Tag Archives: Front Range

This is what seasonal looks like

Spinach. Again. Walking onions, green garlic, radishes, and kale. A curly head of lettuce from the greenhouse. Nice to have rhubarb—so early this year.

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Welcome to the season’s first community-supported agricultural shares on Colorado’s Front Range.

When members join a CSA, it doesn’t take long to figure out that eating locally and seasonally isn’t like shopping at a grocery store. Variety and availability is determined by the climate—temperature, day length, precipitation, zone, and weather influence what can be planted and when. After winter’s frigid temperatures, the soil needs time to warm up before most crops can be seeded. Even when spring days are sunny and warm, nights remain cool. The last frost of the winter can hit in March, April, or even May. Until all chance of frost has passed, tender crops can’t be planted. Moisture is another variable: too much and seeds rot in the ground; not enough and they don’t germinate.

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All these factors and more determine what’s ready in the Stonebridge barn each week. From early May until mid-June, the share is limited because fall-planted or perennial plants are still waking up from the winter. At Stonebridge, the season starts a month earlier than most CSAs in our area because our members are ready for early spinach and fresh lettuce. From kale to rhubarb, anything else is a bonus in those first unpredictable weeks.

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In Colorado, we say if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. Change will come. The same is true in eating seasonally. When we’re tired of the same early crops, the brassicas—cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage—started in the greenhouse and transplanted to the fields in early spring soon join the line-up, along with baby beets and carrots seeded in May’s still-cool soil. Peas—so much work but such a treat—show up next in the barn; many of them don’t make it home but get eaten on the drive instead. Spring-planted spinach comes on as winter-over spinach begins to bolt. Kale and chard are both raring to go. All those greens take getting used to but, as our doctor says, eating greens “is like eating health.”

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Once the summer squash and cucumbers need picking every other day, the garden’s bounty has arrived. Garlic is harvested and given every week. Beans beg for picking as beets and carrots become Saturday regulars. The show-offs of the fields—tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—make their many weeks’ seeding, weeding, and tending worth it. Even people who think they don’t like eggplant admit that a fresh one is a whole different matter.

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Come August, farmers are busy harvesting and members are busy cooking, canning, drying, and freezing with help from our weekly recipe list (stonebridgefarmcsa/recipes). This plentitude won’t slow down until the temperatures cool again. When first frost threatens, high summer crops are pulled for the barn; the pepper “pick-down” yields plenty for freezing, too. After frost nips the vines, winter squash and pumpkins are harvested in a hand-to-hand relay from the fields to the hay wagon and the hay wagon to the barn. Onions come in from the fields to cure, leaving autumn’s Asian and other greens, roots like rutabagas, carrots, and turnips, and whatever’s stored in the barn to fill the end-of-season shares.

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Repetitious? Sometimes. Unpredictable? That’s farming. But people who hang out at a CSA learn to treat vegetables like old friends. Ah, how wonderful to see you again! It’s been a year since we last met. You’re looking well. I can hardly wait to make that soup/salad/dip/dessert I only make each spring/summer/fall.

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Seasonal eating has its challenges. In any given year, one crop will shine and another will lack luster. Especially in Colorado, no week can bring the amount or variety of vegetables available at a grocery store. We hope the benefits of supporting local agriculture outweigh that inconvenience. Fresh is a flavor; fresh-picked veggies just taste better. Not to mention the value of keeping local land in organic agricultural production through participation in a community-centered, reciprocal effort. As we say at Stonebridge, when the community feeds itself, the land and the people prosper.

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Eating seasonally brings surprises, satisfactions, and delights. It also brings disappointments and, sometimes, failures. Good thing farming is forgiving. Each season, we get to try again.

If you’re a new CSA member, learning the season’s rhythms takes time. If you give it a chance, one day that shift will occur. From kids learning to eat vegetables to members anticipating the next crop, we’ve seen that magic in the barn as “Spinach again???” becomes “Yippee, spinach again!!!”

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Thoughts on Squash in Winter

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We’ve all noticed it lately: more light. On the Colorado Front Range where the sun drops abruptly behind the mountains rather than drifts slowly to the horizon, we notice when the days get longer and 4:00 isn’t twilight anymore. Longer days mean shorter nights for the cold to settle in and more time for the sun to warm the frozen earth. By the third week in January, even the chickens take note of the increased sunlight to start laying again.

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At Stonebridge, we’re eating our winter fare from storage vegetables grown last season—the tail end of the harvest when meals are both simple and inventive. Take winter squash, for example. We usually store our winter squash in the closet of an unheated bedroom where it won’t rot or freeze. Yesterday I spotted a few butternut hanging out in the cool room of our barn. I thought they may have frozen since they weren’t covered with a tarp like the other vegetables we store there (onions, carrots, garlic, leeks, and roots). I tested one with my thumbnail. Seemed okay. Why not make Thai butternut soup?

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I’ve written about this soup before (check it out here if you want the actual recipe). The first time I made it was for a January yoga and writing retreat at the farm. Thai butternut is the perfect soup for mid-January: savory and filling from the squash, garlic, onions, and ginger, with a tangy dose of citrus from the lime juice and lemongrass. Now I get hungry for this soup every January–plus it’s a good way to use the storage vegetables in the barn and closet.

The hardest part about this soup is peeling the squash. Most of my winter squash recipes involve baking squash first to use as an ingredient rather than peeling them. I generally enjoy the textures and smells of fresh vegetables as I prepare them, but I don’t love peeling squash, I decided once again as I stood at the sink for longer than I’d like. I do know what makes it easier: my Japanese vegetable peeler, the kind that doesn’t swivel.

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John volunteered to quarter the large squash  first. (I’m not sure whether he likes doing it or he’s worried about my using the knife.) I cut each of those sections in halves or thirds, depending on the curvature of the piece. Smaller pieces are easier to peel; if you get them too small, you’re likely to peel your fingers. About like this is good:

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Cutting and peeling a squash reminds me of the time my Grandma Short brought a big Hubbard squash to our house when I was a kid. I wrote about that squash in A Bushel’s Worth but I mis-remembered who chopped it. Recently a family photo surfaced of my Grandma Smith with a hatchet and Aunt Lola holding the squash on the ground for Grandma to whack the tough thing. In the book I debated whether the squash was hard because of the variety or because my Grandma Short saved her own seeds (squash cross-pollinate with others within their species). We’ll never know but that was one thick-skinned cucurbit.

Besides craving its warming flavors, I like to make Thai Butternut soup so I can use my vintage juicer, just like the one Grandma Smith used to juice lemons for her meringue pie. I do buy fresh limes for this recipe, if I think of it beforehand. Like chocolate, salt, and olive oil, I forego my buy local habits for this recipe because fresh lime juice enhances the flavor but a good bottled juice is fine too. Similarly, if I happen to see fresh lemongrass, I’ll pick it up, but I’ve also used dried (raised by farm members) to great success.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, borrow one for this soup. I resisted buying an immersion blender for many years—just another appliance to store—but it’s worth every penny for the time and mess avoided ladling soup into a food processor.

Last night’s soup was perfect for a cold winter’s night. I’m sure our version isn’t authentically Thai—especially when served with baking powder biscuits—but the recipe is pretty simple once the squash is peeled. Tonight we’ll have the leftovers with some Thai veggie rolls I’ll pick up from our local restaurant. When you make enough for leftovers, a big pot of soup becomes fast food.

Someday I’d like to write a book on storage vegetables, the kind that only need a cool, dry place to get them through the winter. (A heavy box covered by a blanket in your garage can even work.) Winter squash will be on that list, especially butternut with its solid upper section providing a larger flesh-to-seed ratio than other squashes. Eating storage veggies is one way to hunker down in the winter—you don’t have to go to the store to get them!

Cinnamon finds her own winter storage food–in the compost pile

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A Fowl Thanksgiving Under a Gemini Moon

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Even before this week’s full moon in Gemini brought promised tension and chaos, our Thanksgiving preparations yielded a few glitches: the cornbread mix wasn’t gluten free after all, necessitating another trip to the busy store; too much liquid in the pie crust made the dough tougher than usual; and the Thanksgiving napkin rings were nowhere to be found–annoyances that slowed us down a little but didn’t jeopardize the coming feast.

On Wednesday morning, my yoga teacher warned us that the Gemini full moon could make Thanksgiving interesting. “Great,” said a friend. “Just what I need to hear with 18 people coming for dinner.” Those of us with big Thanksgiving plans resolved to summon flexibility and remain open to changes that might prove improvements on traditions rather than problems.

I went home to finish the pumpkin pies (from our Winter Luxury pumpkins) and set the table. John was gone when I arrived, on his way to deliver onions and carrots to the community food share for Thanksgiving dinners. The phone rang. “Do you know anyone with a German Shepherd,” asked my elderly neighbor, “ because one’s here right now killing my chickens and ducks.” Horrible! I’ve seen dogs kill chickens and it’s a terrible sight. I didn’t know anyone with a German shepherd but told her I’d watch for the dog as she hung up to call 911.

After putting the pies in the oven, I went out to our Sunflower community room to set the long Thanksgiving table, a task I always enjoy. The dishes are from my childhood, my parents’ pottery wedding dishes with a harvest design. My younger sister and I stood on stools at the kitchen sink to wash those dishes for years until a dishwasher and Corelle came into our home.

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I use my Grandma Smith’s silver plate, too, and set beeswax candles in her old blue canning jars down the center, reminding me of all my farming grandparents and the delicious meals they’d provide. In the middle of the table I placed the new pumpkin centerpiece made from canning jar lids that John’s mom had sent. We were sorry she’d miss celebrating with us this year.

Soon John appeared at the Sunflower Room door, opening it just a crack, which seemed odd until he said, “There’s a dog out here. A huskie.”

“Oh, no. That must be the dog that killed the neighbor’s chickens. Can we catch it? Is it safe?”

The dog seemed friendly enough and came to John when he called. We were cautious, though. Strange dogs make me nervous, “strange” meaning both unfamiliar and odd-acting. This dog seemed more the former than the latter, but it’s wise to be careful around any stray dog, especially one that’s just killed something. John held the dog’s collar and read the owner’s name, phone number, and address while I wrote it down.

Since the dog was docile, we decided to tie it to the tree with the goat rope until someone could come get it. I unwound the rope from the pen, the goat watching warily the dog from the top of the overturned barrel where she likes to climb. We carefully attached one end around the tree and the other to the dog’s collar–and let go. As soon as it realized it was tied, the dog lurched and jumped, trying to get free.

When we called our neighbor, the animal control officer was already there and came over right away. “I know that dog,” she said as she approached it under the tree. “He gets away a lot, but he’s never killed livestock before.” The dog seemed happy to see her as she switched our rope for her lead.

“What will happen now?” I asked.

“The owner will get a ticket and he’ll have to keep the dog in his own yard somehow. He’s a nice guy; I’m sure he’ll compensate for the chickens and ducks.” We were glad to hear that; lost chickens and ducks meant considerable lost income for our neighbor.

After lunch, Thanksgiving preparations continued. I finished setting the table and preparing the Sunflower kitchen for the next day’s cooking (we use three ovens for the feast). On the way back to the house, I stopped in the barn to check on the 30-pound turkey in the barn fridge, the only cold place large enough to hold it. John had turned the fridge up when he’d brought the turkey home. I’d felt ice crystals on the skin under the packaging the day before and turned the temperature down again. I wanted to be sure the turkey was properly thawed because discovering a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning isn’t fortuitous.

Truthfully, we didn’t need a 30-pound turkey. Three of the fourteen of us at the Thanksgiving table are vegetarians anyway. I thought I had ordered a 25-pound organic turkey from our local health food store but somehow my order ended up in the “over 25 pound” category. I wasn’t even sure it would fit in our oven, not to mention having to get up an hour earlier Thanksgiving morning to give those extra five pounds time to roast.

I opened the barn fridge door, expecting the top shelf to be full of turkey. The top shelf was empty. The second and third shelves (too small for the turkey anyway) were empty. I even looked in all the fridge drawers and door shelves where a 30-lb turkey obviously could not hide. I looked all over the barn, thinking John had left the turkey out accidentally. Having previous experience with objects de- and re-materializing, I even looked back in the fridge again to be sure I wasn’t overlooking something. Still no turkey.

What to do but go ask John if he’d brought the turkey in the house. No. So where’s the turkey? For a moment, I wondered whether that morning’s dog had gotten into the barn and dragged the thing away. Nah—it would have made more of a mess.

Then I remembered it was Wednesday, the day the food pantry people come for the veggies we donate to community families every week. The person picking up surely must have thought the turkey was another donation. That made sense—but we were still short a turkey. The pantry only runs until noon on Wednesdays. Now three o’clock in the afternoon, surely we were too late to get the turkey back.

Every Tuesday, I send an email to the wonderful friend who picks up our veggies to tell her what we have. I looked back at that week’s email and saw that I had mentioned that the turkey was on the top shelf because I needed to let her know the veggies were on the second shelf rather than the top this week. Once I re-read the note, I realized that she must have sent someone else for the pick-up. Even though the turkey part of the message was vague, I knew she would never have interpreted it to mean “take the turkey.” On the other hand, someone less familiar with our arrangement certainly could think a turkey donation accompanied the vegetables.

Since the pantry was closed for the day, I tried to call and email my friend but couldn’t reach her. Now the need for logistics took hold. It wasn’t that we minded the turkey having gone to the pantry, but we still needed a turkey—and it was 4 PM the day before Thanksgiving. Would we really be able to find an organic turkey at this late hour? I called the store where we’d bought the missing turkey. No, they were out—but they hoped we could find one.

John jumped in the truck for his second trip of the day to the neighboring town while I called to reserve a turkey—hopefully. Yes, they had an organic turkey—21 pounds, which was plenty—and they’d hold it for him. When John got home, he said everyone in the meat department had a good laugh about our “donation.”

I was glad, in fact, not to cook that big turkey. We had plenty at our Thanksgiving meal, with most of it—potatoes, leeks, squash, onions, carrots, beets, herbs—grown on our own farm. We rushed around getting everything on the table until, finally, we could sit down to eat as I whispered “What have I forgotten?” to John. The gluten-free cornbread stuffing was especially good this year with Oregon hazelnuts from John’s mother (see recipe below). I had forgotten to cook the kale ribbons for the beet-farro salad, but no one missed it. If I had to forget something, that was the thing to forget. We were complete, seated by a fire in the wood stove as the snow fell gently outside.

Before we recited our annual grace together, I asked everyone to think about all the Thanksgiving dinners sharing something from Stonebridge, from vegetables on the table to the wine we’ve grown and vinted—to the turkey in the barn fridge. We laughed a little at that thought before giving thanks with a poem of gratitude by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

For each new morning with its light

For rest and shelter of the night

For health and food

For love and friends

For everything [that] goodness send

We are thankful.

Between the meal and dessert, a few of us headed out for a breezy farm walk. Dusted with snow, the grass in the prairie flower garden waved like white caps on the ocean. I love the winter garden for its call to rest instead of weed.

IMG_5688After the heat of the walk turned to chill, we headed back to the Sunflower Room for pumpkin and pecan pies, dishes to wash, and games to play. As the sun set and the snow fell, everyone went home, and John and I took the leftovers into the house. He’ll make turkey soup with the roasted vegetables and turkey; I’ll make soup from the remains of the spiced squash scooped out from its skin and pureed with coconut milk. With all the leftovers (including pumpkin pie for breakfast), we won’t need to go anywhere for a wintery while.

When my pantry friend called to apologize for the mix-up, I told her not to worry about it. Other than the stress of the moment when I worried we’d have no turkey at all, everything turned out well. I didn’t have to wrangle a 30-pounder into our oven and another family had a nice organic turkey that should make lots and lots of post-Thanksgiving sandwiches. I’d learned my usual precautionary paranoia comes in handy sometimes when it says “check the turkey” the day before rather than 6 AM Thanksgiving morning. Imagine our surprise if it hadn’t gone missing until then—a circumstance for which we offered thanks. And we have a good story with which to remember this very Thanksgiving, a time of chaos exchanged for a time of deep bounty, a reminder of gratitude for all we have and can share. For this and so much more, we are thankful.

 

Stonebridge Gluten Free Cornbread Stuffing

Makes enough for a 9 x 13 cake pan (Serves 15 but double if you’ve got a big crowd and want some inside the turkey too)

Ingredients (veggies and nuts can be prepared the night before and stored in the fridge):

1 package Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Cornbread Mix (read the package carefully to be sure it’s GF)—prepared two days ahead of time in a square pan as directed and cut vertically into ½ inch rows in the pan to dry (cover lightly with foil as it dries). I prefer Bob’s Red Mill Glute-Free to his non-GF cornbread—it rises higher and has a moister texture for the stuffing.

3 large carrots, grated, about 2 cups

3 leeks, sliced thinly, about 2 cups

1 ½ cups chopped roasted hazelnuts (any nut will do, but hazelnuts are especially good)

One 32-fl oz carton organic vegetable broth

Fresh rosemary and dried sage, chopped finely, a tablespoon or so or both, depending on your herb tastes

Salt and pepper to taste (a tsp or two salt and some cranks of pepper)

 

Preheat oven to 375. Place a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of a 9 x 13 cake pan and oil the bottom and sides, especially the corners (or just oil really well without parchment).

In quite large bowl, mix the cornbread cubes (breaking them into ½ cubes when needed), grated carrots, sliced leeks, chopped hazelnuts, herbs, salt, and pepper. Pour the box of veggie broth evenly throughout the mix, turning with a large spoon to moisten all the cubes.

Place the mixture in the cake pan.

Bake for 20 minutes. Cover with foil (leave it unattached for venting) and bake another 30-40 minutes (keep an eye on it for over-browning.)

For our spiced squash recipe and more on Stonebridge Thanksgivings, see the chapter “Putting By” in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography.

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Introducing the Clarifier Project

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One cement wastewater tank, circa 1950.

Two visionary artists.

11 years.

13 birds.

325 volunteers.

450 buckets of water.

800 pounds of grout.

60,000 tiles.

Together they add up to the Clarifier Project, a community-based public art collaboration along the St Vrain river in Lyons, Colorado.

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The Clarifier Project was organized by Lyons artists Priscilla Cohan and Cathy Rivers, who approached the town about using the abandoned wastewater tank near the river for community art. Rather than view the outdated concrete structure as an obsolete edifice in need of demolition, the artists envisioned it as the basis for an ambitious cooperative mosaic.

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The design of the mosaic is based on the cycle of life symbolized by four trees made of Lyons redstone representing the four seasons along our Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. As you stroll around the clarifier tank, you can follow seasonal changes through various progressions, including the zodiac, evolving shades of flora, and varieties of birds seen at particular times during the year.

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Elementary and high school students created the ceramic leaves for the trees; local elders in The Golden Gang crafted the pottery sun; one family intricately pieced each glass-tiled bird. Individuals donated tiles, broken dishes, and many unique items to the design—a doll’s head, blown-glass paperweights, and a lipstick tube are just a few of the items among the 60,000 pieces covering the tank’s 96-foot circumference of concrete.

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The clarifier tank was the original wastewater treatment facility for Lyons. As local historian and institutional memory-keeper LaVerne Johnson reminded us at the opening, before the clarifier was built in 1950, every one had an outhouse. LaVerne quipped that the outhouses that are still around came in handy during the flood (I happen to know that the one in the old cemetery got some use, much to a patrolling police officer’s surprise).

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In fact, one of the reasons the town was evacuated was because of the loss of the entire septic system. As folks grimly joked, “People had to go because people had to go.” While operational today, the current wastewater treatment plant located just beyond the old tank is still in the process of rebuilding following the flood (a mirror in the mosaic provides a bridge between the old clarifier and the new, modern facility).

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Begun nine years before the 2013 flood that evacuated the town amidst tremendous damage, the Clarifier Project has come to symbolize the power of community to heal itself. While the rushing floodwater did reach the tank (the high water mark is commemorated with its own tile), the mosaic, which was still in process, was not significantly destroyed. Instead, the disaster strengthened the public commitment to the project’s completion.

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This past weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the Front Range flood, the perfect time to gather as a community in celebration of this amazing structure. Even our governor showed up to congratulate the artists and volunteers for the perseverance required for a project of this scope.

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The project isn’t finished; landscaping is the next phase, with plans to integrate the Clarifier into the natural riverscape.

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Our town’s healing isn’t complete, either—178 homes were lost, many of which still await demolition, and many friends and families won’t be returning to the community.

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This project, though, reminds us that beauty lies along the same river that created chaos and destruction just two years ago. I’m grateful to Priscilla and Cathy for their vision of collaborative, place-based art and to the volunteers for their hours of work. I only spent one afternoon grouting tiles at The Clarifier, but it was enough to help me recognize the power of fulfilling a dream, one tile at a time.

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Weather Whiplash, Rhubarb Revival, and a Big, Black Bear

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With our first basil and garlic picked last week, the farm is poised at that ripening moment in wait for the high summer harvest to come. How did we get to the middle of July already in this topsy-turvy season of cool June, three-hour hailstorm, and loss of trees and fruit blossoms from last November’s abrupt freeze?

“Weather whiplash” is the term I’ve heard lately for the extreme unpredictability and sudden, ping-pong changes in weather patterns these days. Having a lifetime of familiarity with the weather in this region, I know we’ve entered an era of uncharted climate conversion, but to what we’re converting isn’t clear.

Take rhubarb in July. We’ve never picked rhubarb in July before. This year, we’ll get a second round of rhubarb—and that’s weeks after a hailstorm ripped the rhubarb to shreds. Rhubarb revival, I’m calling it. Sure, we’re happy to have more rhubarb, but it’s unsettling to realize our climate has changed enough to alter the growth pattern of a perennial plant. Perhaps the hail stimulated the plants into going to seed again as a survival mechanism. Is rhubarb sending us a lesson about adaptation that we ought to heed?

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A couple weeks ago, John and I were eating lunch on the screened porch of our community room when we sensed something moving nearby. A magnificent black bear with a tan face ambled around the corner of the ditch bank and onto the wooden bridge 50 feet from where we sat. The bear sat down Buddha-like on the planks near the end of the bridge, calmly licked its paw, and looked around. It didn’t seem to see us through the screen, but it may have smelled us. Soon it put its front paws down, turned around, and wandered off the way it had come, stopping to tip the nearby bench first in case it found food underneath.

What you don't see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge--this close to the porch

What you don’t see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge–this close to the porch

Did we really see a bear? A real bear? It came and went so quickly, it seemed more an apparition than a wild animal. Still, I waited a few minutes before tiptoeing out across the bridge to see where the bear had gone. Bears can move quickly; it had disappeared into the trees along the ditch. I must have been mesmerized by its beauty, that lustrous fur, its wise face. I wanted to see it again—from a distance.

After another fifteen minutes, John and I crossed the bridge together and walked out cautiously to check on the bees. (In hindsight, we should have taken the truck.) Luckily, we didn’t run into the bear, finding only a trampled spot along the ditch where it stopped to check for bugs at the base of some trees. The bees were fine; an electric fence is protecting them now.

We’ve seen lots of bear evidence on this land but I’ve never seen a live bear here and John only has once from further away. We were surprised to see a bear in the middle of a June day; they usually come down in the fall before hibernation.

What we hadn’t taken into account was last November’s freeze. The same 70-degree drop in one-day temperature that destroyed our fruit harvest also decimated the food supply that bears and other animals would be eating in the mountains right now. Weather whiplash strikes again.

Later that night, we heard a noise outside like a door slamming. Ten minutes after that, our neighbor called to say the bear was in her yard and heading for the highway. I ran down our driveway with my camera in the hope of getting a picture from a safe distance, but when I saw that the bear had knocked over our trash can, I thought better of being outside with an animal that large running around. Even today, a certain kind of dark shadow in the trees makes me pause. If one bear has come down from the foothills, what’s to stop another from following? As a friend suggested, we may need to bang pie plates together when we’re outside at night.

And so the season goes. We make the summer’s first pesto, cover our crops with net to deter deer, and hope the second round of tomatoes has time to ripen before the first fall frost.

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I read a report recently about governors in states with large rural populations meeting to discuss the impact of climate change. People in rural areas, they realize, will be more heavily impacted than people in cities, at last initially, since we depend on weather for our livelihoods, live closer to the natural world, and have reduced access to emergency services. I don’t know the outcome of that meeting, but I am glad that officials are recognizing the difficulties farmers and others in non-urban communities are already facing.

Weather has always been the factor least under a farmer’s control. Today, that incapacity is magnified by a political paralysis to stop the conditions creating even more instability in the climate upon which we depend. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: it’ll take more than banging a couple pie plates together to face off what’s coming.

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When Life Gives You Hailstones, Make Polentil

Two weeks ago, we planted a beautiful field of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed we’d saved last fall. Later that evening, hail destroyed almost every plant.

We’d never seen a hailstorm like this one: three hours of pea-to-ping-pong-sized hail breaking in waves against the foothills, pummeling first from the east and then circling back even more fiercely from the west. We couldn’t even leave the house to check on the tomatoes, so constant was the hail and lightning that lit the sky like pinball machines in an arcade. Tornadoes destroyed 28 homes just miles east of us as the storm’s “tornadic activity” spun black clouds of hail over our region, leaving a twisted mess of sheered trees, damaged roofs, and cracked windshields behind.

As soon as daylight broke, we walked out to inspect the damage. An empty field greeted us where lush tomatoes had stood the day before. I had to look twice to be sure it was the same field we’d left full of hearty tomatoes. Now, broken stems marked where each beautiful plant had died.

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All the crops were tattered, but the tomatoes fared the worst, a loss not only of plants but of the countless hours spent saving and planting seeds, tending the greenhouse, watering, and transplanting into specially prepared fields. Even in good conditions, tomatoes are a high maintenance vegetable but we love them enough to make all the work worth it. Thinking of the effort wasted on row after row of ruined plants, we were all in a bit of shock at the damage they’d sustained.

Luckily, we had started many more seedlings than we needed in the spring. We were able to “cup up” most of what we lost. They’re two weeks behind and not as robust as our first crop, but we’ll make do. If the season’s a long one (we always hope for a late first frost), we’ll have good tomatoes.

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We cancelled our farm pick-up for members that first Saturday after the storm. With spinach and lettuce torn ragged and the fields muddy from two days of rain, we had nothing to pick. We’ve only cancelled a couple times in 24 years as a CSA, all for weather events, like the flood of September 2013 when our farm was barricaded behind the security barrier to our nearby town and most members were too busy evacuating to pick up vegetables anyway. Still, we know that farming in this region, we’ve been lucky never to cancel for hail before.

Instead of picking vegetables for the members that Saturday after the storm, the barterers came to cultivate the onion and carrot beds compacted from the hail and rain. We broke up the crust starting to form on the topsoil and weeded as best we could in the sodden soil so the finger-sized onions and tiny carrots could grow more easily.

Mid-week, a welcome crew of barterers and volunteers showed up to transplant the rest of the peppers, eggplant, and basil, which fortunately hadn’t been set out yet because of the cool weather. We cultivated many more beds, working down the long rows to ease the soil compaction and finish the weeding delayed by the recent rains.

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Last Saturday’s pick was meager—kale, scallions, arugula, spinach, baby bok choy, and garlic scapes. “Hail kale,” our barn boss wrote on the board, since it didn’t amount to much. Although not all our members are attuned to them yet, scapes were the standout vegetable that day. A scape is the shoot of a hard-necked garlic plant, the part that will flower and form a new seed head. Removing the scapes puts energy into the garlic bulb rather than the flower, forming a larger bulb. We used to compost the scapes until we learned we could cook with them too. Now we chop and use them just like garlic in stir-fry, sauces, or on bruschetta, or preserve them chopped in olive oil in the fridge.

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We also served pancakes, since last Saturday had already been scheduled for our annual pancake breakfast. Despite the skimpy pick, or maybe because of it, we wanted to celebrate the farm and say thanks to our members for supporting us during tough times, as well as during more fruitful seasons. This year, we learned again what tough times could mean. As always, folks brought toppings to share—strawberry butter, homemade salted caramel, fruit preserves, canned applesauce, even home-tapped maple syrup from a son’s tree back east. Nothing like sharing a multi-grain pancake and fresh toppings with friends to lift one’s spirits.*

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Last night, John and I sauteed our garlic scapes, scallions, kale, and spinach as a topping for what we call “polentil”—cooked lentils stirred with soft goat cheese into polenta just before it’s cooked to firmness, served with a glass of our own chai-spiced honey mead. We layered the polentil with tomato sauce from last year’s tomato harvest and topped it with the hail greens and alliums. It may not have been much, but it couldn’t have tasted better or been more filling.

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This week’s pick looks pretty much like normal, a decent size and offering for late June. The broccoli’s coming on, spinach and kale have sized up, and stunned lettuces have grown through their hail-laced moment. More scapes are on their way, and everything else isn’t far behind. Before we know it, we’ll be back in the bounty of the season, the time when a share puts lots of hearty meals on the table. The gardens have their own recovery plan; we just help it along. As with any season, we’ll do our best to follow the land’s lead: we work, we wait, and the earth gives again.

 

*You can find our pancake recipe in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

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Beans, Onions, Eggs, and a little Spinach: A January Cuisine

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Our seed order came Saturday, which is always a sign that winter won’t last forever and we’ll be working in the greenhouse again soon. Actually, John and our friend Peter have already started leeks and onions there to transplant in April. With this week’s temps in the high 60s, we’re beginning to think about spring while we wait for the gardens to give again.

What do farmers eat in winter? If we’re eating seasonally and locally—meaning what we’ve put up or still have laying around the farm—our cuisine is more limited than what we eat when the gardens are producing. Still, we’ve got plenty of food to last us through the winter.

Our Stonebridge freezer is full of peppers for stuffing, tomato sauce, applesauce, and berries. We’ve also dried tomatoes and shelled beans for winter use. After the deep cold of the last couple months, a few rows of spinach are coming again in the bluehouse and we’ve just seeded kale in the greenhouse too. The storage room of the barn is full of last season’s carrots and potatoes, late keeper apples from the Western slope, a trug of winter squash, and lots and lots of onions from last fall’s bumper crop.

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A couple years ago, John and I got over our fear of pressure cookers and started making our beans that way. What a difference in texture and a good savings in time, as well. We throw in carrots, potatoes and garlic, but never salt because that can toughen the beans. We eat bean soup, freeze some, and eat the rest in burritos or enchiladas with our own salsa. This year we grew black and white Oregon Peregions, large red kidneys, and golden buckskin, all flavorful and filling.

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People usually think of onions as the first step in cooking a meal rather than the foundation itself. Onions play a prominent role in lots of our winter dishes, especially when caramelized. Our pizza the other night was heaped with tasty golden onions and they’re also great as the filling in quiche or a layer of lasagna. French onion soup topped with broiled bread and cheese is especially hearty. Salting the onions in the skillet helps them brown more quickly—or at least I like to think it does.

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The longer days at the end of January bring a bonus to our winter meals because that’s when our chickens start to lay again. We don’t light the coop, believing it’s better for the chickens to take a rest. We have to buy a few eggs in the winter, which aren’t at all the same color, freshness, or flavor as our own. So when we get the first egg of the year, we celebrate. Here’s the first three we’ve gathered in 2015.

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I’m especially excited about the lightest egg because it was laid by the Speckled Sussex we raised last season. She’s a gorgeous bird, my favorite all-around variety of chicken. We also raised Americanas for blue eggs, but we haven’t seen any of those yet, except for the eggs our neighbor shared with us last week when her chickens started laying a bit earlier than ours.

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With all this wealth of food, what are we having for dinner? Eggs baked in tomato sauce and spinach, with onion, of course. Saute an onion until golden and then a little spinach until wilted. Add to some chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce, season with ground cumin, sweet or spicy paprika (we dry and grind our own), and salt and pepper. Divide in four oiled ramekins, crack an egg in each, and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 15-20 minutes at 400, until the yolk is set to your desired firmness. Easy, healthy, and good—my ideal of a meal.

Some folks might see our winter meals as boring; we think of them as an opportunity to use up what we have and ready ourselves for the next season. As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, “The winter wipes clean the slate of last year’s misgivings, knowing spring will offer us a new chance to re-write our dreams.” 2015 will be our 24th season as a CSA. Enthusiastic inquiries are coming in; returning members are happily re-subscribing. John’s built another cold frame; I’ve been sprucing up the Sunflower room and updating our outreach information. We don’t know yet what the season will bring, but we are sure whatever bounty or loss may come, we’ll be sharing it with a wonderful community once again.

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Foraging the Fence Line

Sure, it’s May 12th, but that doesn’t mean we’re wearing shorts and sandals on Colorado’s Front Range. Mother’s Day was snowy, today’s wind is cold, and tonight the temperature will drop into the 20s, putting this season’s apple crop in peril. Our wintered-over crops like spinach and onions are slower than normal this year, although what “normal” means anymore is anyone’s guess. As farmers in these days of climate change, we watch the weather instead of the calendar and plant or pick accordingly.

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I had intended to harvest asparagus this afternoon anyway before tonight’s predicted frost, but my friend Wendy’s blog post about foraged asparagus inspired me to take my camera along. Wendy’s post will tell you how to prepare asparagus without wasting any of the precious bits, so I’ll leave the culinary instructions to her.

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Instead, I’ll share what else I found on my walk around the farm. First, I stopped in the bluehouse—our passive solar greenhouse made from recycled patio doors—to check on the lettuces. We’ve been eating greens like arugula and chard ourselves from the bluehouse all winter, but last Saturday we harvested lettuce for all our members on the first pick-up day of the season. Bluehouse lettuce is never as crisp as outdoor-planted lettuce, but we’re not complaining about fresh lettuce in May, especially in this cool spring.

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Next, I walked the fence line on the west side of our property to find the bird-planted asparagus. I’ll let you figure out how that happens. John had picked a first round a few days ago and some of it was already going to seed, but I foraged a half bag of hearty stalks, enough for a quiche soon and some for salad too (I chop in bite-sized pieces, steam tender-crisp, cool, and add to spinach, lettuce, parsley, chopped boiled eggs, and roasted walnuts with a balsamic vinaigrette). I also found cactus in the only spot they grow on our farm, back along the fence line near where our neighbor pastures his cows.

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Snow is still falling in the mountains; normally we can see Long’s and Meeker from our field. Today, only Steamboat Mountain just outside of Lyons is visible.

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On the way back to the farmhouse with my stash of asparagus, I run into John crossing the bridge by the flower garden. I glance down into the ditch, which is still nearly empty because the repairs following last September’s terrible flood are not yet complete, making yesterday’s snow quite welcome for our fields.

The lack of ditchwater hasn’t prevented the appearance of another spring foraging treat: the saddleback polypore mushroom that grows each year on the stump of our former rope tree over the swimming hole. Today’s find is fifteen inches across; we’ve harvested it just in time for optimal spongy texture. We’ll sauté it tonight for an extra treat, maybe with asparagus over pasta or toast.

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Our vegetable crops may be a little behind schedule right now, but I’m happy to be on the cool side of the weather rather than shooting straight to hot. We’re still worried about the above average snowpack, too, since the flood last fall has changed the river in unpredictable ways, but we’re glad to know water is on its way.

As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, on a farm, we work, we wait, and the land gives again. In this 23rd CSA season, we’ll adapt and change and flex and grow in whatever way the climate demands. We may not always get it right, but we’ll do the best we can, drawing on the knowledge, patience, and faith that, so far, have seen us through.

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For readers in the Boulder/Ft Collins area, I’ll be teaching a free interactive reading at the Estes Park Public Library this Saturday, May 17th, from 3-5 PM, with a special emphasis on writing stories about the September 2013 flood. Come join us!

I’ll also be offering a workshop at the beautiful Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon Coast this September 27-28 on “Writing from Nature’s Artifacts.” Just the scenery will inspire you (and hopefully the class will too!).

 

 

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Much Needed Moisture

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Here on the Front Range of Colorado, we’re in our second day of a snowstorm that’s bringing much needed moisture—the farmers’ mantra–to our soil and water supply. Even the Huffington Post ran an AP story on our snowstorm, reporting the rise in our snowpack to 77% of normal. That might not sound like good news, but it’s better than it was a week ago. And when I checked the National Resource Conservation Service’s snowpack report this morning, I found even better news: statewide snowpack is 203% of last year (154% for our water basin) when we suffered drought and wildfires. The snow may be below normal but any improvement over last year is welcome.

April is a busy time of year for getting vegetables seeded and transplanted, work now delayed by the snow. Two Saturdays ago, we transplanted 7000 onion and leek starts into new beds. With the fields still moist from the smaller snows that followed, we haven’t quite finished that planting. But with a snow day, we can catch up on a few chores that we might not have gotten to otherwise. This morning, John’s repairing our solar lawn mower and I knit a long swatch in assorted yarns for an upcoming public art event (more on that in May). Best of all, this April storm has afforded us time to try our friend Deirdre’s delicious sponge bread, something we’ve been wanting to do for months. Deirdre was right: it’s easy and delicious. I’m glad to have a snow day to find that out.

The snow may not be convenient right now, especially for our loved ones who have to get to work, but we’ll be happy for the snow this summer when there’s water for the fields, and the mountains, we hope, won’t run the risk of wildfire like last summer. A lot will depend on summer heat and wise water use. But for now, the clouds have issued us a reprieve. So here’s a few pics of what “much needed moisture” looks like at Stonebridge.

Snow drifting between our back mudroom and the bunkhouse. Our farmmate Joe tried to sweep a path and broke the broom!

Snow drifting between our back mudroom and the bunkhouse. Our farmmate Joe tried to sweep a path and broke the broom!

The stone bridge in snow

The stone bridge in snow

Typical for a spring snow, the ditch isn't frozen.

Typical for a spring snow, the ditch isn’t frozen

John outside the shop

John outside the shop in the tractor barn where he’s fixing the mower

The curl of snow around the roof of the Sunflower Room porch

The curl of snow around the roof of the Sunflower Room porch

And there's more on the way

And there’s more on the way

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A January Tribute to Aldo Leopold

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We’re in January, that frigid first month of the year when the sun shines intermittently as snow pellets the already frozen ground. John and I don’t go out much at night in January, but last night we donned heavy sweaters, parkas, and ear grips to attend a small screening of the recent movie Green Fire, a beautiful evocation of the life and land ethic of the early conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

While I appreciated learning more about this important founder of The Wilderness Institute and activist for land preservation, Leopold’s passion for hunting took me aback. When I came home, I re-read some of his essays, not to excuse his killing of animals, but to try to understand his ideas in an historical light. Leopold’s environmentalism evolved from his early days as a forester who approved the killing of game predators like wolves to increase deer for hunters. As a hunter himself, he seemed to view hunters as inherent advocates of wilderness preservation. Later, when overcrowded deer populations devastated wilderness, he realized that such killing only served to unbalance natural ecosystems.Certainly the movie’s use of vintage photo after photo posing dead animals next to men with guns is meant to illustrate the wrong-headed ethic of killing animals with no regard for what their loss means to their environment.

Leopold was also critical of what he called the “artificializing” of the “mass-pursuit” of “trophies” by intensive land management practices that increase the availability of fish and game for “trophy-recreationists,” including by constructing roads into wilderness. Leopold advocated stewardship rather than dominion over the natural world by viewing ourselves as part of that world. The last lines of A Sand County Almanac echo his plea for a change in how humans view land: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Leopold died at age 61 in 1948 of a heart attack while fighting a fire near his family’s Wisconsin farm retreat. One can’t help but wonder how his conservation ethic would have evolved had he lived another twenty or thirty years to see the birth of an environmental movement and the earth’s increasing degradation by short-sighted human folly.

On this cold January day, with a fire in the woodstove to keep us warm, I want to honor Leopold’s passion for preserving wilderness as wilderness with an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press):

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, like other classic nature writings such as Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, combines exquisite detail of his corner of the natural world with an urgent appeal for protecting that world—if it’s not already too late. First published in 1949, Sand County is arranged by months; the February chapter is particularly apt for Stonebridge: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.”

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Here on the Front Range, winter eventually catches up with us. New Year’s Eve is cold and snowy and snowstorms come in waves, diminishing in power but keeping the landscape softly blanketed in white. The nights are frigid, but in the house, we’re warmed by a wood fire, one provided by nature and by John with his chainsaw and his willingness to go outside first thing in the morning for wood. Many years ago, our hot water heating system went on the blink. We were using the woodstove pretty regularly already because we liked the warmth it gave, reaching further into corners than less powerful heat. When the furnace went out, we decided to go all the way with wood.

Or almost all the way. The ceiling-high windows on the south side of the farmhouse provide passive solar heat and we have a couple space heaters for our offices or to warm the cast-iron tub in the bathroom. Primarily, though, the woodstove does the job.

Each year since we let the furnace go, we’ve made some improvements. Because the farmhouse is 100 years old, we had extra insulation blown into the walls. What a difference that made, mostly to keep in the heat from the woodstove rather than lose it out the wood walls. Next we built a wood hut to keep the logs dry and handy outside the back door. Designed by Jon Bell with a scavenged satellite dish for a roof, it makes trips to the woodpile much more pleasant, even in the snow. We’ve lined and improved the old chimney and have it cleaned periodically by a chimney sweep. We also bought, at our friend Peter’s advice, a colored temperature gauge so we could monitor the optimum flame. Yellow is too low; red is too high. We like to keep it “in the mustard,” we say, where the wood burns most efficiently.

The biggest improvement is the wood itself from the trees growing along the three irrigation ditches. For years we burned cottonwood, since it was the most common, but that wood burns like toilet paper—lots of ash, not much heat. Now we’re burning willow, apple, and Russian olive, the latter a weed tree that John has sworn to rid from our land.

I’m glad John doesn’t mind swinging an axe as he’s “let[ting] his mind work the while.” And I’m glad to hear the “thump” in the woodbox in the morning as he drops a load of dry logs for the first fire of the day. It’s good to know where our heat comes from, as well as our food. Leopold would approve.

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