Sunday, 6 June 2010

Lessons on the Farm for the Novice Farmer

By Danelle at Mytotalpv

There are things I thought I'd learn and things I never thought of in a million years.

I thought I'd learn more about astronomy and yet the moments I've had to stare up at the sparkling night sky, while overwhelmingly beautiful, have been fleeting. I could wish for more time, but if I did it would be for more time inside snuggling with the babies. Their childhood is way more fleeting than billion year old stars.

I can tell you what that smell is and from which animal it came. Some people can sniff the bouquet of wine, I can tell you which manure came from what animal based simply on smell.

I was quite proud of my garden last year until it just withered and died. I know where I went wrong and it was almost exactly when I was marveling at how I never had to water. I should have. I should have mulched better too. I did get a fair amount of dry beans and pumpkins though.

Pigs are interesting animals. More affectionate than I anticipated. Quite a bit like 4 year olds. They have an insatiable appetite, are ornery as all get out, and escape at inopportune times. They will find every breech and run gleefully to the pond or the road. They respond poorly to threats and ignore frantic pleas. They love fruit. They love milk. They really should have a bath after every meal and when they get muddy somehow manage to ruin my clothes too. All of that exactly describes Lil'Bug's summer. The only difference is that the pigs will be bacon in three weeks and she'll still be 4.

I love our small town. I love the people here, the town square, the parks, the weather, the kindness and curiosity, and the ice cream. It all fits us so very well. So many of the people we have met are just like us, recent transplants who are thriving in the fresh air. Thriving we are.

There were times, weeks at a time where I was just having impossibly bad days. Nothing that would make me give up on farm life, but still difficult. Many involving poop of various degrees. Last summer has taught me that we are in exactly the right place, but also that I really want to, perhaps, need to, focus on the trees and bees dream and not try so hard so fast to expand into all possible farming ventures. A CSA is not likely in my future. A berry and fruit and pumpkin stand perhaps sooner than our full out farm/orchard operation will be ready.

Worms. Worms are gross. Not the earthworms some people keep for kitchen compost or fishing I mean gut worms, tape worms, round worms- worms in poop. No animal of mine has ever had worms.

Then we moved to a farm. The pigs had worms, three kinds. We took care of that and all was well. I never thought twice about the domestic animals though. I read that chickens can get worms, but I figured we deal with that in the Spring.

Then one of the dogs pooped in the house and was sick. As I was cleaning it up I noticed the noodles, um, worms. Great. The vet was surprised that I was surprised by this. It is apparently something all the farm folks know, farm dogs and cats need to be wormed 1-2 times every year. So on my great big list of things people should know who are considering farm or rural life: worms, get to know all about worms. Ew.

Poop. Farm life is all about poop. You or I can romanticize it plenty and talk about bacon and apples and honey and fresh milk- but really my life right now is about 80% poop. Cleaning out the chicken coup- poop. Pig poop. Cow pies. Identifying predator poop outside the chicken pen. Septic problems/ maintenance, worms in poop, watershed concerns, manure for garden fertilization, horse apples, diapers (ok, that's just because Blueberry is potty training but not yet there and not just because we live on a farm), ect. It just seems like I am constantly scraping poo off my boot. Like I am just surrounded by a bog of poop. I have even learned to tell the subtle difference in the scent of each critters poo- so I KNOW what I have stepped in or which way the wind is coming from. Not all the smells out here are woodsy pine or fresh cut hay. Alas.

I thought pig poop was the most foul smelling substance on the face of the earth. Bog of eternal stench material, as it is called when one slips in and gets thoroughly slimed with it. But no. The most foul smelling thing ever is dog vomit, after he's eaten a belly full of pig poop. Worse yet, in my kitchen the night before my sister's wedding just as my lovely aunt is unloading her bags from her rental car, bringing them in through the kitchen to the adjacent guest room. Not just poor pup, poor everyone. I thought dog skunked was bad. Seriously.

Oh yeah, skunks. There are a couple seasons where the skunks are worse than usual, where you are more likely to encounter them with your vehicle for example. However, don't think that skunks only magically appear in April and September and hide the rest of the year. No no, they are always out there waiting to spray which ever animal you have decided can live in your home and sometimes they steal eggs and bees too or just generally muck up the normally heavenly smell of fresh farm air.

Add to the list of critters you'll have to deal with as a threat to your own livestock and/or kids and family: coyotes, opossums, raccoons, snakes, rats, owls, weasels, muskrats, foxes, skunks, neighbor dogs, feral cats, deer, bob cats, reckless hunters, mink, hawks, moles, loose cattle/bulls, mice, spiders, ticks, lions, tigers, and bears oh my. Oh and poachers/tresspassers/reckless drivers. Just saying. It is not all fantasy land safe to let the kids run around outside, there are different things to worry about, but things to worry about none the less.

Utilities are ruthless. Not that I have ever been late, but there is no grace period. If you are late with a payment, and they are up front about this, your utilities get shut off. In the city, you have a month of grace and can work something out if something comes up. Not out here. That applies to water, electricity, Internet, and propane. I have to read my own water meter which is 1/2 a mile away from my house and then calculate my own payment from a confusing chart. Also, utilities are more expensive by unit here, though we use less than we did in the city so they are lower payments for us compared to what we are still paying in Des Moines for the house that won't sell.

Gas is more expensive than in the city. In Des Moines, Iowa right now gas per gallon is about $2.56 but in the nearest town to us it is $2.76.

Trash. Burn it or haul it. Disposable diapers and the like do not burn. It is a good thing we use cloth. You know what though, much of what we throw in the garbage doesn't burn either so we have to haul it and the dump is 45 minutes away. $10 per truckload though.

Tires. We have had more flat tires here than in the city and tires made for gravel and dirt roads are more expensive. Tractor tires go flat too. A lot.

4 wheel drive. Required. Often. Sometimes it is not enough.

I am sure there is more. I know that as we were getting ready to move out here I asked people to share these kinds of tidbits with me and none of these things except the flat tire issue came up. None of these would have deterred me though. I would have just liked to know.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Stretching the Corn Harvest

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Old-timers' wisdom said to have your water boiling before you go out to pick corn for dinner. With today's super sweet varieties, the sugars don't convert to starch quite as quickly as the old heirloom corns did, so ears of corn nowadays do hold their sweet flavor longer. But nothing beats really fresh sweet corn, straight out of the garden in the summer.

Birds and bees lecture time (hint: for corn, it's wind). Each little piece of corn silk leads down to one kernel of corn on the ear. At least one grain of wind-blown pollen from the tassel on the top of the stalk has to fall on each strand of silk to get a fully filled-out ear of corn to eat. So you have to plant enough corn, in a square block (not just one long row), to get adequate pollination (or, play artificial corn inseminator - shake the top tassels into a paper bag, and then immediately pour out over the silks just emerging below).

But a whole block of corn all maturing at once means feast or famine. You might get a week's worth of fresh sweet corn to eat, more getting starchier by the minute, and end up freezing the rest. Nothing wrong with freezing some - frozen corn goes great in winter soups and chili. But I want weeks of fresh corn, right out of the garden.

So, following the conventional wisdom, I tried successive planting - another short row or two every week. And found that didn't work very well for me. The colder early summer weather around here would slow down the maturing of the earliest plantings, and then the later ones, planted when the weather was a bit warmer would grow quicker. I still ended up with everything maturing at once - it just made more work for me. Sometimes, the latest plantings wouldn't have enough roots to deal with the onslaught of summer heat, and they'd fry instead. And sometimes, I'd get busy elsewhere, get behind on the planting schedule, and then have nothing. Time to figure out a better way.

So I did. I now plant all my corn at the same time, but have my fresh-eating harvest stretching from the end of July into September. Instead of planting the same variety of corn at different times, I looked at days-to-harvest times instead. I start with the upwind-most rows, and plant a 60-day variety. The middle rows in the block fall more around the 75-day range. And then the last rows are the 95 to 100-day ones - enough of those to both eat fresh and freeze for later. If I could count on a long enough frost-free season, there are even 120-day varieties, but getting a harvest from those here would be iffy at best. I help the pollination along on the earliest-maturing varieties, rubbing the top tassel between my hands then dusting them off above the new silks below. Letting the little side-stalks grow, plus the wind, takes care of the later ones.

This same technique can work for other veggies too. I have the earliest leaf lettuces coming along now, the small heads of buttercrunch will be ready a bit later, and the romaines even later. Little round red radishes are ready in just a couple of weeks, the longer french ones a little later, the daikons after that, and then the winter storage ones keep growing into the fall. Differing days-to-harvest instead of successive plantings can mean more eating time, and less work.

Friday, 4 June 2010

First Fruits of Perennial Plantings

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

It's likely we'll soon see the first tiny harvests from several of the perennial plants we put in over the last couple of years.  We took just a very modest harvest of asparagus in April, since our plants are now only two years old and so cannot support a full harvest.  Cherries, blueberries, grapes, elderberries and pears should also grace our table this year - sometimes in very small quantities.

I counted seventeen cherries on our Mesabi cherry tree.  It's covered in netting to keep the birds away.  At this stage they look like Maraschino cherries.  I hope they darken a little more.

This will constitute our entire blueberry harvest this year, provided the birds don't get them first.  I pinched off all the blooms last year, the year we planted our first blueberry plants.  I probably should have done the same this year, to let the plants put all their energy into just growing.  A harvest of seven blueberries (there are a few behind the visible berries) is hardly worth the name anyway.

On the other hand, seven pears from our Collette pear tree is worthy of the name "harvest."  These beauties are so tantalizing.  I know there are still plenty of things that could happen to these fruits before they ripen.  But I'm hoping, against my better judgment.

One of our two elderberres is blooming, and another is getting ready to bloom.  Oddly, the blooms on this particular plant have little fragrance.  This plant died but then grew back from the rootstock.  So we really have no idea what qualities the fruit will have.  I've begun harvesting the blooms in stages, as they open fully, to make elderflower cordial.  I'll let a couple of blooms from each plant set fruit if they can, to see what we get from each one.  Again, removing most of the blooms allows these young plants to concentrate most of their energy on development of roots and branches.

The grapes have decided to produce this year.  We'll see if any fruit makes it to a harvestable stage.  My husband put in five wine variety grapes two years ago.  This will be our first harvest, and possibly our first small batch of real homegrown wine.

The figs are growing exuberantly in their self-watering containers.  No sign of fig drupes yet, so we may not get the promised small harvest this year.  But at least the plants look healthy and happy.  So do the hazelbert plants in the same containers; we don't expect any nut crop this year though.  That's one of my self-watering. potato buckets next to the fig, with shallots and garlic behind them.  The garlic plants are still sporting their scapes, soon to be harvested.  And almost totally obscured in the back right, some of our raspberry canes - more perennials.  These produced insipid fruit last year.  They're getting one more year to prove themselves since they were young and 2009 was a bad year for gardening.  If the fruit isn't much better this year, they'll be replaced with something else.

While I caution my eager gardener's heart not to count on these tiny first harvests, it is satisfying to see our work in establishing these edible perennials begin to bear fruit.  It has been a heavy workload over the last few years.  The motivation that I used for myself is that though the perennials take more effort to plant, they only need be planted once, and then will give returns for many years.  We're still not done planting all the perennials we'd like to have, so it's a relief to see the returns starting.

Any perennials in your garden?  Or plans for some?  What perennial food crop would you most like to add to your garden?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Volunteering and the Simple Life

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches

Somebody recently said to me if you are going to have a simple life you need to focus on you, yourself and I, that people must learn that simplicity is about focusing only on yourself, your home and your direct family. I found this quite an interesting, if not sad, perspective, I guess because I don't equate giving of oneself as complicating my life in any way. I do find that running around shopping, errand doing or bombarding myself with media images or too much tv complicates my life immensely, but would never say that any of my volunteering roles have done anything but add another beautiful layer to my life.

As a teenager I volunteered with children in a hospital, doing admin for a new hospice which had just opened in my home town and collecting for various charities. While studying at University I volunteered in a health centre which provided medical appointments as well as health education programs, volunteered in a speech and language centre and a school, and voluntary tutored two children with learning difficulties whose parents could not afford private tuition. Since I've officially become an adult I've volunteered as a youth group leader, lead a youth group, volunteered as a cat socializer and dog walker, volunteered in a cafe whose proceeds went to charity and had various roles through Church. For over a year I cared for four children in my home while working, obviously at that time my roles needed to change so instead I was able to volunteer in their schools and collected for charities - I did this not because I had a great deal of extra time on my hands, but because I knew how rich and beautiful a life of volunteering is and I wanted the children to understand the importance of serving others and appreciating all that you do have. This wasn't learned through grand gestures, but simply every day actions like sending cards or notes, making soup for sick friends and taking food to the food bank.

It is conceivable that volunteering could add stress to your life, but I don't think you limit stress by focusing on oneself. Through my volunteering I have learned to appreciate what I have, I've been able to peek into the life experiences of someone with no vision or with no legs. I've made friends, basked in the beauty of knowing there are good people everywhere and begun to understand what simplicity truly is - it isn't shutting everyone else out, it's appreciating the richness from little.

Next week I board a plane, I'm off to volunteer overseas in an orphanage and working with special needs and dying children. People comment that I'm doing something good or mention how much they'll learn from me. The reality is, the blessings are all mine, I'm the one who needs to learn from these children what beauty, richness and simplicity is all about.

I'd love to hear from you! Do you find volunteering fits into your simple life? What have you learned about simplicity through volunteering and serving others?

For those interested, I will be blogging while I'm away!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Thinking About Winter Already

by: Chiot's Run
The gardens here at Chiot's Run are full of all kinds of herbs for use in cooking. At the moment, I'm really enjoying using fresh chives, lemon balm, mint, bergamot, oregano and other herbs in my food and beverages.

I'm also thinking about this winter when the garden will be sleeping under a blanket of snow and I'm stocking my pantry with dried herbs from the garden for both cooking and tea. Timing is important when you want to dry herbs for your pantry. If you pick herbs at the wrong time they're not as flavorful. You want to harvest herbs before they start blooming for optimum flavor. You also want to harvest them in the morning right after the dew has evaporated. If you want to harvest herb flowers, like chamomile, you want to pick them when they first open, don't wait until they're fading. I usually dry my herbs in our warm attic or I hang them in the kitchen. I find that they dry fairly quickly without having to use a dehydrator. This saves me on my electric bill.

Growing herbs for your kitchen is a great way to add extra nutrition to your food. Herbs often contain more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Adding lots of herbs and spices to your foods layers in even more healthfulness. So add some herbs to your gardens and make sure you harvest them to stock you pantry.

Do you grow any herbs in your gardens? Do you dry them for the pantry?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal and you can follow me on Twitter.