Thanks, but no thanks

Dear Oregon:

It is with regret that we inform you that you are no longer a candidate for the location of Quiet Farm. Although we visited you with highest hopes, we found that our expectations did not coincide with reality.

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Praying Mantis

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Fly Agaric Mushroom (poisonous!)

It goes without saying, Oregon, that your flora and fauna are simply exceptional. Just look at these photos! Coming from our dry, stark, high-plains desert, we were stunned by the sheer life found everywhere in this damp climate: on fallen logs, under chestnut leaves, buried in cranberry bogs.

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Pacific Tree Frog

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Still Life with Mushrooms

And the water! All the free water, everywhere! Just falling from the sky! Oh look, it’s still raining! Truly, it’s a miracle, and it means you can grow pretty much anything here. But we also found that farming in the pouring rain wasn’t as much fun as we’d hoped. Slogging through inches of sloppy mud while trying to dig out a stuck tractor or get feed to hungry animals sounds adventurous, but we’re afraid it would just become rather tedious.

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Rough-Skinned Newt (its underside is bright orange!)

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Cascades Frog

(While we’re on the topic of growing things, Oregon, we’d like to talk about “medicinal substances,” if you get our meaning. As a state, it seemed to us that you’ve embraced the recreational drug lifestyle just a touch too enthusiastically for our comfort, and that’s saying something, considering we hail from Colorado.)

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Woolly Bear Caterpillar

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Angel Mushroom (unconfirmed ID)

This is a tough letter for us to write, Oregon, because we were pretty much ready to set up shop and get Quiet Farm up and running. But outside of Portland or possibly Eugene, we don’t feel confident that the community can support the type of business we want to start. And unfortunately, we can’t afford any property near Portland or Eugene. Apparently it’s all being snatched up by escaping Californians.

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Red-Veined Meadowhawk

Please know, Oregon, that you’re more than welcome to reapply as a potential Quiet Farm location at any time. We’ll just need to see a dramatic reduction in your extortionate property prices as well as a corresponding reduction in your precipitation rates. Oh, and lay off the weed for a bit, please. There’s work to be done.

With regards,

The Quiet Farm Scouting Team

 

Crantastic!

We continue our never-ending quest to absorb everything we can about all types of farming, and just in time for America’s most revered Day of Gluttony, N and I learned how to harvest, sort and process cranberries! One of the farms we worked on in Oregon was home to three organic cranberry bogs, so we were able to see firsthand how this unique fruit is both grown and harvested.

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A one-acre dry cranberry bog with harvester. The portion on the left still needs to be harvested, while the section on the right is finished. 

Cranberries are grown in Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as in Canada; they’re a low-growing vined shrub and the plants can live indefinitely if cared for properly. The vast majority of cranberries are conventionally wet-harvested, in the traditional bog we know from the Ocean Spray commercials. The organic farm we worked on, however, used dry harvesting. This is substantially more labor-intensive and has lower yields, but organic dry-harvested berries sell for nearly twenty times the amount that conventional wet-harvested berries do. This is primarily because dry cranberries can be sold fresh, packaged into bags in your produce department. Wet berries need to be processed into juice or other cranberry products almost immediately.

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Aren’t they gorgeous? And so good for you. I ate a lot.

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The harvester at work.

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The harvester removes a lot of branches, but not all.

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We filled burlap sacks with berries for transport to the packing shed.

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A surprising number of cranberries are left behind after harvesting.

We followed our farmer with clean, dry burlap sacks, ready to replace the one on the harvester as soon as it was full. It’s really important not to overpack the bags and not to double-stack them on the trailer, as too much pressure will crush the berries and render them unsaleable. I hand-harvested a few pounds of berries left behind; this was unbelievably labor-intensive. Agricultural work is not for the faint-of-heart.

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Traditional wet-harvesting involves flooding the bogs and a harvester like this one.

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The berries float to the surface of the flooded bog, where they can be easily scooped. 

We watched a traditional farmer wet-harvest his bogs on a miserably cold, rainy day: not at all fun. Our farmer can only harvest when it’s dry and clear, as the goal is for the berries never to get wet. Even the morning dew had to dry before we could harvest.

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Our daily harvest, ready to be put through the sorter.

Every day after we harvested, we took our berries to a shared packing shed. Our farmer ran the berries through the sorter, and N and I sorted and packed on the opposite side. Once the berries started tumbling through the chute on our side, we really had to work quickly to keep up, and to ensure that our crates didn’t get too full. As with loading the bags during harvest, it’s essential not to crush the berries on the bottom.

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Berries are run up the conveyor belt, where they’re tested for ripeness.

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We stood here and sorted through the berries as they came down the belt, removing small branches, twigs, leaves and any damaged berries.

Unusually for most produce, cranberries actually bounce when they’re ripe (and float when they’re flooded), so the sorter both removes the larger vines and branches and tests the cranberries for ripeness. Berries that don’t make the cut are dropped into the yellow crates down below, and they’ll eventually be fed to pigs – just like our apple cider waste.

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Berries that are split, crushed or otherwise open need to be removed, or they’ll spoil.

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Each crate holds about fifteen pounds of fruit after sorting.

Once our cranberries were sorted into the crates, they would be sent to a central distribution center, where they would be sorted again, washed and bagged. And then they’ll be on the shelves at your local grocery store!

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Only in cranberry country would you see fresh cranberries in bulk; mostly they’re sold pre-bagged.

I grew up in a household where the only “cranberries” we ever saw were in the exact shape of the can they came in. Once I discovered fresh cranberries, I always wondered why Americans only seem to use these once a year. They’re tart, crisp and delicious, and high in vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants, among numerous other health benefits. They’re delicious in oatmeal, baked goods, smoothies and of course as a condiment for roast turkey, goose or ham. Plus, they freeze beautifully, so buy a few extra bags when they’re on sale, and use them throughout the year. They’re great dried, too, but be aware that Craisins and other sweetened dried cranberries can contain as much as 85% sugar by weight, so they’re not nearly as healthy as you’d like to think. Buy unsweetened dried cranberries whenever possible. Oh, and “cranberry juice cocktail”? More sugar than soda. Don’t ever, ever drink it.

Cranberry sauce

Making your own cranberry sauce is by far the easiest thing you’ll prepare for a holiday dinner, and you can do it well in advance. Rinse one bag of fresh cranberries and place in a medium saucepan. Add about 1/2 cup water or orange juice (or Grand Marnier, if you’re feeling flush), a pinch of salt, the grated rind of two oranges or clementines, a bit of grated fresh ginger (or 1/4 tsp. powdered ginger) and about 1/4 cup brown sugar or honey. Simmer gently to allow the cranberries to burst, and stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking. Cook over low heat for about fifteen minutes or so, or until the sauce is the consistency you’d like, adding more liquid if needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. I like to keep my cranberry sauce super-tart because I love the flavor and don’t like things overly sweet, but feel free to add more sweetener if you like. The sauce will thicken once refrigerated and will keep in the fridge for at least two weeks. I keep it thick and use it as jam on toast, too!

Need more inspiration for fresh cranberries? Go here.

 

Going nuts, vol. 2

We started the year learning about macadamias in New Zealand, so it’s only fitting that we should close it out harvesting chestnuts in Oregon. Prior to marrying an Englishman, I had never eaten a fresh chestnut – only candied, at culinary school in France – but they’ve become part of our fall traditions, as they were for him in childhood. And now that I’ve harvested them myself, I truly have a newfound appreciation for their exorbitant price. These things are little monsters.

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The trees in the grove we harvested are between fifteen and twenty years old.

Chestnut trees are grown across much of the world; chestnuts themselves are important food crops in Asia and Europe. Chestnuts were also hugely valuable to native Americans and early settlers; the fruit is primarily carbohydrates, has more starch by weight than potatoes and contains enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. In the early 1900s, however, the Bronx Zoo imported Asian chestnut trees for their botanical collection and inadvertently introduced chestnut blight to North America. Within forty years, the blight wiped out nearly every single one of the forty billion chestnut trees in America, with only a few small isolated stands now remaining across the country.

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Usually you’ll find three chestnuts in the burr, but it depends on the species.

The actual chestnuts are contained in a burr, or hull, which is exactly like a tiny, angry porcupine. When the chestnuts are ripe, the chocolate-colored burrs fall to the ground; unlike other fruits or nuts, chestnuts are never harvested directly from the tree.

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Ripe burrs split open, as on the left.

The burrs split open on their own, further indicating ripeness; this is primarily due to soil humidity, as chestnut trees prefer more humid climates. Sometimes unripe (green) burrs will also fall, and if they haven’t opened they should be left to ripen further.

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Dry leaves and empty burrs after harvesting.

Things to know when harvesting chestnuts: you’ll need gloves. Kevlar gloves, to be precise, and yes, that is the material used for bulletproof vests. These things look relatively harmless but are truly vicious, and good gloves are mandatory. And it will take you ages to harvest these; the little burrs love to hide in the huge piles of dry leaves that have also fallen from the tree. They’re like adorable, spiky landmines, and now I know personally why they’re criminally expensive: the pain level is extraordinarily high. (I’m almost certain they were used as extras in this film.)

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Looks harmless. Isn’t.

These edible chestnuts aren’t to be confused with horse chestnuts, which are mildly toxic to humans, or water chestnuts, which are grown aquatically and used in Asian cuisine. Attempts have been made since the 1930s to hybridize the American and Asian chestnut trees, in order to create a native species resistant to blight, but it hasn’t as yet been hugely successful. (On a related note, we’re about to suffer another major loss of trees, as the emerald ash borer – also imported from Asia, on shipping pallets this time – continues its trail of destruction across America. Colorado alone is projected to lose more than two million trees.)

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It took forever to harvest a three-gallon bucket!

Chestnuts are used in savory and sweet preparations all over France and Italy; as with cranberries, they’re commonly seen in holiday recipes because their harvest time coincides perfectly. And in wintertime in cities like London or New York or Paris, you’ll often find street vendors roasting chestnuts over repurposed fifty-gallon oil drums.

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To roast fresh chestnuts at home, carefully cut an ‘X’ into the flat side of each nut. Use sturdy kitchen shears to do this and be very, very careful; the nuts are slippery and unwieldy. Place on a baking sheet and broil until you hear the first explosion, about ten minutes depending on the quantity and your broiler temperature; be patient and wait until the second explosion, which indicates that all of them should be cooked through. Open the oven carefully and quickly lay a kitchen towel over the entire tray as more explosions are likely to follow. Let cool until you can safely handle them, then peel and dip each nut into coarse salt and enjoy. (Sorry about your oven; you’ll probably need to clean up the shrapnel once it’s cooled down. And a pro tip: it’s not a great idea to roast chestnuts in someone else’s oven, unless you’re also willing to clean it.)

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Although chestnuts seem to thwart you at every turn, the reward is well worth the potential injury. Roasted chestnuts pair perfectly with a wee snifter of bourbon and are even better if enjoyed in front of a roaring fire. Take pleasure in the simple things, friends, and clean up the oven later.

Cider days

Gather round, kiddos, and let your crazy old auntie tell you stories about what people did down on the farm when they didn’t have these newfangled modern conveniences like “wifi” and “television” and “an actual life.” We participated in fun old-timey group activities like apple pressing, yes we did. And we have the photos to prove it.

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First, start with apples.

Grassward Dairy had about a dozen mature apple trees on the property; I felt especially silly because we went grocery shopping prior to our stay there and I bought apples. Like spent actual money! And there were thousands of delicious apples, free for the taking.

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This press is pretty old-fashioned…except that it’s partially electric, so shredding the fruit is quicker and easier.

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One of many important foods pollinated entirely by bees.

For best results, use a mix of different apples so your cider is a balance of tart and sweet. And you don’t have to worry about bruised spots or any other damage, as the press takes no prisoners. Throw them all in.

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An action shot of an apple hitting the toothed shredding wheel. 

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The shredded pulp before pressing.

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Gravity forces the pulp into a mesh bag for pressing and straining.

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Readying the pulp for pressing.

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Placing the weighted lid on the bag.

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The electricity only helps with the shredding wheel; the press is still cranked by hand.

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Leftover pulp is fed to the pigs. It’s like pre-marinating.

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And the result of all this hard work? The most incredible apple cider you’ve ever tasted.

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We pressed hundreds of pounds of apples; most of the juice was left for drinking fresh, but a few gallons will be turned into hard cider. Sadly, it won’t be ready for weeks, so we won’t be able to taste the fruits of our labors. (P.S. You can do this at home using a juicer…but it’s much more authentic if you’re fighting off aggressive wasps outside on a farm.)

 

 

 

The Farm Series: Grassward Dairy

Well, hello there. We’re at this moment in Oregon, volunteering on farms and trying to determine if Quiet Farm wants to be born in this place. We planned to spend a month on one particular small goat dairy, but as we know from previous adventures, travel plans don’t always work out exactly as envisioned. So we ended up living in a vintage trailer (oh, the memories) for ten days here at Grassward Dairy, a micro-creamery just outside of a college town we know and love (go Beavs!).

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The farmers have to cross a road twice a day to move the cows for milking.

We’ve now worked and/or volunteered on more than half a dozen farms around the world, and every single one is different. Grassward Dairy sits on about one hundred rolling acres along Mary’s River in the southern stretch of the Willamette Valley; in addition to the three milking cows, there are ducks, laying hens, beef cattle, sheep, a donkey, a llama and a rambunctious cattle dog-in-training.

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Harold, on the left, and Hazelita are being raised for meat. Hand-feeding them collards and chard was one of the highlights of our time here.

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Cows on their way to the barn for the evening milking.

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It doesn’t always rain in Oregon.

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We cleaned out the tomato and pepper plants from this 100-foot hoop house, then prepped and reseeded the beds with winter greens.

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The guard llama and her flock.

Every farm is unique, and every farm’s business model is unique, too. Grassward Dairy offers a dairy CSA, which means that customers pay a fixed price each month in exchange for fresh raw milk, yogurt, cheese, butter and cream. In this agricultural part of Oregon, it’s easy to eat local just about all year.

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Terry the rooster, with one of his ladies. Muscovy ducks and Florencia the guard donkey can be seen in the background.

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Hattie, looking regal and proud.

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Disking one of the pastures in preparation for cover cropping. While we were there, heavy rains swelled the river and flooded this pasture, among others.

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The evening milking.

The more time we spend on farms, the more we know this is the right path for us. Many thanks to the team at Grassward Dairy for letting us be part of their farm family for a short time. And if you’re in the area, you can stay there too!