September 15, 2012

For how long will the lights be out?

Even if you don’t live in a rural area prone to extended electrical outages from windstorms and drunk guys driving into power poles, this is a question most of us find ourselves asking each year, especially in winter. Autumn. That time of year that is almost upon us. Yes, you can pay for expensive battery-powered light gadgets (a few of which we endorse)…but then what, after the batteries run out because PG&E just can’t get it fixed? You can be better prepared using tried and true (mostly) old-time methods, for a lot less money, and you can even have a little fun doing it. Here are some ideas we use at the farm, some of which make for great craft projects with the kids. Not to mention, we hope these teach some skills which shouldn’t have been drowned out by “modern living.”

LED Camping Lantern: Have one or two. These are the brightest light sources, but also the biggest battery “dollar hogs”, usually using at least four costly “D” batteries each. For playing a family board game or reading a book, they work best, giving off even, very bright light. Store these with new batteries removed, so that there is no accidental corrosion of the battery chamber. If you feel you cannot make use of the more traditional items that use open flames we are about to discuss, have a bigger budget so you can have many more of these and the extra batteries to go with.

Working flashlights with batteries: In the age of cheap, super bright LED models, this is a no-brainer. Every person in the house capable of holding and using one should have TWO, as well as a spare set of batteries. Especially for households with younger children, I recommend something like this:  at $6 per, they won’t break the budget. They can clip on to clothing to prevent being misplaced. Why did I say “two per person”? Because during multi-day outages I guarantee someone if not everyone will put their flashlight down somewhere. And when the electricity comes back on or daylight arrives, their location might be easily forgotten. Not to mention, most children are flashlight junkies and will play with and possibly break them, no matter what you say. So it’s good to have spares. All flashlights and batteries should be stored in a known location. Like with the lanterns, store the flashlights with batteries removed. You know those plastic containers of salad or cherry tomatoes you’ve been recycling? Clean one…they are superb for storing just this kind of thing. But, batteries don’t last forever and sometimes it proves unnerving to have flashlight beams searing everyone’s eyeballs. And on the farm, we need to save our flashlights for something that really matters, like going outside for extended checks on our animals and infrastructure at night. That’s why you should also have….

Hurricane lamps: Yes, those things that cost about $10 at the hardware store and use the kerosene lamp oil. We have four of them, and we think you should have at least that many too. One for each bathroom in use, and, one for each corridor of movement through the house. These are your “night lights” to help everyone navigate the house safely. Don’t forget to buy 1-2 bottles of extra oil, because after you fill your new lamps, you’ll already be out. “But I have little kids, I can’t use those, they aren’t safe.” Well, for decades before electricity was harnessed adults and children alike used…..wait for it…..oil lamps. You and your kids can and should know how to use these safely. They are very safe, and only become unsafe when someone unfamiliar with them or lacking knowledge about proper safety precautions around open flames tries to make use of them. Everyone should know and understand that information!! If you don’t, here:

So if you find you can embrace the past, I am going to mention tips in this blog that aren’t often found elsewhere. Don’t just buy the lamp(s) and store it in the garage. Buy it, take it home, and have the whole family understand how it works. Children old enough to have some manual dexterity should participate. If your child can use scissors to cut a basic pattern out of a piece of paper without struggling, he or she should be able to use a lamp.

There are four main parts, top to bottom….chimney (glass top thingy), burner (the wick-raiser knob is on this part), collar (screws onto the glass/ceramic/metal thing that holds the oil), lamp body/ base (where the oil is). . Now that you can name your lamp’s parts, notice how the four prongs that hold the chimney should be bent inward enough so that the chimney is held on securely, and can’t wobble. Remove the chimney. Now try to replace the chimney. It helps to tilt the chimney, resting its lower edge against two of the prongs, then move the chimney upright so that the remaining prongs just catch the rest of the glass. The hand not holding the chimney may need to gently pull back on the two prongs so that the chimney can go into place. Adjust these prongs if necessary, so that everyone can put the chimney back on the unlit lamp somewhat quickly. Next, with the chimney removed, also remove the burner/collar assembly and fill the lamp body with the oil, up to an inch below the neck of the lamp body. The new wick will need to first be fully soaked in the lamp oil. To do this, feed the wick through the bottom of the (usually thin brass) burner while turning the wick-raising knob in the proper direction. Now submerge the long end of the wick in the lamp body holding the oil. and screw the burner/collar with wick onto lamp body. Give the wick a moment, the oil will absorb and travel up the wick. (This happens by something called “capillary action” and is a teachable moment for your kids!) Sometimes it takes longer to saturate the part of the wick protruding above the burner. If you can see that this section of the wick is dry, or if you are in a big hurry, raise the wick up through the lamp until you come to the saturated part. Then carefully fill the lamp oil bottle’s cap with oil. Allow the dry end of the wick to dip into the cap. The entire wick should be quickly saturated. Carefully return any unused oil to the lamp oil bottle and replace the cap. Then, adjust the wick so that it is just barely above the brass cap of the burner. At this point, if you spilled any lamp oil, wash your hands clean of any lamp oil and wipe up any spills with a paper towel.

Using a match or lighter, light the lamp by touching the flame to the top of the wick. It may take a moment to ignite. If it will not light, raise the wick up a little more and try again. Once the lamp is lit, columns of black sooty smoke will go up from the lamp unless you quickly lower the wick down below the brass cap of the burner. Have in mind ahead of time which way to turn the wick raising knob! You only want a tiny flame. Now replace the chimney, like you practiced doing earlier. With the chimney in place, the flame will become bigger. Reduce the flame again, so that the lamp is as bright as possible while generating no smoke. This is part of what is called “trimming” the lamp. [You can even make the flame have a particular shape if you wish…I won’t go into it here, but Google “how to trim an oil lamp”.] You now have a usable lamp. Everyone needs to know that in moments the chimney will become very HOT and should not be touched. It is best to light the lamp in the place it will be needed. Do not transport a lit lamp. Everyone should practice until they can properly light and trim the lamp without assistance. Let your children who are able perform these steps under your supervision. Emphasize the importance of understanding how the lamp works and being careful around it—no horseplay, no running, always moving slowly and deliberately. Think before you do, and NEVER light the lamp without an adult’s presence and permission—it is not a toy. If your learning session made the chimney sooty, clean it once it is cooled with dishsoap and water. A dirty lamp doesn’t give much light, and a lamp in use should be cleaned, oiled (adding more oil) and inspected daily. Now that you know how to use the lamp, and it is filled and ready, store it until needed. I place a clean, plastic produce bag upside down over our lamps to keep them dust-free and ready for use. When you need the lamp, where to put it? First and foremost, on a solid platform, large enough that knocking the lamp off accidentally would be difficult, out of the way of human and animal traffic, with nothing else capable of catching on fire nearby. And anywhere that is near a mirror is a bonus, since mirrors amplify light. So each bathroom countertop is choice #1. On top of your kitchen range (while not in use!!) is choice #2. Dining room tables and other uncluttered tabletops are #3. Other locations may be a possibility, and, the advantage of this kind of lamp is that it can still function well in the presence of some air movement. NEVER place the lamp where it has even a remote chance to fall and break…the fuel will go everywhere and most likely ignite, with very serious consequences. Use these lamps in the home only….do not use them in animal barns/pens or in locations where large amounts of flammable materials are stored, or anywhere else where an open flame might cause a fire. If you must have an outdoor oil lamp, look into obtaining a railroad-type oil lamp that is designed for such use. Do not forget to extinguish all lamps before retiring for the night, as an added safety measure…though if you must leave one open-flame item in use, a hurricane lamp is your safest bet. We don’t leave them on because we live with nine cats and feel it is too risky. Blow out the flame by puffing down the chimney. You can also turn the wick down to starve the flame of air, but can accidentally send the wick into the lamp body.

Small oil lamps: we have a few on hand that are made of glass, with only a wick that goes down into a base holding the oil. They can be held easily in the palm of one’s hand. While not giving as much light as a hurricane lamp, they can be placed on smaller surfaces. Again, use these ahead of time to make sure they work correctly. Make sure the wicks are adjusted so that no soot is produced. The opening for filling with oil on these lamps can be quite narrow. One trick to know: liquid will always track down a vertical surface. Place the wick down into the lamp body and SLOWLY pour the oil against the suspended wick. The oil will flow down into the lamp body along the wick, as long as you pour very slowly. Next thread the wick up through the small glass wick holder. Again, the wick must be saturated in oil to work. Once threaded, and with about 1/8” wick protruding, light the map with a match or lighter. Wait for the flame to settle down. If the flame jumps up and is more than 3/4” tall, extinguish the lamp at once (blow out the flame). Lift the wick holder, and gently pull a little more wick downward through the wick holder….just a tiny bit. Re-light and check the flame. You want a stable, non-sputtering or smoking flame that is at most 5/8” tall. Extinguish the lamp, and store your small lamp(s) in a safe place until needed.

Candles: There are many kinds of candles, from huge pillars to votives to tea lights. Candles also make effective aids against the darkness but require knowing some special tips. Candles require the greatest caution, as they are the most apt to cause an accidental fire if the user is careless. Some things to know: every candle, no matter how small, should be in or on secondary containment. We place large candles on special candle plates….but you don’t have to buy those at the candle store. Salad plates or shallow soup plates that have some kind of convexity work great. Thrift stores have many suitable pretty plates at rock bottom prices.

The plate should be some kind of glass or ceramic, ne

ver plastic or paper. Why do you need these? A candle that burns for a long time can suddenly “give way.” The side becomes too soft, and a large volume of scalding hot wax can pour out…and potentially take the flame with it. Always place a candle IN or ON something large enough to contain a spill of wax. This photo shows what I’m talking about; these candles were left burning after the guests departed from a summer evening patio party. Both the wick and half the wax was on fire…but the candle plate prevented a major mess or worse from happening.


Votives can go it votive holders or small mason jars or drinking glasses; same with tea light candles. Burning candles should always be checked regularly, but if you are using them in an outage, you might not be patrolling each room of your home every half hour. So use your correctly sized plates! What about tapered candles? I don’t recommend them for use because they lean and drip wax very easily…but they do have one special use. They are perfect for use as Walking Candles. Sometimes, a person had to go from point A to B with some illumination, and a device for a handheld candle really helped. You might like them too, after you consider a few things. First, do they work for you? Go outside tonight or to another dark place with any candle you own. Light it, and try to walk around by the candle’s light. What’s going on? Why can you barely see? The candle is blinding you at the same time it is lighting your way. Holding the candle with your arm outstretched helps, but that’s pretty tiring! Also, you have to be confident that the user has good safety knowledge and common sense….it would be tragic to catch hair or clothes on fire through a moment’s inattention. But if the user is capable, there is a fix for how to make your Walking Candle work beautifully.


On the blog I found this image:

This is a great idea for how to make a safe walking candleholder for a tapered candle. The peg to raise the candle as it burns is very clever, and would work great as long as wax was not allowed to drip down and glue the candle to the wire. I would modify the design to use heavier wire, as well as a broader base so that it was very stable when set down on a surface (use your plate!). If you don’t own a wire jig, wrap wire around a pipe or dowel a little larger in circumference than your tapered candle. The kids would have a lot of fun helping! But wait, isn’t the candle still going to blind you? Here’s where you need to add one more feature….the best old-time walking candleholders had a piece of metal that blocked the candle flame from the sight of the person holding it. There are two ways to add this in: elongate the wire handle and solder a piece of square or round metal to the area where the flame would be. Or, elongate the handle and bend two tight loops into the handle, such that the loops can hold a piece of metal to block the flame. I plan to make one of these out of copper, which is easy to form and solder. Once you apply your ingenuity, you can walk around with your candle all night!

Candles come in two main types: beeswax and petroleum-based. Beeswax candles cost much more but do not give off soot. All candles can cost more than you’d like to pay. For another thrifty project, buy some candle wick at a crafts store. Then comb secondhand stores for candles. You may find new ones, or used ones. Any candle can be re-melted and made into a new one as long as you have wick. We save candles that have “had it” for re-creation. Too messy to tackle? You don’t have to be afraid of wax spills on any surface. Wax on anything, even carpet, can be cleaned up with a paper towel and your clothes iron. Place the paper towel over the wax spill and heat the iron on the silk setting. Gently iron the paper towel. As the iron warms and melts the wax, the paper towel absorbs it. Done!

Storage: at the farm we are fortunate to have an unusually safe storage place for all these flammable items; an unused fireplace–we have a wood stove, so the fireplace that came with the house was just wasted space.  We used to keep them out on the hearlth as decorations, but tired of how icky and dusty the otherwise pretty lamps and candles would quickly become. So here is our assortment, neatly covered and stored for the next time we need them. If our house was different, and we had a large fireplace, it would be fun to have all these lit inside the fireplace for an attractive display on a winter evening!

Only you know the best location in your home, with some things to keep in mind…candles do poorly in hot areas, and oil lamps and bottles should not be stored in a very hot place or near open flames or a furnace….or above an oven or stove. Small candles and votives can fit nicely in a shoebox or plastic salad container as mentioned earlier. Make sure all family members know where they are kept. And don’t forget to have matches or a new lighter stored with your items! No one wants to go to all this effort, only to be stumbling around in the dark trying to find a way to light the lamps and candles! I hope we’ve helped make the next power failure a little more fun or romantic. “We get to get out the oil lamps!”


August 4, 2012

I often find the direction of my life changed on the spur of a moment. Reading about this, experiencing that…some previously unknown information or pursuit that lights the path forward. A friend and CSA member supplied the latest lightning strike by sharing an article with me. But before I cite it, I have to note that this is the second major shift initiated by my friend. After suffering a really stupendous bout of health problems, she and her two children finally found out something very, very important…they have celiac disease.

Never heard of it? It is beginning to come on the radar because it is an autoimmune disease in which the consumption of gluten, found in some cereal grains as well as a zillion processed foods, causes a cascade of serious reactions and illness in the body. Surely if nothing else, you have noticed the proliferation of “gluten-free” items in the grocery stores. I became intrigued as I read about celiac disease, as we grow some gluten-free items here that can be milled into flour. Namely, chestnuts, almonds, and dry beans (standard and garbanzo). I purchased a book in order to learn more, Called “Flour Power: A Guide to Modern Home Grain Milling” by Marleeta Basey. I hoped the book would steer me toward a mill that we could afford to purchase, and use to supply ourselves and our CSA members with diverse flours. But then the goal twisted a little…my farming partner is skilled at growing winter wheat, and as the years have gone by I have absorbed some of that know-how, though the learning curve would be steep if I tried to raise acres of it on my own. This book, largely about how to make and bake grain-based food from scratch, led to me taking a fork in the road I’ll describe as follows.

Modern milling is designed to provide the end users of wheat with a wide array of stable, uniform flour products that can be used in a range of settings, from home use, to bakeries/restaurants, to large commercial food processors. However the price of this stability [long shelf life, not needing refrigeration] is that the flour is nutritionally bankrupt. Wheat kernels, on their own, are loaded with protein, vitamins and minerals. About 85% of that is taken away by the time you consume the flour, and it doesn’t matter whether you choose bleached white or what you believe is whole wheat….it’s ALL crap. Learning this sobering truth created the determination to beat the system….grow a dedicated plot of wheat, harvest it, and retain roughly 600lbs. We have a quality small borrowed grain mill; so stage two involved using this ground wheat we grew ourselves (properly referred to as “wholemeal”) to make bread for home consumption, thereby bypassing all store-bought breads to the extent that we chose. And, in the last two years, we did it. It was a lot of work. Growing and harvesting dryland wheat is always a gamble of time and money. Then after harvest, one doesn’t just toss wheat that came out of the combine bin straight into a mill…it has to be laboriously hand-sifted, picking out debris and seeds and chaff before it can be milled. Care has to be taken that the mill doesn’t heat up; heat destroys the nutrients. Once milled, the nutrients are highly perishable; it has to be used or frozen right away. Then there is the skill required to make bread worth eating as opposed to a doorstop. I made well over a dozen “crater loaves”, because of having an improper balance of ingredients. Trial, error, and detailed notes led to the solution over time….but what a pain that was!

So this is all great, right? Mission accomplished! Well, no, because I just came to another fork in the road, and I took it (thank you, Yogi). And this was the article I read yesterday, Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes You Fat. Except, it really needs to be titled Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes You SICK. I’ll sum up the article for those who can’t spare the time: wheat has been bred over the last half-century to feed the world, but in doing so, plant breeders have altered the grain to the point where it barely resembles its ancestors. A growing body of research indicates that our bodies react very poorly when the modern wheat is consumed, causing health problems ranging from full blown celiac disease to diabetes and chronic cardiac disease. Why? Because we are all allergic to it in varying degrees, and these allergic responses express themselves as diverse inflammation, in random bodily systems. Almost all of us consume wheat products nearly as much as water, and so we are all continually inflaming various bodily systems…it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is an undesirable state of affairs.

But the doctor who wrote the wheat article glossed over something that to me is very important. He notes: “This is not the wheat your great-grandmother used to bake her bread.” And, “The Bible says, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Eating bread is nearly a religious commandment. But the Einkorn, heirloom, Biblical wheat of our ancestors is something modern humans never eat.” Well, that isn’t exactly true. There are small farms and farmers that HAVE kept Einkorn alive. As well as other ancient kinds of wheat like emmer, and strains that fall under the description of “heritage wheat”. Isn’t it a no-brainer that if modern wheat is the problem, ancient wheat can be the solution? I’m not suggesting that individuals suffering from serious gluten related illness can go scarfing down products made from these grains of antiquity, they can’t. Wheat contains gluten, whether ancestral or hybridized. But for those of us who are not visibly sickened by wheat, it can only lead to better health to turn back to grains that once were the dietary staple of so many civilizations. Do you want this for yourself? You don’t have to wait on Nevermore Farm. There are already farms that sell ancient grains, and they will grind it into flour just before sending it to you if you wish. Simply search Buying Heritage Grains online. I strongly encourage NOT buying any processed product already made from these grains. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

It will take some years to achieve this, but the new goal is: Learn to grow ancient cultivars of wheat. Find out what can do the best in our climate and soil. Gain a seed supply large enough to grow an acre or two….and later on, maybe more. Harvest and retain it, and then learn to bake with THAT. Ironically, this isn’t a return to Yucky. Everything I have read indicates that emmer and einkorn offer superior nutrition, flavor and texture in a loaf of bread compared to modern wheats. Artisan breadmakers seek it out and treat it like gold. What the ancient grains do not offer are the high yields of modern wheat, so it will take more land to grown less grain. But if there is one thing I’ve learned about farming, Bigger is NEVER Better; old varieties always taste better than modern ones and are prone to poorer yields and sometimes reduced resistance to cultural problems. There is always a trade-off. After the Great Depression, the goal of agriculture was that of Scarlett O’Hara: “I will never go hungry again!!” Nobody said anything about quality on the way to quantity….and that is a lot of why we have arrived at this sad condition.

I find myself travelling an odyssey of learning how we eat now, versus how we ate a few centuries ago. It has changed more than I could ever have imagined, and I know that these kinds of discoveries about “what’s wrong with our food” will go on and on. It is truly sad that a person almost has to become a recluse homesteader or a bit of an extremist in order to ensure the consumption of foodstuffs that are not harmful; but it really has come down to that. We have been so carefully deceived into thinking that we are being sold good food in our stores. Information like this should be in the headline of every paper, Oprah should devote a week of episodes to the problem, but I rest secure in the knowledge that the silence will be deafening. Don’t forget, the processed foods that most folks eat is a billion dollar industry, and there is another billion dollar industry selling the drugs and healthcare needed to treat all these mysterious modern ailments. Who knew?

July 24, 2012

A recent dialogue with another farm regarding their website appearance caused me to realize that….our own site really could use some help. Lack of time, technological impairment, and procrastination all combined to keep that project on the back burner…until now. I had to face it, the other day—the single biggest thing I wanted to do with the site was have more current photos available. Hardly a week goes by without some visual nugget of farm living going onto my Facebook page; why couldn’t I at least get a few things placed on the site? Then it grabbed me….roughly 5,000+ unsorted photographs, taken over years with different cameras and cell phones and smartphones, were scattered all over hard drives and hidden in folders. No wonder I never tackled the job; the real problem was the job before the job. So with a deep sigh, I took a few moments to learn how to work with iPhoto, and started flinging images into folders. Renaming. Adjusting. It took one hot afternoon’s work, but about 3,000 photos since 2007 made it to some kind of order. As to the rest….well, I have to find them first.

But all the flitting photos were jarring to see….did it really look like that? Has it really changed that much? When they talk about your life flashing before your eyes, they must have been looking at a 368 photo import. One of the most startling things was The Vegetation. When we moved here, the street was visible from our front room window. Now, that visibility extends about 15 feet. We live encircled by walls of living privacy fence…massive hedges of berries, layered with fruit trees, ornamental grasses, random clumps of flowers. It isn’t possible to tell there IS a street, except from the sound of the occasional passing vehicle. The changes in infrastructure seem quite dramatic too….tents, structures, fencing for pens. They add themselves as layers, and after just a few short weeks the memory of what was(n’t) there before fades away. Until the old photos come out, at which time the view seems quite shocking. All in all, we have a jungle of barely managed plant life here. For so many years, the property defined itself by its austerity, but no longer. Our first building project, our lighthouse chicken coop of which we were so proud, is now barely visible behind a morass of weeping willow and black bamboo. Times passes. Things change. Plants grow.

January 21, 2012

I haven’t written in a long time because….as the years go on and we repeat the actions of each season in turn, there isn’t always anything new on which to exposit. But finally that has changed. We have a puppy.

This may not seem like a big deal to many people, for whom a dog is one of the accouterments of modern living. Since moving to the country almost ten years ago to the day, we have not had good experiences of the canine sort. Which is to say, we have had horridly bad ones. For us, dogs have meant: dead and dying poultry, hours/days/months of time spent nursing injured birds back to health, harassment of our cats, intense stress, hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars spent on fences and gates, nasty and highly emotional conflicts with neighbors, a better knowledge of California dog law than anyone should have to possess, legal hassles, nightmares; and at the very worst, having to shoot dogs that killed our livestock. With all that, it isn’t hard to see why we haven’t looked too fondly at anything in the canine department. And, it was sad to realize that it had come to be this way. I grew up with a dog that was the apple of my eye, and never could have imagined that as an adult living on a farm, that I would not only not have a dog, but would come to borderline hate them. Not a good situation at all, and one I was totally unprepared to encounter when I moved from suburbia to a rural home.

Years ago, we met friends about an hour away; our commonality being that they also raised heritage turkeys like we did. On and off they would tell me, usually after patiently listening to my latest dog-related tragedy, “What you need is a hound dog”. I would smile and think, “Really, no, I don’t”. They had some breed of dog I’d never heard of. I’d ask what the dogs were, and forget the answer just as fast. They were big and they had brindle coats. Whatever.

Time went on, life went on. Our immediate neighbors, which had always been a huge part of the Dog Conflict Equation, moved away several months ago in fall of 2011. In the years they lived next door, they provided another dimension to my dislike of dogs owned by some people in the country. I’ve always felt that if one is going to keep an animal, regardless of species, it should be done right. It is unfortunate that most of what I witness in my county of residence includes: not knowing the words “spay” and “neuter”, lack of proper housing and socialization, ignorance of canine behavior, letting dogs roam the neighborhood uncontrolled, little or no veterinary care, and dogs being illegally transported without crossties in the back of pickup trucks (of course no one ever gets a citation for this). I watched the dogs next door for years; kept on chains or in squalor-filled pens for the worst sort of backyard breeding operations, neglected and sometimes underfed. No regular attention, just someone going out every few days to toss bargain-brand dog food on the ground for them to eat. Never any walks or exercise, and little or no adult supervision of any of the animal “care”. No thought ever given to their welfare in the bitter cold or insufferable heat. Incessant barking and dog s**t ignored and left to pile up on the evening breeze…but they were always just barely on the right side of the law. They met the technicalities of providing food, water, and shelter, so there was nothing to be done except shake my head at what stupid, ignorant, insensitive people they were. And lament further that they were raising their children to believe that this was an acceptable way to treat a living creature.

Not so long after the neighbors departed, my friends with the hound dogs sent me an email: “We had a litter we weren’t expecting. We would like to offer you a puppy.” My first inclination was to snort and write back thanks, but no thanks. But I didn’t respond immediately. One aspect to the neighbor conflicts was that after all the hullabaloo caused by their dogs being loose, I could not afford to have a dog or ours set so much as a toenail on a blade of grass over the property line, even during training exercises. But now with that pressure off….I thought about it for a few days. And then I even started asking questions about the dogs. I knew that their hounds were able to run off unwanted dogs and protect their livestock from predators, and then reminded myself as to the breed: Plott hounds. I did some reading, and came to understand that I was being offered a pedigreed hunting/homestead dog that many people out there would give their eye teeth and left toe to own. And I thought about it some more—though I know myself well enough to realize, that if I already thought about it this much, the answer is probably “yes.” The biggest thing of all was that I was tired of having such negative feelings about dogs, and that this was an opportunity to change that to something healthier. My dog didn’t have to be an untrained hellion that no one wants to be around, and could indeed be a huge asset to our lives on the farm. Maybe the dog could even prevent some of the heartache of the sort that has occurred since we moved here. But then there was reality. Dogs need training, and a lot of time. And it matters that the breed matches the need, and I knew little about these dogs at first…so I started reading everything I could. Most breeds are a paragraph, whereas Plott hounds are a whole book. They have been carefully bred for the past 260 years, much of that time in the hands of the Plott family whose ancestors emigrated from Germany in 1750. They were selected to hunt bear and hogs by scent, promoted over generations to be the most persistent, enduring, fearless and athletic dog out there. Some folks consider them to be THE premier hunting dog of the United States. Highly trainable, multipurpose, and relentless. A badass Ninja of a dog. Hm. I had always seen myself as more of a Mastiff type. A dog that was big, but lazy as hell (when I’m done working for the day, I don’t want to do much)….but I’m in my mid-40’s now, and maybe a dog that would actually get me in gear for some aerobic exercise wouldn’t be such a bad idea. My friends were nice enough to offer me the pick of the litter, but I wasn’t going to be that silly. They know their dogs, and they know me. I left it to their good judgement as to which one was “my dog”. On a visit in late November, I was handed a pudgy whiny thing with an unusual brindle coat (which I since learned is properly termed a “gray brindle”). He was the biggest boy in the litter. It chewed, it moaned. It whimpered. We looked at each other. I recall thinking….”ummm….”  In the past I would have had the “puppy crazies”, but the years had hardened me into a puppy- impervious grouch. But, I was going to be open-minded about all this. Dog. Thing. In the next few weeks, the time to make a final decision was at hand. I talked with the people I’m around the most to gauge their feelings about a dog entering our lives—although this would be primarily my responsibility, it was important to inquire about how everyone felt, since the dog would not be living in a vacuum. I took a deep breath and ordered the outdoor kennel and the indoor collapsible crate. Friends kindly gave us a second large crate and leashes and harnesses. Other wonderful friends donated about 60# of premium large-breed puppy food to the cause. Somewhere in there, I went to a pet store and bought a few toys and rawhides, and downloaded a book on training and behavior by a well-regarded veterinary behaviorist. We were as ready as we were going to get. I brought home Beren on December 9th. (It took a long time to pick out the name…but all diligent JRR Tolkien students will recall the immortal Tale of Beren and Lúthien. It didn’t seem like too big a name for a Plott hound to carry.)

The car ride home was not fun. He howled, he cried in his crate. I felt sorry for him and had my friend drive so I could hold him in my lap. Motion sickness wore him down until he was plastered on the front seat, asleep. I weighed him that night, 17 lbs at 9.5 weeks. He was pretty much canine tabula rasa, and for the next four weeks he was intensively trained, earning every bit of his food as a reward for some kind of good behavior. We made it through “potty”, howls, pulling on leashes, biting hands, picking up garbage, wanting to chew on undesirable objects, chase birds, chase cats. He is a smart dog but Plott hounds are oh, so stubborn. At  the time of this writing he is just shy of 16 weeks old….at 32 lbs. He has changed our world, and it is already hard to remember what life was like before him. I have the sense that he will more than pay back what we have put into him….and will put into him yet. The time involved is staggering…I can see how most dogs just don’t get this kind of effort because it isn’t possible for people with conventional employment and complex family responsibilities. Training is often a puzzle, and I am no expert, but I give it my best effort. There are days he is so annoying I want to scream, but then there are time times late at night, when I bring him on the sofa and rub his tummy while he has puppy dreams, and he looks like a little angel with great big paws….yeah, I’ve gone mushy. But I suppose that was partly the idea. It is strange to find that we have ended up as Plott people…we owe our friends a huge debt, because there is no other way it would have happened. But now that it has, we are proud to be carrying on an American tradition in the best way possible. Working farm, working dog. That’s how it started with dogs and people, and the story continues.

June 4, 2011

I never create titles for these blog entries, but if I were to do so, I’d call this bit of musing “The Squeeze”. As in, the economic squeeze that seems to be affecting pretty much everyone I know. Like many things that start as a slow creep, I first began to notice something was amiss last fall, when I tallied up the annual income/expenses information on the poultry side of our farm.

I don’t want to be misleading….many people would laugh their way off the coffee shop bench to hear someone call about 60 chickens and 40 turkeys a “Poultry Operation”. But nevertheless we have them, we sell their meat and eggs as a farm product for income, and they cost money to feed and otherwise care for. For the longest time I felt we sold reasonably priced eggs at $3.50/dozen. And for the turkeys, as much as I cringed to charge $7/lb for their dressed Thanksgiving-table selves, I knew that there were farms charging $10/lb and up for what I would argue was a less fussed-over product.  The beginnings of the rude awakening came up one time when someone pointed out that another local farm charged $8/dozen for their certified organic eggs. I thought that was just the worst rip-off I’d ever heard of, but it caused me to start thinking enough to add up all of our own figures. I was stunned to realize that after the whole year of selling eggs and meat birds was over with, we had a profit of $100. Hours and days of hot, dusty, bloody, backache-causing work for….$100. Our birds have always been more a labor of love to us than a profit machine, but I had thought we were doing a little better than that…..not so. What the hell had happened?? It didn’t take much more math and looking through receipts to realize, that in the last 24 months feed prices had more than doubled. The bag of layer pellets that we feed our egg laying hens had gone from about $5.50 to $13. The bag of high protein turkey starter for the little fluffy poults had gone from about $7.50 to nearly $19 per bag. Weeks away from the start of the next egg season, I had to swallow the painful realization that the cost of eggs had to go up. Not to the $3.75 that I’d been mentally flirting with, but to $5/dozen. We try hard to keep what we sell to others out of the stratosphere, mindful that these good people are faced with the same economic pressures as we are. I wondered if anyone would buy them after a 30% hike, but we have wonderful customers that believe in the importance of what we are trying to do. That and, they are still the best tasting eggs for miles around. Sadly, $5 for good farm eggs is still a bargain. A good friend of mine once wrote from her perch at the Seattle Market that she was tired of “people whinging over $5 eggs who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Sometimes when things matter, it can’t be about what is the cheapest, as a matter of principle, and we are lucky to be surrounded by others who understand this. But we are also acutely aware that principles don’t put dinner on the table, when people’s backs are against the wall.

But back to the poultry feed. The next rude awakening came when I saw that aforementioned $19 bag of turkey starter. We had just had our first 15 poults hatch, about half of what would be allowed to come into the world for the annual Thanksgiving sales. I realized in a flash, “It’s over.” With feed that costly, we literally would not be able to afford to feed them this summer. If we somehow could pay for feed at that price, and raise the prices in November for the meat, $10/lb for the meat wouldn’t begin to cover it…no one is going to pay $15/lb for turkey meat, not even if we gold-plate the drumsticks. it simply became an economic no-brainer. We are in the process of placing, butchering, selling, and whatevering the vast majority of the turkeys off of our farm. I’m not totally throwing in the towel, because we are going to keep our best breeding birds in the hopes of better times ahead or better strategies for securing feed. But for now, raising turkeys is going into deep hibernation.  Ironically, last year was the first time we ever sold out, having reached more people with bigger sales than ever before. But we will only raise 3 birds…one for ourselves, one for a faithful annual client who supported us from the get-go, and one just in case.

Then I did some more math. Specifically, egg sales versus feed purchases. We are selling about 40 dozen eggs each month, a round $200. But we are spending $100 every ten days on feed. Oh, geez. This is seriously ridiculous. By now, you should be wondering what is causing that poultry feed to be so expensive…..and if you try to research this, you’ll find that the answers are vague and uncertain. But here are some factors that are undeniably contributing: US corn stores are at the lowest levels in over a decade. Harvests have been poor due to weather issues worldwide. Up to 2010, China exported corn…now they are importing it. Corn has been diverted in large quantity to the production of biofuels (read: ethanol). This is a long way of saying, there is more demand and not enough supply, and we all know what happens to prices in these circumstances. But wait, this is corn. Corn. Farm bill, corn subsidy, nutritionally dubious cruddy crop that farmers are paid too grow. Oh THAT corn. Ethanol, the fuel that takes more energy to produce than it returns back in power, and is also government subsidized to the benefit of a few big-dog corporations…..THAT ethanol. Our tax dollars, subsidizing the crop that we as individuals now can’t afford as the historically cheap livestock feed, because there isn’t enough of it. I could spend awhile waxing poetic about all the assorted stupidities here, but it would just give me a headache.

And, it’s going to get worse. We are approaching 8 billion people on this planet, and they all seem to want to eat something. As China acquires more wealth, they want meat just like we in the US have wanted meat for years. Meat is raised commercially by feeding animals corn. Meat prices are unsurprisingly going up. The cost of most groceries, which are infested with corn and corn byproducts on account of 70 years of domestic agricultural policy, is going up. It is my hope that everyone will get the documentary “King Corn” into their Netflix queue, because it tells a story about food in America that desperately needs to be understood by everyone.

So what are we  going to do on the little farm? The surplus birds are all spoken for by people who want them, and once the birds are actually gone I’m going to re-vamp the pens to support pasture grass. I can grow some milo and perhaps hold back some wheat. I can and will grow surplus squash to feed the birds in the summer. These birds are all landrace breeds, bred to forage for themselves, so as soon as there something for which to forage, they are going to out and nip grass. And for the forseeable future, our farm will move more toward focusing on produce, while keeping poultry pursuits at a minimum. It’s sad, because in a way I started “farming” in a backyard in Davis with three chickens about 20 years ago…we love our birds…but you do what needs to be done to keep juggling all the balls.



February 27, 2011

It has been quite awhile since I’ve written anything. Maybe, I was waiting on my muse, after years of going on and on about being behind on farming chores or what is going on this season.

As my time in farming and my relationship with food deepens, some matters rise to the top in importance, more than others. Many of the things I’ve learned disturb me…a lot. First, let’s announce the topic. Which is, The exponential presence in our domestic foodstuffs of crops, or their byproducts, that contain genetically modified material.

Like many people who read the news, I’ve been following the introduction of genetically modified (GM) technology that occurred over a decade ago. At the time, from what I had read, it seemed sensible enough and a great application of science. Make plants better, stronger, healthier, in the laboratory. Improve yields, save farmers money and labor…corn would still be corn, soybeans would still be soybeans. Sounded fine to me. I heard outcries from time to time from the organic community. Sometimes, the voices were easy to ignore. Organic growers and consumers are not known for their willingness to embrace technology, nor are some very well informed about the intricacies of large scale food production. So when the complaints started, it seemed like sour grapes and an unwillingness to see the positive.

Do my early impressions seem vague and poorly formed? They were. This issue of GM food is an amazingly complex one, that spreads out like the spokes from a wheel hub. Any attempt to learn a lot about the subject in detail leaves one feeling confused. And that of course assumes a person took any time at all to look into it in the first place.

The first hints that all might not be well came years ago, with the tales of farmworkers returning to Mexico. And that in the next season, one plant in the patch of their family’s centuries old, open-pollinated maize grew like a giant, eclipsing all others. And that next year, more “super plants” followed. GM pollen, hitchhiking on clothing, found its way to distant places. And then came the Monsanto stories. Because if the discussion is about GM foods, the discussion is also about Monsanto corporation. Monsanto first became known for their brand-name herbicide RoundUp. Widely embraced and adopted, this chemical was everyone’s best friend. Studies assured us that it broke down rapidly in the soil, wasn’t toxic, and was highly effective at killing weeds by a non-poisonous mechanism. RoundUp’s active ingredient, glyphosate, blocked the biochemical process by which the plant makes food for itself. And so the plant dies, withering away to nothing.

Afterward came the GM food crops. And many of them were GM with a dominant purpose: RoundUp Ready. Farmers would buy this patented, heavily regulated, and expensive seed, and once the plants grew, RoundUp herbicide could be sprayed all over the top of them. Since these GM crops were engineered to have no reaction to RoundUp, only the weeds would die. Farmers had to sign contracts with Monsanto that forbade saving seed. But remember that traveling pollen? Sometimes a farmer who had never planted RoundUp Ready seed found that some of his crop at the edge of a field didn’t die when the RoundUp was sprayed. Monsanto found those farmers, and sued them for growing their product without authorization. All common sense and human decency would indicate that since farmers have saved seed for millenia, it shouldn’t be anyone’s problem but Monsanto’s if their pollen crossed the road. But judges can be bought and paid for, and the courts ruled in favor of Monsanto.  To add to the insult, in the view of many people, Monsanto should be held liable for releasing an uncontrollable organism into the environment. I can grow heirloom corn, a strain handed down for centuries. But if GM pollen comes into my patch, I not only have no recourse for my loss, but am in jeopardy of being sued. Wow, nice.

That all bothered me, and it was easy to conclude that I didn’t care for Monsanto after that. But eventually their patent on RoundUp expired, and glyphosate herbicides were available inexpensively. I read up on them, a lot. I asked questions of friends with extensive knowledge of toxicology. From what I gleaned, the product seemed safe enough when used responsibly. I avoided it when possible, but when you are caring for acres and acres, alone and without a garden tractor, you have to have a few tricks in the bag.

As time went on, more and more GM crops made their appearance. There were the news items of the GM crops now making their way in increasing amounts into the food supply. I guess I expected to see on the package label in the stores: “Contains GM foodstuffs”, but of course that didn’t happen. Maybe that taco shell at the Bell had GM, or perhaps the Tostitos in the chip aisle. Whatever….it didn’t really impact my thinking or shopping habits.

The years went on, with me farming away. Sometimes, while working, questions popped into my head. I’m always thinking about something, and the advantage of the Internet and iPhones is that when those questions come, all one has to do is take the phone out of a pocket in order to Google the subject. One day the question was, “why are GM foods bad?” I had to admit, I knew that the organic folks refused to eat the stuff, but realized that I had no idea why, or what their reasons were. Had I missed something? To make a long story short, a great number of reputable studies concluded that consumption of these foods carried increased risk of allergies, toxicity, nutritional problems, and even new diseases. Hm, I hadn’t heard any of that before. Why did it cause the problems? Well, think about it. The human body has evolved alongside the proteins in foods for a long time. GM engineering has changed the design of these foods, at the molecular level. Our bodies, our immune systems, react to foreign invaders. It isn’t the same corn and soy after all. Hmmm. This led to the second question….”if there is really this kind of risk, why isn’t the public hearing more about it?” I am not going to dwell this question, but I would recommend to you to view the film “Food, Inc.” I certainly hadn’t realized, in such a “slap me upside the head” manner, that far too many persons in high positions of governmental authority are the same persons who are heavily connected to the corporations that are making money selling or profiting from the GM products. Imagine that.

Last year we farmers had a nasty wake up call. Our fields were full of two really noxious and annoying weeds: mare’s tail and hairy-leafed fleabane. They reproduced prolifically and were just EVERYWHERE and….the RoundUp didn’t work on them anymore. We began to see articles about how some scientists thought that the RoundUp Ready genes had somehow “jumped” into the weed population. No one expected that unintended consequence….I wonder if Monsanto will send a team out to sue the weeds?

And lately I’ve been reading more about RoundUp. Seeing studies that I hadn’t seen online before, about the stuff harming the soil, leaching nutrients, even chelating minerals from human bodies. Hmm. It is hard to find accurate information about this subject, everyone has an agenda. But the more I look, the more doubt there is. And the more I doubt, the more I want to quit using it. There are many ways to kill a weed….

Lastly, I fast-forward to today. Because I like cooking and I like food, my culinary horizons have broadened quite a lot in recent years. Much of my time is spent learning the kitchen skills of bygone days, and understanding how to make things from scratch. Today I found myself stirring a pot of vanilla Jell-o, and out came the iPhone. Why was I buying Jell-o, couldn’t I just make pudding myself? It took a few minutes of reading to find that even Jell-o contained GM cornstarch. Really? Seriously, it’s even in the Jell-o? I guess this was a seminal moment. I have to work from a new set of rules: If it comes from a package in the store, the odds are very, very high that the food contains GM plant material or byproducts. And if I decide that I would prefer not to risk what isn’t known about GM foods and what they might do to my health, the irony is delicious: In bygone days the ladies spent hours in the kitchen to prepare nutritious meals. Then came the convenience of packaged foods. And now they are largely packages full of Risk, since so little is really known about GM foods. And so now, if it matters to me, there is no choice but to spend long hours in the kitchen, preparing nutritious meals.

I can’t be dogmatic about this; getting away from GM foods is going to be like getting away from toxins. It surrounds us, in the air and water, food and manufactured goods. All one can do is hope to lessen the impacts on one’s own health. I do know that more and more, I will be making a conscious effort with my dollars at the store to cease buying processed foods, and just make the food myself or do without. I hope that what I’ve written gives a small window into a subject that is affecting each one of us, and a realization that our government is utterly failing to regulate GM crops responsibly. The foxes aren’t just running the henhouse, they’re in charge of the whole farm. Few things are as personal and necessary as access to wholesome foodstuffs, and I feel there is reason to believe that access is shrinking faster than most people realize. Don’t take my word for it; start Googling…….and start cooking.

November 27, 2010


The next stage of oven building was to either remove the sand dome, or to add on the insulation layer. I think I forgot to mention that before work halted on the original workday, a door had been cut. There is a particular, exact ratio of door-height to oven-height to which one must adhere in order to achieve a working oven. We had a 16″ dome, which meant that we needed an opening that was something like 9.12.” A piece of clay corresponding to the correct amount of area was excised from the wet clay of the first mud layer. The removed piece was then covered with newspaper, and re-inserted into position insulated order to act as a removable support for the clay as it dried. Large screws were inserted into the mud in order to act as “handles” so the piece could later be removed.

The insulation layer hearkened back to Bible stories time…straw had to be added to the mud/clay to make this layer. We placed mud and straw onto a tarp, got a hose, and some tightly attached shoes. We used our feet to work the straw into the mud. By pulling up on the tarp we were able to “knead” the mud, then press more straw into more mud, repeating this process over and over until a workable mess had been created. This was a lot of hard work, and brought up endless mental images of Hebrew slaves toiling in the Egyptian sun to make Pharaoh’s bricks….this particular technology hasn’t changed in millenia, and, the Hebrews were right….no straw = crappy bricks.  This layer went on over the original layer, four inches thick. And at this point, the decision was made to not have just a simple oven…we were going to go for an extended oven opening (the correct term for this is a “plenum”, I am told), with chimney. So by now, we had about eight inches thick of both wet and dry oven mud, still with the sand dome inside. Somewhere in there I decided it was time to dig out the sand. This, like every other project stage, proved more time-consuming than one would anticipate. I used a gardening hand tool called a “Soil Scoop” to scrape the sand out. Sometimes it was slow going since we had packed the sand down quite firmly. Other times, large amounts fell loose. When it was all out, a small foxtail-type broom swept out the last of the sand….and, we left it to dry. Over the course of the next few days, we began to have really bad cracks on the inner layer of mud…if you peeked into the oven interior, it looked ugly. The cracks were so bad that one large oven section was almost broken free. I didn’t want to start all over again so I used more mud to patch those cracks, forcing lots of mud into the gaps…but in retrospect, this indicated a flaw in the original mud mix. We should have added some straw or long grass…something with fiber, in order to better reinforce that mud in the first place. But the damage was managed well enough.

Before the outer layer of mud dried too much, we realized that we had a problem with our door opening…it hadn’t been measured and cut correctly, and now that had to be fixed with the clay having already hardened. Oops. We tried using a Sawzall to go through the mud…which didn’t work well. Finally I went to the low-tech solution of a hammer and chisel. This worked fine, though I had to be careful not to hit the chisel too hard,  and without too much effort the opening was re-formed and made  smooth.

Now it was time to create the plenum and chimney, to extend the oven opening outward. This was done by taking a section of 4″ agricultural pipe (PVC) and wrapping a few thin sheets of  wet newspaper around it. The pipe would be butted up against the oven opening as the form for the chimney, and it was important to make sure that the pipe could slip out once the clay was dry. This particular pipe had a flared end, and we made sure that the flared end was ON TOP, otherwise it would have been impossible to remove later. So we took more of our clay and straw mixture that had been prepared (by again stomping the two ingredients together on a tarp with water added as needed). We built the plenum and then about six inches of chimney around the PVC pipe. We rotated the pipe and let it dry for some days, and then carefully removed the pipe. Everything after this point was cosmetic. I wanted the oven to be “something”,  a creature or some special shape. Original ideas ranged from a peacock, to a beehive, to a…..basically I stared at it for a long time until the shape of what was there suggested the finished item to me. This turned out to be a Sphinx. Not the Sphinx in Egypt, but the mythologically classic one that is the head and torso of a woman, feet-body-tail of a lion, and wings of an eagle. To make the sphinx, I mixed a finish plaster. This choice allowed for making the oven into a creature, as well as providing a measure of water resistance. We bought a sack of mason’s lime. I hydrated it and added sand, fine feathers and dryer lint (they functioned as a binder), and concrete tint. I mixed this caustic brew with a hoe, and it was very stiff and difficult to fully incorporate. If I could do it over, this would best have been done in a mortar mixer. Something like 7 gallons of plaster were created this way. I waited until the next day, then went to work. A gloved hand and a smooth carving knife were used to glob on the plaster and press/smooth it. There wasn’t really enough mix, so some areas are only a half an inch thick instead of the recommended inch. However, it held together even in thinner measure and adhered very well to the underlying dry mud. In areas where detail was called for, extra plaster was used to form features. The head of the sphinx encased the chimney of the oven…I thought through ahead of time about where each detail would need to be located. The finish plaster was very sculptable and could take a fairly fine level of detail, but dried somewhat quickly…there was maybe 30 minutes in which to create detail before the material began to harden to unworkability. A knife smoothed and shaped, and a stiff feather shaft cut relief-types of details such as wings. I can’t really offer “how-to” for sculpting as I’m not really sure how I do this. All I can say is that I have spent many years studying art and sculpture, taking note of shapes and proportions, and I’ve practiced on a lot of snow-people when the opportunity presented itself. If you can shape things out of clay, this should be do-able.

The very last stage was to fire the oven. Build a fire of sticks, get it good and hot, and at long last bake something. The firing sort of “sets” the mud, and this is the point of no return. I think many people fire the oven much sooner than we did but….done was done. This was a fun project, took a lot of time but very little money, and pretty much everyone should have one!

September 23, 2010

An evolving part of operating a CSA farm has been to invite our members and our friends into the wake of our ongoing discoveries about the farm-to-table experience. I believe that no farmer can do a good job unless they become a bit of a chef as well…learning the intricacies and variances of the preparation of the foods they bring into being. How are you supposed to guide your growing choices and skills if you don’t have the feedback of what your own food tastes like, and by extension, how to cook it? Part of our journey has been the study and application of historical technologies, some of them ancient, as they pertain to food preparation. This blog documents another phase of this adventure!

It lay buried at the bottom of a very big email Inbox for years, a link to an interesting Mother Earth News article I found (during one of those interminably long and boring afternoons at a previous desk job that shall remain nameless). Here it is, should the reader wish to be similarly ensnared. It seemed like an interesting idea, to build an outdoor cooking appliance out of….well, dirt….but at the time, living in a rental house in Davis, it seemed equally impractical and against fire codes.

From time to time I’d do a mass purging of old emails, and as I made my way to the very bottom of the list, there it stayed. Countless times the mouse hovered over the delete key, and each time the article was spared from the trash. I kept thinking, “someday this could work, and if you delete it, you will never, ever remember it”.

In all that long time we moved to the farm, and as the years passed, our neighbors (with their allegedly obscenely pricey outdoor kitchen) inspired the need to have an outdoor cooking setup that was much shorter on budget, and much taller on usability. So I built the firepit, that was discussed in a previous blog. So at last the time was at hand. The firepit was the grill/cookstove…and now we needed an oven. For some years the remaining segments of a concrete agricultural standpipe were stored on the east side of our property. These four-foot segments weigh enough that only heavy equipment can even budge them. And  one day in a vision of possibility, I saw one segment as the base stand of our future oven….it was perfect. I didn’t want to be stooping over in front of searing heat, trying to bake. The standpipe idea would make sure the oven was at perfect working height. We positioned the standpipe segment near the firepit and grape arbor with the assistance of a Cat 950 front loader, and then filled it with riverbed gravel. There it sat for an entire winter, to settle and compact. As they say in the vernacular, “that ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Somewhere in this time period, our amazing neighbors Jennifer and Eric loaned us the complete book on which the Mother Earth News article was excerpted, Kiko Denzer’s “Build Your Own Earth Oven”. Reading it proved fascinating…many people had done much more than simply build an oven; they engineered an art project as well. Turkeys, frogs, snails, dragons, falcons, sweeping geometric shapes…all these graced the many photos that were included in the publication. More importantly, the text provided guidance in greater detail as to choices of materials with their advantages and detractions. Winter turned to late spring, and late spring turned to the beginnings of motivation. I went so far as to measure the diameter and circumference of the future oven chamber, place firebricks in the necessary pattern, and then the farm stole all my time away. Most mornings I glared at my peacock, preening himself while perched on top of those firebricks. Those firebricks that were just sitting there. By late June, I’d had enough. We befriended some talented artists, the Hollowells, and invited them up on a weekend to start actually building the thing. How completely serendipitous, to have an art professor on hand to tell us what the heck to do! Previous to the weekend, we made preparations. What will become the void of the oven must be built of mason’s sand. No easy task, that. It took three people the better part of two hours to build this, constantly wetting and pressing with a 2″x4″. And it needed to be perfect and pretty…it’s important to have this be done as uniformly as possible for the best end result. The sand dome covers only the area occupied by firebrick. A lip of firebrick hangs over the edge of the standpipe, not shown in the photo.

Next, the real work began. The first layer called for a mix of mud and sand. The artists, knowing these things, demonstrated for us how to mix in sand and a little cement and work the clay into an elastic, sticky mess. The layer needed to be 4″ thick. Making the building mix was hard, sweaty work on a hot day. After forming and cutting the opening for the door with a butter knife and smoothing all the mud, it became time to drink beer and eat dinner by unanimous decision. We placed a tarp over the mudball in order for it to dry slowly. Two days later we took the tarp off. And there it sat for some weeks. To be continued…..

July 25, 2010

What follows is all the typing I had time to do on my vacation.  Anymore, when opportunity knocks for writing time, it’s important to answer.

7/20/10 Summer has been in full swing for weeks now….right around the end of June our schedules became a bit like falling off of a cliff. And we usually don’t get to climb back up until something like late October or November. As one might expect, it’s a time of year when quite a lot of food comes down the pipe and demands attention. And since we have an orchard of over 100 mixed fruit trees, the fun never really stops. In previous years we determined to try and dehydrate a lot of the summer bounty, but this year, things aren’t going so well in that department. Part of the problem was that I wanted to build a solar dehydrator. I must have been delusional to think in April that I was actually going to have time to crank something like that out in less than 6 weeks. It didn’t happen. However I still had my two small electrical units. I dutifully spent the time during baseball games slicing fruit and loading the dehydrator. This takes a long time, it can easily take two hours or more to set out fruit like cherries. But what I found is that I was managing to burn a lot of the fruit to a crisp by either forgetting to take it off at the right time or having the temperature maladjusted. Or maybe the problem had some other origin. Whatever the root cause, the end result is that I became really tired, really fast, of feeling like my time was being wasted to make charcoal fruit bits. So then I started making fruit juice, but somewhere after 1.5 gallons of apricot juice coming down the pipe, I really couldn’t stand the sight of one more bottle of the stuff. Then I began to mull over all those canning jars I’d racked up over the years. I have resisted canning for a long time, because as everyone knows, it’s time consuming, tedious, and demanding. Everything has to be done right in order to have a safe product for consumption. For better or worse, my years of employment at a food safety laboratory left me a little too aware of just how many microbes would like to multiply inside of those jars. But then a friend of mine began to mention shortcuts she would take in order to save time and still obtain good results. One day there we had a mounting pile of bird-pecked fruit, and…the canning began. Then I also remembered that I had promised to create some baby food for a friend of mine. So, the fruit was simmered in a pan until it self-poached. Then into a food mill to make a puree. Then for the baby food, into jars. For the rest of it, I was going to make jam. But then I looked at the recipes…I am about the biggest sugar hound ever, and even I was taken aback at how much sugar goes into jam and jelly. There is more sugar than fruit, and that’s just not OK. So I went the route of making butters. Butters are somewhere between jam and syrup. They may be on the runny side, or perhaps like a thick sauce, but they use relatively little sugar. And let’s face it, this isn’t crummy rock hard store-bought fruit, this is fruit that is already very sweet. And when butters got boring I remembered the 25 lbs of raisins I have sitting around, and started in on some chutneys. Chutneys, if you don’t know, are a condiment especially favored by folks from India, and it has a lot of merit. Chutneys can be sweet and sour, spicy and acidic, all at the same time. They contain things like raisins, fruits, onions, vinegars, spices, nuts….really the sky is the limit. Somewhere in this canning process, I remembered that a friend had given me a pressure canner. That changed the whole landscape of canning activities. With water bath canning, there is always the worry that the processing won’t go well. But a pressure canner is basically a miniature autoclave, killing germs through a combination of heat and steam under pressure. Nothing whatsoever survives 15 minutes at 15 lbs of pressure, and it feels good to know that food which comes out of this unit is a guaranteed success. So the living room floor is littered with jars large and small of the various creations. In spite of all the bounty though, there has to be a lot to do any good. Most of this will be stored up for doling out to our CSA customers in the months when fruit is long gone…and that means that just to supply for one week will require 30-40 jars of….stuff. The fruit has been taking up so much time that I haven’t been able to make it to the vegetable based recipes I’d like such as relishes, chow chow, picalilly….in a way though it’s not just canning, it’s time-travel. These are the basic skills any woman living on a farm would have possessed less than 100 years ago. It would have been the only way to enjoy these foods year-round, and in some cases, it would have been the only way to have enough food for winter. Go ahead and even say “picalilly” to anyone under 50 and see the funny looks you get….this is a lifestyle that has been left far behind. But that’s ok, we continue to learn about what to do with real, home-grown food while far too many other people eat whatever processed garbage rolls onto the shelves these days.

7/24/10 So here I am with my computer on my lap, riding in an RV. The crew of three at Nevermore Farm, in the middle of summer with gobs of vegetables and fruits needing daily attention, is going camping at Mt. Lassen National Park for two days. This automatically plummets us to the ranks of bad farmers….or does it? Farming is probably one of the nost notorious professions for cultivating a mindset that involves little in the way of personal time to rest and rejuvenate. There is absolutely always a reason for not going on a vacation or taking a day off, or even three hours off, because there is never a day when all the work is done and one can just walk away, knowing that things will be good for a few days. And usually it’s much worse than that….walking away means knowing full well that matters at home will be actively sliding in a detrimental direction. Produce won’t get picked on time and will be so overgrown that it’s only good for chicken food. Eggs will be uncollected and give the hens and critters a good chance at ruining them. The weeding and pruning and cleanup and projects that are already behind schedule will slip that much further behind, in a job where accomplishing tasks on time is more important than any other thing. So why are we going? Well, in the demands of the job, sometimes some of your life can slip away. You realize you haven’t had a conversation in days, weeks, that didn’t concern irrigation systems and problem employees and how many batches of fruit still need to be sorted and canned. And it never ends. I am reminded of a ditty I read in Anna Sewell’s book  “Black beauty” as a child: “Do your best and leave the rest/’twill all come right some day or night.” There is a world of valuable perspective in those words. There are times that you just have to walk away, just have to go do something else for a little while in order to remain a whole person. I’ve met lots of farmers who haven’t embraced this part. They are stressed, fundamentally unhappy, overweight and in poor health, and very one-dimensional in their interests. They are not bad people, in fact, they make their farms and ranches thrive by their diligence and unceasing efforts. But that achievement comes at a price, and the price is often their very existence as whole persons. We as a human race began to get somewhere when our need to work 24/7 was able to give way to the kind of thinking and creativity that gave us art, music, science and pretty much every mentionable discipline not directly associated with basic survival. And yet many farmers are still tied to that model…all efforts go only to getting proverbial bread on the table, with nothing left over for all of the things that decision to be irresponsible in the service of a greater good. I’ll be reminding myself of that while my s’mores are toasting.

Something that has been on my mind lately is a snippet in the newspaper from a few days ago. A volunteer crewmember of the Star of India, without a doubt California’s most storied tall ship, died when he fell from the rigging and struck his head on the gunwhales before tumbling into the water. And I’m not pondering this because it was unfortunate or dramatic, though it was both those things. I have felt a sense of unease that yet again, well-meaning interference is going to occur in response to this accident that is going to have the net effect of making our world a little worse via the law of unintended consequences.
I read an elegant editorial yesterday which lamented the differences in many youth today. The writer noted that they are unoccupied, purposeless, don’t know how to do a hard days’ work, and see no reason whatsoever to change any of that. While I always look askance at sweeping generalities, I think pretty much everyone knows what sort of young person is being described here–unless one lives in a cave, they are to be seen in every downtown and mall of every city large and small. But he went on to note that we as a society have taken away the right of juveniles to occupy their time with work, even in agriculture. In our quest to “protect” youth, we make darn sure they won’t experience any form of physical danger, be challenged, or learn ambition for success at an early age unless it is the ambition to get good grades in school. So what does someone dying on a ship have to do with that? The tall ship community is probably one of the most positive, demanding, character building, tradition-laden arenas a young person could hope to find themselves in. I carved out for myself the opportunity to sail tall ships over ten years ago. I learned to find courage in the face of danger, the very limits of my physical and mental abilities, a sense of carmaraderie probably found elsewhere only in times of war among soliders, and how to endure discomfort and hard work. And I also saw a number of sights so exquisite in their beauty that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My time aboard was the single most transformative experience of my life…..and I know that because of all these things, when young people participate on tall ships, they gain those same positive experiences that open opportunities for them as people that will benefit them all their lives. So my fear is that in the course of making the world a safer place, with which as a society we have become obsessed, some new law or rule will be legislated that because of the danger, pretty much nobody will be allowed aloft on a tall ship without needing to pass a ridiculous gauntlet of rules and tests. I caught a glimpse of this some years ago when I paid a visit to the tall ship Californian. I saw their “requirements” for being a volunteer deckhand on the ship–and I’m sure those requirements were driven by insurance issues at the end of the day. One requirement was the ability to do a certain number pull-up. Well, guess what? I cannot do even one one of those. But I learned, and learned well, how to safely and securely navigate the heights of a tall ship without this physical ability, and I was able to pass on my knowledge to many other women who similarly lacked that kind of upper body strength. And I should mention, that the process of learning to be fully comfortable aloft on a ship was probably my greatest personal achievement because I had to overcome so many barries, both physical and psychological. So some sense of trepidation hangs around me as I wonder just how many people are going to have to miss out on the opportunity to transform their lives, as the powers that be try to engineer a world to exist in, free from all risk and free from all real living.

7/24/10 The first official day of rest and rejuvenation is underway. Unfortunately since the RV hasn’t taken a big trip in some years, this is also the first “shakedown cruise” for this vehicle and some amusing, if inconveniet incidents occurred. I have noted that the most galling things to go wrong always occur when a journey is 99.9% concluded. So there we were at campsite #44, and drove in. But this RV has only one door, and we wanted that door to face the area with the firepit and picnic table. And this led to the discovery that the RV would not shift into reverse. Let’s just say driving around in circles, using inclines and declines, and having three guys push it backward were all involved. We had time to get out and take a short walk. We are very close to a lake that is warm enough for an easy dip. We saw just the edge of the Fantastic Lave Beds, a nuclear blast zone of something called scoria, a manifestation of volcanic rock, and we are going to take this trail to climb a cinder cone in the midst of this amazing desolation. It turns out that this landscape was formed in the 1600s. The trails are pulverized pumice and rotted pine needles, so it’s much like walking on sand. It should be a great hike.

7/25/10  A great time was had by all yesterday, though I think I need  t-shirt that says “I was burnt on the Cinder Cone”. Since the Park Service describes that as a “moderately strenuous” hike, i find myself wondering just what a “strenuous” hike might be. I took a series of photos that will explain the scenery far better than words can describe, but we commenced our walk at a little after noon. It was warm, maybe mid-80s. The trail footing was made of crumbled basalt and pine needles, and was much like walking on loose sand at the beach. While not difficult in itself, each step was much more effort because of the loose surface. Surely, I told myself, the trail will firm up when we reach the actual cinder cone. After some walking and pausing under the shade of scattered pines (we started out above 6000′ elevation, which leads to a bit of feeling breathless). I remembered that I have been schooled in the breathing techniques of singing, and started making sure I was filling my air tanks a little better than before. So after a short while we saw it, looming through the trees. Stark, bare, and imposing looking stood the cinder cone. The only other cone I’d climbed before was a small one to the south of Mono Lake, a mere baby in comparison. As the destination fully emerged into our view, we saw the trail….a 35% grade winding in an ascendinig spiral up the side. And the trail footing was worse, not better, that the trail we already traversed. Oh, crap. On the upside, a stiff breeze stirred, providing some much needed cooling. Or dehydration. But we at least had the brains to bring more than a gallon of water for the four of us. Not even fifty yards along the general impression settled in of “me and my bright ideas.” A hundred yards up and for me progress was formed around a series of countings worthy of an OCD patient. “One two three four five” steps upward. “One two three four five” counts standing still to take a deep breath. “One two three four five” steps upward. And each step wasn’t necessarily much progress, as for each step, it was possible to slide half of that distance backward. Occasionally I looked up, and saw the beautiful peak of Lassen volcano coming into view on the north side. That’s the thing about climbing, there’s always a view. yet each time I looked up, the steep trail ahead never seemed to diminish much. And at one point I looked back, and saw a family with three young children just arriving at the trailhead. “Yeah, right” I smugly thought, “they’re going to turn around after 20 feet with those kids in tow.” Well…..wrong. When I looked back again some minutes later, they were gaining. At that point personal pride kicked in and the new count became “One two three four five six seven eight” steps up. But oh, the legs were screaming. I really don’t know how long it took, but finally I arrived. My two companions, obviously being much less wimpy than I, had been enjoying the top for some long moments already. The landscape up top proved worth the journey. There were, in effect, two craters. And a wierd moonscape of different colors of ochre, red, gray, black. A few yellow wildflowers dotted the desolation. As we circumnavigated the crater rim, we could see the pattern of the eruption. Dunes that had concentric circles of different coloration in pink, yellow and green, the “Painted Dunes” surrounded much of the cone. Then the flow of the Fantastic Lava Beds wound its way through the dunes and the surrounding lakes. The eruption caused a rearrangement of the lakes and a certain amount of upheaval. At one place on the crater rim, the site of the lava flow could be clearly discerned. The sharp deliniation between lava bed and dune made for quite a spectacle. There was a trail within the crater, leading down to the very bottom. The appearance was of a black funnel. I would have liked to have gone down, but had reason to believe my legs might entirely refuse to bring me back up. I hopefully fished out my cell phone while we were up top, remembering that years ago I had full reception on the peak of Mt. Lassen. Alas, no service, but as I continued around the rim suddenly the phone awoke and I had a whopping two bars…but then they went away. Oh well. Rumbling stomachs announced it was time to leave….none of us had the foresight to even toss in a bag of peanuts for the road. Descending didn’t require nearly the amount of effort as the trip up, but on jelly-legs was still a bit much. Our heels slid deeply into the loose cinder, and when I reached the bottom it was time to get pebbles out of my shoes. And then I noticed my high quality Eddie Bauer hiking boots….the sole of both boots was 66% sheared from the shoe. Nice. So I started the rest of the way home walking like Bozo the Clown in order to try to keep the rest of the sole attached. Finally one of my companions had the brains to suggest just pulling the things off competely, as on the soft footing shoes really weren’t entirely necessary. So the rest of the way back I had sort of moccasins going on, but it worked. I haven’t checked but I suspect a Made in China label is going to be on that shoe somewhere. We returned at last to the RV, and many sandwiches and peanuts fell before our appetites.

June 15, 2010

Glancing at the previous post that it took a month to upload makes me realize that a lifetime goes by in a week or two around here. It being that I have had to waste copious amounts of time on the computer lately, it seems fitting to go just a little further and write something….at least I’ll enjoy that. I’ll say in advance that this is one big sour-grapes vent on corporate America, so, be warned….

All that “time wasting” had to do with an experience that has come to sum up much of life in modern America: The Consumer Doesn’t Matter. What am I talking about? Well, the saga began around two weeks ago when our iMac whizbang computer just wouldn’t turn on anymore. This same computer had already had a failed motherboard and a failed hard drive, and now it was another motherboard all fried up. Ms. Cheapo here hadn’t wanted to shell out $120 for the extended warranty, so the repair was going to cost within a few hundred dollars of the price of a new computer. Apple computers used to be built from quality components, but as time has gone on, those components now come from places where English is not the mother tongue, and I’m not talking about Germany, either. I used to have the delusion that if one paid $1500 or so for a computer, one could expect a life of about 5 years…it seems that I need new delusions these days. This computer failed pretty much every 12-18 months until it couldn’t fail any more, and so there we were…computer-less. Of course, in the past two years as the farm business has grown, the need to have a more advanced means of tracking expenses and accounts had to come too…so we invested close to $200 on the purchase of QuickBooks 2007, made by Intuit. Buying Quickbooks (QB) for the farm was a lot like buying Photoshop to edit a photo. The program is a complex monster capable of a thousand things, of which I needed about…..five. But there aren’t a lot of options out there for small business accounting, so I took a deep breath, installed the thing, and then spent some months forcing myself to learn to use it well enough to get by. As time went on, hundreds of customers came and went, with thousands of weekly transactions. So when the iMac went down, it took my ability to know much of anything about my business with it. Did so-and-so pay? I dunno. New client wants to get produce boxes? Write it on a notepad and wait. Customer moving to Tennesee? Sorry, I’ll close your account one of these days. So for ten days much wrangling and pricing and shopping was done, really all by Ken, to replace the machine, with me loudly bitching all the while about “Apple using cheap crap that isn’t made to last”. It just so happened that about 4 weeks prior to the crash, we had purchased a used laptop from UC Davis for $125. The purpose was to run a receipts program that I use for my tax receipt tracking, and I needed a PC for that. It took me hours to get the PC online and get software updates downloaded. And, we were lucky to have the laptop, which was at least a way to have email access without resorting to my iPhone. And so exactly a week ago the new iMac came home. No data was lost in the crash of the old iMac, and the data and programs were transferred by the technician at UCD to the new machine. I eagerly started up QuickBooks in order to tackle two weeks of customer backlogs. But, it wouldn’t launch quite right. It said I hadn’t registered the software yet….ok, I figured it was just one of those software glitches. I double clicked on my backup file on the desktop, and was up and running in no time. Possessed of post-crash paranoia, I made sure to back up the QB data each time as I quit the program. One charming feature of QB is that if you have to do a task “back in time” like ask it to enter eggs purchased weekly since February 17th, you have to quit and restart the program in order to get that to happen. So when I went to open the program again, there was the same problem with needing to register……hmmm. For a day or two I shoved it out of my mind, but then I felt that maybe I ought to try and figure out how to stop this from happening. And then the real hell began. I began a search of the issue and rapidly arrived at this blog that let me know I was in for no easy ride. Having no satisfaction from calling Intuit customer support, I joined their online forum to get some help there. For anyone who wants to bore themselves with the nuances of that exchange, enjoy . So at the end of this matter, I have to spend $140 on top of the purchase of the iMac. Why? Well this all gets back to grand old Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”….the concept of Built-In Obsolescence. There was a time when making things to last was a point of civic and personal pride. And then someone got the bright idea that if it can break, someone has to buy another one. And another one. And another, and that profit lies in every sale. So pride went out the window, and it became all about making a buck at the expense of others (and filling landfills everywhere and creating the great garbage raft in the Pacific Ocean, but I digress). Capitalism at its finest? You decide. One counterargument runs that if things don’t need replacing, no room ever gets made for something new and improved to take its place. So by an item failing, one has to replace it with an Agent of Change, a force for advancement. I suppose this has some merit, and as someone who spends more time with her iPhone than any other object in the world, I have to admit that I have benefited from all the advancements in technology. But my complaint comes from the fact that any choice in the matter is removed from the consumer. There will always be affluent people who can and wish to purchase each one of the latest toys. But what about when someone is struggling to get by (i.e. in the worst economic climate we’ve seen since the 1930’s) and needs to have things last, only to become a victim of the March of Progress? I can answer that…..the corporate mentality is “TOO BAD”. I often wonder if progress isn’t simply for Progress’ sake anymore. We do things as a society because we can, not because they serve the greater good. I realize that how I feel about this makes me a bit of a throwback, with an attitude more common to those who are older than I am. This comes from what I do to earn a living. For me, money equals food. The $140 I just had to spend on that software is ten sacks of turkey feed, or seven of the produce boxes I sell to my customers, or one Saturday of above average earnings from the Farmer’s Market. It is 70 pounds of beets, or just under 30 lbs of almonds. Or 40 dozen eggs. Someday I wonder if the people who make all the toys and software will have enough to eat. And if I’ll say “you keep your toy, and I’ll keep my eggs. I’m sure your toy will taste very good.” And in the meantime, I’ll ponder the situation I find myself in…still buying products from Apple and Intuit after having had very poor customer satisfaction. Who knows, if I get irked enough I just might make a cardfile. There was a way to do all these little jobs before computers made everything “better” and this is one gal who still knows how to keep records manually.