Operation Root Cellar

Although the field has been frozen and dead for months now, we’ve been enjoying meals from it every day –  we had kale that was indistinguishable from fresh-picked in December, and we’re enjoying perfect potatoes, carrots, beets, shiitake mushrooms, parsnips, cabbages, peppers, onions, leeks, cilantro, and parsley – all pulled as needed from the the cool humidity of our newly-completed root cellar.

There are some details to be completed still – the ventilation pipes need finishing, and the onset of hard freezes happened before we could build out the shelving or the internal door between the two rooms – but it’s likely always going to be a work in progress, like everything else here on the farm. It’s being used, and working as intended – so, done enough!

Click through the photo gallery to see how it was built …

We were awarded a grant from WWOOF-USA’s Small Farm Grant Program that helped cover a good chunk of the construction expenses – as part of it, they required that we submit a 3 minute video … so here it is for your viewing pleasure! Sorry about the awful lyrical pun.

… and if you’re really curious, here’s the grant proposal we submitted – if we hadn’t received it, I really don’t know if we would have gotten the project off the ground!

Project Proposal

As an off-grid farm, we face unique challenges in vegetable production at every step of the process.

The storage of harvested crops has been a significant obstacle, without access to the modern convenience of electric refrigeration. We have handled this as best we can for the past four years by leaving root crops in the field until ready to eat or sell them, harvesting in the early morning the same day as farmers markets and CSA deliveries, time-intensive and time-sensitive canning, avoiding crop rotations that require mass harvesting, and through cooperation with an on-grid neighbor.

We seek a more efficient and sustainable, less energy-intensive and wasteful method of food storage.

Rather than connect to the electric company or attempt to build an off-grid version of the modern solutions used by other farms in our area (i.e. a walk-in refrigerator powered by a much larger solar panel/battery system), we are looking at the age-old methods used by traditional agriculturalists across times and cultures – using the stable temperatures and moisture of the Earth itself to keep the food we grow fresher, longer.

Toward this end, our research has led us to an earthen-floored root cellar, to be built on the wooded slope near our field. This will allow us to harvest when weather and growth dictate, and store crops protected from temperature extremes, precipitation, desiccation, animals, insects, and decay until they are to be used.

Project goals:
  • Creation of a 12×12’ two-room root cellar with required temperature and humidity provided by the earth, appropriate for the off-grid short and long-term storage of crops grown on our farm
    (the front room will provide a drier storage space which is cooler in winter and warmer in summer. The variation between sections allows for better storage conditions for different crops.)
  • During severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, the root cellar will serve as storm shelter for farmers and WWOOFers.
  • Follow best practices and design considerations from the book “Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage off Fruits and Vegetables” by Mike and Nancy Bubel
The Que Sehra Farm Root Cellar furthers WWOOF-USA’s mission:
  • By working with next year’s WWOOFers to build the root cellar, and with future WWOOFers to work with the root cellar (storing fresh produce, making meals using root-cellared produce, monitoring and adjusting stored food, etc.) the Que Sehra Farm root cellar will serve to re-connect all who live, work, and eat on our farm to a pre-industrial practice found across cultures. This provides an ongoing educational exchange, reviving knowledge of essentially lost cultural practices to the young farmers of the future.
The Que Sehra Farm Root Cellar will benefit:
  • Kristin and Gabe Sehr as farmers and homesteaders, and our growing community of WWOOFers, shareholders, family, friends, neighbors … our tribe, striving to reduce our dependence upon systems which we’d prefer not to support or engage with. We will be able to produce more in our small field by harvesting storage crops as soon as they reach maturity and using the freed up space to plant another succession of crops. We will provide fresh food for our community later into the fall and winter, a major goal for our short growing season.
  • The experience we gain in root cellaring (principles, construction, use, maintenance) with be shared with WWOOFers for many years to come, and we all will bring that with us as we travel through the world to other WWOOF farms.
  • Finally, our root cellar will serve as a storm shelter for ourselves and our hosted WWOOFers. We currently have no safe space to go in the event of a tornado; the trailer homes and simple shacks that we and our guests stay in are notoriously dangerous in severe weather. This is not an insignificant concern; in our state we average 30 tornadoes each year, and many more severe thunderstorms. In 2015 we had a WWOOFer suffer a full-on panic attack when a big thunderstorm came through. I’m writing this proposal while WWOOFing in south-central Georgia, where two days of tornadoes have just killed over a dozen people in the vicinity – and we were grateful for the brick structures our host farm had for us to shelter within.  Storm safety is a meaningful secondary benefit that a root cellar would provide for us, as a WWOOF host farm.
The Que Sehra Farm Root Cellar will affect positive change:
  • By making off-grid, organic farming more economically viable, more labor-efficient, and sustainable, and by serving as an example of how this can be done for others who wish to avoid the costs and burdens of dependence upon the power grid.
  • By making it possible for us to bring a significantly greater quantity and quality of organic produce to our network of local food consumers.
Que Sehra Farm Profile

Kristin and Gabe Sehr both live and work full time on our farm from early March through late November with the help of WWOOFers, and when our land freezes, we WWOOF throughout the southern United States on other organic farms, learning new approaches & networking with like-minded people.

Our farm is on a small parcel of Sehr family land, which had been used previously for camping and hunting. With what we grow on the land, we feed ourselves, our WWOOFers, and a 25-member CSA, as well as sell produce through our local farmers market, and wholesale to local restaurants. We keep just over 1 acre in outdoor vegetable production, in addition to a 70×30’ high tunnel greenhouse, various perennial and fruit trees, and mushroom cultivation logs. We value the uncultivated areas as wildlife habitat.

Que Sehra Farm is not connected to the utility grid; our water comes from our well, our heat from the red oak trees that grow on most of our land, and our electricity needs are met by our modest solar energy system. Although we are not certified and are not interested in becoming so, we grow organically. We focus on low input methods. We hand pick pests, weed with hand tools, rotate crops for disease prevention, and apply abundant amounts of organic mulch and compost.

2017 will be our fourth year of hosting WWOOFers on our farm. When we started in 2013, WWOOFers had to sleep in tents, and we barely had enough solar power to run the lights. We’ve made many improvements since then, but still work, eat, and live side by side with the WWOOFers who come here.

We have hosted over twenty WWOOFers through the program, and plan on continuing to serve as hosts for the foreseeable future – from our first conception of radical lifestyle change, WWOOF has been the central pillar making it all possible – living simply without expensive winters or employees, forming a shifting tribe living in mutually-beneficial cooperation, depending on one another more than corporations and government.

We plan to remain small scale – avoiding the increased debt and expense that scaling-up is accompanied by. We plan to remain off grid, and continue to focus more on how we can thrive with less money, rather than how to make more, as is the standard path in our culture. A root cellar will provide security for us as homesteaders who grow as much of our own food as possible, and as farmers who earn our living from the land.

2017 Final CSA Newsletter

the rebuilt mass heater chimney features an old wok as a rain cap
the rebuilt mass heater chimney features an old wok as a rain cap

 

The final CSA harvest of the season began with ice and fire, in appropriately epic fashion. Although the forecasted low for our township claimed a brief flirtation with 32 degrees, we have had enough experience with our low spot in the river valley to prepare for the hard freeze we knew was likely.

the week started off with some chainsaw work - clearing a path into the outhouse, and taking down this menace that had been threatening to crush the Rust Shack
the week started off with some chainsaw work – clearing a path into the outhouse, and taking down this menace that had been threatening to crush the Rust Shack

So we spent all day Monday bringing in the hundreds of winter squash, all the peppers, the eggplants, the tomatoes.  It was the end of season salvage operation, and when it was done the greenhouses were layered with pie pumpkins and squash, the trailer was packed with fresh and canned veggies, and we were staying warm in a social cluster by the rocket mass heater, which was charging up with heat that would keep things from being damaged until the morning sun finally hit.

We were prepared, and nature did not disappoint. When we woke up, the thermometer in the field was covered in crystals of ice, and proclaimed that we’d been whalloped by 24 degrees.

 

frosted dino kale
frosted dino kale

 

It was too frozen to harvest much, and since most of our crew had slept without any source of heat, we delayed harvest for a morning bonfire, gulping hot coffee and warming up bodies and spirits by the fire while waiting for the sun to ride up over the treeline and thaw out the land.

Azela's photo of the opening of her final harvest day
Azela’s photo of the opening of her final harvest day

 

 

frosted bees probably are even more eager for sunrise than the farmers
frosted bees probably are even more eager for sunrise than the farmers

Once the sun finally did hit, things warmed up nicely – some vigorous squash-hauling certainly helped bring up our internal temps as well. As the leaves of the field lost their frosty coverings, some wilted completely, clearly destroyed, while others perked up and recovered. The flowers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, were not among the latter group – we bid them a fond farewell, until next year.

outside, temps fell from 36 to 24 degrees overnight - but in the greenhouse, the low was 45 on the rocket heater bench, and 37 on the opposite side ... saving all our onions, scallions, and hundreds of squash from icy doom
outside, temps fell from 36 to 24 degrees overnight – but in the greenhouse, the low was 45 on the rocket heater bench, and 37 on the opposite side … saving all our onions, scallions, and hundreds of squash from icy doom

Speaking of next year, it sure will be interesting to see how it goes, as our first year as parents, figuring it out on our little off grid farmstead. There are so many unanswered questions, so many unknowns facing us, starting with this winter – our first time making a go at staying on the farm during the coldest months. It’s incredibly exciting – I don’t know much at all, but I know this is what we want to be doing. I accepted an offer on my house in Minneapolis this week – just today, I signed the final form that will lead to the closing. So it’s a real pivot point we are on – truly leaving behind our last anchor to the City, and committing fully to our new life on Que Sehra Farm.

Widget atop the root cellar - which is on track to be complete before winter comes in earnest!
Widget atop the root cellar – which is on track to be complete before winter comes in earnest!

It’s going to be an interesting ride, and we’ll be honored if you decide to remain a part of it in the years ahead. I’ve avoided expressing my gratitude to you all this year, for fear of being repetitious, but it’s been a constant in my mind – thank you all, CSA members, farm helpers, family, friends, and all the critters and quirks and crinkles of fate that have made this amazing year such a memorable, wonderful, and magical step in this adventure of our lives.

Thank you, thank you; thank you.

Stay warm, stay in touch – and we hope to see you at the party on the 22nd – or over the winter, whenever … we’ll be here.

love,

Gabe & Kristin

The Final Box

Butternut Squash – you know this one. It will keep on the counter for up to a month without a problem, so don’t worry if you still have one from before! 

Acorn Squash –  these are alleged to be a top notch variety of this type of squash; tastier and better textured. We haven’t tried one yet ourselves, but they have good reviews. We like to halve them, bake in the oven, and then stuff with something delicious, maybe a sausage and rice pilaf or something like that.

Parsnips –  great in soup, awesome with other roasted veggies. Noteworthy for being among the earliest planted, and the latest harvested veggies in the field … along with …

conquering the parsnips
conquering the parsnips

 

Celeriac aka Celery Root –  cut off the rough outer skin, chop up the bulb and add it to a veggie roast or a soup. The tops are also good for chopping up and using to flavor soup.

Bag o’ Herbs (parsley, sage, Mexican taragon (with the yellow flowers), thyme) – great compliment for soup or roasted veggies. Use them fresh or dry them for use later (bunch small bundles and hang in a dry spot, or spread out in a paper bag)

Brussels Sprouts – frost sweetened!

Broccoli – these lost a little snappiness from the frost, but should be sweet and tasty.

an Onion & a Shallot

2017 final CSA harvest crew!
2017 final CSA harvest crew!

 

calendula drying in the solar dehydrator
calendula drying in the solar dehydrator

Gabe & Jim building the bracing to hold up a 12x12' 6" thick wet concrete slab
Gabe & Jim building the bracing to hold up a 12×12′ 6″ thick wet concrete slab

 

Marty through an exhaust ventilation hole, screwing down the roof support plywood
Marty through an exhaust ventilation hole, screwing down the roof support plywood

 

 

 

a Datura flower unfolding like origami
a Datura flower unfolding like origami

CSA Week 17 Happenings

Wow. It’s hard to believe how quickly this season shot past – it’s already October, and next week will be the final box of 2017. What!?

It may not be all that cold, but the weather still makes it clear that big changes are afoot; lots of wind, storms, and rain – last night alone we had over 3 inches fall.
impressive overnight rainfall!
impressive overnight rainfall!
You know it rained a lot when there are puddles atop a hill that’s essentially a sand dune!
wind and rain took this tree out - and very nearly our outhouse
wind and rain took this tree out – and very nearly our outhouse
And when we went to harvest the salad greens for the farmer’s market on Saturday, we discovered that a patchy frost had left thin crusts of ice on the lowest-lying leaves. This forced us to delay salad harvest until the sunshine hit the field, thawing the tender greens while still attached to their roots (if picked when icy, they wilt when they thaw out). First frost of the year … the countdown to the Killing Frost is on now for sure.
Let’s see, what else … a 3-week old baby goat from the Munch Bunch came to stay with us over the weekend, and it was just as cute as you’d expect.
We’ve been busy preserving the autumn bounty – smoking and dehydrating peppers, and making ground cherry jam and spicy salsa.
apple prep squad - peelers, cutters, and crushers
apple prep squad – peelers, cutters, and crushers
And just when we could see the end of the apple pile, neighbor Russ Hanson let us come forage another four bushels from the many dozens of trees that his father had planted.
smoker in the background full of peppers, pressed-out apple pulp in the foreground
smoker in the background full of peppers, pressed-out apple pulp in the foreground
Ripe raspberries have been popping up from the scraggly little bushes we planted a couple years ago, grapes in an unprecedented abundance from the vines our friend Paula gave us  around the same time, shiitakes from the log pile, and apples on one of the old and one of the new trees.
Kristin harvesting apples while Gabe juices a different batch
Kristin harvesting apples while Gabe juices a different batch
The voles tunnel network has been found passing right on through the potatoes, and the turnips, and the carrots … fortunately, we planted far more than the tiny little terrorists can devour. The deer are everywhere you drive in the dusk, and they’ve have been sneaking in to eat the leaves from our baby strawberry plants – but leaving us the fruit, which is a nice concession. Or maybe it’s a rabbit?
Kingsbury watches for intruders from his favorite perch
Kingsbury watches for intruders from his favorite perch
The home invader mice are scarce, compared to last year’s rodent blitzkrieg. A big pileated woodpecker flies from oak to oak in the front yard when he thinks no one is around.
The week went by quickly, looking back – but at the time, every moment was forever, and it sure was a nice time.

the Second to Last Box:

Butternut Squash – Great for soup, and this here’s soup season fo sho.  It’s a darn versatile squash, you can go sweet or savory with it … let us know if you do an experiment that rocks!
Leeks –  hey, these are great with soup, too … and we included potatoes so you could do potato leek soup, a fall favorite. Maybe I’ll rename this this Soup Box?
Red Potatoes yep
tater-dry-washing crew
tater-dry-washing crew
Fall Chop Salad Mix – torrential rain, or maybe hail,  blasted the spinach and tat soi in the night last night, but most other stuff was unharmed ….
Tomatillos –  you could make tomatillo soup perhaps? These also pair well with your peppers and cilantro.
Jalepenos – these are hot if used whole, but you can declaw their heat by removing the seeds and their surrounding membrane, if you are cooking for anyone sensitive to spice.
Assorted Sweet Peppers – if it’s not a jalepeno, it’s not spicy!
Cilantro –  best cilantro we’ve ever grown. Sorry if you’re one of the unfortunate folks who lack the ability to enjoy this flavor.
Cutting Celery –  chop up finely for the tasty celery flavor (it’s not easy to eat whole, due to the strong fibers)
Tomatoes –  we only had room in your boxes for a few this week … but also, the plants have definitely felt the coming of autumn; the field tomatoes are almost all kaput, and even the high tunnel plants are slowing way down now/
Widget's paw print in a tomato that got in her way
Widget’s paw print in a tomato that got in her way
Ground Cherries –  if you can avoid simply eating them all plain, these are great in salads, pancakes, muffins, oatmeal …
ground cherries on their way toward jam
ground cherries on their way toward jam
Kristin's dad Jim helping install the solar panels, using a frame he and his son Joe welded for us
Kristin’s dad Jim helping install the solar panels, using a frame he and his son Joe welded for us
wood-fired bathtub season is upon us
wood-fired bathtub season is upon us

a flower ... no, it's the stub of a bok choi
a flower … no, it’s the stub of a bok choi
Azela's "Shrek" farm feet
Azela’s “Shrek” farm feet

the Short & Sweet Week 16 News

Imagine you read several dozen words here.

Such satisfying words!

Very nice.

Kristin stole my robe to go zucchini hunting early one morning
Kristin stole my robe to go zucchini hunting early one morning
the field looked like this
the field looked like this

We got our labels printed and started selling this season’s canned goods!

The weather was hot and cold and mostly wet.

And overall, we quite liked it.

in the box this week:

Bok Choi – Kristin loves this stuff – the flavorful leaves, the crunchy stems … good raw and in soup. Last one for the year, so you better enjoy it dammit.

Sweet Peppers –  A stuffed pepper casserole might be a good play this week, because you are blessed with a tasty pepper tsunami! Kristin eats about five of them every time she picks peppers. They also make good refrigerator pickles and go great in salads!

Perhaps fry up a bunch of peppers and onion with sausage or thin cut beef or mushrooms? mmmm

Crimson Giant Radishes –  also good either raw or cooked, the latter being the way to go if you’re not into the in-your-face radish flavor.

Broccoli – The fall crop is in!

Spaghetti Squash

Onions

Eggplant – again! But this is the very last time.

Heirloom & Cherry Tomatoes – the peak summer quality may be fading, but these are still a damn sight tastier than snowballs. Or any of the watery excuses for tomatoes you’re likely to see for the next 10 months or so …

a Cucumber 

Purple Basil –  combine with your tomatoes for glorious victory.

zucchini, melons and tomatoes that don't pass QC are sliced in half and fed to the chickens
zucchini, melons and tomatoes that don’t pass QC are sliced in half and fed to the chickens

Whoa it’s Week 15: The News, the Box, & Stuff

Another lovely week in our little paradise in the Barrens!

In the field, many things are showing their age – the crops that have been in all year are fading, even as the fall crops  greens, kohlrabi, radishes, broccoli – are coming up strong and new.

It’s hard to believe that we’re already up to week 15 … the final 3-2-1 countdown begins next week! Ahh! Don’t forget he end of year party is on October 22nd … mark your calendars and prepare to enjoy delicious pizza ….

Box 15 Containeth:

Kohlrabi ala cart –  We forgot that we had to fit these in, until after we’d already packed everything up nice and full … so you get yours on the side this week!

Edamame – Don’t try to eat the pods, not tasty! These “fresh soybeans” can be boiled for 5 to 10 minutes, and then strained and salted – and then you can pull the beans out of the pod with your teeth, enjoying the salty pod exterior but eating only the beans. Or instead, you could remove the beans after boiling, and make hummus or enjoy them in a salad or stir-fry. As rich in Protein as they are in Tasty!

Bear helps us pluck pods from edamame plants
Bear helps us pluck pods from edamame plants

(If you don’t want to use them right away, you can freeze them for later in a ziplock.)

Honeycrisp Apples –  A wonderful local farmer’s market friend let us pick her tree of delicious honeycrisps, and we wanted to share the bounty with y’all. These are a wonderful apple for simply eating as they are.

Chop Salad Mix – (red & green lettuce, mizuna, spinach, pea tips, tat soi, arugula, edible nasturtium flowers) – big leafy goodness, and a nice big FU to the looming threat of winter.

Carrots –  Monsters!! We do this on purpose because they’re awesome! Just as tasty as normal carrots – they just take more time in the field to get this way.

French Breakfast Radishes –  tiny flavor bombs! Cut the greens off if you’re not going to eat them soon, so they don’t make the roots rubbery and sad.

Sweet Spanish Onions – a not-so-pungent variety, with higher sugar content and less onionsmack

a Zucchini – such versatility.

Sweet Pepper Medley

Heirloom Tomatoes – some are ripe, some will ripen over the next few days on your counter. These are mostly from our high tunnel, as they field tomato plants are being relentless destroyed by the forces of entropy … but the ones inside, sheltered from nature and wind-born fungal assaults, are quite enjoying the return of warm sunny weather … as we all have!

Franconia Sculpture Garden fun
Franconia Sculpture Garden fun

 

this is how we do road signs in the Barrens
this is how we do road signs in the Barrens

 

 

drive-by foraging hazelnuts in the Barrens
drive-by foraging hazelnuts in the Barrens

Enjoying The Munch Bunch's newest arrival, at Pizza on Purpose
Enjoying The Munch Bunch‘s newest arrival, at Pizza on Purpose
hot hot hot
hot hot hot

 

enfurling datura flower
enfurling datura flower

 

what will be will be