Category Archives: Farmsteading

How to Freeze Raw Milk

I’ve gotten into the raw milk craze in these last few months and it’s worth spending a few words proselytizing on behalf of that cause. Mind you I’d nearly cut dairy out of my diet until I finally tried raw milk. Going as far back as childhood, I’ve had belly troubles and worse. These days I guess they’re calling that “I.B.S.”. Allergies have been another bane to my existence, and a little bit of cheese now and then is enough to make me take notice. But when I visited All Grass Farms in Dundee, IL, one of only a few farms in the state legally permitted to sell raw milk for human consumption, I figured I’d at least give it a try. I wanted to see what all the craze was about.

It was love at first chug! I only started out buying a half gallon, but I probably finished most of that on the drive back to Chicago. As soon as that first swig hit my mouth I could feel it going to work. My tongue and throat felt tingly with whatever probiotic mojo the milk was working on me. I finished that half gallon before the next day was through, and the whole while I could feel my entire gut getting familiar with its new inhabitants. It felt a little weird at first, but it wasn’t at all uncomfortable. It was almost like I was getting healthier, or growing new intestines. At the risk of sounding crass, pooping is something I don’t usually look forward to, but the raw milk was a big relief in that department as well.

Within a few days I drove back out to Dundee and picked up a few more half gallons. I quickly figured out that I could easily down half a gallon of raw milk a day, and realized I needed to start stocking up. It’s worth mentioning here that my day-to-day occupation as a carpenter in the film industry means that 82 hour work weeks are something I have to put up with. As a diabetic, figuring out how to maintain a healthy diet in the midst of an impossible schedule has been a challenge, to put it mildly. Within a month of adding raw milk to my routine I had dropped five pounds. Bringing a thermos to work was enough to keep me going through those twelve hour days without giving in to whatever donuts and snacks might otherwise be tempting me. A half gallon a day has been my average consumption, but some days it’s a little more or less. There is a little bit of a bother with phlegm-iness, but it’s outweighed by the overall benefits I’ve noticed, and probably the biggest factor limiting my consumption of raw milk to half a gallon per day.

A trip from Dundee to Chicago is most of half a day for me. Throw the occasional seven day work week in the mix and it’s hard to figure out how to keep my fridge stocked. I’ve noticed that raw milk still tastes fresh for a few days, and is drinkable for about a week, but that’s more often than I can make it out to Dundee without milk turning funky. It doesn’t spoil, by the way, but begins to turn into something that would probably become cottage cheese if I let it go any longer. Instead, I decided to fill the freezer with raw milk as soon as I got home. And that’s how I broke a few mason jars.

The key to freezing any liquids in glass jars is to keep the contents below the shoulder of the jar. That’s all you need to know. My first few attempts I left what I thought was ample room at the top of the jar, and the glass still broke, despite there being plenty of “head space” even after the milk had frozen. A little help from the internet and the obvious dawned upon me. That milk had nowhere to expand when it came up against a literal bottleneck, and something had to give, which of course was the glass. I’ve frozen several half gallon jars since then, and I’ve started resorting to this neat trick. I fill the jars about midway into the shoulder, and screw the lids on tight. Then I place them UPSIDE DOWN in the freezer, usually on a folded cloth towel. When the jar is upside down, there’s still about an inch of head space left in the jar, and there’s no bottleneck for the frozen milk to run up against. I’ve frozen at least half a dozen jars now with no more breakage. Perhaps I’ll update this post with pictures the next time my schedule cools down.

Raw milk thaws out perfectly well, and tastes just as fresh as when I brought it home. I shake it several times as it’s thawing out, and also as it’s freezing TBQH, but it could probably be left well enough alone and do just fine. It does take something more than a full day for a half gallon brick of frozen whole milk to return to liquid in the refrigerator, so plan accordingly. My last trip to All Grass Farms I stocked up on four gallons of milk in half gallon jars. I’m thinking maybe I should invest in a pony keg or maybe a small tanker truck.

A few post-scripts related to raw foods and processed foods: After becoming accustomed to the raw milk diet, and only drinking super high quality local organic milk (shout out to Kilgus Farmstead) when I couldn’t score the raw stuff, I had a chance to drink some of that incredibly filtered and reconstituted milk which I won’t list by name brand here, but it was on set while I was working one day and I mostly wanted to see how horrible it was. It tasted completely dead to me, like a cardboard imitation of what milk should be like. I understand that more and more folks are having all sorts of dietary problems these days, but I’m convinced that the answer is to return to natural foods and not to find even more ways to process and adulterate foods beyond recognition.

I’ve also been downing raw honey by the tablespoon with my morning tea, especially during peak allergy season (ingesting local pollen is a great way to deal with that problem), and I’ve noticed no real problems with indigestion or glucose levels. One morning not so long ago I was feeling under-caffeinated on my way to a side job, so I stopped at Panera and drizzled some of their honey into my black tea, no more than a teaspoon I’m sure. I was almost immediately overcome with heartburn and I couldn’t stop belching fire. Whatever fauna are living in that raw honey, they’re obviously helping me digest the stuff, and I don’t think I’ll eat honey again unless I know that it’s the raw deal.

Thanks for reading and be healthy everyone!

On Slaught..

A number of things on my mind lately around a theme. Just going to hash them out here not really gonna get anything solved.

There’s this thing with being a Buddhist and eating animals. It’s the same dissonance a lot of folks feel whether they are Buddhists or not. We are animals that need to eat. It’s not entirely comfortable. There’s going to be some suffering involved.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether or not plants have a consciousness. I believe this question is worthy of serious consideration, but it is complicated bordering on philosophical and somewhat secondary to the concerns I want to hash out here.

Being a vegetarian didn’t work out for me, although I’ll gladly eat my fill of vegetables. A plate of BBQ is just plain boring if it ain’t half slathered in collards, TBQH. I found out not too long ago I got the diabeetus, and there are at least a few other dietary concerns going on what with the 82 hour work weeks. Adding arbitrary restrictions just isn’t gonna be the way to go for me, personally. More power to you if you wanna go vegan, but if you’re not looking your farmer straight in the eye, you’re pretty much still party to the wholesale destruction of monarch and pollinator habitat, not to mention a whole lot of deer that probably got shot to make way for more and more acres of corn and soy. None of which is doing anything to solve our carbon problem. Oh and did I mention our lakes and oceans are full of plastic?

Where are we headed? There are some crazy and not so crazy ideas out there. There are warehouses in cities like Chicago where they’re growing lettuce and tilapia indoors. This is a great conversion of a resource, but it isn’t a solution that’s gonna work for Kansas. I’ve also read about cloning meat cells or how we should all start eating insects, raised in sterile labs no doubt. I can’t even get my head around the cloning thing but chickens are already great at eating insects, and they’ll turn degraded ag fields back into pasture while they’re at it. I have eaten crickets before and they weren’t bad for a garnish, but you can do a lot more with chicken from a culinary perspective. Cows, sheep, pigs, goats, they all are gonna do a better job at converting degraded lands back into natural habitat than endless applications of RoundUp.

The RoundUp thing is totally a restoration strategy, too. I’m not making this up! Too many of these solutions seem to have this idea that since “conventional” ag is bad, we need to go even more off the wall with the genetic splicing chemical weirdness factory solutions. Maybe some of that stuff will provide something useful on a planet with 9 billion mouths to feed, but it doesn’t provide any appeal for me.

So, let’s take it as a given that livestock have a role to play in sustainable farming, and that just because Big Ag is wrong headed doesn’t mean that all farms are bad. All these thoughts are worthy of further exploration but they aren’t my main focus right now and I’m tired and need to wrap this up.

If I am going to run a farm, and that farm is gonna run livestock, I am going to want to make sure that those animals have the best possible life while they are on the farm, all the way up until the point where they become somebody’s groceries. I’ve already been party to the culling of a few roosters, and more than once I’ve had to euthanize some bunnies that a volunteer may have inadvertently maimed. Taking a life is not any fun, but it’s quickly becoming evident to me that it’s the most important chore on the farm. It’s worth learning to do well, with skill and efficiency, and above all with respect and compassion for those lives that are being sacrificed to feed other lives. With a job so important, I don’t know that I’d be comfortable outsourcing it, at least not without first getting some very first hand experience with the ins and outs. I need to  trust that those lives are being valued with the same esteem in which I hold them. I have more plenty homework to do here, but visiting some farms where they do their own slaughter has just gotten bumped pretty high on my list of priorities. It seems the least I can do, before I commit to raising a few hundred lives on pasture.

The words are getting blurry and the alarm clock is set to go off too soon. My apologies for writing something less than coherent, but I felt it was time I got something fresh down here, whether I’ve explored every detail adequately or not.

OM MANI PEME HUNG and to all a good night.

Sometimes it hurts to ask..

I have never put a lot of stock in the old saw that “it doesn’t hurt to ask.” If the answer is “no”, it probably just hurt to ask. You’ve just allowed for “no” as an outcome that you’re willing to accept, and set a precedent for “no” as the default outcome for all future asks. Sometimes, it’s better to just get shit done and take responsibility for the consequences. Act now, apologize later. So long as no one is getting hurt, and no laws are getting broken, you’re probably better off just taking the initiative, especially when permission is just a formality.

I’ve grown increasingly frustrated this year with an effort that I’ve been involved with, which I’m going to quit calling out by name. I’m not deleting old posts and any ape intelligent enough to use the interwebz will be able to scroll back and figure out what I’m talking about, but this is my blog and this is where I go to discuss my successes and failures. My failure this time, if it is one, was investing a great deal of effort and some amount of money where I knew there was very little chance of payout. I made a calculated risk because I saw enormous potential, and I knew that a great opportunity was just sitting there neglected, waiting for someone with a plan to come along. I don’t necessarily regret my involvement. There comes a time, though, to cut your losses and focus your attention elsewhere. Farming especially is about the bottom line, and I just don’t see any possibility of any actual farming happening where I’ve been spending my time. Maybe the culture will shift, and maybe some personnel will change, and if the winds look favorable I might give it another go, but in the meanwhile, I’ve got actual work to do. One thing that’s for damn sure is that I’m not going to become a better farmer by just writing about it. Sooner or later, someone’s got to get their hands dirty.

There’s plenty of potential lying around my own city block waiting to get realized. The steaks are smaller here, and there’s still plenty of bureaucratic hurdles to deal with. I’m not running a few hundred chickens in East Garfield Park (those damn laws again), but I can get real work done here and quantify actual results. It’s one thing to count your chickens before they hatch, but if you’re not even growing any chickens, well, maybe it’s time to come up with another plan. I can just barely make room for a late season harvest if I get to work right away, so who wants to bet what I’m going to do next? Stay tuned for more rock and roll..



Augustus Fischer might be proud

Another great day on the farm today. It’s Civil War Days at the Fischer Farm but that didn’t stop me running the walk-behind tractor and getting my contour line ready for planting. Farmer John was out watering the pumpkins and gave me a quick run down on the Grillo tractor. I tilled the weeds out of the quarter acre pumpkin field and did a good piece along Grand Ave where I’m going for some kind of ornamental display, then turned my attention over to the 150 foot contour line that I’ve been fine tuning. Cannons and muskets were firing the whole time but there’s always work to do around the farm.

Found myself explaining what contour is a few times today and hope I did an all right job. I do have a full blog post drafted but as that’s turning into sort of a manifesto I haven’t finished editing it yet. The quickest explanation I can think of about contour is that it is essentially the shape that water makes upon the landscape, and that paying attention to how those shapes play out on the land can have big impacts in farming and in restoration. Essentially, soil is either being deposited or washed away, and there’s a line (or multiple lines) across every landscape where you can see this demarcation as the land goes from convex to concave. I picked one of those lines and decided to plant a row of sunflowers. A whole lot of surveying went into plotting out that line and a modest amount of site prep, but now it’s ready to get sown and tomorrow I’ll make it happen.

In addition to the hundreds of sunflower seeds I have ready to throw down I bought two flats of stiff goldenrod from Prairie Moon. They are a great nursery in Minnesota and I’m thrilled with the mixed flat of native perennials I ordered from them earlier in the year and planted in my urban garden. When I got the email that their remaining flats were on clearance I figured I would order a few more for the Fischer Farm. It turns out that the ten percent I saved on these flats doesn’t offset the twenty percent I’m probably losing in viability, as these clearance trays arrived looking much worse than the plants I ordered earlier in the year. Lesson learned, but I already knew better.

Fortunately I have all sorts of tricks up my sleeve and I’m going to share some secrets here. Okay none of it is really at all secret and I’m sure you can find this info all over the internet, but in case you didn’t already know, all parts of any plant in the Salix family pretty much are a rooting compound. These are the trees you know as willows. There’s even one in the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond that was reputedly struck in half by lightning, a fully mature tree, and both halves were replanted and are still there currently, decades later, looking lovely. Check it out sometime — it’s one of my favorite spots in Chicago.

Where this information comes in helpful to gardeners is that you can take willow branches, leaves, stems, whatever cuttings you can take, chop them up into lots of pieces and boil them for a while, let that water settle all the way to room temperature, and water in your transplants with this rooting compound, aka willow water. If you want to get biodynamic about it, and why not, right, add in comfrey, nettles, yarrow, and chamomile, in whatever ratio you have available, with a good dash of unsulphured molasses to really feed the soil biology. I have a pot of this brew on the stove right now and after it cools overnight I’m going to strain it into a two gallon pump sprayer. When I get out on the Farm tomorrow morning first thing I’m going to do is get all those goldenrod plugs in the ground and water them in with the hose. AFTER they’ve gotten a good soaking I’m going to go BACK and feed them the willow water biodynamic juice.

Why the two step soaking? Well for one thing I only have a two gallon sprayer and I’m watering a 150 foot row. But it’s also a fact of biology that dry soil doesn’t actually hold a lot of water. Whoa, crazy talk! I think about it like that Dagwood fellow from the Blondie cartoons. He could never eat on an empty stomach. If soil is too dry it’s actually just going to shed water. It’s about surface tension and hydrophillic action, field capacity, all sorts of mumbo jumbo. Once your soil is good and watered, though, then your plants can take a drink. If you’re watering your house plants you should generally water them twice, a little bit first and the rest later. If you’re feeding your garden, get the soil watered first, then go back in a while with your organic potions and fertilizers.

It’s been a really long day and I have a lot of work left to do tomorrow but if I don’t write it down it’s like it never happened. Also that pot is still on the stove and I needed something to do while that brew simmers so I hope that some of this was useful for someone. I look forward to landing a forty hour week job someday where I can actually farm and have a life and blog about all of it in maybe a more coherent manner. Until that happens good night and good luck everyone.

That’s a Dandy Lion!

20170424_083441One of the great joys in working to restore the Fischer Farm is in witnessing how many visitors come by to enjoy the Farm each week. It’s not just the regular volunteers, or the groups taking wedding photos, or the attendees of the many events that are scheduled there. It’s not just the birthday parties, the 4H getting crafty or the ROTC or the Boy Scouts parading around. Most importantly it’s the casual visitors, some of whom have just discovered the Farm for the very first time, and others who come back every year.

As I was out walking the fields the other morning (on my birthday no less), I spotted a couple of strangers picking dandelions. You may not yet know, but I am a big fan of dandelions, and I can and will go on at length about their many benefits, both to soil and soul. I approached the nearer of the two strangers and met a wonderfully punk teen who reminded me just a bit of myself at his age. I asked him what he was doing, making it clear that he was welcome to as many dandelions as he could help himself to, and he told me that he was picking them for his mom. So I wandered a bit further afield and met a radiant woman closer to my own age, with glowing red hair and a pleasing accent. She told me that she was gathering the dandelions to brew a home remedy passed down from her father, and I asked her if she might share the recipe. She obliged, and I am glad to share that remedy with you here. It’s a general purpose winter remedy or immune booster, and will keep you in good health for a long time to come.

Gather 500 dandelion flowers, and let them sit out for some time for the ants to disperse. Simmer in one liter water for one hour, let sit for twelve hours and then drain the flowers, making sure to squeeze out any remaining liquid. Add 1 kg sugar and the juice from two lemons. Cook again, slowly, for another hour. Pour into a jar with a tight sealing lid, and turn upside down while the mixture cools to room temperature. Keep the jar in a cool, dark cupboard and it should keep for a few years. Take a few  teaspoons of this remedy at the first sign of any sore throat, or throughout the winter as a general immune booster.

Thank you Agnies for sharing this bit of your family’s heritage. You are welcome on the Farm any time!