Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Wild Orchard

Along the walk

Since planting the orchard this spring, I have been doing my best to be patient. The 14 12 10 fruit trees will take anywhere from two to six years to start producing their miraculous pomes and stone fruits, and in the meantime I must satisfy myself with fruit from farm stands and the grocery store. The (surviving) trees are looking strong, adding shiny leaves and setting out branches, but they are all still shorter than I am, and fruit seems to be a long way coming.

Such a large tree!! I wonder what kind it is??

Though I have peaches, plums, cherries, and pears, apples are the most exciting for me. I agree that nothing quite matches a ripe sweet peach, eaten in high summer; juice running down to elbows and dribbling off chins, but there is something about apples. And it doesn’t seem to be just me…apples pop up from depictions of the Garden of Eden to Snow White’s poisoned apple. Peaches and such represent the fleeting opulence of mid-summer; apples are for fall, when things begin to slow down and turn inward.

And so recently I have been a bit restless about the diminutive trees in my backyard, and more than a bit jealous of those whose land came with stately ancient apple trees to provide for them the exhilaration that comes along with the swift branch-to-mouth crunch of a fresh apple.

What is that hint of red???? Ursula, fetch me machete!

So there I was, stewing in my barrenness, on a lovely stroll with the Hellhound along our typical route through state land to the lake. I glanced to my left into the light forest and saw a tree several yards in, brazenly displaying bushels of bright red apples. I gawked at this insanity for an inordinate amount of time before giddily plowing through the high grasses to get to it. Nab, crunch, heaven. I was chewing slowly, eyes glassy with pleasure and amazement, when I noticed another tree a few yards further in, laden with green apples. And then another, apples a light pink. And another, and another, and another, each with more enchanting apples than the last, stretching down into and along the gully by the stream. As many as could fit into my stomach were sampled, and as many as could fit into my pockets and shirt were gathered. I was sweaty and elated (one of the common modus operandi at the farm …sweaty/elated. Other most common is sweaty/frustrated.)

This one wasn't ready yet. But soon will be.

Now, after several days of crunching apples from dozens of trees, I can report that these are not your supermarket apples…and I mean that in the best of ways. They are your grandmother’s apples. Meaning, as in so much else, what they lack in visual appeal, predictability, and shine they make up for in flavor. Not for them the hefty supermarket crunch followed by the oddly watery, flavorless supermarket flesh. These apples are crisp and sweet with a quick tart rebuttal, juicy, and some have a subtle wine-like flavor. They are smaller than most supermarket apples (no sprays or orchardists to thin the crops), and most are not pretty in the conventional sense…they have spots and bumps and there is likely a very real chance of finding a worm also enjoying your snack. Their skin is thicker and their bright white flesh turns brown quickly after being exposed to the air. But they are delicious, and fresh, and gathering them up into bushel baskets for fall projects and winter months is absolutely my new favorite hobby….and given that there are dozens of trees in that area, near a bubbling brook and a field of goldenrod, some hidden in thick brush, I will have enough to keep me busy for quite some time.

Apple collecting kit.

And I won’t even have to leave the property if I don’t feel like it. It was with great chagrin that upon my return to the farm I investigated three trees about 20 feet away from the house that I had assumed were crabapple trees, only to find that these, too, were ancient and wild apple trees. I spent a good 25 minutes clambering about on one that is as tall as our house (and that fittingly keeps its giant and delicious apples wayyyyyy up at the top), only to find that, despite my still above-average climbing skills (thanks, tomboy childhood!) there was no way on earth that I could get to these apples, even with such implements that I had access to.

Why yes, that is a Winnie the Pooh band-aid on my finger. We got a knife sharpener! Also, apple from the backyard tree is "actual apple" sized.

Upon even further investigation that evening, I spied with binoculars some half dozen apple trees along our little stream in the pasture…which is fittingly the very same stream that the first grove follows.

My thoughts were: Johnny Appleseed must have walked along this stream, or perhaps a farmer liked to rest under apple trees and near running water 50 years ago, or perhaps the apples drift downstream and seed themselves that way. And: The pigs will be so happy when we fence in the rest of the pasture and they can eat the bee-filled dropped apples. And: I need to spend more time poking about and just looking at things. And mostly: I am going to need more bushel baskets. And then, quietly: How could I possibly have missed these???*

*Theories include: Always distracted by cows on hillside when walking past apple grove, last year was a bad apple year for some reason and there were no/tiny apples, only just now getting used to so much foliage that I can distinguish types, I must spend far too much time daydreaming about that which is not in front of me thus blurring that which is actually in front of me, I am an unobservant nincompoop.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Harvest Party 2011: What you need to know.

WHO CAN COME: Anybody and everybody; do not be shy. If you are bringing a crew we would sincerely appreciate it if you'd email us with an approximate head count and a when(ish) as to your arrival.

WHEN: The main event is Saturday evening, but there will be goings on from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, September 9-11, 2011. If your schedule allows, there is a setup crew that will be on-farm for the whole week before for some hard work and good times. "Come early and stay late" is the general rule.

WHAT TO BRING: A tent along with sleeping accoutrement (IF you do not have a tent: fear not; we will have extra room in several. Just let us know so we can pencil you in), rain/mud boots, warm clothes AND a bathing suit if you like lake swimming, a side-dish to share if you are near, able, and interested, snacks, a chair or something equivalent for sitting in or on, a plate/silverware and a cup/glass/mug. This is basically camping with (some) amenities, and less bears.

WHAT THERE IS TO DO: There is a lot to learn about here at the farm, so keep an open mind and ask a lot of questions. There's a lake to swim in and walk around, a garden to dig in, piles of various things to move if sweating is your goal, and a fire pit for hanging out and warming up around if socializing is your goal. This year we are excited to have some events to keep everybody entertained, including a bit of hillbilly gambling, obstacle courses with prizes, lawn games, and many more surprises.

DOGS: are welcome, as long as they are well-mannered and well-monitored. We have a garden with no fence, lots of chickens and turkeys on pasture and some free-ranging around, electric fences, other dogs, cats in the house, barn and yard, a road with fast-moving cars and slow-moving, catchable tractors, and freshly done wood floors.

KIDS: please see "dogs" above. (Only *sort of* kidding. We love kids, and kids love the farm, but our operation is not what anyone would call play-safe). We will have a couple bedrooms available for those with young youngsters who may prefer a roof roof instead of a tent roof; just give us a heads up asap that you are interested so we can gauge availability.

FOOD: All of it will be provided, along with drink. There will be a suggested donation of $35/day, $70/weekend to cover costs, but if you don't have it PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't let that stop you from coming; it all works out in the end. On that note, if you see this weekend as one of the funnest things you did all year feel free to augment or tip; we love monetary feedback.

RIDES: If you need a ride, please get in touch with us. If you are driving from a major city, and will have room for a passenger or two, please get in touch with us. We will try to hook you up. If you are flying in, please get in touch with us re: arrangements to get you from your airport of choice to the farm. We will hook you up.

FOR SALE: We will have pork for sale by the cut. We will have whole pastured chickens as well. All meat will be vacuum sealed and frozen; all you would need to transport it is an ice chest, and we'll even give you some ice. Relatedly, we will have some ice chests for sale. We will perhaps have some mustards for sale. We will be taking orders for spring pork as well as Thanksgiving turkeys.

Again, please RSVP if possible. We are trying to get a rough head count so we can be prepared.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Blur of August

Team Mom, season two. Now that they're together they get to switch off nursing duties, and the piglets get to make a bigger, warmer pile of themselves to sleep in. If only we all had a partner to help with all of our chores.

A few days ago, a purposeful gaggle of geese flew over the farm. Noble creatures, these. And as I looked up at them, despite my t-shirt, all I could think was:

Sorry about that. But: it is coming. And that means we are busy little bees.

The meat chickens are busy eating an absurd amount of food, constantly.

For the garden, this means harvesting, with the resulting canning, pickling, freezing, fermenting and infusing (cucumber gin, anyone? cucumber anything, anyone?). Because this winter our goal is not merely "survive," but "survive in style," I have been making a variety of colorful relishes, chutneys, pickles and pesto to eat during the Dark Days, to remind us of the busy warm green days ahead of (and behind) us. The garden has been very helpful in this regard and has been bestowing upon us bushels and bushels of everything from basil to zucchini.* It is keeping me hopping in a vague panic-mode, as it should in August.

The innocent lushness of the garden conceals the grueling hours of labor saving its bounty entails...why, oh why must the garden grow so quickly??? (a/k/a thank god the garden finally grew)

I only have a few more rounds of planting, and then I am devoted entirely the mad dash to save it all up. It is very satisfying work to sweat it out in the evening with all four burners going (canning pot, brine, lids, overflow jars), thinking of how lovely it will be to eat the beets alongside a pan-seared pork chop, to dollop the pesto on top of a bowl a stew, to add the dilled carrots to brown rice as the snow blusters about on top of the slumbering garden outside.

A couple weeks' worth of variety. Nom.

The geese also mean that we really need to be pushing hard on the downstairs remodel. I assume I've mentioned that we are redoing the entire first floor of the farm house. Turns out, this takes a fair amount of time and work, in an already busy season. But, thanks to a fairly regular supply of helpers throughout the summer, the drywall is not only up but painted, concealing behind it actual INSULATION (as I said: "survive in style".) with a greater 'r value' than the mice, mice nests, and dead mice that removed, and we are remarkably on schedule to have a buttoned up, cozy little house by the time snow flies. Right now there is some very careful woodwork going on to repair the numerous holes in the floors left from walls that we and owners previous have removed and heating registers that haven't existed for years, and then we move on to a delightful few days of sanding and polyurethane, in which the dog will sleep in the car and we will travel upstairs via a ladder to a bedroom window. Just like Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, hello, new downstairs for grownups!! (almost).

Then there has been the seasonal increase in the spatter of unavoidable surprises that are such an integral part to farming, stealing precious hours and afternoons away. Little Red mysteriously failed to have piglets; the breeding schedule must be reshuffled and her farrowing stall dismantled so she can move back in with the boar. A farmer friend suddenly decides to leave the game; we end up with one of his sows and several hundred of his chickens, making for more breeding reshuffling and a lot of mowing with the tractor that needs done to get ready for birds. Concurrently, a tree branch decides to thrust itself into the radiator of the tractor; it is taken to a man named "Randy" who tries to fix it for five (5) full days before determining that it is irreparably damaged, thus leading to evenings hunting for a replacement part and an entire afternoon of driving to retrieve it. The turkeys break out of their brooder on a Sunday morning; they must be wrangled and moved into their outside pasture pen when we weren't planning on it. And so on.

Little Red, Borst, and the new sow, Missy.

All of this, on top of the the regular, expected pace of things. Spot's and Scar's new piglets are growing like weeds; this past Sunday morning they were wrangled, castrated (to answer your questions: no, not an especially lovely process. But not as bad as you might think, either - so long as you have hearing protection.), and moved into the outdoor pen with their grumpy mothers (who are thankfully mellowing out now that they have company and sunshine). The weeds have been growing like weeds; the fence-line must be weed-whacked. Bunnies are having (and not eating!) baby bunnies, the garlic bed needs compost added to it, the fruit trees need monitored for Japanese beetles, the grower pigs need buckets upon buckets carried to them, next years garden must begin to be thought of, fuel must be stored up, and so on.

Cooler nights; clearer evenings, better bedroom views.

But, as much as the geese and the cooler evenings mean that we have to hurryuppleaseitstime, they also mean that calmer evenings are ahead, evenings in which one can dote on a simmering pot of stew, where the only real chores are to make sure everyone is cozy, fed and watered, where the pace of growing slows down enough that one can pause, breathe, and spend an entire month's worth of evenings reading a book, and an entire month's worth of Sunday mornings reading the entire New York Times over lazy cups of coffee, when I can finally pop open the jars I've been sweating over and savor the results.

* Everything EXCEPT tomatoes, which are currently large, glorious, and stubbornly green. And it's not just me! My gardening forum is awash with impatient, miserable New England gardeners, waiting in vain for their heirlooms to ripen up. It seems it has been a slow summer at providing the "growing degree days" necessary to ripen the big heirlooms and beefsteaks; next year I will have to make sure to plant a few extra-early varieties so I won't have to have a minor temper tantrum every time I drive past the farmer's stand that has tomatoes starting in late July. Yes: next year begins the Quest for the July Tomato.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Almost Feral Piglets

It rained early this morning, which would have been lovely if the Big Man and I weren't plowing through the fields around the barn, straining our ears for the sounds of an agitated, very pregnant, escape artist sow.

Let me explain. The large ladies, growing ever larger in their final days* were moved into their farrowing pens in the middle of last week. They were given lots of hay to fashion their nests out of, on-demand water, and all the grain they could eat in what are likely the coolest square feet on the entire farm. Of course, they hate it*, and spend their time angrily complaining at us whenever they hear us in the barn. I'm sorry you are so pregnant, we say. I'm sorry it is July and you are so pregnant. Please eat something; you'll feel better. Ruff roof rufffff, they say, grumbling, taking a mouthful, spitting it out when we turn our backs. RUufuf. Let us out. Get these out of me.

It is hard to explain the noise coming out of her mouth right now. It is not a happy noise.

Anyway, Scar started giving milk last night, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief...the end is in sight. The Big Man is a chivalrous man, and he volunteered to do the 11 PM and 3 AM checks. I was to do the 6:30 check this morning. All was calm during the wee hours.

The boar gets all the freedom and none of the responsibility...a porcine Don Draper. Thankfully none of the sows are Betty.

As I, bleary eyed, in old capri pants and sneakers without socks, crossed the road to check on Scar this morning, Lisa Marie bolted out of the hayloft. She gave me an oddly meaningful look. Wait till you see this, the look said. She rushed purposefully into the lower barn.

I glanced at the chicken coop as I walked by. It seemed odd that their water bowl was right by the door...hadn't I put it on the other side? I paused for a moment, and saw a piglet pass through the tall grass on the other side of the fence. Well that's strange, I mused. They are supposed to be penned at the other end of the pasture...I wonder why they broke out. Something was likewise amiss when I walked into the barn through the open doors. The meat chicks, (there are 70), were not in their brooder, but were instead sprawled happily on the floor beside it, eating a mound of feed that had been knocked out of their feeder. Huh, thought my sleepy mind. That is also odd. So many odd things all happening at once. I walked past them to peek into Scar's stall. I stared at the pile of hay. I stared at the walls. I stared again at the pile of hay. I stared at the closed and latched stall door. And then once more at the hay.

The 600 pound pig was not there. I looked at the open barn doors. Oh. no.

The chicks cheeped disapprovingly as I raced through the barn to get the Big Man.

Now, 600 pounds is large, but 600 pounds in the entire outside is not large at all. And we are not talking the fenced-in pasture here...she was out in The Entire Outside. One suddenly realizes how tall, how dense the growth in the fields is. How scrubby the neighbor's property is. How many impenetrable thickets scatter the land. How far a sow could probably go if she were trotting along the road. How extremely large The Entire Outside is, even if one were 600 pounds.

Large Outside > Large Lady

We found her after 45 minutes or so, down in the valley behind the pasture. She had hollowed out a nice little spot under a crab apple tree, and was ripping maniacally at grass to fill it up. Getting her up to the barn was a whole separate adventure (there is quite a volume of lore on how, exactly, to get a pig to go where you want it to go, which apparently indicates that they are near impossible to get where you want them...and our experience bears this out so far), but we succeeded in the end with the help of an exceptionally timely neighbor friend passing by.

She was hot, literally steaming, and stressed, and her low, full belly got scratched up by the brush, as did my silly little ankles. But she was back in the fold.

Happily so, because late in the afternoon, she started having piglets, and, as with the last time, she needed some gentle gloved assistance getting a couple of the youngsters out. She's still ongoing, we think, with six squirmers thus far bothering at her scratched belly. Hopefully they know to be gentle.

Five are hungry, one is sleepy.

*Except for Little Red. She maintains her svelte physique to the point that the Big Man is worried that she is not pregnant, or is at least two weeks away. Which she also did last time, managing to somehow hide 9 piglets in a belly that never really got big, and drop them quickly onto the ground, sans assistance and with very little warning, the very same day as the giant, super-pregnant Spot did last March.

*Except for Little Red. She gets extra eggs from the chicken coop, and beet greens from the garden, and what must be a welcome reprieve from the constant complaining of the big ladies, and the constant advances from the boar, who cannot figure out why no one has been interested in him for the past 112 days or so.