Monthly Archives: June 2010

To brew or not to brew

We don’t pretend to be master brewers, and we don’t yet stray from recipes. Though we just buy the kits and follow the directions, the results have almost always been delicious.

Bottling beer

It’s surprisingly easy to brew beer. We found this out after Andy’s mom bought a brew kit (basically some buckets and tubing) for him and his brother-in-law. We bought a boxed kit of ingredients (True Brew makes many varieties) and gave it a try. Our first Red Ale was a success. Since then we’re made Brown Ale, California Wheat Ale and others. We enjoy good beer quite a bit, and brewing is a good way to save money.

Capping beer

We’ve also experimented with hard cider. We made some last fall and have shown much restraint in waiting until today to crack open a bottle (it’s supposed to be best if you wait a year before drinking). Sadly, it’s terrible – very sour. The cider was sour to begin with, and we just added yeast and let it sit. Oh well, maybe next time we’ll figure it out. We’ve never tried wine, but I’m sure we will some day.

In deciding whether or not to brew beer for the wedding, we considered cost, time, effort and space. From a distributor in Augusta we can get a half keg of Magic Hat for $132, Geary’s for $130 or a variety of other beers for similar prices. A half keg yields around 150 12-ounce servings. In contrast, the brew kits we buy cost around $30 each and yield 50 bottles of beer. We would need three of them to get 150 beers, which would cost $90.

Then there’s the time involved. Brewing beer doesn’t take much active time, but there’s quite a bit of waiting. First we heat up and mix together different ingredients, including malt and hops. We pour the wort into a bucket, add yeast, seal the bucket (with an airlock to let air escape) and let it ferment for about a week. Then we add sugar and seal the beer in bottles. We’ve found that the beer takes a couple of months before it tastes good.

We also realized that we’d need somewhere to store 150 beer bottles, and then we’d have to transport them. As you can probably guess, we decided not to do it.

Irish Stout for the wedding weekend

We did decide to brew beer for the wedding party events on Friday. We brewed one batch of Irish Stout and we’ll brew another batch of something different. By the wedding they should be nicely aged.

The garden is filling up

Sunday was a big planting day. We transplanted pepper and melon seedlings and directly seeded more beets and carrots. Ten beds out of 14 are filled with plants or seeds. Others are partially planted. Each bed is around 100 feet long.

Tiny corn seedlings

We gave the plants a snack of watered down fish emulsion. This provides plants with an organic and natural source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. We hope this will give the onions especially a boost (they’re looking a little stunted). Perry, the Jersey cow who lives next door, munched grass nearby as we worked. Gabbie stayed in the truck the whole time, which is typical for her.

We hilled the potatoes, meaning we piled up dirt around the stems of our growing potato plants. This prevents light from reaching the tubers. When potatoes are exposed to light they turn green and slightly poisonous. Hilling also keeps weeds in check and provides potatoes room to expand.

Newly planted melon seedling

It was a typical summer Sunday for us. Andy milked Perry the cow (she belongs to Medomak Camp) while I made pancakes and coffee. We ate breakfast while listening to NPR (paying particular attention to the Sunday Puzzle). Then we headed out to the garden in our new truck. After working until we were too hungry to continue, we came home for lunch.

We love having Sunday traditions, and working in the garden is something we look forward to. So far, the work load has been manageable with a few hours on Sunday and occasional time during the week. Surprisingly, we haven’t had many weeds come up yet, but that could change. Gardening isn’t easy, but it’s doable. With the knowledge and desire, I think most families could grow at least some of their own vegetables without a huge time commitment.

I made a map of the garden, which shows where everything is planted and will be planted. We’ve still got some open space unspoken for. Any ideas on what we should grow?

A map of the garden

A decision that will impact the rest of our lives

Most days a new piece of land comes on the market and I get an email about it. We open these emails excitedly, hoping for the perfect parcel at a reasonable price. We have particular needs and wants for this piece of land, as we want it to be both our home and our business for many years to come.

There are many qualities included in our perfect piece of land. First of all, we want soil types that are good for growing fruits and vegetables. We use Web Soil Survey, which is a service of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. On this website, you can trace out an area anywhere in the country and find out what soil types are present. It being Maine, there are many parcels that are too rocky or too wet to be any good for growing vegetables. We’d also like to have some fields, at least enough to get started, though we are willing to clear forest.

Then there’s the location. We want to be fairly close to our families, who live in Central Maine. We want to be close enough to farmers markets and customers so we can conveniently sell our products. We’re looking for a small town with a sense of community, where we can become part of the town, get to know our neighbors and feel welcomed. Looking ahead to having children some day, we also want a town with a good school system. That’s a lot to ask of a town.

There are also little perks that get us excited about certain pieces of property. For Andy, it’s sugar maples and quiet dirt roads. For me it’s water, whether it be a stream, pond or lake. We don’t expect to be able to afford lakefront property, but something close to a lake would be wonderful.

There’s the question of a house too. We have lots of ideas about what we’d like our house to be, namely energy efficient and built with natural materials. We have been considering buying an existing house, and we’ve looked at some, but none are what we’re looking for. We’ve realized lately that, if we can afford it, we’d really rather have our house built for us so it’s just what we want.

With all of these criteria in mind, we’ve visited at least 37 properties this year. Some have come close to being what we want, but we haven’t found the perfect place to settle down together. We get discouraged sometimes, looking at parcel after parcel after getting excited by the listing. On one hand, we just want to buy something and start creating the home we want. But we also want to wait until a piece of property feels just right. When should we give in on some of our desires? What should we compromise on?

A quick garden update

Under clouds last Saturday, after a week of mostly rain, we happily transplanted broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, more tomatoes, basil and dill into the garden. It was a great day for transplanting – cool and wet.

Transplanted kale and broccoli

We planted two beds halfway with the brassicas (broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower) and covered them with remay to keep the flea beetles out. In the other half of those beds, we planted corn (8 rows in 4 beds all together). By yesterday, much of the corn had germinated.

Tomatoes

We have 102 tomato seedlings in the ground now (and more in pots getting ready to be transplanted). If it’s a good year for tomatoes, we might just be overrun. But we do enjoy canning tomato sauce and salsa, and last summer we roasted and froze tomatoes, which were great for soups.

The potato plants are huge, and we’ll have to hill them soon. Our clover is growing well between the garden beds. We’re hoping the clover will keep the weeds down and add nitrogen to the soil.

The potatoes are bigger every day!

We’ve planted two kinds of melons inside in trays – a cantaloupe and a yellow watermelon. I can just imagine the juicy sweetness, and I can’t wait. The melon seedlings are leggy, but they’re growing. We’ll put them in the ground in a couple of weeks.

Pumpkin seedlings covered by remay

Our pumpkins and squash plants are doing well. We planted the seeds directly into the garden on May 22. Cucumber seedlings we transplanted on May 30 are also growing well.

And we bought a truck! We found a 1994 Chevy Silverado 4×4 with a rebuilt engine in pretty good condition for $3,000. Now we can haul all the manure, veggies, chickens, wood and compost we want, without making many trips with our cars.

We bought a truck!

There’s so much hope and expectation this time of year. We watch the garden fill with lush green and wait with hopes of few pests and good weather.

In support of local food

I can imagine some future brides poring over wedding magazines – looking at dresses, shoes and flowers. I pore over seed catalogs – ooohing and ahhhing over heirloom tomatoes and hot peppers. Mmmmm…romanesco cauliflower, blue ballet squash, yellow sunshine watermelon…these varieties are definitely wedding-worthy.

I was asked in an interview recently why we decided to take on this project (check out the Portland Press Herald article by clicking here). Why grow and cook the food for our wedding dinner? Why take on another potentially stressful task to prepare for our special day? The question really got me thinking. Was our motivation primarily to save money, be self-sufficient, feel connected to our food source, make some sort of statement about eating locally or just serve delicious, fresh food to our guests?

The answer is a combination of all of these reasons. Andy and I feel passionately about eating fresh, locally-grown food. We love the taste of fresh food. We also try to limit our negative environmental impact, so we eat food that has required less chemicals and fossil fuels to be grown and transported to us and thus has had a lighter impact on the earth. We are appalled by the way animals are treated in factory farms.

We also value community, and we see eating locally as a way neighbors can get to know each other through mutual support. We hope to help preserve the traditional farming lifestyle of New England so children understand where their food comes from and what goes into growing it. For all of these reasons, and probably several more, we strive to eat local food grown in a humane and sustainable way. Writing this blog is, I suppose, a statement in support of small farms. We do what we can to make a positive impact on the world, but we also do what makes us happy. We hope that others will do the same.

Planting cucumbers in black plastic

It makes us happy to work on projects. We’re not the type of people who spend much time sitting around. When living in Portland, I used to run a lot. Now I garden.

It’s hard to explain why we get so much satisfaction from providing for our own needs. In the last year we’ve cut all our own firewood, smoked our own bacon and ham, brewed our own beer, boiled sap into maple syrup, canned pickles and applesauce and froze many different fruits and vegetables. Partly, we do this to save money, but it’s about more than just that. The food tastes better when we preserve it ourselves. The pile of wood keeps us active and outside while cutting and then keeps us warm all winter.

Potatoes

The wedding garden is also an experiment that we hope to learn from in planning future gardens. We are planning to start our own small, diversified farm in the near future, and we will need to do the same sort of planning that went into this garden, just on a larger scale. I’m keeping meticulous records (in this sense I truly am my mother’s daughter). For every crop, we’re keeping track of how much we planted, how much space it took up and how many pounds of product we get out of it. Keeping track of what it all costs will also help us plan future, larger gardens.

Bags of rocks to weigh down row cover -- using the resources we have

Money is also a factor in our decision. As both of us are the type to choose low paying jobs because we enjoy them, neither of us has ever had a lot of money. We are trying to keep our wedding expenses low so we can use our hard-earned savings for farm start-up expenses. Our most recent wedding budget has us spending somewhere between $6,000-7,000 total, with somewhere around $1,500 of that being for food. We were joking that few wedding budgets include things like chicken feed and potting soil. Our budget numbers are still very rough, though, and they could be way off. Check back later for an updated budget.

It helps in taking on this task that we don’t feel like we’re entering this endeavor as total beginners. Though we haven’t done it commercially, we aren’t brand new to farming. My parents moved to Maine as part of the back to the land movement, joining other city folk searching for a more meaningful lifestyle close to the land. As a child, I learned about growing food, raising chickens and preserving food. Andy grew up in the country too. He had his own garden as a child.

As adults, we’ve each spent two seasons working for other farmers. Last summer we spent the summer together working at Dandelion Spring Farm, just to make sure we still wanted to farm together before we bought land. Despite the relentless rain, we had a great summer. During summers when we haven’t worked on farms, we’ve usually had gardens in our yards or at community gardens. Our wedding garden will be the largest either of us has planted on our own.