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Harvest and First Snow

Apologies for the radio silence; I’ve been battling a cold-turned-sinus/ear-infection and sleeping just about every minute I haven’t been at my day job. Of course, the farm keeps turning no matter what else might be happening. Last weekend, with the help of some friends, we held a big harvest day to process our poultry. We had 8 large Muscovy drakes, 3 female Muscovies, a couple of chickens, and a trio of turkeys traded from a friend and fellow homesteader. It was the biggest poultry harvest we’ve ever done. We were able to borrow an electric chicken plucker from our landlord’s plumber/electrician, and it was a great help. I’m sure we’ll be looking to build our own sometime down the line. He even sent along an electric scalder with a temperature control. It was much fancier than what we’re used to. I wish I’d been able to take some photos; the machinery setup was pretty impressive and I loved getting to introduce some new friends to the process of slaughtering and bringing birds from wing to table.

We did our first big farm-to-table supper as a celebration that evening. While we’ve certainly hosted plenty of dinners that featured some home raised components or even a home raised main course, this was by far the most complete meal we’ve done from things we’ve grown ourselves. The only exceptions were the apple cider, which came from a nearby orchard, and some Parmesan cheese. We used the cider to braise one of our pork shoulders in the crock pot for pulled pork, and served it with acorn squash, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli. We also cooked up the duck hearts we’d harvested that morning.

Last weekend we also got the call from the butcher saying that our smoked meats were ready, and they were picked up on Wednesday. The bacon is absolutely the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m eager to try the ham; I’ve been disenchanted with commercial ham for the last several years, so I’m excited to see if this will change my mind!

With impeccable timing as we finish our harvest season, the first snow arrived overnight last night. Of course it all melted away by this afternoon, but it was a treat to wake up to a beautiful light coating of snow this morning. A lovely transition towards winter!

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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!

Promising Pork

Today was butchering day for our pigs, Bacon and Pork Chops. As their names imply, they were always intended to be meat pigs. We knew this day would come, and in fact have been eagerly awaiting it. This was our first foray into raising our own pork, and I’m having a predictable assortment of feelings as it comes to an end. Overall, I consider it a resounding success. Our pigs had a joyful life. They loved every minute of the time they had on this earth. When my time comes, I will not be able to say as much. I am very happy that I was able to provide that for them, and that I will be able to remember their happiness whenever I eat pork in the coming year. I feel, as I always do when I take the life of an animal I’ve raised for food, a deep and profound sense of gratitude. In this case, I am not only thankful for their sacrifice that I might eat, I am also so thankful for everything they have taught me. I will miss the particular character they brought to the barnyard. I will miss their squealing for treats every time we approached. I will miss their contribution to reducing our waste by eating food scraps. I will miss watching them root through straw or roll in the mud on a hot day. But I will never forget them, and I will see them in every pig I raise for the rest of my days.

The pigs on their first day with us

The pigs on their first day with us

We took them to a small local family butcher shop, mostly because I was unable to find a mobile slaughter unit in my area, and because I had a personal recommendation for a butcher that a friend had found to be reliable, clean, and kind. It was harder on me than I had expected, but I think much easier on the pigs than I had feared. I did not particularly like taking them in a trailer on a ride to a new pen where they’d never been before. I worried that they would be frightened and uncomfortable. In truth, it bothered me far more than it bothered them. They loaded with little difficulty (more caused by distraction with all the new things to investigate than any true reluctance to enter the trailer). When we opened the trailer after the journey, they were snoozing in the thick straw, not a care in the world. We guided them down the ramp into a comfortable pen, and they started looking around curiously, and without concern. If in the future the option is available, I think I would still opt for an on-farm slaughter, because I think it would be more satisfying for me and my human sensibilities. But I certainly don’t think that there is anything inherently cruel about taking larger livestock to a responsible small-scale butcher, and that belief is borne out by my experience with these pigs.

All grown up

All grown up

Our setup here is not conducive to raising pigs over the winter, so the pig pen is empty for the moment. We plan to plant some winter rye to keep the soil from eroding and to get some green growth on the ground. In the spring, we’ll look for another pair of pigs to raise up for next year’s pork. The cycle will go on. And it’s all possible because I chose to take the first step, and take the risk, of bringing these two little pigs home, and they rewarded me beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you, boys. For everything.

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!

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?

Hogs Ahoy!

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce my first foray into the world of home raised pork. Meet Bacon and Pork Chops!

IMG_4269These two beauties are the latest additions to our little homestead. They are Hampshire barrows – that is, castrated young males – and in late October they will supply our freezer with roasts, chops, hams, sausage, and bacon. Getting a couple of feeder pigs has been a goal of mine for some time.  A homestead just doesn’t feel right without a couple of pigs, just like I couldn’t imagine one without at least a few chickens strutting around. It’s not just because of the delicious meat they’ll provide. These little guys will earn their keep by producing manure to be composted for the garden, and by disposing of any and all food scraps we supply them: potatoes that are getting soft, the dregs of milk in the bottom of a cereal bowl, fat trimmings from a roast of beef (but not pork, of course!), stale bread or crackers, slightly burnt baking experiments (I have had an embarrassing number of these), you name it!

Once I’ve been through the process of raising hogs and know what to expect, I also look forward to using future swine for labor in clearing or tilling vegetable plots, removing stumps, and other similar chores around the farm, but I want to get my feet under me first. There is seizing life by the horns, and then there’s biting off more than you can chew! For the next several months, my goal will be to learn as much as I possibly can from Bacon and Pork Chops as they grow big, strong, and delicious. Let the adventure begin!

Spring on the Farm

Winter has abruptly left us and spring is finally free to arrive! For me the most tangible evidence is in the huge influx of eggs we’ve been getting from our poultry as the days lengthen. We have big plans for the farm this year. A lot of things were put on hold last year because the potential existed that we might need to move in mid-summer. That precluded things like a big garden, or a large hatch of ducks or turkeys, among other things.

This year, though, we know we’re not going anywhere, and that means that we have endless options! Right now I’m working on getting one of my two Muscovy duck hens to set. I’ll be putting some eggs under a couple of my chickens as well, if they’ll cooperate. I’m also scouring the local advertisements for some turkey poults and a couple of piglets to raise for pork. That last is very exciting, as it will be our first foray into raising meat other than poultry. With chickens, turkeys, and pork products of our own in the freezer, that means the only meat we’ll need to buy from another source is our beef. That thought is incredibly liberating.

Unfortunately since we got rid of our trio of breeding turkeys last year, thinking we might have to move, we’re starting from scratch in the turkey department. Last time we had Bourbon Reds, a heritage breed with lovely brown and white plumage. They got very large and were very delicious, although our Tom did develop quite an attitude. This year I’d love to get more Bourbon Reds, or perhaps some Narragansetts, which are very striking in a barred pattern.

Our original batch of juvenile Bourbon Red turkeys (and their Lavender cross sidekick)

Our original batch of juvenile Bourbon Red turkeys (and their Lavender cross sidekick)

There are plans for the garden as well, although it will be more modest than our first attempt when we moved into this house. I do want to take another shot at pumpkins, and I’ll be planting garlic in the fall.  Our previous crop of garlic was one of my rare successes when it comes to flora (as opposed to fauna). We’ll have some tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, onions, lettuces and other greens, and of course the herb garden – another area of unexpected success, at least as long as they can remain outdoors in the summer. I have, however, managed to keep my bay tree alive all winter for two years now, and I’m pretty proud of myself for that! I’m looking forward to finding out what new and unexpected accomplishments this year has in store for me, and I hope if you’re reading this, you are too!