THE FOOD SYSTEM
PLAYING YOUR PART1. Is it organic?
2. Does this product come from an animal?
3. Has it been processed?
4. How far has it traveled to get here?
5. What sort of package does it come in?
A couple moves from the big city to the countryside and starts a small farm...wait, you've heard this premise before? What? Trite? Hackneyed? But, I have goats. Really cute pictures of tiny baby goats. And cheesemaking recipes. We slaughter our own pigs and cure our own bacon! Well, that's in the master plan, anyway. Just read it, you'll see.
|tepache in the garage|
Today is the Equinox. As I sit here, writing this, the day is fading. It is almost six o'clock; since school started, I wake up at six o'clock, and the sun is just rising. The heavens have balanced themselves for another turn of the earth.
Cool weather arrived last week and yesterday it began to rain. A soft, gentle rain that you can walk around in for a while without really getting wet. Good, northwest rain, at the expected time. After the summer we had, which was dry and surprisingly hot week after week, the ordinariness of late September rain feels like sweet relief. A week and a half ago, I took the kids to the lake to go swimming, and exchanged the same words with half a dozen people:
"Can you believe this, swimming this late in the fall?"
"It's amazing. I love it."
Sunburns in September. But today it is reassuringly grey. The sky has assumed it's customary autumn wet-rag appearance, and the blackberries, although still plump and glossy to the eye, lose all cohesion if you try to pick them. There are mushrooms on the lawn. I saw several leopard slugs in the playroom. I picked the last of the garden tomatoes. Any late-ripeners will just have to fall off and send up volunteers next spring. The final plums have fallen, and the second crop of pears is just about ripe.
We still have a few weeks before the first frost, probably, and I need to take advantage of them. We have been remiss in the hay department, and there are only about thirty-five bales in the barn. That is not nearly enough hay to get us through the winter - we usually go through double that number, and in past years we didn't have a cow. We will have to get another load of hay, but in the meantime, I can supplement the supply by taking the goats out to browse every day. As long the frost holds off, the front yard provides plenty of roughage in the form of blackberries, alder and beech leaves, and thistles. After the frost, the greenery loses most of its nutrient value and hay becomes the staple fodder.
Most of the work that has to get done before winter is done - the hole Poppy kicked in the barn is repaired. The freezer is full of beef and salmon, cider and berries. The goats still need to be bred, but I have a plan in place for that. The propane tank needs to be filled, but that's just a phone call. I feel fairly well prepared and provisioned.
This takes no account, of course, of the major work that needs to be done in the crawlspace. We have not yet decided if we are going to try to get it done this fall, before the worst of winter, or if we will wait until next dry season. If we do it as soon as possible, there will certainly be a few weeks of cold weather during which we cannot use the furnace. We'll have to buy a couple of space heaters and crowd in one bedroom together. If we wait until next year, we can save more money towards the job (inshallah) and theoretically the damage done by one more winter is strictly incremental....
Every time I try to think about the crawlspace my brain rebels and starts to hum old show tunes instead. Chim-chimeree, chim-chimeree, chim-chim cheree...... my luck has run out I've a cracked chim-en-ney.... never mind. I will think about it tomorrow, for tomorrow is another day.
Crawlspaces are easy places to ignore; they are underground and nobody ever goes there. They are the shadow side, the subconscious of a home. As the world turns its back on the sun and slides darkness on like a hood, it seems perfectly natural to do the same; just close my eyes and let it all hibernate the winter through. The crawlspace and its nasty issues will all still be there come spring, when hopefully my strength will rise with the sap and I will have new energy to tackle major projects.
That's not really my style, though. However tempting it may be to will it away for another year, in truth I am the kind of person who, once a problem has been identified, can't leave it alone until a course of action is decided upon and underway. So I have another phone call to make. A very expensive phone call.
|mixing up Ukrainian refrigerator pickles|
|making dilly beans|
We've had a streak of bad luck lately. An expensive streak. In the past two weeks:
- I broke a tooth. A particularly exciting trade had come my way - it's crab season in these parts and apparently it's been a very good year. A friend of mine traded me a couple pounds of goat cheese for three or four big fat dungeoness crabs, already cleaned and cooked. Since in my estimation, dungeoness crab gives king salmon a run for its money as the most delectable native seafood of the Salish Sea, I was understandably excited about this trade. I sat down at the kitchen table with a pair of crackers to extract the meat and have a few nibbles along the way. I spent a very happy hour or so cracking crab legs, partly with the pincers and partly with my teeth, sweet sea-flavored juice dribbling down my shirt front. But when all the crab was gone and I came out of my yummy-food-induced trance, I poked around in my mouth with my tongue and found that one of my molars was missing a big ass chunk.
The good part was that it didn't hurt. The bad part was that my brain instantly began to freak out and insist that my tongue check out the hole every 0.6 seconds for the next eighteen hours. I don't have dental insurance - I have health insurance thanks to the ACA, but not dental - and so I had to wait until the local Interfaith dental clinic opened up on monday morning and wait my turn with all the other poor snaggletooth schlubs. The dentist there told me they could fill it, but that that was only a temporary solution and I really needed a crown. Crowns, I was told by every local dentist I called, run about fifteen hundred dollars.
My husband said, when I told him, that if we didn't spend money on our teeth, what the hell were we saving it for? So I made the appointment and went in, on wednesday I think. A crown is a two appointment procedure, and this first one was the hard one. For two and a half hours I suffered in silence, and then I paid them $750 dollars and drove home with a numb, swollen jaw. When I got there I found that
- Poppy Pony had had an accident. Homero had tried to text me and tell me, but I was head down in a dentist's chair with my mouth full of cotton gauze and pain. It seems he had staked her out to eat the green grass in the front yard. The pasture is pretty brown and bald at the end of this long, dry summer. Poppy had tried to reach some greener grass nearby and had pulled the stake, a T-post, right out of the ground. It hit her in the hocks; she panicked and went charging around the property at top speed with a six foot steel bar thumping and whacking along behind her. Trying to get back into her own enclosure, she went over the top of a cattle panel and crashed into the side of the barn, actually knocking a big hole in it.
"We hath to caw the wet," I said.
When he got there, the vet gave her a sedative, a shot of antibiotics, and an injection of pain medicine. He cleaned up the numerous cuts on all four of her legs. No stitches were needed, but he had to trim off a couple of flaps of skin with scissors. She was limping, but he thought that was just bruising. He gave me anti inflammatory gel to administer for the next ten days and said no riding for three weeks. He also showed me a hideous photo on his cell phone of a horse who had gone over a barbed wire fence that same day. A big sheet of skin and muscle was hanging down off the animal's neck. He said Poppy was very lucky; she could easily have broken a leg or suffered a trauma like the one in the picture. Then he charged me three hundred dollars and drove away.
Later in the week, a man came out to inspect the crawlspace. A couple of years ago, while we were in Mexico, the sump-pump failed and the crawlspace flooded (Bad News from Home). We have only just had the money to address the issue. OR SO I THOUGHT. The man who came out, owner of a very highly regarded company that specializes in crawlspaces and nothing but, went under the house in a haz-mat suit and took about two hundred pictures. When he came back up he said "the sump pump is the least of your problems." Then he showed us the pictures.
I really don't have the heart to go into it. For the first time, I am seriously questioning whether we made the right decision in buying this house. I love this property with all my heart and I firmly believe that by moving here, we have given our children the great gift of a childhood that includes wildness and the possibility of losing themselves in nature. Over the years, I have come to love this house as well - this very 1940's owner-built ranch house, with all its eccentricities and quirks. The many issues we have addressed - the roof, the plumbing, the rot - have been expensive, but I thought we were finally getting on top of it, and even felt pride in slowly restoring an aging but unique farmhouse.
We were not getting on top of it. Underneath it all, there is a hideous story of rot, sinking cement footings, and poorly shimmed pillars. There is unstable earth. There are rats. There is a sixty year legacy of poor workmanship, deception and fraud, and amateurism. Underneath it all, at the very bottom, there is a poorly drained slope to the northeast undermining the foundation.
All of these issues can be addressed, mitigated, though not fully corrected. Even were money no object - which is certainly is - the very best that can be done cannot completely heal the house. To the contractor, after his presentation of misery, I said "for fifty years people have been slapping one cheap fix on top of another to this house. I want that to stop here, with me. I want to leave this house to my children." He nodded, but he didn't say that was a realistic plan.
The truth is, he might be the best contractor in the world, but he can't stop time. I might spend all the money at my disposal, but I can't stop the rain from beating down or the beetles from boring. I had a dream the other night, before all this. A nightmare. I dreamed I was walking with a group of people I didn't know through an office building, a skyscraper. We were all going downstairs at a deliberate pace. Each time we reached a new floor, I lost some power of movement. Suddenly I couldn't move my arms anymore. On the next floor down, I couldn't turn my head. Then I found that I couldn't stop walking, either. I wasn't unduly alarmed; it seemed pretty normal.
I am trying not to be unduly alarmed. We can only do what we can do; we cannot be immortal, nor can we safeguard our homes and properties for eternity. We will do what we can - I plan to hire the contractor and ask him to do everything within my budget to stabilize the house unto the third generation. My hope is that someday in the far future, Homero and I will be able to retire to sunny Oaxaca in good conscience, that I will leave my children a real home, not a pile of rotting wood. I will not stint, and I hope that they will not have cause to reproach me for negligence, penny-pinching, or sloth.
But maybe they will reproach me for wasting their inheritance propping up a lost cause.
Our house is old. Most of the essential features - the roof, the septic system - have been upgraded over the years (this sweeping statement covers a whole host of terrifying and - in retrospect - amusing stories, some of which can be found in these posts Mold Monster Update, A Handy Man is Good to Find...?, The Demon of Bad Smell (the Plumber as Hero)) but others have not. One such system is the plumbing, which was, like the rest of the house, originally owner installed and has some - shall we say - quirks.
Some of the issues with the plumbing, however, are entirely my own fault. Over the last several months, the kitchen sink has been chronically slow to drain, and when I do laundry the washing machine water backs up into the utility sink in the laundry room. Such is life with old pipes, we thought, and simply used the heavy-duty plunger to unclog things temporarily. A couple days ago, however, the sink was completely stopped up and plunging did no good. Homero took apart the U bend underneath and it was clear, so the problem was further along, somewhere under the house. Our thirty foot snake couldn't clear the problem, either.
At this point, I was all for calling the roto-rooter man. That's what he's for, right? Unclogging pipes. Homero, on the other hand, will not call in a professional unless he has previously tried and failed at least six times to fix the problem, and sometimes not even then. I'm relatively certain he would rather live with, say, a non-working refrigerator forever than pay somebody else to fix it. As you might imagine, this has been a source of considerable stress for me, but a few years ago I decided I would rather live with a non-working refrigerator than with Homero's injured pride. These days, I make one gentle suggestion that it might be time to call in the pros, and after that I go take a hot bath. Assuming it isn't the hot water heater that is broken, of course.
So Homero went under the house. We have a very tight crawlspace. Two years ago the sump-pump bit the dust and the crawlspace flooded. We have yet to make repairs, so the insulation hangs down in damp curtain-like swaths, and the vapor barrier doesn't adhere tightly to the floor or walls. It's a dank, musty, scary, claustrophobic place. Oh, and the wiring went kablooey so the only light is a flashlight. I wouldn't go down there for all the tea in China. In truth, I probably wouldn't fit.
Homero asked me to stay by the trapdoor in case he needed anything. I lay on the concrete floor of the garage and peered into the dark, listening to Homero grunting softly as he wormed his way over to the space underneath the kitchen sink. He began banging softly on the pipes with a wrench to find the clog. A little later, I heard the sound of his power saw. He was cutting open the pipe. He yelled something back to me that sounds like "cheese."
"They're full of cheese!"
Homero came crawling back with a three foot section of pipe. Sure enough, it was clogged solid with a substance that bore some hellish resemblance to cheese. White, soft, crumbly, and squishy, and unbelievably revolting.
"How did that happen?" I gagged.
"It's from all the whey you pour down the drain," he said. "And the whole pipe is full of it all the way to the sewer line. I'm going to have to replace it all. Help me out of here, I'm going to Home Depot."
For the last four or five years, as long as I've been making cheese, I've been letting the cheese drain in the sink. The whey that drains off varies, but is usually clear or nearly clear, and I didn't think there was any harm in letting it go down the drain. I know that whey is actually useful for all sorts of things and if I were thriftier and less lazy, I would have caught it and used it to water my plants, or polish the silverware, or cure warts or something. Whenever we had a pig during cheese season, the pig would get the whey, but most years we didn't. I felt awful, and not just from the smell.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "I didn't know. What can I do?"
He didn't even dignify that with an answer. He just washed his face and drove away.
Later that afternoon, Homero returned with a lot of black PVC piping and some clamps and other stuff that I didn't look at too closely and couldn't identify if I did. He asked Hope to come under the house with him and hold the flashlight for him. I was a little alarmed at that - Hope is ten - but I didn't say anything. Hope was totally game. She's a brave girl. I hovered by the hole, trying to see and occasionally yelling "everything okay down there?"
About an hour later Homero sent Hope up.
"He said he doesn't need me anymore," she said.
Homero kept working for another hour or so, and finally came back up through the trapdoor, looking grim and dirty.
"All done," he said. "I'm taking a shower."
"Wouldn't it be nice if somebody paid you $900 to do that?" I asked with a smile, attempting levity.
He shook his head. "I wouldn't do it."
Later, after dinner and after the kids were in bed, Homero told me that he had sent Hope up because he had come upon a nest of pink baby rats. He has a horror of rats, a real phobia - of course, anyone would be afraid of rats in that situation, under the house in the dark, where you can't see them and you can't escape! But he didn't lose his cool, he just told Hope "Okay, that's all, thanks, you've been a big help," and then he squished the baby rats with the handle of his power saw and kept working.
I just can't come up with a response to that kind of bravery and determination. Nothing I could do or say feels like enough. I told him I was so proud of him, and I thanked him over and over again, and I told him he can have whatever he wants for a whole week, no holds barred. I promised to never ever make cheese in the sink again. But really, I'm just speechless. A small part of me would rather he had called a plumber and let somebody else freak out under the house, but most of me is incredibly grateful and admiring. Homero is really something else, he really is. He's macho in the very best sense of the word. No, there's a better word, from my Eastern European Yiddish speaking ancestors: he's a mensch. My husband is 100% mensch.
You may have noticed that the price of meat has risen fairly dramatically over the past couple of years. The forecast is that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, due to a number of factors including prolonged drought in many parts of the country, a new and nasty pig virus, and increasing demand for meat in China and much of the rest of Asia. Here are a few links for the skeptical, from NR and the New York Times:
Even those of you who buy meat by the half animal, as I do, have probably seen major increases. When we bought our first local half-beef, some six years ago, I think we paid $1.75/lb hanging weight. Even two and a half years ago, when we last bought beef, we paid only $2.00/lb. Granted, that was from a neighbor and a friend, who was charging us quite a bit less than the going rate, which if I remember right was about $2.50.
This year, I spent quite a bit of time searching Craigslist for decently priced grass fed beef (our neighbor and friend only raised enough for his extended family) without luck. The best price I could find was $3/lb, and that only applied if you ordered six months ahead of time and didn't include cut and wrap. Figure that in, and by the time you are done you'll be paying about $5/lb for what you actually put in the freezer. It's not that $5/lb is such an outrageous price (though it is pretty high), but that to buy a half you need to get together some $2,000 all at once.
I really hate buying supermarket meat. I hate participating in the CAFO feedlot system (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation - Wikipedia, the free ...); I hate eating animals that lived in misery eating GMO soy and corn; I hate contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and the displacement of indigenous peoples. But I love eating beef. If it came down to a choice between eating CAFO meat or no meat at all, I know what I'd choose. So, to avoid slathering my burgers with guilt sauce, I decided to look further afield for my grass fed beef.
Washington State is divided between the wet west and, on the other side of the Cascade mountains, the wide open rangeland of the drier east. On the eastside, land is cheaper, hay is cheaper, and as a result, beef is cheaper. Marginally. After searching through all the Craigslist listings for beef in all the little towns of Eastern Washington, I struck gold: USDA prime grass fed black angus beef for $2.85/lb, cut and wrap included. A half weighing a little over 500 lbs was available. Problem is, it was a five hour drive, and comparatively cheap as it was, that half would still cost more than $1,500.
Social media to the rescue: on Facebook, I invited all my friends to go in on it with me. In the end, we bought a quarter for ourselves, and the other quarter was split into two eighths for two other families. I didn't charge the other families anything extra per pound, but I did ask them to contribute something toward the price of gas and dry ice. Dry ice, although pricey, is a necessity when transporting a quarter-ton of raw meat in a hot trunk for five hours. I used google maps to find the closest supplier to our destination, and lucked out: there was one in the same town. I collected cash and coolers from my co-purchasers, and Homero and I set off on a road trip.
The ranch was a lovely place, and the beeves on view were beautiful - vast, sleek, shiny black animals, moving slowly through flank-high grass or cooling themselves in a green pond, on which I saw a blue heron standing quietly among the reeds. The ranch owner, a friendly, tall, middle aged woman, was kind: There was a misunderstanding about the weight and we hadn't brought quite enough money. With no bank within a two hour drive, she simply decided to trust me to send a check when I got home.
It may seem like an awfully long way to go, but the math is convincing. On our quarter, we saved about $300 over local prices. Our diesel Jetta gets 45 miles to the gallon, so the gas cost us only about $30. The dry ice was the biggest expense, at $40, but friends kicked in on those costs. Our share of the travel expenses was about $25, which adds only a negligible amount to the price per pound.
If there's a downside, it's that the meat included an unreasonably high percentage of hamburger. At least 2/3 of the total weight was in burger, which is higher than I am used to. It seems like a shame to grind up that much of an animal that graded out to USDA prime, the very highest category. B ut I'm not complaining. The freezer is full of guilt-free meat and I am happy.
Yesterday, our neighbor with the hotel-sized-house (the HSH) called to tell us our goats were eating his garden. Luckily, we were home, and we ran right over and herded them back in before they did any major damage. It wasn't immediately obvious where they had jumped the fence, but we definitely saw a few saggy spots, so we hitched up the trailer and hurried down to the farm store before they closed to buy cattle panels.
Twelve cattle panels, a couple of hours, and $450 later, we thought we had taken care of the problem. Not so. As the sun was setting, we got another call. The goats were in the garden again.
This time, we rounded them up and put them in the more secure sacrifice area. We know this small area is secure against adult goats because we have been keeping the buck in there, separated from the does, and he tries mightily but fails to escape. The babies, however, might still be able to squeeze through the space been the gate and the hinges. I didn't think they would wander far without their mother, however, and so it proved. In the morning, all goats were still contained.
Perhaps foolishly, we let the goats back into the big pasture to graze. There's absolutely nothing to eat in the sacrifice area except poisonous tansy, and I was afraid they would all eat it and die. We carefully walked the fence line on the HSH's side of the pasture, and finding one more potential low-spot, dragged another cattle panel out and tacked it up. The morning went by; the afternoon was well advanced and still - the goats were causing zero havoc. It looked as though we had solved the problem. Homero left to go to the junkyard and I took the kids and went to my sister's house for dinner.
An hour later, when each of us were an hour away from the house in opposite directions, Homero got the call. The goats were in HSH's garden yet again, for a third time.
Let me pause here to describe the garden a little bit. HSH is a retired Indian gentleman, and his garden is his main occupation and evidently his pride and joy. HSH spends at least two hours a day and often more out in the garden, which is something like 60' x 80' and laid out in beautiful rows, each straight as an arrow and meticulously free of weeds. He grows onions and garlic, collards and spinach and lettuce. He grows potatoes and squash and cilantro and carrots. He grows tomatoes and chickpeas. He has a lovely little hoop house wherein he grows all sorts of colorful chiles. He has a tall stand of corn, just coming into tassel. His family really eats out of the garden, and he is generous with his substantial surplus. It amazes me no end that one elderly gentleman can maintain a garden of such size and splendor, while I, a full twenty years younger, struggle to raise anything that can outcompete the weeds. Anyone would be annoyed to find his neighbor's goats had devastated his garden, but HSH has more to lose than most.
Homero sped home at a breakneck pace, no doubt roundly cursing goats the entire way. When he arrived, HSH had already put our goats back in the pasture. HSH was nowhere to be seen. Most likely, he had retreated into his home so as to avoid the temptation to punch Homero in the face. Taking no chances, Homero decided to hobble the goats. He used twine to tie their front feet together, so each goat could only take tiny little steps and could not possibly jump. He then walked the fence line, searching in vain for any place the goats might have done a Houdini.
When I got home, I decided to do my own perimeter patrol. I had been thinking, and I had come to the conclusion that the goats were not jumping over the fence at all. My does don't jump much, especially Flopsy, who is hugely obese and spends most of her time on her knees. Yet, Flopsy had been out with the others. It seemed to me most likely that the goats were escaping under the fence rather than over.
But when I walked the perimeter, I saw that there was no way they were going under, either. The grass in the pasture does not get mowed or cut, ever, and so it has grown up in a thick mat over the bottom of the fences and more effectively tacked them to the ground than we could ever do. I was pretty much at a loss. Nothing looked mashed down anywhere. Hell if I knew how they were getting out.
But on my second time around, I found it. I can't blame Homero for not seeing it - it was pretty invisible. Along the bottom of the pasture, not on the side facing HSH, right about in the middle, there was a breach. The goats had gone neither over the top nor under the bottom of the fence. They had gone straight through. Right alongside one t-post, the welded field fencing had come unwelded vertically and had a slash in it like a curtain. The top wire was intact, as was the bottom, and so it was not obvious at all. There was simply a slit through which the goats had slipped, single file, and then gone marauding.
I found the breach just after sunset. I only had time to grab some baling twine and tie it closed. Tomorrow we will patch it with a new section of fence or with yet another cattle panel. In the meantime, the goats remain hobbled. Let this be a lesson to me that I must resume perimeter patrol. I used to be in the habit of walking all the fence lines every month or so, but I have slacked off shamefully. This isn't the first time I have found breaches in the fence: they are a pretty regular occurrence. Fences must be constantly maintained, or else periodically repaired.
Just like neighborly relations. I have no idea what to offer HSH, beyond my abject apologies and, come fall, a nice fat leg of goat. I'm thinking a real, handwritten letter with a gift certificate to the farmer's market.
Posted by Aimee at 11:33 AM