Sunday, March 30, 2008

Springish Weather

Since the ice storm, we have been working feverishly to finish our seeding plans, ordering seeds, and starting everything in the greenhouse. Despite the cold overnight temperatures (15 degrees last night!!), we decided to open the greenhouse on March 19th. After all, we have to start planting sometime and those seeds are going to need some baby-ing no matter how you look at it, so every year we hem and haw as to when to open up and start paying for gas to heat the house, and we always open it around the 3rd week of March.

And after 2 weeks of trays just sitting there with dirt in them, we finally have green! It's always relieving to see all those seeds emerging from their warm wet soil. It really is a leap of faith putting those seeds in the soil, watering them faithfully everyday, hoping for sunshine (the passive solar keeps the house warm enough to not heat with gas), and keeping vigil over the greenhouse thermostat (we wouldn't want the potential plants to freeze!). Then, suddenly, around the 10 day mark, all our mother hen-ing has paid off, and seeds have decided to sprout! They're lovely and green and full of promise. We are reminded that we will indeed have crops this year, things will grow. Hard to believe with so much snow around, though it is melting slowly but surely, and there is classic April rain and high 50 degree temperatures on the horizon for this week! Hard to believe that we are scheduled to plant our first crops in the field April 23rd! A lot can happen in a few weeks!

Another hoophouse experiment is taking place alongside the broccoli raab experiment, and that is fava beans! We have recently gotten obsessed with beans in general and decided that after a long absence from our roster of seeds, fava beans deserved another chance. Normally, when we plant them, they get tall and gorgeous, and just when they're about to flower, the entire plant turns black. I'm talking black slime. Not unlike a deliquescing shaggy mane or stinkhorn or inky cap mushroom. It's just nasty and a huge let down. We had a moment of clarity (which we're sure others must have figured out long before us) reading John Jeavons' book concerning favas. They hate heat. Just hate it. Won't grow in it at all. Well, we have a plot of dirt in a non-heat situation that could work out just swimmingly - in the bed next to the broccoli raab in our hoophouse at the farm! We ordered some favas from Fedco and right there on the bag, was written: "favas dislike heat". As we read on in Jeavons' book, it just got better - there's a compound in favas that appears to undo damage done by verticillium and fusarium wilts that live in the soil where tomatoes are grown year after year. These are big bad baddie diseases that farmers fear especially where it concerns tomatoes and other solanaceous crops. The usual treatment is to do a 5 year rotation on that plot. Well, we don't have enough land to do such long rotations, so the fava bean could be a really nice way to prevent these wilts on our farm. Not to mention the nitrogenous powerhouse that these guys are packing! At any rate, we decided to plant them and we'll see. Here's some pictures of that process. By the way, the broccoli raab has sprouted and is pretty much in stasis. We wait!

Favas in the seeder - too big for the seeder...

Mara making a furrow for the favas with a shovel.

Favas in hand

Favas being seeded

Mr. Smeems helping Spence

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Ice Storm Cometh!

We spent the entire day yesterday watching the final installment of the extended version of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Return of the King, a four hour endeavor (!), but worthwhile since we were getting pummelled by an ice storm. You could hear the ice shards ticking on our living room window as they fell and coated our world in ice. Turns out that being steeped in the battles of Middle Earth felt entirely appropriate since the elements made it pretty much impossible to do anything outside. I was happy that I had cut some forsythia branches last Saturday when it was above freezing. My plan was to force blossoms while the winter raged on. Turns out that this was indeed what the futurecast had in store. My outdoor forsythia is now encased in ice, and looking very otherworldly, and my indoor forsythia buds are swelling and looking very promising. I always think of Cinderella's glass slippers when I see plants encased in ice. While braving the elements to see what it looked like, I also noticed that our lilacs had some stately buds on them - wished I had cut those last week! Fragrant lilacs in March! We'll see if it warms up enough to try that experiment this week. Apropos of nothing, we finally got our act together to snuggle down and read while Hearts of Space started last night. Since VPR re-shuffled their schedule, we've never seemed to be able to hear HoS again, but we made a plan, turned ahead our clocks, grabbed our books (Spencer's reading Kunstler's The Long Emergency, and I'm blazing through Pollan's In Defense of Food), and not 20 minutes into "this transmission of Hearts of Space, another excursion into the electronic soundscape called KONTINUUM", our power went out. The hallmark of a true ice storm. So, we just went to bed, and called it a night. I had to re-set the clocks this morning anyway, it turned out! I also discovered that you can stream HoS online for free all day on Sundays - sounds like we'll get to listen to it after all. I always get a little antsy to see some greenery at this time of year, hence the forsythia project. I also decided to start some microgreens in our dining room for our own consumption. I started them on Thursday, and they are just now (Sunday - 3 days!) showing their root radicle (Latin for rootling as Spencer helpfully shared this morning at breakfast) and starting to expel the hulls. I had a revelation about seeds while watching this process, and I was shocked that I hadn't had it before. These seeds are old. Some are 2-3 years old. These are seeds that we have kept in a plastic bag in varying temperatures from storing in the greenhouse to storing in our 50 degree basement. And yet, with a little water, the energy within gets jumpstarted as though shocked with a defibrillator, and out comes a plant. It really is miraculous. These seeds were stored in less than optimal conditions (the folks at Seed Savers would be cringing!), and yet, they still had the critical amount of energy within to come forth! It made me think of harnessing the energy of all the seeds in the world - I mean, just think of all the weeds and grasses and plants going to seed and dropping their seed all over the world. Each of those seeds have intrinsic energy that is waiting for the magic moment to expend it. I guess we do harness that energy in food plants. We eat them and hopefully use that energy to do something useful. Maybe a little profound for an icy Sunday morning. Well, we're all a little cabin fevery these days - especially the dogs. Below are some pics of our recent trip to the Half Pint Farm hoophouse to plant the ever tricky broccoli raab - we vow to master the wiles of this plant this year! Enjoy!!

Spencer and I schlepped shovels down to the field for our broccoli raab experiement.

We decided to use seed from Italy this time...

We excavated the seeder from the shed and got to work!
Then we got started shoveling snow on top of the seeded beds. This will water in the seeds as soon as the sun comes out. Our well pump won't be turned on for a solid 6 more weeks.
Shovel, shovel, shovel. It took us about 30 minutes.
Et voila! Now we sit back and watch the broccoli raab work its magic! We are hoping that it will be perfect conditions - cool, sunny, no flea beetles. They should be up in a few days if all goes well.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Well, today I learned why food processors exist! Inspired by the March issue of Saveur that focused on butter and all of its regional uses and charms, I obtained some very farm-fresh milk, and got started. Saveur gave a very idyllic picture story of how to make your butter at home with fresh heavy cream by whisking it in a nice rustic wooden bowl. I got my balloon whisk and started whisking. Of course, I decided to whip up some butter on the day that I started my Spring workout regimen - today was heavy on the push-ups...
I tired out early in the butter-making process, and was encouraged by helpful Spencer to break out our recently-purchased hand mixer. This quickly got me to the soft-peak and stiff-peak stages, and suddenly I realized it was 30 minutes into the churning stage! Saveur slyly mentioned nothing about how long this wooden-bowl whisking technique was supposed to take. Surely something had to be wrong! I took a break to check some websites and soon discovered I was in this for at least another 30 minutes! My arms burning (I even whisked with my left arm!), I returned to the web to see if any other helpful information could be gleaned, and that's when I found it!! A recipe for food-processor butter! While I love traditional methods as a general rule, I was desperate for a new tactic, and so I broke out my modern churner. I popped in the dough blade, poured in my only kinda lumpy buttery-milk, and turned it on. In no less than 5 minutes, I had bona-fide butterfat separating from the buttermilk! Eureka! It IS possible! I gotta say, I completely understood Michael Pollan's sentiment in the Omnivore's Dilemma after he worked on Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia. After working with the chickens and seeing all the trouble farmers go through to produce an incredible egg, he said he'd never complain about the high prices of farm products ever again - even $1 an egg seemed reasonable to him! Well, My butter endeavor makes me happy to pay $5-$7 a pound! My 7 hours of butter-making today yielded me 2.25 oz. of creamy perfection, that's a little more than 1/8 of a pound. My picture story below.....

I have access to farm-fresh milk, and brought home 1.5 gallons.
You can see the creamline in this picture.

I carefully scooped out the cream from the top of each jar.
I had exactly 2 cups - 1 pint of cream to work with.

It is so pretty!

Ok. So 6 of the 7 hours of the project was letting the butter sit
to try and "culture" a bit as Savuer advised me. So here it sits.

Let the whisking begin! It got thick pretty quickly, and
I was soon thinking of June strawberries and whipped cream!

Tiring of the whisk, I broke out the mixer and was soon at the
soft peak, then stiff peak stage.

As you can see here.

Feeling weird using the machine, I returned to the whisk, which worked
until I had arm muscle failure. You can see the butterfat starting to form.

Out comes the food processor.

This allowed me to get my strainer in a bowl and cheesecloth ready for straining.

And, voila! Yellow butterfat and creamy buttermilk!! I think if I would have started with the food processor, it would have shaved off maybe 15 minutes or so from the 1 hour of processing time. Maybe. Next time I'll try it!

So now the butterfat is in the cheesecloth in the strainer, and you're supposed to knead it a bit to expel any extra buttermilk. You can't help but touch it at this stage - it is such an incredible texture! Notice my fingerprints filled with buttermilk.

You're supposed to rinse and knead to get all the buttermilk out. If any is left in the butter, it will go bad really fast, or at least turn the butter flavor in directions you don't expect.

Here's the fingerprints with clear water - ready for molding!
My end products! Almost a pint of buttermilk (mmmm biscuits!) and 2.25 oz. of butter! Now I have to get Spencer to make his famous French bread..... YUM!!

Upon re-visiting the Saveur article, I laughed out loud to see a 1915 picture of a man with a strong upper body structure and an older woman behind him with a knowing look on her face, sort of saying, "Better you than me!". He issitting at a butter churn looking very tired out, and she looked like she was super-happy to let him do it. There you have it! Justification for using modern machinery to get the same product. At any rate, it was fun and I will definitely do it again, maybe just not after a lot of push-ups or with a whisk at all...

Saturday, March 01, 2008

HayGrove Hoops

Well, the time has come to share the Half Pint Farm HayGrove story. There has been a lot of press as of late concerning the use of hoophouse structures in flood-prone areas in Vermont, with the legislative eye fixed firmly on the Intervale, and by no small proxy, on little Half Pint Farm. So, here goes.
Inspired by the obvious benefit the Solo HayGrove structure afforded our neighbor Adam with early/extended season strawberries (not to mention the ability to harvest/weed/work on rainy days in the HayGrove), we decided to take the plunge and order a HayGrove to cover our 1/2 acre main field. This is no small investment ($20K or so) for a farm our size, but after researching HayGroves, we were impressed with their ease of set up, maintenance, square foot price ($1/sqft vs. others that are about $5/sqft of coverage), and overall benefit they would give us. Namely, we would be able to produce earlier and more of everything we grow to an increasingly demanding public well-aware of the benefits of locally produced organic food. Secondly, we would be able to manage our land better by decreasing weed pressure (not allowing rain to fall on paths, therefore fewer weeds germinating in paths), not to mention being able to harvest and weed on inclement weather days (normally you can't harvest tomatoes, beans and squashes on rainy days, as this spreads disease easily amongst plants). So, it was with confidence that we submitted our proposal to the Intervale Land Committee on October 8, 2007.
Normally, the Land Committee reviews all farmer proposals within a month. However, this time, the Intervale was under particular scrutiny because of issues concerning Intervale Compost Products regarding ANR rules and environmental regulations. Also, this was compounded by issues concerning possible Abenaki burial grounds near the compost operation. Mike Ives from the Seven Days newspaper did a great article on this back in October. Needless to say, the Intervale Center has been occupied with getting permits, holding press conferences, firing and hiring, and finally deciding to end the operation after 20 years of service to Burlington. Nice article about it here. So, what does this have to do with us?
The Intervale went to the City of Burlington to see if we needed to apply for a permit for our HayGrove structure - eventhough in the past, the City has not required a permit for these types of temporary structures. The City took a little longer to decide because of the issues Compost was going through, and meanwhile the Department of Agriculture was brought into the process. The Department of Agriculture said that hoophouses in floodways are not included in accepted agricultural practices (AAPs). The only thing they allow to be built on a floodway is a fence. Mysteriously, FEMA was made aware of the "development" that had sprung up over the years in the Intervale. This includes raised sheds and hoophouses.
That's when everything went surreal. Suddenly the Intervale was classified as a "floodway" and not a "floodplain" as is more accurate (making no structures of any kind allowed in the entire Intervale), and hoophouses (promoted by the VT Department of Agriculture just in 2006 to extend the growing season in Vermont to help supply our foodshed - they even made a video, and sponsored a workshop, which we attended and bought!) were under scrutiny as closed structures that have the ability to raise the base flood level enough to pose risks downstream. We argued that the posts for the HayGrove are akin to a field of saplings, and that the structure is in fact NOT a closed envelope, and that water can flow freely through them. Spencer did a calculation assuming the volume of the posts, and a 100-year flood level of 6', our structure would raise the base flood level a mere 17 nanometers. This distance can't be measured with normal microscopes. It is virtually insignificant. At any rate, the Intervale Center has hired lawyers and engineers to prove what we all know in a proposal to the Secretary of Agriculture, that hoophouses would not raise the base flood level, nor would it impede flow, and that the Intervale is in fact a floodplain and not a floodway. There was a lot of support in that proposal, with a lot of data from significant farmers and extension people. An interesting piece of information that came out of that process was that there are around 1,000 hoophouses in Vermont. Over 20% of them are in flood-prone areas. Does it really seem worth it to our local foodshed to eliminate the option for extended season production for 20% of our growers? The Burlington Free Press wrote a great article on this particular day when the proposal was submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture. A nice follow-up was in the Caledonian-Record as well not to mention a nice follow-up on the sad decision to close Intervale Compost Products. It's nice to know that people are taking notice of the issue and writing about it. It's even nicer to know that we have support from our community.

Our hope now resides in FEMA recognizing that the HayGrove hoophouse is not a "structure" that will have any impact on flood levels or flow of water. The Intervale should be recognized as being in a floodplain (non-flowing water during floods) instead of a floodway (flowing water with a current - sweeping things downstream). We experienced a major flood in 2006 (see left), and walking through that flood during its peak, we can attest to no current in the water. Also, note how our other hoophouse filled with water as though it wasn't even there. This structure is significantly more substantial in structure than the HayGrove we are proposing to build - the HayGrove has no baseboards, like this one does.
This decision is not expected to come down the pipeline until mid-March. Meanwhile, we cross our fingers, try to plan our farm season, order seeds, and hope. Our HayGrove sits in pieces at the farm awaiting approval and the Spring thaw. With any luck, we can erect our structure, and plant the first veggies by our planned date - April 15th. Those are the veggies you can expect to see at the first farmers market of the season.
I can't help but think about the basic thing in all this, and that is that all we want to do is grow food. We want to grow more and better food. We want to supply Burlington with this wonderful thing. Burlington has the distinction of being recognized as one of the "greenest" towns in the US by Organic Gardening magazine just recently in the February 2008 issue. One of the biggest reasons for that distinction was Intervale Compost Products, which has been bullied out of business now, and I feel like we're fighting to keep the other major "green" asset to the Queen City alive, and that's the Intervale Farms. Interestingly, isn't food security in the purview of FEMA? The big picture should be looked at here, not one tiny (1 and a third acre), low-impact farm's plans to help the community have even more access to good, clean and fair food.