Friday, January 30, 2009

The Farm Chronicles - January

This post is the first in a series. I plan to write a year-long account of our life here, in monthly installments.

It might seem that not much would be going on here in January. That is hardly the case! It may not be the "busy" time, but there's still more than plenty to do. In addition to all the regularly scheduled tasks that demand our attention - chores, broken things to be fixed, etc. - this is the time for cleaning, planning, organizing, acquiring. This is when we more or less map out our year (or at least the first few months) and take stock of what we have, what we lack and what must go.

We got an early jump on it on New Year's Day, which was spent working. It was sunny and fairly warm, and we were offered trailer loads of building materials and firewood that we just couldn't turn down. We were exhausted at the end of the day from all the lifting and carrying, but it was worth it. We made off with tons of useful stuff and the exercise made us feel good after many weeks of holiday sloth. That same week, we picked up our wood stove. Naturally, it was sunny and a balmy 80 degrees. We spent the next day installing it, which was just in time, since that night we were back down in the thirties, and facing two days of freezing rain. It didn't take long to decide that it was an excellent investment, and improved our quality of life many times over.

The animals aren't bothered at all by winter here. Our winters are mild and our summers hot, so it's in the summer that they tend to hunker down, finding a shady spot for a siesta. Winter is another story, though. The two ducks that had made their way to the pond came back to the house this month, had a nice little chatty reunion with the other two, and finally showed them where the water is. Their new routine is to all spend the night at the pond, take a swim in the morning and spend the day up near the house. In the late afternoon, they all head back to the water for the night. It's quite amusing to see the way they travel as a single unit - they really are extremely charming. The chickens are as enterprising as ever, and are still uncovering new territory to scratch and peck at. We've seen quite a bit of wild animal activity as well. Hawks are plentiful and fly low over the pasture looking for mice every afternoon. We've also had a flock of wild ducks move in. They fraternize freely with our Muscovies, and everyone seems to get along.

It's common during this time of year for work to be disrupted, usually by unpredictable weather. We can have a day that's sunny and in the 70's and make plans to get all sorts of outdoor work done, only to find that the next day is 40 degrees and 25 mph winds. Such is life. We are nothing if not adaptable. There are some things that simply must be done, however, like splitting wood. This takes some planning. We must, as the saying goes "make hay while the sun shines".

My mom came to visit and see the place for the first time this month. It forced us to do some panic cleaning, but that was fine. All through the holidays the house had been terribly neglected. I'd like to point out that we are still normal people, and we do normal things. We read, watch TV, pay bills, eat lunch and so on. We could have been doing any of these things when my mother arrived, but oh no, not us. We were splitting wood and cleaning out the chicken house (I can shovel manure like nobody's business). I was amused - it almost gives the impression that that's all we do out here.

Our day jobs are the reality that keeps our bills paid and keeps us connected to the outside world, and at least for now, I feel like I still really need mine, but I can feel the desire to keep doing it slipping away. I had a particularly rough week with work this month. Nothing major happened, mind you, but I realized that I would rather be doing almost anything but sitting in front of a computer. I consoled myself by snapping some beans and collecting kindling, and felt temporarily restored. Taking this time to plan the garden also helps to combat the malaise, and although I know it will undergo constant tweaking, it feels good to have even a rather fluid plan in place

Did I mention that winter is a time for acquisitions? Goats officially got their slot on the program this month! They won't come home until probably mid-March, but there are three Nubians in the pipeline for us. We've had fun playing with them, but we also spent a long and very tiring day at their current home, disbudding the kids and practicing milking the adult does. You know you're cut out for this sort of life when this is the way you choose to spend a Saturday, and you don't mind that it's 34 degrees and you've spent the whole day outside and are now covered in milk, urine and the smell of burned hair. If you can get through a day like that and still come back for more, good on you - you're home. Bringing home goats of course means barn cleaning and supply gathering. We've decided to take the opportunity, since we must clean out the animal barn anyway, to rent a dumpster and simply clean up the property generally. I've never been so excited for anything to arrive in my life as I am about this dumpster. There's so much stuff here that needs to go, that was never ours in the first place, and getting it all gone will be satisfying beyond measure.

In the planning and organizing department, we elected to join ARBA. Hopefully it will provide some good information, education and networking possibilities. It's difficult to get to know people when you live in a rural area, so joining organizations like this can sometimes be quite beneficial. We also got signed up for some spring classes to further our homesteading education. My husband has a class on wood turning, and I'll be attending a much needed beekeeping course and a two-day gardening seminar, both of which I'm really looking forward to. I devoted some time to the inside of the house, cleaning up and organizing the upstairs room, which really increased our usable space. There was also some revamping of the household budget, which seems to be a semi-annual ritual, and a determination to do a bit of belt-tightening, which seems to be a sign of the times. At least I can say for now that the belt-tightening is strictly a preventive measure.

Some other notable events occurred this month. The swearing in of our new president, of course, as well as my husband's 40th birthday. We had some nice visits with friends and family, and some nice quiet times to ourselves. I'd love to offer some clues as to what February might hold in store for us, but I honestly have no idea! Maybe I'll get to catch up on some reading.

Yeah, right.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Meet The Kids

And Mama, too!


Naomi is the four-year-old doe we'll be bringing home. She is quite a sweetie.


This is Surrey, our buckling, who after much debate, got to keep his equipment after all. ;-) He's very outgoing and friendly, and extra lovey just like a puppy.

I'm sorry to say that I don't have a clear shot of Patience, our doeling. She is a week older than Surrey and looks much the same, but she is mostly black. She's very sweet and a bit shy. It was really difficult to take pictures of the kids, because they never stop moving. They're full of energy and very curious, even at such a young age.

We spent Saturday with them. I got to milk Naomi and we disbudded the kids, which was unpleasant to be sure, but not as traumatic as we feared it might be. They've recovering nicely and we'll get to bring them all home sometime around mid-March, after they're weaned. I can't wait! Well, actually I can wait, since we have tons of work to do before they arrive.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Getting My Goat

My husband and I met our goats yesterday - the ones that will be ours. It was really exciting, and they're unbelievably cute, and of course I didn't take along a camera. What is wrong with me?

It looks like we'll be getting three Nubian goats. One is a mature doe in milk that we were already acquainted with. One will be a wether, and is one of the mature doe's new kids. The third will be a doeling, and is from another bloodline, but the mother is also known to us.

We feel like this will give us a well-rounded starter combination. We'll have one that's experienced at kidding and milking, one female that we can learn with as she grows, and a boy to keep them company and help us with brush clearing (and who knows, maybe I'll teach him to pull a cart). We spent the rest of the afternoon yesterday assessing our barn and fencing, and we have a lot of work to do to get it up to goat standards, but we think we can manage it. I'll tell you, I am a complete list nerd, and right now, I NEED A LIST!

We'll likely be seeing them again soon, so next time I'll remember the camera. For the next few weeks, though, it will be work, work, work for us.

And then it will be milk, milk, milk!

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Boy and his Belongings

This is our boy, Stanley.

Stanley has lots of stuff. His own stuff. He found it, he loves it, he keeps track of it, the stuff is his. Just to be clear, his things are mostly not toys. Oh sure, there are a couple of favorites thrown in for good measure, but toys are largely community property around here. No, his are things that he picks out for himself. "Owning" things seems to be a common trait among German Shepherds, a rather charming one that I had forgotten about. Our other shepherd used to do it too - she kept "her stuff" in the crawlspace (we found dishes, yes dishes, out there all the time). Here's a small sampling of Stan's possessions, in the usual place that he likes to keep them - on the kitchen stoop:

Today we have a particularly well-loved toy (mostly destroyed), a curtain tie back, and a worn out slipper. This is an especially small and, uh, clean sampling. Ordinarily this pile would include such things as my favorite pair of pants (pinched from the bedroom), a chunk of broken glass, a dead and fantastically ripe mouse, aluminum cans, pieces of metal pipe, chunks of wood and things I can't even hope to identify. He can be seen spending most of his day lying in the sun on the stoop, amid his private collection of valuable artifacts, each and every one hand picked for its unique aesthetic.

He is a collector. A connoisseur.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Making Mozzarella

I've been trying my hand at making some simple cheeses lately and thought I'd share the experience. I watched a live demo over Thanksgiving weekend and decided it looked easy enough for me to do at home. There are a couple of special items needed to do this but as long as you have the right tools, it really is quite simple. I've now made two batches of mozzarella and a batch of ricotta (lasagna, anyone?). These are some pictures from the second batch of mozzarella.

First, I warmed some milk with citric acid added (this helps provide elasticity).

When it reached the proper temperature, I added rennet. This caused curds to form.

Once the curds have separated from the whey, the whey gets poured of and the curds are formed into a solid mass.

At this point, the whey goes back into the pot and the ball of curds goes back into the whey. It needs to be heated and stretched to form the cheese.

It starts out looking like this:

And ends up looking like this:

Now some salt is worked in.

When it's finished, it can be shaped into a ball, or pressed into a loaf shape, like I've done here.

And there you have it - fresh mozzarella!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In an Ice Cocoon

Monday brought us freezing rain. It rained lightly but steadily all day, and as it fell, it formed icy sheaths around everything. It was a great day to be at home, and everything looked fascinating under the icy shell. I thought I'd share some pictures.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Choosing The Right Stove

This post is in response to the question of how we chose this particular wood stove.

First and foremost, we had to choose a stove that was within our budget. I learned quickly that the price of wood stoves can vary widely, and it seems to me that a lot of the extra expense goes to "pretty". As much as I love the look of soapstone stoves, they're way too pricey for us. Besides, living where we live, our heating needs are fairly minimal and so it wasn't essential for us to get the best stove possible. If we lived someplace much colder, I would consider it more of an investment and put up more money to get the best we possibly could, but that simply wasn't necessary in our case.

This stove is a Drolet Classic that we ordered from Northern Tool. Drolet is a Canadian company, and well, we figured they might know a thing or two about wood stoves. ;-) We looked at the technical specs on this and other comparable models and concluded that there wasn't really too much difference. We chose this specific one based on the following factors:

  • The size (BTU output) is adequate to heat our house.
  • It was within our price range
  • It is UL listed and EPA certified (these were important to us).
  • It had some small design features that we preferred over similar stoves in other brands (it has a flat top rather than "stepped", we preferred a pedestal base over footed, it has a large, pull-out ash drawer, etc.)
We elected not to purchase the optional blower, and frankly, I don't think we ever will. It seems to heat very well even without a blower. We've had steady temperatures in the mid-thirties today and the stove is working great. The area right around the stove is VERY warm, and even the farther reaches of the house are pretty comfortable. It's easy to use, especially if you're comfortable making fires (if you've had a fireplace, or can build a campfire, it's a cake walk). It also kept a hot coal bed overnight, and reignited readily this morning with the addition of some new wood.

So far, we're very happy with it!


We had lots of things planned for this weekend, but shelved everything when we found out our wood stove was in. Although it's Texas, and not that cold compared to most of the rest of the country, we have had quite a few miserably cold, foggy breath days in the house. We were quite excited to have heat in the house, so naturally it was 80 degrees the day we picked it up. We drove to the store in t-shirts, with the air conditioning running in the truck.

We discovered that even in winter, it's difficult to find stovepipe and chimney pieces in Texas. We found everything we needed, but only after visiting several stores and buying an expensive five-piece kit from which we only needed two pieces. Why these things aren't sold separately I'll never know.

We spent the following day installing it, which went fairly smoothly since part of the chimney was already in place. By mid-afternoon the stove was burning, and just in time too, since a cold front came through and we're now looking at a couple of days of freezing rain. The warmth feels downright luxurious now. I'm already amazed at how well it works. Even though the stove is on the opposite end of the house, I got up this morning and the kitchen was even warm! Finally, it feels fairly civilized in here. Working at my desk without a hat and coat on is quite a novelty. The dogs seem to like it too, they're having trouble getting out of bed today. :)