This has been a hectic week on the farm but, thanks to all the rain, I may get to do a little work in the office. Steve, the wholesale manager, is on vacation in Vermont with his family. While they’re paddling around in the cool northern lakes, I got stuck filling in for him, taking orders and trying to keep the books straight.  When he got hurt earlier in the year, I think I was even more overwhelmed, but now I’ve got a little more of a handle on things thanks to that previous experience. I’ve certainly made a few mistakes already, but nothing grievous as yet.

Meanwhile, our animals are all swimming in mud soup. The poor chickens looked comically pitiful this morning as we moved their house, subdued and huddled together under the tarp. The  pigs, after only a week in their new paddock, have made such a mud hole that we’re afraid we might not be able to get the tractor in to bring them their feed. I slopped to the feeder this morning and cleaned great gobs of mud out of the trough. Unlike the chickens though, the pigs were absolutely content with the weather and the lake of sludge that their home has become.

On another note, Our new interns started work this week! Hallie and Tina are great, at least, that’s my impression from the little time I spent with them this morning. They stayed very positive, even while trudging through pig mud in their sneakers (Tina found some muck boots in the shop soon after).  Their first day of work, Tuesday, was CSA pickup day at the farmstore, but they immediately rose to the challenge, learning the register, retail prices, and quirks of the job while dealing with and unusually high number of customers. It was a blessing for everyone to have them around during such a busy week, I just hope we didn’t scare them away already by expecting them to step right into the mix without any time to get adjusted.  That’s what it’s all about, though. Jumping in, hanging on, and trying to learn a thing or two along the way.

We have started selling North Carolina grassfed cows milk for the first time since Hickory Nut Gap Farm was a dairy! We aren’t the ones producing this milk, though. Wholesome Country Creamery is a new dairy outside of Hamptonville, NC. Their cows are 100% grassfed and humanely treated. We now sell both half gallons (available for $6.00) and 12oz bottles ($2.50) of the non-homogenized whole milk in our farmstore in Fairview.

Drinking the cream from milk is a treat that not many people get to enjoy anymore. Non-homogenized milk is pasteurized but it has not been through the pressurization process which evenly distributes the fat from the cream throughout the nonfat milk. This means that the cream will rise to the top of the whole milk and must be either shaken to disperse it, or enjoyed skimmed from the top of the bottle! Our farmstore is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Besides fresh whole milk, we sell a variety of other local products including: Roots hummus, 5th Sun Chips and Salsa, Haw Creek Honey, Buchi Kombucha, Roots and Branches crackers, and much more. Our grassfed beef, pastured pork, poultry, and eggs are also available for purchase at the farmstore.

Nothing hits the spot in early spring like fresh, tender asparagus. In April and May we will have organic asparagus available at the farmstore, grown right here at Hickory Nut Gap. We expect the young spears to start shooting up in the next week, so keep an eye on our facebook page to see when we begin harvesting.

If you’ve never seen asparagus growing, it truly is a fascinating sight. The young spears sprout up out of the ground, emerging like green fingers from the beds. We have to keep a close eye on the patch because if we let them grow too high, they become stringy and slightly bitter. When they reach 6-9 inches we cut them off just above the ground and bundle them together. Asparagus is packed full of nutrients and anti-oxidants and is also a good source of dietary fiber. The crisp spears are excellent as an addition to salads, stir frys, or steamed on their own with nothing more than a pat of butter and a dash of salt.

That’s right, the weather is warming up and that means we’ll have fresh chicken soon. Starting April 24 you can come out to the farmstore or visit us at our farmers market venues and buy fresh, never frozen chicken. We raise our poultry out in the pasture so they have plenty of space to knock about in the dirt and enjoy the fresh green clover and the warm sunny days of spring.

Pastured chicken is consistently found to have higher levels of vitamins A,C, and E, as well as much higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and beta-carotene. Not only that but it tastes great too! This year we’ve come up with a new pasture rotation system for our poultry so that we will have fresh chicken all summer long. We will also bring chicken to our Market locations starting this weekend, 4/6/13 at the Asheville City Market.

Well, the New Year seems determined to start off with the same wet, chilly weather and unflagging resolve not to snow with which the last one ended. I’ve been hoping for a good cold winter since June but in the mountains of Western North Carolina you just never know. It was so warm and wet last week that, while Walker and I were sawing up a fallen oak for firewood, we found a big stash of wild oyster mushrooms growing out of the rotten wood. Oysters are a cool-weather variety, but it was a shock to see them thriving in late December. In the fall we grow them in specially designated mushroom logs, but ours were never as big or healthy as these wild ones.

I was in Chapel Hill recently and, while taking a walk through one of the parks, I noticed a group of people huddled off the path in the woods. As I passed them, I noticed they were picking mushrooms from some of the fallen trees. I’m not sure what type they were, but I was impressed that, even in a city, you can forage for food. If you know where to look, that is.

I’m no expert on wild mushrooms and what I do know all comes from Walker. Basically I trust his judgment enough that if he says they’re safe to eat, I’ll let him try them first and then I’ll give them a go. By now I can recognize some of the more common varieties and the tastier edibles. I brought some of the oysters we found over to my parent’s house for dinner that night. Mom sautéed them in butter with some onion and a little white wine—they were extraordinary. Paired with some hearty chicken stew and mom’s homemade molasses oatmeal bread, it was a dinner fit for kings…or farmers. People are so cautious of wild mushrooms these days but the reality is that most of the edible kinds are readily recognizable. I don’t know how the mushroom section in our grocery stores has been monopolized by the small white button mushrooms, but it seems a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love the buttons, (I also learned recently that button mushrooms are the baby form of Portobellos, who knew?!)  I just think there is room for a little more variety in the fungus section at Ingles.

Until this summer I thought that mushroom cultivation was some kind of highly technical procedure of the sort that only stubborn hippies from the 60’s were into (The ones who needed to support themselves but couldn’t bear the idea of conventional work or needed an excuse to grow the psychedelic shrooms without causing a row), but it’s not. We grow several varieties one the farm, when weather permits, in old logs which were specially cut for the purpose. You can buy mushroom mycelium online and then it’s a simple process to cut and prepare the logs. Once the mycelium is introduced you can even force the mushrooms to grow by soaking the logs in water to emulate wet weather. It’s almost comical to walk up in the woods behind the farmstore to find rows of logs laden with shitakes or shimajis sprouting awkwardly from every available surface. I encourage you to go out and try some new kinds of mushrooms. Don’t be cowed by the epicurean haughtiness that surrounds them. Just heat up some butter in a frying pan and sauté them until they darken and become soft.  They go really well with beef, but can make a good match for any kind of meat.

If you look out under oak trees
Or around an old pine stump
You’ll know a mushroom’s coming
By the way the leaves are humped

They send out multiple fibers
Through the roots and sod
Some make you mighty sick they say
Or bring you close to God

So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.

–from The Wild Mushroom by Gary Snider