Friday, August 31, 2007

Support your Local Farmer

Farmers, the small family farmers, have been having a hard time of it pretty much since the depression. Some farmers who didn't lose the farm to the banks have ended up losing their farms to the monster agri-corp companies that have done their best to buy out all the family farms. Others lose out to developers and their cronies within the government.

Some farmers have tried to hold on to their way of life and deal with the unreasonable demands put on them in response to lobbying of the government. But in the end, old age and the lack of willing family members to take up the task leave the farms unworked and soon added to the 1000's of acres of land owned by the agri-corps. And, if the agri-corps don't get the land the housing developers do, purchasing it for pennies on the dollar through back room deals with the local municipal governments. A truly sad state of affairs.

In the last few years there has been a movement among the smaller farmers to take back their land and their way of life. Signs have popped up all over Ontario that read "Farmers Feed Cities" and "No Farmers, No food, No Cities." Some of the signs are sported by the people who thought to buy a country estate and grow their own food only to find out that gated community rules and municipal bylaws make it impossible to grow enough to feed themselves in their new "country" home.

Most of the signs, however, are displayed in farming communities throughout southern Ontario in direct response to local, county, and provincial bylaws that are making it hard to do what farmers do best. Rules that are applied to large agri-corporations due to the size and conditions they operate in are being applied to the small farmer, due to lobbying by the larger corporations, who wants to sell at the farmer's market. Rules that require extra outlay of cash that in many of the smaller farms is the only profit they see in a single year.

So when you decide to buy fruits and vegetables, especially those that are grown in your own local area, buy locally. Find the booth down the street that sells what is in season. Talk to your grocer and ask them to carry local produce, produce grown within the same province or better yet within the same municipality. Find out where the local farmers market and buy as much of your fruits and vegetables there. Your purchase will bring extra income to the small farms who need it most. And, you'll be buying a product that is fresher and guaranteed tastier than anything you buy that is trucked in from another province or from another country.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Weather Prediction

I don't understand why it is so hard to find an accurate prediction for our area. For some reason, the Weather Network uses the weather readings and predictions for a city 150 km from here as the predicted weather for this area. The government site is only a little better but even they use weather readings from a town in Quebec as the source of our weather. Yesterday the forecast was for 23º and breezy. Instead it is 30º and the humidity was hovering around 80%.

When even a few kilometres will make a difference in the temperature, wind, and humidity it is imperative that gardeners, people who work outdoors, and farmers have a way to predict the weather in their area. We watch the Weather Network every morning but we're watching the overall weather map that shows the jet stream. If it is below us on the map the weather will be cool. Above us and I can guarantee that it'll be hot and humid. That's about as far as my predictions go.

When I was a kid, and my father was a commercial fisherman in Florida, he watched the weather then went outside just before dawn. He'd look around and come back inside to tell us whether the weatherman was right or wrong. In my father's case it could mean life or death if he got the weather wrong and got caught on the water during a storm. I can't remember him ever being wrong, but for the life of me I don't know what he looked at or how he could tell what the weather was going to do.

It seems that we have lost the ability to look at our surroundings and know what the signs were telling us. Perhaps it was simply a necessity, back in the day when the weather could make or break a farming family. Perhaps we have come to rely to heavily on the technology that is available and have forgotten to think for ourselves. Or, maybe we have tuned out natural intuition for so long that we have lost the ability to live freely as a whole and working member of the natural world.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fire Wood

This weekend turned out to be far busier than I had planned for. I picked a half bushel of ripe and semi ripe tomatoes after work Friday. The plan had been to get up early Saturday and begin making salsa, tomato sauce, and the like. Unfortunately, the firewood showed up late Friday afternoon too.

We don't own a wood lot so we have to buy our firewood from other people. We've bought wood from five different people in the last three years and of the five only one returned out call earlier this month. He was our favourite supplier as his wood was always clean, dry, and a really good mix of hardwoods. But, this year he broke his hip and wasn't able to deliver wood. Since none of the other suppliers called back we had to start looking in the newspapers for another supplier.

We finally found one who returned our call and ordered eight face cords. A face cord is a stack of split wood that measures 8 ft. x 4 ft. by the length of the cut usually 12-16 inches. Over the average winter we will use six face cords. Last year was mild so we only used four face cords. We always order eight so that if it is colder than average, or if the power fails for more than a day or two, we know we have enough wood to carry us through the winter.

Friday around 8:00pm the new supplier calls and says he is on his way with the wood. This is unusual as most people who deliver firewood only do it during the day. He arrived driving a huge dump truck, the kind you see at construction sites, and it is loaded with what looks like good wood. He dumps the wood, we pay him, and he goes on his merry way.

Saturday morning dawned hot and humid. It has been cooler than average for the last three weeks, but Saturday was miserable. Regardless, we started the process of filling the wheel barrow and garden cart with wood and hauling it to the back of our lot for storage. As we made progress into the wood pile we find that it is a mix of everything from pine to red oak, freshly cut to rotten. To make matters worse it looks like the lower half of the load has been sitting in the mud for the last few months. We worked until it was to hot to breath, somewhere around noon.

This morning was cooler, so we went to work early again. Unfortunately, the cooler temperature only lasted as long as it was cloudy and the wind was blowing. By lunchtime it was hot and humid and time to stop. Most of the pile of wood has been moved now and it will only take a couple of hours after work this week to finish moving and stacking.

However, where the wood pile now stands there will be a huge pile of bark, clay, and mud that was stuck to the wood when it was delivered. Something will have to be done with the leftovers. Some of it will find its way into the compost bin but I suspect the rest will be raked and shovelled into the wheel barrow and dumped in one of the many low spots around the yard.

We hope to get a wood lot of our own some day but until then we try to see the positive in everything, even if it is a pile of gunk left over from a sorry excuse for fire wood. But since the wood showed up this weekend, that means I will be free next weekend to get my tomatoes processed. I just hope the weather cooperates and is cooler and drier than it was this weekend.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Preserving the Harvest: Tomatoes

This year's canning has finally begun. Well, actually it began last Sunday when we went to the local tomato farm and bought 20 lbs. of ripe tomatoes. I was in the mood to start canning but the tomatoes from our garden were not quite ripe enough.

We used the fresh tomatoes to make two batches of tomato sauce. The first batch was run through the strainer, spiced with fresh herbs and garlic, and cooked down to a little less than it's original volume. The second batch was made by just chopping the tomatoes without peeling or straining them. We used dried herbs and garlic powder in the second batch. Otherwise the two recipes were exactly the same; vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, and herbs.

After each batch cooked down to the right consistency we filled 1Litre jars and used a pressure canner to seal them. With the added vinegar I could have simply done a boiling bath for 30 minutes to seal them properly, but with tomatoes I prefer to pressure can them. The pressure sealing gets to contents of the jars hot enough to kill any problems and it forces the extra air out forming a nice tight seal. We have tomatoes from 2005 in the cellar that are still in perfect condition.

This weekend we finally had enough of our own ripe tomatoes to can. We chose to do canned chopped tomatoes and a nice spicy picante salsa. We use the recipes from the Company's Coming: Preserves Cookbook but we change the spices to suit our wants and we pressure can them for the extra safety. This year the tomatoes cooked down a lot more than normal and floated to the top of each jar. Makes for a rather odd looking jar, thick tomato puree floating on top of an orange coloured water, but they will be tasty this winter when we want to make stews.

The salsa is still cooking and will probably be cooking for another couple of hours. We like thick and chunky salsa so the volume in the maslin pan will have to decrease by at least half before I think about canning it. After it is canned, and all the seals have set, it will be labelled and added to the salsa left over from last year where it will be for at least six weeks. It takes six weeks or more for the flavours in the salsa to mingle and intensify enough to be really tasty.

Over the next few weeks we will be picking the last of the tomatoes which will be turned into more tomato sauce and salsa, especially if they aren't as ripe as they should be. After that we still have beets, carrots, and a few more peas to pick. Of course, there is always to possibility that we will find a great deal on local fresh corn or make a trip to the apple orchard, too. Either will result in another couple of days in the kitchen and more jars filling the shelves in the cellar.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Williamstown Fair

Every county and quite a few cities have fairs every year. Booths full of food, displays of local singing talent, and of course games and rides line the avenues of fairs all over Canada every year in the summer months. County fairs are known for their animal shows and agricultural links, and for bringing families of the community together for some good natured competition.

Williamstown Fair in not the exception, except in one way. Williamstown Fair is the longest running Country Fair in Canada. The Williamstown Fair has officially been running for the last 196 years, debuting in 1812 when agriculture was at its heyday. It was a time when communities and families were spread far and wide and the fair brought them together for 3 days just before the major harvest push began.

This year we made it out to the fair on the first day. The midway was going strong and there were a few crafts booths setup along the entrance we used. The Mini-Donut wagon was busy as was the hotdog stand. The Exhibit Hall displayed the results of the judging of everything from woodcrafts to sewing; from growing to preserving. Horses performed with their riders in the centre pasture and the Cattle Barns were full of the county's best offers of the year.

While I viewed the show chickens and timidly approached a Llama in the petting zoo, PeterC spent most of his time watching the blacksmith ply her trade in the crafts tents. He has, over the last few years, developed an interest, both historically and practically, in blacksmithing. The visit to the fair gave him to opportunity to view a working blacksmith and ask all those questions he hadn't been able to answer through his study and research.

All in all it was a pleasant afternoon and worth the meagre entrance fee of $7.00 per person. Who knows, maybe next year I'll even enter some of my garden efforts to be judged against the best in the county. If nothing else participation in the community will make it worth the time and effort to try.

Merrickville

Occasionally we will be struck by wild hairs and end up in some very interesting places. Usually we're driving along minding our own business when we will see a road sign pointing to this or that feature. A turn of the wheel and off we go on another adventure, not really sure where we're going or when we'll get there but having fun none the less.

Yesterday was one of those days and the interesting place turned out to be Historic Merrickville on the Rideau Canal. We followed the rather obscure signage and found ourselves in a town full of interesting shops made even more interesting by their architecture. Many of the buildings were of stone and dated from the building of the Rideau Canal, late in the 1800's. I spent as much time gawking as I did shopping.

The most interesting shop was Mrs. McCariggles Mustard Shop, home of the handmade gourmet mustards. They also housed a fine selection of candies, kitchenware, and chutneys and sauces from around the world. The shop was full to overflowing with interesting things to look at and really tasty sampling stations throughout the store. The kitchen where all the mustards are made was visible at the back of the shop where 5 gallon pails lined the walls and stainless steal gleamed.

The next most interesting shop was the Knick Knock shop. They carried various home decorator items, some furniture, and different sizes of quilts and throws. This shop wasn't interesting for its wares as it was for the architecture of the building. Climbing the stairs to the furniture showroom we were greeted by the vaulted ceiling, stencilled ceiling moulding, and tongue and groove planks laid out in a zigzag pattern. I must say we spent more time in the up stairs looking at the original decor than we did shopping for one of a kind pieces of furniture.

Unfortunately, the majority of stores lock up at 5pm so we missed one or two shops we had hoped to visit, including the Wood -N- Feathers Creations in Wood. We did peak in the window and saw the hints of a truly unique shopping experience had we made it there in time. As we plan to visit the Mustard shop again, there will be other chances to see the woodcarvings on display and delve into the more mysterious sections of the shop, not easily seen with my nose plastered against the glass as I tried to see into the darkened store.

Definitely a trip worth the time it takes to get there. Next time we'll bring a camera so we can photograph the old buildings, the canal, and maybe we'll even visit the Blockhouse Museum. If you decide to visit Merrickville, bring your appetite and some spending money as you'll find plenty of things to see and buy.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Beets

The weather has been terribly hot and miserable this last few days. So much so that we had to get outside at 7am to try to beat the heat. It was already hot but at least it was cooler than the predicted high of 35ºC. That's 95ºF for those still on the imperial system. With the humidity they are expecting temperatures to feel like 45ºC (113ºF) before noon today. That is unreal in this part of the world.

Back to 7am this morning. We had to thin the beets and carrots today. They've really put on a growth spurt over the last few weeks and the roots were starting to touch each other in the ground. We pulled about half of the beets and ended up with 10-15lbs of beets after they were washed and their leaves removed. We were able to save a pot full of beet greens for supper today too. We plan to eat a few of the beets for supper as well but the rest will be pickled using my favourite recipe from the "Company's Coming : Preserves" cookbook.

We didn't get many usable carrots but we do have enough for a salad topping or maybe I'll throw them into the pickling solution too. All in all I think we might have gotten a pound of carrots. Only one or two of them were truly ready to be harvested but we had to thin them in hopes of getting a decent sized crop later this fall.

Pickled Beets adapted from Company's Coming:Preserves Cookbook
Wash and sterilize 10 pint jars, or 7 quart jars, lids and rings in boiling water.
10lb Beets Cooked, skinned, and sliced 1/4 inch thick
4.5 cps Cider Vinegar
2 cps Water
3 3/4 cps White Sugar
2 1/2 tsp Salt
1 1/4 tsp Mustard Seed
1 1/4 tsp Celery Seed

Combine vinegar, salt, water, and sugar in a large saucepan. Place the mustard and celery seed into a muslin bag and add to the saucepan. Bring everything to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove bag before moving to the next step.

Fill jars with sliced beets leaving an inch of space between beets and the rim of the sterilized jar. Carefully pour the hot syrup over the beets covering them completely. Leave 1/2 inch space between the liquid and the jar rim. Wipe the rim with a clean cloth and carefully place a lid and ring onto the jar. Tighten the ring.

Place all the filled jars into a boiler bath canner. Fill the canner with enough liquid to cover the jars by two inches. Place lid on canner and bring to a boil. Boil the filled jars for 30 minutes. Remove the canner from the heat and carefully lift the jars from the water, placing them gently onto a towel covered counter. Let them cool completely.

As the jars cool the canning lids will make a loud POP sound and the lid will appear to bow in toward the contents of the jar. This means the jar is sealed and the contents will now last as long as needed before you eat them. Any jar that does not seal can be left in the refrigerator until they are ready to be eaten.

Let the beets sit in a dark pantry for 3-4 weeks before opening the jar and serving them. They are great served cold as a pickle or hot as a side dish. We like to pour the contents into a saucepan and heat gently. As they heat up add onions and/ or garlic. Serve the beets with a dash of butter or thicken the juice up with arrowroot powder or cornstarch to make deep red sauce to be poured back over the beets.