Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Farmer Chic buys a farm

It's the moment we've been waiting for since we placed an offer back in August, we are now officially land owners. The night before the closing, the reality of this huge commitment sunk in. I started to get a case of cold feet. Just as the wrong shade of napkins can set-off a bridezilla ( I said periwinkle not powder blue!) the site of mouse dropping in the camper trailer triggered an avalanche of emotions. And the conversation quickly went from I am not staying in this camper to I am not sure if I want to buy this farm.

We hadn't been up to the farm since mid-December so it is really no surprise mice found their way inside the camper. Mouse turds were in the sink, in the drawer, on our bedding, and on the bench. The idea of some rodent running all over my bedding and pooping on my blankets is not only unhygienic it just creeps me out. And to be honest, I have never been the trailers number one fan. So we booked a night at our favorite hotel, the Inn at Stone Mill. As it turns out the timing was perfect, we got two feet of snow over night.

To be sure my anxiety had less to do with mice and more to do with buying and renovating an unlivable house along with clearing the land dotted with rusted equipment, collapsing buildings, tires, weeds and dead trees. Everywhere I look another item is added to the to-do-list. And the list is getting very, very long.

As Darien and I drove to Lowes to pick-up mouse traps and other supplies we had a heart-to-heart. He had me list out all my concerns so we could address them one by one. A few of them were: How long we will have to stay in the camper? How much money is this going to cost us? and, Do I really want to live in this area?

Darien reassured me that we will make it our goal to have at least one room finished, that we can stay in by the end of the year. As for money, he reminded me again that at the end of the day whether we use the farm as weekend home or the site of our future home, it is an investment.
It's hard to imagine moving upstate because I am very comfortable where I am now. Of all the places we've lived, this is my favorite. Close to the city but still has lots of nature and a rural feel. I am also pretty involved in the local food movement here. It's hard starting all over again and in an area that may not be as open to sustainable agriculture. And quite frankly, the dining options are paltry. There is an abundance of chains, McDonalds, Denny's, Dunkin Donuts, and Pizza Huts, but few independent restaurants and no fine dining. But the reality is land is not affordable where we live. So, as Darien pointed out we will have to meet new people, and bring the sustainable food movement with us.

If you're someone who believes in omens, I do when it's convenient, we discovered a newly opened BBQ restaurant in a nearby town. The pulled pork, hand-cut thick french fries, pork ribs, and potato salad were served in large quantities and at a good price. This is one place where quantity and quality are actually on par. The owner told us he grinds the beef and makes everything from the sausage, soups to salad dressing. He is interested in serving local food but has to find a way to make it cost effective.

The pulled pork smothered in bbq sauce soothed my jitters. Darien, the farm, and I would make this relationship work.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Update: Organic food and butchery

The Hunt for Organic Food in Washington Heights
Ten stops on the 1 train from Columbus Circle is all it takes to experience the different worlds of the haves and the have-nots. One minute I am in Williams and Sonoma's, shiny copper pots and $12 goat milk soap, talking with Brent from Beekman Boys about goats and farming. Twenty five minutes later I am in a "deli" in Washington Heights that sells beer, milk, and sad shriveled heads of lettuce.

I spent Saturday afternoon, and the past five days, doing research on organic food availability. I have a list of 250 stores through out Manhattan that I must visit over the next two weeks. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, my class did a research project to assess the availability of local and organic food at groceries, delis, outdoor food carts, and other establishments that sell fresh food in Manhattan. The first phase was to establish where the establishments are. The second phase, which I am working on now, is to determine what products are sold, such as conventional or organic, milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese, meat, and a select variety of fruits and vegetables.

What I found in Washington Heights was depressing. The stores each had a particular funky odor to them, the sanitary conditions were questionable, and the selection of fresh fruits and vegetables was limited and often looked weeks old. Out of thirty stores only a handful sold organic milk and one supermarket sold organic eggs. I can't say I am surprised at all. Its hard enough to find good quality fresh produce let alone organic food.

Back at Columbus Circle there is a supermarket that specializes in fresh good quality, and organic, produce, with its time-controlled misting on the so-fresh-you-can-smell-the-dirt vegetables. Of course you prices are higher but is it too much to ask that residents in the 160's have vegetables that aren't on life support?

Who needs health insurance when you can self-medicate?
I come from Canada, and we love our beer just as much as Americans do (except for me, I don't really like beer.) But the last time I checked a Canadian pharmacy you couldn't pick up a six pack to go along with your Prozac. In any New York City Duane Reade you can. Whether I think pharmacies should sell booze is irrelevant. Most retail stores all sort of blend together, the lines that distinguish one store from another have been blurred. Every store has become a one-stop-shop; liquor, drugs, food, and cheap goods from China. What I find truly amazing is the long aisles Duane Reade has dedicated to beer, sometimes even local craft beers. And yet the dairy section is marginal. No organic milk, yogurt, or eggs, the only option is some industrial crap.

I am looking forward to truths and ironies I unearth next week.

Duane Reade advertising its wonderful beer selection

To some this may sound creepy, but I am fascinated by how meat is broken down into tiny neat cuts called culottes, loins, and butts. Since I have mastered the art of breaking down a chicken I have been eager to expand my repertoire.

A few weeks before Christmas I went to Dickson's Farmstand Meats for a trial to see if I want to do an internship there. I spent the whole afternoon vacuum sealing various lamb cuts, pork cuts, and beef cuts. My head spun as I tried to remember all the names of the cuts, most of which I have already forgotten. But I really enjoyed trying to remember them all. The least pleasant part of the job was trying to muscle my way in between hanging split sides of beef and pork, sometimes crouching underneath them, in the walk in cooler to put away the cut in their respective bins.

As I furiously packed meat into bags and sealed them, I stole glances of the two rock-star butchers breaking down pork and beef right behind me. The skill and strength required to break the animal down is impressive, you don't need to be a ravenous carnivore to appreciate the art of butchery.

It was a good experience and I may see if I can return in the future. We will see how well I remember what I learned the first time. I do remember that when I went to bed that night visions of meat cuts danced in my head.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Turkey Time

Mouse in the House
This afternoon I was washing dishes when I heard a rustling by the stove. I looked over and saw a mouse's little paw stuck in the mouse trap. The trap was flopping around and I thought to myself this isn't good. I can't just leave it there. I took a broom and brought the trap into the middle of the kitchen. I called my little Shiba Inu into the kitchen in hopes she might kill it but it turns out she is all bark and no bite. She cowered in the living room. The mouse's beady black eyes bulged in fear and was staring up at me. Little did it know I was staring back at it in fear. What do I do now? I picked up the phone and called my husband. I told him of my predicament. Should I kill it? I asked him. He answered in a hushed tone, he was on his cell phone on the train, "No don't kill it." He said " just release it into the woods." But I can't I whined, its dark outside and what if it runs after me?" Trying hard not to raise his voice, for fear of what the train passengers might think of this strange caller, he said into the phone "but you just killed turkeys yesterday. Think of it as a little turkey." We hung up and I took a deep breath and grabbed a broom and dustpan. I swept the mouse onto the dust pan and ran over to wood pile and placed the trap on the ground and released the mouse. Ok, not so bad. But nothing like a turkey.

Turkey Processing
Yesterday I went to Glynwood to help with turkey processing. I thought processing turkeys might be harder than processing chickens, I like turkeys better, but surprisingly it didn't bother me. Instead of killing them in the steel cones like we do with the chickens, because they are too big for the cone, the turkeys were killed out in the field. This was accomplished by rigging hooks to the tractor bucket so the turkeys could be hung by their legs. Then their throats are slit and they are bled out. They don't really make any noise when they are upside down, the only creepy part is when they are dead and start spazzing when all the nerves are firing off.

The rest of it, scalding, plucking, and removing the innards is the same process as for the chickens only the turkeys are much much bigger. They go into a scalder (around 140F) into a plucking machine and then onto a table where we remove the feet, head, and everything inside the turkey, I struggled to lift the turkeys in and out of the cold water baths and onto the stainless steel table where I "operated." I could have sworn they weighed 50 pounds or more. Out of curiosity we threw one of the cleaned turkeys on the scale and it read 30 pounds.

It took 6 of us to process 40 turkeys in just over 5 hours. We were a well oiled machine. I broke down four turkeys by myself but I still don't quite have the feel for finding and removing the crock. And I feel extra nervous trying to remove the bile duct from the liver. I always end up taking a large chunk of the liver off with it just to make sure I don't burst the bright green nasty liquid all over the liver. But the rest of it is fairly easy.

I won't say that its my favorite job on the farm but its not the worst either. And it helps that I get to bring home a turkey for Thanksgiving. A delicious heritage Bourbon Red turkey. It seems like only yesterday I was feeding them raspberries and apple cores. Rest in peace turkeys...your life will not be in vain.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My agriculture class: Trawling the 200's in NYC, looking for milk.

At 9:30 am, two weeks ago, on a Wednesday morning I took a taxi from 125 street to 215 street on the upper West Side to some research for my agriculture class. Besides passing a live poultry market what is in the 200's that is agricultural? Well, nothing really. My project technically has more to do with the outcome of agriculture, the consumption side. Our whole class was undertaking a project to map out food availability in Manhattan. The map of Manhattan was divided into 24 parts and each student got a section. I was to walk around and record every store where you could buy food (can't be just prepared) with a minimum criteria of selling milk. I found the majority of food was sold in convenience stores and small grocery stores with a few super markets located in high traffic areas. Below is a blog post describing the project from the NYU Steinhardt website.

With Ambition and Walking Shoes, Students Catalogue Organic and Local Food Availability Throughout Manhattan

Carolyn Dimitri, visiting associate professor of food studies and an applied economist, is interested in the question of whether access to local and organic food influences consumer demand. To find out the answer, she and her graduate students have embarked on a yearlong study to assess the availability of local and organic food at groceries, delis, outdoor food carts, and other establishments that sell fresh food in Manhattan.

Using a simple data collection sheet, students from the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health's Food Systems classes will canvass every Manhattan neighborhood to note whether the store sells organic or local food from a variety of categories, including dairy, produce, and meat. Dimitri will analyze the data to create an index for each store, ranging from 0 to 100, that captures the availability of organic or local food.

"This is a vast undertaking, given the large number of stores in Manhattan," Dimitri says. "Fortunately, my students have responded with great enthusiasm, and have offered useful suggestions about the best way to divide Manhattan in sections to facilitate the data collection process. Last month, Krystal Ford and I collected data on store types and in Inwood. We identified about 50 stores in our assigned area. I was rather surprised to see the odd mix of products carried in the majority of the stores."

The class' research will also shed light on whether demand for organic food is greater in higher income neighborhoods or in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of stores that sell such foods.

"Research suggest that consumption of organic food tends to be a function of how well educated a consumer is, as opposed to his or her income level," Dimitri says. " The problem with estimating a consumer's demand for such organic and local foods has been the difficulty of measuring access."

The data collected will provide a more accurate measure of access to organic and local food, that should allow Dimitri to improve existing models of consumer demand for these products.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Buying a farm

Four months ago my husband and I started seriously farm shopping. We decided to see what was available on the market. A real estate agent showed us four different properties in upstate New York but we were particularly interested in seeing one, a 46 acres property, which seemed pretty good on paper. It turns out it was the best one. But it was also the one that needed the most work. We loved the mixture of 30 acres of pasture and 16 acres of forest, with access to a river, a small pond, and multiple outbuildings, including an 1860s farmhouse and barn.

We put an offer on the farm and it was accepted. We will be closing next week. My husband has started a blog to chronicle our Farm Makeover. And he has already put up pictures of the house and property.

Honestly, I am both nervous and excited about buying the farm. Nervous about depleting our savings, nervous about how much it might cost, nervous about how much time and energy it might take. But I am excited about what my husband and I will be able to accomplish together. Completely renovating an old farmhouse by ourselves, and with the help of friends and family we can manage to harangue. Most of all I am excited about the possibility of making it the site of our future homestead.

Our first plan of action is to clean the house out. This will make it easier for us to figure out what we need to do first and what we tools we need to buy. We are also contemplating buying a used camper to put on the property. The house in unlivable, no heat, no electricity, no running water, and probably a decade's worth of mouse and insect feces. Though I loath the idea of spending so much money to stay in a hotel every time we go to work on the house, I haven't exactly embraced the idea of living in a camper. I am a farm girl not a trailer park girl. I realize that makes me sound like a bit of a snob but we all have our hang-ups. The problem is my overactive imagination is picturing living in some 2o year-old trailer that smells of cigarette smoke, polyester, and vinyl. Maybe the trailer will be lovely. Who knows. We are going to check out a camper next week and I will try to keep an open mind.

One thing is for sure, we are about to embark on a new adventure.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Garlic planting!

Last Monday I went to Glynwood to help with garlic planting. Driving down the mile long driveway the scenery was different from the last time I was there not so long ago. Lower tree limbs were looking bare and the remaining foliage, clinging stubbornly to the branches, were an assortment of oranges, yellows, and browns.

I stepped out of the car and could faintly see my breath. The tips of the grass were frosted. I had smartly worn tights under my Carhartts and a wool hat. Dave, Dayna and I loaded up on seed garlic, hand tools, and the dibbler ( a tool that is used to make 3 holes in a bed every few inches apart.)

It was 8 am in the morning, the sky was blue, the air was crisp, and we were ready to go. Only one thing got in our way, the top layer of the soil was frozen. We stood there looking at the ground and then at each other. Well shit. We gotta wait until it warms up. So I helped them harvest some beautiful looking broccoli crowns and then went home.

At 1:30 pm I returned to the field for take two of garlic planting. The beds were smoothed out with a rake and then holes were dug a few inches apart. One clove was put in each hole with the pointy tip up. Seed garlic is just regular garlic, but you try to select the biggest and nicest looking garlic to be your seed garlic. One head of garlic could have 6 cloves, which means you get 6 plants of garlic from one plant. After all the cloves are in the ground we lightly rake soil over the top completely covering the holes. The fun part is mulching the garlic. We take bails of straw and sprinkle it heavily all over the bed to help protect the garlic and suppress weeds in the spring.

Garlic planting (at least in Northeast) takes place in the fall because it gives the plants a bit of a head start. It gives them just enough time to put on some roots before going dormant. In the spring it is off to the races and will be ready for harvest in July. You could technically plant in the spring but it may not be ready until August or September. It's important to get a bit of head start because it takes so long to cure garlic (about 6 weeks.) Curing garlic is what gives it the ability to be stored a long time.

If you plant garlic too early in the fall it could put on too much growth and start popping out of the ground and then it dies when the frost comes. So to be on the safe side Dave waits until after Halloween to plant garlic.

Planting garlic feels like I have come full circle, but in reverse. Typically you plant and then harvest. But this time I harvested and then planted. There is no doubt that the season has come to an end.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Going Freelance

The last two weeks I have been as busy as ever. As I mentioned in the last blog post I found work helping an older woman in her garden, and throw a birthday party. It was a little intense but fun. The party was on Sunday but we began preparations on Friday. I drove her all around our little village to buy food and supplies at grocery stores and markets.

Saturday we made a short visit to the Cold Spring Farmers Market and purchased some last minute items; some beautiful plump mushrooms, brightly colored winter squash, fresh baked bread. All day long she cooked while I prepped. She handed me vegetables to chop, dice, peel, eggs to whisk, oranges to slice and juice, and glasses of sangria to taste. We made big batches of red and white sangria with slices of oranges, orange juice, wine, and cointreau. Every few hours we took a tiny ladle of the sangria we made to check the flavor, it was initially too tart so we added honey to each batch.

The day proceeded with praise and scolding. "Good, good. No! What are you doing?" That was good for chopping the tomatoes nicely. Bad because I like to rinse things like my knife or bowls under running water without a container underneath to catch it. She has this obsession with saving water (not a bad thing especially if you live in the desert) but she lives alone, has a well, and lives next to a stream. But at the end of the day we got a lot accomplished and we get along very well.

Sunday is party time. Most of the food was cooked the day before but there was still last minute things to prepare, steamed bok choy, stratas, and croissant sandwiches stuffed with smoked salmon. The party was from 3pm until 10pm. She planned to serve lunch and supper, buffet style. I was given strict instructions that dishes are hidden away and not left around or put in the dishwasher. I was to put them under the sink or in her laundry room. As the party progressed the urge for me to do the dishes grew stronger and stronger especially when we were running out of utensils, plates and glasses. (around 8pm I couldn't take it anymore and when she was out of the kitchen I put a load of dishes on.) At 9pm, I had been there for 12 hours and I was tired. My cue to leave was when I dropped a bottle of Champagne, while trying to open it, on the floor in front of all her guests. She was a good sport about it, no doubt my prize winning pie, I brought two that disappeared in minutes, had helped.

After a long weekend I was ready to rest, but Monday morning I found myself with a shovel digging up plants known as Obedient. I had been asked to help another woman in her garden. So Monday and Tuesday I spent a few hours helping dig up plants, finding homes for those plants, and planting bulbs of alliums, tulips and narcissus.

While digging, the neighbor of the woman I was helping came over and chatted with us. He asked me if this garden work was something I was looking to do regularly. Sure, I thought. Why not? The wheels were turning in my head, maybe my next job is to help people in their gardens. I can call myself the Personal Garden Assistant.