Thursday, July 31, 2008

Our House Is Sold!!!

Big news! Last night we signed the purchase agreement to sell our dear house. Now all that is is left is the inspection, then to lock in interest rates. We close on September 5th. We hope to move our stuff over Labor Day weekend.

We love Kelly and Dave, the young couple buying our house, so that makes it easier to leave. They will take good care of it. We also know they will be great neighbors - so we don't feel so guilty moving from our wonderful neighborhood.

Our house will be inspected Monday, which we expect to pass with flying colors. Then the contingencies are removed Tuesday and everything is a done deal and the "Sold" signs go up on our house and the farm. However, we have one more threat to losing the farm before then: Somebody is looking at it Friday. But, they would have to make a non-contingent offer right then and there. If they did that we have 48 hours, so and we would really have to scramble to get the contingency removed Monday. Drama up until the very end!

After we signed all the papers, we drove out to the farm and walked around. All that mowing, those buildings to tend, dreams to accomplish, not to mention the ordeal of moving was kind of overwhelming. But the wheels are in motion now--too late to turn back. And I don't think we want to.

I slid open the door of the granary to see if the owner had cleared it out yet and was startled by the frantic scurrying of a bunch of small animals that had been huddled inside of the door. They turned out to be a family of darling kittens --so I guess our farm comes complete with plenty of mousetraps. I hope we can find some of them new homes.

Luigi Saga

On Saturday we added another 3-inch layer of clay to our little test pizza oven. We added about 50% sawdust to act as insulation because the oven had cooled so quickly during our first test-firing. Rog dug this clay near Century High School and it was much easier to work with than the 65th Avenue North clay. We got creative and sculpted the oven into a Pizza-chef, whom we christened "Luigi."

Our dear friends the Morse-Nicholsons came on Sunday for our second pizza-firing foray. We used Rog's wild sourdough starter -- it's a 2-day process to make the dough. We had purchased a pizza peel from Total Restaurant Supply, which made it much easier to get the pizzas in and out of the oven. The pizzas were quite delicious! So was the beautiful soudough bread.

Sadly, Luigi did not survive the pizza firing intact. He gave his all and cracked up, irreparably. We have a few theories why:

a)The insulating layer of clay might have had a different coefficient of expansion than the layer beneath, causing stresses.
b)We should have had the clay dry much more slowly before firing(altho our book says this is not necessary, I know when you build ceramics it is important to dry the pieces slowly and evenly.)
c)Maybe we should have used straw instead of sawdust for more strength.

It is a learning process. I'm glad are starting with a small test oven first!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tasty Pizza Research

We love the idea Squash Blossom Farm being a pizza farm: we would grow the vegetables and herbs for making pizzas and get flour, cheeses and meats from nearby organic farmers. A night or two a week in the summer we would make wood-fired pizzas in our outdoor oven. People would bring their own lawn chairs or picnic blanket and maybe a bottle of wine and feast upon pizza and listen to live music in the garden. We are currently in the hands-on research stage of this vision.

For the past week, Rog has been babying his sourdough starter, created with wild-caught yeasts from the air in a flour-water mixture, boosted by the naturally occuring yeasts from on a few grapes from our back-yard vine. He is using the book "Nancy Silverton's Breads from LaBrea Bakery" as his guide.This was to be the weekend we tested out baking pizza and bread in our little earth oven.

But first, on Friday night we had to make a research trip: wood-fired pizza at The Stone Barn in Nelson, WI. Our friends Norm and Mary joined us. The Stone Barn is in a beautiful coulee, and the pizza was delicious (altho not our top pick among the wood-fired pizzas we have tested so far.) We shared a balsamic-chicken and asparagus pizza with feta and a more traditional spicy sausage pizza. They grow their own herbs for sauces and meats for the pizzas and also sell wine and ice cream. The atmosphere is casual restaurant, with tables both indoors and outside along the herb gardens in the remains of the stone barn foundation. (I was expecting it to be picnic-style and for them to raise more of their own ingredients.)

On Sunday I was at an art event all afternoon, so Rog was on his own with the Pizza Project. He spent several hours building a fire to heat up the clay oven. He prepared his sourdough pizza dough and 2 beautiful boules that he let rise in proofing baskets in the traditional way. Cadence made some fabulous red sauce. We built three little pizzas with mozarella & parmesan, mushrooms, spicy Italian sausage, roasted red peppers and fresh basil, and Rog carefully slid them into the earth oven. A few minutes later we had lovely and scrumptious pizzas!

Then Rog put the round boule loaves in to bake. Because we haven't insulated the oven yet, it was losing heat too fast to accomlish the entire baking,so he had to finish them off in the oven inside. But they turned out great, with a gentle sourdough tanginess, and a slight smoky hint. Yum!

We were joined by a fun unexpected guest this weekend, our long-time friend and Rog's former singing partner(about 25 years ago!), Scott Stroot. Scott and Mary Ann now live in Bowling Green, KY, where he teaches theater at the University. Scott was taking a road trip on his red motorcycle to visit his Mom in Wisconsin, via our house. He was eager to tell us about his entrepreneurial career-change vision: to create a small, sustainable, off-the-grid farm-- He didn't even know about our Squash Blossom Farm dream and was surprised to discover that we are on the same path, just a couple steps ahead of him!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Building a Pizza Oven

Last summer after we went to a pizza farm in Wisconsin, I was intrigued with the idea of building our own wood-fired pizza oven at our future farm. I began researching woodfired ovens and found a do-it-yourself book titled "Build Your Own Earth Oven" by Kiko Denzer that describes how simple it is to build an oven from inexpensive and natural materials.

While we were up north last weekend Rog read that book and got inspired. He wanted to build a small test oven as soon as we got home--so, that was our project this weekend.

Saturday morning we purchased 32 fire bricks for the floor of the oven. We bought a small steel cart on wheels at Salvation Army to build it upon (intending to wheel it into the garage when not in use - but I suspect it will be way too heavy to move!) Rog and Cadence had scouted out some great clay soil along a road where highway construction had been going on and they filled 3 5-gallon pails.

Rog placed two layers of bricks on the cart, and then we created a nice mound of packed, wet sand to shape the inside of the oven. He cut an arched piece of wood for the door opening, and then we covered the mound of sand with a 3-inch thick layer of the clay. With 4 of us (our friend Barb, daughter Cadence, Rog and me) it took about two hours to build the 22-inch oven. Afterward, using a flat wooden spatula, I paddled it to make the surface smoother.

It looks pretty cute, but it's not exactly symmetrical and it's not a very constant thickness! (Next time I think it would be a good idea to occasionally rotate where each of us works around the oven to even out our construction styles.) But this oven is our learning experiment--our next oven will be much larger and more aesthetically beautiful!

I covered it with a tarp overnight in case it rained. This morning we untarped it and when we came back a couple hours later it had developed a large crack while drying in the sun. Rog patched the crack with a little clay slurry, and removed the sand so the oven could dry more evenly and more quickly. Later this afternoon, he built a small fire in it to dry it out more. We kept the fire going for a few hours and by tonight the clay seemed to be totally dry and the interior was quite hot. As I write this, we are testing it out by baking some blueberry muffins in it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Kid Stuff

We were back in Bemidji last weekend for the 4th of July, my art opening and our class reunion. Lyle and Teryl and their two boys, Lee and Tyler, came into town on the 4th with a surprise--they brought Lucky, their young goat.

Lucky was the runt of a set of triplets born this spring. The mother wouldn't accept him so he was hand-fed and started life out in the kitchen. Teryl says he doesn't have a clue that he is a goat- he'd much rather hang out with people than the other goats. He is a boer-nubian mix, about half the size they expect him to be full-grown.

He's a pretty cute lapgoat! Even my dad seemed kind of smitten.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Relative-ly Good Advice

We just returned from a fabulous family reunion up north. All of our family members were enthusiastic about our farmquest, and most had advice for us. Here are some of their nuggets of wisdom:

Uncle Ken & Aunt Inez: Ken and Inez are award-winning sheep farmers and raised and trained highly-coveted border collies that they sold all over the world. Inez recommends:
a) We need 10 or 12 chickens -we'll probably lose a few to predators,
b) We should get a pair of peacocks as an attraction for our pizza farm (she has a beautiful pair now),
c) Planting a border of spruce trees and highbush cranberry makes an excellent windbreak and feeds the birds (she told me about watching the the wild turkeys jump up and kung-fu kick the cranberry bushes last winter to eat the falling berries.)
d) Avoid genetically modified seed and look for heritage varieties. She offered me her own strain of buttercup squash she developed over the years -perfect for Squash Blossom Farm!
e) You can make a decent income raising certain breeds of dogs for pets. But it is much easier when you have kids, because the puppies get so much more people interaction.
Ken says:
a) Our Aussie dogs are probaby too old to learn to herd sheep, altho Cocoa might have potential since because was a pup on a working farm --if she had the opportunity to watch the sheep as a pup. Herding dogs learn how the sheep move by observing them as puppies.

Cousin John: John and Rachel had a 6-acre farm in SW Minnesota before they moved to Texas a few years ago. They raised Brittany Spaniels and several hundred pheasants each year--which they then released to build up the wild population. John says:
a) He would go in with several other guys and order pheasant chicks 1000 at a time- and then they cost about $.75 each. He fed them corn siftings from a neighboring farmer.
b) John mowed a little of his 6 acres every day, rather than spend 5 hours every weekend mowing.

Lyle and Teryl: Lyle, my brother, is the least-likely person I would have ever envisioned raising goats, but he is married to Teryl, a woman with farming in her blood. A couple years ago they acquired 5 goats when they learned they would consume the burdock growing on their 8o acres. Now their herd has grown to 30 Boer and Nubian goats. Lyle and Teryl advise:
a) Goats will do an incredible job of keeping the weeds down, especially burdock, and wherever horses have been will be burdock. But the goats will also strip the bark from trees. They love aspen leaves--when Teryl bends down an aspen sapling for them, all 30 goats are instantly there.
b) The goats will climb all over everything, especially cars.
c) They offered us Lucky, a goat they bottle-fed who doesn't know he is a goat - he acts like a dog. Were they serious? I don't know if they could really part with Lucky..Plus, if Lucky is a male, I don't think we want a billy goat...

Rita: My sister in Montana was not at the reunion (darn) but has just acquired two horses. She emailed me that a couple of big horses would look lovely grazing on that big lawn and would greatly reduce mowing.