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.

Market Plans, April 18 2009

We’ll be at market again this Saturday with another small selection of early spring items. New this week will be the first harvest of radishes, 5-6 varieties of young, tender heirlooms that are wonderfully sweet and tasty. Like a lot of produce, we find that radishes taste even better when they’re harvested young, before they’ve had a chance to mature and go woody. Don’t be fooled by the small size. We’ll probably also bring some young heads of baby lettuce, several varieties of color and texture. Still debating whether to sell these as miniature heads or just mix everything as a salad mix. Goose eggs, chives, garlic chives, and green onions will appear again.

In related comments, we had to be in Columbia today, so swung by Hy-Vee to do check on comparitive prices for produce. We have no real idea what produce costs these days, having not bought vegetables in any meaningful sense in years. We were stunned to see ratty, old-looking herbs (like chives and mint) in plastic containers being sold for almost $3/4oz; not even organic! Good grief, I’ve been given strange looks for charging $1.50 for our large bundles of 12-hour-old chives, and $1 for small bundles of fresh mint. Same for lettuce; mixed bagged organic lettuce was going for the equivalent of $16/lb, whereas I was getting gasps for daring to charge $8/lb for greens last year. The effects of the California water crisis must be taking hold…

Meal of the Week: Filipino barbeque

This was a Filipino dish I hadn’t made before, sourced from a cookbook given to me by my mother to expand my horizons past traditional family recipes. It turned out wonderfully, and the basic idea would work for almost any kind of meat or vegetable.

The sauce was made from garlic, green onions, vinegar, honey, soy sauce, mustard, hot pepper, and five-spice powder. This being our kitchen, the garlic, onions, and peppers were ours. The mustard was our home-scratch-made version, which I try to keep a small jar of at all times. The five-spice was a custom fresh-ground blend of fennel, anise, black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. The honey was local, and everything else was of decent provenance. All was mixed together and poured over…

The meat, which was a quantity of our farm-butchered goat rib strips. Now, these aren’t quite the meaty, fat-dripping pork ribs most folks are familiar with, but they’re what we have. We strip them from the bone fresh and freeze them as packets of strips, to be thawed and marinated for such dishes as this. After several days tenderizing and absorbing the flavor of the marinade, they were ready for…

The grilling, which was a quite basic hot charcoal fire with the strips turned once and basted thoroughly with marinade. Finished, they were not quite the mouth-melting tenderness of pork but had absorbed the marinade wonderfully and were good, mildly chewy strips of spicy Asian barbequed goodness. Goat has its own flavor which I think goes really well with Filipino cooking, whose liberal use of vinegar helps soften the meat and imbue it with flavor. Plus, it’s plenty authentic. We finished with…

The salad

which was an utterly simple mix of fresh spinach and various lettuces topped with sliced fresh radishes, all gathered from the garden a few minutes before dinner. The dressing to the left is a home invention of rice vinegar, soy sauce, chopped fresh scallion, minced elephant garlic, grated ginger, sesame oil, and olive oil. It turned out very well and complemented the ribs nicely.
A good, reasonably quick (other than the grill) spring dinner sourced reasonably from the farm.

Where and how will we grow new farmers?

We are about to reach a point in the local foods business where demand vastly outstrips supply. I have it from a trusted source that several large institutions in mid-Missouri are seeking to source “as much as they can” from our farmers. I just got an email from another local restaurant asking for my product list and prices. It’s coming.

The problem is, as many have noted, small direct-market farms don’t have the capacity yet. Farming is not manufacturing, despite the slogan “industrial food”. It’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t react to quick market forces very well. We can’t just up and order more widgets from our supplier when the demand for widgets jumps. New farmers can’t just up and rent a storefront and get started. Also, many of us got into farming for the direct-market segment; we like our retail prices, our integrated operations, and our customer interaction. We’re not necessarily set up for larger-scale wholesale farming, even to local sources.

The recent USDA census noted that while small farms were booming, mid-sized farms were vanishing, and it’s those who have the best potential to really serve an intense regional demand. Either that (and that) we need a whole lot more farmers who know how to raise vegetables, fruits, meats…you know, FOOD. Where are we going to get them, and how are we going to make that possible?

Enter a neat article on Severine von Tscharner Fleming, director of a new documentary about young farmers, The Greenhorns. In true blogger fashion, I’m just going to throw these links out there, because I have to get outside and farm. However, I really enjoyed this quote:

She speaks in sweeping, lyrical terms, but her visions of the future of American farming are firmly based in reality. “We would like to live in a world where it is possible to go to school and then do a series of apprenticeships and on-the-job trainings and eventually become an owner-operator of your own farm,” she says.

Consider that our governments, and our major land-grant universities, are so busy propping up commodity agriculture and so reliant on agribusiness funding that they’ve almost completely missed this coming. Are there any major universities with meaningful programs in direct-market ag and vegetable growing? Many universities don’t even offer basic instruction in how to start a business and manage tax implications, much less classes aimed at the unique challenges market farmers face. Joanna amusedly noted this year that the IRS’s farm expense deduction list doesn’t even include a place for “advertising/marketing”. What does that tell you about the assumptions of government?

The boom in local foods makes me afraid sometimes. We’re not going to be able to meet it all at once, and I’m afraid its long-term value may become obscured by justifiable annoyance on the parts of the chefs and institutions who are just now jumping on the bandwagon, only to find it wasn’t ready for their weight. I hope the grassroots can rise to the task, because that’s our best hope to meet this.

Updated planting plans

As part of organic certification, we had to submit a list of every variety we planned to grow, along with its seed source and maps of where it would be grown. This was something we already did, as we liked having lists and maps on our website to show customers where and how things were being done.

This year, our site has been somewhat neglected. I finally got around to updating our Growing Information page with this year’s information, which some readers and customers might find interesting. Under Planting Plans, you can see maps of our market garden and field with their intended crops for this year (click on the smaller images to load large ones). Under Produce Varieties, you can scan a list of every item we’ll be growing this year. Not all of these are for sale, some are for our consumption and some are just tests for possible use in future. But they’re all being grown, contributing to the diversity of the farm. Last year I provided links from each variety to the seed source’s online listing, but I don’t have time to do that for 199 varieties this year.

Hope features like this are of interest.

Preparing the field – fencing

Getting some real fencing around the vegetable field is a significant priority. We’ve grown corn, beans, squash, and more out here over the past few years, and deer are a significant problem (as are raccoons). Fencing is a must, so we’ve been working on that lately. The goal is a solid welded-wire fence that will stop all small critters, tall enough to stop most deer, with several electrified wires to stop raccoons and goats.

First, we surveyed the fence lines we wanted to establish, laying out straight lines that would require a minimum of bracing and angles. Gate locations were an important consideration for future workflow of vehicles and people. When this was set, we used our potato plow to trench the fencelines so we could bury the bottom to deter digging.

We’re using a combination of farm-cut cedar posts and metal T-posts to support the fence. The former are a natural byproduct of our orchard-clearing, while the latter we scrounge and source from auctions, Craigslist, and so on (the welded-wire fencing came used from Craigslist as well). To set the cedar posts, we drill holes with a tractor-mounted auger before setting the posts, and brace corners with our farm-milled cedar lumber. Below, you see a future gate entrance to the field.

When all posts are set, we unroll and start attaching the welded wire. The ground is uneven enough to keep the fencing a bit wavy, and I expect the fence posts to settle and tilt a bit, but they ought to stay up and do their job. A little bracing here and there on poor performers will do the trick. Below you see the southern fenceline, for which we had to clear a stand of trees that was encroaching on to our good farm land. When all the main fencing is in place, I’ll go back through and string hot (electrified) wire at several heights along offset insulators to discourage coons from climbing and deer/goats from rubbing. We’ll be building solid cedar-plank gates for the main entrances, which is a good rainy-day project.

Hopefully this system works reasonably well, and we can keep the critters to a manageable level. There will certainly be a lot of tasty stuff behind this fence, so we’ll see how it works. I don’t expect it to be as straight, pretty, or perfect as a professional job, but doing it ourselves saves so much investment that it’s worth it. We’d just rather do things ourselves whenever we can.