Farm update: January 14

We’re striding into 2019 full of vigor, purpose and excitement. We’ve erased and rewritten our Quiet Farm project whiteboard – it has three columns, Now, Soon and Later – and although we’re totally overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks, we’re looking forward to an incredible year. First on the list is to finish our home renovations, then to build out our commercial kitchen so we have an amazing space ready for classes and workshops and events. Over the course of the year we’ll continue to share everything we’re up to here on Quiet Farm, and we’re so glad to have you along for the journey!

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Late last year I made my first batch of fire cider, a legendary homeopathic folk remedy popularized by the herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. Recipes vary, of course, but most include raw onion, garlic, horseradish, ginger, lemon, chiles, apple cider vinegar and honey for sweetening. I also included lots of turmeric, a powerful anti-inflammatory, plus extra citrus for the vitamin C boost. I usually take a shot each morning and follow it with lots of water; this brew is intense and can definitely upset sensitive tummies! But I believe firmly in supporting our immune systems with good food and potions like this and ideally not getting sick at all. (Oh, and wash your hands with hot, soapy water. All the time. Regular handwashing is the single most powerful weapon we have against colds and flu.)

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Cooking with winter squash

I may not love the excesses of the holidays, but I do love cooking this time of year. Ideally the weather is chilly enough to make us crave warm, earthy dishes, rich in the nutrients we need to sustain ourselves through the cold, dark winter. There’s a lot to be said for eating seasonally – not only does it make more sense to eat what’s available right now (or to preserve it for later), but nature magically gives us exactly what our bodies need. In the case of winter squash, that’s a lot.

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A large component of our winter storage pantry.

Edible squashes are in the curcubit family and essentially fit into two categories: summer and winter. Summer squashes include the thin-skinned varieties, like commonly available green zucchini and yellow squash. Winter squashes don’t ripen until late summer and early fall, then must be cured for extended storage. Most winter squashes are encased in a hard, protective skin, allowing them to be kept for months without refrigeration. As with other long-keeping vegetables (onions, potatoes, root crops), this comes in handy when there isn’t much else around to eat and you can’t just run to the store.

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A helpful guide to Quiet Farm wildlife

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Lots of people move out to the country to escape from society and get closer to nature. (We did.) This is all well and good, but more often than not that human-wildlife interface becomes difficult for both sides. On the Front Range, for example, dozens of black bears are killed by wildlife officials every year because they show little or no fear of humans and are regularly caught breaking into homes and businesses to scavenge for food. Many more are hit by cars. Mostly, this is because we continue to encroach on the bears’ territory, and because ignorant humans continue to place unsecured trash in places where the bears can access it.

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Here on Quiet Farm, then, one of our biggest challenges will be how to live in harmony with our local wildlife, rather than against them. For us, deer pressure will absolutely be the largest issue we face. There are thousands of deer in the nearby area, both whitetail and mule; we’re also surrounded on three sides by apple orchards, which attract deer and lots of other creatures who love fresh, crunchy apples, too. As we plan our vegetable beds for next season we’re still debating how best to protect those vegetables from the deer; these animals can do thousands of dollars of damage in one hungry night and we have no interest in opening an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

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Farm update: October 22

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We are enjoying spectacular sunrises and sunsets here on the farm as the weather seems to settle comfortably into true fall. The days are crisp and the evenings are chilly – but we finally figured out our tricky gas stoves, so we’re staying toasty when we’re inside. We don’t have a furnace in our farmhouse, so we keep warm with the stoves plus lots of layers. A near-constant simmering soup pot and frequent bread baking help too.

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I’m pleased to report that next year’s garlic has been planted in the arugula (and grass and thistle) bed. Garlic is a fall-planted crop in our climate; we typically plant it in mid-October and harvest it the following July. Our good friend and farming mentor Lara generously donated this seed garlic to Quiet Farm; one of the many cool things about garlic is that it adapts to the microclimate in which it’s planted. This means that within a few years Quiet Farm will grow entirely unique garlic, which we’ll then pass on to other farmers. (If you live in the Lafayette/Boulder/Louisville area, you should join Lara’s CSA next year. She’s an amazing farmer and has taught us so much, and she grows truly spectacular vegetables and herbs. We think the world of her.)

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Look at our gorgeous pine-and-fir floors!

The Quiet Farmhouse Major League Very Serious Renovation Project is kicking off with a vengeance, and we started by refinishing some vintage hardwood floors. We were disappointed to only find salvageable floors in a small part of the original 1901 house, but we opted to save what we could. The floors had been dark stained and then used as a careless dropcloth for later painting projects, and they were in rough shape. We’re so pleased with how the sanding and refinishing turned out, but now comes the difficult decision of what sort of flooring we’ll install in the rest of the house.

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Government paperwork is good for insomnia.

Another task on our to-do list recently has been to apply for a season extension grant through the NRCS. There is lots to learn about applying for grants as a small start-up farm, but we’re hopeful that this grant will assist us in building hoop houses (also called high tunnels) to extend our growing season. We’re quite lucky because, unlike many other programs for small farmers, this grant will still be funded whether or not our government manages to pass a new Farm Bill before they go on yet another unnecessary vacation or campaign trip or whatever it is they do while not doing their jobs. (And on that note, please could everyone remember to vote in the upcoming midterms? Astonishingly, only 37% of eligible voters managed to make time for this in 2016. Your small farmers thank you.)

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Pumpkin spice what?

While avoiding the news I’m diligently testing recipes for my “Fall Treats” class this week at Broomfield Public Library. Though I’m not at all a fan of sugar, especially the quantities consumed in the average American diet, I think an occasional homemade indulgence might be permitted. This here is a chile-spiced brittle with pecans and toasted pumpkin seeds, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you. We’ll taste curried pumpkin soup and other delicious fall things, too. Not registered yet? Go here!

This week I’m in seed school and N is painting our walls. We hope to have positive irrigation news for you next week, and I hope to see many of you in class on Wednesday evening!

 

 

Farm update: October 8

Hi! How was your weekend? We survived our first Applefest and we think we’ve made all of the necessary repairs on our irrigation system so that we can call for water in two weeks (more on that soon). I made yogurt, but I’m still searching for a source of truly local milk that I can get basically straight from the cow. Most of the cattle around here, however, are raised for meat, not dairy, so I’ll keep on looking. Here a few other things we’re up to:

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It was all very dramatic here for a time.

We were thrilled to have nearly a week of cool, damp weather (the mesa got its first snowfall!). This is such a rarity over here that you could almost hear the valley’s farmers cheering when the rains came. The high winds destroyed our flagpole (N rescued the flag) and the heavy rains helpfully identified some heretofore unknown leaks in our house, but we are still inestimably grateful for the moisture. Even the pasture came back a bit, with tiny green sprouts everywhere. Water is life, make no mistake.

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Quiet Farm’s first official crop! I’ll sell them as fancy microgreens and charge a fortune.

Speaking of tiny green sprouts, I attended a women’s farming conference last weekend in Estes Park and I planted some arugula before I left so that I could say in all honesty that I’m a farmer! Spicy, peppery arugula is one of our favorite greens, and it grows so well, especially in spring and fall, that I used it to test the soil fertility in an existing makeshift raised bed shoddily constructed (not by us) from cinderblocks. The arugula sprouted beautifully – along with tons of grass and possibly some thistles. Since there is no grass (or thistles) nearby, I’m at a loss to explain this, but now I have to painstakingly weed my tiny arugula. Pro tip: know your soil before you plant. This is not a good use of farm time.

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Local sunflowers drying for seed harvesting.

This spring I attended a seed saving class, and I’m looking forward to participating in an even more intensive teacher training in a few weeks. Saving seeds is an important part of food sovereignty; if we really want to opt out of our industrial food complex, we need to own the seeds, too. So we’re working on building up our own Quiet Farm seed bank, and we’re collecting, drying and storing seeds whenever we can. Once we grow our own vegetables, grains and herbs, seed saving will become an even bigger task each fall.

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Our compost pile. It’s not pretty, but it’s so valuable.

Just about any gardening or small-scale farming book you’ll ever read will extol the virtues of compost, and we’ve got ours started. We identified an otherwise unusable plot about equidistant between the kitchen and the future raised beds, so it’s easily accessible to all. We began with lots of old straw bedding and manure from the animal pens; we’ll need to clean the pens out anyway before we purchase our goats and it makes a beneficial addition to the pile, especially since the manure is well-aged. All of our kitchen waste, leaves, weeds and other organic material go in, too. At the moment we’re watering it frequently because it’s been so dry, but we’re hoping for a long, wet winter and it will be perfect for building up the fertility of our raised beds next spring. As a rule, never let even a scrap of organic material leave your property.

This week we plan to tear up the oddly rumpled carpet in our sun porch and replace it with some durable and water-resistant flooring, since it will shortly become a mud porch. We’ll repair two broken window mechanisms and patch our newly discovered leaks. We may take down a couple of dead trees, and hopefully establish our woodpile, too. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely week!

A crash course in irrigation

Before we moved to the Western Slope, we were told again and again to make sure we buy water, not just a farm. Over here, water and land are sold separately, like toys and batteries. Just because water runs through, on or over your property doesn’t necessarily mean you have any right to use it.

The good news is that Quiet Farm does have adequate water, in most years. The bad news, however, is twofold: first, the Western Slope is in an unprecedented drought and at the moment no one has enough water. And second, we know precisely nothing about irrigation management. When you live in modern suburbia you just turn on the tap and the water flows magically, right? That is so much not the case here.

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Irrigation management on Quiet Farm doesn’t look like this.

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It looks like this: our Parshall flume (or weir) with attached flow gauge. No, we don’t know what any of those words mean, either.

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This is our water pump with screen to catch wildlife – raccoons, ground squirrels, marmots, whistlepigs, ponies, etc. – when they fall in. Looking forward to THAT happening.

We now own two shares of one of the Western Slope’s strongest irrigation ditches. There are dozens of ditch and reservoir companies; the vast majority of the area’s water comes from hundreds of lakes and reservoirs up on the Grand Mesa which are filled with precipitation each winter. When there is no snow, like last year, then there is no water in the ditches or reservoirs. And so water becomes a very valuable commodity.

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This is known as an “ag tap,” an abbreviation for agricultural. The water from this tap, however, is from our domestic supply. Confused? So are we.

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This is downstream of the water pump and will help irrigate our land with irrigation water. We think. Or maybe not.

When we want some of our water for irrigation – which we can have between the beginning of April and the end of October – we order a precise amount from the ditch company, accounting for absorption and loss along the way. Ditch riders, who live up on the mesa during the season, use a complicated system to send the water down the correct ditch to our property on a specific day. We have to be out at our headgates at about 6AM to start our run, and the water we use is debited from our account, just like a bank. We can lease, sell, trade or give away our water as we see fit, but if we order water, it’s coming to our property whether we’re ready or not. So figuring out our irrigation system is of paramount importance to our future success.

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Our water will run through gated pipe, a common sight in our area. Big farms will own thousands of feet and it’s set up according to your property’s individual landscape and contour. The black gates open and shut to control the water flow.

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A lot of our gated pipe currently looks like this, which is obviously not workable. Even we know that.

In case you’re worried that we’re actually living in Little House on the Prairie, our house has a domestic tap, which is just like water in a normal house. Except that domestic water here is crushingly expensive, especially compared to Front Range rates, which means we absolutely cannot run a farm on domestic water without bankrupting ourselves. No more domestic taps are being issued in our area; local government doesn’t think we have the water to support additional growth – unlike on the Front Range, where greedy, short-sighted counties sell their water to the big cities and then wonder why their towns die. Domestic taps are worth tens of thousands of dollars over here, if you could even buy one.

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Apparently little critters like chewing on the gates inside the pipe. The gates cost $3 each, and we have dozens missing. The few remaining intact ones are probably being eaten right now while you’re reading this.

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The end of the line. Of course, if the pipes aren’t connected properly we’ll just flood everything and there is no way to turn the water off once we’ve called for it. So good luck with that.

We’ve got just about a month to figure this system out, because once the water goes off at the end of October we’ll have no way of testing our work. And when the water (hopefully) starts running again next spring, we want to be ready to get our pasture in good shape.

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Good news, though! We’re unknowingly growing a pasture of invasive elm trees that will need to be removed by hand…

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…when we’re not growing anything at all. Surprisingly, bare pasture is actually worse than having even invasive plants in the ground.

The moral of this tale, friends, is not to take water for granted. The daily luxury of fresh, clean, potable water is an absolute gift and one that not even everyone in the U.S. has access to. So treat your water like the precious resource it is, and know that it is finite. And wars over water will be much more devastating than wars over oil.

There is much work to be done, and winter is coming. Pray for snow.

The Farm Series: Desert Weyr

Of late, our Western Slope farm visits have taken us to pick delicious cherries and to meet happy pigs. How about we introduce you to some unusual sheep?

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Desert Weyr is perched high on a mesa above the town of Paonia.

In the late 1990s, Eugenie “Oogie” McGuire decided she wanted to craft herself a traditional medieval cloak – from scratch. It would be made from wool, of course. She purchased one ram, five ewes and a loom, taught herself how to spin, weave and sew, and eventually made the cloak. As she says, “It’s more accurate for the 18th century. It took me six years to weave the fabric, two more to get up the courage to cut it, and two weeks to hand-sew it.” But what commitment! Now, Oogie and her husband, Ken, raise a large flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep on pasture above Paonia.

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The Farm Series: Colorado Pastured Pork

We’ve (sort of) relocated to the Western Slope, and we’re focused on meeting as many local farmers as possible. If we truly intend to start Quiet Farm here, and if we intend for it to grow into a thriving business, building a strong local producer network will be key to our success. To that end, when we’re not driving around looking for property, we’re visiting farms and ranches who practice the same sort of farming we plan to embrace.

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The Western Slope – specifically Delta County, where we’re currently based – has a long history of agriculture, but most of those ag products were shipped to population centers in Denver (to the east) and Salt Lake City (to the west). Now, with “local food” and “agritourism” evolving as valid ways for poorer counties to earn revenue, there is a movement afoot to encourage small farmers and other sustainable, innovative producers to make their mark here. Surprisingly, Delta County has more acres of organic farmland than any other county in Colorado (I know, we thought it was the Kingdom of Boulder, too).

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Sowing the seeds

As recently as three or four generations ago, the vast majority of seeds planted in home gardens were saved from year to year. Gardeners learned what plants thrived in their unique microcosm, and they might have saved seeds from the earliest beans, or the largest cucumber, or the most delicious tomato. Season after season, these saved seeds protected plant diversity, acted as a hedge against famine and in many cases were so treasured that they were sewn into hems of immigrants’ clothes when they traveled – voluntarily or not – to new lands.

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A few samples from the Quiet Farm seed bank.

Now, we think nothing of buying seed packets every growing season. Wintertime brings glossy seed catalogs to the mailbox, filled with mouth-watering descriptions of intensely flavorful tomatoes, trendy kalettes, or spicier peppers. We page through these during the dark, cold days, eagerly anticipating the chance to get our hands in the soil once again, and often we order much more than we need. Most home gardeners have a wealth of seeds left over from previous years, and even this abundance doesn’t stop us from buying just a few more. They’re just tiny packets, we reason. A few more couldn’t hurt.

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The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

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I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

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Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

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The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.
  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

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The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

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Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

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  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

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  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.