"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday (Fencing Never Ends)


 First of all excuse the weird format, Blogger is giving me headaches and I have neither the time nor the inclination to figure it out right now. This is me, Aimee, in 2014, writing an introduction to the throwback post from 2008, which follows. This time of year six years ago I see I was dealing with escaping goats, and today we are still dealing with escaping goats. Fencing issues never end. 
Recently, we came into a bit of cash and I decided the best use of it would be to finally buy as many cattle panels as my heart desired - or as many as the feed store had in stock, which turned out to be 34. I believe that will be enough to address our fencing issues once and for all; or at least the two smaller pastures. The cattle panels have been lying on the trailer with which Homero went and got them, waiting for good weather and my energy level to coincide. That hadn't yet happened when, this afternoon, Homero saw the goats had escaped the sacrifice area by hopping over a droopy area. 
Actually fixing the fence to the specifications I desire will have to await another day - right now there is a patchwork of panels covering various droopy spots and in order to fence the whole paddock we will have to remove and re-place all the panels. But today, we did more spot-fixing and the goats are contained. For the moment. 

Nobody I know has the troubles I do with containing their livestock. Remember the chickens that almost started a neighborly feud? Remember when Xana kicked out a window of the barn and cut herself to ribbons? The piglet in the bathtub episode?

Well, it's happening again. The goats are escaping. The twins were out yesterday, bleating to get back in, and tonight when I got home, four goats were out. The twins, Xana, and Iris! Iris is not a leaper, which makes me think they must have mashed the fence down somewhere, but it's too dark to see. I'll have to wait until morning. 

For now, I'll have to lock them in the big barn (and hope that Xana doesn't just kick out the other window!). I'm terrified of the highway that fronts our property. It's pretty well traveled at all times of night and people speed along at 65. The goats could all get mashed flat, and not only that, they could cause a dangerous accident. 

The lady who owns the buck I bred my does to this year is sending her husband tomorrow morning to help me get the fence working. Homero gave his consent for me to seek help elsewhere a couple of weeks ago, after a full day of failed-fence-fixing in the rain. I won't repeat his actual words here, but they were along the lines of "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Quick Updates

Recent developments -

- The turkeys are processed and ready for pickup. In light of the way they were getting picked off (Predator Problems (Facebook Farmers)), I decided they would be safer in the freezer than in the barnyard. Last year, there was a local guy who processed them for $10 a bird, but he has gone out of business and nobody has replaced him. Luckily, a neighbor of mine belongs to a co-op that rents out the equipment, and she was kind enough to host a processing party. Homero and Rowan went (I was in Seattle with the girls at a gymnastics meet) and the turkeys look great. We haven't weighed them yet but my arm says about 15-18 pounds each. They are all sold already at $4/lb, so that makes back our expenses even without thew two the coyotes ate. A success.

- All animals are in the sacrifice area. A little late in the year, but finally all the hooves are off the big pasture. I was worried about whether or not the ponies would share their shelter with the heifer, but it looks like they have grudgingly decided to do so. The goats - only 4 of them right now - sleep in the calf hutch.

- Breeding season is in full swing. I think my ladies are all pregnant - probably including Ba,bi, the bevy - but I'm not sure. Haboob the buck has been in with them for the last six weeks and I've seen him doing his duty - or trying to. The does don't seem to like him much (probably because he is so small) and he spends a lot of time chasing them and taking flying leaps. But I definitely saw him close the deal with Iris. Last week we sent him off to a neighbor's farm in exchange for a lovely basket of farm produce. Here's hoping her does like him better than mine do.

- The work in the crawlspace  (It Never Rains But it Pours (When is Enough Enough?)) is just about done. Homero, with Rowan's help, did about half the actual work, saving us lots of money. However, in the course of events, about half the ductwork got removed and needed to be replaced and we had spent literally our last dollar paying the workmen. We had to wait for payday to buy new ducts, not to mention propane, and in the meantime the weather took a turn for the seriously cold. For about 10 days we had to huddle in one room at night with the space heater. But all's well that ends well - now I can be relatively certain that my house isn't going to sink into the ground or go sliding down the hill anytime soon.

More later - getting dinner on the table.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Throwback Thursday (Bad Business)

We've been dealing with a lot of house issues lately (another post on the crawlspace will be forthcoming soon) and as I look back to 2010, I see that we were dealing with house issues then, too. Really, when have we not been? In 2010 it was the roof. When we bought the house in 2007, we had hired a local company, Joosten's roofing, to do a complete re-roofing, as the farmhouse had a truly ancient shake roof on it that ought to have been replaced years before. 

In 2010, when the roof began to leak in various places, we called the company back and asked them to address the issues... that didn't go well. Our attempts to communicate with Mr. Joosten devolved into screaming and racial slurs. You can read the story below. Unfortunately, this story did not have a good outcome. We never did get Joosten's Roofing to address their crappy workmanship  and we never did get satisfaction in the form of a lawsuit or anything else. The best I could do at the time was a scathing report to Angie's List, which brought their overall rating down a full letter grade. Take that, you bigoted bully! 

The details: when the roofers removed the old shake roof, there was a lot of rot underneath - the plywood and even many of the rafters on one side of the house had rotted. But instead of talking to us about this, they simply laid new plywood down and covered up the whole mess. Obviously, this didn't last. There were more problems - flashing that was improperly installed and which allowed water into the attic around the vents and ruined our attic insulation.... gutters which were taken down and not reinstalled... really you name it. Below read my letter (though nothing came of it, it's still a good letter) and please don't ever do business with this awful man!

Late Fall, 2010

For anyone who lives in Skagit or Whatcom counties: Please do not hire Joostens roofing. Not only did they do a shoddy unprofessional job, but when my husband asked them to come back out and inspect the damage, they told him "take me to court" and hung up on us.

Given that response, I wrote a letter to the better business bureau, and I forwarded a copy to Joostens roofing. Their response to that was to call my husband on his cell phone, start yelling racial slurs at him, tell him to "go back to Mexico" and threaten to "sic immigration" on him.

Yeah, I know! We were both just totally aghast. I have never personally witnessed such vicious, blatant racism. Oh, I know that much worse happens every day, to all kinds of people - I just hadn't actually heard anyone SAY such things out loud. When I myself spoke to Mr. Joosten, he started talking about how I must be a liberal and he was a conservative and that was "the difference." I reminded him that racial discrimination is illegal for conservatives as well.

I was so angry at that point that I couldn't keep speaking to him. I wrote this letter instead:

Mr. Joosten
> this letter is inform you that we have filed a complaint with the
> Whatcom Sheriff regarding the threats you made to my husband on the
> phone yesterday. You are on record. Frankly we are both shocked by
> your bigoted, offensive, and bullying behavior. The idea that you
> would "sic immigration" on a client whom you believe to be
> vulnerable and without recourse rather than address that person's
> complaints speaks volumes both to your business integrity and to
> your personal character. I invite you to reflect on your actions.
> I still willing to talk with you about how we can come to an
> agreement regarding the damage done by your poor work. Please feel
> free to call me directly at 206-xxx-xxxx (I doubt my husband is
> interested in speaking with you). However, don't call if you want to
> shout at me or insult me or otherwise harass me: only to calmly
> discuss resolving the professional issue.
> If you do not choose to resolve this privately in a very short time
> frame, we will relunctantly be forced to contact our attorney. Be
> aware that if we do so, your racially charged language will become
> part of a racial discrimination suit. If that is the case, we will
> also be contacting all relevant offices that regulate fair business
> practices in Washington, such as the department of licensing and the
> Attorney General's office.
> Sincerely,
> E.D.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday (November Blues)

Apparently, I have always hated this time of year.


November Blues

Nothing works on the farm. The electric fence is still broke, despite two temper tantrums on my part and a first class marital spat. Homero didn't agree with me that an electric fence is supposed to deliver shocks EACH and EVERY time you touch it. He declared the fence fixed even though it delivered only a low-grade buzz that was rather more stimulating than painful, and then once every three minutes or so, a fat jolt that made your arm fly involuntarily up in the air. Currently (no pun intended), the shock-box has been taken down and apart to see what the hell is wrong with it, and I doubt it will be put back up before spring.

Unless I secretly hire someone and risk a major fight in favor of a working fence.

I had four yards of drain rock delivered, a week and a half ago, and it is still in a big pile doing nothing to solve the mud problem because I hurt my back and can't spread it out. Homero says he will do it "soon." Maybe my back will heal "sooner." I don't think I bought enough rock, anyway, because the mud is OUT of HAND. It is well over ankle deep, and it is getting pretty difficult to traverse some areas without losing a gumboot. All in all, the farmyard is a wet, stinky, disgusting swamp, and nobody wants to be there, animals included.

I haven't closed the pig in his pen since it started raining. It would be inhumane. He sleeps in the barn with the goats, making himself a big old pile of straw (compost) and digging a kind of trench in it to bury himself in. He's really a very cute pig, and nice as pigs go, and I'm starting to feel bad about eating him. Though I did buy a book yesterday called "Home Sausage-Making."

The catch pen, which was meant for the pony, is the wettest part of the yard, oddly and frustratingly. Rain pools right under the roof, and it's useless as a pony pen. The poor pony would be standing in water up to her knees. But, like the alpacas, she doesn't like to go in the barn, so she stays out in the rain. 

The alpacas are the saddest, most bedraggled looking things I've ever seen. 

The white rabbit escaped and is gone. The brown rabbit is all alone, and seems miserable and lonely. I'm projecting.

No eggs in quite a while.

I hate this time of year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Predator Problems (Facebook Farmers)

Last year, we had good luck with turkeys. We never intended to raise turkeys, but a trade came our way (Turkey Trade) and we acquired four half-grown turkeys in exchange for one goat. We ate one, sold two, and donated one to the food bank. I decided pastured turkeys were a great return on investment - and also extremely delicious - so this past spring we upped our investment by 50% and bought six Standard Bronze poults.

All went well until just a few weeks ago - the turkeys all grew quickly and turned into handsome animals of about fifteen or eighteen pounds. I think they were all hens, although I wouldn't swear to that on a stack of bibles. Through Craigslist and Facebook, I had already sold four of them. But then one of them disappeared. There was no sign of "fowl play" (ha ha) - no feathers or blood. There was simply one less turkey.

My Facebook Farmer's group informed me that turkeys are known to wander. In fact, our turkeys had wandered over to the neighbor's a couple of times and had to be retrieved. But they had wandered as a group. Turkeys, at least mine, tend to stay in a pretty tight formation, and I thought it was unlikely that a single turkey had decided to strike out on his/her own.

Then, two weeks later, boom - another disappearance. Same modus operendi - simple vanishing, without a trace of violence. Once again, I went back to my Facebook Farmers. I suggested a coyote, as being the only local predator I knew of capable of carrying off a twenty-pound animal. Plenty of people responded, but with varying opinions - some people agreed that coyotes were a likely culprit, but others said that they would leave a big mess of feathers and blood. Somebody suggested bald eagles, which I discounted not because I think an eagle incapable, but because the turkeys disappeared at night. Again I heard that turkeys wander and I ought to check with the neighbors. And, as always, several people voiced the opinion that humans were stealing my turkeys.

Every time that someone in the group posts that anything has gone missing - apples off a tree, baby chicks, tame rabbits, pumpkins off a porch - the assertion surfaces that it was stolen by people. Personally, I find the idea that hordes of my neighbors are prowling through the dark looking for vulnerable apple trees or sneaking into unsecured barns to steal chickens patently absurd. It's been my experience that my neighbors are far more likely to bring me produce or game meat than they are to take it away. As a matter of fact, in my entire lifetime, I think I have been the victim of burglary twice or  maybe three times, whereas I have been the recipient of totally unsolicited generosity hundreds of times.

So, I've learned a couple of things about my Facebook Farmer's group. Although a valuable resource for those who are willing to sift and verify, there is a lot of suspicion and ignorance. I could learn a lot more about the telltale signs of various predators from five minutes on the internet ( http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/18670/poultry-predator-identification, http://www.avianaquamiser.com/posts/What_killed_my_chicken__63__/) than by asking for advice form a random collection of farmers. Some of them are probably well-informed and right, but how could I tell which ones?

As it turns out, my initial suspicion about coyotes was almost certainly correct. Not only does my google search confirm that coyotes and foxes often carry off birds and leave little trace behind, returning again and again to the same place as long as birds remain vulnerable, but my neighbor (he of the hotel-sized-house, or the HSH) called me night before last to tell me that he had seen two big coyotes in my field, and has shot at them, but missed.  Furthermore, when I decided, yesterday, to walk the pasture in a grid pattern looking for evidence, I found one fresh, well shredded leg bone and a small neat pile of guts.

Clearly, my flock is not well protected. I never know exactly how many chickens I have at any given time, but today I made a point of counting, and there are fewer than there ought to be. And the ones that remain are looking thin and harassed. I think I have a pack of coyotes who have decided that my farm is their snack bar.

Normally, the poultry is locked in a coop at night, but lately I have been leaving them to roost in the open main barn instead. This is because the weather has been unrelentingly awful, raining like mad for a couple of weeks on end. The chicken coop, which is just the space between my two barns fenced off and roofed, has terrible drainage and right now it is just a sea of liquid mud. The chickens would be utterly miserable in there. There is not even any land dry enough to feed them on. They have roosts, of course, but they can't stay on them all day. In this weather it would be inhumane to keep them in the coop. Ducks, maybe.

But something needs to be done, clearly. If I do nothing, the coyotes will likely eat my entire flock this winter. As far as the turkeys go, I think I will probably just butcher them immediately - they are full sized - and keep them in the freezer instead of the barnyard. But I need to finger out how to secure the coop and make it habitable before I lose the rest of my chickens.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mushroom Show

Last weekend we went to the annual wild mushroom show, hosted by the Northwest Mushroomers Association (click the link https://www.facebook.com/pages/Northwest-Mushroomers-Association/189323751142082 for their Facebook page). The last time I went to this show was back in 2008 ( Mud and Mushrooms). It's really a wonderful event. In addition to beautiful displays set up on long tables around the room, they also have areas for more in depth investigation. There is a "touch and smell" table:

Paloma at the touch and smell table

And a table with microscopes and slides for looking at microscopic structures. There is a kids table with coloring and crafts and instructions on making spore-prints. There are artist's tables with beautiful and intriguing works of art made out of or on the subject of fungus. One lady, who is a professional scientific illustrator (a career choice I sometimes regret not having pursued) was selling a lovely little booklet full of illustrations of slime molds, with accompanying haiku. In the kitchen, they were offering tastings. And of course there was a table offering books, posters, T-shirts, and what-not. 

And memberships.  Rowan and Paloma and I were so enchanted, I decided to ask about membership in the society. I have been interested in mushrooms, in a general way as part of my larger interest in herbs, plant medicine, and foraging, for many years. I can identify some three or four varieties of edible (and otherwise interesting) mushrooms, but I am very far from being knowledgeable. I would love the chance to learn more, especially if it is something I can do with my kids. 

Family memberships are only $15, regardless of the number of people in your family. That gets you a newsletter, attendance at lectures and identification clinics all year long, and the right to go along on mushroom hunting forays led by experts. And a nice discount on merchandise, which we promptly put to use at the merch table. 

Mushroom season is probably about over this year. I picked and ate all the field mushrooms in my yard three weeks ago. I didn't go out to the back of the pasture to look for shaggy manes, but I'm sure they are done already. I have a meeting set up with a local forager to buy a few pounds of chanterelles tomorrow... and then that's it until next fall... unless there's a morel-picking foray this spring, that is!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Weather Weirdness (Charts and Graphs)

The weather changed about two weeks ago from warm and sunny to warm and wet. Well, of course it has cooled off - enough so that I have broken out the winter blankets - but it is still pretty warm. T-shirt weather for me when I go let the goats out to graze. I'm still drinking my coffee iced; I haven't switched to Americanos yet. There has of yet been no sign of a frost.

Two weeks of rain has turned the barnyard into poo-soup, and when I go out to do the chores in the morning I definitely have to put on galoshes. The dog comes with me, and is banished from the house until her paws dry off. The sky has been low, grey, and glowering, which has an effect on my mood. It hasn't been very pleasant, weather-wise, but neither has it been cold. Today, a friend posted a link to a weather blogon her Facebook page, and it was very enlightening. So far, Pacific Northwest Weather this year HAS been unseasonably warm - record-breakingly warm, in fact. But the record - highest average low temperatures - is not one that people generally pay much attention to. The following is chart heavy, but I found it very interesting.

A note: as much I am unsettled by weird weather, tending to real out and imagine catastrophic climate change on a human time scale, I am nonetheless grateful for this year's odd warmth. We will not be able to use our furnace until all the work is done in the crawlspace. and that isn't projected to be completed until mid-November. So as far as I'm concerned, let the frost stay wherever it is now!

Reposting from Cliff Mass Weather Blog (link below)

****UPDATE****** I don't know why the cut-and-paste job below is cut off on the right margin. I can't seem to adjust it in my editing platform. However, if you click on any of the graphics, they will show up whole and legible in a new window.


Something amazing has been going on this fall, and for some reason the Ebola-crazed media hasn't picked up on it.   But that is why we have blogs.  Gardeners know something weird is happening.Vegetable plants are not dying.   Tomatoes are still ripening.

There are movies about this issue.

Here are the temperatures at Seattle-Tacoma Airport during the past 4 weeks, with the average high (red) and lows (blue) shown.   Only ONE day in that entire period has seen the temperature dropping to the average low.  For most days, our minimum temperatures have been 5-10 degrees above normal. Our minimum temperatures last night were close to the average maximum for the date!
UPDATE MONDAY MORNING:  Here is the latest 4 weeks.  Our low temperatures the last few days have been around the NORMAL HIGHS.  And yesterday broke the record daily high at Sea-Tac Airport.

And this is not Seattle alone, here is the same trace for Bellingham.  Same thing.  Bellingham cooled to 59F last night!
Or Quillayute on the coast.   Mega-warm.
A plot of the minimum temperature anomaly (difference from climatology) for the western U.S. over the past month shows that our regional is RED HOT, with minimum temperatures 6-8F above normal on average.

A close-up over Washington State shows some areas are 8-10F above normal.

And the latest NOAA Climate Prediction Center extended forecasts show no end in sight
to the warmth:

Now why is this happening?   This is an important  question because one can expect some folks in the media and advocacy groups to start saying this is a "sign" or "consistent with" global warming due to mankind's emissions of greenhouse gases.  There is no reason to think that is true.

There are two main reasons for the warmth and they are both associated with the anomalous atmospheric circulations we are having.

Reason #1:  a persistent area of low pressure over the eastern Pacific.  The figure below shows the sea level pressure anomaly (difference from normal) for the past month.   There is an area west of us with pressures well below normal.   Such anomalous low pressure is associated with stronger than normal southerly and southwesterly winds over us that blow in warmer than normal air.
Here are the wind anomalies near the surface for the same period...look closely you will see they are southerly over us. It all fits.

This is probably the major cause.   Then there is something else, something I have talked about in previous blog:  the warm water BLOB off the coast.

Below is the sea surface temperature anomaly map for the past week.  You see the orange and red colors off the coast that indicate temperatures 2-4F above normal?  The BLOB still lives.  So air passing over the eastern Pacific  is exposed to warmer than normal water.  Me like BLOB, BLOB is good.

As I noted earlier, the BLOB has little to do with global warming but was produced by anomalous high pressure over the Pacific last winter and year.

So our ridiculously warm temperatures this fall are being produced by an unusual combination of high pressure a year ago that produced the blob and low pressure this fall that is bringing up warm air from the south.

There is no reason to think that these circulation anomalies are caused by human greenhouse gas emissions.  And remember that the eastern U.S. has been colder than normal.

Well, time for me to go out to my garden to harvest some more red tomatoes.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Throwback Thursday - Post from the Past

Lately I've been pretty lazy about writing. I'm not entirely sure why, but ever since we got back from our year in Oaxaca (www.newtomexicanlife.blogspot.com), it's been more and more difficult for me to keep up the pace on blogging. When I look back to the first few years of this blog, I see that I was writing three or four times a week. Now, it's more like once every ten or twelve days. There are plenty of reasons for that - my duties as a mom have become more demanding as the girls grow up and start doing things like gymnastics and developing their own social lives. I have an actual job now - albeit one that only provides me with a few hours of work a week. And the Gleaner's Pantry eats about six hours a week as well. 
It might also be the case that in the past six years I've simply said just about all I have to say about life on the homestead. The seasons repeat themselves endlessly, but I have no wish to do the same. There are always new things to learn, and indeed I am always learning them, but topics like trimming goat hooves and fixing fences no longer hold the fascination for me that they did when I was doing them for the first time, instead of the five hundredth. I'm not sure what will become of the blog - it might morph into a kind of farm journal, documenting breedings, births, test results, and planting times (which was one of its original functions) or it might just dwindle away.
According to my counter, it appears that there are still a lot of you out there reading - unless my counter counts visits by spam-bots - and I'd be very interested to know if you are still enjoying this blog. Also - what's going on in your lives and on your farms? It seems that a few years ago I had a more lively conversation going on between several regular readers who had blogs of their own and were interested in the topics of sustainability and self-reliance. If you are still out there, please make yourselves known! I would love to visit your sites and get the conversation going again. 
In the meantime, I am going to borrow a meme from Facebook: Throwback Thursday. While I hope to get my butt in gear and write new posts a bit more often, I can at least post one column a week from the past of this blog. Here is one from 2009, about low-carbon eating. Enjoy. 
Today's Ethical Conundrum: Low Carbon Food Choices
I feel like I already do a pretty good job of minimizing my family's environmental impact when it comes to our food choices. Of the food we eat at home, 80-90% of the meat is home-grown and very very local. Milk, eggs and cheese are produced on the farm for well over half the year, and for the rest of the year we just don't eat a whole lot of those things. This year to date I have bought two dozen eggs from the supermarket, and perhaps five or six gallons of milk. Maybe five pounds of cheese. From May to October, a high percentage (70%?) of our vegetable and fruit consumption is also from producers local to within a few miles, due to the success of the trade network.
However, I have by no means banished high-impact foods from our lives. Most significantly, we go out to eat at least once a week. When I eat out, I pretty much throw away the rule book. Sure, I wouldn't knowingly eat a critically endangered species ("I'd like the pan-broiled panda, please - NO, the bluefin tuna sushi."), but I know that my meat is most likely conventionally raised in a CAFO, that my chicken was battery-farmed in cages too small to spread their wings, and that my milk products are chock-full of antibiotics and artificial hormones. I can't see myself as one of those people who spends fifteen minutes grilling the waiter about the liberal-progressive credentials of the food ("Is this tofu organic? Was it grown in Brazil? Were any indigenous people displaced as their rainforest homes were clear-cut for a giant international conglomerate to grow GMO soybeans?"), so that means we just need to eat out less often. Good for the pocketbook, too. We spend far too much on restaurants.
Even when it comes to regular old grocery store shopping, I could certainly do a better job. Today, for example, I went to Costco with my sister. You could argue that Costco is already a good choice, as buying in bulk cuts down on packaging. Well, only if you buy the twenty-pound sack full of plain rolled oats and not the giant carton of individually wrapped, highly processed, forty ingredient oat n' honey granola snacks. On this trip, the only processed "convenience" foods I bought were a big ol bag of fishsticks and a three pound package of chicken-apple sausage. Everything else was staples: rice, butter, oil, flour, fresh fruit. In between items include mega-jar of olives and full-case of canned diced tomatoes.
But let's examine that fresh fruit, shall we? I bought a flat of pomegranates from California. Pomegranates are in season. Also, California is not Mars. It's two states away from me; same coast. Could be worse. But could be better. Of course, if I'm ever going to eat pomegranates as long as I live, they will never be local. Until we retire to Mexico, that is. Pomegranates are my absolutely favorite fruit. One box of poms once or twice a year is not something to beat myself up over. However, there are other items which are not once-or-twice a year, but once or twice a month.
Oranges, lemons, and limes.
Today I bought a pineapple flown in from Costa Rica. I read that pineapples are the single highest- carbon item of produce on the shelves. I only buy pineapples once or twice a year, but still - how much guilt do I want to ingest with my plate of fruit?
How good is good enough? How low is low enough? What level of virtue should I strive for? What level of personal responsibility for planetary destruction am I comfortable with? When does sane, sober responsibility morph into crazy, obsessive behavior? Is there even any such thing as too much virtue? Is there any acceptable level of harm? These are questions that apply much more widely than food choices, of course.
I've actually recently been having a discussion with my brother - a thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, highly educated man with loads of integrity who nonetheless disagrees with me most of the time (how is that possible?) about the limits of personal responsibility for communal suffering. He's a political conservative and seems to be comfortable with limits that leave me feeling desperately, squishily, quaveringly, liberally guilty. I guess each of us can only consult our own consciences with searching, fearless honesty and try as hard as we can to live by it's dictates.

For those of us who need a little guidance in this endeavor (me! me!) below is a wonderful, easy to follow guide published by Gourmet magazine on it's fabulous and highly recommended "food politics" page. Gourmet recently ceased publication after some sixty years and I feel it is a great loss. Not only was it a terrific resource for everyone interested in cooking, but under it's most recent editor Ruth Reichl it was a strong voice for justice and fairness in our agricultural system, and a voice that got results! The web site is still alive, though probably not for much longer. Please visit the food politics page Food Politics : gourmet.comwhile it is still around. Meanwhile, enjoy this easy to follow guide for making low-carbon food choices:
Ever since a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that the world’s livestock industry sends more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transportation, pressure has been building on food manufacturers to measure, and ultimately to reduce, their carbon footprints. In March of this year, the British government’s Environmental Audit Committee called for the establishment of a standardized system of labeling to show the impact of consumer goods and services on the earth’s atmosphere.
In general, consumers in England are more familiar with carbon issues than we are. The government-backed Carbon Trust has been pilot-testing a Carbon Reduction Label for a few years now. But American companies are now getting into the act: In January, PepsiCo certified the footprint of its half-gallon carton of Tropicana Premium orange juice with the help of the Carbon Trust, and it plans to release the footprints of Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Gatorade, and Quaker Chewy Granola Bars in the future. (Tropicana has also partnered with Cool Earth in a “Rescue the Rainforest” campaign.)
Opinion varies as to what extent the footprint numbers will affect consumer behavior. Without a meaningful point of reference, the numbers are all but meaningless: The carbon footprint of that half-gallon of Tropicana orange juice, in case you’re wondering, is 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide. Some have suggested that rather than listing the total pounds of carbon dioxide emitted, the labels should indicate how much carbon is embodied in every dollar spent, a system that would enable consumers to compare the impact of anything from a candy bar to an mp3 player.
Even if carbon labels don’t immediately change consumer behavior, they can help pinpoint the origins of our energy use and emissions and could likely spur reductions. In the meantime, here are some fast facts about the food system’s impact on climate change, as well as some tips on how to reduce your own footprint. The information is courtesy of the Cool Foods Campaign, a project for the Center for Food Safety and the CornerStone Campaign. To learn more, visit coolfoodscampaign.org.


Agriculture emits greenhouse gases through the production, packaging, and transport of pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals cause erosion and pollute water, two processes that also emit greenhouse gases. The machinery used on industrial farms—from tractors to irrigation systems—creates further greenhouse gases, as do livestock: Their waste is often stored in “manure lagoons” that emit methane. (Cattle, of course, also emit considerable amounts of methane in the digestive process). Finally, the grains that comprise the livestock diet have been refined by methods that are energy-intensive as well as polluting.
Once harvested, food is packaged and then transported an average of 1,500 miles, steps that further contribute to climate change.


The Cool Foods campaign’s “FoodPrint” reflects the total amount of greenhouse gases that have been created as a result of the growth, processing, packaging, and transportation of any given food. By making better choices, consumers can have significant impact. When seeking out the “coolest” foods, just ask yourself a few simple questions:
1. Is it organic?
Organic foods have been produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics. In addition to the emissions from fertilizer mentioned above, nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, is emitted when these chemicals are applied to farmland. Conventional fertilizers also pollute water sources, kill sea life, emit still more methane, and contribute to erosion, a process that creates carbon dioxide.
What you can do:
Buy “certified organic” by looking for the USDA organic label at your local market.
2. Does this product come from an animal?
Conventional meat is the No. 1 cause of global warming in our food system. Animals in industrial systems are sprayed with over two million pounds—and their cages are treated with another 360,000 pounds—of pesticide every year. They also ingest a whopping 84 percent of all antimicrobials (including antibiotics) used in the United States and half of all the grains grown in the country.
What you can do:
Limit your consumption of meat, dairy, and farmed seafood. Buy organic, local, and grass-fed meat and dairy, as they are produced without synthetic pesticides and herbicides and may use less fossil fuel. Look for seafood that is wild and local and whose stocks are not endangered.
3. Has it been processed?
Unlike fruits and vegetables, processed foods require the use of energy-intensive canning, freezing, drying, and packaging. Processed foods are usually sold in packages and containers listing their ingredients and tend to be found in the center aisles of grocery stores.
What you can do:
Try to do most of your shopping in the outside aisles of the supermarket, where produce and other whole foods are displayed. If you must by processed products, opt for “certified organic” whenever possible.
4. How far has it traveled to get here?
The transportation of food accounts for over 30,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year.
What you can do:
Buy local (or relatively local) if you can. Look for country-of-origin labels on whole foods and try to avoid products that come from the other side of the globe.
5. What sort of package does it come in?
Plastic packages are manufactured using oil and, as such, are responsible for creating over 24,000 tons of greenhouse gas every year.
What can you do?
Avoid excessive packaging by choosing whole foods: loose fruits and vegetables, as well as bulk cereals, pastas, grains, seeds, and nuts. And remember to bring along a reusable grocery bag.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Lying Pears

Here is one of the pear trees, a few weeks ago. It looks the same today, but the foliage is yellower and not as thick. It is October, after all. Loaded with pears, seemingly. One other of the four pear trees still has a lot of fruit on it as well; the other two are earlier varieties and are long gone. We had a massive pear harvest this year from the antique Bartlett and the Comice, and so I wasn't in any kind of a hurry to harvest the last two trees. The only pressure I felt was that it would be nice to get the pears off the trees so that I could put the horses to graze in the orchard pasture before the first frost killed the grass. The horses would eat any pears they could find and founder. 

Yesterday evening while I was out with there goats, I saw and heard a flock of starlings knocking about in the pear trees. Figuring that the pears must be getting ripe if the birds were starting to peck at them, I decided to go out and get them down as soon as possible. Today I went out to gather a sackful of pears to trade to a friend for some pumpkins. I made a terrible discovery:

 The majority of the pears, seemingly intact and gorgeous, had in fact been eaten out by wasps. The trees were hung with hollow pears, thin-shelled and delicate like christmas tree ornaments,  and filled with yellow jackets. I think what happened is that the starlings peck at the pears, making a small wound, and then the wasps are drawn to the leaking juice and enter the pear through the hole and eat it from the inside out.

To make matters worse, the pears that hadn't yet been attacked were - although full sized - just as hard and green as they were a month ago. At that time, I picked a few pears and set them on the table to ripen, but they never did. They just sat there, stubbornly green. Homero, bizarrely, eats them like this, and so I didn't know if they would have eventually ripened or what, but I figured it couldn't hurt to just leave them until they started to fall on their own.

Above you see all the pears I could find which are solid - there are twenty-six of them. A few of them have bird strikes, but none have been invaded by insects yet.  But how to ripen them? I thought I remembered treading that some varieties of pears need to be chilled before they will ripen - and so a quick google search seems to confirm.  Supposedly, I should gold the pears at 32-35 degrees Farenehit for at least a week and up four months, and then bring them to room temperature for 7 - 10 days. How exactly I am supposed to do that I haven't the foggiest clue. I could refrigerate them, but I don't have room in my fridge for 26 pears. And my fridge isn't that cold, anyway. Nights this time of year average 55 degrees, so leaving them outside isn't likely to help.

That's probably the best I can do, though. As I said, we have already enjoyed a large and delicious crop of pears this year, so it isn't a tragedy if we don't make full use of this last harvest. Alternatively, my husband can eat them all green, the way he likes them.

Link: an extremely comprehensive guide to European Pear varieties, with photos and information about siting, disease tolerance, and uses. Great site. http://www.usapears.com/~/media/Files/Research%20Website%20Docs/Pear%20Encyclopedia/Pear%20Encyclopedia%2003-2011.ashx

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We're Having Authenticity For Dinner (Tepache)

tepache in the garage

We are having a pretty simple supper tonight: pan fried trout, baked potatoes, and braised red cabbage. It smells wonderful in my kitchen right now (even though I haven't fried the trout yet) and I thought I'd put up the recipe for the red cabbage. But when I started to compose it in my mind, I realized that this recipe - and those for the other components of dinner -is actually very involved, and interesting, if I describe it correctly.

It's apple season. I love apples, and I love apple season, but we still, after seven years here, do not have our own apples. I have a beautiful old cider press and every year I go in search of apples to feed it. Two weeks ago, a lovely older couple from church told me they would be happy - nay, grateful - if I would go to their house and pick apples from their six trees. Every year the apples fall all over the yard and they are getting rather elderly and stiff to be picking them all up. My sister and I went together and picked something like three bushels of apples, and spent a few minutes picking up windfalls as a thank-you.

Then I pressed cider with a neighbor, who also brought a few bushels of apples. Fresh cider is wonderful, and we drank as much as we could as fast as we could, but even so, there was a three gallon carboy leftover that fermented gently in the garage. A week after the pressing, the cider in the carboy was fizzy and delicious, lightly alcoholic (probably one-and-a-half percent, so weak that I let the children drink it), and beautiful over ice on a warm September afternoon. Now, two weeks after that, it is edging into apple cider vinegar territory.

It isn't quite vinegar yet. But neither is it cider anymore; what I have now is a couple gallons of tepache. Unless you are Mexican, and a rural Mexican at that, you probably don't know what tepache is. Tepache, along with pulque, is a quintessential rural Mexican beverage served at festivals and rodeos and birthday parties back in the hill country, and out of clay jugs on market days in small towns. It can be made from apples, or peaches, or plums, or various Mexican fruits that don't grow around here, such as ciruelas and tunas. Basically, it is a weak fruit beer. It's impossible to get drunk on tepache, but if you quaff enough of it on a hot Mexican day while watching a parade, you can get a small but pleasant buzz. The tepache in my garage is fairly far over onto the vinegar side of the spectrum. It's still tasty, but I wouldn't want to drink a pint of it. There is still a gallon and half of it, however, and I have to do something with it, fairly quickly.

Today was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. The garden has been neglected lately, and it was past time to get out there and pick what was left to pick, dig the potatoes (which was a chore, since the plants died back ages ago and the weeds grew over), and do general cleanup. There's not a whole lot left, but I picked a quart of cherry tomatoes and dug a few pounds of potatoes. There are six red cabbage and I picked two, leaving the other four in the ground for later. I ate the last of the overbearing golden raspberries as I worked. The hubbard squashes, which did not do well, have died back already and I brought in the two small blue squash. My chiles dried on the plants ion the greenhouse and I picked them all as well. I am by no means done putting the garden to bed, but at least I made some progress.

Carrying in my potatoes and cabbage, the outlines of dinner came to me. Several weeks ago, my daughter Hope's best friend came over to spend the night, bearing a dozen beautiful little trout she had caught with her grandfather, already cleaned and frozen. I took the trout out to defrost and sliced the potatoes to roast in a shallow pan with olive oil and salt.  I wanted to give the cabbage a German/Eastern European treatment, braised with bacon and spices. I looked up a few recipes, and all of them called for apple cider vinegar. Well, of course I have some apple cider vinegar in the house, but I thought tepache would serve beautifully.

Except for the spices, everything we are eating tonight came from either our own garden or a neighbor. Everything is local to within a few miles. Everything was procured with our own labor and knowledge, or our friend's labor and knowledge, and grown in our own dirt.

Once, years ago, when I wrote a post about the importance of being able to produce my own food, my brother told me he didn't see the difference between producing your own food with your own labor, or using your labor to make money and buy your food. It was kind of an "if you have to ask, you'll never know" moment, but I just thought of an analogy he might get. What's the difference between writing a piano concerto yourself and playing it on a piano yourself, or paying somebody to write and preform a concerto for you?

Braised Red Cabbage

1 medium or two small heads red cabbage, from your garden. 
1 large red onion, ditto
1/2 pound bacon, preferably from your own pig
1 pint homemade tepache
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
6 allspice berries
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 tsp salt

In a medium saucepan, fry chopped bacon over medium heat to render fat. Saute sliced onion and sliced red cabbage. When vegetables are beginning to soften, add spices and fry for a few minutes more. Add tepache and bring to a fast simmer. Cover and cook until cabbage is very tender, about 30 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Right On Time (Rain and Decisions)

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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Canning Party (Recipes)

lemon curd

mixing up Ukrainian refrigerator pickles

making dilly beans

Yesterday I invited a couple of girlfriends over to do some communal canning. It was a beautiful fall day and I enjoyed showing my friends around the homestead. After a few drinks and some snacks, we got down to business.

One of my friends was a total canning novice, and she chose dilly beans as a good place to start. I think that's a good choice - easy vinegar based pickle, delicious, pretty. I made lemon curd because I had a serious surplus of organic lemons from the Gleaner's Pantry. Lemon curd is not just yummy, but also very attractive and I'm thinking it will make a good addition to any Christmas packages I send out this year, should I get my shit together and send any.

My other friend is Ukrainian, and was making two of her mother's recipes. I was very excited about this; my mother's family also comes from Ukraine, but a few generations back, and as far as I know no family recipes have survived from that time. The three of us had a great time in the kitchen, and we decided to make it an annual event - the September canning get-together.

Nastia's Refrigerator Pickles

4 kg pickling cucumbers sliced in fourths lengthwise, and halved if long
4 Tbsn minced garlic
1 C. salad oil
1 C. sugar
2 Tbsn mustard powder
2 Tbsn yellow mustard seeds
2 tspn ground black pepper
1 C. 9% white vinegar (available in Russian grocery stores; or 2 C. regular white vinegar

Mix all ingredients in a large non-reactive kettle; let stand 3 hours at room temp. Then pack into large glass jars and refrigerate up to 2 months. 

These pickles are so delicious we couldn't stop eating them immediately, but now, a day later, I can say they are much better than they were even 24 hours ago. Unbelievable. I will be making these every year. 

Nastsia's Eggplant Preserve

3 Kg ripe eggplants (about 8), chopped in large (2") dice
1 Liter tomato juice
1 Tbsn salt
1 C. sugar
1 C. salad oil
1/2 C. 9% vinegar (available in Russian groceries; or 1 C. regular white vinegar)

Salt the eggplant well and leave to sit 1/2 hour in a colander; then rinse well and combine with all the other ingredients. Boil 20 minutes, then ladle into sterilized wide-mouth pint jars and process in a water bath 30 minutes. Cool and make sure jars have sealed. 
NOTE: this is Nastia's mother's recipe. The Blue Book Canning Guide states that eggplant, as a low acid vegetable, MUST be pressure canned. Some sources say that acidizing the eggplant with vinegar makes it safe; other sources DISAGREE. To be totally safe, process in a pressure canner.

Lemon Curd

Juice of 8 large or 12 small lemons; about 1 full cup
6 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
2 C. sugar or more to taste
3 sticks (3/4 lb) butter

in a large sauce pan, mix first three ingredients. Whisk until well blended. Over medium heat, whisk in butter in small pieces until incorporated; keep whisking occasionally until thickened; about 6 or 7 minutes. Ladle into sterilized 1 C. quilted jelly jars and place on sterilized lids. Process in a water bath just to seal; about 5 minutes. The high acid of this conserve makes it safe as long as the jar seals well. Will keep for many months. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

It Never Rains But it Pours (When is Enough Enough?)

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.