Monday, March 30, 2009

First Harvest & Early Pizza

On Saturday I gathered my first few leaves of arugula sylvetta from some plants that had overwintered in the garden. Last year my first harvest came in April, and it was from some incredibly hardy overwintered Tuscan kale that put out a few small new leaves before going to seed. As usual, the chives are up an' at 'em early as well. I decided that pizza night would put this tiny harvest to best use.

In the interest of my resolution to keep better harvest records this year, I duly weighed that harvest. My baking scale of course couldn't handle such trivial quantities, so I had to get out the tiny metric scale. I'd harvested a whopping 5 grams each of arugula and chives. I felt pretty silly about this. But there it is, nonetheless, on my side bar: my first harvest tally of the year.

We added other things from our garden to the thin crust pizzas we made. Each one had a different combination of last year's smoked cherry tomatoes, pesto made from our homegrown purple basil and garlic, the freshly harvested arugula and chives, cheese, and some of the local pastured bacon I bartered for recently. The pesto and the smoked cherry tomatoes had both been frozen. I like to make these tiny pizzas because they cook in about four minutes on a baking stone, and we can try lots of different toppings. Except for the chives, this one pretty much has it all:

It's best to add the arugula when the pizza comes out of the oven, and just let wilt a bit. Some of the cherry tomatoes were still juicy enough to squirt warm tomato juice on our faces when we bit into them. Ooops! Is that too much like food porn for a family blog?

I'm looking forward to when more of our harvest ingredients are from this year. Have any of you northern folks managed to have a harvest meal yet? Do tell!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What I Learned from Earth Hour

Did you turn off your lights last night? Without much planning or fanfare, we decided to participate in Earth Hour. We started a little early, around 8 pm. We were both tired from working in the yard, and content after a dinner of homemade pizza. I had some good escapist fiction that beckoned. Fortunately, we happen to have two oil lamps. So we took one apiece and settled in for a good read.

I have to say that as happy as I am that we could get around our house and function with non-electrical light, oil lamps aren't things you really want to read by, unless you've got a lot of them. Normally we use these things as supplemental light on the table when we want to have a celebratory meal. I did find that we could get more light by really cranking up the wicks. But that just meant we were consuming both wicks and oil at a faster rate. My eyes did adjust to the dim light, but I still think the eyestrain from reading wouldn't be a great idea over the long run. And I can't imagine my life without a good deal of reading.

Some of the blogs I read that deal with preparing for life after peak oil, or the next great depression, or political collapse strongly suggest turning off the electricity at the junction box for a weekend or a week, just to see how well you can function without it, and to see in what areas you'd like to be better prepared or equipped. I've never done this. But having just turned off the lights for an hour and a half last night, I can see that some sort of light other than oil lamps would sure be nice, if it came to that. Perhaps solar lanterns, or some hand-cranked battery powered lighting. Reading by oil lamps would probably ruin my eyesight sooner rather than later. It took less than an hour with the lights turned off to learn this.

Solar lanterns on the wish list. What did you learn during Earth Hour?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tree Slaughter

"And among these, I hold trees dear. Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon the bough little mourned in their passing." - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

We cut down three perfectly sound trees on our little property in the last few days. It made me sad, although it is necessary to make room for the fruit trees we have ordered, and which will no doubt be arriving soon by mail. This is in addition to the large black cherry tree felled late last year, along with an old white lilac and a large snowball bush. Who would have suspected that 2/3 of an acre could hold so many trees and still have room for other full grown trees, a house, detached garage, and a very sizable garden?

Cutting the white pine, a blue spruce and a fir of some sort made me feel a little guilty. It reminded me of the quote above, from Tolkien. Yavanna, a queen of the Valar, has created the plants and trees of Arda, Tolkien's mythical world. She foresees, when her husband creates the dwarves, that her creations will be killed to fuel the industry of metalsmiths. To balance the scales she asks that the Ents be created, tree shepherds, half men and half trees, who will speak on behalf of the trees, and protect the forests from wanton destruction.

Yes, I was conscious of killing a living thing yesterday and today. Something gentle and silent that had done me no harm. Still, we can't eat evergreen trees, and our priority this year is to get fruit trees and berries (elder, black raspberry, and blueberry) in place. Oh, yes, and asparagus beds too, just as soon as we can get to them. We're working on getting closer and closer to feeding ourselves from our little residential lot. With only 2/3 of an acre, sadly, there isn't much room for non-edibles.

My penance will be to tend with care the cherry and pear trees we plant in their places.

I'll be back with cheerier news pretty soon. It is, after all, springtime.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Clemencello Report

I know I'm way overdue on following up my experiment with homemade liqueur. What can I say? Spring is here and the days are just getting away from me with all sorts of out door chores and the planting schedule. I have good intentions, but only so many hours in the day.

Anyway, on to the clemencello results. I started this experiment back in early January. It turned out pretty well.

As you can see from this picture, by the time all the peels were in the alcohol, there was significant color leaching going on with the earliest added peels. The ones on the bottom look like lemon peels compared to those on top. Over time, the alcohol leached much of the color from the peels, so they all looked that pale.

On the 11th of February I removed the peels and added about one cup of sugar syrup to the 12 ounces of flavored liqueur. I had not followed any specific syrup recipe when I prepared it, but I came up with a syrup rather on the thick side. I wanted to make sure I did not dilute the alcohol enough to let it freeze if it were chilled in the freezer. By using a concentrated syrup, I avoided adding too much water in the process of sweetening it, and the sugar itself would help lower the freezing point of the mixture. So I had to judge by taste how much syrup to mix into the liqueur. When the bitterness from the peels was no longer dominant, I deemed it sufficient. I didn't add enough syrup so that the bitterness completely disappeared. I expected that the flavors would adjust over time. Of course when you make your own liqueur, you can sweeten it however much you prefer.

I let the mixture sit for a week so that the ingredients could get well acquainted, shaking it up every other day or so. Then I tasted it again, and thought it still needed a little more sweetness. So I added some more of the concentrated sugar syrup. After that I strained the liquid first through a fine metal strainer and then a second time through a coffee filter. This removed a little sediment that had come from the peels.

I didn't have a pretty bottle to store the clemencello in, but I did give some of it away as a present. The gift recipient appreciated it even in the re-used bottle. We also saved a small amount for our own consumption. We've been enjoying it in small sips after dinner now and then. It's nice either at room temperature or chilled. I think in summertime I would mostly drink it well chilled.

There really wasn't much to making this liqueur. Aside from knowing how to remove the pith from citrus peels (illustrated in my earlier post), not much is needed in the way of either effort or expertise. Time does most of the work, and then it's a matter of following one's own taste as far as sweetness goes. I would certainly try this again with any citrus peels that weren't earmarked for baked goods.

Have any of you made your own liqueurs? Share your stories in the comments, please.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Your Turn, Dear Reader

It's time for something a little different here at Living the Frugal Life. Today I'm asking for help and advice from my readers. Just a little while ago, the google reader subscription to this blog passed 150 people. It's not much by many people's standards, but it's certainly a bigger audience than I ever expected this blog would have. It's also a large enough group of readers that I know there are plenty of things I could learn from my readers. I'm more than happy to share what I know and learn by way of my own mistakes. But I'm not above asking you for help either.

So. There's something I'd like your advice on. First, check out this funky house in Texas that features a full house curtain made out of the bottoms of aluminum cans. I want to know how to cut up an aluminum can in a time-and-effort-efficient manner that leaves me with a fairly uniform piece of metal. You see, I've had a small bee in my bonnet about trying to reproduce the house curtain ever since the good folks at Homegrown Evolution posted about the Beer Can House. Check out their post, by the way, because I think they have an even better picture of the curtain than the House's own website. We could sure use a full house curtain for summertime low energy cooling of our house. I'm willing to give it a try and see if it works for us. But I've stalled on an early production problem.

I tried several ways of cutting up aluminum cans to reproduce this feat of creative genius, but I'm not having much luck. I've already tried the box cutter blade in a closed book technique recommended at this site. It works, but it takes a fair bit of time and effort to accomplish. It would be manageable if I only needed to cut two cans. As a technique for cutting up thousands, it's a little too slow.

Another possibility that I've already rejected is filling each can with water, freezing it solid, and then using a saw to cut the can. Again - fine for a few cans, but far too time consuming for the numbers I would need. A hack saw on an empty can would work, I'm sure. But it would leave a very ragged and uneven edge that I'd rather avoid.

And yes, to all you clever canners out there, I have realized that used canning jar lids would be a good substitute. I'm willing to use canning lids as I use them up, but I don't go through all that many in a year. So they can supplement, but not replace the large numbers of aluminum cans needed for a house curtain project.

One of you out there must have a clever idea or some practical experience that I can apply to this problem. Help me out!

Monday, March 9, 2009

March Is a Good Time To... some long underwear on sale. I know winter's almost over. But this is when clothing sellers are most motivated to clear out their winter inventory. If you live in a cold climate, it's hard to have too much long underwear. Might as well pick some up now while it's cheap. If you know you'll be exchanging holiday gifts this year, you could pick up a set for anyone on your list. Wouldn't it be satisfying to know you got your "holiday" shopping done by March?

We just got our REI dividend and a 20% coupon in the mail. It's not a very big dividend, but some of you might have gotten bigger ones. If you have no better use for it, REI sure has some top quality skivvies. And since people go camping any time of year, REI doesn't tend to have seasonal sales on "foundation layers." So a dividend and coupon is about the best you'll get from REI on long underwear.

In my experience, silk long underwear is very warm, thin, and light, but it's extremely expensive and doesn't wear as well as some synthetic fabrics or wool blends. I don't recommend cotton long underwear unless you live in an area where long underwear is hardly needed. It's very comfortable, but doesn't provide much heat retention, and it doesn't wick moisture well at all. Get a warm fabric that will let you crank the heat down another notch next winter.

Well, that's all I got this dreary Monday. If it weren't rainy, I'd be out mucking about in the garden. Spring can't come soon enough.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bad Little Fried Things

While my husband is away on business travel, I'm on my own with leftovers and whatever's in the fridge. So I guess it's no great surprise that I had another batch of milk go sour on me this week. I've had a lot of fun in the past, using up sour milk in various ways. Today's concoction might beat them all for cheap and not totally unhealthy decadence though. I'm not sure what to call these treats, but they sure were good.

Here's what I used:

2/3 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sour milk
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour (plus a little extra for rolling out the dough)
1/2 cup currants
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
peanut oil for frying
1/3 cup powdered sugar

I combined the rolled oats and sour milk in a small bowl while I mixed the flour, currants, baking soda, cardamom and salt in a mixing bowl. Then I poured the oats and milk into the dry ingredients and stirred until the dough was uniform. This I turned out onto a floured board. I formed the dough into a ball and then rolled it out into a slab just a little under 1/2" thick.

Then I heated about 1/2" of peanut oil in a saucepan. While that heated, I put the powdered sugar in a small paper bag. When the oil was hot, I cut thin strips of the dough with a pasta cutter (a pizza cutter or aknife would have been fine too) and dropped them into the oil, just enough so that the pan wasn't too crowded. After about a minute, I turned the pieces of dough over to brown nicely on the other side.

When both sides were browned, I used chop sticks to pick up the dough and drop them into the bag of powdered sugar. Folding over the top of the bag, I shook the contents so the fried dough was well coated with the sugar. I put them on some pages torn from an old phone book to soak up the grease, but the pages showed almost no trace of oil.

These were very quick and easy to prepare, and absolutely delicious with my morning cuppa. Too bad I'm the only one here to enjoy them. They look a lot more decadent than they really are, since the dough itself contains no sugar. The dough also contains only a trace amount of fat (from the whole milk) before it's fried, so even in that regard it isn't too bad. The currants and oats give these a faint sheen of nutrition too. I'm very partial to cardamom in lightly sweet things. But you may prefer to substitute the more familiar cinnamon.

Anyway, that's where some of my soured milk went this morning!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Planting Schedule

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field." - Dwight Eisenhower

There's great pleasure, for me, in planning a garden; always has been. I like to work with graph paper to give myself a spatial representation of what the garden will look like. But I also work better with a progressive list of planting dates, so I can keep track of what I need to plant when. I've already begun sprouting some seeds. Among these are crops that need the longest season to mature (onion, leeks, and celery root), as well as fast growing plants that tolerate cold temperatures very well (lettuce and kale). In my ambition to produce as much of our own food as possible, I will sow seeds and transplant seedlings from February through August this year, saving the garlic bulbs to plant last of all in mid-October. If this year is anything like last year, we'll harvest apples in November, and continue harvesting leeks throughout the winter. But I also hope to have more root crops and more cold-tolerant greens under cold frames and row covers for fall and winter harvest.

The timing aspect of sowing and planting comes down to local conditions as well as individual knowledge of the gardener. I could tell you when I plant, transplant, and direct sow my seeds in zone 6, but it wouldn't be very helpful for those of you in other hardiness zones. Fortunately, there are plenty of useful guidelines out there. Indeed, Ali at Henbogle recently linked to Kathy's Personalized Seed Planting Calendar which you can customize with the dates of the first and last frost dates in your area. Once I plugged in the relevant dates for my own area, I found it to be an excellent starting point for my scheduling. But the schedule includes some plants I won't be growing and omits others that I plan to include. Also, my own experience will guide me to diverge slightly from the suggestions of the automated schedule.

For instance, while the conventional wisdom is to plant tomato seedlings two weeks after the last frost, I prefer to plant even later than that. In my experience, exposure to temperatures lower than 50 F will prevent even the smallest, greenest fruit on the plant from ever developing into a tomato with good flavor. So I transplant when I can be reasonably certain that the nighttime temperature will not fall below 50 degrees. In my area, that means the tomatoes don't go in the ground until June 1st. It's worked well for me. I don't get the earliest tomatoes, but my first tomatoes are worthy of the name.

Also, I'll plant my pumpkins and winter squash on the late side, because I want to harvest them when outdoor temperatures are as low as possible. Warm temperatures shorten the shelf life of pumpkins, and a mid-May planting will mean a September harvest. I'd rather see them finish off in early October, so I'll wait for June to plant them. That will let me store them well into the late winter months.

Another excellent timing reference that I rely on is Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest, which contains an index of planting guidelines for late season crops, based on the first frost date in the fall. The indices alone are worth the price of the book, in my opinion. Also, don't forget that if you live in the US, you have a great resource for local gardening knowledge in the Master Gardeners. You can reach these volunteers through your state's local Agricultural Extension Office. There should be one in every county in the US. These trained and experienced gardeners will have some of the most specific recommendations for your location.

While various authorities can give you general guidelines for planting dates, it's important to remember that these sources will be giving you averages. But different varieties of a given crop also vary in the number of days they need to reach maturity. Tomatoes may take as few as 55 or as many as 80 days to produce fruits from the time they are transplanted. That's a big range; more than three weeks. Lettuces range from 50 to 70 in days to maturity. Check the seed packets of the specific varieties you've ordered to find this information, in order to plan accordingly.

If you're an experienced gardener, you may well want to decide your planting dates for yourself. Here's a nice online tool I use to help me count backwards from two different dates: the average date of the first fall frost, and the date when we'll see less than 10 hours of daylight at my latitude. It will also help you count forward from a given date, based on the days to maturity for your seeds.

It's hard to compare your location to another one for several reasons. Hardiness zones reflect the average low winter temperature in an area. But within a given zone, there's a wide range in the first and last frost dates. Your last frost date might easily match that of a distant location in a warmer or cooler hardiness zone. And latitude determines day length, which also has no direct correlation to either frost dates or hardiness zones. To see evidence of this, just follow any east-west running line across that hardiness map to see how many different zones exist at a given latitude. There's a lot to learn about how the weather behaves in any given area - and we haven't even mentioned precipitation!

I know that when you're inexperienced with gardening the details can be sufficiently overwhelming to induce paralysis. Don't let that discourage you. Plants want to live and grow. They will do most of the work if you give them a decent chance. Try a wide range of plants, and something is bound to do well for you. Just don't get overeager and plant seeds so early that the seedlings get rootbound in their containers. Few plants can rebound and produce well if their roots are constrained early in their growth. Keep some notes on how things do in your garden each year, including planting dates, harvest dates, and a few weather notes, so that next year you can make better decisions. Most of all, just try it! Gardening is definitely something you learn by doing.

Green blessings for your garden this year!

Related post:
Late Frost and Tender Seedlings

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Recession and Revised Plans

Last year I posted about an extremely ambitious personal finance plan that my husband and I took on in July. We wanted to pay down the principle on our mortgage by an additional $50,000 - above and beyond the paydown we'd see with just our normal monthly payments - over the following 12 months.

Well, that was before it was generally known that the US had entered a recession in December of 2007. Despite the downturn in the economy, we did very well with our goal up until the beginning of 2009. We have not reached it, and as of January, we decided to change tactics and put that goal on hold. You see, right now it looks as though my husband will be out of a job at the end of June.

By any middle-class measure, he's very well compensated for what he does. But he works on a contract basis, and right now it looks somewhat unlikely that his contract will be renewed after June 30th. He had a job offer late last year that appealed to him, and which he intended to accept after June. But that offer evaporated along with the rest of the economy several weeks ago.

Having no debt other than our mortgage, and having built a cash emergency savings to cover six months of expenses, we're situated as well as can be expected to weather a period of unemployment for the main breadwinner in our household. I've been more diligent about doing the various things I do to earn money. And we can be fairly sure we won't go hungry any time soon, given the garden I have all planned out for this year. Still, it's a scary thing to contemplate: losing our income.

Right now we still have almost four months of continued income to count on, and that much time for him to look for other job opportunities, hustle for an extension of his contract, and hope that the economy recovers somewhat. In February I canceled the additional principle payments that we were making automatically each month along with our normal monthly payment. That money will buffer our cash savings for the next four months. If my husband finds another job by June, we'll be able to take that money and apply it to our mortgage as a lump sum payment. If not, well, we'll be using it for necessities.

My plan right now is to either refinance or recast our mortgage in early May if my husband has not secured another job. That will lower our required mortgage payment and let us live longer on our emergency fund. If our finances pick up again, nothing would prevent us from resuming automatic additional principle payments each month, though less of our required monthly payment would be applied to the principle. Still, if we lose our main income, that's a price worth paying.

On the other hand, we are also considering a major expenditure that's not, strictly speaking, a requirement. We've asked for estimates for a solar PV and solar thermal installation that would cut our heating bills down to almost nothing. I have no idea what those estimates are going to look like. Before we would pay out money for that, we'd also have our home evaluated for additional insulation needs.

This may sound paradoxical: that we're contemplating a significant discretionary expense when we anticipate the need to live on our savings. We see it this way though; if the economy remains so weak that my husband cannot find a decent job, we want to be able to heat our house next winter without spending much money. Heating is a major expense in our annual budget, and since we heat with oil, that expense is perilously tied to shrinking supplies of fossil fuel. I'm also concerned about the possibility of hyper-inflation. If that occurred, not only would the value of our cash savings be less, but the cost of oil and electricity might easily become prohibitively expensive. Finally, we reckon that a home with solar electricity generation and low heating costs will hold its value better than many other homes. In other words, it looks like a smart investment to us right now.

We've yet to see the estimates for such an installation, so we don't know whether we'll take that plunge. But it's on the table. And if the price is right we may be able to pay for it with a bonus we're expecting based on last year's performance by the company my husband works for. (For the record, that company is not in the financial/banking sector, nor anywhere near it.)

The smaller amounts of money from my earnings that were occasionally applied to our principle are also accumulating rather than being paid out. But part of these funds are being set aside in my mind for spending as well. Mind you, I'm not planning on any frivolous purchases, but I would like to invest in some items that will be of long-term value to us, no matter what happens with the economy. I figure some responsible spending won't be amiss in these tough times either. On my list of things to buy are some extra sets of long underwear for both of us during the coming spring sales, a solar oven, some solar lanterns, and some materials to build housing for some meat rabbits, and to modify our mobile chicken coop this spring. If there's money left after that, I'll buy another 50-pound bag of bread flour, though I'm almost afraid to know what the price has risen to. Basically, I'm looking to put about $500 into things that will hold their value and pay dividends for our budget year after year.

If we are somehow able to squeak through this year without a loss of income - and that's a big if - I would like to start another savings fund for an electric assist bicycle. I understand that these are quite expensive. But I know that sooner or later we are going to have to confront the end of affordable gasoline. A bicycle was my transportation for many years out of necessity, and therefore I've never regarded cycling as recreation, as my husband does. We live in a quite hilly area, and it's more than three miles to reach the nearest spot where we could grocery shop or fill a prescription. The bulk food store is 17 miles away along the flattest route. There is very, very little public transportation in our area, and none right now that would get us to the places we shop. It would be faster for me to walk to the nearest grocery store than to take a bus, and I'd still have to walk most of the route anyway. So far, an electric assist bike is the best transportation solution I've been able to think of to the end of cheap petroleum, and it wouldn't be much fun, or even manageable, on many winter days.

Well, that's where we're at in this recession. I'm not feeling sorry for us; I know we're better situated than many. Still, like everyone else, we are feeling the anxiety. My heart really goes out to those who are already dealing with job losses and financial disaster. If you're not yet in crisis, please think about spending wisely where you are able to do so. Remember that food banks and other charities are stretched incredibly thin right now. If you can afford it, check that box to add a few dollars to your utility bill payment to keep someone else's electricity from being shut off. Plant your garden this year, and share what you can. We're in for more tough times ahead.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I woke up yesterday knowing that it was going to be a cold day. I like a good snowstorm when I've got everything I need for a week or more and have nowhere I need to go. There's an unearthly beauty in falling snow that layers itself thickly over branches and fence lines. But the 20 F weather with the 25 mph wind sure makes it forbidding outside.

So I decided to do just a little baking to take the chill off the house. Since I hadn't mixed up any dough on Sunday, it was going to have to be something pretty fast. That's when I stumbled on to the bialy recipe in Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer. Don't know what a bialy is? Not too surprising since they're almost unknown outside of New York City. Bialys are very small breads, sort of like a bagel. But instead of having a hole in the center, they have an indentation, and they're not boiled before baking. The dimple in the bread is filled, usually, with browned onions, but occasionally with garlic or poppy seeds. Another Jewish contribution to the world of baked goods. Like bagels, bialys can be sliced and topped with various things, simple butter, or lox and cream cheese apparently being the most popular choices.

I couldn't swear that I'd never eaten a bialy before I made my first batch, but if I ever had, the experience didn't leave much of an impression on me. Fortunately, a bialy straight out of the oven turned out to be a most memorable and enjoyable experience.

I won't copy out the recipe here, because it's long and there would be copyright issues. But I will tell you that it was a real pleasure to work with the dough, which gets worked and warmed several times in a food processor between hand kneadings. The warm dough felt wonderful on my hands in a chilly kitchen. The warmth also gave the yeast a nice head start that would otherwise be hard to provide in my coolish winter home.

I tried two different ways of shaping the bialys and found that the dough really did need to be pulled out very wide and almost flat. The ones I stretched out less than that almost completely lost their dimples and puffed up like balls, despite the fact that they are shaped immediately before going into the oven. I thought handling them too aggressively would deflate the dough and make them flat. Now I know. I enjoyed them all, but the widest ones were best.

The onion filing is usually just ground up and lightly baked onions. Of course, glutton that I am, I went overboard. I had some schmaltz that needed using up. So after grinding up the onions, I cooked them in the rendered chicken fat, and used that for my bialy topping, along with kosher salt. It's not authentic, I know, but I make no apologies. The recipe also warned me to go light on the topping. This I most deliberately ignored. And I'm glad I did.

I ate two bialys right away, the first one piping hot out of the oven. The recipe said they don't keep very well, so I didn't hold back, much. I can see, today, that the cookbook is correct; they really are best fresh from the oven. It's no wonder then that whatever bialy I might or might not have eaten in the past was so underwhelming. I probably got one several hours old. My own bialys were good enough that I would have happily devoured half a dozen. But then I would have had to lay on the floor and moan for a while. I can see that these quick to prepare little gems may become a habit when the weather's chilly and there's schmaltz in the house.

If you enjoy baking and are looking for easy breads to make on relatively short notice, have a look at a good bialy recipe. I mixed the dough at 9 am and enjoyed my first bialy around 2 pm. You don't have to use the schmaltz, as I did, but it sure made for an incredibly tasty, cheap indulgence.

You've all been mighty quiet lately. Did I drive you away with the meat rabbit post, or was it my unannounced absence last week?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Meat Rabbits on Pasture

Over the weekend I attended a workshop on income opportunities in agriculture. One of the speakers was Daniel Salatin of Polyface Farms. The son of Joel Salatin, Daniel began raising meat rabbits twenty years ago when he was only seven years old. So he knew quite a bit about producing rabbits on pasture. This is a topic I'm very interested in. Since we eat meat and want both to be frugal and to reduce our carbon footprint, it makes sense to produce some of our own meat ourselves. Given our small residential property, rabbits seem to be one of the best possibilities.

I'm going to share what I learned from Daniel Salatin's presentation. WARNING: If raising animals for slaughter and consumption bothers you, you may want to skip this post.

Daniel raises rabbits that he has more or less bred himself over the last two decades. They are mostly a cross between the New Zealand White and California breeds, though he also once had a Dutch buck that contributed to the gene pool. His current breeding stock show coloration typical of none of these breeds. He said that he selectively bred for those animals that did well for him on their Virginia farm. It so happened that the ones who did well showed recessive traits in coloration. But he had no preference at all in their coloration when he made breeding decisions. The rabbits have tawny-golden fur with slightly darker coloration on their foreheads. Very attractive rabbits.

When the does are ready to give birth they are removed from pasture and kept in indoor cages. The kits and mother doe are kept indoors together for five weeks after birth. At five weeks, the doe goes back on to pasture, and the kits are kept indoors alone for one more week. Daniel said that the 5-7 week age is when the kits are most susceptible to coccidiosis. So although he must transition them to pasture very soon, he removed the mother at that point so as not to introduce two stresses (separation from mother, and change of scenery/feeding) simultaneously. After a week alone the litter is put together in a pen on grass.

The rabbit pens used at Polyface Farms are 3'x8' and about 2' high. They are designed hold 10 rabbits at a time, but usually hold one litter each. The frame is constructed from 2x2's with chickenwire siding. The roof is made from corrugated aluminum roofing, which is admittedly expensive but extremely durable, and can be re-used for decades. The bottom of the pen has long thin wooden slats running the 8' length of the pen with a reinforcing cross bar on top of the slats in the middle of the pen. When asked, Daniel claimed the slats are set about 1.5"-2" apart, although they looked more widely spaced than that to me, based on the pictures he showed. I would have guessed they were about 3" apart. But I'll go with the stated spacing when we construct our pens.

The critical aspect of the slats is that they be arranged parallel to the long sides of the pen, and that the pen always be moved in the direction of the slats. Rabbits will feed on grasses and other greens, but only if the tips of the plants are pointing upwards. They like to nibble from the tips down towards the roots. If the stalks are bent downwards by the slats or anything else, the rabbits will ignore the greenery and only eat whatever other feed is provided.

These pens get moved at least once per day, and often more frequently than that. As a rule of thumb, Daniel recommended that the rotation period for the pens be a full year, although he said they have had no problem at Polyface when using rotations as short as 6 months. In other words, he recommends that the rabbit pen not be put on the same piece of pasture more frequently than once every 12 months. Even for a small operation, that's a significant space requirement.

Pasture can supply 25-40% of the rabbits' dietary needs. They will eat clover and other high protein greens, but actually prefer plants that Daniel Salatin referred to as "stemmy" or scrubby. He specifically mentioned beet greens, comfrey and other plants with developed stalks, including green rye and winter wheat. He also said that rabbits will do very well over the winter months if they are provided with root crops for their consumption: carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, etc. The will eat hay in the winter months if nothing else is available. His standard purchased feed for rabbits is non-medicated alfalfa pellets.

The Salatins have never seen any evidence of either tapeworms or coccidiosis in their rabbits. They have periodically sent tissue samples for testing, which has never revealed either disease in their stocks. Coccidiosis would most readily show up as white spots on the liver of the animal. They do not and have never used any prophylactic antibiotics or other preventative medications on their rabbits. According to Daniel Salatin, even if a rabbit did have coccidiosis, the meat would still be safe for humans to eat, since the disease is species specific. But obviously such an animal would not be healthy, and he would not sell any animal he knew to be infected. (NB: Accuracy of this information is disputed. Please see the comment section for another perspective on coccidiosis.)

Rabbits are slaughtered on Polyface Farms at 12 weeks of age and about 4-5 lbs live weight. They dress out at about 3 pounds each. The Salatins adhere to a "Levitical" slaughtering practice that calls for the rabbits to first be stunned and then bled to death. After twenty years of practice, it takes Daniel less than three minutes to dress a rabbit. This work is done outside with buckets to collect the blood, with the rabbits actually hung upside down from a clothes line to bleed out.

Although the rabbits he raises have attractive pelts, he does not sell them or use them for any purpose. He said there's very little demand for rabbit pelts and what market there is prefers white fur. He allowed that a cottage industry could likely find some use for cured pelts, but with his other family and farm responsibilities, he has not had time to develop any such project. I'll bet some very warm hats with ear flaps could be made from rabbit pelts. He did show a photo of some of the farm cats dining al fresco on the organs.

I spoke briefly with Daniel's wife, Sheri, and she said that they have far more demand for rabbit meat than they can meet. She said if they had them, they could sell 300 rabbits per week! No doubt such demand came about through the Salatins developing their own market and through the cache of the Polyface Farms name. I didn't get this down in my notes, but I believe they said they sell their rabbits whole for $4.50 per pound.

I also asked her if they ever sell live rabbits as breeding stock. She said that they did, and that the price depended on the age/size of the live rabbits at the time of sale. Polyface Farms doesn't ship any of their products, so if you're interested in their rabbits for breeding stock, you would need to pick them up on the farm yourself. I do wonder though whether they might be persuaded to deliver live rabbits with one of their regularly scheduled deliveries to Washington DC, Maryland, or Virginia.

I found a great blog written by a Polyface Farms apprentice. Check out his posts about their rabbit operation, including pictures of just about everything I've mentioned here, if you'd like to learn more. But if my descriptions of the slaughtering bothered you, trust me, you don't want to see these pictures.

Based on what I learned at this workshop, meat rabbits seem largely doable for us. The biggest concerns I have are that adding rabbits on top of our laying hens would put us over the zoning limits for "outdoor pets" in our suburban area. Since we only have 2/3 of an acre altogether, and much of that is devoted to our house, garage, and garden, we also might run into space limitations in our backyard if we try to avoid placing the rabbits on any patch of grass more than once per year, especially if we run multiple pens to keep does, a buck, and litters separate. And then there's the issue of where we would keep the rabbits over the winter months. I think we could manage the slaughter and dressing of the animals once we got over that hump.

I hope some of you found this write-up useful. I think I've included everything I learned, so I don't know what else I could add. But if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer them. Are any of you thinking of raising meat rabbits in the near future?

Related post:
Going Mobile with a Backyard Flock

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March Frugal Action Item: Rein In Entertainment Spending

Time for another Frugal Action Item. In January we started out with an easy once-and-done switch from standard to compact fluorescent bulbs. Not too taxing and no discipline required once you make the change. Last month's Item was a lot more challenging. I asked you to both acquire new kitchen skills and change dining out habits. In March I'm shooting for something in between in terms of how much effort you'll need to put out. You don't need to learn a new skill, but you will need to make some changes in your routine.

The Frugal Action Item for March is still going to be a tough sell for some folks, which is why I am encouraging you to look at this as a one-month experiment. So here it is: Just for this month, use your local library instead of buying any books, magazines, instead of paying for another month of Netflix, cable tv, or heaven forbid, actual movie theater tickets. I know, I know, I can hear the moans and protests already. That's why I want you to treat this as an experiment.

Put your Netflix or Blockbuster account on hold, put the next book you simply must have on a wishlist instead of on your credit card. Get thee to thine local library. Look over the dvds they have available for the borrowing - completely free! Remember that dvds are heavily borrowed, so what you see available at any given time is only a fraction of the library's holdings. This is doubly true on Fridays and Saturdays. Browse the bookshelves and learn how to use the library to your own advantage. Examine their computer system. Ask questions. Find out about the process for putting in a hold for popular movies that are checked out when you look for them. You probably won't need to wait too much longer than you do for hot titles from Netflix. Learn how your library handles inter-library loans or purchase requests. What your library doesn't have in its own collection, it can probably borrow - just for you - from hundreds of other libraries. A little patience may save you a small bundle of cash.

If you miss the big screen experience, well, make your night at home with the movies special. Make yourself a killer bowl of popcorn, and cozy up with a loved one for some frugal together time.

I'm asking you to give this challenge a fair shake. You can always go back to your usual routine after a trial month if you and your family totally hate it. But pursue the experiment at least that long before you make up your mind. A lot of times we dismiss a change that makes sense because it means a disruption of our routine. Yes, getting to the library once a week may be new to us. But it may also easily save us $20 or more each month, and become something that we look forward to, if we only give it a chance. Consider the differences in the library experience versus the movie theater or bookshop experience. Is paying for a novel and having it around the house really so much better than reading it once and returning it to the library? Is taking in a flick at the theater with a whale sized portion of stale popcorn really worth $12, as opposed to watching a movie in your pjs at home? Your tax dollars are paying to support your local library, so you may as well benefit from it.

Alternative Action Item: If you don't have cable, a Netflix account, or you live so remotely that it's a 45-minute drive to the library in a direction you rarely go, I instead challenge you to have friends or family over for a cheap entertainment night of board game or card playing. If there are kids involved, give them an age-appropriate jigsaw puzzle to work on.

New to these monthly Action Items? Catch up with more here:

January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
June: Raise the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden