Easter Blessings and a perfect recipe for left-over ham

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A more beautiful day for Easter could not have been had. At least here in Pennsylvania. I hope you enjoyed a lovely and blessed day wherever you are and whatever you believe.

Since I am admittedly a bit wild and uncivilized, there was no church service to spiff up for. Instead, I went to the Church of the Great Outdoors and enjoyed a walk around some hard-to-reach corners of the farm neglected over the winter.

And looky, looky! Well Hel-lo Easter Blessing.

Molly got sick and tired of all those amateurs fussing and swishing their tails, sighing and looking at their bellies. She decided to show those vapid girls how a pro gets down.

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No fuss, no muss, just found Molly in the woods with her new little Lady. Cleaned, fed and hardly even wobbly –  Molly is the best. I’ve been hoping for a heifer from Molly for a long time, particularly with the Destroyer for a Daddy. It is a very promising cross for which I am very grateful and excited and she is beautiful.

Working in a local, nose-to-tail butcher shop as I do, we’ve been busy making ham, talking about ham, wrapping up and sending home lots and lots of hams. Holiday over, now what to do with all that leftover ham? To that I say, “Ham Loaf”.

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 Tender, moist and subtle ham meatloaf topped with spiced fruit – Homey supper and great next-day sandwiches

_________________________________________________________________________You say you’ve never heard of Ham Loaf?  Around here, people take their ham loaf seriously. I did not grow up in a ham loaf home, so I had no idea what all this ham loaf business was about.

Doing a bit of asking around, I got the gist of the recipe and right away knew that the rich, sweet loaf of ham and pork topped with a mustard + brown sugar glaze was not for me. But, for some reason, I knew the idea still had promise.

Cue up Lianna Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation. I know, I know, I’m all Lianna Krissoff this, Lianna Krissoff that, but seriously.

More often than not, I get a great idea from one of Lianna Krissoff’s books that is a modern, healthy throwback to something old-skool. Never pretentious, always original and delicious, the sidebars and variations alone share a wealth of tips & tricks to change your cooking ways for the better. And when it comes to ham loaf, Lianna did not let me down.

This ham loaf is lighter, less sweet and lets the flavors of the ham shine through. The ground turkey or chicken is a perfect – though non-traditional – partner for the ground ham, but if you don’t have those, plain ground pork (not sausage) is fine too.

And, if you happen to have pickled fruit or fruit relish in your pantry, this is a recipe where that home-preserved fruit will really shine. Check out the printable recipe here.

I’ve seen the ham-loaf light.  How do you do ham loaf?

On previous Easters here’s what we were up to:

is there anything nicer than a sleepy Sunday morning?

Easter egg glut? Pickle ‘em!

 

 

 

 

 

in which we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

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Hmmmmmm. Is it really St. Patrick’s Day already?

What should we talk about?  Irish Soda Bread?  NOBODY will be writing about THAT.  Irish Stew? Ditto. Irish ham? Colcannon? Guinness? Whiskey? The Corned Beef that actual Irish people don’t eat?  Yawn.

I have been working on some whole grain/wheat projects and spent a couple of weeks learning about and baking some authentic Irish soda breads. So far, one big thing I have learned is that aside from brief curiosity, my taste-testing friends prefer their Americanized fiction of Irish traditions much more than the real, farmstead and/or poverty-born deal.

Which fact has annoyed some enough to create an entire Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread with a very entertaining website and Facebook page.

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Call me odd, but I love the rustic character of irish soda bread. With very few ingredients, the freshness of the wheat flour is critical.  A perfect trifecta of  substantial whole wheat, rich, homemade butter & summer fresh peach jam. Who needs raisins?

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The real beauty of Irish farmstead food is that yes, it is simple, but because the home-raised and/or foraged ingredients can be so pure, fresh, wholesome and full of flavor, everyday food carefully prepared can be sublime.

Of course we know that Ireland has had her struggles with shortage and famine.  Simple things we Americans take for granted, like raisins and sugar for your soda bread  would have been special luxuries for too many Irish.

The last couple years I wrote about some pretty serious Irish topics, but really, who are we kidding? St. Patrick’s Day in America is just an excuse to misbehave, have celebrations, skip school, get rowdy and drink beer. Green beer. Lots of it, right?

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You first; No you!  It’s A Pig-Jam!  everyone’s afraid to jump off the trailer after a move. No point in rushing them, pigs operate on their own time. One day later, they’re jumping on and off with gusto. 

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Around here, those best able to devote themselves to the proper celebration of St. Patrick’s Day are the pigs. I know, I’ve been delinquent about filling you in on all the recent porky details, it’s true.  Raucus? Bawdy? Chaotic? Enthusiastic? Lawless, Loutish, Wild, uproarious, Unruly, Disorderly, Calamitous, Boisterous, Unrestrained and Pure-Gleeful-Mayhem?

I could go on, but I’m pretty sure you know how to use a thesaurus without my help. Let’s just say there’s face stuffing, racing in circles until they fall down, snuffling, brawling, barking, chasing, stealing, biting, snuggling, and some general rooting, mayhem & destruction.  Then, revelry over, the pile of snoring pigs catches up on their beauty sleep.

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Do not disturb:  A snoring pile O’ pigs

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Next comes the big, greasy morning-after breakfast (remember those?) to be followed by another power nap. The best nap ever they tell me. The restorative power of that grand nap gives them the energy they need to get up and do it all over again.  Every. Single. Day. It’s rough being a pig around here, I don’t know how they do it.

‘Tis shameless they are.

snow day

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Don’t ask me what she’s doing – she has an inside to go to.

This is Bess.  You know Bess.  She’s the cutie at the top of my blog every time you visit.  Hard to believe, time certainly flies.  Today Bess is a goofy mother-to-be, and a carbon copy of her eccentric mother Bling.

Yesterday during the snow storm I had to deliver fresh hay to the Ladies. Lots of it.  They’re hoovering through their hay twice as fast as usual and the streams are all frozen so it’s been a bit rugged around here.

Thankful for small blessings like tractors that start, hot running water and new hay bales not coated in a one-inch-thick crust I have to chip open (Note to self: devote a post to that muscle-soring ridiculousness), I round the corner and this is what I see:

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What?? Are you kidding me?

IMG_2586Whew! All is fine, just a little nutty.

Teenagers!

Check out these other snowy days:

in which we hear it for the boys

in which we decide we like it

in which we reflect on the beauty of a long winter’s nap

in which we laugh: good golly miss molly!

cow tales: the stinkiest eye

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I’ve been wanting to mention stink-eye for a while now.

You didn’t know about stink-eye?  Well.  Stink-eye is a quirky cow thing that cracks me up.  I haven’t been able to properly share it with you because somehow or other, whenever a good stink-eye situation happens, it’s such a rare, unexpected and fleeting moment, I miss the photo.

Dopey as you think cows may/may not be, they have a pretty extensive vocabulary of moos, hums, growls and head tosses. What I call stink-eye is the body language cows use to warn others to back off, slow it down and respect their space. And, while it does crack me up, it’s no joke. Ignore cow stink-eye at your own risk.

Approach a cow too suddenly or introduce a new cow into a herd and you’re likely to see a good display of stink-eye. What will you see?

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A half-hearted stink-eye from Zay… She’s not nearly so stinky as she used to be

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A cow will turn sideways to give an intimidating side view of their full puffed-up size, head down, chin to chest, back arched and posed to look as intimidating as possible. The eye will be widened to show a full white ring and there will be some huffing, blowing, pawing and possibly drooling.

Some cows are quicker than others to stink-eye, and no cow has a stinkier eye than Zay.

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Not Stink-Eye exactly, but typical Beatrice

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Except maybe Beatrice.

Beatrice is quick to give a good stink-eye.  Thing is, in the standard issue Bovine Dictionary, I don’t think stink-eye means what Beatrice thinks it does.

Beatrice is more happy-goofy Labradoodle than Rottweiler.  Somehow I think she’s got the signal for “HEY THERE LADY, COME PET ME RIGHT NOW! mixed up with the one for “BACK OFF RIGHT NOW OR ELSE!!!”.

She’s got the right-now part down, but Beatrice seems a little off with the rest.

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The only thing worse than stink-eye??  This!  I Saw her Twerking in the barn…

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Hopefully the Ladies aren’t making fun of her behind her back like your friends did when you were screeching out wrong lyrics to popular songs with all your might. But you know what? Somehow I don’t think Beatrice would really care what those silly Ladies say anyway. Beatrice marches to her own drum.

But Zay? Make no mistake – Zay knows exactly what it means…

Zay & Beatrice go way back. Here’s more:

beatrice: braveheart, bold or just plain bad?

two hellos and a kidnapping

Real Food Pantry Tricks: a freezer full of ratatouille

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A satisfying winter diet filled with veggies can be a challenge….

Sometimes, I need something warm, filling and rich that’s not soup. Something comforting and velvety in texture that can help me resist my cravings for calorie laden dishes like macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes.

Yesterday we talked about what a flexible ingredient ratatouille is.  Today I want to show you my favorite lighter recipe and how doubling up each time I make it is one of the ways I preserve summer veggies for winter.

I found my ratatouille salvation in Martha Rose Schulman’s great cookbook for beginners, Light Basics Cookbook. Sadly, this book is out of print – it’s packed with gems, tips and tricks – particularly to those new to the kitchen. But, used copies are still available and Martha keeps a helpful online archive of her recipes, so all is not lost.

Here’s Martha Rose’s recipe for her less caloric version of ratatouille.

Except for one thing. Martha’s online recipe leaves out one slightly fussy step that makes the book version of this recipe such a treasure. Sure, you can skip it and your ratatouille will still be good, but why stop at good when you can have fantastic?

It’s only slightly fussy and the difference is well worth the effort.

The trick is reduction.  Making use of the power of reduction is one of the little-mentioned secrets of Kitchen Greats. Simmering a sauce until the water evaporates concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce without adding flour or thickeners. It takes just a little more time and attention, but can boost a recipe from good enough to amazing.

A  reduction intensifies the flavors of my rustic fruit pies. Pan seared meat served with sauce made from reducing the pan juices and an added liquid is rich and elegant. I don’t love floury gravy for my beef stew, brisket or short ribs either. Instead, why not remove the meat & veggies to the serving dish and reduce the sauce?

Of course, you could finish by adding a knob of good butter which only makes the whole thing more plate-lickingly good…

So, how does ratatouille benefit from a reduction? Simple. After cooking, place a colander over a  large bowl. and dump the ratatouille into the colander.  The juices will drain into the bowl.

Transfer the juices to a saucepan and return the ratatouille to the casserole.

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Heat the juices to a simmer. Try to keep your boil as gentle as possible – the harder the boil, the faster the reduction, but also the more the flavor is altered by temperature. A slower simmer preserves the flavor.  And, any seasonings will intensify after being reduced so adjust to taste after the reduction, particularly the salt.

Reduce by half over medium-high heat, add your knob of butter if you wish (I wish you will), then stir the reduced juices back into the ratatouille.

This is a dish that is even better made the day before.  For best results, cook and refrigerate overnight.  Next day, serve at either room temperature or warm.

On seasoning ratatouille:  I admit that one reason I didn’t love ratatouille at first is because it tends to be heavily herbed/seasoned. Call me crazy, but I really don’t care for that.  Late tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion have more than enough flavor without and some fresh basil added just before serving is just right for me. So, if you feel the same way or just don’t have the thyme and/or oregano, don’t let that stop you. The flavor without is every bit as delicious.

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If you’re going to make one ratatouille, why not make two and save some for later?

When you’re done, take your leftovers, measure out the size you would be most likely to use at one time (if you aren’t sure, go smaller). Two cups per bag is my preferred amount.

I prepare quart freezer bags by labeling them,  rolling the tops down and standing them up on the table.

You may be wondering, so here it is: there is no way to know in advance exactly how many bags you will need, so label cautiously. You could label after filling, but it’s really hard to write on jiggly filled bags and messy & difficult for marker to adhere to frozen ones.

Carefully measure your rat into the bags, squeeze any air from the bag, seal and lay flat on its side on a baking sheet or flat plate.  Carefully stack your bags so each lays perfectly flat.  Place the stack of filled bags into the freezer, keeping as straight and level as possible.

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Freezing the bags flat on their sides on a plate or baking sheet is an important detail.  Skip it and the weight of the liquid will cause the contents to sink around the freezer racks.  The bags will become entwined around the racks, then freeze that way making it impossible for you to remove them from the freezer or stack them neatly.

Don’t ask me how I know this…

Next day, when your bags are frozen solid, you can stack them upright to save space. Plastic organizers and large freezer containers help keep everything tidy, visible and help you squeeze more in.

The more tightly packed your freezer, the more efficiently it runs. 

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Do this all summer and you’ll have a virtual library of preserved “books”.

What kinds of garden goodness is in my library? Pumpkin puree, fresh tomato sauce, squash, ratatouille, roasted beets, beet greens, cantaloupe puree, shredded zucchini, rendered lard and plum pie filling.

What’s in your freezer library? Any delectable secrets? Do share…

Zaymonster giveth and Zaymonster taketh away

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one sunny morning last week, see what I found?

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I’m feeling super-sorry for myself. It’s okay, I gave myself permission. I’m going to make a full evening of it, and maybe even eat a big bowl of ice cream in bed. You know, to make myself feel better.

Why’s that? You’ll have to ask Zay.  It’s all her fault.

She’s been waiting, waiting and waiting some more for her calf to be born. Zay’s a funny cow when it comes to babies.  Until hers is born, she lurks and trolls around the other mothers’ calves, even going so far as stealing and hiding one last year.

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Waiting, waiting & waiting some more…

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Then, once Zay has her own, she’s fine. She’s an excellent mother, but is very private about her top-secret parenting business.  Oddly,  this year, Zay’s baby was over a month later than the others.

Zay laid off the trolling and kidnapping this season, opting instead for being alone, moody and pensive. She spent lots of time laying her bulky self down and gazing off into the distance. She kept getting bigger and bigger, but that baby just didn’t want to come.

Finally, early one sunny morning, I found him in the tall grass, fed, bathed and curled up beside his mother for his first newborn nap.

Zay, like the good mother she is, nested in a private corner of the pasture with the little one for several days. Ever dutiful, she left him only briefly now and then for a quick drink of water.

Gradually, she rejoined the herd, but as cows sometimes do, Zay tucked the baby into a hidey-hole so she could visit with her friends and do her work alone.  Then, when she’s done, Zay goes back and spends the evening with her baby.

I was a tiny bit worried last night when I didn’t see the baby, but Zay was completely unconcerned. Zay and I have been through this together a few times now, and I know she’s on top of things. If there was a mishap, surely she would be fretting.

Wouldn’t she?

But Zay seemed to be a cow without a care in the world. Or a baby either.  If it wasn’t for her ginormous udder, I’d think she was a single girl.  The udder is an important clue: if Zay’s udder was empty, I’d know that even though I couldn’t see the calf, he had eaten. But this was one huge, ready-to-burst udder.

When was the last time the baby drank?  Come on Zay, I need some clues here!

But, as usual, Zay ignored me. She paid no attention as I walked up and down the pasture, crawled under fences and pawed the tall grass.  She was unconcerned when I got out the tractor and drove up and down. She enjoyed a leisurely drink and had dinner with her friends.

I was getting discouraged. Disheartened. Sad.  I was blaming myself for being too busy, and for trusting Zay’s mothering ability. I  looked for signs of struggle, circling vultures or other markers of doom.  But there were none of those either.

Parked inside the pasture on my tractor, I was starting to take it hard. And then, guess what happened next?

Suddenly and with purpose, Zay left the herd and walked off to the spot I had combed first on foot, then by tractor just an hour before. She called a few times, and up he popped! He was waiting, not for my noisy self, but for his mother’s call.

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Zay doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. She had important cow business – geez!

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Peppy & perky, he bounced up ready for a big supper.  I don’t think I have ever been so grateful to see anything, ever. Luckily this tale has a happy ending.  Not only did Zaymonster giveth, then taketh back, she gave him to us once again.  Whew!

Am I supposed to find some deep hidden lesson here?  

Don’t know, but I surely am grateful.  I’ll never doubt you again Zay.

Want more about Zay and her kidnapping ways?

hay there!

hay bales

stocking the pantry

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Hay is for horses, right? Horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and more types of livestock than I can think of in a quick minute. Yet, like bees, as crucial as it is to our food supply, most people don’t know much about hay nor do they care to.

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I mean, what does a bunch of tall grass, mowed, packed into bales and fed to livestock have to do with our high-tech busy lives anyway?

Food prices have been creeping up for a while now, mostly by prices staying the same while the boxes and bags quietly shrink. Do they think we don’t notice?

Here’s the  funny thing about farming cause and effect: the price impact at the grocery store is slow to follow a disastrous farming event so when prices go up, we don’t remember why.

Maybe we tuned out that farming story on the news – nothing to do with us, right?  Or, what worries me more, many farming events aren’t covered on major news outlets at all.  When they are, reports are at best brief, oversimplified and skewed towards Big Ag as if alternative methods did not even exist.

This void of information about such a crucial piece of infrastructure we cannot live without is frightening.  I know farming isn’t as fascinating as the Kardashians, but honestly, it is a pretty action-packed and intrigue-filled industry once you start doing a little reading. Here’s a good place to get started. It’s  one of my favorites packed with  beautiful and memorable photos and essays.

Fatal Harvest Image

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And all ye Pittsburghers, guess what? There’s a copy at the Carnegie Library. You are using our amazing public library system aren’t you?

Once again in Pennsylvania, it’s hay time. Of course things have been dry as a bone for weeks. But, now that it’s time to mow my hay, Murphy’s law is coming on strong. Rain, dark skies and spotty bad news on the weather channel.

Last year, the first time I ever remember such a thing, we had no second or third cutting of hay. That may not mean much to you, but many years, some farmers get as many as four cuts in a season. Around here, you can count on at least two cuttings with the second & third cuts being generally considered the best quality.

What’s a cut? It’s one harvest of mowing, raking and packing the hay into tight bales. If you’d like to know more, here’s a good post explaining some of the intricacies of making hay from Baum Farm in Vermont.

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My neighbor Mike mowing hay

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Last year, after being mowed once for first cut, the drought-stunted regrowth was so thin, mowing and bailing wasn’t worth the price of the gas needed to get the tractors and equipment out. Hayfields were producing a fraction of their usual generous number of second and third cut  bales. If you missed first cut, you were out of luck.  And guess what? We missed first cut.

Remember Business 101 when we learned about supply and demand? Supply goes down, demand goes up. When demand is high and supply low, prices go up. So it is with hay, corn and soy at the moment.

For this farm,  hay prices this past winter were at least five times higher than the winter before.  What that means to you is that animals who eat hay, corn and soy and use straw for bedding increased their cost of living by at least five times if not more. It’s only a matter of time before that fact begins to show up in the grocery store.

You probably didn’t pay too much attention to the drought talk on the news because rainy summer days spoil your fun and prices on items like pork, hamburger and chicken stayed stable or even went down this winter.

How can that be?

Mainly because farmers were busy dispersing their breeding stock – animals farmers normally would never part with – into a buyer’s market to stop the fiscal hemorrhage of having to purchase feed for the winter. You had plenty of hamburger because expensive-to-feed dairy cows were being “retired” way before their time.

Now, herd sizes are lean. There will not be as many cows, pigs and chickens. And prices for hay, straw, soy and corn are still higher than ever and farmers are scraping the bottoms of their coffers to hang in for another growing season.

A third challenging growing season in a row will have harsh consequences.

Back to basic supply and demand, groceries are bound to go up again. Milk, eggs, cheese and meat will be creeping up.  In the butcher shop where I work, our largest chicken supplier went out of business without warning. Chicken prices have suddenly jumped from $3.09/lb for boneless, skinless chicken breasts to $3.89/lb and chicken tenders cracking the four dollar mark. In one week.

Big difference.  What does this all have to do with my tiny farm?

Like many small farmers, I don’t have my own haymaking equipment, and rely on neighboring farmers to cut and bale my hay. Last year, my farmer didn’t get my first cutting mowed in time, and I just told you there was no second or third cut.

So, I had to purchase hay.  It was a real blow, let me tell you. And I am well aware that I was one of the lucky ones. Out west it was much, much worse.

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My hayfield: cut, soon to be raked & baled

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Not a total bust –  grass did rebound in the fall and the hayfield kept the cows fed well into the winter so I did not need to feed dry hay for as many months.

Since the thrifty Devon cattle eat nearly half the amount as some other breeds, I also didn’t have to purchase as much or find super-rich and super-expensive special quality hay, and the cows as usual stayed healthy, fit and satisfied on simple, ordinary first cut dry grass hay.

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the experts conduct a tasting: their verdict? Three hooves up

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So we survive to do it again this year. Today, the hayfield is tall and thick and ready for harvest.

And, as much as I appreciate a good spring rain, this week, our fingers and hooves are crossed for some nice, dry, sunny, breezy days.

What’s happening with food prices where you live?

Update: Hay’s in! Thank goodness because if you live in Pennsylvania, you know we’ve had rain nearly every day for over a week, and more to come. We made it by the skin of our horns, and yield is still a bit lower than usual, but the hay is beautiful. We will be buying a bit more, and/or making second cut, but the larder won’t  be bare. Whew!