Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring update!

Snap peas in the window
There's something wrong about it being past Equinox and there still being two feet of snow outside. I can't see my raised beds because of the depth of the snow. However, indoors we're doing quite well. We started these snap peas from seeds I saved last year, and as you can see they're doing quite well! We have little wood dowels for them to climb up, held in place by a piece of cord suspended between two suction cups with hooks. The seeds are basically up to the cord now, and rapidly attaching themselves to it! I have no idea if they'll live when we move them outdoors, but it's definitely nice to have a little bit of greenery in the house.

In the greenhouse...
Our greenhouse is basically full now (well, one of them is). The top level, which has only one small fish tank light over it (but also receives good light from the window) has our brand new seeds on it. There's some more tomatoes, and then two kinds of basil, some beets, and some oregano and sage. The herbs are all last year's seed, so I don't know if they'll sprout, but I wanted to have a good start if they do. As for the tomatoes, I've been planting them in waves, two to four weeks apart, in the hopes that we'll get tomatoes in shifts, rather than all at once.

The tomatoes we planted earlier in the month are doing very well indeed. The Romas seem to be doing best, but even the Cherokees are growing apace now. All of the tomatoes that were planted before now have true leaves, and some of them have several sets of leaves already. Opening the greenhouse is a joy, as the scent of tomato and herb and dirt waft out and cover you. It's like antidepressant in a scent! I opened the greenhouse yesterday to move things around and ended up just standing there, sniffing, for about five minutes. The warmth radiating out, the smell, the very feel of it was spring-like.

Kale and broccoli
The kale and broccoli from last weekend are coming up great guns. The chives are perky as well. I suspected that they weren't getting quite enough light due to how we had the greenhouse set up, so Miss T and I rearranged the entire greenhouse to better situate the plants. We added two more lights as well, so that there is artificial "sunlight" on all four shelves. The bottom layer has the big tomatoes, then above that are the smaller tomatoes. On the second shelf you can find my kale and broccoli, and the top shelf has the not-yet-germinated seeds.

The greenhouse
I have to say, for the price these little greenhouses have been worth their weight in gold. I love that all my gardening stuff is in one place, and that all the plants are together in a warm, moist environment. Because we use the woodstove for heat, I was expecting to see my plants be very dry, but the greenhouses have kept them moist and happy.

We made a few minor tweaks to the greenhouses. When I put them together, the shelves seemed to be slightly off kilter, so I used zip ties to hold them in place. This had the added benefit of squaring up the greenhouse and giving it a bit of added stability. We've lined each metal wire shelf with tin foil, both to keep drips under control and to make the light reflect better. It's much brighter inside since we added the tin foil!

The lights themselves are ones we picked up at a local hardware store, but they're also available at Walmart and other similar stores. They're very bright, cheap, and they hook up in tandem, meaning we only need to have one plug attached and the rest can be hooked up to each other in a long string. They came with little covers over the lights, which we removed before installing in order to get better lighting. Technically, they're designed to go under cabinets!

What sort of seeds are you starting this year?

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

Repotting seedlings
Soft sandwich bread
What to do in the shade
Tapping trees

Friday, March 22, 2013

Repotting seedlings

A set of true leaves means they're ready to transplant!
If you're like me, and start your garden plants yourself indoors, you'll inevitably have to move them from their first small home into a larger pot before putting them outside. Tomatoes are a great example of a plant that starts out tiny but needs a lot of care to get it strong enough to live outdoors, especially here in New England.

Re-potted to allow more growth
I like to start my tomatoes in very small cells, either the plastic kind or egg cartons or toilet roll tubes. If you live in a warm part of the country, you may be able to plant these directly outside before they outgrow their tiny containers. Those of us in the (still frozen) north have to work our way toward the outdoors with an eye to late frosts and even late snows. This means you'll need to take those tiny seedlings and transplant them into a slightly larger home at least once, and possibly two or more times, before it's warm enough to accommodate them outdoors.

One of many re-potted tomatoes
I realized it was time to re-pot my tomato plants when I noticed a few things. First, they were tall enough to touch the light in the greenhouse, and they were getting leggy, a term that means their stems had grown very long. Second, the majority of my tomato seedlings had developed true leaves, which are the ones that develop after the initial seedling leaves. I pulled out my potting soil and some plastic and styrofoam cups, a pen and a jug of room temperature water. I was ready!

Leggy seedlings
I allowed the soil to dry out a bit the night before I intended to re-pot, because it makes it easier both on me and on the plant. As you can see in the images, many of the cells held two or more tomato plants, because I had excellent germination this year (thanks Annie's Seeds!). Earlier in the month, I had thinned down most of the cells to only one or two seedlings by cutting off excess ones at the soil level. I hate doing it, but if the seedlings are too close to one another, neither will survive being pulled apart, and so it's important to thin your seedlings. If two seedlings in a cell are far enough apart, I often leave both to grow, because I can separate them without harming either plant. This means that, while I planted six cells of Amish Paste tomato, I ended up with 11 seedlings. The garden will be happy, and so will our larder!

Add soil, then seedling, then top off with more soil and pack gently
Re-potting is quite easy, though sometimes finicky work. Carefully pop your seedlings out of their current home (for toilet rolls or egg cartons, peel away the paper exterior carefully as roots will sometimes work into the paper) and place them in your soil bucket. Fill a container (in this case a plastic drinking cup) with an inch or so of soil, then carefully put your seedling into the container. Continue adding moist soil around the seedling and packing it relatively gently down as you go.

Buried almost to the leaves
You will notice above that there is a LONG stem on each seedling, and below you'll see that I buried each seedling almost to its first set of leaves. Each of the little hairs on a tomato seedling can turn into a root if it's buried, so don't be afraid to slide them very deep into the dirt. It allows the plant to become more efficiently rooted, and more stable. Make sure each new container has drainage holes at the bottom (I used a pencil to poke three holes in each cup) and is clearly labelled with the plant it contains. It's too easy to mix up seedlings, especially if you are like me and have several breeds of a single type. We have Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, Italiana Roma, and Moneymaker tomatoes all in the greenhouse at present, and they look remarkably like one another. You don't want to mix them up!

Tucked into the greenhouse
When they've all been re-potted, it helps to put them onto a drainage tray of some kind. We've chosen to re-use some disposable aluminum lasagna trays to hold our seedling cups, as it holds the water well for bottom feeding, and supports the cups as well. The tray allows you to remove whole batches of seedlings from their greenhouse or window spot rather than having to try and handle one at a time. You should water your seedlings immediately after they're all transplanted, preferably from the bottom (this encourages root growth). Don't allow the seedlings to stand in pooled water for more than an hour or two, though, or you risk developing fungus which may attack and kill the tiny plants.

I originally planted my tomatoes on February 24, and by March 18 they were largely ready for transplant. The Cherokee Purples did not have true leaves yet, but each of the other tomato breeds did. I chose to leave the Cherokee Purples in their small cells for a bit longer, and have been rewarded this morning (March 22) with the beginnings of true leaves. They'll be transplanted this weekend.

Do you start your own seeds? What's your favorite breed/brand to start from seed? Do you have any successes or lessons to share with us?

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

Soft sandwich bread
What to do in the shade
Tapping trees

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Soft sandwich bread

Fresh baked bread, cooling on the rack
I do post a lot of bread recipes on here, but I do so because I'm always trying new ones. There's something visceral about kneading bread, and yet there are definitely many times when I just can't take the time to enjoy the rhythm and pattern of it. The world calls, and chores must be done, and I can't always give myself over to 25 minutes of joyous kneading. Hence, this bread.

Prepared to bake
I found this recipe on Pinterest, and it was labeled as a French bread version. The first time I made it, I dutifully made long, stretched out loaves that looked rather like footballs or torpedoes. When the bread came out of the oven, it looked spectacular, but when I sliced it, the crispiness I expect of a French loaf just wasn't there. However, the bread was really good! The second try I made, I specifically made rustic loaves that were olive shaped, thinking they would be better for slicing, and that was indeed true. However, it still wasn't French bread, and it wasn't right for sandwiches. Then I found my perfect method, and made the recipe my own, and that's what you get to share in today!

Mixing with the paddle
The recipe is fairly simple, and you can find it at the end of this article. I used my MixMaster to create this bread because I was in a rush doing other things, but it can be done by hand as well, and almost as easily.

Start by mixing together 2.5 cups of warm water (run the water over the inside of your wrist until it's just a tad warmer than your skin) with 2 tablespoons of yeast and 2 tablespoons of sugar with 2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Let it stand until it begins to bubble, about 3-5 minutes.

Ready to switch to the dough hook
To the above, add in a tablespoon of sea salt and 1/3 cup of olive oil (or the oil of your choice - it works equally well with olive oil, vegetable oil, and EVOO) and stir well. Slowly add in flour a half cup at a time, until you end up with a well mixed batter. If you are doing it by hand, continue to mix with fork or spoon until it's quite thick, then switch to kneading on the counter. If using a MixMaster, after about 5 cups of flour you'll want to switch from the paddle (pictured above) to the dough hook. Continue adding the flour until the dough is soft, but firm enough to mold into loaves. It will be somewhat sticky to the touch.

A sticky mess...
I found that I needed to finish off the kneading by hand, no matter how much I used the machine. It only required a minute or so, but that final touch just turns out nicer when you get your hands on the dough. I turn it out when it's pulling away from the sides of the mixing bowl, but while it's still quite sticky. As you can see, it's definitely not ready to sit as a single batch of dough (picture to right). Flour your hands well before kneading, and work the dough until it's just a bit tacky on the outside, yet smooth and soft.

Ready to rise
This is the flexible part of the recipe, something I really appreciated because I was so busy! Form the dough into a nice ball by tucking your hands underneath and turning it. Let it sit on the counter a moment while you butter, oil or spray a large bowl (ceramic or metal work better than plastic for this). Turn the ball into the bowl, allowing the top of it to get oiled, then flip it so the "gathered" section is under it. If the dough isn't oily, you can put a spritz of EVOO or no-stick spray on the top. Don't overdo it, though.

The second rise
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp floured cloth, and set it in a warm, draft-free place to rise. I like to put my rising dough into the oven, with the light on. It's just warm enough in there and the door keeps it free of breezes. Check back every 30 minutes, and punch the dough down anytime it doubles in size. This is a very vigorous dough, and it will puff up a lot, several times. You should allow the dough to rise and be punched down at least three times, but up to five or six is fine. I found that it took about 35 minutes to rise enough to be punched down. Always cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a cloth each time you put it back to rise.

Oiling the loaf pans
There are several ways to complete this bread recipe. If you want a round, rustic style loaf, you can simply place the bread onto a baking stone or in a cast iron pot and bake it that way. If you want a long loaf, roll it out using your hands. Do not use a rolling pin for this recipe at all. I decided I wanted sandwich bread, and so I pulled out my loaf pans. Grease the pans up well and have them ready on the counter before the last rise is complete.

Divided into loaves for rising
When the last rise is done, turn the dough out onto a slightly greased counter. You should work it very gently but not knead it outright. Using a sharp knife or dough cutter, separate your dough into three equal pieces. Roll these pieces into rough loaf shapes, but don't worry too much about the details. Press the dough into the corners of the loaf pans if you're using them, but again, be very gentle. Once they're in the pans or sitting on the counter, cover them and let them rise a final time.

In the oven to bake
If you are making rustic rounds or torpedoes, when they are the right size, it's time to bake them. If you are making sandwich loaves, you need to watch them a bit more closely because if left too long, this dough will rise up out of the pans entirely and take over your kitchen. The good news is that if this happens, just punch it down, roll it back into a loaf shape, and pop it back in the pan. Let it rise one last time and watch it better! If you look at my picture to the left, you'll see the dough is just over the edges of the pan, but not pouring over. Whatever method you use, slash your loaves three times with a very sharp knife, and slide into a pre-heated 375F oven.

After 30 minutes
After 30 minutes, keep a close eye on your loaves. Mine took 35 minutes to bake in the pans, but the rustic torpedoes I made last time were ready in 30 minutes even. They're ready when the tops begin to brown and the bottom makes a hollow sound when you tap it. If it isn't quite ready, just pop it back in the oven for another few minutes.

Finished loaves cooling
If you want to have bread that slices well for sandwiches, take a stick of butter and slide it over the top of your hot loaves. Not only does it make your bread taste irresistibly good, it also makes the top a little less crunchy, more able to slice easily. If you want a crunchier crust, you can actually whisk an egg up with a tablespoon of water, and paint the top of your loaves just before putting them in to bake.  They will be slightly darker and the crust will be chewier.

I made these loaves with Better for Bread flour, because it's what I had on hand at the time. It could be done with any flour, although you want something that has a decent gluten content to help with the rise. If you find the bread a little fluffy, decrease the yeast by a half teaspoon and see how it works for you. If it isn't sweet enough, add an extra tablespoon of sugar at the start of the recipe. Alternatively, skip the sugar and add either honey, or a mix of honey and molasses for a more dense bread.

This bread works great for sandwiches!
As you can see in the picture, this bread has a nice crumb, and slices fairly well. This was taken while the bread was still hot enough that I needed a hot pad to keep my hands from burning. Once it's completely cool, it slices like a dream. The recipe could easily be adapted to contain garlic, onion flakes, or any powdered flavoring such as tomato or spinach powder. Simply add those items along with the flour, before the dough forms.

Soft Sandwich Bread (makes 3 loaves)
  • 2.5 cups warm water
  • 2 tbsp dry active yeast
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 6-7 cups flour
Add together water, yeast, sugar and vinegar, and mix together gently. Let sit until bubbly (about 3-5 minutes). Add the salt and oil, and begin adding the flour one cup at a time. The dough should be soft, but firm enough to mold into loaves.

Knead for 2-5 minutes, and then put in the oven with a small pot of boiling water (this keeps the dough moist). Watch the dough and punch it down every time it gets to the top of the mixing bowl. You can do this many times, but at least 2-5 times. Longer is fine.

Put the dough on a greased counter top and divide into three sections (for three small loves, or two for two larger loaves). Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray and sprinkle a thin layer of cornmeal on the bottom of the sheet. Roll the dough balls into French bread shapes (slightly torpedo or long and skinny). Slash the tops of the bread diagonally 3-5 times and coat with a beaten egg.

Let it rise 30 minutes (or until doubled) on the counter, or put into the oven at 170F and wait until they're the size you want to cook them at. Once they're the right size, set the stove to 375F (without opening it if the loaves are inside) and let them bake until done. If going from counter to oven, bake about 30 minutes; loaves risen in the oven may bake quicker.


Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

What to do in the shade
Tapping trees
New life! 

All photographs (c) Rev. M. Allyson Szabo 2013. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What to do in the shade

Bountiful carrots (2010)

When you planned your garden, you probably picked out the most sunny part of your yard as The Spot. After all, vegetables love sun, and they need enough of it to produce fruit. This is fantastic if you have a huge yard that isn't surrounded by shady trees. It's not so great if part or most of your yard is covered in shadow for several hours a day. Do not despair, though!

There are several plants that do very well in shade. Leafy greens are the ones most people are aware of, and it's true that lettuce, cabbage, chard, all salad greens, and even spinach and kale all love the shady spots. You can safely plant them where tomatoes wouldn't grow.

Beans (2009)
That's not the only thing to do with your shady bits, though. Broccoli and cauliflower both grow very well in the shade, as do beets, brussel sprouts, and beans. You can even grow peas and radishes in less sunny spots with no harm to your plants whatsoever.

The general rule that's used is that if a plant is grown for its leaves, then it's safe to plant in a shady spot, provided it gets at least a couple of hours of sun per day. If it's grown for the root (potatoes, beets, parsnips), it is shade tolerant, and can go somewhere that gets four to five hours of sun a day with no problem. Vegetables grown for a fruit that comes from a flower (zucchini, tomato, green peppers) need as much sun as they can get, and eight or more hours of sunlight is optimum for them.

Giant cabbage (2010)
This year, we'll be putting in three new raised beds on the shady side of our driveway. These beds will be just for our leafy greens and shade tolerant vegetables. It's there that I'll plant the summer crops of spinach, salad greens, my cabbages, and some of our beans. The sunny spots, which get many hours of sunlight a day thanks to our yard's layout, will get our tomatoes, squash, watermelon, corn, and other sun-loving veggies.

It's my hope that this way of planting will increase the yield in our garden by at least a multiple of two. We will be adding a third more raised beds, but because of how we'll be planting in those raised beds, we should see a lot more production than we did last year. Last year wasn't a bad run, either!

What sort of vegetables do you intend to grow this year? Do you have special micro-climates to overcome in your yard?

Broccoli (2010)
REMINDER: If you are in New England and plan to grow broccoli and/or kale this year, now is the time to start them indoors. Both require planting before we stop getting frosts, in order to get their best growth. Broccoli in particular needs to be started indoors six to eight weeks before transplanting into the garden, and it should be transplanted outdoors about four weeks before our last frost!

This post was shared at the Homestead Barn Hop #103!

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

Tapping trees
New life!
Keeping warm

Monday, March 11, 2013

Tapping trees

'X' marks the spot!
This weekend, we finally got around to tapping our maple trees! Everyone helped out, and it was really a family affair. The weather is perfect for collecting sap: warm days that range from the low 40s to the high 50s in temperature, and nights that drop below freezing. Last summer, I had marked out the various maples with spray paint so I could easily identify them come winter. However, I allowed the girl child to help me out, and it seems that some non-maples got marked. This resulted in us tapping a couple of oaks and then removing the taps when we realized my error!

Helping daddy tap
The tapping process is not very complex, and can be done quiet cheaply. The spiles (the metal taps that go into the tree) are only a few cents for the cheap ones that hold buckets, or as high as $0.29 for the small metal ones we got, that accept the blue maple sap tubing. The tubing itself cost us just under $5.00 for 30 feet of it, which was more than enough for the few trees we tapped. My original plan had been to allow our taps to drip into sterilized milk jugs through a small hole in the plastic cap, via the tubing. However, I quickly learned that wasn't going to suffice . . .

Drilling the hole
The first thing you want to do once you've found your maple tree(s) is to drill a hole in them, at an upward angle. We used small spiles, and so we had a 5/16" drill bit. You can get hand drills that allow you to do this without power, but we figured we'd enjoy the power tools while we could. The drill made it very quick and easy, and you could immediately see the sap beginning to drip out of the hole. Using a hammer, you tap the spile into the hole, then hold your breath for a moment. When you see the drip-drip-dripping of the sap through the spile, you hang your bucket or attach your tubing and put a container at the other end.

More than one tap is fine on large trees
If you have large trees, you can easily put in more than one tap. In general, you would put one tap into a tree that is 53 inches or less in circumference, two into a tree that is between 53 and 75 inches in circumference, and over 75 inches in circumference can accept three taps. For very large trees,  you can go with four or five without problem, but beginners should stick to no more than three per tree until they are more experienced.

Tubing leads to a jug
The sap will drip slowly out of the tree and either off the spile and into its bucket, or down the tubing and into the collection container, so long as the sun is out and the temperature is above freezing. The warmer the day, the better the sap will run. The perfect weather for tapping is a 40-50F day and a 25F night, which will produce the freeze-thaw cycle that keeps the sap flowing for a very long time. We're heading into just such a cycle for the next couple of weeks, and we're hoping to get enough sap to make syrup for the year, plus a little bit of maple sugar as well.

Adding a second tap
If you put your taps in on a warm afternoon, as we did, you'll be immediately rewarded with the sight of flowing sap. You can actually stand and watch it come down the tubing at an astonishingly fast rate. Let the kids taste a bit of the sap, dipped out of the container, to see what it's like. There's nothing wrong with the sap, and in fact it can be used to make a very flavorful tea (use the sap instead of water).

Sap dripping out of the spile
There's something exciting about being able to do this simple thing. It's not exactly easy, per se, because it takes man-hours to tap, collect, boil and store the sap and syrup, but there's nothing complex about how it's done. You can use the sweet results of your labor with knowledge that there is no high fructose corn syrup hiding in it, and there are no artificial sweeteners, colors, or preservatives. It's just plain, delicious maple syrup.

Adding a 'Y'
My original plan for using the milk jugs as collection places turned out to be a bit underwhelming for most of our trees. Rather than have a bucket hanging on each spile, as in pioneer days, we used the blue tubing and 'Y' splitters to bring all the sap into a single place. For the tiny trees that had only a single tap in them, that was more than adequate, and a single gallon milk jug seems to be what they are going to give us in a day. That's not true of the larger trees, however.

A spile, close up
The two large trees had four taps and three taps in them, all collecting down into a single place. In one hour, we had almost filled the gallon jug! This just wasn't going to do, and so we sacrificed three of our large five gallon buckets to be used for collection. A small hole was drilled in the lid of each bucket, allowing the blue tubing to enter but hopefully no bark or insects. We put the taps in around noon yesterday, and at noon today they had about 2.5 gallons in each of the large pails and about 3/4 of a gallon in each of the small jugs.

Close-up of a milk jug lid with tubing
I will admit, I wasn't expecting to get quite that much the first time. Admittedly the weather is ideal, but still, this is my first time being the driving force behind tapping maple trees. Previously, an acquaintance had been in charge, and we had used the old-style spiles and hanging buckets. It was so exciting to see the huge amount of sap there when I went to collect!

A small jug
The fun part starts when you get the sap boiled down, but that will be a while. You can save sap to boil in very large batches, but considering we're a home-sized operation, I just boil it about half way each day as it comes in. The house smells intensely of maple syrup, and it's so wonderful! Right now I'm boiling indoors, which is NOT recommended, because you end up with sugar coated walls. However, I have the windows open and the fan on, and so I am hoping to avoid the worst of the sugar coating.

Also, I am not finishing the sap into syrup today. I will boil down each day's take until it's just barely starting to thicken up. It will still be clear and watery, but if you taste it, it'll bear more resemblance to the syrup than the sap. That half-finished product will get popped into the freezer until later on in the spring, when we've run out of freezer space. Then we'll pull out all the half-done sap and put it onto an outdoor burner to finish up. It's important to do that last bit outside, as that's when the most sugar comes off the sap. We use a propane burner at full heat, and make short work of it. The longest part really is getting that first half of the water out!

Sap that's out of the tree will last for 3 days if left in the bucket outdoors, however it's best to bring it in and start processing it once a day if at all possible. The half-boiled down sap can be safely frozen for several weeks, but should not be stored at room temperature or outdoors where it will freeze and thaw.

Finished maple syrup can be canned and stored for over a year on the shelf without worry, and can be frozen for an indefinite period of time. Honestly, I wonder who would want to test out how long it takes for maple syrup to go bad. I know I don't! I've never had a batch of syrup last more than a couple of months, never mind the year they say is safe!

As I process my sap into syrup, I'll add information to the blog for everyone to enjoy. Please share your own sap and syrup stories with us!

Shared at the Backyard Farming Connection Hop #23! This post was shared at the Homestead Barn Hop #103!

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

New life!
Keeping warm
Quick pesto'd pasta with oysters

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


From the Netflix blurb: "Farmageddon tells the story of farms that were providing safe, healthy foods to their communities but were forced to stop."

I have a list of documentaries lined up on Netflix that I have not taken the time to watch, and today I decided that it was important to do so. I chose to watch Farmageddon because it seemed to be of the most interest to me, considering my interest in local and sustainable farming, as well as my current connection with  I knew what kind of film it was, and that I would sit and slowly simmer with outrage. Still, it's important. So I watched.

Milk is good! (1)
The lady who put the film together, Kristin Canty, is a typical mom with a child who had allergy issues and asthma. When she switched the child to raw milk, his allergies disappeared, seemingly healed. Her whole family got healthier because the food they were buying was whole and local, and real. The state eventually shut down her raw milk supplier, and she's now unable to get raw milk without smuggling it in from another state, a Federal offense. Yes, you read that right - it's illegal to go into another state and buy raw milk for your own personal use.

As an aside, the Center for Disease Control has a whole FAQ up about raw milk and the terrible dangers of drinking it. What they don't mention is that they recently were forced to admit that no one has died from drinking contaminated raw milk (and they don't mention that several people have died from drinking pasteurized milk). There's a lot of manipulation and lies involved when it comes to the wording on these "official" websites. It's scary to think that these people are supposed to be the ones interested in our safety.

Lambs frolicking (2)
To return to the film, there is a section about a sheep farmer in Vermont who was targeted by Linda Detwiler (then part of USDA). The Failace family brought in sheep from the UK and Australia as part of their family business. They willingly submitted to the month of isolation before leaving the UK, then another two full months of isolation in America, in order to prove the safety of their herds. They kept full medical records, went through all required inspections, and did more than they were asked in keeping their sheep healthy and happy. After following through, they began raising their sheep and enjoying their new farm life. Then the inspections began, and the raids, the removal of milk "for testing" and eventually the removal of all their sheep and most of their equipment.

All this was done in the name of public safety. The USDA claimed that the Failace's sheep were harboring a variant of Mad Cow Disease, despite all the testing and isolation and such. They even went so far as to go into their hay fields and remove the hay because "it was dangerous," claiming it was being incinerated. Mr. Failace became increasingly suspicious of this, and eventually followed one of the trucks removing their hay. It went to a local landfill and was dumped among the other organic materials. This was how they were disposing of this "dangerous" hay.

Spying? Really? (3)
The government spent millions on this case. They hired people to watch the farm, the people who lived there, and all those who purchased anything from the farm. They investigated anyone who made purchases or who sported bumper stickers in support of the Failaces. After years of fighting, Linda Detwiler was eventually forced under oath to explain that they had no evidence of any sheep or animal on the farm either being ill or even being exposed to a disease. The Failaces won their court case, but at what cost?

I could go on about the various atrocities committed in the name of the government. The movie is full of them. There are important facts that came to light, though, throughout the movie. First and foremost, despite trying on several occasions, they couldn't get anyone from any of the government agencies to talk to them on camera. Not one department would stand up and defend their actions on the small farms.

There are many reasons we have the system we have. There was a time, both in America and abroad, that milk production and food production had no oversight and there was a lot of disease going around. Our society was trying to find more efficient ways to feed the booming population, but the science hadn't caught up yet. Pasteurization, for instance, is not a bad thing per se. It is something we should use when necessary, for the sterilization of milk and other foods during times when we can't be as careful about the safety when it's gathered. During an emergency, for instance, the cleaning routines of commercial cows simply can't be kept up, and pasteurization will allow us to keep the milk coming without causing problems. But in a non-emergency situation, on local farms and at the community level, people can visit farms and make their own decisions as to whether they want their milk pasteurized.

So much paperwork! (4)
The paperwork that is in place for farms is ridiculous. Large farms have to have full time staff to deal with the amount of paperwork they need to process. Unfortunately, similar amounts of paperwork are required of small, family run farms as well, and there is no ability to hire staff to fill out all the forms. The staff are the family and maybe a few friends. Safety is important, yes, but to treat a commercial abattoir in the same way you treat a little backyard farm doing a chicken slaughter for their own family is simply ridiculous. That is what's happening, though.

There was a lot said about the safety and dangers of raw milk throughout the movie. However, one woman who was interviewed at a farmer's market said something that made me really pause. The USDA thinks it's just fine for a mother to feed her child sugar bombs for breakfast and fast food every meal of the day, smoke during pregnancy, and other harmful things, but that it's a Federal crime to buy raw milk for your family. That certainly puts it into perspective.

The question that keeps coming up, in this film and others like it, is what is motivating the government to come down on all these little farms? Honestly, I realize that there are probably statistically as many bad "little farms" as there are commercial ones, but we're just not seeing the numbers. I dislike using statistics for proving things, as they're so easy to manipulate and most people don't really understand them, but I'm not seeing the numbers. The math is wrong. The problems we're seeing are huge ones. Bags of contaminated spinach across the country are not coming from small farms, they're coming from commercial farms.

So we ask again . . . why? The easy answer is to say that the huge agricultural corporations are buying out our politicians, and certainly that's part of what's going on. It can't be all of it, though, because the bottom line is that not everyone in our country is going to want to or be able to purchase raw milk and locally produced organic vegetables. Even with the government on their side, the prices for such items will always be higher than for mass produced eggs, meat, and vegetables. Even if the small farms won every case and suddenly had everything they wanted, Big Farm isn't going away. It can't. It may be part of the answer, but it definitely isn't all of it.

There are a lot of hints as to what's going on, but no clear answers. Last year, the FDA was brought up on charges for blocking the sale of raw milk across state lines. The, ". . . FDA moved the court to dismiss the case, and in its motion stated that a) there is No Absolute Right to Consume or Feed Children Any Particular Food, b) there is No Generalized Right to Bodily and Physical Health."

As a stand-alone statement, that's pretty scary. It can seem rational, if you consider someone who wants to have the right to feed their kid nothing but salt and vinegar chips, certainly, but when approached from the point of view of a family needing to meet the needs of a child with an allergy, it suddenly looks very grim.

Much of the movie showed raw footage of Federal agents involved in raiding, either taken by the various families involved or from security cameras. Sometimes warrants were involved, and other times they were not. In each and every piece of raid footage I saw, there were firearms (many of them) out and being pointed at the families. None of the families were resisting at all, and most were simply terrified and comforting small children who were sobbing with fear. None of the footage included armed people other than the authorities involved. When I looked up a few of the court cases online, I saw not a single mention of resisting, interfering, or otherwise getting in the way of the agents.

I don't want to paint the local police officers and sheriffs with the same tar and feathers as the Feds, though. While the local authorities were included in the raids, none of them looked very happy about what they were doing. In two pieces of footage, the officers were almost in tears, explaining to the farmers that they were required to do this and to please not interfere with the Feds. This does not appear to be a local issue, and that stands true among the small local farmers that I know personally, as well. This is a Federal issue.

Tidy and beautiful (5)
The farms in the film were all fairly tidy, and the animals were clean and appeared healthy. Most of the shots including humans showed the farmers or their children playing with or spending time with their livestock. The farms weren't perfect, though. There was mud, there was cow dung, and there were straggly looking turkeys who had obviously decided to stand in the rain rather than go into their house. Nothing looked unsanitary, and none of the animals appeared to be living in the kind if filth that they would in a factory farm.

The case of Manna Storehouse, a private (not public) business co-op, is frightening.  To deal with a small farm group serving about 100 people, they brought in 11 policemen, all with guns drawn, in full SWAT gear. The Mrs. Stowers and several of her children were held at gunpoint for six or seven hours in a single room of their home. One child, who had been holding a cell phone when the police entered, was forced to the ground and frisked. When the father got home, he was frisked and required to join them. The police took their computers and all their records, as well as their personal food. The charge was "failure to have a food permit", which is a third degree misdemeanor, something that warrants a $500 fine, is not a Federal offense, and is indeed considered very minor.

None of these small farms and co-ops were recipients of complaints. No one got ill from eating their food. There are no health issues at all associated with any of them. The farmers actually invite people in to see their operations, to inspect the living conditions of the livestock. They aren't trying to avoid the law, either, and seem to be accepting of necessary health inspections of their premises.

Why is our government spending millions upon millions of dollars to persecute and prosecute small farms? It really makes no sense. The claims that it's a giant conspiracy make me want to cringe, but as time goes on and I see more and more of this kind of behavior, I feel like there is no other option. I can't find a definitive trail as to "where the money goes" and I can't see who really gets a benefit out of this.

The most terrifying claim I've heard to date is that perhaps "Big Agriculture" is putting things in our food supply to make us more compliant. I don't even know if it's necessary, to be honest. The vast majority seem blissfully unaware that their food supplies are hanging in such a precarious balance. Perhaps that's the most scary thing of all.

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

New life!
Keeping warm
Quick pesto'd pasta with oysters
A good weekend's work

1) Image by Matthew Hull / morgueFile
2) Image by Eric Pruis / morgueFile
3) Image by wintersixfour / morgueFile
4) Image by doctor_bob / morgueFile
5) Image by jade / morgueFile

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Tires in landfill (1)
There are tires all over the world that are currently not being used for anything other than gathering dirt and bugs. Tires don't degrade well, and so they're not good for putting into landfill. Yet that's just what happens to the vast majority of them. Some are now being used as fuel for cement kilns, and others are being shredded and turned into rubber mats for animal stalls or for gym floors. Still, there are hundreds of thousands just lying around, waiting to be used in some way. In the garden, we can use those tires for a variety of things!

Some people worry about chemicals leaching out of tires and into their vegetables and herbs. There's a sharp divide between the camps on this issue. One side says that leaching always occurs and you should skip using tires, period. The other camp provides quite a bit of research and information. The bottom line is that this is a personal choice. My observation over the past ten years of using tires in a variety of ways in the garden, is that my vegetables and herbs are healthy, vigorous, and beautiful. There are no odd tastes, and often my garden seems to do better than other standard gardens in similar conditions. I am FOR tires in the garden!

The most popular use for tires in the garden is as planters of some sort. People have gotten crazy creative in their uses, going so far as to paint them up in bright colors, cut them into shapes, stack them in piles ranging from large to small, and many other ideas. The possibilities really are only limited by your imagination.

In my garden, we use tires for a two main things. In the past we've used them for planting potatoes. This is an incredibly easy method for growing potatoes, especially if you've got poor soil. The other use is as a raised bed or beds.

Potatoes in tires
When planting potatoes in tires, you put down your base tire and fill it with compost. Add your potato piece, eyes down. Put a bit of dirt over the top, and allow it to settle itself for a week or two. When the greenery begins to go over the top of the tire, add another tire and more dirt. Continue this for as long as you like. I find that three to four tires are optimal, and provide us with a good batch of healthy potatoes. The best part about tire planting is that, when harvest time comes, there's no digging. Just tip over the tower of tires and your 'taters are exposed and ready to be harvested. Children especially love to harvest from the knocked over towers.

The herb garden, 2012
Larger tires, especially of the tractor variety, work very well as instant raised beds. Once you get the tire into place (and you will need a tractor, backhoe, or very strong friends to do this), you want to cut off the sidewall. Some people cut off both sidewalls, leaving just a cylinder of rubber, but I prefer to keep the bottom sidewall on. It curls up into the garden space, but not far enough to interfere with vegetables. What it does is store water. Water is trapped inside the curl of the rubber, deep in the bottom of your garden, and it holds there well through even drought conditions. Last year my regular raised beds required regular watering, but the rain water was enough for my tractor tire beds, because it held well inside.

Some people like to paint their tires white. This isn't a bad idea. one which I plan on implementing this year. The white color reflects the sun away, and the soil is cooler. For crops that like to bolt, such as greens or broccoli, the extra heat held by black tire planters can actually cause issues. Painting them white alleviates that issue. Of course, you can choose to use your black tire planters for heat loving crops such as herbs or green peppers, solving the problem naturally.

Bean poles (2)
The third way I intend to use tires this in this summer's garden is as the base of a variety of climbing vegetable trellises. My pole beans are the first to come to mind. I purchased both Kentucky Pole and Rattlesnake beans this year, and both like to climb upward as high as they can. They're prolific providers, if you can give them enough space. To that end, I plan on planting ten to twenty bean seeds around the edge of each soil-filled tire (car sized). Into the tire itself, I will stand several tall, straight branches, tied together at the top to form a teepee. The beans will sprout and grow up the teepee legs, creating a thick, abundant growth of beans that are relatively easy to harvest. I expect to have several of these small planters scattered around the garden area, since they are small enough to fit into any corner or space.

Standard trellising
Compared to the standard row method for planting pole beans, the tire method is much easier and more compact. In the space it took me to do one double row of pole beans (see picture to right), I could have planted three or four times as many in tires. Wire trellising can be useful, but for beans it isn't the best option, in my opinion.

Stacked tires can be used to plant bushes in, such as raspberries and blueberries, giving you control over the soil and encroaching weeds. They can be filled with dirt and used as a retaining wall. For people with rocky soil, tire planters can allow you to grow carrots and beets easily by keeping the roots out of the bad ground and carefully inside the tire limits. The results are tasty and healthy, of superior quality to those grown in poorer soil.

Tires have so many uses. Why not give them a try this summer, and see how they work? Make a little tire garden for the children, plant some marigolds or sunflowers in them, and watch the growth happen almost before your eyes!

Shared at the Backyard Farming Connection Hop #23

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button). If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

New life!
Keeping warm
Quick pesto'd pasta with oysters
A good weekend's work
Making and using greenhouses

1) Image by simonfilm / mourgueFile2) Image  by fattymattybrewing / morgueFile