Maple Year Round

This past weekend, we attended a Maple seminar sponsored by the WV Veterans to Agriculture program and the WV Maple Syrup Producers Association.

While the course was designed for the beginner in mind, there was a wide variety of interests and experience in attendance. The day-long course covered a wide variety of topics, from tapping and tree selection to maple products and opportunities for further study.

Mid-Appalachia is not well-known for its maple syrup, but it won’t remain a secret for long!  Production is increasing in WV, and local syrup is typically the dark amber, more robust flavored syrup. Last year, demand for local syrup across the Tristate far outstripped supply.  Our customers love our syrup, and with our plans to increase production in2018, we hope to facilitate more pancake breakfasts in the new year!

 

 

Adventures in natural dyeing

As summer fades to fall, things have been busy around the farm. We’ve been busy putting the garden to rest, and are now transitioning to crafts and hobbies. My hands gravitate toward wool as cooler weather becomes the norm; Ben spends more time woodworking.

Since acquiring the sheep and having fiber to play with, I’ve started to experiment with natural dyes. Most fiber (wool and cotton) is dyed using chemicals. This process creates fiber with deep and lasting colors but the complications that arise with disposal of the chemical medium and exposure to toxins in commercial dyes makes me a bit leery of using them.

Besides, there is something profoundly gratifying about collecting natural ingredients and using them to dye natural products! There are lots of books about gathering and using wild plants, mushrooms, and lichens to dye. Armed with a copy of “Wild Color” and a stainless steel pot, I harvested a few nettles and marigolds and gave it a go.

Nettles

Using a good pair of leather gloves, I picked a good amount of stinging nettles to play with. Nettles yield colors that range from green to yellow. Using alum as a mordant, I dyed a bit of handspun and it came out a shade of brown.

Marigold

I grow French and African marigolds as a part of my pest management program in the garden. Orange flowers were selected for the dye pot.

After a bit of hit and time, two skeins of yarn were transformed from white to shades of brown and yellow.

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0 From left to right: dyed with nettles, marigold, and undyed

Dyeing fiber is a life-long craft. The color possibilities created using these ancient methods are endless. I see a lot more experimentation in my future…

 

 

  • A Weaver’s Garden. Rita Buchanan. Interweave Press, 1987.
  •  A Dyer’s Manual Jill Goodwin. Pelham Books, 1982.
  • Wild Color Jenny Dean and Karen Casselman

 

Sunday Foraging

Years ago when I lived in the city, I shopped in local bulk food stores. I purchased all sorts of herbs, tinctures, and salves in the hopes of living a more holistic lifestyle. I remember my grandmother making “black”  and “tar” salves when I was a kid, but her recipe was lost– she passed away before I graduated from high school. My curiosity led me to  experiment with everything from laundry detergent to toothpaste. Some things worked– I still use simple carpet and window cleaners. Others not so much– laundry detergent specially made for HE washers and hard water simply works better for us. After a lot of experimentation, I also make all of the soap, salves, and skin care products that me and my family use throughout the year, and use many holistic methods with our livestock.

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Goldenrod in various stages of bloom

Now that I live on a farm with woodlands, I am able to forage many of the plants that I need to make the medicines and skin care products that we use. Given my interest in natural dying, I have been pleased to learn that many of the plants and flowers that I forage and routinely grow are also used to dye fabric.

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Mullein– commonly used for earaches

Of course, caution must be used when foraging plants. Mother nature and the Good Lord saw fit to equip many of them with, well, deterrents. Some of my most favorite plants have thorns or irritate the skin if picked without protection. As with foraging for mushrooms or other items in the natural world, know what you’re doing before you hurt yourself! Due diligence and common sense are required! That being said, people have made use of woodland plants since before written language, so short of a woodland mentor, a good pocket plant identification guide is really all that is needed.

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Rose hips ready for harvest

Rose hips have been used for a millennia to ward off and treat colds. During WW2, the British government enacted “The Rose Hip Collection Campaign,” wherein it compelled its citizens to collect and use rose hips to ward off scurvy during its time of food rationing. There is some anecdotal evidence that rose hip tea lessens the effects of arthritis, but that hasn’t been proven in clinical trials.

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The ubiquitous stinging nettle in flower

We drink nettle tea during the winter for the vitamin boost. Some folks make pesto from it, but we’re not huge pesto fans around here so we stick to tea. Mixed with a good loose leaf Earl Grey, it’s wonderful on a cold winter evening.

The bees are out in full force, busy stocking the hive in preparation for winter. They pull white pollen from nettles. Isn’t that something?

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Worker bee harvesting white pollen from nettle flowers

I can find no better way to appreciate the changing seasons than by taking a slow walk in the woods.

-CW

The new becomes old

We have sold products to the public in some form since 2011. Early on Saturday mornings, I would pack up a few cases of honey and set up a booth at our local farmer’s market. I met all kinds of people– young, old, healthy, infirm– all united in their quest to shop locally. My fellow market growers were also diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender, but most of them were older. Many of the people who shopped at the market were in search of something specific.  Since we sold honey, our customers were excited to purchase our product locally and unadulterated.

After making a few observations about our customers over the past decade or so, I have begun to wonder a few things about the state of the American diet. What drives our food choices? Nostalgia? Desire for change? Doctors’ orders? Many of our long-time customers to be older, say 50+. If most of our Tarheelbilly customers are all over the age of 40, where are the young families? Where are the young, single foodies?

A few weeks ago, I discussed this issue with a fellow small farmer. She made similar observations about her clientele, and lamented the lack of upwardly mobile customers that she counted among her customers. Most of the affluent people that she knew preferred to buy their organic meat from large chains. They liked buying food by the cut and weren’t particularly interested in buying meat by the half or whole. Further, they weren’t looking for a connection with their farmer, but felt strongly that she performed a great and necessary service as a farmer.

People like the idea of small farms. They wax nostalgically about fuzzy farm animals, bucolic pasture photos, and worn tractors crisscrossing hay fields in early summer. Despite this positive connotation, most people still shop at Trader Joes/Whole Foods/Kroger,  buy a few things here and there at local farmers markets, and consider these purchases in line with holistic and eco-friendly purchases.

What’s so bad about that? Don’t people deserve to buy what they want, in the quanties that work for them? Small farms are inefficient simply due to the economy of scale. So what happens to small farms when they are loved but not patronized? Well, obviously, they go away. There are only two sides of the often-sought chicken breast– remember, chickens have thighs, wings, and legs too. So, if you go to the market wanting chicken breasts, a farmer must slaughter one whole chicken for your small package. Honestly, two or three must be slaughtered to make a decent meal for a family of 4. Pigs are made of more than bacon and ham (unfortunately). There is a finite number of ribeye steaks on a given cow.  If you have a cookout and contact a farmer for 20# of brisket, the odds are they they won’t be able to help you– 2-4 cows must be slaughter for that quantity.

As our culture embraced the convenience of the grocery store, we lost the need to eat seasonally and embrace the challenge of eating the whole animal. A generation ago, offal was commonly eaten, and chartreuse wasn’t something relegated to aficionados. In order for small farms to compete with corporate farms, consumers would have to change their eating habits. That’s a pretty tall order.

Going forward, we hope broaden our customer base of those who desire to eat simple, unadulterated food and will continue to produce clean food for conscientious families to enjoy.

Thanks for your support!

 

 

 

 

 

Perspectives from the garden

I have been gardening in earnest for about 10 years. My early garden attempts largely consisted of a few raised beds and a row or two of corn.  Our previous property was 1/2 acre including the house and buildings.  Despite the limited acreage, I managed to fit a great deal of food into that garden space.

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Backyard garden 2012

I learned a TON about gardening mostly by trial and error, but I also read a lot. I bought heirloom seeds, killed a lot of plants by accident, and managed to fed the family really well. I learned about companion planting and then permaculture. My early efforts paid off and I was able to grow and preserve nearly all of the vegetables that our small family needed for the winter.

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Winter greens 2015

One of the goals of our Ohio farm is to produce the majority of our calories for the year. That’s quite a daunting challenge. Last year at this time, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and field peas were plentiful. This year everything is later- those same vegetables are nearly a month behind from last year.  We’ve not yet had the opportunity to indulge in fresh tomato sandwiches on homemade bread, and previously made plans to sell at local markets have proven to be a bust.

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As we turn our attention to planting our fall garden in 90 degree heat, I’ll just have to be grateful for the small bounty we have and patiently wait for the late harvest of plenty.

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Zucchini 2017

 

 

The Case for Testing

When purchasing meat from the local grocery store, consumers don’t think twice about the health of the animals before they were butchered. Most people think that the USDA and other state and local agencies involved in the meat industry ensure that our food supply is 100% free from disease. This is largely true, as meat cannot be sold to the public without state and federal inspections of carcasses.

There is a missing link, one that doesn’t necessarily put the public in danger but does speak the the ethical dilemma that producers face, one that speaks to animal health and quality of life.

Recently I purchased sheep from a breeder in Northern Ohio. We spoke several times over the phone over the course of several weeks and I inquired about the health of the animals for sale and the overall health history of his flock. Herd health is very important to me–  we are growing our flock with the goal of creating a closed, disease-free flock. I purchased 4 ewes from the breeder. As I left his farm, I observed an animal with an abscess on her jaw. When I got them home to the farm, I quarantined them and promptly made arrangements to test them for CL (Caseous lymphadenitis), OPP, and Johnes. All four tested negative to all 3 conditions,  and they were promptly removed from quarantine and introduced to the flock.

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Healthy sheep are happy sheep!

Of all the conditions small ruminants may contract, CL is of particular concern.  CL is endemic in commercial goat and sheep herds. It is difficult to eradicate from a farm once it is present. It is a bacterial infection that causes abscesses (either internal or external), which may result in the condemnation of the animal when it is processed. )USDA regulations prevent animals with obvious signs of diseases from being processed for human consumption.) While there is a myriad of reasons why sheep develop abscesses, CL is the most likely culprit. Most disturbingly, there is strong evidence that indicates that CL is a zoonotic bacteria– humans have been known to become infected, and the treatment is both expensive and painful. CL positive animals should be euthanized in my opinion, but that feeling is not universally shared.

A conversation with a local vet spoke to how diseases such as CL become so common: many producers simply accept them as a part of doing business. Although CL causes abscesses that are both debilitating to the animal and causes the meat to be condemned, most commercial livestock producers don’t purchase disease free stock when starting their herd. They don’t vaccinate their animals against viruses that are already present on their farm, further spreading it to the non-infected animals. And lastly, most do not test for the presence of the viruses or diseases. Many animal diseases allow animals to remain outwardly free from symptoms while they  quietly spread disease around the farm. Such farmers are simply passing those silent but debilitating viruses and diseases to someone else.  When a conscientious farmer finally realizes he/she has a problem, it is  often financially debilitating and labor intensive to eliminate it.

We at Tarheelbilly Farm test our breeding stock for Johnes, CL, CAE, and OPP and maintain breeding stock that is 100% disease free. We fully intend to extend this disease free status to our future cattle herd. Although we are small producers, we deeply believe that if everyone did their part to help eliminate diseases from their farm, all livestock producers (and the animals!) will benefit. When you buy from our farm, rest assured that the breeding stock and meat that you eat is disease free and humanely raised.

 

 

Small scale sorghum

Coming up in the 80s and 90s in Central NC, there were still a few old timers around who raised and processed sorghum. Before the onset of cold weather and well before hog-killing weather set in, if you were out driving in the countryside you’d likely see mules or horses tethered to poles, turning cane mills.

(photo:  Tennessee Dept. of Ag)

Unfortunately this once common tradition is now relegated to living history museums, heritage festivals, and old black and white photos.

Image Courtesy of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives

Today even an enterprising family would have difficulty processing their cane should they decide to grow it– there is only one company in the US that currently makes mills. (GrainMaker in Montana.) Vintage mills are still around though, and there are sorghum enthusiasts around the country who keep the tradition alive.

(FYI– molasses is made from the sugar cane plant, grown in tropical climates. Sorghum molasses is made from sorghum, a grain plant that grows similar to corn. Tennessee and Kentucky currently lead the nation in sorghum production.)

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(Sugar Drip Sorghum June 2, 2017)

This year we planted a small 10x 20 ft experimental plot of an heirloom sorghum called Sugar Drip. The seed is somewhat expensive and a bit difficult to find. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia is my go-to source for open pollinated heritage seed. Many varieties of old-time seeds sell out early in the season, so it’s necessary to order early to get the best selection.

I have fond memories of Grandpa Gaddy routinely lathering sorghum molasses on his biscuits each morning before he headed off to work. Hopefully we’ll have a jar or two bless our table this fall.

-Charis