Today we find the shoots of the garlic we planted about two months ago. It has been exceptionally dry this year, but some rain and snow we received in the last week must’ve really helped us out.
This is blue corn we harvested at the end of the growing season in 2013. It came from 7 rows that were approximately 80 feet long. After desgrando el maiz, or shelling the corn, we poured it in front of a high powered fan to separate the grain from the tamo, or corn cob dust, and other cob particles and dirt. Using a high powered fan on the highest setting, we also separate the half formed or bug-eaten kernels from the heaviest, most robust kernels. The separation happened on a tarp so as to save all the corn pieces and half-formed kernels that then go into the chicken coop so that nothing goes to waste. Once the kernels are clean, we toast them on the stove to make sure they are completely dry and to impart some flavor. We were able to acquire over 22 pounds of shelled corn from our small milpa of approximately 560 row feet total. One of the best parts of working with blue corn is to get lost in all the colors of diversity. We could spend a thousand lifetimes developing different colors from the diversity found in one cob of blue corn. The cob above shows variations from purple to all kinds of blues to green! Desirable colors and kernels can be saved and grown separately to select cobs and kernels of the desirable colors in the future generations. Over several years, a relatively consistent strain of maize can be encouraged and developed through this intentional process of selecting desirable traits. Indeed we find maize to be one of the most diverse and beautiful crops exhibiting a multitude of forms and colors worldwide.
Once the corn is shelled it can be milled in a grinder on a fine setting to make flour. This flour can be used for all things that require flour, but we will be using it to mostly make atole, as seen below. Atole is a blue corn porridge, very traditional for breakfast in northern New Mexico. Before there was coffee, there was atole.
Atole is simply made by putting approximately one heaping tablespoon of blue corn flour to one cup of cold water. The atole flour is then mixed vigorously in the cold water and then brought to a boil. If you try to add atole flour to hot water, it will make lumps and not mix in very well. The atole will thicken a little bit with the boiling and then it can be removed from the heat and prepared according to taste. We have had atole with some or all of the following additions: milk, sugar, salt, and butter. Usually we use agave syrup or honey instead of sugar but everyone who likes atole has their own way of making it just right!
Today we saw the completion of a project for the parciantes (irrigators) of Acequia Madre del Sur del Río de Don Fernando de Taos. The process was initiated by a previous Commission through a program offered by the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District (TSWCD). This diversion structure will serve our irrigators that use the Acequia del Medio and the Candalaria Lateral. This is an incredible improvement over what we had previously which was just using boards, rocks, and plastic to divert the water. Now we have this more efficient structure that will make our Mayordomo’s job more efficient while providing the means for more effective water delivery.
The project was almost postponed due to snow, which is a welcome development in this exceptionally dry winter season. Luckily the project was able to be completed before our irrigation season begins. Now we just need more snow so we can even have irrigation this Spring! A big ‘Thank you’ goes to Matt Valerio and Peter Vigil of the TSWDC and to contractor Philip Maestas who was awarded the bid and completed the job!
This is a good a time as any to talk about the care of chickens and egg production. The winter months typically come with a decrease in egg production. Since eggs are so important to having food security, we find ourselves in a position of needing to buy eggs to make up for the lack of consistent egg production over the winter with our flock of hens. In the picture above you can see a store-bought egg (top) and one of our home-produced “organic” eggs (bottom). I say “organic” because these chickens are not certified organic but are fed organic feed and do have more than 3 square feet per chicken to roam.
Notice that the yolk is bigger and more orange in the home-produced egg. It also has much more egg flavor and richness. The white of the egg is also more thick and holds together much more than the store-bought egg. There is an opinion out there, however, that the yellower yolks have better flavor and consistency for cooking and baking. That is not our opinion, but it is interesting and merits mentioning for future investigation.
So egg production steadily decreases with the onset of winter, presumably because of the shortening of the daylength. I also hear that if the chickens’ feet get cold, they will decrease egg production. For this reason we have loaded up the chicken house and yard with mulch (sawdust, woodchips, and/or hay) for the winter months and even remove snow from their yard when it snows. We have heard of people using lights or even a chiminea (small wood stove) in the chicken coop over the winter to fool the chickens’ biology into producing more eggs. Interestingly, as soon as we passed the Winter Solstice and the days started getting slightly longer day by day, egg production increased. Where we were lucky to get 3 or 4 eggs a week in December, we are now getting 3 or 4 eggs a day in February.
We have 14 laying hens and 3 roosters. We like to feed the chickens a mix of “Layer” and a “Scratch” in equal parts. If we fed the chickens 100% layer, we could have as much as 14 eggs a day during peak production in the summer. However, since we don’t really eat 14 eggs a day and especially knowing that it must be somewhat uncomfortable to lay an egg every day, we give our hens a little bit of a break…
Chickens are an integral part of our family scale farming operation. The provide eggs, meat, and manure. The manure is really important for our composting operations. It can be said that the chickens also provide some measure of pest control and tillage.
We have been making biochar all winter in small batches by using tin cans we got from some “pirouette” cookies and a paint can that we found in an old garage that was exceptionally clean. We poked a small hole in the back of the can to let the vapors out while limiting the oxygen that can go back in. We found that the hole had to be big enough so that pressure does not build up in the can and blow the lid off in the fire.
The idea with biochar is to make charcoal that can then be used to augment soil quality. The charcoal provides aeration to the soils, sites for beneficial bacteria and fungi, and acts as a sponge for moisture to be absorbed and later released into the soil. We have some plots with biochar that we will be monitoring and collecting data so we can prove to ourselves that it is indeed augmenting our soils. We got much information from the book “The Biochar Solution” by Albert Bates as well as a bunch of YouTube videos. There is also much information about the benefits of biochar around the analysis of the “terra preta” systems in the Amazon in books like “1491″ by Charles Mann.
Where most people have dedicated infrastructure to make biochar that uses firewood, barrels, and venting structures; we are making biochar incidentally. Since we already live in a situation where we run the woodstove to keep warm over the winter, it is nice to use our little biochar chambers to make small batches at a time. So far we are just using the left over corn cobs from our harvest to make biochar, eventually we might utilize other pieces of wood.
A concern about this method is the question if any residue from the tin cans gets on our biochar that could negatively effect our soil quality. We will be doing more research on this to make sure but in the meantime we are mostly using biochar that is leftover from the process of using our horno mud oven, which is undoubtedly safe since it is just a mud chamber. If any readers have any information about the potential contamination of our biochar from the tin cans, we would be happy to hear about it.
We are also interested in using the biochar for water filtration and want to start showing people how to build water filters using a bucket, some sand and gravel, and charcoal in alternating layers in the bucket