Grit and grace

Hello there. We want to say that we’re still here on Quiet Farm, and that it’s been a rather challenging start to the growing season. One hundred percent of our county is currently in “exceptional drought” – the scale doesn’t go any higher! In official government parlance that translates to “dust storms and topsoil removal are widespread; agricultural and recreational economic losses are large.” We’d agree with that assessment – and it’s only May.

We have not yet received our official irrigation allotment for the season, but are expecting less than half of what we had last year. Wildfire season (now really year-round rather than just a season) has already started in California, New Mexico and Arizona, and promises to be grim here again, too. Dust storms and relentless wind are a regular feature of our days, and it’s impossible to keep the cool-weather crops properly irrigated. We have not had any moisture at all since January.

To compound our troubles, our hundreds of plant seedlings in the sunroom have been infected by an unknown disease or other ailment, and as a result are tiny, stunted and definitely not thriving. They should be going outside in about three weeks, but at this point it’s unlikely that we’ll have any at all, and it’s too late now to start more warm-weather crops. Perhaps the universe is sending a clear message that this isn’t our year.

That said, what else can we do but keep going? This blog isn’t meant to be a place for complaints and whining. We have a comfortable house, plenty to eat and we’re healthy and safe. Many, many people have it far worse than we do, and we’re well aware of that. We will do what we can with what we have, and perhaps the growing season will stage a recovery of sorts. And if it’s a total write-off, then we’ll try again next year.

Tip your hat to a farmer the next time you meet one – this growing food thing is no joke. Thanks as always for reading, and we hope you and yours are safe, healthy and well.

Gardening book club

The world feels far too heavy and sad, particularly here in Colorado, for some absurdly cheerful post about alpacas or chickens or whatever we’re doing on the farm. Instead, we’ll offer a brief round-up of some favorite gardening books, in the hopes that you might be inspired to search these out at your local library or favorite independent bookseller. As with cooking, there is always something new to learn about gardening and growing food, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And as with cooking, where feeding hungry people nourishing, healthy food feels like an act of pure hope and a direct rebellion against the stupid, meaningless tragedy of the world, so does planting a seed or a sapling.

Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States, Mary Ann Newcomer

This book’s territory includes Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and northern Nevada, as well as Oregon and Washington and parts of southern Canada. Obviously, that’s an immense region – more than one million square miles of the North American continent – and it’s impossible to provide accurate growing information for every microclimate within that region. Our weather is vastly different from Oregon and Washington! I still like this book a great deal, though. It’s reasonably simple, direct and easy to understand for beginning gardeners. It covers gardening tasks for each month, assigns various chores to keep the garden neat, tidy and healthy, and gives helpful information about possible pests and disease troubles. Not everything in the book will necessarily be relevant, but it’s worth seeking out if you live within this area.

Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman

It is impossible to find enough superlatives to describe Eliot Coleman and his influence on the organic farming community; he is regularly referred to as “The Godfather” of organic growing and I think that’s an apt description. Coleman followed in the footsteps of Scott and Helen Nearing, the original back-to-the-landers, and still grows year-round in Maine’s exceptionally harsh climate. He invents tools, counsels young farmers and preaches against the ever-growing influence of Big Ag with every breath and every action. All of his books are terrific and worth seeking out; we’re in the early stages of discussing season extension options (high tunnels and so on) here at Quiet Farm so Four-Season Harvest is definitely a key reference book.

Guide to Rocky Mountain Vegetable Gardening, Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough

This book covers Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, and while there is some helpful material about our diverse and incredibly challenging growing climate, it’s also clear that the authors do not adhere to organic growing practices. Speaking only for ourselves, then, a lot of the information has to be immediately discarded. An example:

“If you are considering planting next spring in an area that is now lawn, kill the grass before you till it under…spray the future garden area with a broad-spectrum herbicide such as glyphosate, commonly sold as Round-Up.” (***Note: you can actually save a lot of time by just spraying the Round-Up directly into your mouth, which is where it will end up anyway if you adhere to this advice. Since glyphosate is definitively carcinogenic, I wouldn’t get it within a hundred feet of my edible crops.)

The authors both teach at Montana State University, which, as a land-grant institution, will of course be heavily funded by Big Ag and its criminal brethren. That said, you can still find some useful tips in here – but you’ll need to make an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Epic Tomatoes, Craig LeHoullier

I picked this book up on a whim at our local library and absolutely loved it. As the title might suggest, it’s entirely devoted to tomatoes – but since tomatoes are far and away the most popular vegetable for home gardens, they do deserve their own book. The book contains gorgeous full-color photos, tons of information on varieties both heirloom and hybrid, and lots of suggestions for enjoying and preserving the harvest. It includes fascinating heirloom origin stories and vintage seed advertisements, and it also mentions many of the author’s particular favorites. One of these, ‘Mexico Midget,’ will be a new trial variety at Quiet Farm this season – the fruit is reportedly only the size of a pea but bursting with intense flavor! We’re looking forward to testing these.

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith

If I only owned one vegetable-growing book, it would be this one, and this is the book I gift to new gardeners. It’s cheerful, inspiring and fun to read, and of course packed with useful information. As with most gardening books that aren’t written specifically for our intense high-plains desert environment, some of the growing tips won’t work for us – but the flip side of that is that we don’t encounter many of the pests and diseases that more humid climates struggle with. This is a solid, well-researched, well-organized book that should be in every gardener’s library.

The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, Tanya L.K. Denckla

This is a simple, quiet gardening book; it’s light on photos but rich with relevant information. In addition to vegetables, it also covers many common fruit and nut trees, which is useful for aspiring homesteaders. The book’s title indicates its focus on organic practices; the extensive sections on various pests and diseases give numerous options for organic control methods, which is immensely helpful instead of just a suggestion to grab some powerful annihilation spray. This book isn’t at all flashy, but it contains a wealth of beneficial guidance.

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson

This might be my favorite gardening book of all, even though it’s not really a gardening book in the way the other titles here are. Instead, it’s more a heartfelt meditation, a love letter to the soil and the seeds and the plants and the microbes that sustain us. The author, Wendy Johnson, is a Zen meditation teacher and a spectacular writer.

“As you work, follow your affection and take your time. Let the garden itself and your love of the garden direct your groundwork. Remember that the terms of a lasting agriculture are never only human terms but nature’s terms as well. Love these terms unconditionally, without trying to bargain with them, explain them, or make them behave. Trust the garden and your love of the garden and just continue, under all circumstances.”

Honestly, who doesn’t want to head out into the garden after reading a passage like that? Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate is for those of us who are looking for peace and calm in the garden, those of us who are using the garden as therapy, those of us who are trying so hard to quiet our chattering monkey minds. Highly recommended.

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Carol Deppe

Carol Deppe is a prominent plant breeder and a bit of a quirky iconoclast, too. She is adamantly opposed to seed ownership of any sort, and has made it her life’s work to breed and share open-pollinated seeds so that no one can truly “own” our food supply. She has written a number of books, typically focused on seed-saving and resilient gardening, and this book, like Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, is less a true gardening book and more a meditation on the practice of gardening. There is still a lot of useful information in here, but as mentioned previously, where the author gardens has a huge impact on the book’s relevance. Deppe, who gardens in Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley, loves the idea of “eat-all” greens, which she sows in thick layers in six inches of lightly-tilled soil or compost in early March, then ignores completely until harvest in May – no watering, no weeding. Spoiler alert: there is no possible way that would work here, but the theory is great to learn. Deppe is irascible and opinionated (she loathes chard in all forms and makes no secret of it) and is unwilling to start vegetables on heat mats or under grow lights. Not everything she shares might work for your particular growing practice, but there is a lot to learn from this smart, experienced author.

The Lean Farm, Ben Hartman

The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, Ben Hartman

Both of these books are certainly geared more towards the small organic farmer rather than the home gardener. That said, they’re two of my absolute favorites and I highly recommend them to people looking to learn more about lean management principles. “Lean theory” is a concept that was developed at Toyota in Japan, and now has spread across the world. Its principles can be applied to any business enterprise (or even managing a busy family and home life!) and will absolutely change the way you approach the myriad small tasks that make up your day. Just about every small organic farmer we know raves about these books, and so do we.

There are of course a million more wonderful gardening books that aren’t mentioned in this post. Do you have any recommendations? We’d love to learn more about your favorites.

Here’s to getting your hands in the soil and planting something hopeful this week, dear friends.

Farm update: March 22

We are sorely disappointed to report that we did not receive even one paltry inch of snow from the massive spring storm that walloped Denver and the Front Range last weekend. To add insult to injury, snow was in the forecast again today, to no avail – I promise you that it is clear and dry outside right now. We joke regularly about checking (In)AccuWeather on our phones, where it’s always “currently snowing in Delta County” – no. No, it isn’t. We have learned from our time here to only trust the weather that we can actually see and feel. All other promises and forecasts ring hollow.

So what we’re not doing on the farm right now is plowing or shoveling snow. But here are a few other things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d care to see.

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Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

Not pancakes! Rye-sourdough crumpets with homemade bitter orange marmalade and soft salted butter!

It’s been far too long since we’ve offered a Cookbook Club post here at FQF. And since I’m trying to select a “cookbook of the week” from my (extensive) collection to avoid the ever-present malady of dinner fatigue, now seems like a good time to dust off some classics. May I present Flatbreads & Flavors, by the inimitable team of Duguid & Alford? (They’ve split now – but they did produce some stellar cookbooks together. I’d also highly recommend Seductions of Rice and Hot Sour Salty Sweet.)

Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.

I adore their cookbooks because they’re not simply recipes but travelogues, too. As with many of you, I read cookbooks like novels, and in this extended no-travel period we find ourselves stuck in, these books are a transcendent escape. Duguid & Alford visited some very off-the-beaten-track locales – long before selfie sticks, Instagram, and exploitative overtourism were issues – and they have the stories and adventures and recipes to prove it. Their passion was never high-end restaurants catering to well-heeled tourists, but the tiny, unremarkable street stand tucked away in a nondescript alleyway serving the best Afghan snowshoe naan or Sichuan pepper bread in the world. Their palpable love for both food and the people who make it, day in and day out, as they’ve done for centuries, shines through in all their books.

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Interlude: How chocolate is made

Can’t speak for your household, friends, but we need a break from the winter doldrums over here. I’d claim that it’s all grey and gloomy outside – typical February weather – but the truth is, it’s bright and sunny and windy and disturbingly warm and snow-free for this time of year. Our “exceptional drought” is no longer exceptional, it’s just the way things are now. (Or to throw down an overused phrase from 2020: it’s the “new normal.”) Our town has pre-announced water restrictions, as have many cities on the Front Range. We’re hoping for some moisture later this week, but this late in the season it’s highly unlikely we’ll make up the deficit.

To that end, we’re going on a tropical vacation. Of course I mean this metaphorically, not literally! We haven’t traveled in well more than a year, and have no plans to do so anytime soon. A couple of years ago, however, we went on a chocolate trip to Belize where we learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. And so, let’s imagine that we are all calm, warm and relaxed in the tropics and that everything is right with the world.

Cacao trees are a tropical plant, typically reaching fifteen to twenty-five feet in height.

All chocolate comes from cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) which only grow in a limited geographical range: about twenty degrees north and south of the equator. This tropical belt is also where you’ll find coffee and lots of delicious fruits, like pineapple, guava, papaya and many more (coffee and chocolate are both botanically fruit). Most of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but a small amount is produced in Latin America.

Cacao pods are about eight inches in length, though the size depends on variety and climate.

Cacao pods are ripe when they turn a bright yellow-orange color. Not all the pods ripen at the same time, so the trees are usually harvested continuously throughout the year.

The pulp encasing the beans is often used to make a fermented drink.

Once harvested, the seedpods are opened and the cacao beans removed. The beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba, which tastes fresh and fruity.

The smell of the fermenting cacao beans is intense and amazing.

The beans are cleaned of most of the baba and left to ferment for about a week. (Exposure to light turns the pale, creamy beans a darker violet color.) In Latin America, the fermentation is most often done through a simple yet elegant series of cascading boxes; in Africa, beans are typically fermented in piles on the ground.

Checking for readiness.

Fermenting cacao beans are sliced open regularly to determine the degree of fermentation. It takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to know when the beans are perfect.

Drying beans need tropical heat but not tropical moisture.

After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried. This is an important step; if the beans are shipped with excess moisture, they’ll spoil in transit. Enormous covered drying barns are used, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure even drying. The tropical weather can make this step challenging.

Ready for transport.

Once the beans are completely dried, they’re sorted, graded and shipped to wholesalers or chocolate manufacturers. Belize produces a very small amount of cacao relative to other countries, but the cacao is of a spectacularly high quality.

Grinding cacao nibs into chocolate paste.

When the cacao beans arrive at the manufacturer, they’re inspected and cleaned again. The whole beans are roasted at low temperatures to bring out flavor (much like coffee beans), then the shell is separated from the nib (the “meat” of the bean) by winnowing. (Cacao shells are frequently used as garden mulch.) Grinding pure cacao nibs yields “cocoa mass”; applying high pressure to this cocoa mass produces cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Conching chocolate is a complicated process of aeration, blending and kneading.

The chocolate we eat is made from cocoa mass with other ingredients added in, including additional cocoa butter, emulsifiers (most commonly soy lecithin) and sweeteners. True dark chocolate doesn’t contain any milk solids, whereas milk chocolate obviously does. White chocolate is most often cocoa butter, sugar, palm oil and soy, with no cocoa mass, and as such isn’t technically chocolate. That percentage on the label of a chocolate bar tells you the chocolate-to-sugar ratio: a 70% bar, for example, contains 30% sugar. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and therefore the less sweet the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% cocoa mass with no sugar whatsoever; terms like semisweet and bittersweet have no defined meaning.

Finishing chocolate bars with toasted coconut.

After the chocolate is thoroughly conched, it’s tempered and molded. Tempering chocolate is a finicky process that involves carefully warming the mixture to the perfect temperature, then holding it there for a prescribed period. Tempering stabilizes the cocoa butter molecules, and gives premium chocolate its snap and sheen. (If you’ve ever opened a chocolate bar to find white spots on it, fear not – it’s simply the cocoa butter rising to the surface. It’s called bloom and is totally harmless.) The tempered chocolate is poured into molds and chilled to produce its final form, then packaged for sale.

As with all our food, chocolate production is a complicated and troubled subject. Most chocolate in the world is grown and manufactured under terrible conditions and is kind neither to the planet nor the workers involved. Spend a little more on your chocolate – look for single-origin and direct trade! – and avoid any with palm oil or soy lecithin, both of which are environmentally devastating. As a rule, chocolate from Latin America is a better choice than that from Africa. Quality chocolate costs more for good reason: read the labels and vote with your dollars.

Wishing everyone an imaginary tropical vacation this week, or at least some good chocolate.

Farm update: January 25

Hello there, and how are things in your world? We’re still in the slower season here at Quiet Farm, but we’re starting to think about spring planting and other farm tasks on our to-do list. The biggest issue on our minds right now is definitely water, or lack thereof – it’s been far too warm and dry this winter, with very little snow. We need about twenty feet of snowpack on the Grand Mesa in order to have decent irrigation run-off in spring and summer, and right now we have two feet – or ten percent of what we need. We are hoping for an exceptionally wet spring, but to be honest it’s looking as though our “extraordinary drought conditions” will persist, which likely means more wildfires, too. With that concern front and center, we’re always thinking of ways we can use the water we do have more efficiently.

We love our local library’s seed bank!

We are huge fans of the Delta County Library system, which does yeoman’s work on a painfully limited budget. In years past we’ve attended “seed-sorting parties” in late winter to help the library prepare its extensive seed bank for the spring growing season. Obviously we cannot gather in person at the moment, so the library managed a perfect pivot and created take-home kits for volunteers. Each kit contained donated seeds (we received bolita beans, marigolds and pink hollyhock) and we sorted and packaged the seeds into individual labeled envelopes. Local gardeners are encouraged to “check out” seeds in spring, grow out the crop, then collect and return seeds to the library in autumn to share with other gardeners. The seed library has been going strong in Delta County since 2013; this program not only encourages seed-saving, but also provides an incredible wealth of locally-adapted seeds and helps build our foodshed’s sovereignty. A task like this is well worth our time.

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An ode to citrus

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but citrus plays a key role in our winter diet. We eat a lot of fresh fruit on the regular, mostly our gorgeous local peaches and cherries and apples, but in winter our counters are piled high with grapefruit and clementines and oranges of every variety. Is it local? Absolutely not, although with the warming trends we’re seeing here it may be soon. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes, because “I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.” There are a thousand good reasons to incorporate more citrus in your diet, but for the moment, let’s just focus on how it provides a thin slice of joy during an increasingly bleak season. (Also it’s far cheaper than buying totally unregulated “vitamin C capsules” in little plastic bottles.)

More sunshine, please.

Lots of people remember receiving oranges in Christmas stockings, back when food was truly seasonal and therefore quite precious and rare. Citrus fruit is of course available year-round nowadays, but it really is best in the northern hemisphere’s winter. American citrus production is concentrated in California and Florida; California grows most of the citrus used for fresh eating, whereas Florida’s production is focused on juice. Texas and Arizona both grow some commercial citrus too, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Left Coast and Right Coast groves, even though Florida is suffering from a variety of citrus diseases. Brazil, Spain and Mexico dominate the world citrus market.

Did you know that most mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C – but that humans and other primates cannot? (Capybaras and guinea pigs can’t either. Don’t feel bad.) During the eighteenth century, disease killed far more British soldiers than military action; scurvy was the leading cause of death, particularly for sailors without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Though anecdotal evidence suggested that lemon and lime juice (and sauerkraut) prevented scurvy, and the few hardy sailors who consumed shipboard rats did not contract it (rats can synthesize their own vitamin C!), it wasn’t until very late in the century that citrus fruit was issued in sailors’ rations. Once one of the world’s most devastating diseases, scurvy is now rarely seen in the developed world, except in cases of severe malnutrition.

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Farm update: November 9

There’s no question that it’s been one hell of a week. Scratch that: it’s been one hell of a year. Over here at Quiet Farm, though, we carry on planting, tidying, baking, canning, caring for our animals and preparing for winter. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently, if you’d like to see.

Ready for a long winter’s nap.

We planted our 2021 garlic crop this week; it’s tucked under a warm, cozy blanket of compost, alpaca manure and straw. Garlic is a unique annual crop in that it stays in the ground for about nine months, but during that time it requires almost no maintenance beyond occasional watering. As usual, we’d separated this year’s garlic harvest and saved the largest cloves for planting; thanks to garden magic, each individual clove grows into a full head. We planted about one hundred and fifty cloves in two new beds, then a friend texted with an offer of extra garlic that she had over-ordered (thanks, Judy!), so another seventy cloves went into an additional row. Every year I run out of garlic before the July harvest, and every year I vow to plant more. Will over two hundred heads be enough for next year? Stay tuned, and vampires beware.

Simple. Elegant. Gorgeous. (Also filthy.)

My winter will hopefully involve lots of sewing and reading, and N will focus his time and energy on this rescued beauty. For all you gearheads out there, this is a classic example of American motor muscle: a Ford 289 small-block V8 manufactured in the summer of 1964; it likely came out of a Mustang or a Galaxie. At the moment, it needs a lot of cleaning and possibly a replacement part or two, but who knows what it could accomplish once restored to its former glory? While electric cars might be all the rage, there is much to be said for the elegant simplicity of a powerful internal combustion engine. (We obviously love beautiful 1960s Americana here; see also the recently-acquired Singer Touch ‘N’ Sew.)

So thrilled with our dry bean harvest!

I may well be more proud of the beans we grew than just about any other crop. While I love growing vegetables, with each passing year (especially when there’s a pandemic and associated food scarcity!) I am more and more committed to growing long-term food storage crops like grains and beans. We planted just one small row of these ‘Peregion’ beans this season, and though I doubt I have more than a few pounds of homegrown beans for the winter, I know that I’ll be expanding on the varieties we grow next season. Dry beans are easy to grow and to store, require very little post-harvest processing and punch well above their weight in terms of nutritional value. Plus, they’re delicious! We hope to grow a lot more beans here at Quiet Farm.

Flying the coop.

Domestic chickens are the closest living relatives of the T.Rex (that’s true) and have similarly tiny brains. Here, one of our genius hens decided to make her way to the top of the chicken house, but was understandably somewhat perplexed as to how she might get down – although she did finally make the leap. Little does she know that the roof offers zero protection from raptors, of which we have many, and actually makes a perfect runway for a hungry hawk searching for a tasty chicken meal. If she continues her high-flying adventures, she’ll learn that lesson the hard way.

This is how we roll.

True confession time, friends: all November and December issues of food and entertaining magazines (Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart, etc.) received at Quiet Farm usually go straight into the library donation bin without even being opened once. Such is the extent of my loathing for the end-of-year holidays and all the attendant expectations, “must-have foods,” waste and excess! This year, however, a customer requested soft, fluffy dinner rolls, and I wanted to experiment with a few different iterations. Plus, I was completely sold on this caption: “If food could give you a hug, these rolls definitely would.” As we face the end of one of the most difficult years any of us have ever experienced, is there anything we all need more than a giant, warm, comforting hug? I think not. (P.S. The rolls are a bit labor-intensive but excellent, and they work at altitude. Worth your time.)

Wishing everyone a calm, restful and healthy week.

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.

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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?

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