A Long Winter's Nap

Ah, December . . . that delightful month on our New Hampshire vegetable farm. The garden-free vistas are glorious, the haying-free horizons are endless, the worry-free couch and the bed are sumptuous. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve hours of sleep? It feels so good.

By now, we have finished our CSA produce distribution for the year, and we are nearly done with our Farmers' Market sales for the year. We've got little projects to do outside, from feeding the draft horses three times a day to clearing out all the frosted tomato, pepper, and basil plants from the greenhouses, from rolling up irrigation to reorganizing the tool area. But none of these are desperately urgent. (Well, feeding the horses is pretty important. They do like a timely meal.)

And, of course, there is letting our kitty in and out the front door. This is an important job, as is cleaning up the dead mice from our kitty's work in the night. In fact, the other night, there was a dead mouse on the bedroom floor, along with a dead mouse in a trap in the kitchen, and a dead rat in the trap in the living room.

Happily, my nice fellow farmer generally does the cleaning up of dead animals duty, by tossing them outside for some clever larger animal to discover. We think it might be a fox on her rounds, but it could be any number of critters looking for a nice meal. At least it feels like we are contributing to the cycle of sustenance and sustainability on the farm.

Occasionally, I pitch in to the dead rodent clean-up. For example, not long ago, I was taking wet laundry out of the washing machine, and felt something squishier than a sock. But soft and soggy, like a wet sock. I pulled it out. I looked at it, uncomprehending, for rather a long time. Yes, it was a dead mouse, in the washing machine.

“Oh!” I said. “Oh, oh, oh! I am sorry, mouse, that you had to die by washing machine! I can not imagine how this happened!”

Of course, dying by washing machine is probably not that much worse than dying by trap or by cat. Best for the humans in the household is when the cat eats the entire mouse, rather than leaving it whole and dead on the bedroom rug. But even that is better than leaving it dead in pieces on the bedroom rug. Especially when it is in the middle of the night, and it is dark, and a person is stumbling to the bathroom, and has forgotten the cat-mouse episode earlier in the night. It is rather daunting to step on a dead mouse, in one's bare feet, in the night. But it is even more daunting to step on the sticky intestines of a dead mouse.

It turns out that there is an enormous number of small critters about this year, from mice and rats and voles to squirrels and chipmunks. Apparently this is due to the heavy acorn drop last year, which prompts lots of begetting in the small animal world, and then a lot of chewing on tomatoes, zucchini, and sweet peppers in the garden. Even the hot peppers were not immune to nibbling. The chipmunks had several nice dens right in our greenhouses, and the voles simply sucked our greenhouse eggplant under the earth. The plants and fruit just disappeared.

Our kitty caught a fair number of voles and chipmunks and mice outside too, but it has all been more than a one-cat rodent control program can manage. Cats and traps and washing machines have not been enough in the house this season, either. We already have a rodent-proof storage area in our basement for potatoes, carrots, and other root crops. (Sometimes we tell our visitors that if they misbehave we'll put them in the cage in the basement. So far no one has done anything bad enough.) 

But this year, for our winter squash, which doesn't like the damp conditions of the basement for storage, we had to build another cage, out of two by fours and hardware cloth. This fine cage stands in our living room, full of wooden crates of winter squash, and a few last tomatoes on trays. As you can imagine, this is not the most beauteous element of our living room. But at least it appears to be working, especially since farmers all over the region are reporting heavy damage to winter squash, both before harvest and after harvest, in storage.

Now, you might be wondering how this all leads to the wonderful times of December on the farm. Well. Outside, and in the house, there are many creatures stirring, including the cat and the rats and the mice. But still, we rest easy, with our squash and our root crops gathered in, and nestled all snug in their cages. Why, now we have visions of feasts, rather than rages! And my fellow farmer in his kerchief, and I in my cap, can settle our brains for a long winter's nap.

 Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Dec 19 - Dec 25, 2018

Farm Entertainment and The Winter Workhorse

Here on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, our workhorses have a nice long lull in the winter. There is a little bringing in of firewood, and a little sap-gathering, but for about two months, our three horses get to loll about in their winter paddock.

They have plenty to eat, with three meals a day, and they have each other as company, and they can go in and out of shelter at will. But in the slow time, our horses seem to like a little something fun to do.

For example, when our kitty comes into the paddock, the horses think of a fine activity: Let's chase the kitty around! Luckily the kitty is fast, agile, and small: she ducks under the barn doors to safety, and peers at the horses' big feet.

Then again, when our nice relatives come visit us just before the New Year, the horses get the treat of a highly alarmed young Border collie on a leash. Who is this tiny shivering barking creature? The horses are not at all alarmed, and since our relatives also have two young children, along with their young dog, we put halters on the horses and give the children a ride around the paddock.

The five and three year old love it, and Molly, who is a very friendly horse, seems pretty happy too. Moon, however, is a little shyer, and wonders what exactly is happening, as the three year old is stretched flat out, in a most unriderly fashion. Moon flicks his ears back and forth nervously.

“He wants to know who's on his back,” I say to my little niece. “Will you say hello to him?” My niece is a very friendly, cheerful, even boisterous little being, usually perfectly willing to let out a good holler, but now she looks at me big-eyed and silent. Her mother, who is walking beside the horse, with a firm grip on her girl's leg, says, “Can you say hi to Moon, honey?”

In the smallest voice I have ever heard from her, my niece says,“Hi.” Not even “Hi, Moon.” Just a tiny little squeak of “Hi.”

Happily, this whisper seems to reassure that Moon that he does not have a panther on his back ready to devour him, and he relaxes a little. Then my fellow farmer and I, who are leading the horses, indulge in some fancy synchronized riding. We make diagonals, and circles, keeping pace with one another, and meeting in the middle. The horses are standing next to each other, and the little boy and the little girl reach way way way out over the big hairy horse bellies and hold hands, in a grand finale.

We pet our nice horses. “Wasn't that some good winter fun?” we say. They hang around until the petting peters out, and then go work on the hay in the mangers.

Of course, the horses' favorite winter fun activities always involve food. There are the Brussels sprouts and cababage and broccoli stalks we pull up in December, and dump in the paddock. The horses come right over to investigate, loving any little bit of fresh green during the hay season. They work all the stalks over with their teeth, and then they work them over with their feet, which is exactly what we were hoping would happen, since it breaks the stalks down for the compost pile.

As the snow gets deeper, we work in the greenhouses, pulling out dead basil and tomato vines. But the best is when we pull out the old pepper plants. There is so much snow that we can't use a wheelbarrow anymore, so we pile the dead plants on a length of plastic and slide them across the snow to the horses' paddock. This is highly exciting, as you can imagine.

The horses prance, they snort, they arch their necks, they prick their ears. This despite the fact that their paddock is right next door to the flopping, snapping in the wind plastic greenhouse, at which they normally don't bat an eye, and despite the fact that they see us work with heaps of dead plants all winter long.

But dead plants on a sheet of plastic! Coming right into the paddock! Now this is some fun! Everybody's got a fine excuse to run around in high spirits. When we dump the plants off the plastic, the horses converge. Let's see, what yummy little bits of fresh grass or weeds are all tangled up in these dead plants? What a great project!

Best of all is when the farmers start sorting their food stored in the root cellar along about February. All kinds of yummy things make it to the paddock: wrinkled carrots, brown apples, tired turnips. The farmers tuck them into odd places, for a curious horse to find. It doesn't take long. But then again, the time for lolling doesn't take long, either, and soon we'll all be back to work, horses and farmers both, instead of making up fun, highly sustainable ways to entertain each other.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Feb 14- Feb 20, 2018

Tech Revolutions on a Slow Farm

We practice slow farming here on our New Hampshire place. We have less than three acres in vegetables, and we plow, disc, cultivate, and make loose hay at the speed of Belgian and Percheon horses and antique horse machinery. We plant and harvest kind of slowly too, at the speed of two well- past-youth farmers and antique tools.

Of course, we do have some fine modern items on the farm: our sturdy plastic harvest crates, our recently installed irrigation system, our electric fence around the garden. Plus, when it comes to winter farm paperwork, we have this fine new item: a computer!

It took us a while to get to the computer. In the beginning, we went down to our little local library for an hour every Thursday to use their computer. It was kind of nice having computer work restricted to one day a week, but it was also kind of hard to get all the computer work done in an hour, particularly when a farmer forgets to bring half the things she needs to the library in order to achieve her computer work.

Gradually, we began to acquire home computers, since we aren't very fussy about how old or slow they are. Friends, CSA members, mothers, sisters, all kind of fine folks, have given us computers and printers, too. As one friend said a few years ago, “Wow, that's great! You're in the '90s now!”

Next one of our creative, savvy CSA members made us a website in exchange for a share of vegetables. We've had the website now for 7 or 8 years, but we slow farmers are still amazed when people look at our website, and then send us a check in the mail.

“But they don't even know us!” we say. “They haven't even talked to us on the phone! What if we're a big hoax? What if we don't have a farm at all?”

At this last, we fall about laughing, in the middle of our hoax horses and horse machinery and garden tools and greenhouses and fields.

Once we had the website, we soon realized that posting pictures of our hoax farm would be a lot easier with a more modern camera. Our trusty 35 mm film camera finally gave up the ghost, so we borrowed a digital camera from another sterling CSA member to take farm pictures. The camera came complete with instructions on how to firmly grip the battery cover in order to function, as the camera had been repeatedly dropped by small children. We are good grippers, and we gripped.

We had a technology revolution in our budget work as well. For years we scribbled numbers on scraps of paper, and then wept copious tears when we could not find the scraps, or read them if we could find them. Then we made a great leap: we found a stash of hoarded graph paper from the old days, and suddenly we had grids, column, rows! We hauled out our calculators and cross-checked our figures. Then we only wept when our calculators came up with differing opinions.

Soon yet another magnificent CSA member introduced us to the beauty of Excel spread sheets. Finally our rows and columns added up. Our waterfalls of tears were reduced to small brooks, as we discovered that formulas and numbers have nothing personal against us slow farmers.

We must admit, however, that we have not upgraded our phone technology. The idea of having a cell phone in our pockets as we plow with the horses is painful. First the cell phone would fall out of the pocket, as the farmer bangs on the machinery, and then a horse's big foot would fall on the cell phone. But even if we

were to duct tape the cell phone to our bulging well-past-youth farmer biceps, the real truth is that the idea of having a cell phone at all is painful. We want to be quietly with our horses and our machinery banging or with our carrot weeding and our bird singing.

Plus our phone land line is so ingeniouly configured that we hate to give it up. We have two phones connected together, each of which functions according to its abilities: one rings, and the other does everything else. And, gee, it was another kind and thoughtful CSA member who gave us the second phone and helped us rig it all up.

Clearly, our slow farm technological advances have been in fits and starts, but we have given each of them some thought. After all, we don't want to go too quickly into all this newfangled stuff. Best is that each fit and start has been with the help and encouragement of CSA members and friends and family. It takes a whole bunch of nice people to keep a slow farm going, even a hoax farm, and we slow farmers like that.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, February 15-21, 2017

The Great Vegetable Pizza Adventure

My fellow vegetable farmer loves pizza. He claims he could eat it every night for supper.

“Every night?” I say, making a face. I like variety in my meals.

“Well, maybe every other night. We could have pasta in between,” he says, his eyes lighting up at this exciting meal plan.

“You should have been a pizza farmer. Or a pasta farmer. You could have amber waves of grain. What are you doing growing vegetables?”

My fellow grins and shrugs. “I'm halfway to pizza. Look at this.” He shows me a new seed catalog, where he's circled all the tomato varieties he wants to try next season. “See all these delicious tomatoes? They're practically pizza. And look here, onions, and peppers, and spinach and broccoli, for pizza toppings.”

I just laugh. “I'm the one who puts the vegetables on the pizza! You would be happy with cheese!”

“Nuh-uh,” he says. “I want lots of tomatoes, a nice thick sauce. Yum!” He circles some more tomato varieties, and falls into a January-vegetable-farmer-drooling-over-seed-catalogs daze. He is in a tomato-growing, pizza-eating dream.

I, however, am not thinking of pizza, at least not the kind of pizza my fellow dreams about. I am thinking of our root cellar full of vegetables and our freezer full of vegetables, stored for the winter. I am thinking how handy and thrifty and sustainable it is to be a vegeterian when one is a vegetable farmer. And I am also thinking of my digestive system, which seems considerably happier on a vegetable diet, rather than a pizza and pasta diet.

Thus I embark on the Great Vegetable Pizza Adventure. Long, long ago, when my digestive system was young and willing, and my zucchini harvest was overflowing, I tried a zucchini crusted-pizza, a recipe from our dog-eared copy of the Moosewood cookbook. Alas, my penciled notation read, “Yuk! Way too eggy.” The evolution of my tastes and diet is clear through my additional notes: the next one said, “I have learned to like this!” and the third one says, “Very good!”

The recipe calls for eggs, cheese, herbs, a little flour, and two cups of grated zucchini. It was easy to substitute yellow squash for zucchini when necessary, and cornmeal or rice flour for the wheat flour.

But one winter, I ran out of grated zucchini and grated yellow squash. I found another recipe, for a cauliflower pizza crust. Now, I love cauliflower, but let me say that a cauliflower pizza crust is nothing like a regular pizza crust, in my thinking. It really tastes like cauliflower, and cauliflower is not a subtle vegetable. Plus I had to eat it with a fork. “This is not a pizza!” I proclaimed. “This is a casserole!”

“It's a pretty good casserole, though,” said my nice fellow, trying a bite, between slices of his delicious homemade wheat crust regular pick-up-able pizza.

“Huh,” I said. “I'm going to try something else. I have a lot of beets. I'm going to make a beet crust. I love beets!”

And yes, I do love beets, but a beet crust pizza is almost unbelievably sweet. “This is not a pizza!” I said. “This is too sweet! Even if I can pick it up in a slice, and not by the forkful!”

But I did have plenty of carrots in the root cellar that year too. Carrots made a pretty good pizza crust. Carrots and beets mixed together made a pretty good pizza crust. And then last year, when the carrots and beets were all gone, I was reduced to the rutabaga. I hasten to add that I love rutabagas.

My fellow raised his eyebrows. “Rutabaga pizza?”

My dear daughter, who does not love rutabagas, politely turned her head away at the idea.

Undaunted, I fetched my rutabagas. I washed them, trimmed them, grated them, mixed them up with eggs, cheese, herbs, and cornmeal. I baked my rutabaga crust, topped it with tomato sauce, more cheese, onions, peppers. Then I waited.

Ding! Ding ! Ding! went the timer. At last! My rutabaga pizza! The most delicious vegetable pizza crust in the world! Slightly sweet, like a rutabaga, but not too strongly flavored, and it holds together nicely. I even let my fellow and my daughter try a bite. “That's pretty good,” they said, surprised.

“Yum,” I answered.

Now, when my fellow suggests pizza for supper every night, I agree, at least about once a week. The Great Vegetable Pizza Adventure continues: this year, stored in my root cellar, I have lots of daikon radishes, which surprised us very late in the season by their vigorous growth in the greenhouse.

Mmm. Doesn't that sound yummy? Daikon Radish Pizza!

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Jan 18 - Jan 24, 2017