• Editor’s Note Winter 2012

    Editor’s Note Winter 2012

    We bushwhacked our way through a tangled patch of riverbank plants. The thick stems were still bent from the rushing flood waters, parallel with the ground as if bowing respectfully to the river. That river, the Dog River, was babbling as sweetly as any other Vermont tributary that early September day, but those of us on the volunteer clean-up crew at Dog River Farm in Berlin had a lot more respect for it—and for the power of water—than we’d had just a week before.

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  • A Poet and His Apples

    A Poet and His Apples

    At the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury—his Vermont residence from 1920 to 1928—an ancient and magisterially gnarled Snow apple tree presides over the grounds. Placed, probably by the poet’s own hands, in a commanding spot directly behind the house, it was the only one of its kind among the hundreds of apple trees planted on the 80-acre farm during the 1920s. The rest of the orchard, which Frost envisioned as “a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety,” was set behind the barn and populated with McIntosh, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Red Astrachan trees.

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  • From the Ground Up

    From the Ground Up

    There’s no doubt the colorful Earthgirl Composting signs on my black Volvo catch people’s attention and pique their interest. Some smile, wave, or give me the peace sign or a thumbs up. Others laugh when they read my “curbside compost pickup” sign. Those are the people who don’t understand what I do. I can only imagine what they think!

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  • A Canning Party

    A Canning Party

    The canning party began innocently enough. One young mother, living far from her own mother, wanted to learn how to preserve her garden’s bounty. Casually, at church, she asked if she could come help me can. We set up a time, and Sarah and I spent a happy couple of hours pressure-canning green beans.

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  • Set the Table with Kombucha

    Set the Table with Kombucha

    As cold and flu season approaches, health-conscious Vermonters are reaching back through the ages to brew kombucha, a fermented beverage with a unique taste and widely touted benefits to the immune system. Although kombucha’s benefits are of use all year long, the start of a Vermont winter seems a good time to investigate this intriguing drink.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm

    The Perley Farm stretches between Route 107 and the White River in South Royalton, on a piece of land exactly level with the river. A highway bridge for I-89 runs right above the pasture. It’s a 40-year-old conventional dairy with a mixed herd of approximately two dozen cows, owned by Harlan “Duke” Perley and run by Larry and Penny Severance. A week before Tropical Storm Irene, Duke was in New Jersey, where he lives part time with his family, undergoing surgery to receive a pacemaker. When parts of the East Coast began to evacuate, he loaded up his two nieces, their two grandsons, and a daughter-in-law and headed up to the farm, where they thought they’d be safer.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Perley Interview

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Perley Interview

    Duke Perley: We’ve farmed here for 40 years, and down the river, 135 years.

    Penny Severance: I was a neighbor, so I always came down as a little kid and helped if the cows got out. [Duke] used to come and get us to help put the cows back in. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I’ve been helping the Perleys do something with the farm. He used to give me a quarter, then it got to 50 cents. I still have all my 50-cent pieces. My husband and I have both lost our dad, so Perl’s been our godfather whether he wants us or not, he’s stuck with us. He’s who we go to for fatherly advice, anything that we need.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Bigelow Interview

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Bigelow Interview

    DK: What was it like when the flood came through?

    Jim Bigelow: My grandparents bought the farm in 1921, right before the flood of 1927. Dennis was telling stories about how my dad said they weren’t able to do anything with that field down there for five years after the flood of ’27.

    That used to be a schoolhouse over there. (He points past his lower field to a brick building across the river, next to the Perley Farm.) My grandmother was a schoolteacher. The ’27 flood came up to the bottom of the windows, and this time it got to the top of the windows. Of course things have changed since then. The interstate was put in over the river and I think the bridge changes the flood pattern, and that’s why it totally wiped out Perley’s.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Hurricane Flats Interview

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Hurricane Flats Interview

    DK: When you heard on the news that the storm was coming, what did you think?

    Geo Honigford: I know from history that storms and floods happen. It never occurred to me that we’d get that much rain. The standard joke when I was on jobsites the week after the hurricane—I spent the whole time working on other people’s houses—was ‘oh we don’t have to do that, the river will never get THIS high again.’ It never occurred to me that the river would get up there. We were buttoned down for wind. We had greenhouses full of crops and we were really concerned about wind. And it turned out that we had no wind whatsoever. Just copious amounts of rain. The sides of my greenhouses are slashed – we did that. We waded out into the river, and the pressure was building up on the greenhouse sides and was going to collapse it. So we had to let the water go through the greenhouse, basically reverse the process; instead of battening them up, we had to open them up. We didn’t have time to open them up properly so we just took knives to them. It’s a lot cheaper to lose the plastic than to lose the frame.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Parse the Parsnips

    Farmers' Kitchen—Parse the Parsnips

    Life on a vegetable farm slows down in the late fall and early winter. Most of the daily chores that keep us hopping the rest of the year—seeding, planting, weeding, and harvesting—are pretty much completed by this time, with some notable exceptions: We’re still harvesting the hardiest of crops, including parsnips, kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, even with the snow flying. But most of the land lays fallow, sporting only the nutrient-rich cover crops of winter rye and oats.

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  • The Other Great Flood

    The Other Great Flood

    When the 1927 flood hit, devastating damage occurred on Vermont farms, primarily losses of livestock and barns. And yet the same spirit of cooperation evident after Irene was very present back then, as illustrated by the flyer at right, which could have been written today.

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  • The Threats from Upstream

    The Threats from Upstream

    If only it had been simpler. If only the rain had just washed the crops away.

    But the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene didn’t wash much Vermont produce away. Instead, crops on flooded farms became covered in water and silt that potentially harbored chemicals or microbes that could endanger human health. Accordingly, on September 2, the Vermont Department of Agriculture released a warning about the consumption of fruits and vegetables that had been inundated by floodwaters. Borrowing the succinct wording of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agency stated that “there is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety.” In other words, flooded crops had to be thrown away.

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A Canning Party

Canned Goods
Canned Goods ready on the shelf

Written By

Chris Sims

Written on

December 01 , 2011

The canning party began innocently enough. One young mother, living far from her own mother, wanted to learn how to preserve her garden’s bounty. Casually, at church, she asked if she could come help me can. We set up a time, and Sarah and I spent a happy couple of hours pressure-canning green beans.

Sarah has friends. Many friends. She and her husband lead the Navigator Christian Fellowship at the University of Vermont, where Sarah discovered that at least three or four of the students in their group also wanted to learn some old-timey food preservation skills. Could they all come at once, Sarah wondered, and turn it into a canning workshop? I agreed, and we set a date at my house in early September. The students would harvest and can, I’d teach, and in the end I’d serve them all a turkey dinner with everything but the biscuit ingredients and salt coming from our own little Jericho homestead.

The day came. I typed up three pages of basic instructions and general recipes, and printed out six copies. On a dry-erase board, I listed vegetables that were ready to harvest and one or two options for the preservation of each.

By the appointed hour of 3:00 p.m. almost all of the students were there. One of them, walking up the driveway, introduced herself, then sheepishly confessed that she’d brought a friend and hoped that was all right. Other students brought friends, too. I had mentioned the workshop to one of my own friends, and she’d been so intrigued that she wanted to come, too. Come, she did—with a friend. Later, the friend of the friend asked if she could call her husband. Another student wanted to call her husband, too. In the end, there were 13 of us in a 10-by-12-foot kitchen, with spillovers into the dining and living rooms.

We presented the harvest list and invited the students to choose what they’d like to pick. The bush beans had been neglected and really needed to be harvested. There were several green and red cabbages of good size, plus leeks, turnips, kale, garlic, beets, chives, carrots, bell peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, oregano, cilantro, parsley, sage, rosemary, and, of course, thyme. We took a tour of the garden and I handed out large bowls.

My husband, Reed, set up a pre-wash station for the root vegetables outside on a folding table. Everybody washed their harvest, came inside, and started following the written instructions. Within minutes, the house rang with talking, laughing, washing, peeling, chopping, slicing, pounding, simmering, snipping, plucking, packing things into jars, and spreading herbs on trays. I mostly ran around getting pots, pans, bowls, jars, and lids, finding extra ingredients, answering questions, and orchestrating a fine balance of timing. The beets had to be boiled while the beans were being washed; and the beans had to be out of the pressure-canner before the beets were ready to go in, but the cucumbers had to be washed before the beans, lest the pickle makers stood by twiddling their thumbs while waiting for sink space. There were harvest bowls to empty and wash so they could cool hot beets, and the beet pot would soon be needed for cooking the garlic jelly. (One brave soul decided to try garlic jelly.)

The students were on it. An assembly line morphed into being. When seven jars were full of beans, we poured boiling water over them, put on the lids, and started up the pressure canner amid reassurances that the modern units do not tend to explode like the old-fashioned ones. Meanwhile, on one corner of the dining table, three students chopped cabbages, leeks, carrots, a turnip, and some peppers to be preserved by lacto-fermentation.

On another corner of the dining table, our intrepid garlic jelly maker peeled clove after clove after clove. You know how it is when you get to talking: I’d set a whole bowlful of garlic bulbs in front of her and, before she knew it, she had peeled enough garlic to make 60 half-pint jars of jelly. She decided she’d better not make that much, but the extra peeled garlic was not a problem. Much of it went into the lacto-fermentation mix, and the rest we roasted in the oven and froze for later on.

In the living room, Reed and several students sat around the coffee table, enjoying one another’s company as they snipped chives into bits or plucked herb leaves off their stems. We used to have an electric food dehydrator, but we gave it away. Now, we use the solar dehydrator out in the driveway. Said dehydrator also happens to be the family car, but when it’s just sitting there in the sun with the windows closed, it does a fine job drying herbs.

Back in the kitchen, the second batch of beans was under pressure in the canner, and the cooked beets went into a bath of cold water to slip their skins. (The skins are certainly edible and full of vitamins, but they turn tough in the pickling process. I put them aside to feed to the chickens.) Armed with a simple recipe, the students boiled up a syrup of vinegar, sugar, and spices. While it cooked, they sliced the beets into hot jars.

Speaking of vinegar and sugar, did I mention cucumbers? The pickle students opted to make both sweet pickles and dill. The small cucumbers went into a gallon jar to be covered with a cold solution of water, vinegar, and salt—an age-old, crock-pickling recipe. (That’s all there is to it. Dump them in and wait three weeks.) The long, Asian cucumbers became sweet sandwich slices with onions and a little garlic thrown in, seeing as we had extra. That required a boiled syrup, too, but the students finished making it just in time to wash the pan and turn it over to the students who needed it for pickling beets.

Amid the craziness, we ran out of vinegar. Reed had to make a run to the store for more. I got the turkey started in the oven, boiled potatoes as soon as a pot was empty and clean, and baked biscuits beside the roasting garlic.

When it was finally time to eat, we stood to survey our handi-work: a gallon and a half of sauerkraut, 12 quarts of green beans, 2 quarts of canned beets, 10 pints of pickled beets, 8 pints of sweet sandwich pickles, half a gallon of crock pickles, 2 trays of drying herbs, and 8 half-pints of garlic jelly.

Talk around the dinner table turned from enthusiastic and cheerful to enthusiastic and serious. Several students wanted to start a homesteading club, noting that with the imminent decline of oil as we know it, we’re all going to have to know a lot more about raising and preserving our own foods. The students noted that one day’s canning barely put a dent in what we still had growing out in our garden. Reed and I feed ourselves year-round with the vegetables we grow ourselves, and we only have two-thirds of an acre—in town, yet! The same was true years ago with teenage children still living at home. We’re not self-sufficient by any means, but we do grow an awful lot. We get protein from homegrown dry beans and our free-ranging chickens and turkeys. More than half our fruit comes from berries on our property. Ten percent of the grain we eat comes from grinding the flint corn that grows well in the sunniest spots in our garden. If our transportation infrastructure should collapse, we might be hungry, but we would not starve.

The guests stayed to talk until about 9:30 p.m., leaving behind a clean kitchen with all the dishes hand-washed, towel-dried, and put away. Reed and I were grateful for the students’ help. The students appreciated what they’d learned. We all enjoyed the local dinner and the sharing of ideas. Certainly, the success of the event rested largely on being organized and keeping things moving, but the most valuable ingredients turned out to be flexibility and an unwavering sense of humor.

The canning party did more than impart a few skills. It also left us with the confidence that greener, more sustainable living is not only possible but satisfying and fun. The UVM students may not be able to go back to their dorm rooms and grow carrots, but the knowledge will be there for them like a good jar of garden beans, ready to be opened and enjoyed, just as soon as the time is right.

Photo courtesy of Chris Sims

Good-by, and Keep Cold

by Robert Frost

This saying good-by on the edge of the dark
And cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don’t want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don’t want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don’t want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn’t be idle to call
I’d summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don’t want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
“How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-by and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an axe—
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.

“Good-by and Keep Cold” from the book, The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright ©1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright ©1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

About the Author

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Chris Sims

Chris Sims, a lifelong gardener, turned in recent years to full-time homesteading and sheep farming. She and her husband make their home in Jericho.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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