A Farm Toolbox: The Pitchfork

Often the weapon of choice by angry peasants and fathers chasing away a daughter’s suitor, the pitchfork is part of our collective farm image. Picture Grant Wood’s American Gothic and you know the tool we speak of today. With a pitchfork in hand work will happen. And if you have chosen the right fork the work will happen more efficiently.

The pitchfork typically ranges from three-five prongs, with many exceptions. We have four pitchforks: one each for hay, manure, compost and a useless horse-stall fork.

Lounging by the coop.

Lounging by the coop.

The hay-fork: a slender three prong fork with tines spaced a couple of inches apart. This is for moving loose dry hay. Amazing how much hay can be lifted and tossed with this fork. One of my favorites, I use it frequently in the barn. We keep a round bale of hay in one of the stalls. Once or twice a week, using the fork, I tear hay from the bale and spread it around the barn for fresh bedding.

The manure-fork: Each spring we clean out a years’ worth of bedding and manure. It is layered in the barn to a depth of about twelve inches. What the front-end loader cannot get, the four prong manure-fork gets the rest. Not elegant, like the hay-fork, but it gets the job done. The extra tines give it more surface area for lifting bedding and manure.

The compost-fork: very similar to the manure-fork but it has five tines. The design allows you to shovel into a compost pile with ease and turn it with minimal effort. Just remember to lift with the knees. The more tines on the pitchfork, the greater the load; and the greater the load the more risk to ones back.

The stall-fork: designed for hoity-toity horse barns with paved surfaces, it has a dozen plastic tines and is near useless for real work. We bought it our first week on the farm. It leads a lonely life in the back of the tool shed.

Auctions and antique stores usually have well-made pitchforks for bargain prices. Pick one up, use it on your farm. Or save it for the next suitor or politician who knocks on your door.

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Rereading this weekend: Travels With a Donkey, by Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the greatest travel works of all time.

A Summer Walk

I enter the woods near the wet weather spring, the ground moist and spongy under foot. The air is cool, so different from the oven-like summer day left behind a few feet back. The lane as it curves up into the woods dips then rises gradually up the long slope of the ridge. Becky weaves back and forth in the brush following her own invisible road of smells and enticements.

Leaving the lane I begin my own weave in the woods, not her scent driven journey, but no less purposeful for that. Boletes and milk-caps carpet the floor, sprung into being after the rain. An act of creation as remote from the distant buzzing saws and trucks in the next valley where a man’s son’s clear-cut an inheritance left. A pact, I imagine, completed with the same quiet understanding and betrayal of the sons in the final pages of “The Good Earth.”

Looking for a flush of chanterelles, or at least enough to accompany dinner, I find only two. I am now in the middle of the woods where sounds entering are muted and filtered, sanitized of offence. A doe jumps and runs away with an exaggerated slowness. I know that dance. She has left a fawn in the brush and leads Becky far away before easily eluding. Looking nearby I see the bright red and white spots, no more than twenty pounds, of a fawn asleep, unaware of her mother’s exertions.

I have now come to the fence at the base of the ridge. Newly installed last year, a large branch has fallen crushing the wire to the ground. Shifting the branch, I repair the wire with my fence pliers, each strand crimped back into tight harmony with the whole. We walk the perimeter until we get to the gates between the upper pasture and the hopper field. I pull and latch the gates. I’ll move the cattle in a few days and have come on this walk to make the pasture secure.

We walk out of the shade across the pasture. Becky plunges into a pond to cool off sending a dozen bull frogs skittering from shore to the depths. I’m sweating as we reenter the woods. Seemingly less open to wonder, the details of the remaining to-do list begin to crowd in as we walk back down the lane. Becky, no longer chasing scents, senses the change and walks by my side.

The woods now seem a bit stifling as the mid-afternoon sun drives all thought of breeze away. We cross the pasture back to the barn. Becky dives for the shade under the chicken coop. I piddle around for a few minutes and then follow her example and head to the house for a nap.

A Covenant Terrine

This Farm Note is from the archives, before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived “Notes.”

We speak today of jellied meatloaf. Terrines, that wonderful pressed meat dish that turns cast-off odd bits into tasty treats. Headcheese is a form of terrine. Basically any meat mixture that once cooked has a weight placed on it to compress the ingredients is a form of terrine. The recipes are numerous: pigs-feet terrines, foie gras terrines, lamb kidney terrines are just a few gleaned from a random perusal of our cookbooks.

Technically a terrine is the container in which the dish is cooked. But, over the years it has come to be synonymous with the end result. That is at least according to Elizabeth David in her classic French Provincial Cooking. Below is my version of a goose giblet and venison terrine.

Our roast goose at the New Year and the confit made with the legs and goose fat had been excellent. But, what to do with the giblets besides adding them to the gravy? A terrine, that French jellied style meatloaf served cold, was our answer.

I include this in the farm notes because it gets to the heart of one core value in farming: thrift. Making use of everything is not limited to farming, of course. But for us it seems to resonate more now that we live on a farm. Thrift is a more intimate trait, a principled outcome, to that process and work of growing food and raising animals.

And we feel that killing an animal for your own use establishes a covenant between you and that animal: a covenant to make use of every part. And making something wonderful to eat is the best way to honor that life.

Goose Giblet and Venison Terrine

Chop up some stock vegetables; add the goose neck (cut into a few pieces), the gizzard, heart and a bay leaf. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1.5 hours. Discard the veggies (our pigs loved them), save the stock for gravy, pick the meat off of the neck and roughly chop the gizzard and heart.

To this meat-mixture add the liver, finely chopped. Add a nice sized dollop of goose fat, fresh thyme and sage leaves (chopped), freshly grated nutmeg, 1-2 tablespoons of brandy, 1-2 tablespoons of bread crumbs and an egg. The recipe called for a ½ pound of sausage. Conveniently our friend Melanie had gifted us some of her homemade deer sausage. Toss it all together and mix well. Add plenty of salt and freshly ground pepper.

Place mixture in a terrine and cover with foil. Place the terrine in a water bath. Place all in a 330 degree oven for 1.5 hours. Remove and weight down with a heavy object that fits within the terrine until cool. Slice thick and serve cold with chutney and a pickle.

Pretty damn good, I must say.

 

Slow Farming

“These were all manufactured so that a man with a little common sense could repair them.” We were walking the rows of horse-drawn equipment at an estate auction in Dayton, Tennessee. The comment was made by a neatly dressed farmer from central Georgia. Horse-drawn equipment (and farm equipment in general), though frequently ingenious in design, is straightforward. As the man pointed out, “No need to call an IT center in India.”

I’m sure someone has used the phrase already. But I’d like to call what we do “slow farming.” Carlo Petrini launched the slow food movement some twenty years ago to fight the rising tide of industrial food processes and their damaging impact on dining and culture in Italy. That movement has blossomed across the globe. And, although subject to some well-placed criticism, on the whole it has benefited civilization—with an emphasis on seasonal produce, local food, preservation of heritage breeds, seeds and traditions, and, most important, a renewed sense of conviviality in our dining rituals.

It occurred to me last week that the label “slow farming” was an apt description of farms like ours. Productivity, efficiency, and moderate profitability are certainly ever-present in our minds. But they also serve the greater end of allowing us to enjoy, savor, care for, and stay on the land. Too often the agrarian mindset loses out to the modern paradigm of profits, extraction, and haste. Yet, like a good pot on simmer, those older impulses bubble slowly to the surface with encouraging frequency.

It should be said that we are no puritans in this movement, both of us still firmly burrowed into the bosom of our lemming-like culture, in its mad dash for the cliff of climate change and resource depletion. But it is possible, at times, to slow down and allow that rush to the cliff to sweep around you.

Here are three slow farm principles for your consideration:

  • Take a daily walk—not for exercise, but simply to be in the outdoors, listening to the far-off hoot of a barred owl and watching with friends as the fog rolls into the valley below. Between tasks on the farm, walk up in the woods and harvest some newly emerged chanterelle mushrooms, or blackberries growing free for the grasping, all yours because you made time to slow that mad surge forward.

 

  • Thrift is good for the soul. Creating a useful and tasty dish from a hog’s head may not be the most effective use of your time. Likewise, the long hours rendering lard and making lye soap. Building your own kitchen cabinets, milling your own lumber, tilling your own garden, drying herbs, curing meats, and using horse rather than diesel power—all are tasks an economist would suggest are wasteful to the GDP. But what do we care? What do they know?

 

  • Preside over a convivial table. The sheer pleasure of gathering with friends and family to share a dinner of mutton simmered in beef stock and wine, eggplant baked with tomatoes and oregano, and new potatoes with rosemary—every single ingredient from your farm—must surely give pause to our fellow lemmings and cause a few more to slow and turn against that tide.

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Reading this weekend: The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the meaning of food. By Adam Gopnik.

A Farm Toolbox: Mattocks

This addition to the toolbox includes a “threefer”, a garden mattock, a weeding mattock and a pick mattock. These tools are pulled out of the toolbox when you are serious about the job at hand. Dirt will fly, pigweed will die and clay and chirt will disappear. Just make sure to mind the eyes when swinging the pick mattock.

Our three mattocks posing on the carry-all.

Our three mattocks posing on the carry-all.

 

Pick Mattock: this mattock has an adze on one end and a pick on the other. The mattock sits on a squat three foot handle. We use this to help start or finish digging out large holes. It is also used to excavate trenches. Stand in a wide stance over the hole, raise the mattock to a 45 degree angle and bring it down with force. Good things will happen.

Weeding Mattock: this mattock has a four-inch adze on one end and a two-inch adze on the other. It is attached to a long slender handle. This mattock is perfect for weeding in an established garden, an elegant tool that allows one to reach in among plants with ease. And with that long handle and light business end, I find that it makes light work in the garden of grubbing out intruders.

Garden Mattock: An adze on one end and a cultivator on the other, mounted on a short 12 inch handle this is a one-handed tool. This is my favorite tool to use when doing a quick weeding of the herb garden. Or, one Cindy grabs to clean a flower garden. It has a real heft that allows the adze end to grub out serious taproots. And the cultivating end has tines that are strong enough to work in the toughest soils. A sweet tool made sweeter by the purchase cost of a couple of dollars on a clearance table.

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Homestead Tip: a cider mill shreds cabbage. I took fifty pounds of freshly harvested cabbage, cut into quarters and ran it through our cider mill. It took about fifteen minutes. I then salted it and pressed it into the crock. It has been quietly fermenting away in the corner of the library. Pretty nifty!

Morning Chores

It is around six in the morning, I have a full day ahead. Grind the coffee, pour in the water, hit the on switch, pour the coffee down the hatch and like magic the eyes open. The day’s to do list is long, too long and I know full well that half will not get done. But I slip on my Birks and trod off through the wet grass to at least get the feeding and watering done early.

The sun is still sleeping in and what was the full moon is about to take a swan dive in the west. A replacement rooster is replying from the other side of the garden to Mr. Foghorn Leghorn in the coop. Like an artillery barrage they volley back and forth. The younger rooster sending the message, “I’m still here, old man.” The old man has his reply ready, “yeah, who’s sleeping in the weeds and who’s sleeping with the ladies?”

Otherwise all is quiet until the rattle of the cans. Ginger, our workhorse, comes to the gate expectantly. I grab a small amount of feed and lead her out to her pasture. A bit more grain for the sheep and I call Becky, our English Shepherd, to the corral. I position her to the outside left of the barn door. Opening it, I step back, as the flood of sheep, like an unstoppable river current, bursts out the opening.

Becky has little to do except act as a bouncer at a rowdy bar, a reminder that bad behavior has consequences. She walks up on a few ewes who’d rather graze in the wrong pasture; they scurry to catch up with the others. Once they are safe in the proper field I close the gate on them for the day.

A bit of grain to the chickens, I open the door to the run and let them out. Most ignore the grains and head out to look for grubs. Early bird and all of that….

The cattle are fine and grazing the top of the pasture. We only give them grain every few days, mainly just so they know to come when called. Meanwhile, as they move, they look like barges coursing slowly across a bay of grass, not a care in the world.

The pigs are safely in the freezer of six different families. Our new crop will arrive in another week. So with the chores done I walk out to the front of the barn and watch the fog rise from the creek bottom up the hill to just below me. And then, with a mind of its own, it moves swiftly down the valley, clearly on a mission.

I turn back for the house, feeling about as peaceful as one can at the start of a busy day.

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We have been taking turns this week reading poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. A great way to fade off to sleep with the “Northwest Passage” rattling around the brain.

Butcher’s Wife Pork-chops: a recipe

After a late evening shearing sheep with the help of neighbors, we reentered our home with well-earned appetites. I had done the prep work on this recipe hours earlier. So it was the matter of about thirty minutes before we set down to a late meal.

This is a favorite recipe, using ingredients produced on our farm.

Season a couple of inch-thick pork chops with salt and pepper and any herbs you like. Heat up a cast iron skillet and throw a knob of butter into the pan. Cook the chops about ten minutes a side. I’ll usually throw more butter into the pan when I turn them over. When the chops are done put them into the oven to keep warm.

Fry a few strips of bacon in the same skillet. Remove the bacon and add one chopped onion, sauté until soft. Add two diced garden tomatoes, a bit of wine or balsamic vinegar and let cook for a few minutes. Add some chopped homemade dill pickles (capers or olives also work well) and a large bunch of greens (about a pound). We used turnip greens last night but any garden greens would work.

Cover your skillet; turn the heat down to simmer for about five minutes. The greens start out bulky and piled high but quickly lose their volume within a few minutes. Uncover, crumble the bacon into the mixture and toss the ingredients.  Spoon the ingredients over your pork chops so that it forms a nice pile on top. Make sure to spoon some of the pot liquor from the greens over the dish.

Before eating say a note of thanks to the pig (the one on your plate) and dig in. You might also thank me for turning you onto one of the best, and easiest, dinners in your repertoire.

Thanks to Mr. Reynaud for this recipe, from his French Feasts cookbook.

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Reading this weekend: Plato’s Revenge: politics in the age of ecology by William Ophuls. I should, however, be reading the manual on our ancient New Holland manure spreader. A tension bar broke and I’m not sure if that might not signify something more technically advanced than my duct tape approach to all things mechanical would solve.