Our current intern is Olga, a young woman from Poland who is interested in the study of naturopathy, defined by Wikipedia as " a form of alternative medicine employing a wide array of 'natural' treatments, including homeopathy, herbalism, and acupuncture, as well as diet and lifestyle counseling."
Because of her personal experience with an eating disorder and having food allergies, it is important to Olga to figure out what is the healthiest means of fueling the body. She has read about the Paleo Diet and some of it makes sense, and she is a follower of Weston A. Price. She knows that by entering Warsaw University of Life Sciences in the fall, she will become more enlightened about food and it's source. Frankly, we are impressed with how much Olga already knows about a healthy diet, fermentation, and the affect that processed sugars and grains have on the body.
On this particular day, Olga was in the kitchen making garlic scape pesto. "What do you like about being on the farm?" I asked. She thought for a moment then replied "Not weeding. Weeding is my personal hell." She said she has loved learning about how to plant seeds and starts, using our new method of applying cardboard, then leaf mold.
On a day when our field of sunflowers began blooming, all the flower heads faced east. Olga had thoughts of returning to Poland, working hard for a couple of years, saving money and returning to the farm. "Barry and Mackey are really unique." She intends to come back, to work, to know the land more intimately.
This year our ducks have been prolific. Eleven ducklings were hatched by two elder mamas and one duckling was hatched by a yearling mama. We watched as the father tried to kill any duckling and while the two elder mamas went after the yearling's baby, maiming it while trying to kill it. So we wanted to instill our sense of justice upon the ducks but alas, the lesson we learned is that our way is not the way of nature. There are six ducklings left. The mamas insist on going to the creek overnight instead of the shelters near the house where the dogs patrol at night.
On a recent day we found the ducks tunneling into a storm drain. We watched as they went in one-by-one. Enjoy a glimpse of the fun.
This Midwestern summer, with temps in the high 70s and low 80s, has been great for the gardener but not so great for the garden. In July, according to the NOAA, "record and near-record cool temperatures were observed in the Midwest" along with below-average rainfall. We've been able to counter the lack of rainfall with the irrigation system, but with the lack of heat, we've harvested few ripe tomatoes in the garden, which should be in full production by now.
Despite the weather, we are still experiencing "the plague of the summer squash". We can't eat it and put it up fast enough...and the bees are loving it. Look closely and you will see a honey bee pollinating the squash flower.
If not for the tomatoes, eggplant, and okra planted in the high tunnel, we'd still be waiting for our first ratatouille and our first batch of salsa! Aunt Ruby's German Green and German Pink tomatoes are the size of softballs. And okra! What is a garden without okra blossoms?
As you can see, we are preparing the beds for our winter garden on the left in the picture below. We are using the same treatment of cardboard, leaf mold and bordered rows.
"Never let your weeds go to seed." Ignore that sage wisdom, like I did in 2011 and 2012, and you'll pay a dear price for the result. After allowing pigweed, thistle, and morning glory to mature, they distributed literally millions of seeds into the garden. In 2012 and 2013, we were running a CSA, so two days a week we were harvesting, washing, packing, and delivering produce. The other three days a week, eight hours a day, we pulled weeds. After a long winter's reflection we decided to rethink the way we were doing things.
We decided to raise food only for ourselves until we can get on top of the weed problem. We did sell fifty pounds of strawberries to a local brewery and twenty pounds of elderflowers to a local distillery. But for the most part, we're focused on farm infrastructure for now. And we are following the mentorship of our Extension agent who advises "don't till more than you can tend." Before we plant will build a bed as pictured above. 1 by 3 lumber separates the planting bed from the walkway. The bed gets two drip hoses for irrigation, then a layer of cardboard, then filled to the brim with leaf mold delivered to the farm at no charge by a neighboring municipality. The walkway gets a layer of landscape fabric covered with wood chips delivered at no charge from tree trimmers working in the area.
The land where nothing is planted is tilled, bringing thousands of seeds to or near the surface. The seeds germinate and the seedlings are subsequently tilled under. We hope that this bimonthly process will eventually exhaust most the weed seeds in the garden.
With the exception of a bit of nutsedge seed that appears to be riding in with the leaf mold, the farm is in better shape than it's been in three years. We're grateful for the hard lessons we're learning about how much is enough in every aspect of our work. Instead of letting the farm run us we have turned things around and now feel that we are running the farm.
Purselane is one weed we are grateful for. It's nutritious and delicious, and in the heat of summer when lettuce bolts, our BLTs become BPTs. Its a wonderful addition to potato salad, or can be eaten with a bit of seasoning and an oil and vinegar mix.
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.