The Starter Farm

What did I do wrong?

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The cherry tree did not fruit this year.  The tomatoes plants in the new garden are yellow.  Why does the basil look like Swiss cheese?  How come the apple trees look like they are being burned by a blowtorch?  The small frustrations pile up to the point where irrational thoughts of a yard less condo begin to feel romantic.          

     I read a lot.  Every piece of literature I can get my hands on about farming I’m on it.   Pruning secrets, when to plant, fertilize, weed, mulch, etc. you name it I read it.  And still problems happen.

    When I was a young boy, the only cherries I liked were the sweet ones in a can you put on top of cheesecake.  (Didn’t all cherries come like that?) We did not have fresh cherries and I’m not sure why.  When we bought the farm it came with an established cherry tree that introduced me to the love of fresh cherries.  I looked forward to that season, netting the tree, fertilizing the tree and even talking to it.  This year the leaves emerged, the flowers bloomed and then nothing.  What?  I don’t get it.  I did everything right.  I babied that tree, I nurtured that tree, I loved that tree and this is how that tree re-paid me?

            I’ve learned that even though you follow the rules, stuff happens.  The tomato plants that I mentioned earlier-turns out the nitrogen for the plants in that soil was being stolen by the soil.  Unchecked earwigs in the middle of the night were consuming the basil and thus giving it that Swiss cheese look.  I’ve discovered that fire blight, a fungal disease, was sweeping through my apple orchard.  As far as the cherry tree I’m not sure.  One theory was the bees were on strike the day the cherry needed pollination but I know they visited every other flower in a 10-foot radius all week.   Our yard is always filled with bees. Who knew bees were unionized?

            I wrote my brother tonight about the problems I was having with my new beds.  He was of course supportive but I know secretly his thoughts were of the advantage he would have to produce the first red tomato in the family.  I was frustrated with the dismal performance of my crops.  My frustration lies in my inability to figure out the problem that I was having with their success.  I thought I was following the book, dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s but I did not realize that there are many variables to having a successful crop.  Just because something worked last year does not mean that it will work this season.

            The reality in all this is experience.  I imagine that seasoned farmers can spot this stuff in seconds.  They know the signs of what is happening and how to fix the issues before they ruin the crop.  I’m new and yes I’m reading, but the truth is I think I have to weather the storm, actually experience what other farmers have felt and go through it.  Will I be wiser in 5 or 10 years?  I hope so but I’m sure that there will still exist issues that I have yet to figure out and of course, bee unions keep happy.

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Family Heirloom

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I still remember sitting with my legs barely touching the floor at the kitchen counter waiting for my mom to slice up that beautiful red orb.  I’m not sure how I fell in love but tomatoes seemed to be ingrained into our Italian Polish background.  Every year the largest portion of our garden was allotted to tomatoes.  I know heirlooms are all the rage now but we grew good old-fashioned Jersey tomatoes.  I think we had Early Girls, definitely Beef masters, Plum and regular Cherry tomatoes, nothing fancy but full of strong tomato flavor.  Everyday I would check the garden for that telltale sign of blush that the tomatoes were about to pop. 

The first tomatoes were treasured and they deserved the purest preparation.  With the family gathered around, these gems were simply sliced, sprinkled with salt and pepper and savored.  I would sit there in amazement thinking that this food we were eating started from a tiny seed and now delivered the most delicious taste I could imagine.  I sliced my first one of the season tonight alone but in my mind, my whole family was with me sharing the first taste of summer.

As the tomatoes trickle and then flood in, we eat them in all different ways.  My favorite is how my mom loves them.  She gets two slices of white bread, slathers them with mayo, piles them with sliced tomatoes and just adds salt and pepper to make the simplest sandwich; Divine.  I like to add a slice of white American cheese and call it a day.  I have told anyone that will listen that if I am ever on death row this will be my last meal of choice.  I know in the South they fry them green but Mom always fried the red ones.  All three of her boys would wait patiently by the stove waiting for them to come off the pan.  We do Caprese salads (of course you have to grow basil with tomatoes), tomato bread salads, oven roasted tomatoes, and yes ultimately we do tons of gravy.  Italians from New Jersey call it gravy; some uninformed people call it sauce. 

My Italian grandmother was the master.  She taught my brothers and me how to cook, make gravy, meatballs, homemades (pasta) and everything in between.  We absorbed it like sponges.  My grandfather had the green thumb.  He showed us how to work the soil, feed the plants, and harvest the rewards.  He was organic before it was a thing.  I still remember kitchen scrapes being returned to the soil to add nutrients for growing plants.  We were so lucky to have them as teachers.

Unfortunately, the green thumb skipped my Dad but for reasons unknown I was drawn to growing/farming immediately.  My brothers followed just a few years behind and now it is part of our everyday life.  As I sit here writing this I realize how much something as simple as growing a tomato connects me with my heritage, my ancestors and my present family.

As the tomato season would draw to a close and as frost would threaten, my grandmother would still continue the tomato love affair that would last all winter long with pickling the last green tomatoes that would not reach their maturity.  She would “put up” (can) red tomatoes to break open during the cold of winter reminding us of summer’s bounty and what we could look forward to in the next wonderful season.

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Alone time

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We entertain at the farm a lot.  When I am asked if people visit, I joke that we have about a 90% occupancy rate.  But when I am alone on the farm I can really concentrate on getting things done.  I usually spend some of these days without saying a word enjoying the silence and sounds of the farm.  I wake up; make a list in my head of the chores ahead and what my next meal will be. 

            Maybe I’ll shell some Fava beans, sautéed them in a little butter add a touch of cumin and shallots and call it a meal.  Those pea tendrils would love a dance around the pan with slivered garlic and a splash of white truffle oil.  I think I saw a few beets ready that I might roast tonight and add to the local goat cheese I have saved in the fridge.  I’m patiently waiting for the first tomatoes, my favorite dinner companion.  I could eat them like an apple and most days do.

            I find myself most creative alone in my travels around the farm.  A pond for ducks would look good over there and I could finally grow some water lilies and lotus.  Now where should I put that row of blueberries where it would look visually cool as well?  I dream about filling the back pasture with sheep but know I am not ready for that yet.  I start with one job and the day leads me to others.  Picking a single weed in another area of the yard other than where you started can turn into a whole other project.  I race against the daylight hoping I can finish before the light fails.   

            I find it funny how the day is usually framed by animal chores.  In the morning, the chickens are up at the crack of dawn waiting for you to open the door to the outside.  Don’t be late for you will get an earful.  You get the stare down from the horses with their mental telepathy commanding you to bring hay.  And don’t get me started on the goats.  A hungry goat is not a silent goat.   Once everyone is fed, there are stalls to be mucked, fresh bedding to be laid and water to be changed.  That cup of coffee I bring to the barn gets cold every time but still I return multiple times for a swig hoping to catch the last of its heat.  With morning animal chores over the rest of the day can begin. I grab an egg from the barn and pair it with a slice of bacon for a good breakfast.  I spend the next couple of hours tending to the crops before the sun gets too hot.  Mid days are usually spent running errands and eating a good lunch in or out.  As the sun cools it’s back out to the yard.

             Evening chores are a little easier with a light feeding and locking up of the animals for the night.  I’m still amazed how the chickens put themselves up for bed.  When we are finished, if I’m lucky, Mary Ann will have a bottle of rose chilling in a feed bucket and the crew can watch the sun set in the distance; the perfect end to a full day on the farm.  And then there’s dinner…

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Rat in the Barn

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It was the wisp of a tail that gave him away.  He thought he was creeping oh so quietly out of the chicken coop.  At first I thought the light was playing tricks on me as I shut in the chickens for the evening but my fears were confirmed as he disappeared into the night.  What was he searching for?  All the grain was sealed tight with just the daily feed in the chicken bowl available.  And the cat, my thoughts immediately went to that lazy well-fed cat!  His job was pest control in the barn and I now realized that his meows for food would attract less of my concern.  We run a clean barn.  Clean barn equals good animal health and minimal pests but this guy had slipped through the cracks and now was the target of my obsession.            

Many people put out rat poison and that solves their problem.  We are running a somewhat organic barn so another method is needed.   Boozer the cat is supposed to be our solution and we would have to motivate him, i.e. buddy, time to hunt for your dinner because Meow Mix is off the menu for a while.  Trapping is another great “organic” way to get rid of these unwanted friends.  Some people use the “Have a Heart” trap that catches them live and then you release them elsewhere like your neighbors’ yard or an “empty” field.  I can only imagine getting caught doing this and the ire I would receive.  Knowing the fact that my neighbors own guns keeps me from this option.

This leaves me with the cat option, (motivation) and the snap trap method that sends them to rat heaven a little earlier than they expected.  I know the animal people are cringing right now but a rat can cause some damage.  They can threaten the health of farm animals by infecting feed, bringing in fleas and parasites and transmitting general disease to the barn.  Plus they are ugly.  Yes they are ugly.

Did I mention that they multiply rather quickly?  If not taken care of, you can have a barn full of rats in no time and they will decide that your house across from the barn would make a great second home for rat vacation. And then the kid rats will decide they no longer want to live with their parents, make your house a full time residence and decide to play basketball in the attic at 3am in the morning.  Yes, I speak from experience and it is not pretty.

It’s a good general idea to act quickly before you need to call in the professionals.  I will deal with this new visitor to the barn and send him on his way.  I’ve tried the “ask nicely to leave” approach and it just doesn’t work.  Also if that cat doesn’t get to work soon he may find his butt on someone else’s doorstep as well.

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Chicken Run

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The frantic voice on the other line of the phone forced me to drop my fork.  “You need to be here tomorrow. They get dropped off at 8am, they get put out on the floor at 9am and you need to be here then because they go quick.”  Game on. 

            I had been waiting for this phone call for 4 months.  I was not about to drop the ball but I did hesitate for a minute.  “So, I need to pick something up at the garden nursery that is just past your store and I could stop at your place first but did not want them to sit in the car too long, so do you think it is OK if I do that first?” I replied. They told me I was taking my chances but it should be fine.

            As I was checking out at the nursery at 9:15am the next call came.  “Where are you?  You need to be here now!  They are only two left!”  What?  I thought I had time?  Theses suckers were really in more demand than I realized. I raced to my car and sped through the 45mph zone that everyone warns me not to due to a speed trap.  I did not care.  I needed them. 

            I did not know my pick up truck could peel out.  At my destination, I jumped out of the truck, (Did I turn off the ignition?) raced to the front door and arrived out of breath to the awaiting bin.  There she stood eyeing what was supposed to be mine.  I had to distract her before she ruined my day.  “What a pretty dress’, I exclaimed mustering all of the acting training I had in the past trying not to sound winded but sincere, ‘you look like you just step off the pages of a magazine.”  Bingo.  Her focus shifted to me.  She smiled; I had set her off her game.  I made eye contact with the store employee, conducted some mental telepathy, and she scooped the final two of my desired prizes away to safety.  I exhaled and walked away to collapse in a store chair to let my blood pressure settle down.

            It’s funny how one’s life desires change, as you grow older.  A few years ago this rush would have been for Dave Matthews tickets or a hot restaurant reservation.  Today it was all about chicks, the furry kind, Cuckoo Marans to be exact.  Marans are prized chickens that lay a very dark Chocolate colored egg and I crazily waited 4 months for their arrival.  Because of the size of coop and our insistence on not overcrowding it for healthy chickens reasons, our new additions need to be specific. 

            Mary Ann also needed persuading on adding new girls and with her away sailing the open seas this was the perfect time to sneak some new ones in!  I also picked up a Silver Leghorn chick because they are excellent producers of large white eggs, which our flock lacks, and they lay evenly throughout the winter when egg production typically slows.  Chickens start laying eggs at 5 months of age and lay consistently for about 4 or 5 five years before their egg production slows down so I always try to add new girls to keep supply online.

            The truth is this is my first try at raising day old chicks.  Before, I added girls that were already a few weeks old.  Baby chicks require more care and need to be under a heat lamp until 6 weeks to keep warm.  Raising babies and handling them at a young age is supposed to create very friendly girls but that is not always the case with certain breeds.  So here I go, another step into farming even though it may have cost me a friend at the feed store.

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Planting Limbo

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It is the most unusual time of the year now in the Santa Ynez Valley.  The days are getting longer, the flowering bulbs are emerging and the fruit trees are beginning to flower.  I’m still building a fire at night because I love a fire but I’m cracking a window to keep the room from becoming too warm.  I’m now reaping the benefit of my winter plantings.  I’m enjoying dinners out of the garden even in this late winter period.  The kales and mustards are supplying me daily greens.  Just weeks ago the Fava beans were hit hard with frost and I worried about their survival; now, they are growing and flowering as if winter is a distant memory.   A few trimmings supplied me with tasty sautéed greens with a touch of truffle oil for dinner tonight.  Sprouting broccoli enjoys a quick turn in the pan with crispy garlic and the first shoots of asparagus are poking their heads above ground to be eaten raw.
 

I’m getting tricked into believing that the main growing season is here.  Can I put tomatoes in now to get a head start?  The frost calendar says that the risk of frost is almost over but I know from experience not to trust it.  Like my cooler weather friends and family, I’ve devoured each seed catalogue that arrived in my waiting mailbox and dreamed of new varietals gracing my summer garden.  These magazines, and I know I am not alone in this, serve as my winter porn and yes, my friends think I’m crazy.  Seeds are ordered and I eagerly await their arrival.  Planted seeds from last year rest under my heat lamps in the garage, which I check hourly for sprouts to emerge.  Yes, I am obsessed and I admit it.  I live in a year round growing zone.  I can only image what my East coast friends and brother in Colorado suffering under blankets of snow are going through.  Summer must seem so far off to them.

I’m getting nervous that the new raised beds are not finished.  Will the plants get in on time?  Will I miss the season?  I’m also worried that I will not have enough room to put everything I want to plant this year even though I’m doubling the space from last year.  I need more room.  How did I become a diagram guy?  I was never this organized.  Cutting flowers like Dahlias, Cosmos, Sunflowers and Zinnias will have their own beds this year with intentions of possible sales in local restaurants if I can bear to part with them.  Do I know what I am getting into?

I’ve convinced myself that time is running out but the reality is there is time.  I’m just getting excited because summer is my favorite vegetable season.  If I could only grow one fruit it would be tomatoes.  So many different flavors, so much reward, that one would never have any idea from the imposters that grace the supermarket shelves.  The nurseries are tempting me too with over anxious displays.  Summer vegetable plants are appearing on shelves like a first hit of gardeners’ crack begging me to take them home even though it’s too early to plant.  Every year they are set out earlier like department stores putting up Christmas displays in September.  It’s just not fair and it’s only February. 

 Growing up in New Jersey the rule of thumb was Mother’s Day was the go ahead to plant.  It escapes me why people chose Mom’s special day but without a hitch you were always safe after this Hallmark designated day to plant to your heart’s content.  I’m not sure she knew, but if she did, my Mother never let on to her knowledge that my annual gift of tomato plants was a selfish act.

Since moving to California, the Mother’s Day rule no longer applies but what new rule applies? Is it April Fools’ Day on the 1st, Hug a Newsman’s Day on the 4th or Look up in the Sky Day on the 14th?  I swear, all real celebrated days, look it up.  Perhaps the best advice was from my local Ace hardware guy when I asked if it was OK to plant the for sale tomato plants in the store.  He said,” You could buy them if you want,’ but under his breath whispered,’ I don’t put anything in till after the 15th of April”.  Perhaps he is waiting for his tax refund?

So there you have it.  More than a month away I have to wait.  Waiting.  Waiting.  But it is so warm right now and I’m itching to plant.  I just have to keep reminding myself, frost kills, frost happens, don’t get fooled again like last year.  I guess I will just have to be happy with my winter veggies, the vegetable starts in my garage and the nightly dreams I have of garden beds overflowing with the treasures that summer brings.  As I write this, a much-needed rain is falling outside washing away winter’s dust and with it will bring more reason to start the season. The danger still exists.  Still I want to plant.

 

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Borrowed Stud

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The first question I always get asked by people when I tell them I have dairy goats is “Do you get goat milk or make cheese?”  And then I tell them that as with a human female, a goat must give birth first to produce milk.  You can’t just milk a female goat and expect milk to come out. Then they get it.  Also, milking a goat twice a day is a commitment that I’m not sure I want to sign on for.  Today we started our journey to breed our first goat on the farm, Hanna.
             

            The process actually started months ago with the decision to delve into animal husbandry after owning goats for almost two years.  All of our present goats we bought from other breeders but now it felt like it was the time to try our hand at procreation and become “real” goat farmers!  Currently we have 3 females and 4 weathers (castrated males), so we are missing a handsome fellow to take our girls out on a date.  Purposefully we do not keep an intact male on the farm because basically they stink and apparently Mary Ann is very sensitive to this smell and very vocal about it I may add.  We would have to keep him separated from the herd to control unintended breeding.         
  

            Where does one find a strong gentleman to court his little ladies? (I use court loosely). Surprisingly, Craigslist and goat associations are usually the go to for, in this case, a small dark handsome stud with blue eyes.  After weeks of searching I could not find a suitor that was acceptable for my precious girl.   (No man is ever good enough for a father’s daughter.) After almost giving up, a trip to the local feed store gave hope.  There he sat in the middle of the aisle as if a light from the heavens was shining down on him, the perfect little Nigerian Goat kid.  Turns out that this little fellow belonged to Jaymi, a feed store employee, and she had handsome goat studs in her herd that she was more than happy to give them a hall pass for the night or a few weeks to sow his royal oats!  Bingo! Unfortunately for Jaymi, we always give our friends at the feed store names that associate them with their specialties There’s Ann the Chicken Lady, a man we call the Hay Guy and Jamie would become the Goat Lady.  Trust me, these are all labels of endearment from us but I’m not sure if they love it or cringe when we call them as such.  Numbers were exchanged, excitement was barely contained and images of my own baby goats jumping in the barn clouded my head.  We were on!    
       

            The call came a month later that one of the boys was ready to visit our chicken ranch, I mean our goat farm.  But then the doubt crept in.  Was I acting like a pimp for my girls?  Was Mary Ann the new Hollywood Madam?  What if Hanna didn’t want a male suitor or was only into other female goats and I was forcing her into a private stall/champagne room with this stranger alone?  What kind of father would that make me?  Then I stopped my crazy.  I was over thinking it and realized that Hanna was a strong girl and could make her own decisions.  I would have to leave it up to nature, either it would happen or it wouldn’t.           

 

            We picked up Mr. Le Pew, not his real name, and brought him home.  The first meeting with our herd I thought he was not being very gentlemanly.  He immediately peed right in front of their pen and then proceeded to do the same on his beard! An outrage I thought!  Where were his good Southern (California) manners I thought?  What rogue had we brought home to our refined ladies?  Quel dommage!  Then I remembered that this was just an act that actually was quite attractive to female goats and I felt better.  We led Mr. Le Pew to his private stall and his interest in the ladies increased.  Hanna was led in and the chase began.  She held her own and let him know she was not ready (not in heat yet) but eventually agreed to have dinner with him that night a la Lady and the Tramp.  We joking suggested playing a little Barry White or adding oysters to their feed.  Was Spanish Fly still a thing?

            For now, they are getting to know each other slowly and I think a love match might be in the future but that will have to wait.  If it does work out, we will have to wait 5 eager months to welcome our new kids to the farm, and then I just have to figure out how to deliver those babies! As they say, timing is everything even in the goat world.

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The Great Chili Competition

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Usually I get the call in the beginning of December, which I have come to believe is the culmination of a yearlong obsession. “What seeds do you want?  You have to grow the Ghosts.  Definitely you need Thai and Chocolate Habs.  Wait, did the Fatalis from last year do well?  I think I have a few surprise crosses.  Do you want them?  I’m not sure last year’s Scorpions were as hot as the Ghosts.  They have Chocolate Ghosts now!” This may sound strange to most but this is a normal call from my brother Kevin regarding his obsession with producing the hottest chili pepper known to man.  He grows about 40 different plants in Littleton Colorado on his deck because he is under constant attack from resident deer and elk that have developed a taste for hot chilies but have not yet learned to climb stairs like a local bear once did.  Luckily the bear only wanted the hummingbird nectar.  Every year the race is on to produce the hottest pepper with several friends growing them across the country.  Kevin has even convinced my parents in Florida to grow these devils and I know they do not even eat peppers.

            I’m not sure where my brother discovered his love of heat but I’ve learned that people can build a tolerance over the years.  I’m convinced he has already started his kids early in their training.  Some people get a strange high from eating hot peppers when their endorphins kick in from the heat and you can watch numerous videos on Youtube of people eating them.  It has become an all-out sport. 

            The Scoville Unit (SHU) scale grades the heat in hot peppers.  It is a method of quantifying a substance's 'spiciness', through determining the concentration of the chemical compounds responsible for the sensation, which are named capsaicinoids.  To give the common non hot pepper obsessed human an idea of the range of heat, a Jalapeno is about 5,000 Scoville units and the hottest pepper known to man as of 2013 from the Guinness book of records is the Carolina Reaper at about 3000 times that at 1,569,300 Scoville units.  You can view a chart online here. www.scufoods.com

            Full confession:  I do not have the tolerance for the heat these peppers produce.  The barely hot Jalapeno, maybe a Serrano is really all I need to spice up my food but I grow these heat demons out of a brotherly respect to Kevin and for bragging rights.  I like to win. 

            The seeds arrive in January and I begin starting them indoors under lamps, using heating pads, next to the warmest windows and other methods that we never disclose to each other.   This is a competition after all.  The weekly chili pepper phone call inquires begin.  “Did they break soil?  What types are coming up first?  Are you thinning?  Fertilizer or no fertilizer?”  Thanks to technology I am now required to even video chat to show the progress of the plants.  I think my Mom is jealous that the seedlings are getting more face time than she is.  Kevin is relentless and dead serious about this annual race.

            You would think I have an advantage in California because I get to plant outside earlier but in reality it doesn’t matter for heat.  Watering is actually a big factor in heat production of chili.  The less water, more strained the plant, the hotter the outcome so I need to be on top of the right amount to administer.  Growing conditions make a big difference.  A poorly grown Scorpion pepper can lose out to a traditional milder hot pepper like a Ghost on the heat competition.

            Months pass, calls keep coming and plants finally set with fruit.  Labor Day is usually a good time for the tastings.  Chilies are tagged according to type and submitted.  Bread, milk, and beer are set out and the great chili competition begins with my brother and his friend Johnny D as judges in a blind test.  My sister-in-law Rachel oversees to make sure no cheating occurs.  The hottest part of the chili is in the pith so special care is taken to make sure that identical parts are sampled.  Each pepper is tasted, allowed to reach its heat in mouth and after the peak is chased with beer, milk or bread of choice.  Brow sweat happens, faces redden and plenty of air is expelled hoping to kill the heat.  Sometimes laying down occurs and breaks are needed.  In the end, a winner is decided, the award phone calls are placed and next year’s planning begins.

            Plenty of critique/excuses follow.  “Maybe too much water this year.  Did the plants get enough sun?  The weather was a bit off this year.  Are you sure these results are on the up and up?”  The competition is a lot of fun but it does leave us with plenty of scorching hot peppers to use.  What to do with these heat bombs?  My brother has taken to making hot sauce and is even thinking of starting his own line called Boss’s hot sauce, only for the very brave.

            I usually give my peppers to my heat loving friends who usually are of either Latin or Indian descent and to a contractor friend who has a heat death wish.  This year after growing Scorpion peppers, once considered the hottest pepper in the world, I had a few “No thank yous!” when asked if they wanted more.  My friend Devi made the mistake of making tempura with these heat demons.  Her mother carefully breaded them in the traditional Indian way and lovingly fried them to a nice golden brown. Usually one cuts a little piece from a pepper and tastes ever so carefully but not this time.  There they sat innocently on a paper napkined plate as her unsuspecting father and just as innocent Devi proceeded to swallow them whole. Headaches and two gallons of milk followed with the rest ending up in the garbage can.  A very brief discussion was held beforehand if the remaining should be left for the following day but intelligence prevailed.

            I have to admit I love my brother Kevin’s ritual even though I hardly ever eat the hot peppers.  It has become a family tradition that forces us to talk more, enjoy more and laugh more.  Anything that does that, consider me in.  Truth be told, I have never won the hottest pepper growing competition and do not even try to enter the eating competition but I figure hey, there is always next year.

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City Mouse vs. Farm Mouse

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At first we thought it was a low battery warning on the smoke alarm, a gentle high-pitched peep that always happens at the most inconvenient time right in the middle of the night.  Both up out of bed we began to search as no sleep would continue with this annoying beep.  The hunt led us room by room waiting for the next inconsistent cheep without success, finally leading us the only room without a smoke detector - the bathroom.  There it sat at the bottom of the bathtub, the cutest brown and white field mouse you had ever laid eyes on that Disney could have designed with a cuteness meter dialed up to 100.  Unlike the common house mouse, this tiny field mouse resembled a perfect cat toy; Its tail was twice as long as its tiny round body and its two sweet black pools of eyes were cartoonishly large for that small ball of fur.  Our annoyance turned to enchantment as we rescued this little guy from the tub and sent him on his way out into the wilds of Los Angeles.  Yes, Los Angeles.

            During our first month at the farm, while reaching into an outside closet, I noticed small droppings signaling that a tenant had moved into the multi-level storage “condo.” The search revealed an all-brown country cousin of our city mouse but this girl had made herself comfortable setting up her pad with a nest to boot.  As I was about to start the relocation project she moved and clinging to her body were six of the cutest babies ever seen.  What to do?  Of course I called seasoned country girl Mary Ann for advice.  “I’ll bring the bucket”, she said.  “For what”, I asked.  “To drown them of course” was the matter-of-fact reply.  “You do not want those little guys multiplying all over the place.”

            Was this what I had become one month into becoming a farmer, a killer of small babies, well baby mice at least?  I told her I needed to sleep on it, thinking of the city cousin I had rescued years before.  The next day I told her I couldn’t do it and let them live out their young weaning stage before they set out on their own.  They soon found other lodging due to the increased activity that my residence brought.  Little had I known what a mistake my inaction would turn out to be.

            Months passed and I soon found out that these little guys preferred the insulation in my new car’s hood, the perfect bedding for their nests, which they proceeded to rip out at will.  They decided that it was time for me to start sharing my food in the pantry by taking it any time they pleased.  My attic, they deemed, was a great place to hold nightly basketball games and my sleep was not a concern.  But this was not the worst.  These mice were much more devious that I would ever expect: attempted murder.

            The service light popped on sooner than I expected from my recently purchased farm truck: IMMEDIATE SERVICE NEEDED; SERVICE TRACTION CONTROL read the display even though the truck had seen little use lately and rested protected in the clean barn.  “Must be a computer glitch” I thought but still the responsible guy in me decided it was best to bring it in for a check-up.  “Good thing you brought it in,” my new favorite auto shop guy shouted from underneath the hood, “your brake wires were almost clear severed through.”  Had I pissed someone off?  Had my partner taken out a big insurance policy that he was planning on cashing in?  Who would do such a thing?  Turns out mice chew wires to keep their constantly growing teeth ground down and they had decided that my truck’s brake wires were the perfect orthodontic tools.

Et tu Baby Mice that I saved months before?  This is how you repay me?  These sweet little guys were trying to murder me after all I had done to protect them.  The country was rougher than I thought and Mary Ann smiled coyly after their plot was revealed, knowing that my farm education was going to be a slow and steady haul.

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First Frost

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There it was covering top of the lawn ever so lightly.  Shimmering as first rays of the morning’s light fell across the yard and then it was gone.  Yes, as every gardener knows this time of the year brings the season’s first frost.  We notice the slight burns on summer plants holding out until the first hard frost ends their growth for the season.

            The Santa Ynez Valley experiences light frost throughout the winter but not for so long that we cannot put in a winter crop for this year round growing zone.  My onions that I planted a couple of weeks ago are breaking ground, the sprouting broccoli is taking hold, and 3 different types of kale, Lacinato, Red Russian and Curly leaf are thriving and actually taste sweeter after a frost.  According to plant biologist Dean Kopsell, a frost stops an enzymatic reaction that creates metallic, bitter flavors in plants. Once the reaction is gone, the unpleasant flavors are no longer produced allowing the sweet nutty flavors of kales to shine through. I also planted a new fantastic type of Red Frill mustard green that is adding a great kick to salads. The Fava bean seedlings actually popped up 2 weeks ago and are now a couple of inches high.  I plant Fava beans not only for the crop that will emerge in the early spring but so that these beans will add nitrogen to the soil when tilled under for next summer’s vegetables.  Also, Fava bean greens are tasty sautéed with a splash of truffle oil and pepper.  These plants are excellent cover crops that many farmers plant during the over wintering period to “fix”, i.e. replenish, soils.

            I’m still figuring out planting schedules for these winter crops.  Last year, I only planted in one area that did not receive great winter sun with limited results.  With the addition of new beds this year that receive full sun all winter long, I am already seeing better growth.  It will be interesting to see if my English garden peas survive the valley’s light frosts since they tend to be little more delicate.

            My brother Kevin asked what’s available to eat for Thanksgiving.  I still have butternut squash, pumpkins, lettuces ready to go, a few apples and the walnuts should have cured enough to crack open before turkey

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Francesca

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We lost a chicken today, not “runaway lost” but “died lost.”  Since I’ve had the farm we’ve had to say goodbye to one chicken but it was not one that I brought to the farm, it was Mary Ann’s.  When her chicken was sick and not doing well we debated our options.  There was talk of letting it go by the river for it to meet its maker by coyote but I thought that was too sad.  It had lived a life of care and pampering and I thought that a death of being hunting down was a terrible way to exit this world.  We researched other ways.  A wring of the neck, a chop of the hatchet and even a shot to the head were suggested.  We were new farmers and this was the part of living life that we had yet to face, until now.  We both decided that we could not go through with the aforementioned but something had to be done.  I chickened out to be clichéd.  Mary Ann, not wanting the girl to suffer anymore, sent her on her way in her own way and that was that.  Sad, and that was for a chicken that I barely knew.

            In the spring, the tiny chicks of Francesca, Sophie, Lucy and Rita were delivered in a makeshift cardboard box. I had researched online a chicken farm nearby that personally delivered the breed of your choice to your doorstep.  Francesca and Sophie were Barred Rock chickens with black and white feathers.  An American breed, these girls looked Italian to me so they needed Italian names.  Lucy and Rita, New Hampshire Reds, of course needed two great redhead names to match their fiery plumage and personality.  My first chickens, my first animals on the farm, of course they needed to be cherished.  I become the doting parent checking their progress daily as I experienced my first foray to Farmerhood.   They grew, became “women” and started laying.  I called them the first girls, my first girls, another set would soon follow and our flock grew.  We were happy.

Now autumn is upon us and the chickens are molting.  It’s a time when the girls lose their summer plumage and the winter feather start to grow.  This in-between stage is strange and this year is the first year it has become so obvious because chickens do not experience their first molting until about a year and a half.  Yesterday Francesca looked different but we thought it was just her “molting period”.  She was huddled under the heat lamp with puffed up feathers that we attributed to dealing with the cooling weather, just a temporary stage like being caught without a winter coat by an early chill we thought. 

            Mary Ann found her.  I was late this morning for chores and did not notice a change or a missing girl.  I usually only count them at night to make sure they are safe.  She had to tell me and I thought she was talking about a wounded girl that is hanging in there that I thought had finally given up the fight.  No she said, it was Francesca, she had to tell me twice for it to sink in.

            The loss of this girl has really shaken me. She was the first in my entrance into animal husbandry and part of me feels like I failed her.  I read the books, I followed the advice, I feed the right food, I kept the coop clean and yet she still died.  She was not even the friendliest bird but I still liked her and now she’s gone.

            We always get chicken breeds in sets of twos.  They always pair up at night and hang out during the day with their breed and I have never figured out why.  I guess they recognize each other.  I wonder what her roommate will think tonight when she cannot find her.  At the end of the day I know that I have to deal with this loss thing if I am to be come a real farmer.  I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

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Adventures of the Local Farmers' Market

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A trip to the farmers’ market always makes me happy, especially on those rare occasions that I do them alone.  My partner and I surround our selves with family and friends but every once in a while I’m on my own.  There’s something about being alone there that heightens my senses and allows me to absorb the entire scene.    People must think I’m crazy as I walk down the aisles with a huge smile on my face.  I love and await the scene that is about to unfold as I stroll.  I usually stop at the French bakers for a warm ham and cheese croissant or chocolate one if they’ve run out but really I’m there to try out my weak French to the jolly guys behind the counter.  I tease; they tease back, and ask where I’ve been.  A small child passes happily with his ice cream cone and newlyweds pick out their first produce together.  The flower stands draw me immediately.  Sweet pea and lilac season has arrived and I rush over to inhale the intoxicating fragrances.   I know, simple pleasures but pleasure nonetheless.

 

I am a people watcher and there is no better place to observe.  There are types that are attracted to the markets and I love finding them.  I loathe the sample eaters.  They eat and eat but never buy, content to get a free meal from these struggling farmers.  There’s always at least one crazy old woman that wants to know way too much information about the birth, care, feeding, hobbies and musical likes of the produce presented.  Of course I want to judge but chuckle to myself instead.  Oh the aging hipsters are fun to watch.  Wearing clothes and hats that are way to young for them, I love their commitment to the localavore movement and their individualism.  I sometimes wonder if their wives dress them.   Then there is the rare sighting, another optimist, head in the clouds, goof ball like me.  It is only in that split second that I catch the glint in their eyes and the wonderment in their glaze that I realize a fellow tribesman.  I spot them and they smile in return.  We usually exchange a comment about the beauty of the day or the awesomeness of the produce in sight. 

 

One of my favorite markets has a petting zoo and I visit without fail.  Pot-bellied pigs, pygmy goats, chickens and the rare calf dot the scene.  I feel sorry for the bunnies that receive the too tight squeeze of the youngsters and they stare helplessly at me begging for me to take them away. 

 

There is much happiness around farmers’ markets, families enjoying the day, buying supplies for that night’s dinner and stall owners shouting out their wares to entice people over.  The market is an adventure for me and I love that my meal that afternoon will be decided by what produce speaks to me.

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Children at the Farm

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I always love when children or even “big kids” visit the farm.  Sometimes working the land and taking care of the animals everyday becomes routine for me. Not in a bad way but I forget how special it is to experience this.  But when children arrive I love the idea of first time experiences and how they will always remember their trip to the farm.  Mary Ann opened my eyes to the specialness of this after a weekend of one such visit of friends and their kids. We live next door to each other and even thought we see each other throughout the day we are constantly texting and emailing pictures of what the other has missed in the moments between.

 

After a busy day on the farm, once the house settles down and the quiet of the evening starts, she spends some time checking emails and reflecting.  Where I was tired after a long weekend of visitors she sent me an email that renewed my energy.  She talked about the sharing the love of our critters and the beautiful life we have in the Santa Ynez Valley, the children bringing home their memories of holding chickens, bottle feeding the baby goats, seeing a real garden, touching a horse and finding fresh eggs in the chicken coop.   Life long memories she wrote.  Things we can take for granted everyday but memories that these kids will have for a long time, memories that I now have as an adult of similar visits in my childhood.  I smile and immediately feel happy.

 

With these visits every once in a while something magical happens. One mother that was visiting was expressing earlier that her oldest son had some anxiety issues and was not sure how to deal with them.  In their visit the boy was immediately drawn to our horse Gator.  Now let me tell you Gator has been known to be a bit feisty but he sensed something about the child and became putty in his hands.  The boy hugged and feed Gator and calmness overcame the both of them.  It was amazing to watch this, like something so natural that just seems right.  Sometimes it takes looking at things through a child’s eyes to reinvigorate the joy and amazement that everyday life on the farm brings.  My love affair with this life is increasing. 

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Ali’i, loyal friend and gopher hunter

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At the farm, pest management is a daily part of life or rather a daily part of anger, madness and frustration that we use as an excuse to have that extra glass of wine at the end of the day! While we battle creepy earwigs in certain parts of the year, gross snails and slugs year round, pesky ground squirrels constantly, the cute but destructive bunnies, the biggest pain in our butts is the gopher.  Sweet, ugly, destructive rodents that serve no purpose but to hopefully to feed the hawks and owls in the area.  I have to tell you, we have some lazy predators here at the farm because these critters are everywhere.

Gophers are tricky because you rarely see them above ground but too often see the destruction they cause.  It took me a full year on the farm to finally meet these suckers in person. They pull down crops constantly, dig elaborate ankle twisting tunnels that turn the pastures into Swiss cheese, chew the occasional pipe, build mounds of dirt above ground and have even know to take the afternoon swim in the pool.  Basically I hate them.

I know as a new generation type of farmer I’m supposed to live in harmony with all creatures and share the earth with them but I’ve learned that they are not the sharing type and I want them all dead.  So how to deal with them.  The toxic approach is to poison them with bait, smoke bomb them with harmful gas or even (and I have only heard about this) fill the holes with propane and fire away (again, I may have had a dream about this where I woke up smiling but I have never attempted this.)  The non- toxic way is setting traps, building cages under your plants (lots of work), spreading the latest gopher repellant (does not work) or spending the day with a lawn chair, beer in hand and a pistol hoping you have great aim.  (Entertaining but very time consuming when there are chores to be done and your aim gets worse after the that beer.)  And then there is the new “environmental safe” way that Mary Ann devised and that is where Ali’i the gopher hunter comes into play.

Oh Ali’i, she is our sweet Australian Shepherd that only requires dinner and as much love and attention that you can spare.  First thing in the morning is the time to play our gopher hunt game with Ali’i.  Gophers are supposed to be early risers and the most active during this time.  Turn your back and they have dug a new hole or pulled down another prized tomato plant.  Mary Ann’s technique requires a hose and a dog.  She floods the newest holes with water while Ali’i sniffs and hunts the area.  The gopher eventually pops up, Ali’i grabs it and shakes and said gopher is off to that great pasture in the sky where there are unlimited plants and no gopher hunters.  Ali’i even digs a hole and buries the dead gopher.  Amazing.  I told Mary Ann she should teach her to do that with her doggie business and then never worry about buying another plastic bag!  

Ali’i seems to enjoy this game too.  She earns her keep on the farm, is a good warm heater on cold nights and smiles fully when successful.  She is a working dog so not only does this provide crop protection for us but keeps her sharp, focused and never bored. We are not always successful but sometime the gopher drowns in the tunnels on its own or the next day we see the dirt is backfilled and we know that we need to give it another try.  This method is safest for the farm.  The plants get watered and no poison is used.  Who am I kidding? It’s fun and exciting, kind of like fishing.  I know I might get some slack for not living in total harmony with these pests but until you live on a farm and see your hard work destroyed, you will never understand the need to give a few of these guys a chance to take a dip in their own swimming pools.  Ali’i; loyal friend and who knew, environmental champion!

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