Do we know what an apocalypse feels like?

Several years ago, I started writing short essays about gardening in a time of climate crisis. Thinking of turning them into a book, I glibly named the series Apocalypse Farm. I knew in my bones that climate change would cause breaks in the food chain.
Weather and climate issues have always done so–droughts, floods, a year without a summer because of a volcanic eruption.

What I didn’t expect was a pandemic, and this one hit our family hard. But things are hard all over the world. Our family isn’t the only one with new widows and orphans. Across the globe, people are fleeing violence, burying loved ones, and facing empty shelves. Life has always been precarious, but it has taken a global event for too many of us to feel the pain and understand.

Things happen. It is up to each of us to do what we can to keep on keeping on, and to hold out a hand to those whose lot in life is harder than our own.

It is winter here, and my garden is on hold. The summer veered back and forth between too much rain and not enough. Some crops didn’t make much, but my friends and I soldiered on in the garden. We shared what we grew, and we canned and froze fruits and vegetables for the lean times. Maybe the helping hand they and I can offer is to teach others how to preserve food, cook for themselves, and use what’s available. Seems to me those would be valuable assets in a world gone awry.

Vegan Questions

It has been another educating year in my garden and kitchen. Now I’m back at the keyboard with the questions I’ve been mulling all summer.

If you’ve read HOW NOT TO DIE by Michael Greger, you are familiar with his Daily Dozen. If you are not familiar with his work, here is a link to an invaluable tool to help vegans make sure they get their daily nutrients.

After a year of eating a vegan diet, and eleven months of being cancer free, I’m pretty sure I’m vegan for life. The Daily Dozen has helped me stay on track, but I still have questions. And a new insight: No matter what eating lifestyle you subscribe to, you have to be flexible. The pandemic has made that perfectly clear.

No, I’m not eating animal products, except for an occasional spoonful of honey. But I’m able to get a B-12 shot twice a month. At my clinic, the nurse comes to the parking lot, checks my temperature and other vitals, and brings the shot to me. What if I didn’t have an accommodating healthcare provider? What if?

This morning, I made a decision. If I am ever in a place where I can’t get my bimonthly shot, I will choose to eat a boiled egg two or three times a week. B12 is a necessary nutrient, and meat eaters’ best defense. I won’t shame anyone’s choices. I just want to make good choices for myself.

If getting a shot is harder during a pandemic, so is stocking fresh produce. Lucky for me, I have a garden and so do my friends. We trade and share, so we’ve all had enough squash, okra, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Green beans were hard to come by, though, and no one had fresh lettuce. No cabbage, either! Cruciferous vegetables are hard to grow here. We’ve eaten well, but even if my day includes 15 servings of fruits and vegetables, I haven’t always hit every item on the Daily Dozen.

What if I sprout seeds to replace greens?  Do broccoli sprouts count as greens or are they cruciferous? Are bean sprouts beans or greens?

Berries are another issue. I have Goji berries and blackberries in the back yard, but not enough to keep me through the summer, much less the year. And because the food chain has been broken in places, there were times this year when there were no frozen berries in the grocery store freezer case.

Do tomatoes count as berries? How about raisins?

How do you classify potatoes? Sure, they’re a root vegetable, but they are starchy. Is sweet corn a vegetable or a grain?

Maybe all I need to do is eat as many colors as I can and as many fruits and vegetables as I can grow or find close to home. Maybe I need to learn how to forage for wild greens. I know they’re out there because I pull them for my chickens.

Yeah, I know! A vegan with chickens and a whole lot of questions!

Gardening in the Weeds

Weeds choke out the roots of your cultivated plants. Right? But is there a place for weeds in your garden? I guess it depends on what you call weeds.

I’ve planted things in my garden that have taken over. Lemon Balm? I have enough for everyone in town. Chickens like the fresh leaves, and it makes a good tea. It makes the house smell good, too. Strawberries escaped from a raised bed a few years ago and took over a twenty-foot stretch. In years with a wet spring, there are enough strawberries to freeze a few. In dry years, like this one, the turtles get more of them than I do.

I planted hyssop for the bees, one plant. I now have a hyssop bed. But I also have bees and butterflies, and this is what has prompted me to find a way to live with the easy spreaders. This year, the spreader is swamp milkweed from seeds I planted last fall.

The solution is lots of straw in winter over areas where I want to plant vegetables. In spring I create boundaries in which to build up good soil on top of the straw. This year, I cut the bottoms out of plastic swimming pools and made potato beds. The plants are big and healthy. Next year, I’ll move the pools to another location and plant something else, maybe okra or beans, in the dirt left behind.

Repurposed mineral tubs, a gift from a rancher friend, contain blackberries and goji berries. In places, I’ve pushed back the straw and planted rows of beans, marigolds, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

My garden may not look like the ones in the magazines, and some years I get less than I’m hoping for. But I have a patio full of Grow Boxes, in case the year is dry, and to make sure I have fresh tomatoes and peppers all season. They work well for okra, too, because okra needs a constant source of water to produce.

Patches of weeds through and around the garden seem to make the bees and the birds and the butterflies happy.

No weed killer! I do a few minutes of weeding every day so my chickens have fresh greens in their secure runs! There’s lots of life here. It isn’t always pretty, but my garden brings me joy. I hope yours brings you joy, as well.

First World Problems in Third World Times

Out here on Crow Farm, we were prepared for the pandemic, we just didn’t know what we were preparing for. We have chickens, although most are pets instead of laying hens. I have a garden, but I get more produce from the nearby farmers’ market than I do from my own labor. Under my piano, in metal tubs, are peas and beans and rice.

I didn’t realize how quickly I’d run out of fresh lettuce, you know, that kind that comes prewashed and wrapped in plastic. I started a flat of micro greens that will last a micro minute.  And I got out my sprouting jars and seeds, but even as I was measuring a mixture of mung bean, alfalfa, and broccoli seeds into my jar, I started wondering what would happen if the farm system broke down and I couldn’t get my sprouting seeds. How many acres would I need to plant for a seed crop? Which seed crop would be most productive? Who am I kidding?

As the first cases of COVID-19 came ashore on the west coast, I made a Costco run. I got the last twelve-pack of almond milk on the shelf. There was plenty of oat milk, but I have never tried oat milk, so I didn’t get any. I probably should have.

I didn’t buy raisins, a staple in my breakfast oatmeal, or the big box of Quaker Oats, because I had plenty to last me until my next follow-up appointment with my oncologist. Silly me! Two weeks later my oncologist and I agreed to postpone appointments for at least two months. I wonder if Costco has any raisins and oatmeal left.

Then there were those things I kept putting off. My phone and my laptop are out of date. I need my piano tuned. Oh, the piano isn’t too far off, but it may be by the time this pandemic plays out. Playing the piano keeps me sane.

I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought I was, but I have resources not everyone has. Most important, I have a new crop of seed that I ordered over the winter and a garden in which to plant my seed. I have enough beans and rice to last a few months. I still have peaches and applesauce canned last summer.

The question niggling at the back of my mind isn’t, “Where’s my next meal coming from?”  It is, “Will I be able to can peaches and green beans this summer?

I realize the privilege of my question and how small my problems are. So, what can I do to help those who don’t have the same privileges? What can I do to ease someone’s anxieties? Privilege isn’t worth much if you don’t share.

Canning in April

I’ve always loved beans, but my mother, not so much. When you grow up poor and one of a dozen children, as she did, beans are always on the menu. But she knew we loved them, and it was a real treat when she made her chili beans.

Beans are one of the cornerstones of my diet, along with whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. My man isn’t quite as fond of all-things-beans as I am, but there are a couple of things he welcomes on the menu. One is my home-canned blackeyed peas. The other is our pantry version of black beans and corn salsa.

If you’re a prepper, you know dry beans store well. For the long haul, it isn’t necessary to can them. For the short term, though, a few jars of canned beans and peas in the cabinet sure make meal planning easier. Whether you buy them from the grocery store and can them yourself depends on your circumstances and your taste. I prefer my home-canned beans in glass jars.

Whether you can fresh beans or bags of dried beans from the grocery also depends on circumstances. I do both.

I shelled and canned a bushel of purple hull peas last summer.  Fresh peas need to be processed quickly.  Even partially dried ones can mold on you.  They can be canned or frozen. The frozen ones still require some cooking time, but they are a good choice for people who limit salt.

The 24 pints of canned peas I got from that bushel didn’t last long, and I found myself buying bags of blackeyed peas at the grocery store to can mid-winter.

We eat blackeyed peas at least once a week. I just open the jar, heat the peas, and serve them with cornbread.

To make Mama’s Chili Beans, I open a jar of my canned pintos, add a teaspoon of Williams Chili Seasoning, and heat. When I serve it, I add a few teaspoons of salsa to the bowl. Yep, it’s that simple.

You can serve chili beans over rice or with cornbread. They also make good tostados.

To make our Pantry Black Bean Salsa, I rinse and drain a can (or pint jar) of black beans and drain a pint of my whole kernel corn (or thaw a pint of frozen corn). I toss them together with a cup of salsa, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge to chill and marinate.

Serve the salsa with tortilla chips or tortillas. If you have fresh cilantro, so much the better! And don’t let anyone tell you that chips and salsa are not a complete meal!




Creativity and Pandemic

Jerry Saltz, author of How to Be an Artist, writes, “Isolation favors art.”

It’s true. I work best without human distractions, but isolation isn’t enough. Time, too, is necessary.

Last night, I had time for this: I cut a quarter head of red cabbage and put the chunk into a pan with about an inch of water. I put on the lid and brought it to a boil. I turned the burner down and let it simmer for a while. I ate the cabbage with my dinner.

When I took the cabbage out of the pan, I noticed two things: the patterns on the bottom leaves were lovely on my plate, and the water left in the pan was a rich winey red. I couldn’t let that water go to waste.

After dinner, I got into my basket supplies and teased out a length of quarter-inch flat reed. I coiled it as tightly as I could to fit it into the small pan. The cabbage juice didn’t cover the coil. I added water and set the pan on the stove. I boiled the coil. If I were a better scientist, I could tell you how long I let it boil, but just know it was long enough to see some color happening in the reed and short enough I didn’t boil the water completely away.

When I took it off the stove, I added enough vinegar to cover the coil again, put on the lid, and left my experiment overnight.  This morning I was rewarded with lovely pink reed, the color strong enough to sit between two strands of smoked reed to make a chain pattern.

During this scary time, when my daughter and her family are quarantined and recovering, I will take the gift of time and distraction from what scares me most, and I’ll make a basket.

As they say on PBS’s Gallery America, “Try to put a little bit of art into everything you do.”

When the Poles Tilt

I’ve been gone from my blog for several weeks.  Call it a health break.  I had a spindle cell sarcoma removed, and for the time being, the Grim Reaper hasn’t shown himself. It takes a lot of time to recover, though, if you’re serious about recovery.  I am. Good diet and an exercise routine are as important as friends and a good night’s sleep.  It also requires continuing education.

Because I had read The First Cell by Azra Raza, I agreed to the extensive surgery.  I won’t creep you out with the details.  Based on my son’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of How Not to Die by Michael Greger and Gene Stone.  I had recently read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.  The two diet books corroborated these facts:

*Vegans live longer than omnivores AND vegetarians.

*A whole-food, plant-based diet protects against premature death by heart disease, cancer, and most of the ills that befall we mortals.

So, what’s a chicken farmer going to do? Become a vegan, of course.

Before the surgery, I gave my laying hens to a chicken farmer friend.  I didn’t feel bad about it, because her chickens have a safe place to free range and a warm place to roost in the winter.  I knew I’d be hard pressed to care for the flock during radiation, but I kept the seven old girls, most of whom no longer lay.

When I told my sister what I’d done, she said, “Let me get this straight.  You gave away the layers and kept the old chickens?”

Yep.  The old girls are pets more than livestock.  It’s always been that way out here.  I get a few eggs a week now, but more importantly, I have to get outside every day and take care of my tiny flock, in sunshine or clouds, in wind and rain.  My girls dance around my feet when I bring a treat of millet or mealworms.  Out among the trees, I see that life goes on.

I don’t eat eggs anymore, but my dog does.  Being vegan is my choice, but it’s not one I can make for anyone else, including my dear husband. I still have beef and sausage in the freezer for the family and friends I feed.  I just pile on the grains and beans and greens, the fruit and veggies, when I feed them at the big kitchen table.

The chickens still have a role to play on the farm.  As I recover, I’m remodeling coops and rearranging garden fences so chickens can clear the weeds and keep the bugs in check between growing seasons.

When your world comes crashing down around you, you start over again.  I have. I guess being a vegan farmer isn’t such a stretch for an agnostic preacher’s daughter.  The irony tastes a little like homegrown spinach.

My Dream Chicken Setup

Safety, clean water, and food are the three main things you want for your livestock.  My chickens have secure coops and covered runs.  I carry water and check the feeders daily, and I try to give them the greens and weeds and bugs they crave.

The latter is a problem if they aren’t in a pasture.  So, how do we balance safety and a chicken’s need to forage?

Last month, before the frogs were tucked away for winter, I opened the run gate and a frog hopped away into the crack where the gate meets the fence.  As I tried to get him free, one of my bantam hens ran between my legs. I tried to grab her, but my Lab/Border Collie got her first.  Nike thought she was helping.

I chased Nike across the creek bed and through the trees.  The chicken was crying the whole time.  Until she wasn’t. I finally caught up, carried the little girl in my arms back to the pen.  She was alive, missing feathers from her back, so I decided to make her a nest of hay to stay comfortable for as long as she had to live.

I set her down and she immediately hopped up, climbed the steps into the coop, and inspected all the walls.  A month and a half later, she still greets me every day when I go out to the pen.  I’ve forgiven Nike, but I won’t give her another chance.  Instead, I imagine the permaculture pen setup I would like to build.

Imagine four fenced garden areas, a coop in the center.  Also imagine moveable roofing, some of it solid to keep out the rain and some of it wired to let in the elements but keep out the hawks.  Year one, the roof covers Garden 1, and I plant in Garden 2.  Year two, the roof covers Garden 2, chickens cleaning up the bugs and weeds and fertilizing the garden while Garden 1 reseeds. I plant in Garden 3.  The rotation continues, the chickens doing their work while I do mine.

It would be a no-till garden.  I’d have to keep the grass mowed, as I do now in the yard, collecting the clippings for my penned chickens.  I plant in piles of soil, leaf mold and compost. I’m imagining permanent beds around the perimeter of the four gardens where I grow flowers for the bees and butterflies mixed in with perennial herbs and bed-contained blackberries.

It would take a lot of work to set this up.  You’d need a nearby barn to hold feed barrels and hay.  You’d also need centralized access to water, for the chickens and the garden.  But once the system was in place, it would cut the amount of chicken feed I’d need to buy, the amount of weeding I’d have to do, and would make my poison-free pest control easier.

Most important of all, it would allow my chickens to forage while keeping them safe.

Potato Peel Challenge

I had only five things on my to-do list today, one priority item, three important items, and one with a question mark.  Guess which got done first!

Yesterday, I canned eight jars of my Pontiac Red potatoes.  I love this variety because they’re tasty and they reach maturity before the weather gets hellish in Oklahoma.  The smooth-skinned reds steam well, and they’re lovely cooked with green beans. They hold together when boiled.

I also grow russets. They, too, are good steamed, but I like the way they break down in soups.

The Pontiac Reds canned beautifully.  I was pretty sure they would.  What I didn’t know is if the russets would turn to goop in the canning jar.  I had to find out. The priorities could wait!

Russets are tricky in Oklahoma.  They take longer than the reds to mature, and it gets hot before they get much size on them. I harvested a lot of small russets.

Anyway,  I had a question to answer and a lot of small potatoes to peel.

The first thing I realized is it takes much longer to peel a lot of little potatoes than it does a few big ones.  There’s also more waste, because the ratio of peel to potato is greater in the small ones. Little potatoes are harder to hold on to when you’re going to town with the peeler.  But I got the job done.

It was worth the effort. Canned baby russets look beautiful in the jar.

I’m thinking that next year it might be a good idea to get the russets in the ground in January or February, maybe under a thick coat of straw.  But that’s an experiment for another day.  Today, I’ve got to tackle a few more things on my to-do list.

Garden + Pantry = Tacos

When I think about food preparedness, I don’t see a basement filled with freeze-dried meals.  I see a sensible plan that includes pantry, shelves of home-canned produce, root cellar for storable foods, sprouts on the counter in winter, a garden and farmers’ markets in summer, DIY skills, and a community of likeminded people.  As with any worthwhile endeavor, there’s more than one path to food security.

When it’s cold outside and time is short, I stir up pantry meals with a side of greens.  Right now, though, garden produce is coming in.  Some meals are all garden, like yesterday’s new potatoes and green beans.  Today’s lunch was a hybrid meal, part garden and part pantry,

On my way home from yoga this morning, I was wondering what to do with the half package of taco shells in the pantry.  Chicken tacos, that’s what!

My friend Phyllis grew a lot of onions.  I didn’t get mine in the ground this year. Thankfully, she shared.  I have tomatoes coming along nicely, green ones, but I picked up a few pounds of ripe ones last week at the farmers’ market.  Add chicken, some fat for sautéing, homemade salsa from last season, and some good cheese. Yep, I had everything I needed.

I have an abundance of seasonings, food for the taste buds and the soul.  One might even call me a seasonings hoarder, except I use them up and I share them.

I sautéed the onions, added leftover chicken meat, and seasoned to taste.  If you don’t have leftover chicken in the fridge, use canned chicken.

I warmed the shells, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese and set it all on the table with the salsa. It was as delicious as I hoped it would be. And simple.

This winter, when there are no more tomatoes ripening on the counter, make sure you have a few jars of whole, canned cherry tomatoes in the pantry.  They taste almost as good as the freshly chopped tomatoes we ate today. Almost.