My Corn Tale of Woe

Let me set the stage: we moved on to these lovely 10 acres two years ago and started learning about the farmer who lived here before us.  He really had the farming thing down pat.  He had cows up in the pasture, the apple orchard for cider apples, and in the low part, by the street, he grew corn.  The whole front was corn.  Not only that, but he dry farmed it.  Meaning, after maybe an initial watering, he didn’t water it at all.  Not only that, but it was delicious.  And he used the stalks to feed his cows.

So we had to grow corn.

But instead of the wise old farmer, it was just dumb old us.  And we have no idea what we’re doing.  I picked what sounded like a good type of corn, white and sweet, and planted it.  We have no clue about dry farming; we watered our corn.  It came up, looking promising.

And then I suddenly took a full time job over the summer and basically left the whole garden to Jason.

Have I mentioned that the garden is about 1/3 of an acre?  Not all corn, of course, but it included a large patch.

Anyway, time slipped away from us and before we knew it the corn was over-ripe.  Yucky.  Gluey and tasteless.  We let it just sit there and dry up.  After the season was over, we harvested an insane amount of dried corn – seed for next year.  I wound up giving away the vast majority at a seed exchange.  But we kept some for this year.

Take two with the corn.  No excuses this time – I have taken the summer off and we’ve been down in the garden a lot.  We kept taste-testing the corn, and it wasn’t looking so good, again.  Finally, I noticed a trend: they were starting to get a little less awful.  So, today, when I picked one that tasted halfway okay, I decided it was time.  Harvested the whole lot.  Five big crates full.

An aside: hardly any photos because my bloody cell phone is on the fritz.  Again.

Anyway, Sarah and her friends helped with the harvest, and then Sarah and I shucked every single one and took a bite of every single one.  Five crates worth.  Raw.

More than half were rejected out of hand, and the others were deemed good enough or, with the tone of surprise, “Sweet!”  Those were few and far between, though, and really it was a matter of perspective.  I’m sure the professionally grown sweet corn would have put our best ones to shame.

So, tonight, I blanched, cooled, cut off the kernels and froze all the “good enough” corn.  It made three gallon-sized Ziploc bags worth.  Rather flat bags.  And the rejects are now two crates (shucked) of chicken food.  I’m hoping the lambs will eat the husks – I’ll try that tomorrow.

Cobs from "okays" on left, rejects on right.
Cobs from “okays” on left, rejects on right.

Between the initial taste-testing with Sarah, and the secondary testing I did after the blanching (some were definitively rejected), I’m REALLY SICK OF CORN.  I don’t know when I’ll ever be ready to face those bags in the freezer.  The thought makes me slightly nauseous.

Maybe we should just stick to tomatoes.

– LizzyIMG_0240

Bumbling Along…

We didn’t mean to become beekeepers.

Not so soon, anyway.  It was on the list, but in the “some year down the road” category.  But last February I saw an ad on Craigslist for a whole setup of bee hive stuff that came with a wild swarm of bees, and we hopped in the truck to go get it all.  Got back home, set it up, and thought: “Oh crap.  Now what?”  We quickly took a beginner beekeeping class and found out all the things we were doing wrong.  We adjusted a few things, and then basically left them alone.

They started out as a very, very small colony but grew fantastically last spring.  We knew we weren’t supposed to take any honey the first year, to help them through the winter.  Over the summer they filled up two “brood boxes” with brood (babies) and some honey, as well as a “honey super” which is a smaller box just for honey.  And then we left them alone.

Which, it turns out, was a mistake.

Turns out, over the winter they filled their “brood boxes” with honey instead of brood.  Which left the queen bee with nowhere to lay her eggs.  From what we can figure, the worker bees knew eggs weren’t being laid, so they figured it must be the queen’s fault.  So they killed her and then tried to make a new queen, which didn’t work out.  By the time we looked into the brood boxes in mid-March, it was too late.  No queen, no babies, dying colony and LOTS AND LOTS OF HONEY.

At least there’s a bright side.

So, we rented an extractor and wound up with over FOUR GALLONS of honey.  We don’t even go through a quart a year.  That’s sixteen years worth of honey.  Yes, we’ll be selling some, and no, we don’t ship.  Except to our mothers, of course.

IMG_0062Jason with one frame of capped honey.

IMG_0071Uncapping with the special knife

IMG_0073The rented extractor, which spins the honey out.

IMG_0085Then we filter the honey through this fine mesh bag.

IMG_0097Pour it out into jars

IMG_0112And admire it!

IMG_0116It came out dark and complex, but with no bitterness.  Super sweet and delicious!

So that’s how we wound up, by our bumbling ignorance, destroying our colony of bees.  And getting a huge windfall of fantastic honey.  I’ve taken another beekeeping class, and it’s one of those “the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know” things.  Bee colonies are very complex, and million things can go wrong.  Several people in the class said their bees died, or left, and they got zero honey out of the deal.  So, we’ll start again with new bees next month, and try our best.  But if we screw up again, at least we’ve got sixteen years worth of honey.

– Lizzy

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Enough About the Garden Already!

It has just this morning occurred to me, as I fired up the computer and looked over our past blog posts, that I haven’t written anything since June. As in six months ago. Ugh. I mean, it was a busy summer, don’t get me wrong, but really? Thank goodness Lizzy stepped in; if maintaining and updating this blog were solely my responsibility you’d just now be reading about how exhausting our moving day was.

I’d love to attribute my lack of posting to laziness, but there’s more to it than that. I won’t bore you about it now, though.

Anyway, it looks like Lizzy, in her last post, pretty much wrapped up all the garden stuff. If you read it you got the gist: we wound up with boatloads of veggies. Way more than a family of three could ever dream of eating its way through. This is, by now, old news. Still, I feel like I should post one last pic:

Lizzy, do you hate tomatoes yet?
Lizzy, do you hate tomatoes yet?

That’s a lot of tomatoes. I wish I could tell you that was our haul for the year, but no – what you see here represents maybe 1/8th of what we grew. As Lizzy alluded to in her earlier post we dried them, canned them, froze them, made them into paste, threw them at solicitors and, of course, ate them fresh – and still had many tomatoes rot on the vine.

So…maybe next year we’ll do fewer tomatoes.

Anyway, as I said, let’s consider the garden wrapped up. Enough already!

Of the many non-garden related projects we’ve undertaken these last months, the largest by far, and most significant in terms of preparing ourselves for a sustainable life, are fencing the properties and constructing a root cellar in the hill directly behind the house.

I mean, you can’t very well run a farm with livestock and such and not have a bunch of fencing, right? Apparently in many respects farm animals aren’t dissimilar to infant humans: they tend to eat lots of grass and dirt, poop everywhere, tear through neighbors’ living rooms, and then run into the street where they are instantly struck and killed by a truck delivering beef jerky to the liquor store down the road. Our plan is to avoid that sort of thing.

And a root cellar is a no-brainer if every year you’re going to grow and harvest, thanks to a garden plot the size of a football field, enough vegetables to feed the planet several times over. Did we mention that we grew a lot of vegetables? Well, we did. So many, in fact, that had we done this prior to 1984 the super group Band Aid would never have existed. That’s right – no depressing Christmas song thanking God for starving most of Africa. Heck, for all we know Bono might have given up music all together and switched to a more constructive career, like landscaping or owning a car wash. The thought absolutely boggles the mind.

Dammit, now I’m on about the garden again. Sorry.

There’s no way I’ll have enough room in this post to write about both the fencing and the root cellar, so I’ll stick with the fencing. I think we’ve written somewhere that Lizzy had found a good deal on tons of corner-posts, studded metal t-posts, and deer-fencing while browsing the Craig’s List “Farm and Garden” section.

I can't say with certainty that Sarah isn't somewhere underneath all of this.
I can’t say with certainty that Sarah isn’t somewhere underneath all of this.

They were basically half the price of brand-new material, so of course we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately, when I write that it was a “ton” of fencing I’m not being entirely accurate. It was more like two or three tons. The stuff was so heavy we had to borrow a burly neighbor and his utility truck to transport the metal material over the twenty-ish miles from Bonny Doon to Watsonville, and it still took us several trips. Separately, we used our pickup truck to move the corner posts (8 foot, 4×8 pressure treated. Maybe sixty of them) and that took two trips and nearly killed the poor truck. The experience was, in its back-breaking potential, second only to our experiment in building our own garden fence (http://wp.me/p1OmAa-cM if you’d like to revisit it).

IMG_2876But we got it done, and having all that inexpensive fencing proved to be huge for our budget. We did have, after all, several acres throughout two different parcels of very hilly land to fence in. Naturally, we weren’t about to undertake this sort of thing ourselves, so we found a good contractor – a guy who had worked for us before and we trusted – and began the process of transforming our open land into a place that goats and wee lambs can graze and frolic in safely and happily, at least until we eat them.

Each fenced-in section covers about three acres of land: the apple orchard below the house and the “upper pasture” extending from the driveway away from the house. Each has two 14 foot gates (for truck and tractor access) and a couple of 4 foot gates (for, you know, just people). Not included in the newly fenced-in areas are an access road we carved into the hill between the house and the orchard/chicken yard, the front plateaus by the main road (where the vegetable garden, burn pile and future olive grove are) a couple of acres of brush, bramble and eucalyptus behind the house, and the house and yard itself.

So here, at the risk of boring you with pictures of fences, are some pictures of fences:

Just getting started on the upper pasture.
Just getting started on the upper pasture.

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IMG_2872

IMG_2965

IMG_2976
Look closely and you can see the house through the trees.
IMG_3057
The access road between the house and the orchard.
More access road. Access to what? How knows!
More access road. Access to what? Who knows!

So now that’s done. We’re eager to get our animals now, but first we have to provide some sort of shelter for them to sleep in. Of course that’ll involve me, lumber and power tools, so we may wait until this spring, as building anything larger than a coat rack involves more ambition than I have readily available, as well as many hours browsing YouTube for tutorials on how to use a hammer.

Next up, the root cellar!

-J.

Harvest Season

So sorry about the long delay in posting – we’ve been busy!  Summer was a blur of full-time work (for me) and trying to keep up with the garden (for Jason).  But for the last two months we’ve been trying to deal with the fruits of our labor – quite literally.  Now we really understand the concept of harvest season.  I will try to show the sheer vastness of our harvest in photos.

We grew four types of dry beans (as well as two types of fresh green beans).  When the bean pods were dry we picked them and brought them to the house, then we shelled them into this pan, then we sorted them into containers by type.  I should not have written “we”.  Jason did all this almost single-handedly over many hours and many days.  There are many, many more than this photo shows.  Shown here: Sarah running her hands through the beans – it feels great!

Here is a typical truckload in September: six crates of tomatoes, one of yellow summer squash, and another crate with cucumbers and winter squash.  We were happily inundated with tomatoes all late summer, but unhappily inundated with summer squash.  I sold a few at the farmer’s market, but many of them became chicken food.

What to do with too many tomatoes?  I ate them all summer and early fall literally for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between snacks.  Every day.  In October I finally reached my limit.  Jason canned like crazy.  He also dried them in the oven and packed them in oil (cherry tomatoes), and…

Made

tomato

paste!

  It

is

so

sweet

and

delicious!

The pear tree went crazy this year.  In the spring it bloomed before the apple trees did, and our bees (we have a hive) absolutely covered the whole tree.  It was humming!  As a result, we got a bazillion pears!  They’re more problematic to deal with in quantity than apples, since they ripen and rot so quickly.

But

boy

were

they

delicious!!!

Sarah

helped

us

by

climbing,

picking

and

eating,

of course!

We wound up with seven crates of pears!  And we couldn’t even reach the pears in the top 1/4 of the tree!  We wound up making pear butter, pear sauce, canned pears and dried pears.  How did we dry the pears, you ask?

I’m glad you asked.  I must toot my own horn about this one.  Thought it up myself, I did!  We have some very hot days in September and October here in California, and I’ve been wanting, but too lazy to build, a solar food dryer.  Instead, I realized how hot it gets in our attic and found that we have a pile of unused window screens leftover from the old windows we switched out.  We also happened to buy a mandolin (the slicer, not the instrument) for $3 at a yard sale across the street.  Combine all these and you get a perfect way to dry pears!  They came out delicious.  It worked so well I’m also drying apples as I write these words.

We also harvested three crates of potatoes, which are now being stored in the apple shed with the winter squash and the apples.  And one last half-crate of pears that refuse to ripen.  Jason fixed up the apple shed by emptying it of junk, replacing all the screens and putting new wood on the floor where hungry animals and rot had taken their toll.  The apple house is really supposed to be for apples only, and the potatoes and squash will wind up in the new root cellar when it’s finished.  The root cellar will have to be a blog all of its own – stay posted.

The peppers finally ripened, all at once, in late October.  We have a combination of sweet yellow and red, as well as a couple types of hot.  We made a big fry from sweet peppers and sweet onions and had wonderful fajitas, with lots of leftovers.  The rest of the peppers are in the fridge.  Both the sweet and the normal onions are still in the ground.  Don’t know quite what to do with all the sweet onions, since they will not store well.  Our plan for the normal onions is to hang them in the attic and under the stairs and use them all year.  Any suggestions for what to do with the sweet?  Caramelize and can them, somehow?  Our freezers are full, so it will have to be a canning solution…

Most recent harvest, late October: some parsnips and kale, a pile of pumpkins and winter squash, and the last of the cherry tomatoes (with a couple of peppers thrown in).  The rest of the parsnips are still in the ground, but will be stored in the aforementioned root cellar.  The kale we’ll just leave in the garden to continue growing.  Most of the pumpkins are sugar pumpkins for eating, but we wound up with three for carving for Halloween: two from a volunteer plant!  The closest yellow round thing in the photo is a mini-watermelon from “Sarah’s” garden.  It was ripe, but not fantastically sweet.  We won’t bother with that again next year.

As though I didn’t have enough to do, I convinced my neighbor to make jelly with me out of her Concord grapes.  It turned into a saga.  She harvested all the grapes, but half of them rotted before we could coordinate our schedules to make the jelly together.  The non-rotten half wound up being 21.5 pounds of grapes!  We followed a recipe I’d found online, which said no pectin was needed and it would thicken in 20 minutes.  Turns out it took 5 hours.  In retrospect, I should have just given up after an hour and run to the store for pectin.  Instead, I stirred that darn jelly for hours during 80 degree weather!  Here is Sarah happily helping at the beginning of the grape jelly saga.  Needless to say, her interest flagged as time wore on.  Anyway, my neighbor and I made 23 jars of jelly, but she would only take 3 jars!  What on earth am I going to do with 20 jars of Concord grape jelly?!?

And then, of course, the apples.  As you probably know, we have a whole orchard full of them.  I’m not actually sure how many trees we have – somewhere around 40.  We started harvesting in September and have been flat out ever since.  And we’re not done.  We had three weekends in a row when folks came to visit and helped us make cider!  First our friends Paula and John (pictured) who taught us how to process chickens last year, then my great friend Luisa and her daughter and daughter’s friends, then Jason’s aunt Margurite and uncle John from Massachusetts.  We have given away a few gallons and the chest freezer could only hold 10 gallons of cider this year (it’s full of 1/2 a lamb and 1/2 a pig we got from a nearby ranch).  But we have many more apples to press – yikes! Where will we put it?!?  Time to make more hard cider, clearly.  I also need to make apple sauce and, as I mentioned, am drying some too.  The “perfect” apples (few and far between) will remain in the apple shed for eating throughout the year.

I am currently in negotiations with someone who is raising turkeys locally; I’m hoping to trade 10 gallons of cider for a Thanksgiving turkey.  Wish me luck!

Sorry the post was so long, and so long overdue!  But thanks for reading!

– Lizzy

Sarah and her watermelon

Not Your Garden Variety Garden – Part 2

Back to the garden. Now that the fence was finished (mostly), and the drip line installed, we had no more excuses – it was time to plant. But first we had to plan everything out in detail. I mean, one just doesn’t go about tossing seeds hither and thither and expect everything to pop up in nice groups, does one? No, any respectable farmer must map every section out, according to group, and allow for walkways, space for compost piles, and a place to park the truck.

This we did on a huge piece of graph paper on the floor (plan the garden, that is – not park the truck. That would have been impossible). We had already received all of our seed packets in the mail (from three separate seed companies), so we picked a morning, laid everything on the dining room floor, and got to work.

This took some doing, but after a couple of hours (and a lot of erasing) we had a pretty good garden mapped out. The seeds were bunched by group, or family: brassicas (broccoli, kale, etc.), solanaceae (tomatoes and potatoes), legumes, roots, and some miscellaneous.  That actually left us with room to spare, which will come in handy next season as we’ll be rotating all of the crops.

And what were we planting? I guess just about everything. Here’s the list, in alphabetical order: artichokes, asparagus, beans (fresh and drying), beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, collards, corn, cucumbers, fennel, garlic, kale, leeks, lettuce, okra, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, spinach, and squash (some yellow summer and a variety of winter, including pumpkins for Halloween).

Add to the list an herb garden with all the goodies and a tiny garden for Sarah to grow her own cherry tomatoes, watermelon, carrots, sunflowers, cukes, sweet peas, and cotton.

(Yes, cotton. I have no idea why, other than that we may teach her the value of hard work by making her knit her own clothing. I don’t know – I’ll have to check with Lizzy on that one.)

Now that the planning phase was over, it was time for sowing. The tomatoes and peppers were starts, and the potatoes were, well, potatoes – but otherwise everything else was in seed form, so we’d have to trench or cultivate each row before planting.

Unfortunately we had gotten a good bit of rain since the last time we tilled (before putting in the drip line), and what had been beautiful, dark, loose soil had turned, over the course of a couple of weeks, from a sticky mud pit to a hardened, unworkable crust. There was no way we could amend the entire site before planting, so we had to just go for it, forcing shallow gashes into the ground along the drip line and covering the seeds with the gravel-like lumps of dry clay. We were able cover some of our rows with a nice compost/manure mix, but most of the garden looked like the surface of Mars (you can see what I mean in the pictures below).

Which was damned discouraging, really, as the idea behind a garden this big was to have food – to eat, dry, can, store or sell – for the whole year, thus saving us valuable time we would otherwise have spent looking at US Magazine in line at the supermarket while the aromatherapist up ahead pays for her Kombucha with a check. The notion that nothing would actually grow in our garden hadn’t occurred to us.

Tomatoes & potatoes (which I now learn aren’t supposed to be planted next to each other. Oops.)

But somehow everything seems to be coming up! The last of these pictures were taken a couple of weeks ago, so it’s actually in better shape than it looks here. Lizzy figured out how to program the automatic drip timer, and we’ve even had to start weeding.

The entrance to Sarah’s garden
Corn!
Beans & cucumbers!

Potatoes!

It isn’t perfect, not by anyone’s definition: some sections seem extra dry while others flood a bit even with moderate watering. I still wince every time I look at the soil, and some vegetables, like the broccoli, cauliflower and kale, seem to be struggling. But others, like the corn, beans, potatoes, and – surprisingly – lettuce are thriving, and the tomatoes look great.

It remains to be seen, of course, if any of these grow to fruition. Until then we’ll tend to them as best we can.

Now we just have to worry about the gophers….

-Jason

From henhouse to freezer: the process of processing

So here is the chicken situation: we got 40 chicks, raised them, kept the hens for egg laying and processed and froze the roosters.  Well, almost all the roosters: we kept one for breeding.  His name is Lucky.  Believe it or not, all of this went exactly according to plan.  Well, almost exactly.

We figured a “straight run” of chicks – a chance mixture of both sexes – would come out close to a 50/50 mix.  But no.  Once they started to grow out of fuzzball stage, we started sorting them out and we found we had 12 females and 28 males!  Yikes!

That was a little more processing than we had counted on.  And fewer egg layers than we’d hoped for.  The other monkey wrench was our trip to Hawaii: we had it scheduled the day after the chickens turned 15 weeks old.  I read that our type of chickens, Barred Plymouth Rocks, should be processed between 15 and 20 weeks old.  But I didn’t want the pet-sitter to have to deal with an unruly gang of fighting, crowing roosters.  So, they all had to go – way ahead of schedule.

We learned how to process from very nice strangers who responded to my request on an online chicken forum I belong to.  I asked anyone in the greater Bay Area if they wouldn’t mind teaching us how to process, and, by gum, someone offered!  So, in November, we drove two hours to help people kill, pluck and eviscerate their chickens.  We actually had a great time and even Sarah helped pluck!

So, when it was time to do our own, we had some idea what to do.  Turns out processing chickens is slow work, so we took them in batches.  One day we did three, the next time we did six, after that we did eight, then just two (taught someone else how!), and finally finished with another batch of eight.

killing cone
dunking

Here’s the rough idea: catch a roo, hold him by the feet so he is upside down (it calms them), put him in the “killing cone”, slit his throat and let him bleed out, wait for the shaking to stop, cut off the head (he is already dead), dunk in 145 to 150 degree water a few times, hang by the feet and pluck.  Then remove feet and neck and eviscerate CAREFULLY.  This takes some time.  Plucking takes some time too.

plucking

Equipment we used: a metal cone for killing, a wheelbarrow of straw to catch the blood, a propane burner and lobster pot for dunking (and a thermometer), a rope with slipknot for the plucking area, an outdoor sink for our evisceration station, a cooler with ice for finished chickens, and VERY SHARP KNIVES.  We also bought a good vacuum sealer for sealing up the chickens before freezing them.

One thing we learned about freezing the chickens is that they need to rest in the refrigerator for three days before freezing, to go through rigor mortis.  So, you can either process a chicken and then immediately cook it (before rigor sets in) or wait the three days and freeze it.  So far we ate five fresh, gave one away, and froze 21.  That might sound like a lot of chickens in the freezer, but keep in mind these were processed quite early, so they’re little.  But they’re still yummy!

– Lizzy