Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PASA Conference Coming Up

Here's my annual publicity for PASA's Farming for the Future Conference.  I've been attending this conference for the last four years, and have always come away excited, energized, and having learned many useful things applicable to my homesteading endeavor.  The conference is held at the beginning of February each year in State College, Pennsylvania.  If you're interested in the sorts of topics I cover here on the blog and reasonably local to PA, I suggest you consider attending.

In the coming year I'll have the honor to be presenting with the man who first inspired me to start keeping a tiny flock of backyard chickens at the PASA conference four years ago.  Harvey Ussery will be leading an all-day pre-conference track on Integrated Homesteading.  I'll be playing backup.  Harvey is more than capable of presenting a knock-out presentation all by himself, as I have seen more than once.  He's concise, well-spoken, and his talks are carefully honed.  He does not waste the audience's time.  My hope as a novice speaker is to not look incompetent by comparison.  Frankly, I'd rather be learning than teaching, but it's hard to say no to an invitation from someone I admire so much.

From now until December 31st, you can receive an early bird registration discount, and additional family members receive discounted registration as well.  There are many ways to reduce the cost of conference registration if you want to attend but need to watch your pennies; everything from scholarships, to facilitated carpooling, to a WorkShare program.  So check it out even if you think it's not in the budget.  The next conference is going to be an even better deal than in previous years, because PASA has decided to pack an extra workshop slot into the two-day conference.  So I'll be able to attend six 80-minute talks instead of five.  I look forward to all the other wonderful extras of the conference as well: picking up free shipping coupons from Johnny's, checking out the free seed-swap table, the local cheese tasting, free live music in the evenings, a free seed packet or two from various seed vendors, the great quotation posters, a wonderful fund-raising auction with so many lovely and useful items, and all the unpredictable things I'll learn from formal presentations and conversations with other attendees.

I'd love to see some of you there, whether at the Integrated Homesteading track or the main conference.  If you plan to attend, please drop me a note.  If you can't attend, I'll most likely to a summary post after the conference, detailing some of the highlights and things I learned.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More Hoop House Details

I promised another post on the features of our hoop house.  Despite the fact that it's still not quite complete, the hoop house is doing well and demonstrating its productivity.  Typically, protected growing space is some of the most expensive in any garden or on the farm.  Our hoop house was definitely no exception.  I don't have a figure for what we've spent on this project, but I'm guessing it's close to $1000 all together.  That makes it about $10 per square foot of growing space.  And given that our laying hens are occupying one-third of that, the productivity of the remaining two beds is under a lot of scrutiny.  I know we'll get many years of use out of the hoop house, and thus the cost can be amortized.  But I'm still very conscious of needing to maximize the value of that space.

The seeding of the hoop house, like everything else associated with this project, was a day late and a dollar short this year.  Mostly it got planted at the end of September and very early October.  Nonetheless, most of what I planted seems to be doing at least tolerable well.  I experimented with turnips (planted a little too early, if anything), cylindra beets and some piracicaba broccoli (probably a tad late), catalogna dandelion (doing very well, wish I'd planted more), many transplanted volunteer lettuces and cilantro from the main garden (all looking happy and gorgeous), tatsoi (happy, but seems to be beloved of whichever pest found its way into the sheltered space before winter arrived), carrots and scallions (very happy and well timed) a few snow peas (rather small, but seem to be hanging in there), some sort of Asian brassica that I got on sale from Johnny's (nice cooking green, another one I wish I'd planted more of), as well as a few perennial herbs which seem to be biding their time.  So I'm well rewarded by the sight of happy plants each time I go out to the hoop house.  That said, I mostly want to show off a bit of the infrastructure today.

The hens are once again overwintering on deep bedding.  As usual the bedding is primarily free wood mulch from the yard waste facility in our township.  This year I also put some fallen leaves in there.  These high-carbon materials will absorb and balance all the manure (high in nitrogen) laid down by the chickens during the four months or so of their winter confinement.  In my experience during the last two years, the litter never smells bad and the girls constantly scratch through and mix their wastes into it.  In the spring what is left is a rich, inoffensive, bioactive, nutrient-packed fertility mulch for my fruit trees.  I was asked whether this didn't pose a risk to these trees, since excessive nitrogen can lead to fire blight on growing trees. I haven't seen that on the pear and apple trees that have benefited from previous years' litter treatment.  My feeling is that because there is so much microbial life in the litter, most of the nitrogen and other nutrients are bound up in the bodies of living things, and thus only become available to other organisms where the litter is laid down very gradually.  This is a far cry from what happens when sterile chemical fertilizers are dumped into the ecosystem of the topsoil.  I will be watching the bedding closely however.  We've got more hens this year, and less square footage per bird.  The rule of thumb that Joel Salatin proposes is a minimum of four cubic feet of deep litter per bird.  Supposedly at that stocking density the litter will never turn nasty.  We're right up against that number, so we'll see what happens.

There are a few major benefits of the hoop house over the shed, as far as winter housing for the hens goes.  The first is that we didn't have to sacrifice one third of the space in the shed to them this year, and won't ever have to again.  The second is that the deep litter bedding in the shed, being raised up off the soil, sometimes froze solid, despite the carbon-nitrogen balance that should have provided for enough microbial activity to keep the pile generating its own heat.  This required me to get into the bedding and turn it over with a pitchfork from time to time, otherwise the manure built up on the frozen surface.  It's certainly true that we haven't seen the worst of the winter weather to come.  But given that the lack of air space under the bedding, I very much doubt the bedding will freeze inside the hoop house.  The other main benefit is the added light and warmth of the hoop house compared to the shed.  The doors of the shed face north, so the hens got no direct sunlight at all in previous years.  I did open the doors all day in all but the worst weather though, so the temperature was always cold in the shed.  The hoop house gets cozy warm inside on sunny days, even when the temperature is well below freezing.  This saves on feed costs for me, since the girls don't need so many calories to keep themselves warm.  Whether the deep litter is actually generating heat as well, I couldn't say.  I don't have a compost thermometer, so I have no way of distinguishing the sources of the heat in the hoop house.

Given the overall cost of the hoop house project, it was important to me to pimp out the hoop house for as little money as possible.   Most of the following tricks and accessories cost very little money.  While some of these were doable largely by making use of fortuitous chance, I hope some of them at least will be useful to others who have or are considering a hoop house.

In the center of the hoop house I've place a truck bed storage box - one of those things that sit across the bed of a pickup truck and provide a lockable compartment akin to the trunk of a car.  (The garbage can sitting on top of it holds the chicken feed safe from dripping condensation and rodents.)  This one came with our beater pickup truck, but we didn't need it.  I thought it would make a pretty good seat between beds.  More importantly though I noticed that it was black and that it could hold water.  Black things absorb solar warmth, and water has a high thermal mass.  So I filled the bed box with as much water as it will hold (with some soap and salt added to make sure it doesn't become a breeding ground for mosquitoes).  Now it's doing double duty as a bench and a heat sink.  The other use I might want to turn it to one day is as a large vermicompost bin.  I suspect it wouldn't be great for worms in the summer time, but I'm mulling it as a possibility for next fall and winter.  That could provide a nice homegrown source of protein for the chickens next year.

My next trick is one I've used before in the garden - reflective material along the north side of the hoop house that maximizes the natural light the plants receive.  This time I've added a cheap space blanket that I found at a 99-cents sale.  I got one for each car and our emergency kit at home, plus one for the hoop house.  Now I wish I'd gotten two for this project.  It's highly reflective and it probably also acts as thermal insulation.

Then there are the low hoops over each growing bed.  These were invaluable while the hoop project was still under way.  They were the only protection the plants had from frost for a while there, before the sheeting went on the big hoops.  Now the low hoops give a second layer of protection, keeping the temperature in the beds even warmer overnight.  In fact, on sunny days I need to get out there and raise the plastic off the low hoops lest the plants get cooked.  Fortunately, with the hens in the hoop house, daily maintenance is built into the schedule.

Predictably, before the house was completed and before the winter weather even got too severe, some rodents took up residence on the margins of the hoop house.  There were plans to place 1/4-inch hardware cloth around the perimeter of the house at ground level.  Our delay on that part of the construction allowed the mice, or voles, or whatever they are, to move in.  It's still the plan to install the hardware cloth.  In the meantime, I knocked together a trap box based on Rob's vole motel, but so far I haven't figured out what bait will snare them.  Either that or the neophobia (fear of new things) common to many rodents has kept them safe.  I know they've been through my box; the dirt tracked into either side confirms this.  If the peanut butter bait still hasn't worked in another week, I'll try something else.  So far my carrots don't seem to have taken any damage, at least not at the surface where I could spot it before harvest.  Who knows what's going on underneath though.

Here's one I'm rather pleased with.  I built myself a weeding/harvesting board with an extra cross piece that extends my reach across the beds quite effectively.  This was a scrap piece of the 2x6 cedar wood that we used to construct the raised beds.  I tricked it out with some risers and braces underneath so that it is stable on the edges of the beds and doesn't completely flatten the growing plants.  The sitting board allows me to easily reach the far side of the beds.  When I rest the cross piece on the sitting board and far edge of the bed, I can lean way out for wider access across the beds.  I put some wood sealer on the boards, a useful measure given how humid the hoop house is.

Okay, more tricks.  To use every bit of space that possibly can be used, and to eke out as much productivity as possible, I scrounged through the pile of stuff we've pulled out of construction site dumpsters and came up with a simple shelf.  I hung it from the purlin on the north side of the hoop house.  With the sun low in the sky from fall through early spring, the shelf doesn't cast a shadow on the raised bed below it, so no light lost to the growing space.  Right now I'm only using the shelf to store oyster shell for the hens and a few other items.  Come springtime, this shelf and others like it will increase my growing space.  They will be ideal spots for vulnerable seedlings in trays, keeping them well out of reach of our unwelcome rodent guests.

Our hoop house has lighting too, which is for the benefit of the hens rather than the plants.  We happened to have an extra fluorescent hanging lamp lying around in the basement, and it just so happens that the previous owner of our home ran electricity out to the shed.  So rigging the lamp from the ridge pole of the hoop house and running an extension cord to the shed was no big deal.  As I have done the previous two winters, I am lighting the hens with the help of a timer to keep them productive over the winter months.  It took quite a few hours of lighting them at first to bring them back into laying.  Right now we have mostly heritage breed hens, and they had all stopped laying for the winter season.  Now that we're getting a decent number of eggs each day, I may try slowly cutting back the hours and/or removing one of the two bulbs to save on the electricity bill.  My understanding is that it would require an enormous amount of lighting to make any difference to the growth of the plants.  That's not something I'm interested in paying for.  As far as I can see, the fact that the plants are practically in stasis is one of the main benefits of winter hoop house growing.

An indispensable accessory for the hoop house is the common broom.  A pair of brooms helped us coax the plastic sheeting over the large hoops.  It also allows me to gently push up the sheeting from the inside to coax  accumulating rain and snow off the sheeting.  I keep one in the hoop house at all times.

A not so cheap aspect of the hoop house are the multiple self-ventilating windows.  I had intended to content myself with just one of the expensive piston openers when I spotted them on sale at Johnny's.  Unfortunately, I didn't communicate this to my husband, who spotted the same sale and purchase two for me as an anniversary present.  We decided to indulge ourselves and not return any of them for a refund.  So our hoop house is going to be very well ventilated when my husband finishes installing them.  The way these work is that the piston contains a temperature-sensitive fluid that expands as it warms and condenses as it cools.  So as the temperature increases, the piston opens the window automatically, then closes automatically when the temperature drops.  It sure is a nifty trick and I admit that it saves me the need to pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the hoop house.  Still, even on sale, these things weren't cheap, and I would have contented myself with fewer of them under different circumstances.

The final feature I want to mention is one that I can't take a picture of.  We built this hoop house and arranged the beds directly over the surplus heat dumping coils for our solar thermal array.  We actually requested the placement and configuration of those coils with the hoop house project in mind.  Right now we're not shunting any heat whatsoever to the coils, because it's wintertime, and we need every bit of heat we can collect from the solar array.  So presently we have an unheated hoop house.  But come the shoulder season in spring, when our heating demands go down in the house, we will be able to divert some of the heat from the array into the ground underneath the hoop house.  The same could be true in the fall shoulder season as well. It remains to be seen whether or not this will provide any advantage.  It may be that by the time we have excess heat to vent from the array, the hoop house will already be quite warm enough.  There is an alternate heat venting system that we would use in that case.

I expect having the hoop house will change the growing routine around here quite a bit.  I'll be able to start plants earlier in the year, and keep a small number of them carefully manicured in there year-round.  I'm thinking about implementing some proper square-foot gardening in there to really max out the potential of covered beds.  I'll need to learn how best to use the extra heating that should be available in spring and fall; an unusual set-up in hoop houses that have heating available.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Nice Barter Arrangement

With the beginning of cold weather, I've been reaching for canning jars of homemade chicken stock a lot lately.  So much so that I'm completely out, not only of chicken stock, but of any stock whatsoever.  I don't like being without this building block of good soup, which is so fortifying at this time of year.  I have a few carcasses from roasted chickens saved in our freezer, but I know they're not going to make as much stock as I'd like to be putting up right now.  Buying commercial stock, even the organic brand that I used to buy, just isn't on my radar these days.  As anyone who's made their own knows, store-bought stock just doesn't hold a candle to homemade.

So I started looking through the market lists of the grass-based farms in my area.  Even though I'm fully aware of how much work goes into raising healthy, ethical food, I'm still often initially surprised by the prices of animal products from these businesses.  My next thoughts are always the same: the prices are fair, given what I know about labor and materials costs for this type of production, and given the methods they employ which show a proper respect for the environment; and to boot, none of these farmers are getting rich on the prices they're charging for the foods they offer.  Still, when I saw the price of the chicken backs and bones from other animals that I would need for making stock, I decided to try a different tack.

I asked my Farming Friend whether she might be interested in bartering finished stock for the bones to make it, a 50-50 split.  I know she likes to cook with stock, but she's a very busy woman, and I figured she wouldn't mind having someone else do the work.  As it turned out, the offer was especially attractive to her, because she doesn't have time to do the canning.  She has typically frozen her stock, but that ends up using too much of her freezer space, which is at a premium for the meats that she sells.  So I told her I'd be happy to make and can as much stock as she has bones for over the winter months.  It's a win for me because I get free bones and I can do this work when the demands of the garden and livestock are minimal.  As a bonus, the heat generated by the roasting, simmering, and canning processes will be most welcome in the house at this time of year.  She has agreed to return the canning jars and the re-usable lids and rings that I use.  And she'll send lamb and goat bones my way any time she has them on the same barter basis.

I'm always so tickled when things like this work out - a benefit for both parties.  I trust her to produce good, clean food.  She trusts me produce tasty and safely canned stock.  I call that win-win any day, and I'd like there to be more bartering in my life.  It's something I sometimes feel shy about proposing to people, even though no one has ever seemed offended by the idea of barter. 

I'd be curious to hear about any barter arrangements you have.  If you barter, were you the one to propose the exchange?  Have you ever been turned down on an offer to barter?  Any tips on how to successfully arrange bartering agreements?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Back in the Loving Arms of the Grid

The freak Halloween storm that visited the northeastern US left us without power for most of the weekend and Monday.  On Saturday we watched as heavy flakes of snow fell, and kept falling all day.  This came just two days after the first light frost of the year, which came more than three weeks later than the historical average first frost date.  We hadn't even had a hard frost yet in this incredibly mild autumn season.  That meant that most of the trees were still fully garbed in their own leaves.  And that meant a large snowfall was a big problem.

On Saturday afternoon we went around outside trying to keep the worst of the snow off our fruit trees, young and old, and also off the plastic sheeting of the still unfinished hoop house.  This was accomplished with brooms and poles.  That went well; we had no damage to those trees or the little hoop house.  But the taller trees were much harder to protect, especially the very large shade trees close to the house.  All through the afternoon we could hear trees and tree limbs all around the neighborhood snapping and cracking; it was like a pan of popcorn popping, so frequent and regular were the sounds.  By noon we had lost power, and the phone went dead a couple hours later.  Outside we watched the occasional flash of electrical transformers exploding, waiting just a moment for the sound to reach us.  The audio-visual show continued well into the evening as the snow continued to fall.  After each nearby crack! I checked in anxiously with my husband to make sure he hadn't been hurt by a limb coming down.

I have to admit that even though we had advanced warning of this storm and its likely consequences, I prepared less well than I did for the hurricanes of August and September.  We skated through those storms with barely a blip.  Not so much this time.  I did make sure the dishes were done and that we had water on hand to flush toilets and for drinking.  I showered on Friday night and even filled our large thermos with hot water so we could wash our faces.  But I didn't gather our oil lamps, matches, and flashlights, and didn't fill the empty space in the chest freezer with bottles of water to move to our refrigerator.  Now we keep plenty of stored water on hand all the time anyway, and we did have everything we needed to weather such a storm and power loss.  The large chest cooler got cleaned on Sunday, loaded up with plenty of snow, and placed on the porch to accept the contents of our fridge and house freezer.  We had heat from the gas fireplace insert that I had carefully laid away batteries for in case of power loss; we had our gas stovetop range to cook on; and we were well supplied with tanks of propane to keep those going for quite a while.  All in all we were fine.  But I still felt as though I'd been caught flat-footed.

The funny thing is that just Saturday, after listening to Nicole Foss's description of how she prepared her family for life after peak oil, I had talked with my husband about getting some deep cycle marine batteries to carry us through a few days of power outage.  Or rather to support the truly essential functions of the house through a power outage.  We had talked about installing some PV panels a while back, and part of that project was to include a battery backup so that we would have power in the event the grid went down.  Given our budgetary constraints we decided that solar thermal was a higher priority, so the PV system could wait.  And when the grid went down this weekend, so did all the benefits of our solar thermal system.  It made sense to me on Saturday morning that we should ensure at least a few days' supply of electricity to at least keep our chest freezer working, to keep water moving through our radiant heat floors, out through the sump pumps in the basement, and also out of our taps.  Everything else we could do without, I thought.  And after 48 hours or so without electricity, I still think so.  Flashlights and oil lamps were no big deal.  It was an inconvenience not to have a working oven, because we were out of bread and couldn't make any more.  But everything else in the kitchen was manageable with no electricity and a limited supply of water and light.  Even if we never scrape up the money for a PV installation, the batteries themselves would provide a large benefit in the case of future power outages.

Although the fallen limbs caused no damage to the house, the garden or the hoop house, that's not to say we came through completely unscathed.  Far from it.  The entrance to our house was a scene of devastation.  The driveway was blocked by two large limbs, with another heavy limb resting too much weight on our split rail fence.  The fence in the backyard fared even worse.  One half of a large split mulberry came down across the corner of the fence, taking out four panels.  At least it spared our newly planted Ashmead's Kernel apple tree.  The trellising for all our black raspberries took the brunt of the fall and is almost certainly toast, but the canes themselves probably don't care about any damage suffered during this time of the year.  We needed to revamp those trellises anyway.  On the other hand, the poultry schooner caved in completely from the weight of the snow.  It was waiting in the garden for the tilling power of the chickens.  Somehow as we were knocking snow off other structures we just didn't pay attention to it sitting out in the open there.  Still, we think it's mostly salvageable, and should be good as new with a few new pieces of lumber.

The thing that struck real fear into my heart during this storm was the massive tulip poplar tree that stands where our driveway meets the road.  This tree towers over our house.  If it had lost even one major limb, chances were good that either the road would be blocked, or our house would be very seriously damaged.  Fortunately I recognized that there was really nothing I could do about it and managed mostly not to worry about it.  We've had the tree checked by an arborist who pronounced it in excellent condition, so we'd done due diligence.  More fortunately still, it took almost no damage at all.  It's rather stunning to compare the damage the magnolia, which stands right next to it, took.  We'll be cleaning up the debris from the storm for the next few weeks at least.

Since I'm currently in a glass-half-full state of mind, I see all the fallen trees as material for a hugelkultur mound or two (something I've mulled before, but we didn't have enough wood until now), and as more sunlight next year in our front yard and the garden too.  We have a WWOOF volunteer arriving this evening who will be able to help us deal with the additional work load.   And we had already planned to replace a good portion of the fence anyway, in pursuit of a slow-moving hedgerow project.  It may be that due to the storm damage, we get a little bit of money towards that effort from our homeowner's insurance.  And of course, the storm gave me a valuable lesson in living in this home without electricity.  No thought experiment or advance preparations were quite the same as actually dealing with no power. 

I hope all my readers in the path of this storm came through without any harm.  If you were affected by it, please let me know how it went for you in the comments.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Giveaway Winner

The randomly chosen winner of the giveaway for The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is Alexis, Baron von Harlot - an Aussie reader who blogs at Lexicon Harlot.  Congratulations, Alexis!  Please leave your contact information in the comment section, and I'll get the book out to you just as soon as ever I can.  Your comment will not be published.

Thanks so much to those of you who entered the giveaway and shared your fantastic frugality and homesteading tips.  I really enjoyed reading them and hearing what all of you are up to.  It's encouraging to hear about so much ingenuity and general thriftiness out there in the big world.  I hope you all have checked out the tips and tricks in that comment section.

Those of you who didn't win, I recommend you find some way to check the book out nonetheless, whether by buying it or asking your local library to acquire a copy for you to peruse.  In the event I don't hear from Alexis by Tuesday next week, I'll generate another number and try with another winner.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cooking an Old Hen, with Knefles

When we slaughtered the last of our broiler chickens towards the end of September, we also dispatched our two Cuckoo Marans hens at the same time. The Cuckoo Maran is a dual-purpose chicken, which means it divides its energies between laying eggs and putting meat on its bones. We found the legs on the Cuckoos quite sizable, though the breasts weren't all that much to write home about.  After butchering the birds into cuts, I put the carcasses into the freezer to save for making stock and rendered all the fat into schmaltz to use for sumptuous roasted potatoes and other vegetables. Given my penchant for frugality and the amount of meat the two Cuckoos yielded, I decided to try again to make old hen meat palatable.

I had tried the time-honored coq au vin recipe with a previous batch of hens to no avail.  Still, to buy myself some time, I let the cut up legs, wings, and breasts marinate in some cheap white wine in the fridge for three days.  Maybe this was excessively long for marinating, but I was hedging my bets as well as simply being too busy to get to it sooner.

I had ambitions for experimenting with several different methods for cooking the meat, but as it happened the one that I managed to execute worked out pretty well.  So I'll outline what did work.  I started with a few diced onions cooked in olive oil just until they were softened and then lightly seared the chicken parts in the same pan.  The onions and chicken went into a bowl with some of the white wine marinade (enough to come about halfway up the meat in the bowl) and then were cooked in my pressure cooker for 45 minutes, at about 10 pounds of pressure.  When that was done, the meat was reasonably tender, so I gave some thought to how I might use it.  And here we come knefles and to what I can only hope is a worthy divagation.

Chicken and dumplings is a time-honored American dish for good reason, and I felt like going in that direction.  But it was cold outside, and I wanted something a little denser than the light biscuits that feature in the classic southern supper.  So I thought of knefles, a culinary guilty pleasure of mine.  I found the recipe in a fortuitous reprint of a delightful old cookbook, Cooking With Pomiane.  The book is genteelly dated and well worth the read, more of a tour through a charming bit of culinary history than a cookbook for our times.  But the recipe for knefles has proved an exception and earned a place in my kitchen repertoire.  They're a sort of Gallo-Germanic pasta that would be considered an abomination by the Italians, which, I grant you, isn't saying much.  The Italians think that any deviation from the particular pasta of their own particular region results in something fit only for barbarians.  Knefles, which hail from the Alsace region, would be distinguished then by the unanimity with which Italians of every region would heap scorn upon them.

So what are knefles?  Just a rough dough made with flour, milk, and egg, then scooped up by the teaspoonful.  You knock the scoops of dough into boiling salted water as you make them one by one and cook for ten minutes.  That's it.  Sort of like gnocchi, or schupfnudeln, or spaetzle, but not really any of those things.  Knefles are easier to make and less refined.  You can sauce them when they're cooked, or add a little butter and cheese and bake them, or you can play around with them like I do.  I like to add lots of finely minced fresh herbs from the garden to the dough.  I'm fairly certain that it's incorrect, but I pronounce the K in knefles.  It reminds me of Roald Dahl's vermicious knids.  And how likely am I to run across anyone who could authoritatively correct my pronunciation?

To get back to my harvest meal, in this case I used knefles as replacements for the dumplings in chicken'n dumplings.  So I put some chicken stock on to boil with the remaining white wine from the marinade, threw in the onions that had pressure-cooked with the chicken cuts, added some thyme and made a batch of knefles with chives and garlic chives in them.  Here's the recipe, which can easily be doubled:


1/2 pound (~230 g) flour (1 1/2 generous cups)
finely minced fresh herbs to taste (optional)
1 egg
about 1/2 cup (~24 cl) of milk

Combine the flour with the herbs if you are using them.  Mix in the egg and then enough of the milk to make a thick, shaggy dough that is just a shade too sticky to knead by hand.  Work the dough with a sturdy spoon for a few minutes in the bowl to develop texture.  Bring salted water or another cooking liquid to a brisk simmer just shy of full boiling and begin to shape the knefles.  Using the tip of a teaspoon scoop up a small hunk of the dough, only enough to cover about half the spoon.  Dip the spoon into the boiling water and knock it firmly against the rim of your pot.  The dough will fall into the water.  (Avoid the urge to scoop more dough and make bigger knefles.  The dough will expand anyway when cooked, and bite-sized knefles cook through better than large ones.)  Repeat until all the dough has been shaped and put into the water.  Stir the contents of the pot once very gently to detach the knefles from the bottom of the pan.  Cover the pan and adjust the heat so that the knefles cook at a steady simmer for ten minutes.  The knefles should have doubled in size and all be floating. Test for doneness the first time you make them, just in case you made them too big.  Then drain and sauce to your liking. Serve hot.

I cooked the chivey knefles in the chicken stock and wine, adding chopped garden carrots when they were halfway done.  While that cooked I took the chicken meat off the bones and tore it all into bite-sized pieces.  When the knefles were finished cooking I added the shredded chicken meat, some frozen peas and chopped parsley to the pot and let those ingredients just heat through.  This was all served up in a thoroughly non-photogenic mess.  What can I say?  The light in my kitchen sucks.  But the mess went down very nicely, very tastily indeed.  Since my childhood didn't equip me with nostalgia for chicken'n dumplings, I have to say that old hen'n knefles is a superior dish in my book.  This definitely counts as a harvest meal for us.  On our sub-acre lot we produced the hen, chicken stock, eggs, carrots, and all the herbs that went into the dish.  I happened to use purchased onions for the dish, but it could just as easily have been made with homegrown leeks.

An illicit glee invariably accompanies the preparation and consumption of a dish so comfortingly barbaric.  At least for me.  We always have the ingredients on hand, so it's sort of surprising that we don't indulge in them more often.  Knefles are about as cheap as anything you could possibly prepare at home.  Even a single batch makes more than two adults will eat as a side dish.  I sometimes save half the dough in the refrigerator and make the rest the next day.  The dough won't keep much longer than that, though surplus cooked knefles can be held in the fridge for a few days.  Put a little oil or melted butter on extras while they're still hot if you want to hold them; it will prevent them sticking to each other.  Cooked knefles can be pan-fried, but if you've refrigerated them try to bring them to room temperature first and cook them slowly and gently so they heat through without burning.  If you want to pan-fry freshly cooked knefles, spread them out to air dry for a few minutes so they'll brown a bit better.

If you make any similar sort of dumpling-y, comforting dish from flour, potatoes, or other starchy ingredients, I'd love to hear about it.  In detail, of course.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hoop House is Coming Together

We've been struggling to get our tiny hoop house project done, racing the first frost of the season, which has been remarkably dilatory in arriving.  Not that I'm complaining, believe me. This project was slated to begin in June, and technically, it did.  It's simply been a series of one delay after another.  Unreasonably hot summer weather accounted for some of the delay, a general gardening funk on my part contributed its own special languor, needing to stay out of the way of a contractor helped us delay some more, and then my husband's broken thumb came along, right when we really needed to get down to business.

But we're finally getting somewhere.  The bones of our 12'x15' hoop house are up.  The raised beds are in, and even planted.  All the stuff we needed to attach to the frame before the sheeting went on is done.  We used up almost an entire roll of duct tape covering up anything that might possibly wear or tear the plastic sheeting.  And the sheeting is on, though not shown in the picture above.  Now we just need to get the ends framed in before it's too cold to work outside.  This will be a big job, and probably as jury-rigged as the rest of the structure.

I went ahead and planted two of the beds when I just couldn't stand it any longer.  I was worried about missing the window of opportunity with the seeding dates.  It was a rather haphazard seeding job, and a groundhog helped itself to some of my lovely seedlings, but at least there's some greenery in there for the inaugural winter.  Two of the beds measure about 3.7'x9.5',  and the third 3.7'x11', giving us a bit more than 110 square feet (10.3 square meters) of bed space.  We'll only be growing food in two of these over the winter however.

The third bed is going to house our chickens over the winter on deep litter bedding.  This saves us the hassle of rebuilding the winter quarters we've provided for them in the shed the past two years.  We've built a containment system out of green garden netting in that bed,the farthest one in the picture above.  This space is just a bit larger than the 30 square feet (2.8 square meters) the hens get each day in the mobile coop and pen system they're in most of the year.  It includes feeder, waterer, a "bleacher" double roosting bar and a nesting bucket for them.  Right now they're just testing out the new digs.  They'll soon be putting in more light tilling and weeding service elsewhere until winter is well under way.  In theory the chickens' body heat will nudge up the temperature in the hoop house a little bit, thus helping the plants.  I say in theory because even in so small a hoop house as this one, four chickens can't possibly make much difference.  But we shall see.

I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve to try out and write about in the mini-hoop house.  So there will be more posts on the hoop house as we put the finishing touches on it, move through the seasons, and learn to make the best use of it.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Giveaway: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

As I mentioned in my book review of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, I received two complimentary copies of this book.  So I'm hosting a giveaway to share the bounty with my readers.  This is a fantastic book for all homesteaders, urban chicken-keepers, and those who have yet to acquire their first small flocks.  If you haven't seen my review of it from last week, you may want to check that out.  By all means, do visit the author's website, The Modern Homestead.  It's full of thoughtful insights and useful information for anyone interested in moving towards self-sufficiency on a small acreage.

I mentioned that there was other news to do with Harvey Ussery.  I was thrilled to hear that he would once again be speaking at PASA's Farming for the Future Conference, which I attend each year in early February.  Hearing Harvey's presentation at this conference  four and a half years ago was what inspired me to start my own backyard flock.  But then, to my utter amazement I got an email from him a few weeks ago asking if I would like to co-present with him during his all day pre-conference homesteading track.  I went through a rapid series of thoughts and reactions, all centering on my paltry amount of experience as a homesteader compared to his two and a half decades in this vocation.  I was floored, honored, uncertain, hesitant, and thrilled.  In the end, I provided plenty of caveats, but ultimately said yes.  So!  I'm going to be presenting at next year's conference if only as a junior member to a seasoned and top-notch speaker.

I've encouraged my local-ish readers to attend this conference before, and I've written up summaries of things I've learned from this event in past years.  Now I can say, come introduce yourself to me at the conference.  Even if you've already read (right here on the blog) much of what I'll be talking about, you will learn a lot from Harvey Ussery, and I guarantee you'll come away loaded with enthusiasm and motivation.

Onwards to the giveaway.   Up for grabs is one copy of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.  This is not exactly a freebie giveaway; I want something in exchange for your chance to win.  I'm asking for a comment with your best frugality, homemaking or small-scale homesteading tip.  I want to see some creative ideas here, people, not the obvious beginners-level ideas you find in the most simplistic magazine articles.  Tell me your secrets for saving energy, making a delicious meal on a dime, a great gardening trick, a labor-saving tip for any part of the homestead, a special recipe you use for canning, lacto-fermenting, or curing the foods you put up,  or anything else clever you've come up with that fits in a homemaking or homesteading category. 

Tedious stuff you should read anyway:  One entry per person.  Entries for this giveaway will be accepted until Wednesday, October 19th at 6pm, Eastern time.  You must either be signed in to some account that will easily and obviously lead me to a way to contact you, or else leave a means of contact in your entry comment.  Anonymous comments that do not include an email address will not be considered as entries for the giveaway. Winner will be chosen randomly from all valid entries, which must contain the aforementioned tip.  The winner will need to disclose (privately, to me only) full name and mailing address.  I'm opening the giveaway this time to readers from overseas, so get your comment-entries in.  I'll announce the winner by Friday, October 21st.  If I can't reach the winner in a couple of days, I'll select another and try again until it all works out.

Good luck!

Edit 10/19/2011: Comments are now closed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tiller Hens and a Reconsidered Routine

Our hens moulted about five or six weeks ago, and are slowly regrowing their feathers.  This is a calorically intensive process, and so our egg supply has fallen off a cliff.  On a good day we get two eggs from four hens; on the not so good days, one or none.  It doesn't help that we slaughtered the two Cuckoo Marans hens that were the more consistent egg producers with the last of our broilers at the end of September.  The Cuckoos were younger birds, but my experience suggests that their egg laying becomes pretty sporadic after the first year of laying.  Aside from that, the Cuckoos were much flightier than our Red Stars, who I'd made a point to handle regularly during their winter sojourn on deep litter bedding in our shed.  While the Red Stars aren't exactly thrilled about me picking them up, they tolerate it pretty well instead of panicking as the Cuckoos did.  I suspect it's all down to conditioning and handling rather than reflective of innate disposition of two different breeds.  The breeder we got the Cuckoos from didn't habituate them to being handled.

The reason this is all relevant is that I needed the hens to do some weeding and tilling for me this fall.  I knew the Cuckoo Marans would never be easily moved from one spot to another.  Getting the hens in and out of the poultry schooner requires twice daily handling, since the schooner must be positioned over each garden bed and maneuvered carefully around beds that still have plants on them.  The hens go back into their mobile coop each night, leaving me free to reposition the empty schooner.  Dealing with hens that were terrified of me wasn't on the agenda.  So the Cuckoos met their end with the last of our broilers, and went on to a useful afterlife of chicken stock, schmaltz, and a hearty dish of chicken and knefles, which I may tell you about sometime if I find the time.

The remaining hens, our Red Stars, are now earning their keep by clearing a large weed infested area for me.  This is the bed we referred to as the three sisters, where we meant to grow the three sisters crops this year: winter squash, beans, and corn (maize).  That came to nothing when labor was spread too thin and the bed never made it close enough to the top of the list to get weeded.  What the squash vine borers didn't kill, or the birds pluck out of the ground, or the long summer dry spell didn't kill outright, was overwhelmed by weeds of every stripe.  It was a jungle in there.  With the help of some garden caging that is easy to move around every day or so, the hens have weeded and lightly tilled this area into submission, while adding their own manure and mixing it into the soil.  Which is great; saves me a lot of time and prepares the area for some heavy-duty, remedial lasagna mulching.  It also gives me a chance to see the fanciful nesting box in action.  I banged this thing together this spring in anticipation of hosting a broody hen with some eggs.  The hen never materialized, but the nesting box was ready to go when I needed it for this project.  If they aren't earning their keep by giving us eggs, at least the hens are contributing labor and fertility in the form of their manure.

Weeded and yet-to-be-weeded areas are clearly distinguishable
 The hens eagerly hone in on each new slice of territory when I move the caging every other day or so.  That must mean that they've picked over the ground they've had access to pretty well.  In order to encourage them to scratch and till the ground I've adopted a feeding strategy gleaned from Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, which I reviewed a while back.  Namely, I don't feed the hens in the morning while they're on tilling duty.  Their hunger early in the day motivates them to scratch down the weeds to look for grubs, worms, and other choice bits in the three sisters area.  I add plenty of garden cullings and whatever kitchen scraps we have.  Then late in the afternoon I provide them with some of their purchased grain feed.  That way they don't go to bed hungry and they have something to look forward to most of the day.

The afternoon feeding doesn't work with the mobile coop and pen we've been using most of the time since we got chickens four years ago.  In that system, the hens go into the coop in the evening and are locked in until I let them out the next morning.  I always try to let them out close to sunrise so that they're not literally cooped up and unhappy.  The time before I release them each morning is the only time during the day that I have access to the pen without them in it.  So I always provided their food and water first thing in the morning.  I like the late afternoon feeding not only because it gives me a more leisurely cup of tea in the morning, (though it's grand, let me tell you) but also because I think it saves money on feed.  The hens eat less when they've scrounged for themselves most of the day, even though they're currently regrowing their feathers.  This was precisely Deppe's reasoning for the afternoon feeding time - to conserve money when times are tough.  Seeing how well this works is encouraging me to consider ways of making this standard operating procedure for the hens next year.  I have to think on it some more over the winter, but we'll likely need to build new housing for them next spring anyway.  So it'll be a good opportunity to change things up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

I've got a bit of a problem today.  This is a review of a book that's worthy of all the gushing I can muster up.  But there's also a credibility issue.  I want my readers to trust that my opinion can't be bought, and that what you read here is my unbiased viewpoint.  To that end I don't respond to offers of products in exchange for reviews. (The implicit expectation of course being, that the reviews would be positive.)  While I have Amazon links to books and a few other products, these are for things I have paid for and been very pleased with, and am thus happy to recommend to others.  I also link a couple of books at a time in the sidebar without endorsement, simply as books I'm reading. Few of those ever end up on my Bookshelf list, which I'm pretty choosy about.

So with that out of the way I have to disclose that I'm not wholly disinterested in the book I'm recommending today, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.  The author, Harvey Ussery, is the person I consider my chicken guru.  Hearing his presentation at the PASA conference four and a half years ago is what convinced me to get started with a backyard flock.  His enthusiasm for not only keeping chickens for meat or eggs, but using them in an integrated way around the homestead spoke deeply to me.  A link to his non-blog website has been on my sidebar since Living The Frugal Life got started.  I had the chance to see him at another small conference early last year.  Speaking with me after his presentation, he mentioned that he had just secured a book contract for a title on small-scale poultry.  I offered to review his book when it came out, fairly confident that I would be able to give it a glowing recommendation, which I can.  He gave me his card and after that I began an intermittent email correspondence with him on poultry topics.  What I didn't expect was for him to invite me to give feedback on the manuscript before it was even submitted to his editor.  I was more than flattered to be asked and I happily devoured his first draft, offering what few comments and suggestions occurred to me.

Well, I had to wait for the finished copy to come out to see the pictures.  The end result is fabulous; well worth the wait.  Blows every other title I've seen on backyard chickens right out of the water.  Harvey's view is both broader and deeper than the typical small-scale poultry guide.  He considers the behaviors of various poultry species and how those behaviors are best incorporated to the benefit of the homestead and the homesteader.  Harvey's approach to poultry husbandry is to build health into the flock from the ground up.  Or rather, from below the surface of the soil on up.  He believes, as I do, that healthy soils are the basis for all sustaining and sustainable food production.  To that end, he manages his flocks so that they are able to express their full range of natural behaviors, and so they are always benefiting, rather than damaging, the soils they are on from day to day and month to month.  He also has a discernible frugal streak, which obviously appeals to me.  Both his frugality and his desire to provide healthy natural feeds to his livestock have led him to look for ways to feed poultry from the homestead's own resources.  This is right up my alley, and a topic rarely addressed by other writers.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock will certainly help those who are poultry beginners. Though all aspects of keeping poultry are covered comprehensively in this book, it's not the equivalent of trying to drink from a firehose for anyone who has yet to start their first flock.  If you are an aspiring backyard chicken keeper, this book contains everything you need to get started, plus a great deal more.  This is really a book pitched to those who already have some experience with one or two poultry species, who want to take things to the next level or beyond.  I'm not speaking here in terms of flock size, but of integration - specifically, fully utilizing the labor potential of poultry, reducing the need for purchased feeds, recognizing and using the fertilizing value of manure, and choosing species, breeds and management practices to best suit a particular bit of earth.  Harvey is a tireless observer of the natural world, as well as a keen experimenter.  What he has to share has been learned through decades of trial and error and empirical observation of his livestock.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this title to anyone who wants to keep chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea hens on a small scale.  Whether you want birds for meat or eggs, whether you want to start with pullets or hatch out your own chicks, whether you are on a small suburban lot or have a few acres in the country, whether you want to slaughter your own birds or are comfortable with running an old age home for hens past their productive years, this book should be on your bookshelf.  The Small-Scale Poultry Flock makes the other two backyard poultry books I own look rather limited and simplistic.

As it happens, when Harvey's book was printed and bound I received one complimentary copy from him, and another from his publisher, Chelsea Green.  Much as I love the book, I don't require two copies.  So I'll be hosting a giveaway of my extra copy next week sometime.  Stay tuned for the giveaway, plus some other news on this topic.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Further Thoughts on Lasagna Mulching

It's fall and my thoughts turn to lasagna mulching the garden beds to retire them for the year.  I've had the chance to observe the effects that a few years of lasagna mulching have had on our garden, and wanted to share those observations with you.

First off, let's review what lasagna mulching, also known as sheet mulching, consists of.  The basic practice is to cut down any vegetation to the soil line, but leave all plant material lying in place.  You might not want to do this if there are lots of obvious seed heads on weeds.  While lasagna mulching certainly curtails weeds, I don't like to incorporate weed seeds, which can lie dormant for ten years or more, into the soil any more than is unavoidable.  Any vegetation other than seed heads is great - just extra organic matter. The next step is to add soil amendments.  These should be tailored to what your soil needs.  I use finished compost obtained from our township, wilted leaves of comfrey grown on site, our half-finished compost, a bit of greensand to help loosen our clay soil, and sometimes fresh manure laid down in situ by our laying hens.  Next comes a covering of paper, newspaper, or cardboard. If using any kind of paper, it should be thoroughly soaked before or after being laid down, to help it conform to the contours of the soil.  The heavier and thicker this layer, the longer the weed suppression will last, and the less frequently you will need to repeat the entire process.  Finally, a good layer of wood chip mulch covers the paper.  Again, the more of this you can pile on, the longer it will last and the better the weed control.

Some gardeners will actually repeat these layers in one go - thus, multiple layers of compost, paper and mulch laid down on the same day.  I have never had the luxury of having so much material to work with.  But if you have a small area and sufficient materials to do so, why not?  On the other hand, I omit the soil amendments when working on areas that I never intend to plant in, such as walkways in the garden and border areas where I only want to suppress weeds.

My first motivation for lasagna mulching was exactly that - weed control.  This is something that the technique accomplishes with great success.  There are a few weeds that can make their way up through even a freshly laid section of lasagna mulch, and some airborne seeds that will land on and germinate in the wood chip layer, but those few are generally easy to remove by hand.  What I wanted to discuss today though are the additional benefits of lasagna mulching.  There are several of them that I've observed so far.

Significant soil improvement is one of them.  This isn't exactly surprising; it's routinely mentioned as the "other" benefit of the technique besides weed control.  But knowing intellectually that it would help the soil didn't quite prepare me for the fat earthworms I've been coming across.  They're not inordinately long as worms go, but they are rotund.  Wider than a pencil by a long shot; embonpoint, even.  I hope it's not the case that the obesity epidemic has now spread as far as earthworms.  But clearly these worms aren't going hungry.  Their presence is both an indicator of healthy soil as well as a guarantee that the soil will be even better over time.  Every earthworm is a mobile factory of soil fertility, and I count each sighting as a blessing.  I also see, year by year, healthier plants that are better able to withstand the vagaries of stressful growing seasons.

The other benefits of lasagna mulching all have to do with what I believe are leading indications of the changes that global climate weirding are going to bring to my region.  More than one model of climate change that I've seen predicts routine summertime drought across much of the US.  My immediate region is forecast to escape the worst of this trend, but still the summers could still be drier than they historically have been.  The last two summers here certainly have been that way, whether or not they were part of an emerging new pattern.  Mulching and good organic content in the topsoil are critically important for plants dealing with water stress.  Mulching because it curbs evaporative loss of moisture.  And high organic content because organic matter acts like a sponge, soaking up water and releasing it slowly as plants need it.  Lasagna mulching provides for both of these.

The flip side of the dry spells predicted under the climate change models is a pattern of more violent storms.  This may seem contradictory, but it really isn't when you look at the meteorological explanations.  Namely, a more energetic (warmer) atmosphere that is able to carry and move more water vapor.  And in any case, whether it makes intuitive sense or not, this is exactly what we saw this year: About ten weeks of rain too insignificant to help the garden crops followed by a hurricane and a tropical storm that washed out roads, flooded farmlands, wiped out crops, and carried topsoil straight into the waterways, not to mention killing a few people and destroying a few homes.  Our garden certainly took damage from these storms, and we had standing water in the portion of our backyard that is just barely lower than our garden.  But careful inspection of the garden itself proved that we lost no topsoil at all to the heavy rains.  Again, I believe credit goes to the lasagna mulching.

Phallus rubicundus (yes, really), red stinkhorn mushroom

It wasn't just that the paper and wood chip mulch protected the soil beneath them.  Within a few short weeks of laying down these materials I can find evidence mycorrhizal mycelium colonizing the entire area.  These are networks of fine hair-like structures, the fungal equivalent of roots.  The white threads are easily seen near the surface, knitting the soil together in an enormous net.  I know by the wide variety of mushrooms that fruit out of those networks that we have at least a dozen different species of mycelium at work in the top layers of our garden soil.  I take this as a spectacular indicator of biodiversity and the increasing health of our soil.  Although I started lasagna mulching for weed control, the practice would be worthwhile even if the mycelium were the only benefit.  If you wonder why I think so highly of mycelium, I refer you to Paul Stamets'  eye-opening, jaw-dropping book, Mycelium Running.  Fungi of all types provide invaluable services to other life forms in the topsoil.  They mitigate stresses on plants, break down tough organic matter into materials accessible to other organisms, move critical soil nutrients from areas of excess to where they are deficient, and can even bind up harmful substances (such as salts) in a waxy coating so that they become inert in the soil.  Truly, mycelium is a blessing in the garden, and observation has convinced me that lasagna mulching equates to laying out the welcome mat for the fungal kingdom.

Unknown mushroom.  Enlighten me?

Finally, there's the fact that lasagna mulching entails a bit of carbon sequestration.  That means, on balance, that we're taking carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere (where it could do us further harm), and locking it into organic material in our soil (where it can do us some good).  The amount of carbon that I manage to store away on our property may seem trivial.  And in fact, it is.  But the truth is that an acre of topsoil is capable of holding more carbon than all the air directly above it, all the way to the outermost edges of our atmosphere.  But that carbon has to be stored up by and in living things working with plenty of resources in healthy soil.  If the project were undertaken on a wide scale, boosting the organic matter stored in our topsoil and the living woody plants above it could go a long way to ameliorate the carbon emissions wreaking havoc with the climate; earth is populated, after all, by carbon-based lifeforms, and that's what organic matter is.  My infinitesimal contribution is to do what I can with the soil I have some control over.  You could do the same.  I believe we will never solve the many problems stemming from industrial society's waste streams (and there are obviously many) until we look at the "wastes" we generate as resources so valuable that people compete for access to them.  It's a challenge for me to lay my hands on enough cardboard, newspaper and wood chip mulch to cover all the areas I would like to, and this despite the fact that several people save their newspapers for me, and I know where to get cardboard and mulch for free.

Having outlined the benefits as I see them, I'll share a few tweaks I'm making to the way I use lasagna mulching.  I've tried planting seedlings into a freshly lasagna mulched bed in the spring and found it problematic.  While the plants survive, they don't grow particularly well without a great deal of hand-watering.  The layers of paper soak up so much water that relatively little of it reaches the roots of the plants.  The dry summers the last two years haven't helped.  I have to water directly into the hole I punched through the paper layer to plant the seedling.  This entails far more work than I would like.  Fortunately I find no such difficulties in beds that I lasagna mulch in the autumn.  By spring the paper layers have broken down enough to let water pass more easily through them, although they still provide something of a barrier to weeds. So I'm going to do my best in future to lasagna mulch my garden beds in fall, and the borders and pathways in spring or summer.  I'm also sold on letting the chickens participate in the lasagna mulching process as often as possible.  They enjoy their carefully orchestrated visits to individual garden beds that I'm done with for the year, it saves me that first step of having to clear the weeds, and they boost soil fertility by lightly tilling in their own manure.

One possible drawback to lasagna mulching is that the moist conditions it fosters just under the surface can be a boon to slugs and snails.  This was apparent in 2009, the last wet year we had.  The past two summers have been quite dry for us and I saw very few slugs anywhere in the garden.  If I lived in a wetter climate I might look for some other technique to build our soil.  Here in Pennsylvania I'm comfortable using diatomaceous earth to control what slugs and snails we have in wet years.  And if the climate change models are correct, we're not going to be contending with wet summers very often.

Well, there are my reflections on lasagna mulching, after using this technique in my gardens for about three years.  I think it's making enormous contributions to the health of my garden soil while saving me a lot of effort in weeding.  I'll do my best to keep that in mind as I try to get all the mulching done this month.

Cyathus striatus, fluted bird's nest mushroom

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Good Gleaning Haul

Yesterday while running an errand I noticed that the Bartlett pear tree around the corner from our home was hanging heavy with fruit.  The owners of this property have put up a "free pears" sign on their lawn about half the years since we've been living here, but it hasn't been consistent.  Well...I wanted those pears, and I wanted them before they all fell to the ground.  Pears are best picked off the tree before they ripen.  Many times the ones that fall naturally develop hard crystal-like formations in their flesh, which aren't very pleasant to eat.

We purchased a long-handled fruit picker basket last year to help us pick the high fruit from our own apple tree.  It's a handy thing that extends our reach by about 9' (2.7 m).  So we put it in the car along with a bushel basket (I was feeling optimistic) and went to ask after the pears.  The property is just far enough away from ours that I don't consider these people neighbors, exactly.  Our area is sort of rural, and sort of suburban; "around the corner" can be a fair distance in these parts.  As is so often the case, when we asked politely the owner of the property was delighted to let us take the pears.  He said he didn't like to see them go to waste, but that he and his wife don't use them.  I mentioned that I'd collected pears from his tree a few times in previous years when he'd put the sign up, and thought perhaps he just hadn't gotten round to putting one up this year.  He said that was exactly the case and emphasized repeatedly that we were welcome to come back any time for the fruit.

We cleaned the tree of almost all the fruit that was still on the branch.  There were a few that even our long-handled picker couldn't reach, but not many.  As a courtesy we picked up all the fruit on the ground too.  Most of these had obvious damage on them, some from a lawn mower.  I'll send them on with our early drop apples to my farming friend who raises hogs.  The appearance of the pears makes it obvious that they haven't been sprayed with anything, so I'm sure she'll feel comfortable giving them to her animals.  The fruit we kept for ourselves came nearly to the top of our bushel basket.

I mentioned that pears are best picked before they ripen on the branch.  It turns out that pears are rather tricky to bring to what humans consider a nice state for eating.  They need to be picked before maturity and then chilled.  The chilling time depends on the variety, but fortunately the Bartlett only requires a couple of days.  So these will be in our refrigerator for a little while and then I'll spread them back out to ripen up on cardboard in the front room.  That way I can keep an eye on each one and no fruit gets crushed by the weight of fruit above. It's certainly a lot of fruit.  I don't mind though.  In fact, getting this much fruit free for the picking was a great mood booster.  I've been frustrated with several things that are happening or not happening around the homestead lately.  Free pears go a long way towards cheering me up.  And this is a nice time of year to make jam and do the hot work of canning.  Temperatures are definitely dropping off.  I put aside a small amount of elderberry juice last month and stashed it in our freezer.  I know what a surreal and gorgeous color even a little bit of juice makes when I combine it with a pale fruit like pears.  So when the pears ripen up, I'll make more elderberry-pear jam.  Needless to say, when it's done some will go to our benefactors around the corner.

I'm also planning to revisit an amazingly yummy cake recipe I found over at 101 Cookbooks.  Heidi's salt-kissed buttermilk cake recipe is easily adapted to many different seasonal fruits.  I tried it once with pears from the farmer's market and simply could. not. stop. eating. it.  The nice thing about that is that for a cake, this one is surprisingly non-naughty: only half a cup of sugar and 4 tablespoons of butter.  Buttermilk does the rest in terms of adding flavor and body to a very light-textured cake.  I switched from Heidi's raspberry and lemon zest flavorings to sliced pear, minced crystallized ginger and almond extract.  The salty-sweet topping for the fruit made the flavors really pop.  This one went directly into my printed out recipe binder.

My husband is shocked that I don't count gleaned fruit as part of our harvest tally.  I explained that my project is to demonstrate how much food can be produced by perfect nobodies on an average residential lot in our area.  Since we didn't grow it ourselves and it didn't come from our property, I don't see that we should get "credit" for it as part of our harvest.  I'd certainly count any weeds we foraged off our own property for consumption, but gleaning elsewhere is another thing entirely.  Still, gleaning what we can is part and parcel of our overall drive for frugality, and I hate to see food go to waste.  So I see his point.  Maybe from now on I'll keep a separate gleaning tally for things we gather off-property.  It could be an interesting adjunct figure to go with our harvest tally.

Any good gleaning going on in your neck of the woods?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Slaughter Day

We sent our two largest broilers to ice camp on Sunday.  We didn't have any spare clean hands to hold a camera once we got started.  So I don't have any footage or even still pictures of the slaughtering process itself.  We're still in the market for someone to hold a camera while our hands are occupied.  But I did take some pictures just before we got under way.  I thought I'd share these and also some of the videos I've turned to for help figuring it out on my own.

Obviously, if this subject is going to upset you, stop reading now.  I think most readers here will be comfortable with this topic, and I think the methods we use are pretty humane.  But this is a post about killing animals for food.  If you're categorically opposed to such things, here's your notice.  

Our setup

A place to work - This is our solar cooking station equipped with a cutting board, knives, latex gloves, and containers to receive various parts of the chickens.  We save or use just about every part of the chicken except the intestines, gall bladder, oil gland and the head.  What doesn't come into the kitchen gets used or buried somewhere in the garden.

Slip knotted cords - these will hold each bird by the feet.  We have sometimes used a killing cone in the past, which takes care of the movement problem.  With the birds hanging freely like this you need two people to stabilize the chicken; one to hold the wings against the body, and another to hold the head as they bleed out.  The wings should be held closed because otherwise the bird can flap so hard that it bruises its own wings.  In a commercial operation the resulting discoloration would make the bird unsalable.  Stabilizing the head ensures that the movements of the bird (either voluntary or involuntary) don't send blood flying everywhere.  Holding the head at an angle away from the cut also speeds the bleeding out, thus hastening death and limiting the suffering of the animal.

Wheelbarrow with mulch - We situate this directly under the cords or the killing cone that holds the bird.  It will collect the blood from the chickens and be used around our fruit trees.  This saves on cleanup and preserves the value of the blood as a fertilizer.  For the number of birds we slaughter at any one time, even a small amount of mulch will suffice to soak up the blood; there just isn't that much of it.

Knives - A well-sharpened boning knife, paring knife and a cleaver.  The boning knife is used both for cutting the chicken's jugular and for the small amount of cutting needed during evisceration.  The paring knife is sometimes not used at all; it's there as a just in case alternative to the boning knife.  The cleaver is useful for decapitation and for cutting through the neck, which I've always had trouble doing with a boning knife.  If you don't have a cleaver, a good strong pair of kitchen shears might work for the neck.  Whichever knife is used for the killing cut needs to be very sharp in order to spare the bird as much suffering as possible, and working with a sharp knife during evisceration always makes things much easier.  We devote time to getting the knives ready the day before slaughter.  But as you'll see in the Joel Salatin video below, there's really very little cutting necessary in the whole process.

Scalding water - A large pot is required.  I use a water bath canning pot.  The water should be roughly 145-150F/63-66C.  I  heat the water above that temperature before hauling it outside, so that it's just right when we've gotten through the first few steps in the slaughtering process.  When slaughtering more than a couple of birds, I leave a kettle simmering inside so that we can top off the pot with hot water, keeping the water at the right temperature for all the birds.  The birds displace a lot of water, so the pot should not be completely full.  When it's chilly outside I set the pot on cardboard so that heat is conducted away a little more slowly.

DIY Chicken plucker - This works well for the very small number of birds we process at any one time.  It probably wouldn't be workable for anyone slaughtering more than a dozen birds at once.  A day ahead of time we make sure to have the batteries for the drill charged up.  When we're processing only one or two birds at a time, we sometimes don't even bother with the plucker as it's quick and easy enough to pluck a bird by hand if you get the scalding right.  We try to pluck the feathers into a garden bed that is ready for lasagna mulching.  Feathers are high in nitrogen and break down quite slowly.  So they'll feed the soil very gradually while adding a bit of structure for soil microorganisms.  Strangely enough, yellow jackets will steal the small feathers, for the protein content I suppose, if you don't cover them with mulch right away.  An older post of mine details the DIY plucker.

By the way, if you like your chicken skinless, you can skip the plucking entirely and just peel the skin off the entire bird.  This isn't a great idea if you plan to roast the bird whole, since the skin keeps the bird from drying out.  But if your birds are destined for other preparation methods, and you don't want the fat from the skin, you can save some time and effort.

Chilling bath - We use a cooler, filled with all the ice we have on hand and water from the garden hose.  This brings the temperature of the eviscerated bird down very quickly, and can hold 4-5 broilers, but really only one turkey at a time.  It's wiped down with a bleach solution before and after use.

Bags, scale, permanent marker, freezer - Once the birds are nicely chilled, I drain them as well as possible, weigh them, bag them up, and write the weight of the bird on the bag.  We let our broilers live a little longer and get a little bigger than many farmers so I use 2-gallon freezer bags, which I'll sanitize and re-use just for our own chickens.  I wouldn't like to count on our larger birds fitting into the 1-gallon bags.  The two birds we slaughtered on Sunday averaged just over 6 pounds (2.7 kg).  I put the giblets from all birds into one container, to be used when it's time to make gravy for the Thanksgiving turkey.  (We grill our turkey so we don't get pan drippings to work with.)  Then the birds and giblets all go off to ice camp. 


I've learned all I know about slaughtering and eviscerating chickens by watching videos and doing it myself.  I've never come across a text description or even still photos that have helped me as much as video has.  Here's a sampling of videos that show the process in detail.  These first two videos don't show the exact method I use, and there's a lot of extra material covered, but they're definitely useful for amateurs and novices who don't have expert help on hand.

Respectful chicken slaughter - Part 1

I think it's an especially good tip to locate the chicken's jugular by feeling for the jaw.  I've never been able to precisely identify where a chicken's ears are, so that point of reference hasn't been useful to me.  The jaw can be easily felt.  You may not make a perfect cut the first time you do it.  When you get it right, you'll know by the steady stream of blood that the cut produces.  Practice makes perfect, though the obvious difficulty is that homesteaders work at such a small scale that getting enough practice on a regular basis isn't easy.  That's why I watch critical parts of these videos a few times over the day before slaughter.  

Respectful chicken slaughter - Part 2

Good tips in this video on how to use legs and other parts of the chicken.

Joel Salatin - chicken evisceration

If you're contemplating your first poultry slaughter yourself, you might want to study other homesteaders' take on the process.  Paula recently posted about her own chicken slaughter.  And Kristeva had a post quite a while back with good pictures.  If these videos and posts don't answer your chicken slaughtering and processing questions, I'd be happy to try despite my meagre experience.  On the other hand, if you have any tips that you'd like to share, please sound off in the comments.