Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Scream, You Scream

I've learned quite a bit about cows this year. Of course, I came to Caretaker knowing little more than that cows are the first step in ice cream, and therefore worthy of all due reverence and respect. Having spent the past few months living around them, moving them from pasture to pasture, and, as of late, milking Chloe, my appreciation has matured, and I have come to consider them a critical element for a farm.

First and foremost, we keep cows for fertility. All winter long, our cows spend their nights in the barn, where they ruminate, moo, and poop. Every morning, we send them back out to a snowy pasture and muck out their stall. The accumulated manure from a winter's worth of long nights forms the base for all of the compost that we spread on our fields and use in potting on our transplants.

Additionally, our elderstateswomen cows Lucy and Lukey provide us with two calves each year, which we raise for beef. Chloe's calves will be sold either as 4-H Heifers (if female) or as beef (if male). In that respect, then, our cows are a renewable resource, giving back to the farm each year.

In my opinion, Chloe is the real star of the show. Learning to milk has been a lesson in bovine anatomy and health certainly, but it has also reinforced farm values of patience and persistence. As I now know, you have to milk out all of the regular milk in order to get to the cream. There are no shortcuts or exceptions, and if you neglect to "milk her out," she'll give less milk the next time you milk. So you have to milk for as long as she keeps giving, even when she kicks with devilish precision for the bucket, even when she shuffles sideways into a corner, even when she somehow knocks the lid off the grain container, sticks her head in, and somehow contorts herself so that she is perpendicular to her normal milking position. Despite all of this, I'm totally in love with Chloe and the daily gift of milk which she gives us.

Walking out to work in the fields, I used to look in at the cows (who don't often deviate from a strict schedule of graze-ruminate-graze-chill-ruminate) and think to myself, "what a sweet life. they just eat and sleep!" Recently my perspective shifted, however, when I realized that cows require the near constant feeding to sustain their body mass on a diet of grass. If you or I tried to eat grass, we'd literally starve, as the energy to extract nutrients from pasture would exceed the caloric gain. But cows, with their four bacteria-rich stomachs, are able not only to survive on grass but to thrive on it. For our cows, grazing is quite literally their job, and they do it with a diligence that would make a drill sergeant proud.

In honor of our cows, here's a recipe (I've been terribly lax in my recipe posting, though I have been cooking plenty of delicious things) worthy of truly good milk. If you have the good fortune to have access to Jersey cream, try this one out. You won't be disappointed.

Lavender and Honey Ice Cream
This is a custard-based ice cream recipe, so it works best if you make the custard ahead of time and then throw the cream in and churn it all while you are eating dinner. The ice cream will be ready as soon as you finish you meal. It goes extremely well with a chocolate zucchini cake...

6 T honey
4 egg yolks
2 t cornstarch or arrowroot powder
8 lavender spikes (the flowery bit)
2 cups milk
2 cups cream (whipping cream, if you are buying it at a store)

Put the honey, cornstarch, and egg yolks in a medium-sized sauce pan. Whisk them together, and add in the lavender flowers (stripped from the central stem) and a little of the milk.

Pour the rest of the milk into a small saucepan and heat it to a boil, stirring. Pour the milk over the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly as you pour.

Return this custard mixture to the stove top and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until it thickens (this will happen sooner the creamier your milk is. Don't use skim, I beg you. ) Do not let it boil. Once the custard has thickened, remove from heat and let cool in the fridge for a few hours.

Once the custard is cooled and thick, add in the cream and churn in an ice cream churn.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Ode to Chloe

When did I become a farmer, rather than simply a curious person who wanted to grow food? I don't think it was the day that I signed up for the next agricultural census, or my first garlic harvest, or even when I worked through summer's heat in Georgia or a month of rain in Massachusetts. Of course, such a stepping into self doesn't occur in the course of a day, any more than I wake up each year on my birthday feeling a full year older. I do feel, however, that milking a cow is a milestone worth noting.

Chloe calved for us on a Sunday night near the end of June. We sat outside her stall, transfixed by her straining labor--Jerseys are notoriously melodramatic, Don says. Finally, with a little bit of help from Don, the slick, skinny calf slid out onto the straw. He lay there, limp and discombobulated, and Chloe busied herself by licking him clean like a fussy mother. In short order, his hunger got the better of him, and he began floppily stretching for his mother's teat. This continued for a while, Chloe cleaning, the calf balancing precariously then tipping over under his mother's ministrations, until finally satisfied, Chloe let him have his first draught of milk. Micah, Don's 3-year-old son, had already christened the calf Jingle Bells.

For about the first week after calving, a cow produces a super rich milk called colostrum, which is critically important for her calf's healthy development. We milked Chloe that first week so that her milk production would remain high, but allowed Jingle Bells to drink as much as he wanted, and we fed the surplus colostrum to the pigs. I waited impatiently for my turn. Finally, the following Monday, we began milking Chloe for ourselves. Jersey milk has the highest butterfat content of any of the common dairy breeds, and truly, you can taste the difference. The beta carotene in the milk gives it an ever so faint ivory tone, and if you let the cream rise, it will form a thick almost golden crown on the milk. I used to drink milk as an excuse to eat cookies; with this kind of milk, it is the other way round.

Even with Jingle Bells freely nursing, we're getting up to 2 gallons of milk a day, and even making butter, queso blanco, sour cream, buttermilk, ricotta, paneer, feta, and whipped cream, we're still practically swimming in the stuff. Its a good life.

Meanwhile, on Monday, I began my week on the milking rotation. Milking Chloe is both incredibly fulfilling and terribly frustrating. Frustrating because Chloe is getting used to me, and thus has a tendency to kick at the bucket. Twice now I've had to discard a partial pail of milk after a dirty, well aimed cow hoof splashed into its contents. Even with my stops and starts, though, I love the rhythm of milking.

We tend to our animals with respect and care, but rarely do we have time in our days to sit with and observe them. Not that I really want to bond with our pigs, or our chickens, or even really with our beef cows. All of those animals are transient, serving a short term purpose for which we appreciate them. They will be eaten with gratitude, not remorse. But Chloe is our milk cow. She'll give us milk and an yearly calf for twelve or more years, and her manure will fertilize our fields and pastures. We can love her. And every morning when we milk her, we can sit close, with our heads resting against her side. We breath in her sweet cow smell--not of manure or barnyards, but a fresh scent, like clean laundry with soft animal overtones. We sing to her in time with the sound of the milk hitting the pail.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stone Soup

So in my free time this year, I've taken on a new hobby--gardening. I admit, part of my motivation for creating a garden is the dumbfounded looks I get from shareholders and friends when I say that when not farming, I garden. But really, my gardening project was mainly a Southerner's rebellion against the constraints of a Northern CSA farm. In April, I was appalled to discover that we don't grow eggplants, watermelons, cauliflower, or sweet potatoes, all of which I consider practically food groups in their own right. Because I have a strange farmer complex, in which I can't fathom purchasing produce which I might instead be able to grow myself, I immediately began adopting a bad British accent and querrrying Don, "might I have a bit of earth?" I think he missed my Secret Garden reference, but he did spade up a patch of sod down near the cabins and he invited me to do with it as I saw fit.

All eagerness and anticipation, I raced down to view my domain. There I encounteredmy first challenge: rocks. New England is notoriously rocky (Andrew informs me that the early settlers honestly feared that the land was cursed, as every winter's frost heave brought new stones to the surface), but my plot was almost absurd in its stoniness. As I hunkered down and began pulling rocks, I began to fear that there might be nothing left once I had cleared my field. What little soil thinly coated the rocks was mostly the sandy runoff from the nearby stream. I knew that my land would drain well, but I feared that my crops would be starved for nutrients in such poor conditions. While my seeds grew into transplants in the greenhouse, I passed my weekends carrying bucket after bucket of rocks to the growing pile at one corner of my garden. Once the ratio of soil to stones had shifted in my favor, Don brought down a huge load of compost and spaded it into my field. My soil was still a far cry from the nearby beds in which I spend most of my time, but I finally felt like a plant might not die immediately if subjected to life in my garden. Besides, I was beginning to find earthworms, which I took to be a hopeful sign.

The second major challenge of my garden is the quantity of sun it receives. This summer has been unusually wet and overcast (undeserving of the name "summer," if you ask me) and to make matters worse, my garden only receives direct sunlight for part of the day. I ordered eggplant and watermelon varieties which claimed to be suited for Northern growing, but decided not to take any chances. After measuring out beds, digging pathways, and raking everything flat, I laid black plastic for my eggplants and watermelon to heat the soil. I also opted to cover all of my transplants with row cover, both to deter pests and to hold in extra heat at night. Finally, after what seemed like endless preparations, I put my plants into the ground. (Sadly, the sweet potatoes were not to be, as I was never able to find affordable slips--a.k.a. baby sweet potato plants--anywhere nearby)

As my transplanting drew to a close, I discovered an unanticipated problem; I had more land than I had plants to fill it. Well, I might have been able to fill it with eggplants, but even I wouldn't know what to do if all 22 of my plants started bearing fruit. I decided to give away my surplus eggplants and fill my extra space with extra flower transplants that had been languishing outside the greenhouse. I filled the end of my garden with flowers: gazanias, black eyed susans, statice, and several husk cherry plants. I mowed the clearing to remove slug habitat (all of the rain in June and now July has turned Caretaker into escargot heaven), and then stopped to marvel at how rocky, sandy soil in the midst of a grassy meadow had become my tiny garden.