Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Starting Over- Again

A blog entry seemed the most appropriate place to share all the changes that Serendipity Farm, and the family behind it have experienced in these last few months.
We were evicted from our farm. Four months later, and writing it here still feels like ripping the bandaid off a raw wound. I had such high hopes for it. I had, or thought I had, so many great ideas.
I could share the play by play. The Rise & Fall of Denise's Great or Not So Great Ideas.That was my intention when I say down at the keys. But ya know, now that I'm here I think I'd rather focus on what's next.
Here. Let's start with where we are. We are in a charming, little, town in Maine. Specifically, in the 14+ room farmhouse, that my grandmother and her partner gutted and rehabbed until every inch reflected their tastes and every nook served their precise needs. It is a gorgeous house. It is a huge house. It is just almost exactly, sort of close to, but nothing at all like, anything I would ever look for in a house. It is more than adequate for our family. There is ample room for my children, for my adult son who was my grandmother's care taker in her final days, and all of our interests. There is a handyman's dream of a workshop, furnished with every wood-working tool you could shave a stick with. My partner will be able to use that space as not only its intend purpose but also as a studio for his leather work and other artistic endeavors. There's a hay loft that in time will be converted to an in-law apartment, should my adult children decide they want to make Maine their long term residence or for visits from friends. There are three living rooms, yes three. One will become the school room for our home-schooling, one may become my sewing and reading nook and one will remain a living room in the traditional sense. There's an art studio. There's a bench seat and a lounge in the upstairs bath. It is a dream home. My grandmother's dream, not mine.
As gorgeous as the house is, as much room as it has, right now it is just not conducive to any of the things I thought I would be spending the next few years doing. It sits on an acre of land, shaped like a piece of pie, wedged between two streets, on a steep hill, surrounded by giant pine trees in the suburbs. Not exactly prime real estate for raising geese, turkey or our horse. It is not garden-friendly. It offers little out-of-doors privacy.
But I have some ideas. My mantra for the moment is: grow where you're planted. The yard would lend itself well to container gardening. There was once an intensely planted albeit small herb garden, I can revamp it. The time I am not spending tending livestock can now be applied to learning more about wild foraging. An interest I have had for a long time. I've already learned to identify a half a dozen new-to-me plants. I imagine long winters of heavy snow will be a great time to write long posts here, and to undertake cool projects with the Gelfs.
My To Do List didn't include any of this, but I'm confident that we can make it work. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Organic or Local?

A page I follow on Facebook put this question to her readers a couple weeks ago. I wish I could remember which page, all the pages I follow are pretty cool & I would share if I could.

Anyway the question was; if you could only have organic or local produce which would you choose? 

I was surprised by the answers I saw. I didn't follow the conversation all day, but at the point I read through the comments the majority were in favor of organic. There are so many issues on my mind when choosing foods for my family. I have a budget. Don't we all? There are 6 of us who eat all meals at home. I try to keep everyone's like and dislikes in mind when I plan meals. My partner has a medical condition that is closely tied to his diet, so that's always on the radar. There are brands that I refuse to support on moral grounds, and a few ingredients that I try to avoid. I read labels. All of that is on my mind when I shop, and we haven't even talked about nutrition yet. Let me just confess, organic is barely a blip on my radar.
Of course I want to avoid pesticides, herbicides and the assorted poisons that somehow became an acceptable part of our food system. But if the organic tomato I purchased in January was picked by an exploited laborer, and trucked thousands of miles to my table, for me that pretty much negates the wholesomeness of choosing organic. Buying local addresses my concerns better than buying organic. Local, seasonal produce tends to be much cheaper than imported, off-season, organic produce. I know the labor laws of my community, so I can reasonably assume that workers at local farms are treated fairly and humanely. When buying from small, family owned farms, I know that my money stays in my community. It isn't funneling into corporations with a history of violating human rights or destroying the environment. This is incredibly important to me. Buying local means eating seasonally, which I believe plays an important role in health. When I buy local I can ask questions about animal husbandry and land management. Buying local tends to mean supporting sustainable practices and the food security of my community.

And more often than not, local is organic- just not certified organic.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Your Cow for My Three Magic Beans?

I love to barter. I would say that it's the greatest idea since sliced bread, but A. bartering is way older than sliced bread and B. I don't find sliced bread to be all that impressive.

Bartering: so much cooler than sliced bread. 

Like most people, my first experiences with bartering would have been as a child. I can remember trading my individually wrapped Twinkies for the much tastier chocolate cupcakes with a friend at a cafeteria table. That may have been the last of my trading experiences if the economy hadn't up & collapsed back in 2006.

My partner is the primary income source for our family, he's a tattoo artist. Let me brag for just a little bit here. My partner is a licensed, professional, world-traveled, award winning tattoo artist who was approaching 20 years in the business in '06. Tattooing is a profession that doesn't easily compare to other professions. It is a little bit like hairdressing. Artist like stylist are usually independent contractors, not salaried employees. You are responsible for providing your tools and your supplies. Artist and stylist typically rent their chairs. The shop might provide some advertisement but it is your skill and your satisfied customers who fill your chair & put new people in it. When customers are facing severe financial set-backs, their hair will continue to grow. The stylist may find people go longer between cuts, they may forgo more expensive services and their tipping may become more frugal, tough times for sure, but the stylist will probably continue to earn a living. The artists on the other hand, well it turns out if your facing foreclosure getting a really rad new tattoo is probably not anywhere on your To Do List.

He could have pursued a new career or taken on a second job to ride out the storm. I could have gone back to working outside the home.None of those options seemed acceptable to me. He did take side jobs, but not a second job. Re-entering the workforce for me would have meant putting the kids in school and finding a gig that worked around their schedule. A new career path for him would have meant leaving a job he truly excels at and loves, at this stage in his career it would have likely been forever. So we made a choice to ride out the storm by tightening our belts and learning to live on an income much lower than we had been accustomed to. It would have been a much harder, and unpleasant experience if I hadn't noticed the craigslist barter section around that same time.

If I remember correctly my Christmas present that year was the first tattoo he accept a trade as payment. A mom with 2 little ones got an adorable piece, and I was given a sewing machine that I still use today. We've traded for so many things and services over the years, I couldn't begin to list them all. I regularly trade for boutique quality, all-natural, small batch, personal care products. I have a friend I trade with for elderberry syrup, another that I cook for & she stocks my essential oil cabinet. More than one car has come our way via bartering. My home-births were also paid for in trade.

I think there are some people out there who have negative ideas about bartering. Perhaps the first thing they think of is the magic beans Jack got for his cow. Let's not forget though, that did work out pretty well for Jack. When you barter, especially if you are bartering a service or product that you also sell for cash, it's an opportunity to network. Your trade partner may be interested in your service again or they may share their experience with their friends. With that in mind, you should approach your trades like a professional. Describe your item or service honestly, including any flaws. If the service you provide requires professional licensing, be prepared to present proof of your standing. Consider assigning a trade value, that is the amount you would ask if you were selling the item out right, but keep it realistic. Offer a list of what you are hoping to find. If you are open to other suggestions, say that in your posts.

Do you want to barter but aren't sure what you have to offer? Let me throw out a few quick ideas. Whatever you do for a living is probably a good place to start. Hairdressers, plumbers, child-care providers, massage therapists, mechanics; these are services needed by many and very likely to attract trading partners. Non-skilled labor; if your up for it you could offer services like lawn mowing, snow shoveling, or hauling trash to the dump. Home cooked meals, garden produce or home canned products make for great swaps. Clothes or toys your children have outgrown are another popular barter item. Know your local laws, and keep it legal; but other than that, really almost anything can be traded & found through trading.

Our farm is always open to bartering.I'm active on two Facebook bartering groups Richmond   and Caroline County; but also feel free to contact me through Serendipity Farm directly if you have something we might be interested in or would like to sample something we offer.

Also, there are many bartering groups on Facebook. Some that are targeted to specific communities and some that are listed by interest. Try entering your town or county in your FB search bar. If you don't find one, establishing one yourself is really easy.

Please feel free to share your bartering experiences in the comments!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farm Goals for 2014

It's list making time, hooray! It's New Year's Eve, I will be making many lists today. And this thrills me so much more than it should. Anyway, on to the list. In no particular order; because I can't seem to figure out how to make a descending ordered, numbered list, these are my goals for Serendipity Farm this year.

  1. Find a local, affordable source of raw milk. This may involve buying a cow, I'm OK with that.
  2. Successfully hatch out goslings 
  3. Ditto for turkeys 
  4. Add flocks of quail, guineas and/or ducks
  5. Pigs. I suppose right about now I have officially gotten over my head. A cow, more geese & turkeys, quail, guineas, ducks, a pig and we haven't even started talking about gardens yet! These first 5 goals though are more like options than goals. A cow or a pig is probably more likely. Ducks or guineas. Ya, that's my story & I'm sticking to it when my partner challenges this list :) 
  6. Name & launch our birthdays on the farm idea 
  7. Host 2 swap meets & craft fairs- note to self: let's try not to schedule either for the same week as the State's Fair. Turns out those are kind of big deals to farming folks, who knew?
  8. Investigate the local Farmer's Market. Before I lose real food street cred, I do shop at a Farmer's Market of sorts. I love Farm 2 Family. I make a pilgrimage back to Richmond regularly to shop there & of course plan to continue. I just haven't done any exploring in Caroline County yet. 
  9. Plant (& more importantly maintain) gardens that will insure that ALL of the animal feed is coming from the farm. There just isn't another viable option. It's terribly important to us that our animals are GMO-free. It is terribly important to us that the farm is cost-effective. And it's terribly important to us that our products are reasonably priced. Charging $7 for a dozen eggs just wouldn't be OK with me and that's about what the numbers work out to when buying organic feed in the winter. 
  10. Plant, maintain and preserve a harvest that insures around 50% of our food comes from our farm. Does that seem too low or too high to my readers? I've had friends respond in both directions. Those that think it is a high goal recognize that it is a lot of work. Those who think it is low wonder why the goal isn't 100% or at least close to it. The goal is 50% and I imagine it always will be. We are a large family, and we like variety in our meals. Permaculture, sustainable farming means working with the unique micro-environments of your farm. This year will be about learning those characteristics. Do tomatoes do well in our soil without heavy supplementation? Will I ever successfully keep the geese off of our greens? I learned last year that corn is going to be challenging here. My neighbor is a giant GMO corn grower. This year I am going to try growing corn behind a wind block & hope that cuts down or eliminates cross pollination. If it doesn't, I'll skip corn the following year and find a local grower I can trade with or buy from.  I don't have a moving body of water on the property, rice would never grow here- but I'm going to give quinoa a try. I don't expect it to do well, but who knows maybe it will. That's why the goal will always be about 50%. When we find what does best here, we'll plan crop rotations to insure we don't exhaust our soil and let those crops be our focus. 
So the first list for 2014 has been written. If you're making any farming, homesteading, or gardening goals for 2014 please share them in the comments. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Yogurt Making

Making yogurt at home is so simple & so cost effective. You really do not need special equipment, it's very inexpensive and although it takes quite a bit of time to turn milk into yogurt, it's only seconds of actual hands-on time.
When I first started making yogurt at home I used a technique Alton Brown (isn't he so dreamy?) demonstrated on an episode of Good Eats (I think). It's been years since I did it this way & I'm certain I will forget details. But his method was basically warming your milk, inoculating it with your starter yogurt and then putting that mixture into a container that fit inside of a second container and keeping it at a steady temp by using a heating pad wrapped around the container holding the milk-yogurt mixture, nestled in the larger container.I did it that way for ages, it's not terribly difficult even if I didn't explain it so great. Google it, watching Alton cook & be smart is never a waste of time.
When you're done watching Alton, do it this way instead.
The Easiest Way to Make Yogurt: In a crockpot!
I won't infringe their copyright & copy the directions here, so you'll have to head over there to get the directions in their entirety. I'll just share a couple little tips to make it even easier. When I am fortunate enough to have access to raw milk, I do remove some of the cream before using. Store bought "whole" milk is 4% milk fat. Raw milk, depending on the season & the breed of cow, is around 16% milk fat. You could leave all the cream in, but raw is illegal & expensive here. You don't need that much milk fat to make yogurt, so it seems wasteful to me to leave it all in. I skim about half of the cream & save that for whipping, coffee or small-batch butter making. Also when I start a batch I take a wipe-off marker & I write the start time right on the lid of the crockpot, then I write the time I need to shut it off, the time I need to inoculate it & the time it will be done. So if I start at 2p, I write "2p-4:30, 7:30, 5:30am" I would never actually start at 2p though, only thing I do at 5:30 AM is keep my pillow warm.
You can make Greek style yogurt from homemade yogurt by simply straining away the the whey. I line a colander with a cloth napkin & nestle it inside of a bowl. Pour the yogurt into the strainer, put it in the fridge & forget about for around 6 hours. The longer you let it sit, the thicker the yogurt will be. The whey will drain down, you can use this for lacto-fermented veggie recipes and the now Greek style yogurt will be left behind in the cloth napkin.
Easy-peasy, frugal & nutritious real food.
Oh & don't forget to save a cup for the next batch you make!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Five Minute Gardening

I'm having a day. I don't know not really a bad day, but not matching my idea of a good day either. My littlest Gelf is cutting a molar. He's not impressed with the process. Then I guess because our mother-son bond is so very strong, I am suddenly in excruciating pain very aware of a cavity in one of my molars. We finally got to bed last night, at 6:30 this morning.Then at 8:30 AM the pain medicine I took for my tooth wore off. Then there's the upcoming holiday. It's my youngest's first Christmas. The baby I am pretty confident will be my last. The three year old really "gets" Christmas for the first time, she talks about it nonstop. For a week now she's been reminding me that she hopes Santa brings her a big, red, balloon. (ya- no idea where that request came from but I am lifting my balloon ban to accommodate & embrace her simple request) I had these ambitious plans for a completely homemade Christmas. I'd make coordinating but not quite matching PJs for all of the Gelfs, I'd even make 2 more sets to ship to my Grand-Gelfs (yes can you imagine? I have two grandchildren already!). I'd think of something clever and magical to make out of all of these chicken & turkey feathers. Satisfying both my creative needs and my desire to not be wasteful of any part of the animals we process here. All meals & snacks would be made from scratch, while wearing the purple & red-hat apron that I brought home from my last visit with my grandmother. At 4:20 on the twenty-second of December, none of these things have happened. And then, the icing on this just not quite cool cake, it's 65 degrees out but it's raining. What? I had acclimated to the cold snap we've been having. I made good use of yesterday's warm day out in the yard. I love the rain, but 3 days before Christmas snow would be so special. Or a warm, sunny 65 degree day would also make for another productive day outside and I would be ever so grateful. But no snow, warm, but raining just seems like exactly the wrong weather for today.

And you're reading along still, thank you, while wondering how any of this has anything at all to do with gardening. I'm getting there, I promise. I felt like something, anything outside would help me shake off some of this blah. And I remembered I had a bunch of celery stalks I've been meaning to plant. And I remember to take my camera so I could share. Here we go.

Disclaimer: I am not a master gardener. I am not an adept gardener. I am barely an accomplished amateur gardener. I just make it up as I go. That approach gives me like, I don't know, a more often than not success rate, and that's good enough.  
These are the bottom 1.5-2"s of 6 organic celery bunches I've used in cooking over the past month. They've been sitting in that little dish for weeks. Most of the time there is water in the dish, sometimes I forget to check them though. They haven't died & all those leaves are new growth. Again, good enough. I took those, 3 soda bottles & scissors out to my front porch.

I have a ton of 6" pots a friend gifted me with recently. If I didn't I would have cut the soda bottles in half, poked holes in the bottoms, used the bottoms as pots, then taped the tops back on. But since I had these pots, I cut the bottles in half & used each half as a top for the pot. I filled the pots with an organic potting soil & buried all but the leafy growth. The last batch I did I only put about half the stalk in the dirt. I have no idea which method is better. The only reason I did it differently this time is because I forgot how I did it the last time until I looked at those ones when I was done with these ones. I think both methods will work just fine. If they don't, I'll have learned something new to apply the next time. I tucked the bottle domes pretty deep into the soil. If I had thought of it, I would have added some rabbit manure to the potting soil- I think I did with the last batch. Rabbit manure doesn't need to age like cow, horse, chicken manure does. I forget why that is, but even fresh it's safe to mix right in & won't burn your plants. The covers will act like a mini green house. Keeping them warm & watered, even when I forget. If the grow faster than the weather warms up, I'll cut new bottles taller or look for another thing to re-purpose for the job.

I've been told that growing celery is challenging. Maybe it is. Maybe these will get half way grown & suddenly die or rot or who knows what. The ones I planted last month seem to be doing fine. Maybe whoever told me that celery is challenging tries too hard or has never tried and is just repeating some rubbish they were told. It took about 15 minutes from when I thought "I should plant those celery plants" to uploading the pictures of the finished project. Took me far longer to share the story. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bobbe Dunn

This was my grandmother. My mother's mother. Catherine-Susan McCabe Dunn Trotta. I called her Nana, most people called her Bobbe. My grandmother was many things, but first and foremost my grandmother was a story teller. Most of her stories began with her lamenting that she didn't take notes when she was younger eavesdropping on her aunts and mother telling stories at the kitchen table. But you kids today, she'd say, you could record all of this on your tape recorder. I meant to, but just like she never got to writing down the stories of her elders, I never did either. It's OK though her stories are tattooed in my memory banks, and I can recite them all even without a tape recording. 

This is what ran as her obituary. It's alright, but it's just not enough. Her stories should be told again. I really feel I need to tell her stories again. I started writing this entry a month ago. I come back to it, I change some things, add some things, get a little sad & save it for later. I'll never finish it at this rate. There's so much I need to process with her passing. It isn't going to be over in an afternoon. I think for 1 year I will dedicate one post a month to a story from my grandmother. So you can look forward to hearing how my grandmother invented belt-less maxi pads, her excommunication from the Catholic church, and dozens of other really cool stories. Understand that we had a tumultuous relationship. It wasn't all playing hairdresser and pretending we spoke french. There may be uncool stories too. I need to do this to process the other stories too and to make my peace with her passing. So I will leave the following that I've already written as an introduction....
Her name was Catherine-Susan. Together, not a first & middle. My family lacks name originality. She was named after her mother, who was named after her mother. I'm not sure, but there may be very well be a chain of Catherine Susans stretching back to the dawn of time. I have 2 second cousins and a third cousin (or is the child of your second cousin a second cousin once removed?)  that bears that moniker too. I'm dumb-founded that while writing this it is the first time I realized all four of her children have original names. I guess it didn't occur to me because they each in turn recycled their names. A moment of sadness here that it never occurred to me to ask her why she didn't choose to continue the tradition. Everyone called her Bobbe. There's two different stories about why that is. One story is just that she always used a dozen bobby-pins to pin up her black curls. That story is boring. I like the other story better. She was the first-born, and her grandfather was hoping that she would be a boy. So he started calling her Bobbe & it just stuck. Both of these stories may be true, then again they may be whole cloth; story tellers are allowed artistic license too. The grandfather version always seemed likely to be true to me. It made sense. The name fit. My grandmother wore long beaded necklaces that tied in a knot when they reached her sternum. She used Oil of Olay moisturizer & Dove soap. She was a seamstress, and designer. She owned a tailoring shop with my mom called "A Stitch in Time" and created costumes for the productions of  the Chateau DeVille Theater Group, now Lantana's in Randolph MA. She also swung hammers.  The raised ranch she lived in during my childhood, she built. No I didn't say she designed it. I didn't say she had it built. With a hammer, with a table saw, with sweat & blood and her 4 teen-aged children assisting; she built a house. About 15 years after the foundation was poured, when everything was finally exactly perfectly what she wanted; she sold it. When she was about 50 she bought a rundown 12+ room farmhouse in Cornish, Maine and spent the next 30 years restoring every inch of it. About 10 years ago I brought my friend Lori up for a get-away vacation. Lori complimented my grandmother on the new three-season porch. My grandmother started to tell the story of how hard it was to talk her partner Mike into spending the- oh I think it was $3000- to build the porch. Lori was flabbergasted that Nana, then 70-something years old, had a porch built so inexpensively. It took me a minute to get what was getting lost in the conversation- Nana didn't have it built, when she said Mike (then about 78 years old) and she put on the porch last spring, she meant that she & Mike were out on a rig tearing down that wall & building this porch. She was no nonsense,  pragmatic, and tough as nails.She was creative, skilled and capable. She was so many the qualities I take pride in using to describe myself too. But she was also distant, cold, stand-offish.She was judgmental, and harsh. She set standards and expectations unreasonably high. The qualities I worry that I inherited too. When I was little I thought she was magic. When I would need a pencil, for the lists I kept even then, she would reach up into her mane of black curls & sort of feel around for a moment and like magic, produce a pencil. My straight as a bone hair can't replicate that trick. So little me started stabbing a pen through my ponytails to copy her in my own way.