Thursday, April 28, 2011

Arrival of the Goat Kids

We have baby goats!

Florencia, one of our pregnant Spanish Meat Goats over at the Farm House, gave birth a couple days ago to two adorable little goat kids. Mostly they've been hiding behind the hay feeder when I go over there, but I did get a couple pictures yesterday.

The other two goats, Blanca and Juanita, haven't given birth yet, but Blanca looks just about ready to pop.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

Morel Hunting on Easter Sunday - My First Wild Mushroom

After a nice little Easter service at the church down the road, I hopped in my car yesterday and drove an hour and a half southward to go "mirkel hunting".

"Mirkel" is the local term for "morel". The story goes that the locals say when the morels come up, it's a "mirkel"! (Mirkel = Miracle, by the way.)

I was asked along by Josh and Andreas, two extremely nice fellows who I met while they were building a stone patio for Susan. Josh knows a mountain near Wintergreen where he's had luck morel hunting in the past, so that's where we went.

It was actually my first time on a wild mushroom hunt. It was a beautiful day for it - the sun was out, but it wasn't super hot, and I got a nice hike out of the bargain as well.

And while we didn't quite make out like bandits, we found enough for me to enjoy a very nice breakfast this morning.

Friday, April 22, 2011

ATTRA - Another One Bites the Dust

I'm sure everyone remembers when I mentioned ATTRA back in January. (Hah. Hah.)

ATTRA, also known as the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service,* became another victim of the rambunctious federal budget cuts this week.

This makes me sad. ATTRA was responsible for leading me to what I am now convinced was the best farm choice for me, hands down. Although I researched dozens of farms through many other resources, I found Brightwood Vineyard and Farm on ATTRA's quite comprehensive list of apprenticeships on organic farms, and therefore owe them an emormous debt of gratitude.

The list of organic farming internships is not all they do - ATTRA also has tons of resources for organic farmers and apprentices, including a very nice syllabus that Dean and Susan had printed out for us interns.**

At any rate, that's my sad news for the day. But I did get to read about composting in my new laminated and spiral bound syllabus book, which made me feel better. Sort of.

*I have no idea why they're called ATTRA, when their actual acronym is NSAIS.
**Or is it "we interns"? There needs to be an emergency grammar hotline for moments like this.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Asparagus, Asparagi

I'm delighted to report that the asparagus patch has started to poke out its little green heads!

I think this is actually the first year that Susan's asparagus has come up, which makes it triply exciting. It takes three years for a newly planted asparagus patch to start producing asparagus. And since it's the first year, our pickins have been slim... but delicious nonetheless.

Now we just need to find some of those elusive morels... or "mirkels" as they're called around here. There's a reason why, but I forgot it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let's Meet the McFuzzersons - Baby Chicks Galore

For the last few weeks, we've been keeping an eye on a chicken who was sitting on a nest in the pole barn, where the goat kids are located. The eggs started hatching the other day, but we waited until this morning to move them to a safer spot.

But look how fuzzy!

The nest had sixteen eggs, but seven didn't hatch, and two of the chicks didn't make it. So we ended up with seven fuzzy little chicklets running around and cheeping their heads off, in addition to their mama.

Mama Chicken was not pleased when we took her away from the nest. She pooped something quite smelly all over everything and made some very indignant noises. The chicks then freaked out and ran under some nearby machinery, so we spent about twenty minutes moving things around so we could catch them. We used a cardboard box with straw in the bottom to transport them to one of the apiaries, where we'll wait for the little ones to grow up.

Anyways, the McFuzzersons are now happily reunited, safe and sound and fuzzy and warm in the front yard. And here I am in the house, safe and sound and warm and dry, while it rains like the dickens outside. Or perhaps I should say... like the chickens?

UPDATE: Two more chicks were found in the pole barn this afternoon, and the McFuzzersons are now up to nine little peeplets.

Potato, Po-tah-to

Yesterday, I had the supreme pleasure of planting potatoes for the first time in my life.

When I was a kid, I remember harvesting potatoes. It was probably my favorite crop to pick from my grandpa's garden. He would hoist the plant out of the air with his pitchfork while I scrabbled through the dirt to find them... it was like a treasure hunt.

Susan, it seems, loves potatoes. She grows six different types, some of which are heirlooms, and almost all of which will be for the farm, not for sale.

The first order of business was preparing the field. We weeded four rows, and dug a trench in each row for the seed potatoes. (That's Brian below - he's one of the other interns.)

Then came the business of preparing the seed potatoes. We cut them into pieces, each of which needed at least two "nodes" on them. Nodes are what eventually turn into eyes.

Some of the potatoes had faces. I named mine.



We then sloshed the potatoes around in a mixture of mycorhizal fungi and humic acid - the humic acid acts as food for the fungi, which improves the quality of the soil with its presence by increasing the microbial life there. Appetizing, no?

For the actual planting, one person would lay down the potato pieces, skin side up, in the trough. The second person followed with the hoe, covering the seed potatoes and mounding a hill of dirt over them. (Below is Autumn, the third full-time intern on the farm. We are a merry little group.)

Final note: Normally, potatoes are planted in March. By planting later, Susan hopes to escape the worst of the potato bugs... another (less enjoyable) thing I remember from my childhood. We shall see.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rugs, Yurts & Wasps - Living Accommodations on Brightwood Vineyard & Farm

I realized that I haven't posted anything about my living accommodations here. I know that all of you, faithful readers, are intensely curious, so I'll do my best to correct this egregious error immediately.

Some of you may remember that I was weirdly excited about the yurt, which Susan told me was where the interns live. As it turns out, my excitement was a bit premature. Brian and Autumn, the other two interns who arrived last week, are living in the yurt. I was a little disappointed to start, but now that I've settled into the platform tent next door, I'm completely over my sadness.

It's a very spacious tent, and - for now, at least - I have it all to myself. I can hear the creek, which adds to the ambiance, but has the unfortunate side effect of making me need to get up in the middle of the night for potty breaks.

Susan bought rugs to spice up the inside of the tent... when I first got here, it was pretty spartan inside, but the coverlet and rugs go a long way to make it quite homey.

Eventually, I'd like to visit a Goodwill and get some shelves or a dresser to store my clothes, and maybe a few other little things, to add more color and give it some personal touches. For now, though, I'm content.

I even have a tulip on my bedside table.

My only complaint thus far is that wasps seem to find the inside of my tent highly desirable. After cleaning yesterday, I went to grab my bag, and closed my hand around a wasp. Little bugger stung me on the finger, and I did what was probably a very entertaining dance routine, sprinkled liberally with expletives.

Luckily, a nice man named Josh who's working on a patio for Susan and Dean came to the rescue. He gave me a wad of chewing tobacco from his pocket, which I applied to the sting. Immediately, I could feel the venom (or whatever it is) traveling back down my arm and being drawn out. It was an incredibly weird feeling, but infinitely preferable to the sensation of being stung.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Getting Down and Dirty with Soil Blocks

Today, I learned the art of making soil blocks. Soil block engineering is a largely obscure craft, lacking the glamor of other, better-known skills. But I hope to change all that, and shed some light on this mysterious trade.

Soil blocks are a pretty simple method of starting seedlings to transplant later. Spring in Virginia is notorious for being somewhat crazy, I've come to realize - 80's yesterday, 50's today, for example. So planting tender little shoots that could be wiped out in a late frost is a pretty terrible idea.

Soil blocks are what they sound like - blocks of soil that we use to plant seeds, and keep in a greenhouse until they've grown a bit and the weather is nice enough to transplant them. And since they're in neat little cubes, transplanting them is easy.

First, however, we must make the soil blocks. This is a multi-step process, best done with two people - in this case, Caitlin* and myself.

The first step is mixing the ingredients. They are peat moss, lime (to balance the acidity of the peat), some organic fertilizer, sand, compost, soil and water. We mixed all this up in a big tub, eventually just diving in with our hands.

This was when I realized that today was not going to be a clean day.

After everything is properly moistened, it's time to use the soil block maker.** In the tub, you level out some soil so that it is a little bit higher than the bottom of the soil block maker, then press it down, with a lot of wiggling to make sure that the soil is packed in tight.

Then you move over to the waiting tray, press down the handle, wiggle a bit more, and soil blocks are born.

This is repeated three more times, so that the flat is filled with as many soil blocks as it can hold. Then it's time for Worker No. 2 to step in, to fill the little divots with seeds (eggplant, peppers and tomatoes today), then tamp soil down on top, label the trays, and put them aside to begin sprouting.

Which, hopefully, they do.

*Caitlin lives in Charlottesville, and has been working on the farm part-time since 2008. She knows a lot.
**There is probably an official name for this, but I don't care. Mine is probably more descriptive anyways.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Farming, Community, Life: My take on The Greenhorns

Thursday evening, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the new documentary The Greenhorns, produced by the grassroots nonprofit The Greenhorns, and which I first learned about a few months ago.

Greenhorns is a nonprofit that provides information and resources for new farmers. In the documentary, the Greenhorns founder Sevarine von Tscharner Fleming travels the country, interviewing beginning farmers,* as well as some big names in the field, like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation).

These new farmers, or “Greenhorns,” (see what they did there?) range in age from 18 to their early 60’s, and span the US from coast to coast. They are married and single, with children and without. They grow greens on city rooftops and raise cattle on rural family farms. They rejuvenate empty lots and provide produce for food deserts, balancing the tasks of introducing the joys of local food to consumers of all ages while working to learn the basics of keeping a farm running.

Their stories are all truly inspiring. But I’m not going to write about their stories, because it’s already been done – and very well indeed – by Ms. Tscharner Fleming. 

Instead, I want to talk about a theme that pervaded the Thursday night event: community.

First, let me give a brief summary of how the evening ran. When I arrived, I realized I actually knew a few people – there were several interns who are participating in other Piedmont CRAFT farms, who I met at the Sharondale mushroom farm tour. We spent an hour sitting on the grass outside, enjoying the historic and picturesque Morvin Farm, eating a dinner thoughtfully provided by Whole Foods and comparing our various farm apprenticeship experiences. After the screening, there was a “Young Farmer Panel” featuring five relatively new farmers who live in the Charlottesville area.

Late in the Q&A session, one of the panel members quipped, “I became a farmer because I thought I wouldn’t have to interact with people, but I talk to more people every day now than I’ve ever had to before!” Which got me thinking about the sense of community a small family farm creates in its wake.

Once upon a time, America’s countryside was dotted with small, healthy communities – at least, healthier than today. Folks got their food from local family farms, they bought their goods at locally-owned stores, and they weren’t afraid to lean on their neighbors for help.

Today, most of America suffers from what I like to call Cowboy Syndrome – the thought that every man (or nuclear family unit) is an island, and must be as self-reliant as possible. Which is just plain sad. How many moms feel comfortable asking their neighbors to watch their kids for an afternoon? How many people are okay with going next door to borrow a cup of sugar? Too few, I’m sure.

For a small, local farmer, isolation is completely unattainable. As our intrepid young farmer explained, you are constantly interacting with others. Susan and Dean’s home, for example, is constantly revolving with with WWOOF-ers, part-time workers, cottage guests, neighbors dropping by, travelers hoping to check out the winery, college professors examining how the farm copes with soil erosion, the local vet checking the donkey’s hooves… the list goes on and on. Merely starting a small, locally based farm will draw others to you, like small children to an open cookie jar.

While family farms are like small communities in and of themselves, they also play important roles locally – they purchase what they need from other local businesses, while providing fresh food for local families.**

All this crossed through my mind as I understood that, there in the horse barn where the documentary was screened, we were creating our own community: a community of young people, young farmers, a movement of those of us invested in creating justice, health, and sustainability through good, local food.

And as we ate our vegan pasta salad, comparing heirloom tomato seeds and laughing about nighttime chicken raids, I realized that we are building bridges to one another. We, the next generation of farmers in America, are creating relationships that we will use to strengthen our communities, our farms, and ourselves... even if all we need is to borrow a cup of sugar.

* According to the USDA, we learn, “Beginning Farmer” means anyone who has been farming fewer than 10 years.
** At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Walmart sort of messed this up.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

If We Cantaloupe, Lettuce Eat Gourmet Salad

What is "gourmet"? What does it really mean?*

For me, it evokes a sense of culinary decadence. Pretension, even. I picture a sliver of duck confit garnished with two slices of radish and a candied tulip, drizzled with a tablespoon of mysterious sauce, surrounded by an ocean of empty white plate, and served with a $300 Bordeaux.

On the other end of the spectrum, “gourmet” has suffered the unfortunate, but not uncommon, fate of being used to tart up some very un-gourmet food products in unscrupulous marketing campaigns across the nation. Seeing the word “gourmet” on a label does not guarantee a high quality product these days. Just look at the line up: Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, Jelly Bellies, and Walmart. Need I say more?

So when Susan decided to sell some “gourmet salad mix” at the Charlottesville farmer’s market last Saturday, I asked about it. What makes her salad “gourmet”?

Her answer: “If it’s good quality and it has some unusual items in it, I think it’s fair to call it gourmet.” 

This particular salad mix was the last of a few rows of lettuce, harvested by yours truly, before they submitted to farm reincarnation (tilling and planting something else). It consisted of a few varieties of baby lettuce, miner’s lettuce, feldsalat, lamb’s quarters**, and some brassica blossoms – arugula and tatsoi, primarily. When arugula and tatsoi go to seed, they shoot out some beautiful yellow flowers that happen to be edible, and make that gourmet salad mix shine. Susan sold out of ours by 10:30.

So I think I’ve arrived at three rules of thumb for creating your own gourmet salad mix.  

Rule number one: Go off the beaten path. Gourmet folks apparently love the unique, the atypical, the curious, and sometimes the just plain weird. Weeds are great for this, especially edible ones. Try some unusual tastes too – toss in some fresh herbs.

Rule number two:  Presentation is everything. To that end, use flowers as garnishes... preferably edible ones. They add color, even though they don’t always taste like much.

Rule number three: I suppose it helps if it tastes good.

So with these rules in mind, I made my own special gourmet salad tonight. (I can’t claim it as my complete intellectual property, though, since I’m basing it off one Susan made last week.) Ingredients: lettuce mix, fresh mint, fresh cilantro, arugula blossoms, and wild violets.

Of course, taking pictures slightly yet artistically askew helps further the correct impression.

*According to Wikipedia, gourmet is “a cultural ideal associated with the culinary arts…characterized by elaborate preparations and presentations of large meals of small, often quite rich courses.” Yes, I fact check with Wikipedia. Climb down off that high horse.
**Miner’s Lettuce is a plant native to California that happens to be edible. It’s a very attractive plant with a cluster of long, elegantly draping stems, each capped with a green diamond-shaped leaf. It’s pretty tasty. Feldsalat, known as “corn salad” in the US, is an edible weed with a nutty sort of taste. At least, so says Susan. I just taste plant. But it was tasty plant. Lamb’s Quarters is another tasty, edible weed. Spotting a trend here?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Old Rag: Not your grandmother's day hike

Sunday was my first day off in two weeks, and the sun was shining for the first time all week. I was not going to waste it sitting indoors, and with the Blue Ridge Mountains giving a "come hither" glance from the western horizon, I knew exactly where I was going.

I settled on Old Rag, a (relatively) nearby mountain with an elevation of 3,291 feet. A few people, including Susan and Dean, had mentioned it. Everyone said it was a hard hike, but I figured I was up for the challenge.

But maybe I should have done some research before rushing off. Here's what the Shenandoah National Park website has to say about Old Rag:

Old Rag is Shenandoah's most popular and most dangerous hike. The number of blogs and websites about this hike attest to its popularity. The number of search and rescue missions each year attest to its danger.
And then they want you to watch a safety video. Hmmm.

I started to get inklings that this hike was not what I was expecting when I picked up the map at the entrance to the park. In capitalized letters, it said something to the effect of THIS IS A VERY STRENUOUS HIKE. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS HIKE WITHOUT BEING FULLY PREPARED.

The park ranger on duty looked at me with an experienced eye and asked, in a slightly skeptical voice, if I was hiking alone. Yup. Was I prepared? Well, I had my camelback filled with water, two sandwiches, sunglasses and a camera. How much more prepared can you get? She gave a miniscule shrug and let me wander off to my doom.

It's a three mile hike to the summit. The last mile of that hike is the so-called "rock scramble", which I had pictured as a windy trail scattered with rocks that you can climb on if you want, in the style of a Discovery Zone made of stone. Au contraire. Apparently, Old Rag is well known as a place for rock climbing, and a little rock climbing is exactly what you get to do.

Luckily, my stupidity in doing this hike alone was not rewarded as stupidity generally is. Doug and Lexxie, a couple hiking from DC, and their dog Zeus were kind enough to let me hike with them through the rock scramble. They were friendly, and helped me navigate the maze of rocks - in lieu of an actual trail, the park paints blue markers and arrows on rocks to show where you should go.

There was one point on the hike I doubt I could have climbed without help - a tall, very slippery crevasse with no hand holds or roughness to grip. Taller folks didn't seem to have much trouble with it, but my vertically challenged frame was not so lucky. However, fate stepped in, and a lanky rock climber named Joe hauled me up the rock face.*

The summit was definitely worth the hike, as if the satisfaction was not enough. To the east, green fields and farmland as far as the eye can see. To the west, mountains. I took a twenty minute break up there to eat my squashed pita and chat a bit with Doug and Lexxie (you can see them, and Zeus, in the picture below) before finishing the trail.

It took me about five hours to complete the 8.8 mile circuit. The first three miles of it, including the rock scramble, took me about two and a half hours, if that gives you any indication of its difficulty.

Ultimately, I'm glad I didn't know how crazy this hike is, because I might not have done it. But next time, I'm bringing a buddy.

*Sadly, I didn't get very many pictures of the rock scramble, probably because I was using at least three of my four limbs at any given time. You will just have to use your imagination.