Farm update: October 26

Our first snowstorm arrived late last night, and with that, the 2020 growing season at Quiet Farm has officially concluded. Much of the past week has been spent preparing for this introduction to winter; though our skies will clear and temperatures will rise again later in the week, none of our annual crops will survive this cold snap. We’ve been threatened with hard freezes prior to this and have been lucky enough not to lose any plants; our season lasted far longer than expected. We’re hopeful that this early, wet storm will help the firefighters battling the numerous destructive wildfires currently raging across Colorado.

Flooding our pasture with snowmelt from the Grand Mesa.

We ran our final irrigation last week, then broke down most of our gated pipe so that we can repair any damaged gates and valves during the off-season. We have stellar water shares here at Quiet Farm, and thanks to N’s careful planning, we made our water last all season. This year was definitely a rebuilding year for our pasture, and we’re optimistic that our plans for next year’s irrigation run, which include reseeding, marking and thoughtful grazing by our herd, will yield even better results. Small farms are key to fighting climate change – if managed well, land like ours can absorb far more carbon than it emits. Establishing these “carbon sinks” across the country should be of highest priority; if this season’s devastating wildfires are any indication, the Rocky Mountain West has a tough road ahead.

Barely enough potatoes for one meal, much less an entire winter.

We are disappointed to report that our potato crop this year was not even remotely successful. We planted potatoes both in old wooden fruit crates and in wire mesh towers, and neither method produced great results. Potatoes love loose, sandy soil – which we most definitely do not have – and though we tried to create a healthy environment for potato growing, we did not succeed. We know that there was a certain amount of crop loss due to pests (harvesting half-eaten potatoes is so disappointing) but even that loss doesn’t account for our poor harvest. Like any good farmer, though, we’ll try again with a new system next year. Fresh, homegrown potatoes are absolutely worth the effort.

We’re growing our own fruit!

Though our potatoes were unsuccessful, we’re thrilled to report that we’re finally growing raspberries! Loyal readers might remember that we planted forty bare-root raspberry canes in our first farming season, and sadly experienced total crop failure. We replanted those forty this year, plus a few extra obtained from a friend’s thicket. And we’ve actually harvested raspberries! Pictured above is ‘Anne,’ a delicious yellow variety that produces fruit its first year. We’ll be cutting back the canes this winter once they’re dormant, and look forward to a bumper crop of raspberries next summer and fall.

The original Angry Bird.

One of our hens has gone broody, unfortunately, and now spends all of her time on the nest box squawking and pecking angrily at anyone who dares come close. Broodiness is beneficial if you’re raising chicks – obviously, those fragile eggs need protection – but is a trait that is intentionally bred out of most modern layers, since it means they no longer lay and become defensive and difficult. Broodiness can also be “transmitted” to other hens, which means that our egg production decreases. Ideally she’ll snap out of it once the three-week hatching period has passed, but it’s more likely that this will be a regular issue with this breed. Thankfully, we only have two of these Whiting Greens.

We grew a staggering amount of food this year!

Finally, we spent most of Saturday harvesting all of our remaining produce. We brought in over two hundred pounds just this weekend, meaning we probably grew about eight hundred pounds of food throughout the season. Our final harvest included green tomatoes, hundreds of sweet and spicy chile peppers, lots of volunteer squash from the compost pile, herbs for drying, tomatillos and more. Everything is warm and cozy in the sunroom; we’re clearly in desperate need of a root cellar because most of these vegetables should be kept cool, dark and dry for long-term storage. There is a lot of preserving to be done, but no doubt at all that we’ll eat well this winter.

And with that, we’re off to bundle up and tromp through the fresh snow to check on the animals. Wishing you a warm and safe week ahead.

Autumn book club

It’s been an age since we’ve done a book round-up, mostly because I haven’t read much recently. For someone who typically tears through about a book a week, on average, this has come as somewhat of a surprise. I’d love to attribute my lack of reading entirely to our second full farming season, but the truth is, I did a lot of doomscrolling this year, particularly during spring and summer. This was a pointless, destructive habit that benefitted no one – did I really need a to-the-minute update on western Europe’s infection rates? – but a habit that was tough to break, nevertheless.  I also stop-started an unreasonable number of books: I’d pick something up, hoping to get lost in a story or a world, only to find that I couldn’t focus or that the book contained just as much (or more) tragedy as real life. I found myself unable to finish most of the books I began, not my normal tendency at all.

As we move from a busy summer and fall into the quieter, colder days of winter, I aim to increase my book reading and limit my news consumption. With that in mind, here are a few capsule reviews of books I’ve read recently (and not so recently, too).

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The Fate of Food by Amanda Little

Feeding ten billion people on a hotter, drier planet means we have to change our thinking, and this book looks to address that. The Fate of Food is thorough and well-researched, and optimists might even say it gives us cause for hope. (I am not an optimist.)

One of the most interesting parts of this book was the section on Israel, a country that manages to grow quite a lot of food in a desert. Israel’s irrigation and water recycling knowledge will very soon become more relevant to all of us; their individual water use is shockingly low, especially when compared to Americans’ overall wastefulness. (A third of American counties still offer flat rate water, which encourages rampant overconsumption; if we’ve never been encouraged to conserve, why would we?) Desalination and scrubbing wastewater are two techniques the world will need to start using on a larger scale; 97% of the world’s water is in the oceans, yet only recently have we been able to start using that water for irrigation or human needs.

The book’s argument is that we needn’t choose between tradition and technology; there is a third way, one that blends generations of food-growing knowledge with technological advantages that allow us to better handle a new set of challenges. Although I liked reading about vertical farming, weed-zapping robots, 3D food printing and the advent of meal replacement shakes, none of these innovative ideas made me excited to sit down to a nice meal. I wish that instead of introducing complicated and expensive technology to grow more food, we were encouraging more people to homestead on their own small parcel. A lot of edible food can be produced in a very small space, and though I know it’s not the solution to all of our problems, a return to small-scale agriculture would accomplish quite a lot, including creating carbon sinks. Plus, when AI eliminates our jobs, we’ll have lots of time to grow our own food – and we should know how to do it before we need to.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

It’s a bit dismissive to call Less a fluffy novel – it did win the Pulitzer Prize, after all – but this is an enjoyable read. The story follows a minor novelist as he journeys around the world in a halfhearted attempt to avoid both his impending fiftieth birthday as well as an awkward wedding he doesn’t wish to attend, and the book has both laughter and pathos in abundance. Less comes across as lighthearted and pleasant, but as with great food, it’s harder than it seems to make something seem easy and effortless. As Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a ordinary life.” Less is a lovely window into one man’s seemingly ordinary search for love and meaning.

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

One of my very favorite books of the past few years, Daisy Jones & the Six is written in a unique conversational style, as though the characters are being interviewed for a “Behind the Music”-type program. This oral history device sounds cheesy and trite, but Jenkins Reid absolutely nails the in-the-moment authenticity of it, and within a few pages you find yourself swept along into the band’s meteoric rise and inevitable collapse. The New York Times writes in their review, “…in the end, that’s the most surprising gift of Daisy Jones & The Six – it’s a way to love the rock ’n’ roll of the 1970s, without apology, without cynicism, bell-bottoms and all.” As someone who firmly believes that Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” is the greatest rock album ever made, this book was right up my alley. Highly recommended.

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The Big Short by Michael Lewis

I adore Michael Lewis. His books, which include Moneyball and The Blind Side, make great reading and have also been made into some terrific films. The Big Short aims to explain just what happened back in 2007 and 2008, when Wall Street suddenly found itself underwater in the subprime housing crisis. This book is complicated and challenging and smart – credit default swaps and triple A tranches, anyone? – but explains how a band of brilliant outsiders made millions on some very risky bets while the people who were supposed to protect the money turned a blind eye. The film version, with Christian Bale as Michael Burry, is well worth watching, too.

Circe by Madeline Miller

This feminist retelling of many of the Western world’s classic myths is another of my recent favorites. Miller’s writing is stunning; she taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare for many years before turning to fiction, and her scholarly voice shines through on every page. The book is layered and vivid and complex and beautiful; some of the stories you’ll know, and others will be entirely new. NPR writes, “Miller’s lush, gold-lit novel – told from the perspective of the witch whose name in Greek has echoes of a hawk and a weaver’s shuttle – paints another picture: of a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it…. The character of Circe only occupies a few dozen lines of [The Odyssey], but Miller extracts worlds of meaning from Homer’s short phrases.” Circe is truly transporting in a way few are. Don’t miss this photo essay from the author’s website.

Kid Food by Bettina Elias Siegel

The subtitle says it all: “The challenge of feeding children in a highly processed world.” Even though I read everything I can on food politics and the nefarious takeover of our food system by multibillion dollar corporations, this book was eye-opening. And disheartening.

Even if you’re doing your very best to feed your children whole foods, there is an entire world out there looking to subvert your efforts. Cheap candy at the bank. Free cookies at the grocery store. Gatorade and Rice Krispy treats at soccer practice. Popular cartoon characters selling juice and “fruit snacks” and other junk. Cupcakes every other day for a child’s birthday at school. The rise of “toddler milks.” And major brands, like Pepsi and McDonald’s and Domino’s, use public schools as yet one more marketing avenue for their processed food. Corporations know that if they hook kids young enough, they’ve probably got a customer for life. (See also: the tobacco industry.)

Honestly, the statistics presented in Kid Food are bleak, to say the least. We’ve doomed an entire generation to obesity and type-2 diabetes, among a host of other lifestyle-related diseases, because we don’t want to say no and because we’ve outsourced all of our food preparation to the processed food industry. We raise babies on bland rice cereal and sweet fruit purees and gallons of high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as juice, then wonder why they have such a sweet tooth. We’ve given up on home economics, basically canceled recess and other physical activities, and we give our kids sometimes less than twenty minutes to wolf down lunch. No wonder we’re struggling.

Despite its overall grim tone, the author does make an effort to end on a relatively positive note, with tips for how you can become an activist for better food. (With humor, Siegel emphasizes that going it alone is a tough road, and that there is strength in numbers: “One parent is a fruitcake. Two parents are a fruitcake and a friend. Fifty parents are a powerful organization.”) She offers useful suggestions for improving school food in your community, as well as how (hopefully) not to alienate all of the coaches and parents who insist on a thousand calories of simple carbohydrates after five minutes of minimal “exercise.” But make no mistake – this is not an easy path. We’re definitely starting on the back foot here. If you have children, or if you work with children, or if you feed children, please read this. We’re destroying our kids’ health every single day, and we must do better.

(A P.S. to the review above: I understand that thanks to the pandemic, soccer snacks, self-serve candy bowls and birthday treats at schools are disappearing. If there is any silver lining to this crisis, that would be it.)

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Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

I’ve found that non-fiction has held my interest much more than fiction this year, and I’ve become particularly interested in human psychology. Mastermind, which purports to offer tips and tricks on how to think better based on Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation and deduction, isn’t exactly groundbreaking work, but it is an interesting read. The book argues that we no longer “see” what’s right in front of us, because we’re too distracted and stressed. If we could only train our minds to store what’s relevant and necessary in our “mental attics,” we’d all be happier and healthier. This is an alternative take on the trendy topic of mindfulness, where the objective is to obviously be right we are, rather than in the past or the future. Mastermind isn’t life-changing but it isn’t a total waste of time, either. I’m also looking forward to reading Konnikova’s latest, about learning to play professional poker and how to integrate that game theory into everyday life.

Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict

This loose attempt at historical fiction imagines that Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist who was once the wealthiest man in the world, turned to philanthropy after falling in love with his mother’s Irish-born lady’s maid, who is of course not who she pretends to be. The entire story hangs on this tenuous thread, and while the behind-the-scenes influence of women throughout history has long been undervalued, this plot is hard to swallow. Carnegie was instrumental in creating modern philanthropy (see also: the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge) and particularly in building our nation’s library network, but the suggestion that all this came from a lady’s maid under false pretenses simply doesn’t hold water. The weak writing reads more like a demure, sanitized romance novel than solid historical fiction. Thankfully, Carnegie’s Maid is short.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

I listened to the audiobook of One Thousand White Women, and after comparing it with the printed version I made the better choice by far. The story hinges on an actual request that a Cheyenne chief made to Ulysses S. Grant for white women to integrate into the Plains tribes; the white women were of course never delivered, but the book imagines what might have happened had they been. We follow the story through the journals of May Dodd; though the book was written by a white man, the audiobook smartly uses a female actor. Fergus populates his story with stereotypical characters – even going so far as to write in accents, which works on audio but not as written – and there are some fairly significant portions of the story that simply do not hold up to close examination. Although I found myself swept into the story on a long drive, I likely wouldn’t have finished reading the book. One Thousand White Women was written in 1999; there is absolutely no way this book would be published today. As with Carnegie’s Maid above, this is a great concept with exceedingly poor execution. 

Have you read much this year? Did anything particularly resonate with you? Please share in the comments below.

P.S. Previous book reviews can be found here, here and here.

Preserving season

Fresh, local fruit is one of the great joys of living where we do.

There is much to be done outdoors – plant garlic, collect seeds, tidy irrigation – but there is much to be done indoors, too. We are in the height of harvest season, and every available surface in our house is littered with canning jars, dehydrator trays and other preservation projects in various stages of completion. Our goal is to eat locally as much as possible, and in the dark months of winter and early spring, that means we eat from the pantry and freezer – but only if we’ve done the hard work in advance.

Homemade fruit leather makes a perfect healthy and portable snack.

Obviously, no one has to preserve and store the harvest any longer, and many would think the extra work we do this time of year is preposterous. Preservation is a dying art, because we live in a magical world where any food we might want, in season or not, is available with a single click. Also, most of us don’t grow our own food, so there’s even less incentive to preserve. Where our great-grandmothers might have been obligated to can their summer vegetables in order to have anything to eat in winter, we most definitely are not. And preserving can be tedious, time-consuming work. Why, then, go through all this extra effort?

Shredded zucchini, apples and carrots are portioned and frozen for easy muffins.

I preserve food for a lot of different reasons, but first and foremost I want to know what we’re eating. The modern food processing industry uses an arsenal of complicated, sketchy ingredients and technologies to store food in cans and jars, and I don’t want these unnecessary additives in our food. We also work really hard to grow food, and if we can’t eat it while it’s fresh, it seems a tragedy to just compost it – a huge waste of our time and effort, plus a lot of water. Preserving our own food also saves money – a single jar of high-end organic salsa could easily cost $7 – and though preserving takes time, it’s always worth it in darkest February when we’re able to eat something that tastes at least a little like summer. I also preserve because it allows me to make things that I’d never find in a store, and I can customize these foods to our own tastes. Fiery, garlicky fermented hot sauce? Pear-chocolate jam with crystallized ginger? Roasted red pepper and fennel confit? Applesauce made from just fresh, local apples and no added sugar? Making anything from scratch is about regaining some control over what we eat, rather than just blithely accepting whatever the big food companies choose to produce as cheaply as possible.

We dry, can and freeze our local peaches.

Preservation takes many forms, and to get the best results it’s important to understand the different methods and how they might affect the end product. Many people don’t think of freezing as preservation, but it’s certainly the most common nowadays. Like all preservation techniques, freezing alters the texture of food, so while it works well for some foods (most fruit freezes beautifully) it’s not great for others (lettuces and greens turn to mushy slime). We live in the heart of Colorado’s stone fruit region, so we freeze a lot of fresh peaches, cherries and apricots. If you find an amazing sale on fresh berries or another fruit you’d like to preserve, wash the fruit well and spread it in a single layer on a baking sheet. Once frozen solid, transfer the fruit into zip-top bags. This technique helps keep the fruit separated, rather than frozen together into one unusable chunk, and makes it easy to incorporate into smoothies, baked goods or jams. And while frozen vegetables get a bad rap, they’re frozen at the height of ripeness so are a much better choice than fresh most of the year. Plus, they’re priced really well! I’d rather eat frozen peas than starchy, out-of-season “fresh” peas any day.

Most of our peppers and tomatoes end up in salsa and hot sauce.

Water-bath canning is another common and easy preservation technique, and one that I use most frequently. Hot, sterilized glass jars are filled with salsa or jam or applesauce, or a million other foods, then the jars are vacuum-sealed in a pot of boiling water to create an airtight anaerobic environment where potentially harmful bacteria cannot survive. Canning works well for certain foods, but those foods need an acidic pH – not all foods are safe for water-bath canning – and in Colorado, at least, it’s imperative to adjust for altitude. Only use tested recipes for water-bath canning, and don’t create your own concoctions unless you have a reliable pH meter and a clear understanding of the science. Water-bath canning is definitely the most time-consuming method of food preservation, but if correctly processed the jars will last at least a year in a cool, dark, dry environment, and no electricity is required for storage.

In our climate, fresh herbs dry perfectly spread out on sheet pans.

We grow a lot of herbs, and those need to be preserved, too. Many people recommend using a microwave or dehydrator to dry herbs; while those methods might be necessary in more humid climates, in a high-plains desert the herbs simply need to be spread out and left alone. Plus, all the flavor in herbs comes from their delicate essential oils, and cooking the plants, even at a relatively low temperature, will remove most of that flavor. I collect my herbs in bunches and hang them to dry, or simply spread them out on a sheet pan. Once the herbs are dry enough to crumble, I remove the stems and crush the leaves into small labeled jars. As with all spices, dried herbs should be kept in a cool, dark and dry place, and used reasonably quickly.

Homegrown dried tomatoes add bright flavor to pasta and salads.

We also have a big nine-shelf dehydrator; it’s in service year-round for making yogurt, but during autumn it’s also regularly used for drying tomatoes, peaches and apples, plus making fruit leather. The dehydrator is far more efficient than an oven, and it’s easier to maintain the low temperatures required to dehydrate foods without rendering them too crunchy or dried out to eat. I’ve learned through trial and error that the dehydrator requires a lot of supervision – I’m constantly rotating the trays and removing pieces that are thoroughly dry – and I’ve had some loss due to mold, because I hadn’t removed enough moisture. If you’re doing a lot of preserving, however, a quality dehydrator is well worth the investment. Like canned goods, properly dehydrated foods don’t require electricity for long-term storage; since the water is removed, dehydrated foods are light and portable, making them perfect for camping, hiking and on-the-go snacks.

The before-and-after of our fiery fermented green hot sauce.

Finally, we also ferment foods. We love spicy foods and condiments, so much of our fermentation efforts go into hot sauces and kimchi. One lesson I’ve learned over the years is only to preserve the foods that our household will actually eat, so sauerkraut and pickles no longer earn a place in our pantry. While I do make “pickled” jalapenos for use in sandwiches and on pizza, fruits and vegetables that have been brined in a vinegar solution like those peppers aren’t truly pickled. Remember the mercantile store pickle barrels of yesteryear? Those are true lacto-fermented pickles, and they’re no longer considered food-safe for a variety of reasons. “Cheating” with vinegar isn’t actually pickling, but mostly accomplishes the same end result.

So pretty! But please don’t store your canned goods in the sun like this.

If you’re going to tackle any preservation projects, make sure you have the time, the space and the equipment required. Know the science and the rules and have a clear understanding of the end result you want to achieve, and the best method to get there. Also remember that preservation doesn’t make bad food good, so while you can definitely use cosmetically imperfect seconds, never use overripe or spoiled produce. Preserving the harvest might require a substantial investment of time and energy, but sourdough toast with bright, sunny peach jam, or piping-hot tomato soup with a swirl of pesto, on a cold winter’s day makes all that effort worthwhile.