"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Adios (An Invitation)

Hello friends, neighbors, relatives, and readers.

I am taking a hiatus from New to Farm Life. I find myself thinking, and writing, more and more about our upcoming sojourn in Oaxaca, about our preparations, about my fears and anxieties, and my hopes and dreams. I'd love for you all to follow along as I journey into this new, exciting, and somewhat terrifying phase of my life. If you would like to, please come visit the new blog, New to Mexican Life.

The first things I post will be writings on the topic of our upcoming trip, past trips, and my thoughts about Mexico in general. All have been published here before, but you may not have seen them. I'm doing that as background for the benefit of new readers.

I hope some of you will come along for the ride. If so, I welcome you. If not, adios for now, and I'm grateful to have had you all as readers.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Home Improvement Project Numero Uno (The Deck)

In addition to painting and re-carpeting the three bedrooms (Things That Need to Happen (Before We Can Go), which we have already done, I identified three large projects that need to happen before we can show the house to potential renters. The first of these is the deck.

Homero borrowed a friend's pressure washer yesterday and spent all day pressure washing the deck. I do mean ALL DAY. Our deck is gigantic; it wraps around three sides of the house and has railings all the way around, as well as built in benches for sitting and admiring the lovely view. It is wide and ample, with plenty of space for grilling or having a nice outdoor party. We don't do those things, however. We use the deck to store recycling bins and a few bicycles and scooters. We leave muddy boots on it. Other than that, we ignore the deck, letting trees and shrubs grow up around it and letting it get slimy and slick. Without straining my memory, I can think of at least four nasty falls people have taken because of the slimy mold on the deck, one of which resulted in three weeks in a leg brace (that was me).

Considering that the deck would, if it were in decent shape, actually be a really nice selling point, I chose the deck as priority numero uno. As we've had a few days of nice weather, coinciding with a slow patch in the shop, Homero decided to talk it yesterday. It didn't rain last night, and today has been sunny and fair, and so the deck is dry today. It looks great! No more slime! No more moss, no more dried on chickenshit! Now we need to buy a five gallon bucket of deck stain.

While he had the pressure washer, I asked Homero to please also wash the RV (which, sitting out in the yard for four years has aquired a thick coating of greenish-brownish slime) and to clean out a few of the empty 275 gallon totes so we can use them for water storage.

Next up: the playroom! As you can see, it needs some serious help.

Friday, April 6, 2012

It Figures

Why is it that every time I get some good egg trades going, the hens mysteriously quit laying? Since my last post on Monday (Trade Network 2012 (Craigslist Chronicles)) I have collected a grand total of thirteen eggs. In the two days before that, I collected twenty-eight.

Maybe the hens put their pointy little heads together and decided to hold out on me for a bigger piece of the action. They all want massages, too. Maybe my chickens are organizing (did you ever see Chicken Run? I love that movie).

Maybe they are just laying their eggs in the blackberry bushes now that it's warmer out. Time to lock them up in the coop for a few days until they get the hang of things again.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Trade Network 2012 (Craigslist Chronicles)

Every year I have to start from scratch on the trade network, it seems. People move away, Like Veggie/Oil Man and the Kale Fairy did, or people stop producing anything I want, or people drop off the face of the earth, like the Baker Biker did - alas; I remember his marshmallows well!

So every year about this time, as the hens really start to crank out eggs, I have to place new Craigslist ads. I explain that we are all so stuffed full of eggs we can't walk, that I fear for my husband's cholesterol level, and we desperately need to offload some eggs. I talk about my happy hens, who are totally free-range on my five acres of pasture and I post pictures illustrating the difference between store-bought eggs and fresh farm eggs.

Farm egg on the left: bright orange, upright yolk and firm yellowish white. Store egg on the left: Pale, flabby yolk and thin, liquidy whites.

Not only do farm eggs taste better, I inform, but they have a healthier lipid profile and are crammed full of healthy Omega-6 fatty acids. I have not yet resorted to posting photos of industrial egg-producers with their battery cages and abused chickens. As my mom used to say, you catch more flies with honey.

In years past, I appealed specifically to gardeners by posting in the farm and garden section and using titles like "Eggs for Veggies!" This eventually works, but not usually until mid-May, when people have at least a little spinach to offer. This year I decided to post in the barter section and to leave it open as to what I was looking for. The title was simply "Eggs for....?"

In the body of the ad, I did list some things I wanted, like vegetable seeds or starts, baked goods, canning jars, etc. but also that I was open to hearing about anything people were interested in trading. After a couple of days, I got some intriguing replies. The first person to reply asked if I was interested in copies of The Rosetta Stone software (not really). Another fellow wrote saying he was a licensed massage therapist and could offer me a massage in the privacy of my own home on his folding table. Of course, this being Craigslist, alarm bells went off, but I decided to reply anyway. I said I'm not sure my husband would let me get a massage, but perhaps if he gave me the name and number of his office so I could verify...?

After verification, and asking permission from Homero (who said "as long as I can get a massage from a female therapist without you getting all weird"), I decided to go for it. When I spoke to the gentleman on the phone and gave him my name and address, he said "wait a minute! Are you the same Aimee I worked for a few years ago doing yard work in exchange for ham?"

Yes, indeed. Two years ago I was so broke and yet desperate for help that I posted an ad asking if anyone was willing to do some yard work in exchange for something I did have a lot of, which was grass-fed beef and homegrown pork products. "I realize this is unorthodox," I said, "but rest assured, although I don't have cash, I will HOOK YOU UP with the best quality local meat you have ever tasted. Also, I'll provide tools, transportation, and a nice lunch."

I actually got quite a few replies. This guy, who I'll call R., worked a couple of days for me cleaning out a whole buttload of blackberries and other assorted weeds in exchange for probably $150 dollars worth of beef and pork, plus a little money to cover his gas. He was a great worker, told me he lived pretty far out in the county, and was going back to school to get a medical assistant's certification, and doing whatever he could to support his large family in the meantime. I lost his number, or I most likely would have called him again a few times.

Having previous experience with R. and being fairly sure he wasn't a skeezy pervert made me much more relaxed. He came over yesterday and I enjoyed my massage very much. I told him I'd keep his entire family of nine in eggs for two weeks, which will probably end up being six dozen eggs. A steal.

Other trades in the works, though not yet finalized are a man who has a whole bunch of veggie starts and wants two dozen eggs a week; and a lady who is charging me two dozen eggs for four dozen bearded Iris bulbs, dug and ready to plant. I absolutely adore Irises.

Now I just need to keep my hens happy and well fed so they keep pumping out enough eggs to fuel my bartering schemes.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Garden Log for March (Out Like a Lion)

Although the weather has turned cold and nasty again after a few glorious days of sunshine last week, I have still been out gardening in the rain. Time passes quickly, it's the end of March, and if I'm going to have a garden at all this year, I have to get things in the ground.

As we will be leaving for our year in Mexico in September (The Big Reveal (What We Want)), I won't have a late season garden. I am only planting early to mid season crops this year. Today I planted raspberries (had to replace the canes my sister gave me last year. The goats destroyed them.), arugula, and potted up some lemon balm in the greenhouse.

Wait, let's do this all organized-like:

2012 annuals (so far):

snow peas
swiss chard

still to go:

summer squash
pole beans

I never know exactly what I'm going to plant ahead of time, but these are things I plant every year. Well, the tomatillos were new last year but they were so easy and prolific that I will plant them every year henceforth. If I come across something else interesting and/or on sale, I may plant more.

2012 perennials added so far:

lemon balm
pussy willow tree
2 apple trees

still to go:

rosemary. I'd like a big hedge of rosemary, for me and for the bees.
grapevine, to replace the one killed by goats

established perennials:

well, including the orchard, it makes a fairly impressive list.

Three apple, three pear, two cherry and two plum trees.
blackberries (I didn't plant them, but they count)

Not a bad list! I think perennials are the way to go, for a lazy gardener like me. I wish there were such a thing as a perennial tomato! Then I'd be happy.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shameless Plug

One of my favorite moments in my mundane week is when I see that my friend THE IDIOT GARDENER has a new post up. I use "friend" quite loosely because I've never met the man and never will, since he lives in England and all. But we do have a few things in common. He, like me, is fairly new to the whole coaxing things out of the ground thing, and he, like me, likes to write about it in a way that makes others smile a bit.

As a matter of fact, I am always careful to finish drinking my coffee before I click on his link, lest I end up shooting it out through my nose at high velocity. Really, you can't go wrong, but here are a few recent posts I've especially enjoyed...: Never again...Bless its pointed little head, The Baby Jesus and Me - a gardening truce?, Another year, another set of clean underwear...

Now, Mr. I.G. has a new project, an "allotment" which is apparently what they call a pea-patch over there. This is some sort of joint-effort thing whereby individual gardeners get some space and a local elementary school gets an educational experience and some healthy produce. The problem is that the project is short of funds and needs to put up a deer fence before they can begin. Mr. I.G. is trying to raise a little bit of scratch so there little blighters can raise a little food (you like what I did there?) Here's the link to the correct page: It's for the children...

It's the sort of endeavor where a few bucks could make a big difference, so hop on over and check it out. Even if you don't send anything, you will certainly enjoy a few hours reading about Mr. I.G.'s hilariously misspent youth, and more likely than not learn some colorful other-side-of-the-pond slang that you didn't know before.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring Cleaning (At Last)

The last two days have been extremely gorgeous. After my months of complaining about the chilly, soggy weather, it amazes me how quickly my body and psyche respond to a few hours of warmth and light. I don't know exactly how warm it's gotten, but it feels like the high fifties. With a clear blue sky and an absence of wind, that is paradise.

It just makes so much difference - suddenly I want to get out and get dirty. My shoulders itch to heave some soil. An hour of shoveling seems like a pleasant way to move some of my stagnant Chi around, instead of a thankless muddy task. I want to clean up, throw open the windows, do some laundry, and generally get things together. The long winter is over, and it's time to get rid of its accumulated shit.

Other people must be feeling the same way: everywhere I go there are thin columns of smoke from burn piles. My neighbor is burning trash - she is eighty years old and doesn't bother separating out the plastic, so it's rather unpleasant, but oh well - it's a sign of life. In fact I am also going to do some burning this afternoon. I bought - for ten bucks - the inside canister of an old washing machine, and it makes an excellent burn barrel. All the paper feed bags from winter are going up in smoke tonight, along with a waist-high stack of flattened cardboard.

Today I was inspired to do several things: first, and probably most importantly, I took my children out to Birch Bay to walk on the beach. We took Ivory with us (New To Farm Life: Ivory (Dog O'My Heart)) and we all had a great time looking for crabs and pretty shells. It was low tide, and there were several families out clamming or oystering. I'm not sure I would trust Birch Bay's shellfish (too close to the refinery) but it looked like they were having fun. Certainly my children were, and my dog.

When we came home, I let the ponies out into the big pasture to graze, and the goats out into the front yard. I spent a pleasant couple of hours reading my new book (the world in 2050 - kind of a downer) and watching the animals. When I put the goats away, I decided it would be a good day to trim hooves.

I've gotten out of the habit of using this blog to record farm chores: that's a shame and I should start up again. I may begin a new label - chores - to help me remember when I have trimmed hooves, when goats were bred or kidded, when the farrier came, et cetera. I am sorry to admit that my goat's hooves looked terrible. Apparently, it's been quite some time since I last trimmed. I do hate to trim hooves in winter - the liquid mud makes it so unpleasant - but there is only so much hoof maintenance you can defer before your goats begin to suffer. If I kept better track of the last time I trimmed, I would know when it was time to just gird up my loins and get out there.

So I trimmed today. The hooves looked awful. I don't know the last time I trimmed, but obviously its was far too long. As I have mentioned in previous posts (Hoof Rot - see photos) there is no escaping a certain amount of rot in our climate, but it should never advance as far as mine did this winter. Four does equals sixteen feet, and I'd say half of those feet were fine, another quarter were pretty ugly, and the last quarter showed serious damage. Now - I'm not a vet, and in the past when I've had the vet out here I have said "Oh my God, their hooves are awful" only two have the vet say, "no really, they aren't that bad." So maybe I am overestimating the seriousness of the situation.

All I know for sure is that I had to remove a whole lot of hoof. I did it by myself today, and it's a pretty strenuous task. The does kick like hell and I have to work pretty hard to hold their feet in my left hand and trim with my right. Despite my best efforts I cut myself on the left forefinger pretty badly. I should probably wait until I have a man to hold their legs for me, but inspiration arrived today and I had to strike while the iron was hot. At least I didn't cut any of the does deeply enough to bleed. After all, I can disinfect my finger and put a band-aid on it, but the goats have to walk around out in the barnyard.

After I trimmed, I did a little gardening and planted a few rows of swiss chard. Now I have chard, radishes, snow peas, and arugula planted. Oh and some potatoes. It's past time to plant potatoes but the ground has been very wet so I only planted a few in the bathtub out back. I hope if the weather holds to till a nice patch and plant some serious spuds this week.

How about y'all? Especially those of you here in the coastal Pacific Northwest? What have you been doing this week?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Egg-stra Eggs (Preserving and Using Up Eggs)

The equinox must be fast approaching: I'm drowning in eggs. My preferred method for getting rid of extra eggs is to sell them or trade them for things I need more (vegetable starts, seeds, yogurt starter, baked goods, espresso...), but so far this year I haven't set up any good trades. I have been giving away a fair number of eggs, but even so, there are six dozen in the fridge right now.

Over the years, I have developed many recipes for using up eggs, and I'll post more as I come up with them, but there are times when no amount of creative cookery will absorb all the eggs the hens put out. Mid-March is one of those times. Then you need to store eggs.

The first thing to realize is that eggs actually keep much better than most people think they do. If your house is relatively cool (my thermostat is kept at a permanent 64) eggs will keep on the counter for at least a week. Probably longer. In the refrigerator, eggs will last a month, easily. If you have chickens and are collecting eggs on the day they are laid, your eggs will last 8 weeks in the fridge.

Of course, eggs do change somewhat as they age, and fresh eggs are suitable for some purposes while older eggs are better for others. Never try to hard-boil a freshly laid egg - it's impossible to shell. But for making an omelet, use the freshest eggs you have.

Everyone who has chickens will occasionally find - as I did today - a hidden nest filled with eggs and no immediate way to tell how old they are. If eggs are very old - completely spoiled - they will feel like a solid when gently shaken. Throw those eggs away - far away. But assuming they all feel normal, the easiest way to tell how fresh an egg is is to submerge it in water. Fresh eggs sink; bad eggs float. The photo at the top of this column shows a pan full of fresh eggs and one bad egg.
Very fresh eggs sink quickly and lay on their sides. Eggs a bit older but still good will sink to the bottom on the container, but stand on end. Choose those eggs for hard-boiling. And eggs that float on the top should be tossed.

This method, by the way, will NOT tell you if you have a developing embryo inside the egg. If you have roosters, you still run the risk of finding a hideous surprise inside a quick-sinking egg. I have not yet found an easy way to tell if an egg is "developing." The best defense is to collect your eggs daily. Or make your husband crack them.

So: eggs keep for many weeks in the fridge. But that's not good enough for me. I want a way to preserve eggs for six or eight months - so that the bounty of April and May can be used in the dark days of December. My mother told me that she used to preserve eggs by separating them and putting the yolks into ice cube trays covered with salad oil. I can't remember what she said she did with the whites. My research has not corroborated her method, however. Besides, I'd like a way to preserve them without using up all the space in my fridge - that's half the problem right now.

Internet searches have basically turned up two methods, and both of them operate on the same principle. Eggs have porous shells, and if you can seal them so that there is no gas exchange, then your eggs will remain fresh for up to a year. The simple way to do this is to rub the fresh eggs with mineral oil or shortening and then pack them in salt or - for some reason - bran. Many web sites mention bran. The other way is to fins something called "water glass" (also known as liquid Sodium Silicate) and submerge the eggs in a dilute solution of same in a non-reactive crock.
Since I doubt water glass is easy to get a hold of, I would prefer the dry-pack method.

Below, I have excerpted a few passages on how to preserve eggs and provided links to a few more. Interestingly, all sites agree that eggs should be stored small end down for longest shelf life, and this is true even for regular storage in the fridge. I wonder why eggs are universally sold small end up?

How to store eggs
  1. Be sure to use only fresh eggs. If any decomposition occurs, you will be unsuccessful. Also exposure to extreme heat or cold will hinder your preservation process. You can use an oil as well, but the oil can go rancid… not exactly what I would want on my eggs.
  1. Store the eggs in a finely ground preservative such as salt, bran, or an equal mix of finely ground charcoal and dry bran or finely ground oats. You can also store them in finely ground plaster of Paris, but that’s not exactly something that I plan on having on hand regularly. You can store the eggs layer upon layer, so long as you they don’t touch each other, metal, or wood. Be sure you have enough finely ground preservative to pack them in. (You can feed the salt and bran to the cattle afterwards.)
  2. Store the eggs small side down.
  3. Store the eggs in a covered container and keep in a cool, dry place. You don’t want to store them in freezing temperatures.
  4. Eggs will keep “fresh” for up to 9 months. In fact, some countries are known to have stored their eggs like this for up to 2 years. (Preserving Fresh Eggs « Preparedness Pro)
There are two ways that I know of to store eggs without refrigeration. They both require cool temperatures, however. A cellar, cool basement or cool room in the house will suffice. The cooler the better the chance that your eggs will last longer.

The first method is to coat the eggs with a non-toxic substance, sealing the pores in the shell and thereby sealing out oxygen and moisture. When oxygen is present, many bacteria can grow, thus spoiled eggs.

To use lard or shortening to coat the eggs, first melt the grease and cool it til it begins to solidify again. Dip each egg in the melted grease individually and set them on a paper towel to dry. When the shortening or lard is dry on the eggs, rub the eggs with a clean towel, removing excess solid grease. Rub gently and buff each egg. Now repeat the process, before the shortening solidifies. Work fast, allowing the shortening to get almost solid before re-heating it.

Line the bottom of a flat box with a clean soft towel. Place the eggs in the box in a single layer. Cover the box with either a lid or another towel. Place the box of eggs in a cool, dry environment. Eggs prepared this way will last up to 6 months, although I have heard people say that they have kept eggs this way for 1 year if they are kept very cool.
A product used to coat eggs in this way, but that is supposed to keep the eggs fresh longer is K-Peg. The eggs are coated with this product much the same way they would be coated with the shortening, and prepared for storage the same way.

The other way to keep eggs works on the same principle, cover the pores and keep the eggs cool. However, the eggs must be kept immersed in a solution of Liquid Sodium Silicate. It is usually mixed with sterilie water.

Liquid Sodium Silicate is a non-toxic substance that will cover the pores of the egg shell so well that you will probably be able to keep fresh eggs for up tp 2 years! You can buy it as Sodium Silicate Solution at any pharmacy, however they may not have it on hand and have to order it for you.

Again, you will have to keep the temperatures very cool and the humidity low.

Place clean fresh eggs in a ceramic crock, one layer deep. Pour liquid sodium silicate over the eggs until the eggs are covered and completely immersed in the solution.
Place a towel over the crock and tie it into place. Place the crock of eggs in a cool, dry place and don't disturb them til you are ready to use them. To use them, just take out how many eggs you need, wash them off in clear water and use as you normally would. (How to Store Fresh Eggs)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Psst... Wanna Buy a Pig's Head?

Today I went and picked up our pig from Keizer Meats. One hundred and nine pounds of pork (hanging weight) transformed into ham, bacon, chops, spareribs, smoked hocks, and sausage. I'm delighted, and the first thing I did is put some dried corn to soak so I can make a big pot of posole tomorrow (for a recipe, see: New To Farm Life: Posole (Mexican dried corn stew)).

For the most part, we try to eat only sustainably raised meat, meaning in our case, our own pork, beef from our neighbors, and our own young goat. I have not yet found an acceptable substitute for factory-chicken. We tried raising our own, with mixed results (Broiler Report (Caldo de Pollo and Liver Pate)), and we may yet try again, but for the time being, we still buy chicken at the supermarket.

Part of being responsible meat eaters is using as much of the animal as we can. Now - let's be clear. I am not trying to assert that we eat ALL POSSIBLE parts of the pig. Far from it. Sorry, but I am not interested in chitlins. Been there, ate that, won't do it again. Also, I am not going to deal with feet. Once upon a time I tried to cook pigs feet for my then-boyfriend/now-husband, and only succeeded in stinking up my kitchen so badly that I told him to pick one: me or pig's foot tacos. Luckily, he's not a complete fool. Last time we slaughtered a pig I asked for the liver, which then remained in our freezer for nine months until I threw it to the chickens.

Okay - so I'm not a fan of organ meats. At least, not pig organ meats. I do like calf's liver and I have heard that heart is delicious. We also make use of the lard. People who let the lard go to waste are just sadly ignorant. This time around, I told the men from Keizer meats to forget the liver, but to save me the head. Mostly, this was to mollify my husband, who feels that any scrap of meat not saved is a waste of his hard-earned cash. Now, I have a whole pig's head (frozen) in the trunk of my car and I need to figure our what to do with it.

So far, the only websites I have found are recipes for headcheese, which just sounds so disgusting (think: smegma) that I'm not sure I can cope with it. I don't like pate at the best of times. I may just toss the entire thing into my husband's lap (how often does a wife get to do that??) and leave it at that. Just in case you have a pig's head of your own to deal with, here are a few of the recipes I've found.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

No More Whining (Counting My Blessings)

Reading back over yesterday's post - which was the first in a long time - I cannot believe what a whiner I am. I hate the thought that if anyone new happened upon my blog, that post would be their first impression of me. Maybe somebody found their way here looking for tips on raising goats, or cheesemaking recipes. Instead, they get fourteen paragraphs of self-pitying drivel about mud. So long, potential follower!

Also, a friend of mine at church today mentioned my blog and I was thunderstruck with the realization that people I actually KNOW read this thing. How embarrassing! Especially since the friend who mentioned it is one of the most energetic, hardworking, and cheerful people I know. SHE runs a farm as well as a family business and I'm sure she spends at least as much time out in the mud as I do. I can't imagine her pulling the covers over her head and pretending that there are no hungry animals outside.

Good Lord. I'm going to have to buck up! So, as a kick in the pants and a reminder of my abundant blessings, please enjoy a few of my favorite photos of my farm and family. Truly, we are very lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world, and I am grateful for my lovely family and healthy animals.

The view out the front windows - North

Shearing the alpacas

Sunrise behind Mt. Baker - the view to the East

Sex Education, Farm Style

Newborn Poppy

Newborn Flopsy

Fog in the Valley

Blackberry Blossoms

Valentine in Goat Paradise

A Typical Sunset

Iris, About to Kick Some Butt

The Princess and the Pig.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Not Sure if I'm Cut Out For This (Late Winter Blues)

Most of what I do on this blog, it seems, is bitch and moan about the weather. Well, stand back, I'm about to do it again. Life on this farm is so much more difficult and arduous than life would be if the farm were located in - say - central California.

In particular, it's the mud that gets me down. Five months of mud, without respite or relief. The mud varies in temperature, but not in depth or disgustingness. It might be merely chilly or it might form an ice-crystally crust that holds you for a fraction of a second with each step, before breaking and plunging you in well over your ankles. This a jarring experience. Several times this winter the mud has sucked off one of my gumboots entirely, leaving me hopping and cursing helplessly.

The animals hate the mud, too. Goats especially hate mud, and they have been more or less confined to quarters for weeks because they refuse to traverse the lake of mud between the barn and the nearest dry ground. The horses aren't quite as affected, but they also dislike the mud and the unrelenting wet. The poor beasts look glum, plodding around up to their hocks in mud or standing forlornly under the roof of the small field shelter. The chickens are bedraggled and not laying as well as they should be at this time of year. We are running out of hay and I can't turn the animals out on the pasture yet, even for short periods, because the ground is so waterlogged that every step a hoofed animal takes destroys turf. This inactivity means that manure piles up quick inside the barn and field shelter. More work for me.

The pigs - who are now in the freezer - were the only animals who didn't mind the mud. They seemed to ignore it completely, and actually they were responsible for a great deal of the mud. The area in front of the barn has always been muddy, but this year it became the enclosure for the pigs and they are the ones who turned it into a deep lake, by constantly trodding and churning and rooting. And pooping, of course. Can't forget pooping. Can't forget that what I'm wading through it not as innocuous as mere mud. The pigs themselves didn't mind the mud, but they made ME mind it a great deal more, because they were constantly spreading it on me with their horrible snouts.

And the dogs! Oh, the dogs. The dogs actually come into the house, you know. The dogs jump on my bed.

Argh. Enough about mud. Let's talk about rain. And wind. And sleet and hail and snow in April. It's going to snow again tomorrow, they say. I should be planting the earliest seeds, snow peas and spinach and radishes, but no-oooo, I'm cowering in my bed under the covers with the heat turned up way past what we can afford. I have to screw up my nerve every time I go out to do chores, and race through them as fast as possible. Last week I had to trim goat hooves - I'd put it off, waiting for a dry stretch, but alas, no dry stretch is forthcoming. I almost cried, holding the wet filthy hooves and getting liberally smeared with ordure when the goats kicked.

I never used to think of myself as fastidious. Not the kind of person who was bothered by a little mess. But this life has made me realize that actually I am a prim little princess who can't bear to get her hands dirty. It turns out, I really hate reaching for a flake of hay and slapping my hand down into a pile of fresh chickenshit. I really hate changing my clothes three times a day and still smelling of barnyard delight.

I also never used to think of myself as weak. In fact, I used to think I was pretty strong, for a woman my size. I didn't have any trouble with the kind of jobs I was called upon to do once in a while - moving furniture around, flipping a mattress. But I am decidedly not equal to the tasks that running a farm demands of me. I can carry 50 pound sacks of feed without too much trouble - but I can't carry four or five of them out to the barn without feeling the effects of it later on that night in my lower back. And there are many tasks I can't do at all. I can't muck out the barn in the spring after a winter of deep-litter. The straw gets compacted and hard and incredibly heavy, and I can't move it. The best I can do is drive the pitchfork into the mass and wiggle it, loosening it up for Homero, so he can muck later on.

I can't turn the compost. I can't stack hay. That annoys me - I ought to be able to stack hay. The small grass hay bales we buy only weigh about fifty pounds, sometimes less, but they are so awkward I can't lift them. I really hate leaving all the muscle work to my husband. Partly because it isn't fair, and partly because he doesn't do it in a timely fashion and we fight about it.

It's not just a matter of strength, either. There seems to be something wrong with my skin. I am continually hurting myself, getting cut or stabbed or bruised up doing ordinary things. The other day I was using a special serrated comb on Poppy, trying to get burrs out of her tail, when it slipped and raked across my thumb, opening up an inch long gash that bled like murder. And here's the thing - it wasn't even sharp! One of the reasons I can't stack hay is that the twine cuts my hands open. Apparently I have soft girly little marshmallow hands.

Most of this angst is specific to the season. I will feel better as soon as we get a week without rain. Blue skies and temperatures in the sixties will perk me right up. That may not happen until June, though. I do love our summers here, and give thanks every day that we don't have to endure weeks of above 90 degree temperatures. I suppose the flip side of mud is dust. Recently I read the book Epitaph for a Peach by a farmer in southern California (good book), and he spends a lot of time cursing the dust. We never have dust around here. We also don't have to irrigate anything, ever. Water is so cheap that mine is not even metered.

And I suppose that gloves would go a long way in protecting my marshmallow hands.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Time/Money Conundrum (Hello Housewives!)

I wish I could find a certain essay I wrote several years ago. As part of my great unfinished memoir about my and Homero's quest to get married despite the best efforts of the U.S. government ("an epic story of love, separation, and reunion; spanning all of North America and the third part of a decade") I wrote a few pages about what happens to my husband when he crosses the Mexican border.

Succinctly put, the relative value and time and money suddenly switches places. In the states, for him as for most of us, time is worth more than money. I wrote the essay in the context of a long-ass roadtrip (from Vancouver B.C. to Oaxaca, Mexico, by way of Atlanta, GA and Tucson, AZ.). The example I gave - though there were many to choose from - was that whenever we needed food, Homero would never venture beyond the McDonald's on the off-ramp. For the same amount of money, if we had chosen to drive three miles into town and go to a grocery store, we could have bought five times the food; but no, that would be spending precious time. Better to spend twenty bucks to buy a single meal that only cost us ten minutes than to spend thirty minutes on a meal that cost five bucks. The rest of us can surely relate: if time were not worth more than money there would be no such thing as Merry Maids.

But once in Mexico, everything changed. Suddenly, my husband reverted to the value-scale of his childhood, wherein there was always an excess of time and/or manpower, but a critical shortage of money. Therefore, all of a sudden, it made sense to spend an hour and a half driving around and around some dusty one-horse Mexican town looking to save a few pesos on breakfast. Can you guess how crazy it made me, trying to adapt to these sudden switches? No, I'm afraid you can't.

I haven't read the latest book making the homesteading/DIY circuit "Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter," which attempts to quantify the time spent vs. money saved of dozens of different household tasks such as (duh) bread and butter making, making your own laundry soap, etc. However, I engage in such calculations every day, as, I'm sure, does just about every housewife in America. I find that my calculations have changed lately. In the "new economy" (read: depression) most of us find that sending out for pizza is a bigger deal than it used to be.

It used to seem that spending $40 or so on two large pizzas and a salad and a 2 liter of coke was a small price to pay for not having to cook dinner - for the sixth or seventh time that week. It just wasn't that big a deal: it didn't have moral connotations. These days I feel guilty if I send out for pizza - and not just (as I used to) for feeding my kids crap. Now I feel guilty for spending money when I could work for an hour and make a better meal at home. Does it matter that I'm tired? After all, that same $40 is a visit to the dentist for one of my kids (on the sliding scale, of course). Do I even have the right to spend a child's dentist visit on delivery pizza just because I'm tired? How fucking tired can I be? I don't have a goddamn job!

Well, that's what I've been raised to believe, anyway. In actual fact, I work some six to eight hours a day doing work that, if it were compensated at fair market value, would earn me some $134,000 a year ( Business of Life: The "Business" Value of What Housewives Do That We Take For Granted). That's according to U.S. government figures, and yes, it does seem inflated, even to me. I don't know if that's because I don't work as hard as the "average" housewife (likely) or if I've been so thoroughly brainwashed that I devalue my own labor even more than my husband does. I can say for certain that he doesn't think the work I do is worth $134,000 a year, considering that he puts in equal or longer hours doing much more technically skilled work (auto mechanics) and makes less than one third of that amount.

But all of that is "ordinary" mom-housewife work such as child care, bookkeeping, chaffuering, time management, cleaning, tutoring, and all that sort of thing. My personal calculations as the chatelaine of a functioning homestead have to include things like: what is the optimum number of chickens to keep to provide the greatest egg:feed ratio? How much time gardening does it make sense to spend? Given that gardening is a task that could easily expand to take up all my free time, and some of the products (i.e. raspberries) are ridiculously expensive whereas others (potatoes) are equally ridiculously cheap?

Is it worth it to raise a pig, or two pigs, or to breed pigs? Beyond the penny per pound price (Meat Math) how do you put a value on wading out through the knee-deep pig shit day after ever-loving day? For that matter, how do you put a specific value on avoiding partaking of meat produced in the hell of the factory farm system? What price conscience?

Should I buy new clothes for my kids? The calculations involved in this one seemingly simple question become overwhlming. New clothes that I can afford are manufactured by other children, in Guatemala or Palestine. Can I stand to dress my children in other children's sweat? My answer has so far been to buy secondhand, which involves a great deal of extra time spent sorting through enormous racks in warehouse sized secondhand stores. Time which could theoretically be spent in more productive ways...

As usual, I've started out with a theme and ended up with a buttload of questions to which I have no answers. My life seems to be made of questions. If anyone has any answers - or possible answers - or more questions ...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Productive Day (Redneck Coldframes and Unnatural Apples)

When I woke up this morning, something was different. I wasn't sure what it was, but there was a semi-painful stabbing sensation in my eyes and I had a hard time keeping them open. The light was as bright as an operating room, seemingly, and a cacophony of noise assaulted my ears. It was rather like waking up with an epic hangover, but without having gotten drunk the night before.

Gingerly pulling aside the curtains, I saw a wall of golden light. Ah yes! I remember! the SUN! And that jangling noise? Why it must be BIRDS! After taking a few minutes to shake off the feeling of being a Morlock emerging painfully into the world of light, and letting my dark-adapted pupils adjust, I felt a wave of energy and joy. Fairly leaping out of bed, I decided that today was the day I had been waiting for.

Yes. First gardening day of spring! A caveat: I did, in fact, already plant a tree this year - a pussy willow. So today wasn't in fact the absolutely first time this year I have done anything garden related. But it was a very productive day. I seriously made up for lost time. Here are some photos of my activities today, activities which I will surely feel in my lumbar region later on tonight.

In the greenhouse, which is still unsealed and therefore not really a whole lot warmer than the outside air, I mixed up my special potting mix of two parts local topsoil (obtained from the construction site where Homero built his shop), one part homegrown compost (read: mixed animal shit and kitchen garbage left to gently rot for a year or so), and one part store bought pearlite. This sounds like an easy thing to do, but it actually involves lots of back aching work with a short handled shovel. Then I filled up a few large pots with the mix and planted snow peas. I also repotted a rosemary plant which has been languishing in the greenhouse all winter in a pot much to small for it. I don't know if it will live or not, but I've given it a chance at least. By the way, if you are wondering how I plant in milk crates, see: The Tippler's Garden

Walking around taking notes, I saw that apparently the Rhubarb corm my sister gave me last year (Rhubarb Ho! (Thanks, Sis!)) has survived the winter. Never having grown rhubarb before, I don't know how it behaves in the wintertime. I thought mine had died, because it lost all it's leaves and looked very yellow and forlorn. The ground where I planted it it is quite saturated (I don't hardly have any ground that isn't) and I thought my poor plant had drowned. But today I saw that the lovely crimson corm is swelling and putting out a few small shoots, so it looks like all will be well. I don't know if it will put out enough shoots for a pie this spring, but I hope so. I adore rhubarb pie.
Here we have a shot of my ghetto coldframe garden (Eat your heart out, Idiot Gardener!) . Out in the wide open spaces between the trees in my orchard, I have located the largest containers in my container garden: a couple of old clawfoot bathtubs. I don't know about where you are, but around here, old clawfoots are highly valued and not usually obtainable for under $75 or $100 each, no mater how crappy the condition. Several years ago, I managed to score these beauties for $25 apiece. Craigslist, of course. One of them had had its hole welded shut so it could be used as an animal waterer: that is the one you see in the foreground full of rainwater. I occasionally add a few shovelfuls of animal crap and call it "compost tea." This tub, together with a gallon sized milk jug, functions all year long as my water supply to the second bathtub and to the orchard, since the hose doesn't reach that far.

The other bathtub had a functioning drain, and so I created a layered system of river rocks on the bottom, sand in the middle, and soil on top so that the tub would have decent drainage.

This second tub has become, through the magic of scavenging, a tiny greenhouse. Or what I'm calling a ghetto coldframe. Every homestead worth it's salt has, somewhere on the premises, a small stack of glass in the form of old windows or patio doors. Ours is stored under the RV. After I worked the soil in the bathtub and planted it with spicy mesclun mix, all I had to do was ask my husband to drag out a sheet of glass. I washed the glass with water from the rainwater tub to make it less opaque (it was covered with chicken crap. Apparently the chickens like to hang out under the RV) and hoisted it carefully onto the planted bathtub.

Theoretically, the early spring sun, weak as it is, will provide enough heat, trapped as it is beneath the glass sheet, to let the mesclun mix germinate and give us salad a good two weeks before salad would otherwise be available. If we were dying of scurvy, these two weeks would be essential. Since we aren't, they are only bragging rights.

I wasn't done yet: I also planted two apple trees. I've gone over to the dark side: I bought grafted three-variety apple trees from Costco. A couple of years ago I did the right thing and bought fancy heirloom apple trees from a small locally owned company called Trees of Antiquity (New To Farm Life: Expanding Orchard). They were extremely helpful, but four out of the six trees I ordered died due to goats, mowers, or unknown factors. I figured that more well-grown trees might stand a better chance.

My children are being problematical and demanding (darn grade-schoolers, always needing hep with their homework!) so details will have to wait, but suffice it to say I planted two fruit trees today as well as a bed of mesclun and some snow peas. I feel industrious.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Meat Math

Now that Keizer meats has called me with the hanging weight on our tiny, skinny, little pigs (109 lbs and 137 lbs, less than I expected) I can do the math to figure out how much our own pork is costing us and whether or not it is worth it to raise two pigs.

Since we are leaving for Mexico in six months and already have a freezer full of beef, we decided to keep the smaller pig and sell the larger one. The Costs to us of raising two pigs are as follows:

Piglets (2) $80 = $160
Feed (15) $12 = $180
Kill fee on our pig: $62
Cut and wrap on our pig : (109) $.60 = $65.40

Cost of both pigs to us: $467.40

I am not making any attempt to factor in labor because caring for two pigs is pretty much exactly the same as caring for one pig. Feed is necessarily something of an estimate, but I know we bought at least 12 bags of feed, because I counted that many empty bags, and I'm chucking in three more because it seems likely I'm missing a couple of empty bags. That wasn't all they ate, of course: they also ate all the household scraps and pretty much anything else I could scrounge up. But those things didn't cost us any outlay of cash, so they aren't counted. We didn't vaccinate or otherwise doctor the pigs, so no veterinary costs.

The fellow who is buying the larger pig will pay all of Keizer's fees, both cut and wrap and the kill fee. Then he pays me $2.5o a pound of hanging weight, which works out to $342.50

$467.40 - $342.50 = $124.90

Our 109 pounds of meat cost us $125, which is $1.15 per pound. Hanging weight, of course. We won't get back 109 pounds of wrapped meat, more like 75 or 80.

Wow. Assuming that this pork is as good as our previous pork (and why wouldn't it be?) then that is a hell of a deal. Let me do a quick google search on prices for pastured pork.....

The chart below is taken from Coulee View Family Farm in Wisconsin. Their prices are very much in line with the prices I saw on three other pages for pastured, naturally raised, but not organic pork. Looks like it probably is worth it to raise two pigs at a time.

Price Per PoundEstimated Weight
Smoked ProductsSmoked Bacon$5.501
Smoked Bacon - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801
Smoked Boston Butt Bacon - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.951
Smoked Canadian Bacon$5.750.75
Smoked Boneless Chops$5.351
Smoked Ham$5.252 to 5
Smoked Ham - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.602 to 5
Smoked Hocks$3.301 to 3
Smoked Hocks - MSG & Nitrate Free$3.601 to 3
Sliced Honey Glazed Smoked Ham$5.251
Ground & More
Ground Pork$3.951
Seasoned Ground Pork$3.951
Roast BBQ Pork$5.751
Itallian Sausage$5.501.25
B-fast Saus. Links MSG & Nitrate Free$5.501.25
Andoulle Sausage$5.501.25
Bratwurst - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801.25
Chorizo - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801.25
Andoulle Sausage - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801.25
CutsBoneless Pork Chops$5.001.5 to 3
Tenderloins$8.00,75 to 1.25
Fresh Hocks$2.252 to 3
Shoulder Steak$4.752 to 3
Shoulder Roast$4.752 to 4
Loin Roast$5.002 to 4
Side Pork$4.751
Baby Back Ribs$4.00
Spare Ribs$3.50
Rendered Lard$2.10
Pork Soup Bones$1.501