Day 11

We enjoy traveling without any preset plan and without any reservations. That way it feels a little more like wandering, and gives us the freedom to linger in a place, or leave it quickly, depending on how it suits us and without being required to be in a particular place at a specific time. Traveling that way has put us in an anxious spot a few times, but it’s also led us to some of our most memorable and interesting places we’ve been.

When I sketched out an itinerary for the driving part of our vacation, I had nothing on it after Colmar. I knew we needed to turn west, back towards Paris, but beyond that I had no idea where we should go. Looking through a guidebook in our hotel room, we decided to drive toward Langres, an ancient town in southern Champagne. That turned out to be an excellent decision and the day turned out to be one of the best of our trip.

Langres is a walled town, on a high hill overlooking beautiful countryside. Despite its beauty and charm, we seemed to be the only tourists there.

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We had the cathedral to ourselves.

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The streets were also quiet and uncrowded

We had lunch at a cafe in the town square, where I enjoyed my first moule frites of the trip.

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M. Diderot overlooked the restaurant

Unsure if we should stay the night in Langres, or press on, Cherie looked to see if there were any Airbnb options in the area. She found a place not far away that looked interesting and booked it with her phone. That turned out to be a great decision.

Our room was in a chateau in the tiny village of Arc-en-Barrois. It was probably the most beautiful place we stayed during the trip. It was also the least expensive.

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Our chateau

We had the place almost entirely to ourselves. There were two other couples there but we only saw them briefly.

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The dining room seemed a little larger than necessary

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There was a beautiful old church right outside our window. Its bells called the faithful at 7 a.m., loudly enough to wake the dead. Fortunately for us we’re morning people.

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The village was also quiet and peaceful. Our kind of place.

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Every village has a memorial to those who died in WWI.

We ended the day reading quietly and enjoying a bottle of wine, one of the highlights of our trip.

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It was a wonderful day–one I expect we’ll never forget.

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Winter Squash

I enjoy growing winter squash and intend to keep growing lots of it, even as we scale down overall.

We grow butternut, acorn, spaghetti and delicata–all delicious, easy to store and popular at the market.

Unfortunately deer enjoy winter squash too and unless we’re careful to keep the garden protected from them they’ll take bites out of the butternut, spaghetti and delicata squashes. Rather than just eat the entire squash, they take a bite out of one, then move down the row, ruining each squash with just one bite. Maddening.

Luckily they don’t eat acorn squash (so far), probably because the skin is too tough for them. So next year I plan to dedicate a separate garden to acorn squash and eggplant (the only other thing we grow that deer don’t eat). The other winter squashes will be in our more secure “summer veggies” garden.

As an experiment I plan to add Hubbard squash this year. From the looks of it I’m guessing it won’t be attractive to deer, so the tentative plan is to grow some in the acorn squash garden. If any readers have experience with deer and Hubbard squashes I’d appreciate hearing about it.

This year I had to be careful when harvesting our butternuts. It’s not unusual to find a black widow spider underneath a watermelon, and I’m always careful to look carefully before putting my hand under one. But this year we had lots of black widows under the butternuts too.

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A friend of mine was bitten by one of these nasty boogers while picking watermelons a couple of years ago and it was a painful experience.

If only they could be convinced to bite deer noses…

 

Garden Planning. Still.

The slow days of December are a time to plan next years gardens. As I’ve been thinking about it, a plan, which may very well change, is starting to come into focus.

Instead of having a separate garden for each crop or plant family, my current plan is to return to more traditional homesteaders’ gardens. The gardens will be somewhat larger than in the past, but there will be far fewer of them. We will have 3 principal gardens–one for spring, one for summer and one for fall. So we’ll separate the gardens by season, not by plant family. The emphasis will be on growing food for ourselves, of course, with any surplus going to the farmers market or to the food bank. We’ll grow lettuce and carrots in our raised beds, and we’ll continue to grow large patches of Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes.

We significantly expanded the size of our asparagus garden last year, but to my dismay and great frustration deer ate the tops out of the young plants–something they’d never done before. Hopefully the plants will recover. If so, by next year we’ll have a lot of asparagus to market as well.

The general idea behind this plan is to reduce the amount of land we’re tending, and to continue our slow transition to more no-till and perennial food crops. With more intensive use of space and without spreading our one-man workforce so thin, I wouldn’t be surprised if we produce more this way than with last year’s 16 garden system.

I’m going to treat this as a year for experimentation in the hoop house. Once the overwintered veggies are gone, my tentative plan is to plant one row of the Johnny’s semi-determinate designed for hoop house growers, one row of Romas and one row of German Johnsons. I’ll use the Florida weave method as supports. I’ll try some other summer crops in there too, starting them as if we were in zone 8 instead of zone 7. I’m interested to see how it goes. I can imagine a day when everything we grow (other than perennials) are in raised beds and inside the hoop house.

I’m just going to have to resist the temptation to plant those large gardens I’ve spent many years preparing. Planting is so easy, and so tempting. And those darn seed catalogs are gardening porn. Must stay strong…

 

 

 

It’s Not Science Fiction Anymore

The rate of technological change these days is mind-boggling. I still haven’t gotten my head around 3D printing. And now, evidently, it is possible to email an organism.

In fact, genes, even entire organisms, can already move virtually – squishy and biological at each end, but nothing more than a series of ones and zeros while en route. The tiny virus that causes influenza is a leading-edge example of technical developments.

Today, when a new strain of influenza appears in Asia, scientists collect a throat swab, isolate the virus, and run the strain’s genetic sequence. If they then post that strain’s sequence on the Internet, American and European laboratories may be able to synthesize the new virus from the downloaded data faster and more easily than if they wait for a courier to deliver a physical sample. The virus can spread faster electronically than it does in nature. (Source)

Obviously this requires scientists at both ends of the email, but will it always? How soon before our seed orders are emailed to us?

More complicated viruses and some bacteria are in the range of such techniques today, though wholly synthesizing a higher organism with a more complex genome, such as maize, is many years away. But that may not matter, as new gene-editing technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9, enable scientists to stitch together complicated new organisms, using gene sequence information from organisms to which they do not have physical access.

For example, the key traits of a drought-resistant maize from a Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, might be reproduced by editing the genes of another maize variety. No major new advance in the technology is needed to unlock this possibility.

CRISPR (pronounced “Crisper”) technology is already leaving the GMO technology of the 1990’s in the dust. Nowadays to engineer a gene for desirable traits doesn’t require the introduction of DNA from another species or organism (as is done with GMOs). Instead the engineers can just edit the existing genetic material. So, for example, the genes of pigs can be edited to make them resistant to disease. The genes of cattle can be edited to make them naturally polled, eliminating the need to burn off their horns. Pigs that grow faster, vegetables that grow larger, bees that are mite resistant, the list goes on and on. All these things are happening now (read more HERE).

Obviously CRISPR technology won’t be limited to non-human animals. It’s already being used to engineer animal organs that can be used as human transplants, for example. And if scientists can edit out the gene that causes pigs to get PRRS, why wouldn’t they edit out the genes that cause humans to get cancer? And while they’re removing the cancer-causing genes, why not genetically correct near-sightedness? Why not bump the IQ 20 points while they’re at it? Why not assure the optimum height? Etc.

It seems to me it isn’t a question of whether these kinds of things are going to happen. It’s just a question of how soon.

Of course it sounds like Dr. Frankenstein to us now. But in their day so did blood transfusions, pacemakers, artificial hearts, organ transplants, etc.

We live in amazing times, with both great potential for exciting progress, and great risk.

Winter

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We had a very  mild start to the season of cold, but now our grace period seems to have ended. It was 19 outside when I woke yesterday. Today it’s 24. On mornings like this I take my time finishing my coffee, knowing the chickens won’t be in any rush to leave their coops.

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I made sure to load extra wood in the stove last night, so there isn’t any rush to add more this morning. I stay busy and there’s plenty to do, but keeping wood in the stove is just about the only thing I have to do this time of year.

We’re done with this cycle of kidding, so I don’t have to worry that there are any freezing newborns in the pasture. With their warm coats, weather like this doesn’t bother the kids at all.

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When they do feel a little chilly, they snuggle.

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This is the quiet unhurried time of year that we look forward to during the summer. Time to do some service and maintenance on the equipment. Time to work on my “winter projects” list.

And since it’s dark by 5:30 now, so there’s way more time to spend with books.

Welcome winter. We’ve been expecting you.

Brussels sprouts greens? Sorry, not this year.

Last week one of our regular customers asked when we were going to have Brussels sprouts greens available. I felt kind of good about that.

So much great food is wasted in our culture just because people don’t know it’s food. Brussels sprouts greens are a perfect example. They’re delicious, but few people even know they’re edible. In our culture we just eat the sprouts and throw away the rest of the plant. In our weekly newsletter last fall we made the greens available and encouraged people to try them. The customer who contacted us about them last week tried them on our recommendation and they’re now her favorite leafy green. She’s the second of our customers who tried them on our advice and now prefers them over all other greens.

Unfortunately we had to tell her we won’t have any Brussels sprouts greens this year.

While we were away on vacation deer ate 100% of our Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and collards. Our fall crops were almost entirely wiped out.

It’s mostly my fault. For the first time in years we had zero deer pressure on our summer gardens. Maybe I got a little overconfident. It seemed we weren’t going to have any trouble this year. I surely didn’t expect that we’d go from zero pressure to full-out assault in the two weeks we were away. So while we had our deer fences up, we hadn’t double-fenced. That was really stupid of me. And I didn’t ask our farm sitters to put out any deer repellent. I’m sure they weren’t even aware that security had been breached. It’s possible that the deer would’ve wiped us out even if I had been here though. It’s impossible to keep them out if they’re determined to get in, absent a very high permanent fence.

Nevertheless, we’re still harvesting good food. Our tatsoi, arugula, Chinese cabbage and spinach is in raised beds surrounded by chicken wire and is deer-safe, so far. They ate the tops off the beets, but we were able to harvest the roots. They mostly left the turnips alone, so we have plenty of them. And the radishes, kale, spinach, turnips and lettuce that we planted in the hoop house look great.

Deer have been the biggest problem we’ve faced on this farm, by far. As much as I like tending 2 acres in gardens scattered around the farm, that’s just not going to work for us. This year’s experience is one of the reasons (and there are plenty others) that we’re going to retreat to a smaller more-defensible position. I’m working on adding a few more raised beds, and next year we’re going to concentrate our gardens into a smaller area, which we can more easily protect.

We learn from our mistakes. Because we make a lot of mistakes, we’re learning a lot.

So no Brussels sprouts greens this season. But next year…

Day 10

We left Strasbourg, driving south toward Colmar. I was pleasantly surprised at how rural Alsace seems to be and particularly surprised to see tobacco fields.

Because Colmar managed to avoid being destroyed in the many wars that have raged about it for the past thousand years, its beautiful medieval buildings now make it a popular tourist attraction.

It is indeed a pretty place. But for us, the first stop was the farmers market.

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Notice the eggs, stacked and unrefrigerated. That is the way they’re sold in Europe. Eggs have a natural protective coating that keeps them from spoiling. In the U.S. we remove that coating when we wash the eggs, making it necessary to refrigerate them. In Europe it’s illegal to wash eggs before selling them.

This beautiful violet garlic caught my eye.

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Having not yet planted our garlic, I thought it would be good to take this home and try growing it in Virginia. I did a little quick research and saw that garlic was not a prohibited item, so I bought it. Later, after I posted about it on Instagram/Facebook, fellow farmer and frequent commenter Joanna replied that garlic isn’t allowed through customs. Looking into it further I learned that only peeled cloves are allowed–bulbs are not. In other words, it’s not allowed if it can be planted. I considered bringing it back anyway, and taking my chances with customs, but decided against it. Sadly I left the garlic in our hotel room at the Paris airport. I hope it was put to good use. As it turned out I could have brought it in with no trouble. When we went through customs I had to declare that I was bringing in “fruits, vegetables or seeds” because I had foolishly brought an apple off the plane. Without even asking about the declaration, the customs agent waved me through. I could have had a suitcase full of garlic. Oh well.

As with everywhere else in France where tourists gather, this was a common sight.

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Less grim were the beautiful ancient timber-framed homes on narrow streets.

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“Little Venice” is a particularly picturesque part of town

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We spent the night in Colmar, knowing that the next day we would have to turn west and begin wandering back toward Paris, and our flight home.