Life at DR Goes on Through COVID: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Considering we made it through the first waves without much COVID infiltration in the tri-communities, the past month has been a rude awakening here in Northeast Missouri, showing the ease with which omicron is getting around. There have been many times I’ve wondered how much our daily efforts to keep our distance from each other and mask in common spaces really mattered, and while it is impossible to know whether those months (years!) of effort made a major difference, the practice sure does now. It seems as though the hardest part of this whole thing has been that on-again-off-again feeling. Humans are not great at constant vigilance. We pay attention best in new conditions. Re-upping my masking habits after letting them slide was a struggle for me.

Despite COVID having messed with some of its members, the dairy co-op has been bringing in the milk in the new year. Over the holidays, with too few members around to manage daily milking and processing in addition to baseline food and water chores, we left off milking and let the calves stay with the cows day and night. Our first-time mom, Bessie, especially didn’t love getting back into the routine, from what I hear, but with several co-op members showing up each morning to help with various parts of the process, we made it work.

Ted here with the latest news from Dancing Rabbit. I missed this rotation of writing several times in a row last fall, so it has been a while since I’ve tried to share the news from here. How are you doing? How am I doing? So many of the constants in my life have changed, it is hard to know sometimes, and yet there are enough for me to keep my day going. Winter is for contemplation.

I succeeded in reviving our yogurt culture this past week after the starter jar had sat unused for a month. The starter carries the culture from one batch to the next, a spoonful of the previous round mixed into each jar of warmed milk for the next and then incubated for 12 hours or so. It was sluggish in the first batch, but the other morning I pulled jars of convincing consistency out of incubation. Lactic ferments continue to impress me over the years! They are truly living cultures, and it makes me appreciate all over again the ways that food traditions have persisted and diversified within human culture for millennia.

A batch of basic stirred-curd cheddar got me back on my cheese game as well, and then I got a request that sent me on a new adventure. Alyson wanted to make some khachapuri, which is a beloved flatbread native to the country of Georgia, a former Soviet republic on the southwest edge of Russia, adjacent to the Black Sea. It usually takes the form of a shallow bread vessel where sulguni, a cheese somewhere between feta and mozzarella (just one of numerous unusual cheeses native to this purported “birthplace of cheese”), features alongside cracked eggs and other tasty ingredients which are then baked to perfection and devoured a bit like a sauceless pizza, either as a portable staple or alongside other dishes.

As it happened, Daniel had just cooked some gluten-free khachapuri for dinner at Ironweed, employing some of the mature, flavorful cheese I’d opened not long before. Daniel and his partner Tails had spent most of the past decade as educators in Kazakhstan, not so far from Georgia, so they knew it from there. His version was excellent (they’re both great cooks), and though I’d heard about it previously, the experience had me reading about it online to learn more.

I can’t tell you the outcome yet, because I need time in the kitchen to process the initial stage (a basic, fresh cheese like queso blanco) into the kneaded, shaped rounds achieved by immersing the diced fresh curd in hot water briefly, which turns it molten and stretchy. These flat-ish rounds are often smoked, which I’d love to try, but they are otherwise brined like feta, giving rise to one rough translation of “pickle cheese.” I’m currently isolating for a few days at home for a possible COVID exposure myself, so that next stage has to wait, but I’m excited to see how it turns out, and hopefully it will meet Alyson’s expectations as well.

The first stretch of days for sugaring starts late this week, with daytime temperatures above freezing and night-times below, so Javi and I have been strategizing where to tap, and getting the outdoor boiling setup ready to go again. Today we scouted a small grove on the north end of Dancing Rabbit’s land that has never been tapped, to my knowledge. Many of the maples there have only achieved sufficient size for tapping in the past couple years. We’re hoping for a bountiful harvest of sap, though we do have to figure out how best to transport it from that far grove down to the village where we’ll be harvesting and boiling down the rest. Sugaring conditions can be pretty hit or miss from year to year.

Heavy snow here two weeks ago was a bonanza for sledding, as well as a fresh bed for cross-country skiing along our various mowed paths around the land. I made the pilgrimage to our local hill for five days running, including one morning at dawn when I was invited out to watch the sun rising and full moon setting at the same time whilst flying down the hill. Wow! That was a good show. Since then the remaining snow has turned hard and crusty, but the pond surface has grown plenty thick and smooth. I hear there is to be an event Friday to skate along the local branch of the Fabius river for a good distance. I’ve never done it and can’t wait, though I didn’t grow up on skates and don’t love the way they torture the feet and ankles. Thick socks to the rescue.

We’re about half way now through the deepest part of the wood burning season. The supply of nicely split firewood looks more than adequate, but there is still a good pile of chunky cordwood waiting to be split smaller and stacked, so on the slightly warmer days lately I enjoy getting some exercise swinging the splitting ax, and laying up next winter’s fuel. I’m grateful too for the preponderance of sunny days, and the free heat that comes year after year from having an attached greenhouse, which also serves as a bit of an airlock in my comings and goings, saving the precious heat indoors.

Despite having managed Ironweed’s off-grid solar and wind-powered electrical system for the past 15 years, and done a variety of electrical installations, I’ve never had much in the way of formal training, so I’m excited to finally begin the first of several courses for certification in solar installation and system designing. It is a good fit with Dancing Rabbit’s needs, of course, but I also look forward to being able to offer solar installation services locally. It appears that solar will only continue to grow in importance over time, and I’d like to help bring it along faster here in Northeastern Missouri.

As the days slowly grow longer I’m realizing I’m way behind on doing a seed inventory and seeing what I need to order for the coming garden season. While we enjoy the cellared potatoes and otherwise preserved bounty of the previous season, I love dreaming into the warmer days to come, when little green sprouts erupting out of the soil bring the joy of renewed life. Meanwhile some of the colorful seed catalogs are almost as good!

Here’s hoping all our readers are staying plenty warm and cozy out there, and starting to think about applying for a 2022 visitor program or work exchange at Dancing Rabbit! This is our 25th anniversary year, and we want to include you in our future. You can learn more any time at Meanwhile I hope your garden plans are shaping up faster than mine, COVID gives you and yours a miss, and the remainder of winter treats you to many outdoor adventures. Cheers from here!

Ted Sterling has lived at Dancing Rabbit for many years now. He embodies the multi-tasking and multi-skilled nature of homesteading. His cheese and yogurt are favorites of visitors to DR each year.


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