Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beautiful, but Deadly

Ok, maybe just dead-smelling. The first tree-blossoms we see at the garden are from the ornamental pear on the north side, pictured here. And this morning was the first time this spring that I caught a whiff of its flowers, which reek like week-old carrion. My first thought was that something must have crawled up to our garden fence and died. Then I remembered the duplicitous nature of this tree, which smells terrible for about two weeks, but provides wonderful shade for at least eight months...
My third thought was that I should write it down on my calendar. Now before you start wondering what kind of calendar this might be, I'll tell you that I keep it for objective reasons.
It wasn't too long after we started our first internship with Steve Moore out in Pennsylvania that I realized the natural world has a lot to say to a seasoned farmer. Signs after the manner of Punxutawny Phil, but much more accurate. One crop would go in the ground when the daffodils bloomed, some things would get started when the walnuts leafed out, and a number of roots would get left in the ground til after the first frost. Whether these were statements about warming soil temperatures, some critical amount of light in a day, or the edibility of certain crops, farmers who knew would swear (and plant and harvest) by them.

And so, when we knew we'd be in Willits for a few years, I started keeping track of different annual mile-markers, like the buckeye trees blossoming and buckeyes dropping, the first rainfall after summer, the first salamander spotted, and so on. Of course, we'd need to have been there much longer than we were to have made any sense of these events.
Now, however, we plan to be in one place for a good long while. I already have recorded the lilacs leafing out (4/3, at left), the first morel spotted (4/11, courtesy of our 80° Sunday last weekend), first tree swallows in the garden (4/13), and first dandelion flowers out (4/10). The next step will be to try and remember what I noted the year before...

Anyone who has been to a class I've taught will tell you my biggest piece of advice for any gardener or farmer: observation is vital. Pay attention to what you're doing and what you see happening; it's the only way to learn, and the only way to salvage a failure. Otherwise, you have no idea why a crop succeeds or fails to thrive, and it is impossible to recreate excellent outcomes reliably.
In this case, as I noted, it will take a long time and a lot of experiments before we can put our fingers on what the natural world is telling us about the coming season. But we don't have anything better to do anyway...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Multi-Purpose Mill

It has been a little under three months since we unpacked the GrainMaker mill, and it has not has not ceased to please, or even to dazzle us with its many talents.
Yesterday was a particularly fine one for the GM's facets to shed their ever-multiplying vermilion beams upon my admiring and upturned visage... Ok, I'm overdoing it a little, but read on and see that there is reason to seem so pleased.

The first of two experiences I had was with our 2010 flax crop (flowering flax pictured at right, dried flax plants below left). In its processing I got as far as combing the seed bolls from the top of the plant and bundling the stems together for later fiber-separating. But for the past six months we've had a big rubbermaid bin of the loose bolls rolling around, waiting for me to figure out how best to crush them into seed and chaff. Yesterday I got out one of our sieves, put a handful of bolls in it, and ground them with my thumb, which worked great. For a small amount. But it would have taken me an hour or more just to crush them all, and then I would still have to clean the chaff away.

This is where the GrainMaker came in. I thought perhaps if I loosened the burrs to the point where there was a significant distance between them (enough that the seed itself wouldn't be crushed) I could do the work much faster. I put in the auger that cracks bigger seeds, threw a big handful of the bolls in, and cranked. It worked great! With a little adjustment, and 5 minutes of time, I then translated the whole ~6 cups worth of bolls, extra plant pieces and all, into seed and chaff.

With a little more work to winnow and separate I'll be finished with them! Just in time to flat this year's crop, which was really the incentive to finally get that task done.

The second experience was in grinding peanut butter. I had done this with other mills, and had indeed done it once or twice with the GM, always resulting in an ultra creamy variety. I've never really liked creamy peanut butter, and the only thing that made it acceptable is that I had ground it myself. The long and short of it is that yesterday, inspired by how well the flax bolls did with the burrs separated by as much as an eighth of an inch, I ran the peanuts through. I was rewarded with a fabulous chunky PB, and just in time to spread it on the waffles we were making.

Now I admit that, while hulling flax may be a rare occurrence in the world of grain grinders, making peanut butter is certainly not. It's just that I had never done it to my satisfaction before, and now I do feel quite satisfied, I assure you.

So there you have it, yet a little more shameless praise for the GrainMaker.