Saturday, October 27, 2007

Gratuitous critter pics!

These two found a warm sunbeam to nap in.

Professional sleeper, Crichton, again, demonstrating the nose-down napping technique.

Newt showing her disdain for papparazzi.

Look at that gigantic, earnest mug. What a dork! A four-legged demolition derby with a non-stop tail.

And the (hopefully) pregnant princess herself. We'll be having the vet out soon to confirm. She should be just over halfway to her due date. Stella doesn't miss a meal, or a treat, or a nice scritchy either.

Friday, October 26, 2007


We've both managed to catch the nasty bug going around work lately. Hopefully we'll be up & running again soon, and post something a bit livelier here.
Seven Trees did get its first frost overnight though! A month later than last year.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What's 'hop'pening?

Before we get to the breaking news section of this blog post, I have to share how tasty the potimarron squash are. I browned some bratwurst, picked a few giant sage leaves, and started the squash baking. Once the sausages were ready, I cut them in thirds, wrapped each piece with a sage leaf, using a toothpick to hold it together. Then the brat chunks went into the squash halves for a bit more baking. The sage flavored the meat, and the sagey meat juices flavored the squash. A wonderful combination! The squash has a really dense, custardy texture, and rich, earthy flavor. They are a C. maxima variety, so unless we find some other must-try squash in this species group, we'll give potimarron another try next year. We didn't get the yields we expected from any of our squashes, so I can't really judge this variety without another growing season.

Now for the Halloween-appropriate scary news -

Due to a variety of factors (a great 4-page article here, detailing the impact of this crisis on bakers as well as brewers), including extreme weather, overseas competition for brewing ingredients (hops & grains), hedge fund speculators in agricultural commodities futures, less acreage planted in hops & barley (thanks to the ethanol boom), and more land under (profitable development)pavement than under cultivation. This is resulting in some newer, smaller breweries being forced to consider not just raising prices, but going out of business altogether!

"...Hale's Ales Brewery in Seattle, known for its Mongoose India Pale Ale, next year could end up paying 75 percent more for its malt, and it's seeing prices for hops rise to $20 per pound from $3 per pound, said production manager Rudyard "J." Kipling....
Pike Brewing raised the price of its six-packs recently, to about $10, which puts it among the most expensive craft beers. So it's not planning any further boosts for now.
"It seems obvious now that we did the right thing, because others will have no choice but to raise their prices," Finkel said.
At Mukilteo's Diamond Knot Brewing Inc., huge jumps in contracted hops prices "have put us in a cash-flow crunch," said Vice President Bob Maphet.
"We have to pay tens of thousands of dollars right now for something we won't use until next year, and we're trying to figure out how to pay for it," he said. "Where there's an increase, everyone needs to find a way to pass it on. The impact could be higher beer prices, simple as that."..."

Growers work on a contract system, a season or more ahead. So the larger breweries have their orders placed way before smaller ones, who may not know exactly how much they will need for the coming year, may not have the established relationships to put them at the head of the ordering line, or may not be able to afford the astronomical price hikes on a typical new-business budget. Washington State grows nearly all the country's hops, and most of those in the Yakima Valley.

How can you help? What can you do?
Support your favorite microbreweries! Yes the cost will be higher, but we can't put a price on preserving a timeless, unique tradition in the face of this global crisis. We can't let the shortsighted "strategies" of agribusiness reward corporate megabrewers (if you can call that tasteless stuff beer), or the folks selling good cropland for superfluous housing developments, or energy companies seeking taxpayer subsidies for mono-cropping corn for ethanol. Vote with your dollars and keep beer-diversity alive!

And.......brew your own! The more homebrewers, the merrier. There is a renewed interest in historical, pre-hop-era ales. These herbal beers are called Gruits, and people all over the world have made them for millennia. Each area, and sometimes each household, had their own house blend of herbs and spices that gave preservative qualities, medicinal benefits, and unique flavor. We're lucky enough at Seven Trees to have a once-widely-used brewing herb called ground ivy growing like a weed throughout our lawn. Common "weeds" like nettle, yarrow, mugwort and herbs like rosemary, basil & mint are often used as well. We're doing our part, and have 2 kinds of beer in the works right now, with 2 more on order for brewing in the next week or so. Spring will have us back in the nettle patch to recreate our infamous nettle braggot too!
I'll leave you with this nifty picture of historical brewsters (Wow! Put a pointy hat on them, and you can see where the stereotypical Halloween witch came from). Click the link for a really neat online exhibit from the National Women's History Museum called - Building the New World: The Women of Jamestown Settlement.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Back by popular demand...

Newt!! This is Newt standing for her treat. She does it to reward me for the trick she taught me to do. She goes into the kitchen and stands or rubs the treat cupboard door, then the blonde pink-monkey comes in and digs out a bag of goodies. Once she politely sits, then stands for the treat, the pink monket releases them. Good monkey... good! Newt's working on training me to thaw, grill, and serve salmon steaks to her next, but I've been a little slow on the uptake.

When it's blustery wet winter in the northwest outside, time to loll on the floor with the canines near the woodstove. Fergus struck a prim pose here, but Stewart's sporting his patented "gator grin".

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pie & dry in the pumkpin patch

Yet another garden setback at Seven Trees. Or maybe I should say another learning experience! Our squash pit ended the season sadly bereft of the massive piles of winter squash I envisioned while poring over seed catalogs early this spring. I know other gardeners in our area had issues too, but many didn't. I think it was a combination of factors - not enough compost in the soil, a cool rainy summer, and just plain wrong varieties for a chancey climate.

Now that it's time to plan next year's garden (and sheepishly buy pumpkins to process for the freezer), I do know that we'll be using literal hills of nice rich Stella compost, instead of the stingier amounts I doled out this time. And we'll spend yet more time poring over the Fedco Seeds catalog for good pie pumpkins (which aren't neccessarily the usual "Halloween-looking" ones) that can start early and mature faster, so we're not as dependent on a long hot summer we may not get. Why Fedco Seeds? Because they made the courageous choice to "fire" their biggest seed producer, Seminis, after it was bought by biotech giant, Monsanto. Read more about Fedco here too, with links to biotech/genetic engineering info.

So. Pumkpins. They like manure. They like water. They like long hot summers. But....and here's the kicker....they also like being pollinated! If you plant certain kinds of squash near each other, there is a good chance you will get a mutant, like the pumpzinis we got last year. Avoiding mutants is challenging, but fun. What we learned is that there are 4 main species of pumpkin/squash, and 2 varieties of the same species can cross. Sometimes just the seed produced in each squash is affected. This means if you save seed, you might not get a true-to-type variety the following year. Mutants are also produced directly (though some information I have read says differently, I can only describe what happened at Seven Trees), like the pumpzini, a strange mixture of zucchini flesh with pumpkin shape & color. So what do you do?

Shop! When looking at catalog or seed packet descriptions, pay attention to which species your intended belongs to. All 'pumpkins' belong to the Curcurbita family, which is often abbreviated C. The latin name following it is the species name. Choose one variety from each family, and they won't hybridize. This year we chose a delicata for our early table squash, potimarron for a later table squash (we haven't tasted it yet, so no review) and Long Island Cheese (we only got one ripe one, 2 didn't ripen fully) for our pie squash. We had to pass on zucchini and acorn this time, since they are both C. pepo and would have crossed with our delicata.
(Click on the names to be taken to a photo page with even more varietal information.)

There is C. moschata:

This group includes the pumpkins frequently used for commercially canned pumpkin. They tend to be oblong pumpkins and have tan skin.
Other members include:
Winter Crookneck Squash
Butternut Squash
Cushaw Squash

C. maxima:

Whether you consider these to be squash, pumpkins, pumpkin squash or any other name, these are the beasts of the pumpkin patch. Members include PrizeWinner Hybrid, Big Max and of course the infamous Atlantic Giant.
Other members include:
Hubbard squash
Boston squash
Most Winter squashes
Turban squash
Banana squash
Buttercup squash

C. pepo:

These are the Jack-o-lantern varieties you most commonly see, and the cute little pumpkins that fit in the palm of your hand. Common pumpkin varieties include Connecticut field pumpkins, Howden pumpkins, and Howden Biggie pumpkins.
Other members include:
Most summer squashes
Pattypan Summer squash
Crookneck squash
Scallop Summer Squash

And C. mixta, which isn't as common as the others, the most available variety being the pumpkin cushaw whose proponents claim it makes the best pie.

The italicized descriptions came from The Pumpkin Nook, a wonderful resource for everything you want to know about pumpkins - history, cultivation, pollination, selection, harvesting and so on. You can even read about (and draw your own conclusion on) bonding with your pumpkins!

Speaking of bonding with pumpkins, we'll be bonding with the last of last year's pumpkins when we bottle the pumpkin porter next week. We got a quick taste when we transferred it to another carboy for secondary fermentation, and it's shaping up nicely. Smooth full body, lots of spice and a hint of pumpkin. Can't wait to try it fully fermented and carbonated!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yard birds & house bird

Yesterday we set up an elaborate configuration of the electronet so the chickens could roam a little near the greenhouse. They've been booted from the barnyard because they tend to head straight for Stella's stall and scratch the bedding into canyons and hills. In the summer it doesn't matter as much, because Stella is plenty warm. But in winter we practice what is called the deep bedding method. We lay down straw (and cedar chips) over her stall floor, pick up poops every day, and add to the bedding layers periodically. Eventually it gets deep enough, and the composting process gets underway. As long as we keep it fairly clean, the heat generated by the bedding pack keeps Stella warm and comfortable all winter. In the spring we muck the stall out down to dirt level and put a lighter layer of bedding down. The winter bedding goes into the compost bins and turns into lovely soil to put the garden to bed with in the fall.
Where do these Yard Birds enter the picture? Well, after being lured back to their pen with scratch, they somehow bumped the gate open and were performing pest removal services in the front yard when I pulled up to the gate. After shooing them back in, we realized there really isn't much they can hurt plantwise this time of year, and their eggs are so much nicer when they are busy all day. So we've been letting them out in the yard for a few hours a day. It's so fun and pastoral to see the happy chickens scratching around and finding goodies in the grass. And the dogs enjoy following the flock to do poop patrol. Ew!
Here's a picture of Mark in a former job as Darth Vader's trained attack parrot. Well, actually it's from a really cool website about Quaker parrots that made a page for Mark 12 long years ago when the internet was still a fairly new thing to me. It's called Quakerville & if you look around hard enough, you can find more ancient pictures of Mark, and even one of me c.1995! Mark, now being a middle-aged parrot, got his first taste of sherry last night. Not a popular beverage, judging by the rapid head shake which sent sherry spraying and his blinking, watering eyes. Mark does enjoy red wine (never white!) an occasional sip of beer, and loves coffee with cream & sugar in the morning. All in moderation of course. A parrot the size of a large robin can't indulge too much in such conviviality. He also loves cheese and will take savage bites from a piece, leaving a U-shape divot like a miniature shark wound. He loves pizza crust, but no toppings. Beans, but only if you make sure there is no offending broth or sauce left on them. Pasta, as long as he can put it in his treat dish and nibble it without having to get his feet messy by holding it. And he loves ice cream so much that he'll gobble it down fast enough to get brain freeze. Or at least that's how I interpret the brief pause in intake for headshaking and watery eye-blinks.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Kitty Porn (and power outage)

We had our first power outage this morning, thanks to a windstorm overnight. It's been blustery all day, but luckily the power was only out an hour or so. That generator is worth its weight in gold, since we hadn't started the coffee pot yet. We were able to hang tough with a hot cuppa and a functioning computer (priorities!). Check out the lawn furniture! The wind shoved it right into the firepit.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

You are what you eat - Milk!

Forget organic vs. factory farmed dairy products! Time to learn about raw vs. cooked milk.

Not long ago, all milk was used right from the cow. Filtered and chilled (or quickly fermented) as circumstances allowed, to remove impurities and add to "shelf life". People didn't get sick and they didn't die from natural milk products, contrary to what many bureaucrats, lawmakers and health department types will tell you. Clean cows eating well-kept pasture and hay give milk that is nearly a perfect food, full of enzymes, minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that can even help kill harmful bacteria and boost our immune systems. So why is most milk legally required to be pastuerized? If healthy pastured cows give the best milk, then why isn't this how all cows are kept. Don't let that smiling bovine on the plastic milk jug fool you. Here's an aerial picture of a so-called organic dairy -

And a closer view of a dairy feedlot. Not how I imagine cows should be kept...

Let me share an exerpt from a must-read book by Ron Schmid called "The Untold Story of Milk":

As America grew, immigrants flocked to the cities making them crowded. They wanted milk, which was a staple, especially for their children. When the cities were small there was room to keep a family cow. Common pastures in the heart of town had been set aside for this. Boston Commons is one example. But as cities grew, pasture was lost, yet the milk demand grew. While pastures shrank another industry grew- the whiskey industry.

The process of fermentation and distillation of the alcohol produced a side product. This product was an acid refuse of chemically changed grain and water known as distillery slop, or swill. This waste product was then fed to cows by individuals who cared nothing about the animals or the quality of the milk produced. Distillery owners started housing cows next door to these distilleries and fed the hot slop directly to the cows. This was known as the swill milk system.

This system grew especially as the distillery business shrank. Pressure was put on the distillery owners to make more profits from the milk side of the business. It soon became a huge industry. Slop is of little value in fattening cattle. It is unnatural food to them and makes them diseased and emaciated. But it made cows produce a lot of milk. The milk was so defective that it could not be made into butter or cheese. But they still sold it. Three quarters of all milk sold in New York in 1852 was slop milk.

A reformist wrote a series of articles criticizing the state of the milk supply. He gave eyewitness accounts to their crowded and dark buildings. He described the cows as being sick, crowded, dirty, poorly nourished and forced to spend their milking career chained in one place. The people who hand milked into dirty, open containers were often sick themselves and had no thought as to sanitation measures. The cows died at unusually high rates.

Distillery dairies continued to sell milk up into the 1900's. The last one closed in New York in 1930. Even though reformers and medical groups called for an end to this practice of selling milk not fit for human consumption, the government did nothing. So called "milk trains" were an attempt to get clean, fresh milk from traditional dairymen in the countryside into the cities. Yet compared to the high volume distillery dairies this was nothing but a trickle.

A well known fact even at that time is that the cow's diet determines the healthfulness of the milk. If fed a diet unfit for cows then they can only produce milk that is unfit for human consumption. Many people knew this but the swill milk industry thrived because it was plentiful and cheap. Slop milk was bluish in color and very thin so dealers added different things to make it look like white, whole milk including starch, sugar, flour, plaster of paris, and chalk!

People knew that bad milk could lead to disease. "Nothing can be more certain than that the quality of milk is greatly influenced by the state of the health of the animal producing it". So said the reformer Robert Hartley in his book on the state of milk production at that time in 1842 (pg 38).

Not much has changed in 160 years. While the worst of the distillery diseases are gone, today in America cows live in confinement dairies, living in stalls they never leave, stalls sometimes welded shut, where they are fed "scientific" diets devoid of fresh grass, diets designed to maximize milk production with little thought to quality. These diets are high in grains, soybeans and "bakery waste" (bread, cakes, pastries- even candy bars) and citrus peel cake loaded with pesticides. These cows are not producing the kind of milk America's children and adults need and deserve. Read more here.

Doesn't sound too healthy does it? Now when you factor in what pasteurization does to milk, the picture gets even uglier. Instead of mandating that cows be kept in a clean & healthy environment, our corporate-driven government just mandates practices designed to mask the effects that sick, filthy, medicated, hormone-treated, malnourished cows have on their milk. The byproducts of infection, such as dead white cells, are cooked and filtered, but is that what you want to drink? Pasteurization kills bacteria, good and bad, but not all of it. There are plenty of people getting salmonella from cooked milk.

Homogenization is the practice of spinning the milk in a centrifuge and/or forcing it under extreme pressure through tiny tubes to break down the size of the fat molecules so that they stay suspended evenly in milk. That's why you don't have to shake homogenized milk before pouring it. Some say the resulting smaller molecules are transformed enough to cause health problems in humans.

Ready to buy local, support sustainable farming methods and drink the best tasting and healthiest milk available? Check out Real Milk for a state-by-state listing of where you can buy real milk. Our own state, Washington, even has real milk available in convenience stores, and we can choose from a variety of dairies. There is a dairy in Tacoma that bottles milk from each cow individually so you can get to know you milk producer on a first name basis!

If real milk isn't available in your area, here is a score card of many organic dairies so you can at least look for products from healthy cows.
Do your homework and vote with your dollars. Don't let lowest common denominator economics dictate what you eat.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

It never rains but it pours...

When it comes to crises, that is. The main 'stead wagon, Pearl the 99 Outback, went in for a routine oil change and a check-up on some ongoing issues. Well....a hefty chunk of change later, and she should be good for another 5 or more years. Brakes, a bevy of assorted gaskets & seals, and the tensioner and idler that the timing belt spins around. Amazing how much car repairs cost, but still much cheaper than a new car. And our main 'stead dog, Stew, went to the vet today, as he's been feeling poorly and limping the past few days. Turns out he may have torn some ligaments in his knee. He & Fergus have some vicious roughhousing sessions, and it looks like the Corgi has scored some hit points on mighty Stew. So now he has to be sedentary for 3 weeks, plus take assorted medications, to see if he heals on his own. If not, we're looking at surgery for the big guy.
In the meantime, we are starting to put the garden to bed. Not much left but chard, lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, potatoes and the last peppers under their little plastic tent. Some of the peppers went into a batch of chili, which I canned the other night. I've never canned chili before, and it went great.
The pressure canner we have was a yard sale find from our neighbor. He tested it out and even showed me how to use it. It's a '70's Presto brand, but still works like a champ.

Can you see why we want to build a canning kitchen? Not much elbow room or counter space here, and heaven forbid both of us want to work in the kitchen at the same time.
Here's the impromptu bean processing area - the hearth. Usually dry beans are ready to harvest when it's hot & dry, so we put them in the greenhouse to finish drying. This makes the pods crack open so shelling them is easy. Bit this time around it stayed cold & wet and we had to pick them greener and set them next to the fire to dry. So now we shell a few every night and let the beans finish shrinking up in the cardboard trays. Not so fun in our tiny house, but that's farm life. We're planning a taste test between the 2 varieties soon.
We also went to the county planning office today, to see what our options are for the new garage. Turns out we straight up can't put in a mother-in-law apartment with our garage. Just plain can't. Our house was the original homestead for the 40 acres behind us, but as our title paperwork shows, the land was chopped up and sold off over time. Now we have a tiny percentage of the 'stead, and it's too small to allow a separate apartment according to the county. We have some ideas for workarounds that will suit our needs, and we're having fun plowing through plans before we go talk to the bank.