Saturday, December 15, 2007

Weather or Not

New snow this morning. It's like turning to a new page in a journal. A fresh start, all clean and blank. Full of promise and possibilities. A good rain can produce the same effect, but the winter palette is so much more spare. Just a few colors to work with: nuances in white, with contrasting edges of black, brown, and gary. The Earth sleeps under this white blanket, recharging for the next cycle. A good time for reflection.

This fine morning I have thoughts about food, which I'm offering as food for thought.
As homesteaders in the temperate climate of northeast Missouri, Sandhill has gradually learned ways to extend our access to food even into these days of dormancy. The key—both to four-season gardening and living sustainably in general—is to figure out what Nature allows you and to create a diet that matches the seasonal possibilities.
Even in winter there are choices. The snow, for example, is an insulating blanket over our Remay-protected Brussels sprouts. This hardy brassica can handle a good deal of cold and during the next thaw—and there is always a thaw—we'll be able to gather tender buds & leaves of incredibly sweetness. The high sugar content begins an inexorable fade to starch as soon as the buds are picked and it's a race to get them steamed and onto one's plate. (The same is true for sweet corn, lima beans, and beets. Most people have no idea how good fresh food can be because they have never actually eaten any.) 
Aside about the modern disconnect with natural life: Years ago we had a young woman join the cmty who was raised in New York City. It was her first time living on a farm, and right away she noticed how often conversations would start with comments about the weather. Having experienced plenty of this kind of banal conversation growing up, she was disappointed that people at Sandhill seemed to have trouble finding their way into topics that really mattered. She was hoping people in cmty would be more direct. By degrees, it eventually dawned on her that the problem was not with the other members; the weather was important. Growing up in the city, the weather mostly impacted her choice of clothing or whether to attend an outside event. On the farm, it dictates what makes sense to do, or even what's possible. You learn to do things when the weather is right. 
So, for example, we know we'll harvest garlic in early July, but we can't be sure which day, because we don't know ahead when we'll get the rain that will make pulling the bulbs easy. If we don't get the rain, we'll have to dig them out with garden forks. We can do it that way, but we try to find the natural opening where the work will be simpler, and keep our lives flexible enough to take advantage of what the weather offers.
We also have parsley and fall-planted spinach protected by Remay. Once winter releases its grip, these darlings will shoot up (maybe that's why they call it "spring"), providing new greens faster than anything you can plant. And there is nothing quite as good as that first spinach salad. 
Perhaps in late February or early March, when the frost leaves the ground yet the landscape is still all browns and grays—we will be hunting carefully for last year's parsnips, just breaking their dormancy with black-green shoots emerging from the cold soil in a distinctive starburst pattern. If you catch them early, they are like eating candy, delicious fried in butter. If you wait too long, they're all woody and the sweetness will have migrated into the tops to support luxurious leaves.
To be sure, in winter we eat more food that stores dry: potatoes, onions, winter squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, and wide variety of dry beans. Often we're able to nurse our late supply of carrots and beets until solstice, and we just turned our last fresh tomatoes into a soup three dinners ago. We also start to draw down on the larder of frozen and canned goods that we've carefully stockpiled during the growing season. The root cellar and walk-in freezer are jammed to capacity in November, and now we're starting to—literally—eat away at our surplus.
Throughout the winter, Michael regularly sprouts alfalfa to provide a steady supply of crisp, green nourishment—a welcome contrast on dinner plates dominated by well-cooked browns, mushy whites, and baked oranges. Winter is also the time when our fermented foods come more to the fore: sauerkraut (combined with the last of the unprocessed tomatoes to make that soup I mentioned above); sourdough bread; kimchi; crock pickles; yogurt; and tempeh (both for ourselves and for sale).
We are also building a greenhouse, which will substantially augment our winter food capacity—think salads in January. Though it's rather amazing (and humbling) that it has taken us 33 years to get around to it, we're excited about Gigi's work to create a 20x30 strawbale-insulated building, smack in the middle of our orchard, conveniently between our two main gardens.
So even though it's winter, here on the farm it's not just eating time, it's still food producing time. And that's a comforting thought. While the pace is slower, we're still at it; just like Nature. 
All this ruminating has made me hungry. I'm the cook today, and it feels like a perfect day for baked beans and steamed bread—much of which I can do on the wood stove. Time to stop typing and start cooking...


annie said...

Hey Ward,
I'm trying to figure out how to leave a comment all on my own. I know I'll at least read your blog. Can you have it ready for my morning cup of coffee? annie

Unknown said...

Great BLOG, Laird. I think this is a wonderful tool to grow the intentional community movement. The first person accounts of your life is so refreshing and I believe attractive. Keep up the good work.

William Cerf
Brooklyn, NY