Thursday, December 29, 2011

Good Winter Read

Farming and the Gift of Tears

Today we watched, stunned into a kind of awe and silent emotion as our two little girls clung to eachother weeping. We'd been given Christmas tickets to the Theater to see Cinderella, but now that the day of the play had arrived our littlest was sick and could not go. Bothilde's eagerness and excitement had dissolved into a stream of silent tears as she comforted her sobbing sister who little stubby arms were encircling her waist. The beauty of their tearful parting pierced to the core, and most beautiful of all, the regret of the healthy child on her way to the dazzling spectacle of an Ordway show.

It occurred to me how many of our most sweetest gifts this Christmas, and in our lives have been the gift of tears. Tears have always marked tremendous worth and beauty. They've defended dignity and been the hallmark of transcendent growth. Like the tears my Father struggled with, as we walked down the church aisle on my wedding day, like a juggler juggling too many balls, eventually one, then two slipped from him and his emotion jogged me into an even deeper realization of how the uniting of two people is something which has been the life'swork of many more...And the tears of my Grandfather, as he grappled with forgiveness on his deathbed. His family gathered around him, all we could see was the visible battle his body was losing with the cancer within him, the hollows beneath his eyes, his ashen countenance...while his spirit cast a "devil may care" glance on the physical plight, and he busied himself with the final and most important work of forgiving those who had so wronged him in this life, but would matter little in the next...Tears are chrystaline testaments to the deeper realities of life.

The other day we were carting out logs from a dead cherry tree that Shane had been chopping up in the woods. The prospect of more fuel for the woodstove's Winter fires was cheering, and hauling, rolling, splitting, sawing wood has become one of our favorite family chores here lately.

Unloading the pick-up bed to start splitting the chunks, one fat one rolled loose and came careening down the pile crushing my fingers. I watched as my middle finger swelled to Pavarotti proportions and the sight of the spreading purple swam before me as tears began to roll girlishly down my cheeks. I had the ironic sensation of happiness...since I had "taken one for the team" in a worthwhile enterprise, something which contributed to our very basic needs...and I ruminated on how many wounds and heartaches have caused the tears to flow every since we began this crazy life of farming...

There were the agonizing tears as Shane made his first ever slaughter, our first pigs, who had become in that summer and Fall, dear friends. It was a shot that he missed, and the squeeling sputtering pig turning round and round in painful circles brought tears of desperation and supplication to both my and my eldest daughters eyes...and then the ones of relief when a brave friend stepped over the hog to steady her, and the slaughter was finished with the next shot.

There were the almost tears I fought off in the local general store, as I went in to buy flour, caked over with mud after an insane day of transplanting, weeding, and draught, so struck with the complete contrast between our often solitary life in the fields and the life that went on daily in the world around us, the commuting to work, the stores and cash registers, the superstars, bargain deals, and vacation time up North, down South, or in foreign lands...

Tears and farming go together like butter and bread. The land squeezes you till you bleed tears, and then those tears water the earth, and bring in the harvest. Those tears stand guard over what you value and hold most dear. They are the standard bearers of solid gold worth. Even the tears of desperation reveal the dignity of human worth, the mattering-ness of the battle that goes on in the human heart. Sometimes they come at the birth of a baby kid, or a new Spring lamb. Sometimes they come as you throw your hammer, or pitchfork, or pocketknife, or post rammer in frustration...and sometimes they take you entirely by surprise.

I'll never forget the day we signed our lease on this farm. As we came up the hill from Marine on St. Croix and watched the fields open up in front of us backed by the ridge of fir trees, Silver Maple, and the farmhouse, a lighthouse of welcome on the knoll above where our CSA garden would be planted the next Spring, emotion hit me in the chest like a kick. Blinking I looked over to find my husband's face flooded with tears, his frame shaking with silent heaves. The husbandman had been given the greatest gift of good land...and with the quiet relief of a hen coming home to roost for the night, he was handing right back his sweetest gift of tears, the only precipitation which has its source in the vulnerable human heart.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve on the farm has us all pulling on our boots and hats and mittens and coats and tromping outside to sing carols beneath the December sky and to give all the animals special treats in honor of the Christchild's birth in a stable so long ago. For the cats, a bowl of warm goat's milk, carrots for the horses to snuzzle from our mittened palms, and oats for the goats and sheep. On this night ordinary bales of hay and straw take on mystery and meaning, as the stuff which first warmed the wriggling toes of the Divine. Our annual Christmas puppet show will be performed in front of a crowd this year in our snug little farmhouse...necessitating the bringing inside of many bales to sit will be our own version of the Polish custom of spreading straw on the floor of the house on Christmas Eve to call to mind that Bethlehem barn. We always serve masses of freshly baked bread for the party and so the days before are spent in a kitchen flurry.

The tizzy of Christmas baking and making in the Kitchen this last week before Christmas day is definately more New York City Plaza Hotel with Eloise dashing about than it it is "Silent Night" in Judea 2000 years ago. There's bread to be baked for the Christmas party, sprinkles to be sprinkled, frosting to whip up, and cookies galore to garnish and taste...We fly about the kitchen to whatever jollity is playing on MPR, covered in flour, cocoa powder, and butter with Kay Thompson's Eloise ringing in our ears:

"Oh zippety jingle and dash away tingle

to shout out loud and clear

Oh come All Ye Faithful

It's me ELOISE Nanny dear!"

"Fa la la la fa la la lolly ting tingledy here and there.

Blow music of trinkles and drinkles of glass there's Christmas everywhere!"

Christmas Eve we crowd the tree and have an official lighting ceremony...

it is the first time we all see the tree aglow...and it is simply magical. We tuck the girls in amidst their sighs of absolute contentment...St. Nicholas has not even made his visit yet, and filled their stockings and crowded the tree with gifts...and yet they are content. Well stuffed with the satisfaction and wealth of a cozy Christmas at home

One Christmas Eve, after the girls were in bed "with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads" We stole out into the snow to go and watch over the sheep and imagine the shepherds in the fields that first of all Christmases. Our two rams came over to the fenceline for petting and scratches on the we watched our breath beneath a starry sky and sang carol lullabies to the sheep it was little wonder to us why the Incarnate Son of God chose to be born amidst sheep, donkey, cow, and horse and not in some palace, draped in silk. It was as if that monumental night was to confirm once again and once and for all, that the farm is not just home to the animals, but home to the whole world.

Merry Christmas to you! From all of us, hoofed, and non-hoofed at Little Flower Farm!

Garlic and Rosemary Studded Focaccia

(adapted from Beard on Bread)
2 1/2 C all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 C warm water

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 Tbsp rosemary
olive oil

salt and pepper
Combine flour, salt, yeast, and water in a bowl. Blend well. Then knead for about 15 minutes on a lightly floured countertop. Grease a bowl with olive oil and place dough inside it to rise till double (about 2 hours). Cover with plastic wrap.

Turn dough back onto countertop and knead once more. Let rise again. (About 45 minutes).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Punch down dough and pat it into a rectangle about 1/2 thick. Press slivers of garlic into the dough, along with the rosemary. Slather it with olive oil and sprinkle with course salt and pepper. Bake on a baking stone for 15 minutes or until golden brown. It will fill the house with an incredible aroma...cut into wedges and serve at your Christmas party...or with Christmas Eve dinner!

Chocolate Truffles

(from Cook's Illustrated Magazine)
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped (I use chocolate chips)
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in to small pieces and softened

1 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
1/4 cup powdered sugar

Melt the chocolate over low heat while stirring. Warm the cream, add to it the corn syrup, vanilla and pinch of salt. Pour over the chocolate. Stir till smooth. Finish the ganache by adding the pieces of butter one at a time and stirring till melted into the ganache. Grease an 8 x 8 dish and line with two pieces of parchment paper overhanging the 4 sides of the dish. Pour ganache into this and let cool for 1-2 hours. Then chill for 2 hours in the fridge. After this combine the coca powcer and powdered sugar and pull the bars out of the dish using the overhaning parchment. Cut into squares and roll into balls to coat in the cocoa/sugar mixture. Chill before serving.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stone Sled Training

Introducing Maj and Marta to the CSA field.

"Stone Sled": historically used to pull rocks from tillable acreages, train new teams, and give rides to round-faced children.

Making Felt

As the world's worst launderer, I've made felt many times before...unintentionally that is. The genius of intention-less felting is that you simply leave EVERYTHING to chance. Tell your washing machine to be kind, and with a quick wink and a dash upstairs you rush out to pet the horses or feed the chickens or do the dishes with nary a thought to the socks and silks and woolies tumbling about below.

Imagine my trepidation as we set out to make felt out of our carded sheep's wool ON PURPOSE.
The circumstances so changed, I found myself at sea. But in a nutshell, felt is wool that has been doused with hot water, agitated, and hung out to dry. It is the perfect meditative activity during the busy Christmas season...intentionally agitating something other than yourself or your loved ones...all in attempts to create the perfect homemade Christmas gift.

First: obtain some wool, fluff and card it with hand carders or a drum carder. I found that the batts obtained by drum carding made more consistent felt.
On a countertop or cookie sheet, depending on how large a piece you will be felting, layer your rolags or batts first horizontally in rows, then another layer on top vertically. Do this 3 or 4 times.
Pour very hot water with a few splashes of dishsoap in it over the wool and gently press down to saturate the pile. If the wool is sticking to your hands pour some more soap over it.

Begin on the outside of the pile and gently massage the wool in circles...keep going all around and into the center of your wool 5 minutes it will firm up and you can then rub harder.
Rinse a few times in hot water to strengthen the felt. Then rinse in cold.

Squeeze dry, and if you wish, iron it.

Lay it out to dry.
Viola. Your felt is ready for cutting up into cute little mousies, mittens,

Friday, December 9, 2011

Draft-Powered Farming in the St. Croix Valley

Ideals are funny things. Often touted as diaphanous tufts of dreamy fluff, it is a continual delight and wonder to me that they wreak so much havoc in the waking world. They tug and pull and goad a person on...they shape the reality of our joys and form the substance of our disappointment. In our society it is a curious contradiction that we frown upon the "idealist" as unrealistic, naive, and overly bold....yet remained inspired by those who turn their ideals into action and by their very being conjure and tease the ephemeral into tangible. A friend of mine, Karen, brought her spinning wheel and drum carder over one afternoon to teach us the art of turning fleeces into yarn. She told us how her first lesson in spinning was disastrous. "I kept breaking the thread! For the life of me I couldn't catch on." I marveled that she kept at it..."of course I did" she replied "it had been my dream to learn to spin. You don't let go of dreams that easily!" How like a thunderbolt it hit me; to hear those words for her that afternoon, from a real flesh and blood person, and not from some Disney character, from this woman alive with a transferable gift which, glowing, she was placing in our hands as we spoke.

It was nearly 4 years ago that Shane first took to the notion that we ought to farm with horses.

"They're the only tractors that can give birth to more tractors" he would I shook my head. "It's not practical" I would chide. But I wonder now at how little knowledge I stood on when I uttered those words. I realize now that my understanding was based on what I was familiar with. To me, at that time, Gas furnaces were practical. Jobs with insurance benefits were practical. Guinea pigs were practical. The equine? Decidedly not.

A small scaled farm tends to teach you a different version of practicality.

For instance:

relying on foreign oil to plow, cultivate, and fertilize our land: Not practical.

going into debt to pay for machinery we wouldn't know how to fix when it broke: Not practical.

Compacting the soil year after year, buying in fertilizer, and working late into the night in the headlights: Not practical.

And then there's this:

When we decided to farm it delighted us to no end to realize that this life of manual labor, although fraught with hardship, was also going to be one of a million and one every day small and large joys. These joys have come in small (there's a chicken nestled with the kittens!) and large (we've just harnessed our very own team!) packages. These joys have also come as the direct result to be willing to yoke ourselves to a continual sense of adventure...a boldness which ever so gently tests the waters of materializing ideals. A faith in the practicality of the immaterial truths about the world. (With ever a steadying glance over at those who have long been doing it, and doing it better.)

"I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature." --Wendell Berry

A 75 year old Arabian horse breeder in the area is liquidating his horses due to his health and age. The opportunity arose to go and take a look at his team of Norwegian Fjord horses, and we jumped at it, eager to see what a smaller draft looked and felt like. We have been working with a neighbors Shires for the past 2 years, and though gentle, their shear size has proved intimidating on more than one occasion.

Now, a cozy fire in the wood stove, a Winter's evening with a fat armchair to sink into, a cup of tea at your elbow, and a lot of staring into the leaping flames can cause the mind to wander, and feel that if there was nothing more to life than staying inside and being comfortable, why, that'd be just fine....the small farmer is lulled into the old temptation of giving it all up, becoming respectable, and going into something artistic and interior decorating...or a cupcakes catering co., you know how it goes...

but let me tell you, as soon as we laid eyes upon this mother/daughter pair of Fjord horses it was as if the fire had suddenly been lit underneath us! We spent 2 hours driving them around the indoor arena, and all the time the fuzzy fog of unreachable ideals was lifting, making the possibility of working with our own team on this farm more and more real. The old description of the Fjord horse breed comes from the mountainous district of Vestlandet in Norway, and to read it is to understand exactly what they are, and why you suddenly hear breathy Enya-like music when you stand next to one:

"The eyes should be like the mountain lakes on a midsummer evening- big and bright. A bold bearing of the neck like a lad from the mountains on his way to his beloved. Well defined withers like the contours of the mountains set against an evening sky. The temperament as lively as a waterfall in spring, and still good natured"

Something began to sing inside of us when we took the reins behind these two horses. Some string inside began, newly tightened, to tune to a clearer pitch. You know that feeling you get, when you round the corner of your street, and you look ahead to see light pouring out into the snow from your home, and it's dinner time, and most likely someone has a pot of something delicious bubbling away on the stove, with hot buttery rolls to match being pulled out of the oven just as you walk in...that's the same feeling we had when we first saw this team. The feeling of coming home.

So now they are ours. They arrived on St. Nicholas Day. The day dawned bright with sunshine, and the morning's snowfall came down light with thick flakes that dusted the horses like a snow globe as they trotted and whinnied in their new pasture. They are the farm's first real breath of Freedom. Freedom to turn over the soil, to cultivate the veggie rows, to pull the harvests in, to help with gathering firewood from the dead trees and stumps in the woods. Freedom to work.

Needless to say we have not been inside much lately, cozy next to the wood stove. All 4 of us have been snatching up our mittens and hats, pulling on mismatched socks with eager haste, fumbling some excuse as we streak outside toward the pasture with fist fulls of hay, carrots, lead ropes. Tonight, just as the sun was setting we harnessed Maj and Marta for the first time. There was a battle of the wills, a testing ground. We had to earn our right to be Herd Boss. In the end, the stone sled was pulled willingly and steadily across the pasture, beneath a fat and beaming moon...a foretaste of Spring cultivating.

But for right now there's Winter work to be done, and we meet it eagerly "like a lad from the mountains on his way to his beloved."

We would like to thank our friend and neighbor Ken, for continuing to devote his generous time and mentorship, teaching us the art of driving and good horsemanship. And also those 2012 CSA members whose early support has made this crucial beginning of our Draft-Powered Farming project possible. Thank you!