Monday, November 8, 2010

Borsch, Borshch, Borscht- Beet Soup

I made beet soup today, the kind that is often made throughout Russia and Poland. I looked at four different recipes and combined them to make up my own concoction.
Of course, all of the recipes call for beets. Some of them shred the beets, some boil, some hold off adding them until the very end to get the brightest color in the soup.
Another decision is whether to serve the soup hot or cold. I suppose it w

ould be better to puree the soup were you to serve it cold, but I took the more peasant-like approach and match-sticked the vegetables and served it warm. I also added meat, like some of the recipes call for, and sipping cold meat stew is not my favorite.
For the most part, the ingredients were from the farm. I went to the local co-op for crimini mushrooms and a leek. We didn’t plant leeks this year, because I had planned to plant the pencil-thin ones that I had stored in the root cellar over winter. Of course, farming got in the way, and the leeks rotted before I had a chance to plant them in the ground. So when I found that the co-op was out of leeks, I just went to the source, to Luna Bleu Farm, right down the road and dug two out of the ground.
Kyle brushed hogged the gardens today, getting ready for the first official “wintery mix” forecast of 2010. Bradford got three new chickens- black cochin bantams, and I helped the local trapper scope out the best place to set traps to capture the marauding coyotes that have taken a liking to our sheep. They’ve killed two and injured two.
First, it killed a lamb, and Drew and I set about scouting the area every day twice a day. Nothing for a week, and then, at three in the morning, I heard the frenzied calls that they utter after making a kill, when they call in the subordinate members of the pack for dinner.
That morning, the neighbor called and said that another sheep had been killed, bringing the total to two. One of the parents that she babysits for had seen it dead in the field as he drove to her house to drop off his child.
At the same time, Bradford came up from the barn and told us that there was a sheep in the chicken house. I struggled to figure out how this could be possible, since the flock was about a quarter of a mile away from the barn. Where was the rest of the flock?
Sure enough, when I went to check, there was a black yearling lamb in the barn, all by herself. She was limping a bit, and looked frantic. So I set out for the field where the rest of the flock was supposed to be. I carried the .22 rifle with me, but I didn’t really expect to get a shot at the coyote.
In the field, the sheep were scattered, and there was the body of number 46 green. It was the mother of the lamb in the barn. All the other sheep in the field side-stepped the gruesome, half eaten carcass, and were looking at me, I think reproachfully.
I gathered the horse up (who stays in the field to protect them, but has become quite deaf and a little blind in one eye), and led them back to the home pasture. One of the yearling lambs was badly injured, and the entire flock was so subdued, that when Kyle opened the gate, they willingly walked in without protest. The injured lamb stayed behind, dripping blood from her hind leg.
It’s a lamb that has become tame for no apparent reason. She has three freckles under each eye, and when I go out into the fields, she approaches me. She’s not a bottle lamb (one that I have raised by feeding it myself from a bottle), or one that an apprentice has taken a shining to and has been cuddled - just a ewe lamb that decided to be friendly. Good thing, because, had she been wild, I don’t think I could have helped her.
Instead, we gathered her up and brought her in the barn. I laid her on her side, and saw how badly she had been injured. A major artery was spewing blood so fast that it was not even pulsing - just a steady beet-red stream of blood.
While I fetched packing and tape to try and stop the blood, the ewe lay still, not flinching. I used old pillow cases that we use to store root vegetables in and duct tape to make a rough tourniquet. Then I gave her a dose of antibiotics that I have for emergencies and put her in with the llama.
When the trapper came, he looked at where the kills had occurred, and he chose two sites to set bait. He looked like an artist, a skilled painter of a canvas set for a battle scene. He set the traps and told me when to come and check them.
And I will, tomorrow, after this warm night of beet soup and pirozhki.

1 lb ground lamb
4 quarts chicken broth
1 ½ pound beets, cooked (boil until skins slip, then dice finely)
2 cups sauerkraut
1 ½ cups carrots, cut into matchsticks
1 parsnip (about 1 cup) cut into matchsticks
1 cup chopped celery, including leaves
1 cup coarsely chopped leek
1 cup onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup cubed potatoes
1 cup canned, stewed tomatoes
1 cup chopped crimini mushrooms
2 tablespoons red wine or cider vinegar
2 bay leaves
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 whole allspice berries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dill
sour cream

Bring the broth and meat to boil, then skim and set to simmer for 20 minutes. Add all of the vegetables except the tomatoes and mushrooms and simmer for another 25 minutes. Add the tomatoes, mushrooms, vinegar, bay leaves, salt, pepper, and allspice. Cook another 15 minutes. Check the seasoning, and add lemon juice if needed. Garnish with dill and sour cream in the bowls.

-Adapted from the following cookbooks: Bon Appetit Country Cooking (Viking Press 1978), Local Flavors, Deborah Madison (Broadway Books 2002), Great Dishes of the World, Robert Carrier (Random House 1964), The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2007).

Monday, August 2, 2010

August and Everything After

One of my most annoying traits is to tell everyone how many now- famous bands I’ve seen before they were famous.

U2 played at the tiny, SUNY, Delhi school in the Catskills, where I attended Veterinary Technology training in 1981, just after they came out with Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Bono jumped off twelve foot high speakers, and I touched The Edge’s hand. The gym held about 400 screaming people.

I saw Ani DiFranco diss obnoxious fans into submission at the Newport Folk Festival, Tracy Chapman launch her comeback at Smith College, Quiet Riot play in Northampton after the lead singer bought a futon from my sister and gave us free tickets to the show, and the Counting Crows the day before they went on Letterman.

The Avett Brothers played the Chandler and brought the crowd to its feet for three hours, much to the chagrin of some of the older chaperones. I saw Steve Earle silence a moody crowd in Burlington as he tried to pay tribute to Towns Van Zandt, when all they wanted was for him to sing songs about his Appalachian upbringing.

Music has always been important to me. It’s one of those wonders that I actually admire humans for. Watching the Random Canyon Growlers play in their hometown at the Chandler, with such pride and skill, thrilled me.

Yet music has nothing to do with farming. Right?

In August, everything becomes a routine. We’ve weeded for days on end, harvested almost everything at least once that we will grow throughout the season; sold, canned, frozen and butchered most of what the farm has to offer. So in August, the challenge is to keep it still in the present, still interesting.

I pull out new techniques as though I’m a parent trying to amuse a child on a camping trip on day five of rain.

Like music, I try to make it familiar and personal, to strike a chord with this farming experience, so whoever is here contributing sweat equity and brilliance to the farm feels as though there’s some reward for the contribution that they’re making- a melody.

In August, coming up with new things to teach the apprentices is tough, especially if they’ve been here for five months. So off we go to Geo’s farm to learn how he farms weed-free, or to Ray’s to butcher chickens, or to Kermit’s to cut and wrap a beef. We pick blackberries and blueberries and weed and weed and weed. We plant the crops that will mature in the fall, and we soak in the waning hours of sunlight, and in the chorus of the crickets and the cicadas: the signs of late summer and the need to fill our pantries chock-o-block full of provisions for the bare season to come: a symphony for sure, in full crescendo.

Cucumber Salsa

This recipe is decidedly vague because you need to insert your own amount of ingredients. I suggest tasting it after the inclusion of every ingredient, and adding more of something if you feel it’s not right. The proportions given here are about right.
1 part cukes
1 part green peppers
2 parts onions
1 or 2 hot peppers, depending upon your amount of substance P (i.e, how much heat you can take)
salt, pepper
1 part vinegar
a little olive oil
½ part chopped cilantro or lovage
3 cloves garlic to every cup of salsa
1 bunch of basil (about ½ cup)
Mix everything together and chill for about 30 minutes before eating with chips, as a side to white fish, or a black bean burrito.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Farming Firsts

When you first start farming, it’s not only physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting. I think this may be because in our mind’s eye, we tend to think of farming as the cattle rancher, lazily gazing over rolling hills at his cattle atop a trusted mount, or as the vegetable grower, gathering handfuls of brilliantly colored carrots and beets, freshly plucked from the fertile soil. Or maybe we think of the shepherdess, tending the flock and watching the lambs gamboling across the lush pasture that is rich with clover and timothy. They’re rewarding visions, bountiful ones. No one ever paints pictures of the calves stranded in the woods that need to be gathered back into the herd (it’ll take hours, and by the time you’re done, the cows are in the wrong grazing area). The long, straight rows of vegetables don’t tell the tale of countless, back-breaking, mind-numbing hours of seeding, then thinning and watering and weeding before the glorious harvest can begin. And the threat of fly-strike, where maggots attack the sheep to eat them alive, or coyotes lurk to shed the blood of the prized ewe aren’t really part of the happy farming bubble floating magically above our heads when we decide to begin to farm. No one can ever prepare us for how hard, tedious, boring, frustrating and maddening it can be. The urge to just fall to pieces and just cash it in for a good desk job are sometimes hard to resist.
One of my favorite summarizations of solutions to the pitfalls that farming can conjure up came from a review written by a “Wal-Mart Associate” in response to the book, Harvest: a Year in the Life of an Organic Farm, by Nicola Smith and Geoff Hansen (2003). He said that the book was depressing and full of death and by god, if he had something killing his chickens, he’d’ve done something about it.
Darnit, why didn’t I think of that? I could have just killed that mysterious thing doing in my hens, and then my cartons would be brimming full with eggs.
I guess if you’re one who chooses to dwell in your disasters rather than count your blessings, it may not be a venue you’d thrive in. I’m also pretty sure that getting rich is not the defacto option for this particular career choice.
But if it’s looking back over years of learning by following the advice of others in the community, by reading farming books, and by making mistakes that fulfills you, then farming is your baby.
The first piece of ground we plowed up to plant to vegetables looked white as snow. Not because it was winter, but because the former tenants had buried their plastic in the ground rather than dispose of it properly. It took us until this year not to plow up pieces of the plastic, or tires or cast-off shoes. Now, the garden, nicknamed the sunflower garden, is being transformed to our perennial beds, where Kyle’s strawberries, asparagus, black currants, horseradish, cranberries, cherries and random Ohio buckeye trees reside.
When I first strung electric fence for our sheep to graze, the pasture was tall with Canadian thistle, burdock, asters and goldenrod. These plants make good bee food, but aren’t much for sheep to eat. Constantly shifting them from one paddock to another all season long so that they grazed and fertilized has eventually transformed the soil into nitrogen-rich pasture that is now heavy with clover and timothy and other forbes. The lambs are strong and their meat is sweet and full of flavor from grazing and from staying with their mothers until they’re slaughtered.
Still, each year, there are pitfalls that I never imagined I’d encounter. Take the corn, for example. We usually don’t direct seed it because the crows eat it all up as soon as we stick the seed in the ground. But without a greenhouse this year, we were forced to plant it. And up it came. On Tuesday, I looked over 8 foot high stalks, laden with ears that are just coming ripe. On Wednesday, what I can only imagine was a tornado (but is referred to as a micro-bore or micro sheer, or some such other insurance lingo) flattened half the corn. Bam, just like that. I was so relieved that the guinea hens and turkeys hadn’t drowned in the 2.9 inches of rain in 58 minutes, that I hadn’t even thought to check the corn. After the storm, sitting on the new deck, the destruction couldn’t be hidden. But what’s even more amazing is that 5 days later, it has almost succeeded in standing itself up, BY ITSELF.
And then there’s this talk of a basil blight that has wiped out neighbor’s crops. Our basil is so strong and lush, that I find it hard to believe that it may succumb, like the tomatoes did last year. The tomatoes this year have been growing up and up and up, setting flowers, but not much fruit. One theory is that they aborted the fruit because of the intense heat we’ve been having. It certainly wasn’t because of too much nitrogen- our soil tests always come back as suggesting to put more nitrogen in the gardens.
I’ve been pickling like a mad woman, beets, beans and cukes. Everything is early. Never a dull moment, this farming thing. And if I think I can predict what’s around the next bend? Well that’s just plain foolish.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sopa de Flor de Calabaza

I started a blog entry about a month ago, and it’s disappeared into cyberspace. It was about farming and its vagaries and unpredictability. I guess I’m just not used to Windows 7, which is much easier to maneuver around in than Vista, but still, there’s a learning curve, and the entry is gone. That’ll teach me to go more than a month without posting…
We are diligently scouting the gorgeous tomatoes that are now producing a cherry tom here and there, but are loaded with lush, green foliage and scores of blossoms. Thank goodness for heat and humidity and no rain. On the other hand, I feel like a Georgia field hand sometimes. My friend in Alabama is reporting weather conditions that are mirroring our own, only he’s used to them, and we’re not.
We have the abundance of August already- onions, chard, spinach, bok choi, head lettuce, peppers, artichokes, summer squash, beans. Then, there’s the late spring hold outs that are still chugging along. Asparagus and rhubarb are still around, although we’re not picking the asparagus anymore. The peas have succumbed to the heat, as have the radishes and cilantro. The basil is crazy and smells of summer.
Every year I take advantage of the squash blossoms. They’re so delicate and delicious, like morel mushrooms are. I fry them and stuff them with goat cheese and use them as garnish on refried beans. The best thing to do with them, though, is to make a soup. I have adapted this recipe from my favorite Mexican cookbook by Diana Kennedy (The Art of Mexican Cooking ,2008). It takes a ton of blossoms, so unless you have a farmer who’s willing to let you pick your own straight from the field, it’s a costly soup. But a treat worth trying, at least once a summer. Use the male flowers, not the females, that way, you won’t waste the fruits.

2 tbs butter
4 tbs finely chopped spring onions, greens and bulb
3 cloves fresh garlic, preferably hardneck
2 pounds fresh male squash, gourd or pumpkin blossoms
5 cups chicken broth (can substitute veggie, but it won’t taste as rich)
1 cup corn kernels
1 cup summer, zucchini or patty pan squash, diced
1 tsp epazote
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
Basil, shredded for garnish
Chile peppers, diced, for garnish

Fry the onion and garlic in the butter without browning (about 3 minutes). Stir the flowers into the pan, then cover and cook over low heat for the next 5 minutes. Uncover the pan, and cook until the flowers are tender and the juice has evaporated- this may take time, depending on how fresh the flowers are (like 10 minutes).
Put all but ¼ cup of the flowers in a food processor and blend with 2/3 cup of the broth until smooth. Put this mixture in a saucepan, then add the rest of the flowers , broth and vegetables and cook until tender. Add the epazote, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat, stir in the cream and garnish with the shredded basil and chile cubes. Let the soup cool slightly before serving.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


April is our month to vacation, it seems. The lambs have been born, and the crops are not massively out of control. There’s still the greenhouses to water, the animals to care for, and the threat of cold nights that require the woodstove to keep burning, but it’s not May and June planting chaos, or July haying, or August harvest. So for the third year in a row, it’s off the farm for four days to stay on the beach.

This year, we had the great fortune to stay in a little cabin on the Cape owned by a friend of Kyle’s named Dave. They used to work together, back when Kyle was the biologist for the Cape Cod National Seashore; Dave’s in charge of everything that has to do with fire in the Park. He also coordinates the forest fire fighters for the Northeast.

Anyway, Sarit agreed to take care of the farm, solo, after being here for only a month, and saying things like “how do you tell the difference between a rooster and a hen,” and “isn’t it a little cruel to roast the lambs whole on a spit, I mean, don’t they feel it?”

Needless to say, she’s like a sponge, learning everything from the difference in comb size between hens and roosters to the fact that the animals are actually dead before they’re skewered and roasted on the fire. She’s already soloed at the farmer’s market, watched her bottle lamb be sold for meat and battled the quack grass in the hoophouse. She’s been stung by an orange-butted bumblebee and slogged through wet snow to harvest wild leeks. She’s a transplanting mad woman, and a mean winter squash bread maker. She’s even making friends with the cats, despite never ever having had a pet.

That everything is new to her and an adventure kind of came home to me on our vacation. It occurred to me, as Kyle, Bradford and I went on six mile hikes into the marsh, or 4 -mile walks along the Atlantic in search of whales, or 13- mile bike rides, that in the two and a half years that I lived on Cape Cod, I did nothing except drive to and from work. I hated the crowds, the cars, the tourists. So I’d go to the remote seabird colony off Chatham and do biology, and then it was back to the house in Wellfleet, in our unheated barn with no plumbing. I didn’t even know that just behind our house was a fabulous beach with gigantic cliffs and far-reaching sand dunes. I mean, when your job is walking miles of beach coast a day, who wants to spend your day off beachcombing?

This time, I watched the piping plovers dig their scrapes and court. I didn’t have to dig holes and post signs and string rope to keep the beachgoers out of their habitat. I didn’t have to find every pair and count their eggs and keep track of their chicks. I just watched them in the warm April sunlight, while Bradford and Kyle looked for rare birds and whales, and threw the Frisbee on the beach.

Back home, a record-breaking snowstorm greeted us. I saw the silver silhouette of a common snipe flying crazily into the snowflakes, and two hermit thrushes, burnt-red against the snow-white branches in the forest. We’ve postponed planting the onions until the weekend, when it’s forecasted to be in the 80s.

Sarit says that when she looks at snowflakes she believes that there is indeed a god. I know what she means. I look at Billy, the peacock, with his ridiculous show of feathers and can’t wrap my mind around the thought that this just happened randomly or for the sake of evolution- I mean why does it have to be so incredibly complex, when a simpler thing could just as easily perpetuate itself into the future? If evolution was the only answer, shouldn’t we all be amoebas?

Anyway, the vacation, and Sarit’s enthusiasm are good reminders for me to keep the joy in the job and not forget about the adventure and the wonder of every day, like a snowstorm in April, or a deserted beach where hundreds of people will gather soon.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Finding Truths- the Beautiful and the Cruel

“This morning I went next door to talk with the neighbor's yard man, Ben. Ben is a good man, a bit weak when it comes to beer; but a kind man that smiles more than anything. In the past, he would do odd jobs for my parents when he wasn't working for our neighbors. I asked him if he would be interested in driving out to our family land to take a tiller (b/c the tiller wouldn't fit in any vehicle we own) tomorrow morning early. I would pay him for his time and gas. Then Mr. C., our neighbor, came around from his garage and became the old angry white man. I was appalled at how he talked about Ben and to him. He said that he didn't think that Ben would be done with his work there at his place. I said well, what ever makes sense but if Ben wanted to drive out he could be back relatively early to finish his committed job there. I left to go back to our house and while I was picking up some lettuce I had planted in some raised beds, I over heard Mr. C. verbally abusing Ben. He said that "He" told Ben what to do and not the other way around. It was awful - I wanted to walk back down there and knock the shit out of the old man. But what made me the saddest was that Ben just took it...saying "Yes, Sir, Yes, Sir" Damn it. Even writing it right now makes me sick.’

Ah, the varying characteristics of southern culture that highlight the underpinnings of coming home.”

Today was my birthday. Kyle and Bradford wrapped special gifts for me; my parents called and nearly gave me a coronary ( I had forgotten that it was my birthday, and the only other people that call that early are the staff at the post office, telling me that chicks have arrived for my pick-up, and I didn’t remember ordering any chicks). I logged on and found 40 Facebook messages wishing me a happy day- so special, and thank you everyone for thinking of me. Mostly, I had a great time today, planting with Sarit in the greenhouse that our neighbors have loaned us space in to start our field plants.

I cooked fish and chips tonight, much to Sarit’s horror, not because she doesn’t love fish and chips, but because it was foreign to her that, besides reading cookbooks when I’m not working, my ideal birthday is to cook dinner for loved ones.

I am a little worried about how cold it is right now, and about our tender seedlings and the lambs outside, but I think all will be fine.

Bradford passed hunter safety, so he’s ready for turkey youth day in two weeks. He claims he’s going to get me two turkeys and a deer.

The opening quote is from a dear friend, one of our first “apprentices” on the farm. He shows up occasionally with his sleeping bag, and in all weather, and usually insists upon sleeping outdoors.

Prejudices are hard, especially when they’re home-based. I feel like it’s important to stick up for our more liberal ideas, though, even if they’re not popular, even while they’re not the status quo. I’m happy for my friend for realizing that he’s different, and ugly truth or not, this is where his home is, and he, I’m sure, will make a difference in the end.

The truth is, before this recession, people by and large thought that I was crazy for taking up farming. They reasoned that it was something that their parents had done out of necessity, to feed themselves, to keep them out of poverty. My colleagues considered it a waste of time that I had completed my Master’s degree in Biology, when, in the end, I turned to farming.

The reality is that we have not felt the recession on the farm. We are still growing food, still teaching people how to fend for themselves, still able to keep what we have and build upon it. True, we’re not rich. Our idea of vacation is four days on Cape Cod, not three weeks in the Bahamas. I’m not saying that three weeks in the Bahamas would be a bad thing- just not anything we’ve ever considered feasible. What I am saying is that it’s still perfectly possible for us to go together to Cape Cod, when for many, this is, and may never have been, an option.

I watched the Master’s golf tournament the other day. Not because I’m into golf, but because I’m into history. I wanted to see if it really meant nothing to Tiger Woods, to shatter his whole life and the lives of people around him. Could he really pull it off? He didn’t. He couldn’t. Kharma is pretty powerful that way.

So to my friend in the South, who is appalled by the behavior of his neighbors, but willing to fight for what he thinks is right, I thank him for this birthday missive. I’m 47, so it’s no longer a given to conclude that I’m middle-aged. But he’s still capable of claiming this status of being angry with what is considered acceptable. I’m happy that he’s willing to stand out and say that prejudices are what they are, that prejudices are alive and well, and we will encounter them wherever we are, and we should not be fearful to speak out against them.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Definition: 1) Thin plant part attached to support: a modified stem, leaf, or other part of a climbing plant, usually in the form of a thread that coils around and attaches the plant to supporting objects; 2) delicate twist or coil: a thin, wispy, curling, winding piece of something, especially of hair.

“One of the most striking characteristics of each ‘depression period’ is the tacit acknowledgement of city dwellers that ‘the farm is the safest place to live;’ for though there is each year a migration from the country to the city and a counter movement to the suburbs and a less pronounced one to more agricultural environment, the movement becomes an exodus when business takes a slump and employees are thrown out of work” – M. G. Kains in Five Acres and Independence

Every year I plant seeds, slips and tubers in the soil. Every year I revel in the discovery that they grow into plants. They’re different every year, these plants. Sometimes it’s sweet potatoes or okra or artichokes or Egyptian walking onions. But each season, the seeds are planted, and the wonder and mystic that they will ultimately produce food gives way to the reality that they finally do.

The hoop houses are chockablock full of lettuce, radishes, peas, beans, arugula, mesclun mix and head lettuce, kale, mizuna and spinach. A veritable garden of Eden, twisting and coiling and erupting in the warm soil of this freakish April. The days ahead seem to be more fitting of the season though; people are tired of me saying that it always snows on my birthday as we go into a series of 30 degree nights.

In the fields, the kale that survived the winter is yielding bushel after bushel of beautiful foliage. The spinach and bunching onions are giving us early delights; a sign to indicate what will soon come, when the milder nights and warm days wake up the farm and send it headlong into planting madness and then harvesting chaos.

I picked two bushels of kale and some nettles today while Sarit and Anna weeded the Hoop House East. It was a cold, long day for us, but it ended with satisfaction, having prepared for the upcoming farmer’s market, as well as rounding up all of the sheep to sequester them inside the warm, dry barn for the next few days. The sheep and the new lambs can handle the cold when it’s sunny out, but cold and damp are miserable and even deadly, and that’s what’s apparently ahead ( it is April in Vermont, after all).

Most years, we don’t have apprentices until the end of May, which usually coincides with school ending. This year has been different, with some of the apprentices from last year returning to help lamb (Greg, Shannon and Tali), and then Sarit starting in the middle of March (she didn’t want to miss anything) and Anna in the end of March.

Sarit, especially has seen the farm come to life by helping to anchor bits and pieces of it together: she helped me sort out all of the receipts from 2009 to complete the taxes; she helped shovel out the sheep pen with its winter’s full of manure. She stacked the wood from the tree Kyle cut down over the winter, and helped him inspect the honey bee hives that have survived; all not glamorous jobs, but necessary ones that make a whole out of this endeavor.

Yesterday, she and Anna made winter squash bread from the frozen squash that Tali and Janet harvested and froze last fall. She couldn’t find the nutmeg. That’s because I don’t have ground nutmeg; I actually have the brown seeds and a miniature grater to grind the nutmeg fresh. “Shut up! That’s not nutmeg! Why didn’t I know this was nutmeg?” I ask her if she knows that cinnamon is actually bark from a tree. “Noooo way!” How about the fact that coriander is the seeds from the cilantro plant. “Stop it!”

Kyle plowed a big chunk of the Cloverfield North garden today; the soil is already dry enough to work- about 8 days earlier than last year and 12 days earlier than 2008. He taught me how to move a round bale with the tractor to the paddock to feed the sheep. We have a new tractor-driven rototiller, so we won’t spend so much time using the ground driven, hand operated one. Kyle picked up a day at the park in Woodstock where he works as the ecologist; Bradford needs braces, and we don’t like tons of debt. I actually am working more on the farm as the result of not working at the animal hospital anymore, so I am trying to learn how to do these mechanized jobs that aren’t as appealing to me but are crucial to the farm’s existence.

The root cellar is completed, and the garden shed Kyle built that sits on top of the root cellar’s cement roof is done except for the windows. It looks fantastic. Now for that shop remodeling…

In all, the farm is held together by a zillion little threads, linking the mundane and the magical together to create a sense of security that I’ve only felt when I’ve worked on the land. It’s empowering at the same time that it is intimidating and daunting. Unpredictable, surprising, twisting and changing. A mish-mash of tendrils, all working to support living on the farm.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Change is Bad

This is one of my favorite Woody Allen quotes, from a movie he made back when he was America’s darling, before he cheated on Mia Farrow with her daughter. He used the phrase to argue that where he was, the role he was in, the rut he was in, was better, more comfortable, than leaping into something unknown, something scary and challenging.

I say this all the time, especially to the new apprentices, when they walk onto this farm and there is nothing familiar to them. It’s all new, all change, all stressful and weeding through personalities, both human and non-human animal alike, adjusting to routines, to house rules, to what the other humans living at the farm are used to.

Shannon came up for two weeks and helped lamb. She overlapped with Sarit, who is new, and she filled her in.

I told her about all of the rules, Shannon said. Sarit’s eyes were big. No shoes in the house, nothing but butts in the bench that Kyle built (don’t pile books, backpacks, sleeping cats, etc here), hang the clothes on the line with pins, don’t leave dishes in the sink, wipe up the floor in the shower, clean the cast iron cooking utensils without water when Kyle is around, with soap and water when Jenn is around, put the lids on the Tupperware, don’t leave the tools in the field.

Sarit told the rules to Anna, who arrived yesterday. She asked to arrange the food in the pantry. I told her that she could re-arrange the milkhouse. Really, I was thinking that I couldn’t handle the change, but honestly, the pantry is a mess.

These two haven’t had any farm experience, and yet, after just a few days, they’re planting the farm’s crops, feeding the animals, helping me do the taxes. They’re awesome.

Did the cows get fed three bales of hay? This is a rhetorical question that I am asking, because I can tell they have. Yes, they say. Well, I respond, they should only get two. Sarit gathers the hay up and feeds some to Michael the horse.

Do you hear the sound that the chicks are making right now? That means they’re out of food and water. Sarit, Anna and Bradford give the chicks food and water. The chicks are happy.

So I intend these questions to be teaching type questions, not intimidating or self-deprecating, but I know that Change is also Scary. It means that there’s this person, who is usually clad in the finest velour and other cast offs garnered from the local thrift store, who has an air of authority about her that is sometimes offsetting, that seems, but doesn’t really mean to, question personal ability.

In March, the changes of season are so subtle that I can track them. The first turkey vultures are back. The red-winged blackbirds and common grackles return. The day lilies are creeping out of the ground, and the garlic and wild leeks are growing. The robins are crazily flying and setting up territories, the potatoes in the root cellar are developing eyes (which will later turn into roots when they’ve been planted) and the garlic and onions that have been stored are sprouting. There are hens setting on eggs to hatch them out, and the peacock is displaying his glorious feathers. Change happens every single day in March and April and May.

It happens every month, every week, every day, incrementally more subtle, but change, just the same.

I no longer work for the Country Animal Hospital, after eleven years there. A shock and a serious source of panic for me at first. I honestly never thought that I would leave there. It was a comfortable place to work and I loved the people. I think that I was a little too vocal about recent changes, and the economy has affected this establishment, as it has many, so there was a need to consolidate. I have had an amazing outpouring of support from the community, and I thank everyone. I believe that things are as they should be, though. The animal hospital needs to stay in business, and I was the most expendable.

I just finished up the Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar, to be published by the same company as the Joy of Keeping Chickens. I’m also substitute teaching and working with a friend landscaping. And I have way more time to farm.

So change isn’t bad- it’s change. And here is spring, at our heels, turning these browned fields into green-gold, bringing bird song, rebirth and warm sun.

Happy Spring.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Gorilla Gardeners

I wanna call Dad, he says to me in a high pitch, after I turn on the tiny solar light, in the corner, near the east window, right where it’s been for the past 20 years. He and Whitney are waiting at the front door until I turn it on. He’s not afraid, he’s full of wonder. He’s amazed, just what I wanted.

At first he protested when I said that I was yanking him from school and going Downeast to Maine, to visit my dear friends Donna, Gerri and Pete. This is the place that I learned how to dig my own well, to butcher a deer, to tan a hide, to can food, to cure garlic for seed, to smoke meat. It’s where I learned how to eat a partridge just killed by a car, how to crack a lobster with just your hands, how to say goodbye to a friend dying of melanoma cancer, just a year and nine months after meeting him. It was a place that was grounding.

Right now, my ten year-old, who just 18 hours ago was in tears at the thought of not having wi-fi for three days, is dragging out skins of cured skunks and Australian possums. Donna’s house is phantasmal. What’s this one, Mom? I think it’s a mink. For those of you who don’t know, Whitney was an apprentice here in 2008, and is probably my closest friend. She’s amazing in her own right, but that’s another blog…

Kyle likes to describe Donna as ornery. She’s done everything, seen everything, and she truly could do anything else. She’s buried a husband and her best friend, she knows how to shear sheep, rake blueberries, preserve any food you can think of, make the best homemade wine you could drink, tan any animal’s hide, make friends with Feds and foes, she’s truly an idol. Right now, she’s working on a collaboration with University of Maine Press to catalog all of the plants on Acadia National Park.

The first night we arrived there, Gerri and Donna had gone to dinner at Oscar’s, a local lobsterman and friend, where I later bought 21 pounds of lobster to freeze at $4 a pound. That they’re gone, and we’re alone in the house gives me just enough time to show Whit and Bradford around. I show them my favorite things: the hand-dug root cellar, right down to granite; the reading lamp made out of sheep’s legs, the sepia picture of Bradford Kausen, whom our son is named after, looking contentedly out onto the water. Whit and my Bradford are rewardingly awed and amazed. This house has been completely constructed by this woman, her husband and her friend’s hands. She is not dependant on anything more than community, friendship and loyalty.

Mom, I wanna come back here with Dad to clean up the Little House. It’s where I lived for nearly two years, helping Brad die, helping Donna, learn to live, with Pete and Gerri and a slew of others. My son gets it. The magic of this place, the necessity of self reliance and close community. What a tonic in this bleak, dormant season of resting.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Down Time

I joke about the fact that from December to March is supposed to be what we call the “down time”. Certainly, it’s not in May, with the frenzy of plowing and preparing and planting, consumed with getting fences up and animals on permanent pasture for the next six months. It’s not in August, when the crops are ready to harvest, and so much needs to be dried, canned, and frozen in order to savor summer’s bounty during the dormant months of winter.

I actually use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, no bird song or bright light to tell me it’s time to rise and do the chores that never go away: cows, sheep, pigs and chickens all need to be fed, even in the winter.

We’re interviewing potential apprentices almost daily during this time. The state of the battered economy seems to have tipped in our favor somehow; just four years ago, there was only one applicant worthy of consideration. Last year and this, there are hordes of qualified people, looking to learn how to be self-sufficient. From entire families to newly graduated from high school, it’s a tonic to see how much enthusiasm there is out there for wanting to learn how to do it by oneself.

I was explaining just last night to Sarit, one of the people visiting to see whether Fat Rooster would be a good match for her to learn some farming skills, that it is a very unpredictable profession, this farming. I like to have a list of tasks everyday, neatly ordered, from most important to least. But invariably, the list will go out the window. Take this morning, for example.

My plan was to head to Central Supplies and buy sawdust for the chicken coop. A writer from Edible Green Mountains, a magazine about sustainable agricultural practices throughout the northeast (there is an Edible series for most regions in the US), is supposed to come and visit the farm and its chickens. I wanted to spruce up the place because honestly, the January thaw has just begun, and the accumulated manure in the coop of the past three months is a bit, well realistic. On Monday, though, it’s supposed to be in the 40’s, so I’ll get to shovel it out when it has thawed. Then, I have this book with a looming deadline, and I really need to sit down at the computer to finish that up.

At chores, I noticed, in horror, that one of the ewe lambs that I kept as a replacement ewe, has permanent nerve damage to her left shoulder. She got it caught in one of the grates in the barn, crossing to the pen where they spend the night. Her useless leg is dragging now, with no hope of repair. So I’ve called the butcher, and he’s on his way to slaughter her so her meat can be used and her skin can be tanned. At first, I thought it was Maple, the lamb who has been promised to Shannon, who apprenticed here last year. Even though I knew how impractical the thoughts were, when I thought that the lamb was Maple, I was devising methods of casting the leg in my head. It’s not her, and for that I am grateful.

After getting off the phone with the butcher, the phone rang again. A little voice asked, who’s this? It’s me, Mom, I say. What’s up? Visions of swine flu creep into my head. He hasn’t been vaccinated, because I think he already had the flu last year before it was a media staple, when I waited up with the bacons, and his temperature raged for four days, hovering at 106. Mom, he says, did you know that today was a half day at school? No, baby, I didn’t. There goes the trip to the farm store for shavings.

So I guess I’ll punt the day, and write this blog, and get the lamb butchered and work on the book. And play a game of cards with my son and make kale and sausage soup.

Soon, the chickadees and starlings will begin singing their songs of spring. The woodpeckers will drum out their secret knocks to keep potential rivals for females away. The sun will warm the sugar maples and the sap will run. For now, there’s skiing and sledding and snow. And chickens in the house, who can’t survive in the barn. Dad, Brad asks. When are the chickens going back in the barn? When we plant the onions, Dad replies. Interesting, I think. Since this year, we’ll be starting the onions from plants in April, not seeds in February.