"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, May 16, 2016

The High Cheese Season

I took all the milk products out of my fridge to take stock. We are in the high cheese season now for sure, friends and neighbors. More or less from left to right, we have:

- Four separate hard cheeses, in eight half-cheese packages, vacuum packed and aging slowly in the fridge. The vacuum packing is something new I'm trying this year. I'm hoping the cheese will keep for several months this way. The oldest vacuum packed cheddar was packaged on 3/13, according to the label, and I haven't broached it yet to try it it. Looks fine though. No mold. I think, altogether, there is about 12 pounds of hard cheese. 

- in the jars at the rear there is a half gallon of fresh milk and a half gallon of yogurt. 

- the ziplocks bags in the middle foreground hold chèvre. 

- a big bowl of chèvre, on the right front. This particular batch was a tiny bit watery and I made the mistake of trying to let it dry a bit through evaporation by leaving it out in the hot sun with a screen over it. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have remembered that too much heat will only develop the caprine compounds - read, make it taste like a randy buck goat. I may be able to salvage that chèvre by using it in some kind of disguised application like a lasagna. Or it might only make randy buck goat-flavored lasagna. 

Temperature, arguably, is the most important variable in cheesemaking, after the type of culture used. Not only do you employ different temperatures during the inoculating and curd-cooking phases of cheesemaking, but the temperatures at which the cheese is held afterwards will result in very noticeable differences. Temperature is also the most difficult variable to control in the home kitchen. During this recent heat wave, I probably shouldn't have attempted to make chèvre at all, because room temperature was well over eighty degrees and unpleasant flavors are likely to develop when the cheese is held at that temperature for long. 

- in the stockpot on the stove in the far background is another batch of cheddar, which I will press this evening. That will be with red pepper flakes. 

There's enough cheese here to feed the Russian army, as my mom was wont to say. But I have to keep making it! I have only a month left before we go to Oaxaca for the summer and dry off the goats. All of this year's cheese has to be made before we leave. 

I wonder if chèvre can be frozen? 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Getting' Grubby

It is only during the short window of time after the grass begins to grow and before the fruit sets on the trees that we can let the horses graze in the orchard. There's nothing to eat before growing season, and if we let them in there after the fruit sets they would eat all the green fruit and get colic. But right now, the window is open, and we are putting the horses to graze in the orchard almost every day. 

Which means there is always fresh horse poop in the orchard. 

Which means this: 

Haku loves to roll in fresh horse poop. He loves it almost as much as he loves tearing up feather pillows and chasing the sheep. And he does not understand why we insist on removing all his lovely smelly horse-poop camouflage by rubbing him with a soapy towel before we let him back in the house. He only wants to jump back into our bed and roll around in it, to give us some of his beautiful fragrance. Because he loves us. That's all. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Fermentation Files (Sourdough)

A couple of months ago, a neighbor gave me some sourdough starter that had been in her family for a very long time. The label on the container said "Skilly Dough, Alaska, 1890." While I can't vouch for the history, I can vouch for the deliciousness. 

For the first few weeks I used it only to make pancakes. I had never made sourdough pancakes before, but that was how my friend used the leaven, so I decided to try it. The pancakes were incredible, with a complex tang I had never tasted before. 

Next I tried making naan - Indian flatbread. That was a revelation, too. The flatbread went from being merely a way to convey curry into my mouth to being the star of the meal. The curry became merely a seasoning for the chewy, delicious bread. 

I made challah - sweet egg bread - for Easter, but I wasn't very happy with it. It was too dense, almost a kind of bread pudding, moist and rich with egg yolks and sugar. It tasted good, but it was not what I was trying to make, and nobody could eat more than a tiny bit of it. 

The same thing happened when I tried to make seeded rye rolls. I didn't get the lift I needed, and the bread, though flavorful, remained dense and wet, without the airiness I wanted. 

I let the sourdough languish in the fridge. A thick crust formed on top, and I thought that I might have let it die entirely. As a test, I took about a tablespoon out of the jar and mixed it with a cup of flour and a cup of warm water. The next day the mixture was bubbling vigorously, so it obviously hasn't died. 

Today, I took that mixture and mixed it with a cup of fresh warm goat's milk, a half cup of sugar, half a stick of melted butter, and more flour. I kneaded it for five or ten minutes and let it rest for a few hours. It didn't double in bulk, but it definitely grew. 

I kneaded it again, formed it into an oblong oval, places it on a greased cookie sheet, and let it rest another hour. Then I slashed the top, preheated the oven to 375, and baked it for 45 minutes. 

As you can see, it's freaking gorgeous. A little bit of the bottom crust stick to the cookie sheet and so I had to pry it off and eat it (I HAD to) with butter. It was perfect - shatteringly crunchy, slightly sweet, and toothsome. I am currently waiting impatiently for the loaf to cool and finish cooking on the counter, before j can slice it and slather it with butter and devour it. 

It smells so good in my kitchen I had to go disturb my husband, who was watching a movie, and make him come into the kitchen and smell the bread. He agreed with me that it smells heavenly and that furthermore I am a genius and he is a lucky man to have married a woman who can bake such a miracle. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fat of the Land

What's in these jars? Honey? Apple cider?

No! Lard!

I finally took the big package of pork fat out of the freezer and rendered it all. It was a slow day. I don't know how many pounds of fat these six quarts represents - probably about fifteen or sixteen. The sliced fat filled my largest cauldron.

It's not all from our last pig - when I went to the butcher's to pick him up, there was no fat, which I had specifically asked for. The lady behind the counter said  - "oh, let me go look."

A suspiciously long time passed. When she reappeared she apologized and said that the order to save the fat hadn't gotten written down. She gave us a big bag of pork fat that was clearly from a much fatter pig than our had been. I hope nobody else is missing their fat! Not likely - most people don't even want it.

Which is kind of hard to understand. Lard is a wonderful thing, assuming you like pork. Home rendered lard will not be odorless and tasteless like the lard at the store; it will have an unctuous, rich, porky taste. And contrary to popular belief, lard is not a terrible fat, health wise. In fact, it is probably better for you than butter or coconut fat, which is so trendy these days.

To render lard from pork fat, keep the heat on medium to medium-low. Even if all the pieces look like pure fat, there will always be skin and connective tissue, and you don't want to scorch it. As the fat starts to melt, add a cup or two of water. This will help you regulate the temperature (water is simmering = good) and also help avoid scorching. The water will boil off as the fat melts completely.

Occasionally stir and turn the fat to make sure all parts come in contact with the hot bottom of the kettle. The connective tissue and skin and little bits of meat here and there will start to fry, eventually becoming dark, crispy cracklings. These are not the same as chicharrones, which are made from pieces of actual skin. These cracklings will probably be too fatty or greasy to be good, except for the occasional piece of deep fried meat. They do make good dog treats, though in small quantities!

When everything is melted, the water has boiled off, and the cracklings are dark brown, you are ready to store the lard. I am storing mine in quart jars in the chest freezer, plus one jar open in the fridge, for everyday use. There's no need to actually can the fat - it will keep virtually forever in the fridge or freezer.

Simply wait an hour our so with the kettle on the lowest possible heat, for all the solid bits to settle at the bottom. Then you can ladle the clear lard off the top. The last little bit can be poured through a coffee filter. The lard in the photos above is still hot - when it cools it will turn almost pure white.

Lard has a myriad of uses in the kitchen. I probably wouldn't use this lard for pie crust, unless I were making a savory pie like a quiche. Might taste a little funny in a sweet pie. But you can use it as a regular sautéing fat; it's especially good for frying eggs or making fried rice. A spoonful of lard is the best medium for making refried beans. However my favorite use for lard is in tamales. There is nothing like the lard from a real pastured pig to make tamales taste fantastic. One of these days when we are all home and have nothing to do, we will get together and make a whole bunch of tamales together as a family. Here's how my mother-in-law taught me do it. 

I don't think we will get a pig this year. We are going to be gone most of the summer and lately I've been feeling that we have quite enough animals already, thank you. Plus the pasture is still recuperating from the last pig. We have eaten most of that pig already - there's just some unflavored sausage and a ham left. But with all this lard I can have some pig flavor whenever I want, for the foreseeable future.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bees and Heat

The last few days have been uncharacteristically hot, to say the least. Records were broken. In fact, records were obliterated - the previous daily high for one recent day was 77, back in the eighties; this 
time, we hit 88. And we had four or five days in a row over 80 degrees - totally unheard of for April. 

Also unheard of - the fields near me are being cut for hay. In April. I remember just a year ago or so seeing the same fields being cut in May and thinking, holy shit, that's early! If this trend continues, we will be cutting hay year round pretty soon, anytime the fields are dry enough to support a tractor. 

Another unsettling thing - despite the hot weather, I had seen nary a bee this year. A few bumblebees here and there, and as usual a ton of wasps, but no honeybees. A beekeeper friend of mine told me that her bees were so busy she was already putting honey supers on top of the hives, something she usually does in late June or early July. She thought it was probably from a lack of competition. I told her that other beekeeper friends of mine had lost most of their hives last winter - apparently the mites were just terrible last year. 

I wonder if our warm winters don't have something to do with the bee die-off. Perhaps if the temperatures are high enough, they don't really go into full hibernation and eat more of their stores? Perhaps the mites like the warm winters? Perhaps when fruit trees and other plants don't go into hard dormancy, they produce less or poorer quality nectar the following spring? In any case, I am worried about our fruit harvest this year, because there were seriously no bees around. 

Until the day before yesterday, that is. I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink, and looked out the window to see a vast cloud of big insects flying right outside. At first I thought they were flies and was grossed out; but I quickly realized they must be honeybees swarming. 

I ran outside to see where they were going. For a few minutes they kind of wandered back and forth across the front yard - a loose cumulous cloud of glittering bees, concentrated at the center and ragged around the edges. Then they veered toward the highway. 

"No! Don't cross the highway!" I thought. "Stay here!"

Finally, they settled into a blackberry bush, almost down on the grass, about two feet from the ditch along the edge of the highway. I didn't know how long they would stay there, but I know about five people who would be totally psyched if I called them to come collect the bees. There's and old saying: "a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon." I don't know what a swarm of bees in April is worth, but I'm thinking it's worth at least a quart of honey this fall. I put the word out, and sat down in the shade to keep an eye on the swarm. 

A neighbor of our called me back, and said they would be over in a half hour with a box to get the bees. He told me not to worry, they wouldn't go anywhere for a while. The queen was resting from her maiden flight. He also told me not to worry about getting stung - without a hive to protect honeybees are very docile. 

"You could stick your hand right through that ball of bees and not get stung." 

I believed him, but could see no need to put it to the test. 

My neighbor put on a mask, but was working in shorts and without gloves, and it the bees gave him no hassles. The way to collect a swarm is to bring an appropriate vessel, place it under the swarm, and give a sharp tap to the branch they are hanging on. All the bees will fall right into the box. In this case, he couldn't put the box under the bees, because they were practically on the ground. He set the box to one side, and carefully clipped the blackberry bush until he could grasp the one cane that supported the swarm. Then he cut that cane, picked up the swarm, and tapped it against the edge of the box. About two thirds of the bees fell right into the box. 

Since the queen is inside the ball, it's most likely that she fell into the box, too, but we had to wait to be sure. My neighbor put the lid on there hive, leaving a crack, and then we waited. If the queen were outside the box, the bees on the inside would soon figure that out and start coming out. If the queen were on the inside, the bees that were still outside the box - a few thousand - would begin to settle on the box and go inside. 

After a few minutes, my neighbor pointed out a line of bees standing on the rim of the box, pointing their rear-ends up in the air and waggling them. 

"She's in there," he said. "Those bees are wafting out pheromone to tell everybody to come on in." 

By this time, it was close to sunset. My neighbor said he had to go pick up his kids from sports practice, but he'd be back later to get the bees. They needed plenty of time to get all of them inside and to decided definitively that this was their new home. 

And that's what happened. I hope this turns out to be a good strong queen and that they make a good strong hive. Homero wants to try having bees again as soon as possible - in fact he was annoyed with me for calling any body at all, and wanted to try to get them himself. But we don't have any equipment anymore. We can start getting some stuff together and when and if we see another swarm this year, we'll be ready. If we don't see one - as seems likely; this was the first swarm I've ever seen - we will at least be ready to start next year with a bought colony. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cheese Season Solutions (Practicality vs. Purism)

Cheese season will be short this year. We are leaving for Oaxaca June 24th, and at that point we will let the does dry off, since Rowan cannot milk and take care of the farm and go to school full time. Right now, Iris is at peak milk production, providing me with just about a gallon of milk a day. The other two does still have kids on them, and I am not usually bothering to separate the kids because Iris is providing me all the milk I can reasonably use.

Unless, that is, I find a solution for the difficult problem of aging hard cheese. I have tried for several years, with little success (okay, no success) to age my hard cheeses. I purchased a wine fridge. I bought cheese wax and waxed the cheeses and stored them in the wine fridge. I read about optimal humidity levels. I turned them over daily. No matter what I did, the wax cracked and the cheese molded within about a month to six weeks.

With larger wheels of cheese (large for me is about a four to five pound wheel) I was able to whittle off the mold and eat the interior of the cheese, but more than half of it was lost, and I could always detect a little moldiness even after trimming. Just seemed like a giant waste and a big disappointment.

So this year I have been making more chèvre, which I can use up in lots of ways (although I feel like an Iron Chef with chèvre as a secret ingredient - "you must use chèvre in EVERY dish") There's about three pounds of it in the fridge at the moment. I still make the hard cheese, my farmhouse cheddar, but we just have to eat it young. It's extremely frustrating, because the cheese continues to improve every day, right up until the day it starts to mold, which is at about one month. Very green hard cheese is not delicious - it's naturally quite sour and one-dimensional. Complex flavors don't begin to develop and the sourness doesn't subside until the cheese is about two weeks old, and then it becomes a challenge to try and eat it before it goes bad two weeks later. I have found that I can speed up the maturation process some by cutting the fresh cheese into 2" cubes and giving them a final salting. But what I really want is to be able to make hard cheese that I can eat six months later.

Recently, an exciting new cheese shop opened up in my town, Twin Sisters Creamery (http://www.twinsisterscreamery.com/#!cheese-shop/cjdh). Not only do they sell a wonderful assortment of cheeses both local and international, but they are cheesemakers as well, producing a terrific blue cheese called "Whatcom Blue," among others. When they first opened, I went in and had a long chat with one of the owners and she was delightful. We talked about cheese for a half hour or so, and she was interested in the fact that there are many home cheesemakers around. I told her I'd be back as soon as cheese season started, and if she wanted to sample some of my goat cheese, she'd be more than welcome. She said she'd love to.

It occurred to me today to go and ask her about solutions for my storage issues. I brought along a wheel of two-day old cheese, and two baggies of cheese cubes, one about two weeks old and one about four weeks old. I was hoping that she would want to taste my cheese and would be impressed with it (I'm a sucker for praise), but mostly I was just hoping she would have some suggestions for aging it successfully.

Turns out, she wasn't there. I spoke to her husband, instead, who was a very kind and friendly guy, but not the head honcho cheesemaker. He didn't want to taste the cheese ("I'm not really a goat cheese kind of guy") and I don't blame him - if I were a professional cheesemaker I certainly wouldn't want to taste random cheese from a local person I'd never met before. He did, however, have a very useful suggestion for me.

A Foodsaver. A vacuum-sealer.

It was kind of a "du-uh" moment.

Vacuum sealers are the kind of medium-large, medium-expensive appliance that I always categorized in my head as "unnecessary gadget." Along with microwave ovens and dehydrators. Less frivolous than ice cream makers or popcorn poppers, but to a culinary purist like myself kind of a cheat.

I always imagined myself - in my daydreams - as learning the real, old world, traditional crafts of aging and curing; hanging salami in natural casings, brining kosher dills in stoneware crocks, brewing and bottling hard cider, and carefully turning and aging my own cheese. It matters not that each of these processes is actually an entire professional category on its own, I cheerfully imagined that I would become an expert in them all. And look good doing it, too.

Time passes and illusions fade. Cheese molds, cider turns to vinegar, and salamis never even get made. Time to get real. Do I want to eat my homemade cheese in November, or not? Am I simply a dilettante, feeding goats year round for the sake eating fresh cheese three months of the year, or am I serious about this thing?

So I bought a Foodsaver. It won't be just for cheese - I can also use it in the fall, for storing home-smoked salmon. I still have some questions, and I still plan on going and asking the head honcho cheesemaking lady about them. First among them, won't the cheese stop maturing once it is sealed? Doesn't it need air to keep developing? Maybe not - after all traditional cheeses are either waxed or develop a rind that severely limits gas exchange. At what stage ought I to seal the cheese? As soon as it's pressed? After air drying for a few days? Just before it would begin to mold?

Assuming I can get some answers to those questions, and assuming I can figure out how to work the darn thing. I will start separating the babies from all three does and try to make cheese two or three times a week until we leave. Hopefully, with a little experimentation, I can start to make maximum use of the oceans of milk that flow in the springtime, and save it for the droughts of winter.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pasture Patrol, Spring 2016

After evening chores today I decided to walk the perimeter fence of the big pasture, something I have not done in some period of time rather longer than it ought to be. It was a lovely evening - we have finally been enjoying some true spring-like weather - and Haku needed some extra exercise. Here are a few things I saw whilst on pasture patrol:

These odd, bright red, tiny fungi. They are growing on the underside of clumps of turf that were turned over last fall by the pig. Only saw three little patches, all within about five square feet. Each about the size of a single drop of water. No clue what they are, but they're cute. 

If I want any more nettles this year, I'd better get on it. Once the flower heads open, which these look like they will do within a couple of days, nettles are no longer good to eat. Although they might retain medicinal properties; I'll have to look that up. There seem to be fewer nettles than there were in previous years, and it's certainly not because I've been over harvesting them. They grow along the western fence line, in the area that was disturbed when we dug up all the old trash and remnants of the old dairy barn that the previous owners buried. I think the land is simply progressing beyond the "nettle" stage of recovery, as pasture grass, dandelions, and clover take over. Any disturbed land will be colonized by a predictable series of wild plants, according to its location and other qualities. 

Another couple of weeds - less welcome than nettle - that colonize disturbed ground. Superficially similar looking at this stage, the top photo is poison Hemlock (with which I have waged an epic, years long battle  -Weeds) and the second is common tansy. Tansy has it's uses; it is a very good vermifuge, for example, but it is a tenacious plant with a habit of spreading and taking over pasture. Very difficult to pull by hand. Hemlock has no uses I know of, except to execute troublesome philosophers who are corrupting the youth of the city by teaching subversive ideas in the agora. 

Along the western fence line there are a couple of spots where the field fencing needs to be tacked down, maybe even some fill brought in. These scrapes under the fence were most likely dug by the coyotes who prey on our poultry. Of course I would like to stop that predation, but there is a more immediate reason. If a coyote can get under there, Haku can get under there, as soon as it occurs to him to try. And if Haku runs amok over in that particular neighbor's fields, frightening his mules or chasing his chickens, Haku will get shot pretty damn quick. Not that I would blame that neighbor - controlling one's dog is country etiquette 101.

On the eastern side of the pasture, there has always been a low spot that tended to get boggy in the winter. Creeping buttercup dominates that area. This is a natural feature of the hillside - it is easy to see the wide, shallow path of drainage running down from the ridge away to the southwest. In the past, before our neighbor bought the lot and built his HSH (hotel-sized-house), the swale was only wet in the depths of winter. The rest of the year it was simply a slightly softer area where plants that enjoy more moistness predominated.

In latter years I have noticed that the area stays much wetter for more of the year. I am starting to think that the rearrangement of the neighboring property has permanently altered the drainage in such a way as to send more water through this swale. Walking the area today, I saw a fair amount of standing water.

To be fair, this has been the wettest wet season on record in western Washington. We have had something like 80 inches of rain since last November. Additionally, the pig enjoyed rooting in this soft dirt, and his activity may also have caused there to be a more generally swampy appearance. Hopefully it will dry up with a few more weeks of little-to-no precipitation.

That will be too late, however, to save my nice shoes. I underestimated the swampiness and as I was crossing the swale I stepped into a deceptively deep puddle and sank in almost up to my knees. Silly me, I was wearing my only pair of nice shoes. Yes, I know it is exceedingly idiotic to traipse about a muddy pasture in early April wearing one's one and only pair of shoes suitable for work. What can I say - it was a spur of the moment thing.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

State of the Farm (Spring Equinox)

grey spring

I know, I'm a few days late on the equinox. That's okay, I feel like I'm a few days late on everything these days. I have been working a lot more than usual at my non-farm job (medical interpreter). Today, I was out of the house by 5:45 and didn't get home until just now, about a quarter to five in the afternoon. That's not typical - on an average day I'll spend four or five hours outside the house, but even that much really cuts into my farm-and-house work time.

I suppose, to be honest, what it really cuts into is my free time. Reading, cruising the internet, blogging, leisurely baths.... all those things are luxuries, of course, to a mom with a job and a farm. Before I worked outside the home, I used to do my housework at a nice slow pace. I might sit down with a cookbook, read for awhile until something piqued my interest, then go shopping for ingredients and spend the afternoon cooking. Now I boil up some noodles or fry a bunch of eggs at short-order speed, trying to fit dinner in between after-school activities, homework help, evening chores, and bedtime.

Homero has been picking top an awful lot of slack, lately. He does the morning chores almost every day, including milking. We are giving an awful lot of milk to Haku simply because I don't have time to make cheese. He's getting fat, though it doesn't seem to slow him down any, more's the pity. We finally had to strip the playroom of carpet entirely, because he had pulled it all up and ripped it to shreds. It's down to the bare plywood now, and I am just waiting to see how he manages to destroy that.

I don't think I'm going to get a garden in at all this year. We did plant a couple of hazelnut trees and I'm going to plant a couple more apple trees, but as far as a vegetable garden, I just don't think it's going to happen. Partly this is because of another giant time-suck - the Gleaner's Pantry. I adore the Gleaner's, it brings in hundreds of dollars worth of organic produce a month, but in exchange it demands about 20 hours of work a month, broken up into three or four several-hour-long chunks. That isn't counting all the work I do at home to prepare for such an influx - cleaning out the fridge before I go - nor what I do to preserve it afterwards, whether it be canning, freezing, juicing, our whatnot. And I know I just said how much work Gleaner's is, but truth be told its a hell of a lot less work than actually gardening. When I have unlimited, varied, organic produce spilling out of my refrigerator, it's difficult to work up the motivation to pick up a shovel.

Another reason not to put in a garden this year is that we will be spending a big part of the summer in Oaxaca. This will be our first trip to Mexico since we came back from our year with Abuelita, in 2013. (New to Mexican Life) The children are super excited to see their cousins again. There's not much point planting vegetables in April and May when you'll be out of town for all of July.

It's still far too wet to start planting, in any case. This has been the wettest year to date in Washington state history  (As rain falls, so does Seattle's record for wettest wet season ...) and that's really saying something. We have used some twenty-five yards of mulch and chips this year, just to keep the poor animal's heads above the mud. The grass is growing pretty well, due to warm temperatures, but the ground is still too saturated to let the horses out on pasture. The pasture got pretty torn up last fall when our pig learned to get out of his pen, and I want to give it a good long rest. I've reseeded the areas the pig plowed up, and I need to give the seed time to germinate and get a good head start before I loose the ravenous beasts. That means we are still feeding hay, though less of it, as the goats have some browse and the ponies can be staked out in the orchard on days when it isn't raining.

Poor Rosie pony's horrible eye problem is back, and it's worse than ever. Her eye is so swollen and ugly that I'm ashamed to post a picture of it. I've been washing it with warm salt water and putting antibiotic ointment in it for the past several days, but I don't see much difference. She is clearly suffering, and besides her eye, she is looking thin and rundown. Maybe she needs a different wormer than the one I've been using - pretty haphazardly, I must admit. But as the single most superfluous  animal on the farm, I don't get much of a vet budget for Rosie. She is getting on in years, and soon I will have to start thinking about when it might be time to send her on to the great green pasture in the sky. Not yet, but soon.

We had a chicken attrition situation over the winter, as is often the case. In fact, the chickens and turkeys were disappearing at such a clip late last fall that I invited a couple of local boys to lay out in the field with .22 rifles and wait for the coyotes to show up. The coyotes never did show up, but when the boys were scoping out the perimeter, they said we had both canine and feline tracks in the mud along the fence line and suggested we probably had a bobcat as well as coyotes preying on our poultry.

The chickens are locked in the coop, now, though I hate to do that to them. This time of year it is always wet in the coop, and the chickens really ought to be out scratching for spring bugs and eating the worms who are lying about all over the place, trying not to drown. There are five hens left, but only three of them are laying. Two of the three eggs that I gather each day are distinctive - the tiny egg is laid by the one banty hen; the white egg is laid by the lone leghorn - but the third egg could be anybody's, so I don't know which hens are the slackers.

Five chicks are in a big wooden box in the shed, under a heat lamp. I brought them home last week. They are leghorns. I had never raised that breed before (most commercial layers are leghorns) because I thought I wanted a dual purpose hen, one that was heavy enough to eat when she ran out of eggs. But time and experience taught me that actually, I am not interested in a free-range old layer hen as a culinary item. It's nasty. And then I acquired a couple of leghorns - I disremember how - and was very impressed with them. They are small, streamlined birds. They are bright white (we named them Pearl and Shell) and are good flyers, which keeps them a bit safer from predators. They will never go broody, which means they lay more eggs per year. They are regular egg machines - each hen laying one large white egg a day, with only the very occasional day off. I liked them so much I decided to buy all leghorn chicks this year. Five isn't very many, but assuming that at least three of them live to laying age (you never know with chicks) they will provide more than enough eggs for us.

Let's see, what else. Oh. Out of Flopsy's four babies (The (Finally) Four) we only have one left. On the day they kidded, I gave two bucklings away to a neighbor farmer lady who enjoys bottle babies. I do not enjoy bottle babies. We kept two babies on Flopsy - a beautiful buckling and a fabulously gorgeous spotted doeling. But there was soon a problem. Both babies only wanted to nurse off one side. Flops had mastitis and now has lopsided teats - one normal teat and one small one that gives about half as much milk. Oddly, they both wanted only the small one. I guess the big one was difficult to latch onto. Since the buckling was bigger and stronger, he drained all the milk from the small teat and the little girl didn't get any. I couldn't seem to teach her to use the big teat. After a few days, I went out in the morning and found the little girl flat out and cold. That happens if they don't get enough milk - they just lie down and give up the ghost.

I tried to revive her in a warm water bath and get her to take a bottle, but after a frustrating 24 hours I knew I wasn't up for it. I called the same neighbor and told her she could keep there baby girl if she wanted to try and save her. My saintly neighbor told me to bring her on over. She worked patiently over the next day and succeeded in getting her to take a bottle. Then - this is so cute, I wish I had a picture - my neighbor's pigmy doe kidded with a single kid. And our little baby Nubian girl went straight for the teat. She hadn't forgotten hoe to nurse. So now, this valiant pigmy Nigerian is nursing her own kid, plus a Nubian kid, who has to practically lay down in the dirt to get to the teat.

My neighbor insists on giving us the doeling back when she is old enough to be weaned. She says that keeping the two bucklings is payment enough for the trouble of caring for the doe. I told her not to make up her mind just yet. Assuming that little Ziggy (as her children named her) lives and thrives, she ought to be worth a fair amount of money. I said she should feel free to sell her, but so far, she continues to say she will give her back to us. If so, then we will have two new does from this season, Ziggy and Christmas. That will make up for the two I plan on retiring - Iris and Flopsy.

The farm goes on. 2016 is a new year, our eighth here on this windy wet hill, I think. I'm not quite so "new to farm life" as once I was. We are settling into a good groove. I know now, more or less, how many animals the land will support, and what sort of animals are most useful and profitable to us. I continue to learn about husbandry, both of the land and the animals - and, I suppose, of my children and of my marriage and of my very own soul. I really do love to feel the slow deepening of knowledge and experience that comes from knowing a single place - or a single person - intimately, and living with a single place - or a single person - intimately, in all of its seasons, in all of its moods, in all of its slow splendor. This land, this place, this time, these people, these animals, this carefully tended ecosystem - here we all are, surviving. Hopefully thriving. Caring for each other as best we can.


Monday, March 14, 2016

What Wrong With this Avocado?

Don't you just love it when you cut open an absolutely perfect avocado? Avocados are always a bit of a gamble - many a good looking fruit turns out to be an ugly grey mess when opened. This one was gorgeous - perfectly ripe, smooth green deliciousness through and through. 

So why was it at the Gleaner's Pantry? Somebody looked at the avocado and decided it wasn't good enough to sell, so it went in the trash. Can you tell what the flaw was?  My best guess is that it's a little curved. It isn't totally symmetrical. What a rediculous requirement! 

Now multiply that avocado by 10. That's how many avocados I brought home today. Not all of them will be perfect, but many of them will be edible. 

And I was only one of thirty or so people at Leaner's today. There were avocados enough for all of us. In fact there were so many avocados that a whole crate of them were left over. 

And that's just one day this week, at one of several organizations devoted to salvaging food, in one small city. The actual number of avocados discarded this week in my town is incalculable. It must number in the thousands. 

Let's not even try to imagine the 

Bell peppers

Discarded every day! I haven't even started on the mountains of greens. Lettuces of all varieties, kale both curly and flat. Fresh herbs, cabbages, escarole....

Oh my fingers are getting tired

Eggs and milk with a sell-by date of tomorrow

Prepared salads, wraps, sandwiches, deli meat.....


cookies pies scones croissants tortillas sliced sandwich bread rye ciabatta organic whole wheat gluten free cornbread cupcakes sheet cakes 

Pasta flour sugar spices

Good lord there's only so much I can take home and eat, people! Help me out here! Start a gleaner's pantry in your own town, for the love of Pete. 

Here's what I did with a very small percentage of the food I got from Gleaner's today. With the exception of store bought pie crusts and milk from my own goats, everything here came from Gleaner's. 

Two quiches and a great big green salad for dinner. One quiche is asparagus and red pepper; the other zucchini and black olive. The salad has avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and goat cheese.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Well, That Was Fast

It only took me a day and a half to kill the kefir grains I was given. I have no idea what I did wrong - I only added a half cup of my own milk and then left them overnight at room temperature. The next day I opened the container and the liquid smelled great- tangy and fizzy. So I decided to strain some off and drink it. But when I poured the kefir through the strainer, nothing was left behind but a little bit of smooshy niblets, like cottage cheese. Less than a teaspoon. Even so I tried to save them by putting them back into fresh milk but no go. That evening they were totally dissolved. 

I don't get it. The only thing I can think of is that the milk I added was too cold. It was straight out of the fridge, but it was only about a quarter of the volume of the kefir in the jar, I didn't think it would make such a difference. 

That's the only idea I got. Sorry, unique kefir SCOBY!!  I didn't mean to kill you. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What's Growing in my Kitchen (the Fermentation Files)?

There's a new bookstore in town, and when I went in to check it out, I found this irresistible book:

Much more than a recipe book - in fact, I don't think there any actual "recipes" in it at all - this book is a wonderful compendium of stories, anecdotes, instructions, and musings on all types of fermentation. Parts of it are scholarly and full of references to the newest scientific research on gut biota, and parts of it are full of poetic or mystical ramblings. I am thoroughly enjoying it, and it has inspired me to start a whole bunch of new projects. 

I have been dabbling in fermentation for ages, of course. Longtime readers of this blog will remember some of my experiments with pickles, kim chee, hard cider, and sourdough. Even cheesemaking is one of the fermentation arts, although I had never thought of it that way before. 

I miss baking. We get so much free bread from the Gleaner's Pantry that there has been no actual need for me to bake. My wonderful sourdough starter died over the year we lived in Oaxaca. I parted it out to friends, but none of them kept it going. I have been without sourdough since. 

Inspired by the book, I put out a call over Facebook for sourdough and Kefir grains. Within hours, a couple of local farmer ladies had answered me. This sourdough was brought to my friend G. by her aunt in Alaska. The aunt claims that it is from a strain that has been kept alive since the 1890's. It seems that most people who have family starters all claim that they have been nurtured since pioneer days; who knows? It's possible. 

This particular sourdough did not seem very lively. It took me a week to nudge it back to life. For a little while I thought it was completely dead. I had fed it with wheat flour, warm water, and dribbles of honey without much result. A slow bubble here and there. Then I remembered that when you first start a sourdough you are supposed to use rye flour - so I ransacked the cupboard to see if I had any. I did! Three years old, but apparently still potent because after I added a half cup of it to the mason jar, it perked right up and started bubbling vigorously. Today I baked my first loaf of bread, and it is delicious! 

Kefir is a weird thing. Most people who buy it in liquid form at the store probably think it is some sort of yogurt, but it is not. You cannot use kefir to make more kefir, as you can with yogurt; you need
a Kefir SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast), and you need to keep the SCOBY alive by providing it with fresh milk every day or two. That milk will become kefir as the SCOBY digests it.

There are lots of SCOBYs, by the way - a vinegar "mother" is a SCOBY, as is kombucha. the Kefir SCOBY looks sort of like cauliflower. The photo above shows the one given to me by M., another nearby farmer lady. She tells me it came from a woman on Lummi Island, who says she brought it with her 30 years ago when she moved here from the east coast. And one of the really cool things about this Kefir SCOBY is that is adapted to goat's milk, having been grown only in goats milk for at least the last several years.

Although I like knowing the age and history of my ferments, it feels like a bit of added pressure to keep them alive. What if I kill the 1890 Skilly Dough? What if this ancient and unique kefir SCOBY dies an ignominious death in the back of my crowded refrigerator? Well, presumably there are lots of other kitchen witches like me keeping their own little SCOBYs alive. Long may they prosper!

Monday, February 22, 2016

The (Finally) Four

It was a tough morning for me. I didn't get much sleep - I kept dreaming that I was going out to the barn to check on Flopsy. When I did wake up and go out to check, there were still no babies. I stumbled through my morning chores - milk, feed, get the girls ready for school - and seriously contemplated going straight back to bed, but it's monday, and that's Gleaner's Pantry day.

I didn't go to Gleaner's Saturday, or at all last week. The cupboards were bare, so I dragged myself out there. I really don't know how I got through three hours of carrying boxes, sorting food, and making small talk. By the time I got home, about 12:30, I was ready to collapse.

Homero helped me put the food away and then went to check on Flopsy. He came back pretty quickly and said, "I think it's about time; she is in the barn, panting."

"Ok," I said, "just let me finish my coffee, and then let's go out together."

It was probably ten minutes later that we headed out to the barn. It was a beautiful sunny day - warm and bright. Nice day for baby goats to be born, I thought.

There were two babies on the ground when we got inside the barn. Flops was chuckling and licking them, but they were still all slimy and hadn't yet even tried to stand up. Clearly they had been born just a minute before. A beautiful little black and white spotty one, and a bigger, brown and white spotted one. I picked up the little things, getting slime all over my shirt, and brought them into the mama barn, which is warmer and drier. Homero came after me, leading Flopsy.

Homero hung around for a few minutes, and then went back to work. For the next 30 or 40 minutes, I watched the babies struggle to stand up and nurse. The smaller spotty one was a doeling, and the big brown one was a buckling. Considering how large Flopsy was, I was surprised that she had only had twins. But relieved, as well. With an udder damaged by a long-ago case of mastitis, Flopsy wouldn't be able to raise triplets. I had in fact made  arrangements with a farmer friend to take an extra baby off our hands, should there be one. I don't care for bottle babies.

I was just starting to think that Flopsy was taking a long time to pass the afterbirth, when she commenced to paw at the straw and to push.I took a look at her rear end, and whoops! There was another bubble. There were three after all. I waited several more minutes, but Flopsy didn't seem to be making any progress, and it had, after all, been three-quarters of an hour since the twins were born. I decided I'd better see what was up.

After running back to the house for soap and hot water, I went exploring with my right hand. There was an unbroken bag of waters, but the baby was far away down in the uterus. Having just seen the vet, a few days ago, working elbow deep to turn Iris' baby, I knew that I could go in as deep as I needed to to figure out what was happening. But with that bulgy bag of waters in the way, I couldn't feel anything. And I didn't have a pocketknife on me. I never do - I seldom need one, but on the few occasions that I do, I always berate myself. It's a simple thing to do, carry a small pocketknife.

My fingernails are pretty long, though, and with a little work I was able to tear the bag open. After the waters spilled out, I could reach in far enough to feel the baby (Flopsy was being enormously cooperative - I didn't even have her on the stanchion). What I felt was a butt. I had a breech.

Baby goats can in fact come out hind end first - in fact, as long as the feet are extended, hind-end first is considered a normal presentation. All I had to do was find the feet and bring them forward. This time, it was very easy. I don't know if that's because Flopsy is a big, roomy doe, with an enormous uterus that had already expelled two babies, or if I was more relaxed about exploring as far as necessary, after seeing the kind of treatment a doe can take and still be just fine afterwards. In any case, it only took me about forty seconds to find the feet and bring them forwards, flexing the legs and knee and ankle.

Once the feet were in position, the baby was born very quickly. Another big buck. He was fairly exhausted, but Flopsy set to work licking him off and he lifted his head and snorted. I ran back to the house to wash my hands and grab another clean towel. I stopped b y the shop to tell Homero that there were three after all, and he came with me to see the third baby.

But I was wrong, There weren't three. A fourth baby was snorting and snuffling on the hay by the time we got back. Quads! We've never had quads on the farm before. The last baby, was another buckling, a handsome black boy with white ears.

I called my farmer friend and asked her if she wanted TWO bottle babies. She did, and she came right over with a bottle of colostrum from her freezer and her two adorable little boys. Sometime a little later in the spring, she's going to bring over her rototiller for us to use, in trade.

Now I'm ready for a well earned hot bath.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Goat That Won't Kid

Yesterday was the first clear day we've had in ages. It's been raining so constantly that I had almost forgotten how to see colors - the world has been nothing but various shades of grey since last October. I read that this has in fact been the wettest winter in Washington State history - more than 28" since December first. 

I brought the goats out to graze during our short respite yesterday (today it is raining again). See the black goat on the left? The one who looks rather like a hot air balloon or like a giant beanbag chair? That's Flopsy, and she is pregnant. 

She is sooo pregnant. She is so pregnant it hurts to look at her. Her udder is tight, her ligaments are loose (see below - I can just about close my hand around her tailbone), but she just won't kid. 

She has been like this for about a week. Every day I am certain there will be kids on the ground in the morning and every day there are not. 

She just keeps getting bigger. I am a little worried - I think she is probably carrying triplets. She has thrown triplets at least twice before. Triples aren't usually a problem for a Nubian mama, but Flopsy has a problem. 

Several years ago she had mastitis, a serious infection. Even with the best treatment I could provide, she lost most of the function in one side of her udder. She's lopsided. Since then, she has successfully raised twins, but not triplets. 

I was hoping, after Iris lost her baby last week, that Flopsy would kid quickly, and in the event that she had triplets, I might be able to get one of them onto Iris. That is unlikely, now. Enough time has passed that autos would not accept a newborn kid. 

Lots of people love bottle babies, but I am not one of them. Call me lazy, but my days of 2 am feedings are OVER. If Flopsy has triplets I'll give one of them away to a friend who enjoys that sort of thing. 

Gotta go - it's just about time to go out I barn again and look for signs of incipient kids. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Rough Day for Iris (and Me)

I got up early this morning to go to a work appointment, only to find when I got there that the client had cancelled only minutes before. Barely awake, I executed a  U-turn and headed for the nearest coffee shop.

On the way home, as I was drinking my coffee, a crown popped off of one of my molars. Although it didn't hurt, it seriously freaked me out. Instead of a tooth, I suddenly had a small squishy gap where a tooth should be, with a small steel spike sticking up. I was so horrified, I almost swallowed the crown. Almost. Luckily, I was able to pop it back on - after I pulled over, of course, and after rotating it through a few revolutions and trying all the possible angles.

I drove straight to the dentist who had placed it, just last year (I broke that tooth cracking Dungeness crab with my teeth. Please don't ever do that. Crab-crackers were invented for a reason). I asked the receptionist at the dentist's office if there was a guarantee on the crown, seeing as I had had it for only a little over a year and further seeing as how I have no dental insurance. She told me that there was, and that if neither the crown nor the remnant of my tooth were damaged, then it could be replaced for free. However, she had no openings that day and the best they could do was tomorrow morning.

Sadly I drove home, trying not to test the strength of the crown by probing it with my tongue. When I got home, about ten thirty, Homero was waiting outside and flagged me down.

"Iris is giving birth, but I don't think it is going too well," he said. "Come and see."

Passing through the house to quickly wash my hands and get some soap and warm water and a towel, I raced out (through the driving rain) to the barn. We got Iris into the mama barn by main force, as she did not want to get up or walk.

Iris is my oldest goat, my first goat. She has had many babies and is now about nine years old. Last year she didn't get pregnant, and I had figured her mothering life might be over, but then she did catch this year. Once in the mama barn, she laid down on her side and started pushing hard, grunting and curling her lip. We tried to get her up on the stanchion, but no go, so I laid down in the straw behind her, soaped up my hand, and went exploring.

There was no sign of any residual "goo" which told me that her water had broken some time ago. She was dry and tight. There were two hooves right inside the vulva, both front hooves, and in normal right-side-up position. Further back, alongside and below the legs, was a head.

I needed to find out if the head and the legs belonged to the same kid. It didn't seem like it, because in a normal presentation the head should be above (dorsal to) the hooves. Feeling for the jaw, I found the mouth and inserted my fingers to feel for teeth. There were sharp little teeth on the upper (dorsal) side. Goats only have front teeth in their lower jaw, not in the upper. So feeling these teeth told me that the head was upside down.

What I needed to do was follow either the head and neck, or the front legs, down to a body and try to figure out where they all came together - or not. If there were two kids, I would need to push the head back into the uterus, and then find the head belonging to the legs and bring it around. Or, of course, the opposite - push the feet back and then find the other feet belonging to the head.

This might sound easy in theory, but in practice it is not. It's not easy even if you have an upright goat and are not laying on your side in the straw without very good light. I went in as far as I could, but I was unable to ascertain for certain whether there were two kids or one. The head did not budge when I pushed on it, nor did the feet come forward with gentle traction. Without having a clear picture of what was going on, I wasn't going to pull any harder than a 2 on a scale of ten.

I though we had twins - one with legs forward and head back, the other with head forward and legs back. Knowing there was nothing more I could do, I called the vet and told them I was coming in.
Getting Iris into the van was a challenge, but Homero and I did it, and then he stayed with the children while I drove as fast as I could (through the driving rain) to the vet. Not very fast at all, as I spent the entire twelve miles behind first a tractor and then behind one kind of semi-truck or another. I am not a patient driver at the best of times, and least off all with a beloved goat in the worst kind of distress in the back.

Once Iris was at the vet's and up on a stanchion (lifted by three people), the doctor gave her an epidural and went in to try to figure it out. It wasn't obvious to him either. It took a good ten minutes to first figure it out and then straighten it out. I was wrong; there were no twins. There was only a single baby, who had her neck wrapped around her own front legs like a corkscrew, so that her head was upside down underneath her own knees. It is an impossible presentation. The baby cannot come out that way, and pushing the head or pulling the legs is not going to help. The doctor had to twist the head and bring it around up over the legs, into a normal presentation, so the baby could be born. That was a pretty violent procedure requiring a lot of force, and Iris was in great pain - epidural or no.

She was dead, of course. It appeared she had been dead for some time, perhaps two or three hours. The vet said that with the poor presentation, Iris had probably been in low-grade labor for several hours. Without the head providing the correct pressure on the cervix, the labor didn't progress, and after the baby died (whenever that happened) the baby couldn't help by wriggling or changing position. If I hadn't taken her in, Iris would most likely have died eventually as well.

Poor Iris. She got a shot of painkillers, a shot of penicillin, and a ride home with a full udder and no baby. She is fairly torn up. I'll give her a full course of penicillin injections, and I have painkillers for three more days. She is also now officially retired - no more babies for Iris. I asked if any of this could be attributed too her age, and the vet said not definitively, but older dams do have a harder time kidding in general. Iris has earned her retirement at least twice over   (How Much is a Good Goat Worth?) - we will have this last season of milk from her, and then she can spend future breeding seasons with the ponies in the horse pasture.

The baby was a doe. A fine, big, brown doeling.

When I came home from the vet, covered in poop and blood and slime, aching for a bath, I found one of my kids already in there, and they had already used up all the hot water.

Also, there's no wine in the house.

Friday, February 12, 2016

State of the Farm: Early Spring 2016

It seems absurd to call today, February 12, "spring," but the signs are unmistakeable. Crocuses are up; pussy willows are grey, and I even saw a dandelion in bloom.

The rhubarb plant on the north side of the house is starting to put out crimson and green growth. 

Looking back over the blog, it seems that most years I have posted about an early spring. I am of two minds about this - since I only moved here ten years ago, it is entirely possible that I am just ignorant about the local climate (although I moved here from Seattle, exactly 100 miles south in a straight line).

 In support of this position, when I was talking with members of my local church this week about the early spring, a discussion was sparked about the timing of spring among several members who are each over 70 years old and who have a collective experience of living in this climate of some 200 years. Thier collective judgement was that we often get a couple of beautiful weeks in February, followed by a harsh March. 

Science, however, bolsters my
Point of view. Spring has indeed been coming earlier in the last couple of decades over a use swath of the globe.

All that aside, I have been enjoying the few sunny, unseasonably warm days interspersed among the approximately 726 consecutive days of rain.

Today was such a day. 

The Mercury got up to about 57, perfect shirtsleeve weather. I enjoyed an hour or two out with the goats and a good book. 

Kidding season is weird this year. "Christmas" was born Christmas ever, to Polly, who seems to be given to
Going into heat very early in the season. Two years in a row she has gotten pregnant in July, which is quite odd for a
milk goat. Christmas is now a handsome six week old doeling, well able to keep up with the herd. She is the first kid I have chosen to be part of the new generation of milk does. 

The other two does, Iris and Flopsy, are both gravid. Poor Flopsy is so pregnant it hurts to look at her. Every evening I lock her in the mama barn and every morning I go out expecting babies, but so far
No dice. 

We sold our buck. Haboob is a very nice buck who has reliably impregnanted our does for three years now, but the time has come for a new buck. 

I am
Still having major
Computer difficulties - right now I am
Typing on my phone and it is so annoying that I am
Going to stop this post right now. I have a lot of things I would like to write about (the orchard, the garden, the dog$ but I have already been qoeking in this silly
Post for two
Hours and I