Saturnalia

As the year comes to a close I would be remiss not to give a nod to the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Saturn was associated with the Golden Age in very ancient pre-Roman Italy, and his temple was the oldest in the Roman Forum, and is still today one of its most prominent monuments. It was also a major state treasury, and Roman generals marched past it up the street known as the clivus Capitolinus during triumphal processions. Saturn’s statue was equally old; his image was made of wood, filled with oil, and reportedly wielded a scythe, with his feet bound by woolen filets. His festival started on December 17, and included the exchange of gifts, the wearing of lose fitting garments and felt caps, revelry and carnival, role reversals in which masters waited on slaves, and the presence of lights.

The holiday may have been associated with the winter solstice, and in the late Roman empire became associated loosely with the birthday of the god Sol Invictus, Sun the Unconquerable on December 25, as the Romans looked forward to the end of their cold, wet Mediterranean winter and the return of the sun’s warmth in spring and summer. It is probably no coincidence that Saturnalia, Christmas, Hannukkah, and Sol’s dies natalis are so conjoined: all celebrate light, and the return of light in the depths of winter. The presence of candles at the Saturnalia; the lighting of the menorah; the lights that adorn trees and houses; the return to lengthening days after the year’s shortest day.

This is perhaps one of the darkest Christmases Lori and I have spent. We have had a constant mix, these past few weeks, of sleet, rain, drizzle, fog, gloom, and sloppy snow; couple that with being at a latitude no longer parallel with Rome but with northern Maine, as northwest Oregon is, and you have a recipe for short, dark days. The light comes at around 8:00 am and departs by 4:30. Light is a brief visitor here right now – indeed, as brief now as it was long and lingering in June. The season is marked by mud, muck, and mist, redeemed by the beautiful emerald green grass fields, evergreens, mild weather that’s enticing the buds on trees already and eliciting lush vegetation, and snow capped vistas to the west.

The longer days that are about to come will allow us to escape the season of Saturnalia. But our day to day chores will not. We are daily in thrall to our animals. None can write their names; none can scribble a math equation; none has ever read a single word. Intellectually we are their superiors in every way. Yet we are their Helots; we serve them and do service to them even on holidays. Christmas does not stop egg collection; it does not give a break from feeding and watering; it does not give a break from tending or cleaning. We may exact a daily tribute of eggs and milk, and occasionally launch a revolt that produces meat, but on a much more regular basis, we are merely the staff. And our animals are the diurnal Master of Ceremonies, even as we start the long march towards summer’s longest day.

Our Kakhi Campbells have a bit of wanderlust, and yesterday we had to take measures to convince them that it was not in their best interest to slip out from under the chicken wire and eat our over-wintering cabbages and onions.

They might look like ostriches in this pic, but Campbells are great foragers and save on feed as a result.

Tomorrow or the day after we will be moving our meat chickens out of the barn and onto pasture.

Marguerite and Leah pose at the mineral feeders – both hopefully have settled and will have kids come April.

Marguerite is our queen doe (we suspect), and certainly our most vocal and curious one!

We traded some local organic oats for eggs – the hens love the oats; Sulyeman, the big red-headed Barred Rock Plymouth on the right, always calls his girls when there are treats on hand.

The girls gossip at the water cooler as Sulyeman keeps a close eye on them!

Christmas on the Farm: Year One.

We awoke one day this week to finally see some long overdue snow in the Coast Range that looms over us to the west.

Christmas starts from a memory; that, after all, is the point of the ghost of Christmas Past in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It haunts Scrooge with a bitter poignancy. My guess is that many of us, myself included, are harried this time of year when that old necromancer, memory, summons the spirits to revel in the extended darkness of the twelfth month. My own personal spirit is an annual Poltergeist whose name is Christmas Eve – always a great day for me growing up. I came from a Scandinavian household. My mother was first generation Norwegian and Danish – that meant a great build up to the holiday with a culmination of eating, drinking, and opening presents on the 24th.

It started after Thanksgiving with baking. Fruit cakes wrapped in swaddling cloths of brandy to await gestation. Savory cookies dipped in nuts and filled with jellies. All manner of fried and baked goods coated in layers of various guises of sugars. A weekend in December when the tree was decorated and a spontaneous party with booze and eggnog and punch and sweets emerged. At some point in the month there was a holiday potluck at the Sons of Norway Lodge with ham, lutefisk, boiled potatoes, lefse, and prune whip. There were the annual gatherings at neighbors’ homes, such as at Mrs. Moon’s down at the coast, who held an annual antique sale in her attic that had a gorgeous view of the Pacific, and who served cookies and hot spiced wine. Then there was the earnest build up to Christmas Eve.

It always started at Verner Salins’ in East Portland, a great and now defunct Scandihoovian deli, but even to this day, for me, Christmas would not be complete without a meditation on the smells of the meats, the cheeses, the fish at the deli. We would emerge with a larder full of rollpolse, medistopolse, lefse, tybo cheese , gjeitost cheese, lutefisk, cod roe, herring of assorted types and various other goodies. Then back home and it would start:

A frenzy of baked goods: cookies, cakes, ice creams all set out. The cheeses and meats created a deli in their own right, including not just lutefisk and potatoes, but ham, rollepolse, sometimes game such as elk, deer, or bear if anyone had gone hunting, deviled eggs, egg sandwiches with anchovies, lox, pickled herring, and plenty of libations. We would start in around noon and it would last all day: eating, drinking, playing cards. Then came the evening: the neighbors would come over. People ate and drank and laughed. Then it was time to go out for a walk and look for Santa. My mother always claimed to see him, and to see the star of Bethlehem as well; we convinced ourselves, then returned to find a tree laden with gifts, even when times were lean, as they sometimes were, for my parents. But they always found a way.

A rush of opening ensued, and always seemed to end as soon as it began. It always seemed a grand time.

Over the years things changed of course, and, once I was with Lori, they changed quickly. As my life became entirely focused on my education and career, and since I was on an academic calendar, I was able to disregard Christmas. It came at semester’s end, when I had no time to think about it, when I was just exhausted and only wanted to spend a couple of weeks drinking beer and watching old movies. In my years at UMass./Boston I would go to Durgin Park and celebrate semester’s end with beer and clams on the half-shell, sometimes followed by shopping at Schoenhoff’s, one of the world’s finest foreign language bookstores in Cambridge. The best Christmases I have had have been alone with Lori and myself. Over the years we built up a good tradition of having a nice meal both Christmas Eve and Day (since I honor Christmas Eve, but she Christmas Day). In recent Christmases we have glutted ourselves on duck or prime rib or lobster bisque with pop-overs. Thanks to a generously remunerated assignment from the History Channel, we spent Christmas 2006 wandering through Florence, drinking prosecco, playing scrabble next to the Duomo, listening to a violinist play Vivaldi in the portico of the Uffizi, watching the Italians take their Christmas passagiata as the bells chimed throughout the city which was beautifully decorated and holding a Christmas fair with all manner of wonderful foods. Last Christmas we spent in an apartment in Maryland playing dominos, drinking wine, anticipating the great change that was about to come in our lives. This one we are now spending on the farm.

In some ways it is similar to past ones when we were busily finishing up semesters, whether as undergrads, graduate or law students. This is life when you are starting up a business and a way of life totally alien to your experience: we spent the week splitting lots of wood, trimming hooves, finishing our egg mobile and our rabbit tractor, and building a slaughter table (there is no other nice word for it) for when we process our meat chickens next month. We also spent the week planning for next year, perusing seed catalogues, researching what we will need to do to start keeping goat bucks for breeding, hogs for pork production, and sheep for both wool and meat production. This week my materials came for a master gardener class I’ll be taking through the OSU extension office on Thursdays that will run from January through March. And we registered for the Northwest Oregon Goat Conference and the Small Farms Conference that will take place early next year.

The egg mobile now exudes with the spirit of Christmas, since I painted it a traditional barn red with white trim yesterday!

I built this table to help with the processing of our first meat hens next month. We also purchased an outdoor deep fryer in order to scald the hens before plucking.

Behold, the Bugs Bunny Hilton! This is our rabbit tractor, that includes a box shelter to keep the rabbits dry, and slats on the bottom to give them access to grass but to keep them from burrowing out and escaping. The roof is more for shade than for keeping moisture out, in order to help our furry friends stay cool in the summer when out on grass.

Yet in the process of all of this it occurs to me, it will be the simplest Christmas we have ever had: roast turkey and gravy, deviled eggs, braised greens, mashed potatoes, roasted fennel, chicken liver mousse, cherry cobbler, hard cider. Almost everything, as was the case with Thanksgiving, will be from off our farm. There is an enforced simplicity: no lobster from Maine, no lamb from Iceland or New Zealand, no dead cow from the Midwest, no wine from Italy or France, or even California. And it further occurs to me that for years I would always be perplexed by the variety of choices I had for Christmas dinner. Now there is no angst over what to prepare; the answer is as simple as what our land will produce.

Nor will there be herring from Sweden, or gjeitost from Norway, or rollepolse from Denmark; but those ghosts of Christmas Past will be exorcised in the fires of our stove as they roast, braise, and bake the assorted flavors of our land, whose tastes are as varied as the lights that adorn our tree. And in their stead the jocund ghost of Christmas Present will sit in his garland throne and remind us of his generosity and charity.

God bless us all, everyone!

Filthy Lucre and Leila the Tamworth

Well, a quiet week these past seven days, but there was some muted excitement. This Thursday Janet missed her heat. She is very regular and so we are guessing that Glib Talker did the task. (Today we’ll check Marguerite and keep our fingers crossed!)

We also made our first money from the farm . . .

Perfect ring composition! George Washington was himself a farmer and now has a presence on our farm (NB – we’ll forgive the fact that he was one of the few founding fathers not classically educated, though he always kept a copy of Horace in translation in his back pocket!)

My niece Jamie and her husband Jeremy were our first customers for a dozen eggs. By the end of the week we had sold seven dozen.

We also had the chance to visit the farm of a friend in the next community over who had this beautiful Tamworth hog out on pasture named Leila – by whom I must say I was quite smitten! She was a lovely animal.

We loved Leila’s big ears, her sleek hams, her shiny brown coat, and her generally endearing demeanor!

Apart from that, the egg mobile is finished, and it is on to our chicken and rabbit tractors next. I finally finished our raised covered beds for winter for a steady supply of lettuce and spinach, and just to give you an idea how time flies, it’s just a matter of days before the spring seed catalogues come out. This year we plan to grow the following row crops: several varieties of potatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, fennel, pumpkins (for eating), sunflowers (for feed), peas, beans (dry), zucchini (flowers for us, fruit for hens!), melons, beets, cabbage, and I’m going to experiment to see if I can’t get sweet potatoes coaxed out of a raised covered bed. Spinach, lettuce, chard, and other cool weather crops we’ll try to grow in the backyard where there’s plenty of shade.

It is hard to think of spring and summer as the wind howls, as a sloppy mix of rain and snow assaults us, and as our Christmas tree glows in the corner of our den. But nature doesn’t wait, and neither, perforce, can we.

In The Bleak Mid-Winter

I’ve often wondered what farmers do in the winter, and now the mystery is solved. They do maintenance chores and construction. In the past two weeks we’ve finished a number of big projects.

First, we completed the green house – Hooray! But the idiots who wrote the reviews and recommendations were masters of PR. Eight hours to assemble my fanny – that thing took two damn months. I also built four planting tables out of plywood,  2 x 4, and 1 x 2.

The green house retains a good amount of heat, and even on a cold day is hot, provided the sun is out.

I built four 4′ x 1.5′ tables that will soon hold lots of starts. We’ll also be putting in a couple of lemon trees.

Since we’ve decided to ramp up operations, I’ve been building a new egg mobile. We intend to get 50 or so more hens come February to ramp up our egg production. The current egg mobile that we built this summer was much too heavy – we needed something we could literally pick up and lift on a day to day basis.

This one will house 25 hens and has six nest boxes, and, best of all, you can just pic it up and move it with two people – it will rest on straw bales or a couple of 4 x 4s.

Our egg mobile is made out of light weight plywood for ease of mobility; it’s 4′ x 8′ and can be easily lifted by two people. We left off wheels because our pasture is so uneven, so we’ll simply carry it like a Roman litter!

The egg mobile from the backside, with the egg boxes open.

I got the idea for the design from another egg mobile I saw being used on a farm elsewhere, and liked the simplicity and lightness of the design, so got to work and put it together based solely on the image I had of the contraption.

And that is about all to report – other than our continuing flood of eggs.

We’ve started to sell eggs now that we are up to about seven dozen a week. Pastured raised eggs, bright orange yolks, and great flavor – $3.50 a dozen!

Construction has kept us busy and will continue to do so as we start to build egg mobile ii, and to build several tractors for broiler hens, a couple of smaller tractors for rabbits, and possibly one or two for ducks.

Moral clarity is not important – cider clarity is (and with it comes moral clarity anyway!)

And at the end of the day we still see beautiful gold on the horizon – not from the sun, but from our cider, which has now become clear, effervescent, and delicious at the end of a hard day of construction. Onward and upward!