Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fantasty Farming

Forget Life, Trivial Pursuit, or that ancient computer game Oregon Trail. My new favorite game is a Serenbe exclusive: "So You Want to be a Farmer?" After a morning of normal farm work (weeding , harvesting, moving our chickens to fresh pasture) we retired to Paige's house with MacBooks in tow for an afternoon surprise. She emerged from her office with a stack of seed catalogs and the rules of the game: we had just acquired 1 acre of flat, fertile Northwest Georgia farmland (is there such a thing?). We had committed to feed a 25-member CSA for 28 weeks, with a minimum of 5 items in each share. Labor and tractor work were taken care of. A collection of excel sheets--for seed ordering, crop planning, and harvest predictions--whooshed into our inboxes. We had 1 hour 45 minutes to plan our strategy.

Ok, so an hour forty-five is hardly enough time to figure out everything from seed varieties to succession timing, to crop rotations. (Especially when you're an English major who can barely convince Excel to give you a sum). Still, the challenge was a thrilling one, the giddy excitement of Christmas laced with the adrenaline tang of a test. I eat this stuff up. Through trial and error and many questions for Paige (how many bed feet of kale should we plan on per member? How many harvest weeks can we expect from an eggplant?) we each began to craft our imaginary farm. I began by picking my crops: beets can grow here year round, so I planned for them as a constant. I'd plant kale, turnips, and cabbage for spring with a corner plot for strawberries to add color to my share. I'd transition to early summer by adding beans, onions, and potatoes, as well as cucumbers. High summer would usher in tomatoes, eggplants, and unkillable okra, then back to my spring crops as the days dwindled into fall. Of course, I wanted to plant about 30 additional crops, but time and space forced me to move on.

First lesson: planning for a CSA is hard. Or at least, it is difficult to plan a full year of growing so that your harvest is consistent, never too large or too small. Second lesson: Excel can do magical things. Paige has created a spreadsheet that, with the entry of bed feet and number of successions can tell you exactly how many ounces of seed to purchase and how many pounds of produce to expect. Third lesson: one acre is a surprisingly large amount of space. Jack, Steph, and I all found ourselves with large swaths of land uncultivated by our modest models. "I guess I'll just cover crop the rest," exclaimed Steph.

As we raced against the clock, Paige threatened to hit us with challenges--pests, weather, and the like. Luckily, with the tractor work accounted for, we knew that our oxen couldn't die, as had ruined many a game of Oregon Trail.

In the end, we didn't fully finish planning our season. Then again, Paige admitted that it took her almost a full week to plan her first year here at Serenbe. As we relinquished Paige's dining room and packed up our things, all three of us continued to mull over unfinished business. I, ever the Ag nerd, hopefully inquired whether we might continue our work and perhaps make presentation Monday (on tri-fold posterboard? please?). Paige laughed, promised that we would try similar games in the future, and reminded me that I probably didn't want to spend my Labor Day weekend leafing through seed catalogs. Maybe I'll start looking for farmland instead...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Defense of Dirty Fingernails

What feature of yourself are you most proud of? Until recently, I wouldn’t have known how to answer such a question—far easier to say what bothers me, what I would change. After five months as a farmer, I now know: I am inordinately proud of my hands. My fingertips are pitted from the horse nettle thorns hiding among more innocuous weeds. The skin on the sides of my index fingers refuses to come clean—it is cracked and stained brown from winter and weeding. My fingernails have never been shorter, and yet somehow, when I think that they have no quick left, the dirt still finds a way beneath them. The skin on my left index finger has blistered away at one point from the sharp, taught line of the tomato trellising twine. My hands are callused, cut, never quite clean. They declare, more eloquently than I ever could, that they are useful.

My mother likes to call me her “over-educated farmer,” a reference to the assortment of degrees (none of which have the word “agriculture” anywhere on them) that I have accumulated. Academically speaking, I’m a love child of the humanities; I’ve studied literary analysis and anthropological theory, political science and economic history. Come my first day on the farm, however, I felt anything but overeducated. Where was the line between too wet and too dry? How did everyone else move so quickly from task to task? Why, despite detailed instructions and intense concentration, did I seem utterly incapable of filling the bucket of the front-end loader? Until then, the closest I’d come to farming was the semester of college spent wandering the cross country trails and identifying trees for a Dendrology class. I loved to hail the trees by their lyrical Latin names—Liriodendron tulipifera, Liquidamber styraciflua, Fagus grandifolia—but we learned little else. We never grew anything ourselves, used the wood, or even climbed the limbs. Before that, long ago, I had a children’s gardening book, narrated by friendly raccoons and mice, but I lacked suitable land in which to put theory into practice.

Juxtaposed like that, “theory into practice”, the two words seem like equals, or perhaps two parts of a single larger whole. Sadly, we have, in our rush to the city, to culture, to art, to have forgotten this most basic reality, that theory is meaningless without practical skill, just as action is often pointless without reasoned thought. We praise intellectualism as the pinnacle of success and assume that those who work with their hands for low pay couldn’t cut it in school. Tradespeople do not become wealthy, we learn, and wealth is the post-academic measure of worth. As for me, I’ve long since stopped measuring the significance of my days in dollars and cents; the satisfaction of a well-stocked market stand or the sight of new-hatched seedlings bridging the soil brings me more satisfaction than an extra $10 per hour. But I will argue fiercely that the physical skills of the farmer are as valuable as is the cerebral culture of the city. To privilege intellect over physicality is to ignore our bodies’ yearning desire for use. On my knees, feet bare, digging like a dog for potatoes, I feel a scale within myself moving toward balance after disproportionate years of sitting, thinking, reading (which, at the time, I reveled in as well).

Practice is a deep, intimate, integrated type of knowledge, so infinitely expansive that I sometimes feel as though I’m becoming lost within it. Even as my vision narrows to the 4 acres of Serenbe, the countless decisions constantly being weighed and tallied grow and grow, and I feel dizzy at the thought of even managing ten such acres. Let us seek this sort of narrative knowledge, information learned not by formula but by functioning in context.

That is why I, a theory-loving, textbook collecting, front-row-of-the-lecture-hall sitting school nerd, surrendered my desk and my number two pencils for a classroom that gets under my fingernails and between my toes. I’m learning farming as an apprentice rather than as a student, by imbedding the practice of it on my battered farmer hands.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Signposts of Summer

For anyone who read about our massive tomato-transplanting day so many moons ago, it probably comes as no surprise that the prospect of our twice-weekly tomato harvest inspires in me more than a little dread. My tomato anxiety, however, has less to do with the epic proportions of our harvest (we pulled in slightly more than 450 pounds of salable tomatoes today, for example), and more to do with the number of culls that never make it out of the field. Tomatoes might just be the most finicky fruit* on the farm--they wither from disease, crack from too much rain, or wilt from underwatering. They're the petulant toddlers of the vegetable world: nothing but trouble to the folks who raise them, but to everyone else, the darling of the market stand.

Some of our tomatoes are luscious, delectable specimens. Others have passed their prime or lost the war against bugs until all that remains is a pulpy mess of wrinkled skin and tomato splooge. I have no problem babying the first and discarding the second. What kills me, positively stops me in my tracks, are the single-fatal-flaw tomatoes, the tomatoes with a hairline crack that I know will soon become sploogy (but which hasn't't yet!); the tomatoes with a barely perceptible bruise, or a tiny tell-tale bug hole. Without fail, I pause and deliberate. Salvage it? Find it a good home, or at least the makings of a decent BLT? Reason usually triumphs (with 450 lbs of other, perfect tomatoes to chose from, who will want this one?), and I toss the rejected tomato to the paste-covered ground. But not before taking a bite.

This valedictory bite has become a compulsion for me. Particularly in the back field, where my absolute favorite tomatoes proliferate, I will not discard a tomato without affirming its value with my own personal taste test. So I work my way down the row, tomato juice dripping from my chin, carrying a faint but unmistakable tomato perfume, and leaving a twisted fairy tale trail of half-eaten tomatoes in my wake. Given the number of field-culls on any normal harvest day, I'm beginning to worry that lycopene may be replacing blood in my veins. At least I won't be catching scurvy any time soon...

*While tomatoes are, biologically speaking, a fruit (they bear seeds), in 1893 the Supreme Court ruled that they occupied a place in the meal customarily filled by a vegetable, and were therefore a vegetable in the eyes of the law. I'm holding my breath that they will soon rule as to the proper interpretation of such classic Southern "vegetable" dishes as baked apples, hushpuppies, and macaroni and cheese.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Let them eat chicken

It was a bit like a scene from Macbeth: thunder rolling in the background, a cauldron-like stockpot seething atop our grill, and across from me, Jack brandishing a shiny new chef knife.
It was chicken harvesting time.

Since out broilers first arrived, I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about slaughter. Not that I relish the thought of killing and cleaning a chicken (far from it!), but I wanted to be mentally prepared to take a chicken’s life respectfully, cleanly, and without excessive girlish squealing. I knew that the last bit might prove difficult after the execution of a rat snake recently found hiding in the chicken coop provoked some very undignified noises. We’ve lost two of our Cornish Cross broilers recently, once to an animal attack and once to dehydration, and in each case I have looked at the carcass and wondered: “could I turn that into dinner?” It seemed an awfully large transition from that limp pile of feathers to fried chicken.

An unfortunate side effect of the Cornish Cross’s unparalleled ability to put on breast meat is that these hefty birds sometimes grow so fast that they break their own legs. A chicken with a broken leg is a sad little creature, and no amount of athletic tape and popsicle sticks is likely to send it back to pasture. Once we realized that we had one such chicken, we knew that it was our duty to kill it as quickly as possible. I decided to view the process as a test run for our first real chicken harvesting day, and I convinced Jack to help me, at least by providing moral support.

I began by reading everything that Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$ had to say about slaughter. Unfortunately, the pictures are rather grainy, and the anatomical descriptions are only helpful if you can tell the difference between a gizzard and an esophagus. Let’s just say it’s been a long time since freshman biology. I then began scouring the Internet for tutorials, home videos, or anything else related to cleaning a chicken. Alas, the closest I could find was a PETA video about factory farming (not what I wanted to model my harvest after) and various clips of people dancing the funky chicken at weddings and bar mitzvahs. On Wednesday night I discovered that Sandy, the manager of the Hil Restaurant, used to kill and process her own chickens, but while she was more than happy to offer advice, she was busy with the Hil for the next five days. It would be all me.

A storm had been building all of Thursday afternoon when I finally set an enormous cauldron of water on the grill. While the pot heated up, Jack helped me do the deed. Beheaded chickens tend to flap, flutter, and inflict psychic scarring on all parties involved, so Jack and I decided to approximate the killing cones that most small-scale producers prefer. With killing cones, the chicken is inverted (for some reason this calms them) and its head pushed through a small hole at the bottom of a large cone (in our case, an old plastic flower pot). While I help the pot and the chicken’s feet, Jack cut our chicken’s jugular vein and we let it bleed out. From what I’ve read, the chicken dies instantly, though the heart continues to beat long enough to flush most of the blood out. Thanks to the cone, our bird did not do a grisly chicken death dance, though it did flutter enough for me to yell at Jack “are you sure you did that right?” One look, however, confirmed that our chicken was indeed going gently into that good night.

I checked that the water had reached 140°, then, once confident that the chicken was unquestionably dead, I dunked it repeatedly to loosen the feathers. Then, to my amazement, our chicken became dinner table fare. The feathers came off easily in soggy white clumps, and I was left with a slightly puny version of a grocery chicken. I finished the job that Jack had begun by removing the head, then I chopped off the feet. Now came the real challenge, the sprint before home plate—eviscerating the chicken. I had worried that I would find this inherently gruesome process both appetite destroying and just plain hard. By then, however, I was in full dissection mode. My curiosity kicked in, and I stopped carrying that an animal was becoming food in a setting reminiscent of Frankenstein’s laboratory.

I can’t watch the medical drama House without becoming squeamish; gory horror films still give me the creeps, yet there I was, with a smile on my face, happily studying the body cavity of a chicken to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything. I guess that’s how you know you’re a farmer.

Smothered Chicken with Mushrooms

According to my cookbook, Country Tastes: Best Recipes from America’s Kitchens, “Sunday chicken dinner on the farm was often prepared this way.” With an endorsement like that (and an abundance of shitakes in the fridge), I was an easy sell on this recipe. The sauce cooked up thick and mushroom-mellow and tasted far richer than it actually was.

1 frying chicken, cut up
salt and pepper, to taste
1 T butter
2 T vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
3 T flour
1 ½ cup chicken broth
½ cup cream or milk
shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)
chopped fresh parsley, to garnish

Preheat oven to 350. Wash the chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

In a heavy skillet heat the butter and oil over high heat. Add the chicken, skin-side down. Brown on one side, then turn over and repeat. Remove the chicken to a casserole dish and cover the bottom of the dish in a single layer.

Pour off all by 2 T of any fat in the skillet. Now add the onions and mushrooms and sauté over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the flour, then the broth, whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the milk or cream and remove from heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Cover with the cheese, if desired.

Cover the casserole dish and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for 30 minutes more, until the chicken is tender but not falling apart. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.