Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spring is Springing

Though it has not yet sprung, we are seeing the signs of the weather emerging from the cold and
damp winter are all around us here in North Georgia. The green flush of grass on the pastures and lengthening of the days are telling us that we must be prepared for all that spring will have in store for us. In many ways, I have never been as ready for spring as I have been this year. Growing up in Savannah, spring was always my favorite season because it was the time when soccer started at school, when you could start to wear shorts and go to the beach, but you weren't overwhelmed with humidity and relentless sunshine of the summer.


Now that I have spent a winter on a farm, spring means so much more to me. In many ways the weather this winter in Georgia was "abnormal," though the more you farm, the more you question the idea of "normal" weather. Regardless, we had a lot of cold spells and precipitation in many forms - cold rain, the "icy mix", sleet, and even a day of 4" snowfall. While I am aware that this is a pretty mild winter for most parts of the country, it was still daunting to endure some of those days when it's 34 degrees and rainy, but the pigs have to be moved or you have to take hay to the cows. In addition to the weather being harsher, one of the hardest parts of winter is the lack of vegetation. This is a battle that all of God's creatures have to face and we get our free pass at the grocery store, but I for one missed the fresh greens and vegetables that we had for most of the fall. Though Liz did her best to try to keep the garden alive and growing, there were just too many forces battling against the garden. All those things being the case I can't say that I have ever been happier to see spring taking over the land.


Seeing these signs of spring around, we have spent the last week and a half making an effort to start transitioning ourselves in our economic and domestic life on the farm. Last week I helped Liz till up the cover crops that we planted for winter and the rows that we had dedicated to a winter garden. She and Amanda worked hard preparing the soil and planting potatoes and I helped her one day planting transplants of broccoli, lettuce, and cabbage. In addition to the garden, we also hatched out our first batch of chickens for the meat birds. Our ambitious plan for the pastured poultry operation this year is to collect, incubate, and hatch almost all of the meat birds that we will raise on pasture.


Perhaps the most exciting part of the oncoming spring is that we are rotationally grazing again. All winter, we struggled to manage our animals who were suffering because of the parasites that wreak havoc in wet conditions. Though we would like to move them frequently when the conditions are like this, the damage that they would do to the pasture would prevent it from recovering as quickly in the spring. So we waited patiently for the grass to start growing again and this past week, Tim gave us the green light. While it is a lot more work added to our day to move two sets of cows and two eggmobiles full of chickens, no part of the farm gives me as much satisfaction as seeing the cows and sheep happily grazing new grass and the chickens behind them doing all the clean-up.


In honor of the changing seasons, I threw a party of one for the winter and ate the last harvest of young winter lettuce, frozen black-eyed peas from the garden, and a delicious pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon and drenched in a brown sugar-apple cider glaze. This was complemented with a glass of hard cider that I made in late fall. Don't worry, I didn't eat all of that tenderloin in one sitting.

I also wanted to share a poem that I wrote about all of the rain that we got during this winter.

The Lover of Soil

for Tim Young

The sower of seeds,
the grower of trees,
the lover of soil.
To him it is a fine, fair maiden.
When no one is looking,
he will bend
He will whisper to it a love song.

“You, the bearer of fruit,
you , the source of life new,
hear my humble pledge
to sow for you
if you grow for me,
to nourish you
when you nourish me.”

When the rain falls hard
and the cow’s footfall is harder,
he turns
in his sleep,
he rises early to survey his fields,
the dawn-bright warmth not yet on his land,
and hopes for the sun to hurry in its course
to revive his drunken ground.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Makin' Bacon

As promised, here is a short primer on curing and smoking your own bacon at home. I am not sure you will believe me if I tell you this, but this stuff is soooo much better than any bacon I have ever had. Thanks Tim, for ruining any other bacon but the real deal.

Here is where the magic begins. You start with a fully thawed pork side. I am sure that you can acquire these from a local butcher if you have one, but I recommend you get one from someone who raises pigs in your area and not in confinement. If you are really ambitious and have the space, get a weaner pig and raise it yourself. Also note the optional accessories to this process, beer and faux marble counters.

These pork sides range in size depending on the pig . This one was so big that I decided to cut it in half so that I could fit it in the smoker.

Here is a side view of what your delicious bacon will look like. Nice and fatty!

Once you got the thing unwrapped, you can make up a curing mix, which consists of pink salt (a special kind of curing salt with sodium nitrate), salt, and a little sugar. There is also an old-time way of curing just using plain salt, but I have heard that it is more prone to botulism which I am not a fan of. As you see here I am mixing the the dry curing mix with some brown sugar for more flavor. You could also mix it with crushed garlic and black pepper for a more savory taste.

Packages of pink salt should have directions on how to mix it, but just make sure you have enough of it to rub all the surfaces of the pork side really well. If you have extra, save it for another day.

After you have rubbed all the surfaces of the side, wrap it tightly in several layers of plastic wrap. This will seal in the salt. Then put the side in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days. Every day, check on the meat and flip it over.

At the end of the week you can unwrap your pork side and prepare the smoker. Shown here is the smoker we have at the trailer with a bag of wood charcoal (forest friendly, I promise), aluminum foil to line the bottom, two racks, and a tray for catching drippings.

Get the charcoal going.

In the meantime, soak your hardwood chips in water for 30 min. Put something on top of them like a plate or a rock to keep them from floating. Pull them out and shake off excess water when you are ready to smoke. I use hickory chips because that is what we have, but I would like to try applewood too.

Once the coals are gray and smoldering, toss on the wood chips.

Put in the pan to catch the drippings, which will keep you from setting your trailer on fire. You can also put water in this tray for a more moist final product or apple cider to contribute a little flavor.

Put your bacon in the smoker on a rack and seal everything up so the smoke can do its work. Now you can go take a break for 3-4 hours. Kick back, knit a sweater, or do your taxes. You may want to make sure the smoker is smoking and the coals are still hot, but if you did everything right, you are in business. When you come back...

Your bacon is heavenly. But you still need to cut it.

If you leave the skin on during the curing process (you don't have to), you need to cut it off carefully with a very sharp knife. This isn't waste as dogs love it and the fatty parts would still be good for seasoning in beans or greens. I just wouldn't try to eat it.

Fortunately for me, Tim and Liz have a deli slicer which I use (carefully, believe me mom) to cut the bacon in strips. Since you might not have that, a sharp knife will do the trick.

You wouldn't believe how much bacon a small pork side will make. This is only a fraction of what I cured.

Once you are done, you can fry up the strips of bacon for a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

On one occasion I enjoyed mine in a delicious breakfast with a homemade crepe, eggs, cheese, and milk from the farm. You really just can't beat a day that starts like that.

I hope that this little primer inspires you to go out and try some curing yourself. It's not difficult and I know that you will become addicted to it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Learning to Care

Teach us to care and not to care,
Teach us to sit still.

~T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.

~Wendell Berry, Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer

Although it has been quite some time since I published a “real” blog post, I have had something on my mind recently that has given me some inspiration. Many of you who know me well are aware of my tendency to be absentminded and clumsy. In fact, it has been well documented with hard evidence in almost every circle of close friends that I have. Many a good wine glass or dinner table chair has suffered from my propensity to recklessness. Perhaps the worst of these incidents was a couple of months ago when I broke a stool that one of my closest friends had been given when he was born. As always, he was very gracious about it, but all of my drive back to Elberton I could not stop thinking about how my careless behavior had damaged a treasured gift.

Though I wish it were not the case, this lack of care has more than a few times spilled over to my work here on the farm. I have left behind a trail of broken truck windows, frozen milk, and drills that won’t drill. At one point, I even made the very embarrassing mistake of dipping our cow’s teats with undiluted acid instead of the hydrogen peroxide solution that we use to clean them with. As is the case in the last incident, the careless mistakes that I make can have a very real impact on the health and quality of life of our animals.

I have analyzed this tendency in myself quite a bit, because that is just what I do. The irony the situation is that my analytical and wandering mind can sometimes be the problem. Caught up in my own thoughts or the pressing issues of the farm that day, I can lose sight of the fact that I need to pay attention to what I am doing right then. This is what it means to care, to give myself fully to the task at hand and to do it well. In order to do this I have to step outside of myself and recognize that what I do on the farm does not just affect me, it affects the animals, the people I work with, and the land itself. That’s why I think T.S. Eliot’s plea to learn “not to care” is appropriately paired with his desire to learn to care. To learn to care for the world around me, I must learn not to care too much about me. While much of my education here on the farm has been practical, this may be one of the hardest and most enduring lessons that I will learn.

Coming up next on my blog...

A more practical “how to” on curing and smoking bacon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Liue of Words

Here is the blog post that you have all been clamoring for. I am too busy and tired to write anything profound, but I had a few sights from my time so far that I wanted to share. They count as 1000 words each. All the pictures with the (A) beside them are courtesy of Amanda, the other apprentice here at Nature's Harmony. Enjoy!

Curing bacon

Thanksgiving with the Shay family -David = :(

Don't mess with Rosy. She's the boss cow.

Pork chops with apple chutney, collard greens,
mashed potatoes, and beer
That's a good dinner.

Tim wooing our new dairy cows

Making beer happen with one of the coolest guys in town

Grass is good.

A bad trip to the Oliver Police Department
Watch out for speed traps!

The incubator (A)

The Garden

Garden Harvest

Keg o' brew and bluegrass at the campout

Poulet Rouge means "Red Chicken". Brilliant!

Where I spend most of my waking time at home

Ana and the pups chowing down. (A)

Sheep (A)

Pounder. 'Nuff Said. (A)

This is called my "game face".

P.S. This counts as my Christmas present to you. If you don't like it, file your complaint with Santa.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Perception

I wrote this well over a week ago, but just got to typing it today. While the timing is bad, the lesson is still a good one.


This past weekend the baffling American instiution of “Daylight Savings Time” worked it’s magic on our clocks and gave most people an “extra hour’s sleep” on a Sunday after what may have been a late Halloween night. The apprentices here at Nature’s Harmony spent this past week debating what day we actually would save time on and what affect it would have on our schedule. Yes we would have an extra hour, but the sun would rise earlier. Since we start our chores at sunrise, we would have to get up earlier to get everything done. As it turned out, Saturday was a long day and none of us changed our clocks. My alarm went off at 6:30 and I was out do chores at 7:30 with the sun just coming up. We were supposed to meet Liz at 8 to feed Ana’s puppies and I realized that my phone said 6:30. Time had changed and not even told us. Without an appointment to remind us, we could have gone days or even weeks before we even noticed that the time changed. Sunday night at our farm dinner, we talked about it and decided that “time” as in “what time is it?” is irrelevant at the farm because our time revolves around light and seasons.

All of this had me thinking about perception. Being around the animals here at the farm, I am realizing how much perception matters to them. I’ll give a few examples that should illustrate what I mean.

First off is an incident that happened yesterday. As some of you may know, we use rotational grazing at the farm which means that we give the cows and sheep new pasture every day. In order to do this, we have to set up a new electric fence for the animals and then move them to their new paddock. At one of the corners we usually form a gate that we open to let them in. Usually we swing this gate into the new paddock, call on the animals, who are usually ready to move, and let them do all the moving. Yesterday we had a weird set-up for our gate and we were forced to swing their gate into an old paddock. We then gave our customary calls, “come on cows!”, “come on sheep!”, but only a few of them went for the new paddock. The rest began to panic and trample the fence. They were confused because other animals had made it to the other side but all they could see was a new corner. It was easy for us to see the gate clearly had opened, but their perception, visual and mental, was not allowing them to see what we saw. Luckily, we got the animals to the new paddock, but not without them almost disassembling our fence.

Another good example of this is our chickens. Since I got to the farm, we have always had problems with chickens getting into our processing shed and leaving little “surprises” for us all over our ice machine. This is a mess that we don’t want to have to deal with every week, but we also leave the processing shed open to natural light, to be visible from the outside, and to be easy to get in and out of. So to remedy our problem, we put up clear plastic strips on the front of the shed. At first, Mario and I were not convinced that this would keep out the birds because it is not very much of a physical barrier for them. In fact, it would be pretty easy for them to walk right through one of the seams, but their perception tells them that it is a window or a wall and they don’t even try to walk through it. It’s an easy solution that takes into account a factor that I am learning you have to use to your advantage in farming – the animal’s perspective.

All of this brought me back to thinking about my situation when I moved to this farm. I have thought for a while that I would like to make a living off of farming, but I felt too unprepared to jump right into it and take all the risks that I would need to take to get started. Perhaps there was also more than a small part of me which thought that I just couldn’t do it. Yet after working here for a not even 2 months, I am starting to gain confidence that starting to farm on my own is something I could do. I am peeling back the thin plastic strips and seeing that the opportunities will be there for me if I am willing to take them. In the meantime, I have plenty to learn and lots of opportunities to enjoy the farming life.

The lovely processing shed

Meals of the weeks

Above: Breakfast burritos with sausage, eggs, and fresh salsa.

Below: Garden salad with fresh greens, radishes, banana peppers,
grated parmesan and citrus vinagrette.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Addendum

I just wanted to share a quote that I read from one of my favorite literary agrarians, Wendell Berry. This is from The Unsettling of America on pg. 87 and it sums up what I was trying to say in my post entitled "A Rumination on 'Days Off' ". It is as follows:

Most farms, even most fields, are made up of different kinds of soil patterns or soil sense. Good farmers have always known this and have used the land accordingly; they have been careful students of the natural vegetation, soil depth and structure, slope and drainage. They are not appliers of generalizations, theoretical or methodological or mechanical. Nor are they active agents of their own economic will, working their way upon an inert and passive mass. They are responsive partners in an intimate and mutual relationship.

Because the soil is alive, various, intricate, and because its processes yield more readily to imitation than to analysis, more readily to care than to coercion, agriculture can never be an exact science. There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge. It is a practical art.

Amen, Wendell, Amen. If only all of our agriculture in this country could aspire to this careful artestry.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Need for Balance

I am not sure why I thought that this would not be the case, but I am quickly learning that life on the farm is full of the same lessons that I learned in the “real world.” Perhaps they are more poignant and noticeable in the situation that I am in here at the farm, but they are the same lessons. Take, for example, one of the first “rules” that I learned here at the farm: Have Priorities. Being the perfectionist that I am, it was difficult and stressful for me to learn that there is only so much time in a day and too many things to do. I don’t have to make too much of a leap to extend this to other areas of “real life,” which undoubtedly require us to have priorities.

The lesson that I have been learning recently here at the farm is the need for balance. This applies to many aspects of life here. For example, we have to be balanced in our approach to raising animals “naturally.” What does that even mean? For us, it means raising our animals in such a way that they can express their natural characteristics and thrive off of their surroundings with as little help and input as possible from us, the farmers. For this reason, we don’t give the sows farrowing huts, because we want them to develop the genetics to birth and raise piglets without them. In some cases, this has been a really hard decision to make. Many of the Berkshire sows that we have lack the natural mothering characteristics that we believe need to a part of our animal’s genetics, and many of them have lost full litters in a matter of days. The response for many people in this situation would be to just give them farrowing huts and that would solve the problem. Perhaps it would, but we would never be giving these animals the chance to develop the characteristics they need to survive and reproduce naturally. On the other hand, we have to remember that this farm is trying to mimic natural processes and that these are not wild animals. The cows and chickens are given a chance to express their natural tendencies, but they are still managed by us. So we have to remain balanced in our approach to taking care of these animals. We want to take care of them and protect them, but we also want to encourage them to develop natural characteristics.

In the same way, I have been learning a lesson about balance for myself. Somewhat foolishly I decided to take my one day off last week driving 8 hours in a 24 hour span to go visit some friends up in NC for an Oktoberfest/Self-Sufficiency celebration they were having at their house. While I had a great time getting to visit with old friends and learning how to make sausage and apple cider, I did not get good rest and take the time to prepare for the week ahead. By failing to balance work with rest, I set myself up for a very hard next couple of days. In addition, I spent most of my day Tuesday running around trying to get things done and didn’t spend any time recovering from my weekend. Finally, nature or providence has caught up with me as I was forced to take another day off today because I got sick, probably with a mild case of food poisoning but I am not sure. Hopefully the rest that I have gotten today will leave me more prepared to take on the work that we have the rest of the week and Farm School this weekend, an event where we will have 25 aspiring farmers here all day Saturday to learn about our farming methods. Either way, I have learned my lesson about balance and look ahead to the many things that I will have to learn in my farming experience.

Meal(s) of the Week(s)
Top: Made from scratch wheat pancakes with
Nature's Harmony honey, Ossabaw sausage, and coffee.
Below: Slow-roasted sirloin with sweet potatoes,
risotto bianco, green beans, and homemade salsa with chips.
(not pictured: sauteed okra with oven-roasted tomatoes)

Amos with some homemade sausage at Oktoberfest 2009