First harvest of the year

Fourteen months ago, Kevin and I put 200,000 10-centimeter oysters out on our grant. By this January, they were about two inches, and we took them all out and put them in a cooler over the winter. In April, we put them back out.

Today is our first harvest. Seven thousand of those 200,000 go to market, and I will tell you that they are beautiful. They are uniform and deep-cupped. They are meaty and mineraly. It is not an exaggeration to say they are world-class.

We can’t take all the credit. Their flavor and texture come primarily from the water, their deep-cuppedness and uniformity primarily from their genetics. What we did was care for them in such a way that they were able to reach their full potential; Kevin laid the farm out so that we didn’t crowd them, and he made sure they got moved around a bit and that we kept the equipment reasonably free of the biofoul that can impede water flow.

As we were washing the 7000, our friend and wholesaler, Dave Ryan, came over to look. Dave’s the best oysterman we know, and what success we’ve had raising oysters has largely come from shamelessly imitating techniques he has developed over three decades in the business. He confirmed that they were indeed beautiful, top-quality oysters. “You should be proud of them,” he told us.

We are. We are very proud of them.

Pigs!

We figured the five years that have gone by since our last pig-raising is long enough, and so we re-pigged at the beginning of July. Meet Buster, Malcolm, and Nellie.

Kevin, making friends

Our previous pigs (Doc, Spot, and Tiny) were mutts, a genetic mash-up created by a local pig farmer who has since gotten out of the business. Our current pigs are true-blue Large Blacks, heritage pigs known for their ability to forage. We ended up with heritage pigs despite the fact that I’m not a big believer in them.

Heritage breeds came about because someone, somewhere, mixed and matched a bunch of different pigs until he came up with a pig that suited his requirements. If he was a farmer in a cold climate, with access to plenty of forage but not much grain, his breed would of course be designed to thrive in those particular conditions.

But no two pig farmers have identical conditions, and even if you’re working in a cold climate with plenty of forage, seems to me that you’re crazy to limit yourself to the gene pool of one particular breed. Sure, start with Large Blacks! But any pig farmer worth her salt will look far and wide for pigs that can improve her herd with, say, good mothering instincts, or docility, or fast growth.

Nevertheless, we ended up with Large Blacks because, at the time that we needed to buy piglets, they seemed to be the best local option. When we bought them, they were eight weeks old, weighed about forty pounds, and had just been weaned. They’d been bred by a very nice couple who live a couple hours from us, so Kevin built an enclosure in the back of the truck, and away we went.

On their way home

Anyone who’s ever tried to catch a pig, even a small pig, even in an enclosure, knows that it’s not so easy. You have to grab them by the hind leg and lift them, squealing and squirming, to wherever it is you want to put them. First go-round, that was from their pen to the truck. Second go-round was from the truck to their new pen – 2200 square feet that we’ve fenced off in the woods.

At first, they were very skittish. And it’s not hard to understand why – we’d taken them away from their siblings, their mother, and everything that was familiar and plopped them down in a new place, where all they had was each other. As of today, four weeks later, they’re much better. They’ve come to recognize that Kevin and I are the bringer of all good things (i.e. food), and they no longer take refuge in a far corner of the pen when we appear.

Getting used to things

They come investigate when we go into the pen and they happily eat out of our hands, but they’re still not completely at ease. The difficulty we’ve had getting them comfortable with us has surprised us, since the last batch of pigs settled in right away, and within days would come running toward us when they heard us coming.

I blame heritage breeding. Specifically, I blame their ears.

Those of you who are familiar with Large Blacks know that they have a very distinctive characteristic (other then being large, and black): their ears grow to flop over their eyes. The point of this, I’m told, is to protect their eyes as they forage. But I think it’s a serious design flaw as it renders them both blind and deaf in one fell swoop.

A pig that can’t see or hear very well is a pig that startles easily. When sounds, or movement, do penetrate, the poor things can’t gather more information to assess whether this is some kind of threat, or just humans bringing dinner.

Even so, they’re settling in. They seem to enjoy their pen, and they’ve burrowed out a couple of favored napping spots (napping being their second-favorite activity, after eating). We try and spend some time socializing them every day, and they’re getting more used to us.

Their personalities asserted themselves early. The smallest one, Buster, is the most intrepid. He’s the first to come to overcome suspicion and approach either us, or anything new in the pen. The biggest one, Nellie, is a bit of a bully, and she spooks easiest of the three. Malcolm seems to be in the middle in every sense: weight, wariness, spirit of adventure.

These pigs will have short lives. In about four months they’ll reach slaughter weight (about 250 pounds), and we’ll take them to a nearby USDA slaughterhouse (Adams Farm, in northern Massachusetts). Meantime, we want to make their lives as happy and comfortable as we can. They’ll have a steady supply of good things to eat (including the hickory nuts and acorns that rain down around here in the fall), showers on hot days, and plenty of room to root and run.

We do this because we like both pigs and pork, and we want to make sure that any pig we eat was raised well. The best way we know to do that is to raise them ourselves. And so we welcome Buster, Malcolm, and Nellie to the homestead.

The mystique of farming

Farming has, recently, become the recipient of a mystique.

I wish I could put my finger on just how a profession in which you work hard for long hours in a risky business that doesn’t pay very well came to acquire a mystique, because if I knew how that process worked, perhaps I could acquire a mystique for myself. After 54 mystique-free years, I’m good and ready.

For most of human history, farming was simply something you had to do in order to eat. The drudgery and sweat were part of the human condition. Now, though, not a day goes by when I don’t read about how important it is to protect farmers’ livelihoods. Granted, I spend a disproportional amount of my day reading about agriculture, but I’m betting that even normal people, who read about politics and literature and fashion and inter-species animal friendships, come across the importance of farmers’ livelihoods from time to time.

Because farmers are the salt of the earth. Farmers provide sustenance. Farmers engage in the noble profession of coaxing life from the earth, and they do it because they are driven to make this their life’s work. Not all farmers, mind you – the kind of farmers who drive big, expensive combines and grow a lot of corn and soy are excluded. Mystique is reserved for small farmers, with less – and less expensive – equipment, who grow crops that end up on your dinner table more or less intact, and never find their way into cars and pigs and Twinkies.

If you’re in doubt about the nobility of those farmers, just ask Wendell Berry: “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.”

This idea seems to be surprisingly popular, given that it is utter bullshit. My husband and I grow oysters, and we sure as hell don’t do it for love. We do it for money.

As for mystique? Getting up at 4:30 to catch an early tide and do four hours of bending, lifting, scooping, sorting, carrying, and distributing a crop that might as well be so many rocks certainly doesn’t feel mystique-y in the moment.

The last three days, Kevin and I had to take over 400 onion bags filled with oysters, open them, and distribute them evenly in 400 trays (for the larger oysters) and 250 stiff mesh bags (for the smaller ones). It’s manual labor, from start to finish.

If you’ve never done repetitive manual labor (and I never had, until Kevin decided he wanted to be an oyster farmer), it’s exertion interspersed with problem-solving of the most prosaic kind. How do you open an onion bag so that, when you pour the oysters out, they don’t get caught in the corners? (Cutting the bottom seam from edge to edge seems to work best.) Is it easier to scoop oysters when the big plastic box you’re scooping from is mostly full, or mostly empty? (Mostly empty, because if the tip of the scoop hits the plastic bottom, you can slide it under the pile more easily.) Is it easier to bring the job to the boat, or the boat to the job? What equipment do I need to make sure I’m working at counter height, and not bending over? Does it make sense for Kevin and me to each do one-half the tasks involved in the job, and work together, or each do the whole job, and work separately? And on and on and on.

Kevin loading equipment on the boat as the water comes in

Kevin loading equipment on the boat as the water comes in

Don’t get me wrong. I find this interesting and even satisfying. My journalist day job often requires me to think about food and agriculture in a big, broad way: how can we feed nine billion people responsibly and nutritiously? To switch focus to finding the exact right size bucket to hold 250 oysters is a refreshing change. There is pleasure in doing a job efficiently and well, even if that job is just dumping rocks into trays.

And there is, at least for me, truth in the idea that it is gratifying to grow food. Kevin and I are very proud of our crop, and it makes us happy to know how much people enjoy eating it. But the idea that we’d do it for love is laughable.

It’s worse than that. It’s dangerous. If nourishing is noble but earning is ignoble, we don’t stand a chance of getting food policy right. We run the risk of protecting subsistence-farming livelihoods even when those subsistence farmers would rather be doing something else. We run the risk of demonizing successful farmers. We run the risk of providing incentives for practices that increase food prices, like working at small scale with few machines.

Kevin and I work at small scale with few machines (and produce a commensurately expensive product), and I sure hope there’s a place for that kind of farm in the food system that feeds nine billion people responsibly and nutritiously. But there’s just nothing romantic about labor that’s heavy and dirty and repetitive and sometimes dangerous, done day in and day out because you have no other choice.

The best way to take the mystique out of farming is to farm. The second best way, I’m hoping, is to ask nicely.

Rural hospitality

There are a lot of reasons I don’t play as much golf as I’d like, and most of them are dull, dull, dull.

We’re too busy. I didn’t get around to making a tee time, and now it’s too late. My game is so rusty that I’m embarrassed to play with strangers. From years of disuse, my golf shoes have deteriorated beyond recovery.

But now I have a much more interesting reason, a reason Kevin and I discovered when we went in the garden shed to retrieve a cooler.

The coolers live in the garden shed, as do many other non-garden-related items like lawn chairs, bicycles, and golf bags. But it used to have a lot of gardening stuff in it (until Kevin converted the hoophouse into a bigger, better gardening shed), and we can’t just call it the shed because we have what may be a record-setting number of sheds scattered around the property, and we need to be more specific. Garden shed it is.

There we were, in the garden shed, choosing the appropriately sized cooler and lamenting the fact that, despite our best varmint-proofing efforts, there was clear scatological evidence, everywhere, that varmints had won this round.

The small cooler, we decided, and were brushing off said scatological evidence when we heard a rustle. And then a rustle rustle.

And then something small, gray, and furry ran out of my golf bag, which was hanging on the wall. As it darted up the wall, Spiderman-style, another one came out. And then a third. They all ran up the wall, and across the ceiling to the other side, where they took shelter on a ledge over the window.

flying squirrel (3)

Kevin and I looked at each other “What ARE those things?”

You live in a place for nearly a decade, and you think you know your wildlife. We’ve seen foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and opossums, with the occasional wild turkey. We’ve got varied bird life, and an near-annual sighting of a giant snapping turtle named Osha. And, in the small-mammal category, we have voles, squirrels, chipmunks, and rats.

These guys were definitely in the small-mammal category, but equally definitely not voles, squirrels, chipmunks, or rats. We were very surprised to see a small mammal we didn’t recognize. The specimens that came out of my golf bag are bigger than chipmunks, but smaller than squirrels, with gray fur and a white underbelly. They have a flat tail, big eyes, and they’re very very cute.

Fortunately, the nice lady at Mahoney’s garden store, where we bought the three Asian pear trees we planted for Arbor Day, did recognize it. “That’s a flying squirrel,” she told Kevin, who showed her a slightly fuzzy picture he took with his phone.

This presents a problem. If there are adult flying squirrels in my golf bag in May, what are the odds that there are also baby flying squirrels? It is mating season, which argues for it, but there are at least three adults, which may – or may not – argue against it. I’m not sufficiently up on flying squirrel domestic arrangements to know.

If there are baby flying squirrels in my golf bag, I don’t want to kill them. Not that I don’t have a bone to pick with the whole clan, what with all that scatological evidence. But if we have a provided a home for a small mammal we’d never seen before, I don’t want to evict a whole family of them until after any babies are ready to support themselves.

Well, my clubs needed new grips anyway. And the bag has got to be over ten years old. The faint odor of urine in the shed is a good sign that all will need to be replaced.

On the plus side, though, when you ask me whether I want to play a round of golf, I get to say, “I’m afraid I can’t. There are flying squirrels nesting in my golf bag.”

Vegan recipe APB

Everyone who knows my husband, and almost everyone who knows of him, knows that he is hopelessly, irredeemably, unapologetically carnivorous. He eats meat or fish every day, often more than once, and he supplements it with plenty of butter and cheese.  He is fond of saying, when a salad is put in front of him, “this is the food that my food eats.”

So you can imagine my surprise when, a couple months back, he said, apropos of nothing: “I think I want to try going vegan for a month.”

I stopped what I was doing (chopping onions, it was), and looked at him, trying to process this. Generally, I’m pretty adept at the back-and-forth of conversation, but this had me drawing a blank. Kevin? Vegan?

“Who are you and what have you done with me husband?”

But it was Kevin, and he wanted to try going vegan for a month. He harbored a suspicion that his rampant carnivorousness wasn’t doing his health any good, and he wanted to see if he felt better eating less meat and more plants.

Now, if I wanted to see if I felt better eating less meat and more plants, I would eat less meat and more plants. But Kevin has an all-or-nothing approach to the world that I don’t share, and it’s easier for him to kick off this experiment by cutting out all animal products than it is for him to just rejigger the balance.

Vegan it would be. For the month of March. I was in.

kale

I wasn’t all in. I like having cream in my coffee, and yogurt in my smoothies, and I wasn’t inclined to give those things up. Besides, Kevin and I rarely eat breakfast and lunch together, as I tend to get up earlier than he does, and we’re generally on different schedules. But we eat dinner together every night, and we both thought this would be a great opportunity to expand our veg-based culinary repertoire, and maybe even lose a few pounds. I could muster some enthusiasm for that plan.

But then the other shoe dropped. “And I think I’ll cut out alcohol, too,” Kevin said.

Seems to me that, if ever a month needed alcohol, it’s the month you’re going vegan. This was beyond the pale.

“But alcohol’s vegan!” I protested. In fact, on the list of vegan things that are wonderful, wine has to be Number One. Beer is probably fighting it out with chocolate for Number Two, although mangoes could be in the running. I pointed this out to Kevin, but he was immovable. Vegan and alcohol-free it was.

Today is Day 6. I was at a conference for two of those days, and I don’t adhere to the regimen when I’m not home. So far, I’ve been almost-vegan for all of three days. I made a nice mushroom-barley soup the first day, and a big bowl of stir-fried tofu and vegetables with peanut sauce last night. In between, Kevin made a curry with potatoes, cauliflower, and coconut milk.

It’s been fine, so far, although a little humbling. Yesterday afternoon, I wandered the aisles of my local Stop & Shop, where I have shopped almost daily for the best part of a decade, and tried to find the tofu. In all those years, I had never once bought it. Not only did I not know where it was, I was too embarrassed to ask the nice people who work at the market, because I couldn’t even narrow the search down to department. Was it in with the refrigerated salsas in the produce department? With the eggs? With the cheese? In with the pickles and specialty deli items? No clue. Eventually, I discovered it in the “Nature’s Promise” section of the store, where they house the organic and gluten-free and grass-fed things.

So I found it, but then I had to cook it. I pressed out some of the water, cubed it and coated it in corn starch, and put it in a hot oily wok. It was OK, combined with the vegetables and peanut sauce (I do make a mean peanut sauce), but it wasn’t nice and crispy, the way I wanted it to be.

The bottom line here, Starving readers, is that I need your help. I can cruise the interwebs endlessly, looking for vegan recipes, but I think I’d do better to ask you: What is your favorite vegan dish?

Thanks in advance for helping. If I don’t get better at this, it’s going to be a long March.