Farm update: June 14

Hello there, and how are things in your world? Here at Quiet Farm it’s hot, dry and smoky. The Pack Creek Fire, burning southeast of Moab, Utah – started by an unattended campfire! Thanks, thoughtful and responsible campers! – has filled our blue skies with thick smoke and turned our sunsets into a terrible neon orange ball of scorching flame. We’re forecast to spend the week ahead melting under triple-digit temperatures, and we plan to only be outside for the bare minimum of tasks between noon and six o’clock. This week will be all about survival – ensuring that we, and all of our plants and animals, have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.

A few activities we’ve been up to recently on the farm:

Look at all those vitamins!

Our harvests lately have been greens, greens and more greens – no complaints, since we eat salad every day. The arugula, kale, spinach and mixed lettuces have all been crisp and delicious this season, but this week’s furnace-like temperatures will put an end to that abundance; as a rule, most lettuces and greens do not care for excessive heat and often turn unpalatably bitter. I’ve harvested just about every leaf out there; as usual, I leave a number of plants to intentionally go to seed for future plantings. I regularly replant salad greens underneath the tomatoes; by the time the greens are up, the tomato plant will shield the tender leaves from the scalding summer sun. We’re also harvesting garlic scapes (the squiggly things on the left side of the photo) to encourage the garlic plant to put all its energy into the underground bulb. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salad dressing or stir-fried. And we’re picking strawberries, too, which are spectacular and have never once made it all the way into the house except for this photo, after which they were promptly devoured.

Installation is the reverse of removal.

If you are the type of person who likes to tinker and solve complex puzzles and problems, we highly recommend that you buy a small farm then stock it with all sorts of vintage machinery and things. You will never be bored! The detail shot above is from a salvaged Honda pump. N is breaking it down, cleaning it and putting it back together in an attempt to add it to our quirky and bespoke irrigation system. We have our first water run scheduled for this week, and we are constantly working on improving our irrigation efficiency, especially since our “exceptional drought” is no longer the exception and is likely here to stay.

Such a cheerful splash of color in our arid desert landscape.

Most of our farm’s perennials, including lilacs and sweet peas, failed to bloom this year thanks to the lack of water. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), however, are a desert native and therefore totally unfazed by the climactic extremes we’re experiencing. Prickly pears are found all over Colorado and the southwestern deserts; they’ve long been a favored food of the area’s indigenous peoples. The fleshy pads are known as nopales; the flower and the fruit are both edible, too. Fun fact: it is totally illegal to harvest cacti on federal or private land unless you’ve been granted a BLM-issued permit or the owner’s permission! Sadly, many people ignore this and the desert is quickly being stripped of its cacti by collectors. Some of these specimens can be five hundred years old, so “they’ll regrow next year” doesn’t hold up. Collectively, humans are not very good at practicing the Leave No Trace principles, and our environment suffers greatly as a result.

Trash into treasure!

This past weekend our wonderful local arts center held its second annual ReFind Festival, which essentially involves turning trash into art. It’s a brilliant concept, and we’re always happy to participate in this fundraiser. This year, N transformed two old wooden windows into the perfect frames for his classic car photography; I turned vintage Levis into an apron and even convinced my sister to join the fun – she created this beautiful wooden jewelry box. (Great job, S!) We are proud to have this vibrant arts center in our small town and look forward to future upcycling festivals. (Here’s what we made last year!)

The only rhubarb scones we’ll have this season, sadly.

Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to discover that my ten or so rhubarb plants had survived the winter; they started putting on strong growth and I envisioned a freezer full of rhubarb for summer and fall baking. The rhubarb plants are outside of the game fence because the leaves contain high concentrations of oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans and animals – so rhubarb should, in theory, be deer-resistant. Sadly, the drought (which is clearly impacting every single aspect of our existence here in western Colorado) meant that the deer didn’t have enough forage and were desperately eating anything they could find; this included the rhubarb. I didn’t cage the plants soon enough, so every time they’d put on a bit of growth, the hungry deer would mow them to the ground again. Suffice it to say, I managed to harvest just enough rhubarb for one batch of scones, and I added strawberries because they’re such a natural pairing. The scones were fabulous, and next year I’ll know to protect the plants better. (I used this recipe as my starting point, even though the recipe title is supremely annoying; for those at altitude, I reduced the baking powder by half.)

With that, we’re going to grind on with the world’s lengthiest cabinet refinishing project. More on that to come! Stay cool and hydrated this week, friends.

Farm update: May 24

Late spring is a busy time of year for small farms and homesteads. The task list seems endless: plant this, thin these, weed that, water those and by the way, the alpacas and chickens still need food, water and clean bedding. The best we can do is simply to make list after list, and tackle those lists one item at a time. One thing we do adjust as we move into our busiest period: our daily routine. If possible, we try to be outside in the morning and inside in the afternoon, because our blustery, changeable winds make working outside even more challenging after two o’clock. This is a lovely ideal, of course, and things don’t always proceed as planned – but all we can do is our very best.

Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Careful pasture management is helping our land stay green despite the exceptional drought.

Our irrigation season is set to launch next week, though we still haven’t learned our water allotment for this year. In preparation for running water, we purchased a three-row marker to attach to our little tractor. Because we use gated pipe to irrigate our pasture, it’s important to “mark” the fields with channels that direct the water to the correct places. Marking is usually done on a three-year rotation, but our pastures were essentially abandoned for close to seven years, so it’s going to take some time to get the irrigation pinpointed. In addition to marking the fields, we also reconnected all of our gated pipe and replaced damaged gaskets and gates. Most people don’t break down their pipes every year, but we’ve mentioned before that we have a severe rodent problem – and if they build a winter burrow in the pipes, they’ll eat the gates. It’s more work to disassemble and reassemble the pipes, but likely saves us money in the long run.

Usually when people discuss freezing their eggs it’s an entirely different story.

Because laying hens produce more eggs when the days get longer, spring means we have lots of eggs. We eat fried eggs on toast every day for breakfast, and plenty go into muffins and frittatas and egg salad, and some are given to friends and neighbors, but on occasion we still find ourselves with a surplus. The simple solution? Freeze the eggs. I crack an individual egg into soft, flexible (and reusable!) silicone baking cups tucked into a standard muffin tray. Once the eggs are frozen solid, I pop them out and store them in a zip-top bag. If properly sealed in an airtight container, frozen eggs can last six months or more. While I wouldn’t use these eggs as a star ingredient, once thawed they’re perfect for quiches or baked sweets – and when the hens’ productivity slows again, I can save their fresh eggs for our breakfast.

Vinegar-making: just one of our many fun old-timey activities!

Last year, I casually mentioned to a winemaker friend that I’d like to try making my own vinegar. Lo and behold, he generously gave us two old barrels of spent wine that he had no use for. Some months later, what do we have but tart, tangy, delicious homemade red wine vinegar! Like baking bread and making yogurt, fermenting homemade vinegar didn’t used to be a special or unique activity; instead, it was simply what everyone did with the dregs of their homemade wine. But not many people have access to quality wine grapes, and even fewer make wine at home when it’s readily available in stores, so homemade vinegar has become something of a lost art, too. I used raw apple cider vinegar to kickstart the fermentation (like kombucha, it contains a “mother”) and simply left the vinegar to ferment in the pantry, loosely covered with a cloth. I tasted it frequently (always with a clean metal utensil!) to observe the changes and am really happy with the end result. It’s light and bright and spectacular with good olive oil and the fresh salad greens we’re harvesting by the bowlful these days. And it took close to zero effort on my part!

A colorful, cheerful mess.

There have been lots of small sewing projects these days. As much as I love making quilts, it’s also satisfying to sew little items that can be completed in a few hours, rather than months! Some things I’ve made recently: little drawstring gift bags, reusable sandwich wraps, scrunchies (they’re very on-trend again!), reusable snack bags, an upcycled apron and a cute thread basket made from vintage Levis, and of course bread bags. Lots of bread bags. I love making useful things that eliminate single-use plastic waste, and I love reusing sturdy fabric like denim – most jeans that are thrown out only have one or two holes, and the rest is in great shape. I’m learning how to patch jeans and darn socks, too! Here’s a fun tip: take all your clothes that need mending and stack them away in a corner of your sewing attic. Many months later, tackle that pile and return the newly-repaired clothes to your closet. Magic! It’s like a whole new wardrobe for free! (P.S. The fashion industry is devastating to the environment. Each American throws away about seventy pounds of textiles each year; most of that is fully recyclable. Instead of buying cheap new clothing, consider mending what you own, swapping with friends, buying secondhand or shopping your own closet.)

I just want to eat one homegrown strawberry this year. Just one. Please.

And finally, I’m hopeful that the strawberry plants we put in last spring will bear fruit this year. There are certain fruits and vegetables where the difference between homegrown and storebought is as vast as the Grand Canyon: tomatoes are obviously one example, and strawberries are definitely another. The standard Driscoll’s berries in the plastic box are fine, of course, but a just-picked, sun-warmed strawberry has a sparkling intensity of flavor that can never be matched by mass-produced California berries. Unfortunately, those amazing berries are also coveted by birds, squirrels and rabbits, so as usual, we built in layers of protection. You might think that Quiet Farm is entirely constructed from chicken wire and hardware cloth – which is mostly true! – but we would actually like to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

And with that, we’re off to continue our tiling project. Wishing you a calm and peaceful week ahead, dear friends.

A word on weeds

Soft and fuzzy common mullein (Verbascum thapsus).

A couple of years ago, a film titled The Biggest Little Farm was released in the U.S. It received quite a lot of publicity, especially unusual for a farm documentary, and was shown at film festivals and charity screenings across the country. The film opened shortly after we purchased Quiet Farm and was mentioned to us by scores of friends and acquaintances, so of course we had to watch it. The story follows John and Molly Chester as they attempt to regenerate an abandoned farm outside of Los Angeles.

Kochia (Bassia scoparia) is technically an invasive weed but is also used as a forage crop.

Look, I’ll just cut right to the chase: the film is gorgeous. Truly spectacular. The Chesters’ property, rechristened Apricot Lane Farms, is over two hundred magnificent acres; they “grow more than 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables, and humanely raise sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks on pastures and within our orchards.” While we and the Chesters might all technically consider ourselves ‘farmers,’ our experience (and our farm!) differ considerably from Apricot Lane. And if guests visit Quiet Farm expecting the iconic Apricot Lane visuals (only $150 for the VIP tour!), they’re bound to be sorely disappointed.

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is troublesome for us; the sharp, poky seedheads are stuck in our socks all summer.

The carefully-curated golden hour drone shots of Apricot Lane show hillside after hillside, swale after swale, meticulously planted and beautifully managed and without a single seedling out of place. And certainly no weeds to be seen! Some very casual Internet research indicates that the Apricot Lane farmland alone is likely worth about three million dollars, if not more; maintaining a property like this is a staggering amount of work, and one that cannot be accomplished without a large crew and plenty of specialized machinery. Quiet Farm is less than a tenth the size of Apricot Lane, with neither a crew nor much machinery.

Its remarkably strong taproot makes common mallow (Malva neglecta) challenging to eliminate by hand.

Quiet Farm is, perhaps, a bit wilder than Apricot Lane. A bit less manicured, maybe. Or you could say with brutal honesty: “entirely overrun by weeds.” And it would be easy for us to watch The Biggest Little Farm and feel more than a little disappointed in what we’ve accomplished in our three years on Quiet Farm. It would be easy for us to think that we’re failing at farming and failing at managing our land, and I’ve certainly been guilty of falling into this trap. I try to remember, however, that my limited time and energy is best spent focused on our property, not on what others are doing. And I know for a fact that our land is in better shape now than when we bought it, and that’s always our ultimate goal.

Please don’t spray your dandelions; they’re an important food source for pollinators.

Here’s the truth of it all: we are rich in weeds here at Quiet Farm. We are farming in a harsh, arid high-plains desert, not the verdant agricultural paradise known as southern California. We are subject to wildly fluctuating temperatures, severe lack of moisture and desiccating winds, and any plants (or people!) that survive here must be tough. Anyone who has read about the Dust Bowl knows that the main cause of that needlessly tragic period was basically the tilling of the Great Prairie – essentially, with the advent of mechanization, farmers removed all of the plants holding down that valuable topsoil. We are determined not to repeat that mistake here on our land, so unless the weeds are directly impacting a plant we’re growing, they stay. We’d rather have any plant in the soil – even if it’s technically a weed – than bare ground. And of course, a weed is merely a plant growing where you don’t want it. (There are a few exceptions that we will always remove, namely Mexican puncturevine, also known as sandbur or goatheads, and any thistle, only because they hurt like hell when you cross them.)

Usually we have lovely fields of blue mustard, but not in this drought year.

Ironically, many of the weeds and other plants now classified as noxious or invasive were intentionally introduced as “fast-growing ground cover” and sold at garden centers here for decades (Russian olive trees and the spurge family are two great examples). Others are highly nutritious and would have likely been prized by settlers and homesteaders, including purslane, mustard and lamb’s quarters. There’s a valid argument that we’d all be much healthier if we occasionally foraged for native wild greens, only because their nutrition content is dramatically higher than our cultivated greens (which we don’t eat enough of, anyway). Weeds, of course, aren’t necessarily weeds to everyone: at the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Manhattan, purslane is often sold for upwards of $20 a pound. Because of the exceptional drought that we’re experiencing we found that our purslane and mustard didn’t make much of an appearance this spring, but we’re hoping to see them again in future years.

Our spiky, dangerous nemesis: cotton or Scotch thistle.

We have a stack of booklets and pamphlets, mostly produced by our favorite local land-grant university, that provide information about noxious weeds and how to manage them. The solution, invariably, is heavy, intense spraying with broadleaf poisons like 2,4D and glyphosate. These delightful (and expensive!) Big Ag products are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, toxic to birds, wildlife and aquatic life and likely destroy bee populations, as well. Why would we uproot our entire lives to move to a small farm and focus on growing our own food so that we could then douse ourselves and our animals in Agent Orange? All weeds will eventually adapt and gain resistance to any herbicide, no matter how much we use. And once the weeds are thoroughly eradicated, which will never happen, what are we supposed to plant in their place – a thirsty monocrop of Kentucky bluegrass? We barely have enough water to keep our edible plants alive, much less pointless turfgrass. So we pull weeds by hand when they’re interfering with our crops and throw them to the chickens; otherwise, we live peacefully with the plants on our land (except for the goatheads, which destroy our shoes and our bike tires).

Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) are prolific and incredibly nutritious.

I sound jealous and disgruntled, of course, because Apricot Lane Farms is really just so unbelievably gorgeous, and some days all I can see here are the unkempt, straggly weeds that seem to be everywhere. We are genuinely happy that a film like The Biggest Little Farm garnered lots of attention – any media that addresses our deeply compromised food supply is a net positive, in our opinion. But nothing in that film bears any relation to our little farm, and I’d argue that two hundred acres outside of Los Angeles – while certainly not a ten-thousand-acre monocrop corn/soy operation in Iowa – isn’t exactly a “little” farm, but more like a multimillion dollar farm theme park, complete with gift shop. Just like anything else on social media, it’s important to remember that there is quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work that isn’t mentioned, and two people can’t manage that property on their own, though the film implies that the Chesters do just that. I’d like to know a lot more about their weed eradication practices.

Likely something in the dock family? Feel free to weigh in with a plant ID.

We’ll never successfully hand-weed our entire acreage. And no matter how long we’re here, Quiet Farm will simply never be Hollywood-ready, and it won’t ever look like Apricot Lane. That’s just how it is. So if you should ever visit us, remember not to make comparisons with any heavily-edited farm documentaries you might have seen. Don’t forget to browse our gift shop, where you can buy a fair-trade logo tote bag handwoven from bindweed, mallow and cheatgrass (careful, it’s a bit sharp). Goatheads are always a free gift with every purchase because they’re already stuck in the soles of your shoes.

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.

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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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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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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