Monday, November 28, 2011

Poor Popeye!

While watching the cartoons as a small child, I always wondered how a can of “black glop” squeezed into Popeye’s mouth would instantly give him super strength. Yes, I am dating myself here; yes, it was in the days of black and white television. However, I did wonder HOW that “spinach” worked so quickly.

As an adult, I realize it was some slick propaganda to get kids to eat their veggies. Perhaps the whole Popeye concept was dreamed up by the spinach lobbyists of the day. At the dinner table where I grew up, we were expected to eat our vegetables…no questions asked. If you didn’t eat them…you didn’t leave the table. That, my friends, is how I learned appreciation for the “lowly vegetable”.

Looking back, I really feel for poor Popeye. I cannot imagine anything worse than canned spinach. Blech! Canned vegetables do not have the nutritive value of fresh, or even frozen. The texture and taste leave much to be desired. Spinach, fresh from the garden, is a delicious, nutritious addition to any meal. I do not want to consider what canned spinach must be like.

Spinach is one our most popular offerings for sale. This is presumably because of its highly nutritious reputation. I have heard it said that a serving of spinach has four times the vitamins as the same amount of lettuce. Although, I should think that this would depend on the type of lettuce.

“Nutritional Benefits
Spinach is rich in a number of essential nutrients, including calcium, folate, iron, magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin A. Each of these nutrients plays a crucial role in our bodies health, from maintaining bone structure, preventing neural tube defects, assisting in red blood cell production, regulating our heartbeat, fighting free radicals and nourishing good eyesight.
Eating spinach feeds a healthy body. Spinach is also a great source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoid phytonutrients that are important for healthy eyes.”


We grow a number of varieties of spinach. By knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each type and providing the proper growing environment, we are able to have spinach year round. I have yet another reason to love the hoophouses.

This past summer, I was witness to the bolting phenomenon of spinach. While I know that spinach seeds came from spinach plants, I had never seen them in their growing stages. It was most interesting. Here are some shots of the forming seeds.

These are spinach seedlings. They look very much like chubby grass at this point.

This is the very beginning of the bolt. These little hairy things hold the spinach pollen.

Here they are just a little more mature.

These are very tiny spinach seeds. Cool process, huh?

We don’t attempt to save our own seeds for most crops. Although there are those who are great proponents of seed-saving, and there is a worry that genetic diversity may one day be lost without effort on the part of growers, we simply do not have the space to have a seed stock crop AND a crop for profit. So, we’ll do our part to keep the seed companies in business.

When I pick spinach in the hoophouse in the middle of the winter, and even in the middle of the summer…I do so knowing that we (or our customer-friends) will enjoy the fresh taste in salads and on sandwiches, boiled on its own or in other dishes.

…and I think….”oh, poor Popeye! …if he only knew what he was missing!”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Apples to Oranges


I need to rant. It doesn’t happen often… No, I take that back…it happens almost every time I read an article about local, organic, sustainable food. I would like to take the time right here, right now to educate SOMEONE…anyone.

Just last week, in an effort to cover the “local food movement”, one of the local TV stations sent a reporter to the Market, covered a chef shopping local and featured the story on the nightly news. In an attempt to make a price comparison, they also checked prices at one of the local grocery stores. The upshot of the story ended up being that “local” food is twice as expensive as the “other stuff”.

WAIT A MINUTE! Wait just one daggone minute here! Not to go all “Herman Cain”, but this is like comparing apples to oranges!

This brought to mind my reaction to a letter to the editor in the local paper during the summer regarding high prices at the Farmers’ Market. I knew I should have posted that one earlier. The discussion about local food cannot be summed up in a discussion about cheap prices.

Bear with me…I’ve just gotta get this one out there…

Before I get rolling, I want to say…I think, no, I know that we need corporate farms to feed the world. I don’t even want to get into the discussion of superiority of any type of farming or food. My intention is merely to point out that comparison between grocery and Market is bogus.

Anyone who does any amount of grocery shopping knows what kind of prices one might pay for produce. There are stores that have a reputation for being “high-end” and others where you can get a “bargain”. Both definitions are highly subjective and open to personal interpretation. Ultimately, personal tastes and priorities make the basis for purchase decisions.

While I will concede that there are prices at the Market that seem steep. There are also products at the Market that cannot be found elsewhere. You will never get anything in the grocery that is even remotely as fresh as the produce from the Market! Thus, I don’t believe an accurate comparison can be made at all.

Most the folks who feel that the Farmers’ market prices are MUCH TOO high have never even shopped the farmers’ market (in Staunton or anywhere else). Most times, the prices are close to the grocery prices, as the vendors realize what the public is willing to pay. Although, lower prices do not always mean more sales, and there is a point when it is no longer profitable to sell an item. Many times, farmers don’t know exactly what they put into a crop, what they should get out of it, so they go by the grocery, check the price and either use that price or something slightly higher. This is not a necessarily a good plan, as vegetables are often the “loss leader” (the low price that gets the shopper in the store, only to have them spend far more on other things).

During the “holiday season”, turkeys and hams are priced cheaply to promote their sales. The turkeys and hams have been produced by farmers working for the big names in the food industry. The producers have grown out HUGE numbers and the most basic tenets of economics state that the larger number produced, the smaller the investment in each unit, and ultimately the higher profit per unit. This is one reason a Geo is far cheaper than a Bentley. The stores get quantity discounting and know that when they get the shoppers in for a DEAL they will also buy the rest of their holiday food at regular or in some cases, inflated prices.

In all fairness to farmers, they should be able to make a good living growing food for other folks’ consumption! They are professionals, after all. They possess a knowledge that most do not when it comes to producing food in a safe, economical and delicious manner. Try farming, just for a day, you’ll come away with a new appreciation.

Years ago, I had a conversation with my father as he was watching me prepare beans for canning. He said, “Why should I bother to put up any green beans when I can buy them for 29cents at Rack and Sack (a local grocery)?” I attempted to argue freshness and food safety, knowing full well that the almighty dollar was always the deciding factor to him. I conceded that if price alone was the criterion, then, by all the beans. A side note...apparently Rack and Sack found that cheap wasn’t sustainable...they went out of business. On the other hand, I still put up beans, and know exactly where those beans grew, how they were processed, and that there are ONLY beans in my jars or freezer containers.

If the “bottom line” is the only deciding factor, then everyone would eat the very cheapest thing they could. Flavor, nutrition and personal preference would no longer matter. However, freshness, quality, food safety, and investment in the community are some other issues that shoppers at the Farmers market consider. Most shoppers find those attributes very important, and are willing to make the commitment to shop the market in order to obtain them.

Food in the grocery has often travelled across the continent, if not the world to get to the shelves. There is no way this can be considered “fresh” when Market produce has been picked just the day prior to its sale. Most “fresh” produce in the grocery is at least a week old before it lands on the consumer’s table. For the record, “local” and “organic” do not mean what a lot of folks assume. Do a little research, you will be amazed.

When a shopper buys from Homestead Hill Farm, they are assured that the food they have chosen has only traveled the 12 miles to town from our farm. The only exception is the lamb, which had to travel north of H’burg to be processed in a USDA facility. This is federally mandated, not simply our choice. The entire market is held to a 50-mile radius to keep us truly “LOCAL”. One note about the Farmers’ market…everything there is NOT organic…the consumers really need to educate themselves. (do not rely on the media)

When shopping for the food you put in your body, your fuel as it were, there is far more at stake than “cheap” produce. Your own health and well-being may well be affected by your choices. As produce ages, it loses its precious nutritive value.

If you are concerned about freshness or safety, I can personally assure you an answer. Try that one at the grocery; I can almost assure you a blank look and a “I dunno!” The Boss and I have had personal involvement with everything we offer for sale.

If you value the rural beauty of our area,
if you wish to have the ability to share this with your children and grandchildren,an investment in the fabric of the community is necessary. The effort put forth by the farmers in our area to maintain their crops and fields is part of the reason that folks travel from around the world to enjoy the loveliness that is our own Shenandoah Valley.

Farming is hard physically, mentally, and sometimes emotionally. When the farmers’ investment is considered, particularly of time and effort, no one would ever say prices are too high. One summer day, SiL#1 was picking beans with me and daughter #1. He had never done it before, and wasn’t too thrilled at the idea. He picked a while, and then said...”you need to charge more for your beans!” WHY? “You work HARD!” (yep, he sure scored points with the old mother-in-law!) He just chuckled when I told him to come to the Market and tell people that. A little personal experience goes a long way in promoting a consumer’s appreciation for farm products.

Don’t get me wrong…I love what I do! I would actually do this type of work regardless of the return; it is so deeply ingrained in my very being. However, to compare the products offered for sale from here on the hill and those in the grocery is just wrong. There is NO comparison plain and simple.

Food choices are intensely personal. Leave it at that. Let’s not attempt to make them simply a matter of economy.

Thanks for listening!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The "Off " Season

The Market is over for the 2011 season. November 19 was the final Saturday. It was an incredibly successful season, and we are grateful to each of our customer-friends for their continued support.

This week, instead of hustling around in the dark and the cold, getting everything ready for a morning of sales, the Boss is drinking coffee and checking the news. Instead of feeding the animals by flashlight prior to driving to town, I am sitting here writing and reflecting on the season that was.

A lot of folks think that once the Market ends for the season that we are “on vacation” until opening day of the following season. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we took it easy this week in anticipation of Thanksgiving with the family, farm work never takes a vacation. So, we’re back at it today, allowing for the seasonal changes in our work routine.

Planting and harvesting slow down to a crawl,
although the cycle continues in the greenhouses year-round. There is a lot of focus on repair and maintenance, planning and preparation. Sorry, no trip to the islands this year. Not that we could, or would, even want to leave our farm here on the hill. Okay, on a real cold, snowy day, I must admit, the islands look REAL good!

Years ago, when we would get the question…WHAT do you do all winter? My answer was “all the stuff we don’t get done in the summer!” That was definitely true. Our homeschooling was a definite “low priority” during the Market season. We tried to buckle down to lessons during the winter. We took family day-trips, caught up on paperwork, and I sewed furiously for the girls to be clothed the next season. The Boss’ winter priorities for the farm were keeping the cows in hay and water to the rest of the animals, while keeping our home warmed by the wood in the woodstove. Winter crops were un-heard of; we were focused on subsistence and survival. Our life was very much like “little house on the prairie” for a while…

Now, we are not quite so isolated, not quite so self-sufficient, although the woodstove still warms us. The girls are grown and married, so our homeschooling is a distant memory. The cows (and their dairy products) are gone, and the sheep don’t eat near the amounts of hay the cows would. We have developed winter crops for sale, and deliver them on a weekly basis. The winter season seems far shorter, somehow.

Winter sales, lambing season, seed starting, researching new crop varieties and farm bookwork all take a toll on my time.
Somehow, all those little things I overlooked during the season are waiting for my attention as well. The Boss is busy with those big building projects that can’t get done in the summer.

New construction, repair, revision…there’s always something that needs his attention.He is also thinking ahead to next Market season. As manager of the Market and committee member, he spends a great deal of time focused on assuring the ongoing viability of the Market.

There is a lot of “behind the scenes” work that enables us to provide products to the Market every single week from April to November. So, the term “off season” is more than a little misleading.
It's only by putting effort into the "off-season" that we are able to be successful during the Market season.

Friday, November 25, 2011

For THIS, Dear Lord, I am TRULY Grateful!

(this didn't get posted on T-day....but, better late than never!)

Thanksgiving 2010 was to be THE Thanksgiving of all time. Yes, I did mean to write 2010.

We had so much for which to give thanks, so very much. It had been one for the history books.

The year started off with the record-breaking snowfall during the Winter of ’09-’10. Despite the cold and snow, the lamb crop was outstanding.

When Spring finally came, it was cold and damp. But, it was Market season again, and life got back in rhythm quickly. The Market season showed promise of being an excellent one.

Then, April 22 brought an end to life as we knew it and almost ended B’s life as well. She and J were hit head-on at an incredibly high speed. Rescue gave her a 5% chance of survival when they packed her in the helicopter that night. The impact of this incident is still felt by all of us, although to a somewhat lesser degree these days. Someone else’s reckless behavior and complete irresponsibility meant that B spent 34 days at UVA and another 5 months getting back on her feet (literally).

During that time, The Boss kept the farm going somehow,
J kept working and looking after B,
while A and T found a house and bought it.
Their wedding was scheduled for October, so we attempted to get all the details worked out during the summer. I spent my time split between B’s house and here…the hospital and physical therapy trips. There were a couple of times when the stress of it all threatened to overwhelm.

By the time B returned to work, A and T got married, and the Market wound down for the year, it was Thanksgiving. …and boy was I thankful. I was convinced it would be a wonderful Thanksgiving…”the mother of all Thanksgivings”.

However, events conspired against me and it was not the event that I thought it would be.

All that surviving/recovering had taken its toll. Everyone was tired. After our supper, a number of us dozed off. T was coming down with something and didn’t feel at all well. A was worried over him. J’s granddad passed away early in the morning that made for a bittersweet kind of undertone to the day. B had been featured in the newspaper for the one event in her life she was trying to forget. It was a gloomy, rainy cold day…no family picture on the front porch. Some of us had to work the next day, (Black Friday) so the mood wasn’t completely festive.

But, we were all together. All together…when it could have easily been a sad and horrible day. God had been merciful to us and we all knew it.

Fast forward to the present…

As Thanksgiving 2011 approached, I knew what I wanted. I wanted the picture I didn’t get last year. I wanted the day-long enjoyment of the family I love so very much. I wanted to make home-made, home-grown food for my family, and sit back and watch them enjoy it.

…and I wanted to make sure that each one of them appreciated that I thank God every day for every one of them. I won’t embarrass any of them by getting “all mushy” here. Suffice it to say…I have an awesome and amazing family…and I love each of them more deeply than they will ever know!

Everyone is healthy, happy and prospering. In some ways this year has been far superior to last. The number of things for which to be thankful is truly overwhelming. I may have had to wait an extra year for my family photo, but that’s okay… It was worth it.

For THIS, Dear Lord…..I am truly grateful!

...make that ETERNALLY grateful!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Power of Food

Food provides far more than nutritious fuel for our bodies. It provides a trigger for wonderful memories, an outlet for creativity, a chance to express our care for others, and the opportunity for bonding with those around us.

The memories in which food plays a part are some of the strongest in the human experience. This explains many of the “traditional foods” that are intrinsic to our celebrations. Think about it…don’t the smells of the holiday kitchen grant each of us a quick trip down memory lane?

Personally, food memories always call to mind my maternal grandmother. No one ever left without a “care package” from her kitchen. She offered food and drink to everyone who stopped by…even the mailman! On hot summer days, she would have an iced glass at the ready when he would stop to deliver the mail. She would then serve cookies and cold drinks to him and my grandfather as they sat on the porch and talked for a while before he continued his appointed rounds. She also encouraged me in my own kitchen endeavors.

Food allows us to fellowship with other human beings. There is something special in the breaking of bread together that draws us closer to those with whom we are sharing. Certain foods cause us to recall shared experiences; this in turn draws us closer to one another.

Years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a gift that would change my life. She gave me a box of her old cookbooks. She loved to cook and I appreciated her sharing her expertise with me. I knew that I had finally “arrived” when she gave me “Grandma Womack’s” roll recipe and entrusted me with the responsibility of making rolls for holiday meals. Needless to say, neither one of us ever imagined that my bread making would morph into thousands of loaves over the years as I baked for Market sales. While that phase of my life is behind me, and mother-in-law has passed on, I continue to think of her every time I make any type of yeast bread.

As a new wife, I knew little about actual food preparation. The Boss and I spent long hours watching the cooking shows on PBS and re-creating foods he had enjoyed along life’s way. In short, food allowed us a bonding that few other things could have. We both learned a lot, and I discovered I actually had a previously unknown talent. New recipes still offer the opportunity for creativity and expression.

Growing up in the country, in the South, the gift of food is the remedy for every one of life’s events. New baby? Take a casserole. Someone sick? Take food. Someone die, get married, have a bad day? Take food….LOTS of food. Holidays, birthdays, just because…take food. When you don’t know what else to do…take food. A home-cooked meal says “I LOVE YOU” like nothing else.

I find personal satisfaction in giving a gift of food. This is particularly true when sweets are given as a “thank you” gift. There is a reason for the old saying “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”! Home-grown food takes that one step further. Not only was the recipient thought about as the food was prepared, but even as it was growing.

To grow food allows us to have some small part in the rest of the human experience. It is an awesome responsibility to know that what we do here on the farm has the power to influence others in their thinking about food, their celebratory feasts, and their expressions of care for those around them.

That’s a responsibility we take quite seriously when growing, harvesting and processing the food products around here.

The food products we sell are the same ones we enjoy eating ourselves. When we plant and harvest and present things for sale at the Market, it is with the intention of bringing the very best we can to the table, to share in the experience of life.

So, as you gather ‘round the holiday table, know that we thought of you and yours while growing the food for your celebrations.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

One Man's Junk

I am fairly certain that when the proprietor of Mountain Valley Truck and Trailer found himself in possession of a 1980’s livestock trailer with a broken axle he did not think “oh, goodie…certainly someone can use this!” I am certain that he never thought the Boss would call and say “…now that would make a GREAT chicken house!” No, he was just trying to figure out how to get rid of the piece of junk.

When the news of the trailer made it through the family grapevine, I saw the wheels begin to turn in the Boss’ head. When he heard the price, I knew it was just a matter of time until it came to the farm. To be perfectly honest, I was in full agreement with him.

Once it was transported, it found a parking place next to shop.The dogs were impressed; it gave them some shade and a backrest. It looked cool sitting there; it made it look like we were in the hauling business. A was very impressed, until she looked a little closer.

When we got the reefer, the Boss moved it to the orchard. It looked cool there as well, and made a nice seat for me while doing sheep observations.

In order for it to be transformed into a henhouse, some modifications were in order.
The floor was ripped out, the doors removed. The Boss can see the finished henhouse in his head, even though I can’t quite visualize what he is going to do.

The cool weather has sent this project to the top of the priority list.
Now, it’s sitting in the driveway in a state of complete disrepair and an ever-growing “Lowes list”.

Stay tuned...

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mothers and Daughters

You would think that the re-introduction of the ewe lambs to the ewe flock would be smooth and calm. Right?


Despite the fact that this is a family group, or perhaps because it IS a family group, there is more than a little dysfunction. Things get just a little testy. Butting and yelling are part of the process of sorting out the hierarchy. This can go on for days.

The Boss came to the rescue, and in an attempt to act as mediator in the tense relations, he took the whole gang to greener pastures. Worked like a charm! It’s really hard to argue with your mouth full.

By afternoon, they were all getting along quite well, enjoying the shade of the pines and grass up to their bellies.
They should be content to graze out here until the snow flies. Then, they will move to the barn lot for lambing season.