Sunday, November 1, 2015

State of the Farm: The Problem of Abundance

(Picture from here.)

Yeah, another State of the Farm. We're still in harvest season. It tasks me. I shall have it.

I've complained about this year's weather before and, truth be told, we did not get the amount of garden produce we wanted. Potatoes, not so great. Tomatoes were a joke. Beans and cold crops ended up lunch for a woodchuck.

I mean we did have enough garden crops to enjoy many good meals. We have some beans in the basement. But we didn't have what one would call abundance.

Not from the garden, anyway.

Much of our tree harvest-- chestnuts, peaches, cornelian cherries and persimmons-- were quite good.Which brings us to the problem of abundance.

Getting beans, tomatoes or plums here and there adds spice to the table. But harvest has to cope with the problem of scale.

For example, let us consider the chestnut.

The native American chestnut is all but wiped out by the chestnut blight-- a nasty fungus brought over to us from Japan. The chestnut ranged from north Alabama to Vermont. It was a climax tree and supplied food to native Americans and wood to colonists. In Italy, chestnut flour in some places was a more important staple than wheat flour. The blight changed all that.

What we have now are hybrids of various sorts between Chinese chestnut and American chestnuts or pure Chinese chestnuts. Resistant strains have been developed and it is possible that someday the American Chestnut will return in force. I hope for that. I hope for the return of the American Elm, as well.

We have three trees on our property. Until this year, we didn't have a mature enough pair to get a good yield. This year we went from a pound or two to somewhere between thirty and sixty pounds. This is several hundred chestnuts.

If you look at the picture at the top, you'll notice a vicious looking burr and brown nuts. The spikes on a burr will penetrate most leather gloves. It has to be removed.

The brown on the remaining nuts is a sheath. Most people boil the nuts in some way to loosen the sheath. That's okay for a few but isn't practical for hundreds. What we do is puncture the sheath and microwave them. This loosens the brown sheath so it can be removed with a paring knife.

Not shown in the picture is the papery covering underneath. We dry the nuts and then remove the papery covering. Then, we vacuum seal them and store them in the basement.

This process isn't so bad for a pound or two. But we've been skinning burs for a couple of weeks now. 

In previous years, we've used it in soups. I'm not sure how many dried chestnuts we have but it is north of twenty pounds. Clearly, we'll be discovering new uses for it.

My point is that the scale of harvest is meaningful. Every gardener has a zucchini story where they kept on coming like it was the zombie apocalypse. It's a painful experience. Here is the very earth providing you with more than you asked for. The compulsion to make use of it is overwhelming. I remember one place I worked where the break room had three large zucchinis on the table labeled "free", every Monday throughout the month of August.

But we'll manage the chestnuts. Grind them into flour like the Italians did.

A bigger problem for us this year was fruit. Specifically: peaches, grapes and persimmons.

The peach harvest was in the tens of pounds. Cut 'em up and put them in the freezer. Then the grapes came in-- somewhere around sixty pounds of Concords and about twenty pounds of Marechal Fochs. Twenty pounds isn't that much for the M/F's. The grapes are small and the bunches compact. I intended them for wine so I wait until I have about thirty to forty pounds and then it's into the press.

The Concords are a different problem.

The Concords loved this weather. This is the greatest yield we've ever had. All from one vine. But the Concords have always had a fairly good yield. This year was exceptional but perhaps as much for the low numbers of yellow jackets as anything else. In previous years, I've had to fight them for the grapes. About the time they come in the wasps start looking for a good food source for the winter.

I blended in the Concord to the M/F in the wine making and it worked pretty well. But then the harvest became too much.

I don't really like the taste of dried grapes and getting rid of the seeds is a problem. In addition, there are only so many grapes one can eat either directly or in the form of jam. I considered making a grape syrup similar to maple syrup but that turned out to be a shortcut back to jelly.

So, about fifteen years ago, I started an earnest journey to make a good, dry Concord wine. It took about ten years. I have technique and recipe, which I'll talk about in the future, but this post is already too long. Suffice to say, forty pounds of Concord grapes can be spun into six gallons of a nice blush wine. Much easier to store. But the steps are still a scale issue:
  1. Harvest the grapes.
  2. Pull the grapes off the stem.
  3. Freeze them.
  4. Thaw and press.
  5. Make wine-- it's own set of steps.
As the total amount increases, small inefficiencies start to play a center role. Once we figured out the best way to remove the nut from the burr, the limiting factor became removing the sheath and drying it. Our little food dry is running 24/7. In the case of the grapes, I spent a lot of time in front of the TV removing grapes from stems. Pressing can be done in a batch but it needs a big press. About six years ago I gave up and bought a good one. The time consumed in lots of little batches more than made up for any lost juice in a big press. But if I wasn't making wine, what would I do with the grapes? 

Abundance is a fact of nature-- we're not the only ones that take advantage of it. All organisms produce more offspring than are strictly needed to allow for attrition. Cod lay up to 500,000 eggs/kg of body weight. Our two chestnuts provided us with hundreds of potential offspring. The natural systems presume predation on offspring and produce accordingly. In this context, we're the predators. Others, like commercial bananas, depend completely on us to propagate them. The supermarket banana will not sprout on its own.

On our little farm, we're interrupting the chestnut reproductive cycle, preventing them from recolonizing the northeast for our own selfish purposes.
Makes me want to laugh like a super villain. 
Ha ha! Castanea dentata! Foiled you again!
Oh, please. Let me propagate and become a climax forest species again. I'll do anything you ask.
Never! You had your chance! Now it is the turn of the oaks and the maples.
Gives you something to do when you're pulling off burrs.

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