Old Man Winter is Here

A New Year is here, and it has finally turned winter. With lows in the upper teens, some collards couldn’t hold out and got zapped. It’s a shame because we finally had a buyer lined up who wanted to buy in bulk. One thing I’ve read in countless farming magazines and books is to always have a market lined up before you put the first seed in the ground. I guess that’s good advice, but I’ve never been confident enough yet in my growing skills to try to pre-sell produce. This year I planted 1,000 collards, hoping that I’d be able to find a market if, and when, the time came. Well, the time came and went for some plants.

I was able to sell a good number of collard bunches at the farmer’s market and a few by word of mouth. I had planned to set up a roadside stand, like we do for our tomatoes, but the endless rain didn’t allow for it. I scrambled to try to find a wholesale buyer. One lady who owns a produce stand said she could remember selling hundreds of collards for New Year’s. But she said now people just don’t cook anymore, and young people, if they like collards at all, like them pre-chopped in a bag from the grocery store.

After striking out there, I then called a chef who works in the café of a factory that employs 400 people. To my surprise, he wanted collards. I took him 30 lbs, which is a lot of greens, on Monday. It was a surreal delivery. To walk the boxes of collards through the plant to the cafe, I had to have my photo taken, after which I had to don a freshly-printed nametag with my photo on it, an orange safety vest, safety glasses, and ear plugs. This was a very modern facility, with people manning robotic-type gizmos and tools. The café in the facility would put many restaurants to shame, and the chef was trying to buy as much local food as he could reasonably afford.

He said he would go through those collards in no time, and, in fact, the next day he called wanting more. Unfortunately, the cold snap came through that night, so future delivers might not be as much as I would have liked.

As much as I’m disappointed I lost some collards, the contact I made might be even more valuable, as the chef said he would be very interested in buying tomatoes and strawberries this spring and summer. And that’s how things seem to go with farming. One thing leads to another. From roadside stand to farmers’ market to chef, from chickens to bees to pigs, from tomatoes to strawberries to collards, each is a little gateway drug to the next.

At some point, and maybe I’m beginning to reach that point, I think I’ll begin to “just say no” to new farming ideas. Still, it’s kind of hard with farming to know what works and what doesn’t and what’s worth doing and what isn’t until you try it.

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Bad Carrots

This year Stephen maxed our garden spot to capacity. For weeks we were loaded down with lettuce, carrots, butter peas, brown peas that I don’t have a name for, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers – and this year we wanted to try and save some of our favorites items to use throughout the fall and winter.

Lots of lettuce ready for the picking

There were some successes and failures….we’ll start with the successes because the failure story is a little rank.

All form of beans were nicely blanched, bagged, frozen, or dried. They are all safely stored in the pantry or freezer.

Onions and garlic were harvested, dried, and hung in the barn loft. Now that most of the hay is gone, it is pretty easy to get up there and move about.

And then, there were the carrots. Our carrot crop didn’t do very well this year, but we still had a good plenty to store up. We had heard once that you were supposed to store carrots pretty much the same way that you store potatoes – and I still have no idea how true that is.

Most people around here just store potatoes under the house. Well, to successfully get under our house you need to be about the size of a small child…and since I wasn’t too confident that my cousin would jump at the chance of volunteering her three year old for the job…we decided that another solution needed to be found.

Stephen and I thought about it for awhile, and figured we’d try using an extra styrofoam cooler. After all, coolers are dark, dry, and are easily sealed up. Looking back, I think it was the easily sealed up part that got us in to trouble.

A few weeks later I’m in the kitchen fixing supper and I smell this horrible stink – and I mean unbelievably horrible. Then I notice this toxic brown slime dripping to the floor – where the heck is this coming from!

The carrots…

Carrots can not be stored in a cooler. They will rot and mold beyond belief – colors and stink that you did not know existed! The toxicity of the slime will be great enough to rot through a styrofoam cooler. I thought styrofoam could not be biodegraded!

Stephen was heartbroken. I promptly sent him outside to get rid of the carrots; he was still speaking out in denial between dry heaves and gagging at the deadly stench radiating from that box.

So friends, what have we learned about food storage and life in Pleasant Hill in today’s post?

  1. Carrots cannot be successfully stored in styrofoam coolers, just stick to the under your house method or preferably whatever a legitimate carrot farmer suggests.
  2. Stephen’s hair really is like mad Bob Ross hair when it hasn’t been cut in several months….and yes his eyebrows are just as big.
  3. We may have discovered a solution to the problem of non biodegrading styrofoam in our nation’s landfills – just seal it all up with some fresh carrots and let nature do it’s thing….if you can handle the eye watering odors that it will emit.
  4. Onions and Garlic in the barn are really nice…plus you feel all old timey when you go cut one down to cook with. Good idea Stephen!

Afternoon fun

With the weekends jam packed, we spend most afternoons working on various things around the farm. New plants, new chickens, new bees, new paint (which still needs to go on the old house)…..the list of chores is never ending, but we still find time to have a little bit of fun.

Little chickens are growing up!
Zillah, Quigley, and Dangerfield
Quigley likes to hop up for a snuggle
Lots of lettuce ready for the picking
Gotta smoke those bees
Bee suites are for protection
Bees need more gear than chickens!

Some New Friends

This past weekend, we brought home some new friends—thousands of them to be exact. We traveled up to Moravian Falls, NC, to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm to adopt two nucs of bees. Nucs (short for nucleus colonies) are like starter-kits for beehives.  Each nuc has several frames of brood, honey, pollen, lots and lots of bees, and, most importantly, a fully functional queen bee. You simply move the frames over from the portable nuc box into your hive and hope you don’t crush the queen in so doing. So far, our bees seem pretty happy, and as an official beekeeper, with all total a week of beekeeping experience, here are a few of my sage observations on bees and beekeeping:

a nuc

1) There are lots of newcomers to beekeeping, like me. At Brushy Mountain, over half of the people who attended the nuc installation class were new to beekeeping (of course, experienced beekeepers would probably skip the class). It was also interesting to notice the diversity of the class, at least in terms of men and women, young and old. Some attendees were wearing flip-flops and shorts, some Carharts and boots, some capris and ankle bracelets; most of us, though, were wearing veils.

the nuc installation class
that's me with the white jacket and blue jeans

2) Bees are heavy. Okay, one bee doesn’t weigh very much, but moving thousands of bees crawling all over honey-soaked frames in a wooden box can give your back a workout.

bees
Getting ready to open the nuc for the first time
Ahh! What have I gotten myself into!

3) Finding the queen bee in the hive is like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo Book, only more difficult because the queen bee is always moving.

looking for the queen

4) It doesn’t take bees long to get to work. Within an hour or so, foraging bees were returning to the hive with their back legs loaded down with bright orange pollen. I think they were gathering pollen and nectar from some nearby Chinese Privet bushes, though it’s hard to track a flying bee because they zoom around so quickly.

bees coming and going and learning their new environment

6) It’s a new age in beekeeping. Apparently, in years gone by, beekeeping (or keeping bees alive) was a lot simpler. Now, a variety of pests target honeybees. Emptying the nuc box, I noticed one of those pests, a small hive beetle, scurrying around in the bottom of the box. The little beetle looked innocent enough, but I know its larvae can cause major mayhem. The varroa mite (a.k.a. Varroa destructor) is by far the most worrisome pest for hobby beekeepers. It spreads all sorts of honeybee diseases and gorges on bee larvae. A few days after installing the hives, I checked for varroa mites. The hive had a few, but nothing to be too concerned about at this point. Most hobby beekeepers haven’t had much problem with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has made lots of headlines in recent years. This seems to be a problem prone to larger, commercial bee operations. In any event, a lot of new pests are making beekeeping much more challenging. To keep the pests in check, I’m going to avoid using synthetic pesticides and try several more natural methods. Wish me luck.

Weather Roulette

Ugh, the weather these days. In Shelby, March was one of the warmest on record. People have been cutting grass for over a month, planting gardens (some of which already have corn stalks a foot high), and sneezing their heads off because everything is blooming early. Still, I didn’t take the bait. I diligently looked up the average last frost date for Shelby, April 14, and planned months ago to set out my young heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers a few days after that. And so I did.

Now, on the morning of April 24, 2012, we set a new record low for all April 24s in recorded meteorological history: 34° F.  This previous record was held by April 24, 1893.

The official temperature is taken five feet above the ground, and since cold air sinks, the temperature at ground level is colder, say, 32° F.  Of course, at 32 ° F frost forms and sure enough patchy frost covered the ground this morning. I didn’t want one of those patches to settle on and kill my plants, so last night the garden looked like an army of misfit boxes and flower pots in ranks across the field, protecting the plants. As far as I can tell, my plants came out unscathed, but my truck didn’t, as I put a small but deep scratch on it when I was backing up in the dark to return from the garden. Ugh.

On a brighter note, meteorologists are forecasting a cooler summer for the southeast because of El Nino.

Natalie was a little upset I used our good beach towels.

Now Spring Has Clad The Grove In Green

Now spring has clad the grove in green,
And strew’d the lea wi’ flowers;
The furrow’d, waving corn is seen
Rejoice in fostering showers

– Robert Burns

Spring is always full of new things and the most vibrant shades of green. Despite the sniffles, sneezes, and itchies…..this spring is particularly exciting. There are lots of new things taking place and growing up around the farm – there’s never a dull moment and always plenty to do.

We are adding three new chicks to our flock this year.

Dangerfield – Golden Cuckoo Marans


Zillah – White Plymouth Rock

Quigley – Easter Egger

We’ve got over 200 new blubs of garlic growing in the garden….plus over 200 onions….and at least 100 carrots.

Not to mention all of the new tomatoes, squash, watermelons, and peppers at the house waiting for their day to move to the big garden.


New leaves on the apple trees.

And the house….waiting for new paint.

Old Tradition for a New Year

cash money

In keeping with tradition, I ate collards and black-eyed peas yesterday. The collards represent cash money, and the black-eyed peas represent coins. By eating them on New Year’s day, I’ll supposedly bring in a lot of cash and coins this upcoming year.

I grew two types of collards this fall: southern and Vates’. The southern collards are the ones I remember growing up, and by remember I mean remember smelling. The smell of cooking collards can linger in the air and memory, and it was this pungent smell that deterred me from eating them. When I’ve actually worked up the nerve to eat collards, I can say they taste a lot better than they smell, though I still prefer black-eyed peas on New Year’s day.

Both the southern and Vates’ collards grew well, and both made it through several hard frosts to New Year’s day. Last year, our neighbor grew a big garden of greens, but he lost most of the greens early because it was such a cold winter. Southern collards have thick, leathery leaves and are renown for their hardiness, but the Vates’ collards have also withstood the cold nights.

As far as taste goes, I wasn’t able to tell much difference in taste between the two varieties. The biggest difference was in appearance. The Vates’ collards have a crinkly leaf margin and the southern collards have a smooth, spinach-like leaf margin and texture. To most people though, a collard is a collard, and you either love them or hate them–regardless of the variety.

Southern collard on left; Vates collard on right