The swelter this past week brought out the crazies at the farm. Woodchucks burrowed manically under fencing to trample and chomp through loose beds of kale, chickens lost their small minds and pecked incessantly at heirloom tomatoes, chipmunks tore heat-swollen plums from young trees in the orchard, mockingbirds stripped and gorged on ripe pearls red currant.
Weather extremes bring out the worst in all creatures, great and small.
Even a colony of mostly well-behaved Italian bees swarmed off in a cloud of thrumming wings to cooler pastures. They ended up moving into a hollow in my neighbor’s faux-corinthian columns (they are Italian bees after all – were they pining for the Pantheon’s columns in Rome?).
No one prepares you for the forces acting against your farm, from absurd weather to the persistent and insatiable pressure of critters who think you’ve set a Whole Foods just for them ; it’s empirical trial and terror.
I’ve had to learn from my optimistic folly, and the more I learn the more I want to warn. To that end, I have a half dozen eager farm volunteers coming to Stonegate throughout the season, from Italy, France, Germany, all primed to experience to agony and ecstasy of small scale organic farming. They’re coming through an organization called WOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and will apprentice and learn for room and board. Good for all.
Ideally, everyone should have some sense of what it means to grow food from seed (that may be a necessary survival skill once the petroleum food economy collapses), and have some rich organic dirt under their nails and the deep muscle memory of hoeing, tilling and weeding.
Farming builds strong, resourceful bodies, and feeds the spirit (I was once asked where I “worked out” and I said I didn’t, but I “worked, out” – meaning “outside” where the sweat and strain has meaning).
Organic farming is also an act of political conscience. If, as Sylvia Breeland said, “How you eat changes how the world is used,” then WOOFers are interested in political change, to reversing the half-century old plague of proceesed industrial food and the various scourges of GMOs and acres of monoculture dripping with pesticides.
By volunteering on small farms like mine and making organic farming viable, WOOFers are changing how the world is used, one weed at a time. –Mb
My new hens have outgrown their garret of a starter coop, and have begun to crowd the outside pen like a Parisian café. That’s café, not CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation), although conditions are rather similar, minus the threat of a looming hereafter. I hear them squawking over food and drink, or the best sidewalk table.
They’ll soon be moving to a new arrondissement in the orchard, where I’ve built a rather ornate gothic revival villa for them, in keeping with the rest of the property. The naming has begun even before the roof is on: The Café Au Lay. Coop de Ville. Das Coop. Why chickens bring out the cheap wordplay in us is a mystery. We just can’t stop ‘till we get an oeuf.
The New Coop will house 25 Maran and Ameraucana hens in great style.
While I was compound mitering the pagoda roof on the coop, my children and friends were in the orchard below, harvesting black currants. Their little hands, pulp-stained to a deep purple, picked the fruit in delicate clusters and arranged them in one pint boxes. This year is our first full harvest, with last year’s having been diminished by the ceaseless rain.
Black currants are certainly an acquired taste. Eating them fresh supposes a longing for complex tartness. The first bite through their supple, sun-blackened flesh is almost sweet, while the finish is much darker. All of life’s complexity in one bite. The Europeans have used them for centuries to flavor jams, tarts and juices, and the French transform them beautifully into cassis.
Daughter Daisy and best friend Hannah harvest black currant. Who needs a Brueghel painting when a canvas comes to life before your eyes?
But beyond flavor, black currants contain the fruit phylum’s highest levels of disease fighting anti-oxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which rage against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. They’re also highest in vitamin C. For almost a century, production in the United States was banned due to concern over white pine blister rust, a fungal pariah carried by currants. But since 2003, all bans are off. I lift my glass of locally grown cassis to that.
Blackberries, raspberries and Aronia (another super-berry) will follow. The orchard view from the nearly-completed coop roof is lovely, full of promise; the fruit swelling in the heat, the bees traveling to and from, like the bowing of a thousand cellos, the chickens chattering in the distance. Life looks good from up here. -Mb
Black currants harvested in the orchard. Their smoky tartness and free-radical fighting brawn are legendary.