Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy birthday, dear house!

Six years ago today we moved into a very unfinished house. Our mobile home had been sold, and it was going to be moved away, so we had to get out. We live in a very lenient county. They said we didn't need an occupancy permit, but our insurance company wanted one, so what did the county ask us to do before they would provide it? We needed a working kitchen, a working bathroom, and a bedroom. And that was about all we had!

The floors were bare gypcrete, which is this lightweight concrete that covers in-floor heating, and it gave off this horrible dust that settled on everything. We put three beds in one of the bedrooms like a dormitory, and that's where we all lived for more weeks than I want to remember. Silly me said that the one working bathroom should be on the first floor, although the bedroom was on the second floor. I'm just lucky I didn't fall down the stairs in the middle of the night going to the bathroom. Those were some crazy days.

As the days, weeks, and months passed, and more work was finished, the more we slowed down. We are still not finished. Windows still need trim. Walls still need baseboards. The stairs are still completely unfinished. Our summers are consumed with farm work, so Mike generally works on the house for two weeks a year -- now during his winter break between semesters. And that's when I give y'all an update. Not much has happened in the last two years. This year, he's been spending his Christmas break working on the barn office, trying to get the insulation installed, as well as a new sink. Everyone told us not to move in until the house was finished, and they were right.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thoughts, please!

As I'm writing Homegrown and Handmade (to be published fall 2011 by New Society Publishers), I keep thinking that there are plenty of opinions out there on some of the topics I'm covering. Right now, I have two things that I'd really love to have your opinions on --

If you're a homesteader, or if you want to be a homesteader, why do you do it? Or why do you want to do it? I'd love to hear from urban homesteaders, as well as those in the country. Why do you grow your own food or cook from scratch or spin wool? If it is okay to include your thoughts in the book, please sign your comment with your name and city/state or city/province or city/country.

If you have chickens, why did you choose the breed (or breeds) that you have? Did they live up to your expectations? If you've had more than one breed, what's your favorite?

I spent yesterday visiting chicken coops in the city of Chicago and will be posting some photos of them soon! I was really impressed by the creativity of people working with limited space for their flocks of laying hens.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

History of poultry housing

I got a little carried away in my research on the history of poultry housing for Homegrown and Handmade, and there just isn't room in the book for all of this information, even though I think it is absolutely fascinating. So, I'm sharing it with you!

A few years ago, some old boards, an old door, and a dozen barrel staves or lath was deemed a sufficient house for poultry, but that day is past.
Poultry World, April 1873, p. 48

The short article that ran with the drawing of Jacob Beier's poultry house praised the beauty, as well as the evidence of well-cared-for poultry that lived within it, as evidenced by the chimney, which provided warmth and cooked food and the windows that could be opened for ventilation.  The article went on to say, "The pains and expense bestowed upon the feathered stock of the country, in the way of improved buildings, is a gratifying sign of progress."

Progress? Only twenty-five years later, there was quite a controversy between farmers over whether the insulated, heated houses were best or the open-air houses. Previously unknown diseases were wiping out entire flocks, because the buildings were breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses. Air quality was horrendous, as many people wrote of the stench. Combs and feet were freezing because of the high humidity in the buildings during the winter.

Once of the most vocal proponents of open-air housing for chickens was Prince T. Woods, M.D., who wrote articles and books for more than two decades. His 1924 book, Modern Fresh-Air Poultry Houses (p. 14) said:

Nature made fowls to live in the open. She provided cock and hen with generous garments of feathers; arranged for constant replacement and repair, heavier underfluff of soft warm down for cold weather wear, a complete new outfit at least once a year, nearly perfect protection against both heat and cold as well as from storms. Housing them is an artificial condition wholly for Man’s convenience and chiefly essential for comfort in care and management and protection against thieves both two and four legged.
Woods received a lot of criticism for his opinion and was called heartless and lazy, but he was not alone. It really looked like the open-air poultry movement was finally gaining speed in the 1920s, but as we all know, it didn't last. Today's commercial poultry farms have put their hens not only in buildings but in tiny little cages where they never see sunlight or fresh air.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dear Santa

Priorities change as you grow up, and your opinions change, too. Gifts I once would have frowned upon, I now covet -- like insulated overalls! It was a real breakthrough for me when I asked for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer for my birthday almost three years ago. I had been one of those who scoffed at the idea of appliances as gifts, but I really wanted that mixer because I knew it would make my life so much better. And I was right. Here are a few other things I would love to have . . .

  • a grain mill -- I've wanted one of these forever, and I actually have one of the cheap hand-cranked models that makes a coarse grind. But I want one that grinds the flour finely enough that my loaves of bread do not feel like bricks.
  • a cream separator -- It wasn't such a big deal that we bought organic butter from the store when we were still buying cheddar and sour cream, but now that we make 100% of our dairy products except for butter, it bugs me. I want to be able to say that we make 100% of our dairy products PERIOD! And homemade butter is so much tastier than store bought. I recently made butter with Jersey cream from a local dairy, and it made Mike's homemade croissants more heavenly than ever before.
  • solar panels -- At Chicago's Green Festival in May, I bought a reusable shopping bag that says, "Solar panels turn me on!" I really, really want to be off grid. In the meantime, I buy what we can afford. We have a solar fence charger, a solar gate opener, and a solar spotlight on one of the barns.
  • a greenhouse -- Now that I have the winter gardening bug, I'm not content with just having fresh salad through the winter.  I want it all! I want to grow spinach, mustard greens, onions, carrots, turnips, and lots of other cold-weather crops. And I want to do it in a greenhouse so I can be in there with the plants out of the wind where it's warm when I'm harvesting my dinner.
  • more land -- I'd love to have a few more acres that don't flood. I don't think I ever blogged about this year's hay field flood, but we got zero hay from our field to feed livestock this year. After the hay was cut, it flooded, so it was all soaked in mud. The bales will just be used as compost and mulch in the garden.
So, if you happen to run into Santa, could you give him my list, please? I've tried to be a really good girl this year!

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Book review: Raising Goats for Dummies

    Although it is not possible for one book to contain everything you need to know to raise goats, Cheryl K. Smith comes close in Raising Goats for Dummies.

    In 19 chapters, she covers everything from buying goats to milking, using goats for meat, and spinning with mohair. There is even a chapter on misconceptions (goats don’t eat cans) and an appendix with goat milk recipes. Each chapter is meant to stand alone, so if you are expecting kids any day now, you can skip right to chapter 13. I would, however, recommend reading the whole book from beginning to end at some point.

    One section I really liked was “Protecting Your Herd,” where she covers dangers that most people probably would not consider, such as lead paint on old barns. Her reasons to avoid tethering are more extensive than I have seen in other books or articles. In addition to strangulation, which is the usual objections most authors voice, Smith also says that tethered goats are sitting ducks for predators. They might also get the lead line wrapped up so that they cannot reach their water, and if they are stuck in hot sun, they could dehydrate and die. She also tells the story of someone who found their tethered goat hanging from a tree branch. I’m glad she covers the risk of domestic dogs attacking goats, because most new goat owners have no idea that this is a potential problem.

    Smith includes more information on goat health than any other book I’ve seen on the subject, and it is includes up-to-date information on copper requirements, dewormer resistance, and FAMACHA. I was surprised she did not mention that loose minerals are better for goats than mineral blocks, because some goats may not be able to get enough minerals from a hard block.

    I was a little confused about why she said, “Llamas and alpacas are good guardian animals,” but then goes on to only discuss llamas. I was curious to read about alpacas as guard animals, because it is my understanding that they are too small and too shy to be guardians. In fact, I know people who have llamas to guard their alpacas.

    Although she covers fencing in a fairly extensive section, she does not mention the use of portable electric netting, which is becoming more popular with goat breeders, especially those on small acreage. She does talk about using temporary electric fencing with three strands of electric wire, mentioning that a friend of hers has used this successfully. Unfortunately, that type of fencing does not work with all goats, and you only need one goat to teach the rest of them that going through the electric fence is not such a big deal.

    Overall, this book gives goat owners as much useful information as an author can squeeze into 300-plus pages. This book makes a positive contribution to the literature available on goats, and I’ll recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about raising goats.

    This review will appear in the winter issue of Ruminations: Celebrating the Small Farm Goat.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010

    Buying local meat

    As buying local becomes more popular, some people are starting to look for local meat, but one thing often gets in the way. They need to buy a whole or half pig or beef, and they don't like frozen meat, because they think it is inferior to fresh. In fact, one year, when we decided to process our turkeys early than usual, several regular customers said they didn't want one because it would have to be frozen.

    When meat is properly wrapped and frozen, there is no difference in quality or taste. The main reason I prefer getting our meat custom processed is because they have the equipment to properly wrap and freeze it. When we have our meat done professionally, it will last in the freezer a loooong time! We found some two-year-old pork in our freezer one time, and it tasted fine. If we butcher and freeze meat, it only lasts about a month before it gets freezer burn, and then it's blech!

    I suspect that this bias against frozen meat developed a long time ago when they didn't do such a good job of wrapping and freezing, and it just gets passed on from generation to generation. Also, marketers in this country know that people view fresh as higher quality, so the cheapest quality meat is sold frozen because it will last longer (and can be sold more cheaply), and the better quality is sold fresh, which perpetuates the myth that fresh tastes better. There is a lot that goes into the taste of meat, and most of it goes back to the way the animals were raised and what they were fed, as well as the breed and age of the animal. It always makes me smile when people have turkey at our house in the middle of summer and "just know it's fresh because it tastes so good!" We only butcher turkeys in November -- the Saturday before Thanksgiving, so everyone can have their fresh turkeys. 

    Lockers who do custom processing of beef, pork, etc., (versus poultry) typically give you the meat frozen, and this is a good thing. If you stack 150 pounds of meat in a home freezer, it's going to take forever to freeze. The quality of a commercial freezer is a lot better than a home freezer, so the meat is frozen quickly and thoroughly. It's in wire trays, so there is air circulation around the meat. The meat is so solidly frozen that it doesn't even begin to defrost on the drive home, which for me is half an hour. If you tap it on the counter, it sounds like a hammer.

    Our poultry processor gives us the meat chilled, rather than frozen, but it's a one-day process. We drop off chickens or turkeys in the morning and pick up packages of meat in the afternoon. I've heard that freezing meat the day it's butchered can make it tough, so we always wait about three days before freezing it. Freezing birds in our freezer is a fairly even process, because the birds are not flat, so air can circulate around them -- rather than flat packages of steaks and roasts, which would just be a giant cube of meat that would take forever to freeze in a home freezer.

    I suspect that some people do not want to buy frozen meat because they don't know how old it is. However, when you buy meat directly from the farmer, you know how old it is. The animal will not be delivered to the locker for processing until it is sold, because it can't be frozen until it is cut up and packaged, and they need your directions before doing that.

    When you buy a whole or half pig or beef, you call the locker and tell them exactly what you want -- how many pounds of ground, any patties or sausage, how many roasts, and what cuts of steak you want. If, for example, you don't want pork chops, they'll just add that to your ground or they can cut it up as stew meat. If you don't want something -- like tongue -- just tell them that you don't want it. Although we don't eat tongue, our dogs do, so we get it for them. We get everything -- we even ask the butcher for the bones, so we can give them to the dogs. Raw bones can be digested and don't cause the problems that cooked bones do, such as perforating the stomach. They can also smoke bacon and hams.

    If you are accustomed to buying meat in one pound packages, the idea of having 150 pounds of pork could be daunting, but it is not as much as it sounds like. That will fit in two or three picnic coolers, so you would only need a small deep freezer. At only 25 to 50 pounds, a lamb will fit in most refrigerator freezers.

    Once you get a freezer full of meat, you get kind of spoiled, because it is really convenient. The other nice thing about buying directly from a farmer is that you can go to the farm and see how the animals live, and you can ask about things that are important to you, like drug use and feeding practices. So, if you know a small farmer who sells whole pork, beef, goat, or lamb, give it a try. If you don't know anyone, check out Local Harvest or Market Maker to find a farm near you. And be sure to contact them sooner rather than later, because many sell out months in advance. All of our 2010 pigs were reserved in March, and they were not processed until November, so it may also require some planning ahead.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Chickens and turkeys together? Part 2

    Back in September, I explained that yes, we do let our chickens and turkeys live together, and no we have never had a case of blackhead. I explained several reasons why I believed this may work for us, and in the most recent issue of ALBC News, Terrell Spencer, a Sustainable Poultry Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, explains symptoms, prevention, and management of blackhead.

    Spencer says:
    Getting poultry off of the ground and onto roosts reduces the chance of cloacal contact with infected fecal matter. Turkeys and other poultry will huddle together and sleep on the ground in absence of a suitable roost. The direct contact from huddling greatly increases the chance of Blackhead transmission as the birds defecate through the night.

    All of our birds have roosts available to them, and we basically let chickens be chickens and turkeys be turkeys. This also means that most of our turkeys spend the night roosting in trees. We have a perimeter fence, a guardian dog, and llamas to protect all of our livestock from predators. Modern recommendations for raising meat birds (chickens and turkeys) say that if birds roost, their leg meat will not be as tender, although we have never found this to be true. I also suspect that commercial producers don't want to provide roosts because that would cost money, and if you're raising 100,000 birds, that's a lot of roosts.

    Fecal-cloacal transmission as the main source of outbreaks also explains why people who raised their turkeys inside on wire had better luck with avoiding Blackhead. The poop falls through the wire, so the birds are less likely to sit in it.

    Spencer says:
    Frequently moving the flock to fresh pasture minimizes the amount of manure and exposure time that the birds are subject to the pathogens shed in the manure. . . . Reducing the number of birds in a given unit of area (acre, paddock, etc.) has an effect similar to moving the turkeys to fresh ground.

    While commercial producers measure their stocking rate in square feet -- like one bird per square foot or less in confinement -- our 50+ chickens and nine breeding turkeys have access to about ten acres, although most of them don't range much farther than two or three acres. Still, 60 birds on two acres (88,000 square feet) would be 1,467 square feet per bird. When I think of 40,000 birds on an acre -- inside -- all I can think about is how much that would stink!

    Spencer says:
    Ultraviolet light from sunshine, the drying action of wind, the heat of summer, and the chill of winter are all detrimental to the survival of H. meleagridis. Any natural weathering process that breaks down poultry manure -- and therefore the hospitable niche of the Blackhead pathogen -- should be encouraged. H. meleagridis requires moisture to survive and spread, and moving the flock to dry ground makes the spread of disease more difficult. 

    In other words, turkeys confined to buildings are sitting ducks for infections. Our turkeys are outside almost 24 hours a day. They only go into the chicken house to grab a little grain, then they're out again.

    The fascinating thing about recent research regarding Blackhead is that they have discovered the worst transmission is actually fecal-cloaca rather than fecal-oral, which is how people assumed turkeys contracted it, since that is how most animals get most diseases that have anything to do with parasites. In the September/October issue of ALBC News, Spencer said:
    When the turkey is given a constant supply of food, experiments have shown that the Blackhead protozoan is not capable of surviving stomach acids and, therefore, Blackhead is not usually acquired when the turkey eats or drinks. Turkeys that have liberal access to food and water can't get Blackhead orally unless they eat cecal worm eggs.

    And when turkeys are free ranging, the odds of that happening are pretty slim. Maybe one bird could get it, but it would not run rampant through a flock. Also, when turkeys are free-ranging, they are eating constantly, compared to birds confined, which are eating grain (also known as "concentrates") off and on through the day. If they are not eating, the acid level in their stomach goes down.

    I don't think it is a coincidence that Blackhead became a problem at the same time that industrial agriculture was getting geared up and starting to confine birds. Open Air Poultry Houses For All Climates was published in 1912 trying to convince farmers to stop putting their chickens inside. It cites evidence of sickly birds in confinement and zero mortality in birds that were given free range. Unfortunately, the runaway train kept going, and more and more farmers kept locking up their birds. Spencer said the U.S. turkey production fell from 11 million birds in 1890 to an average of 3.7 million annually between 1910 and 1920.

    Of course, some people think we can control all of this with drugs by feeding turkeys a medication that will prevent Blackhead or constantly deworming chickens that live with the turkeys. But drugs are not sustainable. All of them eventually stop working when they're overused. We've seen it with antibiotics in people and with dewormers in goats and sheep.

    In the most recent issue of ALBC News, Spencer says that there are reports of Blackhead-resistant turkeys:
    This strategy is only plausible for heritage turkeys (i.e. not broad-breasted whites or bronzes) as the heritage birds can be bred and selected for resistance. If a Blackhead outbreak occurs in a heritage flock, the surviving individuals may have some trait, either genetic or behavioral that increases their chance of surviving or avoiding a Blackhead infection.

    This is the sustainable answer. Whenever we get into a fight with nature and try to beat it with drugs, we always lose eventually. Scientists thought they had completely defeated internal parasites in sheep and goats 20 years ago, and vets were recommending monthly deworming. Today, the parasites have grown resistant to the dewormers, and on some farms, there is nothing that works when the animals really need it. The one or two goats I lose to parasites every year is nothing compared to the reports of breeders losing 20% of their flocks and herds in the southeast U.S. annually.

    Maybe without even knowing it, I've developed a Blackhead-resistant flock. Or maybe by letting turkeys do what comes naturally -- like run around and roost in trees -- I've created an environment where they can thrive naturally.

    If you are interested in preserving heritage breeds of livestock, even if you don't own any, I highly recommend joining the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Every other month, they put out a very informative newsletter about rare breeds, and they have an annual conference. They are also responsible for doing an annual census to check the status of rare breeds. It is largely due to their efforts, as well as some very dedicated breeders, that heritage turkeys are not extinct now, as there were only a few thousand of all breeds combined in the late 1990s.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Letting go of citified ideas

    It has been more than eight years, and we are heading into our ninth winter here, and I just bought my first pair of insulated overalls. Yes, you read that correctly. Now that I have a pair, I can't believe I didn't buy a pair before now. And I want more. My whole family wants them now!

    It was two degrees Fahrenheit when I woke up this morning, and the temperature has risen to a balmy 16 now, and I just came inside from mid-day chores. I'm sweating. That is hard to believe, but I was not cold at all. Katherine borrowed them last night for chores, and now she wants a pair. Then after her raving about how great they are, Jonathan wanted to try them on when he went outside later. Yes, we're a pretty boring family when it comes to sizes, although the overalls were a little short on Jonathan, because he is three inches taller than me. Still, they covered enough of his legs that he wants a pair now. And this morning, Mike and Katherine almost got into an argument over who was going to get to wear them. So, I need to head back to Tractor Supply and buy more for everyone.

    So, why has it taken me eight years to even try them? Well, this is kind of embarrassing, but every time I saw someone wearing them, I thought they were really ugly. Most people around here wear Carhartt's, and they are the ugliest yellow-brown imaginable, in my opinion. When I was in Tractor Supply last week, I noticed these really pretty pink insulated overalls and went over to look at them. I immediately started to think about buying them, but then a bit of common sense kicked in, and I realized that they would look horrendous after one day of chores. But right next to them were these chocolate brown overalls. Perfect! They are nice and dark, so hardly anything will show up on them.

    The first time I put them on and walked outside, I was in shock about how warm my legs were. Blue jeans or sweat pants with long underwear do not even come close to keeping my legs warm, but I am totally toasty when I put the overalls on top of what I'm wearing in the house. (Yes, I know I'm a wimp. I need three layers on my legs and four layers on top to stay warm.) Katherine went outside to milk this morning by putting the overalls on top of her pajamas, so she didn't have to get dressed for chores then redressed for school. No doubt that is one reason she is so excited about them. Now I know why the farmers out here walk around looking totally unaffected by the cold weather. It's because they're so warm in those insulated overalls! It's not about looking good. It's about staying warm!

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    Winter gardening

    It's official. Low tunnels really do work in Illinois. After a month of freezing nights and now several days of below freezing temperatures, my garden is still going strong. We're having salad with dinner tonight.

    It is a real eye-opener when you discover that your state is importing fresh produce from the north during the winter. No, that's not a typo. Illinois imports produce during the winter from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada. But the thing that really pushed us over the edge was that last year, Mike and I attended a conference on organic gardening and learned -- straight from the professor -- that Michigan State grows produce for their residence hall salad bars through the winter. And he showed us pictures of greenhouses filled with gorgeous lettuces and greens.

    Yes, I've owned the book Four Season Harvest for a couple years, but I suppose there was just something in my brain stopping me from doing it before coming face to face with that professor and his slides. Mike and I just looked at each other, shaking our heads, and I said, "We're pathetic. Why haven't we done this?"

    So, we're doing it! Back in September, I planted lettuces and radishes, as well as cole crop transplants, including broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. I continued planting through October. The seeds that were planted later will get a very early start in the spring, supposedly, because the low tunnels will start to warm up in February when there is still snow on the ground. I talked to another Illinois farmer who said he planted potatoes in high tunnels last March and was selling them to restaurants by May, which is when most of us are just starting to plant them. I didn't have any potatoes to plant, but I did plant onion seeds. I have no idea what will happen to the cole crop transplants, but everything is an experiment.  We really have nothing to lose by trying.

    In January, I'm attending a full-day workshop on high tunnels and greenhouse growing, so we can expand our winter garden next year. I've never been so excited about winter before!

    Monday, November 29, 2010

    Big birds

    A few years ago, we had a 42-pound turkey, and we cooked only the breast for Thanksgiving dinner, which weighed 24 pounds. There were eight meat eaters at the dinner, and we sent some home with guests. Then we ate turkey until we were ready to gag if someone even said the word "turkey" -- turkey tetrazzini, Mexican turkey casserole, turkey broccoli casserole, turkey and rice soup -- so we finally fed the remainder to our very happy dogs.

    Now, if we have anything more than about 25 pounds, we cut it up and grind it up, which is what we did last night with a 32-pound turkey. After grinding up eight or nine pounds of breast meat, we decided to just freeze the legs, thighs, and wings whole. We froze most of the ground breast meat, but I'm going to use some of it today to make turkey chili. This is definitely a chili kind of day.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    Holiday shopping on the farm this weekend

    Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, we'll open the farm for holiday shopping from 1 to 5 p.m. each day.

    We'll have roving available in a variety of natural colors, 100% Shetland wool yarn, llama-Shetland blend yarn, raw fleeces, 100% Old English Southdown quilt batting from Snuggles, lambskins in a variety of natural colors, and of course, goat milk soap. Accessories, such as knitting needles, crochet hooks, and felting kits will also be available.

    You can order custom-made scarves, which include the story of the sheep and/or llama that produced the fiber used to make the scarf.

    We'll be knitting and spinning all day Saturday, and you're welcome to join us with your wheel or needles, and if you want to learn to knit or spin, we'll be offering free lessons.

    A soapmaking class is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 2:00. The cost is $32, and you'll take home a small loaf of soap, which has a retail value of $24. Reservations are required for the soapmaking class, because space is limited, so email if you're interested.

    If you're willing to brave the cold, you can meet Julia Child and James Beard, our new American Guinea Hogs, who will hopefully be making piglets in 2011.

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    Coyotes, coyotes, coyotes

    This morning when Mike was in the woods looking for downed trees to use as firewood, he found a pile of bones that he assumed to be the remains of Snuggles, our sole Old English Southdown sheep that has been missing for several weeks. For the first few days that we didn't see him, we kept making excuses, assuming he was lagging behind the other sheep, or maybe he was in a brushy part of the timber, and we just couldn't see him. After a couple weeks, we started to quietly accept the idea that perhaps he had been eaten. The skull Mike found is a polled ruminant, and it is too wide to be a deer. Since Snuggles is the only sheep or goat to be missing, it seems obvious that it is him.

    I have no doubt that without the llamas, I would probably have no sheep at this point. In August, Tuscany, my smallest gelding, was bitten in the knee of his right front leg. And a couple of weeks ago, Merlin, one of the older boys, was limping, although we couldn't find any obvious injury on his leg. He spent about three days kushed (that's what they call it when a llama is laying down) or walking on three legs. Both have made a full recovery.

    Our mail lady said that someone a mile south of us shot a coyote and hung it up on a fence post by the road, which is a little creepy, regardless of how much I hate coyotes. The man who lives down the road said that a pack of coyotes had his dog (a German shepherd mix) pinned against his house about a month ago. He's lived here his whole life and said he's never seen so many coyotes as this past year. Their house is in the middle of a cornfield, and the packs come into his yard on a regular basis. The coyotes are probably a lot closer to our house than I want to know, but we can't see them because we are surrounded by timber and little bluffs and creek beds, where they can hide. The sheep are spending most of their time in the cow pasture. I imagine Bridget's horns are good protection. Someone else told me that there used to be a bounty on coyotes, so people would hunt them. But there is no incentive now for anyone to shoot them other than livestock owners whose animals are being killed. It's feeling a little like the Wild West here.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Homegrown and Handmade coming fall 2011

    In fall 2011, my first book will be published -- Homegrown and Handmade. It's a how-to book on growing your own produce, meat, eggs, dairy, and even fiber. And then once you've grown it, the book will explain what to do with it -- how to make your own goat cheese or wool scarf. There will be recipes for what to do when your kitchen is overflowing with eggs during the spring, and I'll have instructions and recipes for cooking stew hens and other traditional foods. Of course, homesteaders will find a lot of valuable info in the book, but it's also for urbanites who shop at the farmer's market or have their own garden or backyard hens.

    So, how did all of this come about? Well, back in September when I was at the Mother Earth News Fair, a representative of New Society Publishing approached me and suggested that I might have a book in me. She had read my bio on the Mother Earth News site and visited the blog. She attended my soapmaking session, and we had a meeting where we started talking about ideas. Over the past month, I've written a book proposal, which we've tweaked for content, and today, I signed the contract.

    It's a little surreal and overwhelming at times to think that I am writing a book! But I've already started, and I've knocked off 3,000 words, so I only have another 77,000 to go by February 15. The book will add up to about 288 pages. As usual, the family is being super supportive. Awesome daughter Katherine has volunteered to do most of the milking for the next few months, so I'll have more time for writing.

    I promise all of you right now that I won't be one of those bloggers who gets a book deal and totally forgets about blogging. I love sharing all of my adventures with you and hearing what you think of all of it. No doubt I'll be asking you all for advice on various topics as I work through the chapters. And the best part of all this is the book tour, which means I'll get to meet some of you!

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Natural alternatives to body care products

    A number of events lately have inspired me to take a hard look at all the things I'm putting on my body. I've been working for more than twenty years to eliminate all the artificial and possibly dangerous substances from my food, and it only makes sense to also try to keep such things off my skin, since it absorbs whatever is put on it. That concept is driven home by the fact that there are a number of drugs that are available via dermal patches that are stuck to the skin for a few days, and the drugs are absorbed into the body. It is actually a more effective route of administration that oral medication, because it goes directly into your bloodstream, rather than going through your digestive system first.

    If I won't eat food that contains sodium carboxymethylcellulose, then why should I use shampoo that contains disodium laureth sulfosuccinate or hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride? And this is from a company that claims to use natural ingredients. I have sometimes used my homemade soap to wash my hair, and it gets my hair clean, but it's a challenge to style. Then I came upon this blog post about using baking soda to wash your hair, so I thought I'd give it a try. I just put a little baking soda in my hand, get it wet and scrub it around my scalp. It gets my hair squeaky clean. In fact, it dries out my hair and makes it frizzy, which I would have previously assumed to be impossible. Remember Roseanne Rosannadanna? I tried putting the baking soda in my hair and then adding my soap, which works better, but styling is still a challenge.

    I mentioned my experiments on the Antiquity Oaks Facebook page, and a few people said that they have completely stopped using shampoo. They simply rinse their hair with plain water in the shower. At first their hair was a little oily, but it was temporary. Some also mentioned using apple cider vinegar as a rinse. Now I am really intrigued and excited to try these ideas and see what happens.

    Although my shampoo-alternative experiments have just begun, I started living without a commercial deodorant a month ago. I've known for at least 15 years that alcohol works just as well as any commercial deodorant, but I was always worried that if I used it every day, it would dry out my skin. So, I only used it after shaving under my arms, because I really did not want to put unknown stuff on skin that had just been shaved, regardless of how safe the company claimed it to be. Anyway, I decided to see if I could simply use a bit of alcohol to keep my underarms odor free, and maybe it wouldn't dry out my skin. I've discovered that if I shower daily, I don't need the alcohol, although I did need it the first few days after I quit using the deodorant, which I found kind of interesting. It was as if there was a rebound effect from using the deodorant -- discontinuing use made my underarms stink badly within an hour or two of showering. Now, a month later, I don't smell a thing for 24 hours after showering. I also tried witch hazel, and it worked as well as the alcohol. I just put a little on a cotton ball and rub it under my arm pits.

    My next challenge is to find an alternative to toothpaste, because almost all the so-called natural ones have sodium laurel sulfate in them. I found one without it, but it had some tiny something in it that would get stuck between my teeth, which necessitated flossing. It seemed really weird that my toothpaste created a need to floss. Any suggestions?

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Welcome, Julia Child!

    Yes, the Julia Child has been dead for a few years, and no, I am not losing it. Julia Child is our new American Guinea Hog gilt. Jonathan and I picked her up in Wisconsin last Saturday. She will be the foundation of our breeding program for this amazing breed of swine, which calls Appalachia home. I've decided to name all of our hogs after famous chefs because they will be producing outstanding food. Julia is almost eight months old, which is when she can be bred.

    We've been raising Tamworths from weaning to finish for six years now, and although I love the pork, the pig itself isn't quite what I was hoping for. Some are better foragers than others. Some have decent personalities, and some are mean. They ignore most vegetables from the garden, and they are so-so on fruit. The biggest thing about Tamworths, however, is that they're big. I'll never forget the time that a Tamworth sow was running straight at me as we were trying to load them up. The family is yelling, "Stop her!" and I just stepped aside. Seriously, you think I can stop a 300-pound sow from going wherever she wants to go? And she wasn't even full grown.

    I've been wanting a breed of swine that we could breed and raise here, because you really are not sustainable if you don't have your own breeding stock. Most swine, however, are big. I briefly considered the red wattle, but the thought of 1,000 pound boar is a little scary.

    It's also hard to find swine that are good mothers, because that is not something that is important to modern agriculture. The Tamworths are supposed to be good mothers, but our single experience with farrowing did not go well. We wound up with two live piglets out of the eight that were born. People said I should give her another chance, because she was young, but that's when I realized that I wasn't crazy about having a very large animal that was difficult to control.

    The more I heard about Guinea Hogs, however, the more I liked them. They are true homesteader pigs, eating just about everything under the sun. Some people don't give them grain at all. They eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, hay, grass, and even snakes and gophers. But they are calm and sweet. Julia is certainly living up to that reputation. Every time I give her food, she gobbles it up while I rub her back. She's been enjoying fallen and over-ripe pears, overgrown summer squash, whey from cheesemaking, acorns, and hay. I'm hoping to get her trained so she'll follow me into the woods and harvest her own acorns and hickory nuts.

    The most exciting thing for me is that they only get to about 200 to 300 pounds when full grown. I know that won't be a huge amount of pork per pig, but I'm fine with that.

    Julia came from Nancy Gaedke's farm in Wisconsin, and she just happened to have some two-week old piglets when we were there. While Nancy persuaded Julia to get into a dog crate for her trip, I cooed over the piglets. Aren't they adorable! I don't think they're all reserved, so email Nancy for more info if you're interested.

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    What a week!

    Last week was one of constant ups and downs, frustrations and celebrations. The microwave and heat both went out on Wednesday. Then a neighbor called to tell me that two of the llamas were in the field across the road. Friday afternoon I headed off to Minnesota and Wisconsin to pick up a couple of new animals. I have soap orders piling up, and I still don't know when I'm going to make more soap, but it should have been a couple days ago. My arthritis has been acting up, and I couldn't find time to get to either the chiropractor or the massage therapist, so my TENS unit has been keeping me functioning. I need to find the Time Store to see if I can buy an extra day or two, because everything is simply not fitting into the seven I've been allotted each week.

    But I'm not complaining. It is all working out. The llamas ran right to me when I went out there, and they followed me home. Mike was able to fix the heat, and I decided that I shouldn't have a microwave anyway. Jonathan and I drove to Minnesota and brought home a new ram for our flock of Shetland sheep, and in Wisconsin, we picked up a gilt -- young female pig -- to start our breeding program with American Guinea Hogs, a critically endangered breed of swine.

    The fall garden survived 18 degrees, so we're still enjoying fresh salads. We're using row covers and low tunnels. Over the next few days, I'm hoping to get up photos of the new ram and gilt, as well as the garden. I think the coyotes are also back, worse than ever, but I'm hoping that I'm wrong on that one. Sovalye the livestock guardian dog and Merlin the llama are both limping, and one of the sheep is missing. And I have a new project that I'm working on, which I'll also tell you about in a few days.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    New poultry tractor

     Back of our newest turkey tractor

    We've been using portable pens for young chickens and turkeys for about seven years now. Our first one was too light weight, and it only lasted one season. It was made with PVC pipe. A week before Thanksgiving, the wind grabbed it and blew it so high that it shattered when it hit the ground. I never wanted another one. But Mike liked them.

    Our second chicken tractor design had lots of wood to make it heavy.
    He made three new ones with lots of wood, so they would be too heavy to blow away. Their weight, however, made them extremely difficult to move, even though he put pop-up wheels on the corners.

    One of them fell apart this summer, because wood doesn't mix well with wind and rain. I was kind of surprised it lasted for five years. So we needed a second portable pen for turkeys. I found this design online. It uses livestock panels that have been bent over to create the frame. I really like the fact that we can walk into it. A disadvantage of both of our previous designs was the height. To catch chickens or turkeys, someone had to crawl in there on hands and knees, which was difficult and dirty, even if you moved the pen to clean grass moments before crawling in there.

    We don't usually split gobblers and hens, but we decided to try it this year. We put the five boys in the new pen and left the eight hens in the old one. Although the boys don't look that big, they usually weigh about five pounds more than the hens (15 pounds versus 10 pounds), which is why we decided that it was fair for only five of them to have their own pen. And in case you missed my earlier post about the turkeys, they're White Hollands, which is a heritage breed that is critically endangered of extinction. Don't let their white feathers fool you -- they're a far cry from the modern supermarket mutants.

    I'm sorry I don't have a picture of the front of the new pen. I tried five times to upload it, and Blogger would have a nervous breakdown every time. Either the picture wouldn't display, or it was distorted, so I finally gave up.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Chevre experiment

    When I teach cheesemaking classes, I always say that you have to use pasteurized milk for chevre, and someone usually asks why, and I always have to say that I don't know. Well, I know now! We still have an abundance of milk, and we have so much cheese already in storage that I decided to try chevre with raw milk yesterday.

    When I took it out of the mold today, I immediately knew there was a problem, because it looked like this.

    It should be much smoother. I'm not saying it should be smooth as glass, but there shouldn't be hundreds of tiny holes. It also felt wrong. It felt spongy, rather than firm. So, I pulled it apart, and I saw this.

    The inside should look smooth like cream cheese. We've seen tiny bubbles in cheddar before, and it means that the starter culture has failed. I imagine that's what happened here. Whatever bacteria is in the culture wasn't strong enough to overcome the natural bacteria in the milk. It doesn't necessarily smell bad, so it's going to the pigs.

    For the record, I am using the chevre direct set culture from New England Cheesemaking. I suspect that if I were making chevre with a mesophilic culture and rennet, it would probably work. But that's an experiment for another day.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Blustery day

    Blustery is probably understating the situation. Professionals are comparing the winds to a hurricane. My sleep was interrupted at least a couple dozen times last night by scary wind noises. Almost all of the deck furniture has blown off, and with another 24 hours of this craziness predicted, I don't see much point in putting it back on the deck. My poor rosemary plant, which is about two feet tall was standing at a 45-degree angle when I first saw it this morning.

    Our greenhouse, which is only two years old, is completely trashed. It was still half covered when I got up this morning, so I was hopeful that we'd be able to fix it, but no such luck. That's really thick plastic, and it's reinforced with threads that run between the layers of plastic, but it is ripped in multiple places. I wanted to look at it more closely, but I nearly got blown away just taking the picture, so I decided to come back inside. It's pointless to look at it more closely anyway. Trashed is trashed. It's probably a good thing we didn't get the low tunnel covers on the raised beds yet.

    Someone needs to walk the perimeter of our property later today and again tomorrow. A storm like this usually results in at least one tree falling down, and it usually falls on a fence, which is statistically improbable, but somehow it happens that way. The good news is that we'll have more firewood.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    My new solar clothes dryer!

    Shortly after moving out here, we put up a clothesline for drying clothes. It was behind the mobile home that was here at the time. We were thinking about where to build our new home and did not like any of the options very much, and then this big storm came through, and when we woke up in the morning, we saw that there was no longer a tree in our backyard. The enormous hickory tree, whose trunk was about two feet in diameter, had been blown down in the storm -- luckily in the opposite direction from the house. The clothesline was completely demolished, but it was certainly preferable to our home being crushed by the tree. It wasn't very long after the tree went down that a light bulb went on, and I realized that the space between the mobile home and the pond was the perfect place for our new home. We simply had never considered it before then, because there was a big, beautiful tree there, which we didn't want to cut down.

    I can't believe it's taken us six years to get another clothesline up, but we live on a dusty gravel road, and when we've gone a few weeks without rain (as we just did), a big cloud of dust blows towards us when cars drive past. Luckily, not too many cars drive past, but I didn't see the point in putting up a clothes line if our clothes would be dirtier after drying than they were before washing.

    After Mike finished the wood shed a couple months ago, it clicked! Let's put the clothesline south of the wood shed. Then another light bulb went on, and we realized that we could attach one end of the clothesline to the wood shed. So, now our clothesline is an extension of our local fuel preservation station.

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    A bittersweet ending?
    Tune in next spring

    Several people asked if I had any idea why Little Man died, and the problem is that I have a lot of ideas. Unfortunately I don't know which one is correct, or if the answer is something I never considered. I decided not to get a necropsy, because they don't seem to be conclusive very often, and most of my theories are things that could not have been avoided.

    Little Man and Katherine
    I took him out of the pasture with Big Mama when Katy had her cria last month, because I realized that he could get Katy pregnant. After he'd been in the barn about a week, I realized that he hadn't created a dung pile, but being new to llamas, I thought maybe a yearling wouldn't start one on his own. After all, he had to be pooping, right? The poop must have just been falling through the straw like it does for goats and sheep, and I did see a few pebbles on top of the straw. Someone posted on Facebook, in response to my post, that they had a couple llamas die of stomach torsion, which got me to thinking about whether that could have been the problem. I tried searching online but couldn't find anything on the topic.

    I wondered if he was depressed about being taken away from his mother, but it had been a month. He would stick his head of out the window and talk to her, and I'd put him in the front yard, where he could also see her and talk to her across the fence.

    I wondered if it was parasites, but he's been off the goat pasture for a month, and the other llamas and goats that are still on that pasture are fine.

    I wondered if there was just something wrong with him. I don't think he has grown at all since he arrived here in March. We've been putting his halter on exactly the same notch for six months, and he was nine months old when he arrived, so he should have outgrown his cria halter by now. The people who sheared him were very surprised he was still so small at a year. He was less than five feet tall, which was probably one of the things I found so endearing. He was my little buddy, my Little Man.

    Someone said that we'll always have a part of him in Big Mama, and it occurred to me yesterday that she may be more correct than she ever intended. I was told that Little Man was gelded when we got him, so I didn't see any problem with leaving him with his mother. At some point, in the middle of the summer, he was in the front yard walking away from me, and when he flicked his tail to the side, I happened to notice something that looked an awful lot like testicles. No, he wasn't gelded. That could explain why Big Mama spit-off Dolce when I introduced them for breeding.

    Big Mama was not supposed to be bred when she arrived here, but she wouldn't let my male touch her. That was in June, and she'd been running with Little Man since arriving here in March, so she could have been a month or two pregnant when I introduced her to Dolce. We won't know until next spring, but I have to admit it's tempting to put her in a trailer and haul her down to U of I for an ultrasound. Patience is not my strongest virtue, but I'm trying to learn.

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Second chances

     Little Man in front of his mother
    One of the toughest things about homesteading is that you rarely get second chances. Usually, by the time you realize you've made a mistake, it's too late. This morning was one of those days. I was worried about Little Man, my yearling llama, last night, because I realized he never ate his feed from the night before. He was walking around, however, and looked fine. It seemed reasonable to wait until this morning and then call the U of I vet clinic if he still was not eating. But that turned out to be a mistake.

    When I walked into the barn this morning with my milk bucket, I thought I heard him whimper, the way he does when he sees his mother across the pasture. It sounded very weak, so I ran towards his end of the barn. When I saw him laying in the straw with his head twisted around his back and his eyes open, I thought his condition had deteriorated overnight. But as soon as I touched him, I realized he'd been dead for quite some time as he was already cold, and rigor mortise had set in.

    I wanted to run back to the house and tell someone, to yell at someone, but there was no one here. I wanted to complain that it wasn't fair. He wasn't supposed to die overnight. I wanted a second chance. But even if there had been someone to listen to me, there was no one who could give me -- who could give Little Man -- a second chance.

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    Patently insane

    If you think it's crazy that corporations can sue you for saving seeds, then sit down, because this one is going to really knock you out.

    First, a little background -- as you may recall, we've added Irish Dexter cattle to our homestead to expand the types of cheese that we make. We currently make seven or eight different cheeses for ourselves using goat milk, but we thought it would be fun to add cow's milk to the mix. There has been a lot of talk lately on an Internet group about cows having A1 or A2 milk, referring to the beta casein content of the milk. It sounded like the A2 milk might make better cheese, which got my attention, so I started doing a little research.

    I could have spent all day reading about this, because the information out there is overwhelming. There are lots of Internet articles, as well as a book, which claim that A1 beta casein is responsible for heart disease, diabetes, Crohn's, autism, and more. Sounds ominous. And the answer is to simply drink goat milk, which several sites claim is all A2 beta casein or drink milk from cows that have all A2. This is where it gets interesting.

    A corporation, appropriately named the A2 Corporation, created a test to determine which gene your cows possess. UC Davis will run this test for you, so you can see whether your cattle have the A1 or A2 genes or one of each. However, after you've paid your money to get this test, what can you do with the information? Well, not much. This is where it gets interesting --

    Any person who intends to form a herd of animals used to produce A2 MILK®, or milk free of beta casein A1, and/or produces and/or sells such milk, may be infringing A2 Corporation Limited's intellectual property rights.

    Huh? So, if we send in our cow's milk and discover that she's got two A2 genes, and we use her to produce milk, we're infringing on your intellectual property rights? You're going to sue me for milking my cow because I used your test to determine that she has two A2 genes? I would say that this is crazy, except that I'd also say it's crazy that farmers get sued for saving their seed, so apparently the Patent Office doesn't care what I think. So, this corporation thinks (and the Patent Office agrees) that since they own the test for the genes, they have the sole right use those genes -- even though I own the cow, feed the cow, and take care of all her needs. From a legal perspective, it sounds a lot like the deal with using patented seeds -- you do all the work, but the big corporation gets to tell you what you can do with the end product.

    From my perspective, however, it sounds like being told that I can't use the results of my milk tests that I send in monthly to the lab. I send in my goat milk every month to a lab in New York, and they test it for butterfat and protein. I can use that information for whatever -- put it in advertising, brag about it on Facebook, or use it to make breeding decisions in the hope that my offspring will produce higher butterfat. The lab doesn't claim to own the results, and they certainly don't tell me what I can do as far as production. Yeah, yeah, I know, but supposedly the A2 Corporation actually discovered all of this intellectual property about A2 beta casein, whereas the lab in New York just tests for butterfat and protein, which no one owns as intellectual property.

    So, maybe this is where the real story begins. I was seriously starting to rethink my plan to milk cows as I was reading A1 Beta Casein: The Devil in Your Milk by Vin Miller, and then I read through the comments. The last comment really made me start asking questions. Supposedly all mammals had only A2 genes until a few thousand years ago, and then there was a mutation that caused some cows to start producing A1. I'd love to know how they figured out what was in cows milk a few thousand years ago, since this test was just developed. Anyway, if A1 is responsible for all those diseases, then why didn't the incidence of those diseases go up when cows started producing A1 thousands of years ago? Why have those diseases only sky-rocketed in the last generation? If those diseases have anything to do with dairy consumption, maybe it has more to do with how dairies have changed in the last generation.

    And in case you decide to do a little reading, the college professor in me just has to point out, which looks like this lovely, informative, unbiased website. And it's exactly the type of site that I would have jumped all over if a student had used it in a speech or paper when I was teaching. Many people incorrectly assume that all dot-org sites are non-profits. Although that was the original idea, those sites are often sponsored by corporations that want to get their info out there and make it look like an independent source. This site has no author, is sponsored by no one, and has no physical address, phone number, or email for providing feedback, which are all of the red flags for a corporate-sponsored site. Did I mention that the A2 Corporation sells A2 milk in New Zealand?

    I'm glad I finally took a little time to do some reading on this topic, because I can now say that I won't be doing A2 testing, and I don't care which casein is in my cows' milk. If people have been consuming it for thousands of years already, I really don't think it's responsible for all of today's maladies. However, if I were a big corporation wanting to make some money off of a test that I'd created, I might feel differently.

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    Whatever happened to . . . ?

    Following my last post, someone asked about Trouper and Merlot, and I realized that there are probably a lot of stories with loose ends. So, to catch up --

    Merlot is the gorgeous Shagya Arabian gelding whose owner deserted him here. He was supposed to be a pasture mate for Katherine's horse, but when Buddy died and I called Merlot's owner to tell her he was alone, she said she didn't want him any longer, "and if you're going to desert him, you can just put him down." Well, I wasn't going to do that, so Merlot is still here. He had lost some weight over the winter, but he is in great shape now. I can't even find his ribs. He has a bad case of arthritis in one of his hocks, which he's had forever, but otherwise he's doing great.

    Midknight is the other horse that was here, and when I told his owner that Midknight could no longer stay here, he sold him. We thought the buyers might also take Merlot, but they decided against it.

    Trouper was the dog that someone dumped on our road. He was pit bull, and he was injured badly. The pit bull rescues were full, and the mixed breed rescues wouldn't take him because they said some cities banned ownership of pit bulls, which created a variety of problems for them. He had a broken pelvis, which caused him to be incontinent, and without surgery that would have cost a few thousand dollars, there was really no hope that he would regain bladder control. As he began to get around better, he started chasing chickens, and he killed two geese. Then he and our livestock guardian had issues. I was able to break up the first fight myself. It took three of us to break up the second fight. After the third fight, Trouper was so badly injured it would have meant more vet bills, which we simply couldn't afford, especially for a dog that had so many things going against him, so we made the very hard decision to put him down. We still miss him, and I'm certain that there will be more pit bulls in my future, because he was a very sweet dog who simply had too many strikes against him.

    Sterling the llama was having dental issues last winter, and they seem to have somehow resolved themselves. I'm wondering if the abscessed tooth fell out? Everything I learned about abscessed teeth in llamas sounded dreadful, and I'm glad that it cleared up without having to have a hole drilled through the bottom of his jaw, which is what they recommended at the U of I vet clinic.

    The baby llama is a month old now, and we decided to name him Lance for two reasons. It looks like he's wearing biker shorts, so there's Lance Armstrong, and since he's going to be a guardian, naming him after Lancelot seemed like a good idea. I'm sorry I don't remember if it was a blog reader or a Facebook fan that came up with the name, but I love it! After I told a farm guest the baby's name one day, she thought it also worked because knights used lances!

    If there's anything else that I need to update, just let me know!

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    To do in October

    Ever wonder what I'm doing when I'm not blogging? I sometimes wish I had a little personal assistant to just follow me around and do everything that I mention -- or at least write it down -- so I don't have a chance to forget about it. I feel more than a little overwhelmed this time of year.

    There are apples and pears to pick and preserve. There are goats and sheep to breed. There are gardening tasks that need to be done. And we're still making cheese about every other day now.

    We need to get the sheep separated into breeding groups, or at least get the rams out of the pasture. Since they're seasonal breeders, we let the rams run with the ewes in the summer, because the ewes are not normally coming into heat during that time of year. But as the days get shorter, they will start coming into heat. And it never seems like we have enough pens.

    The other problem with the sheep is that most of my rams are related to most of my ewes, so it is getting to be more challenging every year to figure out breeding pairs. I think I should just sell all the rams and start over.

    Then there is the goat breeding. I swore I'd never do pen breeding for winter kidding, but I'm doing it. I want the kids to be born by March, because they seem to grow faster than the later kids, so I'm pen breeding as many does as I can. In other words, if a goat isn't milking, she's locked up with a buck. But we get into that same problem of not having enough pens. Having all the goats kids by March will also help with cheese production over the summer, because all the kids will be old enough that they can be sold, or at least they don't have to nurse all the time, so we can take more of the milk.

    Speaking of the goats -- they're all in need of pedicures. (I call hoof trimming "pedicures" because I thought they might enjoy it more that way.)

    This year, we're creating low tunnels (little hoop houses) in the garden so we can grow lettuce, raddichio, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts into winter. I was also planning to plant spinach and arugula, but I can't find the seeds. We have the poles and hoops in place. But we need to get the plastic cover on, and we need to get it on there in such a way that we can easily get into the low tunnels during the winter when we want a salad.

    I still need to plant my spring flowering bulbs and garlic. Last year, I didn't get garlic planted until November, and it still did okay, but I think I just got lucky because it stayed warm that long. I can't expect to get so lucky every year. I think it might be too late to divide my daylilies, and I still have daffodils that I needed to separate, because they're getting so thick in one area that they'll start dieing out soon. I have two mums that I bought a month ago that have already died on me.

    I ordered strawberry plants from Gurney's on September 9, and they are still not here, which is terribly disappointing. I think it's too late to plant them now. I should probably call and cancel the order.

    I don't know when we'll get drain tiles in the yard before the ground freezes. That's been on the to-do list for several years, because the yard gets so disgustingly muddy in spring. And it's time to start making soap for Christmas. We've been wanting to get up a clothes line, but . . . when?

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Garden review: Dragon carrots

    I've never tried very hard to grow carrots for two reasons. First, carrots are one of the cheapest vegetables to buy, even organic carrots, so there has never been a financial incentive. Second, I never was a big fan of carrots. They were okay, but honestly, I only ate them because I knew they were good for me.

    This is what happens when you don't thin carrot seedlings enough.
    Two carrots wrapped around each other.
    They were still perfectly delicious for eating.
    Well, that has now changed! I planted a four-foot row of dragon carrots in the garden this year, and we've only started to harvest them, because they're slow to germinate and grow, but I am in love. I never knew a carrot could taste so delicious with absolutely nothing on it. Normally, I dip raw carrots in a ranch dressing, and I dress up cooked carrots with butter and sometimes brown sugar. But I just can't get enough of these lovely little gems, and I don't even care if there is anything on them. They're so sweet and have absolutely no hint of bitterness, which is what I don't like about store-bought raw carrots.

    And it's just a bonus that they're a beautiful reddish-purple color on the outside. They are yellow and/or orange inside, which makes for a beautiful presentation on your plate.

    I purchased the seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, and we'll definitely be planting more of these next year! We'll be planting a lot more!

    Thanks to Katherine for the photos!

    Saturday, October 9, 2010

    Volunteer squash

    I know what you're thinking -- provided that you are aware that squash cross-pollinate -- How can you have volunteers of something that cross-pollinates? Well, the fun part is that you never know exactly what you're going to get. It's like Christmas. We had one volunteer that looked a lot like a spaghetti squash. It was a little sweeter than spaghetti squash, and it wasn't quite as stringy, but it was delicious, and we enjoyed every bite. This is the first year that I decided to eat the volunteer squash that grew next to a compost pile. It seems silly that we never did it before. This one looks like a cross between an acorn squash and something. Aren't they beautiful!

    If you're new to gardening and wondering what I'm talking about -- well, you can't save squash seeds and expect to get the same squash again if you grew more than one variety. You'll get some odd cross between the two. Not everything in the garden will cross pollinate, but squash is one that will. So, if you want to save seeds from your squash, you can only grow one variety, or you can put them in isolation tents and hand pollinate, which I'm not going to do.

    Thanks to Katherine for the photos!

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    Canning crunch time

    Wonder why you haven't heard much from me lately? We're madly rushing to get everything canned before the first frost, which usually occurs around October 15 here in central Illinois, but we were seriously concerned with the predicted overnight lows for the last couple nights. The basil was severely damaged by the frost, as well as a few pepper plants, but otherwise everything still looks good. The fall lettuce is beautiful. It looks like the garden is safe now, at least for a week or two, so we can relax briefly.
    Last weekend, we were canning all day Saturday. We canned seven quarts of hot Hungarian peppers, six pints of jalapeño jelly, two quarts and one pint of jalapeño peppers, and three half-pints of habañero hot sauce. We use the Hungarian peppers whenever a recipe calls for canned chilies, and we use jalapeños on most of our Mexican food.
    Jalapeño peppers
    Friday, we canned six pints of apple preserves. We still have a long way to go to get all the apples saved, but at least we finished most of the peppers.  

    Photos by Katherine

    Thursday, October 7, 2010

    Garden review: Dakota black popcorn

    We love popcorn as a snack, and we don't feel guilty eating it, because it's all natural. This year, we finally decided to try growing our own, and we are certainly happy we did! I chose Dakota black popcorn from the Baker Creek catalog.

    The ears are only about four to six inches long, so they cute to use as decoration, but the best thing is that they pop up beautifully. We've only popped one year so far, and all but one kernel popped. The taste was outstanding. This one definitely gets five stars, and we'll be growing it again.

    Thanks to Katherine for the photos!

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    It's chick time!

    Our Ameraucana chicks arrived at the post office this morning! Yes, I know most people think of chicks in spring, but I'm totally sold on the idea of fall chicks. Spring chicks wind up laying very little in their first year, whereas fall chicks lay more and bigger eggs their first year. Spring chicks mature in the summer at four to six months, depending upon the breed, and they lay tiny pullet eggs for months. Fall hatched chicks start laying in the spring when they're six or seven months old, and they lay full-size eggs from the beginning. Ultimately, spring chicks only lay for about five or six months their first year, and the eggs are not very big, whereas the fall chicks provide nine or ten months of large eggs.

    I mentioned a couple years ago that I had this experiment planned to become self sufficient with chickens, but I'll recap again. Last year, we butchered all of our old hens, which were three to five years old and averaging an egg a week, which was not exactly cost effective. Over the years, we would get four different breeds every spring so my daughters could show them in 4-H at the summer fair -- two breeds per daughter. After they quit showing, we quit buying chicks, and we wound up with a flock of mostly older hens with a few young, mixed-breed chicks that had been hatched by them. We had no idea who was laying what or how much.

    Last fall, I ordered 50 New Hampshire red pullets, knowing there would be a few roosters in the bunch to provide us with the capability to make more. We wound up with five or six roosters. This year, I ordered 25 Ameraucana pullets, and I'm sure there are a couple roosters in there too. (I don't know anyone who has received 100% pullets in their pullet orders.) Depending upon how the New Hampshires lay next year, I may or may not add a white egg layer to the flock. You see, I'll know how the New Hampshire girls are laying because they lay brown eggs, and the Ameraucanas lay blue-green eggs.

    Next year, we'll hatch 50 eggs from the best New Hampshire girls, assuming they will be 50% cockerels for meat and 50% pullets for replacement layers. We'll keep them separate from the older hens, and in December when the older girls stop laying, they'll become stew meat. The following year we'll hatch 50 Ameraucana chicks and do the same thing. I'm still debating whether or not to add a white egg layer and make a three-year cycle. Everyone says they really don't lay well in their third year, but since we've never known who was laying what, I really don't know for sure. And I'm always one of those people who wants to test things, so there could be some white egg layers in our future. And I am rather enamored with silver spangled Hamburg chickens.

    Sorry the photos are not great. I'm still using my cell phone, and the chicks are in a horse water trough, which makes it kind of tough to take photos.

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    Goat breeding fun and frustration

    Clare, a la mancha, and her baby, the only first generation
    mini mancha born at Antiquity Oaks so far.

    You probably don't know this, but I've been trying to create my own line of mini manchas (a miniature la mancha) for three years. I have two la mancha does, and I've been trying to breed them to my Nigerian bucks. It has not been working, which is why you haven't heard anything. Clare did get pregnant and have a single buckling two years ago, but that doesn't count for much. Although the la manchas are very friendly, they don't like me messing with them when they're in heat, and the ND bucks need a little help mounting a doe that's so big. I've heard of other breeders providing a hay pallet or milk stand or some other thing for a buck to stand on, and they back up the doe to the buck.

    Wednesday was a very exciting day. Viola was bred by Mardi with no help from me at all. It took him about 15 minutes, and he started doubting himself and mounting her sideways, since the usual way wasn't working for him. But he eventually got in the right place and had enough spring in his back feet to get him up high enough to do the deed. Woo hoo!

    I should have known that it was just too much to expect to have Clare bred today. She was obviously in heat. A wether was mounting her, and she was just standing there, so we brought her into the barn to be with Draco, who was in a ten-by-ten stall. Poor boy started out with such enthusiasm, blubbering and peeing all over his beard, but he just could not get the required altitude to be successful, so I brought in the footrest of an Adirondack chair. I figured he could go up only as high as he needed to, in order to breed Clare. Nope, didn't work. The footrest flipped over. It was also too high. I realized he only needed an inch or two, so I found a two-inch thick shelf and put it in the middle of the stall. Being made of plywood, it was too slippery, so I got a hay pallet. Clare wouldn't stand still, and I tried to back her up to Draco, but she was not cooperating. I spent 15 minutes trying to get her to stand in just the right place, so Draco could stand on the hay pallet and breed her.

    I was standing in the corner of the barn in frustration, wondering what to do next, when Draco walked up to me and started blubbering. "Yeah, right, mister," I said with a chuckle. "Don't look at me that way. I'm not your girlfriend." He whipped his head around to his back end and peed on his beard, then he looked me in the eyes and curled his upper lip. I laughed. "No way!" He rubbed his head on my leg. "Ugh! Now, I'm really gonna stink!" Mike walked up about that time.

    "I think Draco is a little confused here about who he's supposed to be breeding!" I said to Mike. Draco was completely ignoring Clare at this point. He only had eyes for me -- quite literally. I've never had a goat maintain eye contact for so long. Mike laughed. I asked, "Aren't you a little concerned about his attitude?" The buck was again rubbing his head against my leg. If I were a lady goat, I would have been quite enamored.

    "Leave," was Mike's answer.

    "But then we'll never get Claire bred."

    After discussing it for a few minutes, we decided to take Clare with us and get another buck. Draco had clearly given up on her.

    So, we decided to get Pegasus, who is a shorter buck, but we hoped we could hold her in front of the hay pallet just long enough for Pegasus to do the deed. It really only takes a second for goats -- no kidding. We tried for another 15 minutes to get Clare to stand in just the right place, so Pegasus could breed her, but we never saw it happen. In frustration, we left the two of them together for the rest of the day, which amounted to another six hours. I have no idea if she was ever bred. I'll mark the calendar and keep an eye on her in three weeks, and if she doesn't come into heat, maybe I'll try that blood test that they now have available for goats to determine if they're pregnant. I'd love to raise my own line of mini manchas, but this is getting a little ridiculous. Maybe I should just buy doelings and sell them after their first freshening? A seven-month-old la mancha is just the right size for a ND buck.

    The good news about breeding, however, is that five Nigerian does have been bred in the last two days. So, if you need to find me the last week of February, I'll be in the kidding barn.

    Thursday, September 30, 2010

    Fun at the Mother Earth News Fair

    Mike and I drove to Pennsylvania last Friday, arriving well after midnight, due to a variety of delays. I tried to "sleep fast" as my father used to say and was awake at seven, ready to get ready for my session at 10:15 -- until Mike checked the schedule and told me I was not presenting until 1:15. Then I slowed down far too much. I tend to forget how long it takes to put on make-up and fix my hair, since I rarely do either on the homestead. We were not staying at the resort because it was sold out much quicker than I expected, so we were at a hotel about half an hour away. We finally hit the road about 25 minutes before the first session was due to start. We were driving along through beautiful foliage, up and down hills, and then we stopped behind a long line of cars.

    I assumed there would be a lot of people attending, but I did not expect a traffic jam in the middle of the mountains. We inched along and watched the clock ticking off the minutes. The lower parking lot was already full, and we were directed up a hill. I panicked about the long walk, wishing I had worn my sneakers instead of dress shoes, until I saw the shuttle buses. It was close to 11 a.m. when I finally arrived at speaker check-in. As soon as Mike had his name badge, he was off and running to a session on sustainable energy, and I was asked to do a quick video interview about my upcoming session. I had no idea it would be so challenging to say something succinct about baking bread!

    Both of my bread baking sessions went well and were filled to capacity. People were standing against the walls and sitting in the aisles. With only 45 minutes, I didn't have time to actually bake bread, so I talked about the basics of yeast bread, and I mixed up some dough so that people could see what it looks like when it's too sticky and when it's just right. Sorry, we don't have any pictures of the actual bread action. My camera was not cooperating. Almost every photo was horribly blurry.

    My soap making session went well until the very end. I was in the middle of making soap when a woman stood up at the back of the room and said, "You have to stop now!" She was holding up a two-foot long sign that read, "STOP." Well, you can't just stop in the middle of making soap. Unfortunately, everyone started to get up, and many of them swarmed around me and my pot of mid-saponification oil-milk-lye mix. And they started asking me questions. Of course, they seemed like simple questions, which would have been easy to answer, if I were in a more relaxed environment. One person asked if she could put lavender flowers in soap. I explained that the heat from saponification would cause them to turn black and look like little bugs. Then a couple of other people were shouting questions about using herbs from opposite sides of where I was standing. And with lavender flowers still on the brain, I said, "No, you can't put herbs in soap." Of course, later I realized that is not even a yes-no question. Obviously, you can put herbs in soap, but depending upon your motivation, it may or may not give you the desired effect. For example, if you're doing it for scent, it's going to vary from one herb to another, but in general, it is really not going to work very well. Too bad I can't have a re-do of my last five or ten minutes.

    A car fueled by wood
    Mike attended mostly sessions on renewable energy, including lectures on how to build an electric car and a wood-powered car. He is really excited about the electric car, because we've had a dead car sitting next to the barn for a year already, while he planned his own engine design. However, at the conference, the presenter used an old electric forklift engine to make an electric car. So, Mike is now looking for a used electric forklift engine. If you know where he can get one, be sure to let us know!

    The really exciting thing is that the Mother Earth News people are planning four -- yes, four -- fairs next year. Locations are not finalized yet, but they're looking at two on each side of the country, so it will be easier for people in different parts of the country to attend! It's obvious that everyone wants to do it again, because you heard lots of talk about "next year." I know I want to do it again!


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