Saturday, July 23, 2011

Beans, beans...the magical fruit

   Let me say first....come on rain!
Whew it is hot. We have met numerous farmers who are losing their livestock due to the heat. Not good! We are doing okay with ours. We take water to them all a few times a day and check on them. So far, so good. Sorry for the others tho.

   So...beans. We are into our bean season very heavy right now. As well as picking squash once a day, squash blossoms about three times a week, and various other miscellaneous crops...we are also picking beans twice a day. augh.
   The guys don't like to pick them but I'm super glad they are helping this year. I started out picking the green beans, what most people know. We like the Empress ones as they have good flavor, nice size and shape, produce enough, and freeze well. I snap their little ends off, blanch them in boiling water for just about a minute or so, then pop them in freezer bags to keep in the freezer. We've also done a canning recipe that has vinegar and onions, called "Pungent Beans". It is okay but limiting on what you can do with them later due to the vinegar taste.
   Then the green beans change into shell beans. Here they are...

Left to bean, shell bean (tiger eye), shell bean (black turtle), shell bean (cranberry)
   So, are you wondering about the "shell bean" thingy?
First the bean is green...then it dries a little but isn't real dry. It doesn't pop open yet and the bean seeds inside are still a little soft and lighter in color. Here they are opened up...

Tiger eye, black turtle, cranberry
It is my non-culinary knowledge that people with culinary knowledge use the shell beans in a couple different ways depending on the kind. They cook them lightly and add them to something else, and they don't cook them to add them to something else like salads (like a chick pea or garbonzo bean I guess).
   Then there are the dry beans...on the far right... the top. Okay top to bottom...dry bean (notice the color is much brighter, the pod is dry and crispy), next is shell bean (lighter colored seed, soft seed and pod), next is "before shell but kinda after green" (seeds too bulgy to be a good green bean), the bottom is green (nice and slender and soft).
   Make sense?
Hmmm. I think he's got it! Now we can all sing the bean song know it don't you?
Beans, beans, the magical fruit
The more we eat, the more we toot
The more we toot, the better we feel
So eat your beans at every meal.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sick Chick and Hot Harvest

   It is hot! About 98 degrees on the shady side of the house. That is why I'm able to be inside jotting down all my blog thoughts...or at least one of them. I tend to write my best blogs while harvesting. Sitting on a bucket, plucking beans, the sun touching the horizon on the west, thinking...but, I rarely get a chance to sit and actually write it all down.
   This hot weather has created some changes for us here on the farm. We take our cues from the plants and animals. Three weeks of nary a drop of rain has forced us to begin watering. We hook up our large water tank to the tractor and fill it from the well or cistern. We began watering last Friday and will continue until we get enough rain to dampen the ground an inch or more. The little sprinkle yesterday didn't last and the ground and plants sucked it right up.

Marty filling buckets to take water to the animals.
   Our harvest schedule changes with the heat. We get up at about 5:30 and harvest until around 10:30 or 11 or whenever we get too hot. Then we come inside and work. The house doesn't have AC but, because it was built in 1902, it keeps the cool and stays about 80 degrees or so. Then at about 5:30 or 6pm we go back out and work until we can't see anything anymore. Or until we are too exhausted to continue. It is usually really pleasant out in the evenings and I enjoy working at that time the best.

   The animals also siesta in the afternoons. But, Dee wasn't just dozing. She wasn't feeling good. So, I thought I would answer some of the chicken questions we get. The main two - how do you know if a chicken is sick? and what do you do about it?
   This is Dee...

Notice the drooping comb, the nodding off, the pasty butt? Sick...or declining.
   Dee is my favorite chick. She is my buddy. But, when she started to decline, I got worried. She obviously wasn't feeling perky, not talking as much and not wanting to eat treats. Her comb was dry looking and drooping, her legs not as bright yellow, her eyes sleepy looking. She would perk up one day and then go back down the next. So, I got out my Chicken Health Handbook (I think that is actually the name of it). It tells of all the millions (okay hundreds) of problems a chick can have and what to do for it.
   I was up at 3am perusing the pics and reading the symptoms. It wasn't contagious as none of the other chix had problems. Dee's abdomen was hard, but part of that is age (the book said)...she's over 5 years old after all and not laying any more for the most part. I sat and chatted with her, a one-on-one doctor session...
See her eyes? Just not perky.
   She told me all about it...she just wasn't feeling good. I, on the other side, explained that I am NOT a chicken doctor, looked thru the book and have no idea what is wrong, and asked if it was okay if we did an autopsy after she was gone to maybe help save the others from something horrible. She, of course being a truly cool chick, said "whaaaat?".
   But, the book didn't help me much (on this occasion anyway). I was doing all it said, which included keeping the water clean, keeping her house clean, having her get fresh air and sunshine.
   I did all I was this...I made sure she had fresh water and enticed her with food, keeping the others away. I gave her blueberries and other treats. I couldn't bear to lock her up in a cage so let her go where she wanted and she usually chose to rest under the firewood cart. If I thought it was contagious I would've locked her down in an instant. But everyone else was acting fine...still are.
   I also gave her vitamins in the water and some diatamaceous earth (DE) with the food to help boost her immune and dispel worms. I did NOT notice any worm problems, but there again am not a chicken worm expert. For the most part her poop looked okay. It was not too runny, not greenish or weird colored, but had the firm part with the little white watery part like most chicks do. She was cleaning herself on good days...

But, then she quit...hence the pasty butt. She just wanted to sit and sleep. I consulted my book again. It had to be something I could fix. My determination was finally this...she got old. Yep. Chickens do that. As much as I love Dee, a truly fun chicken, and as much as I wanted her to be well, she just wasn't getting better.
   So, today we buried her. autopsy per her request. But, as she never minded her picture taken, she provided an opportunity to teach others what to watch for if their chix are sick or declining. Sometimes you can fix the problem with some vitamins and DE and loving care, sometimes not. That is life. Farm life if you're a chicken.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Farm Friends

   This is one of my very most favorite pics...

   What a great shot...thanks for it, Cristina.

I think this pic really says what our farm life is all about. Friends, the land, the blue skies, the fruit of the land (in the hand on the left), all together and embracing each other. wow.

   We talk a lot about our chef friends (Tom Leavitt is the tall hatted figure, chef of his own White Oak Gourmet Personal Chef Service in Chicago). It is interesting how a business relationship can turn into some truly beautiful friendships. We care about their businesses and what they are serving, how they are surviving, because it directly relates to our farm business surviving. But, it ends up more than that. We get to experience their incredible artistic talents that highlight products that we've put our blood, sweat and tears (and joy) into.

   I think it forms a bond that isn't business related at all. They inspire us to reach further in our business, to always be on the hunt for something cool to share with them. And, we hope that we do that for them also. Our Wednesday delivery days end up being a full day of sharing, inspiration, and creative excitement. We come home exhausted and liberated and excited to forge ahead the next day.
   We also come home with the latest news...who is getting married, who is having a kid, who is moving on (we miss you Brian). And, we sometimes are able to follow our chefs to their new ventures (check out Bistro One West in St. Charles where our friend chef Doug D'Avico is creating delicious dishes). It is our circle of friends, our family.
   The chefs also love coming to the farm. And we love that! We have visitors from all over the world come to Spence Farm for tours. The chefs come and get to play in the dirt with us, taste the food right off the vine and right out of the soil, and learn about how animals can be raised with glorious sun and great care. It is sometimes a first time experience, some have never set foot outside the city before, and to bottle feed a calf is such an amazing experience for city kids (I grew up city too, so know this first hand).

   So...thanks to all our chef friends and family. We really appreciate all you do. Thanks for believing in our farm and in our way of life and letting us share it with you.

   To everyone else...don't forget that when you support the restaurants that purchase products from local farmers, small family farms like ours, you are supporting us and our farms. Thanks for that! We wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for all of you enjoying great food. And, if you want to come for a farm us. We love to share our farm and would be glad to work out a time to have you come.
   Watch for farm tours, crop mobs, and farm programs of all kinds on our website, on the blog, and with other organizations like, Slow Food, and our own Spence Farm Foundation (under revision as I write).

Thanks to Cristina Rutter (check out her cool site) for the wonderful pics at the Crop Mob last fall, organized by Tom Leavitt and sponsored by and Spence Farm Foundation.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Signs of Summertime

   Summer is in full swing now. We have weeds up to our waa-zoos and it is hot with lots of bugs. With only three of us working the farm, we've been ultra busy. Our first order to the chaos is to start pulling weeds. We are also mowing some areas and preparing to till for fall crops. Our fall crops include more beets, radish, onions, etc. But, for the most part the crops are looking really good right now. The potatoes are blooming, the beans are setting fruit, and the squash are flowering.
   Squash blossoms are one of our major crops. We harvest a couple thousand of them a week. The restaurants prepare them in lots of ways, stuffing them and frying them, making soups, using the petals in salads and as garnishes, and mixing them with other delicious ingredients. I love squash blossom soups.
Squash blossoms and nasturtiums next to a quarter
   Another sign of summer is the harvest of our wheat, hay and straw. Being a city kid originally, one of my first farm lessons was learning the difference between hay and straw. I learned that hay is a mix of alfalfa, grasses, or other greens that are dried and baled and that the animals eat. As kids we would say "Hey!" and mama would reply "Hay is for horses". Thanks for the lesson mom!
   Straw is the leftover stalks of the wheat, oats, (or whatever) that is already dry and then baled, and the animals use for bedding. The tops of those plants are harvested for the fruits or seeds (wheat berries being one) and then the stalks shoot out of the combine into a long pile that the baler picks up into bales.

This is our cool old combine

   I have also learned that our hay bales (baled by friends of ours) weigh about 80 pounds each. I would definitely make the suckers smaller! We moved 400 bales from hay racks to the barn, and stacked them in the hay mow in the barn. Talk about pooped out! We have a system tho...I shove the bales off the hay rack, Marty puts them on the conveyor belt that takes them up to Will inside the barn, and Will stacks them. We broke down and hired a friend of Will's on the last rack (thanks Tyler!) and boy did that help a ton.
   Then Will used our old 1940's Allis Chalmers all-crop combine to bring in our wheat. It does a great job. We actually only brought in about two acres of wheat we are buying from mom Willa. Our wheat that we planted isn't quite ready yet. We asked that the two acres from her not be sprayed with anything except our organic bio-enhancer stuff so it could be sold to our customers and not have all the chemicals on it.
   The straw will be baled later this week or next by a neighbor. Those bales weigh closer to 50 pounds each and will also be put in the barn. We will pile in as many as we can fit as we use them for mulching our tomatoes and for the stall bedding in the winter time. We also use them to form a wind break around the pig pens in the winter.
A half load of straw
   Then there is the delivery system. Another sign of summer!
   Every week we deliver to Chicago, Champaign and Bloomington restaurants. And this time of the year we always get requests from curious people who would like to ride with us. Needless to say, we cannot sqeeze another cucumber in, and simply not a cucumber the size of a person. Sorry folks. This day is grueling. We are up at daybreak loading the van,

Side view, can't see out the back window. Another
week and all this will be completely to the inside of the roof.
 drive an hour to pick up more products from a handful of other farmers, and then drive another hour into the city. Traffic isn't as bad as people think when you get used to it...the key is getting used to it. For us it is just a normal delivery day.
   But the day lasts from 6:30 am until we get home, usually around 9pm. In traffic all day, in alleys, unloading crates. Long. Why do we do it? We love it. We enjoy visiting with the chefs, seeing what they can create with our food, bantering around cool ideas, thinking up the next great find for them. It is inspiring and exciting. So, even tho the day is long, we can't imagine someone else doing it for us. Everyone is great to work with and we would miss seeing them if we had someone else delivering for us.

The bustling kitchen at The Bristol on N. Damen.
Fantastic food and wonderful people!

   The last of the news...Happy Independence Day to y'all! We didn't see the fireworks that were put off by people, but Mother Nature had a great show! The fireflies were out over our prairie by the billions. I wish I had a camera that would take a picture over ten would've been filled with light. It was fan-tastic! It is great to live in a country where we are free to stand looking out over our own tiny piece of land and see a sight like that. Hope you are having a great summer!