Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Holidays!

The Christmas holiday passed so fast that we suddenly find ourselves preparing the table again, this time to say goodbye to 2011 and to greet the new year. Before we dig into a delicious Russian-style New Year's dinner with the family, we are taking this moment to reflect on the wild and wonderful journey that has brought us to this place. We're thankful for the all the new people we've met and friends we've made. For old friends who have supported us and this idea. We are so happy to be here on the historic family farm, learning to fix things and grow things, and getting to know our new adopted home town. Thank you to everyone who has made it a truly memorable year!

We wish you a very happy holiday season and successful 2012!

Happy Holidays from McCollum Orchards!

Front Entryway in snow
Artistic shot of the front gates (made of old school desks)
Holiday mantle (originally from Governor Hunt's home)
Holiday dining room decked out for a feast!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Huff and Puff and Blow that Shed Down

Our farm buildings are older than dirt. They have what only can be described as “character.” As the farm’s central command center, the tractor shed was this year’s designated ‘special-needs’ building. This summer, we spent a huge effort repairing and preparing the inside of this building for agricultural use. By the fall, we could focus on the outside.

Good thing we did because we found that one entire corner was about to crumble and a 3-foot wide hole had eroded near the front door. (So that’s how the cats got in.) We needed to fix these problems or risk losing the whole 60x30 foot structure. How was it eroding? Just like the Grand Canyon, all it needed was time and water.

Knowing is half the battle

Fistfuls of sand pulled from inside the wall showed that the century-old mortar keeping this building standing had completely deteriorated. Stones that were once held firmly in place could now be pulled from the wall with the touch of a finger. This explained the large cracks we were witnessing. But it wasn’t until a strong downpour that I saw what was really happening. A sag in the roof gutter funneled most of the rain straight down the wall, where it seeped through the foundation and inside the building. Over the years, this constant water flow had caused entire sections of the foundation to erode.

A man of action

First, I used the tractor to slope the soil away from the building to improve drainage. Next, I re-hung the gutters and added downspouts. I then chiseled off the crumbling mortar and washed all the sand, dirt and debris away with a hose. Many of the stones were missing, so I gathered various sized field stones to use as replacements. One silver lining of doing projects like these on an old farm is that there’s always a pile of old, but potentially useful, equipment lying around. A huge metal bowl and a giant two-foot long spoon were perfect for mixing mortar.

The tricky part was figuring out how to insert new mortar into the walls where it had turned to sand. The holes and cracks were too small to use a traditional trowel, so I invented and built what might be the first ever mortar injector. For the first prototype I converted a plastic two-liter bottle into huge mortar syringe. The idea eventually morphed into a large PVC injector complete with plunger and needle, capable of holding and injecting 10 pounds of wet mortar deep into holes as small as ¾ inch wide.

After injecting over 240 pounds of mortar into the walls, I replaced the stones. Select stone, slop mortar, lodge into place, repeat. Once the wall was more or less seamless, it was time to do point work. With what looked like an oversized cake icing decoration bag, mortar was squeezed around the stones, smoothed with a trowel and cleaned with a rag. A final spray-down with a hose and this long overdue reconstruction project was finally complete.

Welcome Little Pigs

While it might be the preferred hiding place for the three little pigs, this stone building wouldn’t have stopped the big bad wolf or even a mild-mannered one. A huff and a puff would have easily brought the old walls down. On the bright side, this new mortar makeover and functioning rainwater management system should keep our command central standing for years to come.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hops Conference - Let the Ideas and Beer Flow

A few weeks ago, we attended the Hop Growers Conference and Annual Meeting for the Northeast Hop Alliance (NeHA). Over 120 growers from New York State and New England gathered in Troy, New York at the awesome craft brewery Brown’sBrewing Co. and learned everything you ever wanted to know about growing hops. You know you’re in a cool job when the industry conference is held at a brewery.
Hee-hee, that's punny
Heady Days for Hops Growers
According to an impromptu poll of the audience, about 75% of the attendees were just considering planting hops next year. In the room, there were double as many growers and perspective growers than in the entire Pacific Northwest, where the vast majority of U.S. hops are grown. While about 60 growers dominate the U.S. commercial market, acreage is different. Currently only 50 acres are in cultivation in the Northeast as opposed to 30,000 acres across Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

That might be about to change. This recent article in the New York Times describes the heady excitement about supplying local brewers with local ingredients. Chief among them is hops. Hops are a little more difficult to grow in our wetter region than out West. So we all gleaned as much as we could from experts from Cornell, USDA and even University of Oregon on important factors that affect hops production. Topics ranged from irrigation to soil health to plant fertility to pest and weed management.

Learning to Grow Again
Until the 1920s, hops for the U.S. markets were mainly grown in the northeast, particularly in central New York. But, a fungus outbreak and growing numbers of western suppliers pressured the market. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 was the nail in the coffin for the northeastern hops. Thus, there’s been a long gap in New York hops cultivation and know-how. At the conference, everyone, even the experts, stressed the importance of grower experience in developing best practices for northeastern hops.
We do it all for these cones

As growers, we couldn’t help but reflect on all we learned in our first growing season. As we listened to different presenters, mistakes we made became clear as did some things we did right.

Here are our top six takeaways:
  1. We didn’t keep any of our hops to share as samples for breweries. Doh! Next year, we’ll approach local brewers before harvest so they can observe our growing practices and get ready to brew with fresh hops.
  2. Using fabric row covers for weed suppression was a smart decision. Weed competition limits the hops’ root growth, especially during the first year. Even if deer stamped holes in it and a few weeds still got through, the covers probably helped the first-year plants more than we could have anticipated.
  3. We need better soil samples. Soil health is THE determining factor in healthy plants. Really, it’s the foundation for all good farming. You have to know how your soil is doing in order to make solid decisions on improving it. We found out that we did our first samples incorrectly. The next week, we went out and did them correctly and just got the accurate test results.
  4. Laying down irrigation was a good move, too. Experts (and my farmer dad) said that first and second-year plants are healthier when they have consistent water.
  5. On the flipside, our hopsyard needs better drainage. You might remember the 50-foot-long trench we dug in the spring to drain the rain-soaked area. While that was a good start, the location will need a drain tile and soil build-up so we can expand acreage.
  6. Finally, starting small was smart. We planted just a quarter-acre while most perspective growers were planning to plant an acre (over 1,000 plants) their first year. However, the main limitation is not how much you can plant - although, raising a hops trellis is no cake walk – but how much you can harvest. At the conference, we learned more about equipment options and we are reaching out to nearby growers to share equipment.
There are twice as many hops growers here than in all the Pacific Northwest
Hops are Hip
The growing excitement for the hops movement filled the room. We think that the hops market in the Northeast will be different than the Western market. Eastern growers will probably never have lots of acreage. The demand stems from a different source altogether. Here, growing demand for local hops is uniquely linked to the local foods and craft-beer movements. So, being a small, local farm could actually be a good thing. For many Eastern hops growers, tapping and building strong local traditions might be the key to success. Brewers can observe their ingredients growing all season long and growers can get to know their customers’ needs. We came away from the conference with deep insights, more enthusiasm and some immediate action plans. Free beer was definitely not a bad, either.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flash Back - Cobwebs in the Attic

A dusty box of papers in the attic revealed some amazing insights about life on this family farm back in the late 1800's. For years, dozens of post-Civil War Era receipts and contracts from my great-great-grandfather, Silas Wright McCollum, and local businesses sat collecting cobwebs. It wasn't until our "Big Clean" that some of these documents came to light. They give us a rare glimpse at the business of the historic farm. They also paint a vivid picture of this bustling town on the banks of the Erie Canal.

An invoice for seeds dated February 1883 from James Vick (of Rochester, NY) show what my family planned to plant and sell that year. It also gives a hint at what grew best on the farm and what produce was in highest demand during that time. Beans, peas, potatoes, cabbages and onions were among the many vegetables ordered. Near the bottom, you'll see an order for a plant called Salsify, an oyster-flavored root vegetable. I guess our tastes have changed.

With the farm being situated next to the Erie Canal and a railway, it is possible this produce was shipped out West, along the Atlantic Seaboard and even out of the county.

A Memorandum of Agreement dated March 1884 was signed between my great-great-grandfather and the Niagara Preserving Company. In this, S. W. McCollum agreed to plant fifteen acres of "the best variety of tomatoes" and sell them only to the Niagara Preserving Company in exchange for a pre-negotiated selling price of $8 dollars per ton.

Besides needing to feed his own family, Silas also had to feed his workers and care for a wide range of farm animals. This bill from Arnold & Little, merchants from a Lockport city mill, shows a balance of $180.89 for the purchases of flour, feed & grain between October 1883 and March 1884.

Just like today, advertising your products and services is a key part of doing business. At a time before radio, television and the internet, printed word was your best option to reach the masses. In this receipt from October, 1884, Silas paid $23.50 in advertising expenses to the Union Printing and Publishing Co., owners of the Lockport Daily Union and the Niagara Democrat, the "best advertising mediums in Western New York." In that spirit, we want to say, "Silas, welcome to Google."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Garlique Chic: Growing Speciality Crops

As a farmer, what do you do when you don’t have the land, equipment or know-how to plant the popular commodity crops, like corn and soy, which have kept many American family farms in business?

You zero in on niche markets. By specializing in unique products, we aim to leverage our business/ marketing skills and focus our time and resources as we learn to farm.

Growing hops, definitely a “specialty crop,” meets demand in the small, but fast-growing craft brew industry. That got us thinking about other fruits and vegetables for which consumers have specific preferences.  

Thus began our great garlic experiment.  Garlic as a “specialty” product? You bet! Consumers have distinct tastes in garlic. Mostly, it depends on regional cuisine. Although only a few varieties are offered at the general supermarket  (including Elephant Garlic which is really a type of onion), there are actually dozens of varieties – Italian, Polish, Russian, German and the list goes on. Immigrants have brought regional types of garlic to the U.S. for centuries, so today’s growers have the benefit of having access to heritage types that have been passed down through the generations.
Each clove will become a whole garlic 7 months
In August, we purchased cloves from two online sources: GreyDuck Garlic, which grows certified organic garlic, and Seed Savers Exchange. SSE’s seed catalog is totally drool-worthy for the aspiring farmer and their mission to preserve crop varieties through organized seed banks is an honorable one. By September, several of the most popular varieties were already sold out. (Guess it is a growing market.) We ordered these three varieties that are known for their usefulness in cooking as well as their cold tolerance:
  • German Extra Hardy
  • Georgian Crystal
  • Siberian (there’s Bree’s regional preference)
In October, 100 cloves arrived in small FedEx boxes, along with thorough planting instructions – bonus! Last week, the soil temperature finally got down to the recommended planting temperature of 50F degrees. Although garlic can be planted in the spring, they say that the best tasting garlic overwinters. That is, it is planted in the late fall (after the first frost) and harvested in late spring.

Here’s how we conducted the Great Garlic Experiment: 

First, we prepped four test beds in a broad, open patch in the pear orchard. (According to The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya Denckla Cobb (here is her blog, Reclaiming Our Food), garlic is compatible with orchards fruits.) The tedious part was poking over 100 1x4 inch holes and then pushing single cloves into each hole, point up.  (If we plant next year, Rich is definitely going to develop some tool to make it go faster.)  Luckily, garlic cloves can be planted only six inches apart and require little maintenance apart from weeding.  One very common mistake people make is planting the cloves upside-down or in areas with poor drainage.
Last, we piled them under a thick blanket of mulched leaves and grass clippings for a long winter’s nap. And now we wait 6-8 months to see what sprouts.
Camouflage garlic patch - marked off so we don't mow over it.
Loss of food variety and flavors is very real in the U.S. Here, National Geographic’s dramatic infographic  visualizes the homogenization of our food options. They estimate 93% of seeds that used to be available for U.S. agriculture last century are now gone.
Curbing that scary trend will take effort on both sides. Consumers need to be educated about the benefits of variety and locally-grown crops. In the case of garlic, most people only know about the Italian garlic typically grown in California. On the grower’s side, niche markets are often avoided because of their volatility.  As these markets rise and fall, small-scale farmers must remain flexible. (Hard to do when a crop takes six months to grow!)

That’s where we stand right now: poised to enter the growing gourmet garlic market.  That is, assuming we grow it well.  If so, we’ll expand our crop next fall. If not, we can chalk it up to research and continue to search for our perfect market fit.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fall Garden Clean-Up (and Winterizing the Hopsyard)

Time is flying. You can already sense the days getting shorter and nighttime coming sooner. Last week, we had our first hard frost of the year. That meant the end of the summer garden. Bye-bye tomatoes. Au Revoir banana peppers. With just a little bit of work, we transformed the summer dregs into a small Late Fall garden. Hello beets and leafy greens!

Goodbye Summer Garden!

Pulling tomatoes action shot

We found this article by Our Garden Gang to be a useful and straightforward checklist of how to thoroughly clean up a summer garden. It is common sense, really, but we wanted to make sure that we covered all our bases. Especially since we plan to garden in the location year-round, we must keep the soil healthy and fungus- and pest-free. And make sure that weeds and pests don't overwinter in the compost bins. Here's what we did:

  1. Harvested everything that wasn't too frost-bit
  2. Pulled up all tomato, pepper, broccoli, cabbage watermelon and cantalope plants
  3. Cleaned all the tomato and pepper stakes and stored for next year
  4. Wrapped up all hoses and pumps so they wouldn't freeze/crack and stored them for next year 
  5. Moved the herbs into the 4-tier starter greenhouse now set up the sunroom
  6. Weeded the fall vegetable plots - kale, spinach, onions and the interplanted beets and lettuce
  7. Anything with evidence of aphids didn't go into the compost bin
End-of-summer harvest: peppers, beans, tomatoes, dill and one eggplant (hidden)

Why are you still blooming?

Frost bit pepper
We will mulch in some compost and cover with grass clippings before the ground freezes.We plan to build 2-3 raised beds and cover them with old window frames we found in the barn to create cold farms. The garden site is a perfect place for winter cold frame gardening because it is a south-facing slope that gets full day sun now that the leaves have fallen off the trees in the yard.

We also winterized the hopsyard. That was a more involved activity that took a couple afternoons during a chilly rain. The hops got planted in a cold rain, so only fitting that we winterized them in the same weather. Hops are a perennial bine (hop vine), which means they will grow every year from the same rhizome. We weeded around the rhizome mounds and offed any dormant insect pests we came across. (Hey, it's law of the jungle out there.)

We'll try to save the coir for next year's harvest, so we untwisted the bines from the coir and cut them 3-4 inches from the ground. In Rich's trellis design, the coir twine is attached to the cables by hooks. So, we gathered the 5-8 loose-hanging coir strands in each section and wrapped them around the poles. This way, they should stay protected and usable next season. Finally, we cleaned up the cut bines and hauled them to the compost bins. (No signs of pests, just deer teeth marks.) We just purchased a lot of organic mushroom manure that we will use to cover the rhizome mounds for the winter.

This was a test garden and we learned a lot from it. We only spent about $30 on produce total this summer. We got so much produce from that we gave most of it away. Note to self: try succession planting next year, so everything doesn't get ripe all at once. We have taken notes on what works and what doesn't and we'll analyze that for next year's crops. We plan to double the size of the garden, plant some more variety and do more storing/root cellaring to stretch the garden's use into the colder months.
Healthy hop rhizome

This guy made a home in the herbs

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween from our haunted house to yours!  

The Spirit of orchards past...

Just a quick post to wish you a fun and festive holiday and fall season.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Jack Frost Nips Our Hoses

McCollum Orchards got our first hard frost of 2011 last night. It was a beautiful crystal clear night.  Stars sparkled in the ink black sky. Frost's favorite scene was set for a grand entrance to Western New York. In preparation, we moved the herbs inside into their plastic greenhouse set up in the sunroom yesterday. But, the fall garden was all frosted over this morning!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How About Them Apples?

Can you believe Fall is nearly over? Where did summer go?  We made the most of this East Coast Fall, with its crisp mornings, crackling leaves, and the crunch of fresh apples and pears. In Spring, we wrote about pruning the overgrown fruit trees that had not been touched in 20 years. After a busy summer planting test gardens, tending hops and mending farm buildings, our attention finally returned to the orchards.
Arial view of McCollum Orchards from 1958 shows many trees
Family documents show that McCollum Orchards was a roaring business as early as the 1880s. During high production in the 1950s, the farm grew over 10,000 trees in several varieties of peach, plum, apple, pear and cherry. Over the decades, farming slowed as the family changed location and production costs rose. What remain are about two acres of apples and an acre of pears – about 150 trees total.

The fruit yields are not up to commercial standards, but still impressive considering they haven’t been properly maintained in over a decade. On a lovely fall afternoon, a friend helped us clear out the cut branches leftover from pruning, load the salvageable pieces on the trailer and stack them on the old loading dock of the packing shed. In the end, we collected several hundred pounds of apple and pear wood that we plan to chip, dry and package for BBQ grilling wood-chips. 
A friend helped clear out the good wood and "deadfall"
 Easy as Apple Pie
Baking a Maple Apple Pie
The trees produced a Fall buffet. We humans might have been the last in line, after the deer, turkey and insects, but we still got our fill. Recently, we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with friends in Ellicottville – a ski town south of Buffalo. With a dear friend visiting from San Francisco, we baked an apple pie using our own apples and added a hint of maple syrup in honor of our northern neighbors.  The two apple varieties in the orchard, Rome and Northern Spy, are perfect for baking and cider-making.  As they say, ‘Northern Spies for your pies.’ 

 Here’s our Maple Apple Pie recipe
  • Preheat oven to 425F
  • Line a pie tin with a Betty Crocker pie crust (or make your own), cut a second pie crust into strips for lattice top
  • Mix 6 cups of peeled thinly cut orchard fresh baking apples into a bowl of the following: 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of gound cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 cup of local maple syrup
  • Pour the filling into the pie crust, tuck 4-5 chunks of butter around on top
  • Make a lattice top with the strips, brush them with milk and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top
  • Rim edges of pie so they won't burn, bake for 40-50 minutes until the inside bubbles and the top is browned
  • Serve and enjoy!
 An Apple a Day, We’ll Find a Way
This month, we had informative meetings with ag agents from the Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Our most pressing question was which trees, if any, could be salvaged and brought back into production. What we feared (but were not surprised) to hear was we would be better starting afresh with new trees and production methods.

The Extension agents think we are in a good position to start with a high-density trellis system with dwarf tree stock. Here is an Oregon Extension description of high-density pear orchards. This system is common in Europe, but only just catching on in the U.S. Unlike traditional tree planting, which has as much as 30 feet between rows and takes about five years to produce fruit, high-density planting gets 800-1,000 trees per acre and yields within two years. It uses fewer resources per tree, requires less labor-hours and spray is more localized.  An upside to being new farmers is that it is easier to learn the technique from the start instead of having to un-learn an old technique. After seeing the hops trellis and irrigation system that Rich designed, they said he has the engineering mind needed to construct a high-density orchard.  You could almost see the gears in his head starting to turn at that moment.
Trellis Design from Ontario Ministry of Ag, Food and Rural Affairs
If we decide to go the U-Pick operation route, the high-density system might be the best option. It would minimize the area that might get sprayed, making it safer for neighbors, and take advantage of our urban location. We heard that McCollum Orchards is one of the last two farms in the city limits. The downside is that popular dwarf cultivars and rootstock from the best nurseries are backlisted for two years or more.

In our conversations with the Extension agents and discussions at the Niagara County Farm Bureau Annual Meeting, we’ll have to take into account three major issues affecting this region’s agriculture, especially fruit and vegetable production, in our future business plan:
  1. Labor – Migrant labor is harder to get. Domestic labor is non-existent. The Farm Bureau has successfully lobbied for state laws that take the agriculture business into consideration, but nonetheless this is a hot-button issue. The cost of labor is high. How many hands on deck will ultimately determine how much we can produce.
  2.  Land – Land scarcity seems ironic in this county, but it is a consideration. At the ground level, the quality of our soil on our finite area of land is our greatest asset no matter what we plant.
  3. Climate Change – Regional weather patterns are changing. They cannot predict when harvest is going to be one year to the next anymore due to the drastic swings. Sixty years ago at this time, there would have already been snow on the ground. Yet, it was 80 degrees last week. (As this is our first winter, we’re not complaining!)
This winter, our main goal will be to develop a solid start-up business plan and learn all we can from local farmers. The motivating question right now is: How can we grow excellent produce with maximum efficiency of water, fuel, time, back muscles and finances?  Due to the numerous uncertainties, including the ones we can’t control like the economy and the weather, there are no second chances when it comes to starting a fruit-tree business.  It’s time for us to do our homework and get it right the first time.  Now if we could just find some dwarf rootstock…

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This (*$%#ing) Old House - A DIY Story

View of house from the lawn
Last week, my wife and I did something that made us feel like adults. We bought a new washing machine and dryer. Normally, installing a gas dryer is straight-forward: just attach the gas line and vent and plug it in. This is only true if your house wasn’t build BEFORE the invention of indoor plumbing, gas heat and electricity. Our house was built in the 1830’s. As no surprise, this simple task of installing the modern appliances turned into a multi-day ordeal.

First question: Is there a gas line near the laundry room?
Answer: No! We had to find a gas line in the house and somehow tap into it. We eventually found one on the other side of the house, but it then took over an hour to find the shut-off valve for it. (It was located outside the house.) Time to go to Home Depot. We installed a T-joint, attached links of black pipe to where the dryer was, installed a new shut-off valve and bubble-tested the line for leaks. All good.

Second question: Is there a vent for the dryer?
Answer: No! For years, the old electric dryer had vented directly into the basement. It coated every beam and cobweb with a fine layer of purple fuzzy lint and sprouted forests of mold that smelled vaguely of fabric softener. The closest egress was a boarded up window. The natural conclusion was to knock out the top window pane (above the outside snow line), cut a hole in the board and install the vent. So, I duct-taped the window pane in order to catch the glass, took a swing with a hammer and…whump! Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. The next tool in my arsenal was a crowbar. I took a hard swing and, Whack! No break, not even a crack. Was this a joke? I hit that window hard, three times before it finally shattered. My ancestors had installed 1/3 inch thick glass in the basement windows. It was practically bullet proof! After that, cutting a hole in the board, adding insulation and installing the vent were straight-forward.

Third question: Are the electrical outlets grounded?
Answer: No! They were three-pronged outlets. However, under the faceplate, the wires had no ground. Great, another trip to Home Depot for grounding wire and a clamp to attach it to a copper water pipe. With the necessary parts in-hand, the next step was to cut the power to the laundry area so I wouldn’t electrocute myself while installing the grounding wire. With 22 rooms in this house, you would think that someone would have labeled the 40+ circuits. They did not. I had to plug a lamp into the outlet and systematically trip each of the circuits in the house until my father-in-law yelled that the light was off. After that, installing the grounding wire was easy.

New dryer works, now for paint
We moved into this historic family home 25 days ago and are nurturing our budding love-hate relationship. The dryer is now humming nicely. We’ve conquered countless other repairs. Before I curse how easy Bob Vila made old home repairs look on TV, I remind myself that the conveniences of modern living (plumbing, electricity, telephones, forced-air furnaces, alarm systems and even cable TV) are modifications to the original structure. Unlike new homes where floor-plans seamlessly incorporate and hide the infrastructure, old houses have been forced to ingest wires, pipes and appliances that were never imagined by the original designers. The results are often convoluted attempts at modernization that have me banging my head against the wall. On the bright side, I’ve found that banging my head against the wall turns on the washing machine.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rebuilding the Past

Back in April we wrote about a powerful freak windstorm hit Lockport, NY with wind speeds recorded at 83 mph. Dozens of trees fell, knocking down power lines and blocking traffic. The most notable casualty was a grand century-old Locust tree that shaded our quiet neighborhood street. When it fell, it left an 8-foot deep crater in the road. It also crushed an old iron fence and a section of a historic fieldstone wall that my ancestors built back in the 1830’s.

The fallen tree lay there for a few weeks (during which neighbors and passerby stopped to take photos) until the City hauled it away. The crew had to bulldoze a wider span of the old stone wall to drag it off our property. Just what I needed: another project.

Back in the day, horse- and ox-drawn plows crisscrossed the farm, tilling the ground. Rocks that were plowed up were carted to the sides of the fields where they were used to build stone walls that marked plots and property lines. Several generations of farming had produced a sizable wall of stacked rock. It stretches through the fields, in neighbors’ yards and even pops up on the other side of the street.

Project Rebuild waited until the end of the summer, after planting and the weather cooled off and when my brother-in-law, a former Russian body-builder, happened to be visiting. The first step was actually to clear the jumble of rocks and dismantle more wall so I could see how it was originally constructed. It brought me back to my days working as an archaeologist.

It was a double-wall construction, where two lines of large flat-faced rocks were placed on either side, and small rocks were piled in the middle trough. Thin stones where then used as shims to stabilize the layers. This back-breaking process was repeated until the wall was about 4.5 feet high, then a large capstone was set on top to hold everything in place.

Putting the wall back together was like finishing a large, very heavy jigsaw puzzle. The biggest boulders weighed over 300 pounds. And we have no oxen. It took pick axes, pry bars, perseverance and a lot of brute strength. But, we repaired the wall. Then, we even moved on to rebuild some other sections that had crumbled and collapsed over the decades. When we were finally finished, we’d added 20 feet of new wall with stones that we had collected during this growing season.

Repairing that wall made me appreciate the amount of labor that went into building this farm over the generations. It’s the kind of work that has to be done by hand. Sure, a machine could move the rocks, but only a person can construct that complex wall. Rebuilding the wall was like rebuilding a connection to my ancestors who did the same project on the same spot 180 years ago.

Next time you drive through the countryside and see an old stone wall in the woods, take a second to think of the family who toiled in the fields and built that wall in their attempt to clear the land and make a life for themselves. Until the day comes when no more stones surface in the fields, the wall on our property will be, as it’s always been, a work in progress.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vegetables Can Win

We’re taking a break from farm renovation stories – don’t worry there are still plenty of those to come – to tell you about the main theme that’s cropped up this week: Vegetables! They have completely won us over – in the garden, in the kitchen and even on the baseball field.
August corn field. Don't worry, no baseball here.

Harvesting all the beets and carrots freed up a few plots in the test garden. So, we decided to plant a for a fall harvest. Two garden harvests in one year? It’s a winning streak! 

We tried to plant some traditional fall vegetables because they’ll actually taste sweeter after the first frost (around October 15th here in Zone 6a). It is a scaled down version of the spring planting – mainly because the beans, tomatoes, melons, cabbage, kale and onions are still going strong.  

Before planting, we prepared the beds. We loosely followed these straight-forward instructions and re-tilled and added some compost mixture to re-invigorate the soil. Then, we hoed the rows and dropped the little seeds in. This is what we planted for fall:

  • Beets – golden and red
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Bibb lettuce
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • MachÄ›, or Lamb’s Lettuce
  • Chives  

We also tried our hand at inter-cropping, where you plant two types of vegetables that are compatible in one bed. It works particularly well when one type is fast-growing and can be harvested before the other crop needs room to get big. We interspersed fast-growing Bibb lettuce in the rows of beets. The lettuce grows above ground, while the beets grow below the surface. I admit, with the first sprouts just popping up, I’m already thinking about building cold frames to grow through the winter months. (And the crowd goes wild!)

Vegetables CAN win
We might be planning for frost, but it is still 85 degrees and the summer’s tomatoes are  producing like gang-busters. It is true what they say that all the tomatoes ripen at once. We get 6-15 ripe fruits off of nine plants every day. We’ve given away a lot to friends, family and neighbors. But, we’re still left with a bunch. 

1-1.5 lbs of fruit -> 1 pint
One long afternoon, I canned 12 pints of crushed tomatoes and had enough left over to freeze 3 pints. (Note to self: canning is more fun as a team sport.) I used this recipe because it is very detailed and got rave reviews. Crushed tomatoes can be used as the base for all sorts of stews, soups and sauces in the coming season. I also learned that you can freeze whole tomatoes! After finding Rich’s great-grandmother’s old jars and paraffin seals in the barn, I’m very thankful for the invention of the freezer. If you’re short on time or don’t want to spend the hours canning, just core the tomatoes, seal them in a freezer bag and throw them in the freezer until you have time to do something with them. Ours is now party central for gallon-sized bags of tomatoes, green beans, carrots and cayenne and banana peppers. 

Vegetables can WIN
Buffalo's True Mascots: Chicken Wing, Celery and Blue Cheese
Last weekend, we went to our first local baseball game - the Buffalo Bisons won in a nail-biting match up against the Toledo Mud Hens. The Bisons, like any self-respecting team, has a regular mascot – not surprisingly – a bison. But, they're three other mascots that are the true local heroes: a chicken wing, a celery stalk and a tub of blue cheese dressing. (Yes, really.) At one point during the game, the three food mascots ran a race from first base to home plate. According our friend who is a Buffalo native, the celery never wins. Is this a metaphor of the ongoing battle of fresh veggies against processed food in America? Regardless, we cheered our hearts out for that gangly green underdog. With us, the vegetables always win.