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.

Pondering High Tunnel Tomatoes

I’m still trying to figure out how to use our new high tunnel in next years growing plan.

We put up the high tunnel in late October, on ground from which we’d just recently harvested sweet potatoes. We’d had 5 inches of rain from Hurricane Matthew and there was no time to prepare the soil (red clay) properly. Unsure how to proceed, I laid out beds and worked them with a wheel hoe. Then I spread a little compost and, figuring I had nothing to lose but some seeds, sowed the beds with radishes, kale, turnips, spinach and lettuce.

I’ve been pleased that this happened:

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We’ve already been enjoying the kale thinnings, and it looks like we’ll be able to start harvesting radishes and lettuce very soon.

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Even with the advantages of the hoop house, things grow more slowly in the short days of December, so I’m having to learn to be patient. We offered lettuce to our customers this week and have a lot of orders for delivery on Tuesday. I may have to tell them I was wrong about when the lettuce would be ready. We’ll see.

Once these crops are done, my tentative plan is to plant tomatoes and green beans in the tunnel. Unsure of when to plant, I think I’ll put them out a month earlier than my normal plantings–early April instead of early May.

I think most people plant early determinate tomatoes in hoop houses. But I don’t really want to do that. For those who don’t know, determinate tomatoes set their fruit all at once (more or less). That makes them good for commercial farming and for homesteaders who want to can a lot of tomatoes all at once. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to fruit until they’re killed by frost or blight. They produce more tomatoes but take a much longer time to do it. The tastiest tomatoes, in my opinion, are the big old heirloom indeterminates.

We used to grow several varieties of tomato every year. But our favorites, and our best sellers at the market, are always German Johnson and Romas.

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Romas

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German Johnson

So last year the plan was to cut down to just those two varieties. At the last minute though I planted Marglobes as well, still hoping to have success with a determinate tomato that didn’t have to be staked or caged. Once again though the experiment was not successful. When I was growing up we planted Marglobes and never staked them. But each time I’ve tried it we’ve lost most of the fruit. Aside from that, few people want them at the market these days. They’re just not as popular as they once were. So for now, no more Marglobes.

Back to the hoop house issue. I’m tempted to plant our German Johnsons as usual–except inside the hoop house. My understanding is that folks tend to shy away from the big prolific indeterminates inside high tunnels, because in that environment the plants just get too big and crowded. And because they can grow 20 feet tall or more, a lot of pruning and heavy duty trellising is necessary. Notwithstanding these concerns, my tentative plan is to put in German Johnsons and trellis them with the Florida Weave method. I’ll take out the tops if necessary.

As I said, it’s all new to me. I’m thinking of it as an experiment. If it turns out that German Johnsons are not well-suited for the high tunnel, then I’ll continue planting them outside and use the high tunnel for other things, but probably not early determinate tomatoes.

Of course all this is predicated on our staying in the vegetable business. If we decide not to continue with that, I’ll just use the high tunnel for our personal garden, which I expect would be fun and easy.

In the meantime, any thoughts on tomatoes and high tunnels would be appreciated.

StoryCorps

The folks with StoryCorps travel around the country recording brief oral histories to preserve in the Library of Congress (details HERE). The format is interesting: the subject is interviewed by a friend or family member for about 30 minutes. I’m a fan of the project.

They were in our nearby town in October, in conjunction with a “local history/local food” event at our community center/farmers market. An invitation went out looking for people willing to do the interviews, and asking that the topic be somehow related to local food culture.

So I interviewed my Mama, focusing on her childhood. She became the lead cook in her family at age 7. In those days that meant cooking on a wood stove. Quite a job for a little girl.

Our local history organization has collected 2 1/2 minute snippets of the interviews HERE (click on the audio tab). For any interested in hearing a couple of minutes of my mother’s recollections, here we are.

Planning Ahead

The seed catalogs have started to arrive. The days are short and unrushed. This is the time of year when we start imagining next years gardens.

In a little over a month we’ll have our annual all-day, end-of-year review. The biggest item on the agenda is whether to continue growing produce for sale. It’s been a fairly close call the last two years and it isn’t a foregone conclusion that we’ll continue. But for now I’m being optimistic and considering the changes we’ll make if we keep at it.

After seriously pondering things for the past couple of months, I’ve tentatively decided to retire seven of our larger gardens. And for rotation purposes I will consolidate four of our current gardens into two. The end result is that we’ll have a six-garden rotation in the future, rather than our current 16 garden rotation. Rather than limit all gardens to one crop per year, my tentative plan is to double crop two of the six, following Irish potatoes with fall brassicas and following spring crops with sweet potatoes and purple hull peas. We’ll continue using cover crops of course.

Under the new plan we’ll have less area to protect from deer and we can concentrate our nutrients more.

This is a compromise I made with myself. I was torn between continuing the status quo and going to a much smaller 3 garden system. The plan I came up with retains the original three garden rotation I’d been considering, but adds a second three garden rotation: watermelons, eggplant/acorn squash, onions/garlic. Eggplant and acorn squash may seem like an odd combination, especially since we don’t have much of a market for them. But as of now they’re the only things we grow, other than garlic, that deer don’t eat. So I’m going to grow a lot of them next year and if most end up at the food bank or in the compost pile, so be it. It’s an experiment.

If our year end analysis proves that we’re just wasting our time and losing money, then we’ll go back to concentrating on just growing food for ourselves. If that happens I’ll finally have time to do some of the other things I’d planned to do when we took up this lifestyle, but never seem to have time for these days.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the seed catalogs and dreaming of next year’s beautiful gardens.

Day 9

I was reluctant to drive to Strasbourg. I knew it to be a large industrialized city on the Rhine, home of a university and the EU Parliament. I didn’t know it to be much of a tourist destination. But, stubbornly sticking to the itinerary I’d mapped out a few weeks earlier, we left Lorraine, entered Alsace and drove toward Strasbourg.

It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Without a specific destination in mind, the GPS stops being helpful once we enter a city. At that point we just followed the signs to “Centre.” This is always a good idea for tourists driving in France, as the “Centre” is the oldest part of town. Fortunately the road we were on took us easily into the Centre of Strasbourg, directly to a parking garage with a convenient available space.

We were delighted to find ourselves in a beautiful and charming town, not the crowded frantic city I expected. The cathedral was stunning, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

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Tucked in tightly among the buildings surrounding it, it was impossible to get a photo of the cathedral that captured its immensity and grandeur.

Build from gorgeous sandstone, its color is remarkable. For quite a while it was the tallest building on earth, and remains the tallest structure built in the Middle Ages.

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It was amusing to watch the people who, like me, were trying in vain to photograph the entire front of the cathedral.

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The interior was stunning as well, of course

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This fantastic clock is one of the cathedral’s claims to fame

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Built over the course of a couple hundred years, construction began in the late 12th Century and was finished in the early 15th century, half a century before Columbus sailed west, searching for a shortcut to India.

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This memorial, near the altar, warmed my American heart. Expressions of gratitude like this are common in the parts of France we’ve visited. Thousands of American soldiers died in the campaign to liberate Alsace.

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Open air cafes and markets are common. I bought a Camus novel here. Because, books.

The old part of the city is actually an island. The area alongside the river that surrounds it is lovely.

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The cathedral spire is visible in the background

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We were quite lucky to find a room in the little hotel directly across from the cathedral, which is beautifully illuminated at night.

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During the summer there is an amazing show on the east side of the cathedral, tracing the history of the cathedral with music and lights.

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After a full day, we settled down for the evening. Having not been away from the farm for more than one weekend a year in over 12 years, we were now nine days into our vacation. I worried a little about things back home, but no much. So far, we had no regrets over our long overdue time away.

New Babies

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What a pleasant discovery in the pasture on this frosty Sunday morning.

Our goat Aretha had her babies last night–two strapping kids who are already romping around and nursing lustily.

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She’s the first of the does in this pasture to kid. From the looks of the others, they won’t be much longer.

The Dad (Abraham) wasn’t around to witness the arrival of his latest progeny. He’s in the other pasture helping assure another round of kidding in March and April.

We used to be more deliberate about timing the arrival of our kids. But a few years ago I decided to just let the buck run with the rest of the herd. I shuttle him between our two pastures every 3 months or so.

I know there are two different schools of thought on this. Some folks say that it is bad for the does to allow them to breed more than once a year. Other folks say that we should let nature take its course. Some say that from a purely profit-motivation, it’s better to produce 3 sets of kids every two years, rather than two. Others say that the does are stronger and therefore live longer if they only kid once a year, so that in the long run it’s more profitable to limit their breeding.

I didn’t make the change for any of those reasons. When we dedicated a paddock to raising pigs we no longer had it available for the buck, so that was part of my reasoning. I had another paddock we could have put him in, but it seemed to me at the time that it was somewhat unnatural to isolate him from the other goats (even though we always made sure he had company). So I just opened the gates and quit worrying about it.

I wasn’t so concerned about the health of the does at the time. I didn’t know that could be an issue. I was more concerned about the possibility that they’d all start kidding in February, a difficult time for all involved. That does happen sometimes.

I’m still unsure what’s best. For now I’m leaning toward going back to the old system, which also involves keeping the weaned does away from the Billy until they’re at least a year old.

If we make that change, it will be after this round of kidding. In the meantime, we’re enjoying having new babies on the farm.

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Looking Up

I am, that is.

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The trees undress for the winter. They’ll be naked soon.

But first, if they aren’t content to stay perpetually clad in green, they change into their orange, yellow, red and golden outfits. But only for a little while.

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So I’m looking up. It won’t last much longer.