Do you know where your STUFF comes from?

I’m taking a departure from my usual farm updates to share some of my recent thoughts about consumerism and the STUFF we bring into our homes and our lives.

It’s increasingly common to hear people asking about where their food comes from, particularly in communities like ours with their heavy focus on local food producers and small farms. People are starting to look at a food item in the grocery store and ask questions: where was this grown and under what conditions? who tended to this crop and were they paid a fair wage? how far did this item travel to get to me? what exactly is IN or ON this food that I might be concerned about? how much real nutrition is in this food item (i.e. how useful is it for my body)?

After having practiced this conscious consideration of the food I put on my family’s table for years now, it naturally began to extend to other areas of my life. Lack of time and budget makes it tempting and easy to pick up cheap, mass-produced goods. I have to steer myself away from the very low-priced (and usually, low-quality) kids clothes in our local Superstore when I do my grocery shopping, or that inexpensive sweater that would add a pick-me-up to my day without putting a crimp in my bank account. But with the Holiday Season approaching to remind us of the rampant consumerism that plagues our society I am making a conscious effort to steer away from those things and to think carefully about every item that enters my home.

It started when I was writing in my “Dream Home Journal” – this is a collection of thoughts, ideas, sketches etc. that I am putting together in anticipation of building a proper house for ourselves on the property. Having moved plenty of times over the years and being a fond practitioner of Decluttering, I was struck by the idea that every item in our new home should be consciously chosen. As much as possible, that is. I can’t afford to replace our mass-produced, fake-wood bookcases all at once. But I will need new items, as one always seems to when moving, like perhaps some rugs or something to put on the walls. And here’s where I would like to be particularly conscious in my choices.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: I’ve had two “decorative” glass jars for several years now. I bought them at Ikea, on a whim, because they went with the colour scheme I’d chosen for the living room in our rented house. The jars serve no purpose – they are not functional and could not be put to any practical use. They were mass-produced on factory assembly lines in Asia and sold cheaply by the millions. They sat on our fireplace mantle as part of an arrangement of objects that was supposed to “harmonize the room’s colour scheme while being attractive and suited to the room’s style”. They have no meaning for me. There was no artist whose hands and creative spark touched them, they weren’t a well thought-out gift from a loved one. They are just items that take up space and need to be dusted.

To me these jars represent all that is thoughtless and mindless about consumerism. Right now they sit on my bedroom dresser, a faded pink three-drawer Ikea unit sandwiched in between two identical ones in fake brown wood finish. The bedroom in our ugly old mobile home is wallpapered in some tacky 80’s country rose pattern that clashes with everything else. The jars look ridiculously out of place, both in style and in colour. But I have kept them there because every time I dust them I’m reminded of how silly such items are, how easy it is to acquire such things, and what a colossal amount of money the average consumer throws away on such things over the course of our lifetimes.

I’ve decided that, in our new home, decorative items will be displayed because there is a story behind them. Perhaps one of the kids made it for me, or it was a gift from someone special who put their heart into it. It may be a souvenir from an important event or experience in my life. It may be from a local artist I admire and, if so, will definitely be handmade from natural materials. It may even be made by myself as I pursue my growing love of fibre art.

Another example: I have some plastic cutting boards (Ikea again!) that I don’t like and they are starting to really show their age. Despite my mother’s insistence that plastic is “hygenic” because you can put it in the dishwasher, some of mine are showing signs of mold/mildew in the cracks and cuts and I’m having to soak them in bleach. I have a wooden cutting board. One is pine strips glued together (yes, it’s also from Ikea) and it is really not holding up well (which I should expect given that it cost me $5). It’s warping and splintering and I realized I don’t even know where the wood came from, or how it was harvested and I don’t know what sort of glue was used to hold the bits together. I decided I was going to ask for a proper, handmade wooden cutting board for Xmas – the kind I see at the farmer’s market. Then a couple weeks ago I was at a local Xmas Fair held at a therapeutic farming community and I found a guy who made cutting boards from fallen Garry Oak. The Garry Oak is native to the Pacific West Coast and our island is home to some of the few remaining Garry Oak ecosystems, which harbour a number of rare species of wildlife. Now that has meaning for me. The cutting boards were carved by the man who was selling them and he explained to me how to oil it regularly to keep it in good shape. When I saw he had one carved into the shape of a pig I knew destiny had led me to his table. I treated myself to the board and it was only $15. Sure, that’s five times more than the cheap-ass one from Ikea, but you get what you pay for, right?

And so as we head through the holiday season and I put together my Xmas gifts I’m trying to be conscious about these things. On a recent trip to Vancouver my mother and I went shopping. It was a very rare treat for me to be able to spend a day with my mother without kids in tow, but honestly the Mall was not the attraction for me. It was spending time with her (and the sushi lunch we had!). As I wandered the stores all I could see was masses and masses of…stuff! Stuff I didn’t need, stuff I didn’t even want until I saw it all done up so nicely in the displays. I passed a window with a lovely fair-isle style sweater and thought “oh, that looks nice” and then I thought to myself “Chain store, likely made in India by poorly paid workers, ten million of them released this season, then by next season they’ll be on the clearance rack because they’ll be ‘so last year'”. That took all the yearning for the sweater out of my head. Not to mention the fact that I’ve always wanted to try Fair Isle knitting and one day I’ll either make one myself or buy it from a local fiber artist. That is worth waiting for (or saving up for).

I’m pretty good at steering clear of “shopping as a hobby”. I do think about the things I buy and I strive to be frugal and keep clutter down to a minimum. Truth is I buy very little. But around Xmas I tend to go into a frenzy of buying stuff I normally wouldn’t because I feel the pressure of this time of year.

So over the next couple of weeks as you make up your gift lists (and wish lists for yourself), think about the things coming into your home and the things you are sending into others’ homes. Ask the same questions you would about your food: where did this come from? who made it? who tended to it? were they treated well and paid fairly? And ask some more questions: is this well-made and useful and will it last? or will I be chucking it out in a few months?

Rendering Our Pig Fat Into Lard

On Friday we received 110 lbs of custom-made sausages, which necessitated taking some things out of one of the freezers to make some room. Out came the huge box of pig fat, along with some bones and two halves of a pig’s head. I was disappointed that the latter items would likely have to be disposed of, but I was not going to let the fat go to waste like we did last year. So on Sunday we fired up the propane burner out on the deck, washed out the 60L steel pot, and set to work rendering our fat into lard.

It took longer than expected to trim the fat of any meat still attached, and I had to hand the knife over to Husband after about an hour because my cutting hand was starting to hurt. We added the fat to the pot with some water and sat back to wait. I expected it might take a few hours, having read instructions on the Internet that gave times of 1.5 – 2 hours. However, it turns out they were dealing with much smaller amounts and I ended up having to shut the process down at around 8 pm that night. While stirring it was definitely getting easier, it still didn’t resemble anything like the end product.

The next day I attempted to fire up the burner, only to discover a few minutes later that we were out of propane. I was determined not to give up on the process, but it was pouring with rain and I was alone with the kids, so a trip to the gas station to get another tank was less than appealing. I decided to just put the darned thing on my stove, set two burners onto low, and see if I couldn’t continue the process (note: I discovered that night that I’d burned the stovetop a bit and there were now marks on there that would likely never come off, but given that our stove is almost 25 yrs old I’m not shedding any tears; however, when one day I get a new stove I won’t be doing that again). I was rewarded a couple hours later with the first signs of melted lard: a dark yellowish liquid that looks like cooking oil. I was also delighted to see that we had loads of crackling floating on the top.

A couple hours later I saw that the cracklings had sunk to the bottom and that was the sign I was looking for: it was done. While I let the pot cool a bit I set out every mason jar I could find with a lid. I’d run them all through the dishwasher the day before, and even dried them in the oven. I was thinking I’d attempt to can the stuff so it wouldn’t need to be stored in the freezer (freezer space is a real luxury here, despite the fact that we have 3 full freezers in the garage plus the top compartment of our kitchen fridge). But I simply couldn’t coordinate the sterilization of the stuff with the endpoint of the rendering process so I gave up on that plan. Still, at least I had plenty of clean and dry jars.

But first I had to strain the liquid with cheesecloth to remove the cracklings and any other bits of non-fat. Dealing with such huge quantities of liquid was challenging, but I ended up scooping it out with a small saucepan and straining it over my biggest soup pot. It worked well and didn’t actually take too long. When the soup pot got full I’d pour it out into the jars. When I was done the light amber liquid had filled just over 19 Litres’ worth of mason jars (not all of them are shown in the picture below). I was very pleased, and hoped that the cooled, solidified product would be something close to white. This process also made me realize how handy it would be to have a large farm-kitchen style work surface, and so I added that to my mental wish list.

The most prized lard is that made from “leaf” fat, and is apparently snow white. I used all the fat we had, since I couldn’t tell the difference anyways and I was not interested in making two batches. Not to mention, I rarely ever make pastry so it wasn’t all that important to me. But I figured that the whiter my product was, the higher quality it might be. It’s hard to tell in the light of this photo, but it was actually pretty white in the end so I think I did alright.

Of course the real test would be using the lard. So this morning I had my usual cheese omelette for breakfast, but this time I fried it in half butter, half lard. Then I topped the dish with a generous handful of salted cracklings. I have to say, it was sinfully delicious (and yet not sinful at all!).

Of course no post about lard would be complete without mentioning the fact that this much-maligned substance is now revealing itself to be a healthy food product. I won’t go into too much detail since many others have covered this topic, but suffice it to say that until the fat-hysteria of the latter part of the 20th century, centuries of housewives before me had known that cooking and baking with lard produces wonderful foods. I don’t think any of them would care what the latest scientific analyses of lard tells us about the beneficial fats, the optimal ratios of essential nutrients, or the beneficial effects of saturated animal fats on cholesterol composition and overall health. Lard from pastured pigs is good, healthy stuff and I am thrilled to bits to have such a huge stock of the stuff put up for the year ahead.

And finally, no such post would be complete without a nod to Emeril Lagasse, the first celebrity chef to unabashedly admit that Pork Fat Rules!

 

I survived the a-Pork-alypse.

I was cutting things rather close, not unusual for me. On Tuesday I had to pick up a few hundred pounds of pork, but first I needed somewhere to put it all. We’d been hoping to buy a used freezer but couldn’t find a big one for sale on the local used networks, and eventually decided that rather than fill the garage with an odd assortment of small ones, we’d cough up the money for a new large one and be done with it. It would arrive at the store on Tuesday, and I was too cheap and stubborn to pay the $100 for delivery. However, it meant I was going to have to get it home and set it up all by myself.

Husband was heading to Seattle on business and I was on my own with two kids. I needed to pick up the pork, but I needed the freezer up and running before I did, and to be honest I wasn’t exactly certain I could do it. I was a wee bit worried I’d end up in a pickle and have to call my dear neighbours to rescue me. However, did I mention I’m stubborn? Fingers crossed, I headed down to the appliance store with Husband’s Ford Expedition (just driving that behemoth makes me feel strong). The 17 cu ft standup freezer actually fit in the truck, so I could scratch Worry #1 off my list. And my son was absolutely delighted:  for the one and only time, he was allowed to ride the short distance home in the passenger seat as there was no room in the back for him.

The next obstacle, Worry #2 (the biggest), was getting it out of the truck and into our garage. I knew that if I was really in a bind I could call on my neighbours for help. But I had a lot to do that day and my stubbornness once again paid off. Backing the truck up to the garage door I was able to pull the freezer out onto the smooth concrete floor, remove the packaging, and set it up. I felt like yelling “I am woman, hear me roar!”. Yeah, I was pretty darned proud of myself. Now, off to the meat guy to pick up our pork.

While I was helping the staff load about a dozen boxes of frozen meat I wondered why I’d asked for the heads. What on earth would I do with them? My dog eats raw food but a whole pigs head is a few meals for her and the thought of it lying outside for her to snack on over a few days was not appealing. Turns out they had sawed them in half and there really wasn’t a huge amount of meat left (the jowls had been removed, as had the tongue, eyes, and brain) so they may just work as dog food after all. But I just couldn’t bear the thought of not using every bit of our pigs. Back at the house I proceeded to unload box after box of chops, roasts, and ribs. This year we got regular-cut chops rather than the thick-cut ones and had them put 2 per package rather than 4. Easier to handle, easier to cook, and no worries about wasting meat (with Husband gone so often there is only so much cooked meat I can eat myself in a couple of days). The roasts were also smaller which is great – I’ve developed a real love for pork roasts and pulled pork and the sizes we have are perfect for a couple of meals. I also got tenderloin this year, which I’ll save for special occasions.

I was feeling pretty relieved as I emptied the last of the main boxes and saw that I would be able to fit it all in, but then I realized there were still two boxes of bones, a box of fat, and two boxes of pig heads and feet. I am determined to render the fat into lard this year (last year we couldn’t fit it into the freezers and it went bad), and managed to find room for that, plus the heads and feet and bones. My years spent as a research scientist in the field of medical science has immunized me against the shock of looking at so much cut-up animal, but I have to admit the half-heads were rather gruesome and looked rather like they belonged in an anatomy lab floating in formaldehyde. However, the newbie farmer and wannabe homesteader in me was proud of the fact that we were reaping every scrap from our harvest, and that we would find a use for it all (even if it is just saving money on the dog’s dinners). So, freezers pretty much stuffed, I closed the garage door and headed out for my next task.

I delivered about 100 lbs of “trim” to our local sausage makers. The trim is what they cut off when making various cuts and roasts, plus we threw in the shoulders and the “picnic” roast cuts. Sausages are one of the few, if not the only, meal that I can make which everybody can and will eat (the sausages contain no filler or artificial ingredients; they are gluten- and dairy-free). The kids love them and it’s a quick easy dinner to thaw a half-dozen and fry them. I enjoy them with spaghetti squash that has been tossed with butter and parmesan cheese. But I digress…

The sausage makers, a husband and wife team who live nearby and run a small smokehouse, were tickled by our custom order. These days everybody wants “lean” and “low fat” so they actually remove the fat from their meat before turning it into sausage. I told them that our family doesn’t buy the notion that animal fats are bad for health, and we wanted our sausages to be made with every scrap of fat that God saw fit to put on our pigs. They winked and secretly agreed with me that it’s the pork fat which gives sausages all their flavour and that they’d be more than happy to use it all. At that moment a toast to Emeril Lagasse seemed in order (“Pork Fat Rules!”).

Our bacon and hams will be ready in a week or two. By then I hope to have rendered the fat into lard (I’m no longer upset that Husband bought a huge propane fuelled heating element and giant pot last year when he got the urge to fry a turkey whole). That should buy me enough room for the bacon and hams. Can’t wait to taste home-grown bacon again! Buying the stuff from the store was a real downer…

So that’s my tale of feminine victory. As I crawled into bed that night I felt it had been a particularly productive day, and that I’d definitely earned my modern homesteader badge!

Our first year of raising meat birds: what we’ve learned

Today I picked up our last batch of chickens from the processor: twenty-four yummy whole chickens have been added to our freezer stash. In looking back on this, our first summer of raising meat birds (or any kind of bird, for that matter), we’ve learned a few things about what we like and don’t like, and gained ideas about what to try next year.

We raised Cornish Rock Giants, which are basically the same type of bird used in mass-production factory farms. Ours actually got to see the outdoors, however. In fact they lived outdoors and enjoyed fresh air, sunshine, tasty grass and bugs. But the truth is they are, as many backyard chicken types will tell you, freaks of nature. They have been intensively bred for maximum meat production in minimum time. We got them as tiny, day-old chicks and by 8 weeks they were ready for harvest. This is good in terms of cost: a shorter duration to harvest means spending less money on feed. But I don’t think it’s very good for the chickens.

As many other people have reported, we noticed that our chickens didn’t seem to want to move around much. I’d often see them take a few clumsy steps as they attempted to balance their rapidly-growing bodies on legs whose bones couldn’t possibly keep up with those demands, only to drop to the ground as if they had just run a marathon. This most recent batch of birds went 9 weeks (because I didn’t make an appointment early enough) and by that time I noticed that some of them appeared to be having difficulty walking and one hen had what looked like a broken wing and perhaps a broken leg, too (she could not walk at all). She was perky and had less then 24 hrs to live so I just brought some feed to her and some water and told her it would all be over soon. I don’t like having injured birds: it may not affect the meat quality but that’s not the kind of farming I want to do. I couldn’t  help but think of the scene in the movie Food Inc. when the chickens were collected for processing and many of them could not walk. I want no part of that kind of “farming”.

I’d also heard that the mortality rate for these birds is high. We did lose 7 of our first batch of 20 chicks, all within the first week of life. I suspect it was a management and inexperience issue because we didn’t lose a single chick in our second batch. However, one of that second batch did die at around 7 weeks, apparently from a heart attack which is common for this breed. This sort of thing kind of makes you ponder the meaning of the word “healthy” – yes our birds were disease-free, but how healthy is an animal that can barely walk?

Another thing we noticed is that raising these birds the usual way (with a chicken tractor) is still really messy, despite the fact that they are outdoors. They eat huge amounts of food and thus generate great quantities of excrement. Despite having their tractor moved every 24 hours, within that time they would manage to coat the ground with waste, which then got all over their feathers on the underside. And my tractor was big compared to the recommended size for that many birds. They didn’t seem crowded in terms of space, but the tractor should probably have been moved twice a day towards the end to keep up with the poop – by that time all of them had wet, dirty undersides. But moving the tractor is a bit of a chore – I could tweak the design a bit to make it easier, but I keep thinking there has got to be a better way. Finally, because of the copious amounts of waste, the area around the tractor smelled pretty bad, and you could smell it wafting on the air all around the farm depending on which way the wind was blowing. Not pleasant.

Overall, we were left feeling like the chicken tractor was really just a step up from confinement operations. When I first looked into raising meat birds I asked people (on BackyardChickens.com, which is THE place to learn about such things) why meat birds weren’t raised like layers – able to strut around a farmyard at their leisure during the day. Some people said there was no point because the things are so poorly designed for mobility that they don’t really bother ranging, even if given the space to do so. We would like to at least give it a try ourselves, as others had a better experience.

The bigger issue is predation. When the birds are small they are perfect prey for raptors, and we have several species of such hunting birds in our neighbourhood. How to keep them safe from overhead ambush is one issue we still have to think about. Normally chicks would be raised with adult hens and roosters, the latter serving as guards for the flock, warning others of approaching marauders and herding the women and children into the brush. Not only do the meat birds not have any experienced chickens around to protect them, but it’s doubtful to me how well they would respond to an alarm scenario anyway. They have had most of the “chicken” bred out of them, perhaps to make them more amenable to a life of confinement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all just stood around staring stupidly at any rooster trying to warn them of impending predatory doom.

So one of my projects this winter will be to come up with a new management scheme for next year’s meat birds. I’d also like to try a few heritage meat breeds to see if we can find something a little less freakish. Growing them longer will mean increased feed costs, but perhaps that can be mitigated somewhat by allowing them greater access to forage. The chicks themselves are about twice the price of the commercial breeds, too. I don’t mind paying more for good chicken, however, so we’ll just have to do the experiment and see. Most people will tell you that the taste of the commercial breeds makes all the freakishness worth it, and perhaps we’ll find that to be the case (though we still believe there is much room for improvement). This is one of the things I’m really enjoying about our “back to the land” experience: you can read all you want but really you need to go out there and just do it yourself. That’s the only way to determine what works best for you, and as a bonus you learn a lot in the meantime.

Fall Gardening Project

Today was a lovely fall day. While the sky was clouded over, the sun did peek out every now and then, its diffuse winter-ish light a testament to our planet’s progress on its journey to the “far side” of the sun. The temperature was cool, but after feeding the pigs and chickens and moving the chicken tractor I soon tossed off my knit wool cap and vest. With those chores out of the way I was ready to tackle my fall gardening project. Today was the day I planned to get my garden in shape for winter, with a look ahead to spring.

Last year I just about broke my back digging raised beds out of our hard, rocky soil. I’d planned to green manure the beds but an early snowfall killed the small-seeded fava beans before they got a chance to germinate. I also hadn’t gotten my fence finished, so the various animals that parade through our field managed to compress the soil somewhat over winter. By spring I had sunken beds that needed intense chopping and hoeing to become suitable for planting. Despite these failures we did get some early salad greens and we’re still enjoying tomatoes, although I’m unsure how much longer they’ll be ripening. But some stuff just didn’t grow well, and the problem was shallow soil that was low in nutrients and organic matter. So my goal this time around is to build up the soil over winter so that I get deeper soil, beds that are actually higher than ground level, and a higher nutrient content in the soil. Sure, I could just go buy a truckload of topsoil, but I didn’t want to go that route. We don’t own a pickup truck, it’s expensive to buy topsoil, and I wouldn’t really know where the stuff had come from. I wanted to do it myself.

I had two strategies under consideration, and I ended up trying both of them today. First up was the Lasagna Garden. This is a way to build up a plantable garden over winter. Basically, you lay some kind of paper product (newspaper, cardboard, etc) on the ground in the shape of your garden-to-be. Then you make a “lasagna” by layering compostable materials, alternating between “green” (e.g. grass clippings, kitchen scraps) and “brown” (e.g. straw, hay, dried leaves) layers. The stuff rots down over winter to become humus-rich soil full of organic matter and perfect for spring planting.

I started with the layer of paper products, in our case feed bags. I’d been saving these up and had a rather tall stack of them. They are made of two layers of heavy-duty paper, sewn shut with string, and contain only a small amount of glue along the bottom and top seams between the two layers. I decided not to be a purist; I don’t think the amount of glue is enough to contaminate my garden. And as I didn’t have enough cardboard or any newspaper around it seemed the smartest way to make use of something that would otherwise be tossed into the recycling box. I already had the outline of a bed – it was one I’d dug last year and didn’t use this year, so it was weedy and hard. A good candidate, I thought, for this “no-dig” garden method.

After bringing the pile of feed bags to the garden, I brought out my brand-new wheelbarrow (yikes, are these things expensive! but being the procrastinator I am, I simply didn’t have time to shop around for a used one; at least I know I’ll get lots of use out of it). I headed to the compost pile and rolled back the logs barring the bottom front, and took a good look at what I had. I’d started this pile over a year ago but I don’t seem to have much luck with compost. My first attempt at our last house resulted in a soppy, wet, yucky mess littered with eggshells. I hadn’t included enough brown matter. This time I seem to have erred in the other direction. I added straw whenever I dumped a bucket of kitchen scraps on the pile, and now I had a whole lot of brown matter but nothing that looked like soil. Still, I could clearly see some rotting food scraps in there.

To make matters more complicated, I’d dumped lots of weeds from the garden on the pile last month and I’m quite sure many of them were in seed. This is a no-no when using compost to build a garden bed. But I decided it would be much easier to just weed a lot next spring than to try and separate the stuff now (probably impossible, anyway). Not one to be easily deterred I filled up my wheelbarrow and began piling it on top of the feed bags. It wasn’t really a lasagna, since I only had two layers. But since my compost seemed to be a mixture of brown and green (okay, more brown but still…) I decided to just lay it on the paper and hope for the best.

When I was done I realized that I was still missing an ingredient from the usual lasagna recipes: soil. I wasn’t sure how important this was, and looking around me I wondered where I would get soil from. Our field is so thickly planted with grass that you can’t put a shovel into it, and I didn’t want to tear up part of the field anyway. What lies around the edges isn’t thickly grown because the soil there is pretty crappy stuff and I couldn’t see how adding dusty, rocky, lifeless “soil” was going to help me build a garden bed. I knew the soil underneath my feed bags was in bad shape, so adding a top layer of soil would probably be a good thing. But I wasn’t about to go buy some. As I stared off into the distance I thought how silly it was to live on 4 acres and not have a ready source of soil, and then the answer hit me. I was staring at our woods! The ground in there is lovely humus, rich with leaves and bugs. If I scraped some of it off the walking paths I wouldn’t be depriving the forest itself of much, and I’d be clearing up some trails at the same time. So with my wheelbarrow and shovel I headed into our woods.

It was lovely work. The dirt smelled wonderful, and it came up with a nice layer of rotting leaves. It had the perfect texture and “tilth”, and I laughed to myself that I had discovered the perfect source of soil right here in our own woods – free for the taking! I only needed two wheelbarrows full (about 12 cu ft total) to cover up my garden bed. But that was enough for my back muscles anyways. And I got this in just one small patch of pathway. Not only did I solve today’s problem, but now I know I’ve got a wonderful source of humus for topping up beds when I plant next spring.

The finished bed looked pretty good, I thought:

Though I won’t be surprised if it breaks down so much that it’s not very high come spring. Still, it’s a start!

The other option I’d considered for building soil was trying the green manure thing again. Since I had used all my compost and feed bags on the one large bed, I decided I might as well try seeding the smaller beds. However, once again I improvised based on what I had on hand, not feeling like spending my Sunday-in-the-garden driving around to nurseries instead. I had a lot of small-seeded fava beans left over from last year, but they had been inoculated back then and sat in a plastic bag in the potting shed all year long. I figured it was a total crap shoot as to whether these things would germinate, but what the heck. Last year I’d sprinkled them on top of the soil, which I think was a mistake. This year I took the time to plant them in rows, gently covering them up with my hands. I used a pretty dense line of seeds assuming that I’d be lucky if half of them germinated. It was quick work and I enjoyed it very much.

And, just for the heck of it, I scattered some of them on top of my lasagna bed. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t germinate, but if they did I’d have some extra organic matter to turn into it next spring before planting.

As I was doing this I discovered that my kale seemed to have come back to life in the last couple of weeks. I’d planted it in summer, really not the right time, and it looked small, sickly, and pale all that time. I’d given up on it when, to my surprise today, I discovered it had been revived by the cool wet weather. That was a nice bonus to an already lovely day of hard work. Looking forward to toasting up some kale chips soon!

One day, a horse.

 

I have loved horses since I was a very young girl. I hung pictures of them in my room, I practiced drawing horses until I could get a decent reproduction on paper, I collected Breyer models, and I dreamed of one day owning a horse of my own. But I lived in the suburbs and, at the tender age of 7, I felt it to be a simple fact that I would not be able to have one until I was an adult, which I equated with turning 19. When I am 19, I promised myself, I will have my own horse. And then sometimes I would start to panic – what if, by the time I’m 19, I don’t want a horse anymore? What a cruel twist of fate that would be! I laugh to remember that, back then, I was certain that I would not recognize myself as a grownup and certain that I may even be a completely different person by then. I wish I could go back in time, visit that little me, and reassure her that, at 43 years old, I am still horse crazy.

When I was 9 years old my mother sent me to a dude ranch camp in the outer rural suburbs. To me it was a world away, an entire vacation trip just to get there. In reality it was only about an hour’s drive, but it was far outside my realm of daily experience. I went for a week, and learned how to ride a horse Western style by going on daily trail rides and being in charge of grooming the horse assigned to me. I was in heaven. I dreamed of “horse camp” all year long, and soon I had convinced my mother to send me for two weeks each year. Looking back I realize it was a lot of money for my mum, but those really were some of the happiest times of my childhood. There was nothing fancy about the riding, just bombing around the trails with friends, but I knew in my heart that riding was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Once I started University life got very busy, especially my social life. But a few years into it a friend called me up one day and said “Hey, I’ve signed up for English riding lessons, wanna come?”. I learned that there was so much more to riding than just going on trails. I learned to jump, and participated in a few little schooling shows, but then I discovered Dressage and I was hooked. It not only appealed to my love of horses but there is a rather large academic component to the sport and that appealed to me as well. I spent the next 8 years training and competing in small, amateur shows. My performance was always mediocre but I had no professional aspirations and I loved every minute of it. I eventually rented a basement suite in the neighbourhood where I rode. I never tired of hearing the clip-clop of horse hooves as people rode down my street on their way to the local riding club. And throughout graduate school I had part-time jobs in the local stables, was an active member and volunteer at the riding club and our local dressage club, and was just completely immersed in the world of horses and the joy of riding.

When I graduated and moved to the US it only took me a few months to settle into my new life before I was out looking for an instructor. I was just getting settled into my new barn, meeting fellow horsey folk, when I met got married and got pregnant. My husband lived in another state so with my pending move and pregnancy I decided to take a wee break from riding.

Kids, cross-continent moves, career decisions, and fluctuating incomes prevented me from seriously looking at riding again. Before I knew it that “break” had turned into ten years. When we moved to this rural area last year I knew one day horses would be in the picture, but it still seemed a long way off. And yet, I’d pass by people riding all the time. There were horses living on our street. Riders pass by the front of our property to access the miles of trails that stretch to the west of our place. And I’d stare with a big, silly grin on my face. Still, I thought, my time hasn’t come.

And then suddenly it did.

Having kids can leave you in a bit of a fog for a while. It’s all about babies and toddlers and preschoolers who have needs that demand so much of your time and attention. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved every stage of my kids’ lives, but it does go by very fast and one day you wake up and realize that you have kids now, not babies, and that you are finally in a place to step back, take a look around, and rediscover yourself. And when I did I realized just how much I’d missed riding, and became determined that somehow I was going to get back into it.

Shortly after this private resolution, Husband and I decided it was time for us to take up a hobby together. I was surprised (and thrilled) when he told me that he’d always wanted to learn how to ride. He is attracted to backcountry horseback riding, and we live in the perfect spot for such activities, being right on the Trans Canada Trail as well as several other “off-road” trails that run for miles. We began looking into it, and this Monday he and I are going for our first lesson with a holistic trainer who works with Natural Horsemanship principles, is multi-disciplinary, and who I believe could possibly take us a long way on this new journey. Because horses really are a journey that can last a lifetime.

Our goal is to become competent riders and horse handlers, to get involved with local trail riding clubs, and to eventually get horses for ourselves. Yes, we’ve decided that there will simply have to be a place for horses here at the ol’ homestead. We’re also hoping the kids might eventually get interested enough to give it a try, though sadly neither of them appears to have inherited the horse-obsession gene from me. I will probably dabble in Dressage, while he may decide to do some cross country jumping. But I’m also thrilled that my husband will be joining me in this journey, and I’m looking forward to riding with him, learning to pack for backcountry riding trips, and sharing the wonderful world of horses with him.

I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am about this new stage in our lives. I feel like, for the first time in my life, I’m in a place where owning a horse could actually be a reality for me. I keep thinking back to that little 7 year old girl I once was, lying in my bedroom at night, promising myself that one day I would have my own horse. It took a whole lot longer than I had originally anticipated, but I’d be happy to let her know that she needn’t have worried about getting old – I still love horses as much as I ever did.

 

Fall on the Farm

Fall is definitely here. It was amazing how quickly it happened. But I’m not complaining. Despite our very short summer I still love autumn. I think it’s my favourite season. Today’s post will tell a disjointed story in pictures, but the overall theme is: here’s what’s going for us these days!

 The chickens are starting to look like…well, like chickens. They have most of their feathers now, but with the evenings getting pretty cool I’m keeping their heat lamp on at night. I’m proud to say we didn’t lose a single chick. I’m wondering if this is because the feed store had them for the first 24 hours and got them past the worst of it. But with 25 birds I’ve got two feeders going now and will have to add another water bucket too so I only have to fill them once a day. These guys eat and drink a lot! I’m moving the tractor pretty much every day, and they have gotten into the spirit now. When I begin to move it they all rush forward to the new clover and grass and dig in. Just like the other chickens, if either the feed or the water gets empty they will crowd around the walls closest to the house and just stare, apparently in the hopes of catching someone’s eye. Guess they aren’t so dumb after all!

The garden is looking neat, if not productive, since I finally got around to mowing the grass. Next year I plan to lay down some sawdust or wood chips to create proper pathways between the beds. While we did get a fair bit of lettuce before it bolted, there wasn’t much else going on this summer, except for the tomatoes! Those five plants have eight neighbours in a row outside the view in this photo, and most of them have done well. We’ve been eating tomatoes every day for weeks now, and my new favourite meal is bacon and eggs with fried tomatoes – so sweet! I know with the weather cooling and the rainy season on its way our tomato days are numbered. Hopefully I can pick all the green ones before that time comes and ripen what I can indoors. It will be incredibly depressing to go back to grocery store tomatoes. I’ve given up on a fall/winter garden in exchange for working on soil building. My raised beds are actually sunken beds with very little topsoil, so my plan this fall is to do some mulching with paper feed bags, compost, dry leaves, cut plants (like mullein, which grows in abundance here and fixes nitrogen) and any other organic matter I can get my hands on. My hope is to have much deeper and richer soil in time for spring planting next year.

We took the tarps off our lumber when the dry season started, but soon they’ll be tarped up again. We’ve had two days of sunshine during which we laid the huge tarps out to dry. Tomorrow we’ll put them back over the lumber. While building the chicken tractor earlier this year I noticed the wood was still a bit wet in the middle, so more drying will be a good thing. We are thinking about using the lumber to build a greenhouse, and some exciting opportunities for a barter are in the works. A local family we know through our homelearning network needs firewood, and we have it in abundance. They are willing to exchange experienced labour (carpentry, no less) so we may use that to get a start on the green house. I’ll keep you posted on that project!

The leaves are starting to turn around here, but we simply don’t get anything close to the spectacular show seen in the eastern parts of our continent. Here you can see a Western Flowering Dogwood, its leaves turning a lovely shade of red. It would probably look much better, however, if the leaves weren’t so dry and dead-looking. Still, I will be collecting the leaf fall for mulching and composting this year, and in that case it really doesn’t matter how pretty they are! In the background of this photo you can see our bushy Sitka Alder tree. A resident Stellar’s Jay has returned, sending out his raucous call every morning. He/she was here last year and it is neat to see the bird has returned. It will be one more way to mark the seasons around here. Oh, and speaking of trees, I identified three new ones on the property in the last couple of weeks. We have a Western White Pine, the only one I’ve found around her so far, an Oregon Ash, and a Smooth Sumac. Being the categorization geek that I am, I maintain an Excel spreadsheet with a list of all the flora and fauna I have identified. There are over ten varieties of tree on my list now, and I’m sure I’ll find a few more in the future.

One surprise harvest that required no work at all in creating it was that of wild blackberries. The Himalayan Blackberry may be considered an “invasive species” but I’m not unhappy that a huge whack of them grew up around our big debris pile this year. After stumbling upon the plentiful berries yesterday while walking around the property, I stuffed myself silly and then, realizing there were still tons more, went back to the house to grab a bowl. I noticed that some large animals must have been trying to get at the berries too, as there were some paths trampled through the long growth around the berry patch. That made my job a bit easier, so I’m happy to share with the local wildlife.With only a few cuts and stabs from the evil spikes I filled up the bowl rather quickly (I sat it on a camping chair for this photo to provide some perspective on size). I’m planning on turning it into a low-sugar jam/spread and canning it (guess who picked up a complete canning kit recently?!). Then I can enjoy a taste of summer with my breakfasts for a while into the cold season. I’m sure even this big bowl will cook down to maybe only one or two jars, but perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll be able to harvest some more before they’re gone. One benefit of having so much property is allowing it to grow in some places. I’ll definitely be encouraging this “invader” in years to come!

The pigs have grown huge over the summer, and will be ready for harvesting in about another month. Which is a good thing because we ran out of bacon!! We’re excited about having lots of bacon, sausage, ribs, and pork roasts soon. I don’t think we really can appreciate how much meat we are going to get from these four critters, but I’m sure there will be more than we need, and I’m hoping next year to offer some pork shares to friends and family. The pigs have really enjoyed their pasture – you can see a bit of the wooded section here. They truly are forest creatures, preferring to spend hot days and even rainy days under the trees, despite the fact that they have a shelter. They didn’t end up doing too much damage to the area, proving that we have a good ratio of pigs to land in this pasture. While we wanted them to clear things out a bit, we didn’t want to denude the land. I’m sure their manure will provide a new bounty of shoots and roots next spring for the next round of pigs.

On another, dreamier note, I decided over the summer to change my plans for the layout of the farm. The northwest corner of our property is the highest point, and has a nice large flat area that is just calling out for a lovely cob house to be built there. I’d originally dismissed the idea because the tall forest on the west side of the property robs the spot of sun relatively early in the day. However, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. Many a time I’ve gone up there to sit and reflect and admire the view, imagining that one day I’ll be seeing this view from our living room or south-facing deck. These two photos show the view, with a bit of overlap:

The lumber piles on the right are along the west border of the property, and that tall treeline continues on down the hill beyond the debris pile (this photo is facing due south). Husband and I have also decided that horses will be part of our future farm (more on those exciting developments in a subsequent post!) and the spot where the debris pile and scrap logs are sitting is a nice flat area that is just crying out for a barn. We’ll clear a strip about half the width of that photo all the way down to the bottom of the property for a pasture. But I’d like to keep the woods on the east side as they are of a different, and unique, composition (lots of cherry trees, maples, stinging nettles, and pacific bleeding hearts compared to the mostly fir and salal of the west side). The garden will stay where it is, but I’m trying to figure out how not to make it look like a stockade while still keeping out the deer. I could put a perimeter deer fence around the whole place, but I don’t want to shut out the elk who wander through this very field regularly throughout the year, so I’ll have to figure out something. On the left side of the left photo you can see my compost bins, and behind them one of the big maple trees I love. Meanwhile, whenever I need to think, cool off, or just want to take it all in I come and sit up here (on that cinder block) and dream about our plans for the future. I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I realize that we finally got our piece of land. And while it is still a work in progress, I’m very much in love with this place.

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