Monday, February 21, 2011

Just In Time

It's been a while since I've updated, but life on the farm has either been woefully boring (nothing to really write about) or extremely busy (no time to write). However, Mother Nature has afforded me a few spare moments for an an update.

It was nearly 70 degrees last week so I took the opportunity for plenty of outdoor projects--raking leaves and the flower beds, pruning trees and some fun spring things like a few cold frames right off the house thanks to a few unwanted shower doors, contractors sand and cinder blocks. I started a whole flat of Romanesco, one of my favorite vegetables, along with some perennial flowers, heirloom tomatoes and assorted lettuce greens. I'd like to start some spinach and Napa cabbage, too, but I'm waiting on the seeds. I'm thinking big batches of kimchi and delicious salads.

Warm weather brings about a type of complacency when it comes to farming. You have a few days where you don't have to wear long underwear and strip down to just a long sleeve t-shirt and a fleece vest. You put your hands in the dirt. You turn your face to the sun and bask.

And then reality gives you a hard slap up along side your head.

This afternoon was one of those rude awakenings.

Immersed in a writing project and pushing a deadline, I wasn't honestly paying attention to the weather. Sure, I remember hearing something about the possibility of snow and didn't think much of it when I woke up this morning to a minor dusting. No big deal.

Wet, rainy, cold, problem staying inside all day and wrapping my brain around subject that couldn't have been further from the farm. In the corner of my mind, I knew I had to make a call to my hay guy since my stash was getting low. And then by chance I happened to take a mindless break to Facebook.

"Six to ten inches of snow," lamented a fellow farmer not far from here. Sweet barking cheese! I was in trouble if this was true. A quick browse over to AccuWeather confirmed my fears. Time to get off my ass and get to work.

First and foremost was my hay situation.

I love my hay guy because he always delivers within 24 hours of a request, but my urgency would have been pushing the limits of his generosity on this faux pas. A quick call confirmed he was in his barn loading hay for a delivery so I could drive over and get enough to get me through until the storm passed and adequate plowing will have been accomplished.

This must be just the way the stars always align for a snow storm--low on hay, a much needed trip to town to return library books. At least I have plenty of heating oil and propane for cooking. And then there are the little things like making sure the vehicles and tractors are all strategically placed for plowing. So it was quick trip over to the hay guy and enough hay to last me through the storm and beyond, but not enough to require the use of my hay elevator. At 40-50 lb. bales, it was still a good workout to beat the impending storm. I unloaded in the open squall. As the fat flakes slapped me in the face I felt as if I were giving Old Man Winter the finger. Bring it, I'm ready for you, by the skin of my teeth, but all the same, I'm ready.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Panchetta from Baby Beef Bellies

Veal. The word conjures up animal rights nightmares of wide-eyed baby cows tightly crammed in crates barely as wide as their bodies, their rear ends drenched in mustard-colored diarrhea and their heads blocked in a stockade above a bucket of medicated, iron-deficient gruel.

Chances are if you buy pale-colored veal from a grocery store or order Veal Parmesan in a restaurant with a price tag less than twenty bucks, that's what you'll be eating.

The reality is the veal industry exists because of the dairy industry. Cows bred to be milked are genetically designed to put their energy into milk production--not laying down thick layers of marbled muscle like that of their Black Angus brethren. It is not economical to raise dairy-type male offspring for commercial beef production.

And the truth is, they can't all grow up to be the bull.

This fact, coupled with my location in the heart of Pennsylvania dairy country and one incredibly delicious meal of veal kidneys with a creamy green peppercorn-mushroom sauce at Bistro Jeanty in Napa Valley, let me to adding veal calves to my farm several years ago.

They come to the farm from neighboring dairies when they are about a week old. That way they've had more than sufficient colostrum from their mothers to provide a solid immunity. From there, I switch them to a non-medicated powdered milk replacer that is reconstituted in warm water and fed first by bottle and then a "mommy bucket".

Feeding calves from nipples is important because anyone who has ever been around a nursing calf will tell you that when they latch on to your fingers they produce copious amounts of saliva. There are natural anti-bacterial properties and digestive enzymes found in the saliva that help keep calves healthy. When they are forced to drink a cold replacer fortified with an anti-bacterial (common practices in commercial production), these unnatural methods often lead to many calves demise.

I've raised two different breeds of calves--Jerseys and Holsteins. Although the Jerseys are just about the cutest little things you've ever seen, when they show up, they're usually in the 50 to 75 pound range and take seven to eight months to reach 300-350 pounds--a weight where they usually stall in growth.

Last year I switched to Holsteins--the ubiquitous black an white cows often associated with milk. What I failed to understand was when they arrived, they weighed as much as a four to six week old Jersey calf. That's usually when I have to switch the calves over to mommy buckets since it's a calf's natural inclination to bang their noses into a cows udder in order to stimulate milk letdown. They do the same thing with bottles and having a hundred pound animal delivering quick jabs looking for a meal can leave some mean bruises.

It was during the height of mud season the first batch of calves arrived and I walked into a paddock holding three two-quart bottles where there were three ravenous calves, each about a hundred pounds. All three slammed into me in unison sending me straight on to my back. I laid there stuck in the mud, struggling to breathe as they had knocked the wind completely out of me. Before I could move, all three had mobbed me with their slimy faces, sucking on my hair, my face, my clothes looking for their meal. Their hooves were sharp and dug into my stomach, my legs and my shoulder. "Trampled to death by veal calves, this is how they're going to find me,"flashed through my mind.

But I managed to get up and escape the pen. These guys were going straight to mommy buckets--no bottle feeding for them. And so for the next three months, I hefted the mommy buckets over the fence twice a day and then turned them out on the lush green pastures for another three months until they reached their harvest weight.

I enjoy watching them play games of chase throughout the day and listening to them bellow when they see me outside. They follow closely, slobbering all over my hands and clothes as I lead them to fresh grazing grounds.

So when I was asked to join in on the Charcutepalooza Challenge for The Year of Meat, I knew I had to devote my projects to veal. Not just any veal, buy my veal.

The panchetta made from veal belly has been hanging in the attic for a few weeks now. And although the posting of the February Challenge was due yesterday, Mother Nature decided to violently exhale leaving me to tend first to the fury she unleashed on my farm, before devoting any time to my blog.

So this morning after I finished two day's worth of clearing all the downed branches from the fences and the yard, I brought the piece of brined, peppered and rolled veal belly out of the attic and cut into it. From the brilliant pinkness, there's no denying these little beef babies were out on green grass. Unlike pork, though, the layer of fat is extremely thin and therefore, not very creamy. Actually, it verged on almost stringy--like a piece of dental floss. While I'd give consistency a four on a scale of ten, for taste, it ranks around eight or nine. There is the delicate taste of beef, not overpowering like with a bresaola, tinted with salt, pepper, juniper and bay.

I tasted it first alone and then decided to add some to my breakfast of Shirred Eggs, one of my favorite quick, easy morning meals. Give it a try.

Sandra's Shirred Egg Recipe
Rub the inside of a ramekin with real butter.
Add two eggs.
Sprinkle with minced panchetta and cheese.
Add a tablespoon of cream on top.
Bake at 400 until bubbly, about 8-10 minutes.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Routine

For the next 60 days my world revolves around these these stupid little buggers who insist on all drinking out of the same nipple even though there is one for each of them and a spare. There's a morning, afternoon and evening feeding--no way around it. It's not much different than the normal routine of morning and evening feeding...just there's an extra one which can really screw up any chances for a social life during this time. At the same time, I'm still waiting for the lone hold-out on kidding season. She's round as a barrel, but still hasn't popped. But with temperatures in double digits and her being an experienced in birth, my hourly vigilance isn't as crucial. I can finally sleep through the night.

While I may grump about the isolation, the truth is I really enjoy these times of solitude. Winter and kidding season affords me the simple luxuries I often ignore during the busy season, like reading. As a big fan of John & Abigail Adams, I've been enjoying First Family. Next on the list is Washington: A Life. I've wanted to dig into repairing some of the ugly holes in my horsehair plaster walls, but I just haven't had the motivation. With all the mess the bottle babies made while they were in the house, I haven't wanted to add anymore chaos since cleaning the urine & feces soaked newspaper covered with hay out of my dining room. There's something to be said about a little domestic cleanliness. Farming is no excuse for filthiness.

Yes, I had wonderful plans for making regular visits to the city to deliver goodies to my urban customers and enjoy some cultural enrichment, but the reality is that the farm demands my undivided attention during the winter months.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day

Today's post is dedicated to my Grandma Miller. After I left home and transplanted myself on the opposite side of the country, there was one thing I could always count on--a call from Grandma on February 2nd to let me know whether or not The Groundhog saw his shadow. She took on this charge after I told her that there weren't any groundhogs in California.

"If you don't have groundhogs, how are you going to know if he saw his shadow?"

"You'll just have to let me know."

And that she did every year, even after I moved back to Pennsylvania, until she passed away.

The news out of Punxsutawney today, according to Phil the Official Groundhog, prognosticated an early spring.

I'm not sure what my groundhog's name is or if he saw his shadow or not, but I do know he didn't venture far out of his hole after digging out this morning--no tracks in the snow--just enough to pop out his head and say "Well, this sucks. I'm going back to bed."

And just how do I know?

Despite being well prepared for the Groundhog Ice Storm, as it was dubbed by the National Weather Service, the reality is I still have to go out in this mess. Yes, there's the usual trek to the barn several times a day for feeding, watering and checking in on all the animals, but on days like this there is also another critical task to be performed--I need to walk my fence lines.

There is approximately twenty miles of wire strung around the farm--six strands of electrified high-tensile creating six large paddocks, two alleyways and thirty gates. Give all of that infrastructure combined with hundreds of trees, the probability of something falling on my fencing system during an ice storm is high.Last winter about a dozen trees came down due to ice, snow and wind. So far this year, I've been extremely fortunate with only a few branches down.

The lovely thing about a high-tensile fence is if it's built right, it can take a heck of a beating. Too many people want to ratchet their wires until they are so tight the spindles can't take any more tension. That's a recipe for a broken fence.
Walking down through the pines this morning was as much an auditory adventure as a vista of winter beauty. Melting droplets falling on the frozen crust, breaking shards of ice skittering smacking the earth and skittering accented with the occasion rush of an entire pine branch letting go of the frozen needle cover.Trudging down over the hill, I wondered if my footsteps, as they broke through the sheet of ice atop last week's snow, were setting off tiny shock waves signaling large ice-laden branches throughout the woods to suddenly come crashing down around me. I made it a point to stay out in the open as much as possible.The Australian Pine stand took quite a beating with several larger branches down. A wild cherry dropped a few smaller branches on the wires, but nothing serious. I could only find one live conifer that succumbed to the weight of the ice.Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch went my morning walk as I made it around the perimeter and back to the house. I'd worked up an appetite for breakfast which I squelched with a hearty batch of grass-fed roast beef hash with onions, sweet potato, green pepper, jalapeno, onion and winter squash topped off with a pair of fresh eggs and a hot cup of coffee.