26 December 2008

The coolest kid present under the tree this year

All three kids received a vehicle from Automoblox this year ... and this was by far the coolest kid present under the tree. :)

Automoblox are primarily wood and polycarbonate (bullet proof glass strength plastic), with interchangeable parts (which is why having three vehicles in the house is really cool, they can trade bits and pieces, making all kinds of different vehicles from the available parts). The whole idea behind these toys is ... well, here's what the company has to say:

We live in a world where toys are a disposable commodity. The founders of Automoblox believe however, that we may be giving our children a harmful message. We feel that it's better to have one great toy instead of 10 cheap ones. It is this thinking that enabled us to engineer Automoblox to last. ... Designed as a heirloom toy from the get-go, we anticipated the bond between the child and the toy to be so great that they would wish to save Automoblox and pass it on to their own child.

These are durable, well built toys. The kids played with them off and on all day, running them along the floor, swapping pieces, and generally just ... being kids with toy cars. The Boy is on the floor beside me as I type, asking me to pick out pieces for the new car he is creating (which headlights, Mom? Okay, which roof?)

If you are looking for a gift for a child (or several children), and you want it to last *and* be fun ... let me pass on the whole-hearted recommendation of the kids in this house: Automoblox are awesome.

(They have a new set of mini cars, too, which are much less expensive ... although the full size versions are certainly worth their price!)

A beautiful reflection on hope in changing times

A father in Ireland writes of his dreams and hopes for his four year old daughter, as the world changes into something we cannot clearly see:

She loves animals as much as any child, and we talk in detail about where they live, what makes them mammals or birds or bugs, what they eat and what they do for us and each other. For now, it is just a game, but over time, perhaps, she will make connections.

She knows, in recited pieces of theory at least, how to cook, how to make yogurt and sourdough starter, how to compost. In time, I want her to learn how to ride and bridle, speak different languages, hunt, be sceptical, think logically and organize people. I can’t completely predict what she will face, nor can I plan her life, but I can show her a beginning.

found via Sharon Astyk, via Crunchy Con.

And, while you're at it, read Sharon's lovely reflections on Chanukah:

6. Fifth Candle

When the candles burn down and flicker

The light pools
In intersecting circles with the light
From my neighbor’s tree.

If anti-assimilationism is the central message of the history of Chanukah, we should remember that we are not the only people who celebrate the restoration of the light. If there is a single work to be done in the next decade, it is to build community in every sense of the word. We need not assimilate, in fact, we should not, because we cannot afford to lose any more diversity. But we cannot close the doors on one another. It is always easier to build community with people who are like you, with the same values and the same ideas, maybe people from the same family, or with the same experiences, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we have lived the last decades as though the people we cannot see, the people downstream from us, out of sight or in other nations, do not matter. So at the same time that we strengthen the ties with those who are like us, we absolutely must strive to create a new recognition of the other, a new way of connecting, of at a minimum, doing no harm, and just possibly, joining some of our pools of light.

24 December 2008

Words of Wisdom in my Inbox

My aunt sent me one of those 'lists of things to think about' today ... and it was exactly what I needed!

Here are my favourites, just in case something on this list happens to be exactly what you need today, too!

  • Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day. Talk to God about what is going on in your life. Buy a lock if you have to.
  • Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants.
  • Don't waste your precious energy on gossip, energy vampires, issues of the past, negative thoughts or things you can not control. Instead, invest your energy in the positive present moment.
  • Life isn't fair, but it's still good.
  • Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.
  • Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does!
  • Make peace with your past so it won't spoil the present.
  • Don't compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
  • Frame every so-called disaster with these words: 'In five years, will this matter?'
  • Forgive everyone for everything.
  • What other people think of you is none of your business.
  • However good or bad a situation is, it will change.
  • When you are feeling down, start listing your many blessings. You'll be smiling before you know it.

Life is good! We are blessed!

Let's not forget those important details in the rush and bustle of every day. :)

Blessings to you!

18 December 2008

It's Christmas time!

Well, our tree has been standing in the living room for several days now with lights on it but nothing else. Scheduling and logistics prevented any further decorating ... but tonight, we were all home and we got it all prettied up!

There is snow on the tree. Yes, snow - we use a very old recipe for snow that involves mixing Ivory Snow with water until it is like whipped cream. You have to use the real pure soap flake kind, and I am fortunate enough to have a precious and carefully rationed box purchased a few years back at an antique show of all places! I've put snow on the tree for as long as I can remember, and a tree with no snow on it just doesn't seem finished.

The decorations are up, there are presents around the tree, and The Boy has set up his Lego train running in a circle around the whole thing. It looks awesome.

Pictures to be posted soon. :)

11 December 2008

Life, little by little

Life just goes on by ... moment by moment, little by little.

And once in awhile, I stop to think about bigger things.

My little girl was born on Valentine's Day in 1995, and she lived for only half an hour after she was born. Thirty minutes was her whole life span. I have often wasted that much time watching some TV show I wasn't even really interested in, or wandering a shopping mall when I didn't need anything and didn't even want to be out.

Remembering the few minutes that made up her short life, I try to make the most of all the minutes I have been given. I don't always succeed, but I do try. The question of how to make the most of my life is one of those 'bigger things' that sometimes needs pondering.

I am forty years old, which means I am most likely about halfway through my own life span, although none of us know for sure how many days we will be given. What am I going to do with these days?

The simple answer is that I want to make the world a better place. The Jewish term is 'tikkun olam', the repair of the world, and it is something that I believe we are all called to do. Sometimes it seems that the repair that the world needs is just too large, there is too much to do, it is too big of a problem, and Someone Else will have to fix it. I mean, I can't solve world hunger by myself or wave my hands and say "We need world peace. Yes, right now. Great. Thank you for your cooperation."

What I can do is try to make a lasting impact where I am, to repair my little corner of the world.

I can improve the land that is under my stewardship, maintaining the native plants and grasses, putting the compost back into the garden to replenish what I take out as food, planting windbreaks and shelter trees for animals both domestic and wild. I can treat the animals in my care kindly, and ensure they have all they need and are given the opportunity to be what God made them to be - chickens free to scratch in the dirt, mother animals raising their own young, sheep and cows let out to graze in green pastures. I can make responsible choices about resource usage, ensuring that I use no more than my fair share of the world's limited resources ... less if I can manage it.

There is so much that needs doing, and sometimes, it seems like my efforts are too tiny, too small to matter. I am just one person, and I have only these few moments. Still, each moment well spent is not wasted, no matter how few of them there may be.

Each time someone

plants a tree
grows a tomato
saves a seed
puts peelings in the compost
drives a little less
mends a pair of jeans
gives away an old winter coat
harvests saskatoon berries for jam
hugs a child
scratches a dog's ears
kisses a donkey on the nose
lets a setting hen raise some chicks
knits a sock
smiles at someone
or does any of a thousand other tiny acts of purposeful kindness and responsibility

the world is repaired, little by little.

07 December 2008

Winter, finally

It finally snowed!

Good thing, as it is nearly Christmas, and it looked all wrong having everything brown and sorry looking.

The tank heater is plugged in, the hay is piled up, and the barn and sheep shelter are filled with straw for everyone to sleep in. The cats were curled six-to-a-bucket in the barn when I left tonight, purring contentedly.

Yay for winter!

(It's much easier to say that when you are sitting in front of a cheerful wood stove, and there's plenty of firewood stacked outside!)

The wonders of modern medicine

Last week, young Dinosaur Boy (The Reluctant Farmer's six year old son) had a sore elbow while he was at his mom's house. Under questioning he admitted to having been jumping off the stairs, so it was quite naturally assumed that the pain was a logical consequence of having collided with something during some spectacular landing or other.

However, the next morning, he couldn't move his arm at all. He went to the doctor, who could find no signs of injury consistent with stair-leaping, and so he was sent in to the hospital for more investigation. It turns out that Dinosaur Boy had a bacterial infection in the elbow joint, something not at all uncommon in kids, and required IV antibiotics and fluid drained from the elbow immediately. He was admitted, and responded very well to the medication, which meant that surgery was not required, thankfully. He was very brave about everything, and really enjoyed being able to watch cartoons all day and have mom and dad right there to read books or play games.

He was in the hospital for a few days, and then released with a PICC line so he can have IV antibiotics administered at home. Yep, we have become experts at administering IV medication, so long as we don't have to poke anyone. The PICC line looks like a regular IV line at the arm, but inside the body it snakes up towards the heart, so the medication that is injected is dumped into the body where the blood vessels are larger and can adapt to the onslaught of chemicals much better. I had to have IV antibioitics every 8 hours for more than a week after The Boy was born, and after every two or three injections they'd have to move the line since the blood vessels in my arms would get irritated and sore from the medication, even when it was thoroughly diluted. I wish someone had offered me a PICC line then, I'd have taken it in a heartbeat!

Anyway, the medication run will last for close to a month, depending on the results of his follow up visits, but we have a system all worked out so it's not really wreaking havoc on our lives. The Reluctant Farmer is spending his days in town when the kids are with us, so that he can pick them up a little early from school and be home in time for the 3 pm IV run, but since he can work with his laptop at Starbucks or the library, it's not too much of an inconvenience. Since there's no pain at all with the line once it's in place, there's no fuss and no argument ... it just gets done.

We are immensely grateful for the wonders of modern medicine: in 'the old days' this kind of thing would result in permanent joint damage (there is still a possibility that there'll be some lasting damage, but it'll be minor) and possibly widespread septicemia (which is life-threatening) ... but with the quick diagnosis and administration of effective medication, all is well. And we are grateful.

23 November 2008

Things you can do with baling twine

Just about anyone who feeds round bales to their stock is familiar with baling twine. It's true that some people use netting to wrap their bales, but I have a deep dislike for that stuff - it freezes to the ground in the winter, as well as to the bale, and it always seems to shred rather than peel off nicely. Luckily for me, the people I get my hay from feel the same way, and they use plain old orange baling twine.

Now, plain old orange baling twine has it's challenges too - you do need a knife to cut it (you can't break it with your hands), sometimes it gets rather embedded in the hay of the bale and it's hard to pull it off, and it will eventually shred into frayed bits if pieces of it are left out for too long. Everyone gets into the habit of picking up any pieces that are lying around - animals can get it caught around their feet, and some will even eat it, although I have no idea why it would seem appetizing.

Still, it is useful stuff. You can use it to tie a gate shut, fasten the ends of rolls of fencing wire so they don't unroll, even weave a patch for a hole in the fence.

This week, though, I discovered you can knit with the stuff. It seemed to me that this fairly stiff plastic twine would make good raw material for a boot mat. So, I cast on 75 stitches on some 6.5 mm needles, and off I went in garter stitch. I haven't got very much completed yet, but it is working out just as I had envisioned. I found some comments online from people who have had similar ideas, so it's not exactly a novel thought ... but, it seems to be working.

I'll post a picture when it's done.

The Reluctant Farmer becomes a Fireman

The Reluctant Farmer has joined our local volunteer fire department!

I'm so proud of him.

Every week he goes to a meeting at the fire hall and learns something new - last week they tried out all the small equipment like chain saws, generators, and gasoline powered cutting tools. He even has a set of equipment hanging on pegs in the hall, just waiting for him to complete enough training to be able to go with everyone else when a call comes in.

Most of his training will be accomplished in the weekly sessions at the fire hall, but there are some 'bigger' things to be done as well. Last week, The Reluctant Farmer took two days off of work and attended First Aid training, and now has his CPR and standard first aid certification. He's been looking at all the different courses available and trying to figure out when he can fit them into his very busy schedule, so that he can start answering calls.

He says that all he really wants is to drive the fire truck ... but I know he wants to be a part of something important and do something for the community as a whole.

I can't wait to see him on the big red truck in the annual parade! :)

11 November 2008


Today I made two batches of broth. In my previous life, I didn't eat a lot of meat and what meat we did cook generally came in some kind of bone-free configuration. Now, however, dealing directly with the butchers, we tend to get more bone-in stuff ... and those bones are still a good source of nutrition and shouldn't be allowed to go to waste.

So ... I'm learning to make broth.

The Reluctant Farmer picked up a really big stock pot at Princess Auto (for oh, $14 or something) and we just put two additional filters in the British Berkefeld water filter (meaning it runs water through twice as fast, so it's not such a big deal to use up the water that is there). First two hurdles overcome: pot and water. Check.

Next, bones. I have been putting the bones from our meals (with whatever meat is still attached) in The Bone Bowl in the freezer, and then when it's time to make broth, I grab the bones and dump them in the stock pot with some water. Today I did two batches: one of ham broth (half of which subsequently became the base for a pot of pea soup), and one of lamb (and possibly some beef, I can't remember what all those bones were from). The Green Cookbook provided the list of spices to add to the broth, and somewhere or other I gathered the information that a shot of vinegar helps pull out the calcium from the bones. Since we were all home today (and it was cold), the fireplace was on all day, and the stock pot just sat there on top of the wood stove, burbling away. I peeled potatoes for the dinner stew (cooking in the slow cooker on the counter) and tossed the peels in with the simmering broth to add a bit more nutrition and flavour. I also added a shot of the dehydrated garden greens I put up this summer (mostly beet tops, but some carrot and radish greens are in the mix as well).

When the whole batch was done cooking, the broth was scooped out and poured through a filter, then set to cool. Any fat that congeals on the surface will be scooped off with a spoon and put in a different jar to be rendered into clean lard or tallow later on (or potentially just added to dog food in the winter to help them through the cold days). The clean broth can then go into the freezer for use in stews and soups over the winter. The leftover bits of meat and such are fed to the outside critters (after all the smaller bones are removed, to avoid having anyone choke).

It's really not all that time consuming, and it's certainly more cost effective than buying canned broth or even bullion cubes ... and when you know what all the ingredients are and exactly how it was prepared, somehow, that just seems like a good thing.

I do feel tired sometimes, thinking that I don't really "take a break" anywhere near as often as I would like - there is always something else to do. Sometimes I want to whine about that, it's true. Still, I try to remind myself that a big part of what I am doing is practicing new skills: if I didn't have a well-paying job to go to, I wouldn't mind doing these things ... mostly because I wouldn't be squeezing them in on weekends and days off, they'd just be part of my every day work. However, should these kinds of tasks become my every day work (because I no longer have my well-paying job, for instance) ... well, that wouldn't really be the moment to stop and learn how to do these things. If you need to be sure that if you had to, you could make broth from scratch or put in a successful garden or properly put up the harvest from said garden, well, you'd better have practiced those things earlier, back when you had other options in case your experiments didn't turn out as well as you might have hoped. This year, for instance, I'm really glad we can buy tomatoes at the store - our crop didn't mature before the frost hit. (Next year, I'm going to try some earlier varieties.)

Options. Alternatives. It's nice to have them.

When I bow my head to say grace at dinner after a long day at work, I try to remember to be thankful for the job that has made me weary, because even though I might have rather spent the day doing other things, my tiredness means I have a good paycheque coming and the bills will be paid. On days when I have worked hard on farm jobs or gardening or preserving and my body aches all over and I think I might just be too tired to lift my spoon, I try to remember to be thankful for the opportunity to have worked to exhaustion, because it means I have been making good use of the skills and the land that we have been blessed with.

We really are very fortunate. I could still be living in my little suburban duplex, trudging the long hour and a half commute to a soulless Dilbert job that left me drained and miserable, with bass stero rhythms pounding from teenager's cars outside my window every night. I still have a long commute, but it's a fairly pleasant country drive, and I work with great people doing reasonably interesting things. When I come home, I can look out the window and see the animals munching on hay, and I rest my head against the flank of my lovely cow every morning and hear the sound of milk streaming into the steel bucket between my feet. I look in the potato bin and the pantry and see the results of this year's garden, and I know that next year we can do even more.

Blessed indeed.

08 November 2008

The Green Cookbook

One of my most precious posessions is The Green Cookbook.

It's actual title is "Cooking for American Homemakers", and it was published by the Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago in 1965.

My mom received it as a gift from her mother, and she gave it to me. It has instructions for all sorts of basic things that people take for granted - like how to cook eggs in their shells, or how to cut fresh bread easily (use a hot knife). It has recipes for things we wouldn't consider 'regular food', like roasted squirrels and calf's brains (I'm serious). However, it also has information about everything basic to cooking ... like what "heated to the hard-crack stage" means when you're talking about candymaking.

I found an online recipe for mullein cough drops, and, since I grew mullein in the garden this year, I wanted to try it. I was stumped, however, by the directions. "Heat to the hard crack stage" means .. what?

Well, the Green Cookbook had the answer. The hard crack stage means the sugar mixture has been heated to 300 degrees Farenheit, or, when dropped into very cold water it separates into threads which are hard and brittle.

I did manage to make mullein cough candy today - it tastes a lot like molasses, and even if I did make a rather large mess of the kitchen, it was a good practice run.

Today's jobs...

Today was 'clean out the barn' day. On the weekends I try to give the barn stalls a good thorough mucking out - The Boy does the quick-and-dirty cleanup daily (there's probably a pun in there somewhere), and then on the weekend I try to get the big cleanup done.

The Reluctant Farmer was off doing errands in town this afternoon, so I fired up the bobcat and managed to move a bale of straw to a more convenient location. I took one of the windows out of the barn (they are held in place by moveable latches so that it's easy to get them out if need be), then unrolled part of the bale and forked it into the already-mucked-out barn through the window opening. From there, it was easy to distribute the straw to the previously cleared out stalls, and now everyone has lots of nice clean bedding to lie on at night. One of the sheep stalls is ready for use, and the other is serving as temporary straw storage. If we had to put someone in that stall in a hurry, it'd be a simple matter to remove the excess, but having it right there means it's easy to freshen up the cow's stalls with clean straw on a day to day basis. Lambing is still a ways off, so this seems workable.

I also noticed that we had gotten down to the last bit of the hay bale, so while the bobcat was running, I managed to pick up a new bale and position it in the hay feeding area. This was not as easy as it sounds: I had to use the new 'baby bobcat' (we sold the great big one, as it was more machine than we needed, and I'm not used to the new one yet). We have a set of forks that attach to the bobcat bucket, and it was a bit of a challenge to get everything set up and ready to go. Still, I managed. The Reluctant Farmer is way better at bobcat work than I am, but I try to be at least basically competent with all the machinery and tools we use, just in case I have to do things when he is not around. If he's here, I let him do it ... but it's good to be able to take care of things yourself, too.

I must say that our feeding strategy seems to be working quite well: having the sheep locked out while we lay the hay on the ground keeps them at least mostly clean, and they aren't wasting as much as I feared they might. Putting one bale at a time into the 'storage area' makes feeding everyone a matter of forking hay from bale to feed area (for both sheep and cows), with very few steps required. Efficiency is a good thing! Of course this past week the sheep managed to work around the previous fencing that surrounded the bale storage area ... so The Reluctant Farmer built a solid panel that has been highly effective at keeping the sheep away from the bale.

Other jobs today included relocating "chickenville" (the three chicken tractor houses) to a new location that is more level, brushing Mackenzie (who had some really nasty matted fur that had to be cut off, and very long dew claws that had to be trimmed), and scraping the feed pen clean with the bobcat.

Just another Saturday at Apple Jack Creek.

01 November 2008

We are wired for wind

The wind tower went up today!

Our neighbours came by to help with the installation, and the whole process went quite smoothly. We had perfect weather: no wind to push the tower around while we were putting it up, the sun was out and it was a beautifully warm day.

The tower is a telescoping style device: it starts off at about 12 feet high, and has two more pieces nested inside the base. You turn a winch to extend it upwards, and fully extended it's about 40 feet tall. The turbine is mounted on the top and a long wire extends from it's generator down the inside of the tower, through a piece of rubber conduit to the power centre used by the solar panels. At the power centre it is connected to one of the many wires in the heavy duty cable that runs from the solar panels to the house, and at the house, it is connected directly to the batteries. As Solar Neighbour explained it to me, the power from the wind generator goes directly to the batteries, and the power from the solar panels goes to the charge controller which feeds the batteries until they are full, and will shunt any excess power elsewhere if it becomes necessary. Since the wind generator will never produce enough power to overload the batteries, it can 'go first in line', and the solar panels can be managed to fill up the rest of the power capacity.

We have three guy wires attached to hold the tower steady, and there are three more backup lines to go up as well. If the tower ever collapsed, it would most likely take the solar panels with it so we are putting in some extra backup lines just to be sure.

So far the blades are still, as the wind is pretty much non-existent today... but it won't be long! It'll be really exciting to know that when the wind howls around the house in the middle of the night we're making power.

Solar Neighbour has more pictures ... check back for updates later!

27 October 2008

almost winter

Winter is getting closer every day - when I go out to milk the cow in the mornings, I see a skiff of snow on the ground, and in the shadowy areas of the yard, sometimes there's a trace of white on the grass even late in the morning.

It is a relief to have most of the 'must be done before winter' tasks completed. There is still more to do, of course, there always is, but we have a lot accomplished already, and it is good to stop and take note of what we have managed to get done.

We have fencing in place to hold everyone for the winter. This was a big job, and it's taken some time to figure out the best layout that keeps the animals close enough to manage in the cold weather and yet still gives them access to the shelter and the space they need to be comfortable. The sheep feeding pen is in place, and working well so far (there's a fair bit of wasted hay, but we're working on that), and the cows have a big hay feeder and a comfy barn. The gates are sturdier than they've ever been, and we have moveable panels that we can configure in a variety of ways, giving us more flexibility.

The addition of the cows did require some careful planning: the cows move in and out of the barn every day, but the sheep only need to get in the barn if there is a problem. This meant we needed easy barn access for cows and reasonably easy barn access for sheep. We ended up dividing the winter pasture into two sections, with the one directly in front of the barn doors designated for the cows, and putting a small gate from the sheep feed pen into the barn 'courtyard', which we can use to move a sheep into the barn if the need arises.

Winter also means worrying about frozen water troughs and plugging in tank heaters. To simplify our chores and ease our electrical bill, we made an opening under the fence between the sheep and cow pastures that is sized to hold a water trough. The trough slides under the fence and the sheep drink from one side and the cows drink from the other. This way we need only one tank heater in play, and we have only one trough to fill. It's a bit of a hassle to pull it out to empty it, but the animals don't seem to mind sharing, so that's good at least. While the weather is cold but not downright freezing we have been using two heavy duty bubblers (sort of like the kind you put in an aquarium) to keep the water moving. So far, this has kept the water from icing over. It won't work in the deep cold of full winter, but the bubblers use much less energy than a heater, so we'll use them for as long as we can.

The Reluctant Farmer got the chimney swept (a messy dirty job, but one we very much appreciate), and we have had fires going the last few nights. Tonight we'll burn a special chemical log that helps keep the creosote on the chimney to a minimum. We have a good bit of wood cut and stacked, although The Reluctant Farmer plans to go cut some more, as it's hard to have too much stocked up.

This morning we woke up to find the grid power was out - the Boy and The Reluctant Farmer got laptops fired up in the 'original house' (which runs on solar power) and with a fire going in the wood stove they were comfortable and able to work. During the winter they'll probably work near the fire more often, so it'll be even more important to have a good store of wood set by. The wood is nearly free (this stuff costs time, of course, and the fuel for the chainsaw, but the trees are ones that had to be cut down anyway to bring the power lines through), so it makes sense to heat with wood when we can.

Oh, and the cement is in place for the base of the wind tower: it's had time to cure now, and we should be raising the tower and hooking up the wind generator in another few days. We had a huge windstorm on the weekend that knocked down trees and caused some substantial damage around us (none here, thankfully - an old tree did come down but it didn't hit anything on the way to the ground) ... capturing all that energy would be a good thing, but we'll certainly want plenty of guy wires in place to stabilize the tower!

I'm so glad we are able to have power and heat even when the grid is down. Mornings like today make me realize just how good it is that we have alternatives to the 'usual way'. Then again, mornings like today also make me realize that if I didn't have to follow the artificial schedule set by the office workday schedule, I could follow the schedule set by nature and not even try to get started until the sun comes up!

19 October 2008

How to save on your heating bill this winter, without spending a fortune

We have a lot of glass in this house. We like having all those south facing windows as they give us light and warmth, however, once the sun goes down, all that glass is a rapid heat-transfer system, swapping the heat from indoors with the bone chilling cold of an Alberta winter night.

Last year, when we had the really long, really awful cold snap I did make some window quilts and they made a huge difference. The trouble is, hanging them is a real hassle, and on cold days, although we'd like the sunshine, the window panes are still very cold to the touch ... meaning if we uncover them, we're losing precious indoor heat through the glass.

We did purchase some Energy Film at Home Depot last year and tried it on one of the windows: the stuff actually works really well! There is a bit of distortion when you look out the window, but it's not significant, we can still see the sheep and chickens and cats and cows, and the odd little warble in the view is of no consequence. A very simple test proved the effectiveness of the plastic film: just touch the uncoated glass with one finger, and the coated glass with another. The difference in temperature is dramatic.

The downside, of course, is that this stuff is expensive. It's around $30 (perhaps a bit more, I can't quite recall) for a 24"x48" piece. Now, we do need to see out of some of the windows, so it's worth it to pay the extra so we have 'viewports' that are not covered by heavy drapes or other cold blocking techniques, but we certainly can't afford to cover every window with this stuff.

This is where the bubblewrap comes in. You've probably seen this suggested somewhere or other and thought it was too weird to be true ... but it really does work, and it really is both cheap and easy.

We picked up three 20'x24" rolls of bubble wrap at Staples for about $12 per roll (yes, that is twenty feet of bubble wrap), and covered almost all of the remaining windows in the house. We'll need another few rolls (and a ladder) to finish the high front windows, but this morning's chill temperatures gave me the opportunity to try the 'finger test' on the bubblewrap as well: yup, it works.

There's still a chilly space between the curtains and the window, and we use fairly heavy draperies that go all the way to the floor wherever we can. This provides a space for that 'cool air pocket' to sit, further slowing the transfer of heat to outside and cold to inside.

If you want to try this, here's what to do:
  • Get your hands on some bubblewrap. The stuff with the tiny bubbles worked better for me than the stuff with the medium sized bubbles, and I didn't even want to attempt using the stuff with the great big bubbles, but use whatever you can find.
  • Get a spray bottle and a pair of scissors.
  • Go to the window you want to cover, and unroll the bubblewrap. Hold one edge against the bottom of the window, stretch up to the top, and mark the place where you need to cut. It's really easy to cut straight lines on bubble wrap: the bubbles act as built in guidelines.
  • Cut the bubblewrap to fit inside the window, without much overlap onto the frame, and ideally, without much open glass. Lots of our window panes are just a bit over 24", so we just leave the edges uncovered, or, if we need to see out some of the time, snug the bubblewrap right up against one edge and leave an open space where you can peer out at the world.
  • Get your spray bottle (filled with water or vinegar and water, or whatever you clean windows with) and spray the entire window, generously.
  • Push the bubble wrap against the wet window and squish it into place, smoothing from the middle out so that the whole thing is smushed into the water and against the glass. I tried some with the bubble-side-in and some with the smooth-side-in, and I think I've settled on bubble-side-in as being a better stick. Some of your bubble wrap may flop over and peel itself off after a day or two, don't lose heart: just respray and restick. Eventually it'll decide to stay put. I think some of it needs a bit of time to adjust to an unrolled position.
  • Voila: you have now started on the road to saving a bunch of money on your heating bill, you have improved the comfort level of humans who must sit near these windows, and you are still getting sunshine into the room!

If you want to try the Energy Film, you might want to consider what we did on the patio door as a cost-saving measure: we have a large, three-pane door. We do need to see out of this door, as it looks out over one of the pastures. We hung one piece of Energy Film on the centre panel, and all the rest of the glass (including the bottom portion of the center panel which the Energy Film didn't cover) is coated in bubble wrap. Lots of light, some restriction of the view, but we can still see outside. Also, it turns out that the bubble wrap with tiny bubbles will fit behind the patio door when it is slid open, so you can even put bubble wrap on the 'underneath' panel of your door, and still get the door open.

Here's to keeping warm and using less fuel to do it!

For more energy saving ideas, check out Solar Gary's excellent site: here's his article on bubble wrap insulation, it includes a calculation of the payback period, too ... which is very short!

The Boy's Experiment, or, the Wonders of Compost

The Boy had an assignment to do for Science class: he had to take two jars, plant seeds in each, and then add compostable materials and a worm (if he could find one) to one jar, and leave the other as a control.

Here are his observations:

(Describe what you smell and see, measure the height of the plant, count the number of leaves and describe their shape and colour.)
Week 1
Jar 1 is the one without compost, jar 2 has compost. Jar 1 has 2 small sprouts and smells like dirt. Its 2 plants are 13mm and 2mm. Jar 2 has 3 small sprouts and smells like apples as I added left over apple skins to it. Jar 2’s plants are 13mm, 2mm, and 1mm. Jar 2 also has a worm.
Week 2
Jar 1 has 1 plant now which is 11mm tall and it still smells like dirt. Jar 2 has 2 plants and they are 30mm and 27mm tall and smells like compost. All of the plants have three leaves that look pretty green (see Jar 2 week 3 for best leaf picture). Jar 2 also now has some eggshells.
Week 3
Jar 1 smells like plain old dirt and now has 6 leaves and grew to 20mm tall. But the other two in jar 1 are far ahead at 60 and 50mm tall with 10 leaves each. It smells like compost still and all the leaves are very green. We also found out we are growing carrots.
Week 4
Jar 1’s sprout grew to 35mm and it still smells like dirt and has 6 leaves. Jar 2’s are 90 and 120mm tall with 13 and 18 leaves. It smells like fresh dirt and plants and the leaves are not purple; they're still green.

The pictures tell an amazing story of their own:

Compost works!

The barn has a door!

The barn now has a door!

With the cold weather coming, we decided that a door for the barn would be very welcome. It's not really necessary for the cows and sheep, they would be warm enough inside with straw bedding and walls to keep out the wind, but when it's time to get milk in the mornings or assist with lambing, we humans would definitely appreciate four solid walls!

The Reluctant Farmer stopped at UFA and picked up the necessary hardware to hang a sliding door. There's a long tube with a slot on the bottom, special hangers to suspend it from the barn wall, and two rollers that move smoothly along the tracks to slide the door back and forth. if you look really closely, you can see a small metal piece at the bottom left of the door opening: that's a catch to hold the door when it slides shut, so that it doesn't bang in the wind but is held tight against the building.

The door will be painted in the next few days (the weather is looking reasonable for this sort of thing) and then we'll be all ready for winter!

I suppose saying something like that pretty much guarantees an early snowfall, doesn't it? Maybe I'd better be quiet.

The Reluctant Farmer and his Chickens

As you can see from the photo, the Reluctant Farmer is anything but reluctant when it comes to his chickens. :)

The new junior hens that he purchased are doing really well outside, the gray and white ones are Barred Rocks, and there's an Ameraucana hen who is very friendly and has the oddest looking green legs. There were three lovely Isa Brown hens, but we have only been able to locate one recently ... although we have had sightings of a hen that could possibly be the second one.

Egg production has been very low of late, which is normal come winter, especially with older chickens. The new junior hens are just about ready to start laying, and the Reluctant Farmer has rigged lights in the coops, so we are hopeful this will improve the rate of production.

The Reluctant Farmer is most interested in two breeds: the Ameraucana and the Barred Rock. We have 18 barred rock chicks still inside and doing well (we lost one to a bad case of 'eye guck', but everyone else is growing like crazy), but we've only got the one Ameraucana hen. We had talked about finding a rooster, as well, and in doing our research, we found a photo of an Ameraucana rooster in the colour pattern called wheaten brown ... and it looks just like our Sherman, and our other unnamed rooster (Sherman Junior?).

You tell me: here's the link to the Ameraucana website, and here's our two roosters:

14 October 2008

Independence Days Update

Well, it's definitely fall. There has been hard frost for several nights, and I didn't manage to rescue most of the tomatoes . We are in the mad rush to prepare for winter, and thanks to the recent Thanksgiving weekend, we have had time to do that last push of outside stuff so that if the snow came tomorrow, we'd be ready. Well, almost: the wind tower still needs to go in. We meant to do that on Monday, but it rained, and the concrete won't set if it's raining.

Okay, on to the update.

I did get soil into three little pots on the windowsill, and I put a few calendula seeds into one of them. Yes, I should get some lettuce going, but the calendula seeds were handy so I stuck them in the dirt. One has already poked it's little head out!

We emptied out the garden this weekend. All the potatoes are in, sorted and stored, and the tomatoes (green though they were), the mullein (dehydrating to be made into tea for coughs and other ailments this winter), milk thistle (nasty, horrible plants that I will never again attempt to grow ... but I did harvest the seeds, they are good for your liver), the last two carrots (which we ate raw), the beets (the leaves are drying for winter chicken feed and the beets are going to be eaten this week), and more calendula (and there's still more out there). Seeds from some of the lettuce plants and a few of the beans have been harvested for next year.

As noted: mullein is dehydrating, milk thistle seeds soaking in vodka (yes, you soak the seeds in alcohol to make a tincture that helps your liver: weird, but the active ingredient is not water soluble, so whatcha gonna do?), beet greens are drying for chicken feed, egg shells have been baked and crushed for chicken feed, and more calendula blossoms are soaking in oil to make ointment.

My sister sent a parcel with some bubblewrap in it, and that was cut and stuck to several of the bedroom windows with a spray bottle of vinegar and water (it took a few tries to get it to stick, but it's on there now). We sorted more clothes and put them in the bins, and brought out the winter gear as the cold has arrived.
We did a bunch of outside work, preparing for winter: there's a proper gate to the cow pasture, the sheep have a feed pen, and the hay's been delivered (well, half of it anyway).

Managed Reserves
The potatoes were sorted into 'eat now, eat soon, and pack for later' piles. The 'pack for later' pile was stowed in a big plastic bucket filled with sawdust carefully saved from construction: a layer of sawdust, some potatoes, another layer of sawdust, more potatoes ... the bucket is now sitting in the hallway, which is the coolest spot in the house.
Some bulk things were found at good prices so a few big bags of alphabet soup noodles (the kids LOVE having these in the soup, they'll eat any kind of broth if it has alphabet noodles in it), black pepper, and onion soup mix came home and have been put into jars in the pantry. There are also some jars of raisins, cornmeal, and elbow macaroni put away.

Cooked something new
All those green tomatoes meant it was time to try some recipes: I made fake raspberry jam (which isn't too bad), fake raspberry fruit leather (the jam, done in the dehydrator ... which is very sweet, and okay, but not great), and a green tomato soup (which I really didn't like). In the end, I have decided that by far the best use of green tomatoes is as yeast food: all the tomatoes were dumped into a large bucket with a sliced orange, some yeast nutrient, a few raisins and a lot of sugar, then drowned in water and ignored for a few days. Last night I filtered the mush through my strainer and the remaining liquid (and the orange slices and some whole green tomatoes) is happily fermenting in the living room. It has a lovely citrus and yeast smell, with no real tomato scent at all ... so hopefully green tomato wine is drinkable. I hear it needs to age for a whole year or more ... I'm thinking it'll probably make a nice summer wine for July of 2010.

Reduced Waste
We used up some more lumber from the pile of barn board we have out in the pasture where an old shed was knocked down, and we continue to do our usual routines for composting and such. We are rescuing as much as possible to dehydrate for chicken feed, both to reduce the waste (we have plenty of compostables thanks to the livestock) and to reduce the feed bills. And, it's good for the chickens!

Worked on local food systems
Well, we have a bunch of chicks growing like crazy, meaning we will be able to eat some of the surplus chickens out in our yard before long ... that's pretty local. We tried out a new butcher for the last batch of lambs that went in, I'll be picking up the meat tomorrow and we'll see how that is. We have another very local butcher we also want to try, as well. Oh, we got our listing up on EatWild, although we've had no contacts yet, still, it's a good place to start.

08 October 2008

Eat Wild!

The Eat Wild website is one of the major listings for grass-fed producers.

We are now listed!

Check out the whole site for more details ... there are benefits for animals, for farmers, and for your health!

This is why we prefer to eat the critters we have fed ... we know what went into them, we know they had good, low-stress lives ... and as a result, we know that what ends up on our plates is good for us!

07 October 2008

Milk Progress

Okay, I know, you're probably tired of hearing me rhapsodize about milking the cow. But really, it's exciting. Honest. It is.

This morning, I milked for 15 minutes, two handed, into the bucket held between my feet ... and I got nearly a litre of milk. And, I got most of it into the bucket (the first few days of milking, I had soaked knees).

Progress, I tell you, progress!

05 October 2008

The Great Chicken Venture

The Reluctant Farmer has decided that he really likes chickens. They are great fun to watch, poking around the yard and scratching at the dirt to get to the bugs, and as long as we provide them with basic shelter, access to water, and a scoopful of feed now and then, they are perfectly happy.

Our current flock of chickens is made up of hens we acquired from friends who were downsizing for one reason or another, and we really aren't sure how old most of them are. As chickens get older, they lay fewer and fewer eggs ... so although we have around 15 or 20 hens outside, we have only been getting one or two eggs a day. That's nowhere near enough to meet our own needs, never mind the few regular customers we have managed to acquire.

This is what got The Reluctant Farmer looking for chickens: we need more layers. Now, when you start looking for chickens, you are confronted with a huge variety of choices: there are so many different breeds, and they're all good for different purposes. The Reluctant Farmer found all this really interesting, and he's been researching different heritage breeds, and watching for someone in our area with the types he likes.

Last week, he picked up three lovely Isa Brown hens who are in prime egg laying condition, as well as several almost-old-enough-to-lay chickens of a few different breeds: Barred Rocks, an Ameraucana (they lay green eggs), and a couple of cross-breeds. They look so very tiny next to the full grown hens, but in another few weeks they, too, should be big enough to start laying eggs.

The core of the Great Chicken Venture, however, is the batch of nineteen Barred Rock chicks that were picked up on Saturday. These tiny little peeping creatures are presently housed in a large cardboard box under a heat lamp, eating chick starter like there's no tomorrow and making a constant happy racket. The Reluctant Farmer is hoping to raise purebred Barred Rocks, and sell them to other people who want to have chickens of their very own.

The whole Chicken Venture seems to be a 'guy thing' in this house: The Reluctant Farmer is the ringleader, and both of the boys are crazy about chickens too. I think it's just great ... they have so much fun looking for eggs and watching them grow, all the rest is "just jam on toast", as my kid would put it. :)

02 October 2008

Milking Routine

We're on our way with an actual morning milking routine!

Sasha and Darth are penned up in the evening ... I put hay in their stalls, and they agonize over going into the stall, knowing that I'll close the gate behind them. Eventually their desire for hay overrides their desire for freedom, and in they go.

The Reluctant Farmer has made some changes to the milking stanchion for me, so I can reach in and get to the business end of the cow more comfortably. There's also a very clever 'tailgate' at the back: a bar can be raised up to let Sasha in, and in the 'up' position, the bar latches into a regular gate latch, so you can push the bar up and latch it into place. When you need to drop it down, you just reach up and press the latch release, and down it comes. Very slick! This keeps Sasha from backing out of the stall, and keeps her positioned so I can easily reach the udder.

At the moment she still moves her feet around a fair bit while I'm milking, so I'm milking one handed into a bucket that I hold in place with my other hand. I figure eventually we'll get to where the bucket can be set down and I can milk with two hands, but this is working and that's exciting enough for now. :)

Yesterday was the first 'milk into the bucket' day, and we got about a cup of milk. This morning I got at least twice that amount, with only 15 minutes in the barn. Sasha is really quite cooperative about the whole thing. Even the washing that has to be done before milking commences doesn't seem to annoy her in the least.

Once I come back inside, the milk is poured through a cloth filter into a clean glass canning jar and put in the fridge for the day. We tasted our first fresh milk last night - and it was amazing! It tastes like ... well ... like milk! Very fresh, clean and creamy (we didn't separate the cream out ... most of the cream comes at the end of the milking, and I didn't milk long enough to get to the rich stuff). Yes, we do know how to pasteurize the milk, but given that our cow is healthy, grass-fed, and free from mastitis, and that none of us have compromised immune systems, we're choosing to drink the whole fresh milk. It sure tastes good, and there are many advantages to raw milk (when it comes from healthy cows milked in a sanitary environment, of course).

There it is... the first bottle of milk!

The whole process is just so amazing. I mean, sure, it's nothing earth shattering or stunningly scientific, but when you wrap your hand around the teat and feel it fill up with milk, then hear that stream of milk rushing into the steel pail ... there's something really incredible about being involved in that.

A cow of my own. Fresh milk in a pail.

That, for me, is a dream come true.

30 September 2008

The angels came

Today, the angels came for my Uncle Jim.

The brain tumor that was found earlier in the year wasn't going to go away, although the surgery and radiation did buy him some additional time with his family. I'm really glad we went to visit in the early summer, and got to see him (and everyone else) while we could.

His passing was peaceful, for which we are immensely grateful. He had been struggling with chest congestion for some time, but today there was no trouble breathing, just ... quiet ... then more quiet ... then gone.

He was a good man, with a big loving heart. He will be very much missed.


This morning, Sasha was in her milking stanchion eating the morning ration of hay, and I figured I should try again with the 'get used to me handling you' stuff.

Sure enough, she didn't flinch at all.

So ... I wrapped my hand around a teat. No reaction. Well, no guts no glory ... so I bumped up, wrapped my fingers around the teat, and voila! Milk squirted out!

Yay! I milked a cow!

I pulled off a few squirts of milk, just to get her used to the idea, and left her alone. Soon, we'll be able to gather that milk in a pail and then ...

Does that make us real homesteaders? :)

29 September 2008

Dairy Cow Breakthrough

The cows are in the barn!

We got the fences in place so that we can bring the cows up to the barn at night. We have them in a shared pen for now, and will separate them as soon as we put another row of bars between the two pens (the calf can jump over at the moment, it's too low).

Tonight Sasha was in her milking stanchion eating hay, and let me rub her sides and her belly, and even touch her udder. She didn't even change the rate of her chewing.

We are one step closer to milk!

21 September 2008

Black Gold

Remember this?

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin crude.

Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.

The Beverly Hillbillies found black gold on their land ... and so have we!

Okay, ours isn't oil. :)

Our black gold is piled up in the most beautiful compost heap you've ever seen, which is right now cooking away beside the garden generating heat and breaking down manure and hay into beautiful organic compost.

The Reluctant Farmer scraped the winter pasture clean a few times last winter and again in the spring, and piled all the manure and waste hay into a big heap. It's been sitting there undisturbed all summer, and today he moved it over near the garden so that we'd have a clear spot to put our hay when it arrives. As he dug into the pile with the bobcat shovel, steam came out and it was clear that we were well into the process of building some nice dirt!

Next year's plans include a greatly expanded garden, but of course, to do that we'll need more soil to plant things in. Looks like there'll be no need to buy bags of peat moss planting soil from Canadian Tire next year ... we've got two big piles of dirt under construction out there, and come spring, they should be in lovely shape.

More infrastructure

Some days it seems like we spend way too much money trying to do this whole farm thing. Actually, most days it seems like that. Well, I suppose we're in good company with every other farmer ... like the old joke goes: When the farmer won the lottery, and was asked what he'd do now, he shrugged and said "Keep on farmin' till the money runs out!"

The latest acquisition/investment is a little two-horse trailer. While we do have a little landscape trailer that has been modified with raised sides and a gate at the back, and it does indeed work for hauling up to 5-6 sheep at a time, it isn't very sturdy, and has shown signs that it is unlikely to survive sheep hauling for more than another couple of years without need for repair. It's going to be reallocated to trash and lumber hauling, which is what it was meant for in the first place.

The Reluctant Farmer is the King of Kijiji Shopping - and he has been watching for a good deal on a trailer for some time now. This one came up recently, and was newer than most he'd seen in our price range ... and was cheaper as well! With some logistical headaches, he managed to pick it up this weekend, and it'll do exactly what we need.

See, with a cow/calf pair in addition to the sheep, we have to think about getting the calf to butcher next fall, and although we could probably prevail upon someone we know who has a trailer, that's not a favour I really want to call in every year. If the cow ever needs the vet, being able to take her there would be cheaper than having the vet come here. Also, when taking sheep to the butcher or the auction, there are some real advantages to being able to take more than just 5 at a go. And then there's Cherub, who always tries to jump out of the little sheep trailer and has to be tied when she's in there for fear of losing her overboard!

Last but not least, The Reluctant Farmer has been working on a plan to take the sheep on school visits. He and Dinosaur Boy's teachers are working out the details, but the trailer would be a really nice feature for this project: the kids can come outside and go into the trailer to visit the sheep, rather than taking the sheep into the school. This reminds me of something I saw when I was very little ... Elsie the Borden Cow was at the local grocery store, outside in her trailer in the parking lot. I vividly remember going into the trailer and seeing this lovely placid cow sitting there chewing her cud ... and I couldn't have been more than five at the time. The little girl I was then would never have guessed that she'd grow up into someone with a real cow of her own!

Deciding where to spend and where to save is always a tough call ... we very much want to get the debts under control and that means not spending on things that can wait, but then again, we are trying to build up our very little farm into something that at least supplements our income somewhat, or something that has the capacity to be expanded so that it could supplement our income, and to do that means getting the infrastructure in place.

It's a hard decision. We know that our jobs are fragile - if the economy goes south, the kind of work we do could evaporate, leaving one or both of us with limited options for standard employment. We love working on the farm, and so we are trying to ensure that if the time ever comes that we want to make this an actual revenue builder, we have the necessary infrastructure to allow us to expand without needing huge infusions of startup cash.

What we are aiming for is that things as they are become easier to manage, and that if we want to expand in the future, we have what we need for a bit more livestock. In the short term, if things are easier to manage, we are freed up to do our paid jobs, because the 'farm stuff' takes less time. Sure we have to fix fences in the spring, but when the cross-fencing is in place and the gates are all where they need to be, moving sheep from one pasture to another is a matter of a few minutes for one person, rather than two or three of us chasing sheep around a huge pasture trying to get them where we want them. As for expansion, if we leased some nearby land we could carry a few more animals without needing more significant infrastructure than what we already have. The heritage breeds that we prefer don't need big barns or huge grain bins or anything like that, but they do need what we already have (or are working on) - fencing, feeders, water troughs, and a barn with room for a few at a time, rather than everyone all at once.

We'll see where it all leads - maybe we'll never be more than 'hobby farmers' who have a few sheep, some chickens, and a dairy cow. Then again, maybe we'll find our way into the local grass-fed meat market, be supplying local handspinners with premium wool and enjoying the food we grow in our own garden.

It's nice to have a dream, anyway. And who knows? If the little girl who was so awed by Elsie the Borden Cow could grow up to have a dairy cow of her very own ... maybe some day this woman with the little acreage will find that she's grown up and become a real farmer, too.

Independence Days Update

Oh my, this is a belated post. We've been too busy doing stuff to sit down and write!

Umm ... no. Frosts are here, it's not planting time. :)
However, seeing this on the list makes me think again about finding something to grow lettuce in on the windowsill.

Lots of calendula blossoms (more on that below). I also have started gathering calendula seeds from the flowers that I left too long (umm ... I did that on purpose! I did mean to save seeds ... just not quite yet. Still, it works.) We had beets from the garden, and the last carrots, and every so often we get potatoes. The tomatoes are actually ripening on the frost bitten vines, so there is still hope of tomato paste for winter! The Boy has harvested more rose hips for me, and I gathered some more, along with yarrow and clover blossoms, the other day.

I dehydrated the last batch of apples, and have cooked up more juice and syrup. The most recent batch of flowers and rose hips are in the dehydrator. The earlier rose hips have been cooked down into juice, and the calendula blossoms that are already dry are soaking in olive oil.

We went to a farm auction and I scored several boxes of canning jars for $15. I've been using them to store bulk purchases of pasta, baking supplies and the dehydrated apple bits I've been putting up.
I consider all our infrastructure work to fall into this category as well, and we've done a lot here: we have a completed hay feeder for the sheep, of a design that ought to reduce waste and keep at least some of the hay out of their neck wool (which in turn increases the value of the wool). The Boy stained the feeder with leftover stain from the house, so it is protected from the elements and should last a good while. We have the barn up and in use: this will help us to avoid frozen lambs for early births, gives us a place to milk the cow, and the whole thing generally makes it possible for us to improve our livestock management. We won't ever make a living from just 6 acres ... but we want to have options, and we want to take the best possible care of the animals we do have.

Managed Reserves
The pantry is getting very full! We need to do an inventory very soon, but that can wait for cooler weather when the outside jobs are done. We continue to watch for our 'staple products' to show up on sale - flour, oil, pasta, canned tomatoes (we are nowhere near self sufficient on that yet), beans and spices. Any time these things are on sale, we pick up a few spares, and into the pantry they go. We never shop for "what we will eat this week" - we just keep the pantry stocked, and eat from there.

Cooked Something New
We must surely have cooked something new since the last time I posted, but I'm not sure what it might have been. Ah yes, The Reluctant Farmer has reminded me ... we had Lambili (chili made with ground lamb). It was awesome!
I did make something new that isn't edible but did involve cooking, so I'll put that here. I made calendula ointment, and it is lovely! Dried calendula blossoms are soaked in olive oil for a good long while (like, a few weeks) until the oil has absorbed the flower essence. This oil is then filtered into a pot and some beeswax is added ... the whole thing is heated until the wax melts, then the finished compound is put into jars and cooled. The wax and flowers give the finished product a lovely smell, and the oil and wax together give a good consistency for ointment. Calendula is used for skin irritations like rashes and scrapes, and mixed with the oil and beeswax it makes a lovely soothing ointment.

Reduced Waste
We continue to use up scrap lumber and building materials wherever we can: The Reluctant Farmer built a new dog self-feeding station out of an old wooden walkway/pallet thing that was lying around and some scrap plywood. The dogs need to be able to eat whenever they are hungry (and the cats and chickens help themselves as well, so we like the food to be out all the time). The eating area needs to be out of the rain and snow, though, or the food gets soggy. We had an old feeder that was repurposed from our generator house ... but the wood caught the water and the feed had gotten mouldy, so it was burned today (in a rather more stunning conflagration than we expected) and the new feeder was put in place. We will be adding a food dispenser to this one, although it's not done yet - most likely the dispenser will be made from an old garbage can.

Worked on Local Food Systems
Can't think of anything in particular to add to this category ... unless hatching out chicks the natural way in your own yard (so that you can eat the eggs they produce - if they are hens - or the chickens themselves - if they are roosters) counts.


We had two hens go broody awhile back, and so they were put in cages to sit on their eggs undisturbed for a few weeks. A little while back, the first hen hatched out a single chick from the two eggs we'd given her to set on, and a week later, the other hen hatched out all three of the eggs she had!

We have four little peeping black chicks out roaming around and pecking at the ground in their mama's wake.

The Boy did notice today that the first hen had been in some sort of fight - perhaps the other mama thought she'd stolen her chick or something. Whatever the cause of the altercation, she came out somewhat the worse for wear: she had some damage to her head and her eyes were stuck shut! We caught her and rinsed her head off, and her eyes opened up just fine once the guck was washed away. She and her baby are back in isolation with food and water ... and peace and quiet. She doesn't seem to have sustained any serious injury, we'll keep an eye on her for infection but I think she'll be okay. Good thing The Boy is observant!

A finished barn!

We have a finished barn!

There is white trim around the edges, and around the windows ... all the red paint is on, and the interior is stained with the 'mistint' that I found (which turned out to be way more purple than it seemed, but, well, the price was right and it seals the wood even if it is a weird colour). The stalls inside have all been built and have hinged gates that latch shut, there are hooks on the wall to hang things, and the sheep halters and the newly purchased cow halter and lead rope are hanging up, waiting for use. The dirt floor has been brought up to the right height and levelled (the Boy stomped it down to pack it a bit), and today we put the last bit of straw we had into the stalls.

We made an effort this afternoon to split the sheep into their breeding groups, but we were foiled by the loose cross fencing (translation: the sheep we wanted to keep separated just pushed their way under the fence and joined their buddies in the other pasture). However, four of the sheep stayed behind - and all four of them happen to be headed to the Big Pasture in the Sky in another week. That was convenient! We rounded them up and took them into the barn, where they are now being guarded by Bob. They have hay and water, and are out of the rain that just started, so I think it's a good way to spend their last week here! They seem quite comfortable, and it's a good test of the barn layout. So far, so good!

07 September 2008

Introducing Gracie

Last week, Dinosaur Boy asked for a Family Meeting. After dinner, he announced that he would like to get a bunny of his own. We talked about the responsibilities of pet ownership, and had a lot of questions for him. How would he pay for the feed? (he will do chores here to help pay for his bunny's share) Who will clean the bunny cage when he is not here? (Dad already agreed to do that job) Is he willing to get a girl bunny, since Charlie is already here and opposite gender bunny pairs tend to do better together? (yes, that's fine)

So, The Reluctant Farmer started looking for a bunny. A very nice lady had some bunnies she wanted to give to good homes and offered one to Dinosaur Boy. I went out after work and picked up Gracie - who is HUGE compared to Charlie! Gracie is part French Lop, and will weigh in at about 10 pounds or more when full grown (Charlie is already full grown and is about six pounds). At four months, she is already bigger than Charlie ... but she is very loveable and happy to be held and cuddled.

We've had the two bunnies in cages next to each other, allowing them to get used to being together. They've been out a few times and there has been a little bit of fur flying as they get used to sharing the house, but overall, it seems to be going very well. Gracie herself is so gentle and loving (with the people anyway, she's still not quite sure what she thinks of Charlie), we are glad she's joined us!

A Barn

A little while ago, The Reluctant Farmer came up with an idea for building us a barn. If we built a lean-to structure on the back of the shed, we could have a sheltered spot to deal with sheep who are lambing, or are sick, or need to be dealt with ... and of course, a barn means a place to milk a cow. This wonderful idea of his is what made the acquisition of our milk cow a workable plan. :)

To make this plan into reality, The Reluctant Farmer invited his parents to come for a visit and help out with the construction (my father-in-law was a farmer for a long time, and is quite handy with this sort of thing).

This weekend, they built us a barn!

The frame rests on heavy posts that have been sunk into the ground. These were tied together with 2x4s to ensure everything was square, and then the serious framing began. The bottom part of each wall is made with heavy 2x10 lumber that was lying around here, leftover from house construction, I suspect, which will stop anyone from kicking a hoof through the wall and will give us places to anchor eyebolts for tying halters to and such. The walls and roof are sheathed in plywood, and the roof will be shingled to match the shed (more or less). As I have always wanted a red barn, I'll be going to pick up a bucket of red paint tomorrow ... and we'll paint both barn and shed a proper barn red, with white trim.

Inside the barn (which is 18' by 14') we will have a central aisle with pens on either side: next to the shed are the pens for Sasha the cow and her calf (who will have to be stalled separately at night so that we can have Sasha's morning milk), and on the west side will be three small pens for sheep. It'll be nice to be able to pen up the sheep who are likely to have lambs, and be able to do all that lambing 'stuff' out of the wind and snow! At the far end of the center aisle will be the milking stall: Sasha's pen will have a gate that lets her into a slightly elevated area where I can sit outside the stall (protected from hooves by a sturdy fence rail, but still able to reach in and do the milking). We're still finalizing the interior layout and the best way to set up fences and gates around the outside of the barn to make getting critters in and out simple ... but I can already tell, this is going to make a major difference in our lives.

Three cheers for The Reluctant Farmer and his step-dad, who made this happen!

01 September 2008

Milk Cow Update

Sasha the milk cow and her calf, Darth Vader, have lived with us for about a month now. When they first arrived, they were okay with people being near them, but were really quite skittish. We spent lots of time just standing near them in the pasture, wandering around and picking rocks or just being nearby and talking to them. We tried taking them hay cubes, but they had never seen them before and didn't realize they were food, so that didn't really work. Long grass pulled or cut from the ditches was a big hit though - it didn't take long for them to walk up to you and eat it right from your hands.

After a little while, they would let us scratch their foreheads (the flies are awful and really do bother them especially around their eyes and at the base of their horns), and eventually they figured out that hay cubes are yummy ... we call them cow candy.

The Reluctant Farmer has been diligent about visiting them daily and helping the cows to realize that the bucket holds the hay cubes. They now come running if they see you with a bucket, and will eat the cubes right out of our hands. They are willing to be scratched all along their heads and often on their necks as well, although if you move suddenly they'll still bolt and run. They'll come to a call though, if they think you have cow candy, so this is a huge step forward.

This week, my inlaws are coming for a visit and to help with the construction of the new barn. My father in law lived or worked on a farm for much of his life, and I'm very interested to hear his input on keeping a milk cow and how to best design the interior of our little barn. We've measured out the space and put stakes in the ground to help envision the layout, but there's nothing like first hand experience to give perspective to a plan.

I am hopeful that once we have barn pens and a milking stanchion in place we can get Sasha and Darth trained to come up to the barn at night, and we can start training Sasha to stand in the milking stall and be handled ... then it's just one more step to milking! Darth is still nursing, so Sasha is still in milk, and I'm hopeful that we will be able to start the milking routine before the spring calf arrives. It's early to know yet, but she's calmed down so much already, I'm really quite hopeful that we'll be able to do the remainder of the training sooner than I'd initially thought.

Independence Days Update

Suddenly, it's turning into fall! How on earth did it get here so quickly?

Nope ... I think we may be too late for planting things now. I do have hopes of some indoor lettuce plants for winter though, so I'll need to put some thought towards the container I want to put them in.

We've been harvesting beans as we go, collecting enough for a meal ... we continue to get eggs (although the chickens are hiding them somewhere, so we have to do egg hunts on a daily basis) ... and more lamb will be up for harvest in a few weeks. Given the frost of last night, we'll probably be harvesting potatoes and beets soon, but I hope to leave them in the ground a bit longer if I can.
The Boy went out and harvested berries for me: he picked a whole bucket of rose hips and some bunchberries.

This was the big job this weekend: we have apple preserves of all kinds! We have apple butter, apple sauce, fruit leather, and dried apples. We also have juice (lots and lots of it), some sweetened with honey and some plain (which is marvellous mixed with Sprite). I made syrup from the rose hips and bunchberries (not the thick syrup to pour on pancakes, the thin syrup for flavouring things).

The Reluctant Farmer got the dirt base ready for the barn, and we fenced in the last major chunk of pasture with barbed wire. The cow and calf have been turned in to work on the extremely long grass (it's not been touched for oh, four years now, so it is very wild). The sheep have been rotated to another pasture, and we'll be splitting them up into breeding groups very soon ... we better do it soon, or we'll be too late. :)

Managed Reserves
We continued to add to our pantry, with dehydrating and preserving. We also got the wine rack installed in the house and the empty bottles stored there, as well as the new bottles of home made wine. I tasted the white grape honey wine (technically called a melomel) and it is still quite undrinkable, as is the cranberry/white grape/honey wine. This is not uncommon - they take quite awhile to age to drinkability. So, those are sitting on the rack awaiting their time. The honey/currant/maple syrup wine though ... mmmmmmmmm. It is almost ready! That one is resting on the stairs for a month or so and will probably be wonderful by then. I'll definitely be making more of that!
We've mostly been making progress on our inedible reserves - sorting through extra kitchen items, clothing, fabric and other supplies. Dinosaur Boy took a liking to a couple of pencil cases and a lunch box that The Boy no longer needed, and has taken them for his Grade One school supplies. I was so pleased to see him happily re-using things. :)
Soon I need to do a proper inventory on the pantry and see what we have and what we need.

Cooked Something New
The Reluctant Farmer is our chief cook these days, and he is really willing to experiment. He made a fabulous casserole the other night with rice and hamburger and red peppers and tex-mex spices ... there was almost a fight for the leftovers! The apple dumplings were also new - just biscuit dough wrapped around apple halves filled with sugar and cinnamon, but absolutely awesome. The syrups from the berries are new ... they add a nice flavour to water, and I'm thinking they'll be very good added to tea. Oh, he also made a lovely soup from the broth I made up from the bones we saved from our barbecued meat - a bit of milk and some garden vegetables and we had a wonderful cream of something soup.

Reduced Waste
The usual, really ... we are reusing everything we can, composting all the compostable things, making broth from the bones of our meat before disposing of the bones, and recycling wherever we can.

Work on Local Food Systems
Oh, I did mean to do up a price sheet for our lamb this weekend ... but with all the other jobs, that just didn't happen. That's up next. So, sadly, nothing in this category just now. Oh, The Reluctant Farmer did mention that he had done some research into the government programs available to small farm startups ... that probably counts.


It's harvest time.

Theresa, from Pondering the Myriad Things, had a hard frost the other day ... and we got one last night, too. Of course, I thought about covering the plants ... I even went so far as to put the support hoops in place ... and then before bed, I forgot. Today the pumpkins look very sorrowful, and the tomatoes look a bit weary, but they seem to be okay. We have a tarp over the main tomato bed and blankets on the potatoes and pumpkins.

One of the people I work with has an apple tree in the yard, and she brought me two huge bags of picked apples and four bags of windfall apples on Friday! I have spent the weekend processing apples ... we have juice (litres and litres of it), dried apples, fruit leather, and we ate delicious apple dumplings on Saturday afternoon. I still have most of a bag of the 'good' apples to work through ... and this is after feeding half a bag of the windfalls to the sheep! Some of the juice is in large buckets on the kitchen floor fermenting into cider - it's an experiment, so we'll see what it does.

Needless to say, we are exhausted. It's been a busy long weekend here - I processed apples from the time I got up on Saturday until after 9 pm, and we have also been trying to sort through the things in the basement, clear up the outside, and get the fibre room into useable condition. It's a huge job - but you can't make good use of your stores if they are disorganized, and we have more stuff than we need, so we are winnowing out the excess while we are at it.

More details in the Independence Day Update ... coming up next!

24 August 2008

Independence Days Update

Summer is a busy time around here!

Yes! I finally put some stuff in the empty spaces in the garden: Dinosaur Boy helped me in the garden yesterday, and we put in some more radishes (The Reluctant Farmer really likes them, and the first crop didn't do very well), some more carrots, and some lettuce.

Oh boy, did we ever harvest!
We pulled out most of the pea plants, as they were coming down with powdery mildew - this seems to happen most years, but we did get a really good harvest from the plants we took down, and a few healthy ones are still out there in the garden. These were all varieties of sugar snap peas. We also harvested a bunch of carrots, some beets, and more potatoes.
Today I went wandering along the back part of the property, and I found saskatoons! Wow! I had no idea we had them growing wild on our property, that's very exciting. I also harvested a bunch of rose hips, and found that the little red berries I see on the ground belong to a plant called a bushberry (sometimes called a dwarf dogwood) and that these are edible. So, I harvested a bowl full of those, too. The Boy picked another bunch of clover blossoms for me ... we left the basket down somewhere low, though, and the bunny got into the basket and ate most of them. Well, at least we had a very happy bunny!

We did more dehydrating: the peas we harvested, and their pods. The pods were dried on cookie sheets set inside the barbecue outside, where it is nice and hot during the day - they dried out quite nicely. I then ground them up in the Magic Bullet blender, and we'll feed those to chickens and the bunny over the winter (the bunny LOVES pea pods!).
I also tried lacto-fermentation for the first time: I preserved one jar of beans and one of sugar snap peas (in their pods) in a salt brine. I have no idea how these will turn out, but it is an easy way of preserving things, and I wanted to give it a shot.
I have a bunch of carrot tops outside drying, and we'll probably end up using them in soups or for critter feed.

The Reluctant Farmer cleared away the muck and leftover hay from the area behind our shed: we will be building a small lean-to barn on the back of the shed so that we have pens for the milk cow and calf to be separated at night, for the milking stanchion, and for lambing pens to hold expectant mothers, sick sheep, or mamas and their new lambs. It'll also give us a place out of the weather for shearing, treating sick sheep, and all those other jobs that are miserable to do in the wind and rain!
We also did more fencing ... we will be moving the cows to a new pasture as soon as the barbed wire is up, but at least the posts are in!

Managed Reserves
We continue to sort through the things in the basement: The Reluctant Farmer's storage unit is entirely empty now, so that's one less bill on the monthly accounts, and we are finding things of use and sorting and storing for the future. We are also getting rid of the excess: The Reluctant Farmer has managed to sell some things, and that effort will continue.
We have been eating out of the pantry and the garden a lot, and as we find things on sale at the store we do pick them up but we have made it a whole month without a 'big grocery store run'.

Cooked Something New
Lamb! We have had several cuts of lamb, done in different ways, and they've just about all been great. The ground lamb casserole didn't turn out so great, but the roast was amazing, done in the slow cooker with rosemary and cumin and garlic.
Today I made a syrup from the berries I harvested on our land - rose hips, saskatoons, and bunchberries. I cooked them all down in some water, strained through my wonderful jam and jelly strainer from Lee Valley, then heated the resulting syrup with some sugar and bottled it. We can use this to flavour drinking water, as it's not thick enough to use for syrup on pancakes or anything.

Reduced Waste
The trick we tried with the countertop compost bucket easier to work with seems to be a success: I put a handful of the wood shavings we use in the bunny's cage in the bottom, and boy, does the bin empty out easily! Compost is dumped in the garden, to make soil for next year.
Other than that, the usual tricks: reusable shopping bags, feeding leftovers to the various critters here, buying things with less packaging (like from the bulk section where possible).

Work on local food systems
Well, we are certified to sell our lamb to customers, so that makes us a local producer! We have been eating out of our garden, and the person we intend to buy some bison burgers from should have some ready ... that's up next!

A happy sheep is a tasty sheep

You know, I thought we might have trouble getting the kids to eat lamb that was raised here. They know the sheep by name, and I did think that we might encounter some resistance when "Brownie" was placed in front of them on the table.

Instead, they asked for seconds!

Apparently, a happy sheep is a tasty sheep.

We have been eating lamb out of our freezer for a little while now, and I have to admit, I am pleasantly surprised by both the willingness of our smaller family members to eat animals they knew by name, and by the taste of the meat.

We have tried a variety of the cuts we got from the butcher: ground, chops, and roast leg of lamb. The roast lamb was so tender it fell apart on your fork, and tasted almost exactly like roast beef, with just the slightest hint of a different flavour to it. Dipped in HP sauce and served up with mashed potatoes from the garden, it was a fabulous meal. The chops grilled up beautifully on the barbecue, as did the lamburger - seasoned with onion and barbecue sauce, and served in buns, you'd probably never have guessed you weren't eating cow.

I've had lamb at restaurants in the last year or so, and the taste was indeed fairly mild, as one would expect with grain finished lamb (all lamb that carries the "Alberta Lamb" label has been grain finished, so it's easy to know what you're eating). I was prepared for a very strong lamb flavour in our meat, as we feed only pasture, hay and the odd bit of alfalfa pellets, and grass-fed meat is often a bit stronger in taste than grain fed meat. However, the Icelandic sheep are known for a very mild taste when fed a grass-based diet, and my taste buds tell me it's absolutely true.

There's nothing quite so satisfying as eating a meal that came entirely from your own yard. Roast lamb and mashed potatoes from the garden one night, chops with salad and beans another night ... it's a good feeling.

Eating locally is a good thing. Eating from your own back yard is even better. :)

The Health Inspector

When I was growing up, my mom would routinely throw her hands in the air and say "Good heavens! We have to clean this place up or the health board will come and shut us down!"

Given the normal state of housekeeping in my world, this phrase goes through my head fairly often.

The Health Inspector did come to my house this week ... but she didn't shut us down! She must have been willing to overlook the dust bunnies under the couch and the crumbs on the counter, thank heavens.

What she did do, however, was provide us with an official license that permits us to sell lamb directly to consumers.

Who'd like to be the first customer?

We have chops, roasts, ground and rack of lamb! All grass-fed, antibiotic-free, and amazingly mild in taste ... come here and pick it up, or requesest delivery right to your home! :)

08 August 2008

Independence Days Update

Wow, summer is just flying by! Time already for another update.


Nope, nothing planted. The spaces I thought might be freed up are overshadowed by other plants outgrowing their allotted spaces, mostly tomatoes. I figure I'll let the tomatoes grow as big as they want - we use a lot of tomatoes when we cook, so I expect I'll be doing a lot of canning later on.


More lettuce, more new potatoes, and lots more snack peas. More greens too - more on that in the 'preserved' section below. Oh, we also got the first green beans of the year, and the first carrots.

We have a steady harvest of calendula blossoms, and I've been picking clover and yarrow as I wander around outside.

We also harvested three lambs and a ewe: they went to the butcher on Wednesday, and the resulting meat will come home tomorrow. I'm very excited about this!


I did a bunch of research on how to preserve beet greens, and found ... nothing. So, I thought I'd just try dehydrating them and see what happened. I mean, if it didn't work ... well, the chickens would probably eat the results, they eat just about everything. Happily, the dehydrating thing works really well. I just tear up the greens into small chunks, and cut the stems into very short bits, then layer it into the dehydrator. Allowed to sit for several hours, it turns into dry crispy leaves that grind up into a reasonably fine powder that smells like a fresh garden. I have been packing this into a glass jar and will add it to soup and stew as we cook - I figure it can be used much the way you'd use vegetable broth powder. I guess we'll find out.


The new freezer is downstairs, as the basement is finally finished (and it's a wonderful thing, too). We have done some fence work, patching up loose spots, and we walked through the unfenced land at the back of the property and did some thinking about the best way to make use of it. Even more of the outside mess has been cleaned up and hauled to the dump, so things outside are looking better and better.

The biggest prep job this past while has been the garden: The Reluctant Farmer used the bobcat to bring over some of the waste hay, straw and other 'animal residue' from the pasture and I've been spreading it out to compost down over the winter and make new beds for planting in spring. I hope to grow the tall things like beans and peas along the fence, and I've set aside a corner of the garden for a fruit tree of some sort, with room for strawberry plants around the base.

Manged Reserves

This would be the big category right now. With the basement finally finished, we are emptying out the storage unit that much of The Reluctant Farmer's household things have been sitting in for the past year. As boxes arrive, we are sorting, organizing, and filtering out what we don't need - but as we do this, we are keeping in mind that the future might not always look like today. I sorted all the spare clothing into boxes: ladies' summer clothes, ladies' winter clothes, extra coats, young men's clothing, kid's clothing, kid's shoes ... all the boxes are labelled and ready to be stacked in a reasonably accessible place once the sorting is complete. Extra dishes are packed away neatly, and will go into the crawl space.

These are the sorts of things that I would have previously gotten rid of, telling myself that if I needed new dishes or new shoes in a year or two, I'd just go out and buy them. Now, however, I have access to storage space and I realize that it's not always prudent to assume that you'll always be able to just run out and buy whatever you find yourself needing. So, if it'll keep, and we can see ourselves (or someone we know) needing it in the future, and we have a spot for it ... we'll put it by for 'just in case'.

Cooked Something New

I did a quick stir fry with some fresh green beans, snap peas and carrots to serve over rice. Not really wildly creative, I'll admit, but it was good, and not something I ever recall doing in the past.

Reduced Waste

Nothing new in this category ... unless you count the fact that I finaly scrubbed out the really nice stainless steel compost bin I had set outside some time last winter when it got unbearably green inside, and now have it on the counter again. This time I put a few of the wood shavings we use for the bunny's bedding in the bottom to soak up moisture and keep things a bit less soggy - so far that seems to be working.

Worked on Local Food Systems

Well, tomorrow night we'll be eating the first of our home-grown lamb ... and we've been eating out of our garden a lot ... but that's about it.