"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Mess for Every Season (Blessed Be the Mess!)

I am a lackadaisical housekeeper. Some people would call me slovenly, but I don't care for that kind of person and so they don't get invited to my house anyway. Nevertheless, it is true that for a woman who voluntarily became a housewife, I sure hate to clean.

Don't get me wrong: There are many housewifely duties that I enjoy very much - I love to cook, for example, and I am a damn good home cook, if I do say so myself. And when I say "cook," I don't mean that I can throw together a pretty good meal. That is sort of the least of it. I mean that I take very seriously my job of nourishing my family: I am knowledgeable about nutrition; I am thrifty and know how and where to shop to get maximum bang for the family buck; I have put together a serious pantry out of which we could eat, if we had to, for months; I have taken up the gauntlet of providing a large share of the family's food through gardening and animal husbandry; and I have - if you will forgive the hubris - a deeper and wider knowledge base about preparing all kinds of food from scratch than almost anyone I have met in my generation. With deep humility, I acknowledge my friend Sarah, who kicks the shit out me in the kitchen. I am about as good a cook as my mother, and that is saying something.

But man, I do hate to clean. Laundry is okay, I can handle laundry, pretty much, although now that spring is here I feel guilty for using the dryer instead of hanging out the clothes on the line. But I literally can't think of another cleaning task I don't absolutely loathe. I hate the dishes, the never-ending mountains of dishes, which make me feel like Sisyphus on a bad day. You finish one mountain and ten minutes later there is another mountain behind it. It makes me want to force us all to live like Bhuddist monks, with only one bowl apiece and not even a spoon to our name. I make my teenage daughter scrub the bathroom. As far as I can tell, having a live-in bathroom scrubber is just about the only reason to have a teenage daughter. Well, that and a live-in babysitter. The day she decides she doesn't want to clean the bathroom anymore is the day I suggest she get a job and an apartment.

Since I hate cleaning so much, I tend to do it rather the same way that most of us fill our gas tanks - the minimum required to get us through the day. The bare minimum I can get away with daily, I have found, is dishes twice a day, a thorough sweeping, and wiping of all major surfaces. That, of course, is in addition to all my non-cleaning tasks like childcare, shopping, cooking, chaffuering, animal care, bill paying, et cetera. The deep cleaning like mopping and crevice-scrubbing, tends to be an occasional affair. Like when I can occasionally afford to hire someone to help.

As I was cleaning the kitchen today, I started ruminating on the seasonal nature of messes on a farm. It being late April, we are still in the throes of mud season. The twice-daily chores require that we trudge through the mud, and inevitably, some gets tracked into the house. Personally, I take off my shoes in the playroom, but I haven't been able to train Homero to do the same. At least there is finally enough new grass for him to wipe his shoes on on the way back to the house after chores, but even so, I am constantly finding horrible clots of mud, poop, and grass on the floors. Mud season is the main reason I spent so much money to get rid of the carpets and install hardwood floors. Said horrible clots are much easier to sweep off a hard surface than they are to remove from a carpet.

Cheese season has begun. I love cheese season - I love milking, I love making cheese, I love making yogurt. However I can't say I love the cheesemaking mess. For the duration of cheese season (April to September) there tends to be a faint tang of sour milk hanging in the air of the kitchen. During cheese season, I have to break out all the big jars, the gallon and half-gallon sized jars, and there are always jars hanging out on the counter that maybe needed to be scrubbed a little better than I scrubbed them. There are always acres of cheesecloth, used once and rinsed well in boiling water and hung up to dry and use again. Every time I open the fridge, the smell of green cheese wafts out. There is usually a ziploc bag or two full of cheese-crumbles past their prime that needs to be disposed of. When I milk the goats, I usually get at least a little milk on my shirt or on my jeans, and if it's just a squirt or two it seems a pain in the ass to change clothes... until it gets hot later in the afternoon and somewhere around four o'clock in line at the grocery store I start thinking "what is that smell?" and it's me. Brings me back to my breastfeeding days, when I always smelled faintly of sour milk....

High summer will bring on the canning mess - perhaps the biggest mess of all. First you bring in a dozen or a score of pounds of produce fresh from the garden, which means dirt and bugs all over the kitchen table... then you wash it and stem it or de-leaf it or whatever is called for, thus creating a large quantity of compost... and if it is something juicy like strawberries or staining like beets that creates it's own situation. Then there is always the possibility for a disaster like a ketchup explosion (see photo) or a jam eruption. The smell of burnt sugar lingers for weeks, as does the smell of fermentation from your half-sour kosher dills or your kim chee. Hardened jam is like lacquer, and requires a serious expenditure of elbow grease and steel wool to remove from a ceramic stovetop. Basically, for the entire preserving season - say, June to October - you can expect your kitchen to be a disaster area.

As exhausting as the mess is, however, it has it's compensations. The mess is tangible proof that you are doing your job. The mess is an incontrovertible sign of progress. The ever-changing mess is a kind of sacred calendar, a way of marking the seasons, a book of days and works (http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htm). The mess reminds me that I am also a part of the earth and it's yearly cycle. Like the birds and the beasts, I have my appointed rounds according to the season and the gifts thereof. In the spring I plant and milk; in the summer I reap and preserve, in the autumn I slaughter, hoard and burrow. In the winter we abide.

Blessed be the mess!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cheesy Success!

It;s just about suppertime, so I have no time at the moment for a detailed explanation, but I have FINALLY created a reasonable facsimile of Quesillo, also known as Queso Oaxaqueno, a fresh mild string cheese which is wound into balls and used in quesadillas and as a topping for just about anything. Also it is my husband's favorite unavailable food from home, and I have been trying to make it for years now without notable success.

Consistency is the demon that torments all cheesemakers, of course, and one batch of decent quesillo does not guarantee success in future attempts. But nonetheless, I'm thrilled that I've done it once.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Meet Edith (New Blood in the Herd)

Following the death of my little black and white doeling (http://newtofarmlife.blogspot.com/2011/04/this-one-really-hurts-bad-year-for-baby.html), I spent some time reflecting on my breeding program - or rather, my lack of a breeding program. Here's my program, in a nutshell: I like spots. It was very easy, I found, to breed for spots. I just pick my spottiest goats, let them go at it, and now, a few generations later, I got spots all over.

But I really do believe that Flopsy's triplets were weaker and less vigorous as a result of their close inbreeding. They were sired by their brother - or in other words, Flopsy was served by her own son. I knew it wasn't the best idea (even though both goats were utterly without defects as far as I could tell) but I just marked them down as meat kids in my mind. It was only when all three came out spectacularly spotty that I went against my better judgement and started thinking about keeping the girl. Last year I was able to sell a spotted wether for $250 (unHEARD of price for an unregistered wether), so I started thinking about trying to sell this boy, too. After all, if he were wethered, I wouldn't have to worry about him passing on his bad genetics....

However, when all three of Flopsy's triplets had problems of one kind or another, I had to face the fact that most likely they were simply not "good" goats, no matter how adorable and seemingly perfect. I am wholly against single-trait breeding - I don't even like purebred dogs! I think it is the height of irresponsibility to breed animals for a single trait, at the expense of their overall health or temperament. Yet, I did it myself. It really is frighteningly easy to get carried away by a showy, attractive trait like spots or, I would guess, a lucrative one like milk production and end up with defective or somehow inferior animals. Aside from the ethics of deliberately creating unhealthy animals, what a homesteader like me needs to be breeding for is hardiness.

Storm Cloud, the sire, is already sold. I sold him for a very handsome price after last year's breeding season, knowing I wouldn't be able to use him again. I thought about buying a new buck, but actually I have a different plan, now. I want to give Iris and Django a year off. They have both produced four years in a row and that's a lot. They are good, strong healthy goats and for all I know it won't do them a lick of hurt to keep on year after year, but as a woman and a mother, it feels cruel. Give the ladies a break! Flopsy, I will sell if I can. So I needed a replacement doe.

Enter Edith.

I found Edith on Craigslist, advertised as a two-year old, never bred purebred Nubian doe. I believe the rest of it, but I don't think she is a purebred. She looks like part Boer to me. She is thick-boned, with legs almost twice as thick as my other goats, and she is thick and heavily muscled. The last owners called her "Edith Behemoth" and I've already nicknamed her "the Bunker." It's a little bit hard to tell, because she is also pretty severely overweight, but I think she may have the signature "double-muscling" of the meat goat. If so, I would consider that an asset. After all, at least half of the kids born here end up on somebody's table. We have found that the Nubians and the crossbreeds give a nice carcass, if slaughtered in the fall after a summer on grass and browse, but I am sure adding some Boer into the mix would improve things. I'm not sure what kind of a milker she will be, but I have seen 1/2 and 1/2 Nubian/Boer mixes advertised as "dual purpose" goats, so I'm willing to give it a try.

Especially considering her spots! Edith has great color. And she is totally unrelated to all my other goats. So here's my new breeding plan: rent a spotted Nubian Buck this year and breed him to only Edith, giving the others a year off. If Edith throws a buckling, I can breed him to all my other ladies the following year, and send Edith out for breeding to a different buck. B y the end of that year I will know if Edith is a good milker or not. If she is, I'll keep her and sell the buck. If not, I'll keep the buck and sell Edith. Either way, I will have new blood in my herd and hopefully still have preserved the spotty genetics.

Edith is also a sweetheart. She loves people and follows me and the kids everywhere we go. She has been well taken care of and has good hooves, a shiny coat, and is pooping pellets. I hope she works out and adds a nice meaty strain to my stock.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Plodding Along

There hasn't been a whole lot going on here, we're just plodding along through this cold spring. The weather has finally turned a corner and we have had several days of sunshine, but it is still very cold. We ran out of propane about three weeks ago and I didn't buy any more, thinking that any day now spring would kick in. Nearly a month later and we are still shivering in our sweaters. At least the sunshine means it warms up in the greenhouse. The kids like to play in there, and I took in a folding chair and a book just to enjoy the warmth through the glass.

The broiler chicks got too big for the rabbit hutch, and we were casting about for a place to put them, when I spied an old truck canopy upside down out in the blackberry bushes. Righted and dragged over to the side yard, it makes a fine chicken house, Except that Lancelot, the collie dog, tore out the mesh on one of the windows so he could crawl in with the chicks. He didn't kill any of them, he just wanted to be in there with them. Weird dog. So now we have to keep that window closed. They still need the light at night, but not during the day.

The annual struggle with the lawnmower has begun. This time, it only took Homero about a half an hour to get it running - a record - but it only ran for about two minutes before one of the tires peeled off. Another record. He doesn't want to look at the damn thing anymore (I don't blame him) but on the other hand the grass is really starting to get long and if we don't mow now we will need to rent a brushmower.

I did something to my left shoulder. It's been bothering me moderately for some time now, but yesterday I tripped on a brick, fell on the shoulder, and now I can't lift it more than 45 degrees in any direction. I'm wearing a sling and taking lots of ibuprofen, and we'll see how it in a week.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Letter to the Vetrinarian

I got the results of the necropsy on Sunshine. Here is the letter I wrote to my vet's office:

To whom it may concern:

On Monday April 11th, I brought in two goat kids to be disbudded. Dr. A* performed the operation. The kids did not respond well, and the following day - yesterday - I called and spoke to Dr. J* regarding my concerns. I followed her advice, but alas, this morning, I found the doeling dead and the buckling quite depressed. I called in, and when Dr. A* was informed she told me to bring in both kids at any time and the boy would be treated and the girl examined. Dr. J* saw my buckling, and treated him with banamine, antibiotics, and subcutaneous fluids. I am happy to report he is doing much better as of this evening.

Dr. A* called me with the results of the necropsy and told me quite frankly that the baby appeared to have died of a brain hemorrhage and it appeared that thermal damage was the cause. She apologized and let me know that my disbudding fee would be refunded and that there would be no fee for the buckling's treatment.

I am writing to let you know that my confidence in Dr. A* is totally unshaken, and that I in no way, shape, or form blame her for my doeling's death. I was present during the operation - as I have been at many others previously - and her technique was faultless. Both kids appeared to recover from anaesthesia quickly and unremarkably. I do not believe that anything Dr. A* did was responsible for my doeling's death - on the contrary, I am sure it was due to some small idiosyncrasy of her anatomy. These things happen occasionally and they are nobody's fault, but simply the result of chance.

I will continue to request Dr. A* as the primary doctor for my goats, and I will continue to recommend her to my friends and neighbors.

Thank you for your time.


Aimee Day

This One Really Hurts (Bad Year for Baby Goats)

Sunshine is dead. She was the doeling from Flopsy's triplets. The prettiest goat, the one we had decided to keep, the spotty doeling I've been waiting for for years.

I took her and her brother in to be disbudded the day before yesterday. Sunshine's buds were still quite small, but her brother's were getting so big I was afraid to wait longer. The vet checked sunshine and decided she wasn't too small and we could disbud her too. All seemed to go well; they woke up from the anaesthesia in good time, were given banamine for the pain, and were walking around and nursed when I got them home.

But the next day, yesterday, they didn't look good at all, especially Sunshine. They were lethargic, trembling, and not nursing well. It looked they were suffering from brain swelling - this happened once before and I recognized the signs. That time, though, the baby had been disbudded by a farmer, not a vet. That is the main reason I brought them to the vet this time, despite the expense. I called the vet back and was given instructions to give her aspirin at 100 mg/kg, or about 500 mg. I crushed up two aspirin (650 mg), dissolved it in a few ounces of milk, and gave her three quarters of the milk, approximately. I very much doubt she received more than 400 mg. I closed her and her brother up with Flopsy in the mama barn, waited until I had seen her nursing, and went to bed.

This morning she was stiff and cold. She must have died in the middle of the night. Her brother doesn't look great, either. I called the vet back, of course, and we decided I will bring them both in and the boy can be examined and treated, and the girl autopsied so the vet can decide if she killed her accidentally or what.

I feel just terrible. The kids are going to be devastated. This one was going to be a pet.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Custer General Store (You Might be a Redneck if....)

Custer General Store - Open 125 Years

There's not much to Custer, the tiny town a few miles away from us. No gas station, no bank, no fast food joints. There's a post office, a tavern, an elementary school, and a general store. That's it. My kids go to the elementary school, and so we also often find ourselves in the Custer general store. I absolutely LOVE this place. Occupying an old two-story wooden building with living quarters on the second floor, the Custer store has been open continuously for 125 years.

I'm sure that the place has gone through many incarnations in that time - these days they don't sell a huge amount of actual staple goods. It's more like a very well stocked convenience store housed in a pioneer setting. You can get a loaf of bread, a bag of flour, a dozen eggs (local eggs, from nearby backyard chicken farmers, if you wish), and some canned goods and of course milk and butter. There's always a small selection of basic produce, usually bananas and potatoes and onions and tomatoes. You can get a bar of soap or a roll of thread. But you couldn't do your weekly grocery shopping there.

On the other hand, they have a fantastic collection of interesting stuff - there's a wall of used books, which aren't even for sale, as I found out when I tried to buy a couple. It's take-one-leave-one. Isn't that a great idea? There's a rack of weird old fashioned greeting cards and postcards - the kind with pictures of a ludicrously enlarged cabbage on a hay wagon, and a caption something like "greetings from Enumclaw!" or some such unheard-of place scores of miles away. They sell T-shirts that say "You might be from Custer if..." followed by a series of Jeff Foxworthy one liners. "...If you've ever driven your tractor down to Custer store for a sixpack!" As a matter of fact, I once saw a young man (Mexican, of course) ride his horse up to the store and actually tie it to the honest-to-God hitching post.

Coyote Hides Hanging Next to the ATM Machine

Being right next to the elementary school, there is a wide selection of schoolkid-related items: the cold case is full of items for throwing together a quick brown bag lunch, such as string cheese and juiceboxes. There is a whole lot of bubblegum, candy designed to appeal to the third-grade set, and cool, cheap toys like glow-bracelets and balsa wood gliders.

And then they have the "garage sale" room - filled with the odds and ends that tend to collect over a 125 year history: wooden spools, planters, tools that no-one knows the exact use of, old scales, glass weights and sinkers, antique tin signs, and unassorted junk of all descriptions. I bought a whole set of nine planter boxes made out of old wooden house siding for $3 apiece, and now they are in my greenhouse growing spinach and swiss chard.

One of Many Pieces of Antique Equipment

If you have to go to the bathroom, you will be directed through a back door and into the storeroom, which is full of even more fascinating old mathoms. The particular, idiosyncratic history of the place is demonstrated in such items as a cork-board with hundreds of old metal bottlecaps driven into it. I'm sure some elderly librarian could have a fine time examining that board for a study of the brands of beer available and popular through the decades in small town Western Washington.

As if all this weren't enough, the Custer store also serves a very respectable espresso, a damn good sandwich or bowl of soup, and has an ice cream counter with a selection of flavors from the local dairy. In fact, during the summer months, children can get a free ice cream cone by bringing in a dozen nightcrawlers.

Oh yeah, of course they also sell bait!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mushroom Mistake (Win Some, Lose Some)

Verpa Bohemica, also known as the early morel, split to show how the cap is unattached to the stem except at the top: a true morel is attached all the way down. Also, true morels are hollow, and the verpa is full of cottony wisps. True morels are the most delicious of mushrooms; V. Bohemica is only "edible with caution.".

The whole potful of utterly useless verpas that I traded two dozen eggs, a pound of goatcheese, and some grass fed beef for.

As always at this time of year, I am trying desperately to get the trade network up and running. Just about now I am beginning to be overrun with eggs and experiencing a serious surplus of milk and milk products (Iris' twins were picked up today - starting tonight I will be milking twice a day). No-one, however, yet has any garden produce to trade, and won't for at least another month. Trolling Craigslist looking for things I might want to trade for, I found morels advertised!

I adore morels, as does anyone with half a brain, and was delighted to find them so early in the year. The man wanted $12 a pound for them - cheap for morels, but we are pretty broke and don't have money to be throwing around on mushrooms. So I asked him if he'd be into a trade and he said he would. Yippee!

When he arrived, however, he told me about how he'd been having trouble on Craigslist with people who kept flagging his post, saying that the mushrooms he was selling weren't safe.

"Why not," I asked him, "Morels are awesome!"

"Well," he said, "these aren't the same species as the morels you buy in the store. These are early morels, but they are great and just as yummy."

I was, of course, skeptical of this, but since I was born without a spine, I didn't send him packing but merely asked him if he knew the genus and species names. He did, and he told me, and he assured me that he's been eating these for years and feeds them to his kids and that the people flagging his account were simply mistaken. Dubiously, I went ahead with the trade, and when he was gone, started doing some research.

He was right about what the mushrooms were, anyway. They were indeed, as he had said, Verpa Bohemica. With good resources they are pretty easy to identify. However, not one resource I checked (and I checked about eight) said that V. Bohemica should be eaten without reservation. Most sites said something along the lines of "be careful with these, as reports of vomiting, GI distress, and loss of muscular co-ordination exist. However, personally I've never had an issue." Only one person I found reported actual effects, and he also said that the mushrooms just didn't taste very good. Many more people said they liked the mushrooms and that they suffered no ill effects, but that's not really good enough for me.

I decided to give them a try in a small quantity but not feed them to anyone else in the family. I have a fairly cast-iron stomach and I'm not afraid of a little muscular discoordination in a good cause. Heck, I've been known to bring muscular discoordination on myself, on purpose, of a saturday night. However, after soaking the shrooms in saltwater and then drying them in a low oven, I just didn't like the smell of them. They didn't smell woodsy and enticing, as wild mushrooms ought to smell, but rather gloomy and bloated and a little bit rotten, like the bottom of a compost pile.

I threw them out. You win some, you lose some.