Farm update: February 24

Greetings! We are currently stuck in that awkward phase between winter and spring. Some days it’s all teasing warmth and perfect blue skies, and some days it’s bleak and grey with icy, biting winds. Most of our snow is gone, though we expect (and hope for) one or two more storms, at least. It’s a changeable season, but spring is definitely in the air and we’re starting to hear more songbirds and see new growth everywhere we look. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently.

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A prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) in one of our towering cottonwoods.

We still haven’t captured a photo of our shy Northern harrier, seen regularly hunting mice in our pasture on sunny afternoons, but N did snap this lovely photo of a prairie falcon. The prairie falcon is about the size of a peregrine falcon, but with a much different hunting style (low swooping over the ground, rather than rapid dives). Unfortunately for the songbirds we’ve been hearing, much of the prairie falcon’s winter diet is the Western meadowlark, but we hope this one will focus more on our ground squirrel population. As with all falcons, the female is substantially larger than the male.

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Not at all how baguettes should look.

We live in a very immediate culture, and we want everything now – especially learning a new skill. And we like to pretend that everything turns out perfect every single time, even though there is no possible way that’s true. I bake fresh bread three or four times a week – thousands of loaves over the past decade – and a couple of weeks ago this was the result. The problem? I wasn’t paying attention, and I left the dough to proof on top of the stove, near where the pre-heating oven vented steam. Some of the dough ended up partially baked in the bowl; I’m just lucky that my favorite proofing container didn’t melt. I know better, but mistakes still happen. The lesson here? Not everything you produce in the kitchen will be perfect. But learn from your mistakes and try again, because it’s the only way to achieve anything worthwhile. (Also, don’t multi-task. It is productivity’s mortal enemy.)

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There is no way seven nails were needed to secure this little piece.

We’re in the midst of renovating a little cottage where we’ll eventually offer our classes. The cottage sat unloved for many years, and (understatement alert) it needs a lot of work. N spent days removing terrifying carpet and the accompanying tack strips, and now we’re tackling painting and flooring. In order to install the floor correctly we need to remove, clean and paint all of the baseboards; like so many DIY projects, this has expanded exponentially. One reason for this can be seen above: in a tiny, two-inch by two-inch piece of baseboard, seven nails held it to the wall. (One would have done it, seriously.) Because we’re trying our best to salvage the usable baseboard rather than spend hundreds of dollars on new product, we attempt to remove it carefully, instead of the pointlessly destructive “sledgehammer renovation” favored on so many home-improvement shows. This takes a lot of time. We often wish that we’d seen this house constructed – were workers given a bonus for using far more material than needed? As always, we’re learning a great deal about how not to do things as we progress.

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Currently on display in the workshop.

Have you ever had a project that you didn’t quite have the courage to tackle? One that sat in the corner and nagged and mocked you, because really it shouldn’t be that difficult to complete? Such was the situation for me, when years ago N asked me to stitch these little flag patches onto some of his old boat crew shirts to show the countries we’d visited each season. Two had already been completed by an excellent professional sewing shop back in England, and I just had to finish the remaining two, then render all four sturdy enough to hang neatly on the wall. I procrastinated because I was nervous about starting; these shirts are literally irreplaceable (the boats don’t even exist any longer) and t-shirt fabric is notoriously difficult to work with. I finally completed the project, but not without maddening wrong turns and many torn-out stitches along the way. I’m proud I took the time to sew them correctly, even if it meant redoing my work again and again until I got it right.

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A classic Chevrolet Camaro (Americanus musclii maximus).

And though you may think that N only spends his time photographing food and birds and renovation projects, his heart remains with his first love: classic cars. Of late he’s been doing quite a bit of photography for a high-end custom restoration shop, and back when we lived on the Front Range he drove and photographed some truly incredible machines when he shot for a luxury dealership. See more of his spectacular auto work here.

Coming soon: it’s almost time to start seeds! Have a lovely week, friends, and thanks for being here.

 

Winter on the farm

In nautical terminology, “the doldrums” refer to an actual place – waters near the Equator where sailing ships were often stuck for days or weeks in windless seas. In common parlance, however, the doldrums mean “a state or period of stagnation, inactivity or depression.” And so here we are in deepest winter.

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Our dormant raised beds, slumbering under snow.

Although this winter hasn’t been nearly as snowy as last year, we’ve definitely descended into the grey gloom of February. We are so lucky here in Colorado to have blue sky days more often than not, but perhaps our reliance upon those blue skies means that the unrelenting greyness affects us more. We’re glad we opted not to settle in Oregon. (#sorrynotsorry, Oregon.)

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It’s like a real-life nature program.

Snowy ground means it’s much easier to see who (or what) might be creeping around our property under cover of darkness. Birds, rabbits, coyotes, deer, feral cats, foxes and more have all made their presence known; although neighbors have claimed that mountain lions are “common” here, we’ve still never seen any evidence.

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The hens don’t venture out when there is snow on the ground.

The aforementioned coyote and fox tracks are often spotted near the chicken house. After a vicious fox attack last summer, however, we fortified the run and thankfully haven’t lost any more birds. We remain ever vigilant; these predators are far craftier than they’re given credit for.

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Can we call this a shot of wild turkey?

To the north of Quiet Farm you’ll find a road called Wild Turkey Lane, and it’s aptly named. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) typically travel in flocks (unlike this solo adventurer above), and they’re pretty common in our area. Although the wild turkey is native to North America, they were introduced to Britain via Spanish trade routes and were therefore incorrectly associated with the country Turkey, hence the name. And urban legend claims that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey as America’s national bird, rather than the bald eagle, but that tale seems to be mostly fluff.

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Our animal corral, awaiting goats or perhaps a milk cow?

There isn’t much that can be done outside in winter. We have only the chickens to care for right now, and they simply need fresh water, ample food and clean bedding. Raising livestock in winter is not for the faint-of-heart; no matter the weather, hay might need to be brought in, animals could need to be moved to winter pasture, and dairy goats or cows would still need to be milked regularly, unless they’d been dried off. Livestock is a full-on commitment that we’re not quite ready for just yet.

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A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in an abandoned apple orchard. 

One upside of winter is that birds are much easier to spot in bare trees! We have a strong and varied raptor population here; of late we’ve been watching both an adult female and a juvenile Northern harrier hawk (Circus cyaneus) hunting over our pastures in early afternoon, though we don’t have any photos yet. (The Harrier Jump-Jet, developed by British aeronautics company Hawker Siddeley in the 1960s, was named for this bird.) We definitely want to encourage raptors at our farm to keep our excessive rodent situation under control.

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Hopefully our nascent orchard will survive the winter.

Last spring we planted fifty fruit trees on our property, both native plum and Nanking cherry. We babied these trees with plenty of water and coddling all last year, and we’re very much hoping for new growth on the trees come spring.

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Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) outside our kitchen.

At the moment, winter seems endless. But there are signs of life everywhere if we look hard enough – new grasses sprouting, the ground softening and thawing, the sunlight arriving earlier and earlier. And soon enough, it will be spring and the earth will come back to life and it will be time to plant again. We must remember to be fully present in the season we’re in, and not always wish for the future. It will come in good time.

How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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Farm update: January 6

Hello there, and a very happy new year to you and yours. If you’re here for the first time, welcome! If you’re returning after our hiatus, thanks for coming back! We look forward to sharing a new year of food and farm adventures with you.

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Our updated Snow Management Plan in action!

Last winter – our first winter at Quiet Farm – our area received an unprecedented amount of snow. Our inaugural Snow Management Plan was…ineffective, shall we say; we had no tractor and no plow and no way of getting out of our quarter-mile driveway with a foot of snow on the ground. At one point, we resorted to begging a friend with a truck to flatten the snow by driving up and down our lane so we could at least leave the farm (thanks, Joe!). Needless to say, that was not a sustainable long-term solution.

This winter we haven’t had nearly as much snow, but we do have a plan – a detachable plow for our ATV. And so far, the ATV plow has worked like a champion. We’re even thinking of purchasing other implements for the ATV, so that we can use it like a mini-tractor, since we’ve been unsuccessful in finding a reasonably-priced midsize tractor to manage our pasture. Stay tuned.

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Farm update: October 21

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The south lawn of our house makes a peaceful resting spot.

Is it autumn where you live? Is it crisp and cool with bright scarlet and gold leaves everywhere? Is it dark when you wake up in the morning? It is here, and we’re settling into this brief transition season before winter extends its icy grip. Much of our work these days involves cleaning, tidying, preserving, covering and generally setting things in place for the colder months. We try to take advantage of these bluebird fall days for as long as we can; once the snows come, we won’t be working outside much.

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Growing garlic takes forever, but it’s worth the wait.

Ninety of this season’s largest garlic cloves have been planted in a bed newly prepared with lots of rich compost. Last year’s garlic went into an existing cinderblock bed that was here when we moved in; a few weeks ago we broke that bed down and dispersed the soil into new trenches for garlic and asparagus. The cloves will slumber quietly here over the winter, and in the spring we’ll hopefully see green garlic peeking up through mulch and snow. Every year we’ll plant more and more garlic; we eat a lot of it, of course, but since garlic adapts to its unique environment, we want a generous quantity to save for planting.

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The water runs through a culvert underneath our driveway and out into our pasture. You can see our flume in the upper right.

We ran our irrigation water for the first time this season, and it went surprisingly well. Our pasture isn’t planted right now so the irrigation run was more of an experiment to see how the water would move through our gated pipe system. We own shares in a local creek that pulls water from reservoirs on the Grand Mesa; when we want to run water we order a certain amount for a certain period and that water is deducted from our account. This run was for two days (forty-eight hours straight!) and it requires a lot of hands-on management, mainly opening and closing gates manually in the big pipes. When we’re more comfortable with our irrigation we won’t need to babysit it as much, but we’re unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mere feet from our house, and we definitely want to pay close attention to where it’s going.

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Our tomato crop redeemed itself after a rocky start.

We harvested all of our vegetables prior to our recent hard freeze and brought in just over one hundred pounds of green, unripe tomatoes. In the past I’ve never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors, but for whatever reason these are ripening quite well. They’re no longer good to eat fresh – the overnight temperatures dropped too low, so the tomatoes taste as though they’ve been refrigerated – but they’re perfect for sauces, soups and purees. A pantry stocked with canned homegrown tomatoes is a winter gift indeed.

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One of our little saplings, hopefully protected from winter weather (and deer). 

We’ve hustled recently to layer all of our fruit tree saplings with warm winter mulch. Some of our little trees look healthy and others are…struggling. We’re hopeful that the mulch blanket will keep the trees protected from our harsh winter weather, since their root systems are likely to still be quite delicate. One of our priority spring projects next year will be to put a drip irrigation system in the orchard so we can stop watering the trees by hand.

We’re back to work, friends. We wish you a good week.

 

Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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You can pickle that

Are you swimming in zucchini and other summer squashes right now? We are, and grateful for it; if not for squash and kale and basil, I wouldn’t have grown much of anything this season. But what to do with all that zucchini, once you’ve grilled it in thick slices and tossed it with pasta and made overly-sweet not-at-all-healthy zucchini bread and so on? Those plants keep producing, even the surprise volunteers that showed up in the potato towers and the compost pile. Well, you could pickle that.

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What to do when the zucchini are threatening to take over.

The Quiet Farm household isn’t a huge fan of traditional cucumber dill pickles. I’ve tried them all the ways over the years – even traditional barrel fermentation, which meant that I once dumped five gallons of moldy, slimy cucumbers and their brine into our overwhelmed compost pile back at our old house in Denver – and it’s never been something that we’ve loved. (One of my sacrosanct rules of preserving: only make what you’ll actually eat.) Our altitude means that canned vegetables have to be processed much longer in a boiling water bath so pickles are almost always soggy; limp, overcooked cucumbers aren’t my thing. Also, even though I adore sharp, acidic flavors, standard vinegar pickles are sometimes just…too much.

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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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Coming home to roost

One of the many reasons we were drawn to Quiet Farm was its collection of rather ramshackle yet usable outbuildings. Since keeping chickens for eggs (and entertainment) was always a top priority, renovating the chicken house was definitely high on our project list.

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The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

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The original nest boxes on the far wall indicate that this may previously have been used as a henhouse.

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