Long Overdue Update

abby

Happy Spring! 

Spring has officially sprung. The days have been absolutely stunning but (and it’s a BIG BUT) we are still severely lacking rain. We are supposed to get some rain this coming week but my hopes aren’t high that it will be much of anything. On the bright side evidence is strongly pointing to an El Nino event warm enough to change our fortunes in the coming months. The prediction is that it might be strong enough to rival the ’97-’98 El Nino that brought enough rain to California that plants that hadn’t been seen in 30 years in Death Valley, like the Gilmania luteola, started coming back (I was there during those years and got to see them). I’m not going to bet on this actually happening, but if it does, California may have a chance of getting ahead for once in regards to water. 

I’m sure you’re tired of reading about the drought here though. So onward to more interesting stuff….

Like what we’ve got going on around here. It’s been so long since I’ve posted an overhead shot. 

yard (2)

This shot was from back in May 2011. It was the first overhead shot I ever took. When a friend recently asked me to send her an overhead shot I realized that I didn’t have any that showed what our yard looked like today. 

overhead

This is what our yard looks like now. Quite a change since 2011. Chicken house, shed, greenhouse, the trees are getting big. But what’s going on at ground level around here? 

greenhouse

Our plants are getting big in the greenhouse. 

Johnny

And so are the kids. Johnny, at 4 months old, is nearly as big as his mom already. Granted she’s a small goat – our smallest actually – but he’s already pushing 35 lbs. compared to her 45 lbs. 

calendula

The calendula is in full bloom. 

iris

And so is the iris. 

cherry

The Black Tartarian cherry tree is in full bloom. This is the first year we’ve had this many flowers. 

pear

The Hosui Asian pear is blooming better than last year as well. 

peach

Same goes for the Indian Free Peach tree. 

kiwi

Our female kiwi vine is getting ready to flower as well. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the male kiwi is going to flower this year. 

garlic

Our garlic is growing well.

asparagus

And so is our asparagus. We are now getting about 12-16 oz per harvest which is just enough for a meal. 

What is growing in your garden? 

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For the Love of Muddy Boots

boots

What’s this? Is that water? Not right now, it isn’t.

A year ago we moved our goat barn. When we first built the goat barn we didn’t realize that the spot we chose was the lowest part of our property. We probably should have realized that, but we didn’t. Every rainstorm meant we had to try and dig the goats out so they wouldn’t drown. They wouldn’t leave the barn for anything. We would have to put down 2×12 wooden boards and plywood so they could fjord the floods.

In December 2012 we got warning that a big storm was heading our way. We ran down to the Sewer and Stormwater District Facilities and loaded up on a bunch of sand bags. We needed enough for not only the goats but also our garage, which our driveway slopes down toward.

bags

What was left after the storm passed. During the storm the water went over the sandbags.

When the storm came it was bigger than we ever expected. Tom decided to go hunting leaving me to fend off the water. Not the best of ideas. As the torrential downpour came I ran outside to find a river running down between the beds and right towards the goat barn. As I waded down I saw another river coming from our next door neighbor’s property also heading towards the goats. The sandbags only slowed the water as it went right over them and into the barn. The only saving grace was that the deep litter in the barn kept them a few inches above the water line, which you can see in the above photo on the wood.

After that storm we decided it was time to move the barn to the other side of the yard where the ground was higher. With the help of some awesome friends we moved the barn and made some huge improvements to it. We also made it larger by adding hay storage and a milking room. We were ready when the next storm came.

What the hills should look like right now. Photo Credit: Sarah Hawkins

What the hills should look like right now. Photo Credit: Sarah Hawkins at Castle Rock Farm

Except it didn’t. That big storm was the last. Sure, it showered a little bit since, but we haven’t had any substantial rain. Nothing that could test out our new barn.  After that big storm the Ridiculously Resistant Ridge moved in and has blocked every storm since.  For the entire year of 2013 we saw only 16% or our normal annual average of 20.39 inches of rain. Our normally wettest month, January, is shaping up to be bone dry with no rain at all. NO RAIN. None. Not a drop. A big fat goose egg. And none in the forecast for the last few days of January.

This is what the hills look like right now. They are supposed to be emerald green. Photo Credit: Sarah Hawkins

This is what the hills look like right now. Big difference to above. Photo Credit: Sarah Hawkins at Castle Rock Farm

It’s hard not to be depressed and slightly panicked at this point. It’s even more difficult to not become fiercely angry at people that don’t think it’s a big deal and refuse to make any changes to their water use habits. I found myself grimacing and clenching my fists when the plant nursery owner said “Don’t you just love this beautiful weather?! I know it’s just a tad bit dry, but it’s just so nice out.”

Previous years being soaking wet and having slick mud caked onto my boots was merely an annoyance. This year it would be a blessing to just use the boots for what they were intended for.

Keep an eye out for the next post. I’ll be discussing what we’ve decided to do about a garden this year and how we are conserving water.

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3 Days and 2 Weeks – New Additions for the New Year

The week of Thanksgiving started with a bang when Bailey went into labor Sunday afternoon. By 6pm we had two new goats – twin doelings. By 6am Tuesday morning we had two more doelings and a buckling from Daisy. That kidding seemed to trigger something in Sedona and by 6pm Tuesday we had two more – a doeling and a buckling. Rapid fire kiddings in record low temperatures here. Three of us slept in the barn bundled up in old comforters, sweaters, extra socks, and gloves. We got to test out whether that whole deep litter method really did help make the ground warmer (it did). Lots of towels, puppy pads, kid jackets made from old sweatshirts and a hairdryer got us through it without any kids getting chilled.

Two (very long) weeks later we got two more doelings from Bella after a very long complicated kidding. After her labor seemed to be dragging on a bit too long with no progress I had to go in to find a stuck kid. Almost immediately after going in Bella started pushing and out they both came.

We ended up with 2 bucklings and 7 doelings – not a bad ratio.

We are bottle feeding this time around because 5 of these girls are making up our new herd. For a variety of reasons (age, poor udder structure, behavior problems, herd improvement, limited space, etc.) we’ve decided to retire our current herd and find pet homes for them after we dry them off.

The kids all share the same sire – CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker. Some are purebred Nigerian Dwarf and others are Nigerian Dwarf/African Pygmy crosses.

Here are our three purebred Nigerian Dwarf doelings. D6 (or as we like to call her “Abby” short for Obsidian) has been promised to someone else though they may choose Tanqueray instead). We are really excited to see what these doelings will do when they come of age.

Tanqueray

Dog Island Farm Tanqueray  blue eyes

DOB: 11/24/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: Foggy River Farm Baileys OnIce
(CRF Castle Rock Gobi x CRF Castle Rock Sedona)

Kahlua

Dog Island Farm Kahlua 

DOB: 11/24/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: Foggy River Farm Baileys OnIce
(CRF Castle Rock Gobi x CRF Castle Rock Sedona)

 

ObsidianDog Island Farm D6

DOB:  11/26/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: CRF Castle Rock Sedona
(Dragonfly Odysseus *S x Castle Rock Annabelle)

 

And these are our Pygmy/Nigerian crosses. Our pygmy does are both just grade quality but we hope that the buck we chose really helps improve them.

Dahlia

Black Dahlia (aka “Trouble”) 

DOB:  11/26/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: Daisy
(Unknown Sire x Bella)

 

AnemoneAnemone blue eyes

DOB:  11/26/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: Daisy
(Unknown Sire x Bella)

 

Betty

Betty

DOB:  12/11/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: Bella
(Unknown Sire x Unknown Dam)

 

PiperPiper

DOB:  12/11/13

Sire: CRF Castle Rock Clark’s Nutcracker(CRF Castle Rock Harvest Moon *S x CH-MCH-PGCH Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven VEEE 90)

Dam: Bella
(Unknown Sire x Unknown Dam)

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Farmers are People Too & a New Year’s Resolution

My family has historically been farmers. My maternal grandfather grew up on a corn farm in Kinross, Iowa. As a child I would visit my great-uncle, Melvin, and his family on that farm. I remember running along the edge of the cornfields catching fireflies in the warm summer evenings. I remember playing on the wrap-around porch of the big red farmhouse. I have nothing but fond memories of that farm. Melvin passed away several months after my grandfather in the late ’80s and I never got to go back. I don’t know if the farm they grew up on is still in the family anymore. I would like to think it is but chances are it is not.

Cheap food means farmers do what they must to keep the land that their entire life and that of their ancestors has been built on. If that means growing only transgenic corn and soy then it is what they have to do. They can’t break free because the public (specifically those that can afford to spend more but choose not to do so) refuses to spend enough money to cover the cost of production and a tiny bit more so the farmer can live. Instead the farmer must rely on subsidies from the government to make up the difference that is lost because of the demand for cheap food.

Americans spend less of their income directly on food than any other country. Most Europeans spend over 10% of their income on food while the US likes to hover around 6%. 40 years ago we were spending a third of our income on food. The subsidy program in the 1970s helped usher in a new era of cheap food that now puts Americans at risk of health problems and severe environmental degradation. While the total at the cash register is small, the external costs – the tax dollars used to subsidize, the cost to our health and to our environment – have risen dramatically.

In addition, family farms were forced to close shop and quickly got gobbled up by corporate agriculture. Those that were able to hang on, do so tenuously. A farmer friend of mine once told me that if she was getting paid hourly for all the farm work she does it would be just pennies per hour. That is just not right.

So my New Year’s Resolution this year is to make sure my food purchases pay the farmer that produced enough for them to survive and thrive. This won’t be much of a change for us but it will require us to spend a bit more on our food. All produce will be from the farmers’ market so that the $1 spent all goes into the farmers’ pocket as opposed to only $0.16 of that dollar when you buy it at the supermarket.

Will this be another year without groceries? Probably not, but we’ll strive to do better than we have been.

 

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No Garden Next Year?

The days are getting cooler and the nights are finally cold enough to put the duvet on the bed. Jackets have been dusted off and it’s time to switch from the Chacos to the Muck Boots. Now if I could just find my slippers…

We’re still waiting for rain. As the days wear on and the end of the year quickly approaches we’re being reminded that we’ve gotten less than an inch of rain so far. 2013 has only gotten 50% of what the last record driest year got. You read that correctly. We have gotten LESS than 50% of the rain that the previous driest year on record.

Our golden hills are not golden, but brown – the color of the dirt beneath what should be fields of dry golden grass. The hills are barely covered with more than a few wisps of dead grass. The parched, cracked soil beneath is clearly visible. There is a fear of heavy rains causing mudslides since there isn’t anything holding the soil together. But as it stands, heavy rain is just a pipe dream.

Surprisingly (or maybe it’s not) this is not news. The media has yet to say a word about this severe drought happening in a state that gets nearly all of it’s rain this time of year. A state that provides 80% of the country’s fruits and vegetables and nearly 100% of the country’s almond supply is looking at not having enough water is somehow not worthy of discussion. It’s being ignored even to the point where we don’t even have to ration water yet, even though many of our reservoirs are at less than 30% capacity. It is appalling.

If the rains don’t materialize this spring we may have to make some changes. There may be no garden this coming year. It’s a scary thought to have to skip growing our own food because we won’t have access to enough water. Some people have recommended dry farming, however, even dry farming relies on normal winter rains to be able to work. Rainwater collection is also clearly off the table if we don’t get any rain. Greywater is a possibility, but illegal in my area. Our well has salt water intrusion, which is more than likely even worse this year with the drought as the thousands of acres of vineyards “upstream” haven’t slowed down on their pumping of the aquifer. I’ve heard ollas may work with salty water, but I hesitate to pull more water out of the ground. Not to mention for a garden our size, they would be cost prohibitive. I’m not sure where that leaves us besides foregoing the garden until the rains return.

For now, all I can do is hope that the Rossby Waves shift and bring us some late winter and early spring storms.

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The New Normal

A great TEDx presentation on using livestock to reverse desertification and climate change.

Except for 4 years while I was away at college, I’ve lived pretty much my entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even when I was in college I still was living near the California coast, albeit more in Southern California. You get pretty used to the climate around here. My birthday is mid June and I always knew that my birthday would be a beautiful sunny day. I also could depend on Halloween being dry. Our climate is warm and dry in the summer starting in May and we have cool, wet winters starting in November. The weather was dependable.

Well, at least it used to be. And everyone I have talked with that has also lived here all their lives seem to agree. Our weather patterns are no longer predictable. Our warm, dry summers are not totally dry. The last few years we’ve had rain in July which used to be unheard of. And our cool, wet winters? Well, we now get one of two extremes. It’s either flood-stage rain for an extended period of time, or it’s like this year where it’s rained maybe two or three days since December. January and February this year were the driest on record. We received just over half of the water we got during the second two driest months on record (in 1991). Half. Seriously. Half of the next driest.

This is serious.

In February we got a stunningly low 0.09″ of rain.  The average is 3.9″. In January we only got 0.6″ when we should have been closer to 5.4″. We don’t get a lot of rain to begin with so when the numbers are this low it’s quite alarming.

In the four years we’ve lived here, this is the first time I’ve ever had to water in the winter. We usually disconnect all the irrigation so we can dig freely without hitting lines and also to keep lines from freezing. Unfortunately we’re going to have to hook it back up this weekend because I’ve found that it takes much too long to hand water even the small amount of plants we’ve got in right now.

But this isn’t just about our garden. This is effecting almost the entire country (except for those lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest). One of the biggest victims of unstable climate is agriculture and without agriculture we cease to exist. We cannot live without food but we, as a species, are shortsighted. Our unwillingness to take action now to make changes to our behaviors will end up being our downfall.

 

 

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Putting a Value on That

Recently I tagged along with my mom to the grocery store. She was in town visiting and she’s a fantastic cook and was planning on making an amazing meal for her best friend who she was staying with.

It wasn’t just any grocery store, though. We were entering the yuppie-hippie grocery store. A full third of the store was just produce so I figured this was a good time to check out prices for the in season, organic produce.

I haven’t updated it in awhile – here it is February and I still haven’t finished 2012′s totals – but on the right hand column we keep track of what we spend and save running our urban farm. I base the prices on the unit costs for a similar item if I was purchasing it elsewhere – whether it was the farmers’ market, the grocery store or a roadside stand. If I see similar items at different prices I take the average.

Since I don’t make it into a grocery store very often, especially one with such a large selection of (organic) produce I figured I’d start jotting down some of the prices of items I normally don’t find at the farmers market (or the normal grocery store, for that matter) but that I grow at home. If the produce came in a bunch or was priced individually I weighed it to figure out the cost per pound.

As I went through row after row of vegetable, weighing and jotting down prices I quickly began to realize that there is no way in hell I would ever spend that much money on produce. Cute little of bunches of arugula that only weighed a 1/4 lb were going for $2.49 or $9.96/lb. Nearly $10 for a green that practically grows wild in my yard with no known pests. For realz? Do people actually spend this much for arugula? Well, now that I think about it, a similar amount sold at my local farmers market goes for $2 a bag or about $8/lb. That can’t be right. The dandelion greens (yes, they even had those) were half the price of the arugula, and in my (not so) humble opinion they are harder to find commercially. They too grow like a weed in my yard, and I can say I wouldn’t pay $5/lb of them either.

There’s a balancing act when you grow food yourself. I grow it because I wouldn’t pay what this yuppie-hippie store charges for the items that cost me just a couple of dollars in seeds for a year’s supply. If I didn’t grow it I probably still wouldn’t buy it so am I really saving money? Probably not. But there are items that I would buy, like apples (they have them for $3.99/lb, but at the farmers’ market they are $1.50/lb for organically grown), I just wouldn’t buy them at that particular grocery store. So which price do I go with? The farmers’ market price, of course.

The other side of the coin is when I think an item is worth more than what they sell it for. Potatoes, corn, onions, garlic and winter squash should be more than the $0.99-$1.99/lb just because they require so much more space, time and skill to grow. But the cost is what it is so in fairness that’s what I use in my spreadsheet. I’ll be honest though, it pains me to enter the low numbers.

As I peruse the farmland listings and calculate how much it would cost us to have a farm I really have to wonder how the hell we would ever make enough money selling vegetables to pay for the farmland it’s grown on? While that $10/lb for arugula sounds like it could do it, it’s important to realize that the farmer that’s growing it is lucky to get $2/lb for it. The remaining $8 goes to transport, distributors and the grocery store. Direct sales would have to be the way to go and lots of high value crops (*cough* heirloom tomatoes *cough*) to make up for the lower value crops.

 

 

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Where Have I Been?

I have to admit, I’ve been missing in action lately and for that I apologize. But I do have some good reasons, I promise!

I may have mentioned before that I was doing a permaculture study course through Homegrown.org. It’s going slowly and there is a lot of reading involved, which is taking up most of my spare time on the weekends. While it’s informative, I’m not sure if this study course is right for me. It’s very philosophical and what I need is something more concrete.

In addition (because apparently I’m crazy), I’m also taking an online course through John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on the U.S. Food System. It’s a good course with a lot of (mostly) thoughtful discussion. What I like about this course is that you can take it at your own leisure (all of the tests are due at the end of the course) and the lectures each week are broken up into 15-20 min sessions so it’s not overwhelming. The required reading is also online, which makes it a lot cheaper than most courses.

My day job is picking up substantially and where I was once working only part time, I’m now working overtime. I’m not complaining though! Some of the past few years have been really rough and I’m glad that they are behind us now. For those of you that don’t know, I work in the construction industry – one of the first industries to collapse in the economy – and it appears that we’re leading the charge into the new economy.

I think the biggest change around here though is my stepson has come to live with us. What was once every weekend has now become all week and 3rd and 5th weekends. He just started high school so we’ve been busy transitioning him during this huge time in his life. Not only is he now living in a new town and going to a new school but he’s now in high school, something completely new. Fortunately he made friends quickly. And what they say about teenage boys having a hollow leg is true. Very true.

Of course we’re still growing and raising food! We definitely haven’t stopped doing that. So here’s what’s going on around here via photo essay (the best picture is at the end, trust me):

artichoke plants

The artichoke plants are getting nice and big and should be giving us blooms in no time.

artichokes

I also started some seedlings from our artichokes which I will have available soon.

The pepper seedlings are up and getting close to being repotted.

I also started pepper, tomato, eggplant, and tomatillo seedlings.

cauliflower

The cauliflower is already the size of a softball.

fava beans

The fava beans are blooming.

chard

We’re harvesting chard several times a week and we even have it growing wild in our yard now.

garlic

We’re trying 4 different varieties for garlic. From left to right: Red Toch, Bogatyr, California Early and Metechi. I think it’s clear which one is doing the best.

oranges

We’re getting lots of citrus this year. It’s the first year we’ve gotten fruit off of every citrus tree.

olives

The Arbequina olive tree is LOADED with olives this year. This tree is a biennial producers, meaning it only produces a crop every other year. It’s first year it gave us 15lbs of olives. I’m betting we’ve got over 25lbs this year.

outside barn

This is probably the last photo that will be taken of the goat barn. No, we’re not getting rid of the goats, but we are moving it this coming weekend and expanding it. Yes, we are ambitious.

inside barn

Last weekend we took out all the interior walls and back exterior wall which makes for some interesting milking this past week. Part of the new barn will be a much larger milking parlor.

Bella

I’m convinced that Bella is a pygora with her crazy thick coat this year. She wasn’t in milk this winter so she turned into a walking gray marshmallow.

daisyDaisy has emotional issues, which is why she’s got that funny thing around her neck. It’s actually a 1 gallon plant pot that keeps her from self sucking – something she started doing when she went into labor with Panda (it’s a comforting behavior for her apparently).

whiskeyWhiskey and Bailey are all grown up! Whiskey will soon be learning how to be a cart goat for events.

henWe’ve got some young hens that just started laying finally.

pulletsSoon on their heels we’ve got some pullets that should be laying soon.

cockerelBehind them we’ve got some more pullets and cockerels that are about a month younger but are growing much faster. These are Light Sussex crosses that we bred and were raised by Speckles (many of them are already larger than their mom).

Mr JenkinsHere’s the dad, Mr. Jenkins. We’ve been very lucky as he has a wonderful personality for a rooster. He watches over and protects the hens but is not aggressive towards us. He’s a huge bird and it’s a trait he passes on to his offspring making them great dual purpose birds.

hankOur other awesome boy is, of course, Hank the Tank. He’s been spending a lot of time wooing Tater but she’s still holding out. Duke, however, is already sitting on a clutch of eggs that should start hatching in about 2 weeks.

rabbitLast but not least we’ve got the cutest members of our farm right now. Baby rabbits! Yasmine’s (aka Tummy) kits are a few weeks old now and growing fast. They definitely have their mom’s curious, very friendly personality. It’s funny to see the difference in litters’ overall personality. These guys were out of the box the second they could see. Some litters won’t leave the nest unless you force them.

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Plans for 2013

GreenhouseA new year and a new set of projects. But first I’d like to see where we were last year at this time and see if we got anything done that we wanted to.

  • More productive in the garden? This year wasn’t nearly as productive in produce. We produced about 300lbs less produce than 2011, which was 600lbs less food than 2010. This was most likely our fault because we didn’t amend the soil as much as we should have.
  • Black plastic? We did use it and found that it worked well for some crops but was a failure for the rest. Next year we will only use it for melons and watermelons.
  • Separating livestock feed? We did that for awhile until the turkeys started living with the chickens. The chickens were slackers this year, laying less than 1/2 of what they laid in 2011, and we lost money on them. The turkeys did better than I expected and the goats pretty much broke even. Surprisingly, even though we lost our queen late in the year so we couldn’t replace her, we still ended up with nearly 50lbs of honey. We didn’t breed the rabbits very much this year and we brought in new breeders so we lost money on them as well.
  • Greenhouse built? Not completed 100% but it is usable now.
  • Extended goat barn? Didn’t get to that.
  • Rabbit hutch rebuild? Didn’t get to that either.
  • Water tower turned into a pantry? Kind of. We are storing some food in there.
  • Hunting and foraging? Yes! Well, most of 2012 was a bust for mushrooms (though we did get some this past fall) and Tom got several turkeys and a wild hog.

So what is on the horizon for this year? Much of the same probably. We still need to get the greenhouse finished and rebuild the rabbit hutch. We are now planning on not just expanding the goat barn but also moving it to a new location. We want to increase production, this year we’ll be more than generous adding soil amendments. And, of course, add more foraged and hunted foods into our diet.

We MUST reduce our outside obligations. Another year of having every single weekend planned out to the last hour leads to no time to work in the yard. This might have a lot to do with our lack of produce.

We’ve added more younger chickens to our flock. In the spring we’ll reevaluate who is laying and who is not, and cull those that aren’t producing or otherwise offering us a service, such as raising broods for us. Last year we only had 3 new flock members while the rest started to age out of laying. This year we’ll have at least 11 new pullets, possibly more depending on how many of Speckles’ brood are cockerels and how many are pullets (my guess is 3 and 3 but I could be wrong).

Keep the birds out of the garden in the summer! They all but destroyed our brassica seedlings so now we won’t get much of a crop this year.

Guerilla garden a 1/2 acre easement with orchard grass and alfalfa. We’ll see how well that goes.

Remove Turkey Town. Turkey Town has served it’s purpose well, but the turkeys no longer sleep in it as they prefer the chicken coop, so down it will come. We will use some of it to upgrade the chicken coop, in particular the roof, which will be put over the part of Chicken City where the turkeys like to sleep.

Produce more food at home for our dogs and cats. Yep, that means increasing production of meat.

Cart train Whiskey. We’ll be keeping our wether, Whiskey, and I’d like to get him in a harness and teach him how to pull a small cart.

What plans do you have for 2013?

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Knowing Your Food

There is something fishy going on.

I love sushi. I mean LOVE sushi. It’s not cheap so I don’t eat it very often so it’s a real treat for me. Imagine my surprise when I read an article earlier this year about how more than half (55%) of the fish sold in Los Angeles was mislabeled, or in other words, you think you’re paying for an expensive type of fish but you’re getting a cheaper fish instead. Besides being downright fraud, this is a dangerous game. Some people are allergic to specific species of fish, while some other species are more prone to have high levels of mercury which can be especially dangerous to pregnant women and children. Some of the fish was being substituted with Escolar, which can make people sick. Escolar is banned in Japan for this very reason but apparently it’s a-OK for us to eat.

Part of me thought that this must be an isolated issue. Deep down I knew it probably wasn’t. Unfortunately the deep down part was right. I recently came across another article doing tests on the east coast. Again, half were mislabeled. White tuna, which is one of my favorites, turned out to be Escolar 100% of the time. This study was what prompted the L.A. study. In the L.A. study, Red Snapper shared the same fate as white tuna, being substituted by either pollock or tilapia. The most appalling number, though, was that 87% of 10 species of fish tested in sushi restaurants across L.A. were mislabeled.

Romanesco cauliflower starting to head

Romanesco cauliflower starting to head at Foggy River Farm.

But what about other food besides fish? We shop at farmers’ markets for the majority of our produce. In California, we have protections in place to keep unscrupulous people from scamming consumers (California is looking to pass a law about correctly labeling fish currently). Certified Farmers’ Markets require that farmers have a producer’s certificate showing that they do indeed grow what they are selling.  But even that isn’t foolproof as shown back in 2010 in Los Angeles. Scammers were selling produce they purchased wholesale as local and certified organic when neither was true. Their fields were empty except for weeds and yet here they were selling immaculate produce. I know in other states this is a common practice at farmers’ markets because those states don’t have any protections for the consumer. From what I’ve heard from people in other states, this is actually a huge problem. And not only is it fraud, but it also hurts the real farmers out there that are doing good work. They lose out on sales because they are being undercut by these con artists.

So how do you figure all this out? Unfortunately, I really don’t have a solution on the fish issue other than being really familiar with it. I know one place in my town that for sure doesn’t correctly label their fish so I avoid that place. I just hope the one place I do like to go to is being honest.

But with other food there are some steps you can take that will help you figure out who is legit and who is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Talk to the farmer. Ask them lots of questions including what they spray, where it’s grown, how they avoid pests and most importantly, can you tour their farm. If they say you can tour, do it. Go visit their operation if you can. We try to do this on a regular basis. See what the quality of their produce looks like in the field. Does it coincide with how their produce looks at the farmers’ market? Are they growing everything you’ve seen at their stand that season? If it’s not on that site, ask where that specific produce comes from (many times farms lease land in other locations). If they are not willing to tell you, let alone show you, then don’t purchase their produce. If you can’t tour their farm do some research on them (but ask if you can tour anyways to see if they are amicable to that). Contact their county to make sure they have that producer’s certificate for everything they are selling. Google their address to make sure it exists and to see what their land looks like. It will require some work on your part, but in the end you can feel secure in the fact that you aren’t getting ripped off.

Of course the other option is to grow and raise your own food if you’re lucky enough to have the space to do it.

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