Friday, July 29, 2011

An Unexpected Change in Plans

I have been keeping a close eye on the peach tree behind the shop. Loaded with peaches, the branches were beginning to sag long before we could even think about picking.

The hot, hot temperatures combined with the hard, heavy rains we have had in the past week caused the peaches to grow larger and begin to ripen quickly.

Apparently, the pesky bugs have been keeping an eye on the peach tree behind the shop, too. No sooner did the peaches begin to ripen than the fig beetles, Japanese beetles, flies, yellow jackets and the like descend on the tree. It was going to be a race to see who would be the winner in harvesting the peach crop.

Finally, another heavy rain forced us to take action.
The weight of the rain-soaked peaches broke one of the big limbs. All the peaches were stressed into ripening. The bugs moved in for a tasty meal.

Despite the fact that we were unprepared for storing peaches, and it was not at all what I had planned for the day, I began picking. We would figure out where to put the peaches after they were picked. I got about 10 quart boxes filled when I thought I heard raindrops on the barn roof. Since there hadn’t been any rain in the forecast, and it didn’t look threatening, I kept picking. It kept raining, harder and harder and...well, you get the picture. By the time I got the boxes of peaches crated and inside, they were soaked, I was soaked. Maybe I needed to re-think this project!

The rain continued. Since we need the rain, I am NOT complaining. A quick check of the radar showed that the rain was right over us and would probably continue for some time. Okay…now what?

While it rained, Tom and I discussed where we should store the peaches. We also did a “Lowes run”, but I digress. The only place for what would be ALL those peaches was the living room floor. Yes, I did say the living room floor.
We put down a tarp (a brand-new, clean tarp) and put all the boxes of peaches on it. I planned to continue picking once the rain stopped. When it finished raining, we had gotten ¾” of much needed rain, but the remaining peaches were completely soaked. They would have to stay on the tree to dry, as we were concerned about the moisture causing them to rot.

The next morning I got back at it. It was a little discouraging to see just how many peaches were injured by the heavy rain. On the up side, there were a good number that had escaped unharmed. I put the damaged ones aside for freezing.

The race with the bugs ended in a draw. They got far more peaches than I would have liked, but we were able to salvage some very nice peaches for tomorrow’s Market.

The fact that there are forty-five quarts of peaches in the middle of our living room floor doesn’t bother me. I’m fairly certain this particular decorating idea has eluded even the best designers.

So, “eat your heart out, Martha Stewart!”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What Beautiful Vegetables!

Each and every Market day, at least one person comments on how BEAUTIFUL our stand is, or how GORGEOUS our vegetables are. This is a real ego boost. Often, the comment is followed by a question regarding HOW we got them to look so nice. We enjoy the opportunity to talk about our work and passion…good food.

Once, we had a customer emote, “oh, I’d love to visit your farm….all of it must look SO beautiful!” Tom and I exchanged rueful glances. The whole farm…beautiful? Well….if you know where to look.

We have our fair share of weeds, messes, and ugly vegetables. All that stuff just goes with the farming life. However, we learned long ago that image is everything, and we work hard to make sure our customers get the very best we have to offer. That is part of the reason we read seed catalogs and foodie magazines. This reading gives us a leg up on the new and trendy…and the best varieties.

I have heard it said….”Sell the best and eat the rest”. That is a good motto, but most home-growers turned market gardeners struggle to define THE BEST.

As I have said before, we’ve been growing vegetables for a LONG, LONG time. When we made the jump from home-growers to retail sales, we started selling to restaurants. That was a real learning experience! Many chefs consider themselves to be artists, and demand superior quality in both taste and visual presentation. This may mean tiny, tiny vegetables, or completely blemish free vegetables. We began to see vegetables in a whole new light. This post-harvest care takes a great deal of effort on the part of the grower. The skill, once learned, is invaluable. Food, indeed, can be ART!

After a few seasons, we left the restaurant sales to focus full-time on the Market. We both love the instant feed-back and the sense of community with our customers. We brought the knowledge gained from restaurant sales to the Market venue. We strive for our vegetables to be a visual delight as well as truly delicious. If vegetables are visually pleasing, the desire to eat them generally follows. Our joint dabbling in photography added to the whole food as art concept. Our vegetable stand is designed to appeal to our customers on many sensory levels.

When we harvest vegetables, we immediately rinse them in cold water. This slows the aging process, and allows us to sort them into sales groups. I generally sort into three piles…Market (the best) human consumption (completely edible…but, not so pretty. These are for our use, or for the Mission) Cull (this pile goes directly to the chickens).

My sorting standards are harsh, but necessary. I have often seen produce offered for sale in the stores that would have made my “chicken” pile.

Between picking the vegetables at their prime, sorting them, rinsing them and then chilling them, we are able to consistently provide a quality product at the Market. Different varieties also make a difference. The lettuce crop is subjected to my weekly “taste test”. You can be assured; if I can’t eat it….you won’t have to!

While the farm may sometimes be weedy or messy…we work hard to make sure our vegetables are indeed beautiful…and DELICIOUS!

Thanks for noticing!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No Varmints Allowed!

One constant in a farmer’s life-work is the diligent protection of those in his/her care. It is essential that we protect the plants from pests and disease in order to harvest any produce. It is equally important to protect the animals from predation and disease in order to have meat and eggs.

Over the years, we have found it necessary to eliminate various and sundry undesirable, potentially harmful, critters. While I end up on pest and parasite patrol, Tom finds himself with the unpleasant task of “varmint eliminator”. My pest and parasite battles are continual…Tom’s skirmishes are far less often, but much more noteworthy. I do hope that no one will condemn us for our seemingly harsh actions. We consider them the only solution.

A few weeks ago, I began to notice raccoon tracks around the place. First, I noticed them in the sheep’s water trough. It looked like little handprints in the bottom of the tub. Hmmmm…a report was issued to “the boss”.

Shortly thereafter, I saw distinct footprints in the mud around the garden, very near the corn patch. I set one of our traps out near the tracks, hoping that the coon would be curious about the trap, walk in…and we would solve the issue. No luck.

I didn’t see any more tracks. I didn’t cross paths with the raccoon. I had rather forgotten about it until one night last week.

Something woke me in the middle of the night. I could hear the dogs barking their urgent bark, so I went outside. Jed was standing upright at the barn gate. Now, Jed is a very large dog, and when he stands upright, he is taller than I am. This sight, combined with his urgent barking and attempts to climb the gate aroused my curiosity. Jed is usually pretty mellow, so this definitely warranted further investigation. As I shined the spotlight around the barn, I saw a striped tail in the loft. At first, I thought it was one of the barn kitties. They are somewhat striped and grey. Then, the animal turned to face me…A RACCOON!

We have had our fair share of critters around here…skunks, possums, foxes, raccoons, and deer have all made an appearance around the barn. This is doesn’t even account for the birds and owls and snakes that have also been sighted.

While the natural beauty of animals is something to appreciate, these critters are also much more than just a nuisance. Most of them carry serious diseases that can affect our livestock, not to mention the parasite issue. They can and will eat the crops we work so hard to produce. We cannot allow them to harm those in our care. So, they are usually eliminated. We have found that “No trespassing signs” don’t work so well with the animal population.

Last night when I went out to close the hens in their house (this protects them from predation), Jed was doing his gate-standing thing again. Sure enough, there was the coon.

Tom was consulted, the coon was dispatched.

I have done some further research this afternoon on raccoons. They carry rabies and distemper. They will eat eggs and small chickens. …and their favorite food is sweet corn. Yes, that corn that we spent about FOUR hours standing upright earlier this season following a big wind. That is the very same corn that we hope to sell at the Market in a couple weeks and offer to our customers this winter.

So, I must say…..Good Riddance!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Dog Days

According to Wikipedia…."Dog Days" (Latin: diēs caniculārēs) are the hottest, most sultry days of summer. In the northern hemisphere, they usually fall between early July and early September. In the southern hemisphere they are usually between January and early March. The actual dates vary greatly from region to region, depending on latitude and climate. Dog Days can also define a time period or event that is very hot or stagnant, or marked by dull lack of progress. The name comes from the ancient belief that Sirius, also called the Dog Star, in close proximity to the sun was responsible for the hot weather.

That sounds about right. It’s hot, sultry, and humid. Everything (including the farmers) seems a little stagnant and dull. But, it is July in the Shenandoah Valley. While the temperatures are very hot and very uncomfortable, they’re really not too much out of the ordinary.

Everyone is talking about the weather (even me!) There is nothing we can do about it, but it seems to help if we commiserate with one another about the current conditions. The newscasters and meteorologists are making a very big deal out of a regular part of summer. It’s a natural occurrence, and it would seem that commonsense would dictate how to deal with it. The constant focus on instructions for dealing with the heat and humidity in some ways make it seem far more worrisome than it actually is.

The hottest part of summer coincides with the beginning of the most productive part of the garden season. The tomatoes and corn begin to roll in, joining the squash and cucumbers in record numbers. It is the season for making tomato sauce, pickles, relish and canning everything in sight. The picking and processing are just a part of the workload. Planting for fall crops and planning for overwintered harvests can’t be dismissed. There’s a lot to do…can’t worry about the heat.

Someone asked me how we were able to get any work done in the heat. My answer was…”we sweat a LOT!” We don’t glow or even perspire…we SWEAT! I always know it’s time for a drink when my shirt is so saturated that I can no longer wipe my face and my glasses start sliding down my nose. A drink, a towel, and a quick cool-off in the house and I’m ready to get back at it.

With plenty of shade and drinking water, the animals don’t seem to suffer. They generally hang out in the shade in the heat of the day, grazing in the morning and evening. The dogs find the coolest spots possible, pass out for a while, and “spring” into action at dusk.

This heat is not going to last forever. All too soon we will all be commenting and complaining about the cold. But by that time, we will be enjoying all the fruits of our labor during the summer.

The “dog days” are nothing new, nothing scary or indicative of impending doom. It’s just another part of the year, named for the “dog star”.

… and all this time I thought the name referred to how it is so DOG-gone HOT!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Meet "Booooyyyy"

"Booooyyyy" is one of the four felines that reside in our barn.

I suppose I should start with a word of explanation about his name. When one of the barn kitties had kittens last March, Tom said that I could keep one and only ONE…if it was a boy. I began to call the kitten “Boy-O” …just as Burt Large calls his son in Tom’s favorite show “doc martin”. I knew that it really didn’t matter what his name was, it would get changed to something odd and random. It was just a matter of time.

Case in point, A got a kitten back when we first moved here, and gave her the lovely name, Rosemary. Over time, the poor cat became Booger-B, Ross-nostril, and Tubal among other things. To this day, she is referred to as “Tiny”. (RIP Tiny-Rosemary)

If Booooyyyy could talk, his little cat voice would make his name sound like it is spelled. That is how he answers when spoken to. Meeeeoooowwww! Tom insists on saying the cat’s name exactly the same way. So, I guess that’s his name.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about Booooyyyy. He’s a grey striped cat of average size, living in a barn with his mom, sister, and adopted grandmother. He is a pretty good hunter, although the girls are probably better. He sleeps for hours on end, only waking when it’s time to eat. He meows, he purrs. The only thing unusual about this cat is…well, he seems to
think he’s a DOG!


I don’t know if it is the fact that he fell out of the loft as a small kitten. I suppose there could have been some type of brain injury. I don’t know if it’s my fault for introducing him to the dogs very early in his life with the hope of furthering inter-species peace. Maybe he bonded with the “wrong” species because I had to doctor his badly injured eye before he was old enough to leave the nest. I honestly don’t know WHY he seems to think he’s a dog.

He comes when you call him. He will sit and obeys commands somewhat. He sleeps with the dogs, as well as eating with them. On very cold days, when Ellie feels maternal, he will knead her fur just like he did his own mother.
When they go to bark at something, he goes along. He comes to the back porch for dog cookies as well. He likes to have his belly rubbed. He even attempts to “work the sheep”. He will accompany me when I go out back to feed the ewes and the ram. He does require a “ride” back from the long excursion, though.

"Booooyyyy" is just one more creature that adds to the “atmosphere” around here.

Best of all, he’s a real “man’s cat”.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Critical Mass

There is a certain level of stress, mess and chaos that I can handle. Once things slip slightly beyond this…I start to lose control.

This time of year, things get out of hand. The weeds get too tall, there are zucchini multiplying on the counter, other produce fills baskets or flats that eventually spill into the living room from our kitchen. The floor seems to need constant cleaning. Everywhere I look, something needs attention…immediately!

The meltdown happened this week. Hoophouse #2 was looking like a jungle.
There were tomatoes in the windowsill and in flats on the floor,waiting for me.

The beetles had attacked one peach tree with a vengeance; rescued peaches languished in the living room. The lambs needed de-worming. There were three bananas that I meant to turn into banana bread….those two zucchini on the counter had somehow turned into three…

Rather than allow me to lose it completely, Tom started methodically working the list. The lambs got taken care of, despite the fact he got clobbered in the face by one of them. They are growing very well, so that granted much needed encouragement.

We began working in the hoophouse. Three hours of teamwork and the mess was cleaned up, and the hens were having a wonderful feast of greens and weeds. (I really hope they had a few bugs, too!) Thanks, Tom, you’re the best, Boss!

After lunch, I began chopping and peeling and processing, while he mowed the gardens. Chop, peel, and process….six loaves of zucchini bread. Chop, peel, and process….24 jars of peach jam for winter sales. (some for us, too) Chop; peel process… and a few spices….12 pints of pizza sauce for winter.

Whew! I felt SO much better by the end of the day. Slow and steady…got it done!

Best part….a RAIN storm to finish off the day!

Oh…and enough peaches for a pie for dessert.

But about those bananas…

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Down a Country Road

We live in what is quite possibly the most beautiful place on earth. Okay, okay, YES, I am prejudiced.

I love to walk through the countryside. It’s peaceful (most of the time) beautiful, and both invigorating and relaxing at the same time. While the only place we have to walk may not seem the most picturesque, it is always amazing to me just how many interesting things can be seen if you just pay attention.

I find that a walk helps me clear the cobwebs from my mind, figure out perplexing problems, wave at the neighbors, and feel like I am making an effort toward health and fitness.

Here's a sampling of sights on a recent walk. Livestock and landscapes, flora and fauna...we have it all.

 REALLY have to look. Lower left-hand corner...the groundhog who lives across the road from the mailbox is watching ME!

And the mountains….I love the hills!

“I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence my help comes. My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth…”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Anniversary

July 14, 1997…we FINALLY can call this place HOME!

After the inspector initialed off on the final inspection, we wrote that last check to the contractor, we headed back to the basement apartment we had called home for six months, got our dog, the mattresses and the coffeepot along with other “essentials” and raced back to M’brook, stopping to grab supper on the way. The race to beat an afternoon thunderstorm was becoming an issue. We should have apologized to the Churchville Tastee Freeze for the dog’s bad behavior, but we were all stressed and hungry.

Home, sweet, home had been a long time coming.

A few days later, a group of friends, showing great neighborly concern, helped us gather the rest of our belongings and delivered them to our new home. The rag-tag convoy consisted of our pick-up, a bright yellow farm truck and a dump truck. One of the things I love best about our community…this didn’t cause any type of concern…even when the “convoy” stopped to pick up the grill lid that fell out of the dump truck somewhere along the way. One of the neighbors came by the next day with a plant and a cookbook. I knew I would love M’brook!

We settled in quickly; Tom was working diligently to get the barn built and livable for our goat herd that was living elsewhere and growing by the day. When he was ready, the same friends gathered for an old-fashioned “barn-raising” and got the roof on in a single morning. Good times…good memories.

Anniversaries always make me feel somewhat nostalgic. It is all too easy to allow the fond memories of the “good old days” to cause us (me) to miss the experiences of the past and overlook the very good present days. We have been truly blessed here in the past fourteen years.

But, time marches on. Children grow up and leave home, friends change directions and move on, life is never static. …and that is a good thing. This is a very different place than it was back then, and we are very different folks in a lot of ways.

So, as we look back with fondness at the day we could finally call this home, we are also amazed at how we have grown and things have changed.
This place has seen a LOT of changes in fourteen years. There has been a lot of growing, living, and dying, mingled with happiness, sorrow, tears and laughter. This can only cause us to express gratitude for all of it, and look forward to the next fourteen years (and beyond) with expectation of more great things!

“Happy Anniversary!”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Time Well Spent

Yesterday I made a pact with myself to get all the baby lettuce, spinach and french mix planted in the hoophouse. I wasn't going to quit until I got a certain amount done. That was just prior to nine am.

I popped in my earbuds, grabbed my trowel and began planting. I love how the little plants look all lined up in rows in each bed.

By noon, all the little plants were in the ground, the fertilizer applied and watered in. I turned on the irrigation system and went up to the house for lunch.

Now, if all the little plants grow well, we'll have greens in abundant supply by month's end.

That was a productive morning!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Bumper Crop

When the box of onion plants arrives each March, it holds the possibility and promise of a great summer harvest. Along with the potatoes, the onions are generally the first things we plant in the spring.

Last year, the onions were an utter and dismal failure. The cold, wet spring caused a delay in their planting. The cold, wet spring kept us from getting them weeded when they needed attention. Then, the accident happened, and our focus shifted completely. Travellinging back and forth “over the mountain” was tiring and time consuming; it seemed like we were always running. When we were here, we were doing paperwork, making phonecalls, and attempting to keep up with the bare essentials. We made the joint decision that whatever we were able to get from the garden was a bonus; we were both committed to B’s recovery. God was gracious, and outcome for B was good. The onions, not so much.

This year, I had a vague sense of déjà vu when I opened that box, and breathed a prayer that things would be different this year. Much different!

WOW! Things sure are different.

The onion plants arrived on schedule and looked great. (last year they had looked less than stellar when they arrived) The weather was cooperative when it was time to plant the onion plants. We made a pact to keep up with the weeding schedule, and stuck with it. It was a pleasure to walk through that part of the garden and see the onions looking green and healthy. It seemed that harvest time arrived quickly.

We have been pulling the Walla Walla onions for several weeks.
These are BIG, SWEET onions, not unlike the world famous Vidalia onions. These onions have a short storage life due to their high sugar, low sulphur content. You must enjoy these onions fresh, during their short season.

The onions we grow for winter storage are stronger in taste, but equally delicious. In order to store well, the sulphur content must be higher. That is the compound that gives an onion its pungency. Usually, these are smaller than the sweet onions and far denser.

When the onion tops start to brown and fall over, it is time to pull the onions. We pull them and let them lie out in the hot sun to begin the drying process. They shouldn’t stay out in the weather with the cycle of damp evening dew, followed by hot days. They will begin to cook, not dry. Since summertime is infamous for big afternoon thunderstorms, we allow them to dry slightly and then haul them to the barn. It took a great number of trips to the barn to get the entire crop under cover.

In the barn, they are placed on wire racks with fans blowing underneath for circulation.
The tops will wither and the outer skins of the onions dry into their protective covering. At that point, the tops will be trimmed, and the onions will be stored elsewhere.

The crop is indeed a success. It would appear that every tiny plant we put in the ground back in March formed a good-sized onion. All THREE THOUSAND of them! There should be no shortage of onions this winter. Again, God was gracious.

Tom is already thinking ONION RINGS!