Archive for January, 2012

Saturday, January 28:

Milk from the store at three or four dollars a gallon is a commodity precious and not to be wasted; on the farm with pigs as well as a milk cow, there is no waste, and a failed cheese is just a learning opportunity that reduces one’s expenditure of pig feed.   This is good, because the Paysano cheese we started in the morning fell victim to the further events of the day.  Four gallons of perfect curd matted and grew acidic in the time it takes to say, “going, going, gone”.

We played hooky to attend a local auction, leaving our chores and venturing out into gale winds driving fine, sharp snow.  We bought little; what was only marginally successful as a means of acquiring bargain equipment more than justified itself in lessons on human nature.  Although our toes are still thawing from three hours encased in frozen mud, churned to mush by fifty pairs of boots, notwithstanding, the entertainment value of the outing was considerable.  The things people save, to be offered for sale on their passing, and the things people spend money on, defy augury.

Cars were lined up for a half mile along the ridge road leading to the auction site; the two-acre yard will be rutted this evening by the vehicles parked at random on the grass.  Several may require a tow to get them out; not everyone has four wheel drive.  Sixty or seventy people mill around the house, garage, and sheds, inspecting furniture, lawn equipment, and the contents of boxes.  Hats are pulled low against the gusting wind which surges through the bare branches of deciduous trees and the dark green of evergreens with a noise like an approaching freight train.  Hard pellets of snow drive into the space between collar and neck, and people shrink into their coats like turtles pulling into their shells.  The Beautiful river, a mile east and several hundred feet below us, crawls sullenly toward the Gulf of Mexico; perhaps when it gets there it will cheer up, like some snowbird arriving in Florida, and regain its sparkle.


Social and economic class blends to the point of confusion at an auction.  Many layers of coats and scarves disguise even the prosperous as ordinary people subject to the elements, even more after an hour or so, when those whose bids have won them rugs or blankets are wearing them as a top layer.  Bed clothing as outerwear transforms even the most solvent into people just escaped from a house fire, or people living under a bridge.  Only their bids reveal them to be citizens with money to spend.  A box of pens brings well over one hundred dollars; ditto a box of old-fashioned ladies’ handkerchiefs.  No doubt the informed buyer knows.  Two televisions bring prices which would surely have bought them new.  Some items include surprises:  bidding on a crate containing some hundreds of feet of coiled rope is enlivened by the discovery of a bonus in the form of a dead ‘possum curled cosily in the middle.  Free of charge, the auctioneer assures the lucky bidder.

Boxes and boxes of miscellaneous household clutter bring anywhere from one dollar to twenty-five a box, their relative values by us undiscernable.   Glassware of all kinds – but mostly of the ugly kind – moves briskly.  Three boxes of tall, narrow bottles are sold as “collectibles”, the auctioneer adjuring the crowd that they are required by law to empty the amber and crimson contents down the drain when they get home.  Sure, reported the successful bidder, and did I tell you a guy gave me six hundred dollars on e-bay for the bottle I bought for four dollars last month at auction?  I told him he had to empty it down the sink, too.  The crowd is appreciative.

The tools we bid on go high; three men in camo and heavy boots compete with one another for the last nod, the loser conceding the match with a shake of the head.  We pick up a galvanized wash tub which will be useful for washing vegetables, and a heavy tool box with six drawers which someone at home will want.  The wheelbarrows, garden carts and metal bins we are waiting for are kept to last, the final items in the furthest row on the lawn; when we get there we find that the dozen or so attendees remaining are there for the same reason we are.  The carts are knocked down for good, substantial sums which would probably have bought the equivalent new at the hardware store.  Maybe they are antiques.  Maybe.

When we get home there is work to be done on the new hot water system which ties into the new wood furnace; piles of laundry to be folded, and dinner to get.  Four-year-old S-6 gets very still in a corner of the sofa and is found to be running a temperature.  Dark means time for the evening milking; then there is reading aloud, and popcorn.

The pigs enjoyed the Paysano.


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Thursday, January 26: 

The thermometer on the front porch reads forty-one degrees.  The snow banks are sagging under a chilly rain which scours them into pits like those made in a white salt block by a cow’s slow tongue.  Someone with a cement hoe scraped a drainage ditch from the yard gate to the edge of the driveway, redirecting a stream of water brown with silt, shed by the long slope of drive up to the road.  Even at the exit of the culvert over Jeddo’s run, where in shade the icicles usually grow unchecked until April, a bucket to water the young steers can be filled without entanglement.  Is this really winter?

Pulled from the low tunnel twenty-five carrots weigh six pounds, bright orange, crisp, sweet, and juicy.  The green tops and small roots are fed to the cows, who have seen us in the garden and are waiting at the bridge for the expected treat.




A carefully knitted ball of grass is retrieved from the low tunnel along with the carrots, and since it seems to be uninhabited we bring it up on the porch and unravel it.

We can find no clue about the identity of the little homemaker, but someone has been keeping warm inside this nest, probably the same creature which has been tunneling from root to root eating carrots from the bottom up.  We hope without his nest he will find the carrot tunnel too chilly to linger in.

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Tuesday, January 24:

Four inches of wet snow on Friday night gave the children a chance to go snowboarding on the south hill; lying in a heavy blanket over the low tunnel where the carrots are growing, it weighed the six-mil plastic covering right down to the ground.  Constrained by many loads of laundry, the necessity of churning two-and-a-half gallons of cream, and a disinclination to venture out into the soaking rain, we did not get out yesterday to drain the slush off the tunnel cover and straighten the hoops of PVC.  Then last night the wind got up, gusting hard enough to be felt as a force even down in our protected valley.  It shuddered under the eaves, shifted the wicker furniture on the front porch and, as was apparent this morning, lifted the cover right off the low tunnel, pulling up one of the stakes with which it was fastened down at the ends, and working it out from under the sandbags which weighed it down along the sides.

This afternoon conscience drove us out in boots and scarves and thick coats to pull a colander of carrots and mend the tunnel.

It is one of the perfections of the low-tunnel that it is so easy to build, and to restore.  Counting the five minutes we spent pulling and topping the carrots, the job took about ten minutes.  Lifting the plastic sheeting to drain it, drawing the cover back over the hoops, taking up the slack and driving in the displaced stake with which the whole thing is pegged down, then replacing the sandbags, is a fast and simple job for a single man – or woman.  It carries with it a satisfaction not always to be met with in farming, or keeping house:  once done, it tends to stay done for a while.

The carrots are of excellent quality, crisp, tender, and sweet.   Our little burrowing friend had been under again, and one fat carrot was reduced to just a shell, completely eaten out from beneath.  Smart little guy, he must be glad God sent him his own solar-heated greengrocery for the winter.

In the kitchen a four-pound Paysano – our house Colby cheese – is draining in the wall press under thirty pounds of leverage.  The wall press was made by S-1 before he departed for Minnesota, and is a very clever and convenient arrangement, consisting of a bracket on the wall over the counter, an adjustable pin in the bracket, and an oak lever five feet long, marked with grooves at one-foot intervals, which hangs when not in use inside the basement door.  Our cheese ring is set beneath the bracket on a tray with a drain in the side, under which we place a pie dish to catch the expressed whey.  We fill the ring with curds and a chessit, position a follower on top, wedge the lever under the bracket pin and over the follower, and add weight at intervals along the lever.  The grooves on the top side of the lever let us know how far out to place our weights; the further they hang from the follower, the greater the pressure placed on the curds.

We have used this press for years, and find it the most convenient way of applying a steady, unvarying pressure to our cheeses.  With as many opportunities to make mistakes as there are in cheesemaking, it’s nice to feel that some aspects of the process, at least, are consistent.

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Sunday, January 22:

Shawn’s business trip meant some of us could go along for two days of luxury – no farm chores, and an indoor pool.  The older boys stayed home to milk and do their own cooking – bacon and eggs for every meal – while S-5 and Mom took the small people to the pool three times a day, and watched movies crowded four across the top of a hotel bed – S-6 occupied a lap. You had to squeeze in close because the audio on the Dell is very quiet.  We all came home with very clean fingernails, and the skin worn off the tips of our toes on the bottom of the pool.  Four inches of new snow smoothed the contours of the south hill pasture, and the pigs had been into the tack room, leaving behind them unmistakable evidence; still, it is very good to be home.  We live so far outside the world of business and hotels and movies that they can be a little disorienting.

With the third steer in the freezer we can stop and assess our hay consumption this winter.  Good rainfall last summer meant that we didn’t have to give the animals hay until November; so far, so good.  Warm weather well into December meant we didn’t dare butcher the two-year-old steers until December and January; not so good.  Those big boys consume a lot of hay, hay we didn’t budget for when we were putting it up in May and July.  We are discussing two strategies to avoid a recurrence of this situation:  one, buying our baby bulls very early in the spring, and butchering them at baby beef stage in November or December; or, two, buying them very late in the fall and overwintering them when they are still tiny and milk-fed.  We’ll let you know.

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Not followers of any school of food but our own — fresh and local — we nevertheless offer the following recipe to the fermented-foods people for a whole-meal loaf of exceptional quality which does not have the texture of particle board.

It is derived from a recipe we received from the Queen of Minnesota farm wives, Sandra Callens of Silofence Farm.  We have adapted it for use with levain, a stiff sourdough starter, but it can be used with granulated yeast alone by doubling the amount of that ingredient.  This recipe makes a loaf with a tender, resilent crumb, very suitable for sandwiches.  Note that the flour content is at least seventy-five percent whole meal; the potatoes are responsible for the fine crumb.

The amounts given here will make seven or eight two-pound (wt. before baking) loaves.

We hope you enjoy it.

The Sow’s Ear Whole-Meal / Potato Bread

The night before, refresh your starter, if you are using one.  (If you are asking, “what the heck’s a starter?, you don’t need one — go on to the next step.)

In the morning*, boil and mash enough potatoes to make three cups (we are told instant potato flakes can be used here, but we have never tried it).  Combine in a large bowl with six cups warm milk; if fresh whey is available, two cups of whey may be substituted for an equal amount of milk, as whey is an excellent dough conditioner.  Add to this one cup honey or other natural sweetener, six eggs, one-half cup melted butter, two teaspoons granulated yeast, one cup sourdough starter, if you are using it (if not, double the yeast), and sufficient freshly-ground whole wheat meal to make a stiff sponge.

You want to make a sponge that is stiff enough to stand a wooden spoon in for several seconds before it falls over, but not so stiff as to be dry.    It should mound up in the bowl and draw away from the sides when stirred.  All of your whole meal is added at this time in order that it should have time for the bran to absorb all the moisture it wants; if you were to skip this step, you would end up adding too much flour in the next step.  The sponge should be allowed to work for at least an hour; longer working is good so long as the sponge is stirred occaisionally to release carbon dioxide.  Our sponge sits for as long as three hours to overnight.

Now add two tablespoons of salt, and enough unbleached flour to make a workable dough.  Turn out on a table or countertop and knead, adding flour as necessary to make the dough elastic.  We usually knead our dough about fifteen minutes, all told.

Place dough in a floured bowl and cover with a damp towel.   After fifteen minutes or so, turn the dough out on the table and fold it in, one side at a time, north, south, east, west:  as though you were making an enchilada with no filling.  Invert and return to bowl.  Cover.  Wait another fifteen minutes and repeat.  (To be perfectly honest, this step may be hocus-pocus, since when we forget we still get a good loaf, but we do it when we remember.)

Now give the dough time for a good rising, until it rounds up nicely under its damp towel.

Turn risen dough onto a floured board and cut into two-pound pieces, rounding each and setting aside to rest for ten minutes, covered.

After the dough has rested, flatten each piece to about the size of a serving platter, dab with a wet hand, and fold in the sides to meet in the middle.  Dab again with a wet hand, and, starting with the edge nearest to you, roll the dough into a tight loaf, pinching the edge to seal, and place seam-side down in a greased loaf pan.

Allow to rise until it feels soft when poked lightly with a finger but does not hold the dent.

We bake in our brick and clay oven heated to about seven degrees cooler than the surface of the sun, and it bakes very fast; but when winter comes and no one wants to stand outside stoking in below-zero weather, we bake indoors at about three seventy-five for something less than an hour, and the results are still very good.  The loaves should sound hollow when tapped, but the only way we know of to be certain your bread is done is to cut into a loaf.

Then, of course, you should invite everyone in the house to come help you eat that loaf with plenty of farm butter and honey.

That’s how we make bread at the Sow’s Ear.

*if you prefer, make your sponge the night before and allow it to ferment overnight, making sure to mix it thin enough that the bubbles of carbon dioxide gas can escape from the sponge, so as to avoid killing the yeasts and ruining the dough.

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Sunday, January 15:

Our philosophical conviction that to raise his own food is one of Man’s inalienable rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is reinforced by our practical conviction that it is possible to produce most of what one eats, on a small piece of indifferent ground, without costing more in cash than is realized in food value.  We believe that a man should be able to sow seed, graze ruminants, feed his garbage to swine and poultry, and produce thereby food of a quality not presently available to anyone except the paisano or the billionaire, by the investment of time, sweat, labor, and only as much cash as you might otherwise spend on lattes, imported beer, Netflix, new clothes, and comprehensive coverage on a nice car.  In other words, you ought to be able to do it.

We are trying to demonstrate that you can.

The pigs at the bottom of the hill – the slop pigs, as opposed to the grain-fed ones at Barry’s – are one part of that demonstration.  Unlike baby Jersey bulls, weanling pigs are not cheap.  Typically we pay about fifty dollars for each young animal — about a dollar a pound it works out to be.  Therefore, they are for us a substantial investment from the word go, and if we want a good return on our investment we must minimize further cash outlay per animal.  For ten years we have raised pigs on purchased grain; kept for five months, until they weigh about three hundred pounds, butchered and cured at home, they produce pork at a cost of somewhere between a dollar and a dollar-twenty a pound.  Hams, bacon, chops, loin, sausage, roasts and ribs, and not including many pounds of excellent lard, for less than half what the cheapest pork in the stores would cost, and chemical-free at that.

Undeniably, a worthwhile exercise.  Yet we were dissatisfied with a process which required the constant addition of purchased inputs, and were at the same time certain these inputs could be reduced, perhaps even rendered unnecessary.  So for the last two years we have kept pigs on our own place, as well as the ones at the neighbors’, feeding the home swine table, kitchen, and garden scraps, from our own household and from a friendly restaurant in town, and all the buttermilk and whey naturally generated by a family with a milk cow.  Result:  the three pigs purchased this fall, have, so far, used about six bags of supplementary feed.  This in contrast to the conventionally fed pigs up the hill, which, I can say without consulting the records (it’s almost bedtime), are well above fifty bags.  Pig feed is presently about twelve dollars a fifty-pound sack.  At least five hundred dollars less outlay, so far.

Peasant farming for the man of modest means.

We’re out to prove you can do it.

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Friday, January 13:

Butchering is something we have been doing virtually all our lives; chickens and game, mostly, when we were children; goats too, in our first incarnation as a chevre dairy.  When the boys began to hunt, we ate a lot of venison, cut anyhow from the carcase, cubed and either ground and frozen, or simply canned for future use in stews and chili.  Maybe ten years ago our neighbors taught us to butcher pigs according to diagram, hams, sides, loins, chops and all; we scald and scrape and split them, draw them up with block and tackle, saw and chop and grind, brine and smoke, wrap and freeze them.  It’s quite an operation.  Nevertheless, when we first found ourselves confronted with a two-year-old steer which needed conversion into steaks and ground beef, we were intimidated.  Size may be illusion, but the illusion of size in a five hundred pound steer takes some accommodating.

S-1, who is twenty-five and married , shears sheep in Minnesota, and works once a week in a butcher shop, came home with his lovely bride one January a few years ago and we slaughtered our first beef under his tutelage.  The men drove the sacrificial victim up to the garage on a morning of thin snow, and by the time the young and the squeamish had finished the breakfast dishes it was hanging from a beam in the garage.  Primus’ visit being of short duration, the steer was allowed to hang only overnight, just long enough for the flesh, cooling, to firm up; the next day, with S-1 still there to oversee the process, we cut, ground, and wrapped what proved to be a tender, tasty beef.  It was not a professional job – the beef was not aged, the cuts not precise – but our diffidence about big carcasses was overcome, and we were, so to speak, blooded.

We don’t need beef at the moment — we have not made much of a dent in the steer we butchered in December — but it is poor management of hay, pasture, and animals to overwinter big steers you could instead keep in the freezer.  Twice a day when someone slogs down the hill through mud or snow to drop a couple of bales in the sliding manger or on some bare spot of hillside that seems to need organic matter, we think of the diminishing stacks of square bales in the barn loft, and the months of winter still before us, and we chafe to see the two-year-olds tucking in.  They are not fattening, not on a winter ration; they are just maintaining.  They will not grow larger or beefier between now and spring green-up; we will be lucky if the tendency is not retrograde.  And every wisp of hay they consume is one more bite not available to the milk cows, and in competition with the young steers the two-year-olds have all the advantage.  They eat faster and push harder, and the young stock, which we would like to coddle, are challenged.  The big steers should not be on the dole at all after forage grows scarce; in the best of all possible worlds they go to live in the freezer some time in the first half of November, just as soon as the cooling temperatures, day and nighttime, reach an average of forty degrees.

This winter the temperatures didn’t.  Since November our weather has been intermittently cool, occasionally even cold, but only for a day, perhaps two or three successively, never the two weeks we need for a good, long hang to tenderize and flavor the meat.  We put off butchering from week to week, for over a month.  In December we gambled on the weather, slaughtered one steer, and then watched while the weather hovered for days around fifty, and dipped only into the forties at night.  We stewed, wondering if our beef ever would.  We jabbed here and there in the fleshy parts with our digital thermometer, watching as it crept up over forty-five, even to fifty.  We dropped the sides into Barry’s pig-scalding tub and bedded them in ice.  We hoisted them out to dry – essential to the proper curing process – and jabbed them some more.

Teaching oneself farming offers many opportunities for the student to feel insecure; one of these is when he has three hundred-odd pounds of animal flesh hanging in the barn and isn’t sure where the line is between haute-cuisine aged beef, and carrion.  Not big risk-takers as a general thing, we were gambling, gambling in a game for which we had little prior experience, and one in which losing meant, not only that our vision of steak and hamburger dinners all winter long would vanish, but that we would have to figure out what to do with three hundred pounds of rotten flesh.  We held out for as long as we dared, but on day twelve the temperature, after a night of only moderate coolness, soared well above fifty.  At two o’clock we marshalled our forces and got the job done.  Result:  delicious.  But we felt that we had been lucky.  When the temperatures continued in the forties and fifties, we were unwilling to gamble again.

Now, in mid-January, winter seems finally to have made up its mind to keep its annual date with the Appalachians, and the last of the three two-year-old steers is hanging in Barry’s barn.  Other time constraints are encroaching, and we can give it only a week to cure.  The university which provides employment for one and education for two of us will open spring classes next week, and this steer needs to be in the freezer before then.  Tomorrow we will cut and wrap.  The labor required is not inconsiderable; six of us will stand in the cold barn for several hours tomorrow, sawing, slicing, grinding, weighing, and generally courting carpal tunnel syndrome.  The grinder will jam, as it always does.  There will be arguments about cuts and weights.  Someone will nick himself with a razor-sharpened butcher knife; everyone will be sickened at last by the smell of raw meat.  And yet it will be good labor with good fellowship, and we will be glad.  Glad of meat in the freezer, and glad especially to have the proper order restored to the farm schedule, that ebb and flow of growth and harvest, the balance of feed and appetite, fodder and livestock.

Glad to have the blooming steer off the gravy train.

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