Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Deep Summer

 Blueberries are picking. Chicks and ducklings are breaking through shells, coming earthside. Little boys are giving themselves first haircuts while mamas wait for that jam to set, wait for that water bath to boil. We are sun-browned and weary, grateful and sometimes teary, in Deep Summer.

Sunday we were in talks with friends about letting go of Much Loved Animals to make room for Much More Sense Animals. Later that evening, Craig ripped up the carpet in our new bedroom, setting off decades of dirt and dander, revealing less than inspiring plywood underneath. Monday night we moved furniture from our old-bedroom-soon-to-be-Gus's-bedroom only to find ourselves bickering over how little we seem to get done in a day. And all the while I'm thinking about how settling into the right place- whether it be in regards to a room in your house or the herd that you keep- this settling can have you so off kilter, so much so that you can wonder if you really are settling into what's right or if you're just making yourself really uncomfortable just because.

 We lost three hens to a fox last week and not but two days later the efforts of a broody hen were revealed in 8 healthy chicks, or chicklings if you're a certain almost four year old. I'm settling into the idea that all comes around, it all rights itself. Death, birth, growth after you burn it all to the ground. And so in that spirit I'm doing my best to make peace with the necessary but hard decisions we're making, straining my eyes to see the rebirth around the corner.

It has felt a little like waiting for lightning to strike at my feet as I've tried to find a place where our interests overlap with our available resources, and most of the time it has felt like a journey of mainly no's and some lackluster maybe's. No to being a dairy, no to raising meat in any large capacity, no to big veggie production, maybe to flowers, maybe to herbs. And so what now? A farm does not stay afloat on zinnias and tulsi alone! 

 Sunday morning I set out to one of our wild blueberry fields alone. Five hours later I had just as many pounds and a plan for jam. Such a difference from last year when I could barely find the patience to pick a pint. This season, despite changes to come, has been one of reassurance. We can grow our own food. We can pick enough of our own berries to have a winter jam stock. We can make this all work.

Summer has been good to us. We've been lake swimming and eating out of the garden daily and finding ourselves a community. In my mind, I remember last summer as eternal but this one it feels like I can barely get my hands on. In just a few days I'll be able to say Gus starts back to school next month! And then before any of us are ready, it will be October. My favorite month made particularly special this year with plans to open an online shop. I'm excited and scared, and sometimes feeling less than qualified. And for now I'll leave it at that. A less than poetic ending but I can only put off the to do list in hours of daylight for so long. All the summer love to you.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Great Eggspectations: What's in an Egg?

When the broccoli is destroyed by deer before it even has a chance and you find half your kale to have fallen victim to an epic snail snack, you can set your heart at ease because at least you have your eggs. I cannot recommend keeping chickens highly enough for anyone beginning to produce their own food for this very reason. While inevitably failing miserably at growing this or that, you will undoubtedly raise chickens with ease and in the process give you and yours food in the highest. And don't we know we all need a win when we first task ourselves with the business of going Back to the Land?

When our hens finally found their way back to their nesting boxes this spring after a long winter off, I was just as flooded with gratitude, wonder and love as I was the day they laid their first eggs. The eggs laid by hens on pasture are incomparable to anything else on the egg market. Our chickens graciously produce eggs by the bowlful this time of year, thus making them an unquestioned staple of our diet.  A little boiling water, just enough time and a pinch of salt renders a barely set golden orb of heaven that I could gladly enjoy at every meal. While last year will be remembered for calves and piglets, I'll easily remember this as the year I fell in love with The Egg. I ate the first of many soft boiled eggs, relishing special moments with Gus as we so carefully excavated that sun-gold goodness, and I mastered flipping a fried egg without breaking the yolk, a true sign of the Eggs with Every Meal Diet.

The perhaps surprising part of this whole love affair is that until recent years I hadn't been a huge fan of eggs. Or, more accurately, they were never much a fan of me. Always the source of digestive unrest, I either avoided or regretted eggs. It wasn't until I began keeping chickens and rotationally grazing them on pasture that I could eat eggs as freely as I do now. Even the eggs from my backyard flock during my suburban days made me sick, something I can only conclude came from too much supplemental diet where their natural diet was lacking. Chickens on pasture are able to enjoy their natural foraged diet of insects, plants, worms and seeds. Not only that, they're able to be chickens- out in the sunshine and fresh air, spreading their wings and dirt bathing until their heart is content. It only makes since that an animal allowed to live as it wishes with the diet it prefers would produce a far superior offering than that of its caged, poorly fed counterpart. It's the difference between raw milk and its pasteurized, bastardized distant cousin on the supermarket shelf. It's the difference between the bacon of a pig raised with her nose rooting around in the earth and that of a pig raised in a feedlot and pumped full of antibiotics, the latter of the two bacons having to be flavored before hitting shelves. It's the difference between the beef of a cow given room to breathe with an array of forage and one given gut rotting grain on a depressing cement floor. I write this with conviction: the only egg worth eating is from a truly free range hen on pasture. It's so important- to the welfare of the hens we take from, but also to our own health.

People are so often put off by the price tag that comes with a dozen eggs from free range hens on pasture. But, even at $5 a dozen, eggs are still an incredibly affordable animal protein. That's less than .42 cents an egg! It's not that pastured eggs are so expensive; it's that conventional eggs are so cheap, and we've gotten shamefully accustomed. We've learned to compartmentalize animals down to their cuts and their price per pound, instead of valuing them as a whole, living being from start to bacon and eggs on the plate. Many of us have real entitlement issues with food and it becomes particularly obvious when it comes time to put animal products in our baskets. When you buy pastured eggs, it's not just about what's in the carton. You're buying assurances- of animal welfare, of a superior product in taste and in health, of continued efforts to be a steward of the earth and its animals from the farmer who collected and washed those eggs for you. You can't get those things from conventional eggs, or even eggs emblazoned with the buzzwords Organic! Cage Free! Free Range! No Antibiotics! Most chickens whose eggs fall under these labels will still never see the light of day, never have much more than cement to walk around on, never be treated with the respect deserved by a creature responsible for feeding our families. Some are subjected to beak cutting and molting through starvation, others are allowed access to outside but without any regulation on the quality or duration. And those are the good cases. Chickens raised for conventional eggs are in cages that are at best the size of a legal sheet of paper. No room to spread their wings, no sun, no dirt bath. All take on our part, no give.

Met with the first what are we going to do with all these eggs?? of the 2014 season, I had the idea to work on a series of egg recipes using our delicious pastured eggs of which I'm obscenely proud. From the basic boiled to the superb souffle- it's going to eggcellent! But I would be remiss to not talk about the egg and its beloved producer first. Chickens are silly and not too terribly bright, but they're lovely, beautiful, giving creatures. None of us are so big or so deserving that those we take from should receive nothing in return. What I've discovered is this: the key to a perfectly boiled or scrambled or sunny side up-er isn't about perfect technique; it's about starting with a good egg. It's about finding the person who mucks the chicken coop or washes the eggs or moves the girls around on pasture. If you can get that close to your eggs, you can scramble with a clean conscience, and I really encourage you to do so.

Check out this fantastic health comparison between pastured eggs and conventional eggs done by Mother Earth News.

Go here to read more on what exactly those feel-good egg labels mean.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Homesteader

 I thought I would write you a recipe for strawberry ice cream. It's so very In Season and has the potential to be so very Local. And if you're anything like me, the combination of those two things makes you feel so very Smug. But the thing is, I don't know how to make strawberry ice cream and despite four whole-hearted attempts, I still don't know how to make a strawberry ice cream I can stand behind. This one was too icy, that one's eggs curdled. So I stopped using all of our strawberries for subpar ice cream and went back to eating them by the quart.

 Back in March I planted over 100 snapdragons. I babied them and watered them and shuffled them around after the sun. I hardened them off, I promised Craig this day and that day that I would get them into the ground. I still haven't planted them. Some bloomed in their little six cell containers, some lost the will to live, and others are still hanging on to the hope that I might just come around and do the right thing. But my poppies started blooming last week and I cut the first of the zinnias this morning. And although they aren't anything but a hopeful green, my dahlias are growing in the ground.

 Last year the snapdragons would have destroyed me. So would the cabbage I threw my hands up at, the corn that doesn't seem to be growing, the weeds that are faster and seemingly more determined than we are. But what can you do?  I don't know how to make strawberry ice cream. And I don't know how to take the land in my hands and meet all my needs. But I'm here. And the kale and the chard are growing while the first of the blueberries are ripening. I'm here. And I'll be here next year and the year after that.

 This year we're producing more and becoming more independent when it comes to meeting our needs. As I've gotten to know myself as someone who has land and animals as a means to sustenance, I've realized I don't want much more than to survive. I don't want an organic veggie farm, I just want to grow enough to feed my family. I don't want to raise animals for meat beyond what our soup pot needs because it's still a process I very much struggle with. I just want to survive, nothing more, nothing less.

 The idea of The Farm and The Farmer always felt too big for me. It felt stifling. Milla once made a distinction between The Homesteader and The Farmer. I can't remember when or where or really elaborate on what she had to say about the two (aside from saying that she was The Homesteader having never wished to be The Farmer), but I remember thinking maybe I was trying to wrap my head around this whole thing wrong.

The dream is simple. It's to lessen our needs and meet as many of those left as we can. And then, where ends aren't meeting up, use our personal strengths and skills. Piano lessons, knitting, pottery. I thought for a long time that having this land and the desire for the life that came with it meant that I needed to do something beyond what it could do for our family, but that isn't true and there's a great deal of freedom in that. Freedom to create, freedom to get there when we get there, freedom to live a life as it happens- with dead snapdragons and blooming poppies and strawberry ice cream that isn't quite right.