Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sheep Shearing: A Picture Diary

Today was a big day for the sheep - they finally got to shed their winter fleeces. High time, considering that it's been in the 90's all week.

We on the farm do not shear the sheep. Susan hires someone specifically to do this. His name is Matthew, and he's a senior in college, studying biology. He also happens to know how to cut the fleece of a sheep in a timely manner, without damaging them too much.

Hopefully, the little sheep will now be much more comfortable.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Meanwhile, back on the ranch... er, farm.

Due to some unfortunate events at home, I was in Indiana all of last week. Thus the blogging moratorium.

Although I wasn't present to witness it, the farm kept operating. Plants grew, animals ate, people harvested. And despite my (relatively) short absence, I was faced with plenty of changes when I returned yesterday.

For starters, Juanita the Spanish Meat Goat had her baby - a single boy. I don't have any pictures of him yet.

Second: two of our remaining three ducks ran a-fowl (hee) of a predator in the night, and are now swimming in that big lake in the sky. The last duck has been put in the aviary for protection... where she will soon be joined by the cute little bevy of ducklings that arrived while I was gone. (The red light is from a heat lamp.)

Third: plants grow fast. Really fast. The potatoes, which were a few scant inches tall when I left, are now a foot at least. The buckwheat now reaches my hips, despite being merely knee-high a week ago. And the heirloom tomatoes I planted the other week? Take a look.

This must be what having children is like. One second they're seedlings... and before you know it, they're bearing fruit of their own. Where, oh where, does the time fly?

We also have strawberries now. They are delicious.

And, judging by the numbers of Kermit look-alikes leaping about, it is well into frog mating season.

Sadly, I will be leaving the farm again on Thursday, to return on Monday. Hopefully, there won't be too many more changes in my absence.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Blog, It Is A-Changin'

So, I figured it was finally time to change the background picture on this blog. Norway is lovely, but I thought something a little bit more evocative of farm life might be more appropriate. And since I've now been here for two whole months, I finally have a nice backlog of photos to choose from.

The picture I chose may look familiar to some of you. It was taken back in April.

So long, Norway... until we meet again. Sooner than later, I hope.

Baby Goats, Extra Fresh

Last Wednesday, Blanca finally had her kids!* Three of them, to be precise. No wonder she was so wide.

The next morning, we had to do the goat kid check in. You need to do this before they can walk enough to run away from you. It involves checking the sex of each kid, giving them a selenium injection (a trace mineral they need), and cleaning their umbilical cord type thing with iodine.

Since there were three kids and three interns, everyone got one.

Despite my innate hatred of putting up pictures of myself because I never like how I look, I posted these because the goat kids are just too darned cute. They are only twelve hours old in these pictures.

Just one pregnant goat left. It appears that each goat is a cycle apart - a goat estrus cycle is about three and a half weeks, and Juanita just does not look ready yet. So look for more baby goats in the future!

*I would have posted these much sooner, but due to the epic fail of Blogger for two days, I couldn't do a thing.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

So Many Elderflowers, So Little Time

Today, I probably spent upwards of four and a half hours working with elderflowers: harvesting, shucking, and starting a batch of elderflower wine.

When I say "shucking," I mean the process of removing the tiny elderflower blossoms from their stems. The stems are quite bitter and, according to Wikipedia, contain cyanide... so we try to avoid them. Shucking is an activity best done with several people and AC/DC playing on the radio.

Or, as the case was this evening, while listening to Dean give a wine tasting to some tipsy people who were conducting a winery tour in the region. One guy was making meowing noises to the cat while the inebriated lady on the end said things like, "Which one is this? I hate this one! I need to remember this one, I like it so much! I'll be quiet now! Ooh, a puppy! Come here, puppy! She has grey whiskers, is she old?" as Brian, Autumn and I silently guffawed into our elderflower blossoms.

The elderflower isn't really worth a whole lot by itself, but Susan and Dean have managed to whip up an entire array of value-added elderflower products: wines, cordial, tea, and jelly among them. Speaking of which, I made some elderflower jelly the other day, with some blossoms sprinkled in.

Look how pretty!

The best part, of course, is that I took that picture and uploaded it to Picasa from my phone. Ain't technology a wonderful thing?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Soil Blocks II: The Heirloom Tomato

Today, we continue the saga of the little soil blocks that I planted back in early April.

This week, I started transplanting the tomatoes into one of our greenhouses. Susan grows a lot of tomatoes – we have nearly 600 tomato plants in soil block form. The farm sells them to Fresh Link, a local wholesale outfit that supplies restaurants in DC, and at local farmers markets. We mostly grow heirloom tomatoes, although Susan does have a couple hybrids that she likes.

I was planting Purple Cherokee and Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, which are both heirlooms.* The first step is to water the soil blocks with fish emulsion mixed with some water. The fish emulsion is brown and chunky and smells rather a lot like fish, which gets all over your hands as you plant so you smell like you took a swim in Baltimore's Inner Harbor for the rest of the day.** 

While the starts were soaking up their meal of fish guts, I prepared the beds by setting up the irrigation hose along both sides of the two rows I would be planting. For tomatoes, we use a drip tape that slowly releases water at one foot intervals along the hose, for a nice, gradual soaking that allows the water to reach the roots.

Then, using my trusty trowel, I dug pretty deep holes every foot and a half or so…

…then planted the starts.

The reason the holes have to be so deep is that with tomato starts, you actually want to plant them up to their “neck”, or right under the crown of leaves. The stems underneath will sprout roots, which gives the plant a bigger, better root system.

The next day, I got to mulch these little guys in with old hay, but here you can see them peeking out, all happy and green in their new home.

*The story goes that the guy who developed Mortgage Lifter tomatoes was able to pay the mortgage on his house with the proceeds from his work.                                                           
**Good thing I didn't come to the farm expecting to get my MRS degree or anything.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

My favorite mom in the world - thanks for supporting my crazy decision to go work on a farm!

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I don't know about you guys, but I really like poetry, and I usually read a poem or two before I go to bed. The other night, this poem popped up in my current anthology (Good Poems, compiled by Garrison Keillor), and I thought it was too appropriate not to share here.

John Updike

I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
   of the pleasures of hoeing;
   there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.

The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
   moist-dark loam -
   the pea-root's home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing.

How neatly the green weeds go under!
   The blade chops the earth new.
   Ignorant the wise boy who
has never performed this simple, stupid and useful wonder.

It's an Elderberry Jamboree!

Jams and jellies are some of the top sellers at the Charlottesville Farmer's Market for Dean and Susan. So, we make a lot of it. Right now, we mostly focus on elderberry products, since they have a lot of them frozen from last year, and other berries like raspberries and blackberries have a couple months to go before they'll be fruiting. Right now, we're making elderberry jam, jelly and syrup once a week.

So with the help of my lovely co-intern Autumn, I will demonstrate the art of making elderberry jam.

We start with several pounds of frozen elderberries...

...which we put into the steam kettle. 

Once the elderberries have thawed out and started to bubble a bit, we add in the extras: citric acid, fruit pectin (helps it gel*), and sugar. Five pounds of sugar, to be exact.

Once the mixture gets up to 200 degrees F, it's time to bring out the jars. We wash the jars ahead of time, and stick them in the oven on low heat to dry them.

The handle on the side of the steam kettle tips it forward...

...and with the help of our trusty canning funnel, we prevent spillage. (Most of the time.)

After the lids go on, we turn the jars upside down for fifteen minutes or so to seal them. We usually get about fifteen jars of jam out of one batch.

And that is the story of our delicious elderberry jam! Great on toast. Or on a spoon.

*There's something about elderberries that doesn't like to gel, so we have to add more pectin than with other berries. The jam is usually a little gloopy as a result.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

More Baby Goats

I got a video of the baby goats down at the farm house yesterday. Grumpy dads are apparently not restricted to the human race.

Still no sign of more baby goats... Blanca and Juanita are taking their sweet time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

International Compost Awareness Week: A Toxic Love Affair

Happy International Composting Awareness Week, everyone!

Some of our compost piles.
Well, actually, it should really be called International Toxic Sludge Awareness Week. According to our friends over at SourceWatch, International Composting Awareness Week, or ICAW, is actually a PR front for companies that are trying to push sewage sludge as a viable composting method.

There's no telling what is in the sewage. Organic material? Yes. But also heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs, steroids, hormones, and many other dangerous chemicals.

It sounds incredible, but it's true. Sewage sludge is sold - often at a discount - to farmers to compost their fields. In fact, Susan recently had to change her straw supplier, when she found out that the same guy she's been going to for years entered into a contract to use sewage sludge on his fields. This practice, by the way, is specifically prohibited by USDA organic standards.

It's not just large farming operations that can get burned by this. The companies pushing this are also packaging compost that does not disclose its undesireable origins, and in fact implies that it is organic, and selling it to individuals too. Here's a sad story about a community gardener in San Diego who found this out the hard way.

I'm going to leave you now with a clip from my favorite environmental documentary... Fern Gully.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Curious Paradox of Diversified Farming

Last Tuesday, we had our second CRAFT* tour - this time to Radical Roots, a farm in the Shenandoah Valley that focuses on organic vegetable production. They also do a lot of permacultural design on the farm, from water catchment to companion planting.

If you'd like to read about our farm visit, check out the Piedmont CRAFT blog. It's updated by yours truly - I volunteered for the job after our first CRAFT visit back in March.** So I'm not going to re-hash it here. Instead, I want to talk about a few thoughts I've been having since seeing how Radical Roots operates.

I'm coming to realize just how unique Brightwood Farm is. Being a small organic farm makes one pretty unique by definition. When someone is talking about "conventional farming," they sure as heck aren't talking about organic, sustainable agriculture. But even for organic farming, Brightwood is outside the norm.

One of the main reasons I was so interested in this farm from the beginning was due to its diversity. In order to succeed, every small family farm needs to be somewhat diversified. A farm can't survive if it only grows one crop. Just one bad year, and that farm is completely screwed... not to mention the terrible effects that type of farming has on soil health.

And yet, most small farms that I've seen aren't nearly as diverse as Brightwood. Radical Roots, for example, focuses almost exclusively on vegetable production. Within the world of produce, they are all over the board. And they do keep chickens in a mobile chicken unit, as well as bees, but that's it for livestock.

Compare them to Brightwood: this farm has donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks and guinea fowl. They grow and sell organic vegetables and berries. They have a vineyard. They make wine, jams and jellies. They operate a small B&B. Is there anything they don't do?

Diversity is a good and a necessary quality, but I'm realizing that it can be a double-edged sword. Dean and Susan have their fingers in so many pies that I can barely keep count. They're like a pair of Energizer bunnies that drink espresso. And while it somehow works for them, I don't think I could manage their lifestyle.

So how can a small family farm make a living without running themselves into the ground?

I think the secret is finding your niche, whether that is wine or chicken eggs or heirloom veggies. No farm has just one niche, though... and Susan and Dean have, like, fifteen. The trick is matching your interests and what you can manage with your time and resources to fill gaps in your local food community.

For example: Virginia has hundreds of wineries all over. Good ones. So instead of trying to compete with them, Dean makes traditional farm wines. They're good quality, and they offer the value of novelty. If a small farm can do that with just a few of their endeavors, their battle is half-won.

*CRAFT, or the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. It's a group of local farms that bring their apprentices together once a month to tour farms and expose them to different methods of small-scale organic farming.
**Before I did my first update for the CRAFT blog, they're last (and only) blog update had been on March 16, 2009.