Articles

Dealing with Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus)

Andropogon virginicus, also known as Broomsedge Bluestem (or just Broom Sedge), Yellowsedge Bluestem, and Whiskey Grass is a clumping grass that is native to the southeastern United States, and this includes where our farm is located in East Tennessee.

In the photo above, you can see how thick it has grown in the pastures on our farm.

When we first moved to our farm almost 2 years ago, I knew this plant was going to be a great indicator species for me to monitor the health and regeneration of our pastures.

Broomsedge in a pasture tells me that the pastures have been overgrazed or neglected or both. While grazing animals will eat it in Spring and early Summer, it is not preferred. It has less nutrition than other pasture plants, and once it dries out in late Summer and early Autumn, grazing animals will mostly ignore it.

A fun photo of our kids right after we bought the farm… but look at all that broom sedge and red cedar taking over the pastures!

Why is it an indicator of overgrazing?

Well, as many graziers like to say, “herbivores eat dessert first”. They will choose the pasture grasses and plants that have high levels of sugar and/or protein and/or mineral content first. Examples of these plants include clovers, bluegrass, rye, timothy, etc. Ideally, our pastures will have high proportions of these plants.

Herbivores will eat their favorite “dessert” plant first, then wander over and eat another “dessert” plant, and then wander some more and eat yet another “dessert” plant. All the while, they are ignoring the less desirable species of grass or pasture plant.

When the animal eats the leaves of one of these plants, the photosynthetic ability of that plant is suddenly and significantly reduced. The plant now has to rely on the energy reserves in its roots to stay alive. It will use these energy reserves to grow new leaves, or as I like to say, new photosynthetic energy generators. Depending on the season and plant species, this new growth (regrowth) will start in 4-10 days.

If the pasture is small or there is a high stocking density (i.e. a high number of animals per given area of land), the animals may east the less desired plants only after they have eaten all the highly desired “dessert” plants first.

If we leave the animals on the pasture too long during the active growing season then, by the time the animals make their way around the pasture, there has been sufficient time for the “dessert” plants to start to put on new growth.

Now, the only plant an herbivore likes more than a “dessert” plant is a “dessert” plant with tender regrowth!

So the “dessert” plants will be eaten again, just as they are trying to regrow. They have used up a significant amount of their energy reserve in their roots to put out new leaves, and these leaves are now gone again. So the plant has to pull even more stored energy from the roots to try and regrow even more leaves. A plant can only do this so many times before it has no energy reserve left, and then the plant will die.

All the while, the less desirable plant continues to grow. It matures. It develops and drops its seed right next to the “dessert” plant that has been grazed, literally, to death. Now that less desirable plant can move in to the space previously occupied by the “dessert” plant.

This is how, over time, a pasture can become full of less desirable species of grasses and plants.

This is exactly what has happened on my farm. The previous owner let a neighbor open graze his cattle (that means let the cattle have free access to all pastures) for well over 10 years, maybe more.

Fortunately, not all “dessert” species were lost. But the less desirable species, especially the Broomsedge Bluestem, were given an unfair advantage for a long time. Now my pastures are covered with it.

We are rotationally grazing our sheep as one method to improve our pastures.

So what am I going to do about it?

First, we are going to manage our pastures with intensive rotational grazing techniques. This is going to make the biggest long-term impact on the health and improvement of our pastures. I have written about it multiple times in the past on my site:

  1. Sheep paddock rotational grazing
  2. Mob grazing with sheep
  3. More evidence of our farm’s regeneration
  4. Rotational grazing Azores style

Second, since this plant is a native to my area, I am not overly worried about it. But it is not an ideal plant. I would rather have more of the “dessert” species in my pastures. The rotational grazing methods we are using will work to regenerate our pastures. But I think we can speed the regenerative process up a bit.

Third, we will speed the regenerative process up by thinking a bit about how the less desirable species grows (in this case it is Broomsedge Bluestem). It is a clumping grass. It is eaten by our sheep in the Spring and early Summer. By late Summer and early Autumn, it will dry out and form fairly thick standing clumps. These clumps will stay standing all Winter long and well into the next year. By staying standing, it will shade out the growth of other pasture species, thereby maintaining its position in the pasture.

On the left of this photo is the field I am actively mowing… cutting the Broomsedge. A swale is holding water almost a week after the last rain. This moisture has helped “green up” the landscape downhill, but that area was also mowed a few months earlier, and so that pasture was not shaded out by the tall, dense Broomsedge clumps.

Forth, I use this information to develop management plans to encourage other plants’ growth. Specifically, I let the animals eat the Broomsedge in the Spring and early Summer. Then, especially in Winter when we will not interfere with the active growth of other plants, I knock down the dried standing clumps of Broomsedge. I do this by cutting it with my riding mower. Yes, I am sure I get some strange looks by my neighbors when I am riding my small mower in the middle of our pastures. But there is a method to my madness. By cutting those standing clumps in Winter, I am preventing the Broomsedge Bluestem from shading out the other plants come Spring. I am trying to give the unfair advantage back to the desired species.

About a week after mowing the area uphill of the swale, there is already new green growth. This is mostly fescue, a cool-season grass that is getting a jump start due to the recent warmer weather AND my letting in more sunlight by cutting the Broomsedge.

There are a number of other techniques that could be used. We could add seed of desirable plants. We do this a bit right now. I broadcast clover seed in Winter (this is known as frost seeding). Other people my use a tractor and seeder to drill (i.e. plant) seed in the pastures. Some people may plow up a field and reseed, and other people may use chemicals to kill all the grass in a pasture and then reseed with the plants they desire. We do not have a tractor, and I am pretty adamant about avoiding all synthetic chemicals on our property. This is how we came up with the methods we are now using.

 

All photos in this article are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them.

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How a Newt Matters

It is hard to capture in words the exact feelings I have about an amphibian.

We all have something… or maybe we had something, in the past sense.

There were certain things or people or places that captured our passions as children. It may have been a specific toy. It may have been a specific celebrity, an actor, or a band. It may have been an amusement park.

Once we grow up, we often look back with fondness at that thing. We may even have nostalgia about it.

But the magic has been lost.

We’ve become adults, and so “we’ve put childish things behind us”.

Me? Not so much.

I am still enamored with almost the same things as when I was a child.

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis

I was never into celebrities. I’m not a big fan of amusement parks. And while I had a few toys I was fond of, nothing captured my interest like the natural world.

Birds, trees, mammals, rocks, fish, space, coral reefs, insects, caves, reptiles, rivers, amphibians.

That was what mattered to me.

And they still get me excited.

But there are a few select animals that still get me, well, giddy, is probably the best word.  I may hide the external manifestations of those emotions, but on the inside… yeah, it’s giddy.

The Red Eft?

That’s one of those animals. For sure.

Adult form of the Eastern Newt.

I remember reading about the Eastern Newt in my copy of the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife book given to me by my grandfather. I read through that book countless times, and I still have that book, worn as it is, sitting on my bookshelf.

But there was something about this amphibian that captured my interest. I think it was a combination of the drastic changes this animal undergoes in its life and the absolutely stunning colors it develops.

In general, newts are a type of salamander with, typically, drier and rougher skin. There are a few other ways in which newts differ from the other salamanders, but even the experts don’t have a consensus.

Specifically, the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) lives a life of three phases.

In the first phase, they hatch from an egg in the water and live similar to frog tadpoles.

In the second phase, they lose their gills, change their color, and move to the land; this is the “eft” or terrestrial stage of life, and they live similar to lizards. As an eft, they become bright, almost glowing, reddish-orange, and are one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

The third and final phase is the adult stage where they turn an olive green and return to the water to live a fully aquatic life once more.

The Red Eft, the terrestrial phase of the Eastern Newt’s life.

As a child, I wanted to find a Red Eft about as bad as a child could want anything.

I spent hours outside whenever I could. Growing up in South Florida, I was surrounded by lush vegetation and wildlife. I found animals of all types.

There were the relatively common Brown and Green Anoles (lizards), large Cane Toads, and Mockingbird chicks found in our yard.

There were the Eastern Mosquitofish, Apple Snails, and baby Muscovy Ducks found in the nearby canal.

Then there were also the less common animals.

For a short time I cared for (with significant help from my mother) a Mangrove Cuckoo with a broken wing, a baby raccoon (which may have actually been an opossum), recently hatched Alligator Snapping Turtles (they went back to the canal pretty quick), a Scarlet King Snake (their bites do not hurt), a Green Water Snake (their bites really hurt), a whole long list of other snakes, a Cuban Tree Frog (it loved to eat cockroaches), and even a Basilisk Lizard (yes… they really can run on water!).

But never did I find a Red Eft.

Fast-forward 25-30 years.

We have now lived on our farm in East Tennessee for about 18 months. We have been slowly repairing an unhealthy landscape that has been overgrazed with cattle and damaged with chemicals. We’ve been seeing a return of life in the soils and pastures. The land has started to heal.

Then a few days ago our current WWOOFer, Jacob, showed me a photo he took of an unknown gecko-type animal.

There it was!

A Red Eft!

The Red Eft found by Jacob, our WWOOFer!

All those exciting emotions I had when flipping over logs and wading in canals came flooding back.

I was giddy.

Unfortunately, the photo was taken hours earlier, and so the animal was already gone. But there was an Eastern Newt on my farm!

In addition to my childhood interests, this Red Eft got me excited for an entirely different reason. It means that our efforts to regenerate the ecosystem on the farm is working.

You see, amphibians are indicators for environmental health. They can be used like canaries in a coal mine. Historically, canaries were brought into coal mines because they are more susceptible to toxic gases, like methane and carbon monoxide, than humans. The canary would die before these gases rose to levels that would kill the coal miners. If the miners noticed the canary was dead, usually because they realized the bird had stopped singing, the miners then had time to get out of the mine before they were killed.

Amphibians breathe and drink through their thin skin, and they are exquisitely sensitive to environmental toxins. As canaries were used to monitor air quality, amphibians can be used to monitor environmental quality. Specifically, the quality of water that runs over and through the forests, soils, pastures, and environments where they live.

In this case, that environment is our farm.

And I now have proof, thanks to Jacob our WWOOFer, that we have newts on our farm.

But I still really… REALLY… want to find one myself!

 

 

For further reading on using amphibians as environmental indicators:

 

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The Trouble with Facebook Permaculture

Facebook Permaculture.

That’s my new term for the day. And it has really been bugging me.

The problem is that I’m guilty of it myself.

I need to say that at the onset. I don’t want to come across in a condescending way, because I do it.

I don’t think we really mean to, but it happens nonetheless.

We get excited about getting something done. We are proud of it. We want to tell people about it. So we do. We get on Facebook or Instagram or whatever social media, photo-sharing website/app we use, and we show the world the wonderful thing we have just accomplished.

We are happy when others “like” our post. We love the positive feedback.

Now, before I get too far, please don’t get me wrong… sharing our successes and accomplishments is important to do. In fact, we ought to do this.

I often think of the people in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s “back to the land” movement. They were one of the first groups of people who left the city to try and be self-sufficient. Most members of the previous generations knew how to be self-sufficient, because that was how they were raised. The earlier generations grew up with backyard gardens and chickens and a more self-reliant know-how and confidence. But by the 1960’s, at least in the United States, there was a gap in the transfer of this knowledge. The people who left the city and moved to the country didn’t have first-hand knowledge. They had to learn it or figure it out.

They may have had a few Foxfire books.

If they were lucky, and not too arrogant, they were befriended by a neighboring farmer or homesteader from a family that never left the homestead. They were fortunate if they had some early successes to build the confidence when tough times came… when a harvest was destroyed or an animal was lost.

Unfortunately, far too many of these “back to the landers” gave up. This whole “living off the land” thing was way too hard. It was all but impossible. So the “back to the landers” went back to the city. Defeated. Disillusioned. Depressed.

Today, we are incredibly fortunate to have the enormous wealth of knowledge found online. We can find how-to’s and problem-solving-solutions within minutes of when we need it. We can find success story after success story. We can find inspiration.

This next generation of “back to the landers”, of which I am one, are not giving up quite as quickly as before. I have no scientific data to support this claim. But I daily see success story after success story from people who are not giving up, not throwing in the towel, and not moving back to the city. It’s not that we are better in any way. I firmly believe that this generation of “back to the landers” are succeeding, in large part, due to the vast resources we have at our fingertips, which sadly the previous generation did not have. We run into roadblocks, and we can more easily find solutions and work-arounds. We are able to Google our way to success.

But this is only because we share those successes.

This is because we are getting on blogs and Facebook and Instagram and telling the world what we did and how we did it.

So for that I am immensely grateful.

But there is a down side to this story. And this is not only found in Permaculture or Homesteading or with the “back to the landers”. It is found throughout this entire generation of people who compare themselves to those they see on social media.

“Gosh,” they say, “Everyone is so successful with everything they do. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I be so successful? I’ll never be able to ____  Maybe I should just stop trying. Maybe I should just quit.”

This is especially true in the Permaculture world.

We share photos of our huge harvests, of our beautiful pastures, of our new lambs or piglets or chicks.

But we don’t share struggles. We don’t share our failures. Some do. But most do not.

It is not malicious.

It’s just not fun. It’s not exciting. We are not proud of failing.

Our compost pile... that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

Our compost pile… that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

When all we do is share our success, we make it appear that failures are not common and are not part of the path toward success.

But I think it is important for us to be real.

So I’ll start…

  • We had a litter of piglets that were all stillborn.
  • We had another litter of four piglets, and only one survived.
  • We had a dump truck load of compost that is still sitting on the driveway. We used almost half of it, but we probably will have that pile sitting there for another 6 months… much to my wife’s chagrin.
  • We randomly had one of our ewes die. No idea why.
  • We had two of our pigs die. Not at the same time. But it happened, and we don’t know why.
  • We had a significant drought this Summer, and I lost close to half of the trees I planted a few months earlier.
  • I sliced my finger while breaking down chickens after processing, and I needed to give myself stitches.
  • We got our garden going too late this year, and we didn’t get a harvest from the broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels spouts. (You can see the photo at the top of the page… this was a quick harvest before the frost… all we got was cabbage, but none of the other crops had time to mature, because we got them going too late.)
  • We still have a section of perimeter fence down from a windblown tree, and I have yet to get it cleared and the fence repaired. And I’ve known about it for at least 6 months.
  • Our geese made multiple nests, laid eggs, and abandoned all of them.
  • We lost every single one of our 23 Guinea Fowl to an unknown night predator.

That’s all I can think of in about 30 seconds. But I am sure there is a whole lot more.

We have had a lot of bad and sad and frustrating things, but the good thing is that our successes have outweighed our failures and our delays. And that is really important.

But it is also important for people to see that this life is not always simple or easy or carefree.

I’m not planning on quitting and moving back to the city. Not at all!

But I am trying to keep it real.

 

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Birding with My Daughter

I officially went birding for the first time with my 5 year-old daughter. I personally love birding (see my previous article on The Benefits of Birding for Permaculturists). I am not naive enough to think her interest isn’t, in part, because she wants to “be like her daddy”. But she has been expressing a growing interest in birds that seems to be more than just trying to mimic me, and I definitely want to foster this.  At night, she reads through an old copy of my Sibley Guide to Birds before bed, so I do believe this is a real interest for her.
The "Beginning Birder Set" I put together this Christmas.

The “Beginning Birder Set” I put together this Christmas.

For Christmas this year, one of her gifts from me was a “Beginning Birder Set” I put together. It included a couple of birding books for kids and a kids pair of binoculars. She has been asking to go birding with me since Christmas, but due to my work schedule we had to put it off. Yesterday, while I was at work, she took her new binoculars and her backpack, filled it with snacks, a water bottle, and her new birding books, and went birding on her own around the house! Well, I was not working today, and so were finally able to go out together this morning. We only lasted about an hour with temperatures in the mid 30’s F, but we had a great time… more importantly, SHE had a good time!
She correctly ID’d a couple birds entirely on her own, and she was the first to spot quite a few birds as well. I had a blast watching her! One of my favorite parts was her asking, “When can we go birding again?!”
White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow (source: http://hughvandervoort.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/White-Throated-Sparrow-53.jpg)

Here is a list of the birds we spotted. Not too bad for a first birding foray:
  • American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
  • Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  • Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
  • Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) – photo at the top of this page. (Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/content/dam/news/2016/10/17/northern-flicker-bird/01-northern-flicker.jpg)
  • Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
  • Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
  • Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
  • White-Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
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Piglets at the Bauernhof

NOTE: As we are actively growing and developing our herd of pigs, we are offering piglets for sale. We do not ship live animals. Please let us know if you are interested.

This year we have had our first piglets at the farm.

This year we have had our first piglets at the farm.

One of the goals I have for our farm is to develop a good line of pigs. I don’t have a specific breed in mind. But I have specific characteristics in mind. I’ll explain the background of how I chose the characteristics I am looking for.

Here is a photo of our first pigs on the farm.

Here is a photo (over a year old) of our first pigs… the foundation stock.

The reality is that there are a lot of places that have feral hogs and landrace pigs, but not many places have truly native wild pig species. Feral hogs are pigs that were once domestic, but have escaped. These feral hogs can be found around the world.

A landrace is a bit different than feral animals. A landrace is any breed of domestic animal that has been developed in relative isolation from other breeds or strains of that same species. These may be pigs or sheep or chickens or ducks or any other domestic animal. (Note that I am not referring to the American or Danish Landrace pigs which are specific breeds of pig… I am referring to the idea of a landrace breed in general.)

We run a mixed-breed herd of pigs on our farm.

We run a mixed-breed herd of pigs on our farm.

It was common practice for Spanish and Portuguese explorers to bring animals with them on their journeys. They would find a location with fresh water and let a few animals free. These animals would breed and their numbers would grow. When the explorers returned to that area, they had water and meat waiting for them.

But there was a catch.

Those animals had to survive. With no human intervention. With no hay. No feed. No medications. No assistance with birthing. No vaccines. No shelters. No dewormers. No barns. No selective breeding.

Nature was the selecting force. The animals that could survive did. Those that couldn’t handle the parasites, the droughts, the humidity, the cold, the predators… they didn’t. And their genetic traits of being unable to cope were not passed on to the next generation.

These survivor genetics are what I want. And fortunately there are a number of surviving landrace pigs out there.

Our piglets nursing well.

Our piglets nursing well. These are Gloucestershire Old Spots x Vietnamese Potbelly piglets.

 

Our pigs love to eat grass!

Our pigs love to eat grass!

Fortunately again there are a number of heritage breed pigs that still exist as well. A heritage breed is a breed of animal that was traditionally raised by farmers and homesteaders in the past. Over time, commercial breeds gradually took the heritage breeds’ place, and their numbers significantly declined. Many heritage breeds were lost. But there were a few dedicated farmers and homesteaders who kept some of these breeds going, and I am so glad they did. These heritage breeds may not be as hardy as some of the landrace pigs, but they are significantly moreso than the commercial breeds. They also have a significantly better flavor of pork than the commercial breeds. And, to be fair, the meat of landrace breeds are also very flavorful.

Pigs_02

We have a mix of genetics on our farm. Here is a photo when our heard was relatively young.

 

A piglet at sunrise!

A piglet at sunrise!

With all this said, my goal is to build my herd with genetics from a variety of landrace and heritage breeds. And that is exactly what I am doing. Here are the breeds I am using at our farm:

Berkshire

  • Origin: Britain. Berkshire (Berks County).
  • Type: Meat.
  • Flavor: Succulent, marbled, flavorful, pink-red meat.
  • Size: Medium.
  • Color: Black with a white snout and boots and tail.
  • Temperament: Good-natured.
  • Notes: Good mothers. Good foragers. Commonly used as a terminal sire (i.e. used as the male contributor for hybrid meat hogs).

Gloucester Old Spots

  • Origin: Britain. Gloucestershire (Gloucester County).
  • Type: Lard.
  • Flavor: Sweet, very flavorful, well-marbled meat.
  • Size: Medium to Large.
  • Color: Mostly white with a few black spots.
  • Temperament: Very good-natured and friendly.
  • Notes:  Very good foragers. Very hardy. Very good mothers. Originally raised on windfall apples.

Guinea Hog

  • Origin: Guinea (Africa) originally, but this is a southern USA landrace breed (meaning it was developed over time, adapting to its new environment in the hot and humid South).
  • Type: Lard.
  • Flavor: Delicious! On the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
  • Size: Small to Medium (adults: 150-250 lbs/68-114 kg).
  • Color: Black, occasionally red, and hairy.
  • Temperament: Sweet-natured, friendly.
  • Notes:  Endangered breed. Very good foragers. Do not do well in confinement.

Kunekune

  • Origin: New Zealand, but originating from Asian breeds.
  • Type: Meat. Being a small pig, they produce select cuts of meat and a lot of sausage and bacon.
  • Flavor: Well-marbled, succulent, tasty meat
  • Size: Small.
  • Color: Wide range of colors, hairy.
  • Temperament: Good-natured. Friendly.
  • Notes:  Excellent foragers. Kunekune means “fat and round” in the Māori language. It is one of the “pet” breeds of pig.

Large Black

  • Origin: England. Devonshire (Devon County) and Cornwall County.
  • Type: Meat.
  • Flavor: Very tasty, juicy, lean but well-marbled meat. Little back fat.
  • Size: Large.
  • Color: Black.
  • Temperament: Good-natured. Docile.
  • Notes:  Endangered breed. A very good forager. Very good mother. Not common in the USA.

Mulefoot

  • Origin: USA. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Arkansas. Developed from early Spanish explorers’ hogs (a landrace breed).
  • Type: Lard.
  • Flavor: Succulent, marbled, red meat. Delicious! On the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
  • Size: Medium.
  • Color: Black with wattles.
  • Temperament: Good-natured. Docile.
  • Notes: Endangered breed. Very good foragers. Hardy. Mulefoot hogs have fused toes forming a “hoof”… hence the name.

Vietnamese Potbelly

  • Origin: Vietnam.
  • Type: Meat.
  • Flavor: Flavorful. Can have a lot of fat if allowed/desired – very good for bacon. Being a small pig, they produce select cuts of meat and a lot of sausage and bacon.
  • Size: Small. 70-150 lbs (32-68 kg), but can get well over 200 lbs (90 kg) depending on the genetics.
  • Color: Black or Black and White.
  • Temperament: Very good-natured.
  • Notes:  Common as pets in the United States, although this is a new phenomenon considering how long they have been present on small farms in southeast Asia.

 

Gentle pigs that do not grow too large are important considerations for us as we have our own children as well as frequent visitors to our farm.

Gentle pigs that do not grow too large are important considerations for us as we have our own children as well as frequent visitors to our farm.

 

These are our most recent piglets.

These are our most recent piglets. They are Gloucestershire Old Spots x Gloucestershire Old Spots/Mulefoot/Large Black piglets.

We ultimately want to end up with a line of pigs that need no significant human intervention but are still gentle. They do not need to be fast-growing, but they do need to produce quality, flavorful meat. I do not want tiny animals, but I certainly do not want very large pigs; I have my own children as well as frequent visitors to my farm, so safety is a consideration. I don’t vaccinate. I don’t deworm. I don’t use antibiotics. I don’t help with deliveries. I don’t use a barn; I provide minimal shelter. I feed them fermented grains (no soy and no corn). They eat fresh grass (as much as they can find!). They eat roots and tubers and anything they can find on (or under) the pastures where they live.

This is a work in progress, and it will probably take quite some time before I “arrive” at a final result. Most likely, I will be tinkering with this for as long as I am alive, and that makes me happy.

 

Please ask if you would like to use one of my photos!

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First Autumn Hard Freeze and Making Sauerkraut

Technically, a “hard freeze” is when there are at least 4 consecutive hours of temperatures below 25°F (-4°C). This is important to gardeners, because a hard freeze will kill most annual plants.

Autumn temperatures here in East Tennessee are not very predictable. We had a few mild frosts over the past couple of weeks, but no hard freezes. Then we had a forecast for temperatures dropping to 19°F (-7°C). I noticed this with only about 1 hour left of daylight.

So our current WOOFER (Jacob) and I went out to the garden with baskets and scissors and knives to harvest what we could before the cold could destroy it.

Garden_Harvest_07

Sunset and the hard freeze was fast approaching, and I just didn’t think about taking any photos of the garden before we started harvesting. In fact, this is the only photo I took while outside.

We have been at our farm for about 18 months, and we finally put in our first annual vegetable garden late this Summer. I say “we” very loosely, because although it was done with my guidance, almost all the work was done by one of our other WOOFERS, Marianne.

Garden_Harvest_06

We piled the harvest on the kitchen table.

 

Garden_Harvest_05

We had numerous varieties of cabbages we were testing.

Our hope is that this annual garden will be in place for many decades, maybe longer depending on how many generations use it. It was a project we wanted to get done last year, but so many things got us distracted. As with many things on a homestead and farm, late is better than never.

We finally got the garden in place, but it was just a bit later in the season than we were initially planning. The kale and Swiss chard did just fine, but our broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts did not have enough time to mature before our cold weather started slowing their growth. Our cabbages didn’t have enough time to develop a full head, but that’s okay… even a partially formed head of cabbage is still edible. It may not be great for long term storage, but it is plenty good enough to make sauerkraut!

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None of our broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts had a chance to mature due to late planting, but all the other plants did really well.

 

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We had some loss due to caterpillars, specifically the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni), but this was pretty minimal.

 

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We also had a couple of varieties of kale and Swiss chard. We blanched and froze most of the chard and the Nero Di Toscana Cabbage (aka Tuscan/Lacinato/Dinosaur Kale). Here is my mom about to be buried in greens!

I’ve written about making sauerkraut in the past:
My First Attempt at Making Sauerkraut and My New Sauerkraut

Since these first attempts, I have made many batches of sauerkraut. Here is how I make it…

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We started with the entire plant. We separated the cabbage leaves from the main stem. We did not have any tight heads of cabbage. This was due to planting too late before cold weather set in. We removed the central vein from the large leaves (like the one pictured in the bottom right).

 

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We grew Tronchuda or Portuguese Kale (Couve Tonchuda). This kale was mixed with the outer, thicker leaves of the cabbage to make one batch of sauerkraut.

 

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We used a food processor with the slicer attachment to speed up the slicing! Here is a photo of another batch of sauerkraut using the inner cabbage leaves (what would have been the heads of cabbage).

 

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I used to measure my salt based on the amount of cabbage I used; however, now I just sprinkle a small amount of salt on the sliced cabbage as I go and adjust based on taste.

 

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After I sprinkle the salt, I then mix and squeeze the sliced cabbage until the juice is literally squeezed out of it. This is a third batch of sauerkraut made from only Hilton Chinese Cabbage, a Napa-type cabbage that grew great for us this year.

 

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The sliced, salted, and smashed cabbage is added to a crock. This sauerkraut is made with Aubervilliers Cabbage, Charleston Wakefield Cabbage, Glory of Enkhuizen Cabbage, and Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage.

 

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The cabbage is pushed down level and then covered with some whole cabbage leaves… remember to save these at the beginning!

 

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Cover the whole cabbage leaves with a plate or lid or, if you have it, a specifically made crock weight. This allows for even distribution of weight to push down/compress the sauerkraut.

 

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I use a gallon bag of water to weigh down the lid and sauerkraut. This weight pushes down the sauerkraut forcing the cabbage below the brine.

 

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The crocks of sauerkraut fermenting! I usually check the next morning to make sure the fluid has some bubbles in it… showing signs of fermentation. Then I let it rest for about 5 days before I start taste-testing it. Once it is as tangy as I like, then I will transfer the sauerkraut into mason jars and put them in the refrigerator. 

 

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Making Head Cheese

“Once you knock an animal on the head it is only polite to eat the whole animal.”
— Fergus Henderson

Yes, head cheese is made from the head of an animal. This may sound unappealing to our modern minds, but once upon a time, people valued their livestock in a way most people do not today. After raising animals at our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner, for the last 18 months, I have a whole new respect for our ancestors desire to utilize every possible part of an animal.

This was part frugality and part respect.

Frugality… for our great-great-grandparents couldn’t just run down to the supercenter grocery store and stock up on whatever they wanted. They needed to be mindful of which animal they culled from their stock. They needed to be mindful of how much food that animal would provide for their family. There would be good times and bad times ahead, and they didn’t know which would be coming next. They couldn’t afford to be wasteful.

Respect… for our great-great-grandparents knew where their food came from. The animal may have had a name. It may have had a personality that our great-great-grandparents interacted with daily. They may have felt a pang of sadness when it was slaughtering day, but they knew that this animal’s life would provide life to their family for the winter. There was intentional and unavoidable knowledge of the animals life. There was intimacy in the animal’s death. When one experiences this, it is a matter of course to make use of everything you can from the animal. It would be disrespectful to wasteful.

So what exactly is head cheese, and how did it get its name?

From Wikipedia:
Head cheese or brawn is a cold cut that originated in Europe. Head cheese is not a dairy cheese, but a terrine or meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig, or less commonly a sheep or cow, and often set in aspic. The parts of the head used vary, but the brain, eyes, and ears are usually removed. The tongue, and sometimes the feet and heart, may be included. It can also be made from quality trimmings from pork and veal.

Head cheese may be flavored with onion, black pepper, allspice, bay leaf, salt, and vinegar. It is usually eaten cold or at room temperature.

The “cheese” term likely comes from the old usage of the word meaning “formed” or “molded” like in a pan or mold form (not mold, as in the fungus). So a modern American meatloaf, could conceivably be called a “meat cheese” if we followed the same naming conventions.

“I don’t actually know what it is, but it just sounds gross.” This is the most common response when I ask people about head cheese. Well, this is the most common response from people who say they’ve never tried it, but they state that they refuse to eat it.

In contrast, I’ve recently heard from a number of people who love it. They remember eating it with their parents or grandparents when they were younger. It brings about good memories of family and good food.

But what does it taste like?

In short… fantastic. It tastes like a mix of a good cold-cut type meat and a thick paté, but not with an organ meat overtone. Remember, it is composed of succulent meat. It does have a flavorful, thickened, gelatin-rich broth surrounding the whole thing. When head cheese is served with a thick, crusty bread, horseradish or mustard, and accompanied with a quality beer or wine… amazing!

Some people use veggies in their head cheese, some do not. Some people like to add vinegar, and this is then called a “souse”. Some people like to have more gelatin-rich broth with meat set in it… more like an aspic. Others, myself included, prefer more meat than broth. Like many foods, there are many variations of how head cheese can be made, and no two are truly alike, especially when home made.

Here are some links to other articles with recipes:

 

Here is how I made my first head cheese…

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Start with one cleaned pig’s head. This is one of our own pigs that was slaughtered within the last week.

 

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Put the pig’s head in a large container for brining.

 

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The head should be brined for at least 24 hours, but 2-3 days is better.

 

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The brined head is rinsed well and put into a large pot for cooking.

 

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Add roughly chopped stock vegetables and spices. I used carrots, celery, onion, rosemary, parsley, and bay leaves. Other ingredients could include…

 

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Fill the pot with water until it just covers the head.

 

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I also added some crushed black pepper corns and juniper berries (in a tea strainer) and a cup of red wine. White wine is traditionally used, but I didn’t have any on hand.

 

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I also added a couple of cleaned trotters (pig’s feet). This will greatly increase the gelatin content of the stock.

 

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Simmer until the meat is falling off the bone. This took us about 6 hours. Strain the stock and then return it to the cleaned pot. Return to a boil until the volume is reduced to about one fourth (or less) of its original volume.

 

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The meat needs to be separated from the bones. There is a lot of meat on a pig’s head, and it takes a little bit of time to find it all. If using the tongue, which is very tender meat, then separate the outer membrane from the tongue and chop this into large pieces.

 

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There are many techniques on what to do with the meat until the stock is reduced. I let the meat soak in some of the brine overnight. Then I strained it and mixed in some fresh, finely chopped herbs… parsley, thyme, and sage. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. I added some additional salt and ground pepper.

 

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Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap and place the seasoned meat into the pan.

 

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Pour the reduced stock into the pan. Use a spoon to make sure the stock is evenly distributed throughout and around the meat. Cover the whole thing with a layer of plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours so the gelatin-rich stock can set.

 

Once set, the head cheese can be sliced and then allowed to warm to room temperature before serving. Served with bread, pickles, cheese, mustard, and some quality beer or wine… amazing!

 

 

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Sheep Landscapers

This summer, we allowed the sheep to forage around the house for a few days. Why use a lawn mower, weed-eater, or do any work for that matter if your animals will happily volunteer?

Here is a photo showing them taking down the wild grape vine that has grown up around a rose bush. They can only reach so high, and the upper leaves remained out of reach.

Our lambs were a few months old in this photo. Many of the lambs need to kneel down on all four knees if they wanted to nurse.

Just a fun photo I wanted to share!

 

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More Evidence of Our Farm’s Regeneration

We are in the middle of a drought at the end of October here in East Tennessee. It is classified as moderate to severe, depending on the source. Those in the drylands of the world would laugh at our complaints, but we are truly in a drought for our area. We are not in the desert. We are not in the drylands. We are in a continental temperate climate, and our average rainfall is between 36-44 inches (91-111 cm) per year, and this is one of the reasons we chose this area to live. Unfortunately, our rainfall is significantly below average. In fact, we are currently in the fourth driest month on record here in East Tennessee.

What does that mean to us and to our neighbors? Well, it means things are really dry. The soil. The pastures. Our ponds. And our neighbors are concerned about having enough hay for the Winter.

While it is not a cure-all by any means, but our application of Holistic Management is keeping our animals, and our land, in pretty good condition despite the drought. For those unfamiliar with the term, Holistic Management is a system of land and pasture management geared at improving the soil and the environment while still making a living using livestock. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s a brief explanation.

A fun photo of our kids... but look at all those red cedars and that broom sedge!

A fun photo of our kids… but look at all those red cedars and that broomsedge!

Above and below are a couple photos of our land when we first moved to the farm. It was a bit dry then as well in the first photo, although nothing like right now. You can see a few issues relatively quickly if you know what to look for. First, there are a lot of young Eastern Red Cedar trees/saplings (Juniperus virginiana) across the pastures. These pioneering plants will try to turn a pasture/field back into forest. Second, there is a lot of Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus). This is a native clumping grass that often indicates, and rightly so in our case, that the land has been overgrazed. I love native plants, no kidding, but some are better than others. Herbivores will eat Broomsedge Bluestem in the Spring and early Summer, but the nutritional quality of this plant greatly drops as the plants mature. Animals generally avoid it at this point. Then, to make matters worse, this clumping plant stays standing and blocks sunlight to other more desirable plants.

Another photo of our land right when we moved in.

Another photo of our land right when we moved in.

We were extremely blessed to have a youth group volunteer almost a week to clear the Eastern Red Cedar saplings from our fields. This saved untold hours of work on our part. And it was the first step in pasture regeneration.

Eastern Red Cedar removal!

Eastern Red Cedar removal… we only had a piles of cut cedars left!

At this time, we are using sheep as our primary tools to repair our land. We rotate them frequently… as often as every 3-4 days with the drought conditions we have right now. We use portable solar electric fencing and give them just enough space to keep them fed and happy for a few days at at time. The sheep trample a lot of the dried Broomsedge Bluestem. They nibble a little bit of it as well. They graze most of the other plants in the pasture. We give almost no ancillary feed; just a little fermented grains to move them from one paddock to the next. The sheep deposit manure and urine which fertilizes the soil and provides additional organic matter.

We use sheep as our main land regenerators at this time.

We use sheep as our main land regenerators at this time. This was earlier in the year when we had a decent amount of rain… look at that green!

After the sheep are moved off the paddock, I will take our tractor… okay, it is actually just a riding mower, and I take down anything that is left standing in the paddock. Yes, this is more management than I desire to do, but I only plan to mow any given pasture one time, and one time only. As we knock down the Broomsedge Bluestem, we are making room for the other pasture plants to take their spot, to outcompete them. Ideally, I would mow right before the Broomsedge Bluestem is forming a seed head, but that is not always possible. But by knocking it down so that it cannot form a shading clump, we are giving the other plants an “unfair” advantage. This seems to be giving the other plants just the boost they need. Combined with our grazing method as described above, I don’t plan to ever mow an area twice.

Our only "tractor".

Our only “tractor”. I don’t ever plan on owning a “real” tractor.

Here I come to our proof. Our evidence that what we are doing is truly working. The photo at the top of the article (and below as well) shows our personalized rotational grazing method. In general, you can see how brown everything is. This is not normal for this time of year here in East Tennessee. But with our land management, we are still getting green growth… despite the drought!

In the far left is where I have just removed the sheep. Then in the center area is the area I have just mowed. Then to the right you can see the area that has already been grazed and mowed and rested for just over a week. No Broomsedge Bluestem. And lots of new, green growth! This is a mix of pasture grasses and forbs (non-grass herbaceous flowering plant… sheep love these!).

This Permaculture stuff works. Even in drought!

The different stages of our pasture's regeneration.

The different stages of our pasture’s regeneration.

 

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Rendering Duck Fat

I wrote in my previous article on Bone Broth about how I save the fat that rises to the top of the cooled broth. I scoop this out and put it into a dutch oven on the stove. The fat is rendered down and put into jars, and I use it for cooking. Duck fat is considered one of the most prized cooking fats by chefs and foodies for its flavor and cooking qualities, and is becoming more popular of late because it is high in monounsaturated fat, the “good” fat.

All the cooking fat we render on our farm comes from our pasture-raised, grass and organic-fed chickens, ducks, geese, and sheep. We use it mostly for roasting, sauteing, or pan-frying vegetables, and it is delicious.

I have also prepared this fat by rendering the skins of the ducks we have processed. I’ll be honest. I have processed our ducks and geese many times, and trying to get all the feathers off is almost impossible for me. I have tried every combination of dry and wet plucking, by hand and with an automatic plucker, with single and multiple dips into wax, and I have yet to come up with a system that is effective and efficient. I can get all the feathers, but it takes so long, that it is almost not worth it. I end up doing the best I can, which is pretty good but not good enough for sales, and then I skin the bird. But I save the skin. There is so much great fat in the skin that I just can’t waste it.

Duck skin cracklings

Duck skin cracklings

Rendering fat from the skins is easy. Just add all the skins to a cooking pot; I prefer a dutch oven. I add a little bit of water to prevent the skins from burning at first. Then I put the pot on to simmer. As the skins heat up, they release the golden fat. Eventually, the water all boils off and we are left with the rendered fat and the cooked skins known as cracklings. We eat the cracklings if the skin is cleaned well, and they taste great sprinkled with a little salt.

The image at the top of this article is the duck fat I most recently rendered from the skins… beautiful, liquid gold! There are a number of ways to get this great cooking fat, and if you have the ability to produce or procure it, I highly recommend it.

 

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