My parents collected an eccentric assortment of friends. They each floated in and around us children, eclectic background music to an otherwise stable environment. They influenced us in unintentional and unpredictable ways; none left us the same. Biz Lee walked barefoot; off went my shoes. A famous psychic visited; I spent hours in failed attempts to bend spoons and communicate with the dead. Rusty, my mother’s Lilliputian friend, always spunky and enthusiastic, introduced us to honey cakes. She fed us slice after slice in her kitchen at a small wooden table. She turned me into a honey cake fanatic. The flavor and aroma of that cake, along with her infectious enthusiasm for all things, imprinted on my soul so strongly that I became obsessed with honey cake recipes.
Rusty’s husband, Fred, also had his imprint on me (and so inevitably on our farm) but of a totally different nature; it was something he had in his office, oddly enough, a fish tank. He had this fish tank that caught my imagination and took hold. The tank had fish, rocks, plants and such, but somehow by putting the right types and amounts of these things in his tank he never had to add food or clean the tank. It just cleaned and fed itself. The plants gave off oxygen, special fish ate the algae, and so forth. I now know the scientific name for such an aquarium. He had achieved a balanced equilibrium. Back then I saw it as magic.
So here I am as destiny unfolds, fishy in my tank, this farm, trying to get Fred’s fish tank magic. Really it’s not that easy, and in retrospect maybe Fred was a magician. Balancing plants and animals in a way that can mirror a natural balance that nature holds is a tricky business. With time I have come to consider animals the lynch pin to it all. Which ones, how many, what varieties, how they relate and interrelate with the ecology of our farm seem to set things in balance or out of balance, to make magic or not. In the winter, these more esoteric considerations come to the fore.
The vegetative growing season winds down, our farm income relies heavily on our meat production, and we tend to stand back and see how each species interacts with the whole. Are the chickens helping to increase fertility in the field, are we able to feed the pigs with bounty from the farm, can we compost the chicken remains after butchering, will the goats eat the extra pumpkins, can I put turkeys with the goats in a pasture rotation, will the horses compact the soil too much if I let them graze the field. . . . We go about our daily chores pondering these questions and watching carefully for ideas of balance. And as the day progresses, we also eat from the bounty of our farm, waffles smothered in fresh butter, chicken tamales and fresh cut salad greens. . . and then of course that elusive honey cake, one recipe after another until we get it right. . . .
6:30 am: About a hundred yards from the house is our greenhouse, a simple PVC structure, which is home to our microgreens and our baby birds. In the winter, along with salad mix, we grow a wide variety of microgreens. Peas, radishes, tatsoi, sunflower, buckwheat are all seeded densely in flats, grown to the height of one to two inches or until they begin to form true leaves, and then cut much as a salad mix. Highly nutritious, they give the farm a way to provide fresh vegetable variety throughout the winter months. Beneath the table of flats is a commotion of young activity: about a hundred birds grow from the age of one day to four weeks in the warmth of the greenhouse, bustling about as they themselves generate heat for the plants at night from their bodies and their brooder lamps. When the birds reach the age of four weeks, they will move onto a new pasture with only a small enclosure for evening protection. But back in the brooder greenhouse, though, I feed the chickies a mix of milled oats, wheat, and corn soaked in farm buttermilk, cooked potatoes in curds, corn mash. Their water feeders are filled with left over whey from our cheese making process. While I am feeding and checking the babies, I carefully water the microgreens. After the microgreens are harvested, the flats are emptied on the ground and the chickies clean out the extra plant matter.
The little chicks produce a remarkable amount of fertility evenly distributed through out the greenhouse. Beneath the lamps we spread a thin layer of straw, and every few days we move the brooder lamp. The chicks have the run of the greenhouse, which is warm and toasty during the day. From about three days old to four weeks onward, they are running around on this protected “pasture.” They are sheet composting. At the end of four weeks, the chicks journey on, but before we put a new batch in, the greenhouse is shifted to a new area, and the chicks move into another pasture with rotating fence panels and with another bigger moveable protected tunnel. We have several goats in these pastures, they like the tunnel’s evening protection from rain, and their bodies help heat the tunnels for the birds at night. The goats and the chickens do well together; loose in large fields I have seen goats snuggled beneath our horse, Ms. Dixie, with chickens roosted atop their warm backs. Rafael feeds the egg layers and adolescent broilers. We soak our grain in whey and let it sprout; both the egg layers and the meat birds like this high protein mix.
7:00 am: I move on to the main goat pen where milking commences. The goats are open-air milked, tied to a stake or a tree. As soon as their warm milk fills the bucket, I pour it through a sterilized strainer and stainless steel receptacle. Within a half hour I have returned to the house and pour the still warm milk into half-gallon jars. They are immediately cultured (which begins the fermentation) and given a one-fifth drop of diluted rennet to encourage curd formation. No heating is required; we make the cheese from the goats’ warmth, within an hour after milking. The process goes in twenty-four hour cycles. I pour the curds from yesterday’s milking through cheesecloth and let that drain for one to two days. While I’m milking and cheese-making, my children feed the other animals, Timothy, his turkeys and the draft horses; Juan, his pigs; Rafael, his egg layers.
8:00 am: Breakfast commences: waffles made with our soft wheat, oat, and barley flour, mixed with Rafael’s hens’ eggs, curds and whey from the goats. While the waffles are still hot, we grate fresh butter over them from our shared cow. The stack is dribbled in local honey, washed down with milk, and accompanied by fresh scrambled eggs. My kids eat a lot because they work up an appetite while they work, and because they are involved in the process of growing and raising their own food, the appetite that they work up is for good food.
10:00 am: Today we are rebuilding the pig pen. So far the pigs are the only animal not out in pasture. They are actually good grazers; they love weed amaranth and root up the soil in ways that are excellent for soil tillage—but I don’t trust them. Timothy came running in from the pig pen the other day with a wild story about a half-eaten chicken. Ugh. I went out to the pen to check it out. . . no need for further details. The pigs are not good mixed herd animals; we need to provide them their own enclosure so they can share the barn with the goats at night or in a storm. As we work, I watch how they root the soil; it’s alluring. I’ve heard of farmers who drill grain beneath compost piles. The pigs root up the grain and in the process turn the pile. I look at our piggies, Twiggy, Nemean, Scootie, Tao Tsi, Downtown, Wilbur, and wonder do they fit on this farm? Certainly they fatten up quickly and have cost nothing to raise up. They will provide good meat. But around here you have to actually “do” something for the farm. I mull it over. My kids love the pigs and have a great time catching loose ones; Juan, 17, is out in the pouring rain right now rigging a roof up for them, Rafael is building some new door contraption and talking to Scootsie. He wants to have Twiggy bred next year. I guess the pigs will stay. I’ll purchase extra moveable pasture fencing for next year. We’ll graze them through the crab grass in the spring; we’ll shift things here and there so these particular creatures can somehow fit in.
The goats have less trouble fitting in. Despite reputations that have nothing to do with their real personalities, goats are gentle creatures. The chickens love being in pasture with them. Reading in an old textbook how running herds over newly sprouted grain will increase multiple stem growth and prevent leggy plant growth, I tried it with the goats. It works best at about six weeks of growth when the grain reaches about six inches. As long as they eat it back before the grain heads up, the plant seems to respond with vigor; the stalks grow back stouter and often send up additional tillers. By moving throughout the field, not just among the grains, the goats help eat back weeds, they increase fertility in the fields, and of course they provide us with our yummy chèvre.
The goats were bred in the early fall to birth in the late winter. My children are experts at goat births. In February during kidding season, they are completely in charge. It’s not uncommon for one of them to come bursting in the house with news about times between contractions, requests for towels or, juggling a diaper, weak kid in hand. “This kid,”
they say, “needs a few days in the house; she’s a triplet.” I watch them, enormously grateful that our goats have taught my boys how to be men in the fullness of the word; they know how to assist and nurture as well as how to conquer and how to work. They have learned compassion, composure, patience, and perseverance, and all that from the goats. The goats score high in Fred’s fish tank magic. They stay.
7:00 pm: It’s just about time for dinner when we finally finish up with the pigs, feed and bed down the various animals again, and head in. Tonight we have reheated tamales that we made and froze during the fall. We made them to make use of our deluge of roosters. The meat simmered for several hours, deboned and mixed with our rehydrated red adobo sauce; makes great tamale filling. We use our own cornhusks, use the rooster broth to mix with the masa filling, steam the tamales to bring out the flavor, and then freeze them for winter consumption. We eat them with some fresh cut salad mix. After dinner the kids play until well after dark; they are bombing each other with slushy snow after the rain.
Does all this work? Would Fred approve? I’m not sure. I mean, the pig did eat the chicken. Halfway through the grain harvest I tired out and only took in half the normal yield. The goats got loose and debarked the apple trees. These are certainly failures. But I am happy with where we are heading; there seems to be a certain economy and ecology in trying for balance rather than just a linear input and output on the farm. We may not succeed, but I like the fish tank as our ruler, as something to measure up to.
More than anything my parents’ eccentric friends opened my mind; to be successful as farmers we must be willing to notice the edges, to think fluidly, to entertain the impossible, to say, “This has never been done before, but it might just work,” and to take our failures in stride. On occasion (when absolutely no one is looking) I still stare at spoons willing them to bend. No dice there. The spoon just stares back at me. But in case you, the reader, did not know this, barefoot is a craze these days. My son’s high school cross country team trains in guess what? Bare feet. Good ole Biz was ahead of her time. We need not to be afraid to be ahead of ours.
9:03 pm: The boys come in hungry. I haul out the honey jar and start baking. . . Rusty’s Honey Cake (attempt #2,398).
Jennifer Greene and her boys seek balanced equilibrum at Windborne Farm in the Scott Valley among the rugged mountains of Northern California. This is the third installment of her four-season “A Sense of Place” series.