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.