Monday, May 25, 2009

Nesting rights

This picture was taken over a week ago, showing the wheat field to the east of our house. The wheat is even higher now, and in other fields I can see small shoots of corn starting to poke up through the dirt. Acres of brown are turning into acres of green. But they'll turn back to acres of brown unless we get some rain soon. The rain clouds in the picture above only delivered a few drops of wetness, not nearly enough. We are very dry. We're supposed to get rain today -- everybody is hoping for it, praying for it. If it doesn't come I'll have to go out and water my garden, the third time this spring.

Our alfalfa is lush and green as well. It is already about 18" tall, tall enough for a pop-fly baseball to be hit inside and lost forever. Or at least until mid-June, when the farmer will come through for the first cutting. After the first cutting I usually take a walk through the fields and pay tribute to whatever unfortunate birds decided to build nests in the pre-cut alfalfa. Sometimes I see just broken egg shells, sometimes I see feathers. If that isn't sad enough, the day after the cutting I sometimes see a lone male pheasant wandering around our property, looking for his mate and their nest. After a few days of searching he gives up and wanders away.

Some farmers delay the first cutting until after the nesting birds (pheasants, grouse, meadowlark, etc.) have hatched and flown away. That usually pushes it back until August 1, meaning that instead of three cuttings of hay there would be only two. Not many farmers do this, for economic reasons. I'm contemplating asking our leasing farmer to do this, however. He would probably be more agreeable to this suggestion if I lowered my land lease. I guess I need to put my money where my mouth is.

I've done one other thing to help the birds, though. I have ordered signs from our friendly DNR office to put up along our road right-of-way (the strip of grass running next to the gravel road on the edge of our property). The signs tell folks that this area is off limits. Off limits to haying, ATVS and chemicals. Actually, road right-of-ways and railroad right-of-ways are some of the best remaining locales of native prairie grass and wildflowers out here in farm country. This makes right-of-ways prime habitat for wildlife. And prime spots for birds who nest on the ground or in tall grass.

This is nesting season for our wild birds, right here and right now. I'd better hurry up and put up those roadside signs, and hurry up and call our farmer. The only thing I want to find in our newly-cut alfalfa field this summer is a lost pop-fly baseball.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The search for soup

I love a good soup. Is love too strong a word? No. Not at all. I can remember several pivotal moments in my life, moments when I have had really, really good soup. For example, the Tuscan tomato soup at The Cottage on Broad in Story City, Iowa. Or the Philly Cheesesteak soup at The Larkspur Market in New Ulm, Minnesota. Or the hearty vegetable soup I ate on a cold February afternoon at a small pub in Edinburgh, Scotland. Okay, that last one was more about where I was eating, rather than what I was eating, but it was still a pivotal soup-related experience.

And so, for quite a while now I have been on a quest for some really good soup recipes. Along the way I've had to experiment on my family, with varying degrees of success. One success story has been my chicken noodle soup, taken out of an old garage sale cookbook. One non-success story has been my beef stew. My children have decided that they hate beef stew. Put beef, potatoes, carrots and peas on a plate separately, and my kids will eat it up no problem. Put beef, potatoes, carrots and peas in a bowl with thick broth and my boys will run screaming from the kitchen. Literally. They have literally run screaming from the kitchen at the mere mention of the s-word. And this stinks, because hubby and I really like beef stew.

Last year I bought my umptieth cookbook, the Williams and Sonoma soup book. I especially liked the look of their cream of broccoli soup recipe. Last summer at the height of the broccoli season I bought half a dozen large heads of broccoli from the Hutterite colony down the road, and took the recipe for a test drive. The recipe called for pureeing the soup smooth -- I like chunks of vege in my cream soups, so I skipped that part. And the results? Truly divine. Humming-while-you-eat good. I froze the rest of the batch in individual servings and brought it to work for lunch over the wintertime. Sometimes I added some shredded cheddar cheese for a cheesey broccoli soup. Delicious.

I've also used the same recipe for cream of cauliflower soup. And last week, I used it again for cream of asparagus soup. I've got four quarts' worth in my freezer right now. I happened to be pressure canning some beef broth while I was making the soup, so I decided to see what would happen if I canned the asparagus soup, for long-term storage. Note to self -- don't try canning cream soups again. Curdled soup isn't pretty.

After I finished, I realized that not only had I made really good soup, I had made it using nearly all local and organic ingredients. The asparagus was from a farm about twenty miles away, the milk was from a dairy about ten miles away, and the broth was some that I had made at home from chickens that had been raised on the dairy. How cool is that?!

So, if you too love a good soup, give a try to making some at home. Pick your favorite soup, find a recipe, and go for it. Making homemade soup is pretty easy, and it tastes a whole lot better than stuff you buy at the store. I probably paid about $20 in ingredients (asparagus isn't cheap, but I did save money by using homemade broth) and got six quarts of soup. Okay, four quarts of edible soup and two quarts of nasty curdled stuff. But that was my mistake, not the recipe's.

I anticipate filling my freezer door with pints of soup this summer. And having lots of very yummy lunches this winter.

Work and Play

My three kids are finally all old enough to go play outside by themselves. The eight-year-old is old enough to figure out when the three-year-old is doing something dangerous, and fast enough to either stop him from doing it or to call Mom for help. This means that the kids can play in the yard while Mom works in the garden, or makes dinner, or works with the goats, or whatever. A quick head count every few minutes is all that's necessary.

It helps that we don't have any inherently dangerous things laying around our yard like swimming pools, large farm equipment, gas tanks, electric fence, or bulls. When you live in the country, you not only have to kid-proof your house but also your yard. That, and the hard-and-fast rule of 'don't go down the driveway' should eliminate most hazards to young children.

Of course, the kids usually want Mom and Dad to play with them. I usually end up in a rousing, yet relatively gentle game of baseball or kickball. My husband, on the other hand, enjoys being more physical. He gets asked to play things like tackle football (where all the kids try to tackle Dad and take the ball away from him) or Whack-a-Dad (pictured below). Sometimes Dad tries to play Whack-a-Kid, but our boys think that game is much less fun.

Our family is going to begin a more formal approach to chores this summer. A written list of things that each of the boys has to do each day, before they are allowed to do more favored things (TV, video games, afternoon snacks, etc.). With all the plans I have for our farmstead in the coming years, the sooner the boys get used to helping out, the better. We'll start off with easy things, like collecting eggs and feeding the chickens, and move on to less-fun things like shelling peas and putting away laundry. Eventually I'll have them mucking out the barn, hoeing the garden and cutting hay.

That's the plan, at least. We'll see what the reality ends up being.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Say cheese

My wonderful brother-in-law made me a cheese press for Christmas. I used it for the first time two weeks ago (before the great flu hit us), using a Farmstead Cheddar recipe from Ricki Carroll's cheesemaking book. It turned out pretty good, I think -- the test will be in about four months when it has aged enough to eat. In the picture above, the cheese is covered in wax to protect it during the aging process. I had to use paraffin wax since I didn't have any cheese wax on hand.

I started with two gallons of milk and ended up with about two pounds of cheese. If I had been thinking clearly during the process (instead of thinking groggily, since I started this project late in the day and stayed up way too late at night finishing it), I would have saved the whey instead of pouring it down the sink. I could have fed it to the cats, chickens, or used it to water my herb garden. I've read that whey is pretty good for you, kinda like buttermilk. But that's hindsight for you.

Following this (anticipated) success, I am eager to try another hard cheese recipe. Maybe regular cheddar. It takes longer to make, but hopefully I'll be smart this time and start the whole process a lot earlier in the day.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Signs of life

I was literally typing the last words of my previous post, when my eight-year-old came home from school. He yelled out to me not to come into the kitchen yet, because he had a surprise for me. A minute later he tells me to come in. One piece of my agrarian picture has fallen into place -- just-picked wild flowers on the kitchen table.

This afternoon while my husband was fixing the goats' manger, just before we found the dead opossum, we found Pepper Cat's newest batch of kitties. They are only two or three days old.

We are still sick, I am still feeling down, but there are small signs of life.


My eyes are bigger than my stomach. Bigger than my hands, bigger than my head, bigger than my whole being. I see an image of my family living a perfect agrarian lifestyle complete with chickens, goats, cows, garden, apple trees, clothesline, root cellar filled with vegetables, pantry filled with preserved goods, home baked bread and a vase with just-picked wildflowers in the center of the kitchen table.

In the winter against the cold, white landscape this image burns in my mind. I make my best laid plans. I order seeds and chicks. I plan the garden layout and buy mulch. I have our goat bred. I borrow my niece's incubator to hatch our own chicks. After winter comes spring -- time to till the garden, put eggs in the incubator, set up a brooder, prepare for the goat kids, mulch the garden, start seedlings in the basement and plant potatoes in the soil.

And that's when reality starts to seep into my agrarian picture. None of the incubator eggs hatched. My chickens are starting to eat their eggs again. My goat is two weeks past her due date. The goats have broken down their hay manager. Last week the goats broke into the main area of the barn and knocked over shelves, hay, and the bags containing their newly sheared mohair.

The only things growing in my garden so far are thick patches of thistle and dandelion, unhindered by the mulch. Every day I have off from my job to work in the garden, it rains. Except this week -- this week it didn't rain. Instead, my family and I came down with the stomach flu. My five-year-old had to miss his preschool graduation ceremony last night because he was busy throwing up into a bucket with a fever of 102.

Doubt has come rushing in. What the heck was I thinking? I can't keep up with all of this. I hear about fun, fantastic things that other people are doing, things that I would love to do. These other people are planting herb gardens, harvesting wild edibles, building a rain cistern, doing pottery, attending classes. Heck, I can't even find the time and energy to read a book or clean my house.

Today we found a dead bloated opossum in the barn behind the hay.

Sigh. I guess you could say I'm feeling a little down these days.