"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Today I chose the slippery beam. Apparently both choices are equally awful. Walked back to the house this time with a cold muddy bum. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Mud Nightmare Has Come to Pass

Just went out to do the afternoon feeding, with Haku tied to me via a long leash around my waist. That's my new plan for desensitizing him to the livestock - take him with me every day and make him walk among the animals. It's about 4 o'clock, dim, very cold, and very muddy.

It's been very muddy for weeks. The mud is worse than average this year, because we raised a pig this year. Pigs always root up, dig, and generally soften up the ground wherever they are, and this pig spent a lot of time in the barnyard. Homero laid a couple of wide 2x8 beams across the worst of the yard, and that helped for a while. But now the mud has come up over the beams, and while you can still see where they are, they aren't much help anymore. They're slippery, see.

I have to choose between trying to walk on a slippery beam with a 90 lb. dog tied to my waist - a dog that is tugging manfully - or walking in the mud. I chose the mud. I have good boots. They go up to my knees.

One of my good boots got stuck. Really stuck. I pulled and pulled - I let Haku pull and pull to help me - but no dice. That boot was in almost to the top and it wasn't coming out. After a few minutes of thinking and not coming up with any plans, I gave in to the inevitable.

I slipped my foot out of the boot and set it down in the mud. It sank in right up to my shins - just as cold, squishy, and awful as I had known it would be. Without my foot inside, it was easy to grasp the empty boot and pull it up. Now I had a new dilemma. Should I put my gross muddy foot back inside my boot, or should I carry the boot and keep the inside clean, and walk back to the house half barefoot?

I really didn't want to get the inside of my boot as muddy as the outside. Then I'd have to clean it out with the hose, and it would be wet for days. So I started off towards the house - about 50 yards - squish, squish, squish.

It froze last night. Not hard enough to lock up the mud, obviously, but enough to make the ground very uncomfortable on a bare foot. When I hit the sharp, frozen gravel, I decided to put my boot back on. Now I have one leg wet and filthy to the knee, and two muddy boots - one on the inside as well as the outside.

Haku, as usual, has four legs muddy to the hocks. He doesn't care.

A Goat Named Christmas

On Christmas Eve morning, when Homero went out to feed the animals, he found a baby goat curled up, asleep in the hay. He wasn't sure which of the three does was the mama, so he picked up the baby and put her in the mama barn, chose the mama goat that most resembled the baby (Polly), and came back in to get me. 

When I entered the mama barn a few minutes later, the baby was nursing on Polly, so clearly Homero chose correctly. Polly must have given birth the evening before. The baby was dry and fluffy, nursing like a pro, and Polly looked great. 

I HAVE been checking the mama goat's udders when I go out, because I know that they were probably bred quite early, since we just let the buck run with them year round. Last year (or was it the year before?) we lost two babies because they were born in the middle of a deep freeze in the middle of the night. 

This time we (and the goats of course ) were luckier - it's been very wet but not cold. The barn has plenty of dry straw, and now that we put them in the mama barn, they ought to do just fine. Until I let them out, a few days from now, anyway. I can't imagine how that tiny baby can traverse the lake of deep mud between the door of the barn and the grass of the pasture. I need to get some chips down, pronto. 

A search for another baby - dead or alive - and any sign of placenta turned up negative. It seems this baby was a singleton. And it's a she. She's a doeling.  We named her Christmas. We're going to keep her. It's about time I added a new doe to the herd. It seems that Iris most likely did not get pregnant again this year. That makes two years in a row and I think it is unlikely she will produce again. Flopsy is also getting on, and she only has one teat. Polly is my best goat, and I think a doeling from her would make a good replacement for Iris or Flopsy. 

If, that is, we can raise her to maturity without being killed by Haku. I'm terrified about him killing baby goats. He doesn't bother the adult goats - only the sheep - but the adult goats don't prance and gambol and run around enticingly, which the baby goats most certainly will. Also the babies are perfectly prey sized for Haku. 

In an attempt to avoid that horrible fate, I brought the baby inside and let Haku lick her all over. I even brought Haku out to the mama barn and let him lick the baby all over right in front of her mama. Polly did not like that at all. She was very protective, keeping herself between Haku and the baby, and lowering her horns menacingly. But Haku behaved himself and was very gentle with the baby. 

I'd be perfectly happy if Christmas were the only baby we get this year. I don't need more goats and I don't need more milk than Polly can provide. It's always nice to have a couple of babies to sell, or to eat, so it wouldn't be awful if there were more babies, but they'd be surplus. The only thing I will need to do next year is find a different buck. Hopefully I can find someone in the same position as me who wants to trade bucks straight across. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Dog Drama (Faith and Canines)

The farm, like the earth itself, is practically in hibernation right now. I can hardly remember a time when we have had fewer animals. The cow and the pig have both been butchered. The turkeys are gone as well, having been butchered and sold for Thanksgiving. The freezer is full of meat, and the only live animals I have left are the perennials - ponies, goats, and chickens.

The weather has been unrelenting. Except for one quick, two day freeze that brought a half-inch dusting of snow, it's been all mud. The chores are so miserable that I have allowed the unthinkable: chores once a day instead of twice. In my defense, the days are very short - there are barely eight hours of daylight, and that of a dubious, dark grey quality. We feed once, at about 11 am, double rations for everybody. As the animals are all huddled in the barn against the chill and the damp, they are not expending very much energy.

I always take Haku (the new shepherd) with us to do chores - he needs the exercise, but it is a giant pain in the ass. He cannot be trusted off leash, nor can he come into the main paddock with me, even on leash. The mere sight of the sheep sends him into a berserker rage and at 90 pounds, he is quite capable of pulling me off balance and sending me ass-first into the mud. So I put him in the adjacent pasture while I do chores, and he leaps frenetically at the fence and barks himself hoarse while I trudge through the mud.

"Shut up, Haku," I scream, with an armload of hay, the wind whipping half of it out of my arms and into my eyes.

"Shut UP, Haku," I scream, as I dig my naked hands into the ordure and pry the chicken's feed pan loose and carry it over to the hose for cleaning.

"Haku, for the love of all that's holy, SHUT UP!" I yell, as I duck back into the mama barn to scoop up chicken food. After a moment, I realize there is silence - and it is not relief I feel, but dread. I pop out of the barn, and see Haku dragging the sheep around the lower pasture by the scruff of her neck. I don't know how he got from one pasture to the other, but it hardly matters at the moment.

"HAKU!" I scream, and start to run after them. The mudboots I have put on are too small, and I am running with my toes curled under. It hurts.

"HAKU!" I keep screaming. The dog cheerfully ignores me. Even dragging the sheep, he easily outmaneuvers me. Occasionally, the sheep will break free and run for a bit, and Haku seems to enjoy it when she does, for it gives him a chance to chase her around again. The dog and sheep make large circles; I make smaller circles inside their orbit, lunging and stumbling and screaming ineffectually. I wasn't exactly checking my watch, but it felt like a good ten minutes before I managed to step on Haku's leash as he dashed by me and bring him to a jerking halt.

I was so angry at him. This is not the first - nor the second, nor the third - time he has attacked the sheep. He has never actually injured her, I think because her wool is so thick he can drag her around with a mouthful of wool without piercing her skin, but the poor thing is seriously traumatized. Haku has been punished each time, but it makes no impression. I'm going to risk the collective opprobrium of the internet by admitting that when I finally managed to drag Haku off of the poor sheep, I growled at him, flipped him on his back, twisted his ruff savagely, and whacked him across the snout with my bare hand, hard enough to hurt. "NO!" I yelled into his face. "NO!"

I dragged him out of the pasture and tied him to the fence by his leash while I finished my chores. The sheep was cowering in the far corner of the barn, but when I tried to approach her to check her for injuries she nimbly stepped around me and took off. That is, to me, enough evidence that she isn't seriously injured. As the late, great James Herriot said, if you can't catch your patient there probably isn't too much to worry about.

For those of you who might wonder, Haku is enrolled in a professional training course and we take him once a week. We also have a friend who is a professional trainer and she comes quite often to help us. Haku is a challenging dog, to say the least. He is an absolute sweetheart with the family - loving and docile and playful and trustworthy. He is also fine with visitors and people in general - but with animals, be they livestock or other dogs, he is a holy terror.

We are committed to Haku - we knew when we adopted him that he had been given up twice by other families and that we were, practically speaking, his last chance. If we were to take him back to the shelter, he would be deemed unadoptable, and we all know what that means. We will never ever do that - Haku is ours forever, even if he succeeds in his lifelong ambition to kill the sheep. We were warned that he was released the last time for killing chickens. When we decided that we were in love, that we had to adopt him, Homero said (privately) "He can kill all the chickens, I don't care."

Our last dog - my first dog - Ivory , was also challenging as a puppy. There were times I felt I had made a mistake, that she would never be a proverbial "good dog." We had to hang tough for - I'm going to say three years, until she calmed down and became a relaxed family dog, instead of a crazy whirlwind of destruction. She used to lunge at the fence and bark whenever the neighbor came home. The poor girl was only trying to get into her own house, and Ivory made it a trial every day for years. She also used to steal all my daughter's stuffed animals, sneak them out through the dog door, and then tear a small hole in them and run around the backyard, shaking them violently, until all the stuffing came out. She did this over and over until he whole backyard looked like a ski resort.

As it turned out, Ivory did become a "good dog" She lived with us for fourteen years - years which spanned the birth of my children and the growth of my family from a city-dwelling duo to a country farming family of five. She learned to be a farm dog, to herd goats, to chase rabbits through the blackberry bushes, to hunt and kill rats. She accompanied our family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and she provided us her whole life long with affection and protection. She was a real true member of the family, and even now, almost a year after her death from a nasty cancer, I cry every time I remember her. I have ugly tears rolling down my cheeks right now.


It is only because of Ivory that Haku has any grace with us. It is only because of Ivory that I have faith, that I have trust that Haku will one day be a member of our family in the same way she was. I know there will never be another Ivory - no matter how much Haku resembles her. He can't replace Ivory - no dog ever could - but Ivory taught me the worth of a good dog, and gave me the will to keep trying. Now that I know what a dog can be, I have to believe that Haku can be that too. I know that if we can stick it out for another year or two, and persevere with the training, that the payoff will be beyond our wildest dreams. We'll have a loving companion for another fourteen years, God willing. In a very real sense, Haku is alive today because of Ivory.

I'm not sure there can be a better memorial for a good dog.

Te gusta me Nene?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

One Husband, Many Heads (Graphic Pictures)

the giant fish

I am not a squeamish eater. I like liver, and I put the giblets in my gravy. Tacos de lengua are alright with me. As compared to your average American, I think I have a high tolerance for and even appreciation of variety meats. Or "offal" or whatever name you favor for all the bits that aren't straight up muscle meat.

It's true, though, that I like my offal disguised in a creamy pate (I make the best chicken liver pate you ever tasted) or minced into invisibility in a gravy. Like most Americans I know, I don't want to see an identifiable organ on my plate. Ew.

Homero is not American. He's Mexican, and in Mexico, they really do use "everything but the squeal." As they do in most other places around the world. It's pretty much just us rich white folks who can afford to ignore a third of the edible parts on an animal. In fact, most of the world will insist that the parts we refer to as "offal" include the best meat. I'm sure every organ has it's partisans; Homero is partial to the head.

Eyeballs. Cheek meat. Tongue. Brains. Even ears and snouts. It's all yummy to him, and it pretty much doesn't matter what animal you're talking about. Before we were married, the first time we were in Oaxaca together, Homero's sister made sheep's head soup (which was delicious) and Homero made a big show of scooping out the eyeball and eating it.

pig head

When each of our pigs has been butchered, Homero has kept the head and made something with it - this last time it was head tacos. To me, it was a whole lot of gristly, greasy, cartilaginous bits, but to him it was ambrosia. 

Recently a friend gave us an enormous fish - I mean a really gigantic fish, a twenty-five pound denizen of the deep. I believe it was a yellow-eyed Rockfish. The filets, when a neighbor helped us get them off, weighed about six pounds each. They were lovely, snowy white and firm, and they looked like plenty of food to me, but Homero wanted to make soup out of the head, too. To be fair, the head was about one-third of the entire fish, and it did make a delicious broth. But it also made one hell of a mess.

Right now, there is an entire cow's head in our freezer. It takes up a fair amount of the freezer all by itself. It's from our Jersey cow, who was butchered this past autumn. Homero insists that he is going to cook it - how, I haven't the faintest clue. We don't have a fire-proof receptacle capable of holding it - you'd need a medieval cauldron, even though she was a pretty small cow. Maybe he could barbecue it over an open fire outside.

Whatever he does with it, he better do it soon. I'm getting tired of wrestling with that frozen cow head every time I want to get into the freezer and get out some food. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent Activity Calendar: So Far

 Day one: make christmas cards

Day two: decorate the altar

Day three was going Christmas shopping (at thrift stores). I made the girls make a list of people they really wanted to give gifts to, and I gave them each $40 and said I expected that to be enough - but that I would help them budget and if they wanted to use the money to buy craft stuff and make presents, I'd help them come up with ideas and then I would help them make stuff. 

Day four was supposed to be going downtown to the christmas tree lighting ceremony, but as it turned out I had the stomach flue and wasn't going anywhere. Luckily it was pretty much a twenty-four hour bug, and I'm feeling much better today.

Day five, today, we went down to the port for the annual holiday port festival and gingerbread house show. There are many things going on, but the gingerbread houses are the star attraction. So much so that the line to see them was a half an hour long. However it wasn't too bad because there was a stage and local groups performing, ranging from high school jazz bands to barbershop quartets, so we had music while we waited. The houses themselves can be submitted by anybody, and they are sorted into categories from "under 5" all the way up to "professional bakery."  The show is also a silent auction, with the benefits going to local charities. Some of them were truly spectacular, and others were - as we say - "sincere." 

By the time we got through the show, I had had quite enough holiday cheer for one day. As large as the space is, there were enough bodies present to make it hot and close, and I've never been good in crowds. I think I may have some lingering effects of the flu - a couple of times I felt near to fainting. I was very glad to get back out into the chilly, rainy fresh air. 

Tomorrow is the one event we never miss, in any year - Pioneer Park Old Fashioned Christmas. It's a truly amazing event - the park itself is wonderful. It's a big field with approximately twelve original old buildings from the pioneer era that were all moved here from various locations around the count. They are mostly houses but also a church, a barn, and a schoolhouse. They date from the 1870's and 1880's. All of them are furnished with original furniture, stoves, quilts, etc, from the time period - in some cases the actual furnishings that were in those houses. In the summertime the Ferndale Historical Society gives tours on weekends. And for one weekend in December every year, they have Christmas. All the houses are decorated with period decorations, and in each building there is a different activity for children - dipping candles, writing christmas cards that will be sent to soldiers overseas, and of course visiting Santa. I love Pioneer Park Christmas! 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent Event Calendar (Slaying the a dragon of Christmas)

The advent-event calendar that I was so excited about in the last post is a reality. It only took me one trip to the dollar store and an hour on the computer looking up local events. It's amazing how many free and low cost events there are in our little town. Many of them, it's true, are aimed at children much younger than mine. I keep forgetting that my kids are both in double digits now. 

This afternoon when the girls got home from school we opened the first door. Tomorrow's event is making Christmas cards and ornaments at the library. 

I wasn't able to find events for every single day, of course, but I wasn't trying to. I saved several days for the things we do every year anyway- bringing in the Christmas tree, hanging lights, decorating cookies. In all probability we won't go to all the events on the calendar, but it's fun and exciting just to open the doors every day. 

The advent event calendar is my latest and best idea to date in the ongoing effort to make the holiday season about experiences rather than about stuff. Like most American families, we do not suffer from an acute lack of "stuff." Personally, I feel quite the opposite - I often feel like I am drowning in "stuff" I don't use or need and am constantly trying to get it out the door. 

More and more lately, I am also feeling the press of time; there are so few years left with my children while they are still young enough to enjoy things like cutting snowflakes or Christmas pageants. Thank God for Rowan - at 22 she has been through her evil adolescence and come through the other side a sweet and wonderful young woman. She actually enjoys our family rituals, and she gives me hope that - after a few years of rebellion and snark - my younger children will enjoy them as adults too. 

Festive holiday season to you all. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Idea of the Year! Patent Pending!

A minute ago, I was reading a friend's blog ( The Well Run Dry ) and he was, as most of us do, lamenting the fact that the upcoming Christmas Season encourages blind commercialism and reduces the meaning of the holiday ("Holy Day") to something along the lines of an excel spreadsheet. I don't know a single person who doesn't hate this aspect of the season, yet we are all swept away on a tide of advertising and guilt, spending more than we intend or can afford, year after year on stuff that we don't need and that (in many cases) the recipients don't even want.

I composed a reply, saying that I tried to emphasize experiences over things, and in the middle of typing that sentence,  I had a flash of inspiration.

"I just had a total brain wave. Oh my gosh this is such a good idea! There are in my small town, as in most, I'm sure, a million christmas activities planned - tree lighting ceremonies, public caroling, concerts, card-making for kids at the library, stuff like that. I am going to make AN ADVENT CALENDAR OF EVENTS!!! Am I genius or what? I'll search the local papers and online event calendars, and I have no doubt I can find SOMETHING for almost every day between Dec 1st and Christmas day. Choirs visiting various churches. Craft Bazaars. Showings of Christmas movies at senior centers. I'll make an actual Advent calendar, with little paper doors that open, and behind each door will be that day's event! We won't have to go to all of them, but I bet the kids will LOVE opening the doors and seeing what we could go do."

If there are days for which I don't find any planned events, I can put one of our own traditions, like "make our own wrapping paper with potato stamps" or "cookie decorating party."

I'm so proud of myself right now I can't even tell you.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Slaughter Season (More Meat Math)

This week we made a lot of room on the farm. Most notably, the pig (seen here a couple of months ago) met his fate, at the capable hands of our local mobile butcher, later to appear in his final form as chops and bacon on our table. 

Half of him was sold, on Craigslist, for $3.00/lb. that's on the low end, but most of the pork that is advertised at a higher price has labels like "organic feed only" or "no GMO feed" attached to it, and ours doesn't. 

The hanging weight was 163 lbs, and half that is 81.5, times $3.00/lb and I collected $244.00. Considering that the pig himself cost us $200 originally, and that he was fed almost entirely from the gleaners' pantry (plus a couple bags of conventional feed), I think we did very well. Without figuring it to the penny, our own pork is basically free, not counting labor of course. 

Today I took the turkeys to a neighbor to be processed. I thought Homero would do it, but he asked me to see if I could find someone to do it at a reasonable
price, and I did. I paid $10 per bird, half in cash and half in grass fed beef. 

I'll be picking up two of them tomorrow morning - I needed one tonight for a person who is going out of town early on the morning. That turkey weighed a full 20 pounds, which is $80 at $4/lb. bigger than I expected - and frankly, bigger than the lady wanted. But what can you do? I didn't weigh them live. Suppose I might have. 

If the other two turkeys are the same weight, then I'll make a total of $160 on the turkeys (the third one is for our own table). So many turkeys died this year that I think we are not even breaking even. The chicks cost about $65. We started them on expensive game bird feed - another $20. After that they were also largely fed from the gleaners' pantry, but I know we bought at least four bags of feed, costing altogether about $65. Add that up, it's $150. So, let's say it worked out about the same as the pig - our own meat is free. 

If I could figure out how to keep turkey chicks alive to maturity, they would be very lucrative. We began with 8 this year, and ended up with three. In past years, the survival rate has been better (over 50%) but it's never been really satisfactory. People tell me that turkeys are fussy, hard to raise. I guess so. 

They sure are delicious, though. Thanksgiving is at my house this year. I'm looking forward to hostessing. No matter how costly, it is a real pleasure to offer my family a big traditional centerpiece that we raised ourselves. This will be the third year in a row that we have eaten our own pastured turkey for thanksgiving. It's always wonderful. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Bog of Eternal Stench, The Dog from Hell, and Bad Knees

Once again it is November, number one on the list of months I wish I could fast-forward through, closely followed by February. Torrential rains have turned the barnyard - as always this time of year - into a sucking swamp. There is still a small pile of hog fuel we could spread, but so far we haven't been able to figure out how to do that without the pig charging out of the yard and into the backyard.

The pig has been able to get out of his pen for months now, and he has rooted up huge clumps of the pasture. He is now about 350 pounds, and that's no joke hurtling towards you at high speed and emitting high-pitched screams at the volume of a Van Halen concert, circa 1984.  The pig has a date with destiny, courtesy of our local mobile butcher, in a little over a week, so the problem will work itself out soon enough.

I did make a deal, way back last spring, with a tree service guy to trade cheese all summer in exchange for cedar chips come fall. He has called a couple of times, but we haven't been able to nail down a delivery, and now it is looking more and more doubtful that I will ever receive any chips.  That's the risk of trading for future goods. Meanwhile, the mud threatens to come up over my boot-tops.

Haku, our new German Shepherd puppy, has apparently made it his mission to tear my entire house into bite-sized chunks. I would post a picture of our playroom, if I could figure out how under the new operating system, but that would probably bring FEMA down on our heads. Seriously, it looks like - well, like a German Shepherd puppy has torn apart two queen-sized mattresses and one large sofa, not to mention gnawed an antique Victorian dollhouse to matchsticks and knocked over a shelf full of board games, torn up the boxes and ripped up all the cards, etc,  and evenly distributed all the chewed-up bits. I figure there's no point in cleaning it all up until he's finished - it might keep him occupied enough to leave a few of our furnishings alone. Why he isn't interested in the fifteen chew-toys I've bought for him I have no idea.

Homero has been suffering greatly this fall from a torn meniscus in his right knee. As a mechanic, he spends a lot of time getting up and down onto a concrete floor, sometimes squatting and sometimes kneeling. His knee will freeze up on him and leave him hobbling back to the house, unable to work for the rest of the day. He hates to take medicine of any kind; apparently he prefers to lay about looking pitiful and asking me to bring him stuff.

I know I sound unsympathetic - and maybe I am. He never reads this blog, so I feel free to say that his knee is nowhere near as bad as mine was - MY meniscus had two big "bucket handle" tears and various smaller tears.  My ACL was completely severed (the surgeon who read my MRI report used the word "trashed" to describe the state of my joint). Without health insurance, I had no choice but to live with it for four long years. I did my share of bitching and moaning - I'm not saying I didn't. I'm just saying I know how he feels, and then some. And then some more.

In my case, as soon as the ACA kicked in and we could finally afford health insurance, and the insurance companies couldn't exclude pre-existing conditions, I scheduled surgery and Hallelujah it has been almost a total cure. They had to remove almost all of the meniscus, and I was told that I'd need a total knee replacement sooner or later, but the pain has almost entirely disappeared, and the instability has been reduced by about 75%. The surgery - first surgery I ever had, unless you count wisdom teeth - was a piece of cake. From the time I woke up in the recovery room I was in less pain than I had been the day before. The next day I was walking on the beach.

Homero has been reluctant to schedule surgery. I'm not sure why. He's never had surgery before either - not even wisdom teeth - so maybe he's afraid. I was. But just as everyone told me, the only thing I was sorry about is that I hadn't done it sooner. I guess Homero just had to wait until it got bad enough. He's finally having surgery at the end of this month. I hope it will be as good for him as it was for me.

The first part of December looks to be a nice quiet time. Homero will be recuperating, and I will be taking a break from work. Right now I'm just finishing up a big job that, though it has left me exhausted, will pay enough to ensure a merry christmas and let me take time off to nurse my husband back to health.

Now if it we could just get a nice, hard freeze to lock up all the mud.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Computer Woes and Puppy Happiness

There are all sorts of things I'd like to write about, but I am stymied by my inability to learn the new operating system my husband downloaded last week. Whatever it's called - the Apple of Doom would be my nomination - it crashed our computer repeatedly and forced Homero to spend many hours on the phone to tech support.

Now the basic functions of the computer seem to be up and running - we can, for example, google stuff and use the word processor. The computer is communicating with the printer again which means I can actually go to work. But there are still many areas in which it seems the new operating system is basically incompatible, and one of these is Blogger.

Yes, I am in fact writing a post. I haven't hit "publish" yet so we will see if it works at all. But I can't see what I'm typing (I only know I've made a mistake when autocorrect pops up with a suggestion) and I can't upload photos anymore, because in the new operating system, iPhoto has switched to something just called "photos" and apparently Blogger can't communicate with "Photos."

Which is really a shame because I want to show you all photos of our adorable new dog. When Ivory passed away last spring after 14 wonderful years with us, we were too sad to even think about a new dog. But after some six months, we found ourselves pining for canine companionship. We began searching online for nearby adoptable dogs, but none of them struck our fancy until we saw one who looked so much like Ivory that we collectively gasped. 

We convinced the shelter to let us have him (more on that another time - it wasn't an easy process) and he's been with us for almost two weeks now. During which he has pretty much torn the entire house into bite sized pieces. 

We named him Haku, after the white dragon in Spirited Away. He is ten or eleven months old, seriously hyperactive, and completely innocent of manners. He needs immediate professional training. I have only ever had one dog -Ivory- and she never did become a well trained dog, although luckily after her puppy stage she had a wonderful temperament. 

Haku is going to be a challenging dog for a while. But I feel up to the challenge. I know what the long term payoff is - a wonderful companion and friend for years and years to come. No dog can ever replace Ivory in our hearts, but we can learn to love a new dog as well as we did her. 

And God willing, he won't eat the cat. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Life as a Microbe (The End of the Food-Chain)

It is a maxim of ecology that "wherever there is something to eat, there will be something to eat it." At least I think it is: I may be remembering this line from the excellent novel Dune, uttered by the Imperial Planetologist Dr. Kynes as he lays dying in the deep desert, eyeing the hawks circling above him.  In either case, the principle is sound. Anywhere on Earth, when anything dies and falls to the ground, it will get eaten, if only by microbes.

Just as there a chain of organisms on the production side of the food pyramid, beginning with clorophyll containing plants that convert sunlight into sugar and ending with peak predators like lions and humans, so there is a chain of scavengers that reduces the remains of all that dies back into its constituent molecules. Descending from the apex on what we might call the downslope of the food chain, we have large animals like hyenas and vultures, followed by smaller creatures that live on decaying flesh like crabs and ants, and ultimately the myriad microbes that slowly transform the less digestible bits such as bones and hair back into soil. The chemistry of systemic catabolism is just as fascinating as that of the more highly visible and valued systemic metabolism.

surplus bread soaking in whey leftover from cheesemaking

I feel that I have firmly joined Team Scavenger. I devote a great deal of time to seeking out resources unnoticed or undervalued by others. In fact, my family largely subsides on my local waste stream. That we live so well and so fatly is a measure of just how rich and bountiful that waste stream is.

In this past week alone I have made 5 gallons of apple cider entirely from apples that other people were throwing away. About half the apples came from a neighbor who didn't want them and the other half from the Gleaner's Pantry. If you've ever pressed cider you know how many apples go into 5 gallons of cider and it's a buttload (not really - a buttload is 126 gallons). The apples that I collected from Gleaner's - in one day!- represented a very small percentage of the apples discarded on a daily basis in my small town. 

That same day, I also collected 6 or 7 boxes of surplus bread. Most of it was quite fresh and I saved a little for us to eat ourselves - the rest of it went out to the mama barn and fed my pig, turkeys and chickens for a solid week. Again, this represented only a tiny fraction of what was there for the taking. I would have taken more but I literally didn't have any more room in my car. 

In addition, I also gleaned enough fresh fruits and vegetables - tomatoes, chiles, onions, a couple of pumpkins, cucumbers, oranges and grapes - to feed my family for a week. I canned 8 pints of salsa, and if I weren't so lazy I could easily can 8 more right now, simply from that one glean. 

Today, my good neighbors N. and R. from church called me and asked if I wanted corn stalks. They were cleaning up the garden for the year and thought I might be able to use them for my animals. I said "sure!" and went over to help them collect and stack the stalks in their trailer. I also brought over a loaf of pumpkin bread (made from the pumpkin I got from Gleaners) and some cheese and a quart of apple cider (also a product of Gleaner's). 

Homero with corn stalks

The corn stalks had many cobs still on them, those that had been damaged by crows and weren't fit for human consumption. They sure were fit for pig and goat consumption! My critters went crazy for the corn.

Everybody loves corn

Haboob the Buck eating corn
In the chain of scavengers, I imagine myself and my family as first-level scavengers. We are the hyenas and the ravens. We take the whole, recently discarded (read: recently deceased) product of society and make what use of it we can. This includes not only the food I get from Gleaner's, but also the clothing and furniture that I buy secondhand from Goodwill or the Salvation Army thrift store. We are warm and well-dressed in the castoffs of others.

Any food that we can't use - peels, skins, bones, and the like - or that we end up not eating because there is just too much of it - the lettuce that wilts in the back of my fridge before I can eat it; limp carrots and cucumbers; bread that has gone a little green - we give to our pig and our chickens. They are the second level scavengers, akin to lobsters or beetles.

And when all that refuse has been processed by my animal's digestive systems, we collect it once again and compost it. Enter the microbes. Our compost pile is rich, black, velvety and fragrant. Once a year, in springtime, our next door neighbor comes over in his tractor and collects some of it for his garden beds. Come next summer, some of it will make its way back to us in the form of sweet cilantro, ruby beets, plump squashes.

This time of year, as the world turns towards darkness and winter, I am especially conscious of and especially grateful for the quiet science of recycling that takes place in the sleeping earth. The dark side of the year is the time to contemplate the renewal that happens as we rest, as the dirt rests. So much grace happens in repose, so many vital processes are accomplished only in stillness. We are all of us, at least in this culture, so biased towards the light - toward action, towards growth and vigor, toward Yang, that we are blind to the necessity of decay. The alchemy of decay; of rot, of mold, of the mushroom and the slug. By such humble beings are we sustained, generation after generation.

Hail Yin, hail Kali and Hecate, hail Persephone, Isis, Osiris, Jesus, and all those good Gods and Goddesses who descend into the earth to rise again after three days, or seven, or nine. Hail the seed that goeth into the ground and dies, that it may live.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Welcome Sheep

The little brown blob in the lower left foreground of this picture is a young Jacob's sheep. She is about four or five months old, and wads given to me by my sister in exchange for babysitting her children for a weekend so she could go away with her husband. For the record: I would have babysat in any case, but once offered, I wasn't going to turn down a free sheep.

Jacob's sheep are those funny four (or even six) horned breed. They are an ancient "unimproved" breed, meaning they have not been highly selected for any given trait or developed for commercial purposes. Until recently, they were usually only found in the U.S. among Native American herds in the southwest. Sometimes they are called "churro" sheep.

As such, they vary widely from herd to herd, but in general they are small (a ewe reaches approximately 80-100 pounds) and have good quality wool and lean meat. You can see how small the little ewe looks next to my Nubian goats.

I was afraid my goats would bully her terribly, but it seems not. I brought the lamb home last night and shut her up in the Mama Barn for the night. This morning I went to the Gleaner's Pantry and so I wasn't around when Homero let her out to mingle with the goats. It seems to have gone well, though. This afternoon - a beautiful sunny warm September afternoon - when I let the goats out, I tried to keep the sheep in the pasture because I didn't know how herd able she was. At my sister's house she lived in a small enclosure and nobody ever tried to herd her in an open space.

After twenty minutes or so of enjoyably perusing my magazine while the goats grazed, I heard the sheep bleating plaintively from a direction incompatible with her being inside the pasture fence. The little thing was apparently able to squeezed through the gap between the gate panels and get out onto the front lawn. She simply followed the goats around, any stayed close to them even though the does occasionally butted her in the side.

Our plan is to keep her over the winter - hopefully she will grow well - and then shear her in the spring. Rowan is interested in her wool. Then we will let her fatten a bit on the spring grass before we turn her into lamburgers. Lamb is actually my favorite meat. I never buy it at the store; it has become so terribly expensive lately. I'm looking forward to having some put away for our personal use.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Abundance (The Pressure is On)

Although I do a lot of canning, it is almost all water-bath canning. I am afraid of pressure-canning. Basically, water-bath canning is packing food into sterilized jars and immersing them in boiling water to seal the lids. Pressure canning is doing much the same thing, but processing them in a pressure canner, which uses steam raised to temperatures higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit - the temperature of boiling water. Water bath canning is safe for high acid foods like pickles and salsa or high sugar foods like jam. Anyone desirous of more precise information can find it here.

I've already written a long and informative post on why I seldom use a pressure canner, and it is reproduced at the end of this post, so I won't go into it again here. Here I simply mean to document what I did with these beauties:

The Gleaner's Pantry offered up an abundance of eggplant again. I think these came from Trader Joe's, which usually carries the most perfectly shaped and glossiest eggplant. These ones were oddly shaped, and some had bronzy-patches which were a skin-only phenomenon. I don't know what causes that, but the eggplant underneath is perfectly sound. 

Eggplant is one of those love 'em or hate 'em vegetables. Most people dislike them, but I enjoy them. I think part of the problem with eggplant is that is hard to cook correctly. It's easy enough to bake until soft and mash, as for baba ganoush , but it's more challenging when the eggplant retains it's shape and texture. It's not easy to avoid the eggplant turning to mush when you don't want it to. 
Then there's all that stuff about salting and extracting the "bitter juices," which I totally ignore and have never felt that the eggplant was especially bitter as a result. I can't claim to be any sort of eggplant-cooking expert, but I have several decent recipes that I like.

Not enough, however, to use up SEVEN big eggplants. I don't know what I was thinking. After making an extra-large eggplant parm, I still had three eggplants to use. I decided to make caponata and can it. Recipes found on the internet disagreed about whether or not caponata needs to be pressure canned. Last time I made it, a few years ago, I water-bath canned it, adding extra sugar and vinegar to make it into a kind of chutney that I felt would be safer. This time around, I wanted to err on the side of caution so that I could give some of it away if - as seems likely - we didn't actually want to eat 8 pints of caponata. 

So I borrowed a pressure canner from my friend M. It was actually very easy to use. I set it up on the propane cooker outside and never felt nervous at all. My only issue with it now is that I feel like the caponata came out overcooked (one of the jars didn't seal and so we ate it right away). The caponata is cooked first, of course, and packed hot into sterilized jars. Then the pressure canner has to heat up and vent steam for 10 minutes before you let it come up to pressure. AFTER THAT, the caponata is processed at 10 pounds pressure for 20 minutes. It all seems like just too much for delicate eggplant flesh. 

The caponata is delicious fresh, however, and so I'm giving my recipe here for those of you who find yourselves with too much eggplant at the end of summer. 


1 large eggplant, cut into 1" dice
1 red onion, chopped
2 long green Italian frying peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup kalamata olives, chopped
heaping tablespoon capers, rinsed
4 medium ripe red tomatoes
1/4 c. red wine or apple cider vinegar
1/2 c. sugar
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil, and saute peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic, and raisins.  Put tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar in blender and puree. Add to eggplant mixture and simmer until somewhat reduced and vegetables are tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Shower with minced parsley and serve with good quality crackers. 

The following is a repeat of my "controversial canning" post from 2011. 


Controversial Canning (A Confession)

These last four years, I've done a lot of canning. In past years, before I moved up here, I know I must have canned at least a few times, but I can't for the life of me remember doing it. I just know that when I made my first batch of jam up here, I wasn't doing it for the first time.

So I guess I can't really remember how I learned to can. I do remember watching my mother can when I was quite small, when we lived in Woodinville before the divorce. My dad put in a good sized garden every year and mom would usually preserve something at least once or twice a summer. My memories are vague rather than specific: standing near - but behind - my mother as she peered into a large steaming kettle; the wooden spoon, stained red with strawberry juice; touching the tops of the hot jars to see if they had sealed properly. I certainly don't remember any lessons happening. 

Canning is intimidating; there's so much work involved, for one thing. Another thing I remember is my mom all sweaty and angry with her hair hanging down and tomatoes everywhere. Now I know why - dealing with twenty or thirty pounds of ripe fruit is a lot of work. Washing jars and finding lids and carrying kettles of boiling water around is hard work. Forcing gallons of applesauce or tomato paste through a foodmill is excruciatingly hard work. Hot work, too. And it always happens in August. 

Then there's the fact that home canning can kill you. If you read a book on the subject (the Ball Blue Book is the best known and the most venerable: Amazon.com: Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving (0797190001428 ...) you will come away convinced that legions of Americans die every year from improperly home canned food. My general impression, when I first looked into home canning, was that the annual death toll from botulism in this country was on a par with, oh, say, traffic accidents. In actual fact, the incidence of botulism from home canned foods between 1990 and 2000 in the united states was approximately one in ten million (Botulism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). 

Now here's where things get controversial. As anyone who cans, or who has read a book on canning knows, there are two methods for home canning: the water-bath and pressure canning. Water bath canning involves filling sterilized jars with food and then immersing them in boiling water for a length of time. Water bath canning is safe for all high acid foods like tomatoes, chutneys, pickles, and also for high sugar foods such as jams and jellies. Pressure canning involves a pressure canner, which allows the cook to achieve temperatures higher that that of boiling water, temperatures high enough to kill the pathogen that causes botulism. 

I have always avoided pressure canning. It just intimidates me. I do OWN a pressure cooker, but I'm not totally sure how to use it, and I think I lost the regulator. Once when I was a child, my mom was cooking beans in a pressure cooker and there was an explosion and boiling beans hit the ceiling with such force that that it rained beans. The stain never left the ceiling. Nor is that the only pressure cooker explosion I know about. In fact, my sister's sister-in-law (got that?) suffered third degree burns over 16% of her body in a pressure cooker explosion. She was in the hospital for a week. I think my brother may also have experienced some kind of pressure-cooker blowout but I'm not sure. 

So on the one hand, we have a one in ten million incidence of botulism (which, by the way, has a 4% fatality rate in adults), and on the other hand we have two or possibly three incidents in my immediate experience of catastrophic pressure-cooker accidents, with serious injury. I think I am justified in being more frightened of pressure cookers than I am of home-canned food.

Now to be clear - I am NOT advocating that anyone disregard the United States Government's recommendations on home canning procedures. They are very sensible, free, and you can read them here: National Center for Home Food Preservation | USDA Publications. But I AM saying that I personally am not going to break out the pressure cooker. 

That does limit me as far as what I can can. I can can (la da da-da-da-da, la da da DAH- da-da-da, la da DAH-da-da-da dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum...) tomatoes, all types of pickles, salsas, chutneys, and jams and jellies. I can not can vegetables, fish or meats. 

But it seems to me there's a little wiggle room there. I know that what matters is the acid level. I should do a little research into what the actual acceptable levels of acid are that permit water bath canning. If you add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your green beans, is that enough? Are you really flirting with a gruesome death if you water-bath can eggplant caponata?

Well I hope not, because that's what I did yesterday. That's a jar of eggplant caponata at the top of this column, and a thing of beauty, too. There was a sale on eggplants at Trader Joe's. They always have the MOST beautiful eggplants there - I don't know why, but their eggplants are larger, firmer, glossier, and purpler than any other eggplants. And cheap, too. I got three for under $5. In the house I had the other ingredients: tomatoes, herbs, and celery from the garden, onions and garlic from my neighbor's garden, raisins in the pantry. Caponata is meant to be rather acid, but to be on the safe side, I added more than the usual amount of vinegar, and therefore more than the usual amount of sugar, too. In fact, I added so much extra sugar and vinegar that I think I can call the result a chutney.... which is perfectly safe to water-bath can....

The fact is, I fudge. I don't follow recipes. I use my common sense, born of experience. Am I an expert? Heck no! But I am a very experienced cook, and I am growing more experienced with canning every year. Also I am a trained nurse, and I know the difference between clean technique, sterile technique, and how to maintain a sterile field. It may be that when I do more research I find I am wrong - hunches are often wrong - but my hunch is that the danger involved in canning comes from inadequately sterilized equipment BEFORE it is processed, and that if great care is taken to sterilize jars, tongs, spoons, etc, then the method pf processing is less important.

In any case, if you are on my Christmas list don't worry - I will only send you absolutely 100% safe stuff like pickles and jam. But here at home I will be eating my caponata. And I may even can chile! Or soup! Hell, I'm a renegade! I already feed my children raw MILK!

But that's a post for another day...

Friday, August 28, 2015

Petrichor (Scent and Weakness)

They say it is finally going to rain this weekend. Actually, they said the rain would start last night - and a little bit of rain did fall; I'm not saying it didn't. The porch was wet this morning when I woke up, but there weren't any puddles.

There was just enough rain to make the earth send up a heavenly smell.  Petrichor, I hear that smell is called, the smell of rain after a prolonged dry spell, and there is no other smell like it. Once, when my children were small, we were driving across southeastern Washington to my cousin's wedding in Idaho. We were in amongst great green-gold hills covered in tall grass, with hardly a tree in sight. It was midsummer, and there had been no rain for weeks. But now, in the early evening, about an hour before sunset, a great circular blue-black cloud covered a full quadrant of the sky; whirling, dark and angry like a bruise. It was so amazing we stopped to take pictures of it. Then we got back in the car and tried to outrun it, for it looked fearsome.

We didn't outrun it: there was a short, fierce burst of hard warm rain, maybe fifteen minutes, and then it stopped and the sky cleared in time for sunset. The sunset was beautiful, pink and orange on the golden-green hills, and so we stopped at an overlook to get out of the car and watch the sun go down. When we opened the car door, we stepped out into a world of scent such as I have never even imagined. We were in the middle of thousands of acres of grasslands, which had just been drenched with the first rain in ages. It was as if the whole earth opened her lungs and exhaled sweet, blessed relief in our faces. I almost swooned with the beauty of that smell. If, on the day I die, I am granted a foretaste of paradise, it will be that smell that wafts me to the afterworld.

Today, my own fields gave up a similar, much fainter scent, just enough to make me smile with the memory.

If the forecast is right, it will rain much harder tonight, and probably continue through the weekend. I hope so - we certainly need the rain. All the leaves are turning early. We need it here, but much more they need rain in Eastern Washington, where the forest fires rage on unabated. This year has been unlike any other to date, with fires larger and more intense than we have seen in living memory. My  mom lost her cabin in Tonasket, and as of today I hear that some 500 primary residences have been burned, and of course three brave firefighters have lost their lives. We are all praying for rain.

Here on the farm, however, impending rain means work. A few days ago, Homero went to pick up a load of hay given to us my some good neighbors. They had baled the standing hay on their new property, only to discover that it wasn't of a quality that their horses could eat. Knowing we had goats, they offered it to us free for the collecting. We thanked them, I brought over some gratitude-cheese, and Homero collected the hay. There were two pick-up loads, each about twenty-five or twenty-eight bales. The first fit into our small barn, but the second had nowhere to go, so it stayed on the back of the truck until today, when the imminent rain made it important to get it under cover of one kind or another.

I suggested putting the hay in the field shelter. It sits in the sacrifice area and normally the ponies use it as shelter, but right now the ponies are in the main field with the goats. If we use that hay first, I reasoned, we might use it up before we have to move the ponies into the sacrifice area in November. Besides, there's nowhere else to put it.

One problem is that the field shelter is fairly rudimentary and has a dirt floor, with a small gap running around the perimeter. The bottom layer of hay would get wet if we put it on the ground. If we had four or five pallets, we could make a platform to keep the hay off the ground, but we don't. What we did have, it occurred to me, it a big old pile of hog-fuel, left by my brother-in-law recently. He has a tree-service company and once in a while, if he happens to have a job nearby that leaves him with a load of chips, he will come by and dump it, much to our benefit. I told Homero I thought that if we spread a four-inch layer of hog fuel down first, the hay would probably stay pretty dry.

So Homero started up his new Case loader  (Homero's New Toy (the Craigslist Chronicles)) and I ran for the wheelbarrow. He shoveled hog fuel over the fence into the wheelbarrow, and I trundled it over into the field shelter and dumped it. We repeated this four or five times, and then I kicked it all around a bit and called it good. Homero drove the truck over to the fence line with the hay on it. I thought climbing up onto the back of the truck and tossing bales over the fence would probably be easier than dragging those bales into the field shelter and stacking them, so I told Homero that I'd throw and he'd drag.

"I don't want you to slip," he said. "I'll toss them."

"I'm not going to slip," I said. "What are you talking about?"

"Okay," he said. "Go ahead."

I know I've alluded, several times in the past, to the fact that I am a gimp. Specifically, I have an inherited connective tissue disorder (Ehler's-Danlose syndrome) that leaves me prone to sprains, dislocations, and minor injuries of all sorts. For most of my life, I wasn't aware of this, and simply assumed I was accident-prone and/or ridiculously clumsy. Many people with EDS have it much worse than I do - my specific sitiuation is quite minor compared to what it could be, and I'm grateful for that. However, it is not negligible. Many of my joints are loose and cannot handle the kind of use that I feel they ought to be able to handle.

In this particular case, I wanted to stand on top of a fairly wobbly pile of hay bales, pick them up one by one (they weigh approximately forty to fifty pounds each) and heave them horizontally over a five foot fence. The first time I tried to do this, the bale of hay fell short of the fence, down into the gap between the truck and the fence. I swore. Homero looked at me with a kind of exasperated patience. The next three or four bales went over the fence and Homero picked them up and moved them into the field shelter. Bales five and six fell into the gap again. I swore again.

"Amor," he said, "why don't you let me get this?"

"I want to help," I said angrily, and tried to throw another bale. It fell short.

"Get down from there," he said, "I'm afraid you're going to fall."

"Okay, we can switch," I said. On that last throw, I had felt my knee slip out of position with an ominous pop. It slipped right back in, but on other occasions it has come completely dislocated and if that happened and Homero had to take me to the emergency room, not only would he be proved right but the hay would get wet, too.

We switched places and Homero started tossing bales easily and gracefully over the fence. One by one, I slipped my girly little soft marshmallow hands under the orange twine and lugged them into the field shelter. This part wasn't easy, either. The bales were heavy and spiky, and the twine dug into my palms. It must have looked terribly awkward. I must have looked pathetic, because Homero shortly called out to me.

"Amor, please let me do this by myself."

"I want to help!" I yelled again, sweaty and angry and frustrated with my stupid, fat, weak, defective body.

"Amor, please." he said. "You are wonderful in the kitchen, you are a great cook. This, I can do."

"A good COOK?" I was aghast.

"Yes amor, and you make cheese. I can't make cheese."


"Si, amor. Why don't you go in the house and bring me a beer. Please?"

So this is what it has come to. The little Mujercita is sent into the house to fetch beer while her husband does the real work. I came back with two beers and leaned on the fence and watched Homero carry the bales - one handed! - into the field shelter and stack them. I tried to look on the bright side.

"That was a good idea I had, to spread the hog fuel in the shelter, huh?" I said.

"Yes," Homero answered, "it was."

Earlier in the day, Homero had trimmed the goat's hooves. His hands are so much stronger than mine, he can close the shears through the horniest, toughest hoof wall, which I can't do. But, I reflected, I was the one who taught him how to trim; that the plantar surface has to be even and flat; that you have to trim the bulb of the heel, that you can cut right down until there's no gap, even if you have to cut way up the sides and it looks scary.

Homero is a good milker, but he wouldn't know if one of the does were in the early stages of mastitis. I doubt he would feel the slight warmth, that he would notice the hesitant flow, or feel the tiny flakes in the milk and tiny bumps in the udder. He doesn't know what they need in terms of nutrition, what minerals to buy or how much grain to give. He doesn't know what to do - or might not notice - if they develop diarrhea. He doesn't know the signs of parasites or how to treat them.

I'm the one who can walk the pastures and evaluate the health of them - I know the names of all the weeds and what each one signifies about the health of the earth beneath. I know what each one is good for; I know that Tansy is a vermifuge in moderation but poison in excess. I know the goats eat thistles, but only when they are in bud, as they were two weeks ago. I know that blackberry will increase their milk supply, and that cherry and plum leaves are nutritious in all seasons but this one - the dangerous season of wilt, when the leaves wither but before they are completely dry. Only now are they poisonous.

And Homero is right; I do know how to make cheese. Also I know how to make lacto-fermented pickles and sauerkraut and kim chee.  I can make applesauce and jam and dilly-beans. I AM a good cook and I not only that but I have a good working knowledge of nutrition and what my children need to grow and be healthy. I can dry herbs, and I can make them into teas for various ailments. I know how to treat stomach aches and tooth aches and even heart aches. I may not remember everything from my nursing days but I know when a child needs to go to the emergency room and when it can wait until the clinic opens on monday.

I can read stories out loud and do all the voices. I know dozens of lullabies. I am a first-class kisser of boo-boos, even if my kids are too old now for boo-boos. I know how to lay down a fretful child and give her a good dream to go to sleep on, a dream of riding ponies across the wild hills or a dream of swimming with blue dolphins in warm Caribbean waters. When my daughters come to me with womanly problems I will have womanly answers for them, or at least I can have womanly conversations, if there are no answers. I have over the decades tended a small circle of woman-friends who will be aunties and confidants to them; teachers and secret-keepers and surrogate mothers, as I will be to their daughters.

So my muscles aren't what they should be. My body isn't what it should be. My heart is what it should be, mostly. My family is what it should be, mostly. My soul is what it should be, mostly. This place and this time; here, now; all is as it should be. Praise be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

High Tide of August (Fair and Food)

view from the top of the ferris wheel

Tuesday I took the kids to the fair. All the usual fun was had... visiting friends who are exhibiting animals; watching the chariot races, with their pretty, shiny shetland ponies; ice cream and greasy fried zucchini; sunburn and heatstroke. This year as in the past few, the temperatures have been absolutely cruel during fair week. 

This time around, I actually sprung for those ridiculously expensive bracelets that let the kids ride all the rides they want, and so we stayed as long as we could so they could take full advantage, and so that I could spend as much time as I liked lingering over the quilts and the green beans. For the first time, my girls are old enough to let them roam around on their own, as long as they have a phone with them. I met say, I enjoyed fair quite a bit more than usual without two little girls hanging off me every second, moaning "how much LONGER are you going to STAY here looking at WOOL?"

my feet, about 6 pm

We ended up spending something over 8 hours at the fair. My fitbit is broken, but I'd guess I covered 6 or 7 miles, easily. At the end of the day my poor feet were killing me. In fact, even now, most of a day later, I still feel like I've been beaten with a stick. Hope was invited to fair again today, with a school friend's family. I didn't think she'd be interested, but she was. So she is off getting sunburned all over again. I am at home alone, doing a much needed food preservation day. 

My sister-in-law has been visiting, and she has boundless energy and motivation. If not for her going out and picking a gallon of blackberries, I would never have made all this blackberry jam. It came out very well this time around. Eight half-pints, of which Temy will probably take four home with her. I only had eight jam jars, but there was enough jam to fill another quart sized jar which is in the fridge and will be consumed quickly. In addition to the jam, we have about 8 quart-sized ziplocs of blackberries in the freezer. 

Milk season is winding down. We are getting only about a half-gallon of milk a day now, but that is still quite a bit. Today I am making chèvre. Some of it will be traded to a neighbor for a dozen bales of hay that her horses won't eat. My ponies will. 

Also today, I am dehydrating Italian plums. A different neighbor has a surplus of plum trees; I have a surplus of pears. She came over last week and carried off a bushel or so of Bartletts, and then a few days ago we went over there and took home a cardboard box full of plums. I don't need any more jam, but school is starting soon and dried fruit is a school-lunch staple. A couple of dried plums, a peanut butter-and-blackberry jam sandwich, and maybe a hunk of goat cheese, a few cherry tomatoes? Sounds like a good lunch to me. 

Speaking of tomatoes. My next door neighbor (the HSH, or he of the Hotel-Sized-House) is out of town and his wife asked me to please come over an harvest some veggies from his enormous garden. "He's really into that," she said, waving her hand in a slightly dismissive manner, "but I'm not, so much." Into it he certainly is: he has a garden that could provide for a troop of hungry boyscouts. I really ought to go over there and see about tomatoes. 

There is also a gigantic bag of slightly over mature green beans in the refrigerator. I haven't even decided what to do with them. Maybe I'll think of something as I am pitting plums. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Much is a Good Goat Worth?

Iris was the first goat on the farm. I bought her in 2007, as soon as I had a fence up and a place to keep livestock out of the rain. We moved in in August or September, and I was determined to have baby goats our first spring; so I advertised for a pregnant doe. I didn't care much about breed, I just cared that she was healthy, and pregnant.

I lucked out. A lady goat farmer nearby answered my ad - she had a young doe pregnant for the first time - a first freshener, as they are called - a Nubian, with a fine pedigree. Registered, tested for all of the local diseases, and guaranteed. Later I found out that this lady farmer actually raised locally famous goats, winners of many prizes at regional and state fairs, and that her animals were extremely well regarded among local goat folks in the know. If I had known that at the time, I suppose I might have sprung for the extra $50 she wanted to give me Iris' papers. But I didn't know that, and I didn't care, because I wasn't thinking in terms of the future monetary value of kids born on the farm. I thought - I'm a homesteader, not a breeder, so what do I care?

However, I didn't know the future, and Iris was quite expensive enough as it was. I paid $350 for her. That struck my husband as a rediculously exorbitant price. And even today, I can say that yes, that's pretty expensive. I routinely sell goats for less than $100. Male goats. Females are usually sold for between $150 and $200. The best price I ever got for a single goat (not pregnant) was $250, for an adorable spotty female kid, who had been disbudded and vaccinated.

That was one of Iris' kids.

Iris, over the years, has produced some 15 kids. I'd have to look at the blog to be certain exactly how many. Some of them were sold for a good price; some of them were eaten as meat; and a couple of them died without producing any value whatsoever. At least one cost us a lot in veterinary bills before he expired. If I average out the value of her kids - not an easy task, considering the calculations involved - I'd guess that each one was worth about $30. All told, her kids were worth about $450.

Now let's talk about milk. It's impossible to set a firm value on a gallon of goat milk. For one thing, I can't sell it. That is highly illegal, and I've never waded into those waters. However, I can say that a gallon of goat milk, if purchased in my local market, is worth approximately $12. I would never BUY a gallon of goat milk on the local market, so I can't really say that it's worth that much to me. I suppose I can call it "fair market value." However, to make calculation easier and to reflect more accurately the realities of my farm, I'll give each gallon of milk a value of $10.

I will not, because the math gets ridiculous, attempt to set any higher value on the cheese I produce. I could easily get lost in the intricacies of attempting to put a reasonable value on my cheese. I have, over the years, traded a pound of cheese for products ranging from a loaf of bread (value: $2?) to three fat dungeoness crabs (value: $50). I've traded cheese for smoked salmon; for cedar chips; for kale; for blueberries; for babysitting; for hay. The best I can say is that goat cheese is a commodity of highly variable worth. Therefore I will just calculate the worth of milk.

Iris is a good milk producer. She is probably above average for a Nubian goat, which is defined here  as 1,820 pounds per lactation cycle. 1,820 pounds divided by 8 lbs/gallon = 227.5 gallons a year. Times $10/gallon we arrive at a figure of well over $2,000 per year.

Well, that's a silly number. I can say with absolute certainty that I don't receive anything like that much in concrete benefits per year. Especially when multiplied by the three does I milk most years. However, we do save a great deal of money by not buying any milk, yogurt, or cheese for most of the year. Also, excess milk goes to feed the pigs and the chickens, which in turn saves us money on meat and eggs.

You can see that the worth of a good dairy goat is a hard thing to calculate. Iris has been providing my family with meat in the form of her kids and with milk and cheese for some 8 years now. She has been fertilizing our land with her manure, and providing weed control. She has also provided us with many hours of entertainment, and with affection and joy. Her kids are not simply walking bags of protein, but creatures that jump and play and are absolutely adorable and beautiful. There is simply no way at all to calculate the happiness evident in the face of my youngest child, below, cuddling one of Iris' newborn kids.

I give up. I cannot put a price on a good dairy goat. Here's what I can say for sure: Iris has earned her retirement, and should she never produce another kid or another gallon of milk,  we will care for her until she dies of old age.