Thursday, January 31, 2013

Filling in for Big Ag

Big Ag has been sick with the flu all week long, so today I will be going out to dig holes and plant our ollalieberry and blueberry bushes and Seckel pear tree I bought last week.  Normally, we have something of a division of labor around the homestead, where Big Ag does much of the heavy lifting and I do all the other lighter tasks. 

Digging holes in this caliche soil of ours requires a fair amount of upper body strength, which I do not have, at least not in abundance.  I can walk up and down hills for days collecting produce from our property, spend long hours juicing pomegranates and making preserves, hang wash and such, but I'm not good at the heavier types of manual farm labor.

But when one half of the team goes down, the other has to fill in, and this is nowhere more true than on a farm. You just can't pile everything on the absent co-worker's desk until he/she returns. These bare-root berry bushes and trees we got won't wait until Big Ag is well, any more than the chickens can wait to be fed, watered and cleaned out when I'm down with a cold or flu.  More than quarterly sales reports or weekly staff meetings, there would be dire consequences to blowing off or postponing what needs to be done here. So we each have to be able to do the other's tasks, in a pinch.  

We do have Groceries, our middle son, living with us, so it's possible for him to help, too.  But since Groceries attends college and works when he's not in class, the weekends are about all I can count on him for.  I guess if Big Ag and I ever went down with the same bug at the same time, Groceries would be doing our chores in the darkness of evening, after he returns home. One thing's for sure: With a farm you have to always be sure there's someone around to cover the chores, or lives (animal and plant) will be lost. 

The good news is that it's supposed to be 70 degrees and sunny today, so I at least will have pleasant weather to go out and be a manly farmer in.  Now excuse me while I belch and fart and get my masculine side going here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Well, this hurts

Throwing food out has always been something that I hate to do.  The fact is, Americans throw out approximately 40 percent of the food they buy, most of the time because they end up in the form of leftovers and we don't know what to do with them.  Our grandmothers would have made soup or casseroles out of it all, but we don't live in a culture that re-purposes leftovers, so they end up getting thrown away.

I try and re-invent leftovers as much as possible, but face a stiff audience -- my family -- who doesn't care for leftovers unless they're something fabulous that can be re-heated in much the same form it started in.  Like burrito meat.  But leftover celery, a small piece of cornbread, or some cranberry sauce will usually sit in the fridge until I finally get disgusted and throw it out.  I probably make more effort than the average person to re-use leftovers, but I have a long way to go, I will be honest.

But we are worming our chickens right now, they did their time on the Wazine and now we are waiting for it to clear their system.  In the meantime, their eggs are inedible, and so, as perfect and lovely as they appear, they have to go straight into the trash.  We can't even give them to the dogs, because they are being wormed right now as well and they don't need any double-dosing on the active ingredients in the wormers.

One week from today we can again begin collecting and consuming our eggs, but until's going to look like this.  And more than store-bought goods, when I see my hens producing food, I'm much less likely to want to waste it.  And so it hurts, more than a little, to throw these away.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dessa Vez (This time)

There is so much that can be done with music, acoustically, and in this electronic era its easy to forget that.  Listening to this Portuguese song makes me remember.

New Food Warnings

Some interesting statistics from the CDC this morning, from USA Today:

The entire article is interesting, but I think there's a definite take-home message from it all:  For maximum food safety, grow your greens, don't buy them; drink  unpasteurized milk from your own animals, or if you are going to buy, buy pasteurized (sigh); and be careful where you buy your meat birds.  

In the age of industrial food production, you can't be too careful.  This is especially true when it comes to unpasteurized milk, sadly.  When we lived in the San Joaquin Valley we saw a bunch of people, including children, become ill from a local raw-milk dairy in the area. They had a great reputation, and I'm sad it happened for everyone involved, including them. I know there are supposed to be nutritional benefits of consuming raw milk, and a lot of people are fans. But if you can get your own dairy products from your own goat, sheep or cow, you would probably be the safest product you could provide to yourself and your family, if you're a milk drinker.  We are actually thinking of buying a milking goat this spring for that exact reason. 

As for chicken, that's a tough one. The worst case of food poisoning I've ever seen from a chicken came from a woman who processed her own birds.  She gave herself campylobactor.  But again, a small grower using a decent butcher would probably be fine, or an individual, if they were extremely well-schooled in how to do it safely.  I know Joel Salatin was giving workshops in how to do it yourself, which is wonderful.

All in all, just another heads up to the fact that, when it comes to your food, the more you know about who grew it and where it came from, the better.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dog blanket

Sputnik loves his new dog blanket/bed I crocheted for him out of leftover yarn.  It's a circular blanket that is roughly the same size as a dog bed  To make it, I simply did a single chain of crochet, about 30 inches in length, then single stitched back, attaching to the last string I did, over and over.  Basically the same pattern you'd use to make a scarf.  I changed colors when I was bored, and didn't worry about much else, since Sputnik is not very picky about his sleeping gear, as long as its warm.

After it was as wide as I wanted it to be (about 12 inches), I did another one exactly like it and then attached the two pieces by their ends, which made a circular piece of crocheting that could be draped around him, tucked under him, whatever.  Since he tends to drool a little when he sleeps (and really, who doesn't?) I can come in after he's planted himself somewhere and put this wrap around him, tucking his head under part of it so our sofa and bed are protected.  It also can cover him up, as you can see in the pictures.

All in all, a pretty good purpose for any leftover yarn you may have laying around.

Chicken Butt

When the boys were little, they used to play a little joke on other kids, where they'd ask,"Guess what?" and the answer would be, "chicken butt!"  Apparently if you are a 12 year-old boy, this is absolutely hilarious.  But I'll tell you, chicken butts are serious business.
Guess what?  Chicken butt!

Last week for instance, I noticed a marked increase of what I would discreetly call, "dirty eggs" coming out of one of the nest boxes  Occasionally, under normal circumstances, chicken eggs can have a little trace of dung on them, here and there, and when that happens you simply leave it there until right before you are ready to crack the egg, since there is a protective bloom on the eggshell that keeps the insides free of germs.  In fact, if you do what seems the common-sense thing to to, which is wash the egg immediately after bringing it in the house,  you destroy the bloom on the shell and thereby potentially contaminate your egg.

Ellen: Not amused by chicken butt humor

But where I am going with this is that I started getting eggs that were beyond help, they were so messy. The last one was so awful I just fed it to the dog, right there and then.  But when I went in search of the culprit I found Ellen, a Buff Orpington, with a ton of built-up, caked-on dung all over her rear feathers.

I ended up having to bring her inside and put her into a warm bath, just to loosen it up.  Then, since I was afraid the others would pull at her feathers if they looked soaking wet, I gave her a little blow dry afterwards.  And a sample-sized packet of styling mousse to take home and try.  Just kidding on that last one.

All those years I fantasized about owning chickens, bathing their asses and giving them a blow dry was not something I'd ever imagined doing, but there you go. Farm life is like that.

So that happened.  Now I have clean eggs again, but upon further research, I understand a dirty chicken bottom could be a sign of roundworm infestation, so last night I went to Tractor Supply Store and bought some Wazine wormer not only for my chickens, but also some Safeguard for my two dogs.  Because I know the chickens have surely sampled some of the delish dog turds out in our yard, and I know the dogs occasionally dine on chicken poop.

The bad news is that once I get started on this, we will not be able to eat the chicken eggs for about 14 days, as the chemicals used to worm them will be released into whatever eggs they lay.  But hopefully I have enough eggs stored up that we'll be fine, and when we're all done, the hens will be too.

And clean chicken butts for all will be the order of the day.  As it should be.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

We Made It

Big Ag is currently getting over being sick, so we've been around the house this weekend.  This has allowed me to get caught up on projects (including what had been turning into the Perpetual Marmalade Project, as you saw yesterday).  This morning we were sitting at the dining room table with our mugs of hot coffee and I paused for just a moment and looked around.  In the kitchen was my big stock pot, still out after canning the marmalade with it yesterday.  There were several bottles of homemade carrot wine sitting next to it on the counter.  And while this was happening, we were having a discussion about where to buy feed for the goats and lambs we'll be getting within a few months.  

And I realized we've done what so many people have as their goal....we started as urban homesteaders, and are now we're actual farmsteaders, living on acreage and able to construct this part of our lives the way we want.  

On Friday night, we went to a party in the neighborhood and got to know some of the folks who own property around us.  Some have planted olive trees and are bottling their own olive oil for sale.  Others are growing grapes and making their own wine.  But the interesting thing is, almost all of them came from urban areas (mostly Los Angeles and the Bay Area).  All wanted another kind of life, and did whatever it took to make it happen.

And so this morning, as I was hanging wash outside in the cool breeze and looking over our land, I realized we've made it to our own promised land.  It doesn't mean it will be perfect, or that we'll even be able to bring all our plans for the land into reality, but it means we're here, right now, and should always be conscious of that, and what it took to get here.

The freedom to add another pear tree or three to the orchard, or raise livestock, or just live close to the land is such a dream for some people (us included).  Today I am thankful to wake up in that reality.  I may not be going to church today, but it doesn't mean I'm not celebrating God with every shovelful of dirt I dig and every load of wash I hang against the cobalt sky.  

"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land; a land of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey."  Deut. 8: 7 - 9 (abridged)


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Foolproof Marmalade Recipe

This morning I finally got around to finishing the marmalade I'd begun making a couple of days ago.  The recipe I use is great, because there are several logical stopping places where you can put all your food in the fridge and leave it until you have time to fire up the canner, sterilize your mason jars, etc. So this morning I took the pulp, the little matchstick-cut peels, and the sugar, and brought them all to a boil.  

The exact recipe for this is almost foolproof, hence perfect for me.   You need one cup of peels, and then equal amounts of pulp and sugar.  I ended up with about 3 and 3/4 cups of orange pulp, so I added the same amount of sugar.  The peels, sugar, pulp, and a half teaspoon of butter (to cut down on foaming) are put in the pot to boil, until they reach 220 degrees F.  At that point, you will want to place a little on a cold spoon (I'd freeze two or three in advance for this purpose) and put it into the fridge.  When the marmalade on the spoon cools, it should be thick enough that when you push on it, it wrinkles up a bit.  This lets you know your batch has cooked enough to gel.  I have to emphasize that it MUST hit 220 degrees for this to happen.  Otherwise you'll end up with some lovely orange sauce.

Once the right temperature and consistency is acquired, you can then shut the heat off and ladle the mixture into hot jars and place them in a water bath canner for 10 minutes or so.  

When you are done, you will end up with delicious Scottish-style marmalade! 

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Review of No 'Poo, Day Three

Today was the second time I've washed my hair using the "no 'poo" method of cleaning and de-greasing my hair.  The baking soda "wash" really does seem to work as far as cleaning, and the vinegar rinse is a very good de-tangler --- fantastic, actually -- but I've got to say the texture and feel of my hair is not nice right now.  It's kind of stiff and clumpy.  I'm honestly afraid if I keep going this way I will end up with dreadlocks, which look cute on young adults half my age, but definitely not on me.

Some of these hair problems I owe to, believe it or not, my Scots DNA.  My hair would be right at home out in the Hebrides somewhere; it's a bit thick and bushy, with lots of body and a fair amount of frizz. This is not an uncommon hair type to find in the British Isles. But all DNA aside, since giving up a store-bought conditioner, the frizz looks worse than ever, and my hair has absolutely no shine at all.  Which might be fine on the set of "Braveheart," but not here.  I'm sure its healthy, but let's face it -- healthy ain't necessarily attractive, as anyone who has stood next to someone who doesn't believe in deodorants can tell you.  So it's a dilemma.

I am going to attempt to concoct a rinse using coconut milk and maybe a little olive oil and see what it does for my hair, but if these things do not work then I'm not sure what my next step will be.  

But while I've been doing this experiment, I've read some more about the ingredients in commercial shampoos, and am even more convinced now that sulfates, salt and formaldehyde have no place whatsoever on my scalp.  I will not be going back to commercially prepared shampoo and conditioners, no matter what. So its just going to be a case of experimenting around until I find what works.  I'll keep you updated.

**Update**  Tried some pure coconut milk for a rinse this afternoon.  As a de-tangler it sucks, but as a conditioner it works very well.  Once I got the tangles out, my hair felt much better than it did when I was just using the vinegar rinse.  It's not all clumpy like it was before. Now I just need to find a homemade shampoo I like.  And finish the marmalade I started yesterday, of course.**

Special Delivery!

Hooray!  Trees of Antiquity called yesterday to tell us our Ollalieberry and heirloom blueberry bushes will delivered in town today, and I'm heading down the road to pick them up this morning.  We've had rain and cool weather, so this will be a great time to transplant.  I'm still waiting on two special heirloom rose bushes I ordered, and hopefully those will arrive soon too (they are coming from a bit farther away than the berries).  

We have about one more round of planting to go, and then we are done with the permanent landscaping, berries and trees for this year.  We still have some vines to put in, but hopefully we can get some cuttings soon and begin that project.  I'm thinking red wine grapes only, as the country wines I make (pear, dandelion, and carrot) are similar to white wines once they're done, so we've got all the bases covered.

But I think the next big task is going to be covering the dead front lawn with some weed-blocking barrier, and ordering a bunch of bark to go on that and around everything we planted out there, finishing the project. 

Sometimes it seems like this place is just a project list with a fence around it, but, you know, that's country living for you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Making Marmalade...Or Not

It's January, which means it's marmalade time.  Organic oranges are ripe and cheap for the asking, and so I picked today to fire up the canner and get a few jars put up for the rest of the year.  This morning has been about preparation, which has consisted of:

1.  Thought about making the marmalade.

2.  Thought some more.

3.  Watched an episode of "House Hunters," where the couple moves to the South of France.

4.  Thought about moving to the South of France.

5.  Took cute pictures of my dog sleeping.

6.  Headed into the kitchen.

7.  Ate an orange.

8.  Arranged surviving oranges in a nice still-life for a picture for my blog.

As you can see, making marmalade is a complicated process with many steps.  The reason I put it off and procrastinate is because the first step consists of peeling about six oranges, removing all the pith from the skins, then cutting the skins into little, matchstick-sized pieces.  It's maddeningly meticulous, before you even get to the cooking part, but if you like authentic Scottish marmalade, the orange skin is an essential part.

And so it must be done in the exacting fashion described above...thinking, dog pictures, eating your ingredients.

So I'm going to get right on this marmalade business.


(I'm thinking I will at least do the matchstick part today.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No 'poo here

Every homesteader eventually gets hit with the "I'm not using shampoo anymore," bug, and it's been hitting me these last few days, especially since I've decided to stop using hair color.  Why not stop with the chemical-laden shampoo as well?

So after a long day working in the orchard, late this afternoon I jumped into the shower with the aim of washing my hair without using shampoo.  I used a tablespoon of baking soda in a cup of warm water, worked into my scalp well to "wash," followed by a tablespoon of cider vinegar in another cup of water to rinse.  Dried it as usual, and as of right now everything seems fine.  Smells clean, looks clean, feels clean.

I am hoping I can switch over to this 'poo-less method of cleaning my hair, but the test is going to be my scalp in a week or two.  

That's because scalp smell is not attractive, except when it's the smell of a baby's head, and then it is intoxicating, maternal Heaven.  Even when it's not your baby.  Allow a mother to get a whiff of almost any baby's head and they get this rapturous look on their faces, like they've seen a vision of Nirvana (place, not band).  But it's probably just their estrogen levels heading off the charts and into the stratosphere.  A brand new baby's scalp.  Holy moly, it is the smell of human perfection.

But I passed a woman in the supermarket the other day and could smell her scalp or hair from about two feet away, and friends let me tell you, when its an adult's head you smell, and from that far away, it's about as far from Heaven as you can get.  

And I never, never want to be that woman.  Ever. So we shall see how shampoo-less living goes.  I'll let you know.

Re-usable Swiffer inserts

The original good idea

Like most people who have wood floors, I love the original Swiffer sweeper.  Like most conservationists, I think the idea of buying a box of Swiffer sheets (to be used briefly and then discarded) is a ridiculous idea.  These days there is even an electric Swiffer out there, which uses a charger to run a little motor that sucks things into a dixie cup-sized dust container, in exactly the same way a vacuum does.  Except, unlike a vacuum, it stays plugged into its charger when not in use, and therefore uses electricity 24 hours a day.  Seems like a big price to pay to pick up Fluffy's pet hair. There is also a Swiffer mop available, which uses batteries (I think) to run something that squirts floor cleaner on the floor before you mop, so you don't have to... or something like that.

This is just one of the many times a company has found themselves with a successful product and then ruined the whole idea by taking it up a notch or two (or ten). 

Seriously, what a Swiffer floor cleaner has always been best at is removing what remains after you've given your floor a thorough sweeping with a broom.  It picks up the leftover stuff that's impossible to catch with either a broom or dustpan, like flyaway dust-bunnies (which in our house are more the size of dust mastedons), ash, fabric fluff and pet hair. 

Made better with a washable electrostatic cloth

But, if you go ahead and buy one of those old-fashioned, 10 dollar original Swiffers, you can easily attach a washable, re-usable electrostatic cloth to the Swiffer instead of their sheets, and use the same cloths over and over, shaking them out and/or washing them in between uses.  That not only saves money, but also energy and paper.  

The electrostatic cloths are available in most supermarket cleaning-supply aisles.  They're quite cheap; under $5 American for a package of three. They also work great as regular old, dustclothes, thereby eliminating the need for, you guessed it,  a Swiffer duster (which features plastic handles and non-reusable dusting attachments).

In other words, it may be a Swiffer world, but you don't necessarily have to live in it as their parent corporation would probably like you to, constantly trolling the aisles of your favorite store looking for refills of their products.

The Swiffer is a good idea...but that doesn't mean it can't be made better.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Miss Clariol? Meet Miss Reality.

I was checking out a friend's photos on her Facebook page this morning when I saw something that hit a chord with me.  It was a photo of her and her husband.  He, the silver fox, with mostly gray-to-white hair,  and her....with the same light brown hair she's always had, ever since we met in high school.  Different color hair, yet they are both in their 50's.  

It caught my attention because of another, similar couple I saw yesterday.  It was these two:

Yes, it's our Vice President and the lovely Second Lady.  Same deal though.  Him, completely white on top.  Her, the blonde hair of a 20 year-old.  They are both in their 60's (but no matter what her hair color, she still looks seriously fabulous for a women in her 60's though, don't you think?).

I notice this more now because, after 20 years of first highlighting, then outright dying my graying hair, I'm in the process of growing it out.  The idea of slathering my head in carcinogenic hair color for the rest of my life lost its appeal a few years ago.  I eat homegrown organic food, I make my own soap and laundry detergent to avoid the unknown (or sometimes, known) chemicals put into the potions they sell in the stores....but I was still hanging on to commercial hair dye and slapping that on every 6 weeks?  Didn't make any sense.

So I've begun the process of growing it out -- with help, mind you. I went to a colorist a couple of weeks ago to get some super light blonde highlights put in front, so I didn't end up looking like a skunk (ever-widining white stripe down the middle of my head) for the next 18 months.  

It's not easy, I will tell you that.  Even with some color blending, it still looks a little funky, with roots showing just a bit, especially in the back, where it's darker.  When I am done, my hair will be about 75 percent white -- completely white in the front, with about a 50/50 blend in the back.  It is a scary, but still powerful thing, to let go of the one thing so many women do to keep looking young.  Not everyone can afford cosmetic surgery, chic clothes, or monthly facials (I know I can't, nor would I want to).  But there are very few among us who can't pop for an eight dollar bottle of Miss Clairol.  And so, it seems everyone does.

Goodbye, Miss Clairol

Or almost everyone.  As I go about my erranding some days, I look around at the other women I see.  And I have to say, I see some fabulous-looking gray heads of hair out there.  I predict, with the aging of our population, we will see even more of American women allowing themselves to gray naturally over the next decade or two.  Hair color is a burden not every woman wants to pick up and carry with her for 40+ years.  I know I don't.  But once you start, it's very difficult to change back.  

But I'm determined to do this, if just so Big Ag and I don't look like yet another silver fox/high school blonde couple.  So stay tuned, while I take this journey back to the reality of what my hair really looks like.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Adventures in Soap-making

I looked in our storage cupboard yesterday and noticed we were running a little low on soap, so yesterday and this morning, I made some more.  For the first batch I decided to use coconut milk instead of water for the liquid, as I thought it would make a nice, soothing soap.  It was a classic kind of spur-of-the-moment-and-destined-for-failure idea I'm famous for, because while the concept of coconut milk soap sounds fabulous, when the lye is poured into whatever liquid you're using, it heats up that liquid to about 150 degrees.  Got (scorched) milk, anyone?

Some Very Unlovely Coconut Milk Soap bars
 So, yes, when I poured my lye in, it immediately scorched the coconut milk and smelled beyond awful.  If you've ever smelled scorching coconut milk, it's every bit as nasty as curdled cow's milk. No, I take that back.  It's worse.  And as you can see, this soap also looks like it may be a bit brittle. It will have to cure for a couple more weeks before I try it out, but if it's got a good fat content and lathers well, I'll keep it around.  If not, I'll grate it and use it to make laundry soap.  

(As of this morning, the disgusting smell is pretty much gone, so it actually may end up being a decent batch.  Talk about snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat.  And curdling, smelly defeat at that!)

But even if it all works out, it's still not a physically attractive bar of soap -- and I use my soap all over the house, including the guest bathroom.  Sometimes I even give some away. So this morning I made a second batch, using water as the liquid (the usual method) and adding some olive oil in addition to the usual coconut and soybean oils, just for fun.

Some Much Nicer Olive Oil Soap bars, still setting in their molds
This batch came out fine, so it looks like our family and friends will be lathered up and clean for the next several months.  Always a good thing when you live with a houseful of men.

**Update!!**  It's been 24 hours since I took the stinky batch out of the soap molds and the smell is completely gone!  I'm left with the slight orange-y smell from a small amount of orange extract I put into the soap, in the hope of diffusing the scorched milk smell.  Gold star for me today....doesn't happen often, but once in awhile, it DOES happen!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A momentary break from normal life

I am sitting here this morning in a quiet house, save for the humming and clink-clinking of the pellet stove.  This is unusual on a Sunday morning, as it's usually one of the times when there's a full house here.  My husband Big Ag is always around on Sundays, and most of the time there's at least one kid, (sometimes two or three) sleeping their Saturday night off in their room.   

This weekend my husband and stepson have gone to Death Valley for a camping weekend, and so I have the house to myself. Just me and this hot cup of coffee. It kind of rocks.

My weekend so far 
I must say that this aloneness is not unfamiliar to me.  Back before I got remarried, I was a single mom for 10 years, and my son would go to his Dad's fairly often, which meant I was by myself.  I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now, in limited doses.  I lived in a little tract house in the 'burbs, and could easily take care of it by myself.  Which I did for a long time.  

So today I have a little of that independence and freedom back to enjoy, once again.  I can go to the bathroom and leave the door open.  I can go back to bed at 10 a.m. if I feel like it.  Yesterday I went to the beach and took myself to my favorite fish taco stand, then sat with my feet in the sand, munching away and happily watching the surfers and paddle-boarders ride the waves.  It was liberating to feel so alone and free, almost like I was playing hooky from my regular life.  No trees got planted.  No crops got harvested.  I just fed livestock in the morning and took off for points west.

But I live on a farm now, so I recognize this aloneness may be a welcome break from routine, but it's not a lifestyle.  When you own acreage, more than ever, you need community and family around you.  This place can run with just me at the helm for a couple of days, but anything longer would not work.  There's just too much to do, and too much of it involve things I don't have the upper body strength to handle.  I can't run or repair fencing.  I can't dig trenches.  Not much good at heavy lifting, either.

And one thing about farm life is, ideally, part of being in a family.  Big Ag or one of the boys can do all the things I mentioned above, but they can't cook very well or make preserves, and don't much care for sweeping or hanging wash.  

No, I'm not fooled into thinking the grass is greener on the independent side of the pasture. Our little operation works because of love, yes, but also the division of labor.  So while any of us could be gone for a few days, none of us could be gone permanently without the whole system breaking down, in more ways than one.

But I've got to tell you, a day without the men blowing through the kitchen and messing it up, or random deadly farting, or having to watch yet another episode of "Duck Dynasty" on television is a welcome little vacation, in and of itself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Seed diversity and heirloom crops

From the paper, "Preserving Seed Diversity," possibly the best reasoning I've seen yet to preserve heirloom trees and vegetables by planting them wherever and whenever possible:

Heirloom seeds are incredibly important for the genetic diversity of agriculture. Commercially produced seeds of big agriculture, though high yielding and pest resistant, are genetically uniform and are helping to fuel what Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust calls a “mass extinction”.  According to Fowler, In 1880 farmers in the United States were growing over 7,000 named varieties of apple and since 6,800 have gone extinct. This is not exclusive to apples, over 100,000 varieties of wheat exist today, but many are in danger of being lost “not in the same way you lose your car keys…losing it in the same way that we lost the dinosaurs,”  simply because ease of industrial agriculture relies on uniformity. That uniformity can only be achieved by having genetically identical plants growing at the same height and ripening at the same time. Heirlooms have grown to be locally specific varieties, possessing resistance to the pests alongside which they evolved. The varied genetics often produce interesting colors and shapes as well as more intense flavors. Since heirloom varieties are not focused on easy mechanical harvesting or large fruit to stalk ratios, the plants themselves are larger and have larger leaves leading to an increase in photosynthesis and an increase in sugars produced for the fruit.

To real the entire article on the Food Security website (a clearinghouse of information and resources prepared by the students in Professor Kathleen Morrison's Spring 2012 course, "Food Security and Agriculture: Calumet" at the University of Chicago), follow this link:


It's warm out there today, meaning it's 50 degrees already, at 9 a.m.   But I'm fighting off a cold, which means my desire to be outside in the sunshine working will have to be tempered by my need for some sofa time.  But those 20 foot swells and 75 degree temperatures at the beach are calling to me as well....we shall see.

Friday, January 18, 2013

City Lights

Most nights when I walk out my back door I can see the lights of Paso Robles off in the distance, twinkling like the Land of Oz.  It's pretty. Some nights I wish I could be there, holding hands with Big Ag and dining at some dimly-lit restaurant, strolling the streets and popping into the in-town tasting rooms to sample local wines.  Other nights I'm happy to see it from 20 miles away on my hilltop; at those times, the city is a mysterious creature I'm content to watch from a distance.

Like most living things, the city is especially lovely from my hilltop view at about 5:30 a.m., when it's quietly sleeping under dawn's first light, the street lights winking out, one after another.  Once in awhile it's almost enough to make me miss the rituals of waking up in a city ... the rumble of the garbage truck and the early school busses, the smack of the morning paper on the doorstep, the gradually increasing hum of traffic as the city rises like a single entity and comes to life in the chill air. 

Yet despite missing some things, I still think that maybe having it available to enjoy, yet still living far enough away from it that I can't hear it, smell it or taste it in the air is a good thing. 

And by "a good thing," I mean damn near ideal.

Inside Days, Outside Days

I've realized recently that my days are pretty much divided into two categories -- inside days and outside days.  I don't have a preference of the two, unless the weather is doing something extremely hot or cold, but I've noticed I get more work done if I devote my time to either one or the other -- not both.
Inside Days

Inside days involve doing laundry, cleaning, making soap, laundry detergent, lotions and salves, doing canning and preserves, and often fixing a dinner that requires maximum involvement. Think oven-baked chicken, biscuits, a fresh salad and homemade dressing, and a cobbler for dessert.  My family loves inside days, because on outside days, they're sometimes left to fend for themselves, meal-wise.

Outside days are harder physically, but it's incredibly rewarding to work out in the fresh air and sun all day long.  These days usually consist of cleaning out coops, planting, watering, sweeping, digging, and other manual labor-oriented tasks, as well as running into town to errand and do my weekly grocery shopping.

But trying to do both in the same day often proves problematic.  The days I spend outdoor digging and trudging up and down our hill are NOT the ones that leave me with enough time or energy to fix a real, made-from-scratch, sit-down dinner.  The days I've spent indoors, cleaning up after the family, don't always leave me with a strong desire to go out and get super dirty (and bring a bunch of dirt back inside to the clean house).  And it's hard to shift gears, once you've been doing one thing all day long.  
Outside Days

I'm thinking my great-grandmothers probably had a similar schedule, and may even have felt the same way as me.  They probably had to choose between canning and gardening, planting and preserving, making soap or making rows for crops. Of course back then both spouses worked the land and so chores were divided on a daily basis (perhaps at least somewhat based on gender), but I'm sure my grannies used to wake up, look at what needed to be done and ask themselves if they were going to have an inside, or outside kind of day.

Whatever kind of day you're having, I hope it's a good one.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Trees of Antiquity

We have a great resource here on the Central Coast for heirloom fruit trees.  It's a company called Trees of Antiquity here in Paso Robles, which specializes in organically grown heirloom fruit trees.  When I first heard about them, I initially balked at the idea of buying an organic tree.  After all, it's the fruit that matters on a tree, and whether or not you've produced organic fruit depends on how YOU treat the tree -- what you do with your soil, as well as how you manage your weeds and pests.  

But in thinking a little more, I realized that an organic tree farm is better for the water table, the air quality, and the ultimate sustainability of the land it sits on.  So by giving them my business, I'm making a little investment in the environment of this beautiful region I live in, and helping keep it healthy for generations to come.

I picked up a Golden Grimes apple tree today, parent of today's Golden Delicious apple.  And I have three ollalieberry bushes and two blueberry bushes on order.  Planting season is indeed in full swing, and I hope to someday, years from now, be able to take a blanket and a book and sit among my trees, berry bushes and vines and remember this first planting season on our new land.

For more information on Trees of Antiquity, check out their website.  I think you can even have trees shipped to you, if you live out of the area!

Chicken Consciousness

You want to know who truly lives in the present?  Chickens do.  I've realized they have absolutely no sense of time.  Usually I leave them out to free range in the garden for a couple of hours a day. Once in while, however, they have only about 5 minutes out there before I call them back inside.  It all depends on whether I have both dogs available to guard them, and whether I've seen any hawks or foxes about recently.

Miss Red and Miss Ellen, marching in step

But either way, when I call them  and open the door to their run for them to head back in, they clamber in like it's been ages since they've been in there and they just can't wait to get back.  Even on their 5 minutes sojourns, there's no recognition whatsoever that they literally just came out of the run.  They're happy to get back and explore their run like it's new territory.

My godmother is currently suffering from moderate senior dementia and often her brain runs in a similar fashion.  If I call her, she literally has no idea how long its been since I last called.  Sometimes she'll think I called her yesterday, and sometimes she'll tell me it's been two years since I called (I usually call about once every three weeks or so).  But the odd thing is that neither option bothers her...she is just happy to hear from me.

The greater philisophical implications of this will have to be figured out by someone else.  All I know is that if someone is happy, it's a good thing for them, and a blessing for those around them.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cowgirl Caviar

It was my pleasure to try some of this on New Year's Day at the winery down the road.  They served it as an appetizer to their homemade chili and cornbread, and I absolutely loved it.  The gal who made it reminded me that eating black-eye peas on New Year's Day is supposed to guarantee prosperity for the coming year.

But this recipe is so delicious, I'd recommend trying it before 2014 comes around and take your chances on the whole prosperity thing.

Here's the recipe itself and a link to the site where I found it:

My disappointment with Fukuoka

I recently finished reading Masanobu Fukuoka's "Sowing Seeds in The Desert," which has become something of a must-read for homesteaders and conservationists recently, as was his older book, "The One-Straw Revolution."

While there are some things I really appreciate about his low-interference approach to growing vegetables and trees, when he steps into the larger arena of reining in the growing desertification of our planet, I think he makes a huge miss, not a hit.

The idea of growing non-native species in areas of land which have become deserts is initially appealing; after all, who doesn't think that stopping good land from becoming a desert is a great idea.  But it's only a good idea on the surface.  By introducing non-native legumes and grass species to a landscape that has never produced them, they have the potential ability to spread and eventually crowd out native plants.  Native plants are designed to feed the native wildlife at an appropriate pace (think about what happened when humans began growing grains in the grasslands of the midwest and the wild rabbit population exploded).  In other words, if you start monkeying around with the wild landscape, you do so at great risk to what native plants and wildlife are left in the surrounding areas.

As far as the destruction that's taken place on our planet due to commercial agriculture, I completely agree with him about its effects, especially when he discusses places that were once rainforests and are now barren fields where commercial crops were briefly grown and then failed, once the soil's nutrients were used up.  But I don't believe, sadly, you can just seed-bomb and grow a new rainforest there.  

But, left alone, some places could indeed revert to something close to what they once were, if allowed to do so.  If you take California's San Joaquin Valley as an example (where I lived for 25 years), it is a great example of a piece of land that's been used for a purpose that, under normal circumstances, Mother Nature would never have allowed. Crops have been grown, soil has been enriched, and large quantities of water have been brought in, diverted from other places.  

Now, if for some reason the world had to leave this area suddenly and not grow there anymore, eventually, with time, the native grasses would once again populate the area.  If you restored the rivers that used to flow there by un-doing the mountain dams, you'd even have some gorgeous, lush greenery in places.  But most of the area would, naturally and as God created it, be a dry grassland with some vernal pools here and there, greener as you got closer to the Sierras.  And while I am sure you could green up the whole place by introducing clovers and other green covers, that's no more natural for that area than rows of crops and orchards are.

Having said all this, I am thinking that perhaps I got started with the wrong Fukuoka book. I am actually looking forward to reading his other titles, which apparently deal with more that the small-scale farmer can do on his or her own land.  Those ideas and suggestions may be more practical for me and therefore, more understandable.  I could certainly see adding some, say, alfalfa and clover to our pastureland to increase its ability to feed our future livestock.  

But as for changing the world, my own opinion is that mankind has done quite enough of that, and that the best thing we can do is leave the truly damaged places (like former rain forests) alone, to recover and to heal -- and either revert to what they once were, or become something completely new and different.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My "garden dancing" selection for today.  I will be partner dancing with my pitchfork:

Mid-Winter Assessment

We are at about the halfway point through winter, and so last night Big Ag, our son Groceries (so named for the sheer amount of food he consumes, despite being thin as a rail), and I all sat down for a post-dinner family meeting and assessed where we are regarding our heating sources.  After a long and painful set of calculations, we determined that we should actually be using more wood pellets and less propane. If we continue to use propane at this rate we will run out and have to buy more before the chilly days end. 

So starting today, we will be setting the thermostat on the central heating to only come on once a day, for one hour, and heat the house to 67 degrees, and will heat the house the rest of the time using the wood stove.  We may need to buy another half-ton of pellets, but that'll cost $140, versus more propane -- another tank fill-up would cost about $500.

As this is the first year we've been here, this kind of seasonal reassessment happens with everything we've done, on a more or less regular basis.  For instance, this winter, I now:

1. Hang my wash outside in the late afternoon and leave it overnight, so the sun dries it fully the next day.  It was either that or wake up at 5:30 am to have it done in time to hang it up at sunrise.  It turns out, without a full day's sun, it will not get completely dry.

2. No longer try and use my solar oven in the winter if the temperature is below 60 degrees. Stuff just doesn't happen.   The temp will not get much above 250 degrees.  Besides, if I use the indoor electric oven, it serves the double purpose of helping heat the house. 

3. Rethink what winter vegetables I will plant next year, as my broccoli got a nasty case of blue aphids, my cauliflower never really developed, and my carrots are stuck in kind of a terminal "hold," about an inch tall and not growing at all. It's much colder here, with more wind than where we came from. My lettuce and onions look fabulous, however, so I may double up on salads next year and use the winter months to build up unused beds with compost.  Or perhaps try for an earlier fall planting of my "winter" crops (to be harvested by Christmas or so).  Whatever I do will probably take  a few more beds, but will be worth it.

I think mid-winter, when the days are cold and short, is the perfect time to sit and re-think, re-assess, and re-dedicate yourself to whatever you feel is important.  It's also important to sit down with all the stakeholders in whatever life you've chosen and make sure it's working for everyone, and take suggestions on if and how it might be done better, more efficiently, or in a more thrifty manner.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Los Angeles Over-Reacts to Cold Temperatures

Funny clip from Kimmel. They are such tender little things, those Los Angeles folks.  I am a native Angeleno, and totally understand, even though my blood's gotten a little thicker now that I've lived elsewhere for 25 years.

Food Not Lawns

One of the first things we did when we moved here was to take out the water-sucking front lawn.  Out here in the country, running any water means using a precious (and dwindling) resource, and also running your well, which costs you money.  So you'd better love what you're watering, because you're paying for it. 

Since the huge front lawn not only wasn't giving us anything back in terms of food, but also requiring water PLUS going out when it's 90 degrees to mow and edge, we decided the big front lawn had to go. So we stopped watering it.
We are planting shrubs. These are not giant gopher holes.  

So here we are now, in January, with the lawn good and dead, and we have begun to fill in the former lawn space with some lovely, drought-tolerant plants, shrubs and trees.  We have lots of rosemary and lavender, and also some Torch Flowers, Gold Coin, Santolina (medicinal in addition to being a lovely landscape plant), ceanothus, a China Berry tree, and some other native stuff.  

We bought all these at the local nursery.

So we're at that same nursery this last weekend, buying vines and talking to the lady there about our neighborhood, which she's quite familiar with.  We're discussing the house that's kitty-corner from us, which was foreclosed on and where everything, trees included, died when the bank stopped watering.  Call it another casualty of the Great Recession.

But then the lady (who obviously doesn't know which house is ours) quips, "And what about the house across the street from the foreclosure?  Those people have totally killed their lawn!  I don't believe it!  Why would anyone do THAT?"

Ahem. Yes, I'm sure you guessed it.  We are "those people."

I relayed this to her and she pretty much died of embarrassment right on the spot.  But it does lead one to wonder:  Are people still so behind the curve they believe watering a half-acre of turf is somehow a wise thing to do, in an area where the water table is dropping?   

While it is hard to be considered "those people," conservationists have to be willing to stick to their guns and realize they may be out in the lead in terms of forward thinking, and that some people still haven't understood the reasons behind conservation of water and other resources, and the urgency of getting on with it. 

Like the old saying goes:  When you're two steps ahead of the crowd, they'll call you a crackpot.  When you're one step ahead of the crowd, they'll call you a genius.


The Neighborhood Crackpots.