Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer homes for chickens

It's been a scattered kind of week.  I thought this entire post would be about our chickens but some pressing issues regarding our future use of our land have come up today and that's in the front of my mind.

Cockerel roosting in one of our fig trees
First, the chickens.  They're 13 weeks old now and really coming into their own.  The roosters have started to crow, which is one of the highlights of my day.  The sound of a young rooster's voice changing is hilarious.  It sounds a bit like a yodeller who's losing his voice.  And we have eight roosters at the moment so you can imagine what it currently sounds like around my house.  They are ridiculously happy chickens and so much fun to watch.  In the morning, Brendan goes out to give them fresh water and open up the chicken coop.  They all rush out as though the doors have opened for a Christmas sale.  Then, they wait.  They wait for the lead rooster to decide it's safe to cross the open ground between the coop and the closest fig tree.  Once he goes they all follow - in a half run, half flying dash.

They adore the fig tree - it must have the most delicious bugs living underneath it.  Also, the average temperature here has been around 94 for almost a month now and the fig gives tremendous shade.  It's probably a good 15 degrees cooler under it.  I've taken to calling this particular fig tree the Chicken's Summer House.

You may remember that these chickens are part of a recovery project by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy.  We're raising these endangered heritage chickens for eggs and meat, but also to help with the repopulating of the Java, a beautiful bird that was once the most popular American chicken.  Our friends from the ALBC came out to the farm a few days ago to do a first evaluation of our flock.  The plan is to identify the very best birds for breeding and then swap some birds around between the grow out farms so that the best of the genetic line will continue and the number of Javas will grow.  Imperfect birds will be used to provide eggs for consumption and meat.

Separating hens from roosters
Checking the spine 
Tagging the wing of a great bird
 Brendan and I were really excited to learn how to evaluate our chickens.  Every part of the bird was examined, from its head and chest size to the flatness of its back and fleshiness.  Each bird was weighed and it's color was checked for breed standard conformity.  It was like our own personal Westminster Show for chickens.  Apparently I'm Mom even to the chickens because I felt real pride when a they were impressed with a particular bird and I felt badly for the rejected birds, as though I  were somehow responsible for their failings.

Blue tag on wing of impressive rooster
 Catie and Charlotte were fascinated by this event and were eager to show off their chicken handling skills (Evan was at camp).  Steven and Jeannette (from ALBC) were wonderful with the kids and were excited to teach the next generation.
Evaluating breast meat "fleshiness"
Assistants helping out

All in all, we tagged two of the eight roosters and six of the fourteen hens.  These eight birds will be evaluated again around 20 weeks of age to see which ones will be best for breeding.  Some of our best birds will leave us to go to another grow out farm and we will receive other birds in order to keep the genetic lines mixed.

In addition to evaluating our birds, we talked briefly about what animal we should add to our farm next.  We want to continue with heritage breeds and the ALBC has kindly agreed to help us evaluate our land and give us advice on potential ways to lay it out so that we will eventually be able to have all the livestock we wish to have as well has maximizing our cropland.

And that's what's bugging me today.  A while back, I told you about how Evan had an intestinal parasite and we initially thought our well may have become contaminated.  The well was fine - Evan just wasn't washing his hands well enough (a common occurrence for a 4 year old boy, I suppose).  But, in our inspection of the well, we did find out that our well is extremely shallow - only 75ft.  Most wells today are dug to a depth of 200 feet or more.  And, while our water is sufficient for our family's needs, it is likely not going to be enough to grow our farm.  Crops have to be irrigated and animals watered and it takes a LOT of water.  So, we've been advised to dig a new well.  This is not an inexpensive proposition, however, and I'm not sure about it.

Brendan has always wanted to get off the grid as much as possible.  I'm all for it in theory but the reality is I like the conveniences of being connected to the grid.  It would take a large number of solar panels to power everything in our house and the only place we have to put them is in the field which would take up room we'd like to have for livestock.  But, I've been thinking a lot today about installing a cistern as a potential answer to our problem.  A cistern is essentially the same thing as having rain barrels, just on a larger scale.  We could get a 1500 gallon cistern to collect rainwater and use that for the crops and animals and only rely on the existing well for the needs of the house.  We might still eventually have to dig a new well, but we could put it off and be more green in the process.  What do you think?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day on the Farm

Daddy and Catie
There is something deeply rewarding from having a child be so interested in cooking with you that they perch themselves on the counter and add salt in pinches or want to “mix! mix! mix!” at every opportunity.  That has now extended to the modest vegetable patch where my junior pickers keep an enthusiastic eye on what could be finished, not ripe, but finished.  Today, they helped me gather cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, basil, rosemary, lemon verbena and banana peppers to use in our dinner.  I am a very lucky man on this Father’s day.  Big shout out to all the Big Papa’s - especially new ones, like Sammy, and ones that came out of retirement,  like Barry.                   

Daddy and Charlotte

Daddy and Evan

Leslie tells me that people want to know about the restaurant and you can count me in that group as well.  We’ve seen a few locations and talked about their pros and cons numerous times, but the right space hasn’t presented itself as of yet.  One space needs too much infrastructure another has a less desirable locale.  Another wants a ridiculous amount for the business and yet another’s rent is too high.  Heck, after starting out with the firm belief in Chapel Hill/Carrboro being the only place we would ever want to have the restaurant, our new hometown of Pittsboro seems to be becoming a frontrunner.  The restaurant needs to have a sense of place and allows us an opportunity to be a part of our own community.  However Pittsboro is a small town and how many people are going out to eat at a higher end restaurant on a regular basis?  There is definitely the population and money here.  In addition to farms, upscale commuter neighborhoods, golf club communities, and retirement hubs also surround us.   They all have to drive to Chapel Hill, Durham or Raleigh for a really good meal and don’t you think they’d rather be able to stay close to home?   The real question is whether we can get the foodies from the cities to come here for dinner? 

Locations aside, my time in NC has given me new insight into the market here. True believer farms that have exquisite products surround us, in season, there’s a market every day and it’s a long growing season.  It goes without saying that this base of farmers can buoy us as the farm ramps up production in the coming years and will be there when we need seriously good ingredients.  I found a small fishmonger in Carrboro, which is encouraging and have made some contacts along the coast for some real boutique fish and shellfish. There’s a ton of good meat to be had here as well.  The cards are stacked for “ingredient-driven”, seasonal cuisine.  Except for the fact that even Ruby Tuesday’s does the freakin’ seasonal thing now.  It’s become a hollow marketing centerpiece, an empty promise, de rigueur.  What then is the chefs to do in order to differentiate themselves?  Xantham Gum, molecular gastronomy weirdness, the foraging rage?  How about dropping all the BS pretensions and giving people some kick-ass, high-end food in a setting that doesn’t have them worrying about which stupid fork to use.

We’re going for that last one.  Our restaurant will be a small and personal expression of what we believe about food and hospitality.   No stuffiness, overly formal or elaborate service dances - just simple interactions with people and excellent food.  Some things you might see:  Halibut with Fresh Corn Polenta and Lobster Jus; Warm Chanterelle, Frisee and Bacon Salad with Our Poached Egg and Mustard; Pittsboro “Spring”, Baby Vegetables from our Garden, Raw and Cooked; Warm Fig Tree Farm Honey Madeleines with Mission Fig Compote.  We’ll have a bit of flash on the plate, but not too many bells and whistles.  I see if somebody is looking for “that” restaurant, the one that has a sense of place and delicious food and where they get treated better than anyplace else (but not coddled) we aim to be it.  Oh, and with a lot of bourbon.  We’ll let you know when we open – come see us. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time Flies

It's hard for me to believe that I'm writing the tenth post for this blog.  Can ten weeks really have passed already?  We must have been having a blast because time really has flown!  We've already been through an entire Spring here in North Carolina and it's been incredibly busy.  Don't get me wrong, there are days when it seems like nothing at all happens and I just sit on the patio and watch the hummingbirds at the feeder.  But there are days that have been doozies as we've tried to fulfill our plans for this place.

We have big plans.  For the farm, for our restaurant, for ourselves.  It's a lot to keep straight and figuring out how to make it all happen is complicated to say the least.

Were this all entirely up to Brendan, we would have been trying to fit five years worth of work into one year.  He wanted to buy a farm, renovate the house, relocate the family to a new state, get chickens, bees, rabbits, pigs, and goats, and open a restaurant all at the same time.  I love him and his enthusiasm, but we might both be in a hospital for exhaustion right now had we tried to do that.  Thankfully, I was able to convince him that everything couldn't be done at once and be done well.  I proposed a 5 year plan outline.

I love outlines.  I would have never gotten through a single law school exam if it weren't for my darling outlines.  Despite the fact that I'm one of the most disorganized people I know, I love and am drawn to order.  And, if I don't write it down, it doesn't happen because I forget EVERYTHING.

Our outline for the farm and restaurant is broken down by year (this year being, of course, Year 1).  Since our overall plan is divided into fifths, I've decided that each year should also be broken into rough fifths for purpose of analysis and making sure we're sticking to our timeline.  I can't let us fall behind because if I do, Brendan is likely to jump ship on my paced plan and come home one day with a pig under one arm and a restaurant lease under the other.  And ten weeks is roughly 1/5 of the year so time to take stock of where we are.

How are we doing?  Pretty good, actually.  I made Year One fairly simple so as to not get overwhelmed.  Our plan for the farm for this year was to renovate the house, get honey bees and chickens, and to reclaim and plant the existing 20'x35' vegetable garden.  We've done all that and things seem to be going well - at least for today.

We built a chicken coop, raised chicks in the brooder, and moved them outside.  We're almost to the point of letting them out of the coop fence to free range in the pasture but first I want to get some portable fencing to help us direct them to the areas where we'd like for them to forage.

We built our bee hive and installed the package of bees.  I still feed them sugar syrup occasionally to allow them to build up their honey stores for winter but other than that, they seem to be doing their own thing fairly well without much intervention.

The vegetable garden was our biggest challenge.  It had clearly not been planted in quite some time and was completely overgrown with weeds.  Brendan had to spend several days just in that small space with a tiller trying to break up the compacted clay soil.  We added something close to 1000 pounds of compost and cow manure to enrich the soil and we started vegetables from seed on our porch.

The porch is not the best incubator for the seedlings and next year, we'll do things a bit differently.  I think having some grow lights to keep the seedlings warm and to extend their light exposure will help immensely.  Despite not having the best start, our seedlings have done very well for the most part and we have corn that is more than four feet tall already!

The garden has come a long way to get to this.  But, come Fall, we're going to try something new.  We're going to abandon row gardening and instead install a series of raised beds, probably about 16.  That will allow us to nearly triple our growing space without expanding the garden.  We'll be able to do crop rotation on a small scale and plan to leave about a quarter of the beds fallow, with a ground cover, each summer in order to let the soil renew itself.  I'm very excited about this experiment and will keep you posted.

I was going to write about what's going on with the restaurant plans but this post is getting long, so next week.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Things Remembered

Brendan and I celebrated our 10th anniversary this past Friday, on May 27.  I have to write the exact date in order to prove to Brendan that I actually do know it.  You see, we were married over Memorial Day weekend and while I can easily remember that much, the dates of the weekend keep changing on me every year and I can't be expected to keep that straight!  I argue that it's not remembering a particular date that is important, it's being able to recall all the wonderful things about him that got us started on this path and that have kept us steady.  And those things I remember.

I remember that Brendan and I met in the cheesiest, meat-market, dance club in Washington, DC.  It was called Crush and if you were over the age of 22 you really had no business being there.  At 26, I was clearly one of the oldest people in the place.  I had gone out with some friends for a happy hour after work on Friday night and one of the group suggested we go dancing.  Meanwhile, Brendan, who was 24 and also too old to be in the club, had agreed to be wingman for a friend who was supposed to meet a girl there.  Neither of us had ever been to Crush before, nor did we ever go again.  I went to the club hoping to find a guy who would buy my drinks.  Brendan was that guy and he's been buying my drinks ever since.  

I remember that we had only been dating about 4 months when it became clear our relationship was really serious.  We were driving through D.C. one Sunday afternoon and for reasons I cannot recall, were talking about children.  I said that I wanted to have several children and that I would likely want to have them very soon after getting married because I was already 27 and didn't want to wait.  He said he'd never given it much thought.  I asked him if what I had said was an issue for him and he said "no, it just gives me a better idea of how my life is going to go."  We were engaged five months later.

I remember when he used to work six days a week, sixteen hours a day.  He would leave home at 7:30 in the morning and get home after 11:30 pm (on a good night).  And, when our first child was born and she was fussy, he would load her up in the car at midnight and drive laps around the Washington, DC beltway so that she (and by extension, I) could sleep.  To this day he still gets up every time one of the children needs something in the middle of the night.

I remember how he was strong for me, and held me while I cried after two miscarriages in five months.

I remember that he has allowed me to have cats in the house, despite the fact that he's allergic to cats.  He even loves the stupid cat.

I remember that he created an in home breakfast restaurant, Cafe Ooh La La, for the kids.  I remember that he has carried all three children at the same time - one in each arm and one sitting on his shoulders when they were tired.  He still does this now, even though they are a combined weight of more than 150lbs.  I remember that he has given up countless chances to play golf or watch sports in favor of hanging out with his children.

And, I remember that he has told me every day how much he loves me.  He's never missed a day.

View into the Fearrington House White Garden --
 this garden was the view from our room
Ten years is a milestone worth celebrating.  Thanks to my parents generously offering to watch all three children and the dog, and thanks to Brendan's father for the generous gift of a night away, we were able to spend some quality time together at the Fearrington House Inn.  We were spoiled rotten - champagne and chocolate truffles waiting in our gorgeous suite; formal afternoon tea; four course dinner in the restaurant; and fabulous breakfast.

        Gorgeous suite at Fearrington

I am fully aware that I am the luckiest woman in the world.  Happy Anniversary, Brendan - I love you.

Belted Galloway at Fearrington