Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It just shouldn't matter, right?

Life has been so great the last couple weeks. We're having our best garden in years, luck has been on my side with all the little things in life, and I've been going through every day with a smile on my face. I could make some comment about how it's not going to last "with my luck," but the fact is that life is always a mix of good and not-so-great and downright rotten things. And the downright rotten popped up Monday afternoon.

I opened the upright freezer and noticed several pieces of ice had fallen off the freezer coils. If you've never had an upright freezer, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about, but the shelves in an upright freezer are the things that emit the cold that freezes everything. Upright freezers are not frost free, so ice forms on the shelves over the months. You have to defrost the freezer to get the ice off the shelves. So, it's obviously bad news if that ice starts to fall off on its own.

I hoped that the defrosting had been caused by someone opening the freezer and not getting the door completely closed, so I carefully closed the door, making sure it was totally closed, and I waited. An hour later, I went back. I reached in and gave a tug on a piece of ice that was attached to one of the shelves. It popped off. Not good. After an hour, it should have been frozen solidly to the shelf.

Time to panic! That freezer holds all of our pork, lamb, and chickens. I called Mike, and we decided to have Jonathan buy a new freezer and bring it home. Jonathan was already in town at the junior college, and he was in the pickup. So, I called Jonathan and asked him to go buy a freezer. Somehow, he didn't understand. Half an hour later, he called me after talking to Mike, who asked about the freezer. Yeah, I suppose it's weird to be asked to buy a freezer when you're only twenty years old, but he was in town and driving the pickup. And besides that, how did he think I was going to buy a freezer from home? Miscommunication is a funny thing.

So, now I sit here typing, trying not to panic, waiting for Jonathan to get home with the freezer. Once he gets it home, we'll have to wait for Mike to help move it into the basement, and then the owner's manuals always say to wait before loading it up with food. But our food is melting! I hope my downright rotten afternoon doesn't turn into rotten food.

24 hours later . . . 

Jonathan arrived home safely with the new freezer in one piece, and Mike was an hour behind him. While we were waiting for Mike to get home, we cleared a trail between the front door, the basement door, the bottom of the basement stairs and the spot where the freezer sat. We measured the new freezer and the old one and made sure the new freezer would fit in that spot. But the fun really started when Mike arrived. The new freezer is 31 inches wide, and the door into the basement is 32 inches. Now, I know that sounds like it should work, but it doesn't. Did you know that a two-by-four piece of wood is not two inches by four inches? Well, a 32-inch door is not 32 inches wide. The only way we could have pushed the new freezer through the basement door would have been to remove the entire door frame down to the studs. If we had not built this house, I wouldn't even know that it was possible to do that. Possible, yes; easy, no. Mike looked at me as if I'd lost my mind when I suggested it.

Even if we did manage to get the freezer through the basement door, it probably would have been stuck at the bottom of the stairs, because there is only 31 inches between the bottom of the stairs and the basement wall. There used to be more room, but Mike added an insulated wall on the inside of the concrete wall, which sucked up four inches.

"So," Mike looked at me as if I should know what was coming. After a few seconds of silence, he continued, "Where do you want the freezer?"

The basement was not possible. It was getting close to midnight, so returning it to the store an hour away and buying a smaller freezer was not possible. Our food was starting to thaw, so waiting until morning was not possible either.

All the interior doors on the first floor are 32 inches, so the only two options were the living room or the dining room. After having the quickest pity party imaginable for myself -- and telling myself, You will not cry about a freezer! -- I told him to move the china cabinet into the living room and put the freezer in the dining room. And then I went upstairs to drown my sorrows in a tub of hot water with a dribble of lavender essential oil.

I don't think of myself as shallow, but it sure seems shallow to be upset about having a freezer in my dining room. It is not something you will ever see in Martha Stewart's Living, but I should be grateful that we have food to fill a freezer. I wonder if it's possible to not have some sort of soft spot for consumerism. Some people are into shoes or fashion or cars. I'm into kitchen stuff -- nice china, dishes, napkins, and a pretty dining room. A six-foot-tall behemoth of a freezer is not pretty, at least not by modern standards of interior decorating.

Life often feels like a test out here. Am I physically strong enough? Do I have the persistence that it takes to be a homesteader? Do I have the brains to learn all this new stuff? Am I emotionally tough enough to deal with the heartaches that inevitably come with raising animals? And tonight I'm facing a new test. Can I let go of the Martha Stewart dining room? It sounds so trivial compared to everything else in my life, but my choice seems clear. I can be miserable and cringe every time I look at it. Or I can be thankful that it's filled with delicious, healthy food that we raised. I can be grateful that I will save a lot of trips up and down the basement stairs because my new freezer is right next to the kitchen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pearl and Hester

Pearl and Hester were born a year ago, and we finally have their video story available for you to see. They are the only premature goats we've ever had survive, so we were pretty excited about them. Pearl still lives here, and Hester was sold to a farm on the east coast. There was music before it was uploaded, but I've waited a year to get this video out, so I'm not going to ask my son to figure out what went wrong with the audio. Hope you enjoy it anyway!

To read the story of their birth, click here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A pleasant surprise in Milwaukee

When we left the television station last Thursday, my husband decided to take a different route back to the hotel. So, we were driving along in unfamiliar territory when he asked if that was a farmer's market up ahead. I looked intently and suddenly gasped and squealed, "That's Growing Power!" I didn't need to say more. He hit the brakes and took the next right turn, drove around the block and pulled up in front of the urban garden that has now become legendary. We went inside to get information and learned that there is a tour every day at one o'clock, so after calling home to make sure we weren't needed, we decided to do the tour after grabbing lunch.

Deborah meets Will Allen
Our tour was conducted by Amanda, who started at Growing Power in April as an intern and has since moved over to employee status. She took eleven of us through their greenhouses and showed us their livestock. The knowledge of people on the tour varied from one end of the spectrum to the other. One woman asked about the ingredients of the fish pellets that are fed to the tilapia. (I bet she reads Michael Pollan. He's recently started talking about how farm-raised fish are fed corn.) On the other hand, one couple didn't realize that the baby lettuces grow up to be something like romaine. At first I found it sad that they didn't know they were looking at romaine lettuce, but then I realized it is really exciting that Growing Power is educating people about their food, in addition to feeding people with their locally-grown produce.

When we were in the second greenhouse, a very tall man walked in, and poor Amanda lost everyone's attention as a chorus of gasps and greetings filled the air, and we all started shaking hands with the man -- Will Allen, the former pro basketball player who everyone thought was a little weird seventeen years ago when he bought two-and-a-half acres of land in the middle of Milwaukee to start a farm. But people don't think he's crazy now.

Tilapia grow in fish tanks
under the vegetables.

It was a lot of fun to see what could be done in such a small space. They have more than a dozen greenhouses where they grow their vegetables, plus there are bee hives, tilapia, perch, goats, chickens, and mushrooms. Mike and I were looking closely at how the fish live in ponds under the grow beds. The water is pulled up from the fish tanks by a simple sump pump and dumped into the grow beds. At the other end of the bed is a drain, and the water is dumped back into the fish tank. The plants filter the water for the fish, and the fish feed the plants with their waste. It's a great relationship. (Add another thing to the "to do" list on Antiquity Oaks: create aquaponic system to grow tilapia and fresh greens year round.)

Oyster mushrooms grow
in one of the greenhouses.
It was also fun to see a mushroom growing system in real life, since I've been reading about mycology and experimenting with it for the past year. I'm even more excited about growing our own mushrooms now that I've seen it on a larger scale. It makes me feel like we can do it.

If you'd like to know more about Growing Power, you can visit their website. And if you're ever in the Milwaukee area, I highly recommend the tour.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Squash on television

Squash and cook top ready to go
on the set of The Morning Blend
Yesterday was definitely not a typical day in the life of a homesteader. I went to Milwaukee to talk squash on The Morning Blend, NBC's local morning show that comes on after Today. I had already spent Tuesday and Wednesday cooking up squash multiple times, because I had to get it done in five minutes.

I did an Asian stir-fry (garlic, ginger, and soy sauce), a Mexican stir-fry (garlic and a habanero), and an Italian stir-fry (garlic and basil) twice. In case you didn't know, I love garlic. The first one I tried was Mexican, and as I told you a couple days ago, I quickly realized that I should not do anything with hot peppers, because I got a whiff and started choking and gasping for air, which was not something I wanted to do on live television. I figured out what I needed to do to get it all done on camera in five minutes. Basically, the pan needed to be hot and squash needed to be sliced before the camera went on, and then I could chiffonade the basil and crush the garlic on air while the squash was cooking.

Sounded like a good plan. But then the cameras were rolling, and Molly and Tiffany started asking me questions. I was concentrating on answering the questions and suddenly thought that it seemed like it had been a few minutes. I looked down, and the squash appeared to be done. I suddenly remembered the basil and garlic! So, I went into panic mode inside and started thinking that I'd never get done in time, but I had to keep talking and appearing calm. I always told my college students that you feel worse on the inside than you look on the outside when you're speaking, and I'm glad to know I was right. When I watched the video, I didn't look nearly as panicked as I felt. Whew!

So, if you want to see how it went -- and see my simple and quick squash recipe -- click over to The Morning Blend site and watch!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Potatoes, anyone?

 Blue potatoes sliced and ready to be fried for breakfast 
You might have guessed it already, but I don't grow hardly anything in my garden that I can buy in a store. We do grow some red tomatoes, but otherwise, we grow vegetables and fruit that most people don't recognize -- like blue potatoes, orange tomatoes, and red okra. The food in the grocery store is there because it has a long shelf life and can withstand being picked and handled by machine. They don't sell mulberries in the store simply because their shelf life is too short. We decide what varieties to grow based upon taste and appearance. I won't deny that I love making salsa with green, red, yellow, pink, and orange tomatoes because it's beautiful, as well as delicious.

This year, we're growing blue potatoes, all red (also known as cranberry), purple Viking, and French fingerlings. We've harvested all but the fingerlings, which are still growing a little bit. The blue potatoes have outperformed the others once again, which is great because they're my favorite. They're really creamy, and they have the thinnest skin you could want on a potato. We've never peeled them, because you don't need to. They're great in potato salad, mashed potatoes, and fried potatoes. They're small, so you probably wouldn't care to bake them. But blue potatoes have so many great recipe possibilities, I don't mind using another type of potato for baking, like the purple Viking, which is much larger and has a purple skin and snow white flesh.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Typical Tuesday?

 Ever wonder what a typical day is like around here? Well, this turned out to be a pretty average day.

9:45 a.m.
A Tamworth gilt (young female)
I came into the house with the goat milk from this morning's milking half an hour ago. (We milk at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.) It was about a gallon, and when I realized there were already two gallons of milk in the frig, I decided to procrastinate by checking Facebook. What should I make with all that milk? Then I heard one of the llamas sounding the alarm. It sounds like a whinnying caw that should come from a pterodactyl, so it definitely gets your attention! I glanced out the window and didn't see anything obvious, so figured it wasn't anything important. But then I heard it again . . . and again. All five llamas in the west pastures were staring to the north. Then all the goats lined up like kids in a schoolyard watching a fight. Something was definitely not right. I slipped on my shoes and ran out to the barn pasture, which is north of where the goats and llamas live. Pigs? Yes, all six pigs were running around in the barn pasture. They're supposed to be in the walnut grove. Mike and Jonathan take care of the pigs, and based on the stories they've told, I really don't want to be on the same side of the fence with this group of pigs, so I'm just going to wait until Jonathan gets home from work around noon, and I'll let him deal with it. I have to make cheese or something. The worst thing they can do is root up the pasture a little. Right?

12:15 p.m.
I was in the middle of making queso blanco and tapioca pudding when I remembered that I had to get a form filled out and emailed to a Milwaukee television station. Thursday, I'm going to be on The Morning Blend, which is a typical morning talk show. I'm going to be talking about zucchini and other summer squash and how to use it, and I'll be doing a stir-fry on the air. My info sheet was due at noon, so I ran in here to fill it out and email it back to them. I'm sad to say that if my fingers touch the keyboard, I also have to check email and Facebook . . . sigh. Now that it's done, I'm heading back to the kitchen to play with squash and time myself doing a stir-fry. I'll only have five minutes Thursday!

2:00 p.m.
I've decided it would be a bad idea to do a squash stir fry on live television if there are hot peppers in the stir fry. I accidentally inhaled some fumes and started hacking and gasping. Jonathan said it might be a good idea to do it anyway, and I could become an Internet sensation as people forward the video and it becomes viral. I don't think so. After eating the squash, I decided to check email before trying another squash recipe that is less deadly. It took me half an hour to respond to a question about dewormers. I need to write up something about that and put it on my website, because it's a common question. And then I received an email back from the Morning Blend producer. Apparently I forgot to attach my guest sheet to my email. How embarrassing. So, I re-sent that email with the attachment. Now I need to get back into the kitchen and try another squash recipe. The one with peppers also took too long. I need something that will cook up in less than five minutes! Jonathan got home from work and already left to run errands, and I forgot to tell him about the pigs . . . sigh.

Patty pan, lemon squash, and golden zucchini
with basil chiffonade and garlic
I decided to take a power nap-meditation before continuing with my squash experiments. Yes, I nap almost every day, although I don't really sleep. It's more of a meditation for about fifteen minutes, and then my battery is completely recharged. I tried another squash recipe. This one used basil and garlic. No coughing and gasping, but I need to work on my chiffonade skills. Now I know how to use up all the squash in the garden -- get myself on a morning show and then practice cooking it for two days!

4:35 p.m.
I had no idea I could get so stuffed eating only summer squash and drinking a smoothie (yogurt, banana, frozen strawberries, banana). It's been an hour since finishing the last squash, and I still feel uncomfortably full. I answered more emails and made a vet appointment for goats to get health certificates tomorrow. (Goats crossing state lines must have health papers, and soon I'll have one going to Tennessee and another to Missouri.) I watched a few clips from The Morning Blend to see what their kitchen looks like, so I could be better prepared. Looking at my to-do list -- do I make sugar scrub to fill the two orders that I have, or do I go to the garden to pick vegetables? Both must be done today, but it's easier to pick veggies when the sun is up, and it's only 83 out now, which is tolerable.

10 p.m.
I never got the sugar scrub done. I picked five buckets of tomatoes, which are sitting in the sink. I had hoped to get them blanched and in freezer bags tonight, but it will just have to wait until morning. I also picked five cucumbers and our first eggplant of the year. I should have picked okra but didn't get to it. It was nearly sundown, so it was time to milk the goats again. After milking, I checked on Pearl, a yearling doe who was terribly anemic and weak Saturday. I put her in one of the kidding pens by herself, so I could take care of her, and she is making an incredibly recovery! I came inside and threw together another squash stir-fry. This one had an oriental theme with soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. Finally sat down for dinner at 9:05. I had the tapioca pudding for dessert, which was ugly and had a weird texture to it. It had whipped egg whites in it, which sounded good, but it wasn't. I really should stick to the tried-and-true recipes, but when I see something that looks good, I just have to try it. Mike and Jonathan talked about the pigs. Jonathan said two of them got out yesterday also, but they followed him right back to the walnut grove, so it's not a big problem.

Tomorrow will start early, because I have to have the goats at the vet by 9:30. I'm thinking I should be milking by 7:00, which means getting up and fixing breakfast by about 6:15. I still need to shower before going to bed. One of the odd things about country living is that you normally shower before bed, rather than when getting up, because you're so dirty by the end of the day that you can't stand the thought of putting your dirty self in between clean sheets. I'm one of those people who really needs my eight hours, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen tonight.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why do we do it?

 Inca rainbow corn from our garden
We had an open farm day last weekend, and I got that same old question that I always get from people who have just met me. Why do we do all of this? You might think that I have a great answer, perfectly packaged in twenty words or less, but I don't.

We originally moved out here for lots of reasons -- to grow our own food organically, to raise rare breeds of livestock in danger of extinction, to have a real reason to get out of bed in the morning, to give our children a meaningful life with real responsibility. I suppose I could sum it up by saying that we moved out here because it's real. There is no fast food or contrived exercise on a treadmill. Our children have had real responsibility. They've brought baby animals into this world, and they've seen animals die. But now that my children our growing up and going to college, why don't we just move back to the burbs and shop at Whole Foods and farmer's markets? After all, I've been diagnosed with arthritis, and someone winds up in the emergency room at least once a year because of accidents that never would have happened in the safety of the burbs. Why stay?

Because I love my life out here, and rather than finding reasons to leave, I keep finding more reasons to stay. My arthritis is much better when I'm outside working. Sitting in front of a computer is my body's worst enemy. As I get older, the weight bearing exercise -- carrying fifty-pound feed bags -- is a good way to protect myself from osteoporosis. Switching from a vegetarian diet to one with free-range, organic meat has raised my HDL cholesterol, making my ratio even better for warding off heart disease. Losing twenty pounds six years ago made my knees much happier, and they've been a problem my entire life, because I was born with birth defects in both of them and had three surgeries as a teenager. So, there are lots of scientific, quantifiable reasons to stay here. Sure, plenty of people live in cities, eat healthy and exercise, but I was never able to keep up an exercise routine when we lived in the burbs.

I have never loved a treadmill or free weights, but I love my goats. They are real. I have to milk them. I have to chase after them sometimes. I have to run from the house to the barn when I realize one of them is in the middle of giving birth. I have to carry the fifty-pound feed bags from my car to the barn. Some people might say that it's a lot of work, but a wise person once said that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.

A guest on Saturday said that whenever you have to do something day after day, it becomes work -- like a professional football player. It might be fun to play ball with your friends on the weekend, but when you have to do it every day, it's your job. I didn't have an answer at the moment, but I've been thinking about his comment for three days. Why don't I feel like this is a lot of work? Because this is real. Playing football every day is not real. It's contrived. There is not a real reason to take care of thousands of chickens all day. One family does not need thousands of chickens. No one is raising those birds for any reason other than money. Milking goats and making cheese all day long would be a job. A lot of people have told me I should have a restaurant, but cooking for a hundred or two hundred people every day would be a job.

Another guest on Saturday told me that she grew up on a farm, and they originally had chickens running around free range. When they moved to the cage system of raising chickens, her mother no longer liked it and wanted out of the business. Whenever someone tells me that they worked on a chicken farm or grew up with chickens and they hate them, I don't even have to ask what type of system they had. It's always been a cage system with thousands of chickens in buildings. It's hot and stinky, and what joy is there in tending thousands of birds 365 days a year?

This is real. We are growing food to feed our family. We have chickens for eggs and meat. We have goats for our dairy needs. We have sheep for meat and wool. We have turkeys and pork for meat. The llamas protect the other animals and also give us fiber. Next spring, the cows will start to give us milk. We have a garden where we grow vegetables that you can't find in a store. Every day is different. Some are filled with joy and others with heartbreak, but every day is filled with real life. I'm not doing anything here solely to make money.

Money defines a job. I don't get paid a penny to make cheese or cook from scratch or milk the goats. I'm doing this because I believe in it. We became vegetarians in 1989 because we thought the factory farm system of raising meat animals was unhealthy and ethically wrong. We've been eating organically for just as long. I make cheese because it's the best-tasting cheese I've ever eaten. I cook from scratch because it's delicious and healthy. I milk my goats because you can't buy Nigerian dwarf goat milk anywhere in the state of Illinois. I grow Inca rainbow corn, blue potatoes, and Amana orange tomatoes because you can't buy them in a store -- and Amana orange tomatoes make the most delicious creamy tomato soup in the world. We grow our own pork because no one grows free-range pork around here, and I've never heard of anyone feeding them nuts and milk, which creates the most delicious pork imaginable.

So, how do I sum up all of this into a neat little package of twenty words or less, so I can give a quick answer to the next person who asks me why we do this?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We do everything the old-fashioned way

People ask me all sorts of interesting questions. For example, Hippygirl messaged me the other day to ask if our animals have sex. That question might have shocked me eight years ago, but today it's not a surprise at all. I understand exactly why Hippygirl was asking, because it's a pretty common question. In modern factory farms, animals don't have sex. They're all artificially inseminated -- pigs, dairy cattle, chickens, turkeys. Hippygirl had just watched an episode of Dirty Jobs in which the intrepid Mike Rowe visits a modern pig farm. In case you missed it, she was nice enough to summarize it for you on her blog. And in case you think Dirty Jobs was exaggerating, she also included a link to a university extension site with more info on artificially inseminating pigs. If I wanted to, I could attend classes at the local junior college to learn how to artificially inseminate cattle and pigs. But we don't do things like that around here.

Our animals reproduce the way they've been reproducing since the beginning of time. Hippygirl's timing was really perfect, because our first goats had just been bred for spring. And yes, they had sex. So, what exactly is our role in all of this? As I explained to her, I'm the matchmaker. Yes, we do want to breed our goats for productivity and longevity and proper conformation, so they're not just all running around out there breeding like wild goats. We keep the bucks (males) and does (females) in separate pastures for a couple reasons.

Lost Valley Mardi Gras *S, one of our bucks
Bucks do emit a rather unpleasant odor, and if they're with females, they'll make the milk taste nasty. So, if you've ever had goat milk that made you gag, that could be why, but I'm not going to digress and start talking about all the ins and outs of goat milk, because that's a discussion for another day. The other reason that the bucks and does are kept separate is so that we can plan breeding. We plan when and with whom the does are bred. We don't want the does giving birth more than once a year, and we want to breed does to bucks that will improve upon the weaknesses of the does. For example, we want lots of milk, so I buy bucks from the top milking herds in the country.

As for my matchmaking job, I just keep an eye on the does, and when one starts acting like she's in heat, I set up a date with a handsome buck for her. That's when the fun begins. If you've been reading my blog for a year or two, then you've read a few funny stories about the situations I've endured. The two dates that I set up this past week were fairly uneventful. Carmen and Athena were in heat, so I led them over to the buck area, and as soon as Mardi saw the pretty girls, he whipped his head around towards his back end and peed on his beard. (Yes, that's where the word "goatee" comes from, because their beard grows from their chin.) Remember those movies in the 70s where a guy would see a cute girl across the room and turn his head for a quick squirt of breath freshener? Yep, that's it exactly.

No, you say, that's not it! Breath freshener smells good, and pee is . . . well, disgusting! Now, you're thinking like a human. When was the last time your dog rolled in something that you think smelled good? Hmm? That's what I thought.

If anyone ever tells you that animals will just breed with any old animal of the same species, tell them to come talk to me. My goats are very particular, and I'm not the only one who has goats with opinions. Goats are not floozies. We'll never forget how Dancy was so in love with Bucky. The first year that Dancy was here, we decided to breed her to John Adams, who was in a pen next to Bucky. We had noticed that Dancy had been standing next to Bucky's pen, flirting like crazy, but we thought nothing of it. We put her in the pen with John Adams, and she proceeded to beat the snot out of the poor boy every time he tried to get close to her. I got a headache just watching her butt heads with him. He did finally sneak up on her when she was over next to the fence flirting with Bucky. We felt terrible, because it was obvious that Dancy really wanted Bucky. So, we promised her that next year, she would get a date with Bucky.

Next year rolled around, and we noticed that Dancy was in heat. As we walked past the other bucks, Dancy just strolled along with me holding her collar. But as soon as she saw Bucky, she bolted towards him, yanking her collar out of my hand as I tried to start running and keep up with her! It was like a scene from one of those old movies where two long-lost lovers are reunited. As soon as I opened the gate, she ran in there and stood perfectly still, waiting for Bucky, who of course, still felt obligated to do his little mating ritual -- blubbering sweet nothings and peeing on his beard. Yes, they really do blubber sweet nothings, like "Bluh, bluh, bluh, bluh!"

We've had a number of does like this over the years, and I know other goat people who've had opinionated does. When Margaret was buying a bred doe six years ago, she told the breeder what buck she wanted the doe bred to, and they called one day to say that she was in heat, but she was convinced that the chosen buck was the most disgusting creature on the planet and would not let him near her. So, we had to choose a second buck.

No, this is not as easy as artificially inseminating animals. And semen costs a lot less than a buck -- $20-30 a straw versus $500-1,000 for a good buck, which you also have to feed. I went to a conference session on artificial insemination in goats and sheep once, and I talked about doing it for a few years, but obviously I haven't done it. I suppose Hippygirl summed it up well for me when she said something about it just doesn't seem right.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Adventures in jalapeno jelly

Margaret came home a few days ago to help with harvesting and freezing tomatoes and peppers and to make jalapeno jelly, which we haven't had in two or three years. We love to eat our chevre on crackers with jalapeno jelly.

Every day now, we are doing multiple things -- making chevre, brie, cheddar, mozzarella, buttermilk, yogurt, salsa, and all sorts of homemade meals -- so the kitchen is the center of activity. Having Margaret home meant we could double- and triple-task. I sliced the jalapeños and started them on the stove with the vinegar and sugar, and then I went to work on a cheese, while Margaret kept an eye on the pepper mix.

Then Margaret took her eye off the jalapeño mix. I heard a sizzle and looked towards the stove to see the whole thing boiling over. I screeched, "Margaret!" She gasped and turned off the burner, but the mixture continued boiling over. Then she realized she had turned off the wrong burner! If you're guessing that it was a huge mess, you would be correct.

Knowing that the sticky sugary goo was covering the sides and bottom of the pot, and not wanting to get the counter sticky, I put some paper towels on the counter and moved the pot to the paper towels. Then Margaret began the 15-minute job of cleaning up the stove. When it was finally clean, I wiped down the pot and realized it was stuck to the paper towels on which they were sitting.

Then we estimated that about 1/6 of the mixture had boiled over, and since we hadn't added the pectin yet, we needed to get the mixture back to the correct amount so that the amount of pectin would be correct. Unfortunately, recipes call for "a packet of pectin," rather than an amount that mere mortals can actually measure. So, we added more sugar, vinegar, and jalapeños.

Finally, we had our jelly ready to can! We filled up six half-pint jelly jars and had enough left over to fill my little jelly pot that goes into the frig. As soon as the six jars went into the canner, my daughters and I started stuffing ourselves with chevre, jalapeño jelly, and crackers. I think we should make another batch, because we've already eaten a half pint. True, we have been deprived for a couple years, but we do love this stuff, so it probably won't last very long.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Squash thoughts

Squash are the romantic comedies of the vegetable world. I tolerate them.

Rows of squash should be eight feet apart. Yes, I'm serious. I'm really, really serious.

In the dead of winter, when planning squash for the garden, don't just think about shapes. Think about color. Golden zucchini, patty pan, lemon squash, and scalloped squash are all white and yellow. A little green would have been nice.

Chicken for dinner? Part 3

Three-and-a-half month old Barred Rock rooster
We reached the end of my little experiment last month when the barred rock roosters reached three and a half months of age. It was time to butcher them. We've been eating heritage chickens for eight years, so we knew what we were in for -- a delicious chicken dinner.

If you missed the posts about my chicken experiment, where I raised barred Plymouth Rock and modern Cornish cross chickens side-by-side, you might want to read Part I and Part II before continuing.

I learned a lot during my little experiment, and it wasn't all about the chickens. I haven't eaten a commercial chicken since 1989, so I truly did not know what people were talking about when they said that heritage chickens taste better. It was in the 1980s when modern agriculture decided to start changing and rearranging chickens to make them reach slaughter weight 2.5 times faster than nature intended, as well as to give them bigger breasts, since that's what Americans like best. In little more than a decade, the commercial meat chicken changed from a bird that could fly and mate naturally to one that could not. It changed from being a bird with long legs and wings to one with short legs and wings. Its breast no longer looked like a bird with a breastbone, but instead like a fowl version of Marilyn Monroe.

This is what a chicken looked like in 1986.
Legs were starting to get shorter,
but it was still a long-bodied bird.
While you could still see the breast bone,
the amount of breast meat was increasing.

When we butchered the first Cornish cross, we cooked the whole thing and were sadly disappointed in the mushy-spongy texture and lack of flavor. When we butchered the others, we cut them up and froze them in one to two-pound packages of various pieces. A single Cornish cross is too much meat for a single meal for only three meat eaters. Since then, we've tried a variety of recipes, relying heavily on marinades and sauces to get some flavor into the meat. The first thing we learned is that the breast is too thick for marinade to penetrate, so it needs to be cubed. Ultimately, however, we discovered that it isn't the marinade or the spices that make the meal -- it's the meat. The only thing that really improved the flavor was real chicken broth from one of our heritage stew hens. And that just struck me as terribly sad. If you're relying on spices, marinades, and broth to bring flavor to meat, then what's the point? Why not just use tofu? It's a lot cheaper and absorbs flavor really well.

As I said only a month into our experiment, I won't be growing the Cornish cross again. Even though the taste is sad, there are several other reasons I won't raise them. There is just something creepy about eating an animal that will literally eat itself to death. Given unlimited access to food, they will give themselves a fatty liver, gall bladder disease, heart disease, and hypertension. They're sick. I'm growing my own food because I want healthy food. And yes, I know that if you restrict their food, they can reach slaughter weight without succumbing to a heart attack first.

However, I can't bring myself to put babies on a diet. Others have laughed as they told me how much the CC like to eat and how they act like crazed vultures when you feed them. When we restricted the feed for the chickens -- after one died at a week of age -- I found it sad how desperate they seemed when you brought them feed after 12 hours. The other thing I noticed was that when they didn't have food, they spent their time in front of the waterer drinking. If I had not been raising the heritage side-by-side with the CC, I would not have noticed the increased water consumption.

When we moved out here eight years ago, we wanted to raise heritage animals because they've been largely unchanged for centuries. They've been ignored by modern agriculture, but they're still alive because they're naturally healthy and possess good instincts. I didn't want to raise animals that required coddling, scheduling, and dieting. We wanted to create a sustainable system where we could raise our meat for generations. With the Cornish cross, you have to buy babies from the hatcheries every year -- or artificially inseminate the hens. And I find it just a little bit scary that one of the hatcheries tells customers on their website that if they try to raise replacement meat birds, the next generation won't gain weight as fast as the parents.

Sustainability and self-sufficiency is at the heart of what we're doing out here. I have enough diversity within my goat herd that I would never have to buy another goat ever, and we could have our milk and dairy needs met for the rest of our lives. We can do the same thing with our green beans -- save the seeds and plant more next year. And we can do that with our heritage chickens.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Learning to milk all over again

CH Twin Creeks DJ Scandal eats grain on the milk stand
while the milking machine collects her milk. The tubes
are clear, so I'll know when the milk is no longer flowing.

We've been hand milking our goats since we brought home Star, our first doe, on Mother's Day in 2002. And the herd has continued to grow every year, even though I've been saying that I need to cut back, because my children are leaving home. I don't really like to milk more than about four goats by hand, although I was milking six a couple months ago. I did milk nine in an emergency, but it took me an hour and a half. I've decided that my heart really is not into the idea of reducing my herd, so I did what had to be done -- bought a milking machine.

You might recall that our first experience with it was not so good. One goat kept trying to lay down. Another tried to kick off the inflations. The third stood there like an angel, but when we removed the inflations, her teats were purple. Obviously, we had no idea what we were doing. I was mortified and feeling terribly guilty. I called the manufacturer to get more comprehensive instructions than what was provided in the booklet that came with the machine. And we tried again.

Learning to use the machine has been complicated by the size of my goats. I bought the "belly pail" set-up, which is a pail that sits under the belly of a big goat. I have little goats, and the pail does not fit under their bellies. Since it would cost a few hundred dollars to switch to a different bucket system, we will have to make do with what we bought.

The tubes aren't long enough to put the belly pail on the floor, and the milk stand isn't wide enough to sit the pail next to the goat -- plus the milk would have to go uphill to get into the bucket if we did that -- so we cut a hole in the milk stand and have the bucket sitting under the milk stand. And because the tubes are not very long, the bucket is sitting on a stack of two-by-ten pieces of lumber. When I hook up the goats with the longest legs, I slide the bucket so that it sits directly beneath them, and when I milk the goats with the shorter legs, I slide the bucket forward, so that it's sitting under their front legs.

It's a complicated system, and it took me at least a week to get accustomed to it. No longer do I simply wipe off the udder, stick a bucket under the goat and start milking. Now I wipe off the udder, stick a bucket under them and put a few squirts into the bucket, set the bucket aside, hook up the milker to the goat and watch the flow of milk. When the flow starts to slow down to a trickle, I massage the udder a bit to get the last of the milk to come down. Then I turn off the milking machine, remove the inflations, and replace the cover that goes on the hole in the milking stand.

Oops, I guess I forgot to mention that we have to keep a cover on the hole, or the goats' legs will go sliding through or stomping through and scare both of us. Also, the little hand milk bucket needs a place to sit when I do the first squirts and the final stripping. What's stripping? Well, a machine can't get all the milk out, and unless you strip the teats after you turn off the machine, the goat could get mastitis, so it's important to do a bit of hand milking to get the very last little bit of milk out of the udder.

And then there's the cleaning. This is what caused Katherine to say no to machine milking. After completing the machine milking routine, you come inside and have to clean the tubes, inflations, and pail. I understand why I've heard others say that machine milking does not save time unless you're milking at least five or six goats. It's a trade off. The machine gets the milk out faster, but it takes time to clean everything. With hand milking, you put the bucket in the dishwasher, and you're done.

So, is it worth it? Yep! After using the machine for nine days, it was time for our classifications, and I needed to milk only the three first fresheners, who were not eligible for classification. I told my husband that I'd just milk them by hand. Before finishing the first goat, I missed the machine! I've never claimed to be the world's fastest goat milker, but after using the machine for more than a week, I felt slower than a snail hand milking again. I was whining like a three year old before I finished the first goat.

In case you're wondering, yes, I did momentarily consider how many goats I could have -- and how much cheese we could make -- now that I have a milking machine. But I really am going to keep the number at less than twenty does. I think I can, I think I can!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cabbages, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, oh my!

You might recall that we had some rabbit challenges in the garden this spring. They ate and ate and ate until we buried chicken wire around the perimeter of the garden to keep them out. Fifty cole crop transplants were among the many things we lost to the little rodents, as well as leeks, lettuce, arugula, spinach, and even a few tomato and pepper plants. But we really love our broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, so I started more seeds a few weeks ago in the basement. Now, what do I do with them? Cole crops like cool weather, and it's been in the mid-90s the past few days and will continue to be in the 90s for at least another few days. And when do I plant seeds for lettuce, spinach, and arugula? They don't usually germinate if it's too hot. In spite of the huge harvest of heat-loving vegetables, this is shaping up to be a challenging year for gardening.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mother Earth News Fair

In case you are anywhere near Pennsylvania towards the end of September, I'll be speaking at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs. There will be all sorts of speakers talking about sustainable energy, homesteading, and a lot of the things I write about here on my blog. I've been asked to present sessions on bread baking Saturday and Sunday. To learn more about the fair, click here.  If you really want to see the page about me, click here. And if you're there, be sure to say, "Hi!" I'd love to meet you!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

If you heard a loud scream at 7:20 p.m. central time tonight, that would have been yours truly. A couple days ago, I cut a lovely bouquet of sunflowers from the garden and put them in the main bathroom. There are flowers all over the house this time of year -- gladiolas in my bedroom, zinnias in the dining room, and so on. Anyway, the sunflowers were lovely, but the petals began disappearing. No, they were not falling off. They were disappearing into thin air. I thought this might be some strange sunflower phenomenon, since I have never grown sunflowers before, and I kept meaning to email my flower farmer friend in Iowa, Miss Effie. I also wondered if perhaps there was some microscopic bugs eating the petals.

Then the answer came to me this evening, as plain as the petals that used to be on the sunflower. I was staring at the emaciated bloom, and it looked like one of those little green things was curling up. Being a tactile learner, I reached out to touch it -- and it moved! And I screamed! It was a caterpillar that was exactly the same green as the sunflower stem. Now, I do want to tell you that I don't normally scream when I meet a caterpillar in its own environment -- as in, the garden -- but I certainly don't expect to find one in my bathroom, and I was startled, to say the least. I swear I could hear him crunching on the last little bit of a petal. Anyway, I grabbed my cell phone and took a picture, since the little bugger seemed to want to say "Hi!" to all of you. See him at about 11:00, waving at you?

This evening, when I went out to cut fresh flowers, I made sure to look all over the fronts, backs, tops, and bottoms to make sure I wasn't bringing in any hitchhikers looking for a free meal!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting serious about goats

It's been more than eight years since I decided to get a couple goats, so I could make chevre. I thought that I'd just buy the goats, and they'd make enough milk to make me happy. All goats produce milk, so what could be challenging about that? Right? Wrong!

Of the first three goats I bought, only one had the personality and teats to be a milk goat. The other two were tap dancing on the milk stand and trying to lay down on the bucket. Their teats were too short for me to be able to successfully extract much milk. I learned that all goats are not created equal.

Fast forward to today, and we're milking thirteen does every day, which provide almost 100% of our dairy needs. All of our does have good teats and a respectable supply. Some have outstanding production. Only one is bratty on the milk stand, and she's a first freshener, so we'll cut her some slack. We're on milk test, so we know how much milk they produce, as well as the butterfat and protein content. We've focused on production, personality, and mammary systems, and we're happily headed in the right direction. Almost all of our current milkers were born here.

Bonnie is a first freshener, so we were not able to get
an official score for her, but the classifier did do
an unofficial evaluation. Now that we better understand
her strengths and weaknesses, we can make better
breeding decisions. The goal is always to have kids
that are better than the parents.
Yesterday, we had our goats classified, a program of the American Goat Society. Basically, a classifier -- a very experienced judge who has had special training in classification -- gives your goat a report card. He looks over every little thing, judging it against the ideal and giving the goat a score on that part of its body. And I do mean every little thing -- feet, topline, head, teats, and more. Only does who have freshened (been in milk) at least two times are eligible for classification, because most first fresheners have not really developed a remarkable mammary system.

It was a lot of work to get ready, because we had to clip all the goats, which is pretty time consuming. Add temperatures in the 90s, and any sane person would have questioned whether or not it was worth it. But we persevered, and we had six senior does and three bucks classified. The does and one buck had scores of 86.6 to 89.8, which is "very good" and made me very happy. Two of my bucks had "excellent" scores -- Pegasus was 90.5, and Draco was 91.6, which is about as high as you can get. I don't think I've ever seen a score much higher than 92-point-something.

Although the scores are fun to see when they're good, the more important aspect of classification is figuring out where your breeding program is going. I've said for years that Sherri throws better daughters than herself, and the classifier agreed, because her daughter got a score that was two points higher! That's why I buy the best bucks I can afford. I'm looking forward to having Sherri's other daughters classified in future years. I also learned more about the really fine points of conformation, such as lateral udder attachments, and I have a better idea of which does and bucks will be likely to produce better offspring. It's great to have another opinion from someone with fresh eyes and more experience.

But if I'm surprised about how serious I've become about goats, I'm even more surprised about how serious my husband has become. Regular readers might recall that he's the hard-cheese maker on the farm, and recently he's been complaining about lower cheese yields. I mentioned that I had been mixing sunflower seeds into the goat grain ration, but we ran out of them a couple months ago. A lot of people swear they increase butterfat, but I had never paid attention before. You know what he did? Yep, he went straight to the feed store and bought two 25-pound bags of sunflower seeds!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's that time of year again

Yes, it's the time of year when I start to freak out. It's crunch time! One of the great things about keeping a blog is that you can see what happened last year or last month or whenever. Well, last year, I didn't start to panic until the end of August after Mike had already gone back to work. This year, I figure, why procrastinate? Let's just panic NOW!

We only have next week , and then Mike is back to the old grind. Margaret has already been at the University of Illinois studying engineering for a year (in case you missed that little development). Jonathan and Katherine are both at the local community college, and after all these years of scheduling the human kids so that someone is always home with me, it's just not going to be possible this year, so I'll be all by myself two days a week. Won't that be fun?

I'm getting a bit of a preview of running a homestead by myself, because Katherine has been in the wilds of Wyoming for the past week. This is her litmus test to see if she has what it takes to be a biology field researcher. I don't even know where she is -- but I do know that they have no toilets or showers or any shelter other than tents. So, Katherine is digging something called "cat holes" to use the . . . um, well, it sounds weird to say she's using the bathroom when there isn't one, but you get the idea. And here I am trying to figure out how to milk twelve goats every day, which would take a total of three hours if I milked every one twice a day. Since some still have kids here, I quickly created a complicated schedule for getting their kids to help me out. I only have to milk ten every morning and six every night, which gets my time commitment down to about two and a half hours total.

But I digress! The real reason for this post is my current panic about not finishing our projects before school starts. Two of those projects have been hanging over our heads for several years -- drain tiles and a potting shed. We need to put drain tiles around the barns and around our house. The barn floods, and the yard around our house floods. I think Katherine took a picture a couple weeks ago when we had a really bad storm -- ducks were swimming in our front yard! No, they weren't splashing or wading; they were swimming! The barns flood every spring and sometimes in the summer if the rain is bad enough, so we really have to get these drain tiles in, because for whatever reason, the flooding seems to be getting worse every year.

And then there is the potting shed. I've been saving recycled and repurposed materials for several years. We have a variety of windows and doors from old houses, as well as roofing material and siding that was left over from other projects. I've lost count, but it's been at least four years! I want to build a potting shed and greenhouse so that in the spring, my house doesn't get taken over by seedlings for the garden. Also, I'm hoping that we won't be losing tools all the time if we have a place to put them, rather than just in the barn somewhere.

And I'm not even going to pretend that we'll be able to get the railing around the deck or the tile around our bath tub or the trim on the windows, doors, and baseboards. Did you forget that we're building our own house? Yes, after five years, it still is not finished.

I'm not sure how the drain tiles and potting shed are going to happen in the next week, and I've learned that I should not get my hopes up about finishing projects once the school year starts. Now, I have to get back to the garden and pick lemon squash, green beans, peppers, and tomatoes -- and then I have to figure out what to do with all of them. I already have 20+ pounds of squash and about 10 pounds of green beans in the kitchen that need to be pickled, canned, or frozen.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Canning peppers

We spent Sunday canning peppers, and this is just the beginning! This harvest reminds me of 2005 when we canned 48 pints of jalapeños. Yes, that lasted us several years, even though we are big lovers of spicy food. On Sunday, we canned five pints of jalapeños, two pints of banana peppers, and one pint of 50/50 jalapeños and banana peppers. The pepper plants are covered with buds and baby peppers, so we will be canning lots of hot peppers in the next month. In the next few days, I plan to make jalapeño jelly, which I love to eat with chevre on crackers. We'll also be making salsa when the tomato harvest gets into full swing!

WARNING: If you ever want to try your hand at canning hot peppers, DO follow the advice to wear rubber gloves when slicing the peppers. It's been at least ten years since the first time I canned jalapeños, but I'll never forget the pain! I had just started slicing the peppers when a friend called. I told her I was in the middle of canning jalapeños, and she said, "I hope you're wearing rubber gloves! They'll really burn your skin!" Well, I wasn't wearing gloves, and my hands felt fine, so I thought she must be a wimp. A few hours later, I was in agony. I did not sleep at all that night, because it felt like my hands were on fire!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Another take on sandwiches

I hate sandwiches. At least, that's what I would have said if you would have asked me that question a few days ago. That was before I discovered the most delectable sandwich imaginable -- worthy of a four-star restaurant.

When I was looking for a pesto recipe, I came upon the idea of using pesto in a sandwich with mozzarella. Hmm, that has possibilities, I thought. So, I baked several French baguettes, and we layered them with homemade pesto, parmesan, mozzarella, and garden-fresh tomato slices. The homemade pesto is merely olive oil blended with freshly-harvested basil, garlic, and our own goat milk parmesan. Although we didn't grow the wheat for the bread flour, everything else was homegrown.

The side dish is golden zucchini stir-fried in unrefined sesame oil with freshly crushed garlic and red pepper. Mike spent a good chunk of Saturday afternoon harvesting all of our garlic. Final count was around 40 bulbs of garlic, almost all softneck. For whatever sad reason, the hardneck didn't do very well. Only four of them grew. Oh well, that's why we grow a variety of varieties. Some like our climate and soil better than others. We have enough garlic to last at least a few months.

For more food posts, check out Food Renegade.


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