Archive for the 'gleanings farm' Category

Doing Has No Need of Wishing

Sharon April 29th, 2010

This weekend we attended an event at the library designed to get kids excited about poetry - each age level had a different writing and art project to do.  The project for first graders involved making  a list of wishes, and Isaiah set laboriously to writing down his most secret desire.  At six, he does not write easily or fluently, although his spelling is quite good.  And there, scrawled across a whole page, meant the long list of wishes that one assumes fill the dreams of small children, was this “I wish I had a farm.”

This occasioned some comment among the event’s organizers - a number of the adults mentioned that they too had the same wish, and expressed surprise that a child should wish for this.  There was amusement when I said that we did, in fact,  live on a farm.  But I also knew what Isaiah meant.

You see, Isaiah from as early as I can remember, took to this life in ways my other children did not.  They all love the animals and the open spaces, the creek and the gardens, the climbing trees and the woods to play in, but of all my children, Isaiah is organically, naturally, innately a farm child.  Of my sons, he is the most fascinated by plants and animals, most anxious to participate in anything domestic.  When he was younger, he hated to leave the farm, although he’s grown more adventurous with time.

Isaiah loves to cook and can bake a mean pan of cornbread almost by himself or a sheet full of chocolate chip cookies.  He can name more plants than Eric can, and when Asher scraped a finger recently, Isaiah was the one who ran to the lamb’s ears to make a bandage for him.  Every animal on the farm likes and trusts him, and he alone can pick up every bird on the whole farm.  He loves to build and mend things.  When he was two, as we left for a visit to his Grandmother in New York City, each child was allowed to pick something to bring with them for the trip.  My other children brought favorite books and toys.  Isaiah brought a salad he’d picked himself - sorrel, mint, lettuce, mizuna, arugula - as a gift for his grandmother.  I think that salad still says something deep about my child.

He’s not a perfect child by any means - he can be just as cranky and mean to his brothers as anyone else -  but he has an astounding generosity for a child his age, something that seems innate in him, since he has had it since birth.  When there isn’t enough candy to go around, Isaiah is the first to offer his up to a friend or a brother.  He likes giving things away so much that he saves up his money to make more donations of trees and animals to the Heifer Fund than the ones we subsidize.  If he does spend his money on himself, it is often for plants - while his brothers want candy or toys, Isaiah just bought himself a bamboo plant which he carefully carries out to the porch each morning and in every cold night.  I take no credit for any of this - it all comes from deep inside of him, and we are fortunate that he is so well suited to his place.

And I know, because he tells us, what Isaiah’s farm dream is - he wants more animals, more kinds of creatures.  He wants a tall, two story barn with a hayloft, and ideally, barn cats to chase and bales of hay to climb in.  He wants more of the animals to be his own special ones, his to care for and choose.  He wants to sell more things, be a true working farm with people coming down the drive to buy eggs and plants - and sometimes from him.  He wants it to be beautiful to others, beautiful to us, integral to the landscape and to the community - the place our neighbors come to buy what they need that we can provide.  He wants to be part of the diversified small farm of every child’s dream.

I admit, I dream of a hayloft myself, but I can’t give him that…as yet.  Our hay barn remains a small, low building.  But what we can perhaps give him is precisely the rest of it - slowly, slowly we are returning from days Isaiah can barely remember, to being a true working farm.  Over the years of my intensive writing projects, we’ve let many of things we did in our first CSA years fall apart - the gardens were enough to feed us but have gotten smaller, many maintenence projects were deferred for lack of time and energy as the computer took up more and more of my days.

I still have to finish one more book (by spring of next year), but the pace has slowed and I am able to focus on our next steps.   Like Isaiah, I have a “real farm dream” - but it is slightly different.  It has more perennials in it, and different animals, a hoophouse for winter greens, summer heat lovers and rapid solar drying of my herbs.  It has a small building for displaying our wares - the eggs, the bedding plants and herbs, the tinctures, salves and creams, salad greens and flower,  a list of other products for sale - rabbits, dairy goats, baby chicks. 

Eventually it has a two story barn with a hayloft and room enough for all the creatures that eat our good grass and grow fat and rich with milk.  Eventually, I dream there will be hayloft.

Someday I dream of  barter with the neighbors for pasturage, perhaps, for a pair of working horses to haul logs out of the woods for firewood and cut hay.  Or maybe we’ll finally break down and get a tractor, who knows.  I understand the horses better, though.

Eventually the young perennials I am planting right now will grow large and begin to produce, and I will have nuts and new fruits to sell, and elderberry syrup and currant and aronia juice to sell.  I’m waiting until the children have the fun of climbing up the trees to help the harvest - it is hard to believe that someday they will need to climb.

Eventually, we will begin seeing the fruit of our breeding and selecting of small backyard dairy goats for thrift and hardiness - and I hope we will begin to see them popping up in yards.  I find that the best advertisement for the goats is the goats themselves - it is not possible to meet them without beginning to consider ways you could bring these small creatures home to your own yard.

I’m still mulling over sheep in the long term, and a host of other projects.  My goal is a year round income - products that come and go with each season, workloads that move around the year, if not evenly, gracefully. 

I dream of a place to teach classes, to invite people in.  I dream of neighbors all sitting down to a homegrown thanksgiving turkey.  I dream of open-farm days and tomato tastings. 

I have no idea how many of these dreams will come true, or whether Isaiah will ever get the farm he dreams of.  I hope he does - at least some of it - with us. I hope as he grows bigger, we are wise enough to let him make as much as he can of our place in his image, so that he doesn’t feel he has to go off, seeking a farm that he could never find at home.  I tell him that we can try and make our farm into what he wants - that it will take time and determination and work, and if he’s not afraid of those things, it may well happen.

The old saying “Doing has no need of wishing” is only partly true, you know.  It is true that you need not stand about in hopeless desire for something that seems so far away an unattainable if you set to making it happen.  But there is a time and a place for wishing, for the innocent dreaming of what could be.  I’m glad my son wishes a farm, and I’m looking forward to a long future of doing the work of making both our wishes come true.


Query for the Hivemind

Sharon March 12th, 2010

Hi folks - I was wondering, do you start all your own seeds or buy at least some transplants?  Where do you get them? 

I’m asking because starting seeds is one of those things I do really well - I love doing it and it comes easily, and it occurred to me that I might add to my plans to sell bedding plants at farmers markets a CST (Community Supported Transplants ;-) …or something), in which people could hire me to do custom seed starting (from a list of funky varieties probably not available at their local nursery), and/or pre-reserve varieties that I would start for them.    I’m thinking of offering groupings as well like “Herb garden in a box” or “Custom pizza topping garden.”  I could offer fall gardening transplants as well, since I know a lot of serious gardeners have a hard time getting that late crop in.

What do you think?  I know many of you probably do your own, but would it work in your area?  I’m going to have to accumulate customers in Albany/Schenectady, I suspect, but that’s ok.


Garden Salvage

Sharon October 14th, 2009

In her superb book _This Organic Life_ writer Joan Dye Gussow talks about making do with flood damaged produce - and why she doesn’t just go out and buy fresh, perfect stuff. 

“We harvested 37 pounds of onions, but despite my best efforts, some of them cured with soft spots where mold had gotten underneath the outer layers and would work its sway through the whole onion if we didn’t stop it.  So we had to cut up many onions and freeze teh good parts - or cook them.  All of which accounts for the fact that a year and a half after we arrived in Piermont, I found myself one morning cutting up a half-rotten onion to salvage, and realized that a year earlier ?I would have thrown the whole thing away.” Gussow, 103


“The lesson I take away from the realization that our crops will sometimes be drowned is not that those of us who live in the colder states can’t be relatively self-reliant; we can.  And although Alan and I would have been wise to choose higher ground, I’ve seen no sensible agricultural scenario that suggests that anything can be done to insulate food production from the vagaries of nature.  If we wish to feed ourselves from our own regions, and allow others to do the same, we will need to try and adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature will provide in a given year.  We need accept the fact that in some years we won’t have al the potatoes and onions we want.  On the other hand, we will sometimes have more raspberries than we can eat, and the crops that succeed will be both safe and tasty.” Gussow, 107-108

Yesterday, I was reminded of this passage as I set myself to salvaging food from my garden.  In my case, it was my sunflowers and dry corn.  I’d noticed that blue jays after my sunflowers, but hadn’t seen that they’d gotten to the corn, too.  The sunflower damage seemed minimal when I checked a few days, so I optimistically elected to leave the sunflowers up a few more days, until our expected first hard frost down in the insulated lower garden.  This was a mistake, big time - yesterday, after our frost, I went out to gather the heads, only to find that most of them were very nearly empty.

Now this was non-trivial because those sunflowers are one of the ways I’m trying to minimize my dependence on the feed store and purchased grains - my chickens and turkeys will happily empty a head in a few minutes flat, and each seed reduces my grain costs.  The corn is an even bigger issue - this was food for us, a sweet grinding corn I love - there is no comparison with the bland cornmeal corns available most places.  Fortunately, the jays didn’t get the majority of the corn - but I was still out there, pulling any ear that had even a short row of kernels around it.

Ours was a tough garden year - we had over 20 inches of rain alone in June - you can tell the history of the year by my garden - I have two long areas that were planted in the lower garden after the beginning of July - these areas are flourishing. Everything else…well… there was a lot of salvage this year.  It doesn’t matter - we still cut the bird pecks out of the tomatoes, break off the slug damaged bush beans, eat the stunted vegetables, dehydrate potatoes or sweet potatoes too wet to store well.  It is food, and you don’t just waste it.

And this, I think, is a mindset that is worth getting into early on.  It would be easy to say “oh, it was a terrible crop, why bother.”  Or perhaps to say that the birds can have the last of the sunflower heads - after all, they are, we are told in the Torah, entitled to a share of the grain as well.  Fair enough, but now they’ve had their share, and I’m taking mine.  Even if it is imperfect.  Even if it wasn’t what I dreamed of.

The ability to make something of vegetables caught by frost, flooded, stunted by drought, partially eaten by some creature is one of our gifts - food preservation methods can mean that something that would otherwise have been lost can be saved - onions that won’t store well can be dehydrated or frozen, as Gussow points out.  Or new recipes arise for green tomato pickles, the outer leaves of cabbage and green pumpkin pie.  It is food, and you don’t waste it.

Today, in front of the woodstove, my children and I will draw back the husks of our corn, and hang it up to dry further in the house.  Most of the ears are full, some are not, but we will save what we can - because it is our food.  When we committed to growing it, we committed to this - that we will regard our food as primary.  I’ve no sorrow in buying to replace a lost crop, or to expand upon our gardens - that is normal and natural.  But if I grow it, and I possibly can, I will eat what I grow before I rely on other sources. 

It is hard to believe how differently people who live through food scarcity regard food - in some cultures, to tread on a piece of dropped bread is a sin, and a deep one.  In Elizabeth Erlich’s superb memoir of Jewish food, and of learning from her Holocaust survivor mother in law, she observes her mother using her thumb to ensure that every drop of egg white was removed from a shell, and when she enquires, her mother in law observes that her own father died of starvation - how could she ever waste food.

We are told that the only good and safe and healthy food is perfect - we are lied to and told that perfect looking is better for us, even if it has been doused with chemicals.  Up to 20% of all produce in the US is discarded and wasted simply because of cosmetic imperfections.  We thus lose the old habits of thrift and care, and the value that says “this is food, we do not let it go to waste.”

I don’t want to lose that. Asher came out with me to pick the corn, in a cold drizzle.  We picked the little ears and put them in bushel baskets.  We picked the big ones. He helped me spot the last few, and when he said “are we all done?” we didn’t stop until we were sure.  Not because I don’t want to feed the jays - but because it is food, and if I choose to feed the birds, it will be consciously, with intention, not because I let food, good food, go to waste.


Gleanings Farm Rides Again!

Sharon September 3rd, 2009

It would be an extreme exaggeration to call it a dark night of the soul, but perhaps an “irritation of the nerves” is a pretty good description for my state in the last couple of months.  I tend to be pretty contented, generally speaking, with my state - but not recently.  It took me a while to sort out what’s been disconcerting me, but I finally figured out several things.

 1. I spend too much time in front of the computer.  I don’t like sitting on my behind as much as I do, and I’m frustrated with the projects I’m not able to do, because I’m writing so much.  I’m particularly frustrated that we haven’t been able to proceed with a bunch of farm projects, because I haven’t given them my full attention

2. I don’t want to be a person who writes a lot about things she does not do, and I feel like I’m gradually oozing in that direction.  More and more things have been put by the wayside for convenience - we are driving a little more because we aren’t planning ahead as well, spending a little more because I’m busier and saving time is more important than doing things ourselves.  I’ve done well on some things - the preserving has gone well this year - but not on others that are important to me.  I find myself constantly on the horns of the “live it or write it” dilemma, and I’ve always wanted living it to be the priority.  I don’t want that to stop.

3. The writing life is fundamentally solitary - I go up in the computer room and am alone with the computer.  It is satisfying in some ways to be alone, but I want my daily life to be less solitary and more communal - that is, I want more work I can do with my family.  My kids and husband want that too.

4. Previous attempts to find a balance between my writing, teaching, editing, etc… and the farm have failed, in large part because I keep taking on more books.  The books tend to be a serious time suck, and there are long stretches where I find myself having to do that, mostly, while also trying to keep up with other stuff.  Everything else I can sort of streamline, but I don’t know how to write a book without a long stretch of intense aloneness, to the detriment of everyone around me.

5. By April 2010, I’ll have written four books in just over three years.  This is enough for any woman ;-) .  In fact, it is kind of a lot - the books have come out so fast, one after another, that I haven’t been able to do as much promotion of those books, as many talks about the material as I’d really love to.  I think I need a break from the books (after the current one).

6.  I want my primary job to be agricultural - I want my farm to help feed or supply the needs of the people around me again, and I want to do that work - both for my physical good health (I like being up and moving better) and also for the health of my community.  I know I reach more people through the blog, and I don’t want to stop that, but it is important to me that “Gleanings Farm” (our farm name) be more than a name - it needs an identity.  I can’t go back to the 22 person CSA - but I want to go forward to a place where my farm as a stronger role in my community.

 7. I want to keep blogging, and I want and need to keep offering classes - the former is too much fun to give up, the latter is important to my family’s stability, since my husband’s job is extremely vulnerable.  But most of all, I don’t think I could stop writing if I tried.

I’d also like to do more local teaching - on food preservation and storage, of the farm skills we’ve so laboriously acquired.  I’m looking at ways of doing that - because I think it would be a pleasure.  I’m even debating an apprenticeship program here - who knows. 

8. Eventually, I’d like to write a novel - I’ve had one in progress for four years, and made virtually no gains on it, for lack of time.  I would like this to be a longer term, gradual project that I enjoy, rather than a frantic mania, like my books have been.  I’m not sure I care if the novel gets published - I want this to be fun. 

9. I want to work on community organizing as part of my work as well - but I also want to do most of it from home, and I need to enlist other people into this project, because I cannot allow it to take over my life. I credit my kind readership with this revelation - it finally registered on me after the 77th comment telling me not to make myself miserable that there are other people in the world, and I can get help with things, and maybe make it work my way.

10. I love my life, but I loved it more when it was more integrated, when the computer took less of my time and my home and farm took more.  I am doing this most of all, not to save myself from the apocalypse, but to get to something better.  So I should do that now.

So what does all this add up to?  No, I  promise, I’m not shutting down the blog - as I say, I enjoy it too much. 

But it does add up to this - I am going to be working intensively on the AIP book until late winter, but after that, I’m taking a minimum two year hiatus from books, and after that, if I write any more books,  I’m hoping to write a novel.  I’m thinking I may begin drafting it online, actually - so that you folks can follow along a bit.  I want to have fun with it - to do something that is play, not so serious.  I feel like I’ve written a lot on serious subjects, but I’d like to just play with ideas for a while.

But more importantly than the fiction idea, we’ve decided that the farm will be my primary venture, and the writing become secondary again.  I’m not going to do more than 3-4 talks a year that involve travelling beyond a few hours distance, and only at convenient times when the farm doesn’t need me.  After the book is done, I will continue to teach classes 4-6 times a year, but only one day a week.  Two mornings a week, I will get to write and blog- that is, I get 15 hours per week at the computer, divided among 3 days, *period* - no more “I just have to do one thing…” and me disappearing for an hour. 

Meanwhile, we’re putting together our plan for Gleanings Farm to open again - we definitely don’t want to run our CSA again - our land is better for grazing and it is enough for us to produce our own produce and some to give away to those in need.  We’re going to start a multi-pronged attempt at creating the kind of diversified, low-input, low tech small farm we were on our way to being before I got distracted ;-) .

 1. We’ll be selling goats - I want to focus our farm livestock ventures on thrifty, small scale livestock suited to urban and suburban culture, and the Nigerian Dwarves are a great start.  We were going to have to sell goats soon anyway, as the miracle of exponential goat babies is about to face us, but we’ve decided to focus on milk production genes and thrifty production, breeding goats that do well in a variety of conditions, with small scale husbandry.  This is one of those - well, we’re doing this - so what scale do we want to do it on, and how do we want to do it?  I think animal agriculture, with its dense calories, is really important in densely populated areas, and small animals are going to be needed there.

2. We’re going to add our own sheep - we have enough pasture to raise a lot of good, grass-fed meat, and so we’re working on a small breed of sheep that does well on grass, has nice fleece for handspinning and weaving and is thrifty and a good mother.  We’re debating between Jacobs and Icelandics at the moment (c’mon sheep lovers, make your case for which one - I want to hear it!).  We’ve already got Romneys on the pasture (my sheep partner) and a guard animal, but we’ll actually invest more of our resources in fencing and pasture improvement and do better grass farming.  The sheep will be primarily a meat project, but I think that wool production has a longer term future in this region, as I wrote in “Bringing the Sheep Back”

3. My experiments with medicinals have suggested that I can produce and sell a dozen or so reasonably high-demand medicinal herbs for direct sale, as well as making tasty and nutritive herb tea mixtures for retail sale in winter.  There’s the possibility of selling tinctures - the FDA guy was actually encouraging, and I’m researching the cost of certified kitchens.  Not sure about that latter, but this will give me something to sell in winter.  I may also do forced bulb pots, since experience suggests I can pull that off easily enough.

I’m also going to be putting in large quantities of wetland woody medicinal plants - crampbark, elderberry, cranberry, wintergreen, bearberry, along with more perennial medicinals.  That these are food plants as well for the most part is not an accident ;-) .  I want to make the best possible use of our damp land without changing most of our basic ecosystem.

4. I will sell bedding plants, emphasizing unusual and heirloom vegetables and medicinal and culinary herbs in spring and early summer at the farmer’s market and direct by subscription (a garden plant CSA?  I’m thinking about it).  I know I can raise lots of bedding plants extremely well, and without that much more work than my present methods.

5. We’re going to go back to selling eggs, and work on growing more of our chicken feed.  The profit margin isn’t huge, but it covers the feed and makes a little money.  We have done this before, and I know it is completely viable for us to run 50 layers on pasture. 

6. We will continue small scale pastured poultry farming - but I’m finally going to figure out how to get a schochet out here, so I can sell it as pastured and *kosher* - I’m hoping to do the lamb that way as well.  I think there is an undertapped market for really good quality kosher meat.  I’m working with other people in my area who want this to make it happen - so we’ll sell slightly larger numbers of chickens and turkeys, and probably add small quantities of ducks and geese.  I want to keep these numbers manageable, though, and use them in rotation with the sheep and goats, to make best use of our grass.  I will do batches of no more than 50 birds at a time, and not too many of those, because I want my birds to have a good life, and as much attention as the deserve. 

7. We have proved we can hatch out chicks, and on a small scale, we’ll sell these to backyard chicken raisers - Simon and Isaiah are getting silkies, and want to hatch out silkie chicks, for sale, and I’m going to sell Marans and Buff Orpingtons.  Not a huge selection, but then, I don’t want to be a huge selection - but I want to be a local hatchery on a manageable scale.  We are already doing some of this, so again, I think it is viable without enormous additional work.

Finally, I want bees and to do some garden expansion just for myself, without any other  plans underlying this.   I’m also starting my own little Heifer project, trying to bring rabbit raising into urban areas around me.  The boys want into these projects - thus, the Silkie chickens, and Simon and Isaiah have plans also to raise angora fiber for sale - don’t tell them that I think that this will have great educational value ….shhh ;-) .

 It sounds like a lot, but most of it is stuff we’ve already done/are doing, but on the side, around long hours in front of the computer and a host of other projects.  The thought of focusing 3-4 days per week on the farm, with the kids with me, just seems like an immense relief, and a lot of fun.  The rest will still be there - but it will have to take up less space. 

I’ve got a pile of new projects - we need to mow, reseed and perimeter fence the big pasture, I need to move my office to the underused front room, and set up a place for seed starting and simpling and managing the herbs.  We need to plan our fall breeding for the goats, and begin thinking of where we will set up buck and ram housing eventually.  And we need to look for sheep, and a Livestock Guardian Dog, since Xote the guard donkey goes home with Elaine’s Romney’s every December, and doesn’t come back until after lambing.  I’ve got a business plan to write, and my husband’s role in this to map out (he’s actually excited about this, believe it or not, even though it involves more changes, simply because it keeps me more in the thick of things ;-) ).

There won’t be any changes in the blog for a while - if anything, there should be more posts as I work out ideas for the book here, or goof off from writing ;-) .  Eventually, I think I’m going to go down to three posts a week, though, and be off the computer more.  I still plan to work on a lot of new projects - but they are only going to be allowed so much space in my life, and the things I care about most are going to get the most, which is as it should be.

Time to saddle up - Gleanings Farm is back in business!


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