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.

 

The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

To that end, we present to you today an opinionated round-up of the best books on food, none of which are cookbooks. Some are loving historical treatises on how food and cooking and eating used to be, and those are both beautiful and heartbreaking to read, because we’ve lost that and it isn’t coming back. Others are manifestos on our broken food system, and what we can do to change it. And others are simply writings about food for pleasure and enjoyment, and those might make you a better cook simply by osmosis.

(A more expansive reading list on food politics, with some duplicates from this post, can be found here, if that’s the direction you yearn to go.)

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An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler

“Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine. It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be – a clear path through them.” An Everlasting Meal isn’t exactly a cookbook, although it does include some deliberately vague sort-of recipe-ish suggestions. What it does better than almost any other book on food, however, is teach you how to live fully in the kitchen, how to enjoy your time there, how to make your food your own. It teaches comfort and care and, as indicated in its subtitle, it teaches about cooking with economy and grace. Adler’s writing shimmers; my copy is filled with little sticky tabs to mark the most gorgeous phrases. We’ve now made the act of cooking so unreasonably difficult and pretentious and full of rules, and this lovely book reminds us that there’s no need for all that fuss. Just cook something simple, for yourself or for others, and enjoy it. That’s the whole secret.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway – truly the original bro! – is known more for his drinking and bullfighting and womanizing and fishing. But he loved food, too, and nowhere in his works is this better reflected than in A Moveable Feast, a bittersweet memoir of his time as a struggling young writer in Paris. Because I too learned to love food in Paris, this book holds a special place in my heart, so much so that I named my first company after it. I read not long ago that after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, this book sold out of every bookstore in the city; I understand why. For a snapshot of a rich time and place that most of us never knew and will never see again, A Moveable Feast isn’t to be missed.

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Anything by M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David

If you want to read about the true lost joys of eating and drinking, the thrill of finding the first wild strawberries at the farmers’ market, how to cook defiantly when pantries are bare, or the pleasure of gathering at the table for hours with wine and conversation and friends, you can do no better than M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David. Fisher was American and David was English, so they bring remarkably different cultural backgrounds to the table, but their writing is luminous. Both women address the bleakness of the edible landscape during and after war; David’s writings about food and eating and cooking in sunny southern Europe after escaping the sorrowful grey dampness of post-war Britain practically sing with warmth and sunshine. Any of their works will suffice, but I recommend How to Cook a Wolf and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. This is writing to take you out of our current situation, and that’s a blessing.

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The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Dan Barber is currently working harder than any other chef in America to change the way we grow and raise food. Though his restaurants (Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside the city) aren’t exactly egalitarian, his policy work and his commitment to reducing food waste are laudable. The Third Plate eloquently argues that in order to transform our food system we simply have to move away from our traditional, resource-intensive, CAFO-based “meat and potatoes” diet and find the place where good farming and good cooking intersect. Oh, and he started a seed company, too.

Anything by Julia Child

Read anything by Julia Child, and you’ll begin to understand the meaning of persistence. Child came to her fame relatively late in life – she only enrolled in culinary school in her late 30s – and she wanted more than anything for Americans to love good food and to love cooking. Julia Child transformed the American food scene more than any other person, and though her cookbooks are of course classics, her other writing deserves a careful look, too. My Life in France details the formative years she and her husband Paul spent in Europe, where Julia learned to cook at Le Cordon Bleu (my alma mater!), and you can see her passion for food and cooking grow exponentially every day. As Always, Julia, a book of heartfelt letters between friends, is also worth a read.

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Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

I know of at least two other small farmers who began their farming journey by reading this book, and I’m sure there are many more. Kingsolver and her family relocate from Arizona to their family farm in Kentucky and chronicle a year of “food life.” In 2017 the book was re-released in a ten-year anniversary edition, and in the decade-plus since its publication its theme has become more relevant than ever. Ultimately this book is gentle and kind and yet still effectively conveys the important message that our individual decisions do matter, and that we can change the entrenched system if enough of us choose to act.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

If you choose to read one single book about food, make it this one. No one else has done more to elucidate food policy in the U.S. than Pollan, and all of his books are worth reading. His book Cooked is another stellar choice that focuses more on the simple yet somehow immensely complicated act of cooking, which most of us have given up. I vote Pollan for president in 2024! You heard it here first.

It’s still winter out there, so grab a quilt and a mug of strong tea and a book and settle in by the fire. And if you have additional suggestions for our list, please share in the comments below. Happy reading, friends.

“I don’t know how things are going in your world but it’s cold and people’s nerves seem a little shot and sensitive. Go make a pot of something good and invite someone you like over. It beats yelling at the TV alone.” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

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.

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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On hiatus

Over the next eight weeks (at least in the U.S.), we’ll careen wildly from one overwrought celebration to another. From a holiday where we decorate with fresh, healthy vegetables but celebrate with cheap processed candy (while leaving the vegetables to rot in the landfill) to a holiday where we throw away the equivalent of fourteen million turkeys to a holiday predicated entirely upon excessive spending, consumption, packaging and waste, the next two months are a difficult and challenging time of year for many people – including us.

And thus Finding Quiet Farm is on hiatus for the rest of 2019, though we’ll stay busy. We’re going to bundle up, hunker down and get to work on all sorts of interesting tasks, both indoors and out. We’ll be back in the new year with farm updates, lots of book recommendations, a detailed tutorial on making your own delicious meatless burgers and photos of all our projects. We’ll be quiet and productive and we’ll skip the holidays entirely, thanks very much.

Take good care of yourselves, friends, and cook something tasty and nourishing. We hope to see you back here in 2020.

Spring fever book club

It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!

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How to grow microgreens

We’re still firmly in winter’s icy grip here on Colorado’s Western Slope, and there’s no better cure for spring fever than growing something indoors. Let’s learn how to grow microgreens!

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Microgreens sound fancy and expensive, but really they’re just tiny versions of things we already eat, like kale, radishes and beets. They are packed with nutrition, super flavorful, quick and easy to grow with no special equipment needed and absolutely gorgeous on the plate. What more could you ask from an indoor crop?

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Farm update: February 25

It hasn’t really been the most exciting week here on Quiet Farm, dear readers. We’ve been busy with boring but grown-up things like obtaining contractor quotes for electrical refits and game fencing (tedious), comparison shopping for auto insurance (horrible), changing oil in the cars (chilly), and taxes (the new 1040 is rather streamlined!). While necessary, none of those tasks make for very interesting tales.

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Like a real farmer!

Winter continues its slog. After another six inches of fresh powder we did finally see our bluebird sky again, which was a welcome change. N borrowed our neighbor’s tractor to do some plowing; we’ve also been out shopping for our own tractor and ATV, since our current Snow Management Plan – i.e. ignore it and hope it melts – is definitely not panning out.

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All this just to protect some vegetables!

This uninspiring pile of materials is the beginning of our game fence. We can’t install it until the ground is a little more workable, and the hungry deer are taking full advantage of their current unrestricted freedom. We thought seriously about installing the fence ourselves, but once we realized we’d need to rent heavy equipment (skid-steer, auger and probably some other complicated, expensive, possibly dangerous things) we decided to hire it out. It’s going to cost us many thousands of dollars, but some jobs should be left to the professionals. We hope the deer will learn to respect our boundaries.

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Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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Farm update: January 14

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

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

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