Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Archive for the ‘Good food’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: How to Be Neighborly

Thursday, April 17th, 2014


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAWith the busy lives so many of us live, small things inevitably get lost along the way. But what if some of those things turned out to be much more important than we had assumed? What if we thought we could go without them but later realized doing so left something lacking in our lives?

With so many competing priorities, things like taking the time out to be neighborly can slip away. For many of us who don’t live on a cul-de-sac or in an established neighborhood, it’s easy to go about life without much thought to the bodies inhabiting the house next door. Too often we know them only by the car they back out of the driveway or what time they leave the house in the morning.

My nagging lack of interaction with my neighbors has always bothered me—being neighborly runs in my family—but I simply didn’t know how to bridge the gap. I had already been living in my current home for a year, and they hadn’t come over. I hadn’t crossed property lines to meet them, either. Now we were in awkward territory. Awesome.


Then something happened: Our know-how suddenly became the bridge. Last summer, when our chickens where really producing, I walked door to door and handed out eggs. When I had extra veggies, I stopped around and passed them out, along with zucchini bread and homemade tomato sauce. People driving by stopped and asked about keeping chickens, and even some people who came by to pick up some Craigslist items asked for input on growing their own food.

Over this rough winter, neighbors poured into our driveway, asking my guy about generators and how to safely run them. He plowed elderly neighbors’ driveways for free. In my great-grandmom’s book, she wrote about loading up the wagon and the horses with food and delivering it to neighbors who were miles and miles away. Sometimes she was gone all day, handing out food they really didn’t have to spare. Surely I can walk across the street and share the extra I’m lucky enough to have. I firmly decided to follow her example, set 100 years ago. Some good things never go out of style.


Doing these small things made me feel so good that I decided to look at how I could expand on being neighborly while still incorporating the skills I employ on the homestead. We routinely donated to the local homeless and women’s center and knew they had a program that helped homeless families move into their own apartments and educated them in budgeting, shopping, and other life skills. Unfortunately, many of the families are on such tight budgets that buying fresh produce, let alone organic, is simply impossible.

I don’t have cash to give, and frankly I’d rather give my time and teach a life lesson, so I volunteered to teach these families how to container garden on their back porches or balconies. It’s still in the developmental stages, but I’ve started to put the word out to garden centers, asking for seeds and leftover containers, as well as anything else they’d like to donate. It’s not always easy to ask for donations, but I’ve found that I’m passionate enough about this to ask, regardless of my awkwardness!

None of these efforts I’ve listed are huge in the scheme of things. We haven’t performed life-saving surgery or saved people from a burning building. Truth be told, the desire to expand our neighborliness grew out of a little selfishness. We did it because it made us feel good to help other people and form a bond. It made me happy to hear someone’s back story while delivering eggs to them.

But somewhere along the way, it shifted into something bigger for us, and while it may not be life saving, it is soul saving. The small things I felt I was missing have been restored with every wave and smile from someone I’ve met. A sense of pride takes over when I teach someone to make cheese and she holds it up with a huge smile on her face, like she has won an award. And perhaps she has won a small empowerment and a feather in her cap. Me? I’ve won something more valuable than any award. I’ve won a participating role in humanity.


HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.


HOMEGROWN Life: County Fair Season Is Here

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150If you are a born and bred keeper of livestock, there are certain rights of passage that our agricultural system expects you to participate in. One of these is the annual cycle of county-based livestock breeding competitions we’ve come to celebrate in the form of county fairs.

For those not in the know, agriculturally driven counties have a strong tradition of holding summer convenings, where farmers get together in common spaces to compare their outputs, eat some fried junk food, and yuk it up in overalls and cowboy hats. (My people tend toward overalls, which we pronounce “over-hauls.”) The county fair is a celebrated institution. It’s an outgrowth of the kind of mindset that’s driven to grow more food, raise “better” breeding stock, use science and the understanding of genetics to learn from one another, and show off what we do on our individual farms.


Knowing our history is key to understanding how things work in the modern world. One-hundred-plus years ago, the country life movement helped inject professionalization, scientific inquiry, and educated competition into our agricultural system. The county fair is part of that great legacy as are the county-based, university-educated professionals who would live and work throughout the rural population, helping train a new generation of farmers. County-extension programs, as well as 4H, FFA, and other groups represent this history today.

My two boys, and my nieces and nephews, take part in our local 4H scene. As a family, we have a longstanding history of participating in and supporting the Bates County Fair, in Bates County, Missouri. It really is a sight to behold. Dozens and dozens of local youth work with their families to produce projects and livestock that demonstrate our agricultural capacity. There are contests for vegetable production, hog production, beef production, quilting, woodworking, jam making, photography, and even singing/performance art to wow the parents and grandparents.

The whole system is a beautiful conglomeration of hard work and community-minded spirit. It’s got some publicly financed support (that’s the university-driven outreach and extension system), but the primary driver is farmers and rural businesses working hard to create an event that serves and promotes youth entrepreneurship. Parents, grandparents, and small business owners have a stake in supporting the next generation of farmers.

This year my boys will be showing off their farming chops by participating in the goat- and swine-production contests. They’ll also be raising potatoes and tomatoes and peppers. And taking some photos, too.

Do we expect to win? No. Winning generally means spending thousands of dollars on breeding stock and high-powered feeds. We are in it for the experience rather than the competition side of the equation. I’m just glad they want to participate in the continuing agricultural legacy of the county fair system.

Plus, they have chores to accomplish every day. My boys are athletic and academic in nature. I was the same way. As farmers, we have to find ways to entice our young people to round out their education with daily activities that demonstrate a different way of living. Do your geometry. Work on your soccer footwork. But also feed your pig and make sure it has clean water.

It’s not the only way to live in the modern world. But it can connect you to a very basic human need to feed ourselves and our community with food. There’s a lot to be said about the mess of agriculture and its discontents related to fossil-fuel dependency and resource consumption. But there’s also a lot to say about a kid forming a bond with a growing goat or a gilt (a female but not-yet-mothering pig). It’s a real-life connection with a growing and breathing creature that depends on us for its sustenance.

I don’t particularly care whether my kids end up winning the county fair or not. Mostly, I care that my kids understand the annual cycle of living and dying and utilizing our resources responsibly. I care that they make a connection with the living creatures around us. I care that they care about the animals and plants here on the tallgrass prairies and the bottomland hardwoods that surround us.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

HOMEGROWN Life: Homemade Stock (Virtually Free!)

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENGood food is expensive. If you grow it and/or raise it yourself, you know how much hard work it takes to put food on your table. A little part of me dies inside when I toss out bits and pieces of unusable food, even if it is going into the compost or out to the chickens. But I’ve learned that I no longer have to waste anything. I can make stock from all the leftovers. I love homemade stock, but again, I’m not a fan of using perfectly good food—and a lot of it—to make a big batch of stock. My homemade stock is the perfect meeting of the two: no waste of food leftovers and no need to use the good parts.


The parts that you wouldn’t eat anyways get used to make more food, meaning stock is virtually free to make. Onion and garlic skins and trimmings, the outer leaves and cores of cabbage, carrot ends and leafy ends of celery, winter squash skin, corn cobs, pepper tops and cores, and the woody stems from herbs like rosemary and thyme are just some of the vegetative parts you can add. We also like to throw in carcasses and bones from roasted chickens, turkeys, and rabbits. Old stewing hens can go in whole; pull the meat off after cooking and use it for later meals. You can just do vegetables if you want, or you can add other types of meat and bone, such as beef or pork. You can even mix the types of animals you use, if you want.


There are some things, however, you don’t want to add to your stock. Avoid really starchy foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Don’t use toxic or fatty vegetable parts either, like avocado skins and pits or tomato tops (tomato skins and cores are OK).

As you cook various meals, collect all the trimmings and put them in a bag and freeze them. This allows you to collect a large amount of scraps to make a big batch of stock. You can also do smaller amounts and make just enough stock for a pot of soup, but since time is at a premium for some us, it works better to do big batches and then pressure can the stock for later use. You can also freeze the stock if you have plenty of freezer space, which unfortunately is also at a premium for us. One-gallon freezer bags work great for this. You can use some types of Mason jars to freeze the stock, as well, but it takes longer to defrost those. With gallon freezer bags, all you need to do is heat the outside enough so that it slips out of the bag into a large pot. The other benefit of freezing the stock rather than pressure canning is that you can skip the step of refrigerating it so you can skim the fat off. Just cool it down first before putting it into containers. (You don’t want to melt the bag or stress the glass more than necessary.)


Once you have enough scraps, put them in a large stock pot and add just enough water so that the scraps are nearly covered. We use a big 7-gallon stock pot, so we wait until we have a LOT of scraps. You can choose to add salt now, later, or not at all. I like to wait until it’s almost done so I can taste it. The amount of salt will depend on your personal preference and how much stock you make at once. It isn’t necessary, though, if you are concerned about your salt intake.

A good stock is going to take several hours to make. Turn the heat on high and get it up to a boil. Then reduce the heat and let it simmer on the stove for several hours, usually about eight hours. Occasionally add more water as needed. You will know it’s done when the carcasses completely fall apart and the stock has a good flavor. Taste it occasionally. When you like the flavor, it’s done. Allow it to cool and then, with some large tongs, start pulling out the larger pieces of scraps to discard. If there’s meat you can pick, you can start pulling it off and putting it in another bowl. Once all of the large scraps are out, line a colander with cheese cloth and strain the remaining broth to get out the small bits and pieces you couldn’t remove with the tongs.

Once strained it, you can freeze or pressure can it. If you pressure can, put the stock in the fridge for at least 24 hours. You want the fats in it to solidify so you can skim them off. You can skip this step if you are only doing vegetable stock.

Since I’ve started making my own stock, I’ve found that I no longer have to buy it because the scraps we produce are enough to make stock regularly. Bonus is that it’s healthier because there isn’t any MSG (or MSG by another name), and you can control the sodium.


Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!