Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tell Sonny Thanks for the Prayers

I've always been bad about checking the weather forecast. As a result, I am frequently improperly attired and cold (I'm Southern, so unable to comprehend that a cotton sweatshirt is not the same as long underwear and a wool sweater) or trapped in the middle of a deluge wearing a white tshirt. Luckily, farming seems poised to break me of this habit. The forecast is such a critical part of our planning for the day that I'm beginning to form opinions on the various forecasting websites and I'm liable to give you the climatic breakdown for the day on an hour-to-hour basis. You see, it all comes back to water.

Lately, in the South, we've been experiencing a drought of epic proportions; so much so that our governor has added prayers for rain to the legislative agenda and others have proposed redrawing the state borders in an absurd bid for additional water rights. Down at Serenbe, spring is treating us fairly well, though the looming specter of drought still makes this farmer very nervous. Seeds need moisture to germinate, and transplants require water to ease the transition from pampered greenhouse life to the rugged outdoors, so without rainfall we're stalled. We can foliar feed our plants (a long process I will no doubt explain in detail eventually) if we must, but ideally, we want our transplanting and seeding days to be followed by the sort of wet spring days that require colorful galoshes and puddle-jumping.

One such day came upon us a bit prematurely, catching us still in the fields with trays of swiss chard yearning to be transplanted. We worked through the rain, trying our best to space the plants in the muddy crests of the bed rather than in the brown rills soon swirling around our feet. I was convinced that I had drowned a significant portion of our plants, or that once the rain cleared we would find the greater part of them washed down by the onions and garlic and dead from exposure. I busied myself the next day with other tasks, unwilling to witness the carnage. But lo! the swiss chard lives! It thrives, in fact.

Meanwhile, over in the greenhouse, I have obtained full watering rights. As the days grow warmer and our tiny building ever fuller, the greenhouse has become our Mecca and watering our form of prayer. We check on the plants 4 or 5 times daily, watering according to age, location in the greenhouse, time of day, and other plant-specific needs. So imagine my distress Thursday when continued construction on our new greenhouse necessitated shutting off the water around 1:30 pm. With 6 more hours of sunlight and Paige away helping a fellow farmer, Jack and I ended up drip-watering the thirsty sunflowers and lettuces with the dregs of the rain barrel. Lacking anything remotely resembling a watering can (go figure), we rigged up a delivery system by stabbing styrofoam cups with our harvest knives. Unfortunately, the rain barrel ran out before we could hit the watermelons, so we turned to the last unclaimed water on the farm: bottles of "Serenbe water" (despite the label's claims, actually from Tennessee; again, go figure) that were lying around in our cooler. Hopefully the 'melons won't develop a taste for such fancy libations, as we're down to our final box and we regained our more mundane local water the next morning.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

In Lieu of a Golden Egg

When I informed my friend Lee that I would shortly begin work on a farm, he had one important question for me: is it true that chickens lay eggs the same color as their ear feathers? I must confess, Lee, I am three weeks on the farm and I still haven't noticed that the chickens even have ears. Eggs, on the other hand, they have in abundance. Collecting the eggs has fast become my favorite morning chore, even after one particularly disastrous attempted-chicken-rescue sent both me and my wayward fowl careening into the electric fence. That chicken still runs when it sees me coming.

I am fascinated by the variations in their shape, texture, and color--our hens lay blue-green, sandy brown, and the standard white eggs, and once a tiny runt of an egg no bigger than what a quail would produce. Unsurprisingly, given my passion for miniature, I immediately claimed it for my own. Even though the outcome of my a.m. expedition is never in doubt, each morning feels like my own private easter egg hunt, and I marvel when I lift up a hen to find a warm little egg snug beneath her. Most of our chickens would make horrible mothers--they've abandoned their post long before I show up with the food and water--but one broody hen seems determined to raise a brood. Every morning I find her perched atop 4-5 adopted eggs, and though she relinquishes them without a fight, I always feel a pang of guilt at stealing her work out from under her.

On average, from our 3oish chickens we collect about 18-20 eggs per day. This seems like a bonanza to me, though I am told to expect an egg from each hen about every day and a half. Especially now, as spring makes ever more daring advances, eggs are the perfect representation of abundant, extravagant life. Eggs are both promise and product, seeds and sustenance. Our chickens may be dumber than several varieties of tomato, but I love them none the less thanks to those gorgeous, miraculous eggs.

Happy Easter, Happy Ostara, Happy Passover to all!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Holy Shitake Mushrooms, Batman!

If ever there was a week fit for celebration, this would be it. Consider: St. Patrick's Day, the Vernal Equinox, and Easter are all crammed within a seven day spread. It almost sounds like the set up for a joke! As my best attempts at punning have always been met with unmitigated derision, however, I have decided to stick with seasonal recipes rather than than riddles. Alas, I've already missed my first deadline and given in to the temptation to pun on my ingredients. This could be a long year...

As it's early in the season, our crops are still scarce, and what is harvestable is often hidden amongst the cover crops that have taken over the beds in winter. Still, we have our regular offerings: daily eggs, abundant spinach and collards, and, every week or so, a crop of shitakes from our 300-some logs. Shitake farming has got to be the best farm gig around: after the initial labor of inoculating the logs, which occurred at Serenbe before my arrival, shitake farmers do approximately nothing. Seriously, shitakes are more self-sufficient than a cabin full of pioneers. From what I've heard, news of this new no-work wonder crop got out several years ago, leading to an explosion of the shitake market as every farmer and her 15 cousins all invested in 'shrooms. Predictably, the market then tanked; most of those sunshine shitake farmers bailed; and we now enjoy a healthy return on all of the hard, hard work of mushroom farming.

This weekend I went looking for a way to use a bunch of asparagus and a bag of shitakes, and ended up with a riff of a recipe that actually tasted pretty good. While I prefer to follow a recipe exactly on the first go-round, the vagaries of the harvest (and of our refrigerator) somehow always seem to send me on a hunt for substitutions. Lacking adequate quantities of either asparagus or shitakes, I bulked up the soup with a half a roasted eggplant. Additionally, our house was fresh out of clabbered cream (can you even buy that in Palmetto, GA?) so I substituted some of my homemade yogurt and a bit of milk. I have scallions approximately 1 out of 10 times that a recipe calls for them, so, as usual, I used an onion instead. Nota Bene: I recommend pureeing this soup until completely smooth, as the green color is not complemented by lumpiness. The finished product will be a hearty, pistachio-colored soup that warms you from the inside out.

Asparagus, Mushroom, and Spring Onion Soup
Serves 8

1 lb cremini or shitake mushrooms
3 lb asparagus
4 cups water
2 T rice oil or grapeseed oil
2 scallions
14 fresh sage leaves
4 T clabbered cream or creme fraiche
salt and pepper to taste

1) Trim the stems from the mushrooms (shitake stems are always too tough for eating, so I am told, and really only good for making a mushroom broth) and place them in a medium saucepan along with the tough ends from the asparagus. Slice the mushroom caps thinly and set aside.

2) Pour the water in with the trimmings and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain the cooking broth and set it aside. (Compost the trimmings!)

3) Thinly slice the asparagus spears (unless they are the super skinny kind already, which mine were). Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat; add the oil and heat gently. Add the white parts of the scallions and sauté for 2-3 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté for 3-4 minutes or until they soften. Add the sliced asparagus, cover partially, and cook for 4-6 minutes, or until the asparagus turns bright green. Now add teh strained broth, bring to a simmer, and cook for 6-8 minutes, or until the flavors blend.

4) Meanwhile, finely slice 6 of the sage leaves. The other 8 are a garnish.

5) Working in batches if necessary, transfer the soup to a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Return the pureed soup to the pan, stir in 2 T of the cream and the cut sage leaves. Season to taste. Reheat gently, but do not boil.

6) Serve the soup with an additional dollop of cream, a fresh sage leaf, and sliced scallion greens if desired.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

One Farm's Invasive Exotic Is Another Farm's Bamboo Hoophouse

I may be biased, or perhaps just new to farming, but I think that our little 5 acre plot is the most gorgeous piece of earth that I have ever walked. From the cover-cropped fields of brilliantly green rye grass to the pert rows of garlic, from the henpecked dirt of our chicken pen to the neat stacks of shitake logs, I love it, red clay dirt and all. To be fair, I was probably bound to fall hard and fast for my first farm. Dirt is my current drug of choice, so it is not surprising that I am hooked on Serenbe soil, despite and possibly because of the quirks that make it "less than ideal." Hills, for example: Serenbe has a rolling backbone that flows from field to field, turns linear rows into sinuous curves, and stubbornly resists square plotting. Or consider our current greenhouse, nestled low in a fold of land with less than optimal sunlight and an annoying, top-hinged door--despite poor functionality, I could gaze on it contentedly for hours, especially when the door is open and the trays and trays of green stand smartly at attention.

Serenbe, in short, is authentic. The tractor implements resting on blocks were not left there either from neglect or for a rustic look, but because we use them frequently and need to access them quickly. The farm looks as it does because we are working with what the land has given us. As a result, I have found all of the fuss over our new greenhouse a bit silly, really. On Monday a flatbed truck delivered the parts of our new greenhouse IKEA style and we warmed ourselves in the cold morning by unloading steel girders, insulated plastic roofing, and aluminum poles. The chosen site sits atop our biggest hill, where the greenhouse will receive copious sunlight. As the contractors set about connecting posts and poles, we went about the day's chores--seeding flowers and lettuces and potting up transplants that had outgrown their current cells--all the while watching and admiring as the new building took shape. Whereas the low hoop frame of our current greenhouse makes it seem to sit snug and low to the ground, the new greenhouse can only be described as perching atop its hill.

This cocky pose was exactly the problem. Our farm is part of a much larger community constructed in hamlets around variously themed principles. Grange, the name for the settlement of homes that abuts the farm, is intended to be a farm community. Apparently, at least one prospective buyer became skittish at the sight of our new greenhouse rising in the distance. Roosters crowing he thought he could handle, tractors perhaps added a taste of quaint country life, but a big plastic greenhouse did not jive, so we were informed, with his and various others' aesthetic of a farm community. Could we move it? (The contractors, good 'ol Southern boys from south Georgia raised their eyebrows at this suggestion) Reside it with something more appealing than plastic? Paige, my boss, frantically explained exactly why this location was indeed the best and even only reasonable site and why glass would raise the price exponentially. Eventually an agreement was reached, with the contractors lopping off about ten feet from the full length. Even in its abbreviated form, the greenhouse still looks palatial to me, and I have greedy visions of potted avocado trees and a miniature citrus grove within its capacious walls.

The irony of this small drama came into relief after a visit to a nearby farm in Fairburn. Tony, the farmer, gladly toured us around, all the while sketching his quirky vision in the air above discarded diving boards-turned-bridges, a small mountain of mulch, and an asparagus field where glass jam jars marked the tender crowns. There were orderly rows and clearly defined crops as well--every square foot was either in production, cover-cropping, or used to store something--but this was a farm built catch as catch can over many years. Tony's farm is a poster child for experimentation, salvage, and the sort of rural resistance that commandeers abandoned lots to make them bud and flower. It also houses more junk than many flea markets twice its size.

So what makes for a beautiful farm? Tony, talking faster than any Southern I have ever met, clearly considers his homestead an oasis and a triumph. While I personally would not build my hoophouse (that's a type of greenhouse) from bamboo, or store slabs of concrete for the occasional farm building project, I'm not going to argue. His farm gives him joy and sustenance, as does mine me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eat Your Greens

Enough musings on vegetables, let's talk about how to eat them! While plenty of produce tastes fantastic raw, fresh-plucked from the soil, I'm not one who would claim that nature cannot be improved upon. For tonight, however, let's keep it simple.

Kale is a leafy green from the Brassica family with which I was unfamiliar before my first CSA box arrived about a year and a half ago. Though kale was never a fixture on my plate growing up, kale is a popular crop everywhere from Brazil to Scotland to Germany, probably due both to its super-food qualities and its general hardiness in the field. We at Serenbe can attest to kale's toughness...we returned to the farm this morning to find the leaves of our little kale seedlings coated in a lacy layer of frost. We had meant to "harden them off" to prepare them for life outside the greenhouse, not freeze them to death! We quickly returned our charges to the shelter of the greenhouse and within an hour they had almost universally sprung back to their former vigor.
For many vegetables, the act of applying heat (in layman's terms "cooking") actually reduces the nutrient value of the food substantially. What is lost in terms of nutrition, however, is gained in ease of digestion and cultural capital. Not being cows, we humans are prone to favor a meal with a little bit of a story to it and one which does not resemble grazing material. But what if you could have it all: taste, nutrition, and a five minute prep time? Massaging kale may sound like a the height of absurdity, but it is an excellent way to break down the tough fibers in kale and add some additional flavors, all which preserving the cocktail of beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium packed into those leafy green fronds. Hey, if your Kobe beef gets a daily massage, why shouldn't your kale?

Massaged Kale
Begin with a bunch of kale, as much or as little as you like. Shred it finely across the center stem. Dress it with something tasty: salad dressing (I'm a huge fan of soy ginger), walnut oil, vinegar, citrus juice, pickle brine, or whatever you prefer. Mix the kale with the dressing until coated and then begin to squeeze handfuls of kale with gusto. Your goal here is to fully saturate the kale until it is wilty and the juices in the leaves have been expressed. You can add additional ingredients for a more well-rounded salad: I recommend craisins with the soy ginger marinade, but nuts, other veggies, or additional herbs can all work equally well. As you can see, this is less of a recipe than a technique. Massaged kale will store well in the refrigerator if you have leftovers--the flavors will meld nicely.

My thanks to Sandor Katz's The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved for this, my new favorite way to serve up kale in a flash.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Garden of Small Things

I have always loved anything in miniature. In childhood I favored Polly Pockets and those literary travesties "The Great Abridged Classics"; more recently my tastes have developed in the direction of baby shoes (for my niece and nephew) or tiny fruits like kiwis and kumquats. Call it a preference for the beautiful over the sublime, call it a weird girly fetish--whatever it is, I like small things.

So it would seem reasonable, would it not, that I would take to the greenhouse like a honeybee to her hive. In fact, the greenhouse terrifies me. The moment I pass through the creaking, top-hinged door and into the warm humidity of the greenhouse, I feel as though I am reverting to the awkwardness of adolescence. Tray corners reach out to me as though calculating the best possible angle to send them to the floor. Tender seedlings shiver in my passing. Thousands of tiny plants await my ministrations, and I suddenly understand why some people are afraid to hold a human infant.

In the greenhouse, my errors can be multiplied one hundred fold. I can make it too dry but also too damp. Too much cold and my tomatoes will never germinate; too much heat and I'll bake my little charges in their black plastic trays. And for all of the hardiness that a sea of blue-green leaves can bely in the morning, give them an afternoon of neglect and I'm suddenly standing in the vegetative ICU. The details dwell in the greenhouse. Yesterday, as we potted up everything from nasturtiums (lovely and big), to tomatoes (small and fragile, but still requiring no special tool but my hands), to Greek Oregano (microscopic and growing in knotted little bunches), I realized why the greenhouse so unsettles me. The greenhouse is the antithesis of spendthrift nature's fecundity.

In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard muses on nature's fecundity and finds herself appalled at the cheapness of life. She reflects on the swarms of ants, the rivers that run red with salmon, the millions of eggs that one mother mayfly will lay, and the brutal fact that the vast majority will perish without ever reproducing. This wild extravagance, she notes, unsettles us in insects and animals, though not in plants. If, in a acre of flowers, competition culls the strong from the weak, I don't mind, so long as I get my field of flowers. But in the greenhouse, every tiny plant has its individual cell. The thin plastic walls of the trays transform a green carpet into a thousand discrete units, each clamoring for attention and optimal treatment. I'm no longer worrying about how the swiss chard is doing in general; I'm monitoring 4 trays of 100 swiss chard seedlings each. Did cell 36 in tray A look a bit wilty this morning? But only a few rows over the stems are showing signs of dampening off from too much water...

As we potted up, spacial considerations forced us to favor the healthiest plants with roomy new pots and leave their less hardy neighbors in the original close quarters. As we set aside one such half-tray of unhappy nasturtiums, Paige, my boss, lamented the waste of viable plants. That's the greenhouse for you, a pro-life haven. And what am I but a pro-choice farmer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Settling Into Spring

With all of the hullabaloo that accompanies moving, it amazed me how quickly I settled into my new home. By 5 pm Monday I had unpacked my boxes, reassembled my bed, and hung my first load of laundry on the line behind our house. This is home to me now, the latest in a long line of habitations both transient and enduring.

Would that it were so easy to take on the skills of a farmer! After Tuesday's downpour, today was my first day of real work and I've already identified my goals for the year: to develop a farmer's instinct for efficiency and eye for detail. If I can come away in November with these two skills, I will have mastered the soul of farming even if the finer points of ten year crop rotations still escape me. Every action, so I am learning, can be improved upon--from the way I slip my harvesting knife beneath the soil as we cull spinach in the field, to the almost mechanical rhythm with which we water the seedlings in the greenhouse. This is not a Buddhist meditation upon being present in everything you do, however ("washing the dishes mindfully"), this is a constant, almost Calvinistic striving for improvement. And yet it is not as strict a discipline as I make it sound; it is the natural counterpart to accepting Nature's changeability. You do what you can to maximize the day you have been given. You harvest spinach; you water tomato seedlings; you read Anne Sexton in the evening as the earth breathes out the midday sunshine.

from "It Is a Spring Afternoon"

Because of this
the ground, that winter nightmare,
has cured its scores and burst
with green birds and vitamins.
Because of this
the trees turn in their trenches
and hold up little rain cups
by their slender fingers.
Because of this
a woman stands by her stove
singing and cooking flowers.
Everything here is yellow and green.

-Anne Sexton

Sunday, March 2, 2008

An Agriculturalist's Credo

I believe in America’s agricultural revival. I’m 23 years old, the product of a small liberal arts college and a bustling, cosmopolitan graduate school, and I’m comparison shopping for work boots and overalls in preparation for my first day as a farmer. I’ll be honest; I don’t entirely know what I’m getting into. I grew up in the city, have never grown so much as a tomato. Call me crazy, but I actually believe that I can do this.

And I believe that I am not some fringe element, a Luddite burying my head in the compost and refusing to acknowledge the globalized world in which I live. I know this because of the response I hear when I describe my new job. Where I expected incredulity, I have been met with excitement. Again and again, my conversation partners confided in me their own dreams of living off the land. I received book recommendations and reminiscences, and I learned just how many people are thinking local, even if their refrigerators suggest otherwise.

As for me, my reasons for this abrupt change of scenery are simple: taste and integrity. I want to eat well, and I want to practice what I preach regarding food. What better way to promote gastronomical mindfulness than to construct my daily routine around stewardship of the very earth that sustains me? Time invested yields richness of experience. That richness grows out of following a process from start to finish, something infrequently facilitated by a conventional, industrial food chain. My food chains are about to become dramatically shorter, slower, and more interesting.

I’ll punctuate this record with matching recipes and pictures as often as I can. Check in, dear reader, if you’d like to remember what sunrise looks like, or if you’ve ever been impressed by the verdant abundance encoded in a seed.