Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Daily Grind

Ever since our first internship on the farm of the Sonnewald Natural Foods we have been familiar with the wonderful taste and nutritional qualities of freshly ground flour. We were quite pleased, then, on arriving up at Ecology Action in early '06 to find a flour mill in the food prep space. I slowly worked up to supplying all of our flour needs with it, and we started buying so much wheat that it only made sense to get it in 25 and 50 lb bags.

That was a Country Living Grain Mill (CLGM), and I recommended it to anyone who asked. It is important to note here that we were off the grid at EA, and this was a hand-powered mill. I was certainly just a little proud of that fact. When we moved down to the Golden Rule Garden we were blessed to have access to a Miracle Mill, which had stone burrs instead of steel, and an electric motor which was masked in a nice wooden cabinet. We had great flour with the convenience of pouring in grain and letting it do its thing. The downsides? I couldn't brag any more, the thing was LOUD, and it ground fast enough to heat up the flour considerably (which takes away from the flour's nutritional value). But I always told people that I would go back to a manual mill when I got my own. It keeps me one step closer to my food.

When we moved back here the decision to buy a mill was postponed, because Mom already had one. For anyone who gets Lehman's Catalog, she has the "Our Best Grain Mill". It is difficult for me to give it any kind of negative review, simply because it served us for over 10 years. At the same time, though, it is not designed to produce the quantity (or quality) of flour that other mills can. The burrs are a little smaller, its axle doesn't use bearings, and for many other reasons I can't list (for lack of engineering knowledge) it is harder to use. After using it very intensively this year, grinding 10 cups of wheat berries (~15 cups of flour) a week for bread, I managed to break the set of stone burrs and wear away a 1/2" of the brass spacer between two washers on the axle. So we decided it was time to upgrade.

I had always counted on acquiring a CLGM of our own, since I had such good experiences with it. They are of excellent quality, and the many reviews on the web attest to their popularity. There was no reason to pursue any other, knowing what I wanted.

Then I got an email through the EA vine from Cindy Conner, a Biointensive farmer and instructor, about the new grain mill she had recently gotten. No stranger to the grain grinding (or growing) scene, she had owned a CLGM for over 10 years. Recently, though, she had the chance to see a demonstration of the GrainMaker mill, made by a family in Montana. Her glowing report of it and pronouncement that it has now replaced the CLGM on her counter inspired me to ask a lot of questions and do some more looking around.

GrainMaker has a thorough website that explains the features and history of the mill, so I'll spare you those details (and myself the charges of plagiarism). Suffice it to say that, between the testimonials, my friend's comments, the lifetime warranty, and the obvious pride the company takes in the quality of their product, I was sold. So we took the leap and ordered one.

As soon as we received it I knew the company had style: the only packaging material inside the box was a 5 lb bag of hard white spring wheat. (At left, Alten admires the mill and wonders when I'm going to bolt on the handle.)

I took our Lehman's Best off the counter and replaced it with our new GrainMaker, and we were off and grinding. To say that I am happy with it is an understatement, and I don't even know where to start lauding its excellence. It is as smooth as any good grinder should be, exudes longevity, and shines from the corner of the counter (so much so that Alten is attracted to it from across the kitchen, and will not suffer himself to be far from it). Best of all, though, is that it will grind truly fine flour on its first grind, with the effort that I am used to expending on other mills - but with the other mills I had to use that effort twice, because I needed to put the wheat through two times to get it fine enough. In fact, the GM got flour finer than I have ever ground before, short of putting it through three times on the CLGM we had used. And with only one grind! You can tell I'm in love.

I look forward to working through corn, rice, quinoa, and the grains that are small enough to have stymied the other mills we've used: amaranth and teff.

Now for a few details on our installation. The photo at the top shows our grain processing facility, complete with the Lehman's Best mill and our oat roller (which I wrote about on the Golden Rule Garden blog). At right is the GrainMaker in place. The overhang on our countertop isn't sufficient to clamp either appliance to, and Mom preferred that I not drill holes in said countertop, so I got creative with boards and c-clamps. Close inspection of the image will show that I used a lap joint to make better use of the limited number of clamps. No applause, please. Somehow I think it's funny that Mom is fine with c-clamps more or less a permanent part of the kitchen, but isn't ok drilling very permanent (but oh-so-subtle) holes in the counter.

An unintended plus is that two of the clamps are bright red - just like the GrainMaker! Notice, too, that I used some cardboard under the clamps so as not to mar the finish of the new mill. Maybe at a later date I'll get some red cardboard, too.

The final affirmation of the mill's goodness was the bread I baked and shared with everyone this morning. Delicious, as usual, but much less dense thanks to the finer flour.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Garden Report 2010

This piece was originally written for and printed in Ecology Action's February 2011 newsletter.

This being our introductory Annual Garden Report, we have general details to share which will give an impression of Circle of the Sun’s situation. And before we do that, we must announce that the biggest event this year was unrelated to gardening: we welcomed our first child, Alten Lee, into the world at then end of June! Needless to say, he is a joyously complete distraction.

Our garden space has been cultivated in various ways for close to 40 years. The previous owner was a commercial farmer but kept this plot as his garden. We imagine he gardened it with chemicals, but he is no longer around to ask. Last year a church group used it for a good season of sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes and squash. The only thing of which we are certain is that it was rototilled with regularity.

The soil is mainly clay, with small pockets of sandiness here and there. While we have not yet taken a soil test, there seems to be little evidence that previous gardeners added organic matter. As a result, together with its clay composition and rototilled treatment, the top 10 inches are compact and very hard to work. This kind of thing happens with the use of a rototiller, where the clay soil is broken down into particles which feel loose initially but settle into a brick with time and rainfall.

Our best hope for creating a permanently loose and workable soil is non-mechanical cultivation and years of compost application. With an eye toward the long-term, then, we are forging ahead patiently. As this report continues, keep this discussion of our soil in mind, since it plays a role in so much of this year’s progress.

Because we moved here in March our entire season started late. While we should have started immediately by flatting a host of crops, we had no flats. Once flats were built and things were flatted we could focus on bed preparation and then planting, but the result of our late start meant that most of our crops went in the ground at least a month later than would have been ideal.

One of the steps we took was preparing for data collection. We installed our rain gauge and min/max thermometer halfway through April, so we have data for a little less than 3/4 of the year. For the purposes of projecting averages this is useless, but the information is more than sufficient for discussing this season.

First to the precipitation, which was (besides Alten) the most dramatic element of our year. Between April 16 and June 30 we recorded 12” of rain, 6.3” of which fell in June. The following six months, July to December, we recorded a total of 10”. The longest stretch we went without any rain was August 6 to September 12. But perhaps a better indication of how things went when all those crops were trying set seed and mature is that from the 13th of July to the 26th of October (8 days past our first hard frost) we recorded only 1.9 inches. The farmers we talked to in the area, commercial and market, all said this was well the driest year they can remember. And that we picked a heck of a year to start.

Secondly comes temperature, whose drama was more of the erratic nature. Between our last light frost (May 10, 32°F) and our first frost (October 16, 28°F) came weeks that alternated between highs in the mid-70’s and upper-90’s, playing havoc with both heat-loving and cool-loving crops. At Ecology Action the commodity is nights-over-60°, since below that temperature plants don’t grow as quickly. This year we recorded 87 nights where the temperature stayed above that mark, and in fact 13 nights were over 70°, which lends some validation to the observation that tomato plants seem to grow a foot overnight in the midwest. Our highest recorded temperature this year was 100°F, and our lowest was -8°F.

Our entire garden is 4200 square feet, or 42 beds. We marked our growing area out at the beginning of the season in 4’ wide, 75’ long beds of 300 square feet each, and had a garden plan drawn up to fill it. We planned to double-dig all of the area to plant, a task that fell to Dan since Margo was in the last months of pregnancy. A soil with excellent structure will drain excess moisture well, and hold moisture weeks after a rain. Ours, being unimproved clay, needed to dry out a few days after a rain but became too solid to dig if more than six days passed. So early on we were left with small windows between rains, and then later the .1” we would get at a time was not enough to sufficiently moisten the soil to dig. By the end of the season Dan had dug and we had planted 1,792 square feet, 43% of our total growing area, which is remarkable given the difficult conditions we faced.

On the score of crops, there were three categories: those that died before maturity, those that produced something, and those which could be said to have flourished in any meaning of the word. Out of the 31 distinct crops we planted, 21 achieved maturity and produced a measurable quantity. Looking from another perspective, 61% of the area planted (1,092 sq ft) produced.

The 10 crop failures, which accounted for 700 sq ft, were amaranth, carrots, chia, corn, leeks, parsnips, quinoa, squash, triticale, and wheat.

Twenty crops fell solidly in the middle category, and were remarkable mainly in that they reproduced despite the harsh conditions imposed on them: for lack of any irrigation system only the newly planted crops got watered from a can, and the rest had to make do with practically nothing. The most disappointing yields were probably our potatoes. In the most abysmal section, 65 sq ft of Kennebec, we dug 3.97 lb, equivalent to 6.13 lb/100 sq ft. This was the result of planting 30 lb of seed potatoes!

Among those 20 crops there were a few which gave us mediocre but delicious produce. Snow Peas, for instance, gave us .8 lb from the 8.5 sq ft section (9.4 lb/100) of sweetness, and our Red Russian Kale yielded 2.7 lb in its 18 sq ft section (15 lb/100). The total of our two 50 sq ft sections of Black Turtle dry beans was 3.7 lb, which is close to the GROW BIOINTENSIVE beginner yield of 4lb/100, and satisfying when we cook them up. Even our two lettuce sections of Sunset and Red Winter, though they gave us a total of 8 edible heads, will live on next season through the seeds we saved from the last plants to bolt.

We are, then, left with one crop that gave us good numbers. Our Dale Sorghum, grown with original John Coffer strain seed acquired from Ecology Action, exceeded our hopes and expectations. The seed yield of 7.43 lb/100 was fine, coming close to the GB beginner yield of 8 lb/100, but our dry-biomass yield of 52.56 lb/100, which exceeds GB intermediate yields, pleased us beyond words . We know of sorghum as a traditionally drought-resistant crop, but the fact that it thrived in the kind of season that choked the life out of most of our other crops gives us reason to hope for our soil and our future sorghum yields.

Speaking of our soil once more, we succeeded in building two compost piles this year, one of which was sifted to give us the most beautiful compost we have ever laid eyes on. As we mentioned in the November newsletter article, next year we will put a priority on building compost whether or not the materials are grown in our own garden.

Our biggest projects for the coming year are construction of a small greenhouse, completion of a fence that will keep out pests large and small, and an aim to bring the entire 4,200 sq ft of growing area into successful cultivation. Happy Growing in 2011!