Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fending Off Famine

Consider how many votes are cast over gun control, abortion, or gay rights, and then ask yourself how often you've seen politicians really squirm when grilled about raw milk. The politics of food is an fascinating, potentially incendiary topic, albeit one which frequently escapes our notice. I'm not just referring to the provenance of swine flu or ethanol subsidies, however; I was thinking more specifically about potatoes.

The Irish, as most folks know, were rather notorious for their reliance on those starchy tubers. Until the potato famine emptied the island and forever gave potatoes a bad name, potatoes and milk formed the foundation of the Irish diet. Surprisingly, for all its blandness, this white-on-white meal plan was relatively nutritionally sound. Dinnertime was boring, but sustaining. Wheat performed poorly in Irish soil and required expensive, skilled tillage to grow, whereas an acre and a half of potatoes could feed a family all the way through winter and into the next year. The English elite, however, did not view the Irish affinity for potatoes as a practical utilization of small landholdings and a cold, wet climate. Instead, they nibbled daintily at tea cakes while laughing at the Irish "lazy beds" of potatoes.

The method is indeed simple (though producing a good crop can be anything but): you dig a trench, bury potatoes in two rows offset from the center, and then "hill" them at least twice as the shoots appear. Piling surplus dirt to form a mound, or "hilling," gives the roots more space in which to grow potatoes, as well as providing a convenient way to choke out weeds. Of course, you still have to monitor for disease (blight!) or insect pests (potato beatles!). Believe me, you can't just walk away and spend the rest of the season at the pub drinking Guiness.

In the past three days, we've planted 1100 lbs of potatoes, which isn't really all that much, when you consider that we hope to harvest about 11,000 lbs. We'll need those spuds to tide our winter CSA into January and then to feed hungry apprentices before the greens come in. (We apprentices have a tendency to eat like famished locusts.) Assisting us in our great potato campaign have been students from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in nearby North Adams. Leaving the farm each day sweaty and tired, no one complained about feeling lazy or underworked.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

...And Then My Heart With Pleasure Fills...

Something there is about springtime that would, I think, bring hopeful thoughts to the most inveterate pessimist. There's a reason Williams Wordsworth was driven to poetry by the sight of a field of daffodils--this season is intoxicating. Lately spring has settled upon Western Massachusetts like a landslide of life: our asparagus is exploding out of the soil, the covercrop of rye grass in our fallow middle field is blue-green and lush, and our seedlings reach higher every day. Our calves frolic, kicking up their heels and all but dancing, as we let them out each day onto new, green pasture. Frankly, I feel about the same each morning as I walk up the hill from my cabin and breath in the smell of sunrise.

At such a time, it seems only appropriate that our CRAFT visit this week was to Farmgirl Farm, a young CSA farm whose grower, Laura Meister, spoke to us about the challenges and successes of her farm's first 5 years. Beforehand, as we stood in a circle and introduced our company of bright-eyed young apprentices, Laura asked us to state whether we hoped to start our own farm someday, and if so how soon. Suffice it to say that we are an ambitious bunch.

Laura came to Farmgirl Farm without such grand designs. She signed on for the farm's first season as a partner to an old friend, whose dream it was to run a small CSA farm. The white lie that she was "just helping for a year" proved "the blindfold that you need for such a crazy thing," Laura laughingly explained. By the end of the year, her friend had pulled out, due to health problems and personal reasons. But Laura remained, took an ag business class that winter, and came into her second season with even more passion than the first.

Driving up, Farmgirl Farm seems petite and unencumbered by the detritus that old farms collect (tractor implements, wood scraps, scavenged miscellany which might come in handy some day). The main fields all fit within a neat, flat rectangular parcel which is bordered by an invitingly clear tributary of the Green River. Part of the reason for this tidy appearance is Laura's lack of heavy machinery. Though she is now growing on 3 acres, she has not yet purchased a tractor and instead hires friends' machines for the rare big job or preps beds herself with a walk behind rototiller. Because her land is all leased and she's not exactly rolling in cash, Laura has intentionally kept her farm lean. She has invested in the fertility of her soil, certainly, but almost everything else--from the greenhouse to the coolers to the irrigation system--can be disassembled and moved, should a better opportunity present itself. She leases another, unirrigated piece of land across the street, and from these two small spaces she feeds a 75-member CSA and assorted restaurant customers.

To young farmers such as ourselves, Laura's model is something that finally feels attainable. Many of us are working on deeply rooted established farms (Caretaker, for instance, was one of the first CSA farms in the country). While such farms are fantastic learning environments, they don't give us much of a sense of how a 25-year-old could ever operate her own farm business. I can't afford Caretaker's beautiful old barn or its 38 fertile acres. But with a little bit of blind insanity and a lot of had work, I imagine like I could do something like Farmgirl Farm. For example, Laura is a brilliant scavenger. She found the frame of her greenhouse standing skeletal in someone's field one winter, sleuthed around for the owner, and bought many of the components for a fraction of their cost. Laura uses bartered CSA shares not only to pay her lease (there were, I kid you not, audible gasps when she revealed this fact), but also to secure legal services, chiropractic care, manure for her compost, and housing for her apprentices.

She gave us practical advice on irrigation systems, marketing, and the value of transplanting vs direct seeding your first year (weeds won't be as likely to choke transplants compared to direct-seeded crops). But what I remember most clearly and have been mulling over since was her humbling and inspiring benediction that "there will never be a moment when you think you know enough." Get out, she said, ask questions, find mentors. Just commit to giving it your best shot, and the rest will likely follow.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Scorched Earth Policy

The appeal of agriculture among adolescent boys usually begins and ends with one word: tractor. But that's not the only exciting and potentially dangerous farm tool, I am happy to report. Today I learned how to use a flame thrower.

Well, not exactly. It was really more like a large blowtorch on a stick, though calling it a "flame weeder" certainly sounds cooler. These flame weeders are our first line of defense against the inevitable onslaught of weeds (not to mention a lot more fun than a hoe).

Flame weeders work on the principle that weeds have a head start over our plants, especially with certain slow-germinating crops like carrots and onions. Our initial bed preparation disturbs the soil and wakes the weeds up from winter dormancy. In short order, they send tiny white shoots skyward, looking for light. Meanwhile, we seed our crop: beets, carrots, onions, or leeks. As soon as the first tiny weedlings appear, we strap on a propane tank and pull out the flame weeder. After removing all flammable material from the vicinity, we walk the rows, holding the flaming wand just above the lines of our seeding.

The idea is not that we incinerate the weeds--our pass is too fast, and many weedlings are still just beneath the soil's surface. Instead, our aim is to boil the water within weedling cells, which destroys the cell walls and kills the weeds. Our good seeds, however, just on the cusp of germination, are kicked into high gear by the sudden heat wave and soon come sprouting up through the (now clear) bed. Effective use of the flame weeder requires timeliness and a keen eye for detail. If you miss the window where weeds are starting but your crops have not, you'll be weeding the old fashion way.

Before you run out and buy a flame weeder for your home garden, be forewarned that a preliminary flame weeding will only kill the first flush of weeds. Inevitably, more will sprout amongst your crop, and you will have to remove them, whether by (wo)man or machine. Flame weeding gives you and your plants a head start, however, so that you can go ramp-hunting in April, rather than weeding the carrots.

Ramps are a wild relative of onions. One of the earliest members of the allium family (which also includes garlic and leeks), ramps are a bright spot in an otherwise bland winter diet, By now, our root cellar here at Caretaker is getting meager: a few celeriacs, a crate of potatoes, some onions. There might be some rutabagas lurking in some dark corner, but to give you a sense of the seriousness of our situation, we're out of garlic. Now, in fairness, we do eat like kings, thanks to a pressure cooker and lots of beans and pulses. But still. The only greenery 'round these parts are bean sprouts.

So I go foraging. Ramps prefer the dark, moist soil of a forest, thus I headed up the mountain on a sunny Sunday afternoon, following cow paths and occasionally ATV tracks. After a week of good weather, the ramps were flourishing in great green swaths under the trees. I had forgotten a trowel, so I dug down with a pointed stick and carefully pulled the white bulbs up out of the earth. Rather than decimating any one patch, I took my harvest in bits and pieces, until, satisfied with my walk, I returned home to cook myself dinner.

Ramps are a great substitute for leeks, in particular, though they will readily fill in for onions or garlic in a pinch. Like all alliums, they go wonderfully with eggs, cheese, and potatoes, all hearty late winter food. As many woodland plants in Massachusetts are yet to put out leaves, ramps are a good item on which to hone your foraging skills. Just look for the light green tapered leaves with a purplish tinge near the ground. Dig down and look for a small white bulb, and you are one step closer to supper.

Pasta with Ramps

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh ramps
cup extra-virgin olive oil, or half oil and half butter 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon crushed dried Italian red pepper (pepperoncino) or red pepper flakes
pound dry pasta, in any shape, such as penne, linguine or orecchiette Salt n' Peppa
cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese

Clean the ramps thoroughly and cut off any roots. Cut the bulbs off of the stems, slice the green leaves diagonally in half. Put a large pot of water on to boil.

Heat the oil in a skillet with 1/3 of a cup water over low heat. Add the bulbs and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until tender. Add the greens and saute for an additional 3-4 minutes, until wilted. By this point, the water should be mostly evaporated. While the greens are cooking, add salt and pepper to taste, as well as pepper flakes and any other herbs you enjoy (we added tarragon and a little bit of cloves).

When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to the directions. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauteed ramps. Serve with shaved parm.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trial By Fire and Ice

When I arrived at Caretaker Farm one week ago, I was hailed by swirling currents of snow flurries as I walked the frozen path to my new home (an unheated, unpowered cabin in the woods). I hugged a hot water bottle like my life depended on it that first night and did my best to think springy thoughts.

The power of positive thinking, however, was not apparently strong enough to dismiss Old Man Winter, who still had a few tricks up his frigid sleeves. Monday and Tuesday vacillated between a snowy drizzle and general overcastness, which prevented us from doing anything plant-related outside of greenhouse seeding. In the meantime, we worked to prepare the farm for spring: cleaning the barn and greenhouse, clearing brush, splitting logs for next winter's wood supply, slogging our way along the fence line and cutting back the thorny multiflora rose branches as we went.

Now to a New Englander, the past week's weather was nothing out of the ordinary. Half-frozen mud is ubiquitous this time of year, and no one expects to wear white summer dresses for Easter. Unfortunately, it is a proven fact that we Georgians lump all temperatures below forty as "unfit for human habitation," while simultaneously believing that all we really need at such times is a warm winter coat. As a cultural outreach gesture, I think that there ought to be a schematic drawing somewhere near the Mason-Dixon line that demonstrates the proper way to dress for winter. It has taken me years to overcome this heritage and comprehend "layering," a complex maneuver that requires more than a simple a t-shirt and a decent coat for winter attire. Since arriving at Caretaker, I have embraced layering to a comic degree, to the point that I am virtually unrecognizable under long underwear, a t-shirt, fleece, winter coats, and rain gear. And since then, I have not been cold.

This may also have been a function of Wednesday's chief occupation, burning the brush piles we had created in the cow pasture and down by the apprentice cabins. Once the wood finally caught and my hair began to frizz slightly from the heat of the flames, I felt a bit like the title character of "The Cremation of Sam McGee". I think I even removed some layers.

While the weather has certainly given me pause (particularly at 5:50 AM, when my alarm goes off and I come up for a breath of cold morning air from beneath a mountain of blankets and sleeping bags), my first week of farming has been splendid, exhausting, utterly satisfying. Caretaker's apprenticeship program is intensely communal: we rotate cooking duties 5 days per week and share the bottom floor of the farmhouse with Farmer Don and his family (the top is theirs and private, just as the cabins are ours). Caretaker is strictly a CSA farm, and the 250 shareholder families participate throughout the season in celebrations, harvesting, and occasional odd jobs around the farm. My excitement for this year is more nuanced that was my bright-eyed enthusiasm last year, when I began at Serenbe. I have a better sense of what I don't know, and a clearer idea of how to augment my knowledge. I'm not so scared of the greenhouse, nor totally clueless when it comes to compost and tractors. (though I imagine that Caretaker's manual transmissions will prove trickier than our deluxe little John Deere at Serenbe was).

Monday night, as I was washing the dishes, Katie and Margaret called me outside to witness the most stunningly complete rainbow I have ever seen. It and its fainter secondary rainbow spanned the farm in brilliant colors against the dusky sky. Were I a more adventurous sort, I would probably have felt compelled to scale the mountain beyond the farm and dig beneath the single fir tree that seemed to mark one end. But I've got more important things to do than chase after leprechaun gold--Spring is peeking quietly out of the fields, and we've got a long, full season ahead of us.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fit to Be (Hog) Tied

A few days ago, the daughter of my new boss asked me why I said that pigs are especially smart. Suddenly at a loss for specifics, I made a bumbling attempt to answer (having only cared for pigs for a total of 1 day at this point). I think I said something about how they always poop in the same place--I had learned this about 4 hours prior to the question--and that they are curious and social with humans.

Well. I can now tell you exactly how pigs are intelligent. They are escape artists. Today, as I was filling in soil around the foundation pillars of what will soon be Williamstown's first composting toilet, I heard a strange sound coming from our cows. I looked up to see two small pigs sprinting away from our five cows, all of whom were less than willing to share their choice compost with porcine interlopers. Surely, I thought, those are not our pigs? I ran to the barn, praying that I would see 8 pink snouts lined up against the front of the pig pen. Instead, I could make out two pigs lurking guiltily near a suscious-looking hole in the back corner. Just then, another porker trotted around a corner near the chiken coop, stopped upon site of me, and sprinted back as he had come. I rounded the corner and honed in on the escape hatch.

Gotcha, pigs.

I blocked off the exit and went looking for reinforcements. Soon Katie, (our venerable second year apprentice) was blocking the hole bodily while farmer-in-chief Don, Margaret (our other apprentice and cow whisperer), and I tried to round up the pigs on the lam. Margaret and Don caught the first when they cornered him by the compost, and he protested his return to captivity with ferocious squeals. Luckily, none of the pigs are propper hogs yet, so they were still small enough to carry (awkwardly) upside-down by their legs.

The second pig proved more of a challenge. Having witnessed the drama of his friend's capture and reimprisonment, he was determined to escape a similar fate. Meanwhile, the cows had moved back into their paddock and were busy providing an unpredictable bovine obstacle to our pig-catching strategies. Occasionally, one of our cows would charge the pig, leading to a Farmer-in-the-Dell-eque game of farmer chases cow which chases pig which runs away squealing. The pig was small enough to slip under fences and agile enough to evade most of our attempts to corner him. He led us through a swamp, across the fields, and even onto the neighbors property, before we finally herded him back to the beginning and (thanks to the help of Katie and Don's wife Bridget) into the barn. We had to dive on the pig to finally catch him and lift him back in with his compadres.

And after all of this adventuring, the stress and the drama, he quietly rejoined his friends and went over to sniff at the food bowl to see what was for dinner. All of that running around must have made him hungry, you see.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Truth breaks in, with all its matter-of-factness

The best test for an occupation is this: do it for 3 days on next to no sleep, under stress, in the dank gray despondency of New England spring. If, on the third day, even as you realize that you have to put down your best milk cow, you can notice that the weather has cleared and the first peeping frogs are singing a serenade to spring, you are where you should be.

Taking advantage of the short break between Colombia and Caretaker, Andrew and I returned to Sidehill Farm the first week of April to visit with dairy farmers Paul and Amy. We had visited Sidehill in December as part of my grand farm-touring extravaganza and were eager to return for more stories, maple yogurt, and dairying advice. Before we arrived, Paul and Amy warned us that they were in the midst of calving season and that the farm's schedule was therefore highly unpredictable, and we eagerly promised to help with anything the farm had to offer.

As we drove up the mountain, the last of the morning's fog burned away to reveal muddy roads and new spring growth. We pulled on rubber boots and went looking for our hosts. We found Amy and Paul looking harried and slightly dazed--Paul was overseeing the final steps on a batch of yogurt and loading a van for deliveries as Amy lured a young calf to the barn with a bottle of milk.

The aforementioned calf, nicknamed, amusingly, Ross Perot, had caused quite a stir with his birth. Though he went through the motions of nursing--making sucking noises and nosing around his mother's udder--he was ultimately unable to work out the complicated logistics of eating. Due to his ardent (but unsuccessful) efforts, this had gone unnoticed for several days, with two critical effects. The calf, Ross, had endured a hungry first week and was now dependent on humans for food. Even worse, his mother, Belle, formerly Amy and Paul's best milker, had contracted coliform mastitis in her unmilked udder. Cows are generally rather hardy animals, but after springtime calving and winter's drying off, their immune systems dip, leaving cows vulnerable to normally harmless bugs. Mastitis can range in severity from a mild, short term infection to a life-threatening systemic inflammation. The stress of carrying excess milk, coupled with her propensity to lounge in poop during her off hours, had left Belle incapacitated with a particularly vicious systemic infection. The vet was optimistic that she would pull through, but recommended that someone "strip" her (ie: milk out the infection) hourly. So Paul had spent the last two nights sleeping in the barn with a sick cow, while Amy juggled all of the normal start of the season tasks, a yogurt plant inspection, and the biggest vegetable distribution they had staged in months.

They explained all of this wearily over a lunch where coffee featured like an entree. Most of the chaos seemed to be dying down, though, so Andrew and I (who are greener than greenhorns in the dairy cow department) soon found ourselves picking up fencing and helping in the greenhouse: everyday sorts of tasks. We caught up with Amy as we worked, and the stresses of the milking barn retreated under the warm rays of spring and the satisfying feeling of completed tasks. At 7, we returned to the barn to bring in the baby calves for the night (this nocturnal separation leaves the mothers with milk for the morning milking).

Belle had deteriorated. She was lying on her side, taking labored breaths, and her teats were turning blue from the infection. After a brief discussion, Amy and Paul decided to call the vet for a final house call. While they waited, both farmers stroked Belle and spoke quietly to calm her. Together, we pushed her into a more natural position and propped her there with a bale of hay. The vet came, matter-of-fact, business-like. He confirmed Paul and Amy's diagnosis, that Belle would not make morning and that to leave her tonight would only prolong her pain. He injected her with a syringe that slowed her breathing and brought her great head to the barn floor. His work finished, the vet went home.

We paused for a moment to collect ourselves and take stock of the new situation. We now had a 1,000 lb dead cow in the barn, at a right angle to the door. Cow-moving equipment is not something that most farmers keep around. Two hours later, after some very tight tractor work and several simple machines, Paul had removed Belle to her final resting place of pasture, where he was covering her with compost to speed her return to the grass. Now worried that the other young mothers might be similarly undermilked and vulnerable to mastitis, Amy decided that a late night milking was in order for two cows who were still in seclusion with their calves. Ross needed to be fed. And the other calves still needed to come in. It was 9:30 at night and Andrew and I could help with none of this.

So we did the only thing that we could do, made dinner, and kept it warm. Sometime around 10:30 Amy and Paul finally allowed themselves to stop.

When someone asks me what farming is like, I ought to describe this long, layered day. Farming is ingenuity and satisfaction, compassion and resolve. It is contains great gaping spaces for beauty if you can allow yourself to look up, smell the evening air, and find the strength to work on.