A break from farming…

For those of you who don’t know yet, we are taking a farm “sabattical” this year.  After 5 years of juggling our off-farm jobs with the farm, wholesale sales, and two farmer’s markets, we realized this winter that we needed a break.  I’m hoping to keep posting to the blog, instagram, and facebook with interesting tidbits about the farm and such, so stay tuned.

Also, please know we are so thankful for the support of all our customers, especially our loyal shoppers at the Durham Farmer’s Market and Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market.   You know who you are.

We’ll be at the Durham Farmer’s Market on Saturday, March 11 and Saturday, March 18th, so be sure to stock up on our tea before it’s off the market!

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Small farms, biodiversity, and the importance of data.

In our increasingly suburbanized and homogenized world, we are proud to maintain a working farm that conserves a little piece of our diverse Piedmont landscape and its biodiversity.  Our 10 acres not only includes managed old field and cropland, but also shrubland areas for the birds who need that habitat, a farm pond that helps catch silt from upstream tobacco farms and filters/slows down the water before it hits the Flat River, and about 4 acres of high quality oak-hickory forest that slopes down to the river.  But the shining star of our farm is the Flat River itself and its adjacent forest.

Flat River view from our property

Flat River view from our property

The patch of hardwood forest and stream, though privately owned by our family and dozens of homeowners and farmers in our neighborhood, continues to be a large unbroken patch of intact forest bordering a relatively intact and unpolluted stretch of Piedmont stream (a rarity in this very populous and growing region).

The mix of habitats on our farm isn’t something you see on large industrial farms, or in heavily suburban landscapes, or even in most remote rural areas.  In fact, this diversity of habitats is increasingly difficult to find anywhere in the Piedmont, meaning that many of the birds and other critters that rely on shrublands, open grasslands, and relatively intact rivers in a matrix of forest are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

The more natural sections of our neighborhood along the river have the potential to harbor a rare species of aquatic salamander and rare mussels that are only found in a few locations in the Neuse River drainage.  And our management of the land helps enhance that habitat.  So the role of small farmers (and a few institutions managing for diverse landscapes that support high biodiversity) in actively managing for these diverse habitats while maintaining the more natural features of the landscape will continue to be more and more important as our landscape is developed, graded, and degraded, and as the common species become more scarce and the rare species become even rarer.

There are two big issues facing the Piedmont and its species – 1) there are many formerly common species that are declining rapidly as land use changes occur that eliminate previously common ecosystems like shrublands and old fields, and 2) rare species, generally found only in the most intact and unique ecosystems, are becoming even more rare as these ecosystems are lost or further degraded.  So we need to have good data on the status of all of these species to better understand trends and when/where to take action.  It turns out that there is a little known, but amazing group of people in each state that does exactly this work.  In North Carolina, it’s the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, a program of the state government.  The biologists, data managers, and conservation planners there are charged with collecting data and keeping tabs on the rarest of the rare species and ecosystems in our state.  They review and update their data on a regular basis to help determine which species are most highly imperiled in the state (and which species may become imperiled in the near future). They work with NatureServe to add their data to a national database to determine which species are most imperiled at the national level as well (global rarity).  And in North Carolina, based on the data, they identify areas that are the best areas to protect in order to potentially preserve the most species possible (our natural heritage).

Baiting the traps

Baiting the traps

It turns out that the area along the Flat River was identified by the program’s Wildlife and Biodiversity Habitat Assessment as being of very high importance, specifically because it may contain habitat for the imperiled Neuse River waterdog and a few imperiled mussel species.  As you guys know, we named the farm after the waterdog, a type of aquatic salamander.  So we were delighted when the program asked to come out to the farm to try to find evidence of the waterdogs.

Last week Judy Ratcliffe arrived on Monday morning to set traps that would potentially catch the salamanders so we could document their existence along the river.  With help from some awesome neighbors and other heritage staff, we set out traps along the river and the heritage program checked them each morning for 5 days.  Alas, this round of trapping did not net any waterdogs, though we had a lot of fun catching and releasing the shiners, catfish, chub, and crayfish that were attracted to the chicken livers.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the waterdogs aren’t there (they are notoriously difficult to trap) so hopefully we’ll be able to try again some other winter.  The program is hoping to come back later in the spring and survey the site for rare mussels.

Rickie helping to set waterdog tracks

Rickie helping to set waterdog tracks

Thanks to the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, we have the data that shows how rare some of these key species are and the means to target areas for conservation to help preserve them.  And thanks to the staff of the program, we now have a better understanding of the biodiversity along our little stretch of river and how it contributes to the overall natural heritage of our state, region, and nation.  As a small farm owner, we look forward to doing our part to help preserve the habitat for these creatures into the future and to work with the state of North Carolina’s amazing North Carolina Natural Heritage program to make that happen.  As citizens of our state, we’re all deeply indebted to the Natural Heritage Program for the products they have produced and continue to produce that help us ensure that the species and ecosystems of our state continue to be conserved into the future.

Over the rainbow and onto the farm

Some days wonderful surprises happen on the farm.  Yesterday was one of those great days – the photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was a full double rainbow that took up the entire eastern half of the sky.  So it turns out our farm is at the end of not one, but two rainbows!

A double rainbow on our farm

A double rainbow on our farm

Looking for something to make with our nettles and shallots?

This time of year we are awash in some unusual but fun produce.  Right now, for instance, we are harvesting lots of nettles (Urtica dioica) and early spring shallots.  We’ve mostly been simply sauteeing them both together to make lovely and simple toppings for pasta, sweet potatoes, or just about anything.  But if you want to get extra fancy, this recipe seems like it would be really nice.  Hopefully we’ll get a chance to try it before the season is over!

Nettles ready to be harvested.

Nettles ready to be harvested.

Fun with apples, part II: apple pie from scratch

Let me start be saying we are NOT bakers.  Although Rickie was a chemistry minor in college, he was not that enamored by the idea of following directions to the letter, which meant he caused his fair share of chemistry catastrophes.  The same can sometimes be true with some of our baking experiments.  Nevertheless we are fond of jumping right in and trying something new, especially if it means making something mostly from scratch.  And so began our adventure with apple pies a few years back.  Back in that year, we had lots of holiday parties and family get-togethers to attend over the months of November and December, so we decided we’d do all the prepwork for our part of the potlucks at once.  Three days and 10 frozen apple pies later, we realized a) we kick ass and b) we’re never going to make 10 pies in a row from scratch for fun again.

As we posted previously here, we recently visited our favorite orchard in the NC mountains and returned with 4 bushels of apples. So although we have enough apples for 10+ more pies, we decided instead that we would focus our attention on making one beautiful apple pie to freeze and then cook when we visit the family for Thanksgiving.  We highly recommend the concept of making pies to freeze (just not 10 at once) so that you only need to thaw and bake when you are ready.  We think the food network recipe for a traditional apple pie is a great option, but as usual we’ve added our own notes to give you our take on this great recipe.

First, prepare for messiness.  Making a crust from scratch requires the ability to make a mess without stressing over it all.  Gather all your ingredients and have a large flat dry surface ready to go.  Also, realize that you may fail… repeatedly… in making the perfect pie crust, but eventually you will get the hang of it.

Apple pie ingredients

Apple pie ingredients

Here’s the recipe with our notes (original recipe by Sandi Anderson via the Food Network)

Ingredients
Crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup shortening (recommended: Crisco)
Ice water
Filling:
1/2 cup to 1 cup all-purpose flour
6 to 7 cups apples cut into thin slices (we like to use a combination of Arkansas Blacks and Pink Ladies)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
***To make this more interesting, you could throw in some fresh or frozen chopped ginger.  We highly recommend it, especially if you have some of our farm’s ginger in your freezer.
2 tablespoons butter (to be used at the end of the recipe as a filling topper)Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Prepare the filling first by combining the apples with the brown and white sugar in a medium bowl.  Add flour, cinnamon and continue mixing until they are well coated.  Then set aside for the moment.
In a medium-mixing bowl cut the shortening and salt into the flour by hand or with a pastry blender until it’s the texture of cornmeal. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of ice water over the mixture and mix just until the dough is moistened. Repeat by adding 6 to 8 tablespoons water (one at a time) until all the dough is just moist.  Take care not to over mix.Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Divide the dough in half and roll into a ball. We feel like the dough is very sticky at this point, so we coat the balls in flour before rolling them out to make the process as easy as possible. Roll 1 ball into a circle to fit a 9 to 10-inch pie plate.   To transfer the pastry to the pie plate, wrap it around a rolling pin and ease it into the pie plate. Be careful not to stretch the pastry. Trim it even with the edges of the pie plate. Add the apple filling into the pastry lined pie plate. Make sure they are laying flat. Cut butter into small pieces and put on top of the filling.

Roll the remaining pastry into a 12-inch circle. Place on top of the filling. Trim off 1-inch beyond the edge of the pie plate. Crimp the edges as desired. Cut slits to allow steam to escape when baking. Sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon over the pie.

Cover the edges with foil to prevent over browning. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until it is golden brown. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream if you wish.

Next summer we plan on adding another twist to the apple pie by making a roselle hibiscus apple pie.  Stay tuned…

Fall is apple time.

Fall feels like a magical time for us, for some reason. Maybe it’s the way the light hits the landscape or the lack of humidity and crispness in the air. As farmers, we certainly love the bounty that the summer brings us, but the change of seasons is important to us and it’s a good time of year to take a deep breath and relax for a moment. In the Carolinas, we always talk about the Carolina blue sky, but it’s really in the fall when you’re able to see what that means – after the haze of summer has lifted and you can see that it’s time to exhale and relax after the craziness of a farmed summer.

Apples from our apple picking adventure two weeks ago.

Apples from our apple picking adventure two weeks ago.

Of all things Fall, we most appreciate the seasonal produce, and especially the fresh apple crop. So each autumn around the third week of October, we head to the North Carolina mountains to go apple picking. Picking apples late in the season is the perfect time for us to enjoy several loves at once… beautiful weather, the fall colors, roasting marshmallows by the fire and, of course, apples in all their glory. And during late October, some orchards in the mountains have two of our favorite varieties to eat and cook – pink ladies and Arkansas blacks.

Our favorite spot for picking is Sky Top Orchard (http://www.skytoporchard.com/) just outside of Flat Rock. You really can’t beat the view of the mountains from this orchard or the wide selection of apple varieties they grow.  Dogs are also allowed so we take Juno along to enjoy the ride while we load up our wagon full of apples and pull it back to the apple barn.  Back at the stand, you can select from apples (of course), fresh, non-pasteurized apple cider, smoking hot apple doughnuts, and all kinds of gourds and pumpkins. And sometimes you can watch the apple cider press in action. It’s a beautiful thing to have such great apples within a 3 ½ hour drive from our home in Hurdle Mills, NC.

Once back home we enjoy apple cider on its own, but sometimes we like to amend it with items to make a more decadent treat. We’ve adapted a recipe from the Beckman Boys 1802 Heirloom Cookbook to suit our own tastes and interests.

applecideringredients

The ingredients

Mulled Cider Recipe:

Ingredients:

1/2 gallon apple cider
2 cinnamon sticks, halved lengthwise
2 (2-inch) pieces of fresh ginger (or frozen from earlier in the year)
1 orange, quartered
16 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 vanilla bean, sliced open lengthwise
3 tablespoons maple syrup

Stud the orange with the whole cloves.  In a medium to large saucepan or Dutch oven, combine the cider, cinnamon, ginger, orange with cloves (sliced up if you want to release more of the juices), allspice and vanilla bean.  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook 5 minutes.  Strain the mixture and discard the spices.  Return the mixture to a gentle simmer and stir in the maple syrup.  Serve warm.

Mulling apple cider

Mulling apple cider

Want to impress friends? Invite them over and make this! It’s a simple way to add a little more decadence and depth to an already nearly perfect beverage. For the adults, a little added dark rum is fantastic (Kraken black spiced rum works really well), or even some local apple brandy such as Carriage House Apple Brandy out of Lenoir, NC.

Yum

Yum…

Enjoying the warm cup of cider out by a cozy fire in the crisp air of the autumn evening – what a perfect way to take that deep breath and… relax.

It’s also a great beverage for fall weddings…

Stay tuned for another entry on apples – making a great apple pie!

Why bulk loose leaf tea is better for you and for the environment.

This is our third season growing, harvesting, drying, and selling our own herbal teas from our wonderful farm here in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  As our farm business has grown, we have continued to try to find ways to make the farm and our farm products the most sustainably produced possible while also giving customers the best products possible.  Over the past year, we’ve focused more on selling our teas in loose leaf bulk bags and focused less on packaging them up into individual tea bags for the customer-on-the-go type.  At first, the decision to go bulk was mainly dictated by our lack of time to hand stuff and iron shut each individual tea bag (yes, it’s a brutally tedious process).  But as we’ve continued to explore more sustainable options for packaging our teas, we’ve run into more and more evidence that suggests that buying loose leaf, sustainably grown teas instead of individual tea bags is the best alternative for your household health and for the environment than any individually packaged single serving tea bags.

Our 1/2 ounce bags of loose leaf tea are available at our farmer's market stand and select retailers.

Our 1/2 ounce bags of loose leaf tea are available at our farmer’s market stand and select retailers.

When first exploring individual tea bag options, I was really excited by the “silk” tea bags that some high end tea purveyors use.  I mean, what could be better than drinking tea packaged in a textile woven from string from a caterpillar’s bum?  In looking for wholesale suppliers for these bags for our own teas, I stumbled upon a number of articles that explained that the “silk” in these tea bags is actually a plastic or bioplastic made from either petroleum or corn,not, alas a byproduct of silkworms. Although all of it is considered food grade material, it’s still worrisome that you are essentially boiling a plastic tea bag when steeping your tea.  Even for those who don’t think it’s a potential health concern, there are also the environmental and geopolitical negatives of using plastic (petroleum) or bioplastic (mostly from genetically modifed corn crops).

So what are tea drinkers to do?  Even if you are one of our on-the-go customers, there are many great solutions that will turn you into a loose leaf tea afficionado… Here are three ideas for the efficient tea drinker:

1) Buy a vacuum infuser mug

I purchased a vacuum infuser mug at REI a few years ago and it literally has changed my life.  In the morning on my way out the door, I put a teaspoon of dried herbal or regular tea into the mug, add the cap, and go.  When I’m ready to sip, I just open the top lid, and the bottom lid strains out all the tea while I’m drinking it.  Of course, this works best for mild teas like herbals, whites, or greens that don’t get quite as bitter after steeping.  Of course, it also holds my iced tea and keeps it way cold too.

My coveted tea infuser.

My coveted tea infuser.

2) Strain, strain, strain.

Most of the year, I’m more of an iced tea drinker than a hot tea drinker (part of the fun of living in the sunny, humid South).  So at the beginning of each week, I simply heat up a saucepan of hot water, throw in the herbal or regular tea leaves, and let it steep until I’m happy.  I add some honey to sweeten it up a bit (but not too much), then let it cool off enough to pour into my pitcher.  As I pour, I strain out the tea leaves and I’ve got myself a big, fat pitcher of iced tea goodness for the week.

Straining is fun!

Straining is fun!

3) Try tea balls.

Tea balls… ok, the name makes some people giggle, but they are a great way to make a nice cup or pitcher of tea without a lot of mess.   Who knew they came in multiple sizes too?  Big balls, medium balls, small balls.  Ok, enough… sorry.  Hint:  Southern Season in Chapel Hill has a great selection of tea balls AND sells our bulk loose leaf tea on a seasonal rotation!

Our home tea ball collection...

Our home tea ball collection…

So that’s the story of why we (mostly) drink and sell loose leaf tea on the farm.  We still package some teas individually and will continue to look for ways to do that as sustainably and healthfully as possible, but in the meantime we feel bulk loose leaf is the way to go.