Thursday, October 2, 2014

Turnip Time

Sweet and tender roots are ready for autumn harvest.  For most of the growing season they are invisible, save for vines or leafy tops.  Now, before the frosts begin, we have the pleasure of reaching down, loosening the grip of the still warm and fragrant soil, and drawing out these hidden treasures.   

Dependable and durable, roots keep a long time after being harvested.  They can be stored and enjoyed well into the winter, giving flavor as well as substance to hearty cold weather soups and stews.  Staples in every kitchen, the familiar triumvirate of carrots, onions and potatoes are almost a stew in themselves.  And who doesn't love to have a bouquet of scarlet radishes waiting on the counter, ready to add some texture and just a little heat to salads?  Beets, earthy of flavor and glorious of color, have become quite trendy, enjoying a culinary renaissance just as kale did a few years back.  But the queen of all the roots, the beautiful and graceful turnip, is somehow sadly overlooked.

Heat tolerant and cold hardy, turnips are grown in nearly every climate.  Cultures on every continent include turnips in their cuisines. But here in the U.S. turnips are not a vegetable of choice.   Perhaps for a nation of immigrants it is the memory of hard times and limited diet back in the old country that has turned several generations of Americans away from the turnip.

In fact, during the early part of the 20th century turnips were grown quite extensively in North America.  But they were cultivated as a forage crop for livestock, as the root and the plant were recognized as excellent sources of nutrition.  Considered animal food, the turnip was too humble for the dinner table.   Eventually even the growing of turnips for animals faded since it is a crop that requires a lot of hand labor to harvest and store. 

The back field was planted as a forage crop before it became home to the chicken tractors. *

Turnips are unquestionably a valuable food for animals and humans.  They are packed with Vitamins A and B12, Potassium, Calcium, folates and Omega 3s.  But turnips offer the cook more than nutrition.  Turnips and their larger relative, the rutabaga, are roots of great versatility.  Try turnips raw, sliced very thin or julienned for dipping or in salads. Their flavor is peppery, but a bit milder than most radishes.  And dispense with the hassle of peeling, unless a turnip is very large, the tender skin just needs a quick scrub. 

Tiny turnips, plum size or smaller, can be cooked up whole, tops and all.  The green tops, like spinach, mustard, and other greens are a high nutrition food. Boil bite size chunks of larger turnips until fork tender and serve simply with butter, salt and pepper.  You can go a step further and mash them.   Boiled mashed turnips and potatoes is the classic Scottish 'neeps and tatties.'  Or puree them smooth to create a great soup base.  

Roasted or oven baked turnip slices offer amazing caramelized sweetness, and turnips liven up a medley of sauteed autumn roots.  Raw turnip slices bathed in a vinegar and sugar brine become a crisp pickled compliment to rich, savory stews.  Turnip gratin, turnip risotto, turnips braised with apples and onions, turnips in curry, and borscht, and slaw, turnips turn up in recipes from round the globe.  

Is it not time to celebrate the turnip: the beautiful turnip, pure white or golden, sometimes with shoulders purpled by the sun; the graceful turnip, whose form is found in Byzantine domes as well as spinning tops; the steadfast turnip waiting to be rediscovered and invited to the feast?

* See  4/14/14 post about chicken tractors.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Chickens in the Woods

The little chicken house in the woods has been empty for a while.  Though two older hens do occasionally wander up there, trying to escape the hustle and bustle down around the chicken wagon, the little coop has not really been in use since last spring.  It is the perfect spot to raise just a few birds at a time, so in August we set the space up as a mini brooder.  It is now home to sixteen lively young poults.  They arrived as day old chicks last month, and by winter they will be ready to leave the house in the woods and join the big girls in the chicken wagon.
Our flock of laying hens, we realize, is beginning to age, slow down a bit.  The most productive years of an egg bird are from about age one to age four, when some hens can lay an egg almost every day.  Some of our birds are now almost four. Though chickens typically live 12 or more years and do continue to lay throughout their lives, the number of eggs decreases as they age.  We expect our AARP candidates will continue to contribute, but we have to anticipate that it will be at a more leisurely rate.  If we hope to maintain our current egg production, we will need to regularly add new young hens to the flock.
At Green Gate Farm we like to keep a mixed flock with birds of varied ages, breeds, and characteristics.  The most reliably productive layers are the red sex-links, cross-bred chickens that mature quickly and pack their whole reproductive life into their first three or four years.  The unglamorous name for this kind of chicken refers to the strikingly different appearance of male and female chicks, a sexually linked trait which makes almost foolproof the selection of newly hatched female chicks to raise for egg production.  The eggs of our sex-links are standard brown, medium to medium large in size, and the birds themselves are a rather unassuming dusty red.  They may be Plain Janes, but these ladies are certainly champion egg layers.   

The beautiful old style and heritage breed birds in our flock contribute other valuable traits.  These are breeds which tend to live longer and to be consistently productive longer.  We especially look for breeds known to be effective foragers and birds that are able to adapt to extremes of weather.  And we want birds that lay distinctive, beautiful eggs!

The large creamy or peachy brown eggs in your Green Gate Farm dozen are from the Buff Orpingtons, a breed that originated in Britain in the 1800s.  The sky blue or greenish blue eggs are laid by Americaunas, a relatively new breed, but developed from a very old South America variety famous for its exotic blue eggs. By next spring you should also be seeing some eggs that are a lustrous terra cotta or a dark chocolate brown.  These will be from the two new breeds we’ve added: the Marans, an old French breed, and the Welsummer, which originated in the Netherlands.

Here are the chicks on the day we picked them up from Whitmore Farm, a nearby small farm which specializes in heritage breed livestock. 

 And here they are a month later on their first excursion outside in their run.

Though you can only see chicken wire in the photo, the little chicken house in the woods is a fortress. Netted to protect from aerial invaders and surrounded by bulwarks of gravel and earth, it is a safe home for vulnerable little birds.  Once these young ones move in with the main flock, the little house will be empty again, but only for a while.  We're already planning for next spring's occupants, a new generation of chickens in the woods.

For more information about heritage breed chickens, here are some interesting links:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Keeping Pigs in the Loop

Nothing leaves the farm.  That was one of Pap’s maxims.  Pap, the father, grandfather and mentor to a new generation of farmers, worked his family’s farm here in Jefferson County from the 1930's until the present decade.  He was a dairyman, maintaining a herd of prize-winning Jerseys, so of course milk left the farm, but not much else.  Pap's words meant nothing leaves the farm if it can be put to use.  The cow manure stayed to fertilize the hay fields, the hay stayed to feed the livestock.  Anything that could be composted was.  Anything that could be reused went into the shed until it was needed.  It was a closed loop system, just as it had been in his own grandfather’s time.

Here at Green Gate Farm we strive for a closed loop sustainable system.  Like the traditional farms of a century ago, our aim is to raise different kinds of livestock and a variety of crops.  The resulting diversity of products we can grow provides some insurance that if there is a problem in one area, there are other areas that are still productive. 

These various uses of the farm’s land – some for gardens, some for pasturing chickens, some for pasturing pigs, some for hay, and some just resting –  are key to maintaining the health and vitality of the soil itself.   The soil benefits from the activity of animals on pasture.  The shallow scratching of chickens searching for insects and the deeper rooting of pigs help open the soil.  Closing the loop, the manure the pastured animals deposit each day puts back into the field many of the nutrients which had been consumed. (See link below to January 2014  posting on manure.)


This year we’ve put a lot of energy, both creative and physical, into having more pigs in ‘the loop.’
Thus far, the pigs we’ve raised at Green Gate Farm have fallen into every category – purebred, purebred heritage breed, and crossbred.  A couple came to us half grown and were ‘finished’ here on pasture.  The rest have arrived as weanlings or shoats and have been entirely pasture raised.  Each of them taught us a little more about what kind of pig works best on our pastures.  

The attributes we are looking for in pigs are most pronounced in the older heritage breeds.  Some breeds, like the Poland China and Red Wattle, are well suited to living outdoors all year.  Some, like the Tamworth and Ossabaw Island, are eager and effective foragers.  We particularly like the Gloucestershire Old Spot, a very handsome old English pig which combines all these traits.  And the Old Spot is an even-tempered pig, quite comfortable with a lot of human interaction.   

Intern Maria and friend

The biggest part of incorporating more pigs into the loop is to begin a breeding program, and we want a Gloucestershire Old Spot to be the cornerstone of that enterprise.  Breeding the animals here means we would be able supply our own young pigs to raise, and we would be helping to preserve the genetics of a breed which is on the 'critical' list of endangered heritage livestock breeds.

Gregor at three weeks

So Lars tracked down a fine young weanling boar and named him Gregor, for Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. This little guy will grow to 500 or 600 pounds and will become, it is to be hoped, the founder of a porcine dynasty here at Green Gate Farm.  It will be a while before Gregor's progeny are the pigs you'll find in our pastures, but those future pigs, born here and raised here, will carry forward the great genes of a heritage breed, and will help Green Gate Farm keep closing up that sustainable loop.                

For information on heritage livestock breeds visit:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Natural Predators in the Garden

An Army of Scarlet Ladies

In the beginning of summer, when the chard, beet tops and other tender greens were just reaching their peak, tiny destructive invaders began to appear in the gardens.  Sap-sucking aphids, flea beetles and leaf hoppers, though barely visible, can cause major damage almost overnight. These insidious little munchers are a fact of life in our no spray world here at Green Gate Farm. Though the gardens are home to many beneficial insects that make a living consuming those critters that damage fruit and vegetable crops, it seemed that reinforcements were needed.  Call in the scarlet ladies!

Live ladybugs (or ladybird beetles) can be ordered over the internet by the pint. So within 48 hours about 9,000 thousand beetles arrived.  Ladybugs travel in a quiescent state and must be maintained at a temperature just above freezing until they are released. Ladybug farmers recommend putting them in the fridge for several hours to calm them, then releasing them in the evening. The cold and quiet of the refrigerator apparently calms the little ladies after the
turmoil of their trip.  Releasing our ladybugs at dusk gave them a chance to settle into their new habitat during the night. They especially appreciated the moisture from dew falling in the evening garden, since ladybugs, like most travelers, can suffer some dehydration. In the morning, refreshed and rested, the ladies began the job they were brought in to do.  

Each beetle can hunt down and consume as many as 80 aphids a day. Multiply that times 9,000 and you can see how effective this natural predator can be. Once established with a steady food supply, our army of ladybugs began to mate and lay eggs. Their offspring, when in larval form, are themselves fearsome predators, consuming insect eggs as well as aphids and other soft-bodied insects. Over the course of this growing season, five or more generations of voracious scarlet ladies will be patrolling the Green Gate Farm gardens working to keep your produce safe!     

Leslie monitoring the ladybugs patrolling the chard .

Monday, June 2, 2014

Solar Systems

The last evening of May is filled with fireflies.  Rising out of the pasture and the garden just at dusk, they begin their ritual intermittent flashing.   The males flash as they fly about, while the females, which stay close to the ground, light up briefly to signal their availability.  A wonderful variation on this spontaneity occurs among firefly species in the Great Smoky Mountains.  These insects tend to synchronize their flashes, all simultaneously flashing on and off, sometimes in great pulsating waves through the dark treetops.  So sitting on the front porch, watching the firefly courtship display, I thought I might have spotted another variation in the firefly repertoire.  There seemed to be an occasional reddish flash among the fireflies lighting up over the front garden.  And it had a steady pulse, showing up through the pea vines and fronds of asparagus, blinking almost like a light on an appliance.  Which of course is exactly what it was, the blinking light of an appliance you can find here and there all around Green Gate Farm . . . a solar charger.
These chargers are a convenient way for farmers to supply current to electric fencing far from any other power source, and electric fences are essential to keep livestock in and vegetable munching deer out.  The photovoltaic cells in solar chargers convert sunlight into the electricity needed to operate the fence.  The red light I saw was from the charger for the area occupied by the youngest pigs, two Red Wattle crosses. They’ve spent the past six weeks ‘rototilling’ an area that will be planted later in the year. (See January 21, 2014 post on Manure for more on how pigs help us in the garden.)  

Pig areas all over the farm are fenced with a plastic and wire tape about one inch wide.  Lars sets the special flexible posts all around the perimeter and then affixes the tape at pig nose level setting another strand or two above that.  It takes only moments to train the pigs to recognize and honor the taped boundary. Forever after they will recognize that tape and assume that as long as they stay within it they will be comfortable and safe.    
       Lars setting the fence. Pigs being pigs. Charger on post to right.              Chicken wagon with charger on the left. Ladies scoping out escape routes.

The beauty of the solar chargers and flexible fencing systems is that the livestock can be moved regularly to new pasture.  This is especially true for the laying hens, who need to be moved often, so the chicken wagon is equipped with a solar charger too.  The fencing used here, woven plastic and wire, is about 3 feet high and encloses an area of about 500 square feet of lovely pasture.  Some of the ladies, though, seem to be expert escape artists, flapping over or slipping under the fence, just to prove they can.  But they always manage to slip back in when it is feeding time or when the setting sun signals it is time to go inside to roost for the night. These days that is just about the time the fireflies appear. Then the pasture shimmers with hundreds of tiny flashes of light and a single little red one standing guard in the twilight.

 Link to those synchronized fireflies:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rhubarb - Eternal Happiness

You’ve seen them in the market, the long rosy-hued stalks of rhubarb. They are so fresh and appealing, but a bit unfamiliar, a bit old-fashioned.  They look like something that requires a lot of work and complicated recipes to make edible.

A perennial vegetable, rhubarb has stalks that look like celery but with large, crinkly, spinach-like leaves.  And like spinach those leaves contain oxalic acid, so much oxalic acid that the leaves are considered highly toxic and should never, ever be eaten.  The crisp and juicy stalks, however, in lovely shades of green, pink, or ruby red, are a tangy treat when eaten raw or cooked. 

Because it grows to be a fairly large plant that will come back year after year, rhubarb needs plenty of space where it can grow undisturbed for the several years it needs to become established. At Green Gate Farm we planted our rhubarb in the deep but narrow areas of soil between strips of outcropping limestone.  It has been growing happily in the well composted ground for three years, and this year, at last, we can begin to harvest and enjoy it. 

The flavor of rhubarb is a bit elusive, sometimes described as berrylike, but earthier.   Really, it is completely unique. If you like tart and crunchy fruit, try the stalks raw, dipped in brown sugar.  For rhubarb compote, crisp, or pie, cook up a batch sweetened with a bit of sugar or honey. It will be more than a sweet treat, for rhubarb boasts sweet nutritional benefits.  From just one cup of diced rhubarb you can get 10% of your daily requirement for potassium, 8% of dietary fiber, 10% calcium, and 16% for both Vitamin K and Vitamin C.  In Great Britain, during the lean years of World War II, the growing of nutritious rhubarb was strongly encouraged, and the government actually controlled rhubarb prices to keep them low enough for all citizens to have access to it as a reliable local source of Vitamin C.

Though the stalks can be harvested all throughout the growing season, it is in May and June, when strawberries (rhubarb’s favorite desert companion) are in season, that rhubarb appears at the markets in abundance. So let yourself be tempted and take home a pound or two.  After 10 minutes of prep and 15  minutes of cooking, you'll be on your way to rhubarb heaven! 

Preparing rhubarb:
Harvesting rhubarb is as simple as grasping a stalk as low as possible and giving a twist to release it.
It is recommended that several stalks be left untouched on each plant.  This way the plant can continue growing and photosynthesizing enough to nourish the plant for next year’s growth.

Cut off the poisonous leaves and store the stalks in the fridge until you are ready to use them. If you can’t get to it right away, rhubarb is easily frozen.  Trim the root end a bit, then wash and dry the stalks, stripping off any loose stringy fibers.  Cut the stalks into one or two inch sections and pack these into freezer bags or boxes.  That’s it!

Cooking rhubarb is almost as simple. Either stew freshly cut, trimmed, and washed rhubarb with a bit of sugar until it is soft (about 8 to 10 minutes), or roast it with sugar in a foil covered baking dish at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.  For either method we use about ½ cup of sugar for a pound of rhubarb, which is about 3 to 4 cups. 

Rhubarb is complemented by so many things - strawberries, of course, but you can combine it with or apples, or orange zest, or with ginger as the British do.  Once you start riffing on rhubarb, in pies, cakes, trifles, and tarts, sauces, smoothies or cocktails, you'll be singing the old Monty Python tune - read all the existential philosophers, like Schopenhauer and Jean-Paul Sartre, even Martin Heidegger agreed on one thing - eternal happiness is rhubarb tart!


Great rhubarb links: 

Images thanks to wikimedia commons.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Season of the Ramp

If you’re not having ramps for supper tonight, you’re probably not in West Virginia!

Here between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies late April and early May is the season for ramps.  This simple twin leaved member of the onion family creates a big stir this time of year.  Called wild garlic or wild leeks, Allium Tricoccum is an Appalachian delicacy.  Its garlicky odor is famously pungent, but its bright spring flavors are prized.  Cooked, the little bulbs taste sweet and oniony, while the leaves are like scallions or chives.

Like a fisherman who doesn’t care to share his favorite trout pool, or a morel hunter who keeps secret that special spot under the oaks, anyone who discovers a colony of ramps holds that knowledge very close, divulging the precise location to only a trusted few. 

Ramps require a very particular habitat, the moist rich soils of the Appalachian hardwood forests.  From Georgia all the way up through Maine, ramps can be found, usually at altitudes of at least 3,000 feet, though in colder climates it can be lower.  Where the environment is just right, ramps thrive and can spread into substantial colonies.

The trick with ramps is that the best environments tend to be the least accessible.  And the growing season is a brief four or five weeks.   So foraging for ramps requires dedication and timing.  Collecting ramps in the wild also calls for moderation.  Conservation groups urge foragers to take only 5 to 10 percent of the ramps in a colony.  The best rule of thumb may be to harvest only the largest ramps in a clump, since for the colony to remain vigorous most of the plants should be allowed to mature and go to seed.

For most of us, enjoying the culinary delights of ramps requires foraging at a local farmer’s market or seeking out one of the many regional ramps festivals.  But don’t delay, the season of the ramp is here!

More about ramps:

West Virginia Ramp Feasts and festivals: