Fig Nation

Figgy goodness

You just never know when good luck will turn on her high beams and hit you with some gifted produce or a home-brewed beer. We’ve been hard at what is best described as a homestead weekend on the farm. We’ve planted figs and blueberries, transitioned the summer to a fall garden, made mead and apple jelly, fed the bees…. Later today friends are coming over to donate an afternoon of converting logs to lumber.

Which makes me think of Fig Nation. A couple of years back, an elderly Slavic émigré visited the farm to buy a lamb for his freezer. A long conversation ensued (which seems to happen more often than not), during which he and I shared some of my homemade pear brandy (which also seems to happen more often than not). We walked about the fig orchard and got to talking about fig love and the joys and struggles of growing figs in the upper South. He mentioned a cold-hardy variety that he had had success growing in Blount County. The conversation and afternoon then drifted on to other topics.

A couple of weeks later, a mystery package arrived from an out-of-state nursery. It contained six small rootstocks of figs, a gift from the farm visitor. Since that time we’ve nurtured them along, first in pots in the house, then in the rich soil of the hoop-house. Finally, yesterday morning I dug them up and divided the rootstock of each into new plants. Two of each went into the orchard. The remaining figs were gifted to two more friends in the valley.

What took place here is an example of what I call “Fig Nation,” an informal farm economy and community based on producing, sharing, and enjoying. The concept of Fig Nation is simple: A few weeks back, my nephew and I harvested five pounds of elderberries. We cleaned, bagged, and tossed them in the freezer. Yesterday I pulled them out and combined them with water and honey to make an elderberry mead. Come winter, I’ll enjoy the mead with guests. Welcome to Fig Nation, where sharing brings pleasure and automatic membership.

Those friends coming over to help with the sawmill? While here, they also plan to use our cider mill for some perry from their pear crop. After milling lumber and pears, we will conclude the day with a glass or two of my newly bottled raspberry wine — members in good standing in Fig Nation must be prepared to produce, converse, work, and sip.

So you see, Fig Nation, in concept and in practice, isn’t difficult at all. Now, you may find the founding premise a bit too anarchistic, this making and giving and receiving. And, if you don’t comprehend, I’m not allowed to explain it in detail — except to say, it is not a bad way to spend your days and evenings and life.

It’s Not the Grapes

In the John Sayles play “At the Anarchist Convention,” one of the old anarchists makes it a point to say that he refuses to eat grapes at the annual dinner. In a beautiful bit of back and forth with his comrades, he conflates the grapes on the plate with the famous 1970s grape boycott in support of striking farmworkers.

As a small-farm farmer, I often think of this play and how we, as a society, are prone to confusing the thing (the grape) with the process (the strike). For example, we disparage any grain feeding of livestock, when what we’re really protesting are the practices of the industrial feedlots and the monocultural production of millions of acres of commodity corn. Now this is not to say, Mr. Pollan, that raising livestock exclusively on grain hasn’t got its own set of problems, whether on an industrial or a small farm. But addressing appropriate process, scale, and humane treatment can help us frame a better question that yields a better answer than simply blaming the thing.

Yesterday, we butchered a couple of dozen Cornish X White Rock chickens. The day-old chicks we purchased a mere 8.5 weeks ago had grown out to produce an astounding 4.5-pound carcass. (Think of a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua side by side, and you’ll have an idea of how fast the cross grows compared to the traditional farm variety.) As a super-fast-growing bird, the Cornish-Rock has several issues of concern from the small-producer standpoint — weak limbs and lack of hardiness, to name two. But the bird, in and of itself, is not the crux of the problem.

The real problem is its role in the agri-industrial system. This commercial cross was bred specifically and exclusively for industrial exploitation: The Cornish-Rock cross is an ideal partner for the vertical factory model — a model in which bird, agribusinessman, and illegal immigrant plant worker are tightly bound in the same machine that spits out soylent green parts for consumption by the masses. The model that provides cheap protein, provides cheap veggies, provides cheap clothing, provides a cheapened life….

The grapes ain’t the problem, folks. It’s the process by which the grapes got to your table.

Farm Postcard: Earth Day

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A pin oak fronts two silver maples, all planted twelve years ago.

Plant trees: It is our constant and perhaps best advice to would-be-farmers. The old Chinese adage is true. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Our farm was evenly split between large woods and open pastures when we moved here in 1999. In order to provide shade for the house, barns and outbuildings that we built, fruit and native trees were planted in abundance. Dozens of fast growing maples and tulip poplars and slower growing oaks dot what was an open landscape. Several winged elms, transplanted from the woods, are set apart giving a living shape to the name of the farm. Two orchards, one now sixteen years old and a newer orchard still being planted are located in front and to the side of the house. The sawmill is located between the two, next to a hay barn sided with oak from our older trees. Additionally we have a couple of dozen pecan and pawpaw trees potted and ready to go into the ground. On this Earth Day we suggest that every day should be Arbor Day.

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Reading this weekend: Miraculous Abundance: one quarter acre, two French farmers and enough food to feed the world, by Herve’-Gruyer.

The ‘self-sufficing’ farm

It was late afternoon when I stopped at a friend’s farm. An invitation to sample three new homebrews and some freshly sliced prosciutto from a 2-year-old ham had been issued. The short drive found me passing dozens of small homes and farms. None of them could be called financially “going concerns.” Most had vegetable gardens and chickens; some had fighting cocks staked to huts; many had a steer or two in a small pasture and a few pigs in sties near the barn; one had a gutted buck draped from a pickup truck. These are features of our landscape. It’s a traditional landscape of those getting by, doing for themselves. Not quite the “self-sufficing” farms of old, but closer than most in this modern world.

Lounging by the coop.

Tools of the trade

In the 1930 census, one-third of “self-sufficing” farms were located in Appalachia, accounting for the majority of farms in the region. These farms generated less than $100 a year, produced more than 50 percent of their needs on the land, and bartered and traded for the rest in an essentially cashless network. In a system hallowed by custom, kinship, shared work, and shared deprivation, these hill people still led a life rich in music, folkways, food, and craft.

Cashless networks create challenges within a capitalist economy. Communities operating outside the prevailing system must always be brought inside, to the sheltering embrace of improvement, progress, and markets. A people not in search of “the civilizing influence of a cash economy” will be given it anyway. And once it’s presented, they’ll often surrender to it, for after all, the sirens’ call of cheaper, plentiful goods is hard to ignore when there is money to spend.

The 1930s were really the midpoint in a long, complicated pursuit of bringing “progress” and wages to the mountain people. That pursuit ultimately resulted in the destruction of those self-sufficing farms, the cashless society and culture, and what remained was a shell, a dependent people, and the faintest ghostly echo of that world today.

Perhaps it is a romantic streak, but I see ghosts. Ghosts of what we have lost in our drive for progress and shiny baubles. One North Carolina woman, at the brink of the Civil War, anticipated the loss to come in that conflict: “How quietly we drift out into such an awful night, into the darkness, the lowering clouds, the howling winds, and the ghostly light of our former glory going with us to make the gloom visible with its pale glare.”

A friend of mine works with non-profits and universities establishing links between the peoples of Appalachia and the Maramures region of Romania. ‘Twas a link I thought a stretch until he sent me William Blacker’s chronicle Along the Enchanted Way. It is a haunting work, beautifully written, of a land isolated and untouched yet by the capitalist economy and unaffected by the communist government just fallen—a land like ours once was, of custom, barter, and kinship, of self-sufficing farms.

During the years Blacker lived among the Romanians, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, he witnessed the impact of cash and commercial goods on that society. How quickly a rural, traditional society unravels, one outside paycheck or charity at a time, leaving a pale glare to light the path behind.

We find it hard to step outside our immediate desires and see the long-term consequences. We bemoan the loss of kith and kin, praise the handmade, the local, yet undermine all by our gluttonous drive for new markets and consumption. Left behind is the debris of formerly stable societies, slathered now with the cheap, sugary pink frosting of hope and mountains of discarded plastic toys.

On our farm, we don’t lead a self-sufficing life. We try. But even with our table loaded each night with food sourced from just outside our door, with a pantry full of jars of preserves, pickles, and canned produce from the garden, with bacon, jowls, and hams under the stairs, we conjure only a pale outline of what was or could be. We try to barter and repair the literal and figurative fences in our community. But, we fail. Those links to a self-sufficing life are now severed. We are too plugged into this economy, too enamored to envision a way out.

The problem is not just our fossil-fueled lifestyle, our globally connected train of goods and services, or our commodification of all physical aspects of our modern existence. It is our mindset. We discard with ignorance and shortsightedness and embrace the new without question.

Perhaps we mistake the lowering clouds as security and the howling winds as the sound of contented voices. Yet … if the pale light guiding my path leads me to three homebrewed beers and some home-cured prosciutto, then I’ll gladly trudge on.

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Reading this weekend: Book of Tripe: and gizzards, kidneys, feet, brains and all the rest. By Stephane Reynaud. 

Where does the time go

The lambs can see the light on in my study. One does wonder what goes on in their not-too bright brains. But clearly the connection is made that the master or possibly their slave is up and should be attending to their needs. Those bleats in turn raise the hopes of the sheep in the barn. Which signal to the hens to clamber off perches and wait for the door to open. There are bugs to catch, my good man, get to it!

After tending to their endless needs we spent some time helping a neighbor dig twelve post-holes. They are in the process of installing a new solar array for their farm. Working the auger always takes a few practice holes to get in the swing. But we were in fine form after four were dug. It was on the fifth hole that our luck changed as we buried the auger in the ground. After squandering an hour trying to get it out of the ground we regrouped. Our neighbor hit upon an easy solution. We removed one of two bolts holding the auger onto the head assembly, ran a piece of rebar through the hole and spun it counter-clockwise. A miracle!

Green tomatoes

Green tomatoes ready to be pickled

Returning back home for a well-earned nap I awoke to find the season of salvage continuing with a session of making dilled green tomatoes. After harvesting about ten pounds of small green tomatoes, Cindy cleaned, halved and quartered them in preparation for canning. Adding a bit of garlic, dill, coriander seeds to the mix we quickly knocked out six pints and two quarts. I salted down the rest into a crock and put them in a corner of the study with a half-dozen demijohns of wine and perry. All were bubbling away merrily by morning.

We finished up our weekend with a two hour excursion up to Hancock County. A wild, beautiful and very isolated county of only 7000 souls. Cindy wanted to view and possibly purchase a new draft pony as companion to Caesar. After crossing the Clinch Mountain, with innumerable switchbacks up and down, we finally arrived at our destination. But only after a long drive down a one lane road, where an oncoming car backed a quarter mile to allow us to pass.

Cindy viewed and she purchased and we returned home. The whole of the weekend passing quickly. Leaving me with that feeling that somehow I haven’t measured up, was not productive. And to cap it off where I started, the lambs are now bleating for dinner.

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Reading this weekend: Marcus Cato’s “On Agriculture”.

A Season of Salvage

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Muscadine and scuppernong grapes

There is a day each year. A day when you find yourself in the kitchen slicing the last of the season’s ripe tomatoes, a moment you have lived before, knew was in the cards. A day when the vines are still heavy with green tomatoes. A shortened day in which those green tomatoes will never fully ripen, destined instead for frying or making chowchow. How did that unstoppable summer deluge become a trickle and then a drought?

So begins fall, a chance to cherish what is passing before the weather turns to ice and snow — both too soon to dream of the fallow winter, when the cold months spoon next to the season of rebirth, that bare season, stark in its absence of greenery, when our native imagination colors in the palette of the riches to come, and too late to partake of the fresh bounty of the summer season just passed. The in-between season.

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A killing cone for chickens.

Fall is the season of salvage, of scouring the fields and paddocks for useful leftovers. In modern parlance, it is the sustainable season. A rush to harvest the last of the fruit to preserve in jams, jellies, chutneys, and wines. A time to take stock with some soul searching of Aesop’s Fables significance: Do we have enough firewood? Did we use our time well last winter, spring, summer in preparation for the next year? It is a time of movement, cattle to new pastures and forage to shelter. A time to glean the excess hens and roosters, butchering for hours to stock the larder for the gumbo and chicken and dumplings that will get us through the cold months to come.

Fall is a time of hog fattening. The cruel reward for an ability to gain 300 pounds in nine months comes with a knife wielded the week after Halloween. The bounty is delivered to us in sides of bacon, salted hams, corned shoulders, butcher’s wife pork chops, hand-seasoned breakfast sausages, headcheese, pates, and bowls of beans with ham hocks.

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Assorted lambs for winter customers.

Fall is also sheep-breeding time. As the days and nights cool, the ram has his pleasurable work cut out for him, making sure all ewes are bred. We, servant-like, make sure the ewes are conditioned for lambing, in good health, hooves trimmed, attending to their every need. Meanwhile, last winter’s lambs are grazing in their own pasture, fattening before they fall under the butcher’s sword in the remaining months of the year.

Fall is the season of coming face to face with imminent and unavoidable death. It is the fever of the dying year, the mumbled words from the patient in the bed trying to get his affairs in order, to make amends. So much to do and so little time.

It is a season of contrasts, when we eat a ripe tomato while composting the vine it grew on, feed a pregnant ewe while fattening for slaughter her year-old offspring, crush grapes and pears while sipping the wine made last year. Past, present, and future are jumbled in this most hopeful season, when we weigh the year to come to see what is left in the balance.

Like a culture that prepares for a future generation, this work is undertaken for a year not yet born.

Making Headcheese

No Cheese Needed: I spent a pleasant warm day yesterday making headcheese. Here is a post from the archives about the same.

Fromage de tete, coppa di testa, brawn, presskopf or souse, we are speaking here, of course, of headcheese, a frighteningly disgusting term for what turns out to be a delicious dish. The old saying that with a pig you eat everything but the “squeal” is true.

All porky goodness.

All porky goodness.

“If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed. Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib?” M.F. K. Fisher

Our new processor asked last year when I delivered four hogs if I wanted the heads. Immediately I knew that headcheese was in my future. But, time and energy interfered. The heads lay bundled up at the bottom of the freezer, forgotten, and eventually pitched at the dump. A year later, last week, another hog delivered and the same question. And, yes, was my answer.

So Saturday morning I hauled out the head, ears and trotters and placed them in the sink. Using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for headcheese from the River Cottage Cookbook I gathered up onions from our garden, and clove, coriander, nutmeg, peppercorns, 1/2 cup of red pepper flakes from the larder. Added a big bundle of thyme, rosemary and parsley from the herb garden and got to work. Using my butcher saw I quartered the heads (I no longer do this step) so that it would fit into the pot easily. Adding the head, ears, trotters, onions, seasoning and herbs to a biggish pot of water and brought that to a boil. Once at a boil it smelled a bit like a crab boil.

Next step is to skim of the scum that floats to the top for about 30 minutes then reduce to a simmer for four hours. After four hours the meat and bones are removed. The liquid is reduced by 2/3 to a gelatinous soup. Next I pulled the meat from the head and jaw and finally chopped into a hash, peeled the skin of the tongue and did the same. Then mixed in a good sized clump of fresh parsley (chopped) and juice of a lemon (many use apple vinegar) and put the mixture in the fridge.

When the liquid was reduced it was strained into another pot. The onions and bundle of herbs were tossed. The meat mixture was then pressed into a terrine and the liquid was ladled over the top. Placed back into the fridge until the jelly set.

What a nice way to create a delicious dish from some very inelegant ingredients. I do recommend using the head next time for those of you who raise or buy a side of pork from time to time. Talk about nose to tail eating!

I’d close by recommending three other books, a holy trinity of sorts, dedicated to the concept that nothing gets wasted. They are all by Jennifer McLagan. Bones, Fat, and Odd Bits. Each is beautifully produced and full of wonderful recipes: Ex.  a hearty dish of ravioli made of brains and morels.

Now, where did I put my brains?

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Reading this weekend: Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: essays from a farmer philosopher by Frederick L. Kirschenman