Category Archives: Heritage foods

Of ice and hens

A friend of mine from New Zealand asked me the other day why I stay here, when there are much easier places to farm–I’m beginning to wonder that myself! The night before last, it started snowing; it looked like Mother Nature was just brushing the dandruff out of her hair.  But by morning it had snowed about 18 inches–not that it isn’t picturesque, but it is a make-more-work-for-me-kinda-scene that I am growing tired of this year.

I blame the goats for my negative attitude towards the ice and snow; they hate the snow and that makes me not like it. They stand in their shelters and bleat and moan about it, like I’m somehow personally responsible for their  lack of comfort. It is quite hilarious to watch them run from their barn to their day-paddock; like cats treading through puddles, they lift their feet high trying  not to get them wet. It is the best darn high-stepping trot I’ve seen, and would make many a horse person envious. There is usually a puddle or two along the way and they all leap over it, one by one. I picture them jumping puddles like that at night when I can’t sleep. This is what happens when you don’t have sheep.

When I watch these domestic animals and know how relatively pampered they are, it makes me wonder how the wild goats survive these Canadian winters. Actually, each Canadian winter I survive makes me wonder how any wild creature survives out there without shelter, heat, and readily available food. This year’s cold stretch lasted longer than the previous years I’ve been here, and I noticed the other day the wild birds were eating snow–I guess their puddles and water sources were all iced up and they were desperate.

The chickens, on the other hand, are relatively stoic, and I appreciate them for it. They seem to come out of the barn in nearly all weather. The only time they didn’t make an appearance this winter was for the week of sheer blizzard conditions we had in December. Otherwise, they are out grubbing for a portion of their living. It is helpful that they are an energetic bunch because, even with their enthusiasm for self-sufficiency, I’ve had to buy a lot more feed than previous years, and the feed costs have risen. Consequently, the attempt to be profitable is ever-receding into the horizon. I have yet to do the books, but I’m not all that enthusiastic. We both suspect that the off-farm job is actually paying for the eggs I’m selling. I don’t need to do the books to know we are going through more feed than we are realizing in egg sale returns, so I’m putting the accounting off as long as I can.

I want to farm, but I’m still not sure how I can actually make it work. It is just not enough to have a cute place and funny animals; I need a wage like everybody else. The funny animals take time and effort, and I could justify having them as pets when I had a nice salary; I am having a more difficult time justifying them, along with the ducks, now that I don’t. Surprisingly, when I say that to people (who have nice salaried jobs), they are shocked. “Oh, you can’t get rid of your goats, they’re so cute!” is the most common response. Yes, they are cute. So are the ducks. But cute doesn’t pay my taxes, replace my roof, or replace my truck as it rusts away. When did our society come to expect farms to be cute, and farmers to not make money on their farm? When did we stop caring that, like any other service industry, if it is not supported and can’t make a profit, it won’t last? This principle is well understood for all sorts of business and services, and yet farms seem to be thought of as something that shouldn’t make money. It is as if we’ve all come to accept that it is logical that farmers should work off the farm to pay for their farm. What other business would this (ill-) logic apply to? Would you run a restaurant that way? How about a mechanic shop?

Thus far, neither my ducks nor my goats have had to work for their living. Now that I am trying to make the farm a going concern, I have to look around it and put everything through an income-generating test: does it, or can it, make money? In light of this, I’ve slaughtered most of the ducks and lost the last two females to foxes. I’m going to take the last drake to the game dinner and he won’t be wearing a bow-tie, but I haven’t told him yet. In addition, I have been toying with the idea of finding a buck for my does and putting them to work. I know they will not make money because I’m not allowed to sell the meat, but they will at least provide me with a return in meat and milk. The milk I can make into cheese and the meat I can eat. The fact is, my workload will not change much in order to realize some milk and meat returns for us, directly.

Thus far in my farming career, I have yet to witness the birth of anything that doesn’t hatch, but I am drawn to the idea of mammalian births. I have finally managed to find a willing buck, and now I just have to get emotionally prepared for the result: extra work and butchering the kids. While I love the idea of seeing my goats pregnant, giving birth and having some kids around, I know that ultimately I’ll have to eat them or sell them. Our place is too small to expand the herd and I can’t just keep adding glorified pets to the equation any more.

I’ve managed to evolve emotionally this year and hone my butchering skills to cope with chickens and turkeys. If I get the does pregnant, then I’ll have to fast track the emotional fortitude to do in a baby goat. Learning to hunt this year has helped with the idea. After all, a goat is just a small deer. Still, there is one thing to butchering a deer you didn’t know personally and another thing to do in one of ‘my babies’ (it doesn’t help that they are called ‘kids’!).  Honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet. I guess if I get the girls pregnant, I’ll have a time limit for that trajectory!

I’d like to raise more chickens and turkeys than I do, and maybe get into rabbits and goats, and sell the meat. Sadly, with all the prohibitive regulations it is nearly impossible to start anything without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (think meat slaughter, poultry slaughter). I’d like to run a goat dairy, but we have the predators to deal with, on top of the prohibitive aforementioned capital investment. In addition to all of this, I’m living in an area where there are few people, so I wonder if there will ever been enough demand to make a farm work here.

Finally, I am struggling with the idea of investing more money here when there is such a huge risk of having my stock devastated by a bear or cougar. Even the losses I have taken (some chickens and ducks) amount to what may have been my profit margin. In light of the above, I toggle between wanting to go out and get a decent paying job so I can go back to playing at farming (and just supplying our own needs), and continuing to work at something extremely under-valued, in the hopes it will amount to something, someday.

I also face legislative blocks. Small farms in British Columbia cannot make a living on the wholesale market. This is why exemption status for small farming is so important. If we want to have local foods from small, sustainable farms that treat their animals humanely, we need producer-processor rights so that we (small farmers) can legally do direct marketing, attain the sales value, and avoid sharing the profits with middle-men. There are many places in the world that still allow this, but we have recently outlawed this in British Columbia for the majority of farming products. That’s why there are days when I think I should go somewhere and get a wage, or find somewhere I can farm more easily… but then I look up at these glorious tree-clad mountains and granite crags, put on my gumboots, and happily trudge out to care for my charges.

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Filed under Chickens, Ducks, Eggs, Ethical farming, Goats, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming, Turkeys

The end of composting…

as I know it!

September 21st, it was the last day of summer and I was down at my friend Clarence’s garden helping him harvest some potatoes. I had been by his place a few days before while he was harvesting some fingerling potatoes. He was unsure of whether or not he was going to bother with them. “I had these in my garden years ago but got rid of them,” he told me, “but now they’re back.” He shrugged, as if the potatoes had decided on their own to re-colonize his garden.

Some of Clarence's Ozette potatoes sitting on my porch; notice the knobbly one in the centre, that's all one potato!

Some of Clarence's Ozette potatoes. Note the one in the centre, that's all one potato!

Today I was back to help harvest the tasty little beauties. (I also wanted to ensure I would have the seed for next year.) After searching through various web sites and photos of potato varieties, I found not only the pedigree of Clarence’s ‘Indian’ potato but also the reason behind the name. The original seed was obtained from Anna Cheeka, a Makah Indian of the Neah Bay Tribe, and introduced to the market by David Ronniger, of Ronniger Potato Farm LLC, in the late 1980s. According to their web site:

The Ozette is one of the tastiest of all fingerlings. Classic in appearance with pale gold skin and creamy yellow flesh. The slightly earthy, nutty flavor comes through beautifully when lightly steamed or sautéed. Late variety.

See Potato party for one for more on the Ozette potato.

While in Clarence’s garden, I noticed he was doing something foreign to me: placing the potato tops and any rogue weeds back into the hole where the harvested potatoes had come from. Having just harvested all of my potatoes and carried the potato tops, along with the weeds, to a compost pile inside my garden, I asked him about it. “I’ve always done it this way” he said, and then shrugging, “It’s what my dad taught me.” By spring, it would be rich soil, while my compost may not be completely biodegraded. “It feeds the worms too” he added as an afterthought.

While digging potatoes, he uses the tops as back-fill to be composted directly into the soil

While digging potatoes, he uses the tops as back-fill to be composted directly into the soil.

I had thought that I was being clever by having the compost pile inside the garden, saving myself two steps: heaving the weeds and garden waste out to the pile, and then heaving it all back again in the spring as composted material. In the spring, I would simply spread it around the garden here and there and then turn the chickens in to do the rest of the spreading work. But what Clarence was doing eliminated both steps and produced a better result.

“You know, that soil scientist who was here last year? He told me I had the best soil in all the tests he’d done in the valley,” Clarence boasted while picking out a small rock as he continued to dig the potatoes.

one for keepers, one for rogues, one for rocks.

The three-bucket system: one for keepers, one for rogues, one for rocks.

This man has a system. A three-bucket system: One bucket for the ‘keepers’, one for the ‘rogues’, and one for the rocks. The keepers he stores enough for his family and sells the extras, the rogues he gives away to those who can’t afford to buy, and the rocks he disposes of. He’s been maintaining this system in this garden for longer than I’ve been alive. “You know, people say their gardens are too rocky for vegetables” he says while continuing to hoe, “So I ask them, Have you ever thought about digging them out?” He goes on to tell me about the thousands of rocks, small and large, that he’s taken out of here over the years. One of them was too large for removal he tells me, “So I spent nearly two hours digging a hole beside it …you know, and tipped it in” he stops hoeing long enough to give me a visual aid in gestures, and then nods towards an area in the garden, “It’s still in there, under the soil deep enough for my rototiller to pass over unscathed.”

Diligence with roguing out even small rocks has made the soil what it is today.

Diligence with rouging out even the smallest of rocks has helped make the soil what it is today.

Clarence is eighty-three. Originally from Pennsylvania, he is now a great-grandfather several times over. He has outlived his wife (but enjoyed a fiftieth wedding anniversary); survived the deaths of two children; endured 295 days as a POW “guest of Mr Hitler” as he likes to put it; lost his thumb end to a dynamite mishap at the tender age of 5; hunted countless troublesome cougars, and even got the better of one which attacked him on January 24th, 2000 (when he was seventy-four!). Luckily for me, he is also a master gardener keen to pass on his knowledge.

Like the Ozette potato, Clarence came north when young and flourished in a new climate. He too is a master survivor. No wonder he’s got the best soil in the valley!

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Filed under How to..., Potatoes, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

Potato party for one

Clarence harvesting the Ozette potatoes.

Clarence harvesting the potatoes for my party.

Recently I helped my friend Clarence harvest some of his potatoes. He is one of our stoic  ‘old-timers’, and each year plants one of the largest gardens in the valley. In fact, Clarence’s garden is quite the food security resource for our community. Many people rely on his harvest each year to stock their pantry shelves. Some of his harvest he sells, but much of it he gives away to those less able to pay.

I tend to go to his garden to harvest knowledge and take home his stories by the bucket-load. The other day, we were amidst a sea of potato tops chatting while he was harvesting potatoes for someone who would soon arrive to pick them up.  Quite abruptly, he turned on his heel and took off across the garden. Apparently he decided I needed to test out a fingerling potato that he was unimpressed by. Leaping rows in a single bound, he called back to me: “I don’t know what to make of it.”

When I caught up to him, he was already unearthing what looked to me like lovely, small, light golden tubers. “See how they are too small,” he said, holding them out in front of himself with disdain. He told me he didn’t know why they call them ‘Indian’ potatoes and highlighted the various errors in their conformation. He didn’t like the fact they were ‘knobbly’ but mostly he was unimpressed with the size; Clarence is big on ‘big’ vegetables, and each year hunts for the largest of each item in his garden. Once, while showing off his big potato at the local Coop store, it was inadvertently scanned through the check-out and Clarence ended up paying for it!

“I want you to try them and let me know what you think of them,” he said, loading a bunch of the fingerlings into a bucket. “Are you going to keep growing them?” I asked. His hand came up in front of me. Pausing as if to punctuate the moment, “Question,” was all he said–finger tracing the shape, echoing the announcement through the air.  The jury was not yet in. My assignment, according to Clarence, was to take these little ‘twisty, turny, knobbly’ things home, taste them and report back with the final verdict. The pressure was on. The future of these potatoes in the valley rested on my experience with them. He outlined the set of parameters that I was to judge them by: how were they to clean, were the eyes too deep, were they too much bother for the amount of food value–something that he suspected.

In his list of guidelines I noted there was nothing about taste, heritage, or pedigree. This is a man who obviously has a different value system than I do; he’s a utilitarian gardener. But then it’s not surprising, given the more than 40 years and several generations of experience that separate us. “Well, while I’m at it Clarence, would you mind if I took home one of each variety?” If I was going to do the experiment, I thought, I might as well make it worth my while and put them up against some other varieties.  I wanted to really ‘put them through the mill’ as it were.

This year, Clarence is growing four kinds of different spuds: Kennebec (a Canadian heirloom), Red Rose, Yukon Gold (another Canadian variety) and the fingerling potato of questionable merit. I took each of the four varieties home, washed and chopped them up and  then added my organic red of unknown pedigree to the pot. Wanting to keep the testing simple, and taste the potatoes in as undisguised form as possible–to even the playing field, I reasoned–I simply boiled them in salted water.

Once cooked, I laid them out on a plate. Surprisingly, there was a riot of color, or at least shades of color. I began sampling; they had remarkably different textures as well as flavours. Not surprisingly, I liked each of Clarence’s varieties better than my own. Even his Yukon Gold outclassed my own Yukon Gold; something to be said for soil management, among other things, I thought.

big, shallow eyes, easy to clean.

This is a potato worthy of harvesting: a Kennebec--big, shallow eyes, easy to clean.

Thoroughly enjoying my personal potato party, I couldn’t avoid the fact that the winner in terms of flavour and texture was the ‘knobbly’ little fingerling! Clarence was not going to like my final verdict. When I reported back to him the next day, not surprisingly he looked disappointed. By the look on his face, I could tell he was torn between two philosophies.  What he liked was growing big, utilitarian items (he’s an alfa-male through and through). And yet,  one can tell there is also a commitment to keeping the heritage alive. “Well, you can take as many as you like,” he offered. I was sure he was hoping I’d take them all off his hands and rid him of the burden of keeping the seed going.

I happily dug in and took a five gallon bucket-load home, probably about 25-30 pounds worth, along with the others he’d harvested for me. The next day, I returned to visit him and report on my findings. He was still unconvinced. This time, however, I was armed with knowledge, with a history, with a name. After tasting the potato and falling in love with it, I  felt a personal responsibility towards it and knew I would feel guilty if I let it down– if Clarence might stop growing it. It was as if  the future of the fingerling in the Bella Coola Valley lay in my hands. Because of this, I had done my homework.

Ozette potatoes drying in the sun.

Ozette potatoes drying in the sun.

It is an ancient variety of potato. It was brought to North America by the Spanish explorers in the 1700s and given to the Makah Indians of Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It is called the Ozette. It gets its name from the area where the Makah Indians still grow it after all these years.

The fact that I raved about the texture and flavour of the Ozette did nothing for Clarence; but as I described the long and distinguished history of this little hardy potato, his face finally softened: “Well, then. I suppose I’ll have to keep some for seed.”

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Filed under Food Security, Heirloom vegetables