Archive for June, 2010

Independence Days Update: Season of Fruit

Sharon June 24th, 2010

With the cherries, the season of fruit hit full swing.  The strawberries are nearly done - mine are all done, with one or two exceptions, and the pick your own will only be open for a few more days.  The cherries are overflowing though - we picked 30lbs yesterday with my sister and nieces.  10lbs went home with Vicki for cherry pie, quite a few are being eaten, and the rest will be jam and pie filling.

The strawberries have that end-of-season, very slightly past-prime taste, but they still make wonderful jam and dry beautifully.  And Isaiah brought over the first handfull of wild raspberries yesterday afternoon, and each of us got one, full of promise to come.

My kids are big fruit eaters, and we try to minimize our out-of-season fruit eating (we are not perfect by any means in this regard).  This means that my children have been eating apples more or less non-stop since last August as their primary fresh fruit.  There were some oranges and bananas in winter, there were fall raspberries, pears and quinces and the dried and canned fruit from last summer, but berries, cherries, peaches - these have not been part of our lives for many months.  The anticipation means that when they arrive, they are a bliss, and we enjoy them fully.

It is also time for the first wave of serious herb harvesting at our place.  Since medicinals are a big deal for us (and I hope will be a big part of the farm sales), they are taking up more and more time.  This week we set up our drying room - the glassed-in mudroom off my kitchen.  We closed it up and locked it and its southern exposure keeps the room hot enough to dry herbs very quickly - and since rapid drying is essential to keeping them green and fresh, we’ve been really happy with it. Eric set up  strings running across the roof, and I use rubber bands to hook the bunches of plant material hanging, while trays of flowerheads and smaller materaisl rest underneath.  So far, it has been a howling success.

We managed local zucchini today, and I have one tiny one and several blossoms, so I’m hopeful.  It amazes me how exciting zucchini is in June and how annoying in August ;-) .   We’re still putting in the new beds, but now I’m starting to think about fall crops - I still have a few summer ones to go, along with the perennials that I am establishing for for next year’s medicinal harvest.  Most of the summer garden is in, but there’s always a few late things that we are running behind with.

The goats are dry, and we are enjoying the break from milking.  When we go back, we’ll have seven does in milk, so we’ve decided to milk only once a day - less milk per doe, but enough for and plenty for the kids, and less work.  We don’t mind milking twice a day, but if we don’t  need to, we’ll be grateful to have evening chores shortened a bit, especially with more goats adding time.

I’m waiting for a cool day to rebreed Rosemary - she’s ready for another breeding and her babies are getting big and cute.  But bunnies don’t like heat and it can reduce male fertility, and we’ve been having a warm spell - I gather it will be cooler next week and am waiting for that.  

After Eric’s birthday party on Sunday we had an unbelievable amount of leftover lasagna and goodies - so we’ve barely cooked at all.  This has been lovely and the kids are thrilled with all the unaccustomed treats (not to mention the strawberry-rhubarb pie and ice cream my sister provided yesterday).  The supply is finally petering down, though, and we’ll go back to cooking - but not much to say about that this week.

Otherwise, just the usual, plant and harvest, preserve and plant some more. Starting seeds for fall crops, trying to get everything in the ground…it is all an endless but richly enjoyable project.

Plant something: Elecampane, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, melons, kale, broccoli, beans, flax, clover, amaranth, sunflowers, horehound, yarrow, goji berries, peppers, ginko.

Harvest something: Peas, eggs, kale, bok choy, lettuce, beets, strawberries, cherries, yarrow, motherwort, catnip, lemon balm, chamomile, calendula, red clover, yellow bedstraw, mint, betony.

Preserve something: Made more strawberry rhubarb jam, froze snap peas, dried strawberries, dried many herbs.

Waste Not: Nothing unusual, except eating down the party food.

Want Not: Nothing unusual - very party focused.  We didn’t even make it to our synagogue yard sale, usually a seasonal highlight.

Eat the Food: Yup, we ate food.  Nothing really exciting though, although I made a lovely black bean and corn salsa with the very last of our frozen corn.  Ok, ready for corn season again!

Build community food systems:  Some discussion of a community garden at our synagogue, which I really want to happen, and a bunch of radio stuff.  But I’ve got something bigger on the back burner, waiting for time to make it simmer.

How about you?



Sharon June 22nd, 2010

There are some chores on a farm that can only be described as meditative - they involve lots of not-too-strenuous but deeply repetetive labor.  These are the kind of chores that I sometimes have trouble getting started on because they look both boring and endless.

Facing a bazillion chamomile blossoms, half a bushel of shelling peas or 1000 onion transplants can look like a long slog.  And yet once you get into the rhythym of it, somehow the endless work seems more manageable than one expected - it can even be enlightening.

I’ve done a lot of this work recently - first was the weeding of the long beds, then the filling of the holes in the cinder blocks with compost and soil mix, then the shelling of shell peas, followed by the removal of stems and strings from an awful lot of  snap peas, both to go into the freezer for winter.  And this morning we finally started on the chamomile blossoms that started calling me (and which I totally ignored) last week.

Picking chamomile blossoms by hand is tedious - the stems have no real medicinal value, so all you want is the flower heads.  It cannot be done rapidly and it requires a precision totally unlike many of the plants that I harvest with pruning shears.  And chamomile blossoms are tiny - an hour’s work in the sun will get you a bowl full, if  your bowl is small.

And yet there’s no substitute for doing this right - the taste of chamomile tea, dried fresh minutes after picking is so different than anything that comes in a bag.  Their value for calming, settling, easing and getting ready for bed is vastly greater when correctly harvested and handled as well.

This morning I found myself filling our drying area with hanging herbs, putting off the chore of facing the flower heads.  I clipped extra lemon verbena, fiddled with the catnip, went back to the yarrow again to cut some more, mostly to avoid the chamomile.  I picked the calendula blossoms, even though there weren’t many and it could have waited.  I looked over at the clover, but decided that was worse than the chamomile and I was starting too late in the morning.

Finally, I got to it.  And I found I didn’t mind at all, actually - the sweet applish smell of chamomile on my fingers, the smooth motions as I go through the feathery greens, the chance to just listen to bird song and to just watch the goats nibbling goldenrod shoots, the chance to think, it was a good thing.

Isaiah and Asher came out and joined me for a while, chattering away about their ambitions and projects, asking questions about the plants and coming back to tell me what the thermometer in the drying area read.  They picked and I picked and we talked, and suddenly, half the patch was harvested.

After they left I did some more, leaving about a third of it for tomorrow or the next day.  The funny thing is that it didn’t seem like a big deal anymore - the work had passed almost without noticing.  There were so many things to think about, or even not think about, to just immerse myself in the sounds and smells and feel of my world.  For moments, even long moments, I achieve that much desired state of mindfulness, the sense that one is doing the the thing wholly.

And then the kids are back, and we’re talking about summer projects and guests and building birdhouses and finding salamanders and when the pumpkins and watermelons will be right, and the bowl is filled again, and so are the drying racks, and what seemed endless and impossible was just a bit of work sandwiched in with a lot of good watching and listening and thinking about things and nothings, and talking. 


Sans Fridge

Sharon June 17th, 2010

Let me start by saying that I don’t live entirely without refrigeration - I have and I can, but I don’t do it at present.  I find life better with a little bit of coolth.  Five months of the year, coolth is available free outside - and all of us in northern climates could pretty easily take advantage of it.  The other months we do more complex things, but we still have just a little bit of coolth - just not the 15 cubic feet of it that is the American average.

That said, however, I don’t have standard refrigerator, and the reason for that is pretty simple - when we started the Riot for Austerity, we found that we simply couldn’t live on 1/10th of the average American’s electric consumption and still have a frig.  Refrigeration, and anything that generates heat with electricity (dryers, electric stoves, electric heat) are the biggest energy hogs in an average American household.  Getting your usage down means first getting rid of the wholly optional stuff (everyone’s hair and clothes will dry eventually with air, for example, at least to my mind) and then moving on to the things you think are essential, and seeing whether they really are.

Not everyone would make the choices that I do, and that’s part of the point - one of the points of the Riot for Austerity and other strategies for making radical reductions in energy is that everyone gets the same basic allotment of resources, and can use them however they want.  Other families might make different choices and that’s completely reasonable - the point was to get to 90% down - there is no ideological choice about how to get there.  If you consider your hairdryer a necessity, great - keep using it, just lose something else.  The point is that we all use the same fair share - but we also all need freedom of choice within our limits.

For me, the critical issue is that we have a chest freezer.  When we first started to farm, we attempted to do so without one - we got our first large freezer in 2005.  What we found, however, was that given that we sell meat from the farm, having a freezer was a necessity.  Twice in a row we scheduled butchering dates and slaughtered chickens and turkeys for our customers, and twice in a row, we found that people simply didn’t show up to pick up their birds.  They were used to the supermarket model, where things can be held indefinitely.  After two unpleasant occasions when we had to frantically call around to every person we knew, begging for space in freezers, and one in which we actually lost some poultry to rot, I decided we’d never do that again.  It simply isn’t fair to the animals we slaughter to waste their lives - we bought a superefficient chest freezer.

But while this was one of the lowest electricity consumers for its size that was out there, it still used enough wattage that we knew either the frig or the freezer had to go, and it was no contest for us.  The freezer was a basic livelihood thing.  The frig we could do without - moreover the freezer meant that we could have a little bit of refrigeration - simply by taking frozen bottles of water and ice packs and rotating them into a cooler.  We unplugged the frig.

Eventually we found that one side of Eric’s grandmother’s small side-by-side frig (long since unplugged) actually worked a bit better for us than the cooler, and reinvented the ice box.   Once a day during the warm weather we rotate a few ice packs and a couple of old soda bottles filled with water into our freezer.  The freezer is kept in the garage, which is partly insulated - it stays coolish in the summer and is very cold in the winter, and we’ve found the freezer uses less electricity there than in the house.  Given that the freezer operates more efficiently when full, and that this time of year it isn’t (we haven’t yet added all the preserved food), the energy used in moving and refreezing this water is comparatively small, much less than a refrigerator would use.

From November to April, we have all the cool we could want - we put the food out on the side porch, which is insulated enough not to freeze, but not so much that it keeps the food warm.  In fact, the walk-in porch fridge is actually a really lovely thing - nothing gets lost, much less food gets wasted, and you can see everything.  On a rare warm day in those months, we might transfer the food to the frig, which is the only real hassle.

This would be considerably easier, actually, if we lived in a city or large suburb, and could shop more often.  The reality of much of Europe, for example, was that the cold beer was down at the pub and one went shopping daily or regularly for ingredients for meals.  That’s not viable out here in the country, so I think being frigless is actually considerably more challenging for rural folks than urban and suburban dwellers.  It is, however, easier in a cooler climate, obviously.

We are a family of six plus a housemate, and we have only a small amount of refrigeration space, which encourages us to keep the quantity of refrigerables fairly small - and helps us usefully distinguish things that must be refrigerated and those that are commonly refrigerated but don’t need it.  I find that setting external limits for myself means that I do the right thing automatically - Greenpa has a great post on this subject that I agree with wholeheartedly, even though my limits are different than his: #2007/07/power-of-limits.html

Here are some things that most Americans refrigerate that don’t actually need it:

- Eggs - these keep on a shelf for 1-2 months without refrigeration.  In most of Europe, you won’t find eggs in a refrigerator case.

- Hard cheeses - in a cool spot, these will keep a long time - some people prefer the taste and texture this way.

- Most salty or vinegary condiments - ketchup, mustard, relish, many chutneys, fish sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce.  Obviously check to see what the manufacturers recommendation is if you are purchasing them, but these are things that will not spoil at room temperature. 

- Butter - use a butter keeper.

Many fresh vegetables can be kept moist, and that works as well as keeping them cool (basil and some tropical leafies should never be put in a frig).  So basically that leaves the frig for milk and dairy products other than butter and hard cheese, meats and meat-containing things, leftovers and the most delicate greens.  Eating more vegetarian meals alone reduces the need for a frig.

The majority of people in the world have no refrigeration, and they can eat safely.  Meat is eaten within a day of butchering, shopping is done often or people use their gardens.  Underground spaces, creeks, springs and other cool spots are used for some measure of natural refrigeration.  It is perfectly viable to live without one, and we could do without the freezer and frig - we would sell less meat and keep our animals on the hoof, butchering only when necessary as is done in much of the world.  Our present situation is a luxury and part of the realities of our work, but I don’t mistake it for anything other than that.

There are lots of ways to reduce your dependency on refrigeration - which besides the majority of electricity in the US comes from coal fired plants, also involves chemical coolants with dangers and when frigs outgrow their usefulness, create enormous problems in landfills.  One solution is to give it up entirely, and that’s completely achievable.  But most of us were raised accustomed to refrigeration and lots of it, so we need some transitional strategies to help us get off that dependency.

The first step is to ask whether your current frig is energy efficient - there are huge differences between older and newer models, and while I don’t like the abandonment of large appliances into landfills, there is a case to be made for choosing something more efficient.  And as long as you are doing that, you could go to a smaller frig - Aaron Newton, for example, uses a dorm-sized frig for his family of four.  Most of us don’t need nearly as much fridge space as we have.

Perhaps you could share with a neighbor, particularly if you live in close proximity - put the frig in the garage between your two houses.  Perhaps you could accept that cold beer lives down at the bar at the end of the street and that you will mostly eat meat in the cool weather.  Or maybe you can’t - but you won’t know until you experiment a little.

Another possible step is considering a chest-freezer conversion - some brilliant person discovered that you can put a temperature regulator on a chest freezer and create a frig that uses a tiny amount of energy.  Frankly, the reason I haven’t done this is that I simply don’t care enough - we’re happy as we are.  But if you cared a lot about a frig, this might be a good way to go:

Greenpa has been doing this a lot longer than I have, and has a long list of strategies for how to get along that way.  All I can say is that I’ve never had food poisoning from this (although from eating in crappy restaurants that’s different), I waste less food than I used to, and despite the fact that my husband and I use computers for our job and live in a place with no gas lines, I use only 9% of the electricity that the average American household uses.


Is this the one true way, the truth and the light?  Nope, it is just how we do it.  At the same time, I think the need to reduce consumption radically is fundamental - it has to happen and it has to happen across the board, no excuses.  Losing the frig is one possible strategy.


Independence Days Update: Getting Ready to Party

Sharon June 17th, 2010

I was away three days last weekend, and I came back to the preparations for Eric’s 40th birthday party, so not as much has been accomplished this week on larger farm projects as I’d like.   On the other hand, the grass is scythed, the flowers are blooming and the barn will be cleaned out tomorrow, so that’s good - sometimes the trade offs are aesthetics vs. infrastructure, otherwise, we sometimes fall too far into “infrastructure and ignore the aesthetics.”

I’ve already frozen several lasagnas and 100 shortcake biscuits for the party - got to make one more lasagn and a big batch of tomato sauce.  It is nice, the first basil harvest is ready just in time, and there’s plenty of oregano and thyme and it makes for amazing tomato sauce with all that fragrance imbued.  The menu is lasagna (with some pasta and tomato sauce for the vegans), pesto bread, asparagus with lemon-caper dressing, a big green salad, and for dessert, a huge quantity of strawberry shortcake.  There will also be chips, salsa and snap peas for nibbles beforehand. 

I’ve done a bunch of prettification stuff (I did a bunch before Memorial Day weekend as well, so the place is looking pretty decent) - I finally bought a dark purple clematis to twine up the porch (wanted one for years, keep forgetting about it), and got the front path weeded (bleah!). 

Meanwhile, I’ve also been working on the usual planting, both the herb infrastructure for the new medicinal project (what do y’all think of “the homegrown apothecary” for a name for the medicinal line - I haven’t googled yet to see if it is already taken, though), and all the normal perennial and annual things.  I’m getting the wetland medicinals in over the next week or two - Viburnum opulus (crampbark), blue vervain, marshmallow, valerian, angelica, eclipta, betony…  I’m enjoying putting these beds together and making them look nice.

It is time for the first major herb harvest as well here - but I haven’t done much of it.  The chamomile is blossoming, as is the motherwort, betony, yarrow, catnip, lemon balm, red clover and other herbs that need to be cut for aerial parts.  But they will have to wait a week, other than a few bunches to make the house smell good.  I’m still trying to figure out whether I can make tinctures for sale in my kitchen, or if I have to actually rent a commercial kitchen for the process, which would suck, but I could do it.  I’m planning on doing the commercial kitchen thing anyway for a few of my crops, notably black currant and elderberry syrups and juices, but I’d really like to avoid having to do that every time I want to pour Everclear over plant matter ;-)

We had a bit of a setback this week when the goats learned to open the gate to the side yard - the goats got in and had a field day.  I don’t mind the strawberry losses (they’ll grow back, and they were past their time anyway) or the geraniums (which are just for pretty), but I do resent that every single broccoli plant was eaten down to the nub - no brocc here for another month yet, I fear.  I had plenty of transplants yet to replant, but oh, what a pain!

The goats are almost dry now - due dates begin the last week of July and run through the third week of August, and everyone looks pregnant, except Tekky, who may just be carrying thin, or may not be.  If she hasn’t taken in four months with a buck, though, we’ll have to sell her.    I’m looking forward to a run of babies.  I’m also kind of enjoying the end of milking for a short while - and when we come back, we’ll have enough does in milk that we will be milking only once a day.  I’m looking forward to the end of long evening chores - I never really minded them, but it frees up a bit of time.

Our shared sheep arrangement doesn’t seem to have happened so far this year - my friend with the sheep has had a series of troubles and they’ve never come, which means my pastures are growing up, which means I need sheep!  I really want icelandics - so if anyone knows of a local herd of icelandics with ewes for sale, I’d be interested.  Also, bonus if they do disease testing, since some of the things sheep can get are more serious in goats.  Please drop me an email if you know of a good herd near me!

Otherwise, all party prep and prettification this week - next week will be the last serious hurrah of getting in the very last of the garden, and then I move on to the fall garden.  The work never ends, but I like it, and that’s the reality of the farm. 

Plant something: More broccoli, chard, calendula, marigolds, clematis, viburnum, gingko, mulberries, corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, flax, lettuce

Harvest something: lettuce, chard, kale, bok choy, chinese cabbage, snap peas, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, motherwort, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint, catnip, yarrow, milk (pretty much the last of it) and eggs.

Preserve something: 18 pints of strawberry jam - half strawberry rhubarb, half strawberry-masala chai.  A good year for strawberries.  Some dried strawberries, and a few dried herbs.

Waste Not: Gave our battered baker’s choice stove, in wild need of radical reconditioning away to someone who will love it and give it a good home.  Otherwise, the usual.

Want Not: Nothing in particular.

Eat the Food: Eating up last year’s pickles in anticipation of lots of cukes, snap peas at every meal.

Build community food systems: Was asked to consult by a municipality on local food design - am hoping to do more of this kind of work.

How about you?


Independence Days Update: A Change in the Weather

Sharon June 7th, 2010

After a hot, dry May, we’ve shifted into a cooler weather pattern for at least the next few days, perfect for all the raised bed building we’re doing (we’re finally, finally getting the rest of the garden raised up to deal with drainage problems that have been totally irrelevant this year ;-) ).  I admit, 89 and humid is not my favorite weather for digging all day.  I’m not a hot weather gal, I guess.

We’ve also had enough rain to actually make a difference, which is great - the pond is low, the creek was nearly dry, and even after several shorter rainfalls, you couldn’t feel moisture in the soil.  It takes a lot of rain to compensate for that kind of dryness.  But the last two days have been great, and we are now ready for hard labor.

And since I have to get these beds built before I can get a lot of my plants, particularly the perennial herbs, into the ground, there’s some urgency to it.  Even the wetland herbs are getting slightly raised up beds, for soil improvement and increased yields.  I’ve got cranberrybush viburnums, valerian and blue vervain galore waiting to go in, and am hoping I’ll be able to get it in within the next couple of days. 

Meanwhile, the new, expanded culinary herb bed is up and running (the old one has been shifted into a spot for acid lovers like blueberries, bearberries and arnica montana), and we’re getting the annual crops put in just as fast as we can.  The heat and drought were tough on my transplants, even watered in, so this will be a good week for getting the last ones in.

We’re having a huge birthday party for Eric’s 40th in two weeks, so my goal is to have everything in and looking nice by then, except, of course, the fall crops.  Realistically, this probably won’t happen, especially since I’m off to DC for a meeting this weekend, but we’ll take advantage of the energizing cool breezes.

The does are starting to look pregnant, and we’re in the process of drying them off - they need to be done by next week, so we’re enjoying the last bits of goat milk for a bit.  The hens set and hatched out 11 surviving chicks altogether, so now they are being kicked off their nests to lay eggs for us for a while ;-) .  I’ll be starting the meat birds and turkey poults for fall as soon as I get back. 

We went strawberry picking for the first time this year - by long tradition, the first batches we pick are used only for consumption - everyone eats strawberries as much as humanly possible for the first few days, and then we can bear to reserve some for preservation.  So no preserving so far - but the season has only just begun here, and I’ve got the rhubarb set aside for Tuesday’s first batch of strawberry rhubarb jam.  Meanwhile, we ate strawberry shortcake, and I plotted Eric’s birthday party, which will involve strawberry shortcake for fifty.

Otherwise, it is just back to the grind ;-) .

Plant something: Peppers, eggplant, melons, cucumbers, squash, beets, corn, sweet potatoes, green beans, dry beans, barley, basil, rosemary, tarragon, lemon thyme, organge thyme, shiso, parsley, vap ca, maypop, elderberry, kale, chard, rau om, watercress,

Harvest something: Lettuce, bok choy, kale, mint, chard, chives, pea shoots, peas, beet greens, orach, strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, eggs, milk

Preserved something: nope, but we start Tuesday

Waste Not: Been freezing milk for cheese during the period without milking does, collected bottles of (very good) salad dressing not finished at an event I was attending for home use.  The usual composting and feeding things to other things.

Want Not: Did a bit of yard saling on Friday - picked up glass wiretop canning jars for storing food (I don’t can in them) and some garden pots.  Eli’s bus driver brought me a bag of size-8 boys boots that she found, all new, at the dump of all places - they should fit him next fall.

Eat the Food: Strawberry shortcake!  Strawberry rhubarb pie! Stir fried snap peas and asparagus.  Haven’t done anything fancy with them, just too happy to have them to gussy them up!

Build community food systems: Gave a talk on the need for more young farmers.

How about you?


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