (ground limestone) to reduce soil acidity.
   The way we maintain our pastures and the way we grow corn or forage crops or hay crops to feed our animals is no different (in terms of pesticides and fertilizers, etc.) from the way we grow our vegetables or anything else, but we also typically buy hay and small grain (wheat or barley) from other nearby farmers in order to fill some gaps in our feed system.  The feed we buy often doesn't fully meet the standards we follow ourselves, but at a minimum it's all locally grown and non-GMO (not genetically modified.)  Ultimately our goal is to see our community exercise full control of what it grows and how that's grown -- meaning people in our community would be making informed choices about how to grow their own food -- and we feel like dealing directly with other local farmers does the most to get us to that point.  Meanwhile we're doing a lot to provide for our own animals.  We're able to raise our goats pretty much exclusively on forage and garden surpluses (like greens that have turned bitter or gone to seed), and between the heirloom corn we've grown and our own surplus dairy we have all we need to raise out our two hogs without purchased feed either.  We still buy most of the hay that we need for our cattle, but we're increasingly cutting and putting up our own hay by hand.  Our chickens are fed largely on forage from free range -- we only "top them off" with grain at the end of the day -- and much of the year the grain we're using is the heirloom corn we grow ourselves.
   We don't give any pharmaceuticals to any of our animals.  That doesn't just include the kinds of growth hormones and antibiotics used by the largest producers, but it also means we're not using heat synchronization hormones (used with dairy cattle) or the de-worming chemicals that a lot of small farms depend on (especially with goats, but also with hogs and cattle.)  In order to avoid the need for de-worming medications we rotate our animals frequently, give pastures more rest between rotations, and we graze the cattle ahead of the goats so that parasites don't find their way back to their specific hosts.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Corn harvest

  The corn cribs are filling up as we continue to harvest this year's corn.  We're especially grateful to Laura for her help on this project and many other projects around the farm during her stay with us.  We're still hand harvesting the corn, so let us know if you'd like to join in.  This heirloom white corn will dry in the crib for a couple months then we'll start grinding it into cornmeal and grits.

Hush Puppies

  We hope this picture tempts you to make a batch of hush puppies for yourself.  Quick and easy and delicious.  We'll post a recipe soon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Popcorn



   We grew a small crop of popcorn this year and are glad to say it's ready for you to pop up a bowlful for yourself.  If you've never popped popcorn on the stove top, it's rather easy.  Simply shell the popcorn off from the cob into a bowl.  Start at one end of the cob and rub the kernels off - they should come off easily.  You can also use an empty cob to rub them off.  Then heat about 2 tablespoons of fat on high in a pot.  When the fat is hot pour in the popcorn and slide the pot back and forth over the burner.  This will cover all the kernels with fat.  As soon as you hear the first pop, cover the pot with a lid, leaving a small vent on the side for steam to escape.  Keep sliding the pot back and forth to keep the bottom kernels from burning.  When the popping ceases, remove from the burner.  Pour into a bowl and add salt and butter as desired.  Though we haven't tested it, our popcorn should also pop in a popcorn machine and an air popper.  We hope you'll enjoy this homegrown snack food.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sweet potatoes

We were glad to get the sweet potatoes dug last week before the wet weather and the forecast frosts.  We grew over a dozen varieties this year including many new ones given to us by a friend who grows over a hundred varieties.  They are a beautiful colorful assortment.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lessons from intersex fish

   A couple years ago we read about a USGS survey of large- and smallmouth bass that covered river basins all across the country.  This survey found that a third of all male smallmouth bass and a fifth of all male largemouth bass were intersex, meaning that the male fish also had partially developed female parts.  (This is equivalent to boys with breasts!)  Intersex fish were found at sites both with and without obvious sources of endocrine-active compounds, such as household chemicals (laundry detergent, shampoo...), pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and heavy metals, that are associated with dense human populations or industrial and agricultural activities.  The survey found intersex fish in every river basin examined except for one river basin in Alaska.  Intersex traits were most prevalent in largemouth bass in the Southeast, where they occurred at every site tested, including very high percentages at sites from our own Pee Dee River basin.  What's especially interesting to us about this story is that no one really knows why it's happening.  We know from frozen samples of fish from 50 years ago that it's a new thing: some kinds of modern human activity are clearly causing the abnormalities.  We know it's happening, but we don't know the mechanism or the specific causes.  Whatever is causing these dramatic changes in fish is in the same water that most (or all) of us are drinking.  
   We see clear lessons to be drawn from stories like the intersex fish when it comes to how we should farm.  Most important, these stories tell us that the “smart,” educated use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and heavy metals, etc. involves a whole lot of false confidence and risky ignorance.  In other words, we believe the smartest “use” of agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals is generally to completely avoid them.  We think it would be absurd to say that even if particular genetically modified crops haven't yet been proven harmful that they have any scientific claim to being safe.  There are plenty of known costs to agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals (hypoxic “dead zones” in the ocean, the breeding of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the loss of beneficial insects, dependence on foreign oil, dependence on rapidly depleting resources, etc., etc.), but we suspect the costs we *don't* understand are just as great.  It comes as no surprise when we read that the only thing dwarfing modern cancer rates is the rate of increase in the price of cancer treatment.  Intersex fish are one clear example that scientifically proven harm is coming from our “scientifically advanced” way of life, yet “science” can't offer solutions to these kinds of problems.  When it comes to farming (which is closely tied to everything else), the solution we see is to build deep ties with small, diversified farms committed to building thorough alternatives to the “scientifically advanced,” chemical-intensive norm, because small scale and diversification set the foundation for solving problems without chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Peanut roof





  Thanks to our most recent visitors, Marilyn and Jelson, the peanuts are harvested and drying on an outbuilding roof.

Roselle or hibiscus flowers


  We're very excitable when it comes to new farm ventures.  Of late, Eric's been intently researching cold-hardy citrus in the hopes of having some taste of local citrus someday.  Today, though, we're excited to share with you the harvest from a new to us plant that has done great here.  A friend gave us a few Roselle seeds this spring and this fall we have plants loaded with their 'fruits'.  A member of the hibiscus family, this okra relative grows to a huge beautiful bush, about 4 feet in diameter.  Along the dark red stems grow short lived hibiscus like flowers.  When the petals fall off, a thick calyx is left behind.  These flower parts are then harvested for a number of uses.  Mostly commonly, they are used for a red 'Koolaid' colored tea.  Roselle is actually one of the main ingredients of Red Zinger tea.  They can be used fresh or dried for tea.  While we enjoy the tea, roselle also makes a great mock cranberry sauce.  Just boil the chopped red pods with a little water, honey and maybe ginger.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Time to plant garlic, shallots, and multiplier onions

   Cooler weather means planting time - for garlic, shallots and multiplier onions that is.  We're about to put ours out and if you'd like to set some out yourselves we have plenty of 'seed' to get you started.  All three of these alliums are planted in the fall here in NC and then overwinter and are ready to harvest sometime in May and June.  They are all planted similarly about 6-8 inches apart.  We grow ours on beds containing four rows.  After the first shoots emerge, we mulch them with hay or straw.  This helps keep the weeds down and also gives a little winter protection.  All will put on a little fall growth, then go dormant a bit through the worst of winter and start growing strong in late winter.  All of them can be eaten as soon as you have a craving in late winter as green onions or green garlic.  To plant garlic, break the head apart into cloves and plant pointy side up about an inch and half deep.  Each clove will produce a head of garlic.  For the shallots and onions, break apart what is easily broken apart.  Small shallots and onions will produce fewer but larger shallots and onions the next year, while planting larger shallots and onions will produce more but smaller sized shallots and garlic.  There are some pictures of our allium patch in some older posts on our blog.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Newest farm additions

  We've been wanting to get pigs for years now.  We've just been afraid we weren't really ready!  This week though, putting fear aside, Eric brought home two weaned pigs (about 50 lbs each.)  We were mostly ready for them.  We have plenty to feed them.  When milk was overabundant this spring, we let the skim milk clabber, then strained this for "cheese" and froze it.  So we have a good reserve in the freezer.  (We would have just fed it straight if we had been ready with the pigs.)  We also have a good supply of local non-GMO grains for them - wheat from neighbors and what looks to be a good surplus of the open-pollinated white corn we're growing.  And then there will be kitchen scraps and garden waste.  And we hope to move them through the sweet potatoes and peanuts to forage for what we miss when we dig these crops.  And then maybe even run them through the oak grove to feast on acorns this fall.  So we think we're ready to feed them right. 
  The big question though, and the cause of our hestitation, was how to contain them.  We have hopes of relatively simple electric fences to rotate them through gardens as they can be useful.  But until we get to know each other better, we wanted a more secure system.  For the first few weeks here, we had plans to put them in a movable cattle panel cage.  Sure enough, the little guys could squeeze right through the holes.  So we lined the cage with some smaller welded wire fencing.  And they seem happy in their new home.  We're also hoping that moving them one to two times each day for starters will help them off to a clean, healthy start on our farm.  We're trying to keep them well fed and familiar to us, in case we should have to call them home sometime with a slop bucket.
  We'll keep you posted on our newest adventure here on the farm.

How to grow strawberries

This picture is from this past April.  It's time to plant your own patch.
   Now is the time to set out strawberry plants for fruit next May. We maintain a part of our strawberry patch each year after the harvest and through the summer until now, when we dig up the multiple runners and plant them out in a newly prepared section of garden. The plants establish themselves in the fall, then begin to really put on new leaves on warm days in the winter and in the early spring. By about the end of March they should begin flowering, and about the end of April/early May the harvest should begin and last for about three or four weeks.  These are the same plants we've sold strawberries from since we first started selling in 2004. We normally plant our strawberries in double rows. We space the two individual rows about 10-12 inches apart with about 24-32 inches between double rows. We space the plants about 10 inches apart in the row.  Sometimes we'll mound up the double rows a little, especially if we have any concerns about poor drainage: strawberry roots don't like to stay wet. We mulch lightly with straw (or poor hay) for protection from the hardest winter cold, then mulch heavily in and around the plants in the early spring to suppress weeds and keep the berries from getting mud and dirt on them. Bare root plants will require very regular watering until they get established. It is time to begin getting plants established, though, so if you can't keep them well watered in the garden, you might want to plant them in small pots or flats as an intermediate step. It's also important not to plant the plants too deep.  Find the growing point in the middle of the plant and make sure not to cover it with dirt. 
   If you've realized how hard good organic fruit is to come by, strawberries may be an excellent place to start growing your own.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Planning for the off season

May 11, 2010
What if you've become convinced that food grown who-knows-where and who-knows-how isn't what you want any more? What if you wanted to try to eat (and support the production of) only local food -- food that you either grew yourself or got directly from the source -- grown with old-fashioned organic integrity (free of any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, etc.)? What would you have to do to make it happen? How could it be done? We want to consider these questions as they apply to a full spectrum of food groups, but for this week we want to talk about vegetables.
   Vegetables may seem like the easiest food group to "go local" with, and they can pretty easily and conveniently be found from small farms and backyard growers. When it comes to vegetables, the challenges lie in eating in-season and in putting up surplus for the off-season. If you limit yourself mostly to a small handful of familiar vegetables, you're likely to encounter lots of weeks where there's little or nothing on your list that's in season. Learning to enjoy a wider variety of vegetables, besides being healthier, will surely help a lot in the effort to eat locally. Last year, even with several crop failures caused by all the spring rain, we had at least 7 (and as many as 14) different vegetables (and multiple varieties of many of those) to offer every week from the beginning of May through early November. Of course, some of those crops were more abundant and others sold out quickly, but even just from our farm there's a lot of variety to be had if you know how to enjoy it. One of the big advantages to a traditional CSA box (where members simply receive a full assortment of whatever is in season as opposed to custom ordering their boxes as our CSA members normally do) is that it encourages families to eat more like they were eating from their own gardens and to enjoy a fuller variety. Of course, eating with the seasons also means cooking with the seasons. Instead of letting a recipe or menu dictate your shopping list, eating in season generally turns things around: if you're eating in season, you'll probably start with what's fresh and in season and let that determine what you cook.
   As winter begins to set in continuing to eat locally mostly means relying on crops that you froze or canned or dried or simply put in the pantry earlier in the year. Sweet potatoes, garlic, and winter squash will keep well in the pantry all through the off-season without any special attention. Freshly dug fall carrots will keep for many weeks in the fridge. Most vegetables are well suited to simple freezing: butterbeans, October beans, broccoli, collards, sweet corn, roasted eggplant, field peas, kale and all the other cooking greens, leeks and onions, okra, garden peas, bell peppers and banana peppers, also roasted peppers, spinach, fava beans, and even tomatoes and tomato juice and sauce, etc. Canning intimidates a lot of people, but there aren't really that many vegetables for which canning is the only good way to preserve them, and if you want to learn to can, it's simple. (We'd be glad to teach you.) We use canning for green beans, beets and pickles (cucumbers as well as pickled beets and dilly beans.) Irish potatoes can be kept in the pantry for a few months (longer at cooler temperatures), but we can some potatoes for later in the winter. We prefer to can most of our tomatoes (whole tomatoes, juice, sauce, salsa), but we also dry tomatoes ("sun"-dried) in a cheap dehydrator, and we freeze oven-roasted tomatoes and tomato paste. We don't actually can (with heat) our sauerkraut, but we do make it in canning jars and keep it along with the rest of our canned goods. The Ball Blue Book is the most common "guide to home canning, freezing, and dehydration", and an old version is our standard reference book. Putting up vegetables for the off-season does require planning ahead. If there are crops you'd like to put up for the off-season that you'd like to get from us, please talk to us about your particular interests ahead of time, and we'll try to help plan for you to get larger quantities of those things to preserve for later.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Southern heritage staple

  We want to draw your attention this week to one of our most special and at the same time most basic products, our Southern heritage staple.  Do you want to break away from the standard corporate food/agriculture system?  Do you want to resist the take-over of our farmland and our food supply by GMO's (genetically modified organisms) and everything that goes along with them?  Do you want to help build a comprehensive local food system, independent of pesticides and non-renewable chemical fertilizers?  You should try our cornmeal and grits and make them regular staples in local kitchens again!  If we can recover that foundation, imagine what further steps our local food system could take!  If local agriculture is going to expand into grains and field crops (and all the animal products that depend on them), it's all going to have to start with the same grain that was most practical for our great-grandparents.  In terms of how land in America is farmed, field corn (which is corn that's harvested when the kernels are hard-dry) is singly more than 5 times as significant as all the fruits and vegetables we consume put together.  Cornmeal isn't just for cornbread and grits aren't just for breakfast!  
  Besides basic cornbread, we use cornmeal in a number of recipes including some of our regular favorites - okra fritters and cornmeal spoonbread.  We also make a basic cornmeal pancake.  Eric likes the cornmeal pancakes best unsweetened, topped simply with butter.  Of course, cornmeal is great for breading all sorts of things, from vegetables to poultry to fish.  Hush puppies are another southern classic worth remembering.  Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina has several cornmeal and grits recipes on its website well worth checking out: http://www.ansonmills.com/recipes-corn.htm
   Grits are, of course, a great breakfast staple, whether with eggs or cheese or country ham... For expanding beyond breakfast, shrimp and grits are the classic low country combination, but one of our favorite ways to eat grits is to make an extra large batch for breakfast and pour the leftovers into a greased bread loaf pan and refrigerate until gelled...then we'll slice the grits about a half inch thick and fry in butter until the surface is crispy.  It makes a great starch to go alongside most any meat and vegetables.  It's certainly different from rice, but it roughly fills that niche for us in a local, homegrown way.  We also use cornmeal for a crust in casseroles that we'll top with things like black beans, chicken, tomatoes, cheese, peppers... 
   If you'd like to read the specifics about where our corn came from and what we do with it, see our blog entry http://themilkandhoneyfarm.blogspot.com/2011/05/stone-ground-heirloom-white-cornmeal.html
    We've optimistically planted more than double the 'Floyd' corn this year than we've ever grown before (and convinced a neighbor to organically grow even more.)  We'll be hand harvesting it all fairly soon.  An interesting thing about 'Floyd' corn is its recessive trait that leads to a small percentage of ears that are entirely dark red.  If you'd like to help out in this year's harvest, let us know!  If you have any custom grinding requests, or if you'd like whole kernel corn to grind yourself or to make nixtamal with for tortillas, we're happy to accommodate with a little extra advance notice.  (By the way, we're looking for a mentor to show us how to best make nixtamal/tortillas starting with whole kernel corn.)  If you have any questions about differences in using homegrown cornmeal or grits like we're offering, please ask. 
   We're excited to be able to offer what nowadays is a very unique product.  There are some historic mills that still grind corn, but we only know of one other person in all of North Carolina (in Old Fort -- he also happens to be a farmer with his own mill) that's grinding locally grown heirloom corn.  We believe it's important to preserve these heirlooms not just to maintain non-genetically modified options, but also because these varieties weren't bred to depend on high rates of conventional fertilizer, on chemical control of weeds, diseases, and insects, and on combine harvesting. That means they're all around suitable to local use on small farms and to communities deciding how to grow their own food.  If you share our desire to restore a comprehensive local agriculture that doesn't depend on non-renewable chemical fertilizers and pesticides and genetically modified crops, consider making our corn a staple in your kitchen.  There's a lot to enjoy.

Thanks to Lee

  The nice rains from tropical storm Lee last week have brought on a nice flush of shitake mushrooms this week.

Pickin' up paw paws

  We were excited to try a paw paw for the first time the other day and even more excited at how good they tasted.  Our young trees have yet to bear fruit so we visited the man we got our trees from in Wilkes County.  He treated us to a taste from his trees and the paw paws are as close to a mango as you can get this far north.  We also had our first jujube from our own tree the other day - a great date like little fruit.  This was the only fruit from all three trees, but we're looking forward to bigger harvests in the years to come.  In the meantime, some of our other fruits are coming on strong - we've been enjoying figs, asian pears, and even some muscadine grapes (from our much neglected vines). 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Corn Bread Variations

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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Heirlooms?

   We probably ought to begin by explaining some terminology.  An heirloom plant variety is a variety that you can save seed from, plant it, and get essentially the same thing again generation after generation.  The alternative is a hybrid variety, which if you were to save seed from, you'd get something not quite the same as the previous generation: maybe a different color or shape, often less productive, probably a different taste or texture, etc.  So, for example, the seed of an heirloom 'German Johnson' tomato should yield another 'German Johnson,' but the seed of a 'betterboy' (which is a hybrid) would yield a tomato that might more closely resemble one or another of the parent lines that were crossed to yield the 'betterboy' or some very different cross.  So the most basic thing to understand is that for the gardener or farmer growing hybrid plants means going back to the seed company to buy more seed every year, whereas with heirlooms there's the potential to isolate a variety (from other varieties of the same species it might cross with) and save seed to replant.
   We grow pretty much exclusively heirlooms (or more accurately “open-pollinated” varieties which includes all heirlooms.)  Even those crops that are almost always hybrid, like corn, onions, broccoli, bell peppers... even with those crops we're growing heirlooms instead.  So why grow heirlooms?  There are a lot of little reasons.  Heirloom varieties were often bred for taste; modern hybrids are often bred more narrowly for productivity or traits like suitability to picking under-ripe and shipping long distances.  Heirloom varieties are often more suitable to simple organic growing methods; modern hybrids are often bred specifically for use with heavy applications of purchased fertilizers, intensive irrigation, and other chemicals and plastics.  Of course, heirloom varieties also allow us to save a lot of our own seed, which means we can be more self-sufficient and grow a product with more local value.  Saving our own seed means we don't have to worry about buying seed that might come treated with chemicals we'd rather not use.  It means we can grow varieties that originally came from 50 different sources without having to pay separate shipping and handling to 50 different seed companies every year, because if we can save our own seed we only need to get it here once, so overall it means that we can grow a greater diversity than we could otherwise.  And when we save seed from an eggplant, instead of a packet with 30 seeds, we have 10,000 seeds, which means we can share with friends and neighbors and other farmers, and they can often share with us.  We wrote last week about the field peas that came from Eric's great uncle.  Another pea variety came from friends at church and another variety from a customer.  We're growing yacons and roselles (wonderful crops that we didn't even know about), sweet potatoes and tomatoes from friends in Rutherford County, another tomato from Melissa's mom, rhubarb and field corn from Eric's former workmate in the Brushy Mountains, beans and butterbeans from a farmers' market customer, peanuts from a friend in Virginia peanut country, etc., etc.  Many of these seeds came with working knowledge of how to grow them.  What all this amounts to is independence: heirlooms mean the potential to eat the kinds of crops and to farm in ways that aren't determined by corporate profitability.  And as much as anything, what we want to offer to you is a real alternative to the corporate food system.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Summer peas


  On these late summer afternoons we've been retreating to the house to shell peas.  We each take a bowl, even the kids, and start working on the pile in the middle of the table.  A few summers ago we visited a neighbor with a homemade sheller; in a half hour his machine shelled out the couple bushels we'd brought along.  We haven't been able to talk him into making a similar sheller for us.  But an excuse to sit down in front of the fan (and even watch a movie!) when it's hot outside isn't so bad.  Then come winter, we'll pull peas out of the freezer or pour them out of a can and enjoy the summer's work.
  I'd never had "peas" growing up.  I'm not even sure the related dry black-eyed pea made it on our table.  Soon after moving to North Carolina, though, Eric's great aunt and uncle offered me a big bowl of little green peas grown in their garden.  I was hooked.  His great Uncle Nick sent us home with seed and we've been growing them since, saving seed every year to keep the family seed going.
  But we haven't stopped there.  We've become pea collectors, always curious and ready to try another variety.  There is an incredible number of varieties with each corner of the South having a favorite pea and many families having seed handed down from generation to generation.  This year we're growing pink-eye purple hulls, strawberry crowders, red rippers, colossals, and “Nick's peas.”  (“Crowders,” by the way, are so called because they're closer together in the pod than other field peas.)
  Of course one problem with growing so much variety is that it complicates seed saving.  Peas need one or two hundred feet of isolation distance to come true. To meet this challenge we separate varieties we want to save seed from in separate gardens and harvest enough seed for multiple years.  Saving pea seed is simple.  Just let the pods go until they are completely dry on the plant.  Then on a hot dry day harvest them into a feed sack and thresh with a baseball bat like we did with the dry beans.  Put them in a glass jar and freeze them to make sure any bugs are dead.  If there's room, just keep the jar in the freezer.
  In the garden, peas are space hogs.  It takes a large area to grow enough to have some to put up.  That said, we think of our pea plantings as cover crops.  They are legumes that add nitrogen to the soil.  And fairly quickly, they vine to completely cover the soil surface and outcompete weeds.  So it's a cover crop that's edible and profitable to grow.  Peas are also fairly quick, 60-90 days depending on the variety.  They can be planted any time from early May to late July.  There are hardly any other crops that can be planted mid-summer and withstand the heat and dry spells and mature a crop before it gets too cold like peas will.  They have few pests and diseases aren't a problem.
  Harvesting the peas can be easy or challenging.  Some varieties have peas that stick straight up above the canopy while others hide under the leaves.  The easiest to harvest are ones that have a colored hull when they are ready, like pink eye purple hulls.  There is actually good debate about when a pea is ready to harvest.  Some folks like them in the "green" stage for a fresh vegetable taste.  These are not quite so easy to shell as when the pea has just started to dry down a little.  We usually pick a bit at both stages and if there are enough peas, separate them out as we shell.
  Peas are simple to prepare.  Simply boil in salt water (or with some pork product) until soft.  Then drain and add some butter.  We also enjoy them cold in a summer salad mixed with corn, peppers, tomatoes and onions.  They are great in soups, too.
  The pea season should last as long as it stays warm.  If you happen to stop by the farm some hot afternoon, we'll find an extra bowl for you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Melon Ice Cream

   It's melon season and it's also ice cream season.  So how about melon ice cream?  Why not.  We even found a recipe in an ice cream cookbook that inspired us.  Here's our version, approved by Hattie.

2 cups melon puree
2 cups cream or mix of cream and milk
7.5 oz honey
  Cut one melon in half.  Remove seeds and peel; cut into chunks.  Using an immersion blender or blender, puree.  Measure out two cups.  Put the rest in the freezer to use another time for ice cream or for making smoothies.  Add the dairy and the honey.  Puree again to make sure it is all well blended.  Thoroughly chill before freezing according to your ice cream maker.
  Next on the agenda - watermelon popsicles.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 Tomato Blind Taste Test Results



    We conducted our annual blind taste test of our tomato varieties this past Tuesday.  We compared 15 varieties of paste and slicing type tomatoes including a couple small varieties that would probably better be described as salad size.  We left the cherry/grape tomatoes for a separate tasting to do later.  In addition to Eric and Melissa, Nora took part for the first time this year, and our two visitors took part, too, so we had 5 tasters altogether.  The tasters were blindfolded and asked to score each tomato with a number between 1 and 10, then each taster's 4 highest scored tomatoes were tasted again and ranked from 1 to 4.  A new variety for us this year scored the most #1 rankings (from Nora and both of our visitors): 'Thai pink,' a small, pink, oval tomato about the size of a very small egg.  The other #1 rankings went to 'San Marzano redorta' (the banana pepper shaped paste variety) which also scored a #3 ranking and 'Amish paste' (the red "oxheart" variety) which also scored a #3 and a #4 ranking.  'Amish paste' has the most #1 rankings from the last 8 years total. 'Mr. Stripey' scored two #2 rankings this year.  'White queen' and 'German Johnson' each scored a #2 ranking.  'Azoychka' (the bright yellow variety), 'vine peach,' and 'Peron sprayless' (the medium-large regular round-shaped red tomato) each scored a #3 ranking.  One of these years we're going to invite you all up for a taste test, but you'll have to do your own this year.  You might be surprised what you really like best when you're blindfolded.  One of our visitors discovered that she really likes the white/yellow varieties, which she never would have bought before.  And we were all very impressed with the odd little 'Thai pink.'

Monday, July 25, 2011

Processing tomatoes

   It's peak tomato season, and today the kitchen was a furnace of tomato processing (making the heat outside not feel so bad).  There were tomatoes roasting in the oven, a crock pot simmering sauce, and two water bath canners going, full of whole canned tomatoes.  Canned jars are now cooling on the counter filled with the colorful array of the tomato rainbow.  But the effort of capturing this peak tomato flavor will be well worth it for all the other nine to ten months, when we can open a jar of tomatoes and taste summer.
   Here's a quick preview of how we preserve:
   For most of our tomato processing, we prefer to use the "paste type" San Marzano redortas.  As our tomato patch is as much for ourselves as it is for you, we grow about seven times as many of the San Marzanos as our average, far more than any other variety, and this despite the fact that they're poor sellers.  With their almost solid flesh and their low seed and juice content, we think they're the perfect type for canning whole, for roasting, for making sauce or paste or ketchup, for drying, for salsa...  But as we wind up with cracked tomatoes and extras of every variety, they all find a preserving purpose.  We mostly use the slicing  types for juice -- the ripe-green or the cherry tomatoes make really good, out-of-the-ordinary juice -- but roasting is a quick way to process tomatoes, so we'll use any varieties for additional roasting tomatoes, too.
   The most basic way we preserve tomatoes is to can them whole.  Simply drop the whole tomato (as is) into boiling water for about 30 seconds.  You'll see the skin start to crack.  Remove the tomatoes and cool in cold water.  At this point, the skin will easily slip off.  Then we core them and put them in jars.  We can them as recommended by the Ball Book of Canning in their own juice in a water bath for 1 hour and 25 minutes.  Instead of canning, these whole peeled tomatoes could easily be slipped into a freezer bag and frozen.
   A couple years ago, we were introduced to roasting tomatoes, and it has changed the way we enjoy tomatoes.  We'll load a couple cookie sheets with mixed tomatoes cut into about one inch pieces.  Then we might throw on some garlic or quartered onions, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with some salt.  Then we'll roast them at 325 for about an hour or until the pieces are concentrated but not burned.  At this point we might enjoy them as an appetizer with bread or cheese, or we'll put them as is in jars and can or freeze.  Or we'll puree them together with the onions and whatever else we added for a thick sauce, then run them through a food mill to take out the seeds.  It's thick and has a wonderful roasted tomato flavor.  Sometimes we add herbs and more garlic and onions.  Then we'll can or freeze the sauce.
   Drying tomatoes is a great way to concentrate tomato flavor and store it in a really small space.  We run several loads in our dehydrator then store the pieces in the freezer just in case they didn't get dry enough.  Then we'll pull them out as we need for meat or bean dishes.
   We make a lot of juice which we really relish in late winter and early spring.  Simply cut off any bad spots from the tomato then quarter, put in a large pot and cook until soft.  We have a small hand food mill we'll then run it through to get out the seeds and peel or we have a larger Victorio strainer that is useful for large quantities.  We especially enjoy separating the different colored tomatoes to end up with the different colored juices.
   And finally we make salsa.  This is basically chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions with some vinegar added.  Cilantro, of course, is a normal addition, but cilantro is a cool season crop, so we can our salsa without cilantro and then add fresh, chopped cilantro in the fall, early winter, or spring as we enjoy it.
   We'll probably have another big day or two of tomato processing in the next week (maybe two), so if you'd like to come help out and learn firsthand how we preserve our tomatoes, let us know, give us your phone number, and if we can plan ahead well enough, we'll get in touch and invite you to spend some time in our very hot kitchen with us!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Potato and onion harvest

Harvesting potatoes was a community event this year.  Especially with the record harvest this year, we were grateful for the help.  Here is Steve plowing out the taters.
We even had some young people join in the pickup.
Lea, our current WWOOFer from France picked up pounds and pounds of them.

Piles of Kennebecs and Red Pontiac in an outbuilding.
Melissa pulling our Yellow of Parma onions.
A pickup full of onions.  Next step, the outbuildings to hang them cure.

PESTICIDE EXPOSURE LINKED TO LOWER IQ IN CHILDREN

    A few months ago we read about some then newly publicized studies showing that higher levels of exposure to organophosphates (a class of chemical pesticides) in pregnant mothers corresponded with lower IQ scores in their children at age 7. Here's one article on the subject:
http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/womens-health/articles/2011/04/21/pesticide-exposure-in-pregnancy-linked-to-lower-iq-in-kids?PageNr=1
   These were interesting studies to us, not just because they highlighted yet another unforeseen and imprudent risk of using chemical pesticides, but especially because they drew our attention to unexpected types of risks. We consider it old news that chemical use is responsible for various forms of cancer and other diseases that will make you sick or kill you -- the only new news about chemicals making us sick is connecting each new generation of chemicals to the specific illnesses they cause -- but it's a little different to think about pesticides causing problems that aren't illnesses (like lower IQ's.) Last year we heard from a beekeeper that pollinates low-bush blueberries in Maine that consumption of low-bush blueberries and a pesticide used on them has been linked to much higher levels of behavioral disorders like ADHD in children. (Low-bush blueberries are different from the blueberries grown locally; if you want to avoid pesticides, local blueberries are actually a much better choice than peaches or apples, for example. Frozen blueberries and other blueberries from up North would be the ones to avoid.)
    So what do we conclude from these kinds of reports? First, we conclude that the problems stemming from chemical use in agriculture are far, far too complex to try to navigate piecemeal. Trying to ban or avoid just the "bad chemicals" that we hear about in the news, etc., surely won't leave the "safe chemicals but rather simply other bad chemicals that cause less expected problems or chemicals that are more difficult to link to the problems they cause.  In other words, we believe the only reasonable response is to avoid chemical agriculture (and lawn care, home pest control, household chemicals, etc.) in general.  Regaining control of those things for which we've become dependent on the corporate system is the only response we find promising. For us that means, of course, not using any chemical pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.) in our own farming and accepting the ensuing costs and losses as our new baseline, but more to the point it means doing as much as we can for ourselves (instead of simply doing what's most profitable and then feeding that money back into the consumer economy), wild harvesting and buying directly from people we know (that likewise aren't using chemical shortcuts) those things that we aren't growing ourselves, and re-learning how to eat locally so that more and more we can do without the kinds of supermarket foods that we've grown up thinking of as staples. This means, for example, accepting the time and commitment it takes to hand milk or tether out a cow, even though supermarket-scaled dairies can produce milk far more cheaply. It also means we don't compare the cost of local, unofficially-organic strawberries to conventional strawberries (knowing that even five cents for a truckload of sweet, red lowered IQ's and behavioral disorders is no bargain), or compare the appearance of unsprayed apples to conventional apples, or the taste of homegrown fruit to chemical-intensive peaches, but rather we compare the cost of local, unofficially-organic strawberries to picking wild blackberries, and we compare the unsprayed apples to the alternative of unsprayed Asian pears, and we simply do without chemical-intensive peaches altogether and let that motivate us to plant more figs and to try making melon ice cream instead of peach and to freeze more blueberries for this winter.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

RAINBOW IN THE TOMATO PATCH

  A tomato plant for the most part looks like a tomato plant.  For months, we've been looking at long rows of these green plants.  Now suddenly the plants are giving forth their signature colors and shapes.  We do have a map of the tomato patch, but it's been more fun to let the fruits form and then color.  This way we recognize the arrival of our old favorites and meet for the first time our new trialed ones.  But we don't look at them long - tomatoes are for eating!
  When tomatoes are this beautiful, they simply need to be served as is.  A favorite side dish of ours is a plate of sliced tomatoes - with the whole spectrum of colors.  Starting from the bottom of the rainbow, we have our repeat favorite 'Cherokee puprle.'  It's often the first to disappear from the platter with it's tempting maroon/purple fully ripe color and rich flavor to match.  Next, greens: ripe tomatoes can be green - they actually get a bit of yellowish hue which, in addition to the softness, clues you they are ready.  Our greens this year include a smaller salad one 'green zebra' with its delicious tart bite and yellow stripes.  'Aunt Ruby's German green' is a new full-size green slicing tomato that Melissa's mom saved seed from for us and we're trying for the first time this year.  In the orange/yellow spectrum we have 'Djena Lee' a very pretty, slightly oval shaped yellow-orange tomato.  'Azoychka', a Russian heirloom, ripens to a taxi cab yellow with a hint of citrus flavor.  We love the way it contrasts, in taste but especially in color, with the red tomatoes.  Another very unusual tomato is the 'white queen,' which is such a pale yellow that it's really about white.  And then we get to the reds and pinks.  'Akers West Virginia' has been our long-time favorite large red slicer, the one that says put me on a slab of mayonaise lathered bread.  With homemade mayaonise (very easy to make), even our kids love this regular lunch time meal.  'German Johnson' the pink version of a large slicer, are a locally recognized favorite and for good reason.  They come on early and big.  'Peron sprayless' and 'Illini star' are reds, and a bit smaller than the previous big guys, so they can go for a sandwich or something smaller.  But if you're undecided on color, 'Mr. Stripey' is the tomato for you.  It's a gigantic, gorgeous red tomato with yellow stripes or is it a yellow tomato with red stripes.  Either way, cut crosswise it's a treat for the eyes.  But don't stop there.  Eat it up and we'll have more for you next week.
  In the just for fun category this year, we're trialing 'vine peach', a seed gift from a friend.  And true to their name they are covered with a peach-like fuzz and a peach-like color enough to really make you think you're holding a ripe peach in your hand.  'Thai pink' is a smallish "plum tomato" new to us this year from the same seed-saving friend.  And we love our cherry tomatoes.  Just mentioning the names and you certainly can envision a bowl-full of mini color balls - 'orange cherry', 'red pearl', pink cherry, 'black cherry', Harry's yellow grape, and 'tommy toe,' a well-known red heirloom.
  And finally, what we refer to as our processing or 'winter' tomatoes - 'Amish paste' and 'San Marzano redorta'.  'Amish paste' actually is a wonderful multi-purpose tomato.  If we had to grow one tomato, it would be this one.  In fact, a neighbor who claims not to really like tomatoes, now only grows this one.  A repeat winner in our blind taste tests, it excels fresh in the summer and is a winter treat out of the jar on pizza or pasta.  We can't say enough about 'San Marzanos' either so we just planted about a quarter of our tomato patch to them!  They are big.  Forget hours peeling baby romas to can.  One of these equals 5 romas, with much less trouble and double the flavor.  They are nearly juiceless and seedless (which can make seed saving an effort) so canning them is a joy.  Their meatiness means that they don't cook down nearly as much as other tomatoes, so for making a sauce or anything you want to thicken up, a pound of these San Marzano seems to be worth two pounds of slicing tomatoes.  Stick 5 or 6 peeled tomatoes in a quart jar and they are ready to go into the canner.
  All our tomatoes are open-pollinated varities grown from seed we saved (except for the ones we are trialing for the first time).  They are put through a rigorous taste test each year to make sure they perform where it counts the most.  Let us know what you think as you enjoy this year's tomato season!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Helping Visitors




We've had a string of visitors come stay on the farm and help out this year, starting with Gildas (pictured weeding the strawberry patch), followed by Tim (whose picture we failed to take -- didn't mean to leave you out, Tim!), then Zeke (pictured milking the cow), and most recently Melanie (tying up onions).  Thank you again for the help!  We very much enjoyed the time we got to spend with each of you on the farm.  Keep in touch, and come visit whenever you get the chance! 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Homegrown Beer: the Barley Harvest

A good sharp sickle -- we got a sharper sickle in time for
the wheat harvest -- seems like the best harvesting tool.
Our threshing system gets the job done,
but we'd love to find a better way.
Paul and Hattie playing on the tractor as it starts to get dark.
Bringing in the barley harvest.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

DIVERSITY AND KNOWING WHAT WENT INTO GROWING YOUR FOOD


  One of the several reasons we maintain a highly diversified farm -- we grow well over 100 varieties of garden crops; manage permanent pastures to feed cattle and goats for dairy and meat; grow grains for food and as a supplement to forage for our chickens; grow fruit trees, brambles, bushes, and vines; keep honeybees; raise mushrooms on logs; etc. -- is so that our customers can have a realistic option of knowing what went into growing their food.  The modern food economy has gotten so complex that it's impossible for normal consumers to know what goes into growing their food (which we see as a fundamental step to exercising good stewardship of the earth.)  Diversifying our farm is a way we offer to simplify your food economy.  The alternative would be for us to sell a much smaller variety of farm goods to a much wider pool of customers and, correspondingly, for our customers to buy just a small number of things from each of a much greater number of farmers, but that would mean that consumers would have that much less reason to get to know any one farm -- and it's hard enough for farms and consumers to make meaningful, informative connections as it is.  So we want to make it worth your while to get to know us, to learn what we do and why we do it.  In order to farm in a truly different way, we believe that truly different relationships with the consumers of our farm goods are absolutely essential.  Along these same lines, here's a little excerpt from a Wendell Berry interview:
Berry: Shorten the supply lines. Bring your economic geography back into your own view. That's not to say that we don't need tuna fish here [in Kentucky], but even if we were catching ocean fish in the least destructive way, it would still be wrong for us to be too dependent on tuna in Kentucky. We ought to eat more catfish.
We ought to see to it that our rivers are unpolluted here, and eat the local fish from them. And we ought to fish in a way that preserves the supply and, therefore, preserves the livelihood of fishing. What I'm trying to talk against is the idea that a so-called environmental problem can ever be satisfactorily reduced to a simple moral choice. It's always complex in its causes, and so its solutions will also have to be complex.
Fisher-Smith (Interviewer): It seems to me that you've turned these words "complex" and "simple" upside down, in terms of their usual positive or negative values. You've said you wish to complicate, not to simplify, every aspect of daily life.
Berry: Absolutely! Simplicity means that you have brought things to a kind of unity in yourself; you have made certain connections. That is, you have to make a just response to the real complexity of life in this world. People have tried to simplify themselves by severing the connections. That doesn't work. Severing connections makes complication. These bogus attempts at simplification ignore or despise the real complexity of the world. And ignoring complexity makes complication--in other words, a mess.
Interviewer: But that complication is considered to be outside the accounting?
Berry: It's left out of the accounting. That's right. People think either that they'll die before the bill comes due or that somebody else will pay for it. But the world is complex, and if we are to make fit responses to the world, then our thinking--not our equipment, but our thoughts--will have to become complex also. Our thoughts can never become as complex as the world is--but, you see, an uncanny thing is possible. It's possible to use the world well without understanding it in all of its complexity. People have done it. They've done it not by complicated technology, but by competent local adaptation, complex thought, sympathy, affection, local loyalties and fidelities, and so on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE CHALLENGES OF SIMPLICITY

   Talking about poultry and eggs last week we mentioned some things in passing about how we feed our chickens, and it occurred to us that we might have given a false impression about the simplicity of keeping chickens the way we do, so we thought we'd tell you more this week about what's involved. Straight heirloom corn, for example, is certainly a simple chicken feed, but feeding simply corn (or barley or wheat, depending largely on the season) presents a whole array of other challenges, which is why most small farmers and even most people with backyard chickens opt for the store-bought, “scientifically formulated” chicken feed mixture with the long list of mysterious ingredients (whether conventional or USDA organic) like we discussed last week. So the question we want to address here is why feeding a homegrown kind of feed to chickens is so uncommon. In other words, what's not simple about feeding simple, homegrown feed?
   The first challenge is that locally grown, non-GMO (not genetically modified) grain -- which is the only grain we feed -- isn't typically for sale anywhere, so generally our only options are to grow grain ourselves (and hand-hoe and hand-harvest it, etc.) and to find local grain farmers willing to deal with us in relatively, by today's standards, very small quantities. However, a small quantity for the grain farmer is typically a large quantity for us. The heirloom corn we bought from a nearby “retired” hobby farmer last year -- it took years just to locate a farmer growing a surplus of heirloom corn like this -- wasn't for sale by the bag as needed; really the only way we were able to buy it was to buy the entire crop at harvest time. And the corn came on the cob, so we had to have built a corn crib to store it (about 70 bushels on the cob) and finish drying it. Then in order to feed it we had to remove the cobs by hand and pass them one at a time through our corn sheller. That's one series of logistical hurdles, but since we don't use insecticides we can't simply store large enough quantities of corn to feed our flock of chickens through the summer and early fall without the corn getting destroyed by little grain-eating insects. So to make it through those months we've been buying wheat from some brothers that keep an old combine running and grow a few acres of grain, as best we can tell, just as a hobby. (That the only farmers growing the kind of grain that we'd want to buy can only justify their farming as a hobby shows how badly we need to increase our awareness and the value we place on local grain farming and grain-fed products like pork and poultry, etc.) Together with another friend that raises livestock and poultry, we've been buying these brothers' entire wheat crop as feed for our animals. What that means for us is that we wind up with a row of 55-gallon drums full of wheat lined up in front of our barn, where the brothers are able to unload the wheat. Then we had to get those drums under shelter. This past year we borrowed a hand truck for moving appliances, which was a big improvement over brute wrestling, but with uneven ground and barn bedding, etc. still took two plus hours of strenuous work. As nice as it would be to avoid that kind of work, it was the most efficient way to get the job done, given the scale necessitated by breaking with mainstream ways of farming, which is the broader point we're trying to make: breaking with mainstream ways of farming isn't easy and it often dictates a scale incompatible with modern, labor-saving machinery.
   But the challenges to simply feeding locally grown grain don't end with the grain, because grain isn't a complete feed. Corn or wheat only work as feed for our chickens because all day long, until we top them off in the evening, they're eating grubs and worms and grass and weed seeds, etc., etc. In order to make that kind of foraging possible, we have to manage predator threats, we have to keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from all the crops they would eat or scratch up, and we also have to deal with infringements on people spaces. We keep predators shy mainly by keeping a couple outdoor dogs (which have their own set of requirements) and by being here, working outside and walking back and forth, all day long almost every day. We keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from our crops at the expense of fencing, and by chasing down the occasional fence jumpers with a fishing net (i.e. at the expense of our dignity) and then finding someone else to whom we can give or sell those hens. Furthermore, allowing chickens to free forage means allowing chickens to poop in all sorts of places we would rather not have chicken poop, like on the walkway from our driveway to the house. Fortunately for the sake of our chickens' forage we don't have neighbors within 1/8 mile or too much traffic on our road -- that comes with the cost of being further from town and market and customers -- but for most other small farmers providing comparable forage would probably mean daily setting up new rotations with poultry netting. All this to say there are plenty of hurdles and costs to keeping things simple. We hope understanding some of these things will help you appreciate the end product.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why does feeding a chicken have to be so complex?

Chickens roosting in the barn for the night

   Last year we recommended Organic Valley to you all as a relatively better choice for milk by supermarket standards. We figured any company that big wouldn't maintain much integrity very many years, but we didn't foresee having to issue a retraction so soon. We know there are still a lot of good farmers supplying Organic Valley, but a recent comment by the CEO, George Siemon was enough to spoil any endorsement we could make for the brand. The CEO's comment actually had nothing at all to do with dairy; his comment was made in defense of using synthetic methionine in organic broiler feed -- apparently eggs are sold under the same brand name: “I don’t understand what the big deal is. There are tons of synthetics in your life; now we are saying none in animals?” You see, a diet of strictly grains and oilseed meals (i.e. corn and soy) is so unnatural for chickens that they're unable to get all the essential amino acids they need, and because a natural diet is so incompatible with modern, large-scale ways of keeping chickens, the people that write the rules for the USDA organic program made an exception for synthetic methionine in poultry feed, so that modern, large-scale farms could continue to supply "organic" consumers with poultry products.
   There would be several ways to avoid the need for synthetic methionine in poultry feed, but the solutions all get in the way of industrially defined efficiency. One solution would be to supply chickens with fresh, green feeds. Another solution would be to let chickens scratch up things like earthworms and grubs. Another solution would be to simply raise chickens that grow at a more natural rate and don't run into nutrient deficiencies as readily as the modern hybrids bred for intensive factory farming. Another solution would be to give chickens the kind of surpluses (like dairy byproducts) that small farms generally find themselves with. All of these things happen as a matter of course on a farm like ours, and any one of them would likely be a solution to the USDA organic methionine problem. Unfortunately, all of these solutions are too far removed from the reality of “USDA organic” practice, so the people in charge simply wrote the rules defining “organic” to accommodate industrialized farming methods by allowing synthetic amino acids in poultry feed. Now, maybe synthetic methionine isn't as harmful or risky as many of the other synthetics used in agriculture -- we don't know and for our sake we don't need to know -- but the kind of farming made possible by synthetic methionine, thousands of chickens crowded into buildings never eating anything fresh, fed by Midwestern mega-farms, is certainly harmful, and it's a far cry from what organic ought to mean.
   We found the following mystery ingredients in one blend of USDA organic feed (which we're sure is more natural than what's fed to the flocks supplying supermarkets, whose feed ingredients we've never seen disclosed) -- keep in mind this is a USDA certified organic feed:
Sodium Silico Aluminate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Yeast Culture, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Choline Chloride, Menadione Nicotinamide Bisulfite Complex, D-Calcium Pantothenic Acid, Niacin Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Biotin, Folic Acid, Manganese Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Zinc Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Sodium Selenite, Dried fermentation product of Enterococcus faecium, Dried fermentation product of Bacillus coagulans...
   Some of these ingredients have more natural sounding names than others, but surely none of them was fed to poultry 200 years ago. Where do all these things come from and at what ecological costs? Would you know how to grow or mine or synthesize any of these things? Why does feeding a chicken have to be so complex? For comparison, we don't feed anything to our chickens that farmers didn't feed 200 years ago. According to the season and what we can grow ourselves or buy directly from neighbors (besides surpluses from our own farm like garden extras or surplus dairy from our animals) we simply supplement free range forage with barley or wheat or heirloom (non-GMO) corn. It really doesn't seem to us that normal chicken feed ought to require sophisticated modern science. For us eating organic doesn't mean eating processed foods with long lists of ingredients that came from who-knows-where and were produced who-knows-how; why should eating organic be defined so differently when it comes to feeding animals?
   USDA organic is a huge improvement over conventional -- don't get us wrong, it gets a LOT worse -- but it still leaves a lot to be desired, and as a system it's nothing we find hope in.

Late frost

   Pretty reliably we can subtract at least 5 degrees from the forecasted low. So when the forecast is for 38, yikes! Forget that the calendar says May. Wednesday and Thursday nights we pulled out all the large garden pots we've been so generously given over the years and covered all 309 of the newly set tomato plants plus the squash, cucumbers, and zucchini. We knew there was nothing we could do for the field corn and potatoes. Then we set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. to try to wash any frost off the strawberries if needed. For the most part, everything came through alright, although we did see some damage to some of the strawberry plants.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

STONE GROUND HEIRLOOM WHITE CORNMEAL AND GRITS

Two years ago, while looking for extra grain to feed our chickens, we found an 80 year old farmer nearby that was growing about an acre of 'hickory king' white field corn. Even though he was growing this very special heirloom without any herbicides or other pesticides, he was selling it to the local feed mill for commodity prices. We arranged to buy his whole crop and paid him double what he asked for it, knowing how much it was worth since we were growing a half acre of a very similar heirloom ourselves (the only difference being we avoid the use of conventional fertilizer.) This past year we grew a much smaller section of field corn since we were expecting a baby right about the time we'd need to be hoeing the corn, so we were very pleased to again be able to buy this 'hickory king' corn from our neighbor. We stored the corn in our little corn crib (pictured here) until about January when it was thoroughly dry and then began the process of sorting and shelling. We used a hand sheller to remove the less perfect kernels from the end of each ear, setting aside that corn for chicken feed along with the whole cobs that weren't as nice, inspecting each cob underneath to make sure it was free of any mold before shelling the remaining corn for grinding. We winnowed the corn in front of a fan and froze it one bucket at a time to eliminate any insect pests. Now we're grinding it fresh as needed with the small granite grist mill (made in Wilkes County) that we bought when we first started growing corn. Unlike almost all the other field corn grown in our area (and nationwide), heirloom corn varieties are not genetically modified with non-corn genes. We believe it's important to preserve these heirlooms not just to maintain non-genetically modified options, but also because these varieties weren't bred to depend on high rates of conventional fertilizer, on chemical control of weeds, diseases, and insects, and on combine harvesting. That means they're all around suitable to local use on small farms and to communities deciding how to grow their own food. We normally grind our cornmeal coarser than what you'd find in supermarkets. It's the texture we mostly prefer for our favorites: corn muffins, corn mush, hush puppies, hoe cakes... If you prefer a different grind, we're happy to grind to custom requests. We also grind and sift grits. Our grits still contain some of the hulls of the corn kernel. These will float to the surface when you add the water to your grits. Skim these off. Once ground, cornmeal or grits like we're offering are best used promptly or stored in the freezer. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Time for lettuce

   We're off to a very nice start on a beautiful lettuce season, so please enjoy. May is perhaps the best month of the whole year for lettuce.  Right now the loose mix is at its peak. Our spring mix is an assortment of buttercrunch and green and red leaf lettuces. Our head lettuces have started to mature as well.  Last year we discovered a green butterhead variety, which you hopefully enjoyed as much as we did. This year we've found a red butterhead variety that's looking very good, as well as a new Romaine type, plus two Batavian types with heat
resistance we're hoping will extend our lettuce season into early
summer. 
   Here's our standard salad dressing recipe. Of all the meals we've shared with people, our simple salad dressing probably gets the most recipe requests of all, so here it is:

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup oil
1 tsp salt
2 tsp prepared mustard or 1/2 tsp ground mustard (optional)

optional additions: minced dried strawberries, poppy seeds, herbs...