Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Making Mushrooms and Tempeh

Now for a post with some pictures! Back in March, Jim and I attended the Organic Growers School. This annual event in Asheville offers a mind-boggling array of classes on topics related to organic gardening, farming, and sustainable living.  Over the years, we've learned about rotational grazing, myco-remediation, growing berries, heirloom apples, raising chickens, making goat cheese, using draft horses, building with stacked stones, and so much more. There are always more classes of interest than we have time to attend. This year, we decided to go for quality over quantity and attend a couple of hands-on workshops instead of the shorter classroom sessions. Jim chose one on making tempeh while I went off to learn how to cultivate oyster mushrooms. We both came home with great goodies.

In addition to getting to snack on tempeh during his session with the lovely folks from Smiling Hara Tempeh, he brought home some tempeh of his own making. Well, I should say, in process of being made. I can't do justice to the steps involved since I was elsewhere at the time but I think I understand the procedure in gross terms. They started the process in the classroom by preparing the soybeans (the traditional but far from only legume that can be used), cooking the beans, inoculating them with the starter culture, and putting the mixture into a mold (in this case, a ziplock bag).

Then, he brought it home and had to keep it at a constant temperature--warmer than room temperature but not too warm--so we popped it in the food dehydrator at the lowest setting.

It was supposed to go for 24-48 hours but fortunately, the mycelium spread quickly so when the dehydrator timer turned off early, it didn't screw up everything. We had a lovely brick of tempeh that looks just like the stuff we buy from our local tempeh producers, Smiling Hara and Viable Cultures.

That may not look too appetizing, if you're not already a tempeh fan, but as one who has not yet been won over (thanks to not being short on protein options unlike Jim), I must confess that it was quite tasty when he cooked it up.  As with so many things, freshness makes all the difference.

If he ever gets to spend a bit more time at home, I think we'll see him experimenting with making tempeh from black beans and other legumes.

I, too, got to play with mycelium--the white stuff you see all over the tempeh at the end of the process and what is underlying most of the mushrooms you see. Mushrooms are to mycelium as apples are to the tree--they're just the fruit that the organism puts out to spread its seeds/spores.

In my workshop, we learned how to prepare a happy environment for oyster mushroom spawn (small amounts of mycelium). There are many ways to do this but for convenience, we used a method where you sterilize a bunch of straw and when it's cooled a bit, mix in the spawn. That mixture is then packed into a plastic bag and you add some air holes so the mycelium can breathe.

Like Jim's tempeh, my oyster mushroom spawn needed a nice, warm but not too warm place to hang out. Since it needed to be in the dark and be undisturbed for a few weeks, we chose a little-used closet. The idea was that as soon as I started seeing pins--the tiny beginnings of mushrooms--I needed to move it into the light. Oysters love light once the mycelium has had a chance to grow by chowing down on some of the straw. Sadly, we kept having cold snaps and the mushrooms just didn't want to come out and play. Until we went on vacation. Sure enough, the pins emerged while we were away. By the time we got back, only a few hardy shrooms developed in the dark room despite many, many pins.

I hung the bag on the shower rod near a window in the guest bathroom and misted the bag each day as instructed in hopes that it might fruit again. A couple of weeks and much warm weather later, new pins emerged.

Within days, many more came out and this time, we got gorgeous mushrooms.

Having missed the last fruiting, we made the most of this one. I dug out a recipe I'd been saving for the occasion: Asparagus and Oyster Mushroom Gratins with Spinach Chiffonade (recipe can be found at Vegetarian Times).

We're hoping that we get at least one more fruiting before the contents of the plastic bag become compost but it's starting to heat up like August this week and that may be too much for our mycelium. Fortunately, I'm getting good at finding oyster mushrooms in the wild. While they're not as elegant-looking at the cultivated ones, they have the distinct advantage of being large. More on my foraging adventures in another post. Some day. Who knows when? Not I.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Little Bee Told Me

With so much going on lately, I've been remiss in keeping you up on how the bees are doing.  A story on NPR this morning on Why Honeybees Are Better Politicians than Humans reminded me. Do listen to/read the story if you haven't already. It features an interview with Thomas Seeley, author of the very intriguing book, Honeybee Democracy.

The good news is that my one hive from last year survived the winter. I didn't have high hopes for it given that we had another really bad winter with many lengthy cold snaps of single-digit weather. Still, I had deliberately avoided taking any honey from the hive last year to make sure that they would have plenty to get through the winter. They didn't have a lot anyway late in the summer but a spectacular abundance of late-blooming aster in the autumn allowed them to collect a crazy amount of nectar for that time of year (aster is great for bees but doesn't make nice honey for people, in case you're wondering why you don't see that alongside the clover, wildflower, and orange-blossom honey in the store).

Lots of honey and pollen (the carbs and protein, respectively, of the bee diet) are no guarantee of winter success as the previous year showed. Two of the three hives that year starved despite having food. They were so cold, the bees couldn't move from their cluster to get to the food and those that tried, died, leaving even fewer bees to keep the cluster warm. Eventually, the cluster got too small and froze in place. So depressing to find a frozen cluster in the spring with ample honey nearby. So, this past winter, I put lots of straw bales around my hive to serve as a windbreak and offer the bees a bit of assistance in staying warm.

I had my first indication that it was working on one unusually warm December day. I thought it was just in the 40s but I looked up from my computer and saw one of my honeybees at the window. That's a sure sign that the temperature is above 50 degrees. I raced outside and discovered that not only was it too lovely a day to stay inside but at least some of the bees were still alive. Several of them came to check me out as I went on my rounds that day. It's not unusual for them to come find me during the winter if I'm outside and it's warm enough for them to be out. I usually assume they're looking for food. I put out a little sugar water for them and watched a few of the bees check it out but at the end of the day it was mostly still there. I took that as a sign that they had plenty of honey in the hive and didn't need my charity. Still lots of winter to get through at that point but get through it they did.

By the time late winter warmed up enough to check up on the hive, it was clear that they had survived. It wasn't the strongest colony but they still had enough honey left and the foragers were finding pollen long before I could see anything blooming.

I have since added one new colony (I bought a nuc from a local apiary), so I have a bit more flexibility. If one colony is weak, I can combine it with the other into one hive. It's also easier to gauge the health of a colony when I have another for comparison. The tulip poplar trees have just finished blooming and so the biggest nectar flow of the year has come to an end. I hope to be able to peek into both hives later this week and see how much the girls were able to sock away.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Building a Stanchion

Wow! Remind me never to blog about blogging. It must be some kind of jinx. I go and blab about how I've managed to blog regularly for nearly a year and then nothing for a month. In my defense, it is a really busy time of year. The prosecution, however, would like to point out that there have been enough rainy days in the past month to counter any claims that springtime farm projects have taken all of my time. Yeah, but most of the rain came with intense thunderstorms and I unplugged during those surge-inducing events. Oh, all right. I confess. I just didn't get around to it.

With the next few posts, I'll try to catch you up on what's been going on around here. Our big project right now is trying to build a stanchion. We need something that can help restrain the water buffalo while we do veterinary work on them. They are due for shots and toe trimming and one of these days, the girls might just need a pregnancy check. The latter involves a plastic glove that goes up to the vet's shoulder. Got the picture? While the buffs might be chill with any or all of the procedures, we don't want to take a chance the first time out. Plus, having a place where I can keep a buffalo in one place without her wandering off should come in handy when it's milking time.

A larger cattle or buffalo operation would probably have a squeeze chute for restraint but that's way too expensive and unwieldy for our little farmstead. So, we decided to build a milking stall with a headgate using a modified version of something we saw on the Keeping a Family Cow website. Jim worked up plans sized to fit our growing buffs and taking into consideration their agility and craftiness.

Behind the girls in the photo above is the lower barn. That's where we're building the stanchion. It is nicely set up for a straight shot from the main pasture on one side to the fish pond on the other. We sunk posts in concrete in the middle of the dirt floor and built a low deck supported by three 4x6s.

Next, we added some side rails:

In the photo above, you may see a bunch of corral panels leaning up against the wall. Those will form the corridor running between the doors and the stanchion.

Since I last took photos, we have erected the corridor, built (but not yet attached) the headgate, and introduced the buffs to the setup. Fortunately, the buffs showed no fear or hesitation about going through. Unfortunately, the buffs immediately zeroed in on all of the weaknesses. Eschol immediately put his horns to use, lifting the corral panels off of their hinges and Effie discovered that she could duck under the side rails. So, the to-do list got longer.

We were hoping to avoid putting lower rails on as they will get in the way of milking and trimming toes but I think I've figured out a way to install 2x4s that can be slid out of the way after the buff is restrained in the headgate. We've also installed pivoting blocks that keep the corral panels from being lifted by the buffs but can be turned for easy access when we need to move a panel aside. We are using strap and pin hinges for the swinging headgate. The pins are in and we just need to attach the straps to the headgate, then we should be ready to hang it and give the buffs another shot at testing our work.

The last step, I hope, will be to check the fit of the headgate on each buff to determine where the locking mechanism needs to be installed to ensure a snug but not uncomfortable fit. Sounds straightforward enough, but if you don't see any more posts from me, you'll know it has all gone horribly wrong.