TnT (Tails and Testes)

The kombucha is starting to skim over on top; the sourdough bread that was bubbling and acidifying with viability for 4 days is now fresh out of the oven in top notch Mixed Herb and Cinnamon Raisin form; and the yellow dock and dandelion are tincturing away in the closet. Now, onto other cultural news of the farm: 

 

First order of business: Lambs; tag ’em, dock the tails, castrate the boys. Sounds like a lot, but really it went quickly and with only minimal jerking around and bleating for dear life. 

Tagging the ears is quite easy and surprisingly clean considering the gage of the plastic tag going through the ear.  There are a series of ridges and hollows on the underside of a sheep’s ear, and provided you can clamp the tag down and through one of the hollow spaces, no blood will flow and it’ll be over before you know it.  With the lambs, it’s easy enough to hold them against your body and press the clamp down without them making a move; lasso-ing, tackling, wrestling and restraining the adult sheep breaks a little bit more of a sweat though. (This is only an ocassional thing, like when the tag gets ripped out accidentally.) 

Docking the tails is a practice used for the purpose of keeping the tail clean when it doesn’t have enough muscle to lift during excreting, and the technique is similar to that of castrating; using the elastrator (a 4-bent-pronged instrument) you wrap a special elastic band around the prongs, separate the prongs by squeezing the handle, slip the tail or testes to be removed into the band, then release the handles and slip the band off with your other hand.  It’s only at this point that most lambs make any complaint…..and for the rest of the day the little boys are wallowing and flopping on their sides making pitiful, whiny bleats and carrying on with general malaise. But in the morning they’ll be up and at ’em, and we’ll be picking up little detached testes and tail-tips (well, maybe not that quickly.) 

The ewe that doesn’t have a working udder had 2 babies, a boy and a girl. The boy is lively, frisky and hungry! The girl on the other hand, has spirit and demonstrates quite a strong will when being handled, but just has actually been losing weight as she doesn’t seem to be acclimated to the nipple-in-a-bucket set up we have in the corner of the barn. So we’ve had to take to feeding her a bottle every few hours so she can stay nice and healthy. She has all the traits Natalya looks for in a good keeping ewe: nice hocks, a mobile tail, good coloring around the face, and a nice transition from wool to hair on her britch (area between hock and hip on the back legs.) Got any good names for little black and white-faced lamb girls? I’m taking suggestions. 

We’re still waiting for the other 4 ewes that are pregnant to start showing signs of labor. 2 have been as big as the broad side of a really broad barn for a week. Their udders are filling out amazingly, their vulvas have started swelling and they’ve been pawing at the ground (all signs that it’s not far away!) We’re convinced all the ewes are conspiring against us and waiting it out til the full moon on the 29th. Then it’ll be a lambing fiasco. It’s been known to happen in years past……… 

Once we finally stepped out of the barn, it was a high-velocity planting extravaganza. Seed potatoes were bought and cut to size (about as big as a hen’s egg) making sure that a couple good eyes made it onto every “seed.” These got planted in the field of beds made of over wintered barn bedding – and as it’s generally accepted that potatoes don’t do as well under a heavy fertilizing of manure (all the nitrogen makes for great greenery, but wimpy-ass potatoes) we planted rows in one bed with a manure covering and 2 beds of rows without it for later season comparison. We also decided to compare potatoes planted now in the waning phase of the moon to those we will plant after the full moon on Monday night (remember there’ll be a Spring Lamb Advisory) when it will begin to wax. It is old folk wisdom and the tradition of planting with the signs that tells us that any crops that produce above-ground (spinach, tomatoes, kale, broccoli, etc) are to be planted
 

  

 
 

Potato/Tomato field

during the first 2 phases of the moon as it’s getting bigger, and that those crops that produce mainly underground (radishes, carrots, beets, onions, etc) will do phenomenally better when planted as the moon is decreasing; potatoes obviously fall into the latter category. Truth or myth? I’ll have to get Natalya to let me know how the project goes, I’ll be on my way somewhere else! 

Besides potatoes we got in 3 more beds of salad greens; lots of Bloomsdale spinach, some of it seed that Natalya saved from a hardy over-wintered crop last year, and some more romaine, both green and “freckled.” 

In between these planting though, came the bed preparation (raking away hay mulch, pulling persistent weeds and grasses and cultivating down about a couple of inches) for the greens. 

Salad beds

To my delight, lots of persistent dandelion to be harvested as an addition to the tea blend – some of it also went into the aforementioned tincture in the closet. Dandelion root is a wonderful diuretic – it actually preserves the potassium in your body instead of depleting your stores like most commercial diuretics are known to do – it’s also a wonderful liver cleanser. Both of these qualities make it an ideal addition to a skin-cleansing, pre-menstrual or detox/weight-reduction blend. The greens of the plants we are giving to Mabel, the sheep with the stressed udder, along with wormwood, parsley and lemon balm to act as a diuretic to help ease the milk out.  She loves getting her own special salad! 

A mulch of reject sheep's wool. Slower break down but lots of nitrogen.

 

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An Acre of Tastes

While I’ve been cooking 3 square meals a day here so far, I haven’t gotten to focus on food as much as I’d like – taking pictures and really putting flavors,, textures and colors together like they deserve to be. Mostly just soaking beans, thawing lamb sausage, pressure-cooking rice, and tossing into a soup pot whatever vegetables were gleaned from the over-winterers in the high tunnel; or simply what the fridge saw fit to throw at me.  But today with it raining outside, a lot fo our plans were put on the back-burner (literally or figuratively – you decide) and I was able to dispel some of my creative kitchen energy.  Come forth Chickweed & Parsley Pesto w/Chives. (Gathered entirely within 1-acre of the back door.)

After weeding the high tunnel yesterday and sparing those ‘weeds’ that actually make for great cash crops (dandelion, chickweed and bolted veggies like bok choy and mizuna; edible flowers anybody?) I went in to harvest a few handfuls of chickweed growing amongst the thriving and robust parsley, of which I nipped a few sections. Turned around and sliced through a handful of chives from the next bed, and while I was in there harvested some spinach also.
I then high-tailed it through the mud and drizzle and upon returning to the kitchen – sans muckboots and zip-off rainpants – I pulled out the blender from its resting spot, gave it a nice situation on the counter, and put my greens in the dish pan to soak in cold water.
All this ‘recipe’ calls for is:
-About 2 cups of chickweed
-About 1 cup of parsley
-About 7 long chives
-About 1/3 cup olive oil
-About however many of whatever kind of nuts you prefer (I used walnuts, a small handful)
-And some sea salt (duh)

This got blended up to a nice, smooth blender consistency with the delightfully surprising crunchy fullness and texture the nuts lend. This pesto was a vibrant and alive! green color (Dr. Seuss would be proud,) satisfying eyes, tastebuds, belly and even limbs.

In order to enjoy this best, it is recommended you also take (from the same acre mind you) some homemade bread, toast it, slather it with homemade mayonnaise (with local yolks) and top the plate off with a side of some meat you’ve procured from the premises as well, in this case: rack of lamb, seasoned with salt, pepper and red wine vinegar and roasted til done.  YUM!

And if you’re feeling extra local and generous to yourself, you should finish up with some local honey on another piece of that bread you made.

——–

Onto to other farm news:
The sheep are doing well! 5 lambs so far, 2 had to be tube-fed for a couple of days as their mom’s udder just isn’t up to any production (she’ll be a great “taste” of the acre come Fall.) But now they’re suckling from a bucket fitted with a nipple attachment and doing quite nicely.  2 more ewes look as though they’re about to pop, you can see the kicking around inside of them when they’re lying down, but they just keep chewing their cud and pawing the ground (a sign of mothering instincts.)

We got 2 beds of lettuce planted yesterday, it felt so good to finally be working the ground and planting again! First we raked off the covering of hay from the surveyed and marked beds (3ft wide to 2ft paths,) then pulled up any obnoxious grass and dock that just wouldn’t be subdued, used the wheel-hoe to upearth about 2 inches into the ground, raked it level then used the furrower to create 7 evenly-spaced rows for the seeds to rest in. The bed was then given a moderate dose of hydrated lime and planting proceeded! Tat soi, mizuna and arugula to one bed (a great salad combo!) and green romaine and red romaine to the next one. The beds were then gone over by the back of the rake and tamped down lightly to “tuck the seeds into their beds.” Floating row covers topped all this off to protect them from the downpours in the forecast for the next few days and we now can sit back and look proudly at the bed of vegetables that are growing for harvest now (yeah right, for like 4 minutes – we’re a working farm here!)

Back to that unsubdued dock – it’s actually a great medicinal plant.  Rumex crispus being the latin name, it’s also known as yellow dock, broad dock or patience dock.  The root holds the medicinal qualities and has a bitter/sweetish taste and bright yellow color.  It targets the liver and intestines mainly and is a good blood tonic. I love to pair it in formulas with other herbs like burdock root and dandelion root. 
Normally, you would harvest medicinal roots in the fall when they’re storing up their energy down there for the winter, but as we don’t want this invasive plant invading the gardens this summer, and since the ground was nice a pliable what with all this rain – today was the day the dock was getting dug.

At first glance you might not this this little weed is of much consequence, especially this early in the year, right? Wrong. Honey, let me tell you this little plant’s taproot is incredible! It takes your whole weight on a garden fork to pry it out of the ground; and no wonder – some of the taproots are up to 18″ long! Skinny, but stubborn.   So after about 2 hours of pulling up 200 dock plants (apparently they don’t like to live alone, they get lonely and invite 20 of their friends to come live there too,) I fed the green tops to the sheep, washed the long yellow roots and laid them to dry on a piece of metal fencing in the barn.  I’ll tincture some of them in 100 proof vodka for about 6 months and either save the rest for future use or sell them at market in a tea blend I’m coming up with in my head right now. Something to the effect of ‘Spring Awakening; a Blend of Herbs to Spring Clean Your System.’

 

Lambing Bootcamp has Officially Begun

Here he is! The first lamb of the season, born this morning around 7am and very appropriately on the first day of SPRING! On a wintry Sunday morning in Kansas, I had slept in, got up with tea and a book, and was getting ready to walk into town for my first lunch out, when Natalya rushes in from the barn where she’d gone to feed (albeit a late) breakfast to the sheep, excited about our newest edition. We set out with tagging supplies, iodine, clamps and a cup for colostrum and got the (already dry) newborn’s umbilical cord taken care of, got him weighed and made sure his mom (Bitten) was bonding ok.  Freckle Face (the guard llama) seemed happy and satisfied as he hummed (really cool!) and proceeded to check in with the mom periodically, sniffing her and observing the new relationship with his usual, austere posture.  As miraculous and exciting as this birth and new life experience is, Bahauddin (father of the famed Rumi) in his ancient wisdom, seems to sum up the full spectrum of the picture in his words: “In the oven of the womb you were a wet lump getting baked for the world’s longest banquet table.”  A gristly ending, I know, and probably not exactly what Bahauddin was referring to in his esoteric rantings, but somewhat fitting dont ya think? 

Other news from Lawrence: It’ a cool town! Lots of bustling, local stores and restaurants including Wheatfield’s Bakery; a wood-fired bread oven shop specializing in preserving and maintaining heirloom varieties of wheat and ancient grains. (I highly recommend the #9: turkey and cranberry relish on walnut-sage bread…..and/or today’s focaccia(!) artichoke heart and caper.
(The world’s most) Local Burger
is another local chow arena supposedly including a selection of the 9 different meats raised in and around Lawrence (all sold at the Lawrence Farmer’s Market, starting April 10th!): bison, beef, pork, lamb, emu, goat, chicken, turkey, and…..elk I think? 


The Lawrence Barn Dance Association holds contra dances every other week in a rotation with a few other area dances, so I should be able to dance at least once a week while here! Last night the dance was a bit lacking in numbers due to 1) the weather, 2) spring break and 3) some big basketball game (what?!) Still, I couldn’t have asked for nicer people, or more interest in me (the new person in town) and what I was doing, how WWOOF works and wanting to share garden stories and situations. 

 

Farm work has been long and tiring; forking up the barn from its layers of winter manure and bedding to transport into a sectioned and surveyed fallow field to begin new beds for bigger production this year. My hands and arms were so tired that first night, I had trouble even holding my book open as I read before bed! At this rate, my arms will be toned in no time, that’s what farmercising is all about. 
Anyway, once the barn floor was bare (after about 23, 200lb. cart loads back and forth to the field) it was spread with a layer of lime, several bags of sawdust, and a generous heaping of hay before the sheep were brought in from their outdoor lot to spend the night indoors where they could stay dry before being shorn the next morning. And, so we get to shearing!! 

 

The 12 sheep were corralled into a small corner of the barn so that we could catch them easily to slide out the door onto the makeshift shearing platform, covered with a large sheet to make collection of the wool easy.  Danny, the shearer, set up his tall electrical equipment to the side of the gate and out came his shears; really glorified and extremely humongous clippers. (Resembling the buzz-cut razors used in barber shops; just getting them ready for lambing boot camp, like I said ;) 

Freckle Face and sheep, waiting for the shearing to begin

  

 

 

A few people came to watch and help with the process, some brought kids, we had snacks and practised some hand-spinning on a drop-spindle when we had downtime.  Overall, it was the day of the diehards; snow shooting down, subsequently building up and a drafty barn to boot. 

Me helping to corral the sheep and keep them out from under the draft spots where the snow was drifting in

  

Other highlights so far have included going with Natalya to an LGBT chili and bingo night (rowdy crowd, but they know how to cook some chili,) getting connected with the Lawrence Sustainability Network and their upcoming events, coming to find out that they banded to together and supported the local co-op (The Merc) to the effect of keeping Whole Foods from setting in here, attending my first Taize’ service, and getting to soak in an outdoor hot tub of one of Natalya’s friends after a hard day’s work and to warm up as the snow just wasn’t relenting.  There’s also a huge public library here, and being newly carded I have that world of books at my fingertips (well, at least three in my hands at a time as I have a temporary deal.)  Not to mention all the lamb and summer sausage I could want and only warm, sunny days in the forecast from here on.

God, where are all the bumper stickers?

That’s how I know I’m not at home anymore. 

After accumulating 16 hours in the car, a few decent pictures, some much cherished time with both new and old friends, some incredible affirmations that I am deeply loved and watched over and a supper of backyard greenhouse greens and a local egg, I’m beginning to decompress over chamomile tea in a cozy corner of a local coffeeshop.  

To begin with, the trip North and West was incredibly free of delays, stopped or even heavy traffic or obstructive weather. (Though as a side note I don’t recommend getting stuck behind a slowly creeping vehicle descending to 15 below the speed limit on windy 2-lane mountain roads – especially ones with no good bumper stickers.)

Tennessee (where I stopped to stretch my legs, saw my first Daffodil of the year(!) and munched on some wild onion and peppergrass.) Kentucky (where the grass is most definitively green; the greenest I’ve ever seen, in fact.) Illinois (hmm, not much to say on Illinois – except, where are all the bumper stickers?) Missouri (where there are even fewer bumper stickers)

Here I stopped for the night with some old friends who are both attending Seminary at Covenant College’s Grad School.  They have 2 adorable and extremely hospitable  daughters.  Aside from a couch for the night and multiple cups of hot tea, getting to catch up with my old youth pastors from Asheville was a much appreciated encouraging pit stop.

Now, when I stopped in St Louis, I didn’t expect to begin to enter “farm and garden” mode; so it was to my great surprise to find out that my friends had started the college’s first community garden, now in its third year, complete with 13 raised beds, 2 dedicated to perennial and annual herbs, a compost area, and other perennial plants such as strawberries and rhubarb!

They’ll hopefully be planting mache this week and constructing some ‘warming tents’ out of clear plastic or Re-may and hoops for a couple of the beds to get them through the first few weeks of Spring.  

And come to find here that though I had been praying for some chance encounters with other believers to offer support and encouragement along the way, God is way more imaginative, creative and big than than I give Him credit for and has provided multiple contacts, friends, family and authentic church communities all throughout Colorado and the Northwest through my friends here in St. Louis.  Yes, much more creative than I. (Thanks to all who have been praying on that for me as well!)

And, Kansas. 

The thing about driving through the flatlands……… is the sky; the expanse over me; the air element penetrating me more than I’ve ever felt.  In the Appalachians, the earthy nature of God is constantly rising up to meet you, to get you to notice the fertile ground, the trees, the permanence and stability of the land under and around you.  Groundedness is the dominant vibe.  Out here, the feeling of exposure, of nakedness, of the thought that I could stretch as far as my limbs could stand and it still wouldn’t be of any consequence, that I could run for miles and miles and the horizon would only seem to back farther and farther away, the yang of my expansive environment, makes me want to respond in yin fashion and become small and folded up in a sense. To just wonder and revel in the fact that
i.
am.
small.

Not lost, not wandering, just peaceful, small, and held in amazement of the epic. You could never cloud-watch back in the mountains the way you can out here. 

Must head back to the house to meet Natalya (Pinwheel Farm’s owner and operator, who’s been at work all evening) get a good night’s sleep in my new room, and in the morning to get to know the sheep and work on weeding out the overgrown green house and start getting 2010 in the ground.

(And as an extra side note, there are still no bumper stickers to be seen. My car sticks out like a sore, green thumb.)

Dancing the Kombucha-cha

 

That’s what happens when you fully immerse yourself in this sparkling, effervescent beverage of refreshfulness. Your rhythm begins to energetically merge with the properties of the drink, the process, the naturalness of it all.  Besides this, the fact that it can help regulate metabolism, curb food cravings, balance your body’s pH, provide you with a host of beneficial bacteria and enzymes, play a big role in liver detoxification and quench some serious thirst is definitely something to dance about. 
Kombucha’s active constituents are glucuronic acid and lactic acid – both formed from the breakdown and metabolizing of black tea and sugar.  Both of these acids flow through your body, ultimately heading for the liver where they work to break down toxins and flush them from your system. 

First, you take 4 quart of water, bring it to a boil, cut from heat and add 4 tea bags (black tea works best and creates the most health benefits, though a mix of green and/or herbal tea can achieve some desired effects as well) and 1 1/2 cups of sugar (again, pure organic sugar, not honey, not maple syrup or agave nectar will provide the best health benefits.) Allow this sweet tea to return to room temperature (either on the counter overnight, or in a cool room or porch in a few hours) then transfer to a gallon-sized mason jar or equivalent non-metallic container, place the Mother on top, cover the container with cheesecloth and a rubber band and place in an out-of-the-way place where you can still check it every few days. 2 to 3 weeks later, and voila! You have your own, homemade health tonic.  The quickest of all the homebrews. 

So, let’s talk about the terroir of Kombucha. 

It takes patience, hope and practicality

Patience to wait for the water to boil and again to come down to room temperature. 

Patience and Hope to get through the 14-21 day resting period that it requires for the tea and sugar and to naturally collect yeasts and bacteria from the atmosphere to feed the ‘Mother’, who grows and in turn assists and encourages the tea into its full potential. 

Practicality to provide the right environment for the tea to ferment unharmed, unshaken and undisturbed so it can do its thing. That means covered against intruders like flies and lint and hair, and set in a temperature controlled environment – like, not next to the roaring fire or the gas range. Practicality also applies in the sense that you have to be dedicated to being in a certain place for that amount of time – this has proven a challenge at times for me as I often house-sit and will be moving from place to place pretty much as a constant factor this year. 

The outcome is a stockpile of organic energy there for the sipping; pent-up energy collected over the days just waiting to be released. And its unique energy is variable to its surroundings. Much like humans, adapting to their environment, kombuchas will vary according to the region, weather, season and care they experience. That’s another part of the dance, trying out different rhythms that different locations and their resident microorganisms have to offer.  

Kombucha is definitely an easily acquired, local item and is ridiculously easy to make yourself.  All fermented foods are most beneficial when procured locally as they excel at taking in the environment around them and metabolizing the surrounding particles into an absorbable energy form. All you need to do is find yourself a Mother from someone currently brewing their own (the Mothers create an offspring from every batch they foster) and you’re ready to go! 

Creativity is another great reason to try out making kombucha – with the myriad of tea flavors available, you can really let loose and get funky with your combinations. How about green tea with lemon myrtle or verbena, orange chai spice, berry blast, black tea with fresh ginger slices, rosemary and peach with oolong? (One flavor I don’t recommend is vanilla, its smooth and svelty nature clashes with the acidic, alive tang of the kombucha and doesn’t blend well at all.) 

As I’ve tasted some of the commercial brands, I’ve noticed slight differences in each one; the one from Colorado has a soft water taste and feel on the tongue, the ones from California are super bright and spunky, the local Asheville ‘Buchi’ is strong, fierce and independent.  

I’m making it a priority to brew at least one batch at every stop I make, in hopes that the terroir of each will lend itself to a uniquely energetic drink, aiding in becoming acclimated to each individual environment I find myself in. 

A Weekend of Organic Education

 

 

 My favorite of all agricultural and food conferences – the Organic Grower’s School – has just ended.  Two volunteer shifts got me in free of charge for the whole weekend and I was immersed in a plethora of sustainable goodness: wild edibles and medicinals, soil ecology, glorious book vendors (!), humanure, building a solar food dehydrator (above image), permaculture and biodynamics – not to mention good friends and fellow dancers, farmers and interns. 

After this weekend I now have new knowledge on: building linear and median raingardens (or wetlands if more appropriate); the fact that growing biodynamically not only involves the positions of the heavenly bodies, but in fact is based around 8 different soil preparations that all somehow utilize the innards or horns of a slaughtered cow and wild stag; the difference between a direct point solar dehydrator (sunlight directly hits the food being preserved beneath a clear panel) and an indirect one (solar thermal energy is caught beneath a clear panel and the resulting hot air flowed into an adjacent chamber where the food sits); how to identify hemlock trees based on the white stripes down the back of their leaves and how they, spruce, pine and juniper are all edible and packed with vitamin C; that what my dad taught me to find and eat as a kid and called ‘sourgrass’ is a great springtime wild edible also known as sorrel; how to feed the soil through a variety of mediums such as compost and its tea, urine, humanure, red wigglers and various micro-flora and -fauna (Did you even think to consider that  perennials appreciate fungal elements in their food, whereas annuals will thank you when they get bacteria in their soil? Neither did I!); how to finally see the steps and actions to consider when starting a community garden such as listing all the possible benefits, how to design it based upon whether it will be individual plots or one cohesive garden, how to arrange management and organization, communication avenues and that you can partner with a pre-existing 501-c3 without going through all the rigamarole yourself. 

Without a doubt, this weekend has brought me out of the winter doldrums and into spring mode – get me out there and planting, weeding, caring, tending, herding, foraging, getting dirty fingernails and seeing the beginnings of the fruits of labor.  And thus, it is with this reawakened enthusiasm that I begin my blog on WWOOFing the US this year.  The basic plan is somewhat limber: To Kansas first (Pinwheel Farm – home of sheep for meat and fiber, chickens for meat and eggs, and a market garden) for about a month – maybe 2 – then somehow making my way up to the Pacific Northwest to the tip-top of Washington, near the San Juan Islands and other whereabouts that I have friends (Port Townsend and Chimacum), and down the coast through Oregon and California before looping back eastward. 

Throughout this journey and education I will attempt to document and share my experiences of each place in individual and descriptive entries, trying to capture views into the world of each of the farms I’ll be staying at and learning from; their daily lives, toils and celebrations, how the soil is cared for, any native foods to the region, fabulous meals and drinks made and shared, and any practices (such as spinning, weaving, basketmaking, dancing, seed saving, etc)  that have some special value or traditional use to the families and areas I wind up in.  In essence, I’ll try to communicate the terroir of each destination. 

Terroir [tehr-WAHR], a French word for ‘soil’ is most commonly used in the wine industry referring to the type of soil grown in (chalky, clayey, loamy, etc.) as well as other factors that influence the soil and thus the quality of the finished product such as altitude, relative position to the sun, time of year, water drainage and even the angle of a slope’s incline.  They claim that it affects the most minute taste sensations in the wine.  In similar fashion, any food will take on some of the properties, tastes, vitamins, minerals and even ‘energy’ that are present and unique to the region, farm, hands and soil involved.  I believe the same energetic qualities hold true for traditions, husbandry and other activities daily life holds as well. 

And since you’ve read this far, I leave you with some more pictures of the weekend and promises of tantalizing future posts.