Category Archives: Winter

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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Filed under around the farm, beekeeping, chickens, Winter

Happy New Year!

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Wishing you all a bright and bountiful 2013,
from all of us here at the B H Ranch!

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Καλή χρονιά! Happy New Year!

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Filed under around the farm, Winter

Foto Friday: When the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful…

We’ve been waiting and waiting (and waiting and waiting) for some serious stormy weather all winter… but now, finally, a big, drenching, delicious rainstorm has moved in! And with the rain comes a few rituals…

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…like finding your coziest pair of boots and trudging out to stomp in some puddles and see how high the clover has grown…

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….or just to admire the sudden flurry of plum blossoms crowning branches that were bare a few days ago.

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Somehow, the camellias look just as lovely spilled over the grass as they do on their stems.

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No bees out today — fingers crossed that these blossoms will hold on until the weather brightens up! But nothing is too gloomy for this sea of wild mustard…

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And there are petals everywhere, like snow.

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The orchard is especially beautiful this time of year, awash in green and gold. And it’s all connected: those weeds and wildflowers provide food and shelter for beneficial insects, pollen and nectar for our honeybees, and forage for the chickens. There are even tasty edibles for those who know where to look! (I’m always fascinated that so many people find their way to this blog via this post on horta, the greek-style wild greens my grandfather taught me to gather.)

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And one more part of the rainy-day ritual: wander back home, set the soggy shoes and coat to dry, dust off my favourite E.E. Cummings compendium, and turn to this marvelous little rainy-day poem. Just perfect.

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Filed under around the farm, foto friday, spring, Winter

A visit to Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm

One of the nicest things about selling our fruit at the local farmer’s markets is that we get to meet and hang out with other farmers all Saturday morning. We’re all running around to keep up with customers and re-stock our produce displays and so on, but there’s always plenty of time to chat with your neighbours, and by the end of the season, we’re fast friends.

That’s how we met Jim and Ginger Armstrong, of Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm in Foresthill.  Nope, they’re not selling Christmas trees in August and September, when we’re at the market with pears — they also grow hydroponic strawberries and blueberries, as well as delicious New Mexico chilies, which they roast to order. When Jim fires up his gas-powered roaster and loads it with chilies, the smell is absolutely tantalizing! We always look forward to a spot next to their tent at the market, so we can bask in the aromas and chat and swap recipes with Ginger.

But this time of year, there are no chilies and berries at Snowy Peaks…. it’s all about the trees!

Clockwise from top left: A hand-painted sign greets visitors to the farm; a glimpse of Sierra snow through the firs; handmade wreaths decorate the office; the bonfire has a view of the farm and the forest beyond.

You may know that we — Phyllis and Julia — host a radio program, The Homestead Radio Hour, on KVMR FM in Nevada City. Each month, we focus on a particular topic, such as backyard chickens or beekeeping or composting, and bring in guests to discuss it with us. For our December episode, we settled on Handmade Homestead Holidays as our theme… and who better to talk to about homegrown Christmas traditions than Jim and Ginger? We’d all been wanting to take a trip up to their farm anyway, and this was the perfect occasion!

Snowy Peaks Farm is just outside of Foresthill; it’s only a half-hour’s drive from Auburn, but it feels like you’re wonderfully far away from everything. No traffic, no noise, just trees and forest and beautiful Sierra vistas. Jim and Ginger have been growing trees here for 14 years, and it’s plain to see that they love what they do — the office is painted a bright festive red and hung with wreaths, there’s a toasty bonfire glowing, and a hillside of carefully-tended firs stretches out of view. Their farm is the heart of many a family tradition; Ginger told us how they have some families, now into the third generation, who come back every year together to pick out a tree.

We had a lovely time interviewing Ginger and Jim for the show, and it was especially interesting to hear their thoughts on the “green” aspect of real Christmas trees as opposed to artificial ones. It may seem counterintuitive that cutting down a tree is the better choice for the environment, but just think about the ecological impact of manufacturing plastic trees in China and then shipping them to the US. What happens when next year’s “new and improved” model comes out? How much space will those fake trees take up in a landfill?

On the other hand, you have a deliciously fragrant, natural, biodegradable tree, grown by local people on a local farm. Jim pointed out that Christmas trees are much like any other crop; you plant, harvest and replant, taking care of the land and the soil as you do so. The money stays in the local economy, and the land is kept open, unpaved, and undeveloped.

Hydroponic blueberries grow in large pots; strawberries and chilies grow in smaller, vertically-stacked planters.

We also got to see the hydroponically-grown blueberries and the strawberry and chili planting system, which was fascinating. The plants grow in a soilless perlite and vermiculite mixture, receiving their nutrients through the watering system. This makes it easier to control pH, which is important for blueberries, and to grow far more strawberry and pepper plants in a smaller area. It’s an impressive system, and I’d love to see it in action in the summer (when the Snowy Peaks berry farm is open as a you-pick — yum!) …I think another field trip will be in order…

You can listen to our interview with Jim and Ginger here:

Interview with Jim and Ginger Armstrong at Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm

…or hear the entire “Handmade Holidays” episode of the Homestead Radio Hour over on the KVMR Podcast Archives:

The Homestead Radio Hour – Handmade Holidays, December 2011

Our thanks to Jim and Ginger for talking with us and showing us around their beautiful farm! You can see more of what they do, and check their seasons and hours, on their web site: www.snowypeaksfarm.com.

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Filed under farmer's market, field trip!, Winter

In the garden: Fava beans

Have you been to the farmer’s market lately? Cherries, raspberries, lettuce, the earliest peaches… it’s a feast for the senses! And among all those springtime delights, you may spot these giant, bulbous green pods:

What are they? Favas! Or Koukiá, as we call them in Greek. A remarkable-yet-remarkably-underappreciated bean. They are very easy to grow, they’re one of the first springtime vegetables, and they’re delicious — and yet, it does take some searching to find fava beans. I’ve seen them a few times in the grocery store (usually in very small quantity), but by and large, if you want to get your hands on some of these tasty legumes, you’ll have to grow them yourself or go to the farmer’s market. Life is hard, huh?

And as much as I love, love, love the farmer’s market — our local markets are fantastic — I’m all for the backyard plot on this one! Not only are favas simple to grow, they also have lovely sweetpea-scented flowers and, being a legume, they’re great for the soil. You can even grow them (or their cousin, bell bean) as a cover crop; just be sure to cut and compost or till them in before they start to bloom for the highest nutrient level.

See, they’re just such happy-looking plants! We plant the seeds in the fall, usually November or thereabouts, when the rains begin but it isn’t yet too chilly out. They grow all winter long, getting taller and taller — by harvest time, the topmost leaves (which, incidentally, are edible and tasty when young) are brushing my shoulders. We plant them in a block and fence the plot on all sides with chicken wire, about two feet high; it keeps hungry critters like rabbits away from the young sprouts, and when the plants get taller, it provides just enough support to keep them from falling over. Which they absolutely will, if you let them.

They’re also abundant producers. Our fava patch this year was about 6 by 8 feet, and we ended up with a tremendous harvest — I’m guessing 20 to 25 gallons of beans in the shell. Of course, there is one catch with fava beans: they’re mostly shell! The beans themselves are wrapped in a tough, spongy-textured pod, and it can take quite a lot of time to shell them if you don’t have help… so, like many things of this nature, it’s really best as a communal activity! Round up a few friends and make some lemonade — you’ll find it’s quite pleasant work that way.

Here they are, ready to shell. That’s just a small fraction of the crop! (And, yes, that bucket does say “for FOOD” on it, to distinguish it form the many other buckets for dirt, fertilizer, etc around here.) There are a handful of tricks for getting the beans out of the pod; I usually snap off one end, “unzip” the little strings along the sides, and then pop the shell open along its length. Everyone has their own technique:

Once you have the bean out of the pod, flick off that little “cap” on the end:

Annnnd, the final bean-to-shell ratio. Take heart — those empty pods will do wonders for your compost pile!

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Most fava-bean recipes will tell you to take the shelled beans, dip them in boiling water, and then shell them again, removing the peel that surrounds each individual bean. By the time you do this, you’ll be wondering why you even started in the first place — a bushel of beans will result in a handful! But the Greeks know that this is silly: why, after you’ve gone to all the work of growing those beans, should you throw most of your harvest away? Stew them up with some lamb and tomato, or blanch and freeze them ’til Summer to add to eggplant, zucchini, okra, and tomato with some dill — as long as you pick the beans while they’re tender, there is no reason you have to peel and toss that inner shell. You might want to for certain dishes, but it’s by no means a necessity! (An interesting bit of koukiá history here.)

Ragout of fresh favas with artichokes from Bob Roan and Teri Ueki, with our own dried tomatoes and spanakorizo (rice with spinach, Greek-style) …. mmm-mmm!

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Filed under around the farm, farmer's market, homestead how-to, in the garden, preserving, recipes, spring, Winter

Around the Farm: a rainy day in the barn

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….

– T.S Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

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In like a lion, out like a lamb, right? This March has been one of the strangest and soggiest, weather-wise, of recent memory — it has been raining for weeks on end, and everyone I know is getting a bit stir-crazy! We went by the farmer’s market this morning, and a good-sized crowd of tenacious farmers and customers were braving the weather for the sake of local food. I love how the rain is no obstacle for the Auburn Farmer’s Market — it has only closed once in its several decades of operation, and that was for a rare snowstorm earlier this year!

My favourite spot for a rainy day: our barn, with its rusty corrugated-tin roof that amplifies every sound of the storm. It was built on the foundations of the old homestead barn which stood here long before my great-grandfather bought the property; the hand-stacked rock wall at the back of the barn is more than a hundred years old. One side is open to the orchard’s gentle slope, making for the perfect spot to watch a storm blow through our little valley.

We’ve been taking turns lately reading David Mas Masumoto‘s wonderful book, Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm. He writes about his journey to resurrect his family’s Sun Crest peach orchard, incorporating sustainable techniques and resisting the growing pressures to grow the “modern” peach varieties that trade flavour for shipping and storage ability. The history of family and place, the risk of investment, the devotion and work; the struggle to sell old-fashioned varieties in a marketplace that prizes uniformity and durability, the satisfaction of biting into a perfect piece of fruit that you have grown — all these things are inextricably woven together, the beautiful with the frustrating. It’s a story that resonates with all of us: my grandfather told me, “That’s an important book.”

And it reminds me how lucky I am to have a lovely old barn to sit in, a barn built by my grandfather and great-grandfather, with a view of a ninety-year-old orchard in the rain.

A patchwork of wood and metal makes up the barn roof…

And sometimes, a few odds and ends will arrange themselves into a painterly tableau.

You’ve met Brenda, our barn cat — she tiptoes over piles of rusty junk without a sound, to perch on a rickety shelf. The girl knows how to pose!

The trusty field lugs are stacked behind the barn. These boxes date from our farm’s heyday in the 1960s, and we still use them to pick fruit every year.

A break in the rain, back out into the orchard — and a tiny reminder that, weather notwithstanding, it really is Spring after all.

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Filed under around the farm, history, orchard, spring, Winter