All Things Spring

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We’ve been busy as our bees lately — as the weather warms and the days grow longer, it seems like everything happens at once! Tomatoes and beans to plant, fences to build, weeds to pull… even with the longer days, I’m often out in the garden until it’s too dark to work. But the cool air and soft evening light are becoming a welcome escape from the increasingly hot and sun-drenched days of approaching California summer.

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The chickens and aforementioned bees are happy, too, foraging their wee hearts out! With everything so green here, we have to remind ourselves that we’re looking at a record drought year in California. (Here’s a good look at what that means for local farmers, and eaters, from Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm.) We’ve been trying out some tensiometers (soil-moisture meters) in our orchard to more closely monitor our soil moisture and accurately gauge when it’s time to water — it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on a foot or two below the surface, unless you want to dig holes everywhere, so it’s interesting to be able to chart how deep the water from rain or irrigation penetrates, and how quickly the soil dries out again. The tensiometers actually measure how hard plant roots have to work to “pull” moisture out of the soil. Cindy Fake, our local Farm Advisor with UC Cooperative Extension, helped us install a pair of meters to experiment with — we check them out, library-style, spend a couple of months learning the ropes, and then the meters will go to another farmer to try. They’re not cheap, so it’s great to have this opportunity available to us to try before we buy!

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Despite the dry weather, we did get a few mushrooms making appearances this year, including delicious Spring Amanitas (the edible, non-deadly ones!) and these beautiful blewits, our favourites…

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Another springtime food, this one somewhat new to me — this was the first year I picked and cooked garlic scapes from our garden! The flowering shoot of hardneck garlic varieties, scapes are delicious sautéed with other seasonal vegetables, like the snap peas and green onions I used here. They’re a bit like a cross between young asparagus, green beans, and, well, garlic. When garlic goes to flower, it diverts its energy from making a bulb to making seeds; by removing the flower shoot, you concentrate growth back down to the bulb again. The shoots, or scapes, don’t look (or taste) like the likeliest delicacy raw, but they are delicious, and beautiful, cooked:

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Spring wouldn’t be complete without a strawberry-rhubarb pie, this year made with my very own homegrown rhubarb! (And Grandma’s lattice-top recipe, of course!) The inedible leaves were big enough to double as umbrellas, and made a marvelous bouquet:

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One more bit of fun — not exactly farmy, but definitely Springy — I’m delighted to be shooting a music video for my good friends Dylan and Bluebird and their fantastic band Lasher Keen! It’s exciting to dive headlong into video again, and to work with such creative people in such spectacular surroundings. Here are a few snaps from the first day of shooting, in a magnificent mountain meadow under one of the biggest oaks I’ve ever seen. A little inspiration to get outside and enjoy the beauty of Spring!

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From Winter Into Spring

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It’s been a curious and disconcerting winter here in the foothills of Northern California — little rain, barely a dusting of snow, and only maybe two proper capital-s Storms all season. We’re looking at a record drought year. Farmers are scaling back their crops, people are getting nervous about their ponds and wells, and even city-dwellers are getting ready for cutbacks in their household water. Last year, our orchard was an expanse of golden-blooming mustard; this year, the grass is still dry and brown.

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But no matter how strangely skewed the seasons may be, there are still signs of Spring popping up all over, great and small… like the spectacular cotton-white clouds and delicate manzanita blossoms of a February afternoon:

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Jars of beet-infused sauerkraut fermenting away, and garlic sprouts emerging through their warm blanket of straw mulch:

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And it’s time for grafting. Here, Tom carefully splices a twig of an heirloom El Dorado pear onto a young tree. The scion wood came from Pat and Pete Enochs (of Lattitudes fame), from one of their favourite trees. If we’re lucky, the graft will take, and we’ll have a crop of our own in a few years. At right, some of our trusty grafting tools are at the ready on a makeshift table; the half-moon blade and tiny wooden mallet belonged to Papu, my grandfather, and have those worn edges and softly polished handles that only come from many decades of use and good care.

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And speaking of nearly-forgotten skills… I’m thrilled to be taking a blacksmithing class! This is one of the things I’ve wished for years that I’d learned from Papu — he could make anything from wood, metal, or spare sundry parts, but I was always especially fascinated by the wrought-iron scrollwork that decorated my grandparents’ kitchen. I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface of the skill, but already I can see why he was so good at it — for every bit of strength and speed, it takes an equal measure of careful thought, precision, intuition.

Our first project was a drive hook, which looks simple at a glance but combines a wealth of basic techniques — tapering square and rounded points, shaping angles and curves, even some decorative elements like a bar twist and scrolled finial. (The right-angled point acts like a nail, and is driven into a post or beam.) I haven’t decided yet whether to hang it in the barn, the wine cellar, or the chicken coop!

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And, speaking of grandparents — yesterday was my Grandma Mary’s 91st birthday! My aunt and cousins came to visit from Boston, and we all had a lovely birthday dinner together, swapping bits of Harper family history and listening as Grandma told stories about growing up in the little town of Fort Morgan, Colorado. At 91, she’s still writing newspaper articles, chronicling the goings-on of family, relatives, and friends, and keeping very busy indeed — as she says, she has “all her buttons!” (She also encouraged me to start writing this blog in the first place, to tell the story of our little farm and share it with readers near and far… and of course it was Grandma Mary who taught me to knit, sew, and invest in stocks. She’s quite a lady!)

grandma91st91! Happy birthday, Grandma!

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And onward, Spring! Now if we could just have a little more rain, please… but in the mean time, I’m certainly enjoying the contrast of pink plum petals against blue-and-white sky. Yes, we’ll worry about the drought and make plans for the long dry summer ahead, but sometimes, for a few minutes, a tree full of blossoms and blissful buzzing bees is simply everything you need.

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What a year! (plus video!)

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Well, here we are, in the sunny dark of winter… that little snowstorm looks to be all the proper weather we’re getting this season. It’s shaping up to be a record drought year, unless the rain comes soon — time to wash the car, hang some laundry, and break out whatever other rain-charms you know, please!

It was a busy year at the B H Ranch — just the way we like it! We grafted new trees, planted our first hedgerows, and brought more varieties of heirloom pears and apples to market than ever before (and converted more than a few people from “pearophobes” to pear-lovers in the process!) Also in the “neat stuff” department: Phyllis and I received a grant to produce a radio series from our monthly program, The Homestead Radio Hour, which means we certainly have our work cut out for us for the winter months… one of the highlights of the year for all of us was going to the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, where we had the chance to sit down with some of the speakers and farmers we met at the Expo and talk about the future of food and farming, the heirloom movement, and urban gardening and homesteading. (You can hear the interviews on our new web site, homesteadradiohour.com!)

I also spent some time this year working at the University of California Cooperative Extension, with our local Foothill Farming program. The Extension is an incredible resource for local farmers, and one that we have turned to again and again for advice and information, so it was a great experience to see it from the inside — and an office that regularly hosts mozzarella-making demos, visiting livestock dogs, baby chicks, and recipe-testing is my kind of place!

One of my projects at the Extension was to produce the first in a series of short films about local farmers and their work; we wanted to find a way to share with consumers the story of our food, the work and care that goes into producing it, the history of farming in our region, and the power of that direct connection between farmer and consumer. My assignment was to start with the farm I know best — the B H Ranch! Here’s the final product — enjoy this glimpse into What We Do… and keep an eye out for future “Farmer Stories” episodes this year!

And, last but not least, we’d like to send out a giant Thank You! to all the stores, markets, and restaurants that featured our fruit this year. From high school cafeteria to CSA to ice cream parlour, our pears get around!

Auburn Thai Garden, Auburn (fig curry!)
Carpe Vino, Auburn
Flour Garden Bakery, Grass Valley/Auburn
Gaia’s Basket, Auburn
Natural Selection, Grass Valley
Natural Trading Company (CSA), Newcastle
Newcastle Produce, Newcastle
Placer High School, Auburn
SPD Market, Nevada City (our longest-running customer — almost 20 years!)
Sunrise Natural Foods, Auburn
Treats Ice Cream, Nevada City (Pear-Ginger Sorbet!)

Thank you all for a spectacular and delicious 2013! Happy New Year!

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Filed under around the farm, history, Homestead Radio Hour, in the news, Winter

Snow Day

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Here’s a rare thing… snow on the Farm! Our little town of Auburn is known for being “above the fog, below the snow”… but, once in a while, Mother Nature ignores our silly human sloganeering and sends a genuinely white Weather Event our way! The very occasional nature of such storms makes them extra-special, as everything familiar is frosted in ice and magically transformed overnight.

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Here’s the Harvest Party field, where we were celebrating on a warm end-of-summer afternoon, barely a couple of months ago! The tipi canvas is packed away for winter, and the chicken coop is snug and warm in the distance.

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And now, to the chicken house, where some of the more adventurous birds are outside — pecking for scratch in the snow and vying for a warmer foothold on the coop’s little ramp.

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This was quite a persimmon year — there are still plenty on the trees, even though we’ve eaten persimmons, dried persimmons, frozen them, given them away… this variety gets sweeter and softer after a frost, and the wild birds are enjoying what’s left on the tree!

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Nobody is home in this bluebird house; it sits under a cozy blanket of snow, waiting for Spring. It was built by Ron Brown, a longtime family friend, and founder of the “Bluebird Chain” — a series of more than 5,000 thousand numbered bluebird boxes that he built and distributed in the area to provide habitat for the Western Bluebird. (There’s a sweet article about Mr. Brown here.)

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The bees are warm and snug, too, in their field…

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…but a closer look reveals minute tracks in the snow in front of the hive: marauding Scrub Jays, who like to stand in front of the entrance, tap on it, and snack on the guard bees that venture out to see what’s going on. You’d think they would find plenty else to eat, what with the juicy persimmons and a whole hillside of glowing red wild Toyon berries… but bees are a nice source of protein, and the hive is such a convenient dispenser! And you do have to admire the birds’ ingenuity… nonetheless, we cover the hive fronts with wire fencing to deter the jays.

And speaking of wildlife… I love the way the snow keeps a record of all the feet that pass by — it’s a reminder of just how many creatures, great and small, call this place home.

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Celebrating

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kicking things off with a wander through the orchard

Last-last weekend was our annual Harvest Party — the seventh one, and now a bona-fide tradition here at the Ranch! Each year, after our harvest and market season is over, we round up a bunch of friends for an afternoon of celebration (and potlucking and farm-touring and homebrew-tasting and campfiring and…) We say it every year, but this year’s party really was the best one yet!

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Left: friends Paula, Tony, and Adolfo. Right: Mikail (in his BH Ranch t-shirt!) and Phyllis 

My dear friend Antonio De Lucci  took these gorgeous photos of the festivities, and I’m so glad he did — I never manage to snap enough! He perfectly captured the afternoon, drenched in golden sunlight.

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And look, real honest-to-goodness Polaroids! At left: the tipi presides over the gathering (with a giant woodpile at the ready for campfire time when it gets dark). Right: yes, we really did haul out the gigantic vintage punch bowl for pear-pomegranate punch, made with our own pear juice. Who says you can’t be fancy just because you’re out in the orchard?

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Tom, leading the tour

Punch bowls aside — the orchard, of course, is the real star of the party! Everybody finds a glass of something and heads out for a tour before dinner.  I always feel like the farm just loves having all these people wandering around, admiring the Arkansas Black apples still on the trees, tasting grapes under the arbor, and taking turns to duck into the little wine cellar.

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And then it’s time for dinner — a fabulous potluck! One of the things I love most about this party is that it’s a rare opportunity to bring together all our friends from various spheres… farmers, musicians, beekeepers, radio DJs, artists, teachers, foragers, endurance runners, and homesteaders all sit down together with homemade food and drink, and it’s such fun to see all the unexpected connections and conversations that come up!

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Somehow, no matter how many people show up, there’s always the perfect number of haybales to sit on, and the big table magically expands to fit every last delicious dish.

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 Above: our neighbour Elizabeth brought pear marmalade and pear butter that she made from our fruit!

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Clockwise from left: photographer Antonio De Lucci; heirloom-variety table grapes under the arbor; last rays of sun in the orchard.

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A sweet photo of my dad and me (with an impressive array of home-brewed libations on the table — in addition to the pot-luck, there’s always a hearty brew-luck going on!)

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Come dusk, I did manage to get out my camera and snap a few photos of the campfire. Marshmallows appear, Tom produces a bundle of fresh pear twigs perfect for toasting sticks, and everyone gathers around the crackling flames as the crisp chill of a fall evening settles in.

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It’s been another marvelous season, with great farmer’s market days, wonderful customers and friends, some of the most beautiful fruit we’ve ever grown, and yet another fantastic party to celebrate it all! Thanks to all of you for supporting our “little family farm that could” — we’re so grateful to have you as our community. Wishing you all a bright and beautiful Autumn!

Many thanks to Antonio De Lucci for the photos! Check out more of his work at antoniodelucci.com.

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Filed under around the farm, autumn, foto friday

Harvest Party Time!

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Hello there, blogfriends! Just a quick post to let you know that our annual B H Ranch Harvest Party is coming up this Sunday afternoon — I wanted to extend the invitation to you, our readers, to come by if you’re in the area and celebrate the harvest season in all its abundant splendour! (It’s our 95th birthday, and yes, there will be cake!) Just drop us a note to bhranch@gmail.com for details and directions if you’d like to join us… 

Happy Harvest!

 

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They’re here!

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…and we will be at the Auburn Old Town Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning! Roseville Fountains on Tuesdays, as well. The Bartletts are fabulously, perfectly delicious right now…

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Come and pick up some first-of-the-season beauties this weekend (or contact us to buy some directly from the Ranch if you are looking for a larger quantity).  Oh, and we’ll have honey at the market too, but in limited quantities this year, so better get yours quick! We’ll be at local farmer’s markets through August and most of September… see you out there!

For more info on our local farmers’ markets, including a complete market schedule, visit www.foothillfarmersmarket.com.

 

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