The All-Black Wooly Bear and Other Signs of Winter


Every year I watch the wooly bears. They say the more black on their bodies the harsher the winter to come. There’s no proof they know what they’re doing. There’s even evidence that they probably do not. I watch anyway. I watch to see how fat and wooly they are, what colors dominate their coats, when we start seeing them in the fall and when they disappear again for another year.

I also watch the squirrels. (Extra chubby and in a big hurry.) Scrutinize the hickory nuts. (Thick shells, plenty of them.) And the acorns. (Ditto.) I note the foliage. (Deeper color than usual, dropping quick.) And read the Farmer’s Almanac (Cold, stormy.) All looking for predictions of the impending season.

Sometimes the old wives’ tales match up with scientific models, sometimes they don’t. This year, for the most part, they do. The caterpillars agree with the squirrels who agree with the Hickory and Oak trees, which agree with the traditional forecasters at the Almanac who just so happen to be on the same page as the meteorologists at the Climate Prediction Center: it’s going to be a long, wet and snowy winter in our little corner of the midwest.

Both Almanacs predict snow by the end of this month. Normally we don’t see it until the end of next. Of course only time will tell what kind of winter we’ll really have, but it seems that for now everyone agrees it might just be the most wintery of winters we’ve had in several years. Between mild years and brutally cold ones with next to nothing in terms of snow, I almost think I might welcome a typical Michigan cold season, with all its blustering and blowing and blizzard-like darkness. If it’s going to be cold at least, perhaps, we can have a clean white blanket over the brown and dead. Yes, I almost think I wouldn’t mind it that way. Almost.

Miscellany: Dispatches from Early Fall


There’s a feeling of finality in early fall in rural America; a lull between the heat of the summer and the hustle and bustle of the grain harvest season. I am one of those insufferable people who Love, with a capital ‘L’, the holidays and the first whispers of colder weather are always a welcome invitation to begin preparing for them.

This year though, there were no whispers. We went from eighties and nighties and high humidity to sixties at, what seemed like, the flip of a switch. We are surrounded by Black Walnut trees here; they’re always quick to shed their leaves, and they’re wasting no time in the task this season. Walking outside to a hail of gold fluttering through the air is always enough to put me in the autumn mood.


You might think that after so many years of the same thing, I wouldn’t be caught by surprise when it’s time to winterize the farm, but you would be wrong. It’s not that I don’t see it coming at all, it’s that — especially during years like this one — the time left always feels longer until we’re mere steps from the finish line.

A few weeks ago we had to send the ATV we normally use daily for basic chores into the shop to get some work done, and they’ve yet to make a final diagnosis. Now, as I make lists — both mental and physical — of all the things I need to get done around here before snow flies I am missing it fiercely. We have ways of doing everything without it, but not without added complications; which also means added time and effort.


The farm kids’ pleading for “a lamb for fair,” this summer means we’ve had Ferdinand the Ram with the ewes for several weeks now already. We have, thus far, only lambed in the spring and I have liked it that way. It’s warm outside, there’s plenty of lush grass for both lactating Mamas and quickly growing babies; it almost makes for a fool proof lambing season. But spring lambs aren’t old enough for summer fairs; only winter lambs have enough time to grow big and strong, and finish out. So we’ll try it. The principles of winter birth and newborns are the same across the species and we’re not entirely green even with sheep, but any farmer will tell you that theory and practice are not listed as synonyms for one another for good reason.


Miscellany + Pictures That Have Been Languishing in my Camera for Months


All of the pictures in this post are months old. Taken this spring when everything was fresh and green. Before it was ninety-five degrees and we hadn’t seen anything that could pass for rain in weeks. I had forgotten about them and normally wouldn’t bother with old photos in a new blog post, but then I thought, “why not?” In the story of this farm inconsistent blogging and forgotten photos have been a staple for the past year. They belong here as much as anything I snapped today.


I don’t remember the last time we mowed grass and I don’t foresee us needing to do so anytime soon. I forgot about the blueberry bushes I planted flanking the gate that leads from the back yard into the paddock that lies between it and the barnyard and only one of them has survived the heat and abuse. There is a fifty-fifty chance of a storm tomorrow, but if it behaves anything like all the other storms that have come our way it’ll break up just as it gets here, maybe spitting a little extra humidity into the air but never producing so much as a drop that reaches the ground.


Today the first lambs of our 2016 crop are fifty days old. Which means when the sun starts to set and the temperature abates by a couple dozen degrees we’ll be rounding them up and running them across the scale to see how they’ve done thus far, on nothing but pasture and their ewe’s milk. They look good; thick and stout and robust.


This guy will happily help despite the heat, and dunk himself in a stock tank of water straight from the hose afterward.


Of all the stock on the farm the heat is hardest on the pigs. Little ones don’t mind it so much, but the big sows and the growing feeders would prefer moderate weather and little humidity; something we can’t often provide in Michigan at the height of the season. Instead we make sure they’re misted down with cool water a few times per day, provided lots of fresh water. And, at least in the case of the growing pigs — for show or sale or breeding alike — hope they continue to eat, because no one likes a big meal when it’s hot.

Crispy Egg Breakfast Tacos + Black Garlic Pineapple Salsa


A few weeks ago one of our long-time-farm-customers turned friends gifted me a bag of single clove black garlic she’d brought back from a recent trip to Japan. I’d been contemplating how I wanted to use them, reading up on how chefs around the world have been using black garlic and what other foodies have to say about it. This combination was purely accidental. I had a slightly overripe pineapple that needed to be used up and I went to the cabinet for a head of regular garlic to toss together a salsa. The black garlic just happened to be in front of the regular on the shelf. I remembered some of the flavor profiles I’d read on it and decided to substitute it instead; a decision, it turns out, that would disappoint exactly no one in this house.


The black garlic is everything I’d read about it and more. Smooth, pungent, sweet, earthy, charred… umami. The single clove variety is supposed to have even better flavor than the multi-clove type, but both are reportedly delicious. Essentially, it’s fermented garlic. Held at sixty degrees for months, under just-so humidity. But “fermented garlic” doesn’t do it justice. A lot of chefs are using it in savory and creamy dishes, but I think it really shines against the bright acidity of the pineapple and lime. You can definitely expect more black garlic recipes to come. I can see it becoming a staple ingredient here.

This recipe makes about a quart and a half and we’ve been eating it with everything — carnitas, blackened chicken, plain tortilla chips — I just happened to think about putting the recipe up here at breakfast this morning when I was serving it wrapped up with the best damned eggs you’ll ever eat in a perfectly charred corn tortilla.

Crispy Egg Tacos + Black Garlic Pineapple Salsa

Prep time: 

Total time: 

  • 1 Ripe Pineapple
  • 2 Med. Roma Tomatoes
  • 1 Sweet Onion
  • 1 Head Single Clove Black Garlic
  • 1 Sm. - Med. Bunch Cilantro
  • Coarse Sea Salt
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Lime
  • Butter, Lard or Oil
  • Corn Tortillas
  • Large Eggs
  • Coarse Sea Salt
  1. Finely dice pineapple, tomatoes and onion.
  2. Peel and finely chop black garlic, being careful not to smash it.
  3. Remove Cilantro stems, chop leaves.
  4. Combine all of the above in a bowl or large jar, squeeze juice of the lime overtop. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Mix well. Chill. (Best after flavors have had a few hours to a day to intermingle.)
  5. In a large fry or cast iron pan, heat your cooking fat -- a couple pats of butter or lard, or a couple "glugs" of your favorite oil -- until a few drops of water flicked into the pan makes the oil crackle and pop.
  6. Add your tortillas, frying on each side for a minute or so, until they begin to brown and crisp. Transfer them to a plate.
  7. Immediately, using the same hot oil, crack your eggs into the pan. The oil and pan should be so hot that the whites immediately solidify when they hit the pan. Sprinkle the top of the egg with coarse salt while it cooks. It is ready to turn when it naturally pulls way from the pan without prying. This only takes a minute or two, the whites will be browned and crispy around the edges. Flip, repeating the process of browning and crisping the whites on the other side, cooking just a thin layer over the yolk, but leaving it runny.
  8. Transfer the eggs to the plate, placing one on top of each tortilla. Top with pineapple salsa and enjoy!

Miscellany: “No Time to Say Hello, Goodbye”


Every so often I take a picture that is technically atrocious, but I love. And then I am appalled with myself. That’s the story behind this one from a short road trip I had to take yesterday. As soon as I saw it there were a list of things wrong with it in my head, but I also immediately knew I’d use it. Usually, the thing with those unsound pictures is that while they may not capture the imagery very well, they capture the mood full stop.

:: :: ::

Still no lambs. Last night I even did a midnight check because Louisa had been nesting and restless, her flanks have been sunken for a week and her udder looks like an over-inflated water balloon. But no luck. I didn’t originally have her on the calendar as due until the end of this week, but then the shearer convinced me they might be ready a bit earlier. Now I’m getting impatient.

:: :: ::

Remember last week when I said all the tomato seeds had been planted and most were up? I lied. I had the bright idea to go through my stash of seeds and unload… eh hem, GIFT… a bunch to my Mother-in-Law, who loves to garden and is better at it than I am anyway. I did manage to get rid of a whole bag full of seed packets, but I also found a few other varieties of tomatoes I just had to plant. Every time I think I have escaped the grip of the tomato-addicted gardener’s disease it reels me back in.

On the bright side, I ran across a pack of regular San Marzano seeds and decided it would be a grand idea to plant a bunch to compare side-by-side with my beloved San Marzano Redortas. So we all have those notes to look forward to mid to late-summer.

:: :: ::

The season is both literally and figuratively heating up now. Seventy degrees by the end of this week. My to-do list seems to grow with every passing minute. This is the time of year I love, but also find it curious that when I am most on top of things I feel most scattered. Like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “No time to say ‘Hello,’ Goodbye! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”

Going too many directions at once, I suppose. Which is also not unlike the white rabbit. No matter, I’ll be back later this week with a couple more posts. One on speaking the language of pigs by request, plus a some more garden thoughts on what’s worth planting and how much.

A Few Favorite Things: April 8


Read: The books I’ve been reading this week don’t really fit with what I usually post here so this week’s book recommendation is an oldie, but goodie I pulled off my shelves. Tracie McMillan put more personally on the line to write The American Way of Eating than any of the big name food and agriculture writers, but didn’t get nearly as much attention. She went undercover for a year working at all stages of the food system — alongside migrant vegetable workers in California, while working at a Wal-Mart produce section, and from the kitchen of an Applebee’s restaurant — and living off the wages she earned doing those jobs. The result is this book. It’s well-written and reported, and probably didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved for that latter reason alone.

Watch: I can’t believe I didn’t watch Salma Hayek in Frida sooner. It doesn’t even need a blurb here. It’s Frida and Salma as Frida and it was a huge success back when it was released in 2002. If you haven’t seen it yet, do. (I linked to iTunes for those who want to rent it online, but it’s also on Netflix.)

Eat: We usually eat Manhattan Clam Chowder several times throughout the winter. It’s one of our favorites. Somehow it kept getting pushed down the menu plan this year though so I’m making it this week before it’s too hot for bowls of soul-warming, hearty soup.

Listen: I listen to country music often, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of many artists. Eric Church is one exception to that rule. I respect him for doing the opposite of what most singers do. Usually, they start off with their own style and artistic vision and then, when the industry gets a hold of them, they lose it to the demands of mass-production radio hits. Eric, on the other hand, seems to only get more creative and personal with his music as time goes on… and still manages to pull off chart toppers. There is something to be said for artists who can produce entire albums full of good songs, rather than albums with a couple of decent tracks and the rest full of songs no one will ever listen to more than once or twice on purpose. Eric is one of those artists for me. This one is from his newest album.

Miscellany: Lamb Watch, Garden Progress


“Your favorite ewe is restless,” I texted my Mom earlier this week, “Maybe lambies soon!” She has been asking when there would be lambs to visit for weeks now. She’s also a fan of baby pigs and has been nudging me about why I no longer have geese for at least two years. She seems to fancy us her personal petting zoo. The first time she saw Louisa (not pictured, that’s Penelope at the top) she marveled, “Ohhh, that one is so pretty!”

Now, I think Louisa looks like an unremarkable old Amish man. And frankly, her nose is kind of crooked. But my Mother loves her, so I’m glad we’re expecting her to lamb first this year. My Mom will, no doubt, trot right over here at the first sign of lambs on the ground and she’ll get to see some out of her favorite ewe when she does.

:: :: ::

We’re now taking bets as to whether or not Penelope (pictured) is in lamb. She’s got a nice bit of belly on her in this picture, but I’m not convinced it isn’t just a big meal. She doesn’t appear quite so rotund in person. She’s going to keep us guessing right to the end, I suppose.

:: :: ::

On the garden front, all of the tomato seeds have been started, and most are up and growing.

Last year I got a bit overzealous with herb garden clean-up and hacked away at most of my plants. I’ve been meaning to move the herbs to the main garden for a couple years now anyway, so this is as good an excuse as any to start over. I found more herb seeds that I remembered having when I went through my seed stash looking for the Riesentraube seeds last week, so I’ll start a bunch of those too — chives, garlic chives, basil, lemon basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, oregano… the list goes on.

:: :: ::

We traded a young boar for about eight tons of stemmy hay last week. It’s of no nutritional value, but will be fine for bedding for the animals and mulch for the garden. I’ve had a post in draft about no-till gardening — which we started experimenting with years ago, but committed to in earnest last year — and will probably get around to publishing it once we plant and mulch for this year so I can share pictures of the process. I am a fan of the rural economy of barters.

The farmer we traded with is one we do business with often. He’s a [I’m not sure how many, but many] generation family farmer about my age who has been working with his Dad and Uncle and Grandpa on their farms since birth and has been working now on building his own legacy for his kids. Sometimes I wonder who will be tying into this local economy when we’re old. His kids? Ours? Someone else’s? Will there be new farmers just starting? I can’t think of any other than us who are new now, so it seems unlikely that there would be new ones then, but only time will tell. I suppose that’s why agriculture manages to keep me interested; it’s never static.

On First Storms


As I was writing yesterday’s post about folk wisdom and the fine art of applying science to real life I was reminded of something The Man has said every year since I met him, and this picture I took last week after the first real thunderstorm of the season. I have never heard anyone else say it and while I could speculate as to what scientific principles may be behind it, I’ve never seen any sort of evidence that could be reasonably correlated to it. Still, he has always maintained that the first thunderstorm of the season “shocks” the ground.

I have never been clear whether he means an actual shock, as in by lightening. Or a more figurative shock, as in the way one particular boom of thunder while I was loading groceries into the truck last week made me jump. And I’m not sure it matters.

In any case, the outcome has been implied a million ways. “Looks like we’ll have our first thunderstorm tomorrow, that ought’a pull the last of the frost out,” or “We need a good thunderstorm to get the water moving out of the fields,” or “A thunderstorm’ll wake the earthworms up.” It seems counterintuitive. If there’s too much water standing in the fields the last thing you might think we need is for more of it pour out of the sky by the bucketful. But I also have to admit there’s something to it. And maybe that something is just coincidence, but around here the first thunderstorm of the season almost always seems to directly precede a rapid acceleration of spring into summer; the ground opens up and swallows up the standing water, the grass grows by leaps and bounds, the leaves appear on the trees in short order. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.

On Soil Temperature and Seed Germination


The last time the soil was as warm as it is right now, this early in the season, was 2012. That year we didn’t have a proper winter at all, and I had been harvesting lettuce from the garden until well into the middle of January. Last year at this time the ground was still frozen. This year the frost laws have already come and gone, and the soil temperature is climbing — both at two and four inch depths — into the low fifties. Today, as if by clockwork (it’s wet and the weather is nasty to boot) the county came by and graded our road into a soft, red-dirt mess.


A couple of years ago while talking to Maasai elders they assured me and the other journalists I was traveling with that they no longer used their traditional Maasai calendar, but had instead transitioned entirely to a western method of time and season-keeping. Later, the woman who ran the NGO nearby said that she was almost certain they do still use the Maasai calendar, but that they also always deny it in the presence of westerners. Western methods are viewed as more legitimate, more scientific. The modern western world doesn’t suffer famine and the traditional African tribal men do not want to be seen as lesser; as being at fault for the hunger and poverty that wracks their communities. So they tell people they have abandoned the folk wisdom passed down through their generations full stop for a “proper” calendar with twelve months, three hundred and sixty-five days, four seasons.

By the time the woman at the NGO had confided in us we were a couple beers and a whole-roasted-goat-over-an-open-fire away from the days meetings. The elders were asleep in their bomas; a short hike over a dusty hill slung low out into the black sky west of Kilimanjaro. There was no going back.

To this day I wish that hadn’t been so; that I’d had the opportunity to tell them about our folk wisdom. About how the western calendar that adorns my wall tracks the phases of the moon, as well as the days of the month. About the racks of Farmer’s Almanacs in every Tractor Supply Company in the country. Maybe even the common saying in my neck of the woods that you shouldn’t plant until the leaves on the oak are as big as a squirrel’s ear, if only I thought I could figure out how to translate “oak” and “squirrel”. Not to make the point that scientific methods of production shouldn’t be embraced — this is a post about soil temperature and seed germination, after all — but that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive; that often the old folk wisdom has a little science behind it, too. The leaves on the oaks around here tend to be about the size of a squirrels ear just about the same time the soil temperature is just right for planting our major summer crops — corn and soybeans. The old farmers might not have known that connection, or maybe they did, but also understood that, “don’t plant until the soil is fifty or sixty or seventy degrees (depending on the crop)” wasn’t as memorable.

A lot can happen to a seed in the ground. Left too long and too wet it can rot and decompose. Left too long and too dry it can shrivel and die. Left too long under almost any circumstances and it can become dinner for the local pest population from varmints to birds to insects. I once lost three plantings of green beans to a very hungry family of shrews, before I turned the dogs loose in the garden and the Schnauzer brought me their heads (and bodies, she’s not a total barbarian.) The sooner after being planted a seed germinates the less risk there is of the crop failing before it even begins.

Most seeds need two things to germinate well: moisture and warmth; water and heat, the two fundamental elements of life as we know it. For seeds started indoors or in greenhouses both are easy enough to come by, but outdoors is a little trickier. You can go by the size of the leaves on the oak, or you can use a soil thermometer. A little of both probably never hurt. Many universities — especially in agricultural states — also have weather stations scattered throughout the country with the data they record daily available online. I usually watch the data from a local weather station online (which is what I have charted above) until it consistently records a reasonable planting temperature. Then I use a combination of a soil thermometer, my own judgement and folk wisdom about the weather we’re seeing, the forecasts of a couple local meteorologists whose work has proven most accurate over the years, plus a glance at my own schedule to see when I will have time to plant. I guess you could say while some regard an approach to planting as an absolute science, I consider it more the art of applying science to real life.

Either way, this chart of optimum soil temperatures for germination, by crop, is (one of) my bible(s). The shortest length of time from planting to germination can be expected when planting into soil at the optimum temperature, and deviations from that temperature in either direction will delay seedling emergence until, at some point on the continuum the seeds won’t germinate at all — those are your maximums and minimums. Whatever your approach to planting I hope it helps you, too.