Monday, November 8, 2010

Foraging Criteria

These are questions I ask myself when foraging for wild edibles:
Can I accurately identify it?
Have I researched it?
Is it edible?
Have I eaten it?
Does it taste good?
Does the taste stand out?
Does it produce consistently?
Is procuring it labor intensive?
Am I confident?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lessons learned

       Let me preface this piece by saying that farming is the hardest work I have ever done.  I love it, and it is often very rewarding.  However, it is physically and mentally demanding, and coupled with nature's constant shifts and changes it makes for an endless struggle to achieve the balance of sun, wind, water, and timing - the ultimate moving target.  Time itself is a big part of farming.  Seemingly little things over time become big problems for which there is no quick fix, and other things require extreme patience.  It takes years for soil to develop into fertile matter, so we are constantly adding to the soil through minerals, compost, organic fertilizer, and amendments. 

     My tomatoes have had their roughest year yet.  I planted them in a new field which has the poorest soil out of the three fields.  I added compost and lime to the field, but I also should have added soft rock phosphate, greensand, and a good organic fertilizer.  This fall I will be adding these along with planting a cover crop, which adds organic matter to the soil while preventing weed growth.
     In years past I have used hay for mulching and added organic matter to the soil as the hay breaks down.  The downside of hay is that it contains lots of seeds, which grow vigorously and infiltrate and dominate the garden beds.  So this year weeds have grown out of control, and the watermelons, squash, and beans are struggling.   This season we are trying a biodegradable paper mulch that comes in a big roll that you stretch across your garden bed and plant right into.  After your crops are done for the season, you just till it in the remaining mulch.  So after a couple of years of using it you will have less weeds.
     Mistakes made in the past years can come back to haunt you, unless you maintain consistent attention to each of the moving parts that make up a successful farming operation.  It is a test of patience and one's ability to multi-task successfully.  Sometimes I can keep the balance, and other times I end up learning lessons the hard way.  Either way, with each season the farm develops and the soil gets better and better. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smooth Sumac

Sumac.  That one word strikes fear in people as most automatically think of poison sumac.  There are actually several different kinds of sumac - most of which are not poisonous.  The predominant one around here is Smooth Sumac - a shrub or small tree that grows anywhere from 3 to 15 feet tall in fields, along the edges of woods, and abandoned lots.   It is a pioneer plant meaning it is one of the first plants to come up in a field before trees start to crowd them out. During the early summer time the plant starts making a greenish-yellow conical flower head that all kinds of bees love.  The flowers produce small, red berries with tiny hairs all over them, and eventually the red berries will develop a white coating which is ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C.   These tart little nutritious berries were a favorite ingredient for a type of Native American beverage.  In the fall the leaves turn a brilliant red color, and in the winter smooth sumac is an important wintertime food source for many wildlife species.    

     In contrast, Poison Sumac grows in bushy and swampy areas.  The flower head hangs down like grapes.  So as long as the flower head grows upright you are safe from the poisonous variant of sumac.

Smooth sumac growing along the edge of woods.

You can see the ascorbic acid all over the red berries.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Of Blackberries and Chanterelles

This winter and spring were interesting as it was colder and wetter than usual. As a result, some things like fennel and spinach did not get planted; wet and cold ground takes the longest to dry out, so by the time they could have been planted it would have been too warm for them. Mache has proven to be extremely hearty and is one of the few vegetables that tolerates the cold weather quite well. This was my first year to grow it, and its steady growth has made it an excellent candidate for next year’s winter garden

On the foraging front right now there are several things going on. Blackberry season is in full swing, and dewberries are starting to ripen. Dewberries look like Blackberries, but they are bigger, juicier, and have bigger seeds. Wild ginger and sassafras are growing all over the place in the hollow. The red berries of the Smooth sumac are starting to develop their white coating of ascorbic acid. The green version of the Japanese herb shiso as well as Wild Mountain Mint also grow wild all along the road through the hollow.

It is also a great time of the year for foraging Smooth Chanterelle mushrooms. In this part of the country they start appearing in early June along creek banks, draws around the hollow, hillsides where water drains, and along the road through the hollow. The picking has been good for the past two weeks. The smooth chanterelles are so fragrant and delicious!

This year has also been one of reflection. As I get older I think more and more about money and family and the long term. My girlfriend Elizabeth has pushed me to not only think about farming as a way of life, but also from a business point of view - which I find particularly challenging as a farmer. She has also helped with the marketing aspects of running a business to help spread the word about the farm. I am becoming more and more determined to become a hard nosed businessman while maintaining my vision and ideals for the farm. This has involved taking a closer look at the garden from a business and profitability standpoint. What was in high demand last year? What should I eliminate from the growing roster this coming season? It is one of the major challenges of farming – to decide where to scale back and where to expand…all while staying in sync with mother nature.

I am extremely excited for one of the new ventures for the farm – egg production. The little chicks should be arriving in the next several weeks, so I am scrambling (pun intended) to prepare the tractors and fenced area where they will live. This is a joint effort initiated by a Birmingham based restaurant owner and chef who was looking for a local source for organic farm fresh eggs.

The farm is participating in a new farmer's market this year. It is in downtown Homewood at the corner of 18th Street S. and 29th Avenue. We are there every Saturday from 7:30- 12:30. Hope to see everyone there!

Hard work, determination, and some savvy planning will keep Hollow Spring Farm on the path to profitable sustainability and biodiversity.

Smooth Sumac

Smooth Chanterelle

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Farming from a cook's perspective- Part 1

I moved from Chicago back home to Alabama four years ago to get my family's farm back up and running again. I thought long and hard about leaving the kitchen behind. I looked deep within myself to make sure I was making the right decision. I loved cooking, but it did not come naturally to me. Farming does. There were so many times when I would check produce in and look in disgust at the produce and the herbs. The produce and herbs were lifeless. The best food and technique in the world are for nought if the food you are buying is of a low standard. So seeing so much sub-standard food was a catalyst for me. I also knew there was a ton of potential with the farm here.
One of the biggest catalysts for me is the chef Michel Bras. His book Essential Cuisine struck a deep chord in me. His talk about deep connections with the land through food and foraging really made me want to get the farm going.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Baby Goats

Say hello to Groucho and Harpo! They were born in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Advice from a Old Farmer

Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight and bull-strong.

Keep skunks and bankers at a distance.

Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.

A bumble bee is considerably faster than a John Deere tractor.

Words that soak into your ears are whispered…not yelled.

Meanness don’t jes’ happen overnight.

Forgive your enemies; it messes up their heads.

Do not corner something that you know is meaner than you.

It don’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.

You cannot unsay a cruel word.

Every path has a few puddles.

When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.

The best sermons are lived, not preached.

Most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna happen anyway.

Don ‘t judge folks by their relatives.

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

Live a good, honorable life.. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll enjoy it a second time.

Don ‘t interfere with somethin’ that ain’t bothering you none.

Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a Rain dance.

If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.

Sometimes you get, and sometimes you get got.

The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with, watches you from the mirror every mornin’.

Always drink upstream from the herd.

Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.

Lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back in

If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around..

Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply.

Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.

Don’t pick a fight with an old man. If he is too old to fight, he’ll just kill you.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Fatliter goes by many different names. Pineheart, fat wood, or heart of pine are some of them. Whatever you call it, it makes for a great fire starter. I burn a lot of wood during the winter time. Mostly hickory, oak, and lately chestnut. I can't imagine starting a fire without it.

Basically fatliter is the very center of a pine tree. Over time the sap in a pine tree hardens into a rock hard substance that is very resinous. The fatliter never rots. Often times it is the only thing left from a pine tree. It will get a fire going really hot. It will burn even when wet. If you break a piece in half it will smell piney. It's just great stuff that is indispensable.