Archive for August, 2011

August 26: 

Most of the men were from home during Friday working hours. We will not talk of the beginning of the academic year, and its demands of much time away from the work of the farm. We at home tinkered with the small tractor — hoping its problem is not the starter — built the gate for the new pig sty, and brought up the smallest of the sliding poultry pens to the front yard.  Before installing the twenty-five two-week old pullets, we checked the weather forecast. Hurricane Irene has the population of the east coast skidding for cover, but we in eastern Ohio are looking at a forecast of moderating temperatures and no precipitation. A good time to move the chicks.

By nightfall the little birds, half of them a dark terra-cotta, half black and gold, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, are at home in the pen, and huddle under a heat lamp in a corner of the enclosed end to conserve body heat. If the pen were to become too cold they might easily pile up until the chicks on the bottom suffocated, so we are careful to check the lamp before bedtime to see that it is still on and doing its job. We scoop up the chicks who have failed to find their way inside and poke them through the door, then close it to keep them in until morning. We don’t think a coon or ‘possum will come up in the yard where the dogs sleep and disturb our baby poultry, but there’s no need to take chances.

A little more corn was ready, and we froze two and a half pounds, and a gallon of okra. Usually our food preservation is done in large quantities, but the late corn comes in in dribbles, and okra accumulates over two or three days before there is enough to eat or to process. In any case, every little bit added to what you’ve got is just a little bit more.

Have we spoken of okra? Perhaps not. People in the north, by which we mean, north of the Mason-Dixon line, don’t seem to eat okra. You don’t see it growing much around here. People sometimes ask us how it is to be cooked, and from the way they ask we suspect they have never tasted it.

“Is it ready to harvest when the spikes are ten inches long?” we were asked recently, and we winced and assured the lovely gardener that they were, probably more than ready.

“If you can’t easily cut it with a paring knife, it is beyond eating, and should be given to the pigs,” we tell her.

“The compost bin, then,” we concede.

Okra is an underappreciated vegetable and well worth cultivation by the home gardener — because of its value as haute cuisine, of course, but additionally because it is easy to grow, seems to have no pests –except when the cows get into the garden, – produces copiously, and goes right on setting pods until far into autumn. It is also very easy to put up, raw, merely by slicing and freezing; and okra pickled with plenty of garlic and hot peppers is an epicure’s delight.

A little research, which we will not do, would reveal into which food group it ought to be placed – is it a protein, a carbohydrate, a fat? – and at some point the food pundits will undoubtedly get around to building a fad around okra as an unsurpassed source of something absolutely essential you didn’t know you needed.

About twenty years ago a dear friend, a beautiful New York socialite, was looking for some new vegetable to diversify her already large and gourmet repertoire. She inquired of us, her hick Southern friends, as to the qualities of okra. “It’s great,” we assured her. “We love it. The garden wouldn’t be complete without it.” She put it on her shopping list.

Perhaps we neglected to instruct her as to its preparation. At our next meeting she got us in a corner and inquired what was the joke. “How could you recommend that nasty stuff? It looks and tastes like bug eyeballs in green slime!” Following the directions on the package of frozen okra she had bought at the store, our friend had boiled the vegetable. Plain. In water. Ugh. Eyeballs in slime would be just about right.

Another time we would be more specific.

Okra is good prepared a variety of ways, and the one most people seem to know is the deep-fried, battered okra one gets at restaurants known for their Kuntry Chahm. Good stuff, no doubt, but we aren’t fond of cleaning up after a deep-fying episode, and when we fry okra we follow the recipe given us by our beloved Mom D.:

Slice your okra into a big bowl. (Let us say four cups of sliced okra as a basic unit.)

Add some flour. (We use about a half cup flour to four cups okra.) Stir.

Add an egg. Stir again.

Now add about a cup of cornmeal and whatever seasoning you like – we use salt, pepper, and a proprietary creole seasoning which we will name if they pay us to advertise for them. Stir again.

At this point what you have in your bowl will look like a mess. Okra is mucilaginous, which is a nice word for “slimy”, and if you have stirred vigorously you will now have a bowlful of pointy green things stringy with egg and flour and cornmeal. Perfect.

Now heat a big castiron skillet and put about three tablespoons of bacon grease in the bottom. If you don’t save bacon grease, what are you thinking? Get a crock for the back of the stove and save every drop of bacon grease you render. Okay, use three tablespoons of whatever fat you think is good – lard, olive oil, — shortening, even, if you want to die young – and get it nice and hot. Dump in your okra. Scrape the bowl out good, all the dough will fry up delicious. Now give it about five minutes, listening and smelling to make sure your temperature is high enough but not too high, and then stir and turn the okra with a metal spatula. The okra will not be in discrete slices, like the deep-fried stuff you get at restaurants, but will be clumped up like fritters. Don’t worry about that. As they cook, the slices regain their own independent lives, and if they don’t, you don’t care because they will taste the same and they will be delicious. Just fry your okra for about fifteen minutes, stirring once in a while so the bottom pieces don’t burn. It’s done when the okra is no longer really crunchy, and it loses its bright green color. Maybe it’ll take twenty minutes.

This isn’t a fussy vegetable.

Another time we will speak of gumbo . . .

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Thursday, August 25:

We woke up at three-thirty this morning to a peal of thunder, and our first thought was of the laundry which was undoubtedly still on the line, undoubtedly because each of us was sure the other had not taken it down. Second thought was a determination not to get out of bed and race the rain to get the laundry in. The knowledge that it was out there getting soaked reasserted itself for the next two-and-a-half hours, every time a roll of thunder broke into our sleep, detracting a little from the satisfaction of the warm bedclothes and the knowledge that we were getting much-needed rain — but only a little.

Isabel is giving a bit more milk now that the pasture is greening up. The dozen or so cornstalks we carry to her each day is probably having its effect, too, and we get about six gallons per diem. Of these, four have been going to the summer calves; but last week we began the process of weaning two of them, cutting both their morning and evening milkings by a pint or so. The extra half-gallon makes all the difference in the kitchen. Coupled with her increased yield, it means there is adequate cream for butter, skim milk for mozzarella, ample drinking milk, and milk for yogurt. The butter and mozzarella we had frozen in times of plenty just barely held out over her dry time and the ten weeks of starting the summer calves; in truth, we had to buy three pounds of butter, at various times when yield could not keep up with demand. But last Monday, a baking day, we had three pounds of mozz for our pizzas, and enough butter for the twenty or so pounds of dough that went to make eight loaves of wheat meal-and-potato bread, and six dozen whole wheat sandwich rolls.

The garden is giving us buckets of tomatoes, albeit not entirely of the varieties we intended. There’s always a slip somewhere. Whether the fault was in Mom’s planning, or the marking of her seedling flats, we do not know, but somehow what should have been twenty beefsteak tomato plants have turned out, in fact, to be about two beefsteaks and eighteen or so large cherry tomatoes. Did she order the wrong seeds? Or were the dozens of seedlings we gave away this spring, thinking we were parting with extra cherry tomato plants, actually the desired beefsteaks? At present, we are too embarassed to ask the people who received the seedlings. Skinning and seeding cherry tomatoes takes time, but it can be done.

And, as we say, the garden is giving lots of tomatoes. We have to date canned some two and a half dozen quarts of salsa, and about one and a half quarts of pasta/pizza sauce. That may not sound like much to the big operators, and in fact it doesn’t sound like a lot to us, who have in our less carnivorous days gone through gallons of pasta sauce, but the fact is that now the meat we raise is one of the cheapest things we eat, and we eat a lot of it. Hamburgers, steaks, chicken, chile con carne, ham, bacon, sausage. Meat. We don’t have to put up as much sauce, just enough for tomato soup on Fridays, and pizza, and the occaisional spaghetti and meatballs or lasagne. With another couple dozen quarts of sauce, some plain tomato sauce, and maybe some rotelle tomatoes, we will have all we need for a year of good eating.

S-3 worked for the TOR’s this morning, so S-4 and S-5 worked on the pigpen. The drop-in wall on the east side is complete, and looks sturdy enough even for three big pigs, as these will be in six months or so. S-4 is building the gate now, a simple board door framed and braced. S-5, when he was not needed in the barn, had pity on Mom and took over the job of freezing corn, putting up six pounds of cut corn, and cooking on the cob what we would want for dinner.

Mom, released after dinner from the daunting task of preparing for her nineteenth year of homeschooling, weeded the raised beds and picked what we from the South call “a mess” of beans. We wonder what the origin of that term might be. Southerners also, when circumstances seem to require it, “cuss”, and it was a man from Honduras whose first language, naturally, is not English, who pointed out to us that this word is simply “curse”, pronounced in a Southern drawl. Delightful. When colloquial differences are so delicious, why are we engaged in a race to cultural homogeneity?

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Sunday, August 21:

   Small showers have fallen periodically over the last two days.  Last summer we went through July, August, and September without any rain worth considering.  We had to start feeding hay in September.  It is encouraging to see the pasture greening up now, even if the upper layer of the verdure is mostly ragweed and ironweed.

We walked up the field – the last eighty feet or so is sloped one-in-one, making it a climb rather than a walk – to investigate the location of a clearly audible short in the hotwire fence that marks the limit of the field.  It is very easy to follow our ears to the source of the loud snap.  That length of fence is cobbled together with barbed wire as well as low-tension aluminum fencewire.  On a metal step-in post at the very top of the field, a grasshopper, on what mission we will never know, has climbed as far as the plastic insulator and interposed his body between strands of electrified wire.  His rigid corpse has been providing the medium for a 2,000 volt arc every three-quarters of a second.  We wedged him out with a twig and the fence went back to its quiet efficiency.

From here we can see virtually all of our south pasture, which is to say almost all of our pasture, period.  It falls steeply away below us for half its width, then moderates its slope – we won’t say ‘levels off’ – the rest of its width to Jeddo’s run.  On the far side of the creek, our land rises nearly vertically for fifty feet or more, crosses Church Road, and continues up the heavily wooded hill which closes our northern horizon for maybe sixty degrees.  We live in a bowl.  In this first full year of our career as graziers, we watch our pasture with some of the anxiety of a mother over a child’s sickbed, studying its condition and pretending confidence in signs of improvement.  Honestly, we think it looks much better, much less weedy, much greener, than it did this time last year.  After all, Joel says it should.  It must.  We expect to get at least a few more weeks grazing out of it than we did last year, no, the year before, last year doesn’t count because of the drought.

Even if we never succeed, we would rather fail at this than be successful at anything else.

The big garden at the TOR’s was disked yesterday — at least, that half of it that had been plowed from sod last week.  The older section was still so damp the spaces between the disks kept getting packed with dirt, and after a pass or two the men decided to let it wait a bit.  Next week it will be sown to buckwheat.  Whata we sowed in the burned-over pumpkin patch is up already, and looks like making a thick planting.

The carrots we planted two weeks ago, however, are germinating very spottily.  The uneven rain patterns of the last two weeks, augmented by water pumped from North creek only when the soil was drying out, may be responsible for the inconsistent germination.  We are disappointed with what we see, but will put in two more rows of carrots this week.  The last planting of green beans has been somewhat damaged by the big, late-summer grasshoppers, but is growing very well, and should give us plenty of beans to can, God willing.

The four summer calves have been on the west pasture for several weeks now.  At nine weeks old they graze lightly, and get a good deal of their calories from their twice-daily bucket feedings of Isabel’s good, warm Jersey milk, the fat content of which is higher than for any other breed of dairy cow.  Last week we began trimming the buckets of those two of the calves destined for next year’s freezer by about a pint a feeding, preparatory to their being weaned in another week or so.  The two little bulls belonging to S-3 will remain on the bucket indefinitely, as they are being raised for oxen.

Besides, Mom doesn’t want to have to deal with five or six gallons of milk a day.  With three or four, there will be plenty for drinking, lots of cream for churning and for cream cheese and sour cream, and lots of milk for the mozzarella we use so much of.  When four or five gallons accumulate in a day or so, we use it for hard cheeses like parmesan, farmhouse cheddar, and colby, hoping our skill level will someday approximate our interest level.  We can make a fairly reliable parmesan, but have not yet achieved a cheddar we wanted to bring out and exhibit to guests.

Now the grass in the west pasture is getting short, and we will turn the babies onto the hill above, where Bridget, the mini, has been in solitary confinement for most of August.  She will be glad of the company, and the opportunity to bully someone.  The clearing up on the west hill is a project which mostly gets forgotten in the summer, when there is so much other work to monopolize our attention, but it continues to improve, slowly, now that it gets full sun for more than half the day.  The little bulls will do less damage than Bridget to the struggling grass, since they do not graze so closely.  It is time to give the lower pasture on that side a rest, and a chance for the sparse grass to fill in the empty spaces.  Farming on the near vertical holds many challenges all its own, but the controlled grazing of small areas must result in improved sod, better retention of water and organic matter, and, over time, more cow-days per acre.

This revolution is, however, an experiment.  Like any worthwhile experiment, at the outset the end is unknown.  Whether we demonstrate that a few acres of lousy soil can be converted into the energy source from which a bio-converter – a milk cow – can power a self-sustained and self-sustaining family ecology, or whether we preside over an instance of the failure of that hypothesis, is yet to be determined.  We will endeavor to be honest in our self-evaluation, so that interested idealists may learn, if not one right way, at least one wrong way, to go about it.

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We canned a few more quarts of sauce today, worked on the barn, and cut back the overgrown plants in the perennial borders.  We are hosting a wedding shower tomorrow, so we made two cheesecakes – with bought cream cheese, since the calves are still getting four of Isabel’s five and a half gallons a day – and a batch of baguettes.  Entertaining this time of year means that jars of salsa, green beans, pickles, and red sauce will be part of the décor, and boots in pairs on the porch, wheelbarrow parked on the walk, and rake leaning against the fence may also serve as accent and decoration.  I don’t suppose anyone else will care if we don’t.

About half of the corn has been harvested at this point.  We already commented on the fact that many stalks had no ears; so far we have only put up about eighteen pounds of frozen corn.  The stalks are still green and fresh, so we cut or pull a dozen or so every day for Isabel and the spring calf, and another half dozen for the four summer calves, who are still on buckets and too small to eat much forage.  The immature pumpkins we took out of the garden are broken up and offered to Isabel in limited quantities, so as to avoid disturbing her digestion with any sudden change.  She likes them, as well as the corn stalks, and with the late summer pasture being rather coarse and weedy, they probably provide a welcome variety to her diet.

The father went up the hill to disk the newly turned sod in the garden at the Sisters’ of the Sorrowful Mother, but David was not there to approve the loan, so we put it off for another day – probably tomorrow, to get Shawn out of the house when the shower guests arrive.  The boys have already made a plan to be at the fair for the duration of that social event.  They are all allergic to hen parties.  Mom and the girls, on the other hand, are all for them.

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Thursday, August 18:

We are reading Eliot Coleman and dream at night of crushed limestone and greensand.  Compost and manure have always had a big role in our gardening, but we have shied away from what required bought inputs.  Coleman is making us rethink this prejudice; even more, vagaries in our gardening success are making us look for answers.  The Golden Bantam corn we grow every year for the table is as good as ever, but the ears are fewer; a good many of our cornstalks had no ears at all.  That early windstorm that knocked over our three and five foot stalks (first and second planting) may have had something to do with the poor pollination that results in spotty ears, but we don’t know how it could have caused no ear to form at all.  A too-acid soil might be part of the answer.

All day in the kitchen.  Salsa is a labor-intensive product because of all the peeling, seeding, and chopping that is required; even with a food processor (courtesy of Shawn’s mamma) we spent from mid-morning to about four in the afternoon getting a large batch (about four gallons) of salsa into the canners.  Many pounds of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, hot peppers, and garlic go to make a batch of our salsa, but we use a lot of it:  it is not only to be eaten on chips and in burritos, it is a significant ingredient in many dishes, such as chile con carne, “spanish” rice, okra gumbo, and taco salad.  We try to put up at least forty quarts of salsa every year.   This year, so far, is a good one for salsa ingredients.

We are concerned about the potato crop.  As we do every year, we have sorted out those potatoes which were spiked with a garden fork in the digging, and they will be used first.  The rate of spoilage has been extremely high for some of these; in the week the potatoes spent on the garage floor curing, almost a five-gallon bucket (thirty percent of the spiked potatoes)were completely rotten.  Now we are finding small brown lesions on some of the remaining damaged potatoes, lesions which look suspiciously like blight.  Years we have had blight in potatoes or tomatoes, it has usually destroyed the whole crop.  We will watch the stored potatoes closely; if at all possible, we will prevent rotting potatoes from infecting the rest of the harvest.

Trimmed and cooked, the spiked potatoes are very good indeed; as roast potatoes last night, hash this morning, and mashed potatoes this evening for dinner.  God preserve our potato crop.

We have been learning a valuable and probably obvious lesson lately.                 NEVER BE WITHOUT PIGS IN LATE SUMMER.  There are so many things available to feed a pig, and in quantities the chickens can’t even begin to deal with.  In the first place, there are all the sprouted potatoes in the root cellar, left over from last year’s crop, perfect to be boiled and offered as pig ration.  There are all the trimmings of the things we are eating ourselves, of course.  And there are the plant residues generated as a result of all the canning and freezing that is just beginning to consume our lives, all the corn cobs, tomato skins and seeds, green bean ends, onion tops; later there will be the apple mash, and grape skins, peach skins, cabbage leaves, carrot tops.  In the late fall there will be all the vines and stalks we pull out of the gardens before the ground freezes.

And what about all those immature pumpkins we had to pull out of our bug-infested pumpkin patch, pumpkins which will never form the nice hard rind that would protect them for winter storage, nor develop the sugars and starches which make a pumpkin worth eating?  We can cut these small and feed some to the cow and steers, some to the chickens; but pigs would make the best use of it, converting the poor harvest into firm porcine flesh.  We have spoken with C. F., and should be putting three small pigs in the white barn pigstye tomorrow or the next day.  That’ll be one thing done right, anyway.

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Wednesday, August 17:  

We went down to the bee yard to unite the colony on number six stand with the swarm we caught on Saturday, and found it had not stayed.  We had dropped the bees from a low sapling into a box with six frames of drawn comb, covered the hive box, and stuffed the entrance with green grass to hold them there a while.  Maybe we didn’t have the queen; the drop was awkward, and a good many field bees were dislodged and took to the air.  Maybe she didn’t like the hive body we gave her; maybe it just smelled wrong.  With no swarm to unite, we might have come back on up to the house and gotten out of our long sleeved shirts and heavy boots, but as we were already in veils we first examined the supers on number six.  A week ago the number six bees were ignoring the frames in the supers, and putting all the honey they were making into cells in the main hive of two full-depth bodies.  Today, the comb in the lower super is mostly drawn, and there is some activity in that super.  This bodes well.

Traditionally we eat pancakes on Wednesdays.  The young children consider this their inalienable right, like bedtime stories and Papa’s lap, but the older ones have grown more aware of food in a nutritional light, and elected this morning to top off their eggs with ham steaks fried in the egg skillet.  Our half hams weigh about twelve pounds each; we have some we cure ourselves, and some that were cured by the farm butcher in Richmond.  Last night S-2 suggested we get one out for breakfast meat and sandwiches.  It would be easy to put on weight around here.

The trip to Bergolz for what we hope will be our last load of siding wood was combined with a stop in Richmond for the steer we delivered there last Monday.  Having a steer processed at the market means meat about five times as expensive as home-butchered:  the difference between ten cent a pound meat, and about fifty cents a pound.  This steer was split with our collaborator in Cadiz town, who pastures steers for us for part of the summer; he paid the processing in exchange for half the meat, leaving our half still about ten cents to the pound.

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   Sunday, August 14:     Finally we have gotten some of what Joe Leaphorn would call a “female” rain, long, slow, soaking, and what we have been needing for weeks.  Only an  inch or so, but it does as much good as might a three-inch rain which roars down on us and goes right on roaring, down Jeddo’s run and the Beautiful river to the Mississippi.  It is satisfying to see the creeks swell with brown, foamy water, coming over the banks and carrying flotsam and jetsam – too much jetsam, around here – but that sort of rain runs off very quickly, having no time on our steep pastures to percolate through our rather clayey, shaley soils.  Rains of that kind tend to tear up the creek bank, without soaking to any great depth into the hillside.

Today’s rain was of the other sort, the kind that creeps up on you like a small child when you are reading, only noticed after some time by the quiet shushing of his breath.  The pale sound of rainfall came and went, with periods of soggy sunshine making us wonder if that was all she wrote, then came again.  We sat on the porch swing and read Eliot Coleman, while S-5 put together a ship model and the others played music in their den.  Later when we went out to see some land,  the sun was breaking through for real, and the light falling from behind us emphasized the verdant, generous beauty of the rolling hills and woods unfolding below us.

Sunday here is truly a day of rest, at least whatever degree of rest is consistent with the family’s need for regular meals, and with the animal care which varies not a jot in recognition of the Lord’s sabbath.  Saturday, consequently, is usually a day of more than ususally earnest labor.  Yesterday was the day appointed for the slaughter of the squash bugs, but as it was also the day the boys were commencing the siding of the south bay of the new barn, we could not fire the opening salvos until we had made the two hour round trip to Bergolz for the poplar siding wood.  (Yes, we have a sawmill for our building lumber, but as the felling and milling of sufficient poplars for the barn siding might have taken us into October, it was deemed necessary to purchase our siding wood from the mill.  Rough green barn siding is only thirty-five cents a board foot for poplar, and the time and labor saved means our barn will be closed before winter comes.)

It went very much against our desires to be pulling up our winter squash and pumpkins so early, when few if any of the fruits could hope to be sufficiently mature to be cured and stored.  We were steeled to the task by the obviously moribund state of the plants, and furthermore by the sight of the waves of squash bugs moving ahead of us as we picked our way through the pumpkin patch.  All the squash, even the smallest, were cut from the vines and laid on the garden path, and the vines were pulled with as little jarring as possible – not to dislodge the nasty grey and black beetles – and piled on a wood fire in the middle of the patch.  The hay mulch, thick with bugs, was lifted with a pitchfork and placed on the fire as well.  Wet green squash vines do not burn easily, but the fire had been started with scrap lumber, and the mulch was pretty dry, so the pile burned adequately, and smoked better.  Any squash bugs we saw were stomped on, and we went around the patch with triple-strength pyrethrum/canola oil spray and saturated the neighboring vegetables and weeds.  The remaining bugs, which were legion, seemed not to notice.

The green squash and withered pumpkins are piled on the front lawn as a border around the last of the blooming phlox.  It is a sad comedown, but not a total loss, and whatever remains when we buy our three pigs in September will make good pig food.  The men’s day was more satisfactory:  before we left for a visit that evening, the west wall was on the feed room, and the floor all laid.  I noticed when I went down to shut up the chickens that one of the long two-by-twelves that will support the loft stairs was in place, the first four or five notches already cut.  It will be a beautiful barn.

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