"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bees and Heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cheese Season Solutions (Practicality vs. Purism)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Foodsaver. A vacuum-sealer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pasture Patrol, Spring 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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