Archives for category: Healthy Food

Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

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I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

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Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

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Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

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A.V. Walters

Last week I said it was a race with the first hard frost, to get the tomatoes in. I was wrong. When you live somewhere where rain doesn’t happen for seven or eight months of the year, it’s easy to forget. If your tomatoes are ripe (or almost) there’s another thing that can be devastating–RAIN.

A growing tomato has the ability to expand its skin. But ripe tomato, having reached its full size, shifts its internal workings to focus on seed maturation, not growth. We take advantage of this by cutting back on watering in the late weeks of the garden–it protects the tomatoes and enhances their sweetness. A ripe tomato, if it gets a heavy dose of water, can suck up the long awaited drink, split its skin, and rot on the vine. So, Sunday’s forecast of rain got my attention–not just a little rain, either, they forecast days of the wet stuff.  So we got busy, stripping the plants of all the ripe or near ripe fruit.

We had to harvest in five-gallon buckets and when those were full, used the largest bowls and pots we had. One hundred forty pounds of tomatoes later, I made another delivery of fresh tomatoes to everybody on the farm, and then we confronted a kitchen that was already being held hostage by our previous efforts.  We canned whole romas (some in yellow tomato sauce), diced tomatoes and sauce, lots of sauce. A year’s worth of tomatoes. Tomatoes in every imaginable color, shape and size–reds, pinks, goldens, bright yellows, oranges, brunos, stripes (both green zebras and chocolate stripes), those multicolored “pineapple” tomatoes, you name it, a veritable rainbow of tomatoes. To make sauce that has enough heft you have to reduce the volume of liquid by more than half. Every large pot we own was simmering away on the stove. There were tomato seeds and spatters, everywhere. I had to stop regularly to clean my eyeglasses. Two days later, we’d canned this year’s quota — 63 quarts of various, tomato products. Another day to clean everything and we are finished. Whew.

We’re picky about this, we taste and blend–making sure that there’s a uniformity of color and flavor. Why else would we go to all this work? After all, store-bought canned tomatoes are cheap, you can buy them by the case at Costco–even organics. Needless to say, it’s not an economic choice we’re making here. We’re opting for taste and an alliance with a rural lifestyle from a bygone era of self-sufficiency. It’s one of the signs that summer is over and that we’re ready for winter. The wood pile is under cover, and the kindling barrel full. Tomatoes and jam are labeled and lining the pantry. So, we’re ready.

There is still a lot of fruit on the vines (our growing season starts late and finishes late) so the garden will continue to produce ripe, fresh tomatoes until frost hits. We’ll continue to use them fresh for salads or tossed in pasta–and deliver them to our friends and neighbors, until then. If they get ahead of us, we’ll take them to the food bank. But, I don’t think we’ll can any more. It starts to get silly at some point, and over sixty quarts is that point, for us.

AV. Walters

And no rain, in even a normal year, for at least a month. We’re not getting our usual heat wave this month–and with the fields like tinder, that’s a good thing. We are all wary of the risk of wild fire. In most years I take the advice of ’30 feet of defensible space’ seriously–I clear everything away from the house diligently. This year there’s no need. Not even the weeds grew in this dry season. There was a fire yesterday–somewhere between here and town in the other end of the valley. It was a grass fire–it’s a different smell and taste than a more serious structure or forest fire. Smoke lite. Apparently they got it out, because the air cleared and the lingering haze made for a lovely sunset.

I’ve been following fire and emergency news these days because I’ve become more involved as a volunteer with our local fire department. Not fighting fires–I think I’m a little long in the tooth (and clumsy to boot) for that. But I can chip in with administrative stuff, or selling T shirts for fundraising. It’s a small community, everybody does what they can. It’s so dry that our new firefighters have to train on the hoses without water. Don’t laugh. Nobody has excess at the wellhead these days, so they learn to man the hoses dry–with the seasoned volunteers pulling and pushing at the back end of the hose to simulate the force of real water. Consider it a dry run, in the most real sense of the term. They revel at the chance to share training programs with nearby departments that have city water.

Our wells are low and that intensifies the mineral salts–leaving a cloudy blush on the glasses, if you use the dishwasher. When canning, I have to put vinegar in the water with the bottles, or they’ll come up clouded and gritty feeling. Some of this is normal at this time of the year. The rest has us seriously conserving and sniffing now and then for smoke when outdoors. It’s a good thing that the rainy season runs during the same time as the winter heating season. By the time I put a fire in the stove, it’s cold and wet out.

I buy bottled water for coffee–not because of contamination (our well is high up on the hill) but because I’m a coffee nut, and I like the flavor of a less–gritty–source of water. In the low part of the valley the wells are contaminated. It’s a fact of rural living–nitrates in the water. Those folks must drink bottled water, especially kids. It’s a reminder that , even here in rural county, we need to be aware of our footprint on the planet. Nitrates are a common form of contamination in areas with heavy livestock concentrations, especially where, like here, people rely mostly on shallow wells. This is a dairy area, with chickens and beef cattle thrown in for good measure.

Many years ago the county put in a dump, (now called a transfer station and refuse disposal area) about a mile from here. The runoff from the site runs into our local creek. There’s a debate in the valley, not too seriously entertained, that the county dump is the source of the contamination. Folks who’ve been spreading manure on these hills for generations wince–and don’t point too many fingers, except occasionally, for sport.

 

 

Gluten-free is all the rage right now. I guess I’m the lucky surfer riding that wave, since it has resulted in many new products and labeling that makes life easier for those of us who cannot tolerate gluten. I guess I’m a trend-setter. What’s gluten? It’s a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It used to be that only celiacs avoided gluten, but they’re discovering that there is a whole range of people whose lives are easier and more comfortable if they follow a gluten-free diet. Now there is more accurate testing for the various gluten related ailments. Still, many doctors are completely ignorant of the symptoms and the treatment for folks who are gluten intolerant. I don’t blame them, the symptoms can be wildly diverse and confusing. The only real solution is a gluten-free diet, which isn’t easy in this world of processed foods. Still, since I quit eating gluten (and in my case, cow’s milk products, too) my life has completely changed. The first 46 years of my life I struggled constantly with many, many health problems–but my doctors just shrugged. Now, as long as I watch what I eat, I am one of the healthiest people I know.

What are the symptoms? They are wildly different for many people. I guess I’m lucky that my symptoms were “classic” celiac. They included gastro-intestinal problems, a chronic rash, aching joints, infertility, chronic upper respiratory problems and a continually growing list of foods and drugs that triggered allergic reactions. I remember feeling frustrated that, at some point, it felt like I’d be allergic to everything. I was afraid to end up like the boy-in-the-bubble. I always was the sickly kid. Little did I know I was the poster-child for Celiac Disorder. (aka Celiac Sprue, aka Celiac Disease)

I wish I could say that a kind and conscientious doctor listened to my complaints and did the detective work to find out what was wrong with me. Nope. Despite the fact that I presented with all the classic symptoms, and even endured years of unsuccessful infertility treatments, nobody ever suggested that we take a look at my diet. Long after childbearing was an option, I discovered I was a celiac, while driving down the road, listening to NPR. That’s it, my medical provider of choice, National Public Radio. It was December 27, 2004 and a talk show host was interviewing a man about his mysterious ailment. He went through his symptoms. I pulled over to the shoulder. By the end of the program I was weeping behind the steering wheel; this had been my problem all along. I stopped eating wheat the very next day.

Thank god for the internet. I did all my own research and completely reformulated how I eat. At first my family thought I was crazy, but within a month or two, even the doubters could see the improvement. I never looked back. My doctor initially resisted my self-diagnosis, but it’s hard to argue with a sudden attack of good health. For a while I was angry. I could have felt good decades earlier if the medical people had listened, and had known about the condition. Maybe I could have had children. Often with celiacs, especially younger celiacs, a year or two gluten-free can reverse all the symptoms. A niece of mine, also suffering from infertility issues, was able to conceive after changing her diet. Many gluten issues are hereditary. My discovery has changed everyone in my family. Three of us have gone completely gluten-free, with great results. Others are considering it–but it’s a big step and requires some sacrifices. (One just isn’t willing to give up her fancy micro-brew beer! Sheesh! Believe me, even though I like beer, too–it’s worth it.)

Why am I coming clean now? Someone I know through blogging has complained of similar symptoms. I occupy only a tiny corner of the blogosphere, but if, by writing this blog, I can lessen the suffering of just one person, then I should make that effort. I’m not NPR, but since my recovery I have made it part of my mission to help others transition to better health when the learn that they, too, have won the gluten-free lottery. So, Nick, look into it. Find out and choose health. It’s worth it.

Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

Training Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Okay, so I lied. While the watchwords of this particular phase of the garden are weed, water and wait, that’s not all that goes on. There are regular, if not daily inspections for pests and varmints. (We call it gopher patrol.) There is the usual round of reseeding for those rotating plants that we do all summer, like lettuce and beans, along with occasional reseeding where the cutworms get to the sprouts. And, there is the constant need to train the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are vines. Sure there are determinate varieties, more likely to stand upright, but the underlying, genetic predisposition of a tomato plant is much like that of a teenager—an inclination towards messy, outward sprawl. The cages provide structure, but like rules, you’ve got to be nipping at their heels (roots?) to make the program work. Given the option, your tomatoes will ignore your well-meaning cages, take the path of least resistance, and sunbathe willy-nilly all over the garden.

There are reasons why upright is better. (We didn’t get to be Homo-erectus for nothing!) I’m not just an uptight adult raised by an army-brat parent with a fixation on order.  While I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily work for a farmer (many of you already know the ugly truth about the commercially produced variety), tomatoes that are caged are less subject to moisture and ground-carried diseases, they provide more shading for the developing fruits, you don’t step on them as you try to water and harvest, and they’re easier to tend. I’m not old, but I am old enough and smart enough to avoid needless stooping.

So, everyday I try to tour the tomatoes to train them into upright, garden citizens. It’s just nudging, if you do it right. (Stand up straight! Have you done your homework?) You have to be regular about it, or they’ll get away from you. Up is not their natural inclination (especially those cherry tomatoes that always stick out at odd angles.) This week I missed two days and came back to tomatoes bent on escape. When that happens, you need to wrestle them back into place, sometimes resulting in the heartbreak of snapped branches.

Despite late planting, many of our tomatoes (especially the vinier ones) are reaching the tops of their cages. The others aren’t far behind. It’s impressive to see over thirty, four-foot tomato plants standing in formation. When I tuck those wayward branches back into position, I can see bunches of green globes hiding in the foliage, protected there from sunburn. Sometimes, if it gets too dense within the cage-column, I do a little pruning for better air circulation and harvesting access. I’m mindful of the danger of spreading disease with all this handling. If any tomato looks less than healthy, I tend to it last, or wash my hands and tools thoroughly before touching another tomato plant. So far, with the exception of one plant, the tomatoes this year are all remarkably vigorous. Without the cages, we’d be in tomato anarchy by now.

That one problem plant doesn’t have any particular symptom of disease. It’s just failed to thrive. It’s scrawny, without explanation. I’m at the point when I’m probably going to pull it out, sterilize everything in sight and replant with a new tomato plant. (I still have some orphans who’d be thrilled with the opportunity to be in first-string placement.) I hate to give up on it but the memory of last year’s blight is still fresh in my mind—then, in one foggy week the blight that came with the romas spread to more than half of the other tomatoes, turning them black and leafless, almost overnight. This year I’m being more cautious. (I’ve even planted the romas in an entirely separate garden, just in case.) Romas in exile—nice digs, but segregated confinement, nonetheless. (“It’s for their own good!”) It’s probably over-reacting but it’s working out. Those risky Romas are in the backyard where I can keep an eye on them.

All the tomatoes have fruit now, along with an outer crown of yellow blossoms. We’re looking at a steady harvest that will start by mid-August and, hopefully, run well through October. I may even have to stake those tomato cages. Even though I bought the beefiest ones on the market, this year’s tomatoes are coming in pretty big and heavy.