From the Farmhouse Porch

I am frequently asked about what it’s like to live on a farm, especially from folks who know that I grew up in small towns and spent over twenty years raising my family in a large city.

I am happy to report that for the most part, farm life is pretty much as many of you probably imagine it to be. Life on the farm is grounding. There is a distinct change in tempo that occurs on the farm, a spiritual and mental calmness that exists even on our busiest days. On clear nights the sky is enormous, completely dark and devoid of the light pollution that makes star gazing almost impossible in urban centres. Our farm is the last place on a dead-end road, so we see very little traffic going past our house. When someone does drive past, they’re usually lost.

When we moved to the farm ten years ago I had a mental image of beautiful fields where the crops would be lush and green in the spring. Animals would behave in unsurprising patterns, there would be plenty of farm babies every spring and none of them would ever be stillborn, weather would be thoroughly predictable and occur in strict accordance with the Julian calendar marking the season, and taking crops off would just require good project management. Our farm kitchen would be where we would gather for wholesome, homemade meals and at least on weekends we would all sit down together for a hearty breakfast. Our children would all embrace our new lifestyle, eagerly participate in farm chores, and dig their new cowboy boots.

My OCD tendencies were clearly alive and well and living on that fantasy farm! Life certainly has a way of smacking dreamers back into some semblance of reality, and I was no exception.

The fields in those first few years were decidedly not beautiful. We owe a great debt of gratitude to some wonderful farm neighbours who offered advice and hands-on demos on how to turn 80 neglected acres of thistle and ragweed back into a viable farm. We learned best practices for planting oats and barley and an environmentally friendly over-seeding technique for our hayfields that has (almost) conquered the weeds. Animals are unmistakably unpredictable; we discovered that there are few domesticated animals more protective than a new mama cow. We had many, many issues with our water well, primarily related to the electrical wiring for the pump by the previous owner and which we rectified. Our younger girls, in their early teens at the time, often chafed at what they perceived to be their diminished social life and in completing necessary farm chores. Only one of them really dug her cowboy boots; in fact it was hard to get her out of them. Funnily enough, as young adults now living in a large city, they have all expressed a desire to move back to the country. I guess we planted those roots deep enough after all.

Around the same time that Chris and I transitioned to not just rural life, but rural farm life, a co-worker of mine commented one day that she simply couldn’t picture me in rubber boots, since my office attire was “business dress” and I had a well-known penchant for pretty footwear. As in really, really pretty shoes. I used to joke that I spoke fluent “shoe”, and while Chris didn’t understand “shoe” language, he did understand me.

Over the last few years I’ve learned to resist the shoe store sirens just a little, at least where pumps, sling-backs, kitten heels, and stilettos are concerned. My rubber boots, so badly needed on a working farm, have evolved too. A farm girl's gotta have pretty boots.

There is beauty on the farm in every season. The most joyful time on the farm involves spring babies. Fuzzy, downy chicks. Baby calves and newborn foals with their big eyes, ears, knobby knees, and affinity for getting into trouble. Newborn calves will crawl into or under the darndest things and go to sleep, driving their searching mama cows to distraction. It’s true that moms, whether the two or four legged variety, are all the same. I’ve watched cows and mares moo or whinny when their little ones have wandered too far away and unmistakably scold their offspring when they’ve been bad, the little ones making apologetic noises as he or she runs along to keep up with mama. I can say that calves and foals learn to mind their mamas much faster and much better than human kids do. It’s really too funny.

This year, our spring baby season started in the dead of winter when our newest colt, Whiskey, arrived during a midnight blizzard. Winter foals, at least in Alberta, tend not to do very well because of our harsh climate. We certainly had not planned for a January baby, but Whiskey thrived and has transitioned from knobby-kneed baby to a gangly and sleek colt with an appetite and propensity for mischief rivaling that of most teenage boys.

We were also happily surprised with the successful live birth of twin bull calves last month. “Steak” and “Ribs” as they are now known, tend to stick close together as brothers often do, and are bouncing around now. Over the next few weeks they will be joined by a few more late spring calves.

For all the joys, springtime on the farm is not always my favorite time of year. The mud can be deep and suck the boots right off your feet. Our driveway has a low spot that regularly floods over when the snow melts, creating a temporary water feature that we have dubbed “Jones’ Lake”. It’s impossible to keep the house clean, with two large farm dogs coming in at night to bed down in the back mudroom. Unpredictable weather often make chores an unpleasant, chilly adventure. What is frozen over in the morning is slushy and boggy by mid-afternoon. But even for all the mud and hassles, Spring heralds in the annual phase of new life and new promise. After the drought of the past year, the recent rain is thankfully received and appreciated and I have gratefully formed a new bond with mud. I am reminded by the drought that one can’t have rain without mud. This year I’ll take them both!

If Spring is the most joyful farm season, late Summer and early Fall are usually the most thankful. My favorite time is divided between berry-picking and haying season. Our farm has a growing abundance of Saskatoons (huckleberries to my American and Eastern Canadian readers), raspberries, one very tart cherry tree, honeyberries, crabapples, and strawberries. If you search carefully, you’ll find broad patches of wild strawberries in the forest on the north edge of the farm. These tiny red gems are the sweetest, most vibrant tasting strawberry you will ever be lucky enough to eat. They are worth their weight in gold and if you find a patch, it will take a herculean effort to not eat what you pick right there and then.

In mid-July and again in early September, Chris and I cut, rake, and bale about 60 acres of sweet smelling hay and greenfeed that are used to feed our livestock over the winter months. The days are very long, with both Chris and I operating tractors and various farm implements. We stop only for picnic lunches – and sometimes dinner too – brought out to the field and eaten on an old quilt spread out over the stubble along the shady side of the tractor, white puffy clouds lazily inching across a blue azure sky, the occasional vapour trail of an airplane passing high overhead in the hot sun, bees humming through the clover and alfalfa and the frequent red-tail hawks screaming overhead as they hunt for mice and gophers. These are special moments within special days. There’s a saying that you haven’t known hard work until you’ve helped bring in a crop of hay. I’m here to tell you that it’s true.

One key commonality on most farms has to be the food, and this is one area where my preconceived ideas of farm life have been proven true over and over. Farm dishes vary from region to region and cook to cook, but the core principles are the same: fresh ingredients and meals mostly made from scratch. The farm table may well be one of our society’s few remaining resources to pick up those threads of what seems to be becoming a lost art. In the busyness of our over-scheduled lives and competing responsibilities, we have become lured and seduced by the explosion of processed “convenience” food products just waiting to be heated and served. Ever notice how your stomach may be filled, arguably with questionable calories and often with alarming amounts of sodium and trans fats, but you’re hungry an hour or two later? Our bellies and very souls are hungering for something real.

I’m bringing up the subject of food because I believe that this is one key area in which we have the ability and the power to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of our families. I think that we as a society are becoming increasingly aware of the pitfalls of those fast food choices, the nutritional shortcomings of frozen commercially processed entrees, and the temptation of most food product offerings both within the aisles of our local supermarket as well as at many restaurants. However, as consumers I think we are still generally very unaware of both how our food is produced as well as the health impacts associated with our eating habits. Worse is the misinformation, misnomers, urban myths, and some outright falsehoods that are all too common on both social and mainstream media. Recently a couple of major restaurant chains in Canada attempted to increase their market share through marketing claims that ultimately were shown to be dishonest and manipulative. It seems that the snake oil salesmen of the 1800s are alive and well and masquerading as food marketing experts here in the twenty-first century.

For me there is a deep satisfaction in the act of cooking, of chopping fresh vegetables for a stir fry or stew versus dumping a bag of pre-chopped vegetables from the produce aisle into the wok or pot. For sure, the bagged veggies are convenient. But chopping fresh vegetables takes only a few minutes and the taste difference is remarkable. Let’s choose to take that time. I read an advice article from another blogger earlier this week that included this nugget: Learn how to cook at least one fabulous meal. I completely agree. What is your fabulous signature dish?

I enjoy cooking, I love to bake, and I am always on the lookout for good recipes to try. A few years ago I read a fiction novel in which our protagonist was gifted with a Ziploc bag of Amish Friendship Bread starter. The novel was fiction but Amish Friendship Bread is very real. Basically, the bread is created from a starter made over a ten day period and which provides about four cups of additional starter to give away. It is a fun, relatively easy recipe to make and a great way to get to know your neighbours! I began to experiment, much to Chris’s delight. Recently, a friend who is gluten-intolerant asked if I could modify the recipe, so I began developing a gluten-free starter. I also modified the recipe to make it healthier by reducing the oil and adding additional fibre and protein. This week my starter was ready for baking. The results were so positive that both loaves baked on Tuesday evening were gone by Friday morning.

Here is my recipe for Amish Friendship Bread, with added chopped apple and rhubarb fresh from my garden. Don’t be intimidated by the number of beginning steps – they are easy and fast to do. I hope you are inspired to try this and look forward to hearing from you!

Amish Friendship Bread

Starter:

* 1 (0.25 ounce) package active dry yeast

* ¼ cup warm water (110F/45C)

* 1 cup all-purpose flour OR gluten-free flour

* 1 cup white sugar

* 1 cup warm milk (110F/45C)

Directions:

1. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in water. Let stand 10 minutes.

2. In a 2 quart glass, plastic or ceramic container, combine the flour and sugar. Mix thoroughly with a whisk or fork.

3. Slowly stir in milk and dissolved yeast mixture.

4. Cover loosely and let stand at room temperature until bubbly. Consider this day 1 of the 10 day cycle. For the next 10 days handle starter with these steps:

a. Day 1: Do nothing. (this is the day you either mix the starter ingredients together or receive a starter from someone else).

b. Day 2: Mash the bag.

c. Day 3: Mash the bag.

d. Day 4: Mash the bag.

e. Day 5: Mash the bag.

f. Day 6: Add to the bag: 1 cup flour (all-purpose or gluten free), 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk. Mash the bag.

g. Day 7: Mash the bag.

h. Day 8: Mash the bag.

i. Day 9: Mash the bag.

j. Day 10: Pour entire bag into a non-metal bowl. Add 1 ½ cup flour (all-purpose or gluten free), 1 ½ cup sugar, and 1 ½ cup milk. Mix thoroughly.

Measure out equal portions of 1 cup each into 4 large-size Ziploc bags, leaving 1 cup remaining in bowl. Keep one bag for yourself and give the other bags away to friends along with the recipe.

Kitchen Notes:

The starter should be left at room temperature. Drape loosely with a dish towel or plastic wrap.

Do not use metal utensils or bowls – the metal will interact with the ingredients and your starter will fail. If using a sealed Ziploc bag, be sure to let the air out if the bag gets too puffy.

Also, when you make a starter from scratch, you can sometimes end up with a much greater yield than 4 cups depending on the temperature of your kitchen and eagerness of your starter! If this happens, reserve one cup for baking and divide the remaining batter into Ziploc baggies of 1 cup each to freeze or share with friends.

Unused starter may be kept in freezer for up to 1 month. Thaw completely and then use for baking or begin starter process. Thawing day is considered Day 1.

To make the bread (makes 2 loaves):

* 1 cup Amish Friendship Bread starter

* 3 eggs

* ½ cup oil

* ½ cup unsweetened applesauce

* 1 cup sugar

* ½ teaspoon vanilla

* 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder

* ½ teaspoon salt

* ½ teaspoon baking soda

* 2 cups all-purpose or gluten free flour

* 2 tablespoons fibre (oat or wheat bran can work for non gluten-free loaves; I use a ground gluten free product that is delicious)

* 3 scoops protein powder with at least 10 gms protein per scoop (the product I use also maintains blood sugar levels. I used their apple cinnamon flavour for this particular recipe and the product I use also comes in vanilla, chocolate, crème brulee, and peach flavours – all are delicious)

You may also add one cup chocolate chips, or chopped apple, chopped rhubarb, chopped nuts, or raisins. For my loaves, I added 1 cup chopped apple and 1 cup chopped fresh rhubarb.

Add all ingredients together in order listed and mix well. Batter will be quite thick – the consistency of banana bread batter. Pour into two greased 8X4 inch loaf pans. Bake in preheated oven (325F) for 1 hour. Loaves are done when toothpick in centre comes out clean. Remove from oven and turn out of pans onto cooling racks. Enjoy!

In our journey to improved wellness, let’s focus on what we can do for ourselves and our families to improve our eating habits. For some people cooking has become, or perhaps always has been, drudgery labour. But everyone I know loves good food and appreciates the smell and taste of fresh herbs, a vine-ripened tomato fresh from the garden, the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread. Let’s renew your passion for good, real food and turn that into a labour of love and in doing so, help to improve your health and that of those you love. Over the next few weeks, we’ll walk together through some of more highly publicized declarations so that you can better understand how your food is produced safely, where the pitfalls are in the food production chain, the best places to source your food choices, and how you can get involved in growing some of your own fresh ingredients.

It is really about getting back to basics. Let’s get started!

Hugs,

Shelley

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