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.

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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!