Poor Tomato Harvest or Great Salsa?

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This has been a really strange year on the farm. We’ve seen many extremes from the weather, crops and development of the farm overall. At times we’ve been enthralled (our lettuce was amazing!) and at other times we’ve been left scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do next. But in all, the biggest lesson for me has been “it’s all in how you look at it.”

For example, in January we were all excited about opening a new plot to expand our market produce. We did so well with tomatoes last year we thought we’d dedicate the whole plot to tomatoes and tomatillos. We tilled it on the contour and inter-planted with cover crops. Wow, it was all going so great! Then the early spring crop of peas and squash didn’t go so well. As a matter of fact the cover crops didn’t grow very well either………hmmmm. But you know tomatoes like well-drained soil, right? Well, by the end of July, 300 tomatoes and 100 tomatillos were sitting there doing nothing. And a silly gofer was eating at the rate of about one plant per night.

Luckily we’d also planted tomatoes in our main plot that had three years of previous soil development, and they looked beautiful…until the rain, heat and humidity hit. At this point I wasn’t as excited about tomatoes as I was in January. They were split and ugly, not really marketable, but they tasted good. Hmmmmmmmmm. At this point we could give up, right?

Dunt…dadadadaaaaaaaa. Drumroll please for the Salsa! We’ve learned on the farm to use everything we have, regardless of marketability. Salsa doesn’t care what the tomatoes look like. And the way we go through chips…trust me it won’t go to waste. So we turned bad tomatoes to great salsa and shared with our friends. It felt like January all over again.

So here’s the result of the poor tomato harvest. If you’re having the same experience, enjoy this recipe and dream of January and a fresh start.


Tomato Salsa

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Yields 10 pints

6 quarts or 24 cups of ripe tomatoes (you can use a few green tomatoes too just do not put them through the scalding stage. Cut them like the peppers to give texture. If you have a bunch save them for chow chow)

2 large sweet yellow onion

3 large colorful Bell peppers

1 whole globe of garlic

6 large jalapeño peppers

1 large extremely hot red pepper

1 cup lime juice

3 Tbsp salt

1 Tbsp black pepper

2 Tbsp Coriander seed powder

Prep: Start a pot boiling with a large sieve on the stove, wash all vegetables with clear water, set all aside but the tomatoes. Cut the stem end and any blemishes from the tomatoes, remove seeds from peppers (I left the seeds of one jalapeno pepper for heat). Rough chop the vegetables except the tomatoes and pulse in a food processor. Put in a large stockpot. When the water is boiling, scald tomatoes a few at a time for about one minute and set aside in a bowl to cool. As they cool remove skins and place in separate stockpot. The skins should just pop off as you squeeze the fruit. If not, you need to scald a little longer. Watch your fingers, they are hot. Blend with an emulsifier and add to other vegetables, or for chunky, add straight to other vegetables without emulsifying.

Canning: Add other ingredients, bring to boil stirring constantly. Pour into sterilized jars leaving 1/4 “ headroom, clean around rim with clean damp cloth, add lid and ring finger tight, place in boiling water bath for 5 minutes then remove and cool on a towel with air space in between jars. Process 10 minutes if your jars are not sterilized.

 

 

 

 

 

Pumpkin Fun

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The weather is crisp and cold, and winter projects are in the air. I’m as happy as the squirrels hiding their acorns as I put up my pumpkins for the winter.

Part of sustainability on the farm is to feed the family off the bountiful harvest, or feed the family first and then share with the community at large, which ever is the case. We fought a valiant war over the pumpkins this year with a mighty foe…the squash bug…and we lost. So we didn’t have enough to take to market but we did have just enough to put up for winter use.

Here are some tips on how to process your pumpkins or winter squash if they’re not soft from participating in front porch flower arrangements. This is a great project to share with children at home or even as a science project for the classroom.

This year, we grew pie pumpkins and left them in the field until after the first frost. You can leave them until the vines are dead in the garden to cure or bring them in as long as they cure for at least two weeks. This allows the pulp to dry and makes the seed harvest a little easier. I’ve found it’s even easier after a light freeze…the seeds seem to turn loose of the pulp inside without too much effort but it’s still wet and slippery in the process so let an adult handle the knife if you’re doing this with the kiddos.

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Remove the stem and start cutting the pumpkin in small sections and remove the seeds and pulp. Peel and cut into uniform pieces like you do potatoes to cook. At this point you can wash the cubes and let them dry, then freeze in small packages for hardy winter soups, or proceed to process for other recipes.

If you want to make pies, cookies, cakes or butters, put the cubes in a pan with just enough water on the bottom to keep the pumpkin from scorching while it cooks and releases its liquids. When the pumpkin is tender to a fork, remove and cool. At this point you can puree with a blender, food processor or colander. It’s all fun and a matter of preference.

You may need to further cook the puree to reduce the water content on very low heat depending on how much liquid you need for what you’re making. I use a colander again after I puree to let all the water drain overnight.

From here it’s all an adventure! You can freeze or can the puree in small portions for soups, pies or my favorite…pumpkin butter. You’ll find that you may need to cook your pies a little longer as your homemade puree will have more liquid than pumpkin bought in a can.

Now you have seeds to save or dry for a savory snack. Wash all the pulp from the seeds and drain well. Lay them out on a few clean coffee filters and let dry for a week or two. Now you can place in a mason jar for next year’s planting or roast for snacking.

So what’s left? The peels! You can feed your worm bin, chickens or compost pile, or use as a vegetable filling in doggie cookies. Nothing goes to waste.

If you need some inspiration on what to make with your puree, here’s my recipe for pumpkin butter. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Butter

Makes 1 pint
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

1 lb pie pumpkin, peeled and cubed or 1 (15-oz) can pumpkin (not pie mix)
1/2 cup water or apple juice
1/2 to 1 cup sugar or honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves

Preparation:

Place pumpkin and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until the pumpkin has broken down. Strain through a sieve or food mill. If using canned pumpkin, omit this step and pick up below.

Combine pumpkin puree with sugar and spices, and choose one of the following cooking methods.

1. Slow Cooker: Place sweetened pulp in a slow cooker with lid partially off to let steam escape. Set on low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-12 hours or overnight, or until thick enough so the butter doesn’t run off a spoon when turned upside down.

2. Microwave: Place sweetened pulp in a microwave-safe bowl and cook for 20 minutes at a time, stirring frequently until thick enough so the butter doesn’t run off a spoon when turned upside down.

3. Stovetop: Place sweetened pulp in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for 1-2 hours or until thick enough so the butter doesn’t run off a spoon when turned upside down.

4. Oven: Heat oven to 250 degrees. Place sweetened pulp in a heatproof casserole dish or roaster. Bake, stirring only occasionally, for 1-3 hours or until thick enough so the butter doesn’t run off a spoon when turned upside down.
Place hot butter in hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Cover with hot sterilized lids and rings. Process in a water bath for 10 minutes. Remove to counter and allow to cool before storing in a cool, dry, dark place.

If you don’t process in a water bath, the butter can be kept refrigerated for up to three weeks or frozen for up to one year.

Thankfulness

acornsAcorns are dropping like hard little rain drops out here. They hit the metal roof and roll to the ground in droves. Somehow it makes me feel thankful. I’m not sure why I’ve related acorns to gratitude but I have…maybe because they’re so plentiful. And I can break them open to see the hearty fruit inside that makes an oak tree. An oak tree! How cool is that?

So this begs the question…what am I thankful for? After all, this is the time of year to consider such thoughts…it’s the traditional final harvest. I look over the past season and I see that it’s been difficult for sure. The transition of moving to the farm and trying to make a business out of it has proven more than just a little trying. But I’m here and I’m here to stay, no matter what difficulties I face. For that I’m thankful.

I think back to a number of years ago when the thought of having a farm to call home was such a fantastical dream. I was actually embarrassed to share it with people lest they tell me what a crazy idea it, in fact, was. Honestly, what did I know about farming? And how the hell would I make it work? And what did I know about farming?!!

Perhaps that was an indication I should have run the other direction to find a dream just a little more suited to what I knew. I knew how to do a myriad of things. I knew how to work for nonprofits, and manage business matters, and present concerts, and do marketing, and raise money, and work with artists and musicians. I did it all pretty well and could have made a nice career out of it…but I also never really enjoyed it. My mind constantly drifted, I always wished I was outside, I got lost in blogs and books about the farm life, and my heart was yanked by all matters Earth.

Initially, it started with a backyard garden. You should have seen the amount of surprise and childlike giddiness every time Kelly and I actually harvested something. Like we had just given birth to some little baby veggie. We would photograph it, tell people about it (Hey mom! We harvested ten carrots today!!!). It started there and, for both of us, grew into an all-consuming thought…what if we did this as part of our life? Like really did it? We dove into books about everything from growing tomatoes to off-the-grid living to existential essays on nature, reverent and powerful. It began to creep into those quiet and dreamy conversations all life partners share about where and how they want to grow old together. There, in the dawning hours of a newfound dream and joy, a desire was cemented in our lives. It took only five years before we sold our house and moved to the farm. Time flies when you put your heart to something.

So as I sit here and think about my “final harvests,” this transition from dream to reality is what comes to mind. We didn’t grow much this year as far as veggies go, honestly the bugs ate more than we were able to sell but there’s a whole lot more to this story than sales. I’m thankful. And I’m tired. Transitioning a whole way of life, selling a beloved home in the city to move to the country, giving up a career that I’m good at for one that I’m a total novice at is…well, it’s just a lot. There’s debt incurred and roller coaster emotions experienced. There’s the realization that nature really is reverent and powerful…that’s why they write essays about it. There’s the thought of “what do I know about farming and how the hell will I make this work?” But, in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I signed on for this – and I believe it’s well worth the trouble. Like I said, I’m here and I’m here to stay. And for that I’m thankful.

A special note about what else I’m SUPER thankful for…

Since we moved out here and started this big adventure, we’ve been amazed and intensely heart-warmed by the support we’ve received from our friends and family, and quite often, even from strangers. It seems that people are cheering us on! We’ve received donations for our building projects, helping hands in the field, marketing assistance, good advice and a whole lot of emotional support and encouragement. For this, I am SUPER thankful. Life really is good when you’ve got awesome friends, family and community.

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Update on Water Catchment System…It’s Awesome

This morning when I went outside, I heard the most amazing sound…that of water filling our new water catchment tanks! And from only a very light rain at that!

One of our biggest problems since we started growing here has been lack of water. We’re so thankful we had good rains this year, but when it hasn’t rained our well has not been forthcoming. We would usually get about a quarter of our growing area watered before the well ran dry and we’d have to wait for it to fill back up. Not the most efficient way to run a farm.

Originally we thought we’d build a nice big pond as part of our keyline design but we had enough sense, thank God, to ask the NRCS to come out and test sites on the property for pond-worthiness before we started digging. It was a no-go. Too sandy. No wonder the existing pond was eternally dry. (Sigh)

This is what the NRCS core sample looked like... 10 feet of pure sand.

This is what the NRCS core sample looked like… 10 feet of pure sand.

So the next best option? A water catchment system off our two barns – about 6,000 gallons of water-holding beauty.

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The Green Country Permaculture guys, proud of their work.

Heavy duty guttering

Heavy duty guttering

Actually, now that we’ve got them built, I think everyone should do this regardless of how easily they can access water – be it from the city, well or pond.  Because this is water that will not otherwise be used. And we ALL need to conserve water! I won’t go into the reasons why…if you’re curious just Google the “current drought” or “future water supplies.” Don’t do it before you go to bed though if you want to sleep.

In short, if you water flowerbeds, a garden or your lawn (please don’t water your lawn…seriously?) there’s really no reason not to do it with water from your gutters. It will save you money and there are plenty of fashionable, easy to install water catchment systems out there. And if you don’t want to do it yourself, call Green Country Permaculture. They installed ours (and we LOVE them). They also install small systems for urban homes and community gardens with the added benefit of overflow diversion which can be tricky to do yourself.

Here's a great article from Mother Earth news on how and why to build a rain barrel.

Here’s a great article from Mother Earth News on how and why to build a rain barrel. Did you know that sprinkling your lawn and garden can consume as much as 40 percent of the total household water use during the growing season?

Ok, I know the last couple of posts have been about water. We will talk about other things, I promise. But this getting water to our plants thing has been at the top of our priority list this season. What can we say, when you’re farming…it’s kind of important.

Conserving Water

These tanks will capture water off our rooflines.

6,000 gallons worth of water storage.

It’s raining today and we’re doing a jig on the farm. I’m always happy and thankful when it rains, kind of at peace. Maybe because I was born under the Pisces sign, or maybe because it conjures sweet memories of days gone by when we played quiet board games in the kitchen, read a really good book, or took a leisurely nap because after all it was raining and we couldn’t go outside.

Now days my thankfulness is most profound. When I lived in town I really took undue advantage of turning on the water and giving all my plants as much of a drink as they needed. On the farm we’re not so lucky. We hear about the Oklahoma drought on the news all the time but, here on the farm, we know about it first-hand.

Our property is on the most southern edge of Osage County on a peninsula just a few acres from Lake Keystone. Lots of water, right? WRONG! Our water comes strictly from rain runoff that filters through (we don’t know how many feet) of sand into a pocket well. We also have another well but it’s what they call “sanded in” from years of backfilling.

There used to be water here. All that remains of the homestead is a hand dug stone well 6 feet across and 22 feet deep, and the hand pump near where the old house used to stand. It’s beautiful…and empty. We think there was even a spring in our creek evidenced by the remains of a stone wall that appears to have been used as a dam. The creek is even listed on the Oklahoma map as a blue line going down into the lake, but it’s now dry.

So what do we do to find water and conserve what we have? We use as little as necessary for our everyday needs. We alternate days for heavy home use (such as laundry) and irrigation…squeezing just enough out of the well to cover the small garden plot we’re producing now. Well, you say, that’s not a farm. But it will be when we have enough water to sustain more crops! And that’s exactly what we’re doing – looking for ways to get more water.

For instance we’ll soon be capturing water off the roofs of our buildings into huge tanks we’ve just purchased that will store 6,000 gallons at a time. We’ll also use the natural landscape to catch water as it migrates toward the lake and keep it on our property through a Permaculture Keyline design. We’re working with Green Country Permaculture to implement the design for our fruit production within the next year. As we do all of this we hope to share what we’re learning about water catchment not only through the blog but also through on-farm workshops, so keep an eye on our Facebook for upcoming events.

We’ve barely just started but can already see progress in our conservation efforts. Think of how you can conserve water, even in little ways, because we can tell you the drought is real and water is not for the taking.

The old homestead well.

The old homestead well.

 

The old homestead wall that used to dam up a creek that's now dry.

The old homestead wall that used to dam up a creek that’s now dry.

 

 

Rain

Oh my gosh! I have been harvesting in what the Irish call a soft rain this morning. It was heaven. The plants were tall reaching to the sky to drink in life’s nectar and I was cool and refreshed letting the rain fall through my hair and over my skin. There is said to have been a Lakota Medicine Man that practiced rain drop therapy by using a feather to imitate the affects of rain drops. I completely understand. I came in and was relaxed and refreshed and sat in the cool air enjoying a cup of tea with milk. Wish I could do this every day.

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What Nature is Teaching Me – Part 1 of Many Parts

Nature

I’ve officially been on the farm full-time for six months. In that time I’ve found that I could write a different novel for each major life-lesson that I’m learning…each major personal transformation. While I knew the transition would be difficult and there would be a good dose of personal growth, humbling experiences, etc.  – I honestly had no clue what I was getting myself into.

I was not bargaining for a gigantic mystical mirror reflecting all my faults, every day – showing me how inept I am when it comes to a way of life completely unknown to me, showing how much I don’t know about working with Nature. I mean Nature is a big deal evidently. In fact, capitalizing the first letter of Nature isn’t enough – it should always be written in caps, possibly with italics for extra emphasis…NATURE.

For instance, one of my personal growth novels would be about Nature’s Timing and how it has absolutely nothing to do with my timing. Like a sassy old lady, Nature does exactly what she wants, when she wants. And I can’t rush her, persuade her or bribe her. I can make a request (plant a seed) and participate (water it, tend it, keep the bugs off of it) but then it’s really up to her. All the sudden I’m not in control anymore. Which many of you may identify as a major issue! I can hear some of my city-dweller friends screaming…Not in control???? Then what happens?????

And my answer would be, I honestly have no idea. I don’t know what will happen to the tomatoes. They may grow or they may not. I don’t know what will happen with the weather. We may get a nice amount of rain with minimal problems, or we may get a massive hailstorm, a heat wave, a drought. And there’s just nothing I can do about it. And suddenly it matters because it’s my way of life, it’s my meal plan, my income. It’s no longer a hobby. Do you see the novel I could write about this?

Maybe this doesn’t resound as a monumental issue for you, but as a person who has spent her entire life struggling to be in control, to know the outcomes, to meet the budget, to be a success no matter what…this is life-changing. In a good way no doubt.

I know in a year, or two or ten, I’ll look back and say, wow – all of those lessons were necessary. That mystical mirror sure made me a better version of myself. But while I’m in the midst of the learning I’m friggin’ uncomfortable and totally astonished. And I’m finding this sensation (the uncomfortable, astonished one) is exactly why I made this life-change in the first place. Not to grow tomatoes…but to transform myself, and to experience a true life-adventure. I guess I’m getting exactly what I bargained for – It just took me six months to realize it.

(P.S. I’m still having a blast with this whole farming thing, it’s just an informative blast.)

OLD MAN WINTER, I UNDERSTAND YOUR PURPOSE and GOOD RIDDANCE

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I once started dating a girl before she officially stopped dating someone else. When they finally broke up he made her a mixed tape to say good-bye–an actual cassette tape. The first song on that tape was “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day. It’s a lovely little song about how we had a great ride, a good time, and the end of this relationship is gladly accepted, now go away….

This is roughly, if not precisely, how I feel about the winter season of 2013-2014. Had a great time, thanks for the pretty snow, now move on to other hemispheres.

For most people in the farming business, winter is a welcome respite from the terrible twosome that is July and August. (Of course, those two months are when we lament and pray for snow, but that is the fickle nature of humanity.) We have to remember that winter is necessary. You can’t get the live produce in summer without the dead time of December. Rest and relaxation (sort of). Recharge your batteries, line up the battle plans, figure out the game plan. Hold off until Easter, and then get going.

And like every gardener/farmer out there we got anxious. We sprouted seedlings in our make-shift greenhouse. We had tomatoes, peppers and others. We had a leg up on the season and we were ready. If you notice I am speaking in the past tense. I do this because we got that last cold snap and no matter what you do, unless you have a real greenhouse with real climate control capabilities, you can’t grow much when the high is in the 20’s for 5 days straight. We lost a little over half our early start. Damn you winter.

So what did we do? We started over. Because that is all you can do. Just like every spring after a good winter, you just start over. That’s what farmers do. They do it again, year in and year out. True, this is only our second year, but it feels like more. And we are excited to see OLD MAN WINTER go. Thanks for the pretty picture opportunities, but GOOD RIDDANCE.

We curse you now and will beg for your forgiveness by the 4th of July.

 

 

Transition

What an amazing transition it has been. The seed-thought of this farm was rooted about 6 years ago when Kelly, mom and I were driving through Nowata County having just visited Kelly’s grandmother for her birthday. As we each sat quietly and watched farmland pass us by – someone, I don’t know who, asked “wouldn’t it be cool if we had some land?” The conversation started there and led to today.

After seemingly endless visioning, strategizing, conversing and arguing over ideas and how-to’s; after many long trips to meet realtors and look at properties that just didn’t quite meet our criteria; after tallying up the finances and the necessary sacrifices and deciding it was worth it anyway – we are here. And we’re still moving forward.

For Kelly, Maggie and I it involved selling our beloved Midtown home, a sacrifice I wasn’t sure I could go through with. For mom it involved investing her life savings and determining this is exactly what she would do with the rest of her life. Big commitments. Big strides into the unknown. Questions still lingering. Are we cut out for this? Can we be financially successful and still offer something that actually helps people? Are we really capable of contributing to the greater good?

These are questions still unanswered and we’re moving forward anyway. Having bought the land, having moved our lives here, having committed to the dream…we’ve left ourselves no other option but to give it all we’ve got.

Here are some pictures from our home garden at the Midtown house. Once we knew we wanted to have a farm, we dove into learning and experimenting in our little raised beds. We were so proud of everything we harvested that we had to snap a shot of it coming out of the garden, going to the kitchen, and even being cooked. I hope I never lose that feeling of delight only a new gardener can know.

Midtown Garden

 

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This was an experiment using bamboo to hold up my beans.

This was an experiment using bamboo to hold up my beans.

 

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Our first strawberries!

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Our first potatoes!

 

 

When we decided to get serious about our plans, mom, who’s had a garden for years, began to sell at the farmers market from what she was growing in her backyard so she could gain market experience.

Mom's backyard market garden.

Mom’s backyard market garden.

 

 

This was our first visit to the land. We knew right away that we would buy it. (Notice how I made it look dreamy with my photo editor. It kind of felt that dreamy at the time.)

The First Visit

 

An Introduction

100_0450Welcome to our blog! To give you an introduction, there are four writers – Tchinina, Kelly, Rose and Maggie. We make up the farm family and we each have very different perspectives on this whole farm thing.

Tchinina is the Farm Manager (and the mom/mom-in-law/grammie) and the one who actually knows what she’s doing. She already knows about plants and country living; the rest of the gang, however, is at a loss. We’re currently in the process of selling our house in midtown Tulsa to make the move to the farm and we’re bringing two Chihuahuas who are less than thrilled by the outdoors.

We each have our own talents and knowledge, or lack thereof, that will no doubt make for an interesting story. Follow along!