A few years in

posted May 17, 2014, 5:46 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated May 31, 2014, 8:39 PM ]

We've been through a few years on the farm now.  We're experienced enough to get reliable results in some areas, but still easily startled by what a new season may bring.  Nature cures any overconfidence pretty quickly.

I'm glad we waited before changing much around the farm, or even the house.  There's a logic to the placement and form of things here that has revealed itself slowly.  We know now to dig up the parts that are already dug up, for example, and leave the good pasture alone.  It takes a long time to establish good pasture.  We know to keep the barn and chickens pretty close to the house, for dashing around during sudden storms and freezing nights.  You might expect such things to be obvious, but they were not, at first, to us.  We've come to appreciate solutions that scale to the whole field, and solutions that work well enough.  That means that fighting back the bindweed long enough to grow something, without resorting to herbicides, may be the height of success.    

Occasionally we've even found ourselves doing things well.  That includes growing potatoes and broccoli, tomatoes, and corn.  We were stocked with potatoes through most of the winter, and Ricky's tomatoes made an astoundingly good sauce.  This year will be about our sixth with chickens, and we've learned which breeds we like and which we do not (no thanks to the Rhode Island Reds!).  We gotten inside their little chicken heads to understand how to care for them better, and how to produce the orange, high yolked eggs that look and taste so delectable.

- C

About Cups

posted Jun 28, 2012, 6:09 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated Sep 28, 2012, 12:27 PM ]

The farm goal this year is to grow something that someone else will want to eat, and maybe even buy.  The plan is to open a farm stand.  It has dawned on us that to populate the farm stand the plants in the field will need to survive and look edible.  The kale, for example, must not look like the fine green lace it does currently.  We are still working on the survive part.

For us, edible is a fuzzy line (ha!).  Last year, our yield prompted questions from family members like, are you sure I can eat this?  In this category: the corn ears with mangy no-kernel patches, the corn ears with worms, the corn ears with worms and only three huge malformed white kernels, green zucchinis the size of corgis, yellow zucchinis the size of corgis with brown patches, half-brown tomatoes, partly smushed watermelons, a suspiciously perfect carrot.  Reasonable answers here: "cut off that part," "it will taste okay fried," "we should get a picture of that."

This year, we have been very ambitious about the amount of stuff planted.  A lot of it is already being eaten in the field.  The moths love the broccoli and are raising well-nourished moth families.  The bunnies appear appreciative of all the green juiciness.  They sit close to us with glazed bunny eyes and pretend we are not there as they browse.  We are learning how all this works, and what plagues to watch for.

But cups.  The feast in our field was produced through the cup method.  When it's time to transplant outside, get a bunch of clear compostable corn cups.  Cut off the bottoms so you have a fat tube.  Dig in compost, plant the seedling in a slight hollow, and surround it with the cup.  Mound some dirt around the bottom of the cup, and then pile clean straw around it.  Water can be poured right into the cup, and the cup will hold it, focusing it on the roots.  The cup protects from wind, which can be evil.  The plant will grow quickly and safely, until a swarm of small black bugs notices and moves in and turns the leaves to green lace.  Pull off the cups when the stem is sturdy enough to handle the wind.

Whatever happens, it will taste okay fried.

- C

Ruminations at the Onset of 2012 Summer

posted May 27, 2012, 9:43 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated Sep 28, 2012, 12:31 PM ]

It is late May and a lot has happened.

Here is a list of things that should be noted more completely than they are.

We should talk about the crops of 2011: Zucchini, pumpkins, mini-watermelons, chard, beans, onions, beets, kale, carrots, corn, tomatoes.  We loved the beets, had some on Christmas.  The corn tasted great, but much was lost to the raccoons.  The tomatoes were good, but the productivity low.  Eggplants were stars.  There were peppers and tomatoes in a green house that thrived, but there was bottom rot in and out of the greenhouse.  We put up zucchini, pumpkin, corn, tomatoes.  There could be much to say, but the present is more urgent than the history.

There was the loss of our old chickens Rosy and Daisy to, we speculate, raccoons.  Poppy, who had been segregated, because chickens can be vicious, enters her fourth summer, laying eggs regularly.  There are new chickens, Kiwi, Violet, Olive, Juney, and Dill.  Poppy is still isolated because, well, chickens can be vicious.  The new chickens have great esprit d'corps.

We have Sweetie the Llama, Venus the La Mancha, and Faye the Nubian. 

We have wild bees that are being domesticated in a hive next to the ditch.

We have fences.

There have been major advances and lessons in water.  We bought 14 more shares of the ditch, bringing our total to 16.

2011 was very wet. We had many plagues: army cutworm moths, box elder beetles, mosquitoes, frogs, rabbits, grasshoppers.

We cut down a giant hollow cottonwood.

2012 has been a strange year.  March of 2012 was astonishingly hot across much of the continental U.S.  April was hot, but not as hot as March.  We came very close to 90 in late March.  The dry has been as extreme as the heat.  The 2011-2012 winter started with a lot of snow.  But throughout March and April practically nothing fell from the sky either here or up in the mountains.  The snow cover in the South Platte drainage, which is the one that matters to us, is less than 31% average.  Last year it approached 200% average. 

Weather wise, May has been closer to normal - up and down swings of temperature.  There has been some surprise rain.  But lured by the warm weather, we put out some tender plants which took heavy damage with frosts that were closer to the average frost date than might have been expected.  Now, almost June, we dip into the low 40s.

We started many plants inside, and over the course of April and May broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, eggplant, cilantro, sage, basil, and thyme have made it outside.  Some thrive, some do not.  We need to explain the cup method.

On March 26 seed potatoes made it into the ground.  There are three types, Yukon Gold, Pontiac (Red), and Kennebec (White).  We don't hold a lot of potato experience, but these went in right on schedule, into dry soil, on a March day that might have been 85 degrees.  As they sprouted, they were damaged by frost in late April and May.  Something does not seem right.  Here in late May, they grow robustly and are awash in straw. New ones appear. Straw went down after a heavy rain, and some have been soaked by the hose sense then.

On April 2 red, white, and yellow onion sets from Jax went into the soil.  The same day, another hot and dry day, carrots and beet seeds went into the ground.  My guess is that they were not kept wet enough, as there were never any carrots or beets.  There were and have been many, many lambs quarters. 

May 21 the first corn went into the ground.  Last year we had great tasting corn, Peaches and Cream, Luscious, and Argent.   Our early corn in 2011, Sunglow, did not have much taste, so we have forsaken it this year.  The corn at the end of the season was excellent, but it seemed confused, like all of the hybrids had mixed it up.  Some of the ears that came out of the patch that started as Luscious were as full and sweet as any corn I have had.  We froze a lot - steamed on the cob, then cut off the cob and put in containers, double sealed and frozen.  It was a September of visiting the corn for lunch and dinner.  

Back to 2012 - May 21 we planted the first patch of Luscious.  We plant corn in quasi-square patches about a week apart.  This year, partly because we are anticipating drought, better irrigation technology, and because we were better prepared, we have been using the tiller footprint to define our layout.  Our tiller is an Agric AL-50 and makes a row about four feet across.  Our soil seems a miracle, and the tiller leaves it a light fluff that absorbs water.  There is clay and if it is walked on wet, you sink, and slip, and get muddy, and compact the soil.  We try to not walk in the rows.

We are scooping out the edges between the rows, and making little troughs.  This would help flood irrigation, but this year, we have no flood.  We are filling the troughs with straw and hay and good things from the barn.   We walk in the troughs.  The dirt scooped from the trough is placed back onto the tilled row.  It is used to make a little lip down the row so that water in the row stays in the row.   

For the corn, 1 foot from the trough on each side of the tiller swath is a row of corn.  So each 4 foot section has a row running one foot from its edge, with 1-2 feet between them.  The troughs separate corn rows, so that there is a little more than 2 feet between the rows.  

The corn seeds are planted 1 foot apart, single seeds, in a hole about 1 and a half inches deep.  The seeds are dropped, and then water is poured onto the hole to bring the dirt onto the seed and to soak it good.  After the ground has dried enough to work, a light raking is used to finish covering the seed and break up the crust on top of the ground.  Then there is a good soaking in the middle of the row, and anticipating drought, straw mulch in the center of the row.  The mulch does NOT cover where the seed were planted. 

May 27 and 28 the first Peaches and Cream were planted. 

May 21, stunningly late, many beet seed went into the ground. Early Wonder, Chioggia, and Detroit Dark Red.

May 29, we put the first tomatoes into the ground today.  They were the beefsteak tomatoes, seed planted on March 3.  Marching them zigzag down a row, two feet on center.  Using the traditional planting, a deep hole, then using the fork to loosen deeper.  Then a couple of shovels full of peat moss, a handful of fertilizer, stir.  Cut the bottom leaves off, place roots in the bottom of the hole, and cover much of the stem where the bottom leaves have been removed.  Partly cover with soil.  Soak low.  Let absorb.  A bit more water, let it absorb.  Cover with dry dirt, and make sure that no leaves are caught in the dirt and mud. Surround with straw to protect from Sun.  Will put the wall of water around as many as I can.  Makes a huge difference.  Plan to stake them this year. 

May 29, first corn up.  Luscious.

Summer 2011: Learning to cook slowly (NC BBQ)

posted Dec 30, 2011, 8:25 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated Oct 14, 2013, 12:42 PM ]

In the Spring of 2011 the ceramic smoker from Primo made its appearance on the east side of the house, under the tree that is both apple and crab apple.  The intent was to make a legitimate and credible North Carolina BBQ. 

For years I have made a faux BBQ in the oven that excited its eaters.  It is an adaptation, an approximation, a remembrance of the pork of my father.  This is made in the oven and roasted at 325 or 350 F.   The best cut is a pork loin, bone in, and these days you need to find the piece with the most fat.   To cook: I rub the loin with salt and black pepper. Set the pork in the middle of a roasting pan. Around the pork I cut up a few tomatoes, slice a few mushrooms, maybe 4 large peeled garlic cloves, and set in a couple of whole cayenne or jalapeno peppers.  Then I add a shallow layer of cider vinegar and water.  If I had a large supply of good pepper vinegar, I would use that, but I usually save my pepper vinegar for the end or as a dipping sauce.  If I think of it, and have it, I might start with a tent of aluminum foil.  Sometimes I do a fast brown at the start at 450.  I roast for about 25 minutes a pound for a bone in roast, maybe 30 minutes.  Sometimes I need to add more vinegar.  I do a little bit of a baste.     (I have other rubs for roasts that use orange peel and oregano, garlic, rosemary but they go without a vinegar sauce.)  This pork roast, faux BBQ, can be very good, but it is not NC BBQ.  There should be plenty of sauce, and in fact, this is excellent BBQ sauce.

My native BBQ is Eastern North Carolina, which means "vinegar sauce," but traveling around eastern NC, there is not a lot of consistency of the sauce.  The foundation is cider vinegar, with salt and black pepper.  In my family the BBQ sauce was pepper vinegar, which is cider vinegar in which cayenne peppers have cured for at least a year.  When I make sauces for NC BBQ, I often include some tomatoes, maybe garlic and bay leaves, maybe a little sugar.   There are many amongst us who want more than pepper vinegar.  The basic idea is smoked meat, chopped or shredded with a thin vinegar sauce.  

Many books will say that NC BBQ features the meat, and that is why it is, by many standards, lightly sauced.  Daddy always said that good BBQ happened when the fat in the pork flesh had cooked enough to render into the meat.  That if underdone there was unpleasant fat in the meat.  Daddy said that that meant the pork had been cooked to 195 degrees.  Most recognize this as far above the temperature of "done" pork.   There are passionate arguments about all nuances of BBQ, for example, whole pig or shoulders.   Practically, for cooking at home, the whole pig is a little much, so the shoulder is the good choice.  The loin is too lean.  There has to be fat in the meat.  That said, I think the mix of meats that come from the whole pig has the best taste.  Good BBQ is made in many ways; it lets men argue and compete. (Cooking Whole Pig)

Proper NC BBQ is made from pork that is cooked, smoked, slowly.  I have seen recipes that call for cooking at 190 to 195.  I personally shoot for a temperature around 235-250, and since I like a roasted crisp, I have been known to do a finish at 325-350.  But properly, NC BBQ is cooked at a temperature closer to 200 than 300.  Cooking at a low temperature allows you to get the meat to 190-195 without drying it out.  Thinking about it, you don't want to boil, or roast out, the water in the meat.  Compared with any other reasonably sized cooker in my driveway, the Primo ceramic grill is amazing.  I can start a fire and keep it at 235-250 for at least 12 hours.  I find a bit of a challenge in the beginning until I get to an equilibrium, but if I do it right, I get a little bit of a crisp started early.  For a pork shoulder 6-9 pounds, I aim for 8-9 hours at 235.  I turn it once in the middle.  That'
s about it.  After that it is all in the sauce and that can go many directions.  As in the roast above, there is a salt and pepper rub, and you can imagine a couple of vinegar washes, but it is mostly primitive roasted meat.

This picture is after about 9 hours for the shoulders.  The ribs take 3.5 hours.   The people like a little of a honey rub on the ribs, but that is a different story. 

Sauces:  Here are my basic sauces.   Pepper vinegar is simple, but it is precious.   The best peppers are cayenne, jalapeno, Serrano, and Thai chili works OK.  The really hot peppers, like Habanero, don't have the flavor, and they don't cure well.  Pepper vinegar is made with cider vinegar.  Wash peppers.  Fill empty jar with peppers, don't pack tight.  Boil vinegar.  Pour over the peppers.  After vinegar and peppers settle, top jar with more boiled vinegar.  Close the jar and let it sit for a year.  I have vinegar that is ten years old.  Not sure 10 years is good, but 5 is good.  I have added salt and black pepper to the recipe, but have decided to just stick with the vinegar.  When first made, the peppers float.  When it is ready, they have sunk to the bottom.  This sauce is not, first and foremost, hot.  This is right on pork and greens and succotash and Brunswick stew; it is the taste of a NC meal.

Quick Sauce 1:  I have created a few vinegar-based sauces for when I don't have a sauce.  The first is made from cider vinegar, salt, coarsely ground black pepper, fresh cayenne (dried if fresh not available), peanut oil and a little ketchup.  I bring it to a boil and let it sit.   If it needs to sit more than a day, then put it in the fridge,.

Quick Sauce 2:  This is much the same as the first, but I add bay leaf, dried garlic, and dried onion.  I let it boil maybe 5 minutes.  I have kept this sauce around for a while, but it does not hold up more than a few months.  The  bay leaf is a matter of taste, and you need to think about if you want this in your sauce.  I imagine the bay leaf from the swamps of the coastal plain, and I have used wax myrtle. 

Quick Sauce 3:  This quick sauce can be used as made, mixed into the meat as it is chopped or for dipping at the table.  It is what I make when I need a lot of sauce for a lot of people.  It lasts in a jar for a few months but does not age well. North Carolina style vinegar sauces generally have no sugar, and the quintessential Eastern North Carolina sauces have nothing red or brown in them. They are vinegar sauces, to be mixed into the meat as it is chopped.

1 quart apple cider vinegar

1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes

3 Tbs. dried minced onion

2 Tbs. peppercorns, coarsely crushed

1 Tbs. crushed, dried cayenne

1 Tbs. garlic powder

1 Tbs. salt

5 bay leaves

Combine ingredients. Bring to boil for about 5 minutes.

Cooked Sauce:  This sauce is always a hit.  It is what I described above with the faux BBQ / roast.  Put 2 or 3 country style ribs in a small roasting pan - elevated off the bottom.  Surround with cut up tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic cloves, cayenne or jalapeno peppers, cider vinegar and water.  Roast until the ribs are brown and crisp.  Make sure it doesn't cook dry.  Adjust the sauce (vinegar vs pepper vinegar vs water).  Eat the ribs. (Can also use fresh pork belly instead of the ribs.  Have also used beer instead of vinegar or in addition to vinegar to sweeten the sauce.)

Buying Sauce:  It is a plain and simple truth that many don't like any of the sauces above; they want sugar in their sauce.  I think that BBQ Sauce Reviews does a great job.  Bone Sucking Sauce and Grumpy's especially the Not So Bold play well at Summerdog.  I remember Scott's BBQ in Goldsboro, NC fondly, and they left Scott's Sauce Company.

Cole Slaw: The NC BBQ experience does require coleslaw, and I am far more particular about my slaw than about the sauce.  Or said another way, I don't care for a lot of slaws, and there are many types of BBQ and sauces that I embrace.  For me, slaw provides a complex sweetness to the vinegar, giving a plate of sweet and sour.  I have adapted a slaw recipe from "Best Barbeque Coleslaw" from the Southern Living Big Book of BBQ.  Here are the ingredients, the amounts are approximate - as with the sauces, I go by taste and texture. 

~ 2 pound cabbage.  I cut the cabbage in a few big chunks, then with a chef's knife, cut thin wafers that fall apart.  Chop very coarsely.  I grate in one carrot.  I then put in enough mayonnaise to coat the cabbage.  Stir in about 1/3 cup of sugar.  The juice of a lemon - don't let the seeds fall in!   1/2 - 1 tsp salt, coarsely ground pepper, depending on your audience.  1/4 - 1/2 cup buttermilk - this is the key to sour and sweet.  Stir to mix.  Add more mayonnaise if needed.  Adjust ingredients.  I like a few celery seeds. Let it sit at least a couple of hours.  This is good for a week or two. The original recipe has a little white vinegar and milk which I prefer to leave out.  (I often make a non-dairy version with soy sour cream, soy or almond milk.  It works just fine.)

Winter 2011: A Snowy Beginning

posted Dec 28, 2011, 8:45 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated Dec 29, 2011, 7:25 AM ]

In late September we planted new pasture grasses.  The seeds have been sprouting, and in November we started to get snow.  Now at the end of December we have had more than 50 inches of snow.  The grasses are being watered well.  Here is the sunset on December 28.

Here is the view to the north west over the Front Range.    Below is the view to the east, across the neighbor's horse farm.  The turning fork in the ground is where we cleared away snow and found beets and carrots for Christmas dinner.  Dinner was roasted goose, wild rice dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, beets and goat cheese. 

The sky reddened as the Sun went down behind the mountains.  Here is the view to the north, followed by the sky above the barn.  As the Sun got lower and lower more thin clouds were illuminated from below, bringing out the small waves.

Growing things in the ground: Getting Started

posted Aug 9, 2011, 9:43 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated May 17, 2014, 8:15 AM ]

At the end of 2009 we bought this 1904 house, behind a berm, with a few acres of land.  We aspire to a small farm, with some farm animals and plants.  The aspiring farmers are, without a farm, objectively busy people - we have jobs and school and many interests.  We all agree, however, that we want a farm.  In fact, we moved from a couple of houses in town, where we called a plot of land about 32 square feet "The Farm" and a little house and maybe a 1000 square feet "The Ranch."  That was more than we could keep up with; now we have closer to 200,000 square feet.  Not a lot, but let's say, a different beast altogether. 

We have water.  We don't completely understand our water, and for those of us used to the South and the East, understanding water here is a challenge.  It is a challenge that has to be met.  We have city water that flows from the mountains and treated.  It is good water.  We have a well that is supposed to pump five gallons a minute, and it does for a while.  The water from the well dries and leaves a layer of salt. After a couple of hours, the water pressure can't move a sprinkler.  We have a ditch; we have two shares; we don't have the wherewithal to use this water - yet.  If you are going to be a farmer in the plains of Colorado, then you have to use your ditch.  Here in 2011, we are spending a lot of time looking at how people use their ditch.  To have a chance at farming here, you have to know your water. 

We have land, and it has been a farm before.  It has been plowed.   There is old farm spoor all about.  There is a barn, and on the wall an ancient phone number for the renderer.  On about half the land there is a solid stand of pasture grass.  The soil is, compared with that 1032 square feet in the town, without stones.  Most of the stones that we dig up seem to be relics of old structures.  In 2011 we (finally) got the soil analyzed, and it is good soil.  A surprising amount of nitrogen, alkalinity not so bad. 

Our first year tending the soil was 2010.  We are busy; we moved with the equipment of a 1032 square foot spread.  There is a requirement of tomatoes and pumpkins.  In 2010, we practiced by necessity no till agriculture and made two rows in the middle of the land.  Middle?  The shape of the land is as follows, 200 feet wide and 1000 feet deep.  Judging from a landing airplane, this was a popular size of land at some time in the past century.  In the middle, 4 - 5 hundred feet from the front we put in two rows.  In these rows we planted about 30 tomato plants, 50 pumpkins, string beans and eggplant.  We cut the grass short, dug holes, mixed with peat and compost, and mulched with cardboard and straw.  Things grew after a fashion.  Some other entry will detail that challenges of tomato growth prior to the middle of July, but things did grow.  We watered, originally taking out tubs of water and using watering cans,.  Ultimately we fired up the pump and used the salty water.  We did not know it was so salty in 2010.  

By most standards, 2010 was a failure.  It is correct to say that we got no ripened tomatoes.  On Labor Day weekend there was a moment of frost.  Literally, there were minutes of frost in a very small area that included Summerdog.  On the Tuesday or Wednesday morning after Labor Day, all lay withered in the field, except the green beans.   Checking the trace from one of the Wunderground weather stations, a moment of frost on a spot of land.   We ate fried greened tomatoes and picked the handful of pumpkins that had formed.  We ate green beans with bacon and tomatoes stewed to smoky sweetness.   There were many lessons learned, including that five miles out of town was a far different game than in town.   Bugs, magpies, rabbits, coyotes.  We had built chken-wire houses around the pumpkins that we had gotten.  We learned a little about our water, and we added a moment of frost to the list of things that could happen on a plot of land out here on Memorial Day.  


posted Nov 15, 2009, 5:08 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated Jul 2, 2014, 2:13 PM ]


The Barn Through the Seasons

posted Nov 15, 2009, 5:06 PM by Summerdog Family   [ updated May 12, 2012, 8:44 PM ]

The barn has been long-standing since 1904, and has stood up to all sorts of weather. Here are some pictures we took of the barn through our Colorado seasons:
This was a day in the summer where the grass was green, the birds were singing, and the dogs were chewing up rawhides in the backyard.
A rainy day with Beta.
A rainy day with Poppy the Backyard Chicken.
Springtime with dandelions and the tractor.
A misty fall morning.
The fall barn in the morning.
The winter barn in the snow.

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