backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading, pigs

Adventures in Homesteading, a not-so-country girl’s perspective

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Often when we blog, it’s a joint effort, we both share our thoughts collectively. But, in this particular blog, I am going to give you the perspective of some of the adventures in homesteading from a girl who in no way, shape or form, grew up country or as a farm girl. In fact, I am a product of suburbia. I grew up in a nice house with a neatly manicured lawn on a tree-lined street, everything you might envision a suburb to be.

Fast-forward almost 27 years and here I am, on a small homestead helping to grow and raise our own food. I use the word “help” because I am definitely not the brains of the operation, I can’t even keep a house plant alive. However, I can blanch, freeze, preserve, can and cook just about anything you can imagine, often with rave reviews. Any good employer would tell you that the work team is only as good as its weakest link. And, until last week, I really felt like a pretty weak link. Then I had one of those “adventures in homesteading”.

If you follow us regularly, you know that here on our homestead we raise chickens and pigs. I have certainly experienced the occasional “chicken in the garden”, and anyone who knows me, knows I absolutely hate birds. My way of corralling them is usually with a gentle push from a plastic garden rake and if I have to, and only if I have to, I have been known to use oven mitts or my husband’s welding gloves to pick up a chicken and relocate it to where it belongs. (Just envision Ace Ventura in “When Nature Calls” returning that disgusting bat to its cave.) But, last week’s adventure was way beyond an escapee chicken.IMG_0301

I was pulling in the driveway after a long day, (these things always happen when you are maxed out!), talking to my husband on the phone when I said to him, “Oh my gosh, there is a bear in the yard!”. Now this is not really an unusual occurrence because we have seen bears on many occasions in our yard and on trail cameras not far from our home. But on second look, I quickly realized that it was not a black bear but our almost 300 lb black pig, Olive (named so because of her resemblance to a black olive as a piglet) in the yard, out of her pen! Then suddenly, her co- conspirators, “Pinky and Spot”, came to greet me at the car. Now what? Remember I told you that I was speaking to my husband, the brains of this homestead, on the phone? He was on his way home from work, but still nearly an hour away and instructed me to go get some food to try and lure them back into the pen.

So, time to dig deep. I am certainly not afraid of the pigs. They are sweet, loving, smart animals. But all three at nearly 300 lbs scared me a little because I am no match for a pig that size. If one them leaned on my legs, I would be knocked over in a second. Here is the ironic part, and you just can’t make this stuff up, all three were scheduled to go to the butcher the following morning. Somehow, I feel like they must have known and decided to escape.

Back to the luring. I quickly ran to get the food, and of course, as things happen, I needed to open a new feed bag. I opened the first one I saw and filled about half of a 5 lb bucket, ran back to the front yard and fortunately, we do sell a bit of what we grow, and the rascals, I mean pigs, found a pile of ornamental corn that we had for sale. Ok, this is good, they are all in one place.

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We live on a pretty quiet street that a lot of people walk, run and bike on. A lovely couple passed by as the pigs were annihilating the ornamental corn, and just like it was perfectly normal to see 1000 lbs of pigs in someone’s front yard, they commented on how beautiful they are. I tried my best to smile and thanked them, but you can only imagine what was going through my mind. Back to the wrangling. I grabbed some of the corn and put it in the feed bucket. I made a “trail of corn cobs” towards the pig pen. At one point, “Pinky” desperately wanted the corn in the bucket and she went whole head in. I finally lured Pinky into the pen, and knowing their eating habits, I poured out the contents of the bucket and the other two slowly followed.

Keep in mind, my husband is still on the phone, I am sure feeling helpless and laughing quietly at the same time. (I don’t frequently use foul language, but I needed to wash my mouth out with soap later that night.) He instructed me to try and find how the pigs got out. I surveyed the fence but could not find anything on first glance. After my 45 minute adventure to get them back in, there was no way in you-know-what, that I was leaving them un-attended until the brains got home. So I watched, and waited until….

Pinky bolted, and I mean bolted, for a lower part of the fence. I truly had no idea that pigs could run that fast. (not a country girl, remember?) Fortunately, I followed her and got there first. She lead me right to where they got under the fence. I was able to hold the fence down with my foot and when she realized she was not going to win, she went and laid down for a nap, which I also needed. This was about the time that my better-late-than-never husband arrived. The first thing he said when he saw the food pile, “you gave them chicken food!” We laughed and at the same time, I was exhausted from yet another “adventure in homesteading”.

When I lay my head down every night, I often survey my day and I always hope that I accomplished something. On this particular day, I went to sleep pretty proud of myself for being able to get those pigs back in their pen on my own. I still don’t consider myself a farm or country girl, and I am not ashamed to admit that I paint my nails and get my hair done every month. But on this day, I definitely graduated to a “Homestead Momma”. And oddly, I smiled a bit knowing that not only did I have another “adventure in homesteading”, but I was able to share it with those pigs who were off to freezer camp the next morning. Thank you, girls.

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backyard chickens, cooking, farming, homemade, homesteading, raising turkeys, turkeys

Raising Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner

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When we decided to raise our own turkeys it seemed like something we should have been doing already.  Thoughts of a huge Thanksgiving dinner complete with our own bird ran through our minds.  We had several years of knowledge with other types of poultry,  so we dove right in.  Once we started our research, we found that we would need to order our turkeys fairly early and that a local farm store would be a better option than mail order.  Mail order required a 6 bird minimum and shipping was very expensive.  Because room is at a premium on our homestead we opted for the farm store, their price per bird was less, and they only had a 4 bird minimum, perfect for our needs. We also chose broad breasted whites, due to the fact that they had the best feed conversion (2:1), and grew the quickest.  Now that the birds were ordered, we jumped in with both feet.  Chickens can spread disease to turkeys, so they would need to be kept separate from our chickens.  We understand that there are varying theories on this, but since it was our first experience, we opted for the separation method. We would need to build a separate coop and run.  We settled on an 8×8 coop to give the birds plenty of inside room. And, as we are sure any homesteader will agree, it could also offer us possible future animal or storage space. A 20×20 run with 3′ fencing was also constructed.  We covered the building of the coop in a previous blog, so if you are interested check it out. IMG_3157

When we picked the birds up from the feed store, they peeped the whole 30 minute ride home in the car unless music was playing.  Once home, we settled them into the brooder in the garage we normally use for chickens.  The brooder had a heat lamp to keep them warm and cozy.  They also loved food.

It wasn’t long before we learned our first lesson about turkeys,  they can fly.  They also liked to be outside the brooder.

You know you are a homesteader when you come into your garage and find turkeys scratching, pecking, and pooping in the middle of the floor.  Moments like these always make us smile and remind us that we are not the ones in control.  After several days of the turkeys going rogue , we knew it was time to be moved out to their coop. IMG_3233

They were so happy with all the new space, but most of all they loved the roost.  We also kept a heat lamp in the coop until they had all of their feathers.  Once they were in the coop for a week we started letting them into the run.

At first they were timid, but they soon found their favorite spots to scratch and lay.  As they grew a bit more, we learned more turkey lessons, how they like to roost outside and a 3′ fence is not high enough to keep them in.  At dusk the toms would fly up and roost on the tallest point they could find just outside the fence.  Every night we would have to pick them up and put them inside.  This became more and more difficult as they pushed over 20 lbs.  On occasion they would all decide to fly over the fence and forage in the lawn, they never went far and just like when they escaped in the garage, it made us smile. Walking in the yard and finding a small flock of white turkeys enjoying their life and gobbling is something we became accustomed to.  After 4 months it was time for the turkeys to go to freezer camp. img_4057

We had processed chickens before, so we were confident we could handle the job.  Dispatching a 23 lb turkey is a 2 man job, you will also need a much bigger scalding pot than the one you use for chickens, so plan accordingly.  Lesson learned. The butchering went well and was much easier than we imagined.  The turkeys dressed out at 23 lbs each. img_4058

We used shrink bags and froze 3 turkeys for future use.  This also required a bigger pot than we were used to. Again, lesson learned.

We decided to cook one right away as we had never had a fresh turkey in our lives.  The beautiful bird was brined and placed in the smoker, it was a tight fit but we made it work. img_4159

We also were able to smoke it over apple wood , that we had saved from pruning our apple trees.  After 8 hours of smoking our turkey was done. img_1417

We were amazed by the juiciness, and how different the texture of the meat was compared to ones we had bought from the store.  Because this first bird came out so well, we are confident that this year’s Thanksgiving bird will be amazing.  When we place it on the table surrounded by our family, it will be the fulfillment of a dream that is American as apple pie, and another reminder that learning on the homestead should never stop.  We will never be connected to the meal on our plate more than this Thanksgiving.  And when someone asks us to pass the turkey, we will know exactly what we are feeding our family, and that our food was raised happy and healthy right on our own small, but mighty, Homestead.

canning, farming, gardening, garlic, glass gem corn, growing corn, homesteading, kale, peas

Homestead Harvesting, When the Real Work Begins

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As summer begins to wind down and the warm days of August begin to get shorter, we are blessed with the fruits of our hard labor. Plans made in February have now come to fruition. If we are lucky, large bags of produce begin to come in from the garden.  In some years we have failed crops, which have turned into lessons.  This time of year is a busy time and it is easy to see why our forefathers would have a party or festival after harvest time ends.  A few times of year will test your resolve as much as harvest season, that is why it is important to not only have a plan, but to posses the skills needed to make the most of your harvest.  Another consideration is space for your freshly grown food.  Early on we would often run out of freezer space and/or mason jars.  This is why it is important to think about the harvest early as you would when planning your garden. img_4011

Over the years we have learned how much food we really needed for the winter, we found it best to package our food so that we know how many meals are in each freezer bag.  Too many years we were down to only beans by February. There is one of those lessons learned!

 

 

Early on in the summer, kale, spinach and lettuce begin to come into the house.  We blanch and freeze the kale and spinach (see our previous blog on freezing kale).  We try to keep it in meal sized bags because it can be hard to break apart once frozen.  Sometimes we freeze it in ice cube trays in order to make smaller servings, each cube is perfect for an omelette in the morning.

 

 

Later, onions and garlic are harvested they are laid in the sun for a day or two, then hung in a cool place to cure.  It is important to have good airflow so an oscillating fan on a low speed can really help.  This year we braided the onions which not only helped them dry but made a beautiful display in our kitchen.

 

Next up are the squash and cucumbers.  These guys come in by the bucket load.  They can overwhelm you quickly.  We make lots of pickles and can them with a hot water bath canner.  They are very easy to make.  The squash becomes bread, dinners, and this year we pre-breaded and froze some.  Even with all of these uses we can not use up what we grow.  We came up with a great idea to build a small farm stand when our boys were little.

 

It encouraged them to help in the garden, and taught them a little bit about money.  As they got older and had jobs we took over the stand and use it as a means to offset our ever growing feed and seed costs.  It is fun to design the chalkboard that lists the prices.  And our neighbors are always happy when it is full.

 

In mid August, the tomatoes will start to ripen and it is time to put your nose to the grindstone.  Skinning, seeding, and canning every night can test even the best marriage. We know that there are food mills and products out there to aid in the process, but we find that hand skinning and seeding works best for us and has the highest yield. Plus, getting so up close and personal with your food just makes you appreciate it a little more.

Wave after wave of beautiful fruit will have you seeing tomatoes in your sleep, but you will be happy in December when you pop open a fresh jar from your own garden. A glass of wine while working makes the task seem less like chore, and if your are smart you buy your wife’s favorite vintage.  We can the tomatoes using a water bath canner as well.  If you are getting into homesteading this will be one of the first harvest tools you will need. You will never look at a can of tomatoes in the store the same again.

 

As the tomatoes slow down the peppers will speed up these are easily processed.  You can freeze smaller hot peppers whole.  We like to slice the bell peppers before freezing to save space. We also pickle some of the hot ones for sandwiches.  Along with peppers we harvest corn which we blanch on the cob and then cut off and freeze to save space.

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It is important to freeze in a thin layer on wax paper and then put it in a freezer bag.  If you don’t  you will have one big corn cube.

 

Throughout the summer and fall there are many other vegetables that get harvested such as peas, pumpkins, turnips, beets, beans, carrots and hops.

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Sometimes it seems like the harvest never ends and It can be overwhelming.  The real key is to put something up every night.  When your kitchen table is full of produce you need to attack it the way you attack a dirty room.  Start in one corner and work your way around.  Harvest time can seem glamorous and who doesn’t love to post their harvest pictures on instagram or facebook.  Never forget that these pictures are just a snapshot of hours of hard work and planning.  So the next time you bring in a bag of tomatoes and say “honey we have to can tomatoes tonight” make sure you stopped for that bottle of Chardonnay first.  Happy harvesting.

cooking, farming, gardening, homemade, homesteading, kale, recipes

Freezing Kale, The Test of a Marriage

Why would freezing kale for the winter be a test of a marriage? Let us explain….

We live in the Northeast and our winters can be very long, and for an anxious gardener, it can be tough mentally. So as soon as possible, we like to get our hands dirty and get our cold weather crops in the ground, those that can tolerate a cold spring and even a little frost, such as spinach, collards, broccoli, some lettuces and of course, kale.

We jumped on the kale bandwagon a few years ago. We were curious about this proclaimed “super food”. We already loved spinach and all the ways it can be used, so why not try kale? It was love at first bite. We use kale in many ways, sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, raw in salads, creamed kale, used to stuff pork loin and venison roasts (see our recipe for Kale and Sausage Stuffed Venison), mixed in our morning eggs, the list goes on and on.

Back to the marriage thing. Kale is just one of the vegetables that grows in abundance and gives you more than you think one little plant could. So, on an early June day, the question came, “Do you have anything I can put all this kale in?” I was a little frightened, but I suggested one of our large coolers as we have used a big cooler in the past to clean kale. So happily my husband went about his business picking kale and not one, but two, coolers arrived on our back deck and were full to the top!

Uh-oh, now the work of preserving begins, and the test of our marriage. We have a very traditional marriage here on the homestead, and not because we think each other has a place, but because we both enjoy our responsibilities and do them well. He loves everything outdoors and she loves to cook, preserve food, and take care of the house. It just works. But, an overwhelming amount of kale can be stressful to anyone!

The first step is to fill the coolers (sink or large bowl, whatever your cleaning vessel is) with enough water so that the kale floats. Give the kale a little agitation with your hands and leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. What happens is that any dirt, which is heavier than the kale, will fall to the bottom of the cooler. This trick also works for lettuce, broccoli, etc.

After the dirt has settled, the cleaning and stripping process begins. Get yourself set up with three large bowls. One for the un-cleaned kale, one for the leaves and one for the stems. You will see later that nothing goes to waste on a homestead.

Grab the kale stem by where it was removed from the plant and slide your other hand down the stem. The leaves will come off easily. For some of the bigger leaves, there is a secondary thick stem-like vein that will run through the leaves that we also remove.

Because of the overwhelming amount in this kale harvest, we decided to process it in small batches. It helps with keeping one from going “kale blind”. Once your cleaned kale bowl is full, it’s time to move to the kitchen. We were lucky, it was a beautiful June day so all of the cleaning could be done outside.

On your stovetop, bring a large pot of water to a boil and on your counter have a large bowl of ice water, a slotted spoon (or our favorite tool for this job is a spider, which is used for frying) and a colander for straining excess water.

Once the water is boiling, drop about two large handfuls of kale in the water and push it down with your spoon to immerse. In about five seconds, yes only five, the kale will wilt and become the most stunning shade of green. That’s your cue to remove it with your slotted spoon or spider and put it immediately in the ice water. This method is called “shocking”, which stops the cooking process and keeps that beautiful green color.

Once ice cold, transfer the kale to the colander and our trick here is to weigh it down with a small, but mighty, cast iron pan to aid in removing any excess water as we are not trying to make kale ice cubes here. Additionally, once the excess water is strained in the colander, we also hand squeeze bunches of kale to remove any remaining water.

The kale is then transferred to a large cookie sheet lined with wax paper, placed in one layer. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer for about 30 minutes to just set the kale enough to put in a zip top freezer bag or vacuum sealer bag. The pre-freezing helps with not making that giant kale cube. Trust us on this one, that mistake has been made. Label your bag, put in your slightly frozen kale, and before sealing, press out any excess air to keep away that dreaded freezer burn. Whenever you need, just grab a bag out of your freezer and take out a handful.

Remember all of those stems……fellow homesteaders know, nothing ever goes to waste!

It’s that easy, just time consuming, and hopefully, once you have spent your entire day processing two large coolers full of kale, you will still be married, and love your spouse for all his or her hard work. I know we do, especially next winter when we are enjoying the fruits, or vegetables in this case, of our labor!

gardening, Home Brewing, homemade, homesteading

The Best Father’s Day Gift Ever, Hops!!

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Many years ago on Father’s day, I received one very special gift.  It was a gift that would keep on giving.  No it wasn’t a membership in the “jelly of the month club”, it was a small Columbia hop plant.  I had brewed beer for years and always fantasized about growing my own hops.  I say that it was the gift that kept on giving because hops are perennial and come back every year.  I began to do some research and soon found out that hops can grow more than 20′ tall in a year. I would definitely need to build a hop trellis, and I also had to pick a location where they could grow year after year.  Hops are also deadly to dogs and cats, so I needed to keep them away from our pets.  I constructed a trellis from landscaping timbers and secured it to the ground with guide wires.  The wires would also serve as the place where the hops could climb.  I prepared the soil with peat moss and composted manure and planted my hops. IMG_5781

I was amazed at how fast the vine grew, sometimes more than a foot a day.  It curled its way up the wire and reached the top of my 16′ trellis quickly.IMG_6100

The vine then began to branch out and formed the beginnings of hop cones.  We stripped the leaves from the bottom few feet of the vine to prevent mold growth.  As the cones formed, I began to contemplate all of the delicious beer I would be brewing.IMG_6772

When the cones are fully formed, they will be full of lupulin inside.  It is a sticky yellow substance.  As I checked for ripeness, I smelled that familiar aroma.  Hops are ready to be picked when they sound like tissue paper being crushed.  We picked our hops and dried them on a screen, turning them twice a day. IMG_3139

After a few days we packed them in vacuum bags and put them in the freezer for future use.  Harvesting hops is a joyous occasion and it is customary to drink a beer when harvesting.  Hops have become a fun addition to the homestead and because they do not require replanting each year, they cost us almost no money to grow, just like our apple trees and vineyard.  We usually brew beer in the winter and adding our own hops to a recipe gives us a wonderful sense of satisfaction. Picking up a handful of your own hops and sniffing them makes you feel like a master brewer for a day.  Growing these hops will always remind me of that Father’s day, and I hope that bine(what the hop vine is called) and memory lasts as long as I do. So if you are a dad, drop a hint. If you have a dad, you now have a gift idea.  And when you brew your first batch of beer be sure to send one my way.

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