Back to the Earth

“We’re out of strawberry plants. And seed potatoes. And onion starts. We have a few asparagus left – that’s it. We’ve never sold out of everything this early in the 40 years I’ve been here.”

 elderly woman behind the counter of a feedstore in a small town

Reports from all over the region hold that there’s been a surge in gardening this spring, an idea that shines in the midst of a pandemic that’s killed 100,000 people in the past three months.

I’ve heard it explained in survivalist terms: people are afraid of food shortages so they’re taking matters into their own hands. I tend to see it more in spiritual terms. We shed our anxiety, or our grief, or our anger, by breaking ground. The world comes at us with waves of incomprehensible change, and so we look down to what moors us. We turn soil and turn inward towards something basic and primal and pure.

As World War I raged, more than a century ago, the poet Thomas Hardy wrote this poem called “The Breaking of Nations.”

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbles and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

Our crisis looks and feels different. Yet there’s still comfort in this rhythm.

Like the rest of you, I’m going all in on the garden this year. To make more space, I pulled an old drag plow out of the hedgerow and hooked it up to a tractor. I don’t know how old the plow is, but it’s old. There’s a chance Thomas Hardy was still alive when it was in use. The wheels skidded for a few meters but then turned. I walked it gingerly to an open area in the back, then popped the clutch rod. It landed with a thud, and as I pulled, two dark ribbons of earth unspooled in its wake.

It felt like prayer.

A Good Year For Pear Thrips

This has been one of those years that really brings the timing of spring into focus. We had a pretty warm March, followed by a pretty cold April. (April averaged out at 3.2 degrees below the long-term normal in Saint Johnsbury.) This cold continued into May, a month that featured several unprecedented cold-weather events, including that 8” snowstorm on the 9th. The sugar maple leaves had broken bud earlier that week in southwestern Vermont; the ones in our sugarbush then endured the snow and three nights where the temperature fell into the upper 20s.

I’ve been monitoring the frost damage since then (which is to say periodically walking around with binocs and jotting down general observations). And it’s not as bad as I feared it might be. Certain trees had certain leaves succumb – maybe 10-15 percent in the worst cases. I couldn’t find a pattern as to why certain trees took it harder than others.

A bit more discouraging is the pear thrip damage I’m seeing. On most years, these non-native insects are not that big a deal. But during drawn-out springtimes like this one, when the buds break but then cold weather delays leaf expansion, the damage can get ugly. In some cases the tiny insects cut the compressed leaf with their sharp mouthparts – when the leaf fully opens, the effect is similar to when you fold a piece of paper and cut a snowflake pattern into it with scissors. In other cases they scrape and damage the plant tissue, which leads to stunted, curled, mottled leaves. If you’re wondering what they look like, you can see a picture here: We don’t often see them because we don’t often look; also because they spend most of their life underground.

In my surveying, some trees look fine, some look moderately damaged, some – especially unhealthy and small trees – look bad. I won’t know the extent of the damage until the canopy is fully developed.

Mottled, disfigured leaves.

The Blackfly Hustle

Editor’s Note: Our friend Bill Torrey, up in West Bolton, sent us this dispatch. We told him to send us more.

It would not feel like spring if I weren’t out there hustling to get the wood I skidded during the winter cut up and drying. I say hustle because I want to be done before the blackflies come out heavily and spoil my fun. I’ve seen a few scouts in the last couple days here and had a confirmed kill yesterday.

I’ve logged the woods most my life and have become quite tolerant of bugs gnawing on me. I’ve dealt with swarms of deerflies the size of pelicans and moose flies big enough to blot out the sun. But blackflies have a special place in my heart for caring enough to drive me to work faster. They remind me that spring will soon be summer. There’s a few that have so much of my blood, they send me Father’s Day cards.

Today I put the last of the split wood onto pallets in a wind-row three pallets wide. I still have to bundle up the kindling I sorted out. In September, after a dry spell, I’ll put a tarp over just the top of the pile to where the stacked outside row is to keep the weather off it. As I was getting ready to head back to the barn, I could’ve swore I had a deerfly buzz me.

Mid-May Snow

Folks who live in the Valley of Vermont woke up to 8 inches of snow this morning. Snowfall totals in the mountains will undoubtedly be higher. We’re not sure what the snow and accompanying cold is going to do to the trees, which have tender new leaves on them. Or to the wild animals who are preparing to raise, or are actively raising, their young of the year.

We did a quick scan of weather records to see how unprecedented a snow like this is. In Burlington, there have been only four May snow events of over an inch since they started keeping records in 1892. The deepest was 3.7 inches. Parts of western Massachusetts and central New York got a significant May snowfall like this one on this exact date in 1977, but most of Vermont picked up only a trace to 2 inches in that storm.

Suffice it to say, snowfall totals from this storm will be unprecedented in a lot of southern Vermont towns. The accompanying cold is predicted to break records as well. We’ll watch closely and try to record how it all plays out.

Snow and ice adorn a tender new leaf.

Cooking Wild Turkey

Most people with young children are on full-time childcare duty these days, and so besides figuring out how to get work done, they’re figuring out how to entertain and hopefully educate their kids. My partner and I are in this boat, as is my brother and his wife. And so this week we took the kids out to collect food for a wild feast. The activity checked a lot of boxes, not the least of which was letting us put our energy into something productive and reverential that we might not have had time for pre-COVID.

You can see the remnants of the meal in the picture above. We opened things with shots of chaga-infused vodka. (Jelly jars full of violet-syrup-infused rhubarb juice for the kids.) We then feasted on freshly-procured wild turkey (with trout lily and toothwort garnish), sautéed fiddleheads and nettles, potato leek salad and latkes. For desert with had meringues drizzled with violet syrup and mugs of black birch tea. All in all it was a great success.

I don’t feel like I have any particular expertise to share where it comes to preparing the vegetable, flower, and fungal portions of the meal. If you’re new to foraging, you can find recipes ranging from decent to great online for almost any of this. If you simply substitute leek for onion and blanched nettles for spinach and fiddleheads for asparagus in your go-to dishes, you’ll be fine, too.

I do feel like I have some hard-won knowledge regarding wild turkey, though, which I’ll share. For years I tried, like a lot of people do, to cook it like a domestic bird. But this is the oldest mistake in the book. Some swear by tricks that let you get around this – like flipping the whole bird upside down as you cook it – but they’ve never worked for me. The breast meat is so lean, and the thighs and legs so sinewy and laced with tendons that are bone-hard, that I can’t see a way around treating the cuts separately. If you don’t, you’re going to have cooked breast meat and iron legs, or edible legs with shoe-leather breast meat.

Even when you recognize this, though, you’ve got to be careful. I’ve still had birds end up rubbery after separating and fussing and braising the meat low and slow.

I nailed the turkey in the picture above, and here’s how I did it.

Step one was a brine. My go-to-recipe is 3 quarts of water, ¾ cup kosher salt, 1.5 cups soy sauce, 2 cups brown sugar, 1 cup maple syrup, 3 heads garlic, 2 hands ginger, hot pepper flakes, and whatever herbs I’m feeling in the moment. But feel free to experiment. Heat the brine to a simmer and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Then cool to room temp before submerging and then refrigerating the bird. If you remove the backbone from the carcass, and separate the thigh/leg portions from the breast, you can fit a big tom into a three gallon crock, which will easily fit in a fridge.

When it was time to cook things, I separated the breast meat from the carcass and the legs from the thighs. I drizzled the carcass with oil and put it in the oven to brown for about an hour – I’d use it later for soup. I took the thighs and legs and put them in a large braising pot, then poured the brine in until the meat was just submerged. All this liquid didn’t feel right to me – one of the rules of braising is you don’t want to drown the meat. But I drowned it, just like it was beef stew. I then simmered it for about 3 hours. I then removed the meat, shredded it, and put it in a casserole dish with some schmaltz (chicken fat) I had in the freezer. (To make schmaltz, next time you cook a chicken, render the fat, pour the liquid into a canning jar, and throw it into the freezer.) I then let the shredded turkey meat crisp up in the chicken fat for about 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven. If you’ve ever made pork carnitas, it’s the same technique.

The breast meat I poached, using the same brine bath I cooked the dark meat in. The deal with poaching is that you do not want the liquid to simmer. You want it to be around 160 degrees. It took about an hour to cook. While the breast meat poached, I made a simple pan gravy.

The results were spot on. Crispy chewy dark meat and moist, succulent breast meat. The two textures complimented each other. My brother, having been subjected to rubbery wild turkey over the years, sheepishly brought hot dogs over for the kids, just in case the turkey didn’t come out. They’re still sitting, unopened, in the fridge.

Cookbook author Hank Shaw, who maintains a fabulous online game-meat cooking archive, was the one who inspired me to try these cooking techniques. The original source of my brine recipe has been lost to time.

Man and Machine

When you get up to the tree, your instinct is to grab the trunk with the clam, but if you’re holding it, the saw will bind. You’ve got to cut the tree and then close the clam almost simultaneously. If you’re off, the tree can fall back and land on the machine.

Once the tree’s cut and you’ve got a hold of it, you need to move it to where you want to lay it. Remember in little league when they showed you how to balance the bat in your hand? (He demonstrates.) You need to find the balance point of the tree.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. It takes more brains than balls.

— Greg Haskins

We’re having some logging done this spring, which is not a phrase that an ecologically-sensitive person is supposed to utter. The ground in April is wet, of course, which can lead to ruts and unnecessary soil disturbance. The bark on the growing trees is getting loose, as the sap flows and the trees move into high-gear making leaves; this means that the trees left standing are more vulnerable to injury than they are in winter, when they’re dormant.

And yet technology, and the right logger, is allowing us to push back on this conventional wisdom.

 

The machine in this picture is an 80,000-pound feller buncher. (To put that weight in perspective, the cutting head – just the cutting head – weighs as much as my full-sized pickup.) And yet it’s tracked, so the weight is distributed better than a skidder with four big tires. And as it cuts, it lays down brush and poles where needed to further cushion the ground.

The operator, pictured above, is Greg Haskins, who works for Hunter Excavating in South Londonderry, Vermont. Picture him deftly moving the beast through the forest, reaching out with the boom to cut the marked trees; bear-hugging, balancing, lifting them, then moving them and setting them down in a way and in a place where they won’t disturb the standing trees. You can see from the picture below the work he did. No gashes on any of the crop trees. (This is destined to become part of a sugarbush, if you’re wondering why the crop trees are marginal-looking red maple.) No jagged crowns. Minimal soil disturbance.

People like me – it might be safe to say people like us – tend to distrust technology, especially big, loud, imposing technology. And to be fair, there are applications where you can watch a feller-buncher mow through a forest and get chills. But when they’re used thoughtfully, and wielded skillfully, it’s hard to be nostalgic for the old chainsaw and cable-skidder method, which was crude at best. As I watched Haskins work, I marveled at how fast, and efficient, and clean the work was.

hedgerow firewood

Hedgerow Wood

Hedgerow Wood

I’ve seen a number of “silver lining” commentaries recently. This is not one of them: there isn’t such a thing in the midst of a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands and put tens of millions out of work. This is simply a reminder that, if you’re forced to stay at home, you can be grateful if your home is in rural Vermont. Even in April. Even in an April where it won’t seem to stop snowing. I can’t count the number of times, as we’ve walked our fields and woods recently, that my wife and I have commented on how fortunate we are to not be stuck inside a city high-rise apartment. The time at home has also removed excuses for putting off jobs around our farm. We have an eight-acre field that has been steadily shrinking as the hedgerow around it creeps in. So for the last month, we’ve been cutting it back. And, as a bonus, keeping our outdoor woodstove in business even as our season’s supply of “real” firewood has run out. Hedgerow firewood is an unpredictable amalgamation of sizes and species. We’ve cut 12-inch-diameter cherry and 2-inch beech; white birch and white pine; spruce and striped maple. There are not a ton of BTUs involved, but plenty enough to heat our house and hot water in spring temperatures. More importantly, we’re keeping our field from being choked down and keeping ourselves outdoors.

Last Snow (We Hope)

I remember hearing a story once about a spring snow like the one we woke up to this morning. A farmer had planted a crop – trees, I think; little seedlings – and then a few days later snow covered the field. The farmer panicked, and ran from seedling to seedling with a broom, brushing the snow off. But there were thousands and he could only get to so many. A few weeks later, all the seedlings he’d rushed to save were dead. And the ones that he hadn’t gotten to had recovered, having weathered the cold temperatures beneath the blanket of snow.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 4/13/20

We gathered our first sap on February 24th this year, and our last on April 2nd. Over the course of that 39-day window we weathered some bordering-on-disastrous weather, and some bordering-on-disastrous mechanical issues – namely a vacuum pump that burned up in the middle of a good run. But we persevered and came out ahead in the end. The farm bush generated 26.8 gallons of sap per tap; the Maple Hill bush generated 29.5 gallons per tap, for an average of 28.2. That average is about 6 gallons per tap better than last year, but the amount of syrup we made was essentially the same because of this year’s low sugar content.

All said, we feel tenuously triumphant. Some of the tenuous feeling can be chalked up to the simple fact that this is agriculture, and there’s only so much you can control. This lack of control does different things to different people. It makes some really religious. It makes some really pessimistic – you know the old stereotype of the farmer who complains when things are bad and complains when things are good. It’s because they don’t trust success; because they’ve been hardened by the lean years enough to find little comfort in the good ones.

Part of the tenuous feeling can also be chalked up to the fact that our operation keeps getting bigger, and the bigger you get, the more you have to lose. We’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into equipment and technology that enables us to generated close to 30 gallons of sap per tap, numbers that my grandfather would have found astonishing. He would have been tickled with 15 gallons per tap. But the trade-off, of course, is that you become dependent on the big numbers to support your operating costs. Looking back on the season, I remember a moment of panic when I walked into the pump shed and smelled that acrid metal smell coming from the quiet pump. My first thought was to estimate how long I’d be down, and then calculate the economics of being down. I remember, too, looking at my weather app after a week in mid-March when it barely froze at all, and seeing a 10-day forecast that said another week of 60s and no frost. That forecast was wrong; the pattern they were seeing never came to be and we finished strong. But had it been right, we would have, in all likelihood, been sunk at around 50% of a crop. Back when sugaring was part of a diversified farm operation, the sugarmaker shrugged off the bad years and started planting – hope sprang anew. But when maple is your one crop, you’re uncomfortable with lack of diversity if you have any sense.

I share these worries because I’m trying to give you a deeper sense of things beyond “look at our good per-tap average!” And yet in doing so, I’m being a stereotypical farmer and turning something joyful into something ominous. The bottom line is that we had a good year. Maybe I should have just left it at that.

I’m halfway done with the cleanup, and I’m especially conscious of the trees as I pull taps. They’ve given so much. We’re in the midst of a deep, soaking rain as I write this, and I’m thinking of them. Feeling glad for them.