Firsts of the Season…

It’s only been a couple of weeks since my last post but lots has happened here since then.  The sustained high heat finally broke followed by several more bouts of rain…all of it welcome despite the scramble to manage our daily chores as we danced around the rain drops.

My hands down, favorite activities on the farm are those I consider to be once a year events. Some are really the ‘first of the season‘ since they may – in some cases such as the bees – happen more than once a year but are well defined by their season. It is such a lovely break from the constant chores like weeding and watering to have any new activity and last week we had the pleasure of at least four of these…but whose counting?

First, we harvested the 2018 sweet cherries which were less than 1.5 pounds but were all the more precious due to their scarcity. These we enjoyed ourselves at a family Father’s Day luncheon but hope to have enough to sell to our customers in future years.IMG_1685 2.jpgAlso on the scene for Father’s Day…the new FlexFit, Seven Oaks Farm & Orchard hats for sale. Below is a prototype which was received by Dave as a gift. Taking orders…two sizes…just saying.IMG_1835Then, we began the 2018 blueberry harvest with a modest first picking of only a couple of pounds. At this point, I’ve only been picking every other day for relatively short and delightful stints as the first variety to ripen, Blue Ray, sports a very large and full flavored berry. Three days of picking has only totaled about 20 pounds of the nearly 200 pounds we are expecting if this year mirrors the last; fingers crossed. Soon this chore will become daily and take hours to accomplish, lasting nearly all of July, but we offered the first of the berries for sale to our CSA customers last Saturday much to everyone one’s delight.image001 Next, we harvested the 2018 garlic crop…all 22.5 pounds of it! We laid them out in a single layer on a very large screen to dry for at least a week before prepping them for sale. The aroma of fresh garlic is absolutely WONDERFUL!IMG_1763Finally, early last week we pulled 4 honey supers off two of the most prolific colonies in the apiary and brought them – frames bulging full of capped honey –  indoors until we could find a day to devote to the extraction process. It felt so good to grab this spring honey just before the summer solstice after which we will officially welcome any summer honey. It is nice to keep the two seasons of liquid gold separate since the spring honey is made from the delicate nectar the bees have gathered from the orchard blossoms. This honey is comparatively pale in color and also delicately flavored in a flowery way; imagine the bees all about in the orchard going from tree to tree and strawberry flower to blueberry blossom. Here sit the supers, conveniently perched on the shower bench in the mudroom bath and separated by wooden sticks to give them ventilation. Why the shower? Think of how easy it is to use the hand sprayer, blasting hot water to wash down every sticky surface when the process is complete! IMG_1765Robbing the bees of their surplus honey is stressful for them (of course I always get stung a few times but I’m used to that!) so I made sure to give them empty replacement frames to fill, something that gives them adequate space as well as something to do while we take their honey. The previous week I had constructed 2 boxes full of frames for this purpose. I buy the wooden pieces from my bee supply house and nail them carefully together before adding the wax foundations. On the day we pulled the fat, honey filled boxes, we also gave them the empties to begin the summer harvest.

With all this activity, it was a fun week except for several problems in the chicken coop since it seems they always like to keep me on my toes. I had just recently tried to solve some new eating problems in the coop. Before we joined the two sets of birds, I had noticed the older chickens were spilling excess food from their hanging feeders onto the ground and then refusing to peck up the spillage. This not only meant that I was filling their feeders too frequently, it also meant there was a gradual build up of ignored feed on the ground and virtually wasted.

Over the weeks, this started to become a rising sea of spoils underfoot. Of course I immediately looked to my on-line sources for advice and found that other chicken owners did not waste the food but merely scooped it back up and refilled the feeder with it, forcing the chickens to recycle it, as it were. This I did at first with a bit of success but found that since chickens scratch around in the dirt and sand base, it was hard to separate the food from the substrate. So, I got an idea from another chicken owner who put a round trash can lid just below the feeder to catch the over-spill so that it was easier to gather and place back into the feeder. IMG_1817.jpgThis actually worked well for awhile but I found one or two chickens who were the culprits as they used their beaks to ‘splash aside’ the food in the upper trough as though looking for treasures. I felt that this was a silly cycle that needed to be broken rather than accommodated. I then realized that the feeder in the mini-coop was a different design, with a wheel-like grid in the trough area that prevented any sideways sweeping of food but rather kept the chicken pecking downward and thus discouraging the sweeping motion that caused the spillage. Now with the two flocks successfully joined as one, I moved the feeder from the mini-coop to the larger coop for all to enjoy and wouldn’t you know…they all want to eat from this one smaller sized trough. IMG_1815.jpg One feeder is not sufficient for 25 hens so we purchased another, larger one of this same style, but they ignored it and left it hanging, full of neglected food. After an aha moment, I thought perhaps a bit of top dressing with some specialty food would entice them to the other feeder. All it took was a little sprinkle of Omega 3 to get them interested again. Problem solved, until the next one…

Two minor maladies popped up and required more of my focus during this time period. I entered the coop one morning to find that one of the Buff Orpingtons was limping quite badly and was favoring her right foot not unlike a drama queen. A quick examination showed she had no visible injury so I figured she must have sprained it. I had two choices: isolation or medication or perhaps both. The first day I got her to eat half a low dose aspirin. IMG_1757.jpgBut she refused it after that so I was forced to try the isolation. Unfortunately, the isolation was so stressful for her that she stood in the crate for the morning rather than resting for future healing. So, I allowed her to re-join the group and watched her carefully for bullying. She was wise enough to find a corner in the mini-coop where she was able ‘hide out’ for a day or two. Each morning she has waiting for me to lift her down from the night time roost, something that must have caused her too much pain to do on her own. Thankfully, the limping is now less noticeable and she is not self-isolating anymore.

An additional malady in the coop is from another of the ‘Buffs’ who has turned ‘broody’ on me which means she is sitting in a nest box all day with the intention of hatching a clutch of eggs. Of course there are no fertilized eggs for her to hatch but this instinct is typically brought on by the long summer days. The hen stops laying due to a sudden rise in the hormone prolactin which is produced in the pituitary gland. The signs of broodiness – besides the prolonged nest sitting – are a low growling noise and a defensive feather rising whenever she is approached.

One doesn’t want to encourage broodiness due to the stoppage of laying and the hogging of the nests. There are several solves for this issue. The two easiest are avoiding any build up of laid eggs in the nest which makes a hen believe she has a duty to hatch them and also to physically remove her from the nest on a regular basis to encourage her get out and eat and drink. So far, I’ve tried both and they have worked okay and she will take a break from her sit-in protest several times a day at my behest.

All of this activity brought us to last Thursday and Friday when we had so much rain that we were unable to get into the fields to harvest the seasonal items for our Saturday morning CSA sales. Drat! Although we always have eggs sales, we otherwise had only a small offering for the week and were tempted to cancel all but the egg subscribers.

Until, that is, we came upon the idea of a Honey EXTRACT-A-GANZA! We decided to invite our customers to come and watch – or help – with the honey extraction process and perhaps learn a little more about how foods like honey arrived into their jars and into their morning tea and toast. We lured them with the promise of coffee and donuts with the hopes of a hands-on demonstration of honey extracting. Thank you to Peter & Stef for the chicken tray and to Peggy Ann for the donuts! IMG_1791Many came but most just looked and asked questions. Perhaps it is too intimidating to jump in and help? IMG_0010It takes time to do this work but this time of year, the air conditioning is spoiling us and the results are so enticing! We had 36 frames of honey which, after being picked clean of capped wax, were put into the extractor in batches of six. Our customers watched for just a few minutes but our work continued from 8am until well after 4 in the afternoon with an out pouring of 150 pounds of beautiful, spring honey which, after filtering, we put into 3 fifty pound buckets until we have time to jar it up!

The next day, after the boxes of combs were emptied of honey, we put them out for the bees to clean up and then back on the hives for them to fill with summer honey.

Here is an example of a bee collecting the summer honey as it is working on the purple cone flowers in the back terrace. Soon they will have the yearly sunflowers to work on as well! IMG_1767In the meantime, after feeling sticky for days, it was time to clean up and put everything away for a couple of weeks. A fun side product of the honey extraction is the virgin wax cappings that are quite valuable. We drained the honey over a narrow metal rack that fits suspended just so over the capping tub. Here is nearly 4 pounds of wax ready to store in freezer bags to save for a larger wax processing day.  Of course we put the emptied rack with bits of clinging waxy honey out for the bees and they cleaned it up instantly for us! IMG_1811.jpgWe always have Coulter at the ready as our clean-up helper…IMG_1547But wise little Willie – soon to be 4 months old – says, “let me think about that and I’ll get back to you…”IMG_1697


It’s All About ‘B’s…Berries, Birds, Bees, Boys & Banana Tree?

I wasn’t just kidding about the unseasonable heat we experienced during strawberry season this year. I can now point to the verified stats that have been tabulated and reveal that we just experienced the hottest May on record in Saint Louis. Of course, as you can also see by the graphic below, I also wasn’t exaggerating about how long it took for Spring to arrive as it represented the 4th coldest April on record!

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I somehow find a degree of satisfaction in knowing that I wasn’t just whining about the weather for months on end. We also have been way too dry…that is until today when we had quite a healthy batch of rain storms with wind and hail to boot. Although we really, really needed the rain, I would have been gratified by something on the gentler side. I was so pleased with some of my potted plants…IMG_1571Until the first round of storms hit and ravished them…Ugh!IMG_1615I’m hoping a bit of trimming will allow plantings such as this to rebound but we have not made a thorough inspection of the orchard yet so I’m hoping all our fruits are still in tact.

The good news is that the 2018 strawberry season is just about over with a harvest to date of just under 275 pounds of berries, which by the way is another Seven Oaks Farm & Orchard record. I’m sure there will be some stragglers to bring in yet but I’m already looking forward to the ripening blueberries as I can pick these for the most part without squatting or kneeling!  IMG_1577.jpgBut back to the strawberries for a minute. Do remember that we do not use any pesticides or herbicides in our fields. This forces us to work hard on the more indelicate subject of insects laying eggs where I would prefer that they not – especially knowing that there are good insects as I mentioned in the last post and then there are some that are less desirable. Take for example, this beautiful strawberry that has a ‘clutch’ of eggs neatly waiting to hatch and ultimately take sustenance from the berry. Not only does this ruin the berry but many bugs proliferate at a speed which I need to control. IMG_1560My research tells me that these eggs were most likely from a stink bug. Maybe you can recognize this little menace as I can show it at various life stages and attest to its presence in the patch as I squish them whenever I get a chance and eradicate their eggs as well. OPM_BMSB-life-stagesNot much to do other than to be diligent about eliminating both the bug and eggs whenever spotted but the early heat made this a problem in the berries this year in a way I have not seen previously.

I think I also teased in the last post about the strawberry freezing I had planned to do in addition to the jam making and I was able to accomplish this on two fronts.  First, we love having the larger, whole berries in the freezer for our winter breakfasts so it is pretty easy to accomplish this by washing and hulling them in batches and letting them dry (point side up) on terry towels. I love the red “kiss” spot that represent the footprint of the previous batch!IMG_1492I then load them in one layer (so as not to stick) onto sheet pans and into the freezer to fully harden before putting them into gallon freezer bags for long term storage. IMG_1494The other type of freezing I do is to make the Strawberry Slushy that Dave’s grandmother, ‘Patch’, used to make. Each summer when the Sauerhoff family visited Salisbury, Maryland for a week of vacation, Patch would serve her sugar macerated, frozen strawberry slush at dessert time. I can attest – since I joined the family when she was still serving this – there is nothing else quite like it when one has the advantage of truly vine ripened berries at hand. It is actually rather simple so I’ll share my version of the recipe since Patch never quite gave me her proportions.

Wash and hull enough ripe berries to make 16 cups mashed berries (measure mashed and not whole) and place in a very large bowl. Add sugar to taste (3-4 cups is pretty tasty) and let macerate in the freezer, stirring every hour or so. Once the berries and the sugar are incorporated, freeze in individual containers, leaving enough room for expansion before adding lids.   IMG_1554.jpgThis delight is stored in the freezer all year long and we bring it out, just as Patch did, for family dinners to serve in a slushy state (thaw in fridge during dinner is just about right) over pound cake, shortcake or ice cream. I was sneaky enough to have samples ready for our CSA customers to taste and this has been a steady seller for us already this summer. I must admit, I’ve made 70 pint containers so far with plans to do more. I’ve also already made 96 jars of strawberry jam which is a big hit as well.

Strawberries are not the only big red berry gathering attention here at the farm. We are delighted that the two cherry trees that have resided in the farm ‘infirmary’ for several years are finally being productive. These trees were originally planted in the stone fruit side of the orchard along with the peaches, nectarines and plums but were attacked by the deer and damaged to the point that we were told they were hopeless. We couldn’t quite put them into the trash even though their young trunks were severely scraped and their limbs gnawed and mangled. They landed in a protected bed up against the house and continued to grow a bit each year with some tender fostering. So, we were thrilled with the abundance of blossoms in the spring which, thanks to the bees, are now cherries this year! Even though the trees are over 12 feet tall, we managed to surround them with the old strawberry patch netting to protect them from the birds and will look forward to a cherry harvest for the very first time!IMG_1543Speaking of other fruit trees, we are also amused by the re-emergence of the banana tree that we added to the back terrace bed last year. Some may remember that another beekeeper gave me this dormant “bulb” last year which I dutifully planted and watched grow all summer. The big challenge was to dig up this tropical plant (along with all my elephant ears) and store them over the winter. Much to my surprise, I found them to be viable after wintering in the barn and re-planted all this spring and watched anxiously to see if they would green up and come alive. It has been particularly humorous to watch the banana tree  slowly come out of dormancy. First planted…IMG_0845One week later, it’s alive but looks like a cigar…IMG_1154Then it looked like it was waving a white flag of surrender…IMG_1204And now, with small baby bananas emerging at its side, it is certainly here to stay this summer!IMG_1654In addition to the other seasonal items that we been harvesting and selling to our customers, the garlic scapes are just about my very favorite. As you may recall, we started raising our own garlic a couple of years ago and the joy I get from harvesting the flower stalk or ‘scape’ nearly surpasses the fondness I have for fresh garlic bulbs, perhaps due to the fleeting nature of the once-a-year presence in our home. Our two varieties of hard neck garlic plantings put out noticeably different shaped scapes this year…one is straight and the other curly. IMG_1581I think I have introduced some of our Saturday customers to the delight of adding scapes to their favorite recipes and I encourage them to experiment and share. This is one that I made last weekend using a NYTimes recipe found here which we shared with the Ward family with a good degree of success. Here is the dish ready to go into the oven. Note I kept the scapes whole until after the first round of cooking. IMG_1528Does this chicken dish remind anyone of the new chick integration into the flock? Well, all has gone well on that front and I’m actually pretty proud that we have managed to get the two groups, young and old, to share the same space with no major issues so far. Here they are enjoying a bit of play time recently.

Big news today was that perhaps the storm scared the little ones but I went out and found them ensconced indoors and lounging on the roosts of the big girls. It will be interesting to see what happens when night falls to see if they all will share this space or whether the pullets go back to their mini coop roosts for the night. IMG_1647.jpgIn the meantime, we continue to enjoy the assortment of beautiful eggs that the original girls provide for us each day. IMG_1258The bees have been quite busy as well since they have had days and days without rain to sock away their honey stores. We are nearly ready for the first harvest of spring honey we but decided to give them a few more days to finish capping before we steal their goodies.

We continue to be amused by the Ward Boys…3 year old Coulter and 3 month old Willie. Here is a photo of them both (aged 3 months) wearing the same outfit and posing in the same chair…twins or just brothers…?IMG_1508But I must say I’ve been more amused by the serious vehicle renovation that their dad, Jason, accomplished recently. He spotted this ‘vintage’ tractor style vehicle at the Burroughs Potpourri  sale in April and with a price tag of $1, which he couldn’t resist, knowing Coulter would enjoy riding around on it. 20180426_184523But, Jason had designs on how to renew this nugget and make it special. Ignoring the eye rolling from Kate, he took it apart and did a fabulous job with his painting skills, making sure to make it dark blue – Coulter’s favorite color. IMG_1133Admirable, right? But he wasn’t done yet! The next thing we knew, the following weekend he and Coulter had a “project” they were working on…they built a little wagon (also painted blue) with a ‘treasure’ box for Coulter to pull behind as he goes along collecting all the things little boys find interesting and necessary to bring home! 55026143419__62DDCCB8-451A-4DCA-B643-2606B0461D46This was a lovely outcome…as was our day of rain, made perfect by a rainbow!IMG_0226