An Update from Virginia
Autumn is always a welcome change here. Black walnut trees turn the same sunshiny hue as the goldenrod flowers, while the rest of the landscape shifts from summer green into more colorful tones. As much as we love the productivity and abundance of the summer months, the cool mornings and colorful leaves arrive like favorite old friends.
The arrival of autumn ushers in one of our most favorite crops—apples! We turned 2,000 pounds of apples into apple cider, applesauce and pie filling, and we ate our weight in fresh ones! Dozens of apple trees dot the landscape around Nickelsville and produce so much fruit that many of our elderly neighbors simply cannot use them all. Local residents encourage us to pick the trees and clean the yard of fallen apples. In exchange, we return some to the neighbors as jugs of cider and jars of pie filling. This has been a wonderful way to make new friends that we would not have connected with otherwise, especially during this time of people sheltering in place. For the first time, we are going to try preserving some of the fresh apples through the winter by packing them in a barrel with sawdust.
In addition to processing the apples, our mothers and sisters have been canning every day, and our shelves and cellars glisten with rainbows of home-preserved food. Some families have experimented with more sustainable alternatives to freezing and canning: dehydration, preserving in vinegar and oils, and salting fresh herbs. Sister Rebekah Connors told me that they made their own pectin for jellies from hibiscus seed pods.
Brother Miciah found a design for a food dehydrator completely powered by the sun. He has built them for several families and more are in process. The dehydrators have proven very successful, as evidenced by sweet dried apples, leathery wild mushrooms and tomatoes, as well as many spicy herbs and peppers.
Taking Care of the Pommes de Terre
Several months back, we planted 800 pounds of potatoes which yielded a harvest of over 75 bushels! With this harvest came a fun culinary discovery. Sister Kathy Lee recalled how her grandparents would sometimes cook their potatoes in a cast iron pot filled with pine tree rosin. Intrigued, Sister Lindsay Lee ordered a big bag of rosin chunks and supplied one of her cast-iron pots for the experiment. We built a fire, and soon the golden rosin bubbled and sputtered, ready to receive the potatoes. After cooking for a time, the potatoes began to float, signaling that they were done. The result was a soft and creamy potato that tasted more like a baked potato than a boiled one. One interesting thing about the rosin is that once it cools, it hardens in the pot and can be reused indefinitely, for years, until it is completely used up.
Turning Sweet on Sourdough
When Sister Anna Borman from Waco visited earlier this summer with her family, she taught a sourdough class for the sisters here, and in doing so revolutionized our bread making! The gift of her time and knowledge has redefined sourdough for our whole community. Now the most beautiful loaves, waffles and pancakes have been emerging from our kitchens and quickly disappearing into the mouths of grateful people. Thank you, Sister Anna, from the bottom of our full hearts and bellies!
Saving Seeds, Harvesting Hay
Brother Kevin Borman’s seed-saving endeavors are in full swing. They harvested around 6,600 ears of corn and two 18-foot trailer loads of butternut and yellow squash (not to mention pumpkins, cucumbers, lettuce and other crops waiting to be processed).
They currently stack trays and screens of corn and squash seeds to dry before packaging for next year’s gardens. The seed packages serve as sustainable seed provision both locally and in our other communities. As Brother Robert Lee puts it, “They are now one weed pullin’, seed pluckin’ family.”
In turn, we could say that the Lees are “one hay-cuttin’, bale-throwin’ family!” Over three separate harvests, they have put up 325 round bales and 2,600 square bales. As often as possible, a group of brothers (and a sister or two) assembles to gather the hay from the fields and stack the sweet-smelling bales in our barns.
Virginia’s weather tends to have summer days dotted with passing thunderstorms. One moment brings rain; the next moment brings sunshine. Thus have we learned the wisdom in the old expression, “Make hay while the sun shines.” Plentiful hay harvests are essential for keeping our livestock warm and fed over the winter months.
Checking on the Chickens
We raised a batch of over 1,000 pasture-fed chickens overseen by Brother Robert Lee. Forty-five chicken tractors, built by our brothers, protect our flocks from predators and house about 35 birds each. Every morning around dawn a team of brothers assembles to care for the birds and move the tractors to fresh grass. As a by-product, the fields are being enriched with fertilizer as the flocks graze for the eight weeks. At harvest time, many willing hands gather to help early in the morning, and we spend the next few hours processing the day’s allotted number of chickens. After cleaning up, we all share a meal. Through much learning and refining of the process each year, our clean butchering setup has become very efficient.
Gearing Up the Greenhouse
Construction on the greenhouse is officially underway. With the warmer, dryer days of summer, Brother John Luker and his four sons have been busy excavating and installing the 320 feet of underground air-transfer pipe. The purpose is to create a geothermal system that will provide 65-degree warm air in winter and 65-degree cool air in summer. Our eight months of cold weather prevents outdoor gardening, so we hope that this large, permanent greenhouse lets us extend our growing season of fresh leafy greens and vegetables to cover the entire year. The foundation is now nearing completion, and we intend to use the facility before November!
Shifting into Four-Leg Drive
Progress continues with the use of our horses. Brother Kevin, for example, uses our Suffolk punch draft horses in the seed-saving fields. Over the years we have continued to acquire a wide variety of horse-drawn equipment. Another milestone was reached when Brother John Lee drove a recently acquired buggy pulled by our horse, Diamond, all the way from our farm into town (40 minutes). Brother John parked the horse and buggy outside of Heritage Square while he attended to business.
One of our elderly neighbors called and told us how delighted she was to see Diamond standing patiently next to the other parked vehicles as she drove by. She said it brought back memories from her childhood, and the sight “just made the whole town look beautiful!” We hope to take her for a ride soon.
Earlier this month we were able to surprise Victor Lee on his thirteenth birthday with his own pony and a cart to go with it. He learned how to drive in just a few minutes, and then promptly took each of his family members for a ride.