Things that are great!

Friends, let’s start this week with an optimistic post (for once). How about a quick round-up of things that are great right now?



A small family farm in Hoi An, Vietnam.

The Washington Post reports that a growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm:

“For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.”

Granted, the movement is small, but it is in fact a movement. And it’s moving in the right direction. There are numerous barriers, to be certain, but this is progress.


How can you not love this munchkin?

Not only are young people going back to the land, but more women are making more incredible cheese than ever. Led by such trailblazing pioneers as Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery and Mary Keehn from Cypress Grove, handcrafted cheese in this country – primarily made from goat milk, but sheep and cow, too – is truly enjoying its second wave:

“A commonly cited fantasy Plan B among urban paper-pushing professionals, the artisanal-cheese business has surged in recent years, with more than 900 specialty cheese makers in the United States, according to the American Cheese Society, a nonprofit trade organization in Denver. The A.C.S. does not keep data on gender, said its executive director, Nora Weiser, but compared with the bro-centric field of craft beer, where female brewers have struggled to get respect and recognition despite significant contributions, cheese making is a relative haven.”

While “American cheese” has long been a joke in the rest of the world, it is definitely no longer a joke – it’s remarkable. And delicious. Go buy some.


Greenhouse tomatoes in Japan.

In other positive news, vertical farming is finally coming into its own, pushed by high-dollar investments from people like Jeff Bezos, who clearly know a thing or two about running a business. Vertical farming is exactly what it sounds like: growing food in towers, with carefully controlled irrigation, lighting and temperature systems. While farmland continues to be gobbled up at staggering rates, vertical farming, which has been trialed successfully in repurposed shipping containers and other unusual places, might provide a local food alternative, especially in densely populated urban areas. There is still a lot of work to be done, but innovative, forward-thinking entrepreneurs are constantly revamping traditional farming rules. And we will need this sort of innovation, as both global temperature and global population climbs ever higher.


I’m not putting a picture of soda on this blog. Drink water. (This is Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.)

And for our final Great Thing today, how about this: soda consumption in the United States has dropped again, for the twelfth consecutive year. This statistic is proof that anti-sugar publicity campaigns and soda taxes are working, at least in some areas. While we’re still drinking about forty gallons per person, per year on average (!!!), those numbers are trending down. And that is definitely a Great Thing.





Back in the Ye Olden Days, N and I worked on boats. One of these boats – the one we met on – was a scuba diving liveaboard that plied the waters between St. Maarten and St. Kitts, in the Netherlands Antilles. Much of our history together, along with thousands of other people, was erased earlier this year with the landfall of Hurricane Irma. The island we knew so well doesn’t exist any longer.

Thanksgiving magazines

Every year, they promise the PERFECT Thanksgiving. And every year, we buy it.

On this particular dive boat, there were as many as eighteen guests and eight crew. I cooked, and N guided dives. And because provisioning in the Caribbean is never easy, the weekly menu was set by the home office, and it was the same, week in and week out. We had Taco Night, and a barbecue, and because most of our guests were American, every Thursday was a full Thanksgiving spread. Because – trust me – there is nothing you want to eat more in the middle of a humid Caribbean July than the heaviest meal known to man. Every. Single. Thursday.

Thanksgiving turkey ad

We’re so rich in this country that we will give you a free turkey!

I’ve cooked well more than fifty full Thanksgiving meals in my time on this planet thus far, and I’d like to state here and now that I am done. Unsurprisingly, N cannot stand the meal either. I’ve talked about this before in my classes – how much I really, really loathe this season – but this year, it’s worse than ever. I simply cannot embrace the excess. The waste. The sheer, utter, obscene overconsumption just for the sake of pointless tradition.

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Over two hundred million pounds of food will be thrown away on or shortly after Thanksgiving. The USDA conservatively estimates that over one-third of all turkeys raised for this one day will be thrown out, uneaten. These animals lived a horrible life and died for nothing. This is the season both for abundance and for waste, when we’re both begged to donate to hundreds of needy charities yet told at every turn that we need to buy more, eat more, consume more. I can no longer support America’s most gluttonous holiday: we’re the only country in the world that celebrates Thanksgiving, and we do so with such little regard for the shocking overconsumption that we promote to the rest of the world. And then there’s the day after Thanksgiving.


Because nothing says “giving thanks” like buying a bolt-action rifle on Black Friday.

A holiday devoted to proudly eating oneself into a “turkey coma,” followed by camping out so we can buy ever-larger televisions or the latest iPhone? Or a new gun? What is there to celebrate, honestly? While this holiday may have actually originated as a rightful celebration of having enough, now it’s about having more. More of everything. More food, specifically the dishes we just “have to have at the table.” You know, Aunt Mildred’s casserole that everyone secretly hates but it’s tradition. And so it sits there, congealing, and is quietly thrown out at the end of the evening because no one, no one wants to take it home. Or the two meat main courses, because everyone really needs both ham and turkey. And everyone really needs eight different side dishes. And everyone really needs three desserts. And everyone really needs to throw all this excess food away on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving because, quite frankly, everyone is f*ing tired of looking at it.


How about this year, we declare it enough. We have enough. Enough food. Enough electronics. Enough guns. Enough unused things in our house collecting dust. How about this year we agree to eat less, to buy less, to not feel sick at ten o’clock at night while we’re camping out at Bed Bath & Beyond. How about this year, we don’t worry about what do with all those leftovers because we just cooked enough. How about this year, we just decide that what we have is enough. And how about we leave it at that.

Thanks, but no thanks

Dear Oregon:

It is with regret that we inform you that you are no longer a candidate for the location of Quiet Farm. Although we visited you with highest hopes, we found that our expectations did not coincide with reality.


Praying Mantis


Fly Agaric Mushroom (poisonous!)

It goes without saying, Oregon, that your flora and fauna are simply exceptional. Just look at these photos! Coming from our dry, stark, high-plains desert, we were stunned by the sheer life found everywhere in this damp climate: on fallen logs, under chestnut leaves, buried in cranberry bogs.


Pacific Tree Frog


Still Life with Mushrooms

And the water! All the free water, everywhere! Just falling from the sky! Oh look, it’s still raining! Truly, it’s a miracle, and it means you can grow pretty much anything here. But we also found that farming in the pouring rain wasn’t as much fun as we’d hoped. Slogging through inches of sloppy mud while trying to dig out a stuck tractor or get feed to hungry animals sounds adventurous, but we’re afraid it would just become rather tedious.


Rough-Skinned Newt (its underside is bright orange!)


Cascades Frog

(While we’re on the topic of growing things, Oregon, we’d like to talk about “medicinal substances,” if you get our meaning. As a state, it seemed to us that you’ve embraced the recreational drug lifestyle just a touch too enthusiastically for our comfort, and that’s saying something, considering we hail from Colorado.)


Woolly Bear Caterpillar


Angel Mushroom (unconfirmed ID)

This is a tough letter for us to write, Oregon, because we were pretty much ready to set up shop and get Quiet Farm up and running. But outside of Portland or possibly Eugene, we don’t feel confident that the community can support the type of business we want to start. And unfortunately, we can’t afford any property near Portland or Eugene. Apparently it’s all being snatched up by escaping Californians.


Red-Veined Meadowhawk

Please know, Oregon, that you’re more than welcome to reapply as a potential Quiet Farm location at any time. We’ll just need to see a dramatic reduction in your extortionate property prices as well as a corresponding reduction in your precipitation rates. Oh, and lay off the weed for a bit, please. There’s work to be done.

With regards,

The Quiet Farm Scouting Team



We continue our never-ending quest to absorb everything we can about all types of farming, and just in time for America’s most revered Day of Gluttony, N and I learned how to harvest, sort and process cranberries! One of the farms we worked on in Oregon was home to three organic cranberry bogs, so we were able to see firsthand how this unique fruit is both grown and harvested.


A one-acre dry cranberry bog with harvester. The portion on the left still needs to be harvested, while the section on the right is finished. 

Cranberries are grown in Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as in Canada; they’re a low-growing vined shrub and the plants can live indefinitely if cared for properly. The vast majority of cranberries are conventionally wet-harvested, in the traditional bog we know from the Ocean Spray commercials. The organic farm we worked on, however, used dry harvesting. This is substantially more labor-intensive and has lower yields, but organic dry-harvested berries sell for nearly twenty times the amount that conventional wet-harvested berries do. This is primarily because dry cranberries can be sold fresh, packaged into bags in your produce department. Wet berries need to be processed into juice or other cranberry products almost immediately.


Aren’t they gorgeous? And so good for you. I ate a lot.


The harvester at work.


The harvester removes a lot of branches, but not all.


We filled burlap sacks with berries for transport to the packing shed.


A surprising number of cranberries are left behind after harvesting.

We followed our farmer with clean, dry burlap sacks, ready to replace the one on the harvester as soon as it was full. It’s really important not to overpack the bags and not to double-stack them on the trailer, as too much pressure will crush the berries and render them unsaleable. I hand-harvested a few pounds of berries left behind; this was unbelievably labor-intensive. Agricultural work is not for the faint-of-heart.


Traditional wet-harvesting involves flooding the bogs and a harvester like this one.


The berries float to the surface of the flooded bog, where they can be easily scooped. 

We watched a traditional farmer wet-harvest his bogs on a miserably cold, rainy day: not at all fun. Our farmer can only harvest when it’s dry and clear, as the goal is for the berries never to get wet. Even the morning dew had to dry before we could harvest.


Our daily harvest, ready to be put through the sorter.

Every day after we harvested, we took our berries to a shared packing shed. Our farmer ran the berries through the sorter, and N and I sorted and packed on the opposite side. Once the berries started tumbling through the chute on our side, we really had to work quickly to keep up, and to ensure that our crates didn’t get too full. As with loading the bags during harvest, it’s essential not to crush the berries on the bottom.


Berries are run up the conveyor belt, where they’re tested for ripeness.


We stood here and sorted through the berries as they came down the belt, removing small branches, twigs, leaves and any damaged berries.

Unusually for most produce, cranberries actually bounce when they’re ripe (and float when they’re flooded), so the sorter both removes the larger vines and branches and tests the cranberries for ripeness. Berries that don’t make the cut are dropped into the yellow crates down below, and they’ll eventually be fed to pigs – just like our apple cider waste.


Berries that are split, crushed or otherwise open need to be removed, or they’ll spoil.


Each crate holds about fifteen pounds of fruit after sorting.

Once our cranberries were sorted into the crates, they would be sent to a central distribution center, where they would be sorted again, washed and bagged. And then they’ll be on the shelves at your local grocery store!


Only in cranberry country would you see fresh cranberries in bulk; mostly they’re sold pre-bagged.

I grew up in a household where the only “cranberries” we ever saw were in the exact shape of the can they came in. Once I discovered fresh cranberries, I always wondered why Americans only seem to use these once a year. They’re tart, crisp and delicious, and high in vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants, among numerous other health benefits. They’re delicious in oatmeal, baked goods, smoothies and of course as a condiment for roast turkey, goose or ham. Plus, they freeze beautifully, so buy a few extra bags when they’re on sale, and use them throughout the year. They’re great dried, too, but be aware that Craisins and other sweetened dried cranberries can contain as much as 85% sugar by weight, so they’re not nearly as healthy as you’d like to think. Buy unsweetened dried cranberries whenever possible. Oh, and “cranberry juice cocktail”? More sugar than soda. Don’t ever, ever drink it.

Cranberry sauce

Making your own cranberry sauce is by far the easiest thing you’ll prepare for a holiday dinner, and you can do it well in advance. Rinse one bag of fresh cranberries and place in a medium saucepan. Add about 1/2 cup water or orange juice (or Grand Marnier, if you’re feeling flush), a pinch of salt, the grated rind of two oranges or clementines, a bit of grated fresh ginger (or 1/4 tsp. powdered ginger) and about 1/4 cup brown sugar or honey. Simmer gently to allow the cranberries to burst, and stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking. Cook over low heat for about fifteen minutes or so, or until the sauce is the consistency you’d like, adding more liquid if needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. I like to keep my cranberry sauce super-tart because I love the flavor and don’t like things overly sweet, but feel free to add more sweetener if you like. The sauce will thicken once refrigerated and will keep in the fridge for at least two weeks. I keep it thick and use it as jam on toast, too!

Need more inspiration for fresh cranberries? Go here.


Going nuts, vol. 2

We started the year learning about macadamias in New Zealand, so it’s only fitting that we should close it out harvesting chestnuts in Oregon. Prior to marrying an Englishman, I had never eaten a fresh chestnut – only candied, at culinary school in France – but they’ve become part of our fall traditions, as they were for him in childhood. And now that I’ve harvested them myself, I truly have a newfound appreciation for their exorbitant price. These things are little monsters.


The trees in the grove we harvested are between fifteen and twenty years old.

Chestnut trees are grown across much of the world; chestnuts themselves are important food crops in Asia and Europe. Chestnuts were also hugely valuable to native Americans and early settlers; the fruit is primarily carbohydrates, has more starch by weight than potatoes and contains enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. In the early 1900s, however, the Bronx Zoo imported Asian chestnut trees for their botanical collection and inadvertently introduced chestnut blight to North America. Within forty years, the blight wiped out nearly every single one of the forty billion chestnut trees in America, with only a few small isolated stands now remaining across the country.


Usually you’ll find three chestnuts in the burr, but it depends on the species.

The actual chestnuts are contained in a burr, or hull, which is exactly like a tiny, angry porcupine. When the chestnuts are ripe, the chocolate-colored burrs fall to the ground; unlike other fruits or nuts, chestnuts are never harvested directly from the tree.


Ripe burrs split open, as on the left.

The burrs split open on their own, further indicating ripeness; this is primarily due to soil humidity, as chestnut trees prefer more humid climates. Sometimes unripe (green) burrs will also fall, and if they haven’t opened they should be left to ripen further.


Dry leaves and empty burrs after harvesting.

Things to know when harvesting chestnuts: you’ll need gloves. Kevlar gloves, to be precise, and yes, that is the material used for bulletproof vests. These things look relatively harmless but are truly vicious, and good gloves are mandatory. And it will take you ages to harvest these; the little burrs love to hide in the huge piles of dry leaves that have also fallen from the tree. They’re like adorable, spiky landmines, and now I know personally why they’re criminally expensive: the pain level is extraordinarily high. (I’m almost certain they were used as extras in this film.)


Looks harmless. Isn’t.

These edible chestnuts aren’t to be confused with horse chestnuts, which are mildly toxic to humans, or water chestnuts, which are grown aquatically and used in Asian cuisine. Attempts have been made since the 1930s to hybridize the American and Asian chestnut trees, in order to create a native species resistant to blight, but it hasn’t as yet been hugely successful. (On a related note, we’re about to suffer another major loss of trees, as the emerald ash borer – also imported from Asia, on shipping pallets this time – continues its trail of destruction across America. Colorado alone is projected to lose more than two million trees.)


It took forever to harvest a three-gallon bucket!

Chestnuts are used in savory and sweet preparations all over France and Italy; as with cranberries, they’re commonly seen in holiday recipes because their harvest time coincides perfectly. And in wintertime in cities like London or New York or Paris, you’ll often find street vendors roasting chestnuts over repurposed fifty-gallon oil drums.


To roast fresh chestnuts at home, carefully cut an ‘X’ into the flat side of each nut. Use sturdy kitchen shears to do this and be very, very careful; the nuts are slippery and unwieldy. Place on a baking sheet and broil until you hear the first explosion, about ten minutes depending on the quantity and your broiler temperature; be patient and wait until the second explosion, which indicates that all of them should be cooked through. Open the oven carefully and quickly lay a kitchen towel over the entire tray as more explosions are likely to follow. Let cool until you can safely handle them, then peel and dip each nut into coarse salt and enjoy. (Sorry about your oven; you’ll probably need to clean up the shrapnel once it’s cooled down. And a pro tip: it’s not a great idea to roast chestnuts in someone else’s oven, unless you’re also willing to clean it.)


Although chestnuts seem to thwart you at every turn, the reward is well worth the potential injury. Roasted chestnuts pair perfectly with a wee snifter of bourbon and are even better if enjoyed in front of a roaring fire. Take pleasure in the simple things, friends, and clean up the oven later.

Cider days

Gather round, kiddos, and let your crazy old auntie tell you stories about what people did down on the farm when they didn’t have these newfangled modern conveniences like “wifi” and “television” and “an actual life.” We participated in fun old-timey group activities like apple pressing, yes we did. And we have the photos to prove it.


First, start with apples.

Grassward Dairy had about a dozen mature apple trees on the property; I felt especially silly because we went grocery shopping prior to our stay there and I bought apples. Like spent actual money! And there were thousands of delicious apples, free for the taking.


This press is pretty old-fashioned…except that it’s partially electric, so shredding the fruit is quicker and easier.


One of many important foods pollinated entirely by bees.

For best results, use a mix of different apples so your cider is a balance of tart and sweet. And you don’t have to worry about bruised spots or any other damage, as the press takes no prisoners. Throw them all in.


An action shot of an apple hitting the toothed shredding wheel. 


The shredded pulp before pressing.


Gravity forces the pulp into a mesh bag for pressing and straining.


Readying the pulp for pressing.


Placing the weighted lid on the bag.


The electricity only helps with the shredding wheel; the press is still cranked by hand.


Leftover pulp is fed to the pigs. It’s like pre-marinating.


And the result of all this hard work? The most incredible apple cider you’ve ever tasted.


We pressed hundreds of pounds of apples; most of the juice was left for drinking fresh, but a few gallons will be turned into hard cider. Sadly, it won’t be ready for weeks, so we won’t be able to taste the fruits of our labors. (P.S. You can do this at home using a juicer…but it’s much more authentic if you’re fighting off aggressive wasps outside on a farm.)




Let’s learn about the farm bill!

Since about – oh, let’s just say November 9, 2016, not to be too precise – many Americans have found themselves much more interested in politics than in times past. And while that’s a good thing, it’s an understatement to say American politics can be rather confusing. As in, we don’t really get what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to have that much impact on our relatively comfortable day-to-day lives, so we just go along, merrily forwarding cat videos, virtual-signing critical online petitions that have absolutely no real-world impact and binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things.


Finding Quiet Farm tries hard to both educate and entertain, so today we’re going to talk about the farm bill. Oh, I can hear you rolling your eyes right now all the way across the Interwebs, but bear with me. The farm bill, which as Michael Pollan says “should actually be called the food bill,” really does affect every single American, every single day. Multiple times a day, to be honest, because each bite of food you eat in this country is directly tied to the farm bill. And if you have kids, and if they eat any food at all in a school environment, then you’re affected even more. Without further ado, then, a brief, (hopefully) simple introduction to the farm bill, and why you should care about it.


Let’s start with the basics. What is the farm bill?

The farm bill is a “multibillion dollar tangle of agricultural subsidies, welfare programs and environmental patronage,” or, more simply, it’s legislation that connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that making growing food possible. It costs just under $500 billion – that’s half a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars!

It’s a multiyear omnibus (meaning it covers many different programs) law revamped about every five years and the current farm bill will expire in 2018. That means it’s time for our beloved politicians to start crafting a new farm bill.


What does the farm bill do?

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition puts it best:

“In the simplest terms, the farm bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown.  This in turn affects the environment, local economies, and public health.  These are some pretty good reasons to become involved in advocating for a farm bill that supports health and sustainability!

Through programs covering everything from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, this powerful package of laws sets the course of our food and farming system – in good ways and bad. It’s our job to make sure the farm bill reflects what our country’s farmers and eaters need for a sustainable future.

Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. (The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, was signed into law on February 7, 2014.)

The farm bill got its start in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its three original goals –  to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply, and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources – responded to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Although the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary purposes are the same.”

Basically, the farm bill does many things, but its most significant elements are the federal food stamp program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), crop insurance and crop subsidies. There are other, smaller aspects, but these are by far the most important (and costly).

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How does this affect me, or more literally, why should I care?

You should care if you either 1. eat food in the U.S. and/or 2. pay taxes, because you’re funding this monster. And if you’re concerned about our rapidly escalating health care costs, or that for the first time in modern industrial history the current generation has a lower life expectancy than their parents, or even if you only care about just your own household food budget, then the farm bill (and food policy in general) should matter to you.


What’s wrong with the farm bill?

Where to begin? It was implemented in the 1930s, and modern agriculture is vastly different now than it was during the Great Depression and the ensuing years. After World War II, we got really, really good at growing vast quantities of corn, wheat and soy with the help of leftover nitrogen, which was made into powerful fertilizer. And in the 1970s farmers were encouraged to “get big or get out,” so the small, diversified family farm started to disappear, and farmers were paid to constantly increase their production of cereal grains, again primarily corn and soy – now used as inexpensive animal feed and as the primary ingredients in processed foods and drinks.

Now, fewer than two million Americans live on farms, while crop yields – and pesticide, herbicide and insecticide usage – continues to increase. Huge monoculture farms cover most of the Midwest, reducing natural diversity and vastly increasing the chances of another devastating Dust Bowl. Large monocrop farmers are millionaires many times over, and small farms are going under. We produce far more cheap, high-calorie, nutritionally-devoid food than we need in this country, and the result of that overproduction includes massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, sick animals raised in their own waste, and a population ridden with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. Plus, many low-income Americans cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables and other whole foods.

Without question, the farm bill needs revision so it can better impact our current crises, including our food-insecure population and the serious health and environmental burdens our country is facing. But Big Ag has a lot of money and a lot of influence, and the 2018 version is unlikely to offer any significant improvements.

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What can I do to help implement changes in future farm bills?

Well, I’d love to end this on a super-positive, grassroots movement note and tell you to write your elected representative! Call your elected representative! Stand outside the office of your elected representative! But let’s be truthful here: all of our elected representatives are on someone’s payroll, and lobbying is a lucrative career. So the best you can do, to be perfectly honest, is vote with your dollars, because that’s the only vote that really matters. And you vote every single time you spend money.

If you value small farms, find your local farms, know your farmer, and buy directly from them. Skip the middleman. Search out local CSAs, and patronize them. If you believe more federal dollars should support organic farms, buy organic. Read labels, and ask questions. If you want to eat animals that have lived a good life and had a humane death, stop buying cheap commodity feedlot meat and battery eggs. Buy from companies who honor the same values you honor. Do some research. Don’t buy heavily processed foods and drinks made from soy and corn derivatives. Grow your own food, if possible. Anything helps, even a few windowboxes of herbs. And above all else, refuse to believe that something is in your best interest just because someone tells you so. Stand up for yourself, your family, your health and your values – because everyone is out to sell you something, and it’s your responsibility to figure out whether you really should buy it.