Thursday, April 3, 2014

Maple Sap and Maple Syrup

This spring we decided to try our hand at making maple syrup. The west side of the property is loaded with maple trees, some more than 18' in diameter. Last autumn, I marked about 20 sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) with green paint. Early this spring, I bought a beginners syrup making kit from Anderson's Maple Syrup and additional supplies to tap a total of 10 trees. This kit uses five gallon blue plastic bags for sap collection and 5/16" spiles for tapping.

Beginner's Maple Sap Tapping Kit
On a Sunday morning  in early March, we tapped ten trees. This involves first drilling a 2" hole 5/16" in diameter, 10° below horizontal into the south side of the tree. The tap is pounded into the hole tightly, the sap collection bag is attached to the red-handled holder, and the holder is clipped onto the spile.

Later in the day as temperatures rose well into the 60s, the sap began dripping into the bags, slowly at first. By evening, there was perhaps 1/2 gallon in some of the bags. It got cold on Sunday night, but when the sun came up on Monday and temperatures rose, the sap started flowing much faster and the bags started to fill up quickly.

Full Sap Bag
By about 11 am, the bags contained between 1-4 gallons of sap each, so we pooled the sap into five bags for a total of 12-13 gallons, tied the tops of the bags with wire, and stood the full bags upright in five gallon pails for transport. When we got them back to Columbus, we iced the sap down in a cooler, and on Tuesday morning I made a run to Cabela's for a propane stove and to a kitchen supply store for a 10 quart brazier.

Then comes the boiling down part, which takes forever. Maple sap is about 2% sugar, mostly sucrose. The ratio of maple sap to maple syrup is about 40:1, so that 10 gallons of sap should give one quart of syrup. The reduction needs to be done outside, otherwise the steam will deposit a small coating of sugar onto walls, cabinets, and anything else nearby. So I boiled all Tuesday afternoon and a good part of the day on Wednesday, producing about four quarts of concentrated maple sap. This was filtered and brought inside, to finish on the stove.

Boiling Down Sap
There are two ways to determine when one has sufficiently reduced the sap to syrup. The specific gravity (or density) can be measured with a hydrometer, one of which was included in the above kit and which I inconveniently left in West Virginia. The second method is to accurately monitor the temperature of the sap as it is reduced into syrup. The process is supposed to be complete when the temperature of the syrup is 7 °F above the boiling point of water, adjusted for altitude. This is about 210.5 °F in Columbus, so I continued to reduce the sap until the temperature registered 218 °F. The product was light brown in color and became syrupy when a few drops cooled on a plate. It tasted absolutely fantastic, very sweet with a nice clean maple flavor. I compared the taste with some dark amber syrup we had in the refrigerator, and the commercial syrup tasted burnt compared to the clean, crisp taste of our maple syrup. I filtered the hot syrup into sterilized half-pint canning jars, which sealed on their own as the syrup cooled. Out of about 12-13 gallons of maple sap, I obtained four half-pints, or one quart of pure, 100% natural, homemade maple syrup.

One Pint of Maple Syrup
Finishing the Syrup
At the end of March/beginning of April, temperatures soared into the 70s, and the sap literally flowed from the trees. In this second production process, after reducing probably 15 gallons of sap, as I was finishing of the syrup on the stove I decided that I had not boiled down the first batch sufficiently far, so three half-pints of the first batch were combined with the second batch, and a hydrometer was used to determine the end point of the reduction. The syrup ended up at just over 66% sugar as measured with the hydrometer, and boiled at around 220 °F. It was now a medium brown with a strong, clean maple flavor. The total 2014 production of maple syrup was 2.5 quarts. The pint jar shown above represents the reduction of five gallons of sap. It is delicious.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Factory Meat, Milk & Poultry Production

This is a carefully crafted video that illustrates factory production of meat, milk and poultry.

It is taken from the movie Samsara, which is a Sanskrit word meaning the wheel of life. The movie is a non-verbal documentary made by Ron Fricke. While the film itself appears to be an entertaining visual experience, the cut embedded below is not.


It isn't intended to shock, rather to illustrate visually the assembly line movement of animals through processes. It is not graphic in the sense of gore and cruelty; it is graphic in the sense of the scope and scale of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

If you eat factory farmed meat, I hope this video will give you pause the next time you buy chicken at Kroger or order a hamburger at Burger King. This is not an acceptable means to produce food for people.

The video will undoubtedly leave you speechless. I hope is leaves you with a new perspective.

N.B. It is illegal in most states in the U.S. to take film of CAFOs. The laws that prevent this are called "ag-gag" laws. The people who own and run CAFOs are scared that you might see how meat and milk are produced.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Potato and Swiss Chard Frittata

We made this frittata last night for dinner. It was delicious with a chilled white wine from Languedoc.

Makes two individual servings.

1 medium waxy potato, peeled and medium diced (1/2")
1 cup of chopped Swiss chard, wet
hot red pepper flakes, to taste
1 jalapeño, seeds removed and finely diced
1 medium clove garlic, finely diced
8 eggs, well whisked
1/2 cup grated cheese, preferably a mix of a sharp cheese such as cheddar and Parmesan
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and ground black pepper

In a medium saute pan, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Add the garlic, hot pepper flakes, jalapeño pepper and a pinch of salt, and saute 1-2 minutes until softened. Do not let the garlic brown. Add the chopped chard and cover the pan. Saute over low heat until tender, about 5-7 minutes.

In a small pot of salted boiling water, cook the potatoes until fork tender, about 5 minutes. Do not overcook; the potatoes should still be firm and keep their shape. Drain.

Mix the potatoes into the chard mixture.

Set oven to broil and preheat.

In an 8" non-stick oven-safe skillet, add half of the eggs and half of the chard mixture. Cook over medium heat with stirring until the eggs start to set on the bottom half. Sprinkle half the cheese mixture over the eggs and place skillet under the broiler. Watch carefully and remove when the frittata has cooked through and the cheeses are bubbling and lightly browned. Season with salt and pepper.

Slide the frittata onto a plate and serve. Repeat with the remaining eggs, chard and cheese.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Strange Assortment of Eggs from Our New Chickens

Last April, I bought 15 each of Golden Comet and Barred Rock chicks, and my friend Santos raised them at the horse barn where I ride. We still had two of our original Golden Comets, but their egg production had slowed considerably to at best one per day. On July 3rd, we "switched" chickens, giving Santos our two old ones and bringing home two each of the new varieties. There was no way to introduce new chickens to our coop without lots of fighting, but our two old chickens settled in at the barn without incident.

Around September 1st, one or two of the chickens started laying, and around the 15th of September, another started production. What is strange is the lack of uniformity in the eggs. Mostly, we get large darker brown eggs, but with the addition of our third layer, we've been getting these really small off-white eggs and once we got a gigantic lighter brown egg. I don't know what's up with this, and whether things will settle down to a more uniform size and color.

The chickens are happy, getting all of the vegetable table scraps and trimmings from our garden produce. They still don't like being handled, but they're getting better. We feed them organic layer rations.

In any event, it's good to have fresh eggs again.

UPDATE 10/1: For the first time, we got four eggs, one per hen.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Building a Garden Shed & High School Geometry

When we built our little barn a few years ago, we had a 12'x12' concrete slab poured and built a building with a loft and a slanted roof. This was supposed to house the Gravely, the ATV, the tiller, and other gardening stuff. Then we built a work bench and got a table saw and a miter saw. I wanted a workshop, but it was too crowded with all that stuff in the barn. Subsequently, I built a 8'x12' lean-to shed next to the barn, and that's where the ATV, Gravely, and ATV trailer are stored. Now we have a chipper-shredder and the tiller, and these are really difficult to transport up to the garden and back down. Both pieces of equipment have been sitting outside up by the garden most of the summer. Exposure to sun and rain will take a toll on equipment, and so the obvious thing to do was build a shed dedicated to storing garden equipment. Then the barn can become a dedicated workshop.
Figure 1. Shed Plans (6'x8')

I found a nice set of shed plans (Fig. 1) on the Mother Earth website, and altered them slightly from a 6'x8' shed to an 8'x8' one. When I got to West Virginia this past Wednesday, the ground was perfectly dry, so my hope was that I could haul construction materials up to the garden clearing with my truck. Between late Wednesday and early Friday it rained 1.27", turning the road into a muddy mess. No chance of getting the truck anywhere. I went ahead and ran to 84 Lumber in Elkins and got the 2"x6"x8' floor joists, a 4"x4"x8' post for the supports, concrete piers to support the shed, and two sheets of 3/4" treated plywood. This is so easy with the full bed on the truck: everything just fits flat on the bed with no need to tie anything down or have anything stick out. As expected, I got the truck into the house clearing but not up the road. I got the boards up to the garden just by stacking them on the front and back ATV racks with the concrete piers in the trailer. The plywood was another story. Eventually, I figured out that I could take one sheet at a time, lay it cross-ways on the back ATV rack with the front laying on the seat. I sat on the wood to hold it down and drove very slowly up the road, eventually getting both pieces up. Treated plywood is very heavy, particularly because it was waterlogged from sitting in the back of the truck in the rains. It was way too heavy for me to pick up.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

More Spuds

These fingerling potatoes are the last of the 2013 crop to be dug. It's about 1/2 bushel of potatoes.

Overall, this year's potato crop wasn't as bad as we feared after all the April and May rains. I think we probably got 40% of what we could have raised. We've got some plans for the 2014 planting that don't involve putting the potatoes into deep trenches, which are vulnerable to flooding. It seems that you can shallowly bury the seed potatoes and cover the whole bed with straw and more dirt. The yield is lowered relative to conventional methods, but we shouldn't have a flooding problem with heavy rains.

(As a note, we received more than 10" of rain on the farm during the month of August. Since the rain gauge was installed in early May, we've had nearly 22" of rain, for an average of about 1.25"/week.)

As another note, here is a bit of food porn. This is what we did with our potatoes, poblano chilies, cheese, cherry tomatoes, cumin & onion: potato stuffed roasted poblano peppers baked on a bed of sauteed onions and tomatoes. Email me if you would like the recipe.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Jams, Jellies & Pickles – So Far


strawberry-pineapple jamstrawberry jampickled beets w/caraway
straberry-rhubarb jamorange-rhubarb jamcandied pickled apples
blueberry-lime jamblueberry-lemon jamapple pie applesauce
peach maple jamrhubarb jampickled golden beets
concord grape jellysour cherry preservessweet pickle relish
peach BBQ saucestrawberry saucegreen beans
honey-lemon jellypeaches w/vanillagarlic-dill pickles
applesaucepickled jalapeñosdilled pickled beans

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Update on the 2013 Harvest

This post will mostly be pictures, as they somewhat speak for themselves. The pictures are small here, but click on them for a larger version.

First to be picked starting May 1st was asparagus. This was the third year for this asparagus bed, and we picked about 40-50% of the spears. In addition, we planted another bed of 25 plants, which will be ready to pick in 2015. I really don't need to describe what these tasted like. Many of the smaller spears didn't make it out of the garden before being consumed.

asparagus









Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Inevitable Demise of Chemical-Based Agriculture

The popularity of organically grown food has increased dramatically over the past decade. Growth in the sales of organic food has risen more than 10% per year recently, and now represents over 4% of total food sales. That may sound like a pretty minor fraction (4/100), but it is clear that this increase will continue. Right now, over 10% of fruit and vegetable sales are organic, and much of this increase is due to public perception that organic foods are healthier than their conventional counterparts. Although there is little to no evidence that this is the case, and also given the questionable practices allowed in certified organic farming by the government, this shift represents a major change in the manner in which an increasingly larger portion of our food is grown. As I mentioned earlier, large agribusiness firms own the majority of organic food brands. This must change to allow a shift in how sustainably our food is produced. I believe such a change is inevitable.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Monitoring the Weather


Dogs Run Farm is now an official weather station on Wunderground for Dryfork, WV. I installed an Acu-Rite model 1055 weather station, powered up the Internet bridge that came with it, hooked the bridge into the router, and violá! Data from our weather station was available on the Internet via the Acu-Link website and iPhone application.

I set-up an account on Wunderground, put in the data for the weather station including map coordinates, provided a few other details, and named the weather station Dogs Run Farm. This morning when I looked at the weather for Dryfork, WV (26263) on wunderground.com, the Dogs Run Farm weather station was at the top of the list, providing temperature, wind, barometric pressure, rainfall, and humidity. That's our station: KWDRYFO3.
I’ve wanted to do this for years so that I can monitor wind, temperature, and rainfall remotely. It was an absolute breeze to set-up, and it worked the first time without any fiddling around. In one month, we have gone from waiting five minutes for the Dryfork weather to load on our iPhones while standing in front of the one window in the house where we got cell service to being a weather station on Wunderground and having access to weather data anywhere.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A New Outbuilding

I have been storing my ATV underneath the house where it could be chained to the foundation. Problematic was angling it correctly to back it into its space and the difficulty getting it out, uphill, in muddy or snowy weather. In addition, we needed the space to store wood and our new 7,000 W generator. Also problematic was the amount of space taken up by the Gravely walk-behind mower in the barn. So, I build a shed on the west side of the barn.

Framing of the Shed
The frame of the shed consisted of a treated 2"x6" header bolted to the frame of the barn, three treated 4"x4" posts about 8' from the barn, a treated 2"x8" header bolted to the posts, and 2"x6" roof joists. The dimensions were such that the ATV could be parked in one of the "stalls" and be completely out of the weather. The dimensions were about 12' wide by 8' deep. The front header was about 6' off the ground at its shortest, and the back header was bolted 8' above the foundation of the barn.

Onto this frame went the siding, 5/8" T1-11 plywood, nailed to horizontal rather than vertical studs. Eventually, this will be stained to match the barn, if the weather ever warms up enough.

Satellite Internet

On our side of the valley down which Red Creek flows, we're lucky to have electricity. We had to run a new electrical line more than 2,500' up the side of the valley and then up a hollow through a very steep clear-cut. This cost about $1K in an initial payment, and then $22.50/month/5 years. I think we could get a land-line by the same route, and DSL through the land-line, but that would be useless.

Until recently, getting internet via a satellite was expensive ($70/month) and the service was very, very slow (1 Mbps). Recently, Wild Blue, one of the major providers of satellite internet service launched a new service called Exede that is much faster (≥ 12 Mbps), about the same as our service in Columbus, and significantly less expensive ($50/month).

Up until now, our "internet" service was provided with our iPhones and the cell phone tower in nearby Harman. The phone signal was decent 3 of 5 bars and was moderately reliable, but the internet service was Edge (E). Slow. They don't measure this speed with Mbps, but rather Kbps, and even then it's fractional Kbps, as in 0.1 Kbps. Email worked, you could boot up a website to get the weather (3-10 minutes), you could get scores of football and basketball games, and the phone worked reliably and with a clear signal. The caveat, however, was that the phone had to be positioned precisely in one window to obtain a steady signal. That meant that you had to stand in front of that window to talk on the phone or read email. It worked.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Preview of the 2013 Garden

A significant portion of the 2013 garden was planted over the April 13-14 weekend. One of the primary goals this year was to amend the soil to make it more nutrient rich. At both the OEFFA and Hobby Farm Dream conferences this past spring, I attended a number of talks about soil health, and this is clearly one of the major issues we need to deal with over the next several years.

We started this in three ways: (1) we added a high quality, organism-rich compost; (2) we added organic matter in the form of shredded leaves, straw, and wood chips; (3) we had the soil analyzed for nutrients so that we can amend imbalances. The compost and organic matter go hand-in-hand, as the organisms in the compost break-down the organic matter for use by the garden plants, releasing nutrients along the way, and the facilitate nutrient uptake by plants. Soil analysis in the garden showed a marked deficiency of phosphorous and the need for significant lime to raise the pH.

There were four permanent (perennial) plants already in the garden: asparagus (25 plants installed in 2011), raspberries  (2011), rhubarb (1 plant, 2012), and horseradish (2 plants, 2012). The perennial plantings were increased by adding three new rhubarb roots and another 25 asparagus plants (Mary Washington). Four new raspberries were also added. So now we have two 30' long asparagus beds, the first of which will produce an initial crop this year. The first rhubarb will also be ready to pick, and the raspberries.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Starting Seeds

This year (2013) was the year I got serious about starting seeds indoors. I found an Excel spreadsheet that calculated start and transplant dates based on the input of a "last frost date." In previous years we had planted whenever we were on the farm, rather than according to a schedule. I also did considerable research on ideal temperatures for starting seeds (80 °F) and for growing seedlings (≈ 70 °F). I bought seed tray heaters, 50 cell peat trays, special seed-starting mix, and built a shelving unit with hanging fluorescent lights on adjustable chains. The entire unit was wrapped in plastic to prevent drafts and maintain temperatures, and I found some 1" thick styrofoam sheets to help with insulation.

As it turned out, the seed tray heater kept the interior of a covered tray at ≥ 80 °F, and that heat from the fluorescent lights would keep an unheated tray at just above 70 °F in a 60 °F basement. My biggest worry at this stage was whether I was going to get a visit from the DEA on suspicion of growing weed.

First to be planted on 2/26 were nine varieties of tomatoes: Big Boy, Garden Peach, Black Krim, Orange Blossom, Roma, Black Cherry, Red Cherry, Yellow Pear, and Sungold. These were up in a few days with heat, and were thinned and fertilized with an NPK 18-18-21 tomato fertilizer. Second to be planted were the cabbages on 3/1: Early Jersey Hybrid, King Slaw, and an heirloom we got at the OEFFA conference called Copenhagen. The peppers were started 3/8: jalapeño, bell, cayenne, Padron, and ancho. Then the beets on 3/13 (Detroit Supreme and Golden, 50 each) and the kales and chard on 3/14 (Black Magic and Dwarf Blue Curled, and Bright Lights, respectively). Also on 3/14, I started basil, nasturtium and parsley, the latter of which should have been started with the tomatoes. Finally, the eggplant (Millionaire), spinach (Salad Fresh) and endive (Green Curled Ruffec) were started on 4/3 and the carrots (Scarlet Nantes heirloom we also obtained at the OEFFA conference) on 4/19. The final starts will be cucumbers on 5/1 (Homemade Pickle, Muncher, and Straight Eight).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hidden Subsidies for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)

Various forms of agriculture in the United States receive government support or subsidies. For example, it is well established that production of ethanol from corn would not be economically feasible in the absence of government support. This used to come in the form of a subsidy of $0.45/gallon of ethanol. What is interesting, however, is that this subsidy expired in 2012. Did anyone hear a gigantic howl or protest from corn farmers in Iowa? Right, neither did I. The reason that corn lobby let this subsidy expire is because President Obama signed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) into law. The RFS mandates that more than one third of the U.S. corn crop be converted to ethanol, which is then blended with gasoline. This mandate effectively creates an artificial demand for corn that props up the price, making it economical for farmers to grow corn for ethanol production. Now, corn is not the issue at hand. Ethanol production from corn is economical because the government mandates that it be so. However misguided, whether direct or indirect, this type of subsidy is obvious, measurable and lawful.

CAFO buildings and manure "lagoon"
Let me turn your attention to large animal feeding operations, or CAFOs as they are known. Animal production was concentrated in such a manner from smaller individual farms over the last 20-30 years, allegedly for reasons of economy. Whether this is true is doubtful, and something that can be discussed separately.

In these operations, such as the facility shown, animals are housed in large, cement-floored buildings. They are fed automatically, and their manure and urine is flushed from the floor into a holding tank below the facility, and then into a large reservoir or "lagoon." Simplistically, the economics of running a CAFO would seem to be the cost of the facility (land, buildings and infrastructure), food, animals, labor, electricity, fuel, and waste disposal, relative to the financial gains obtained from selling the animals. Sales minus costs equals profit. Business 101.