Summer In The Hedgerow

Hi there! Long time, no blog! It’s been a busy summer around here — school tours at the Farm, cooking demos at the State Fair, some exciting news coming soon for the Homestead Radio Hour, and now the getting-ready for farmer’s market season — not to mention all the sundry regular business of farming…. so, in celebration of all that is Summer, I thought a visit to our new hedgerow would be a nice way to ease back into the Blogworld!

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Clockwise from top left: Pomegranate, Myosotis, Perennial Sunflower, Buddleia

So, what’s a “hedgerow,” anyway? The world conjures up bucolic English country lanes, lined with damsons and sloes, the kinds of thorny shrubbery whose obscure fruits inevitably end up in jellies, wines, or gin. All fine and well, but what’s it got to do with a sunny California fruit ranch?

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Borage, an all-time favourite with the bees, of both the honey and bumble sort!

First, let’s start with a bit of background. Simply and broadly put, a hedgerow is a planting of shrubs, trees, and/or herbaceous plants, for a reason. They’re typically dense, hence the “hedge,” in a linear layout, the “row,” and serve a purpose other than decoration or simple food production. In fact, hedgerows of any description play multiple roles: sure, they’re attractive, and can include plantings of edible and useful shrubs and plants, but their utility goes beyond mere ornamentation.

The earliest known hedgerows date from the Neolithic Age, and were used to enclose fields for growing cereal crops. A hedge would have served as a living fence, marking field boundaries, keeping animals and livestock in or out, even providing defense against attack. On top of that, hedgerows would also provide wood, food, and shelter for for game and wildlife. Their utility kept them in regular use through the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the industrial era, and up to the present day; although barbed wire and modern livestock fencing offer easier and more convenient ways to fence fields, hedgerows are still in use in Great Britain and much of the world. Though many historic hedges in the UK were neglected or destroyed to make way for modern field systems and food production, the hedgerow is making a comeback worldwide as  an important element in sustainable agriculture — which brings us to the B H Ranch! Continue reading

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Filed under around the farm, homestead how-to, orchard, organic, summer

In The News: B-H Ranch in TUNZA, the United Nations Environment Programme Youth Magazine

tunzaphoto: Karen Eng

Here’s something fun: a few months ago, my friend Karen Eng asked me if I’d like to contribute an article to TUNZA, the United Nations Environment Programme youth magazine, where she is an editor. She sent me some thoughtful interview questions, and of course I ended up writing far more than a one-page article! Karen did a lovely job with the gargantuan task of paring things down to the 500-word length for the magazine, but the full interview was such fun that I thought I’d share it here. (Or click here for the online version of the magazine article.) Thanks, Karen, for a great interview, and for sharing our farm’s story — literally — with the world!

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Young farmer Julia Boorinakis-Harper has dedicated her life to making her great-grandfather’s farm a productive, organic family enterprise – and to inspiring others to live off the land.

How did the Ranch come to be? How did your (great-great?) grandfather get to Auburn and decide to set up there? Was he from Greece?
Our family has had the ranch since 1918, when my great-grandfather bought the property,  originally an old homestead. He emigrated to the US from the Greek region of Smyrna, Asia Minor (which is now in Turkey), moved to San Francisco, and ran a Greek restaurant there until he had saved up enough to bring over his wife-to-be. But he felt that San Francisco was “no place for a woman” or to raise a family — so he found the ranch property in Auburn, and they settled there. We’ve been here ever since; my grandfather, my mother and uncle, and my cousins and I all grew up on the farm.

What sorts of things do you grow/produce at the farm, and is everything produced for commercial sale?
We mainly grow pears, apples, and plums for sale, most of which come from the original trees that my grandfather planted. We also keep bees for honey and to pollinate the orchard, and we have some chickens for eggs. We’re pretty small-scale, relatively speaking; the orchard itself is about five acres, and we — my family and I — do just about everything ourselves, which is often the case with small family farms in our area. We sell to a few local grocery and natural-foods stores, but we take most of our fruit to the local farmer’s markets. That’s really the most gratifying part of what we do: bringing our produce directly to our customers, talking with them about our farming practices, answering questions, sharing stories and recipes… people are deeply appreciative of fresh, local, real food, and of that direct connection with the people who grow it. Farming is hard work, but the personal connections and gratitude from our community make it so worthwhile.

It appears that this was not originally an organic farm, but that you’ve made the conversion. When did this happen, and what prompted the switch to organic? Was it for environmental reasons, ethical reasons, or to compete in a specialist market? What are some of the challenges and benefits of going organic?
We decided to become an organic farm about five years ago. When my grandfather was farming here, the notion of “organic” didn’t exist yet! But as we had never used a lot of sprays or fertilizers or chemicals to begin with, it seemed like a logical next step — to try switching over to more natural pest control methods that would be friendlier to our environment, and to us, too. We live here on the farm, we work here, the chickens free-range in the orchard, we keep honeybees — all those things were incentives to make the move to organic production.
A farm is really a little ecosystem; there are beneficial insects and pests, “good” weeds and “bad” weeds, and if you manage everything well, you can keep that ecosystem fairly well-balanced in your favour. Our ranch has been Registered Organic for two years now — at first people told us that it was impossible to grow pears and apples organically, and it is difficult, but we’ve been quite successful. It really comes down to being observant, knowing your pests and your orchard, and doing your research — and a lot of experimenting until you get it right. Continue reading

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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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Foto Friday #2: All Things Autumn

For your Friday… a sampling of Fall photos from around the farm!

Ok, I’m definitely growing this gorgeous heirloom Indian corn every year now. It grew ten feet tall, produced beautifully, and the colours were stunning — turquoise, lavender, mauve, periwinkle, neon yellow, brick red… I can’t wait to grind it into cornmeal for “homegrown” corn bread!

The heirloom apples practically pose for pictures. As do these little pears…

Everything is picked by hand… we’d have it no other way!

Auntie Maryann takes the farmer’s market seriously! (Not too seriously.)

The ladies on the veranda:

Cosmic Cosmos!

The Black Arkansas apples are almost ripe… yep, must be Autumn at last.

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Foto Friday: Harvest Party

This year’s harvest party was such a delight — beautiful weather, a delicious potluck, and of course so many wonderful friends old and new. I never take enough pictures, but here are a few from the afternoon — just look at that golden sunlight! Perfectly Autumn.Touring the orchard…Yep, that’s a tipi!
Farm potlucks are the best!The party doesn’t stop when it gets dark…

…everyone migrates to the cozy campfire.

Magical, no?

And at dusk, a luminous Harvest Moonrise over the orchard!

The view from the tipi after a wonderful afternoon and evening!

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Chili Power!

With the weather cooling and rain threatening, we’ve been in a frenzy of preserving lately! The peppers did especially well this year, thanks at least in part to the sun-shades we made by attaching empty chicken-feed sacks to the wire cages with clothespins. We usually lose half the fruits to sun scald, so it’s especially satisfying to have found a solution. Of course, the flip side is that we have twice as many peppers and chilies to deal with!

Last year I made some scrumptious pickled roasted peppers, and we put up pints and pints of pickled jalapeños, but with so much to do before the weather turns, we’re turning to speedy, simple methods this year to preserve everything in sight. I thought I should crawl out from under my heap of peppers for a few minutes to share some of my favourites!

Roasted Peppers for the Freezer

So simple, so good. You can do this with any amount of peppers, from just a few to a bushel full, and with just about any variety as well. Heat a gas grill to high, toss on your peppers, and grill, turning occasionally, until all sides are blackened and blistered. They’ll look dreadfully burnt; this is what you want! (If you don’t have a gas grill, you can do this in the oven as well — spread the peppers on a foil-lined sheet pan and pop them under the broiler.)

When the peppers are blackened on all sides, transfer them to a bowl and cover with a plate or some foil. Allow to sit for at least half an hour — the peppers will “sweat” in their own steam, loosening their skins. You can use them fresh, or freeze them to enjoy all winter long…

To freeze, spread peppers on foil-lined baking pans and place in the freezer. When they are completely frozen, transfer to zip-top freezer bags or containers. (This keeps the peppers from freezing into a solid block, as the tend to if you just toss them straight into the freezer bags without individually-freezing first.) Label everything right away — pepper varieties may look totally different fresh, but its often near-impossible to tell the anchos from the pimientos when they’re all black frozen blobs! To use, thaw the peppers, peel off the skin (running them under warm water makes this a snap), and remove the seeds.

Pimientos are divine when roasted — their firm flesh is ideal — but poblanos and even jalapeños are also excellent. We made smoked roasted jalapeños by wrapping apple twigs loosely in foil and placing on the grill directly over the flame — when the twigs start to smoke, add your jalapeños and close the lid. Check and turn them often, though, as small peppers can burn quickly. This method gives them just a hint of extra smokiness, and they make fantastic salsa, especially when combined with tomatoes roasted the same way! Just peel the chilies and tomatoes, add a bit of chopped onion and a pinch of salt, and whiz in a food processor until blended.

Thai Chili Paste

Thai chilies are one of my favourites to grow — they’re scorchingly hot, but once you get past that, they have a wonderfully fruity character. And one little plant will grow more chilies than you know what to do with! Fortunately, they lend themselves to preserving in several simple ways…

For chili paste, you’ll want either all red or all green chilies. Remove the stems and put them in a food processor. Add some sea salt: for every cup of chilies (packed), we use about a tablespoon of salt. That sounds like a lot, but trust me, you’re not going to eat this stuff by the spoonful! Process until you have a smooth paste, adding a few drops of water at a time if necessary. (Confession: I actually have one of those little “As Seen On TV” Magic Bullet machines — long story — but it is dynamite for making chili paste!)

Transfer the paste to glass jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer. And here’s the cool thing: refrigeration actually tames the heat of the paste, allowing the flavours to “bloom” and to stand out over the searing heat of the fresh chilies. The paste keeps up to a year refrigerated, longer frozen; try a spoonful in curries, chili, you name it!

You can go all-out and turn this into Thai-style curry paste, too: add ginger, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, cilantro, a dash of oil, and cut the salt back a bit as well. Scoop balls of paste onto waxed paper, freeze, and transfer to freezer bags or containers. (Don’t forget to label, or you’ll be racking your brain trying to figure out what these weird blobs are — cookies? — when you find them in the back of the freezer a year later….)

Oh, and of course there are always

Dried Chilies!

The easiest of all, especially if you have a dehydrator or a sunny day outside! Thai chilies and other small, thin-walled peppers are best for this. (Avoid whole thick-walled peppers like Bell, Pimiento, or Jalapeño peppers; they can spoil before they dry completely.) Anchos are another great drying pepper — pick ripe, glossy-red fruits, and make a slit down one side if you want them to dry a little faster. You can also string chilies with a needle and thread (through the stems) and hang them by the fire or in another warm spot.

Well, that’s enough to keep me busy for a few days — and enough chilies in their many forms to keep us warm all winter long!

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Filed under around the farm, autumn, homestead how-to, making things, preserving, recipes

Harvest (Party) Time…

I can’t believe that we’re picking the last of this year’s Bartlett pears, and that today is our last regular Farmer’s Market day. This season went by so fast — I didn’t even get around to posting a single pear recipe on the blog (Or anything, really, for that matter… will have to do something about that soon….)

But, speaking of the end of the season — this weekend is our annual Harvest Party, a get-together that started out small, years ago, and has grown bit by bit into a beloved Ranch tradition. We gather up friends old and new, good food, home brews, the last of the season’s produce, some friendly chickens….. everything you need for a good old-fashioned hoedown!

It’ll be this Sunday afternoon; just send me an email (bhranch@gmail.com) if you’d like directions and details! I’m sending this out to you, our blog followers, because you’ve become a part of our community here — I’m still amazed that we can do what we’re doing, and that people from near and far are so supportive and appreciative. Organic farming isn’t easy, small-scale farming isn’t easy, as many of you know firsthand — but our friends, customers, and community make it all possible. Our sincere thanks to each and every one of you, near and far.

Happy harvest!

-julia

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