Sometimes, I forget....

...I forget what store-bought eggs taste like, how pale the yolk is.

...I forget that store-bought chicken doesn't have flavor, that the flesh is pale, the texture rubbery. Pastured poultry is superior to conventionally raised in every way.

pastured poultry
pastured poultry

...I forget that pasture raised pigs don't smell bad, the meat is tender, juicy, and the fat is beneficial.

...I forget that most families don't cook with lard. They've never tasted homemade pie crust or biscuits.

...I forget that walking out your front door to pick cherries, raspberries, gooseberries and apples, from the trees you've planted, is a luxury. It's a special benefit of arranging your life differently than most people choose to do.

raspberries
raspberries

...I forget that fresh garden produce is a choice. It's trading your time, planning, and labor in exchange for a plentiful harvest.

I forget that there's nothing sweeter than homegrown peaches or the sight of baby ducklings chasing after a bug.

I forget that most livestock producers don't believe in the restorative powers of MIG grazing. Instead of planning a grazing program they allow their animals to forage randomly. This creates a barren pasture, soil depleted of nutrients, and not enough organic matter or cover crop to control evaporation. These poor decisions, made by many farmers, are a choice. A choice that negatively impacts water quality, wildlife, and climate.

There have been several visitors to the farm recently who've enjoyed the beautiful views and learning about grass based farming. Many of them recall memories of their grandparents farms which were like ours in many ways.

Their grandparents had pigs in the pasture and chickens pecking in the yard. Small orchards provided fruit and cider. Large gardens fed the family and everyone worked together. Picnic tables were sheltered under shade trees where cool breezes relieved the heat of the day.

Sometimes I take for granted that each day is my own. I'm greeted by beautiful surroundings with the people I love and the life we've chosen. Our farming practices are intentionally organic.

Bug Jugs, Homemade Herbicide, Garden Dust

It's that time of year again - time to protect your fruit trees, kill weeds, and dust the garden for pests while saving the bees!

Here are three recipes:

DSCN1322Bug Jugs

Put all the ingredients into a gallon water jug and hang in fruit trees to catch pests. One jug per inch of tree diameter.

 

DSCN1256Homemade Herbicide:

Mix well, apply with a sprayer or dish sponge  soap dispenser  Use caution; wear gloves and eye protection. 20% vinegar can cause burns on contact. Apply in dry, warm weather. A second application, within a few days of the first, may be needed for some weeds. Poison Ivy, brush, and vines will require more than one application. Be careful - this mixture will kill both the plants you want and don't want - don't get it on any that you don't want to die.

hot peppersGarden Dust

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 TBS Cayenne pepper

Mix together and dust plants while there's dew on them. Works especially well to get rid of cabbage worms.

 

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Esme' riding in the tractor
Esme' riding in the tractor

Goodbye, Esmé. You were the goodwill ambassador of the farm. I found Esmé at the Dubuque Animal Shelter and named her after a character in a short story by J.D. Salinger. Esmé was a clown, always having fun, and exceedingly happy. She loved swimming, digging, chasing, and biking.

She welcomed every new arrival. It didn’t matter if it had two legs or four Esmé welcomed everyone.

I heard the dogs bark and knew someone was coming up the lane. Cookie ran into the house and yelled, “call the vet, Esme’s laying in the driveway bleeding!”

As soon as I saw her I knew she was gone, she was so still. So small. So lifeless. Scooping her up I held her close and whispered goodbye. I kissed her head as tears trickled onto her fur. Looking up I saw the face of our friendly delivery driver, her tears fell, too.

I assured her it wasn’t her fault. Esmé must have gotten caught by the tire as she turned into the drive.

When our boys lost their first dog, Squeaky my sister gave us a book, Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. The inscription reads, “Given in memory of Squeaky. January 1999.” We’ve added the names of other beloved pets. With deepest regrets I’ve added Esmé to that list.

 

Beekeepers are wonderful, but they lie

I've met a few beekeepers over the past few years, wonderful folks, but they're liars. The beekeeping class instructor said that eventually you won't notice getting stung. He said it's not a big deal. Every beekeeper I've met since has said the same thing, "I don't even notice when I get stung."

To this I say, "Liar!"

One of the first questions people ask is, "How often do you get stung?" Followed by the second question, "Does it hurt?"

Here's the truth; you won't get stung often but when you do it hurts. I know the procedure; when you get stung use the hive tool to scrape the stinger away, otherwise the sack keeps pumping venom. The same goes with trying to squeeze out the stinger. It won't work, you have to scrape it away.

It will continue to hurt for a couple of days, your joints around the area will ache. As the swelling goes down your skin will start to itch. As for me, patience isn't a virtue. I've been stung plenty of times and the only home remedy that's worked is time.

I love bees enough to endure the occasional sting. The reward is greater than the pain.

Bee in apple blossom
Bee in apple blossom

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On an old oak stump in our front yard grew a Hen of the Woods mushroom. Keith would watch it grow and mature until it was the ready to pick. It was just about perfect.

We were sitting on the front porch when a car pulled up. The dogs were sleeping in the autumn sun, they didn't notice. The driver ran from the car, cut the mushroom, and drove off.

Apparently someone else was watching the mushroom, too. Keith walked around the stump in disbelief, “Who steals a mushroom?”

“Probably the same type of person who tries stuffing a goat into the hatchback of their car.” A few weeks earlier a nicely dressed couple tried driving off with our goat, Midnight and a few of the laying hens.

Poor Keith, I empathized with him. He'd been waiting to enjoying this mushroom for a long time.

Our neighbor, Mike watched the same car pull up to his ditch and cut weed stalks early each summer. One year he flagged them down to ask what they were cutting. What they thought were wild rhubarb stalks in reality was Burdock. Mike just smiled, shook his head and waved them on. He loved re-telling that story.

Here in Iowa folks park along the roadside searching for wild asparagus or morels. The asparagus seekers carry sharp knives and plastic bags. They walk along the ditches and fence rows searching the grass around utility poles.

For some reason the commercial morel hunters irritate me, they don't ask for permission, they're dropped off in an area to begin scavenging the timber and underbrush for saleable product. They wear camouflage and carry handheld GPS devices. Morel's bring a hefty price.

Growing mushrooms is one of our latest projects. We're growing Oyster mushrooms for fun.  Keith loves mushrooms. One year I bought him a shiitake growing kit which was fine, but about the difference between owning a plastic model of a Corvette or the real thing.

It was time for an up-grade, so this year we're growing two varieties of organic Oyster mushrooms; Grey Dove and PoHu.

Keith cut logs from dormant Aspen trees. Each log is about 3 feet long, 6 – 8 inches in diameter. There are about one hundred logs for this year's mushroom project. He used a special bit to drill the holes. Cookie inoculated the logs with sawdust spawn and then capped each with wax. The logs are stacked in the timber, when it's dry this summer we'll use a water tank to soak the logs. The first mushrooms should start growing within a few months. This first year's yield will be sparse, but should increase each season for many years.

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Tap Into Something Good: Walnut Water!

Collecting Walnut sap
Collecting Walnut sap

The local NPR station had a program about tapping trees. Michael Farrell, author of The Sugarmaker's Companion talked about collecting sap from different types of trees. Keith liked the idea of tapping walnut trees and birch trees to make syrup. The Black Walnut trees are abundant in our timber. After reading the book we became interested in the benefits of sap water as a healthful drink.

Keith and our local forester, Jeff  marked trees for tapping. Not wanting to ruin marketable timber, or veneer, the two of them selected twenty-six crooked or damaged trees for this first season's experiment.

The trees cover a larger area so tubing wasn't an option. Instead, collection bags hang from the taps. Walnut's have about the same brix (sap sugar content) as maple trees. The volumes of sap is less, though. Walnut sap is nutrient rich, slightly sweet, with a nutty flavor. It's power packed.

In other cultures tree sap is a valued health drink. Fresh sap is good for five days, after that it needs pasteurization and filtering. It will last indefinitely when it's frozen. To get the benefits throughout the year I'm freezing it in ice-cube trays and glass jars for later use.

Depending on how much sap we collect there might be enough to make walnut syrup, but with a sap to syrup ratio of 40:1, we'll see.

The sap runs for only about five-weeks each spring. When the walnut sap finishes flowing the birch trees are ready to tap. Birch flow starts later in the spring and runs until the trees leaf out.

Sugaring is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and spend time together.

Collecting Walnut Sap
Collecting Walnut Sap

IMG_20140904_143708987Every now and again I have a bad day on the road. A couple of months ago my beautiful drive in the country turned ugly. I had three flat tires; one blow out, one flat, and a nail sticking out of the sidewall of the third tire. With the tires fixed I was back on the road. A few miles later the alternator failed. It wasn't a great day.

Last Saturday we hit a deer. Not a great day, either.

 

IMG_20141215_103711159 3Yesterday it was foggy with rain falling steadily. As I drove down the highway I saw a sign that read, “Next 2 miles...possible cattle on road”

My heart went out to the farmer. His cattle got out, It was very foggy and there's heavy traffic along this stretch of highway.

The next time I feel sorry for myself because I have a flat tire or a breakdown I'll remember that I've never had a day this bad. Even my worst day is better than a herd of cattle who've gone missing in the fog and worrying about the safety of both drivers and livestock on the road.

IMG_20141215_103724259

DSCN2746One of the highlights of Thanksgiving is the newspaper's publishing children's turkey recipe's and their drawings of Thanksgiving scenes. They're colorful, creative and so much fun to read.

 "Research shows that 90 percent of five-year olds are creative, but only 2 percent of adults are."  -Lee Lilber

One year our friend's son, (I'll call him Chip, even though it's not his real name) entered his school's turkey decorating contest. He came home excited to share the rules with his parents and tell them about the turkey he'd designed. After a trip to the craft store he assembled his turkey. It was terrific, it looked exactly as he planned. When our friends tucked their son into bed that night he told them how much he wanted to win the contest.

While the boy slept his parents looked at his turkey. It looked like a second grader had made it, which is exactly how it should have looked given the boy's age. They couldn't see it for what it was. They decided to improve it. Changing the design, they added more feathers, re-glued the eyes, and fixed the sagging head. Adding a guitar and sideburns it became a rock star turkey. They went to bed assuring themselves that their turkey was going to win, but it wasn't their turkey. It wasn't their contest to win.

In the morning when Chip saw the re-designed bird he burst out, "That's not my turkey!" His parents assured him that this turkey was the winner. He headed to school with the turkey stuffed in his bag.

After school he ran through the door grinning, "The teacher loved my turkey!" His mom congratulated him and called his dad. Chip, overhearing her on the phone, interrupted her, "Mom, your turkey didn't win. I showed the teacher your turkey and told her that I wasn't entering it in the contest. She gave me time to remake my turkey from the picture I'd drawn. Here, she wrote you a note." He handed his mom an envelope.

The teacher's note read:

 Dear Mr. and Mrs. _________,

I am proud of your son's effort and outstanding attitude on the turkey decorating contest. He followed the instructions and created a wonderful turkey.

I appreciate your enthusiasm however, your entry was ineligible.

You have both completed the second grade and are not currently enrolled at this school. In addition, you sent a demoralizing message to your son that somehow his creativity and artistic abilities are inferior to yours.

Sincerely,

Chip's teacher

As an eighteen year old our neighbor, Don built his own barn. He sent away for a set of plans, cut the trees, made them into board lumber, and constructed the barn. Seventy years later it's still in great shape.  Can you imagine kids doing their own work? They'd either celebrate their accomplishments or learn the consequences. And here's an even bigger stretch ...What if dad's allowed their sons in Cub Scout's to build their own Pinewood Derby cars?

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DSCN2837And now, another lesson from a very bad beekeeper...

Sugaring bees for mite control is a great alternative to chemical treatments if the mite count is manageable. In the battle of bees vs Varroa Mites my weapon of choice; powdered sugar. I calculate the mite load by capturing a couple hundred bees and placing them inside a jar with a few tablespoons of powdered sugar. The jar is fitted with a screen placed over the mouth. The bees are shaken vigorously to loosen the mites clinging to them. The mites fall through the screen lid, onto a sheet of white paper (they're easy to see against the white background) for counting. A quick calculation gives the mite load for the hive. This calculation  determines if I need to treat the bees aggressively (for a large infestation) or if the sugar will take care of the problem. I'm reluctant to use chemicals for treating Varroa Mites because it could cause resistance or weaken the bees.

 

DSCN2827Using an old window screen, placed over the hive body, I dump a pound of powdered sugar on top. It's important to have the smoker ready to force the bees away from the screen. Using a bee brush to gently spread the sugar across the screen so it falls between the frames, I continue to apply smoke. You don't want the bees clinging to the screen because the brush will damage the bee's legs, sometimes amputating them.

The sugar dust clings to the bees causing the mites to fall off or get groomed off by other bees. I use a screened bottom board which the mites fall through. I repeat the sugaring process two to three times in the fall.

Once the hive's been dusted and sealed back up again the jarred bees are let loose to fly back inside the hive. They're angry and unhappy after being shaken. Never free the bees from the jar before all the frames are sugared or they'll work the rest of the hive into a fervor. You don't want to work with agitated bees, I've learned this the hard way. Bee venom supposedly cures arthritis, I don't have arthritis but I think I'd prefer it to being stung seven times in the hand. Learning new things is important, I just wish I'd learn before it becomes a painful reality.

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The off-season.

As a gardener there comes a day when even the heaviest frost blanket can't offer protection. You resign, relinquishing the garden until spring. Maybe it's because of this resignation, probably not, but nothing could satisfy the melancholy feeling of the garden shutting down like a fresh picked tomato. Fresh tomatoes are gone until next year, this is the off-season.

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There's a group of small, like-minded farmers who network together. Barter and trade are frequent among us. Last year we traded a young Gloucestershire Old Spot boar for hen and tom heritage turkey's. This spring the hens were late to set their eggs, some never cycled into egg laying. Talking with a turkey raiser he determined last winter too severe. Turkey hens, regardless of their care, just weren't up to the task of laying, at least not fertile, viable eggs, anyway. That is until this week.

In front of the machine shed door a Narragansett hen sat sunning herself. She puffed her feathers, called in a high-pitched whistle and seven small turkey poults scooted underneath her. Doesn't she know this is the off-season?

Later in the day I collected pumpkins for the sows and boar. Among the vines and fruit another Narragansett hen is sitting on a clutch of eggs. One of the Muscovy hens hatched eggs last week. Five ducklings follow here through the pasture every afternoon. We haven't found where she's hiding her brood, hopefully a weasel or owl won't find them either.

The peach trees, all but one, have been dormant all summer. Scratching the surface bark there’s life under the cambium layer so they weren't cut down. Maybe next spring they'll surprise us with buds, it's doubtful, but I remain optimistic. In October of 2012, following one of the worst droughts in our area, the lilac bushes started to blossom for a second time in one season. The October flower clusters were sparse, but the following spring they were full of flowers again as if the off-season blossoming hadn't interrupted the cycle.

DSCN2720The oak tree along the lane is dropping bushels of acorn that go uncollected. The oak in the pasture is dropping a heavy crop for the pigs to feast on. They've gleaned the fallen nuts leaving the ground underneath bare. One pig in particular stands sentry, he won't let the sheep near the tree. He doesn't realize the sheep want sweet clover not bitter acorns. Between the pumpkins, clovers, apples, and nuts the pigs diet is diverse. Their commercial feed goes untouched when there's so much they can harvest themselves. This is one of the benefits of pastured hogs; a healthy diet.