Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Birds

Last fall while we were house hunting, we told our Realtor all about our desire for a big backyard with lots of sunny space for a garden.  But there was one other thing that we were silently considering as we studied each backyard.  We sometimes spoke about it vaguely; in a sort of "code" that only we could understand.  Because you see, everyone can somewhat understand the desire for a garden, but we were making plans for something a bit more unconventional.  In an effort to seem reasonably sane in the company of our Realtor, we opted not to mention it.  Then one day as we were scrutinizing a relatively small backyard, Greg had no choice but to question, "Where would we put the birds?"

Ah yes, the birds.  Because no urban farm would be complete without a little livestock, we will be adding some backyard chickens this spring.  Our Realtor was surprised to hear that it was even legal to keep chickens in an urban backyard.  Well, fortunately for us, Des Moines is a very progressive city when it comes to backyard chicken-keeping.  We even chose to limit our house search to the city limits of Des Moines rather than any of the less chicken-friendly suburbs.

So now that you know that you can keep chickens in some cities (check your municipal code to find out), let's discuss why we want to keep backyard chickens.  The simple answer is: EGGS!  Eggs are a fantastic source of protein and a productive hen will lay an egg almost every day. Of course, you can buy eggs at the grocery store, but the commercial egg industry has serious problems with salmonella outbreaks, not to mention the poor living conditions and downright cruel treatment of the chickens. So why not raise your own?

Besides, chickens don’t need much more care than a typical housepet. They just need shelter, food, and water. The shelter is actually a work in progress already! Stacia has been spending time in the basement taking the salvaged pieces of the backyard playset and assembling them into small sections of the future chicken coop. They will eventually come together to make something like this:

There will be pictures of the real thing eventually, but for right now, it’s mostly just a concept. We’ve got a few months before we’ll need it anyway. Our current plan is to buy the baby chicks in mid-March, and keep them indoors for their first 5 to 6 weeks. Baby chicks need to be kept very warm until they grow their adult feathers. Then in early May they’ll move into their permanent home in the backyard. We’ll post plenty of updates here on the blog, so be sure to watch this space!

Sidenote: If backyard chicken-keeping isn’t an option for you, consider getting your eggs at a Farmer's Market. Or you might even be able to find a grocery store that sells eggs from small, local farmers. If you’re in the Des Moines area, we’ve seen local eggs at Gateway Market, Campbell’s Nutrition, and New City Market. (If you know of others, feel free to add them in the comments section.) We’d love to see people support farmers that care about the welfare of their animals and provide people with safe, fresh, healthy food!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Half Hog = Full Freezer

You might recall that back in November we stopped by the Winter Farmers Market and started the process of ordering a half hog from Crooked Gap Farm. We figured out how we wanted it cut up, and then last week we were notified that our hog was ready for processing. The farmer took it in to a nearby meat locker, and less than a week later it was ready to be picked up. This morning was the exciting excursion to go see what we'd gotten.

We woke up early on a snowy morning, and drove down to the sleepy hamlet of Milo, Iowa (population 839). It's a quaint little town, just about an hour south of Des Moines.

At the end of Main Street is the Milo Locker, where our hog (and one of the farmers who raised it) were waiting for us. The Milo Locker is a family owned business that processes everything from beef and hogs to deer and lamb. For a small business, they sure do keep busy. The guys in the store commented that they've processed 3,000 deer this season! Pretty impressive for a little place like this:

Our particular half hog had weighed in at a hanging weight of 95 lbs, meaning the entire "meat section" of the animal, including all the bones. This weight is the basis for the customer's fee to the farmer. For example, Crooked Gap charged $2.50 per pound of hanging weight. There's also a smaller fee to the locker for the cutting, curing and packaging of the meat. Ours was around $65 for the half hog.

For that cost, they break down the hog into tidy little paper packages that look like this:

Our half hog pretty much filled two full-size chest coolers to capacity. So, what do you get in two coolers worth of pork? Well, with our choices of cuts, we received:

14.2 lb of shoulder roasts
9.7 lb of pork chops
7.9 lb of sausage patties

7.3 lb of deli-sliced ham
7.3 lb of ground pork
6.2 lb of bacon
4.4 lb of ham steaks
4.3 lb of cured ham hocks
2.5 lb of spareribs
2.2 lb of pork liver
1 lb of jowls
and 11 lb of lard

That's a lot of pork, but it fit neatly into our 5 cubic foot deep freezer without any trouble. It's also going to keep our stomachs full of bacon, pork chops, and carnitas for some time to come, which is exciting to think about. You probably won't see us at the grocery store meat counter any time soon!

This was our first time ordering a half of any kind of meat (hog, beef or otherwise) and it's gone really well. Crooked Gap was great to work with, thoroughly explaining the process and answering any questions we had along the way. The folks at Milo were cheerful and friendly, and helped load up our pork without us even asking. Each package is clearly labeled, and in the weight/size increments we asked for when we ordered. Plus it's from a great local farm, where "pigs get to be pigs." Going half-hog is definitely an option to think about if you've got the freezer space and want to know just where your meat came from. We're likely to do it again (whenever we finish all this pork!).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Farmers Do All Winter

So, which of the 2012 models do you like so far? There's that spiffy little Terenzo, though we've also been eyeing the Sunstripe. And you just can't go wrong with Atomic Red, right? Not to worry, those aren't new car models we're so enamored with. This is a blog about farming, so those are actual names of new hybrid vegetable seeds for the coming season. Tomato, squash, and carrot, respectively. Not necessarily our new favorites in those categories, but you have to admit they have some catchy names.

Catchy names, glitzy photos and outrageous claims are everywhere this time of year. That's because farmers, urban or otherwise, can't really do much farming during the cold winter months (you can do some, but we weren't quite ready this year). So what do they do? They give out their addresses to seed companies, and end up with a pile like this!

That's a mixture of this year's catalogs, plus a handful of "back issues" from Greg's Dad to get a feel for a few of his favorite companies. Each one is full of hundreds of varieties, leading to a nearly limitless range of growing options. Especially so when you intend to garden over 400 square feet of space, as we do.

Winter is time for planning, of paging through the catalogs and websites, pitting tomato A against tomato B, and seeing which one you want to be stuffing yourself with by next August (hopefully). Then you have to consider what you've already got: your seed stash, if you will. In our case, it looks like this:

In just four short years of gardening (patio and community) and various changing tastes in what we want to grow, we somehow amassed 30 assorted packets of seeds. And that's only the vegetable ones - there's probably a dozen more herb seed packets stashed away, too. That would be plenty to fill our entire garden space with plants for the year, but there are so many other things we want to try! We've got kale, but wouldn't it be fun to grow collard greens, too? Besides, seeds are only a few bucks a packet and can keep for several years, so why not go a little nuts?

We've almost got our order figured out for the coming year: 10 more packets of various veggies, from green beans to pickling cucumbers. Of course, it's still January, and with months before we can even start planting, who knows how many more we'll decide we just have to have? You can keep your Car & Driver; we'll be here leafing through the new Park Seed for the umpteenth time.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Quick Bites - Chicago

Things are a bit slow down on the urban farm, so how about a brief story from Greg about holidays, travel, and an unloved little fish?

This year, as usual, the company for which I work shut down the entire facility for the week between Christmas and New Year's, and I took the opportunity to head back East to my native state of Illinois. I spent a wonderful weekend opening presents, eating a huge Polish dinner, going to my family's favorite coffee shop, and just hanging out with all of them. Then Tuesday came, and (almost) everybody had to go back to the real world, meaning back to work. So it was just my little sister and me, and we decided to go explore The City.

This trip was more novel for me, as my sister attends college in Chicago, and now probably almost feels at home there as much as she does in our suburban enclave. I however, wanted to see more of her campus, walk along the lakeshore, and eat at one very special restaurant.

That's Uncommon Ground, a restaurant and bar specializing in local and sustainable foods, which was recently named the Greenest restaurant in America. As a strong proponent of eating local and caring for the environment, I was excited to check it out.

One downside to visiting in December is that we couldn't look at possibly their coolest attribute: the certified organic rooftop garden from which much of their produce is grown. In my snapshot above, you can just see some of the raised beds and trellises which would be covered in green during the spring and summer months, but are sadly bare in late December. Even then, Uncommon Ground sources produce from nearby farms with greenhouses or high tunnels that can keep growing into the colder months. They also focus on seasonal produce, which means a lot more root vegetables this time of year.

There's a host of other neat green stuff about this place - recycled materials and furnishings everywhere, but I was more excited about the food! My sister ordered this flavorful flatbread, made with local gorgonzola cheese, and topped with small-farm bacon and pickled turnips!

And me? Well, I got that unloved fish I alluded to earlier. The Lake Whitefish, a small fish native to Lake Michigan, and part of a historic fishery now on the decline. By that, though, I don't mean that the whitefish is being overfished and that there aren't many left. It's actually the fishing of the whitefish that's starting to drop off.

You see, Lake Whitefish are small, and not particularly attractive, and as it became easier to ship in "exotic" fish like salmon and mahi mahi, people grew less interested in this rather ordinary local option, so demand dropped.

That was their mistake, because Lake Whitefish make some amazing fish tacos! Uncommon Ground served them topped with some local greens and a unique sweet potato relish/salsa. Finished with a drizzle of a zesty pepper sauce, and served alongside house-made fries, it was one of the better meals I've ever eaten. The cold crisp beer from Half Acre Beer Co, less than 5 miles away, was the perfect complement.

All in all, this was a dining experience I'll remember for a long time. The company was top-notch, the food was phenomenal, and I felt good about eating it, knowing that everything was responsibly sourced. I was able to fill my belly, all while supporting local small fishermen and farmers. The restaurant was still pretty busy as we had lunch around 2:00, which is a good sign for the local food movement. As this trend continues to gain steam, hopefully more restaurants will make room for these kinds of items on their menus. As they do, I know I'll continue to seek them out.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Homemade Apple Butter: Part Two

When we last saw our urban farmers, they had just created a giant measuring cup full of applesauce. Faced with its daunting volume, and with the holidays rapidly approaching, could they transform it into apple butter in time? Or would they be butter off trying to eat it all, and spend Christmas getting sauced?

Fortunately it didn't take us as long to make the apple butter as it did to find time to write about it. Actually, once you've got the applesauce, making apple butter is pretty simple. We followed the recipe from the Ball Blue Book, which is widely considered the gold standard in the world of preserving. Again, following their guidelines helped ensure our canning process was safe from dangerous microbe growth and fit to eat.

We transferred our applesauce into a big (5 quart) saucepot, and added 2 cups sugar, 2 tsp cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp cloves. The recipe originally called for 4 cups of sugar, but with the natural sweetness of our local apples, we decided that 2 cups was plenty. This modification doesn't affect the acidity of the product, so it was safe to do without concern. We cooked the mixture on the stove at a simmer until it was thickened to a spreadable consistency, which took about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, we had been cleaning our canning jars in the dishwasher at a high temperature setting to get the jars hot and sterile. We also put the sealing lids into a pot of simmering (not boiling) water to soften the rims for a good seal. And, of course, we filled our canner with enough water to submerge all the jars, and brought it to a boil. Once all these components - jars, lids, canner and butter - were ready to go, we filled the jars using a funnel to keep the rims clean.

Each jar got a sealing lid placed on top, then a threaded ring to hold them in place. Then it was into the boiling water! We used a handy jar lifter (also sold by Ball) to set each jar into the canner without scalding our hands - careful with that steam as well! Since apples are considered a high-acid food, we didn't need to clamp down and pressurize our canner. A boiling water bath gets apple butter sufficiently hot to kill off dangerous organisms. For low-acid foods, it takes an even higher temperature to do this, so you have to use the pressure canning method. Since we were doing apple butter, we simply set the timer to the prescribed 10 minutes, and waited.

After the ten minutes were up, we carefully lifted each jar out, again using the jar lifter and keeping clear of the steam. Then comes the really fun part! You set the jars on the counter, and wait for them to pop. Each jar makes an audible "pop" once the seal is complete and the jar starts to cool. This can happen right away, or it might take up to an hour. Each pop is exciting, because it means another jar just sealed!

We leave the rings on the jars for 24 hours to make certain that the jars seal. After we take them off, we also double-check the seal by lightly pressing on the middle of the sealing lid and making sure it doesn't flex. If all goes well, it should look something like this:

And that's apple butter! You can label the jars with description and/or date, and stock them away in the pantry. That's right, these are now shelf-stable until opened. For best flavor, you should use them within a year. And probably stock up on bread, cuz you'll want to make a lot of toast if you've got this stuff around!