The Gifts of the Season…

What a cold fall we have had so far! The calendar says it isn’t winter for two more weeks and yet we have had one official snow day already – only 7 inches – and plenty of cold, damp weather. For that reason, we had to take advantage of any days that allowed us to get out into the fields to finish up the beds that still needed our attention.

We finally got the garlic beds planted about 3 weeks past the normal Halloween target date. Officially, garlic should be planted after the first heavy frost but our frost was so early this year that we had to wait a bit to find a decent day.

Dave spoils me by helping to prep the beds in advance with some added compost and a bit of tilling so that when I find a window of time, all I have to do is hoe the rows for planting and separate the bulbs into cloves to plant them. This year we placed our order for our favorite hard neck garlic variety, German Extra Hardy, in the early summer and took delivery in October from Seed Savers’ Exchange. IMG_3735

The trick to planting garlic is that it needs to be rotated on a three year basis meaning it cannot return to the original site until the fourth year of the rotation. The catch here is that since it occupies its spot in the garden for at least 8 months of the year, it is very nearly a ‘perennial’ and it takes some thought and commitment as to where to put it. Thank goodness we have plenty of space and are willing to cheat just a little bit on the ‘rules’ as we put the garlic back in the beds it occupied only three years ago, albeit with plenty of re-composting. Much ado about so little? Here I am after planting one of the beds last month. IMG_3739After placing the bulbs in the 4″ deep troughs, we covered it all with soil and then a healthy spread of straw. Ditto for both of the strawberry and asparagus beds which were cut back and winterized as well.    IMG_3758.jpgI owe readers an update on the chickens as they always keep me on my toes. As I entered the coop recently one morning I found a Buff Orpington chicken who was still up on her roost and acting oddly. She was in a crouched position and continually craned her neck and head to look upward at the ceiling. I instantly recognized this as “star gazing”, a condition that can afflict a chicken for several reasons, none of which are generally curable. Of course I took a quick video of the poor girl.

I immediately consulted my books and online resources about star gazing as I knew this  was a serious condition that most experts consider irreversible in a chicken this age. (Young chicks can get thiamine injections and often recover.)

I found that most of the time this behavior is a result of Polyneuritis or a later stage of thiamine deficiency (B1) which can be caused by poor diet or alternatively a lack of proper metabolism of a proper diet, resulting in anemia followed by star gazing which is technically a “retraction of the head due to paralysis of the anterior neck muscles, resulting in the chicken losing the ability to stand or sit upright.” UGH!

I was pretty sure that I was feeding these chickens a very proper diet of expensive foods designed by Purina and others so I doubted that she had any overt deficiency unless she suffered from another condition that caused her to be anorexic or eating poorly and thereby resulting in vitamin deficiencies as stated above.

I read that it can also be caused by a knock to the head…some chickens have softer skulls than others…which causes a temporary neuritis…go figure. But of course I isolated her quickly – as she would not have survived the pecking order of 24 other flock mates – and made sure she was warm, fed and watered as I retreated to decide what to do with her to ease her pain and to figure out just how I would cull a chicken from the flock.  Lo and behold, after several hours of TLC, she rebounded and looked entirely normal again and hardly worth reporting here except that I spent half a day doing extensive research and am now and a bit wiser in the science of raising chickens! This was nearly a month ago and she continues to prosper in the flock.

Did I mention how much these chickens are spoiled? Besides their Purina sourced “layers” feed, they get a few special treats every couple of days, one of which is an Omega 3 sourced supplement. When I say the word ‘Omega’, they actually get excited as they know what is coming!

Coulter loves to come home from pre-school these days and help Nana in the kitchen with meals for his family and at 3.5 years, is turning into a very big helper in the kitchen as he is eager to measure, smell, taste and experience the entire preparation from start to finish. Of course he samples wonderful foods on the other end as well!  IMG_3767At nine months, Willie is on the move – crawling and climbing – and even though his parents wish he would sleep a bit more, he entertains us no end.IMG_3838The Christmas season is upon us bringing some extra special joy into our lives as last week we had a small and unexpected package arrive in our mailbox from our Virginia Beach Brotemarkle cousins. Intrigued, we opened a small box that included some edible delights and a lovely note from Cousin Michelle.

Back story here: My cousin John and his brother David (aka The Smokey Brotes) are avid “BBQ-“ists or ‘grill guys’ or however they may identify themselves. Anyway, as they were off to an annual BBQ competition last spring, I sent them a box full of honeys from our farm…dark, light, spring, summer…you name it for their grilled or marinated meats. Well, I loaded quite a bit of extras in the box and I learned that John’s wife, Michelle was delighted with the surplus since she makes Baklava every year (16 years running so far, I think) for a very large Christmas gathering of friends.

So our wonderful box of treats was a sampling of her special baklava made from our Seven Oaks honey! So crisp, nutty and sweet, it was just perfect as I must admit to personally taste-testing to my heart’s delight! Many thanks to Michelle for thinking to share with us!  img_3853.jpgWe spent this morning, as it has become our family tradition, at the local Christmas tree lot with the Wards selecting trees to decorate for each of our homes. This cold but sunny morning caused us to quickly select our trees while Coulter ran around burning off extra energy.  We dashed inside the makeshift trailer to pay our dues to the Kirkwood Optimists and continued the lovely conversation with our salesman, Bob who drew from his wallet a special greenery of his own to share with us.

It turns out that he is a photographer with a special eye towards 4 leaf clovers and must be an expert in the subject as he saw my willing interest in his art and expounded no end with the name of each variety. Noting my appreciation for his craft, he gave me signed photos of his “Clover Art”, each with a species name in both Gaelic and Celtic form. His name is Bob Cullis (friends call him Soft Old Bob) and he regularly donates his signed art to local charities which are auctioned at a premium price!

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Call me Soft Old Nancy since after returning to the farm,  I headed right back to the tree lot with a jar of our honey and proudly told Bob that this was a little gift from ‘our bees to his clover’. Two strangers spontaneously hugged and the Christmas spirit of giving was upon us.

2018 Apple Butter Fest at the Farm

It seems that ever since we finished up with last year’s first attempt at a farm Apple Butter Fest, we started looking forward to this year’s event with lots of ideas for improving on the day.

We chose the same weekend as last year since we felt that the second weekend of November brought a nice chill to the air – perfect for standing around a hot fire all day – and of course, even more importantly, the end of the apple picking season.

We have not proven ourselves to be the best at advanced weather predictions and this weekend was no exception. Friday, Apple Butter Fest Eve, brought an almost laughable, and shocking snow storm to our area…gulp!IMG_3511That night, grandson Coulter added to our amusement as he decided he could finally put his snowball makers to good use and was out enjoying a serious minded bit of fun. IMG_3514Although it didn’t have a chance to accumulate too much, there is still a light snow on the ground today due to the cold temps!

So the morning of the Fest, we awoke to record breaking cold weather of 19 degrees, which we were told felt like 11 degrees. Outlying areas were as low as 17 with other parts of Missouri recording 13 actual degree temps, breaking the record by 9 degrees. Our brains were thinking “yikes, are we crazy?” but we proceeded with all planned activities knowing that if things got really bad we could move to the barn for a bit of protection from the weather.

We proceeded apace in part due to a couple of improvements on last year’s apple butter making model. First, we decided to start apple peeling well in advance and used a Huckleberry Finn tactic of convincing some of our dear CSA subscribers that it would be “fun” for them to take apples home the previous Saturday to peel/core/quarter in advance to add to the pot in time for cooking. A big thanks to all those who contributed their help!

We also decided to start peeling the bulk of the apples beginning on Wednesday and continuing thru Friday morning as I personally prepared 112 pounds of apples! I had the help of two manual peeling tools but mostly relied on the attachment to my electric Kitchen Aid mixer (thank you to Peter & Stefanie for this wonderful gift!) for most of the processing.

Even with this advantage, I worked for several hours each day to peel the apples with a bit of precision and orderliness. Apples were cored and peeled with the intention of feeding peels to the chickens but cores had to be discarded due to arsenic in the seeds.  Is this where the phrase ‘a method to madness’ comes from? Haha!IMG_3496.jpgWe stored the apples in the refrigerator in 2 gallon bags and by the end of the preparations, we had 24 gallons ready to go into the copper kettle. IMG_3517.jpgNext, we were given a new tool for the cause from friends Janet and David Lange, who were devout stirrers last year and sadly recently moved out of the area, as they saw the need for a special wooden copper kettle scraper and kindly gave us one last XMAS. Even though the intention for this paddle was for stirring Cajun pots of Jambalaya and the like, it was a great help and we put it to good use this year! IMG_3498 We have a funny saying at the farm – “morning comes early” – and yesterday was no exception as in the dark of night (at 6am) with a light snow on the ground and 19 degree temps, we started the fire on the terrace and had the 30 gallon copper pot in place. Dave is virtually disguised in his practical cold weather protection!IMG_3515 2.jpgBut as it happens each and every day, the sun rises and shines on our silly activities. Here I am with our dedicated friend, Joyce, as by 7am we can finally see the contents of the pot we are stirring. Notice our futile attempts to protect the ferns in the background with plastic coverings…nope, they were toast!IMG_3529Joyce and I scurried back and forth, indoors and out, since there were food preparations to attend to for our guests…coffee, cookies, snacks, sandwiches and more. Here are the farm famous brown sugar, spice and jam cookies (think Linzer) that we had prepared along with trays of brownies and yummy PB&J sandwiches (with farm jam, no less!)  As you can see, the fall theme of oak leaves, acorns, apples and maple leaves are the design element on the cookies which were a huge hit with many asking for the recipe!IMG_3510The stirring of the steamy apples continued throughout the day as friends and family arrived to help and we enjoyed the delightful company of at least 17 families! Here are just a few…IMG_3577IMG_3556IMG_3552IMG_3597IMG_3591IMG_3594IMG_3568The day warmed a little with the sun shining brightly causing those of us with lots of activity to happily shed our coats and hats. I decided to sport my newest  Bohus Stickning knitted sweater as it reminded me of the colors of the beautiful apples I had peeled!IMG_3563As the day wore on and snacks and lunches were devoured, we were getting closer and closer to the end product of the bubbling mass of nearly butter-like consistency of the apples. The celebration of the day was euphoric!

A core group of die hard stirrers continued to the end and we mobilized, bringing out the tables and sterilized jars for the last effort of jarring up the goodies. IMG_5642Taking the hot, bubbling mass of apple butter (temps as hot as 202 degrees) from the kettle and ladling (with wide mouthed funnels) into the prepared jars was also a bit of an improvement from last year’s event. Unfortunately, with all hands on deck during the process, I have no photos of this fast paced action but here is a description: Dave continued to stir the pot while we had two people ladling and two people wiping the edges of the filled jars and securing the lids in place. The finishing team – Jane, Laura, Joyce, Nancy and Dave – proudly posed with 44.5 pints and 18 half pints of finished product!  Smiles all around and blue skies to boot!!! IMG_4219Yes, we were tired from the long day, but can’t wait for next year’s Apple Butter Fest with dreams of more participants and an even greater apple butter volume! Thanks to all who made this such a great day for Seven Oaks Farm & Orchard!

Fall Fun at the Farm…Plus Exciting Wedding News!

I’m pinching myself…ouch!…how could it possibly be November already? September and October were filled with farm adventures and November/December will be just as busy!

Remember the last posting about making fresh pasta? Well, this became a hit with our CSA subscribers and I found myself rolling out pound after pound of pasta every Friday evening to sell the next morning! I even got cute and ordered special labels to go along with our homemade tomato sauce…such a perfect use of our goods…making for a fabulous “gift-able” set as well. IMG_3221

The change of season also prompted us to change out the hoop house from the summer/shade covering to the winter/greenhouse covering. Dave and I managed this one brisk morning when we figured no one would be looking as it entailed a Lucy and Ethel sort of comedy routine. First, we had to remove the summer cover in tact, by undoing all the ties, clips and rebar rods holding it in place while not causing any damage to the young fall plants inside. IMG_3262IMG_3264.jpgI must say, removing the summer cover was so much easier than installing the winter one which was heavier and stiffer. Of course with tender plants under foot, we gingerly went forward – one inch at a time…  IMG_3266With success!IMG_3267There are doors at each end and windows along both sides. It has been very interesting to experience the ‘greenhouse’ effect here as we zip it up tight at night to protect from the frosty weather and open it up when the sun comes out during the day. The process of opening is crazy as the build up of heat inside will instantly fog up ones glasses and make one feel as if entering a sauna! This is exactly what our off season veggies – lettuces, spinach, radishes, turnips, scallions and Swiss Chard need in order to extend the season. Our CSA customers are enjoying the goodies!IMG_3344In the midst of all of this, I managed to sneak away one weekend in October, traveling to Massachusetts to visit relatives there and attend an ALS fundraiser that my cousin Peggy’s daughter, Lindsay was hosting with her Holy Cross Field Hockey team. The cold rain that weekend did not dampen the spirit of the team nor the fans who turned out to support the cause.

I’m so glad to have shared in the entire experience and we hope to host the Holy Cross team here at the farm in the future!

In the meantime,  a bit of news about our chickens as they continue to amaze me. Some days I feel as if I could write a book on what I’ve learned about the social interactions of chickens and their community. Sorry if there is limited interest here but bear with me for a bit.

Background: A female chicken is a hen. A male chicken is a rooster, but all chickens have both an X and Y chromosome. Hens have two ovaries but use only one of them to produce eggs. (Remember, no rooster is needed to produce eggs.) If the hen’s production ovary fails for one reason or another, instead of using her other ovary for production purposes, she actually starts to produce testosterone and can virtually become more male than female. Although ‘she’ lacks male parts, she can grow spurs which are a sharp, hornlike protrusion on the hind leg that acts as a weapon when males fight for dominance.

Enough background: We had a hen who developed spurs on her legs and started to act as a male would by being aggressive in the flock and mounting and riding other hens. This was disruptive to the flock as they had not had a rooster in their midst and didn’t take kindly to this. I consulted my chicken vet (yes, there is such a thing) and he advised me to take matters into my own hands. He told me to secure said chicken (meaning bind her in a safe hold such as a towel), cut ‘her’ spurs by 1/3 to 1/2 in length (bloody process with styptic substance at hand), and clip her nails as well. He said, that I needed to become the Alpha Chicken!

Results: I managed to clip the spurs as you can see here in the ‘stumps’ below. This actually worked as our ‘she-male’ chicken is now under control and not aggressively bothering the other hens. I’m not sure who was more traumatized by the experience but the flock is copacetic for now. IMG_3407It doesn’t help that the older chickens are continuing to experience their fall molt and the coop looks like a wild pillow fight every day. They don’t lose all their feathers at once but do so in patches as seen here with a Barred Rock and Buff Orpington. It is a bit painful for them as their new feathers grow in and their production is limited.

We also enhance the coop environment this time of year with a change of sand in the coop which requires some muscle. Last Saturday we shoveled out the interior coop sand and replaced it with 1100 pounds of fresh sand from the local material supply house. Oh, our aching backs!

The change of season also means that we have been clearing the fields as well as the flower beds and save what we can for next year’s seeds. Our giant sunflowers (three varieties) are usually fodder for the squirrels but this year I snagged a bunch of giant heads (14-15 inches across) to save for future seeds and showed them to the CSA members, many of whom had no idea where sunflower seeds came from! IMG_3430The same goes for the myriad of zinnia seeds of all varieties that will dry in the garage this winter along with the elephant ears and banana tree roots. IMG_3435Our October had many layers of fun…including a visit with dear friend Kris from Massachusetts with the Ward family…IMG_3422and Halloween fun with the Coulter who found my trove of costumes one day and modeled a sampling of fun wigs with Gramps.IMG_3390We are also gearing up for the second Apple Butter Fest – slated for November 10th – with lots of friends and family participating. We have been harvesting our apples and have lots to peel and prepare for the big copper pot this year. All are welcome to join in as we will start at first light and serve goodies – including lunch and our favorite homemade cookies – as we stir, stir, stir the big copper kettle all day until we have a huge vat of apple butter to share with all! IMG_4587But, I saved the best for last as the hands down highlight of our October news was the wedding of son Peter and Stefanie Darnley. Congratulations to such a cute couple who will be visiting here for a fun celebration in their honor come December! IMG_0050

 

Farm Fresh, Egg Rich, Pasta!

Here I am, tardy as usual with a new post. I have so many excuses for why I don’t find time to write but they all seem too trivial to describe.

Without dragging you into the list of things that we have been doing during August and early September – THINK BUSY and I’ll try to update later – instead I decided to quickly share some of the fun I’ve been having today.

Ever since the new chicks began laying eggs in late July we have been catching up with our penchant for sharing them with our subscribers as well as using this plenty in our daily and weekly cooking habits. Twenty-five chickens produce a lot of eggs!

Thus, today was a day of fresh pasta making…an activity that I used to enjoy back when I was a young home cook with time to experiment in the kitchen as a distraction during naptime.

Fresh pasta recipes use eggs as an essential ingredient but the quantities vary so I had to go back to my old books such as Beard on Pasta (by cooking icon James Beard) and a well thumbed volume, Trattoria by Patricia Wells, to reassess the recipes I wanted to try first. My brother Tim is also a good source who I consulted with today since he has the same memories of our mother making her fresh pasta by hand and regularly provides a variety of pastas for his Boston based family.

So, I dragged out my hand cranked pasta machine that is as simple as they come. IMG_3083It can’t get any easier than this but first I had to make the egg rich dough and sent Farmer Dave out to grab some Semolina flour, AKA #1 Durum wheat, to use as one of my ingredients. I used a modified Beard recipe and instead of mixing by hand, put my flours, salt, eggs and oil in my stand mixer. IMG_3074I won’t bore you with the technical moments involved, but will cut to the chase…after the proper minutes with both a batter mixing and dough hook attachment, I came up with a nice lump of dreamy, soft, yellow dough which I let rest, covered, for 2 hours.  IMG_3073I then cut it into fourths and began the pasta machine challenge this afternoon. IMG_3076I proceeded with some very modest shaping and approached the Atlas machine that I had clamped to an acceptable countertop. (My kitchen counters were too thick to accept the clamp so I ended up in the laundry room!) With the blades set as wide as possible for the first pass, I set the dough into the machine and cranked away and repeated this with additional folded passes, not unlike what one thinks of when butter layers of croissant making is described. Note: blade width for this machine is 1-9 and I stopped at #6 but in the future may stop at #5. IMG_3078I continued to narrow the width of the plates to make the dough more and more thin, ultimately using the length of my arm to help feed the final dough into the machine.IMG_3080Then I set the lengths of dough out to rested again…IMG_3081Then I ran them thru the cutting blades of the same machine, cranking out what we all can now recognize as traditional wide-ish PASTA. IMG_3082So, here it sits, drying on my metal rack instead of a wooden pasta drying frame. Can you remember what I did with my pasta drying racks back when the chicks were little???? Yes, I fleetingly decided the racks would be a perfect little wooden ‘perch’ for the wee chicks and so I had no access to pasta drying racks here today and the joke is on me! IMG_0785Ha ha, or is it? As a bit of irony, I’m serving baked chicken breasts with the fresh pasta and hopefully the extended Sauerhoff/Ward family will enjoy a yummy dinner tonight. For our CSA subscribers… look for fresh pasta as an added feature of our weekend offerings soon!  Ciao!

 

Learn Something…Please!

Where oh where has July gone? I think I spent most of it in the berry patch picking blueberries but we also had many other activities to keep us busy as I attended the 2018 Heartland Apicultural Society (HAS) conference which was held locally (at Washington University) for the first time in many years.

I’m still feeling the thrill of sitting in lecture halls and laboratories where I was able to  listen to the academics speak on all things related to bees and beekeeping.  Best of all was the opportunity to learn new things. This brought to mind the quote I used on my senior yearbook page from one of my favorite books, “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

And so, as I continue to worry so about the world we live in and the challenges facing us – particularly our environment – I was able to surround myself with other Beeks (that is what beekeepers call themselves) from around the country and learn new things. One of my favorite classes was Queen Rearing which met for multiple intense sessions during each day of the conference.

Three fabulous instructors from noted entomology labs at Purdue University and the University of Maryland taught us how to properly prepare for and graft minuscule eggs cells from the demonstration apiary frames into specialized queen cell cups and foster the further development of these fragile bits of cells into future queen bees. It was nothing short of exhilarating in spite of the miserable weather!

Here I am in the lab experimenting with using both specialized German and Chinese tools to graft the exactly 3 day old eggs from the bee colony frames into the artificially prepared queen cups of our own making. I’m holding a red flashlight in one hand and the grafting tool in my right. Many used a high powered magnifier as well. FYI, a three day old bee egg is about the size of 3 or 4 grains of sand and incredibly fragile. 20180712_151141We spent the previous day preparing the conditions in the hives to accept the grafts we made on the second day but best of all was the excitement 24 hours later (day three) when we were able to find out if our grafts ‘took’, meaning: did the bees accept our simulated queen cells and begin to feed them royal jelly which would promote their development into real queens? Here is my recording of the big reveal.

This was so exciting as our class of 18 Beeks doing queen cell grafting for the first time was quite successful as you can see by my nonstop smile and sweaty mop – it was so hot those days that my phone shut down due to the heat! IMG_2348All the classes I took were amazing but I must say that one benefit of being part of the local bee club that sponsored the conference was to be able to purchase (practically free!) one of the 18 demonstration hives we had placed in the WashU quad for the event. After 3 long days of classes, I returned to campus at 5 the following morning – in the dark of day – to help move the hives off the campus site and brought one home to our apiary. I admit that I had the advantage of knowing the hives and chose well as I arrived at the farm with a very heavy colony of bees which we moved swiftly into place just after 6am.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to attend next year’s HAS conference in Tennessee since July is a tough time to be away from the farm for many reasons. Blueberry harvesting is at least a 6 week season from mid June thru July and I’m just now feeling relieved of this daily chore. We were thrilled to read this delightful article in the NYTimes about blueberries and shared it with our CSA customers. (I can’t tell you how many people ask what CSA stands for…so a reminder here…Community Supported Agriculture.)

We related to this article for many reasons since we have some of the same varieties mentioned, but also because we decided to test the blueberry muffin recipes that were sited. So, we offered a blueberry muffin tasting for our Saturday customers hoping to inspire them to bake! Here was the winning recipe, Jordan Marsh (MA department store) vs. Ritz Carlton, Boston. Jordan Marsh came out the winner but decide for yourselves as both recipes are in the link! IMG_2032.jpgWe have also been in the midst of peach picking…the first significant amount of  peaches from our trees since we planted them 8 years ago!

IMG_2493IMG_2502IMG_2503Of course this prompted me to find a peach/blueberry recipe and Ina Garten did not fail me in her cobbler combo of the two fruits along with a bit of lemon. IMG_2464 2IMG_2466 2After testing this recipe with the Ward family, I made another 8 batches today to freeze in smaller containers for the winter! YUM! Here unbaked and ready for foil wrapping.IMG_2574.jpgIn other news…we have finally hired some help here at the farm. I know, I know…everyone tells us to get some additional hands on board but it is really hard to find just the right fit and in some ways to relinquish any smidgen of control. I’m told that I don’t ‘suffer fools’ and I always wonder quite how to take that statement but I’ll ignore it for now as we have found a wonderful young helper, Jane, who has jumped into the fray and helped us immensely so far.

We are so pleased to get another pair of hands on the job and we try to have as much fun as possible. For instance, we are a tiny bit competitive (really?) and so on peach harvesting day we held a competition to guess the number of pounds of peaches picked. Well, Jane won and for her efforts, she was rewarded a farm hat and officially joined our silly crew! IMG_2526Jane has also jumped into the inside chores when rained out in the field…pickle making is in progress with many pounds under our belts in the form of fermented sours…IMG_2506.jpgas well as 60 pints of bread and butter varieties already in the pantry. IMG_2507Perhaps the biggest news of the month is that we have had the first eggs laid from the new crop of chicks. In anticipation of this, we opened the nest boxes in the mini coop on July 20th (at 17 weeks of age) and patiently waited as we watched the newbies investigate these nests as well as those of the main coop. The first egg came from a Cinnamon Queen on July 26 at approximately 18 weeks old and today we had the first, smallish white egg (so telling from the color!) from one of the Leghorns. YAY!IMG_2569We have continued to harvest a variety of other fruits and veggies to offer our dear CSA customers and to cook for ourselves. Yesterday, we had some beautiful unsold eggplants to use for dinner and I made a new recipe for Eggplant Rollatini.  There are quite a few versions available on line but they all seem to have similar ingredients: thinly sliced eggplant which is cooked and then rolled into bundles with a stuffing of ricotta cheese, spinach and spices and cooked on a bed of marinara sauce, something that also abounds in my pantry!

Although it seems like ages ago, we can’t help but enjoy the memories of the July Fourth parade in the Ward’s neighborhood. Coulter pedaled his tractor…IMG_1998.jpg While we followed along…IMG_2010Willie, most concerned about incoming teeth, thought the whole thing to be pretty funny!

 

 

 

 

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