Tag Archives: Stonebridge Farm

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

onionflats
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.

beansdrying

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.

beansperegion

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.

onionsstorage

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.

IMG_1300

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.

IMG_1313

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.

house12

10 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Heart of the Harvest

Can today really be September 1? Stonebridge is deep in the heart of the harvest this week, with more food in the fields than ever before. We’ve had perfect growing weather this season, moist and warm like a garden in a greenhouse. Even the apples are heavy this year; we’ll start pressing for cider in a couple weeks. With eight Saturdays left for our CSA shares, we’ll be picking every day until the first frost slows us down a bit. Until then, here’s a few pictures of many bushels’ worth coming in from the fields. Happy Harvest, everyone!

 

We've had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year

We’ve had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year but it’s worth it to get a bouquet like this.

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Gorgeous eggplant--we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

Gorgeous eggplant–we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

We've been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can't wait to press cider!

We’ve been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can’t wait to press cider.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon's a little lonely but she's adapting to being top goat after all these years.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon’s a little lonely but she’s adapting to being top goat after all these years.

6 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

From Seed to Sauce: Dreaming of Tomatoes in June

 

DSCN1455

At Stonebridge Farm, we plant our high summer vegetables—peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, summer squash, cucumbers, and beans—as soon as the nights and the soil warm up from the winter. That’s around June 1st in our Colorado Front Range climate.

But many of those crops were started much earlier in the greenhouse. We’ve been tending them carefully for a couple months, worrying about potential disasters like the water system failing, a pest infestation, or a hungry mouse chewing through the flats. We’re always relieved to get the peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and basil into the fields. Even though we know we could still lose them (like we did the first round of tomato blossoms last year from heavy hail), at least they’re in the ground growing and have half a chance of survival if the weather cooperates. And that’s a big IF.

tomatostarts copy

Those greenhouse crops start in flats, the wooden boxes in which seeds are dropped in rows. After the seeds emerge and have at least two sets of real leaves (the first set are the cotyledons, not true leaves), the plants are “cupped up” in bigger pots with our own special soil mix. They’ll continue to grow in the greenhouse for a few more weeks while we water and foliar-feed with organic plant food. Then we’ll move them outside to the big cold frame, where they’re semi-protected as they “harden off” to the sun, wind, and nighttime temperatures in anticipation of planting in the fields.

Last Thursday morning, six of us transplanted 1000 peppers of our favorite dozen or so varieties, from sweet to really hot, with many shades in between. The peppers also vary by shape: some skinny for roasting, some large for slicing and cooking, some thin-walled and cup-shaped for stuffing, or thick-walled and juicy for eating raw in salad. After we filled the many beds of beautiful peppers, we admired our work and exchanged pepper recipes, a sign that it must be time for lunch.

John and I planted 500 eggplant the next afternoon, and the Saturday crew put in a couple hundred basil plants after the pick. (We always joke that our members get the equivalent of their share price in basil alone, given the high per pound price of basil in the grocery store. Pesto’s so easy to make and freeze, around here, it’s practically a condiment.) With all those starts in the ground, that left just 600 tomatoes for the two of us to tuck in today.

DSC_0962

Nothing gets as much TLC at Stonebridge Farm as tomatoes. From seeds in flats to plants in the field, we watch each step of their progress and monitor conditions to grow the strongest, healthiest plants we can. We’ve tried lots of varieties over the years and now have our open-pollinated heirloom favorites, the ones we save seed from each year to plant back our own stock. We know they’ll do well, we know our members love eating them, and we know they make wonderful sauce to freeze for our winter meals.

Today is sunny but not too hot, except at the height of the afternoon when we broke for lunch. We start planting in the morning shade, the soil still moist from last week’s watering and a little rain. John digs the holes and fills them with compost from the bucket of the red tractor. I come along next, transplanting by varieties in alphabetical order, east to west (our way of remembering what’s planted where).

Tomatoes are the fussiest of transplants. Not only are they susceptible to breaking, they also require the extra step of removing the bottom cotyledons and leaves to create more air flow around the base and mitigate the attack of soil-borne diseases.

DSC_0961

We plant all day, providing lots of time to discuss the latest news (the 25th anniversary of Tiananman Square; the misogynist shooting last week in California) and its connections to our lives. We talk about our families, our projects, and the books we’re reading, all topics we’ve been discussing for the last seventeen years of farming together.

Working down different rows provides moments of solitude, too. Alone with my thoughts, I dream of the tomatoes and how good they’ll taste in just a couple of months. How we’ll pick them on Saturdays for a beautiful display in the barn. How I’ll make sauce from own special “Stonebridge Blend,” which means whatever’s leftover from the Saturday pick. How I’ll combine golds and reds in tarts or salads. How I’ll select the best of each kind to save for seed next year.

This year, I dream of a new workshop I’ll be co-teaching this September 18-19 here at the farm with Allison Myers for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Savory Stories Series. We’ll be writing and producing digital “snapshot” stories about food preservation, stories that nourish, instruct, and delight–from childhood memories of grandparents canning garden vegetables to jam-making from pick-your-own berry patches to adult mishaps with rogue pressure-cookers gone wild.

In the chapter “Putting By” from A Bushel’s Worth, I recall the treasures of my grandmother’s farm root cellar, gem-colored jars filled with the fruits and vegetables of my grandparent’s labor. Today, many people who vowed to follow more “modern” ways after watching the women of their mother’s or grandmother’s generations spend long, hot days in the kitchen canning bushels of beans, carrots, applesauce, or plums are returning to the canning skills they’d rejected in their youth. Such knowledge is experiencing a renaissance in the local food movement, with small-scale farms like ours providing the produce.

DSC_0920

 

But food preservation stories aren’t only about canning. Food preservation might mean hunting for illusive mushrooms or even composting, the ultimate in preservation that sends food nutrients back to the soil. Depression-era hoarding of cake mixes or cans of soup is food preservation for people who “can’t stand to use the last one up.” My own food preservation story involves some unusual road food ingredients and a natural disaster.

We’re not only going to write food preservation stories at this workshop—we’re going to learn how to can vegetables, too. We’ll be joined by Luther Green of Preserving Communities, a social equity company that dedicates its resources toward improving our community food system and increasing the capacity for resilience, sustainability and justice. We’ll learn how to can together, sharing stories and recipes, and then enjoy those tomatoes for lunch the next day. And around it all, we’ll write, preserving stories, as well as food.

tomatoes

At five minutes to five, John and I plant the last tomato and pick up the empty pots and flats. “You drive the truck back,” John says. “I’ll drive the tractor.”

“You put the water on out here,” I suggest, “and I’ll put the water on inside.” I’m talking about water for pasta (with asparagus, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted walnuts, and chevre), before I realize that a shower is the first water I’ll turn on.

The tomatoes are planted, as are the onions, peppers, and herbs that will accompany them in the sauce we’ll create next September. The promise of more good meals has been planted, too. It’s June 2. The weather’s perfect. The farm’s off to a good start. We work, we wait, and the earth gives again. We’ve accomplished another early season’s tasks with our friends in the fields—and that’s a story worth preserving.

DSC_0959

4 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Spring Spinach With the Birds

DSC_0308

This afternoon I’m hosting our local women’s group for an appetizer potluck and reading of A Bushel’s Worth. I’m roasting mushrooms with Greek salad stuffing, which means walking out to the garden to pick baby spinach. Our farm season opens in three weeks and the spinach will be much bigger by then. For now, I’m content with smaller leaves, but it does take longer than one would expect to fill a whole bag.

Seems like the bag stays only half-full for quite some time, but I don’t mind. I’m listening to two Western meadowlarks trilling back and forth from the giant cottonwoods along the irrigation ditch. You can listen to one of a Western Meadowlark’s songs here.

I’m originally from North Dakota, whose state bird is the Eastern Meadowlark. My grandmother often noted in her diary when she heard the first meadowlark’s call:

“Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

It took me many years to get used to the Western Meadowlark’s song with its notes ascending and descending in a different order than that of North Dakota’s state bird. But both birds share the complex musicality of their song, more lyrical than many a bird’s call.

As I listen to the meadowlarks’ duet in stereo near the spinach bed, I also hear a pair of Red Tailed Hawks shrieking high above me. I can see them, too, as they circle our west field on the other side of the ditch. But I can’t see the meadowlarks, even when I walk near the trees from which they’re clearly singing. I’m surprised not to find them with their bright yellow breasts. Today, they’re camouflaged by the new green leaves of willows and cottonwoods breaking from winter rest.

On the way back to the house with my bag of spinach, I spot a Downy Woodpecker near the knot in our old crabapple tree. No mistaking this bird’s red head and black and white body. I wish I had my camera as the bird senses my approach and flits off to a higher elm.

Spring has been slow to arrive this year. We transplanted 10,000 onion and leek starts last Saturday, a week later than the previous two years. The next day, a wet spring snow watered in the grass-like shoots. We love our alliums at this farm, depending on them all season and even through the long winter. In three weeks, we’ll harvest walking Egyptian onions for our members, followed by green garlic, garlic scapes, early garlic, and green onions, until the full-sized garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots are ready mid-summer.

DSC_0139

Today, I’ll use the last of the stored shallots in the mushrooms I’m stuffing. You can find the recipe here on our website. I’m looking forward to sharing A Bushel’s Worth with women in our community tonight. I joked that I’m going to read the romantic parts, but, in fact, I’ve decided I will. John and I met in the spring; on our first farm date, we made our first salad together from newborn herbs and greens. Seems fitting to share that memory on this sparkling spring day.

DSC_0118

If you can’t join us tonight, you can view a farm reading of A Bushel’s Worth here, along with great music from Joe Kuckla and Alex Johnstone. Happy spring!

 

6 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Farm Women

On the way to town last week, I slowed for a pick-up truck to pull in front of me onto the country road. The sign on the back said “Hoof Care,” but it wasn’t the truck or the company of the farrier who grooms our friend’s horses nearby. A farrier could find lots of work in this part of the county, where ranches and farms line the side roads between small towns.

DSC_0670

As I followed the truck, my eyes fell to the sticker on the driver’s side bumper above the high wheels.

No Farms
No Farmgirls

I’d never seen that sticker before and it gave me pause. The logic was similar to the bumper sticker on my own car:

Know Farmers
Know Food

As I point out in my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, the homonym is also true:

No Farmers
No Food

But the truck’s bumper sticker seemed a little different—and certainly less political. I wondered in what context it should be read. I thought of the lascivious jokes about farmer’s daughters, the kind of joke that embarrassed my mom when she was growing up. Was “Farm Girls” an updated version of “Farmer’s Daughters”? Was the message a sexist reference to dating girls who grew up on farms and their supposedly loose ways?

What did it mean by “farm girls,” anyway? Did “girls” include grown-up women, in the infantilizing way it often does? I’m not one for calling female adults “girls” because I find it belittling, but I realize that women often refer to each other that way as a playful term of affection. Still, “girls” are rarely granted the authority that men have. I always referred to my female college students as “women” because I didn’t refer to my male students as “boys” and I wanted to encourage my students to see themselves as up-and-coming adults.

Still following the truck, I couldn’t see the driver because the headrest was in the way. I couldn’t even see whether he wore a cap or a cowboy hat, a possible indication of whether he lived on a farm or a ranch.

He.

Whether based on the sticker, business name, truck size, or residual prejudice in someone who should know better, I realized I’d made a gendered assumption about this truck and its driver. Maybe the person with the bumper sticker wasn’t even male. I had to find out.

By now we were on a four-lane road on the edge of town, with a stoplight ahead. I pulled into the right lane and up alongside the pickup as we stopped for the light. Glancing around to cover my curiosity, I peeked over quickly to see who was driving the pick-up.

The driver was a woman. Well, that put a different spin on “farm girls,” one falling in the playful “girlfriend” camp rather than the “farmer’s daughter” mode. “Farm girls” might even be read as a feminist statement, I thought, one asserting that farmers can be female as well as male.

But something about “farm girls” just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as “farmers” or even “women farmers.” If a woman wants to call herself a “farm girl” on her bumper sticker, that’s okay with me, but it’s not a term I’d like to see used in agricultural policy. It’s hard enough for women to get included in the term “farmers” in the first place. “Women farmers” at least lets us into the club.

I’ve been thinking about women farmers a lot lately, first of all because I am one, and second because the latest statistics from the US Department of Agriculture found that women are the principal operators of 14% of farms. Although the numbers of women farmers has decreased since 2007, the overall number of farms did too, with men and women leaving in equal numbers.

Here’s what the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network had to say about the USDA’s latest figures:

“Women were listed as principal operators of 288,269 farms nationwide in 2012, compared to 306,209 in 2007. The overall number of farm operators declined from 2.2 million to 2.11 million during that five-year span. Women continue to operate smaller farms than men, earn less income on average, and own a greater percentage of their farmland. This corresponds to the type of farms a majority of women operate: small-scale, diversified farms producing goods for direct sale, rather than the large commodity farms that tend to be operated by men.”

Women running smaller, diversified farms selling directly to consumers at farmer’s markets or through community supported agricultural farms fits with my knowledge of women farmers, the ones I’ve met through national networking and in my local area. Making less money than men probably corresponds to the type of farms women run. Big agriculture runs on big money, the kind needed for big machinery, big loans, and big risks. It’s also more likely to use chemicals or genetically modified seeds, to export to other countries, and to depend on federal crop subsidies. The women farmers I know—and many of the men—aren’t interested in that kind of farming.

In A Bushel’s Worth, I write about the women in my family who were farmers before me:

“My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were never called farmers. Even though they raised livestock and vast gardens to feed their families, even thought they worked in the fields, made decisions about crops, and kept track of farm finances, they were called ‘the farmer’s wife.’ ‘Farmer,’ in those days it seems, didn’t only refer to the work that one did but to the gender of the person doing it.”

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

I didn’t mention in the book—because I hadn’t learned it yet—that my great-great-grandmother Anna Dokken had a blank space under “occupation” on her daughter Josephine’s birth certificate, unlike my great-great-grandfather, Ole Dokken, whose occupation was listed as “farmer.” They had both come to the US from Norway to farm, but only one of them could claim the title.

As I say in A Bushel’s Worth, the face of farming is changing, and with it, the gender of that face: “With small-scale farming, farmers can build close relationships with people in their communities, putting a member’s or customer’s face on food as well as a farmer’s. This person-to-person contact is drawing women of all ages to farming, women who see a future for themselves in creating local food sheds and connecting everyone to the food they eat.”

JasperMyrasmith

My Great-aunt Myra farming with her father, my Great-Grandpa Jasper Smith

I’m happy to see women driving trucks and tractors and proclaiming their right to farm on bumper stickers, even if they do call themselves “farm girls.” But if a man had been driving that truck, would I have felt differently? Language, after all, exists within social, historical, and political contexts, as does identity.

But I think I would have chosen to give the driver the benefit of the doubt, to think that he—like she—valued women on farms, as well as farms themselves. It’s the “No Farms” part of the message that the pick-up shared with my Subaru. More farms, especially organic, small-scale, local farms—the kind women are most likely to run—is something I can always get behind.

5 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

The Winds Do Blow

To my pearlmoonplenty readers: What follows are some of the remarks I made at a recent taping of a reading for A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge Farm. I’ll share the video link when it’s up on youtube.

DSC_1990

Stonebridge Farm is a 10-acre, organic, community supported agricultural farm on the Ute Hwy between Lyons and Longmont, Colorado. Stonebridge was established in 1911 as a dairy farm and became the first CSA in Boulder County in 1992. At 103 years old and in our 23rd CSA season, Stonebridge has a long history of practicing sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture.

DSC_2241

Like Stonebridge, John and I have farming histories from our families and the communities in which we were raised. One reason I wanted to read here in the Sunflower Room is that this place joins the past with the future. For one thing, this building was originally a hog barn, which later housed cows and chickens, and even later became a storage shed and machine and wood shop for farm projects. Some of the people here today helped turn this room into the community space that it is now.

The Sunflower Room also contains little pieces of history that came from my own family’s farms in North Dakota. Many of the cool old things you see in this room came from the Smith and Short farms in Williston, North Dakota: doors, light fixtures, old cans and buckets, oil lamps, and the Burma Shave signs hanging on the walls. These things have a new home at Stonebridge, and, hopefully, a long one here.

We hold lots of farm events in this room—our annual pancake breakfast, Halloween party, knitting nights, concerts and old-time jams, and viticulture and writing workshops, since that’s part of our agriculturalist work here too. I love this room because it’s a hopeful place that brings together dreams of the past, present, and future.

I started writing A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography about six years ago by following our farm through the seasons. From there, I expanded the book to include my family’s farming stories, my summer visits to those farms, and my childhood growing up east of the Rocky Mountains. As I wrote, I wove in my sense of urgency about protecting the natural world, an ecological awareness that was born out the nascent environmentalism of the 70s. One of the chapters in my book is about the first Earth Day in 1970 when I was in fifth grade. When our class planted a garden to celebrate Earth Day, none of us could have imagined the kind of climate crisis we’d be facing today. Those of us on the Front Range came face to face with it in last September’s flood, a result of the drought/deluge extremes that increasingly occur with the warming of the earth’s surface.

When my publisher, Kirsten Allen at Torrey House Press, encouraged me to bring more of my worries into the book, I told her that I would, as long as I didn’t seem like a worrywart. I try not to fret, I said, and usually have faith that problems will work themselves out.

But that conversation was before Stonebridge experienced two seasons of big worries—the drought and fires in 2012 (which became part of the book) and the frosts, hail, drought, and flood of 2013 (which happened after the book went to press). With seasons like that, who needs plot? Instead, the book progresses by drawing the reader into our growing concern for the future of farming in the midst of climate change and urban development, especially here in the West where the vagaries of weather and vulnerabilities of landscape require concerted vigilance. John and I feel we’re at a crossroads these days for ensuring that Stonebridge has a future in sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture. We know that we’ll need to take steps to preserve this land, even though we don’t yet know exactly what those steps may be.

At the same time that we worry about the future—especially this year with the river’s changed course threatening our irrigation ditch—John and I are farmers, and farmers are a pretty hopeful bunch. One minute we’re hoping for rain and the next, for the rain to stop. We hope for early frosts in the spring and late frosts in the fall. We hope the crops will come up and we’ll get them in from the fields and our members will stick by us. With all this hoping, farming is either the most optimistic of occupations or the most delusional. In farming, you work hard with hope in your heart until you can’t work or you can’t hope anymore. And that hasn’t changed since my grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers.

Those of you who have read my book know that one chapter is based on my Grandma Smith’s diaries and her understated, make-do, appreciate-what-you’ve-got, work-hard ethic. For example, on Jan 29, 1966, she wrote, “This morning its 40 below so won’t be very warm today.” 40 below. I know that makes me feel better about the frigid weather we’ve been having lately.

DSC_2253

Recently, I was looking through my grandmother’s diaries again and found a poem she’d written shortly before my grandfather died and she followed seven months later.

In conclusion, I want to share her poem with you because I think it portrays the hopeful optimism we feel at Stonebridge about our future on this land, the kind of optimism that says, “Could’ve been worse” and “Next year, it’ll be better.”

A poem by my grandmother when she was 82 and still living on the farm:

The garden’s slow,
And so are we
The winds do blow
But I hope it’s rain instead of snow.

DSC_2297

3 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

And a new one just begun

“Do you have any words to share before I pitch the yeast?” John asks as I pour the last of the honey into the five-gallon bucket in our sink. We’re making our annual batch of mead, the fermented honey wine that we brew from our own Stonebridge honey. Mead is the ancient beverage from which the word “honeymoon” derived, for weddings were once accompanied by a celebratory “moon”—or month—of revelry and mead-drinking.

“To 2014,” I say simply. “A year without pestilence, flood, fire, plague . . . .”

“Or war,” John finishes.

“Definitely, without war,” we agree.

2013 is a good one to put behind us. Damages from the flood that ravaged our area are still apparent in the people displaced, homes lost, and businesses closed. Still, so much work has been accomplished in re-establishing infrastructure that it’s easy to forget how ruptured our lives were for weeks following the flood. Just driving into town on repaired roads without checkpoints or heavy machinery blocking lanes has brought a sense of normalcy back to our lives.

And the flood was the capper on a difficult year, one with freezing temperatures in April that killed emerging fruit blossoms; heavy hail in June that damaged tomatoes and grapes; drought in July and August that delayed fall crops; and then flood and its chaotic aftermath as our community was evacuated and our members relocated for weeks, with some still to return.

We are glad to put those times behind us as we rebuild and plan for the year ahead. But 2013 also had its gifts, both personal and public, like the publication of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, and the growth of new neighborhood and community bonds as we all worked together to survive.

I’m a little superstitious when it comes to the first day of the year. I like to fill the day with positive acts that portend the way we’ll spend the next 364 days, hence making a new batch of mead that we’ll enjoy this summer (and which we’ll keep in vintage bottles and label “New Year’s Straight,” since we brewed with straight honey rather than adding spices or fruit). Another new year’s ritual is taking a walk around the farm, so after the new batch of mead was stored in the basement brew room to ferment for a couple days, John and I headed outside to survey the land and visualize the coming year, me wearing the lacy knit scarf he’d given me for the solstice and he in the down vest that had been my gift to him.

highland

We stop to watch the water flowing through the upper ditch on the east edge of our farm. Even though we don’t own shares in the Highland, the return of water to this ditch is a welcome sight. The majority of irrigation ditches in our area suffered some damage during the flood. Even though our ditch—the Palmerton—didn’t overflow on our farm, it did breach on land before and after ours, and the headgate is now many feet above the new level of the river. We’ll learn more about the fate of our own ditch at a meeting later this month, but we’ve been told we’ll have water to irrigate this season and the winter water in the Highland is a hopeful sign for ours.

winternest

Yesterday, I’d seen a bald eagle flying above a former cornfield across the highway from Birch Lake east of Stonebridge, perhaps the same eagle we’d seen two weeks earlier perched in a tree at the edge of Hygiene nearby, so today I watched for birds and nests as we made our way to our north fields. A bald eagle in flight is stunning in size and strength; this one seemed to ride the breeze like a boat rides the waves, for I never saw it flap its wings as its prone body soared parallel to the ground, looking for small prey, its white head the telltale sign of its reign.

tree

We’re always happy to see the balds in our area, especially this frigid winter. I wonder how the flood has changed their habitat, since so many of the huge trees along the St Vrain were torn away by the surging water or have been cut down in the clean-up along the banks. I’ve noticed, too, that the red-tailed hawks are fluffier this year than I’ve observed previously, a sign, I think, of the frigid weather we’ve had so far—and probably of more cold to come.

hive

Since we’d just made mead from the past season’s honey, I wanted to check the beehives to see if any bees were buzzing in and out of the openings on this cold day. I didn’t see a single bee outside the hives, which are snuggled up for the winter, but I did startle a great-horned owl from a tree on the other side of the ditch.  John and I are always on the look-out for “our” owls, the pair that have lived at Stonebridge for over a decade now, but we haven’t seen much of them this year. Today’s sighting seems a magnificent omen for the year to come—and we’ll take every propitious omen we can get.

With the mead brewing in the basement and the owls and eagles flying overhead, I feel more confident about the future than I have for quite a while. Looking back at 2013, we can say, “We came through that and we’re stronger for it,” but the strength came at too high a cost. Let’s hope for peace in the new year, for homes rebullt and families resettled, for cooperation among our policy makers, and for the extension of the ethic of sharing from our small community to the wider world, an ethic that promotes prosperity not just for a few, but for all.

HNY14

2 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Resource Full

Flooded ditch waters running down highway 66 the first morning

Flooded ditch waters running down highway 66 the first morning

The first day of the flood, the phone relay began. Our cell phone and internet service were out, but our land line still worked for local calls, so I phoned my daughter to call my sister with a message to call me for a list of people she should phone to cancel my book reading that night.

Later, my sister told me she’d reassured one worried friend that we were okay. We didn’t have gas, internet, or cell phone, but our electricity, water, and home phone were still working. We had a wood stove and lots of wood for heating, a propane stove in our community room for cooking, stored water if needed, and lots of fresh vegetables. “Yes, they are resourceful,” our friend agreed.

Resourceful. As in, “full of resources.” But even more, “resourceful” means thinking about alternative ways to do the things you normally do. In a disaster, the systems you depend on every day are disrupted so you have to figure out other ways to meet your needs.

DSC_0458

The ditch waters reached the top of the bridge behind our house but didn’t overflow

We were lucky. The ditches held behind our house and the river didn’t rise in the front, so other than some water in our basement, we were dry. We were safe from flooding that first morning, but we couldn’t drive out because floodwaters were rushing across our driveway from the ditches breaching further west of our farm. Still, if we needed to evacuate, we could walk east along the old highway to where officials had set up a roadblock, so our immediate need for safety was met. With gas, water, phone, electricity, and plenty of food, we had no reason to leave as yet.

Our next need was for information. Our oldest daughter called with news that our little town was engulfed in water. A dam burst above Lyons, sending floodwaters down the North and South St Vrain rivers. It was good to know what had happened to cause this emergency, but to find out what was happening right here on the ground, we knocked on our neighbors’ doors. How were they doing? What did they need? Who had services? Who didn’t? That way, we could share resources—pumps, phones, freezer space for homegrown produce, or coop room for soggy chickens.

John watching the water flow down highway 66

John watching the water flow down highway 66

And then the information circle widened. What was happening in town?  Which roads were open and which were closed? Where were the evacuation centers? How could people get prescriptions filled? Pet food? Gas for their cars? Who was leaving and who was determined to stay?

On the second day as the rain continued, we learned more about the extent of damages in town. Where the raging North and South St. Vrain rivers had converged at the west end of town, new channels formed as water rushed through homes, knocked out bridges, and cut off neighborhoods. Information trickled in about how Stonebridge members were faring. We learned that part of the highway up the canyon had disappeared, stranding people in mountain communities. John helped friends move their belongings temporarily to our barn. Army trucks went back and forth in front of our house as townspeople began evacuating to the mega-church down the highway. The local coffee shop hosted a party with all the food they could cook from their failing refrigerators.

First morning waters flood across our driveway

First morning waters flood across our driveway

On the third day, we went into town to tear out our friends’ soggy carpet so the subfloor could dry. Remarkably, some areas of town were untouched, while others were buried under river silt and debris. Most people made plans to leave because, without water, sewer, and electricity, staying in town would be difficult. Soon, those who left wouldn’t be able to return to their homes for what could be a very long time.

Friends arrived to stay in our granary and we joined our fresh vegetables with food from their emptied refrigerators for a communal meal. As we ate, we heard helicopters crisscrossing overhead to airlift people in mountain areas to safety. Mountain people are more resourceful than most, with their own generators, water purifiers, and stockpiled necessities for long winters, but without roads, evacuation became urgent for many.

On the fourth day, more rain and clouds hampered the rescue efforts and the stream of trucks in front of the farm slowed, so the day seemed calmer. We got a welcome phone call from a close friend in the mountains saying he was safe and had everything he needed. Ever resourceful, he’d constructed a sophisticated system of pipes and containers to catch rainwater off slick rock that he could boil for himself and his many animals. He’d wanted to call for days but his phone, like most peoples’, needed electricity to operate. Then he’d remembered an old phone in the attic that charged from the phone line. Success! We were relieved to hear from him, although we’d been confident that if anyone could survive alone in the mountains, he could.

Another self-sufficient mountain friend finally got through to us on day five. He was fine, as we’d expected. The folks on his road were pulling together and he was feeding all his neighbors with the eggs he usually sold in town.

Resourceful. John and I have learned a few things about our own resourcefulness during this disaster. We learned that we can lose services in a disaster, even if we have them initially, so thinking ahead is important. We had stored water, but the outside tank we’d counted on was compromised by rain and soil runoff during the storm, leaving us with less than needed if our district water should fail. From now on, we’ll save more in jugs and store it on higher ground than our leaking basement.

Another lesson was designating a central spot for backpacks to keep keys, wallets, flashlights, change of clothes, medications, extra eyeglasses, and other essential items handy in case we had to leave in a hurry. If the ditches broke in the night, we could grab our bags and walk out. Even if the electricity went off, we’d know where to find things in the dark.

Trucks begin rolling into Lyons with stone to rebuild roads

Trucks begin rolling into Lyons with stone to rebuild roads

For those who have internet services, posting updates on websites or social media works wonderfully, but for those of us without internet service, the next best thing was changing the message on our answering machine with each day’s date so that people whose calls we missed would still get some information about our situation (thanks, Mary, for that tip).

Water, power, heat, and food are essential resources to cover. We can store some things ahead of time or find alternate ways to generate them.

But our most important resource is each other. A knock on the door or a phone call or email lets us know that someone cares. Pooling necessities and exchanging skills allows more needs to be met. Sharing information and problem-solving communally increases everyone’s chance of survival. Everyone can contribute something to a critical situation. Each person can offer their own form of physical or emotional comfort, be it an air lift, a nourishing meal, or a hug to get through the day.

I’m not trying to romanticize this catastrophe or our response to it. What’s happened to our community is horrible, but moments of lightness keep us going. As we rebuild our roads, buildings, and infrastructure, we can draw on the new relationships of the cooperative community we’ve fostered during this emergency and know that we are most resource full when we work together.

The wet, green, post-flood world

A wet, green world emerges from the flood

9 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Tractor Trouble

DSC_4868 copyLightning and thunder have driven John in from the fields as I get home from afternoon errands in town. We watch the rain come down, pouring hard for five good minutes before tapering to a sprinkle. Not a gully washer, but enough to make a difference after this record-breaking first-week-of-September heat.

John gets off the phone with the place that repaired our tractor tire last year. One of the big rear tires on our 1950 John Deere B is flat.

“How much would it be for them to come out here and fix it?” I ask.

“The guy said it’s a hundred bucks just to drive over and shake my hand. We can take it there. We just need to get it off first.”

I’m not overjoyed at this news. Tractor repair is dangerous and we’ve had some close calls.

“I’ll jack it up, put blocks under the body, and pull off the tire. No problem,” he says.

“And you won’t have to get underneath or stick your hand in anywhere? You’ll block the wheels so it can’t roll? You’ll use a good jack that won’t slip?”

“Come out and see. It’ll be fine.”

DSC_0725A few minutes later, in boots and a raincoat, I go out to the tractor barn and find John’s got the John Deere up on a jack with blocks of wood under the body. He ratchets the jack higher to get the weight off the tire and slip another board under the tractor’s belly. The jack, not quite heavy or agile enough for the job, slips a little. No harm done, but it’s a good reminder that this tractor is a heavy piece of machinery. John lowers the tractor again and starts over with a better jack to get the last board in place. The tire’s hanging just off the ground, ready for removal.

Now comes the hard part: getting the tire off the axle. But there’s a trick. Like those magic boxes where one panel squeezes another tighter so the door can slide open, the John Deere requires removing three bolts and placing two of them in different holes where the force of their tightening will narrow the plate that holds on the tire and allows it to slip off the axle.

Since the bolts haven’t been removed for 13 years when the tire fell off accidentally, they need a little rust remover and a lot of torque to get them moving. John works them, back and forth, tapping here and there with the mallet to loosen the metal plate that holds the tire in place. Finally, it comes off, exposing the axle shaft through the cast iron center of the tire’s hub. As I monitor the tractor for slippage off its bed of boards, John hammers and heaves the tire off the axle, pulling it free with a big “Humph” that nearly knocks him off his feet.

The tire’s off! Now all we need to do is get it in the bed of the pickup. I back the truck up to where John holds the heavy tire and he rolls it to the lowered tailgate. But it’s too heavy to lift into the bed. John’s got a better idea, one that involves yet another tractor. I groan, but he’s right. He’ll lift the tire in the bucket of the Farm-All and lower it into the truck. Easy, right?

Getting the tire into the bucket is no problem—we just roll it in–but depositing it in the back of the truck isn’t as simple as it sounds. The tire is 55 inches in diameter; the truck bed is barely wider than that, and the frame on the back of the truck, the one we use for hauling lumber and pipes and even a cupboard all the way from North Dakota, might be in the way.

This is where John’s skill with the big red Farm-All really shines. Lifting the tire in the Farm-All’s bucket, he approaches the truck carefully, easing just close enough to the edge of the bed to tip the tire in. Still, the tire doesn’t slide off and I’m afraid if it does, it will smash the tailgate right off the truck.

John gets off the tractor and walks over to where I’m looking skeptical. As he judges the angle he needs to lift the bucket for dumping the tire in the back of the pickup, I come up with my own better idea for the next phase of this project. “I know, after they repair it, let’s pay the place to bring the tire back and put it on the tractor.”

John looks at me askance for a long second and then shakes his head. “You don’t really have the sensibility for this, do you?” He sounds annoyed but I can tell he’s teasing by the way his dimples are flashing.

“Nope. I really don’t.” I have to admit that all this tractor ballet makes me nervous. I don’t drive tractors so I’m less confident about what they can do. For John, the worst of the job is over. Getting the tire back on will be a cinch. For me, we still have a tire to transport and re-attach.

John laughs as he swings himself up to the seat of the red tractor. “We can do it!” he shouts over the engine. The bucket lifts & tilts; the big tire slides perfectly into the back of the pickup.

DSC_0445

John gets down, closes the tailgate, and grins. “Nothing like the satisfaction of a job well done.” I have to agree, but in my case, it’s more like relief. Nothing bad happened. We didn’t wreck the tire, tractor, or pickup. More importantly, no one was hurt.

Tomorrow morning, John will take the tire out east of the highway to be repaired. We’ll ask Joe to help wrestle it back on. For now, our tractor work is done. We walk back to the house in the evening light as more thunder rumbles. It’s time for dinner with the first of the Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers roasted with Manchego cheese, golden brown eggplant slices, fresh-fried rosy potatoes, and a toast with Stonebridge wine to our tractor success.

johndeere copy

6 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

For the Rest

The Big Dipper hangs across the meadow as John and I walk to the granary for the night. We’ve been sleeping out there for the summer. Our house is hot, having no central cooling (or heating, except for the wood stove), and the granary’s cross ventilation makes for perfect sleep.

DSC_0691

We sleep in the East Room, the one I call the Oat Room. Sometimes I call it the Gluten Free Room since the West one is the Wheat. The Oat Room has two high rectangular openings on the south side from its former days when grain was loaded into the room with an augur. Now those windows are screened for bugs and the night breezes blow through to the window on the north. Even in July, the temperature drops along the irrigation ditch next to the granary. In the early morning, we pull up an old patchwork blanket from the foot of the bed to banish the descending chill.

DSC_0020

Walking out to the granary at twilight separates the day from the night more completely than sleeping in the house. Inside, we’re busy up until the minute we hit the sheets. Except for the nightly bathroom routine, we don’t take a moment from the book we’re reading or the email we’re sending or the dishes we’re washing before we go to bed.

But when we leave the house to sleep, we walk away from the tasks of the day. We leave them behind, knowing they’ll be there the next morning when we return.

DSC_0837

Something is different about the night outside than in. Maybe it’s the air, fresher than inside four walls. Maybe it’s the dark, a relief from viewing the chores we face every day. We don’t have to worry about “to do” when we walk back to the granary. Instead, we watch for bats swooping from the barn’s cupola to capture their fleeing prey.

In the twilight, the traffic on the highway near the farm has quieted. We listen to the nighttime sounds of the animals: the goats bleating from their pen as we pass, our neighbor’s too-many dogs barking, a last bird calling from the trees along the ditch. As we walk over the stone bridge, we pause to check the water flow. If it’s moving swiftly, we know we’ll have water to irrigate the next day.

DSC_0016

We pass the barn, the greenhouse and Sunflower Community Room, across the festival field and past the tractor barn, coming out between the glass bluehouse of tomatoes and the granary that faces the meadow. The other night, a storm approached, with distant lightning flashing and low thunder rolling in waves behind the hills.

As we looked north, tiny lights beamed on and off as if in code across the pasture. Were fireflies signaling the storm’s advance? I had never seen fireflies on the farm before, and John only once. How had we missed them in our nighttime strolls? Later, when I stood on the wide porch to watch the lightning gathering above us, the fireflies were gone, or at least had stopped their sparking. Now I watch for their tiny beams each night, like children playing with flashlights after dark.

Separating our days from our nights seems important this summer. With concerns about bees and water and land, we need to regenerate our hopes somehow.  In the granary, we read novels. We have no internet to warn us of the future, no distressing emails, no news of coming destruction, no bulletins of doom.

John and I have become, lately, the bearers of bad news. Sometimes, we’re not fit for company. We forget that not everyone wants to hear about these things. People want to hear about the latest sports scores, album releases, or celebrity scandals, not the latest bee die-off (50,000 in an Oregon Target parking lot from pesticides to prevent aphid droppings on cars).

But John and I read compulsively about the environmental degradation before us like an accident from which we cannot look away. We know that peak water also means peak grain. We know that loss of bees means loss of food. We worry about what we will collectively leave for our grandchild and for his grandchilden after him. We don’t know how to stop the forces that destroy for short-term profit. We only know that we must keep doing what we do.

We built the granary for guests, but, for now, it is our refuge and our regeneration. Maybe the old wood walls bring dreams of return to a time when “local” was not a selling point but a fact. As we take the best from the past to sow a better future, we’ll watch for tiny beams of hope to light our way.

DSC_0026

I’ll be taking August off from pearlmoonplenty for the publishing of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. If you’re in the Boulder area on August 20, join me for the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore, 7:30 PM. For more on the book, including upcoming readings and a digital excerpt, see abushelsworth.com. And check out this thoughtful first review from Notes from a Reading Life.

 

9 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture