"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Idea of the Year! Patent Pending!

A minute ago, I was reading a friend's blog ( The Well Run Dry ) and he was, as most of us do, lamenting the fact that the upcoming Christmas Season encourages blind commercialism and reduces the meaning of the holiday ("Holy Day") to something along the lines of an excel spreadsheet. I don't know a single person who doesn't hate this aspect of the season, yet we are all swept away on a tide of advertising and guilt, spending more than we intend or can afford, year after year on stuff that we don't need and that (in many cases) the recipients don't even want.

I composed a reply, saying that I tried to emphasize experiences over things, and in the middle of typing that sentence,  I had a flash of inspiration.

"I just had a total brain wave. Oh my gosh this is such a good idea! There are in my small town, as in most, I'm sure, a million christmas activities planned - tree lighting ceremonies, public caroling, concerts, card-making for kids at the library, stuff like that. I am going to make AN ADVENT CALENDAR OF EVENTS!!! Am I genius or what? I'll search the local papers and online event calendars, and I have no doubt I can find SOMETHING for almost every day between Dec 1st and Christmas day. Choirs visiting various churches. Craft Bazaars. Showings of Christmas movies at senior centers. I'll make an actual Advent calendar, with little paper doors that open, and behind each door will be that day's event! We won't have to go to all of them, but I bet the kids will LOVE opening the doors and seeing what we could go do."

If there are days for which I don't find any planned events, I can put one of our own traditions, like "make our own wrapping paper with potato stamps" or "cookie decorating party."

I'm so proud of myself right now I can't even tell you.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Slaughter Season (More Meat Math)

This week we made a lot of room on the farm. Most notably, the pig (seen here a couple of months ago) met his fate, at the capable hands of our local mobile butcher, later to appear in his final form as chops and bacon on our table. 

Half of him was sold, on Craigslist, for $3.00/lb. that's on the low end, but most of the pork that is advertised at a higher price has labels like "organic feed only" or "no GMO feed" attached to it, and ours doesn't. 

The hanging weight was 163 lbs, and half that is 81.5, times $3.00/lb and I collected $244.00. Considering that the pig himself cost us $200 originally, and that he was fed almost entirely from the gleaners' pantry (plus a couple bags of conventional feed), I think we did very well. Without figuring it to the penny, our own pork is basically free, not counting labor of course. 

Today I took the turkeys to a neighbor to be processed. I thought Homero would do it, but he asked me to see if I could find someone to do it at a reasonable
price, and I did. I paid $10 per bird, half in cash and half in grass fed beef. 

I'll be picking up two of them tomorrow morning - I needed one tonight for a person who is going out of town early on the morning. That turkey weighed a full 20 pounds, which is $80 at $4/lb. bigger than I expected - and frankly, bigger than the lady wanted. But what can you do? I didn't weigh them live. Suppose I might have. 

If the other two turkeys are the same weight, then I'll make a total of $160 on the turkeys (the third one is for our own table). So many turkeys died this year that I think we are not even breaking even. The chicks cost about $65. We started them on expensive game bird feed - another $20. After that they were also largely fed from the gleaners' pantry, but I know we bought at least four bags of feed, costing altogether about $65. Add that up, it's $150. So, let's say it worked out about the same as the pig - our own meat is free. 

If I could figure out how to keep turkey chicks alive to maturity, they would be very lucrative. We began with 8 this year, and ended up with three. In past years, the survival rate has been better (over 50%) but it's never been really satisfactory. People tell me that turkeys are fussy, hard to raise. I guess so. 

They sure are delicious, though. Thanksgiving is at my house this year. I'm looking forward to hostessing. No matter how costly, it is a real pleasure to offer my family a big traditional centerpiece that we raised ourselves. This will be the third year in a row that we have eaten our own pastured turkey for thanksgiving. It's always wonderful. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Bog of Eternal Stench, The Dog from Hell, and Bad Knees

Once again it is November, number one on the list of months I wish I could fast-forward through, closely followed by February. Torrential rains have turned the barnyard - as always this time of year - into a sucking swamp. There is still a small pile of hog fuel we could spread, but so far we haven't been able to figure out how to do that without the pig charging out of the yard and into the backyard.

The pig has been able to get out of his pen for months now, and he has rooted up huge clumps of the pasture. He is now about 350 pounds, and that's no joke hurtling towards you at high speed and emitting high-pitched screams at the volume of a Van Halen concert, circa 1984.  The pig has a date with destiny, courtesy of our local mobile butcher, in a little over a week, so the problem will work itself out soon enough.

I did make a deal, way back last spring, with a tree service guy to trade cheese all summer in exchange for cedar chips come fall. He has called a couple of times, but we haven't been able to nail down a delivery, and now it is looking more and more doubtful that I will ever receive any chips.  That's the risk of trading for future goods. Meanwhile, the mud threatens to come up over my boot-tops.

Haku, our new German Shepherd puppy, has apparently made it his mission to tear my entire house into bite-sized chunks. I would post a picture of our playroom, if I could figure out how under the new operating system, but that would probably bring FEMA down on our heads. Seriously, it looks like - well, like a German Shepherd puppy has torn apart two queen-sized mattresses and one large sofa, not to mention gnawed an antique Victorian dollhouse to matchsticks and knocked over a shelf full of board games, torn up the boxes and ripped up all the cards, etc,  and evenly distributed all the chewed-up bits. I figure there's no point in cleaning it all up until he's finished - it might keep him occupied enough to leave a few of our furnishings alone. Why he isn't interested in the fifteen chew-toys I've bought for him I have no idea.

Homero has been suffering greatly this fall from a torn meniscus in his right knee. As a mechanic, he spends a lot of time getting up and down onto a concrete floor, sometimes squatting and sometimes kneeling. His knee will freeze up on him and leave him hobbling back to the house, unable to work for the rest of the day. He hates to take medicine of any kind; apparently he prefers to lay about looking pitiful and asking me to bring him stuff.

I know I sound unsympathetic - and maybe I am. He never reads this blog, so I feel free to say that his knee is nowhere near as bad as mine was - MY meniscus had two big "bucket handle" tears and various smaller tears.  My ACL was completely severed (the surgeon who read my MRI report used the word "trashed" to describe the state of my joint). Without health insurance, I had no choice but to live with it for four long years. I did my share of bitching and moaning - I'm not saying I didn't. I'm just saying I know how he feels, and then some. And then some more.

In my case, as soon as the ACA kicked in and we could finally afford health insurance, and the insurance companies couldn't exclude pre-existing conditions, I scheduled surgery and Hallelujah it has been almost a total cure. They had to remove almost all of the meniscus, and I was told that I'd need a total knee replacement sooner or later, but the pain has almost entirely disappeared, and the instability has been reduced by about 75%. The surgery - first surgery I ever had, unless you count wisdom teeth - was a piece of cake. From the time I woke up in the recovery room I was in less pain than I had been the day before. The next day I was walking on the beach.

Homero has been reluctant to schedule surgery. I'm not sure why. He's never had surgery before either - not even wisdom teeth - so maybe he's afraid. I was. But just as everyone told me, the only thing I was sorry about is that I hadn't done it sooner. I guess Homero just had to wait until it got bad enough. He's finally having surgery at the end of this month. I hope it will be as good for him as it was for me.

The first part of December looks to be a nice quiet time. Homero will be recuperating, and I will be taking a break from work. Right now I'm just finishing up a big job that, though it has left me exhausted, will pay enough to ensure a merry christmas and let me take time off to nurse my husband back to health.

Now if it we could just get a nice, hard freeze to lock up all the mud.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Computer Woes and Puppy Happiness

There are all sorts of things I'd like to write about, but I am stymied by my inability to learn the new operating system my husband downloaded last week. Whatever it's called - the Apple of Doom would be my nomination - it crashed our computer repeatedly and forced Homero to spend many hours on the phone to tech support.

Now the basic functions of the computer seem to be up and running - we can, for example, google stuff and use the word processor. The computer is communicating with the printer again which means I can actually go to work. But there are still many areas in which it seems the new operating system is basically incompatible, and one of these is Blogger.

Yes, I am in fact writing a post. I haven't hit "publish" yet so we will see if it works at all. But I can't see what I'm typing (I only know I've made a mistake when autocorrect pops up with a suggestion) and I can't upload photos anymore, because in the new operating system, iPhoto has switched to something just called "photos" and apparently Blogger can't communicate with "Photos."

Which is really a shame because I want to show you all photos of our adorable new dog. When Ivory passed away last spring after 14 wonderful years with us, we were too sad to even think about a new dog. But after some six months, we found ourselves pining for canine companionship. We began searching online for nearby adoptable dogs, but none of them struck our fancy until we saw one who looked so much like Ivory that we collectively gasped. 

We convinced the shelter to let us have him (more on that another time - it wasn't an easy process) and he's been with us for almost two weeks now. During which he has pretty much torn the entire house into bite sized pieces. 

We named him Haku, after the white dragon in Spirited Away. He is ten or eleven months old, seriously hyperactive, and completely innocent of manners. He needs immediate professional training. I have only ever had one dog -Ivory- and she never did become a well trained dog, although luckily after her puppy stage she had a wonderful temperament. 

Haku is going to be a challenging dog for a while. But I feel up to the challenge. I know what the long term payoff is - a wonderful companion and friend for years and years to come. No dog can ever replace Ivory in our hearts, but we can learn to love a new dog as well as we did her. 

And God willing, he won't eat the cat. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Life as a Microbe (The End of the Food-Chain)

It is a maxim of ecology that "wherever there is something to eat, there will be something to eat it." At least I think it is: I may be remembering this line from the excellent novel Dune, uttered by the Imperial Planetologist Dr. Kynes as he lays dying in the deep desert, eyeing the hawks circling above him.  In either case, the principle is sound. Anywhere on Earth, when anything dies and falls to the ground, it will get eaten, if only by microbes.

Just as there a chain of organisms on the production side of the food pyramid, beginning with clorophyll containing plants that convert sunlight into sugar and ending with peak predators like lions and humans, so there is a chain of scavengers that reduces the remains of all that dies back into its constituent molecules. Descending from the apex on what we might call the downslope of the food chain, we have large animals like hyenas and vultures, followed by smaller creatures that live on decaying flesh like crabs and ants, and ultimately the myriad microbes that slowly transform the less digestible bits such as bones and hair back into soil. The chemistry of systemic catabolism is just as fascinating as that of the more highly visible and valued systemic metabolism.

surplus bread soaking in whey leftover from cheesemaking

I feel that I have firmly joined Team Scavenger. I devote a great deal of time to seeking out resources unnoticed or undervalued by others. In fact, my family largely subsides on my local waste stream. That we live so well and so fatly is a measure of just how rich and bountiful that waste stream is.

In this past week alone I have made 5 gallons of apple cider entirely from apples that other people were throwing away. About half the apples came from a neighbor who didn't want them and the other half from the Gleaner's Pantry. If you've ever pressed cider you know how many apples go into 5 gallons of cider and it's a buttload (not really - a buttload is 126 gallons). The apples that I collected from Gleaner's - in one day!- represented a very small percentage of the apples discarded on a daily basis in my small town. 

That same day, I also collected 6 or 7 boxes of surplus bread. Most of it was quite fresh and I saved a little for us to eat ourselves - the rest of it went out to the mama barn and fed my pig, turkeys and chickens for a solid week. Again, this represented only a tiny fraction of what was there for the taking. I would have taken more but I literally didn't have any more room in my car. 

In addition, I also gleaned enough fresh fruits and vegetables - tomatoes, chiles, onions, a couple of pumpkins, cucumbers, oranges and grapes - to feed my family for a week. I canned 8 pints of salsa, and if I weren't so lazy I could easily can 8 more right now, simply from that one glean. 

Today, my good neighbors N. and R. from church called me and asked if I wanted corn stalks. They were cleaning up the garden for the year and thought I might be able to use them for my animals. I said "sure!" and went over to help them collect and stack the stalks in their trailer. I also brought over a loaf of pumpkin bread (made from the pumpkin I got from Gleaners) and some cheese and a quart of apple cider (also a product of Gleaner's). 

Homero with corn stalks

The corn stalks had many cobs still on them, those that had been damaged by crows and weren't fit for human consumption. They sure were fit for pig and goat consumption! My critters went crazy for the corn.

Everybody loves corn

Haboob the Buck eating corn
In the chain of scavengers, I imagine myself and my family as first-level scavengers. We are the hyenas and the ravens. We take the whole, recently discarded (read: recently deceased) product of society and make what use of it we can. This includes not only the food I get from Gleaner's, but also the clothing and furniture that I buy secondhand from Goodwill or the Salvation Army thrift store. We are warm and well-dressed in the castoffs of others.

Any food that we can't use - peels, skins, bones, and the like - or that we end up not eating because there is just too much of it - the lettuce that wilts in the back of my fridge before I can eat it; limp carrots and cucumbers; bread that has gone a little green - we give to our pig and our chickens. They are the second level scavengers, akin to lobsters or beetles.

And when all that refuse has been processed by my animal's digestive systems, we collect it once again and compost it. Enter the microbes. Our compost pile is rich, black, velvety and fragrant. Once a year, in springtime, our next door neighbor comes over in his tractor and collects some of it for his garden beds. Come next summer, some of it will make its way back to us in the form of sweet cilantro, ruby beets, plump squashes.

This time of year, as the world turns towards darkness and winter, I am especially conscious of and especially grateful for the quiet science of recycling that takes place in the sleeping earth. The dark side of the year is the time to contemplate the renewal that happens as we rest, as the dirt rests. So much grace happens in repose, so many vital processes are accomplished only in stillness. We are all of us, at least in this culture, so biased towards the light - toward action, towards growth and vigor, toward Yang, that we are blind to the necessity of decay. The alchemy of decay; of rot, of mold, of the mushroom and the slug. By such humble beings are we sustained, generation after generation.

Hail Yin, hail Kali and Hecate, hail Persephone, Isis, Osiris, Jesus, and all those good Gods and Goddesses who descend into the earth to rise again after three days, or seven, or nine. Hail the seed that goeth into the ground and dies, that it may live.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Welcome Sheep

The little brown blob in the lower left foreground of this picture is a young Jacob's sheep. She is about four or five months old, and wads given to me by my sister in exchange for babysitting her children for a weekend so she could go away with her husband. For the record: I would have babysat in any case, but once offered, I wasn't going to turn down a free sheep.

Jacob's sheep are those funny four (or even six) horned breed. They are an ancient "unimproved" breed, meaning they have not been highly selected for any given trait or developed for commercial purposes. Until recently, they were usually only found in the U.S. among Native American herds in the southwest. Sometimes they are called "churro" sheep.

As such, they vary widely from herd to herd, but in general they are small (a ewe reaches approximately 80-100 pounds) and have good quality wool and lean meat. You can see how small the little ewe looks next to my Nubian goats.

I was afraid my goats would bully her terribly, but it seems not. I brought the lamb home last night and shut her up in the Mama Barn for the night. This morning I went to the Gleaner's Pantry and so I wasn't around when Homero let her out to mingle with the goats. It seems to have gone well, though. This afternoon - a beautiful sunny warm September afternoon - when I let the goats out, I tried to keep the sheep in the pasture because I didn't know how herd able she was. At my sister's house she lived in a small enclosure and nobody ever tried to herd her in an open space.

After twenty minutes or so of enjoyably perusing my magazine while the goats grazed, I heard the sheep bleating plaintively from a direction incompatible with her being inside the pasture fence. The little thing was apparently able to squeezed through the gap between the gate panels and get out onto the front lawn. She simply followed the goats around, any stayed close to them even though the does occasionally butted her in the side.

Our plan is to keep her over the winter - hopefully she will grow well - and then shear her in the spring. Rowan is interested in her wool. Then we will let her fatten a bit on the spring grass before we turn her into lamburgers. Lamb is actually my favorite meat. I never buy it at the store; it has become so terribly expensive lately. I'm looking forward to having some put away for our personal use.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Abundance (The Pressure is On)

Although I do a lot of canning, it is almost all water-bath canning. I am afraid of pressure-canning. Basically, water-bath canning is packing food into sterilized jars and immersing them in boiling water to seal the lids. Pressure canning is doing much the same thing, but processing them in a pressure canner, which uses steam raised to temperatures higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit - the temperature of boiling water. Water bath canning is safe for high acid foods like pickles and salsa or high sugar foods like jam. Anyone desirous of more precise information can find it here.

I've already written a long and informative post on why I seldom use a pressure canner, and it is reproduced at the end of this post, so I won't go into it again here. Here I simply mean to document what I did with these beauties:

The Gleaner's Pantry offered up an abundance of eggplant again. I think these came from Trader Joe's, which usually carries the most perfectly shaped and glossiest eggplant. These ones were oddly shaped, and some had bronzy-patches which were a skin-only phenomenon. I don't know what causes that, but the eggplant underneath is perfectly sound. 

Eggplant is one of those love 'em or hate 'em vegetables. Most people dislike them, but I enjoy them. I think part of the problem with eggplant is that is hard to cook correctly. It's easy enough to bake until soft and mash, as for baba ganoush , but it's more challenging when the eggplant retains it's shape and texture. It's not easy to avoid the eggplant turning to mush when you don't want it to. 
Then there's all that stuff about salting and extracting the "bitter juices," which I totally ignore and have never felt that the eggplant was especially bitter as a result. I can't claim to be any sort of eggplant-cooking expert, but I have several decent recipes that I like.

Not enough, however, to use up SEVEN big eggplants. I don't know what I was thinking. After making an extra-large eggplant parm, I still had three eggplants to use. I decided to make caponata and can it. Recipes found on the internet disagreed about whether or not caponata needs to be pressure canned. Last time I made it, a few years ago, I water-bath canned it, adding extra sugar and vinegar to make it into a kind of chutney that I felt would be safer. This time around, I wanted to err on the side of caution so that I could give some of it away if - as seems likely - we didn't actually want to eat 8 pints of caponata. 

So I borrowed a pressure canner from my friend M. It was actually very easy to use. I set it up on the propane cooker outside and never felt nervous at all. My only issue with it now is that I feel like the caponata came out overcooked (one of the jars didn't seal and so we ate it right away). The caponata is cooked first, of course, and packed hot into sterilized jars. Then the pressure canner has to heat up and vent steam for 10 minutes before you let it come up to pressure. AFTER THAT, the caponata is processed at 10 pounds pressure for 20 minutes. It all seems like just too much for delicate eggplant flesh. 

The caponata is delicious fresh, however, and so I'm giving my recipe here for those of you who find yourselves with too much eggplant at the end of summer. 


1 large eggplant, cut into 1" dice
1 red onion, chopped
2 long green Italian frying peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup kalamata olives, chopped
heaping tablespoon capers, rinsed
4 medium ripe red tomatoes
1/4 c. red wine or apple cider vinegar
1/2 c. sugar
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil, and saute peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic, and raisins.  Put tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar in blender and puree. Add to eggplant mixture and simmer until somewhat reduced and vegetables are tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Shower with minced parsley and serve with good quality crackers. 

The following is a repeat of my "controversial canning" post from 2011. 


Controversial Canning (A Confession)

These last four years, I've done a lot of canning. In past years, before I moved up here, I know I must have canned at least a few times, but I can't for the life of me remember doing it. I just know that when I made my first batch of jam up here, I wasn't doing it for the first time.

So I guess I can't really remember how I learned to can. I do remember watching my mother can when I was quite small, when we lived in Woodinville before the divorce. My dad put in a good sized garden every year and mom would usually preserve something at least once or twice a summer. My memories are vague rather than specific: standing near - but behind - my mother as she peered into a large steaming kettle; the wooden spoon, stained red with strawberry juice; touching the tops of the hot jars to see if they had sealed properly. I certainly don't remember any lessons happening. 

Canning is intimidating; there's so much work involved, for one thing. Another thing I remember is my mom all sweaty and angry with her hair hanging down and tomatoes everywhere. Now I know why - dealing with twenty or thirty pounds of ripe fruit is a lot of work. Washing jars and finding lids and carrying kettles of boiling water around is hard work. Forcing gallons of applesauce or tomato paste through a foodmill is excruciatingly hard work. Hot work, too. And it always happens in August. 

Then there's the fact that home canning can kill you. If you read a book on the subject (the Ball Blue Book is the best known and the most venerable: Amazon.com: Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving (0797190001428 ...) you will come away convinced that legions of Americans die every year from improperly home canned food. My general impression, when I first looked into home canning, was that the annual death toll from botulism in this country was on a par with, oh, say, traffic accidents. In actual fact, the incidence of botulism from home canned foods between 1990 and 2000 in the united states was approximately one in ten million (Botulism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). 

Now here's where things get controversial. As anyone who cans, or who has read a book on canning knows, there are two methods for home canning: the water-bath and pressure canning. Water bath canning involves filling sterilized jars with food and then immersing them in boiling water for a length of time. Water bath canning is safe for all high acid foods like tomatoes, chutneys, pickles, and also for high sugar foods such as jams and jellies. Pressure canning involves a pressure canner, which allows the cook to achieve temperatures higher that that of boiling water, temperatures high enough to kill the pathogen that causes botulism. 

I have always avoided pressure canning. It just intimidates me. I do OWN a pressure cooker, but I'm not totally sure how to use it, and I think I lost the regulator. Once when I was a child, my mom was cooking beans in a pressure cooker and there was an explosion and boiling beans hit the ceiling with such force that that it rained beans. The stain never left the ceiling. Nor is that the only pressure cooker explosion I know about. In fact, my sister's sister-in-law (got that?) suffered third degree burns over 16% of her body in a pressure cooker explosion. She was in the hospital for a week. I think my brother may also have experienced some kind of pressure-cooker blowout but I'm not sure. 

So on the one hand, we have a one in ten million incidence of botulism (which, by the way, has a 4% fatality rate in adults), and on the other hand we have two or possibly three incidents in my immediate experience of catastrophic pressure-cooker accidents, with serious injury. I think I am justified in being more frightened of pressure cookers than I am of home-canned food.

Now to be clear - I am NOT advocating that anyone disregard the United States Government's recommendations on home canning procedures. They are very sensible, free, and you can read them here: National Center for Home Food Preservation | USDA Publications. But I AM saying that I personally am not going to break out the pressure cooker. 

That does limit me as far as what I can can. I can can (la da da-da-da-da, la da da DAH- da-da-da, la da DAH-da-da-da dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum...) tomatoes, all types of pickles, salsas, chutneys, and jams and jellies. I can not can vegetables, fish or meats. 

But it seems to me there's a little wiggle room there. I know that what matters is the acid level. I should do a little research into what the actual acceptable levels of acid are that permit water bath canning. If you add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your green beans, is that enough? Are you really flirting with a gruesome death if you water-bath can eggplant caponata?

Well I hope not, because that's what I did yesterday. That's a jar of eggplant caponata at the top of this column, and a thing of beauty, too. There was a sale on eggplants at Trader Joe's. They always have the MOST beautiful eggplants there - I don't know why, but their eggplants are larger, firmer, glossier, and purpler than any other eggplants. And cheap, too. I got three for under $5. In the house I had the other ingredients: tomatoes, herbs, and celery from the garden, onions and garlic from my neighbor's garden, raisins in the pantry. Caponata is meant to be rather acid, but to be on the safe side, I added more than the usual amount of vinegar, and therefore more than the usual amount of sugar, too. In fact, I added so much extra sugar and vinegar that I think I can call the result a chutney.... which is perfectly safe to water-bath can....

The fact is, I fudge. I don't follow recipes. I use my common sense, born of experience. Am I an expert? Heck no! But I am a very experienced cook, and I am growing more experienced with canning every year. Also I am a trained nurse, and I know the difference between clean technique, sterile technique, and how to maintain a sterile field. It may be that when I do more research I find I am wrong - hunches are often wrong - but my hunch is that the danger involved in canning comes from inadequately sterilized equipment BEFORE it is processed, and that if great care is taken to sterilize jars, tongs, spoons, etc, then the method pf processing is less important.

In any case, if you are on my Christmas list don't worry - I will only send you absolutely 100% safe stuff like pickles and jam. But here at home I will be eating my caponata. And I may even can chile! Or soup! Hell, I'm a renegade! I already feed my children raw MILK!

But that's a post for another day...

Friday, August 28, 2015

Petrichor (Scent and Weakness)

They say it is finally going to rain this weekend. Actually, they said the rain would start last night - and a little bit of rain did fall; I'm not saying it didn't. The porch was wet this morning when I woke up, but there weren't any puddles.

There was just enough rain to make the earth send up a heavenly smell.  Petrichor, I hear that smell is called, the smell of rain after a prolonged dry spell, and there is no other smell like it. Once, when my children were small, we were driving across southeastern Washington to my cousin's wedding in Idaho. We were in amongst great green-gold hills covered in tall grass, with hardly a tree in sight. It was midsummer, and there had been no rain for weeks. But now, in the early evening, about an hour before sunset, a great circular blue-black cloud covered a full quadrant of the sky; whirling, dark and angry like a bruise. It was so amazing we stopped to take pictures of it. Then we got back in the car and tried to outrun it, for it looked fearsome.

We didn't outrun it: there was a short, fierce burst of hard warm rain, maybe fifteen minutes, and then it stopped and the sky cleared in time for sunset. The sunset was beautiful, pink and orange on the golden-green hills, and so we stopped at an overlook to get out of the car and watch the sun go down. When we opened the car door, we stepped out into a world of scent such as I have never even imagined. We were in the middle of thousands of acres of grasslands, which had just been drenched with the first rain in ages. It was as if the whole earth opened her lungs and exhaled sweet, blessed relief in our faces. I almost swooned with the beauty of that smell. If, on the day I die, I am granted a foretaste of paradise, it will be that smell that wafts me to the afterworld.

Today, my own fields gave up a similar, much fainter scent, just enough to make me smile with the memory.

If the forecast is right, it will rain much harder tonight, and probably continue through the weekend. I hope so - we certainly need the rain. All the leaves are turning early. We need it here, but much more they need rain in Eastern Washington, where the forest fires rage on unabated. This year has been unlike any other to date, with fires larger and more intense than we have seen in living memory. My  mom lost her cabin in Tonasket, and as of today I hear that some 500 primary residences have been burned, and of course three brave firefighters have lost their lives. We are all praying for rain.

Here on the farm, however, impending rain means work. A few days ago, Homero went to pick up a load of hay given to us my some good neighbors. They had baled the standing hay on their new property, only to discover that it wasn't of a quality that their horses could eat. Knowing we had goats, they offered it to us free for the collecting. We thanked them, I brought over some gratitude-cheese, and Homero collected the hay. There were two pick-up loads, each about twenty-five or twenty-eight bales. The first fit into our small barn, but the second had nowhere to go, so it stayed on the back of the truck until today, when the imminent rain made it important to get it under cover of one kind or another.

I suggested putting the hay in the field shelter. It sits in the sacrifice area and normally the ponies use it as shelter, but right now the ponies are in the main field with the goats. If we use that hay first, I reasoned, we might use it up before we have to move the ponies into the sacrifice area in November. Besides, there's nowhere else to put it.

One problem is that the field shelter is fairly rudimentary and has a dirt floor, with a small gap running around the perimeter. The bottom layer of hay would get wet if we put it on the ground. If we had four or five pallets, we could make a platform to keep the hay off the ground, but we don't. What we did have, it occurred to me, it a big old pile of hog-fuel, left by my brother-in-law recently. He has a tree-service company and once in a while, if he happens to have a job nearby that leaves him with a load of chips, he will come by and dump it, much to our benefit. I told Homero I thought that if we spread a four-inch layer of hog fuel down first, the hay would probably stay pretty dry.

So Homero started up his new Case loader  (Homero's New Toy (the Craigslist Chronicles)) and I ran for the wheelbarrow. He shoveled hog fuel over the fence into the wheelbarrow, and I trundled it over into the field shelter and dumped it. We repeated this four or five times, and then I kicked it all around a bit and called it good. Homero drove the truck over to the fence line with the hay on it. I thought climbing up onto the back of the truck and tossing bales over the fence would probably be easier than dragging those bales into the field shelter and stacking them, so I told Homero that I'd throw and he'd drag.

"I don't want you to slip," he said. "I'll toss them."

"I'm not going to slip," I said. "What are you talking about?"

"Okay," he said. "Go ahead."

I know I've alluded, several times in the past, to the fact that I am a gimp. Specifically, I have an inherited connective tissue disorder (Ehler's-Danlose syndrome) that leaves me prone to sprains, dislocations, and minor injuries of all sorts. For most of my life, I wasn't aware of this, and simply assumed I was accident-prone and/or ridiculously clumsy. Many people with EDS have it much worse than I do - my specific sitiuation is quite minor compared to what it could be, and I'm grateful for that. However, it is not negligible. Many of my joints are loose and cannot handle the kind of use that I feel they ought to be able to handle.

In this particular case, I wanted to stand on top of a fairly wobbly pile of hay bales, pick them up one by one (they weigh approximately forty to fifty pounds each) and heave them horizontally over a five foot fence. The first time I tried to do this, the bale of hay fell short of the fence, down into the gap between the truck and the fence. I swore. Homero looked at me with a kind of exasperated patience. The next three or four bales went over the fence and Homero picked them up and moved them into the field shelter. Bales five and six fell into the gap again. I swore again.

"Amor," he said, "why don't you let me get this?"

"I want to help," I said angrily, and tried to throw another bale. It fell short.

"Get down from there," he said, "I'm afraid you're going to fall."

"Okay, we can switch," I said. On that last throw, I had felt my knee slip out of position with an ominous pop. It slipped right back in, but on other occasions it has come completely dislocated and if that happened and Homero had to take me to the emergency room, not only would he be proved right but the hay would get wet, too.

We switched places and Homero started tossing bales easily and gracefully over the fence. One by one, I slipped my girly little soft marshmallow hands under the orange twine and lugged them into the field shelter. This part wasn't easy, either. The bales were heavy and spiky, and the twine dug into my palms. It must have looked terribly awkward. I must have looked pathetic, because Homero shortly called out to me.

"Amor, please let me do this by myself."

"I want to help!" I yelled again, sweaty and angry and frustrated with my stupid, fat, weak, defective body.

"Amor, please." he said. "You are wonderful in the kitchen, you are a great cook. This, I can do."

"A good COOK?" I was aghast.

"Yes amor, and you make cheese. I can't make cheese."


"Si, amor. Why don't you go in the house and bring me a beer. Please?"

So this is what it has come to. The little Mujercita is sent into the house to fetch beer while her husband does the real work. I came back with two beers and leaned on the fence and watched Homero carry the bales - one handed! - into the field shelter and stack them. I tried to look on the bright side.

"That was a good idea I had, to spread the hog fuel in the shelter, huh?" I said.

"Yes," Homero answered, "it was."

Earlier in the day, Homero had trimmed the goat's hooves. His hands are so much stronger than mine, he can close the shears through the horniest, toughest hoof wall, which I can't do. But, I reflected, I was the one who taught him how to trim; that the plantar surface has to be even and flat; that you have to trim the bulb of the heel, that you can cut right down until there's no gap, even if you have to cut way up the sides and it looks scary.

Homero is a good milker, but he wouldn't know if one of the does were in the early stages of mastitis. I doubt he would feel the slight warmth, that he would notice the hesitant flow, or feel the tiny flakes in the milk and tiny bumps in the udder. He doesn't know what they need in terms of nutrition, what minerals to buy or how much grain to give. He doesn't know what to do - or might not notice - if they develop diarrhea. He doesn't know the signs of parasites or how to treat them.

I'm the one who can walk the pastures and evaluate the health of them - I know the names of all the weeds and what each one signifies about the health of the earth beneath. I know what each one is good for; I know that Tansy is a vermifuge in moderation but poison in excess. I know the goats eat thistles, but only when they are in bud, as they were two weeks ago. I know that blackberry will increase their milk supply, and that cherry and plum leaves are nutritious in all seasons but this one - the dangerous season of wilt, when the leaves wither but before they are completely dry. Only now are they poisonous.

And Homero is right; I do know how to make cheese. Also I know how to make lacto-fermented pickles and sauerkraut and kim chee.  I can make applesauce and jam and dilly-beans. I AM a good cook and I not only that but I have a good working knowledge of nutrition and what my children need to grow and be healthy. I can dry herbs, and I can make them into teas for various ailments. I know how to treat stomach aches and tooth aches and even heart aches. I may not remember everything from my nursing days but I know when a child needs to go to the emergency room and when it can wait until the clinic opens on monday.

I can read stories out loud and do all the voices. I know dozens of lullabies. I am a first-class kisser of boo-boos, even if my kids are too old now for boo-boos. I know how to lay down a fretful child and give her a good dream to go to sleep on, a dream of riding ponies across the wild hills or a dream of swimming with blue dolphins in warm Caribbean waters. When my daughters come to me with womanly problems I will have womanly answers for them, or at least I can have womanly conversations, if there are no answers. I have over the decades tended a small circle of woman-friends who will be aunties and confidants to them; teachers and secret-keepers and surrogate mothers, as I will be to their daughters.

So my muscles aren't what they should be. My body isn't what it should be. My heart is what it should be, mostly. My family is what it should be, mostly. My soul is what it should be, mostly. This place and this time; here, now; all is as it should be. Praise be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

High Tide of August (Fair and Food)

view from the top of the ferris wheel

Tuesday I took the kids to the fair. All the usual fun was had... visiting friends who are exhibiting animals; watching the chariot races, with their pretty, shiny shetland ponies; ice cream and greasy fried zucchini; sunburn and heatstroke. This year as in the past few, the temperatures have been absolutely cruel during fair week. 

This time around, I actually sprung for those ridiculously expensive bracelets that let the kids ride all the rides they want, and so we stayed as long as we could so they could take full advantage, and so that I could spend as much time as I liked lingering over the quilts and the green beans. For the first time, my girls are old enough to let them roam around on their own, as long as they have a phone with them. I met say, I enjoyed fair quite a bit more than usual without two little girls hanging off me every second, moaning "how much LONGER are you going to STAY here looking at WOOL?"

my feet, about 6 pm

We ended up spending something over 8 hours at the fair. My fitbit is broken, but I'd guess I covered 6 or 7 miles, easily. At the end of the day my poor feet were killing me. In fact, even now, most of a day later, I still feel like I've been beaten with a stick. Hope was invited to fair again today, with a school friend's family. I didn't think she'd be interested, but she was. So she is off getting sunburned all over again. I am at home alone, doing a much needed food preservation day. 

My sister-in-law has been visiting, and she has boundless energy and motivation. If not for her going out and picking a gallon of blackberries, I would never have made all this blackberry jam. It came out very well this time around. Eight half-pints, of which Temy will probably take four home with her. I only had eight jam jars, but there was enough jam to fill another quart sized jar which is in the fridge and will be consumed quickly. In addition to the jam, we have about 8 quart-sized ziplocs of blackberries in the freezer. 

Milk season is winding down. We are getting only about a half-gallon of milk a day now, but that is still quite a bit. Today I am making chèvre. Some of it will be traded to a neighbor for a dozen bales of hay that her horses won't eat. My ponies will. 

Also today, I am dehydrating Italian plums. A different neighbor has a surplus of plum trees; I have a surplus of pears. She came over last week and carried off a bushel or so of Bartletts, and then a few days ago we went over there and took home a cardboard box full of plums. I don't need any more jam, but school is starting soon and dried fruit is a school-lunch staple. A couple of dried plums, a peanut butter-and-blackberry jam sandwich, and maybe a hunk of goat cheese, a few cherry tomatoes? Sounds like a good lunch to me. 

Speaking of tomatoes. My next door neighbor (the HSH, or he of the Hotel-Sized-House) is out of town and his wife asked me to please come over an harvest some veggies from his enormous garden. "He's really into that," she said, waving her hand in a slightly dismissive manner, "but I'm not, so much." Into it he certainly is: he has a garden that could provide for a troop of hungry boyscouts. I really ought to go over there and see about tomatoes. 

There is also a gigantic bag of slightly over mature green beans in the refrigerator. I haven't even decided what to do with them. Maybe I'll think of something as I am pitting plums. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Much is a Good Goat Worth?

Iris was the first goat on the farm. I bought her in 2007, as soon as I had a fence up and a place to keep livestock out of the rain. We moved in in August or September, and I was determined to have baby goats our first spring; so I advertised for a pregnant doe. I didn't care much about breed, I just cared that she was healthy, and pregnant.

I lucked out. A lady goat farmer nearby answered my ad - she had a young doe pregnant for the first time - a first freshener, as they are called - a Nubian, with a fine pedigree. Registered, tested for all of the local diseases, and guaranteed. Later I found out that this lady farmer actually raised locally famous goats, winners of many prizes at regional and state fairs, and that her animals were extremely well regarded among local goat folks in the know. If I had known that at the time, I suppose I might have sprung for the extra $50 she wanted to give me Iris' papers. But I didn't know that, and I didn't care, because I wasn't thinking in terms of the future monetary value of kids born on the farm. I thought - I'm a homesteader, not a breeder, so what do I care?

However, I didn't know the future, and Iris was quite expensive enough as it was. I paid $350 for her. That struck my husband as a rediculously exorbitant price. And even today, I can say that yes, that's pretty expensive. I routinely sell goats for less than $100. Male goats. Females are usually sold for between $150 and $200. The best price I ever got for a single goat (not pregnant) was $250, for an adorable spotty female kid, who had been disbudded and vaccinated.

That was one of Iris' kids.

Iris, over the years, has produced some 15 kids. I'd have to look at the blog to be certain exactly how many. Some of them were sold for a good price; some of them were eaten as meat; and a couple of them died without producing any value whatsoever. At least one cost us a lot in veterinary bills before he expired. If I average out the value of her kids - not an easy task, considering the calculations involved - I'd guess that each one was worth about $30. All told, her kids were worth about $450.

Now let's talk about milk. It's impossible to set a firm value on a gallon of goat milk. For one thing, I can't sell it. That is highly illegal, and I've never waded into those waters. However, I can say that a gallon of goat milk, if purchased in my local market, is worth approximately $12. I would never BUY a gallon of goat milk on the local market, so I can't really say that it's worth that much to me. I suppose I can call it "fair market value." However, to make calculation easier and to reflect more accurately the realities of my farm, I'll give each gallon of milk a value of $10.

I will not, because the math gets ridiculous, attempt to set any higher value on the cheese I produce. I could easily get lost in the intricacies of attempting to put a reasonable value on my cheese. I have, over the years, traded a pound of cheese for products ranging from a loaf of bread (value: $2?) to three fat dungeoness crabs (value: $50). I've traded cheese for smoked salmon; for cedar chips; for kale; for blueberries; for babysitting; for hay. The best I can say is that goat cheese is a commodity of highly variable worth. Therefore I will just calculate the worth of milk.

Iris is a good milk producer. She is probably above average for a Nubian goat, which is defined here  as 1,820 pounds per lactation cycle. 1,820 pounds divided by 8 lbs/gallon = 227.5 gallons a year. Times $10/gallon we arrive at a figure of well over $2,000 per year.

Well, that's a silly number. I can say with absolute certainty that I don't receive anything like that much in concrete benefits per year. Especially when multiplied by the three does I milk most years. However, we do save a great deal of money by not buying any milk, yogurt, or cheese for most of the year. Also, excess milk goes to feed the pigs and the chickens, which in turn saves us money on meat and eggs.

You can see that the worth of a good dairy goat is a hard thing to calculate. Iris has been providing my family with meat in the form of her kids and with milk and cheese for some 8 years now. She has been fertilizing our land with her manure, and providing weed control. She has also provided us with many hours of entertainment, and with affection and joy. Her kids are not simply walking bags of protein, but creatures that jump and play and are absolutely adorable and beautiful. There is simply no way at all to calculate the happiness evident in the face of my youngest child, below, cuddling one of Iris' newborn kids.

I give up. I cannot put a price on a good dairy goat. Here's what I can say for sure: Iris has earned her retirement, and should she never produce another kid or another gallon of milk,  we will care for her until she dies of old age.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fig Jam

The gleaner ' s pantry gave me fresh figs yesterday, so today I made spiced fig jam. Only 5 half-pints, but they are very pretty.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Out of Order (Pain and Pride)

I haven't been writing about the farm because I haven't been taking care of the farm. I've been pretty much confined to bed the past 10 days as the result of a tonsillectomy at the ripe old age of 43. After battling strep throat three or four times a year for the past several years, my doctor referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who told me "you are a walking advertisement for tonsillectomy." I meekly agreed and scheduled the surgery for a few weeks out.

Looking back, I think why didn't I keep in mind that he is a SURGEON and makes his LIVING removing tonsils? What else is he going to tell me?

I'm not being fair. Obviously I did need to get my tonsils out. I saw them after the surgery, and they were disgusting - scarred, blackened, weeping pus, enlarged. I could tell at a glance that those hideous diseased lumps of flesh were better off thrown into the trash than staying in my throat, seeping toxins and harboring god knows how many strains of vicious bacteria yet to be described by science. I am optimistic that having them removed will result in overall better health and a decreased need to ingest vast quantities of Amoxicillin on a weekly basis.

But I am still resentful and angry at my ENT. He lied to me. He looked me in the eyes and said the recovery would take a week. "It's a week of a really bad sore throat," he said. "Then it's over."

A few days before the procedure, I did some online research. No website I saw - including Medline, The Mayo Clinic, and other well-researched sites - stated any recovery period of less than two full weeks, and some said recovery takes up a month. I perused several forums for adults recovering from tonsillectomy and saw a disturbing number of repetitions of the phrase "the worst pain I've ever had."

The day of the surgery, in the two-and-a-half minutes that you get to talk to the surgeon before they put you under anesthesia, I said "I'm really concerned about pain control afterwards."

"Don't worry," he said, "we'll take care of you."

That first night, I didn't sleep at all, because any time I started to drift off, I began choking on my saliva. The pain, even when I had taken the maximum dosage of pain killer he had given me, was a solid 8 on a scale of 10. At 6 in the morning, after exactly zero minutes of sleep and several hours of weeping, I paged the doctor, who more or less told me to suck it up.

"I can't give you any more pain medicine." he said. When I said I thought I was going to aspirate on my own saliva because I couldn't swallow, he said "that's normal."

I won't go into all the details. If you've been through it, you know what it's like. I'll just say that as of now, my personal pain scale goes from 0 to tonsillectomy. No, it's not the worst pain I've ever experienced - that would be unmedicated childbirth - but it's the worst pain I've ever experienced that lasted more than an hour or two. It hurts more than all of these things which I have actually experienced:

- three broken ribs and a medium-serious concussion
- a completely severed ACL
- viral meningitis
- having all 4 wisdom teeth out at the same time
-second degree burns over 5% of my body

the pain is approximately equal to:

- being 7 centimeters dilated
- having three broken vertebrae
- the worst migraine headache in the history of migraine headaches

But whereas most of the above conditions are either of short duration - a day or two at most - or taken seriously enough to be prescribed heavy duty painkillers, this pain lasts for weeks at a time and warrants only standard Vicodin. In the US, anyway. Some of the forums I was reading are from the UK and apparently there adult tonsillectomy patients get morphine and liquid lidocaine.

I consider myself to be pretty stoic about pain. When I had knee surgery last year, I took approximately 1/4 of the pain pills I was prescribed and turned the rest back in. I suffer from a hereditary chronic pain condition and I am accustomed to being in some degree of pain more often than not. Additionally, I am a migraineur and am used to terrible, debilitating headaches a couple of times a month. I like to think I handle all of that pretty well, with a minimum of whining. I have never had a regular prescription for pain killers in my life, and I am ridiculously loath to ask for more pain meds.

It does annoy me - no, I'll be honest, it seriously pisses me off - that I was given one weeks worth of pain medication for an operation that is universally described as taking two or more weeks to recover from. I hate being put in the position of having to ration my medication, of being eternally anxious about what to do when it runs out, of having to call and ask for more and risk being seen as a "med seeker."

In nursing school,  I was taught that adequate pain control is a fundamental human right. I was also  taught that adequate pain control is a prerequisite for optimal healing. The former may be debatable - the latter I know is true. I have lost 12 pounds in 10 days, because I am unable to eat. At the peak of my medication's effectiveness, I can force down a few spoonfuls. Otherwise, I can only drink Ensure and plain water. Not that losing 10 pounds is a tragedy for me - I see it the only silver lining to this situation - but it is a measure of how poorly my pain is controlled.

I am wavering about calling tomorrow and asking to speak to the doctor. Aside from pain, I still can't swallow correctly - liquids keep pouring out my nose. I have been so conditioned not to complain, not to make a fuss, not to annoy anybody with my personal needs that so far the idea of calling and asking to be evaluated is more uncomfortable than the pain I am in. I can't decide if it is more ridiculous to ask for medical care or NOT to ask for medical care.

I once read an article about a woman who died of a ruptured bladder when her request to use a restroom on a public restaurant was refused. Rather than demand access or - god forbid - pee in the alley where she might be seen, this woman simply stood there and allowed her bladder to literally split open. When I read this, I shook my head and wondered how it was possible for a grown woman to so ignore her urgent bodily needs, but really it isn't hard for me to sympathize.

Obviously I don't think I am going to die. I'm certainly going to heal and be okay. But... why, in the absence of any medical reason, ought I to suffer severe pain? Why shouldn't I have a few more days of pain medicine? Is this a moral issue? Why shouldn't my inability to swallow correctly be evaluated? At what point would it be considered "okay" to ask to be seen? After how much pain? After how much weight lost? After how many weeks of liquid dribbling out of my nostrils?  And who is stopping me here? For all I know, if I were to call the surgeon, he'd schedule me the same day and call in a scrip.

How much am I going to make myself suffer before I ask for help?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Testing testing 123

Just installed Blogger on my phone - seeing if thus old luddite can figure it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tomato Slavery (Canning for my Soul)

Ever since I first moved to this farm, one of my main motivations for raising animals and putting in a garden has been to try and eat more ethically. I think this is a common concern - most of us care about the ethics of what we put in our mouths and most of us make some sort of effort to source our food with ethical concerns in mind.

For some of us, our paramount concern might be animal welfare, and our concern might lead us to vegetarianism, or to sourcing ethically raised meat. Some of us eat all organic, not just for our own health, but for the planet's health. Most of us try to avoid eating endangered species, and look for sustainably harvested seafood. Recently, many people have become concerned with the carbon footprint of their diet and look for locally produced food that isn't trucked or flown thousands of miles from the point of production.

These are ALL laudable goals, and what I am about to post is in no way meant to suggest that anybody ought to abandon their priorities for mine. We all do what we can to behave ethically - I hope - and I firmly believe it is impossible to refrain from all evil in all our actions.

That said - consider this quote:

"Since 1997, the Justice Department has prosecuted seven cases of slavery in the Florida agricultural industry — four involving tomato harvesters — freeing more than 1,000 men and women. The stories are a catalogue of horrors: abductions, pistol whippings, confinement at gunpoint, debt bondage and starvation wages." 
(for the rest of the article, see here)

Did you catch that? Here in these United States, in the past couple of decades, there have been cases of SLAVERY so egregious that they have been prosecuted as such by the Justice Department. Not "Wage Theft;" not "exploitation," but SLAVERY. For those of you who won't follow the link, the article details the commonplace practices of imprisonment, of people being forced to work at gunpoint, of hostage taking and threatening the families of those who try to escape. For the each of the seven cases that were prosecuted, there were (and are) literally thousands of cases that are never documented.

Following are two more links. I especially recommend the first. It was originally published in Gourmet Magazine in 2009, and it was the first time that the problem of widespread slavery in our agricultural system got serious mainstream press. It is the article that opened my eyes to the scale of the problem.



More recently, there has been news coming out about conditions on tomato farms in Baja California in Mexico. Nearly all of our winter tomatoes in the US come from either Florida or Baja. The large plantations in Baja are not owned by US companies, but they are contracted to large US companies and those companies have moral responsibility for the conditions, which are, again, tantamount to slavery.

This past winter and spring, farmworkers on these plantations have begun to protest the practices and conditions - enforced confinement behind barbed wire and electric fencing; forcing workers to purchase all of their food and water from the company store, which charges exorbitant prices and puts the workers into debt-slavery; lack of running water or plumbing; and as retaliation for protesting, beatings and starvation.

The LA Times ran an expose on the situation, which you can read here:


Aside from labor practices (what a tame and euphemistic phrase), our current system abuses farmworkers by poisoning their bodies with pesticides which they must apply to the fields, often with inadequate or nonexistent protection. The wells from which they must drink are tainted. Their children are subject to birth defects and chronic illnesses as a result of exposure to dangerous agricultural chemicals (see: http://afop.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Annual_Publication_FINAL_English1.pdf)

In short, I have come to a decision. This decision is going to cost me a lot of time and effort. I have decided that I can no longer purchase tomatoes from Mexico or Florida. I realize that it is impossible for me to entirely wash my hands of my participation in our evil (yes, I said evil) agricultural system. Just as I cannot utterly refrain from the evils of the systems which produce my clothing, electronics, or transportation needs, I cannot keep 100% "clean" in my food choices either. It's simply not possible. But I can make a few choices that make me feel better, even if they do not do much to dismantle the systems themselves. This is one of those cases where the only effective action is collective action, yet I can only take individual action.

We eat a lot of tomatoes. After onions, I think tomatoes are probably the single most important vegetable ingredient in my pantry. They go into at least a third of the meals I cook at home. I will continue to buy tomatoes when I can verify that they were produced locally. And I will continue to accept tomatoes from the Gleaner's pantry, no matter where they come from. That is because - similarly to buying secondhand goods - my using those tomatoes does not materially benefit the producers. Exactly zero of my dollars are going to the growers if I collect the tomatoes after they have already been thrown away.

But if I want tomatoes in the months of November through March, I am going to have to preserve them myself. That means I am going to spend a large number of hot August afternoons washing, blanching, peeling, dicing, and canning tomatoes. If I can get my hands on small Roma tomatoes, I can freeze them whole, which is the easiest way of preserving tomatoes. But no matter what, my tomatoes are going to be more expensive from here on out - expensive in terms of time, certainly, and maybe money too, if if we factor in electricity and canning jars.

But what price, after all, a clean conscience? Moderately clean. at least. Moderately.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Harvest Ethics (Am I a Thief?)

Returning from Tucson at the beginning of the week, I found that the High Harvest has definitely begun, as signaled by the traditional anonymous box of squash left on the front porch. Last night's dinner was squash fritters topped with goat cheese. Now there are only six big zucchini left to deal with (until the next influx, anyway).  I will probably do what I did last year and bake a bunch of zucchini bread for the freezer. I defrosted the last of last year's zucchini loaves a few days ago, and it was in perfect condition. The trick is to wrap the loaf tightly in aluminum foil and then place in a ziploc bag. There are still a few cups of organic pecans in the cupboard leftover from a trade several weeks ago, and the zucchini bread plan will use those up as well.

Pickling cucumbers have appeared in the stores, and so I made a bunch of pickles. Four pints of bread and butter canned pickles, which are not my favorite but beloved by Paloma and my mom. I also started a big jar of lacto-fermented dills - but without any dill! I have yet to find any dill weed. I just used plenty of garlic, red pepper flakes, and a whole bunch of grape leaves to stop the pickles from getting soft. My children were aghast when I spotted an enormous grapevine growing up into the trees on the side of the road and pulled over to pick some leaves.

"Mom! You don't know who those belong to!"

"Nobody cares if I pick a handful of leaves off this vine, honey, it's gigantic. Besides, nobody can see me behind the trees."

"MOM!!! You're a THIEF!"

"Oh, relax, if anybody comes out I'll ask them nicely. It's not like I'm taking the grapes."

I also take apples and plums off of abandoned roadside trees. And the sour cherries off those branches of my neighbor's trees that hang over the fence onto my property. I'm unrepentant. Everybody knows that the fruit hanging in your airspace is fair game. As is the fruit off any tree growing in the ditch beside the road if there's no house in hailing/waving distance.

In Seattle, I had a beautiful young Bing cherry tree that I planted in the front yard, which was unfenced. I didn't mind if passersby took a small handful of cherries as they walked by - the temptation was strong - but I did draw the line when I saw people bringing bags and picking into the bag without asking. Once I actually caught a couple of young men UP IN THE BRANCHES, picking all the cherries they could and stuffing their shirtfronts. I yelled at those guys.

In apple season, I often cruise around looking for trees. I like to make apple cider and it takes a LOT of apples. As I said above, if the tree is not within sight of a house, I consider it free fruit. If it is in someone's yard or planted on the road near the driveway, I will knock and ask before taking any fruit. Oh - and obviously I only do that if I see that the apples are falling on the ground and not being picked up. If there are no apples on the ground I figure the owner is using the fruit. And if the owner says "yes, by all means, take all the fruit you like" I always offer back some cider or applesauce in return. I have some elderly neighbors who offered me all the apples I want in exchange for cleaning up the windfalls.

I truly believe I am acting well within the social norms of my region, but I'm very curious to hear what people from other parts of the country say. Am I a thief? Do you have to hike up a quarter mile driveway and knock before you take a handful of grape leaves? When is a tree abandoned? Is it open season on vacant lot trees? Can you strip them bare or is it good form to leave some fruit for the next person? Tell me in the comments.