Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You'd think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world's population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I've been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens' diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3's. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I'd like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended -- as hunting and gathering omnivores. It'll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let's see. One acre per chicken...fifteen chickens...Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there's a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I'll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can't afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn't just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year's diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I'd forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month's worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It's easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others -- purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar -- converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt -- including home mortgages -- or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, "Start where you can, not where you think you should." I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training -- it's useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I'll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I'll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I'll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I'll still buy pelleted feeds, I'll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, "ideal" isn't an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don't know how we're going to make this small farm work.

...but I also don't know how to give up.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Time-to-Go-Shopping Black Bean Chili

Several weeks after my monthly shopping trip, while the spring garden is still hardly more than tilled soil and flecks of green, fresh produce is hard to come by here on the farm. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because it's perfect motivation to use up odds and ends from the pantry and freezer.

Vegetarian chilis are a great way to use a variety of ingredients during these final, chilly nights of the year. This sweet, smokey, multi-spiced black bean chili is one of my favorite ways to reduce my stockpile of green tomatoes rescued from the vines last October. Ripe tomatoes or tomatillos would make a good substitute.

Time-To-Go-Shopping Black Bean Chili

1 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs mustard seeds
1 1/2 Tbs chili powder
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 medium onion, diced
1 1/2 cups sweet potato, chopped
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
2 cups vegetable broth
4 cups cooked black beans
1 1/2 cups green tomatoes, diced
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 14.5-oz can tomato sauce
1 4-oz can fire roasted diced green chilis
1 chipotle canned in adobo sauce, minced
1/3 cup molassas
1 1/2 tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Pre-heat large Dutch oven over medium flame. Saute spices in oil until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add onion, sweet potato, and mushrooms. Saute 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add remaining ingredients except cilantro. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve topped with cilantro.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Digging Deeper

Gardening at In the Night Farm is more than a hobby. We believe in the nutritional, economical, environmental, and political importance of locally grown produce, and there's nothing more local than our own backyard.

Commercial agriculture, which runs on genetically modified corn and fossil fuels, wreaks havoc on the land and the bodies of humans and animals who consume the resulting "food." We're constantly seeking new ways to reduce our dependence on the system.

The switch to local foods is a slow process, not least because we suffer from the typical American addiction to seasonless variety. However, as we grow more accustomed to eating seasonally, we are able to create more meals around our own produce.

Another limiting factor is expense. America's agricultural infastructure is designed to benefit the monoliths who pump out massive quantities of cheap, poor quality food. Local farmers, particularly organic farmers, are forced to charge more for their crops -- sometimes more than consumers are willing to pay.

At this point, Travis and I only dabble in actually selling our produce. We hope to move enough eggs and vegetables this year to cover our own costs associated with raising chickens and crops. If we're really lucky, we'll net some extra dollars to put toward a greenhouse.

Our primary goal isn't to turn a profit, but rather to turn our soil into healthful meals. This is easy during summer, when the crops come on one after another, so quickly we can't eat them all. But what about winter?

This year, we're investing in several items to extend the usefulness of our harvest. First, we bought a Foodsaver to preserve the quality of frozen berries, vegetables, and meats. Second, we expanded our collection of canning jars. (Note: Used jars are readily available on Craigslist -- it seems few people use them anymore.) Third and most ambitious, we're putting in a root cellar. Here's how Travis spent part of the weekend:

Luckily for him, he was able to barter some computer work for backhoe services to dig most of the hole. In the photo above, he's trimming the sides and bottom in preparation for building the underground structure.

At the moment, the root cellar quite an ugly scar on the hill, but once its walls are built and its roof on, we'll shovel dirt over the top and let time adorn it with grasses once again.

Come winter, our bounty of potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, squash, dried hot peppers, and more will be nestled safely under the farm, awaiting a much shorter trip to our plates than the thousands of miles endured by most grocery store produce.

It seems that, sometimes, the journey of a thousand miles ends with a single step.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Digging Ditches

You know summer's coming when the irrigation ditches fill with water, gated pipe sends glistening streams across the fields, and massive sprinkler systems cast great plumes over the emerald wheat.
Irrigation is a big deal in our corner of Idaho. Despite having just emerged from our snowiest winter since the 1980's, our reservoirs and aquifers are alarmingly low after nearly ten years of drought. Here at In the Night Farm, we're permitted to irrigate only one of our five acres...and we're determined to make the most of it.

Travis spent the weekend overhauling the professionally-installed, automatic sprinkler system that seemed to assume we, like most Americans, would want to surround our house with a neatly manicured lawn.
H.C. Flores, in his book Food Not Lawns, wasn't the first to note that “58 million Americans spend approximately thirty billion dollars every year to maintain more than twenty-three million acres of lawns….the same-sized plot of land could still have a small lawn for recreation and produce all the vegetables needed to feed a family of six. The lawns in the United States consume around 270 billion gallons of water a week – enough to water eighty-one million acres of organic vegetables, all summer long.”

Now, before you run away with the idea that Travis and I spend our weekends hugging trees and protesting the de-listing of Idaho's gray wolves, note that we do keep a minimally maintained, fenced yard for Wyrsa's pleasure. (Note also that we use no chemicals and feed the grass clippings to the sheep and chickens.) We do not, however, have any interest in pouring time and money into a vast expanse of useless turf.

Instead, we're revamping our irrigated acre to include a berry patch, a fruit and nut orchard, large plots for vines and corn, and the main garden. This last has been a bit of a problem, considering its size and the unfortunate configuration of the sprinkler system. Travis spent several days digging up sections of pipe and laying them in new trenches around the perimeter.

He wasn't the only one digging ditches. Forced by gusty winds to abandon my horse training on Sunday afternoon, I retired to the garden, where I planted three pounds of onion sets and fifteen pounds of Yukon Gold seed potatoes. Rather than planting in hills, I'm attempting the trench method of growing potatoes this year.
The seed potatoes are placed in trenches and covered with a few inches of soil. As they grow, I'll pile in more soil to keep the tubers below ground (and to cover the frost-tender shoots if another cold snap blows through).
This is satisfying work. Every Monday, we look back on more projects completed, more small steps toward the large dream.
Is there another way to live?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Perennial Favorites

There are few greater pleasures than meandering about the farm on a warm, spring evening, watching the perennials stretch and yawn after a winter's rest.

In the bulb garden, hyacinth prepare their annual onslaught of heady scent. This photo was taken a week ago.

Here is the same plant today.

If you've never smelled hyacinth, go buy some. Today.

In the vegetable garden, rhubarb returns for its second year. I planted five of these last year. The stalks freeze beautifully, and I can hardly get enough of them. Rhubarb is related to buckwheat, of all things, and in medieval times was used to induce vomiting. Strangely, strawberry-rhubarb pie never affects me that way...

Back in the bulb garden, daffodils have exploded into bloom.

And up on the deck, potted catnip soaks up the sun.

Apparently, it's a good day to be a mouse.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Only Ewe

Once upon a time, we decided to obtain a few sheep. We would raise a lamb or two each year for organic meals, and we'd put to good use the inevitable, sub-standard-for-horses bales of hay that arrive when your order upwards of twenty tons per year.

We had the good fortune of coming across a small flock of sheep, free to good home. Okay, so we weren't planning on getting nine sheep. What's another sheep...or six...on a farm?

Nine more sheep, that's what. All but one of our new arrivals turned out to be pregnant. Several had twins. Thanks to many sleepless nights and sticky hands, all but one of said lambs survived. Our flock, noisy and adorable, was also excessive.

And furthermore, there doesn't seem to be much of a market in our part of Idaho for organic lamb.

And hay prices are going up.

Craigslist to the rescue! On Sunday, most of our flock went to live on a Suffolk/Rambouillet farm thirty miles away. The breeder is glad to have more Rambouillet blood, and we are glad to have just two sheep left at In the Night Farm.

We kept an older Suffolk ewe, and named her Only.

This is Only's gentleman friend, a Rambouillet called Megabyte.

Yes, that's a Megabyte of ram...which passes for humor around here.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal

I heard of baked oatmeal for the first time just a few months ago. Perhaps I was the last to know. In any event, it's become one of my favorite breakfasts. Easy, healthful, and filling, the lumpy-liquid mixture bakes into a moist, dense cake. If you have any left over, it reheats well in the microwave for busy weekday mornings.

The recipe below is one I developed while experimenting with various, other baked oatmeal recipes. It is quite adaptable, so feel free to make adjustments according to what you have on hand. (Try replacing the cranberries, pumpkin, and pumpkin pie spice with chopped apple, applesauce, and allspice.) I like to top my serving with soy milk, and serve fresh fruit salad with a honey-vanilla-cinnamon dressing on the side.

Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal

2 3/4 cups old-fashioned oats or 5-grain blend
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup pumpkin puree
3 cups plain soy milk (or dairy milk)
2 beaten eggs
1 Tbs vanilla
1/2 cup chopped nuts

Combine oats, sugar, dried fruits, spices, and salt in large bowl. Combine remaining ingredients in medium bowl, then add to large bowl and stir until well blended. Pour mixture, which will be very runny, into an 8x8 inch, glass baking dish. Sprinkle nuts on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes until center is set and firm. Serve warm. Makes 6 servings.


Welcome, Runners World Forum readers! I'm delighted that you're enjoying this recipe; I, too, find it to be excellent running fuel, though I confess that I only run during winter because my summers are too full of gardening and horseback endurance racing. Click here to explore other flegan recipes on Nightlife.

Friday, April 4, 2008

To Market, To Market

It's that time again.

I've completed my April menus and scheduled my monthly shopping trip, during which I'll spend over an hour schlepping up and down every aisle that contains unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

You'll recognize me in the checkout line. I'll be the one with the mountain of bulk foods -- raw nuts, dried beans, miscellaneous grains, honey -- and half the contents of the produce bins. You'll see a quart of plain, full-fat yogurt (the reduced fat varieties are full of sugar), several bags of frozen berries, dark coffee beans, balsamic vinegar, sundried tomatoes, and canned chipotles.

The clerk will stare at me in disbelief. "What do you do with all this stuff?"

"I cook."

Gingerroot...beep...bean sprouts...beep...tahini...beep

The total will be about $200. Two weeks from now, I'll come back and spend another $70 on fresh produce, and that'll cover our groceries for the month.

Vegetarianism has a reputation for being expensive. I suppose if you're accustomed to filling your cart with pork chops and SlimFast, and one day you decide to pick up some fresh tangelos, arugula, strawberries, and broccoli to serve on the side, you might suffer a bit of sticker shock.

Here's the key to inexpensive flegan eating: Put the other stuff back. If it's not a whole, plant-based food, your body doesn't need it. Neither does your wallet.

I've always been a frugal shopper, so I grew worried as our garden petered out last October. How could my budget cover enough produce to sustain a flegan diet? However, I was pleased to discover that, sans meat and most dairy, my grocery bill wasn't hard to stomach after all.

Here are a few other things you can do to keep your reciept reasonable:

1) Cook your own meals. Cooking, like karate or horseback riding, is a skill anyone can learn. Sure, some people are naturals, but anyone can become competent. Time needn't be an issue. Try a search for meatless, quick & easy recipes at Cooking Light.

2) Eat seasonally. Winter tomatoes and strawberries aren't worth eating, let alone paying for.

3) Buy in bulk. Dry beans can be cooked and frozen, replacing canned beans. Whole grains are cheaper and more varied by the pound than by the box. Bulk nuts and dried fruits will save you even more over the packaged brands.

3) Finally, if you really want to go whole hog(less), put in a garden and dig yourself a root cellar like the one that's going in at In the Night Farm.

More on that later.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Holy Horse Manure

You'd think that eight horses would turn their annual sixteen tons of hay into more than enough organic compost for one, small farm.

Generally speaking, you would be right. But here at In the Night Farm, our soil looks like it came straight from the coast. Sand. Not a rock or an ounce of clay to be found. Not the most fertile option.

Fortunately, there's a cure: organic matter, and plenty of it. We've hauled load after load of it from the horse pens, tilling in an eight-inch layer and converting our sandy plots to beautiful, well-drained beds of loam.

Still, as our gardens expand, so does our need for compost. Over the weekend, this gift arrived from our non-gardening friends.

Old-time gardeners refer to compost as black gold. Looks like we've hit the mother load, and by summer we'll be cashing in.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sundried Tomato & Artichoke Heart Pizza

This may not be the healthiest item on our menu, but it hits the spot after an evening of tree wrestling. The rich flavors of pesto, parmesan, and sundried tomatoes render the excessive use of mozzarella, so common on commercial pizzas, quite unnecessary. The homemade crust is unusually quick for a yeast bread and spares us the preservatives baked into pre-fabricated, grocery-store crusts. To help the dough rise even faster, place the bowl in which the dough is rising inside a second, larger bowl containing hot tap water and cover both with a fresh dish towel.

By the way, I find that an ulu works much better than your standard pizza cutter. Ulus are my all-time favorite kitchen tool -- I have two (and need a third) so I can be sure of having a clean one available at all times. I use them to slice and dice everything from carrots to calzones.

Sundried Tomato & Artichoke Heart Pizza


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs yeast (one packet)
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 cup warm water (about 115 degrees)
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp cornmeal

Combine first five ingredients in large mixing bowl. Beat on slow speed 30 seconds, then on high speed for 3 minutes. Reduce mixer speed and add whole wheat flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until dough forms a ball and no longer sticks to the bowl. You may not require all 1 1/4 cups of whole wheat flour.

Place dough in bowl coated with cooking spray; coat top of dough with cooking spray. Set in warm place to rise until nearly double in size (10 or 15 minutes).

Roll dough to preferred thickness (1/4 - 1/2 inch) and place on cookie sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Bake at 375 degrees for 7 minutes.

1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
3 Tbs basil pesto
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes, cut into strips
2/3 cup canned artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
5 cloves roasted garlic, sliced (optional)

Combine tomato paste and basil; spread on partially baked crust. Top with cheese, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and garlic (if desired). Bake at 375 degrees for 7-9 minutes. Cool 2 minutes before slicing.