Every gardener has their complaints about the weather and how it thwarts their best efforts to grow as much variety as possible. My sister has challenges with the weather occasionally being too cool to ripen tomatoes in her mild Sonoma County wine country climate. 100 miles away, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, we complain that the summers are often so hot in August that all of our summer vegetables stop producing for a time. However, very few gardeners face the climactic challenges that my friends Laurie and Tom faced when they moved from Sacramento, California to Cody, Wyoming. Our recent visit there was a lesson in resiliency in growing and eating locally.
Cody is in USDA zone 4, with an average annual winter extreme low temperature of minus 20 degrees. Their last frost date in the Spring is sometime in mid-May, and the first frost is sometime in mid-September, giving them a growing season of a maximum of about 4 months for any frost sensitive fruits and vegetables. Historically, freak freezing temperatures have been recorded at least once for every month of the year except July. Dry winds blow much of the time, and the humidity is extremely low. These are challenging conditions for a gardener.
This is the spot where our friends grew their outdoor garden last year. The garden was tilled and ready to plant when we arrived on May 6.
The Wyoming garden plot ready to be planted
While we were there my husband Adrian helped Tom plant some onions. The potatoes and garlic were already in the ground in another spot. The garlic had been planted in the fall where it had been growing under a thick layer of mulch.
When you are fond of Mediterranean climate foods, sometimes you get creative in an attempt to grow your favorite treats. Here is Tom in the greenhouse and yes, in addition to the tomatoes, strawberries, and artichokes, those are fig trees in the greenhouse.
Watering the plants in the greenhouse
The strawberries from the greenhouse were the sweetest strawberries I have ever eaten. So far, the indoor fig harvest has been small. They planted just about every variety they could find, and this year the trees with the largest fruit set are: Peter’s Honey, Tarantella, Chicago Hardy, Desert King and Neverella. They will transplant the artichokes to the garden soon.
They are still debating whether to keep the tomatoes in the greenhouse all summer or try to move them out to the garden at some point. Last year, the tomatoes were in the garden when they had an early freeze in the beginning of September so they had to pull up all of the plants with the tomatoes attached, hang them in the barn, and gradually pick the tomatoes from the plants as they ripened. They also enjoyed plenty of fried green tomatoes.
You may remember my last post about my measly bean harvest shown below:
My sad little bean harvest from last year
Faced with my own bean-growing disabilities despite living in the “fruit and vegetable capitol of the United States”, their dried bean harvest was awe-inspiring to me. This is what they had left this spring after eating their home-grown beans for much of the winter:
Wyoming heirloom bean harvest
Take a look at all the varieties of heirloom beans they were able to grow in Wyoming:
King of the Early
All of the beans above are bush beans. They also grew one type of pole bean successfully:
Gold of Bacau Pole Bean
Most of the bean seeds were purchased from Fedco seeds .
They also grew an unusual type of garbanzo bean that you can pop:
Hannan pop garbanzo bean
One evening we enjoyed the Pizza Tom cooked in the wood-fired brick oven.
Tom loading pizza into the brick oven.
Pizza in the wood fired brick oven
After the pizza was cooked beans were put in the still hot oven.
Laurie uses a bean pot for the beans. She covers the beans with about 2 inches of water and bakes them in the covered pot in the brick oven until the beans are tender.
Bean pot in the brick oven.
The Marfax beans were cooked simply this way, with minimal seasonings. They were delicious reheated and served the next day with tortillas and salsa.
Wood oven roasted Marfax beans
They also used the brick oven for baking bread several times while we were there.
Chickens are also being raised for both meat and eggs.
Laurie feeding the chickens
In California, I have been on mushroom hunts in the North Coast, and everyone is lusting after the elusive King Boletes, otherwise known as Porcini mushrooms. Collecting even one of these mushrooms in considered a prize. Laurie and Tom have found fields of boletes while riding or hiking in the hills of Wyoming. These were harvested and dried and stored for later use.
Dried Wyoming King Boletes mushrooms
The boletes made a great sauce for some delicious local lamb one evening for dinner. Locally grown lettuce for salad and home-grown potatoes which had been stored over the winter completed the meal. After dinner the lambs are also a source of entertainment.
“Little Richard” the baby lamb
Mama lamb thinks baby is a pillow
Prior to moving to Wyoming, Tom made some killer red wines from California Zinfandel and Barbera grapes. Unfortunately, grapes do not grow well in Zone 4, so his grape fermentation projects were put to a halt. Adhering to the code of eating locally, he continued to ferment grains, which grow well in Wyoming. Fermented grains are beer, and Tom has made some great batches of beer over the years. However, recently he decided to take it to the next level, by opening a licensed distillery and using locally grown wheat to make spirits.
The silos to the left of the distillery hold the locally grown wheat which is fermented in open top fermentation tanks.
The wheat mash is then pumped into the still.
The mash inside of the still
Here is a photo of Tom with the American made still, purchased from Vendome. in Kentucky. As the mash heats, the volatilized alcohol rises up the tall distillation column in the back of the still.
Tom and the still
The condensed distillate is then separated by Tom into 3 categories, heads, hearts and tails, in the tank shown below. The decision of what constitutes the “hearts”, which is the final product, is the art and science of the master distiller.
The separation tank with the three sections for heads, hearts and tails
The final spirit is then siphoned into oak barrels for aging. Here you can see Tom topping off the barrels with a funnel. Note that the spirit is completely clear when added to the barrel. The golden color of aged distilled spirits such as whisky is imparted into the product during the barrel aging process.
Siphoning whisky into the barrel
Finally, the barrels are stored in a barrel house for aging.
The Barrel House
While we were there, some of the first batches of Single Track Spirits all wheat whisky were fermented, distilled, siphoned into oak barrels and tucked away in the barrel house.
The first 7 barrels of Single Track Spirits Wheat Whisky safely tucked into the barrel house
I returned home from Wyoming to my own gardening challenges. The branches of the apricot trees that had a promising fruit set on them looked like this when I returned.
Dead apricot branch
It looks like I will go without apricots again this year. However, our citrus trees seem to have experienced a substantial fruit set, and the lemon branch looked like this when I looked at it today.
Lemon branch: Each one of those green nubbins will eventually be a lemon
I thought of my friends in Wyoming, who have managed to eat locally despite their numerous climactic challenges. Eating locally means using what you have and using it well. In my case it reminds me of the old adage: “When you have lemons, make lemonade.” In the case of the resilient Wyoming Locavore, you might substitute: “When you have wheat, make whisky” !
© 2012. Dayna Green-Burgeson RD, CDE. All Rights Reserved.
Wow, your enterprise leaves me breathless. How inspiring. I am a passionate gardener but of ornamentals and a scattering of veg and herbs ….. I loved reading all your diverse activities. Full -time on the land, I am guessing?
My husband recently retired and is now a full time farmer but I am still a dietitian for the University of California. With regard to the friends in Wyoming, they recently began working on the distillery and farm full time as well. As you know, a gardener’s work is never done!
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