Bargaining with the rain gods  

OK, give us some rain, not too much, not too little, just enough and when convenient…for us. With crazy weather patterns becoming the norm I’m not sure what totem offerings to make to whomever is listening. But I’m willing to try. Just clue me in big guy.

The folks in the UK, I hear, could stand a dry spell. The good people of the Gulf coast could use a month or two to dry out from Noah like deluges, just not too long…. And we’ve been running low for the year. Not a drought, yet. But edging into the scary zone where you know what can happen. So when a major system kicked up and started firing moisture northwards from the Gulf of Mexico and along a frontal line, we were hopeful.

But after a misting over 24 hours and by yesterday afternoon a mere measly 10th of an inch was in the rain gauge. So late on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with the skies having parted I was glued to the computer watching stray storms popping up; calculating wind directions, intensity and whether the gods were going to play fair.

For a couple of hours we watched what appeared to be a promising cell fire up on the Cumberland Plateau. An agonizing drift eastward at a glacial pace and it finally crested the ridge of our valley around 6 pm. A nice round ½ inch dropped into the gauge. We’ll take what was offered. Do I need to slaughter a lamb or offer burnt offerings?

So after the rain of yesterday I piddled about the farm today, did a bit of fishing, mainly as an excuse to smoke a cigar. And I mulled over an email we had received. Someone wanted advice on leading a more self-sufficient life. I disclaim any authority to answer adequately. But apparently I can’t seem to resist the siren call of thinking I have something to say (see below).

So, while I’ve been a bit useless today, Cindy has been her usual industrious self. She has been cleaning our hive bodies and getting frames ready for our two new bee nuc’s. These are ones to replace the four hives lost last year to bad weather and poor management.

5 Guidelines to greater self-sufficiency

Lesson #1: Garden

Start by getting your hands dirty. Plant a garden. Grow what you like to eat. Plunge your hands into the soil, make some notes of what you did and repeat next season. It is not hard. At the end of the season you have some fresh produce, don’t waste it. Eat it, save it or compost it.

Lesson #2: Livestock

Start small and raise for your own home consumption. Raise only what you like to eat. It doesn’t take a college degree or permaculture certification to raise a hog out for nine months, butcher it and eat well for the next year. Chickens or ducks, a hog or a lamb, can all be raised successfully on a small bit of land.

Lesson #3: Work

We all have more time than we realize. So, use it. You are going to feel better at the end of the year when you have some food in the freezer and in the pantry, I promise. Knowing you can produce food for your family is simply the best feeling.

Lesson #4: Killing and cooking

Get over your squeamishness. You got an extra rooster, learn to butcher. Do it cleanly and humanely and honor it with a really nice dinner with some sides of fresh vegetables you grew.

Lesson #5: Intelligence

Use your brain. Educate yourself on the best ways to do any of the above. Our ancestors have been providing for themselves for thousands of years. Hey, how hard can it be?

 

Feeling a bit giddy….

Perhaps at this juncture in life I should know better, know that doom and disaster lurk in the wings or that the gods of olden days wait to punish those who exercise hubris or at the very least good humor. But, damn it, it was hard yesterday not to feel a bit giddy with life. A beautiful blue sky greeted the sunrise, a temperature of 31 degrees felt spring like and quickly soared ending the day around 60.

That morning over coffee, encouraged by the weather, we filled a legal pad with our “To Do” list. Heading out the door to complete the morning feeding I ran into our neighbor Shannon, who has been helping us out on the weekends, walking up the drive. She got started on the annual cleaning of the chicken coop. We use a deep litter system where straw is added to the base every month to cover the manure and cleaned out once a year. She put the litter in the compost bins and swept the floors and sprinkled diatomaceous earth on the wood floors to cut down on mites. After putting fresh straw down she was off to give the front porch its annual scrub.

Cindy had headed out, meanwhile, to the farmer’s co-op for some supplies and to the feed store for some fifty gallon drums. We have worked out an arrangement with an area restaurant for their vegetable kitchen waste (hence the need for the extra drums). That waste will be used to feed out our pigs and the rest will be composted for our gardens.

Among the three of us we knocked out an impressive list: cleaning the coop, the porch, repaired and greased the sliding barn door, cleaned the barn gutters, took down the hoop tunnels in a fit of optimism, tilled a garden, planted a sixty foot row of red onions (thank you Russ) and three rows of mustard greens. We moved cattle panels after selling off a part of the herd last week for much needed cash, treated new piglets for a troubling cough and the inevitable lice, scrubbed buckets and took down old fencing. Using the tractor’s boom pole we pulled out an old post, put the auger on and drilled a new post hole, put the boom pole back on and pulled out the auger that had gotten buried to its head in the soil, which doesn’t count as a disaster because we solved the problem….

After a short nap we headed out to a dinner party for our neighbor’s son on the occasion of his 27th birthday. Home and in bed by 10pm and ready for another day, we still have a lot left to do from that legal pad. But, curse it I still feel a bit giddy.

I’ll close this week’s missive by noting the passing of our cat Mickey. At fourteen years of age he failed to show up for his breakfast a week ago. We can only surmise that he went off to die. A good cat, he will be remembered for his heroic and extremely funny mad dash from the barn, a dash that finished with a flying leap into a pack of dogs. The dogs were fighting with a stray and Mickey just wanted to get his own licks in before the dog took off. Rest in peace, Mickey!

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Reading this weekend: Not the Future We Ordered: peak oil, psychology and the myth of progress by John Michael Greer and The Cooking of Southwest France: recipes from France’s magnificent rustic cuisine by Paula Wolfert.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book: “C”

“C” is for Crabapples

When planting our orchard crabapples were an afterthought in the main apple orchard. But thirteen years later the larder is full of jars of crabapple jams and jellies. Crabapples with rosemary, with pear, with blueberry and a few jars of apple butters all make buttered toast a more satisfying breakfast.

Thomas Jefferson was able to get 129 gallons of cider from his Hewes Crabapples. My output is more modest. Yet under our stairs are bottles of crabapple wine, cider and mead. The extra fruit is used to make sauces to spoon over pork chops or to spoon into pigs.

It is hard to imagine our orchard without our Calloway Crabapple tree with its bright red fruits each year.

Garden Seed Inventory 2013

This morning the bags and jars came down for the count: that annual survey of seeds saved, packets of seeds never used, and some elderly specimens of uncertain viability. Always an exciting moment to survey the wealth and dream, can we pull off actually planting all four gourds on the land? Try and figure out how to expand an already packed herb garden? What would I do with the Anise Hyssop? Or, how do I solve the question of leeks, every year the same thing, they get planted but never amount to anything? Perhaps because I treat them like the kid of some ne’re-do-well parents, don’t expect anything so don’t get anything?

Ah, the pain of too many questions. The head spins with trying to decide on one good melon to grow. Charentais is our preferred melon for the table. But they are temperamental, indecisive little buggers with a very short window of maturity. The smell of one achieving that peak deliciousness is like a dinner bell rung inviting all of the available poultry and wildlife to dine. Last year I reached through the vines to clutch a hollowed out shell of a melon only to find a hen had just finished dining on same. So, Turkey melon it will be, prolific and tasty, enough for the chickens and enough for us. But then there are those Prescott Fond Blancs….

Beans are fairly easy to decide on the type: a lima, a pole and a crowder for the garden. But now which varieties to grow? And so it goes with most vegetables in the following list. Maintaining a small seed collection inevitably feels me with guilt. Each year I watch the dates on some vegetables edge their way into oblivion. There really is only so much garden room or space. And there are practical limitations on growing similar varieties within pollination distances of each other if you want to save true seed for the next year.

If you live within the immediate area (Tennessee Valley) and want to try some of these seeds let me know. My skill at starting herbs is negligible. So if you want to turn your hand to starting some of those and are willing to gift me a few for transplants, have at it.

Green manures: Sudan grass, buckwheat.

Gourds: birdhouse, loofah, Mayo Bule, African water bottle.

Squash: Golden Hubbard (winter), yellow crookneck (summer), Musque du Provence (winter), Sugar Pie (winter), Patty pan (summer), North Georgia candy roaster (winter), Yellow Zucchini (Russian summer).

Okra: Clemson, Louisiana Purple.

Greens, Lettuce: Seven top (turnips), kale, Bloomsdale (spinach), Georgia giant (collards), Black seeded Simpson (lettuce).

Corn: Hickory, Bodacious sweet, Moseby’s sweet, Kandy Korn, White broom (sorghum), Honeydrip (sorghum).

Watermelons: Charleston Grey, Orangelo.

Beans: Louisiana Purple (pole), Mississippi (crowder), Texas Zipper Creams (crowder), Sieva (lima), Christmas (lima), Cuban black (bush), Case Knife (pole), October bean (pole), Tennessee Cutshorts (pole), Rattlesnake (pole), North Carolina (lima).

Melons: Turkey, Prescott Fond Blanc, Charentais, Petit Gris de Rennes.

Cucumbers: Boothby Blonde, Siberian (Gherkin style).

Peppers: Poblano, Hatch.

Herbs and Flowers: Grandma’s Eink’s dill, Mammoth dill, Sweet basil, Summer savory, Fennel, Lavender, Anise Hyssop, Cutting Celery, Feverfew, Cumin, Purple coneflower, Outhouse hollyhocks, Monkshood, Lovage, Dahlia.

Miscellaneous: Ester Cook (leeks), Giant Musselburg (leeks), Turga (parsnips), Long Island Improved (Brussel Sprouts), Detroit Red (beets), Black winter radish, Rutabaga (old Russian heirloom), Geisha Turnip (salad turnip), Mystery pack of tomato seeds (package in Russian).

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Rereading this weekend: The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry by Janet Vorwald Dohner, a wonderful book from the Yale University agrarian series.

Tip: an aging stockdog

I gestured to our elderly and now completely deaf cattle dog, “Come on Tip, time to go outside.” She half-heartedly got to her feet, took a step to the door and curled back up.

Reaching down to grab her collar I yelled, “Tip, Get Out”!

She stood, turned from the door and squeezed between a cabinet and the water heater with only her rear and tucked tail visible.

It was 18 degrees outside and I was trying to put her out for the night. Earlier, when the door was opened, she had dashed inside and huddled in the utility room. Faced with dragging our aging and grouchy stockdog out by her hind legs I mulled over letting her stay.

One day while stopping by the Amish vegetable stand and harness shop, Cindy spied a basket of puppies. She bought Tip. The mother was a Blue Heeler and the father a wandering Romeo of collie descent.

That was thirteen years ago. Tip has been our constant companion on the farm. With instinctive herding instincts, she has been valuable in getting recalcitrant cows to move, return to the barn or stay away while hay was set out.

In her first year she took off after a coyote on the property one night. She returned ten minutes later with a wooden stake sticking out of her chest. She had run straight into a patch of brush I had recently bush-hogged. We pulled the stake out and Cindy treated the cavity with iodine.

Later that night Tip went into shock from an allergic reaction to the iodine. We loaded her up and made a midnight run to the vet. He met us there around 1 in the morning. (Vets no longer perform that service. If we have an emergency after hours we now drive an hour to the nearest clinic).

He put her on an IV drip and kept her overnight. It must have been traumatic because even today, if she feels insecure, she will lift up her foreleg and sniff where the needle drip was inserted.

Definitely a dog with grit, if a 1400-pound bull would not move in the cattle chute, Tip jumped in, barked and bit at the heels. She has been kicked and stomped for her reward many times.

She has been the guard dog that keeps substantially large men penned in their trucks. She has rid us of skunks and possums that preyed on our poultry. She always came when called and did her part, until these past few years.

These days it takes her awhile to get up in the morning. Stove-up, she takes a few minutes to un-kink, hobbling on her front legs.

She now stands stationary in the middle of the yard as the younger dogs race past, barking excitedly but unwilling to play. And now reluctant to risk getting kicked she leaves those tasks to the younger generation.

She is still my constant companion on walks in the woods, never leaving my side. Or, while I bale hay, she lays at the edge of the pasture and waits for me to finish.

Last night, after the door was shut, she edged out from the hot water heater, sniffed her foreleg and settled back down on the blanket. We let her stay in for the night. She has earned that right.

You call this winter?

January 21, 1985 Knoxville’s temperature dropped to minus 24 degrees, the coldest in the lower 48 states. As a new transplant from southern Louisiana just the month prior I wondered what had motivated me to move to the frozen north (Tennessee). Then just this morning the temperature at 7 am was a balmy 57 degrees, twenty-seven degrees above the normal low for this time of year and a full eighty-one degrees above that historic low.

When not dwelling on the darker aspects and implications of temperature fluctuations my thoughts have been on gardening and pasture renovations. The flood of seed catalogs, the first arriving the week of Thanksgiving, have kept me entertained with grand fantasies of what might be accomplished if only there were a few more hours in the day.

I have my favorites. Some I love for the over the top descriptions: one praising turnips in the fall when “new winds blow into the fields”. Not quite sure what a “new wind” is exactly but I get the spirit of it.  Others are loved for their encyclopedic listings of every variety known. But my favorites are Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, IA, Sow True Seed in Asheville, NC and Horizon Herbs in Williams, OR. These three are work-a-day catalogs with a minimum of the frou-frou dribble that seems to appeal to the …well, you know who you are.

The problem at this time of year, as I see it, is one of restraint, resisting the urge to plant just a little too early. Maybe a few sugar peas in a protected area and we might be blessed with an early crop? Thomas Jefferson held an annual contest among his neighbors. Whoever brought in the earliest crop of peas hosted a dinner for his other neighbors. Think about that for a moment. To succeed in being first in bringing a crop to the table and the reward was to gather and feed your neighbors, not the other way around. There is value in that story and practice.

While waiting and waiting impatiently we will weed and mulch the garlic and onions this weekend. Those two kitchen essentials will be ready to harvest in late June. In the meantime I can gather my seed collection about me and plan to plant in February, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, peas, radishes and celery (which I have never grown before).

Later this month we can begin to reseed some of the pastures with a rye, clover and fescue mix. Using the tractor and a disc harrow I’ll lightly disc the fields and spread the seed where hopefully it finds purchase to give us a full crop of hay later in the year. Then there are the plans to sow buckwheat in the orchard for the bees. And there are more plans for, well, plans.

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Reading this weekend Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and “The Saucier’s Apprentice” by Raymond Sokolov a history and guide to the classic French sauces. Do I dare try and master the Sauce Grand Veneur (Master of the Royal Hunt Sauce) for the leg of venison for Saturday’s dinner?

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book

“A” is for asparagus.

In a way starting an alphabet book in winter it is fitting to start with asparagus. Right now the asparagus patch is brown and seemingly empty of life. But “seemingly” is deceptive. The spears begin to show in late February. And it still remains a surprise to walk by the patch and spot that first spear, popped up like a mushroom after a rain. How did it get to be six inches tall without our noticing? Eating that first asparagus raw, still cool from the morning chill is one of those things on a farm that makes the labor have purpose. We harvest them daily for about 10 weeks.

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Reading this weekend Jared Diamond’s new release, The World Until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies.