Saturday, July 28, 2007

CSA spread

Our harvests are beefing up a bit with the addition of summer produce. The fact that we've been upgraded to severe drought status notwithstanding, we've been able to eek out enough produce for some nice market bags each week. I could, of course, always wish for more, but objectively speaking, they've been good and people have been thrilled with the flavor.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let's get crass about frass

Tomatoes in the garden inevitably mean tomato horn worms in the garden, the larva of the hawk sphinx moth. Even though the larvae can be quite large—four plus inches—they can be darned hard to spot. In fact, I've pretty nearly had my hands on them before seeing them. What I can spot, however, are their rather large poop balls, called frass. These telltale droppings clustered under plants (underlined in white in the above photo and nicely captured in the photo to the left) let me know where to look, narrowing down the hunt considerably. Of course, nearly defoliated leaf tips help, too, as do the fruits with the ugly wounds left by a munching worm who hadn't the decency to just stay and finish the tomato before moving onto another. I try to get them before these latter signs, however, and the frass is my single best clue.

Once I find these camouflage artists, I pull them from the vine, pinch them between my fingers folded in half lengthwise and walk them down to my birds. The turkeys and the chickens are more than happy to help me rid my garden of these pests, and though it seems a rather cruel demise to be the unwitting player in a tug of war between two beaks, watching the birds chase each other, trying to steal the quarry is rather amusing. Nothing like a little farm fun at the expense of a garden pest.

There are, however, some horn worms we invite to live out their larval stage in our garden, munching on their fill of tomatoes. Why? Because they are playing host to the parasitic braconid wasp, who lays its eggs under the skin of the horn worm larva. When the eggs hatch, they will feed on the horn worm itself, turning the tomato muncher into the meal. Either way, the demise of a tomato horn worm is somewhat gruesome. Slow wasting death by parasite or speedy death by bird sport? Hmmmm....

Friday, July 20, 2007

My Milking Parlor

Milking is finally smoothing out a bit, as Latte and I have gotten into a rhythm. She's giving me about a pound of milk each morning, give or take, which isn't great, but I'm hopeful that it's on the increase.

She's a first freshener Nigerian Dwarf Goat, and we've left her baby with her, both of which account for the low milk numbers. Once he's weaned and we go to twice a day milking, we should get more. What we do currently is separate them at night, and I take the first morning's milk while Dragon gets to nurse throughout the day. He's growing well, and it beats bottle feeding. I have enough to do around the farm, and my motto is let mamas be mamas because they'll do it better than we do.

So, I bought the canopy above, optimistically thinking it would enable me to milk even when it was raining. Well, we haven't had a single drop of rain (well, we've had drops, but that's about it) since we bought it, and our last best hope for July rolled on outta here last night without even wetting the bottom of the rain gage. It did, however, at least leave a pattern on the pavement, which is more than any of the other systems have done.

And here's a photo of my matching Delux Solar Dryer, Farm edition. Look how dry and crunchy our grass is—it's so sad. But my cow poles make me smile each time I look at them. The girls and I painted the spots last weekend, as it was finally cool enough to paint in the morning. We've had them white for a while, just waiting for the weather to give us a break.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My first CSA anxiety dream

I had my first CSA anxiety dream last night, as the share bags have been dwindling. In part due to the drought we're experiencing and in part because all those beautiful spring lettuces took up so much space. I try to keep that in perspective, but perspective is difficult in the face of drought effects. Our only saving grace is that it's been raining to the north, south and west of us, so the underground water sources are still holding their own—not great, but not yet dire.

This photo represents 3 shares worth of food, though the potatoes and zucchini were divided into 4. Even the hens are laying about 6 fewer eggs a day than normal due to the heat, which has thrown at least three of them into a molt from what I can tell. This week's share was similar but thankfully a bit bigger as the beans and tomatoes have begun producing: minus the potatoes and with fewer lettuces and adding into the mix an acorn squash, more tomatoes, more royal burgandy beans, cherokee pole beans, chioggia beets, and a bulb of hardneck garlic.

I think folks have been happy with the shares and certainly the one you see here was our barest as we transitioned from spring to summer produce. The anxiety stems from my end—seeing all the drought-stressed plants, watching thunderstorms roll right by, and wondering what the next share will be as many of our succession plantings fail to germinate without rain. I can't and won't water irresponsibly off our well, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage against the big CSAs in the area with their fancy irrigation equipment. Here, it's just little old me, a couple of 55 gallon drums, and a husband sweet enough to help me after a long day at work and a grueling commute home. We're both having a hard time keeping our spirits up as we watch crop after crop suffer and yields drop dramatically. I should be having extra shares to sell by this point, but we're barely holding our own with just our six member families.

Folks around here got a scant first hay cutting, and no one even has the possibility of a second cutting. One local guy got only 30 square bales off 10 acres of alfalfa. The lady we buy our beef from who has just shy of 400 acres and I don't know how many head of cattle and generally produces all her own hay and grain on premises has finally found enough hay to get her through the winter and is looking at a $10,000 bill. She says even the Mennonites are at the sale barns looking for hay—a very bad sign if they can't find enough within their own community. Farmers in our area are hurting, badly, and that story's being sung across the country, just with some different lyrics. The weather's been brutal this year, no doubt.

So, I awoke early this morning in the midst of a dream that was very clearly an anxiety dream...

It was Thanksgiving day, and our family had arrived. Apparently I'd been so busy that I hadn't taken a turkey out to defrost, so I was trying to cook one of our turkeys while it was still frozen. Our heritage birds weigh between 10-12 lbs, and I will cook 2 for our Thanksgiving of six people because folks in my family really like the leftovers. So in my dream, all I had was one frozen turkey, and next thing I know all these people show up—apparently neighbors, all of whom I now need to figure out how to feed off the one frozen, 12 lb turkey. I woke up in the middle of the dream, as the kids were trashing the house and refusing to go downstairs to play, and I was beginning to drink heavily....

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Confronting my own Hypocrisy

For quite a while now, I've been wishing we could invest in solar panels and have been gently attempting to convince my husband that this would be a wonderful thing. The obvious problem is that they're so darned expensive, but the biggest obstacle I face is that because of the kind of science Jim does, he understands just how inefficient they still are, and well, he's a bottom line kind of guy.

So, as I read through CG's blog the other day and compared our electric bill to both the national average and the target 90% reduction kwh, I about had a heart attack. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

Our home is run entirely on electric from our heat pump to our hot water heater to our cooktop. We heat as much as we can in the winter with wood and this fall plan to install a woodstove in the basement family room we've been finishing off along with a new air intake for the heat pump to circulate already warmed air with the fan to maximize that efficiency. In fact, we've done lots of little things, like installing all compact fluorescents downstairs and many upstairs as well where they will fit. We keep our heat pump set at 65 in the winter and 78 in the summer when we choose to put the air conditioning on as a respite from the heat and humidity outside. I've planted fruit trees on the south side of the house and trumpet creeper vines on the brick house itself to help moderate the summer temperatures. We've done things—really we have—and were, in fact, even feeling pretty good about our efforts. Until the other day, that is, when I was given a number to actually put it all in perspective.

At first my reaction was incredulity. Like maybe my kwh were somehow different than those they were talking about on the national average. Next was my attempt to rationalize it away because of course those people with the low kwh are using oil and gas, so really it's like comparing apples and oranges. Then came the renewed and more desperate enthusiasm for solar—yeah, yeah, solar was the answer.

And so came the inevitable discussion with Jim yet again about the possibility of converting to solar and the inevitable objections, all of which are perfectly rational. (Jim is always perfectly rational.)

So, I entered the final stage: depression. The forced acceptance of the fact that we use too much electricity from an electric company that draws 95% of its power from coal, and there was little to nothing I could do about it.

That lasted about a day before I was forced to face my own hypocrisy. You see, I really am no better than Al Gore. Well, our numbers aren't that bad, but I felt the same sense of hypocrisy—of speaking green and thinking green but not really living green. Or, at least, not as green as I would like.

Once I was able to face this, to own up to and acknowledge my own inconvenient truth, I found myself able to move forward and make the difficult decisions. I realized that here I had been lamenting our inability to switch to solar as the kill-switch on my green dreams. Because how could we make that next step without spending a lot of money on expensive solar retrofitting?

What I was forced to acknowledge to myself, though, is that my desire for solar really has less to do with living a more green lifestyle and more to do with being able to live my current lifestyle with impunity. Solar was a panacea: it was not only a get out of jail free card but a keep on breaking the law as much as you want card. Solar represented a way for us to avoid making the really tough choices and relinquishing the little luxuries we've all come to expect like soft laundry.

While I've always hung our sheets and beach towels on the line to dry, we've all resisted hanging clothes because of the crunch. The time I tried drying the bath towels on the line, the kids silently mutinied by putting the crunchy ones directly into the laundry and grabbing a nice, soft, electric-dried one out of the closet. I don't use any chemical fabric softeners or anything; there's just something about the tumbling and forced hot air that fluffs the towels and softens the jeans so nicely.

But now, I'm on a mission. I've enlisted the kids' help, and they've agreed. Now, I've admitted to myself that I already have solar power, but that I've been steadfastly refusing to use it. A choice. A choice that I have consciously changed to bring our energy efforts more in line with our efforts in other areas like food and water and waste.

So, I've committed to washing only in cold water and using my solar-powered clothes dryer as a large step towards reducing household energy consumption. I've confronted my own hypocrisy, my own inconvenient truths, and I've moved forward in an empowering direction even if it chafes a bit. I feel more crunchy on the inside by being just a little more crunchy on the outside. But no one said it was easy being green.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Yogurt and Blackberry Jam

Latte's not giving a whole lot of milk—about a pound a day—but it's enough to make some homemade dairy products after saving the milk for about a week. And, it's enough to make me dream of more. I now have visions of a mini-Jersey dancing in my back pastures.

We've given away about 9 pints of raspberries to CSA members, not leaving a whole lot for me to preserve, though we've certainly eaten our fill fresh. I was able to eek out about 5 1/2 pints of black raspberry jam last week though, and man is it delicious! I moved about 100 raspberry transplants out to the berry garden this spring in the upper pasture, and the lack of rain has killed at least half of them. But some survived, and the black raspberries are doing quite well in large part because they were rooted canes rather than tender young suckers. Next spring, we'll continue to expand the berry bed, which is now so overrun with weeds that it's kinda hard to see. We plan to invest in some kind of black ground cover to suppress the weeds next year.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Spring, Glorious Spring!

We had our first day of spring yesterday, followed by another beautiful day today. Well, not really, but after a month of dry sunshine with temps in the high 80's and 90's, it sure seems like this is the spring we never had.

Determined to make use of this glorious weather, I worked the entire day yesterday in the gardens, gaining the advantage on the weeds. Both the kitchen and market gardens are nearly weed free—well, as weed free as they're likely to get, anyway. Admittedly, there's a whole lot of dirt, but that's a good thing. It means the seedlings that are growing don't have competition from the weeds that are very good at getting big, quickly.

A big part of our CSA plan is succession planting—planting relatively small numbers every two to three weeks to help ensure a sustained harvest—hence the dirt. We've been so incredibly hot that I need to remind myself that many things are still growing. In the kitchen garden—the first picture to the left—you can see the asparagus, the newly renovated strawberry bed (there's another beyond the asparagus), in the lower right corner is where I just pulled the spent peas and where I hope to try to plant summer lettuces using shade cloth.

In the market garden, there are four plantings of corn of which only the first two are showing. We did a three sisters planting, putting in the corn, beans and squash together as companions. The idea is that the beans fix nitrogen, which corn needs. The corn provides a pole for the beans, and the squash shades roots and discourages weeds.

We have our first planting of corn tasseling out and the first planting of beans beginning to set—even the fourth planting is now popping. Our first zucchini is just ready for harvest, and we have yellow squash, pumpkins (carving and pie) growing all along the fence line with loads of fruit set. We have Yukon gold potatoes doing great at the top fence line, as well as Russian banana fingerlings and Nordland red potatoes on the front fence line. Our watermelon and muskmelon all have flowers, and our sunflowers are all beginning to sprout. In the patch toward the back, between the corn and the potatoes, I just planted another patch with watermelon, more peppers, eggplant, calendula and borage. Above the zucchini, we have pickling and slicing cukes beginning to grow, and between those and the pumpkins, we have two successive plantings of red onion, yellow onion, and two varieties of carrots, along with San Marzano sauce tomatoes and some basil.