Tag Archives: Front Range

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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Keeping a Farm a Farm

I spotted one again last week, a subdivision with “farm” in its name. Land that used to grow food is now covered with beige houses. I don’t know whether to take offense at the irony of a housing development named after a farm or take comfort that the name evokes its farming past. Once farmland is developed, it won’t be farmed again. That loss affects all of us, not only in the lack of food raised locally, but in the demise of natural habitats for plants and animals. Harder to measure is the degradation of the human spirit as the natural world vanishes from our collective imagination.

The development pressure in our part of the Front Range is intense. More people moving to the area means more homes, more strip malls, more big box stores, more light industrial, and more businesses to assure jobs for the people who move here. And that kind of growth takes land.

At the same time, farming today is a shaky enterprise at best. Costs are going up, the weather is less predictable, yet the physical labor required to farm is still demanding. I don’t know what the figures are in Boulder County, but farmland along the Hwy 66 corridor where we live is disappearing. Older farmers have counted on selling their land to pay for their retirement and who can blame them? But it’s terrible that farms are rarely sold as farms anymore.

At least in Boulder, the county itself is interested in preserving farms and has purchased thousands of acres as agricultural open space. We disagree with the county over the use of GMO crops on that land, but we are glad the county is far-sighted enough to create a new “rural preservation” designation under which our farm now falls.  That means the land can’t be developed for industrial or commercial purposes, at least for the next 10 years and hopefully beyond.

John and I are still in our fifties and plan to farm for many years to come. But we are starting to take steps to ensure that Stonebridge Farm remains a real farm—not a housing development called “Stonebridge Farm.” We’re working with our local officials to foresee and guarantee options down the road. And we have a grandchild on the way who may—we hope–want to farm some day. Still, we know that we are the ones who have to preserve Stonebridge now if the farm is to survive. It’s sad to think we won’t be here forever, but even sadder would be the loss of this land to asphalt and concrete.

In the meantime, we’re farming. Our amazing crew transplanted 10,000+ baby alliums—leeks and onions the size of a blade of grass—last Saturday. That’s the first big push for the farm.

Over the next two Saturdays, we’ll plant thousands of brassicas—cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower—now hardening off in the cold frame. That’s the second.

The third—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil–won’t come until June 1st or so when the soil warms and all chance of frost is past. Last week John started the peppers and eggplant in the greenhouse and today we seeded 18 heirloom varieties of tomatoes, including Stonebridge’s favorites—Brandywine and Tiffen Mennonite. As always, we’re trying a couple new varieties, Black Prince to complement Cherokee Purple and Mr. Fumo, a paste tomato that earned raves with Boulder’s culinary gardeners last year.

Every spring for the last 21 years, we’ve started seeds in the greenhouse and transplanted them into the fields. With the help of our wonderful friends, we’ve watered and weeded and waited and harvested. And with the support of a loyal community that understands the importance of local agriculture, we make it through another season.  Preservation requires actions taken each day, one after the other. Only that kind of care and commitment will keep Stonebridge from becoming another subdivision with “farm” in its name.

Newly planted allium field in the shadow of the Two Guides, Longs and Meeker peaks. We think this is worth preserving.

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Another New Year

Spring has sprung,

The grass has riz,

I wonder where

The flowers is.

                              –Kayann’s 4th grade poem

January 1st is the beginning of a new year when we make promises for the twelve months to come. But spring brings its own sense of renewal. After winter’s chill, I’m always cheered to find the daffodils naturalizing along the ditch bank in bloom again.

 

 

March was warmer this year than usual, with NO SNOW. I’m capitalizing it because I can’t remember a March without snow here on the Front Range. We’ve always had snow in March, and not just snow but BIG snow, with many wet inches blanketing the ground. Sometimes, March snowstorms close schools and airports. On my 50th birthday three years ago, the snow was so wet and deep, everything shut down. I even had to cancel my birthday plans for chocolate soufflé at Le Central in Denver.

With no snow in March this year, we were a little worried about getting the season off to a good start, so snow two nights ago and a few stray flakes and misty rain yesterday were welcome. Even better, the temperatures didn’t fall low enough to hurt the fruit trees that have already started blossoming. Trees in bloom this time of year hold promises for the season. If we don’t still get a hard frost (entirely likely in April or even early May), we’ll have apples for cider pressing this fall.

The old apple in front of the house

This week’s moisture encouraged the seeds John planted last week to emerge in the spring garden. The sugar, snap, and snow peas have germinated well, pledging many pleasant hours of picking in the pea patch to come (try saying that three times). This Saturday we’ll transplant thousands of alliums—onions and leeks—into the moistened beds. Maturing from stout, grass-like blades to round, juicy globes, alliums spend the longest time of any crop in the ground. Once they’re planted, they ground the season with an assurance of dinners to come.

All this generative growth holds another kind of promise, one transacted between farmers and the earth. If we do our part—planting, watering, weeding, thinning, and harvesting–the soil, water, wind, and sun will do the rest. I think we get the better end of the deal. As we start a new season of renewal, let’s work with spring’s optimism toward potent dreams, garden fresh and ours for the growing.

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My 53rd in the Rockies

Good advice for a 53rd birthday

Robin Chocolates from Longmont are a great start to more wagging!

Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cleaning up pine beetle kill along the road

Destination: Alberta Falls

Snowy trail--beautiful day

An Oregon hiker in shorts

A small tree dead from pine beetle kill

Cliff at the lower end of Alberta Falls

Before the wind really picked up

Most of the falls were under snow and ice but we could hear the stream as we hiked

Chocolate turtles in their natural environment

A pine squirrel wants to join us for lunch but is told "No feeding the wildlife!"

Same goes for the gray jay

The blue of the Stellar's Jay is startling in the subalpine forest

We were glad to see snow in the mountains; we haven't had any on the Front Range this month, which is quite unusual and a little ominous

Snow trail-packed across a bridge

Bear Lake is just above Alberta Falls

Despite the snow, the winter's been warm enough to warrant this sign--which a teenager had to test for herself

The view from Bear Lake of Hallett Peak on the left and Flattop mountain on the right.

A favorite of the locals near the YMCA camp and a delicious place for a birthday dinner

Heading through Estes on our way home, a quiet morning before the tourists head back up in a month or so.

. . . and get to the mountains when you can!

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On Onions

This morning we finished seeding onions and leeks in our greenhouse, the first starts of our spring planting in preparation for the farm season to come. John already planted and covered Walla Walla Sweets in field beds last fall for spring onions, but this time of year we plant other less winter tolerant varieties in the greenhouse instead. Many farmers start onions as seeds or bulbs outdoors but we’ve found that seeding in flats in the greenhouse and transplanting in spring when the plants are about the size of a blade of grass works best for us. Seeding onions is cheaper than bulbs and easier than cultivating newly emerged alliums amongst exuberant spring weeds.

One of the varieties, Cortland, will provide the yellow storage onions that we’ll give to our CSA members in the fall because that variety keeps better than others. Here we are in January and we’ve still got Cortlands in our root cellar to take us through the next few months until we harvest Egyptian/walking onions (so-called because the flower heads lean over and plant themselves) and green onions in the early spring.

This week I got hungry for onion quiche, a recipe I’ve been making for 25 years that’s a kind of cross between French onion soup and quiche lorraine using onions instead of ham. The crust includes sesame seeds, which makes it extra hearty for a winter meal. We sliced and caramelized onions, grated cheese (we use Naked Goat from our local cheese shop), cracked eggs from our chickens just starting to lay again, and added some milk.

Even though I’ve made this quiche many times, this time the quiche came out even sweeter than ever. The Cortlands in winter storage had sweetened; the taste was something like onion marmalade on crust. We probably could have eaten the whole thing between the two of us but saved half for lunch the next day, when it was just as sweet, if not more so.

If you’ve got a few onions in storage, or even if you have to buy a few (preferably at a winter farmer’s market), try this hearty quiche for a warm and filling winter meal.

And what to serve with it? This time of year on our Front Range farm, “salad” is hard to come by, at least in the traditional lettuce sense. Because we’re rebuilding our season-extending “bluehouse” (named as such because it’s not the “greenhouse”), we don’t have our usual winter bed of kale and spinach. But we’ve got some small spikes of last year’s chard and fall-planted spinach out in the field under row cover that will do for now. I like those tiny leaves of spinach with grated carrot and tart green apple with a lime juice and lime-infused olive oil dressing.

Eating last fall’s onions for a winter dinner and starting next summer’s onions in the greenhouse in January bring the cycles of the seasons together. As one year’s harvest turns to the next year’s planting, we’re reminded that farming requires both looking back and looking forward, learning and planning and growing again with one eye to the weather and another to each other.

Stonebridge Onion Quiche
Ingredients:
Filling: 2 large or 4 small yellow onions, peeled and sliced in thin half-crescents
3 Tbl butter
2 cups grated Swiss cheese or a hard goat cheese like Naked Goat
3 large eggs
1 cup half and half or milk
1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp nutmeg
Crust: 1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or unbleached)
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut in pieces
1/4 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 450.
Melt 3 Tbl butter in a large pan over medium-high heat and add onions. Stir to brown evenly, about 15 minutes, until just beginning to caramelize.
Shred the cheese in the food processor and set aside.
While the onions are cooking, make the crust in the food processor. Mix flour, seeds, salt and baking powder until blended. Pulse in butter until pea-sized. Drizzle water through top of feed tube until dough forms a ball. It should be moist but not soggy. Roll out dough on pastry cloth and place in standard pie plate (8” diameter across bottom; 10” across top).
Place shredded cheese on top of the crust and top with cooked onions to cover the top evenly.
In food processor, mix eggs, half and half, salt, and nutmeg. Pour over onions.
Bake at 450 for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 and bake another 45 minutes. Let quiche sit 10 minutes before serving. Makes 4 2-piece servings.

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