Archive for July, 2008

Kickapoo Country Fair

Monday, July 28th, 2008

This weekend, Judy and I were vendors at the Kickapoo Country Fair in La Farge, Wisconsin: Kickapoo Country Fair. The fair is in its fifth year and is hosted on the grounds of Organic Valley’s headquarters. Organic Valley is the farmer’s cooperative that has been at the forefront of the organic movement in the United States.

This part of Wisconsin, The Kickapoo River Valley, is part of a large portion of southwestern Wisconsin knows as the driftless area. It’s called that because the last glaciers that scoured the land in the Midwest into a relatively flat topography did not scrub off hilltops here. For several reasons the huge glacial flow split and went around the area. While most of the land in all directions is flat or rolling, the driftless area is extremely hilly, and filled with picturesque little valleys. The scenery is spectacular. It could remind one of West Virginia or the hills of California, but unlike the California hills, the area gets plenty of rain and they are always green (except winter when they are mostly white).

It’s an excellent area for dairy farming and cattle raising, but for the last two years, rain has been in too much abundance, and the valley was particularly hard hit by flooding. Evidence of the water damage is everywhere as you drive around. One sees fields still with standing water, roads temporarily repaired with gravel where the asphalt had washed out, and scrubby crops or bare fields in places the farmers have either tried to plant a second crop or just left the fields to dry out until next year.

What was very disheartening about this year’s flooding is that it hit a lot of the small farmers, the ones doing the market growing using organic methods, for a second year in a row. The Kickapoo Valley has been a magnet for small farmers. Two years in a row of having the land inundated has put quite a few small growers out of business and made the economics very precarious for others.

This was very evident at the fair, where several of the tents were promoting assistance to small farmers and even FEMA chose to be an exhibitor, with a tent and a large staff of blue shirted representatives explaining the government programs available to those in need of assistance. The mood at the fair was hardly gloom and doom, however. This is Wisconsin where the people love to party. So music, food, and of course, beer, was available to make the fair a very festive event.

We were happy with our presence at the fair and we met many people who were already users of our tools. It was a very easy and relaxed show to do, and the message of the show is very consistent with our philosophy, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be back next year.

Monarch Magnets

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

We’ve grown purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) for many years. Once established, it’s a super-easy perennial, really only requiring weeding and occasional separation. It spreads quickly. By chance three years ago, we had some common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) show up in a clump of coneflowers we have growing by the light post in our driveway. Our normal reaction would have been to pull the milkweed out. It grows in some of the wilder part of the yard, but Judy had heard that some milkweed were endangered and that they were a plant that Monarch butterflies prefer, so we let it take over part of the area around the light post.

We already knew that Monarchs liked the coneflowers and we have not been disappointed in the results of having the two plants grown together. The monarchs find them. So do a lot of other insects, some good and some not so friendly. We get lots of pollinators, wasps and bees; we also get dragonflies and damsel flies, but last year a moth which I did not take the time to identify ravaged the foliage of the milkweed. I may make an effort this year to hand pick the moth caterpillars if they show up, again, which I expect is almost a certainty.

Several years ago we visited the monarch nesting grounds at the Monarch Butterfly Reserve of Sierra Chincua, Michoacan, Mexico. It’s now a protected sanctuary, but illicit logging is still doing damage to the pine forests where the amazing migration of the monarchs begins. If you aren’t aware, monarchs migrate from Mexico to parts all over North America. For most, it’s a several thousand mile trip and the butterflies go through several generations before they get back to the forests of Mexico to overwinter.

The day we visited the sanctuary it was unseasonably cold, which was our bad luck. In warmer weather there are millions of butterflies to be seen, but when it’s very cold, the butterflies form huge, beehive like clusters that hang from the trees. These clusters keep them warm. The clusters are very interesting, but obviously it would have been more fun to have seen the monarchs all flying about.

We have monarchs in our yard every year and it seems like we are seeing more with the addition of our little butterfly garden. The monarch ecosystem is very fragile, with the deterioration of the Mexican forests and loss of plant habitat all along their migration routes. So I hope we are doing our part by providing some friendly surroundings in our back yard.

Gathering the Garlic or ‘Ajo’ or ‘The Stinking Rose”

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

You could probably call me all of the above right now since I just ate a mouthful of garlic scape pesto pasta! It was a little stronger and hotter than I was expecting probably due to the fact that the scapes were more ‘mature’ than they should have been.

I harvested about 2/3 of our garlic yesterday. Noel planted about 100 cloves last October 27th (see his blog). As you can see from the picture they are a good size – that circular spot at the bottom of the picture is a quarter.

Believe it or not I was up at 5:45 AM on a Saturday pulling garlic. I happened to be awake and was getting nervous about the garlic getting over ripe. (I also hoped that the mosquitoes would still be sleeping but I guessed wrong.) Last year (’06/’07) was the first time we had planted a variety of hard necks. I let them get too mature and the bulbs didn’t keep as long. I kept waiting for the tops to fall over. Well guess what? These are hard necks not the soft necks that we’d been planting for years.

The soil was just about the perfect consistency for harvesting. If you need a little extra help getting the garlic out without breaking it you can use a garden fork or the CobraHead. Just make sure you push the blade way down at least an inch behind the bulb and come up under it so you don’t damage it. The soft necks tend to break off easier so you’re more likely to need some extra help.

As you can see in the picture I like to wash and trim it before I let it age. This only works if you harvest it before it gets too papery with the cloves separating. Once it gets that far just let it cure and hope for the best. I lost more than a few last year to mold (and not because I washed it) and lost a few more before the year was up because they dried up.

The one constant thing you can say about gardening is that there are new lessons to be learned each year!