Monday, December 2, 2013

Gifts from the earth

It's the third week of November and I'm kneeling in the garden, wind biting my exposed skin, cold and wet seeping through my green coveralls. I want nothing to do with this frost-bitten piece of earth. I want to be back inside, on the couch, in front of the fire, carrying on with day three of my spectacular pity party. I'm talking epic: drinking pots of tea (wishing it was something stronger), staring at the wall, out the window, at the ceiling, for hours, wondering how the hell did I get here -- on this couch, on this farm, in this life.

But instead, I'm outside digging for potatoes. I'm angry at the weather for its betrayal, the spuds for not digging themselves (read: not having anyone to dig them with), me for not doing this sooner. Another job I didn't get to this season.

I push myself to stand, shove the spade into the earth and take chunks out of the first clump of potatoes. Dammit. I can't even dig potatoes right. I drop back to my knees, fumble around behind me for the hand trowel, sit back on my heels and take a deep breath. Fucking relax and just dig. Not everything has to be a battle.

And so I begin, scraping away at the top layers of soil with the trowel, tentatively at first, until I unearth the tops of the spuds. Then gently, now using my fingers, I dig around the edges until I can scoop each one by hand. It's a good crop this year -- plentiful, creamy-skinned, blemish free, spared from blight or the ravenous potato beetles. And delicious. (I know this from having grabbled* a few for Thanksgiving.) Potatoes that taste of the sweet earth.

I've grown a small crop of potatoes for the past few years and harvest still leaves me a bit wonderstruck. Like a kid again. Earlier in the season you dig a trench, layer in compost, plant cured chunks of potato with at least one eye each, and then hill the plants with soil or mulch as they grow. For each chunk planted, several potatoes grow, the number dependent on moisture, soil nutrients and temperature. Perhaps love. One becomes many. Nature replicated.

As I work I relax into the task, like walking meditation, but digging. I think less of the couch and more about where I am. In my garden, on my farm, surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods, a place I dreamed about for years. The biting wind and my cold and cramped knees become less nuisance, and more a reminder that I'm alive. Here. Right now. In a life I chose. Yes, this moment is a choice. And the next moment, and the next. I can moan about the cold and the work and being alone, or celebrate this place and the food I've grown. Will continue to grow, for I'm already thinking about next season. 

I feel the darkness lessen its grip. Gifts from the earth. Real buried treasure.

* Grabble: v. to rob potatoes here and there from the edges of the hills.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Some good news for a change

The blog has been pretty bleak lately -- for good reason, sure -- but still. And as a writer friend told me it's good to give readers hope, give them a sense of why I'm still here, why I'm still breathing. Wise words indeed.

So at the risk of tooting my own horn, I'm going to share a comment from my last post. Said Mama Pea: "Holy moly, you are such a fantastic writer!! The sky's the limit regarding this talent of yours. Write like crazy during this period of your life. It will pass quickly, and looking back you'll realize you have heaps of fodder for an awesome book that will help others."

Well, guess what? That book is in the works. Right now.

University of King's College, Halifax, NS
 My marriage imploded in late April and a few weeks later I was accepted into the inaugural Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative nonfiction at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (At moments like this it's hard not to condescend into hacknied cliches about 'as one door closes, another one opens.' But I digress.)

It's a two-year low residency program, so I spend six weeks in intensive residencies (two weeks in Halifax last August, one in Toronto in January, another two weeks in Halifax next August and a week in new York in January 2015) and graduate with a degree, polished book proposal and a large chunk of manuscript.

I'd been thinking about getting a post-grad degree for a few years now. I looked into other writing programs, but none of them were quite right. I consume fiction -- novels, stories, poems --  but I wanted to write nonfiction. True life. That which is stranger than fiction. I've been a freelance writer for 12 years but I've plateaued, become static and stuck. I wanted to push the edges of my words.

I wanted to write a book. About food, farming, family. My delicious and messy life.

And I'm scared shitless. Writing doesn't come easy to me. I've heard people talk about their fingers or pens being guided by an unknown force, many call it their muse, and I've been blessed by that visit maybe a handful of times. When I reread work that I've written when I'm in that space and time, I'm touched by the visceral power of my own words and images. And the rest of the time -- well, I struggle to find the words to adequately capture the way I feel, the vastness of my experience in this crazy life. I've tried to quit writing before but I can't. And so, a book.

Writing this book demands that I dig deep, pull back the veil from my memory, wipe away the crud and the bullshit, the constructions and the myths, and just write true. Whatever that is. It means letting go of what's past and clearing the way for what's to come. It means cracking myself -- my heart, my mind -- wide open. But that's how the light gets in. It means writing about a failed dream, but also exploring the wonder and possibility of a new one.

So I'm doing it. Under the tutelage of smart and storied professors, a gifted and generous mentor and with the love and support of a cohort of new friends on their own writerly journey. One page at a time. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

First snow

Yesterday was the first "big" snowfall of the year. Later than some years, earlier than others. But the chronology doesn't matter. Just that it's here now. It was only about 6" of accumulation but enough to cause the school board to cancel buses. Enough to coat the land with white frosting and dust the trees with icing sugar. Enough.

The kids were thrilled -- snow day! Sledding and hot chocolate and warming cold toes by the fire. And me -- rumbles of dread and panic began burbling inside my chest. Winter is no long coming, it's here. While the snow absolves me from many farm responsibilities and covers a multitude of sins and unfinished projects, winter also makes other day-to-day tasks harder. But it's not the practicalities that fill me with anxiety -- it's the unexpected, the unknown, the whats, the when. Will the power go out this year and if so how will I get the generator out of the garage? What if the barn pipes freeze like last year? What if the winch on the plow breaks again or if it stops running all together? When will I run out of wood/hay/money?

How will I manage the darkness?

I tell my kids there are no such things are monsters, but that's not entirely true. Those are the monsters that haunt my mind and leave me tense, short tempered and fearful. The monsters that fill my thoughts with their disparaging words, their put downs, their judgements, their 'you don't deserve this' and 'you can't handle it.'  

And yet.

Today I walked to the barn under a canopy of peacock blue sky, sunlight captured in the snow. Dancing. Like fairylights. I breathed in the cold air tinged with a tease of woodsmoke. The taking of breath. Breathtaking. I could hear the goats and sheep bleating, the pigs barking (more incessant than oinking), the chickens clucking for their breakfast. In this morning my chest ached with beauty. And possibility. And purpose.

Sometimes I wish my soul was drawn towards an easier path. Living on a farm can be hard; doing it alone can be terrifying.

And yet.

I recently found photos from before the move, when we lived in suburbia in a small semi-detached house that we bought because it was in the right neighbourhood with a small shady garden that grew hostas and patchy grass. I recognized the place but it was like looking at a stranger. I am so different from that woman who went to bed at night gazing out at the neighbour's rooftop wondering, is this all there is?

Stronger. Tougher. Harder. Smaller. Fuller.

The seeds of growing self-reliance, of finding meaning, of realizing a purpose, were there, but dormant. It took moving to the farm for the seeds to grow. Not all seeds flourish; some fail to germinate, others grow weak and spindly, and there are those that die from disease or neglect or for no reason at all.  

I grieve for the woman in the photos who thought that moving to the farm would be a dream come true. In many ways it was, still is. But that dream came at a cost. Fairy tales never talk about what happens when happily ever after ends. But I never wanted to be like Cinderella anyway.

So for now, this day, I think of the healing power of winter. A time for rejuvenation, reflection, next steps. Author and poet Brian Brett wrote that farming is a profession of hope. There is always next season. Forgiveness for last year's mistakes. Another chance. A fresh start.

The seeds are waiting.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Blomidon, Nova Scotia. August 2011.

Believe. Believe in love, in second chances. Believe in forgiveness and fresh starts. Believe in tears and belly laughs, in words that move and words that stop you in your tracks. Believe in the breath and in the release. Believe in humility and open hearts. Believe in life and in living, in holding hands and letting go. Believe in digging deep and standing tall, in flying high and lying low. Believe in hope and dreams, connection and creation; in fear and transformation, in darkness and in finding light. Believe in you. Believe in me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Still here

Hello, world. It's me. I know it's been six months since I last checked in -- a record, yes -- but I'm still here.

I'm still on the farm, but tonight my children are not. They're at their dad's place, his small apartment in the village, their new second home.

Instead of reading them stories and tucking them into bed tonight with never enough 'I love yous,' I snatch a hug, glance a peck on each cheek, and watch them rush out the door towards the headlights of his waiting car, moths drawn to a flame.

Instead of strolling down the driveway tomorrow morning and waiting for the bus amidst knock-knock jokes and who-gets-on-the-bus-firsts, he'll send them off from his streetscape doorway with hugs and kisses and reminders about street safety before they walk to school with their friends.

Instead of bracing for after-school bursts through the front door, a flurry of backpacks and artwork and dogs barking and calls of, "Mum, what's to eat?" peppered with stories of schoolyard drama and how many goals, the dogs will still be sleeping in front of the fire at 4:05 pm as their young charges walk to the park or the library or home. His home.

It's exciting, this new second home, and I want to be excited, even happy, for them. For him. And yet, right now, I'm just sad and scared and empty.

But I'm still here.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Madcap Monday -- turkey sitting

Meet Mabel, the turkey sitter.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Weathering life's storms

The radio announcers said that a major ice storm was coming. It was expected to land in my area last Thursday, bringing with it freezing rain, ice and hail. Thursday came and went and there was nothing, save for clear skies and a gentle breeze. Not even a sprinkle of spring rain. Friends several hours west of me reported icy conditions, but I thought the storm would die out before it made its way east.

Friday morning, 5:30 a.m., I woke to the sound of pellets smashing against my bedroom window, the bottom screen already encrusted with opaque ice. Standing on my tiptoes to peer through the upper window pane, I could just see in the dim early morning light the tree branches, the bird house and the clothesline, all perfectly encased in glass.

By 8:00 a.m. I was outside doing chores and splooshing through ankle-deep puddles of slushy ice. The trees -- cedars, tamaracks, white birches and pines -- bowed in deference to the storm, their thin backs hunched like very old men. "It won't get too bad," I thought. And still the icy rain fell.

I came inside just as the power flickered on and off and back on again. And still I clung to my convenient belief that everything would be fine. But by 10:30 a.m., the wind had picked up and I could hear ice shards crashing to the ground, shattering. Then from deep in the woods I heard shots like those fired from a muzzle-loaded gun. Trees falling.

I made sure all the animals were safely in the barn before shutting it up tight. Back in the house I told the kids (home as buses had been cancelled) to stay away from the trees. Better yet, stay inside. Still I ignored the nervous gnaw in my stomach and held firm to the belief that things wouldn't go bad. Minutes later, the power went out for good and the house fell completely silent.

We've been through this before -- twice in 2011 when windstorms knocked out power to 150,000+ homes. Back then I said, no, vowed, that next time I'd be better prepared. And yet as soon as the power and my comfortable life returned, my plan of preventative action was shelved. I didn't stockpile food or water, nor set up a permanent location for the generator, which is too heavy for me to move on my own.

I've written articles about emergency and disaster preparedness and I'm the first to say (preach?) that planning makes the actual emergency far less stressful than ignoring it and hoping for the best. But Google "ignore disaster warnings" and you'll find 8.2 million hits and hundreds of examples of people who fail to heed warnings of floods, storms or other major natural events. While sociologists have various theories on our propensity to ignore warnings -- sometimes it's because people feel they have no other choice (say when their home is situated on a flood plain) or because they believe things won't get bad -- I think I ignored the warnings because I simply didn't want one more thing to deal with.

Lately I feel like I've just been keeping the floodgates under control and one more drop of rain will cause them to break and a torrential cascade of water to flow. Lucas is away this month and while I know that he'll be back in May, he'll be going away again. As I've said before, his path takes him away from the farm and while I don't yet know what that means for me, or us, I know I'll be facing more challenges on my own. While it's easy for me to fall prey to "I'm such a victim" and feel sorry for myself, I want better for myself and my kids. I want to show them that I am self reliant and strong and I can manage, even when faced with a raging storm.

For three days I vacillated between moments of explosive frustration and surreal calm that descended in unexpected moments, like when I found myself gazing upon my daughter happily colouring under a halo of beeswax candles, or when my son came to me with a hug saying, "It could have been a lot worse, mum... this is actually a really great weekend." He was right.

My children helped me see the beauty in the candlelight, the profound quiet, the absolute darkness, and inspired me with their sense of fun and adventure. They felt safe and secure, despite the storm both outside and within me. I helped create that. And so while this past weekend gave me a practical life lesson (again) that it's up to me to better plan for the next inevitable power outage, more importantly I learned that I'm strong enough to get my family through this and future storms.

Wilderness experts say that it's not necessarily your training that gets you through a survival situation, but how you handle it -- do you stay calm or crack under the pressure of it all? As one expert put it, having survival skills is important, but having the will to survive is essential. Stress can crush or create a person, bringing out strengths and willpower he or she never knew existed.

Today there is once again clear skies and a gentle (now warm) breeze, and except for the downed trees that litter the farm's landscape there is little evidence of the storm. Nature doesn't hold on to her anger, and every day is fresh and new. That, too, is a good life lesson.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Just say no to GMO

Their future is depending on it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Stop GM Alfalfa

I try to keep politics off my blog. These pages are meant to be an online diary of sorts, to document my attempts at a "simpler" life, not a soapbox for my (many) rants about our broken food and farm systems.

But I've ranted before and I'll do it again. Like right now...

While only (only?) four genetically modified (GM) crops are currently grown in Canada -- canola, corn, soy and sugar beets -- there will be soon be a fifth, if Monsanto and Forage Genetics get their way. That's why we need to stop the release of GM alfalfa -- the first genetically modified perennial crop to be introduced in Canada.

Alfalfa, popularly known as the "Queen of Forages" is the most important widely grown forage crop in Canada. In 2011, alfalfa was produced on over 25 million acres of farmland, or 30% of Canada's cropland.* It serves a variety of functions -- it's grown in mixed stands with other grass species then harvested and stored for high-quality hay or haylage for dairy, beef cattle and sheep; organic farmers (who can't use chemical herbicides or nitrogen fertilizers) use it as green manure in crop rotations to help build nitrogen levels, increase soil aeration, as well as outcompete weeds; and when planted in pure stands it's used for seed production.

In 2005, Monsanto received regulatory approval for glysophate-tolerant (aka Roundup Ready) alfalfa in Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada approved Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) for environmental release, animal feed and human consumption. But before the crop can be commercialized and sold in the marketplace, seed varieties need to be registered as per the Seeds Act, which in itself is a convoluted and classified process that takes place with no public consultation or disclosure.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association (whose members include Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, the U.S. forage seed company that has applied the Roundup Ready technology to alfalfa) is developing a "coexistence" plan for GM and non-GM alfalfa hay so that farmers can continue to serve both organic and conventional markets (though contamination from GM alfalfa will threaten our export markets). But alfalfa is an insect-pollinated, perennial crop and nature cannot be contained; it is pure corporate hubris to think otherwise.

According to a new report from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), "If GM Roundup Ready alfalfa is registered and commercialized in Eastern Canada, the flow of genes and traits from GM to non-GM alfalfa will be unavoidable."

We have already seen the disastrous results of GM flax and GM canola contamination across Canadian farmland. What's more, as more GM varieties are registered, fewer non-GM varieties become available.To add insult to injury, if patented GM seeds are found in an organic farmer's saved seed, that farmer can be sued for patent infringement. And the incidence of glyphosate-resistant weeds is growing; another Roundup Ready crop will only accelerate the development of resistant weeds.

Farmers will lose both money and markets if GM alfalfa is released. But if you think this is just a farmer issue, consider this: if GM alfalfa is released, organic farmers will lose an important high-protein animal feed. Without access to GM-free forage, what will happen to your organic meat and dairy?

As Wendell Berry famously said, "eating is an agricultural act." This assault on family farms affects us all.

To learn more or to get involved with the "Day of Action to Stop GM Alfalfa" on April 9th, visit CBAN's website.

* From CBAN's "The Inevitability of Contamination from GM Alfalfa Release in Ontario: The Case for Preventing the Introduction of Roundup Ready Alfalfa" (April 2013)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Making bagels

I've been on a baking kick lately. That's how I roll -- doing activities in fits and spurts. Maybe it's because of the weather (still wintery) or maybe it's because I'm supposed to be working on a proposal right now and I'm doing everything else but.

So yesterday I made bagels. While bagels have in recent years earned a villainous reputation for being high carb/high calorie, these delicious ringed treats are in a baked good class of their own -- chewy, sometimes crisp, on the outside, and all spongy and doughy on the inside. Toasted or not, topped with butter or cream cheese or just plain, fresh-out-of-the-oven bagels are worthy of an occasional indulgence.

They're also fun and relatively easy to make, especially when you employ the bread machine to make the dough.

The ingredients for my simplest bagel recipe are:

• 1 cup water
• 1 1/2 tbsp sugar
• 1 1/2 tsp salt
• 3 cups bread flour
• 2 tsp active dry yeast

In my breadmaker it takes about 30 minutes to mix the dough followed by a one hour rise cycle, which is useful for times (like yesterday) when I wasn't paying attention to when the mix cycle had ended and I'd wandered off and gotten immersed in some other form of procrastination (cleaning the barn, making potting soil -- anything but the dreaded proposal).

When I finally pulled the dough out it had that lovely soft-as-a-baby's-bum texture, all springy and puffy and alive.

Careful not to handle the dough too much, I gently stretched it into a longish loaf -- not as long as a baguette, but not as plump and stout as a regular loaf. Like a jelly roll.

From there I scored and cut the dough into 12 roughly similar-shaped sections. With each piece I gently massaged the dough back into a circular shape (as the cutting tends to flatten it a bit) while pressing a hole through the centre with my thumbs. (A photo here would have been useful but I always seem to be covered in sticky dough and flour at this stage with no little hands around to man the camera.)

After doing this with each piece, I placed the uncooked bagels on a greased tray covered with a clean dishcloth and then placed the tray in a warm spot to rise. (Near the woodstove works well.)

While the bagels were rising, I filled my stockpot halfway with water and about 2 tbsp of sugar and brought it to a rolling boil. When the bagels were ready, I dropped three at a time into the boiling water, simmering for three minutes, turning each bagel once.

I then fished the bagels out with a slotted spoon and placed them on a greased cookie sheet. Then I (or one of my helpers, who had since come home from school) painted each bagel with a beaten egg and sprinkled it with our favourite toppings, either poppy seeds, sesame seeds and onion flakes (our version of the "everything" bagel), or just plain poppy seed.

The last step is to bake at 400°F/204°C for 20 minutes for crispy bagels, less for chewier bagels.

The only bother with making bagels (besides the calories) is that they don't last long around here. That and I still have my dreaded proposal to finish...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New feature: Subscribe by email

One of my readers asked if there is a way to be notified of blog updates by email rather than through the Blogger interface. And the answer is yes!

I've added a "Subscribe by email" widget to the right-side pane (beneath "What I write about"... scroll down... way down) so now you can stay up-to-date on all my madcap adventures here on the farmstead.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

cheers, Fiona

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Baking away my (spring) blues

Yesterday was a cold, blustery and snowy day, one of those chilled-to-the-bone kind of days, so for dinner I cooked a great big hearty and gooey lasagna, served with a side of salad and bread for sopping up every last drop of sauce. As the kids and I raised our glasses and toasted the coming of spring, we said goodbye to Old Man winter and all of its (now tiresome) habits.

Today may be the first day of spring, but it's still cold and blustery and snowing. While some folks in the northern hemisphere are marking today's vernal equinox with seed starting and fits of cleaning, I retreated into my kitchen for some bread making, a decidedly wintery activity. Not to say that I don't bake bread year-round, but there is something particularly nurturing in the way a thick slab of still-warm bread slathered with fresh butter (or not, for you purists) takes the chill off a bitter day, filling the belly and warming the heart.

I have my staple breads -- caraway rye, whole grain, cinnamon raisin, and bagels, which rarely last long enough to see a new day -- but when Miriam at Mucky Boots Farm posted her recipe for Lentil Salad from Still Life with Menu from Mollie Katzen of Moosewood fame, it inspired me to break out of my recipe rut and revisit my cookbook shelf. (And if you're pining for a (virtual) breath of spring, visit Miriam's post on her "United Nations" garden. Get ready to swoon...)

I, too, am a Mollie Katzen cookbook fan, with a fondness for her hand-decorated pages and whimsical line drawings, and her simple mission to make vegetarian food beautiful, delicious and accessible.

I have several of her cookbooks, but I thought I'd try her Sunflower-Millet Bread in her The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest, named after the fanciful yet tasty recipe that features broccoli trees planted upright in a bed of herbed rice pilaf.

While I've long been a fan of baking with seeds, millet is a relatively new-to-me grain, one that is rich in nutrients and provides high-quality protein, B vitamins and minerals. It's also a pretty grain resembling tiny and delicate butter-hued pearls.

It's a time consuming recipe with several steps over several hours: first, you make what she calls a "sponge" with yeast, water, honey and flour and let that rise for 45 minutes, while preparing "the mix" consisting of water, cooked millet, butter, honey and salt. You then beat the mix into the sponge, adding a cup of sunflower seeds and more flour (whole wheat + white), then carry on with the usual kneading, rising, punching, shaping, etc.

There are busy days when I'm quite happy to whip together a quickie loaf of bread and even use the bread machine to do the kneading, rising, punching for me. (Though I always bake the loaves in regular bread tins as I can't stand those giant box-shaped loaves that come out of a bread machine.) But while the end result is a delicious loaf, I miss out on the satisfying, almost spiritual, pleasure of the process.

Then there are times like today when I'm content to putter in the kitchen, working at a slower pace, and experiencing each stage of  the making. Part release of tension, part meditation, I knead the dough until it loses its stickiness and becomes "springy and alive," remembering, writes Katzen, that my job is to "[guide] the dough, making suggestions to it -- not forcing it, tearing it, or otherwise employing intimidation."

It's an exercise in acceptance and patience, about taking time, and not rushing to the next step, which just so happens to produce a subtly flavoured, firm-textured, non-crumbly loaf with a satisfying crunch from the sunflower seeds.

So while soon I'll be spending long days working the soil until it, too, feels "springy and alive," for now I'm content to enjoy winter's last hurrah and with it, its gift of time.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

(Belated) Madcap Monday: Chicken spring fever

"Psst, Frank... it's March Break. How 'bout a road trip?"
Frank, aka The Boss *
Tommy, aka Frank's lackey *
"Run for it!"
"You get the keys, I call shotgun!"
"Hey lady, give us the keys!"

"Frank, no dice on the keys!"

"What now?"
"Don't look at me. I've been here the whole time..."

* Yes, both brutes lost part of their combs to frostbite.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Giveaway winner!

Cinnamon gurl, you are the winner of the Country Women book! (Based on the number of comments I received, I guess I didn't do a great job sharing how wonderful this book is... oh well!)

Please email me at fiona [at] rowangarthfarm [dot] ca with your mailing address. Thanks!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Giveaway: Country Women

"We were shy of one another, of ourselves, and of the whole concept of woman identity. Most of us were preoccupied with the demands in a completely new environment. We were somewhat surprised to find ourselves drawn together -- surprised, curious, attracted, unsure. We met together week after week for almost two years, slowly and often painfully searching out who we were and what we wanted for our lives. We talked, laughed, and cried together; we taught each other how to believe our dreams and helped each other to live them. That small group was the nucleus of a change that spread woman to woman, acre to acre, gradually touching the whole area and then reaching tentatively beyond. We heard of other small groups in other isolated areas and began to realize how much women needed to be in touch with one another in the "new communities" of the back-to-the-land movement..."

These lines are from the Introduction to "Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer" by Jeanne Tetrault and Sherry Thomas, that told 1970s back-to-the-landers what they needed to know about "how to negotiate a land purchase, dig a well, grow vegetables organically, build a fence and shed, deliver a goat, skin a lamb, spin yarn and raise a flock of good egg-laying hens, all at the least possible expense and with minimum reliance on outside an professional help." (Yes, that's the subhead.)

It's filled with how tos, beautiful line drawings, eloquent poems, black & white photos and personal journal entries, and is dedicated to every woman who has shared or will share this dream.

I found a used copy shortly after we moved to the farm and I was immediately taken with its vintage Mother Earth News feel and empowered earth mother vibe. What's more, the book helped me feel less alone. While moving to the land was a different path from most of my friends and family, I wasn't breaking fresh ground, or doing something entirely new -- I was joining a sisterhood of strong women who had been inspired by similar dreams for connection and self-reliance, but knew first hand the struggles of learning so many new things. As written elsewhere in the introduction, this book is meant as both an encouragement and a tool.

As it was published in 1976, it is definitely dated and there are perhaps more relevant how to books on the market, and even the authors admit it's not the perfect reference book for new farmers, but there is still loads of practical information for "the new farmer whose small-scale productivity is as old as America itself."

And as I now have a second copy, I'd like to offer it as a giveaway in honour of International Women's Day.

To have your name entered in a random draw, all you need to do is:

1.) Be a follower of the blog. Not because I'm looking to boost my stats, but because I find every time I offer a giveway, people drop in just for the free swag, never to be heard from again.

2.) In the comments section I'd like you to share something (even one thing) about yourself, such as: where do you see yourself in five years; what are your homesteading/farming dreams; what does International Women's Day means to you; or tell me about a woman who inspires you. (And you don't need to be a woman to comment -- men are absolutely welcome too!)

Blogging offers me the opportunity to keep an online journal, but also to build community with like-minded dreamers and doers. While our meeting place is a virtual one and we may be unsure of ourselves first, I believe, over time, this kind of sharing will help us to believe in our dreams to the point where we can start living them.

P.S. For another chance to win, please share this post with other likeminded readers/bloggers and leave a comment when you do. I learn so much from reading other people's blogs and from hearing from folks who read mine.

Giveaway closes on Sunday, March 10th at 12:00 a.m. EST.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meeting our meat

The first time I read Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” was the last time I ate a chicken wing, or any other animal flesh for that matter.  Previously ignorant to the horrors of intensively managed factory farming and the cruelties of industrialized animal husbandry, I decided then I could no longer support a system that was predicated on the suffering of animals. It was my introduction to eating as a political act – and that was over 15 years ago. 

My husband, however, is not vegetarian, so when our children, now 11 and 8, were born, we decided to raise them as omnivores. Still more vegetarian than not (as I do most of the cooking), they are given free-choice of what to eat. I struggled with this for a long time; I’d eschewed animal flesh for a reason that I felt passionately about, but I didn’t want to “wrong” my children’s father (or other family members) in their eyes, which I felt I’d essentially do if I promoted a strict and exclusive vegetarian diet. And while I certainly wouldn’t call them particularly enthusiastic carnivores, they do like their meat.

To reconcile this inner conflict I decided if my children are to eat meat, I want them to know where it comes from -- the flesh-and-blood animal, one with a face and personality, not the shrink-wrapped package of cuts from the grocery store. And that means connecting their food with a farmer. Except for a ornery, make that nasty, goat that we butchered for the freezer a few years ago, I’ve been buying meat from local farms that raise their animals humanely. I could feel good, or at least better, about the meat they were eating. The meat is more expensive, sure, but it's not like we need to eat meat every day. (Remember the specialness of the Sunday evening roast?)

And then I got the turkeys. 

As small farms in Canada can only raise 50 turkeys a year outside of the supply managed system (and as quota is extremely expensive, most small farmers can only afford to raise non-quota birds) eaters (in my area, at least) usually need to pre-order their Thanksgiving and/or Christmas bird in February direct from the farmer. I’m just not that organized, so most years I'd end up buying a grocery store turkey. But the year before last, as I rubbed it with seasoned butter thinking about the life it had before arriving in my kitchen – the stress and overcrowding, the crippling leg conditions brought on by growing oversized (and more profitable) white breast meat, the fear, the pain – I decided it seemed an inappropriate and hypocritical way to celebrate the seasons of gratitude and giving.

So last spring I decided to try raising our own Ridley Bronze turkeys. During the 23 weeks they lived on the farm I can honestly say they had an amazing life with long days spent roaming in the sunshine, scratching for bugs and pecking at greens. The day that they went to the abattoir was a sad one, but when the time came to prepare the Christmas bird, I did so with heart-felt gratitude, knowing that I had given this animal the very best life possible. And while I still didn’t eat any of the meat (at the moment I’m just not interested in eating animal flesh, no matter how it’s raised), my family (including my dad and husband, who both love meat) raved that it was simply the best, tastiest, most delicious turkey they had ever tasted.  I don’t think the bugs and sunshine can take all the credit.

Shortly afterwards I started re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and I came upon this passage:

“I can’t claim I felt emotionally neutral as I took these creatures [baby turkeys] in my hands, my fingers registering downy softness and a vulnerable heartbeat. I felt maternal, while at the same time looking straight down the pipe towards the purpose of this enterprise. These babies were not pets. I know this is a controversial point, but in our family we’d decided if we meant to eat anything, meat included, we’d be more responsible tenants of our food chain if we could participate in the steps that bring it to the table…. You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it. I would never presume to make that call for anyone else, but for ourselves we’d settled on giving our food a good life until it was good on the table.”  

As Kingsolver’s book has inspired countless people to take steps away from today’s industrialized, processed-food pipeline, it inspired me to take a broader look at the meat consumed in our home and my place in putting it there. 

This coincided with a revaluation of how I’ve been managing the farm and a realization that I can no longer afford to keep the barnyard animals simply for the sake of loving them. They needed to provide some sort of “function” and/or further my steps towards a more self-reliant life. For example, the chickens fit the bill as they provide eggs, but the donkeys -- while I loved Cinder and Leeroy dearly, I sold them last fall because I couldn’t justify keeping them as I didn’t yet have a large flock that needed protecting and the cost of hay was skyrocketing. Besides they really liked eating the barn.

While I could “participate in the steps that bring [meat] to the table” (to quote Kingsolver) by buying meat from farms I trust, it felt a bit like I was passing the buck, this “leaving the killing to others.” More importantly, I love raising animals. But could I raise them knowing I was going to kill them? 

Then I read Catherine Friend’s book “The Compassionate Carnivore.” In a chapter where she asks the question if raising an animal and taking it to the butcher is such a hard thing to do, why raise animals for meat at all? Her answer comes in three parts: one, she loves meat and believes that raising meat is a responsibility she can fulfill; secondly, not all land is suitable for growing crops, but can grow grass, and while humans can’t digest grass, animals can. 

But it’s her third reason that reached out and grabbed my heart: “The third reason might strike people as the oddest, but I continue to farm because I love animals. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. You’d think people who raise animals then actually eat them must not like animals very much, but most of the time the exact opposite is true. It’s why we do what we do. But unless a landowner can afford to keep animals around just to look at (this is called a hobby farm, by the way), the rest of us animal lovers must find a way for the animals to earn their keep and contribute to the economic health of the farm.” 

This reasoning jives with a recent conversation I had with a farmer who explained how raising heritage animals for consumption is the best way to, in fact, preserve their genetic heritage. While few farmers could afford to keep them in sanctuary-type facilities (though I am in no way criticizing or dismissing farm sanctuaries), raising rare and endangered livestock for meat builds consumer demand; the more demand, the less rare they become. (It’s called the principle of eater-based conservation.)

Putting aside the ethics of whether we should eat animals (though even that is something I still have to reckon with, and books such as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s “The Pig who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals” certainly muddies the waters on that front), I’ve decided this year to raise part of the meat that will make its way to the family table. I’ve arranged to purchase two Katahdin meat sheep (a spring lamb to butcher this fall, plus a pregnant ewe that will lamb this May), two Berkshire weaners, eight Ridley Bronze turkeys and about dozen meat chickens. We’ll keep enough meat for ourselves, but I’ll also be selling some to help offset the costs. (Note: In Canada, it's illegal to sell on-farm butchered meat. All meat for human consumption must be taken to a provincially- or federally-licensed abattoir.)

Over the next year I plan to explore this notion of “ethically-raised meat” by visiting and speaking with other farmers, butchers, abattoir owners, chefs, food security experts, ethicists, hunters, among others, and writing about that, while shadowing (and hopefully, illuminating) that research with my own narrative of experience here on the farm.

People who know me and my long-standing vegetarianism are a bit surprised, even skeptical, by my plan for this year. And to be honest, I have reservations about how difficult it will be when butchering day comes. But as a writer, mother and someone who cares deeply about both food and animals, it seems the most honest way to truly understand the arguments around ethical meat and whether, given our current food and farming systems, it’s even possible and sustainable on a small, let alone a larger, scale. 

Field writes, “When people find out I farm and raise animals for meat, many smile, shake their heads, and throw their hands up in mock horror. “Just don’t remind me that meat’s an animal. I don’t want to know that.”

“Why not?” the farmer in me splutters as I think, Don’t we owe the animals that much?

 Yes. Yes, we do.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Coming soon!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Discovering celeriac

OK, I know I'm late coming to the kitchen table on this one. It's not like celeriac is this year's 'must try' vegetable. In fact, it's so 2009, based on my Google searches on what to do with this odd, knobby and gnarled, bulbous-headed root vegetable.

While I'm not intimidated by funky looking vegetables, I admit to not always being the most adventurous produce shopper. While my kids are both enthusiastic greens eaters (Ella actually asks for Brussels sprouts and Jack can put away a shocking number of fresh-off-the-vine cherry tomatoes), they're not the most intrepid when it comes to trying new things. But if they're never exposed to unfamiliar ("weird looking" in kidspeak) veg because I don't want to listen to the chorus of "what is that?" or "you're not actually going to make me try that, are you?" then their palates will never evolve. That's what I lecture tell then at least.

Truth be told, I have another reason for trying celeriac: I don't want to grow celery. Celery has the reputation for being fussy -- hard to start from seed, a gluttonous feeder and a voracious drinker -- and while it's easy to grow bitter, stringy celery, growing tasty celery (I'm told) is much trickier.

I'm not up for growing ornery vegetables this year, so I thought about trying celeriac instead. Even though it doesn't replace celery entirely, unlike its greener cousin, it's much easier to grow and it stores well.

While it looks tough on the outside, I simply topped and tailed it, then used a paring knife to remove the skin, which is thicker than a potato but more forgiving than a rutabaga.

While celeriac is wonderful in soups and stews (so I've read) I wanted to taste the flavour on its own, so I kept the preparation simple: I chopped it into a few large pieces, doused it in some cold water with a shot of lemon juice to prevent browning while the water was coming to a boil, and then boiled until soft. I drained the pot, smashed the celeriac, and only added some butter, milk and salt and pepper. That was it.

The kids likened it to a cross between potatoes and celery. While it was definitely more fibrous than mashed spuds, I thought it had a similar comfort food quality, with a celery-like taste and nutty undertones. Nice.
While this could be a side dish on its own, I'm going to try cream of celeriac soup next.

And while celeriac will never take home any prizes for perfect-looking produce, I think I'll include a few plants in this year's garden. For as Ashley Miller writes in her article from the October 2000 issue of Kitchen Gardener Magazine on "How to Grow Celeriac" ugly is only skin deep.
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