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Archive for December, 2009

Food is on my mind a lot these days, probably because the holidays are so centered around it in our home.

It’s getting a lot of attention everywhere, though.  In the press, in new book releases, documentaries, and on the internet, many urgent conversations are going on about finding, growing, buying, and eating nutritious, organic, and local food.  

Perhaps I am just being optimistic, but in my experience at least, an increasing awareness seems to be taking hold and spreading in the general populace, creating a ground swell of movement in favor of sustainable agriculture.  More people than ever before are being exposed to the awful truth about our failing industrial food system, realizing that our grandparents ate better tasting and higher quality food than we do, and are looking to get that pre-WWII level of nutrition and food safety back.

The good news is, that’s possible.  The not-so-good news is, it requires skills, that not everyone have. 

Mainly, that way of eating involved a lot of cooking, from scratch.  Not just heating up food out of a can, or assembling meals from prepared ingredients, or microwaving frozen dinners.  Cooking before the age of supermarkets with their vast offerings of ready-to-eat, processed foods was the real deal.  You started with simple, single ingredients, and transformed them into soups, casseroles, breads and pies; main dishes, snacks, breakfast and lunch, and don’t forget, deserts. 

Sounds romantic and a bit magical, doesn’t it? 

For the non-cook, it is.  My husband, for instance, would never, ever, attempt to bake a pie.  He loves pie, just doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to turn flour, butter, pumpkin, eggs, milk, and various spices into a delicious holiday dessert.  And vegetables?  If given a pound each of carrots and beets, a half an onion, three cloves of garlic, and a jar of home-canned chicken stock, he could no more make a pot of soup than pull a bunny from a hat.

Without my cooking skills, pie for him comes from the bakery section of the grocery store, and soup comes from a can.  He’s not alone in that category, and it isn’t just because he’s a man, that he doesn’t know how to cook.

It also generally takes more time to cook from scratch, and it creates more dirty dishes than making meals from cans and packages and freezer boxes.  These were the drawbacks that Madison Avenue capitalized on as the post-war economy blasted into the rocket age:  advertisers convinced women everywhere that cooking was a drudgery that had to be escaped from.  The new technology promised fast, delicious, convenient meals for the modern family, and with women joining the work force in leaps and bounds, it was a reasonable proposition with few detractors. 

Seemingly overnight, cooking became as simple as 1-2-3.   Brown some meat, boil some noodles, add a can of soup, and call it dinner.  Or, remove pizza from box, bake until cheese is brown and bubbly, and serve.  Better yet:  cut slit in plastic film over vegetables, microwave on high for 3 minutes; stir, heat 2 minutes more, and enjoy.

Not much skill involved, but that’s what makes those sorts of meals really convenient and hard to resist.  Sure beats eating out or ordering in on evenings when time is at a premium and the refrigerator is empty; sometimes a frozen pizza is all I have time or energy for, too.

Which is as much a part of the skill of cooking as knowing what to do with the ingredients. 

Planning meals around available foodstuffs, keeping basic ingredients on hand, knowing how to use produce in season, and being willing to invest the daily time and effort required to create meals from real food; this is an entire complex of essential skills for anyone really interested in eating well, whether you grow your own food, buy it from a farmer or farmers market, or shop the organic section in your local supermarket.

It is not difficult, but it is a lot of work, if you’re not used to it.  It is certainly more work than I want to do at the end of a long day sometimes, and I’m only cooking for two.  And I love to cook.  And, I’ve been cooking for thirty years, which means I’ve learned a few shortcuts and techniques that make it fun, and I’ve accumulated a wealth of kitchen tools and equipment that make it easier.   Still, doing it right can be a struggle many days.

But it is worth it.  Yes, it is very much worth it.  Because every meal I create from food taken straight from the ground or the pasture, as close to where it is grown as possible, is an act of farming.  It means I do not need the industrial food system, with its endless, empty variety and addicting convenience, to feed myself and my family.  I firmly believe that knowing how to cook with real food is just as critical to changing the shape of agriculture as is making different choices in the food we buy to eat.  

As surely as eating is an agricultural act, as Wendell Berry has so eloquently said, so too is cooking. 

Because let’s face it:  all the fresh, organic vegetables and meat from healthy, happy animals grown on sustainable farms, are just pretty photo props if you can’t turn them into dinner.

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Lots of places in the country are cold and covered with snow; not here, in San Diego, and not at the farm, where it’s raining and 50 degrees, but lots of other places.  Dallas got a White Christmas this year, for pete’s sake. 

But I can pretend, and be glad for my current climate.  So while the men-folk are out with the horses and dogs on the pond, cutting ice and hauling it to the ice house, I’ll get the pie dough made, start the bacon and eggs and cranberry muffins for breakfast, and prep the potatoes for this evening’s ham feast.

Speaking of food, I made a beet-and-carrot soup last night that is sure to become a Christmas tradition.  Photos and recipe later; it was delicious!

Merry Christmas to all, stay warm out there!

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Jason sent this photo from southwest Virginia, where they are pretty well snowed in.  They’re hauling hay up the hill to the horses on this “pony” grader, as well as plowing snow with it, obviously.

Those aren’t ponies, though; those are Jason’s Suffolk geldings, Tong and Wedge.   So why’s this thing called a pony grader?  I had to google that… and the one pertinent result was from the History Trust of South Australia’s website

Very light and small graders were used in areas that bigger machinery could not access. They were made entirely of steel and could be pulled by a ‘light’ horse – hence the nickname ‘pony grader’. The graders were considered particularly useful on steep narrow tracks, where turning was difficult. For this purpose it could be used with two ‘light’ horses. These graders had only two axles and four wheels, the front wheels are much smaller than the rear wheels. They had a work capacity of 2-3 kms an hour. Unfortunately because of their light frame, the small graders could not work in rocky terrain, and they only operated effectively if the soil was moist. This limited use of the graders to two or three months of the year.

I would have a great deal of use for one of these on my farm, with my long, steep road up to the hilltop pastures that requires regular grading, and plans to build access roads around and across my pastures as time and energy permits.

Won’t have so much use for moving snow with it, though.  Was just telling Jason that my area there in south-central Kentucky only gets a few snowfalls each winter, of the several inches variety, and the snow melts quickly.  That’s a blessing in many ways, as getting chores and work done with snow on the ground is always more difficult, and sometimes impossible. 

I will have to find a different excuse for hunkering down by the woodstove in the middle of the winter, then.

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Well, as wintry as it gets for Southern California, anyway.

Wind and a bit of rain, and 54 degrees, is all we San Diegans need to get in the holiday spirit.  Lacking (and not needing) a woodburning stove, we’ve got a tidy fire in the fireplace tonight, and with the tree finally decorated, the house is finally starting to feel Christmasy.

I am glad I’m not travelling, stuck in an airport because of snow delays.  My sympathies for all who are; that is no fun at all!

My work schedule is light this week, and I’m enjoying the extra time at home.  Cooking, baking, cleaning, decorating – not much time for just laying around, that’s for sure.  Still, it’s worth it, and beats the heck out of where I was this time last year.

Even though this holiday season snuck up on me, it’s great to be home this time of year.  Hope your holidays are warm and bright!

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One of the many deep-seated convictions shared by various presenters at the Acres conference was the strong correlation between nutrient-dense food and forages that are grown and raised on bio-active, minerally-balanced soils, and the good health of the creatures eating them.

It was a primary, underlying message in nearly every lecture, workshop, and discussion I attended.  From veterinarians to agronomists, cattle breeders to seed specialists, this broad gathering of agrarians may have had differing points of view on more than a few issues, but they spoke with one voice when it came to the importance of quality of what they were growing:  it matters more than anything. 

This surprised me a little, and then it saved me.

I fully expected the onslaught of information on building healthy soils, selecting livestock that makes good gains on grass, and developing smorgasbord pastures.  In the Grazing Management course we learned about the feed value of weeds (surprisingly higher than prize-winning grasses and clovers), the value of hedgerows, and the critical role minerals and trace elements play in plant and animal development.  We learned how to identify beef animals that will consistently produce tender, marbled meat on a diet of grass, and we heard from master graziers who have perfected the art of rotating herds through paddocks to grow huge volumes of grass where only scrub existed before.  

Much of what I listened to those two days I’d already encountered in my studies, which was quite affirming.  Hearing it from the sources, with their personal stories and amazingly deep understanding of their subject, was invigorating.

Still, I was surprised.  I did not expect to be surrounded by a group of people so intensely dedicated to improving the nutrient value of what they and their customers eat.  This organic farming stuff, it’s not just about eliminating chemical fertilizers and poisons.  Nor is it just about building and conserving topsoil, or sequestering carbon with permanent pasture plants, or raising food animals humanely outside of cages and factories, although those are vital aspects of this great endeavor. 

But it’s really about the food, and how the food we grow can be much better than what is generally available.  So much better, in fact, that it functions as medicine.  Because food packed with minerals, enzymes, CLA’s, omega-3 fatty acids, and protective nutrients, is incredibly fortifying, and healing.

Food as medicine.  As it should be.

Which was a message I really needed to hear.

A reminder, really.  Nothing I didn’t already know, just truth I’d drifted away from. 

Then during the conference, the holistic veterinarian began his excellent briefing on homeopathy by discussing how proper hygiene – the modification and minimization of noxious external influences on the patient – is necessary to health.  It is a precursor to health.  You can’t activate the body’s innate protective abilities unless the system is clean.

I met a remarkable octagenarian who grows micro-greens in his basement, and drinks a pint of fresh carrot juice each day.  Said his eyesight improved considerably since he began this regimen.  His good health is undeniable.  He is three years younger than my mother would have been, had she not lost her battle with leukemia.

I thought about my degrading night vision, and my lungs and liver challenged by bad habits these past few years.  I thought about all the farming work I have ahead of me, and how much I needed my health and vigor back.  And just like that, the light came on.  And my mind-view changed.

My juicer sits out on my counter now, rescued from the back of a bottom cupboard.  A pound of organic carrots runs through it every night, part of my rescue.  And with every pint of enzymes and pro-vitamin A I drink, my resolve to avoid toxins and improve hygiene grows. 

No prescription required.  Imagine that.

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 The weather-guessers called for another band of rainstorms through here, beginning yesterday, with rain anticipated to fall off-and-on through Sunday.  It’s drizzling now, with hope for as much as an inch in the next couple of days.

My little backyard garden will appreciate that, especially if they are right about the winds being absent.  Monday’s deluge with 40-mph gusts nearly knocked my peas out of their roots.  I tied them up when I looked out and saw the lovely ladies all bent double over their trellises, and they made it through intact with no lasting damage, but I’m sure it was stressful to be blown about like that.

The peas are organic Green Arrow English Peas, from  Heirloom Seeds, first time I’ve grown these.  They dig the cool temps and made good growth despite the short days, climbing to 4 ft high before dressing themselves with jewel-like white flowers.  Now, tiny pea pods dangle like miniature ornaments, promising sweet treats to come.

Gardening in a Mediterranean climate in the winter months is quite extraordinary.  It’s a lot like having a second Spring, with shorter days of course.  I shall miss the luxury of growing brocolli and brussels sprouts, peas and lettuce and scallions, beets and kale, through December and January.  A better gardener than I could have a continuous supply of edibles for the dinner table with nary a gap in harvests, with careful planning and year-round succession planting. 

As it is, I lose track of time, forget to start the next round of seeds, and we suffer the occasional short hiatus from ultra-local, organic home-grown food.  But peas are on their way, two plantings spaced 3 weeks apart, the leaf lettuce is filling salad bowls twice a week already, and I have high hopes for my happy brassicas.

It’s raining lightly but steadily tonight, and the garden is soaking it up.

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This post breaks new ground for me.  

My week at the Acres USA Eco-Farming conference was both life-changing and reaffirming, and made me realize that everything I do, even here in suburban San Diego waiting for the retirement bell to ring so I can head to Kentucky and get started, is about my farming.  The story has begun, and this part of it, this preamble to the Great Beginning, needs telling too. 

For some reason, up to this point I thought my posts had to be about the farm, or strictly farm-related, in order to be relevant to this blog.  Having told my story to dozens of fellow farmers, I’m seeing it differently now.  My journey to the farm is the current chapter, which includes everything I’m doing here in suburbia to make the transition to farming in Kentucky.  I’ve even taken to calling my curbside homestead “Bear and Thistle West” because it is in all ways my West Coast farmhouse on 1/8 of an acre,  where we eat food grown and cooked by hand, preserve the harvest overflow, make soil, manage rainfall, and build skills and collect tools needed for farming.

The reality is, I am a farmer, whether I’m here on Redlands Place in Bonita, CA or on Knifley Rd in Elk Horn, KY.  At the rate things have been going, these last couple of years will fly by like birds trying to beat the winter weather; every day, then, I am trying to do something that brings me closer to starting my farm.  So I’ll write about that.

As for the conference, my brain couldn’t have taken another day of lectures and workshops; there was so much good material, so many good speakers.  I’ll discuss the high points as I find time, as I have several posts drafted and will work on them as I can.  The conference wrapped up Saturday evening and I escaped the frozen north in the nick of time, heading back to Bear and Thistle West just before the vicious winter storm plowed across the Midwest, closing freeways and causing havoc for travellers. 

Yesterday we finally got a taste of what passes for winter weather here in SoCal:  heavy rain and wind, terrific gusting wind.  My high-tech rain gauge – a widemouth pint mason jar – measured 2.5 inches, quite a lot for this area, and much needed.  It’ll knock down the fire danger for awhile, and the moisture is appreciated by yards and gardens, and farms, too.

Yes, farms, and close by, hallelujia.  Seems we have a new start-up, a local organic CSA farm south of San Diego, nearly on the Mexican border.  I stumbled across Suzy’s Farm website by accident and was delighted to read that they have a farmstand, since my winter backyard garden is just getting going (we garden all winter long here at 32 deg lattitude) and I’m always looking for good organic vegetables.  So I called, and Rodrigo said no, the farmstand wasn’t open, but come on by the warehouse, I could buy there.

So off into the pouring rain I went.  Looking for carrots to juice, mostly, but ready for just about anything.  And as it turned out, carrots weren’t picked, but they had lots and lots of every other thing.  I bagged two bunches of chard, two bunches of long beets, a handful of those lovely purple-necked scallions, a bag of round zuchinnis, a pumpkin (for pie), a buttercup squash, and six cabbages.  Yes, I said six.  Cabbages.   For sauerkraut, of course.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve made sauerkraut.  Like, 25 years, give or take a few.  I still have my old 5-gallon ceramic crock, which serves nicely for brining turkeys but hasn’t seen a leaf of cabbage for years.  This time around, I had the help of my trusty food processor, which made the shredding of 20 lbs of cabbage a very simple task.  Absolutely nothing to it.  And the giant ceramic bowl I bought in a Fallon, NV feed store, thinking a bowl that large would surely come in handy some day, was just perfect for salting and mixing the mounds of shredded cabbage. 

My hands ended up being the packing tool of choice, and now the crock is filled with kraut, covered with brine and weighted down, and we’re waiting for fermentation to start.  Some books say it will be finished in 3 to 6 weeks, others note that the flavor gets more complex the longer it goes, and 6 months is not too long.  I can’t remember how long my first batch developed, so it’s like I’m doing this for the first time. 

I believe I’ll sample a little over the New Year’s holiday, and pair it with whatever clean meat I’m able to find.  Now if I could only find a local farm that raises pastured pork!

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