Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday on the Farm: Deep Mulch Method

 Since January 5th, I've had an apprentice/farm hand working with me. In the interest of her privacy I will just call her M. She has agreed to work in exchange for knowledge. I need help and she needs experience.

Last week, we began a new project. The goal is to build several long beds running along a slope we call "the side hill." After tossing around ideas, drawing pictures, and perusing Pinterest, I finally settled on a plan and M and I set out to build the retaining wall. First we cut stakes from cedar and pounded them in.
 Then we stacked logs behind them to create the wall. All of this cedar came from the back of our property...the debris left when we cleared the fenceline a few years ago.

We artfully arranged our logs and created the wall. Under the wall we places cardboard that will help choke out the weeds and grass under it. I find that the edges can be the hardest part to maintain when using this method.
 Today, we added a row of feedsacks to our cardboard in preparation for adding the deep layer of mulch. This method works with or without the cardboard/sack layer, so since we didn't have enough to cover the whole area we just used what we had. I've done it both ways and honestly, I don't think it makes much difference...maybe this bed can be the test (if I remember to compare the two areas).

We then, with the help of the farm husband, cleaned both boys' barns...three loads in the full-size bed of the truck. It took about three hours of cleaning, loading, hauling, dumping, but the end result was a deep layer of mulch (roughly 6-8 inches) over the whole of the space that I want to convert to more mowing "the side hill". (EDITED: I didn't really explain this...the thick layer of mulch blocks sun from the grass/weeds eventually killing it out. It then begins to compost. When you pull back the mulch you will find beautiful soil, weed feed, and the beginnings of good compost on top!)

When I explain this method to folks, I see skepticism sometimes, and once or twice disgust. True, we have a yard full of deep mulch beds which in reality are just piles of shit. Really, I understand how that might sound gross to someone. I also look at it everyday and I can understand how it might not be pretty to look at, but I see it a little differently.

I can no longer work like I used to and this method eliminates much of the back-breaking work that you would have to do to establish a new bed. If I were to build these beds rapidly, I would have to dig them out, removing the sod, then I would have to add compost and compost and more compost ("the side hill" is mostly clay). What that means besides a lot of digging is making lots of compost. To make compost I would clean the barns, moving the load into a pile to compost, then I would move the loads AGAIN to the bed. This method eliminates that second we go from the barn to the bed and let nature slowly do the work.

Admittedly it the dead of winter when all is gray and barren the piles of deep mulch are sort of depressing, but when I look at them I see potential and hope and the coming of Spring.

The finished bed might not be usable for up to a year...the speed at which it creates itself is dependent on the depth of the mulch, the moisture, temperature, but I can wait.
The finished deep mulch bed.
I no longer need things to happen now...I need them to be simple, gentle, frugal, slow. I just can't work that hard. I used to try to force it. "I need more planting space NOW," I would think and I would go out and bust out a few feet of freshly dug space and exhaust myself and take 3 days to recover. I've learned to do the least amount of work with the materials at hand. I've learned to turn waste like the barn cleanings and cedar logs into beds. I've learned to move things only once. I've learned to wait.  Now, slow is how I go and waiting is part of the game for me. I do my part, then ask nature to do hers and patiently I wait.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Farming in the Cold

The Water Wagon (new wheels have finally arrived).
The cold front pushed through around 4pm with a shifting, gusty wind that whistled and buzzed around the doors. The temperatures haven't dropped much, but looking ahead it will be Thursday before we are above freezing again; today is Monday. (We can usually count on being up to 4 degrees colder than the forecast temps). I've tucked all the goats in, they have deep bedding, and hay, and for now, liquid water. They will be fine. The chickens too...15 balls of feathers hunkered down. They will stay warm enough.

Tomorrow, we will begin hauling hot water in gallon jugs...8 jugs at a time, 64 lbs. we pull in a ragged wagon with two flat tires (new tires are ordered after the last cold snap, but haven't arrived yet). We will haul water up to four times a day until troughs thaw Thursday. I say "we," but many times that is just "me"...just me. A one woman army. 

We are blowing through our hay at an unprecedented rate...the hay we got for a good price and thought was enough. Goats need roughage to keep themselves warm...the munch, blurp cud, chew, munch, blurp, chew...this keeps them warm. We aren't stingy with the hay, we will throw more every time we go out with hot water, but the dwindling pile means buying hay, out of season, a few bales at a time, at twice the price.

I am milking two girls through the Winter...looking at the forecast of 12 degrees for Wednesday morning I likely won't milk then. I don't know, but can imagine that 12 degrees (minus 4 or so) might be dangerous for wet teats and wet hands. I'm not willing to risk teats and hands for a little milk, but production will drop accordingly and maybe it will rebound. Maybe not.

I've "weather stripped" the North facing door with feed sacks and stacked hay bales to block the wind pushing under the big double doors. I will struggle in and out of the barn in the next days bundled so I can hardly move…like that kid in Christmas Story. I will struggle to work wearing gloves, hands numb anyway. Then the gloves will get time they froze solid when I set them aside to milk a few weeks back. I will break ice by kicking troughs until it is too thick to break. I will do this over and over and over again until it warms up and clears out, but the next time the weather dips I'll do it all over again. 

And why, you might ask, are you telling us all this? Just a reminder that small farmers need our support especially when the weather turns on out something local this week. 

EDITED: I wrote this as a Facebook post on Monday….It is Wednesday and instead of the predicted 12 degrees it was 7 degrees this morning. I DID milk and it wasn’t terrible…the stray cat appreciated some warm milk when he came shivering into the barn. It is midday and the everyone is enjoying the sunshine, but the girls are hunkered down chewing their cud in the low spot mid-pasture that is sheltered from the wind. Tonight’s forecast is for 14 degrees (again, maybe minus four more for us, so 10-ish). The weekend forecast is for upper 60s, even 70s. The up and down is wearing me out.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sunday: What I Read This Week.

...on the Kindle: Year of No Clutter

Sunday is my "rest" day, but I usually don't really rest. So it is more "do what I want to do day," but I do generally spent the afternoon in guilt-free reading (or sometimes a Netflix binge or cartoons). Today was no different.

I worked until 2pm (the traditional 2 O'clock walk time) and then retired to the couch to finish the third book of the week: Year of No Clutter by Eve Schaub. I took a break this week from the serious, diet/health/food books steeped in science and research and instead sought out three memoirs.

I seem to be reading on a theme these days, and this week was no different. All three books are what I call Project in the author undertakes a project, sets a deadline, and writes about it.

Julie and Julia: one year to cook every recipe in a cookbook. Plenty: one year to eat a diet grown within 100 miles of them,  and Year of No Clutter: one year to get a hellishly cluttered room under control.

I love a project. A challenge. A deadline. I love to be "on a streak." After our No Spend Challenge, I'm itching to do another Project, but can't think of anything very unique...really, it has all been done. I've got my thinking cap on and I know I'll figure something out.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Winter Milk and Its Vagaries

I've often talked about the "Winter Milk" is a special thing on this farm. We, unlike others we know, breed our girls every other year in two groups so we will have milk through the winter. (Other folks breed everyone, every year which necessitates drying them up before they kid). This rotation allows us to have some milk in the Winter, but also allows the girls a longer dry/unbred period in each two year period.

Winter milk is special because we don't have much of it. Production falls when the days get short and cold and when the browse is dormant and they have to rely on hay. Besides feeling like a gift, Winter milk is odd sometimes and doesn't act like it does in the Spring/Summer.

Today, was a cheesemaking day. Most weeks I made a variety of cheeses (milk and time permitting). I already had a soft, ripened cheese in the works, but today I was demonstrating mozzarella for our apprentice/farmhand.

Mozzarella took months and many recipes and a lot of failure to master, but now I make it almost every week, all year. I use the recipe in MaryJane Butter's Milk Cow Kitchen (with some variations).
I always make a double batch unless I don't have enough milk. I keep half fresh and freeze half. This is the first recipe that works for me consistently, so this is the only one I use. She calls for yogurt, but I've found that it isn't necessary, so if I have yogurt I use it...if I don't I make some that day too.

I have noticed in the last two seasons a marked difference in the cheeses I make depending on the season...sometimes it is a texture, sometimes it is taste, many times it is in volume, the same amount of milk making way more cheese. Although I've noticed differences I've not a had a "cheese fail" in a very long time.

Today's mozzarella was a disaster. I made mistakes, but I mitigated them and it should have been a non-issue. So I can only blame the disastrous cheese on a combination of my mistakes and the weirdness of Winter milk. In the end we had two small balls of edible cheese...two balls went in the compost. But it was an interesting reminder of the seasonality of all our food. Winter milk has been twitchy in the past when making certain cheeses, so maybe it was just time I was reminded that milk too is seasonal and I'm pushing it asking for both milk and cheese in the dead of Winter.

We did salvage the whey to make a lovely ricotta; which I have just cut down, salted and sampled. It too looks weird, but tastes wonderful and I had to pause to remind myself that maybe that is just how Winter ricotta looks. Winter foods are sometimes different than Spring/Summer foods...that is if you are eating them in the correct season, fresh instead of trucked in from some other warmer climate.


1 gallon whey (strained)
1 1/2 quarts whole milk
1/2 t - 1 t. salt

Heat whey to 195 degrees.
     While this heats, prepare a cheesecloth covered colander over a bowl to catch the whey.
Stir in milk.
Bring it back to 195 degrees.
Stir and marvel at the tiny grains of curd forming.
At 195, I stir for a couple of minutes, noting that more grains are forming.
     Pour into your cheesecloth, allow to drain over the bowl until you can safely bundle the cheesecloth and hang it. (I hang mine from the cabinet handles).
    Drain for a few hours...until it stops dripping.
Stir in salt, then stand at the counter and eat it with a spoon.

Ricotta isn't just for lasagna...we put it on pizza too OR make a dip that is particularly good with thick potato chips by adding dill, salt, etc.

(I just finished reading Julie & Julia. I had only seen the movie I want to do a "Project"...suggestions?)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Paneer: Simple. Fresh.

The first few times I made paneer it tasted like sweaty feet...I think I was using lemon juice as my acid, but I can't remember. Then time passed and I forgot about the stinky feet and I tried it again using white vinegar as my acid. I've since become a big fan of paneer because it is fast, takes little milk, and tastes so amazing. 

I also like that it is pretty versatile. You can press and slice it. You can slice it, marinate it, then pan "fry" it and use it as a chicken substitute (usually I do this in "chicken" tikka masala). You can almost spread it, but you can always crumble it.

I've been making it about every two weeks (that's about how long it lasts) and it is my "go-to" cheese.

The recipe is as follows:
1 gallon whole milk (you know I'm using raw, goat's, but you can use cow)
1/2 cup white vinegar
2.5 teaspoons of salt

I use my 2 gallon double-boiler cheese vat...if you use a regular pan you will have to stir to prevent scorching.

Bring the milk to a rolling boil.
Remove from heat.
Add vinegar.
Cover and let rest 10 minutes.
While it rests I boil my cheesecloth (to sterilize it) and lay it over a colander.
Put the colander in a bowl to catch the whey.
Add your salt and stir it in.
Pour the curds and whey into the cheesecloth.
Tie it up to drain for about an hour.
At this point you can eat it...soft and crumbly.

I like to press it for a few hours and I use a press I bought from Hoegger Supply, but you can just fold the cheesecloth over and use a big book or a rock and something else weird...if you are laughing. Don't...before I had a big cheese press I weighed flight manuals and stacked them up in a precarious, teetering pile...all for the love of cheese.

Sorry about the lousy pics y' doesn't do it justice. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Slow Gardening: January

The Expanding Herb Spiral

These days I simply cannot go mind, my body both work slow. Sometimes very slow. It used to frustrate me that I couldn't put in 8 hours of hauling rocks and digging holes and ripping out sod to make new beds. I would get so frustrated and generally it ended in tears. I know now that those tears were grief and it took a few years of grieving my old body and mind before I could embrace this "new normal" that fibromyalgia foisted on me.

I don't talk about it much because one of the worst parts is that I look strong and healthy on the outside. Generally speaking, if you see me off  the farm then I'm having a good day....I try not to leave (sometimes I can't) when I'm having a bad day, so no one sees that and even so I look healthy.

So I had to learn to do almost every thing again. I used to be a rock climber and I ran I walk and do yoga. I had to learn to set limits and make rules...I had to learn to slow down.

And then one day I woke up SLOW...I had not just embraced it, but become it. Now, I move at glacial speed, a snail. I garden more now than before and I found that slow is the only way I can work there too.

When we moved to farm it was a blank slate. One of the first projects I took on was an herb spiral...this was before I had learned to be slow. I knocked it out in a couple of days, then it rained and all the soil I hauled in sort of leveled out. Since then the herb spiral has been struggling and I decided last year that it needed to be revamped and expanded by another ring. Last year I decided. 

Last fall and winter I deep mulched the edge all the way around. As the mulch composted and settled, I added more; sometimes it was 6-8 inches. It is in the front yard and I suspect that folks see this "mess" and think I've lost my mind, but over the year that mulch did the work. Slowly. 

Today I was able to collect, haul, unload rocks and then, because the mulch had done the work I simple scraped out the edge and placed my stones around. It took a year to make the space and part of a day to move the rocks. The whole thing now just needs more mulch and come Spring I can plant in the outer ring too. 

This may be too slow for most fact I know it is. Everyone wants what they want, when they want it and that always seems to be NOW. I just don't work that way anymore....SLOW teaches patience. SLOW teaches gratitude (so grateful for that space, so grateful I didn't have to work very hard because I can't). 

January marks the beginning of our garden season as we start our seeds ourselves. This week I'll be spending time in the greenhouse starting the following: cabbage, kale, parsley, peppers, lemon balm, thyme, eggplants, artichoke, and tomatoes. It doesn't get any slower than this.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Week 1 of the Year of NO.

Funny thing, after declaring that I am doing a Year of NO  this week did not require me to think much about Yes or No. I'm not working (semester starts next week) and I basically did just what I wanted to do. Which is farm and read and cook.

Since the whole Year of No grew out of the No Spend Challenge, which was primarily focused on groceries I've decided to make food (even) more of a focus this year than usual. Growing it, buying it, cooking it, eating it. The 60 days that we went without buying anything fresh really put things in perspective for me and it made me get creative with my cooking. I set out to plan next year's garden during those 60 days and mostly went with the tried and true; things I know do well here and things that we love.

One of two lemons on my little tree.

Since there isn't really anything happening in the garden right now (well, parsley and cilantro are doing okay) I was delighted to pick my very first lemon. JC gave me the lemon tree a couple of years ago for my birthday and I've been nurturing it ever since. It spends the Spring and Summer in the garden, but I drag it into the greenhouse for the Winter. Unfortunately the weather was so harsh that we had to bring the poor thing inside and although it is about to bloom I suspect it won't do as well in here as it does in the greenhouse, but the pot is too big and heavy to keep dragging it in and out.

Fresh, soft, ripened. YUM

One of the only things we have in abundance is milk (GO Fanny and Gwen!). I finally got around to making some soft cheese this week and OH MY, I had forgotten that it tastes like summer and goat love and sunshine. Then, Mom and I did a big grocery run in Fort Worth and I bought some smoked salmon which pairs perfectly with this cheese...last night's dinner was scrambled eggs with cheese and salmon. I almost swooned when I took the first bite. 

Since the focus this year is on food, we will be going back to our monthly grocery runs. We hit Central Market (best produce/most organic choices), Whole Foods (best bulk/Jeremiah Cunningham's World Best Eggs...because my stupid chickens are old and tired), and Costco (oils/flaxseed/etc.) Today I also re-instated the Cook-O-rama. Cook-O-rama used to be monthly and Mom and I would both cook, make up freezer portions, then swap. These days we still swap a lot of food, but I'm more interested in fresh things and having variety in the week. 

This week's Cook-O-rama features: 1. slow-cooker black beans which can be a side, with rice for a meal, in a burrito, in a salad, with a fried egg on top...2. Garbanzo beans which have been split into three to make plain hummus, chipotle hummus, I also stocked up on apples, broccoli, caulifllower, carrots, and cabbage. The third portion of the Garbanzo beans was made into soup. Recipe as follows:

Garbanzo Bean and Tomato Soup
2 T. olive oil
2 leeks, thinly sliced
2 zucchini, chopped
1 clove garlic, pressed
28 oz. of tomatoes
1 t. tomato paste
1 bay leaf
3 3/4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups garbanzo beans (1 can if you do cans)
8 oz. of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
salt/pepper to taste

1. heat oil, cook leeks/zucchini for five minutes, stirring now and again
2. add garlic, tomatoes/paste, bay leaf, stock, and garbanzos
3. bring to a boil and simmer five minutes or so
4. Chop spinach, add, boil a couple of minutes
5. Season to taste
6. serve with a sprinkle of parmesan on top!

Three books read this week.

I'm totally on a food "thing" and I've been reading a lot lately about food. This week I started with Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before (I linked to it earlier and not about food, but about habits) and then I read Grain Brain by David Perlmutter. Y'all, I'm not one to jump on bandwagons; I kind of march to my own drummer, but this book makes a compelling case for eliminating carbohydrates from your diet to protect your brain. 

I like my brain; it is my best feature. If you've known me while you also know that I have dealt with lifelong depression and anxiety. I worry about my brain going to mush, because sometimes it doesn't work quite I should be happy, but I'm not and when you ask me Why? all I can say is "I don't know" and it sucks. 

Because my body is an asshole, I have to rely on my brain more than other folks. I have to work smarter, because harder is usually something I can't do. Sometimes my body and my brain aren't working at the same time and it scares the bejeezus out of me. For example, I might say, "I need to mow this rug" brain mixes up two words that are similar...mowing and vacuuming both require the forward-backward pushing motion, right?

 Or sometimes I just lose the word and I find myself trying to draw the thing in the air with my hands while saying weird shit like, "that box things that hums and buzzes when it turns on" (which isn't helpful at all). Sometimes I just stutter or stop dead and point, but my brain has done a short circuit and I just have to wait for the reboot. With that said, I'm going to get on the low-carb bandwagon...I don't even like saying it, but I'm convinced it might be a healthier diet (although we eat really well and are both normal weights).

I realize this is a rambling and boring post, but I want to write more this year and the way to do more writing is to write, so here I am. To make up for it I'll leave you with this: Big Foot and Son.
I need yard art.