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So Much More Than Just Bread

sourdough starter 

I must not be reading the correct news outlets, because I only recently discovered there has been a resurgence in bread-making, particularly sourdough bread. As someone who has made sourdough bread on and off for years, I think this is fantastic! We’ve found it to be more digestible than store-bought breads (even the fancy breads), as well as better tasting than most. But many of the articles seem to stop there, and not everyone enjoys loaf bread. So what else can you make with that bubbly sourdough starter?

My first sourdough creation after loaf bread was pancakes. These are a staple around the farm now – perfect for egg sandwiches, a quick PB&J snack, or in a breakfast casserole. While the bread dough is rising, I’m cooking a batch of pancakes on the comal. My recipe calls for water, but if I’ve made cheese recently, I will substitute whey. Either one makes delicious pancakes.

sourdough pancakes

The next “not loaf bread” idea was thanks to my friend Jennifer. She has small children, and it became a chore to keep cutting bread for them to eat. Her solution? Don’t make a bread loaf, make ROLLS. I felt such a fool – why didn’t I think of that?! For her, rolls were perfect – the kids could pull off a roll for their snack, no knives needed, and no crumbs to clean off the counter. She uses glass pie plates, but if you have a glass casserole dish in the cupboard, that would work just as well. Make your bread dough as usual, but instead of placing the dough in a loaf pan for the second rise, pinch off pieces, roll into balls, and place in the greased dish. Continue for the second rise and bake as your recipe instructs. They can be made larger for hamburger buns, or smaller for dinner-style rolls. Simple as that!

sourdough rolls

That got me thinking – what else can I make? Enter the internet and a “sourdough (bread item)” search. Holy wild yeast, Batman, a whole new world was opened up to me. Cinnamon bread (I use my regular sourdough bread recipe, stretch it out to a rectangle coat with butter, cinnamon, and sugar, roll up, cut, let rise, bake. Even with a powdered sugar icing, they are not as overly sweet as many store-bought cinnamon rolls are.

sourdough cinnamon rolls

Looking for something dessert-y? Try sourdough gingerbread. Using blackstrap molasses gives this cake a richer flavor. I haven’t gotten to make the recipe I have for sourdough chocolate chip cookies yet, but it’s on the list.

Pretzels, muffins, tortillas, cakes, donuts, naan...the list may be endless! Some articles indicate otherwise, but I’ve found sourdough to be quite forgiving. Forget to pull your starter from the fridge the night before? Feed it in the morning and pop it in an oven with the light on. Lost track of time and didn’t take the dough out of the warm place after 3-4 hours on first rise? My friend Jennifer has left it in the oven for the entire day, and it still made beautiful bread. Mix and match your flours – my favorites are spelt and wheat. When mixing the dough, I use organic white and spelt/wheat in equal amounts for a different flavor (only use white flour when feeding your starter, or else everything after that will taste like the “other” flour!).

Sourdough isn’t scary. It is time-consuming, but in small doses. For regular sourdough breads, my plan of attack is as follows - wake up the starter, go do things. Make the dough for first rise, go do things. Punch down and form the loaf/rolls for second rise, go do things. Turn on the oven for baking, go do things. When it’s finished, you now have fresh bread/rolls for supper.

What has been your experience with sourdough? What have you made besides bread that I need to try?

What Is Your View?

swing
This swing makes me happy - I love the blue of the morning glory flowers

There are several groups that have come into existence on Facebook since the beginning of the year, centered around the theme of “a view from my window.” They ask for members to send a picture of just that – a view from their window, to provide other members with a glimpse into where they are during this world-wide stay-at-home time. Photos reflect many styles of living – near water, in high-rise apartments, rural, urban, suburban, manicured, “lived in,” well-to-do, just getting by, and everything in between. It’s been a fascinating look into how people see themselves and their view, by the choice of window/door they choose to take a picture from, to their text explaining that view. I would guess that many don’t submit a photo because they feel embarrassed because they don’t have a swimming pool, or live next to a nature preserve, or have a view of the sunrise or sunset. And some apologize for their view because they don’t have those things. I find all of the views beautiful because they are new to me – even the more familiar views I saw from Cincinnati and Columbus!

Many folks have included stories with their view – what they are doing while staying at home, who is with them, thoughts about the pandemic, a piece of history regarding their house, along with well-wishes for the people who are reading. At times, the poster will write about their own hopes and fears for the current situation and for what the future might hold, but that they are grateful for this time because they have been able to enjoy their home/family/neighborhood more.

Seeing so many varied views from all over the planet got me thinking about my own views. Each direction holds a different facet that doesn’t tell the whole story of this farm, but when you put them all together, the whole farm can be seen.

view-from-swing
The view towards the west, from my front yard

Looking west from the house, it’s a study in how many different greens there can be. Grass, maple trees, mulberries, asters, burdock, some thistle and nettle, the lighter green of the crops, then the darker green of the woods on the other side of the fields. I can only see patches of the fields through the trees right now. The browns of the soil and the tree trunks are present, but the overwhelming sensation is green and growth.

South is dominated by the bank barn, with the garage, smaller barns, and the chicken coops on the periphery, against a backdrop of more green. The electric pole stands tall in the center of the circle of buildings. Chickens wander around pecking at the grasses and looking for bugs, and all of the farm equipment passes this way to get to and from equipment barns and the fields. This is Grand Central Station for the farm.

People and “civilization” are to the east. Our town is pretty quiet, but I can hear the motorcycles and semis on the north/south state route. I’ll catch a whiff of dryer sheets and cookouts (and sometimes the water treatment plant...), and I always look that direction at 10:00am on the second Wednesday of the month when the siren goes off up town (that’s tornado siren test time).

North is the entrance to the farm and another view of the crop ground and pastures. North is also our front yard/pasture/dog run, and home to what has become one of my favorite places to sit and view the farm.

dog-looking-at-swing
Looking toward the swing from my front porch - Lola also likes being out here!

This poor porch swing had been sitting in barn storage for a long time since our covered back porch is also a project staging area. Not much room to hang a swing! I wasn’t much a fan of the 4x4 treated lumber frames, but finally found a cedar log frame that I liked. After I got it put together correctly (I managed to put the top bar on upside down and had to disassemble things to flip it right way up), then came the big decision on where to put it in the yard. Up against the fence and near the fire pit seemed good, and it was the right decision. The tall bushes behind the swing block the morning sun, making it the perfect spot for morning coffee and gearing up for the day ahead. It does get the afternoon sun, but not for very long (thanks to all those trees to the west!), so I can enjoy a fire and a beverage in the evenings. Plus, our dog can be with us in the yard, and the chickens can’t get in to be nuisances. It is a place for thinking, talking, and relaxing, where I’m surrounded by the place I call home. That makes it the best view to me!

What is your “best view” for relaxing?

Grow, Baby, Grow

 main-garden
 Looking into my in-ground garden

These pictures will immediately show that I am not a Gardener, worthy of glossy magazine spreads where I’m attired in white linen and interviewed on my methods and secrets. I’m not ashamed to call myself a gardener, with dirt under my nails, muddy knees, and bits of debris in my hair. It’s the end of May, and I still have the cabbages and broccoli starts to put in the ground, the straw blew out from between the onion rows in the last windy storm we had, and I honestly have no idea where all the welded wire tomato rings are (I know I used a few to patch fencing, and others are still around the pawpaw trees I planted two years ago, but there should be some more around here!).

And this is all okay – I keep reminding myself of that. There have been years we didn’t get anything in the ground until mid-June, years where I gave up trying to keep things watered because it just wouldn’t rain, and years where it all grew perfectly. This year I have a good stand of onions, the potatoes are emerging from their straw covering, there are cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini all stretching their roots down and their leaves up.

weeded-raised-bed
The weeded raised bed

One of my two hugelkultur raised beds got a thorough weeding today. These two beds started life as herb gardens, but apparently, I’m not the greatest at raising herbs. Unless it’s mint. I’m spectacular at growing mints. They are all slowly taking over the beds, which is fine with me because hot or iced mint tea is my go-to all year long. So I weeded amongst the applemint and peppermint and planted the poblano peppers, jalapeños, and Brussel sprouts. The walkway got a good layer of woodchips while I was out there, as well. It’s forecasting rain today, which may or may not happen, so we’ll see if the second bed gets weeded and planted – the broccoli starts will join the applemint that is already growing.

 

 needs-weeding.
This one needs some work!

 

Growing things can be challenging – there’s the hope of the reward of food or flowers at the end of the season, but getting from that seed or plant starts that you carefully place in the ground to that reward is long, hot, and filled with weeds and insects. I certainly don’t like being out weeding in the middle of July, even when the mornings are oh-so-slightly cooler than the afternoons. But the hope of tomatoes, cabbages, and beans on the table is (usually!) motivation to keep the weeds far enough from the plants to give them space to grow. Someone needs to remind me of this when it really is mid-July when the humidity is off the charts!

Our “in-ground” garden is part of what used to be a garden, then was a pasture, so I’m now working against the grass that we were once encouraging to grow. My garden experiment this year is to turn over a few shovelfuls of dirt where I’m going to plant something, then keep that area well weeded. Keeping the entire garden area grass-free is a task that I’m not wanting to put effort into right now – there’s a lot more on the farm that I need to focus on. I’ll mow it regularly but won’t keep tilling it. We’re looking into options to smother the grass this fall!

 

tomato-plant
Tomato plant with a “weed free” zone

 

How is your garden looking so far?

An Evolution Of Fence, Part 2

Maker Pipe in centerMaker Pipe at a corner
Maker Pipe connectors

The farm, animal-wise, looks much different today than when we first started – the cattle are gone, the sheep and goats are grazing the large pastures in the summer. We have installed permanent fencing (either cattle panel or stretched fence) in those areas that we are turning into pastures and the areas we want to keep the animals out of, like our permanent hay pasture. But permanent fencing along the creek or around the buildings isn’t practical, and corral panel is expensive. To use what we have already made, the 16’ corral/cattle panels were set up where we may need to take down the barrier for some reason. As with other “temporary” things on a farm, these may become a permanent fixture, but I’d rather have them in use than rusting away behind the barn!

Even using the 10’ corral/cattle panel combo, I can only move about 8-9 of them before my back says enough! Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a 10’ panel that would be sturdy enough to keep sheep and goats contained, was lighter than the corral/cattle panels, and could be used with the corral/cattle panels to make larger pens?

Enter Kickstarter, and a project my husband backed – Maker Pipe. These fittings are great! They can be used as corner pieces or center “T” connectors. Cut some 3/4” EMT conduit, assemble with the fittings, and you now have a frame of whatever size you choose. We chose 10’ to “match” the corral/cattle panels we already had. We cut the EMT into 5’ lengths, connected them with the Maker Pipe connectors, wired sheep fence to that frame, and we could now make as many panels as we wanted.

Being light, these aren’t as sturdy as the corral/cattle panels, so we use them as “pen extenders” – the 10’ corral panels provide corner stability, with 2 or 3 conduit panels between the corral panels. They can be chained or wired together, and also to the corral panels.

**These conduit/sheep fence panels WILL TIP OVER if you put too many of them together, so we only use 2-3 in one run. I may use more when making a pen up against a tree line because the trees/brush/bushes will support them if a goat decides to put hooves on them to reach higher branches**

The finished sheep panel
10’ EMT conduit + sheep fence panels...and a goatling!

We are pretty pleased with how the conduit/sheep fence panels are working out for creating small pastures where we can’t or don’t want to put in permanent fences. I also used them this spring to create lambing jugs in our large barn pens, although I need to install some eyebolts so I can secure the panels better for next lambing season– red poly twine was definitely not the best answer for hooking them together, but it worked for a temporary solution.

Now that we seem to have found a good solution, what have we learned with these panels? Because the conduit panels are so much lighter than their corral panel counterparts, we need to be hyper-aware of where we use them! If there are overhanging branches, the goats will climb the panels and bend the sheep fence. Using more than three conduit panels without a corral panel “corner” leads to instability and possible failure of the fence. If the area permits, you could use t-posts to provide more stability (chain or wire the conduit panels to the t-posts). Extremely uneven ground adds to stability issues, and you’ll need to watch for large gaps under the frames. I’m constantly surprised at how lambs can wiggle through the smallest holes!

This was certainly not a quick process, and it was frustrating to think we had solved the problem, then find out that it wasn’t going to work as well as we thought. But we’ve been able to repurpose the earlier versions of panels, so they aren’t wasted. Oh, I’m sure some are asking why we didn’t use an electric fence or netting. A few of the reasons - we need to keep the livestock guardian dogs contained with the flock, I have horned animals and have seen awful pictures of what happens when an animal gets stuck in netting, and it takes me too long to do the prep work to clear a path for the wires/netting in some of the areas. As with just about everything, your mileage may vary for any animal containment system.

The old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” holds true here at Innisfree!

What have you invented out of necessity?

Two Days Of Tree Trimming

trimming the leaning pine tree
Leaning/dying pine tree during removal

Trees are wonderful things. They provide shade and food for humans and wildlife, sequester carbon dioxide, filter water, along with more intangible benefits – beauty in every season, and the soothing sound of wind through the leaves. But they have lifespans, and like all living things, require upkeep. With so many trees up near our buildings (and power lines!), we discovered that this was a project much larger than we could handle on our own without a significant investment in equipment. Fortunately, good friends of ours recently had a wonky tree removed from their property and gave us a recommendation for the local company they used. I called, they came to give a quote, and said they would call when they were able to come out.

after the pine tree removed
No more leaning pine tree!

Tuesday mid-afternoon, that call came – can we come tomorrow morning? Sure! Time to make sure all of the driveways were clear for their bucket truck and chipper to get through, and get the rest of the honeysuckle cut down for the goats and sheep to eat - didn’t want them to cut that down and chip it when the sheep and goats love to eat the leaves! Honeysuckle may be invasive and a pain, but it is candy to my flock.

We know that there is a LOT of tree work that needs to be done, but when you have a budget, you have to make choices as to what is the most important and what can wait until later. Now there were specific trees that needed trimmed back from buildings/powerlines, and specific trees that we wanted taken down because they were dead or dying. The man who came to give the quote is an arborist, and trying to keep him on track was a challenge! Yes, I know that all of those maple trees have dead branches that need trimming, but these trees over here are the ones that are completely dead. Yep, that tree should be removed, but this one is leaning over the roof and needs taken out first. I’m not complaining at all, because I know he is a professional and will do the job right. I felt like I had to pull out my “no-nonsense teacher voice” to keep things moving, though. hah!

It took about 11 hours over two days to cut down and chip up everything. They even cut the trunks into firewood size. The total was three trees removed, and four trees trimmed. I have two loads of wood chips piled by the barn, a whole bunch of trunk sections to do something with, and no branches around the powerlines or overhanging the roofs. The price tag wasn’t as much as we were expecting (that’s always good news), and it was completed as quickly as safety allowed.

 13-before-maple-tree
Overhanging maple tree before trimming.

maple tree after trimming
Maple tree - no longer overhanging the roof.

I know that we will need to cut these old maple trees down eventually, but I’m hoping we breathed a few more years of life into them. The arborist explained that by removing the dead branches, it would prevent the rest of the tree from becoming sick, or at least slow down the rate of decay if there were already “infected” spots. Now that we got the highest priority work done, we can start thinking about the rest of the trees and how we want to keep them trimmed and as healthy as possible. Lesson learned? Don’t put this off! You will have healthier trees to enjoy, and may not have to spend as much money, or at least spread the same amount of money over a longer period of time.

My next task? Order some new trees to plant! What are some trees that have done well for you (we are in zone 6A)?

An Evolution of Fence, Part 1

Corral panel and pedestrian gate
10’ + pedestrian gate + 16’ panels used as a “gate” – we sometimes need to get the tractor into this area, but not often enough to buy and install swinging gates

"Fence" is a tiring word for farmers who raise animals. We are constantly thinking about where to put it, what kind to install, how much it will cost, what it will take to maintain it, and what to do to plug the hole when an animal runs through it or digs under it. Having transitioned from a 20+ head Angus beef cattle herd to a dozen Shetland wool sheep, Kinder goats, and a few all-purpose bush goats, my outlook on fence has changed, although all of those thoughts remain.

No longer does the fence need to withstand the bull, who discovered that barbed wire and field fence was the perfect combination to scratch his chin. It doesn't be tall enough to contain that heifer who thought she was an Olympic gate hurdler. The tallest animal I have now is around 36 inches at the withers. As I cut the honeysuckle and scrub trees to the height of the fence (don't want to cut them out for fear that they are now anchoring the fence better than the old t-posts!), the goats don't feel the need to stand on the wire to stretch out their necks for the highest leaves. And the livestock guardian dogs don't bother the perimeter fences; I just need to keep an eye on any weak spots that they may try to push their noses through.

We have big pastures that are already fenced in, plus some areas that are marginal grazing, but still good enough to keep the sheep and goats happy. I have only so much time and energy to install fencing, and some of those marginal areas aren't conducive to permanent fencing, either with field fence or with cattle panel wired to t-posts. Maybe that area floods, or perhaps we need to get farm equipment through for fieldwork during the year. So what do we do to make those areas grazeable when needed, but open for other uses the rest of the time?

Semi-permanent corral panel fence
 16’ corral panels as semi-permanent fence to keep the animals out of this section of the creek

The first iteration of portable fencing, way back when we first got goats on the farm, was a mobile shelter, built from 2x4s, cattle panel, and heavy-duty caster wheels. This shelter would be surrounded by cattle panel on t-posts, and when it was time to move the goats, we could shut them in, wheel it to the next section, pull up the cattle panel and t-posts, and reset the whole thing. Great idea, not so much in execution. The goats learned there was enough clearance between the frame that the caster wheels were mounted to and the ground that they could just lay down, the shelter would go over them, and they were free to run and eat the daylilies. Back to the drawing board.

For version 2.0, 16' corral panels were purchased, along with several pedestrian gates. For the number of goats we had then, a 32'x32' was adequate, so 7 panels and 2 pedestrian gates were enough to make 2 attached pens. The goats would eat one down, we would open the gate to the other pen for them to eat, then move the panels of the first pen in a leapfrog to the other side of the currently occupied pen. But the space between the tubes was enough that none of our quick-thinking goats and guardian dogs were going to stay put. Cattle panel to the rescue! We wired the cattle panel to the corral panel, set up the pens, and were pleased with our handiwork. Until we needed to move those 16' long panels and discovered precisely how heavy they were. The tractor could be used at times, but when moving them through hilly or wooded areas, nothing but manual labor would get the job done. That was a long, tiring summer, dragging them up and down hills, and around thickets of honeysuckle. Now, those 16’ panels are used as “gates” in places where we don’t need to open and shut them regularly, and also as semi-permanent fence in areas where we might want to take the fence down at some point.

 Ten foot corral panels
10’ corral panels + cattle panel

Version 2.1 used 10' corral panels with cattle panel cut to size and attached. Much easier for one person to move, but used more panels for an equivalent sized pen to the 16' corral panels. We also were expanding the flock to include sheep, so more mouths to feed meant moving the pens more often. Ten-foot panels were much easier to move than the 16' panels, but the frequency we were moving them almost negated that. Plus, cutting the cattle panel to fit the smaller panels was time-consuming!

Next post: Version 3.0 of portable fencing, where we are now, what we learned

All photos by the author

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Flat of seedlings under lights

(Tray of various seedlings under the grow lights - cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower!)

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t had much of a garden for the last few years. Caregiving, an off-the-farm job, and caring for the livestock took all of my time and energy, plus I have access to a wonderful year-round farmers market and several CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture vegetable boxes) near me. Growing my own food, while very important to me, was not at the top of the list of my things to focus on. I had a few herbs growing in the raised beds for teas, and the already-established “fun flowers” (lilacs, tulips, daffodils, peonies, etc.) did their thing without any assistance from me.

This year, in more ways than one, has been different. The biggest change is being back on the farm full-time. I did enjoy my off-farm job, but now I can focus on my farm and put my energies there, instead of giving the farm my leftovers. I’ve been able to shear all of the sheep myself and on my schedule, instead of hiring it done. My fiber business gets much more of my time now, I’m getting back into bread-making, and for the first time in a long while, I planned out a vegetable garden for the year.

My family had a very large veg garden when I was growing up – plenty of things to eat fresh, and also to can for the winter. When I returned to the farm and started gardening, it was very frustrating, because I was trying to recreate that giant garden. I really only needed about a quarter of the space because I wasn’t trying to feed as many people and didn’t need that quantity of canned food, but that area was the garden, and it all needed to be, well, gardened. It never occurred to me that it was perfectly acceptable to only plant part of that area. Fast-forward through several exhausting and frustrating seasons where there were so...many...weeds..., and so much to harvest, eat, can, freeze, dehydrate. I gave up and decided I just couldn’t garden. It was too much. We moved to container gardening, but still trying to grow mass quantities of vegetables, which ended up being just as frustrating as the large garden, only easier to weed.

Fast-forward to this year. The world is in the state it’s in, I’m in a better place physically and mentally, and it just felt right to garden again. My first task was to plan out what seeds to get – what do we like to eat, and what can be preserved/pickled/fermented. It’s so easy to get caught up in the pretty pictures on the seed packets, but if I’m not going to eat it, why grow it? Seeds, seed potatoes, and onion sets were purchased, and I started the cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and cauliflower seeds in seed trays inside. The next task was to fence off a 32x32 foot section of the former garden. That way, no matter how many seeds I started, I have a finite area in which to plant. Extra seedlings can be given to friends! Plus, I have potatoes, onions, carrots, and radishes to direct sow – I need to leave space for them! I have 2 raised beds that will be used for overflow and also for my perennial herbs.

Row of onions in garden

(One row of onions planted along the edge of my "in-ground" garden)

Cucumber seedlings in flat

(More cucumbers - we really like pickles!)

As anyone close to me will tell you, I am a creature of habit. If something has been done a certain way, it takes way too long for me to change to a better way of doing things. Gardens don’t have to be a tilled square of earth with straight rows of vegetables. They can be containers large and small, long strips next to a fence, small pots in a sunny window, hydroponic, raised beds, stacked beds, hugelkultur, grow lights....so many options! Pick one or mix and match to find what works best for your space. Buy some seeds, plant what you have space for, and share seeds or extra plants with friends. If starting seeds isn’t your thing, go to your local garden center or farm store and buy a few plants of this or that vegetable. Keep a garden journal of the varieties that grow well, or don’t grow well, for you. In my experience, that will save a lot of frustration when it comes to next spring and what you want to grow! Talk with gardeners in your area for their tips and suggestions.

Just don’t put your gardening in a box and think that if you don’t garden a certain way, it’s not a “real” garden. That one tomato plant on the patio and pot of basil on your windowsill is a real garden. Gardening is for everyone, and everyone can be a gardener – grow on!

What’s in your garden this year?







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