Tag Archives: Stonebridge Farm

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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The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting

EarthDayGreeleyTribune To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes. If you don’t live in our area, I hope you’ll find an Earth Day event near you. At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” from A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm. applebaskets Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

If the video isn’t embedded below, click here to watch it.

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Violet Spring

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I’ve been digging up wild violets this week, repotting them for a plant sale in May. A couple years ago, only a few small patches of violets grew around the farm. This spring, I’m finding them all over the place in both purple and white. After coming in like a lion, March is going out like a lamb with gentle breezes and sunshine; I wonder whether a good spring for violets portends a good season for vegetables, as well.

I’m seeing spring from a new perspective this year: the eyes of my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson as he learns about the change of seasons from winter to spring with its promise of new life. We took a little trip to the feed store last week for chicken food and to see the many colors and varieties of baby chicks, from grey-with-brown-striped Golden-laced Wyandotte to yellow-with-striped-wing Speckled Sussex. Back at the Stonebridge coop, I pointed out a Speckled Sussex, all grown up with her red spotted feathers, and we found a tea-brown egg she’d laid in a nest.

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In the kitchen, I showed my grandson the dozen blue eggs we’d have for breakfast the next day—not the kind of eggs that have chicks, I assured him (technically, they’re not, since we don’t have a rooster). He’s waiting for chicks at school from incubated eggs. “They’re hatching,” he says, like it’s an adventure of momentous effort and no little mystery. Since we don’t hatch chicks from eggs on our farm, I’m curious to see what he’ll think about this hatching idea once the chicks have emerged from the shells with their tufted heads and bulging eyes—not exactly the sweet peepers of story books, but they’ll soon grow into something more recognizably cute and cuddly.

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Along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, spring brings wind. Last weekend, my grandson and I both learned about wind as we ran in the park with our little kite straggling behind us. “Run into the wind,” I cried as we ran, him looking behind at the kite and me looking ahead to make sure we didn’t run into a sunbather, pole, or tree. I was winded, myself, from running like that.

On a March day with desultory clouds, sometimes the wind cooperates with kite-flying and sometimes it doesn’t. Our best success was standing still in wait for the breeze to catch our little kite and buoy it just a few feet over our heads. “Which direction is the wind blowing now?” I’d ask. “This way,” my grandson would say, as he turned his face to find it. What fun to launch a kite and see it fly, if only for a minute or two.

Last year my grandson helped us harvest vegetables from his family’s garden, popping cherry tomatoes right into his mouth. This year, he’ll get to help plant them, too. Parents tell us all the time that their kids will eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves or “picked” in the barn at our farm. “Where did this spinach come from?” I asked my grandson last weekend. “The farm!” he laughed—and then ate the vegan spinach lasagna I’d made for dinner. PBJ may currently be his favorite food, but this spring he’s learning new lessons in where food can come from–close to home and grown by someone he loves.

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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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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.

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From Seed to Sauce: Dreaming of Tomatoes in June

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spring Spinach With the Birds

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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