New prep shed – design

For our first two years of small-scale market sales, we could get away with washing and packing produce in the kitchen. We’d clean it well, clear the counters, and bring everything in. This was not ideal at all, but we had little choice. Our long-term plan was to clean out our larger barn, pour a concrete slab, run water and power, and convert that to a large packing facility with walk-in coolers. That’s still the long-term plan, but this winter we decided we needed a usable washing & packing facility in the meantime. Enter our latest construction project, the prep shed:

We needed something near the market garden and the field road, through which all produce could pass to be washed, sorted, prepared, and packed, with enough space for temporary storage. When all harvesting was done (or as needed) we could then transport items to our coolers in the house. The other main purpose of this structure was storage; right now most of our tools, supplies, hoses, and so on have to live in the house, which is a pain and means we’re constantly running up and down the hill when we need something. So we needed a structure that had useful all-weather storage as well.

Above you see the rough floor plan for the shed. The southern (bottom) half is used for washing, sorting, and packing produce. Items come in either from the market garden (to right) or via vehicle from the field (to left). They are handled along the 16′ counters along the south/bottom wall, which include multiple sinks. Once produce is clean and sorted, it is packed into appropriate containers and stored on the shelving in the NW (upper left) quadrant of the shed until it can be transported en masse to coolers in the house or stored in the truck for market delivery. The NE quadrant is reserved for tool/wheelbarrow/equipment storage, and also opens into the market garden for easy access. The partial second floor of the shed can be used for storing bulky items like irrigation hose.

The design incorporates as much natural light as possible, using clear roofing panels integrated into an otherwise metal roof to shed light on the washing space, and a set of windows along the ridgeline to allow light into the back of the shed. Several large doors also allow light in. This is important as I don’t intend to run power to this. Water will come from our nearby hydrant. The shed will tie into our garden fence so that we can move within the shed and garden without opening gates; loading/unloading from vehicles happens at the western door to the washing area.

That’s the design; in the next few posts I’ll cover the construction, which is ongoing.

Market Plans, May 2

We expect this week’s market to be about the same as last week. Lots of radish bundles, more spring lettuce mix, green onions, garlic chives, mint, catnip, lemon balm, and so on. I was surprised last week at the interest in fresh catnip, so we’ll bring some more of that. If we get to it, I might go out and harvest some wild onions as well; these are booming in the woods right now and have a really nice flavor. Though I have to mark them as non-organic since the woods aren’t certified…

Goose eggs are definitely done for the year. One goose has starting sitting on her nest and defending it, and the other is tailing off in her laying. We don’t know if the former will actually hatch anything, as sources tell us first-year ganders are often not “fully loaded” and the eggs may not be fertile. But we’re happy to let her try. A batch of goslings would mean more eggs next year and some nice meat geese this fall. Not to mention upping the cute quotient around here.

Those who’ve been to the market will notice that it’s been booming. The normal vendor slots were about full last week, and our customer counts are hitting levels seen in midsummer a few years ago. Many of us are a bit nervous about this summer and what a zoo it’s going to be. Hopefully it helps make the case that the market has really outgrown its current situation.

Popular items at Market, April

The most popular items so far at market have been our spring radish mixes and spring lettuce mix. I can’t bring enough of these; I have people who remembered the radishes from last spring coming up excited to see them back again, and I’ve had several repeat customers tell me the lettuce is some of the best they’ve ever had. Can’t argue with that feedback.

We’re really proud of the radish mixes. They’re a blend of six different heirloom radishes, all with different colors and flavors. We harvest them young, when they’re sweeter and tastier. Too many folks let radishes get really big, thinking size is better, but they get woody, tough, and strong then. Young and tender is far better, in our opinion. Also, selling as mixed bundles makes them more attractive and gives folks the option to try lots of varieties and get a really colorful salad or other dish. In the mixes are:

Cherry Belle (red)
Plum Purple (purple)
Helios (yellow)
Pink Beauty (pink)
White Hailstone (white)
Sparkler White Tip (red with a white tip)

Our lettuce is the result of plenty of work, as we grow it in open beds (no greenhouse) and mix 5-6 varieties of heirloom lettuces plus spinach. One of the keys to good lettuce, for us, is harvest method. We cut and pick the leaves directly into vats of cold water, which instantly chills the leaves and arrests any decay. Even leaving lettuce out in a basket for a few minutes on a warm day can start the wilting process, and take days or weeks off the shelf life. When you harvest directly into water, you keep it absolutely fresh with a better texture. We rinse it twice and keep it cold from the moment of harvest until market (though customers should still wash it before eating). This lettuce will last weeks in the fridge if you handle it properly and has a great texture. We intentionally chose our varieties to make an attractive mix of colors and textures:

Crisp Mint
Gold Rush
Rouge d’Hiver
Royal Oakleaf
Lollo di Vino
and more

You can see all of our planned produce varieties for the year on our website. Every few weeks I’ll keep highlighting different products as they come available.

Making good, quick bread at home

I received an email from a reader after posting about our quick bread-based meal, asking for the recipe. Our policy is to not reproduce recipes online that we get from cookbooks, feeling that the authors of good cookbooks have every right to expect that their intellectual property be respected by random bloggers not giving away their work for free. But I am more than happy to write about the process, and plug the book that taught us a great method.

The book is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, written by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. Normally titles like that make us run screaming, as there are lots of cheap cooking gimmicks out there that subvert the reality of cooking. This is not one of them. What the authors (a scientist and a professional chef/baker) have done is figure out a great dough recipe that can be stored and used as they describe below:
A one or two week supply of dough is made in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Measuring and mixing the dough takes less than 15 minutes. Kneading, as we’ve said, is not necessary. Every day, cut off a hunk of dough from the storage container and briefly shape it without kneading. Allow it to rest briefly on the counter and then toss it in the oven. We don’t count the rest time (20 minutes or more depending on the recipe) or baking time (usually about 30 minutes) in our five-minute-a-day calculation since you can be doing something else while that’s happening.

This method turns out nice, crusty bread with a good interior that we are very, very pleased with. It’s far better than bread machine results, which invariably seem to turn out squishy bread with no crust. It’s still not quite as good as truly traditionally made bread, but leaps ahead of other shortcuts. We really are finding that we can quickly throw together a loaf during breakfast or before any meal and have it ready when we need it; it’s become my standard lunch on Mondays when I head off for a day’s work at Goatsbeard Farm and need something quick to take along.

The method works equally well for loaves, flatbreads, naans, and more, but you need the right recipe. The book is definitely a worthwhile investment; everyone we’ve served the bread to has raved about it. It’s certainly allowed us to eat more, and better, bread than ever before, and I think the authors deserve the income for coming up with this method and recipe.
One note: we’ve adaped their recipe slightly to include up to 1/3 content of our locally milled Missouri wheat flour, which really adds flavor. We round out the flour content with King Arthur bread flour, which has a high gluten content to balance the low-gluten Missouri flour. This combination works very nicely.

Plastic bags at market

I thought this was interesting: the Berkeley (CA) Farmers Market is banning the use of plastic bags and packaging. According to the article, they’re not the only ones working toward that goal.

This is something we’ve long thought about; one of the most wasteful aspects of our farm is the big rolls of thin plastic bags we routinely give out to customers for their produce. It’s a difficult problem, because we KNOW 98% of those are going straight to the landfill and we’ll have to buy more, but they’re also an important way to protect the high-quality produce people are buying from us. I don’t want to lose a sale of, say, lettuce, because the customer didn’t bring something to put the loose leaves in. And often you really do need to separate items or protect them somehow.

I’d love to have more customers bring their own; they can be reused over and over. We already do this for our bulk purchases at local groceries; I can use the same plastic bag for rice, beans, or spices many times in a row before it gives out. I have had a few people do just that and have profusely thanked them for it. And I definitely see a trend of more and more folks only asking for bags when they really need them (like for loose-leaf lettuce). Many of our customers seem more than willing to combine multiple items in a single bag (whether plastic or cloth). The same is true for the paper cartons we use for cherry tomatoes, edamame, and the like. I’d love to see folks bringing Tupperware or other such things to market to carry bulk items home in.

While the Berkeley experiment is interesting, you won’t find me advocating for bans. I don’t think it’s a market’s role to legislate things like that. I’d rather customers and farmers make their own decision, influenced by economics and ethics. We’ve considered putting a nickel surcharge on our bags, but haven’t so far due to the hassle of it (we work in quarter increments currently). So far I feel like the core customer base of a farmers market is thinking about such things already; the Berkeley situation seems like a classic case of over-legislation to me. Thoughts?

Market plans, April 25

Last week’s bundles of heirloom radishes were a big hit, and we’ll have more this week. Also available will be spring lettuce mix, garlic & regular chives, herbs (mint & lemon balm), and more.
We may be done with goose eggs for the year, as the geese haven’t laid many this week. We’ve gotten about 30 off each layer so far, and Toulouse are reported to lay around 35-50 annually (geese only lay in spring, not year-round like chickens). For 1st-year birds, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re about done; their peak production is supposed to be years 2-5.
We’ve finished the overwintered bunching onions we’ve sold the last few weeks, and I’m not sure if the next round of onions is ready. We’ll make a decision Friday as to whether/what to harvest on the onion front.
We have many more beds of radishes, onions, lettuce, beets, and more coming on, so within a few weeks the stand will really begin to grow. I suspect this week’s stand will be a bit smaller, though, while the next round of plantings catches up after the past cool weather held them a bit dormant.

The kids arrive

Garlic finally kidded this evening, after leading us on since Sunday with a series of false alarms and indications that she was ready without actually taking the plunge. As it turned out, she gave us almost no warning. We’d been down nearby all day, working on rebuilding the southern half of the paddock fencing, and when we went in to make dinner around 6 she was showing no particular signs of anything changing. A little while later, Joanna was outside working in the herbs when she heard Garlic hollering, and we both charged down just in time to see kid #1 appear. #2 arrived just a few minutes later.

This is #1, who arrived kicking and ready to go. He was energetic from the first minute.

#2 took a little longer to deliver, and showed up pretty exhausted. He just lay around for a while, but is now catching up to his brother. They’ve both started nursing and trying to stand up, and I think by tomorrow they’ll be on their feet.
Their father is a Boer buck from Goatsbeard Farm, and they very much carry the Boer genetics (the brown head, white body, and head shape are very Boer). We were mildly hoping for a doe in the mix, whom we would have kept for breeding future meat animals, but these fellows will do just fine. Both seem quite healthy so far, and Garlic has accepted both. So all seems to be well.
Now we just have an incredible time sink on our hands during a very busy part of the year. How can we not just go watch these little guys play instead of getting work done?

Chert Hollow Fast Food

Evenings come when we’ve been busy, and tired, and just don’t have it in us to cook much. Yet our own food ethics mean there aren’t many packaged foods or other purchased shortcuts to bail us out. That’s when having a well-stocked kitchen, and lots of our own produce/meat/food put up, can really make a difference. Even in April, at the end of our winter supplies and before a lot of new produce is available, we can whip together a really nice meal in a very short time (in this case, less than half an hour).

Part one was simply to thaw out a quart of tomato/basil/garlic sauce we’d made many batches of last summer, and which freezes nicely. This, over basic pasta with shredded Goatsbeard cheese on top, makes a wonderfully tasty meal in minutes. We invest the time during the growing season so we don’t have to buy such foods later on.

Part two were a couple very easy flatbreads. Joanna has been using a special bread dough recipe lately that can be mixed ahead of time and stored in larger quantities in the fridge. Any time we want bread, she can just pull a chunk off and do a quick bake of almost anything. In this case, she rolled out a few handfuls into flatbreads, threw some basic ingredients on top, and baked at high temperature for a few minutes each. In the time it took to boil the pasta and heat the sauce, we had a second course of delicious flatbreads:

Above, flatbread topped with some pasta sauce, shredded Goatsbeard cheese, and fresh chives from the garden.

Above, an even more elemental flatbread with olive oil, chopped chives, and Goatsbeard feta. This minimalist treatment really let the cheese, oil, and chives stand out.
So in about twenty minutes from thought process to fork, we had this excellent meal for basically the cost of putting some work in ahead of time to be ready, and some good cheese. Things like putting up pasta sauce, keeping dough starter on hand, and growing fresh ingredients are work, but they pay off when they save you the money of the manufactured version, the time of doing all that before dinner, and the incomparable quality of even a fast meal made from scratch.

Thoughts on raw milk, Part II

This two-part post on raw milk (Part I here) was prompted by a recent article on The Ethicurean, discussing an upcoming raw milk symposium and requesting users to take part in a Raw Milk User Survey. I posted a long comment which brought together many of my thoughts on the raw milk issue, about which I’ve been planning to write for some time. An adapted version of the comment appears below, and addresses one of my core complaints about the entire raw food debate.

We keep dairy goats for ourselves, and I also work part-time at a nearby goat dairy. We do not drink the milk raw, though I believe it is clean. We use it mostly to make yogurt and various cheeses, which we like better than straight milk in any form. Many other consumers who might not drink raw milk can use it to make completely safe yogurt or dairy products, and I suspect many people who do drink raw milk also make dairy products.

It drives me absolutely crazy that nowhere in the discussions/arguments about raw milk does anyone seem to realize or care that drinking it is only one way to use raw milk. Even if you think it’s dangerous, making most cheeses and yogurts raises the milk past the safe pasteuerization temperature, rendering it safe. Heck, ban drinking raw milk if you want, but allow the sale of the product for use in the kitchen.

To me, selling raw milk is no different than selling raw meat. It’s potentially dangerous if produced or handled improperly, but perfectly safe if (a) from a clean source and/or (b) is prepared in normal ways. Just look at the meat lobby’s insistence on safe cooking methods as a solution to contamination. I think eating rare steak is crazy, but we’re not forbidden from doing that (even in restaurants), and sales of raw meat are happily labelled with all sorts of government warnings about cooking the meat fully to temperature. Apparently the government is comfortable selling dangerous raw meat to consumers with a warning label and letting them take their own chances, why not milk? What’s so inherently terrible about letting me buy raw milk to make into yogurt or cheese, which is as safe as cooking the meat thoroughly?

Moreover, given that USDA regs allow the butchering and sale of poultry on-farm with no inspections, it is apparently safe for consumers to buy raw chicken from an unlicensed farm to take home and cook/eat as they see fit, but it’s terribly dangerous to milk an animal and take THAT product home and drink/prepare it as they see fit. The production, handling, storage, and transport needs of raw chicken are no more or less than for raw milk, so what’s the problem?

Raw milk is an ingredient just like meat, and our policies should account for customers’ abilities to make rational choices about the preparation of that ingredient as they are allowed to do for meat and almost any other ingredient. Allowing small farms to sell raw milk direct to willing customers does not in any way create a food safety hazard beyond the customer’s home. I’d love to see some stats on the per capita illness rate among raw milk users as compared to, say, potato salad or deviled egg eaters at summer picnics. How much of the total food-related illnesses in the US come from the product itself versus the method of preperation?

Food safety regulations rightly exist when the customer is too far removed from the production of the food to accurately judge its quality; they exist to fill a gap. Food safety regulations are wrongly implemented when they seek to stand between a willing customer and producer, filling a gap which didn’t exist. Thus sales of raw milk, or any other agricultural product, ought to be beyond the purview of food safety regulations if the sale is conducted between knowledgable and consenting adults; we currently have more freedom to sign a contract with a skydiving agency than with a local dairy. And people wonder why farms are vanishing and the food system is broken…

Thoughts on raw milk, Part I

Raw milk is one of the touchiest flashpoints of food. Battles are fought all over the country between governments and food safety types who are absolutely convinced it’s a menace to humanity and should be banned with the same force as cocaine, while equally fervent defenders swear it’s all but the fountain of youth. Personally, I don’t see it as anything particularly special, except as a symbol of the disfunctional nature of our food system and culture.

On our farm, we rarely drink raw milk, despite keeping our own dairy goats. Partly this is because we prefer the tastes and uses of yogurt and cheese, which we make from our own milk. Partly this is because we do see the point of food safety concerns with raw milk, and don’t have a problem with home-pasteurizing any milk we do drink (all you have to do is heat it to 165F for a short period). But I don’t think raw milk is inherently dangerous; I think it’s like any other raw food in that its safety comes from its methods of production, handling, and preparation.

There is now a certified Grade A raw milk dairy in Missouri, Greenwood Farms, whose mere legel existence ought to prove that raw milk is not inherently dangerous. After all, the Missouri government seems hell-bent on claiming raw milk is illegal, despite clear wording in the Missouri statues stating otherwise: “an individual may purchase and have delivered to him for his own use raw milk or cream from a farm.” (MRS 196.935) But yet this raw milk dairy managed to get certified to the same standards as any other dairy. Good for them. As is true for virtually any food, the danger is not the food itself but the way it’s handled and prepared.

The best summary of the raw milk situation in Missouri (and the challenges facing small dairies in general) that I’ve found yet comes in this well-written piece from the Columbia Missourian earlier this year. It shows both sides of the argument, from the health officials absolutely convinced that raw milk is dangerous to the small farmers who find it a rational and manageable way to make an income on a small herd. It also clearly demonstrates the dangers well-meaning governments can pose to small farms, as when the State tried to shut down a series of small farms selling raw milk under the above-linked law in the name of consumer safety, only to back off and apologize when challenged with their own statutes.

In Part II of this long post, I’ll explain why, regardless of your opinion of raw milk, attempting to ban it in the name of consumer safety is both hypocritical and pointless.