Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter has finally arrived

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
   The weather is cold! In the 30's during the day and the frost is settling in. We are working at getting all of the animals hunkered down to stay warm. This pigs are lined up in the barn yard in their cages with straw bales around them. The cows will be brought in from the field to the front barn yard this weekend. More straw was added in the chicken house and duck house. The sheep love the cold weather and want to go out every day no matter how cold it is. And, we are working on getting more firewood brought up.
   Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and is very unappreciated by many people. I notice some stores put out product for Halloween and then go right into Christmas, skipping Thanksgiving completely. I, however, am extremely thankful for so much in my life, that I can't imagine skipping Thanksgiving day. I live in a beautiful place, have fantastic family and friends, get to do the things I love in life, and am healthy. There are a lot more things I am thankful for, too many to list. And, I try to be very aware of all I am thankful for every day of the year, not just on one special day. Thanksgiving Day, however, means people all across the nation recognizing the need to give thanks. I'm thankful for this special day for that reason!
   Thanksgiving this year was a "traditional" day for us...with "traditional" food that is. Some years we have had five or six different kinds of soup, or quail, or mexican, or whatever fancy strikes the cook (Marty). This year we were given a very nice turkey from a farmer friend and paired it with all the traditional foods, such as stuffing (or "dressing" depending on your background), mashed potatoes, sweet potato fries, pies of all sorts (including pumpkin), and on and on. Marty brined the turkey in a mix of salt, sugar, sage, and water overnight. Everything was delicious. And, we are still eating it!
   We also had the traditional Thanksgiving day festivities of Sam the big pig getting out and then having to be put in the barn on "lock down". And, then there was our last little turkey...Gimpy. She walked around and chipped at the cat and enjoyed being a Free turkey.
   Here's an interesting question I was asked on turkey hens gobble? Ours never have. They typically make a chip chip noise. Our tom turkey, before he died, would gobble and it sounded like he was laughing at us. But, our hens haven't. Our turkeys are Narragansette turkeys, a heritage breed. I'm hoping to get some more poults (baby turkeys) this year so Gimpy won't be alone.
   Gimpy likes to chip at Spunky, the cat, until it drives the cat nuts. Then Spunky will chase Gimpy and both will get in trouble for teasing each other. We aren't worried about Spunky catching the chickens or turkey as she grew up with them all. When she was little, they were much bigger than her, so she has a good respect for them.
   Something else I was asked...where does the wax for rutabagas come from and when during their harvest or shipping is it sprayed on? Good question. I understood it is a parafin, but I could be wrong. And, since it is used to keep them from drying out, I would think they would be sprayed soon after washed coming out of the field. I could be wrong about that also. It would be a good question to ask the big rutabaga growers. I'm glad that we can grow our own or have neighbors we can get them from, or even at the farmers market. That way we don't have to be concerned about the wax, what it is made from, and if it is safe for us. I suggest every one try to find a farmer market, local farmer, or...ask your grocery to see if they can get "unwaxed" rutabaga. That might start a trend toward them carrying them.
   And, here is something else fun about rutabaga. Two days after my Baga blog, I found a book in a used bookstore. It is titled "Rootabaga Stories" by Carl Sandburg and copyright in 1922. It is more of a children's book. The titles of the short stories are funny...such as "Five stories about the Potato Face Blind Man" and "Two stories about corn fairies, blue foxes, flongboos, and happenings that happened in the United States and Canada". Say what? I thought it would be some light reading this winter!
   That's the news for now.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday on the Farm

   I tell people that I'm retired. After all...I am doing what I love, don't have to go to a "job" where I have a "boss", and don't make much money. But, on a farm, every day has some work involved. The great thing about being a farmer is that I get to do work that doesn't feel like Work. If you have a passion for something, "work" isn't a four letter word!
   So Sunday is another work day really. But, it is pretty quite today. The hunters bagged their deer the last two days so we haven't heard much blasting going on this morning. I started a batch of homemade bread (using the oatmeal bread recipe from Tasha Tudor's Cookbook...great!) and it will rise on the radiators all day before baking this afternoon. We will go get some firewood from a pile of left over sawn wood (see the picture to the right), staying out of our own woods until after the hunting weekend is over. And, we'll do chores of course, as the animals are our partners on the farm so we take care of them and then they'll take care of us.
   Marty likes to cook and we've declared Sundays this winter as cooking days. He tries out new recipes and tries to use all the great food we were able to "put up" this year. We still have apples in our walk-in cooler. I'm hoping we can get out the old apple press today and make some apple juice to have for the upcoming holidays. I would also like to try a preserved apple ring recipe. This is like the old fashioned candy apple rings but without the red food coloring. (We stay away from preservatives, food colorings, and fake sugars.)
   It is still fairly warmish out (60 degrees), although more windy lately. We attempted to burn our six acre re-created prairie plot yesterday. It would've been the first time we burned it in fall, usually we reserve the burn for March. But, we were interested to see how it would change the prairie. Different plants like fire at different times of the year. Some of the flowers will do better with a fall burn, some with a spring burn. We also were wondering if a fall burn would remove some of the weedy plants that are coming in. luck! We had a good southeast wind, but the plants might have too much moisture in the stems still. Or the humidity might've been too high. Whatever the reason, it didn't want to burn. So, we'll try again later this winter if the weather permits.
   And, for those of you who are wondering about what I'm holding in the profile photo. That is Yote (Yo-tee). Yote is a coyote. Last year I heard the chickens squawking and carrying on in the front yard so went to investigate. And, there was Yote. He had a hurt leg, was very hungry and weak, and was very tired. I was able to very carefully pick him up and take him to the house. You might notice that I am holding the scruff of his neck. I wouldn't suggest just anyone picking up a wild animal. I was lucky enough to have some training when I worked at a Natural History Museum in Alabama and when I worked at Birdsong Nature Center in Georgia. So, we gave him a little food, called the vet, and she suggested a rehabilitation place for wild animals in Hudson, Illinois (about 40 minutes drive). And, that is where he be fixed up and put back into the wild.
   Some ask why we didn't kill him...and don't coyotes get our animals? Very simply, we have never lost livestock to coyotes. We have coyotes around, but they usually stay away from the house area. The poultry and sheep are in their houses at night, and the pigs aren't bothered by the coyotes. Therefore, since they don't pose a threat, and they are a natural part of the life cycle, we let them be. They tend to eat rabbits and mice more than anything else. And, if they get a deer that would be okay. We sometimes have up to 80 deer eating our alfalfa so they could use some winnowing out. But, that is the story of Yote the Coyote.
   I hope you are able to enjoy some good home cooked food for the holidays, maybe something from a friendly farmer you might know. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Baga Lady

     I can never forget the "Baga Lady" at this time of year. When I started my first little garden venture here on the farm, I had a small farm stand along the road. I sold all kinds of produce from it, as well as little quilts and handmade candles and other farm related products. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.
One day a lady showed up and was amazed that I had rutabaga for sale. She loved the stuff and told me they ate it all the time when she was growing up. She raved about it and told wonderful stories of how her mom fixed the "bagas" for them. It was really fun to talk to her about something so endearing in her childhood, something that seemed very strange and unique to me and also very everyday. There was quite a connection for her, and then to me...and food had done it!
     The next year I decided not to have the little stand as we were taking produce into Dave's Supermarket in Fairbury, IL. Dave's is a fantastic place, family owned and very community friendly. (check them out at I took in some rutabaga and thought nothing of it. Next thing I know I'm getting fan mail! Someone sent a nice postcard saying how much they love the fact that our rutabaga didn't have wax on it. Wow...I never thought about it before! But, you pretty much can't find rutabaga in the grocery store without a wax covering. A few days after that I saw the "Baga Lady" in Dave's and she told me how happy she was that I brought the "bagas" in so she could still get them from someone she knew.
     I happen to love rutabaga cooked in the oven like home fries (although I don't like them raw). Here's how we do it...slice off the outer hard layer, then slice the softer inner section into pieces about 1/4" thick. I like to slice them to look like home fries, kind of wedge shape. Then we put them in a bowl with a little olive oil, just enough to coat them, and stir them around until they are well coated. Put them on a cookie sheet and then place them in the oven at about 400 degrees. When they start to brown a little, we turn them over. I just keep an eye on them until they are soft and cooked, but also a little crisp around the edges. Yummy!
     This is the best time of year for the rutabaga harvesting. We have harvested a couple of hundred pounds this season and should've planted more. The cold frosty weather in the fall causes the sugars to concentrate in the root part of the plant and they become sweeter (most root crops are like this). So...if you can find Bagas from a friendly farmer, or a friendly grocery store...enjoy!!

P.S. Here is a picture of our hoophouses (without the doors on yet). We were able to purchase them through a USDA program/grant. They are unheated and the ends can be taken off or rolled up in the hot weather. Inside we have mustard and other greens, cilantro, beets, carrots, turnips, garlic, and onions. We'll be able to grow some crops in them all winter and during the rest of the year create a longer heat season for our heat loving peppers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A day on the farm

     No day on Spence Farm is "normal". People ask us what a day is like and it is really hard to say for sure. Every day is different. Most days we get up and get the "inside chores" done. That includes feeding the inside cat (Petie Parker, aka Spidey Cat) and putting the part-time outside cat (Spunky Brewster) outside. Spunky catches basement mice for us at night, especially when I have plantings under the grow lights. We get our breakfast, check our emails, spend time writing blogs or whatever, and then do the "outside chores".
     The Outside Chores consist of opening the chicken house door, opening the duck house door and giving them water, opening the Big Barn door for Gimpy the turkey, and leading Hannah and Ginny our Jacob sheep out to their pasture. The sheep are spoiled and so go into a stall in the barn at night.
     Then...right now...there are three pig cages. One has Swee (mama or "sow") and her latest batch of babies ('the babies'). Another has 'the little kids' which were born in March this year. There are three gilts (girls) and a boy (boar). The boy is to go live at another farm soon. The third cage has Sam. Sam is our big daddy ("boar"). He is about 200 pounds and just like a very large muscular dog. He loves his belly rubbed and loves Spunky. We move the 6' x 10' pig cages to the next available green area, give them water, and sometimes a treat of apples or squash or wheat berries. The last chore is the cows. We have Surprise (see her mug shot on the farm website at and her daughter Dini (short for Houdini as she used to get out all the time.) I call Dini "Devil Dini" because she is getting her horns and looks a little devilish, not to mention her personality fits it. We check their water and about every three days move their electric fence area so they have new food to eat. They are eating our corn stocks and some alfalfa right now.
     We don't feed any of our animals in the conventional way of "feeds" containing a lot of grains. We try to keep them on pasture as long as we can and then feed mostly hay in the winter. The poultry will get some of our own grains (wheat, barley or oats maybe) and sometimes left over apples as a treat when it is very cold and the bugs and grass are gone. But, we let them "free range" (walk all over the place) and feed themselves what they know to be healthy for themselves. Feeding the hay and pasture and our own grains cuts the feed costs dramatically.
     Chores are done again in the evening. But, in between that time all kinds of other things are happening. Today we are watering inside the hoophouses, having about a hundred high school Agriculture students out for tours, and harvesting more turnips (never ending it seems!). We are also working on discing up the ground where our spring wheat and alfalfa will be planted.
     A disc is a contraption that we pull with our big tractor. It has round discs on it that slice into the ground and help chop up the existing grass or other cover crops. We don't want to till the ground until we are ready to put in a crop because we don't want the ground to erode or blow away and lose all the nutrients. We try to keep some kind of crop on it until we need to plant. However, we are discing some areas lightly now to break them up. The existing crop will be killed during the winter and the tilling easier in the spring. That way if the spring is a wet one (usually the case) we won't have to disc and can just till when we get a dry window of time.
     I suppose this blog will be able to give a better idea of how the seasons change what we do on the farm and how every day can be different and exciting. Keep checking back to see what is new!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Harvest Day

Today is a Tuesday, which means we are working at bringing in our harvests to fill our weekly orders. We grow produce for a number of restaurants in Chicago, Champaign, Bloomington, and Peoria, Illinois. This week we have piles of turnips. No...I mean piles! We harvested about 600 pounds of just two out of four kinds of turnips yesterday. There are white hakurei, yellow, purple top, and purples.
One of my jobs is to package up the corn meal, wheat flours, and wheat berries. Wheat berries are the wheat seeds and make a wonderful cold or warm salad when cooked. I'll try to work on getting some recipes together for those of you who might be interested. The corn meal is from a very rare white corn that we grow. It is called Iroquois White and makes a delicious corn meal. We roast it over an oak fire, shell it off the cobs, and then mill it. I do have a great recipe for the corn meal. The recipe is adapted from Tasha Tudor's Cookbook with our corn meal substituted for the regular yellow kind and our whole wheat flour substituted for the white flour.
If you are interested in the interesting history of our Iroquois White corn project, you can check it out on our webiste. And, please be patient with my internet skills...I'm working on updating our websites for both the farm and the not-for-profit Spence Farm Foundation. It might take a little while, but I think I'm getting the slow hang of it!
Check back again, I'll try to get more pictures and recipes, etc. coming soon!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

dragged into the 21st century!

Well, this is it! Here I am on the internet (not dial up anymore) and posting my first BLOG. It is amazing that I've come this far. Farms used to be so easy...just growing and enjoying the weather and animals and plants. But, now I am encountering the new style of farming. New and advanced, faster than ever, connected to everyone at the touch of a button. (Well, only if they are "friended" I'm told.) But, this is the farming of the future and I want to make sure that our very special farm will be there for everyone to enjoy.
I wanted to start a blog so that people can read about what our farm is really like. It is so different than other farms. It has old buildings, lots of nature, and is unique in dozens of ways. So...welcome to my little snippets about farm life. I'll try to keep you up to date as best I can with what is happening on the farm seasonally, daily life experiences, and anything I can think of to help connect you to farm life. I hope you find it interesting, educational, and a fabulous connection to the land, to the animals, to the plants, and to farms in general.
Thanks for joining me!