Monday, December 21, 2009

The Winter Solstice

The shortest day of the year has finally arrived; the days will be getter longer and longer, better and better from here out.  Generally December 31st is the last day of the year, the time to take stock and think over the year to come.  Today, the Winter Solstice seems like an appropriate day to reflect, assess and to plan.

In the barn this afternoon the cows are milling about waiting for their evening feeding.  The herd has grown larger.  Boo had a heiffer: Fleuracita.  Andy had a bull calf:  Teddy.  And Dinah 2.0 had a heiffer on January 1st:  Luna.  Lily remains calf-less for the year although with luck she was bred last month for a fall, 2010 calf.  

Dinah 2.0 has been moved to the smaller single stall for her imminent calving. She was expected to give birth on Friday, but alas is still pacing the paddock and stall, looking ever more pregnant. I too, have been pacing the paddock and stall, ever more nervous.  

In the back paddock, the bull pen, is Joe the new bull that was brought in as a day old bull calf in the first week of January. Although he is a handsome beast, he seems to be lacking the necessary ammunition for his tasks.  I expect it is simply his youth and by summer will be shooting more than blanks.  

It was late last year when I decided to leave the raw milk trade behind and concentrate on making cheese from the milk of these glorious Jerseys.  The creamery was remodeled and new equipment was brought in.  I must say that I expected it to be a far, far easier transition.  A rocky road is a much more apt description.  Now that the end of the year is upon me I can say that I have made some outstanding cheese.  I have also fattened up the pigs with buckets of less than outstanding cheese.  Many times in the past six months I have stood in the creamery and opened package after package of Dinah's Cheese and held back the tears as I dump them into the pig bucket, each one a little small, a little wet, a little dry, too salty, not salty enough or just plain bad.  Although it would be naive to say that I don't expect to discard cheese any longer, I am hopeful it will be rare.

The vegetable gardens were completely transformed this February from the muddy field of crooked rows to a tight, concrete raised bed garden.  The first season was a bit shaky as the poor quality soil produced few vegetables.  Quickly the beds were filled with wheel barrows of rich, loamy compost made from the muck and straw of the cow barn.  The coming year will be a delight of healthy vegetables.

As this is the shortest bit of day light today, my time is tight.  In a moment I will head back out to the milk room and gather the milking equipment to milk the ladies.  In the creamery are racks of cheeses made this morning, draining on the tables and needing a bit more attention.

My goal for this coming year:  a bit more discipline in the blog department.  I was gently pushed by a friend last night into bringing bits of my farm life to those who need to know a bit more about this farm as they live their lives in the city.  A challenge I can take on for sure.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cheese and Life

I love this farm life.  My commute is negligible.  I work for myself.  My table is always filled with the freshest and greatest of food.  There is not much chance of my being laid off.  My dogs are rarely more than fifty feet from me.

Saying that, this life does occasionally have a touch of real life in my otherwise fantastic set up. My eye that was hit by the tail of a cow -- specifically Dinah 2.0 -- had a bit of a trauma.  Three weeks ago the retina detached and had to be repaired.  I expected all to be good and fine;  most of my life always has been.  Alas, the surgery was unsuccessful and I am heading back in next week in an attempt to reattach the retina again.  

I am trying to find some grand lesson here. Something along the lines of 'even in this little garden of Eden a few snakes lie in the grass', or ' adult life is more than simply picking red, ripe, luscious strawberries and sitting in the sun with the dogs and eating them one by one'.   I think the best lesson is 'shit happens'.  

Although my physical being has been top on my list this past few days, what is truly more exciting is my cheese. I started making cheese officially two and a half months ago and I finally love what I am making.  The cheese is ripening nicely, the center filled with a golden, smooth texture, the rind white and firm without over drying.  The flavor is nice, full and a bit salty.  Not sure that I smell mushroom and truffles and earth, but I am not sure that I could even if it was there.

The labels are at the printers, the bar code set up, the trays of cheese ripening in the coolers.  I expect to begin selling these little white disks around town little by little.  So far they are on the menu at The Corson Building in Georgetown and John Sundstrom at Lark has asked for a box full for his great restaurant.  I am not sure where this project will take me, but I am enjoying the process; milking the cows, making the cheese, and selling it to great people.  With a bit of luck I will be able to see it all a bit clearer in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eye Spy

It has been a difficult week here at Kurtwood Farms.  I tend to prefer to only describe the more positive aspects of this small farm.  The benefits, the joys, the challenges that conveniently end in a positive outcome. But, like the rest of life, this farm life is often difficult.

Three weeks ago Dinah 2.0, the new Dinah, was in the milking parlor with me.  I was in the process of the regular twice daily milking when the exuberant young cow swished her tail to rid her back of the errant flies.  Cows, and especially this cow, are quite strong despite their gentle appearance and I often forget to be prepared for their strength.  Unfortunately her long, bony tail did not swish the flies but rather landed square on my right eye.  I remember thinking how painful it was and what a good shot she was.  Actually I think I was much more vocal than that. I was most un-pleased to say the least. But I went on about my day.

A couple of weeks later I began to see spots floating across my field of vision.  By the end of that day the spots had graduated to large rafts of smoky moving across my eye.  A few minutes later I lost all sight in the one eye.  As I had recently had Lasic surgery a few months prior, I thought my eyes were simply dry and proceeded, to apply a lot of eye drops, to no avail.  Panic began to set in.

Early the next morning I called the eye clinic where I had had the Lasic surgery with the guess that something had gone terribly wrong with my corrective surgery.  An hour later I was in their office and when I explained to the doctor that I could not even see the wall much less the chart on the wall he got a bit nervous.  He called in a retina specialist who confirmed that my eye was filled with blood from a torn retina.  I was scheduled for surgery a few days later.

I have come out the other end of the surgery process.  With technology incomprehensible to me, the surgeon went into  my eye and repaired my retina, drained the fluid and replaced it with new, and inserted a gas bubble to hold the retina up until it can heal.   

As I sit here and attempt to see the computer screen, I am using one eye and a very blurry second eye. The gas bubble is grossly limiting the vision through that hopefully repaired eye. In addition to the possibility of the eye never fully healing, I have the greater anguish.  The gas bubble is very sensitive to atmospheric pressure. The surgeon has banned me from flying for weeks for fear of the bubble dissipating.  Hence I will not be attending the cheese making course I had so looked forward to at the University of Vermont next week.

And so I have found the occupational hazard of the small dairy.  I always believed that the country life, the calm farm job, the life out of the city was the safer option.  Living here I would eat well, work well and live well.  Alas, not always true.  I still have not decided if I will fly out later in the fall or if I will count on my own abilities to make cheese here at the farm. Thankfully for Dinah 2.0 she is with calf.  Had she been not yet bred, she most likely would be headed to slaughter, as the focus of my frustration and anger.  

Friday, August 14, 2009

Book World, Cheese World

Today is a great day here on the farm.  The sun has come out from behind the much more fall like clouds.  I have a great batch of cheese in the works in the vat and I just got this image from my editor for the cover of my book.

I have to admit that as I have been writing this book for the past year on my lap top and delivering it back and forth to New York electronically, it has never really seemed like a book.  It is a file on my computer.  A very large file, but simply a digital file none the less.  There is a part of me --  the nervous, anxious part -- that thought that the W.W. Norton company would take my manuscript and file it away in some dead storage in Queens and never actually publish it.  Oddly, with this cover art, I think they might actual publish it.

Growing a Farmer; How I Came to Live Off the Land, is the story of this farm here, and how I came to be the guy who milks the cows in the mornings and make cheese in the afternoons.   With a bit of luck it will come out in summer of next year.  I think you will rather enjoy reading it.  

Friday, August 7, 2009

An Update

Okay, so I have been most lax in writing this blog.  Actually quite lax. Friends have shamed me into returning to the computer to update.  It also helps that I have finished my manuscript and have more time -- and interest -- to write.

In our last episode, the cheese making equipment had arrived.  Or at least partially.  I expected the shipping and installation of all of the equipment to all be rather quick and painless.  Unfortunately, it was anything but.  The Dutch cheese vat took weeks longer than expected, the Slovenian milk bulk tank arrived weeks late, and then I discovered that it was damaged and needed repair.  The French cheese molds still have yet to arrive. The French take the longest vacations it seems, and will not even discus the order until September.  

By mid June the cheese room was ready for inspection by the Washington Department of Agriculture.  After a day long review of the facilities and a quick pasteurization exam, I received the permit to pasteurize milk and make cheese.  I must say that the inspector loved the facilities.  

And then it all got more complicated.  I began the next morning to use my new equipment.  There I was with the many instruction manuals, trying to figure out this pipe and that plug, this valve and the other shut-off.  I was most confounded by unforeseen problems.  The cheese vat is cooled down with water.  Sounded simple enough on paper, until I realized I had thirty gallons of steaming hot water pumping out all over my floor.  In a few minutes, I was sloshing around in a sauna, trying to figure out what to do with the water.

A few more visits from my friendly local electrician, plumber, and carpenter,and a month and a half eaten up moving pipes and drains and installing shelving and fans and vents and the cheese room is pretty much useable.  Now the business of making cheese needed attention.

What I discovered fairly quickly was that I can make competent cheese.  Probably rather tasty cheese.  But I just don't completely know why.  Cheese making has a long list of variables: the actual milk, the way the milk was cooled and its age, the starters, the rennet, the temperature and timing of all of them and the procedures of molding cheese.  I want to know what each of these different variables controls.  Why the rind is this thick or that thick, how to get the center to be crumbly or smooth, and how to bring out different flavors.

My decision is to pack my bags and head for the University of Vermont school of artisan cheese making.  I am headed out in three weeks to start their introductory cheese making course.  As I have never been to Vermont, I am really quite excited.  With luck, I will get my questions answered and be on the road to competency in this ancient art.  I keep thinking of French peasants could make tasty cheese, certainly I can with a room full of gleaming stainless steel.

So, I have brought this blog up to date.  At least a bit.  In short, the cheese I am making is good, but I want it to be great.  And it will be, just not by tomorrow.

Friday, March 13, 2009

From Milk to Cheese

I ran into a couple of good friends last evening at dinner who gently reminded me that it had been weeks since I had posted a new blog writing.  I find it is kind of like getting my teeth cleaned. When the reminder comes in the mail I will make an appointment and get the work done, but until that time I am just fine with putting it at the bottom of my priorities.  Well, I would certainly prefer to write a blog than getting my teeth cleaned, but you get the idea.
I am changing the dairy.  Changing it a lot.  In a few weeks I will cease selling raw milk and instead produce and sell cheese.  
I have sold raw milk from the cows of Kurtwood Farms for the past four and a half years.  I started with one cow -- Dinah -- milking her in a muddy paddock and selling the milk in glass mason jars from the back of my truck.  It was most illegal and rather risky and yet it was such tasty milk and surprisingly the illegality didn't bother me too much.  At least I managed to put it out of my head as I drove around Seattle dropping off the quaint jars of tasty, creamy milk.
Two years later I built a small milk building and obtained a Grade A dairy license to sell raw milk.  The herd had grown by this time to four cows, with generally two in  milk at any one time.  The State had been quite helpful in the licensing process and the inspection process and the dairy grew.  I sold the milk in plastic jugs, a tidy little label on the front, looking all very official.  Kurt's All Jersey was born.  For the past two and a half years I have sold milk on Vashon Island and in the city this way and enjoyed it.  The milk was good and tasty and was now tested regularly to assure health standards.  
At the end of last year, I had a bit of an epiphany.  I was done selling milk.  
My attention span is limited.  I can only find something exciting for a period of time.  Then I want to try a new challenge.  I had learned the milk trade.  The barn was built, the dairy too and the pastures were coming in nicely.  A new challenge was needed.  I have turned to making cheese as the next challenge here at the Farm.
I quickly ordered a combination cheese vat - pasteurizer from C. van't Riet company in the Netherlands.  During the months of January and February this large piece of equipment was fabricated to my specifications.  A couple of weeks ago it was delivered to Rotterdam and then on to the U.S.  I expect it to arrive in another couple of weeks.
A small bulk tank to chill and hold the milk prior to making the cheese was ordered from a supplier in Canada.  With a bit of luck it too will arrive in the next two weeks.  New cheese molds and other small equipment will finish out the order.
I like working like this.  I have a long series of hurdles and tasks in front of me.  I can't even say that I am aware of most of them, but I am confident that I can overcome them.  The first few have been taken care of, the next set are being worked on and the rest will be solved as they appear.
I plan on first making a bloomy-rind fresh cows' milk cheese, commonly known as Camembert. I like making these cheeses;  the milk from my Jerseys is a rich, creamy milk that suits this cheese well.  Prototypes have been lovely.  
I will continue to sell raw milk until the new equipment is hooked up.  Because of the specific nature of the cheese vat and the milk tank, I will give up my license to sell fluid milk and concentrate only on making and selling cheese.  Although  many of my customers will be saddened by this, I must admit that I will not miss hauling around gallons of milk in jugs.  I am confident that quality of the cheese will win over my past customers.
So, eight weeks of news in one short blog post.  Really, I will try to keep more current.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Reassessment of My Abilities

For four years  I have kept cows.  Fed them, milked them, chatted with them, bonded with them, and sadly slaughtered some of them.  I have felt that I have risen high enough on the learning curve of cows to term myself a cowboy; a dairyman.  I realized yesterday that I was mistaken.  I am a neophyte.
On Thursday, the first day of the new year, Dinah 2.0 gave birth to a calf.  I was thrilled and took a great deal of pride in this even though I had only bought Dinah 2.0 the day before, had never seen her before that date, had neither raised her nor bred her.  I did not deserve to take credit for the birth of this beautiful calf. 
I took a look at this healthy, strong, lovely calf and quickly, confidently and sadly assessed it as a bull-calf, a male.  In the world of a dairy, a bull calf has a financial value equal to a large Reuben sandwich at the local cafe.  A heifer, a female, is valued more along the lines of a great weekend out on the town.  I concluded that this was an omen for the year:  healthy calf yes, but one of little value:  the year would be a B, not even a B+ and no where near an A.  
As I began working with Dinah 2.0, trying to get her to relax and let down her milk in the milking parlor, I began to bring the young offspring with us.  With her progeny in sight of her, I theorized that she would calm down, possibly she would even confuse the milking machine with its mechanical pulsating with the clumsy suckling of the calf.  With the calf stationed in sight of Dinah 2.0, myself trying to massage her engorged udder, I looked over at the calf. The small, yet fierce calf was peeing in the milking parlor, and peeing in a most un-male way.
In my rush to judgement I had mistaken his, well actually her, umbilical cord for a penis.  I would like to think that this is a simple mistake to make, although anyone with the moniker of dairyman would never make it.  I stand corrected. The calf is actually a heifer.  Jorge, noting the demi-lune markings on her forehead has named her Luna.  

As this is the beginning of a new year, a time of reflection, I still have a chance to reassess the coming year.  This farm now has the best omen:  a young heifer calf born on New Years' day, in the year of the Ox.  Most certainly this is an A+ in the world of an omen.
I have also downgraded my status to novice cowboy.  I have quite a ways to go and relish the trek.  

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Porcine Post Script

oh, and the pigs are good too.

The State of The Farm -- 2009

January 1, 2009.
It has been a great year here at Kurtwood Farms and I thought I would spend a few minutes reflecting on the year past.
This morning around five a.m. Dinah II gave birth to a beautiful bull calf.  I am taking this, partially at least, as a great omen.  The theme of the year will be a new start; birth, beginnings, hope, that kind of thing.  Now, if it had been a heiffer calf, I would have said that this was the greatest omen possible, but I will stick with a healthy calf on New Year's morning as a great, if slightly tempered, sign.
The veterinarian was just out to check on the nervous mother, the healthy calf and the other cows.  Boo was confirmed bred as well, set to calf in seven months.  Also, great news without question.  With luck, Andi will also have settled, after having spent a few days at the stud farm down the street.  
The pastures were greatly expanded during the spring of 2008 and are growing in nicely.  In addition, all the pastures were limed in late fall, with the hope of a great productive season coming up in the new few weeks.  
The barn is working out beautifully, albeit with a few design flaws.  The cows have found ways to push my buttons with the way the barn is laid out.  It is a glorious structure, however, and I always enjoy my time in the barn, even if it is time spent shoveling cow manure.  
A few days before the snows hit the Island, all of the sheep were sold off, freeing up a large chunk of the pastures for the cows.  I felt that the sheep were too inefficient to keep compared to the dairy cows.  I know how two large paddocks to rotate cows through and the main upper pasture is reserved exclusively for the cows.  I can't say I miss the sheep.  
The chicken tractor described in a blog post a few months ago has been a great success.  As of this morning no raccoons have been able to breach the coop and the chickens are safe and laying nicely.  With the exception of the two weeks when it was frozen to the ground and could not be moved, it has worked very well.  A new flock of layers is presently in the brooder and will be transferred to an additional chicken tractor in the next couple of months.  
The greatest change set for the farm in the coming year is the dairy itself.  After four years of selling raw milk, I am planning on switching to selling primarily cheese.  Last week I ordered a thirty five gallon combination pasteurizer-cheese vat from the C. van't Riet company in the Netherlands.  They will fabricate the cheese vat over the next eight weeks and then ship it to the farm in March.  I hope to make the transformation completely by April first.  I am most excited and quite hopeful of success.
On the home front, Daisy and Byron are healthy as ever.  I expect, or at least hope, that Daisy will live forever.  She looks far younger than her eight years.  Byron is the sweetest odd ball on the farm and is attempting to be the head dog here with some success.  Daisy may retire her position soon although I anticipate she will most likely fall into a more emeritus position, given her personality.

On the whole, Kurtwood Farms is set for a great season.  Dinah II, Boo, Andi and Lily look forward to the sun and warmth to return, the pastures to grow and some serious milk production to begin.  
And now, back to check on that beautiful calf.