Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Just Being Neighborly

According to some of our neighbors from across the street, who come out to volunteer every week or so, the hills around here are rife with bears. Whether day or night, so they say, they can't walk past their dumpster without interrupting some nosy black bear's snack. News of our neighbors' furry visitors came as something of a shock to us, caregivers to 5 large, yummy cows, 8 scrumptious pigs, and 80-odd small but juicy chickens (not to mention several steaming piles of composting food scraps). As I am generally the last to make the trek to my cabin (inevitably well after dark and without anything more threatening than an oversize fleece), this news kicked my imagination into overdrive.

For whatever reason, however, the bears seem unwilling to cross the road. Perhaps they recognize that our side of the valley is coyote territory, and the bears dare not trespass. I've grown accustomed to the sound of coyotes howling as I drift off to sleep, and I actually rather like it. Coyotes know better than to bother our cows, our pigs are safely stowed in the barn, and the chickens so far seem secure within the electrified netting that surrounds their coop. But. The coyotes do seem to be getting bolder. We've noticed tracks in the back of our main greens and roots field, and several days ago Don saw one in the early morning just beyond the fence in the river field. Now Katie has begun reporting sightings as well, a lone canine, trotting through the garlic and sniffing around as though he owns the place.

As we all thought that coyotes travel in packs, the current theory to explain this particular pup is that he is perhaps vegetarian, and therefore a pariah among his kind. Whatever the truth, he had better remain a vegetarian, at least as far as Caretaker Farm is concerned, lest we "take care" of him.

Then again, though, if those pesky groundhogs near our cabins were to "disappear," we certainly wouldn't ask any questions.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Case for Working With Your Hands

If anyone is struggling with the question of what to get me for Memorial Day (what? no one told you that we swap presents for Memorial Day now?), look no further than Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, an excerpt of which was adapted recently into an extended essay in the New York Times. While the article is, admittedly, on the long side, it is also the most eloquent, insightful defense of manual labor I have ever read. If you've enjoyed anything on this blog, you'll like this essay better, I promise.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Transplant Tetris

The weather gods saw fit to bless us a drizzly, windy afternoon and a stormy night. While a season farming in Georgia has given me a healthy appreciation for precipitation, it has stretched our greenhouse to capacity. With tonight's high winds, we can't leave out the hardier stuff, as we normally would, hardening them off in preparation for transplanting. At the same time, our seeding schedule necessitated that we keep adding new flats to the greenhouse, and our tomato seedlings were begging to be "potted on" to larger containers. So, we played a little transplant tetris, to see how we could fit the absolute maximum amount of plant matter into the smallest possible area. Here's a picture of the interior of our greenhouse:
Thankfully, the forecast is for a lovely day tomorrow, perfect for transplanting.

And here's where we're stashing the remainder of our young charges, just outside of the greenhouse in a storage shelter. Would someone please hand me one of those wooden trays in the corner?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Learning Curve Continues...

One of the best and simultaneously most challenging aspects of farming is that I am forever discovering new avenues of exploration about which I know...nothing. In honor of that fact, here's a list of some interesting tidbits I've lately accumulated. Now if I could only retain all of this, and not have it leak out my ears like so much that I've learned over the years.
  • If you scout your onion bed the day after transplanting, you are liable to notice that a number of young onion transplants have been pulled up out of the soil. It will look like a random act of farm vandalism in miniature. In fact, it is worms. A nearby farmer got fed up with this mysterious annual phenomenon and sat out one night with a flashlight until he caught the little fertilizers popping up for a spot of night air and knocking the onions out of the soil. Solution: thank your lucky stars that you have so many worms in your soil and always keep a few transplants set aside as replacements.
  • Even after a year of nursing, young calves will bellow as though the sky is falling when you separate them from their mamas. Also, cows only need about one hour of sleep daily. That leaves a lot of time for plaintive mooing.
  • Building a hoophouse is harder than it looks. Disassembling a hoophouse is easy. Rebuilding a disassembled hoophouse is an endeavor fit only for someone with the strength of Paul Bunyan and the patience of Gandhi.
  • I will probably never become a dandelion wine aficionado, as the manufacture of this intriguing beverage requires you to first de-petal a gallon's worth of dandelions. Then you've got to ferment your brew for upwards of a year. There are limits even to my DIY ethic.
  • Chocolate mint (the plant) really does taste like a junior mint. Whoa.
My mead experiment is coming along nicely: I just put it in a gallon jug (one of those cool looking ones that you half expect to be labeled with "XXX") with an airlock and tucked it away to ferment. I'll share with you what I've done thus far, and I encourage you to give it a try. Mead is delightfully low-tech, and requires absolutely no de-petaling.

Basic T'ej (Ethiopean Honey Wine, or Mead)

3 cups honey (try to get unprocessed, raw honey for flavor and health benefits)
12 cups (3 liters) water, unchlorinated is best

1 gallon bucket or crock, wide mouth
1 gallon glass jug (like you would expect moonshine or apple cider to come in, with a narrow neck)
airlock (they cost about $1 at most homebrew stores), or a balloon

Mix your honey and water in the wide mouth container until the honey is fully dissolved. Cover with a towel or cloth and set it in a warm place. You want the natural yeast in the air to be able to enter the mixture, but want to keep our dirt, bugs, etc.

Several times a day, as you think of it, stir the honey water. After several days (in my case it took nearly a week) your brew should begin to bubble slightly and acquire a faintly fermenty aroma. At this point, transfer it into the small mouth container and either stop it with the airlock or cover the neck with a balloon. The goal here is to allow carbon dioxide (the waste product of the yeast as it transforms sugar into alcohol) to escape, but to prevent any new airborn yeasts from joining the party.

Now let your mead ferment for 2-4 weeks, until the bubbling slows down. Sandor Katz notes that the flavor will develop the longer you let your mead sit, but that it is perfectly drinkable, not to mention intoxicating, after even such a short ferment. I'm counting down and crossing my fingers!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dirty Words

What is the difference between dirt and soil?

The difference is first and foremost our 5 cows--Lucy, Lukey, Leche, Maya, and Chloe. All winter long, our cows spent their nights in the barn, leaving us with an abundance of rich manure ideally situated for convenient composting. As soon as the snow melted and the pastures became knee-deep in fresh grass and covercrops, our bovine beasties began chafing for fresh greens (who can blame them?). Last week, we pulled out the mobile electric fencing and led our eager cows onto the first of 3 field of rye grass. These fields will lie fallow this year, allowing the earth to rest before another strenuous year of growing. Fallow fields are not devoid of activity, however. The rye grass added nitrogen to the soil, and like all grasses, sent down deep, aerating roots. Now that our cows have mowed the grass, we can reseed the fields in a summer crop like oats, which will be fertilized by the cow's manure.

But that manure needs spreading, which is why we have our chickens. Our 83 Golden Star laying hens have finished their winter vacation in the barn and are now hard at work cleaning up after the cows. Truth be told, they're much happier (and thus more pleasant to work with) now that they can take dust baths, catch bugs, and run in circles around their pen. Every day one of us moves their covered wagon-esque shelter one length farther in the cow-grazed field. After about a week, we'll move their fencing to a new patch and begin again. All the while that they are scratching through cow patties and scruffing up the soil, the chickens are adding their own fertilizer, which will show up in bright green growth in our next covercrop.

Meanwhile, back at the barn, the pigs are turning the cow's winter manure (and shortly the chicken's too) into compost. Pigs love nothing better than rooting for buried treasure, so we hide pockets of dried corn deep in the bedding and manure. The pigs dig it up, grow happily fatter, and move our composting operation along at a brisk pace. Our compost piles then age in the sun for about a season, until what once was waste becomes farm gold.

Through the additional labor of millions of earthworms, trillions of bacteria, nematodes, and fungi, our land becomes something more than a medium for growing plants.

It is soil, not dirt.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Burn My Stillhouse Down

A little over a year ago, I began this blog with a recipe for "massaged kale", courtesy of Sandor Katz's book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved. Alas, as I'm in New England now and Caretaker only grows kale as a fall crop, I cannot indulge in such a simple, sumptuous repast. But I have a new Sandor Katz book, Wild Fermentation, which offers recipes for delectable edibles that are season unspecific. Katz celebrates fermentation not only for its value as a form of food preservation, but also for the unique health benefits derived from consuming the living yeasts and bacterias which ferment food. Katz, who is a long time HIV/AIDS survivor, believes that his immune system health is largely a result of his diet, which consists almost exclusively of fresh, organic produce, milk from his goats, and homemade, naturally fermented foods.

I can't yet speak to the curative effects of sauerkraut, but I have noted empirically that beer certainly does make me feel good (except on those occasions when I perhaps partake too liberally...though those thankfully seem to be dwindling as I reach the ripe old age of 25). Anyway, all of this reading about fermentation had been brewing away within my subconscious until Saturday afternoon, when Margaret and I passed by the Berkshire County Homebrew Supply Store on our way back from a CRAFT visit. I decided to pop in just for a preliminary scouting expedition and departed laden with two one gallon brewing jugs and matching airlocks. In my defense, it was National Homebrewer's Day, and thus all merchandise was 10% off (the sale continues all week, for anyone interested in embarking on similar voyages of discovery). It probably didn't hurt that they also gave us free samples of a nice honey brown ale that they had brewed in store.

Now that I have all the necessary tools, I need only a pot of honey to set to work on my first project: Ethiopian t'ej, or honey mead. T'ej seemed a good starting point for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, it will be ready to consumption in 2-4 weeks. Considering that some of Katz's other recipes call for a year or more of aging, this is a major selling point. I'm also rather taken with the idea of making my mead with Caretaker honey. As we don't grow hops or barley or other beer-brewing supplies, beer will have to wait. I'm hopeful that this little experiment will not turn out like my last foray into wild fermentation, the infamous spontaneously (un)leavened sourdough bread. As Don says, however, "if you aren't occasionally failing, you aren't really trying". Stay tuned--pictures and a detailed recipe to follow once I've secured the honey.

For now, check out this (grainy) video of Hawthorne Valley's killer raw ruby red sauerkraut. This stuff was so alive and kicking that it was bubbling immediately after we opened it. While fizzy food might be a bit out of some people's comfort zone, it is merely indicative that the fermentation process is ongoing and that the good fermenting bacteria are still hard at work converting sugars from the cabbage into carbon dioxide. Trust me, it was delicious.