Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hay Day

The oxen, Henri and August, are less than impressed: their springtime hay is not of the finest quality. Having wintered in the corners of our barn, it is dried out or, alternatively, molding. Compared to the lushness available just beyond the hay trough, they are picking through with royal attitudes the arid flakes we attempt to feed them. The oxen know we count on them as our yard-trimmers and lawn-mowers – and the succulent grasses, clovers, and weeds are their meal of choice these days.

But just last week the call came: fresh hay has been cut.

Which means that all other plans must be orchestrated around the pick-up of this essential commodity. The trailer is hitched up to our old Ford, and ropes of all colors are thrown in the cab. There is an urgency to this task – we need as much as we are able to stack, and must do so before the rain descends.

Stacking bales is like a game of real life tetris, it is training in practical physics. One hundred bales or so is respectable; one hundred twenty-something is the record. Criss-crossed and counter-balanced, the hay is piled high above each vehicle. As the outer limit of stability is reached, rope is thrown about the pile, securing our treasured bales. Itchy and sweaty, the drive home reflects the stacker’s ability – if a bale falls it often means two or three or worse.

Back at the farm, the process begins in reverse. We have various storage buildings – the ox hovel loft, the Open-Sided shed (no-longer so open-sided), the quonset tent, the barn eves, and unused animal houses. The first hay of the season, however, gets the primo spot within the ox hovel loft.

The loading process is facilitated with a human-powered pulley. The loaded hay truck is backed beneath the loft doors. A pulley and ropes are hung from the chain at the loft entrance; a bale is hooked on one end. On the other, is one of us. At a signal from our counterpart, the person on the ground starts running. A thirty or forty foot sprint is usually sufficient to launch the bale up to the loft, where a third member of the hay stacking trio awaits it, unclips the bale, and stacks it neatly. This process repeats itself until, bale by bale, the hay is stored.

With clouds lingering in the sky throughout the day, it is with relief as well as an itchy sort of tiredness, that the last bale is tossed in place. Dry and protected, the first cut is in. We’ll repeat the process as often as we’re able over the next few months, stocking up for the ensuing year.

In the meantime, Henri and August gratefully devour the fine hay that now fills their trough.

as published in North Country News

Monday, June 18, 2012

Changing Lifestyles & Herbal Medicine

This blog was written by recently arrived interns, Sydney and Alex.            

            We’re not sure where to start. Not just with this blog, not just with plant identification or the principles of herbal medicine. We’re not sure where to start with any of it.
            Not that we aren’t eager. We both have loads of enthusiasm, but the more we learn, the more we realize we have a lot more to learn. It’s funny how things work like that.
                For exposition, we arrived at D Acres at the end of April and May, respectively. Although one of us has a month of farm time on the other, we are experiencing the day-to-day here with the same fresh eyes. We have agreed that this transition, from colleges utterly dependent on technology, to rural, backwoods New Hampshire, has been quite a lifestyle change. At first, we were acutely aware of the things we were stripped of: cell service, high-speed internet, grocery stores, and school jeans. After accepting this new way of life, we focus more on what we’ve gained: simplicity.
            These days, all twenty-two hands at D Acres are needed for final bed preparations. We spend our days weeding, mulching, seeding and transplanting garden space after garden space. Our special project, however, is becoming what we like to call “potions masters”. With perhaps na├»ve fervor, we took on the immense task of familiarizing ourselves with thousands of years of traditional herbal medicine. Over the next few months, the idea is to synthesize this vast realm of knowledge and produce tangible results in the form of tinctures, salves, infusions, and decoctions. Not only is this a field we’ve both had interest in for years, but we get to feel like we’re in Professor Snape’s potions class, whipping up magical remedies for magical maladies.
This afternoon, we went on an herb walk to take stock of the medicinal plants on the property. It was overwhelming. We didn’t even make it to the end of the driveway, truth be known. We found it nearly impossible to move through the garden at anything more than a snail’s pace, because every step brought five new plant species to identify. Still, we feel like we learned something in our short walk. We identified a few of the most basic medicinal herbs, like plantain and valerian. Probably more importantly, we discovered this is not an art that can be learned overnight. It will require years of training to reach proficiency, but we are not working in that kind of time frame. We are not looking to become experts by the time we leave D Acres, but we want to acquire a basic knowledge base of herbal medicine.
With visions of Harry Potter in our heads, we are excited to don our house robes, grab our cauldrons and put into practice everything we will learn.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Spring Harvest

When it comes to a discussion of seasonal meals, the following misconceptions are commonly offered up to me. First, it seems that the prevailing image is that the winter season is the most difficult time for people to sustain themselves from the land. The stereotypical winter diet is portrayed in gray, dismal colors, a mix of old and stale root crops with little flavor and starvation rations. Second, the common thought is that the arrival of spring marks instant abundance once again.

Well, let’s consider each. First, with regards to winter meals, let me be the first to say how extraordinarily delicious, varied, filling, colorful, and nourishing a winter diet is. This time of year is essentially what we are working for during the growing season. All our efforts to cultivate and store thousands of pounds of root crops – potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips - is rewarded during the off-season. As we ferment, can, and pickle our surplus vegetables throughout the summer, we tuck quart after quart away on basement shelves. The freezer is stocked with meat, and the root cellar fills with eggs.

Winter, you see, offers a delectable selection for the palate.

Why bother saying this now? It is, after all, late in the spring. Because springtime, it must be said, is really the most challenging season. We finish off the last of our stores as we plant the seeds for the coming season.

Abundance must be sought in creative ways.

Here at D Acres we seed lettuces and other greens into greenhouses and coldframes as soon as the soil thaws. These first salads are an incredible burst of freshness that is eagerly devoured meal after meal. In no way, though, do we expect to subsist on greens alone.

And so we turn to perennial crops and “weed” species, some of the first plants to vigorously emerge from the winter slumber. Asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, and rhubarb are favorites, and subtleties of flavor are achieved with the harvesting of ox-eye daisy, dandelion, nettle, and sorrel leaves, not to mention fresh herbs such as chives and oregano. Plants such as fiddleheads, milkweed, and knotweed are also edible if harvested young. The list goes on: possibilities for foraging are significant, even in this region.

To complete a meal with the above selection, however, we continue to rely on eggs from the chickens (they quickly begin to lay more as the day length increases) and meat (pork and chicken) stored in the freezer. We have just finished the last of our potatoes, and are down to a final pint of our dry beans. These staples are the essentials that continue to nourish us as we approach the summer season.

The spring diet offers a burst of freshness, bitters and tarts dominating the palate as we – the people and the plants – awake from the winter. While spring meals can be challenging, the process of harvesting for and preparing a springtime spread is rewarding and appetizing. The spring season certainly demands a keen sense of creativity and inspiration: what can you do with your backyard?

as published in North Country News