Category Archives: Farming Info

Photo journal of May in the veggie fields

About a week ago I snapped some photos of the little plants that are sneakily growing into big plants in rows and fields around the farm. If you’re in the mood for a scavenger hunt, you can sift through the photos and see if you can identify the various vegetables in their teenage phases. Below you’ll find: cabbage; broccoli; beets; kohlrabi; fennel; baby salad greens; head lettuce; peas; tomatoes; eggplant; garlic; onions.

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The Waiting Game

Em with Visitor

Emily in her kidding stall with one of her daily visitors.

Did you ever play the Waiting Game as a kid?  It was one of those games generally forced upon children by short-tempered parents, like the Quiet Game or the Use Your Restaurant Voice Game, and in the same class as the Clean Plate Club (a club which typically required your membership only when your plate sported broccoli or spinach). In other words, not very fun.

Unfortunately, it turns out the Waiting Game isn’t just for kids.  It’s also for goat owners awaiting kids.

We moved expecting mama Emily into a comfy, plush kidding stall inside the barn on Friday morning, thinking she was due on Valentine’s Day (Sunday).  We pulled out all the stops for our mother-to-be:  put down soft, fresh straw for her to lie on, rigged up a pen out of hog panels (perfect for goat back-scratching), gave her her own personal alfalfa feeder, grass hay feeder, mineral feeder, water bucket.  We threw open the windows and doors when it was sunny to let in light and fresh air and shut them as soon as it cooled down to keep the barn as warm as possible. I checked on her constantly, waking in the middle of the night and trudging to the barn to check on her, to try and make sure that we’d be there to help her out no matter what time the kids decided to arrive.

Well, it’s Tuesday, I haven’t slept more than a few hours straight in 5 nights, and Emily has shown exactly zero signs of imminent labor.

Her ligaments (the ones that run from her pinbones to her tailhead and disappear before labor) seem to soften and then firm up and then soften again, teasing me.*  Her udder is continuing to fill slowly, but isn’t anywhere near full, and hasn’t shown the sudden 24-hour ballooning that typically precedes labor.  Her teats seem to be starting to swell… but then again, no.  Her hips seem a bit hollowed out, her belly seems to be sitting lower (indicating the kids are moving into place to make their entry into the world)… but then again, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.   She has a very tiny bit of mucus discharge but nothing like the large amounts that indicate the loss of the mucus plug and the onset of labor.

Emily Ligament Test

Feeling for Emily's ligaments. They've softened a bit, and I can reach partway down her spine.

Emily's Udder

Emily's udder is filling up, but isn't yet tight and shiny. Her teats aren't filled with colostrum, either.

In other words, we have no idea when she’s going to kid!  We bought her bred from Brandywine Farms (a wonderful family farm in the foothills of the Sierra), but the breeding date wasn’t known precisely, and when Emily was ultrasounded, the vet wasn’t exactly sure how far along she was.  They gave a window of 15 days, the first possible due date being Valentine’s day.

So for now, back to the waiting game.  And hoping that Emily will let me get some sleep before March!

——-

*FYI, signs that a goat is close to labor are:

  • Loss of ligaments — specifically the ligaments along the back end of her spine, past the pin bones but before the tailhead — to the point where you can almost reach around the spine.
  • “Hollowing out” of hips and a “mushy” hind end as babies drop into place and all other muscles relax to let the birth canal open up and the uterus get to work.
  • Udder is tight and shiny, filled with fresh colostrum.
  • Teats are swollen, taut, and full of colostrum, ready for babies to suckle.
  • Mucus discharge… aka “string of goo” from the goat’s vulva.
  • Goat may start to talk to babies (arching head backwards and nickering to stomach). Goat may paw the ground to try and make a nest for kidding.
  • Some more subtle signs are “going posty,” which is when the doe starts to walk sort of funny and the back legs look stiff and post-like.  Also, the tail will arch in a funny way.
  • And of course, the biggest signs that a goat is going into labor are… contractions!  And then, of course, the appearance of two little hooves, and the kid.

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city girl goes to the garden: summer squash

I’m not sure if I’ve confessed this before on the blog, but for most of my life, I’ve been what gardeners would call a Black Thumb.  In other words, plants tend to die around me.

My brother Craig was always a green thumb.  He’d sneak a few exposed Amaryllis bulbs from the side of the road and within the year turn our sideyard into a veritable Amaryllis forest.  Orchids?  Bonsai?  No sweat.  Meanwhile, I was trying to help out by uprooting “weeds,” aka strawberries.  (Even my mother, who for most of her life has been on a strict meat-and-potatoes diet, had successfully identified and purposefully left the “volunteer” strawberries in our flower-dominated garden in San Diego.)

And then there was the time I was digging with a hand-trowel, helping my mother and brother transplant some new seedlings from the nursery.  While digging, I came across an earthworm that–in some strange wormy gymnastic maneuver– managed to hurl itself up in the air way too close to me for comfort.

I let out a loud shriek and with considerable force threw aforementioned trowel across the garden, where it landed frighteningly close to Craig’s fingers.  A loud “JESUS, LYNDIE!” could be heard across the neighborhood as Craig quickly retracted his nearly-severed fingers.  (Oops, sorry.)

So for this post (and probably some future posts), I’ve decided to toss off my I’m-so-earthy-and-I’ve-always-been-this-way hat and give you the straight-up city girl’s guide to growing.  Truth is, I still cringe slightly whenever husking an ear of wormy corn.  (Never in front of customers:  only at home.)  Crusted poop on chick-butts no longer phases me, and there are a lot of things on the farm that I haven’t managed to kill — in fact, there are many things that have actually benefited from my thumb, whatever shade of green/brown/black it might be.  Clearly, I’m making progress, but for now I’m going to tell you what I really think about summer squash — from the perspective of a currently opinionated, formerly suburban black thumb.

You only have so much space in your garden.  All summer long, zucchini will be a dime a dozen at the local supermarket.  Recipes will flood local magazines and newspapers offering you 101 ways to get rid of your excess zucchini.  (Hint:  it does wonders for chocolate cake.)  So, is it really worth your effort to plant zucchini — or any summer squash, for that matter?

My answer:  yes and no.

No to green zucchini.  Yes to yellow, zephyr (which I haven’t personally grown, but which is absolutely gorgeous and a number of farmers marketers have had good success with it), crookneck squash, and “patty pans,” aka flying saucers.

Emmett says I’m biased against green zucchini.  I am.  First of all, it’s boring, and the grocery store is absolutely 100% guaranteed to have it — while the grocery store might not carry yellow, and probably won’t carry zephyrs, crooknecks, or flying saucers.

Second of all, sometimes green zucchini can harbor a distinctive bitterness in the skin, especially as they get bigger.  I find this flavor is less likely to occur in the yellow or zephyr zuchs.  And thirdly, harvesting green zucchini is a royal pain in the you-know-what.

OK, fine, harvesting any zucchini is somewhat of a pain.  The plants are monsters, festooned with tiny sharp glassy thorns, and the zucchini grows right in the plant’s heart.  They’re not like apples, hung out on branches for you to pluck, or root crops like carrots, beets, or radishes, which require a quick simple pinched-finger tug.  No, harvesting zucchini is a whole-body (or at least whole-arm) endeavor, requiring you to get right up close and personal with the plant.  A plant that’s designed to prevent critters from getting up close and personal with it.  A plant that gives me an itchy rash which lasts for a couple of days and stings like the dickens if I try and put soothing lotion on it.  (Hint:  wear long sleeves and gloves, and carry a big knife.  And maybe a stick, too, like Teddy said.)

Which is why I don’t like harvesting something that is the exact same color as the monster plant.  In my sweaty, itchy harvesting angst, I’m way more likely to miss a zucchini that blends in perfectly with its surroundings. Missing a zucchini just once means we end up with humongous, bitter, seedy green zucchinis — they grow several inches per day, I swear — which slow the plantss production and end up in the compost pile.

Emmett, of course, thinks I’m silly to hate on green zucchinis so much.  I think I’m busy, and don’t have time to be hunting around for stupid boring green zucchinis when their bright yellow neighbors are so kindly, fluorescently shouting “PICK ME!  PICK ME!”  (Thanks to the lovely contrast between fruit and leaves, I never miss a yellow zuch.)

If you’re busy, and don’t like spending time in prickly bushes, trust me.  Next year, plant yellows.  And crookneck squash, which are by far our most prolific summer squash.  The heart of the plant almost looks like a snake’s den — brimming with curved, interlocked yellow babies.  Harvested when young, crooknecks tasty in most dishes that call for zucchini — substitute away!  They also make gorgeous aperitifs:  slice them lengthwise so they look like cute little whales, place a sliced tomato on top, sprinkle with basil, garlic, olive oil, and a dash of balsalmic, bake in oven until slightly dehydrated and serve.  They’re every bit as classy as cucumber sandwiches, so be sure to hold your pinky out when you eat them.

And finally:  flying saucers.  These are heaven’s gift to people who don’t want to go digging around in prickly zucchini plants.  They don’t all cluster at the heart of the plant: later in the season you’re apt to find them practically hung out on branches like apples.  And they’re beautiful, so beautiful you’ll be tempted to save some just to put out on the table as decoration.  Note:  in my experience, these are the least productive of the zucchinis, so be sure to put in a couple of plants if you’re looking to have enough for your own consumption (and maybe the neighbor’s.)

Oh yeah, and did I mention that I didn’t manage to kill any of these plants — green, yellow, or patty-pan?  The seeds are nice and big, which means you’ll be dealing with a fairly robust seedling, not a little wisp of a thing like lettuce or leeks.  Give ’em some compost and plenty of water — and barring some strange disease (more on that when I discuss winter squash later), these plants should take off, and in fact just might take over your garden.  Give them space, and come well-armored when it’s time to do battle with them!

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falcons as starling control

(When the Barbary tiercel — a subspecies of the peregrine — looks the other way, the dog drinks his water.)

Instead of using traps, mylar strips, or plastic netting, Huntington Winery in Healdsburg hires a wonderful man named Jim to fly his falcons around the vineyard. The very presence of his birds keeps starlings at bay. (BTW, starlings are a 200-million-strong invasive species which threatens all sorts of crops from berries to orchards to grapes.)

I know PETA types might raise their hackles over falconry. They don’t like the Iditarod, either. But, first off, both of these things (falconry and Iditarod) are really, really cool — the type of adventurous pastime that manages to inspire wide-eyed young children and scowling cynical adults alike. Secondly, I happen to find a working relationship between man and animal wholly respectable — the animals are truly doing what they love in both cases — and after spending time with falconers and mushers, I’d be hard-pressed to name folks who love their animals (birds and dogs) more.

Anyway, a story about falconry in vineyards (written by yours truly) will run in the New York Times Windsor Times today. Before you get the chance to pick up the paper, feast your eyes on these beautiful birds:

Above, the falcon is exhibits a behavior known as mantling — covering her “prey” after a “kill.” In this case, the prey is a lure (swung on a rope by the handle on the lower left), and no killing actually took place.

Below, Strega the Lanner Falcon, and beneath her, Ros the Saker Falcon.

OK, enough gawking. Back to the farmy stuff: stay tuned for the next post on Foggy River.

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growing fancy: chioggia beets

Farmflash:

  • Food = Expensive.
  • Kenya questions value of organics. (But did the study they cited test pesticide residue, or just nutritional content?)
  • Even England (not exactly renowned for its cuisine, and I say this with all due affection for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) is jumping on the local food bandwagon: an author solicits help for a book about local food in Leicestershire.
  • The Times features salt potatoes, an upstate classic — among other local Finger Lake faves.

Growing fancy: Chioggia Beets

I’m going to make an effort to post about some unique veggie at least once a week, with more details than I’ve previously given. For the newly-revised “Growing Fancy” section, expect to learn about the veggie’s history, nutritional content, growing tips, and cooking tips, too! Take one: Chioggia Beets.

History:

Beets are thought to have originated from wild species in the Mediterranean area of Southern Europe. Their botanical ancestors have been cultivated just about as long as anything — as far as historians can tell, since prehistoric times. Those botanical ancestors are also known as chard, a bulbless beet that Aristotle wrote about in the fourth century B.C. (I’m hoping that if I keep writing about chard, maybe I’ll become extraordinarily wise and famous, too.) Early Romans ate only the greens; the root — still hard and fibrous at this point — was considered medicine and only used for treating illness.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D., Roman food writers started to babble about beta vulgaris — a plant that apparently possessed the fleshy, sweet root we’re familiar with today. (It was probably found growing in the wild and subsequently cultivated, but nobody is not too sure about that.) Anyway, not too much was written about the beet for a while after the Romans. (I harbor a sneaking suspicion that beets were largely a peasant food, and peasant diets aren’t often recorded in the history books.) Fast-forward to the fourteenth century: the beet entered European consciousness vis-a-vis written English recipes, where it clearly “took root.” (Groan.)

Linguistic note: as some of our customers have pointed out, Chioggia is technically pronounced key-oh-ghee-ah. The “Ch” in Italy is pronounced as a hard “c,” whereas an Italian “c” is actually pronounced like the English “ch.” Still, I really haven’t heard too many Americans say it this way. (I did take a year of Italian in college, but I’m going to stick to the colloquial parlance on this one.)

Botany:

Any gardener knows a beet seed when she sees it — unless, of course, it’s a chard seed. Chard and beet seeds are pretty much identical, and look a little like extraterrestrials destined for Martian soil; each “seed” is actually a multifaceted seed pod containing multiple viable plant seeds. As I mentioned before, chard and beets are closely related, and will in fact cross-pollinate with one another if given the chance. Ditto goes for sugar beets. Be forewarned: beets are wind-pollinated, and the pollen can travel great distances. If you want to seed-save and get true-to-type Chioggia beets next year, make sure your beets aren’t flowering at the same time as your chard (or at the same time as another beet variety, such as Golden or Bull’s Blood).

Interesting side note: if you leave the pods on the plant too long in a rainy season, you might find tiny little beet plants sprouting mid-air from the parent plant, like rainforest epiphytes. It’s not particularly useful, but it’s pretty cool to see!

Growing:

We follow Johnny’s Seeds’ instructions for these little guys: directly sow them one inch apart, half an inch deep. Water regularly (we drip irrigate every day). Since each seed pod will sprout multiple plants, you’ll have to do a bit of thinning pretty quickly. But since beet seeds aren’t cheap, I really try to get the most out of each sprouted seed: We wait to thin as much as possible until the greens are big enough to use in a salad (yum) — and even then we only thin them to, say, a two-to-three-inch spacing. We thin again for baby beets, which are so tender and tasty and have good-sized greens. Approximately two months after planting (depending on weather — hotter is faster, cooler is slower), the remaining beets should be nice and plump, the bulbs easily visible from the surface. (If you want a perfect-looking beet, you can mound dirt over the bulbs so the skin quality is more uniform. But when you cook it, you end up peeling off the skin anyway, so I don’t bother.)

Chioggia beets have been summering our ninety-degree days quite well, and haven’t found themselves too put out by our clay soil. While some of our other beet varieties (specifically the classic dark red variety) have suffered from mild bouts of beet scab — an unattractive but not fatal condition — Chioggia has proven more resistant. The tasty beet greens haven’t been particularly plagued by pests, either — despite the fact that they’re grown out in the open, without a row cover, in a field rife with leaf-eating cucumber beetles.

Eat It:

Roasted! This caramelizes the beet’s naturally occurring sugar (which is about 8% of the plant), bringing out the root’s innate sweetness. It also preserves the Chioggia’s striking colors better than boiling, which tends to fade the characteristic candy stripes, at least on the areas most exposed to water.

To maximize the wow factor and minimize the cooking effort, simply slice the beets in half, place them on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sea salt & pepper — maybe some balsalmic if you feel the urge — and put them in an oven until they’re nice and tender. (Cooking length depends on size of beet.) Then simply peel the skins off and serve. (Or, like we do at our house, simply serve and warn people about the skins. Our kitchen is a do-it-yourself operation.)

Chic Chioggia:

  • Doesn’t stain the heck out of everything like the classic purple beet.
  • The stripes are truly stunning, especially for peppermint fans. (Also: Can trick unsuspecting kiddies with promises of ‘candy cane beet’.)
  • It’s Italian, and those people really know how to cook, so chances are they developed a darn good — sweet and succulent — beet variety, too.
  • A good way of getting fiber without becoming The Prune Eater; you’ll also benefit from beets’ high levels of folate and potassium. (Beets contain some calcium, too, but be sure to eat the greens for an extra dose of calcium and Vitamin C.)

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the price of a radish: part two

Yesterday, Emmett and I ventured into the Big Apple… and stumbled across actual apples, not to mention apple cider (which we purchased and swigged straight from the half-gallon jug), apple sauce, and hundreds of varieties of non-apple fresh produce.

We were there on business, meeting with our literary agent on Fifth Ave. to finally put a face to someone we’d only interacted with via email or phone. She was the one who pointed out her eleventh-floor window down the block to Union Square, where literally thousands of customers were flowing in and out of a farmer’s market like so many tiny, hungry ants. After the meeting, we dove straight into the anthill — and were shocked at the wildly different prices we found there.

Let’s start with the radish. Our radish bunches were put firmly to shame: at the Migliorelli Farm stand, you could purchase twenty radishes for $1. (Remember, we charged $1.50 for half that many.) But the same stand was charging $2 for small and — I say this with all due affection and understanding about perishable greens and farmer’s markets lack of refrigeration — very wilted, sad-looking chard. So even if my radishes are overpriced, my chard bunches are a pretty good deal.

Perhaps the most shocking price of all could be found at Windfall Farms. (I found the name ironic for reasons that will shortly become obvious.) They were charging $6 for 1/4 pound of baby lettuce heads or mesclun mix! And $12 for 1/4 pound of arugula or mesclun with flower blossoms! I mean, sure, I’d been thinking about growing some flowers and adding them to our baby greens mix and maybe bumping the price up a buck or two. But our starting price is $3 for a bag that has at least 1/3 of a pound of greens. That means Windfall is charging 3-5 times what we charge. Even for “unconventionally grown” produce, there’s no way you could charge $12 for 1/4 lb of anything in Healdsburg and have anybody buy it. Is it just because they sell in New York? Or because they have a bit of a monopoly on baby greens at this particular market? Who knows…

There were other interesting things at the farmer’s market: dragon’s tongue beans, which are unbelievably cool looking. These guys made my purple beans feel mundane! Dragon’s tongues are flecked with yellow and purple in a psychedelic spattered-paint theme.

Other interesting items: stinging nettles (which had a sign suggesting that potential buyers handle them carefully, as they can cause itching), the foodie-chic sometimes-weed purslane, heaps of purple basil, and squash runners. The customers I talked to had no idea what to do with the squash runners, so I did a bit of research on the topic. According to the Bureau of Plant Industry, squash runners can be eaten as a vegetable. Back home, our squash plants are invading our walking paths between the rows. Instead of hacking them back and putting them on the compost pile, apparently I could be converting the runners into cash at the farmer’s market! I guess I’d better try cooking them first, because I doubt customers will buy them if I can’t suggest a good recipe…

One last humbling thought: one of the farmhands we talked to said that on a good Wednesday market day, they’d sell $5,000 worth of produce. Saturday markets can bring in $7,000. (Suffice it to say that Emmett and I are so far from even cumulatively earning $5,000, it isn’t funny.) The seller also suggested that the biggest stands can bring in $25,000 on one day — but of course they also employ something like 60 workers, so while their income is sky-high, so are their costs.

If all of this makes you want to get into the Union Square market to sell baby greens for $12 per quarter pound, good luck: getting a stall is practically impossible. It’s a very carefully-managed market, so there are are rarely more than 2 vendors selling the same specialty item. (Course, lots of folks have tomatoes and zucchini right now, but try finding multiple cider sellers or goat cheese vendors.) According to some of the farmers we spoke to, the only way to get in is: come up with something that nobody else is selling — again, good luck — or start selling at other Greenmarket farmers markets around New York (there are 46 locations, with over 250,000 customers each week) and wait, hoping that someday one of the Union Square vendors (some of whom have been selling for decades) decides to call it quits and you can sidestep in.

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pastured dairy

Yes, that’s pastured, not pasteurized.

Emmett and I are currently visiting a grass-fed dairy operation — a sustainable ag topic which, unlike pastured beef, hasn’t gotten too much media attention. While many restaurants and consumers have clamored for pasture-raised beef, organic milk seems to be the dairy of choice for the discerning, eco-oriented foodie. But if you’re really looking for a sustainable, humane milk option, grass-fed milk might be the way to go.

In a conventional dairy, cows live out their lives in stalls — stalls that are maybe eight feet by four feet (rough estimate, after seeing a barn that had been converted from a confinement operation). These ladies eat, poop, sleep, and are milked in the same space. They produce milk year-round, and are often milked three or four times per day. By contrast, pasture-raised dairy cows wander the fields in search of grass, their diet supplemented by a bit of grain — and in the winter, plenty of hay.

Pastured dairy seems a little more labor intensive, and yet in some ways it isn’t. The dairy owner’s son rose this morning at 3:30 a.m. to move the cows from the field into the barn and milking parlor. These four hundred-plus cows don’t need five cowboys to move them — just one young man and a well-designed system of lanes and small fields, all hemmed in by electric fence. The cows know the routine, too: they form a mile-long bovine line en route to the milking parlor. Once they’re finished milking, they simply go out the back door and find their own way back. They’ll saunter up the lane and go into whatever field is left open to them.

While it does take time to move the cows around the field — as opposed to simply milking them where they live — there are clear benefits to the farmer. It costs less to feed the cows, since they’re eating grass. The cows are healthier, because they’re eating grass — which is exactly the food that a cow’s 8 stomachs were designed to digest. They’re also allowed a dry time, during which they don’t produce milk. This pastured operation — located in snowy upstate New York — doesn’t move the cows into a barn in the winter. The herd overwinters outside, among windbreaks. And before you go all PETA on me about this, consider this: according to the dairy owner, a cow’s ideal temperature lies somewhere in the 40s (Fahrenheit). If the cow is well-fed, healthy, and in a herd (body heat!), it will have no problem whatsoever with snow. In my humble opinion, it’s a heck of a lot better than being stuck inside year-round — although apparently concerned tourists sometimes call to express concern over snowy cows.

Oh, and I mentioned that there are other benefits to the pastured dairy farmer. Dairy farmers work 7 days a week, with required hours from 4 a.m. – 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. That’s only the milking part; there’s obviously more work to it than that. If you let your herd dry up in the winter, you can catch up on all the stuff you’ve been meaning to do — and maybe, just maybe, take a vacation.

I’ll post some pictures when I get home and am able to upload them… and maybe give a more detailed description of how the operation works. For now, I’m off to explore the wonderful world of dairy!

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