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.