Saturday, October 25, 2008

Undercover Farming

When I first visited Serenbe, in December of 2007, most of our fields were incognito, hiding under a winter cover crop and resting until spring. To my untrained eye, however, Serenbe seemed a very small farm, only growing in a few patches here and there on the farm. Once I began working here, in March, I gradually learned to distinguish the covers of vetch, clover, winter peas, and rye from the green grass between beds. This was a critical skill to develop, as grassy lanes function as roads for our tractor and truck, but woe unto you who drives through a covercropped bed. The weight of a tractor or truck will instantly compact our carefully cultivated fields, destroying the light, fluffy tilth that we have teased in the hard Georgia clay with deep-rooted covers, spading, and the addition of organic matter. Over the course of the season, covercropped fields gradually came into production: we mowed the covers, tilled in the dried grains, grasses, and legumes, and dug our hands into the rich soil beneath.

I now approach December from the opposite end, no longer waking our fields up to the fertility of spring, but tucking them in for a long winter's nap. We've spent the past few weeks covercropping with a vengeance, as we didn't want to miss the window of warmth in which our covers will establish themselves before the first frost. We've sown our fields with oats, rye, clover, and vetch, all hardy winter crops. Each cover has different properties, so we vary our covercrop application to the needs of the particular bed. Oats are a good cover for fields which will come into production in the early spring, as oats "winter kill," naturally dying down toward the end of winter. This creates less work for us as we integrate the dead cover back into the soil. Clover provides bee fodder, fixes nitrogen from the air into the soil (it is a legume), and is easy to kill, making it an excellent choice for early spring beds as well. A healthy crop of clover has self sown in the beds and paths of our current brassica field. We're happy to let it thrive, as it grows low enough not to interfere with our broccolis, cabbages, kale, and collards, and it chokes out more noxious weeds.

Whereas clover simply blankets the ground to out compete other weeds, rye has what is called an alleleopathic effect on the soil and actually discourages weeds from growing. Hairy vetch fixes the most nitrogen of our covercrop quartet and adds a great deal of biomass in its many leafy tendrils. It, however, is a total pain to kill, and tends to get wrapped around the tines of our tiller.

To spread our covers on a field before tillage, we use an Earthway brand hand-operated bag seeder, which looks a bit like a cross between a knapsack and a hurdy-gurdy. We adjust the bottom aperture according to the size of the seed we are spreading, before filling the bag with the desired seed. Then, keeping a steady, fairly swift pace, we walk the field in straight lines, turning the crank on the seeder to scatter the seeds. Crocs, for the record, are NOT good shoes for an activity that involves quick-stepping through tall grasses and grains: the first time I covercropped I lost my shoes repeatedly. Once we've seeded the entire field evenly, we till the old plants in along with the new seeds and hope for a rain the next day. If the seeds stay in the ground without being watered in, they are liable to lose viability, or get eaten up by passing bids. The drought that descended on us for most of September set us back in our covercropping, as we had nary a raindrop for almost a month. Finally, we ponied up and bought overhead sprinklers so that we could get our covers up in time. Of course, about a week later, the rains finally came.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Meet Your Meat

So you'd like to learn about chicken harvesting? Well, here's your chance. This Friday, October 24th, we'll being slaughtering what may be our last round of broilers. We're looking for any intrepid locavores who would like to lend a hand in the slaughter, whether as executioners, pluckers, eviscerators, or camera folk (I'm hoping to make a little video post of the process). We'll teach you everything that you need to know, or at least, everything that we know.

If you're interested in taking part or just keeping us company, give me a shout!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Time to Visit the Newsstand

While I work on my epic composting/vermiculture post (when I finally post it, be sure to have a comfy seat handy), check out this week's fantastic issue of the New York Times Magazine. Among other awesomeness it features interviews with Food Rock stars like Severine von Tscharner Fleming (director of the forthcoming young farmer documentary The GreenHorns), an open letter to the future president from Michael Pollan, and a piece on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's work on agriculture in Africa.

Take a break from monitoring the stock market or the elections. You'll probably be happier for it!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I'll Have the Venti Compost Tea, Cream, No Sugar

When it comes to composting, my spirit has always been willing, but my body (and mind) have always been weak. For starters, what literature I have read on the subject always begins by boring me and ends by offering intimidating formulas (30 parts "brown" material such as leaves to 1 part "green" material such as food scraps). Seeing as I have a ready supply of food scraps and, until recently, no dead leaves, I didn't often feel inspired by my reading.

Cut to Friday. Clifford, director of the local Montessori school, brought down an old friend of his who is a master composter from New York state. Adam-the-compost-master is a wiry, energetic man who came equipped with a ready willingness to stick his arm up to his elbow into piles of decomposing horse poop. Unlike my books, Adam is a pragmatic composter and a fan of simple explanations. Adam toured our two on-farm composting sites (both sorely in need of remedial attention) and helped us design a system for the future that will allow our CSA members to participate, offer an educational model, and give us rich black compost quickly without the wretched odor of anaerobic bacteria at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I was so inspired by his advice that I am overhauling our intern house compost pile (lately tending toward the "dump and run" variety due to stink factor) and offering his suggestions for a simple home system in hopes that you, too, can participate in the transmogrification of food scraps into fertilizer.

The Ethics of Compost

Before you roll up your sleeves and pinch your nose, let me first explain why composting is so beneficial. I've often heard that decomposing matter in landfills is responsible for the release of noxious quantities of Carbon Dioxide and Methane, but I've never understood why home composting would be any different and better. I'm still breaking those food scraps down, right? So won't those gases be released anyway? The answer to that is a qualified yes; while the process of making compost will indeed lead to the release of carbon sequestered in plant matter, it will not include the attendant carbon footprint of landfill transportation. Perhaps surprisingly, it is this process of moving your trash from point A (your house) to point B (the dump) that accounts for much of the worst emissions of waste management. Consider, the carbon in your food scraps is part of the natural carbon cycle--it was in the air, got taken up by the plants, and is now re-released: zero sum. The carbon being burned in fossil fuels for transportation was sequestered long ago, and had not been a part of the atmospheric balance for several millenia. When we add it to the air, we change the present day balance of the atmosphere.

Making your own compost at home fulfills the first two (often neglected) of the three Rs of environmental stewardship, Reduce and Reuse. Besides eliminating of all of that extra food waste, making compost creates a valuable soil amendment. Good compost provides soil with organic matter for tilth--something our dense, cloddy Georgia clay desperately needs--and with beneficial microorganisms (the agents of the decomposition process) which encourage a healthy ecosystem for plant roots.

Essentials of Composting

A healthy compost pile consists of four elements: water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. Simply put, nitrogenous material is anything "green" or "fresh"--your food scraps, animal manure*, or green debris from yardwork, for example. Carboniferous materials are the "browns" of a good compost pile: dry scraps such as fall leaves, straw, sticks, shredded newspaper, or other plant matter that is good and dead. If you are building a home compost pile, you will probably want to fashion some sort of receptacle, so that your compost area is more of a large bin than a pile. The rules of compost bin construction are lose, use what you have on hand but aim for something close to 3' by 3' by 3'. One model that I would like to try is constructed by stacking straw bales for walls and making your compost in the middle. The straw walls will gradually incorporate into your compost. However, many other designs will work equally well.

Sticks should form the bottom layer of your pile in order to keep your pile aerated. Your goal is to encourage aerobic (oxygen-using) bacteria, which work quickly and at higher temperatures without bad smells. If your compost pile brings to mind words like "rotting" and "putrescence", you've cultivated a colony of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria are less than ideal for more than just their stench--the lower temperatures at which they work will take longer to form finished compost and will not be hot enough to break down the protein in meat or dairy products.

But wait, aren't you not supposed to add meat or dairy to compost? As it turns out, that depends. Many people avoid adding meat and dairy to compost piles because of the risk of encouraging scavengers, but if you establish your pile properly, there is no reason why your compost pile has to remain vegan. If you are worried that your compost pile may not reach the temperatures necessary to break down animal products, just leave them out. If you want go all out, however, consider animal products like meat, dairy, or feathers as "green" material.
As a general rule, other approved "Green" compost inputs include:
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Citrus rinds
  • Grass clippings
  • Animal manure (the nitrogen to carbon ratio of animal waste will vary depending on the animal. If this is a regular addition to your compost pile, it may be worth checking to see where your animal falls on the nitrogen scale)
  • Small, fresh garden clippings
Some suggestions for "Browns" are:
  • Dried leaves
  • Bark, wood ashes
  • Shredded newspaper or white printer paper (none of the glossy stuff)
  • Wood chips
  • Straw
Ok, so what are your ratios then, and how do you get this pile going? Remember these principles: more air than water, more carbon than nitrogen. Also, bear in mind that "green" material already contains a great deal of water in its cells, so you probably don't have to soak your pile unless you are experiencing a drought or you are overloading your pile with carbon. Completely cover your base layer of sticks with a layer of "browns;" pile your browns up a bit more on the sides so that it forms a bowl shape. Now add your "greens" as an even layer. Finally, cover your greens with another layer of browns so that no food scraps are showing. This final covering layer serves several purposes. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, a layer of browns is far more attractive than exposed decomposing veggies or animal manure. Additionally, it keeps your carbon to nitrogen ratios more more appropriately balanced. If you are composting something especially much larger than two fists, consider chopping it in halves or quarters to expose more surface area and speed decomposition up a bit. The same principle goes for large woody additions: break them into sticks or run them through a chipper, rather than just chucking a yule log on top of the pile and crossing your fingers.

Your compost is finished and ready to apply to your garden when the original contents are no longer discernible, having morphed into something crumbly, black, and wonderful smelling. Depending on your climate and how intensively you monitor your pile, this could happen in as little as a matter of weeks, though 8-12 months is probably a more accurate time frame.

Fall is the ideal time of year to begin a home composting operation, as nature is showering you with all the brown material you could ever want: leaves. Rather than sending your leaves to the city dump, set aside a pretty, sunny Saturday to stockpile leaves for the next year's composting. Bag the dry leaves and store them somewhere out of the way (the rafters of the garage? In a garden shed?), leaving one bag handy and somewhere near your compost pile. Saving your leaves will not take significantly more effort than you'll already expend raking and bagging and shipping them off, and it will make future composting infinitely more effective and simple.

*This probably goes without saying, but limit yourself to animal manure. While it is possible to make so called "humanure," its applications are limited. It is generally inadvisable to use even a well-cured batch on any soil that will touch the food that it grows. So if you have a composting toilet and an orchard, go ahead, make humanure and fertilize those trees! If you're planning on growing veggies, however, limit your compost additions to animals and vegetables.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Farewell My Chopsticks; Hello My Spork

I used to know that fall was coming when lunchboxes went on sale and my mother suddenly decided that I needed new shoes. One week ago, fall signaled its arrival with far less fanfare: a leaf landed in the brassica bed as I was weeding. I've become accustomed to the man-made signs of fall (tax holidays, first days of school, and Halloween decorations), so I'm quite enjoying a seasonal transition that is signaled almost entirely by the weather. The morning air is laced with the musky aroma of muscadine grapes; the nights are cooling; the crops are changing.

We're in transplanting mode again, and with most fields turned over to winter cover crops, we can devote ourselves to the care and maintenance of what we still have. The fields have never looked better.

All of this change makes me hungry for something earthy and simple, which probably explains my current obsession with soups. Long ago, in July, we harvested our winter squash and began curing them for storage. I've resisted the temptation of butternuts and pumpkins for months as I reveled in the fruits of summer, but now I finally feel justified in introducing orange to my diet. One of my favorite cookbooks, Serving up the Harvest, informs me that scientists and nutritionists somewhere have declared sweet potatoes are the world's single greatest food, in terms of nutritional content and growability. To that, I would add that is also happens to be the tastiest excuse for a vegetable that I have yet encountered.

Thai Pumpkin Soup

Yum. Pumpkin with a kick. This recipe can also be made with precooked pumpkin, you just don't need to simmer the soup for quite as long. Don't skimp on the cilantro, though, as the lemony-ness really makes the soup shine.

1 T olive oil
5 shallots, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 red chili, desseded and chopped
15 g fresh ginger, grated
2.5 lb pumpkin, deseeded and chopped
14 oz. can coconut milk
18 oz chicken stock
cilantro, chopped
salt to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the shallots, garlic, chili, and ginger, and saute for 3-4 minutes. Add the pumpkin and stir to coat in oil. Add the coconut milk and stock, stir, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender. Remove from heat and add the chopped cilantro.

Puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Taste and salt as needed.

Squash, Potato, and Peanut Butter Soup
This recipe requires a bit of foresight, in terms of saving the time to roast the butternut and mash the sweet potato. But boy is it worth it! Be sure to use good, unsweetened peanut butter, and I guarantee that leftover will not be a problem.

1 butternut squash, about 2 lbs
1 large sweet potato, chopped
4 T butter
4 oz smooth, UNSWEETENED peanut butter
1 L vegetable stock
1 t grated nutmeg
1 T honey
1 t salt
black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350. Cut the squash into quarters and scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff. Place the quarters flesh-side down on a baking tray and roast for 1 hour or until soft. Remove from the oven and cool.

In the meantime, place the sweet potato in a saucepan, cover with cool water and boil until tender. Drain the water and puree. When the squash has cooled, scoop out the flesh and puree.

Heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add the pureed squash and sweet potato and peanut butter. Add the stock, nutmeg, honey, salt, and a pinch of pepper. Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Creamy Turnip Soup with Carrot Julienne
I used a mixture of our sweet hakurei turnips and the spicier, magenta Scarlet Queens. The resulting concoction had a delicate pink color and a find balance of sweetness and spice. I garnished it with raw carrot slivers and a a few slices of our beautiful Mizoto rose radishes, rather than additional turnips.

3 T butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 1/2 pounds turnips, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
5 cups (or more) canned low-salt chicken broth

1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup whipping cream
Pinch of ground nutmeg

2 carrots, cut into matchstick-size strips
1 turnip, peeled, cut into matchstick-size strips

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 12 minutes. Add 5 sliced turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add 5 cups broth. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Puree soup in blender in batches until very smooth. Return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream. Bring to simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with carrot strips, turnip strips and chopped fresh dill.