Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ordering Seeds

Because we are certified organic, I have to present a complete listing of what we plan on growing to my certifier in February, along with our yearly inspection documents. Once you become certified organic, one of the requirements is that you use certified organic seed, unless there is no organic source for the variety chosen. Only then can a conventional seed be used and it must still be untreated and non-GMO.

If a conventional seed is to be used, documentation must be maintained as to how it was determined that there was no organic source available. That means I am required to call/email at least 3 suppliers, keep a log of conversations, etc. and present that with my certification documents. I generally go about it in another fasion but with the same end result. If I find a variety I want to grow but only see it as a conventionally grown seed, I get online and do a search for sources for the seed.

I also use my own resources. I have compiled a list of over 150 organic/op and untreated seed suppliers (more than the USDA NOP lists...) that have organic seed and I also refer to that before I begin any search online. I don't leave it at just looking at 3 sources. I WANT to use organic seed, so it is more my own ethics that make me do this research than the requirement of the USDA NOP. I try to stay away from printed catalogs (save a tree and all that) but sometimes companies having the printed page is necessary, especially if I am working on this away from home. Whenever we go anywhere for more than a couple of hours, my backpack is filled with my notebooks, a selection of seed catalogs and lots of pencils. Clothes and other items are not necessities for me. I learned to travel light a long time ago.

It is really hard to narrow down what we want to plant each year. We trial at least a couple of new entries every year and have discovered some gems that way. Also we have uncovered some real stinkers whose descriptions in the seed catalogs made them sound like they came straight from Eden. Wasting space on something like that is a no-no, so I have to present my case for each new item to The Farmer and we jointly decide to trial or not.

When we are looking at new heirlooms, I spend an amount of time looking up its history. Growing historical heirlooms is pretty cool...living history, actually. It just makes it fun for me, to eat something that may have been on the table of my ancestors in Europe and again when they came to these shores in the late 1600's. Talk about connecting with your food source!

I am particularly attracted to ethnic varieties also. This country is such a melting pot of cultures that I find it fascinating to delve into the foods that are not part of the Southern fare I grew up on.

Mexican food is a big favorite with us so we try to grow whatever we can that would be ingredients in a typical meal in Mexico. Regional varieties are also a great interest and I love ordering seeds that are produced in the actual places where they are favorites. I order lots of seeds from Italy, many of which are narrowed down to specific places in Tuscany or Sicily. It really brings home my firm belief that I am a citizen of the world, not just my country.

Some regional and ethnic varieties simply won't grow in our climate but if you research their origins carefully, you can usually find a portion of our long spring/summer/fall season where they might thrive or a variety that could adapt somewhat. This takes a lot of research and a lot of patience.

If you are looking at a catalog, for instance, that is targeted at the New England states, many of their varieties just will not survive the heat and humidity here. However, if you pay close attention to our own seasonality you just might find a window of opportunity where you could give it a shot and see what happens. The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work. If it does, you may have discovered a new family favorite.

While I am on the subject of growing for the right/wrong climate, I might pass on a word of advice. Because I grow things for a living, I am asked alot of gardening/growing questions. By far, the number one is about tomatoes. In this area, tomatoes are probably, like the rest of the country, the number one favorite things to grow at home. And why not? When they do well, they are easy to grow, prolific and taste 100 times better than store bought 'maters.

What could possibly be better and getting a fresh tomato off you own vine just before you eat it? That is a gastronomical delight that should not be missed. HOWEVER, you have to pick a variety that will actually produce something in the heat and humidity of our sometimes brutal summers or you won't be experiencing your own homegrown tomatoes.

The heirloom tomato boom is still going hot and heavy with such enticing varieties coming to market as Paul Robeson from Russia or Soldaki from Poland. Problem is that neither of these tomatoes will produce anything even remotely close to a bumper crop because they are cool, short season tomatoes.

And tomatoes don't like it too hot either. When the temps are in the 90's for days and days and days, the plants either stop blooming and/or setting fruit or the green tomatoes that they have produced just sit there and never turn. The secret to growing heirlooms is to see where they originated, determine if the climate there is close to your own and choose varieties that do grow successfully in similar conditions.

Another thing is to make sure you know whether or not you are growing a determinate, semi-determinate or an indeterminate variety. Determinate tomatoes make tomatoes for a short while and then stop producing. I don't know what semi-determinate means because I have only seen about 2 varieties that were designated as such and didn't really look any further. Indeterminate tomatoes will bear until frost if conditions are perfect, although harvests slow down as the plants get a little older. If you want to extend your harvest, you can always break off a "sucker" and root it for a new plant. The new plant will be an exact copy of the parent and will be younger and so, theoretically will bear stronger later.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Great Websites

NOTE: This is a compilation of links to some of my favorite websites, discussion groups and topical articles that I will be adding to on a regular basis, so bookmark this page and check back periodically. Click on the underlined text to go to these sites. You will need to use your back key to return to this site.

The Great News Network The great news network is a news site that reports only positive news stories. News is submitted by its members and voted on by its members. If a news story receives enough votes, it automatically gets promoted to the front page.
I love this website!!!

EcoChoices Natural Living Store
Create a home that is beautiful, natural and a safe environment for you and your family's enjoyment. The best earth-friendly products available at the lowest prices possible without lowering the quality of the products. Shop more than ten web sites with one shopping cart!

The Frugal Life -Living well with what you have
-This site provides information on how to live frugally with the resources you have. Get ideas for more creativity in your finances and meet a community of wonderful people willing to help you.

Organic Consumer's Association
The first link here is probably one of the most important ones on this page. It will take you to the website for the Organic Consumers Association. While some of the subjects on this site may seem a little over the top, the information posted here has proven to be correct more than 95% of the time. The originator of this site is outspoken and radical in many ways, but the subjects and issues they cover are some of the most serious and compelling of our times. A must for those of us serious about having safe food supply for ourselves and future generations.

The Cornucopia Institute "The Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit. We will actively resist regulatory rollbacks and the weakening of organic standards to protect and maintain consumer confidence in the organic food label." You should especially check out the "Who Owns Organic" link on this page. It is a chart of who actually owns and controls the mainstream organic labels we see in supermarkets.

Ideal Bite "The concept behind Ideal Bite is an easy one — if we all knew what to do in our day-to-day lives to help impact the planet and our communities positively and painlessly and without preachiness), we would all do it. And if that know-how came to us in a fun, pithy, sometimes irreverent way — so much the better. " Join their email list for your daily "green bite". Good info from a hip source.

Mindfully.org "The more taboos and prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become. The more deadly weapons there are, the more our fears turn us numb." Interesting information on an array of topical issues.

Food Not Lawns This is an interesting site for those of you who are interested in something other than growing grass in your yards. They also have an online forum. Most of the members here are in Oregon, but their points and info apply any where.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Good day to everyone who reads this blog. Last night we had SNOW and it was beautiful. I say "was" because it is just after 10 a.m. and it is raining so the snow is almost gone. There is still a good bit of the white stuff in some protected places around the Farm, but now the mucky looking stuff is prevalent.

I got up at 5 a.m. today to take the puppies outside and I wish I had gotten my camera. They are always more than ready to go out in the mornings and this morning they were feeling the call much earlier than usual, for some unknown and never revealed reason. I took them out the kitchen door, which opens onto the back porch and when I opened that door, which leads to the outside, it was covered with a cold white blanket. They started to run out like they usually do, which is kind of like those shots of kids running out of school when the final bell rings (you know the ones).

They literally skidded to a halt and slid and tumbled out the back steps. Then they immediately turned around and ran back insde. They stood at the threshold barking and looking up at me like I had done something to their yard. It was hilarious. If I had been just a little more awake it probably would have been even funnier. I had to pick them up and take them outside one at a time and sit them down in the snow. Once they figured out they could walk on this new stuff, they ran around like usual, did their thing and then we went back into the house and went back to bed for a couple of hours.

By the time I got up for good at 8 (yes, we slept in...not much to be done outside today so we took advantage) it was raining and the snow was turning to slush. We didn't have quite as much drama on this trip out as previously, but watching 5 Jack Russells trying not to get their tushies wet and cold was yet another round of hilarity. Diva almost stood on her head, Turtle ran around in a circle about 40 times and Piglet got under a bush where there was a patch of bare ground still available. Maggie and Callie are a little more accustomed to adverse weather, but until a that first time it rained back in late December, the pups had only experienced dry ground and they were not all that keen on the whole concept of getting wet at first. They will stand still for their baths, but I guess they figure that the outside should always be "puppy friendly" which in their case, is warm and dry.

Today is going to be a great day to cook up some goodies in the kitchen although I don't know what it will be yet. Probably some kind of flat bread or foccacia.I need to find some easier recipes for this type of bread so it will be like a laboratory in our kitchen today. The Farmer's loves it when I am in my mad kitchen scientist mode. At least most of the time. I occasionally end up with something that even the dogs won't eat. Which is another project I am working on...the ultimate organic dog cookie! I am getting close because I have a panel of 6 experts to test my concoctions.

This past week, I did something I had never personally done as a cook. I made my own butter, using organic sweet cream. I have participated in living history demonstrations in the past but to have ever made butter for our personal consumption was a thing I had wanted to try for a long time but just never did it.

Anyway, the process is not that hard...a little time consuming but the results are FABULOUS!!! I have never eaten butter that tasted like the cream it was made from, even the best organic butter I have had. If anyone is interested in how I did this, email me at simplysustainable1@gmail.com and I will send you the instructions. This would be a great project for homeschoolers and another way to help connect your kids to their food supply/source. I did it because I was curious and because I know EXACTLY what was in the stuff. I am going to make some more and then make "ghee" with it so I will post how that goes later on.

The butter didn't last long because I shared it with some other family members. Oh and it didn't hurt that my mother-in-law was making her delicious sour dough bread the same day. Now that was a combination. For breakfast yesterday, we had homemade bread toast, the butter I made, honey from our hives and eggs that our hens laid.
The eggs, by the way, were the same color as the OJ we had with this breakfast. Next time I crack some, I am going to take a picture of them next to "store bought" organic eggs. Even those pale in comparison to these.

Back to what I was talking about with making some goodies today...I have a whole lot of organic strawberries in the freezer from our 2006 harvest that need to be used and to make some more room in the freezer. I am going to make a round of strawberry butter (not jam or jelly because I want to omit the added sugar as much as possible).

Making fruit butters is a very simple process. This particular recipe only requires that I cook the berries down for a couple of hours on really low heat. I cook them down until they are mushy at first and then use my emersion blender until the pulp is a smooth consistency, with no large pieces of berry left. Then I add a couple of fresh lemon or lime slices, so that the pectin in the peeling and pith can help thicken this up a little. I remove the flesh before doing this because I am not going to add much sweetener and don't want the butter to be too lemony/limey.

This project requires that you be home to stir unless you want to do it in a crock pot, but that takes at least overnight with the lid off and you run the risk of scorching the product. Once the cooked berry pulp is at the exact thickness I want it (it will thicken slightly as it cools but not "gel" like a jam or jelly. At this stage, I add about 2 tablespoons of organic cane sugar or honey to every 2 cups of pulp.

Mostly I taste it until it has the proper sweetness. Butters don't require the chemistry of sugar, pectin, etc. to create the product so you can experiment a little with soft fruits like apples, berries. Pears have a lot of water in them and hardly ever get to the consistency of a butter, but you can make "pear honey" the same way, just expect it to be "runny". Pear honey is actually my most favorite one and we use it on waffles/pancakes/ice cream/French toast/etc.

Butters should retain the flavor of the fruit, not be sweetened to death. I can't stand jelly for that very reason. Even the jams I make tend to be made with recipes that are a low in sugar as possible, but I lean toward butters because of the sugar thing. If your fruit is a little overripe and too sweet to eat, it will probably make a fine butter as long as it is not bruised or damaged in some way. Or you can add some ripe banana, although you will taste the banana flavor. The most interesting butter I have made in a while was cantaloupe butter. It tastes exactly like a ripe cantaloupe. Because I used melons that were too ripe to eat the butter is incredibly sweet and has not one grain of sugar added.

If you want to make just a pint of this it will keep in the fridge for about 2 weeks.
To make butters for the long term, find a recipe with isntructions on how to process for storage. It is really easy to find them on line or in cook books. You don't need fancy equipment to preserve like this.

Gotta go now, I hear the kitchen calling.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Flip Side

The beautitul weather has kept me from posting anything for the last few days. This time of year, when you get 70 degree days, you simply don't stay in the house. But this flipflopping weather we have in this area this time of year can be a real aggravation, too. We went from having real winter temps to springtime, literally overnight. It is almost like there is someone sitting on a cloud up in the sky with a remote, flipping the weather on and off. It's hot, it's cold, it's hot, it's cold...rain, drought, hurricane, ice storm, heatwave,brrrrrrrrrrrr. That really makes it hard to adjust to the season. I have tried to put away my summer clothes three times and finally have just given up. Save me the trouble of hauling them out in March, I guess.

Of course, the very nature of simple living prescribes cutting down on one's wardrobe but it is really hard to do that in a place that has such changable weather so much of the time. We lived in the Pacific Northwest where the weather is pretty much the same year round, except for the rainy season, so nobody has seasonal clothes. I loved not having to decide what to wear every day...just opened the closet and pulled something out. Living there was a great lesson in learning that you don't have to have something to wear for every day, occasion, weather event, etc. And it everybody is very relaxed about what they wear. In fact, I don't think I saw anyone wearing a tie in all the years we lived there.

While the weather was nice this week, we took advantage of the time to get some of the more mundane chores done around the farm. When things are really busy around the Farm, there are lots of things that just get pushed to the side for when you aren't busy. If you are the kind of person who has to have everything "just so" around the house, do not get into farming. There are lots of times that things don't get done for weeks, if they are things that can wait. There is a lot of "weighing the consequences of inaction" around here.

For example, we just now had time to put the water barrels in the barn. We use 55 gallon drums to spot water the garlic that was planted back in November and since there was no rain coming, we had to water the rows before mulching them. Since we didn't know when it would rain we chose to leave the watering barrels in the field. Fortunately, it finally did shower enough recently and so it was time to bring the barrel trailor in and unload it, so we can use it for some other projects. Which leads to the next project.

We live on a very old farm and there is lots and lots of detris that was left behind over the years. Back in the "good old days" you didn't throw away anything that might be useful later. The motto "reuse, rebuild, reclaim, recycle" is nothing new to farmers. It is like a litany to them.

Since going to town was a 2 hour each way mule ride hanging onto things was a matter of prudence. (The Farmer's great grandparents, whose farm was across the road from this farm, never owned a car and never learned to drive.) If the plow broke, no work got done so it had to be fixed. Unless the damage required welding or other major repair, the farmer fixed it himself. Having spare parts to glean through was a necessity.

Unfortunately, all those old tractor parts and other items start to collect over the years and since they are generally outmoded and useless, they need to go. But we can't just throw them away, since there might be something useful after all, so each item has to be considered. There are 4 outbuildings here on the farm that have everything from old black cast iron wash pots (with holes in them...) to an ancient machine that resembles a lawnmower. Many of these items are now considered "farm antiques" and have value, so we can't just haul them to the dump.

We have been working on clearing out these buildings for nearly 7 years now, gradually and when we have time. And we also use them for storage of our own farm equipment, etc. which makes it harder, because we have to work around our own stuff. Plus, I refuse to work in any of these buildings when it is warm enough for spiders and wasps to be active. Someday, I envision those buildings cleared out but I may never live to see that day....but its okay if it happens and okay if it doesn't. Priorities have to be realistic on a farm and those old sheds and their contents have been sitting there for close to 40 years. Guess they have never been high up on anybody's list...

Friday, January 4, 2008


It has been so cold here for the past three nights, there was frost on the ground by 7pm, soon as the sun went down. Two out of those three nights, the temps were around 14 degrees, which is pretty darned cold. Believe it or not, there is a patch of lettuce in our small kitchen garden that is still as green as it was last week. I imagine it will turn brown in a day or two, but it is still amazing to see something that appears to be as fragile as lettuce withstand such extreme temps.

When it is this cold, there isn't much to do outside without bundling up like Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" so we tried to do stuff in and around the house. Mostly we sat by the fire and relaxed which is almost unheard of for so much of the rest of our time that we just decided it was worth as much to get in a little R&R as it was to work. The chores that had to be done got done and those that could wait are still waiting. It is supposed to warm up considerably over the next couple of days and we will have to make up for lost time.

The well diggers will be here in a couple of weeks and we will have that project done in time for our first spring crop to go in. Construction of the new greenhouse may have to wait a couple more weeks. Until we decide exactly where the well is going, we can't place the house and we won't know where the well is going until the dowser comes. If you don't know what a dowser is, it is the person that locates the best place to dig a well. While it may seem a little like mumbo-jumbo to use a dowser remember that water, especially large concentrations, has magnetic properties and the dowser simply locates the strongest pull, which should indicate water that is either closer to the surface or in larger quantities.

I have been pouring over seed catalogs for a couple of weeks now, trying to decide on which new varieties we will trial this year and trying to locate organic sources for our seeds. Since our farm is certified, we have to follow strict guidelines. To ensure that no GMO (genetically altered) seed is used in a certified organic operation, one of the rules involves the use of only certified organic seed wherever possible. We are not restricted to which varieties we can grow because of this rule, but rather have to make and document a concerted effort to locate seeds from an organic source. No treated seeds are allowed and conventional seed has to be the last resort, which is not a big deal for us. We are a little over the top with how we do things here anyway. GMO's are one of my soapbox topics (I will save that for another post, soon) so you would never find one on this farm anyway, even if there was no rule about it.

Since we grow a lot of heirlooms, we save a good many of our own seeds. We make our own seed potatoes, sweet potato slips, etc. which saves us a ton of money. Last year we planted over 3000 sweet tater plants and we grew the starts ourselves. Since organic sweet potato plants run about $25/12 and are extremely hard to locate, you can see why we are motivated to grow our own. Certified organic seed potatoes are not nearly as expensive and you can get a lot of potato plants from one potato (the potato eyes are actually sprouts and we cut the potatoes in many pieces and plant those, which turn into potato plants). 50# of certified organic potatoes run anywhere from $50-100 but the shipping doubles this price. Last year alone, we planted about 2500-2800 potato plants, from the eyes cut from potatoes that we saved from the year before. If you do the math on the potential cost of sweet potato slips and seed potatoes, you can see that we save a great deal of money by growing our own plant stock this way.

The same is true for some of the other crops we grow. We can save the seed from varieties that we only grow one kind of or that we can isolate so that no accidental crossbreeding takes place, to keep the strain true. For example if we grow red and green okra, the green okra is grown at one end of the farm and the red is grown at the other, which is about 1/2 mile apart, which is an acceptable distance to keep them from crossing up.

It is very easy to have varieties cross, especially peppers, when they are planted in close proximity. If you aren't saving seed, it is not such a big deal. Having a green zucchini cross with a yellow one doesn't mean much as far as flavor, etc. but there are cases where it becomes a big deal. Several years ago, before we expanded the farm to the size that it is now, we had only one very small plot (about 1/2 acre). We were growing green bell peppers and jalapenos that year and for some reason, I planted them side by side, not even remotely thinking that this would affect the fruits. I was wrong, however, and occasionally we would get a green bell pepper that was as hot as a firecracker and many of the jalapenos didn't have any heat at all.

Problem with that was you couldn't tell by looking at them, only by tasting them, so we had to take a little taste of each one to see if they were hot or not. At that time, we were only growing for our own families, so it was not big deal, but it was a valuable lesson learned by me. But we did have a lot of fun with those hot bell peppers.....

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I Love My "Job"

I think that one of the very best things, for me at least, about living and working on an organic farm is that I don't have to commute to get to work. I pretty much get up, get ready and then I walk out the back door and bam! I am at the "office". No backed up traffic or rude drivers to spoil my morning, no timeclock to punch, no stress about being late for work. I can wear whatever I want, take a break anytime I feel the need so I work at my own pace and can concentrate better without distractions like waiting for someone to cover for me just so I can go take a peepee. If I need to go, I can just go. No worries, no complaints.

It is also very freeing to be able to develop and experiment with my own methodology and to come up with creative ways of doing things. Since I know exactly what the end result should be, and with nobody looking over my shoulder, my efforts can be deliberate and meticulous or I can push the envelope into new realms. With my creativity released, I am able to meet an important need...the need to express myself.

The work that I do must meet certain standards. Those standards are high because they are my own and so my failures, when they do come, have to be looked upon as opportunities to learn. Instead of stressing about possible points lost toward my next performance review, I take on those experiences to expand knowledge about both my subject and myself. I am able to learn much more these days than I ever did in any formal learning environment or on the job training and that ever expanding data base is very important to me.

Experience is a great teacher and unfortunately, many people work in situations where their creativity is stiffled and discouraged. Doing a job simply by rote leads to ennui and I believe that is why many people are so susceptible to all of the promises advertisers make about saving time, our comfort, peace of mind, etc.

The struggle to achieve balance is one of Nature's most basic principles. It affects human beings just like anything else. Much of the stress that people endure is brought on by that constand fight to hold onto something that is completely out of balance with the Universe. Learning to let go of things that don't matter and to flow with your surroundings is something that is very hard for most of us.

If your job is a source of unhappiness, stress or discomfort to you, even if you are making big bucks, is it really worth it in the long run? I personally think it is not. I worked in an industry that was about as soul sucking as it comes and now that I am free of it, I have not regretted my decision for a instant, even though I have a fraction of the income I had then.

I have written about this subject before, in a much earlier post, but I will reiterate one more time that if I was able to escape the clutches of the corporate world, you can do it. The hardest part is jumping off your particular cliff and then being ready for where you land. A controlled landing is obviously what you want to shoot for but free falling is okay, too, if that is where your path takes you.

Of course, not everybody is in a position (or are as incredibly lucky as The Farmer and I are) to be able to just chuck their job. BUT, don't sell short the idea that you can make a good living doing something you love.