Saturday, November 3, 2012

Worms, Worms, Worms

Hello everyone! Sorry for the long wait... grad school things. You know how that goes.

But I finally did something that I've been threatening to do for years... I started my own little worm compost bin for the apartment!

Vermicompost, or composting with worms, actually lends itself really well to indoor spaces like apartments or houses, and it seemed the logical way to go since my third floor apartment doesn't come equipped with a backyard compost bin. It doesn't get smelly - if properly maintained, that is - and a pound of worms can eat up to a pound of food per day! Which is fantastic, since over a third of American household waste is from food, and I like to think I am doing my part by letting the little worms turn all my food waste into nutrient rich worm castings for my container herb garden.

There are tons - and I mean tons - of online resources for worm bin making, and some of them can get quite complicated. I decided to keep it simple.

Item One: Plastic Bin, with a lid.

I poked holes around the top to keep it ventilated. A lot of folks say to poke holes in the bottom and put another lid or bin underneath to catch any drips, but a woman I spoke to said the problem is usually letting it dry out too much, not getting it too wet.

Item Two: Newspaper.

These, you tear into strips for the worms' bedding. No glossy pages with colored inks, if you please - the full color ink is toxic. You dip the strips into a bowl of water and squeeze them out, then fluff them up in the tub until you get half-way to three quarters up the sides. Toss in a couple handfuls of sand or dirt so the worms can have some grit for their digestive systems.

Item Three: Food.

I went with some spaghetti squash rind, all cut up and shredded. When you put in food, you want to cover it up in the bedding - this helps prevent smell and fruit fly infestations.

Apparently there's a little controversy over whether or not you should feed the worms immediately - I've seen some websites say you should give them a couple days to adjust to their new environment. Other sources I've seen or talked to have said that if you do that, the worms might escape out of their bin. I really didn't want that to happen... so food it was.

Item Four: Worms!

You can purchase these online by the pound, but I managed to get some from a lady who was getting rid of her worm bin and was giving them away.

For the final touch, you put on the lid (they don't like the light), stick the bin somewhere that has a regulated temperature that does not get too hot or cold, and wait for the little guys to work their magic.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tiny Balcony Garden Update

I finally purchased a trowel!

I am really excited about this decision, guys.

Then I immediately put it to use to pot... my new rosemary plant!

Last Saturday, some friendly folks at the Allegheny Green + Innovation Festival gave me one! Since that Saturday was my birthday, I decided that the universe was subtly wishing me all the best.

I also used my handy new trowel to add fertilizer to my previously potted plants, since a few of them were starting to look a tad yellow. I've never done container gardening before and I'm sure I will kill a few things before I get the hang of it.

I did, however, bring them inside, since the nights are starting to get a little bit brisk. I know that much, anyways.

Does anyone have any other recommendations for yellow-looking plants? According to my Agroecology texts, plants turn yellow when they have a nitrogen or phosphorus deficiency. Hopefully the fertilizer will take care of that, but is there anything else I should be considering?

I have a sad skill in killing houseplants in cruel and unusual ways. Hopefully this time will be different.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Our Food, Our Right: My Birthday Surprise

In an unexpected turn of events, I received a book this week that I had (I thought) never even heard of. This book has a poem I wrote published in it.

Most curious.

I think what happened is that about a year and a half ago, I saw a call-out for food-related artwork and poetry on a farmer blog somewhere, so I sent them a poem and then forgot about it until now.

The book itself is pretty cool. The title is Our Food, Our Right: Recipes for Food Justice, with a forward was written by Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved. Published by Community Alliance for Global Justice, a Seattle-based organization, it includes essays about a variety of food and community topics: food sovereignty, race and gender in farming, organizations in the Pacific Northwest that are creating "positive solutions," Seattle-area farmer profiles, global issues concerning food justice, and a nice little collection of recipes. It certainly dovetails quite nicely with what I'm learning this semester in my Food Systems and Food Access courses.

At any rate, it was certainly a nice little belated birthday surprise.

And for those who are curious, here is the poem:

The Farm Job

Why are you going to Virginia?
asked my grandfather.
I can find a farm for you to work on here in Indiana.

Why are you working on a farm?
That was the unasked question.

I didn't know how to answer him,
but just as I took my college education for granted,
never did he question the heft of a shovel,
or the sun on the back of his neck.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tiny Balcony Garden

A few days ago, I ran into the grocery store to grab a few things, and saw that they were selling herb starts and potting soil. My mind raced back to the apartment, where a stack of empty pots I stole from home were sitting, empty and sad, on the balcony.

Oh, heck. So much for not succumbing to impulse purchases.

But you know what? I really can't find that I have even one tiny shred of regret.

Really, when you think about it, what is the point of trying to live sustainably when you don't even have a single potted plant in your apartment? It's such an easy step to take. I'm not in a position to grow much of my own food, but I can certainly manage a few herbs... I hope.

My bounty includes basil, thyme, golden oregano, chives, sage, and Italian parsley... more or less the heavy lifters of the culinary herb world. Well, my culinary herb world. No rosemary, this time around. One day.

Ideally, I would have my own compost made from my own kitchen scraps... but I've only been here five weeks. It's on my list of stuff to accomplish. One day.

I've read a lot of how-to container gardening articles and books that say you need to have layers of pebbles, sand, pottery shards, etc as drainage material, and you need extra fertilizer, and this and that. I pretty much ignored everything they said, and did the following:

Potting soil in pot. Dig hole. Insert start. Fill in with dirt. Water. Admire handiwork.

So now I have a respectable little herb garden on the balcony. It will have to make its way indoors soon, however, since the temperature's due to take a sharp drop this weekend.

So there it is... one of my first forays into sustainable urban living. And there will be much more on the way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

New Communities: Or, Why I Haven't Been Updating

I realize that it has been over a month since my last post. All I can offer are sad excuses, like "But I was moving to Pittsburgh and starting grad school and everything was going really fast and it was super hard and it will never happen again I swear!"

Well, they do say not to make promises you can't keep, so I will avoid saying that never again will I avoid this blog because I have, I don't know, a thesis due or something. But I can promise that I will be making a concerted effort to regularly update this tiny slice of the internet so all my lovely friends and family can see what I am doing, where I am going, things I'm learning, stuff I'm accomplishing... I'm sure you get the idea.

To be honest, I was inspired this weekend to update my blog. By this lady.

This weekend was the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, a mere 90 minutes down the interstate from here. Fortuitous, no? And in exchange for manning the Chatham University table for a couple hours and participating in the Farmer Olympics (my team came in second to last... but we get a year's subscription to Mother Earth News so it's hard for me to be too sad about it), I got free admission to the fair. Which was only $30, but I am a poor graduate student. And while it was very cold and I was so unprepared to the point that I failed to even bring a jacket (AND we camped out Saturday night... you can thank my 20 degree sleeping back for my continued existence), I did enjoy some of the workshops and keynote speeches. Especially the indoor ones.

One of the speakers I had the pleasure of seeing was one Jenna Woginrich, a lady homesteader, writer and blogger from upstate New York. Her keynote speech, about the importance of community, was particularly poignant for me, considering that I have completely uprooted myself (again... it's what, the fourth time in as many years?) and moved to a completely new place with completely new people to do something I've never done before.

She discussed the various levels of community... the community we come with (family), the community we choose (friends, folks with similar interests), the communities we hire, brush against on accident, seek out intentionally... there are many, too many to describe really.

Yet here I am, deliberately putting myself into a new community of people who, like me, value food and learning and making positive change in the world. By reading books and blogs, by attending conferences, by deliberately moving away from what I thought I should do and choosing a world that was unknown to me but infinitely more exciting, I am building my own community around me, a little bit each day. It's a very exhilarating time, to feel like I'm where I need to be and making the best choices I can make. How can it get any better?

So thanks to all of you who every come to this blog - my family and friends, my neighbors, my long-lost acquaintances who Facebook-stalked me and found this, and you, person who randomly found me because you Googled "sexy girl on a tractor". Thank you for making yourself part of my community, even if it was only for the briefest of moments. I am indeed blessed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Pasteurization Explanation

This video, part of the Cooking Up A Story series, gives an excellent explanation of the different forms of pasteurization, particularly the kind used by Clear Spring Creamery, where I just wrapped up my internship.

The speaker, an organic farmer at Lady-Lane Farm, describes a form of pasteurization known as "vat pasteurization" that more small-scale, organic dairies are beginning to use.

In vat pasteurization, the milk is heated at the lowest legal temperature for thirty minutes, which preserves the flavor and the fresh taste of the milk... and according to this guy, some of the enzymatic activity that pro-raw milk folks tout as the biggest benefit of drinking the non-pasteurized stuff.

Given how many times I would be asked every week at market about our pasteurization process, this video would have been great to watch a few months ago. C'est la vie!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Goodbye, Clear Spring Creamery

Yesterday was my last day working at Clear Spring Creamery. No more milking cows, no more fencing, no more bottling yogurt, no more farmers markets, no more delicious milk.

Mark and Clare, as well as their kids, Paul and Paige, were a joy to work with for the past five months. I learned an enormous amount through their example and their guidance. They were always very generous with their time and their home, and I really enjoyed getting to know them.

I'll write a longer post later with my reflections on this summer... but for now, I just wanted to say how grateful I am that I had this opportunity.

And that I will miss the cows.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Photographic Evidence

Finally, finally, I have a picture of milking-time.

As you can see, I was in the process of dipping the udders of some cows that were finished with an iodine solution that helps prevent infection. You can sort of see a milker on the last cow, towards the back.

Also note the encrusted remains of five months' worth of cow poop on my jacket sleeves.

Only one more milking session left for me, on Friday. Time sure does fly.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Kitchen Sink Granola Bars

The days are dwindling until I leave Clear Spring Creamery and begin my next big adventure... graduate school. But in the meantime, I still have a fridge and pantry filled with food that needs to be eaten. As a result, I have been doing my best to utilize everything I have, getting creative when necessary.

You can see some of the fruits of my labors above - homemade granola bars, which by definition are a bunch of random ingredients glued together with sticky substances like honey and peanut butter, cut into little squares, and then enjoyed for breakfast. Or dessert. Or afternoon tea.

Thus, they are the perfect recipe for getting rid of unwanted food items.

In my case, I used a recipe I scrounged from Food52 for inspiration. I had almost none of the ingredients in the actual recipe, so a fair amount of improvisation was necessary.

In the end, though, I was rid of my caches of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, shaved coconut, and put some serious dents in my remaining peanut butter, honey, rolled oats and baking chocolate.

End result?

They made me happy. And gave me one or three fewer pounds of stuff to take to Pittsburgh.

Monday, July 30, 2012

School is cool, and so am I.

Well, I have officially registered for my first semester of classes at Chatham. And I am excited, yes indeed.

In fact, I am so stupid with excitement about this that I've decided to post the course descriptions for next semester's classes up here, because of course everyone else wants to see what I'll be taking.... right?

The first two are core requirements for the curriculum; the third isn't strictly necessary, but counts towards my Applied Electives requirements... plus I just really want to take it.

Food Systems
Examines philosophical, sociological, economic, and cultural issues related to the production and consumption of food. From Agrarianism to the Green Revolution, explores the transformations of industrialization, technology, and migration. Provides foundation in food systems and commodity chains as concepts and methodological tools for uncovering the relationship between communities, agriculture, markets, and consumers.

Food Access
If food is a basic human right, how do societies create universal access to food? In this course, we explore the moral and ethical basis for making citizens food secure despite global inequality. Major topics include the relationship between food access, culturally appropriateness, nutrition, sustainability, and justice.

Growing Sustainably
Using Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus gardens as well as neighboring farms as a case study, students will integrate best practices for sustainable agriculture with theory and research analysis in the classroom. Topics will include basic principles of soil fertility, biodiversity, agriculture history, effects of both conventional and organic agriculture, and the politics surrounding the issues. 

Growing Sustainably (Lab)
Through working on Chatham’s Eden Hall Farm as well as neighboring farms, students will integrate best practices for sustainable agriculture in ongoing projects. Lab component will include work with the western regional office of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, farm-to-table initiatives, ongoing regional vermiculture* and composting, and garden market development and maintenance for a variety of community partners.

I'm still trying to decide what I want my track to be. The choices are Food Politics, Food Markets and Marketing, Communication and Writing, and Sustainable Agriculture. Talking to my adviser will probably be helpful in this respect. I am very torn between Sustainable Ag, Food Politics, and Communication and Writing, but I'm hopeful that I can meld the requirements from various tracks to customize my own academic trajectory. Isn't that why I'm paying them all that money??

*Composting with worms! EXCITEMENT.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Two Weeks And Counting

After tomorrow, I only have two weeks left here at Clear Spring Creamery, and then I'll be off to my next big adventure... grad school.

On August 27th, I will be starting classes for my MA in Food Studies, a three-year-old program at the new College of Sustainability at Chatham University. I'm starting to get antsy to begin - I've signed my lease, bought my furniture, and penciled in the start date in my calendar. Is it even possible to be any more prepared? I thought not.

I know this blog has mainly focused on my farming activities the last two years, with fun stories about goats and cows and manure and so forth, and I'm not really sure what direction I'll be taking it when I start school. Recipes? Discussions of food systems and policy? The struggles of trying to eat locally/organically on a grad school budget? Pictures of my pitiful attempts to grow herbs on the back porch?

I shall depend upon you, my faithful readers, to let me know. Thoughts, recommendations, constructive criticisms... I want it all.

In the meantime, for another fourteen days I will continue to milk cows, bottle yogurt, and hawk dairy products to passer-by.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Regarding Poop

As a child, I remember seeing an Amish family come into a store when I was visiting my grandparents in southern Indiana.

Actually, I remember smelling them, for they smelled quite strongly of manure. And, being a fastidious child, I was mildly grossed out.

I wonder how that 10-year-old version of me would feel if she knew that, fifteen years later, she would be smelling that scent every day?

In fact, not only have I seen, smelled, and frankly touched manure almost every day this year since I began, but I have come to recognize that it is not that bad. Take the smell - something that once disgusted me is not really at all unpleasant. While certainly immediately recognizable for what it is, manure has a nutty, earthy, almost sweet scent, and probably only deeply unpleasant to those whose only experience with ordure comes when they are flushing it down a toilet.

Little do they know that manure is here to help us. Manure is our friend.

After the last two years, I consider myself something of an expert in manure. Well, maybe not an expert. A dilettante, perhaps. A dabbler, even.

It's pretty difficult to work on a farm (one with animals, that is) and not know something about manure. It's omnipresent. It gets on one's shirt, shoes, hands, and occasionally in one's hair. It must be rinsed off of equipment and pitchforked out of the barn, employing myriad tools such as high-powered hoses, latex gloves and disinfectant.

And yet, there is much to admire about manure, which has long been recognized as a delightful fertilizer.

This is one of the brilliant bits about grass-fed grazing strategy. The farmer does not need to collect the manure and truck it to the field, dispersing it with his/her tractor. What a terrible waste of time and energy and labor this is. Instead, the intelligent farmer lets the cattle takes care of distribution logistics all on its own, by liberally sprinkling the field with their castings even as they replenish their gut with yet more grass for further deposits down the road.

This, of course, is the rub. Grass-fed and free-range animal husbandry allows livestock to live in a way that does not overcrowd the land with more excreta than it can handle. Factory farming, or the practice of raising hundreds, if not thousands, of livestock together in a confined space until they reach slaughter weight, is not nearly so considerate of the earth's needs, as evidenced by the dreadful stench. Anyone who has driven behind a pig truck on the interstate can attest to this.

I thought I would close with a list of my favorite manure synonyms, garnered from

Buffalo Chips. Cowplop. Feces. Fertilizer. Maul. Compost. Guano. Meadow Muffin. Night Soil. Egesta. Evacuation. Excrement.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sudan Grass: A Lifesaver In July

July doesn't seem to be the best time for grass-fed cows... by this point in the year, the grasses and clover are dry and brown, parched from lack of rain and blasted by two weeks of 90-plus degree heat.

But my bovine friends need not fear, for they will be happily munching on fresh, green sudan grass next week. Sudan grass is a warm weather crop that is indigenous to (can you guess?) Eastern Africa.

Farmers who graze with sudan grass need to be a little careful, because it can be dangerous to cows when it's young, due to an overabundance of the cyanide and nitrates that make it grow. Additionally, if the grass is affected by drought and a sudden rainstorm appears, the same chemicals can show up and poison the cows.

For a farmer, making sure a grass-fed herd has access to pasture all year is a daunting proposition, and involves a lot of pre-planning. Hay needs to be grown, mown and baled. Warm weather crops must be planted weeks, sometimes months, in advance. Fences need to be put up and taken down, usually on a daily basis. Thinking of all the factors involved is like trying to solve a giant agricultural Rubik's Cube.

But the payoff can be enormous. Milk from pastured cows is demonstrably better for you - there are higher levels of fat soluble vitamins like A and D, not to mention omega 3 fatty acids, CLA's (the "good" cholesterol) and beta-carotene, which is what gives milk from grass-fed cows its delightful yellow color. What the cows eat affects the taste of their milk, as well - in my experience, pastured dairy cows produce sweeter milk than anything you will find in a grocery store.

I haven't tried it myself, but I think the cows are going to be delighted.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Raw Milk...And Allergies?

Okay, I recognize that anyone who regularly reads this blog is probably getting sick of hearing about raw milk, but I heard something on NPR last month that I wanted to share.

A team of researchers was looking at allergies in children, and they found that being exposed to dirty environments actually lessens a child's likelihood of developing allergies.

According to the "hygiene hypothesis," by keeping children in too-clean environments, their immune systems never learn to cope with foreign substances, and as a result never develop good defenses against them, which can lead to allergies.

Meanwhile, the so-called "farm effect" shows that children raised on farms have lower incidences of allergies.

The study looked at Amish children, who are not only exposed to the dirt and dust of farm life, but also - surprise! - drink raw milk.

A common theme I've heard is that raw milk products are an immune system booster. But now I wonder if it's not so much that raw milk actually boosts immune systems, so much as improving them by introducing them to allergens, pathogens, and so forth that they can then learn to fight off.

Of course, the leader of the study cautions against feeding children raw milk products because of the associated liabilities... er, I mean health risks. But regardless, there is some food for thought in this report.

What I find most interesting isn't even the study itself, so much as the fact that there are actually conventional medical professionals out there who are starting to look at the health benefits of raw milk. In my (admittedly somewhat spotty) research, I have been searching for studies like this, and believe me when I say that it is very difficult to find anyone who is studying raw milk out there. But that is a topic for another day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fourth of July Cherry Pie

I was feeling rather patriotic this past Wednesday (you know, Independence Day) so I decided to do something quintessentially American, and make a cherry pie.

Well, actually, I canned some cherry pie filling. But close enough.

I do not have a cherry pitter right now, and having tried a trick I read about on Food 52*, I will make the following observation...

Even if you only use it once a year, purchasing a cherry pitter is an excellent investment.

*They make it look all nice and clean, but I assure you it is not. I looked like I had butchered something by the time I was done pitting two quarts of the succulent red fruit.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Brine And Brine Again

I have a problem, and that problem is too much produce.

See, I live by myself, and at the farmers market I always shop with my heart more than my head. I'll be going along, when all of a sudden, "Ooooh, kohlrabi! OH and basil! And sorrel! I MUST HAVE IT ALL."

And then some well-meaning fellow farmer will come along and offer me a bag full of produce, which of course I will take, conveniently forgetting the square footage of my mini fridge (tiny), not to mention the capacity of my stomach (even smaller).

At any rate, when I just can't find time in the day to fix everything I've got, I turn to the ancient methods of food preservation for help. You know, canning. Brining. Fermenting. And so forth.

Yesterday, on a whim, I pickled a quart of string beans that were starting to look a little sad. I didn't have any dill, so I used some fennel stalks, tossing in some bay leaves and a clove of fresh garlic for good measure.

I haven't tried them yet - I'm giving them a few days to cure - but I'm excited.

Anyone else out there have some ideas for interesting pickles? Or other summer time preserving ideas? My ears are open.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Farmers Market Secrets

While I'm sure many of you, faithful readers, are likewise faithful farmers market attendees, there may be a few things that you did not know about these markets. I'm talking about fundamental economic underpinnings here, people. More specifically, these are rules that anyone who works at a farmers market does - or should - know.

Rule # 1: The Last Item Never Sells

If 19 of your 20 pints of strawberries sold in the first half hour of market, that last little pint will sit there, forlorn and alone and depressed, until the end of time. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it's true. One might assume that, if there is only one left, the product must be delicious and deserving of purchase... but apparently consumers have a deep-seated aversion to taking the last of anything. Whether that is due to the fact that our mothers admonished us for taking the last piece of cake throughout childhood, or because we assume there must be something wrong with the last piece, I don't know, but whatever it is must be deeply rooted in our subconscious.

In fact, this rule is so true that I know farmers who purposefully pack far more product than they can sell, just so they can keep a fully stocked display. It looks nice, and apparently that appeals in some meaningful way to our psyches.

Rule #2: Customers Never Read Signs

You might think that you're saving yourself a little work by putting up signs describing products, their uses, even their prices... but I am here to tell you that you are WRONG. Customers do not - repeat, do not - read signs.

I tested this theory last week. At the dairy, we make a product called quark - it's a traditional German cheese made from yogurt, and it says so on the handy-dandy little sign that we put next to it. Well, darned if everyone doesn't ask the same thing: "What is quark?" So I posted the sign directly above the sample of the quark. You know, where you absolutely cannot miss it if you try.

By my estimate, I received exactly the same number of "What is quark?" inquiries that I would have otherwise, minus one lady who smacked her husband and pointed at the sign when he asked. Thank you, anonymous lady. You are amazing.

Rule #3: Actually, People Are Just Not Very Observant In General

Lest anyone think I am hating on people who attend farmers markets, let me just say that I am as guilty of this as anybody. A few weeks ago, I went to see a movie*, and could not find napkins for the life of me. Finally I asked the girl who had just sold me popcorn. Turns out they were mounted on the wall, exactly at eye level, right above the counter where I had been looking. I hang my head in shame.

That being said, there's a big difference between not being able to find napkins, and sticking your finger in the yogurt sample that it sitting out so people can help themselves, because you apparently did not notice that there was no lid. Which not one, but four - four - people did on my watch. And that is just sad.

This all being said, I should say that farmers markets are one of my favorite parts of farm life. I love getting to know the regulars and the fellow farmers, I love all the delicious produce that I get to trade for behind the scenes, and I love belonging to and participating in a community that cares about where its food originates.

*The Avengers. It was awesome.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Farmer and the Farmerette

On Tuesday, Clear Spring Creamery played host to a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) workshop. And I was on the itinerary. According to the schedule, I was slated to discuss my "personal journey" as an intern at 3:15.

I was not expecting much, to be honest. I thought I would tell everyone what I studied in college (theatre and drama), mention how I became interested in sustainable agriculture (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver) and explain my future plans (Food Studies MA at Chatham University). There would be two or three stilted questions, and that would be that.

Instead, I became embroiled in an hour-long discussion, in which I eventually realized that I was being treated the mouthpiece of an entire generation of young farmers - the so-called "Generation Organic".

The discussion as a whole was quite interesting, and certainly thought provoking - one moment in particular, at least for me. During a discussion about the FFA (Future Farmers of America), I commented that my mom was a national officer in the FHA (Future Homemakers of America), "...before girls were allowed to be farmers," I ended snidely.

A local extension agent cut me short. "Abigail Adams was a farmer," he said. "So was Martha Washington."

I understand his point. Of course women have farmed throughout history, and continue to farm today. But frankly, the view of farming at present- especially conventional farming - is that of an overall-wearing, grass-chewing, tractor-driving boys club.

This predominantly male farmer stereotype has some statistics backing it up. According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average percentage of female principal farm operators is a mere 14%, increasing  to 22% when you look only at organic farms.

But change is in the air, according to the same 2007 Census: from 2002 to 2007, the number of women as operators has jumped 19%, and as principal farm operators 29%. This is significantly higher than the growth of farmers overall, which was a measly 7% in comparison.

Clearly, the tide is turning, and it is turning more quickly in the world of "alternative" agriculture, such as organic and biodynamic farming. I'm looking forward to reading the results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, to see how the trend is looking.

As a parting gift, I feel I should mention that my blog comes up when one Googles "sexy girl on tractor," just in case anyone was curious just what, exactly, the role of lady farmers is... or should be.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ferdinand the Bull(s)

A couple weeks ago, we welcomed some additions to the farm. Blog, meet Ferdinand the Bull (Part I).

Actually, there are three bulls, and while none of them actually have names, I have a dismaying tendency to name everything I come across. Sylvester the Toyota Echo. Sneaky the Cow. Trevor the Laptop. And Ferdinand the Bull, Parts I, II, and III.

The bulls are actually all just a year old, and when they arrived, they were virgins. (Not the case anymore.) The way I understand it, bulls tend to become more aggressive as they get older, but are still pretty tractable and nice when they're young.

I don't know if it's the breed (Jersey) or just because they're still young, but the Ferdinands look pretty similar to the cows. They're all de-horned, aren't any bigger than the cows, and (at least to my untrained eye) don't look as though they're built differently.

They do, however, have wrinklier foreheads. And testicles.

At any rate, the Ferdinands will be around for another month or three, before being sold off to another farmer to perform the same services.

Three bulls. Fifty-five cows. The Ferdinands sure do have it tough.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Raw Milk: Healthy or Hopeless?

As some of my intrepid readers will recall, a few weeks ago I went to visit a raw milk dairy in Pennsylvania, The Family Cow. It was quite interesting, to say the least, and I was impressed enough with their safety procedures that I purchased a half gallon of milk to try on my own.

One of the bits of the tour that most struck me was how fervently Roderick, the fifth generation farmer who gave me the tour, believes in the curative powers of raw milk. Indeed, this is something that has grabbed my attention whenever I have come across raw milk drinkers - they believe in the healthfulness, and indeed, in the "superfood" stature of raw milk, with a fervor bordering on religious faith.

But me, I am a skeptic in almost all things, and I was determined to find out what, if any, scientific basis these health claims have.

To that end, I picked up a little pamphlet at The Family Cow on the benefits of, as it proclaims, "Fresh Unprocessed RAW MILK - A Nutrient-Rich Whole Food," in the hopes that it would give me a bit of insight.

Based on the research of a dentist named Weston A. Price in the 1930's, the brochure's central thesis is as follows: "Mammalian raw milk is a complex, bioactive substance of time-tested ancestral origin, where all parts work together to create a nourishing and protective food." The chief argument here is that raw milk contains enzymes and micro-organisms that are destroyed during pasteurization, making milk more difficult to digest and removing all the health benefits they provide.

At first glance, the brochure has all the earmarks of a legitimate publication. It has prominent quotations from doctors and professors on the cover, and cites studies and books, including pictures from Dr. Price's 1939 tome Nutrition and Degeneration, which is essentially the Bible of the raw milk movement. "1939?" you might be thinking. "Isn't that kind of a long time ago?" Indeed it is. And as I look more closely at the quotations on the front cover, I see that they date from 1928 and 1929, respectively. The points are not stacking up in favor of the raw milk folks.

But let's move on to what health benefits, exactly, raw milk is supposed to provide. The brochure provides an exhaustive list, which leaves no stone unturned. Raw milk, it says, treats high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart failure, infection, urinary tract infections, prostate gland swelling, psoriasis, toxic thyroid disease, gastric ulcers, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, pulmonary tuberculosis, edema, stiff joints, muscular dystrophy, and worms, and prevents dental decay. In fact, in one case of raw milk therapy that they cite, raw milk was successful in treating a "large group of patients for which no specific disease could be found."

And let's not forget the various anecdotal evidence I have heard from drinkers of raw milk, including my tour guide at The Family Cow, who claimed that drinking raw milk prevented colds, staved off allergies, boosts general immunity, and in the case of one farm worker who receives dialysis, even helps with kidney problems.

All that, eh? At this point, I begin thinking rather uncharitably of snake oil salesmen.

I'm not trying to argue that raw milk has no benefits whatsoever, but I am inclined to continue to view these health claims with further skepticism until  I can delve into some research a tad bit more recent than 1939.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Unforeseen Complications

I've been in the camper now for three months, and really like it for the most part. It's wonderful to have my own space, not to mention my own kitchen. But there is a side effect - when you use an RV-style toilet* for that length of time, it starts to smell.

After some asking around, I found out that you are apparently supposed to use a toilet treatment in camper-style commodes that breaks down and deodorizes the "contents". But where to find this magical elixir? The RV section at Walmart, I'm told.

So off to Walmart I went.

I'm not normally a Walmart shopper, but I figured I would find what I needed in the Automotive area, which happens to be pretty spacious and full of aisles. I wandered around for a few minutes, but I didn't find anything helpfully labeled "RV Section," so I decided to ask for help.

I found a friendly looking man wearing a Walmart vest, and the following conversation ensued.

Me: Excuse me, sir, I'm looking for the RV section. See, I've been living in a camper for the last few months and the toilet has started smelling a bit, and someone told me I could find stuff to put in it here at the RV section...
Friendly Man: RV section? Dunno if we have one of those.
Me: Well, I was told you did...
Friendly Man: Hold on, let me ask. Pulls out walkie talkie. Hey, Dave?
Dave: Over walkie talkie. Yeah?
Friendly Man: I've got a girl here who says her RV toilet smells. Do we have an RV section?
Dave: Her what smells?
Friendly Man: Her toilet smells.
Dave: What?
Friendly Man: Her toilet.
Dave: Hold on, I'll be right there. Appears. Ok, I'm sorry. What were you saying? I couldn't hear.
Friendly Man: This girls says she's living in an RV and the toilet smells. Do we have an RV section or something?
Dave: Yeah, we have an RV section, it's right here. See, we even have different scents.
Me: Faintly. Thank you. Grabs citrus scented RV toilet treatment and runs away, blushing furiously.

*Picture a holding tank that gets emptied every two weeks. Frankly, I'm a little incredulous that it took this long to start emitting unpleasant odors.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

So Long, Sylvester

I bring bad tidings: my Toyota Echo, Sylvester, my bosom companion for the past seven years, Gas Mileage Champ and He Of The Surprisingly Spacious Trunk For Such A Tiny Car, is no more.

Monday night, I hit a guard rail on I-70 eastbound. My insurance has decided that it is not economical to fix him, so Sylvester is now toast. Alas.

I just felt I couldn't let him pass out of my life without some sort of memorial.

I'll miss my little clown car with the fabulous gas mileage; lack of cruise control, tape deck/CD player/AUX port, power windows and locks; and the check engine light that wouldn't turn off.

He was a trooper.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Kitchen Experiment #176: Homemade Yogurt

Continuing my string of dairy-product-making-attempts (some more successful than others, I must say...mozzarella continues to elude me), I tried my hand at yogurt recently.

The process is fairly simple... heat a quart of milk to 185 degrees, whisk in yogurt starter (or yogurt with live cultures, which is what I used), pour it all in a quart jar, and then do your best to keep your yogurt-to-be around 110 degrees for the next six to twelve hours, which is more difficult than one might think. In my case, I filled two more quart jars with boiling water, swaddled all of them in a sweater, stuffed them in the non-working oven in my camper, then continued to anxiously check on it every few hours like a new mother looking in at her sleeping infant.

For a first yogurt, I don't think it was too shabby. It has a pleasantly tangy flavor, which I prefer. It is a little thin for my liking - closer to a kefir consistency than yogurt, really - but absolutely fine mixed with granola, which is how I always eat it.

And why is that, anyways? I think my yogurt starter was a little too old, for one thing. The fresher the yogurt, the better, where live cultures are concerned. Also, Clare told me that she lets the milk cool a bit before adding the starter, since the high heat can kill the cultures. And next time, I'll probably use a strainer to catch all the little bits of scorched milk that settled to the bottom of the yogurt, because that's just kind of gross.

I'm a little stumped about what to do about the skin that develops on top of milk when you heat it, though. Do I just need to stand there, whisking maniacally until it's ready to pour? I'd really rather not, if there are other options. Any ideas out there?

Monday, May 21, 2012

In Which I Drink Raw Milk

As some of you may have gathered from previous posts, I'm pretty fascinated with the saga of raw milk. Who would think that a mundane substance like milk could be so polarizing?

I was feeling rather investigative last week, so I went up to visit The Family Cow, one of the biggest raw milk-producing dairies in Pennsylvania, if not the entire East Coast. I was shown around for a couple hours, had my innumerable questions answered with unending patience, and when I left, it was with half a gallon of raw milk clutched in my sweaty palm.*

I was curious, I must admit. I'd never had raw milk before, and health claims aside, I wanted to see if there was any justification for the assertion that raw milk just tastes better than its pasteurized counterpart.

The taste test was conducted in my tiny kitchen. In a very professional manner, I poured two jelly jars full of milk: The Family Cow's raw whole milk in one, Clear Spring Creamery's un-raw whole milk in the other.

The two milks both looked the same. They both had cream at the top of the cartons (being unhomogenized, that tends to happen), and both had the yellow tint of grass-fed dairy products. No major differences there.

In the taste department, however, I definitely preferred Clear Spring Creamery's product. Maybe I'm just biased, since I work there and all, but when I tried the raw milk, I detected a faint "barnyard" taste.** According to Mark, this might be due to the cows' diet - he said that some cows can have a taste to their milk that he described as "silage." If that is the case, then milk purchased later in the year might be missing that taste.

The question of raw versus pasteurized aside, some of the reasons a small, raw milk, grass-fed dairy would be better tasting than Piggly Wiggly's are pretty obvious. First, the milk is fresh - likely from the last week - instead of weeks if not months old. Second, the milk is from grass-fed cows, which gives the milk much more flavor, and can in fact have flavors specific to what the cows eat. Third, many small, organic dairies go for heritage breeds like Jersey cows, which have richer milk due to the higher butterfat content. Fourth, the milk is unhomogenized, which affects not only its taste but its digestibility. And last, you're dealing with the milk of a small herd of - depending on the farm - 50 to 300 cows, as opposed to the milk of thousands of cows being mixed together, which is what conventional dairies do.

To be fair, I was definitely comparing two pretty delicious products as it was. It might be an interesting future experiment to do a blind taste test between raw milk, pasteurized milk from a small organic dairy like Clear Spring Creamery, mass-produced organic milk from a grocery store (like Horizon), and a conventional grocery store brand milk. If I were to compare regular milk from a grocery store with raw milk from a (relatively) small dairy like The Family Cow, I have no doubt which I would prefer.

*I was feeling pretty confident about The Family Cow's cleanliness, given that I'd just been over practically every inch of their operation and asked plenty of detailed (and perhaps somewhat impertinent) questions.
**This reminded me of my friend Bin's assertion that colostrum***, when he tasted it, was like drinking "hot hay".
***Colostrum is the rich milk that cows produce for the first several days after calving, and which is considered vital for a calf's immune system and overall health.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cows, Cows, Cows

I feel as though this blog has been deficient in pictures of cows recently. Enjoy.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Butter Is Better

I am happy to report my first (successful) attempt at making a dairy product in my tiny own kitchen!

Blog, allow me to introduce you to Butter.

If you're anything like me at all, butter is absolutely indispensable. I saute asparagus, I bake cakes, I create tart crust, I smear pieces of baguette.

And, fabulously, butter has to be one of the easiest things to make ever. Observe:

Take one cup of cream and let it sit out until it reaches 50 degrees F. At the same time, put a clean quart jar in the fridge.

Once the cream has reached the desired temperature, pour it into the quart jar and screw on the lid tightly. Then start shaking the dickens out of it.

The cream will start out like cream, then frothy. After a few minutes, without any warning, it will have a whipped consistency. Do not be alarmed. And do not stop shaking.

After another few minutes, again with no warning whatsoever, the contents of the jar will turn from whipped cream into a large yellow lump and some milky liquid. Ta-da! You have made butter. This entire process should take somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes.

Pour off the buttermilk and store in the fridge for a refreshing pre-bedtime drink. 
Pour cold water over the butter and shake to rinse, then pour off. Do this three or four times, until the water runs clear.
Knead the butter with your hands (or with a pair of spoons, if you're fastidious) to remove any remaining liquid. This is important, since leaving the extra liquid can make your butter spoil. Stir in 1/4 tsp. of kosher salt, if so desired.

Spread on a piece of bread and enjoy.

Note: Do not be alarmed by the taxi cab shade of yellow that is my butter. It is representative of butterfat from grass-fed cows, and is caused by high levels of Vitamin A and beta-carotene - the same reasons that eggs from free-range chickens have similarly, shockingly colored yolks.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The One About Strawberries

There's a cycle to eating seasonally.

Step one: Wait in restless anticipation for <insert food here> to be available.

Step two: When <insert food here> finally becomes available, gorge yourself until you can't bear to look at it anymore.

Step three: Wait another eight or nine or ten months until <insert food here> finally comes around again.

Of course, there is an alternative extra step - Put up <insert food here> so that you can continue to enjoy it when it is no longer in season.

For me, this food is currently strawberries.

What is it about fresh strawberries? I don't even bother buying the grocery store versions anymore. Strawberries at the store aren't so delicate that they bruise their tender little bodies merely sitting on top of one another in a container. Strawberries at the store don't seduce you with aromas that entice you like a mauve-colored, come-hither, beckoning hand from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, stroking you under your nose as you pass by. Let's face it - strawberries at the store suck.

The strawberry cycle started two weeks ago, when a table of the delectable fruit lured me into another farm's tent at the Falls Church farmers market. I got a quart, and spent the rest of market surreptitiously opening the cooler where I had stashed it, the better to enjoy its scent as it billowed out of solitary cooler confinement. I spent the following week enjoying strawberries on my oatmeal, my granola, and - most memorably - eaten for dessert in a pool of our own yellow-tinted cream.

So when, at Arlington's farmers market this past Saturday, our neighbors started putting out basket after basket of the little red fruit, I was overcome, and purchased half a flat. I used some of it to make strawberry compote to top my traditional boyfriend-is-visiting breakfast, the German Pancake, and I reserved a bit more so I could luxuriate in strawberries and cream later that week, but the bulk of it ended up in little quilted 8-oz jars.

Preserves - the perfect way to make sure that I can get my strawberry fix any time, any place. And they're so easy to make that it's actually a little disturbing - equal weights strawberries and sugar, cut up and mixed with the juice of a lemon, and left alone overnight, then heated up in two-cup increments and ladled into the appropriate sterilized jars and boiled for ten minutes, leaving me with five jewel-bright additions to my tiny kitchen.

But, naturally, I dropped my first piece of strawberry preserve-bedecked toast, sticky side down, in the garage the next morning after only eating two bites.

Monday, April 30, 2012

May and Markets, Oh My!

So in a surprising (but not unwelcome) turn of events, Mark and Clare informed me this week that my schedule will be changing. Starting this week, I will be doing the Penn Quarter Farmers Market every Thursday from here on out. 

The market is located in Penn Quarter, which is in downtown Washington, DC, sandwiched between Chinatown and the National Archives. It takes place from 3 to 7 on Thursdays, and apparently is quite popular with DC chefs. Maybe Sam Kass will be there! (Hey, I can dream, right?)

Most excitingly, I will be doing this market by myself. Clare is going with me this week to show me how to get there, where to park, etc... but after that, it will just be me, myself and I.

I'm pretty stoked. Markets are hard work, to be sure - I'm usually dead in the water by around 4 each Saturday, when my day is over - but I really enjoy them. I love the feel of a busy market, the bustle and smells and sounds. Which is good, because now I'll be doing two, including the Arlington market on Saturdays.

The other change is that Melissa, who normally works in the creamery, has returned from her honeymoon. As a result, I'll probably be spending less time in there. For the last month, I've been in the creamery pretty much every afternoon to help with bottling and such. I'll still be in there some, but I think my time will be split more evenly between that and helping Mark out with more outdoors-y, farm-y tasks.

Like fences. Lots of fences.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Milking Revisited

When I wrote a while back about the enjoyable process of milking, anyone who read that particular little post had to use their imaginations because I was sadly lacking in the picture department.

I am now happy to report that the situation has been rectified! So gaze away, my friends.

The milking parlor, all nice and clean. Picture eight cows lined up on the left and right, where they stand with their heads facing the troughs (the white bits) and their rears facing the sunken center part, where Mark and I work our milking magic. The rest of the cows hang out in the back of the parlor (where I was standing when I took this) while they wait their turn.

The food trough. Cows are bribed to stand still and let us milk them by the judicious use of grain, which comes down the plastic pipes you see along the back end of the trough.

One of the milkers. The black caps are put on because a washing/sanitizing solution is run through them before and after milking. During milking, we take those off. There are eight sets of milkers, so we start by doing the row of cows to one side, then switch over to the other side as the first batch finish.

Cows seem to take pleasure in leaving their "mark" wherever they go. So as part of clean-up, I use this gargantuan hose to gently persuade any "deposits" to evacuate down the drain at the end of the barn.

The End.