Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: A Year in Review

It's that time again when I look back and assess progress made over the past year. Before getting in to any details, I'm happy to report that this year things seemed different somehow.  At this time last year, I really felt that despite all the work we'd done, it didn't amount to much.  It felt like I couldn't get much traction on the sorts of progress I was trying to make.  Not this year.  I feel good about where we're at, and where we're going.  I can't really explain this, since I didn't work any harder or smarter, or get more done this year as compared with last year.  It might come down to the work of past years beginning to literally bear fruit in 2010.

While I had my official list of goals for the year, and dutifully tackled some of them, there were a whole slew of other projects that were never on the list, but were completed nonetheless.  Like laying out permanent beds and pathways in our garden, and amending the beds with copious amounts of compost from our township, and building a mobile poultry pen to fit precisely over those new beds.  That project was a lot of work, and it will make a significant difference for our garden and our ability to use it more efficiently in future years.  Seems like I should be able to cross that off the list with pride.  Except that it wasn't on the list in the first place.  I won't detail the goals unmet this year.  If you're curious, a quick look at the sidebar shows (at least for the next few days) what didn't get done.  Nothing left undone was absolutely critical, and only a couple of those goals are going to be priorities for the coming year.

Anyway, on to what did get done this year.

Overall:  We decreased our dependence on the industrial food system by producing more of our own food, and also by buying more of our food from local sources, including fruits I turned into jam.  Our passive solar thermal heating system substantially reduced our dependence on fossil fuels.  This was also the year we began harnessing volunteer muscle to help with the work load, which has turned out to be a huge help in many different ways. My husband remained employed this year, and is even reasonably assured of continued employment for another year, for which we are very grateful, given the continued state of recession (whatever the talking heads may say about that).  We saw the first modest harvests from several of the perennial food plants we established in previous years.  Asparagus, pears, cherries, grapes, elderflowers and elderberries!  It's unutterably gratifying to see what we hope are just hints of the harvests to come from these crops.

Harvest tally - This year we brought 757.2 pounds (343.5 kg) of food in from our backyard, including about 11 pounds of home-harvested meat.  This figure doesn't include any of the produce we picked and ate outside, nor any sub-par stuff sent directly to the chickens.  Also, we haven't yet gotten around to shucking this year's popcorn, so that hasn't been included in the tally.  Our four hens gave us about 1143 eggs this year.

Mortgage reduction - I'm not going to give an exact figure, but we made substantial progress towards our goal of paying off our mortgage.  We're currently 16 years ahead of schedule in repaying our principal.  If we do as well in the coming year, we'll be extremely close to paying it off entirely.

January - Finished the root cellar. Researched honeybees and methods of keeping them. Placed orders for two packages of honeybees. Placed seed and rootstock orders. Began second introductory beekeeping class. Reseeded the coldframe with arugula.

February - Attended the PASA conference, a one-day seminar for beginning beekeepers, a one-day seminar on alternative agricultural strategies, and a three-day class on agricultural soils. Got our personal seed vault squared away. Two cats joined our household. Seed starting commenced.

March - Got the fruit trees pruned. Work began on our passive solar heating system. I improved my knowledge of curing meats by working with a few local grass-based farmers during their big curing day. Prepped the beekeeping equipment. Prepped large self-watering containers for fig trees and hazelbert bushes.

April - Planted 3 fig trees and 2 hazelbert bushes in large self-watering containers. Bees arrived and we installed them in their hives, beginning the drama. Started experiment #2 with potatoes grown in buckets.  Began creation of a permaculture-style guild around our old apple tree, using the deep litter that the hens had been on through the winter months, as well as saved corrugated cardboard and paper bags from bulk purchases for lasagna mulching. Picked up truck loads of cheap compost and mulch from the township four weekends out of four.  Dug wild elderberries and stinging nettle from a friend's property; transplanted them around our home along with ramps given to me by a relative. Renovated the chicken coop and pen. Put the hens back into rotational grazing on the lawn. Seed starting continued. Tilled and laid out permanent beds in the garden.

May - Started experimenting with lacto-fermentation.  Picked up more loads of cheap compost and mulch from the township four weekends out of four. Hosted a work weekend which allowed me to get ahead of the weeds in the garden.  Planted the bulk of the annual crops, including our first three sisters planting. Made my first ever successful batch of jam.  Killed our first garden rabbit and ate it with satisfaction.

June - Hit a huge, community-wide yard sale and snagged a lot of canning jars, plus a stovetop wok for use with the rocket stove, on the cheap.  Built a colorful mailbox hand tool depot in the garden, and a plastic bag drip-dry station in the kitchen, which together constituted my birthday gift projects.  Took in a disabled heritage turkey poult, intended for Thanksgiving.  Built pea trellises.  Arranged to host a WWOOFer for a week, informally.  Cleaned out the wreck room to make a place for the WWOOF volunteer. Made raspberry jam from local organic fruit I picked myself, and elderflower cordial from the first blooms of the elders we planted in 2009.

July  - The month started out well when I managed to keep most of the garden alive through a crazy heat wave that started in June.  With help from our WWOOFer, we built a very lightweight and mobile poultry pen sized to fit our garden beds, used it as temporary housing for the growing turkey poult, and caught up on a lot weeding and lasagna mulching.  Then I got hit with the double whammy of a massive infection in my foot and the sudden death of a relative.  Together these things kept me from the garden for more than ten days, leading to a squash crop failure.

August - A big month.  Mustered the will to get back out in the garden to keep battling the weeds, salvage some parched plants, and to succession plant for fall crops.  Canned tomatoes like nobody's business, finishing the month with 28 quarts of roasted tomato sauce.  Cured seven more pork jowls and smoked them, turning out 12 pounds of finished guanciale.  Dealt with first harvests of elderberries and our wine varietal grapes.  Experimented with summer-sowing parsnip seeds as they mature.  (Results on that to come in the spring.) Took delivery of custom ordered ceramic weights for improvised lacto-fermentation crocks, and started experimenting with garden produce.  Welcomed our first official WWOOF volunteer, who helped with a great deal of lasagna mulching and canning.  Got one cold frame built.  Finally figured out a good method for making smoked chili powder from homegrown chilies and wood chips from our own apple tree.

September - Planted both new and old cold frames with varieties of cold-tolerant crops (spinach, carrots, lettuce, scallions) that tested well last winter.  Painted our living/dining room, making it bit less stark and a bit nicer for having company over.  Harvested the potato buckets to disappointing results.  Harvested and dried first crop of hops.  Welcomed a third WWOOF volunteer.  Did a bit of refurbishment on the mobile chicken pen and used all the leftover paint samples to make it all piebald.

October -   Hosted another WWOOF volunteer.  Built a crate from scavenged wooden pallets to hold bottles of ice in the root cellar.  Used the poultry schooner to let the chickens do much of my garden cleanup and prep for winter.  Cut down the hemlock tree in the back yard to make room for another apple tree to be planted next year.  Copied Tamar and Kevin's ingenious instant greenhouse for the in-ground rosemary plant out in the garden.

November - Winterized the beehive in hopes of keeping our struggling colony alive until spring.  Started loading up the root cellar. Reconstructed winter quarters for the girls and got them back onto deep litter bedding.  Lasagna mulched large swaths of garden beds, and two spots on the lawn in preparation for transplanting our hazelnut bushes in early 2012.  Got on the waiting list for two nucs from Champlain Valley Bees.  Pressed our apple cider and turned some of it into hard cider.  Hosted Thanksgiving for the extended family without having a nervous breakdown.  Bought a shotgun and got a gun club membership so we'll have a place to practice shooting once we've completed our gun safety classes.

December -  Made my first batch of duck confit from locally farmed ducks, and started another batch of guanciale with free/workshare jowls from farming friend's pastured hogs.  Attended a workshop on leasing farmland in an attempt to figure out what to do with our parcel of agriculturally conserved land.  Based on advice from one of our WWOOF volunteers with EMT experience, assembled first aid kits for the house and both vehicles.  Slaughtered our turkey fosterling, and plan to eat it for New Year's Eve dinner.  Started early on the construction of a Biopod knockoff, officially a goal for 2011.

It feels fantastic to end the year with a sense of satisfaction for things accomplished, instead of my customary nonsensical feeling that we got nowhere.  Primarily because it allows me the freedom to be fairly slothful for a while during the winter.  I expect next year to be just as busy, and that the busy-ness will start up again quite soon.  I can only hope we make as much progress in the new year, and that I feel as good about it in twelve months' time.

What accomplishments made you proud this year?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Working Guanciale Recipe and Methodology

 I've got a batch of guanciale in progress, so it seems a good time to present my working recipe and methodology for this delicacy.  I say "working" because, while I've had some experience in taking raw jowls and turning them into cured and smoked guanciale, I'm still tweaking the seasonings, timing, and methodology as I go along.  With this post I'm going to venture into a topic that carries some risk.  My methods almost certainly will not meet USDA guidelines for food safety or sanitation.  Although my husband and I have eaten several jowls' worth of this guanciale and lived to tell the tale, you are hereby warned that the procedures outlined here may result in food-born illness.  So follow them at your own risk.

When beginning to experiment with home curing meat, it's important to start with meat you can trust in the first place.  Clean meat.  If you wish to try a batch of guanciale, sourcing the jowls will probably be the most difficult thing for many of you.  I'm lucky to have one friend who raises hogs, and an established acquaintance with another hog farmer, both of whom keep their animals on pasture and eschew hormones and unnecessary antibiotics.  These people raise hogs the way I would raise them if I had the acreage, and the chain from farm to butcher to customer is short, well known, and transparent. So I'm very comfortable with using their meat, and confident that this is clean food.   Your best bet will likely be a small scale local farmer who sells pork by the whole or half animal.  Quite often the jowls are not wanted by the customers, so the butcher often salvages this cut for head cheese, scrapple, or sausage.  If you order a half or whole animal, by all means request the jowls.  Once you've established a working relationship with the farmer, you may be able to acquire the jowls other customers don't want either very cheaply or entirely free.

Despite my caveats at the beginning of this post, which you should consider seriously, I want to reassure you somewhat.  When curing pork jowls, you are starting with a solid piece of meat, as opposed to ground or even cubed meat.  This means you are inherently starting from a safer position.  Meat with no cuts into it presents few opportunities for contamination.  When you can thoroughly cover all exposed surfaces with a curing mix, the risk of any pathogen establishing itself is vanishingly small.  Furthermore, I'm going to recommend that all beginners work with small enough batches that the initial stages of curing can be done in the refrigerator.  Practice exemplary sanitation when working with meats you will be curing.  Make sure your hands, knives, cutting board and food containers - anything the meat comes into contact with - are spotlessly clean.  When you add to good sanitation the precaution of starting with clean meat in the first place, and the protection of refrigeration, you can be confident that your curing process is going to produce something safe to eat.  When I started home curing I even began the air drying process in the refrigerator.  I now do it in our root cellar or even the garage when the temperatures are appropriate.

For additional insurance against spoilage, I tend to smoke the meats I cure at home.  Wood smoke is a natural means of preservation and it happens to add a wonderful flavor.  If you have a smoker, plan to use it for your first few runs through the curing process.  By building in these multiple layers of safety, you will enjoy your finished cured meats without misgivings and learn how easy it really is.  Leave sausage preparation for later, after you've taken a few batches of solid cuts through the entire process.

So.  On to the details of guanciale.  You will need: a metric scale capable of handling fractions of grams, and a scale capable of weighing the jowls you will work with.  You can weigh in imperial and convert pounds to metric if need be.  Also, a cutting board, a sharp fillet or butcher's knife, salt, sugar, spices, a spice grinder, a container large enough to hold the jowls, metal skewers or racks, newspaper, and optionally, a smoker.

I'm indicating a large salivary gland, but there are many others below my finger as well

Trimming the jowls
Ideally, you will do the trimming of the jowls yourself, and with a sharp knife of course, so that as little fat is removed as possible.  Some butchers remove almost all the fat, assuming that customers want as lean a cut as possible.  Fat protects lean tissue from excessive drying during the curing process, so it's worthwhile to do the job yourself if you can.  You will need to remove the salivary glands from the jowls.  These usually have a characteristic, light brownish coloration to them, in contrast to the reddish muscle tissue.  But I have on at least one occasion seen salivary glands almost identical in color to the muscle.  Fortunately, they are further distinguished by shape, which tends to be round, sort of like a bubble surrounded by fat.  And the fatty tissue around these glands is also grainy or bubbly, for want of a better word.  This fat should also be removed, since it can conceal small salivary glands.  The fat you want to leave on the jowl has a smooth, solid texture.  Also remove any skin that adheres to the jowls, and wash off any stray bristles or other material.  The trimmings can be given to other livestock or pets, either cooked or raw as you prefer.

Two detail images of salivary glands and the different colors they can be.  (Click to biggify.)

Weigh the jowls and prepare the curing mix - sample calculations in blue
Once your jowls are cleaned, trimmed, and patted dry, weigh them and convert the weight into grams.  A conversion calculator can be found here, or simply multiply the weight in pounds (in decimal form, such as 8.475 lbs) by 453.6.  This gives you the weight in grams (8.475 x 453.6 = 3844.26).  Using the number you derive, make the following calculations:

[Meat in grams]  x  0.025  =  kosher salt in grams  (3844.3 g x 0.025 = 96.1 g of salt)
[Meat in grams]  x  0.015  =  cane sugar in grams  (3844.3 g x 0.015 = 57.7 g of sugar)

-This is a basic curing mix, the active ingredients that will extract moisture and do most of the preservation.  The remaining ingredients will contribute extra flavor, and their weights are derived not directly from the weight of the meat, but from the weight of the salt.

[Salt in grams] ÷ 14 = dried juniper berries in grams (96.1 ÷ 14 = 6.9 g juniper)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 7 = fresh thyme in grams (96.1 ÷ 7 = 13.7 g fresh thyme)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 16 = white peppercorns in grams (96.1 ÷ 16 = 6 g white pepper)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 50 = black peppercorns in grams (96.1 ÷ 50 = 1.9 g black pepper)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 200 = dried bay leaves in grams (96.1 ÷ 200 = 0.5 g bay leaf)

Be sure to make the first two calculations based on the weight of the meat, and all subsequent calculations based on the weight of the salt.  This is done simply in order to work with fewer digits.  If you need to make substitutions for any of these seasonings, keep in mind that dried herbs are much more concentrated in flavor than fresh herbs.  So, for instance, if you use dried thyme in place of fresh, reduce the weight by at least 2/3.  If substituting fresh juniper or bay leaves for the dried, multiply the weight by 3 to 5.  Other flavorings that I have tried in the past and may continue to experiment with include fresh rosemary, allspice, fennel, and star anise. 

Combine the salt and sugar in a bowl. Finely chop the fresh thyme and mix it into the salt mixture.  Grind the remaining spices until very fine.  Mix these into the salt mixture until the curing mix is homogeneous.

Into the bottom of a non-reactive container large enough to hold all the jowls, scatter a heaping tablespoon of the curing mix.  Holding each jowl over the container, coat all surfaces of each jowl thoroughly with the curing mixture, working it into any folds in the meat.  When laying one jowl on top of another, sprinkle extra curing mix between them.  Scatter any leftover mix over the top layer of jowls.  Cover the container tightly with a lid or plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator or a root cellar at refrigerator temperature.

Curing mix, freshly applied

Let the jowls cure in the refrigerator for ten days, marking the start and end dates on your calendar when you begin. Check the jowls at least every other day.  Turn them over and bring the ones on the bottom to the top. The meat and curing mix will naturally form a brine.  You may pour this off after the fifth day if it is excessive, but this is not necessary if you keep rotating the meat.  Cover the jowls well after each rotation.  By the end of this initial curing stage, the meat should have become noticeably stiffer, but remain somewhat flexible.

On the tenth day, pour off all liquid from the jowls and pat them dry.  Either hang them from skewers suspended in the refrigerator, or spread them out on racks to air dry in the refrigerator for another seven days.  (If the outdoor air temperature at this time is below 50 F/10 C, you can allow the jowls to dry in a dark, sheltered spot with good air flow.) Mark the beginning and end dates of this period on your calendar when you begin.  They will release moisture during this stage, so you may want something to catch the drips.  After drying for one week in a cool area, brush off any excess dried curing mix that remains on the meat.  If necessary, you can rinse the jowls off under running water.  Pat them dry as soon as the curing mix is removed.

Guanciale on skewers in the fridge

Smoking and additional air drying
You may now smoke the jowls if you wish.  I like a medium smoking temperature for about 4 hours, using apple wood chips, but maple, oak, hickory and other woods could be used.  According to strict tradition, guanciale is not a smoked meat.  But guanciale affumicata is not unknown in Italy, and I strongly prefer the addition of real smoke flavor.  I also prefer the advantage of an additional preservative to the salt and sugar.

Skewers are handy for the smoking process too.
Additional air curing after smoking.  Good air circulation is important.

After the initial air drying and optional smoking, the guanciale can be eaten, or it can continue to air dry for an additional 2-4 weeks, depending on air temperature and humidity.  Good temperatures for air curing range from 40-55 F (4-13 C).  Humidity should be no higher than 75% and no less than 50%.  The jowls will continue to lose moisture in this stage, and it will likely be enough to drip slowly from the meat.  You may wish to lay down newspaper under the jowls to save cleanup.  When the guanciale is fully air cured, it will no longer release enough liquid to drip.  It will have lost more flexibility and become noticeably stiff.  In theory, you can dry the meat as much as you like.  I find that I prefer guanciale that is still a little flexible and moist.  Over drying makes the muscle tissue tougher and causes both the lean and fatty tissue to burn more quickly when cooking.  Leaving some moisture in the jowls makes them slower to burn.  You will likely want to experiment with the length of the final air curing stage to see what you prefer.

At no time during the curing process should any off odors be present.  If you have smoked your guanciale, the smoke should be the only prominent scent.  Unsmoked guanciale should have very little odor at all.  If you detect an odor of spoilage, trust your nose and discard the meat.  If this should happen, it will probably be accompanied by visible signs of contamination.

If you wish to experiment with different flavorings or techniques from one batch to another, it is invaluable to keep a notebook with a record of how you prepared each batch, with tasting notes on the final product, and your ideas for modifications in future batches.

Although the finished guanciale may be eaten raw, I tend to cook it and use it sparingly as a flavoring ingredient.  I like it sliced as thinly as possible, laid on top of a pizza just as it goes into the oven.  I like to cut it into lardons and render the fat to cook my onions in when preparing a pasta sauce or risotto.  Of course it's incomparable in spaghetti alla carbonara, which is its best known use.  It can serve as a substitute for bacon in most recipes.

Hope you've enjoyed this overview of my approach to guanciale, and that it encourages you to try some home curing yourself.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Mixed Feelings on a Turkey Harvest

Warning: this post contains images and text pertaining to animal slaughter that some may find disturbing.  They're buried down towards the bottom of this long post.  So if you don't want to see them, skip this one.

Christmas morning was cold, and quiet.  That was to be expected.  It was also perfectly still; no wind.  This I counted fortunate, since it fell to me to cut off the turkey's food supply on my morning round of chores.  I hated doing it, knowing she'd be suffering from hunger for the next 24 hours.  I thawed and rinsed her frozen waterer with a kettle of just-boiled water from indoors, then came back with a pot of hot water to fill it up again.  This had been the routine since winter weather set in and turned the poultry's water to blocks of ice each night.  She had shelter from wind in the mobile pen, but that small grace on her last day made it just a little easier to accept what had to be done.

I've had very mixed feelings about keeping this Bourbon Red turkey.  We got her as a handicapped poult from my farming friend in June.  She was blind in one eye, and had been picked on by the other poults to the point that it was obvious that the others would kill her if she weren't removed.  So she came to us, small enough to perch nervously on my wrist.  We didn't know her sex back then, and frankly hoped she'd be a tom so that she'd grow big.  My feelings for her were an odd mixture of concern for her well being, excitement over a new species, responsibility for her care, and the clinical approach that I use towards most livestock.  We intended this bird for consumption; she was not a pet.  So I held my emotions in check.  I do the same with our laying hens, but I don't have to with the honey bees.  I'll probably never have to take the step of killing our bees.  They live or die largely on their own, beyond intimate supervision.  Thus I can allow myself a variety of pure affection for them, at least to the extent possible for an undifferentiated seething mass of insects who can inflict pain. For whatever reason, the combination of diligent care and emotional detachment towards livestock comes easily to me.  I don't know why, but I'm grateful for it.

But there was something else going on in my emotional relationship with this turkey.  I felt badly for her in a way that I don't for the laying hens.  The turkey was forced into a solitary existence, never knowing the company of other turkeys.  This, I think, deprived her of something important, and definitely affected some of her behaviors.  She never learned to eat much other than what I put in her feeder.  Had she enjoyed the company of other turkeys, she would have learned by observation and imitation that foraging was a worthwhile endeavor.  I thought that the company of laying hens would be better for her than no company at all, but that turned out not to be the case.  The hens dominated her mercilessly when she was around more than one of them at a time.  And laying hens can be mean.  So my attempts to relieve her solitude failed.  There was nothing I could do to make her life better.  She had the basics: enough room, fresh air, natural light, clean food and water each day.  But beyond that, the best I could do for her was to keep her from being physically picked on by other birds.  She was always a flighty, easily spooked bird, probably owing to her lack of vision on one side.  That meant that she didn't take to any of my attempts to interact with her either.  It didn't seem like much of a life for her, and that gnawed at me steadily through the summer and fall.  When winter added the challenge of cold weather, it only made me feel worse.  I don't have a problem with animals dying; everything that lives also dies.  I don't even have a problem with being the agent of that death.  What I feel is my own responsibility is to ensure that the creatures in my care have good lives, with the ability to express the full range of their natural behaviors and as little suffering as possible, until they meet their end.  For our turkey, I felt that there was no way for me to give her that good life.

I recognize that our experience with raising our first turkey is not typical.  We would never have chosen to get just one bird, and the fact of her blind eye was unusual as well.  Also, I put in a disproportionate amount of work for a very small yield.  With more birds, and some of them being toms, that work would have yielded far more.  Still, raising a turkey this year was a learning experience.  Among the learning experiences I've been through in pursuit of homesteading, this was certainly one of the harder ones, emotionally speaking.

Anyway, today was slaughter day, and we aimed to get the job done early.  Even if I hadn't wanted to spare the turkey further discomfort, there's also a snow storm on the way.  My preparations were in place: mulch in the wheelbarrow parked beneath the slip knotted cords I'd attached to the framework for our solar array earlier this fall, knife well sharpened, water in several pots heating on the stove, outdoor work space arranged on the saw horses, a fully charged battery in the drill used with our homemade plucker, latex gloves, a cutting board, separate containers to receive the organs and the guts, and a cooler full of ice to receive the bird when when she was all finished.  For our own preparations, we watched this video of Joel Salatin demonstrating the evisceration of a chicken a few times.

I could only hope that the differences between chicken and turkey evisceration were minor.

At the moment of truth we said thank you and apologized for not being able to give her a better life.  My husband held the wings, and I cut the jugulars.  Her head was warm in my hand as I exposed her neck, and she bled rather more than I expected based on what I'd seen when slaughtering chickens.  Her wings flapped strongly, or tried to, as she died.  My husband held on tightly, impressed by her strength.  In a few moments, it was over.  Once she was dead, the job became nothing but the challenge of a skill I was still trying to master.  I used a thermometer to make sure we had the scalding water at just the right temperature.  The feathers came out so readily after that that we decided not to use the plucker.  It was easy to pluck her by hand, all except the largest wing and tail feathers, which the plucker wouldn't have been able to handle anyway.  After plucking, the evisceration went fairly easily too, thanks to that video. While she wasn't a big bird, the thick layer of fat around her gizzard told me that she'd been plenty well fed, with reserves to fall back on for those final 24 hours.  We had her chilling in a cooler full of ice water less than an hour after we started setting up.

After six months of work and feeding, our ready-for-table heritage breed turkey hen weighs merely eight and a half pounds.  There's no way to make that yield sensible from a strict accounting, measuring either by money, resource use, or labor, even having gotten the poult for free.  All I can do is chalk this up to a learning experience.  I take satisfaction in knowing we were able to keep a disabled animal alive, and in my improving skill at slaughtering.  If we were to raise turkeys again, given our inability to free range birds, I'd think long and hard before choosing a heritage breed.

So that's the story of our first meat bird ever.  We'll have her for New Year's dinner, and then I'll make stock from her bones. We haven't quite decided how to cook her, but I'm sure it will be a special meal.

Monday, December 20, 2010

PASA Conference Coming Up

Time to put in a plug for the conference of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.  The Farming for the Future conference will meet on Friday and Saturday, February 4th and 5th, next year in State College, smack in the center of the state.  This is the 20th annual conference for PASA, and the fifth consecutive year I'll be attending.  You can register additionally for a wide selection of pre-conference mini-courses that allow you to explore a single subject in depth.  If you're in the vicinity of Pennsylvania and you eat, I would urge you to check out the conference schedule and consider attending.  I always learn a ton at the conference and come away with a stupendous dose of motivation - very timely for a gardener in early February.  It's wonderful to spend just a couple of days surrounded by people who are passionately committed to ethical, sustainable, healthy food for everyone.  Farming for the Future is a bargain as conferences go.  Register by December 31st for the early bird discount.  I'd love to see you there!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter-Dug Burdock

We still have several gobo (domesticated burdock) roots in the ground.  I dug two of them up during a brief thaw about a week ago to see what roots left to overwinter in the ground would be like.  They were no more difficult to dig in cold earth than in warm earth, which is to say I still broke a sweat on a cold day.

Turns out I could have simply consulted the Johnny's Seed catalog to answer my questions about whether or not gobo holds in the earth through the winter.  Just last night, while surrounded by six open seed catalogs, I came across this: "...roots make a great season extension offering.  For fall, winter and spring harvest and storage.  Burdock can be overwintered in soil much the same as parsnips."  Still, it was an opportune moment to do the digging.  Temperatures are barely peaking above freezing once or twice a week.

In the course of answering my question by empirical means I found that the roots have developed a single growth ring, just as any tree does each year.  I've seen such rings before in carrots left too long in the ground.  I've heard that biennial parsnips do the same, and that the flesh of the parsnip outside the growth ring remains edible in the second year, even though the part within the ring becomes tough and unappetizing.  In gobo, the flesh is always somewhat tough, which lends it a meaty texture but also requires more cooking than for other types of root vegetable. 

The roots I dug this month were extremely large; more than two inches in diameter.  As ever, I was not able to dig deep enough to harvest the entire root.  So there's a root fragment of unknown length left in the ground for each plant that I harvested.  In wild burdock that I've dug up, the roots had hollowed out to form very large fibrous cavities.  I saw just the beginnings of this trait in the Takinagawa gobo I left for winter, though not in the least in those harvested earlier.  Where the cavity begins to form, the flesh discolors slightly and becomes sort of spongy.  I just trimmed around these sections and composted those parts.  I also found some traces of a pink coloration near the top of the root as I trimmed it.  I don't know what to make of this as I've never seen any such pigmentation in roots dug earlier in the year.  But we ate that root and are none the worse for wear, so it seems there's nothing to worry about.

I've read that burdock root stores only for one week in the refrigerator, but this has not been my experience.  I harvest the roots, leaving the very base layers of the leaf stalks intact, only very gently cleaning off the dirt that clings to them.  To do so I soak the roots in a big pot of water out on the porch to remove the soil clumps, and then shake off both water and dirt, leaving all the little feeder roots intact.  Rinsing the roots is said to hasten spoilage, but with this method all seems well. Then I wrap each individual root as tightly as can be managed in plastic wrap and store it in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.  So far I've kept them for two weeks in there and they seem fine. (My next experiment will be to store one in the root cellar and see how that does.)  I can't say this with absolute certainty, but it seems to me that winter-dug gobo roots are slower to discolor when the flesh is exposed to air than are summer- or fall-dug roots.  The discoloration occurs quickly when preparing the roots by scraping them with the back of the knife.  (There are more details about preparing gobo on my kinpira gobo recipe page.)  Whereas the parts of the root exposed by breaking them off during winter harvest seem very slow to discolor.  In any case, the discoloration is purely aesthetic and not in any way dangerous.  I now put a generous splash of vinegar in the soaking water during preparation and this prevents most discoloration.

So there's my empirically derived answer as to whether or not gobo will hold in the ground over the winter.  They will, though the tendency of the plant to form root cavities may become more and more evident the later the root is harvested.  Now the question remains as to whether or not the root fragments left in the ground will rot in place, or manage to grow enough to produce top growth in a second year.  The fragments are all at least 10 inches below the surface and usually more than that.  If they rot in place, that's fantastic treatment for our clay soil.  If they regrow next year, there's a good chance I'll get another harvest from a single planting.  In the latter case it would be interesting to see how many years of harvest could derive from the initial planting.  It's also possible though that the second year's root growth might be less edible in some way.  We shall see...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Goals for 2011

Time for another foolhardy and overly ambitious list of goals for the new year.  Publicly posting my list both spurs me to get more done each year, and also hangs over my head like lead-clad obligation.  Part of the process of assembling a list of goals is not just prioritizing among all the things I'd like to achieve, but also trying to figure out which out of all of those are most likely to see the light of day.  I haven't proven too accurate with this.  I end up doing things I didn't think I'd get to, while neglecting others that I thought would rank higher in priority.  If only I'd been clever enough to put the task I was going to do on the official roster, I'd have one more item to scratch proudly off the list.

Since this is also the time honored season for reflection, I do have some self-analysis to burden you with.  Early this year, facing another overloaded spring schedule, I experienced a sort of homesteader's burnout.  Although I thought I'd been taking projects a few at a time, it all just seemed too much.  Since beginning the homesteading venture in 2007, I've kept hoping, with each new year, that we'd get past most of the heavy lifting jobs, and reach a point where only the day-in, day-out routine and the changing work of each season needed to be done.  I dangled the excuse that all the extra projects that needed doing were once-and-done things.  But that rationalization wears thin when every new year brings an equal number of major projects.  I face each spring a year older, and lately I feel each and every year of my age.  So what I've resolved from now on is to do away with the psychological carrot - the idea that if I can just get this or that big project done, it'll be nothing but coasting from then on.  Clearly that's not going to be achieved in the coming year, so I may as well stop kidding myself.  Today all I can honestly tell myself is that at this moment, I feel up to another year of very hard work.  It may be the last year of what sometimes feels like Herculean effort.  Or, more likely, not. All I can do is take it from here and see how it goes.

Already the roster of projects to tackle this coming spring is a little daunting.  This spring needs to include the pruning of fruit trees, putting in more asparagus crowns (more below), planting one more apple tree, starting about 20' of hedgerow with new plantings, and all that goes into starting up the annual garden.  Seed starting alone is a pretty big task that stretches out over weeks.  Everything else will have to fit into the docket during the rest of the year.

One thing I'm not committing myself to for next year is a new species for the homestead.  After all, this year I violated my own one species per year rule.  We'll try again with honey bees, and hope to do better by them in 2011.  I have, however, been toying with the idea of keeping quail for some time.  While I emphatically do not want to put myself on the hook for figuring out how to house and productively keep a new species, neither am I ruling out the possibility by resolving not to try a new species next year.  Novel idea: leave myself some breathing room.  If late spring rolls around and I feel like I've got all my major projects under control, I can revisit this issue.

So, without further ado, here's what I'm going to be working on over the next twelve months:

Plant a second apple tree - We cut down our hemlock tree in the backyard this year, and even lasagna mulched a spot nearby in hopes of making the digging go a bit easier.  The intention is to replace the hemlock with an heirloom apple tree and at some point to graft some scion wood from our old apple tree onto it.  Currently our venerable apple tree is a consistent producer of fine apples for eating and cider.  But it won't last forever and the variety is unknown.  So all we can do is, in effect, clone it by adding some of it to a new tree. We'll put in an Ashmead's kernel apple tree near where the hemlock stood.  This variety is practically a legend of unparalleled flavor, and is known for its excellent keeping qualities.  It will need a few years of growth before it either bears any fruit or is ready to take a graft from another tree.  In the meantime, we'll need to find someone who knows grafting.

Start a hedgerow where part of our fence blew down - I plan to start with a few hazels and perhaps a medlar.  These plants will need some time in the ground before we plant anything else with them.  The hazels put all their early efforts into root development, showing top growth only after a few years.  We'll give them those few years as a head start and then add faster growing plants.  In the meantime, I can work on improving the soil quality along that fenceline, and on propagating seedlings of hedgerow candidates from the plants we already have on the property.  It's going to be a slow moving project.

Convert half of one long garden row to asparagus plantings - It became apparent to me this year that we don't have nearly enough asparagus plants.  Since the layout I chose for the garden this year is permanent, we can simply make one of the beds a perennial area.  Yes, this is a fairly major spring project, since asparagus likes to be planted deeply.  But spring is when asparagus needs to be planted.  If an additional 25 crowns still doesn't meet our asparagus needs, we can think about adding another 25 plants in a couple of years.  We do love our asparagus, and those lovely spears pop up when precious little else is available from the garden.

Continue to load up on soil amendments from our township - Each weekend in April and May our township will dump a frontloader scoop of mulch or compost into the bed of one's pickup truck for $10.  We got at least one load every weekend the service was available this year, and I'd like to do it again in 2011.  The addition of that much organic matter has made a big difference for our garden.  One more year of this treatment ought to pimp our garden out beautifully.

Try starting new figs and other plants from cuttings - I've never started anything from a cutting before, but the figs must be pruned, and we'll need a lot of plants to populate the hedgerow I envision.  So I'm going to try using the willow rooting hormone solution in spring.  It might even work. 

Improve over 2010's harvest tally - Okay, so 750+ pounds of harvest from the backyard seems pretty good, given the crop failure of the heavyweight winter squashes, and a kinda sucky year for potatoes.  But we should be on a steady ascent path as the perennials come into production.  Barring any weather disasters or plagues of locusts, our maturing pears, cherries, blueberries, figs, elderberries, grapes and asparagus should all produce better than they did in 2010.

Build a better apple grinder from a used in-sink garbage disposal.  This is something I read about a few years ago, though I can't say where.  So far it's never been a high enough priority to make it onto a formal list of goals.  But this fall I got an object demonstration of the difference in yields between a commercial press and the old-fashioned grinding and pressing we do.  It's profound.  Given that apple pressing is a lot of work for a fairly small yield, it only makes sense to do a one-time project that will lead to less work and higher yields in the future.

Get serious about using the rocket stove and solar oven - Basically my goal of more sustainable cooking was a a bust this year.  I managed to prepare just a few meals with these two alternate means of cooking.  The late completion of our passive solar array severely delayed my ambitions to build a cooking station for the solar oven, since the plan was to use the framework for the array as part of the station.  I didn't want to get in the way of the contractor while he was still working out there.  I have less of an excuse for the rocket stove, but it didn't get done.  I need to make it more convenient to use these alternative means of cooking in 2011 - and then use them.

Hoop house - Here's next year's burnout bait.  This is the biggest, most labor-intensive project that I'm committing to this year.  It doesn't have to be done in the spring, but it ought to be in place by late summer for season extension.  The idea is to situate it where the shunt for our passive solar thermal system dissipates excess heat into the ground during the warm months of the year.  Should be both a challenge and deeply satisfying to tackle such a project.  Then I hope to house our hens in it during the winter months, allowing them plenty of light and relieving us of the work of rebuilding their winter quarters each year.

Rig drip irrigation from the rain barrel(s) for the main garden bed and the three sisters bed.  We were able to salvage some drip hose a while back.  It would have been great to have this irrigation in place this year when it was so dry.  Of course, Murphy's law states that if we get organized with our rain water-fed, drip irrigation system, we'll have another sodden year like 2009.  Still, it ought to be done.

Continue gleaning for the hens - We did pretty well with provisioning our hens via acorn gleaning in this mast year.  Next year I'd like to match our 75 lb. haul on acorns, though I'm willing to make up that weight with hickories or perhaps even black walnuts if that many acorns just can't be found next year. 

Build at least one more cold frame and get them all planted on time - I seeded the cold frames a bit too late this year, and the plants definitely look undersized at the moment.  I know they'll resume their growth in just a few short weeks to give us early produce.  But it would have been nice to have them available sooner.  I think I need to aim for August sowing; it's just so counter-intuitive to plant in the hottest stretch of summer.  I may need to strategize some way to cool the cold frame beds when it's that hot.  My sense is that we'll be building one new cold frame each year until the oldest one wears out, at which point we'll switch to rebuilding the rotted ones. 

Learn more about medicinal herbs - I've added quite a few culinary and medicinal herbs to our property over the last couple years.  So far I've made a few salves and used lemon balm as a calming tea.  I know what to do with the culinary herbs, but not much about using them medicinally.  The easy excuse this year was that the plants were not sufficiently well established to harvest much from them.  That won't fly next year, and the reality is that I simply haven't found the time to apply myself to any rigorous study of a rather vast discipline.  I suppose it's better to have put the plants in and waited to figure out what to do with them, rather than studying up and only later getting around to planting things.  By the end of 2011, I want to know more about how to use valerian, feverfew, self heal, yarrow, comfrey, chamomile, lungwort, skullcap, sweet woodruff, lavender, stinging nettles, elder, and the culinary stuff too: garlic, sage, mint, anise hyssop, thyme, oregano, rosemary and lovage.  If you have any recommendations for books, videos, or online resources for learning about medicinal herbs, I'd welcome them.

Work on feeding the flock from our own resources - In lieu of committing to another species for the homestead, I'd like to retrench on the livestock we've already got.  I want to devote some serious thinking, planning, tinkering, and experimentation to feeding our chickens from resources internal to our homestead.  There are several specific areas I want to explore, including black soldier fly larvae "cultivated" in a homemade Biopod knockoff.  So building one of those is an official goal. Beyond that, I think it's time to expand our vermicompost bins into something larger and more productive.  At this point we should be getting some chicken feed from the worm bins, and I'd like to step up the scale by at least an order of magnitude.  There's a good chance a larger vermicompost bed can be incorporated into the design of the hoop house, so we'll see how that goes.

Finally, a couple of non-specific goals:

Continue to host volunteer muscle - The WWOOF program has been a godsend for us in the latter half of 2010.  It both pushed me and allowed me to get more things done around the homestead, without completely burning myself out.  Aside from that obvious benefit, it has given me an outlet for my pedagogical tendencies while also taking the pressure off my husband to be my second set of hands for innumerable tasks.  He does, after all, have a day job.  There's not much I can do directly to recruit more volunteers, other than being registered as a host.  But I'll do my best to work with the schedule of anyone who asks to come.  Having willing and able help has been a tremendous resource.

Improve chest freezer management - This is a token housekeeping item for my list.  It's not all that easy to quantify, but there's simply too much food hanging around too long in the chest freezer.  This year when it was time to press our apple cider, we still had a few liters of last year's cider in there.  Right now the freezer is completely full and we have a rather stupendous amount of frozen meat that we postponed eating for months because we had so much produce coming in from the garden that needed to be eaten up.  Somehow I've got to manage our frozen stores better.  I suppose a good first step is to stop buying anything that I'd need to store by freezing.

Continue to pay down the mortgage as aggressively as possible - This one is pretty self-explanatory.  Our mortgage is the only debt we carry month to month.  And it's a liability I would dearly, dearly love to be out from under.  Given that 2011 may very well be the last year my husband holds on to his job, we need to keep a tight control over our spending, and make the best headway we can against the principle.

I think that about wraps up my ambitions for the new year. Once again, the list of tasks is no shorter, despite all that we've accomplished thus far.  I could rattle off a dozen other projects I'd love to see done in 2011, including building a sauna, an outdoor bread oven, and starting miniature dairy goats.  But those, I trust, will be projects for another year.  What I've listed above, plus all the things that come along even though they aren't on this list, will more than suffice to test my mettle.

What's on your list of goals for 2011?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Random bits

It's catalog time again.  I don't know how it happened, but I've been added to mailing lists for catalogs I would never even bother opening, let alone order anything from.  Also, my husband and I both ended up on Johnny's Seeds mailing list.  We don't need two copies.  So I'll be spending some time today on the phone taking us off those lists.  I remember hearing about a family that lived in a large apartment building.  In December they put out a box and sign near the mailboxes, inviting anyone in the building to leave catalogs in the box whose mailing list they wished to be removed from.  I thought it was a fabulous idea.  It almost makes me wish I lived in an apartment building.  So much material saved from the landfill.  I've put a similar offer out to relatives and a few more consumerist friends, but so far no one has taken me up on it.

Since buying a shotgun I've started reading a couple of hunting blogs.  NorCal Cazadora is good, as is A Mindful Carnivore.  No doubt there are others as well.  I'm so new to hunting and guns that I don't even know enough to ask the stupid questions.  So it's nice to have access to the worlds of thoughtful and experienced hunters.

I had another one of those funny moments when my brain slips back into pre-homestead, pre-frugalite channels.  We have an air rifle, and a supply of lead pellets the rifle uses.  I had thought to do a little target practice.  I know an air rifle shooting pellets is nothing like a shotgun with shotgun shells.  But I feel that any familiarity with any sort of gun can only be a step in the right direction.  For some reason I put it off for about a week because I hadn't thought to pick up a couple of paper targets at the gun store.  When I came to, I couldn't believe the train of thought I'd gone through.  Paying for paper targets?  Perish the thought!  I set up the clever soda can target box my husband had cobbled together.  (Clementine crate lined with newspaper, and a can on a string attached to a screw at the top.)  Flipping the can over the top and out of the way, I put a junk mail envelope in there with two small black marks made with a sharpie marker.  I already know I can hit the can at the distance I was shooting.  That's a pretty big target.  The small marks give me a much better sense of my accuracy.  I still can't believe I was thinking about paying for a piece of paper headed for the recycling bin.  Sheesh!

This coming weekend I'm hosting a cookie baking party.  It's a more social version of the holiday cookie exchange.  Instead of just passing out plates with cookies to friends, I bring the friends and their doughs together for the baking.  Then we divvy up the cookies at the end.  It's always fun to see what kinds of cookies people bring.  I used to ask folks to bring copies of their recipe too.  But now that everyone has email, it's trivially easy for those as want the recipes to get them.  I host get-togethers so rarely these days.  I'd like to do it more often, but it seems I only find the time for such things when the garden is not in full swing. 

I made my first ever batch of duck confit, with duck raised on grass locally.  I'm not sure if the birds were in rigor mortis, or if duck is just a lot more tightly put together than chicken.  The ducks were slaughtered the day before I brought them home and cut them up.  It took quite some doing; almost an hour to break down two birds.  I know my butchery skills are rusty, but it doesn't take me that long with two chickens.  Anyway, the legs were cured for two days, then poached in duck fat, and stored in a wide-mouth quart canning jar covered completely by their own fat.  The confit is supposed to sit for two weeks before sampling.  I'm hoping I can wait that long.  What I really want now is a baguette worthy of the name to smear the confit over, to see if I can reproduce a simple, unctuous, perfect appetizer I once enjoyed in Europe.  I made just a modest quart of stock from the roasted carcasses, and put the breasts into the freezer.  At some point we'll have a feast of duck breast.

As of the end of November we've exceeded our harvest tally from last year by about 145 pounds.  And there are still hardy leeks and a few cabbages out there to harvest, plus a trickle of lettuce and spinach coming from the cold frame.  I'm curious too about the gobo still in the ground.  I wonder how it behaves over the winter.  Does it become sweeter, as many other roots do?  Will it hold until spring?  I don't know.  Yes.  I'll definitely need to dig up a couple at some point to see what I find.  Probably better to do that sooner rather than later, since the ground is going to be frozen pretty soon.  Daytime temperatures are still peaking just above freezing, but the nights are all frozen now.

I'm planning to experiment with repurposing an old wool sweater into felted mittens.  We have a few old sweaters with holes in them, and I'm hoping to get at least a couple pairs out of the first sweater I felt.  This video shows how to do it, and makes it look pretty easy.  I'm no great shakes at all as a seamstress, but that project looks manageable.  It would be nice to revive the old skill of making something so useful from worn out sweaters.  I'll skip the decorative buttons though.

Two and a half weeks to go, at most, for the turkey.  We plan to have her for New Year's Eve dinner, unless we can't get a grass-fed prime rib for Christmas.  I feel very lucky to know of three local-ish farms that raise beef entirely on grass.  None of them are in my county, but there's one each in two adjacent counties, and another at the near end of Lancaster County.  Our chances of obtaining the cut we want from one of them are good.  Prime rib is such a luxurious thing.  Most of the meat we buy all the rest of the year is either whole birds or ground meat - essentially the cheapest kinds of meat, albeit from local grass-based farmers.  So, we content ourselves with the cheapest (not cheap) of the best kind of meat all year, except for this one winter feast.  Feast days are very important to me.  I love the traditional dishes that make up our very different Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  Though I deeply enjoy prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, I wouldn't want to rob this singular day of its significance by indulging in them at other times of year, even if we could afford to do so.  The rarity is what makes me appreciate them, treasure them, and celebrate them.  I'm really looking forward to it!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Running the Numbers

Recently I've been leafing through Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, which I found on the new arrivals shelf at my local library.  I gleaned a few interesting nuggets of information, as I usually do from most gardening books.  But the passage that captured my attention involved using the US Department of Agriculture food pyramid guidelines to project the needed weight in fruits and vegetables for the proverbial average adult's healthy diet.  Now, I have issues aplenty with the USDA and their recommendations.  But still, it seemed an exercise worth considering.

Turns out the average adult should be consuming 456 pounds (201 kg) of vegetables, and 365 pounds (166 kg) of fruit per year to eat a "healthy" diet by the USDA's lights.  Leaving aside the complicating issue of fruit juices and dried fruits, let's just look at those numbers.  That's exactly one pound of fruit, and over a pound of vegetables per person every single day.  I gotta tell you, I don't eat that much fruit and veg.  I know this because I know roughly what we produce ourselves in the backyard, and that we don't buy a whole lot of extra vegetables or fruit.  We don't drink juice other than our own apple cider or grape juice.  I do buy dried fruits - raisins, cherries, apricots, dates, etc.  But these don't make up a major part of our diet.  Other than things like ginger and onions year-round, and some local greens in winter, the odd bag of organic carrots, we just aren't buying that many vegetables either.  Last year, we produced just over 600 pounds of food from our backyard.  Divide that among two adults, and we've got 300 pounds per person last year.  Evidently, we're way below our recommended consumption, even figuring another 100 pounds per person from purchased sources.  Less than half the recommended 821 pounds, total, for each of us.

But Mini Farming then went on to describe how to produce that much yourself, and what sorts of yields could be expected from various perennial plantings.  And this is where the projections began to astound me.  A standard apple tree at maturity can give 300 pounds of apples per year.  Check.  That's roughly what we got this year from our mature apple tree.  A sweet cherry can also deliver 300 pounds per year, and a sour cherry, 150 pounds.  We have one sweet and one sour cherry back there which have only just begun to bear.  Four hundred and fifty pounds of fruit from them in the coming years?  Zoiks!  And then there are the pear trees.  We have one dwarf and possibly one standard.  Since the dwarfs will apparently give 120 pounds of fruit per year at maturity, we're looking at 240 pounds if they're both dwarfs, and 320 pounds if the second one is a standard.  Oh, and we're putting in another apple tree next year.

So just counting on our three varieties of fruit from six trees, we should expect - conservatively speaking - 1230 pounds (558 kg) of fruit per year, eventually.  That doesn't even touch the blueberries, raspberries, black currants, elderberries, potted figs, or our citrus trees, let alone any nuts we might get from our hazels.  Oh, and next year we'll begin a long term project to replace our wooden fence with a hedgerow stocked with edibles.  More than half a ton of fruit from the backyard.  Yes, the numbers are beginning to freak me out a little bit.  Am I going to be able to handle this much food without letting it go to waste?  I'm thinking three things.  One, we can always turn fruit juice into hooch.  (Alcohol is good.)  Two, we need to get a good system of bins together for the root cellar before such harvests start coming in.  And three, we may well be able need to help feed other people from such bounty.

We've got all these trees and plants on 2/3 of an acre, plus raised beds for asparagus, with 2800 square feet of garden space for annuals besides.  That's with at least half the property being essentially useless due to driveway, house, huge detached garage, and massive shade trees around the house.  So really, we're talking all that production on about 1/3 of an acre, more than half of which is off-limits because of the annual garden area.  So maybe really only 1/6 acre available for perrenials.  Turns out, the stocking density we've got is nothing to write home about.

In perusing the website of a local orchard we occasionally buy from, I noted that their most recently planted orchard has a stocking density of more than 300 dwarf apple trees per acre.  A little poking around turned up the claim by Gennaro Fazio, director of  an apple rootstock breeding project in Geneva, NY, that an acre of good land can support as many as 485 dwarf apple trees.  That's a mind boggling number of fruit trees.  What does that scale down to?  A tenth-acre backyard with as many as 48 dwarf apple trees.  Say that with a one-third acre working space, like us you're only willing or able to devote half of that to fruit trees.  You could, according to this theory, squeeze 80 dwarf trees into that parcel.  Back garden of only 20 square meters?  That still gives you ample room for two trees.  Fazio also claims that yield and fruit size are the same with standard and dwarf apples, so you're not sacrificing production by choosing a smaller tree.  I find this hard to believe, but even if dwarfs yield half the crop of standard trees, that 20 square meter back garden could give you almost all the fruit one adult needs per year.  That's nothing to sneeze at.

This is good.  It gives me hope for the future.  Not just for myself, but for my immediate environs.  I live in a low density development area, and all the mcmansions sit on what was formerly prime farmland.  The good earth is still there, though now in the custody of folks most often doing nothing better than dousing their grass monocultures with pesticides that kill honey bees, and herbicides that run off into our waterways.  Most of them have a lot more than my 1/6 acre to work with, should they ever wish to do so.

Bottom line is this: any little bit of yard ("garden" for you Brits) you've got can produce more food than you probably suspect.  We need more fruit and nut trees planted on residential lots.  Even on a tenth of an acre, and under far from ideal conditions, you could probably put in two dwarf fruit trees, at a minimum, and still have room for a decent patch of annual vegetables.

As Rob so eloquently said, we can do this.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Heroic Commitment to Leftover Consumption

These lovelies complemented my fried egg breakfast yesterday.  Potato pancakes made from the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers.  What's in them?  Leftover mashed potatoes (which had been made with milk, cream, and sauteed leeks), two sliced up scallions, a few twists of ground garlic (from our sliced, dehydrated garlic, placed in a peppermill), and a few tablespoons of flour to help the pancakes hold their shape better.  Knead all ingredients together with the hands, form the patties, pan-fry them gently in oil over medium heat, a few minutes each side, blot on pages torn from an old phone book.  Thank goodness the leftover ordeal is over, huh?  Yeah, life's tough.