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Down on the farm

(article, Liz Crain)

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Susan Thomas always dreamed of owning her own farm. In 1994, at the age of 26, she packed up her life in California and took off eastwards, looking to realize that dream. A couple of years later, she was living and working on her very own farm in rural Missouri.
 
These days, Thomas and her partner, farmguy (as he's referred to on her blogs) manage the 240-acre farm, raising cows and sheep and maintaining a large kitchen garden. They are also currently busy building an on-the-farm wholesale bakery.
 
p(blue). Blogs: Farmgirl Fare and In My Kitchen Garden
Average posts per month: 15 total 
Blogger: Susan Thomas
Age: 39
Blog place of origin: rural southern Missouri
 
Thomas writes about her farm and food endeavors on Farmgirl Fare, which she started in 2005, as well as on her recent offshoot blog, In My Kitchen Garden. This spring, she started yet another blog, called A Year in Bread, with two friends in order to chronicle their on-the-rise golden pursuits. 
 
When did you decide to start your own farm?
I never actually made a conscious decision to become a farmgirl; it all just sort of happened. The original plan was to leave California and open a bakery/cafe/coffee roastery in some rural spot in New England. But after a couple of years visiting and researching, life got in the way of the plan, and I ended up moving, sight unseen, to Missouri instead. 

[%image promo-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Susan Thomas" caption="Donkey Doodle Dandy"]
 
It turned out that most large farms come with acres of open fields for grazing, and the grass starts growing like crazy once spring hits. The most logical thing to do was to acquire some hungry animals, so with absolutely no idea of what I was doing I bought a flock of sheep, which I immediately fell in love with. It's been one long learning experience ever since. 
 
What does your farm look like now? 
Right now it looks fake. We're nestled down in this narrow little valley and all the leaves on the steep hillsides have finally taken on the brilliant colors of autumn. The fields are bright green from the recent rain, and the totally cloudless sky is such a dazzling blue it almost clashes with the rest of the landscape. 
 
It's been a strange year in the garden, but last month I did manage to seed several raised beds with fall greens, and they've been thriving in this weird warm weather. There are a few sweet pepper, cherry tomato, and basil plants still hanging on, too. The greenhouse is full of Swiss chard, arugula, two varieties of cherry tomato plants, and several different herbs. 
  
As for the sheep, they're glad that it's finally cooling down. Last winter we sheared them before lambing season started, which was four months earlier than usual, so they're already wearing their thick winter fleeces. They look like big toys. 
 
We've had a few really cool mornings, and it makes them frisky. When I let them out of the barnyard they'll start leaping around in the air because they're so happy. There's nothing that'll put a smile on your face like watching a bunch of animals jumping for joy. 
 
How many sheep do you have?
Right now we have 76 Suffolk sheep, about half of which are lambs that were born here this past spring.
 
What do you raise them for?
We raise them for meat. We mostly sell whole, all-natural, grass-fed lambs directly to individual buyers. We deliver the lambs, which weigh anywhere from 110 to 150 pounds, to a local Mennonite butcher, where they're processed to each buyer's specifications. And of course we eat some of them ourselves. We also sell starter flocks and replacement ewes. 
  
Do you put a lot of food by?
I do. I'm spoiled in that we have several chest freezers, so I rarely use my water-bath water canner anymore to preserve garden bounty. I freeze as many tomatoes, green beans, sweet peppers, and summer squash as I can, as well as basil pesto. 
 
For the most part, though, the food I put up is really just a supplement to whatever is in the garden and greenhouse. Right now there are more salad greens out there than we can eat. When it starts to get really cold, probably in late December, I'll harvest nearly everything that's still growing and store it in the cool pantry. Last winter I kept Swiss chard in there for weeks and it was fine. 
 
And because we raise our own lamb and beef, we always have several hundred pounds of meat on hand. Then next month is deer season, so we'll probably end up with one or two deer that we'll process and freeze. I don't go grocery shopping very often.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Susan Thomas" caption="Mexican Jumping Bean Slaw Tacos"]
 
What recent food discovery have you made on the farm?
My best food discovery this year has been lamb leg steaks. We love roast leg of lamb, but since it's usually just the two of us eating, we tend to go for different cuts, especially during the warmer months. We're also big grillers and use our outdoor propane grill even in the snow. 
 
On a lark I asked our butcher if he could cut up the legs into steaks this time when we brought in lambs last summer, and he said sure. They're now hands-down my favorite cut. A 1 1/4 inch thick lamb steak takes only six minutes a side to cook on the grill, and it tastes like an enormous grilled lamb chop but without all the bones. 
 
What's happening with the bread bakery?
Progress on the wholesale bakery we're building here on the farm has been slow but steady. Things will be picking up quite a bit, though, because we've just hired a contractor to do the bulk of the remaining construction work on the building. 
 
In the meantime, I'm constantly baking bread, either refining breads I know we're going to be selling, like my Sourdough Onion Rye, or experimenting with new recipes. Right now I have a batch of carrot rolls in the oven (they're the perfect color for autumn and Thanksgiving), and there are two round loaves of Italian rosemary-raisin bread proofing. The kitchen smells fantastic. 

[[block(sidebar).
 
h1. Liz's favorite posts
 
[[block(smalltext).
 
1. Back To The Beginning: When I Really Had No Idea What I Was Doing
2. Factory Tours & My Low Fat, Full Flavor Cottage Cheese Veggie Dip Recipe
3. Saving The Harvest: What To Do With All Those Green Tomatoes? Make Green Tomato Relish
4. Arugula Pesto Takes Over The Kitchen
5. Ten Tips For Better Bread
 
]]
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What are your favorite foods to cultivate?
Everything in my garden is heirloom and organic, and I love ordering seeds for rare and exotic varieties of plants, especially peppers and tomatoes. I'm a salad freak, so I'm always growing all sorts of lettuces and other greens. Mesclun mixes are wonderful, and I love arugula because with no effort you can go from seed to salad bowl in less than a month. Nero di Toscana cabbage (which also goes by Tuscan kale and several other names) is another favorite. 
 
But the number-one green in my garden is Swiss chard. It's incredibly versatile and both heat- and cold-tolerant, so with the help of the greenhouse I'm able to grow it year-round. 
 
What are some of your favorite fall/winter recipes?
Two favorite recipes I've been making for years are Garlic Lover's White Bean Soup and Hearty Lentil Soup With Smoked Sausage. Last year I finally got a big cast-iron enameled Dutch oven, and I love letting those lesser cuts like lamb shanks and beef short ribs slow-cook for hours in the oven. There's nothing more comforting than knowing that if dinner is three hours late, it's only going to taste better. 
 
One of the best things about eating seasonally in a place that actually has four distinct seasons is the joy of rediscovering all the foods you've forgotten about during the rest of the year. It's like pulling out the winter quilts and clothes out of storage. "Oh, I love this sweater!" and, "Oooh, I remember that soup!" 

p(bio). Liz Crain is a writer in Portland, Oregon.


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