Grasping the Nettle

 
It’s a term meaning: To tackle a difficult problem boldly. It describes a couple of recent goings-on here at Pinwheel Farm.
#1 The literal meaning Tim (other WWOOFer) and I went with a neighbor to harvest stinging nettles the other day from a spot near the levy just behind her house. The nettles were about 1 ft high at the time and we pinched off the top round of leaves much like one would harvest basil; except we were armed with heavy-duty gloves! Between the 2 of us, we brought back 2 grocery bags full of the nettles and I set about stuffing as much as I could into a mason jar then pouring 100 proof vodka over that to let it join the family of other tinctures in the closet. The rest (about a pound) went into a cast-iron pot with 1 pound also of butter. This I left heating overnight then strained through a wire mesh sieve. The strained green butter (full of the medicinal qualities!) went into containers for use spreading on toast or to grease the skillet for scrambled eggs, while the cooked nettles themselves went into a container in the fridge from which I’ve been pulling them out periodically to add to eggs, quiche, pesto or simply as a sandwich filling.

Quiche of the Day!

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of our most valuable medicinal herbs – every part has medicinal properties (stem, leaves, flower and root.) It’s superb at both blood cleansing and building. It is high in iron and is a good tonic (meaning it can be taken in regular, small doses over a long period of time) for increased energy, vitality and general body well-being. It’s been known to help with disorders from allergies to diabetes to leukemia. The tea can even be used as a hair rinse for thickness and relief from dandruff! Raw, fresh stinging nettle has been used extensively for arthritis; by lashing the arthritic area with the plant, the stingers release their properties and reduce swelling and pain.

#2 The figurative meaning. Natalya has been operating on less than 5 hours of sleep most nights since I’ve been here as she is working on obtaining a Conditional Use Permit for her land that would allow her to legally pitch a tent and have camping on her own property (yes, in Douglas County it is, in fact, illegal to pitch a tent even in your own backyard,) as well as be allowed to showcase a produce stand for selling vegetables and meat directly on-site. Both of these issues (along with a few other minor ones) will help increase the profitability of her farm by allowing more direct sales and potential housing spaces for volunteers. The trials and tribulations she’s been facing from a few disagreeing neighbors, and county officials has been tiring to say the least. The public hearing on the subject will be held at City Hall come Monday night at 6:30.

A potential 'vagrant' camper, aka: Tim

 I will be giving a short presentation on how allowing camping on the property will foster the sharing of education and experience for people like me who desire to learn all that they can and depend on shelter at each farm destination.

It’s a shame that so many people are up in arms over the CUP, saying that allowing camping will only invite vagrants and homeless bums into the area and degrade the value of the neighborhood. These are the very people who have refused to talk face to face with Natalya to actually find out what her intentions for the farm are. Fear of the unknown is a strong binding agent.

The very definition of a CUP, as opposed to a re-zoning, asks for and even invites neighbors, friends and officials to hold the farm accountable to the proposed conditions which include safety features, handicap accessibility, soil preservation and general farm upkeep.

On to more joyous topics now!

We have one sheep left that has yet to give birth. We’ve begun to rotationally graze them on pasture, bringing them in at night and taking them out first thing. The lambs are beginning to be interested in the solid food they see their mom’s eating and we’re gradually having to mix lesser amounts of milk replacer for the ones who’s mom’s have impaired udders.

Mustard greens, radishes, kale, carrots, beets, cilantro, chard, dill, curly cress and more potatoes went into the ground this week. All the beds except the potatoes (which are already mulched with a thick layer of straw) were given light layers of mulch of either compost, grass clippings or a Re-may cover (a light-weight, woven fabric, white in color and a super protectant against rain or too much sun.)

The spinach, tat soi, arugula, mizuna and romaines we planted a few weeks ago are growing and even beginning to get “leggy” from being too crowded. So yesterday when we were harvesting for market we “thin picked”; basically pulled up a few plants at the root every 2-3″, cut off the root portion and took the tops to market as micro-mix.

The weather has been more than agreeable almost the entire time I’ve been here. Sunny days with a light breeze and temperatures reaching into the 80s have been the regular so far (unseasonably warm, the bolting cilantro and lettuce concur!) But wonderful for biking, laying in the park and reading and taking picnics by the lake. There’s been only miniscule amounts of rain and almost nary a thunderstorm; though on the way back from Kansas City last night (where I had been invited to give a small tutorial on making kombucha) a thickness of low-lying clouds was all that shielded us from a major storm but at the same time provided a spectacular lightning show just west of the highway we were on.

Yummy meditation among the radish flowers

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Jezreel – “God Plants”

“In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord- “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth; and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and oil, and they will respond to Jezreel.” Hosea 2: 21-22
It’s easy to see and resonate with the God Who Plants when you yourself are fostering tiny seeds and sprouts in their cozy beds as weather warms, sun shines and freshness reigns in the season of Spring. Carrots, beets, mixed salad greens, various kale varieties, Swiss chard, cilantro, and radishes are all happily germinating away (hopefully) under their covers of grass clippings and dead sheep mulch. (Yes, I said “dead sheep mulch”; composted remains of deceased flock members and carbon material, aka: leaves and wood chips. After about 2 years we pick through the pile, separate out the bones and fat deposits and sift through a wire grate as though panning for gold to end up with super-rich mulch material for the garden.)

New growth and new beginnings are all around us and life itself seems to jump for joy of newness and expectation. Just as Jezreel is not only concerned with immediate gratification but with the extended journey down one’s spiritual path, so are annual seed plantings not the only thing on a gardeners mind when the delicacies of perennial berries, nuts and stalks are on the radar. We’ve been mulching gooseberries and black raspberries with wood chips this week as well. And walking around the back perimeter of the farm provides encounters with all the steadily growing pecan and walnut trees Natalya planted 15 years ago. Just now beginning to produce, it’s taken this long to see the fruits of her labor – hopeful and patient waiting is a great mindset to be in when dreaming of gathering these energy-rich sources of food.

Yes, Spring is a time of awakening, busy-ness, new pastures and horizons.

We’ve been letting the sheep out onto pasture at lengthening intervals. Slow acclimation is the name of the game when it comes to changing habits with livestock. If we were to just turn them out of the barn where they’ve been getting a steady diet of dried hays (red clover, alfalfa/chickweed and brome) and supplemental water, onto open green pasture their systems would ‘shock’ in a sense; the green- and water-content of fresh plants scoots itself out of their systems a bit too easily. Not that it’s necessarily a harmful scenario, but it’s definitely not on the list of good husbandry practices or ways to keep your work boots clean.

And so I leave you to ponder on the miraculous new (and not-so new, perennial-type) ways Jezreel may be speaking to your heart this Spring. Whether it’s cultivating garden beds, new habits or new friendships or simply Spring Cleaning to take stock of things – please marvel in wonder of the way of faith like a mustard seed.

 

 

 

“We cannot sow seeds with clenched fists.”

 

First Day of Market in Lawrence!

 

Pinwheel Farm Booth

Beautiful weather, a clear morning with a light breeze and pleasant temperatures greeted Lawrence as we got up at 5:30 Saturday morning to load the truck for the first market of the 2010 season. Seeing as the past 3 years have introduced the market in a mix of snow and slush, we were exuberant with freshness!

What beekeepers won't do for attention! (I speak from personal experience)

So many goodies harvested the day before! The Swiss chard forest in the high tunnel barely saw a dent though we cut enough stalks to fill two 7-gallon red crates, the beds of over wintered lettuce (Black Seeded Simpson, Ruby and Oak leaf) yielded crispy thin morsels with nary a slug (ok, maybe one or two to soak out) and the spinach seemed to have sprung to life over the course of 2 nights so that there was ample to harvest from that bed as well.

Baby spinach growing strong

In the wild greens category we take full advantage of the persistence of lamb’s quarters, it likes to keep company with almost every crop we have – spinach, radishes, lettuce, carrots, clover and Asian greens. It’s most easily picked like basil – by pinching off the top whirl of leaves just above the next set of opposing leaves, this encourages branching, more and fuller leaves. 

Another vivacious wild is garlic mustard, growing in hoards in the forest near the brown barn on the west side of the property.  Picking it I felt akin to the little girl in the old fairy tale who wanders just outside the garden gate to pick the pretty flower when she sees another, then another, and by the time she looks up to take stock she can no longer see the garden gate; at that point I’m sure the big bad wolf comes and gobbles her up, but the moral of my story is that picking garlic mustard captivates your senses and fascination in a way that – 30 minutes later – you stand up from your stuffed-to-the-gills bucket to stretch your hunch back and realize that though it doesn’t look like you’ve picked even a 1/3 of the blanket around your ankles called garlic mustard, you in fact have ventured far from the garden gate and it’s time to wash the insane amount you’ve picked and move on to more cultivated crops.

Mustard flowers

Enter lemon balm, Greek oregano, salad burnet, lemon sorrel, cilantro, arugula, arugula flowers, mustard flowers, violet flowers (all edible additions to salads, muffins, ice cream sundaes, etc.) radishes, chives, green onions and the previously praised Jerusalem artichokes. All picked, washed, packed and moistened under a wet sheet in the cool of the wash house for quick pick up early the next morning.

After a thoroughly fielded day, I came in with a pink glow atop my skin to create some kind of delectables in the kitchen for our picnic supper. What I came up with: curried lamb meatloaf (in a heart-shape pan, for all the lovers out there ;) salad burnet, arugula and garlic mustard pesto,Chives and Cilantro - too many pestos so little time herbed cornbread and some Morning Glory! muffins topped with red buds for dessert. Paired with some wonderful local Boulevard Wheat brew, a bottle of sweet white table wine and the sound of waves lapping up on the shore of the lake behind us, Team Pinwheel dined their first (of many, hopefully) crew picnic dinners. Blaine and Matt are 2 local guys who volunteer on the farm a few days a week to help feed and water the sheep and help with general farm tasks. Tim, the new WWOOFer who just moved into the house last week and has already demonstrated a great affinity for all things mechanical, was also present with a couple of his good friends from Kansas City (to the locals, that’s “Kancity.”)

In case you’d like the recipe for those Morning Glorious muffins – I’m sorry, you won’t be getting one. Because, I’m (in)famous for not following a recipe, ever – to the sheer horror of my mother, the degreed Home Economist that she is.. But I will tell you that a mix of pineapple, dried pears, raisins, candied ginger and love (topped with those redbud blossoms) gets 5 out of 5 ‘Yums’ around the dinner table J

The sheep keep bleating along, one new baby is all this past week has to speak for. But some other good news is that we’ve started utilizing the milking stanchion (so much easier!) All we’re having to do is reorient the one sheep that we’re milking into the new routine of climbing the ramp up to the stand so that we can fasten her head into the slot where she can poke through to the alfalfa grains or hay while we quickly and peacefully are able to get the milking done in about half the time.

Bitten and Cow

The babies on milk replacer, while not quite as filled out in their haunches as the naturally suckling lambs are lively and full of energy, and of course, as adorable as can be.

Penny

Working beside Natalya here with the sheep has taught me a lot about patience and the natural instincts of humans and sheep. It truly takes a different kind of person to shepherd a flock of animals like sheep.  As stated in previous posts these sheep are far from dumb, they just prefer to do things differently than we do. They tend to move as a group, dodging and evading you if you try to single one out and come right at them with a leash. Natalya swears they can tell if you’re thinking about one of them, so if you want to catch one imparticular, think about the one on the other side of the barn – I have yet to attest to this with the whole-heartedness that she claims, but I’m open to anything.

They are creatures of habit and it takes them about 3 days to get acclimated to any new addition or variation in their care. That means no quick switches to different kinds of hay, slow integration is the way to go; even where you throw the hay can get them in a tussle because they might have been used to getting it thrown at them inside the barn for the past few days and when you go to throw it to them outside they kind of trip over each other because they weren’t expecting to have to move in that direction.

They don’t ask much, just some water hay and bedding. A few licks of mineral now and then, shade and air flow when it’s hot, protection against drafts (especially Northern) when it’s cold, and they’ll give you all the camera time you ask of them. “Go out and make sure the lambs are still cute,” is one of Natalya’s favorite additions to the chore list. And a good addition it is; sometimes as a shepherd, a watchful eye is all that’s needed, hours of calm observation can be an education in itself. You get to know the look of each of the sheep’s udders, how their flanks look as they near birth (they get extremely hollowed out around their hip bones and hind legs,) you can see any changes in the rate of their breathing, notice how much affection a mom is showing to one of her lambs versus another. Some days the milk replacer bucket might stay at a constant level for hours, then suddenly get sucked dry in half an hour. Which bottle-fed lambs are getting more than their share? Which sheep are more affectionate and open to human touch when you enter the pen? These are all extremely relative issues – relationship is essential to good husbandry.

Mystery and Addie

When it comes to animals, efficiency has no place without effectiveness. Try as they might, CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) simply can’t provide a superior product, happy animals (or often, happy workers) simply due to the fact that they overlook so much of what is needed with fellow created beings; care, respect and a pushing aside of one’s ego. I may not want to go milk Annie in the dark with a headlamp on, or check on milk replacer levels first thing on a cold morning, or tip a sheep up onto it’s back so I can massage her swollen, clogged udder that’s bridging on infection – but it’s not about me and my preferences, it’s actually coming to be about expanding my preferences and practices.

Animals calm you down, make you let go of timelines and agendas for a while. They don’t care what you’re dressed like, how you smell or even if you have a good singing voice. No wonder animals like horses, dogs and other livestock are used for therapy; there’s a letting go of inhibitions, a way you discover that you don’t mind kneeling in sheep poop or getting in placenta fluid up to your elbows (thank you Gore-Tex though!) Their solemn dependence on you quiets your mind and thoughts, allows you to live in the present moment, be aware of any racing thoughts that might be going through your head and allows you to gently push them aside, because here and now is what’s important. If nothing else, it’s a healthy balance to just be in the barn, surrounded by hay and natural movement and be away from pavement, horns, changing lights and crowds of peers for a while.
 

 

What floats your local boat

A sheep giving birth is never the same experience. Sometimes you wake up and it’s already been done, the lambs have been licked dry and are already suckling their first few drinks of nourishing colostrum. Sometimes the ewe needs a bit of assistance like if the little legs are coming out first or if she’s getting tired from so many contractions – then again, sometimes the lamb even comes out backwards but is completely fine. Then, even occasionally, you get a tragic event like a stillbirth. Annie was in labor for most of the day (pretty unusual,) was walking around restlessly, only stopping to stoop when the waves of contractions took over for a few minutes, then she was back to walking around, pawing the ground and seeming out of sorts. She laid down and kicked out her hind leg straight to the side like sheep will do when birthing is near. Her breathing became intense and labored, and finally her sack dropped out, but still no lamb came forth. We even brought our supper out to the barn so we could watch and see how it was going. After a good half-hour of the partial birth, Annie finally produced her lamb, blue and still. Natalya tried resuscitating it by swinging it by its hind legs back and forth in an arc above her head (the up and down pressure of the swing mimics the lung compression and release of normal breathing) but it was to no avail. It had probably been dead for a couple days prior to the labor.

Braith

But, all things for the best, we’re able to milk Annie regularly every day to save up a good supply of colostrum in the freezer should any lambs be born to mothers with non-functioning udders. It’s even an opportunity to work with some colostrum/milk recipes. So enough with the morbid barn stories, on to the kitchen, where I’ve been cooking up a few small, local and tasty storms……

To begin with, Natalya had a butternut squash that was begging to be used (not actually the season for butternut squash, but some amazing recipes were constructed around this one 5-lb fruit!)

To begin with, the most simple barebones soup you will ever simmer salivate over in your life: Butternut squash and red lentil soup. Dears, I’m talking even too simple for salt and pepper – you just don’t need them!

Put about a cup of lentils in a pot, add about 1 ½ cups of peeled, cubed squash, then 3 cups of water and bring to a boil then simmer til the liquid is taken up and the squash and lentils are fully softened (might need to add more water depending on the day.)

Voila, faithful readers! You have flavor, texture and beautiful color all wrapped up in 2 ingredients and one soup bowl. The only thing that could possibly make this better would be a slice or 2 of toasted homemade bread. Try it, you’ll adore it.

The rest of the squash I then peeled and cubed also and put in a pot with ground cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks and the zest of an orange, covered all that with water and let it cook down to ‘pumpkin butter.’ 2 ½ cups of that were combined with:

3 ½ cups of whole grain flour

1 cup of oats

1 cup of honey and molasses

Some more cloves (hey, no half-ass spicing ok?)

About 2 teaspoons of soda

The same of salt

2/3 stick of butter

4 eggs

Diced up crystallized ginger

It was beaten until just mixed with no lumps, then I added a teacupful of chocolate chips, oiled some muffin pans and baked at 350 for about 15 minutes each batch.

Uh…yum!

It made about 3 dozen smallish muffins in a beautiful burnt orange and dark chocolate-swirl motif. Highly recommended as an accompaniment breakfast, lunch, snack and supper.

Other, more local-fare I’ve been working with are pestos in different varieties; salad burnet and sorrel pesto with walnuts (think wasabi+cucumbers and you’ll get a vague taste, only the spiciness goes down with the food and not up into your nose and tear ducts); lamb’s quarters, spinach and sage pesto with almonds (quite a sophisticated pesto if I do say so.) And a few hummus blends: red beans with (garden) chives, salt and pepper; garbanzos with garden sage, oregano and chives. And even a homemade salsa with frozen tomatoes, dried peppers and cilantro. It’s amazing what’s over wintered in the garden here!!

I’m currently trying to concoct a completely ‘local’ hummus; heirloom prairie beans, sorrel in place of lemons, chives (again) for the garlic, and boiled and mashed sun chokes (Jerusalem artichokes) instead of tahini. I’m thinking celery juice for the salt?

As a side note, Jerusalem artichokes seem to embody the true meaning of ‘Food Security.” They are indigenous to this country, used traditionally by many Native American tribes and grow so prolifically that in a year’s time the 2 rows you’ve planted will have spread into a garden bed of 4 rows or more! A member of the same family as sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes are the roots at the base of the plant also called ‘sun chokes.’ This food has become almost a novelty in our grocery store system and even among a lot of farm communities. Why is almost no one harnessing this viable, easy to grow, native food source? They bloom beautiful yellow flowers late in the summer and are one of the few foods you can harvest all winter long and into the spring. They contain no starch, are great for people with blood sugar problems, and cook up as easily as potatoes. Our supper the other night included Sweet and Sour Swiss Chard (recipe to follow) Smashed Sun chokes and toasted Garden Herb Bread.

"Outback" view of the farm

Soups are another daily kitchen occurrence. When you have lambs coming at all hours of the day and night, a farm owner with a full-time off-farm job and plenty of garden preparation and planting to do, there’s just not always time, will or energy to concoct lavish 3 dish meals *sigh*. So, soups are the order of the day. With plenty of lamb in the freezer to work with, I usually brown the meat a bit, and slip it right into a stock pot with water, an onion, some whole garlic cloves, pepper berries, salt and apple cider vinegar to let the meat cook down tender, and the bones to infuse the stock with all their goodies and minerals. Later I’ll come back and add garden greens, carrots, potatoes, sun chokes or something that’s been sitting in the fridge for a while and needs a new life. As long as we’re kept in steady supply of bread, we’re set for most meals.

And since I keep referring to homemade bread, I’ll offer a couple of ways I’ve been making it out here:

1) Simply mix equal parts water and flour (about ½ cup each to start) in a bowl, cover with cheesecloth or a thin towel and set somewhere out of the beaten path. The next day, come back with ½ cup more of both water and flour (you can alternate white and whole grain, or just use whole grain. For that matter, you could just use white if you prefer.) Mix it up real good! Then let it sit some more. Keep coming back to the flour/water mixture everyday til it becomes bubbly on top and starts to smell sour (about 3-4 days.) At this point, switch it to a clean bowl and continue doing the same for another 3-4 days. After about a week total, and once the smell is vivaciously acidic, take about 2 qts of the batter and mix with enough flour to form a solid, rubbery dough and knead directly in the bowl with some salt for about 10 minutes, not punching it down terribly hard. Form it into loaves or place in loaf pans and let sit a few hours to overnight so it can rise, then when it looks happy and plump pop it in a 375 oven for about 35 minutes. Yum! Your own natural sourdough bread.

Sandor Katz offers this bit of wisdom: “Fermenting with spontaneously occurring local organisms integrates us into the web of life of our environment and adapts us to the local microbial ecology.”

As you feel you’re adapting to that ecology, try your hand at different flavor combos like sage-thyme-oregano-rosemary, or molasses-ginger-almond, or honey-nutmeg-walnut. Whatever floats your boat and makes your mouth happy.

Alternatively, if you want fresh bread but don’t have a week to wait, simply put about a Tb. Dry yeast into a cup of lukewarm water, mix up for a couple seconds, maybe adding a pinch of sugar or honey to the mix and let it get bubbly for about 10 minutes. Add that to some flour and a pinch of salt and more water to make another good rubbery dough. You definitely want to knead this bread more and harder than a natural sourdough, and let it rise once in an oiled bowl for a couple of hours til doubled. Then do the loaf-forming, let it rise again and pop in the oven.

Oh! And another fun thing you can do, especially with the sourdough, is place a pan of water on the bottom rack when you begin to heat up the oven so that it’s letting off some steam by the time your loaves are ready to go in. Leave it in for the duration of the baking. This forms a really pleasing, crunchy and shiny crust.

Oh, Oh! One last fun bread idea: brush some butter over your loaves as soon as they come out to keep the crust moist, and duh! what’s not better with a little butter?

PS: Your sourdough will have a longer counter life than the ready-yeast loaf, up to 2 weeks unrefrigerated I’ve found. So you might need to store the ready-yeast loaf in the fridge after a few days………..

And as promised, I leave you with the recipe for Sweet and Sour Swiss Chard:

1 lb. Chard

2 Tb. Fat

½ c. Onion

3 Tb. Vinegar

½ c. raisins or dried cranberries (cranberries are more esthetically pleasing paired with the chard)

Some salt and pepper

Wash and chop the greens. Sauté onion in fat (I used chives, in that case you want to only just barely flash-sauté them, their very sensitive.) Add greens, vinegar, cranberries and s&p. Once chard is wilted, but before it loses its pretty color, remove from heat and take your taste buds for a ride.

*Also try adding walnuts or sesame seeds with the onions to boost up the ‘meatiness’ and give it another texture complex.