Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Farmers unwittingly adjust to climate changes

The Ohio wine industry has been getting more and more dependent on French grapes over the last 30 years. The vinifera, or French grape, the species of grape known to produce the world's best and snootiest wines, is very tender, which would make sense since it is adapted to a Mediterranean climate. But for the last few decades Ohio winemakers, and those in many other temperate regions, have been planting more and more vinifera to replace the good old American grape varieties they used to grow. American grapes, like Concord, the grape juice grape, and French-American hybrids are much hardier in the normal Midwestern winters—or what used to be known as normal winter. But American grapes are better known for producing juice or sweet wines, while hybrids have never been able to compete with the old French standbys in wine quality in the eyes of the Wine Spectator crowd.
An Ohio vineyard testing the limits
Regions like the West Coast have climates much like that of France, and it's in places like this where vinifera thrives. But before climate change began to bring milder winters (devasting floods and hurricanes) to the rest of the country, wineries were forced to look to American grapes, and to breeders to develop cold hardy French-American hydrids, in order to have productive vineyards to base a business on. Vinifera vines could not survive most Midwestern winters without a down coat, only questionably able to survive as low as -10 degrees F at their hardiest.

But as the climate has changed over the last few decades, the tender vinifera has crept into the locally-made wine market in the Midwest. It started out as a sort of testing of the waters, with a few renegades planting small vineyards and finding the grapes could survive most winters in the new era of 400 ppm. After a few were successful, they attracted the attention of others who saw dollar signs. Ohio wineries realized that their hardy native grapes didn't produce the kind of wine that demanded top dollar, and didn't produce what is the socially-accepted definition of good wine. So they scrapped their American vines and replaced them with the much more valuable (and vulnerable) French vines. It's unlikely that any of them suspected they were only able to grow the vines now because the climate was changing and the world was gradually warming.

All primary buds on these vinifera were killed. Secondary and tertiary buds sprouted. Many vines died back to the ground.
Then last winter, Ohio winegrowers were surprised by a sudden change in their mild winters. The warming arctic had pushed the polar vortex from its normal position atop the globe. Huge acreages of the state's vinifera vines were wiped out by the frigid winter. Those that did survive died back to the ground, saved only by a thick cover of snow that insulated their roots against the far below zero temps.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Amazing and Versatile Sorghum

When I was living in Madison, I had the opportunity to garden alongside many Hmong people in the city's community gardens. The Hmong had come to the US as refugees of the American secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. They brought with them many of the crops they'd been accustomed to growing in the mountains of Laos. They'd brought to this country their own varieties of vegetables like cucumbers, onions, chili peppers, yard long beans, sorghum, and even opium poppy. Because I was so interested in their unique vegetables, I asked for seeds so I could grow them myself.

The Hmong sorghum was a sweet sorghum, a plant not unlike sugar cane that produces a sweet liquid in its stem. The Hmong gardeners would use the plant by simply cutting down the stalk and then cutting the stem at each node. The hard surface of the stalk was then peeled, exposing a liquid filled pith that could be chewed and sucked dry of all its sweet nectar. I'd eaten sugar cane before then, long ago when I was in Nicaragua, but never sorghum.

Growing out the seed of the sweet sorghum, I discovered that the seed head was reminiscent of a grain I'd remembered seeing grown locally where I was in Nicaragua. It's seed heads were much more compact and the grain much larger than the other kind of sorghum. Though I didn't know it then, I'm pretty sure that was a variety of sorghum grown to be ground into a flour and used like wheat or other grains.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fending off disposeability

I recently fixed Julie's dehydrator and thought of how many people must have things break down on them that they simply throw away. Some things are big and expensive enough it's worthwhile economically to hire someone to fix them, but by and large I would guess most products that break get thrown away. Fixing these products would take a few circumstances aligning—understanding how the product works, knowing how to troubleshoot the problem, and being able to find a replacement part for the part that went bad. Many, probably most, products made these days were never intended to be fixed; yet another great characteristic of our short-sighted capitalist system is to ensure customers are always in need and coming back for more.

The fried dehydrator thermostat
I have to say the situation's gotten really bad.  And it seems that every year things gets worse and worse with the planned obsolescence.  Products these days don't last nearly as long as those made even ten years ago. If you read product reviews in trying to make a purchase, everyone says, “the last one I had lasted 15 years, and this one lasted a few months.” That most products are made in China isn't helping. As more companies move their production overseas it becomes more difficult to find anything of good quality. Outsourcing production saves on labor costs and reduces costs related to workplace safety and environmental regulations etc. The increased profit margin must make these companies foam at the mouth for even more profit. While they're at it they figure, "Why not take the opportunity to cut costs by reducing quality?". 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Local food year round

An abundant harvest shouldn't be a bad thing, but at times it can be overwhelming. I was just reading a blog post by Gene Logsdon where he passed on the wisdom of years that taught him not to overdo things by planting more than you can deal with. I've given up on my pickling cucumber bed in the vineyard because I can't handle the amount of food coming out of it. Next year I'll plant far less. This was an experimental year in large scale farming and although I was cautious, I didn't anticipate the level of productivity a little bit of manure could yield. Even the sweet corn is getting overwhelming and I only planted two 30 ft beds of it. I've canned about 25 pints already! And after so many jars of salsa (fireroasted is the best kind), pickled cucumbers, corn, sauerkraut, and tomato sauce, I'm sick of canning.

This is the time when I start fantasizing about having a couple pigs to feed all the oversized summer squash, cucumbers I can't sell, and rotting, rain-cracked tomatoes. I could also feed them all the byproducts of my canning projects, grape pressing, and crop waste. I really want to make that a reality one of these days.  On top of that, there's the tons of whey from cheesemaking I could be feeding them; nothing like turning food waste into more food.
But isn't it nice that there are crops you don't have to eat fresh that store easily without any canning and the associated energy consumption and hassle? I have really grown to appreciate crops like flour corn, popcorn, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, winter squash and dry beans.  Winter squash, garlic, onions, and sweet potatoes just need a dry place to be stored.  I was using last year's garlic all the way up until I started to get the first harvest of this year's crop. Storing it at room temperature hanging up in braids or in a mesh bag keeps it halfway through the winter until it starts to get drier, then I move it to the root cellar so that it can retain moisture and experience cold temps to keep it dormant.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Cutshort Bean

You've probably never heard of it, but you've heard of dry beans and green beans. Well, the cutshort, or “greasy” bean, is like a cross between the two. It used to be grown extensively in the South, but now it is less known. The cutshort is a type of bean that is unique in its ability to maintain a tender hull far into its development. As such, it can be harvested well after its seeds have swelled to the size of dry beans, and its hull will remain tender long after a green bean's hull would have become tough and inedible. Green beans also have very little nutritional value or flavor compared to cutshorts.
It's funny because the cutshort is kind of the equivalent of the sugar snap pea, a relatively new and quickly adopted version of the shelling pea that features an edible pod. The sugar snap pea made it so you didn't have to spend so much time shelling your garden peas to be able to enjoy them. Of course, slightly different from the cutshort, the snap pea became much more of a raw finger food perfect for snacking, while the cutshort is simply a richer, and faster cooking version of the dry bean.
Cutshorts are ideally harvested when the seeds inside the pod have swelled to a very large size and the hulls are beginning to pale. Unlike dry beans, but like green beans, they are eaten fresh (unless you string them up for Leather Breeches, which I'll get to) The pods do have tough strings along the seams, but with a little effort you can remove the strings and everything you have left is perfectly edible. This makes for a much bulkier harvest than dry or green beans, and because the seeds inside are so much more developed, a pot of cutshorts is far more nutritious and filling than a pot of green beans. Green beans are fine for a side dish, but cutshorts make a respectable main course. The final product ends up tasting a lot like a pot of green beans and dry beans combined, with the hulls adding a satisfying mouth feel to the dish.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Season of abundance

It's been a pretty good season so far. I think I bit off more than I could chew with the amount of space I chose to garden this year. I started a small CSA here and so expanded my garden. I also purchased a couple of tractor implements to make it possible to do agriculture on a larger scale out on our ag land. Before this season, most of my gardening was done on smaller hand-tended plots. More and more though I have been finding that doing things by hand is very time consuming. As much as I like the idea of simplicity, and as much as I dislike what conventional and large scale agriculture have done to our valuable agricultural lands, I cannot compete with the scale of fossil fueled agriculture by doing things by hand. Humanity gave that up by and large thousands of years ago, so it's not surprising it couldn't compete today. Hand gardening might be fine for the hobbyist who wants to grow a few supplemental veggies during the season, but if you are trying to sell your stuff or grow most of the food you eat, you are basically just wasting your time because it is so much less efficient. I've kind of known this and had never planned to try to make money selling vegetables, but here I find myself, at least partially trying to scrape a living doing something I love.

Onions growing between rows of grapes

There is virtually no market to speak of around Dancing Rabbit. We live on an island of awareness in a sea of people who don't understand the value of what we have to offer. Considering that we want to reduce our impact, it seems a little in error that we located the ecovillage so far from people who would be truly interested in and supportive of what we are doing here. We'd have to travel pretty far to get any products we produce to a market that appreciates them. This means extra fuel in transporting them. And for that matter, people have to travel pretty far to visit and see what we are doing. But this is the situation we have to overcome or accept. There are other reasons this location was chosen for DR.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Why I Eat Rabbits at Dancing Rabbit

I realize that there are those who think it's just wrong to eat animals and I don't have any argument with them, but for those who are open to the idea, I thought I'd explain the reason why I eat rabbits here at Dancing Rabbit.

From what I understand, Dancing Rabbit got its name before the people who started it even bought the land in Missouri where the future ecovillage was to be located.  When they eventually moved here, they were surprised to find rabbits running around, possibly dancing (maybe if you squinted your eyes a bit), everywhere. So the name was never some kind of tribute to the abundant rabbits found here.

Rabbit in the pressure cooker

My first experiences with rabbits here were fairly positive.  I liked seeing them hopping around but always thought of bunnies as fuzzy cute things, never as food.  After gardening at Dancing Rabbit for a while, I came to realize that the bunnies made things very difficult.  They are pretty much the reason people have to fence their gardens.  If you don't have a fence, it will be difficult if not impossible to get most vegetables going, and forget about edamame or carrots for the entire season.  And they always seem to find ways to get into fencing and devastate your crops. Although rabbits eat all of some tender plants, they have a pernicious habit of lopping off the tops of anything you plant and just leaving the top sitting there uneaten. 

This habit has been incredibly destructive in the vineyard where, even though I protect the trunks of the vines, when it snows enough in the middle of winter, I'll find a year's worth of growth hanging free from its trunk on the trellis.  The vine will take at least another year to recover. Sometimes rabbits just damage the trunk and crown gall sets in, strangling the vine slowly over a few years if it isn't pruned to the ground.  It's setbacks like these, that a rabbit does seemingly on a whim, that are the most frustrating. "Oh, maybe I'll hop over here and set back his vines a year doing something that takes me about a half second to do---and then not even eat the vine at all."!!?

Monday, January 27, 2014

An Energy Efficient Method of Making Mysost Whey Cheese

Have you ever eaten a popsicle and sucked all the sugar water out of the end, leaving only flavorless white ice behind?  Well, I used a similar technique recently in making a batch of Mysost, a whey cheese that tastes a lot like caramel.   Mysost is the name for Gjetost, which you are more likely to have heard of, that's been made from cow's milk whey instead of goat's milk whey.

Whey, after sitting outside in subzero temps

The concentrated lactose solution drained off the above frozen whey
When you think of Mysost, think of maple syrup production--a dilute sugar solution, maple sap, is boiled down to concentrate the sugars into a syrup.  Whey has about 4% lactose in it.  So when you boil it down, you concentrate the lactose sugar. I've often thought about making Mysost from the leftover whey since I have an abundant supply from my cheesemaking endeavors.  A couple years ago I was able to trade whey for pork with a local hog farmer, but since then I've just had to dump it into the compost pile.  I feel bad about it because whey has a lot of nutrients in it, but there's so much of it and it isn't nearly as tasty as milk to drink straight.