Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Kickin' It Into Gear With Diversity.

Things are really moving right along here at gardendwellers FARM.

The cover crop we put in of winter wheat is coming along nicely and received a mowing this weekend so that the weeds, which are also in there and doing well, don't get too tall and go to seed. 
This cover crop will grow a bit more and then be cultivated in to add organic matter and help build the soil.

The perennial flower bed - a simple pleasure of mine as it does not contribute to anything but beauty here on the farm, is in its third season and starting to really look like something.  The yellow iris and peonies, gas plant and chives are combining to make a lovely show along the driveway.

We've had several pans of rhubarb bars and you can see that the rhubarb is in full flower.  I just love rhubarb in a flower bed, it anchors the ends so well.  Soon this bed will be filled with daylily blooms, coneflower and a variety of others followed in fall by the asters and Joe Pye Weed.  Season long color.  The zinnias are planted on the other side of the driveway and the two will make the perfect entrance to our little farm.

I'm just giddy about the orchard this year.  We finally have the weeds under control, all the straw on the beds and just about every fruit or nut in the orchard bloomed this spring so we're hoping for at least a tasting of everything this year.  The first to give us that is the honeyberries.

Honeyberries are in the honeysuckle family, look like a football shaped blueberry and kind of taste like a blueberry.  They are full of antioxidants and are very good for you.  Ours have quite a few berries this year and Sunday we got the bird netting out and so far have successfully kept both the birds AND the vegetarian barn dog Millie out of them!

I got a new toy this winter and have been having fun trying it out.  I got a Brix meter.  A Brix meter measures the sugars of things - like fruit - and can help you determine when it has reached its peak of ripeness.  It is also a good indicator of plant and soil health.  So far, the honeyberries I've tested are ranging from 12 to 15.  A reading of 12 would be an average fruit but 15 is very good and ready to eat.

Last week we were informed that we have received a North Dakota Division of Tourism Expansion grant.  We will use these funds to complete the restroom facility in the barn.  This will allow gardendwellers FARM to host larger tours once again.  We're very excited to be inviting guests back to our operation and hosting events.  The guys have been working hard on building walls and insulating the new restroom and last night they had a major step forward when they got the water line in from the well to the barn.  The good news is that the existing old line - that used to water cattle in the barn - still works as does the hydrant.  No need to trench in new or to buy a new hydrant!  WOOOHOOO!  Now all that is needed is a trip to a big town to get the necessary holding tank, systems and a little more wiring.  Can't wait!  A big thank you to the Division of Tourism for helping with this project.

Another major hurdle this summer will be completing the rest of the irrigation system that will take water directly to the field.  We have an NRCS contract to assist with the technical expertise and funding and hopefully soon will have water spigots right at the edge of the field.  Up to now, we have had to run a garden hose from the house all the way to the field - it's slow, it's tedious, and by the time you finish watering everything you need to start all over again.  What a time saver that will be!

Last but not least, we finally got the hops in.  After years of putting things in the ground in a hurry and most often not doing it quite right, I have decided that taking extra time and doing it the way it should be done is the wisest choice. (With Age, Comes Wisdom, as Uncle Jim Wilkie used to say.) So they got put on teepee's.  Hops grow up from the ground each year.  They can grow to 25 feet in one year.  The best and easiest way to harvest them is to have them on a single ling and cut them off at the ground each fall.  With the teepee system is it easy to do just that.

We have started with just 8 plants, four Willamette and four Nugget.  We have some Cascade hops on the hill - not planted as neatly as this of course.  Hops form rhizomes and once established it is easy to multiply the number of plants you have simply by harvesting those rhizomes.  Each teepee now holds 4 plants but can hold up to 8 or 10 and we have plenty of room to add more poles if need be.  Each set of hops was mulched with newspaper and then straw to keep the weeds down, hold soil moisture and still allow us access to dig rhizomes in the future.  Since the hops die back to the ground each year, we're hoping we will not have winter mouse trouble with the hops the way we do with our other woody plants.  Eventually we hope to sell our hops to North Dakota breweries and home brewers.

So you see, even though we are a culinary herb farm, and we will ALWAYS be a culinary herb farm, we believe in diversity.  Diversity makes for a healthier eco-system, business, and world.  Having fruit and hops and bittersweet and mushrooms and nuts keeps us from being totally wiped out by any strange new disease or pest that might come along and have a hankering for only one species.  It gives our business a back up plan in case Mother Nature decides its just not the year for herbs to grow well - something to tide us over in rough times.  It gives the birds and bees and other living things places to live and things to eat and makes the soil richer than if we were cultivating a mono-culture.  Diversity is key and that's what we strive for.  Herbs will always be who we are and what we do - but we have a back up plan just in case!
Until next time - keep on weedin'!

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Small Equipment for a small Farm

I think spring is finally here.  The barn dog is beginning to blow her coat and the fields, ours and those around us have begun filling with equipment on the move.

So what type of equipment does a small farm like ours use to plant an acre or two?  That's a question I get a lot through my work at Dakota College ECH.  At gardendwellers FARM we wondered the same thing when we first moved to this fabulous place in 2011.  We were unsure of what type of equipment to best manage all that we needed to do without spending thousands upon thousands of dollars for many different pieces of equipment.  We also didn't want to use our John Deere garden tractor and tiller for all of the weeding and maintenance required.  So we put the question out to our Facebook followers and we soon had the answer.

A Plotmaster.

Yes, folks, that's right...it's called a Plotmaster.

This handy little piece of machinery pulls behind our ATV and does many jobs - all at once or by themselves.  As you can see, it has two sets of disks, a drag, a roller, a seeder and we have another attachment that will plow when we need it.

We've used this wonderful contraption for two years and we love it.  By using the disks and drag we can keep our fields weed free and looking good with minimal effort and in a small amount of time.  The plow has helped to break into hard or cold ground and this weekend we used it for the first time to seed.

We grow sustainably.  That means we need to care for our soil in the best way possible.  For us, that means no chemical fertilizers so instead we use green manure and compost to ensure a healthy soil environment.  This year we have chosen to green manure winter wheat.  By planting winter wheat in the spring instead of the fall, the wheat will stay shorter and not head out.  We will let the wheat grow to a desired height then disk and drag it back into the soil where it will decompose that add tilth to the soil and a fertile place for worms to romp - if worms can romp.

The Plotmaster works well for seeding.
It has a seed hopper that fits most sizes of seed and works well with the wheat.

 It took a little bit of adjusting to get it worked out so the seed was laying down correctly and covering up abut very soon the Boy got it right and finished the seeding of our green manure in no time.

Then Barry went in with the John Deere and the tiller and made a great new spot for the chives.  

Together we replanted the chives that accidentally got dug up last fall and with the dividing we did on them we ended up with over a wheelbarrow of chive plants leftover!
Then it was time for a little fun break and a few kisses between the Boy and his favorite girl.

Friday, November 29, 2013

An Epic Duel

An epic duel has ensued at our normally peaceful farm and I'm not sure what to do about it.  I'm hoping our readers and followers can help us out.

You see, the favorite nursery rhyme is playing itself out right before my eyes.  Yesterday the barn dog discovered a cat.  Black and shivering, overtly skinny the black little bundle decided that our barn was the place to spend Thanksgiving.

Now first, let me say that I am NOT a cat person.  Definitely NOT a cat person.  Their lack of obedience, loyalty and self centered nature is not for me.  Don't get me wrong, I love other people's cats and a soft kitten purring in your palm is a hear melter no matter who you are.  But as for keeping a cat, I don't know how and don't know that I want to know.  But lately, with the field mice finding homes in our out buildings, I have to say I have considered getting a farm cat, for the mousing factor alone.

Here's why I have not yet gotten a farm cat.  I believe in spaying/neutering and vaccinating our pets.  This is a vow I take seriously, the vow to properly care for the animals under our care.  If I were to spend the money to vaccinate and spay a cat and then, as cats do, it decided that the pastures - or mice - were greener on the other side of the pasture and thus wandered off to another farm or to live in the wild, I would be angry.  I have never had a cat.  I don't know how to make a cat stick around if it lives outdoors or prevent it from leaving - even if it did like its home here, at some point, wouldn't it want to hunt elsewhere?

So when Millie the Barn Dog in doing her job decided that the black intruder in the barn had to go, I was really unsure of how to deal with it.  This little black cat looking so weak and emaciated but yet with clear yellow eyes and even in her sad state a shiny black coat tugged at my heart strings.

The duel started in the barn where Millie fretted out the cat and grabbing it by the tail pulled it into the yard.  The little black bugger growled and hissed, Millie barked and the duel was on.  The En Guard was first followed by the Attack by the gingham dog and a Parry by the calico cats razor sharp claws.  On and on until it caught the attention of Tall, Dark, and Handsome who quickly pulled me from the house to decide how to end the battle.  With no other decision except total annihilation of one participant or the other on the horizon, separation seemed the only answer.  The gingham dog was thus pulled kicking and screaming to the shop and the calico cat was left to wander off into the woods.

(I would have included photos in this blog post but all you would have seen was a blur of black and white and tan.)

It was Thanksgiving after all so my heart got the best of me and once inside the house, looking at the poor shivering creature still sitting in the snow, I decided it wouldn't hurt to feed it just a little.  I quickly warmed some sausage we had in the fridge and put it into a bowl but by the time I got it to the woods the little black cat was gone.  Later, when Millie was released from her prison in the shop she used what the Lord gave her to sniff out where it had gone but found the sausage instead.

This might have been the end of the story.  Except...
You see Millie the barn dog has an outside kennel with a doggie door that allows her free access to her inside kennel where her heated dog house and heated water bowl and food bowl reside inside an enclosure in the barn.  Every morning Millie appears in the outside kennel around 7:15 or so, just before I go to work.  This morning, no Millie at 7:30.  No Millie at 8:00.  No Millie at 8:30.  That's when I got worried and went to check on things and you guessed it.  The little black furball had taken up residence in the barn again.  I'm hoping the cat found it warmer than the outdoors and with the abundance of mice I'm hoping it found a meal or two overnight.

Here's where you come in.  I removed Millie from the barn - she's pacing outside the barn door as I write.  What's your opinion?  What should I do?  Let the Duel ensue or try to keep the cat around to act as mouser for those little varmints that Millie just can't reach?  Millie does mouse - some - but as a larger dog there are places she just can't get to.  If your suggestion is to let the cat stay - do I need to feed it or just ensure that Millie doesn't kill it?  How do I end this duel so it doesn't end like the nursery rhyme?  Please chime in.  Or the Dutch Clock will be retelling his tale.

The Duel

  by Eugene Field
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
'T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t' other had slept a wink!
      The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
      Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
I was n't there; I simply state
            What was told to me by the Chinese plate!
The gingham dog went "Bow-wow-wow!"
And the calico cat replied "Mee-ow!"
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
      While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
      Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
Now mind: I'm only telling you
            What the old Dutch clock declares is true!
The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, "Oh, dear! what shall we do!"
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
      Employing every tooth and claw
      In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
Don't fancy I exaggerate—
            I got my news from the Chinese plate!
Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
      But the truth about the cat and pup
      Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
The old Dutch clock it told me so,
            And that is how I came to know.

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22063#sthash.Zj1cOFYW.dpuf

Monday, November 18, 2013

Hitting Oil at gardendwellers FARM

It's time for another installment of "what do gardendwellers do?"!

So, what DO gardendwellers do when its the first snow that stays for the season?

The first thing I do is look at what's left and says "Man!  I hate to see this stuff just go to waste."  And then I set about putting Tall, Dark, and Handsome to work getting the still together to take the rosemary from the high tunnel and turn it into essential oil and hydrosol.

This is the rosemary right AFTER I picked - so you can see we still have a bumper crop left - but not for long with the cold weather.

Yes, we have a still.  If you're a fan of the show Moonshiners then you're familiar with the concept.  Except we're after what others in North Dakota are after right now, oil - not moonshine.  AND, our oil is not black - but it is worth a lot and if you try to buy a barrel of it you'll be paying way more than you would for a barrel of crude.

We got our still as a part of an APUC grant back in 2007.  We were trying to determine if essential oils from herbs grown in ND would yield more than other herbs and if there was a market for them.  In the end, we learned a few things:

One - getting oil from herbs is a difficult and time taking task.
Two - separating the oil from the hydrosol (the water containing the oil) is a difficult art to learn.
Three - finding a market for it once you have oil or hydrosol is just about as difficult as the first two.

If we could find a market for it - this would be an excellent way to utilize the herbs we have at the end of the season or even during the season - the ones that are not quite high enough quality to go to the grocery store shelves.  Instead, many times these herbs just feed the compost pile. 

So, I got a wild hair and decided it was time to try the still again.

First, you pick the rosemary and wash it.  Then you set up the still.  Then, once you remember how it all goes together like a puzzle and figure out all the steps so you have the gauges and outlets all facing the right way - you pack it full of herbs.

You have to pack it as full as you can.  Really stuff it in there.

Then, we use distilled water in the tank.  Using distilled water ensures there are no impurities in our hydrosol or oil.

Then you put the 'beak' on it and connect it to the condenser.

The condenser has coils inside that the product steam flows through.  It's purpose is to cool the steam back into the distillate which is separated hydrosol and oil.

After these two are connected you add the final piece of the puzzle - the essencier.  This is a special piece of equipment that helps to separate the precious oil.  Learning to use this piece of equipment is the key to the whole process.

You can see that one tube goes into a clean gallon jug, we use the ones from the distilled water.  This tube will collect the hydrosol.  The other little tube going into the small jar is for the oil.

Then you just plug the thing in and wait, and wait, and wait.  The whole process takes about 6 hours and needs to be tended the whole time.  There is a spout coming off of the condenser, if that begins to spout steam, you need to draw water from the condenser and replace it with cold water.  If you are losing steam, you are losing oil.

Eventually, little drops of water begin to fill the essencier.  It takes a lot of time to get to this point and even more to fill that essencier.  Some times we will pre-fill the essencier with warm water to speed up the process but that's not really recommended if you want really good hydrosol or oil.

The esssencier has a little tiny hole in the top where the oil collects.  There are set screws that you need to monitor and raise and lower according to the level of hydrosol and oil.  We're not very good at using these screws and usually end up with a high quality oil and then a lesser quality oil in the end.  In this photo you can see the really rich rosemary oil on the top of the jar and the lighter oil on the bottom.

Oh how I wish this blog had smell-o-vision!  At this point in the process it really is beginning to smell great!  Holy Rosemary its strong this year!

In the end, after hours of tending and adding water and removing oil we have over a gallon of hydrosol and over a pint of oil.  It's great stuff because the herbs have been cold, making them keep all of their oils in the plant instead of transpiring it out like they do in the heat of summer. 
After a few tests, I have decided that the hydrosol still has an amazing amount of oil in it and the essential oil is awfully pure too.  Very pleased with this batch!  Now if we could just find a market for it.

Right now, online, you can find other herb growers that sell rosemary hydrosol for $7.00 for 3 ounces.  That makes our product worth about $500.  The oil sells for $7 to $8 and ounce.  That makes what we have in oil worth about $150.  All totaled $650 worth of product - but its not worth anything if you can't find anyone to buy it.

Hydrosols and essential oils are used in bath and body products, in candles, in homeopathic remedies and in many other ways.  They smell great.  Heck, you could even dump a bunch in the bathwater if you just want to treat yourself some time.

So here's the thing- if you  know of anyone who uses hydrosols or essential oils - send them our way.  We've got some GREAT rosemary product that we'd love to get rid of - I'd even make them a good deal!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Voice of a Woman Farmer

I’m almost 51 now.  I realized this in the shower this morning as I was thinking how good the warm water felt on my aching knees and hips and how I wished I could be our little black dog who lays in the sun all day, gets fed when she wants it and gets played with on her terms.

I’m old enough to remember rotary phones, manual typewriters, black and white television, computers with paper punch cards, DOS, party lines, riding in the car without a seatbelt and biking without a helmet.   Old enough to know that kids should play outside – play – tag, kick the can, freeze tag and kick ball. 

I’m old enough to remember the burning of bras and the entering of women into the workforce en mass but I wasn’t old enough to understand the revolution.  At my age, at that time, I would have much rather burned the body pillow size sanitary napkins and the belts used to hold them.  Now, bras are decorated and pink is worn by our NFL athletes and you have to be ‘Tough Enough To Wear Pink’. 

Seems the bras have come out of the closet and women’s issues are no longer a silent curse to discuss in hushed voices in dark alleys.
I’m old enough to have been told by my high school guidance counselor that women didn’t belong in the landscaping or forestry industry.    But I was wise enough not to listen.  I have worked in male predominated fields all my life and done my share of working on the cracks in that glass ceiling.  Every landscaping company I worked for, with all the men I worked with, I had to work harder, lift more, sell more, and carry more just to be considered an equal.  I have to admit, when I was younger, out-doing my male counterparts was a source of pride. 

One day at a landscaping company I worked for in Minnesota, the mother of three of the men I worked with came in and stated she just had to see what we were doing as ‘the boys’ were coming home and falling asleep on the couch and in the recliner instead of going out to play baseball and hunt and fish.  It felt so good to know that they had been working hard to keep up with me!  But of course, at almost 51, I now pay the price with varicose veins from lifting too many heavy things a 5’2” gal ought not to lift, and bad knees and shoulders that just won’t lift those things anymore. 
So what does all of this have to do with gardendwellers FARM?  I’m getting there, bear with me.

Recently a farmer I work with through Dakota College atBottineau blogged about her experience as a woman farmer.  Her frustration at being marginalized shown through her words like the beam of a flashlight on a cloudy night with no moon.  She’s 33.  She’s a farmer.  She’s also, by the way, a mother, a wife, a community member with lots to give (and she does) but the acclaim for the success of their farm goes to her husband – every time.  It’s frustrating, for her and for me.  You can read her blog post here: http://www.riverboundfarm.com/blaahg.html

I thought we had come a long way – but in reading her blog and upon more consideration, I see that we have a long way to go.  I began thinking about my neighbor.  She works side by side with her husband.  She drives the tractors, works the cattle, tends the crops.  In addition, she is a fabulous mother and a very involved and giving community member for our township and the small towns that surround us.  And yet, when describing to locals where we live, listeners always respond “Oh, you live near the (insert the husbands name here)’s place.”  Why isn’t it ‘her’ place or ‘their’ place?

At gardendwellers FARM, Tall, Dark, and Handsome and I have always worked side by side. 
With sales at farmers markets, our customers have always seen us as equally a part of the business and man are they quick to notice if one of us is missing from the day.  Our customers expect to always see us together - like some sort of odd Siamese twins.  We usually don’t get called by name but instead are called the ‘gardendwellers’ or the ‘dwellers’.  I have been lucky to feel equal in every way.  Most of the media people we have come into contact with have been very balanced in their approach to the stories they tell about our farm.  However, there was the one.

I, like my friend, experienced a media person – a male reporter – that insisted Tall, Dark, and Handsome take the day off from working road construction to be at the farm when he came to interview us about gardendwellers.  We obliged.  Throughout the whole interview, the focus was on Tall, Dark, and Handsome, even though my son and I had been the ones to run the operation for most of this summer.  I suppose I could have stolen the show by putting on a bikini and laying myself over the hood of the tractor but then you know for sure that the focus would have been on the tractor. 

My point is this; while I have had my share of ‘struggles against huMANity’ in my almost 51 years, I’m awfully lucky to live and work with a man that sees me as an equal, to have customers that recognize we are a team and that’s how gardendwellers operates, to have a life where I do not feel marginalized. 

A life where I am the one who is asked to serve on committees, to teach classes and to share my passion. 
Believe me girls, I’ve been there, I know what it feels like to be the one whose work goes unnoticed, and it’s no fun.  (I worked for 6 years as a manager in a landscaping company with an almost absentee owner and every day even repeat customers would come in and ask for Jeff instead of speaking to me first.)  Somewhere along the way, like my friend, I found my voice.  I began to speak up, toot my own horn and call the little bastards who wouldn’t recognize me as an equal on the carpet.  It’s not until you speak up that you begin to realize your true potential.  Find your voice.  Speak loud and clear and don’t let the cavemen get away with not realizing that you are the glue that holds that farming operation together – not just the cook and baby watcher.

In two weeks I will be speaking at the National Women Foodand Agriculture Conference – Cultivating Our Food, Farms, and Future in DesMoines Iowa.  It will be days filled with women who have found their own voice.  It will be invigorating.  I’m going to keep this problem that our North Dakota women farmers have in mind while I’m there.  I’ll look for answers, and if I find any – I’ll try to implement what I’ve learned when I return to my home state and farm. 



Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why I Have a Dog Part 2.

So I've already written about why I have Ida Done It Anyway - our little cocker spaniel house dog - who by the way now has two of her three legs in Rally Excellent through the AKC - heading for the final leg in a couple weeks.
But I haven't written about why I have dog number 2 - Don't Coddle the Barn Dog, A.K.A Millie.  And yes, that is her official name with the AKC Canine Companions - American Mixed Breed registry. 

Although we got her second, second hand so we're not sure exactly WHAT kind of dog she is, we were told she is half Australian Shepherd and half German Shepherd, both herding breeds with good instincts.  The Aussie I believe as she certainly follows the Aussie rule number one: If it's on the ground, it's MINE.  That includes gloves, mittens, unused soaker hoses, frogs, tools, and anything else left on the ground unattended.
Millie's job description was always to be:
  •  Live in the barn
  • Keep the barn, farmyard, orchards and production field from predators
  • Don't get underfoot
  • Don't bark unnecessarily
  • Don't bother the neighboring farmers
She's done a pretty good job of bothering the ground squirrels and gophers enough to keep them from the yard and production lot.  She has caught a mouse or mole or two and she loves chasing the birds out of 'her' barn.  She has befriended the chickens and loves them dearly.  She doesn't bark unnecessarily and thus far hasn't bothered the neighboring farmers except this spring when she also thought it was her job to keep the ducks out of the wet spot in the field across the road.

However, this canine has exhibited some unforeseen vegetarian attributes.  She showed signs of vegetarianism early on but now, with my personal vegetable garden in full swing - she has become the ultimate veggie thief - going so far as to forgo the expensive dog food the Boy purchases for her in preference for vine ripened tomatoes, peas, cucumbers and the like.

No veggie is safe:  (sorry for my shadow in the photos - I'm no photographer and catching her in the act is no easy task - she's gotten pretty sneaky)

Peas are good.

Cherry tomatoes grow right at mouth level - how convenient!

Vine ripened tomatoes are the bomb and she knows exactly which ones are ripe.

Speaking of choosing only the ripe ones, when it comes to raspberries, this dog knows a thing or two.  One day Tall Dark and Handsome was very concerned as Millie had 'blood' all over her head.   On further inspection the 'blood' was raspberry juice from a run through the raspberry patch.  On hot days, she goes out and lays in between the rows and eats what she can reach. 

Lately, as our mushrooms go into their fall flush, a mushroom has been just the thing for breakfast each morning.  That's what's left of the white stem laying on the ground, the head of the mushroom is in her mouth.

So far she has shown no signs of being an 'Herbivore' but that is only because she is not allowed in the herb production lot.  To follow Good Agricultural Practices and the Food Safety Rules we need to follow to pass inspection, no domesticated or non-domesticated animals are allowed in production areas - thus we need a dog that is trained to stay out of them and trained to keep other animals out as well.  A very important job on gardendwellers FARM. 

So - why I have a dog part 2 - to cull my tomatoes, to keep my from eating too many sweets covered in raspberries, to ensure that I do not have to spend too much time picking beans, peas, cucumbers or cherry tomatoes and to trim the mushroom bed.  Oh, and maybe to keep those pesky birds out of the barn. 

Don't Coddle the Barn Dog, AKA Millie, in her winter coat, taken January 2013.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mushroom Extravaganza!

This spring we have been blessed.  Well, maybe its overwhelmed more than blessed...
You see, all of this rain has brought about a flush from the mushroom bed I installed last year.  Now we have an overabundance of beautiful, tasty, wine cap mushrooms.  With my several posts on Facebook regarding what we'll do with them, one person requested a blog post about our experiences.  So, this one's for you Annie!

First, let me just say that growing mushrooms is easy - even in North  Dakota.  I purchased peg spawn from Field and Forest http://www.fieldforest.net/store/index.php?main_page=page&id=3&chapter=0.  They were rather inexpensive and you can grow wine caps on wood chips or straw.  They are also great because they have a very distinctive wine or brown 'cap' to them, making them easy to identify if other species come up on your bed.

Wine caps grow on many different types of wood chips. For best results make it at least 40% hardwood, and aged no more than 3 years.

Peg Spawn is just as the name implies comes as a little wooden peg covered in white 'mushroom sperm'. 

Prepare your wood chip bed so they are at least 4 inches deep on top of well drained slightly scuffed up soil. 

Mine is right next to the barn where cattle used to be so the soil is rich and filled with composted hay and straw - how perfect!  Now all you have to do is toss some water to them during dry times.
After several months of sitting and stewing (get it, stewed mushrooms?) they will start to poke their little heads up. 

Then more little heads will appear.

And if you have a wet spell like this spring - a lot of little heads!

I like to pick them while the cap is still nice and round instead of being flared out.  Once the mushroom cap flares out they are getting ready to 'spawn' or send out their spores so if any of them get ahead of me and get to the spawning stage, I like to just leave them go.  I'm not sure it is true but it makes sense to me that the ones I leave are spreading spores for next year.

Once picked, I store them in the fridge in a paper bag.  Storing mushrooms in a plastic bag or container just holds too much moisture and they get soggy, slimy - yuck.  So into paper bags it is.

After we eat our fill on the grill, in salads, sandwiches, wraps, sautéed with steaks, deep fried stems and what not, I dehydrate the rest.  These will be perfect in soup and stew this winter. 

Wine cap mushrooms have a very distinctive taste - nuttier than a portabella and very woodsy as they would say on Food TV.  I like it.  I have noticed however that when cooked, they take on the flavor of whatever they are cooked with and amplify it - the MSG of the mushroom world!

So that's it - you'll want to be sure to check them twice a day when they are in season as they grow really fast.  They will show up early in the year and if you're lucky once again about September in our area.  You should refresh your bed with new wood mulch every or every other year and add new spawn every other year to keep it going. 

So Enjoy and remember, mushrooms for Fun Guys!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

First Farmer in the Field in Benson County

As winter receeds and snow melts, farmers across Benson County ready equipment and feel the need to scratch the itch to get to work.  But one farmer has already tilled and will plant today.  On the first of May 2013, gardendwellers FARM tilled, raked, and are ready for seeding on the 2nd.

Headlines like that will get you attention where we live.  All over the county farmers are receiving deliveries of seed, preparing their equipment and waiting, waiting, and waiting for the fields to dry so they can till and plant their already late crops.  Being the first in the field is an advantage.  It's an advantage over your neighbors and kind of like being the one to have the first ripe tomato of the season, a reason for glory and local heroism.  Well maybe just a little good natured ribbing.

Yes, its true.  We tilled yesterday.  While snow still lay on our fields and run-off filled the eastern half of our planting beds, the soil inside the high tunnel was warm and dry.  The site we chose for the high tunnel is high in organic matter and fluffs up nicely when tilled.  It's been warm in there for at least three weeks with good soil temperatures but the night time temps have kept us from planting our most important crop, basil.  The basil really doesn't like night time temps below 45 or so.  The high tunnel will only provide about 8 degrees of additional heat and an extra row cover over sensitive seedlings an additional one or two.  We had night time temperatures in the mid to low 20's at night up until now so we have been waiting for a little more warmth before seeding. 

Now, I know, all of you 'regular' farmers out there are saying "sure, but they're not really farmers".  I tend to disagree.  A farmer - according to the USDA's FSA is someone who grows a crop for sale.  We do that.  Our crops, although unconventional, are crops.  We tend them in the same way any other farmer would.  We till, plow, rake, seed, cultivate and harvest.  Oh, and we sell - we sell a lot.  Our harvest comes all summer long instead of just in August or September. Our equipment is smaller. We apply for farm programs and follow the markets just like 'regular' farmers.  The commodities market, yes there is one for herbs, helps us determine what to charge for our product.  We are a farm, in every respect.  We're even getting a few laying hens next week!

So here we are, waiting for 55 days, the time it takes from seed to harvest on basil, before we can begin our harvest season in earnest.  In the meantime, we're glad to see the snow receed on the outdoor fields and our mulched perennial herbs are appearing more and more every day.   Once the sun hits them, it won't be long before the chives, sage, Greek oregano, thyme, tarragon, and savory are up and growing well.  As soon as the field is tillable the parsley will get seeded.

In looking back at our log books we have seeded basil in the high tunnel as early as April 18th in 2010 and as late as May 6th in 2011.  The parsley is usually long since planted so for us this will be late.  Hopefully the warm weather will speed it up a bit.

I look forward to seeing all of our farmer friends as they begin to work the soil around our farm.  Your big tractors are a welcome sight.  Here's hoping for a good harvest this year for us all!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What to do when it snows, AGAIN...

March came in like a lion and what do you do on Lion days when you're gardendwellers FARM?  You cook!

During our last snowstorm, about a week ago, I busied myself with making home made soup and bread.  I made my favorite stand by, Venison Mushroom Barley.  Since the weather man insists on predicting snow for tomorrow and cold weather this weekend, I thought it might be a good time to share my recipe.

First, I have to say that I've made this soup so often that the recipe is kind of more like a 'guideline' than a cast in stone commandment.  But here goes:

First, choose some good venison.  I use a roast and then cut it into one inch chunks.  After years of processing our own deer, the guys have learned that I prefer to have some packages of chunks to use in soup and stew and stir fry so now I always have bags ready for just such an occasion.  I thaw the meat then put it into our own marinade.  This is Barry's own made up by  him recipe and I most likely shouldn't share it but I'm going to: one tablespoon Lowry's Seasoning Salt, one tablespoon Steak dust - any brand, one teaspoon mesquite seasoning and a few jiggers of Worcestershire sauce in about one cup of water or enough water to cover the meat.  Let that marinade in the fridge overnight or for 6 hours or so.

Then, brown the meat. 

While the meat is browning, chop up carrots, onions, and celery.  I like to chop about a cup to cup and a half of each with the exception of carrots which Barry doesn't like cooked so I chop just enough of those to add some color - you could do a cup or so.  I put these veggies in my soup pot with a big daub of butter (about two tablespoons) and let them saute until slightly tender.
Then I chop up two containers of mushrooms.  I just use the button or shitake mushrooms but when I can and when I have them, I use the winecap mushrooms we grow here on the farm.

Then I chop up some garlic.  I like garlic so normally I use at least three cloves but for this batch I had to use up the last of the North Star Organic farm garlic from last year - pretty sad that its all gone but looking forward to buying more this summer.  You can see the variety I like best is Fire.

I add the mushrooms and the garlic to the sauteing veggies and let them cook another 2 to 3 minutes more then add the stock - one box of each beef and chicken...
Then I add the winter savory.  You'd think as an herb farm I'd have this fabulous spice rack and spice cupboard - but its not true.  I keep a lot of my dried herbs in resealable plastic bags.  That way I can keep them as whole as possible until I use them and the added benefit is that you can just kind of crush the bag to remove them from the stems and then reach in to the bottom of the bag to get the herb leaves.

Winter savory has a little peppery flavor that goes well with the venison and veggies and it also has that strong, warm, comfort food feel to it.  Again, I don't measure, I just add a lot because I know we like it.  If I had to guess I'd say about two tablespoons of the dried winter savory.
I stir that all up then add the meat back in and finally I add a little salt and the barley.  About a cup of dry barley goes in because I like barley.

Here comes the best part.  Let all this sit and simmer for an hour or more.  It fills the house with this great smell and you'll find the whole family sneaking in for a nibble every once in a while.

While that simmers I bake off the bread that has been rising all day.  That also made the house smell great.

I made two baguettes as I like a crusty bread with soup.

That's it!  My favorite winter time, stuck in the house cause its snowing outside activity.  Enough to be shared with everyone!  It always amazes me when I can eat venison that tastes this good that some hunters make their whole deer into sausage - what a waste! 

So this weekend, if we get more snow and you end up inside - do a little cooking.  It's good for the heart.