Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thank a Farmer

If there is one golden nugget that I hope readers get out of this blog, it is that farming is tough, regardless of scale, and that we as Americans pay far too little for the food we eat given the amount of work that goes into production. In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to step up on my soap box and give everyone a good stern lecture on the topic, but one of my farmers, the guy who has been putting food on my table for the past 13 years, beat me to the chase.

Terra Firma Farms
in Winters, California has been supplying me with delicious, organic fruit, veggies, and nuts with their CSA program for over a decade. If we are what we eat combined with the fact that every cell in our body is replaced within 7 years, then I have been completely remade from Terra Firma soil. Paul Holmes (Pablote), Paul Underhill (Pablito), and Hector Melendez are my farmers and I owe my life and health to their hard work and the work of their employees. Literally. In this week's farm newsletter, Pablito sent along a message that eloquently sums up all the things I wanted to preach from my soapbox. So instead of putting it in my own words, I'll share his:

This week, thousands of farms workers will be deported, having spent the entire summer and fall helping put food on the plates of American eaters. With the recession causing massive unemployment, the Department of Homeland Security appears to have stepped up efforts to find and arrest undocumented immigrants - "illegals". Yet unemployed U.S. citizens are not lining up for their jobs. It is true that competition has increased for farm jobs, but that's because former farm workers who moved into construction and other boom-related industries have returned to their roots in agriculture. The vast majority of farm workers, as always, are undocumented.

The sad history of our country is that the first Anglo settlers here would not have survived the first few years without the help of Native American[s] who showed them how to farm, hunt, and fish here. Yet once they had gleaned the important information from the natives, the Europeans set about conquering and exterminating them.

Without the skills, experience, and knowledge of mostly Mexican farm workers who tend and harvest crops across the U.S., our food system would collapse. Yet it is our official government policy to pretend that valuable agricultural workers are actually criminals who must be expelled. Thanksgiving seems to me like a great day to communicate to anyone enjoying the bounty produced by America's farms that whatever their feelings about immigration, we all need to display more respect and appreciation for everyone who helps put food on our plates.

My daughter's grandfather began his migrant farm career at the tender age of five. His family was very poor and they worked from sunup to sundown picking grapes, staving off hunger with cigarettes and gum. For those of you out there who think that illegal immigrants don't have a valid place in our country, you are clearly mistaken. Without the work of families, like my daughter's relatives, you would not be paying peanuts for the food on your table, if there were food at all. This Thanksgiving, as every year, we will be off to Fresno to spend the holiday with that very same man who toddled through grape vineyards as a child. Thank you Pablito for reminding us to honor the important role that my husband's family has played in the history of our country. We here at Itty Bitty have tremendous gratitude for all that you and your employees do.

And a huge amount of appreciation goes out to all the farmers who contribute to the health and well-being of our family, specifically Marin Sun Farms for the ethically raised meats that we have been receiving for almost a year and a half now, Phan Farms for your incredible edible eggs that we buy while waiting for our ladies to lay, Twin Girls Farm for your great fruit and pomegranates, and the $1 a pound organic fruit and nut people at the Alemany Farmer's Market (you know who you are).

If you are lucky enough to know the person that grows your food, send them some praise for their efforts. We owe them that much.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On a Bread Roll

I recently picked up a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, irrespective of my skepticism regarding its lofty promises. Bakery style batards, baguettes, and ciabattas with such little time and effort? Show me the money!

I must admit that the authors, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, really figured this one out. All you need are a few simple ingredients and tools: flour, yeast, salt, water, pizza stone and peel. This no knead method uses a yeast based wet dough, which is stored in the refrigerator for up to 14 days. The longer the dough sits, the more of a sourdough flavor it takes on. The only shortcoming to the method is that if you use the dough within the first couple days of mixing it, it has more of a yeasty taste rather than sourdough flavor. But in my opinion, this is a trivial drawback given the fact that the bread practically makes itself.

Once every week or so I mix up a double batch of the dough, which makes about 8 loaves. For the past few weeks, we've been enjoying fresh baked bread nearly every day. I'm practically considered a saint around here! Practically. Almost. Well... not quite. Okay, not really at all. But the heavenly scent of the bread baking has gotten me out of Dutch with the Disgruntled Farmhand more than once. I'm calling it "the miracle method".

Speaking of books on bread, look what I ran into while thumbing through the Farm Journal's 1969 tome on the subject:

Eww! Of all the ads to put in a book entitled "Homemade Bread", and right next to rye bread recipe! How 70s.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Meet the New Poster Child for Urban Chicken Farming

Yesterday, I let a guy from Getty Images come take some photos of me and the farm. Today, I wake up to find my face all over the internet! I'm in the Star-Telegram (photo #7), Jezebel, and even the Washington Post (photo #8). Then I Googled my name, which I like to do from time to time to keep tabs on myself, just to see where else I might turn up and holy sheep shit, I'm practically viral! Okay, not really, but I am on NPR, Zimbio, Tree Hugger, Life ... the list goes on and on. Amongst my interweb meanderings, I also stumbled upon this article about myself. If you could peer through your computer screen and look at me right now, you would see a slack jawed woman, who hasn't even bothered to get out of her jammies, completely confused as to what has just transpired over the last 24 hours.

In almost all of the captions, you'll notice that they read "many Americans... have started to raise chickens in their urban yards to try and save money on food costs during the economic downturn..." The pure irony of this is that in most images, I'm holding Miss Golden Toe herself. And just so you can fully appreciate this sardonic moment, I'm going to cop to the amount I paid to have that toe "fixed". $200. That's right ladies and gentleman, I paid $200 for a vet to essentially clip off the chickadee's nail and supply me with outrageously over-priced meds. You see now how she'd have to lay a couple golden eggs to actually earn her keep around here?

But lesson learned. When this past week I accidentally ripped the dog's toenail off by stepping on his foot while wearing clogs, I didn't bother with the vet. With a little hydrogen peroxide and triple antibiotic ointment, Mr. Tinks was right as rain. However, I should warn you that if you do stop by the farm for a visit, please keep your toenails as far away from me as possible. I seem to be on a roll.

Monday, November 9, 2009

I Love the Ladies

My parents were in town this weekend visiting from Nebraska, but that didn't stop me from pursuing Mission Pick Up Chicks. Nothing was going to stand between me and some new cluckers, not even family obligations.

On Sunday, we packed ourselves into two vehicles for a gorgeous drive up to Petaluma. The air had the crispness of fall, yet a skin tingling warmth from the sun's rays. I was excited to bring my parents along for this adventure; I wanted them to catch a glimpse of some of the more exciting moments of my urban farm life. My mother had grown up on a dairy in Southern California and clearly remembers her mother, Gertrude, raising the farm's chickens while harboring a seething disgust for the creatures. I suppose they are not for everyone. Though I am quite enamored with them, which was evident to my mother by my more than jubilant mood on the hour plus journey.

I had made an appointment to pick up four ladies from Split Rail Farms, which is nestled just outside of Petaluma in a town called Penngrove. In a rare moment of promptness, we arrived exactly when I said we would. Those who know me well will know that this is nothing short of miraculous. The farm headmistress, Jane, had our birds in cages, all ready to go to their new home. Everything seemed so efficient and neat. My mom made some offhand comment that hopefully these chickens would... you know... live. I told Jane that we had lost 6 out of 7 birds. Shocked, she asked if we had lost them to predators. I explained that the birds died of Marek's because of having purchased unvaccinated birds from a lady in - "Cotati", she abruptly answered for me. It seems Jane fell prey to the same swindle I had. Our stories were similar except that she chose to make the trip in person to UC Davis with a live bird. She said a dead bird in the refrigerator made her squeamish. I assured her that I double bagged mine in the fridge before I sent via Fedex.

Split Rail also has a herd of Nigerian Dwarfs. We asked a load of goat questions, which the folks on the farm were more than happy to answer. They were so young for farmers, at least a decade younger than me and my DF. And so incredibly... sweet. I hate to sound so sappy, but they were really really nice folks who kindly took the time to show us around a little and answer any weird query we threw out. We spent a good 15 minutes watching the chickens roam freely through the garden, the goats trot about with one of the farm's dogs, and the flock of wild turkeys frolicking in the background as if they too belonged to the farm.

After a bit of chit chatting we found out that the Split Rail farmers both had jobs off the grange. And then it dawned on me why that magazine, which I always thought should be called "Small Farms", is called Hobby Farms - you can't really make a living as a small farmer. Some folks might be able to scrape by, but they are probably more of a rarity in this day and age. I'm glad to see the younger kids giving it a try. I wish them the best of luck. And if these chickens live and actually lay eggs for me, I will recommend them to all my friends in search of poultry partnerships.

I know, I know, enough with the rambling. You're thinking, "Get to the chickens lady!".

This is Cocoa Puff, the Disgruntled Farmhand's bird. She is a Cuckoo Maran, like Pearl, and will give us those dark chocolate brown eggs.

Here is Ute's lady Fruit Loop, a Welsummer like Miss Lorraine, who will also lay dark brown eggs. She is loud, feisty as all get out, and can take to flight more gracefully than any of the other chickens I have owned. I can only catch her if I corner her under the goat deck stairs.

This white beauty also belongs to Ute and is named Eggo, an Ameracauna who will hopefully give us green eggs. She is the same breed as Petunia, "the Asshole", just a different color.

And finally here is my baby, Pop Tart. She is a Silver Laced Wyandotte and so far seems to be the tamest of the birds. I'm not surprised. Check out her tail feathers. It definitely looks as though she's met with some hen honcho who has been at her like a bully on an elementary school playground.

Speaking of bullying, Sweet Pea is not taking to her new flock mates as well as I had expected. I witnessed her deliver some seriously severe pecks to Eggo, and she chomped down on Pop Tart's behind, holding onto that one scraggly feather she has sticking up back there. I guess the ladies are establishing their pecking order and that's never pretty. Sweet Pea is being territorial, puffing up her chest feathers whenever she gets the chance, and uttering her low, kind of spooky, squawky noises. She appears to want the others to know that she was here first.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Results Are In

Wow, that was fast. I wasn't expecting to hear back from the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab for a couple more weeks. Glad to know that something in our great state is running efficiently. Arnold could take a tip.

This entire chicken ordeal has had me vacillating between various diagnosis, armed only with my online vet education. It's like the blog version of "Stump the Chumps" with the Magliozzi brothers, except I know way less about chicken diseases than they know about cars. Let's see, I started with Coccidiosis, an easily treatable disease so if any chickens had it, it was gone in a week. We could rule that out as my mysterious bird killer. Then I went on to Marek's since the cluckers all seemed to suffer from some kind of paralysis before they bit the dust. This seemed plausible, but since the ladies were supposedly vaccinated and most of the birds died after 17 weeks of age, I began to believe that they had Avian Leukosis, which is symptomatically similar to Marek's but has a 16 week incubation period.

Well somewhere along the line I was right and in typical Tom and Ray fashion, I'm going to blow the brass horns and claim victory. Gertrude died of Marek's, plain and simple. No Cocci, no Avian Influenza, no Leukosis. This was not my fault. Clearly, I was misled. The chicks had not been vaccinated and my hens died of one of the most common and virulent diseases that exists in the poultry world. This is fantastic news! I know you're wondering why I would make such an outrageous claim with 6 dead bodies on my hands. I'll tell you why; I'm not going to have to temporarily depopulate the farm, warn my neighbors, don a hazmat suit with NIOSH/MSHA approved respirator, and decontaminate my property with a turbo anti-pathogenic spray. Marek's is absolutely everywhere and the only proven effective method of controlling the disease is through vaccination. That in itself is a huge load off my mind. And it means I can get new chooks! That is as long as they've been vaccinated as Sweet Pea will remain a carrier for life.

Guess where I'll be this weekend? That's right. Out cruising chicks.