Friday, August 31, 2012

Give Us This Day Our Daily Tomatoes

This morning's tomato harvest.  The fruit is coming on strong now, but thanks to the CSA, I have been able to keep up pretty well so far. No infestations of fruit flies yet!
The big heritage tomatoes are starting to ripen. Here are  five Brandywines from this morning next to a teaspoon for scale. Each of these tomatoes is  over a pound, but not nearly as big as our record Gold Medal tomato that was over 2 pounds.
The dense tomato jungle, heavy with fruit,  collapsed the center section of my cattle fence, so now the fencing is strung up to the ceiling and tied taut to the walls of the high tunnel. Next year I will know to tie it to the ceiling from the very beginning so the tomatoes can be clipped higher for support. I have tied them up as high as I can reach, about 8 feet, but they would go much higher if I had stretched them up before they became such a heavy tangle. At this point, I am going to clip off any new growth. There are many fruits yet to ripen, and I need to get those plants out in a few weeks to get in the winter crops. I intend to direct seed the other half of the  high tunnel next week, and I guess I will have to start seeds in flats to transplant to where the tomatoes are.

Unfortunately, I  have developed a sensitivity to tomato plants,  getting an itchy rash between my  fingers, on my wrists, and wherever the foliage brushes against me. So now I try to wear long sleeves when I work in there, spray Benadryl gel on my arms and hands before harvesting, and take a shower right after harvesting. At least it isn't an allergic reaction to eating tomatoes--that would be tragic!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thirsty Bees

Today was hot - in the 90's, sunny dry and windy.When I went out to water some recently transplanted flowers this evening I noticed bees lined up all around the rim of the birdbath, drinking.  It was a pretty precarious operation and a few had fallen in and drowned.
I fished out a couple of floundering bees and built some ramps from sticks and wood chips so if any more did fall in they might be able to climb out. Within moments, many of the bees were using the ramps for more secure footing to tank up with water.

Bees disperse water throughout their hive for evaporative cooling on hot days like this.  At the entrance of the hive,  some bees will line up facing out and fan their wings to direct a current of wind into the hive. Other bees line up facing in and fan the air backout, creating a cyclical breeze through the hive that passes over the droplets of water and evaporative cooling keeps the hive at a comfortable temperature.  So amazing!
This was the first time all summer I had seen bees drinking from the birdbath. Usually they drink from the  potted plants in the aquaponics system, and  the air traffic control there is very busy. The plants are set in a bed of gravel and get  flooded every 15 minutes, so when the water drains the bees can safely land on the wet gravel and drink.  I walked over to the pond and sure enough, the pump was clogged and not circulating water through the plants!  There was a crowd of bees in the one planter that had moisture. Poor thirsty bees!  Rog is out there cleaning the pump now. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Making Jelly - It's Wild!

"Ever eat a pine tree? Some parts are edible." For some reason when I was  a kid, we thought that phrase by Euell Gibbons was so funny (it must have been from a television commercial.)    Now, as an adult, I  love Euell Gibbons' books and I enjoy foraging for wild foods.

I was reading Stalking the Wild Asparagus before bed the other night, the chapter where he raves about  sumac-elderberry jelly. It just happens to be peak season for both sumac berries and elderberries, so I decided to make some jelly last night.
It only took a few minutes to snip a  huge bowl of  sumac spikes. They are blooming prolifically at the edge of  our prairie - I didn't  even make a noticeable dent in the supply.
Rog had picked a  big basket of elderberries a couple days ago with the intent to make wine. Since he hasn't tackled that project yet, I claimed them.  The most tedious part of making this jelly is picking all the  little elderberries off the umbrell-shaped stems.  The stems are somewhat  toxic, so it is important to removes them carefully.
The elderberries are simmered and crushed to make the  juice (I used a potato masher,)  The sumac berries are prepared similarly.

The juices is are strained and combined in a pot, then brought to a boil.  A package of Sure Jell is added. When it comes to a boil again, 5 cups of sugar are added and stirred until dissolved,  then boiled for three minutes.  This bubbling,  delicious-smelling mixture is poured into clean jelly  jars,  sealed, and allowed to cool. That's all there is to it!
The color is a beautiful magenta.
We had the jelly on French bread toast for breakfast this morning. Yum! The sumac adds a sparkling touch of tartness to the elderberries.

I was planning to give my CSA members elderberries in their veggie boxes today, but  I figured they might appreciate finished jelly more - so they each got a jar.
I had enough of both juices left to make a second batch of jelly this afternoon. I might just make a third batch for future gifts.

Here is the recipe I used, from this website, that is very close to Euell Gibbons' instructions:

Sumac-Elderberry Jelly

2 cups elderberry juice
2 cups sumac juice
5 cups sugar
1 pkg. Sure-Jell (a commercially available jelly-making powder)

Prepare the elderberry juice by putting 2 quarts of elderberries and 2 cups of water in a suitable pot. Heat the mixture and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Mash the softened fruit, stir, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Strain the finished juice through several layers of cheesecloth (I use a very fine  metal sieve.)

The sumac juice is prepared in a similar manner. Take a gallon or so of the berry heads and put in a pot. Cover with water. Heat while stirring and mashing the berries. I do not heat this mixture to boiling, rather just enough to help get the most color and flavor from the berry heads. After about 10 minutes, remove from the stove and strain the juice to remove stems, seeds, and as many of the fuzzy little seed hairs as possible.

To make the jelly, heat 2 cups of the elderberry juice and 2 cups of the sumac juice in a large pot. As the mixture begins to boil, add 1 package of Sure-Jell (or other commercially available jelly-making compound) and mix thoroughly. Return the solution to a boil and add, while stirring, the 5 cups of sugar. Allow all this to boil for 3 minutes, stirring all the while to prevent sticking or scorching. After the 3 minutes have elapsed, remove from heat and ladle into sterilized 1/2-pint jelly jars. Have your lids and rings ready and screw on snuggly. Cover the capped jars with a light towel and allow them to self-seal.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Stepping Up

We just completed a little home improvement project that makes me very happy - tiling the front steps.  The concrete steps were  pitted and crumbling, and the paint that had been applied to disguise their sad condition was peeling off.  Ugly.
We found some large Italian floor tiles on closeout at a tile shop  - a little piece of Italy on Squash Blossom Farm.

I removed the old paint and patched the bad spots on the steps.  The days are already getting noticeably shorter, so Rog was cutting tiles by headlamp Friday night.
We affixed the tiles onto the steps early Saturday morning and let the mortar dry all day.  Last night we grouted and I painted the risers.
The finished steps!   I especially like how they feel to walk on with bare feet.

Poet  brought her breakfast mouse to the steps to dine.

Friday, August 10, 2012

CERTain People

Although I completed my contract with the Clean Energy Resource Teams last month and am no longer working for them,  yesterday CERTs came to the farm for their annual summer staff gathering.  It was wonderful to see my old colleagues. I gave them the obligatory farm tour (including solar panels on the barn, of course) and they fed cow cookies to the bovines.   The rain held off while we made 10 delicious wood-fired pizzas.  We made Rog's sourdough crust, sauce (from farm tomatoes, garlic  & herbs) and mozzarella (from farm milk) and everyone else brought their favorite pizza toppings, traditional to exotic.
I got to meet the new summer interns.

We shared exciting news and little-known background info about ourselves - for instance, Dan just got married!
Diana  just got solar panels installed on her house!

Joel has been a screenplay writer in a past life and was in a feature film! 

Jeff is not only a CERTS Coordinator but also a singer-songwriter!  He played us some music.

Maggie has served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador!  (Note Diana's  fabulous raspberry cake.)

It is Julia's last week with CERTS ! She will be studying at the Humphrey Institute this fall.

Lissa was a rugby player and team captain - and she has the battle scars to prove it!

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such  dedicated, talented people in a wonderful, effective organization for the past 6 years. Thank you!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fly Snatchers

This is the last photo I  took of the barn swallow babies in the nest above my miking stool.  When I returned a couple hours later they had fledged and the nest was empty.

When they were growing up in the miking parlor, I wondered why the parents didn't catch the flies that  pestered  LaFonda and me during milking.  It only takes a few flies biting my ankles to drive me nuts, and they much prefer LaFonda to me. Without a long tail to flick them off her ankles, she has to stomp her feet to jar the flies off her legs, and that is not conducive to a smooth milking session.

The past couple days there have been many more flies than usual, oodles of flies,  in the milking parlor. I finally realized, Duh! the barn swallows WERE devouring lots of flies in there and keeping the numbers to just a few!  I have now hung sticky fly paper strips and one of those fly traps with disgustingly smelly bait to reduce the fly population.  Plus, I  am spending ten or 15 minutes swatting flies each morning before calling LaFonda in to be milked.  A fly swatter is such an ingenious, effective tool that Lafonda and I have both come to appreciate.

After milking today, when I let LaFonda back out into the pasture the entire family of beautiful barn swallows was swooping gracefully around in front of the barn door.  I suppose it is unlikely this late in the summer, but I would be delighted if they decided to raise a third clutch in the milking parlor.