Monday, June 27, 2011

Solstice Galantine

Our first solstice at Cairncrest Farm was in winter. Garth and Alanna had returned from their cheese making apprenticeship in France days before, and Edmund and I were scurrying to put the final coats of paint on the interior of the Talbot house. There was a pile of rotten wood and debris from the house clean-up in the driveway, and untold trash laying beneath the snow.

The winter solstice marks the onset of winter, but also the lengthening of daylight. It seemed an appropriate time to celebrate our collective farming venture. We invited "everyone we know" (which at the time were admittedly few) to share a large pot of chili and stoke the bonfire of debris in the driveway. That cold night, only the friendly couple who grow organic vegetables down the road came knocking on our door. It was just as well. The bonfire’s flames reached 10 feet high and we nervously looked at the electric lines dangling not far away. We had chili left overs for the next two days.

At times the number of projects at hand seems overwhelming. Last month we debated whether a solstice gathering this summer would distract from our pressing goals, not the least of which are building houses, tending a huge garden, raising chickens, maintaining our cows, and building a root cellar.

Deciding in the end to celebrate the solstice, Edmund prepared the wild turkey he shot in May into a “Turkey Galantine”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this dish, the Joy of Cooking describes it thus:

“A galantine of fowl is an extravagant production that begins with the boning process. The skin of the bird eventually becomes the covering of an oversized, luxuriant sausage that contains the meat of the bird combined with eggs, spices and other meats. When a galantine finally appears in all its... splendor, no one will suspect how it began, for in no way does it resemble any bird ever seen.”

This turkey sausage was about the size of my 5 month old son, as long as my forearm and too large to put two hands around completely. We had leftovers after this solstice party as well, but not before twenty-odd people had taken a thick slice.

Lawn games! A ukulele! And what seemed like everyone under 40 in Otsego County were in attendance. I could only feel joy and optimism looking around that evening last week at our growing community of friends. Anyone who has moved to a place where they are completely new knows how slowly friendships are formed. So it was a particular happiness to take an evening to celebrate the longest day of the year cultivating the relationships we forged thus far.

Let’s do that again.


The above three photos were taken by our friend, Amy McKinnon, at our solstice gathering.

Here is a blurry photo or two from our winter solstice bonfire last year.

And of course! Edmund’s amazing galantine! Here is it being sewn up in cheese cloth before being cooked.

Here is the galantine leftovers we had the next day for lunch.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

0 for 3

It's calving time here at the farm, so for several weeks now we've examined the rear ends of our cows at every opportunity since there are often observable signs of impending birth before a new baby drops. One of the most obvious leading indicators is a swollen udder, "bagging" as the parlance goes, but this is not a time specific marker. In our experience thus far it is more of a shot across the bow that a calf will be arriving in the following weeks, and doesn't afford a particular moment to prepare for. Of our three bred animals I carried the most concern about the heifer we call Vona (though her registered name is Cinders). Heifers are female bovines that have not yet given birth, after birth of a calf a heifer transforms into a cow. Never having experienced birth before, heifers sometimes have a hard go of it and don't know what to do for the calf once it drops. I hoped that Vona would calve during daylight hours so we'd be around to help if needed. Thankfully this is precisely how things worked out.

At something of a distance six days ago I spotted her dancing around during the middle of the afternoon and when she spun I saw what must have been a waterbag hanging out. She lay down and we gave her a few minutes to do her thing before approaching as Vona is flighty and high-strung. I heard a blat or two and then couldn't resist going over to meet the new calf, and it's a good thing I did. She gave birth to a bull calf, and he was pretty well hooded by the amniotic sac. She was licking at it tentatively and occasionally, and might have cleared the membrane from his face eventually, but it would have been a near thing. A little air was leaking under one side of the membrane, but he was struggling in his new efforts to breathe. So I eased myself in and cleared the membrane from his face and neck and then rubbed him vigorously. Vona then finally decided that licking him was in fact a good idea and took to nuzzling and tonguing him more definately. Less than one hour after I first spotted the waterbag emerging, Gonzo was on his feet tottering toward Vona's udder.

I'm really glad Vona is fine and we have a healthy little calf out of the whole ordeal. Since we're building a herd we were all hoping for a heifer calf, Gonzo's birth marks the third calf born here and the third bull calf. Garth actually came up with his name a week or two prior to his arrival as a sort of joke, because Vona is so excitable and crazy we thought any bull from her should be named accordingly. It's early yet, but as a final ironic twist, his personality so far seems much more in line with his very laid back, easy going sire's attitude. We have two more chances for heifer calves this year. Here's hoping that we don't go 0 for 4.


P.S. I wrote the above post on Sunday when I was lounging for the few hours I take off during the regular week. Since then we've had another baby born - a heifer calf to Juno (registered as Mabel). Ebon's owner names his daughters after poisonous plants (e.g. Lilyvale, Datura, etc), and we liked that tradition so we're calling the new one, Henbane. It is appropriate on two levels as it is a noxious plant, and Juno hates our chickens...

Friday, June 3, 2011

Composting Animal Manures

Some things to you need to be prepared for. When I entered the milk house to clean up the chicken manure pack left from the 125 chicks we started, the ammonia smell was so hot, it felt like it was burning inside me. After filling the first wheel barrow, I reasoned that a respirator would be worth the time it took to retrieve it. It worked to block the full force of it, but the seal it had on my face was not strong enough to account for my movements, so I would get small whiffs of it along the way. The odor was remarkably reminiscent of our time in French cheese caves. The bacteria at work in the aging of cheese produce ammonia to a greater or lesser extent. The soft smear ripened muenster we bought at a market in Paris was memorable for this reason. The ammonia on it's surface would burst into my mouth, filling my nasal cavities the way an excessively carbonated beverage might. The pate of the muenster was formidable on it's own, but it seemed tame in contrast to the violence of it's crust. However, I digress.

Aside from smelling awful, ammonia gas rising from a pile of manure is a loss of available nitrogen. Nitrogen that was in the manure is now escaping into the air as ammonia (you can read more about that here). Nitrogen is essential for all growing things. In a well managed compost pile the available nitrogen would be captured by clay and digested by nitrogen fixing bacteria during the pile's transformation into stable humus. Humus is that miraculous substance that all gardeners want. It holds all of the macro and micro nutrients that plants need to grow. It attracts and holds moisture, and it is resistant to breaking down further. I am a novice in the world of making compost, but I can recommend Steve Solomon's excellent treatise on the topic- Organic Gardener's Composting. He explains the practical science of composting in a clear and interesting way. I credit him with giving me the enthusiasm and the basic knowledge needed to confront our manure piles in any way at all. Normally I would leave these things for the more masculine among us.

Although the smell loomed large, the total mass was only two wheel barrows full. I brought it to the red barn where we kept the small cows last winter. We'd been amassing their manure and bedding throughout the cold months. Now that the cows are out on pasture, Edmund and Garth have turned and wet the pile a few times, incorporating nitrogen rich elements, like old chicken feed and alfalfa pellets, as they go in an effort to heat the pile up so that it will break down thoroughly.

What is less appealing than a pile of partially decomposed manure? A pile of partially decomposed manure crawling with snakes. Well, a snake. I had chosen to work on this yesterday because the temperature had dropped significantly overnight. This little guy had felt the drop too and crawled in there for the warmth. It had shed its skin by the edge of the pile. I had just read that hair, nails, and horns, are all rich in nitrogen, so I lay the skin at the bottom of the pile with some fresh alfalfa, in part because of the science, but also because of the creepy concoction, witchy aspect to the whole thing. I couldn't resist.

The real effort is in the turning. I was smart enough to wait until someone (Garth) was free to assist me.

What struck me as we were turning it was how narrow the line is between a 'good' smell and a very 'bad' smell. It smelled like wine and fermenting fruit, like cabbages and broccoli, like really good cheese or a very complex stew. The chemical compounds formed by a compost pile must be nearly identical to those we enjoy in our food, just slightly off kilter or out of balance. Solomon compares composting to any other small fermentation operation- bread, beer, or the like. The composter is trying, as efficiently as is possible with the materials available to him, to create conditions under which the desired microbes will thrive. He uses air, water and effort to modulate its activity. He learns through practice. This is my first effort in composting animal manures. The experience will teach me, if nothing else, but I hope we create something valuable from a vegetable grower's perspective. I guess we won't know until next Spring, but we'll have an idea as we watch it progress.

The pile is turned. I have a blister. What a massive heap.