Monday, December 3, 2012

Our Organic Meat Cattle

     I should first say that what I will describe is only our way of doing things. Animals can be raised humanely and/or organically using a variety of methods. The factors that play the largest role in how we, and most people, decide to manage livestock are money, space and time. We have no money, 20 hectares and since the cows represent a secondary income, only about 2 hours on an average day to commit to their care.

     Our cows are Barrosas, which is a heritage breed from about 20 miles from where we are. Since farms in this area were historically small, the cows were part of a diversified system of self-sufficiency. In addition to chickens, a garden, goats, sheep or pigs, a family might also keep a cow or two to help pull the plow and to give a calf each year that could be sold or slaughtered. Because these animals were  raised for a variety of uses and were not kept in anything resembling an intensive system they were never bred to be specialized like the Holsteins with freakishly large utters or the Angus cows with football player necks. They do not give an impressive amount of meat or milk, but they are incredibly hearty- easily living 20 years without health problems. Our heard stays outside all day and night and all year round unless we get a particularly heavy snow or weeks of non-stop rain. They eat anything and everything and are constantly amazing us by trying new things. Recently we discovered that they had been eating bay leaves. Filipe remembers the first time one of the cows tried a chestnut, after a week or so of watching her, others began to try them as well and now they are one of the first things they go for and a staple of their autumn diet.  The cows also eat blackberry brambles, oak leaves, acorns and ivy. Because they have such a varied diet and don’t depend on grasses they are able to live all year on what they can find on the farm and in the mountains.

    Right now, we have eight females and one bull as well as the calves. Everyone stays together all the time and this past year, as in many years, every cow gave a calf. The calves are sent to slaughter at about  eight months to a year, depending on their size and the cows are able to get pregnant again within a few weeks. Compared to industrial dairy cows, who fetuses are often aborted as soon as they begin to develop milk so that they can get pregnant sooner, or many ‘grass fed’ cows that are sent to a feed lot to get fattened after the requisite number of weeks eating grass, our process might seem like it takes an excruciatingly long time.  It does, and that’s why it’s a secondary income. That said, the cows serve other purposes for us. It’s certainly far cheaper to keep a heard of cattle than what it would cost to keep the land clean when you consider the time, equipment and labor. There is also a small subsidy for keeping heritage breed livestock, which makes the system more cost effective. 

     Our animals are certified organic. This means that no chemicals have been used on the land where they feed and the animals themselves are of course not treated with any type of medications. For those who don’t know much about the certification process, it is done by private groups whose standards vary but all must meet the government standards. Some organizations have very high standards, and products with these labels are preferred by ‘purists.’ Besides regulations about food and medications, most also have rules about how the animal lives- with the goal being that the animal is able to fulfill it’s natural activities as it pertains to feeding, sex and movement.  Another aspect of organic  certification is in how the animal is slaughtered. This is the same as all cattle but they are done before any other animals in the morning at the slaughterhouse when all the equipment is clean to avoid contamination.  After that, the carcass is sent to the butcher where it is cut to our specifications. The butcher  then packages it and our colleague picks up the packages in his refrigerated truck and delivers them to the final customers!
     Although we raise beef cattle, Filipe and I eat very little meat- he won’t eat anything that he hasn’t  raised. I’m not an animal activist, but I think that seeing just how much energy and time it takes to raise an animal the right way has given me a reverence for meat that is easy to lose when meat is something that comes shrink-wrapped at the grocery store. Many people ask me how I can spend all day around these little calves, knowing that they will be killed, and then eat them. It’s hard to explain, but I have no problem with it all, I savor the meals I make with our meat, I truly appreciate the meals, as well as the animals.  What really disturbs me is not eating my own animals, but thinking about the meat that so many of these people are eating.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Week at Camp Walden

         For the past two summers I have taken a week out of my regularly scheduled programming to spend a week in a little cabin that sits on four beautiful acres belonging to Filipe. The little cabin makes our farmhouse feel like something out Better Homes and Gardens by comparison. The slate roof has some gaps that allow for wonderful summer star gazing, but which mean that I have sleep inside a tent on the floor, just in case it rains and to keep out the creepy-crawlies. With no electricity and running water it’s truly ‘off the grid.’ I'm not sure if it's really a Thoreau expereince or if it's more Kerouac- think Big Sur, since I always bring a couple bottles of wine to enjoy during the quiet evenings while I read by candlelight. Since we visit only a few times a year when I get there I have my work cut out for me. The land is terraced and in the past year we have begun planting hazelnut trees along the terraces, but within a matter of months the blackberry brambles climb out from along the borders, the ferns pop their fiddle heads out from the grass and by mid summer a major week of weed-whacking is well in order!

I Heart my New Weed-Whacker
     I spend several hours in the early morning with the weed whacker, tearing through thorny vines, grass taller than myself and ferns that seem almost prehistoric in their massiveness. It’s slow work and by midday the heat combined with all the protective wear required, makes working impossible and that means it’s time to head to the river for a refreshing swim. Of course, in order to get to the river which is about a mile from the property, I have to pass the best restaurant in the nearby village, although that’s not saying much since I think it might be the only one. That said, for seven Euros I can get a steak, rice, salad, a carafe of wine and a little coffee to finish it off. Considering I can’t really cook in the cabin and after all the hard work I think I’d pay twice that for a good protein boost! At the cabin I stick to fruit for breakfast and sardines and crackers or a tuna fish sandwich for dinner. On the property we have a water mine, which is like well except that rather than going vertically into the ground it comes horizontally out of the hillside. The water  that comes out is clear, very cold and the perfect refreshment in the heat- at least as cold as water from a fridge would be.

At the cabin- wine grapes creeping up the wall on the right.
      The heat remains unbearable until after four, then I am able to work until at least 9:30, but during the afternoons, with no other distractions, I read. This week alone I finish three books, Mary Kay Anderews’ Spring Fever, Into the Beautiful North and Middlesex. It’s hard to describe the peace that comes from going several days without speaking to anyone (except daily check-ins with Filipe of course,) with projects but without any schedule besides my own internal clock. No screens, no sounds, the phone turned off to preserve battery. I also cannot emphasize enough how much I value the opportunities that I have to do things alone. I have a wealth of wonderful memories in my life, but the ones that stand out the most to me always seem to be the times I did something slightly scary by myself. The solo road-trips, the camping and the traveling alone. The old people in the village are forever asking me if I’m okay out there, if I’m scared, how can I live without electricity? What I find most intriguing is that younger people get it- they can see the value in getting away from everything comfortable, but the old people who remember a time before the village had electricity and sewage find my ‘vacation’ shocking. Plus I'm using a fairly powerful machine which I have been told several times is 'men's work.'
Filipe planting a tangerine tree!
      I have to say, that at times all the nature can get to be too much for me. One morning in particular before I had the wisdom to put the tent up and was sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor, I woke up very early. Looking around at the slate tiles between the wooden beams I noted a bit of orange peeking out between two sheets of overlapping slate. I pondered it a moment and decided it must be dried leaf. I drifted back to sleep and woke about an hour later to see that the spot of orange had moved and was now several feet from where I had first seen it. Upon closer inspection my fears were confirmed, there was indeed a large snake wedged between the tiles soaking up the morning sun on the hot roof. ‘Okay,’ I told myself, ‘He was here first, he's up there and he's not bothering you. This is what it’s all about, living in tune with nature.’ So I quickly left the house and spent the morning weed-whacking. When I returned around lunch, mercifully, he was gone and I was pleased at my calm and reasonable reaction. I fixed myself a sandwich and then lay down to read and nap. There’s really nothing like napping in the quiet countryside with so little insulating you from the world. One can hear the cicadas chirping, children playing in the nearby village, church bells on the quarter hour, birds of all kinds and even a slippery thumping in the rafter above…My eyes shot open to see the snake had crawled out from somewhere, slipped on the narrow cross beam and was now hanging head first from the beam above my head. Two of it’s four feet of length dangled downed, it’s head turned up looking me dead in the eye only feet away. I screamed like little girl which of course, caused the snake to hiss and draw open its mouth in fear. I literally sprang from the bed and was out of the house in milliseconds. From the safety of doorway, I peered in at the creature now curled up on the beam. I called Filipe at work, there are no poisonous snakes in Northern Portugal he informed me, though this brought me little comfort. The snake stayed through the evening. I lit a fire in my grill in the corner below where he was perched and he left for a while, but by nightfall, after I was done cooking and the fire died down, he was back.
Smoking out the snake
     I put up my tent, and crawled inside. For the next week I saw him daily. I screamed oaccaionally and then we adjusted to eachother. Filipe’s sister told me that snakes are sign of transition. Perhaps she was right because on no subsequent visit have I seen the snake, and no one else has ever seen him either. I get teased that it was vision but I guess he was there only that one time. Maybe there was a reason?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fence Building and other Life Lessons

     This week we have been fencing in the property in preparation for the arrival of the cows! Let me just say, that fence building does not suit my skill-set. The only thing worse then carrying forty pound bales of wire on my back across fields in the blazing sun is dropping them and ending up sitting in the middle of the hot field for forty-five minutes trying to undo a massive tangle of wire and ending up with the most hideous, bent, mess. Thank heavens that for me that this project has been much more valuable as a chance to learn about my adopted country than it has been about fence building, as I hope never to do it again! For this project we have two teams. Team Able-Bodied- Male is made up of Senhor Joao and his brother, both middle aged and used to hard, outdoor work. Then there's Team Amateur-and-the-Octogenarian which consists of me and the most wonderful old man, Senhor Salgado (lit. translation: Mister Salty.) 

Senhor Salgado
     If Mad Men makes you question our modern obsession with the consequences of smoking you should meet Salgado. He’s 85 without a hint of dementia, still working and still stops every forty minutes for a cigarette. He offered me one and I declined telling him that I don’t smoke, he asked me why not.  I don’t mind the frequent breaks even though my natural competitive spirit leaves me calculating just how much faster Team Able-Bodied-Male is working than we are, because I have a chance to look into the mind of man whose life experiences could really not be more different than my own. Salgado spent the majority of his life under the oppressive dictatorship of Salazar which fell in 1974. During this time choices were limited for everyone, and propaganda dictating the type of lifestyle that was expected of citizens was prominent. Most of the older folks will tell you that they were very careful about what they talked about in public, and certainly never questioned the regime out loud.

'God, Patriotism (lit. homeland), Family. The trilogy of National Education.'   A popular poster during the dictatorship.
      When I first saw this picture I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it exactly, that’s what I want!’ Of course, minus the big cross on the table, but whatever, I could get past that. But then I took stock of the whole reality, I wouldn’t want that if I didn’t have a choice. In this world a woman could not leave the country alone without written and notarized permission of her husband or father (only if she wasn’t married.) Divorce was strictly illegal unless a man could prove his wife was incompetent and birth control wouldn’t be available until the early eighties. Every book sold on store shelves had to be pre-approved by the government and societal roles were not just regulated by culture, but by the government.

     I must admit that Salgado and I don’t understand each other terribly well. My Portuguese leaves a lot to be desired and with the compounded issues of many missing teeth and a rural accent on his part it can be much more difficult to understand him than folks in the city. That said, after just a week I feel I’m able to understand at least double what I could on the first day.  We are learning each other’s cadence, accent and vocabulary. The other day during a cigarette break Salgado looked at me seriously and said ‘Tudo que eu conheceu, morreu.’ It sounds nice in Portuguese because it rhymes, but literally means, All that I knew is dead. I was shocked, not sure what to say- what a heavy statement. But then he looked away and looked back and me with his glassy blue eyes and big smile ‘But you know, I like this new world. When I was boy you couldn’t watch girls go swimming, now I can turn on the TV and see Brazilian girls dancing around in their underwear! It’s better for women and for men, I think.’  So in some ways Salgado is very much involved in the ‘new world’ but he regularly astonishes me with what he doesn’t know. Recently he asked, ‘So, the money is different where you come from, no?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We use the dollar.’ He pondered this for a moment.
‘So, what do you use here?’ He finally asked.
     At this point I’m convinced that Salgado has survived sixty years of heavy smoking, a life of farming (though two fingers didn’t survive that,) and the massive cultural changes of the last forty years by simply never giving up his curiosity. I try to ask as many questions as I can manage about the old days, but just as he can’t quite grasp how I got from the other side of the ocean to be living here in the middle of nowhere, I can’t quite understand how the world could have been so different just fifty years ago and  how people survived it, physically and emotionally. We’re both lacking perspective and we’re both enjoying the chance to gain a little each day, even if it means getting lapped around the field by Team Able-Bodied-Male.

***Senhor Salgado passed away in his sleep at the end of October and was buried on Nov. 1, 2012- All Saints Day. Rest in Peace Salgado.***

Monday, April 9, 2012

Spring in photos

Early spring in the garden- March 15th
     Things are moving quickly here on the homestead. Last week we became the proud owners of four bee colonies. They are hard at work and adjusting well. Next week we'll getting two more hives and hopefully two more the week after that. Strictly speaking, I suppose this place is more an apiary than a farm. That said, the bees require little intervention so I'm spending most of my time getting the garden going.

     My garlic wasn't looking so good, it had a lot of brown tops and wasn't growing quickly. I made a mulch of dried leaves from the forest floor and spread that around them and then misted the leaves with a stinging nettle mixture and they seem to be improving. Of course, in my desperation to keep them alive I didn't apply any scientific method so now I don't what was effective.

     The property has lots of wild strawberries that I'm constantly discovering. Here I have taken wild plants and put them in the garden, by using organic fertilizers and controlling their environment I'm hoping they might produce a yield similar to conventional strawberry plants- we'll see.

Mustard greens...I think.
     Can anyone tell me if these are mustard greens or rutabaga? I guess I'll find out eventually. My seed trays got mixed up early on and now I'm not sure what anything is that isn't obvious. Oh well, live and learn, and whatever they are they look great!

White Wisteria by the front door- now full of bees!

Four working hives and an empty fifth (we might still catch a swarm...)

One of the more than 50 hazelnut trees we planted- it already has some leaves!

Grape vines getting their first leaves.

     So that's the latest. I'm glad spring has finally arrived and  is offering the rewards of flowers, green leaves and maturing fruits. The winter months were making me feel as if things would never happen around here. Now that I have America to chase away the cats and foxes, I'm thinking it might be time to try my hand with geese again. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Apicultura- Beekeeping!

      This weekend Filipe and I participated in the first of a three part course in beekeeping. The course will take place over three weekends staggered through out the ‘bee season’ so we can track their progress and learn about the different stages of the hive. Filipe has experience with bees but for me it was the first time getting near the little guys. The course was in Portuguese of course, but the instructor, the wonderful Harold Hafner, is originally from Austria and as anyone who has learned a second language knows, other non-native speakers are often much easier to understand. Of course, Hafner also speaks English so after the lectures I was able to pull him aside for clarifications.
      In this first part of the course we learned about the different species of bees. Europe is home to many different types of honey bees, in the northern countries (as well as in parts of the U.S.) the bees are quite calm but in Portugal they (mellifera iberiensis) have what Hafner calls, a latin temper. They are not more dangerous, just more likely sting you, so those charming photos of the guys opening beehives in t-shirts that I so hoped would one day be me, can be forgotten. We were fully suited up and in two days of working with the bees I didn’t get stung once! 
Does this suit make me look fat? Ha, no really, I asked that.
      I’m sure the Southerners are curious about the Aricanized Honey Bee. We don’t have them here because they are not able to survive above the 30th parallel, or anywhere north of the deep south in the case of the U.S. They have migrated slowly  north since their introduction in Brazil more than 150 years ago. The African bee’s queen hatches two days earlier than the native bees  ( I say native but there were no honey bees in North and South America before the Europeans- pollination was left to bumble bees and insects) so when they come to new hive they are easily able to take it over. Their queen egg hatches first and the queen kills the others as they hatch. This is normal procedure in a hive and if they all hatched at more or less the same time as is usual it would be a battle for the fittest but the African bees two day advantage makes them the clear winner, and we end up with a lot of African bees.  The question I had was should we be afraid of them. Hafner doesn’t think we need to be as afraid of them as we are told to be. His mother lives in Florida and he says he has seen the shift from the ‘native’ Italian species to the African hybrid. He says they are slightly more aggressive, but what really sets them apart is that where a normal honey bee hive will follow an intruder maybe fifty yards, a hive of Africanized honey bees can peruse for up to a kilometer. Tip: if you’re being chased by bees run in a zig-zag pattern not a straight line! That said, it seems they are not so much more likely to sting you than any other species and in much of Central and South America beekeepers are not bothering to constantly purify their hives with new queens of a European species, as they are in the U.S. and instead they just go on raising the Africanized populations without much trouble.
Filipe showing his skills
      We also learned about the different types of hives. In the U.S. and much of Europe the box hive is the standard. But in many places older designs still persist. In Portugal they have long used the bark of the cork tree as a hive. We have one of these, but they aren’t as easy to use as the modern hive. That said, I think it’s nice to have one in the name of tradition. 
Cork Hive
      The best part of the course though, without a doubt, was the hands-on work with the bees. Going inside the hives and pulling out the sheets of wax we were able to locate the larvae, the pollen stores and, best of all, the honey stores! The bees whipped around our faces and crawled over everything but I must say I found the overwhelming buzzing quite soothing.  I’m looking forward to getting our own bees this month and trying it for myself. Wish me luck! 
My hives

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Portugal...In Portuguese

A chapel in the sea- Gaia

In Portuguese they use the same name for a Pigeon and a Dove,
But different names for a camel with one hump and a camel with two.

The neighbor's cow looking curiously in my front door- Cinfaes
 Small pinealpples and large ones have different names.
So do white raisins and red raisins. 

Fishermen- Foz

The same word is used for lending and borrowing. 
Camara means city hall
And puxe means pull.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Clothes Made From Nettles?

While reading Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey, I learned that Indians in Minnesota used to use stinging nettles to make fishing nets. I told Filipe about this, sure that this would be novel and interesting, he informed me (and I later confirmed) that during World War I Germany experienced a cotton shortage and turned to the ubiquitous nettle to make their soldiers' uniforms.

 Our farm is covered in stinging nettles and while I have discovered many wonderful uses for the vitamin rich weed, I had never heard of making fiber from it. I regularly make a tea from the leaves of the plant by picking them (carefully and with gloves) and boiling them. The sting (which is chemical similar to fire ant spit and is delivered through the sharp hairs on the underside of the leaves and on the stem) is eliminated after a few seconds in boiling water or when the plant is dried. I also use them to make a soup, much the same way as the tea but with potatoes and onions added and then pureed at the end. They can also be steamed and eaten with butter or used any way that you use spinach. In a flourish of culinary creativity I even made nettle gnocchi once, but just like every other time I have tried to make gnocchi it was a f-ing messy disaster. I also make a fertilizer for my garden by soaking large amounts of the whole plant in a barrel with water until the plant itself dissolves and the mixture takes on a pungent odor similar to manure. I then add a cup of this to each bucket of water when watering my plants. You can do this at home on small scale, the proportions are not important, just wait till it stinks and add a little bit to your watering can. 
Hurts so good
 Nettles can be found wild in almost all temperate climates and are packed with vitamins, particularly A, C and K and loaded with iron. But they are also very fibrous. Thinking that I had just come upon the most wonderful new eco-idea, fabric made from an abundant wild source, perhaps the end of cotton, I began to think of all the wonderful possibilities. Upon further research though, I found that my thinking followed many other ecologically minded opportunists. Apparently, nettle clothing is all the rage (if you’re into hippie, free flowing, formless wear, which I am not, yet.) Great Britain is even funding a research institute devoted to developing hybrid species of nettles for fiber (or fibre, as they would write,) and discovering new ways to produce fabric from these. The organization is aptly named STING- Sustainable Technologies In Nettle Growing. The country is also investigating subsidies for nettle farms. Recently a fashion show in Italy featured a designer whose clothing was made from the nettle. 

This was the least hippie style I could find
 So, perhaps I’m a little behind the curve, but I’m determined to give this a try. First the nettles must be harvested by cutting as low on the stem as possible and then put to dry in the sun for at least a day. Next it will be soaked in abundant water to break down the stems, about 24 hours, then the water will be changed (to prevent fermentation which would destroy the fibers) and the nettles will be soaked for an additional 24 hours. The next step is to remove what is left of the leaves and divide the stems, pulling the stringy ‘fibers’ that will be used from the woody center that will be discarded. Several sources claim that the leftover stems make great fodder and that cows and goats especially enjoy them. Waste nothing! Finally the fiber will be dried again and can then be twisted or woven to make thread, string or rope. Apparently, nettle fibers are stronger than both cotton and linen. Since making clothes is well beyond my level of talent, or desire, I had to come up with something more reasonable. I would like to try to make a kind of reusable grocery/produce bag like this:

Or maybe I will just make a rope, or some shoelaces. So there it is, and just when you thought we had exhausted the uses of this super weed! I look forward to sharing my results!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Alice In Farmland

Welcome to the blog for our new farming project! We have yet to name our farm, but things are moving fast. The property we are working belongs to a former professor of Filipe's. The land as well as our home have been in her family for generations, but her own work as an economist has kept her from having to the time to develop it. She was excited to have us come to live and work here, in part to protect her home and property from damage and theft that comes with sitting unattended and in part from a desire to see the land supporting sustainable, organic projects. The estate already has a substantial network of grapevines but no way to produce wine from them, although I find the grapes perfectly good for eating raw! There are also various mature fruit trees including fig, tangerine, cherry, apple, plum and lemon as well as kiwi vines. We have also planted some hazelnut trees and will be planting more fruit trees this week before it gets too warm.

     I have to admit that we aren't completely sure what the ultimate goal of this new project is, but developing low maintenance systems (think fruit/nut trees rather than green houses full of lettuce) is a definite desire of ours. Of course, since my work is limited to the farm for now, I am dedicated to making us as self-sufficient as possible. One goal of mine is to go all summer and through the fall without having to buy any food except rice, pasta and olive oil. We'll see. So far I have seeded and/or planted golden beets, purple carrots, collard greens, mustard greens, walla walla onions, okra, garlic, soybeans (to be consumed edamame style,) purple tomatillos, several varieties of heirloom tomatoes as well as arugula. In order for the produce to be certified organic, which would be necessary if I ever want to sell anything, the seeds have to come from a certified provider. I  chose High Mowing out of Vermont as well as some from Sow True who are located in Asheville, NC.
Seeding in egg cartons
I have also begun raising geese. My first two, Adam and Eve are only a few months old but growing fast. I also became the happy owner of two more small geese, but after only two days they got sick. I spent two days forcing them to drink vegetable broth with honey to stay hydrated and stayed near them to keep them warm in the night but still they died. It was less upsetting for me than I thought it would be, but I am still wondering what I could have done differently. The first two did so well and adapted quickly and energetically to their new surroundings. Filipe has had geese in the past and said I did everything right. Well, as we continue to try to understand what went wrong so the mistake doesn't happen again I also have to accept that life on the farm is not always roses and sunshine- though we have those too.
Big Babies
      Our other big starter project has been the bees. Several weeks ago I purchased two bee boxes. The hope was that a swarm, leaving behind their crowded hive, might chose to take up residence in our boxes. This has been known to happen and at first it seemed likely, as bees came and went with curiosity. Alas, two weeks passed and they remain empty which means that in the next weeks we will have to purchase a couple of nuks, or a small group with a queen.
     As the days get longer and warmer the work is increasing around here, but as I work harder so does the farm itself. Seeds planted begin sprouting in days, the geese have doubled in size in a matter of weeks and the fruit trees seem to go from bare to flowers overnight. I hope you'll follow along on our journey and maybe get inspired to grow some things yourself!