Saturday, January 10, 2009

Farm Bulletin: Sweetening the Pot

Winter, like those deeply snowy days we had recently, gives us time to ponder and plan. And at Ayers Creek, Anthony and Carol have had lots of time for that. They promise, however, that they'll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at this Sunday's (1/11) Hillsdale Farmers' Market.

We started thinking about syrup recently. The cold snap followed by the thaw and the heavy, wet snow reminded us of spring in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the Boutard family had a small sugar bush. In late winter we would see the icicles of sap forming on the broken maple tree branches. The sweet ice told us it was time to get out the brace and bit, and start setting the metal spigots. That first run of sap produced the finest flavored syrup. It would run so fast we needed to empty the buckets two or three times a day. As the season progressed the syrup became darker and took on a deeper mineral flavor.

A traditional maple sugar house.

The bush started out with 15 to 20 spigots; the sap was processed in the kitchen. The metal buckets came from a friend who was converting his operation to plastic tubing. We later purchased a small sugaring pan and stove from a family who was expanding their maple syrup production. Soon we had a traditional maple sugar house; a hygrometer replaced the spoon and burned lips. Afterwards, vinyl tubes and plastic spigots replaced the satisfying clang of galvanized buckets.

The season waned as the woodcocks started their courtship flights. Seeking foraging ground during the freeze, a flock of snipe took up residence in the springy ground of the canyon. These close cousins brought back memories of watching the pudgy little woodcocks spiral upwards and then listening to their lovely, liquid warble as they tumbled back to earth. Snipe have a similar courtship ritual, and we hope they will nest here someday.


With no hope for a Gaston sugar bush, we have started researching cane sorghums. Can we grow sweet sorghum in Oregon? Hard to say. It is likely the early homesteaders tried. If there was an effort, it died without vestige. The cane syrup houses have a design similar to the New England sugar houses, and we have yet to see one here. An omen, perhaps. As we have given up on field peas, leaving the "Quixotic Crop" slot open, 2009 will be "Annum Sorghorum" at Ayers Creek. Although we have not seen evidence of cane culture here, other vanished crops have left their mark.

In Cornelius there is a collection of buildings on the south side of town called the "flax plant." Around 1844, the first crop of flax was planted near Tualatin. Linen manufacture is a labor intensive process, and historically farm-based. The plants must be pulled, roots and all, without breaking the fibers. The plants are bound in shocks, field dried and then retted. Retting is a form of bacterial fermentation that loosens the soft tissues from the bast fibers. When dry, the retted stems are scutched, a process of cleaning and separating the fibers. Scutching requires dexterity and judgement. A good scutcher has to coax the fiber free without rendering it useless tow. The scutched fibers are then hackled to separate the short fibers, the tow, from the line fibers which are spun into thread. Among other uses, the tow was used to make cigarette papers. This process, retting, scutching and hackling, is the same for all bast fibers, such as hemp, jute and ramie. Traditionally, it was all farm based.

Flax stems and fibers.

Flax is the earliest of the vegetable fibers to be processed. The neolithic Swiss lake dwellers made woven and dyed fabric from flax. With long, strong fibers, linen was a valuable industrial fabric, until nylon displaced it. Flax is also an oilseed crop, but the plant, having gone to seed, is then useless as a fiber crop. The crop density is much lower when the crop is grown the seed, so the fibers are shorter and heavier. Linseed oil soap, Lin Soap, is manufactured in Portland and is much better than other oil soaps.

The quality of Willamette Valley linen was reportedly high, rivaling the cloth from Belgium and Ireland. There were flax processing plants in Cornelius, Salem, Turner and Scio, among other places. Long before "Prison Blues," linen production was a prison industry in Oregon. In 1935, 2,000 acres of flax was planted in the valley. The linen industry faded away by the 1950s. The process resisted mechanization, and high quality linen remains an expensive fabric. It must have been beautiful to pass the blue fields of flax.

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