Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Sausage day

Sausage day is coming up.  It is a family tradition dating back to when my great-grandfather owned a lunch counter in Baltimore city.  He would make sweet Italian and hot sausage at Christmas time and my grandfather and his siblings would have it for breakfast Christmas morning.  We once tried to date the start of our Christmas tradition when my grandmother was in her nineties.   She said that my grandfather made sausage before they were married.  At the time we tried to date the tradition my grandparents would have been married more than seventy years.  We figure there was another ten years before the marriage and since the interview it’s been another twenty years.  So we guess that we are embarking on the century mark for this Christmas tradition.  

The tradition is the same but how we make it has changed.  Time marches ahead whether we chose to acknowledge it or not, family members pass but the tradition is of its own making.   We still get together and make Italian sausage for those left in the family.  My generation is the last generation eager to keep the tradition alive.  There is something melancholy to that thought but I’m sure when my great-grandfather brought home his sausage for Christmas he never had a thought that one hundred years later we would still be using his recipe and making it basically the same way. 

Automation changed the process that my grandfather (Poppy) and his brother would have to accomplish by hand.  First, they would hand grind the meat; then have to hand stuff the casings.  Now, instead of grinding the meat ourselves we have the local butcher do that.   Around 1940 the old Esskay meat packing plant in Baltimore retooled and got rid of all there old grinders and stuffers.  Poppy’s brother got one and automated the stuffing process.  That machine was passed down from my grandfather to a great-uncle then back, to his son (my Uncle Nick).  I was next in line of succession but that wouldn’t be until Uncle Nick gave it to me.  We used that machine until 2001 when we had to move my grandmother into an assisted living facility. 

Each year we start off with a traditional toast to all those who have come before us and have made this tradition possible and we remember all the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters.  We reminisce and bring up stories of sausage day pasts.  Uncle Charlie and Aunt Helen are usually the first names to surface.  Aunt Helen was a saint mainly because of Uncle Charlie.  God love him, Uncle Charlie was a gruff, no nonsense Italian.  He served his Country in WWII, his Church and his community hospital.  He was a man with many talents but I remember him best for his dogs.  He trained one dog to get tools, shoes, mail, the paper, clothes, rags you name it.  He taught the dog the difference between a crescent wrench and a hex wrench, a hammer versus a screw driver, a flat head versus a Philips screwdriver.  This dog was the brightest dog I have ever seen in my entire life. 

One scene sticks out more than any other in all the years I’ve been involved and that was when Uncle Charlie passed the machine down to Uncle Nick.  It was the last time I saw Uncle Charlie on sausage day.  We had finished for the day, everything was packed up and clean and we were getting ready to leave. 

It was a simple act but one I had never seen before.  My Uncle Charlie, being frail at this point in his life, went up and hugged my Uncle Nick and said “Well Nick its all yours now”.  My Uncle for his part played it off and said "What are you talking about, you'll be back".  They hugged a bit more kissed each other on the cheek and Uncle Charlie walked up the stairs.  I didn’t realize what had taken place until later in my life.  What I had witnessed was Uncle Charlie passing on the lead of our tradition to my Uncle Nick.  Uncle Charlie lived on a few more years and we would take him sausage but that was the last year he had the strength to attend.

Uncle Charlie taught me how to properly stuff the casing with sausage, the right feel of tension on your fingers tips and in the casing it self.  He taught me to make sure all the air was out of the casing, not filling it too tight or limp, getting the casing on the feed tube without tearing it and on and on.  I was eighteen when I finally got to sit in the chair to do the stuffing and I think I was twenty when Uncle Charlie finally told me I was doing it right.  But each year as Uncle Charlie was telling me what I was doing wrong; Uncle Nick would wink and throw me a knowing smile.  I had apprenticed for four years prior to even come close to sitting in that chair. 

We had jobs that were segmented by years of seniority.  We had the mixer, the primary and secondary stuffer, the hanger, the engineer, the closer and the casing prep.  The lowest level was that of hanger.  As a hanger your job was to take the finished sausage from the closer and hang it over the rail.  It was your responsibility to make sure the hot sausage did not mingle with the sweet and that none of the sausage fell to the ground.  You always had to be ready when the closer was finished with the next piece.

The second to lowest was closer.  This person was responsible for tying white string around the end of the sausage if it was sweet and red string if it was hot.  Next on the list is engineer, this person turns the stuffing machine on and off as needed.  When a casing is fitted to the end of the feed tube the secondary stuffer gives the ok to start.  He or she then gives the sign to turn the machine off if the sausage is filled or the casing breaks during the process.

Next is the secondary stuffer, one of the two top ranking positions.  Next to Mixer the secondary stuffer has the most important job.  The casing has to be filled just right.  To much meat inside and the casing will burst.  Not enough meat inside and it will not cook properly or evenly.  This person must have great touch and be adept at putting the casings on the feed tube quickly, lest everyone waiting to do their job starts to harangue and belittle the secondary stuffer.  It is a hard room and everyone rides everyone else when ever possible in that playful ribbing way.  We make sure everyone gets their fare share and no one person is singled out all the time. But, the secondary stuffer usually is the one with the bull’s eye on their back.

The primary stuffer is the person that puts the mixed meat into the hopper and pushes it down to go through the screw mechanism into the feed tube.  With the old stuffer this was the most dangerous of the jobs with more than one person in the generations losing the tip of a finger.  I unfortunately am in that group.   With the new machine there are no more dangerous jobs, just speed and air. 

The casing prep person washes, tests and sizes the casing for use.  They then place the finished product in a bowl of water for later stuffing.  Lastly, but most importantly is that of Mixer, the mixer is responsible for adding the ingredients and mixing them consistently into the meat.  Taste is the mixers main responsibility.  You can tell by look how well the ingredients are mixed and when there seems to be a good mix we get ready to cook some.  As the meat cooks aromas fill the air that brings thoughts of Christmas’s long past and times spent with family doing this same thing year after year.  We sing carol’s and tell jokes and catch up on family from the past year’s events. 

Then comes the tasting, when cooking is completed; everyone tastes the finished product and comments on what they feel is good, bad or indifferent.  This is a big source of contention as you may have guessed.   There are times when no one comes close to agreeing and then sometimes we all agree.  The final say comes from the mixer who is my Uncle Nick the senior member of the group.  He listens to everyone then usually adds a little bit of something to tweak the taste.  He may need to add more fennel or more red pepper depending on taste.  Once that is done we plow through stuffing between one hundred and one hundred and fifty pounds of pork.  It makes for a fun but exhausting day and a chance to remember all those that came before us.

 

Buy Local – From a Farmer not a chain hard selling the fact.

 

 
 

Weeding is a four letter word

We seemed to always take pictures of our vegetable gardens in the spring when they looked clean and weed free.  I find very few pictures of established gardens in late July or August.  This took me all of one second to figure out why.  One word tells it all and conjures up the images that we lacked to capture digitally.  Weeds.

Weeds, is a four letter word on our farm and probably every other farm organic or otherwise.  We have spent more time then I care to admit testing weed suppressants, retardants, defoliants and pre-emergents.  Being organic you really are limited with what you can use but I think we are gaining the upper hand.  We have hands, hoes, heat, spreads and sprays that we use in our arsenal along with some mechanical means. 

The first couple years of growing, the weeds took over like they owned the place.  That first Spring we started with a very small garden but larger than any prior.  We weeded ever day, seven days a week.  Something always needed weeding and we would attend to it.  We never thought that missing a couple of days would doom us but it did.  In June of that first spring I was selected to give a presentation, as part of a seminar, at the Kennedy School of Government.  My thought was three days in Boston and away from weeding can't be too bad.  Besides the stress of the actual presentation everything was fine when I got back to the farm.  We had weeds but it looked manageable.

That Saturday it rained and kept raining until the following Friday.  Did you know that weeds grow in the rain?  Yep, no sun in sight but these things grew and the water helped other weed seeds germinate.   We soon learned that weeding is one of those chores done rain or shine.

Our main garden was under siege, we spent the better part of five days getting the weed pressure down only to put the corn in danger.  At times, we felt like cartoon characters bouncing from one place to another.  It was truly a losing battle in all senses of the words.  Yields were down; we lost complete crops like carrots and melons.  Overall we got a quarter of what we had expected that season.  But true to our mission,  that winter we hit the books and tried to come up with a plan to thwart the beast that stole our nutrients and minerals and made our vegetables puny.

Winter of 2004 we learned of and leaned towards black landscape fabric.  We could put soaker hoses down, lay the black fabric over it and place plants in it.  Thus eliminating light to all weed seeds.  Or so we thought.  At first weed pressure was minimal.  We literly had over 95% of our soils covered with landscape fabric.  We soon found that the wholes we punched in the fabric to plant the seedling was sprouting weeds.  Weed encrouchment from the sides started too.  I quickly learned the following:  once these things catch fire they burn and burn fast!  Two, the fabric will get sucked up and into the mower if you get to close while cutting the grass (see.  Keep your grass short).  By the end of summer we lost out again to the weeds.  It took six people ten hours to clear all the weeds out such that we could pull the fabric up.

We bought a mechanical tiller, one of those small personal tillers.  That lasted one year, it was pretty effective but we've never been able to get it to start again.  I spent time changing plugs, oil etc., but it refuses to work.  It was good between the strawberries and corn rows as long as you didn't hit the corn stalk and could get it started and keep it running.

We had the worst time using straw and newspapers.  Not only did it not work for us it actually added to our weed pressure.  We wasted water wetting the paper and straw only to have it dry out and blow away.  Then we learned about corn gluten as a pre-emergent.  A pre-emergent is a type of process that stops seeds from sprouting.  It stops the emergence of the seed, any seed good or bad. 

In the spring we tilled our production bed and plant seedlings.  The little plants will be in rows and can withstand the broadcasting of corn gluten.  As long as a plant has an established root system, corn gluten is not going to affect it negatively.  Because the corn has a NPK rating of 9-0-0 whatever is around the gluten will get a jolt of nitrogen.  We've been using it with limited success for the past two seasons.

Flame weeding is an easy way of getting rid of weeds but it is not systemic in its application.  The leaves will curl and some plants will die but most plants remain viable due to their root system.  Plants that have rhizomes are one type that comes to mind.  It is best to flame weed after a rain to reduce the spread of an errant flame or burning leaf.  It is always a good idea to have some water handy just in case a silo catches fire or something (see, Are We done Planting).

We have also found a concentrated vinegar and lemon juice mix that works as a topical defoliant.  It doesn't kill the whole plant but it does retard its growth and on a subsequent pass it can kill the plant.  Once again rhizomes will defoliate but you will not get to the tap root.

This year coming up we will focus on cover cropping as weed suppression between rows of vegetables and fruits.  This seems to work pretty well from what we've read and seen.  Our arsenal is vast and our knowledge improved but no matter the outcome Weeds is a four letter word.

Buy Local - From a local farmer not a chain that just uses the word.

p.s. we appologize to all our and every english teacher reading this!

 

 
 

It is suppose to be a hen

The first flock was seventeen weeks old, their were six of them all layers.  One of the first things we learned was that you did not need a rooster in order to get eggs from a hen.   After hearing stories of insane and attack roosters, having hens was just fine by us.  We had gotten comfortable with cover cropping, field rotation and mixing grasses and legumes for the chickens to forage.  Family and friends truly liked the taste of the eggs so we felt we were ready to expand.  

When you get hens as day old chicks they are suppose to be hens.  Because we didn't know any better we expected that we would get hens when we ordered a total of fifteen one day old hens.  I had seen how they sex chicks (determine male or female) and some chicks are known to be hens based on their color (sexlinks).  We have Rhode Island Reds and apparently they are not as easy to sex as one thinks.  We didn't know this but found out later with on the job training. 

We got flock two, fifteen, day old chicks, and raised them organically.  We moved them out to the barn when they were four weeks old.  They had feathers but we put a heat lamp out just the same.  We had started to build a moveable pen so we were in the barn a lot that spring.  As the chicks grew I started noticing one that was bigger than the rest.  I didn't pay much attention to it until it started sounding different then the others.

I know why city people are made fun of in rural areas.  Here is a primary example of why we as urban dwellers are looked upon with a degree of skepticism from our rural neighbors.  I called the farm store and asked about our recent chicken order.  "Did we get a rooster with the hens"? I asked.  "No, probably not" was the answer then followed by "we can't guarantee all hens at sale but probably not".  So I described the chicken that was more developed then the rest and said that it sounds like it is trying to crow. "Yep," she said you got a rooster.

Without even thinking when she said it was a rooster I blurted out a question that, as the words were forming and audiblizing, I knew was the dumbest question a supposed farmer could ask.  There are two things you can do with a rooster on a farm.  One is to eat him.  The other is to let him fertilize the eggs.  That's it; those are the only things roosters can do on a farm.  A male chicken has two functions on a farm he is food or Don Juan for the ladies.

Of course I knew this, but I was forming the question, and the sales clerk on the other end was hearing it, and I couldn't stop myself.  When she told me it was a rooster I was dumb founded "What am I going to do with a rooster," I blurted out mindlessly.  There was dead silence on the other end of the phone line or maybe muffled laughter I don't remember.  What I do remember is questioning why I had just asked such a simple question.  She composed herself enough to say that indeed we could eat it or we could you use it for its reproductive capability.  Neither of which we wanted or planned for so I ended the conversation quickly.  So the damage was done, at least I hadn't given her my name 

We never wanted a rooster, we are not at the processing stage and we didn’t want to hatch chicks either.  With our luck if we hatched chicks we’d get more males then females.  Rooster weren’t a thought until we started seeing and hearing the signs.  By that time it is too late, it is yours.  We tried to sell it, then offered to give it away but had no takers.  Over time we have found that there is a third function a rooster can serve and that is ambience, our customers like to hear it crow and often comment on him.  They get to see a beautiful Rhode Island Red in all his plumage and in full throat.  Of course I've learned the mating signs so I'm not caught off guard when he's in the mood and we happen to have parents and children watching.

So the Rooster lives on with a run of the yard and hens to keep him company and protect.  So far their have been no signs of insanity, delusions of grandeur or unprovoked attacking.  Oh, and the rooster is ok too.

Buy Local - From a farmer not from a chain hard selling the word

 

 
 

Another story in Water Conservation

We collect rain in order to water our vegetables, fruits, herbs and the occasional fire that might start while weeding.  Putting a well in is too expensive but we found black holding tanks to be in our price range and capability.

A few years back we put in a three thousand gallon black water tank to collect the rain off of the barn roof.  We quickly found that three thousand gallons wasn't enough to last a month let alone a season.  It would take a rain fall of about three inches to fill up the tank given the size of our barn roof.  In the spring, in Maryland that is not a problem.  As the growing season stretches into July and August getting rain becomes problematic.

We purchased a second three thousand gallon tank and placed it on the other side of the barn.  We were using soaker hoses at the time and overhead watering for the corn.  Overhead watering was one of the problems with growing corn. We've read that overhead watering can inhibit pollination.  An ear of corn gets pollinated through its silk strands.  Each silk strand is tied to a kernel of corn on the cob.  If that silk strand does not get pollinated then that kernel tied to it will not form.

Pollen comes from the top of the corn stalk from the tassel.  If you shake a corn stalk, when it is pollinating, you can see thousands of specks of dust particles (pollen).  Those particles need to land on the silk in order to work its magic.  It seemed logical to me that overhead water would hurt this process more than aid, that wind was the better vehicle by which to transfer the pollen to the silk.  You hear about pollen counts being down after a rain.  I think with corn you want as much air borne pollen as possible because the odds are better for all silk strands pollinated.

We had to rethink overhead watering, not only were we using a lot of water it wasn't nearly enough for the corn.  Research and talking to other farmers led us to drip tape.  Drip tape has turned out to be the best irrigation solution to date.  Drip tape is lighter than soaker hoses and is solid with little openings spaced every six to twelve inches.  We planted seed accordingly and could deliver water directly to the plant and the plant only.  This saved us a tremendous amount of water and allowed us to deliver water to further distances with less waste and evaporation.

This year because of proposed expansion we decided we needed to purchase two additional three thousand gallon tanks.  We went in with another farmer so we could share transportation costs. 

I was sitting in the dentist chair on Friday and I heard someone behind me mention something about a phone call.  Then the assistant said to me you can go.  My mouth was already open so it couldn't drop any further, "me?"  Nothing good ever comes from a phone call in the middle of a dentist appointment.  Especially with you sitting in the chair, mouth agape and suction hanging from the side of your lip.

I managed to get up, my mind is running the scenarios, I get to the phone and it’s my wife.  She's okay and no one is hurt or otherwise.  But I do hear that the tanks have been delivered to Harry (the other farmer) and the eighteen wheeler is on its way to our farm to drop off the other two.   I said "tell them to wait I'll be there in an hour".  Not much I could say or do at this point so I went back to chair and finished

A three thousand gallon vertical water tank is over ten feet in diameter and twelve feet high.  The good news is it only weighs four hundred pounds.  Because of its size the bad news is its unwieldiness.  But I jump ahead; getting them out of an eighteen wheeler is the first hurdle that needs addressing.  Did I mention that I do my best work under the gun?  That is an expression that lazy procrastinators use to disguise the fact that we hadn’t prepare ahead of time.  Thus making the delivery even more difficult then it needed to be.  This time however, I have the perfect excuse.  They delivered early.  We weren't supposed to get the tanks for another couple weeks.  Still it would have helped to have the wood planks so we could roll the tank off the truck but why make it easy?

I did get home and meet the driver.  Getting the tanks went okay but I had some scrapes and busted one of the lids, all minor so it was a successful delivery.  Moving them a tenth of mile and setting them up was another story in water conservation. 

Buy Local - Live, Establish, Support Community Farms 

 

 

 
 
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