Monday, November 9, 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

How to eat like a farmer

  The basic concept of our Full Farm CSA (and the Vegetable CSA as a smaller step in the same direction) is that we grow and provide as complete an assortment of as many food groups as possible, including things that wouldn't be practical or economical to sell to the general public, and our CSA members make a comprehensive commitment to our farm in return, making significant changes to their food habits for the sake of eating from our way of farming.  The idea is that we grow first for them, and their food choices begin with us.  That frees us from catering to less informed customers and allows us to farm in the way we believe best, and it enables those that share our beliefs to obtain and to eat food grown in ways that largely wouldn't be available otherwise.  (See here for a discussion of food groups that have been completely left out of the local-organic food movement.)  Basically our CSA means you eat more like you would eat if you were growing your own food, and that's how we farm.  These are things we've said before, but we want to explain what we mean in a little more depth here.
  So how does growing our own food shape how we farm?  Perhaps most significantly, diversifying instead of specializing -- our farm provides us with fruits, vegetables, nuts, sweeteners, fats, dairy, meat, poultry, eggs, grains, pulses, herbs and teas... really everything besides fish -- means that we are our own most significant customer.  Our own family eats a significant percentage of almost every crop we produce.  If we were selling 99.9+% of each crop, like most full-time farmers in America, then we wouldn't have any real incentive to do anything besides what made the most money, but since we're farming for our own food as much as we're farming for money we don't, for example, just grow the highest yielding sweet potato variety, but we grow an assortment of the best tasting varieties... every issue from taste to diversity to affordability to organic integrity to food safety to the deeper questions of sustainability concern us personally and affect our personal food supply as much as anything, so instead of being forced to compromise everything possible to compete for fractions of a penny with thousands of other farmers serving millions of customers, most of whom are in a position to judge only the most superficial questions of price and cosmetics (swayed by advertisements, misleading product labels, etc.), we're in a position to weigh all the questions in the balance.  We farm the way we want to eat, because we're eating so much of what we farm.  And the extent of the differences between even USDA-organic food, on one hand, and how people eat and the ways they choose to farm when they're farming for themselves, on the other hand, is dramatic, all the more if you consider not just what people growing for themselves eat but also how it was processed, what chemicals and other inputs went into producing it, etc.  (See here or here for more discussion of what our homegrown style of farming does and doesn't mean.)
  But lots of obstacles stand in the way of customers being able to join in eating from a homegrown system of farming like ours.  Our farm can't offer the same crops, processed into the same foods, available at the same times and in the same kind of places as what almost all of our customers are currently in the habit of eating (including how we ate before how we believed in farming reshaped how we eat.)  We don't sell prepared tomato sauce, which the supermarket does sell, but we do offer bulk discounts for processing grade tomatoes, and that's something the supermarket doesn't sell, and certainly not from heirloom tomatoes picked ripe the day before and grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, etc.  Similarly we don't sell ice cream, but we sell exceptional honey from unmedicated hives that you could use to make your own ice cream for a homegrown quality like nothing you could buy in the store.  And that gets at a difference beyond just processing: honey is generally a substitute for sugar, but it tastes different, it requires adjustments in preparation/cooking methods, etc.  While we can grow foods to cover nearly every food group besides seafood, we can't grow all the same foods, especially not pre-processed foods, you're used to buying if you're used to getting most of your food from the supermarket system of farming, and especially not the same produce items if you're used to buying the same items fresh year-round.  Even our beef is seasonal based on the grass and based on our preferred meat processor that won't kill beef cattle when they're busy with deer hunting season.  And the logistics of selling our beef by the package are complicated enough that, going forward, we plan to only sell it on quarters, which pretty much means we can only sell to customers with stand-alone freezers (or to customers willing to buy a quarter cooperatively and divide it.)  Our point in all of these examples is that eating from a homegrown system of farming like ours requires lots of adjustments from normal supermarket habits.
  So the trouble is that if you come to us with a shopping list based on normal supermarket habits, we're not going to be able to offer you much.  The idea of the Full Farm CSA is that, instead of beginning with a shopping list, you'll begin, like a farmer, with what your farm has to offer.  Having already decided what kind of farming we want to eat from as much as we can, a lot of food questions are pretty well answered for us as farming questions before they ever become food questions.  For example, we haven't seen any reasonable way to try to grow rice in our location, so instead of eating rice and beans, we often eat grits and beans.  Having already grown it, heirloom corn is a given for us, and so we find ways to use it and to enjoy it.  Similarly, because we already have corn, we don't buy tortillas or tortilla chips at the store, but we'll cook whole kernel corn into hominy, grind it in a cheap hand mill and roll it into tortillas, and for chips, fry tortilla pieces into chips.  Of course, that means that tortilla chips aren't a quick and easy thing to decide to eat (unless perhaps we have leftover tortillas from the day before), and it means we don't eat tortilla chips all the time (but how much better are warm homegrown tortilla chips when we do make them!)  Letting our small farm direct how we eat, means that a lot of "fast food" options like tortilla chips are still possible, but they're no longer fast, and they require significant kitchen time and planning.  But that also leads us to a different kind of "fast food."  Vegetables are mostly fairly quick and easy to cut up and saute, so we eat lots of fresh vegetables.  Vegetables that we already cut up and froze or canned are even easier to pull out.  And how good are homegrown spring garden peas hand picked at just the right stage, shelled, and briefly boiled out of the freezer!  Of course, raw vegetables as in fresh tomato sandwiches or ripe pepper pieces filled with goat cheese or lettuce salad are even easier than cooking vegetables.  Yogurt is another "fast food," sweetened just with honey or with added fresh berries, when they're in season, or out of the freezer, or with roselle sauce, or as a dressing for a cucumber salad.  Meat out of the freezer is potentially easier than going to the store to buy it.  Overall letting a farm like ours lead how you eat will almost certainly mean more time spent in the kitchen, more skills to learn and employ, but the bigger point is that our CSA will turn a lot of normal supermarket food culture upside down so that you shop and cook and eat more like farmers that grow their own food.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Monday, September 28, 2015

7 REASONS TO SUPPORT LOCAL-ORGANIC GRAIN FARMING

   The reasons why local-organic grains have been so terribly neglected are fairly straightforward.  First, compared to most other foods, grains are relatively non-perishable, so they're relatively cheap to ship, and there aren't hardly any issues like with tomatoes or peaches of sacrificing flavor by harvesting under-ripe to withstand long-distance transport.  Secondly, from a gastronomic perspective, grains are that essential part of a meal that you normally just take for granted and don't pay any particular thought to.  Pasta dishes are defined by the sauce (or at most the shape of the pasta, which has nothing to do with the grain farming); a sandwich by what's inside; rice is just a side dish or a "bed" for what defines the meal; and oatmeal is just oatmeal.  And if grains don't get attention when they're actually on the plate, how much less attention do they get when they only made it as far as the feed trough?  From meat to dairy to eggs to farm-raised fish, there isn't a single farm animal that isn't commonly fed grain, often exclusively, and even as the great bulk of the calories in the diets of most pastured livestock and poultry.  But if you think about the farms you depend on for your eggs, do you think all about chickens or do you think at least as much about the grain fields that fed the chickens?  Grains are hugely important, but whether as feed or food they're easily overlooked by the consumer.  Thirdly, grain farming is especially highly mechanized.  Most acres of grain in America probably aren't stepped on once by the farmer's feet over the course of the whole year: only tires and steel and chemicals need to touch the ground, and that means that large scale, heavily mechanized farmers have bigger cost advantages in grain farming than in any other major farming category.  It takes a huge scaling down of modern farm equipment to meet the tiny market potential that currently exists for local-organic grains.  And finally, grains lend themselves especially well to pre-processed convenience foods. Using local-organic grains requires kitchen time.  It's much easier to slice a local-organic tomato for a tomato sandwich than it is to bake the bread for a local-organic tomato sandwich.  Local-organic grain options will require consumers to look beyond the easy habits of boxed pasta, instant rice, frozen pizza, corn flakes, etc.
  So why not just be content leaving grains out of the local-organic food movement?  Here are 7 reasons we believe local-organic grains are at least as important to local-organic food as anything else, reasons that if understood should provide ample motivation to meet the challenges:

1. ACREAGE AND COMMUNITY IMPACT
  Grain crops like field corn (which is corn that is harvested when the kernels are hard-dry), wheat, barley, rice, etc. account for far more acreage than fruits and vegetables.  We'd guess the difference in our county and general area is at least 100:1 if not 1000:1.  If we want to support a healthy ecosystem around us, if we want healthy soils, healthy rivers and aquifers, and if we want to foster the local food economy and build sustainable farming communities, then we can't leave grain farming out of the equation; the land impact is just far too significant.

2. HEALTHY CALORIES
  Directly and indirectly (by feeding to farm animals), grains account for most of the calories the average American (besides about any other country) consumes.  If you're concerned about what you're eating and how it was grown (and what went into growing it), grain farming is hugely significant to your diet.

3. FIRST STEP TO LOCAL-ORGANIC PORK AND POULTRY
  We don't see any realistic path to local-organic pork or poultry (including eggs) that doesn't begin with local-organic grain for human consumption.  If local farms can find support for local-organic grains (as cornmeal, grits, corn for hominy/tortillas, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, and whatever other grains can be relatively efficiently grown organically and processed on a small scale in our region), then there will be various byproducts (milling byproducts and parts of crops that for various reasons wind up unfit for human consumption and sporadic damaged crops that can't be harvested but can be fenced in for animals to harvest directly) that will go a long way to making local-organic pork and poultry feasible and economical.

4. FERTILIZER VS. POLLUTION
  The present alternative to feeding farm animals local-organic feed is to raise pork and poultry and other farm animals on grain shipped in from far away organic farms or more often from farms that aren't organic at all.  That leaves problems on both ends, for both the grain farm and the livestock operation.  The grain farmer is left with a nutrient deficit from shipping away the nutrients in his grain, and the manure can become a waste liability or pollutant on the other end.  When the grain farmer replaces the manure with synthetic fertilizers highly susceptible to run-off and leaching, that can further exacerbate the pollution liability.  The natural solution to the problem is to use animal manure to fertilize grain crops, but that can only practically happen when farm animals are being raised on the same farm as the grain that feeds them (or at least in the same farming community and as part of the same farming system), and that's realistically only going to happen as consumers that value local-organic farming begin by supporting local-organic grain products for human consumption.

5. FIRST STEP TO OTHER FIELD CROPS
  The equipment and facilities for growing and processing grains like field corn, barley, wheat, etc. share a lot in common with other field crops like oil seeds (seeds that are pressed for salad/cooking oil) and pulses (dry peas and beans, soybeans, etc.) and seed crops like cover crop and forage plant seed.  Growing and finding markets for true grains and grain products (like flour, cornmeal, etc.) will likely prove to be a necessary first step to local-organic farms and communities once again growing and offering and stewarding these other foods and field crops.

6. CROP ROTATIONS
  Diversified farms that grow produce crops together with grain crops and forage/hay crops and animals are in the best position to practice the kind of crop rotations that improve soil health, cycle nutrients, and break pest and disease cycles.

7. NATURAL MULCH
  Before produce farms were all covered in plastic, straw was the natural mulch for crops like straw-berries and many other produce crops.  Straw is a byproduct of grain farming (the leftover stalk of grains like wheat or barley or oats.)  Unlike plastic, which just adds to landfills, straw naturally decomposes, improving the soil in the process.  If your vision of an organic produce farm isn't one covered in plastic, that's one more reason to support local-organic grain farming.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

DISCOVERING JALAPENOS

  As vegetable farmers we eat and like every vegetable we grow.  Of course we have our favorites, but through the course of the year, every vegetable makes it to our plates multiple times.  Until this year we had hardly grown any jalapenos, though, and then only very sparingly found uses for them.  But by customer request, we set out a dozen plants, planning mostly just to sell them.  Mostly our family is a little shy when it comes to hot/spicy foods.  But then, as the first fruits were coming in, a neighbor took some home with him to roast with cream cheese.  Later that night, we tried the same but with goat cheese.  And the next day we called to tell him there would be a lot fewer jalapenos for him this year because he'd clued us in on a delicious way to enjoy them.  Of course, it's a pretty standard and common use, but we just hadn't ever done it before.  We had assumed the heat would be much more extreme but even our three year old wanted multiple helpings.  We actually should have plenty to share with our neighbor and with you, but it reminded us of our own journey to enjoying all vegetables, most of which we didn't grow up eating ourselves.  Maybe a new preparation of a formerly shunned vegetable will be the start of an addiction as those roasted goat cheese jalapenos have become for us!

CSA box this week


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

NOT WAITING FOR CHANGE

  For the sake of helping our customers and especially prospective CSA members understand what our farm is about we want to talk this week about one very important aspect of our approach to farming, specifically how we approach all the many foods that the local-organic food movement has generally decided are better just to outsource or ignore (at least for the foreseeable future.) As we detailed about a month ago, there are several huge holes in the local-organic food movement (in terms of what foods are grown and sold), holes that invariably account for most of the acreage that even the most dedicated farmers' market consumers have farmed on their behalf (i.e. most of their agricultural footprints), as well as most of their calories.  We believe too much in the value of local-organic ways of farming and eating to be content with such a marginal role for local-organic agriculture.  Of course, it's easy to focus on colorful things like fresh vegetables and ignore background things like staple dry goods or the feed that makes animal products (especially if the animals are raised on small local farms, just on feed purchased from a very different system of agriculture), but we wouldn't continue to go to the trouble to grow hardly anything ourselves unless we had some real hope in a broad system of food and farming that's truly distinct from what's become the modern norm in our part of the world.  Perhaps one might be content with some colorful changes at the margins for a while if one avoided asking too many questions, but for us as farmers the questions have been too hard to avoid, and so we're not content to wait for the economics of local-organic farming to redefine itself before we make real efforts toward comprehensive changes.
  What we're talking about here is efficiency and labor cost.  The biggest holes in the local-organic food movement aren't there because there aren't local-organic ways to fill the holes (i.e. produce the food); the biggest holes are there because the local-organic food movement has been waiting to develop modern efficient methods for filling the holes, methods that haven't been developed, particularly not on a scale consistent with local-organic markets.  So, for example, we're talking about whether it makes sense to hand hoe/weed corn (in our case primarily for cornmeal/grits/hominy/tortillas and secondarily for animal feed) even when there are herbicides (either selective herbicides or broad spectrum herbicides in conjunction with herbicide-resistant GMO corn) that with the right machinery could be sprayed on over a thousand acres in the time it would take us to hand hoe one acre (even as a follow-up to tractor cultivating.)  Even apart from the direct conflicts with organic principles, there are often indirect conflicts: machinery that can yield big gains in efficiency often comes at a huge cost, which requires a huge scale of production, which creates organic impasses in other places.  For example, one might be able to realize much greater efficiency with modern harvesting equipment but only on a scale at which organic methods for weed and pest control and local-organic marketing were no longer feasible.
  So what should we do?  Obviously, cost matters, but in more or less the materially richest nation in the world at the materially richest time in history, surely for almost all of us our long-term choices aren't dictated so much by the necessities of survival.  So is there enough value in local-organic food and farming to accept significant trade-offs in superficial dollar efficiency?  Or should we just abandon ideas of local-organic production for all those foods that can't be produced according to modern ideas of efficiency?  When the only way to produce a given food local-organically involves lots of old-fashioned hand labor -- and in the present reality (and foreseeable future) that's often the only available choice -- we don't immediately infer a reason to jump the local-organic ship. Obviously, we want to find the most efficient ways to do things that we can, but our definition of efficiency isn't the narrow definition of efficiency that rules commodity markets, so local-organic values are critical to our accounting.
  We also don't care so much how local-organic farming costs compare to conventional costs.  In other words, no matter how cheap high fructose corn syrup gets, we're still going to want to eat honey. If local-organic honey is too expensive for us we may eat less honey and more local-organic sorghum syrup or we may have to cut back on sweeteners altogether, but the cost of corn syrup sweetened supermarket food doesn't really factor into our accounting at all. This same kind of thinking about how we want to eat as a family plays a heavy role in determining what we have to offer to our customers.
  What does this mean for the CSA members for whom (after ourselves) we're primarily growing?  For one thing, to put a positive spin on it, it means our CSA members have access to a lot of foods for which there aren't hardly any local-organic options (e.g. dry beans/peas, peanuts, wheat/flour/bread, storage onions, English shelling peas...), or to put a negative spin on it, it means we're focusing heavily on foods that a lot of organically inclined farmers' market customers would rather buy more cheaply at the supermarket (and without having to shell peanuts or peas themselves, and with more convenient options like ready-to-use canned beans instead of dry beans, multiple types of ready-made bread available any day of the week...)  From another positive angle, we also believe that there's value in recovering, developing, and preserving the locally adapted genetics, the seed stock, and the knowledge that go into producing all the foods that the local-organic movement has mostly abandoned. We hope our CSA members will find value in supporting those efforts.

9 LOCAL-ORGANIC THINGS FARMERS LIKE US GROW FOR THEMSELVES THAT YOU CAN'T BUY (even if you're a local-food-super-hero consumer)

  If you believe, like we do, that there are lots of important questions -- important enough that they deserve meaningful attention -- that go into growing food and bringing it to the table, and that the cheapest way (with or without any set of rules like those of the National Organic Standards Board) isn't automatically and always the best way (subjects we've previously discussed in more detail here and here), then you may have come to the same conclusion we have: that real power to make meaningful choices in these questions comes by connecting much more closely to the source of your food.  And in that case, if you've considered all the different parts of your diet, you've probably found a very substantial list of food categories for which there just aren't any real options for sale anywhere in our broader area.  In other words, if you live in this area (or pretty much any other area in the industrialized world), there are lots of foods/food categories you just can't buy except from the supermarket system of agriculture.  Obviously some foods, like tropical fruits or new foods like margarine are by their very nature not foods one should expect to be able to source from local farms, but our list below is a list of foods that, although challenging and complicated in various ways, we're fully able to grow for our own use, foods which also were mostly commonly available from local sources until just the last couple generations.  So, first the list of 9 things we're able to grow to the full extent of our own family's needs but which can't be bought from any comparable local-organic sources:

1. Buckwheat (particularly in contrast to rice...)
2. Dry peas/beans
3. Cow's milk, yogurt, butter, ice cream, mozzarella...
4. Goat's milk cheese and goat's milk (and goat meat)
5. A full assortment of local-organic fruits
6. Bread (and pancakes, biscuits, cakes, pasta, pizza, etc.)
7. Pork (and lard, bacon, ham...)
8. Nuts (so far: peanuts, black walnuts, chestnuts, and American hazelnuts, besides pecans we get from friends)
9. Corn tortillas

  This would get too lengthy for our newsletter if we gave even a brief explanation of each category on our list, but there are lots of details to consider.  If you have questions about why we say none of these things is available to purchase from local-organic sources, please talk to us about it further, but we'll summarize by saying that those items which are available locally mostly either involve substantial organic compromises (especially with animals raised on non-local, non-organic feeds and often conventionally medicated as well) or aren't complete enough that we would consider them full substitutes (as with the limited supply of local-organic fruits and nuts.)  We'd also note that we're attempting with our new-this-year Full Farm CSA plan to offer some of the above products to our Full Farm CSA members, but our point is that even though these foods can be grown, none of them is actually being grown for sale to the general public.
  We place buckwheat at the top of our list because, although for most people and for us as well it's not a major staple, it played a leading role in motivating us to more carefully consider the whole range of foods that we had previously contented ourselves to buy from more convenient sources.  A few years ago we had decided that if we were going to buy any foods from the supermarket system of agriculture that we would at least buy USDA organic, but when we ordered a bulk bag of organic buckwheat our bag of USDA organic buckwheat came labeled "Product of China."  For a number of fairly obvious reasons this made it clear to us that the challenges and costs of growing crops like buckwheat, dry beans and peas, a full assortment of grain crops, the feed for our animals... were worth taking on, and for the first time last year, although we failed to harvest as much as we hoped, we did harvest enough buckwheat to meet all our own family's needs.  We hope to learn from some of last year's failures and harvest enough to supply all our Full Farm CSA members this year, but in any case, buckwheat represents many of the common grains and grain products (rice, oatmeal, boxed breakfast cereals...) that as a category are simply left out of the whole local-organic food movement.
  We'd like you all to especially consider that while things like buckwheat and tortillas and the wheat that goes into making bread and the feed that goes into making pork... are things that are easy to overlook when there are lots of exciting local foods to focus on instead, the crops on the list above (and their conventional counterparts) represent a huge part, probably a majority, of the calories we consume and the acreage of farmland we use by proxy.  They certainly represent a majority, probably a very heavy majority, of what practically everyone in the industrialized world eats (regardless of diet preferences) if you add in the foods that our family would like to grow for ourselves but so far haven't yet fully managed, things (and more common counterparts) we've mostly either done without or continued to buy from the supermarket system: very substantial amounts of feed for our poultry and eggs, salad oil, cider, beer, soy sauce, millet, oats, mustard seed, fermented sausages like salami, hard cheese...) [2017 update: we're now growing a full supply for our family of oats and mustard seed, still working to varying degrees on most of the others, except still basically just dreaming about fermented sausages.] In other words, even a local-food-super-hero consumer with unlimited time and money still couldn't eat even half of any kind of normal diet from local-organic sources, particularly not counting by calories or by one's farm acreage footprint.  We also don't see that any notable changes are likely to be made with any of the categories on our list above in the foreseeable future.
  As farmers that likely think about these issues more and understand them more deeply than most of our customers this leads us to think that if we can't do more than the local food movement is currently doing and get beyond the trajectory that the local food movement is currently on and find some realistic hope of tackling the bulk of our diet and the bulk of our farming footprint -- gradually and with time but with some kind of reasonable plan for accomplishing more than minor token changes -- then we might as well give up now.  And that's what a lot of farmers do when they content themselves with selling just profitable niche foods to rich people -- things that make a plate or a menu look good and feel local but that replace very few conventional calories or acres -- or when they resign themselves to quit farming for a living and just grow what they can for themselves.  But we really want to find hope in a real alternative; we just think hope depends on a deepening of cooperation between farmers and consumers.  If we can grow for our family and eat the foods on the above list, even if it's not feasible to sell them to the general public, we (and other small farmers that would eat a full spectrum of the same kind of food they would grow) should be able to find ways to grow a pretty full diet for those customers that share our values enough to want to cooperate deeply with us and let our way of farming re-define how they eat in the same way it has defined what our family eats and our agricultural footprint.  Increasingly this goal is the focus of what we're growing and how we're selling.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

In the CSA box this week


Nothing beats a pile of beets!


A cup of tea

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

Forcing mushooms

  



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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

FARM UPDATE

  

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

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

Slicing sweet potatoes to fry for chips
Frying sweet potato chips


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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New arrival


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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015