Monday, May 31, 2010

The Ultimate Evil makes a Refreshing Summer Beverage

Like most Gen Xers, I didn't grow up with heroes, though I did consider a handful of people to be admirable role models. Most of these were fictional characters, as no amount of real-world charisma, compassion, or triumph over adversity can ever truly compete with the ability to solve impossible problems in convenient 30-, 60-, or 93-minute increments.

Among the most influential of these was FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, whose exploits in the Inland Empire fighting the forces of darkness were expertly chronicled in the series of dramatic re-creations known as Twin Peaks. A fish out of water in any situation, Special Agent Cooper's strength was his otherness. He understood that no events occur in isolation, that there is no such thing as coincidence, and that you should give yourself a gift every day, even if that gift was just a slice of heavenly pie or a damn fine cup of coffee.

While Special Agent Cooper used his powers of perception to serve humanity, others in his world displayed less nobility. Consider Bob, the hygiene-challenged bĂȘte noir who conducted his psychological torture from the inside. Casual fans of the show mistakenly assume that Leland Palmer, father of Laura, was the villain of the piece, but in truth father and daughter were equally victimized (in degree if not in approach). I've long thought that poor, benighted Leland was given a bum rap, and that his image deserved rehabilitation.

Enter Damon Boelte, bar manager at Prime Meats in Brooklyn and creator of the Leland Palmer ( . Boelte created this drink as an alcoholic twist on the Arnold Palmer, the classic half-iced-tea and half-lemonade concoction that has soothed hangovers for a generation. Inspired by the scene from Season 2, Episode 8 where a Bob-possessed Leland attempts to brain Special Agent Cooper with a golf club, Boelte clearly intends the Leland Palmer to represent the wicked side of summertime refreshment.

Alison and I stirred up a pitcher for the Memorial Day weekend, looking for an alternative to the G&T or Pimms Cup that typically satisfies our hot-weather boozing. The Leland Palmer rests on a comforting jasmine tea/honey/lemon juice foundation, providing the quiet floral continuity needed to keep the limoncello and gin (we used Bombay Sapphire) from clashing. Mixed with club soda and poured over a generous tower of ice, the resulting drink is extremely mild, with no alcohol burn, and a subtle spice complexity that suggests coastal India.

Sitting on our front porch, watching the storm clouds gather for the afternoon rain, Alison and I finished two glasses apiece, no small feat considering the cup-and-a-half of hooch in the mix. But the demon liquor remained quiet, and we remained headache-free, which cannot be said of every summer cocktail. Maybe if the real Leland was able to keep his demons equally in check, Twin Peaks would have remained a sleepy mountain town, and Special Agent Cooper's Ayurvedic approach to investigation would never have been revealed to the world. So, this summer, raise a glass to old Leland Palmer and his self-sacrifice, so that we could know the secrets of the Black Lodge, the dancing dwarf, and a damn fine reason to serve drinks on the veranda.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Big Barn

We've been working on preparing the larger of our two old chestnut barns for the water buffalo. They don't strictly need a barn in our climate, but we'd like them to have a place to get out of the sun on very hot days and cold, wet winds in the winter. The lower level of this three-story barn was designed for livestock and the upper two stories were for hanging tobacco. Our plan is to let the buffalo have access to the lower level only and we'll store hay in the upper section.

Our friend and real estate agent supreme, Adam, built replacement doors out of salvaged barn wood for the four entrances that were missing doors altogether. That was important when the buffs arrived because the interior of the barn needed some buff-proofing before we could allow them to roam inside. Between the remains of the construction materials the previous owners had stored on the lower level and bits of barn that had come apart over the years, there was an amazing amount of hardware on and in the dirt floor. Nails (modern and old-timey square-head styles), screws, bolts, washers, and odd bits of rusty cans could all do a fair amount of damage if ingested by a buff. Lying down or stepping on nails wouldn't be great either. I've been using a big magnet to pick up as much metal as possible, but the collection of petrified cow doots from cattle of many years ago has made it difficult to get to the floor. So, I've also been spending a lot of time raking those out and then going over the floor with the magnet. Jim has been shoring up posts that the buffs might rub against and hammering in nails that are sticking out.

Today, I went out to try to finish up the job--just a bit more raking, take out some old hay that was stored there, and once more over everything with the magnet. But the buffs' curiosity got the best of them and they decided it was time to check out what I was doing. Up 'til now, I've been able to work in the barn with the doors open (essential for light and air flow) and they've kept their distance. Today, however, they snuck up on me almost as soon as I started raking and insisted on a tour of the barn. They checked out every stall and aisle, then came over to see if they could help. That is, if rubbing up on the rake and licking the magnet is helpful. It's not. Then they discovered the hay. I've been trying to move it out and use it as mulch since I'm not sure of the quality. It has stayed dry, but still.... Well, they thought it was Christmas. Effie went over and immediately began throwing it around (she kneels down, puts her head all the way under the bale, then tosses her head up to break up the bale). Eschol was the first to munch on it. I tried to shoo them away but I ended up in a hayfight with Effie. She tossed hay on me and I tossed back. We both ended up covered in hay. Fortunately, they didn't eat too much before heading back out for fresh grass.

They did seem to be in a playful mood today. Every time I tried to resume raking or hauling hay, one or three of them would come right up to me and get in my way. I kept shifting between tasks and they kept on helping. Finally, in time for a late lunch, all three of them stepped outside the barn, so I quickly shut the doors to keep them out until I could finish. As I walked down the hill towards the gate, all three of them decided to race me to the gate. I let them win. I can see it's going to take a lot to keep this bunch entertained. That's what I get for wanting intelligent animals. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson from the dogs.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Scything: Pros and Cons

Having not quite yet recovered from this afternoon's mad dash to get up all the freshly cut hay before a renegade thunderstorm let loose its mighty soak force, this may not be the ideal time to rationally assess whether scything is a better option for haying than mechanized mowing. I'll plow ahead, regardless, since I had some time while scything this morning to ponder the matter.

Aside from the previously-mentioned benefit of saving on fossil fuels, one of my favorite after-the-fact benefits is exercise. Some people pay good money to go to a gym. I do farm work. Scything helps keep me in shape and, unlike gym exercise, doesn't bore me or make me painfully aware of, well, pain. The motivation of providing food that I don't have to buy next winter for the buffalo is all I need to get me out there even when May's weather masquerades as August's. 

Probably what I like best about it is the opportunity to observe nature while getting something done. Unlike the lawn tractor which requires too much attention on my part and makes too much noise to watch/ listen to the birds and the frogs, the scythe is nearly silent. I can hear the difference between a downy and a pileated woodpecker and when I hear one of our resident red-shouldered hawks, I can stop to watch it soar over head. Once I shared the field with a wild turkey. He seemed quite unruffled by my movements, since I advance mere inches at a time. 

Likewise, critters that don't want to interact with me or my blade, get ample warning that I'm approaching and can move out of the way. I do worry that a fast-moving mower might injure a box turtle or a frog or a snake. Admittedly, a snake surprised me last week when I was raking hay. Well, I surprised it as I brought my rake down right next to it or maybe on it. Normally, the rat snakes are good about moving out of the way but for some reason this one hung around even thought I'd been raking in the area for awhile. It struck at the rake and then coiled up in classic don't-tread-on-me position. I felt terrible for having scared it, but I don't think I did any physical damage to it. 

By walking through the field so slowly and at different stages of the growing season, I'm able to get a really good sense for the variety of grasses, weeds, and other vegetation that from a distance just looks like a big, uniform field of grass. I'm far from being able to identify everything, but I'm at least learning how much I still have to learn. Again, doing this by hand allows me to pick out any toxic weeds that might be harmful to the buffs if they got mixed in with the hay. And I see the effects of my mistakes like not cutting the grass at the end of last season--tons of thatch!

Finally, I can get into the field when it's too wet for a tractor, so in that sense, I can get a head start on cutting. And I don't have to run into town first to get gasoline for the engine because I didn't realize we were out. When I'm ready and the grass is ready, the scythe is ready.

Cons? Well the main one--and it's a doozey--is that it's really slow! While that's nice for nature watching, it's lousy when you've got very few dry days in the forecast and the grass is losing nutritional value after it reaches a certain point in its development. If I had another person scything with me, it would be much more feasible. We could probably do half the field in one morning. Of course, that would turn out to be the day with a rogue thunderstorm and we'd lose half the crop. Maybe only doing a couple of rows at a time isn't so bad.....

Physical strain--the downside of the exercise--is another con. Particularly when there are other demanding chores awaiting, it's best not to get wiped out too early in the day. And if I overdo and actually damage something, then I'm really in a bind for further haying and all my other duties. 

The upshot? I think for next year, I may consider getting a mower attachment for our walk-behind tractor so I can get the hay cut quickly when there is a good window of opportunity. I'll still rake it by hand and stack it loose. And I'll use the scythe in some smaller patches around the property where the tractor can't go, just to keep up my technique. Never know when I might have to use it instead of having the luxury of choosing whether or not to scythe.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Making Hay

Our hayfield is fairly small (c. 1.5 acres) and as it is located next to a large creek at the bottom of a hill, it stays quite moist. I decided last year to try to cut the hay with a scythe. Not that I'm a glutton for punishment, but I like the idea of being able to do our small bit of haying without machinery if necessary. Should gas be in short supply or prohibitively expensive, it's nice to know we can still harvest some winter meals for our buffalo. My scythe is a European-style scythe from the Scythe Supply Company in Maine. Its design is much more ergonomically friendly than the traditional American scythe, requiring less effort to get the job done. This particular scythe was custom-made to fit me (taking into account my height and the length of my arms) and has a right-handed blade. Were Jim to get one, he could get a lefty blade.
It takes a bit of practice to get the motion right, but once you get the swing of it, it's really not nearly as taxing as you might think. Mostly because swinging is not involved. You really glide the scythe across the ground and let the very sharp cutting edge do the work. Still, it does get tiring, particularly when working with very dense patches of grass. Fortunately, about the time I need a breather--roughly every 15 minutes--it's time to sharpen the blade with the whetstone conveniently holstered on my side. 30 seconds later I'm back at it.

I've worked up to doing about an hour's worth of scything at a time. If I could go for 8 hours, I could get the whole field done, but what fun would that be? On days when the grass is ready to cut and the weather promises to be dry for a day or so, I try to scythe early in the morning while the grass is still wet. I go about my other chores while the cut grass dries in the field. Depending on how wet it is, I may go back mid-day, rake in hand, and turn the cut grass over and spread it out a bit more to encourage rapid drying. If all goes well, late in the day, I can go back and start raking up the now dry hay before the evening dew sets in and gets it all wet again. All the hay is loaded into my trusty garden cart and hauled up to the old corn crib where it is loosely stacked. An hour's worth of scything translates into about 4 cart loads.

So, is it really worth doing this manually or should I just bite the bullet and buy a hay mowing attachment for our walk-behind tractor? Tune in for the next installment on scything versus mowing.

The Rest of the Garden

And now for the rest of the garden: Sugar snaps (above on a bamboo and twine trellis), mixed lettuce, chard,  fennel, kale, spinach, tomatoes (Early Girl and Amish Paste), red and yellow peppers, okra (for Jim), edamame, pumpkins, zucchini, yellow squash, and a bunch of herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon, basil, thai basil, and oregano). Not bad for a year in which I was planning to largely ignore the garden in favor of the buffalo. Maybe by next year I'll have the nerve to try cardoons and give the watermelon and cantaloupe another go.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

First Harvest

With the first of the garden veggies coming good this week (radishes, of course), it seems a good time to take a break from the critters and talk about what's in the garden this year. Since we were too busy last year with simply creating the raised beds made from rotting chestnut logs salvaged from an old pig barn, we didn't manage to get in any of my favorite perennials. So, this year I tried to make up for that omission by putting in rhubarb, asparagus, and jerusalem artichokes. We built one additional raised bed (three done last year--all roughly 12 feet by 4.5 feet) for the asparagus and tucked the rhubarb into one corner of an existing bed.

The jerusalem artichokes are the only plants that we put directly into the existing soil here. Not that we don't have lovely rich soil, mind you. We just happen to have crazy amounts of black walnut trees and the juglone they produce is toxic to many plants (especially fruits like tomatoes and blueberries). Fortunately, the ineptly named jerusalem artichoke is immune to juglone's effects. Although the name sunchoke better reflects this lovely plant's true nature as a member of the sunflower family, I grew up with the more exotic name and I can't shake it. We're anticipating a good show of its flowers later in the summer and a good harvest of its tasty tubers in the winter.

Monday, May 24, 2010

About Those Beasts

I got so involved in my discussion of package bees versus nucs in the last post that I failed to deliver on the beasts portion of Bees and Beasts. Bees have a way of capturing one's attention and not letting go. As for the beasts, this morning I finally introduced our dogs to the water buffalo and vice versa.

For days now, I've been walking the dogs just up to the point where the buffs can see us, then turning the dogs around before they can pinpoint the location of the smell of new beasts. Figuring the buffs were used to the routine enough that they'd know the dogs were associated with me, we went all the way up to the gate today. All 3 buffalo made a beeline for us. Effie, always the explorer, led the way and got her nose to the gate first.

True to their respective natures, Buddy was very quiet and tried her best to be invisible in hopes that we could resume our walk as soon as possible and with little contact with any other non-humans. Bru stuck his head through the gate as far as he could go and got nose to nose with Effie. All 3 buffs sniffed him and he sniffed back, albeit with far more excitement. As is his way, he got a bit overexcited and used all of his telescoping neck powers to lunge a bit further and in the process, bopped Effie on the nose. She immediately rebuffed him, pushing him back. He withdrew to his side of the gate, ever so slightly cowed but still quite interested in them.

All told, I think it was fairly successful. They clearly aren't scared of him, tho' I don't think he'll be their favorite critter, and seem to understand that they can put him in his place if need be. After I took the dogs back to their fenced-in yard, I was happy to see that Bru did not start immediately plotting his escape route. When he first met the horses, he made several unauthorized visits. Maybe the arthritis has finally slowed him down enough that he'll leave the buffalo be. We'll all be happier if that's the case.

Bees and Beasts

The rain finally let up for long enough this weekend for me to get in and check on my new bees. This is the first year that I've bought package bees. All my other colonies have started as nucs--basically mini hives where the queen and a few thousand bees are already on drawn-out comb with a small amount of brood, honey, and pollen. Just pop the frames into a hive body and add more for them to grow into. Easy. Since the queen is already laying eggs, the colony is working from day one. The disadvantage: more expensive than a package.

The package is basically a screened box with a few thousand bees just hanging out with some sugar water, but no comb. The queen is in her own cage with a few attendants and some fondant (soft candy made of sugar). The queen is new to most of the bees, so she's kept in the cage suspended among the rest of the bees to protect her until they get used to her scent and accept her as their queen. Installing a package is a bit tricker than a nuc. You have to get the queen cage out without letting it drop into the box or letting too many worker bees out, dump the rest of the bees into a hive, get the cork out of the candy end of the queen cage (not the other end or she'll walk out and/or fly away), suspend the queen cage between a couple of frames, put some sugar water in the hive to tide them over until they can forage enough nectar to sustain themselves, and close the hive up. After a week, you go back into the hive and see if the bees have chewed their way through the candy plug to release her. If they have and they have accepted her, she should be going about the business of laying eggs.

Lots can go wrong with a package, not least of which is the queen being killed by the colony if she gets out before they have accepted her. Sometimes, she simply gets stuck and isn't released by the bees. At that stage the beekeeper can dig out the candy and release her (trying to get her to into the hive and not fly away). Fortunately, when I checked yesterday, the queen had been released and the colony was humming happily. I'll check in another week to verify that she's laying eggs.

I still prefer nucs, but they were in short supply this year with so many people losing colonies to the harsh winter. Fortunately, one of the three hives that I thought had died has managed to pull through. It's not strong but there are signs of life. My biggest concern now is that we're having a repeat of last year's rainy spring which means the bees aren't able to get out and collect nectar during the tulip poplar bloom--the biggest nectar flow of the year for them. If the sourwood is absent again this year it will be another rough winter.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Reunion

Last weekend, Jim bonded with the buffs before heading off to Boston and LA. It was Effie who put her head on his leg and all week she refused my attention. The other two made me pay the love toll every time I walked through the pasture to bring them water or to go work on the barn, but she would have no part of it. At first I thought Effie was jealous of the other two or maybe she found their public displays of affection demeaning somehow. Was she the cat counterpart to the others' dog-like nature? Then it hit me. She'd been pining for Jim.

Sure enough, when they had their big reunion this morning, Effie pushed her way through the pack to get to Jim. All three of them followed him around and licked him as much as he could take. When it was my turn, even Effie had love for me. And when some hunter fired shots a little too close to home, she came running to me (I had spent some time with them the previous evening to make sure they were ok when the hunters were in the area). Perhaps she had blamed me for Jim's disappearance but apparently all is forgiven.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rain, Rain, Go Away?

It used to be that I hated rainy days. Now I have mixed feelings about them. Today, for example, steady rain started at dawn and has kept up all morning. Hate should be on the menu, especially since I cut hay yesterday and it's lying out in the field getting soaked. Not to mention today was to be the day I would check on whether the queen bee got released from her cage after last week's package installation. But then I went to see the water buffalo and they are loving life because of the rain--it keeps them cool and keeps down the bugs. And I didn't have to water the garden to keep all the newly planted seeds from drying out (not to mention the rain barrels are getting a much-needed refill after a big planting week). Having lived through several years of drought here, I definitely have an appreciation for rain. I guess it's the unexpected rain--the one that messes up my plans--that I still resent. Guess I'll just chill with the H2O buffs and try to accept the things I cannot control.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Buffalo Names

OK. After much deliberation, we have settled on names. We toyed with the idea of naming them after characters in The Sopranos, since Tony and Carmella would be great names for a breeding pair and we wouldn't think too hard about sending a bull calf named A.J. off to slaughter. The problem would be with naming the female calves. There just weren't many female characters in that show who weren't related to Tony.

So, we went with my first inclination which was to use selections from the treasure trove that is the names of my long-dead relatives. Introducing (from left to right) Eschol, Effie, and Audrey. Eschol is the sweet little bull, Effie seems to be the leader of the herd, and Audrey is our furry little love sponge. For some reason, Audrey has a lot more hair than the others, making her look gruff, but she's all about the love. This morning as I scratched her head, she rolled over on her side to get a belly rub. I was more than happy to oblige.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night....

The water buffalo arrived late Friday night (c. 10pm) just as a thunderstorm was wrapping up. Our brave ranchers managed to get the truck and trailer into our pasture despite the lack of light (no electricity out by the barns) and the challenging terrain. Having left Texarkana at 4am, the buffalo had endured a long trip (made longer by a tire blowout on the way) but they were in fine form when they walked off the truck. I would have been grumpy after all that, but they just calmly walked into the pen and started munching away on the grass. 

We let them out of the pen in the morning and they spent Saturday exploring their new home. They are quite curious and very agile, so the steep slopes, deep ditches, and assorted obstacles that make us unsteady on our feet are no problem for them. As we went about our business, they came over to check us out cautiously a couple of times. 

I left Jim to do some work on clearing out the big barn while I went to pick up some bees to replace ones that died this winter. When I returned a few hours later, I found that Jim had bonded with the buffs. Apparently, they came over to him and after he pet them awhile, they lay down. So, taking this as a good sign, he sat in the field with them for awhile--one of the cows even rested her head on his leg. (Pause for everyone to say "Awwwwwwww".)

Since then, we've spent a lot of time with them, petting and scratching them. They, in turn, lick us a lot and gently rub their heads against our legs. Yesterday we waited out a thunderstorm with them--they were very chill. We're fascinated by how much personality these gentle creatures have and are reminded of why we were so taken with them in the first place. We're completely smitten.

In the Beginning There Were Buffalo

Time to finally get this blog up and running. Bear with me (Alison) as I figure out how to make this pretty. We had long intended to write about the challenges of finding food that satisfies--no--thrills us both. Sharing food is a big part of our lives. We have great fun cooking at home and now with our farm, starting to raise more of our own food. We're fortunate to live near a great town for foodies of all stripes (Asheville, NC) but even here, we are sometimes surprised at the paucity of vegetarian options on some menus. Future blog posts will include hearty entreaties to all restaurateurs to forgo the token portobello whatever option.

For now, let's just get everyone up to speed on our biggest adventure yet: raising water buffalo! I fell in love with these wonderful creatures 4 years ago when we visited Fairburn Farm on Vancouver Island, BC. I'd never had much interest in anything bovine other than as a potential meal until I met the Archers' water buffalo. We walked out to the pasture one day to get a closer look and were awestruck by how intelligent and interactive the buffalo were. As they walked up to us, we realized they were acting more like dogs than any cow I'd ever seen. Thus began a lingering obsession. More about why buffs are the best later.