Oh No!

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Check out the link above.

All you farmers out there (and concerned consumers) beware! The USDA has officially de-regulated the use of genetically engineered alfalfa – meaning that it will now be allowed to rampantly taint any other source of true and organic alfalfa crops nationwide!

With alfalfa being such a staple crop for any farmer with livestock, this means it is imperative to consider when buying hay for animals, meat from producers and manure for composting.

Please be conscious of this new loss in the organic world, and if you can, find some way to vocalize your outrage, discontent, fear, non-support, etc. for this move on the part of the USDA.

Eating Through the Dark Days (and the pantry supply)

For the next installment of Dark Days’ cuisine (to catch you up, this is a challenge I’ve joined to cook a SOLE food meal each week from Dec – April – the hardest time to find local food, much less local sustainable organic and ethical food) here’s a way to eat squash that many people may not have heard of:

No, that’s not pasta, that’s spaghetti squash.  Just like any other winter squash, slice it in half, scoop out the seeds and pith, spread on some butter, salt and pepper and bake it up til soft in a hot oven.  Altogether unlike any other winter squash, if you use a fork to scrape down the length of the insides the fibers separate and fall off to drape your plate like freshly boiled spaghetti noodles (with a few clumps here and there……..)

As you may have noticed, the possibilities are almost limitless with pasta – much the same with these squash noodles.

I still had a good supply of 2009 produce that I had put up (dried, canned and frozen goods) and in wanting to use up some of this excess, I decided on some dried green beans and tomatoes.  Some fresh local leeks rounded out the dish (as did a good few gallops of California pinot noir) to provide a steaming hot plate of local veggies in a very unconventional presentation.

First I flash-sauteed the leeks in some of my local lard; once golden brown I poured in the red wine and let it simmer down with some local thyme and salt and pepper.  Meanwhile I had been rehydrating the tomatoes and beans in some of the wine and once plumped up the excess went into the simmering leek pan.  After the wine had reduced by about 3/4, I added the tomatoes and beans to cook up nice and creamy and all this was ladled on top of a plate of the scraped spaghetti squash “noodles” and made for a unique-tasting, economical (the squash is about $2 a pound and the other veggies were procured from the farm I worked on) winter Dark Day Delight.

It’s Going to the Dogs: An Unplanned Slaughter

I woke up one morning last week to a friend’s farming emergency; a lamb had gotten its head stuck in the electric fence the night before and had died – most likely from suffocation due to its lungs filling up with blood after a heavy metal feeder collapsed and broke its neck.  Sorry to see this little life taken through such a freak occurrence, it actually proved to be a great initiation into livestock slaughtering.

One of the neighboring farmers in Chimacum has built his own slaughterhouse and has all the implements and standards necessary to skin, eviscerate and butcher his own livestock (for home use, at least – not for sale.)  I had never slaughtered anything bigger than a chicken or turkey and it’s been one of my goals to help in the slicing of a sheep, hog or steer, so I jumped at the opportunity to come watch and assist.

Since it had been dead for some time and had been under tremendous stress as it breathed its last, the meat really wasn’t fit for human consumption and so was destined for the dog – meaning that being uber-proper in the handling and cutting wasn’t so necessary.

When I arrived they had the sheep belly-up on a slatted wood table and were trimming away the belly skin from the carcass.  Working around the teats was the hardest area since the mounds of hairless flesh weren’t as easy to pull away from the innards, but once they were removed and the head and feet had been sawed off at the joints, we strung up the pulley system for the gambrel, slid a caribeaner through the slit behind the Achilles tendon of the rear legs and progressively “fisted” away the rest of the hide while letting the organs spill into a trash can placed directly beneath.

Sawing off the head before stringing it up

It was now hanging upside down, fully skinned with its back knees about as high as our heads.  Scraping out the lungs and heart came next, they were reserved as part of the prime dog food and we scrubbed the carcass down with soapy water and scrub brushes to clean away any apparent debris like grass and dust that may have collected.  Slicing off each leg and then sawing apart the abdominal from the chest cavity came next and finally splitting apart the chest cavity at the sternum finished up the hanging carcass – a relatively quick process of unmeasured cuts.

Each of the cuts went into plastic trash bags that would get separated and quickly frozen once they got back home, so all that was left of the process was to wash every instrument (knives, saws, hooks, caribeaners, buckets and scrub brushes) down with hot, soapy water, spray and sweep off the cement platform of random guts, blood clots and locks of wool, and bring down the pulley and gambrel from the great heightened beam to be stored until the next planned (or unplanned) slaughter immersion.

Looks pretty scrawny once the hide is removed

Slaughtering a larger animal is much different than simply slaughtering chickens.  With chickens, you become much more intimate with the body in your hands; from picking it up and either wringing its neck or slitting the throat, to dunking it in hot water, the steam rising up around your hands and arms, to the monotonous pluckingpluckingplucking of every last feather, (unless you happen to be the lucky owner of a ‘WhizBang Chicken Plucker’ or some similar appliance) to reaching inside the body cavity with your own hands to mangle out the innards, feeling the difference in the heart, liver, gizzard, intestines and finally to scraping out the lungs (they never seem to want to come out in one piece from inside the chickens rib cage.)  But slaughtering something just as big, or bigger than you are, enlists a different sort of awareness, a much more hands on (as opposed to the “hands-in” approach with poultry) and stand back process.  You let gravity do a lot of the work for you, for instance.  Organs are significantly heavier, there’s a much thinner membrane between the pelt and the innards, the hide accounts for a lot more of the bulk of the animal than the feathers of a chicken do.  The bones are thicker and not as snap-able, while the tendons are much stronger and less pliable.  Hoisting an animal that large takes the teamwork of a few people and the more formal set up of beams, pulleys and hooks as opposed to the quick and dirty work of killing a chicken which one person can do and only require a table and knife and pair of scissors to complete.

Phil gives sheep pericardial anatomy 101

For such a quick intro to larger livestock slaughtering, I felt I got a good picture.  Though next time, hopefully the slaughter event will be more of the planned sort and really see the animal through from start to finish.  Who knows? Domestic farm livestock today may even lead to bowhunting elk and Rocky Mountain sheep tomorrow………..

Savory Lamb Galette

As my next installment for the challenge of Dark Days cooking, I’d like to introduce the Savory Lamb Galette.  It is a flaky and cheery, yet moist and earthy lazy pie creation; and everything about it is local but the butter and salt.

Lamb sausage from the recent farm-sit; bright green spinach leaves barely wilted in the shitake-butter mixture; miniature Yukon gold potatoes to lend both a creaminess when smashed up with hard-boiled eggs and melted butter, as well as a defined chewy texture when browned in the butter mixture with the spinach and shitakes; 100% whole wheat flour (fresh from the bike-powered mill) from PT’s own dry-land farm project. There are many, many ways these ingredients could come together to get acquainted and/or marry into a hearty, seasonal meal (think soup/stew, quiche, sourdough bread with an omelette and hash, etc.)  But this particular creation came inspired by this galette recipe, and the galore of galettes that seem to be a new theme in my life these days (my friend Leora makes the meanest blueberry galette on the planet, and my friend Janet’s rustic apple pie isn’t too far off the beaten path du galette either, and many galette inspired recipes from “friends” are making their way onto my facebook homepage as well.)

Though this takes a good amount of prep time, it’s worth it on a day you might be stuck inside the house on a gray and chilly day. Plus, the neat thing about galettes, is they’re incredibly adaptable to both size and ingredients; make an individual galette with your favorite ingredients, or make a cookie sheet-sized one for the family or a potluck.

First mix 1 1/2c. flour with 1/4tsp. salt in a bowl; in another bowl cut up half a stick of butter with 2 knives to pea-sized dots.  Chill both of these bowls in the fridge while you:
Peel and boil about 5 or 6 small potatoes til fork tender, remove from water and put 2 eggs in to hard-boil while you smash up the taters with some pats of butter.  Once the eggs are done, peel them and cut up to blend with the creamy potato mixture.
Pull out the 2 bowls from the fridge and mix together by cutting the butter into the flour til it resembles thick meal.  Add about 1/2c. of buttermilk, or milk (or soymilk) with some lemon juice to curdle (ok, this wasn’t local either) and mix into the flour until the dough comes together and then use your hands to work it through evenly til it’s a nice, firm ball.  Cover this with a towel and place in the fridge again.
Put the rest of the stick of butter on to melt and slice the shitakes; toss them in and start chopping spinach which you’ll add next.  Immediately afterwords, cube a few more potatoes into thumbnail-sized cubes and toss those into the sizzling butter mix too.  In a separate pan fry up the lamb sausage til done and cut into cubes the same size as the potatoes.  Toss these two pans together when the potatoes are slightly browned and firm and the spinach has given way to a rich, dark green color.  Now to this combo add the creamy potato-egg mixture and stir well.
Out of the fridge comes the dough which you should roll out to a good thinness for the size of galette you want (mine was about 3/4 the size of the cookie sheet I used to bake it on.)  Plop the filling/topping (it’s all the same for a galette, no?) on and spread it around the middle, but leave enough space to fold the dough over to make a nice bowl-shape with the crust.
Bake this doozy in a 400F oven for about 45 minutes, until the dough becomes firm and crust-like and its a pretty golden brown color.

In my opinion, this is a meal in itself, excellent as a stand-alone dish.

Sheep: The Baaasics

What’s the best way to live the rural farm life dream if you’re only a struggling mid-twenties semi-transient start-up? Easy. Farm-sit for seasoned, vacationing farmers during the winter.

Ok, not SO easy.  But if you can score a farm-sit job during the off-season when farmers can actually think about getting away from their land for more than 6 hours, take it!

In this particular instance, I’m farm-sitting 15 acres, 130 sheep, 2 dogs and 3 cats.  In the outskirts of Port Ludlow, WA, lies Springhill Farm, home to nationally recognized and award-winning breeds of wool and show sheep.  The couple who own the farm have been shepherds for over 30 years and traveled all across the country and even abroad to places like Scotland.  Numerous championships ribbons line their mantel, approximately a ton a wool in individual trash bags sits in the ‘wool room’ adjacent to the laundry room, their bathrooms boast signs such as: “Welcome to the Baaathroom,” and “Occupied; Ewe’ll have to wait,” while numerous sheep and rural farm life books line their bookshelves, (“Things That Go Baa in the Night” was the first to catch my attention.)  Not one but TWO Ashford spinning wheels occupy the space in front of their woodstove in the living room and the easy chairs are lined with cozy, rustic, home-raised hides.

Twenty three permanent paddocks make up the pasture land they have that backs up to Chimacum Creek, the main waterway through the wide and rambling valley here in southern Jefferson County.  Of those, ten are currently filled with groups of sheep separated by age and sex.  Morning chores consisting of carting hay (and supplemental grain to the lambs) and checking waterers take a good hour and a half to complete.  Their fencing system is some of the best I’ve seen yet; high-tensile wire threads the perimeter of each paddock and sturdy (though weathered) fence posts mark solid corners.  Individual spigots spouting VERY shallow ground water accompany each paddock and are lined up right next to the runways that run N and S (they meet at the barn to form 2 separate lanes) for ease of refilling stock tanks.  Sturdy, stainless steel gates for each paddock are secured with chain at each opening and swing wide and easily for entering a pasture.

To be sure, the philosophy of sustainability does not reign on this farm; rotation isn’t happening, too many sheep per acre are causing a build-up of feces and bare patches in the grass, and this being the rainy season, waterways are chiseling through the inclines and puddling up in various places throughout the pastures which makes finding a clean place to throw their hay somewhat of a challenge.  But there are lessons to be learned here nonetheless (among them plenty of what I wouldn’t choose to do on my own farm, but lessons all the same.)

In fact, from the 3 sheep farms I have worked with or stayed on this year (Pinwheel Farm in KS, Spring Rain Farm in WA, and now Springhill, I’ve packed away a good bit of knowledge, such as:

-If you open a gate, close it
-If you turn on a spigot or hose, turn it off
-Sheep don’t like it if you come right at them, they will respond much better from a lateral move or clapping your hands together behind them.
-If you think belching is funny, you’ll get a kick out of listening to sheep
-Regular hoof trimming and maintenance is a MUST when the surrounding area tends to get boggy or brimmed with water.
-If a sheep learns how to jump a fence, you can un-learn it by tying its front and back leg together on one side for a few days (or weeks…) until the jumping habit gets kicked.
-You can tell how a sheep is feeling by the position of its ears; if they’re up and alert the sheep is feeling fine, if they’re pointed down the sheep is feeling under the weather or is sick.
-Don’t pet rams, not even as cute little lamb boys.
-Don’t pet rams, not even as cute little lamb boys.
-Border collies for herding and training purposes; Great Pyrenees or Maremmas for guardian purposes only (you really can’t train these breeds); llamas for both guarding AND herding, (though in one horrific account, after years of great service, one farmer’s llama took to trampling and killing the new lambs.  Needless to say, it got voted off the island real fast.)
-Just because it’s ‘local lamb sausage’ doesn’t mean there isn’t MSG in it.
-21 days before reusing a pasture is the optimal time-frame for rotation because of the life cycle of certain parasites that live in their feces.
-Sheep are creatures of habit and of their shepherd. They like and thrive off of the familiar.
-If you don’t keep a hard watch on Roaming Romeo over there, you could get yourself into the pickle of lambing season lasting through June!

Said Roming Romeo

-When designing a pasture layout, plan to have runways that you can utilize as both traveling lanes and paddocks themselves.
-Also in design, it’s smart to have a barn or central outbuilding that meets at the corner of four pastures.  This makes feeding different groupings of sheep and checking waterers SO much easier.
-Layers of lime and sawdust under bedding straw helps to soak up a lot of the urine and keeps a check on the pH levels of the bedding.  Adding more straw when the first whiffs of ammonia become apparent is a good practice to get into.
-Sheep are VERY preferential over the fresh pasture grass they will choose to eat.  They will bite down to the dust the varieties that are sweet and soft-bladed while leaving more bitter and sharper blades alone.  (This is when adding another species to co-graze is a great idea, like horses.)
-A full half of their live body weight is attributable to the hide and organs; a 75lb. live lamb will only yield 30-35lbs. of meat (with bones.)

South Runway

-When you feed them hay, in order to not get flakes and pieces caught in their wool (which you want to keep as clean as possible for shearing) you have to trick them by pretending to throw it one direction first, then when they all herd to the swing of your arm, dash back to the other side and toss it behind them.
-Sheep have a set path that they ALWAYS travel in the field.  Anytime you’re herding them into or out of the pasture, they will take this same (arbitrary?) foot path that eventually wears away the grass in a solitary strip.  It’s usually at a curve to the actual destination point.
-Lamb is my all time favorite meat; ok, so I kind of already knew that.

Sheep set the pace of life on a farm at an ideal pace for me.  They’re lighter on the land and any food resources than a cow, they’re less frisky, nervous and jumpy than goats, they smell so darn good (a mixture of lanolin and earth, I think) and they serve multiple purposes from meat to milk to fiber to conveniently pelletized poop for composting or mulching to grass mowing and co-pasturing well with other species.  I hope someday to have sheep as a part of my own farm operation – whenever and whatever (and wherever) that’s going to be.

 

Winter Cole Slaw

A few years ago I took a week-long class at one of the most renown craft schools in the country.  Along with 10 other women, I learned how to cook full meals – including cake, bread and cookie baking, and roasting on a spit – of the 18th century America.  Not only did we stretch a hare along a pole over the fire, we foraged wild greens for our ‘potherb salats’, rolled pies with 24 layers of butter in the crusts, made stuffed apples and whipped up a giant desserty drink of the day called ‘solid syllabub’ (it’s amazing what they could do with suet back then, huh?)

One of the less daunting recipes from our class text was a salad dressing of the 1700’s.  It called for many of the things we would normally think of when constructing a drizzle for our greens salads; oil, vinegar, salt, spices, and some prepared mustard or garlic.  But the thing that made it different from any dressing I had ever made, was the chopped up hard-boiled egg.  When you can mash and/or whiz a hard-boiled egg up into an emulsion of oil and vinegar, it provides a rich and creamy texture that’s light enough to bely its presence over your fresh veggies, yet packs a decadent mouth feel to compliment the crisp crunch.

It’s also a great way to bring a local meal to your table in the Dark Days of wintertime.

I grated up a head of cabbage and a long daikon radish (both regionally grown in SC) and set them aside.  In a pan with a pat of lard (my butter wasn’t local) I sauteed some sliced up leeks (grown in Asheville) and once they had softened and released their fragrance a bit, I added them to the veggie mix.  For the dressing…you guessed it: eggy dressing a la 18th century.  One hardboiled egg (chopped finely) + a few splashes of red wine + some gallops of olive oil +  salt + locally made mustard + local minced fresh garlic = creamy, protein-rich salad dressing for a sort of winterized cole slaw.

This I served with some slices of local bread (the bakery sources a lot of local wheat from a NC heritage grain initiative) slathered with some of the aforementioned mustard for a warming, healthy and fresh winter meal of local ingredients.

Grace on a Plane

On my return flight to Seattle I sat next to a man from Holland who reclaimed and recycled computers that had been forgone for the latest and greatest models.  He cleaned them up and sold them reduced to folks who just needed a basic computer for things like book keeping or keeping tabs on a home business.

Aside from being very opinionated on topics of our conversation (“You were homeschooled? Oh so you are one of the sheltered ones,” and “My father was a staunch atheist and my mother was a devout Roman Catholic – I know all the arguments and see it from both sides,”) one area where we seemed to have common ground and see eye to eye was on consumption and the earth’s resources. (Derive what you will from the fact that we were both flying cross country.)

On a previous flight he had sat next to a woman and engaged in a conversation much like our own – the frightful amount of waste that is generated into landfills the world over, how alternative forms of energy are being used from solar panels to methane-capturing tarps over landfills in Holland to living lightly on the earth ourselves.  The difference he pointed out was that this woman had bleached blonde and styled hair, a fresh nail job, a name-brand carry on, was blinged-out with jewelry and gems and yet touted a “light-carbon footprint” and caring about the poor and destitute in yonder third world countries.

“But with you, I see a difference,” his Dutch accent curled. “I can see you are what you say you are about.”

Thank you, God. I only hope that doing what I say is apparent to others in my life as well.  It is so much easier to be known for being environmentally conscious, a sustainable agriculture advocate and trying to live below my means.  These are popular ways to be at this point in time.  It’s become a trend among the “aware” to sport stainless steel water bottles and set out recycling at the curb and find your social niche at the farmer’s market.  It is indeed harder to be known for your faith. Especially in a society where a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy and where the individual reigns surrounds us.  It’s not politically correct to display your faith – but totally fine to harp on others for creating vast amounts of waste, not recycling and making numerous or thoughtless trips riding high in the various gas-guzzlers all too popular to the American public.

But how do you make known the reasons behind the actions?  Let it be known that I choose to bike when I can instead of driving my car because oil is a finite resource that God made as a part of His world and the flippancy with which it is used really doesn’t equate to good stewardship; that living as closely inside the realm of what He has made (which He called good) is a way to worship and honor Him that made it (it’s in man-created ‘Babels’ that disunity is most rampant); and that caring for the earth and all that is in it (minerals, topsoil, natural gas, kangaroos, goldfish, bees, horses, pine trees, herbs, friends, strangers, foreigners, visitors and relationships) hopefully shows my respect for and glory of the Creator.