Food Rant Friday

Growing Food in Protest


My initial intention was that Food Rand Friday would be a one time thing, apparently I have just too much to say about it.

I’ve been seeing a lot of info this week about the nationwide march against Monsanto and wonder to myself what this is really going to accomplish.  A group of basically like-minded people will get together and rant about what Monsanto is doing to our collective good health.  Marching against anything these days doesn’t seem to have the impact it once had.  Our legislators are not going to change their ways of voting on the farm bill or anything else because thousands of citizens got together to voice their disapproval of big ag’s farming practices.  Most will vote with whoever is funding their bids for reelection, plain and simple.  The sooner the population realizes this the sooner we can deal with it in a more constructive way.

Michael Pollan is my hero if for no other reason than to tell people to read labels and if there is more than five ingredients on it or there are ingredients that you don’t understand don’t eat it.  That’s pretty simple.  It doesn’t take much to read the label on that bag of Cheetos to know that they probably aren’t that good for you and that you are supporting big ag by buying and consuming them.  There are so many other reasons not to eat processed food but honestly I’ve said enough about that.

Today I have two articles to share the first is about the possible effects of Roundup on our guts and potentially our very lives (like we didn’t really already know that).  Gut Punch: Monsanto Could Be Destroying Your Microbiome was an article I read this morning that I thought was interesting but just one more reason not to eat food produced by large agriculture.  This article led me to Michael Pollan’s piece in the NYT – Some of My Best Friends are Germs.  This is a lengthy piece which is typical for Pollan only because when he makes a case for something he gives you as much information as he can.  Read it, it’s fascinating and more than a little scary.

Our food, in my humble opinion, has become one of the biggest political issues of our time.  I feel like there are so few people who are even aware of it that the idea of changing what is happening to the everyday American is all but impossible.  We are bombarded everyday with news of terrorism and tragedy that the danger of the food you buy in your grocery store takes a very back seat to the tragedy du jour.  Let’s put armed guards in every elementary school in the country to keep our children safe, let’s make sure there’s a safe room in each school as well to ensure in case of a tornado they’ll have somewhere safe to go.  Okay, I get it, but how about increasing the food budgets and finding access to organic fresh foods in every cafeteria across the country.  How about putting home economics back into the school curriculum to give our children the knowledge they need to cook a meal from scratch or help them to read the ingredient labels on their food.  How about teaching them where their food comes from?

Honestly, kids need to know more about farm animals than the cow says moo and the chicken says cluck.  They need to know the cow means milk and burgers and the chicken is eggs and McNuggets (maybe).  I worked at Old Sturbridge Village as an interpreter for a few years, fortunately for the kids I was in textiles.  Early on though I worked as a gardener. One year we were harvesting carrots and I had a little girl help pull some up – she was amazed, she didn’t know they came out of the ground!  I also had an experience of stopping kids from harassing one of the roosters in the barnyard.  He thought it was just a stupid bird, I told him that if he continued to corner and harass that bird it would attack him and then we’d have to kill him and eat him.  The kid looked at me like I was nuts and I told him that that was where his chicken nuggets came from – then he really thought I was crazy.  These kids were typically in the fourth grade.  I’m beginning to think that we’ve crossed the Rubicon with food education because the vast majority of parents don’t know where their food comes from either.  Talk about the dumbing down of America.

I will continue to use the poster at the beginning of every food rant because I am convinced the only way we are going to get ourselves out of our collective health problems is to grow our own food or source it, know where it comes from and what is in it.  If it makes you feel better go march against Monsanto on Saturday, while you’re there talk about what you are growing this year or what farmer’s market is near the person you’re talking to.   I’m hoping that in addition to being a protest it can be an education and an avenue for people to know where they can get good, healthy food for themselves and their families.





Little Patch of Tilled Earth

130519 Tilled GardenThis past weekend was a rather productive one considering it rained most of Sunday.  I made my way to the Shelburne Farm and Garden early on Saturday morning picking up a few plants, mostly for the newer perennial garden.  I completely weeded out the raspberries and the garlic patches plus planting all of my new plants by noon.  The dock growing in every bed is beginning to get to me since I have to use a shovel to get each one out.  The roots are all about a foot long now.  Dandelions everywhere, but when there are so many of them it’s rather pretty.

Cleomes were planted in the perennial bed, my all time favorite annual.  The garden center had some nice ones so I planted them in with the Echinacea .  I was disappointed with things not coming up but I think I’ve just been impatient.  Everything in the perennial beds is up as I remembered it being planted and it’s beginning to fill in.  I have been checking for the jack-in-a-pulpits on the north side of the house for a couple of weeks now and hadn’t seen them until yesterday.  They have been there the entire time we’ve been at the house so I would be disappointed if they were gone.

I bought an eggplant because I had never even seen one grown before last summer.  It’s been planted in a flower bed.  I will be putting asparagus into the north end of the vegetable garden this year, probably planting it on Wednesday.  I either had to plant it there or start an entirely new bed.  I couldn’t figure out where to put a new bed and figured committing space in the garden for the asparagus was worthwhile (it’s a 20 year commitment).  I’ll just have to till the rest of the garden with that in mind.

I tilled the garden on Sunday morning in between a couple of showers and swarms of black flies.  I had to get it done.  I also did a little soil test to see where the ph was and was pleased to see it was in a tolerable range.  I’d been worried that I was trying to grow plants that were just too unhappy with the soil conditions but it would appear that things are much better than I had thought.  I’ll hit it with some composted manure before I plant and continue rotating my plants every year.  Rotation works well for me because I bore so easily, each year feels like a new garden (well it is but I try to make the layout completely different).  Last year I had mostly rows going east/west, this year I will probably have more of a potager type.  The new, experimental crops will be a dwarf popcorn and some purple string beans.  For pole beans this year I will be interspersing Scarlet Runners with Kentucky Wonder I think.  I love the flowers and so do the birds, bees and hummingbird moths. Sharing my garden with these creatures is really what it’s all about for me.  Of course ask me again right after the raccoons destroy my corn.  Still unsure if I will do teepees for the pole beans or do a long trellis like I did a few years ago.  I will have to see what kind of saplings I can find in the woods.

The only things that will planted in the next week or so will be the asparagus, potatoes and onions.  Everything else will wait until the weekend of June 1st.  I’m always so over-anxious to get things into the ground I often put seeds in earth that is just too cold.  One more week won’t make that much of a difference.  I will be starting basil and nasturtiums in pots to scatter around the gardens.  I usually plant the nasturtiums in the garden but have found that they are difficult to weed around as they get going and they look great cascading over the sides of pedestal pots.

The photograph really makes my garden look rather small, in reality it is about 20′ x 50′, so it’s a pretty good size.  I haven’t put up the fence posts yet for my caution tape fence.  Chester spent a good deal of time yesterday in that fine tilled soil – he loves it.  You can imagine what he looked like after rolling around in it while it was raining.  And once again he has photobombed my pictures – he sincerely thinks he should be in every shot.



Bed and Chicken Dinners

Brochure (4)During the early 20th century Fort Pelham Farm was a bed and breakfast of sorts as well as serving home cooked meals.  This is a brochure that Olive had in her scrapbook and I thought I’d share it.

Brochure (3)The brochure itself is small, maybe 3″ x 5″ on a textured yellow stock and gives quite a bit of information on a small space.

Brochure (1)As I was reading it this morning I was thinking how nice it would be to have a view of the hopper from the house.  It is completely grown in now so the only view we now have is trees.  Although I have noticed that part of the view just down the road (when the leaves are off of the trees) includes the windmills in Savoy which I can’t say that I’m a fan of.  So maybe it’s better that we have the trees that way I’m not angry that someone has invaded my space albeit from afar.

Brochure (2)The back of the brochure probably fascinates me the most.  “Modern electric power plant”?  Need a little more research into that.  Running water, modern bathroom?  Hmmmm . . .  Then there is the way the entire upstairs is set up.  You have to be pretty comfortable with strangers to all be staying in the rooms upstairs.  There is no hallway between any rooms so you need to walk through other peoples bedrooms to get anywhere near the stairways.  I’m making an assumption that what is now the upstairs bathroom was once a bedroom.  I do remember my father talking about a water holding tank in the attic over the ell which they used for water pressure.  Their water was spring fed and there was a huge cistern in the cellar as well.

Then there are those dinners.  We donated a sign for chicken dinners to the Rowe Historical Society a number of years back.  I have photographs of what is now the living room set up for dining.  It’s difficult for me to imagine cooking for a crowd in the kind of kitchen they were using at the time.  And what kind of flock of chickens did they have?  Must have been substantial unless they bought dressed hens somewhere else which I’m kind of doubting.  I also looked up the value of $3.00 in 1900 just to get a little perspective.  It amounted to $79.10.  They were making fairly good money with their little endeavor – almost $400 per person per week.  You just have to consider that it was a seasonal retreat for people.

Dining Room at Fort Pelham Farm 1930's (7)The photo above is of the dining room.  The floors and layout are still the same and I have to tell you that I wouldn’t mind having the rocking chair in the foreground.

Dining Room at Fort Pelham Farm 1930's (2)I look at these photographs and am amazed at how little the house has changed.  When we do something to it we try to keep within the character of the house.  It’s really too beautifully built to mess with.  We have returned to eating in that room, dividing it into different living spaces.  It’s a wonderful place to entertain friends and family.  Now I just need to figure out how to charge $26.27 for a creamed chicken dinner.



Pear Blossoms

IMG_20130511_104220I wait eagerly for this each year.  The pear tree blossoming in the back forty.  It is always so beautiful, this year more so because I finally got down there to prune it.  Bill and I drove the tractor down next to the tree and took turns lifting each other in the bucket at different angles to cut off the suckers.  This tree has never been pruned and was rather overrun.  I used the lopping shears and he used his smallest chain saw.  It was more than a little scary being 15+ feet off of the ground and moving into a tree.  I think Bill’s ride was probably a little scarier since I don’t drive the tractor that often.  My ride was fairly smooth backwards and forwards, up and down.  Bill’s on the other hand . . . let’s just say next time he’ll probably opt for a ladder.  At Old Sturbridge Village they always said to prune your fruit trees so a cat tossed into it wouldn’t hit any branches.  Fruit trees like a lot of air.  With any luck we will have more than the one pear we got last year.  The spring has been more “normal” this year with a more gradual warmup so the blossoms didn’t come out too early.  As long as we get some pollinators out there we should be okay.

The patches of what looks like white in the field are bluets.  We always put off mowing the field until these have gone by, the patches get bigger every year.  They are like clouds in the grass.

It’s a drizzly, rainy day today but everything is looking wonderfully green and lush.  Something about it just soothes the soul after such a long, cold winter.

The Frustration of Food

ChickensToday’s level of farming ignorance is unprecedented in history—including all time and all cultures. Never have so many people in a civilization been able to be this far removed from their food umbilical. 

Joel Salatin

An acquaintance of mine, Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm just received her order of 45 baby chicks today and posted part of an article written by Joel Salatin in response to those who would criticize the practice of sending chicks through the mail.  Joel has the ability to explain in very simple terms why it is possible to have chicks comfortably make the trip from his farm to your house and remain perfectly healthy.  He also wrote this article out of frustration and I’m sure that anyone that raises animals for food can appreciate that but I think everyone needs to read the article.   The article is called  Rebel With a Cause: Anthropomorphism Against Farms, take a few minutes to read it, maybe read it to your kids, you will all learn something.

I grew up when most of our meat was grown ourselves or my father shot in the woods.  Sounds backwards and like I am some kind of hick doesn’t it?  I think something is lost when you don’t make an effort to know where your food comes from.  I believe you have to see their faces, understand what they are and what they give to you, sustenance.  I believe you need to know the kinds of lives that these animals have led and what kind of deaths that they have had in order to make peace with the fact that you are an omnivore and flesh is part of your diet.  Factory farming is farming at its worst, the only thing this is about is the almighty dollar, produce as much as you can as cheaply as possible.  It’s all about volume.

The frightening part to me is now everything you can buy in a grocery store comes from some sort of high volume farming situation.  If you want to know what is in your food you need to seek out the farmers of every single ingredient, visit their farms if possible and buy it directly from them.  I am fortunate to live in an area where there are many farmers of various kinds.  There is a small, family run dairy right down the street from my house in Enfield.  Smyth’s Trinity Farm takes dairy farming to a new (old) level in my mind.  I go there to pick up my dairy products and see all of the girls either in the pasture or in the stanchions in a very clean barn chewing their cuds and seeming very content.  All of their products are processed right there.  Once you start drinking and cooking with their milk, half and half and cream you will never go back to what passes as milk in the grocery store, you realize that you are being lied to about what they are selling you – it looks like milk but it doesn’t taste like milk.

Maybe that’s the problem, we’ve been lied to for so long that we now see what passes for food and something good and wholesome because it says so on the box.  We’ve lost our way, we really don’t know what is good and what is crap.  The gap seems to grow wider everyday.  If you’re reading this you could maybe Google GMO corn, or Monsanto, or the difference between wheat 20 years ago and now.  I can promise you it’s not pleasant reading, any of it, but it pays to educate yourself, you need to know what’s happening to us because of the profitability of big Ag.

Someone that reads my blog commented on what I really eat and if I was somewhat of a hypocrite.  In a word, yes.  I think we all are complicit in the problem with factory farming on every level.  I cook at home a lot of the time from scratch but even those recipes handed down for generations use ingredients that are now questionable.  It would require me to do a LOT of research to make some of my favorite meals from total scratch and I have not figured out how to replace American Cheese . . . sigh.  So I may not always cook as fresh and local as I want to for every meal but you can be assured that I think about and calculate what is going into it.  Then I make a decision about how bad I want that meal and at least know (and try to justify) what I’m ingesting.  Sometimes that’s the best you can do.

Food Rant Friday



There's Nothing Like Homemade.

Farmhouse Cheddar and Apple Pie


There are few things that fire me up more than food.  I mean fake food versus real food.  I follow a blog called Auburn Meadow Farm.  This week her blog brought me to this informative pdf called Food Stamps, Follow the Money by Michele Simon.  Take some time to read it.  Or you could be like me and be soo angry after the first page that you have to put it down for a little while and come back to it.  Do come back to it though because in the interest of being informed on so many levels it is an excellent read.

I’m dating myself here but when I grew up we still had home economics required in high school, cooking and sewing.  I also belonged to a number of 4-H clubs including cooking, sewing, knitting, etc.  Over the years all of these opportunities for education have gone away.  I think some of it has to do with the women’s movement, some has to do with budget cuts in schools and some with the perception that this sort of thing is just old fashioned – why knit yourself a sweater when you can go to a store and buy it right now at half the cost.  Home Arts has gone out of style.

As I age in this land of consumerism I fear for my children – all of them – sons, daughters, nieces, nephews.  They have grown up in a society that values nothing but money and instant gratification.  Instead of going to a market to buy the ingredients for a meal they buy fast food.  It has little nutritional value, contains GMO’s, huge amounts of sodium, and a whole lot of things I can’t even pronounce.  My daughters do go “shopping” in Rowe from time to time and raid the canned goods shelves.  I take satisfaction in knowing when they take that jar of spaghetti sauce off of the shelf it contains grass fed beef and vegatables that I have grown.  I am blessed to have that ability and am willing to teach anyone how to do anything from gardening to canning to handwork. They just have to want to learn it.



Half a Flock

Bird Bowl



Many people think of farming in a magical, dreamy way.  How wonderful it would be picking your veggies from your perfectly weeded garden, herbs by the back door.  Going out in the morning to throw some feed to your flock of chickens then gathering their still warm eggs to make your breakfast omelet.  Now that the snow is going or gone and the weather is warming it’s easy to think about how wonderful it would be to live such a bucolic life.  Sometimes I dream about that while sitting at my computer at work listening to the air and vehicle traffic that surrounds me.

The reality of farming slapped me in the face yesterday when sister Sue called, crying, to ask me to come down and kill two injured hens.  Some predator had killed half of her flock while she was running a road race.  Let’s preface this by saying other than mosquitoes I have never killed a thing in my life – ever.  I got off of the phone, told Bill who just looked at me with a look that said “absolutely NO way”.  Bill handed me my gun case and I drove the quarter mile it is to my sister’s saying a little prayer to give me strength to do this.  When I got there dead bodies were everywhere it seemed.  Poor Sue cried and cried, she loves her “ladies”.  She said the two wounded were in the coop (they had been placed there by two well meaning neighbors).  I told her to just go in the house and I would take care of it.  I was relieved to see Big Jim, her rooster had made it through the attack although he obviously was missing some feathers.  He also tried to attack me as I approached the wounded hens.  I brought them outdoors, closed the coop door and shot the two of them (I honestly don’t think they would have lasted the rest of the afternoon, but no animal should suffer like that).  I put their bodies over the stonewall, down the bank.  Then I went up on the hill to pick up another dead hen so Sue wouldn’t have to do it.  This was sad, sad, sad.  I went back into the coop to take inventory of who was left – of 26 hens she had 13 left plus the rooster.

I went into the house and said I needed a cup of tea.  Sue was telling me that the chickens were scattered all over the place.  In trees, down in the center of town, for all we knew there were still some out there.  The back of her house has a bank of windows that overlook a large field, a road and another large field.  We looked out the windows and down by the road a lone Buff Orpington was wandering about.  Sue put on her boots and went down and caught her.  That’s a picture I think I may always remember, my sister walking up the hill with that hen under her arm.

Once the hen was safely with her flock we talked about how the rest of the hens just go about living their little lives like nothing had happened.  We were wishing that we could do the same.


Sugar House on Fort Pelham Farm (2)

The forecast for the weather today is very mild – they say in the 40’s.  When that happens in January I always start thinking about maple sugaring.  Bill and I sugar with our friends Russ and Carmen in the next town over.  We do it because it is a really fun time (most of the time) and gives you a real sense of accomplishment.  Russell and his son started laying the pipeline last weekend.  Things will be ready when the time comes to tap the trees.

The photograph above was the sugar house that was in the back of the house in Rowe.  There are still remnants of the metal equipment that they used out in the wood lot  although I confess I personally have not seen them. I’ve walked to that area a few times but what was once a sugarbush is now over grown with huge pine trees.

In the middle to late 1800’s there was a lot of maple sugar made on Fort Pelham Farm.  The first record of it was in the 1860 Farm Census where 700 lbs of sugar was recorded for that year.  1860 holds the record for the most maple sugar ever made in the U.S.  One of the reasons being this was the ramp up to the civil war and people were boycotting cane sugar due to slavery.  They replaced a lot of that cane sugar with maple.  In 1870 they produced 300 pounds and in 1880 they produced 450.  I am assuming that pounds of sugar was both syrup and sugar but it may have all been sugar.  Until 1860 there were only wooden spouts to tap the trees and iron pots to boil the sap in.  The process involved a number of pots at various stages of boiling so instead of having an automated draw down to syrup as we have today they were manually transferring sap from pot to pot until it reach the sugar stage that they were looking for.  When I read that 700 lbs. of sugar was made it came as a huge surprise just considering the amount of work that is involve.

So I decided to do some math.

On the average, it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of pure maple syrup.  One tap hole in each maple tree gives 10 gallons of sap in an average year. So, 4 maple trees, 40 to 200 years old, are needed to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.  Some trees have more than one tap but all should be over 10 inches in diameter.

Maple sap is 2% sugar and weighs 8.35 lbs. per gallon.

Maple syrup is 66.9% sugar and weighs 11 lbs per gallon.

One gallon of maple syrup makes 7 lbs of maple sugar.

All I can say is wow.  The best year we ever had was 2 years ago because it was a long season.  We made 130 gallons of syrup.  We had 1,000 taps on pipeline and about 200 buckets.  We used a reverse osmosis rig to take a lot of the water out of the sap before we even started to boil it.  We burn slabs from a local sawmill and the fire is stoked every 4 minutes – yes, every 4 minutes.  I’m not sure how much wood we burned.

They were just using buckets to catch the sap.  Each bucket had to be emptied at least once a day by a person, stored and boiled.  They must have been boiling 24 hours a day everyday throughout the season.  At the time on the farm they had two oxen which I’m sure were worked gathering sap.  Fortunately the season is short.

Then I remembered a conversation Bill and I had a couple of weeks ago about the amount of wood it would have taken to heat the house.  We figured anywhere from 15 to 20 cord a year.  Add to that whatever they needed to make maple sugar and these men had to have been doing nothing but cutting wood year round – with saws, axes and mauls and those oxen. This is why they tell you that you could see to the ocean from Western Mass.  Every tree had been cut down and burned by the time 1880 came around, that’s when people began burning coal.

People always ask me why the price of syrup is so high and I always tell them how much work is involved in it.  I don’t think we even get enough to justify any of our time, we do it because we love it.  I can’t imagine thinking it was fun half way through the season in 1860.

Sugar Orchard at Fort Pelham Farm (2)