Makin’ the Bacon

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Nope, I’m not talking about makin’ money, I’m talking pork! Last week, my husband and I visited Happy Basset Brewing Company in Topeka, which was showcasing a new favorite farm of ours – Stirring Soils Farm! My husband is the associate general manager at one of our local restaurants, J. Wilson’s, known for “inappropriately good” New American cuisine that revolves around local, sustainable, and healthful products. At the restaurant, J. Wilson’s, Evan and Chef Ty have brought on this marvelous farm that boasts biodynamic pork. Not only do they raise happy pigs – their pigs are allowed to be pigs out at pasture, without antibiotics or deformations of their bodies – but their farm is centered on supporting the pigs and soil as a cohesive unit. The happier the soil, the better the pasture grasses and greens grow, the higher number of nutrients the grass (pig food) contain, the healthier the pigs become, the tastier their meat is, the healthier you are when you eat them. The pigs are even given vegetable scraps and spent grains from the brewing company – talk about connections!

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The resulting pork products are the best we have ever tasted – and I didn’t think I could’ve felt so supportive of being a carnivore again. We have tended to eat vegetarian at our house since we started looking into the living and slaughter conditions of animals that become our food products – it was horrifying. (Ever wanted to try being vegan or vegetarian? Nothing converts you faster than watching a food documentary on Netflix after a glass of red wine – cue the onslaught of tears and frantic check-writing to PETA.)

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But when you eat pork that comes from a sustainable, loving, healthful environment, there is nothing to feel guilty about – there is only gratefulness. We came home with a bag full of ground pork, chorizo, breakfast sausage links, and bacon ends – a plethora of delicious goodies.

My favorite meal so far? Breakfast! Let me paint you a picture: Stirring Soil zesty breakfast sausage links, farm-fresh eggs served scrambled with Alma, KS cheddar, homemade blackberry jam, piping-hot fair trade coffee, and homemade sourdough biscuits (oh my goodness, so fun and easy with my sourdough starter!). Perfection. 

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We’re thrilled to support farmers who value healthy soil and healthy, happy animals, both at home and J.Wilson’s, Evan’s home away from home. Cheers to Chris and Stirring Soil Farms!

Garden Journaling

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Gardening can bring such joy and satisfaction in any scale, from a window sill of flowers to hundreds and hundreds of square feet of vegetables and legumes on a farm. The tricky part is how long gardeners go in between seeing their crops again – by the time I’ve harvested the last of my bell peppers in September and transferring seedlings to the garden in the following May, I’ve gone nearly eight months without active handling and care of the peppers. How often did I fertilize them last year? Which variety died in a surprise frost? What were last year’s growing patterns season changes? Or, for that matter, what if I wanted to resurrect a crop from several years ago – how do I keep track of when we planted and began to harvest?

Last year I created an excel file for the end of the season, and we did our best to sit down and try to remember when things sprouted, how many we planted, what varieties performed and how… What frustrated me was that I didn’t actively journal and keep track of our fertilizing patterns and season changes to know how everything performed and how early we saw harvests. However, I am too lazy to journal pages of detailed accounts of every day and it’s important to me to have a quick and easy reference point for last year’s accounts. This season, it was important to find something quick, convenient, and light.

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My in-laws purchased this beautiful calendar for us for Christmas – it’s made by the Farmer’s Almanac company and is illustrated with beautiful plants and gardening tips, as well as the moon cycles. I decided to hang it on my fridge – and then I realized that my new journal was staring me in the face! Why not document – and even plan – our gardening work in a calendar that is always in arm’s reach and is easy to store for next year?

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In February I sat down with our seed packets and counted out the number of weeks we wanted them to have inside under our growing light before transferring outside in the beginning of May (our last frost tends to hit mid-April). Counting back from our estimated transfer date, I wrote in when we should anticipate planting each of our plants – tomatoes and peppers early, followed by cucumbers and squash at the end of March to give everything a solid foundation. I also used this calendar to record how often I was fertilizing plants inside as well as outside – I try to keep a regular schedule with our feedings, but it’s hard to remember when we fertilize months apart!

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It’s also important for us to note when there are big seasonal changes that might impact how things are progressing outside. We had a sudden snow mid-March after a bunch of the plants had begun to bud, including our potted blueberry, which made us nervous about their success. We have also seen record high temperatures and early warmth, which has sped up growth and blooming – it was only a week before our mid-April wedding that plants actually began to shift towards green last year, while this year our lilacs are already budding and the pear trees cloaked in white flowers.

 

I’m convinced that this calendar will be a great way to easily and quickly document yields, harvest times, season changes, transplant dates, and all within a slim and streamlined medium – not to mention the lovely illustrations.

 

Why Homestead?

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Tonight, we’re visiting the third house on our house hunt. No, not our house hunt – our homestead hunt. We’re finally getting close to being able to declare our hunt as officially in season, but with that comes the question of what we’re looking for – a homestead. But with that comes the question of, “Why?”

Although society is starting to relax and open up in so many ways, there are still these stereotypes about life and your success in life depending on getting that college degree, getting a well-paying job that provides you with retirement accounts and 401(k)s, settling down and having two kids in a nice neighborhood, and spending your weekends at a furniture mart shopping for bedroom sets. Your food and supplies come from big mart stores that provide convenience and ease, your social media provides inspiration and social status. Your backyard is perfectly groomed and has the occasional flower garden and there’s no point in creating items when you can buy them at a store on sale.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting this or even wanting this – it’s just not for us.

For me, my journey started three years ago when Evan and I first moved in to our current rental home. We were in the middle of the zombie apocalypse craze – with the TV series and movies chronicling the events of a small group of people following some kind of world collapse, there was suddenly this thought:

“Wait, what if this ACTUALLY happened? How WOULD we live?”

It was unsettling to say the least. I can’t even cut firewood (thank goodness I chose a partner significantly more skilled in that arena), much less know how to build shelter that would keep me alive for the night, not even thinking about a zombie attack. It started us thinking about not having the life skills that our grandparents had – keeping livestock, growing and tending crops, using resources on the land, creating the items you need for your survival or day-to-day happiness.

At first, our journey was about being stocked with emergency supplies – stockpiling rope, freeze-dried food, duct tape, portable cookware, propane lanterns, a hatchet, and desalinization straws. I began looking into how to prepare food for long-term storage – dried noodles can only go so far in survival packs. One of my family members joked with us that we were becoming doomsday preppers. As we were growing our stores, I still had a feeling that this wasn’t the right direction – we were missing something. Then, I came across this eye-opening read:

The Prepper’s Cookbook: 300 Recipes to Turn Your Emergency Food into Nutritious, Delicious, Life-Saving Meals

“The Prepper’s Cookbook” by Tess Pennington introduced me to a whole new direction – while you should be preparing for the worst, the worst may not be a zombie apocalypse but a staggering veterinary bill or major car repair. What will you do next week when you’re suddenly at the emergency vet’s office facing the possibility of a $900 bill for an overnight stay to monitor your diabetic cat? (This was us three weeks ago – thankfully, Cattigan is now home and happy.) Suddenly your grocery money goes out the window – so you should be growing, harvesting, and storing the food that you will eat every week rather than bags and bags of cheap noodles and salty flavor packets or cheap, overly-sugared cans of baked beans that no one would want to touch on a good day.

This book helped us count and calculate which foods and how much of them to grow, preserve, and/or purchase for the house. We started keeping bulk dry beans and pasta as well as cans of pickles and diced tomatoes to pull from when we cook. Just last week, we cracked open a can of sauerkraut I made last summer when we were grilling bratwurst during a freak February warm spell. The idea is to be able to sustain your own lives and lifestyle despite any type of emergency – from wrecking your car to a zombie in the garden.

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A harvest of black beans and a stash of peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers from last year’s garden.

I finally had the right plan.

I was canning from our garden and stocking up on bulk rice and nuts or jars of peanut butter when it went on sale at our co-op. We’d buy bags of potatoes or peppers when they were put in the price-reduced bin and slice and freeze them for later use. I up-cycled this beautiful book shelf and now stock it with supplies like pasta and sugar or boxes of onions – it stays cool and dark in our basement and provides us with a pantry supply of food. Plus, now I don’t have to worry about staring at bare cupboards while planning dinner – I have so many options for soups, chilis, Mexican, roasted vegetables – you name it.

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A few of our ‘pantry’ items – we’re running low this time of year, but this is how we get started at sustaining ourselves with our own pantry and goods. (And yes, there is still a package or two of noodles for a true emergency.)

But that wasn’t the end of it – the next step became whether or not we can continue to produce that kind of food on a regular basis and provide for ourselves every day, and not just during times of shortage.

It was time to think big picture and long-term, and this is where we’re doing most of our learning – what did our grandparents do to keep their plants alive during sudden freezes? How did they keep chickens alive while roaming pastures to avoid buying feed all the time (which makes them more expensive than just buying organic eggs at the store)? Before power or even during power outages, how did they keep their house cool in the summer or warm in the winter? While we want to live with the modern conveniences of air conditioning and internet (we are very much a Netflix/Hulu household), we want to reduce our carbon footprint and our dependency on the grid to heat and cool our house or power our cars. Especially in light of recent political events, I want to control where my money is going and how my money is buying my energy if the government won’t protect our environment. This can be a whole conversation on its own – but, for example, we believe whole-heartedly in the sustainability of solar – so let’s invest in solar panels and get our money out of coal power plants.

What’s wonderful is that anyone can do this – my husband has been pouring over this book about finding self-sufficiency on 1/4 acre. It’s been essential to us as we do calculations and come up with ideas for maximizing space and the power of our dollar, and is jam-packed with everything from gardening to canning and dehydrating to soil health and composting, and more.

 Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

Rather than 1/4 acre, however, are aiming for 2-3 acres for our future homestead. A homestead of this size gives us the breathing room and space to do so much, from keeping a goat or two to including a cottage for my mother-in-law. I want the space to sew more t-shirt quilts for family or floor cushions (that my cats steal – thanks, guys…) when we’re not outside tending patches of tomatoes or harvesting black beans (Let me digress for a second – black beans are one of the easiest plants to grow and take care of – you literally water it all summer and wait for it to die in the fall before you know you’re ready to harvest – I love ’em!). We can work with a local energy company to at least lease solar panels to power our property and maybe even invest in an electric car. I dream of free-range chickens that provide us with fresh eggs, pest control, and soil maintenance (small amounts of manure but lots of scratching and stirring soil). Over the years we can use crops and crop rotations to improve the soil health of our land so that every vegetable or fruit we grow is bursting with nutrients that are missing from commercial and mass-produced foods – plus, doesn’t farm-fresh just taste better?

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My husband left me a note last fall when I came home from work – better than any box of chocolates or vase of flowers, in my mind!

We’re big dreamers – I often happily imagine a snowy, Kansas Christmas around a fireplace with our family out on our glowing homestead – but we’re ready to be realistic. We know that to get a piece of heaven so close to our city means that we’ll probably be sacrificing on the quality of house we’ll find to stay in our price range – no 5 bedroom mansion with a 4-car garage and heated barn for us. (We will likely be stuck with a cramped ranch-style home with a scary basement and overgrown property that screams “RUN AWAY” rather than “Future Garden of Eden”.) We’ll be starting small, and our first garden will probably be terrible with very little production on this nasty northeast Kansas clay soil. But every year we’ll plow a few more garden beds by hand, search the internet for second-hand chicken coops, and maybe even save up for a pressure cooker to help with canning or a new patio table to fit more than 3 people out back.

The idea of the American dream is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps – that hard work pays off and gives you the life of which you have always dreamed. We’re unlucky compared to most farmers – we’ve inherited no land and we haven’t hit rich with any lottery ticket to give us a head start. We’re going to be moving forward with the love and support of our family and it’s going to take time, and we’re okay with that. We’re building the Epperson Homestead from scratch – and every little thing I learn how to fix or make means I am that much more proud and invested in my home. We’re getting back to our roots – valuing the work our hands can do, cherishing the seedlings that sprout in the plant tray on my bookshelf, reading and expanding our knowledge and imagination, putting the importance back on happy animals and happy soil that, in turn, only make us healthier and stronger.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this quote to ruminate over as we all dream of spring and greener things:

“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ” -Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”


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Starting from Seed

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Our low temperatures are dipping in the teens this time of year – it’s the perfect weather for gardening! Well, indoor gardening, that is.

Living in Kansas, we can see snow and freezing temperatures surprise us even as late as  May, though sometimes our last frost is the beginning of April. The running joke is that if you don’t like the weather here, wait 5 minutes. I distinctly remember dashing home from a morning recital my junior year of college to yank the tarp out of the garage and cover our seedlings in the garden to shield them from a sudden snowstorm – in the first week of May. We tend to run the gamut – sometimes lows below zero in the winter and highs in the 100’s in August. Our gardens have to be hardy, well-watered, and set up for success.

Evan picked out our seed packets from our local garden center this week – we have no particular ties to seed companies, but our preferred choices are organic and heirloom as often as possible. Let’s take the best of the best for this volatile region!

We haven’t grown many of these varieties, but we’re sticking to the same type of plants we grew last year – tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, beans, and so on. We might start shopping for our very own homestead as soon as this summer, so there is a chance that we’ll have to leave this lovely garden behind, but we hope to pour as much love into these green little friends for as long as we have them.

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First up are Italian Roma tomatoes – we always enjoy canning a large selection of tomatoes in addition to slicing tomatoes, and we’ve heard from friends that Romas are excellent for canning and produce well. Our tomatoes last year were yummy but few in number and late in coming.

 

 

 

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Up next is a spaghetti squash variety – we accidentally grew spaghetti squash last year when we mistook some seedlings sprouting in our compost for cucumbers! Squash varieties tend to look the same when they sprout, but after the first two leaves develop things start to change. We had already transplanted the seedlings when we realized that they weren’t growing the way we knew cucumbers to grow. A couple of months later, we had 4 happy spaghetti squashes, and they lasted until nearly Christmas in our cellar!

 

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We’ve grown straight-8 cucumbers for several years now, and I just haven’t been super impressed with their slicing abilities. They can well, but I’m far more likely to eat sliced cucumbers than a jar of pickles each day. We’ll try “Telegraph Improved” and see how these do.

 

 

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This is a new squash for us this year – in the last couple of seasons we have found some new ways to roast butternut squash with our holiday meals or winter vegetable roasts. Brussel sprouts, roasted butternut squash, onions, carrots, garlic, and a dash of salt & pepper with olive oil make for a delicious combination!

 

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We’re continuing to experiment with finding the right slicing tomato – this year, maybe a rainbow blend will do the trick.

 

 

 

 

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I have no experience with cowpeas, but the story of how these Michels cowpea seeds were gathered is just fascinating. A soldier was marching by a farm in the 1940s and decided to pick a few beans as a keepsake. He kept them safe for quite some time and they ended up planted on the family farm back in Kansas, and since then they’ve been added to the Seed Savers exchange program.

 

 

img_1433These envelopes are jalapeno and bell pepper seeds that I collected from our best-performing plants last year. We still have jars of hot peppers in our basement and we loved how thick-walled and strong our bell peppers turned out. Hopefully they’ll be just as delicious this year!

 

 

 

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Our last packet is of some cayennes – we had problems with squirrels this year and cayenne peppers can be a natural deterrent. Usually the cayenne needs to be crushed or sprayed near the plants, but maybe proximity will also do the trick! They will also be helpful for making some salsas and pepper mixes.

 

 

 

I think we will also be planting some leftover black beans from last year as well as a round of onions and potatoes in addition to our usual herbs. Our peppers go in the indoor seed trays this weekend to give them 8-10 full weeks of growth before outdoor transplant – we’re guesstimating that the last frost will be Evan’s birthday, April 21 and we’re aiming for an outdoor transplant of around May 1. Stay tuned for more seedlings!