Saturday, September 27, 2008

Farm Out!

As obsessed as I am about food (growing, preserving, and eating), I do actually think of other things sometimes -- like work.

I usually don't get to connect food to what I do at work, though sometimes I get lucky. Usually my food-related thinking at work consists of mentally planning my meals or preservation projects while working on a database -- or telling the students I work with about all the delicious things I cook, just to make them regret the lack of excitement in cafeteria food.

But when I find time during a busy work week to talk with the Archivist -- whether about a project or shared frustrations or joys -- we inevitably end up talking about our gardens and our cooking. I'm not the only one around here committed to local foods: the Archivist has for several years grown the vast majority of the produce she and her husband eat through the year, and her baking, cooking, and canning skills (and results) rival mine. Easily.

The Archivist tends to be a pretty private person, so I feel very fortunate to have cultivated a friendship with her, and I felt even more honored to receive an invitation to visit her on her "farm" this weekend, ostensibly to gather some of the "crops" she and her husband haven't
found ways to use (namely, black walnuts and crabapples and rose hips) but also to visit the gardens and enjoy the beautiful utility of it all.

Five Acre Field, as they call it, started 18 years ago as a bare piece of land way out in the country. The Archivist and her husband built their house and gradually added perennial beds, trees, and a surprisingly small vegetable garden laid out in raised beds. They have left a large section of the property's perimeter wild, with walking paths cut through for them to reach the wild blackberry and black raspberry canes, elderberry bushes, mulberry trees, herbs, and wildflowers that have grown up over the years. Just walking along the paths takes you into a
world of peace, where the sounds you hear are limited to birdsong and insect tunes, underscored by the wind ruffling the leaves and plants.

The vegetable garden contains beds for a variety of produce: sweet and hot peppers in a couple spots, corn, a long row of astonishingly productive tomato plants, horseradish, onions, garlic, greens, peas, and herbs and flowers to draw in pollinators and other beneficial insects. (We spotted a praying mantis while we wandered around the beds.)

Where early crops were pulled midsummer, the Archivist sowed more beans, both for a potential second crop and to fix nitrogen back into the soil. (It's a technique I'll have to work into next year's garden planning myself.) She saves seeds from one year's crop to the next, making it even easier to keep growing the things they both love.

In the heart of the vegetable garden, raised beds contain strawberry plants, surrounded by
more flowers. That will be a treat come June!

Farther afield, the Archivist has planted a variety of fruits. Though the Concord grapes have been pruned back considerably this year (and damaged by the recent windstorm), the Archivist reported making about 10 liters of grape juice from this year's crop, soon to be turned into jelly. (And their grape jelly is wonderful stuff!)

Their fruit trees have provided a great deal of additional fruit this year, from pears for pear
butter to Red Delicious apples for applesauce. And to their surprise, their peach tree, completely unproductive in previous years, is absolutely loaded with small apricot-sized fruit that are just now starting to ripen. (Keep your fingers crossed that we have enough warmth left in the season for them to harvest those beauties for jam!)

And did I mention that while not certified, their entire "farm" is organic? No sprays, no nothing -- just an abundance of good food.

After my "tour" of the property, the Archivist turned me loose with my many bags to glean the unused "fruits" of the farm, starting with black walnuts. I admit, I'm not a big fan of black walnuts: I'm not crazy about their flavor, and I know you don't want them near a garden because they produce a slightly toxic substance that can inhibit the growth of some produce (as we've seen in the Victory Garden this year).

But My Wonderful Parents love black walnuts, and so I gathered two plastic shopping bags full of nuts still in their hulls, along with half a bag of walnuts I was able to hull on the spot. I'm glad I had a pair of rubber gloves with me because the juices from the hulls (saffron yellow) and from the shells (black) can stain hands and clothes something awful. (If I were more knowledgeable about dyeing
yarns or fabrics, maybe I could have done something with them, but ah well.)

Once I'd had my fill of the black walnuts, I worked my way back up the front field and gathered a bunch of small yellow crabapples before working my way around a very large rose bush, picking brilliant red rose hips from the canes. These hips are shaped differently from the ones I bought at the farmers' market earlier this season -- small and oblong instead of large and round -- but I gathered enough (I think) to make a small batch of rose hip jam sometime this weekend or week.

That's an awfully good amount of gleaning and foraging for an hour or more, and it will certainly all keep me busy this weekend.

After that, the Archivist invited me in for some of her homemade bread and wonderful Hungarian potato-bean soup, made with beans and carrots from her garden, potatoes from a neighbor, and sour cream and vinegar for the tangy creaminess. What a treat!

And then I headed home again, with food, ideas, and much gratitude for the opportunity to learn some new things about farming -- and for the friendship of a thoughtful and generous kindred spirit.

What a wonderful field trip!

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