It seems like all of a sudden, we're into spring and we're bustling with activity. The maple trees are flowing with sap, and we're collecting it by the gallon. It takes specific temperatures for sap to get flowing--over 40 degrees and sunny in the day, then dropping to freezing temperatures at night. We've got more than 100 taps in place, in trees all along the property, and today there's about 160 gallons in the evaporator. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, so that's a lot of labor and a lot of love in every little drop!
We've also been treating ourselves to drinking some of the sap just fresh. It's delicious--clear and clean, with a slight hint of sweetness. Somehow it feels alive, and refreshing. I did a little reading into sap-drinking, and it turns out that it's been considered a healthful and purifying practice in Korea, Japan, China, in some eastern European places for as long as a thousand years. Sap, it turns out through lab analysis, has lots of good minerals in it, including calcium and iron (NYTimes article here). Native Americans also drank sap for purification after the winter, and used boiled-down sap to season food. You can drink sap fresh, or use it to make coffee or tea with, to cook beans or grains in, or to freeze for summer iced teas. For those of you with a tree or two in your yard, you can collect sap on your own--a single tree can yield 10-20 gallons of sap, enough for you to use fresh, and to try boiling down into syrup, as well.
We've also begun planting seeds by the hundreds: kale, collard greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choi, tat soi, broccoli raab--all members of the "Brassica" family. We've got tray after tray lining the shelves and stacked on the floors, waiting for the first signs of sprouting. When the plants show their first green shoots, we'll take them into the grow room, where we've got lights strung from the ceiling to keep them warm and stimulate their development.
What's amazing is the fact that each tiny seed has enough nourishment to sprout itself and begin growing, without any additional nutrients. All that energy and information, in a tiny, tiny package. Typically, you start seeds in a light, sterile mix called "seed starting medium" (clever name, huh?). Then, after they get going and start to outgrow their small cells, we transplant all of them to slightly larger pots filled with denser organic potting soil.
We're following this regimen for the Brassicas, which apparently "get leggy" really quickly. This means that they sprout up pretty tall and can get spindly and fall over if they are not planted in larger containers where they can spread out their roots a bit more. But for the other plant families, we're going to try something new: starting them directly in the potting soil. At the NOFA conference, we heard from one family farm that skips the transplanting step completely, which saves a great deal of labor. We'll see how it goes!
We're also planting a "trap crop" this year. We've got slugs in our garden, and they love to chomp on all sorts of leafy greens. Last summer, we'd go out on "slug patrol" in the mornings and evenings, and . . . um . . . "dispose" of any slugs we could find. We noticed, too, that the slugs seemed to just love the Chinese cabbage. So this year, we're going to plant a Chinese cabbage at the ends of each row of Brassica plants, and hope that the cabbages lure the slugs away from our food crops. I think this is a key aspect of gardening and farming--noticing, and making adjustments!
And as we go about our days, planting seeds and collecting sap, we say little prayers of thanksgiving. What an amazing world this is, that we can drink nectar from trees, and grow large leafy greens from little tiny seeds. The natural world sustains us, nourishes us.
You know, I've reprogrammed a lot of my eating habits. Mostly, we eat what we grow, here at the farm. When I'm in the city, or eating out, I buy local and organic whenever possible. And when I'm not sure of how a restaurant sources their meat, I select vegetarian options. Sometimes organic food costs more, but the savings you get by avoiding all processed foods balances things out. These individual acts are important to me, because I take comfort in knowing that no animal had to endure squalor and disease, that no worker was exploited, and that the natural environment wasn't poisoned in order for me to eat. Living on the farm, you see those connections directly.
But I am sometimes surprised to realize that I still find it hard, in the grocery store, to remember that food comes from the natural world, not from a corporation. (You have to wonder: are stores designed to help us forget this fundamental fact?) To remember that good food is full of life, that it was nourished, itself, by the sun . . . that in essence, whenever we eat, we are eating the sun. Sometimes, when that bag of chips is sitting there, invariably at the checkout line, it's hard to remember that there's really no sun in it. I think if I could just remember to visualize the sun's energy shining through food, I would see that emptiness, that void on the junk food shelves, and be repulsed . . .