"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hooray for Black Mama Hen!

It worked! 

Last night around nine o' clock, Homero and I snuck out to the mama barn with a very small flashlight and as quietly as possible, slipped the chicks under her wings. We removed two of the eggs, but I didn't want to disturb her or wake her up further by removing the rest of them.
It was actually kind of hard to go to sleep last night, wondering what I would find in the morning: new happy family of poultry, or five tiny frozen bodies and a hen going steadily more and more broody/crazy. 

As you can see, it was the former. Hooray! Mama is still sitting on them tightly, but everybody seems happy. I removed the rest of the eggs, too, because I want her to start getting off the nest and eating and drinking. I have the eggs under a heat lamp, even though I KNOW they are dead. I just can't throw them away yet.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bad News/Good News on the Chicken Front

I checked the calendar, and the eggs that the black hen has been sitting on were supposed to hatch four days ago. Clearly, they will never hatch. Poor black mama hen, she's starving to death. She won't get off those eggs for love or money (or more accurately, for food or water). 

The chicken book says there are only two things to do: first, I could try slipping some day old baby chicks under her in the dead of night, and removing the eggs. She might wake up and be fooled into thinking they are her very own chicks. But that only works sometimes, not all the time. If it doesn't, the only other option is to break up the nest, scatter the straw, break all the eggs (with half- formed chicks in them, ewww) and hope for the best. She might just keep going and sitting on anything round she can find until she dies. 

So of course I drove all over hell and gone today looking for day old baby chicks. Most of the feed stores had no chicks at all; there's been a run on them, apparently. The economic apocalypse and all. The only store that chicks at all close to my house had only week old meat birds, and they were half as big as black mama hen already. I had to drive all the way to Nooksack to find some that might work. They are four days old, but they are bantams, so they are still very small. That's the good news: Rowan adores bantams and has been asking for some forever. For now, they are under a heat lamp in a cardboard box. After dark Rowan and I will attempt the transfer. Wish us luck. 

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Victory is Mine (For Now)!

When I got back from my 8 hour trip into town, all the goats were still inside their enclosure. 

Maybe Goats Should be Allowed to Run Free?

Since they can't be contained.  Good Lord, I am royally sick of trying to contain my goats. The electric fence has been fixed again, and seems to be working at 50% capacity, anyway, but it does no good whatsoever. Might as well not even be there. The goats go underneath the fence.

We didn't know diddley-squat about fencing when we put up the fences, and we didn't research it as well as we should. Here's a note to all you would be farmers out there: there's nothing wrong with researching something, even as seemingly simple as field fencing. "How hard can it be?" is not research. You don't weave the field fence over the t-posts, you keep it all on one side and use the clips. (pictures of the wrong way to follow; please don't bust a gut laughing at us.) Even when you do it the right way, two people simply cannot pull a fence tight enough to stay taut. You have to use a truck or a tractor. And that means that yes, you actually DO have to sink wooden corner posts in concrete at all four corners. And wait for the concrete to dry. 

If you don't do all that, then the fence will get all loose and wobbly, no matter how tight you think you have pulled it. It's like filling a grave: you take out dirt, you put a body in the hole, you put all the dirt back, and yet still the hole isn't full. How is it possible? I don't know, and I don't know how a taut fenceline goes all wobbly in a few weeks, either. So anyway, the goats can slip under the loose edge of the fence. We would have to take the entire fence down to fix it, and that's just not in the immediate future. So I jimmy-rigged a temporary solution. I bought about a hundred of those heavy wire "U" shaped things, they are some kind of landscaping tool, and I went around tacking down the edge wherever it was floppy. 

I really hope it works at least for today, because I have to drive to Seattle and I'll be gone all day long. Yesterday the damn goats killed two more fruit trees and there aren't many left to kill!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stuff to Do With Too Much Beef

Rowan stopped eating beef. It's a mammal. That's fine with me, she's old enough to decide what she wants to eat (as long she decides to eat real food, not just sugar from the bowl or whatever) but it means it's that much harder to get through a big old hunk of beef. 

Our quarter-steer is more than half gone. What's left is mostly hamburger - in two pound packages - and roasts. The roasts are immense! About five pounds each. Next time I'm going to have to ask them to make them smaller, or cut them all into steaks or even stew meat. There's just no way two adults and two tiny, finicky children can eat five pounds of beef before it goes bad.

This last roast I defrosted was labeled "London Broil." If you buy that in the supermarket, it looks like a big, two or two and a half inch thick steak. It's recommended on the package that you "broil and slice thinly on the diagonal." Well, this roast was much too thick for that. If I'd tried to broil it, the outside would have been charred to ash while the inside was still raw. So I decided to thaw it and cut it into steaks before cooking. 

Meal number 1:  I put seasoned tenderizer on the steaks (I don't usually use this, but I find that the grass fed beef is tougher than regular beef, and london broil is a tough-ish cut.) and pan fried them with poblano peppers and onions for fajitas. Although I fried less than half the steaks, there was enough leftover for

Meal number 2: A fat steak sandwich in Homero's lunch. 

Meal number 3: The rest of the steaks, now deeply tenderized from a night in the fridge, were cubed and sauteed with tons of garlic and a teaspoon or so of cumin seed, and more onions. Then I tore up and shook the seeds out of eight or ten dried chiles, some of them guajillos and some of them anchos, I think. I tossed them in the pot along with a can of whole peeled tomatoes (squished by hand as they went in), salt, and.. that's all. Put the lid on and let it simmer for a couple of hours. Then - and this is probably some kind of cheating - I fished out all the chiles and put them in the blender. I scraped the resulting paste into a sieve and pushed it through, back into the pot, with the side of a spoon. 

That was one fine bowl of red, friends. Only one problem. There's a lot of it left.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Feeling Proud, And Tired

Many things got done this week, at least halfway done and some things got all the way done. The chicken coop, I personally hammered up three rolls of wire to turn the alpaca catch pen into the outdoor section of the chicken coop, and built a little chicken ladder so they can all get in and out of the barn, even the fat ladies. Then a latch on the inside of the coop so I can gather eggs without letting all the chickens free.

As an aside, I now have my own tools, well hidden from Homero. I couldn't find any of the tools I needed to do the job, not a hammer, not a pair of wire clippers, and not a staple gun. I know for a fact that we have two of each of these items, but they were nowhere to be found. This scenario has repeated itself endlessly at our house, me wandering from place to place, starting with the place that the tools are actually supposed to be and then checking Homero's shop (ha!), and eventually unlikely places like the kitchen cupboards, all to no avail. Most likely they are all out in the field somewhere, wherever Homero was when I called him in to dinner in the middle of his last project. So I went to the hardware store and I bought a hammer, a pair of wire cutters/pliers, and a staplegun. I told the lady about my fruitless search and she said "oh, I keep my own set of tools in a pink hatbox under the bed."  I don't have a hatbox, but now I have my own secret tool stash.

I also seeded the big field. Two twenty-five sacks of mixed-grass seed ("Western Pasture") all hand sown in a brisk wind. Hope something comes up. 

I planted spinach and beets in my garden beds, now that they can germinate unmolested by marauding chickens. The snow peas are ready for transplant, too. 

And Homero is building the little girls a fancy play set. It's half done, I hope it will be all done by Bibi's birthday (April 30th).

I still have to order a dumpster from the garbage company. It'll have to be one of the really huge ones the size of a railroad car. I plan to get every last speck of non-useful material out of this house and off this property in one fell swoop. There's a lot of it secreted about - broken chairs, ripped-up clothes, hunks of plastic kid-thingies, boxes of ancient magazines, non-working electronics from the late eighties, et cetera. I'm not debating any of it, either. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring Cleaning, Take Two: Farm Style

Two men and a big, big machine (even though it's called a mini-excavator, I'd say it's pretty darn big) spent about eight hours yesterday cleaning up the mess left by the last property owners. 

One guy drove the machine, digging up all the crap, and the other guy was on the ground, separating the trash from the concrete blocks and the brush. They made two big piles of concrete blocks and two big piles of brush, which I will burn as soon as conditions are favorable. The digging arm of the excavator in the foreground gives an idea of the scale.

They also leveled out the pasture a little, smoothing over the holes where junk had been excavated and softening the grade somewhat.  One guy asked me if there had been a lagoon there, and I said I didn't know. He said, "Yeah, I think they just buried their old cow shit lagoon. Water kept squirting up in one spot." I said "Nothing these guys did would surprise me." 

Here is the final pile of trash, separated from concrete and brush. This is the throw away pile. It's not a great picture, because you can see how tall it is (notice the upturned wheelbarrow in front) but not how long. That would be about twenty feet. I'm going to have to get a 40 yard dumpster to haul it away and it will cost several hundred more dollars. 

I am thinking, though, about salvaging the tires. They make very good potato planters. I can have a white trash tire garden, just like dear old dad.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Electric Fences Are the Bane of My Existence.

I think our electric fence represents the poorest return on investment of anything on our farm. I've spent hundreds of dollars and wasted countless hours on it, yet it works only feebly and sporadically. I've bought two shock boxes and walked the perimeter over and over again, making sure that there is no unlawful contact between things that shouldn't touch each other. I've cut my hands pulling wire tighter and tighter. I've bought special tools to test it and hired handymen to fix it, yet it defies all attempts to force it to actually shock a living animal. I can put my hand on it and feel only a dim, unpleasant tickling sensation. The goats probably can't feel anything, through their fur. 

I had to put all the animals in the small pasture with the alpacas this morning so that the guy with the excavator can come and excavate all the trash. The plan is to keep them all in the small pasture for about six weeks, while the new grass that I'm going to plant gets established. But that plan won't work unless the electric fence does. 

For the moment, I'm at a loss.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring Cleaning

Even back when I lived in a medium sized house on an ordinary city lot, spring cleaning was still a daunting proposition. Open up all the closets, find and remove the fossilized cat poop (don't ask); go through the clothes and throw away everything that is truly beyond usefulness; clean the fridge and oven; wash the curtains and the slipcovers on the couches; start the yearly campaign against blackberries and morning glories. Not that I ever really did all those things in any one year, but just thinking about them was exhausting. 

Now that I live on five acres in a crumbling, antique farmhouse, the task of spring cleaning is larger by several orders of magnitude. By way of example:

I know I've mentioned before that the folks we bought this place from didn't do a very good job of removing the debris leftover from pulling down their old dairy barn. Well, I'm going to amend that statement. The folks we bought this place from purposefully and possibly criminally just buried large amounts of trash in the ground and then covered it thinly with sand and topsoil. A couple of years of settling has revealed the scope of the problem. There is literally tons of rubble and trash in the ground. It's shameful. The purchasing contract stated that "owners will remove debris pile," and I've thought about suing them to clean it up, but I decided I'm just not going there. 

Not only is this situation ugly and embarrassing (makes the place look extremely "trashy" ), but it has led to real issues of land management. The disturbed soil allowed some very bad weeds to get a foothold, in particular poison hemlock. Now, some of this is my fault, because I didn't recognize the hemlock and I let it go to seed the first year. But now, I have poison hemlock everywhere. It probably represents 10% of the total biomass on my land. At this point, it could only be controlled by one of two methods: massive spraying with copious amounts of serious poison, or a full scrape and till, followed by careful replanting with pasture grass.

I'm sure you know which option I'm choosing. Yes, the expensive and difficult one. I'm hiring a guy with a big excavator to come out and scrape all the crap into one pile (I can't afford the $100/ton dump fee) which I will then treat with copious amounts of poison to kill any remaining live hemlock. Then we'll till and plant grass. It means moving the animals off the main pasture for a good three months, and that means continuing to buy hay long into the time of year that they would ordinarily be foraging, so that is extra money on top of the $800 the guy with the excavator will cost. But I feel I have no choice. My land is useless if it is covered with a thick, waving carpet of poison hemlock.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

MRSA with your Meat?

Another reason to seek out local meat from small scale producers, if you need one besides humane treatment of animals, supporting small farmers, and reducing the carbon-cost and the water cost of your food - oh yeah, and better taste: public health. The problem of antibiotic resistance has been around for a long time, and it has multiple roots. The misuse and overuse of antibiotics in human health care is a source of resistance, but not on the same scale as industrial meat production. Over the last few decades, since cattle and hog feedlots (CAFOs) became incredibly large and numerous, we have actually forced the evolution of new, super resistant microbes that are now posing a serious and growing threat to human health. MRSA - methicillin resistant staphylococcus areaus - now kills more people in the U.S. than does AIDS. Additionally, it is responsible for thousands of infections which cause debility, disfigurement, and amputations every year. If you have kids in school, you have probably heard about MRSA outbreaks in your community. And I haven't even begun to talk about the other life threatening bugs out there which are becoming more and more difficult to treat as a result of antibiotic resistance: salmonella, campylobacter, E. Coli. The way we produce meat is harmful on so many levels, in so many ways, to animals, to the earth, and to our bodies and our children's bodies. Please think twice before you buy meat. It isn't hard to find naturally produced meat from small scale operations.

The article below (edited) is from a website called "the Ethicure," a great source of news and quality writing on the subject of food sustainability. 

Day two of the American Public Health Association... the panel promised to cover CAFOs and would be led off by David Wallinga, who directs the food and health program at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

And lead it off he did, with a riveting talk on the epidemic of antibiotic resistance. It has everything to do with the way we produce meat: Many CAFOs, which crowd hundreds or thousands of animals into a confined space, do their best to ward off the illness that can quickly sweep through the barns by feeding animals low doses of antibiotics throughout their lives. The industry and NGOs both estimate that around 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in the livestock sector each year, including penicillin and other common human antibiotics. And an estimated 70% of that is fed to animals that aren’t sick.

How is antibiotic use in CAFOs leading to resistant illnesses in humans? David gave us a mini-lesson in bacterial evolution: It’s fast, it involves a lot of mutation, and given prolonged and repeated exposure to antibiotics, the most resistant bacterial strains tend to survive. They survive in manure, which gets into water sources; they survive on the animals as they’re taken to slaughter; and they survive around the barns where workers come into regular contact with them. There’s a scientific consensus emerging, he said, that heavy antibiotic use in agriculture is contributing to the transmission of antibiotic resistance in the human population.

Although it can be transmitted through contaminated water or direct contact with animals, the most common route of transmission is through contaminated food. “Much of the meat we can buy in the grocery store has antibiotic-resistant bacteria on it,” he said. We’re talking resistant Salmonella, E. Coli, staph, and other superbugs. The FDA has estimated that over 150,000 U.S. residents develop Cipro-resistant campylobacter –- a nasty disease that causes severe intestinal distress and can lead to death — from eating chicken contaminated with resistant bacteria.

Increasingly, doctors are seeing E. Coli superbugs that are resistant to the newest generations of antibiotics. “These are the biggest guns in the arsenal of an infectious disease doctor,” he said. “And E. Coli is beating them.”

Let’s say that again with feeling: In the interest of keeping CAFO livestock alive long enough to fatten them and bring them to slaughter, we are compromising the tools – new and old – that doctors use to fight common but potentially deadly human illnesses. And in case your inner technological optimist just reared its head, let’s give it a whack: The discovery of new antibiotics is more and more rare these days, so it’s by no means guaranteed that we’ll be able to create a new tool out of thin air once the current box is empty.

David was followed by John Balbus of the Environmental Defense Fund, who built off the first presentation with a case study of MRSA (a staph infection resistant to methicillin, a newer form of penicillin) and its link to the industrial hog industry. Get this: A full 95% of the antibiotics fed to hogs are human-use drugs, and the oinkers wolf down over 10 million pounds of antibiotics each year.

MRSA has existed for quite a while, but was always isolated in hospitals, where the large number of sick patients and prevalence of antibiotics was prime breeding ground. But in 2005, MRSA was discovered on pig farms across Europe. Evidence suggests it’s evolving in the U.S. as well. (One study found it on 70% of pigs the researchers tested in Iowa and Illinois.) In the U.S., MRSA already has a higher death toll than AIDS.

So what can we do to stop the superbugs? More research, for one. No one’s really been looking at MRSA and hogs in the U.S., nor have we been looking for the presence of MRSA on pork we buy in the supermarkets — but it’s there. And of course, we need to be investing in sustainable agriculture that avoids the use of antibiotics except when absolutely necessary. Cause really, if you need to jack up your animals to keep them alive, doesn’t that suggest there might be a problem with the system? 

Slow Week on the Farm

There's not much to do around here. I'm just twiddling my thumbs, waiting for it to finally, really be spring. The goats are still pregnant. The pony is still pregnant. The grass is still dormant. The buds on the fruit trees are still tiny and tightly closed. 

I can't plant anything until the weather stops playing this crazy game in which it snows in the morning, maybe hails a little bit just for fun, and by mid-afternoon it's sunny and warm enough for a t-shirt. That's been going on for weeks now. I have the garden beds all laid out and raked, and seedlings started in the playroom, and there's just nothing else to do yet.

Except, of course, I need to get a chicken control system in place. The seeds the little girls planted a couple of weeks ago were scratched up and eaten by chickens. The chickens just adore the freshly tilled earth in the garden beds. It's chicken heaven. I love to watch them, waddling and scratching and somehow looking like plump old ladies wading at the beach. But I can't let them dig up all my plantlings, of course. I know from bitter experience that my first idea, stapling mesh over the garden boxes, is not likely to work for long and will probably result in injury as well. Certainly cursing, and plenty of it. But I wonder about big sheets of clear plastic, the kind that you buy at the fabric store on giant rolls. It's sort of like industrial strength saran wrap. I'm thinking it might be useful not just for physically protecting the seedlings but also as a kind of cold frame or mini-greenhouse, if you will. 

I'd go out and get some today, and scatter-sow some spinach under it, if it weren't raining like crazy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And Now There's Not Enough.

Last week I was drowning in eggs, and the food bank wouldn't take them, so I put an ad on Craigslist offering free eggs to families in need. I gave away seven dozen eggs in two days. 

But I also got a lot of calls from people who said "I'm not in need, but I'd love to buy some eggs." Of course, I got these calls AFTER I gave away all my eggs. Now I have customers lined up and nothing to sell them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This may seem obvious, but....

Don't carry eggs in from the chicken coop in your bra.

Why would I do such a dumb thing? Well, in my defense, it's not so easy to carry ten or fifteen eggs in your pockets, but as you can clearly see, there's ample room in the lingerie. I need two hands to open the gates, work the latch on the barn, and feed the goats. Feeding the goats was the problem. I really should do it first, before stuffing my underwear full of raw eggs. That way, when the goats leap on me, I'll just get bruised and muddy. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Crafty Chickens

Today we found a hidden cache of eggs behind the hay bales in the momma barn. I must have left the window open one day. Eight of them. Nobody has been sitting on them, so they ought to be edible. Eighteen eggs today, and it's not even over.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ham I Am

The pig is back. In his, shall we say, final form. I ran out to Keizer Meats yesterday to pick him up, in the small car, with the kids in the back. I intended to put the meat in the trunk, but as it turned out, there was a bale of hay in the trunk that I didn't know about. So I had to put the meat in the front seat, all three pretty big boxes of it. Then I had to pick up Rowan from the bus stop, and she had to sit on top of a big pile of frozen pork all the way home. 

The butcher doesn't give me a final weight on the meat I get back, but I know that his hanging weight was 125 pounds, and that usually final weight is about 70% of that. So that would be about 90 pounds of meat. They did give me the figure of 28 pounds of cured pork - ham, bacon, and smoked shank and hock, because they charge extra for the curing. Doing the math, the butcher's fee comes out to $1.90 a pound, including the kill fee. The original cost of the pig was $75, so that adds $0.85 cents a pound. And I didn't keep track of how many bags of feed we bought, but I'm going to do a scientific thing called "guesstimate" and say we spent $50 on feed (he ate a lot of scraps.). That's $0.57 a pound.

$0.57  +
= $3.33/pound.

Like I thought: just about supermarket prices. But much better than supermarket taste, as I proved last night with my first pork meal in a while: fried ham and lima bean soup. I know you are asking, why didn't you put the ham IN the soup, as every person of good sense knows is how you cook lima bean soup? 

Well, there are certain people in this house, who shall remain unnamed, who do not eat pork. These poor people just don't know what they are missing, in my opinion, but they must be accommodated. So I have to mix my pork and beans in my mouth. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ah, Spring!

Ah, Spring! The breeze, the green shoots, the mud. Ah, the mud. Such delightful squishiness, and so deep! Such a tremendous, one might even say overwhelming, scent, as of decaying animal poop of diverse kind, all in harmonious blend! Ah, the crusty, disgusting hip waders I have to wear every morning and evening, often half filled with freezing rain.

You get the picture.

Of course there are great things about spring. I believe I've mentioned pussy willows. Crocuses. The ever-nearer prospect of adorable baby goats, and, this year, even a baby pony! And let's not forget broody chickens.

I dislike chickens in general, but broody ones are the worst. They hunker in the nest boxes and scream when I approach. They yark and flap and usually manage to peck me, occasionally drawing blood. And they do this especially disgusting thing called a "broody-poop." I'll just leave it to your imagination, shall I?

Until today, I've been grabbing them and hucking them out of the barn, because it's too early for baby chicks. But there's one black hen who is particularly persistent about brooding. Hucking her repeatedly hasn't changed her mind about it. So, okay, she can hatch some chicks.
I carried her, box and all, over the the momma barn (it's really the feed storage and milking barn, but it's also where we put broody chickens and goats in labor, to give all the mommas bonding time with their babies and protect them from interference from the herd/flock.).

I know I just said we have too many chickens and should start eating some. Well, some of these are likely to be roosters, and we'll eat them. I find it easier to contemplate eating one of our animals if it has been designated as food since it's birth. That way we aren't ever eating a friend. Not that I get that attached to chickens, but y'know.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


The chickens tore apart the rows the kids and I planted. I knew this would happen, why did I plant before I figured out a chicken control system?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Grubby Little Mitts

I know, it's still too early. 

But this blustery, beautiful day seduced me entirely. It's bright and sunny, seasonably warm - that is to say, no chill in the air and while the wind is strong enough to make my hair whip around my head and blind me, there's no bite to it. Clouds are racing across the sky at warp speed and the gulls and hawks are hanging above the ridge like kites.

I had to get out in the dirt. Homero couldn't finish the rototilling this past weekend because of the snow and rain, so I just dragged the 4 x 8 frames back into the garden and used the rake to finish the beds inside one of them (No point in going overboard; it's hard work, and anything I plant this early stands a good chance of needing to be replanted in a month anyway.). Then I let the kids plant radishes in two of the rows while I planted spinach in the other two. We also planted cucumbers in peat pots to put on the sunny ledge in the playroom. 

I don't know why Bibi is wearing a bumblebee suit. 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whole Lot of Huevos Going On

Sixteen eggs today. Sixteen! 

I haven't been able to drum up a lot of interest in egg-trade or egg sales, either. Looking at Craigslist, seems like a lot of people are trying to sell eggs. I think maybe, when the economy started to go south late last year, more local folks decided to get hens, and there is now a general surplus of eggs in the area. That's just a theory. 

I did trade two dozen eggs for a homemade apple pie (NOT bread man's pie, alas. This pie was mediocre.), and I do have an egg drop to perform next week, two dozen more. But that's not making a dent in sixteen eggs a day, friends.

We're going to have to start eating a few chickens, I think.