June 29, 2008

Today it strikes me as interesting how quickly things change, and move along. At the time of the last post, very little garden produce was ready, and had it not been for your good fortune in running amok at our friends’ blueberry patch, I’m not sure what we would have had for our CSA boxes.

Right now as I write, the refrigerator has at least 40 lbs of apricots with more on the tree, the plums are overflowing, we’ve had some nice nectarines, the squashes are everywhere, and in short, we’re back to mostly having so much that we don’t know what to do with it. So I begin to perceive from this pattern of famine and plenty that a difficult challenge exits as to operating this kind of farm…everything has to be planted on time, and in the face of multiple variables that ensure one’s best intentions might not amount to much. In 3-4 more weeks it will be time to aggressively weed and begin planting the seeds for the winter garden. Sounds ridiculous in the heat of July, but our last crisis of not having enough came at around late December-early January. It’s important to have those plants at a level of maturity so that when the days turn cold and growth slows down (for everything but the weeds, of course), there is sufficient to harvest. To help ensure this, we saved a LOT of seed this year. I’m hoping to plant very large rows for the winter garden, and we’ll just see how it goes.

We’ve begun harvesting roosters, which has taken up a lot of extra time this week. It takes basically 2.5 hours to process four birds completely by hand. Not the most fun job, but hopefully we’ll be able to gain some income back for all the outlay of feed and time. We learned something, too. When you don’t take your birds to a slaughterhouse, 100 is way to many to have come ready at the same time. Heck, 30 is too many. It sounded good on paper, but from here on out, we’ll grow our own and skip hatchery purchases. This experience showed us that when you have a small farm, don’t try to insert "big-farm" ideas into how things are done. It may work fine for others, but we’d rather not have the same fiasco happen twice. So we’re actually glad, in an odd sort of way, that disease and foxes wiped out most of these birds. Success might have been unthinkable. 

June 22, 2008

I’ve just woken up from a daytime nap after feeling like a wrung-out dishrag, and it’s time to get into the field and plant beans. But not before I take some minutes to write about how I got so tired. We were up at 6am to attend the Best Show on Tracks, which had been billed for weeks as being an antique tractor show. Well, I cam away stunned at having been privileged to see a slice of our American history that may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity.

hvstr.jpg To my mind, the chief reason for the success of this event were the scores of old-timers, men in their mid-seventies and well beyond, that were out there in the hundred-degree weather taking the time to operate their machines, talk with visitors, and share their past. This photo shows a horse-drawn grain harvester, a very similar version of which was operated when one farmer was a youngster. By the age of 13, he was a crew foreman. One day he was trying to adjust the cutting height of the implement while in operation, and a metal lever broke. His momentum sent him headlong. He fell and managed to catch one arm around part of the horses’ harness. He paddled for dear life as he dragged on the ground, desperately trying to keep away from the cutting blades right behind him. He "only" lost part of a finger and cut his arms before he rescued himself. He went on to tell that he hitched one horse to the wheel of the harvester, and rode the other home to find help. His father berated him mightily for getting hurt, and not being out in the field working. It didn’t take long to get the point that everything these men did in the field was hard, brutal work in the hot sun. Farming isn’t easy even now, but what I’m doing now would be a Sunday picnic to the life these people knew and lived.

Another much more publicized happening at the show was the 80 year-old muleskinner driving a 27-mule team, with 1905 harvester through the wheat field right in front of all of us, showing how it was done more than a hundred years ago. The effort involved just getting the mules hitched up was mind-boggling. I defy anyone to have watched this spectacle (there’s no other suitable word) and not have to pause and think about what it took to raise food back then. To see the mule team coming down the row, all 27 animals making their turn around the corner while this behemoth of a wooden and metal machine plugged along….there just aren’t words.

People who owned and restored the hundreds of pieces of equipment came from as far as Canada, at their own expense, to make this event happen. To see the machines working– the steam donkeys chugging away, the horse teams pulling the ride-on plow through the field, to climb all over a grain harvester created in nearby College City with my farming partner detailing every aspect of how to operate it for maximum yields, truly made for a great day. Admission for three; $30. Food and drink; about $50. Learning experience and memories…..you get the idea.

June 12, 2008

This morning’s thought of the day is, "no kidding". I’m paraphrasing my reading the paper before starting work…."fires break out all over the valley from high winds"…..no kidding. "Winds are hammering the region’s farms and ranches"…….no kidding. You get the idea.

Yesterday I picked the first of the new crookneck squashes. The winds have battered the plants so hard that some of the main stems are half cracked (not generally considered to be a good thing). No problem thinning the fruit trees, the wind has shaken all the extras onto the ground. The birds are irritated. The people are irritated. Tomorrow there is supposed to be less wind but it will be 100 degrees instead. All that can really be done is to smile and say "welcome to farming". Somehow most of the flowers have survived the onslaught, although the sunflowers have been blown to a 60 degree angle. The good news is, the next wind is supposed to come from the south so maybe they’ll get blown back in the other direction.

Work seems to be picking up–we travelled to Yuba City last week to buy bulk seed for corn, many fall crops, and lots of watermelons. We’re planning on a late crop, because as usual, we broke new ground and are planting 6 weeks later than is ideal. We’ve also been busy with some new endeavors, everything from bottling lavendar distillate to maybe starting some new corn growing projects with a local grist mill. My bad Spanish continues to improve at a rapid pace. Every week I learn several new words and phrases so as to enhance my ability to be misunderstood. I really feel sorry for the ladies who work with me. They listen all day long, patiently, to a stream of what is probably mostly unintelligible jibberish. We practice English too, but I probably have an unfair advantage since I was lucky enough to learn other languages in a formal setting. This is the first time I’ve learned a new language "on the fly", with only a sort-of book and trips to the computer for rapid translation. Spanish interests me from one perspective–many of their words are the same as English words that are associated with a much more advanced level of education. For example, "easy" is "facil". "Facile" is another way to express "easy" in English, but not too many people on the street talk about what a facile experience they just had with their new ATM card. I like those words, because they stick in my mind instantly. Where I seem to trip up over and over is the numbers. "Catorce" is fourteen, "cuarente" is forty, and for whatever reason I cannot recall "catorce" without some moments of hard thinking. I also routinely mix up "five" and "fifteen".  But, 3 months ago I wasn’t past one through ten, so I guess it’s all progress. It’s one way to pass the time while sorting all those strawberries…….and, the language comes in pretty handy at farmer’s markets. Many people come who speak no English, so without the ability to transact a sale in Spanish, the dinero goes somewhere else.

Well, I have 21 items on my day’s list, time to get going!

June 1, 2008

Yesterday my thoughts settled on some interesting observations concerning "things we turn our backs on in America." Specifically, two topics meandered throughout the day: hemp and edible weeds. I began the day with an extensive conversation on legalizing indsutrial hemp (or rather, the lack of progress to date thereon), and ended the day serving up a fine plate of weeds for dinner. I’ll elaborate.

On the matter of hemp, let’s face it: Hemp is quite possibly one of the most useful plants on the planet, and we don’t grow it in the US because it has fallen prey to its affiliation with its cousin plant which is classified as an illegal drug. Here is an entry from Wikipedia on the subject: "Industrial hemp has thousands of uses, including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, health food, and fuel, but it has not been the great commercial success that the enthusiast
hoped for. It is one of the fastest growing biomasses on the planet,
and one of the earliest domesticated plants known. It also runs
parallel with the "Green Future" objectives that are becoming
increasingly popular. Hemp requires little to no pesticides, replenishes soil with nutrients and nitrogen, controls erosion
of the topsoil, and produces a lot of oxygen, considering how fast it
grows. Furthermore, Hemp could be used to replace many potentially
harmful products, such as tree paper (the processing of which uses
bleaches and other toxic chemicals, and contributes to deforestation),
cosmetics (which often contain synthetic oils that can clog pores and
provide little nutritional content for the skin), and plastics (which
are petroleum based and cannot decompose)."  So it interests me that because it is a socio-political hot potato, we as a nation reject the use of this valuable commodity at a time when food, sustainabiltity and most certainly fuel are at the forefront of people’s awareness. Something to think about, and to my mind, an even more important social issue than whether or not cancer patients should be legally allowed to toke up if it makes them feel better.

Last night’s dinner was a large skillet of purslane, obtained from a casual weeding foray in many garden areas. Purslane is one of the most nutritious vegetables it is possible to consume, and it is also a common garden weed. nutritiondata.com notes that:  This food is very low in
Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6
and Folate, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Riboflavin,
Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese. I read elsewhere that it also contains an omega-3 fatty acid. So why isn’t everyone having their purslane for dinner? Well, who in America eats weeds? We’re taught that you pull weeds and throw them away. I was more than a little amused when I handed the serving (cooked stovetop with salt, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of lemon and a dash of tabasco sauce) to my farming partner and watched him take a deep breath since eating weeds obviously carried a high "ick" factor. And yet this wonderful food (it tastes very good, to me) is right under our noses, being thrown away by the collective bushel.

In ways large and small, sometimes it’s good to step back and take notice that the status quo may not be the best thing for us. It took me 40 years to find my first serving of purslane–good luck finding yours!