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Summer’s End

So much catching up to do since my last post! When last we spoke, your intrepid farmeress had just taken her two pigs to the butcher. Everything went smoothly, and the following weekend we were able to pick up all of our fresh meat: chops, roasts, ribs, sausage, scrapple, etc. Both hogs dressed out at 180lbs hanging weight. Out of this we got about 220lbs of fresh meat, including 72 pork chops, four (of course) racks of ribs, 25lbs of sausage, one 17lb fresh ham, 20 roasts ranging from about 2.5-3.5lbs, and 50lbs or so of scrapple. In another week or two we’ll be able to pick up the other 3 hams and the bacon, which are all being smoked. The fresh meat just about filled my father-in-law’s car! We’ve tried both the chops and the sausage so far, and both were absolutely spectacular. The meat is so dark compared to store-bought pork; you can really see the difference in the way they are raised. Check it out!

ChopsWhile Avery and his dad were picking up the pork, his mom and I were on our annual trip to the NY Sheep & Wool Festival, aka Rhinebeck! We had a fantastic time shopping for knitwear, visiting the sheep in the breed exhibits, and spectating (but alas, not bidding) at the bred ewe auction. We have a great time every year, and this one was no exception. The fall colors were even more stunning than usual.

IMG_20141025_191013061 IMG_20141030_201736675When we got back, autumn was in full swing at home. The pumpkins and squash are ripening up, although a little behind schedule for October 31 due to the early nibbling by deer. I did manage to scrounge up one fully orange pumpkin for a Jack O’Lantern, though, and by an incredible stroke of luck, it is absolutely perfectly shaped for the job! We carved it tonight, so it’s all set for tomorrow evening.

Next weekend we’ll be paring down the ducks to those we plan to keep for breeding next year, with the help of some friends and a borrowed chicken plucker. My friend Rabbit Darling will be there enthusiastically gathering duck livers and gizzards. If you’re curious about cooking with offal, you should check out this post for a very seasonal Dracula-inspired paprikash!

Weekend Update

This has been a forward-thinking weekend. We got a lot done, mostly work that needed to be done to set us up for the next thing. Not terribly exciting in itself, but the things to come are definitely going to be very exciting indeed.

First things first, my father-in-law and I went to pick up the trailer we’re borrowing from a friend of his for taking the pigs to the butcher. We gave the whole thing a good power-wash and removed one wheel that we discovered needs the valve stem for the tire fixed. (We’ll go ahead and fix the stem, as a thank-you for the loan of the trailer).

Next major task was taking 3 ducks and my older black drake down to a friend of the family who had lost most of his Muscovies and wanted to replenish. I gave him one of this year’s white ducks, and two of my older black-and-white females. In exchange we added a chocolate drake, which is a new color for us. One of my favorite things about Muscovies is the wide variety of colors available, so I’m very excited to be branching out from black and white. My next goal will be blue!

We also did some significant work in the garden. We picked the last of the peppers and froze them for winter use. Then we ripped out all of the pepper plants, so those beds are done. Our Tante Alice cucumber vine is dying back, but we are leaving the last few cucumbers to harvest seed to save for next year. We gathered a bunch of seed this weekend, and will do more next week or the week after. Once we’ve got our seeds, we’ll pull that out too. We still need to rip out the tomatoes and eggplant, but then we’ll be done with the main garden.

Our fall plantings have been hit or miss. Part of that is the fact that, being caught flat-footed this year, I was using some old seed, which I knew would be a gamble for germination. The beets didn’t come up at all, and only a very few carrots. The spinach was pretty lackluster also, but we got several lettuces. The real standout of the bunch has been the kale. We’ve got a ton of it! Last night we had kale chips with dinner, and tonight a wilted kale with garlic topped with fresh kohlrabi. Speaking of kohlrabi, all of the brassicas we transplanted are doing fantastic. The collard greens have seen a lot of action as well as the kohlrabi, and the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are getting huge. The pumpkin patch is coming along as well. There are plenty of butternut squash and some acorn. The Jack Be Little mini pumpkins are abundant. I’m seeing several huge green pumpkins as well – I’m so excited for a home-grown Jack O’Lantern this year!

IMG_4474We’re getting ready to plant garlic in a couple of weeks, so we moved the chicken ark again into the bed we’ll be using for that, so it will be weed-free and ready to go. All the beds where the chicken ark has been are getting mulched heavily with rabbit and/or chicken manure, which will help to keep the weeds down until spring.

We also cleaned out the freezer in preparation for the upcoming pork harvest. We bought a new energy-efficient 20 cubic foot chest freezer, so we moved everything from the old freezer into the new. We took an inventory and threw out the few things that were freezer-burned beyond salvage. Thankfully there was not much; we started using a whiteboard last year to keep track of our freezer stores and it has made a huge difference in avoiding waste. Things don’t really sink to the bottom and get forgotten, since we can look at the list and say “Oh, those pork chops/chicken breasts/etc are getting old, we’d better dig them out and eat them!” before they are too far gone. Between the new freezer and the investment in a vacuum sealer, we should do even better this year. Avery has a plan to convert the old freezer into a drinks fridge, freeing up some inside fridge space.

In the spirit of the last post, did I mention that while all of this was going on, I made a batch of turkey stock? I hope this validates my verbosity last time around. On Saturday the bones and necks went in the oven to be roasted while we were busy processing the pepper harvest, getting everything sliced and frozen and vacuum-packed and such. Then we took them out and put them in the fridge overnight. On Sunday I threw them in the stock pot with all the veggies and such, and let them simmer all day until after dinner. Then we strained, cooled, measured, and put the stock into the freezer, all in plenty of time for our normal bedtime! Maybe an hour or two out of the whole weekend was active time on the stock. Simple!

Insta-autumn

How on earth did it get to be September already? One week in, the calender and the weather both agree that it is definitely September. A good thunderstorm on Saturday ushered summer out and autumn in over the course of about an hour. This has definitely been an odd year for weather in these parts!

The frenzy of life continues on apace around here. We are slowly clearing out the garden beds that have stopped producing, and are cycling through the chicken ark to let the girls work up the soil and eat up whatever weed seeds and bugs they can find. The winter squash and pumpkins are developing well, although we’re fighting to hold off the powdery mildew until we can bring them to harvest. My early volunteer pumpkins and gourds, on the other hand, are all ready to be harvested! Check out the bounty I picked this morning!

Fall crops have gone in, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and collard greens. We have some kale, lettuce, beets, and carrots that germinated, and I have a late planting still to put in. My seed garlic has been ordered and will arrive sometime this month, to be planted in early to mid October. I’m really getting my second wind for gardening now that the weather is nice and cool! Planning the vegetables for my Thanksgiving table is a good motivator, I think.

The pigs are getting big, and are scheduled for the butcher next month. We’ll be harvesting the first of our roosters this weekend, and we’ll plan a day not too long afterwards to harvest the ducks as well. I’m keeping two young females, and possibly one of the young drakes, but the rest of the 15 young Muscovies we hatched will be headed for the freezer. Two are headed for the Yuletide table. We actually started raising Muscovy ducks because they had become a holiday tradition, and being able to raise up our holiday meal gives me a special feeling of gratitude.

The weather is also bringing back my knitting mojo, which suffers greatly during the summer. I did better this year than most, since the heat and humidity held back a bit and the house – which I should mention, lacks air conditioning – actually stayed pretty pleasant, meaning I didn’t have to fear my yarn felting in my hands! Still, the hectic abundance of chores and other activities does cut into my knitting time. Fall serves as a reminder, even though there’s still tons of work to be done, that my knitting deserves more attention than it’s been getting. Right now I’m working on a baby blanket and a poor neglected sweater that’s been languishing for a while. But more on that later!

Garden Surprise

I’ve managed to surprise myself with the success of my garden this year. I don’t have a very good track record as a gardener, overall. I think there are several reasons for this. I didn’t grow up in a family that gardened, so I never learned the process when I was young. My first introduction to gardening was my father-in-law Francis, who makes every piece of gardening look easy because he’s so skilled. It didn’t exactly give me a realistic first impression! As a result, when Avery and I set up our first garden, we were a bit overly ambitious. The final nail in my gardening coffin is that unlike Francis, for whom gardening is a combination of recreation and meditation, gardening is definitely a chore for me. I absolutely love having my own fresh produce, but the process of maintaining the garden itself is something that I do because I want the end result, not because I enjoy going through the motions.

The long and the short of it is that the past two seasons have really been quite poor in the gardening department. This year, for whatever reason, we’re finally having some actual success! We’ve grown enough pickling cucumbers for several batches of pickles, we’ve had enough extra peppers to freeze for winter stir-fry, and extra zucchini which mostly goes to the chickens and pigs. Despite growing my favorite Tante Alice slicing cucumbers from leftover seed I feared was too old to germinate, they’ve been wildly successful as well, giving us plenty for fresh eating and for sharing. My early volunteer pumpkins from last year’s poor abandoned pumpkin patch are actually producing fairly heavily. It really makes last week’s Lughnasadh feel like the beginning of autumn after all!

Even the setbacks – and there have been plenty, certainly – have not gotten out of control as in years past. We did lose a lot of zucchini plants and one early pumpkin plant to squash borers, but luckily have been able to get good production just by having so many plants in the first place. Our deer problem calmed down a bit after initiating the dryer sheets/scented soap approach, and the pumpkins/winter squash are finally gaining ground. Hopefully they will bounce back enough to get us a good yield come October or so. I’ve planted a mix of decorative and culinary squash, so hopefully at least the decorative ones will make an appearance in time for Samhain!

Heartened by my lack of complete failure, I’m doing my best to keep on top of things and even think ahead for next year. I’ve got a small mobile chicken ark with four hens in it that I’m moving into the beds from the zucchini that succumbed to squash borers. I’ve seen it suggested on some forums that the chickens will scratch up and eat the pupae in the soil, decreasing the egg-laying adult population next spring. Of course I’m not sure how well this will work, but either way they will work the straw mulch into the soil and provide plenty of fertilizer, so I really have nothing to lose by trying. I’ve already started putting rabbit manure into the bed I plan to use for my fall garlic. I can’t wait to see what it will do for my crop!

Garden Warfare

My friends, make no mistake: we are at war.

The enemies are relentless guerrillas. They strike under cover of dusk or in the wee hours of dawn. They have no fear, and if confronted will stare defiantly back without a shred of remorse. They are aware that there is no recourse for us to fight back, and they taunt us with that fact. They know our weaknesses, and will bypass what we could bear to lose to strike instead at our most treasured resources.

They are the local deer, and they have been relentlessly targeting my winter squash and cucumber plants in their nightly browsing. I can’t stand it! They are simply shameless. And rather than nibble a few leaves off the larger plants that could survive it, of course they prefer to eat the new young shoots as the later plantings sprout up.

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Today we put some things in place to hopefully discourage them a bit, since a deer fence isn’t quite in the budget just now. We grated some Irish Spring soap around the affected plants, and pinned out some Bounce dryer sheets. We also tried our hands at a simple scarecrow aimed at the deer, a couple of blue t-shirts hung around the garden to flap in the wind and create movement. While deer can’t see the vivid orange used by hunters, they should be able to see blue quite readily. I’m hoping it will catch their attention and spook them a bit. I’m not sure that any of this is going to work, but at least we will have tried!IMG_20140726_201122174

Whirlwind Summer

The last few weeks have been, in my book, a more or less perfect whirlwind of summer. While I don’t love the extreme heat and humidity that sometimes comes with the Pennsylvania summers, we’ve had a nice balance of warm sunny days and brief bouts of thunderstorms to break the heat when it starts to get out of control. The garden has been thriving for the most part, although due to our late start we haven’t yet been able to harvest anything besides herbs. The most successful has definitely been the lavender! I’ve been drying the buds and plan to use them for a blueberry-lavender jam.

Speaking of jam, this year’s preserving endeavors started out unexpectedly rocky, when not one but two batches of the strawberry balsamic thyme jam I blogged about last time completely failed to set. I’ve made this jam before with no trouble, and although I did less jam-making last year than usual, I couldn’t imagine I had lost the skill entirely. After doing some reading online, I noticed several bloggers mentioning that they had observed a decline in the performance of Certo pectin, and recommended the Ball brand pectin instead. For my next batch, a vanilla-rhubarb jam with Earl Grey tea, I tried the Ball pectin instead, and sure enough it set up perfectly! So, I consider myself back in the game. Today I made strawberry rhubarb jam, and I have plans for honey-pickled kohlrabi with the rest of the spring harvest from my father-in-law’s garden.

Our livestock is growing steadily. The pigs rooted up their beautiful grassy pen in no time, but they don’t seem to mind! They have a shady shelter and food and water available in plenty, and once a day we bring them some treats in the form of kitchen scraps. When it’s hot and dry, we make sure they have a muddy spot for a wallow to keep cool and protected from the sun. The ducklings are fully feathered and getting quite big, and enjoy nibbling at the grass or playing in the baby pool we keep in the barnyard. The chicks have outgrown what I like to call the “dinosaur” stage of gangly awkwardness. The ones not raised by our hens are getting braver and venturing outside more. The young roosters are starting to crow, which is an exercise in hilarity at this age! Their little voices cracking is both adorable and humorous.

That’s mostly the gist of what’s been going on around here, but we’ll have more news when my in-laws get back from their vacation!

Patience is a virtue…I don’t quite possess

So much of farming is about waiting. Chicken eggs incubate for 21 days, duck and turkey for 28, and my Muscovies 35. The baby birds take 4-6 months or more to grow into productive layers, or to reach butchering weight.  The young pigs we have in the barnyard right now were born in mid-April, but won’t be ready for the butcher until mid-October. So it may surprise you to hear that I am just about the least patient person ever.

Still, I fare much, MUCH better at raising meat than I do in the world of gardening. Despite the fact that most vegetables have a much faster yield than my meat projects, I find the waiting even more difficult. If I want to, I can candle my eggs to see if there are chicks developing inside. I can measure my piglets and see evidence of their growth, and even calculate their approximate weight. But I can’t dig up my seeds to make sure they’re germinating! All I can do is watch and wait for them to break through the soil. So you can imagine how excited I get when I check the garden beds and find these!

First Planting Cucumbers

First Planting Cucumbers

Pole Beans

Pole Beans

Second Planting Cucumbers

Second Planting Cucumbers

Baby Tomatoes!

Baby Tomatoes!

A garden again!

After a very, VERY busy weekend, we finally have this year’s garden more or less installed! We got a late start this year, but there’s still plenty of time to get a good yield of fresh veggies.

The property we currently rent is on the border of our landlord’s 200+ acre horse farm. The property manager is our neighbor and is kind enough to till our large garden plot with the tractor in the spring. However, because of the hard winter and all of the delayed chores and storm cleanup this spring, we’ve had to wait our turn – which of course, we are happy to do, since this is after all a favor! Luckily the garden was tilled late last week, which meant we had the whole weekend to get it in order and plant as much as possible.

Because of the late start, I did go to the local garden center and buy several started plants to get a bit of a jump on things – zucchini, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, hot peppers, and (just for fun) a watermelon. We also had some extra tomatoes, eggplant, and sweet peppers that my father-in-law started from seed under his grow lights earlier in the year, plus plenty of seed for beets, carrots, beans, more zucchini and cucumbers, and greens of all kinds. After two days of work, almost everything is planted and mulched! Later on we will add winter carrots, fall brassicas, hardneck garlic, more greens, pumpkins, and winter squash. As you can see, we have plenty of space left to fill.

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We have a pretty big weed issue in this garden, so we use a layer of newspaper under our straw mulch to help. It’s a trick we tried when we grew pumpkins a few years ago, and it worked very well, so we’re using it throughout the garden, anywhere we would usually mulch. It definitely adds work to the initial setup, but if you’re like me and hate weeding, it’s completely worth it!

I also brought my new chicks from the hatchery order up to our farm from my in-laws’ place. They are still a bit nervous, but some mealworms do wonders to win them over! This year we added several exotic breeds: Silver-Grey Dorkings, Dark Brahmas, and Salmon Faverolles. We also got some new young Speckled Sussex, Ameraucanas, Barred Rocks, and Buff Orpingtons.

Bacon and Pork Chops are getting much more comfortable with life here on our little homestead. They are champs at the use of the nipple waterer and self-feeder, and have learned that their feed pan fills itself with delicious treats every time we come to visit. We make sure to keep their mud wallow in the center of the pen nice and damp so they can keep cool, and they no longer spook when I refresh it with the hose – in fact, they love to play in the stream of cool water!

This is my life now

As many of you may have guessed, I did not grow up on a farm. Until I was about 10, I lived in the honest to goodness suburbs, then moved to a housing development in what was at the time still a very rural area. After we moved the thing I wanted most in the world was to ride a horse, so I took riding lessons until I started high school. It sounds silly, but I assumed at the time that that would be the end of it. I was heartbroken when I had to stop riding, but young and naive as I was, I thought it meant that I had to “grow up” and leave the frivolous fantasy of that kind of life behind me. The pastoral bliss of watching my own horses or even livestock grazing in the fields outside my window was beyond my imagining. I couldn’t fathom that it was possible to go from the outside of that life to the inside. I still don’t have endless acres dotted with my extensive flocks and herds. I do have a plan with a timeline, and a burning drive to achieve it, and a lot of support as I take one step at a time towards that farm. And in the meantime, I have 8 acres and a life that 14-year-old me would never in a million years believe is ours. Here’s a day in it.

It’s hard to tell what wakes me up first: the alarm going off, or the cat stepping on my face. I get dressed and pull on my boots to head out to the barn while my husband feeds the dogs and cats. I make sure the chickens and ducks have food and fresh water. I check on Mama Duck and her ducklings, and the chicks, who will be striking out away from their mamas pretty soon. Mama Duck has started taking her babies to experience the great outdoors, which they greatly enjoy!

IMG_20140528_112722_121Then I check on Bacon and Pork Chops, where I discover they have made great strides in their efforts to turn the center of their pen into a mud wallow. I don’t mind, since it will help to keep them cool as the days get hotter. They haven’t been out on grass before, and are having a ball rooting up all of the grass and clover. I make sure they have plenty of feed and give them a treat of whole corn and potatoes. They are still fairly nervous when I am working around the pen, so I bring them something nice to eat every time I come see them. I give them plenty of fresh water too. They are so darn smart. I have a hog nipple style waterer made from a 15-gallon plastic barrel, but they had always been used to drinking water from a trough. I asked the woman who sold them to me what I should do to train them on it. The internet recommends sticking a marshmallow or a smear of peanut butter on it, would that work? She just gave me a little bit of a funny look and said, “Pigs are curious. You don’t need to do anything, they’ll figure it out.” Lo and behold, she was absolutely right – within 15 minutes of getting them home, they had already discovered how to work the waterer!

With everybody fed and watered, I head back up to the house to grab a quick breakfast, then change into my riding boots and toss my tack box and helmet into the back of the Jeep. I drive about 10 minutes to the farm where I’ve been riding for about 3 years now, for a ride with my horse mentor. She had a new horse there for me to take out, a sweet chestnut OTTB (that’s off-track Thoroughbred, pretty common around here) gelding who is now learning to be a trail horse and jumper. We tacked up and went for a leisurely ride over the neighboring farms. There is no better therapy in the world than a horse, for my money. I love my dogs, and I love my cats too, for all their differences, but if you told me I could have only one animal companion, a horse is the one I’ve discovered I simply cannot live without. After we got back and got the horses rubbed down and turned out in the field, I headed home completely reinvigorated.

For lunch I grabbed some chicken salad made of home-grown chicken, which even after several years of raising my own chickens still gives me a thrill. The clouds started to roll in, so I went to check on Bacon and Pork Chops and make sure they had dry bedding and their feed pan was under cover. As quickly as they picked up the waterer, they haven’t yet mastered the self-feeder, probably because there’s so much rooting to do that they haven’t gotten too curious about it so far. Once I was sure everyone was ready for the rain, I headed back inside to start some laundry, then settle down with a movie and cast on a baby blanket for a friend. There’s nothing like a rainy afternoon for knitting progress!

It’s now one blog post later, and I’m about to go have a dinner of venison and noodles, one of the last meals from our share of the deer my father-in-law got last fall. After supper I’ll collect eggs from the poultry and put together several cartons of eggs – both duck and chicken – to take to my coworkers. Tomorrow I work, but I should still have plenty of daylight when I get home to work in the garden and move my mobile chicken ark to a new empty garden bed. Then I’ll get out my seed catalogs and plan my pre-order of fall garlic, one of the only things I’ve grown successfully apart from herbs.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Livestock season is here!

Beltane is just behind us, and while we have no cattle to drive to summer pastures, livestock season is definitely here! Our chicks hatched last Friday, seemingly in honor of the holiday, and are enjoying learning their way around the world. We had two hens setting, and when the babies hatched they didn’t bother to keep them separate. As a result, rather than two hens with broods of 7-8 chicks each, we simply have 15 chicks with two mommies. Predictably, no one in the barnyard thinks twice about this arrangement. Everyone is happy as can be! Both moms are busy shepherding the babies around and teaching them how to eat, drink, and generally be chickens.

IMG_4144Mama #1 is a Welsummer, and Mama #2 is a Speckled Sussex. The eggs were collected from our wide assortment of hens. There were two roosters in the flock, a Speckled Sussex and a Barred Rock/Maran cross. As a result, the chicks are going to be a grand assortment of mutts, but that is part of the fun. Someday I would like to keep a few pure flocks to preserve some of my favorite heritage breeds, but for the time being, we will take what we get! The purpose of this mini-farm is to be a learning experience and trial ground for different things, after all.

I also was finally able to plant my herbs and move the bay tree outside for the season! I can’t believe how much it’s grown. Take a look!

bay tree year 1

March 2013

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May 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This winter I lost everything else I was trying to keep alive, even the rosemary that survived last winter. So, we started from scratch with parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, mint, and lavender. I still need to pick up some chives, since we use a lot of that as well, but this will get us started at least. I love how accomplished I feel once the herb garden is started. Despite the rough winter, it is still one of my few mostly successful gardening endeavors.

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Stay tuned for more exciting undertakings in the coming weeks! There is still a lot of news pending!