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!

Screen Shot 2018-06-09 at 1.47.32 PM

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


A Berry, Berry Busy Anniversary

Well, it’s suddenly berry season here at the farm and we have hit the ground running with nearly 82 pounds of strawberries harvested already after only the first week of picking duties. IMG_1388Sheesh! I am still sporting my happy face that I wear around here every year for at least the first week of each berry season but we are currently faced with days of high heat for this time of year (94 degrees today) so picking can be a bit more exhausting than it usually is at this juncture. But my exhaustion isn’t the sole problem here.

What really matters is that the strawberries are ripening faster than normal in this heat and are a bit more fragile as well since their cell walls have expanded rapidly and are a bit thinner than normal. The window of time for picking is also shorter since one normally waits for the dew to dry before beginning to harvest…(I love the droplets on the tips of the berry leaves.)IMG_1390But one should pick in the cool of the morning, as the sugar is still rising in the plant and out to the fruit before the heat threatens and sends the sugars back to the base of the plant. So the heat we are currently experiencing means that the ideal window to harvest is shorter. With the unexpected 4 hours needed to pick the patch yesterday, I was actually picking fruit that was beginning to feel warm to the touch and although I know it to be a no-no, there was no other choice but to continue on as these ripe berries would be overly ripe by the following day. Rain overnight meant that I made the right choice since I would have had a patch of soggy, untenable fruit today if I had waited!

Of course it doesn’t help that I am sometimes distracted by the wonders of the insect world and take out my phone to photograph whatever crosses my path. Here is a mother spider who was a bit startled by my presence and picked up her egg sack and tried to quickly get out of my way and protect her future offspring. Can you see her despite the camouflage of the mulch? She scampered off in short fits of movement. I very much approve of spiders in my berry patch since I know they eat other insects. IMG_1395I’m not quite so fond of the moth world of insects since one of the previous stages of caterpillar can be so devastating but this shapely fellow caught my eye as well. IMG_1443

So, in my defense, I harvested 20 pounds of strawberries the previous day and over 32 pounds yesterday so I cannot say the patch was at all neglected. The good news was that yesterday was the first Saturday we were able to offer strawberries to our CSA customers and we sold all 25 pints that we had to offer from Friday’s harvest. We also had several varieties of Spinaches and Lettuces with much more to come! It was fun to also offer a mini tour of the berry patch to the group so that they could see just where their goodies were originating and hopefully could calculate the value of their purchases when the effort we put into this was on display.

Despite all our sales yesterday, the week of harvesting meant that the refrigerators were chocked full of berries today and I was on notice to do some preserving one way or another. IMG_1471Each pan you see weighs approximately 4 pounds and the slip of white paper floating on top tells me the date it was harvested. So this morning, I started making strawberry jam which is very popular with our customers as well as all family members. Although it is time consuming to wash, hull and quarter the berries and put them into large pots in specified quantities, I have a system after all these years and usually start two batches at once. These stock pots each have 3.75lbs of berries that have been prepared and then smashed with the potato masher to break them up a bit more. The pot on the right still shows the white of the pectin that has not yet dissolved. IMG_1472 2Then the mash is heated to an initial boil after which I add the sugar. Once the prescribed sugar is added, this mass comes to another boil which I carefully time for exactly one minute of ‘roiling boil stage’ – a term which means that no amount of stirring can calm the hot sticky mess that can burn one’s hands if not careful!  (You might espy, my bandaged hand from a previous burn!) Gah!

After the final boil, the mixture is quickly added to the waiting sterilized jars using a funnel and careful handling – again, boiling sticky mess! The rims of each jar are then wiped clean with a hot cloth to remove any remainders. IMG_1475.jpgSterilized lids and bands (a two part system) are then added to a finger tight degree of fastening so that when placed in the boiling water bath for a set number of minutes…IMG_1476.jpg the necessary evacuation of air will occur and create the required vacuum for a safe and airtight closure of the jar.  Violà, two batches (12 jars each) of sealed and cooling jam. IMG_1479.jpgTime to switch to freezing the next few batches of berries! But in the meantime, I’ve spent part of the day integrating the new chicks into the existing flock. This required a spate of my time today but is well worth the effort to get all the hens in a copacetic place for the future.

As you may remember from the previous post, the new chicks (now just over 8 weeks old) have been living in a mini coop within the larger outdoor coop. This facilitated an initial phase of both groups getting to know each other with a wire barrier to keep them separate. As of 8 weeks, the pullets (which are what we call teenage female chicks) are ready to transition off their baby food and graduate to an intermediate food that they can share with the older girls who are considered “layers”.

So, this morning, I cautiously opened the door between the youngsters and the adults (just enough to let the little ones out but kept the big girls without reciprocal access to the mini coop) and allowed the newbies to venture out for a bit if they were so daring. A few of the more adventurous ones took advantage of this opportunity and stepped out with caution.

The first attempt was pretty mild as the babies were cautious. The second attempt was a bit more fraught as I realized that the 30 minute play date I had envisioned was not easily ended if the pullets were not all safely back in their coop. In other words, I did not want to leave the area until it was all re-secured but the youngsters didn’t all realize how to get BACK into their coop and were frustrated at seeing their mates through the wire mesh and not re-joining with ease. This took some careful management but I did it!

I have since completed a third successful integration attempt and am very pleased with the group interaction. So far, there have been minor demonstrations from the older chicks of who is boss. This is totally expected since even the younger group already has their own pecking order and so this is all expected behavior and I’m generally pleased.  A few of the older flock were actually needy and jumped up on my lap and shoulder today to show they still wanted some attention from me as I watched the youngsters play. IMG_1483

Our other weekend news: we celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary yesterday… and had the additional pleasure of attending the wedding of dear young friends, Max and Amy Ryan who said it best in their darling little wedding favors of succulent plantings in pots…congrats to all of us! IMG_1489



A Shiny “Mini – Coop-er” at the Farm

What a wildly busy month we have had here at the farm since I last posted. Hard to believe that we managed to fit so much into such a short space of time but perhaps that explains our sore muscles.

First, we finished the construction of the hoop house and got it ‘planted’ with cool season crops despite the lateness of the season but not without some modifications to the overall design first.

What you should know is that although we were pleased with the essential design of the structure we ordered, it arrived with a laughable system to secure it in place. The company provided four small brackets along with 8 measly metal spikes that were intended to secure the whole structure and keep it place. I suppose this hoop house manufacturer had no idea of how a small amount of wind (let alone the type we can get in the Midwest) could blow this whole structure away in an instant.

So Farmer Dave was all over this with a remedy that he was able to source at a nearby company that made heavy duty spikes out of re-bar to his specifications. Here is a comparison of what was supplied on the right and what Dave ordered in re-bar spikes on the left.  What a huge difference!IMG_0810

We happened to have a couple extra helpers to move the metal structure into place one weekend.

Once the hoop house was situated, we hammered the spikes into place…IMG_0827 And then added the sunshade cover…a little tricky but 3 people managed to get it into place with a couple of ladders and not too much more effort which bodes well for changing it out to the “winter” cover which will insulate from the freezing cold.IMG_0831Et voilà…with “doors” front and back as well as “windows” along each side, the summer mesh shade cover was in place and the Velcro tabs secured it all to the frame just so. Yay, now we were all set to plant!  IMG_0835 2We decided to plant the area with a center aisle (east/west) and rows (north/south) on either side of the aisle. The first planting (on the north) was a variety of lettuces, spinaches, Swiss chard and peas. Ten days later, we planted the south side with a similar set of leafy plant seeds using slightly different varieties. With a little time elapse magic, you can see what three weeks of growth looks like in the hoop house now.IMG_1306 The same weekend we moved the hoop house into place, we also had some important work going on in the apiary. I decided to split one of the stronger overwintered colonies (making a second colony from it) and also prepared the area for a new future queen as well as two new hives for ‘nucs’ or nucleus colonies to be installed. Spring is such a busy time for beekeepers.  IMG_0124But oh, man, all those bees are hard at work as well. Here is one of our bees laden with pollen (the orange part in the photo) in the “saddle bag” area of her rear legs, and working away on a dandelion to gather more to take back to the hive. This is one of the reasons I don’t mind dandelions! IMG_0819 All the while, the new baby chicks have been growing like weeds and although we had prepared for the day when we would have to move them from their 170 gallon aluminum trough, we had to be innovative first.

We ultimately built (from a kit) a “mini coop” just for them inside the larger outdoor coop area to accommodate their needs and help with the future integration of the two flocks. The intention here was to give them a separate place to live within the flock area while remaining separate until they are old enough to share the same space. There are technical issues as to the foods they each eat (protein percentages as well as calcium levels are specifically different between the two ages) which requires their separate living arrangement until a point where they can be integrated. Funny, but I doubt my grandmother had such science behind her flock of chicks and they all did just great! Ha!  IMG_0993 Of course this meant they needed to have some initial lighting and heat to make it through the cold nights but they adapted with glee to their palatial digs and the ‘big girls’ as we call the older flock, are adapting well to their little sisters!

The other great benefit of moving to their own coop means that they get to keep their feathers in top notch condition as they are able to dust bathe in the sand.

The leghorns seem to hang close which is fine since there are three of them which keeps them from being picked on. IMG_0996

But one night after they had just moved to the mini coop, I went out to check on them and I COULD NOT FIND the leghorns! What a panic…until I found that they had located to a secondary roost at night…up in the eave of the interior roof line of the new coop! Those rascals!IMG_1109 Besides the hoop house, mini coop and the bees, we have also been following the development of the orchard. We were pleased to find that the final winter blast of the year did not wipe out the fruit trees. Whew! There are fruits on the pears, apples, plums, peaches, nectarines and cherries!

Despite the plethora of strawberry and blueberry blossoms promising successful berry season, I decided to try out a couple of new varieties of bush type fruits in the bird netted area. I found a Bush Cherry, ‘Juliet’ at our local nursery and it sounded too good to resist. IMG_1085

I also added two varieties of thorn-less Blackberries, not unlike what we had at the old house. One is called ‘Chester’ and the other is ‘Sweetie Pie’. I was delighted to see that they are still willing to bloom and set on fruit after what would seem like a late planting. Can you hear me rubbing my hands together with glee at this?IMG_1340

We have lots of strawberries and blueberries set on and have started harvesting (and eating!) the strawberries in the last couple of days. Yum!IMG_1350

April showers brought more than rain…it also included Coulter’s three year old birthday which he celebrated in style with some young friends, having helped make and decorate his own birthday cake… IMG_6287

Besides baking, he has also embraced a sewing project at school…IMG_5435But he can’t help dashing about as a super hero when needed…IMG_1354Of course super heros are exactly what we need now that Kate has ended her maternity leave and Nana and Gramps are in charge of both Ward boys for a bit before summer break begins. Willie is at the ready to join in with a one two punch!  IMG_1190

Spring ‘Hoop Dreams’…

We seem to be waiting in vain for Spring to arrive at the farm. Unlike last year when February felt like April, this year, March and April have felt more like a typical February. We have had more than our fair share of rain but that is not as unusual as our continued low temps and the prediction of a heavy frost and possible snow for tonight. All of this threatens the lovely peach and nectarine trees which are finally in full bloom. IMG_0720I have resisted pulling the straw off of the strawberries even though it is tempting to let them get some sunshine and air circulation. Hoping next week we can uncover and they will start to bloom and produce some great fruit this year.IMG_0715We harvested the asparagus that was first planted last year in the new raised beds and has shown that it is on its way to developing into a future crop for us. It normally takes 3 years to really get any production but we cut the viable stalks today and then covered with plastic to keep the rest from the freeze. IMG_0764Ditto with the colorful rhubarb which we also started last year in the raised beds but we added 4 more mounds this year which are already poking out of the ground…IMG_0728Last year’s stand is further along but the leaf material is more at risk with the impending freeze. img_0772.jpgWe also chose a very cold and rainy day to begin to build our future hoop house. What? Backup a minute…a “what house?”, asks everyone who has been hearing about this newest venture of ours. Think of a hoop house as a green house only using plastic or mesh instead of glass. It is something that a plant nursery uses to get an early start for tender plants OR to protect shade loving plants from severe sun OR to protect late plants from freezing. So, for our future spring, summer, fall and perhaps winter needs, we figured we could really get some good use out of a hoop house to extend our seasons!

We bought all the pieces and parts for ours on line and it has a footprint of 12 feet x 26 feet and is just over eight and a half feet tall. It has a metal frame that we had to build with pipe and it looks rather like a ribbed skeleton right now. We purchased two different covers for it. One is mesh and the other plastic with zippered “doors” as well as flaps for “windows” in order to provide for air circulation when needed. All we did today was build the metal frame with the help of our dear friend, Jon. The package should have warned, “do not try this alone!” Haha!

With poor weather conditions all day long, we started out building sections in the barn where we had the assistance of two heaters.  Not pictured: Nancy wearing every layer of sweater, coat, hat and gloves imaginable.IMG_0750When we had two partial halves built, we then moved to the driveway, (using the barn as a wind break) since it would have otherwise been too tall to get out of the barn door. IMG_0754We finally walked the two halves to the field…IMG_0755.jpg where we were ultimately able to join them…IMG_0758.jpg When the fields have dried out enough, we will move the structure into place, secure it with metal stakes and then pull the cover/s over the top which will also then be secured with rebars. More photos to come!

In the meantime, we have a gang of new baby chicks at the farm that we have also been protecting against the cold!  Our current flock will be two years old in June, a time after which their laying habits will begin to wane. So we had to think about some additional flock members to keep us in eggs in the future. Introducing new chickens to an existing flock is a delicate process these days so we decided to choose wisely, ones that would be best for several reasons.

First, they needed to fit into the existing flock with ease. We also evaluated their heat tolerance since we seem more able to control their cold temps than their hot conditions. And lastly, it would be nice to not have to deal with any misidentified cockerels which are young males that turn into aggressive roosters.

Red sex linked chickens were a good answer on all counts so we ordered (months ago!) 6 Cinnamon Queens from the same hatchery we purchased from before.  The day we were to pick up our one day old chicks was one of the stormiest days we have had all spring. A 5 hour drive in torrential rain turned into 6.5 hours but we returned unscathed and so did all the newly hatched chicks…plus one! The hatchery had our order ready with a freebie in the box (their insurance policy?) and we were delighted to think of having 7 new chicks for Seven Oaks Farm! We took a few pics at the hatchery that boasts 185 varieties of fowl for sale. There were layers and layers (no pun) of small peeping birds everywhere.IMG_0461But here was our special package of 1 day old chicks ready to go!

They required constant heat of 98-100 degrees for the first week and then each week afterwards, they can tolerate a bit more of a temperature decrease until they reach 6 weeks old. With our crazy cold weather, we enlisted the heater in my workshop plus a special brooder as well as a heat lamp. Needless to say, the first day I checked on them every hour.

The first week they grew exponentially and each day you could see that they were sprouting wings and then tiny sprouts of tail feathers. IMG_0627Since then, they are now more than two weeks old. With as much attention as they required, we decided to add 3 more that were just about the same age. These were pullets (females) that are of the Leghorn breed which lay white eggs and are very productive as well. They are also lofting out of their first container so we have expanded to a larger coop and added screened lids.

We have promised the children of our neighborhood CSA members that they can each name one so they are already thinking hard of fun and appropriate names!

Last but not least, we have been busy beekeepers even before the season got going here as we were invited to share our activities with a classroom of children from Coulter’s preschool, Raintree. The children and their teachers had been studying pollinators and were keenly interested in learning more about bees. Here is how they decorated their classroom door to greet us.IMG_0030We brought lots of props for them to look at and they asked lots of great questions wearing their antennae! IMG_0022We got a lovely thank you note…IMG_0396And even made the school newsletter…IMG_0392Another thing that keeps daily smiles on our faces are Coulter and Willie Ward who are both growing about as fast as the chicks! IMG_0633Promising more updates from the farm soon!