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Monday, June 25, 2012

Cannolis - getting better each day


Having lived just outside of New York City for several years I had access to some of the best restaurants and bakeries available.  Being the particular type of person I am, I often over criticize myself and my cooking, comparing it to those foods I used to eat on a regular basis.  Recipes for products at farmers market are tried, if they pass my critical palette then I allow my husband to try them.  After he tries them then I try to get one more person to try them before I allow them to go on the table for sale.  My most recent baking adventure includes cannolis. 

I am fairly confident in my pastry shells, although I know that I will no longer be substituting a red wine for a white anytime soon, but the filling is still a work in progress.  Many people know that the base for a cannoli filling is ricotta cheese.  While I have managed to get mine fairly smooth, "I" can still taste the ricotta consistency.  Last week we tried them at the market for the first time and they went over pretty well.  I was disappointed with my candied citrus zest, but DH told me that it was fine and I gave it shot anyway.

This week I will be trying chocolate chip cannolis and perhaps even some plain cannoli filling inside of a chocolate dipped cannoli shell.  We'll see how much time I have before we go to market tomorrow.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Flowers by accident

Regular maintenance at an old farmhouse on the side of a hill includes shoring up against erosion.  This particular maintenance had not been done for several years prior to my grandfather's passing.  Fill and topsoil are collected from around the farm and placed strategically around the foundation.  This process combats regular erosion as well as keeps surface water out of the basement and directed away from the house.  DH focused on this project last year in response to the excessively we spring that we had.  So far this year very little water has gotten into the basement.  There are still some areas that need attention and some 'freshening up' of the dirt piles could be done so they look like they belong there.

In one location at the front of the house Mother Nature has done her own beautification.  Daisies, similar to these, are growing in between the front steps and the exterior entrance to the basement.  Seeds from these beauties must have been in the pile of dirt and they volunteered to grow right by the front door.  They are in an unusual location, but I will mow around them this year.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Remembering not to be defined by our jobs

Growing up I knew that I would be the president of a multi-national corporation, my husband would be a stay-at-home dad to our 2 children and we would have a modest summer camp in the country and a nice house in the suburbs.  I spent several years climbing the corporate ladder; career advancement was paramount.  When leaving the house my cell phone topped the list of items which I could not leave without along with my wallet, and keys.  It was only while talking on the phone did I verify before getting into the car that the shoes matched and the eye makeup wasn't smudged.  Multi-tasking was key and I became thoroughly adept at talking on the phone, smoking a cigarette, writing down information garnered from the telephone conversation and driving 75 mph on an over crowded interstate somewhere between Philadelphia and Fall River.  Then one day it was over.

For more than ten years I had worked my way up the "corporate ladder."   My salary was 3/4 of the six figure mark.  I had a relatively new car, all the business attire I could possibly need, the latest technology, the newest cell phone and I was alone.  There was no one to come home to besides my furry and four-legged roommates.  I had alienated many who I had called friends for missed birthdays, showers, and weddings.  Family functions were missed because I was travelling.  Then I had nowhere I had to be, my company closed.  I was unemployed and I didn't know who I was without work. 

So I did something that was completely out of character; I moved to Vermont.  For the past seven years the pace of things has slowed.  It is a rare occasion when I remember to grab my cell phone when I leave the house.  Important things on the check list besides the little man himself, are the diaper wipes and the burp cloth.  Any make-up that I do own is at least seven years old and I have no plans to replace it any time soon.  Rushing out the door only occurs because I have spent good quality time with my family before getting ready for my off farm job.

Baking, playing, farm chores, gardening, farm building construction, maintenance and repair, website editing, and blogging are only a few of the activities which occupy my day.  My early morning meetings consist of my coffee and a bucket of water for the piggles.  Returning from that 'meeting' usually involves a stop at the hose to clean off the mud from a little splashing and scratching behind the ears.  Inventories are double checked while feed bowls and water bottles are filled; procurement occurs with an actual trip to the feed store usually accompanied by little man and without a cell phone.  Economies of scale are measured and return on investment is gauged with rabbit weights and number of kits instead of coupons redeemed or billable hours.  When people used to ask me what I did for a living I said, "I AM an operations coordinator for a marketing company."  I was identifiable only as the job I was performing.  I wasn't Jennifer the painter and gardener who worked as...  I was the office manager or administrative director.  My answer has changed significantly and it surprises me how few people notice; often when they do their story is very similar to mine.  Today my response includes, "I am employed as a public safety dispatcher and 911 call-taker; I volunteer as an EMT and I am a farmer."

For several months now I have tried to balance the growing farm and its requirements of my time with that of a very stressful off-farm job.  After many a restless night, I made the decision to stop working full time.  From here forward my response will start with, "I am a farmer, I volunteer as an EMT, and I work part-time as a public safety dispatcher."  It will be yet another learning experience working with my husband full-time and counting on off-farm income on a part-time basis.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Getting the garden in - finally

Gardening was the name of the game on the farm for the past couple of days.  All nature of garden, garden project, and garden maintenance was achieved.  Repairs to the greenhouse from accumulated windstorms were made.  New PVC connectors were purchased, PVC pipes were cut, and a 2" x 4" ridge board installed to keep the pipes in place, more secured, and better suited to withstand the wind that blows down the side of our hill.  In between entertaining little man and assisting with PVC maintenance and repair, I managed to get the greenhouse weeded.  It is amazing what nature and variety of seedling and transplant you are able to find when you move the overgrown squash transplants and weed out the grass and swamp weed that the heat of the compost pile just cannot kill.

At the front of the house is a hill which slopes toward the lake.  At the bottom of this hill is our garden.  Years ago the hill was hayed by hand as the slope is too steep for any kind of tractor.  When the haying stopped, the hill grew up and was burned every other year or so to keep trees from growing and thistle from taking over.  Nearest the house, this hill has some amazing soil.  We think that the old dry well (where grey water used to go before all the used water from houses started going into septic systems) used to be located here.  DH has been using this spot for the past couple of years as his experimental garden.  Last year he successfully grew sunflowers and one vegetable, although I can't remember which.  This year six blueberry plants which were left too long inside the garage were planted there.  I finally got to weeding the edge of the hill in hopes of planting some flowers and transplanting some rhubarb and discovered that two of them had survived.  I managed to get the herb garden weeded and started in on the flower bed in front of the house, but lunch and little man interrupted that project.

Thursday morning we managed to get into the garden.  Long overdue transplants and seed sowing occurred.  My leg and butt muscles are still sore on Saturday, reminding me that I spend far too much time in front of a computer and not enough time out in my garden.  We hand turned soil which was tilled three weeks ago, but settled in that time.  The soil was then raked, hoed, seeds or transplants placed and then packed in.  Thursday night, DH watered everything.  With no rain forecast for the next week we will continue to water with hopes of a flourishing garden throughout the summer.  While I was baking for farmers market on Friday, DH went down into the garden to prepare some more soil so that we can continue our VERY late transplanting on Sunday morning.  Our squash transplants haven't made it out of the greenhouse yet, pretty soon, we are going to have to take the side off the greenhouse and let the squash fall out over the lawn.  There is little hope of transplant success if we try to move the vines now.

A decision has been made, however, which will provide me with significantly more time to garden for the rest of the summer and give my family, my garden, my livestock and my well-being some long overdue attention!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sun, rain, and fireflies

Tuesday started out beautiful, sunny and warm; however, the weather man promised afternoon and evening rain and thunderstorms.  As I prepared for farmers market with fresh breads and pies, I thought that the meteorologists had to have been mistaken.  As three o'clock rolled around so did the clouds and as we were traveling the eleven miles from the farm to the market, rain drops appeared on the windshield. 

Just as the canopy was erected, the heavens opened and it rained consistently for the next several hours.  The rain chased away many, but there were still the hardy few who came to vend and visit; I think each vendor went home with a sale.  We aren't sure what happened to the band which was scheduled to play in the gazebo as we never saw them before we left close to 7:00 p.m.  A few stores which remained open at that hour received our cash for some of their wares and we arrived home around just before 8:00 p.m.  Little man was changed into pajamas, fed a little more supper as what we fed him while at the market didn't seem to satisfy his appetite, given a bottle and settled in for the evening.  Our dinner was started and a few phone calls received and returned.  Dinner completed, we went outside to complete our farm chores.  

Rabbits were fed and watered, chickens were checked for feed and water and put away for the evening, and eggs were collected.  The greenhouse was watered and closed up for the evening.  Finally, as the rain started to lighten, I took a bucket full of pig feed and some fresh water over to the piggles.  Scratches behind the ears were welcomed and squeals of delight were returned as leftover cookie dough and some pastry dough was mixed with their evening rations.

I walked back to the house and stopped to listen to the raindrops and the contented munching of pig and rabbit alike.  The rain had lightened just enough so as I looked out over the farm, lightning bugs had come out to play.  The entire hill above the driveway and alongside the Christmas trees sparkled with their lights.  It was a lovely end to a bit of a hectic day.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Farmers market day

Farmers market days are pretty busy around here.  During the summer there are vegetables to be harvested and washed, herbs to be cleaned and packaged, and baked goods to prepare.  Our vegetables are behind schedule this year due to other commitments, like an off farm job and a little man to take care of.  Today my day will start much like any other with my large mug of coffee which will accompany me to take care of whatever animals DH hasn't had the opportunity to tend to in between bottles, breakfast and morning play time.  Inside to clean off the kitchen table and baking cabinet of all the accumulations from the past couple of days.  Any morning dishes will be washed and the dishwasher and drying rack will be emptied of any of their clean dishes from the past day or so and readied for the next batches of dishes.
Then the organized chaos begins.  Any frozen fruit that I will be using for my baking will be removed from the freezer (or collected from the garden later in the summer) and placed on the table or immediately into the bowls from which it will be mixed.  Sticks of butter are removed from the refrigerator or freezer and placed on the table to soften.  Any eggs which are required to be at room temperature for various recipes are added to the supplies.  Fore the record, my kitchen table only seats six people.

Breads which have to rise are made first and placed in covered bowls on the kitchen table to rise.  Next comes the pie crusts.  I find that my crusts come out flakier if I chill them prior to baking.  Double batches of crust are made, the bottom crust rolled out on the baking rack, placed in the pie plate while the top crust stays in its bowl, both are then relegated to the refrigerator until the fillings are complete.  Bowls washed from the batches of bread are re-used for pie fillings.  Pies are completed and placed in the oven while the bread is removed from its first rise, placed in bread pans for its second rise.  Bowls washed again are re-used for whatever other delicious creation I am making for that days market.  Cookies, doughnuts, cannolis, breakfast bars, fruit tarts, dinner rolls, specialty breads - it doesn't helpt to write this post on an empty stomach.

Cooling racks replace covered bowls; defrosting butter and fruit is replaced by packages of freshly baked cookies.  Labels are meticulously prepared to be sure that all ingredients are reflected as allergies are commonplace nowadays.   Wrapping and packaging is completed and everything is packed into the car on top of the tables, the canopy, the bins fully of jellies and preserves, the box of other crafts and the bin full of supplies for the booth.  It is an organized chaos and on summer days the kitchen can get a little extra warm, but it is a labor of love. 

Farmers Market - Come See Us Tomorrow

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cucurbit conundrum

We built a new greenhouse this year which has held up reasonably well to spring time in Northern Vermont.  A few of our early season thunderstorms have proven that PVC cross connectors are nowhere near as strong as I thought they should be, but the 6 mil plastic covering has held up extremely well.  Properly watered plants are thriving inside, not the least of which are the cucurbits which we started from seed in late May. 

These 'seedlings' shot right up and were far past transplant stage, but we gave it a shot anyway.  I watered them and then carefully dug rows of blue hubbard squash and two types of pumpkins and transplanted them into mounds on the hill in front of the house but above the garden.  The first day it appeared as if I had killed them.  I was dismayed that all this seed was going to be wasted because more sleep wasn't sacrificed to ensure their survival by transplanting them earlier in their lives.  Sad, seemingly lifeless vines lay withering on the hill in the sunshine.  Sufficient water was provided by both Mother Nature and supplemented by me, but they languished there anyway.  I watched them for three days while it rained and DH and I added a little extra water - still nothing.  Lesson learned, no more than two weeks in the greenhouse before transplant and then it needs to be marked on the calendar much like we track our rabbit breeding dates.

DH and I learned our lesson with poor record keeping a few years ago when we attempted to raise meat birds.  These were Cornish crosses who are bred especially for meat and are meant to be slaughtered at eight weeks, no more, no less.  We started these guys inside the house in an extra bedroom - as I have mentioned before DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME - and then moved them outside to the chicken tractor.  Eight weeks came and went as DH and I discussed how heavy they were getting but both of us certain we had another week or two before we needed to put them in the freezer.  We had an early warm spell when the birds were between ten and eleven weeks old.  Upon opening the tractor in the morning we found several of the birds barely clinging to life when the outside temperature had barely reached seventy degrees.  A couple had perished in the night as they were too heavy to carry their own weight around any longer.  Plans for the humid, warm, late spring day changed to cleaning and dressing the remaining twelve meat birds.  Normally one plans on dispatching chickens on cool mornings keeping not only the smell down but stray feathers from sticking to your sweaty person.  Neither worked in our favor this day.

Now chicken, pig and rabbit birthdays are tracked in either a computer spreadsheet or in my calendar (someday I will go completely electronic but there remains the feeling of a nice piece of stock and the rolling of the ball point as history is recorded while it is made). This year I have learned that cucurbit birthdays will also have to be recorded especially those started in the greenhouse.  Just over a week after transplant, the vines are beginning to perk up.  Half of them are showing signs of life.  Those 'seedlings' remaining in the greenhouse include a variety of pie pumpkins, a couple different gourds, some spaghetti squash and hybrid acorn squash which still have a fighting chance.  Weather for this week is forecast to be more summer like, I will wait until later in the evening to transplant the remaining vines.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Time to slow down!

The powers that be were working together in their mystical ways to remind me that I need to slow down some and remember to enjoy this life in between chores and projects on the farm.  

I had a full day planned on Thursday with a mountain of things to get done before I went to work.  Lack of sleep, good quality REM sleep has escaped me of late.  Averaging about three hours per night of quality sleep has been good for me lately. Projects, sounds, lack of sounds, reminders, lists, and life all swirl around in my head if I wake even enough for one thought to pop into my head, there is no going back to sleep again.  Thursday morning I awoke at just after 5:00 a.m. from the cries of the little man.  Thankfully, DH arose and tended to the wet diaper and rumbling tummy.  I rolled over and attempted to obtain another hour or two of sleep.  No such luck.

Out of bed and into the kitchen - little man had just gone down for a nap, much earlier than usual - mental note - change that schedule before it becomes habit. The task list for today included crafting a rack onto which the last two cages for twelve new breeding does would be placed.  Only six of those holds had been cleaned so six more needed to be cleaned and disinfected.  DH was on his way to pick them up.  Dishes done, empty sink to wash rabbit feeders and water bottles and laundry started, outside to work on the rack.  

Little man awoke for breakfast.  Smiles and laughter filled the kitchen as we attempted to eat oatmeal with blueberries and apples.  I am not sure who wore more of it, him or me.  In the end, the task was accomplished and we both had a good time.  From there to folding laundry; the next incredible discovery, t-shirts and bath towels make great peek-a-boo barriers.  I looked at the clock and grimaced as I had not made any progress on the rabbit project, but smiled as little man tugged my hair out of its pony tail.

I packed him into his stroller and outside we went to try and make the rabbit rack and clean feeders and water bottles.  Table, circular saw, drill, screws, measuring tape, and pencil were gathered and exciting descriptors provided for my audience.  Six 2"x4"x10's collected and measured.  Two cuts - that was the end of playing nicely in the stroller and watching Momma.  It wasn't the noise - he has been around for the construction of the rabbit shed, and the tractor and the lawn mower don't bother him - he was just plain tired.  Back inside we went for some good quality cuddle time and a bottle, thirty minutes later he fell asleep.  I sat quietly listening to his breathing descend into a slow rhythm and my heart smiled as he rested on my chest.

Back outside with the baby monitor, I quickly finished up the rack as DH returned with the rabbits.  Cleaning up the cages, water bottles and feeders took much longer than we had planned.  Just as we were wrapping everything up and got the rabbits into their cages, watered and fed; little man woke up.  DH headed inside to make lunch.  I put the old fiberglass from the waste deflectors between the cages in hopes of completing that project on Friday and headed in to take a shower.  OT at work blew that plan out of the water – by the time I returned home on Friday morning, I had been awake for 26 1/2 hours – I needed sleep!

As I was disrobing, I looked out the bedroom window to see the piggles in the driveway - their pasture doesn't include the driveway.  I redressed while calling my off-farm job and told them I would be late as I hadn't included piggle wrangling in my schedule for the afternoon and if I didn't require a shower before I went to chase them, I was certainly going to need one now.  Fifteen minutes later pigs were back in their house.  They are almost big enough for the electric fence to corral them, in the meantime they will stay inside their house so DH doesn’t have to chase them with little man in tow. 

I headed back to the house and a large shadow passed over me, one of the bald eagles who have taken up residence near the lake came to visit.  Watching her play in the updrafts a wonderful feeling of peace washed over my hurried soul.  Already late, I watched her for a couple more minutes, both of us enjoying the sunshine.  Back inside my little man greeted me with big one-tooth smiles from his highchair with chicken and sweet potato on his face.  Giggles erupted as I kissed his neck and proceeded to add potato to other debris in my hair.  Into and out of the shower, dressed and ready for work, DH stepped in between me and the door and gave me a kiss good night.
My entire day was wrought with ‘interruptions’, ones that I welcome with a full heart.  Although I had to leave for work, I had spent some good quality time with my son and gotten twelve new rabbits re-housed, the dishes done and some laundry folded.  At every turn, the powers that be reminded me that this time is precious with my little man.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Beautiful visitor

This beautiful creature came to visit us over the weekend.  It hung out on the screen of the sliding glass door to the deck.  I noticed it out there and took several minutes to decide whether I should try to open the screen door to get to the other side in hopes of capturing a good picture of this winged one or whether I should try and heft my body up onto the deck from the outside.  Sore aching muscles from the previous days' garden fencing adventure won out and I carefully slid the screen door open.  My cautiousness was completely unnecessary.  It must have known that we were admiring it as it remained there, and once I was outside it posed nicely, opening its wings so that I could take its photograph.

This creature was not scared for anything.  My cats attempted on several occasions to jump onto the screen in hopes of capturing the insect on the other side of the screen, it remained.  Clattering of stainless steel bowls in front of the door, the dog bumping into the screen, even the impending storms did not chase away our pretty friend.  When the afternoon thunderstorms came around from the East, DH moved the creature from the front deck under the cover of the back porch so that it would remain safe.  The following morning it was gone.

Wildlife abounds on this farm.  Groundhogs play in and around the old dairy barn.  Deer run rampant.  Turkeys visit frequently although they never seem to come out of the woods during hunting hours.  Eagles have returned to the lake.  Herons and Mallards frequent the ponds along side the driveway.  Any nature of rodent live under, around and sometimes inside the house.  And sometimes they even stay for a while. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

They who shall remain nameless

The newest arrivals to the farm. We have decided that they shall remain nameless.  They are two very spirited young ladies who had escaped from their electric fence enclosure on two separate occasions as they are just too little for the bottom wire to affect them.  We purchased some temporary fencing for them which will be re purposed into cucumber and tomato trellis when the pigs are big enough for the fence to be effective.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Homeless chickens

Last week we spent one of our mornings re-housing chickens.  21 days before we took the eggs from our chickens and placed them in the incubator at a toasty 99.5 degrees.  At the time we were only receiving 5-7 eggs per day, over four days we put every egg into the styrofoam container marking each with the date they were placed there on its shell.  Twice daily we turned the eggs and made sure there was water in the well at the bottom of the container.  The incubator needs to simulate the conditions which would be found under the mother hen.  Consistent moisture and warmth are required to get from a basic fertilized egg to a hatchling.  Eighteen days into the incubation, we stop turning the eggs.  The little ones need to get their bearings and know which way is up.  Our diligence has been rewarded with sixteen baby chickens.
Throughout our chicken raising adventures we have been through three chicken tractors, three different brooder setups and two chicken coops.  As we learn something new or acquire more chickens their housing gets modified.  Our chicken adventures began with twelve laying hens and a Bantam rooster in 2007.  Much like my other animal tales, we didn't intend on raising [insert type of animal here - cats, dog, ferrets, lizards], but sometimes they just show up and you make a home for them. 

Coop #1 was four plywood walls, salvaged from a shed which was torn down) around four cedar fence posts with a plywood top and hay bales for insulation from the winter cold.  It was about 3' x 3' x 3' and had one row of three nest boxes.  The following spring we purchased our first pullets from the local farm store and brooded them in a cardboard box in the workshop before building our first tractor out of salvaged pallet wood and left over chicken wire from a farm project long past.  Our next coop came very quickly when we realized it was impossible to house sixteen chickens in a 27 cubic foot coop.  My father used a saw-z-all and cut a hole in the side of the garage where we built a 6' x 8' x 8' coop with two rows of nesters and a couple of roosting poles.  Attached to that is a fenced in yard allowing the chickens access to the outdoors, but remain safely inside a fence away from predators or trucks who are zooming around the farm.  During the day we let the chickens run amuck, but there are times when they need a little extra protection for their own good.  The roof is starting to leak and the mice have done a number on the floor so we are hoping to make some modifications (and expansions) to it this fall which will include waterproofing and removal of the floor.

Brooder #2 was a recycled ferret cage inside a spare bedroom - DON'T EVER DO THIS - unless you like vacuuming three times a day and dusting twice that much.  Chicken mash is a dusty product - they made a complete mess.  Brooder #3 has been a complete success.  It is a large box made from reclaimed pine lumber, lined with a waterproof shower wall substance and is built onto the wall next to the chicken coop.  It has a chicken wire top allowing for great air circulation and as long as we choose not to breed chickens in the dead of winter then a single incandescent light bulb is all that is necessary to get them started.

Tractor #2 included the original chicken tractor with modifications for a small box on one side of it to allow the young ones a little more protection from inclement weather.  This design was far too heavy on one end and it quickly fell apart after less than one season's use.  Our third chicken tractor has been a complete success (the third time's a charm).  We used the thicker cross bracing from salvaged pallets along with four purchased 2' x 4' x 12's, some newer leftover chicken wire and a hinged lid made of someones left over OSB picked up from a free pile on the side of the road.  This tractor has worked very well for going on four seasons now and with only minor repairs to aging chicken wire, it is still holding strong.

We have incubated three sets of eggs this spring.  The third set just went into the brooder last week leaving the second set to join the first born in the large chicken tractor.  Not such a good idea.  Our tweens have developed quite the attitude and were not at all welcoming to the new birds.  Into the tractor I went to rescue the four-week old birds.  Not having lost much of my baby-weight, I was a sight to see trying to climb around in temporary chicken housing.  Homeless, our middle birds went into a cardboard box while we worked on housing for them.  Resurrected from the bowels of our storage system (anywhere it will fit) came the original chicken tractor.  It was in pretty bad shape.  A piece of ripped 2 x 4 here, a rusty hinge cleaned up and re purposed there, some chicken wire patching and the original chicken tractor came to life again to house another generation of baby chickens.  Water basin and small tin of feed provided, chickens rehoused, quick shower and I still managed to make it to work on time.