The high tunnel serves us well for growing through the late fall and winter months, into early spring. We have grown traditional and non-traditional crops and have had the luxury of greens for most of the cold months. With the advent of warmer temps we have raised the sides enough to let the breeze blow through.
I don't know about you but it feels as though winter has been hanging on forever. With 13 gallons of maple syrup and 2 gallons of Black Walnut syrup for sale, we are looking to the spring growing season with excitement.
This is curly dock. It's an alien invasive weed. Because it's not poisonous, some websites refer to it as an edible weed. IMHO, just because it's not poisonous, doesn't mean I should eat it, especially when I have much more tasty things growing in the high tunnel. It's root, if met with a tiller, slices up into pieces that rapidly take root. We want to suppress these weeds and prevent them and other weeds from competing with our vegetables.
Collecting sap is a difficult task. We start by being mindful of all the things we need to take up onto Sugar Hill so we can maximize our time. One- and five-gallon jugs have to be taken up the hill to replace those that may still be frozen or overflowing. In late February we still had a great number of jugs that were frozen and we needed to act quickly because the warm weather would approach rapidly.
The dogs can't wait to get into the act. They typically scavenge for rodents and small animals under tree trunks.
We had the largest one-day collection ever this year at seventy gallons. Because our collection system is by hand and not by a series of tubes running to an evaporator that seventy gallons took 7 man hours to collect.
Our sugar shack is an old corn crib, converted to maintain a good fire out of the elements. The reduction tank is a repurposed, 27 gallon stainless sink resting atop sixteen cinder blocks and the fire is maintained underneath. When the sap is running, this requires maintenance 24 hours a day. Therefore we take shifts through the night when processing the sap to syrup.
Time to pile the wood on and light the fire. It's going to be a long night.
When the sap is reduced by about 95%, and reaches a temperature of 215 degrees, it is then taken to the farmhouse kitchen, poured through a preliminary filter, then reduced further. When it reaches 219.5 degrees, it's syrup. It is then poured through two more filters, reheated to 180 degrees, and bottled.
I have one bottle of RSF syrup left from last year. I savor each drop and miserly protect my stash. The wood fired goodness - for me - is too delicious to waste on a stack of pancakes that some would habitually douse with half a bottle of store-bought syrup. With this rich, dark sweetness, only a small amount is needed on a plate-sized pancake.
In our fourth season of Maple Syrup production we have come to appreciate the goodness of our syrup based on the labor-intensive process involved in bringing it to our tables. Our conversation naturally led to what goes into the production of real maple syrup. Unlike mass-produced syrups like Aunt Jemima, we have a product that is pure and direct from Earth. We tap each tree, and connect it to either a 5 gallon jug or one gallon milk jug to collect the syrup. We are thankful to know where our food comes from and relish the taste that much more.
Walking the aisles of my local grocery store I realized that I sometimes throw stuff in the cart without checking labels. Its been years since I bought mass-produced syrup and decided to check the ingredients. I was flabbergasted by the ingredients in Aunt Jemima "Original" Maple Syrup: high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, salt, sodium benzoate and sorbic acid (preservatives), artificial and natural flavors, sodium hexamethaphosphate.
Our syrup has one ingredient: Maple sap.
Our sugar maple trees dot the farm, around the field, up the hill, and across the creek. Trees are identified with orange plastic fencing and red and yellow caution tape. Each color indicates a different message. Orange denotes a tappable tree; yellow - too young, measure again next year; red - a tree that is dying or is too wounded to tap. We had intended to tap the trees on January second, however Mother Nature and the Woolly Worms who predicted a harder than usual winter, had other plans. Heavy snow and temps in the single digits have prevented the tapping of trees until two weeks ago.
Over two days we placed about 100 taps in about 85 trees. Day one, even the dogs anticipated the fun, barking and jumping, itching to get going. In the back of the John Deere Gator we have a box of metal taps, a bucket of plastic taps, 1 gallon and 5 gallon jugs (as many as we can carry) a drill, drill bits, nails, and tubing.
As with everything we do on the farm, we are constantly learning new things. The taps we use now will be replaced next year. Currently, they are 7/16 of an inch. That size has been found to make the tree work harder than necessary to close the holes once the sap stops running. So we will be switching to 5/16 inch taps. But for now, we work with what we have.
Trees must be measured to ensure that only the mature trees are tapped. Also, trees over a certain measurement can have multiple taps.
After the trees in the lower field were tapped, we headed up the hill. It's an arduous task given the fact that the Gator can get stuck. So we are equipped with a winch to pull the gator uphill. It's best not to forget anything on days like this, since it's manpower that's used to retrieve the forgotten items.
Our last task is to put the 35 gallon tank in the back of the Gator to collect sap. Once we have collected a substantial amount we begin the process of reduction to syrup. That blog post will follow in the days to come. Now, Jedi awaits.
Winter's charm is wearing off as the cold days drag on. And yet, we reflect once more on the beauty just beyond the window. Groundhog Day is both a day of dread and a day of hope. According to the myth, if the groundhog sees his shadow, it's six more weeks of winter. We opted to make the day one of celebration, especially with the return of two interns, Luke and Stephanie.
Groundhog Day, 2014
Has it really been a year ago that they interned on the farm? With the help of these two brave souls, the irrigation system became a reality. Even though they only saw that the PVC pipe was fitted together, their work in mid-January solidified a plan for proper watering of the fields.
Please enjoy the gallery of pictures from our celebration. Luke led the music, Stephanie sang. Our friends joined us and contributed the fixings for yummy pizzas, and we broke the winter blahs if only for a brief time.
They say, "Hindsight is twenty/twenty." As we gathered on New Year's Eve 2013, we looked back on all that has made Red Sunflower Farm what it is today. We are grateful for the interns who came to the farm: Emil, Silas, Crystal, Yoni, J.C. and Anastasia, Patty, Vicki. Their hands tilled the soil, slung the hammer, dug the ditch, mulched, and pulled the weeds, the weeds, and the weeds.
We also feel blessed by deer, and turkey, and chickens, and ducks, and a pantry full of vegetables and fruit. Whether it came from the field or foraged in the woods, or dropped on a city street. We have made good on our promise of sustainability.
In November we began to reflect on what is most important. In 2013, between interns, the growing season got away from us and weeds were everywhere, causing us to consider a better way. By New Year's Eve, we solidified a plan to grow smarter and manage better the gift of the land. Look for our new ideas coming in the posts for 2014. Hint: more perennials are in our future
But for now, let's look back to that cold December night when we gathered with friends.
On the periphery of the work to be done is the support of old friends. Each December 31, we gather to remember and to look forward at our individual and collective lives. We thought you might enjoy seeing a glimpse of those who don't necessarily do the hard labor, as much as bring their collective wisdom to the farm.
Red Sunflower Farm Proprieters: Barry and Mackey
Mort, Barb, and Tina.
Mort with Paul, and Mackey with Shireen.
John with Paul, and Tina with John.
We danced into the wee hours and celebrated all the goodness we find every day at Red Sunflower Farm.
Two of the best things to happen to the farm last year were the award of a grant from the NRCS to build a high tunnel and Martha, the intern who managed its construction last December. Throughout this year, crops have been started in the high tunnel earlier than they could have been planted outside, while other crops, like peppers, survived long past the time they would have if left to the elements outside the high tunnel.
After a recent heavy rain, we discovered what is pictured above. Some of the peppers in the high tunnel appeared to have frost damage and in the dry leaf mulch we found ashes. Mystified, we began eliminating causes and discovered that water had collected in a pool on top of the high tunnel and had acted as a magnifying glass, intensifying the rays of the sun! The peppers had sunburn, the result of rays so intense that they started a fire in the leaves!
Eliot Coleman teaches a method of gardening to allow harvesting produce throughout the winter months. Three factors are necessary. First, you need a high tunnel to eliminate the dessicating effect that wind has on plants. Second, a floating row cover, which is a sheet of lightweight, translucent fabric suspended twelve inches above the ground on metal wickets (recycled political yard signs work great!) and held in place with clothespins, for an additional layer of protection. The third factor is timing. Plants grow very slowly once the sun shines less than ten hours per day, and in Independence Kentucky, that day is today, November 17. But remember that the intention is not to grow produce in the winter; it is to harvest produce in the winter. So by today, the plants are about as mature as they are going to get until the sun starts to shine more than ten hours per day, which isn't until January 26. We have planted several obscure edible greens such as minutina - a cold-hardy salad plant with slender leaves that will produce into the winter. And claytonia, another obscure cold-hardy winter green. The picture above is of a Bull's Blood beet, not grown for it's root but for it's edible leaves that we hope to harvest all winter.
The variety of carrots we have planted in our high tunnel is called Napoli. The cold condenses the sugar in the root vegetable and makes for a sweet treat in the middle of winter.
We pick lettuce greens in November with great gratitude. There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh lettuce on a cold fall day (alongside a hot bowl of venison stew!). If all goes as planned, we'll enjoy a fresh green salad, grown here at the farm, on Groundhog Day!
On the farm, we honor the rhythm of life and believe that ultimately we are on this earth to feed and to be fed. One of the many blessings of our work to sustain ourselves here is to harvest deer in the over-populated hills of our property.
Two does, harvested in September, are in the freezer and will help to feed us, our families, and future interns coming to further the cause of sustainable living at Red Sunflower Farm. This seven-point buck was found sitting in the middle of Banklick Creek, the back half of his body paralyzed. Our best guess is that someone shot him with an arrow in the spine on his left side (because a bullet would have made an exit wound on the right side), he ran away, and as the infection from the wound spread, it moved to the spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. We killed the animal quickly to end it's suffering, as it was destined for death by starvation.
A Kentucky hunter is permitted to kill only one antlered deer per season. Under the circumstances, the mercy killing of this buck is a true blessing to our farm. The inordinately long periods of time in a tree stand sometimes means that farm chores suffer. We are blessed to have this animal come into our lives and allow us to have more time to get back to our daily life, making ready to process our Thanksgiving turkey, prep for maple syrup production after the first of the year, and plan for next spring and summer's crops.
Thank you, Mother Earth, for this nourishment that will be provided to us through the winter.
Remembering the smell of spring lavender and the image of our two female ducks nestled in the huge bush just outside the farmhouse, it's difficult to believe that those little hatchlings survived and matured. But here we are at the end of October and our population of ducks is healthy and relatively happy.
In the image above,our one and only male duck is pictured in the middle of all the females. We've named him Mr. Beret for the white tuft that isn't quite centered on his head. Mr. Beret is a lucky duck. His chivalrous manner did not go unnoticed, and he was chosen to be the sole surviving male out of the four, er, five males hatched this spring. You see, we weren't sure about the sex of the youngest member of the brood, one calico duck that we'd grown fond of, until we had chosen Mr.Beret to have the opportunity to sire more little ducks. One day we found an amorous Mr. Beret and the calico both mating with a female. His anatomy confirmed what we really hadn't noticed before that incident.
The dilemma: whether to process the calico or Mr. Beret. We contacted a farmer friend and asked if she had a need for a male duck. She had taken another male off our hands when he had gotten too aggressive with the females and babies back in the spring. As fate would have it, that duck, who is named Son of Chuck, was shooting blanks, so the farmer was happy to trade for a new young male. Son of Chuck had followed in the footsteps of his father, Chuck the Duck, who also had a very aggressive nature until he found himself in hot soup. Now upon Son of Chuck's return, he would become dinner and nourishment, providing some good to the world.
So both Mr. Beret and Calico (now renamed Smiley) have an opportunity to procreate, producing ducks that provide eggs and sustenance in times to come.
The crop of fall radishes is coming in quite nicely. We have daikon and plumb varieties, along with a special species served in Munich, Germany during October Fest called Muenchener Bier Radish. We'll have more on those later.
We want to share this recipe involving plumb radishes, ready in just minutes with a little dicing and mixing.
Oops, no picture of chopped cilantro, but most of us know how to do that. And drizzle the olive oil and rice vinegar over the chopped ingredients, adding the pinch of salt to mix thoroughly. What you have is a tasty treat good with fish, chicken, or for an afternoon snack. To see the recipe in it's entirety, follow to the end of post.
5 plumb radishes, tops removed and washed, chopped into small pieces
1 large mango, cut into bit size pieces
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
½ bunch of cilantro, stems removed, washed and chopped
pinch of salt
Toss, and eat right away. Also good in 2-3 days