Monday, August 25, 2008

Barn critters

The last of our crop of barn (or old granary) swallows about to leave the nest.

The goats are finally in the new barn, even though the new barn isn't finished yet. I wanted to get them into the weed patch asap, so I had my husband hurry to finish the fencing. In late June I had rented a push-behind bush hog to mow the overgrown patch, anticipating that the goats would be inside within two weeks.

Since this whole project is about two months (and counting) behind schedule, the weeds are now very tall. You can see some of them behind the goats in the picture.The goats have made a start on them, but there is much much more than they can eat. Plus there are plenty of seeds and burs to stick in their coat. Not an ideal situation, but we work with what we have.

Next comes shearing time in September. I'll let you know how that goes...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vampires beware

My garlic harvest is finished. Roughly 80 bulbs, some minced and frozen, most hanging and curing in the warm garage. After a few weeks they'll go to the basement to hang from the rafters. They'll last the year through - I found one bulb from last year still hanging in a basement corner.

Braiding the hardneck varieties was challenging; the braids don't look as pretty as in my gardening books. But they make up for it in their taste; a richer flavor, lasting longer on the tongue, almost sweet. Days after the harvest I could still smell the yummy garlic on my hands. Now, if only my tomatoes were ripe, I could make some killer pasta sauce, cook up some linguini and treat my family to a bit of homemade heaven.

Third cutting

The farmer came by on Friday and cut our alfalfa. It's all lying on the ground now, waiting to dry, waiting to be baled. If it's baled too wet and green, it'll get moldy in storage.

I called the farmer and asked if I could have one of the bales for our goats. Sure, no problem, just tell us where you'd like us to put it. If our new barn was finished, I'd know exactly where to put it. But, for now it will have to rest against our old granary.

Here's Benjimouse ankle-deep in fresh-cut alfalfa, trying to get a yellow flower to stick in his hair. He picked a flower and gave it to me, which I put in my hairband. Then he tried to put a flower in his hair; alas, no hairband to hold it in. After a few attempts, he gave up and followed me on our walk across the field.

When I showed up for work last night, our parks worker smiled at me and pointed at my head. Yep, still had the flower up there. I put it on the bulletin board in my office, as a reminder of a warm summer's walk through the alfalfa.

Wild bounty

Okay, since you're not able to munch on wild plums yet, I have another idea. Driving down those same winding country roads, look for the following plant along the roadside:

This, for those of you who have never savored the delicacy before, is wild asparagus. At this time of year the leaves are out and the stems are inedible. But this time of year is when the plant is most visible. Now is when you can see it and put down a stake, red flag or whatever for easier locating next spring. Asparagus stems come up in early spring, and are best picked when 8-10" long. I've picked asparagus when it's 18", and the bottom woody part has to be cut off.

The wild asparagus found along roadways are descendants from plants cultivated by farmers decades ago. The plants set berries in the summer, which are eaten by birds, and the seeds get spread all over the place. It's easier to find mature plants at this time of year along roadways which haven't been mowed for hay.

Another great spot to look for wild asparagus is near abandoned homesteads. If you find one, and get permission from the owner to walk around, you might also find a few other treasures; old apple trees, run-amok rhubarb patches, tangles of raspberry bushes, chokecherries, etc. Those old farmers were their own kind of visionary. They planted the trees and sowed the seeds, and we're still reaping the bounty years afterward.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Buried Treasure

Well, in my post 'True sign of spring,' I told you to head out in early August in western MN to taste wild plums. Scratch that, reverse it -- because this spring was a month later than normal, everything is ripening at least two weeks later than normal. The plums are still green. Some are just starting to turn, but it will be awhile before they're pink and squishy.

My tomatoes are still green, too. Last year at this time I had a dozen quarts of spaghetti sauce already in my pantry. This year I've had just two ripe tomatoes from my twenty-seven plants. If the universe is kind, our first frost won't hit til mid-October. But since this is Minnesota, we're looking at mid-September.

My boys helped me harvest a couple of ice-cream buckets of potatoes the other day. Digging potatoes is like looking for buried treasure. Coincidentally, we were digging up Yukon Gold potatoes. Owen and Graham hovering next to me as I plunge the pitchfork into the soil. Whose turn is it to jump on the tines? It's Graham's turn. I hold the wooden handle steady, he climbs onto the tines and begins to jump. The pitchfork barely moves. I help it a bit with my right foot. It sinks deeper, deep enough through the straw into the dark dirt.

Graham steps off; it's Owen's turn to pull down on the end of the handle, levering the tines above the ground. We see a large potato, then another one. The boys race to see who can grab them first. Digging down into the hole with our fingers, we uncover two more. The potatoes get thrown onto a pile, and the pitchfork is lifted again for another search.

The boys and I will dig some more potatoes tomorrow. Maybe I'll make eye-patches for all of us and teach the boys some pirate talk. Harr! Tharr be buried treasure in the garrden!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pickled beets

Take a bunch of beets. Leave their root and 1" of stem on, and throw them into some boiling water. Boil 'em 15 minutes, a bit longer for the big ones. Meanwhile, mix up 2 cups vinegar, 2 cups sugar, and 1 cup water and heat to boiling.

Start a big pot of water on to boil. Put a wire rack or some butter knives in the bottom of the pot, just so the jars you put into the pot later don't sit directly on the bottom.

After the beets are done, let them cool and then cut off the top and bottom of the beet. Scrape off the skins with a knife (this is the messy part). If they're small, you can pack them whole into pint-sized jars. If the beets are large, you can slice them or dice them (I like dicing them). Pack them into jars, pour enough of the vinegar/sugar liquid in the jar til it gets up to 1/2 inch from the top. Put two-piece lids and rims (available at most grocery stores) on the jars. Put the jars into the big pot of boiling water and boil for 30 minutes.

Wash the pink stuff off your fingers, and don't worry about beet juice staining your towels (at least it never has stained mine). When the 30 minutes are up, carefully take the very hot jars out of the pot and let cool. The jars will seal themselves for storage; if you push down on the top of the lid and it doesn't move, it's good. If you can push down on the lid, then it didn't seal. If it didn't, put the jar in the fridge and eat within a few weeks.

Let the jars rest in a cupboard for six weeks before opening and eating. It takes that long for the full 'pickling' to work. And then, enjoy homemade pickled beets! Yum!

P.S. Guess what I stayed up til midnight doing last night!

Straw into gold

Almost before it started, the wheat harvest is nearly finished here in Big Stone County. It doesn't take long to turn a waving wheat field into a bristling lawn of wheat stalks. If you've never seen a newly harvested wheat field, you won't understand why Rumpelstiltskin spoke of turning straw into gold. It really is a true golden color. Some farmers cut the wheat stalks high, to come later and cut it again to bale straw. Most straw around here is wheat straw, although you can make straw from any stalk of grain. Other farmers just chop up the stalk in their combine and blow it out over the field.

Combines are huge. Did I say huge? I meant HUGE. A farmer friend of ours last year offered to give our eldest son a ride in one while harvesting soybeans. Owen had to climb six feet up just to get to the seats. They took four or five swaths down the field, each swatch cutting about 24 feet wide. The driver just sits in the cab, steers a bit, and watches all the various instruments telling him what's being harvested. The combine can tell you how much you're harvesting as it's doing it -- also the yield per acre, moisture levels, and a host of other things I don't even know about.

Before coming out here, I had no idea what a combine (the emphasis is on the first syllable) was, and why it had such a silly name. I think I've figured out the name. It's called a combine because it combines the tasks of what used to be done by a couple different machines. It cuts the seeds from the stalks, shells the seeds (like taking soybeans out of the pod), sorts the seed from the chaff (stuff that's not the seed), and then collects the seed in a large bin at the back of the combine.

When the bin on the combine gets full, the farmer drives over to a truck, usually a open-top semi, and the combine blows all of its seed through a large metal tube into the top of the truck. When the truck is full, the farmer drives it to the local grain elevator. Or, if he has a few large grain bins of his own, he'll bring it there to store for awhile, waiting for grain prices to get higher sometime over the winter.

A lot of what a farmer does is based on good timing. At harvest time, the seed has to have dried well on the stalk, otherwise the farmer pays more at the elevator to have it dried manually. A moist seed will rot in storage. Also, the farmer wants to sell his crop at a time when prices are high, so he can get the most money. Not to mention the timing needed at planting, when the soil has to be warm enough after winter for the seed to germinate, yet dry enough before the spring rains so his tractor doesn't get stuck in the mud.

One of the best parts (can you tell that I love this place) of living out here is being able to follow the seasons. Walking down a city street, a warm day in winter will look and feel like a cool day in summer. Out in the country, one glance at a field, a grove of trees or a farmhouse clothesline will tell you what month it is. And right here, right now, it's August; the time for harvesting wheat and for spinning straw into gold.

Already dreading

It's August. September is next, then October, then -- I can hardly say it -- the snow season begins. Didn't winter just end a few weeks ago? Isn't it time for crocuses and tulips? I love Minnesota, and I really don't mind the quality of our winters up here, it's the quantity of it that bothers me. Last winter was really, really long. I am dreading the next one already. After Christmas, the 3-month winter stretch seems unbearable. Come January I will look back on these pictures here and start counting the days ...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Stray steers and a silver star

The first summer we lived in our farmhouse, I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window one day and saw something that told me 'you're not in Kansas anymore.' Half-a-dozen cows were ambling up my driveway, easy as you please. Although, I suppose had I actually been in Kansas, seeing cows would have reaffirmed the fact that I was still there. But nevermind, you get my point.

I call them cows here, and called them cows then, but they were really cattle - there's a difference, I've since discovered. Cows are for dairy and female; cattle are for meat and can be any gender. Cows or cattle, these huge beasts making headway to my house were big, beautiful and horned. An instant of city-girl panic settled into wonder and giddiness. There are cows in my front yard!

The cattle came up the drive, took a right turn at the house and settled into eating grass on the lawn. My husband decided to take our two-year-old son outside, and formally introduce him to our visiting friends. After lots of 'be careful's and 'don't get close's, they headed out. The cattle paid them little mind, intent on the long green grass neglected by our mower.

After watching them for a few minutes, I figured I should probably find who the owners were and let them know they had some fence repair to do. Unfortunately, cattle don't wear dogtags, and the days of branding are long since gone. So whose cows were these? Who do I call to find out?

This was our first summer, and I had yet to meet the neighbors. I thought there might be some folks north of us with cows, but wasn't sure. So what did I do? I did what every good rural person does in the middle of a minor crisis - call the sheriff.

When I lived in suburbia, I wasn't even sure what a sheriff was or if they still existed. Sheriffs were something out of westerns, someone wearing a cowboy hat and a silver star. They don't still have sheriffs in the modern age, did they?

Yes they do! For you city-folk, a sheriff is just about the most reknown person living in a small town. Loose dog digging up your geraniums? Call the sheriff. Neighbor's septic system leaking into your basement? Call the sheriff. Locked your keys in your car while visiting the farmer's market? Call you-know-who.

Strange cows invading your yard? I called the sheriff. Needless to say, a half-an-hour later the cow owner (it was our northern neighbor) comes zipping in on his four-wheeler, apologizes for his stray steers and begins herding them back down the gravel road. My husband asks me what a steer is - I tell him it means a castrated male cow. I act like I've known that word for years, when actually I learned it only a few weeks earlier.

After living in the country now for five years, I know the sheriff personally, know most of the deputies and say 'hello' to them in the grocery store. I can tell an angus from a hereford, but I need some more help with simmentals and limousins (these are kinds of cattle). Just another awesome thing about living and learning out in the middle of nowhere.