Essex Farm Note, week 39

Lots of newsy news this week. We have a healthy new Jersey heifer, born to Fanny. This was Fanny’s first calf, so she’s on the milking line for the first time now. Jenny found the baby in the pasture and claims the naming rights. We name our calves with the same first initial as their mother, so we can keep cow families straight. This calf is a granddaughter to Fern, and we hope she’ll inherit that line’s good udder, longevity, and milkiness. I don’t think Jenny has picked the calf’s name yet, but I heard that Fenneke, Dutch for little one, is in the running. Members can visit the new arrival in the calf nursery in the east barn’s eastern shed, but please don’t climb in with her. She’s a newborn and needs some peace.

Mark, Lindsay, Liam, and Luke brought in the Delicata squash this week. Delicata is the zeppelin-shaped winter squash with green stripes. It has sweet flesh and thin skin that you can eat if you want too. It’s a nice convenient size and shape for stuffing. Squash is all well and good, but the vegetable star of the week is the absolutely gorgeous broccoli. This is the beginning of a bumper crop, and we expect to have it for another four weeks at least.  Melons, however, are making their final appearance today. It has been a good run, hasn’t it? There are still some raspberries in the field, so take advantage, members, and pick them before frost! I made raspberry jam this week, the last taste of summer sun in jars.

We’re looking at lots of numbers right now to decide if we are going to build a walk-in freezer. While it’s a big cash outlay, we think it could save money in the long run, because we could raise more animals during the growing season, while wintering fewer – focusing winter resources on the dairy and breeding stock. Pigs, for example, need a lot of feed just to keep warm in winter, hairless beasts that they are. The other big-ticket item on the docket this week is forage. We have plenty of first cut hay in the loft, but so far, thanks to drought, no second cut. First cut is low in protein, and we will need some better feed for the dairy cows at least. The second cut that is standing in the field is just now getting tall enough now to consider cutting, but the days are getting too short to dry it into good hay. Our options are to hire someone to bale it for haylage (baled wet, wrapped in plastic, and fermented), or to graze it now, and buy in some alfalfa or good second cut from another farm. The price of hay is expected to be pretty darn high this year, due to the drought. We’ll crunch some numbers and do the best we can.

Love and best wishes go to Lindsay Willemain, who finishes her last day today. Lindsay ran the vegetable department this year after Asa departed, and so we thank her for so many of the good things that grace our tables this fall. She took on a huge job in a challenging year, and I was so impressed by the heart and energy she brought to it.  We’ll raise a toast to her tonight at team dinner. Finally, I’m going to blog about what we’re cooking in the farmhouse this week, plus kitchen tips. We are welcoming a lot of new members right now and I thought this might help get the culinary ideas flowing. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this my-laundry-won’t-dry! 39th week of 2012.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

Essex Farm Note, week 38

We got a flood of response to last week’s note, regarding whether or not we can continue to use draft horse power here while also paying a living wage and achieving long-term economic stability. As we were discussing all of your thoughts in the farmhouse this week, I was advocating a mixed-power approach – draft horses plus tractors powered by biodiesel or maybe solar powered electric tractors. Mark frowned, and every time I made a point, he frowned more deeply. “What?” I finally said. He pulled out the beaten copy of The Grapes of Wrath and read:

The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a beating and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks or months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.

While I could have debated with Mark forever, I did not feel able to argue with Steinbeck. I’ll write about this again soon, but in short, we will pursue draft horse power for another season at least, and keep the discussion open. And I look forward to sharing our numbers more fully with you when we have them all in line.

We are so close to that bold line of demarcation that we call first frost. We skated by this week, but barely. The thermometer read 37 when I got up Thursday morning. We still have beautiful melons and peppers and tomatoes and basil in the share today so enjoy them while you can. Fall crops are booming. I’m really looking forward to winter squash. Meanwhile, we have our eyes on Little Red and Zea, who are due calve any day now. Their pasturemate, Scout, give birth a couple weeks ago to a stillborn premature calf, so we are ready for the cheer of live babies in the barn.  More cows are due in the coming weeks, so our dairy supply should increase. Pullets are starting to lay too, so we’ll be rich in eggs. In all, it is a fine time of year to eat, isn’t it?

Mark’s obsession of the week has been finding a way to build a community soccer field in the hay field next to the fire department. If you want to help, contact him at essexfarm@gmail.com. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this hello fall 38th week of 2012.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

Essex Farm Note, week 37

Jane and I walked out to Paddock Three yesterday to catch the pony, Abby Belle, so we could give Miranda a ride – a treat for her second birthday. As I slipped the pony’s halter on, Obie and Amos came over for a nuzzle. Jake and Big Abby, Cub and Chuck, Jay and Jack looked on expectantly, wondering if it was time to work. It has been a while – with no trained teamsters on staff right now, the horses have been nearly as idle as the fat white pony. Which brings me back to the conundrum I raised in the week 30 farm note.

Mark and I have been doing some deep thinking about draft horse power here. We do not yet have answers, but I’ll share our conclusions to this point, and invite your input. As many readers know, we crafted this farm around the idea of using horses as our primary source of power. This year, we invested heavily in more horses, in harness and equipment, and through summer, we did an extraordinary amount of work with them. We made use of multiple horse hitches and larger equipment, like a two bottom plow, to prepare and plant not only our vegetable ground but also our grain ground, and we mowed 10,000 bales of hay. We are emotionally, ecologically, and agriculturally satisfied with these choices. Economically, not so much.

If we roughly compare the cost of plowing a field with horses to plowing the same field with tractors, we think the horses could be up to ten times more expensive. Of course horses bring other benefits — fertility, less compaction, no fossil fuel, and joy — but the economics can’t be ignored. We can’t pass all of the added expense on to our members, as it would put the share price out of reach for most people. In the past, we have subsidized the cost by underpaying ourselves and our employees, by foregoing repairs and maintenance, and leaving ourselves without a lot of cushion for a bad year, which is not sustainable, farming being farming. We might be able to tighten up and sort of meet the infrastructure and savings issues, but the big-ticket issue is payroll.

Our current conclusion is pretty simple. If we pay our employees a living wage with health insurance, and use draft horses for our work, then we need some sort of external subsidy. This is an issue, by the way, even on farms that are not powered by horses – so many small local producers are economically viable only because of free or cheap ‘intern’ labor; health insurance, which we began offering our employees this year, is almost unheard of. And certainly we are not alone in trying to find ways to pay for an environmental benefit that is usually externalized, invisibly, through the use of fossil fuel. To quote Bill McKibben’s striking statistic, one barrel of oil contains the same amount of energy as ten years of manual labor. The oil costs about a hundred bucks. Ten years of a living wage is somewhere between a quarter and half a million. So what do you think, dear members and readers? How do we crack this tricky little nut? Let us know your thoughts at essexfarm@gmail.com. We may not write everyone back personally — it’s harvest season after all — but we will certainly read your ideas and put them into the mix.

The field corn is starting to dent – hooray. The second cut hay is still too stunted to mow – boo. Wish for warm weather and a late frost. The winter squash is ripening and will be in the share in a few weeks. Welcome Dan to the neighborhood and the staff! And say hi today to the Garden Club of America national delegates, who are here for a tour, as well as Squire Fox, who is here to take pictures for Prevention Magazine. And that is the news for this complicated 37th week of 2012. -Kristin & Mark Kimball

Essex Farm Note, week 36

We spent the early part of the week bringing in the onions and shallots, in advance of predicted wet weather. By Tuesday evening they were curing in the greenhouse, a mix of papery yellows and reds and purples.

Mark and I slept so soundly on Tuesday night that we woke up thinking the rain had missed us yet again. We groused about it as I made coffee and Mark laced up his boots. He stomped out into the pre-dawn gloom, and then came bounding back. The rain gauge showed 2.75”! Still there were hardly any puddles. The  ground was so thirsty it sucked up every bit of it. The pasture and hayfields have been at a standstill for weeks, but now, with luck, we might get some 2nd cut hay after all. And it was excellent news for fall crops. This morning, we surveyed the remote fields where we are growing the winter squash, field corn, cabbage and potatoes. We were surprised at how good the squash looks, as we’ve taken a very hands-off approach to it this year. The per-plant yields are low, but we planted so much of it, we’ll have an abundant harvest of butternut, delicata, acorn and pumpkin. The kabocha squash, Sunshine, looks a little weak. The flea beetles really favored that variety this year. Too bad – it’s my favorite too. Meanwhile, the cabbage looks fine, and the field corn is coming along nicely. The field corn crop is practically invisible from a member perspective – besides showing up in early winter as corn meal in the share, you don’t really see it – but its importance to the farm as a whole cannot be overstated. The corn is the energy that grows the chickens and the hogs, and keeps muscle on the horses when they are working hard. With corn prices at an all-time high, it is imperative we grow our own. Now what we need is a long warm fall, and a late frost.

Some of you spent time last holiday weekend with friends at the lake or a park, but I doubt you had more fun than we did at Potato Beach. Saturday’s weeding party was a great success. The kids played in the sandy soil while a dozen or so adults powered through the lambsquarters with pruning shears. It was kind of like vacuuming a very dirty room, where the satisfaction comes from the contrast between the before and the after. We got through several long rows, leaving the patch about 2/3rds weeded. We will probably have one more party before we harvest the potatoes. Thank you to everyone who came out and helped.

Member payments for September are due today. If you are on the quarterly schedule and can pay us now, that would be nice for cash flow purposes. We are buying organic roasted soy (the protein for chicken and hog feed) at a whopping 60 cents/lbs. Cue my periodic reminder to please treat meat as the precious resource it is. Make use of every bit of it, including bones, and remember that the dry beans are also a delicious source of protein. I make a point of using them as a main course at least once a week. The share price hinges largely on how much meat we consume. Speaking of meat, the beef in today’s share comes from a beautiful Angus bull, pasture raised by Shaun and Linda Gililland. Finally, there are milled oats in the share today; use them like steel cut oats. I soak them overnight with a little whey, which makes the cooking faster in the morning. That’s the news from Essex Farm for this quenched 36th week of 2012.

Essex Farm Note, week 35

The cantaloupe melons are coming in, their flesh the color of mangoes, sweet and precious as these last days of summer. I harvested bushels and bushels of them this morning with Lindsay and Amy and Lindsay’s mom, Martha. Lindsay split one in half on the wagon with a harvest knife, and dug the seeds out with its tip. I ate a sun-warm slice and then another and wiped the juice from my face with my shirt. To eat a perfect melon is one thing, but to eat a perfect melon in a field chock full of them, from a platter the size of a wagon, is altogether something else. The former is tinged with longing — a single melon is a finite thing. The later is the taste of glorious abundance, and one of those sweet rewards a farm life gives you, to balance out the inevitable hardships.

It was a breathless week here. Harvest is coming into full swing, and we’re in the middle of two giant construction projects. Meanwhile, poor Jenny is out with septic bursitis in her knee. She is on hardcore antibiotics, still limping, and needs some good rest and TLC. You know how you never really realize exactly how much you need, say, your right hand, until you have it in a sling? That’s kind of what it feels like with Jenny out of commission. She is a quiet, cheerful and fiercely efficient farmer and she takes care of so many details here, it’s dizzying. Mark and Amy and I filled in for her at milking, and Jane and Miranda and I helped in the milkhouse, and everyone did a little extra on all fronts to keep the farm above water. It’s dangerous to single out any one of the farmers for special recognition because every single person here is working so hard and so well, but it seems like a good moment to send Jenny some extra love and appreciation, and wishes for a fast recovery.

I dearly love the shift from high summer to late summer, because it brings some of my favorite foods back to the kitchen. Besides the melons we have plentiful leeks in the share today, and more green beans, potatoes, eggplant, and beautiful carrots, with onions not far behind. The tomatoes are slowing down but there is an infinite amount of Juliet, the little oblong tomato, in the field. Members, if you want them for putting up, please go to the field and help yourselves. We also have edamame for the first time today. These are edible soybeans, the one green vegetable that every child likes. Boil them in the pods in very salty water until they are tender, then pop the beans out with your teeth. Don’t eat the pods. If you like these guys (and who doesn’t?) then now is the time to start putting some in the freezer. To freeze, blanch the pods for 5 minutes; drain and dry them before putting them in ziplock freezer bags so they won’t stick together. We have a LOT of edamame in the field this year and it will all be coming in very quickly – I’d guess in the next two or three weeks – so get your pots a’boiling.

Mark has spent the week down at the new covered barnyard, along with a crew of excavators and builders. I haven’t been down in the last few days but I hear the walls are up and it is starting to look like a very big barn. Don’t forget the potato weeding party tomorrow, from 9am to 2pm. We’ll serve boiled potatoes in the field for lunch. Everyone is welcome! And that is the news from Essex Farm for this breathless 25th week of 2012.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

Essex Farm Note, Week 34

Every year is notable for something. This one may well be remembered as the year of the weeds. When Mark taught agriculture in Venezuela he was known as el diablo de las malezas – the Weed Devil. He can absolutely wear you out talking about the fine points of weed control. This year, though, the weeds in the potatoes and the field corn got away from us. Those fields are far from the barnyard, and the half-crippled Diablo did not get out to see them with his usual frequency. We missed a couple of key cultivations, and next thing you know, the lambsquarters and ragweed were taller than I am. The corn will be what it will be, but we must clear the weeds from the potatoes before we can dig them. It is a daunting task. Lindsay has been leading weeding crews in that field whenever there is time to do it, and they have brought up several impressively heaped wagonloads of lambsquarters, but we need some reinforcements. So, in celebration of Labor Day, we are hosting the Great Potato Weeding Party on Saturday, September 1st, from 9am to 2pm. Bring loppers or hand pruners if you have them. We will cook potatoes in the field for lunch. RSVP to the farm office — essexfarm@gmail.com.

We have a very colorful share this week. Today’s potatoes are called Adirondack Blue, but they are actually a gorgeous deep purple. We also have Silver Queen sweet corn for the first time this week. I’ll be putting some in the freezer, if we have any left over. I love to use it for corn chowder in the winter. I hope you have all been putting up your tomatoes, because the blights are starting to take a toll on the plants. Some varieties are about done for, while others, like good old Juliet, are still going strong. Barbara Kunzi is away this week, taking a series of classes to become a master preserver. She’ll be our go-to woman for questions about putting food up. Barbara also runs the granary, so when she’s back, we’ll have our oats in the share once again.

The walls are up on our new beef barn. I’ve just gotten back into town and haven’t yet been down to see them, but Mark says they are impressive. The dairy barn walls will be next. It’s going to be great to have a dry sheltered place for the dairy herd to go during the worst cold, wet weather.  Dale Bigelow came over with his tractor to subsoil the newly drained ground in Monument, Pine and Mailbox fields. We’re planting those fields to cover crops and grazing mix next week. While Dale was here we had him turn next year’s corn ground. The drought across most of the nation this year has driven the price of corn to an all-time high, so we’re eager to get our own in the ground next spring in a timely manner. Thanks and farewell to Annelies, Jacob and Gus, whose good work boosted us through the heart of the summer. We are looking to hire one or two agri-superheroes of the strong and enthusiastic variety to get through harvest season. And that’s the news from Essex Farm for this sultry 34th week of 2012. -Kristin & Mark Kimball