31 December 2009

Peace and Quiet for the New Year

I love peace and quiet.

I suppose that too much of it would get boring, but I can’t actually think of any set of circumstances in my life so far where that’s occurred, so I cherish peace and quiet when it shows up.

Early winter is always a good time to indulge in a little bit of restful quiet at home: sitting by the fire, reading, knitting, spinning, puttering about looking through boxes of stuff, reorganizing the book case. Things outside are in a routine – the entertaining antics of breeding season are past, lambing won’t happen until April, calving won’t be until late summer, and the chickens are on strike and not even laying one measly egg a day. Whatever outside work didn’t get done in the fall has to wait for spring, and since The Reluctant Farmer is in school, larger scale inside projects are on hold, too.

That means peace and quiet. :)

Ten years ago, I was part of the preparations for Y2K – I know there was a lot of hype and panic, but there really were things that could’ve gone wrong, and through the efforts of a lot of coders, testers, technicians and journeymen, trouble was, by and large, avoided. Oh, the whole world infrastructure was never at risk of collapse, but power plants could’ve stopped, phone systems gone nutty, and billing systems gone even nuttier … and it was worth it to put the effort in up front in order to avoid the potential problems.

I remember having a copy of one of the magazines popular among the survivalist types back then: I kept it in my office for entertainment purposes during some of the late-night work we had to do. The part that always made me laugh out loud was the big story about how to build your own bunker. That wasn’t the funny part: the funny part was the advertisement on the facing page for a years’ worth of food for six people, in which the primary meal was beans. Just imagine: six people squashed into an underground bunker eating beans … this is not gonna be a pleasant place to be in a few hours! I always figured those kinds of ‘eat for a year’ parcels ought include and annual supply of Beano and Gas-X, just on humanitarian grounds.

Ten years ago at the turn of the new century, I lived in a nice house in town, with a gas fireplace and electric heat, went grocery shopping every week, and didn’t really give it all much thought - even with all the hype and hoopla of Y2K. Now I live in the country in a not-quite-finished house … but one with enough power from solar to keep the water running and the dark at bay if the power goes out, a woodstove for heat and cooking if the natural gas goes out (or for when prices spike by 40% as they are scheduled to do next month), and a reasonably full pantry (nowhere near where I’d like it to be, but we are set up to weather a week of being snowed in with no real problems, at least).

Looking back on my 'old life’, I can’t imagine how I was ever comfortable being so reliant on “things being the way they are supposed to be”. Of course the store shelves would be full next week (but a forest fire that blocked the roads was all it took to make that untrue) … of course there would be heat all winter (but the furnace quit one very cold night and only the gas fireplace and the furnace repair man’s quick response time kept the house from freezing) … of course we’d always have enough money to buy whatever we needed (but a brain tumor took over my first husband’s mind and body, and suddenly everything fell apart, and there was no money, no house, no nothing).

Things can change, for any number of reasons, there is no ‘sure thing’. Oh, I don’t need to be prepared for every situation, I don’t even believe it’s possible. I tell people quite honestly that I gave up “planning” when my life fell apart way back when. I don’t believe in plans anymore. I believe in preparation, and it’s different. Plans are built on a set of assumptions about what is going to happen and how you’ll respond to the changes you predicted. Preparation is about having options and flexibility to meet whatever the Universe decides to throw at you.

Even with preparation, the Universe can still wing a fastball at you that you can’t hit, I know that. But boy, oh boy, is it a good feeling to know that you’ve at least managed to slightly increase your chance of having the bat meet the ball.

I think it’s time to start shopping for a second woodstove… :)

18 December 2009

Bounty from the food cooperative

Today I picked up my first produce order from the local food purchasing cooperative. For only $8 we received:

  • 5 onions
  • 3 giant potatoes
  • 5 big carrots (one 2 lb bag)
  • 6 green apples
  • 5 bananas
  • 1 cantaloupe

All that for less than the cost of two Starbucks lattes. There was so much there I couldn’t quite fit everything into my shopping bag!

This is great. It’s convenient and it’s cost effective: I just stop by the pickup point (right near my office) to pick up my box of food, drop off $8 for next month’s order, and I’m done!

The cooperatives do appreciate volunteer help with pickup and packaging, but with this one, at least, it’s not mandatory (The Boy will probably go and spend a day now and then helping with the weighing and packaging). Even without my time, though, my membership increases the cooperative’s bulk buying power and so my contribution of dollars also helps everyone else.

If you have a food cooperative like this in your area, please consider joining, even – or maybe especially - if you can afford store prices on your groceries. The more people who participate, the better it works: and there are a lot of people who could use a discount on their grocery bill.

28 November 2009

A wonderful thing happened to me today!

For my birthday, my awesome husband gave me a $20 gift certificate for the local yarn store. Today I finally had a chance to go in there and wander around: I knew I could find something to spend my money on ... some new circulars for a project I want to do from Knitty (a lovely cowl called Ice Queen – last week at the thrift store I found this amazing cotton/acrylic/mohair yarn that'll be perfect for this), more row counters (always need those), and some lovely purple merino silk blend rovings to spin up.

As I was standing there pondering knitting notions, I heard a conversation between the shopkeeper and a lady. The lady said "oh, and I have this Ashford wheel ... I've had it for 15 years figuring I'd learn to spin, but I haven't, and I figure it's time to sell it. Could I sell it here, maybe?"

Well, you can bet your boots I spoke up right then!

"A wheel?? Did you say you have a wheel for sale?"

I explained I've got my PVC Babe wheel, but have been coveting a wooden one for awhile. However, I've only got a bit of money to spend so I was looking for a used one.

"Well, how much have you got?"

I told her I had $150, totally figuring that'd be way too low.

Her eyes got big - it was more than she thought she'd get for it, clearly!

The shopkeeper and I asked her some questions to figure out which model of Ashford it was, and in the end we weren't quite sure, but it was either the Traditional or the Traveller. Even knowing that new these go for $400 or so, she was quite happy to make the deal with me, and I picked it up this afternoon!

And … it *is* the Traveller (single drive) - which is EXACTLY the wheel I wanted! I wanted a castle wheel (I just love 'em, the look, and the space, and ... I dunno, they just suit me. Maybe it's from working on a Babe for so long!) ... she was THRILLED to have it go to someone so excited (I swear I was bouncing in my seat on the way home, this is just the cooooolest thing to have happen!) and the yarn store lady thought it was just awesome that we were both happy! Way cool!

The wheel was bought brand new and never used. It's sat, untouched, for 15 years in a corner, just looking pretty.

A good coat of Old English lemon oil on all the pieces (it'll need another coat or two, the wood's a bit thirsty - we have a very dry climate, so we're quite accustomed to that kind of maintenance), some penetrating oil squirted on the bearings, a new drive band (the original had disappeared somewhere, and a hunk of this ... whatever it is that works really well for weaving warp ... seems to be working great), and it's treadling smoothly!

I'm about to check the instructions on the Ashford site, then get some fibre and try this baby out ... I am sooooo excited!

So if you need something to feel happy about, I have enough happiness to share! Wherever you are, feel free to jump for joy right along with me!

23 November 2009

Spaghetti Squash Soup

Spaghetti squash is an odd sort of vegetable. This sturdy, almost-impossible-to-cut-open yellow squash cooks up to reveal stringy insides that can substitute directly for pasta. It just isn’t at all what you expect when you hold one in your hand.

I bought a spaghetti squash at the grocery store a year or two ago and cooked it up for dinner (as I recall, we had a vegetable pasta sauce thing to go over top of it, and we ate it as though it were actual spaghetti). Everyone liked it, and I saved the seeds and planted them in the garden.

This year, we got quite a few squash from the plants that grew from the saved seeds – and this is not a small thing, given how generally awful our garden season was this summer. The squash are now piled in a cool spot in the house, and I peek in on them every so often to make sure none have gone soft or started to mould. So far, all is well in the squash pile. :)

Today I had a craving for a nice warm soup for supper, and so I took 2 of the larger squash, cut them in half (with a really big knife and some pounding), then set them cut side down in a lasagne pan filled with about an inch of water and baked them until they were soft. (After I started, I read that you can also stab them with a fork, cook them whole, and then slice them after they’ve cooked to a softer state … hadn’t thought of that!)

Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian cookbook has an excellent recipe for pumpkin soup which basically involves sautéing an onion in oil with some ginger, then adding the cooked squash and a chopped potato or two, topping the pot up with vegetable broth and simmering with pepper and a couple of bay leaves until it’s all cooked. Once the potatoes are soft, the soup is run through the blender, then reheated with a bit of milk. The recipe says you can substitute any yellow-fleshed squash for the original pumpkin, and spaghetti squash worked out just fine.

The resulting soup is delicious – very gentle, not overwhelmingly spiced (although there is another variation with curry which I may try on a cold winter day), and nicely comforting with a loaf of home made bread.

I made sure to set the seeds aside to dry out for next year’s garden: any vegetable that keeps this well and cooks up into a meal perfectly suited to chilly winter days is definitely on my to-grow list!

15 November 2009

Pea Soup for Supper

Whole green peas (dehydrated from the garden), about a cup
Yellow split peas, about 3/4 of a cup
Dehydrated red peppers, a small handful
Dehydrated celery, generous pinch
Dehydrated and powdered zucchini, about a tablespoon
Two small onions (from this year’s harvest), chopped
One potato, chopped

Place all ingredients in big pot and cover with water. Season generously with cumin, Watkins soup and vegetable seasoning, and a little bit of coriander. Add a tablespoon of Knorr vegetable boullion powder.

Heat until the peas are fully rehydrated and the potatoes start to fall apart. Let it sit on the wood stove for an hour or so to meld flavours.

Bake a loaf of bread to go with it.

Voila - supper!

11 November 2009

Climate Change – the small version

Every year, we go through rounds of climate change.

Summer is warm, and we need the windows open to get the air circulating through the house. If the upstairs window is open, the cooler air actually gets drawn in the downstairs windows as the rising heat pushes air out of the upstairs window, in a sort of passive ventilation scheme. All that sunshine really heats the house, though, so in the summer we tend to spend more time in the North Wing where the building is shaded and the rooms stay cooler, especially with the heavy dark drapes pulled to block the warming sun.

The rest of the year, though, those big south facing windows are a delight, and we spend more time in the South Wing of the house, soaking up the precious natural light (of which there is less and less as we approach solstice again), and the concomitant warmth.

However, as fall turns to winter, those big panes of glass also have a downside. They bring in sunlight and warmth, but boy, oh boy, do they leak heat. The glass is icy under your fingers, and much of the lovely warmth from inside is transferred outside in accordance with the unbreakable laws of thermodynamics.

So … we deal with the annual face of climate change with our annual climate change mitigation strategies. :)

Today, the bubble wrap insulation went up on all the windows. The light still comes in, and we still get lots of warmth … but the transfer of warm air to the outside is impeded by thousands of tiny plastic bubbles stuck to the glass.

We also need to replace the light weight summer curtains with heavier, chill-blocking ones – but with so many windows, that’s a substantial investment in fabric. I’ve got some thoughts about weaving some curtain fabric from the rather substantial stash of wool I have here … but if I find good curtains on sale before then, well, one way or the other, we’ll get warmer drapes in place before too long.

The last mitigation strategy we need to put in place is the expensive transparent plastic thermal barrier for the upper windows – they are too high to reach without an extension ladder (and even then, the very top is a long way up), and we want a more permanent heat-transfer solution for those windows – something that is ‘once and done’. The see-through stick on thermal barrier material from Home Depot works really well, but we’ll need several rolls to cover those windows. Still, for the savings in heating costs, it’s probably worth it.

I think I’ll schedule a trip this week as part of my small scale climate change mitigation strategy. :)

08 November 2009

One way to make a difference in the world

This is a guest post written by my sister, who lives in Lithuania and works with the local church there.

Shuffling her way through the front door of the hostel where she lives, few people would pay much attention to the elderly woman as she clutches a bag of groceries. In fact, not long ago Renata was one of society’s forgotten; her makeshift home a collection of discarded trash at the garbage dump, and her food scavenged from the filth. Twice a month, however, a van would come carrying loaves of bread, hot tea, and sometimes a candle for lighting the darkness. The van also brought a priceless gift: hope. As the team handed out food and poured tea, they also talked about someone who loves us despite our filth. Through the concern demonstrated by the people in the van, Renata slowly grew to trust that they truly cared for her, and learned that Jesus loved her. When they warned that the dumpsite would be closed and urged people to move into the city to find work, Renata listened. The investment made by the church group who used to take food to the dump has developed into a lifelong friendship, and the chance for a new life. The church supported Renata through the difficult days of transition to life in the city, giving her food when she had nothing, and welcoming her into their church family. Today, Renata does odd jobs like cleaning, and picking mushrooms or berries to make enough money to pay for her place at the hostel. She visits with the people from the van at church on Sundays, and though sometimes she leaves with a bag of groceries in her hand, she always leaves as a friend.

Helping the poor and homeless is often a long process that requires commitment and generous amounts of patience. One church in Klaipeda is working hard to make a difference in the lives of people who are caught in the grip of poverty. A single bag of groceries can be the difference between complete despair, and hope for another day, and the impact of the relationships built can last an eternity.


The work my sister is a part of is just one way of helping. No matter who is doing the work, though, small acts of service and sharing like this *do* make a difference. Please consider making charitable donations a part of your Christmas: it’s the perfect gift for the person who has everything!

If you don’t know where to send your dollars, I can tell you that supporting the work in Lithuania definitely ensures your dollars are well spent: for instance, the local soup kitchen in Klaipeda has a budget of only $200 CDN for the winter – that small amount is enough to see their services through the worst of the cold season, although they could use more, to be sure. A donation of $20 will fill a bag of groceries for a homeless person in Klaipeda, and it’ll be handed to them, no strings attached, by a person who genuinely cares … quite possibly my very own sister, who truly embodies living as God’s hands in the world.

You can read more about my sister’s life and work in Lithuania on her blog, and donations to the food project she is a part of can be made through their missions group, the EFCCM. Just fill in your information on the first page, and on the second, where you can identify the project you wish to donate to, enter “A Step Up, Lithuania: 2-2862GB”.

03 November 2009

City Chickens in Windsor, Ontario

This just in from CBC News!

A new city committee will study the possibility that people in Windsor, Ont., should be allowed to raise chickens in their backyards.

City council decided at a regular meeting Monday night to strike the committee in response to local resident Steve Green's 15-page letter extolling the virtues of urban chickens.

The benefits Green listed in his letter dated Oct. 19 include better food security, increased access to protein and reduced greenhouse gases due to reduced food transportation costs.

Also, Green wrote, "Chickens make great pets."

I sure hope Mr. Green is successful: chickens really are awesome critters, and with nothing more complicated than a chain link dog run, a dog house type shelter and a couple of Rubbermaid-bin nesting boxes, they can be kept quite easily in a city back yard. They’re quieter than dogs, easier to contain than cats (not exactly *easy* to contain, but really, not too bad if you’ve got decent infrastructure), and … they lay eggs in return for their food!

A frequently mentioned concern is that their food will attract mice – but mice like dog and cat food, and nobody complains about that. A garbage bin for feed storage solves the problem nicely, anyway. Then there’s the manure … again, no worse than what dogs and cats leave behind, and in fact, it’s easier to deal with since it can be composted and used on the garden (not something you want to do with pet wastes).

Best wishes to Mr. Green in Windsor … Apple Jack Creek’s rooting for you!

02 November 2009

What I did today: an Inuit-inspired needle case

Today, I embarked on a bit of an experiment. The experiment was designed to solve a recurring problem, namely the fact that I can never seem to find my metal wool needles (the big blunt tipped ones you use for sewing up or weaving in ends). It was also designed to use materials I had on hand.

Inspired by an Inuit needle case design, I worked out a strategy for creating something similar.

First, I needed a hollow bone. I have some from the lamb bones that we got back from the butcher, so I cleaned one thoroughly and filed and sanded the ends so they were smooth, and I soaked it in vinegar to get rid of the smell.

Then I needed two toggles: one that could serve as a loop for a strap, if the case was to be hung somewhere, or perhaps worn on a lanyard, and one to serve as a ‘stopper’ at the bottom. I had a lovely red bead that would be a great stopper, and a small chunk cut from another bone made a loop and stopper all in one.

Last but not least, I needed something to stick the needles through. The Inuit used a strip of hide, but that’s not something I have in ready supply. I do, however, have plenty of wool, so I knit an i-cord double the length of the bone. It’s very narrow at the base, so that it will fit through the hole in the red bead, then widens for the section that will be inside the bone, to give lots of room for poking needles through it. At the top, it narrows again to form the extension that leads up to the round loop/stopper.

The finished needle case, in closed position:


And open, to give access to the needles inside:


Yeah, I know I could buy something to suit the purpose … or I could keep my needles in the drawer (I actually do that, most of the time) … but this was a neat thing to try and I think it’ll be quite handy.

I even have enough materials to make another one, just for fun. :)

01 November 2009

Chatelaine of the Household

Chatelaine was, in ancient times, the title for the mistress of a large household. Her role carried the responsibility for making sure all the stores were in order, everyone had enough clothing, and otherwise managing all the things necessary to keep the household running smoothly. It was not a small job!

Fortunately, in modern times, we have options about how we spend our days and nobody is relegated to scullery maid or squire by virtue of gender and family status. Still, the work of making sure the stores are in order, everyone has enough clothing, and the household still runs hasn’t gone away – we just have options of how that work gets done.

Whenever I find myself doing some of the sorting and organizing work, I tell myself it’s my chance to be the chatelaine. I think of the mistresses of great households in days gone by, counting barrels of apples and beer, hoping to have enough for winter … and I count myself very fortunate to have Save On Foods as my backup plan.

One of today’s jobs was to sort and organize the pantry. It’s a very small pantry, at this stage of the game, but it is still extremely useful: a full pantry means you can probably find the ingredients for just about anything you want to make for dinner, and if you aren’t able to get to the store for a few days … well … there’s still lots to eat, even if the options dwindle a bit after a week or two.

The pantry also helps us save money: whenever I see things on sale that I know we use frequently, I pick them up and add them to the stash. Part of today’s job was organizing the stash so that it’ll be easier to rotate our stock and use up the older things before we start in on the newer stuff.

We also buy in bulk to reduce packaging and costs, and so the other job for today was organizing the bulk purchases into more efficient packaging. Several baggies of baking soda are now in a large food-grade plastic jug, and enough elbow macaroni for a few mac-and-cheese casseroles is packaged into another jug just like it.

The final mission for today was clearing out the 'ancient and questionable’ items that have collected over time. The chickens feasted today on old stale pasta, grains, and dried fruits of uncertain provenance: they can eat what they like out of the pile, the rest will compost in place over the winter. Hopefully, with better pantry organization (including labels on the shelves and a strategy for incoming items), we won’t end up with such a stash of old and outdated food in the future.

We do have plans for a cold room downstairs, but given the length of our existing to-do list, it might be a year or two before it is implemented. In the meantime, I need to remember to ‘be the chatelaine’ now and again so that we can make the most of our little pantry and keep track of our stores.

26 October 2009

Independence Days Update

Again, it’s been a long time since I updated my Independence Days Challenge but … here we go!

Planted: It’s past outdoor planting time here, so nothing in this category. I did cover up the strawberry plants so that the chickens won’t eat them while they are doing their best to clear the rest of the garden, so perhaps that counts. :)

Harvested: Our harvest is all in. We do gather eggs daily (although not very many right now as the chickens are moulting and adapting to new housing and so production is way, way down).

Preserved: Red peppers were on sale at the store, so they were chopped and dehydrated. Two little squashes from the garden were getting weary looking, so they, too, were sliced and put into the dehydrator. More apples were sent home and made into Carla Emery’s “apple ketchup” (which is kind of an HP-ish sauce good on meats), some into apple butter (wow), and some into cider and cider vinegar.

Waste Not: A batch of bean stew that wasn’t really too much to anyone’s liking was combined with leftover lambaco meat to make a nice chili for dinner. Chickens are now in the garden for the winter, and get all leftover edibles. Lamb fat that was rendered in the late summer was used in a candle-making experiment that actually turned out rather well!

Want Not (Preparations): More infrastructure work, of course – the new chicken coop, a sheltered feeder-hanger in the garden to keep the chicken food out of the rain/snow/coop, fencing in the winter pasture to make the sacrifice pasture smaller and save some grass for early spring. The pantry got a minor clean-out (old stale stuff which was then fed to the chickens, who minded not at all), and that makes room for the flats of canned things that were picked up on sale at the store.

Community Food Systems: Sold some more lamb, still have a lot in the freezer to go, and more on the hoof outside. Met with a local fitness coach who recommends that his clients eat grass-fed local meats: he wanted to try our meat and perhaps recommend it to his clients. That was encouraging! Arranged to buy hay from a local farmer who is having a rotten year (as are many), so we put a few dollars back into a local farm, anyway. And, the boys are outside right now helping a neighbour load the last of his cattle into the trailer. Helping the food-producing neighbours is always part of community food systems!


Related to the Independence Days concept, we are also working towards a lower-impact holiday season: the folks at Buy Nothing Christmas have some great ideas about how to reduce the impact the holidays can have on the wallet and the earth. We want to return the focus of the holidays to our faith and to spending time with those we love, rather than at the mall or stressing about the expense of gifts!

We do love the holidays, and we love giving presents – it’s something that we’ve always enjoyed, and it never really has been the stressful experience that it seems to be for so many people. Maybe that’s because our families have always been happiest with gifts chosen for their meaning, not their dollar value – the small but perfect gift is treasured more than a big expensive … whatever. Regifting is really cool with us, as is handing on a possession that you know someone else will get more use/pleasure from than you will (just today I was reminded of the Christmas when one of my very best friends gave me his breadmaker, now I use it all the time). Baking, meat for the freezer, gifts of service, there are so many choices.

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”

“Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

- The Grinch (Dr. Seuss)

Oh, I’m sure we’ll spend some of our hard-earned dollars as part of our holiday celebrations, but it’s nice to know that it is okay to keep things reasonable, to focus on one another, on the gift of time, and not be distracted by any of the beeping blinking breakable trinkets we are so often told are ‘the really coolest thing’.

I just played three games of Cadoo with my family. That’s way cooler than any beeping blinking breakable trinket, trust me. :)

Think about it, anyway. What could you give that really comes from *you*?

23 October 2009

Knitting in the peace and quiet

The other night, after a long day at work, I sat in the big leather chair and worked on my knitting.

No TV.

No iPod.

No radio.


It was wonderful.


We don’t get enough peace and quiet, I think. It’s good for the soul.

09 October 2009

04 October 2009

A new chicken coop, made entirely of scraps and leftovers!

Chickens are wonderful animals. They don’t need much in the way of infrastructure or daily care, they give you eggs every day and chicks every so often, and chicken meat when you get around to butchering the roosters. They eat your kitchen scraps, devour grasshoppers and other bugs all summer, and are terrifically entertaining to watch. They’re so much fun, I think everyone should have a few. :)

Now, while chickens don’t need a whole lot in the way of infrastructure (especially when they are able to free-range safely, as they are here, protected by the guardian dogs), they do need a place to be warm and out of the wind, and a spot to lay eggs. We have the chicken tractors, which work quite nicely in the summer, but last winter we had some frozen toes and we wanted to come up with something a bit warmer for the hens in the cold of winter.

Some of the materials for our house construction project were delivered in a big 8x8x4 packing crate / pallet. We had covered it with wood ‘siding’ and a metal roof, and it has served as a wood shed/cat shelter/storage spot for the past four years. However, it’s not particularly attractive, and it wasn’t in a really good spot for a permanent structure so … it got repurposed as a chicken coop.

While the structure was still upright, we added some 2x4 boards for perches (I’ve read that in cold climates, chickens do better with flat perches so that they can tuck their toes under their bodies for warmth), a nesting shelf, and some access hatches. It was very peculiar working ‘sideways’: knowing the finished structure would be tipped over made perspectives a bit weird!

When the interior work was mostly done, the entire structure was  lifted (very carefully) on the bobcat forks and moved next to the garden, where it was tipped over onto a pile of old hay (we are big believers in the deep bedding method). Last but not least, the finishing touches were added: an access door (made of plexiglass, so that it serves as a window as well), sheathing on what used to be the bottom of the structure, and metal roofing on what used to be the back and is now the top.


The whole thing is actually big enough for an adult person to squeeze into (without standing up!) – it’s about 4 feet tall. I crawled around inside and spread out the hay bedding, then stuffed gaps with straw. It was nice and warm, out of the wind!

The north wall is insulated with straw, which is stuffed into the gaps in the pallet floor. The south wall is made of brown metal roofing, so hopefully it will warm up a little in the sunshine – we may upgrade it to a proper thermosiphon in a year or two. The bucket feeder hangs just inside the plexiglass door, so it will be easy to check and refill, and the chicken access door is on the west side, away from the prevailing winds.


It’s no Taj Mahal, but it is an excellent use of marginal scrap materials that might otherwise have been unusable. Chickens, fortunately, aren’t particularly hard on their housing (unlike sheep and cows, who rub and bang and crash into things fairly regularly), so that meant we could get away with somewhat less sturdy materials: we had some seriously warped and wonky wood that was suitable for the perches and various internal supports, and the egg and chicken doors are made from leftover bits of laminate flooring. The nest box floor is made from a leftover piece of engineered floor trusses. Those wooden I-beams, when laid sideways, have a nice raised edge, front and back, built right in. The roofing is left over from house construction, and we were able to use up some very odd shaped pieces and still cover the whole coop. Even most of the nails and screws are salvaged from other projects.

Once the siding on the house is finished (and it’s almost all done!), we will sheathe this structure with the leftover bits, so that it looks better and is more durable. 

One more addition will be a light: a light encourages egg production, and also provides a bit of extra warmth. We will install a canning jar ‘light fixture’ in the side of the coop and put it on a timer so that the hens get longer days and a bit of extra heat on chilly mornings. We had them in the chicken tractors, so this is something we already know how to do quickly (in fact, we may just move one of the lights from one of the tractors over).

Hopefully tomorrow we’ll have eggs in the nest box … and not in the hay at the bottom of the coop!

03 October 2009


The mama hen that went broody a few weeks ago now has three baby chicks peeping under her warm feathers. :)

When the hen went broody, we put her in a large cage in the barn, where she could have darkness and quiet and warmth, and gave her five eggs to sit on. As of this afternoon, three had hatched – two fluffy yellow chicks that look like the drawings of baby chicks you see at Easter, and one little black chick. The other two eggs may yet hatch, we’ll see in the next day.

It’s always exciting to watch new life arrive!

(And yes, we’ve been very careful: the mama hen has a water bottle … there is *no* water dish in the cage!)

30 September 2009


I am hopelessly addicted to fishing.

This is entirely my husband’s fault.

He grew up in Saskatchewan, where there are lakes everywhere and lots and lots of fish. He’s been fishing for as long as he can remember. This summer, he taught me how to cast and … that was it.

Fishing is whole-body-mediation. You get ready to cast … you check that the space around you is clear, and you get into position. You put all your will into sending the lure out in a beautiful arc over the water, as far as it can reach. You hold the rod out in front of you, pointing at the spot you hope to hit and wait for the splash, then start to reel in the line - not too fast, not too slow - watching and waiting for a tug on the line.

Most of the time, that tug just means you snagged on some weeds. Reel in the line, shake the vegetables off the hook, and try again.

(I am an excellent vegetable fisherperson. I’ve done my share of cleaning out weeds from the lakes I’ve fished, believe me!)

Once in awhile, though, that tug is a fish, and then the excitement begins!

Now see, I even understand how this works. I do have a psychology degree after all, and I know that intermittent reinforcement (where the reward comes at random intervals, rather than every single time you do the ‘trick’) creates behavioural patterns that are extremely difficult to extinguish. Each time, you think “well, maybe this time is it!” so you keep going.

Yep, that’s how fishing works.

I’m okay with that.

You know, there are worse ways to spend your time. :)

20 September 2009

Harvest & the Garden Cleanup Crew

Today was the day to harvest the remaining things out in the garden – the rest of the potatoes, beets, the squash, and the few stray onions that were left behind in earlier diggings. Oh, and the wheat and sunflowers.

The veggies were piled on a tarp (tarps are easy to load and drag around): a generous pile of potatoes, then the beets and onions, then the spaghetti squash. We only grew a little wheat this year, as an experiment, so it was harvested with scissors, one head at a time – the heads plunked into a bucket, and the straw left on the ground. The sunflowers were broken off at the stems and taken to the shed to dry out.

Once the harvest was complete, the strawberry bed was covered with boards and the sheep were let in to graze all the leftovers. There’s a lot of grass in the garden area (not all of the fenced off area was planted this year, so it really got to be quite a jungle), plus all the leftover beet tops, squash leaves, sunflower stems, and assorted weeds. The pastures are dry and overgrazed, the sheep are hungry, and I don’t want to spend two days hacking my way through all that vegetation … they might as well eat it!

So the cleanup crew is on duty in the garden, and I’ve started the preservation tasks indoors: potatoes were washed, sliced, and boiled briefly then bagged and sealed with the vacuum sealer. The boil-in-bag packages are in the freezer, where they’ll be very convenient come winter time.

Next will be the beets, but I think I’ve done enough for one day. :)

17 September 2009

Spreading the joy of ‘good work’

I enjoy the satisfaction of ‘making stuff’. I really like seeing the juice from the apples in the pantry, the fruit leather packed in kids’ lunches, the dried onions on the counter. It’s the feeling of having done good work.

Of course, I talk about this kind of stuff with my coworkers, who quite often look at me as though I’m a wee bit daft for having spent part of my weekend processing apple syrup, but still, they bring me their windfall apples and save assorted leftover bits for the chickens. :)

This week, one of the coworkers-with-the-apple-trees told me he had made applesauce from his apples, just the way I’d described it. It was a fair bit of work, he said, but I reassured him that it gets simpler with a bit of practice, and besides, the apples are free and they might as well be put to good use!

He wanted to know what to do with all the sauce he’d made (I suggested freezing it, in addition to baking with it – he brought in a batch of absolutely fabulous apple cinnamon muffins) and then I showed him some dehydrators online (I’d brought in some fruit leather earlier in the week). His next question was how to extract juice from the cooked apples, as cheesecloth wasn’t working.

I explained that the cheesecloth that you buy at the store is way too porous to use for draining fruits, especially cooked and mushed apples. An ancient tea towel that’s been around since the seventies would be about right, or an old well washed t-shirt. Laid in a colander over a bowl, you don’t even have to rig up the whole ‘sugar bag from a broomstick’ deal (yes, I am actually old enough to remember jelly juice being extracted that way).

Regardless, sure feels good to share the joy of ‘good work’ with someone else. It was cool to see the big grin on his face as he told me about what he’d done on the weekend.

He is darn proud of himself, and rightly so. :)

The Nova Scotia Hat

A friend of mine who also likes yarn and knitting and such went to Nova Scotia this summer on a holiday. Before she left, I gave her $20 and said “find me some cool yarn and send it back!”

Now see, that gave her a totally valid reason to drag her significant other into all the yarn shops along the way, so it was a win-win kind of deal. :)

The yarn that came home was a lovely Cotswold/mohair mix, hand dyed in beautiful jewel tones. At first, I thought maybe it wanted to be a scarf, but there just wasn’t quite enough of it to make a worthwhile scarf, and well, it just didn’t seem right. So, yarn being the wonderfully reusable stuff that it is, I pulled it back and made a hat instead.

Voila: the Nova Scotia Hat.

Any knitters out there interested in the pattern? If so, leave a comment and I’ll write it up. It was pretty easy knitting, overall, even those cool crossed over long stitches aren’t hard, and there’s only 2 rounds of them.

11 September 2009

Independence Days Update

Ohh, it’s been awhile. Let’s see what we’ve done!

Planted: Not a thing. It’s not quite planting time here … although I do have some garlic cloves to go in, once I finish clearing out the garden. It’s just not quite time yet.

Harvested: Lots in this category! All the carrots, most of the beets, a few squash (which are sitting in the coolest room in the house to ‘age’), the last of the bolted spinach and lettuce (which was fed to the sheep), and all the onions. Oh, and all the peas. And some potatoes.

The Boy went and gathered rose hips for me, and raspberry leaves.

We also had several sheep go to the butcher, which probably counts as harvesting, and as always, gathered lots and lots of eggs.

Preserved: The aforementioned carrots were washed, cut, cooked and vacuum sealed in boil-in-bag vacuum bags which were then plunked into the freezer. Apples (generously donated by friends from work) were cooked into juice, which was sweetened and thickened into syrup and bottled, and mushed into sauce, which was then dried into fruit leather. Two batches of onions were sliced and dehydrated (OUTSIDE!), peas were done in another batch in the dehydrator, and other onions were hung up to dry and put in a mesh bag for storage.  Raspberry leaves have been dried for tea.

Waste Not: The donated apples would’ve been tossed in the garbage, but my coworkers know that I’m likely to make use of this sort of thing and offered them to me if I could use them. I love their generosity! The pulp from the apple cooking was fed to the sheep, who gobbled it up like it was candy. We had the butcher give us all the trim and bones back from our sheep, and the dogs have been eating well with the fresh meat. A bunch of the trim was cooked down and the fat rendered, as soon as I can find a source of lye, I’ll make up some soap. Lamb cuts from last year that were becoming frostbitten in the bottom of the freezer are gradually being fed to the dogs, who aren’t particular about such things. (They eat roadkill. Clearly they aren’t particular.)

Want Not (Preparations): Well, we did a bit more infrastructure work – TRF is most of the way through repairing the wind generator, and the fenceline feeder is in place for winter. Some friends of my parents’ had several panels made for goats that they weren’t using anymore, and we inherited those … they are very sturdy and one had a feeder already attached to it, which makes an excellent mineral dispenser. 

Community Food Systems: Have had a few orders for lamb already, and shared some of the lamb garlic sausage with coworkers (who were uniformly impressed with it’s non-lamby-and-wonderfully-spicy flavour). Continue to sell eggs to regular customers, and sold some of the organ meats to a friend who feeds raw meat to her dog. 

Eat the Food: We’ve had lots of lamb, eggs, and potatoes lately, and have been noshing on fruit leather for snacks.

05 September 2009

Things to do with apples

The people I work with have gotten used to the idea that I’m the person who is likely to make use of leftovers of one form or another.

“Will any of your critters eat these stale carrot muffins?”

“We’re going on vacation and had two tomatoes and three peppers left in the fridge … would you like them?”

and now …

“We have a lot of apples off our tree this year, would you be able to make use of them? They’re kinda banged up…”

You betcha!

The chickens love carrot muffins, and we are not at all embarrassed to make good use of surplus food, no matter how it came to be surplus. And apples … oh my, there are so many uses for apples!

Some of the sheep like to eat them, right out of your hand. The small ones (which they can get into their mouths to chew) are great treats.

Really damaged apples make great juice: just cook them with some water until they soften, then hang them in the juice bag over night. The juice, cooked with a lot of sugar and a bit of pectin, makes a marvelous apple syrup, which is delicious mixed with oatmeal and hot water for breakfast (my usual morning fare, eaten once I get to the office).

Apples in any sort of in-between state make good apple sauce, which in turn makes good fruit leather. I just dump the apples into the big cauldron (stock pot), add a bit of water, and cook until they turn to mush, assisting as needed with the potato masher. The resulting pulp is scooped into a colander resting on a large bowl, and squished so that the soft, smooth paste goes through the colander mesh and the larger seeds, skins and chunky bits remain in the colander. The leftovers are fed to the chickens or sheep, and the pulp is poured into jars. I could hot process the jars and keep apple sauce for winter, but at the moment I’m on a fruit leather kick – our kids all love it, and the home made stuff is so much better than the store kind … no preservatives, no packaging, and only as much sugar as is needed to sweeten up the apples. I have trays for the dehydrator that are specifically for making fruit leather, so all I have to do is pour the apple sauce onto the trays and plug it in overnight. Voila – fruit leather!

I’ve also done some apples as dried apple chunks, for winter baking, although that takes more work and is best suited to big apples that are worth the effort of peeling. :)

It really doesn’t require a whole lot of effort, and it’s such a good feeling to have healthy, home made food to put in the pantry. Even if it was just “leftovers” to start with!

03 September 2009

Dehydrating the bounty

I do love my little American Harvest dehydrator.

It takes very little time to slice up some veggies or fruit to put on the trays, then it gets plugged in overnight, and in the morning, you have dehydrated food ready to go into jars for storage! Everything shrinks during dehydration, so six or seven trays full of sliced veggies will usually fit into a peanut butter jar once they’ve been dried out. With our small pantry, this is a definite bonus.

The big advantage of the dehydrator is that you can work with small quantities as they come available – you don’t need to clear the kitchen and “do the canning”, you can just chop up whatever’s on hand.

During the summer, the excess spinach from the garden got dried: it makes a wonderful addition to omelettes, crumbled and sprinkled over top while it’s cooking.

Now that the onions have been harvested, the big ones have been braided together and hung up to dry, but the smaller ones, or those bruised or otherwise unlikely to survive very long  have been chopped up and dehydrated (with the machine set outside overnight … that’s an odour you do not want filling your house!).

It’s a good feeling to make use of things that would otherwise go to waste.

01 September 2009

TRF’s cooking

The Reluctant Farmer does almost all the cooking around here, since he works from home, and I do the commute.

He’s gotten to be an amazing cook … which is really a significant accomplishment.

For example, way back when he was first experimenting with this whole cooking and baking thing, he baked a birthday cake for Dinosaur Boy … and didn’t have any idea that you are only supposed to fill cake pans halfway full, since the cake rises. After cake baking, he learned oven cleaning!

Since then, he’s come a long way. Dinner is always ready when I get home, and pretty much always delicious – very few of his experiments turn out to be something nobody likes.

Today’s wonderful crock pot supper consisted of lamb garlic sausage (oh boy is it good, the butcher did a fabulous job) in tomato sauce with potatoes and one clove of garlic.

However …

TRF didn’t realize that one clove of garlic is not the same as one whole garlic bulb. :)

Believe me, there will be no vampires in our house tonight, but boy, was it good!

30 August 2009

Learning as we go

Well, the hatchlings didn’t make it.

One died in the shell – we think it was stuck to the shell and couldn’t get loose, as the second one was definitely stuck to the shell – we helped him, though.

The second one made it out of the shell (with help – I know, you’re never supposed to help them, but it’d been 24 hours already and he was gonna die if we did nothing, so we figured it was worth a shot) and seemed to take forever to dry off and get going. He was cheeping loudly, though, and seemed very determined to live …

… until he drowned in the water dish.

Duh! We knew that could happen, but he was so slow to get up and moving that we just didn’t register that all of a sudden he *would* be up and moving and the dish was right there. Poor guy.

None of the other eggs show any signs of hatching, so we figure that given how many troubles we had sorting things out in our first run, probably no more will hatch … but we’ll give it until tomorrow to see.

The Reluctant Farmer is already investigating some modifications to the Eggabator to make it more successful next round – and we’ll be sure to take the water dish out at hatching time!

Hmm, maybe a sponge would work …

29 August 2009

One more “gotta be done before winter job” done!

The fenceline feeder is in place and ready for use.

The Boy requested a change in feeding strategies this year, and since he does most of the feeding chores, it only seems reasonable to listen to his requests for infrastructure changes.

We ordered several ‘hog panels’ this year and boy, are they nice to have. A hog panel is about 3.5’ high and 12’ wide, made of moderately heavy but still flexible metal – you can bend a panel into a curve to make a hoop house, for instance, but you have to cut the bars with bolt cutters (and lots of pressure), so it’s fairly sturdy stuff. The squares are very small at the bottom and larger at the top, with the biggest openings about 6” around.

One section of fence along the edge of the winter pasture has hog panels attached to the posts, and the sheep are able to stick their noses through and get to the hay stacked on the other side. The hay is held in place by wooden back panels that are pushed up tight to the fence post at the bottom but suspended out at the top to make a v-shape when you view the whole arrangement from the side. The hay is loaded in from the top, slides down, and is easily reached by the sheep through the holes in the fence.

I loaded the new feeder with some ‘test hay’ today (an old bale from last year) and indeed, the sheep came to eat it, so I suppose it’ll work! It is easy to fill and it seems like we’ll have a bit less waste. I also attached the back plywood panels with rope so that when the feeder gets filled with waste stems and such, it’ll be easy to unhook the panels and drop them flat, sweep off the waste, and then lift the panels back in place. That should be much easier than trying to reach in with a pitchfork and dig out the stuff the sheep don’t want.

Like everything else around here, we’ll just have to give it a try and see how it works!

It does feel good to have that job done, though. It is one of those ‘gotta be done before winter’ things, and we’ve had winter sneak up on us before … so it’s good to be ready well in advance!

Whaddaya know, the eggabator works!

The Reluctant Farmer went to check the temperature on the eggabator just a bit ago, and noticed one of the eggs was tipped on it’s side a little.

“Hmm, it wasn’t like that before…”

A closer look showed a crack in the side and a little beak working it’s way through the shell. A few minutes later, a second egg started the same process.

So, we have two eggs in the process of hatching … very exciting!

08 August 2009

TRF's DIY Eggabator

(The Reluctant Farmer's Do-It-Yourself Chicken Egg Incubator)

The Reluctant Farmer is the Chicken Guy around here: we all enjoy the eggs, we all enjoy having the chickens around, but they are his thing, really.

So, when he took it into his head that we need some more chicks (mostly to replace aging layers, and some to sell, or eat, as well), he also figured that the most cost effective way to go about this was to use an incubator and hatch out some of the fertilized eggs we have here. No need to buy day old chicks when you have a ready supply of hatchable eggs sitting in your hen houses!

However, incubators are expensive devices.

So, the obvious thing to do was to build one!

After much Googling, a trip to Canadian Tire and some digging around in the basement treasure trove of useful stuff, we have a functioning incubator:

It is a styrofoam cooler with a light fixture installed in the lid (from a damaged lamp), a computer fan (from Princess Auto, although I am not sure why it was purchased), a 12 volt adpater (of uncertain provenance), a thermometer (Canadian Tire), and a dish of water (from the Tupperware drawer). Oh, and a CD case.

The light fixture keeps the temperature inside warm enough to allow the eggs to develop: holes poked in the sides of the cooler allow us to adjust up or down - we poke more holes if it's too hot inside, and we stick tape over the holes if it gets too chilly. The water dish keeps the humidity high enough, and the fan circulates the warm air to keep the temperature even. The CD case became a window so we can check on the temperature (and, in 3 weeks, watch for hatching eggs!).

Pretty good for under $15, eh?

Check back in 3 weeks to see if we get hatchlings!

A whole new flock for Apple Jack Creek

We've been thinking about shifting our flock base over to Icelandics for some time now - the Icelandic sheep we have had just seem to be better suited to our shepherding style: they are seasonal breeders, so our inability to keep rams on one side of the fence and ewes on the other isn't a problem; they are very hardy and deal well with cold weather (Iceland ... yeah, lots like Alberta!); they are small, so easier to handle (small is a disadvantage if you're marketing to the auction houses, but we sell direct to customers, so it's not a problem for us); they have gorgeous, colourful, high quality fleece (which should explain itself!).

We had two purebred Icelandics in our starter flock, but culled one a year ago for infertility and discovered this spring that our much loved Natalie (amazing mama and all-around awesome sheep) is suffering from one of the common chronic sheep ailments (OPP for other shepherds out there). It's invariably fatal, but it doesn't condemn the carcass ... it's a chronic lung infection that just makes the sheep sicker and sicker over time. So ... Natalie will be added to this year's butcher list and we will honour her life by making sure her suffering is alleviated and by enjoying the lamb sausage and toasting her memory!

However ... all that left us with no more purebred Icelandics. Some nice cross bred sheep, yes, but what we really needed was some good breeding stock.

Then, an online friend of mine let me know that she was selling her entire flock: they have no pasture where they are located, and bringing in hay all the time was just not working out. Prime breeding stock, lovely sheep, from someone I know, needing a home.

Well, that was an easy decision. :)

Okay, not quite, but it was so clearly the right thing for us to do that we did our thought experiments, checked and double checked the budget, and said "okay, we'll go for it". All but two of our existing flock will be headed off to freezer camp (the Immunity Challenge winners are Jack, the Southdown ram and Cherub, the Columbia/Hamp bottle baby ewe), and our new flock has arrived:

Everyone survived the trailer run from BC quite well, and they are out nibbling on pasture grass very happily with no troubles at all. It's already been grazed down quite a bit, so it's not too lush and we should be able to avoid any digestive troubles with switching from a hay diet to a pasture diet, but we'll be watching closely to be sure.

It's sad to be saying goodbye to some of our existing ewes, we have some real personalities here and letting them go is a tough decision. However, we have found a new butcher who does small runs of sausage, which is an excellent use for older animals, and we have to do what will work best for the farm as a whole. Icelandics fit the bill for us, but we are grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the other breeds first hand as the only way to really learn what works well in your particular circumstances is to experiment.

So, we give our thanks and love to the sheep who have served us well during our apprenticeship, and welcome the new flock as we say farewell to the old.

25 July 2009

The Great Laundry Race of 2009

On your marks ... get set ... go!

It's the Great Laundry Race of 2009. :)

What is the Great Laundry Race? It's your opportunity to help discover the true answer to this burning question:

How much time does a person actually spend getting the laundry dried and folded?

See, since we moved out to Apple Jack Creek, we have been using a high-technology solar powered clothes dryer, and have experimented with a number of different strategies for optimizing the whole drying-of-laundry-chore. Hang the socks next to each other, to save time later ... put all the t-shirts on the same part of the rack, so you can pile them as you fold ... take down one person's stuff at a time, so that the finished pile of folded laundry is organized for delivery to the different rooms ...

Anyway, we are always looking for new ideas, and so we want to compare our experience with yours: whether you use electricity, natural gas, or solar power to dry your clothes.

So, without further ado, here are the details of the Great Laundry Race of 2009:

Eligible participants:

  • anyone who does laundry, by any method!

How to participate:

  • Wash your laundry the way you normally do. This race pertains just to the drying cycle. :)

  • Time yourself from the moment you open the washing machine and remove the clean, wet clothes until you get them to the place where they will finish drying. If you use a dryer, this is the time it takes to get clothes from
    washer to dryer; if you hang the clothes to dry, this is the time it takes to get everything set up in whatever drying arrangement you use.

  • You are timing only the effort of the human being - so if the clothes stay on the line for half a day or are in the machine for an hour, that part doesn't count.

  • Once the clothes are dry, start timing again: time from the moment you begin processing the clean clothes (i.e. removing them from the dryer or taking them off the line), until you have them all folded and ready to be put away (however you do that).

Recording your results:

  • Add a comment to this blog entry, giving as much information as you can including….

  • The size of the load you are timing with, as that will definitely affect the results. As a baseline, you can compare to our average size load: with our small front load washer, that'd be about four to six pair of socks, a pair of jeans, three or four grownup shirts, three or four kid size shirts, assorted underwear, and probably a sweatshirt.

  • Tell us your method of drying: what equipment you use, if you have a particular strategy for efficiency (e.g. "I hang all the socks together on the line so I save time matching them later"), and any other relevant details. Enquiring minds want to know how you do what you do! :) And, if you alternate between methods, by all means, run a comparison and share your findings!

  • Last but not least, tell us how much time your method requires.
    If you can average a few loads of wash, that'd be truly awesome.

And the prize!

  • Yes, we have a prize! Everyone is a winner when the laundry is done, but we have a prize for participating in our great Laundry Race. :)
    All participants in the Great Laundry Race of 2009 (i.e. those who comment on the blog with their timed results before midnight August 15, 2009) will be entered in a draw for a sample size tin of Apple Jack Creek's Calendula and Mullein Ointment. This stuff is good for all sorts of cuts and scrapes and bruises, and is made with nothing but flowers (grown right here), beeswax (grown in Alberta), and olive oil (from a local grocery store!).
    It's not much, I know, but it's one of the few things I have to give away that will survive mailing. :)

So, get your stopwatches ready, find your dirty clothes, and let's see how much time we're spending on the dry cycle!

19 July 2009

Progress, frustrations, and knitting

There's always a long list of things to do when you live on a farm, even a small one, and so it's really easy to make some kind of progress. Pick any of the jobs on the lengthy list and voila, you are further ahead than you were yesterday!

Last weekend, everyone in the whole family was away except me, through an odd combination of circumstances. I slept in, ate what I wanted when I felt hungry, and got a whole lot of productive work done without really feeling worn out at the end! I wandered outside Saturday morning to see which job I felt like doing, and I decided to start on the fenceline feeder for the sheep. The Boy has requested a change in feeding strategy, and since he does most of the feeding, it seems reasonable that he should get the infrastructure he wants. So, I took down the boundary fence from the piece of winter pasture that will become the feeder and cut and attached the hog panels to the posts. We'll add sheets of plywood on an angle along the back, and that'll hold the hay for the sheep to eat: they stick their noses through the hog panels, but can't get their whole heads through (we hope). A test run late in the spring looked promising, so here's hoping.

Once I got that done, I realized that the winter pasture desperately needed to be cleared out, so I fired up the bobcat and practiced my digging and shovelling maneouvers. I'm no bobcat artist, but working on flat ground I did have a lot of opportunity to try different things, and managed to improve my skills a little, while making a big pile of compost-to-be.

The next question, obviously, was what to do with the pile I had just made.

I had read the Maple Corners blog that morning, and saw Annie's "Wall of Junk" - the very creatively decorated fence that hides her compost pile. Inspired, I put up some fence posts and cross boards, and made a mental note to be on the lookout for cool 'junk' to decorate it with! A bit more bobcat work and I had the existing compost pile moved into the new bin, and room for another bin. Sunday saw the creation of the second bin, and the compost-to-be from the winter pasture put into it's proper cooking spot. Monday night I actually saw the pile steaming again, which is really encouraging ... and it's shrinking, so it's defintely doing what it oughta do.

The two new compost bins are along the north border of the property, where we really do need a perimiter fence. This weekend, I started extending that fence with more posts and boards - it doesn't have to be absolutely sheep-proof, just sheep-resistant, so that we can turn them out into the area we euphemistically refer to as a 'lawn' on occasion to keep it mowed. Twelve posts later (put in all by myself - The Reluctant Farmer was busy doing other much-needed jobs like sealing the windows so they don't leak in the rain, and working on siding the house), we have a perimiter fence along most of the north border to the yard. The sheep were out there on Saturday and did make a dent in the grass, but since it's not properly fenced off everywhere, we had to chase them back in a few times and now they're safely behind proper fences and gates.

All this work doesn't come without frustrations ... the fence boards aren't level and have to be taken down and put back up ... the sheep get out and have to be chased back ... the sheep knock down one of the fence boards that is only up with temporary nails, until I can check that it is level ... a thunderstorm arrives while the sheep are all wandering around and I have to chase them back into a proper pasture while getting drenches ... I manage to give myself a nasty bruise while deconstructing a shade house to use as a trellis ... but all in all, it was still a productive couple of weekends.

Knitting continues: the vest I am working on is turning out very nicely, if I do say so myself, and I have been working on it diligently. Now I have to figure out what it needs for a collar.

I think I'll go knit some more.

14 July 2009

The first purebred Icelandic lambs have arrived

Natalie *finally* delivered her twin lambs today! The Boy was keeping an eye out for a delivery, as we knew it had to be fairly soon, and he was right there, ready to help if need be. Nat was pretty tired by the time the second twin arrived, but she managed without assistance ... still, it's really reassuring to know that we have a skilled shepherd on hand just in case. What a kid we have! :)

These are the first purebred Icelandic lambs born on our farm: Natalie miscarried her fall pregnancy some time during the winter, possibly due to toxoplasmosis exposure, and was rebred by our new Icelandic ram lamb just after he arrived in mid February. Today, the lambs arrived at long last!

Two lovely ram lambs, a solid black one and a solid white one, with perfect little Icelandic faces and short little Icelandic tails and curly soft Icelandic fleece are walking around the pasture with their mama - one of them was even nibbling on grass and he's not eight hours old. :)

So, that should be it for lambing for this year - we had a couple of ewes who didn't settle at all ... and with the new breeding ewes coming to us from Flannelberry Farm later this year, we are reorganizing the flock a little. We love the Icelandics - they are the perfect sheep for our management style and our weather, so we'll be phasing out most (but not all) of the Columbia/Hampshires. It's always a tough decision, choosing who goes off to freezer camp, but for the good of the flock, it's a decision that has to be made.

The Boy and I will have some more conversations about our choices, but I think we're pretty much in agreement. There are a few who have "won the immunity challenge" and get to retire here ... Cherub the annoying but sweet former bottle baby, and Jack, the superb Southdown ram (who fathers excellent sturdy crossbred lambs, with that sumo sheep build of his, so he earns his keep). The rest, though, have to earn their place ... either in the pasture or on the plate!

09 July 2009

Really cool birthday stuff

Boy, did I get really cool birthday stuff this year. :)

Dinosaur Boy and Princess Girl each picked out a package of brightly dyed wool top at the local fibre store - hers was shades of pink (of course) and his was ocean blues. Spun up and plyed together they make the lovliest bright yarn imaginable! I think it wants to be a purse or a bag of some kind. I'm still talking to it.

My wonderful husband picked out a stunning package of purple silk and merino fibre that definitely wants to be spun up into something light and then knitted into something drapey ... that's awaiting further inspiration. There's also a gift card to spend at the same fibre shop for ... whatever. Hmmmm ... an excuse to go fibre shopping!

The Boy and my parents got together and hunted down a new 5 gallon pickle crock for me - I have a lovely one inherited from my mom, actually, which got broken this winter (it doubles as a Christmas tree stand, and, well, it didn't quite survive the experience intact). Mom and Dad found it at an antique shop, and it's exactly like the other one - same maker, even! That was a great present! Pickles are on the agenda for fall, that's for sure.

The Boy also ordered one of the books from my wish list - the Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery ... which looks utterly fascinating. It's got *everything* in there!

Oh, and my sister and her husband sent me a book from England: it got here awhile back and I couldn't wait to open it, so I already read it and enjoyed it thoroughly.

What a great birthday! Thanks, everyone!

05 July 2009

Independence Days Update

As always, the update on how things are going at our house. With the poor weather this year (cold, then hot and dry, then frost even late in June, then dry …) it’s been a lackluster gardening year. I’m trying to keep my eye on the long term, though – all the work I’ve done out there this year to build new beds, kill off the grass (oh, that’s a big job) and shape the garden into what it needs to be will pay off next year and in the years after … even if we don’t have a lot of tomatoes this year (or, indeed, any) we’ll at least be several steps ahead for NEXT year!

So, focusing on the accomplishments…

Planted: Today I planted more lettuce, beets, and some pepper plants that may or may not survive the transplant procedure. I also relocated some volunteer calendula to the herb bed (since nothing else I planted there grew, there was room!)

Harvested: Lettuce and radishes for salads, one stray nettle plant to dry for tea, and one calendula plant that didn’t really make the transfer cleanly, so it can be dried too. The Boy has been out scouting for saskatoons and raspberries, but none have shown up yet.

Preserved: Hmm, can’t think of anything to put in this category this time.

Waste Not: The usual – scraps fed to some animal or other, eating leftovers for lunches, that kind of thing. Nothing really stands out. Oh, I did discover that everyone likes apple upside down cake … and that’s a great way to use up some almost-gone apples. Makes a good breakfast, too!

Want Not (Preparations): We’ll consider all the work to build the garden part of preparations … it may not pay off this year, but it will pay of in coming years! Not much else happening on this front beyond regular maintenance (we have improved the fences, and that definitely counts) and debt reduction.

Community Food Systems: Noticed an ad for a butcher that’s taking lamb at a nearby community … and we’ve heard good things about their services, too, so we will see if that’s workable for us. Soon we’ll have lambs ready to become dinner!

Eat the Food: Some of the rhubarb sauce I cooked up recently became the sauce for a rhubarb upside down cake today, and we’ve been eating salads from the garden.

01 July 2009

So, what is this skinless sheepskin rug, anyway?

I’ve mentioned the ‘skinless sheepskin rug’ project a few times, and now that it is complete, I can give you a full explanation - with pictures, even! Here is the finished product, on display at the Natural Fibres Competition at Fibre Week:
The objective was to make something that looked like a sheepskin rug without needing a tanner’s skills (or a dead sheep, for that matter). The secondary objective was to create something that could be entered in the Natural Fibres competition at Fibre Week, which meant all the materials had to be completely natural. I might have used a synthetic warp, for strength, but in keeping with the natural fibre theme, I used some cotton warp set fairly wide apart. The backing fabric used a double strand of thin wool rovings from Custom Woolen Mills, as I knew from past experience that those would felt into a nice solid fabric base after washing. Last but not least, fistfuls of raw fleece were pulled from the bags of wool that are currently blocking access to the rest of my fibre room. :)

The basic strategy is very straightforward: weave about an inch of plain weave with the thin wool, beating it well so it’ll make a solid base fabric. Then the fun begins: pull out locks of wool about as big around as your thumb from the pile of raw fleece, and wrap each lock around every third warp thread in such a way that they tuft up, much the same way thrums are made on mittens.

Choose locks of approximately equal size and look for ones that are fairly clean – dirt is okay as it’ll dissolve in the wash, but hay and straw will just felt in place, so it’s a good idea to pick those out as you go. When the row of fleece is finished, beat it down and continue with the plain weave for another inch, then repeat the tufting process, offset by one warp thread. The offset helps to distribute the locks more evenly across the surface of the fabric, it breaks up the columns you’d get otherwise.
The back of the fabric looks really interesting, you can see where each lock is looped around the warp threads.

When the whole thing is as long as it needs to be, the warp is cut, the ends knotted, and the whole thing gets thrown in the wash on warm/cold with a generous dose of laundry soap to clean the wool. It’s a long wash cycle, waiting to see if it turns out or becomes a solid felted lump of useless fibre … which is why I had done two test swatches first, just to be on the safe side. Front load washers do not give you the option to stop midcycle and peek! :)

The finished rug is not quite as dense as it was before washing, so it’s a good idea to err on the side of fleece overdose if you want a good thick mat when you’re finished. The completed piece would make a great floor rug for beside the bed (imagine sinking your cold toes into that first thing in the morning!), or a chair cover (I put it on the driver’s seat for the ride home from Olds, and wow, is it ever comfortable!), and would be ideal for a person suffering from bedsores or confined to a wheelchair (in fact, real and synthetic sheep skins are often used in those situations – washable real wool might be a welcome alternative for some).

Another use would be as a saddlepad for a rider who doesn’t use a close-contact saddle and has a bony horse: wool is the ideal material for a saddle blanket as it absorbs moisture and won’t chafe against the skin. This particular style would provide plenty of cushioning between saddle and horse, and reduce friction significantly: the wool locks will move against the horse’s body and the top of the blanket will move with the saddle.

I’m very pleased with the finished product, and have definite plans to make more. I’ve got a few horse people interested in serving as product testers, so I think I’d better get some more warp done up and get started on another one!

29 June 2009

Reporting live from Olds Fibre Week!

<beep ba beep ba beep beep beep>

This is Kermit the Frog, reporting live for Sesame Street News …

Actually, it’s me, reporting live from Olds Fibre Week!

I arrived today and got all set up in the parking lot (I do love having the motorhome, even if it drinks gasoline like water on a hot day, I still love it) and headed over to the registration desk. I lugged my skinless sheepskin rug, to enter it in the competition, and got stopped twice by people wanting to look at it on the way over. I got all registered and then wandered the merchant mall for awhile, where I tried needle felting for the first time (wow, is that ever easy! I can't believe I haven't tried that before!) and saw a lot of really pretty fibre (but of course with a room full of it at home, I'm not purchasing fibre right now!).

This evening was a llama spin-in - they brought llama fibre and had teams of people spin and create something. I was asked by a lady I'd never met to join a team, and so six of us (who’d never met before) joined creative forces to come up with something from raw fibre in two hours. I had taken my wheel over, thinking to spin while I watched, but as I'm not very good at spinning llama yet, I loaned my wheel to one of the other members and I coordinated the knitting. We knit up a little bag to hang on the wheel (to hold the gadgets you need). It was really fun, and I got to see how a lucet works (I very much want one of those now!) and I got to knit with slippery soft suri fibre spun in a wild loopy yarn.

Tomorrow morning is my class, and I have the evening to myself now - it's great, there is highspeed internet here and power, so I'm comfortable in my little space, with a full fridge, a laptop and a bunch of fibre to play with!

That’s it for tonight, folks, stay tuned for updates and further developments!

28 June 2009

For two days, I will seem normal!

I am heading to Olds College for Fibre Week tomorrow … well, not for the whole week, just for two days and one class, but still. Fibre Week!

For two days I will be surrounded by other fibre addicts, even people who make their living doing neat stuff with wool and other natural materials, and in that environment, my addiction to all things wooly will seem downright normal!

I am way  more excited than I thought I’d be. The motorhome is packed up and ready to go (we did find out that the water heater tank ruptured over the winter, so I have no running water, but that’s not a show-stopper .. the toilet still works!), I completed the project I want to submit for the Natural Fibre competition, and my spinning wheel and knitting needles are packed up and ready for action.

I’ll head down on Monday, get registered and set up (motorhomes can park in the college parking lot, which is terrifically convenient and very cost-effective!). Next, I plan to get my skinless sheepskin rug entered for the competition and then check out the goings-on. Monday evening there is a llama spin-in that should be fun to watch:

You’ve heard of sheep to shawl competitions –this year’s Spin In presents the “llama to luxuries” contest. We will provide the fleeces –you bring your team and your creativity to make a small luxury item of your choice. Come join us for a relaxing (?) and fun evening. Everyone welcome!

Then on Tuesday, I’ll be taking this class:


Students will spin S and Z singles and knit swatches to explore twist mechanics.  Students will understand and apply knowledge of how twist and a variety of knitting stitches can be utilized in future knitting adventures.  Participants should be able to spin consistent S and Z threads, plus have advanced beginner/intermediate knitting abilities.

The translation, for the non-spinners in the crowd, is that I’ll be learning how to work with yarn that is just one thread (think about most yarn you’ve seen, it is two or three threads twisted together, right? the single threads are called, strangely enough, singles). It’s one of those things you never see in a book, so it’ll be wonderful to take a class and learn about it live and in person. I’ve never taken a spinning class before!

Tuesday night there is a silent auction and a fashion show, so I’ll stay over Tuesday night as well then head home Wednesday morning so I can drive in daylight and not be rushed or tired.

A full report on the fibre festival will be posted when I return!

22 June 2009

Independence Days update

Our ongoing documentation of ‘what we have done around here’ … with the focus on accomplishments, no matter how lengthy the to-do list may be!

The concept is courtesy of Sharon Astyk.

Planted: I can’t even remember when I last posted! The garden currently has: peas, beans, kamut wheat, lots and lots of onions, a bed of strawberries, several squash plants, and quite a few potatoes. Oh, and beets and a few carrots, and a lot of weeds. The big accomplishment this week was to get the mattock out and hack down the knee-high grass so that I could actually see what is growing out there! The herb bed is still … questionable, some of these are plants I haven’t grown before so I’m not sure what the baby ones look like. I’m waiting to weed until I can be sure what is what.

Harvested: The first three radishes of the season, and two onion leaves to use as green onions. Nothing else is quite ready yet – oh, but I did learn what nettles are, and where I can go harvest them! Ouch!

Preserved: A friend gave me a huge pile of rhubarb, and I’ve got the dehydrator full of little pieces, and the rest cooking up on the stove into sauce. 

Waste Not: Rescued a bunch of ‘lesser cuts’ of lamb from the freezer, cut the meat off and ran it through the grinder, cooked and seasoned it – this will become lambacos this week (that’s tacos made with lamb meat, for the uninitiated). Fed the less than perfect rhubarb trimmings to the chickens.

Want Not (Preparations): FINALLY got the fence around Pasture A in place, and the sheep moved to fresh grass. Pasture B is next, C is done, and the ‘back section’ has been fenced for the cows, who are now off in the trees being Jungle Cows and happily eating the underbrush.

Community Food Systems: Have regular customers purchasing eggs from me, from four to six dozen a week, so we need some more laying hens before winter, I think! Also have customers lined up for much of the lamb we’ll produce this year, which is encouraging. Found someone willing to house our dairy Dexter cow for a couple of months with a mini-Hereford for breeding, which will mean another beef-on-the-hoof here if all goes well.

Eat the Food: Made a baked apple dessert from some apples that were getting weary on the counter, tried a chicken casserole recipe from More with Less (that’s in the freezer to be tried later this week), made several batches of iced tea in the sunshine (a low cost, low sugar, high satisfaction beverage if ever there was one!).

21 June 2009

In the garden

Once again, I spent Sunday afternoon in the garden. A bird came to sing to me from the fencepost several times, so I did indeed have “the song of the birds for mirth”.

I didn’t get all of the mulch down when the garden was first set up, nor did I get all of the walkways and beds delineated … and it’s been several weeks since I spent any time in the garden. Suddenly, the grass is knee high in several places!

Today’s job was to get the grass under control. I attacked it with my mattock, and was amazed at how well the tool worked for the job. (I’ve never had a garden big enough to use a hoe or anything larger than hand tools … it’s hard work, but boy, does it go fast!) Once the forest of grass was cleared away, I could see several pea plants working their way upwards, a few squash plants with big broad leaves soaking up the sunshine, and lots of potato plants.

As I was working the soil near the potatoes, I saw that the partially-composted ‘stuff’ that was put down early in the spring is well on it’s way to becoming humus. I dug the pathway wider and moved the rich brown compost onto one of the raised beds, where I will plant .. umm … something. I’m not sure what yet. :)

The onions are tall and sturdy, the lettuce and spinach are suddenly leafing out, and the beans are starting to look like actual plants. The wheat is knee-high, and I’m really not sure if the green leafy thing I saw is the Jerusalem Artichoke or something else. I can’t remember where I planted it, and I’ve never grown it before, so I’m not sure what it is supposed to look like. :)

The first radishes were harvested today and served to The Reluctant Farmer for a Father’s Day treat (he likes radishes), and the dinner potatoes were seasoned with some green onion from the garden. Harvest time is nearly here!

Next, I need to plant some more radishes, weed the other raised bed, get some tomato plants out there, and put the peppers in. Maybe next weekend I’ll head down to the greenhouse and pick up some seedlings to replace the starts I had that didn’t make it.

I was thinking today that working in the garden feels like a reward – when the other urgent jobs, like fence repairs, are done, then it’s time to go play in the dirt. Ahh. I love my garden.

Fences for sheep

It has taken us a very long time – four summers, basically – to get the hang of making sheep-resistant fences. I dare not say sheep-proof fences, as I doubt there actually is any such thing, but we have learned quite a lot of things through trial and error and the new fences seem to be holding up reasonably well.

I think all the instructions for building fences must’ve been written by people in Saskatchewan, as nothing I’ve read tells you how to deal with the dips and swells in the land. The slightest dip or bump leaves a gap which a determined sheep or guardian dog will manage to wriggle under, loosening the fence, and leaving a larger gap for the next escape attempt.

So, here’s what we have learned so far:

First of all, you need wooden posts. You need to use *all* wooden posts. T-posts are great inventions, but they just don’t work well enough to qualify as permanent design elements in a sheep-fence.

Corners need to be braced (you will find instructions for that in any set of fence directions). We make H-shaped braces: basically, two fence posts pounded in about 2 feet apart with a brace screwed between the two about a foot down from the top of the posts. If you’re already making a braced corner, you can add a couple of extra cross bars and build a stile, for the humans to climb over. Stiles are an especially good idea on longer runs of fence where you’re not going to want to go all the way around to the gate every single time. We also build some stiles without wire across them, specifically so that the dogs (who will jump up and over and through a small square) can get from one place to another. The sheep don’t seem to go through those little square openings – although we do use them only on cross-fences, not perimeter fences, just to be on the safe side.

You also need page wire, or woven wire (four feet is good, five is better) and you need barbed wire. Oh, and you need a post pounder, a lot of staples, a hammer, a fence tightener, and something mobile and heavy to pull against (we use the bobcat, or a truck, but a quad would work well if you had one). If you haven’t got a ratcheting fence tightener you can use a comealong, but the fence tightener is really useful when it comes to the barbed wire, so it’s worth getting one.

Now that you have all the gear, how do you build the fence? Well, start off by putting in your posts. Wooden posts only, about 8-10 feet apart, always putting a post in the bottom of a dip and at the top of any rise or hillock that is in the path of your fence. You can get a straighter fence line if you put the corner posts in first then run a string from one to the other, using the string as a guide for where to place the posts. Eyeballing the alignment is rarely successful, trust me on this.

Posts can be very hard to pound into the ground: we pound in a sharp iron stake first (t-posts work for this too), then wiggle it to open the hole a bit, pull the stake out, and fill the hole with water. The wooden posts is then pounded into the dampened pre-started hole, and goes in much more smoothly than it does into unprepared ground. 

Get your H braces built at each corner and at the side of each gate opening. It’s really hard to have too many gates, and you need more stiles than you think you do. If you use a bobcat or tractor or quad, make sure each pasture has a gate wide enough to get through with your equipment, and consider building some smaller ‘people gates’ for the places you’ll routinely pass. People-sized gates are easier to open and close, and much easier to get through without letting all the sheep out.

Once the posts are in place, you can pull the page wire across. Unroll the fencing all along the row of posts (it’s easiest to unroll it on the ground then stand it up afterwards) and staple it to the far end of one of the H corners. Position your bobcat/truck/quad at the other end of the fence line (or as far down as you can reasonably go in one pass) so that you are able to hook your fence tightener onto some part of the vehicle and have it be in line with the fence. The idea is to pull the fencing against the immoveable vehicle, rather than against the corner fence posts – we’ve learned through much unhappy experience that even well-braced corners just can’t sustain the pressure of having the fence ratcheted tight against them, although for some reason (which I probably learned in high school physics and have subsequently forgotten), the posts can withstand the pressure of a tightened fence being stapled to them.

Now, tightening the fence involves a bit of a trick: take a long post (a t-post will work, or a piece of heavy pipe) and thread it through the holes in the woven wire, in and out, top to bottom. Hook one end of your fence tightener to this post, the other end to your vehicle, and ratchet the fence until it is nice and tight. This vertical post ensures that you get tension on the whole fence, rather than just on the one wire that you grabbed with the fence tightener.

Once the wire is pulled tight, go back along the fence and staple the wire to the posts. You don’t need to do every single wire on every single post, but the sheep will pressure the fence most at the bottom, so staple the bottom several wires for sure, and then about every other wire the rest of the way up.

Technically, according to the books, anyway, if you pull the wire tight enough, the sheep won’t be able to push their way under it. I suppose on flat ground with wooden posts no more than 5 feet apart this might work, but we’ve not been able to accomplish this feat ourselves. What we do is put the bottom of the page wire about an inch or two off the ground. We’ll deal with that gap shortly.

Staple your fence to the posts all the way along, and then take off the tension (be careful when you release the fence tightener, sometimes things spring back and you can get whacked in the head). Move your vehicle down the line, unroll some more fence, and keep going.

Once the page wire is in place, you need to put the barbed wire on the bottom. This is the key to a sheep-resistant fence. The barbed wire is a lot easier to tighten, and it will fill in that gap between the bottom of the page wire and the ground. Wrap a strand of barbed wire around your corner post, staple it in place, and then stretch the wire along the line of fence posts. This time you can use the last post as a brace for your fence tightener – you are pulling right against the base of the post, so it will not lean over from the strain. Pull the wire tight, staple it in place, then cut, wrap, and staple the end in place. Now go along the fence line and look for any spots where the page wire seems to wiggle at the bottom. In those spots, take a short piece of wire and tie the page wire to the barbed wire: the taut barbed wire lends it's stability to the page wire, and attaching the two together leaves the sheep less wiggle room.

With the wire all in place, all that remains are gates. Gates you go through every day need to be hinged people-sized gates, but gates that keep one pasture separated from the next can be tied in place. We are now using hog panels cut to size for a lot of our gates: they are sturdy, easy to cut with bolt cutters, and can be ‘hinged’ with rope. We had built a lot of wooden panels to use for gates, but the hog panels are lighter, much faster to build, and tidier-looking. Getting a pile of them delivered along with the fence posts was a good idea.

If you will be going in and out of a particular spot during the winter, keep in mind that you’ll need snow clearance. A rope-hinged gate can float upwards as the snow piles up, whereas a gate with proper hinges has a fixed height and must be shoveled out all winter.

We are still working on infrastructure improvements, and redoing the fences is one of the biggest tasks. Taking loose fences down just so you can put them back up again later in the day is a lot of work, as is chasing escaped sheep! If you can get your fences right the first time, you’ll be glad of it.

A lot of people use electric fencing when dealing with sheep, and have had good success. With our small size, though, it’s not quite cost effective, and there are technical issues to be dealt with as well so for us, the payoff just isn’t there. It’s worth considering though, especially if you have a lot of determined escapees or if you already use electric fencing for other livestock.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, the sheep are probably all going to be out wandering the neighbourhood, just to put me in my place. I’d better go check. :)

16 June 2009

Chickens and food security

I just finished listening to a new audio book - One Second After, a story about what could happen if the United States was hit by an electro magnetic pulse weapon (a nuclear strike designed to knock out sensitive electronics). Communication goes out, vehicles that have electronic starters and components stop working, the power grid goes down. Fixing it takes months or years, not days.

Suddenly, people are not able to just go to the store to get what they need.

The book is a really interesting look at what could happen in a prolonged outage of 'normal services' - there are interesting characters and they find themselves in a difficult situation. The story has a fairly heavy focus on weaponry, but then, it is an American story after all, so that's understandable.

Still, one thing I noticed was that in this story, nobody had any chickens.

Chickens have to be one of the easiest routes to food security I can think of. If a household had say, one or two hens per person, and a rooster, that'd be a guaranteed supply of protein no matter how the rest of the world might go kablooie. Our chickens fend for themselves quite nicely most of the summer, eating bugs and weeds and such, and a little bit of grain or food scraps thrown their way rounds things out for them. A broody hen will give you chicks, some of which are bound to be roosters and therefore stew meat. With a very small investment of feed, you can ensure you've got eggs all year. If grain isn't available, well, chickens are omnivores - they'll eat mice (it's disgusting to watch, I admit), bits of dry bread, the crumbs from your dinner plate, and weeds you can gather in summer and hang to dry for a winter treat.

More and more cities are allowing urban chickens - no roosters, but a few hens can really make a big contribution to your household and with very little effort on your part.

Do you have a chicken in your yard? :)