I'm back from PASA's Farming for the Future Conference, and as usual, I learned a lot and got my winter dose of motivation and enthusiasm. I did a lot more shopping at the conference on this, my fourth year of attendance than on the previous three years combined. Partly that was because Brushy Mountain Bees had a sponsor's booth, and I was able to talk to someone to help me with my order, AND get free shipping on anything I ordered while there. I got the rest of the equipment ordered that I need to be ready for my honey bees to arrive in April. Then there were a few books and other items purchased because I really wanted them, and because the purchases helped support PASA.
Here's a laundry list of tidbits learned, things that excited me, and other lovely things that happened at the conference:
Biochar is a soil amendment, but does not itself add any fertility to the soil. In a raw state it will actually suck nutrients out of the soil and into itself. Its microstructure allows it to benefit sandy soil by improving water retention, and clay soil by improving drainage. Go figure. It's also a friendly home for soil microbes and mycorrhizae. A great use for it is to add it to animal stalls, where it can become "charged" with nutrients and microorganisms from the animal's manure so that it does not draw nutrients from soil, and where it can help control odors. The hooves of a sufficiently heavy animal will also help break down biochar into smaller pieces, which is desirable, as the animal walks on the chunks. It can also be "charged" by soaking it in urine for a few days. It's not good to breathe in charcoal dust, so you don't want to crush it too fine, and if your raw biochar is very fine, it's best to wet it or mix it into moist compost as soon as it's done cooling. The speaker referred attendees to this video for guidance on making a home scale biochar burner. The chief virtue of biochar, however, is that it sequesters carbon in the soil.
I tasted the best ketchup I've ever had in my life - by a mile. It was lacto-fermented and contained smoked chipotle peppers. The cook assured me that she would send me the recipe by email. If I do get it, you can be sure I'll try it this summer.
I heard about and saw pictures of a good root storage technique, apparently originally from Finland. A thick layer of dry fall leaves are laid down in a large bin. Then harvested and trimmed (but not washed) root vegetables are laid on top of the leaves so that none of them touch each other, and then they are covered with another thick layer of leaves. The bin is left uncovered. In a cool dark space the roots will keep very well for several months. The leaves should be fairly dry when collected and arranged. A refinement of the technique is to use a piece of row cover material (which breathes very well) folded over to contain the roots so that you don't have to search wildly for them or miss them entirely if your bin is very large. The enormous bin shown in the pictures was in a bank barn and made of cinder blocks.
I learned more about home curing meats and am now curious about attempting two versions of cured fatback: Italian lardo, and Ukrainian salo. Lardo is made with rosemary and other herbs you'd associate with Italy. Salo is seasoned with paprika. I have a tentative agreement to get together with two hog farmers I know when they hold their pork curing powwow. Paul Bertoli's Cooking by Hand, which deals with charcuterie, was lauded by the speaker. That book has been on my wish list for a while now. It just got moved to the top of the list.
I attended a humanure workshop by Joe Jenkins, the author of The Humanure Handbook, and came away thinking that the composting of human manure not only makes sense from the perspective of soil fertility and conservation of scarce resources (drinking water being chief among them), but that it's also entirely safe if done properly. I picked up a hard copy of the book, but you can get a free copy online.
Johnny's Selected Seeds was giving away a couple of free seed packets, plus a 14-month calendar. This calendar will carry us into 2011, until we get to the next conference and scrounge a free calendar for next year. When my husband raved to them about the broadfork we got from Johnny's a few years ago, and told them how we proselytized to other gardeners and have agreed to lend it out this spring, the representative gave him a pocket knife. It looks like it's perfectly suited for grafting fruit tree seedlings.
Edited to add: I found out something totally amazing about comfrey, which is already one of my all time favorite plants. As the comfrey leaves die down in the late fall, spiders shelter under them for the winter. If you have a plant large enough to cover one square yard of earth with its dead leaves (and this is totally do-able with a single established comfrey plant), on average 240 spiders are sheltering under there. That's a lot of predator habitat! So if you have comfrey, don't clean up the leaves that die down until late spring of the following year.
I put in the winning bid on a beautiful set of hand-thrown mixing bowls at the benefit auction. They nest together perfectly, and each one has a pouring spout. We've been on a nasty streak of breaking our mixing bowls lately. So let's hope we're finished with that trend. I thought it was a great opportunity to obtain a needed item from a Pennsylvania artisan, while giving money to an organization I wholeheartedly support. Much better than buying stuff imported from China. My husband made pancakes with these bowls this morning. Yum!
Each year the halls and corridors of the conference center are adorned with fantastic quotes that make me laugh, galvanize my determination, and generally transmit optimism. Wandering around to read them is one of the highlights of the conference for me. The Mark Twain quote above is one such. Another great quote at the conference came from Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." I've never seen a quote repeated in the four years I've been at the conference. I wonder whose job it is to find these gems.
I learned a lot about dairy goats, even though I don't have any immediate plans to get any. Like bees, goats seem to be at risk of quite a few diseases.
I talked to a sponsor who was selling shiitake logs and got his views on Fungi Perfecti and another vendor of myco-products, Field and Forest. He greatly prefers Field and Forest because, in his opinion, their various forms of spawn are much more heavily inoculated than Fungi Perfecti's products.
I learned about a Pennsylvania shoemaker that handcrafts his shoes, sells them for $300 per pair, and reportedly will resole them for about $80. That doesn't seem all that different from some pairs of Birkenstocks and their resoling costs. The guy wearing the shoes said it's like getting a reflexology treatment every time he puts on his shoes, and that it's the closest thing to walking in bare feet he's ever experienced.
A blizzard arrived while we were in State College. But on the drive home on Saturday afternoon we found the roads well cleared and we got to watch a gorgeous sunset. As we neared home, the amount of snow that had fallen seemed to lessen, until we were looking at only 6" or so of accumulation. We weren't sure whether we would be able to get up our driveway, which has a short steep section just off the road. But we found that our awesome neighbor had plowed our driveway for us in our absence. I don't know what kind of goodie to give him the next time I see him, (he's not around much) but I've got my thinking cap on.
Best of all, we got to come home to a home we love. I'd even given myself the gift of a clean kitchen to return to. Made tea this morning with our own well water and nary a tinge of chlorine. Home is best.
I live on a 2/3 acre homestead in a residential neighborhood. A major goal is to demonstrate how much food a non-expert can produce in my particular climate and hardiness zone, with the soils native to my immediate area. We have gardens of annual and perennial plants, keep laying hens and honey bees, and regularly bite off more than we can chew. Another major goal is to pay off our mortgage as fast as possible. Here I blog about frugality, self-reliance, gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, practical skills, half-baked experiments, and preparing to thrive in a lower-energy future.