"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Beef Roadtrip (the Computer Age)


You may have noticed that the price of meat has risen fairly dramatically over the past couple of years. The forecast is that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, due to a number of factors including prolonged drought in many parts of the country, a new and nasty pig virus, and increasing demand for meat in China and much of the rest of Asia. Here are a few links for the skeptical, from NR and the New York Times:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/08/26/343403757/high-prices-arent-scaring-consumers-away-from-the-meat-counter

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/business/meat-prices-continue-to-rise-but-corn-and-soybeans-slip.html?_r=0

Even those of you who buy meat by the half animal, as I do, have probably seen major increases. When we bought our first local half-beef, some six years ago, I think we paid $1.75/lb hanging weight. Even two and a half years ago, when we last bought beef, we paid only $2.00/lb. Granted, that was from a neighbor and a friend, who was charging us quite a bit less than the going rate, which if I remember right was about $2.50.

This year, I spent quite a bit of time searching Craigslist for decently priced grass fed beef (our neighbor and friend only raised enough for his extended family) without luck. The best price I could find was $3/lb, and that only applied if you ordered six months ahead of time and didn't include cut and wrap. Figure that in, and by the time you are done you'll be paying about $5/lb for what you actually put in the freezer. It's not that $5/lb is such an outrageous price (though it is pretty high), but that to buy a half you need to get together some $2,000 all at once.

I really hate buying supermarket meat. I hate participating in the CAFO feedlot system (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation - Wikipedia, the free ...); I hate eating animals that lived in misery eating GMO soy and corn; I hate contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and the displacement of indigenous peoples. But I love eating beef. If it came down to a choice between eating CAFO meat or no meat at all, I know what I'd choose. So, to avoid slathering my burgers with guilt sauce, I decided to look further afield for my grass fed beef.

Washington State is divided between the wet west and, on the other side of the Cascade mountains, the wide open rangeland of the drier east. On the eastside, land is cheaper, hay is cheaper, and as a result, beef is cheaper. Marginally. After searching through all the Craigslist listings for beef in all the little towns of Eastern Washington, I struck gold: USDA prime grass fed black angus beef for $2.85/lb, cut and wrap included. A half weighing a little over 500 lbs was available. Problem is, it was a five hour drive, and comparatively cheap as it was, that half would still cost more than $1,500.

Social media to the rescue: on Facebook, I invited all my friends to go in on it with me. In the end, we bought a quarter for ourselves, and the other quarter was split into two eighths for two other families. I didn't charge the other families anything extra per pound, but I did ask them to contribute something toward the price of gas and dry ice. Dry ice, although pricey, is a necessity when transporting a quarter-ton of raw meat in a hot trunk for five hours. I used google maps to find the closest supplier to our destination, and lucked out: there was one in the same town. I collected cash and coolers from my co-purchasers, and Homero and I set off on a road trip.

The ranch was a lovely place, and the beeves on view were beautiful - vast, sleek, shiny black animals, moving slowly through flank-high grass or cooling themselves in a green pond, on which I saw a blue heron standing quietly among the reeds. The ranch owner, a friendly, tall, middle aged woman, was kind: There was a misunderstanding about the weight and we hadn't brought quite enough money. With no bank within a two hour drive, she simply decided to trust me to send a check when I got home.

It may seem like an awfully long way to go, but the math is convincing. On our quarter, we saved about $300 over local prices. Our diesel Jetta gets 45 miles to the gallon, so the gas cost us only about $30. The dry ice was the biggest expense, at $40, but friends kicked in on those costs. Our share of the travel expenses was about $25, which adds only a negligible amount to the price per pound.

If there's a downside, it's that the meat included an unreasonably high percentage of hamburger. At least 2/3 of the total weight was in burger, which is higher than I am used to. It seems like a shame to grind up that much of an animal that graded out to USDA prime, the very highest category. B ut I'm not complaining. The freezer is full of guilt-free meat and I am happy.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Harvest Time (Buckets Of Spuds)



Yesterday I harvested all the rest of the chiles off my cayenne plants. There were a few green ones hanging on, but most of them were fully dried on the plants. It was the best year for chiles I've ever had - I don't know if that's because I only planted cayennes and cayennes do well, or if there is some other mysterious reason, but in either case I think I am well fixed for heat. 




This picture of a bucket of spuds came off the internet, because I don't have my camera handy, but the bucket of spuds just outside my door looks pretty much the same. I have white potatoes and russets as well as redskins. It's funny - I planted a lot of potatoes this year, but then I totally ignored them and didn't weed at all. The potato patch looks like a jungle of thistles, amaranth, dock, and chicory. The potato plants themselves died back some time ago, and I sadly figured there would be no potatoes under there. 

Today, however, a friend asked me to bring her some lamb's quarter to plant in her garden for her rabbits. I told her to reconsider, I said it was a plague on my land and she'd olive to regret it, but she wants some anyway. So I went out to the potato patch and shoveled up a plant. Along with the lamb's quarter came three or four big, healthy potatoes. 

In the next five minutes, I uncovered a three gallon bucket full of potatoes. I decided I ad better stop. I don't want my lovely, unexpected potato crop to go all wrinkly and flabby in a drawer; we can leave them in the ground and dig them up as needed until the frost. I dug less than a tenth of the whole patch; I think we will be eating a lot of potatoes this fall. 

Other success stories this year (with pictures to follow someday):

- Tomatoes. I bought a whole flat of unmarked tomatoes in May and planted out some twenty plants before I got tired. They all did well, and I am now picking tomatoes every day. Mostly cherries, some Romas. 

- Pickling cucumbers. I've never had luck with cucumbers of any kind before but this year they did pretty well. Four plants provided me with enough cukes to keep my kitchen-table fermenting crock full. I also like to throw in the crock any extra... 

- Green beans. You can never have too many green beans, in my opinion. I planted blue lake (I think?) pole beans and yellow wax bush beans. They both did great and in addition to eating them fresh I canned six pints of hot dilly beans. 

- Red cabbage. I have six big cabbages out there that I probably ought to harvest before the slugs get them. 

Things that didn't do so well this year were the early spring crops - I got barely any peas, radishes, or spinach. Too wet, I think.  had to replant peas twice because they just rotted. Also I planted cantaloupes in the greenhouse and although the vines grew well, they only set two melons which are now about the size of softballs. I don't think anything is going to happen with those.  And my winter squash aren't too good, either. I have a grand total of two butternut squashes et, and two hub bards. If the hub bards get to a good size that will be enough, but who knows if that will happen. 

There is one other amazing plant this year, but it isn't in the garden. It's a volunteer yellow crookneck summer squash that grew out of the compost pile. I have never seen such an amazingly huge squab plant. this one plant has covered an area of about 200 square feet, sprawling all over the compost and out into the field in all directions. It has at least twenty-five squashes on it, and many many dozens of flowers. We have been eating the squash blossoms in quesadillas and soup, but I haven't tried one of the squashes themselves yet.

Overall I would call this one of my more successful gardens. I'm definitely happy with the tomatoes and chiles, and the discovery of such spudly abundance today was a welcome surprise. How about y'all? How is your garden doing?









































Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pony Update



Sometimes I love the internet. Sic weeks ago I was thinking I was going to have to sell Poppy to someone who would put her to use, and it was tying me up in knots (Poppy (Making Decisions)). Then I thought of reaching out to my local Facebook community. I belong to a group of some 300 people - nominally, it's a farmer's trade network for trading work and produce, but it occurred to me that there were probably lots of horse people on there. Maybe even horse people who don't currently have access to a horse and miss it. Maybe even people who would enjoy training Poppy and be willing to accept what I could pay.

So it proved. I laid out my situation, my budget, and my hopes. I asked for teenagers looking to make a few bucks, maybe? Or people who would accept partial payment in farm goods. And I got a lot of response. I think six people wanted to help, and they weren't all teenagers. For the last several weeks, a really great young lady named J. has been coming out twice a week.

I didn't expect anything more than just spending ten or fifteen minutes riding the pony, but actually, J. has been giving the little girls lessons, as well. She taught them to bridle Poppy and to put on the riding pad (we don't have a saddle). She has taught them the basics of posture and signals. Now, Hope can take the bridle and go out to the field and catch Poppy and bridle her and ride her all by herself. Poppy still doesn't exactly go where she's told one hundred percent of the time, but that will come.

J. says that for a pony who has never been formally trained, we have done a really good job with her. She has basically no bad habits, and she's willing, sweet tempered, and smart. She isn't spooky about anything, and she seems to enjoy being ridden. J. thinks she'll make a fine pony for informal riding around our property with very little work, and with only a little more real training can become a trail pony, which is what I want.

Summer is about over. At the beginning of the season, I had a list of goals, and deciding what to do about Poppy was on it. Check mark - goal completed. We're keeping her.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hellifino (Perimeter Patrol)

Yesterday, our neighbor with the hotel-sized-house (the HSH) called to tell us our goats were eating his garden. Luckily, we were home, and we ran right over and herded them back in before they did any major damage. It wasn't immediately obvious where they had jumped the fence, but we definitely saw a few saggy spots, so we hitched up the trailer and hurried down to the farm store before they closed to buy cattle panels.

Twelve cattle panels, a couple of hours, and $450 later, we thought we had taken care of the problem. Not so. As the sun was setting, we got another call. The goats were in the garden again.
This time, we rounded them up and put them in the more secure sacrifice area. We know this small area is secure against adult goats because we have been keeping the buck in there, separated from the does, and he tries mightily but fails to escape. The babies, however, might still be able to squeeze through the space been the gate and the hinges. I didn't think they would wander far without their mother, however, and so it proved. In the morning, all goats were still contained.

Perhaps foolishly, we let the goats back into the big pasture to graze. There's absolutely nothing to eat in the sacrifice area except poisonous tansy, and I was afraid they would all eat it and die. We carefully walked the fence line on the HSH's side of the pasture, and finding one more potential low-spot, dragged another cattle panel out and tacked it up. The morning went by; the afternoon was well advanced and still - the goats were causing zero havoc. It looked as though we had solved the problem. Homero left to go to the junkyard and I took the kids and went to my sister's house for dinner.

An hour later, when each of us were an hour away from the house in opposite directions, Homero got the call. The goats were in HSH's garden yet again, for a third time.

Let me pause here to describe the garden a little bit. HSH is a retired Indian gentleman, and his garden is his main occupation and evidently his pride and joy. HSH spends at least two hours a day and often more out in the garden, which is something like 60' x 80' and laid out in beautiful rows, each straight as an arrow and meticulously free of weeds. He grows onions and garlic, collards and spinach and lettuce. He grows potatoes and squash and cilantro and carrots. He grows tomatoes and chickpeas. He has a lovely little hoop house wherein he grows all sorts of colorful chiles. He has a tall stand of corn, just coming into tassel. His family really eats out of the garden, and he is generous with his substantial surplus. It amazes me no end that one elderly gentleman can maintain a garden of such size and splendor, while I, a full twenty years younger, struggle to raise anything that can outcompete the weeds. Anyone would be annoyed to find his neighbor's goats had devastated his garden, but HSH has more to lose than most.

Homero sped home at a breakneck pace, no doubt roundly cursing goats the entire way. When he arrived, HSH had already put our goats back in the pasture. HSH was nowhere to be seen. Most likely, he had retreated into his home so as to avoid the temptation to punch Homero in the face. Taking no chances, Homero decided to hobble the goats. He used twine to tie their front feet together, so each goat could only take tiny little steps and could not possibly jump. He then walked the fence line, searching in vain for any place the goats might have done a Houdini.

When I got home, I decided to do my own perimeter patrol. I had been thinking, and I had come to the conclusion that the goats were not jumping over the fence at all. My does don't jump much, especially Flopsy, who is hugely obese and spends most of her time on her knees. Yet, Flopsy had been out with the others. It seemed to me most likely that the goats were escaping under the fence rather than over.

But when I walked the perimeter, I saw that there was no way they were going under, either. The grass in the pasture does not get mowed or cut, ever, and so it has grown up in a thick mat over the bottom of the fences and more effectively tacked them to the ground than we could ever do. I was pretty much at a loss. Nothing looked mashed down anywhere. Hell if I knew how they were getting out.

But on my second time around, I found it. I can't blame Homero for not seeing it - it was pretty invisible. Along the bottom of the pasture, not on the side facing HSH, right about in the middle, there was a breach. The goats had gone neither over the top nor under the bottom of the fence. They had gone straight through. Right alongside one t-post, the welded field fencing had come unwelded vertically and had a slash in it like a curtain. The top wire was intact, as was the bottom, and so it was not obvious at all. There was simply a slit through which the goats had slipped, single file, and then gone marauding.

I found the breach just after sunset. I only had time to grab some baling twine and tie it closed. Tomorrow we will patch it with a new section of fence or with yet another cattle panel. In the meantime, the goats remain hobbled. Let this be a lesson to me that I must resume perimeter patrol. I used to be in the habit of walking all the fence lines every month or so, but I have slacked off shamefully. This isn't the first time I have found breaches in the fence: they are a pretty regular occurrence. Fences must be constantly maintained, or else periodically repaired.

Just like neighborly relations. I have no idea what to offer HSH, beyond my abject apologies and, come fall, a nice fat leg of goat. I'm thinking a real, handwritten letter with a gift certificate to the farmer's market.



Monday, August 4, 2014

August (Preserving Update)





This will be a short post. I'm just coming up for air between preserving sessions. The pictures above are from the web, because im working on an ipad on the kitchen table and I cant seem to figure out howto post pictures that I have just taken. But it doesn't matter: the first photo is a fair representation of what my kitchen table looks like. 

I've been trading milk and cheese to my neighbor (he of the hotel-sized house) for produce from his really excellent garden. Unofrtunately he, like so many of us, overplanted zucchini and so there is a bag of fifteen healthy sized squash on front of me. I don't think I will plant zucchini at all henceforth. I think, when it comes to zucchini, I can trust the Lord to provide. 

Hotel-sized House neighbor (herinafter HSH) also gives me big bunches of cilantro and slicing cucumbers. From my own garden - which does occasionally cough up something edible - I have green beans, cherry tomatoes, and late-crop golden raspberries. Rowan brought home a gallon-sized ziploc of more green beans and shelling peas. The trade network provided a shopping bag full of transparent apples. And on the way home from my roadtrip on saturday I stopped at a roadside stand and bought a crate of peaches and a few pounds of pickling cucumbers. 

This is without even mentioning the neverending flood of milk, you understand. The milk is a whole 'nother situation. 

Here's what I have accomplished since Saturday: 

- canned five quarts of applesauce, some with blackberries and some without.
- peeled, sliced, and froze six quarts of peaches (we still have a couple dozen peaches to eat out of hand). 
- made cheese twice.
- started a three gallon crock of pickles to ferment on the counter
- canned five pints of spicy dilly beans. 

Left on the agenda for today is to bake and freeze enough zucchini bread to make a dent in the pile of zucchini on the table. I went to the store and bought extra tinfoil and walnuts. The kids are so sick of zucchini bread they won't even eat it anymore no matter how sweet I make it. 

The weather has been unrelentingly hot and dry. We have been finding relief at the lake three times a week or so but even with the generous and repeated application of sunscreen, I am too sunburned to go again for a few days. The pasture grass is all golden brown and seedheaded. The pears are swelling on the antique tree but the little baby trees in the orchard are drying out. The hose doesn't reach that far and I keep meaning to do a bucket brigade with the kids but then I get tired and sweaty and forget about it. We should water after sunset, at about 8:30. 

Summer is crawling to an end. School looms. August is a time when I feel nostaligic for August, even as I wipe the sweat off my brow and fish canning rings out of hot water and turn on all the fans and gripe. I am all too aware of how much I will miss August in just a few short months. I'm doing my best to enjoy it while I can. 

Ha-ha. "While I can." 



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fruitocolypse (Or Pear-mageddon)



This spring, I was all aflutter over the lack of bees during flowering time (What's Wrong With These Pictures?) but the bees must have been there, because the orchard is going crazy. Above is one of my four pear trees, each of which is absolutely loaded with fruit. If I remember right (which I most likely don't) we have a Comice, a Red Bosc, an Anjou, and a Bartlett.

Three of the trees, including this one, are young trees we planted ourselves, but the fourth - the Bartlett - is a hoary old beast some sixty years old. It has on years and off years, and this is definitely an on year. It looks to have some five hundred pears on it. Some of those will drop off immature, of course, and others will be lost to scab or other infirmities, but that leaves plenty of pears for us. And the neighbors. There will be enough pears to feed the Russian Army, as my mother used to say.

Pears make good pie, and pears can be canned as sauce, especially mixed with apples, blueberries, and blackberries. Pears can be dehydrated (though I hate dehydrating stuff) and late ripening pears can be stored wrapped in paper in a cool shed.  Pears can also be fed to livestock (carefully; in moderation) and pears can be given away to friends and neighbors.

Alas, pears cannot be pressed for juice, at least not with the equipment I have. Pears turn to mush and gum up the works. I can throw a few pears in with a batch of apples, but I can't just press pears by themselves.

What else can you do with pears? Have pear fights? Ideas, anybody?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Poppy (Making Decisions)






This is Poppy. She was born on the farm, the unintended consequence of my adopting a rescue shetland who nobody knew was pregnant. We love her. We all love her, but I love her the most. I love her the way I loved my pony Bonnie when I was nine years old, a love that might only exist between a girl and her horse, or a boy and his dog. 

Poppy is a lot sweeter than Bonnie was, however. Having grown up being more or less continuously mauled by little girls, she is a sweetheart. She follows us around and nibbles on us; she greets me with a shrill whinny as soon as I step out the door in the morning; she lets herself be endlessly patted and kissed; she lets the girls sit on her without complaint. 

But she isn't what you'd call trained. Training a horse, even a pony, is a specialist's job - it just isn't something you can pick up out of a book and do on your own. It's not like training a dog - or rather, it IS like training a dog, but not a family pet dog. It's more like training a service dog (a service dog that weighs 700 pounds). There is so much that a serviceable, rideable or drivable pony needs to know beyond basic obedience. This is a wild estimate, but I'm going to say that your average riding horse needs to know some thirty or forty different signals. Not only that, but they have to be STANDARD signals. That is, I can't train my horse to do X task with some signal known only to the two of us, or she will never be rideable by anyone else. 

We have done what we can with Poppy on our own - most of her "ground work." That means she leads well, she can be haltered and saddled and groomed, she stands nicely for the farrier, she has been trailered a few times, etc. What we haven't done, because we can't, is train her for riding. 
The year before last, we were in Mexico. Last year, we mostly missed summer because we weren't moved in back here until mid July, and there was so much to do what with getting the house ready for the Tamagochis and getting them enrolled in school and whatnot, I just didn't have time or energy to think about training Poppy. 

This summer, Poppy turns five years old. It's high time to get some training on her. When I looked into prices for a real trainer, I knew that Homero probably wasn't going to go for it. There was one listing that was considerably cheaper than the others, because it was a girl just starting out her own training business. I met her, I went and saw her facility, and we agreed to send Poppy there for two months worth of five-day-a-week training, ground work and riding both. 

Then things started to go wrong. The girl sent someone to pick up Poppy, but she herself went on a three week vacation. When I finally managed to get ahold of her almost two weeks in and told her I wasn't paying for boarding, I was paying for training she said not to worry, she had other people doing work with Poppy. "She'll get the right number of rides," she assured me. 

But she didn't. Poppy sat around in a stall, getting ignored. I would have taken Poppy home myself, but I don't have a trailer. Then the girl changed her cell phone number and I had no way of getting ahold of her. I visited the facility, hoping to find her, but she was never around. Then one day she called me and told me she was getting evicted from the facility and would bring Poppy home immediately. When I started to discuss getting some of my fee back, she told me she would come to my house to give the rides and give my daughters lessons. Since I have "pushover" written on my forehead, I agreed to that. 

That was a month ago. 

Remembering my mother's adage "you get what you pay for" I realized I had a few options. I could 

A) pay for a real trainer (not likely - real trainers have high hourly fees and demand all sorts of equipment like a round pen and fancy tack that I cannot and will never be able to afford); I could 

B) decide that I like Poppy the way she is and just let her develop into a kind of semi-rideable pasture pet; or I could 

C) sell her. 

Even thinking about selling Poppy is painful. On the other hand, option B seems wasteful - almost immoral. Poppy is young, healthy, smart, willing, and good tempered. She could do almost anything in the right hands. For someone who wanted to put in the time and effort (and money), she could be a wonderful companion and working animal. My girls are not that person - neither one of them has expressed a serious interest in riding. They are much more into gymnastics, and both have made the beginner's team. At a competitive level, gymnastics sucks up too much time and money to allow for a second time-and-money intensive hobby like riding. 

So, when the farrier (who is deeply embedded in local horse-culture) came last week, I asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in Poppy. I said I hadn't made up my mind, but if the right person came along - someone who wanted a long-term commitment, preferably someone local - I would sell her. He said he'd keep his eyes open. 

But I haven't given up. I had an idea yesterday. There's a Facebook group I'm a part of, a local farmer's group. It has about three hundred members. I succinctly laid out our situation and said I was looking for a reliable person to ride Poppy two or three times a week for a reasonable fee. I figured there had to be some horse people with teenagers looking to make a few bucks or maybe some horse people who were currently without horses who would jump at the chance. 

I wasn't wrong. Quite a few people wrote to me, and one of them, a woman who was highly endorsed by somebody I know, is coming over in an hour or so to meet Poppy and talk about what she can and can't do and for how much. Perhaps Poppy can be a kind of high-level pasture pet - not a show horse, not a real working horse, but a rideable friend. That would be acceptable to me. 

Also, the farrier told me something that makes me feel relieved. I was under the impression that horses need to get their training while they are young, three or four or five years old, and that after that, they became much more difficult to work with. Where I got that idea, I can't remember, but the farrier told me it isn't true. He's routinely broken horses over ten years old. That means there's not the urgency that I thought there was - I can try a few more things and see how it goes. Here's hoping. 









Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Let the Harvest Start (Ingenuity)

Today has been a food preservation frenzy, and it isn't over yet. In the morning, I took five pounds of assorted cheese, a small jar of cajeta,  and three dozen eggs out of the refrigerator and set out on my trading route.

I returned home two hours later with:

- a large bunch of Toscano kale


- a bunch of garlic scapes
- a baggie full of feathery dill
- a fistful of rainbow colored carrots
- a small head of cauliflower
- a bowl of ripe red raspberries
- a few pounds of beautiful yellow Rainier cherries
- three small fillets of freshly caught wild Sockeye salmon

and nine dollars in cash (for the eggs).


I am delighted with the results of this day's trade. To be perfectly frank, we are all getting a little sick of cheese over here. I mean, you can only eat so much cheese before it starts to have consequences. I keep making cheese because, well, the milk keeps flowing, and it's good practice. Tinkering around with my methodology has produced a much superior chèvre this year, for example.

But just as eggs pile up in April, so does cheese accumulate in June. And yogurt, and kefir, and cajeta. Last week I canned twelve cups of cajeta and yesterday I made another quart to take to a party.  My refrigerator has become more or less a solid wall of weird milk products. I am so glad to be able to turn some of them into produce, because as usual my garden is not thriving.

The afternoon has been taken up with processing the bounty. Half the kale was sautéed and stuffed into quesadillas for lunch. The garlic scapes went into the blender along with olive oil, parmesan, and lemon juice to make a pesto which I will freeze in ice cube trays. The cubes can be stored in a ziploc bag in the freezer and used whenever I want a quick and easy sauce for pasta or chicken.

I used the last of my chèvre, the dill, and some parsley and green onions from the Gleaner's Pantry  to make a delicious dip, with which we ate the cauliflower and carrots just now as an afternoon snack.
The cherries will be eaten out of hand. The raspberries went into a ziploc in the freezer, and will be used for smoothies, which is how I use up all the kefir I've been making.

The fish, which was caught in Alaska day before yesterday by a new trade partner who I'll call jelly-man (for his amazingly delicious pepper jelly), is now smoking gently over soaked hickory chips inside of my little Totem brand smoker. I marinated the fillets in a mixture of salt, sugar, paprika, cayenne, and rice vinegar, with a dash of soy and orange juice. They are small and thin, so I think they will smoke in just a few hours.

The smoker has been in the shed since last year, and being a lazy git, I had put it away without scrubbing it. When I took it apart to clean it, there were no wire racks inside. The drip tray and the chip basket were there, but no racks for placing the fish. I searched the shed, but couldn't find them anywhere. I thought I would have to put off smoking the fish until I acquired new racks, and I was annoyed because the fish were already marinated and I didn't know what to do with them instead.

Luckily, my husband is a pack rat who seldom throws anything away. In the shed there is a small, less than half-sized refrigerator which doesn't work. I don't know why he has kept it lo these last five years, but when I opened it up it had a steel rack inside it that looked just about the right size. Almost; I had to trot out to the shop and ask Homero to cut off an inch or so from one side, but when he had done that, the rack slipped neatly into the smoker.

As I sit here, the heavenly smell of smoking salmon is wafting in from the back porch. I can't wait.



Monday, June 23, 2014

High Summer Plans (Adios, Muchachas)

On thursday, my nieces, who have been living with us for the past year, are going home to Oaxaca. It's been a good year, and we have enjoyed having them here. The girls have been sweet and helpful, and have worked hard in school and in their English classes. Hopefully, they are going home with a pretty decent command of the language and with some understanding of life in another culture than their own, and also with stronger bonds with their cousins, our daughters.

As much as I liked having them here, and as privileged as I felt to have been entrusted with their care,  I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to them going home. This is nothing to do with the girls themselves, but simply with the fact that it has now been over two years since it's been just us - the nuclear family - in our own house.

The year before last, we were in Oaxaca living with my mother-in-law (see sister blog www.newtomexicanlife.blogspot.com). When we came home, we were in limbo for three months, renters still in our house, living here and there. And once we moved back into our home, it was only a few weeks before the nieces arrived for the most recent school year. During the year that they were here, we also hosted their father for some five weeks, their mother for three, and their grandmother for another three. Somewhere in there, my brother-in-law also came to stay for a few weeks. The number of people living in my house over the past year probably averaged out to about 9.5.

That many people puts a strain on the facilities - the washing machine, the septic system, the hot water heater, the refrigerator - and on the nerves, no matter how delightful they may be as individuals. Doubling the number of children in the house more than doubles the mess, the noise, the dishes, the laundry, and the gasoline spent driving them all hither and yon to double the number of activities. Even for an American, I require rather a lot of privacy and quiet time, and hosting several gregarious Mexican relatives at the same time and over the course of a year took a lot out of me. I wouldn't have it any other way - I married into this crowd and I'm damn glad I did - but I'm also ready for a rest.

Homero feels the same way. This spring, his fortieth birthday coincided with his niece's fifteenth - a major milestone year in Mexico - and I threw a very large party. I hadn't thrown a party like this since Rowan's fifteenth birthday, six years ago. We butchered a goat and I hired Mariachis. The house was scrubbed every day for a week beforehand and three women cooked up a storm for 48 hours straight ahead of time. My friends and relatives came from as far away as Philadelphia and Oaxaca. There were about seventy people, give or take. The party began at four in the afternoon with flowers and white tablecloths and wound down around two in the morning with Corona and kareoke around the ashes of a big bonfire. It was a huge success, but when it was over, Homero said "Amor, don't make any more plans for this summer, okay?"

Both of us would love to have a nice, low-key summer vacation, just hanging out at home with the kids. I hope we can, but already, less than two weeks since school ended, the obligations and plans are piling up. Hope and Paloma have been taking gymnastics at a local gym, and last week they tried out for the competitive team. Both of them made the cut - which means twice weekly practice and monthly meets in Seattle. Additionally, I recently earned my state interpreter's license and have started taking actual jobs and earning actual money - something I would like to do a bit more of in the summer when my farmwife/homemaker duties are on the lighter side. And although I just said that farm duties are lighter right now, this is, of course, cheese season - twice daily milking and cheese making twice or three times a week. Also, there is no forgetting that summer is preserving season - if we are to have berries, tomato sauce, pickles, cajeta, jam, and salmon next winter, I have to make it this July and August.

In addition to all these regular chores, here are some things I'd like to do this summer -

- Training Poppy. This is a whole 'nother post, but Poppy has had some training/breaking recently, and can now be considered "green broke." I have bought the minimum of tack needed - a bridle and a bareback pad - and want to get the kids to ride her around the paddock at least three or four times a week. Training the horse and teaching the kids to ride simultaneously is a complicated and expensive endeavor which deserves elaboration in it's own post, but suffice it to say that this is the summer I decide if it is worth the time and expense to keep a horse.

- Go to Victoria. I love Victoria, and I have never taken the younger girls. Homero and I took Rowan many years ago, but the littler ones don't know it. It's a great weekend trip, a perfect two-nighter. The  Royal Museum ( http://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca ) is one of the coolest museums for kids on the entire North American continent, and that's only one of many wonderful things to do in Victoria (another will be to visit our good friend Andrew).

- Go to the ocean. It's been years since the family went out to the coast - the little girls have never been, I don't think. I myself haven't been in at least three years, and that's just an unacceptable amount of time. We have the use, this summer, of my mom's very nice and comfortable, mechanically sound class A recreational vehicle, and I can think of no higher purpose to put it to than introducing my daughters to the mighty North Pacific.

- Put in a French drain and fix the far bedroom. The list just wouldn't be complete without a major construction project. While my brother-in-law (a contractor) was here, I asked him about the stubborn and recurring patch of mold in the far bedroom and asked if he could find the leak in the roof.

"There's no leak in the roof," he said. "That's water from the backyard. See the slope?"

Our backyard is higher than the house, and given the ridiculous amount of rain we get, there are several metric tons of eater sitting right up against the house foundations for most of the year. We need to take advantage of the dry season (July and August) to put in a French drain and reroute the water around the east side of the house to the ditch. And also to replace the moldy wallboard in the far bedroom, and hope like hell that the beams that sit on top of the foundation are not rotted.

That seems like a summer's worth of stuff, at least. I notice that I've put all the fun stuff first. That is, in fact, how I intend to do it. If I have to spend thousands of dollars and a couple of weeks freaking out about mold and rot, I can at least do it with a nice tan, after I've taken my kids to the beach.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Cow Caper (Good Neighbors)

Yesterday as I was returning home with a car full of girls from their various lessons - gymnastics for some, English for others - I got a call from my next door neighbor with the giant house.

"Your cow, she is on the road," he said.

"Oh no!" I yelled. "I'll be right there, I'm two minutes away!"

For those of you who don't know, the road in question is a state highway that runs from I-5 on one end ten miles west to a major refinery on the other. The speed limit is 50 mph, but in actuality big rigs full of gasoline, propane, and god knows what other fossil fuels careen down the highway at 65 plus, all day long. I thought of one of those trucks hitting my poor stupid cow and smashing her to a paste, then erupting in a giant fireball, or jack-knifing and spilling 10,000 gallons of oil all over the hillside. I pictured a ten car pileup. I visualized the next day's headline: "Imbecilic farmer loses livestock; causes worst tragedy in years."

"Keep your eyes peeled," I told all the girls, but nobody saw the cow during the three minutes it took us to get home.

As I pulled into the driveway, I saw the cow being led back into the paddock (the gate was wide open) with a small crowd of neighbors behind her. I screeched to a halt and began a dance of gratitude, thanking everyone around me abjectly for catching my cow and thereby avoiding a terrifying accident and a lawsuit of hideous proportions.

My good neighbors chuckled and told stories of escaped animals from their youth. They waved away offers of reward. They headed off across the fields home, leaving me standing there feeling foolish and grateful.

I have no idea who left the gate open or when. Statistically speaking, it was probably me.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

New Trade Route



The trade network has been pretty much dormant since I got back from Mexico. We made that one great trade last summer - a baby goat for four turkeys ( Turkey Trade )- but nothing the robust networks I had going on a few years ago ( On Trading and CanningMaking Trade Goods (Gratuitous Canning Advice)Recent Trades and a Good Idea).

Then a new trading avenue opened up; I was invited to join a Facebook group of local farmers looking to trade goods and services. So far, it has only resulted in two actual trades - my pork chops for fresh cow's milk, and then my empty canning jars and some fresh cheese for these lovely canned plums, above. Since I have more cheese than I know what to do with, I asked people on the list who might be interested in some of it - as a free gift, from one neighbor to another, NOT for sale, which would be illegal. It's not illegal, however, for you to give me some of your extra snap peas. Not in exchange, you see, but just because you have too many of them. Just as I have too much cheese. Ahem.

Seriously, the legality of trading is so nebulous and cobwebby I don't even want to look into it. I'm sure it's illegal, just like EVERYTHING ELSE I want to do. Especially trading milk products. That probably would get me five to ten in the state pen. Please don't tell.

Please. I'll give you cheese.

I've already written a post about the legality of trading and admitting myself to be a scofflaw and an unrepentant participant in the informal economy (State of the Trade Network 2010 (What's Your Perspective?), so I won't go into it again here. But I am still interested - what do you all think about trading? Do you do it? Do you report it to the IRS? Do you think it ought to be regulated?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mystery Mortality (Milk Glut)

In the last two weeks we've gone from four baby goats to only two baby goats. One of them was served at our big party, so that was an expected death (and very delicious he was, too; I'm thinking in the future we may choose to butcher at 4 months instead of seven). However the second death, that of Flopsy's buckling Comet, was a complete mystery.

Comet was one of Flopsy's twins, born in March. The other buckling was sold intact for a very decent price and presumably is doing just fine. Comet was wethered and was marked as a meat animal, but that didn't stop him from being a favorite because he was so cute. Usually we don't name animals we plan on eating, but this little guy's white spots on a black background gave him the name Comet.


Comet was perfectly healthy and never ailed a day in his rather short life, until the last day. In the morning we heard him screaming and walked out to look for him in the tall grass. He was standing alone, sides heaving, with green frothy vomit all over his head and neck. Goats do not vomit. They just don't. In all my time raising goats, I have only ever seen them vomit from severe carbohydrate overload, and that obviously hadn't happened here because the barn where we keep the grain was closed and locked. 

As the day progressed, Comet kept screaming, almost continuously, and wouldn't eat, drink, or nurse. There was no more vomit, but he frothed at the mouth and dripped saliva. He was not pooping, though he would strain and heave. His symptoms seemed to be almost exclusively GI related - no neurological symptoms, no staggering or looking up at the sky like goats do when brain damaged. He got progressively dehydrated.

We spoke to the vet, of course. I thought of plant poisoning - we do have several poisonous plants on the property, but the goats generally leave them alone. I mentioned tansy, rhododendron, and hemlock, but the vet said none of those would cause vomiting, and would produce neurological signs. He suggested that a blockage was much more likely and said we should bring him in for exploratory surgery. He also said that vomiting was quite likely to cause inhalation pneumonia and that he would need antibiotic treatment quickly to avoid death from that cause. 

Well, that wasn't going to happen. Here I had an animal with a cash value of approximately $75 to $100, and treatment options began at several hundred dollars, with, of course, no guarantee of a good outcome. We decided to give Comet the day to start showing signs of recovery and to put him out of his misery if he continued the same or worse. Since he wouldn't drink, he was getting very dehydrated. He began to pant heavily and collapsed.

In the belief that a blockage was the most likely explanation, I decided to try and drench him with some neutral oil. I was terrified that I was going to pour a pint of oil into his lungs and kill him, but he was pretty close to dying already and I figured I couldn't very well make things worse. With Homero's help, we slid a tube down his throat and poured in some oil, and Comet thrashed weakly and fought us off the best he could. 

I don't know if his efforts exhausted his last reserves or if we did, in fact, kill him by our "treatment" but within a half hour he was obviously close to death, still crying weakly, so we went ahead and euthanized him with a .22. Poor little guy. 

We thought about having the vet do a post mortem, but Homero said he could do it himself, at least look for anything obvious. We skinned and prepared him for butchering as usual, but instead of throwing out the GI tract intact, Homero dissected it. I was expecting to find a fat, red gut, evidence of a torsion or a severe blockage, but everything looked completely normal. His intestines were slim, pearly grey, and just about empty. The liver and gallbladder were normal as well. Homero even opened up the rumen and checked carefully for any foreign objects, but there was just nothing to be found. 

The only odd thing we did find is that one of his lungs was swollen and covered in petechiae (small blood spots, showing that there had been a hemorrhage). The lung was abnormal enough that it might have explained his death, but of course I suspected I might have caused that myself by pouring a bunch of oil into it. It is also possible that he inhaled something and then damaged himself trying to cough it out. Severe coughing can cause vomiting in people, I don't know about goats. I thought eight hours would be too soon to show evidence of inhalation pneumonia, but maybe not. My farrier told me they once had a horse die in less than a day from that cause. 

I haven't the slightest idea what killed Comet. Well, I know what killed him - a bullet to the back of the head. But I have no idea what made him so sick. It could have been anything, from plant poisoning (a friend sent me a page from an old goat medicine book that detailed symptoms of rhododendron poisoning, and it was oddly accurate. It mentioned the screaming, the vomiting, and the labored breathing. I don't know why the vet said rhododendrons don't cause vomiting) to some kind of allergic reaction to a bite or sting. I am, however, pretty sure it wasn't a contagious illness because every other goat on the place is healthy as pie. 

It's been three days now, and no other goat has shown the slightest sign of any illness. On the contrary, they all are sleek and plump, and giving large quantities of milk. Now I have two in-milk does who have no kids on them, and so I am milking two goats twice a day. Once, long ago, I sold off all my kids young and then spent the next four months chained to the milking stand, and I swore I would never do that again. Goats must be milked every twelve hours, rain or shine, unless they have kids to nurse. I am bringing about two gallons of milk a day into the house, and it is a constant challenge to figure out what to do with it. 

A couple of days ago, we made cajeta (sweet delicious goat's milk caramel sauce - for a recipe visit  http://www.everything-goat-milk.com/cajeta.html), which used up a few gallons. I have several pounds of cheese in the fridge, and right now there is a whole pillowcase full of chèvre hung up to drain outside. It's a damn shame I can't sell any of this cheese. Good friends and neighbors are encouraged to drop by with containers. Feel free to bring any surplus garden vegetables you have. I'm particularly fond of snap peas. 

It's tough to lose an animal without knowing why. I'm sorry Comet suffered so much. I wish I knew what happened so I could try to prevent it from ever happening again. But at least I can be reasonably sure it wasn't due to any gross farming error on my part. The other healthy goats attest to that. 




















Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Littlest Huntress



Hope is ten, nearly eleven. She is a tall, graceful, athletic girl; just entering the stormy adolescent years. She is strong from gymnastics, an active and nimble thinker, and like many young girls her age, hotheaded and strong willed. For months she has been lobbying us to get her a BB gun. It seems her best friend has one, and she just has to have one too. She wants to hunt.

Sometime earlier this spring, we decided the time was right, and I bought her a mid-range air rifle - neither a toy nor a high powered weapon. It takes some real muscle to pump up the air pressure, and it is capable of firing BBs at 800 feet/second. We set up a target down in the bottom of the back pasture, and laid down the law about safety and seriousness. She would get exactly no second chances, we said - break the rules, and the gun goes bye bye for a long long time.

For about six weeks, we made her shoot only at that one target, and only when an adult was nearby. Hope grumbled and repeatedly asked when she would be allowed to actually hunt, but she followed the rules. She got pretty good, too: she could sometimes shoot a bottle cap from twenty feet away, and a tin can from twice as far. Yesterday, after chasing several rabbits out of the garden, Homero told her to go ahead and try to shoot one.

Rabbits are a plague around here. When Ivory was younger, they had a healthy respect for her and stayed away. Once in a while, she would catch one, but it takes a young, quick dog to catch a rabbit very often. As she got older, they got bolder, and now that she is twelve, she simply lays in the sun and pricks up her ears as they run past.

No rabbit, however, can run 800 feet per second, and it seems they are no match for Hope's eye, either. Within a half hour of being given permission, Hope came running back to the house yelling that she had killed a rabbit.

"Where is it?" we asked.

"Out here!" she answered, and she went galloping over the grass with Paloma bouncing behind her. I followed slowly, and saw the girls come to a stop, circling and looking down. They bent over, then sprang back up with sharp little cries of alarm, arms flying.

"Is it dead?" I yelled.

"Yes!"

"Then pick it up!"

After a few false starts, Hope picked the rabbit up by the back legs and trotted back towards the house. Homero and I bickered briefly over who was going to skin and dress it (I won; he did it) and we praised Hope lavishly.

I didn't really want to eat it (I've had wild rabbit before  - The Land Provides, part 1 - and I'm not too crazy about it) but we had talked to Hope before about eating what we kill and killing what we eat, and she would have been rightly appalled at our hypocrisy if we hadn't cooked her first kill. Moreover, she deserved us to make a big deal out of it. It IS a big deal.

I marinated the jointed rabbit (it probably weighed all of a pound, skinned and gutted) and braised it in beer with collards, onions, peppers, and corn kernels. The vegetables were delicious, but the rabbit itself was, as I expected, tough and bland. Maybe next time I will try a pressure cooker.

Oh yes, there will be a next time. Hope went back out and shot another rabbit ten  minutes after the first one. I convinced her the second rabbit was too small to eat (it was tiny) and that she shouldn't feel bad tossing it into the tall bushes; if it didn't become food for us, it would surely be food for something. The law of nature, I explained, is that "wherever there is something to eat, there will be something to eat it." If I remember, I got that out of Dune, from the planetary ecologist Kynes.

I really am proud of my middle child. She is beautiful, and growing up, and dangerous. She is at that frightening and lovely age when she is coming into her power, all unaware. She is stunning in her pride, and in her unconscious grace. She has already left her infancy behind, and in another year, or two or three, she will suddenly be a young woman. And in a few years after that, the cares and preoccupations of womanhood will take over, and the last traces of her childhood will be gone.

Artemis, most chaste and perilous Goddess, be with my young huntress. Help her learn to guide her arrows wisely, and lend her your fierceness and your unapologetic pride. Run with her through the trackless woods of adolescence. Protect her, and set your hounds on anyone who would try to cage her or make her doubt herself. Be her wild friend. Light her way with moonbeams, and let your silver laughter ring through her dreams.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Self-Administered Supplements (Separating the Sheep from the Goats)




Goats need regular mineral supplementation, just like cows and horses do. For cows and horses, you basically just buy a salt-lick. These are cheap, available everywhere, and formulated for cows and horses, the most common and highly valued livestock around. You can get medicated and unmedicated salt-blocks, you can get them in white, red, blue, green and grey, and in every size from five pounds on up to fifty. 

Most farm stores also carry sheep minerals. Usually these are in the form of a fifty pound bag of loose minerals, rather than a solid block, and are meant to be poured out into a trough and left for the animals to nibble on as they choose. For the first several years I was here, I thought these were adequate supplements for goats, as well. Sheep, goats, what's the difference, really? In every livestock book out there for the smallholder, goats and sheep are lumped together as "small ruminants." Even the vet does the same thing, for example advertising a "small ruminant" workshop every spring. Usually, these things are geared more toward a sheep than they are toward goats. 

Goats are... well, the "goats" of the farm world. They are the low animal on the totem pole. Few veterinarians are trained specifically in goat care (if you don't believe me, take a sample of opinions from any ten goat owners). Farm stores seldom carry items targeted for goats, be they hoof-trimmers, disbudding machines, or feed and minerals. The prevailing attitude towards goats seems to be that they are tough, independent animals that don't really need active care; just throw them some hay and whatever you have and they'll be all right. 

It is true that goats are often shockingly neglected. I think it stems from many people not even knowing what a healthy goat in the prime of life actually looks like. Dairy goat breeds are supposed to have short, sleek, shiny coats - not shaggy coarse hair. They ought to be pleasingly plump, with visible hipbones, but no sharp projections anywhere. Their hooves ought to be dainty and short, not long and certainly not curled or chipped. At all times, goats should be active and sprightly, never lethargic or weak. 

In order to maintain this good health, one of the things they need, it turns out, is a mineral supplement formulated specifically for GOATS, not for sheep. Goats need a higher level of copper in their diets than do sheep (http://www.extension.org/pages/19383/goat-nutrition-copper#.U3wKeF6BlQY) and if fed sheep supplements over a long period of time, they will become copper deficient and susceptible to parasites. Parasites are a complex problem in goats, with many more factors in play, but copper levels are an important one. I learned this the hard way. 

For a long time, after I initially requested it, my local feed store carried Purina Goat Minerals, and my goats loved it and ate it up with relish. But for some reason, since we returned from Mexico, Purina Goat Minerals are no longer available locally. My store didn't carry any goat minerals at all and tried to sell me sheep minerals again, but I insisted that they get me some goat stuff. What they came up with (I misremember the name and do not choose, at this time, to walk out to the barn and take a look) is presumably perfectly adequate from a nutritional standpoint, but the goats don't like it. In order to get them to eat it, I have to mix it with grain and molasses. 

The goats seem, however, to have found another source of needed minerals. I often let the goats out to browse outside of their pasture on sunny afternoons, and whenever I do, the first place they go is the fire pit. While I can't make much of an educated guess about the chemical composition, much less the copper content, I can say that the goats eat up the wood ashes with alacrity. Yesterday we burned a bunch of scrap wood and cardboard that was lying about the place, and the ashes left behind must have been delicious, because the does were fighting each other for the best spot. 

I'm not worried that they might poison themselves, because we don't burn treated wood, plastic, or other trash. I'm only a little bit concerned that I am not providing them with enough loose minerals, or else they wouldn't be so crazy about the fire pit. 







Friday, May 16, 2014

Spring Pictures (Voyeurism)

It may be the middle of May, but spring is finally in full swing here in the upper northwest. We have enjoyed nearly an entire week of very warm, sunny days. Yesterday I took a walk around a beautiful residential neighborhood in Bellingham, cruising the alleys and checking out the backyard gardens.

Although I am only a few miles north of Bellingham, my homestead has a very cold microclimate (as I think I may have mentioned once or a thousand times) and it is always surprising to me to see just how much further ahead the season is downtown as compared to here.


Irises are my favorite flower. I have gorgeous giant blue irises in my yard (a few years ago I traded eggs for bulbs) but they haven't bloomed yet, they are still stately green spires. These irises were lovely in the afternoon sunshine.


forget-me-nots




Bleeding hearts




Columbine

I don't grow flowers - except for that one clump of irises and the rhododendron bushes that line the front path I am content with wildflowers on my property. But it was lovely to see the flower gardens surrounding the beautiful old homes on my walk yesterday. I am a bit too practical for flowers - unless it's edible I'm not really interested in growing it. But these flowers almost make me change my mind. Almost. 

There are plenty of edible-oriented garden in the downtown areas, as well. That's one of the reasons I like to walk the alleys - most people plant their flowers out front and their vegetable gardens in the backyard. I would say nearly every home has something edible planted - a fruit tree or other perennial - and about a third have an actual garden of some sort.  Favorites in our area include:


Rhubarb


Raspberries; so many homes have a line of raspberry canes running along the back of a shed or the alley. These are in bloom. The flowers are not impressive, but there were plenty of bees. Grapevines are also a popular item, and now are just putting out their fresh green leaves and tendrils. 

I have definite voyeuristic tendencies when it comes to other people's yards. I like to look and see how they have things organized and think how I would use the same space for food production. All those little flower bushes could be blueberries, for example, and that weedy space on the side of the porch looks just right for a chicken coop.... I'd train a grapevine over that carport, I think, or use that sunny lawn space for raised beds...

I can't be the only one who does this. Mentally rearranging other people's space is a fun exercise, but the truth is I have plenty of actual rearranging to do here at home. Last week I went to a giant plant sale and got a lot of plants, cheap. I have to get them into the ground soon. I bought a flat of roma tomatoes (which can finally be set outside) and several containers of strawberries. I'm running out of garden space... but that's another post.