Early Yields from the High Tunnel

       As you may know, we were fortunate to erect a high tunnel last summer, and we are now experimenting with it. 

         A high tunnel is an unheated greenhouse, where crops are grown directly in the ground.  The purpose of the structure is to provide longer windows of production and harvest both earlier in spring and also late into the fall, as well as provide increasedyields over field grown crops during the summer months. 

      When the HT was completed last summer, I was eager to try out a couple different fall crops and to see how much would over-winter successfully.  I planted some greens like spinach, mustard, mizuna, endive and cress.  I planted a bed of salad mix, and a couple plots of head lettuce.  I also sowed beets, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and cukes.  I planted the all same things outside, for comparison.  Everything came up and started growing nicely.  The greens and salad mix, including beet greens all were ready for harvest thru the last December market.  The  broccoli, cabbage and carrots all stopped growing after a point and are waiting at about the size of a large transplant.  The cukes and zucchini did not make it through the winter, of course, but I was curious to see how far they’d go if we’d happened to have a late fall last year.

      The lettuces and greens mostly held over the winter in limbo, nice heads with leaves, but frozen most of the time, so cutting them would have destroyed them.  The rising sun did allow them to spring back to life in early March,and we were able to harvest and sell greens and lettuce once again for the first market in March.  This past week we were able to offer for sale a nice braising mix of mustard, spinach and mizuna, a spicy salad mix, and fresh spinach.  Such a nice change from the meaty, startchy fare of winter.

       We have planted more lettuce, radishes, and arugula in the HT, as well as some strawberry plants.  The beets and carrots continue to reawaken, and the cabages and broccoli have begun to grow again.  We plant to plant more of these, and some zucchini again to see how early we can get it in the spring.  The tunnel is warm and sunny this time of year, and welcome chance to get out into those rays and work some muscles once again.

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Ham and Potato Pie

  I was inspired not long ago (by a Harry Potter book,  no less) to make a lovely Ham and Potato pie.  I do remember the day was chilly, still blustery back there in Winter.  Certainly such a hearty dish was welcome on that day.  But aside from the cold temperatures of the day, this particular combination of ingredients was a great example of a “seasonal” dish. 

   Long ago, before the common person had electricity to power a freezer all winter, food had to be stored “energy free”.  Two great examples of this are the curing and salting of meats, and the root cellaring vegetable crops . 

    Meats can be cured, which means soaked in a very salty and/or sweet brine, held over for a period of time to somewhat dehydrate.  Adding a treatment of smoke can enhance the flavor and contribute to the drying process.  The aim is to create within the meat an environment that is dehydrated, acidic and otherwise inhospitable for bacteria to grow and spoil the meat.  Properly cured and/or smoked meats can stay fresh even if not frozen, provided the temperatures remain cool enough and no additional moisture is introduced.

   Many vegetables and fruits can be held over much of the winter if they are kept above freezing and protected from the elements.  This is called root cellaring.  Many old homesteads still have a root cellar either in the basement, or nearby outside, often dug into a bank or other similar arraignment.  Many very starch vegetables such as potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, apples, and winter squash stay fresh and edible very well.  But surprisingly, there are a great deal more, less starchy items that also hold.  Grapes, cabbage, celery, pears, onions and garlic are great examples.  Some foods require very dry conditions to keep, others need high humidity.  There are plenty of wonderful books out there to research, but my favorite is Root Cellaring by Nancy Bubel.

    These are just  a couple different methods once employed to keep a supply of fresh, healthy food available over the winter.  But much like maintaining your refrigerator today, this was not a static undertaking:  The stash of food had to be checked weekly or even daily, as any foods that were turning bad had to be removed before they took everything else down (origin of the phrase, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch”).  Often this was how dinner was selected!

  As families got better at keeping their food over, the wonderful dilemma arose of what to do with the excess leftover (and barely still good) food at winter’s end.  Likely the reason for Vernal Equinox feasting, later to coincide with Easter  and Passover feasting, to use up the remaining supply and store it in our bodies (the safest place) until new fresh spring foods began to appear.

So, at the end of a long cold winter,  the foods often still available are our ingredients for our Ham and Potato pie:  A nice ham, root cellared potatoes, celery, carrots, onions and garlic, fresh milk from the cow for the gravy, and either fresh butter of left-over lard for the pie crust, and whichever grain was still around to mill for the crust. 

  Providing your own food for the winter months takes planning during the spring and summer months.  Figure out now which foods you are buying most frequently and plan to put some up this growing season when they are plentiful.  Different foods preserve best with different methods, so be prepared to do a bit of homework and create a plan with realistic goals.  And buddy up with a partner for help and support.  It’s fun, rewarding and very empowering. 

  Stay tuned here for more tips on different ways to preserve you favorite foods.

  Lastly, a free gift to anyone who can guess which Harry Potter book Dean was packing his face with Ham (and chicken) pie!

Farm Days at the Mall

  It’s that time of year again, we at Sunny Hill Farm are getting ready to attend the annual event Farm Days at the Mall, held Saturday and Sunday, March 12th and 13th at the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City.  We have been participating in this event since it’s creation in 2003. 

      This event is hard work.  It costs us money, time and product we give away.  Luckily, the event has been shortened to two days this year; previously it ran for three days and it seemed the whole family lived at the Mall from Thursday night until Sunday evening.  (As you can imagine, with 4 kids this costs also adds up!)   It’s crowded.  And hot.  And noisy.  And, yet… we really look forward to the event every year, sort of our last chance to socialize and celebrate what it is that we do for a living before hitting the dirt in earnest shortly thereafter.  Many of the farmers have to balance participation in the event with managing their farms at home, working in shifts so someone can cover the afternoon chores or milking.  The maple syrup producers are particularly challenged, trying to juggle the event while tapping trees and boiling down sap.  The whole event takes much planning and dedication on the part of many people.

      Not surprisingly, the event has become a great success.  Countless parents bring their children down to see the animals, sample free ice cream, and find their local farms for strawberry or pumpkin picking.  Teenagers, too, flock to the Mall and pretend not to be impressed as they spend hours walking the whole event again and again, drinking in the sights and sounds of life on the farm.  Too many of the adults as well, draw near to the animals for the first time in their lives.  I take living with and around animals for granted.  It is obviously something many, many folks wish they could do more often.

                          

           Most of the time I spend at the event simply listening to people.  Old timers who want to share stories of farming long ago.  Immigrants who are new to our country and relieved to find a connection to what they consider normal, buying food directly from the producer.  Tons and tons of moms who want to feed their family healthy foods but need a little guidance or encouragement.  All types of folks who have questions about cooking, preserving or sourcing local foods.  It is the rewarding interaction that I seldom have time for at market, when the lines are long and customers in a hurry.  I enjoy being able to take this time with the customers, to hear what they want and need from their food shopping.  I learn so much from them as well.

     If you are trying to incorporate local, seasonal foods into your menu,  I encourage you to attend events like these, where you can spend time finding and talking to your local farmers, ask them questions and hear what they have to say about what they are doing.  Getting educated is the best way to sort through all the media hype and find what works for you and your family.  And tell your local farmers what you need and are looking for. Be polite.  Remember that not everything you read is true or practical in every situation.  Take the time develope a mutaully-understanding relationship with those you would like to get your food from. 

     And, yes, bring your kids down to see the animals.  They may ask you to get some for home, but sometimes that’s how this all starts.  I have a number a friends with “a few chickens” or a small backyard garden.  But, BOOM!  Now their kids know where their food come from, and they’ve learned the responsibility of caring for them everyday.  Certainly worse things could happen to a child…. 🙂

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