Farm update: March 1

Hello there, and welcome to March. (March?!? Really? We are completely not prepared for all of our spring tasks yet.) Also, welcome to the nearly one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns. A year of this madness. How is everyone doing out there? The “pandemic wall” is a real thing, make no mistake, and I think a lot of us have hit it. Hard.

The images in this post might convince you that we’re buried in snow over here at Quiet Farm; sadly, that is not at all true. We have gotten a bit of snow both here and up on the mesa, and of course we’re grateful for every last flake, but it’s still looking as though it’s going to be a painfully dry year. As always, the only thing within our control is how we use the water we do have, so we’ll be focusing our efforts on making sure that not a drop goes to waste.

Paris secured in our makeshift crush before the vet’s arrival.

One great accomplishment that we’ve had recently is to successfully geld one of our male alpacas, Paris. His behavior had become increasingly aggressive and since we are not running a breeding program, there is no reason to keep an intact male on the farm. We were able to safely secure him in a “crush,” and our terrific local vet took care of the rest. It takes about sixty days for all the testosterone to leave his system, but his aggressive behavior has definitely lessened since the fateful day. We’re also pleased to announce that we’re on the mobile shearing schedule for the spring, so the alpacas will be getting a tidy cut in late May or early June, which will make them much more comfortable this summer. We are working on halter-training all the animals so that we can handle them in a safe and calm manner – this is much easier said than done, and frequently both humans and alpacas stomp off in frustration and tears. (Okay, maybe not the alpacas. Definitely the humans.)

Our game fence is good for more than just keeping out deer!

I’m also proud to announce that I’ve finished a patchwork quilt I started late last year. I won’t lie: I made approximately ten million mistakes on this quilt and learned so much about what not to do in quilting. I also unknowingly caused a lot of my own problems by designing a somewhat complicated pattern that required an excessive amount of piecework and stop/start stitching. (It’s only my fourth full-size quilt, however, so perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. I am very much a novice.) I read an article recently about different crafting hobbies people had taken up during the pandemic; one woman tackled a complicated shawl using fairly advanced knitting techniques. She wrote, “I almost quit a lot of times. But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times – it was a good emotional process for me. The challenge was a great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.” That accurately sums up my feelings about making this quilt – and I’m already excited about starting my next one.

Snowshoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout!

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much we adore our local library system; to make us love them even more, they’ve started loaning snowshoeing equipment! We’re about twenty minutes’ away from some of the best snowshoe/cross-country trails in the West, and borrowing equipment and just running up the mountain for a couple of hours has been a terrific break. (Even better: many of the trails ban loud, obnoxious snowmobiles.) We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to go a few more times before the demands of spring on the farm limit our time away.

This is an ideal afternoon snack with a strong cup of PG Tips.

There’s been more comfort baking than usual ’round these parts lately. One favorite is a long-ago classic that I’ve resurrected because for once I have a massive bag of spelt flour and plenty of fresh rosemary on hand: this rosemary-chocolate olive oil cake, originally from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. This may not be to everyone’s liking – rosemary isn’t frequently used in desserts – but I love it and don’t find the piney herb flavor overwhelming at all. The cake is tender, delicate and not too sweet, and is a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend a good-quality 70% dark chocolate bar here, cut into rough chunks, plus a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for extra crunch and texture. (For high-altitude bakers: I reduced the baking powder to 1 tsp. but didn’t make any other changes.) As with most things I bake, more than half of this cake promptly went straight into the freezer as a gift to my future self.

Stay calm and stay sane out there, dear friends. The best thing we can do is just to keep going.

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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Winter descends

“In a year that stripped life to bare fundamentals, the natural world has become our shared story. Seasons have offered the rare reminder that the world moves on even as our sense of time blurs.”

“The undeniable hardship of this winter is a reminder that for much of human history, particularly in colder climates, winter was a season simply to be survived. Winter is a primal time of death and loss, and a time for grief. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human.”

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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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Gone to seed

We’ve talked a lot about saving seeds here at FQF, and since fall is definitely underway, they’re on our minds more than ever at the moment. In addition to all of our canning and preserving projects and other preparations for winter, collecting and storing seeds is a big part of our autumn task list.

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Collect your sunflower seeds before the birds and squirrels do!

We use the idiom “go to seed” to refer to someone or something that’s let itself go. It’s become messy or unattractive or disheveled or unkempt; it no longer appears tidy and neat. It’s obviously a phrase of agricultural origin, and this is the time of year when it takes on significance in the garden, as most annuals are coming to the end of their natural lives. In their quest to reproduce, the plants have gone to seed: typically they flower first, then the flowers produce seeds, which are spread by wind, insects, animals or human intervention.

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Lettuces are one of the easiest plant families from which to save seeds.

It’s unfortunate, truly, that so many gardeners are offended by the appearance of plants gone to seed, and especially in perfectly manicured suburban settings are likely to rip plants out at the first sign of flowering. Letting plants proceed through their natural life cycle teaches you a lot about botany and helps you become a better grower. Plus, if you’re careful and diligent, you can start building your own unique seed bank, which will both save you money and improve plant diversity.

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Farm update: August 31

How are you doing out there, friends? Here at Quiet Farm we’re immensely grateful for clearer skies and cooler temperatures. We’re about seventy miles from the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, and there were days over the past couple of weeks where it felt as though we lived inside of a barbecue grill. Although the air still smells of smoke, and we don’t have our crystalline blue skies back, conditions have definitely improved. We send our heartfelt thanks to all of the fire fighters, police officers, and other emergency services personnel who put their lives on the line every single day. Thank you.

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To be eaten out of hand over the sink.

We went peach picking this past week; these are likely the last of this year’s harvest and ninety pounds are now nestled in boxes in our garage fridge awaiting processing. Colorado is most famous for its Palisade peaches, north of us in Mesa County; unfortunately – as though 2020 weren’t awful enough! – Palisade lost about eighty percent of its peach crop this year to that killing frost we had back in April. Our peach trees here in Delta County didn’t suffer nearly as badly (we did lose all of our cherries), so we’ll have local canned peaches in January that taste like liquid sunshine. (Fun fact: if you’re buying Palisade peaches on the Front Range, you should ask what orchard the fruit actually came from. Most of the peaches sold as “Palisade” this year didn’t come from Colorado, but from California. Also, in a season like this one, many of our Delta County peaches get rebranded as Palisade. Brand names sell, plain and simple.)

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Hunting with an audience.

N captured this early morning shot of our resident young fox hunting voles in our pasture. The magpies, never shy about their desire for a free meal, wait patiently in the hope that they too might share in the spoils. It’s tough to balance our ecosystem’s need for apex predators – we definitely want the fox to help control our rodent population, but we’d also like it to stay far away from our chickens. This debate is currently playing out on a much larger scale, as the Colorado ballot this November will ask whether voters want to reintroduce gray wolves, eradicated around 1940, in our part of the state. (Also please observe how beautiful that pasture looks. All credit to N for his mowing and irrigation work this season!)

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‘Marquis’ spring wheat.

We grew wheat! We opted to participate in small-scale wheat trials this year, and while much of our trial crop was demolished by deer, rabbits and squirrels, and plenty more taken out by strong winds, we did harvest a few stalks. The wheat still needs to be separated from the chaff and field notes beg to be written, plus seed must be returned to the seed bank organizing the project. If we actually grew enough to bake a single loaf of bread, I’ll be amazed – but it’s really exciting to grow grains. In decades past, most regions in the U.S. had their own uniquely adapted grain varieties, and of course this also supported the mills and bakeries required to process those grains. Those disappeared in the centralization of agriculture, but local heritage grains are staging a resurgence across the country. We want to be part of that trend, even on a minuscule scale.

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Not bad for an unintentional crop.

We also grew melons! This is amusing because we didn’t plant any melons. We do, however, have a thriving compost pile, and members of the vast curcubit family (squash, cucumbers and melons) are notorious both for cross-pollinating and for volunteering in unexpected places. This miniature cantaloupe (each is about the size of a softball) appeared in the hot pepper bed, where the serranos and cayennes are flourishing. We have five or six mature fruits now, and are excited to harvest one to see what we grew. If it’s delicious, we’ll save the seeds in the hopes we can grow it again, and we’ll have a melon bred just for Quiet Farm!

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Definitely qualifies as a meal.

And finally, our tomatoes are coming on strong. The intense heat wave we’ve just endured definitely hastened the tomato ripening schedule, though we’ve obviously needed to irrigate much more frequently. This time of year we’re likely to have a tomato salad at every meal, if only because the season is so fleeting. No recipe needed: sun-warmed tomatoes, halved or quartered, good olive oil, thinly-sliced red onion, a few grinds of black pepper, basil and a generous sprinkling of crunchy salt. Fresh mozzarella, ricotta or cotija would obviously not go amiss here. Honestly, it’s summer in a bowl and we’ll make the most of it while it lasts.

With that, we’re off to tackle a busy week that will hopefully include a hay delivery, a pre-winter fireplace inspection and more than a few canning projects. Wishing you all safety and health.

This week in flowers: July 13

Friends, it’s truly a surprise anything is blooming right now, considering our punishing temperatures – high nineties every day! – and total lack of moisture. Also, please send tax-deductible donations to help pay our extortionate water bill. But! We do have a few bright spots of color around the farm that we thought we’d share.

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Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a member of the marigold family.

We planted a number of different flowers, including calendula and marigolds, in our raised beds to both provide visual interest and to attract beneficial pollinators. Although calendula doesn’t love our intense summer weather, most seem to be doing reasonably well and will hopefully bloom again in fall’s cooler temperatures.

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Farm update: June 22

‘Tis the season of both growth and destruction. We spend most of our time weeding and watering and looking for new growth on our crops and in our pasture; in response, all of our crafty farm pests have come out with hunger in their tummies and destruction on their minds. Time spent not watering or weeding is instead spent defending our territory. It’s a hard-fought war of attrition out here, and both sides are digging their heels in.

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A raspberry cane with reassuring new growth.

We’re so pleased to see new growth on most of our raspberry canes. You might remember that we planted forty canes last year and every single one failed; this year we regrouped with drip irrigation and we believe that made all the difference. Bramble fruits like raspberries and blackberries typically do well in our climate; we’d love to grow our own fruit as well as our own vegetables. We’re always, always learning out here, and we’re trying hard not to make the same mistakes twice. We like to make lots of different mistakes instead.

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Where the water goes

There has long existed a tired stereotype of a farmer as some sort of rural idiot, a barely-literate country bumpkin who can only just string two sentences together. If there is anything we’ve learned during our nearly two-year (!) farming adventure, it’s that a successful small farmer is anything but stupid. You have to be a veterinarian and a seedsman and an ATV mechanic and a soil scientist and an entomologist. You have to dig holes, repair fences, build structures, patch hoses and outwit pests. You have to be strong, creative, resourceful, thrifty and tireless. And you have to know how to manage the water on your property, no matter how it gets there.

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The components of one of our drip irrigation kits.

One of our goals for this, our second full season of farming, is to get our irrigation dialed in. We don’t farm in a traditional American sense, i.e. hundreds of acres of the same crop (usually corn or soybeans) laid out in precise rows and neat blocks. Irrigating that sort of monocrop is relatively easy, because every plant is identical and therefore its water needs are identical, too. Once that irrigation system is established, it’s basically set-it-and-forget-it. Instead, we farm in a sort-of patchwork style all across our property: perennial herbs in this corner, a bed or two or nine here, trees over there. As a result, our irrigation is similarly patchwork, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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