A SENSE OF PLACE

WINTER’S GIFTS ON BRUSH ARBOR FARMSTEAD

Photos courtesy of Brush Arbor Farmstead

Haven’t we all been given gifts that, though we’d never think of getting them for ourselves, are some of our most valued possessions, treasures we didn’t realize we needed until they were so generously handed to us? “How was I living without this?” we ask ourselves. Such are the gifts of winter to me and my family and, I imagine, to most all folks whose life and livelihood come from the land.

The farmer, by nature, is an ambitious peculiarity. Not for power and fame do these stewards strive, but for the love of land and animal they will relentlessly push the limits of their physical and mental fortitude. While the sun is shining, hay will be made, livestock will be moved, seeds will be planted, harvests will be gathered. In the farmer’s mind, a list of “todos” grows at a weed’s rapid pace, far faster than can be done by any human under her own strength. And thus, the farmer runs dangerously close to plowing straight through the clods of exhaustion and into the miry bog of burnout.

Ah. . . now enter wise friend Winter—a force before which the farmer must bend the knee, retire the plow, and rest the bones. He is the kind of friend whose call the farmer will stave off as long as possible, but whose presence is ever so needed once arrived.

While winter doesn’t bear as many bold marks of productivity as do the other seasons, it is most certainly as vital. Of course, there is still work to be done during this chillier time, and you can bet that the farmer will obstinately cultivate as much fertility from the frost as white knuckles can muster.

However, by simple reason of the cold and short visits from the sun, the farmer is quite literally forced into at least a couple months of lighter duty. And while our Northern California winter is mild in comparison to much of the country, it is no less a benefactor to the land and the stewards thereof. And so, these shorter, darker days beget for us reward, repose, and reflection: the perennial gifts of Winter, which we on the farm treasure so dearly.

You can bet that the farmer will obstinately cultivate as much fertility from the frost as white knuckles can muster

REWARD

The rewards unique to this season abound, and they help to fill us with new vigor for our way of life. Wood is the first one that comes to mind. Since the farmhouse is heated by a woodstove, cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood is a chore I look forward to every year. There is something incredibly satisfying about a few freshly-split cords of wood, stacked just so, filling the air with the sweet perfume of the blue oak bark.

Judicious forest management is as important to our stewardship as our other enterprises. As we thin out the smaller and less healthy trees, the more robust blue and live oaks are allowed room to flourish. The pigs can more efficiently clear out the dense, combustible undergrowth and turn over the dormant soil. With a lighter canopy, sunshine is allowed to reach the forest floor, stimulating better growth of native grasses, which the sheep, rabbits, poultry, and wildlife will eventually graze and fertilize. In essence, silvopasture is cultivated, and carbon is more efficiently sequestered and harvested.

An exceptional reward of the season, which is particularly suited to cold, is the rabbit. We increasingly appreciate the value of rabbit, a homesteader’s stand-by, as a sustainable and nourishing food source, as well as a culinary delicacy.

The does (female rabbits) each kindle (give birth) three to four times from winter into spring, and then go on hiatus over the warm summer months, during which their diet is supplemented with crisp garden greens. The growing rabbits thrive during the cooler parts of the year, efficiently foraging and interacting with their environment via their mobile pasture unit.

The wildly lean nature of rabbit lends itself to the low and slow method of roasting, which is a welcome source of warmth in the wintertime kitchen. Seasoned with rosemary, salt, and pepper, then basted with butter and a good, hard apple cider; oh, such goodness. This is the type of dish that draws my imagination back in time to when efficient kitchen economy and living directly off the land was not a choice, but a daily reality. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, rabbit was historically quite important to the individual family’s food supply, and it’s a blessing to be able to learn from a bit of that old know-how.

One of the most savory rewards of the season is the preservation of the pork harvest. It seems to be after a short recovery from the bustle of turkeys and Thanksgiving, circa winter solstice, that we are able to get to harvesting the pork that is destined for the homestead. This timing proves perfect in that the outdoors themselves become a remarkably convenient and efficient walk-in refrigeration unit.

With the goal of preserving as much (and wasting as little) of the pig as possible, we set out on a three day venture in the spirit of the community pig harvests of yore. Soon the pig is bled, its skin is scalded in hot water, then hand scraped to remove all of the hair. This depilation step is a sweatinducing, cardiovascular challenge and can leave you wishing that the 50-degree day was a even little cooler. The head is then removed, cleaned, and set aside for the slow simmer that will render it into head cheese. After evisceration, the organ meats are packaged for freezing, then the carcass is split into halves and allowed to hang from the farmyard oak, in nature’s refrigerator, for the night.

The next day, the halves are hoisted onto the kitchen table and the butchery begins. Trotters, hocks, bacons, and perhaps one ham are salted and placed into a refrigerator for a few days until sufficient water has been removed. Thereafter, they go into the smoker for a day, then to the larder to hang in the cold for a week or two as they cure. The coppas and prosciuttos skip the smoker, but spend extra time on the salt to dehydrate them further. They too are hung from the larder ceiling, but will need several months to finish their curing process.

The fresh meats, such as chops, roasts, and ribs are packaged for freezing on day two. Trimmed meat and fat are then combined to send through the grinder—yielding plain ground pork or, seasoned, sausage.

Before the first frost we try to harvest as much sage as possible from the garden, as it is the key ingredient in our breakfast sausage. By this time of year, it’s usually been hanging in the kitchen long enough to be dry, but still fragrant. My girls Ava Lynne and Clara Jane and I sit at the table and rub the dried sage leaves until we have piles of herbs ready for the sausage. This is one of many tasks I relish sharing with my little ones and hope that they’ll someday tell their children stories of sitting for hours at the table with their mama, giggling and rubbing sage.

By day three, we are getting the last of the ground meat into the freezer and freezing excess fat for soap-making later on. The final step is to render my hands-down-favorite cooking oil, lard, the source of which is the snow white fat around the kidneys of the pig.

I grind the fat in the meat grinder and pile it into a crockpot that has been strategically placed in front of an open window in my larder. The open window both vents the musty odor that evaporates and provides a brisk draft to help prevent the liquefied oil from boiling. Once fully rendered, the liquid is strained into jars where it will solidify; and the small, meaty bits are fried to become the kids’ favorite treat, cracklins.

Rabbit, seasoned with rosemary, salt, and pepper, then basted with butter and a good, hard apple cider; oh, such goodness.

REPOSE

As we approach the end of the calendar, the farmstead is a much quieter place. The meat chickens are gone until next spring, and the turkeys won’t return until next summer.

The brooder stands empty, housing only feed from the rain. The laying hens are home from their warm weather digs on irrigated pasture, only becoming a little squawky in the morning while they jockey for optimal nesting box real estate. For the most part, the haste of fall harvests has been exchanged for a hushed quietude.

Repose, the wintry gift that, had the season not forced it upon us, would be undervalued and underutilized. On a personal level, I find it quite challenging to rest. If there is a wink of daylight and an ounce of energy left in me, I have this pesky internal drive to continue to be productive. But the blessing of the southerly sun, early darkness, and dwindling serotonin levels is a greater willingness to take a load off and simply enjoy this God given time.

Outside, the farm naturally dozes into a kind of somnolence, but indoors, the calm must be cultivated. While winter is the best time for catching up in the farm office, developing spreadsheets, and sifting through paperwork, it’s too easy to keep all the lights on and get carried away in front of computers and calendars, forgetting the real beauties of seasonal living.

And so, boughs of juniper and red-berried toyon are brought in to drape around windows and over tables. Chairs are rearranged such that the warmth of the fire is the focal point of the living room, making it irresistible to cozy up for a spell before the crackling flames. The stock pot and tea kettle leave their stations on the propane kitchen range and find themselves atop the woodstove. The alternating scents of savory bone broth and spicy mulled wine fill the air and warm the soul. Most all of our dinners are served straight out of the oven, bubbling up from some form of cast iron: cottage pie, braised leg of lamb, and Poyha to name a few. In terms of ambience, this is the picture of winter serenity in our farmhouse.

Mesmerized by the scent of sage and the task at hand, a small human Brush Arbor Farmstead resident crushes sage for sausage.

I hope that they’ll someday tell their children stories of sitting for hours at the table with their mama, giggling and rubbing sage.

REFLECTION

Finally, the winter months bestow upon us the gift of reflection. With one farming calendar behind us and a new one to be made, Tim and I do our best to take inventory of successes and failures of the year gone by. The year, of course, never turns out exactly like we’d envisioned it to look twelve months earlier in the planning sessions of last winter.

Yet, we still sift through farmshares and plan ways to make them more accessible; we evaluate the size of the sheep flock and hope to build new fencing to move them to another part of the of the property next year. With the pig herd growing, timing of breeding and farrowing the sows gets scheduled.

Feed rations for the meat birds are calculated and recalculated. Examining the giant bacons hanging from the larder ceiling, we assess the size at which we butchered pigs this year and wonder if they should be a little smaller for next year. As seed catalogues start to arrive in the mail, dreams of next spring’s garden twirl through my mind. And the list goes on.

As farmers, we have a wise, old friend in Winter. While we fight the early setting sun and cold ground as long as possible, he always finds a way in, and we are always grateful he comes bearing his perennial gifts.


This is the second in a series of four articles in which Amanda Bork tells readers about each season on Brush Arbor Farmstead in Cottonwood, California.