Six and a Half Oaks Farm & Orchard????

What a crazy summer!!! We have experienced a continued pattern of storms in our area as it seems we are stuck in some tropical system of hot and steamy mornings followed by afternoon storms. As one does, you acclimate so we work hard each morning trying to accomplish all we can before the rain arrives mid afternoon. With this in mind, the prediction for July 3rd was no exception.

Except that it was…as we were caught in some type of super-cell that landed a violent storm at our feet that was visible from every vantage point as it arrived from the east and tore its way west with wind and driving rain in incalculable volumes of precipitation since our rain gauge is geared towards a vertical precip rather than the horizontal type!

And then…CRACK…what a heart wrenching sound…and half of one of our Seven Oak trees was split down the middle and severed from it’s trunk. I think I let out a scream as we watched in horror and tried to understand what had just happened.

We actually were lucky as no one was hurt and no buildings were damaged. In fact, had the other half of the tree fallen to the right, it would have taken out several of our European Horn Beam trees that make up the now rather impressive allée of trees that parade down the center back spine of the farm.

Besides the tree damage, the accumulation of unwanted water run-off was impressive as well; the swale, snaking its way around the back property, was swollen beyond belief and looked as if we could have caught fish in it for our dinner!

The wind was such that some of our very large flower pots on the outside of the barn…

Were entirely blown over making me very grumpy indeed as the flowers were smashed up!!!

Our challenge now is to remove the downed half and evaluate the removal of the remaining half of the tree which might be subject to future storms. Of all things to be happy about, Dave is particularly relieved that the downed limb did not take out his cucumber patch!

We are awaiting the tree removal professionals but are anticipating a good deal of oak firewood in our future as Dave started to whittle away at it today during a particularly buggy period…oh the mosquitoes!…thus the face veil.

In addition to the tree trauma, we have also been challenged by critters who want to chew their way into our largish berry patch that is protected with a nylon netting enclosure that spans 45 x 75 feet. This enclosed system has worked beautifully for several years until we started to see a few spots where animals were chewing the lower edges of the netting to get access into the nirvana of waiting fruits. We repaired these spots as they became evident by re-weaving occasional holes with a flexible garden wire, thinking we were keeping the birds at bay.

We decided to reinforce the base of the netted enclosure with lengths of hardware cloth secured with zip ties along the perimeter that would prevent the small critters from chewing the net. Dave and I had the extra help from our third set of hands, Jane, to help this project along but we are less than half way done at this juncture.

Of course we are protecting the valuable goodies of the orchard as the blueberries are having a stellar season. We have harvested YTD over 191 pounds of blueberries and still have quite a lot to harvest as some varieties are still green at this point! Besides giving loads to friends and neighbors, we are selling them to our CSA customers like mad while freezing them in gallon sized bags for our winter consumption.

Interesting to note that statistically driven Farmer Dave has kept track of our total blueberry harvest since we planted them (in twig form from Stark Brothers) in the spring of 2011. We had our first handful of berries in 2012 and each year thereafter we have had escalating harvests to total over 942 pounds of blueberries. That, my friend, is a lot of time spent picking blueberries!

Even though this current variety of ripened blue berries are not considered “jam berries,” I decided to create a new jam recipe using cherries + blueberries for a special Seven Oaks Fourth of July Jam. It was fun to combine the two but with limited cherries left to utilize, I was only able to make 12 half pints to show for it! Yumbo! We sold some to customers and will be saving the rest for special tasters!

Blueberries are not the only goodies within the netting…as our 2018 plantings of two blackberry varieties are now starting to produce. ‘Sweetie Pie’ and ‘Chester’ are doing their thing! Both are thornless but with different qualities, as Chester has more of a bush-like structure with clusters and clusters of berries, while Sweetie Pie wants to vine and has stellar, large berries that are show stoppers.

Chester blackberries far from ripening…
Sweetie Pie blackberries…twice the size of my thumb!

Other summer crops are somewhat marginal as the storms continue to knock away delicate blossoms. But we are happy to have the garlic ‘lollipops’ all prepped for sale to our customers.

As things go around here, we are cheered by our nearby grandchildren who brighten the day as they did when we joined them for their neighborhood 4th of July parade.

The Ward family ready to pedal their way in the parade.

Gramps always gets a smile from 16 month old Willie!

We are now in search of a new Oak tree variety to replace the damaged tree and will keep you posted on what we decide on as we would like to see some rapid growth so that we can enjoy it in the coming years. Always an adventure here at “Fill in the Blank” Oaks Farm & Orchard!

The Four B’s…Birds, Berries, Bees and Boys – (Plus a Snake, Oh My!)

The ‘Weather’ with a capital “W” has been absolutely atrocious – again or still, you pick the descriptive word – this spring. I suppose the most positive thing I can say is that at least the near record rainfall has not been combined with record heat as temps have been on the mild side for St. Louis but this means the wet fields are also not drying out fast enough.

As we transitioned from spring to summer during last Friday’s solstice (happy 5th wedding anniversary to the Kate and Jason!), we welcomed the beginning of the summer season with…you guessed it, nearly 4 inches of rain in the past 48 hours. And rain is just about the only reason I have time to work on this blog, as it has been raining off and on all day.

We also had poor timing last month while trying to replace the gutters on our house and do exterior repairs along with repainting during that time. We managed to wiggle our way through the weather challenges with a good outcome and just one or two minor glitches along the way. One small problem had to do with re-locating a bird’s nest that had been used almost constantly since March by a variety of parenting birds as if it were some sort of a hostel for an ornithological traveling members group.

At the time, a mother mourning dove had been occupying the nest on one of the downspouts by our side door when the crew came to replace that piece of downspout. (BTW, I always thought they were called “morning” doves, but when I was doing a little research about this species, I found that the ‘Zenaida macroura‘ are actually called Mourning Doves due to the forlorn sound of their coo or bird call. More can be found at this site. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/overview ).

So, the construction crew kindly asked how I wanted to handle the nest since there were two small doves in it that were not quite ready to launch as fledglings.

Of course, moving an active bird’s nest is not the easiest thing to do with success but we gave it a try and I popped the nest into the crotch of a nearby dogwood tree that had a protective upper canopy.

Much to my surprise, the mama bird returned to further shelter and feed her babies and after a week or so, we can now spot the two youngsters hopping along in the surrounding area, successfully finding food and maturing quickly. They have tolerated our traipsing in and out of that entrance to the house and and even allow the paparazzi to snap away!

Remember the cherry tree fruits that we pictured in the last post? Those cute green fruits evolved into the real thing and for the second year in a row, we hoped for a successful sweet cherry harvest. First, we decided to take advantage of the workmen and their tall ladders and put a very large bird netting on the tree to protect the ripening fruits from the active bird population. We were rubbing our hands with glee at the thought of our nice cherry harvest…

…until one of our welcome black snakes got caught up in the net that was resting on the base of the tree. We love the work our black snakes do to keep the small rodent population down as they go after the voles and such that are nearly impossible to get rid of without an aggressive outdoor cat.

This snake was really caught up in the tangle of the net, so we sacrificed the net and tried to cut it loose except for the restraining/remaining bit that you might be able to see still around it’s upper body as indicated by the arrow and red box.

The remaining ‘waistband’ of netting constricted the snake’s ability to move forward as it was not able to expand and contract the muscles of its body to propel itself forward. (I’m sure you know, snakes cannot move backwards which is one of the reasons this guy got himself inextricably caught up in the first place!) So, we got a large cloth, gloves and a sharp scissors and tried once more to free this guy.

I put the gloves on, the cloth over it’s head and used the scissors to delicately snip off the rest of the netting that surrounded it’s belly and the moment of freedom was miraculous as off he slithered into the woods!

We then felt quite free to harvest more than 8 pounds of cherries from the tree!

This was the first year we had enough cherries to be creative…so one day I decided to make sweet cherry jam. What a long process this was as pitting 10 cups of cherries took some time even with my nice cherry pitting tool in hand!

I then chopped and cooked them with pectin and sugar to make 12 half pints of sweet cherry jam!

This of course was after processing pound after pound of our sweet strawberries…the ones we didn’t consume or sell fresh to our customers were made into 48 jars of jam or frozen. I hulled tray after tray of fresh berries and dried them on towels before placing them on trays for the freezer.

Once frozen, I put them into the vacuum sealer to safely keep for our winter consumption. Our freezers are groaning with many of these packages and are getting restocked for the winter!

So now the cherry and strawberry seasons are over, thank goodness but the blueberries have just begun to ripen with the Blue Ray variety first to hit the market as our CSA customers squealed with delight and we sold out of these sweet, plump wonders the first day. No worries for the next sales date as I picked again today before the rain started and we will have berries galore!

But berries were not the only star of the farm in recent weeks as we always enjoy the harvest of the garlic scapes…which are the flower stalk that a hard neck garlic plant produces. As our readers might remember, garlic scapes are a remarkably mild and delicious precursor to the garlic harvest and they are coveted as a special ingredient during their 2 or so weeks of stardom here in the plant world.

We were so lucky to have Cousin Peggy and her family visiting the farm on Garlic Scape Saturday this year. In addition to the fun of the CSA sales that day, we roasted a large pan of potato, chicken, lemon and garlic scapes that evening to share with our families. Yummmm!

The scapes are just the introduction to the garlic story as the patch took center stage one day last week at harvest time and gave me fits as the bulbs were reluctant to give up their rooted bulb base from their raised beds. I nearly had to dig each one out individually rather than merely tug and pull them as I had successfully done in the past.

I attribute this reluctance to the wet soil conditions and the fact that if I tugged too hard to try to get them to release, the neck of the plant (where the stalk and the bulb meet) was too soggy to endure the tension and would break off, leaving the bulb in the ground and my hand full of the lonely, unusable stalk. So, hours later, the harvest was complete with approximately 25 pounds of hard neck garlics to share with our customers and keep for the winter.

The large trays of bulbs were then set out on our screens to dry for a week or so before we clean them up and sell to our customers. We love the overwhelming smell of fresh garlic when entering this space these days!

Have you been wondering about the baby chicks? They are now pretty much integrated into the preexisting flock of birds but have been shy to join the gang as a whole. They are nearing their 3 month old birthday which means that they are not far from laying their first eggs but they continue to be shy in the group as a whole. We watch them daily as they develop into part of the flock and find their antics to be another layer of the chicken life at the farm.

Is it finally time to tell everyone about my dear bees and the expansion of the apiary? You wouldn’t have time to read all my stories this year as it has been quite a complicated season so far.

Our apiary has moaned and groaned its way through the wet, wet, wet spring where the bees were confined to their hives and chose to work on creating swarm cells, aka new and multiplier queen cells, whereby they wanted to elope and repopulate their colonies. I think I would have to write an entire post about the trials of this behavior and how it affected our apiary this year…and maybe I’ll find the time to do this but I will just give a few hints here of what has happened so far.

I had a surprisingly strong apiary after a long winter. The colony strength demanded to be divided which I did in spades, meaning I took 6 winter colonies and at one point made them into 10-12 depending on the day of the week.

A keen eye will see that the mixture of stages of development in the hives show some that have been given honey supers while others are in their infancy which, IMO, is the most fun way to manage a successful apiary. I had great successes in creating new nucleus colonies this year as well as the surprise of using a new (to me at least) technique of providing an upper or second entrance to the hive for the bees who are foraging to enter just above the deep boxes and efficiently go directly into their honey supers to deposit the necessary goodies more directly.

Here is a good example of the upper entrances that I installed on two of our hives. Note the wooden colored mid-hive protruding section on the left and right hives. The two lower deep boxes are where the queen has her nest and creates brood for the colony while the two or three upper honey supers are where the bees store their honey.

This added entrance was new to me this year and I thought it was pretty cool until the circumstances of this crazy, rainy, re-queening season became a reality for me. I had a fledgling, un-mated queen leave from the lower, deep nest boxes and do a mating flight. This is usually good. But, she landed in the upper entrance of her colony and proceeded to lay eggs in the honey supers of that colony. Arg! Such a mess as honey supers are only for honey storage and not for eggs or brood! This took much manipulation on my part to turn around the colony and set it straight.

But…despite all the rain (when the bees cannot fly and forage) we managed to harvest more than 150 pounds of gorgeous spring honey this year and have three 10 gallon buckets to show for it while we currently now have 15 summer honey supers in place on the hives for more production to be harvested later this summer.

Left to right…Spring, summer and fall honey in jars for sale to our customers…if I ever figure out the WordPress interface, I might start selling these from the blog site! HELP!

Representing the last of the “B’s”…the Ward Boys are always fun to have around…here they are enjoying our recent Father’s Day Brunch!

Celebrating Forty Years…and Many More!

Where has the time gone since my last post? Oh, I know exactly how the time was spent since we hosted the 2019 Seven Oaks Bohus Stickning Symposium the last weekend of March so most of January, February and March was dedicated to all the details that went into having 25 delightful knitting companions gather at the farm for a weekend of sharing one of my favorite subjects: Bohus knitting.

Although the farm blog isn’t really intended to be about my love of knitting, I think I’ll write a future blog dedicated to the Symposium held here and all the details about what went on so that readers won’t think I was idly hanging around with no purpose all winter, ha!

Knitting Symposium gang all gathered…

But, I can’t resist this teaser about our mascot, Sven, who was spotted all around the house during the Symposium and served as our greeter at the door on opening day. Here he is sporting the Bohus design called “Dean” that I knitted for my brother’s 60th birthday. Notice in his pocket is the Exhibit Brochure which was a grand part of the weekend. More later…I promise as this was one of the early highlights of 2019.

The dashingly handsome mascot…Sven.

In the meantime, we have been experiencing yet another spring of horrendously wet weather. Our constant rainfall has kept us out of the fields more than any previous year to date and simple tasks such as mowing and other maintenance as been challenging at best. Besides not being able to plant the fields, many of our trees and perennials are suffering as the water table is too high to accommodate the normal drainage. We are expecting a tough year but sympathize with those not too far away whose entire enterprise is underwater.

But luckily there are some things that are not quite as affected by the weather such as the new baby chicks that were hatched April 8th and are growing like weeds. As in past years, we drove to Cackle Hatchery in Lebannon, MO to pick up our order of 3 new breeds to our flock, Rhode Island White, black sex linked (a hybrid of Barred Rock and Rhode Island Red) and ISA Brown which is another sex linked bird meaning that the color of the baby chick indicates their sex…something that makes it easier to choose pullets (females) rather than cockerels (males).

New baby chicks at the farm.

Such cuteness! Fast forward 8 weeks and they are now 6X larger and have transitioned outside into the mini coop of the chicken run where they are separated from the “big girls” until they can all play together. We expect this to be mid July, so watch for that update.

Beekeeping has also been interesting this spring as I had the good fortune of our bees overwintering with 100% success rate vs. the devastating reports of an average of 45% losses in our region. My initial glee at realizing my success has turned into a double edged sword in a way since our hives were teeming with bees at a time when the persistent rain didn’t allow for the normal spring foraging.

So, they spent their idle days ‘indoors’ making multitudes of swarm cells in order to strike out on their own (think of it as eloping from their crowded childhood home) whenever a break in the weather allowed. I frantically divided the strongest colonies to make nucs and splits of bees and at one point I had turned 6 colonies into 12. This demanded additional equipment to be produced and I’ve been spending hours and hours building and painting new hive boxes and frames in my workshop in the barn. Dave helped me build a new hive stand and at one point, the apiary was quite over crowded. It now looks like an urban high rise district as we have 12 spring honey supers in place with 5 more ready to add as soon as I can finish up the wiring and wax installation!

Nuc boxes full of newly built wax foundation frames for the apiary at Seven Oaks.

The berry patch has had some mixed results. I think we will still have an excellent blueberry year as the bushes are flush with first blooms and now fruits.

Blueberry blossoms.

The strawberries will be more challenged this year for several reasons as the wet has caused slugs and other bugs to be relentless and the wet has bogged down the fruit so there is some ‘point rot’, where the tip of the fruit is sitting in a wet condition instead of high on their tiny branches. All the same, I’m picking every day but have to wear Muck boots to do so! ARG!

First full day of harvesting was nearly 27 pounds of beauties that our CSA customers loved!

The cherry trees and blackberry bushes are flush with fruits and blooms.

Plenty of cherries…
Blackberry blooms galore…

So we carry on and try to celebrate life’s best moments….like Willie’s first birthday.

Waiting patiently for dinner to be served!

And Coulter’s 4th…

A construction cake for the birthday boy.!
Bees, Skeps, tractors and chickens were among the cookies I baked for the party.

The fun today was extra special as we quietly celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with family and friends. The Wards came for lunch in shifts as nap time ruled the day but we had a very, very special guest…Fran Vandermeer…Kate’s Williams College volleyball coach who has been a dear friend to all for years and her presence today along with a tour of the farm made our day so special.

Checking out the chicken coop!
Peek a Boo with Willie

Despite those who advised we celebrate with a special dinner out…we delighted in cooking ourselves a very special meal with as many Seven Oaks ingredients possible…Seven Oaks Bibb lettuce, scallions, radishes, chives, asparagus and strawberries (dessert not pictured) were served at dinner along side the salmon and risotto. Yummy! Cheers!

A Welcome New Year at the Farm

We made it through another holiday season here at the farm with a lovely Christmas season shared by a large contingent of visiting family followed by a quiet and cozy New Year’s celebration.

We started celebrating the weekend before Christmas with an open house to honor the newlyweds – our son Peter and his wife Stefanie – who were in town for the holidays. Why not throw a party while the house is all decorated with boughs of holly? Haha, technically there wasn’t any holly this year but there were wreaths and swags of fragrant greenery, pine cones, candles and red bows along with some of our favorite birds (owls and cardinals) and bees for the tree decorations to greet our guests.

The open house preparations caused everyone to pitch in with tasks large and small as there were many details such as the folding of napkins…

to capture the special menu cards…

and setting a special table for the large family dinner after the open house.

As a special surprise, we ordered a little trio of Croquembouches (rough translation is ‘crunch in your mouth’) from a local bakery. These are traditional seasonal French wedding cakes made with creme filled puff pastries and stacked into “towers” with spun sugar and ribbons holding all the confections into place. These served as a wonderful wintry decor as well as tasty treats for the coming days!

All of this pre-Christmas festivity would have been quite enough but with little ones in the family, there was nothing quite like the continuing celebration a couple of days later with Christmas Eve and the BIG DAY! Grandson Coulter is a few months short of 4 years and is a perfect age for the delights of the season starting with peering into his knitted stocking…

and then dancing excitedly in front of the tree at his house on Christmas morning with the anticipation of what lay beneath in wrapped packages…

Little brother Willie was not quite as excited since Santa brought him 4 new teeth during the holidays…but he managed to smile cheerfully despite the long nights for his parents!

With the holiday excitement behind us, we refocus our attention to the needs of the farm and continue to have a modest harvest from the hoop house. On warmer days, we open the doors or windows for some air circulation and here is what it looks like today while we continue to harvest and share with our customers the lettuces, spinach, turnips, radishes and green onions.

It might seem as if winter is upon us in every other aspect but when you peer inside the hoop house and look closely, you can see that the insect world is still finding morsels to eat as demonstrated by this little slug who thought he would find dinner on a leaf of our spinach.

Slugs aren’t the only thing moving around this time of year. The bees are active on nice days and in anticipation, I decided to make candy boards for them yesterday with mixed results.

Candy boards are simply water and sugar boiled together to a candy stage of 250 degrees and then cooled enough to pour into a form that sets atop the winter hive body to provide emergency sustenance to the colony. It isn’t that hard to do but can be a heavy, hot sticky mess any way you look at it. I put several batches together yesterday, each with 4 cups of water and 10 pounds of sugar in a large pot on the stove.

When the mixture reached the hard candy temperature of 250 degrees..

I carefully took it off the heat to cool a bit until I could pour it into the prepared frames. Here is one waiting frame with the exposed screening or mesh and the second one with the paper towels in place to keep the fondant contained within the wooden frame.

An interesting phenomenon occurred while I was waiting for the boiling sugar mass to cool enough to pour. When it cooled from a clear, hot and bubbling mass to an opaque mixture, I suddenly heard the pot of fondant start crackling audibly, as if it were transforming in front of me from a liquid to a solid with sound affects! I do want to pose the question to a friend of Kate’s who is a chemistry teacher at JBS. Eric, am I imagining things, or would the change of status from boiling liquid to cooling mass be audible?

Nevertheless, the bees were pretty happy to receive the goodies today as they were flying about and doing some of their own housekeeping such as clearing out debris from their hives and taking stock of the new candy boards.

Best wishes for a happy new year to all!

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!

IMG_3851IMG_3849IMG_3850

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