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Homesteading Update: Chicken Mutiny

The homestead has been pretty idyllic with the days getting longer. We celebrated an unseasonably warm February by planting a long-sought-after fruiting red-leaf plum.

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Brave Irene, our Delaware hen, is keeping an eye on those blossoms for good things to come.

We’ll do some grafting and pruning so this lady grows low and bountiful. We popped her in the ground right next to the chicken run so that when and if we can’t keep up with the plum glut, they’ll be easy to toss in for the chickens.

Ah yes. The chickens. Those longer days have turned our 0 or 1 egg days into 3 or 4 egg days, so omelettes are back in season! But along with our egg bounty came The Mutiny. It started innocently enough. I peeked into our nest box one afternoon and found a cracked egg. While I sighed over the loss, I wondered if any of the girls had helped themselves to a sample. Somebird must have. In the following days, instead of eggs, I found yolky wet spots in the nest box.

I’d heard about this dreaded development–the Marxist chicken revolution. Apparently, once chickens get a taste for their own eggs and owning the means of production, the habit can be pretty hard to break. I tried collecting eggs more often and put some golf balls in the nest box as a decoy. This did not break their revolutionary spirit. Yolky wet spots abounded.

I suspected Mavis, our Auracana. She was the sweetest little sweety as a pullet, sitting on my shoulder and burrowing into my hair for comfort.

Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.
Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.

She tossed that meek fragility aside in her old age. These days, she rules the roost with an iron beak, so to speak. The ruthless glint in her eye says, “Given the opportunity, and if I had them, I’d kill you with my bare hands.”

So I couldn’t stop a satisfied “I knew it!” from escaping my mouth the day I caught Mavis in the act, gulping down broken shell with the glisten of yolk on her beak. After that, I stomped into the house and broke out the big guns: emptied some store-bought eggs and coated the insides of the shells with dijon mustard. I popped those little dijon bombs back in the nest box and thought I might have won when Mavis rejected the shells after a single, suspicious peck.

Instead, she got a recruit. The next day, Mavis and Rosie were at it together. And LemonCake might have been in on it too. Mutiny. I was incensed. I fantasized about slitting chicken throats to protect the daily food source for my lean, sunburnt family, just trying to survive out on the frontier.

Luckily, my smart homesteader friend R, the one who used to have the goats we milked, offered an alternative to death: the rollaway nest box.

IMG_3974AJ and I spent all of Sunday retrofitting, and I am proud to say that our frontier spirit prevailed! We set the nest box floor at an incline, so that once the deed is done, the egg rolls via padded board into a slot which empties into a padded aluminum paint tray.

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Brave Irene seeks out the camera yet again.

I am proud to report that our frontier spirit prevailed! No yolky wet spots for the past 3 days. Means of production successfully wrested from Mavis’ crafty beak.

Homesteading Update: I'm a cheese maker

So now that we’re knee deep in Pippa milk from our goat share, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it all. The whole notion of cheese-making made me nervous–I don’t usually have the patience for things that require adherence to absolute precision over the course of many steps. Turns out, it doesn’t have to be that way! There are naturally occurring bacteria in raw milk that will do all the work for you.

Readers, meet bonnyclabber.

Bonnyclabber, meet the readers.

If you want to know more than you ever thought possible about bonnyclabber, you can read this. If you want to know what you really need to know, I’ll tell you. Bonnyclabber is essentially what happens if you take raw milk directly from the udder, pour it into an air tight container and let it sit for anywhere between one-and-a-half to three-ish days. Apparently, my dear grandmother used to talk to my mom about bonnyclabber. She would pour it over cornbread and eat it for breakfast. She also used to talk to me about the ways they would get around having no refrigeration in the Texas heat of her childhood. And now that I’ve been goat-milking for a couple of months, I get it. When you have an animal in milk, you get a lot of milk. Everyday. The milk piles up. And if you happen to live in 1920s midland Texas, you can’t just pop the extra milk in the freezer. What you can do is sit a jar of the stuff out on the counter and let it go all bonnyclabber on you. And then you have a creamy cheese that you can spoon onto things to make them more delicious, like cornbread.

So here’s how I’ve been doing it. I start with a jar of goat-milk, still warm from Pippa’s generous udder.

I usually get 2 quarts when I milk, so we drink one and make cheese out of the other.

I bring the jar right home and put it on our stove top, where it’s kept consistently warm by the pilot lights. And in about 36 hours, it looks like this:

See how the milk has separated? And it did it all by itself! No rennet, no super heating, no starters. After we admire our impressive, spontaneous cheese through the glass jar, I pour it into a cloth-lined colander, and I put the colander over a bowl, to catch the whey. More about how fascinating whey is in a moment. Then I tie up the four corners of the cloth (in this case, I used a square of cloth that I cut from an old, clean pillowcase) and hang the little bundle on something, with the whey bowl underneath.

drip. drip. drip.

And then I wait until it’s not dripping consistently anymore, usually 3-5ish hours. I got all eager beaver at one point and decided to help the draining along by squeezing the whey through the cloth. Turns out this is not a good idea–it gets cheese into the whey and then the whey goes kind a funky and it didn’t make the cheese drain much faster anyway.

Once the dripping is done, untie the cloth and admire your cheese!

J likes to greet the cheese with a good old sniff.

And then I just scrape the cheese into one of my vintage pyrex containers with a spatula.

It just seems like bonnyclabber woudn’t want sit around in some new-fangled tupperware.

Oh, and the whey! You can pour all of the whey that drains off your cheese into a jar and keep it in your fridge. Whey is a great source of minerals, vitamins and probiotics, so it’s a great digestive aid. You can drink it straight–my friend R’s 2-year-old S can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. And you can also add a few tablespoons of the stuff when you soak and cook beans and grains. It helps to make them more easily digestible. I’ve been using a whey and water mixture to soak beans and rice before I cook them, and call me crazy, but I do feel less heavy and bloated after I eat them.

So there you have it. The easiest cheese you ever made in your whole life. I’ve been using ours in place of sour cream, cream cheese or cream fraiche, or eating it with nuts and a swirly honey drizzle over the top. It’s dreamy. And a cheese I have the patience to make.

Homesteading update: I'm a goat milker

I have always loved goats.

Spending time with goats during a trip to Greece in college.

I love them so much, that I was given this as a birthday present.

And I wear it all the time.

So it does seem like destiny – perhaps even my purpose finding me??! – that I would now be doing this:

Back in the spring, my dear friend R said that she might be interested in getting goats. After nearly peeing my pants, I assured her that I would do everything in my power to help her with said goats, if that would make any difference in her decision. Whether it did or no, she got them. And she made the whole venture delightfully communal, offering a small group of her (and my!) friends a share of her gorgeous milking goat, Pippa.

Isn’t she beautiful?

So now, on Wednesday mornings, I leap out of bed, grab my 2 quart jars and head to R’s for my morning milking.

After a few milkings, my hands have gotten into shape enough that I can milk the entire 2 quarts all by myself in one sitting! Then I filter the warm, foamy milk (thank you, Pippa!) into my jars.

I get a small thrill every time I go to the grocery store and leave without needing to buy milk. And when I think back to how far I’ve come since posting this. And every time J asks for “Pippa milk.” I also feel a deep connection to the whole process, since I am also a lactating mammal. Everytime I milk her, I thank Pippa profusely. Because after all, we’re harnessing her body’s amazing ability to produce milk for our own benefit. And when she runs to the gate in the morning with her udder bulging with milk, I croon to her–I understand. I remember what that over full, desperate-to-nurse feeling is like. And I share some of her relief when the first streams of milk spray into the pan.

And just in case this has been stirring some homesteading dreams of yours, I wanted to offer that R doesn’t have a palatial property for this whole operation. She does have a pretty big back yard. But more than that, I think she’s had the vision and done the work to transform her small space in the world into a thriving homestead (she has a garden and chickens too…swoon).

See? Doesn’t this make you think you could do this too? Or find a friend who would let you in on their operation?

Homesteading update: the status of my chicken and kale dreams

I’ve been craving more space for our little family. Daydreaming of 3 bedroom apartments with chickens in the backyard and a garage for our bikes. And then the universe promptly declared, “Put your money where  your mouth is, lady!” in the form of an unexpected and radical rent increase at our little cottage.

After recovering from my initial shock and terror, I realized that this was just the kick in the pants I needed to get moving. Nothing like the prospect of paying $700 more per month to motivate a hunt for new housing. So we’ve had to put the backyard chicken plan on hold for the time being. That is not to say that our coop isn’t getting plenty of use.

JoToddlerCoop

Please note the cool combo ladder/door that my naked child is playing with. I came up with the design and A hammered it out–this way, we don’t have to put out and then take away a separate ladder every time we open and close the door. What efficiency! That is, won’t that be efficient once we actually get chickens?

JoToddCoop

While our chicken aspirations are on hold, my kale dreams are coming true.

Perhaps I’ll go make myself a kale salad and go obsess over housing ads on Craigslist…

I have a crush on a blog: 6512 and growing

You know when you spot someone across a room and just desperately want to be their friend?

I feel that way about the blog 6512 and growing and the gal behind it. Everyone, meet Rachel. She lives in my hometown. I’ve known of her for quite some time, in that way that you know of most everyone in the small town where you’re raised. I watched over the years as she and her partner transformed a very “normal” looking house in our neighborhood into what most “upstanding” members of our community would call a hippie commune. With every top-heavy sunflower that sprang up in the front yard, I silently cheered. As if that wasn’t reason enough to be friends forever, she is a sensational writer, has refreshing things to say about parenting and relationships, can teach you an easy way to make yogurt, and writes magazine articles about fermentation that read like sonnets, driving J to such distraction that he forgets to eat breakfast. (You can read it too, flip to page 30 here.)

I took this picture with the hopes that Rachel’s kids will see it and decide they want to be friends with us, since J has the same taste in local food quarterlies as they do.

Here’s hoping.

Gardening by the moon

Since posting this, lots of people have been asking me about gardening by the moon. While it would be fabulous, it does not mean that you’re digging around on your knees in the dead of night. What I’ve been doing, and what I learned from my mother, is to consult ye olde Farmer’s Almanac. Turns out there are quite a few out there, so let me know if you have any knowledge or experience of which is better and why. I wanted to like The Old Farmer’s Almanac the best, because I tend to trust old things. Instead, I’ve been using the Farmer’s Almanac which has been published every year since 1818. It’s not as old as The Old one, which started in 1792, but I like its layout better. I bought both and have been comparing them. They disagree on auspicious dates for various things, which 1) make me wonder if this is all a bunch of malarkey and 2) makes me curious about the secret formula each one uses for its calculations. And it is most definitely a secret formula. This from The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

Based on his observations, Thomas used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a secret weather forecasting formula, which brought uncannily accurate results, traditionally said to be 80 percent accurate. (Even today, his formula is kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.)

According to my trusty Almanac, on Easter Sunday, I planted seedlings. As my friend C says, it was an auspicious day to plant seedlings.

The kale sprang right up, 3 days after I planted the seeds. Don’t they look jurassic?

Thursday the 19th was a “Favorable day for planting root crops, extra good for vine crops. Set strawberry plants. Good days for transplanting.” So I transplanted into our new driveway planter boxes.

I planted my seeds in eggshells, which was recommended by my friend R. It was a dream. And also, delightfully seasonal, if you’re into that whole Easter egg thing.

Once it was time to plant, I just broke the shells apart and plunked the seedlings in the ground. The next morning, when I went out to check on these babies, they looked like they were flexing their little seedling biceps into the sky.

Extra super lunar power seedlings? Perhaps.

My version of Fight Club

I took a suggestion from Garrison Keillor this morning in honor of April Fool’s Day. Wrapped a thick blue rubber band three times around the sink sprayer handle and aimed it straight at the space where A’s body would stand while innocently turning on the tap. Not 2 minutes later, I tried to rinse off a baking tray and instead, the sprayer nailed me square in the face. Welcome, April. I needed that.

For most of March, I had to lean hard into the days like a toddler pushing a bike uphill. Not a lot of momentum over here. With the energetic crater of February came my seasonal depression that settles in until warmer weather airs things out a bit. Add to that the rearing up of my rabid inner critic and J contracting a case of hand, foot and mouth disease during a week-long rain storm…well, lets just say my mood has been flat.

Mr. Hand Foot and Mouth himself

As though the outside world has no understanding of my inner turmoil, things are really perking up. Those little vagabond plants that snuck in with our strawberries are freesias! And their succulent, yellow blooms swelled up and popped, so that corner of our backyard smells like a dream. And my ode to a driveway garden and backyard chickens was not in vain! We are now the proud owners of 2 redwood planter boxes I found on Craigslist and a chicken coop I scored after posting a coop-wanted ad on Freecycle. We picked up the coop yesterday—turns out it was sitting vacant in a backyard only 4 blocks away, and it just took a little internet miracle to connect us.

Oh, the things you can move with a Honda Accord...

As A and I slogged through the rain, pushing the mucky coop end over end, I thought, “This is like my version of Fight Club.” I haven’t seen the movie forever, but I connected with that need to be shocked into aliveness, to deeply feel and experience something beyond sitting in artificially heated and cooled rooms and eating Trader Joe’s bagged dinners. So instead of having the crap beat out of me by Brad Pitt, I’m going the chicken coop route. The combination of mud and wet working skin and purpose reminded me that I’m a creature. An animal with working muscles and bones. Alas, there IS more to life than the internet and man-made playground facilities and vacuuming and the internet. There’s the springtime blooming and rain. The pile of soaked clothes kicked off at the back door. And the promise of little green shoots pushing through and a dark corner for laying eggs.

Starting somewhere

You have to start somewhere.

That’s the line that’s on repeat in my head today. I’ve been reading The Mists of Avalon for the last couple of months. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a cult classic re-telling of the Arthurian Legend from the perspective of the women. I just finished the last page (p. 892!!) yesterday and still feel under a spell that only a pagan, goddess, earth-based, woman-power-festival book can cast.

Reading it has stirred the longing I’ve had, since I moved away from the small, arid town of my youth, to have the dirt and sky and seasons figure prominently in my everyday life. Instead of smelling the rain coming, I sit here and type and scan websites as though the internet will save me. My tangible connection to the natural rhythms of life consists of two things lately: hanging the laundry out on the line that we strung across a tree and our back door and digging bare hands into my daily kale salad to work the oil and lemon juice and salt into the leaves. And sometimes it’s raining, so I put the laundry in the dryer. And there are days when I’m sick of kale. On those days, my ribs hurt from sitting at the computer for too long, and I try to remember to look up at the sky when I’m sitting at the park with J.

It’s not enough.

During this recent Mists of Avalon bender, I’ve been noticing the cycles of the moon again. And remembering this experiment my mom and I did in our garden, where we planted half of our plot by the moon and the other half a few days before that, just to see if the whole farmer’s almanac, by-the-moon thing had any merit. Our by-the-moon potatoes and green beans were head and shoulders above the others–I still remember the site of that lop-sided garden. One half bushing out on mysterious lunar steroids. If the moon has that kind of influence, what power is it exerting over me every wax and wane? And why does my life have so little to do with that?

So I’ve been criticizing our life here, and how I unknowingly traded the slow satisfaction of life in the San Juan mountains for the hip here-and-nowness of living in a thriving urban community. I’m stifled by the high density of people and concrete and traffic here. For better or for worse, I was raised in the high mountain desert of Colorado. I grew up roaming on our 5 acres which was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of open, roam-able sage brush acres. Solitude and open and the sounds and smells of dirt and bugs and life were freely given every day. There was no seeking required. And now I live in our little cottage that I love. And I sit on our back deck and hear airplanes, traffic and cackling crows. The deck looks out over our back yard, for which we once had grand plans and has now become a storage receptacle for our family’s bicycle fetish (cruiser, road bike, tandem, cargo…!) and various J toys. Our front yard is a shared driveway. A very beautiful, recently re-poured driveway for which I am very grateful, because J loves to roll trucks and balls and ride bikes in it, and we have a nice table and chairs there where we enjoy warm evenings . But it’s a concrete driveway.

You have to start somewhere.

I have known, very clearly since our ill-fated trip to Boulder last year, that I want chickens in our back yard. And I’ve been putting it off, because in the back of my head, I think we might move (in the next year or two) since the 650 sqft that we occupy is, for the first time, starting to feel too small. So I want to live in our wee cottage for another year or two without my dream backyard chickens just because I might have to move them? Upon conscious thought, I’ve deemed that not a good enough reason. And my earthy, Mists of Avalon, pagan self needs chickens now. So, we’ve gotten approval from all of the neighbors and have an email in to our landlords for our final stamp of approval. Here’s our future chicken sanctuary:

Goddess willing, they’ll live just below my favorite walnut tree in existence.

I love to watch the drama of it leafing out in the spring, the crunch-crunch-crackle of the squirrel walnut harvest in July and August (which inspired this video), how in one or two days in November, it drops every single rattly leaf and is naked like this again. Locals have been telling me that the soil surrounding walnut trees is often difficult to grow in, and we’ve certainly found that true over the last 4 years. So replacing the stunted ferns and lilies  s l o wly  growing there with chickens seems like just the ticket.

The one edible thing that we have successfully grown in our walnut-ed, shady backyard are strawberries. And here are some rogue spring bloomers getting ready to pop on this lovely March day. I have no idea what this plant is, so if you do, let me know. I intentionally left them here instead of weeding them out in the fall and I’m so glad I did.

And last weekend, I snapped myself out of the internet hypnosis that always calls when J is napping, and instead I potted some plants and dragged them out to the driveway.

I’m rooting more succulents in the kitchen that will occupy another pot or two once they’ve got some nice trailing roots to show. I also want to build or salvage a long narrow gardening bed for our only sunny, vegetable garden-able spot that we’ve got–also in the driveway. I’d thought of this years ago, but A was worried about the exhaust from cars on the driveway, and so I shelved the idea.

You’ve got to start somewhere. And if that’s eating exhaust-y vegetables from a concrete driveway garden that is planted by the moon, so be it.