The Ridgewood Boys have completed seven weeks of daily podcasts, but now other duties are catching up with us and it’s time for a short break. We’ll resume programming on Monday, Feb. 27. Meanwhile, you are welcome to scour the archives for programs you haven’t yet heard.
We’re fortunate that our friend Jerome Lang has adopted us as a pet project. There’s enough else going on around here that I’m easily tempted to put off doing preparatory work for this year’s garden, particularly in the dead of winter. But Jerome knows how important it is to do certain things now, and he is apparently determined that we will succeed at gardening this year.
When Chris had finished his first pass at a garden plan Jerome came over one Thursday morning and spent a couple of hours reviewing it with us, helping us to clean it up and to understand the implications of this choice versus that one. He also gave us a copy of the book he is writing—actually, the first of three small volumes on what he thinks are the keys to organic growing. As we talked I found out that he was almost done with this volume, and was planning to send it to a fellow in Pennsylvania to turn it into a book. I told him that I knew how to do just that, and that the help he was giving us was more than worth any work it would take me to do so. He was delighted to hear that, since the major obstacle for him in getting the book printed was the up-front cost of editing and typesetting it, requiring a significant amount of precious cash.
I hadn’t seen him arrive, so afterwards we went outside and he showed us the farm truck he had brought, a 1972 Ford F-150 pickup that is showing its age but still runs well. He claims to have about $350 invested in it, which impressed me enough to ask him to put out the word that we’d like a truck of that nature—there are more and more jobs that crop up which require hauling capability, but I’m only about $350 interested in solving the problem, i.e. anything beyond pure function is wasted on me. Meanwhile, Jerome told us the truck mostly sits doing nothing, so we were welcome to borrow it when we needed.
In the bed of the pickup there was a huge pile of white powder, which turned out to be ground limestone. Jerome had stopped by the quarry on the way to our house and bought one tone of lime for $7. He had also brought three shovels, so after he drove the truck down to the garden plot he and Chris and I spent about twenty minutes shoveling the lime onto the plot. The plot is 50×100 feet, or 1/8 acre, so that made for an 8 ton/acre application, or about 1/3 of what we’d like to have.
After that we went back to the house for lunch, and spent an hour or so playing music before he had to head home. At church the next Sunday Jerome waved me over, and proudly produced two sheets of paper from his pocket which turned out to be our personalized garden plan for the first two months of the year. He asked me if I had read his book yet, since the plan wouldn’t make much sense until I had; I confessed that even though Debbie and Chris had read it through, I hadn’t had time to read more than the first few pages. But that night I did start reading in earnest, and found it to be not only very helpful but also very engaging; Jerome writes just like he talks, which is an important quality that is hard to teach, so I figure the editing will go well.
Tuesday he called to ask if I had read the book yet, and I was glad to be able to say that I was mostly done. He also asked when I was planning to borrow the truck to get more lime—I had said the week before that it would be a good project for me and Chris to do on our own—and although I hadn’t thought about it since, I decided that it was time to commit, so I said we’d be by the next day and try to get a couple of loads done.
On Wednesday things got underway a bit more slowly than I had hoped. We finally made it to Jerome’s place, and got a good look at the present state of his greenhouse, which was filled with sprouting kale and cabbage and lettuce and spinach and all sorts of good things. We took enough time to stop in his office and hear a song on his computer that he thought would be good for us (he was right), and then we were finally on the road.
I had planned to pick up a load, drive home, spread the load, eat lunch, and then drive back to the quarry for another load. Everything took a bit longer than I thought, and by the time we arrived home it was clear that there would only be time for one load, especially because I had to leave time at the end of the day to drive into town before close of business and pick up a couple of hundred pounds of freshly slaughtered hog. So we ate our lunch, spread the lime, took the truck to gas it up, and then returned it just in time for me to zoom off, drop Chris at home, and get to the meat processing plant with a few minutes to spare.
Since then it has snowed a couple of times, so I’m not sure when we’ll finish the job. But the plan is to get a total of three tons on this plot, plus another three tons on a second plot the same size. So there are four more trips to the quarry on our schedule sometime next week.
We inherited ten chickens when we bought the place and left them to fend for themselves, which they did very well. Recently the older kids have been working to rehabilitate a chicken coop on the property. They cleared the brush that had grown up around it, cleaned out the mess inside, spread new bedding, built a replacement hatch door and ramp, and built some new nesting boxes. We started to provide feed and water in the coop, and the chickens have gradually spent more time in the building (but not at night—they still roost in nearby trees).
Yesterday Chris went out to check on their feed and water, happened to glance in the nesting boxes—and saw three eggs sitting there. This is the first time we’ve had eggs from them since we stumbled across a few in the yard late last summer. We were pretty excited, and used them in the egg pies we had for supper last night. The yolks were deep orange, deeper even than the farm eggs we have been buying.
When we bought the wood stove in November we laid in about four cords of wood. Well, that wood is nearly gone now, and we’re barely 75% through this very mild winter. Another load will be coming next week, we hope. I don’t think we’ve been using excessive amounts. The downstairs stays nice and warm, but nowhere near the 80+ degree temperatures I hear that they’re having in northern Minnesota. The upstairs gets colder than we would like on a cold night, and we have a couple of things planned to try to improve things next winter, more attic insulation and some floor returns to improve upstairs air circulation.
Most difficult has been proper heating during the night. Some of that is certainly due to our current wimpy notion of ‘proper heating’, but I don’t see any reason to start toughing it out if there are reasonable ways to keep the house warmer. While the weather was mild I got into the habit of filling the stove chock-full around 10pm, then getting up at 3:30 to refill it. That worked as long as the low was in the upper 20s, which it was for most of the winter. Now we’re getting a stretch of nights that are 20 degrees or below, and I’ve taken to sleeping downstairs and getting up every couple of hours to feed the fire. It doesn’t bother me too much, but if there is a better way I’d like to find it.
Right now we are buying ten gallons of fresh milk per week, which is more than we drink, so we are looking for other ways to use it. Debbie is already skimming most of it for butter. Matthew, our cheese fanatic, made some queso blanco, which turned out well but puzzled us a bit about how to use it (we ended up just eating it straight, which was fine). A couple of days ago Debbie made some 30-minute mozzarella which was excellent, much better than store-bought. I’m especially looking to trying some of that on a pizza. One of our favorite places to eat is Brick Oven Pizza in Austin, Texas, where they make a European-style pizza with moderately thin crust, fresh tomatoes, fresh garlic, and lots of whole-milk mozzarella which produced lots of rich yellow pools of grease—delicious.
Having fresh milk has led to increasing mentions of possibly having our own dairy cow, so I started reading Keeping a Faimly Cow by Joann Grohman. Debbie and Chris have already read it; Chris was reading it during our late fall musical travels, and as I was driving I heard a lot of “Did you realize that …” from him. Now I understand why. The book is well written, well researched, and does a no-nonsense job of debunking the many myths about fresh milk that have been deliberately cultivated by the dairy industry. It’s a good enough book that I’m tempted to add it to our catalog for its own sake, but the fact that we don’t yet have our own cow holds me back. It’ll be a much more powerful recommendation if we add it because it was the book that led us to get one.
While I was talking to my new friend Al Ellis, whose farm provides us with milk and eggs, he mentioned that he had found a fellow over the hill selling hogs for 45 cents a pound, that he was going to pick one up for himself, and that he’d be glad to get me one as well and take it to the slaughterhouse if I liked. Well, I jumped at that one. The hog weighed about 300 pounds, and in the end we figure we got more that 200 pounds of meat for about $200 total. It took up a fair piece of the freezer, but there is still room for the cow that we’ll be getting from the Ellises after they’ve spent a month or so fattening it up.
Because Chris and I had to make a visit to Big Stone Gap in southwest Virginia this week, we took the opportunity to schedule another couple of Plain Talk conversations with folks in the area.
On Tuesday we drove to Sweet Hollow Organic Farm in northeast Tennessee and visited with Cheri Shelnutt, also known as the TNFarmGirl. In fact, she graciously invited us to have lunch, so we began the visit with an excellent beef stew which was chock full of vegetables from that year’s harvest, accompanied by fresh cornbread and wheat bread, and a cake for dessert. All the ingredients were home-grown, and in fact Cheri told us that after only seven years they grow virtually all their food on the farm. The conversation we had afterwards was terrific, and I think that folks who are thinking about pursuing subsistence farming will find it very encouraging. As we left Cheri presented us with a goodie bag containing a fresh loaf of bread, some herbal soaps, a healing salve, and a bag of her Remember Me herbal tea.
From there we drove to Mendota, Virginia to visit with my good friend DJ Hammond. The two of us have had many long and helpful conversations about the nuts and bolts of agrarian living, and our family has been continually inspired in our own feeble efforts to live that life by the steady, sensible example that the Hammond family has been to us as they’ve carefully built up their farm operation to supply their own needs and produce a little extra for local sale. Every time we visit the Hammonds we are glad to see a few new things—this time it was two dairy cows, fourteen pigs, and a milking parlor in the barn. After a fine dinner centered around home-grown beef, we settled in for a conversation that focused on some of the deep motivations that both we and the Hammonds have for shifting our lives in an agrarian direction. This conversation was more philosophical than most, but I think most of our customers will find it both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
After spending the night with the Hammonds, we drove on to Big Stone Gap, where we had our first experience as hired studio musicians. Our friend Ron Short was recording a song that centered on an old-time banjo part he had written, and he wanted Chris to play the banjo on the recording. And I got the privilege of playing bass on the song, although there were times during the day-long session where I wished they had hired a real bass player to do the job.
Session work includes long stretches of sitting around, while you are waiting for someone else to record their piece of the song, and so I got to have a long conversation with studio owner Charlie Maggard, who is a local legend. Our conversation was wide-ranging; at one point he was telling me about a guitar that he and some fellow GIs had built while serving in the South Pacific during WWII, out of pieces of a shot-down Japanese fighter plane. He even got out his scrapbook to show me pictures of it. We looked at some other pictures, including one of him straddling an anti-aircraft gun.
I asked him if he ever had to shoot it, and he told me that he certainly did—he had gotten three bronze stars during the conflict, with three confirmed planes shot down, two more he was partially involved in, and others that weren’t officially credited to him. Then he got silent, and finally told me that when he had gone off to war he had hardly ever even handled a gun, and not shot so much as a squirrel, so it was a terrible shock for him to suddenly have the job of killing people who were trying to kill him.
Charlie is in his eighties now, but still perfectly sharp. We talked about how ambition has killed so many promising musicians who probably could have made a local career if they had been humble and had a good understanding of their limiitations. He told me stories about the various famous folks who have recorded over the past fifty years at his little studio in the hills, and how over the years Ralph Stanley has probably become his best friend.
Our day ended around five-thirty in the afternoon—not that the recording was finished, but our parts were done. So we lit out for home, ate in the car, and managed to arrive at a reasonable hour.