"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Homero's New Toy (the Craigslist Chronicles)

A few weeks ago, Homero made a spectacular find on Craigslist - a Case loader for under a thousand dollars, more or less in running condition. He has wanted a tractor for ages - he has major tractor envy of our neighbor, who has a small, spanking new Kubota with a loader and a backhoe. But the truth is that five acres does not a tractor justify, not unless you have some sort of intensive revenue-positive business on your five acres that requires a tractor. An occasional need to move barn-litter or patch potholes in the gravel driveway does not count.

Our neighbor, by the way, also has five acres. When he bought his Kubota, complete with field mower and rototiller attachments, he spent week after week going over his land, converting it fairly quickly into dust, which blew away in the wind or ran down into the ditches with the rain. We shook our heads, but what can a neighbor do? What is a friendly warning about erosion, compared to the seductive smell of diesel exhaust? 

Homero sensibly sold me on the idea of buying the Case by explaining how he would make a few minor repairs and then sell it for triple the purchase price. Maybe that will happen. Who am I to say? What do I know about the value of small farm machinery? Not a whole lot.  Meanwhile, Homero has been enjoying playing with the loader.

My brother in law brought a load of chips recently, which had stayed in a pile in front of the barn for lack of a way to spread them. Done - a neat, four inch thick carpet is laid over the muddy area. The barn litter, which I had simply forked out through the window into the old pig yard has now been moved over to the compost area. And best of all - the old compost pile has been turned and turned and turned again. 

Some of the compost goes back five years. I guess it can fairly be called topsoil now. Grass had grown thick over the top of the oldest mound. I certainly wasn't going to try to turn it by hand, with my creaky shoulders and my obstreperous lumbar region. There it sat, a four foot high mound, fifteen feet across, inviolate, until today. 

Homero spent the last hour of daylight this afternoon practicing with the loader, going over and over the compost, turning it and turning it again. When he was done there was a pile of beautiful loose dirt - black as a devil's food cake; moist, crumbly, squeezable, and absolutely heady with the smell of freshly turned earth. I cannot doubt that it will work magic in the garden. Somebody's garden, anyway - I plan to offer it for sale on Craigslist. Turnabout's fair play. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Three Easy Cheeses (From One and a Half Goats)

Polly and Iris

This year I have one-and-a-half does in milk. Sounds weird, but it's about right. Polly (black and white, above) had twin babies born early during a snowstorm that didn't make it. She is a good milker and is now giving me about 3/4 gallon of milk a day. This isn't as much as last year - she ought to be at peak production about now and I expected closer to a gallon a day based on last year. However, with the addition of the cow, the pasture is not as abundant as it once was; maybe I am not making up the difference with quality supplemental hay. It doesn't matter much to me - she has good body condition and I don't need to squeeze every last drop of milk from her.

Flopsy had a single buckling a month later, a spectacular spotted boy. It's nice that Flopsy had a single this year, because she is more usually given to throwing triplets, and as a "half a doe" she can't raise triplets. Years and years ago, Flopsy had a serious case of mastitis and lost most of the production on one side of her udder. If this were a commercial operation, we would have had to cull her. Luckily, this is a homestead and I can make decisions that aren't ruthlessly practical. I decided that since Flopsy is fertile, healthy, a good mother and a good kidder, and still capable of raising twins on one teat, she's worth keeping. Indeed, Flopsy brought in the only cash income of the year, with the sale of her flashy buckling. Flopsy adds about three pints a day to the milk total.

Iris didn't get pregnant at all last year - a first. She is the best milker I have and also usually throws triplets. I don't know if it's her age - nine - or the fact that she clearly didn't like last year's buck. She ran away from him and wouldn't let him mount, even though she was in full, raging heat. It's okay though -together, the in-milk does are providing me a little over a gallon of milk a day, which is a lot.

I have to make cheese about three times a week to keep up. This year I have been pretty busy with a new job and so I have settled into a routine of making easy cheese that I am already very familiar with rather than trying to experiment with tricky recipes. Here are my three go-to cheeses, in ascending order of difficulty:

1) queso fresco. Just heat a gallon of milk to 180 degrees fahrenheit, add 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar, and when the curds separate, strain through a clean cotton cloth. When drained, you can place cheese in a bowl, cut or crumble into small pieces, salt, and then wrap and press (in a press or under a stack of books) for several hours until firm. If you like, add chopped herbs or red pepper flakes when you add the salt. Good for quesadillas.

2) chèvre. Heat a gallon of milk just to blood temperature, no higher. Add mesophilic starter, 1/8 teaspoon and gently stir. Cover and let sit several hours. I like to add two to three drops rennet for a slightly firmer cheese, but if you like it very soft and spreadable, omit this step. Continue to let sit undisturbed for a full 24 hours at room temperature. Then drain through a clean cotton pillowcase. I like to hang my pillowcase up on the clothesline to drip. It will take several hours or overnight to drain sufficiently. Remove cheese and salt, mixing well. Takes about 1 level tablespoon salt per gallon of milk, less if you have drained the cheese until it is very thick and dry.

3) "cheddar." This is probably not really cheddar; it's my simplified recipe that I have developed over the years. For a gallon or up to two gallons of milk. Heat to blood temperature and add 1/8 tsp mesophilic starter. Cover and let sit undisturbed about 2 hours. Add five drops rennet and gently stir. Wait until curds separate into a cake with whey floating on top - about two more hours. Check for a clean cut with a thin-bladed knife. Make three or four cuts and then wiggle the pan - the cheese should separate cleanly with sharp lines. If not, wait longer, up to 8 hours if room is cool.

When you have a clean cut, use your knife to cut curd into small cubes - about 1/2". Heat gently to about 105 - warm bath temperature but not hot. Stir. Curds will firm up and whey will get clearer. Stir continually for as long as you have available - up to 45 minutes. Curds will become rounded, shiny, and firmer. Drain through a clean cotton cloth. Salt well, using hands to turn and knead for a few minutes. Then wrap in the cloth and press under firm pressure - about 50 pounds. You will need a press for this - a 50 pound stack of books is very wobbly.

Press overnight. Turn cheese and press under even firmer pressure - 75?- for another 10 to 12 hours. Remove cheese from press and let air dry (under cheesecloth to protect from flies) for about 2 days, turning once. Then cheese may be waxed and stored at cellar temperature. My oldest "cheddar" is now about 10 weeks old, but I haven't broached it yet so I can't tell you how it turned out.

It goes without saying that all of your equipment ought to be not just clean but sterile - use only stainless steel or tempered glass, something that can withstand being washed with boiling water. I keep a small pot of water simmering on the stove for my spoons, thermometers, etc. Only the cotton cloth cannot actually be sterile - but after each time I unwrap cheese, I wash it and wring it out in very hot water and then hang it up to dry outside in the breeze. I wash it again in hot water just before use.

Two of the above recipes use unpasteurized milk - that is up to your discretion. The recipes will work equally well with pasteurized milk. Just heat milk to 160 degrees. Boom, it's pasteurized. If anyone who might eat the cheese is pregnant or has an immune deficiency disease the milk MUST be pasteurized. Not to do so is to court Listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, and other dangerous diseases. Even healthy, well-cared-for animals harbor these bacteria in their gut. I wash my hands!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Canning in April (Gleaner's Pantry)

My kitchen table was a housewarming gift from my mom. It is absolutely beautiful - twelve feet of knotty pine, seats eight comfortably or ten in a pinch. Here it is covered with produce from the Gleaner's Pantry today. Aside from the boxes and bags you see here, there are also three or four boxes full of animal food in the van - trimmings and waste, wilted lettuce and yellow greens and apples with bad spots and rock-hard bagels.

Everything in the photo above is human-quality food. It just needs a little love. The grapes, for example, might have a couple of shriveled specimens hanging on that need to be plucked off and thrown away. A bell pepper might have a crack in it, or an onion could be sprouting a bit. In a five pound bag of mandarin oranges, a lone moldy orb renders the whole bag unfit for sale. For the most part, I can't even tell why the food was deemed unacceptable for the grocery store - it all looks good to me.

Today I brought home a lot of food. The flat of tomatoes on the left is, as we speak, being turned into salsa ranchera and I will can it as soon as I finish this post. Canning tomatoes in April: imagine. Several loaves of fancy crusty organic sourdough bread are slowly becoming croutons in the oven right now, bathed in olive oil, herbs, and garlic. A massive bag of chopped organic kale is in the oven, too, and will soon become crunchy kale chips, a favorite after school snack.

Three heads of Napa cabbage will be kim chee. I'm going to chop it and macerate with salt, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes. Nobody likes kim chee but me; but I like it a lot. Fermented food is good for the gut.

Dinner tonight is cream of celery-root soup. There were two gigantic celery roots on offer and I have leftover chicken from last night with which to make stock. Celery root makes the most wonderful silky smooth soup, you hardly even need cream. I will be enriching mine with chèvre, of which I also have an abundance this time of year.

After everyone had taken as much food as they wanted and could carry, there was still so much food leftover! A few people who raise pigs took crates of produce and leftover baked goods. But even after that, there is still good, edible food going to the landfill, simply for lack of people to take it home and eat it. It's amazing what goes to waste because of the difficulties of logistics and our "just-in-time" food system.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Best Friend Goodbye

"My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today." - Watership Down.

Today I have a heavy heart. Our dog Ivory, who has been with us for almost fourteen years, since before my children were born, died last night. Ivory has always been a healthy dog, she has hardly been sick a day in her life. Even this year, people who met her would remark on what a beautiful dog she was, and when I said she was thirteen, they would be amazed and say how good she looked for her age.

Just two days ago, she was still dancing at the door when I went out to feed the animals, eager to accompany me and do her job as she saw it. However, we had noticed just lately that she seemed without her usual energy, and that sometimes she panted without having exercised. She had a normal appetite and certainly hadn't lost weight or anything like that. We said "maybe we ought to get her in for a checkup soon." 

But then yesterday morning when we woke up we could see instantly that something was very wrong.  For the first time ever, she didn't want to come out for morning chores. She wasn't interested in food or water. She sat up on her sternum and her flanks went in and out as she labored to breathe. The vet said to bring her in right away. 

I had to work, so Homero took her in. When I called on my first break and asked what the deal was, I could hear the sorrow in his voice as he said "amor, it isn't good." 

The vet took an X-ray, and it showed that one of her lungs was entirely filled with fluid and her heart was radically displaced. They aspirated the fluid, and it was blood. But not normal blood; it didn't clot. Given that, and her age and her breed, the vet said it was almost certain that she had advanced angiosarcoma - a common cancer of the blood vessels that causes disseminated bleeding in the thoracic cavity. 

I said "How can that be? She was fine until this week." But she said that it is actually quite common - normal, in fact - for a dog to show virtually no symptoms until the end is near. "They go along, compensating quite well, until all of a sudden the bleeding is too much and they can't compensate any more." Ivory, the vet told us, had at most two or three days to live. Her lungs were filling up with blood and she would soon drown. 

We talked briefly about further testing and options, but the vet told us that frankly she doubted if Ivory even had enough time for bloodwork to come back. There was clearly no option but for us to help her end her suffering as soon as possible. If we did nothing, her death would be very uncomfortable - in the words of the veterinarian "not gentle." Our friend and veterinarian Anne-Marie  helped us and provided the service of ending her life in a private and gentle manner.


We buried her last night beneath the dogwood tree. This tree is my favorite on the property - slim, graceful, and elegant, beautiful and delicate, it reminds me very much of Ivory. She used to lie beneath this tree in the shade on hot summer days and watch Hope and Paloma jumping on the trampoline. It comforts me to think that in the years to come, Ivory may actually become a part of this tree, and we may sit in her shade and remember her. 

Believe it or not, I have reached the age of forty-three without ever having lost someone I greatly loved. I suppose that is a blessing, although right now I think I would have benefitted from some practice grieving. I guess Ivory is my practice grieving; and long may it be before I have to put it to use. We are going to miss Ivory for a long time, I know. We will never ever forget her.