Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Simple Life

I have lived long enough to know that the simple life is a life that has to constantly be protected and defended, much like liberty itself. The simple life requires fences, boundaries and early warning systems.  The simple life is a police state around the edges with paradise within.

That's because few, if any people today recognize a simple life when they see it.  Many will see no life at all.  Others will see a life which looks like a hobby to them, things you'd do on a Saturday afternoon when the weather is pleasant and there's nothing more important going on.

I have found that, over and over, my simple life must be protected from those who would cut it around the corners, shaving away until there is little left of it.  I have also learned that the person capable of making some of the most impactful cuts is none other than the woman I see in the mirror every morning.

In short, it is far too easy to be overscheduled, whether you are farming 500 square feet or 500 acres. Or no acres, for that matter.

It takes a huge amount of wisdom to step away from society's trend towards cramming everything you can into each day, whether that be farming, working off-farm, shopping, or socializing.  All those things are important, but all must be kept in balance if you yourself want to stay balanced.

That being said, I can tell you now that May was hugely overscheduled for me.  On-farm, there was abundant harvest and preservation (yay!), and off-farm there were abundant wine events, parties, get-togethers and of course work itself.  This week I found myself fatigued and behind on chores, and vowed that next month will be a slower month.  

Next month will not naturally be slower; however, I am going to actively take steps to make it slower. This means saying "no" to some stuff I'd probably like to do, and saying "yes" to a lot more things that have no value to anyone else but me.

I still have half the olallieberry crop on their vines, the spinach has been harvested and put up for winter, lettuce continues to be harvested and will be re-planted.  Good things on the land are happening and continue to happen, and those things will not change, because as much as you'd like to, you cannot slow down the harvest once it starts. Work is in its busy season, too, and it's a very pleasant kind of busy.  And keeping up with friends old and new is always important, of course.  

But so is balance.  If you are harvesting berries, for example, and never take the time to bring your head up and look to the glorious horizon, as the sea breeze wafts in and the grasses dance before you, then you really have nothing (except some berries, I guess).  If your social life is so crazy that you have no time to sit and have a meaningful conversation with one good friend, then you really have no true friends to speak of.  

If this month was about production, work, events and harvest, next month will be all about balance.

Expect some posts about how the grass feels between one's toes and the color of the sky.

Friday, May 23, 2014


This is the height of our farm's growing season, and I have a full refrigerator and freezer because of it.  So far, I've harvested approximately eight pounds (yes, pounds!) of berries, more salads than we can eat, lots of snap peas, and my first spinach crop since moving here is just about ready to blanche and freeze.  If posting is a little light right now, that is the reason.  When crops are heavy, posting is sparse ... just like spare time.  Makes sense, right?

I've also been dealing with the usual varieties of pests.  I've had birds in the berries, earwigs and a few aphids on the lettuce, and I believe the squirrels ate most of my ripening blueberries.  But with such a great harvest, I'm not all that upset about sharing some of the excess with the creatures who live here. None of the pest problems have overwhelmed the abundant harvest, which I think is a combination of learning the land and getting lucky with the weather.  We had no late-season frost, and no winds that I was not prepared for.

Speaking of the creatures who live here, I was pouring wine at the winery yesterday when a gopher snake came slithering up onto the patio.  Before any customers noticed, I went in and got one of the owners, who quickly caught it and placed it back out in the vineyard, where it could live another day to do some useful gopher control.  

Everything's showing up in robust abundance right now. Hope it's the same wherever you are!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hot Flash HenHouse

Today I had the privilege of going to the chicken coop and finding an egg.  This used to be something that was a given for me, in fact just last summer I was giving away many more eggs than I used. But I now have three hens over the age of two and two more hens not yet 22 weeks of age (typical age when laying starts), so eggs are like liquid gold here right now.

You can tell this because I no longer crack open an egg without good reason.  I have three in the fridge right now, and will use two of those to make some ice cream tonight, which will accompany my first berry pies made from our berries down in the south acreage. But here's how desperate the situation is:  I wanted to do an egg wash for my pie crust, but just couldn't bring myself to use a whole egg for that purpose. I did a milk wash instead. Can't waste those eggs.

Of course a sensible person would just head to the farmer's market and buy some eggs, but I'm not sensible about raising my own food.  I don't want those eggs. I want my eggs, warm and big and sitting in the nest box each morning. Substitutions are not wanted.

Red, my Rhode Island Red, is my biggest producer at this point., but will be re-homed soon due to her aggression with the younger hens.  My two gentle and lovely Buff Orpingtons lay only rarely at this point. For a long time I rationalized the decreased egg count by first thinking it was too cold for them to lay a lot...then too rainy...then too windy and hot, etc.  
Golden Girl.

But I have to face facts. My girls are looking more like Bea Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty every day.  They're Golden Girls, in the Golden Years of their lives.
More Golden Girls.

So right now I have three menopausal hens, and it happened faster than I thought.  So many people I know have chickens, but if you intend to keep them and not butcher them when they stop laying regularly, you need to think about how much your population is going to swell as your egg producers age and you bring in reinforcements to bolster your daily egg count.  The other day I was in the feed store and they had Welsummer chicks -- the kind that lays chocolate brown eggs. I almost walked out with a couple,  but thankfully I took stock for a moment and realized I would then have four young hens all laying at once, and once again I'd have too many eggs.  And in three years, I'd have four aging hens who weren't laying, yet still took up space and needed feeding and care. And of course then I'd need laying replacements for them.  Very complicated, but if you can do math, you can calculate when you have too many animals -- either more than you can afford, or more than you want to clean up after. 

So I'm going to hold off and get a Welsummer or two -- next spring.

The Hot Flash HenHouse.

We do have a new chicken coop and are building a larger run, which means we actually could have 15 or 20 hens without any problem, but I'd like to keep the number to less than 10, retirees and layers included.  I want them to have more than enough space, and I actually don't want a huge surplus of eggs. Plus 10 hens is a lot easier to clean up after than 20 would be.

And so, temporarily, common sense has won out over desire, and I will hold my hen count at five for now. (Actually four once Red is gone).  

It's only rational if I want to plan ahead for hot flashing hens in retirement, living the good life and being Golden Girls...while still getting enough eggs to hopefully be able to egg-wash a pie crust or two.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Snap peas and generation gaps

I walked into the staff meeting at the winery last night with a large bag of snap peas, and immediately became the most popular lady in the room. Three of the girls I work with and a couple of the guys came right up and started taking handfuls of peas out of the bag as if it was a cookie jar, oohing and aahing as they bit into the crunchy pods.  After the feeding frenzy I noticed one of my friends tucking what was left in the bag into her purse to take home and eat later.

 I find it heartening that so many 20-somethings are fans of healthy food.  In fact, I love taking excess produce to the winery for that exact reason.

My grandparents' generation ate healthy food which they grew themselves.  The ones who were not land-owning farmers turned parts of their city gardens into growing spaces, whenever possible. My parents' generation, on the other hand, entered adulthood at the exact time large supermarkets came into being, complete with frozen food on Aisle 5, where you could pick up a boxed TV dinner, bring it home, and heat up individual and unique meals for everyone in your family in minutes. 

It was a convenience that took hold, and the result is that many of us born in the 1960's grew up eating that way.

This was, I should add, a purely American phenomenon back then.  When I visited London in the late 1960's as a child, I was amazed when we went shopping with my grandmother.  We visited the butcher, the baker, and the fishmonger.  Paper goods we bought at a local general store. Milk, cream and butter was delivered to the front door every morning. Nowadays of course London has the same giant supermarkets we do, but back then they lagged a good 20 years behind the states.  And they were probably healthier for it.

Anyway, post-war London was the environment my mother grew up in, and so I can somewhat understand her wonderment and willingness to plunge into American Supermarket Life when she moved here and married my American father. We ate hot dogs, fish sticks, TV Dinners and Stouffer's Lasagna on a regular basis.  Our next door neighbors did the same and, in another nod to convenience, ate nothing that was not served on a paper plate, thereby eliminating dishwashing.

And so my generation grew up expecting that kind of convenience, and you'd expect that most of us would simply have passed that onto our own children when we came of age.  And most of us did ... for awhile.  Sometime after the Good Times With No Social Responsibility ended (also known as the 1980's), food became important again.  Trend forecaster Faith Popcorn called it "Nesting."  Staying home more, learning the art of cooking again, and even keeping an herb garden or small veggie patch in your suburban backyard.

"Nesting" took hold with the financial uncertainties of the 1990s, along with a swing back towards natural ingredients. My generation discovered a lot of the food we'd grown up with in the 1960's was, to speak frankly, crap. Kool-Aid contained Red Dye #3, which caused cancer.  Saccharine, which was supposed to deliver us from the weight-gain of eating real sugar, also was found to cause a variety of health issues. In short, my generation realized that if they continued on the path that our naive but well-meaning parents had put is on, we'd be dead or at least in chemotherapy by age 50.

But if we started the "natural foods" trend, the next generation ran with it and made it the norm.  No longer was eating at McDonalds seen as a healthy dinner option.  No longer would Diet Coke and a can of Pringles be an acceptable lunch. If my generation went back to the land for our food ( while sometimes wistfully remembering the soft, spongy texture of Wonder Bread or the extreme sugary sweetness of a Cherry Coke), my kids' generation turned their back on all that tasty but deadly garbage completely and made endamame, quinoa, pomegranates and locally raised-and-butchered animals the new cool food. And kudos to them for it.

The new "supermarket" in town.

As I sat on the counter of the winery watching this new generation of 20-somethings and young parents fighting over a bunch of fresh snap peas from the garden, I realized that Mother Nature always has a reset button -- a generational one.  My generation pushed it, the next one furthered it along, and now we just have to make sure the new generation -- the toddlers growing up now -- understand the reasons why their grandparents and parents turned their backs on food that wasn't real, and opted for a crisp snap pea over the stale snap of a processed supermarket cookie.

I hope they understand why. I really do.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Industry Night

Working in a tasting room is a job with a lot of perks, and being able to attend Industry Nights is one of them.  Wineries around the area take turns hosting the staffs at other wineries during Industry Night, in order to showcase their wine and food offerings, venue space, etc.  

The whole point is to impress the other professionals enough that we recommend them once our customers are done visiting us.  That's not a pie-in-the-sky business plan; at least half my customers ask me about what wineries I'd recommend, so a positive recommendation can mean a lot of business for a winery.

Last night was such a party; we gathered in the late afternoon to visit a winery on the west side of Paso Robles to enjoy their wonderful wines, their food, and good fellowship with the staffs from other wineries around here. We ate, we drank and we watched the sun set over the Santa Lucia mountains from the hilltop site where the winery stages weddings and other special events.  Not surprisingly, when a customer next asks about what wineries I would recommend they visit, I will be adding this one to the list.

We went home happy and full, relaxed and feeling like we'd had a mini-vacation. 

Every day when I come home from the tasting room with red wine spilled on my shirt and sore feet I will try and remember events like these, as they remind me why I love wine and why I love this area.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


I took this week off from the winery thinking I might make a road trip to visit some family in Tucson.  But Big Ag is in a busy time at work and, since I didn't want to go without him, I decided to keep the vacation as a plan for the future and just have a staycation instead.

Of course since it's spring, this means I will be doing a whole lot of work around the property.  Including some big projects I'm excited to talk about!

The basic design.  Mine will be cuter. I hope.

First of all, I bit the bullet and went ahead and and ordered a big, well-made 10' x 8' chicken garden shed to be the new chicken coop, which will be delivered and built this coming Tuesday.  Right now Cleo and Chloe, our newest chicks, are living in a small cage because there is not enough room in the current set-up for them and I want to ensure their safety. An overcrowded flock is one where the little hens get picked on by the big ones. Ellen and Portia (my Buff Orpingtons) have been great with the little girls so far in limited visitation times, but I don't want to push it. 

Once the coop is complete and the new hens are ready to move in, Miss Red the Angry Rhode Island Red will go down to live at the winery with the flock there, or will maybe become so enraged at the idea of moving she goes into a permanent state of rigor mortis and I use her as a garden statue.  At this point, I frankly don't care which.  Chickens who try to kill other chickens and humans only get so many last chances.

Big Ag is also in the process of building a large shop for himself, which will mean relocating some of our raised beds. Since we knew this in advance the beds will be fallow by summer, so we won't lose any vegetables. But it will be exciting to see this project come to fruition, if only because a large amount of crap stuff that's in the garage now will be moving out there.

And we're still in discussion about sheep or goats, not sure when that is going to happen but at least it IS a "when" and no longer an "if."

And this staycation week will also see me going to an industry event at another area winery, so perhaps I'll snap some pics and take you all along with me.  The temperatures are going to be warm and it seems like it's going to be a perfect week to enjoy some wine with friends as well as friends I've yet to meet!

And did I mention I will also be painting this fancy schmancy chicken coop?  Gotta start collecting paint samples and trying out color schemes.  The coop has shuttered windows, giving it a cottage-like look, and I will be landscaping in front of it to give it some nice "curb appeal."  It may be only chickens living in it, but we have to look at it, since it sits more or less outside the dining room window.  Any way, that will be a fun project I'm looking forward to in the weeks to come.

Hopefully, this staycation will be the right amount of work and rest.  It's so easy when you're enjoying the merry-go-round of modern life to remind yourself to occasionally step off the ride and take a break.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Undercover Lettuce

Undercover Lettuce (background) and radishes (foreground).

Last week it was quite hot -- 96 degrees in the daytime, and my spring lettuce is just about perfect.  This is, of course another lesson in Murphy's Law, because when it is that hot it becomes very common for lettuce to turn bitter, and even bolt prematurely.

Luckily last year I bought some white shade cloth, so this gave me the chance to try it out.  In addition to providing shade, it also reflects quite a bit of light, making the lettuce cooler and not as stressed.  I also made sure I watered plentifully, in order to keep the roots (and therefore the leaves) as hydrated as possible.

This week we are back to seasonal temperatures (the 70s) and so my lettuce and I survived the first heat wave of the season.  I take my lettuce crop very seriously, as it gets too hot to grow it here in summer. For us, therefore, it's a fall, winter, and spring treat, and I'm always aware when "lettuce season" (which is in reality three seasons) is coming to an end.  I miss those salads in the summer, but there will be other pleasures once the hot weather really takes hold, like cucumbers, squash and of course tomatoes.

Friday, May 2, 2014

When I Grow Old

Put some more candles on that birthday cake.

I recently had the chance to spend several days with an elderly relative and, like most encounters with my family, it filled me with resolve not to do certain things, or behave in certain ways.

This time, it was a period of reflection followed by a list of things I promised myself I would not do when I get older. There is no question that I am headed into the crone phase of my life, and for the most part, I am happy with it.  Oh, sure, I'd love firmer skin, clearer eyes, and ankles that don't creak first thing in the morning.  But on the other hand, I'm a lot wiser, more at peace, and the feminine products aisle in the supermarket is no longer of any interest to me.  Those things alone may be worth trading some wrinkles for.

But there are things I need to make sure I do if I want to be the kind of senior citizen people actually want to hang out with.  Therefore, I hereby proclaim the following:

1.  I will try my best to not become a wrinkled teenager, meaning I will try not to be stubborn, insist that everything I know is right, and become disdainful of people trying to help me.  I'm not sure what it is about aging that brings out a certain rebellion in 80 year-old women, but if I am lucky enough to live that long, I'm going to make sure I'm still pleasant and agreeable, even when I don't agree. Being old doesn't automatically you right, anymore than being young makes you wrong. 

2.  If I need a hearing aid, I will wear one, because even though that skin-toned piece of plastic in your ear is a pretty reliable indicator that you're now in the second half of your life, having to 1) constantly pretend you actually heard/understood what someone said, or 2) say, "whaaat?" all the time is worse.

The old gang.  Literally.

3.  Eliminate the perfume:  Once my sense of smell is not what it was, I will not marinate in my favorite scent, even if it means I have to bathe more often.  No one ever overdosed from the clean smell of soap, but they most certainly have from some old lady sitting next to them wearing way too much eu d' cologne, toilet water, and actual perfume. I have, anyway.

4.  When it's time, I will relinquish my car keys.  I've already told my son this, and if he wants I will put it in writing.  There will come a time when my reflexes are not what they should be, and when that is the case I should no longer be driving. I have friends who literally had to take the battery out of their parents' car to stop them from driving, and I never want to bring my children to that point.

5.  #5 is the hardest one to write.  When I'm no longer safe and self-sufficient living here on my beautiful hill, I will give it up and move someplace in town.  Everything has a season, and life on a homestead is one of those things.  While I think I have a couple of decades more here (at least) I do understand that maintaining country property may someday be too much for me.

And whenever that happens, you can expect dispatches to begin from the Hot Flash Senior Home, full of rants about old ladies who wear too much perfume and old men who refuse to wear hearing aids. Only they will be my roommates by then.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Perfect Day

Yesterday was a perfect day.  To some people that might mean a fancy vacation or at least drive to the beach, but for me it meant a day here on the homestead when I was caught up on everything and could just putter.

In my opinion, puttering is extremely under-rated.  To have the freedom to amble through one's house and across the property stopping only to do whatever seems fun or interesting is a gift.  Puttering is, to me, very light and pleasant labor -- a bit here, a bit there, then a little of something else.

So many times on this homestead I am outside doing things that I love, but many of those things are also physically demanding or just repetitive, like weeding, pulling and processing crops, or planting.

Puttering gives me the freedom to spend 10 or 20 minutes outside, come back in, and do something else for awhile. Even if that something else includes nothing.

Yesterday, for instance, I harvested about a pound of carrots, watered the lettuce, froze some onions and worked with the new hens a bit.  But then I came inside, made a carrot souffle and an alfredo sauce with chicken and peas, and cooked both up in the solar oven while I spent the bulk of the afternoon lounging on the patio.  It was 96 degrees here yesterday, so the option to lounge was huge.

And today I feel refreshed and hopeful that we will get all our major tasks done before the heat of summer sets in.  One day of wandering around the property made me realize how much we've accomplished, as well as the fact that what's left to do will all be done in good time.

In other words, puttering offers refreshment and perspective.  Both valuable enough that I hope to include more puttering on my days off, instead of trying to cram them full of in-town errands or day trips. Puttering is productive and free, and therefore a bargain on all counts.