Sunday, November 30, 2008

Good Stuff Aplenty

What a lovely Thanksgiving we had here on the farm. Several days of nicer than expected weather topped off with family gatherings and lots of good food, who could ask for more?

We started the celebration by moving the chicks up to their new indoor pen. At this stage they grow so fast. They started out all in one stock tank, then we divided them in half and added a second stock tank. Now they are in their final indoor enclosure, the "chick corral." In the next 7-10 days they will be sufficiently feathered to move out to the winter coop (along with the heat lamps to keep them toasty warm.)

Still cute, but headed for that "awkward teenager" stage

Then I spent the rest of Thursday morning harvesting carrots and beets from the high tunnel to add to our some of our stored root vegetables (onions, shallots, garlic, turnips and potatoes). These were all scrubbed (not peeled), tossed together in olive oil & seasonings and roasted for about 45 minutes...delicious!

oiled, seasoned and ready for the oven

Our big accomplishment for the weekend was enabled by a beautiful (50°) day on Friday and lots of family help. With this combination we were able to get over half of the remaining ribs up on the new (bigger) high tunnel. All fall our goal has been to have this tunnel up before the ground freezes. We're cutting it close, but I think we just might make it.

The new "Colossal" high tunnel with its first four ribs in place

Saturday afternoon we were happy to have visitors (of the non-family persuasion) to the farm. A neat family that will become our "neighbors" next month. Ya'll know that here in the country, anyone within a 40 mile radius that you identify with is "a neighbor." What a pleasant time, to sit and visit with interesting people who have many of the same goals for their farm as we have for ours, all the while sipping coffee and apple cider and watching the snow fall outside. Yep, it was a weekend to be thankful for!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Atlas Pasta Maker

We were already planning on our annual Noodle-Making Marathon for next week. We have to plan ahead because the noodles take over every raised horizontal surface for at least two days while they dry. Its a little crazy because we always did it all by hand and it took all day long...but not anymore!

Today while running a few errands we stopped at an area thrift store and there on a back shelf, in a battered box marked with the words OMC Atlas from Italy, was a beautifully made, stainless-steel pasta maker.

It has attached cutters for making fettuccine and spaghetti and you can buy a whole assortment of other attachments for it. I can't wait to try it out! If anyone has suggestions for good pasta recipes, please share. We'll start with our traditional and Herbed Whole Wheat noodles, but other favorite recipes are welcome! And if you have experience with this specific pasta maker, let us know what you think about it.

I'll post pictures of the new toy in use sometime next week...wish me luck!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Salad Spinner

Yesterday was the Downtown Des Moines Harvest Market, so we spent the end of the week harvesting and getting ready. We were able to harvest salad greens and turnips in the main garden from under the row covers. The rest of the crops were in the High Tunnel, which makes harvesting much more pleasant when it is 33° outside (and 82° inside).

Here's a shot of the beds in the HT before I started harvesting. From left to right we have Bed 1: three varieties of carrots, Bed 2: three varieties of beets, Bed 3: Pac Choi (rear) and Swiss Chard (front), Bed 4: three varieties of spinach.

Normally we wash all our greens and spin them dry in our giant salad spinner (its basically a 10 gallon perforated tub in a stainless steel housing with an electric motor - very cool!) Unfortunately the salad spinner is too much of a power hog and it wont work in the HT, so here's the low tech solution to getting the excess moisture out of the swiss chard...

It wasn't perfect by any means, but it worked well enough to dry about 20 pounds of greens. If I was 8 years old this would have been some wild fun, but needless to say, its been a long time since I've spun around that much. Can you say DIZZY!!

We finally got everything harvested (thanks Mom!), cleaned and packed up and headed for the market early Saturday morning. Here's a shot of our booth setup.
It was a good market day for us, our best indoor market sales to date. It really helps to be one of the few vendors with fresh produce. If you live in the Des Moines area and missed this great opportunity to buy fresh local produce, meats, eggs ect, plus loads of great handmade items for gifts or yourself, never fear, we do it again next month on Dec 20th. Here's the details.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Saucing and Synching

Its been an interesting week on the farm. We are getting ready for the downtown DM Harvest Market, so there has been much jam-making, produce harvesting and root-crop cleaning.

On top of all that it has gotten COLD! So cold that the outdoor cooler where the apples are stored is at risk of freezing, so that means its applesauce making time. So far we've put up approximately 30 quarts of applesauce for our own consumption and for making into apple butter to sell. I love applesauce made from Jonathan apples, its wonderfully tasty and a beautiful color to boot!

How did I ever make applesauce before the Squeezo!?!

I also had another recording session for the storytelling program at the radio station on Thursday. This was a particularly fun one as we started learning to engineer our own program. Its been a long time since I ran a sound board, but with this technology, the computer does a lot of the fiddly work for you. So really it is more learning the software, than learning about the equipment. Big thanks to Ron Sorenson for nursing this program along until we can manage it on our own.

Recording studio at KFMG

Saturday, November 15, 2008

CSA - Variations on a Theme

As part of our lives here on the farm, we run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Basically it means that the farmer grows food for a group of members who pledge to buy a portion of the farm’s crop that season. Besides receiving a weekly box of fresh, high-quality, chemical-free produce, members also know they are directly supporting a local farm and making their own connection to the land.

CSA's come in many shapes and forms, but I recently found (and joined) a new kind of CSA, a Fiber CSA! You sign up for a year subscription and then every 6-8 weeks you get three pounds of wool yarn or if you spin, you can get wool roving instead, which is what I opted for. And to add to the appeal, the farm is in our neighborhood, so we're helping to support another small, local farm. You can check out this innovative program at Willow Ridge Farm and see all their other "farm-fresh" products as well.

So today when I got home, my first fiber delivery had arrived! Happy Birthday to me!! The box contained three pounds of shetland wool in natural white, natural light grey and a beautiful dyed ombre of fall colors (the photo doesn't do them justice). Can't wait to dig in!

First Fiber CSA delivery

A close-up of the completed yarn

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Chicks Have Landed

Chick Time (the hen's head bobs up & down with the second count)

Every 18 months or so, we order day-old chicks to replace our laying flock. For those of you unfamiliar with the acquisition of chicks, the process harkens back to the days when you ordered whatever you needed from the old, dog-eared Sears & Roebuck catalog and your items arrived in the mail. Yep, you heard it right...chicks arrive in the mail (so do honey bees, but that's for another post). The Post Office doesn't particularly like having a case of live, peeping, liability on their loading dock, so they tend to call you immediately upon the chicks arrival. So at 6:04 this morning, we got the call.

Chicks arrive in a nicely designed box that is divided into four compartments, each quarter holds 25 chicks

These are the 50 Buff Orpington chicks, we also got 25 Americaunas

Mail order chicks are sent as "day-old" which means they were born the day before or day of shipping. For the first 24-36hours of life, chicks continue to receive nurishment from the egg yolk, which they absorbed right before hatching. So they do not require food or water until their "internal food" is exhausted.

As soon as we get them home, we remove them from the box one at a time and dip their little beaks into water with an electrolyte mix added. This teaches them how to drink and helps them recognize the water container as the place to go when they are thirsty.

All 75 (actually 77) chicks arrived looking strong and healthy and are settled into their water tank home in our sunroom.

In a few days we will move half of them to a second tank as they will soon be too big to all fit in one. They will stay in the sunroom for the first month or so, as it gives us a very secure place to keep an eye on them and makes it much easier to maintain the correct temperature for them. For the first few weeks, chicks require lots of warmth (+90 °) and at this time of the year, its just easier to have them "inside." Besides its so relaxing to hang out and watch them puttering about. Who needs expensive spas? We just hang out with the chicks for a while : )

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dyeing to Spin

Ok, its a sad attempt at a pun, but I couldn't think of a better one. For those of you who aren't interested in fiber and spinning, never fear, I'll get back to talking about the farm soon. This is just a fun "inclement weather" project.

I spent last Sunday with my fiber enablers (Maggie, John & Terri). We had fiber, dye, good food, wine, way more kittens than one would think possible, good friends and lots of laughing. What more could a hungry fiber junkie want?

Here's some of my results from our experimenting:

Sunday's dyed wools

Sunday's dyed silk

A close-up of the corriedale wool...can't wait to spin this up

And finally, a little side by side comparison:

This is the wool, freshly dyed

And this is the yarn, freshly spun (from the above wool). The color change is pretty remarkable, and its not just poor photo quality, they really are that different.
Yep, still a newbie spinner...still learning!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Storytelling on the Radio

In addition to growing things and spinning things I also spend a fair amount of time 'telling things.' More specifically, during the off season, I work as a storyteller. One of the fun projects that I've been working on recently is a new radio program on KFMG 99.1 called 'Trading Tales.'
It features a small group of local storytellers sharing their tales for listeners ages 3 to 103. The program aires at 9am on Saturdays and if you aren't in the immediate Des Moines area you can listen to it online at

Its a real treat to get to work with these talented storytellers on a regular basis. I have to tell you though, it can also be a real challenge. Imagine being 'trapped' in a small recording studio with 4-5 other people and trying to stay quiet as a skilled storyteller tells a real whopper of a tale. I'm just amazed that you can't hear the muffled hoots, choked-back snorts and stiffled hee-hees that are whirling about the studio at such moments. What fun!!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fiber fun

Last week I went on a fabulous fiber field trip with friends Maggie, John and Terri. The event was a gathering of fiber folks at the wonderful High Prairie Fibers. To top off the excitement of meeting a group of amazing people and learning volumes, I brought home some new dyes so that I can start playing 'mad fiber scientist' on my own.

So earlier this week I decided to take the plunge and start dyeing some of my fiber stash. I started with a couple of bumps of a nondescript white wool and a couple of bumps of naturally colored, striped roving from The Sheep Shed's Grab Bag Special.

I had spun several bumps of this wool in its natural state, but wanted to play around with over-dyeing it to see what would happen.

I wanted to try out solar dyeing, so I decided to try one batch sitting in the sunroom window, and the other in the solar oven to compare the results.

white roving with emerald green dye, in amongst the rosemary

Brown striped roving with emerald green dye in the solar oven

The results were mixed. I packed too much fiber into the jar, and the clouds rolled in so neither the jar or the solar over really maintained enough heat for long enough, but it was a fun experiment nonetheless.

Here's a close-up of the jar dyeing right before I pulled it out and rinsed it. The color gradations were really cool, but I especially liked the reflections of the trees in the glass.

And the resulting rovings...

I will spin them seperately and then ply together for the finished yarn. I also did a set of the same white and striped rovings in Fire Red, but by this time the clouds had rolled in, so dyed them on the stove.

Will post pics of the finished yarns when I have a chance.

Garlic Planting

We finally got the seed garlic in the ground this week. Somehow, no matter how ready I think I am, I always get this done later than I intend. For those of you unfamiliar with growing garlic, it is planted in the fall (here in the north anyway) and harvested mid summer of the following year. We've always had pretty good luck with garlic, but this year was such a cruddy growing season that the garlic harvest was smaller than normal. So when we finished the planting I discovered that we were about 5 short of the amount I was hoping for. So off to the internet to see which suppliers have any stock left at this late date.
We generally plant about 25-30 pounds of hardneck garlic seed. This means planting the individual cloves...the same as what you eat. So the heads must be divided and the cloves cleaned of wrappers, again pretty much as you would to eat them, though not quite as meticulous. Often we soak them overnight in a solution of liquid seaweed, then a quick dip in rubbing alcohol right before they go into the ground. The seaweed gives the new plants a little extra boost and the rubbing alcohol helps prevent any transfer of disease or insect eggs that we might not have noticed. We were in such a hurry this year, that we did neither of there, instead we had a marathon garlic cleaning (thanks Mom!) hoping to beat the impending rain.

approx 10 lbs of cleaned Northern White garlic

At the same time that Mom was finishing up the last of the garlic cleaning, I was out in the garden trying to get the beds ready. I tried to burn the past season's garden litter but just couldn't get the fire to catch, so I mowed than tilled the new beds. All went well until the very last pass, then there was the calnk of metal breaking, followed by much smashing around, a loud metallic scream and then silence. I'm pretty sure that the tiller celebrated the end of the season by dying one final, very theatrical death. It was a bad, bad sound.
Fortunately, I had gotten far enough that we could finish up without the tiller. We furrow with a walking plow right before the garlic goes into the ground.

Furrows ready for seed garlic

Then the planting marathon began. We planted about 640 row feet of garlic, that's 1280 cloves. And got it all in about an hour before the rain started. Now that it is all settled in, I can go back and cover it with about 6" of rotted hay mulch.

I was really hoping for about 1500 cloves, so hopefully my internet source will come through for the rest. Regardless, its always a relief to get the garlic in before snow. Last year I wasn't so lucky!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Voting in a small town

Like everyone who watches the news or listens to NPR, recently I'd heard numerous reports of the incredible lines of people going into polling places. They were recounting waiting times of up to four hours to get in to vote in numerous states. I applaud everyone who waited for hours just to register their political opinion. However, it did cause me to smile when I arrived at our Washington Township polling place. I parked in front of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, walked (approx. 30') into the Columbia Community Center, chatted with my great aunt and uncle (poll monitors for the Reps), kissed my spouse (poll monitor for the Dems), voted and walked out in under 15 minutes. I love small towns!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Store Wars

"Use The Farm, Cuke..."
Our good friend John sent us a link to a fabulous YouTube video recently.
Store Wars , produced by Free Range studios. These folks are clever and damn funny!
As a farm that is focused on supplying our CSA and farmers market customers with high quality, local produce this video is a fun portrayal of the challenges of the current mainstream food system. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hmmm, starting a blog

Well, here we go...

I've been thinking about starting a blog for some time now and have finally decided to take the plunge. I'm not much of a linear-thinker, so it will probably be more stream of consciousness that an orderly description of our lives here at Blue Gate Farm, but what the heck.

A little introduction is probably in order, just in case someone other than our mothers stumble in.

Welcome to Blue Gate Farm

In April 2005 Sean and I left our professional theatre jobs in the bustling metropolis of Houston, TX and started our own little homestead on family land in rural south-central Iowa. We had lists that were pages long of all the things that we were going to do, build, create and grow. Here is where we are near the end of our 4th season: We have about 40 acres of land under our care (rented under very favorable terms from the family), about 3 acres are in rotation for our Certified Naturally Grown vegetables and herbs. With these gardens, plus our high tunnels (more about them later) we supply our small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and our market customers at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market. We also have about 20 acres in alfalfa and the balance in pasture. Our plans include adding livestock, but so far we only have 20-some hives of bees, 50-some laying hens and our trusty farm dog, Blue (a Blue Heeler/Australian Shepherd mix.

Blue, ever watchful, surveys the pond

One of the big questions people always ask us is "Can you make a living on a little farm like that?" And our answer so far is "We think so." We are both on the farm full-time, but we do have a bit of supplemental income to help things along. Sean does a little contract website design and business consulting and I free-lance as a storyteller and American Sign Language interpreter. These activities mostly take place during the winter when life is a little more quiet here on the farm.

And as the season winds down, we are really looking forward to that time! For me it will be a winter of dyeing and spinning fiber, knitting, crocheting, baking, and woodcutting...much woodcutting! We are not totally dependant on wood for our heat, we have a supplemental wood-fired boiler (DIY) that provides heat to our sunroom (when its not sunny) and adds a little heat to our rather chilly house. Its a lot of work, and the last boiler feeding of the day (usually around 10pm) is never fun, as the boiler is in our packing shed about 100 yards from the house. But it allows us to have a toasty warm place to overwinter our tender perennials (rosemary, thyme, lemongrass and a very spoiled Meyer lemon tree) and a perfect place to start all our garden transplants for the spring and also lets us keep our house thermostat set at about 55°, not to mention providing me with good exercise all winter long. I must admit that I do wait as long as possible before starting the boiler up for the season, but as soon as the sunroom gets down into the low 40's at night, the process begins.

So that's us. Thanks for stopping in for a visit. Hopefully the next time you stop by I will have something new to share about our lives here at Blue Gate Farm.

Now off to try and get the garlic ready for planting...