Thursday, December 23, 2010

happy holidays to you all!

The year is over, the work is done;
we dream of tasks not yet begun.
In cold and quiet we tell tales
of a year's worth of travails

We imagine days ahead
before this season's put to bed;
all the things we hope to see
life and growth, prosperity.

We settle into these dark days
and learn to live in honest ways.
To live wholly by our labors,
honor the kindness of our neighbors

We are not resigned to fate,
but what our hands can cultivate
on the land that keeps us whole,
feeds our bodies and our soul

Tonight we must enjoy the peace
when all activity has ceased,
for tomorrow we shall turn the soil
on a new year of noble toil.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

hatchet (wo)man

Anytime a group of people engages in an activity involving multiple steps and levels of complexity, it will eventually become clear that different people are better suited to different aspects of the task. Take home construction, for example: one person might be better than the rest at framing, someone else might be the best roofer, and another may be a stellar painter. It has become apparent that with regard to the chore of chicken butchering, I am best at killing. It's something I do quite well, and while it's never something I relish, I am noticeably less squeamish about it than anyone else on the job. As a result, I am now the de facto executioner whenever there is executing to be done.

This is a strange thing to know about oneself.

Hey, I'm a practical type of gal, and most of the time I chalk this up to "well, it needs to be done". But I admit that it does give me pause. What is it in my character that allows me to perform such a distasteful task with such a minimal degree of loathing? I prefer to think that I became skilled at this task because I owe it to the animals I feed and care for to dispatch them with the least possible stress and pain. But I do wonder if there's something darker in me that simply appreciates the businesslike efficiency of a task performed perfectly, regardless of how gruesome the task may be. Baser natures, and all that. It doesn't help that there seems to be some measure of gender stigma surrounding butchering, and I'm often looked upon with a hint of scorn for doing this job myself rather than pushing it off on my husband. You know, because men like to kill things and all. Right.

At the end of the day, this kind of introspection has led me to certain conclusions:

It simply is what it is. I'm just good at it.
It is not indicative of moral flexibility.
It IS indicative of a willingness to do what needs doing, period.
It reflects a desire to do things the right way, and the best way.

And above all, it reminds me to never be too certain about the kind of person I believe myself to be.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

something to chew on

Pardon the pun, but I'd like to share this video with you today. This is Sharon Astyk's excellent talk from the ASPO conference, regarding the future of food. Her points make a very strong case for why it's a good idea to consider growing some of your own food, or at least sourcing it close to home. The greater resilience we have in our local foodsheds, the greater our chances of weathering shortages, price spikes, supply disruptions and the suffering and unrest that accompanies these conditions. She also makes some interesting points about the current face of farming worldwide, points I suspect most people aren't aware of; namely that the average farmer worldwide is female, poor, not white, and operating on an extremely small land base (think five acres or less). This is also largely true here - independent female farmers are the fastest growing segment of American agriculture.*

So if you think that your three-acre parcel, your pair of laying hens, your suburban garden or the potted tomatoes on your porch aren't enough to make a difference, think again. You need not be a "farmer" in the sense that most people think of them - each bite of food you produce, no matter how small, is one more bite that will be there when other options may not.

* I know all you guys out there work really hard, but in light of this tidbit, I'd like to extend a special hat tip to the women today - keep up the GREAT work, ladies! Take the power back!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

hard at work

This is pretty much the sort of day we had to day, and I must say, it was delightful. We did morning chores as usual, had a fairly leisurely morning and then had friends over in the afternoon. We sat in front of the warm wood stove, drank cold beers, and enjoyed the good company. See? Farm life isn't all drudgery.

Friday, December 3, 2010

the importance of goals, and an apology

If anyone is still here reading this, I'd like to apologize for being gone for so long. Late summer and early fall are always busy times around here, and I've also spent much time considering the purpose of this blog. I regret to say that for now, the proposed new website is off the table. After a great deal of soul searching, I had to admit that I'm actually a farmer by nature, and that what I need is less screen time, not more. This blog will continue on as it has. I'll keep sharing stories of our crazy, dirty, difficult and utterly satisfying life if you, dear readers, wish to keep reading them.

Now, since you're not here for my blathering, let's get to the meat and potatoes...

Early December here means the final stages of winter wrap-up. This is the time when we put the farm to bed and actually put our feet up for a short while (a very short while - we start the spring garden in early February). The goats are bred and we're done milking until they kid in the spring. The freezer is full of broiler chickens, milk and cheese. The larder is full of preserves, soups, spaghetti sauce, fruit, veggies, and dried herbs. We're stocked up on hay and firewood and there's nothing left to do in the garden. We are now in bare-bones maintenance mode. Until the first seed catalog arrives, we'll kick back, visit with friends, enjoy the holidays, and work on projects we can't seem to find time for during the rest of the year.

Each New Year's Day, we set goals for ourselves - we decide what we want to accomplish in the coming year, where we want to see ourselves. It is around this time that I like to revisit them to see how we've done. I'm bursting with pride to say that out of fifteen goals - some small, but many rather ambitious - we can check off eleven of them! This is tremendous, yet doesn't take into account all the everyday work we do, plus some things we undertook that weren't even on the list. I couldn't be more proud of our efforts. We've all heard that if you want to get somewhere, you must first know where you're going, and that couldn't be more true. Now we'd best enjoy our bit of respite, because it's almost time to make a new list.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

gimme shelter

Surrey approves

There have been many times throughout our brief but lurid livestock keeping adventures that we have found ourselves woefully short on shelter. Call us irresponsible, but sometimes these things just...happen, despite one's best intentions. Animals arrive when you don't expect them, or must be separated or moved, sometimes quarantined. It's the way it goes. These predicaments, however, sometimes give birth to our best ideas.

We were hard up to devise a goat shelter for our yard of boys. It's not that they had NO shelter, but well, they're goats. They were, let's just say, a bit hard on every solution we had devised. Spring and the rainy season were upon us, and we had to act fast. We needed a shelter that was extremely quick to construct, could be made from materials on hand, and easily be moved around. It had to keep them reasonably dry and comfortable, and perhaps most importantly, it needed to be climb-proof. This last is no small task. Goats will climb on things you never imagined possible.

We devised the pup-tent shelter. It is essentially a large sawhorse - built with dimensional lumber to whatever size is suitable for the circumstances, then sided with whatever durable material is available; we used corrugated tin, as we have loads of it already.

This one is about four feet tall and eight feet long. It can be easily moved by two people, and one person could probably drag it without much trouble. It's large enough for our full-sized Nubian goats to stand fully upright in, and three of them can fit inside at once. It's not apparent from this picture, but we left an inch or two along the bottom uncovered for extra ventilation and to make moving it a bit easier. The grass covers the gap here - I think next time I'd leave a few more inches. We have more trouble with heat than anything else, so if you need more warmth, skip that part.

There are plenty of plans on the web for building a simple sawhorse. Any of those should work fine, as long as you adjust the size to suit your use. Many plans include extra wood about halfway down the sides - this is optional and we didn't bother with it. They also often include some plywood pieces on the ends (I'm not a woodworker, so I don't know the name of this bit). I recommend deliberately leaving that off, as it shortens the "entry" and limits the clearance. Our goats would have to duck to get in had we put those pieces on.

The tin is long-lasting and reasonably light, so it works great as a covering, but use whatever you have; painted plywood would do, or if you need more ventilation, it could be partly covered with chicken wire or similar. In a pinch I suppose you could cover it with a tarp or some tar paper, but this obviously wouldn't last as long.

It may seem small, but our boys really like it. They tend to huddle together in a pile, so the closeness of it seems to make them feel secure. It is also popular with the dog, and great for goat kids to hide in. The best part is that the steep pitch of the design makes it impossible for them to stand on, but it's heavy and wide enough at the base to not tip over. We've built two of these so far, and now consider them indispensable. If you need something cheap, fast and sturdy, these really are hard to beat.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

just in the nick of time

It's August, and here in Texas that means no more garden. It's DONE. Pretty much everything has run its course and we're left with nothing but a few peppers hanging on. When you're trying to eat entirely from your garden, this certainly poses a challenge.

Just as we were wondering what we would do for veggies, I decided it was about time to check on the sweet potatoes. I dug my hands into the dirt and kept my expectations low. They had been extremely easy to grow up to this point, but I thought it was perhaps a bit early for them to be ready. What a relief it was to pull these beauties out of the ground!

We'll let them go a bit longer to let them get a little bigger, but I must say I'm pleased with this result. They were far easier to grow than white potatoes, and we're going to experiment with leaving one or two plants in the bed to see if they overwinter; we'll cut the tops back and mulch them heavily and see if they come back in the spring. It's comforting to know that we have something fresh from the garden to eat in the heat of August.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

an update and an article

I apologize for the rather thin posting here lately. The truth is, I've been working on a project. A new website is under construction! I'm working on a new site devoted to all aspects of good homestead management. We'll discuss cooking, budgeting, DIY repairs, basic skills, gardening, animal husbandry - basically all the things that people should know, but don't anymore. The goal is to make a well-managed household that can provide at least partly for itself seem less intimidating. I plan to show that you don't need rural acreage, endless free time or lots of money - just know-how. I'm only just getting started, so it won't be up and running for a bit, but I'm ready to take the next step and make my stories and antics helpful to others.

I will begin posting sample articles from the new site here on this blog, starting today. In addition to articles, the new site will also offer demo videos, photos and resources, so these sample articles will be a bit more stripped-down here than they will be on the new site. I would LOVE feedback. Please let me know how you like the articles, if there are topics you'd like to see covered, etc. I want these things to feel feasible for the average person. Thanks for sticking with me, and enjoy the first article!

*This article will be part of a series on useful tools (not limited to the kitchen).

REAL Labor Savers: A Good Knife

The most important, most indispensable and most versatile tool in any well-equipped kitchen is a good knife. In fact, with one properly sharpened knife, you don't need much else. It will do almost anything you need it to do, and with a bit of care, should last a lifetime. Now, I'm not talking about the 100-piece knife set here, nor does your choice have to be expensive. You're better off picking out a small selection of knives you'll use most, rather than being stuck with a bunch you don't need, and very serviceable knives can be found at restaurant supply shops for reasonable prices. Certain types, such as paring, carving or fillet knives, are nice to have, and serve specific purposes. By all means, invest in them if you'll be performing these tasks. I also feel that every kitchen should have a long, serrated bread knife - there's simply no good substitute for those. If, however, you buy only one knife (or only one for now), the one you want is a chef's knife. It's your workhorse.

A chef's knife is a fairly large knife with a wide blade. They come in varying lengths, but a standard 8-inch length will be most useful for most people. When shopping for a chef's knife, don't get hung up too much on brand. Many high end brands are quite respectable, but lower-priced models can often do the job just as well. The important characteristics to look for are:

  • Comfort - Handle as many knives as you can. The right one should feel comfortable to you. It should be weighty but not cumbersome, it should have good balance overall and the shape and material of the grip should feel good in your hand.
  • Craftsmanship - A quality knife should last a long time with proper care. Spring for the best you can afford. Your knife shouldn't feel light, flimsy or prone to breaking - remember, you're going to put it through a lot. Look for knives with a full tang and a solid handle with no crevices that food particles could get stuck in. It should be easy to clean and maintain.
  • Edge - Your knife should be SHARP. If possible, ask to test it on a sheet of paper, or better yet, food. It should pass easily through the material being cut without crushing or tearing it. You'll want a knife that takes an edge well, since YOU WILL BE SHARPENING IT. And no serrated edge, please - this simply isn't the best choice for most of your cutting needs (except for bread!). A knife that's kept properly sharp won't need teeth.

Once you've chosen a chef's knife you feel comfortable with, take the time to care for it properly. Invest in a sharpening stone and sharpen your knife when needed, keep it in a safe place where it won't be knocking around with other utensils (this will dull the edge) and avoid putting it in the dishwasher.

You may be wondering how a knife qualifies as a labor saver, when you'll be doing all of your chopping by hand. I can assure you that with a bit of practice, you can chop, mince, dice, fillet, carve and julienne just as easily with a good knife as with any specialty tool. It can (and should) be kept within easy reach - not on a high shelf somewhere. And you won't have to bother with all the setup and cleanup of gadgets such as food processors. Your knife will work hard for you every single day, and all it needs is a quick hand washing. It will be ready to go whenever you need it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

we get some press

Thanks and props to our friend Steve Watkins for this fun write up of us!

See the story of our move to the country here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

self sufficient in good cheer

A few months ago we found Mustang grapes on our property. This wasn't a big surprise, since they grow wild all over Texas and the surrounding states, but it was quite exciting for us. If you could see our annual wine bill, you'd understand why (I'll never tell). We went to check on their progress yesterday and found them just beginning to ripen. A few were turning color, but most were still green. As we walked in a big loop across the south pasture, however, our spirits lifted - we found a second area of grapevine that we didn't know about, and these were overflowing with dark, nearly black ripe grapes! Never mind that it was midday in July, and hot as Hades - it was time to gear up.

We set to work harvesting everything within our reach. These vines are wild and untended, and over the years have grown high into the trees, so a good portion of them are simply unavailable to us, I'm afraid. Even so, we filled a five gallon bucket about three quarters of the way full. We took our haul back to the house - tired, baked, and pouring with sweat. Due to some confusion over whether or not we could freeze them for later use, as well as some legitimate concern that they wouldn't fit in our freezer (it's packed right now), we concluded that we'd have to start our first batch of wine immediately. Did I mention we've never made wine before? We quickly scoured the internet for a brewing shop that was still open, and hauled butt into town for equipment.

I'd like to give a shout out to Foreman's General Store. This really might be the best place ever. They sell gardening supplies, service lawnmowers and sell home brewing and wine making supplies, among countless other things. It's like a brew shop, hardware store and feed store all in one. The proprietor was extremely helpful and was kind enough to shepherd us into our first foray in brewing. We came home with loads of equipment, ingredients, instructions and a sense of adventure.

Late into the night we sat together on the sofa, stemming and sorting the grapes while watching The Godfather (seemed fitting, no?). When we finally had a bucket full of nothing but good fruit, we washed, bagged and did, in fact fit them in the freezer. The wine will wait until we're able to harvest the rest of the fruit, but we'll be ready. Cheers!

Friday, July 9, 2010

they came back!

Last June, I posted about a brief but fascinating visit by a pair of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks. They decided to stop at our place for just a short time one morning - a rest stop, I suppose, on their journey to...wherever they go. I thought it somewhat funny that they chose to fraternize with our domestic ducks that day. This year, on the morning of July 4th, they were here again! Again, it was a pair (the same ones?) and again, they hung out with our barnyard ducks in the yard for just a little while before moving on. I came inside for the camera, but by the time I made it back out to the yard, they had left. It was a year and one month since we had last seen them.

Are these two regular travelers through these parts, and have they decided that this is a nice place to stop? Is it even the same two? Or perhaps they live around here, and are simply making the rounds. I will be watching for them next summer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

sorrel: this year's darling of the garden

Each season that we grow vegetables, something surprises us. Some variety always performs better, tastes better, is hardier or more abundant than we ever anticipated. This season it was sorrel (correction: IS sorrel).

Sorrel is a tangy, leafy green that can be cooked, eaten raw in salads or used as an herb for it's tart, lemony flavor. I put some in the garden this spring, expecting that it would mature along with my spring greens - my lettuces, spinach, arugula and the like. I had never tried to grow it before, and was a bit disappointed that it never really kept pace. Eventually, long after the last of the lettuce was gone and the extreme heat of summer was in full force, the sorrel sprang to vigorous life. We now have a thick carpet of it's pointed, emerald green leaves in our garden bed, and it is handily holding its own against heat, drought and wind. When cabbage loopers ravaged every single leafy plant I had, the sorrel was utterly unaffected. When I cut some in early June for a spring-inspired risotto, it suddenly shot up and filled the gaps, gaining inches overnight. We adore this fresh tasting green so many ways, and now that I know it will be a reliable hot weather performer for us, it has earned a permanent place in our garden. I urge you to give it a try too!

Sorrel Tabouleh

1 cup bulgur wheat
1 cup water
a pinch of salt
several large handfuls of sorrel leaves, washed and chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 fresh tomato, diced
2-3 ounces crumbled feta
olive oil
lemon juice
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste

Heat water and salt to a boil. Stir in bulgur, remove from heat and cover. Let stand for thirty minutes. Fluff grains with a fork.

Transfer bulgur to a large bowl. Add sorrel, mint, feta, tomato, salt and pepper. Stir gently to combine. Add just a squeeze or two of lemon juice (not too much, as the sorrel has a tart flavor) and enough olive oil to make it as moist as you like it. Toss well and serve immediately or refrigerate and serve chilled.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


This was a great day. We got up on the last somewhat cool Saturday morning of the season with a mission: to drive to a neighboring town to meet our CSA lady at the farmers market and pick up our veggie share. With us was a cooler full of eggs and cheese to deliver. We were wheeling and dealing.

The farmers market was small, but one of the better ones I've seen. Most of the vendors were selling actual produce and preserves that they had actually produced themselves (a rarity around here, believe it or not). We had a nice chat with Marilyn and met some new people. We traded eggs, cheese and cash for compost tea, sweet potato slips and more cash. The cash from the eggs bought us some delicious apricot preserves, and some vegetables we'd been dying for - a few ripe tomatoes and sweet peppers. We left the market with a beautiful haul of fresh vegetables, herbs and preserves, two jugs of compost tea and sweet potato vines to plant in our own garden. Our total cash outlay was five dollars.

On the way home, we stopped at a u-pick orchard that Marilyn had told me about a few weeks before. Ken and Lara Halverson grow beautiful fruit as well as a nice selection of vegetables to pick yourself. If you're pressed for time, you can stop by and pick up items they've already harvested, but I recommend going for the full experience here. Trust me, those berries will taste sweeter if your hands are sticky from collecting them. We met Ken and Lara, and with nine dozen eggs still in our cooler, made an almost even swap - all of our eggs for about four pounds each of blackberries and peaches. Ken was gracious enough to give us some pointers about where to get blackberry canes of our own to start.

We ate a ridiculous amount of fresh fruit over the first three or four days, a little bit went into the freezer for later, and some of the berries went into a deep-dish blackberry pie (divine!). It was the most delicious fruit I think we've ever eaten. It was delicious in its own right, of course, but I think it was also satisfying because of the way it was obtained. We supported a small, local grower, picked the fruit ourselves, and made a connection with new people. If you live in Dallas-Fort Worth, pay them a visit, and be sure to eat a few berries in the car on your way home.

Monday, May 17, 2010

past, present and future

Living on a farm has a profound effect on the way you experience time. Respecting its importance is critical. After awhile, you fall in sync with its rhythms - you wake up one day and find that you know just what's supposed to happen and when.

I must at once look to the past, act in the present and plan for the future. Case in point, I have already planned my fall garden - in May. I know just what will go in, and where, and roughly how much. I've ordered seeds where necessary. This is important here, because seeds for fall transplanting must be started as early as June in some cases (hello, peppers!). Put it off, or get caught off guard, and you've missed the boat. How do I know this? I've done it before. I determine what to plant and when to plant it by looking back - recalling what has worked well in the past, what was a bust, and what may have been a missed opportunity. Time moves quickly around here, and stands still.

There will be some additional expansion of the garden this fall, and that's probably where it will stay for awhile. We've finally gotten a grip on things around here, and aren't anxious to over-extend ourselves right away. There is a temporary moratorium on new projects. As we head rapidly into the dog days of summer, the spring garden is going strong, also marching through its time-honored phases. The onions are done and curing. The Greens Age has passed. We've bid farewell to the lettuce and radishes - we barely remember salad. The legions of squash and beans are upon us now, and tomatoes and peppers are visible on the horizon. I sincerely hope that just behind them, just beyond my sight, are eggplant and melons. They would be most welcome.

We're still contending with a pretty serious snake problem, which means no spring ducklings this year, but for the one - the lonely survivor from the last hatch. He's holding his own. We're fairly certain he's a he. This gives us mixed emotions - if the one surviving duckling were a girl, we'd be thrilled as it would give us another future mother, increasing our odds of boosting the duck population. If a boy, well, then we get to eat it, which was the whole point of the exercise. It's hard to say which option we prefer at this point. Not that it matters - we get what we're given.

Little Bridget is now weaned, and still with us. We're also transitioning the girls to a once-daily milking, so that we may have some semblance of a social life again. Two milkings a day was never part of the plan, but sometimes plans don't go along with you, do they? We frankly can't cope with the volume of milk that two milkings a day provides. A gallon a day for two people? Honestly, even WE can't eat that much cheese. Between the copious amounts of milk and all the overtime the hens are clocking these days, we have the world's luckiest dogs. They know better than to complain about much of anything - they know how good they have it.

I have a bit of garden maintenance to do over this long weekend, but the bulk of my plans involve planning. These are the days when we look back over our year, take lessons from it and decide how to move forward. Each year has its challenges, and yet we come through, always with something to show. The thermometer outside is telling me, "It's time to stop now. Sit down, pour a cold drink and take stock. The cycle will begin again sooner than you think, so make your plans."

That thermometer is wise.

Monday, May 10, 2010

happy meal

Thus concludes our first experiment with raising broiler chickens! I can finally say that all things considered, it was quite a success. We suffered some heavy losses in the beginning, but ultimately I'm not at all unhappy with the outcome.

These are Freedom Ranger broilers from JM Hatchery. Because we got two shipments and processed them in two batches, their age at processing time varied between 10 and 12 weeks. Their dressed weights appear to be mostly between four and a half and five pounds, and they had a nice amount of fat on them. They started out in a brooder, of course, and we moved them outside to a pasture shelter after a few weeks. They got moved onto fresh grass every one to two days and therefore had some forage to supplement their grain ration. We also supplemented them with goat's milk during their last few weeks. We ran some numbers and concluded that it cost us approximately $1.50/lb to raise these birds. When you consider that I've been paying $4.29/lb for comparable pastured chicken, that wound up being quite a good deal! It took four people of varying experience levels about ten hours to process thirty-one birds, and that's without the aid of a large drum plucker. All these facts and figures didn't mean much, however, without knowing how they'd taste...

The verdict is in - they taste AMAZING!

The fact that the expense was quite manageable and the extra work was minimal makes this an endeavor worth repeating! For a few minutes a day and one or two long days of processing, we can have delicious, healthy, humanely raised chicken right from our own backyard, for less than the price of supermarket chicken. Few things we've undertaken here have made me more proud than this.


If you're curious about the butchering process, there is an excellent tutorial here. We do it essentially the same way, with a few minor changes to suit our particular circumstances. Be sure to follow that by checking out this post.

As for the way I cooked this bird, I brined it for a couple of hours in a simple brine of water, kosher salt and sugar, and then roasted it according to this recipe (scroll down past the mushroom soup recipe). Again, I make a few small changes, but this is a wonderful and pretty much fool proof way to roast a bird.

Friday, May 7, 2010

down to one

Please forgive the silence around here - it's springtime, and that means our attention is needed more outside the house, and there's less time available to spend here at the blog. There is plenty going on, although it's been a week of mixed emotions.

Our second hatch of ducklings was small to start with - only six, which is a very small number for the prolific Muscovy ducks. We suspect that due to our unusually cold weather earlier in the season, some of the eggs may have frozen. We lost one of those six ducklings very early on - in the first couple of days. This is not unusual. The other five have been growing and thriving, and all was well until this week. Another one disappeared earlier in the week. I just found it this morning, inside the duck house, half-buried in the bedding. I don't have any idea what happened to the poor little guy. Betty has been sleeping outside with the babies at night, and we were worried that it had been taken by a predator - most likely a raccoon. Not wanting to risk any more of them, we closed them up inside the house last night for safety. Words cannot express the dismay I felt when I opened the door this morning and only one duckling came out. I searched inside the house, and all around the yard, and...nothing. Where did they go? What happened to them? I honestly don't know. My suspicion is that they wandered out through the wire enclosure during the night and were unable to get back in. Betty wouldn't have been able to go out after them, and they'd have been helpless in the grass. I feel beyond awful.

We've been expecting some bunnies as well. They were due to kindle around mid-week. I went out Wednesday afternoon to check on everyone and was excited to see that mama rabbit was inside the nest box! As I approached, however, something just didn't look right. The poor thing had died, presumably during labor. Two babies had been born, but were dead as well - the rest never made it out. I have no idea what happened here either, and between losing the rabbits and the ducklings, it has been a very dispiriting few days.

As usual, though, it hasn't been all bad. Our other duck is working on a new clutch of eggs, and we have another rabbit that's due to kindle in a couple of weeks. The garden is looking great - even the flagging beans are starting to rally - and the goats and chickens are producing in abundance. We processed the first half of the broiler chickens last weekend, and I could not be more pleased with the results. I'll write a full post on that soon. I know some of you have been awaiting a bee update, and I'll give that in a separate post as well. For now, I need to remind myself that weeks like this come along from time to time, but it's hard not to beat myself up. All I ever want is to do right by my animals - to give them a safe and happy life - and it crushes my spirit when I can't deliver even that.

**UPDATE** - I now know what happened to the ducklings. I just opened the duck house to find all the new eggs gone, and a snake (caught red-handed, I'll spare you the details). It has been dealt with, but I know there are more out there.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

the first share

Friday morning was crazy. It started very early. Something like 2:30 am, in fact. I was awakened by the dogs, who apparently saw a super scary bunny outside and had to let me know that they had HANDLED THE THREAT. It was rough after that. No one got much sleep, and we all grudgingly rolled out of bed in the dark of the early morning to start our day bleary-eyed and cranky. It was stormy and wet that morning, and while I normally could have stayed in bed awhile longer, I had to be up and out extra early. I had an appointment to keep - a new adventure, in fact. I hurriedly milked the goats, saddled up and hit the road with a stop in town for more coffee and a bear claw (big mistake - too early for that much sugar). I was traveling two towns over to pick up our very first CSA share.

This was a very exciting moment. I have been trying to find a CSA near me to join for probably five years now, with no luck. There just haven't been that many in this area, and they were always either prohibitively far away or the pickup was at a time that I had no hope of ever making (like during my work hours). I've tried year after year, always in vain, until now. I got a half share, with the intention of using it as a supplement to what we're already growing for ourselves, and I think that's going to work out perfectly. Even for a half share, it wound up being more than I expected to receive, and it looked beautiful.

I had a lovely chat with the woman in charge, and the drive to her farm from mine was really beautiful - rolling green, curving farm roads, big shady trees. As I drove home, the skies cleared and the sun cut through the sodden morning like a song. The first thing I saw upon pulling up to the house was our anxiously-awaited new ducklings, just hatched that morning while I was away.

It was going to be a good day.

Basket contents for 4/23/10: mixed lettuce, swiss chard, mustard greens, collards, peas, broccoli, radishes, salad burnet, chives, onions, leeks, arugula, cilantro, parsley, thyme, dill

Home production as of 4/23/10: onions, mixed lettuce, spinach, cress, radishes, eggs, milk, cheese

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

how things are coming along

It has been a couple of years since I started this blog, and in that time we've gotten married, moved to the farm and taken on quite a few new projects and challenges. We've had some fairly lofty goals for ourselves all along and I thought it might be a good time to take a look back at our efforts and give an update on where we are now. If you're new to homesteading, or still just dreaming, understand that it isn't a race, and that it will take time. Don't beat yourself up if it's your third year of gardening and you're still not getting a bumper crop, or your bread didn't rise, or your hens have stopped laying and you haven't the faintest idea why. Some of the things we've set out to do have gone pretty much just as expected, while others brought big surprises. Some things we assumed would be no-brainers have proved to be surprisingly difficult, while things we were sure we'd screw up have been remarkably problem-free. Here is a brief synopsis of the things we've aced and the things we've buggered up over our first three years:

1. Vegetable Gardening: the obvious place to start for most homesteaders
The Goal: to grow (almost) all of our own vegetables
We've now planted three spring gardens and one fall garden (at two locations). While the results have been very mixed, our overall yields are gradually improving. I've learned a lot about growing veggies in general and about the nuances of gardening in Texas. We've had great success with greens regardless of season but still haven't managed to grow tomatoes or potatoes despite their reputation for being easy. They have become the holy grail of our gardening efforts - not because we even like them that much, but because we hate being denied. We also live on a long-neglected cattle pasture and have had to struggle quite a bit to build any sort of workable soil. As it stands now in our third year, we're probably growing about a quarter of our own produce, and expanding each season. We knew this would take time, and I'm not unhappy with our progress so far.
Biggest Success: homegrown greens on our table at Thanksgiving
Biggest Failure: those pesky potatoes
Biggest Surprise: digging under our HUGE potato plants at harvest time to find not. one. spud.

2. Rabbits: our first foray into livestock
The Goal: meat for ourselves and the dogs (with extra to sell), fertilizer
What a ride this has been. Rabbits were the first animals we ever bred and butchered. They were billed as easy keepers, which they mostly are - quiet, low space requirements, low feed requirements, low upfront investment. They do make copious amounts of wonderful fertilizer as promised. What they do not reliably make are babies. After three years, six breeding animals and countless litters, we have successfully raised only four baby rabbits, and have only eaten one animal in all that time - an adult that we had to cull early (the four babies were passed on to other people in barter arrangements). We also learned that they do very poorly in our extreme summer heat. They are, however, easy to keep around and easy to process. We really want to make rabbits work for us, so with some tweaking, we continue to persevere. This year they will be moved outdoors and we're transitioning them to a mostly foraged diet with supplemental hay and very little pellet feed. If things don't improve this year, we may be scrapping rabbits.
Biggest Success: loads of fertilizer
Biggest Failure: loads of babies that haven't survived
Biggest Surprise: rabbits just don't breed like, captivity, apparently

3. Laying Hens: the golden egg
The Goal: all the eggs we can eat, plus extra to sell and the occasional chicken dinner
This project has gone extremely well. Chickens are very hardy, unfussy and generally dependable. They are also wonderfully scalable, in that it's no more work to take care of thirty chickens than three, so if you have the space you really might as well go bigger. The return on the extra eggs is more than enough to pay for the cost of keeping them, so we actually do make a little bit of a profit here, which is nice. We get all the eggs we want, plus lots of extras for the dogs. A retired laying hen or extra rooster makes the best chicken soup we've ever eaten, and the dogs win here too - they get necks, organs and other throwaway bits. The fact that we can generate our own replacement stock makes this an all-around win. This project hasn't been without its setbacks, but they've been comparatively few.
Biggest Success: turning a (tiny) profit
Biggest Failure: unknowingly sending a batch of new chicks to bed (and to their demise) with a rat snake - boy, do we feel bad about that one, still
Biggest Surprise: the books don't tell you all the things that will cause them to STOP laying

4. Other Poultry: ducks and broilers
The Goal: meat supply for ourselves and the dogs, with extras to sell
(You may have begun to notice a theme here - our goals tend to center around food production. Our over-arching aim, the one that all other goals tie into, is to be totally or nearly self sufficient in as many areas as possible. That means fulfilling most of our needs ourselves with as few external inputs as possible, and in a way that still allows us to live fairly well. We've started with our food, since that seems to be the easiest place to start and the area where we can make the biggest impact right away.)
We acquired our ducks as a breeding pair, free of charge, from a friend. They were reported to be quite prolific and it seemed like a good way to add extra meat to our freezer. Much like the rabbits, we have yet to eat a single duck, but that's not got much to do with their performance. They do perform as advertised, and are extremely low maintenance. They lay and set large clutches of eggs, eat very little feed and prefer to sleep out in the open. In short, they require virtually no care. We've had some failed hatches due to things such as cold weather and egg-thieving predators, and the ducklings that have hatched have so far all been sold or traded away before they met the chopping block. They're unexpectedly charming, and as easy as they are to keep around, we'll keep them whether they ever do anything productive or not. Raising chickens strictly for meat is a project that's still in its infancy here, so it's a bit too soon for a progress report. Our first batch was a group of heritage breed roosters, which turned out bland, small and a bit tough, without much to recommend them. We're almost to harvest time with a batch of proper broiler-type birds, but as they're still on the wing, the jury is still out on them.
Biggest Success: too soon to declare
Biggest Failure: losing over half of a batch of about sixty-five broiler chicks (although this wasn't technically our fault)
Biggest Surprise: duck eggs make world class egg salad

5. Goats: the sweetest milk trucks on earth
The Goal: keep dairy goats for milk, cheese and soap, for our own use and to sell
Keeping goats was probably the undertaking we most feared - it involved LARGE LIVESTOCK, a considerable upfront investment, a significant learning curve, and holy crap we'll have to birth babies! We've only had goats for one year, which is really a short time in the scheme of things, but honestly this one has been far easier than we imagined. Books, websites and other goat raisers filled our heads with all sorts of fears and conflicting advice, and in the end we just had to get zen about it and go with our gut. We've adapted our methods to suit our individual circumstances, and keep our goats in good flesh largely through attentiveness and good management. We've brought forth three babies to two first-time fresheners, learned to disbud and give shots and are milking about a gallon a day. I'm making good chevre, feta and ricotta, with other cheeses and dairy products in development. Other goat milk products such as soap and cajeta are in development right now as well. They also provide us with good fertilizer, good company and loads of entertainment.
Biggest Success: killer feta whenever we want it!
Biggest Failure: umm, none really
Biggest Surprise: how much we adore them

6. Bees: the littlest army
The Goal: honey, beeswax and related products (with extra to sell), plant pollination
Even though we've been trying to establish some honeybees for a couple of years, this one still feels too early to call. Our first attempt was a swarm that just never would play ball, and the following year we ordered some package bees that arrived dead. Not to be deterred, I ordered and received another package this year, only to have them FLY OFF just three days after moving them in. I've finally got two colonies going that are looking good, but since they've only been around for a few days, it's just impossible to rate this one yet. I will say that I find them intensely fascinating, and apparently enjoy them enough to keep throwing money at this hobby even though it has so far yielded nada.
Biggest Success: finally getting some colonies established (so far, fingers crossed)
Biggest Failure: watching our third attempt at bees fly away right before my eyes
Biggest Surprise: how much I'm willing to invest in this before giving up

7. DIY: not buying it
The Goal: to supply many of our own needs, such as pet and animal feed, household products, repairs and maintenance, construction, etc.
We're doing rather well here so far, although it's a long road. We're making compost, we've built a combined chicken coop and shed and I've begun making our soap. we're supplying more and more of our animals' diet from on-property - between wild edibles, kitchen scraps, butchering waste and excess eggs, milk and whey from cheesemaking, our overall feed bill continues to decline and almost nothing goes to waste. With the exception of onion skins and orange rinds, pretty much everything gets eaten by someone, and if not, it goes to the compost. We do still have a long way to go in this area, though, and we realize we will always have certain needs we can't fulfill on our own. It's a process.

8. Financial Independence: freedom, in a nutshell
The Goal: to need as little actual cash as possible, so we can work as little as possible
This ties in closely with DIY, and again, is a lengthy process. We've made some significant steps forward - paying off the car, paying off the mortgage, dramatically reducing our debt and finding some non-conventional income streams. The downside here is that we still have some debt to whittle away at, a brand new mortgage, and we still need hard cash for quite a lot of things, although we're closing the gap more and more all the time. Each new endeavor requires an upfront cash investment, but eventually translates to one less thing we have to buy on a continuing basis. We'd like to reduce our needs to the point where we can comfortably live on roughly half of what we earn today (or even less) and take back a large chunk of our time.

Well, there you have it - the biggies. There have been other small victories and disappointments, too numerous to mention, but these are the things that have made us elated, made us cry, kept us up nights, brought us peace and made our bones ache. For all the times you haven't seen us, or we haven't called, or we just couldn't make it...this is what we have to show for it. We've come an awfully long way in two years and yet have so much more ahead of us.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

a beautiful sight

I got two new bee colonies moved in Friday evening. Both came from a local beekeeper and are small but established colonies, with comb and brood already started. I checked on them today and saw what I wanted to see - bees hard at work, a good brood pattern, general calm contentedness in the hive. The weather isn't so great today, so I'll have another look on a nice, sunny day when more bees are out foraging and I can see better. The initial inspection was quite promising, though, and I feel that I can now exhale deeply. I may have just become a beekeeper, rather than a bee loser.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I opened up the beehive this morning to check on the new residents. It's been a week since they arrived and I was going to have a quick look to make sure the queen was released and all was well. Imagine my surprise when I took the lid off and found NO BEES. They're just...gone. I don't understand. I thought that swarming wasn't normal for a brand new (very small) colony needing to build up its numbers. Swarming is usually an overcrowding response. Given that they were only at maybe 1/5th of their ideal population and in a brand new home, I can't imagine why they just up and left.

I've had a lot of disappointments, frustrations and mishaps out here over the last couple of years, but this is the first time I really feel like crying.

Friday, April 9, 2010

bee update

I just went out to check on things, and all looks good so far! All the bees are now out of the shipping crate and are in or around the hive. I put the rest of the frames back in place, filled the feeders, and turned the queen cage (I had it facing the wrong way, turns out). They have eaten most of the marshmallow already, so she should be out soon. I've got them all set now, and they'd appreciate some privacy, so I won't look in on them again until late next week. I'm feeling pretty good about this, though.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

bees again - is the third time the charm?

Some of you long time readers may remember Bees 1.0 and its rather more devastating sibling, Bees 2.0. Well, I'm happy to report that this morning I installed Bees 3.0, and I think it just might work this time. I'm reluctant to get too excited, since previous experiences with this have been less than favorable (and it's only the first day) but they arrived alive and perky and I moved them into their new home without it resulting in utter catastrophe. I cannot claim that the endeavor went perfectly, and if you've never put bees into a new hive before, there are some things I'd like to share with you now.
  • Watch as many videos of this process as you can find. And then realize that it is not as easy as it looks in those videos.
  • Shipping crates for bees are sealed very tightly. This is comforting when they're in your car, but very frustrating when you actually need to get them out of it.
  • Beekeeping gloves impair your fine motor skills considerably.
  • The longer you fumble around trying to get the crate open and the can out, the more annoyed the bees get.
  • Bees naturally want to travel in an upward direction. Keep this in mind when considering whether to secure your pant cuffs. If you feel a bee inside your pant leg, you're screwed. Resolve to let it sting you before it travels further north.
  • Don't stir the bees up unnecessarily just to "make things more exciting".
  • Marshmallow sticks to absolutely everything it touches.
I'll be back in a couple of days with an update on how they're settling in. In the meantime, I only hope that others can benefit from my ineptitude.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

100% home grown

There are few things more satisfying to me than eating food I've grown or made myself. I just put this salad together for dinner - in the bowl I have spinach, mixed baby lettuce, radishes, cress, spring onions and crumbled feta. I did not buy a single one of these things at the store. Not one. Everything in this bowl came out of my garden or barn. That's freedom, y'all. Freedom to say "No, thanks - I don't have to eat what you're peddling." Try it for yourself today. Bake a loaf of bread from scratch, plant some seeds, keep some laying hens. You'll feel great knowing you have something that you don't rely on anyone else for. Take the power back.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Friday, April 2, 2010

latter-day goatherd

Today I walked down the hill from my house, looking for dandelions. The house sits on the high point, and the ground slides gently down to a low, lush spot sandwiched between the pond and the wooded creek. In spring, this is verdant meadow, and today I could see that it had grown high with wild legumes - clover, vetch and caley pea, thick as deep pile carpet. It was late afternoon, and it seemed like a good time to let the hens out to range (their first since moving them to the Big House) and to take the does out for a little R & R.

We let the two mothers and the little doeling out of the barn, and with the lure of dried apples, led them across the yard and down the hill. At first they were reluctant, uncertain of why they were suddenly in a strange place, but the moment they saw the buffet spread out before them, it was all over. We staked out a spot on the slope of the pond and let them do as they pleased. They went face down in the thick greenery, tasting everything, gobbling down the very best bits of their favorites. Even the new baby, who as of yet has only tasted mother's milk, nibbled right along with the others. When the novelty of new and delectable treats wore off, they ran, jumped, played and rested, punctuated always by more eating. We sat on the warm ground and studied our native flora, and spoke of trees and animals, and summer nights spent in our youth. The girls were elated, and it was pure bliss for us to spend a beautiful spring evening watching their exuberance and taking in the earthy smell of lush new growth. We were all afforded some time to just be ourselves - human and goat.

Why on earth do I work for pay to buy hay to feed to my goats, when for nothing we can enjoy hours in the sunshine, with all the bounty nature can provide? And why put up a fence when a goat is content to be close to her goatherd? Why should I let the fence have the pleasure of tending them when I benefit so much more from doing it myself? Surely I was meant to do this.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

the secret life of boots

I am deeply devoted to my work boots. As you can see from the pair on the left, they've seen quite a bit of action. That's about a year's worth...maybe. What you really can't see in the picture is that my beloved dogs found something extra tasty on the bottom of my beloved boots and decided to eat the soles. I mean that literally - there are large areas where the soles are just...gone. They each took a boot and went to work. When I made this discovery, they informed me that they were simply cleaning them for me ("Yes, that's it! Cleaning them!").


After searching everywhere within a reasonable distance of my house, I finally had to order new boots, because apparently women around here don't do any actual, real work. ??? Not one store had any ladies' steel toe work boots. Not one. Ahem...FIX THIS, retailers. At any rate, a new pair of beloved boots arrived yesterday. I've been limping along with the old ones and figured I'd have them resoled when the new ones showed up. I was thrilled when the box arrived!

And then I wasn't. Make no mistake, I'm still happy to have new boots, but now I'm deeply conflicted. I suddenly feel a strong allegiance to the old pair. They're the same exact boots, and yet, this old pair knows their way around. They know the route I like to take to feed the animals, and the holes I don't want to step in. If they could carry a bucket, they could probably go out and do chores by themselves. They never complain when they get wet or dirty or scuffed. I know the new boots will be just as faithful, but to put them on now almost feels like betrayal - like remarrying when the corpse is still warm.

I have to go do chores now, and I already know in my heart that those ratty old boots will be the ones on my feet. I may let the new ones make occasional trips to town, but I think mostly I'll keep them waiting in the wings...waiting for the old guard to finally kick off...waiting for their turn in the power position. Where I'm sure they'll do just fine.

* Believe me, in the moment, I said things far more colorful and varied than "harumph".

Thursday, March 25, 2010

graduation day

The broilers got moved to their outdoor shelter on Monday! I think everyone is a lot happier now. They outgrew the brooder much more quickly than we anticipated, and it was becoming quite cramped and dirty in there. But now they have nice fresh grass, which they seem to enjoy.

They're still pretty small, but check out the size of the breasts on these guys!

I love them when they're this size. They're just starting to learn how to use their wings. Lots of uncontrolled flapping = comedy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


We have so much goat's milk, that I'm having to find new ways to preserve it (in the form of other things). I'm making quite a bit of cheese, but I don't have a cheese press built yet and there's only so much soft cheese we can eat. I also plan to use some of it for soap, but the volume of milk that goes into a batch of soap is actually quite small. Today, because I had a really huge excess to deal with, I tried my hand at a batch of cajeta.

Cajeta is a traditional Mexican caramel made with goat's milk. It can be cooked down to a sauce, a bit longer for a spread or even longer for a candy. I chose to cook mine to a sauce to be used on ice cream, cakes or as a dip for apples or cookies. I will pack it into half pint jars to store, and will probably give a few away to friends and family too. If you find yourself with a lot of milk, give this a try! (I understand you can also make this with cow's milk, if that's what's available to you.)


3 quarts of fresh goat's milk
3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
optional flavoring - I used 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. Some people use vanilla beans, some use cinnamon, or you can use what you like. Or leave it out altogether

Mix baking soda and cornstarch into one cup of the milk, whisking well to break up any lumps. Combine this mixture with the rest of the milk and the sugar in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring very frequently to prevent scorching. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook mixture at a constant simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking/scorching (you don't have to stir constantly at this stage, but keep a pretty close eye on it). This will cook for a rather long time. Mine took about three hours from start to finish. Nothing will happen for a long time, and then eventually the volume will reduce, the mixture will start to darken into a golden color, and it will gradually thicken. Continue cooking until it reaches the consistency you want, keeping in mind that it will thicken further after cooling. If after cooling it is too thick, you can add hot water a tablespoon or so at a time until it reaches the proper thickness. If it is still too thin, simply put it back on the heat and cook it some more. The picture above is what mine looked like when finished.

Once it is to your liking, pour into clean jars and seal. Store in the refrigerator and use as desired.*

* I'm looking into whether it is possible to can this so it can be stored on the shelf. If anyone knows, please, do tell!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

limits in the time of plenty

It's early spring, and we are being hit full-force by an abundance of food. We're collecting upwards of two dozen eggs each day. We're milking over a half gallon a day from one doe, with a second doe due to kid any time. I use the excess milk to make cheese and then we have close to a gallon of whey (great for baking, can't use that much). There are thirty broiler chicks busting out of the brooder, four extra roosters who are dead men walking and a goat kid that may end up being freezer-bound (and more on the way). Two of our rabbits have buns in the oven, and both of our ducks are setting clutches - when they hatch, we'll have somewhere between twenty and thirty ducklings, all of which will grow FAST. I was finally, at long last able to join a CSA this year, and our own garden looks primed to grow like gangbusters. For a two-person household, this is A LOT of food.

This situation is wonderful. And terrifying. We abhor waste around here, so while having such a bounty feels like money in the bank, letting any of it get away from us sort of feels like throwing money on the fire. It puts us under tremendous pressure to make sure every bit gets eaten, whether by us or someone else, whether now or later. We need to stay on top of harvesting, butchering, preserving, and finding about twenty more ways to eat eggs.

In light of all this, now seems like a great time to begin an experiment I've been turning over in my head for awhile. I've come to really dislike grocery shopping. It used to be a task I rather enjoyed, but perhaps now that any trip to the store is something of a hike, I really find it tiresome to constantly have to run out for this thing or that thing. For that, and a host of other reasons, I've decided to (barring actual emergencies) only shop once every three months. I'd love to make it every six months, but frankly we don't have the capacity to store that much food, so quarterly it will have to be. Some thoughts came to my mind while hatching this half-baked plan, the first of which was, "Great! I hate grocery shopping, so now I can do it a lot less often!" Once my euphoria wore off, however, I considered the practical aspects. I considered that every time we go shopping, we invariably come home with many more things than we went after. Each trip we don't make eliminates an opportunity for impulse-buying. Furthermore, resigning not to shop for three months at a time will force us to make good use of what we already have, and to get out of the mindset of "we want this, so let's just go get it". The biggest potential obstacle here is how to keep ourselves in fresh food - we don't want to eat canned veggies all the time, and certainly don't plan to resort to powdered milk. I've concluded that, at least for now, we can shop this way and still have fresh food. We are producing all of our own milk and eggs (fresh daily!) and about half of our cheese. Between our garden and the CSA, we should always have fresh vegetables of some kind, and much of our meat is presently being stored on hoof or wing, where it will keep...more or less indefinitely! This means we will have to give up salads after mid-May, or eat zucchini every day for two weeks when we'd rather have broccoli, and sooner or later we'll run out and have to dip into the jars of homemade sauerkraut I put up in January, but that's sort of the point - re-training ourselves to eat what's available. There are a few things that are deal-breakers - things we WILL go get if we run out - medicines, hygiene items and coffee all come to mind. The plan, though, is to do our best to do without things when they're gone, and plan better for next time.

For the past few years I've observed Lent, even though I am not Catholic (or religious at all, really). I find it a worthwhile pursuit to give up something highly valued for awhile. It improves my self-discipline and teaches me to improvise, and to reconsider my needs. This feels to me like simply an expansion of that concept. Rather than doing without one thing, we'll learn to do without whatever we happen to not have, until the next quarterly shopping trip comes around. And we'll live. Meanwhile, we'll buy less overall, and I'll get to stay home more...and nothing makes me happier than that. I mean, when you live here:

Why would you ever want to leave?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


It's here in north Texas.

Monday, March 15, 2010

this job has a lousy benefit package

When you keep livestock, you don't get to call in sick.

Sunday was unbelievably gorgeous. It was sunny, warm and an altogether glorious day to be outside. At least that's what I'm told, since my husband and I spent the entire day in bed...sick. It was perhaps the sickest we've ever been in our lives, and we discovered what happens around the farm when we're both more or less incapacitated - nothing. Chores go undone, goats go un-milked, everyone goes un-fed. Things go to hell in a hurry. I finally managed to get out and make a half-assed attempt at it around midday, in between evacuations of my stomach contents. I managed this purely out of sheer force of will. The only reason I didn't pass smooth out in the yard is because somewhere deep in my brain I knew I couldn't. I've learned that when push comes to shove, your legs will continue to propel you forward long after your brain tells them to stop.

My dear husband stumbled out later, in roughly the same condition, to take second shift.

Somehow though, at the end of the day, it was alright. We eventually recovered. No animals were irreparably harmed. Farm life goes on. Some days it just goes very, very badly.

Monday, March 8, 2010

a few words about goats and fencing

This post is in response to a reader's questions - my answer just ended up being too long to post in the comments section, so I thought I'd flesh it out even a bit further and make it a regular post.

The fencing we use for our goats is actually not field fencing, but rigid livestock panels (sometimes called cattle panels). We've used field fencing before and greatly prefer these. They're very rigid, so they never bend or sag no matter how often the goats lean/stand on them, and that also makes them very fast and easy to put up. They come in 16-foot lengths, so you just determine how many you need, sink some posts, and wire the panels to the posts. And you're done! The rigid panels are also sturdy enough to hang feeders and such from them. They go up so quickly and easily, in fact, that it's not out of the question to pull them up from time to time and move your pens around. If you don't mind leaving sets of posts in place, that makes it even easier - simply remove the wire holding the panels on and move them to another set of posts and wire them on to those. I must admit that I have no experience keeping goats fenced with rolled field fencing. We use that for our dogs (but if I had to do that over again, I'd use panels there too). The goats like to stand on the fence, rub their flanks along it, push on it, and so forth, and I just think they'd bend it pretty badly out of shape in short order. If you must use field fence, fortifying it with a strand or two of electric would likely prevent them from doing these things.

The goats we keep are purebred Nubians. They are extremely sweet and VERY melodramatic and needy (which some people might find annoying - we don't mind). Nubians are also notorious for being very vocal - they will talk to you, cry to you, yell at you...constantly. They are highly emotional creatures and never miss an opportunity to, uh, emote. We keep them close and they get a fair amount of attention, and as such they have NEVER tested the fence - not once. The only times they've ever gotten out were times when something startled them so much that they jumped, and landed on the other side. When that happens, they want nothing more than for someone to let them back in! As with anything, though, your results may vary. I've seen other breeds of goats that are were also very sweet, but I have only ever owned Nubians, so I really can't make any reasonable comparison between breeds. I will say that we find them delightful, very loving, largely well-behaved and a joy to keep.

On the subject of horns, I strongly recommend hornless goats no matter what sort of fencing you go with. We have a doe who was improperly disbudded and now has one full horn and one short horn-nub. She's very gentle, and has never intentionally hurt us, but we'll accidentally catch the business end of that horn from time to time, and believe me, it's not something to take lightly. Once she turned her head quickly while I was sitting next to her and I caught that horn right between the eyes - it cleaned my clock, folks.

Patience, the uni-horn. She's not fat, she's really preggers.

Some people feel that letting them keep their horns gives them an extra edge against predators, but having spent time with these animals, I don't believe that it would ever amount to a real advantage. If faced with even the possibility of a threat, my goats will flee. They will run willy nilly around the yard trying to get away from whatever the Scary Thing is. If they were ever faced with a predator that wanted to have them for dinner, those horns would be very little deterrent, if any. On the contrary, they tend to get hung up in fences, tree branches and the like, and can prevent them from escaping a predator if they're stuck. What we've learned from having a horned goat is that horns aren't necessarily as scary as some people like to paint them, but it's in everybody's best interest to remove them just the same. I can't think of any good reason not to disbud.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

some time for projects

This may be one of the best weekends I've spent in a long time. We had a warm, sunny day yesterday so we took care of quite a few small projects that were nagging at us. We set up some compost bins near the garden, built two more garden beds and fenced in a new area for the goats to hang out in during the day. Here they are, not enjoying it. Goats hate change.

Just a quick word of advice - when fencing in a yard for goats, don't put it next to your dogs' yard. One or both of the parties are likely to object to this arrangement.

The rain moved in today and stayed, keeping us indoors all day. I took the opportunity to tackle some projects I've been meaning to get to. We had an excess of goat milk that needed to be dealt with*, and I've been ready to try something new, so I started my first batch of feta. The curds are draining now, and then it will be salted and left to sit for a couple of days before we get to eat it. I don't know what I'll do when I start making pressed hard cheeses that need to be aged. I adore cheese, and I don't want to wait for months to find out how it turns out - I want cheese NOW! Perhaps I will learn discipline...

And since I'm already waiting anyway, I made a batch of soap too. I made a soap of beef tallow, olive oil and coconut oil and scented it with a blend of cedarwood, bergamot and grapefruit oils. It's hardening in the mold now, and it will be several weeks before we get to try that out. It looks wonderful, though. It came out exactly the way I expected it would, so that was encouraging. I'm sorry I don't have any pictures to post of the soapmaking process. It's somewhat dangerous business and requires one's full attention, so I just didn't feel like I could make the soap AND photograph it. I'd have asked hubby to take pictures, but he was graciously keeping the (needy) dogs out of my business. Plus, he has his own things to do. Perhaps next time.

The drama of the broiler chicks seems to be over - we have a final headcount (after many, many losses) of thirty-one, and the survivors are quite robust and getting LARGE. Having never raised broilers before, I'm amazed at how much bigger they were after just one week. This image illustrates it perfectly - these two chicks are one week apart in age!

The next couple of weekends should bring a full-on gardening blitz (weather permitting) so it was nice to have a little time for some pet projects. Next up - a cheese press!

* We're only milking one goat right now and already have a whopping amount of milk to find ways to use up. I don't know what we'll do when our other doe kids and we're milking two. I'd best get that cheese press together and fast!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

bogus product of the week

I'd like to take a moment to talk about something that nobody needs. Air fresheners.

This morning, while tossing the coupon pages into my fireplace, I came across countless coupons for endless varieties of air fresheners. Plug-ins, Febreeze, toilet roll holders that release know the ones. I have to know...since when do we have a nationwide epidemic of Stink House? This seems to have become a MAJOR ISSUE. Does everyone in America really live in a house that smells like a sewage treatment plant? I THINK NOT. And believe me, I should know. If anyone is going to have Stink House, it should be me. We have four dogs. And livestock. We sweat a lot, there's manure, we have skunks, we have dead animals, you name it - if it smells bad, we probably have it. And guess what? No Stink House here.

People, you have been duped. And it goes way beyond the air in your home. You've been conned into believing that everything in your life should smell pleasant! It should smell like "Spring Rain" or "Mountain Meadow" or "Morning Mist" or some such chemical absurdity. But really, it's okay for things to not smell like anything at all. If you need some fresh air in the house, open a window and let some in. Even if it's cold outside, it probably won't kill you. If you want the whole house to smell nice, bake some bread or cookies! Plant some fragrant herbs or flowers in a sunny windowsill. Sit on the porch and enjoy the real smell of spring rain. If you really DO have Stink House (and sometimes you do, I know), a little essential oil or an incense stick should take care of it. Don't be suckered.

Monday, March 1, 2010

damn the potatoes

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that we have had some rough times with potatoes in the past. It's been said that potatoes are easy to grow - quite forgiving, and willing to grow in all sorts of climates and poor soil. Harumph. All types except ours, apparently. In our quest to provide some of our own calorie crops, we're going for spuds yet again this year.

I purchased four varieties of seed potatoes - Carola, Yellow Finn and All Red from an organic potato farm, and a bag of nameless, generic red potatoes from our local feed store. We've abandoned the tire stacks this year and are trying two methods of row planting instead. The first is a 16-foot double-dug row, amended with compost and the potatoes trenched about 6 inches deep. I sincerely hope this is NOT the method that works the best, because I can tell you that it was a huge pain. It took both of us the equivalent of about a whole day to dig, fork, prep and plant this one 16-foot row. Double-digging in heavy, compacted clay = backbreaking. The second 16-foot row is surface planted and heavily mulched. I removed the top layer of sod and used a fork just to break up the surface of the soil. I added compost here as well and raked the seed bed smooth. I made this seed bed wider than the first and put in two staggered rows of seed pieces (as you would do with bed planting) right on top of the soil. The whole thing was then covered with 6 to 8 inches of old straw. This method was far easier than the first and reportedly produces good results. We shall see! I have a few seed pieces left over, so I may put a few in my raised beds just for the sake of comparison. On the other hand, I'm so tired of looking at potatoes that I may not.

I'm really thankful to have this behind me. Of all the gardening tasks we perform around here, this one seems the most odious. It's much more of an ordeal than just popping a few seeds into a raised bed. Eventually we'll experiment with other calorie crops such as corn, other grains, legumes, sweet potatoes and crops for the livestock, and I'm sure those will be just as much of an effort, at least in the beginning. My hope is that every year our soil tilth will improve and the planting will go just a bit easier, but boy the first few years are tough. Our soil is so bad that if civilization collapses and we need to provide for ourselves, we'd be better off as brick makers than farmers.

For now, though - farmers -1, potatoes - 0.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


The missing chicks arrived this morning (at MY post office this time). As expected, there were a few dead in the box, and several more that looked extremely weak. About half of them still look quite vigorous. They're all under the heat lamps with food and water now. We'll know in the next 24 hours which ones will rebound and which ones will tank. The survivors from the first shipment look great, and are already nearly twice as big as the newcomers after only a week! I'll post pictures once the dust settles.

Friday, February 26, 2010

losing faith

When you sign up for this kind of life, you know it's going to be hard. There are huge rewards, to be sure, but they are always balanced by difficulty, tragedy. It's been an especially rough week here. We've lost about twenty-five animals in the past seven days. I wish I was kidding. Due to a postal service screw-up, we lost well over half of the broiler chicks we ordered last week. The replacements that the hatchery was kind enough to send me are now at large too. They've been in transit since Wednesday and no sign of them so far. I fear the worst. We also discovered a hen dead in the nest earlier in the week - a fairly young one at that. My guess is that the poor thing must have been egg-bound. Our broody hen keeps moving around to different egg piles, so I'm pretty sure the eggs I gave her are no longer viable. One of our new rabbits kindled yesterday but failed to make a nest, so all eight of the babies were completely exposed and died in the cold.*

It's times like these that really make me feel discouraged. I know this is part and parcel of the life I've chosen, and I know it won't always be this bad, but right now we really, desperately need for something to go right around here. (Mama duck - I'm looking at YOU. Fix this! Give me babies!) These kinds of weeks weigh heavily on my heart.

*This is actually fairly common for first-time rabbit mothers, and we sort of expected it, but it's heart-wrenching just the same.

Friday, February 19, 2010

guess who's feeling motherly?

That's right, everyone's favorite broody is back. Only this time, she's not sitting on a phony. Nope, this time it's the real deal. She's got five full-sized eggs under there. (Interestingly, she can cover five eggs, but five eggs plus a golf ball is just that much too much. The "decoy" had to be removed!) Just look at the spread of those wings. You'd never guess to look at her here, but she's really quite a tiny thing. Now that we have ample nest space and nice secure housing, we've decided that she can raise as many babies as she likes, whenever she likes. No more wooden eggs and golf balls for this girl. Besides, with all the variety we have in the poultry yard, it will be fun to see what sort of mixed breeds we end up with! Given our luck, though, they will ALL be Barred Rocks, and they will ALL be roosters, since that seems to be how we roll around here.

This time of year is a time for babies on the farm. We'll soon be awash in them. The first goat kid was only the beginning of a long spell of new life emerging. Between now and May, it will be an almost constant influx of offspring - a hostile takeover by the next generation. There are twenty-five chicks coming tomorrow, in addition to these five eggs being incubated in-house. Mother duck is building a clutch as we speak - it grows larger by the day and more deeply feathered. We're still awaiting the rest of the kids to make their appearance, and we know we have some buns in the oven, thanks to our new Californian does. Another crate of honeybees will join us in early April, and the gardens, trees and pasture will be offering up new leaves and shoots before we can say boo. The old will stand down. Youth will reign supreme. They are coming.

While I generally don't get emotionally attached to my livestock, I must admit to a certain fondness for the mothers around here. They're so earnest and work so hard. Their whole being is distilled and dedicated to a singular purpose. They really put heart, soul and unwavering determination into their efforts, and for that I adore (and applaud) them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

babies nap a lot

It's a good thing Mamas stay nearby to watch over them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

my valentine

He's always full of surprises. I never knew, for instance, that he could lay eggs! Did you? Not to mention eggs with messages on them...

Seriously though, this life is a hard one and very tiring. There's just no way I could do it without him, not only to help shoulder the load, but to share the rewards. There's no one else I'd want to do this with, and he deserves far more credit than I give him here. So, hats off to my valentine!

I love you honey - thanks for sharing this nest with me.

out in the world

Friday, February 12, 2010

the great blizzard of 2010

It may sound laughable to call this a blizzard, and to those of you in other parts of the country that have been especially hard hit by snow this year, it is. But please understand that this amount of snow is completely unheard of here where I live. In fact, we set a record for the most snowfall in this area in a 24-hour period. I miss this kind of snow, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.