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.

Shearing day

The “before” photo of the beauty makeover.

A big event happened recently at Quiet Farm: our five rescue alpacas were successfully sheared.

Yes, Paris is bleating. But please know that shearing only frightens the animals – it doesn’t hurt them.

Every spring, a shearing team makes its way across the country, traveling over thirty thousand miles in about three months. The team usually starts in early March in the southeast, where it’s already hot and humid, then heads north and west. We organized our shearing well in advance to ensure that our badly-neglected animals could be sheared this year; western Colorado was on the schedule for late May. We booked an on-farm visit so we wouldn’t need to transport our animals; the shearers also sheared groups of animals at a local vet office and other meet-up spots. Most reputable shearers won’t shear animals past the beginning of July, particularly in cold-weather climates like ours; because we adopted these animals in mid-July of last year, we missed the shearing team. We were thrilled to host them this year.

Luke shearing Paihia. On the left is all the fleece he’s removing; the animal’s flank is seen on the right.

Our shearer was the wonderfully professional and experienced Luke, whose father basically invented the alpaca-shearing technique that’s widely used across the country now. His headman, Greg, assists with all parts of the shearing, but we were very much involved too. Please note: these images might make it seem that these animals are being abused or hurt in some way. That is absolutely not the case. Although the shearing can be stressful and frightening for the animals (mostly because they’re harnessed) the shearing is not dangerous and keeps the animal far healthier, cooler and more comfortable in a hot Colorado summer.

Paihia in the beauty salon.

Our first task, before the shearers even arrived on our farm, was to safely halter the animals then attach them via a lead to one of our corral posts so the shearing could proceed swiftly. Easier said than done with our feral bunch, and you’ll notice there are no photos of that experience! We did manage to have three of five haltered before Luke and Greg arrived, but were thankful that Luke is tall and strong enough that he can actually hoist the animal onto the blue tarp you see in the photos. Once the animal is on its side, a block-and-tackle pulley harness secures the animal’s forelegs and hind legs, leaving its flanks and belly exposed. This position is indeed a bit undignified, and the alpaca doesn’t love being splayed out, but again, there’s no injury or harm done. Good shearers like Luke work quickly and efficiently to ensure that the animal is trussed for mere minutes.

The shearers are wearing masks not because of the pandemic, but because the shearing kicks up so much dust and fiber.

Our rescue animals had years’ worth of fleece growth, so the shearing took a bit longer than most. While Luke and Greg sheared, we kept the area neat and tidy, and readied things for the next animal. There was so much fleece that it was essential it was cleared away as quickly as possible so as not to interfere with the shearers’ work. The alpacas also had their toenails clipped – why not go for a pedicure too, while you’re at it? (Alpacas do not have hooves – they have two toes on each foot, with hard toenails on top and a soft pad on the bottom. This is one reason they’re so gentle on pasture, unlike cows and horses.)

Fleece of many colors.

Our five alpacas produced nearly one hundred pounds of fleece; the two males, Paris and Fiji, generated most of that. While alpaca fleece makes spectacular fiber for rugs and many other products, these poor animals were in such terrible shape that their fleece is too matted, dirty and unkempt to be of any value. We will use this fleece as mulch around trees – like an insulation sweater! – and in the compost pile. Next year, we’re likely to save the fleece for fiber work; many professional alpaca breeders keep their animals out of the pasture and have special coats to keep the fleece from becoming dirty and matted with twigs and seedheads. Our alpacas are obviously a bit more free-range, but I’d still like to experiment with spinning the fleece, if possible.

The animals look positively tiny after their shearing.

Though it’s tough to reason with a terrified alpaca when it’s being trussed for shearing, we know that the animals are so much more comfortable after losing their heavy winter coats. Would you want to wear five wool sweaters in the height of summer? We’ve noticed that they don’t immediately seek out the shade once they’re turned out into the pasture; instead, they can graze in the sun without the risk of overheating. We are so glad that the shearing went well, and we’re grateful for Luke and Greg’s professionalism and capability.

Unfortunately, two days after our successful shearing, our alpha female Kona went into unexpected labor; neither Kona nor the cria survived. This was a heartbreaking and entirely unnecessary loss and a painful reminder that when you choose to rescue animals, you take on the consequences of the abuse and neglect that happened previously. It was also a reminder that farming comes with tough lessons, and sometimes those lessons involve death. We are glad to have these funny, irascible, quirky animals on our farm, and are actively working to give them the best lives possible here.

And here’s the “after” photo of the beauty makeover.

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.

The FAQ Series: Yeast

This post likely would have been much more helpful about fourteen months ago, when the baking craze started in full force, but better late than never. Hopefully people still bake on occasion? Today we’re going to talk about yeast, a reasonably simple subject that gets complicated surprisingly quickly.

Before we get into the precise details of the baking yeast we use today, it’s important to understand just a bit about the history of bread and leaveners in general. A leavener – basically anything that makes dough rise – can be physical, chemical or biological in nature. Physical leavening agents are air and steam, which might be incorporated either through mixing or through the oven’s heat. Chemical leaveners, most often baking soda and baking powder, create a chemical reaction that causes doughs to rise. And finally, yeast acts as a biological leavener; yeast is a microscopic organism that consumes simple sugars and creates carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct of fermentation, which in turn causes dough to expand. Yeast cells used in baking are found either in commercial packaged form or wild in a starter.

Yeast-risen doughs really are simpler than this picture makes them seem.

Prior to the introduction of standardized commercial yeast, breads were always made with wild yeasts – that is, random colonies of microorganisms floating around peacefully in the air. This is the basis of “sourdough starter,” a mixture of flour (typically wheat) and water left to ferment on its own timetable. Sourdough is a bit of an American misnomer since not all wild yeasted breads need necessarily be sour; “naturally leavened” is a better term, and one that clearly states that no commercial yeasts were incorporated. Because yeast strains are so hyperlocal, naturally leavened bread will always possess unique characteristics depending on where it’s made. San Francisco might be famous for its sourdough due to its humid maritime climate, but a starter transported from the Bay Area to Colorado will eventually shift entirely to local strains of available yeast, thus changing the bread’s flavor. Many professional bakers prefer the challenge and variability of working with starters and wild yeasts, but commercial packaged yeast yields much more consistent results for home bakers.

The commercial yeast we know today has only existed since the nineteenth century; it was originally a byproduct of the brewing industry. Commercial yeast is a standardized product, now always a carefully-cultured strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae made (at least in the U.S.) with molasses wort. Although supermarket yeast is readily available (except during a global pandemic) and produces remarkably consistent results, the names and packaging can be confusing. Hopefully we can clear that up, and help you produce amazing homemade breads and other baked goods!

Proofing active dry yeast in warm liquid is essential before mixing your dough.

Active dry yeast is probably the most common yeast available to home bakers. Sold in individual packets, small jars or bulk packages, active dry yeast must be “activated” before use by proofing it in a warm liquid (often water or milk, depending on the recipe). Because active dry yeast is dormant when it’s sold, the proofing step “awakens” the yeast, and since a small amount of honey or sugar is typically used, the now-awake yeast cells also have something to feed on after their long nap. Active dry yeast is great for home bakers because the proofing step guarantees that the yeast is still fresh and suitable for use, but it’s always essential to note that the proofing liquid needs to be just lukewarm – about 100 to 110 degrees F. Yeast won’t activate in temperatures that are too cold, and liquids that are too hot (over 135 F) will kill the yeast immediately.

So many names! So much unnecessary confusion!

Next to active dry yeast on the shelf, you’ll likely also see instant yeast. Instant yeast might also be labeled as “quick-rise” or “rapid-rise” or even “pizza yeast,” all of which confuses the situation even further. Instant yeast has been milled to a much finer consistency, meaning that the granules dissolve quicker and can be added directly with other dry ingredients in a recipe, rather than proofed as mentioned above. The downside to this, of course, is that if your yeast is dead, you won’t know about it until whatever you’re baking comes out of the oven without any rise whatsoever. Instant yeast also often includes enzymes and other secret ingredients that help doughs rise faster, cutting down or even eliminating much of the advance work of baking. Instant yeast can also take higher temperatures than active dry can. Many guides indicate that active dry and instant yeast can be used interchangeably, but I think it’s important to understand the science behind both and figure out which is the best choice for the recipe you’re making.

Starter, as mentioned above, is simply an unpredictable mixture of wild yeasts captured in a roughly equal mixture of flour and water. Starters need to be kept active by discarding and then feeding, and thus are a bit more complicated than simply opening a packet of yeast. Naturally leavened breads need much more rising time than those made with strong commercial yeast; I use my starter for overnight loaves with a long, cool fermentation. If you’re maintaining a starter, take care never to introduce packaged yeast into your original container; the commercial S. cerevisiae is so strong that it will quickly multiply and take over your entire starter, pushing out your carefully collected wild yeasts. One wonderful aspect of keeping a starter alive is that you always have some to share if others are looking to experiment with naturally leavened breads.

Fresh yeast, also called cake yeast or compressed yeast, is virtually never seen in America. It is highly perishable, always kept refrigerated, and typically only used in professional bakeries, and only rarely even then. I attended culinary school in France and did learn to bake with it there, but I never use it here. Many of my vintage baking books reference fresh or cake yeast; if you want to try an old recipe that calls for fresh yeast, look up a conversion chart so you can use standard dry yeast. Should you find unexpectedly yourself with a block of fresh yeast, use it as quickly as possible.

Delicious! Nutritious! Great for vegans! Not great for bread baking!

And just to keep you on your toes, there’s also nutritional yeast! If you adhere to a vegan diet you’re likely already familiar with these bright yellow flakes. Nutritional yeast offers a savory, cheesy flavor not often found in plants, as well as a rare non-animal source of vitamin B12, and as such is indispensable in most vegan diets. While nutritional yeast is actually the same S. cerevisiae strain used for baker’s yeast, it is entirely deactivated and so cannot – I repeat, cannot – ever be used in bread baking, as it simply won’t work at all. Nutritional yeast is useful for a variety of reasons, and thankfully is far more widely available now, but please do not attempt to substitute nutritional yeast for any other format of baker’s yeast.

A few other tips for working with yeast: remember to get a good thermometer and keep it handy if you’re not confident about what “lukewarm” actually means; temperature really matters when it comes to yeast. If you only have instant yeast but want to make a recipe calling for active dry – or vice versa – use this handy conversion table. If you bake frequently, skip the individual packets, which are surprisingly expensive, and buy yeast in bulk at a restaurant supply store. These bulk packages usually only cost about $5 and have over a hundred times as much yeast for about twice the money – a spectacular value! You can store your yeast in the refrigerator, but in our dry desert climate I never have trouble keeping it at room temperature. If you have yeast of questionable freshness, test it by combining the packet (always about 2 ¼ teaspoons in U.S. measurements) with ½ cup of lukewarm water and one teaspoon of sugar. Stir gently; after about ten minutes, the mixture should be bubbly and creamy, and can be used as directed. If nothing happens, the yeast is dead – don’t waste the rest of your ingredients. And buy some new yeast.

Two very helpful baking books, especially if you’re at altitude.

If you’re baking at altitude, as I am, know that it’s usually a good idea to reduce the amount of yeast called for in bread doughs. The lower air pressure at higher elevations causes the yeast cells to become overly enthusiastic and the dough may well rise far too fast, which will compromise flavor development and oven spring. Overproofing is a big risk at altitude, and will negatively affect the final product.

In addition to the liquid temperature influencing yeast activity, the ambient temperature has a huge impact on yeast-risen doughs, too. My baking technique shifts quite a bit between winter and summer, as I have to adjust to temperatures that might be too cold (place the dough bowl on top of the gas fireplace!) or too hot (slow the rising by refrigerating the dough!).

One of the best tips I’ve ever seen in reference to baking is to “watch the dough, not the recipe.” It all seems unnecessarily complicated, but like anything else, baking takes practice. With experience, the ingredients and the techniques become simpler and easier to understand, and you start adjusting your doughs based on your senses, rather than what the recipe says. When you bake regularly, you start to learn how the dough will behave and how to create the ideal environment to yield a perfect finished product. Yeast-risen doughs are truly a living thing, and often adjustments need to be made.

Hopefully this post has clarified rather than muddied the topic of the different yeasts you might find in your local grocery store. As always, we’re here to help with any baking questions, so please contact us if we can offer any guidance. Wishing you lots of fresh homemade bread this week and always, dear friends.

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.

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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