Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Silly Sisters (and Mom)

My sisters and mom left this morning after the 3rd annual WWWW (Wild W Women Weekend)get-together which I got to host at Squash Blossom Farm. They enthusiastically dove in to help with feeding critters, shopping for a freezer, harvesting tomatoes and preserving them. Here are Liz (from Tucson), Rita (from Billings) my mom, Carol (from Bemidji) and me with 147 lb. of tomatoes we had just harvested that evening, some of which went into the 10 quarts of salsa we canned.

The weekend wasn't totally chores. We squeezed in a bit of antique-ing and shopping, a hike around the property, a little feasting, wine and ice cream, and a lot of laughing. Thanks for the fun weekend and all your hard work, Rit, Bunny & Mom!

TOMATO TALLY: We are up to 809 lb. tomatoes harvested so far. Lots more lovely, big green ones on the vine - we could break 1000 lb.! Frost is forecast for tonight, though.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Saturday was a perfect day for RE-fest - a festival of Green Living and Clean Energy in Austin last Saturday--which I helped organize and for which I was a presenter. After my workshop, I was able to catch part of the Audobon raptor presentation - and they happened to be talking about great horned owls --the dreaded predator of our farm. I gleaned some fascinating facts about great horned owls.

Great horned owls have a wingspan up to 5 feet and can take a prey that is 17 lbs! (They can take a Canada goose or a great blue heron, for instance.) I learned that owls do not have eyeballs- they have tubular eyes that are fixed in their heads. Their eyes are on the front of their face, so they have binocular vision, as we do, but cannot move their eyes like we can. It doesn't matter that they cannot move their eyes because they are able to turn their heads nearly around to the back by virtue of their 14 neck vertebrae (we have just 7 neck vertebrae). Owl vision is so acute thay can see in virtually total darkness -darker than nature gets, except for perhaps in the deepest recesses of a cave.

A boy from the audience was invited on stage to demonstrate how acute his hearing is. After blindfolding him, the presenter clapped her hands in a random pattern: to the left left, right, above, below, behind, in front. The boy did well identifying the source of the clap when it was to the side, but was not able to discern when it was from above or below. That is because human ears are symmetrically placed on either side of our heads; owls' ears are asymmetrically placed, one above and forward, one below and a bit back. This allows him to identify the direction of the sound and, by tilting his head until the sound is even in both ears, hone in on it precisely. In additon, his flat face acts sort of like a satellite dish, funneling sound toward the ears. Why would an owl need such acute hearing when he already has such amazing vision? For one thing, in winter he can hunt rodents that are underneath the snow purely by sound.

The third feature that makes an owl such a formidable hunter is his ability to fly silently. Two more kids were invited up on stage: the first spun a rope around in a circle sort of like a lariat and it made that whirring, whipping sound. The second child also whipped a rope around in a circle, but her rope had little yarn tassels tied at inetervals along the rope, imitating the uneven feathers of the owl's wings. Her rope was virtually silent! Although the silence is undoubtedly helpful for sneakingup on prey, the real benefit is so that it allows the owl to hear the prey- the sound of his feathers is not drowning out the sounds of the prey(The presenter noted that in Japan, they have duplicated this sound-reduction strategy to moderate the sound of high-speed trains!)

After learning all this I was pretty discouraged about our dilemma with the great-horned owl feasting on our chickens and only eating the heads. During the questioon time I asked whether it would be a good idea to leave the body of the decapitated chicken lying there --might the owl come back and finish him off rather than killing another bird? The naturalists said No, and the fact that the owls are only eating the heads of my chickens is an indication that they are VERY well fed. (Yup, I know they are well-fed - we have lost 25 chickens ot the owl in the past 5 or 6 weeks!)

Yesterday we took 50 more chickens to the poultry processor (that's another story...) We still have a few chickens left, but now I am very worried that the ducks and Chuck Dickens (the chicken who thinks he's a duck) are the most likely targets of the owl because the darn geese keep them wandering around the farm all night. So, the past three nights we have been herding the the goose/duck/Chuck Dickens flock into the garage and shutting them in safely until morning.

I suspect Chuck is secretly overjoyed to finally get a good night's sleep!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Another Tomato Strategy

The tomato deluge continues. As of last night we surpassed 400 lbs of tomatoes harvested. These 13 heirlooms I picked yesterday totalled 17 pounds--the largest was 2 lb,. 3 oz.
Last week when we had our largest, most perfect heirlooms at the Farmers Market, a professional tomato grower kindly advised us in that heirloom tomatoes should always be placed stem side down because they ripen from the bottom and as they ripen the blossom end cannot support the top. Who knew?
Here are the varieties we are growing, all started from seed except for the stray grape and the yellow plum: (from top left) Purple Cherokee, Gold Medal, Brandywine, Early Girl(?), Black From Tula, Celebrity, Moby Grape, Isis candy, Sungold, Tigerella, Yellow Plum.
The cherry tomatoes are so prolific and so delectable, but you can really only eat a pint or two per person per day! So,now I have been drying them in a food dehydrater I bought about 20 years ago at a garage sale. It was old even then but it still works great. It is a simple metal cabinet with four drawer/shelves and a heating element in the bottom. The shelves have holes so the warm air can flow up through. The fruits or veggies are placed cut side down on a piece of screen on the shelf. Produce on the bottom shelf dries faster than the top, so I rotate the shelves during drying.
The drying time varies by the size of the fruit. I really like drying the tigerella tomatoes, which are 2-3-inch diameter. They take about 24 hours to get to the leathery stage. They are also incredibley tasty at this half-dried stage - the flavor is so intense - but they must be stored in the refrigerator unless totally dried.
I store the dried tomatoes in glass jars and add a few to spaghetti or pizza sauce, chili and other tomato dishes. Long ago our friend Maureen introduced us to dried tomatoes at a picnic (a probably the same year I got the food dehydrater)when she made this sandwich, which is still a family favorite:

Tomato Pesto Picnic Sandwich

Slice a loaf of crusty French baguette (or Rog's sourdough baguette) in half the long way. Spread the bottom half with cream cheese and the top half with pesto. On the bottom, layer sliced sundried tomatoes (can soak them in a a little warm water for a few minutes if too chewy), a bit of shredded parmesan, romaine lettuce leaves and a twist of black pepper. Replace the top, slice the loaf into diagonal sandwiches and secure each with a decorative toothpick.
Yum! Sounds like a good supper plan...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wattle and Snood

Wattle and Snood --sounds like the name of a law firm.
Actually, those are the names of the distinct facial features of a turkey. The wattle is the fleshy, bumpy flap of skin under the chin and the snood is the dangly part that hangs over the turkey's beak.

Until we got these birds I had never been up close and personal with a turkey so I have been paying attention to how the snood works--wondering, for instance, are some turkeys left-snooded and some turkeys right-snooded? The answer is no, the snood flips to and fro. It starts out growing on the chick as a little bump, then grows pointy like a little rhinocerous horn,and keeps growing until it becomes a fancy appendage.

When the Tom turkeys are trying to look impressive--if, say, an unfamiliar dog approaches, or when trying to show off to a female, the Tom turkey puffs his feathers up, spreads his tailfeathers, holds his wings out stiffly from his body, his snood and wattle turn from pale pink to brilliant red and his face turns bright blue - spectacular! This is when he usually gobbles. (His ordinary voice is a little bark or a pretty trill.)

I used to think turkeys were unattractive, but they have such endearing personalities they have become rather beautiful to me.

The Flying Tiger Strikes Again

It has been happening several nights a week now. Everybody on the farm - fowl, swine,canine, bovine, human - is sound asleep (except sometimes Sara, our insomniac daughter). Suddenly there is a blood-curdling shriek, a commotion of clucking and honking and quacking, followed by a moment of shocked silence, then restless chicken muttering until dawn. I usually wake up at the shriek with my adrenalin surging, fumble around for glasses and robe, rush downstairs to the door - but too late. The serial chicken killer has struck again. After he finishes his dastardly deed we can usually hear him contentedly hoo-hoo-hooting. In the the morning we find a headless carcass. Yesterday's victim of the great-horned owl was this large barred rock rooster.

According to my Birds of Minnesota Field Guide, the great horned owl is fearless and will even attack porcupines and skunks so he is nicknamed the Flying Tiger. His wing-span is 3 1/2 feet. He is non-hibernating and non-migratory. That means he will be a year-round predator threat on Squash Blossom Farm.

Our dogs have done a great job protecting our chickens from coyotes and raccoons, but we have learned the hard way that the biggest threat to our free-range chickens is from the air in the middle of the night. We have lost at least 20 chickens to this owl in the past month. Next time,we will try to train our chickens from the very beginning to come into the barn at night.

Once when Sara was up late she successfully interrupted the owl's attack on one of our black runner ducks. The duck was seriously injured, but recovered. The next night he attacked one of the turkeys! She was ambitiously large quarry; he abandoned his effort and the turkey hen has also now recovered from her gruesome injuries. But none of the chickens have ever been so lucky.

Our surviving meat chickens will be harvested next week, so the chicken nightmare will end. But I am worried that after they are gone only the geese, turkeys, ducks and Chuck Dickens will be left to tempt the owl. The geese and turkeys are probably now too large for the owl to tackle, but Chuck and the ducks are going to be in serious danger.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Maybe it's our own darn fault she left; we moved to a farm. This past summer on the farm has convinced our younger daughter Cadence that she really does want to be a farmer. Today, she arrived in Venezuela, where she will be attending the Simon' Bolivar United World College to study sustainable agriculture. Besides being a school, it is a working farm that students operate while they learn about everything from planting crops to raising cattle to keeping bees to making cheese to repairing tractors.

We are all going to miss Cadence so much! (Eyes tear up.) She moved home last winter, excited to help us launch our little dream farm, and with her enthusiasm and hard work we have accomplished far more than I ever imagined we could in one year. Rog and I thought we would go slow with this farm and dabble with a garden and a few laying hens...but no! Cadence is pretty much responsible for us raising 200 meat chickens, 9 turkeys, three cows, and of course her three beloved geese. She taught herself and us how to slaughter the chickens. She is an awesome baker and created beautiful and tasty breads and pastries for the Farmers Market each week. She eagerly tackled ambitious projects like turning the granary into a cabin. And she kept us smiling with her good humor.

Cadence, have a wonderful year in Venezuela!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Exotic Fruit Fly Trap

I spied this fabulous pitcher plant at the Farmers Market Saturday. It is a carnivorous plant that attracts insects into its amazing hanging vessels; the insects are then digested by the plant. It was priced way beyond my budget and I am not the most reliable house-plant gardener, but when the vendor told me it is low-maintenance AND it attracts, traps and consumes fruit flies I was persuaded. With all our tomato processing, garden melons, jam-making and kitchen compost container, fruit flies have been a constant battle. I am hoping this plant will be a more effective fruit fly trap than the device I made from a soda bottle.
We hung the pitcher plant in the window corner of our kitchen -above the fruit bowl - and I made sure there was a half inch of water in each of the pitchers, as directed. An hour later I peered inside one of the pitchers and sure enough, there were already a few doomed fruit flies inside!

91 More Pounds of Tomatoes

If you are getting tired of all my tomato posts, be assured I am going to be pretty weary of tomatoes pretty soon, too. Yesterday after the Farmers Market I came home and made and froze a huge pot of spaghetti sauce with with the last half of Thursday's 60lb. harvest.

Then, Sara and I went out to pick tomatoes and lugged in all these lovely 'matoes --which weighed out to be 91 lb. 8 oz. Today I am multi-tasking--roasting and freezing some, canning tomatoes and sauce and maybe salsa, and drying some in the food dehydrator. I have to keep at it and not lose ground--I guesstimate another 400-500 pounds out in the garden will be ripening over the next couple weeks.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trophy Vegetables

How do you like the size of our veggies!?

Actually they are wacky plastic yard ornaments(?)I came across at a garage sale today and couldn't resist. I thought they would be appropriate to grace our farm stand, if we ever have a farm stand. Or just tuck into our garden to make passers-by do a double-take.

I set the veggies out in the yard and the goose-duck-Chuck Dickens flock raced over to investigate. They had quite a lengthy conference over them.

Domestic Goddess

The tomatoes are ripening at a much faster pace now. We keep a chart on the refrigerator, tallying each day's tomato harvest. So far, we have harvested 175 pounds, but 62 lb.9 oz was just from this haul we got yesterday. There are many more to come...
I am trying to freeze, dry and can at the same pace as the harvest. I have now canned 21 quarts of tomatoes - my first venture into canning ever. The Gold Medals will make an exotic golden meal next winter.

Sara's Noir des Carmes muskmelons are also ripening--they all decided to ripen at once. These melons are small - perfect for two people, and SO yummy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dogged Farming

We were pleasantly surprised at how readily our urban pooches became farm dogs. They seemed to know instinctively know that the livestock are to be protected, not chased, even though they chase rabbits and squirrels obsessively. Yesterday, our friend Pat arrived here from Portland OR, with her two city dogs. She did not intend to let them out of her vehicle loose, fearing they would chase the animals. But I accidently opened the van door and Billie, the bigger black dog of uknown heritage, leaped out and, sure enough, raced joyously after 50 squawking, scrambling chickens.

Sudddenly, there was Nutmeg, running interference between the chickens and Billie, herding her away and firmly letting her know that chasing chickens was not allowed. Billie got the message and stopped! We were all astonished. Numeg has never had any herding training, but she knew just what to do.
Here is our younger dog, Cocoa, an Australian Shepherd rescue dog who is equally good with the animals, and a good protector of the farm, although considerably more alarmist than Nutmeg is.
Nutmeg and Cocoa are good buddies who love to play dog tag
and keep away with a stick.
Nutmeg, demonstrating the dog-herding technique on Cocoa.

Garbage Goose

Whenever we want the geese to come, we hold our arms up in a V, flap them slowly in a goose-like manner and honk loudly; they come running, honking and holding their wings high. Yes, it is a bit embarrassing, but it is very effective when you want to lure them away from the road or the patio or the garden.

Yesterday was garbage day and as I was rolling the trash bin out to the end of the driveway, the geese were inexplicably following me, wings aloft, honking. Then I noticed the lid of the garbage can was raised up like a big wing because some tall garbage wouldn't allow it to close. I think they were following the big blue garbage goose! Silly geese.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tomato Tarts and Other Market Temptations

For the Labor Day weekend farmers market, I created tomato tarts with our garden tomatoes - a Labor of Love. Imagine this: wheat pastry crust filled with caramelized onions and creamy gruyere cheese, topped with carefully arranged sweet tomatoes and kalamata olives, and a twist of fresh ground pepper.
Large tarts and tiny tarts, they were all snapped up quickly.
It was a pretty morning--I took my camera along to check out the other market vendors' wares. This corn truck had a great sign.
My gardener friend Richard, with some of his gigantic dahlias.
Last Saturday bought a case of 12 pints of these berries with a raspberry pie in mind, but they disappeared before I could make my pie. Note to self: Next year I will have raspberries...
and plant grape vines...
and lots of sunflowers!

September Sunrise

Early mornings the past week have been foggy, with the sun rising vivid hot pink --unfortunately the color just can't be captured in a photo.
Geese in the driveway at dawn.
Sunrise through fennel.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tomato Time

The tomatoes are finally ripening despite ongoing cool weather. They seem to be taking their time. That may be a plus-- they are coming in at a rate we can easily handle now. We have picked a few of the delicious big heritage tomatoes, Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and Gold Medal but many more are still very green. These two weighed in at just shy of 2 lb. and 2 lb. 2 oz --even larger ones are still on the vine.
I am gearing up to try my first canning, but first I decided to try Rog's Mom's favorite tomato preservation technique. She slices the tomatoes in half and sets them face down on a baking sheet, then roasts them just until they collapse in on themselves.

After roasting, I cooled the tomatoes, froze to solidity in plastic containers, then removed from the containers and vacuum packed in freezer bags. After roasting this first batch on Tuesday I invested in some baking sheets with edges--there was a lot of tomato juice that made quite a mess on the floor of the oven.
Some tomatoes were so picture-perfect I could not bear to roast them. Perhaps they will go to the Farmers Market.