Crazy May Challenge: Eating from the Pantry/Freezer

Our family is trying something new for May. Eating the food that we have on hand. I took an inventory the other day and felt a little sheepish. My freezer was full of meats from our farm, produce that we had grown and put up, my shelves were full of jars that I had filled last summer and into the fall…and we had take out pizza for dinner. Again.  So I had another one of my “great ideas!” and after running it by my husband who was trying to stay awake(best time to pass new and off the wall ideas) it’s on.

What are my rules? Eat from what we already have in our kitchen. No take out meals, drive through coffees, running out to get “ingredients” at the last minute. Instead we’ll focus on using up what we have already bought or grown ourselves. Cool concept, huh?

But, being the fair minded person that I am, we have a couple of exceptions to those rules.

Sandwich bread.- yes, I know. I could make the bread myself. But honestly, my sandwich bread is pretty pathetic. I make a killer loaf bread, baguette bread, sour dough…but not a basic sandwich loaf. And since my son packs a lunch for school everyday, and since we are jumping in to something out of our normal realm, I ok’d the bread.

Fresh fruit for my son’s sack lunch. This one is probably cheating. I have all kinds of fruit that I canned into gorgeous pints and quarts. I’ll be using those up, just not in his school lunches.

The other exception- drive through coffee for my husband on his work nights. I will be giving up my habit of an Americano with cream because I can make a better one at home, and with actual real cream from my own cows. But my husband has a crazy work schedule, and if a drive through coffee keeps him awake and alive then that’s ok by me.

I’m hoping that this challenge will get our family into the routine of cooking home made meals, from scratch. I don’t want it to be an activity that makes everyone so miserable that it fails before we even launch. It will also help me clear out space for all of the food that we will be growing and harvesting this season.

It’s crazy that I have access to so much wonderful food simply because I am a farmer, but that I still eat out more meals than I make at home each month. I think I fell into a pattern of being so “busy” farming, that I didn’t leave enough time to prepare all of that wonderful food and actually eat it every day.  And, I actually love cooking. A shift in priorities is needed.

Challenges that we are going to face:

We love to celebrate milestones by going out to eat. This month we have several of those that are going to take some special planning. Our oldest daughter is graduating after four long years studying to become an RN. Normally we would let her choose a restaurant to celebrate. This time she gets to choose a special meal that we make from scratch, at home. Our other daughter is coming back home after her first year away at college. She missed her birthday with us and again, we would normally let her choose a restaurant to celebrate. Even trickier, this daughter is a vegetarian…that is going to take some extra special planning to pull together a special meal that falls under our May challenge, without running out to buy ingredients.  And finally, we have an uncle coming to visit for a week all the way from the East Coast. Poor guy. He had no idea.

So that’s it. My crazy May Challenge. Care to join me?

 

 

Six Weeks and Counting Down

The calendar doesn’t lie. Six more weeks until our first CSA delivery for 2014. Looking out the window all I see is grey skies and pouring rain. It’s hard to imagine that in less than two months we’ll be on the cusp of summer and jumping back into the frenzy of early morning  harvesting, crate filling, delivering, early evening picking, weeding…but the calendar doesn’t lie. It’s waiting just around the corner.

And this farmer is ready to embrace it with open arms. On days like this one, where you just can’t get warm or stay dry I’m even more thankful for my seed room. It’s a little oasis waiting just for me. As soon as I step in the door the warm air wraps around me like a friendly hug. It smells like dark dirt and green life. It smells like hope and promises of good things to come.

By now all the benches are groaning under the weight of seed trays and pots. Some are freshly planted, not a sprout in site. The tiny seeds tucked under a blanket of soil. I pull back the covers and take a peak, looking carefully and longing to see a tip of green. Other trays are bursting with green fingers raised towards the light. I check the soil, and give just enough water so they don’t dry out. Rotating the trays so the plants grow strong and straight. And then there are the red solo cups. Hundreds and hundreds of red solo cups. Filled with tomato and pepper starts, each labeled carefully with the plant variety. It’s Tuesday, and that means each plant gets a drink of half strength fish fertilizer.

I check the board on the wall. Today more carrots will get seeded outside, another flat of kholrabi needs to be started, two more trays of romaine lettuce, I’d better get more snow peas in the ground…I look out the window to see if the rain has stopped. The sun is trying to shine and the rain is just a fine mist. I throw on a jacket, grab a bucket of peas and head out.

This will be my third planting of peas. The first planting was slow to start, even in the raised beds. Raised beds tend to warm up quicker and allow for an earlier planting. But the first planting was spotty so I went back through and planted again, just in case. Now the peas are making a dense green row and I’m thankful that I filled in the blanks. I plant what’s left in my pea bucket, taking time to pull any weeds that are sprouting along with the peas. I can work at a leisurely pace right now, but soon it will be more frenzied and it’s  always best to get the weeds when they first rear their heads.

As I pass by the rabbit hutches I take a minute to give the rabbits the contents of my weed bucket. They gobble the weeds down, turning the weeds into fertilizer that will eventually go back into our soil. We’ve staged rabbit hutches within all of our garden areas. The rabbits help clean up weeds and vegetables that don’t make it to the table. Their fertilizer provides a rich planting humus that encourages earth worms and provides us with a beautiful tilth for growing our fruits and vegetables. Eventually the rabbits provide meat for our farm and our patrons. Life on the farm is a circle of sorts. Nothing is wasted and everything has its place.

But now the sun is out and the rain has stopped. I quicken my pace- there is so much still left to do with six weeks to go and counting down. The calendar doesn’t lie and the clock doesn’t stop.

 

Today I don’t love my cow…

……and she doesn’t love me!
Everyone has been there- things are going great, the sun is shining, the mud is drying up, the cows are all polite and grateful…then there is the ONE. The ONE cow who has to bungle things up for everyone. It starts of pretty innocuous- she tilts her head at you when you call her in to milk. She hesitates just fleetingly before she comes in to the stall.

Then she sniffs at the bucket of treats…starts to back out of the stall. Then next thing you know, you’re presenting her with a tilted bucket before she crosses the threshold of the stall. Like a waiter at a fine restaurant.. “Would the lady like some dessert?” and “Does the grain please the lady today?”

But because the lady is a complete pig and throws grain all around the farm while she eats, you have to snatch the bucket away at the very last minute, capture her head in the head gate and hold off on treats until milking is over. And because the lady eats like a rabid dog she has to be the last one in the stand for milking.

But the lady isn’t just a glutton. No, she’s also clever. And after months and months of being tricked at the last minute she finally begins to put it together. She isn’t getting that bucket of treats when her owner tilts it her way. So she balks. She isn’t going to come in the stall no matter what. No offering is good enough. No sweet words can cajole her. She just chews and looks at you.

And she is a strategist. She knows that you can never cross that “pond” that separates the two of you. You will sink to your neck if you even try. So she sashays around and around and around the edge. And she chews and looks at you.

So you throw your hands up, clean up and lock up. You’re done. Until two hours later when you head out with your head lamp. And start all over again. “Does the lady care for some dessert? Does the grain please the lady?”

And again, a few hours later when you should be tucked into bed dreaming about the olden days when life was good and the cows were all polite and grateful. But instead you’re squaring off with the ONE.

So today, I don’t love my cow and I don’t think she loves me either. But, I did win. This time.

Snow Days & Stocking Up

Image

This past week of snow & ice has been a rough one. We’ve had to deal with frozen water lines, hauling five gallon buckets of warm water to all the livestock. Moving hay ahead of time to feed the dairy cows. Our hay barn is on the opposite side of the property from where we milk and feed the girls. Usually it’s not a problem, but with all of the snow in the forecast we needed to move a week’s worth all at once just in case. And we barely made it. By the time my husband got out here with his truck we had already accumulated a good 5″ of wet snow. It made maneuvering around the fruit trees and bee boxes a white knuckle experience. Farming is strenuous work on a good day. But add a half foot of wet snow and your regular farm chores take on a boot camp work out intensity.

A week like we just experienced is a real eye opener. You can see where your weak areas exist and once things go back to normal it gives you an opportunity to fine tune. We know a hay barn right next to the dairy girls is a must. If my husband hadn’t been able to get that hay moved for me, I would have been in a world of hurt. As it turned out, he went sledding with our son later that night and hurt his back. It’s a good thing he added in a few extra bales to that last load.

This is where stocking up and planning ahead really come in handy. Keeping your pantry full for humans and animals alike is more than just a good idea. It makes the difference between a full belly and hunger. While we were “stuck” at the farm we didn’t need to worry about trying to make a dangerous drive in to town to pick up bags of livestock feed (or human groceries). We had already stocked all the barrels and topped them off before the first snowflake fell. Having been through a week like this not too long ago, I had an idea of what to expect. I’d gathered a long watering hose and adapter so I could attach it to the hot water heater in my milk shed. By doing that I was able to provide warm water directly into a spare water trough that I’d situated just outside of the shed. While the other water lines were frozen and no water was making its way into the regular troughs, the girls were still able to come up for water twice a day. And I was able to use that water to fill those 5 gallon buckets that I had to haul across the farm to water all the other animals. It was an intense amount of work, but no one went thirsty. We’ll be installing a second hot water heater in the pig barn later this Spring. That will cut the distance I need to travel in half next winter when things freeze up again.

Today I’d planned on making a trip out to town. I’d been farm bound for the past five days and was looking forward to a change of scenery. Well, my little car just couldn’t make it up the steep hill in my driveway. I wasn’t going anywhere. Except back inside. Because I keep a well stocked pantry, I didn’t really need anything from town. I’d been working my way through an old fashioned baking book, one recipe at a time. I was pretty thrilled to see that no matter which recipe I picked I had all the ingredients stored on hand. Peaches? No problem- I canned 30 quarts back in July. Blueberries? Yup- 15 gallon bags still in the freezer from August. Pears? Apple Sauce? Got them too. Canning and preserving food is highly addictive and well worth the effort to learn. It’s great to pop open a can of summer when you’re in the middle of a snow storm.

Image

Back in the “old days” it wasn’t uncommon for several families to gather together and have an all day canning party. Everyone brought their produce and jars and working together by the end of the day everyone went home with a good haul of preserved food. Many hands making light work. I think it would be fun to start a “canning circle” of friends to share the harvest and make the time go faster while we canned.

If you’ve thought about preserving food but haven’t done it yet, here is a list of my favorite books:

Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving- this is the go to book for water bath or pressure canning

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving:400 delicious and creative recipes for today-Edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest: 150 Recipes for Freezing, Canning, Drying, and Pickling Fruits & Vegetables- Carol W. Costenbader

Completely Revised & Updated: Stocking Up-The 3rd Edition of The Classic Preserving Guide-Carol Hupping & the Staff of the Rodale Food Center (this gem also has a section on dairy)

Snow All Around

Image(Snow on the Far Barn)

It’s no secret that I don’t like the snow. I grew up in the mid-west and always knew I’d move to greener pastures. Literally. So here we are on Day 2 of Oregon’s Snow Storm 2014. It certainly doesn’t compare to the snow I had growing up. But I am still just as disenchanted with snow now as I was back then.

Image

(Snow on the Garlic & Herb Beds)

It seems most of the people I know are pretty excited about the last couple of snow days. I think your outlook is different if you work outside with animals every day. But, I’m trying to find some beauty in the snowy landscape so I don’t ruin the fun for everyone else.

Image

(The Dike Water)

Image

(Cottage Garden Gate)

I just have to remember that there is green somewhere under all that white. And before we know it the snow will have given away to mud and that will give away to green shoots of spring. I may not find beauty in the snow itself, but there is certainly beauty in the cycle of life.

Butterflies & Rainbows- or The Down & Dirty of Farm Life

ImageOften people think living on the farm is a kind of enchanted life. You get to go out, commune with the animals,  pick flowers and vegetables and…go about the happy life of a farmer. A lot of this is because having chosen to be a farmer at this stage in my life, I’m pretty much in love with what I do. I’m not carrying on any family tradition of farming and I didn’t marry a farmer. My husband and I both had “normal” careers before this stage of our lives. And in fact, my husband still straddles both worlds- working in the high tech industry and working on the farm. Both are full time pursuits. So, when people ask me about farming I have lots of great stories to tell- and they are generally the feel good, life has never been better, don’t you wish you were a farmer- kind of stories.

Except when they aren’t. There is a down and dirty side to farming and it’s not just the mud and manure. Raising livestock on a farm takes on a whole new meaning of responsibility. The animals under our care rely on us for food, shelter, safety and our promise to keep them from suffering. Generally the food, shelter and safety are easy goals to reach.  As farmers, we are constantly surveying the pastures, making sure there isn’t anything left behind that they might swallow leading to hardware disease and possibly death. We make sure we pick up the twine that goes around the hay bales, pick up nails as they drop, keep fences secure and the list goes on and on. But, being animals they do tend to get themselves into tricky situations from time to time.

Just this morning as I was milking cows, my biggest girl- Snow, decided to lift her leg backwards and loop it over the side chain that keeps her on her side of the stall. She’s never performed this trick before, and neither have any of the other cows. It was something I never expected to see. The weight of her leg on the chain made it too tight for me to unhook. She was getting spooked and was starting to thrash around. I had to get some slack in the chain before she slipped and broke her leg. Thinking quickly, I dumped another scoop of pellets into her bucket. This made her lunge forward and I had just enough time to un-clip the chain. She was free and I was relieved. I don’t like to think about what I could have found had I walked away to tend to a quick chore while she was still in the stall. These are the kinds of things that can come up out of nowhere and take you completely by surprise.

Yesterday I was in the back field, tossing hay to calves and sheep. I usually take a quick count while I’m doing this to make sure that all of the critters are present and it gives me a chance to do a visual wellness check. I was missing one ewe. Hmm. It was too soon for her to be lambing. I scanned the field and still didn’t see her. This wasn’t good. The sheep stick together and when it’s haying time they all come running over in a group. I finished up and headed out to find her.

My fears were confirmed. She wasn’t in good shape. I found her laying on her side by a gate. It looked as though she had been there since the night. A quick assessment and I knew she wasn’t going to make it. This is where the part about keeping your livestock from needlessly suffering comes in. It fell on me to put her down. I could have left her there- nature would have taken its course eventually. But the ewe and I had an agreement. She would graze and fertilize my fields and provide me with lambs. I would feed her, shelter her, keep her healthy and- when the time came, I would prevent her from suffering. It was that time.

(Warning: Some may find the following picture graphic)

Image

(The injury on her head is how I found her. I still don’t know the source of that injury)

Animals get into all kinds of situations. I have no idea what caused the injury to her head- it’s how I found her that morning. It almost looked like she had been grazed by a bullet. The sheep pasture is in the middle of our farm, not a place where I would expect to have wayward bullets flying. In the end, it didn’t matter. I had to reach down deep into my farmer guts and end her suffering with my own bullet.

Farming, it isn’t always butterflies and rainbows. There is a down and dirty side to it too. But like anything in life, you can either focus on the hard times and lose site of the good, or you can take the hard times in stride and know that there is a rainbow right around the corner.

Image

 (Target practice. A good aim is another skill for the responsible farmer)

Burning down the (Chicken) House

It’s that time of year for me again. Time to start raising chicks so that we’ll be rolling in eggs come June. The last few months have had a lot of ups and downs with my laying hens. I usually start a new batch of chicks towards the end of the summer. If I start in early August then I’ve got a good chance of having eggs by February. And the late summer start is really beneficial to the fragile little chicks that need the warmth so they don’t become stressed. We start our chicks off in large brooder boxes that my husband built. Very sturdy, heavy lids so I don’t need to worry about wind flipping them open, or a marauding raccoon coming in for a late night snack. Starting chicks in the summertime, a few heat lamps suspended above is all I need for warmth. As the chicks grow and begin to feather out, the lights only come on in the evening. And the boxes are plumbed with automatic watering bowls to make that chore even easier. Then, as they grow I’m able to move them out to a larger area adjacent to the older hens. Eventually the older hens which have slowed down in egg laying will be culled for the stew pot and the young pullets will take their place. Easy peasy.

Settling in. 150 mixed chicks.

Settling in. 150 mixed chicks.

But, things haven’t been so easy peasy getting this latest batch settled in. First, the original batch of replacement layers that I had ordered back in August were picked up at my post office by a different farmer. It’s a long, sordid story and ended with me waiting for a replacement  batch to arrive at the end of September. The Barred Rocks were on back order with my favorite hatchery and I wasn’t willing to take a different breed. Part of my chicken management involves switching between breeds with every new batch. That’s the easiest way for me to know on sight the age of my hens. An important piece of information to have when you are determining which chickens have another season on the farm and which ones are due for harvesting.

By starting the last batch of Barred Rocks at the end of September, I had completely thrown off my schedule. By the time the chicks were fully feathered out and ready to move to their next location, we were on the verge of experiencing a weather extreme at the farm. Freezing temperatures, cold wind, frozen and subsequently broken water lines etc. Unfortunately their new home was not set up to handle those conditions. Remember, we were running almost two months behind schedule. That’s a lot of time in chick development. So I did the best I could to keep them comfy during that time period. In the end we had 3 surviving pullets out of the original 100. Things were pretty dismal.

I was faced with cutting my losses and having no eggs of our own for the coming season. But that just wasn’t going to work. I’ve been spoiled with my own eggs for the past five years or so and in my opinion, nothing compares to an egg fresh from the “backyard”. And we sell eggs to a loyal customer base that has been suffering withdrawal right along with us. So it was time to jump back in to the chicks again.

Fast forward to the end of January. It pushes my egg start out to mid-June,  but at least we’d have our own eggs. My husband had to make some modifications to our brooder boxes to keep the heat in for the chicks. He stapled plastic and a type of insulation around the outside of the boxes and across the lids. This would work to keep heat from the lamps inside the boxes instead of seeping out. The chicks arrived and I got them all settled in. But I wasn’t happy with the temperature in the boxes, still a bit cool. I added 3 bags of bedding to keep the heat trapped inside. Almost there. Then I lowered the heat lamps off the hooks and just twisted the wire around the top of the frame so that the lamps were closer to the chicks. Perfect. The chicks settled in, spread out and quieted down. A sure sign that things were well in chick-ville. Noisy, bunched up chicks are an indication of too cold temps.

I went out to milk the cows and daydreamed of cracking open my first egg later this summer.

About an hour later I became aware of smoke in the air. Not at all unpleasant, kind of like a campfire. Around here lots of people are burning wood stoves for heat, or just burning “stuff” outside. More daydreaming about summer, camping…then as I headed up towards the house I saw some pretty thick smoke that was too close to my house…maybe I’d better go check on those chicks.

The chick house was on fire. Or at least smoldering heavily. I threw open the lid and inhaled entirely too much toxic smoke. The chicks were going berserk. I dumped out their water jugs to put out the “fire”, unplugging the heat lamps at the same time. Then waited for the smoke to clear. The chicks appeared to be fine. I guess being so low to the ground they weren’t as affected by the smoke as I was reaching down into it.

day24heatlamps

Apparently one of the heat lamps that I had “rigged” up to provide a closer source of heat had slipped out of the loop that I made and was nestled on the bedding. The heat from the bulb caused the bedding to ignite. No one has to tell me just how lucky I (and the chicks) am that I caught it when I did. Surely it would have killed every chick and no doubt spread to my house. The brooder boxes were recently moved to within feet of my house, under a window so I could keep an eye on the boxes during the night.

We always hear about barn fires from overturned heaters or even from heat lamps like I was using. If you use a source of heat like this- and all of us who raise livestock do at one time or another- please, please be careful. I never should have hung those lamps the way that I did. No matter that I’ve been doing it like that for many, many years.  My chicks are rehoused, bedding swapped out and heat lamps are appropriately secured.

I’ll tell you what- that first egg when it finally gets here is going to be the  best egg ever. The most expensive, anxiety inducing,stress producing egg I will ever have eaten- but totally worth it.

day24bunredbrooder