Planning ahead for the cornbread of the future.

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I’m taking slow food to a whole new level. Want to eat some delicious cornbread? First, plant some corn.

I had asked Luke and Adam here at Oxbow for permission to grow a little garden.  “Since I’m from the midwest,” I said, “I’ve been feeling the urge to have a cornfield in my front yard. It’s okay for me to bring in some nice super-sweet, GMO, RoundupReady Monsanto corn, right? That way we can bring this hippie organic farm into the new millenium.”  Pause. “Ummm, haha, just kidding!  Actually it’s some saved seed of an heirloom dry corn that I want to grow so I can grind it for cornmeal. Can I till up a little area to grow a few stalks?”  The farmers breathe a sigh of relief 🙂 

“Sure,” they told me, “and in fact, you don’t even have to prep your own ground. Have this huge corner of the field we just tilled for squash planting. It’s extra, we were just going to leave it fallow, and it’s right in front of your yurt.”  Wow! Just a small instance of  the principle that if you decide what you want and make it known, all the pieces will fall into place.

Betsey had introduced us to skillet cornbread on the farm last year. It’s pretty special —  with buttermilk and butter in the recipe you can’t really go wrong but it’s the freshly-ground heirloom dry corn that makes it magical.  I shelled and ground a bunch before leaving Bainbridge and brought enough for a few batches out to Oxbow. Everyone I’ve made it for so far has kind of flipped out when they tasted it. Warm and chewy and with a grainy toothsome quality, sweet and salty and with a drizzle of honey… it’s pretty allright.

At this point I’m almost out of my cornmeal. Time to restock my stash — time to carry on the Betsey tradition and grow the stuff myself. I picked up some seed corn from Betsey last weekend: a couple ears of her Painted Mountain and some loose kernels of Roy’s Calais Flint. Two heirloom varieties with cool coloring patterns and interesting histories about where and how the varieties were developed.

As soon as I got the corn home I trundled it out to the greenhouse, put soil in a couple of 50-cell flats, and popped in 100 multicolored kernels.  There was something so viscerally satisfying about planting these seeds with the end goal very clearly in sight. There is something super exciting about the prospect of tending this corn, my very own crop in the midst of all the other farm crops that I’m helping with but by no means in charge of.  I read up on corn cultivation tips. It is a heavy nitrogen feeder, said google. Make sure you fertilize every couple of weeks. Am I going to have to go out and buy fertilizer? Anothrt google, this time on “rabbit manure”, turns up the info that bunny pellets are extremely nitrogenous and also are unusual in that they do not need to be composted before being used as fertilizer on the field. Boom. A complete system here in miniature, yurt-scale farming.

Here’s a picture of step one in my cornbread recipe. Stay tuned for updates and if you’re lucky you can help me enjoy a skilletfull sometime around the October timeframe!

It’s not all fun and games

It has been a terrible season this year.  I don’t mean for me — I’ve been having an amazing time on my own little journey of self-discovery.  I mean the growing season in the pacific northwest has been unusually bad: a warm January followed by a long-lasting cold and wet spring, followed by a brief and not particularly hot summer, followed by an early, cold and wet fall.

The farmers have been commiserating with each other over it.  For us interns, it really is all just fun and games; our livelihoods do not depend on the crops the way the farmers’ do.  It is a reality check to remind us not to be too idealistic in our thoughts about farming.  We are lucky to be learning under a couple of really experienced, knowladgeable farmers who will survive this rough season more or less unharmed.  But it’s easy to see that for a person just starting out, who is bound to make mistakes in any circumstanes, a couple of seasons like this one would make someone want to get out of farming real quick.

Tree fruits suffered a terrible year, lured into blossoming too early by the warm January and then getting frosted out, killing any chance at fruiting.  Tomatoes grown without plastic covering had very little success this year.  I heard a rumor that even local grain growers suffered complete crop failures.

Here on our farm, we apprentices stayed quite cheerful through the extended spring, wearing our long underwear into June and scoffing at the wet weather.  We were brand new to this and everything was exciting and we didn’t mind the rain and mud — in fact it made us feel kind of badass.  The farmers themselves often grumbled through the spring but also looked forward expectantly to a long-lasting summer and a warm, lovely fall to give the crops time to mature.

When this warm fall failed to materialize, things started to get bad.  Betsey’s farm suffered most.  Brian specializes in season extension, growing many things in greenhouses or under plastic-covered hoops.  This system helps him protect himself against variable weather.  He was able to get lots of tomatoes to market this year when basically no other farmers at our market did.  (He claims that it was a bad tomato year even for him… so I’m sure I would be blown away by what a good tomato year looks like).   And Betsey’s potatoes turned out great this year.  But her other crops were jeapordized by the bad weather.  Peppers were one that suffered.  Peppers, like tomatoes, need as long and hot of a growing season as possible to mature.  Last year, Betsey says, she was harvesting bucketsfull of red peppers each week.  This year, some are ripening to red, but most are staying green and many are moldering away due to too must moisture.

Peppers still green and rotting on the vine before turning red.

The onions, too, were almost a loss.  Betsey grows about 2000 row-feet of onions as one of her main three crops (along with potatoes and garlic).  The onions need to keep in storage through the winter, so they need to be harvested as dry as possible.  If the onions are mature enough to be harvested but not yet dry enough, they need to be pulled and left to dry in the field so that their roots don’t continue drawing in more moisture from the soil.  The onions need a couple weeks of sunny weather to completely dry in the field.  This year, that didn’t happen.  We spent a day pulling them all, and then waited hopefully.  It rained.  Each day we would walk by the whole field of soggy onions, lying there forlornly rotting away.  Betsey predicted a complete loss.

 

Laying onions out to dry in the field.

 

Luckily, the weather eventually improved a bit.  With some careful management (going up and down the rows turning the onions over to dry their backsides, feeling the stems and removing the nearly-dry ones to finish drying in the shed, etc)… we were able to save a good percentage of the unhappy onions.  Yay!

The vineyard probably will not be harvested this year.  The grapes got too wet and never fully matured before getting moldy and rotting.   It is incredibly sad to see the vines we spent so much time on throughout the season and know that we (and the plants) put in all that effort for nothing.  Luckily, it’s actually kind of ok this year because coincidentally, the winery is closed anyway due to its owners’ being ill and no one new being lined up to take over winemaking.  There might not have been wine made even if there had been a harvest.

 

The grapes - half unripe and half shrivelled & gone.

 

I don’t mean to be too pessimistic!  I’m actually not feeling pessimistic at all — and even the farmers still seem happy and looking on the bright side and planning improvements to their systems for next year.  I just have been struck by the reality of the situation that in agriculture you can do everything right and still suffer a failure due to circumstances out of your control.

Many great things have been happening too, which I will write more about in another post(s).  As the season gets close to wrapping up, there is a lot to reflect on as well as plans for next steps to think about.   More later as it is bedtime, but here are a couple of fun pictures to balance out the tone of this post 🙂

 

Me at Betsey's stand at the farmers market

 

 

Akio's pumpkin patch

 

 

A special lunch at Molly Ward Gardens in Poulsbo with Betsey and the girls.

 

 

A visit to StartNow Gardens.

Bremerton, WA.

The house next door:

Bremerton: The house next door to Jean and Glenn's.

Jean and Glenn’s house:

Betsey, Renee, and Erin observe the front yard with Jean. Zucchini, peppers, eggplant, lettuce.

Betsey took us on an awesome field trip a couple weeks ago, to visit StartNow Gardens in Bremerton.  This is an urban farm built since 2003 by an amazing couple named Jean and Glenn.  They have taken two city lots (they own two houses next door to each other, live in one and rent out the other) and transformed the space from boring yard into blooming farm.  A composting system, fruit trees, berry bushes, raised beds, tomatoes in pots, an abundance of beautiful vegetables.  Solar panels.  A walk-in cooler powered by a window air conditioning unit.  Three levels of rooftop garden connected by wooden catwalks.  Everything meticulously maintained and every inch of space seemingly used.

Glenn by the greenhouses, salad bed, and herb bed in the front yard

The pictures speak for themselves.  Farming is possible in the city.  Imagine how much food could come out of Seattle if every neighborhood had a farm like this.  Alternatively, imagine if every family had a single raised bed in their yard that made up a distributed, shared farm.

Fruit trees, strawberries, and solar panels on the multi-level rooftop garden

Jean and Glenn sell their produce, and soups they make from their produce, through a tiny, new, grocery store in Bremerton called FreshLocal.  They have a secure market for their food as long as the store can stay in business.   What do the Seattle city regulations have to say about growing food for sale on a residential lawn?  What if you could feed yourself and make money from your little front yard garden?

Parking strip full of kale

I was definitely inspired by the visit and by seeing Jean and Glenn’s commitment to making a difference in their own corner of the world.   Makes me want to go out and follow suit.  Starting Now.

More pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/rwarner2/StartnowGardens#

"This is super cool!" Me and Betsey with Glenn and Jean on the roof

The chicken and the egg

I recently had a chance to participate in a small batch chicken “processing” (butchering) on the farm. I was a bit nervous about it, but it turned out to be a great experience and helped me feel many times closer to and more comfortable with where meat comes from, just as I have been learning about vegetables via my internship. I discovered that far from being unable to eat my chicken meat afterward, I was excited to take care with preparing it and savoring it as a meaningful meal instead of just some protein on a plate. Pics of my chicken cooking (none of the actual processing) are on flickr: start here and click forward thru a few pictures.

I did come away from the processing wondering about eggs. I got pretty familiar with chicken anatomy while I was helping at the evisceration table, but it was unclear to me where and how the eggs form. Do they just float around in there? How in the world do they come out the vent, which seemed to me to be attached to the intestine? How does the egg form? Yolk first and then it gets coated by white and shell?

Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers for you at this point. Maybe someone who knows can tell us in the comments. But my story is that all this wondering about eggs made me very interested when I found the following recipe. I was flipping through my roommate Renee’s book “More-with-Less Cookbook” (subtitled “suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited resources.”). The book is from 1976. This is the recipe:

“Chicken and Noodles.
In our community the farmers who sell eggs must clear their barns of one-to-two year old fat hens. They could be bought for forty cents this fall, so I bought ten of them. Many had strings of partially formed eggs inside them which can be used to make the noodles for this soup. The following nutritious dish can be made very economically. I serve it often to my farmer men, and they like it.”

I love that this recipe basically starts out with, “first, butcher your chicken.” Chicken comes from your backyard or your neighbor farmer instead of on a styrofoam tray in Wal-Mart. You use the unlaid eggs inside the bird to make noodles – and then simmer them all together into chicken soup. Wow!! How different from the way we are used to cooking.

I was talking about the recipe with the girls at work, and that night Stacy forwarded me a recent article in the New York Times about how unlaid eggs are being rediscovered and making an appearance on some fancy-restaurant menus:

“This now mostly lost treat is well remembered by anyone who grew up with laying hens or bought chickens from and old-fashioned butcher before the advent of factory farming. Now, when the birds have stopped laying they are shipped off to places like Campbell’s where they become chicken soup. They are worth so little that many are incinerated, their immature eggs unharvested.”

The article describes a few New York restaurants that have started featuring unlaid eggs as a gourmet item on their menus. A chef describes them as having “a deep, concentrated flavor. It made the dish very different!”

So, everything old is new again. I wonder though, if these eggs catch back on, it would probably not be in a way that makes use of the whole bird the way the recipe in the Mennonite cookbook does. It could potentially even lead to more waste if chickens are harvested specifically for their immature eggs and then the birds are unwanted and thrown away.

When I cooked my Dropstone Farms chicken, the one whose processing I had a hand in, I tried to use every part. She was too young to have any partially-formed eggs (and, she also may have been a he, I’m not sure..) But I made giblet gravy using the heart, kidney and gizzard. I sauteed the liver with butter and onions for a snack while I was cooking.. first time I’ve eaten liver, and I liked it.. And I attempted to make stock out of the feet and neck. The skinned feet are a little creepy to look at but they are supposedly the best for stock cuz of all the collagen and whatnot. I accidentally left the feet-stock on too long and burnt it past the point of recognition, but everything else turned out great and I’ll try with the feet again next time!

The chicken her/himself I rubbed with an herb butter and roasted for an hour on top of rosemary mixed veggies. The meat was delicious and a delight to share with Renee and a few guests. I used the carcass to make chicken & rice soup which was very rich even without the feet.

I bought another chicken from Lauren and Garth last week, which is in the freezer waiting for his/her time to shine. They charge $5 per pound which makes the bird a $20 investment. I know I would balk at buying a $20 chicken in the grocery store, but somehow it seems like I am getting a fantastic deal on this bird now that I know more of the whole story.

And… That’s all I have to say about that!

Tis “The Season”

When we started the internship we kept hearing the farmers talk about “the summer season” when things go crazy on the farm. Back in April, Betsey would take us all out for coffee in the middle of the morning, or Brian would treat us to ice cream after lunch. “Don’t get to used to this,” they would say, “it’s slow right now, we can take a break.” They were only half joking. “Wait til The Season kicks in,” I kept hearing. “Wait til the tomatoes come on. Everything’s going to change around here!”

April, May, and June seemed like a busy enough time to me! It was a lot of work learning new tasks every day, getting comfortable with the workings of the two farms, taking on more and more responibility, becoming more self-directed. I never felt like things were particularly slow during “the slow season.”

But now, just within the last two weeks, I can feel the change. “The Season” is upon us. Some indicators: the volume of produce at Brian’s stand increased dramatically so now we need to bring extra tents and tables. The variety increased a lot too- We have tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers for sale now in addition to all the greens and carrots and springtime things. Betsey’s crops are starting to be ready for harvest now too; I got to dig potatoes for the first time this week. Garlic harvest is a huge project that will happen all at once this next week or so.

The summer is a time of sleep deprivation for Betsey and Brian and us interns too. The long days and warmer weather have done their job on the crops and there is a lot ready for harvest. If things don’t get picked at the right moment, they get over-mature and are no good for sale. Those vegetables don’t run on our time schedule – when they’re ready they’re ready and we need to harvest them. So the farmers pull long days and we apprentices try to help as much as we can. I’m burning the candle at both ends a bit; evidenced by the fact that I’m posting this at 1:15 am and I plan to be working at 7:30 tomorrow. Oopsies!

With so many things to do it’s easy to forget to take a moment and appreciate what is going on here: all our springtime work is starting to pay off. Seeds that we planted back in April grew into baby plants that we transplanted into the field in May and now we are harvesting broccoli. Crazy! As we ate some zucchini for dinner tonight Erin and I recalled how we had planted those plants into the greenhouse during the very first week of our apprenticeship. It is amazing to me that I’m able to be here doing this in this place with these people… I’m trying to savor every minute of it as it flies by ever faster. Here’s to summer- the tomato Season with all the work and all the bounty that it brings.

As always, new pictures here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/warnerbecky/

Kindred spirits

Persephone Farm in Indianola is another great farm in our little corner of the world that does internships. In fact Betsey credits a former Persephone intern as the inspiration to start her apprenticeship program! Our booth is right across the way from Persephone’s at the Bainbridge Farmers Market, so we have been seeing each other every week, but the market is such a flurry that we’d all barely had a chance to talk. I had been wanting to make friends with the interns but it hadn’t happened yet.

So I was excited when our mutual friend Chandler, a former Persephone intern who now farms near here on Vashon Island, created an occasion for us all to get together and hang out.

We were invited over to Indianola on a Saturday for dinner on Persephone Farm. We were served amazing farm-grown food and homemade ice cream, took a walk around the farm/orchards/pastures/yurts, and then stopped over to a “prom” themed birthday party at the Indianola community hall. The next morning we had delicious local food for brunch at a home down the road from their place. It was great to sit around and chat with farmer Rebecca and her apprentices about how their farm works and to compare and contrast it with ours.

Apprentices Greg, Caitlin, Joel and Mo seem to be enjoying their experience and integrating into their community over there just as much as we are here. We are all understandably proud of our own farms, land that we are becoming intimately familiar with. We each respect and admire our respective farmers who we also get to live intimately with as part of the farm family. We hopefully agree with our own farmers’ methods and feel pride in ownership of our own farm products, vegetables that we’ve invested hours of labor into and watched grow from seed to fruit.

But although we come from different, unique farm operations, we are all here doing this for the same reasons. We care about the land and about living sustainably and thoughtfully on it. We are fascinated by plants and especially by the process of growing food. We love to eat real food and make this food available to others who appreciate it and help those who don’t yet appreciate it learn to value it. We started some good conversations over brunch especially, and I look forward to spending more time with Rebecca and her crew!

Compost 101

We are eating some fantastic vegetables lately! Eat a bunch of Brian’s carrots and you will never again be able to snack on a grocery store carrot and be satisfied. They are like two completely different vegetables. One is sweet and tasty and tender; the other is chemically-tasting roughage in comparison. Why such a big difference?

One of the main reasons is the quality of the soil they were grown in! Commercial crops are produced on a large scale by using pesticides and herbicides to kill pests and weeds. But when these chemicals are applied, they also kill off all the good stuff in the soil. Chemical fertilizers are then added which can boost nitrogen levels and make the plants grown vigorously but this doesn’t restore life to the soil. At that point the vegetables are being grown in dirt — the kind you sweep off your kitchen floor — instead of rich, living soil with all the minor nutrients required to make a fully flavorful vegetable.

Alternatively, in organic farming, we weed by hand instead of using herbicides. And we rely heavily on compost to boost levels of beneficial soil microbes. Compost is amazing! It can be created from a variety of materials. The point is to provide the perfect environment for soil microbes to live and break down the materials into humus.

The two base ingredients are “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings or food waste), and “browns” (carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves or wood shavings). Here on the farm we have been spending a good amount of time building Betsey’s compost pile, a delicious layer cake of horse manure (“green”) and straw (“brown”). The other critical components are proper moisture and airflow to provide the aerobic bacteria a happy little home. You’ll know they are working away in your pile by checking the temperature. It gets super hot in there! After a year or so, as long as the balance is right and the pile is turned over a couple times, you will have compost.

When we grow crops in our soil, we suck nutrients out of the land. Therefore we need to add organic matter back in if we expect to continue producing good food from that space. Luckily we can create compost from various waste produts. Instead of disposing of food scraps, manure, etc, we can enlist our microbe friends to compost them into beautiful rich humus we can use to add more nutrition and flavor to our food.

Today, the other apprentices and I picked the first sugar snap peas of the season and snacked on a few while we weighed them out into half-pint containers to put out for our CSA members at our farmstand. This is real food, straight from the ground to the plate, and you can taste the difference!