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Springtime Chores

I sit, watching the sky darken, and contemplate the task of mucking out our sow’s stall. I need to dispose of the straw she’s kept so warm for her litter this winter, the lice have not died off despite bone-chilling weather.

I’ve finished my basic daily chores. I revisit the list in my head.photo 2(1)

Quail, fed, watered, eggs collected. 

Rabbit’s hutch cleaned. Now the doe h  as some space to run from her growing 4-week old litter. 

Fed, watered and collected eggs from the chickens.

Fed watered and collected eggs from the geese.

Inside the house, the eggs get piled up in a basket; quail eggs and chicken eggs separately. Goose eggs go to the garage for incubating, although today I pack a half-dozen to send to a friend in Louisiana to hatch under one of his broody Cotton Patch geese.

Just as I close the package for shipping, I hear a commotion from the geese. I glance out the window expecting them to be in the pond mating. I can barely see the tops of their heads pointed down and straight out chasing and yelling at something.

Slipping back into my boots I run down the hill to chase away whatever predator might be there only to discover one of my ganders tearing into a hen. He simply hates the chickens and during nesting season his fervent hatred of them only grows. I gather the hen, take her to the barn and make a nest for her near the quiet rabbits and quail so she can rest and recover.

And then the rain comes. I don’t feel like mucking a pig’s pen in the rain. I decide to procrastinate and do the office work piling up on my desk instead.

A normal day on the farm.

When we moved to Blue photo 4Ridge full-time six years ago, my husband Danny and I believed there would be a wealth of farmers ready to quench the unending thirst of our restaurant for fresh product. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. So I began to look more fervently for some space to plant heirloom produce and specialty herbs. We happened upon a small 1.5-acre parcel in town and turned into a sustainable homestead project to illustrate what anyone can do in their own backyard. It’s a great testament to the fact you don’t need 40 acres, or even 10, to have a homestead. Even a small acreage such as 2 or 4 acres can provide for a family.

The Cook’s Farm, as we aptly named it, is a good example of what you might call an urban (or suburban farm). It’s a small footprint, but produces enough product on its ½ acre garden to supply specialty items to the restaurant, feed kids during our 2-weeks of Farm-to-Fork camps in the summer, and have some extra to spare. Our chickens keep the classes, family, and CSA customers in farm fresh eggs.

My idea of homesteading is committing to self-sufficiency on whatever level you are comfortable. For us it encompasses growing and preserving food, specifically growing and saving heirloom seeds. I focus on raising animals on the American Livestock Conservancy List – breeding for meat while preserving the longevity of the breed.

Ultimately we’d like to provide our own electricity with solar or wind. I will probably never make my own fabric or clothing, but some homesteaders take the self-sufficient moniker to that end as well. Ours is a more measured approach – one that fits within our lifestyle and abilities – which I believe is one of the most critical parts of homesteading. Diving in without testing the waters is a recipe for disaster.

Chickens are a great place to test your skill set and desire. It’s where I began, researching how to build a coop; chicken attributes (layers versus meat chickens); and how to care for chickens. I was immediately hooked. Be sure to find out your local laws to make sure it’s legal, and then determine whether you have the patience for baby chicks or want to start off with pullets or hens. Honeybees are another great project for a small farm. Other than the investment in equipment and seasonal tasks, they are very self-sufficient.

The change came for larger scale production after we were gifted with a Duroc pig for the holidays in 2013. As little Noel grew into a 200-pound gilt, we knew it was time to find a bigger space. And we definitely needed to find one outside the city limits (it’s never a good thing to get a call from the neighbors to let you know your pig is heading down to Main Street).

Now we have a 28-acre parcel, slowly making the transition from the space downtown. Here, we make our own cheese, can our produce, gather our own honey, save our own seeds, and preserve our own meats. I have learned how to give an injection; hatch out chicken, duck and goose eggs; I know how to break ground and plow; how to make a cold frame; how to install an electric fence; and how to deliver and nurse piglets. We make our own sausage and hams, gather our eggs, and grow our own produce and herbs. Of course all the best product goes to the restaurants first, and the remainder is used at home.

There are plenty of things on my ‘learn to-do list’ that I will need to know with the new farm. The first on my list is to train a guard dog for our poultry and geese. We lost two of our Cotton Patch Geese the first month – a blow to my spring breeding program with the American Livestock Conservancy rare breed.

I don’t really have the desire to learn how to butcher small livestock like rabbits or chickens, but luckily that side of the equation is addressed by Danny or I can trade services with friends. One thing that homesteading has taught me is how to swap, barter and network with like-minded individuals. It’s always great to meet someone with a boar to mate with your sow; or someone who want to raise the same rabbits so we can track and trade breeding stock.

I would like to learn the differences between trees and the unique properties of various types of wood, something my husband can readily do. We’d both like to learn how to witch for water with a forked branch or a bent metal hanger (not really at the top of the list but a cool skill nonetheless). I’d also really like to learn how to reaphoto 1(1)d an almanac and to milk a goat.

I really need to learn how to set an ear tag or tattoo for animal identification. I have the tools just not the heart for it yet.

One skill homesteading has truly given me is the mental and spiritual skills to realistically deal with life, death and failure. That’s something no career or relationship has ever taught me so completely.

Items I treasure (aside from my family and animals)? I have to say, my very own tool set – including my own drill (which was my favorite Christmas gift this year).

Now, I really need to learn how to properly use the rest of the tools in our basement.

Well, that can wait until the rain passes.

Farm Girl Learning Curve

Farming is a new aspect of my life. Our passion for food and ingredients has always brought us to the doorstep of farmers and markets around the world. From the hawker food stalls in Singapore and Taiwanese night markets to Seattle’s Pike Place, Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria, Tel Aviv’s Food Stalls, and the open-air markets of Athens, we’ve searched out and eaten our way through some of the best markets in the world.

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Basque, Spain

We plan our excursions and vacations around food. And when we haven’t mapped out these edible details in advance, as soon as we land in a place we interview locals about not only where they eat, but where they shop. How does their food arrive to their town or city? Are there farms nearby? Fish markets? Fabulous butchers or bakers?

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Pike’s Place Market..

And whether we were searching out great cheese in Israel or Washington State, we were always happier when we could visit the cheese maker; see the cows and the goats and the people behind the final product.

So when we found ourselves settling down in Blue Ridge, planting personal and business roots, we discovered the fine food craftsmen we yearned for were just outside our reach. Our restaurant space came with an ample space for an herb garden, so I began there planting between traveling and writing for my old Executive Editor post and helping to get the restaurant up and running.

I immediately wanted more space. So when a small one-acre property came available in town we expanded to plan a garden and cooking school. My altruistic plans to build a community center to teach less fortunate people how to become self-sufficient off the land, quickly proved itself to be a full-time job and one I could simply not do alone. Working the tiny parcel itself was more than I imagined. Weeds don’t sleep. And the chickens we inherited on the site needed more space and attention than I thought in that first year. And so the building, although renovated, never took precedence over the garden and animals and our other projects in town.

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The girls – Kudzu, Freckles and Amelia – came to us from Flip Flop Ranch in California. Descendants from the original Tom Walker Cotton Patch restoration project.

And still things grew. And I added heritage Cotton Patch Geese. And we built our first Farm to Table camp for kids (who are much more forgiving about incomplete kitchen spaces and imperfect facilities) who taught me that digging for potatoes can be an aerobic exercise and watching chickens play tomato football never grows tiring.

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Our first hive was courtesy of Linda Clement, but we lost it along with many folks in North Georgia last year. This year we’ve begun anew with four hives. We’ve already expanded one in less than a month’s time. They are hard at work!

This year we are on our third growing season at what we fondly named The Cook’s Farm. My geese are hatching goslings. My chickens are fervently trying to hatch chicks arguing with me each time I gather eggs. And I am learning, finally, the definition of patience and perseverance.

I may have had perseverance in the past, but never patience.

The garden itself is a lesson in time management and science. There is proper rotation. The elements of compost and getting the right mix of nutrients into the soil. We do everything by hand – adding organic nutrients to the soil and gathering seeds at the close of each growing season.

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Pappa Prince and gosling Alli.

Add to that this new part of my world – animal husbandry – and you have more science lessons – biology and medicine. Subjects foreign to a woman who has made her living the past 20 years through the written word.

This spring season of birth and growth has been particularly trying and joyous for me. I have learned how the seemingly incredibly simple process of hatching an egg is such an intricately difficult process of nature. It boggles my mind how the egg develops, the hatchling flips and pecks and rolls inside to make its fight out of the safe shell where its life began.

This season I learned the hard way the delicate balance that’s needed for successful hatching. The first time I incubated eggs two years ago was when we purchased the little house downtown. A roaming chicken found her way under the construction dumpster and started her own nest. About a week before the eggs were to hatch, we came to work to find signs of a ruckus and a pile of feathers. The Mother Hen was gone. And so I rushed out and bought an incubator and took the eggs home. Twelve of the thirteen eggs hatched on Easter morning.

It seemed so simple to me. Until my geese began laying this year. The process is so different from chickens, eggs laid every other day and no one sitting on them to keep them warm – you have to pull the eggs and keep them cool until you gather enough to incubate. Of the twelve I brought home, one hatched perfectly. I helped one gosling from the egg after another had pipped, but died in its shell. After that loss, I read that sometimes it’s okay to lend a hand and decided to take action with the third.

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One lesson learned. Monitoring the gradual growth in the air pocket within the egg helps guide you in the hatch. Dipping the eggs in water, not just misting them, also helps provide better success.

Then I waited for the others. But unlike chickens, geese have to be hatched at really high humidities. It turns out much higher than even the incubator recommended. It was heartbreaking. And more heartbreaking.

So I left the other eggs to the Mommas, they hatched one perfectly just after my hatch at home. But their new gosling had a bent foot – either at birth or broken from the less than coordinated movements of three Mother Geese nudging her about. Then came more waiting, I checked their nest daily and pulled the infertile eggs. I was about to give up when finally one was ready to hatch. When I checked back the next day, the egg was crushed and the little goose struggled to survive. I brought her home, but it was too late.

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Baby Chicks! Three have a new home coming to them with kids from our Farm-to-Table Camp last year…here they Sullivan tribe! Grant are you ready?

So off I went and gathered the remaining eggs bringing them home to try to finish the incubation artificially. The incubation period for geese, as it turns out, can go well beyond the 30 day average. As I type, there is still another hatching in the incubator. I had expected a complete clutch at the end of March. Now, nearly to May we have seven goslings (one with a foot still to mend somehow); a loss of six eggs that I may have given up on prematurely; and five tiny chicks. The little guy who I helped from the egg never developed quite right and we had to “cull” it. I spent days trying to do it, when finally Danny did the deed after finding me teary-eyed on the porch holding the gosling and trying to get the nerve up to be a responsible “farmer” and cull him myself.

I am pausing today to give thanks for the lessons. For the failures and the successes.

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Gosling Angel still drying in the incubator.

 

 

Perhaps someday. I am not quite there yet, but after selling this clutch of geese – watching them leave…perhaps I will get used to the ebb and flow of life and farm preparing myself for the coming of rabbits and hopefully a bigger parcel of land in the future.

Giving Thanks & Baking Our Daily Bread

So it’s been a year now since I quit my full-time writing gig. I don’t know what I thought when I quit. That I was going to write the Great American novel in twelve months? Great books have been written in less time. Great books have been written in more time. And horrible books have been written in both. I am more of the mind that any book written is better than none. And there is a reader for everyone. Even if it’s just your mom.

But I digress. I didn’t quit my job to write my elusive novel. But I did quit to focus more on my work at home in Blue Ridge and figure out what I want to do next. So what have I been doing for a year?

Honestly, I have been thinking I should be writing and dreading sitting down to begin. So this is it. No more promises of tomorrow, but a concerted effort to do some daily writing – which should result in at least a weekly post or two.

And, just so you don’t think me horribly lazy. I did start our first Farm-to-Table Camp last year and we’ve scheduled two more camps this year. We also have an intern arriving next month to help grow the farm and its cooking and garden class focus. We are also a couple of weeks away from opening our new Bakery-Market-Café called Blue Ridge Grocery.

The Grocery is a combined dream. One of our favorite places to stroll around is the gastronomic temple that is Barcelona’s Boqueria – Mercat de la Boqueria – the controlled chaos of the fish and cheese mongers, stall after stall of fresh produce forming a rainbow of beauty alongside whole animal carcasses awaiting the skilled hands of the butcher to fabricate the perfect cut to take home and prepare the daily meal. It is a place that begs for daily shopping, daily cooking – celebrations of where our food comes from – a place to not only taste, but to see and touch and honor.

ImageThat’s the kind of place we’ve always wanted to open and revel in the bounty the earth provides to sustain us ­– a humble homage to the farmers who grow and graze our meals; a home for the artists who craft their works in cheese and meat and bread. And so we’ve built our own tiny translation, staffed it with a fabulous baker and a crazy pal who loves coffee as much as we do (these are actually two different but oddly similar women), and they’ll be serving up breakfast, lunch and snacks.

It’s been said we’ve been vague on our response as to what exactly is going in to the grand space we’ve leased – the old Cigar Shop next door to Harvest on Main – it’s not deliberate ambiguity. The Grocery is a work in progress. It will open with breakfast items, freshly made sandwiches waiting patiently to be chosen and pressed for service, alongside fresh salads (some traditional, some not-so). We’re kicking off with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program bringing a diverse selection of fresh, Appalachian-grown product to town for weekly pick up; fresh flowers from a local farmer; fresh from-scratch bread and pastry baked daily; locally roasted coffee; and our own house cured meats and pickles. And there is room for so much more – we’ve packed a lot into a tiny space. But there is so much more to reveal we just can’t contain ourselves.

Anyway…so that is what’s been goin’ on.

Cheers!

 

The Science of Learning

I was drenched in physics today. And chemistry. And a bit of mathematics. All subjects that normally make my head spin, but today it was delicious learning.

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The Zingerman’s culture teaches its staff and its customers the value of empowering and motivating people.

No, I was not reliving the drudgery I experienced with college science classes, instead I baked my way through the physics of bread, learning where to place cuts so the steam can escape. I learned the art of combining the perfect weights of ingredients so the result is a silken ball of dough gliding through my hands ready for fermenting, rising, cutting and the ultimate braid that defines Challah.

Donning the gloves of both baker and chemist, I bathed twisted dough in a solution of lye and water to create one of the best pretzels I have ever tasted.

Today was my first day of Bake!-cation at Zingerman’s Bakehouse. An Ann Arbor icon, the Zingerman’s family of businesses are a model of the entrepreneurial spirit that built this country. I have known co-founder Ari Weinzweig, a handful of the managing partners of Zingerman’s businesses, and a collection of staffers for nearly two decades now.  I worked with ZingTrain managing partner Maggie Bayless editing columns she wrote for one of the magazines I ran for years in my former life as a trade magazine editor – a role I happily traded in this year to raise chickens, work side-by-side with my partner Chef Danny Mellman and relearn how to write what I truly want to write.

So when Danny and I found our search for a baker leading nowhere this year, and I heard myself utter the strange sentence, “I can learn how to bake bread.”  My first thought was to reach out to Ari and figure out how exactly I should learn. And two months later, here I am in Ann Arbor baking Challah and pita and pretzels and having poolish fun.

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So this is day one, of a two-day intensively-fun workshop. I would love to stay here a month and take all the programs Zingerman’s has to offer, from cheesemaking to seminars on how to truly make your training work for your business. They have so much to share here – and while I love to learn and have so much further to go – today I learned that the simple complexity of measuring, mixing, kneading and fermenting dough brings more joy to my day than I could have imagined.

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Providing food made with real ingredients is central to the mission of Harvest on Main. My Bake!-cation illuminated what this truly means to our business and how I can better define it to my staff and customers.

Learning something new is so much more than simply learning. It revitalizes your soul, renews your spirit, and makes you a better person. Even if the new skill you are acquiring is something you will never perfect, use professionally, or share with another person – the experience alone will lend itself to every facet of your life.

At least that’s what learning does for me. The lesson itself is the science that makes life worth living and reminds me what it means to be human – growing and learning reminds me to truly live and not just walk through life.

I will continue my baking lessons tomorrow, and as I lay my head down tonight I have already baked up some new ideas for our menus, classroom, and our own Harvest on Main staff training back home.

In the meantime, I am resting up for Day 2, eager to learn what Zen inspirations and business insights my sourdough starter will reveal.

 

Coop DeVille

We recently took a drive down to Madison, Georgia for a little R&R. Our pal Bo Chance said we should check out the town for some ideas we might want to introduce to Blue Ridge. What a charming place. And while I have some great ideas for some new online ventures to help local farmers and consumers connect, some of my best ideas came from 100-Acre Farm.

The Center of Madison features a fabulous Town Park, recently developed, which adds to the community charm.

The Farmhouse Inn at 100 Acre Farm.

Our quick two-night adventure brought us through Atlanta to southeast Georgia, a stone’s through from Athens. We found a great farm stay online – The Farmhouse Inn at 100 Acre Farm, packed up Josh and Danny and some snacks and hit the road.

The Inn itself includes five private guestrooms and a five bedroom farmhouse. Plus there are meeting rooms, a great outdoor terrace and beautifully landscaped garden area – perfectly coiffed with rustic charm. Danny and I took back some great garden ideas, along with 17 pounds of blueberries and enough Thai eggplant to feed the whole of Blue Ridge.

It’s a simple and pretty drive once you get past Atlanta with lots of farm country and tiny towns to give you some geographical lessons along the way.

Madison itself is a town preserved in history. We hadn’t done much research when we hit the road other than looking for farms that raise chickens, beef and checking out local cheesemakers. So when we started seeing the beautifully preserved architecture of Madison we were in heaven.

There are fine examples of Antebellum homes in Madison, all due to the fact that during the Civil War Joshua Hill, a Madison attorney, former U.S. Senator and staunch Unionist, travelled through Federal lines and met General Sherman at his headquarters. An agreement was reached and Union forces spared Madison.

Post Civil War architecture also abounds, during the 1880’s and 90’s many Victorian homes were built, enhancing the charm of a town already replete with fine ante-bellum structures. In 1895, the Madison Graded School was completed. The massive neo-Romanesque structure with its central bell tower was the South’s finest small town school building. These structures and more await in Madison.

But what I really wanted to talk to you about is the chicken coop at 100 Acre Farm.

Deluxe digs.

It gave me coop envy.

And if I showed my girls these pictures, they would surely work in flying or walking south.

Josh and Danny Mellman joined Ellis and Crystal Johnson outside the Red Barn at 100 Acre Farm.

Crystal & Ellis Johnson are the hosts at the Inn. Ellis designed the property and works it in his “retirement” with his wife Crystal who moved here from China. Their story is another tale altogether, but suffice to say Crystal’s love of chickens and turkeys and all things farm is a recently acquired

She’s a bit like I am, walking that fine line between pet and barnyard animal.

That might explain this coop.

It’s a renovated old barn that existed pretty much before anything else on the property. It’s equipped with self-waterers, a fabulous wall of nesting boxes, and rows upon rows of rustic ladder-styled roosts.

Add to that the fact the girls have the run of the farm in their coop area, sharing space with cows and turkeys and a couple of ornery goats.

I was guilt-ridden watching their joyful jaunts.

Unlike my space where the girls are under close watch to keep them out of the garden. (Crystal did confide the sometimes has a daring escapee who makes the 300 yard dash toward the vegetable garden, but for the most-part most of their bad scratching can be discovered just behind Crystal and Ellis’ cottage which is why she’s given up growing anything truly chicken-delightful in close proximity).

A birds’ eye view.

I watched for hours as the 300-plus birds – Barred Rocks, Reds and Araucanas, darted about, or strolled slowly, depending on their mood.

Anyway, there’s lots more to do at 100 Acre Farm than simply play with chickens and read a book, although I am not sure why you would want to do anything else but that. Josh did finally catch his first fish on a fly rod in one of the farm’s two fishing ponds (the Apalachee River makes for another fine fishing hole on the property). It was difficult to determine what Dad and son were more excited about when they returned after dusk that second day – Josh’s fishing accomplishment or seeing an actual beaver diving down into its lodge.

And of course Josh was pretty revved up about driving a golf cart about and chauffeuring his Dad for a change that was simply the blueberry preserve topping to a perfect southern day in Georgia.

If you have a really cool chicken coop to show off – share it with us at The Cook’s Farm on Facebook! I was inspired to make some renovations to ours, while we’re also building our Goose Patch and Rabbit Hutch areas…so stay tuned!

The boys after a great day of fly fishing!

The happy driver.

Product Recall: Twist ‘n Sparkle

One of the newly launched  items we’ve liked very much in the past few years was actually just recalled. The recall includes the Twist ‘n Sparkle Starter Set (models 1005, 1005-12, 1005-BJ, 1005-QVC) and the Twist ‘n Sparkle Bottle Set (models 1006-00 and 1006-12.)

While we have had no incidences, it seems the bottles are not up to par and some have burst during use. Chefs we know have actually adpated the product for other carbonated uses with sauces and more…but I digress here.

For the home user, it’s important to know this product has been recalled.

The recall, conducted in cooperation with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC,) was prompted by reports of nine recent incidents in which the Twist ‘n Sparkle plastic bottle, produced by an outside subcontractor, burst during normal use. In a few cases, there were minor injuries to the persons operating the product. Upon immediate investigation, iSi North America identified a potential safety hazard in the bottle design in the initial production run of the plastic bottles used to house the carbonation process of the Twist ‘n Sparkle device. The design of the bottle structure itself may compromise the integrity of the product. Although the design has been changed for subsequent runs, iSi North America considers public safety paramount and therefore is instituting the total recall.For more information regarding the recall, consumers should call (800) 645-3595 -available 24-hours a day, seven days a week – or visit www.twistnsparkle.com.

And for the purposes of soda-making we highly recommend the Soda Stream, a well-priced product with great results.

Launching soon…

We’re finally rolling on many of our programs here in Blue Ridge! We’re starting on product testing so  we’ll have lots of great ideas to equip your kitchen and homes – And some products you may want to skip. Plus great travel ideas and daily posts from The Cook’s Farm.

Here is our latest newsletter in case you want to sign up!

Smokin’ Hot

We’ve been testing out this really cool smoker for a week now. It’s amazing all the product you can create – not just ribs. In fact, we were nearly ready with our new Winter menus when Danny and I found ourselves staring into the mouth of the Ole Hickory Tri Convecture Smoker. Now, my clothes are nearly smokey edible all day long. After the first day of testing, I needed three days of salads and bright green vegetables to make my blood flow again. Now, I have learned moderation. Still, I could go for a smoked chicken salad sandwich…ah, time to head down to the kitchen.

Here’s a video clip of Danny performing the simple task of smoking chickens…definitely made simple with this bad boy…

A Fresh Start

We’ve worked on blogs before, but never focused on getting one done on a daily or weekly basis. This one is finally the real deal. Danny and I have traveled the world – separately and together. And settled in this gorgeous Appalachian mountain town of Blue Ridge, Georgia, where we operate a restaurant. Now, we’re in the midst of opening The Cooks Farm, a farm-to-table cooking school in the heart of town. So stay tuned.