Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On With The New: Introducing The Nikon D3100

As some of you may recall, my trusty Canon Powershot went bust back in June. I've been saving up for a new camera ever since... and this week, it all finally came to fruition.

Yesterday as I was rolling out dough for chapatis, the UPS truck showed up to deliver my brand-spanking-new camera. Sadly, since I was in the middle of making dinner (and covered in flour), I had to wait until after work today to play with my new Nikon D3100. Yet what serendipity - the light was perfect.

So far, I haven't done much other than shoot a little bit in Auto mode. But even though these pictures were all taken in Auto, their quality is infinitely superior to my last camera. (And my Droid, whose quality snapshots you have all been enjoying for the last three and a half months.) Soon, I'll start experimenting with shooting manually (especially with my other lenses!), but for now... all I can say is that I am pleased.

I messed around with the blog design a bit so it could accommodate larger pictures, and I'm liking the result. So without further ado, here are the first of what I hope will be many, many pictures to come. Enjoy!


Friday, September 9, 2011

Back To The Drawing Board...

As the end of my time at Brightwood Vineyard and Farm draws near, I am starting to think about what I'm going to do once October 31 rears its head, and my internship is officially done.

Ideally, I'd like to find another farm apprenticeship - or perhaps an internship for a non-profit organization - for the first six months or so of next year. So now it begins again... trawling sites like ATTRA, Good Food Jobs, Sustainable Food Jobs and Backdoor Jobs, dusting off my resume and letters of interest, and emailing farms far and wide.

Since I'm hoping to begin graduate school in Fall 2012, it means I won't be available for the full growing season, which cuts a lot of farms out of the equation. However, a lot of places hire shorter-term help in spring. There are also dairies and livestock operations that need workers year round.... or so I'm hoping.

Of course, getting started early isn't necessarily helpful. Most farms haven't even begun to start thinking about hiring for next year, or even updated their ATTRA listings. Internships for non-profits are still only posting jobs for this autumn. But as Popeye said, "I yam who I yam", and I plan in advance. Far in advance.

I'll be posting updates about the job sitch as I continue to research and (hopefully) to hear back from potential farms. So wish me luck, friends.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Veni, Vidi, Seedy: I Came, I Saw, I Seed

Seed saving is something that has gone the way of processing your own chickens and milking the family cow... it's something nobody does anymore. Most folks probably wouldn't even know where to begin. Before I got here, I certainly didn't.

Most seed saving that happens at the home gardener scale is for heirloom plants. Heirloom vegetables are usually older varieties, although there are some exceptions, and are open pollinated,* which also means that the second generation will be the same as the first generation.** Heirloom varieties are usually known for their flavor, and often look a little funky, especially to those used to buying mono-vegetables at the supermarket that are all bred to look flawless and exactly the same.

These are some big differences from hybrid plants you usually buy from stores - if you save seed from a hybrid, the third generation will be quite different from the second generation, which is what you planted. If you remember your high school genetics lessons, you'll see why - the third generation will have recessive characteristics from the first generation that don't show up immediately. As a result, seed companies have a monopoly over that seed. Anyone who wants Sun Gold Tomatoes has to buy their seed year after year if they want the same product.

How you save seed depends on the vegetable. Tomatoes, watermelons, eggplant, cucumbers and squash are wet processed; beans, corn, lettuce, brassicas, spinach and peppers are dry processed (although peppers can be wet processed, as you will see). Last week, Autumn and I visited Twin Oaks Intentional Community and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as part of the CRAFT program, where they did demonstrations of various types of seed saving.

Wet processing involves cutting or smashing up the vegetable in question and letting it ferment for several days. This, by the way, is definitely the best-smelling part of the process.

Then you add water and pour off the pulp and floating seeds, and keep adding water and pouring until the water runs clear. Then the seeds are put on a screen, where they dry out, which should take about a week. Once they're dry, they're ready to be stored.

With dry processing, the process depends on the plant, but often involves crushing everything together (most memorably by sandwiching the plants between tarps and dancing on them) and then winnowing the seeds using a fan.

We're actually saving seed for Southern Exposure this year at the farm, so the demonstrations helped us answer a lot of questions.

One of the vegetables we're growing for seed is Lipstick Pepper, a red pepper that is incredibly sweet and delicious.

We decided to wet process our peppers, since it seems to be a slightly easier process than scraping all the seeds off by hand. First, you cut out the crown of the pepper, with the seeds still attached.

You put all the pepper crowns in a container...

...and cover them with water. Let them sit for a day. The seeds are then much easier to remove by hand. After removing the seeds, you add more water and pour off the excess water and the floating seeds. You keep adding water and repeating until the water runs clear - with peppers, that takes maybe one or two more tries. (Tomatoes take forever.)

The seeds go on a screen in a well-ventilated area (preferably with a fan running). They need to dry for five to seven days. And voila! Home-processed pepper seeds.

*Open pollinated plants are pollinated naturally by insects, wind, etc. They are not self pollinating.
**Assuming you didn't accidentally cross pollinate your plant with another type, that is. For open pollinated plants, this is a real possibility. Isolation distances to prevent crossing differs from plant to plant, from 40 feet for string beans and lettuce to 600 feet for corn and squash.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Farm of Many Faces: Touring Joel Salatin's Grass Farm

It's hard to think of any farmers more famous than Joel Salatin. The owner of Polyface Farm, Salatin has been featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and in the documentary Food, Inc. He has written numerous books, lectures far and wide,* and happens to give weekly tours on his farm, one of which we attended two weeks ago.

For those who aren't familiar with Polyface Farm, a little background: Joel Salatin describes himself as a "grass farmer". He pastures broilers, turkeys, layers, pigs and beef on his land, using intensive grazing methods. Salatin is not organic certified (see here), but he doesn't need to be. He's made a name for himself in the sustainable agriculture world. In fact, Salatin only sells directly to consumers at his farm, and to restaurants and buyers' clubs within a four hour driving distance of the farm.

Tours at Polyface Farm are very well attended, if my experience was any indication. Everyone loads onto a couple trailers that have been comfortably padded with straw bales, which Mr. Salatin then trucks around the farm with his big ol' tractor.

First stop: the broilers and the turkeys.

The broilers, as you can see, are kept in separate pens that are about ten by ten feet. They are moved across the field to a new spot every day, giving the chickens new grass and new insects to feed, but without leaving them in one area long enough to kill the field with their "hot" (i.e. nitrogen-rich) poop. The turkeys are moved every two days.

The pigs are kept in woods on Polyface's 550 total acres. They're moved about every two weeks, which is enough time to stir up the soil in the forested areas without killing the trees. According to Salatin, after being used as a pig run, this area will be far more lush and vibrant than if it hadn't been.

Salatin says they don't cut much hay...just what they need.

Salatin's so-called "Egg Mobile", where his layers are housed. He follows them about two days behind the cows, so the chickens can go through the cow dung and pick out parasites and flies, mimicking the symbiotic relationships between birds and some migratory animals in nature. By scratching up the cow droppings, the chickens also spread it around, making it a more effective fertilizer, and fertilize the fields with their own leavings as well.

The cows are moved every day. By grazing them within a smaller area, Salatin says they are forced to eat everything, not just pick and choose the nicest bits. The cows are grass fed and, in winter, put on hay - they are never given a corn-based diet.

If you've read or seen anything about Salatin, you know that he has a lot of stock phrases, and we got to hear them all. (If I were giving a tour a week and lecturing 100 days a year, I'd probably have some handy sound bytes too.) But despite that, he was certainly not merely reciting a memorized script. He was genuine and approachable, answering questions in detail, and no topic was off-limits.

Although the tour ended after the cows, we took a few minutes to explore around the farm. This is Polyface's chicken processing area. Because it is open to the air, the USDA has tried to shut Salatin down numerous times, saying the area doesn't conform to USDA standards. Somehow - through the forcefulness of his personality, perhaps - Salatin has managed to keep them back.

They process a lot of chickens. These chickens actually come from a satellite farm that grows and processes chickens for Polyface, and is run by a former intern.

Our last stop was the gift shop, which features quite a bit of meat products, as well as t-shirts proclaiming things like "Lunatic Farmer" and "Everything I want to do is illegal." Nearly everyone on the tour came armed with large coolers, which they then stocked with Polyface Beef, Polyface Pork, and Polyface Chicken. We were no exception.

*Salatin will be a keynote speaker at this year's Acres U.S.A. conference, incidentally.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Two Months Left - The 3/4 Retrospective

The end is in sight.
Today is the first day of September, which means that I'm three fourths done with this farming apprenticeship. That's two months, or nine weeks, or sixty one days, to be precise.

Since I failed to do a mid-year report in July, I shall do one now, and call it my three fourths year perspective.

The thing everyone talks about with farming is how hard it is. I really couldn't tell you how many people seemed utterly surprised that I would be working on a farm - including farmers, even - and said something along the lines of, "You know it's really hard work, right?"

Well, I was certified as a wild land fire fighter for two years, and I wouldn't call the pack test a cake walk. I eat well, I'm in shape, and I'm healthy. I work out. I hike. Do I look that delicate or frail?

Despite my scoffing, however, I admit that I underestimated how hard this would be on my body and my mind.

We're right in the middle of what Susan calls the mid-season burn out right now. When we first started harvesting all the summer produce in July - tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, to name a few - it was new. It was exciting. And it wasn't lettuce. But six weeks and three times a week later, I'll admit a little bit of the shine has worn off, between the itchiness of the tomato plants and the okra and squash spines that make your fingers bleed, the backaches and the bending over and the bruises.

Dean is fond of calling our work the "farm fitness program." It's not an inaccurate description. When I first arrived in March, I was sore for a couple weeks - the kind of sore that comes from using those muscles you don't usually use. But in the last month or so, it's morphed into a soreness that never really goes away, a fatigue compounded by never really stopping. 

We do get time off, obviously - usually Sunday, and often part of Saturday afternoon as well. But frankly, it's wearing to just have one day off a week. There's something about having two full days off that recharges your batteries much more completely.* When I first got here, I was going on hikes in Shenandoah National Park nearly every weekend. My last hike was in late June. These days, all I want to do with my time off is lay around reading, or watch a VHS in the living room.

There's also an aspect I didn't consider before I got here - one that I've experienced before in AmeriCorps, so you'd think I would have known better. That is the act of living and working with a small group of people all day, every day, for months on end. I know that Autumn and Brian, Dean and Susan will be valuable friends for the rest of my life. But at the end of each day, all I want to do is be alone.

So yes, I admit it. This is hard work - harder than I'd really thought it was going to be, mentally and physically. But that doesn't mean I don't love it.

Time for an anecdote: when I was working at a Boys and Girls Club in Georgia a couple years ago, I went to a Methodist church in the area a few times. I really liked the guy who preached, and one of his sermons really stayed with me. He talked about how the hardest part of a journey is towards the end. You're tired, you just want to be home, and you don't know how - or if - it's going to end.

I recognize the feeling I'm having right now. I had it around this time last year and the year before in AmeriCorps. I'll call it the middle-of-the-journey blues. The end is coming, faster than I anticipated. I'm tired. I'm sore. I miss people at home. I'm not sure what I'm going to do when this is done. But I'm not entirely ready for it to be over, either.

*I still don't know how Susan and Dean manage to keep going with basically no days off, except for a two week vacation in summer. They say it's different when it's your own farm. I'll take their word for it.