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Pot Pies, Regenerative Agriculture, and Material Capital

This Weeklyish comes as we're starting to see the seasonal transition in the future.  Despite severe disruptions and challenges in the seed industry this year, many of our seeds are starting to arrive.  There are already seedlings starting in the greenhouse, and this week that accelerates (lettuce, onions, and tomatoes get started this week!).  It's all a nice contrast to the frigid temperatures and snow we're seeing in real time.

Lots of depth in just a few topics this week.  We take a look at regenerative agriculture, a philosophy and design system that will allow us to be far more beneficial to our ecosystem and community than merely being sustainable.  Next, we continue our annual review, looking at all the things: how we're doing in material capital.  Finally, a recipe 3-fer, that looks really long and complex, but is really just an easy base for you to improvise your own homemade pot pies.

Also, a quick recipe correction:  Several people have made my Cheeseburger Soup recipe from the February 1 Weeklyish.  It's been a real hit, garnering rave reviews.  But, a couple people noticed I never actually said when to put the hamburger back into the soup.  Do that after the potatoes are tender, just before adding the roux.

It's cold out, so dig in!

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Pickup @ Culver Farmers' Market | Saturday     Thursday, 10pm
*Sourdough orders for delivery require an additional 24 hours
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Regenerative Agriculture

We have been quite open with the aggressive sustainability goals we have for our farm.  One of the highest is to be carbon neutral by 2025, and thereafter net-carbon-negative.  We want to actually sequester more carbon on our farm than is released to the atmosphere through our livestock, soil management, energy use, and waste streams.  We don't mean to achieve this through purchased carbon offsets in some far-off land, or through mythical tech that has not yet been developed, but through good stewardship, waste reduction, and renewable energy use. 

To that end, people have asked why we are venturing into meat production.  The media and many environmental movements have pushed dramatic narratives about the massive damage livestock production causes to the climate.  But, those narratives often miss the importance of ecosystem context and alternative management practices.  When managed properly, livestock is a critical step in restoring water and nutrient cycles, improving soil and water quality, and sequestering carbon. 

Much of the Earth's land mass, about 2/3, developed as brittle environment grasslands.  These areas receive uneven rainfall throughout the year, and are dominated by prairie, savanna, steppes, and pampas. In these areas, the ecosystem developed with large groups of migrating herbivores as a key element of ecosystem function. 

Regenerative Agriculture seeks to replicate the ecological function of these past populations, who are now largely extinct (or the predators that drove their behaviors are), in highly managed systems that allow for cleaner water, more productive soil, less erosion and nutrient runoff, and greater carbon stored through sequestration than is released.

Ultimately, vegetable production in our area is not sustainable on its own.  It requires too much of the soil, and to be sustained for the long term, it needs regular inputs of carbon and nitrogen, as well as many other nutrients.  It also requires more even water distribution than we get - especially in the coarse sand that defines our farm.  Thus, our long-term solution is a complex, integrated system of perennial fruit and nut production, cover cropping with edible grains, rotational holistically managed grazing, along with the vegetables, in one unified system modeled on the cycles of our natural ecosystem.  To put it succinctly, we can't grow vegetables sustainably without livestock.

Holistically managed grazing itself has been shown to be remarkably regenerative in several places.  However, to date, most of the research has occurred in even more brittle environments, such as Tanzania, Ethiopia, Jordan, South Africa, and Western Australia.  A recent paper in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation,"Accelerating Regenerative Grazing to Tackle Farm, Environmental, and Societal Challenges in the Upper Midwest" finally brings much of the work in our region (well, a bit west of us, but closer than Africa and Australia) to light.  It examines not only the carbon, water, and nitrogen cycles, but also looks at social and economic impacts.  It's a fairly easy read, and I highly recommend it.

Two older resources that have greatly informed our philosophy and practices are also worth taking a look at.  First is Restoration Agriculture by Mark Sheppard.  This book explores Sheppard's integration of keyline design, sylvopasture, rotational grazing, and permaculture to transform a barren sandy hill in Wisconsin into one of the most productive, profitable, diverse, and innovative farms in the world.  His work with chestnuts and hazelnuts alone has left huge ripples throughout the more progressive circles of American agriculture, while his pork production has been favorably compared with that of Iberico, Spain.  It's a fun, encouraging, and aspirational read, even if it has already become a bit dated.  It really says something about the rapid development of an agricultural movement if a book published in 2013 is already considered old, but it even predates widespread adoption of the term "Regenerative Agriculture," which would certainly have been its title if it were published a couple of years later.

Second is The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic, a film featuring Stefan Sobkowiak, the founder of Miracle Farms near Montreal, Quebec.  Both the film and Stefan are fabulously and comedically  entertaining, and the music is certain to put a smile on your face.  It examines ways to apply the polyculture principles of permaculture to an orchard setting, both from a philosophical/design standpoint, and from a practical, actionable one.  It's ideas will scale from a tiny urban back yard all the way to a multi-acre commercial orchard.  Stefan also has an active and entertaining YouTube Channel that is worth a subscription.  And, if English isn't your thing, he's bilingual.  Many of his YouTube videos and the film are available in both French and English.

What are you doing to protect and restore our environment and community?  We'd love to hear about it!

Material Capital

In the penultimate week of our annual review, we look at our farm's material capital.  If you haven't been keeping up with our annual review, please check the December 28 Weeklyish for a description of the process, and the eight forms of capital.

Material capital comprises all of the non-living physical things.  This includes raw natural resources, such as stone, metal, timber, and fossil fuels.  It also includes things built from these materials, such as tools, buildings, pieces of infrastructure, computers, and so forth.  These items also become the currency of material capital; it is essentially the currency of barter, so one can trade raw materials, tools, etc. for other material items, or other forms of capital (If I trade you advice on gardening in exchange for an orchard ladder, we have exchanged experiential and social capital for material capital).  A lot of material capital does show up in the balance sheets of traditional accounting (mostly concerned only with financial capital), as assets.

Most farms invest heavily in material capital, and ours is no exception.  There always seems to be one more major piece of equipment or infrastructure that is needed to get to the next level.  In the past handful of years, we have addressed many of these major items: 2016: completed propagation greenhouse, jewelry studio.  2017: buried irrigation piping and electrical infrastructure, upgraded heating in propagation greenhouse and jewelry studio.  2018: walk in cooler.  2019: high tunnel.  2020: New well in the Northwest Territory. Clearly, we have made huge progress in material capital.

On the other hand, we still have that one more major piece of infrastructure that is needed to get to the next level.  Or, actually, due to regulatory changes, to get to a level we have already passed.  And it's the biggest one yet: we need to build a custom/purpose-built wash and pack facility.  The cost to do so in the manner recommended is about 3 1/2 years worth of our entire gross (not net!) sales.  We have two years to comply with this mandate.  At that point, unless we have completed the project, we will need to drastically reduce the quantity of produce we sell to a level that is unsustainably small, with indications that regulations will continue to disadvantage ever-smaller farms.

We're working on strategies to address this need in stages.  So, that leaves us with another mixed bag report.  On the one hand, we've made gigantic progress in material capital.  On the other, we critically need to address a piece we don't currently have the resources for, if the farm is to continue.  That puts us in another "on the one hand great, on the other poor enough to be an existential threat" rating.  So, we'll label material capital an all-round average of "average" at this time.

Pot Pies!

This sold snap continues to hold its icy grip, calling for more comfort food.  But, you know, I've had a lot of soup recently.  I wanted something a bit different.  Maybe a casserole?  Or a pie?  Wait a minute!  Let's put a casserole IN a pie.  That's right, pot pie!

Pot pies are imminently flexible.  You can fill them with any savory goodness you want, so long as it includes tasty chunks and some sort of yummy sauce.  Most traditional is either chicken or beef with various veggies (mostly roots, but seemingly always peas...) and gravy. 

They also seem to be locked into our minds as limited to just two forms.  They can be $.89 microwavable something-or-other that tastes good, but how-could-it-possibly-be-much-more-than-a-salt-lick-at-that-price processed pucks in a box.  Or, they can be that unapproachable Sunday dinner only complicated thing grandma used to slave over.

But, in reality, they are simple to construct and ripe for improvisation.  You can make them big or small.  Round or square or rectangle or heart-shaped.  Vegan, vegetarian, fish, poultry, beef, rabbit, or 12-meat.  You can make them in a cast iron skillet, a disposable pie plate, or that casserole that's been in the family for five generations.

This is going to look intimidating, because I'm really giving you 3 recipes here.  But they are really only a framework for play. You can do this as easily as a pre-made pie crust, some canned chicken, a bag of frozen peas, and a jar of pre-made gravy.  I wouldn't recommend it, but you could do it.  And it would turn out better than the frozen things.  They are simple to make.  Plan about 15 minutes to prep and assemble and 45 to bake (except for roasting the brassicas and sugary roots in the veggetarian.  But that's really optional.  You could just  boil them with the potatoes.  However, it's worth it!).

Also, I have a personal block on pie crusts.  I've never once turned out a pie crust that I would call pretty or graceful.  But, this is a hearty rustic meal.  So even ugly crust has a certain charm.  Heck, with good lighting a shallow depth of field, I even made the ones I made look half decent for the photo!  So just go for it, already!

OK, three recipes in one:

Savory Pie Crust

This is a barely-modified version of the savory pie crust from Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food, a book everyone should own.  I've long preferred weight measures for baking, and as I bake ever more bread and have to scale recipes more frequently, I'm shifting to the metric system.  I highly recommend you do to.  If you don't have a scale, you should get one.  I recommend the Ozeri ZK14-S scale, which is less than $12, very precise, quite accurate, and easy to clean.  I'll probably write a review of it soon.  If you do not have a scale, take these volume equivalents with a huge grain of salt.

270 g All-purpose Flour (~2 C)
7 g Salt (1 1/2 teas)
5 g Freshly Ground Black Pepper (1 1/4 teas) - grind it as coarse as your mill will let you
1 stick Unsalted Butter, cut into approximately tablespoon sized chunks and frozen
35 g Grated Asiago Cheese (~2/3 cup, but it'll depend on how fine your grater grates)
~62 g ice cold Water (a bit over 1/4 C)

Makes enough for 1 2-crust pot pie in a 10" cast iron skillet

Sift the flour, salt, and pepper together, and add to the bowl of a food processor.  Drop the butter in, and pulse several times, until a crumbly structure forms.  Pulse, don't just run it, which will heat the butter too much.  An occasional chunk of butter is fine, so long as it's nut much bigger than a pea, and the overall texture should be similar to cornmeal.

Add the cheese, and pulse a couple more times.

Add the water in small dribbles, pulsing after each addition.  Check after each addition.  If you squeeze the dough in your hand, it should just barely hold together, but should still be loose in the bowl.  Think of the texture of a sand castle.

Pour the dough onto the counter.  Divide into two pieces, one about 2/3 of the dough, the other about 1/3.  The exact ratio depends on the depth of your pie pan or whatever you're using.

Squish the larger portion together into a snowball.  Dust the counter surface and the top of the ball with a tiny bit of flour, and roll out until is is quite thin and large enough around to cover the bottom and sides of your pie pan, with some extra.  Press the dough into the pan, and trim the excess off with a sharp paring knife. 

Dock the dough with a fork, then put it into the freezer.  Put the remaining dough ball in the coldest part of the fridge.

Vegetarian Pot Pie Filling

I used a lot of veggies that I blanched and froze back in the fall, along with some stored root veg.  I also used some chicken-of-the-woods mushroom we foraged and froze in the fall.  You can improvise wildly here, using whatever you have on hand.  This is a great way to use up leftovers!  I give weights because many of these can be purchased frozen by weight.  But, again, you can play to your heart's content on relative quantities as well as what veggies you use.

This could easily be turned vegan by substituting another fat for the butter and using a plant-based milk.  I would recommend oat milk - it's easier on the environment than nut milks, and seems to work better in baking.

Makes enough for 1 pot pie in a 10" deep iron skillet, or 6 individual pies

170 g (6 oz) small Brussels Sprouts
170g (6 oz) Broccoli florets
170g (6 oz) Cauliflower florets
1 Turnip, chopped
1 Parsnip, peeled and choped
Olive Oil
2 Potatoes, peeled and chopped (something moderately waxy like Yukon Gold or Carola)
2 stalks Celery, chopped
2 large Carrots, peeled and chopped
~ 1 C Frozen Peas
1 stick Unsalted Butter
~1 1/2 C Mushrooms (I used chicken-of-the-woods, but shitake, oyster, button, portabella, whatever is fine), chopped
1 Onion, chopped
1/3 C All Purpose Flour
2 C Vegetable Stock (it's easy to make your own.  Or you can buy some)
1 C Milk

Preheat oven to 450 F while you prep the veggies.  Spread the Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, and parsnip out on a baking sheet, toss with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.  Roast for about 40 minutes, stirring every 15, until the root veggies start to caramelize and the brassicas get a bit of toasty browning.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes, celery, and carrots in a large pot of cold water.  Place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil.  Boil until potatoes are just barely tender, about 10 minutes (will depend on the size of your chop).  Remove from heat, add the peas, let stand for 2 minutes, then drain.

In a heavy-bottomed pan, melt the butter.  Add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper, and saute over medium-high heat until the mushrooms are fully cooked.  Add the onion, and saute until it is just tender.  Stir in the flour, and cook while stirring until the flour is cooked, about 2 minutes.

While constantly stirring, slowly pour in the veggie stock, then the milk.  Continue to stir until the sauce comes to a simmer and begins to thicken.  It should be the consistency of gravy, nicely coating a spoon.  Stir all of the veggies into the sauce, and remove from heat.

Chicken Pot Pie Filling

I used one of the stewing hens I bought from Jim and Peggy Metz at the Culver Farmers' Market this fall to make stock, then cut/shredded it.  I used all of the meat, and had about 2 quarts of stock left over.  But I also made 2 10" deep cast iron skillets and an 8" deep cast iron skillet's worth of pot pies, more than double this recipe.

For info on stewing hens and making chicken stock, you can check out my fall chicken stew epic video on YouTube.

2 Carrots, peeled and chopped
1 Parsnip, peeled and chopped
3 Potatoes, peeled and chopped (something moderately waxy like Yukon Gold or Carola)
1 stick Unsalted Butter
1 Onion
1/2 C All Purpose Flour
3 C Chicken Stock
1 C Milk
~2 1/2 C Cooked chicken, leftover from something else and/or making stock, chopped/shredded

Put the carrots, parsnip, and potatoes in a pot of cold water.  Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Boil until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pan, melt the butter.  Add the onion, salt, and pepper, and saute until the onions are tender.  Stir in the flour, and continue to stir until the flour is cooked, about 2 minutes.

Slowly pour in the chicken stock, then the milk, while stirring constantly.  Continue to stir until it comes to a simmer and begins to thicken.  It should be the consistency of gravy, nicely coating a spoon.  Stir in the chicken.  Drain the veggies, and stir them in.  Remove from heat.

Final Pot Pie Assembly

Preheat the oven to 450 F (unless it's already there from roasting the veggies).  Remove your bottom crust from the fridge.  Spoon the filling into the crust, so it nearly fills the pan.  Do not go over the level of the top of the pan, or you'll risk boil-over in the oven, a mess you don't want.

Remove the remaining dough ball from the fridge, and roll it out until it is wider than your pie pan.  Lay it over the top of your pie, and cut the excess dough off with a sharp paring knife.  Crimp the top and bottom crusts together with your thumb and index finger.  Cut a couple of vents in the top crust.

Slide the pie into the oven, and bake until the filling is hot and bubbly and the crust has browned on top.  Mine took 45 minutes, but that was for 3 10" cast iron skillets, 2 8" cast iron skillets, 4 individual sized pie plates, and 2 6" cast iron skillets.  Loading all of that cold iron and crust surely dropped the oven temp a lot.  If you're doing smaller pies and fewer of them, it should take less time.  If you're doing a lot like I did, or a huge pie, it'll take longer.

Remove from the oven and serve.  Or, let cool, then freeze.  If you made single-serving size pies, they should pop from their pans once they are frozen, so you can make and freeze lots, and still have your pans available.

What do you like to fill your pot pies with?  Let us know!

Order Deadlines

Delivery Option     Deadline
Home delivery | Thursday     Tuesday, 10pm*
Pickup @ Culver Farmers' Market | Saturday     Thursday, 10pm
*Sourdough orders for delivery require an additional 24 hours
Shop Now
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