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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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.

Sunflower Seeds 01 sml

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.

Lettuce Seeds 01 sml

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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This week in flowers: September 7

Slowly but surely, summer is giving way to fall – or winter, really, considering Tuesday night’s forecast. From a high today of just above 90, the thermometer will plummet sixty degrees to a projected hard freeze Tuesday night, and possibly snow, too. This shockingly early first frost (it usually occurs in the first or second week of October) is on-brand for the utter debacle that is 2020, and it will likely kill all of our tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, flowers and delicate herbs. None of these plants are even close to finished for the season, so our overall yields will be cut in half, at least. It’s a terrible, heartbreaking situation for any farmer, and we’re no exception.

At the moment, though, we still have lots of blooms on the farm, and it’s fascinating to watch the flowering plants shift with the seasons. Here are a few we’ve spotted recently (see blossoms from earlier this season here and here). After Wednesday morning, all of these will have vanished.

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