Barbecue Black Bean Lime Chili

Serve this Barbecue Black Bean Lime Chili with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, chopped green onions, and a sprinkle of paprika. You can also add crumbled tortilla chips and shredded cheese. Make sure you have a good chunk of buttered bread, too!  PLOT TWIST FARM PHOTO

Serve this Barbecue Black Bean Lime Chili with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, chopped green onions, and a sprinkle of paprika. You can also add crumbled tortilla chips and shredded cheese. Make sure you have a good chunk of buttered bread, too!

PLOT TWIST FARM PHOTO

In the cozy days of winter, we have plenty of time to tinker in the kitchen.

A big pot of soup or chili works best around here. We like leftovers, especially since Jason takes his lunch to work. 

This is my first time sharing an original recipe here, and I actually had to root through our recycling to remember what I put in and how much. Chili’s best trait is that it’s almost impossible to mess up. As long as you have a basic guide, you’ll get a perfectly fine result. The method of making chili is almost as comforting as the chili itself.

In the summer, this will be made again, using fresh ingredients from our farm and other farms. But, for now, here’s the winter edition.

Barbecue Black Bean Lime Chili

*** This makes a large batch of chili. About 8 servings. Adjust according to how much you want to make. Remember, it’s chili, so don’t overthink ingredient quantities. Let your eyes and taste buds be your guides.

*** INGREDIENTS ***

·       Black beans (Canned or dried. I used 4 cups of dried black beans. Follow dried bean instructions, if using dried.)

·       Pinto beans (Canned or dried. I used 1 can. Follow dried bean instructions, if using dried.)

·       Tomatoes (Fresh or canned. I used a combination: 1 can of fire-roasted tomatoes and frozen Plot Twist Farm heirloom tomatoes.)

·       2 carrots, diced

·       2 onions, diced

·       1 large sweet pepper, diced

·       Garlic, minced (Add the amount that suits your tastes. We like a lot of garlic. I used 2 whole heads.)

·       Cilantro, chopped

·       1 can red enchilada sauce, medium hot

·       1 can green chiles

·       1 lime

·       Water

·       Barbecue sauce

·       Cumin

·       Paprika (Smoky paprika would be excellent, but a little goes a long way.)

·       Sugar

·       Salt

·       Pepper

·       Butter or oil of your choice

·       For garnish: Sour cream or plain yogurt and chopped green onions

·       Fun extras: Crumbled tortilla chips and shredded cheese

*** HOW TO MAKE YOUR CHILI ***

In a large pot, heat up enough butter or oil to sauté your diced carrots, diced onions, diced pepper, and minced garlic. Cook until tender. Add tomatoes, green chiles, enchilada sauce, black beans, pinto beans, and chopped cilantro. Add water, gradually, until you’ve achieved the thickness you prefer in chili. Zest the lime, and then squeeze in the lime juice. Add to taste: cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, barbecue sauce, and sugar. If desired, add more butter or oil for flavor. 

*** GARNISH ***

Drop a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt. Top with chopped green onions, crumbled tortilla chips, and shredded cheese. If you want to give the impression that you’re a fancy person, add a dash of paprika.

May your thoughts be warm, and your belly, too.

~ Stella

 

Color & Crunch - Peek Into 2019's CSA Boxes!

The sight of grass and mud has us in spring mode. And while the snow is sure to return, something else will be arriving on our doorstep: about $1,200 worth of seeds.

Here are a few of the wonders that will spring from Plot Twist Farm soil into your 2019 CSA boxes:

*** Poniente Cucumbers

These cukes were our most expensive seeds. They were about a dollar per seed. However, they’ll be worth every penny. Poniente is a long, European cucumber, with improved disease resistance. Have you ever tasted a fresh-picked cucumber? We’re talking crazy crunch. Wonderful as a snack, on a salad, or, say, diced up and tossed with black beans, feta, and dressing. These will be planted in one of our high tunnels. That means EARLY cucumbers!

*** Sweet Chocolate Bell Peppers

Eye-catching, with a lovely, chocolate flesh, these mild peppers will be ready early.   

These are Sweet Chocolate Bell Peppers by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Johnny’s is one of our favorite seed providers. Don’t these look delicious?

These are Sweet Chocolate Bell Peppers by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Johnny’s is one of our favorite seed providers. Don’t these look delicious?

*** Lunchbox Peppers

These cute, sweet peppers are perfect for snacking. Dip in your favorite dressing and crunch away, or stuff with cream cheese, sprinkle with salt, and toss on the grill.

*** Adriana Lettuce

We are especially excited about this lettuce. The dense, dark green heads are packed with flavor. For us, the big deal is that Adriana can take the heat. It’s hard to keep lettuce from burning and bolting in the summer. This variety tolerates the hot temperatures. After some experimentation last year, we decided that growing head lettuce was a more sustainable way of increasing the number of times CSA members have salad in their share box. And more lettuce is one of our main goals this year. We want more in the boxes, and more at our market stands. Jason is even taking a course on lettuce this winter.

We’ll be growing a great deal of Adriana, by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It’s able to withstand summer heat - a major plus for us, especially since we’re ramping up lettuce production. In past seasons, we’ve used loose leaf lettuce, but this year, we’re converting to lettuce heads.

We’ll be growing a great deal of Adriana, by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It’s able to withstand summer heat - a major plus for us, especially since we’re ramping up lettuce production. In past seasons, we’ve used loose leaf lettuce, but this year, we’re converting to lettuce heads.

*** Atomic Fusion Tomato

Every fruit has its own combination of color, but each one is sweet and meaty. The outside flesh is lavender, with multicolored streaks coaxed out by sunlight.

This inviting-looking tomato is Atomic Fusion, which we purchased from Wild Boar Farms.

This inviting-looking tomato is Atomic Fusion, which we purchased from Wild Boar Farms.

*** Artisan Tomato Collection

These crisp, little beauties will make a lovely rainbow in your boxes this summer. They’re refreshing with a satisfying crunch.

*** Indigo Apple Tomato

These tomatoes are striking, and they’re sweet tasting. The sun ripens the shoulders to black, with the bottom and inside red.

*** Magic Molly Potatoes

We’ve grown these before. On top of being delicious, they’re good conversation pieces. These potatoes have a dark purple skin, and a beautiful purple flesh. They keep their purple hue even when cooked. Mollies are fun and tasty!

*** Baltisk Rod Purpurkal Curly Kale

Say that 10 times fast. Jason was flipping through a seed catalog when I plopped beside him and spotted this kale. It was breathtaking! How often do you say that about kale? “We have to grow that!” I said. According to Fedco, the company that sells this seed, this kale has a feathery texture that’s enjoyable, and it has a sweet aftertaste.  

Baltisk Rod Purpurkal Curly Kale - what a beauty! We ordered this seed from Fedco Seeds, another favorite seed company.

Baltisk Rod Purpurkal Curly Kale - what a beauty! We ordered this seed from Fedco Seeds, another favorite seed company.

*** Red Ace Beets

Fresh beets are out of this world. You can eat the entire beet, including the greens. Jason has a phenomenal beet and beet greens recipe that we’ll share in our weekly CSA box newsletter when a bouquet of these beauties greets you.

We love root vegetables on this farm, and fresh beets top the list. These are Red Ace by Johnny’s.

We love root vegetables on this farm, and fresh beets top the list. These are Red Ace by Johnny’s.

These are just a few highlights. A well-rounded selection of seeds will go in the ground this season. And it will all be grown with zero sprays. As we say, “It’s food you can feel great about.”

~ Stella

2018 in Review: Rounding a Corner

In April, when the air was crisp and cool and full of promise, a pair of bright-eyed young farmers declared this blog would receive timely updates all season long.

Whoops!

*** New Face, New Place

Alright, let’s rewind to Memorial Day weekend, when a new face arrived at the farm, and hundreds of feet of tomatoes and peppers went in the ground. The new face was Angelica. Just a few days earlier, the Bolivia native graduated from Edinboro University with her environmental studies degree. She made Plot Twist Farm history as its first part-time employee.

Angelica joined the farm in 2018. We’re happy to report she’ll be back in 2019.

Angelica joined the farm in 2018. We’re happy to report she’ll be back in 2019.

On the business side of the farm, an employee meant a whole new set of laws to learn. For the first time ever, we experienced what it felt like to have someone else’s paycheck be our responsibility. While this was stressful at times, we met our payroll obligations, and we realized how much more can be done with just the addition of one smart, hard working person.

Adding a helper meant we could expand the CSA to 60 households, and we could add another farmers market. The market we chose was the Market House, in Meadville, on Saturday. This was Angelica’s territory, while I returned to the Titusville Open Air Market on Tuesday and Saturday. This was year two for us at the Titusville market (now located on Route 8).

*** The Vegetable Report

When people ask us, “How did the garden do this year?” The simple answer is, “Good.” Overall, we were happy with the crops and variety. Shortcomings were usually because we ran out of time to do something. (Tomato trellising just didn’t happen again this year. It was still a beautiful tomato harvest, but it’s going to be even better next year.) The insect problem persists, namely cucumber and squash bugs. We’ll be enlisting the help of feathered friends with that matter in 2019.

Our efforts to discourage cucumber beetles (screening in a high tunnel, planting tomatillos as a diversion plant, and sprinkling Diatomaceous Earth) paid off somewhat. We carted out about 400 cucumbers per week for several weeks in the beginning of the season. Eventually, the beetles did their dirty work, but we still considered this crop a success.

Our screened high tunnel helped keep the cucumber beetles at bay for awhile. We harvested about 400 cucumbers per week for several weeks in the beginning of the farm season.

Our screened high tunnel helped keep the cucumber beetles at bay for awhile. We harvested about 400 cucumbers per week for several weeks in the beginning of the farm season.

One disappointment this year was peppers. In 2017, we had a fantastic pepper year, with just a few rows in a high tunnel. This year, we went big on peppers, and they ended up overtaken by weeds. By the time we tamed the whole mess, it was too late. We know we need to “weed” (hoe) all rows before the weeds are even visible, it’s just a matter of time and human power.  

*** The Year of Scary Finances

Remember that scene in Indiana Jones when he’s scrambling away from the big rolling boulder? And when he escapes the boulder he finds himself staring into the arrows of angry natives? Well, that was how this year felt for us financially.

At the end of the farm season, we had about $6,000 in unpaid bills. About $5,000 of this was expected. There was a $1,000 bill that was an unpleasant surprise due to an error we made. (It was trial by fire this year, as far as how to be an employer.)

The $5,000 in anticipated bills included our approximately $3,000 annual Farm Service Agency loan payment. In 2017, we borrowed money from the government to purchase our walking tractor and its implements, and two high tunnels. It’s a low-interest, seven-year loan. No regrets about that decision. We could never have afforded the walking tractor without it. And without a walking tractor, we never could have expanded our farm.

The remaining $2,000 in payments was what we decided to contribute to a grant for a new high tunnel we received from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The grant was for $7,000. We knew this was probably our only chance to get a big high tunnel, so we decided to kick in our own money and purchase a 95- by 30-foot structure.

The grant was also a reimbursement grant, which meant we had to pay for the high tunnel out of our own pocket, and then be reimbursed the government’s $7,000 portion.

In the end, we pooled together the money we needed with personal income, farm revenue, a temporary, zero-interest credit card, and a few financial events that ended up being sheer luck.

Would you take this year’s farm season and turn it into a PowerPoint presentation on how to manage a farm budget? Uh, no. But we made it through and learned our lessons.

We’re working on season five’s budget now.

With Angelica returning next year, we solidified a big chunk of her payroll in CSA share payments. When the season starts in June, her cash will be sitting in an account already. No more mid-season fear when a market stand isn’t performing the way we’d hoped.

Alright, enough whining. Things got scary. Wah wah. Time to wipe away those tears with a big kale leaf and get to the good stuff.

*** The Good Stuff

Having a part-time helper unlocked so much farm potential. So much so that next year Angelica will be full time for the majority of the season.

On the farm, the beginning of the week was the same as the previous season, with me working on the farm as much as possible during the day, and Jason joining me in the evening. Silas turned 4 last summer, so he spent a lot of time in the gardens with us, but, thankfully, we still have grandparents to rely on for child care.

In the second half of the week, we had Angelica’s help. Thursday and Friday were the big harvest days, and Saturday was delivery and farmers market day.

The biggest, best change this year was that having an extra set of hands on the farm took out the sheer exhaustion factor of the season.

In season one, Jay did everything. We only had eight members in the CSA, but we did have a new baby. During season two, we sold our house and moved the farm to a brand new location. This is known as The Season from Hell, and the thought of it still makes Jason scratch the scars he got from a stress-induced case of shingles.

Season three was a whole new world. I quit my full-time job to take over farm management, and having me on the farm so much more showed us the possibilities that lay ahead. However, the season was still drag-yourself-into-bed-with-dirt-caked-all-over-your-body exhausting.

In 2018, season four, with me full time, Silas a bit older, Jason on the farm weekends and evenings, Angelica part time, and some extra help one day a week, things got … pleasantly tiring. No more packing boxes until midnight. Boxes were typically ready to go by early afternoon, or sometimes even in the morning, which left plenty of time to harvest for the farmers markets.

In my first season full time on the farm, the share boxes went alright, but it still felt like 18 weeks on a runaway train. What would be in next week’s box? Will there be enough of this? Will there be any of that? What actual edible recipe can we put together in the newsletter with this hodge-podge?

This season, the share box newsletter went from being a 1 a.m. Friday chore, to a relaxed task that I could start on Wednesday or Thursday because I knew what would be in the week’s box. Also, rather than staring at what we gathered on Friday, and then frantically trying to find a newsletter recipe to fit the box, I found myself studying recipes first, and then assembling the ingredients list. Kind of like going grocery shopping on our own farm.

Another step we took this year was to include herbs in most boxes. While this wasn’t our first year growing herbs, it was our first year having any time to harvest them. Picking 60 bunches of parsley alone takes a good chunk of a day, but with Angelica and our Friday helpers, time could be found. Cooking with fresh herbs is a lot of fun, and we were proud to provide that experience for CSA members.

A good dose of summer fun was still had, too. (We went to Presque Isle twice! Unheard of in Ruggiero summers past!)

*** The New High Tunnel

The clock started ticking on our high tunnel grant in early 2018. We had a whole year to get the frame up, but, as you know, a year goes fast.

Our choice was whether to do it in early spring, or late fall. The middle chunk of the season was too hectic. Well, as it turned out, early spring wasn’t exactly a time of leisure, plus we were hoping to raise money to cover the high tunnel cost, rather than charge it, and wait for our reimbursement.

So, fall it would be. The high tunnel builder was holding off sending our shipment, in the hopes he could sell a few more tunnels, and all of the farmers could split the shipping cost. But, we were closing in on Thanksgiving weekend and getting nervous that the weather could turn any day. The high tunnel moved with amazing speed from Missouri to Erie, and then languished a week for reasons we’ll never know.

When the semi finally arrived, the driver had the best of intentions, but accidentally sunk his right tires into a deep, muddy ditch in front of our house, raising the rig in the air. There were a few hours when the trucking company was saying that when the semi was out of the ditch, it was moving along with our high tunnel still aboard. No! No! No! How would we ever get 4,000 pounds of high tunnel back to Dingman Road? Most importantly, we’d lose invaluable time and good weather.

Thankfully, our neighbor was able to pull the rig out, and the trucking company agreed to let us unload.

With the high tunnel bundles safely up at the farm, we could let out a little of the breath we’d been holding in all year.

Grandpa Gary and his tractor, and several friends helped with our big high tunnel project in December.

Grandpa Gary and his tractor, and several friends helped with our big high tunnel project in December.

Jason with one of many big, stupid rocks we dug out of the earth before setting the high tunnel poles.

Jason with one of many big, stupid rocks we dug out of the earth before setting the high tunnel poles.

Every decent day in December that Jason had off from his day job, we worked on the tunnel. We had help from Grandpa Gary and his tractor, and from friends, and childcare from family and friends. The weather was sometimes cold, always muddy, but overall, fairly mild. Holes were dug. Poles set. Clamps tightened. Piece by metal piece, it went up.

With help from a federal grant, we put up a 95- by 30-foot high tunnel in December.

With help from a federal grant, we put up a 95- by 30-foot high tunnel in December.

On the evening the last hoop went up, a beautiful sunset surrounded the farm. I had a few minutes alone, so I poured a cup of coffee and experienced two blissful events: my hands were finally warm, and the biggest worry of the farm season, was released.

*** Farm Crew Updates

  • Jason – This winter, Jason is back at it again with his Excel spreadsheets. Over the years, we’ve learned that you sure can’t plan for everything, but you’d better try. We’re always excited about the new plans he cooks up, but never more so than this season. You see, we’ve got that great big high tunnel now, and the possibilities are endless. In late fall, Jason took a full day to stock our small high tunnel with lettuce heads, kale, Swiss chard, and green onions. Thanks to his work, we’re still harvesting from that tunnel and selling to a local shop in Oil City each week. Jason’s spending his winter finishing up work on the new high tunnel, enjoying time with Silas, and working on art projects, particularly ink drawings. He’s also taking an online lettuce growing class this winter.  

  • Silas – Little man was caught somewhere between being a toddler and a true big boy this year. It’s a complicated, trying, wonderful stage, and we’re not wishing it away too quickly. There were times when he was an actual helper on the farm, gathering tomatoes in the greenhouse and playing independently when work needed to be done. He talks all the time now and has a sense of humor. Silas has a best friend now, a little boy almost his age who we met thanks to the CSA. Watching him play with this new pal is like watching him cross a bridge to Little Boy World. It’s wonderful and makes me proud, but I’m also acutely aware that I’m left standing on the shore.

  • Angelica – She’s currently living on an island off the coast of Venezuela. She’s spending time with her mother and working. We get regular updates from her, and we’ll be sending her farm data soon, at her request, to help her gear up for the season.

  • Me – This winter, I’m enjoying being with Silas, writing a new script, coming up with my own recipes to share in next season’s newsletters, committing to eliminating as much garbage waste as possible, brewing kombucha, heating the house almost solely with wood, and, unexpectedly, reading about money and the basics of the stock market.

The stock market and farming having something in common, I’ve learned. It’s all about the long game.

Happy New Year, friends. See you in 2019.

— Stella

That’s me, harvesting lettuce heads in the little high tunnel this winter.

That’s me, harvesting lettuce heads in the little high tunnel this winter.

Under cover

Before our last cold snap, we took advantage of three mild days.

One of those evenings felt as warm as summer. Earlier in the day, we seeded peas, and transplanted rhubarb, broccoli, and kale. With temperatures expected to dip into the 20s in the coming nights, we put the broccoli and kale under row cover.

Row cover is a breathable fabric that helps protect plants from frost, and some pests, while letting in sunlight and rain.

Unrolling a 100-foot long strip of fresh row cover is a pleasant task for a few reasons. It offers peace of mind that you’ve done the best you could do to care for your plants, and, when there’s a gentle spring breeze, the cloth billows in a soothing manner. On a sunny evening, it catches the light and looks like a big, shiny ribbon.

On the next day, we experienced another form of billowing material.

The weather turned out to be much nicer than forecasted, so we decided to get the plastic on our two high tunnels.

Although past experience taught us that the plastic goes up and over the tall hoops much easier with the help of a third person, we convinced ourselves this time might be different.

Naturally, the wind kicked up just as we unfolded the giant plastic.

Wind or no wind, it’s a workout to get that much plastic over the metal hoops. I moved along the ground, feeding the plastic up. It felt and smelled like the bottom of a dirty fish tank. Jason jumped up and pulled the plastic over. (Ladders, you say? Pshaw!)

As we were about to start strapping the plastic down with a cord, dark clouds rolled in and a strong wind weaseled its way under the tunnel.

’Twas hubris that led us here.

For what felt like an eternity, we clung to the plastic as it flapped above our heads. It wasn’t as fun as the parachute in elementary school.

After a week of cold nights, the plants did fine under the row cover. The forecast finally looks favorable for growing. And that’s good because flats of seeds are stacked four high in our basement, and our seedlings are desperate for sun.

While our plants will be thriving outside soon, we’ve got bacteria multiplying in the house, under lids and flour cloth. 

There’s much to love about fermented foods, from taste to health benefits, but the cost and garbage waste adds up when you buy them at the store. So, this year, we’ve got several weird looking and smelling things growing in our kitchen.

Fermentation is intimidating. There’s usually a lot of steps over a period of time, and lots of rules and suggestions. It multiplies living creatures on your countertop. Basically, you’ve invited The Blob into your kitchen.

Right now, I have three fermented balls in the air: yogurt, kombucha, and sourdough bread.

To start the yogurt, I used plain yogurt from the store. For the milk, Hartzler Family Dairy, which you can find in returnable glass bottles at the Meadville Market House.

Yogurt must be one of the simplest ways to start fermenting. Different instructions give you a range of temperatures, so it’s not an exact science. I heat the milk to 180 degrees, and then let it cool to 120. (A candy thermometer is a must.)

The only challenge is keeping the yogurt at a steady temperature until it firms up. Invest in a high-quality cooler, if you’re going that route. Our cooler was not well insulated, and it was a pain to keep the water warm enough. This meant my yogurt stayed in the cooler for hours longer than it should, and took on an overly tart taste.

We eat a lot of yogurt, so constant monitoring of the cooler’s temperature wasn’t practical. My mother-in-law dug out a yogurt maker she had somewhere, still in the box. It’s basically a warming plate for your yogurt. Works like a charm in less than half the time. If you’re a serious yogurt eater, I’d recommend a yogurt maker.

Thank you, trusty yogurt maker. 

Thank you, trusty yogurt maker. 

Now, on to my private humiliation. Kombucha.

I took a kombucha class, and was given starter tea and a scoby by the patient and kind Laura Frost.

She has a terrific, easy recipe.

So easy, that only a damn fool would end up accidentally throwing out an entire batch because she mistakenly thought it was moldy, then make another batch and actually have it get moldy. Then, make a third batch, and grow mold once more.

Laura kindly brought me a new scoby after the first mistake, and offered to provide more. She correctly diagnosed that I wasn’t adding enough starter tea. (It’s clearly written in her directions, but I have a real problem with following even the simplest, clearest instructions.)

However, the tiny patch of mold that floated in my last batch was so inexplicable that I decided to test fate. I scooped it off, and watched this new batch for a few days. No new mold. The scoby appeared to be growing bigger and squishier. And the brew smelled delicious.

So, I tried it.

It tasted like kombucha, and I didn’t die. Victory! (For the record, I DO NOT endorse ever consuming moldy kombucha. A life of danger isn’t for everyone.)

Kombucha taking over our cupboard.

Kombucha taking over our cupboard.

This small batch of successful tea will be my “scoby hotel,” as they call it, to keep my scoby healthy and reproducing for future batches of kombucha.

From this new starter tea, I started a brand new full batch. No mold yet, and the scoby is growing.

Emboldened by my kombucha triumph, I felt ready to tackle sourdough bread. Ashley Cowles, of The Small Town Foodie blog, kindly provided me with sourdough starter and guidance.

Reading about sourdough is overwhelming. Everyone seems to have a different technique and set of rules.

I ended up bouncing between a recipe online, and Mark Bittman’s more straight forward directions in my favorite kitchen tome, “How to Cook Everything.” Due to a certain degree of ineptitude when it comes to baking, and, as I mentioned earlier, a lifelong inability to thoroughly read directions, I ended up kind of winging it.

To my surprise, each phase of the process kept magically working out.

Ready to rise again before going in the oven!

Ready to rise again before going in the oven!

On the morning I put the dough in the oven, Silas woke up just as the crust turned golden and crispy.

A few minutes later, he sat at the island, chewing his sourdough and honey breakfast. He smiled at me, and said, “I think you did it, mommy. I real proud of you.”

The finished loaves. Chewy and delicious inside, with a crispy crust. 

The finished loaves. Chewy and delicious inside, with a crispy crust. 

Spring Along the Creek

During early spring, we call up the weather forecast many times a day, always hoping for better results.   

As you may have noticed, April’s been grim.

On Sunday, Silas went to Grandma Darlene and Grandpa Gary’s, and we went up to the farm. Jason pushed the BCS walking tractor out of the shed, and, much to his delight, it fired up for the first time this season after just a few tries.

He tilled up the soil in the lower greenhouse, and we hand-shoveled four raised beds. The BCS can make raised rows, but we don’t want to tear up the greenhouse walls. This machine is heaven-sent when it comes to building up beds in our exterior gardens. We do not miss shoveling 100-foot rows by hand.

Jason tilling up snow with the BCS. 

Jason tilling up snow with the BCS. 

Last season, we planted cucumbers in the lower greenhouse, along with tomatoes and peppers. The cucumber seeds we order are the most expensive that we plant. It’s about $75 for three relatively small packets.

After taking good care of them for weeks last year, we only enjoyed one round of cucumbers in our CSA boxes, and had virtually none to take to market. Cucumber beetles went right on down the row, sentencing the once lush plants to death.

This year, we’re growing two varieties of cucumbers, and they'll fill the entire lower greenhouse. We’ll attach window screens to the sides of the house, so we can still roll up the plastic and let cooler air in. We’ll also set cucumber beetle traps in the roof peaks.

Those are some pretty cute cukes, don't you think?

Those are some pretty cute cukes, don't you think?

Drip tape instead of sprinklers will water the cucumber plants, to help avoid diseases.

Another sign of spring around here: boxes. Silas loves helping Jason open them, and this week’s deliveries brought 175 pounds (thank you, delivery guy) of potatoes, including Strawberry Paw and Yukon Gold. Oh, the joy of potatoes, fresh out of the ground, roasted with butter and herbs. 

We also received 50 crowns of rhubarb, and 24 canes of blackberries. Red and golden raspberries are on their way.

Blackberry canes arrived this week. In just two years, we can expect lots of berries, we're told. 

Blackberry canes arrived this week. In just two years, we can expect lots of berries, we're told. 

This season (hopefully in June), another greenhouse will go up. We were approved for a grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

We learned that our proximity to the West Branch of Sugar Creek benefited our farm during the grant scoring process. This creek is a natural reproduction trout stream, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. This means that the waters naturally support reproducing populations of trout.

The West Branch of Sugar Creek originates from a pond in State Gamelands Number 69. It flows past our house and our farm, traveling along Dingman Road and then dipping under state Route 27, eventually joining its namesake, Sugar Creek. This creek winds through forests and fields until it reaches Franklin and meets French Creek.

For such a small waterway, the West Branch certainly flows loud and fast at times. Our house is a quarter of a mile from the creek, and we can hear it rushing after a snowmelt or heavy rain.

A portion of the West Branch of Sugar Creek flows through the Shire. Er, rather, Troy Township. 

A portion of the West Branch of Sugar Creek flows through the Shire. Er, rather, Troy Township. 

At this time of year, creek banks and roadsides are inhabited by baby skunk cabbages.

When skunk cabbages first poke out of the earth in early April, they look like something planted by aliens. They’re short, fat, conic-shaped plants, striped burgundy and chartreuse. The exterior is the “spathe.” Sheltered inside the spathe, is a spiky, little ball. This is the flowering part of the plant.

The spathe makes its own heat by oxidizing starches stored in its roots. The temperature inside the spathe is typically around 30 degrees warmer than the outside air.

A family friend told me her mother used to cook up skunk cabbages.

This little weirdo is a baby skunk cabbage. 

This little weirdo is a baby skunk cabbage. 

This time of year, the bright green moss that grows on the rock walls along Dingman, and up the tree trunks, which are soaked black from the almost constant snow and rain, is eye-catching.

Another noticeable forest floor decoration this time of year, without the grasses and wildflowers to conceal it, is garbage. Mostly beer (typically light beer, why is this?) and energy drink cans. It doesn’t matter how great a person’s accomplishments in life, how kind they are, or how generous, tossing one can out the window negates all prior meritorious conduct.    

While being pushed in his stroller, Silas noticed the litter, and asked, “Why do people throw out garbage?”

Recognizing an opportunity to indoctrinate him with my deep prejudice for litterbugs, I explained how someone who does such a thing is lazy and disrespectful, and defiling such beautiful countryside can only be a sign of deep, deep, self-loathing.

As he bobbed along, eating a snack out of a Ziploc bag, he nodded, presumably absorbing the message. When the stroller was parked, he finished his snack, stood up, looked at me, raised his hand in the air, and released the bag to the ground.

The strangled cry that escaped my throat made him smirk.

He’s three. I’ll forgive him.

May he never drink light beer and energy drinks.

Roots & Ropes

There are many good points to a produce farm, and having access to a greenhouse on a cold day is one.

Currently, we have two houses covered in plastic year-round. They’re summer in a bubble.  

On Sunday, Grandma Linda and Silas spent much of the afternoon in the propagation greenhouse. To get to this greenhouse, you open the sliding door that leads out of our basement, step across about 3 feet of gravel, with or without shoes, and you’re in. As long as the sun’s out, you experience an instant 50-degree temperature change. As of Sunday, the propagation greenhouse is even hotter because we covered the ground with black mesh plastic. Eventually, we’ll add a layer of gravel.

While Grandma Linda and Silas did a craft in the backyard, Jason and I walked up the hill to the big greenhouse at the farm. I went from four layers and a winter coat, to a sleeveless shirt as soon as we stepped in. With the affect sun and temperature have on mood, and the butt-kicking Pa. winters can dole out, I suggest ignoring neighbors' looks and constructing a sun chamber out of plastic or glass in your yard or on your porch. Close yourself in there, stand in a bucket of potting soil, and have someone sprinkle water on your head daily. Yo ho, yo ho, a plant’s life for me.

We did some “housekeeping” in the big greenhouse last fall, and when the weather improves, we’ll drive the walking tractor inside, so we only had to untangle the dead tomato vines from the twine, and tear up the peppers.

Jason tangles with last season's tomato vines. 

Jason tangles with last season's tomato vines. 

*** GRAPHIC CONTENT: the following description of weeding may be too upsetting for some readers, and the cheesy analysis that follows may be too annoying. ***

While Jay started pulling out the long-dead, papery tomato vines, I made my way up the pepper rows. The dry, brown pepper stems felt like nothing in my hand, and the roots pulled from the soil easily. They had developed an impressive root ball, which seemed more alive than dead. It even had a pleasant, complex scent. Part earthen, part sweet, with notes that brought to mind sassafras.

Farewell, peppers. Thanks for the memories, and all the sauce. 

Farewell, peppers. Thanks for the memories, and all the sauce. 

As I tore the peppers up, each one making a satisfying rumble as it erupted from the soil, I recalled how, just a few short months ago, each plant dutifully yielded pepper after pepper. First, it was bushels of green peppers, and then deep red ones in autumn. At such an exciting time of year – the start of a new season – it was surprising to feel a surge of reverence for dead pepper plants.

***

Last week, we had two good meetings. The first, was with the chefs of The Blue Canoe Brewery, a brew pub with tall windows that face Spring and Franklin streets, in the small city of Titusville.

It’s one of our favorite restaurants, and it holds special meaning for us.

One long ago September evening, I asked Jason to meet me there, during my dinner break. After we sat down, I slid a small rectangle of paper across the table to him. It was my favorite comic strip, Baby Blues. After six happy years of marriage, with talk of children merely a pleasant hypothetical, a few cartoon panels earlier in the week had flipped a switch in my brain. I wanted to start a family.

So it’s clearly a special restaurant to us, and, this chapter of Jason and Stella history aside, it’s a cool place. The beer, the food, the atmosphere, it’s all quite perfect. We’re excited to work with the Canoe, and the talented people in their kitchen. Chefs Nate and Taylor are clearly excited about connecting local food to the community, and we can’t wait to watch them unveil their culinary masterpieces every week.

Our second meeting was in the central part of Crawford County, at the Venango General Store.

If you find yourself at the intersection in Venango, do yourself a solid, and turn onto Cussewago Street. The family that owns the Venango General Store has brought an era of history back to life. It's like a portal into another time, when the general store was a town staple. 

We met with owner, Mark, who shared some of his delicious and unique pickled specialties with us (pickled green tomatoes!), and discussed plans for this season.

Mark is passionate about making the most delicious food with local ingredients, and labels that you can read in about three seconds.

We enjoyed crunchy, chilled coleslaw with our lunch, and some of Mark’s pickled onions. The slaw was the perfect combo of tangy and creamy. This intro into what they're capable of with cabbage prompted us to buy a jar of sauerkraut. We can’t wait to pair it with buttery mashed potatoes. They know what they’re doing in that kitchen.

Hammock safety tip: Save your tortilla chip snack for when your feet are firmly on the ground.

Hammock safety tip: Save your tortilla chip snack for when your feet are firmly on the ground.

To celebrate our productive farm week, and what looks like one of our last sunny days for a while, we had one final task to accomplish in the greenhouse Sunday: hanging a hammock. Jason called up his Boy Scout knot-tying knowledge, and I demonstrated my deep trust in him as I tested the ropes. 

We feel 100 percent confident in this farm investment. 

- Stella