It's been quite a week; earthquake and hurricane alike in a region not known for either phenomenon. The earthquake was at least as palpable as any I experienced in 14 years of living in California. I was staggered to learn how far we were from the epicenter. In the moment it felt to me like a very local event. We took the hurricane seriously and prepared by clearing the yard of potential projectiles, storing water, getting all the laundry and dishes done, filling the empty space in the chest freezer with bottles of water, keeping the oil lamps and matches handy, and taking showers a few hours before the storm was due. We came through unscathed, with only a brief loss of power. We're near a major hospital and I suspect our grid is somehow "privileged" because of that. Our power loss may have been only a second or two; it happened while we slept. We got about as much rain as predicted, roughly seven inches (18 cm). The chickens weren't at all happy about the extremely waterlogged backyard, but the sun shone beautifully today and chickens have very short memories. All signs point to the ground drying out fairly quickly.
Hurricane Irene gave us a jumpstart on the apple thinning that our old apple tree usually commences in late summer. These apples are still undersized and have developed nothing of the sweetness they will hold in a couple of months. (We don't know the variety, but it harvests exceptionally late.) For the past couple of years I've collected the early drops and donated them to my farming friend for her hogs. We typically can give her as many as ten or twelve buckets-full over the course of a six weeks or so. The pigs don't mind the incredible tartness of the apples apparently, and my friend is happy to accept free food which she knows has not been sprayed with anything. Though her farm is not certified organic, she has a good relationship with her customers which is based on trust and integrity. She'll accept any sort of excess garden produce she has confidence in, as well as acorns or hickory nuts for her pigs.
I am happy to provide the unripe windfalls to her. At the cost of very little effort to myself, these sour fruits can provide value as food, if slightly indirectly. I don't even have to take them to her since her husband passes our home on his way to work. He picks up the buckets on his way home and returns the empties later in the week. I see this as another instance of something from nothing. This is a prominent aspect of my homesteading mentality - making an effort to prevent waste and finding a way to get value out of what would otherwise be useless.
Of course, it doesn't hurt at all that farming friend often donates to me the hog jowls that her customers disdain. We have no formal agreement on this, and I always offer her half the jowls back after I've turned them into guanciale. I definitely feel that I get the better end of the bargain. But the reality is that both of us are making an effort to reduce waste, and we both benefit. I cannot recommend it highly enough to aspiring homesteaders: make friends with small-scale local farmers! It's good to know other gardeners too, but farmers and homesteaders can benefit each other in many ways.
I'll mention also the other use of unripe apples that fall from the tree, even though I have only theoretical knowledge of it. Apples are very high in pectin, and the more so the less ripe they are. Before powdered or liquid pectin was commercially available in stores, underripe apples were used to thicken jams and jellies. Just as with most old domestic arts, this one is still viable today. If you have your own apple tree and were so inclined you could use early windfalls and drops as a free substitute for store bought pectin. I've no doubt google would furnish you with the details. If I ever become so ambitious, I promise a blog post will be forthcoming.
For a variety of reasons, I planted a lot of catnip this spring. It's a useful and mild medicinal, reportedly good at repelling flea beetles from garden crops, and most famously attractive to cats. I took some pains to protect the tiny live plants I ordered from Richters. I asked for a dozen of the smallest, cheapest plants, figuring that if I had many of them there was a better chance that at least some of them would survive. After planting about ten of them near each other, I laid the chicken greens feeder over them to keep the cats from either eating them whole, ripping them out of the ground, or simply rolling them to death. They had a few inches of protected headspace, but any part of the plant that grew taller than that was subject to feline depredations.
It worked. At least seven of those ten plants survived, and it didn't take too long before I was able to remove the protection of the greens feeder. Being a hardy mint family member, the catnip can now stand up to whatever abuse the neighborhood cats can dish out.
I find our cat Mojo lying between the fence and the catnip quite often. It's one of his favorite hangout spots, for good reasons: it's sunny, he can hide himself behind the herb and still have a commanding view of the whole yard, and if startled can slip under the fence to the neighbor's property. Mojo is one of the most resolutely cheerful cats I've ever known. Unless made nervous by strangers or a strange situation, he's always in a good mood, a regular Mr. Bliss. So he hardly seems the type to need routine self-medication. Or maybe I have it all wrong and he's so happy because he has such easy access to kitty dope. Maybe he'll get cranky and go into withdrawal when the plant dies down for the winter.
The thing I've noticed though about catnip is that its effect on cats seems inherently self-limiting. No matter how drugged out cats get by smelling or ingesting catnip, it only seems to last about 15-20 minutes. Repeated exposure after that has little effect. Yet Mo' will hang out in that spot for hours on a nice day. Maybe he just has wholly positive associations with that place. Or maybe he doesn't want to share with other cats, so he guards his supply.
I'm not much for recreational drugs myself, but my stoner kitty does make me ponder several questions. Is there any sense in making a plant - a natural living thing - illegal? Do cats have more self restraint than humans when it comes to psychoactive herbs? Do the ills of human society lead to addictions where a more balanced existence would allow us to use natural drugs recreationally without such complications? Or is it the added complexity of the human brain as compared with a cat's brain? Or is our tendency to synthesize natural substances into more potent drugs the real problem? I can't see that my cat comes to any harm, or creates any harm, by indulging in a profound high fairly frequently. Granted, he's not pregnant, and I have no idea how catnip would affect feline fetuses. Also, he doesn't smoke catnip, or take synthesized tabs of 'nip at a kitty rave. And perhaps if he did, the drug would affect him differently. All he can do is eat it or roll in it. Either seems to work for him. I think animals have their own wisdom sometimes, and I'm still puzzling out the lessons of cats and catnip.
Anyhow, it's nice to know I've got a homegrown supply of kitty happy leaf and that my cat can get stoned frugally. Next year I'll have enough catnip to derive some benefit from it myself. And yes, if you were wondering, this post is at least partly just an excuse to display pictures of the cat.
I never posted about the source of the main course of this harvest meal. It was a runty broiler that my farming friend gave me when it was half-size to the rest of her broilers, which were ready for slaughter. Something was definitely off about this Cornish Cross bird, because it took me more than two additional months to raise it to a size that looked sort of ready to harvest. I finally decided on the slaughter date (Sunday) only because our own broiler chicks really needed the extra room provided in the poultry schooner, which is still in service.
Monday night's method of preparation...well, that was an experiment for which I had to work up my nerve. "Experiment" only in the sense of trying something entirely new with a precious bit of homegrown meat. I'm usually loathe to branch out too far with high value ingredients, and no food is so scarce as meat raised on less than an acre. But this Chicken in a Pot came from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table cookbook which I found on the new arrivals shelf at the library. Greenspan is no slouch in the kitchen. The rustic appearance of this mundanely name dish appealed to my peasant cooking propensities. (But trust me when I say the cover photo of this dish is far more beautiful than the one above.) So I took a risk, and I'm glad I did. Basically, the chicken steams itself inside a cast iron dutch oven sealed air-tight with a ring of simple dough. The bird and the accompanying vegetables are pre-browned to ensure some color, but every drop of juicy goodness collects in the dutch oven. Everything turned out super moist, super tender. For copyright reasons, I'm not going to reproduce her recipe verbatim. But I will tell you what I put in the pot.
Our broiler chicken weighed just under 5 and a half pounds. Had it been any larger I don't think it would have fit into our standard size dutch oven. Aside from the bird, I put in homegrown purple potatoes, garlic, shallots, rosemary, thyme and a few boughten carrots. I browned the bird and all the vegetables except the potatoes in a mixture of bacon fat and olive oil. The dough was just water and flour, though I did add some of the leftover fat from browning the ingredients. The rest of the fat went into the dutch oven. I enjoyed the challenge of tucking as many potatoes as I could around the chicken, without stuffing it so full that it wouldn't cook through. Greenspan called for adding both white wine and chicken broth to the pot, but I omitted these, largely because I was moving 100 miles an hour on Monday and only scanned the recipe well enough to get a general sense of it. At serving time there were plenty of juices in the dutch oven; I think it would have been a swimming pool of liquid had I been more faithful to the author's intention.
The only tiny disappointment of the meal was the crust that sealed the chicken and vegetables into the dutch oven during cooking. I was surprised to find that Greenspan's recipe made no reference to it after the chicken was cooked. I wondered whether it would be worth breaking up and soaking in the abundant juices in the bottom of the dutch oven. I can't abide the thought of wasting the flour, you see. Not only did my crust end up just this side of well charred, but it also had little flavor or texture. We tried the juice soaking technique and found it really only made the crust marginally edible. If I were to repeat this dish in the future, I might try sealing the dutch oven with a loop of good yeasted bread dough. If the dough started out well chilled I can imagine it forming a beautifully browned and scrumptious ring, the perfect vehicle for dunking in roast chicken juices.
It was incredibly satisfying to tuck into a meal that was almost entirely homegrown. The carrots might have come from the garden if it hadn't been for the few that I had hanging around in the fridge, the leftovers from a spate of morning glory muffin baking. Other than that, the only ingredients that weren't produced right here were the fats, salt and pepper. This bodes very well for our six broilers, which are coming along nicely and are now out on the "pasture" full time, in the poultry schooner.
By the way, if any of you are raising birds for the table, or mulling it, and are planning to do your own slaughtering and processing, you may have pondered the same questions I did. How soon does rigor mortis set in? How long does it last? Does it adversely affect the dish to cook a bird in rigor mortis? And if so, what are the windows of opportunity for cooking the bird? The basic answers to these questions are that rigor mortis sets in very quickly with poultry, and yes, it's best to avoid cooking a bird in rigor mortis. Fortunately, it doesn't last too long. Either cook a bird immediately upon slaughtering and processing, or refrigerate the bird and wait about 24 hours for the rigor mortis to dissipate.
Some of you have asked for a pictorial guide or even video on my slaughtering process. So far we haven't had any clean hands available to hold a camera on slaughter day, but I'm keeping it in mind for the broilers we are raising at the moment. If I can corral an innocent bystander with enough intestinal fortitude into taking some pictures or video, I will certainly post them later on.
I had a minor freak out yesterday when, for a lark, I did a rough estimate of the energy costs of pressure canning. On a recheck of my calculations I found a major error that put me off by a factor of 1000. Oops! After the error was caught I was relieved to find that - provided I started with water brought up to room temperature, and used a bare minimum of water, and ran a full batch through my pressure canner - I could can salsa for about one-sixth of a fossil fuel calorie for every calorie of preserved food. If you want details about these calculations, find them in the comments.
The larger point is that this got me thinking about the carbon footprint of the food that I preserve. Obviously, it's more energy intensive than the stuff we eat fresh out of the garden. Going into freak out mode over what I erroneously believed was an absolute travesty of fossil fuel consumption made me scrutinize the food preservation process as a whole. How could I whittle down the energy inputs to the food we preserve? Here's what I came up with:
1. Can local products and minimize use of ingredients shipped from afar. It makes sense to start with foods that don't have inherently high carbon footprints before they arrive in our kitchens. Home canned food can only be as energy efficient as the ingredients that go into it. Obviously, finding a substitute for sugar grown a long way off won't be easy for most people. But we can opt to make lower-sugar jellies and jams. It'll be healthier for all of us while also lowering our food miles. Better still to can what we grow from seeds we start ourselves whenever possible. Growing your own from seed you save yourself makes you a low carbon footprint rock star.
2. Switch to re-usable canning lids. Tattler lids are re-usable indefinitely, and are made from plastic which does not leach BPA - an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen. BPA does no one any favors and is especially bad news for prepubescent children. Re-usable lids will entail a higher upfront cost that may not be feasible for everyone, though I believe it makes good sense both economically and in terms of energy consumption over the long term. Fossil fuels certainly go into the production of the Tattler re-usable lids and rings, but far more energy goes into the mining of metal for the single-use disposable lids, as well as the BPA-containing plastic lining on those lids. This is an investment worth working towards incrementally as your budget permits.
3. Prepare large batches so that you max out the capacity of your canner each time you fire it up. The more food you get out of one run through the canning process, the lower the energy usage per jar. Check the yields on canning recipes and try to scale up so that you fill your canner each time. Write margin notes on the recipes you use regarding the accuracy of the stated yields so that you can work more efficiently in the future. Also, make every effort to ensure that each jar seals successfully. Each jar that fails to seal and requires reprocessing doubles the energy consumption to preserve that food.
4. Bring the water needed to ambient temperature (or better) before you begin the canning process. In summer the water that comes out of our tap is roughly 59F/15C. The canning process takes that water to 212F/100C and beyond. That's exactly where the bulk of the fossil fuel is consumed - in heating water. A few hours' worth of foresight can shave off a significant chunk of those fossil fuel calories. All you need to do is fill the pots you'll need to use in the canning process well ahead of time. A water bath canner full of 59F water will warm up nicely when placed in the full August sun for several hours. Even if the pot only sits indoors on a cold stove for a few hours, our kitchen is very rarely less than 73F/23C during the summer months, and often much higher. If you're more ambitious and better equipped, you could use a camp shower bag to get the water really hot (easily 100F/33C). It may not seem like these small temperature differentials should make much difference, but heating the water is the major energy cost in the canning process. Temperature is a measure of energy, and saving energy is the name of the game here. I know planning ahead isn't the easiest thing in the thick of the summer gardening season, but in this case it's a free and relatively easy way to reduce your energy consumption.
5. As an obvious corollary to the above, use as little hot water as possible when you preserve food. Leave only the required amount of water in the canner when you're ready to process the filled jars. Extra water doesn't contribute anything to the process; it only consumes more energy for no purpose. If you're pressure canning, you can sterilize your jars in the canner with only a few inches of water and preheat the canner in the process. Just run the pressure canner with the lid on to the point that steam is being produced; you don't need to pressurize it. Leave the canner closed until you're ready to fill the jars.
6. If you happen to be blessed with a woodstove to heat your home, and are able to delay some of your canning to the cool months of the year, go for it. In doing so, you would avoid using any fossil fuel calories at all, and you'd be piggy-backing food preservation on the necessary heating of your home.
Got any other energy-saving tips to do with canning or food preservation? Please share in the comments!
A minor frustration in growing cilantro is the plant's notorious haste in going to seed. I deal with this by planting cilantro seed almost weekly from spring through midsummer. That ensures a relatively steady supply of one of my favorite summer herbs, so essential for salsa and Asian stir-fry dishes. Still, the plants have their own agenda, which seems to be ensuring future generations of cilantro as quickly as possible, and then dying. Those future generations take the form of an abundant seed set. I'm sure most of you will know this, but the seed of cilantro is coriander. Every so often I see cilantro referred to as "fresh coriander" or "green coriander."
This is the first year I've allowed the plants to fully ripen their seed. In past years I ripped out the bolting plants to make room for other things. This year I decided to harvest the seed, both for culinary uses and for re-seeding. The technique I use is pretty basic. On a dry day I unfold a full-size newspaper section underneath the dried out plant. Ideally I manage to arrange the newspaper such that it is slightly bowl shaped, with the center lower than the edges. Then I bend the seed heads down as low over the paper as possible, and rub the dried stalks and seed pods vigorously between my hands. What collects in the paper will be a combination of seeds, stems, leaf debris, and a few odd insects. I fold the newspaper up and bring it to the covered porch, where I open it up to dry for a day or so. During this time most of the insects will wander off on their own.
Next I remove the larger, more obvious pieces of stem and other detritus. Then the seeds go into a colander with holes small enough that the seeds cannot pass through. Shaking the seeds around in there removes the vast majority of other chaff. After that I pick over what remains by hand. Medium sized bits of stem take just a few minutes to pick out. All told, it takes me only about 15 minutes of hands-on work to collect what easily amounts to a year's supply of coriander. It's one of my mainstay spices when cooking beans. And we eat a lot of beans. It's also great for curries and all sorts of Indian dishes.
I put most of the cleaned coriander in a clean glass jar, labelled it, and added it to the chest freezer. The rest of it lives in the freezer attached to our refrigerator. I'm sold on the idea of keeping spices and herbs frozen to preserve as much flavor as possible. Both the chill and the darkness of a freezer help protect the flavors of these ingredients. Considering that purchased spices are - on a price per weight basis - among the most expensive foods I cook with, it's important to me that I get full value out of them.
So we've had our three fig trees in large containers for a year and change now. I wanted to wait this long to post an update on them so that I could have some results to share. The figs are in 17-gallon containers with a sizeable water reservoir at the bottom that takes away some of the growing space. These containers were constructed along the same lines as the self-watering potato buckets I experimented with last year.
The figs are doing well. It's likely I jumped the gun just slightly in pulling them out of the garage this spring. I was overeager, and the garage was really crowded. I knew fig trees could withstand light frosts. The garage where they spent the winter is large enough that the temperature inside had never dipped below 30 F (-1 C), even though it's unheated. I pulled the trees outside in late April, though our last frost comes typically in early May. I covered them with a drop cloth when frosts were predicted, and even put bottles of warm water under the cloths with them when temperatures in the 20's were forecast. These precautions proved insufficient to fully counter my overeagerness. The trees took some damage on the higher branch tips which held up the drop cloth. I was afraid that I'd done serious harm to the trees. But true to form, the figs proved they could withstand light frosts. I waited a few months to see how much of each branch had died, and ended up needing to trim only a few inches here and there.
The soil in the containers had settled quite a bit after planting last year. In late spring I laid each container on its side, hauled the tree out, trimmed the roots that had grown down into the water reservoir, and added more soil to the bottom of the growing space. The figs already had their leaves on, but they took this disturbance in stride. It's clear that the third year root trimming is going to be necessary next spring. This is considered standard maintenance for fig trees in containers. All the plants were working on becoming root bound. The extra soil should do for this year though.
All three varieties now have unripe figs on them. I've got them positioned on the edge of the driveway, and they seem to relish the extra baking that the blacktop provides. Making sure they're well watered through the heat wave has been a priority. They are thirsty plants indeed. I think keeping them in sufficient water would be very difficult without the water reservoir. It needs filling at least every other day. I'm especially anxious to keep up with their water needs because I suspect the first few figs that one tree put on were lost last year due to lack of water.
I'm looking forward to our first fig harvest, perhaps in a month or so. I don't expect it to be huge by any means, but I think we'll see a good handful or two from each of our three different varieties. An older friend of mine who grew up in Italy told me once about a breakfast he ate every day for a few weeks in late summer. Ripe figs smeared over crusty bread, drizzled with good olive oil and a pinch of salt. His mouth watered when he described it to me, almost 50 years later. Sign me up for that. Or figs skewered on rosemary twigs and roasted over a real charcoal fire. Or fig clafouti. Or figs with soft goat cheese on a green salad. Or, or, or...
There are two topics I want to cover in today's post: a new variety of broccoli that I'm growing this year, and the dish I keep making with it. Let's start with the crop.
It's a Brazilian variety of broccoli called piracicaba. Yes, it's a mouthful. Say: "peer-ah-SEE-kah-bah." Piracicaba is referred to as a non-heading broccoli, but what that really means is that the heads it produces are quite small. The largest ones I've seen on my plants are the first ones formed in the center of the plant. They're big enough to divide into two or maybe three good sized spears. When that one is removed, more heads start to form on the outer branches, each one smaller than the last. The salient point here is that piracicaba broccoli was bred for its leaves, not its florets. I learned to love broccoli leaves when I lived in the city and shopped at a good farmer's market. There was a vendor who sold "baby broccoli leaves" which I used for stir-fries. Maybe that vendor was hip way back then, and they were piracicaba leaves. They were certainly addictive. So growing a variety of broccoli which can deliver a steady supply of small and tender leaves all through the summer is a real joy.
But wait, there's more. Perhaps it wouldn't surprise you to hear that a Brazilian broccoli variety is exceptionally tolerant of heat and drought. The extent of this plant's endurance is on display this summer. We've had scorching heat and very, very little rain; and the piracicaba couldn't care less, apparently. Given the way our summers are trending with the global climate weirding, this is an attribute that has my full attention and respect. Piracicaba is also fairly cold hardy. I grew some last year as a trial and found that it held on till the first frost. That did surprise me. That's still not all though. The most amazing thing about this brassica variety is that the cabbage moths (small whites) utterly ignore it. I mean they have NO interest. None, zip, zilch. The only damage I find on the piracicaba leaves is from flea beetles, and that's pretty minor.
Noticing this lack of damage from the cabbage moths last year, I resolved to grow no cabbage at all in the spring this year. My spring brassicas therefore consisted of Tuscan kale, piracicaba, kohlrabi and a few turnips. Without the cabbage in the garden to attract the moths, all the other brassicas took much less damage than usual from them. I've got my fall cabbages under a row cover now, to protect them from the depredations of both moth and heat.
Piracicaba & pad see ew ingredients
So how do I eat this stuff? That brings me to a harvest meal that's been in heavy rotation this summer: pad see ew, a Thai noodle dish. I grew to love Thai food in those years I lived in the city. Now I indulge in some of my favorites at home. Thai cuisine is well suited to summertime in Pennsylvania, since I don't want to heat my house up any more than strictly necessary. Thai cookery usually relies on lots of ingredient preparation followed by a very short cooking period which brings everything together into a delicious whole. This describes pad see ew to a tee.
This dish is not at all spicy-hot, and can include meat or be vegetarian. I've been making a vegetarian version, so that's what I'll describe. What follows will prepare a generous single serving. Scale up proportionally to feed more people.
Place 2 ounces of celophane (transparent) rice noodles in a pot. Cover with cool water and soak for at least one hour before cooking. The longer the soaking time, the less you'll need to cook them. I've seen this dish most often prepared with the widest rice noodles. These will require some heating to fully cook through. Medium cut noodles require less, and the thin cut noodles can skate by with no pre-cooking if you soak long enough.
Prepare all your other ingredients. Slice one or two shallots, and mince three large cloves of garlic, or as much as you like, according to your tastes. Wash 3-4 ounces of piracicaba leaves and florets, or an equivalent amount of any other type of broccoli. Trim them into small pieces that will cook quickly in a stir-fry. In a small bowl measure out 1 and a half teaspoons of fish sauce, and add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Keep both sauces on hand in case you want to add more during cooking. Beat one egg in a small bowl. Measure out one tablespoon of sugar in another small bowl. Coarsely chop several stems of cilantro. Have all these ingredients and some cooking oil laid out near your cooking area. A long handled spoon or cooking chopsticks will be useful, and you may want tongs for serving.
Check your noodles. If you are using any but the smallest of the flat rice noodles, put the pot of noodles on the burner and warm the water, giving the noodles a gentle stir from time to time. You will not even need to bring the water to a boil. (Don't put rice noodles you failed to soak into boiling water. They'll just stick together in a tangled mess.) Make sure they are well softened, but keep in mind they'll get a final cooking as part of the stir-fry. Do not overcook them or they will fall apart when you cook the rest of the dish. When softened, turn off the heat. Have a colander in the sink ready to drain them at the last moment.
Preheat your largest heavy skillet over high heat for at least four minutes. Add a generous amount of cooking oil to the pan and immediately add the garlic and shallots. Stir these only long enough to separate them in the hot oil. Then add the piracicaba and stir it very gently around the pan so that it just begins to wilt. Drain the rice noodles, shaking off excess water, and stir them to combine with the broccoli. Sprinkle the sugar over the ingredients in the pan and continue stirring until the broccoli is wilted. Push all the ingredients to the edges of the pan, forming a ring of ingredients with a hole in the middle. If the pan looks very dry in the center, add a little more oil. Pour the beaten egg into the center and let it sit for a moment. Pour the fish sauce and soy sauce mixture in a circle over the mixture of noodles and broccoli. When you can see that the bottom of the beaten egg has begun to set up, mix all ingredients thoroughly in the pan. The uncooked egg should coat the noodles and broccoli. Check the color of the noodles. They should be brown from the soy sauce. If they are very pale, add a bit more soy sauce and mix well. Cook just long enough that the eggs have cooked and excess liquid has evaporated. Turn off the heat and mix in the chopped cilantro.
If you're a strict vegetarian you can leave out the fish sauce. If you're a committed carnivore you can add small pieces of raw meat to the center of the skillet before the eggs go in. Cook the meat thoroughly and push it to the edges with the other ingredients before adding the beaten egg.
Ugly picture, yummy food
I count this as a harvest meal for us since we produced the shallots, garlic, eggs, cilantro, and piracicaba that goes into the pad see ew. The rice noodles, sugar, oil, fish sauce and soy sauce are purchased. This is another one of those dishes that I just can't seem to get enough of. Fortunately our six piracicaba plants produce very steadily. From those six plants I can harvest enough leaves every three or four days to prepare a meal for my husband and myself.
I plan to have some piracicaba plants in the hoop house this winter. We'll see how long they hold on in there, and perhaps they'll even overwinter with enough protection. Piracicaba will definitely be a mainstay brassica in next year's garden. I recommend it to anyone who loves broccoli and lives where the summers are warm. Seeds are getting easier to find. Fedco has carried them for at least the last two years.
Back in early spring there was an offer of a broody hen from a local farmer I know. I got all excited and built a nesting box for the broody girl and her eggs. When late spring rolled around and we weren't hosting a hen, I put the chances of that project playing out at slim to nil. Farmers get real busy once winter is over, and with that in mind I wasn't willing to nag him about anything. Besides, if he didn't have a broody hen at the moment, he couldn't exactly produce one. In any case, I've got the nesting box all ready to go, so if and when he has a broody hen in a non-frantic part of the year, I'm ready to accept her on a moment's notice.
But having psyched myself up to host some little chicks, I reconsidered my lack of interest in getting chicks from a hatchery. In the end I asked my farming friend if I could buy a few chicks from her the next time she started another batch of broilers. She gets Cornish Cross chicks from a nursery that is fairly local to us, though they're still delivered by mail. So just over two weeks ago when her order of chicks came in, I went to her farm with the WWOOF volunteers we were hosting and picked up six day-old chicks. Our volunteers at the time were vegetarians, but surprisingly accepting of my plan to raise these birds for our table. I encouraged them to handle the chicks as much as possible, wanting the birds to become accustomed to being picked up by humans.
My setup for the brooder was pretty simple. I just covered a large storage plastic bin with garden caging and filled it with a few inches of wood shavings. Our volunteer constructed a little wooden frame with fine mesh across the top to hold the waterer. This serves to catch any spilled water in a limited part of the wood shavings, and to keep the chicks away from the wet bedding. When the chicks are very tiny, they don't tolerate getting even slightly wet as they must stay very warm indeed. I had set up the brooder with an incandescent bulb hanging from the caging, since my chick-rearing guide warned me that they need 95F (35C) temperatures in their brooder the first week. But these chicks arrived in the midst of a summer heat wave, when indoor temperatures were 80+F (27C) during the day. I turned on the bulb for the first few days and left it on overnight. From observing the chicks it was obvious they didn't need the extra heat. The bulb was positioned in the middle of the brooder, and they scattered to the four corners to sleep. So I happily turned the light off and let them bunch up for warmth if they felt the need. The crazy heat has passed, for the moment, but the chicks still don't seem to need any extra warmth.
You may notice in the picture above that I've been providing weeds to the chicks from day one. Every day I hang some purslane (which is rampant in the garden right now) from the caging, and dandelion or other weeds when they come easily to hand. The chicks seem to like the dangling plants. They jump for individual leaves and tear off what they can with their beaks. Anything that encourages exercise in these chicks is a good thing. Cornish Crosses are, in my opinion, overbred. They are noted for a growth rate so rapid that it causes leg problems because they cannot support their own weight. It's also not uncommon for their bodies to outgrow their organs. Heart failure is a feature in this breed which is typically slaughtered at six weeks when raised industrially. Because we're not lighting them at night, our broilers won't eat 24 hours a day. So they'll grow a bit more slowly and have a few more weeks of life. It should also help prevent organ failure and leg problems.
Last week, when the chicks were less than two weeks old, I started moving them for part of each day to "daycamp." This is just a wire mesh enclosure with their food and water. I place it on a fresh, shady patch of grass and let them hang out there whenever the weather is fair and I'm at home. This wouldn't be feasible for two-week old chicks in spring or fall, but it works in the summer. Fortunately our cat shows absolutely zero interest in the chicks. I'm not complaining about this or anything, but it is odd since he's such an accomplished hunter of chipmunks, baby rabbits and smaller rodents of all kinds. Perhaps the chicks smell to him like our hens, and the hens being clearly out of his range so far as hunting goes, the chicks get sorted into a non-prey category in his little feline mind. The broilers grow very fast indeed and this simple pen is going to be a bit crowded for all of them in a very short time.
I'm guessing it'll be slaughter time in another six to seven weeks. So far the broiler chicks have been very little bother at all. If the rest of the process is this easy I may plan to raise two batches of six birds each next year. That would represent a very significant portion of all the meat we eat in a year - probably something like a third to half of our total meat consumption. Knowing that we can do that much for ourselves on less than an acre would be huge.
I live on a 2/3 acre homestead in a residential neighborhood. A major goal is to demonstrate how much food a non-expert can produce in my particular climate and hardiness zone, with the soils native to my immediate area. We have gardens of annual and perennial plants, keep laying hens and honey bees, and regularly bite off more than we can chew. Another major goal is to pay off our mortgage as fast as possible. Here I blog about frugality, self-reliance, gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, practical skills, half-baked experiments, and preparing to thrive in a lower-energy future.