"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Farmhand Frustration

My oldest daughter, Rowan, moved out last December. She was twenty-two at the time, so I can't really blame her, but we miss her around here. Not only is she simply fun to be around, funny, cheerful, and smart as a whip, but she chucked in a good deal of the hard physical labor around here, and we miss her muscle as well as her wit.

A few years ago, Rowan used to have a boyfriend who I called "P." on the blog. For a while, he lived here, and he paid us rent in labor. P. was (and is) a quality young man, friendly, hardworking, and kind. We all liked him, and we still do, but alas, he is no longer around to be our farmhand. I have to say, I could really get used to having a strong young man in his twenties, with seemingly boundless energy, at my beck and call. It's a good thing for my daughters that the days of selling them to a suitor for a few years of hard labor are over, because I would be SORELY tempted.

Today, Rowan came back for a visit, and she helped us get some work done. It has been raining non-stop, seemingly for months. I know that I am constantly bitching about the weather this time of year (okay, really, when am I not?) but it has, in fact, been an unusually late, wet spring. I've just spent ten minutes trying to add an image, a chart showing triple normal precipitation for February and nearly double for March, but my computer is not being cooperative. See here if you don't believe me.

The farm is more or less underwater. A constant shallow river is pouring out of the driveway and into the roadside ditches. The pastures are more puddle than grass. And the sacrifice area - where all the animals still are - is a disgusting swamp of mud and poop. My poor goats are so desperately unhappy. Goats hate the wet. I finally told Homero that he simply HAD to muck out the barn (recently vacated by the pigs, who have been processed) so the goats can get out of the mud and slime. They are pregnant, poor things. This afternoon, he and Rowan spent a few hours mucking, laying down lime, and then spreading a bed of straw in the barn. The goats have been transferred. They look very happy to be dry. They are going to have to live in the barn itself, however, because we have not yet been able to fix the gate that closes in the main pasture. We need to set a new post in cement, and we can't do that until it dries out a bit.

Remaining in the sacrifice area are Rosy Pony and Nettles the Cow. There is not enough room for them in the barn with the goats, so they are going to have to deal with it a while longer. They have a field shelter, which keeps the rain from falling on their heads, but which does nothing to keep the wet from seeping in from underneath. Even under the roof of the shelter, the ground is soggy and poopy and gross. It needed bedding.

We do, in fact, have a ton of hog fuel, thanks to my brother-in-law and his tree service. Whenever he has a job nearby, he will stop here and dump the chips. Maybe fifteen yards are piled up alongside the fence.  But there is no good way to move to around. Homero's Case loader is broken (it's normal state of being; the Case has basically replaced the Murray lawnmower as his personal mechanical nemesis). We have a big, deep black rubber wheelbarrow, but its tires are flat and it is in the playroom full of a bunch of Homero's heavy power tools. No good way to spread any hog fuel, other than plain old fashioned elbow grease.

Rowan and I spent a half hour or so in the driving rain this afternoon, expending aforementioned elbow-grease laying down a layer of chips in the field shelter. I filled five gallon buckets with chips and passed them over the fence, and she trudged through the mud to the field shelter and dumped the chips inside, kicking them around to cover the space evenly. It was a stop---gap measure, to be sure, but at least the cow and pony will sleep dry tonight.

I need to find a farmhand. I was never very strong, but nowadays I can not even make a pretense of being able to do things like muck out deep litter. Last week, Homero and I cut apart the old calf--hutch that was ruined and ripped by windstorms, and I was at least able to help him drag the big awkward pieces of plastic through the field. That was tough. I cannot spread fifteen yards of hogfuel, or turn the compost pile, or mix cement. We need regular, if sporadic, help for that sort of thing, as well as for placing cattle panels, turning the compost pile, making dump runs, planting trees, et cetera.

Yesterday I placed a plea for help in a Facebook farmer's group. I gave a description of what I needed, and offered $15/hour plus transportation, tools, and lunch. I have had several responses, and a couple of them even come recommended. Here's hoping one of these young people works out.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Rerun (Spring Work List)

I've been re-reading the blog, something I haven't done in several years, and this evening I was amused to read the following list of work that needed to be done in March of 2015. The list is virtually identical to the lost I would write if I were to write a list about the work that needs to be done right now - so please enjoy this throwback.

March 23, 2015

There is so much work piled up around the farm that I figured I had better make a list. Not that I'm likely to forget what needs doing, since it's mostly all of the variety that you SEE when you LOOK AROUND, but even so. Lists are helpful. Helpful in putting off the actual work.

Since the weather turned about two weeks ago, we seem to have regressed back into late winter. After a sunny, dry February, we have been not-so-much enjoying a cold, wet March. It's back to mud boots and puddles, and I am feeling smugly superior to all those people who gave into temptation and planted their garden a month ago, only to watch it all rot in the ground. I can afford to feel superior, because I have been those people, every year except this one.

Mud boots and slickers; gloves and hats are once again required gear for venturing out. So, most of the outdoor work has to wait for a dry spell, but here we go, in no particular order:

1. muck out the barn. The animals don't like the rain, so they spend all day in the barn, which means it quickly gets disgusting. I ran out of straw a week ago (subheading

                 a) get more straw

    and so the barn floor is a thick compressed four inches of poop and old straw. It will soon be too                 compacted for me to move, so either I do it soon, or add it to Homero's list of chores, which is far longer than my own.

2.  Repair chicken coop. This is actually a fairly small job, although difficult for me as it involves climbing onto a roof. We just need to pick up the shattered remains of the plastic corrugated roofing (blew apart in a windstorm) and replace with corrugated tin roofing - already bought and stored right in the coop itself. Without a roof, the coop is just a swamp and the chickens have been roosting in the hayloft. Which means I have to convince a child to climb the ladder into the loft to gather eggs about once a week. I no longer climb into the loft. Not until we get a better ladder, anyway.

3. Dump run of historic proportions.  Homero recently cleaned out his shop. In a big way. In addition to removing the enormous stack of wood and building materials that are all that is left of our cute little cabin (story for another day), he also removed approximately 7,000 hefty bags worth of trash and assorted refuse, much of which is stuff we stored in the shop when we lived in Mexico a couple years ago (NewtoMexicanLife.blogspot.com) and never brought back into the house. Mostly books and clothes, but more than likely a few valuable items like photos and journals are also now mouldering in the rain alongside the fence, which is where the 7,000 hefty bags are resting, awaiting their final transport to that great refuse heap in the sky. Or, you know, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 
4. Strawberry Patch - as mentioned above, I have done almost nothing in the garden this year so far. I have some starts going in the greenhouse, but no work has been done outside. A few days ago, a good friend gave me a trash-bag full of strawberry starts, and I would like to get them into the ground soon.  My garden space is slowly undergoing a transformation from a regular mostly-annuals kitchen garden into a perennial garden, full of raspberry canes, rhubarb, artichokes, asparagus beds (soon), and strawberries. Hopefully the rain will let up soon and we can get the strawberries into the ground.

5. Hoof trimming. Seems like it's always hoof-trimming time.

6. House projects - this is really Homero's purview, but my part of this work is to keep a running tab on what needs to be done; to budget for it; to gently remonstrate with Homero, and to prioritize. I'm not even going to go into that list here (plumbing projects, rot-repair, weatherstripping repair, etc) but just say that this list takes a psychic toll on me because I usually eventually have to threaten to call professionals and try to balance the relative importance of marital harmony against, oh, say, a working shower.

7. Fencing. I still have most of the cattle panels I bought last fall when we had some cash. We did the cheap and dirty thing by just using some of them to patch droopy spots in the field fencing. One of the larger projects that awaits drier days in actually removing and re-positioning all the cattle panels so as to make a real, continuous fenceline.

That's enough for now. Right at the moment, my regular daily work awaits - I need to move the ponies, milk the goat, and make dinner.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Meat Math 2017

This year's horrible pigs (all pigs are horrible but this year's were worse than most) have been converted into meat, and the meat sold, except for what we wanted to keep for ourselves. It's time for this year's edition of MEAT MATH (Meat Math).

The pigs were pretty small. We killed them earlier than we maybe should have because they were so evil, and also because in the cold and wet, they weren't gaining weight very quickly. It's better to get piglets in the spring than in the fall, but of course everybody knows that, and so spring piglets are more expensive than fall piglets. The boy had a hanging weight of 132lbs, and the gilt 110lbs.

The larger pig we sold off in halves. One half went to our neighbor, the D. family, from whom we have actually bought pork in years past. But they decided (being quicker learners than we are, apparently) that they don't want to raise pigs anymore, so now they are buying from us. That half weighed 67lbs. The other half went to a Facebook friend, and weighed 65lbs.

We asked $3/lb, which is on the cheap side. I started out at $3.50/lb, which seems to be the going rate for pork without fancy qualifiers like Organic or Pastured, but it so happened that there was a lot of pork for sale at the same time I was trying to sell, at least according to Craigslist. I didn't get any response at $3.50/lb.

If I'd had an empty freezer, I might have held out. But I'd already made the date with the butcher, and our freezer was stuffed nigh to bursting with beef, salmon, and lamb. We have two eminently butcher-able animals (a sheep and a goat) that we have let live for the sole reason that we were saving room in the freezer for the pork. Faced with that severe space shortage, I lowered the price, and quickly sold off the bigger pig.

Okay, so 132 x $3 = $396. Rounding to $400.

The piglets themselves cost us $100 each. That leaves $200.

Feed was negligible, thanks to unlimited bread and produce from the Gleaner's Pantry ( What Wrong With this Avocado?). We did buy three or four bags of conventional pig feed - let's say that was $60. Now we have $140 left.

Unfortunately, I lost my receipt from the butcher, so I can't break it down into categories, but we paid them $178 for our 110lbs, which includes the kill fee, the cut and wrap, and the fee for smoking the hams, bacon, and hocks. Take 178 from 140 and we are 38 dollars in the hole. Divide 38 by 110 and you get homestead pork for $0.35/lb. Not, obviously, counting labor.

Even if I am forgetting a couple bags of feed, that's some pretty cheap, quality protein. The first meal I made was BBQ spareribs. Delicious.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Spring Cleaning, Part One

A beautiful day in earliest spring, notwithstanding a stiff, cold breeze and two inches of new snow on the ground when we woke up. Now, in mid-afternoon, the sun is warm and bright and the sky is very blue. The snow was all gone by the time I got home from church. I felt like getting some work done around the place.

First things first. It was clearly past time to take down my winter altar and put up the early spring altar. Ordinarily I would do this around Imbolc, but it so happened this year that there were two feet of snow on the ground at Imbolc, and it did not feel at all like the season of emerging had yet come. I left up my storm trees, and then I sort of forgot about it until today.

I can't put up a new altar until I've cleaned the old altar, and as I was preparing to do that, I looked around and saw how awful the whole house was. Really, a clean altar needs a clean room. And one clean room in a dirty house is just a sham. So I started cleaning. I put on a disc of old time Boogie Woogie piano music and scrubbed and swept and opened all the windows. I can't say the house is actually CLEAN clean, but I got it clean enough lay a new altar. The cool wind blowing in through the open windows did as much or more as I did to freshen the place up.

Then I went out to the barnyard. The goats are due to kid within three weeks or so - I think; I'd better check the blog for when they were bred - and the Mama barn is a mess. Paloma came out with me and we stuffed all the empty feed bags full of trash - empty plastic bags, mainly. I bring home so much bread from the gleaner's pantry that the bags really pile up. Also many many yards of orange plastic baling twine. We've gone through a hundred bales of hay this winter, so there are at least two hundred strings. Paloma is braiding some of them into a string leash for Haku. We will also reuse some of it tying up the cattle panels where they are sagging. But there always seem to be a surplus of orange strings, getting into the compost pile or buried beneath the bedding, sometimes a loop sticking treacherously up to snag a passing ankle. Pulling it out when it is well and deeply embedded in old bedding is a chore.

Taking another empty feed bag with me, I walked the soggy pasture to pick up more trash - more bags that have blown away and gotten strung up on the fences, or entangled in blackberry bushes. Long shards of corrugated plastic that were once part of the roof on the chicken coop, and which were shredded in windstorms and blown away.We re-roofed the chicken coop with corrugated tin, but it, too, has been crumpled and shredded by the wind, and is now curled up in long strips and makes a fearful racket on days like today. I don't know what we will do next for the coop roof. I think it needs an actual framed roof. However, as there are no longer any chickens (except three skinny roosters) it is academic. I don't know if I mentioned that the chickens have all either disappeared or been caught and eaten by our horrible pigs.

The horrible pigs are dead. The butcher came friday. We will keep the meat from the smaller one, and the bigger one has been sold off in halves. I am very very glad they are gone. No more pigs for the foreseeable future.

There is still a great deal of cleanup and repair to do before it gets much later in the season. One of the gateposts to the main pasture rotted through, and half of the gate fell down. We haven't replaced it yet, because its been so wet and awful, and the animals are still eating hay in the sacrifice area anyway. But it needs to be repaired before we can let the animals out to graze, obviously. The calf hutch, which we have had for about eight years, finally - yes, you guessed it - blew away in a windstorm. It had a few cracks in it already, but now it is a twisted wreck washed up against the back fence line. Theres no way I can move it, that will require Homero and another man.

No sign yet of nettles or daffodils. There are some pale green spikes sticking out of the ground near the highway, though. I think I will go take a look at the willow out by Homero's shop and see if there are any pussies (?) on it yet. If so, I will cut a few wands for the altar.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Snowpocalypse 2017

This is the west side of my house. See the snow up to the ROOF? Admittedly, this is a drift. But anytime there is snow up to the roof, that's a lot of snow. We probably have about two feet of snow, if it were evenly distributed. And it's still coming down hard. I'm sitting at the kitchen table, and looking out across the street at the neighbor's 100 acre field, and there are snow tornados, I shit you not, snow tornados out there. 

 Haku is loving it. He's so happy. He almost disappears into the drifts, but he's having ball.

I like it too, truth be told (and as long as I don't have to do chores in it). It's exciting, and just the tiniest bit scary. But we have a freezer full of food, and a tank full of propane, and a generator, and nothing can hurt us.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Doing Chores in Winter Wonderland (Too Old for this Shit)

It is snowing. It is snowing sideways. It has been snowing sideways for the better part of four days. There is a foot and a half of snow on the ground and more is coming down every minute. Some of the drifts are three feet high. All the sliding glass doors are iced shut. School has been cancelled again, and the children are stir-crazy.

I feel like Gene Wilder in the old version of Charlie and the The Chocolate Factory - just picture me with my hair standing up and my eyes bugging out as I intone, in a voice that slowly rises to a shriek, "It is snowing, snowing, SNOWING... and it shows no sign of SLOWING... there's no earthly way of KNOWING... just how long it will keep GOING...."

I am old as dirt. I am rickety and fat and I have a nasty head cold. My knees sound like a bowl of rice krispies even just walking around indoors. I am getting too old for this shit. I just went out to feed the animals, and what is ordinarily a ten minute job is a half an hour slog, beginning with putting on my socks - not as easy as it used to be - and carefully stepping into one gum boot, and then the other, holding on to the wall because my balance ain't what it used to be either. Then I have to pick up the five gallon bucket full of slops for the pigs (kept inside the playroom so it doesn't freeze) and there's no handle on this bucket so I have to hug it with one arm and try to open the sliding glass door with the other while my giant, idiot dog leaps around me like a deranged jack in the box.

On the sixty-yard walk to the barn, I had to set the bucket down to rest three times. I am more out of breath than usual, due to the aforementioned nasty cold. The snow is heavy and has an icy crust on it. Haku runs lightly over the crust, but I break through and sink up to my knees with every step. I haven't put on a hat and my hair is whipping around, blinding me. The snow hits my face hard enough to sting, flying at me sideways from the north-east. Finally I make it to the field shelter, where Haku is leaping up against the fence, barking at the ram. The ram is charging the fence over and over again. I yell at Haku and he runs off to bother the pigs. I throw the goats and the pony and the ram two loaves of bread and then give the pigs the slop bucket.

There are very few chickens left. The chicken coop came unroofed in the last storm and we haven't been able to fix it yet. The chickens took to roosting in the main barn, but thats where the pigs are - and the pigs caught and ate several chickens. Horrifying. I've never had a pig do that before (although once a pig chased a mama hen off her nest and ate up the day-old chicks). We are down to three chickens. Some of the others have just disappeared. Hopefully, they have found their way over to the neighbors, who has a nice, cozy coop, and integrated themselves into his flock. We are going to have to address the chicken-attrition at some point, but not today.

The hose is frozen, so I am watering with buckets. I can't lift a full five gallon bucket over the fence, so I have to fill it halfway and pour it into the trough over the fence and repeat several times. There is an ice slick around the water pump. On my third or fourth trip I slip on it and crash, landing heavily on my hip and - though I don't notice this until later - cutting my arm on the sharp crust of snow. In my slippery gumboots, it takes me several tries to stand up.

The last job is getting hay for the pony and goats. I grab an armload of hay from the mama barn and trudge towards the field shelter, eyes closed as much as possible to keep out the flying bits of hay. I am in a whirlwind of snow and hay particles. I really ought to go into the sacrifice area and put the hay inside the field shelter, but I can't open the gate because it is stuck inside a frozen drift of snow two feet high. So I heave my armload of snow over the fence and at least a third of it flies right back at me. "Fuck it," I think, "They'll live until tomorrow."

My dog has disappeared. He's white, therefore pretty well camouflaged. I yell for him all the way back to the house, and then stand there yelling until he finally comes prancing through the curtain of snow into visibility. By the time we both make it into the house, I am exhausted.

Days like this I want to give up. I want to just throw my hands up and say "it was a good run, eight years of farming, it's time to retire." But of course I don't really want to do that. The goats are pregnant and in a few months all will be green grass and flowers and baby goats. I'll be milking and making cheese and loving life.

Besides, I can't give up. We need this farm now like never before! Our new commander in chief is determined to start a trade war with Mexico (among other countries) and they provide forty percent of our winter fruits and vegetables. If the Trumpster succeeds in antagonizing all our major trade partners, it won't be long before we all feel the results in the price of food. And that's just the beginning. I think the possibility of something awful happening to economy - like hyperinflation maybe - within the next several years is not out of the question. It could get pretty Mad Max around here before too long. I'm putting in a much bigger garden this year, and planting more fruit trees. Homero has taken his sustainability projects up a notch as well.

So there's no rest on the horizon. I better start taking care of my knees - maybe I can schedule surgery on my other knee while I still have health insurance. Inshallah.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Peace and Birdwatching

Image result for backyard birds pacific northwest

There was controversy surrounding our christmas tree this year (O (Dead) Christmas Tree); a controversy that resulted in us having two trees - one cut and decorated inside the house, and one live and potted outside the house.

The small live tree that Rowan and I decorated with pine cones (smeared in peanut butter and rolled in birdseed) has provided us with many hours of entertainment watching the birds who came to eat. Homero set it up right outside the kitchen window, where we could see it as we drank our coffee in the mornings. The freezing weather may have brought extra birds to our feeder. It's been very cold and snowy since before Christmas. Quite unusual.

I am not much of a birdwatcher, but Rowan says that among the visitors were spotted towhees and various kinds of chickadees. I can recognize the black capped chickadees. There was a tiny brownish grey bird with a yellow belly. Some sort of finch? It was surprisingly delightful to see the little birds up close, scrabbling with each other and picking at the pinecones. There were several mated pairs, bright males and drab females, who reappeared again and again. You could almost fancy that it was possible to identify individuals.

The cut tree is still in the living room, but we have undecorated it. It really ought to be hauled out for the goats to eat before it gets any drier. The goats need all the food they can get - they are all (presumably) pregnant now, and the cold has been unrelenting and unusually severe. For a week or so, I put fleece vests on them to help keep them warm, while the mercury was hovering in the low teens. We try to keep hay available at all times, but in the severe cold they eat twice as much as usual. And of course, the dairy calf eats as much as three or four goats all by herself.

We are running out of hay. We've already been through eighty bales, which, in a mild winter will carry us through until early spring. Luckily, we still have thirty bales "on hold" with the family who took Poppy pony from us. I didn't ask for any money for Poppy, no "rehoming fee" or anything like that. I was just happy to have found an excellent home for her. But they offered to give us thirty bales of hay in trade, and I didn't say no. They also offered us the use of their Nubian buck for stud this year, and I took them up on that as well. Homero will have to go get the thirty bales pretty quickly - I think we are down to three bales left in the mama barn.

This is a quiet time of year. The goats and the cow huddle up and chew their cud. The chickens stay up in the hayloft for most of the short day. About the only excitement is provided by the occasional escape of the pigs. They are getting big enough to stand uno and put their front feet on top of the barn's half-door, and I think once in a while they slide the catch open more or less by pure chance. Then there's a merry chase to get them back in again.

As for me, I am enjoying the freeze, because it means a respite from the mud.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

O (Dead) Christmas Tree

Christmas, the 800 pound gorilla of holidays, is once again upon us. Every year, I envy my childless brother, who insouciantly flaunts on his own blog how free he is to blithely ignore Christmas. Oh, he enjoys the vacation time, which allows him to spend his disposable income gallivanting about the globe (most recently Taiwan) instead of spending it on a lot of plastic crap, designed to satisfy the outsized expectations of  a bunch of self-absorbed human pupae for exactly six-point-eight minutes.

What? Am I not exhibiting the correct cheerful demeanor?

I do, in fact, enjoy Christmas. I do, in fact, spend a lot of time planning activities that I think my kids would enjoy. I peruse my local paper and jot down the dates of Christmassy events - for the past two years I have made an advent calendar of events, complete with paper doors for them to open every evening and read the event planned for the next day. It might be a local concert or it might be hanging  christmas lights at home. My community is very civic minded and there are a goodly number of really cool holiday events - when those are lacking I plan home based activities such as baking gingerbread cookies or making christmas cards to mail out to relatives and friends.

One of the very biggest events in any Christmas season, obviously, is buying and decorating the tree. I'm not going to google at this time of night, but you and I both know that probably 99% of Christmas trees sold in this country are cut trees - read: dead trees. There is an argument to be had about the environmental impact of the christmas tree industry - some people maintain that the carbon sequestered by the growing of all those trees is greater than the carbon released by their harvest. I don't know about that - but I can say for certain that buying and planting a live tree is better than buying a cut tree.

That is what we did every year that I remember, growing up. Never in my memory did my mother buy a cut tree. We were lucky to always live in a private home on a suburban lot that allowed for the planting of at least one tree a year.  For many years after we moved away, my mom would take us driving back through old neighborhoods, and point out the trees we had planted years before. She would name the trees as she pointed them out: "Look, there's your brother's blue spruce. That one is your weeping pine."

During the years that I lived in a house on an urban lot on Seattle - from 1992 to 2006- we never had a Christmas tree. Since I didn't have space to plant a live tree, I chose to not have a tree at all. Instead, we made gingerbread houses, or I bought long sheets of green butcher paper and we cut out a simulated tree and taped it to the wall and decorated it with glitter glue and potato stamps. Moving to our current homestead, a windswept 5 acre property that could really use many more trees, was happy for many reasons, but not least for the chance to have a live Christmas tree every year and plant it the following spring.  I sited an area on the west side of the property that I planned to fill with Christmas trees, slowly. When my children were grown, if we kept cup the custom, we would have a Christmas tree grove for them to inhabit and imbue with meaning.

We have planted some five Christmas trees since we moved here. Many more fruit trees; but they don't come into this story. We re-used a few Christmas trees because they have become very expensive in recent years. And one of the trees we planted died, covered in blackberry vines and smothered by canary grass. But there are still five live trees, and there is still a lot of space to plant future trees. I have a vision of a lovely, full grown grove of evergreens on the western border of our land, home to native birds and mammals.

The day that the advent calendar said "buy a Christmas tree" was a day that I was working all day long. I asked Homero to please take the girls and get a tree. I told him in simple language to buy a LIVE tree. I didn't think it was terribly important thing to emphasize - after all, we had had live trees in each of the last five years. But knowing that Homero is - how shall i put this? CHEAP - I made it quite clear that I knew a live tree would be expensive, but that that was simply a fact of Christmas.

I'm not entirely certain  I have managed to describe how important it is to me not to have a cut tree. Do you, gentle reader, understand? If not, let me fill you in on a few details that my husband was already aware of. As well as attending a Christian church, I consider myself a pagan, a follower of the western and northern European pre-christian traditions. Trees are the very basis of the sacred calendar in this tradition. My oldest daughter, Rowan, was named for the sacred tree that presides over her birth month. She is a practicing witch. Trees - living trees - are the foundation of the knowledge of the Wiccan tradition. Having a dead, cut tree in our home would be, quite literally, sacrilege.

So my husband bought a cut tree. He took the kids, while I was at work, and drove around town, and decided that the live trees were too expensive. By the time he communicated to me what he had done, it was a fait accompli.  The dead tree was already installed in our living room.

Oh I was so upset. We were talking by text: I said "I am bringing home a live tree anyway! You just bought the goats lunch!"  Rowan and I both felt righteously indignant. We felt that our beliefs had been trampled and slighted. We felt that an atrocity (albeit a small one) had been committed in our name. We felt a burning need to remedy the situation. However, the prospect of dragging the dead tree out of the living room (a prospect I considered) seemed too drastic. That would only make me into a Savonarola, a crazy zealot, an extremist. Much better that I attempt to model flexibility and adaptability.

On my way home, I bought a small live tree. I was driving a volkswagen golf - I had to find something that would fit in the trunk. I ended up with a five foot tall arborvitae. I also bought a bag of large pinecones, and a sack of birdseed. At home, Rowan and I smeared the pinecones with peanut butter, and then rolled them in dishes of birdseed. We tucked the cones into the branches of the small live tree, which Homero set up right outside the kitchen window. That was his gesture of reconciliation, arranging a sturdy base for our live tree. This past week, we have enjoyed watching spotted towhees and black capped chickadees eating the seeds from the tree.

And in the living room, a lovely cut evergreen is decorated with lights and homemade ornaments. I am trying to look at it with appreciation and joy. It will feed the goats, after the twenty-fifth. I hope that those whose say that the tree sequestered more carbon dioxide in its life than it will give up in it's decomposition are right. I hope that during it's life it provided shelter and sustenance to many small creatures. I hope that the life of this tree amounted to something lasting. In the meantime, we will honor it's life by appreciating the beauty of its adorned branches.

Happy Solstice. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Winter Stores (First World Problems)

I feel pretty good about the state of the larder going into winter this year. I had a very successful canning season and as you can see, my indoor pantry is pretty well stocked.

 I think I have about twenty quarts of tomato sauces, half Mexican and half Italian flavors. I use these for all sorts of basic applications - cooking Mexican rice; simmering chicken thighs; dressing pasta. My tomato preserves are part of the hardworking, everyday dinner rotation. If I could can three times as many, I'd use three times as many. 

Other canned goods in the pantry include pickled jalapeños (also a staple); bread and butter pickles (more likely an ingredient or a gift); pepper jelly (Christmas gifts); and blackberry jam (destined for use in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all school year long). 

There are six or eight small jars of cajeta (goat's milk caramel) left over from 2015. Not sure what to do with those. Maybe send them out as Christmas gifts, or maybe open them and start using as coffee sweetener and pancake topping. 
In the "Christmas gift" category, I still plan to can some small jars of lemon curd , which is delicious and can also be made from ingredients I get from the gleaner's pantry. 

Besides home canned goods, the indoor pantry is pretty well stocked with store bought dry goods. There's a case of canned black beans, ditto garbanzos;
A twenty pound sack of white rice and a ten pound sack of brown rice. Five gallons of dried pinto beans. Ten pounds of lentils. A case of canned tuna. A shelf full of condiments like soy sauce and vinegars and Thai curry paste and mustard. 

The freezer is crammed full. We bought a lot of beef this year, and then there was an amazing bounty of frozen fish from the gleaner's a few weeks ago. The freezer is so full that we have put off butchering the
young wether goat because there is simply no place to put him. Ditto a half a dozen young roosters we were recently gifted. They are alive simply because we don't have the space for their carcasses. 

This is the definition of a first-world problem. "I have so much food that there's no place to store it all!" I don't enjoy just basic food security - I enjoy layers of food security. I have ready to cook food staples in my pantry, AND a bunch of live on-the-hoof protein that I could call on if the need arose. I'm rich beyond the dreams of previous generations. 

Thanks be for all the abundance in my local food-shed. Lady of abundance, help me make the maximum use of all that comes my way and to be generous and open-handed. Let all this abundance serve the greatest number possible. Let it
Inspire me - and all those who have similar abundance - to invite others into their homes and to sit at their tables. Let it be a medium of friendship. Let us all break bread together. Amen. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Short Hiatus

Forgive me that I haven't written a new blog post in a couple of weeks. I've been too busy reeling around in horror and exploring the limits of my capacity for shock. 

The election results left me profoundly flabbergasted. I have to admit what now seems to me to be an extreme naïveté: never during the campaign season, not once, did I ever seriously contemplate the possibility that the citizens of this great country would elect a man so ignorant, so self-serving, so incompetent, and so boorish - not to mention bigoted, misogynistic, and disrespectful of the basic tenets of democracy. 

After spending a couple of days blubbering incoherently, I went into action mode. In the last ten days, I have organized an event for local folk who want to take concrete action to fight back against the alarming rise of hate speech and intimidation. I'm calling it the "Peaceful Progressive's Potluck," and I'm
hosting it at my house after thanksgiving. I'm promoting it through a new Facebook group a friend created called "whatcom rising." 

Here's what I'm hoping for: firstly, that a whole bunch of good hearted people who haven't met before can come together over good food and a few drinks and have a good time. It is so important not to give in to despair and pessimism. In times like these, just having fun can be a subversive act. 

Secondly, I hope that everyone who comes will bring an idea. I'm thinking of this event as a brainstorming session - please share your personal passions. Are you passionate about farmworker rights? Do you burn with zeal when it comes to protecting women's access to reproductive health care? What are you already involved in? So many of us are asking ourselves "what could I be doing right now?" Tell us about the great organizations and local opportunities that already exist. Let's make a list. Let's organize carpools to faraway events, let's have phone-your-representative brunches. 

But most importantly, I want to marshall the power of friendship. I'm thinking about studies that show how effective it is, in maintaining a fitness regimen (for example) to have friends who hold you accountable. I want to create a community of friends who hold each other accountable. I want us to pledge (maybe formally, in some sort of small ceremony) to keep encouraging each other, chivvying each other, even pressuring each other to keep fighting the good fight. 

I did something very scary this past Sunday. It shouldn't have been scary, but it was. I stood up in church and made a little speech about what I think it means to "love our neighbor as ourselves." I said I don't know what that phrase means, if it doesn't mean to shelter my neighbor, to protect him from those who revile him, to defend his children as though they were my own children. That doesn't seem like a controversial statement, but my congregation has enough Trump supporters who could decode the message that it felt risky to me. My voice trembled as I spoke. 

I envision a community of neighbors who will uphold each other and cheer each other on as they take on the kind of small but real risks that speaking out entails. Standing UP means standing OUT, and that's scary. So much scarier if we feel we are standing alone. So much easier if we know there is a community of friends who has got our back. 

Wherever you live, whatever your politics are - I'm talking to you rock-ribbed republicans here - please stand up and clearly state that you will not tolerate hate and discrimination. ESPECIALLY you republicans. Combat the general impression that being a conservative means you want to deprive women, immigrants, and people of color of their civil rights and their guarantee of due process and equality under the law. Make
it be known that espousing conservative values does not mean you want to cause suffering among vulnerable populations. 

Or does it? Convince me. Please. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sprout Kraut

What do you do with too many Brussels Sprouts (courtesy of the gleaner's pantry)? I'm gonna try Sprout Kraut. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Welcome, Beloved Dead

This year's altar for the Day of the Dead. It's been an especially busy few weeks and I'm afraid I did not have time to make the kind of elaborate altar I would have liked to. Especially I feel bad about not looking through the photo box for pictures of all our dead. Instead I simply wrote (in silver glitter glue) "Welcome, Beloved Dead." I hope our ancestors and friends will be satisfied with a simple recitation of thier names as we enjoy our chocolate and sweetbread. 

I did make sweetbread - it's in the oven right now. And I have the traditional essentials on the altar - flowers, liquor, salt, snacks, a candle to light the way and a doll for the spirits of the "deceased innocents," or children. 

Of course, it doesn't matter what's on the altar, not really. It doesn't matter that we celebrate according to any particular ritual or any tradition. As I once said at the end of a class that I led on making altars: "wherever you lay your altar, you lay it on your heart." Or, as Black Elk said, "The sacred Mountain is everywhere." 

 It doesn't even matter that we name our dead, or that we know their names. What matters, and what all the trappings are designed to help us do, is to give thanks. What matters is that we recognize and honor the effort of all the generations before us. We are only here because of their tenacity and sacrifice. We are only alive today because of their dedication and success as parents.

When they were alive, they suffered and sweated and worried. When they were alive, they worked to feed us  - their children - and teach us. They handed down their skills and their wisdom, hoping and praying that it would be enough to sustain us. They healed our hurts and they defended us with thier blood. They tended us when we were sick and they laid out our brothers and sisters with tenderness and grief when they died. They did their damndest. 

So we light candles and we invite them to come on home for a little while and listen to us express our gratitude. We show them - look, we are alive. We are well, we are fed. We are safe. It was all worth it - here we are. 

Why does it matter to do this? After all, let's be honest, they're dead. They probably can't hear us. They probably don't care. Why should we pretend that they can and they do? 

Because, dearly beloved, because thus do we remind ourselves of the sacredness of our duty to our own children. This is how we say "let us never do less than they did." By honoring them, we are honoring ourselves. By recognizing the sacredness of their work, we are acknowledging the sacredness of our own work on behalf of the future. 
We know ourselves as mothers and fathers and even if we are not
Mothers or Fathers we know our importance to the future and honor the incredible privelege we have of making the world new again, now and forever, Amen. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Meat Madness (Weighing Options)

I have a neighbor who raises beef cattle, Mr. B., and we have bought beef from him several times in the past. It's wonderful stuff, he has gorgeous pastures, but we haven't bought any the last few years. Not last year, because we had our own cow butchered (she was a cull from a dairy that couldn't be bred, but she made a decent meat animal), and not the year before because we waited too long to ask him, and he'd already sold it all. He doesn't butcher very many steers in any given year - maybe 12 or 15 - and he told me that usually he sells all of it to extended family. I took that as a hint that I should look for beef elsewhere.

This year, we have Homero's nieces living with us again, which means dinner is for seven every night. We all like beef, and eat it pretty often. The freezer was almost empty. We were down to the last few packages of hamburger from last year's cow, and so I went on the hunt for grass fed beef on Craigslist.

Wow, the price of beef has really gone up in the last several years. I can't remember for sure what the price per pound was the first year I bought beef (2008) but I know it was under $2/lb. I think it was $1.80. This year I couldn't find anything under $3.50/lb hanging weight, which means by the time you pay the cut and wrap and figure in the 20% discard, you are paying around $5/lb for the actual beef you are going to eat.

Not that that is a high price, speaking in absolute terms. Around here, if you can even find local grass fed beef in the grocery store, it starts at $6.00 for the hamburger and goes up from there. The really nice steaks are probably over $20/lb - not that I would know! So don't think I'm complaining! However, it does mean you have to come up with a big chunk of change all at once.

I finally resigned myself to paying the going rate, and spoke with a lady in Lynden. She had a half a Hereford to sell, and she said I could buy the half or just a quarter if I preferred. The meat was already at the butcher's and would be ready in a week or so. She said he was a good sized animal, so I bought a quarter. We'd wait until the butcher called me with the final weight before I paid her.

Then, that Sunday, I went to church and saw my neighbor. Over coffee after the service, he asked me if Homero and I would like some beef this year. He wasn't certain, but he thought he'd probably have a little extra.

"If it turns out I do, would you want it?"

"Yes," I said, instantly deciding it would be a good idea to get back on his list of customers.

"Well, I'll let you know."

Now I had a conundrum. Should I cancel on the lady with the expensive beef? Mr. B.'s price was considerably lower. But what if it turned out Mr. B. didn't have any beef after all? Or what if he only had an eighth? Homero and I talked it over and he said to go ahead and buy the quarter anyway, to be on the safe side. We'd certainly eat it.

When the butcher called me a few days later, however, I was in for a surprise. The final hanging weight was 250 pounds! For those of you who have never bought your beef by the side, let me assure that is a LOT of meat. The steer must have been one gigantic animal. At $3.50/lb, plus the cut and wrap, I would be spending something like $1000 to put it in my fridge. But there was no option - the meat was mine.

Mr. B. spoke to me again at church the next week. He said there was a half for me. I smiled and said "that's wonderful, thank you so much!"

There's no way we could get through THREE QUARTERS OF A COW by ourselves, especially when one of the quarters is nearly as big as an average half. Luckily, my sister said her family would split the half with me. We simply called the butcher and told him we wanted to split it, and each of us gave our cut and wrap orders.

Now the freezer - 18.5 cubic feet; a big freezer! - is packed to the brim with meat. There is so much beef in there that we can't butcher the baby goat because there's simply no place to put him. We had to remove a few gallons of cider and drink it up to make room. There are worse problems to have than a surfeit of high quality beef. So we'll have to eat beef more often this winter than I would have guessed. Oh, Rats!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fall Fermentation (Wine and Cider)

Plum wine in the autumn sun 

The satisfactions of living off of one's own land are many and varied. It is, for example, delightful to invite my extended family over for Thanksgiving and feed them on turkey we raised ourselves and apple pie made from the apples on the trees of our own orchard.  It makes me happy and proud to throw a big birthday bash for Homero and give his Mexican friends the pleasure of an old-fashioned goat barbacoa such as they remember from their younger days back home in Jalisco or Oaxaca; the slaughter, butchery, and the digging of the pit oven included. These pleasures still lie in the future this year - imagining them is one of the distinct joys of this short ephemeral season. 

This is my favorite time of year - after the heat of summer has dissipated and the leaves have turned and are falling, creating a crisp, fragrant carpet underfoot - but before the rains have turned everything into cold muck. The sky these past several days is a cool, cerulean blue, and the trees are ninety different shades of gold, orange, burgundy, and brown. I try to let the goats out every afternoon to forage on the dry leaves and blackberry vines, and on the fall-flushed grass before the first frost comes and kills the nutrition. 

Today I enjoyed the unique pleasure of sitting out in the late afternoon sun on a warm October afternoon and drinking a glass of beautiful, pink, home-brew plum wine. I'd have to page back in this blog to find out when, exactly, I started this batch of plum wine. I don't want to do that - bathed as I am in the rosy glow of the same. Let's just posit that the wine was ready, today, for bottling. I decided to do it today not because of any learned examination of the wine itself, but because I had finally collected a sufficient number of large brown bottles. Corona beer puts out a "family" size that measures 36 ounces. There were eight of them lined up today, and I decided that the time was ripe. 

I have never made wine before - though I have made apple cider a few times. In fact, I made apple cider earlier this year. That's a funny story, and a lesson. We pressed apples on three separate occasions this year, which is three times more often than we usually do. Faced with many gallons of fresh juice, I decided to try making hard cider. I'm not the kind of person who cautiously measures and precisely calibrates anything. I'm more of a "wing it" kind of cook. I'm a good cook, I won't ever say I'm not, but I am much better at soup (such a forgiving medium) than I am at baking cakes.  When it comes to brewing, that means I am not going to be exactly certain of the strength of my creations. 

A few weeks ago, I bottled this year's cider. I bottled it in these same 36 oz Corona bottles. My husband, seeing them lined up on the mantle, decided he was thirsty and didn't feel like going to the store. Accustomed as he was to downing one of these hefty bottles full of Corona, he did just that. But the bottle was full of home-brew cider. Hard cider that you buy in the store is usually more or less beer strength - 5 to 7%. I, however, used a champagne yeast, and my cider was at least twice as strong as beer. Maybe as much as three times. Had my husband consulted me, I would have told him to drink it like wine, not like beer. Alas, he did not. 

I have never seen Homero so drunk. He was accidentally drunk, so it doesn't reflect on his character at all - but it was pretty funny nonetheless. Poor man could hardly speak, and hardly stand up. I had to put him to bed. My main regret was that he had downed  too much of the limited supply of cider.

Most of the plum wine was bottled today in the same size jugs. I simply capped them with bottle caps instead of using wine bottles and corks. My local brewer's supply store rents out a corking machine, but we don't drink enough wine to have bottles to use. I asked about using beer bottles and capping them like this, and was told that if we drank the wine within the year it shouldn't matter at all. 

No problem there. I drank about one-tenth of it today. Such a beautiful afternoon and evening. I absolutely love days like this - crisp enough that other people complain of the cold, and I can feel superior and smug sitting out in my shirtsleeves. Especially on days like this, when I have completed all my housework and I can take a book outside with me to read without remorse or guilt. Well - only the delicious guilt of reading trashy fiction instead of anything "serious." 

A canvas slingback chair, a cheap novel, a jug of new plum wine, and the sunset......

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Swine Squared (Women's Work?)

KWe have acquired two new pigs. To get a pig or not to get a pig, in any given year, is one of the larger farm-related decisions we make. Pigs can be profitable, and of course they are delicious, but pigs are also expensive and destructive. 

The price of weaned pigs has risen precipitously in the last several years - from about $75 to about $140. And with pig food running at $15 per 50# sack, that means that pigs are only profitable if we can generously supplement thier diet with free food - AKA the Gleaner's Pantry. (http://newtofarmlife.blogspot.com/2013/10/scavenge-city-gleaners-pantry.html?m=1)

The problem is, that in order to seriously supplement the diet of not one, but two pigs, we would have to go to the gleaner's twice a week. And that's a hell of a lot of work. Frankly, more work than I am prepared to do. Accordingly, I told my husband that we could get pigs if and only if he would sometimes take my place at gleaner's.

He reacted with poorly concealed horror. He squirmed and he hemmed and hawed. He looked at the floor. 

"What's the problem?" I asked. "I've been doing it alone for three or four years now, and you know how much work it is. I'm tired." 

"Well," he said, practically digging a hole In the floor with his toe, "there's only women there." 

"What?" I was a little taken aback. "That's not true! There's always a guy
or two.... Usually..."

I'm surprised at myself that my first impulse was to deny the truth - yes, gleaner's is a women's organization and
fully 90% of the people there are of the female persuasion. Why was my instinctual response an attempt to soothe my husband's discomfort, rather than a challenge to the implicit assumption that he couldn't possibly be expected to be the only man in a room full of women, even for one hour? 

Could it possibly be because I've been conditioned to believe that a man's psychological comfort is more important than my time, my effort, or my feelings? That part of my job as a woman and especially as a wife is to protect him from the need to ever confront his unconscious sexism? 

Nah. Couldn't be.

So, without insisting on a discussion of the underlying gender dynamics, I simply said "well, I don't think I can commit to going to gleaner's that often. I guess we won't get any pigs. Even though - look!- these beautiful well-grown piglets are available at an extremely good price." 

As I suspected, Homero's anticipatory hunger won out over his conditioned reluctance to do what had been branded in his mind as "women's work." He said he'd help me get food from gleaner's to feed the pigs. And so we went and bought these incredibly adorable and healthy, larger-than-usual pigs. 

We've had the pigs for two weeks, however, which means six opportunities to go to gleaner's, and Homero has yet to go in my stead. So maybe the joke's on me. 

It was hilarious to watch Haku interacting with the pigs. He clearly had no idea what they were - maybe puppies? He tried to play with them like puppies. He made a play bow, and the pigs looked at him and snuffled. Next he tried pawing them, which they didn't like. 

Even a baby pig is fully capable of defending itself against your average dog. When Haku got too rough, the pigs charged him and bit. Haku snarled in retaliation, and then I stepped in to scold him.

"Gentle!" I said.

"Gentle" is probably the word Haku knows best, after "no." As soon as he heard me say "gentle," he stopped roughhousing and started quietly licking the pigs along the ribs.

The pigs, under this treatment, went into a trance and slowly toppled over on thier sides.  I love this about pigs. Scratch them gently, and they just roll over and lay there with silly smiles on their snouts, legs stiffly akimbo.