Plant a meadow – bee happy. Let’s share the Earth with all creatures.
My first attempts at marketing Tiny Forest eggs have met with interesting if unexpected results. If anything they will make good stories of the “good ‘ol days” when these become the good ol’ days but they also immediately offer unique insights into human nature. The realization that led me to leave academia so many years ago came in a blast, (or was it a slap?) inside my classroom when I realized that communication isn’t as easy as we tend to think it is.
The sort of communication we think we are engaged in depends entirely on an agreement of meaning. If we all agreed, for instance, that night is that period of time when the sun does not shine down its light upon our surroundings because it is not “above us” due to the Earth’s rotation, we can all understand when we see or read the word “night”. And we will all agree that night is not day, that period of time when the sun does shine down upon our surroundings. But after that it gets murky. Dawn, for instance is not so well defined. Is it sunrise? Is it twilight? Is it civil twilight? Is it even a moment instead of a series of effects caused by a rising sun? No doubt if you were raised on an ocean vessel it would be different for you than for someone raised in a rainforest or a mountain top or the east coast of a country compared to the west coast. We have different understandings in part due to the influence of our culture and upbringing but it goes deeper than that.
A word is not a thing; it is not the thing itself. A word is merely a convention. If in my classroom I spoke about the lovely oak in my backyard, each one of my students would have a unique inner visualization of that lovely oak tree, if they were paying attention. Search on Google for the answer to how many different oak trees there are and you will have a better appreciation of this statement. Depending on where you seek an answer, there can be as few as 60 oak trees or as many as 600 oak trees. So what oak tree do you visualize when you read the word “oak”? Or do you see a piece of furniture? Or a paint stain? Even if I were to specify the lovely oak tree is a Quercus palustris or pin oak, there would be a spectrum of meaning given to the pronouncement. Why? Because a word is not the thing it tries to convey. A word is merely a sign. And it is of signs that I began this post today, yard signs in fact.
My first sign announcing the sale of Tiny Forest eggs was double-sided but a little small. It announced “Fresh Fertile Eggs”: $3.00 for eating or hatching. I thought that announcing they were fertile would give them a distinguishing touch for my rural community where many people remember their good ol days included egg-gathering from their own flock of chickens. For me, it also had a connotation of having a rooster with the hens which is a more balanced or pastoral view of a flock of hens. I hoped that teachers or parents would be able to provide children with a memorable experience hatching eggs and raising their own backyard flock. Needless to say, the emphasis generated unforeseen situations. For instance, people wanted purebred fertile eggs and not the mixed flock of Light Brahma and Buff Orpington hens at Tiny Forest that are guarded over by a Light Brahma roo. The month before Easter was a busy month answering phone calls from people who wanted a hundred dozen or more. No doubt there was much disappointment not only in that they were not pure bred – I had no Buff Orpington roo and the hens laid communally, so there was no telling which eggs were form which hens – but also my small flock only produced about five dozen eggs per week.I was disappointed too. Gathering and keeping so many hatching eggs at the right temperature was not as easy as gathering and storing for eating.
Emphasizing fertility was not a good marketing strategy. I decided that I would emphasize that my hens free- ranged and I ordered another sign: “Free Range Eggs”, along with my phone number. This sign was about twice as large as the first one and also double-sided. I was so pleased when only half an hour after putting it up by the road, a truck stopped in front and I went to see if I could help them. Yes indeed I could help, the lady who was older and had visible symptoms of having had a stroke at some point, asked me what were “range eggs”? Well, it didn’t dawn on me quickly enough but rural folks in this area have their ways of speech and I am not a native. I answered the hens were free to roam during the day. Did I gather them daily, she asked? Yes, I gather the eggs every day. Well, she said, “I’d like to try some.”
As I walked back to the house I thought that I would offer these eggs for free. It was a gesture as much for the future business of this first customer as it was a show of compassion for the medical and physical hardships I thought she might suffer. So I went back to the house, took out a dozen eggs from the fridge and walked back to her. I handed over the carton of eggs, telling her they were yesterday’s eggs. She thanked me and got in her truck and said she lived down the road. I thought it was odd she hadn’t asked how much they would cost and that she didn’t offer to pay me anything at all, even though I would have declined and told her that they were “on the house” so to speak. It was the word “free” she had not mentioned with “range eggs”. And it is more than semantics. It is where our attention is placed. It is our upbringing and our expectations. Surely if she saw the phrase “Free Roaming Eggs” on a carton at the grocery store she wouldn’t ask the clerk what were “roaming eggs” and she wouldn’t put the carton into her purse and leave the store without paying, at least not successfully.
I would venture to say that she never reads the words on the cartons; she only looks at the prices and that she may not be very well- read on agricultural topics such as confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) or open air manure lagoons, or antibiotic resistance. My neighborhood is a lower working class area. They might be busy with other things like paying utility bills and medicines. Price might be the only factor on a purchase. Not everyone considers the health and well-being of the animals producing food for human consumption. Some people in fact consider animals are just “things” to be used for human benefit. She would have not stopped if the price had clarified that the word “free” qualified range and not eggs. I placed a hyphen between Free and Range this morning. Semantics. It may or may not help.
The situation says a lot about me too. My whole approach and belief system regarding food is based on community agriculture but my prices are too high for my community. I have decided to lower my egg prices. It may be that I need $3.00 dozen to break even but true compassion doesn’t work by the numbers but by action. I wanted to give that carton of eggs away anyway but it remains that no one else on this road has stopped by. I’ve often thought of just giving away some eggs before they spend too much time in the fridge. Maybe this was an ice-breaker. But this doesn’t solve a problem of no sales.
I don’t live out of the way in fact, my road is a short cut between two highways and close enough to the Tennessee River to get travel by weekenders. It gets plenty of weekday commuter traffic, certainly enough to sell a few dozen eggs per week. So is $3.00 really too much for a dozen eggs from hens that are free-ranging and not fed antibiotics and whose manure is still considered fertilizer and not toxic? A few miles away at the nearest grocery store, eggs with similar selling points are the same price or higher. Eggs that are from confined animal feeding operations begin at .77 a dozen. By comparison eggs from other local farmstead are priced between $2.00 and $4.00 a dozen.
Yet there must be a balance between generosity and capability. I can’t give away what I don’t have. As it is, I’ve had to sell my adult Light Brahma hens and their roo. The feed bill is not affordable without egg sales. I haven’t been selling eggs – none for months now. I sold off the New Hampshire Red flock as it got close to laying age when I saw my sales were non-existent. I’m keeping 4 Buff Orpington adult hens and the 4 Buff Orpington crosses that were hatched here and are not yet laying. The Khaki Campbell ducks I purchased as females from Ideal Hatchery, out of 5 only 1 female has made it to adult along with two that turned out to be males. The numbers are not working in my favor. Maybe it is a sign. But I don’t know what it means.
So I will lower my egg prices to $2.00 / dozen and I will have fewer eggs to offer. It is tempting to read how people sell for $4.00 / dozen and make a small amount of change with their flocks. But what good is community agriculture if the community doesn’t support it? Can’t do free range-eggs but can do $2.00/dozen free-range eggs and see where that will take us.
There are many parables about sewing seeds in different conditions, symbolizing the different conditions in life. Gardening provides many appropriate metaphors for our lives. For Tiny Forest, my first full year here (2014) has provided many unpleasant surprises and a lot of agonizing work. Starting all over at 50 and alone, the path has been rough and at times it seemed merciless. Worked, quite literally with my bare hands, and watered with many tears, the first Tiny Forest garden has started to arise. Trees that were sick a few weeks ago have greened up and strengthened. As I walk around and see the seedlings break through brick-like clay soil, and the first flowers blossom on my pie pumpkins, and the sunflower rows start to turn toward the morning sun, joy alights and I too blossom.
There are many ways to make this fabulously rich, deliciously sweet, exceedingly simple dessert but for an authentic Cuban dulce de leche, you start with fresh milk.* I’ve made it with fresh raw and store bought cow milk and with fresh goat’s milk. There is no difference in the method or the outcome. You may want to use a stainless steel pot so if you accidentally burn it, it is salvageable.
Equipment and ingredients.
A 6 quart stainless steel pot and a wooden stirring spoon.
1 gallon of milk – though it may sound like a lot, it boils down to about 8 small servings – or 4 generous dessert portions.
2 eggs – beat the eggs thoroughly and then whip the milk and eggs together before heating
1 to 1 1/2 cups of sugar – your preference, sweeten to taste
a splash of vinegar or the fresh juice of a lemon -from a lemon not from a bottle- – this will cut the milk and make it separate. if you use lemon, leave a peel or two of the rind inside, it gives a little tang to the finished dessert.
To start, beat the two eggs and then blend them thoroughly into the cold gallon of milk, add the sugar and stir and turn on your burner to a medium setting, bringing the temperature steadily to 180 or thereabouts- it doesn’t have to be as precise as cheese-making. Watch it and stir often to blend the sugar. Be careful not to let it boil. When the temperature is near 180 for a few minutes add a splash of vinegar or the juice of a lemon. The milk will curdle and separate.
If it does not, add a little more vinegar or lemon juice. Be careful on the vinegar – it should take less than a 1/4 cup. Once the milk curdles stop stirring and reduce the heat to a simmer. Let the mixture simmer slowly and the liquid will evaporate. It will thicken. If a film forms on the top, remove it. Do not stir it back in. When the dulce starts to thicken, stir the bottom once in a while to distribute the curds and prevent burning them. Though it is slow at first, when you are almost finished the process seems to speed up and it is easy to burn it.
- If you do burn it, just spoon off the unburnt top, which will still be good. Soak and scrape, and soak and scrape your stainless steel pot.
Once it is finished it will be a golden brown, with thick curds and thick syrup. Let it cool and then store in a glass container. If you used lemon rind you can leave the lemon rind in.
Serve cold and enjoy. Buen provecho!
*The good thing about this recipe is if you have raw milk which has clabbered, you can still use it. I wouldn’t use spoiled pasteurized milk from a store but if it is just off by a day or two it will still be okay. If the store bought milk has separated, throw it out.
“For a farm to be sustainable, good farm stewards take advantage of the reproductive capacities of the land and animals. This is a basic difference between a factory, which must buy finite raw materials, manufacture a product and sell it, and a farm, which relies on the bounty of regrowth and reproduction from living systems. The less that a farm captures this benefit of reproduction, whether it is for self-consumption or for sale, the less profitable and sustainable it will be.” (Delaney, 49)
I don’t know if Delaney was comparing a farm to a factory farm (confined animal feeding operation or CAFO) in her analogy, or if she was referring to the perceived difference between agriculture in general and industry. Of course in most of the U.S. (and the world) today, farming is synonymous with industrial agriculture, a fossil-fuel driven, pesticide and chemical- dependent, soil- depleting, environmentally- polluting, disease- causing monopolistic contortion of any semblance of sustainability.
“What is one?” The Buddha asked seven year-old novice arahant Sopaka. “Nutriment,” Sopaka replied.
Every living being needs food to live. The quality of that food corresponds directly to the state of health of every breathing being: animal, human or vegetable. To bring food to the masses industrial agriculture has ignored environmental health and the health of the ecosystem as a whole. For decades agriculture has capitalized on abundant land and fuel and technology to maximize short-sighted production and profiteering at the expense of health: soil health, environmental health, the health of wildlife diversity and human health. Voluminous governmental regulations steer investment and funnel favor toward industrial farms that kill us to feed us.
Humans are many. We are teetering on the brink of destroying our soil beyond the ability to renew itself. We can blame industrial agriculture all day long however and yet we still consume, consume, consume to the limits of our budget and sometimes beyond to the limits of our credit lines and sometimes beyond that to our detriment: psychologically, physically, emotionally, financially. When one person and family is ruined there is another to replace and continue the consumption. It isn’t just the groceries, though obesity, heart failure and diabetes is epidemic.
A multitude of insecticides are available directly off the shelf as a quick remedy to deeper problems of imbalance. We kill snakes and then buy rodenticides which indiscriminately kill birds of prey, and predators who feed on rodents. We kill keystone predators and lose the biodiversity of our forests due to over grazing by the prey that would have been food for those predators. We buy gadgets that leave a trail of toxic waste in our rivers and lakes. We buy and throw away. We buy. And it isn’t just this country. Greed and ignorance are human conditions. Fortunately, we can work to overcome them.
Training the mind to understand our desires deeply, little by little, over and over again the desires fall away on their own as understanding comes to the surface. Humans are not entitled to destroy the planet, we are not entitled to cause the massive suffering of other living beings for our enjoyment or palate. The basics of nourishment and healthy, safe living conditions have long since left the landscape of our decision-making in the West.We shop out of boredom, as a therapy for problems we do not want to confront. We shop for distraction and fun. Huge receptacles of industrial agriculture, the giant supermarkets and strip malls that line our roads in the same monotonous rows we have come to recognize as crop farming, drain the money from our wallets and the life from our farms and farmers, our soils, our waters and our air. Ironically, healthy food has moved away from the supermarkets and back to small farms
The emphasis is on small and community farms. Large farms, whether they are monopolized by parasitic cooperatives that pay meager wages to farmers, like the monster dairy cooperatives that control prices, or monster producers like Smithfield and Tyson who actually do not produce anything themselves, or farms that have guzzled their neighbors and have sprawled unsustainably into the american landscape with the excuse of surviving, are lethal to the food chain. A small and sustainable community farm is a place of regeneration, of seasonal growth and regional flare. It doesn’t stink; it doesn’t dole out carcinogens by the bushel. Communities need not fear it during a rainstorm. The food is fresh, flavorful, nutritious and varies with the seasons.
There are many models of sustainability, even McDonald’s has a model but when we speak of sustainability in agriculture we are speaking of reproduction. The reproduction of the land comes by way of nitrogen fixers to replenish the soil so it can continue to reproduce. Manure of the animal is not toxic waste in an open air holding tank but a vital nutrient for vegetation. It can be called closed loop because it recycles seasonally, dying off and emerging anew. Learning to live with the seasons helps us learn to live in grateful ways.
For some of us that means working the land and caring for the animals which care for us. For others it means using our dollars in eco-conscious ways. We can relearn our consumer ways to understand that not having something is not deprivation. It is the cycle of life, reproducing. There are times of having and times of not having and these are shared in our communities and with our ecosystem. We must try to reorient ourselves to seasonal vitality and pause in our pursuits to the pleasures of rest as we train our minds to resist the impulses which have become like an artificial heart pumping out desire after desire for a selfish, short-sighted existence at the expense of life itself. Life and farming are as much about muck as they are about feasting- each in its own time. And if we really want fresh tomatoes year round, we can learn to grow them in a container by the window.
(copyright reserved 2014 – no part of this original work may be reproduced without the author’s written consent)
If you have the goal of sustainability and working with hard-to-work-with clay soil, read this excellent article on how to improve your soil in a really downhome and homemade way.
When I was a child, the whole world was a marvelous mystery and dirt had, in my mind, always been dirt. Rocks had always been rocks. Living in forests for the past ten years, my knowledge of dirt has expanded somewhat and I have stopped raking leaves, I’ve stopped tilling and have started to care deeply about roots and worms and healthy soil. My tiny farm was the victim of decades of neglect and abuse under shade tree mechanics and people who buried their garbage and abandoned their unwanted trash when they left. The land has needed a lot of bulldozer work to clear fallen old buildings and trailers and remove mounds of trash and debris that years of vegetative growth had almost covered over but which presented a lot of danger for anyone to walk on.
In order to strip away the years of junk, the dozer also had to remove the only topsoil the land had- granted it was not very plantable, infused with nails and glass and shingles and vertical blinds and every imaginable plastic contraption sold by discount stores in the area. Beneath it all, shiny red clay, the starting point for a fresh layer of topsoil.
In a closed-loop design, there is birth and death and seasons. There is re-use, reproduction and regeneration. I decided on wheat straw for bedding the animals because it is local and direct from the farmer and it is inexpensive and has very little dust compared to pine shavings, though I am very allergic to it. The animals love to dig into it and this helps break it down quickly. The goats love to nibble on it and prefer it as bedding. As needed, I muck the spent straw from the hen’s coop and kid pen and spread it on the next bare patch of clay. When my hens are out foraging, they scratch into the straw, effectively turning it over. Little by little the hens, the goats, the straw and I are helping to promote a healthy layer of topsoil at minimal cost, keeping it all locally.
In a previous lifetime I was an English professor. It was experienced personally in the classroom for seven years, that no amount of education seemed to sway erroneous belief systems, especially regarding food consumption but also seen with religious beliefs. It was difficulty enough at times to gain the student’s attention, competing as it was with a myriad distractions in an ego-immersed thought-world.
We are at the critical point. All science is showing the same fossil fuel crises and we are still investing in fossil fuels, driving, eating and consuming like there is no tomorrow.