Feeling a bit sheepish

It took 5 months of waiting to discover that Seven Trees Farm can raise some tasty Katahdin lamb on grass, a few bales of hay, mineral supplement, and a little sweet feed for treats.

Grass at last

Not that the low inputs meant cheap meat. We paid $250 for mom and two lambs, spent maybe $100 more on the non-grazed food, then another $260 for slaughter, cut & wrap.

We didn’t weigh them before slaughter, but mom was biggest, the girl lamb next, then the boy lamb. Hanging weights, which is the carcass after removing insides, outsides and extremities, were 55, 43 and 40 pounds. Cut and wrap brings the net weight down even more, since more bones and fat are removed to make ‘retail’ cuts. Freezer weight of one of the lambs was 32 pounds; mom might have a better ratio once we weigh and do the math.

But extrapolating the data we do have puts our cost per pound of cut and wrapped meat in the freezer at about $6/lb.

That might seem like a lot, but sheep have two major benefits that other meat animals we’ve tried don’t – they saved us time and effort by keeping the grass down, and they are very low maintenance.

Once we figured out the best hotwire height and spacing, the sheep pretty much stayed where they belonged. Goats would have sauntered over or belly-crawled under those measly two strands of electric fencing. Pigs would just dig out the T-posts and walk over the shorted-out wire once it was safely on the ground. Chickens can be counted on to get out of a hotwired area, then forget how to get back in, to the point of death by exposure or varmint :/

As for mowing, they performed better than our other herbivore experiments. With only three sheep the grass sometimes got ahead of them, but we needed a benchmark for stocking rates, so we supplemented their grazing with periodic mowing. But unlike cattle, their poop just spreads itself out as they walk around doing their thing. Unlike horses, they eat a wider range of plants, including dandelions. And unlike goats, they actually spend more time grazing than they do breaking out and screaming for attention (although the sheep eventually learned to yell for treats too).

Once we settled into our new roles as shepherds, it was down to one big unknown – how would they taste?

The answer: So good that we wolfed down our sample chops with no thought to taking a pretty foodie picture to share. The lamb (6 months old) was tender, mild yet flavorful, with a nice amount of fat. The ‘mutton’ (1.5 years old) was slightly less tender, and a bit more flavorful without being tough or gamey.

We used this recipe as our test – 10-Minute Rosemary Lamb Chops  The simple preparation really enhanced the meat without overwhelming it, but our 1″ chops could have use a minute or so longer. But one nice thing about homegrown meat is that it’s probably not laced with mutant E. coli and Salmonella. Speaking of raw meat, here are the chops, mutton on the left, lamb on the right. waitchopsNotice the little kitchen inspector, ever-hopeful for a bribe.

Since we gobbled up our chops before belatedly remembering the camera, here is a decent likeness, borrowed randomly from the internet. Lamb2Looking forward to our next recipe taste test….leg of lamb maybe :D

Too many tomatoes

Many of us here in the Pacific Northwest have been inundated with a flood of tomatoes. We planted salad tomatoes this year, since we still have a pantry & freezer full of goodness from recent paste variety harvests.

But what to do when confronted with 1.5# beefsteak behemoths? Even though we shared a lot with friends, the last-chance-before-blight harvest netted 20 more pounds. Armed with a shiny new seal-a-meal, the possibilities were endless….

After a few minutes searching keyword combinations like ‘preserving beefsteak tomatoes’ online, I ended up doing this:

  • Pre-heat oven to 350F
  • Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, then parchment if you have it.
  • Spread a little olive oil on the pan to coat.
  • Take the ‘greens’ off the tomatoes and cut them equatorially, not down through the core.
  • Make sure the skin side of each half has a good coating of olive oil, then set halves in the pan, cut side up.
  • Sprinkle halves with balsamic vinegar.
  • Drizzle a lot of olive oil over that (I used maybe 1/3 cup over 5# tomatoes in a 12×17″ pan. But I skimped on oil compared to some recipes).
  • Herbs! Fresh thyme, rosemary, basil if you have them (I was lazy and used dried Italian herb mix from Costco).
  • Garlic – I used about 1/3 of a clove per half, and scattered more in the pan.

Once you have a pan full of dressed tomato halves, put it in the oven for about 3 hours. The before and after photos give you an idea of how different sized tomatoes will cook up if left unattended. preroastFor more consistency it would be better to roast tomatoes of a similar size together, and adjust the timing. I put these in to cook while working in the yard, and like the variety of textures. roastedmatersAfter they cooled, I lined a big pizza pan with saran wrap, moved the maters onto it with a spatula, then into the freezer for an hour or so to make it easier to seal them. sealedmatersNow I’m on the hunt for just the right mozzarella-stuffed meatloaf recipe, because these would be unspeakably delicious on or in something like that. Pizza omelets, a regular menu item at STF, also come to mind. Or maybe something with feta…. :)

Fall happens

Wow! Here it is nearly a month since our last post, but we haven’t stood still for a minute of it. Neither has the weather, and even though we were in the mid 80’s last week, the rains have finally settled in for the long haul. fall2014

Stewart is recovering from his eye surgery; Hildegard graduated from puppy kindergarten (Thinking Dog w/Laura Berger); Fergus is still short and cranky. Puppy Class

Class wasn’t all work though. Part of being a civilized canine is learning how to safely interact with other dogs, so each class started out with a serious puppy pack rampage. puppyclass1We brought in our second crop of carrots. Even though things got too hectic to weed as often as we like, Scarlet Nantes outperformed the hybrid Nelson carrot we planted as a first crop. NantesFancyThis year we decided to treat ourselves to some Luscious sweet corn instead of the usual feed/meal/flour corn. Once we figured out that the ring-necked doves were pulling the sprouts out, and replanted, this corn did rather well in our former-rainforest-berryfarm-pasture soil. But the thing about sweet corn is that it starts to decline as soon as it’s picked. And the thing about corn in general is that you have to plant a certain amount to get good pollination. Which adds up to surplus!

So even though we like to maintain a gadget-neutral footprint, it was time for a FoodSaver… seal-a-mealOh wait! Not that kind… After poring over reviews, asking friends & family, and just plain impulse-shopping at Costco, we put this shiny thing on the counter. FoodSaverCertain food just doesn’t can well, corn being a prime example. It’s edible, but 55 minutes per pint in the pressure canner takes away from the fresh-picked, summer vibe. So far it is a solid addition to our appliance line-up. The bags are a recurring expense, but with some thrifty planning and bulk buying, they will pay for themselves in food storage quality. We also used it to freeze the sour cabbage we made (more on that later) for cabbage rolls. SourCabbageLast winter we realized we didn’t have time to press all the cider apples from our trees, so into the freezer they went. Naturally it wasn’t until both freezers were jam packed and we needed more space for the current year’s bounty that we got around to trying out our antique fruit/lard/sausage press. It’s not as efficient as our neighbor’s full-sized set up, but we got about 3 gallons of juice (which is now fermenting in a carboy). PressingMattersThe new dog palace is finally under construction. First step was building a raised deck that will soon have a roof for all-weather lounging. The dog house itself will be in one bay of the hay mow, insulated, with heat and light. The door will be just right of center in the wall, and the 12 x 12 kennel will be sited against the north facing wall. This will give the dog pack full view of the house, hen yard, and most access points. Not that they spend much time out in the weather…so spoiled! DougDogWe also made time for a recreational jaunt, our last one in Big Blue (our 2007 Dodge Ram truck), and Stewart’s first outing since his eye surgery. After pulling up the Google Earth view on the ipad, and some tricky route finding, we drove nearly to the top of 3200 ft. Sumas Mountain, the bit of North Cascades foothills right across the Nooksack river from us. Sumas2It was a bit hazy from all the recent forest fires, but still amazing to see our little piece of the PNW in panoramic view. Seven Trees Farm is nestled behind a treed area to the far left of this picture. SumasMtnPanoAnd speaking of forest fires, the constant blanket of smoke has meant some amazing sunsets this summer. Now that the rainy season has started, we probably won’t see many like this for a long time. Sunset

Minestrone!

The long and warm summer has left us piled with produce. Our favorite way to enjoy that bounty throughout the rainy season is to transform the harvest into heat & eat homemade meals. Here is a wonderful recipe for minestrone, not only tasty and restorative, but a good way to make use of late summer crops like cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions.

This is the original family recipe from D’s mom. We tripled it for a canner-sized batch, bumped up the cabbage to a full head, added 1/2 a zuke that was hiding in the fridge, plus a couple pounds of fresh-picked green beans and a little leftover corn. It cans up like a dream, and we highly recommend the All-American pressure canner.

1# lean ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
2 small potatoes, peeled & cubed
2 carrots, pared & sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 cup shredded cabbage or kale
1 can (28 oz.) tomatoes

1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp basil
1/4 tsp thyme
1 tsp salt
1/4 to 1/2 tsp pepper

Brown ground beef and add all ingredients to soup kettle, stir thoroughly.
Add water and/or beef broth to cover. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer and
cook for 2-3 hours on simmer. Stir occasionally. Serve sprinkled with
grated parmesan cheese. Makes about 3-4 quarts. Freezes well.

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If you plan to pressure can this recipe, try a batch cooked the regular way first, to sort out what seasonings/ingredients you like best. Pressure canning does a lot more cooking, so you don’t need to simmer a batch first. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but once you decide the best assortment of ingredients, just bring it up to temp enough to can, and let the canning process finish the cooking. If you simmer it for hours first you’ll end up with a mushier version of this recipe and lose some of the nutrients in the vegetables.

………….

Hildegard is growing fast and learning how to be a vital member of the STF team. She especially likes to help Fergus with the recycling.

The weather is just starting to turn cooler, with increasing rain showers in the forecast, and our resident porch frog is getting ready. It lives under a crate we keep on the porch for recycling, and commutes to a flat of fall veggie starts we have on top of the woodbox. The damp soil draws fruit flies, and Porch Frog hangs out in the plants, hunting for winter hibernation supplies.Porch Frog Wikipedia says Pacific tree frogs can change color seasonally, but we’ve noticed them swapping outfits in just a few hours. Knowing the plant flat is going to be moved to the garden soon, we bought a bushy coleus to repot and leave on the porch until it gets too cold for it. The frog didn’t take long to check out its new real estate, and even managed a quick color change to go with the decor. Coleus Frog

Minding our peas

Peas are a standard garden crop in temperate growing areas. They prefer cooler growing conditions, and can often be planted as soon as the soil is able to be worked. Peas also hold up well canned or frozen. Pea flowerSo why aren’t they more prominent in our garden?

One reason is the whole “plant as soon as soil can be worked” thing. In our microclimate, garden-friendly temperatures come and go without much reliability. Cool & dry, cold & wet, warm & humid, Warm & wet, windy & cold…can all occur in any combination, any time during the growing season. Planting peas when conditions are perfect doesn’t help if the vulnerable little sprouts are wiped out by triple-digit temps or a random windstorm.

Another reason is the dreaded pea weevil. There are two main species of this legume-feeding pest – one that chews decorative little notches in leaf margins, and our nemesis, one that lays eggs in blossoms that hatch into larvae which take up residence in the developing pea pods and munch their way to adulthood, undetected until we humans shell the mature peas. Pea weevilWe’ve managed to work around the fluctuating weather by growing soup peas. These can be planted later, then pretty much ignored until they are dried and ready to shell for storage. They aren’t so good for satisfying the jones for pea-bacon salad, but if hearty winter soups are your thing, they are perfect. Shelling peasBut increasingly we’ve discovered pea weevil damage in the dried pods, necessitating extra vigilance when shelling to make sure no damaged peas or dead bugs make it into the pantry.

This year we trialled a new-to-us variety of green pea, the Green Arrow, having had a few years to ‘forget’ just how fussy germinating peas can be. After weathering the weather and surviving repeated replantings after ring-neck dove raids, the plants took off and produced an abundance of pods. And the persistent pea weevils were right there the whole time.

We harvested 6lbs of pods, pulled up a standard pea-bacon salad recipe, and started shelling. It isn’t hard to spot the weevils inside, but having to work around them really slows things down. My first thought was to wonder how many weevils make it into commercial products, given the pace mechanized harvest methods. Then I recalled that monocropping agribusinesses skip that concern by flooding pea plants with insecticides just as the plants start to bloom. Pea-bacon saladThere are pea weevil poisons rated for home garden use, but they kill every bug, beneficial and pestiferous. No thanks! Next year we will try the only non-toxic tactic likely to dodge the threat – planting an earlier maturing variety of green pea. The idea is that it flowers and sets pods before the weevil beetles lay their eggs.

We’ve been able to avoid carrot worm damage by changing our planting times, so there is hope for any pea plants hardy and adaptable enough to get growing early in our changeable spring weather. August sunset

A Story of Doug Fir or… Sky Islands – Ancient memory lines in Phylogeography, Holarctic evolutionary pathways and creative divergences of Douglas Fir within Cascadia and connected Bioregions

Seven Trees:

This is an amazing portrait of Cascadia’s beloved conifer – the Douglas Fir. Forget tl;dr, just read it.

Originally posted on Tree Oathe - Fresh Ancients of Cascadia & Beyond....:

cacadian flag

Cascadia –  the Bioregion whose watersheds pass through maritime rainforests unique to the Pacific Northwest region of Turtle Island on their way to the Pacific ocean. She ranges from SE Alaska to Northern California to the Rocky Mts centering around the Cascade Mts.  She is also an imagination of a new sovereignty, which respects the rights of nature, has aligned itself with indigenous values and a commitment to emergent sustainable culture. Douglas Fir is a tree which connects much of the region and has become a symbol for the ecological experience that unifies the humanity within it’s bounds. Who is the tree? What is it’s ancient history? How is it connected to surrounding bioregions? What kind of stresses and migrations will it experience with accelerating climate change? These are some of the questions explored in this piece.

Bald Eagle singing with Doug Fir on Haro Strait is the Salish Sea

Bald Eagle singing with Doug Fir on Haro Strait in the Salish Sea

Ancient…

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Hedge Fund

For nearly a decade now, the humans of Seven Trees Farm have been buying plants at the county conservation district sale. Most of their offerings are natives, chosen for their hardy restoration capabilities, and sold very cheaply in multiples. We wanted to add some buffer zones along the perimeter fences, plus maintain habitat for beneficial wild critters.

South hedgerow last year.

South hedgerow last year.

The picture above shows one planted area along our south fenceline. It’s grown exponentially in the year since this was taken, with understory plants really filling in the low gaps. The paddock to the left was planted more recently, and there is another paddock to the left of that one, out of picture, that we just planted up this spring. We also added more plants, mainly elderberry, serviceberry, crabapple, hawthorn and rose along the east perimeter. The north east corner of our lot was heavily planted our second year here with shore pines, cascara, red osier dogwood, birches and rugosa roses. The idea was to grow a windbreak to divert the blizzard nor’easters we get most winters. Our neighbor has a woodlot adjoining this corner, which also lends habitat and protection.

This summer we realized that corner was a bit overplanted, and so thinned out quite a bit. It’s still a nice shady nook, enjoyed by critters domestic and wild, but also easier for us to navigate around to reach our feral blackberry patch.

Rugosa rose, black hawthorn & Pacific crabapple fruits.

Nootka rose, black hawthorn & Pacific crabapple fruits.

When deciding which species to plant, food production was a top criteria. Judging by the size of the ‘apples‘ to the right in the picture above, it’s evident that the food being produced is more for critters than people. It must have taken uncounted generations to breed domestic crabapples from wild trees, and even longer to develop supermarket staples like Fuji and Delicious apples. The fruit in the center is from a black hawthorn tree. This species is reputed to have medicinal value, but we like it for it’s protective thorns. As the trees mature, the branches intertwine and help keep ‘bad guys’ out. All kinds of wildlife take advantage of the copious fruit, and the tree itself thrives in all kinds of weather and soil conditions. Hips are just starting to form on the scrappy Nootka rose, another fruity-thorny hedge stalwart.

Cascara berries.

Cascara berries.

Our two cascara trees (one inherited when we bought STF and one was a free Arbor Day promo) are very prolific flower and fruit producers. All kinds of bees love pollen-harvesting in late spring, especially native bumblebees. The entire tree canopy is literally abuzz at certain times of the year. The dark purple fruits are mainly eaten by birds as summer starts turning to fall. Back in the day, bark from cascara trees was collected by country-dwellers and sold to make a laxative. Local tribes also used cascara for this purpose, with the added lore that peeling the bark up to harvest made a vomit-inducing purge, and peeling the bark down created a purge at the ‘other end’. Botanical literature claims no information on the effects of cascara on wildlife, but anecdotal evidence hints that eating animals that have eaten cascara berries can also be purgative.

Rugosa rose hip.

Rugosa rose hip.

The rugosa roses planted just outside our northeast fenceline have grown into a mighty hedge. Just as mighty are the persimmon-like hips they produce. The flowers themselves don’t have a fragrance, unlike the more domestic rugosa variety we have planted closer to the house. Rose hips are a power-packed vitamin source, enjoyed by wildlife and people alike. (We even get human foragers ‘poaching’ hips as they walk past the house.) The hips can be dried and used for tea, or made into cordials and syrups for a taste of summer any time of the year.

These are just a few of the plants we have in our ‘hedge fund’ that add so many benefits to our habitat, with little maintenance required. The Washington Native Plant Society has some helpful resources for identifying useful native plants. We try to choose our new additions by reading about how local tribes used them, in addition to wildlife needs and our microclimate. Although we’d rather not have to resort to cascara purges, it is comforting to know that Seven Trees Farm is hedged in by food, protection and medicine.