Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New Babies

Snowdrop and Daisy--our two new Saanen-Alpine crosses

'Tis the season for babies! The woods around our little farm are bustling with activity, as the birds, bugs, squirrels and deer begin welcoming wee ones into the world and nurturing them toward adulthood. We also have been gearing up for new members of our barnyard family.  In the past few days, we have placed an order for 26 baby chicks (to arrive in April) and brought home three baby goats.

This time we decided to purchase full-size dairy goats to add to the three Nigerian Dwarfs that have been with us in November. We were lucky to have the opportunity to do our goat shopping at Maple Lane Homestead, a beautiful farm in Concord, NC where Kelly Foster, her mother, and her husband raise dozens of goats and sheep, chickens, turkeys, bees, and a huge garden of lush vegetables and herbs. (You can read Kelly's farm blog here.) Based on the research I had done and Kelly's experience-rich advice, we chose two Saanen-Alpine crosses and one purebred Alpine. Whereas Nigerian Dwarfs offer smaller amounts of milk that is very high in butterfat (and therefore perfect for making cheeses, soaps, and of course, butter), Saanens and Alpines are higher-quantity producers (the two "champion milkers" of the dairy goat world) and provide lower-fat milk--ideal for drinking and making yogurt.

Ezili, the Alpine, tries to suck some milk out of my finger.

We adore these new little ones. They are sweet, gentle, frisky, and a bit shy. But not actually very little.  We were stunned when we went to pick them up to find that two of them had already grown taller than our 6-month-old Nigerians! The good news is that these new whipper-snappers were trained on the bottle before we brought them home, so bottle feeding has been a breeze this time around in comparison to our first try (a recorded in my November 23, 2011 post).

The Nigerians are predictably jealous--bawling piteously as we bottle feed their new compatriots in the stall next door, kicking the walls, and threatening to run away and never come back. Unfortunately, they have also been picking on the new kids quite a bit. We're trying to be patient with our bullies, thinking things will calm down once they re-establish the hierarchy of the herd, or--if not--once the newbies are towering over them in a few weeks!

My daughters, Segi and Simi, have adopted the two Saanen crosses, and I've been allowed the privilege of mothering the Alpine. She's the scrawniest one of the lot, and thus the most harassed. I'm hoping she'll learn to stick up for herself soon. In the meantime, we'll be relishing the pleasures of nurturing our new babies and dreaming of the milk they will hopefully be giving us in return during the years to come.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Oh, Captain! Bye, Captain!

There are some graphic photos in this post. Please view with discretion. 

We had another first this week. Unfortunately, it was not among those we have gleefully anticipated, but rather, was one that we dreaded: slaughtering our rooster. Around 3 weeks ago, Captain Haddock started developing a nasty habit of attacking his caregivers. At first it was just occasional, but as time went on, he became more and more aggressive. It got so bad that the girls were afraid to go out to the barnyard, and scattering scratch became a nerve-wracking task. At one point, he actually grabbed our 5-year-old's shorts with his beak and proceeded to give her a 6-inch scratch down her leg. On his last day of freedom, I was walking to the coop to check for eggs when he zoomed in at me from behind. When I sought refuge inside the coop, he cornered me there, evidently hoping to peck my eyes out. I grabbed my cell phone from my pocket and called my husband, G-P. "Come save me!" I yelled. "He's gonna kill me!" My generally nonchalant man was there in a flash, waging a dramatic pursuit of my attacker. He soon had him cornered and caged. Captain Haddock had sealed his fate: he was headed for the roasting pan.

A day and half later, we hauled Captain Haddock down to the pasture, and G-P did the dastardly deed. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of the claims he'd been making that "I saw this done all the time back in Nigeria. It's no big deal." But he really did carry out the task like a pro. I was beaming with pride (and relief that I didn't have to do it) as I watched. Now it was my turn. We took the carcass to the kitchen. (My mother later informed me that her mother used to do this part in the yard, gently hinting that I should, too. In hindsight I have to admit that it's probably a better setting.) I dunked him in scalding water and plucked the feathers. LOTS of them. It turns out that our Mr. Big-Britches was mostly feathers.  In fact, he both looked and tasted a lot more like the little chickens I had eaten in rural Haiti than the ones for sale at the grocery store down the street. Of course none of us minded that one bit. The wilder the better is a general rule of thumb at our table. And if that means small and tough, so be it.

The girls, far from being squeamish or upset (as we'd feared they might be), watched attentively as I pulled out the innards and identified for them the liver, stomach, gizzard, heart, intestines, and lungs. We dissected a couple of items and decided to look up more information on chicken anatomy later.

After cleaning the carcass in cool water, we slipped it into the frig until the next day, when I roasted it for dinner. It was amazing: dark, juicy, slightly chewy, and delicious. We feasted, thanking Captain Haddock for the pleasure of his crows the nourishment of his meat. 

Hopefully, we'll find a sane, friendly rooster to take the Captain's place sometime soon. In the meantime, we'll all enjoy going out to the barnyard again without fearing for our safety.

Jennie's Roasted Free-Range Chicken

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Place the chicken in a roasting pan and rub the cavity with a mixture of:
  • olive oil or butter
  • fresh or dried herbs, such as:
    • thyme
    • rosemary
    • oregano
    • parsley
    • basil
  • fresh or granulated garlic
  • salt and pepper.
Place in the cavity:
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a chunk of onion
  • a piece of celery.
Rub the outside of the chicken with more of the olive oil mixture.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes per pound of chicken, or until the meat is at least 165 degrees, drizzling occasionally with more olive oil or butter.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Seed Starting Time: Enticement and Tips

If the gardeners in your life seem to have a special twinkle in their eyes or an extra spring in their step during the next few weeks, it may have something to do with the fact that the moment we've all been waiting for has arrived. Finally--after all those months of drafting garden layouts, sharpening tools, buying supplies, and waiting, waiting, waiting--the time has finally come to sow some seed. Is there anything more exciting than popping seeds into soil, or more magical than seeing tiny green stems emerge a few days later? Not to most gardeners.

The girls and I are attempting to grow all our own transplants this year. In the past, we have purchased at the garden center most of those delicate damsels that like to be spend their first few weeks indoors before being thrust into the none-too-gentle arms of mother nature: tomatoes, peppers, onions, cabbage, leeks, and a variety of flowers and herbs. But this year we decided to be bold and try raising them from seed. And why not, since we're getting quite used to diving head-first into new waters! In the following paragraphs, I share some of the discoveries we've made.

First, a few of the reasons that we (and many other gardeneres) have chosen to start our own seeds:
  1. Seeds are much less expensive than transplants.
  2. It is often hard--if not impossible--to find organically grown and heirloom transplants.  
  3. The variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers that you can find in seeds catalogues is much greater than what is available at most garden centers.
  4. It's fun!
The fun of starting your own seeds actually begins well before spring. In fact, almost as exciting to gardeners as popping those first few seeds into soil during the first few days of spring is cozying up in the depths of winter with a good seed catalogue. There are some out there these days that make for better reading than New York Times bestsellers. While a number are glossy and exquisitely laid out, others charm not with appearance but with poetic description--depicting their wares in terms that leave your mouth watering and your hands itching for a pair of garden gloves. Among my own favorites (all offering organic and heirloom selections) are:

Once you have your seeds ordered, it is time to figure out where they will begin their fragile little lives and how to provide adequate heat and lighting for them. It's convenient to buy a set of grow lights at your garden center, your hardware store, or online, but plain-old florescent bulbs work fine, too, as long as you rig them up so that you can raise and lower them above the seedlings. Since seeds won't germinate if they are too chilly, you'll either need to find a warm corner in your house where you can set up your grow lab or--if you're using a garage or another somewhat chilly space--you can purchase heating mats.
You'll also need to buy or make the following:
  • Seed-starting mix (do not try to use potting soil, no matter how tempting it might be)
  • Small pots (easy to find in stores but may also be made from yogurt cups, disposable drinking cups, or newspaper--there are many great ideas online!)
  • Leak-proof trays
  • A watering can and spray bottle
  • A bucket.

Now you're ready to go. First empty the seed-starting mix into a bucket and wet it thoroughly. After letting it sit for a while to absorb the water, scoop the mix into your pots. (Make sure there is a hole in the bottom of each one so that water can drain from the soil.) Plant the seeds according to the directions on each seed packet, and cover with plastic until the seeds have sprouted. Don't forget to label what you've planted! Believe me: you won't remember them all when they begin sprouting--seriously. (Old-fashioned popsicle sticks work great for this, by the way.)

You don't need to turn your grow lights on until the seeds have sprouted. As soon as they have, remove the plastic cover and leave the grow lights on around 16 hours a day or so. (Some experts say you can leave them on all the time, but that just doesn't seem natural to me.) If you have a hard time remembering to turn the lights off and on, you can get a timer for a few bucks at your local hardware store.

Keep the soil in the pots moist but not soaking wet. (It's best to water them from underneath by pouring water into the trays and letting the soil in the pots soak it up.) Raise the lights as the your seedlings grow, keeping it 2-3 inches from the tops of the plants. After a week or so, let a fan blow on them for several hours a day so that they can begin adapting to the wiles of the weather they'll soon face. When the seedlings have several leaves, thin them out and/or transplant them into bigger pots. As the time nears when you'll be putting them into the ground outside (again, your seed packets should tell you when that is), you'll want to "harden them off"--that is, move them outside for several hours a day so that they can acclimate before being put into the ground.

That's about it. Of course there are much more detailed directions in the thousands of gardening books and zillions of gardening websites out there. Consult as many as you can to learn about different approaches. Then, using all the advice that sound right to you, give it a try.

I think you'll find that no matter how many seeds you pop in the ground, the first time you see each one sprout is awe-inspiring--another one of the common yet inconceivable miracles involved in nurturing living things. Happy planting!

The Little Seed
--Kate Louise Brown

In the heart of a seed
Buried deep, so deep
A tiny plant
Lay fast asleep.

"Wake!" said the sunshine
And creep to the light
"Wake!" said the voice
Of the raindrops bright

The little plant heard
And it rose to see
What the wonderful
Outside world might be!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Little Gurus

"The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it."--Thich Nhat Hanh

Yesterday afternoon, on our way back home from visiting some newborn goats and lambs at a nearby farm, the girls and I decided to stop off for a short stroll and some playtime at a park. While we were there, it began to rain. Since no rain was in the forecast, we had not brought umbrellas or rain jackets, so of course I suggested we head back to the car. "Why???" the girls cried incredulously. "Well, uh, we're going to get wet." "Great!" they said. So we stayed. It turns out that it really is extra-fun to swing and spin and climb in the rain. Soon, though, being the incurable adult that I am, I got concerned that my cell phone was going to be ruined and my backpack soaked through, so I insisted we go. I did consent to take the longer path to the car, and we had a lovely time dancing and singing in the rain as we went. Once back home, we hopped out of the car and immediately headed out for another quick stroll up the lane to the mailbox. (We'd "forgotten" to mail the letter we'd brought with us.) Of course, the girls were not yet ready to come inside when we returned and headed straight to the barnyard to frolic with their furry and feathered friends in what was now a downpour. When I joined them there a little while later to feed the goats and batten down the hatches for the night, they were showering under the stream pouring from the chicken coop's gutter and giggling uncontrollably.

Sadly, most of us grown-up folks seem to need reminders from religious or scholarly gurus to live fully in the present moment. We spend most of our days obsessing over what has been and/or what may be--fretting, anticipating, dreading, planning, organizing, controlling. While our productivity is often impressive, joy generally eludes us. Fortunately, there are little gurus all around us, providing endless lessons in living wisdom. Find one of them today. Take his or her hand, and ask for some pointers. I promise s/he will happily enlighten you.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shrooming in the Shade

I love trees. My husband loves trees. My daughters love trees. So in many ways the property where we are now living is perfect for us. There are lots of trees here. But those trees are also making it challenging to farm. They limit the space we have for growing hay in our pasture. And they limit how much gardening I can feasibly do. This was the biggest compromise I had to make as we made the decision to buy this place last summer. And I continue to struggle with it. Before leaving Ohio, I had envisioned having a HUGE Southern garden: rows and rows of tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuces, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and onions; a spectacularly wild array of flowers; and enough herbs to last throughout the year. But here I am, standing in front of the only little corner of our property that is even remotely capable of getting enough sun for blooming plants (it was a corner of the yard before we got here), wondering if I will be able to pull off even a small patch of veggies.

Determined not to keep longing for the landscape of my dreams, I've decided instead to get creative in working with the landscape we have. I hope to plant a variety of native perennials around the house; scatter trillium, wild ginger, bloodroot, and spring beauties in our little plot of woods; and use the mountains of sticks and leaves we have to generate extra-rich mulch. And I'm going to grow mushrooms. Perhaps I'd better say I'm going to try to grow mushrooms. Once again, I really don't have any idea what I'm doing.

Mushrooms are wonderful little beings. The fleshy edible fruit bodies of fungi, they are surprisingly nutritious. Low in fat, carbohydrates, and calories, they are a great source of B vitamins and essential minerals such as selenium, copper, and potassium. When exposed to ultraviolet light, they are also high in Vitamin D, something many of us North Americans are needing more of these days as we spend more and more time indoors. And if that's not enough, as my children have reminded me, they also attract fairies and elves! It's not surprising, then, that mushrooms have been harvested in the wild and cultivated by humans for at least a few thousand years. (Edible mushrooms have been found in 13,000 year old ruins in Chile, though the first solid evidence of mushroom consumption dates back to several hundred years BC in China.)

Not that long ago, many rural Americans could take a walk through a forest and gather several types of edible mushrooms to bring back for the supper table. (The same was true where my husband grew up in Nigeria, he says.). These days, though, mushrooms are among those foods that most of us--even most gardeners--assume we need to buy at the store. In fact, gathering them wild can be dangerous without a good deal of knowledge and training. But a few weeks ago, I started wondering if it's really true that I have to pick up a plastic-covered styrofoam box every time I need some fungi in my stir-fry. After all, these quirky little creatures do grow all over the woods, often popping up in what seem like the most unlikely places. So how hard could it possibly be to cultivate them? I have to admit that researching mushroom cultivation left me feeling pretty intimidated at first: lots of talk about sterilization, mycelium formation, moisture gauges, temperature sensitivities, etc., etc. But after some digging, I discovered that there are a few types of tasty mushrooms that gardeners like me seem to be able to grow with relative ease.

The one I chose to try is Stropharia rugosoannulata, commonly known as Wine Cap or King Stropharia. It grows wild in forests throughout the United States and has a lovely red, brown or tan cap that can sometimes reach the size of a dinner plate (!) but more commonly grows to around 2-5 inches across. It is evidently delicious when sauteed, broiled, or baked and is exceptionally good for you. Attractive as all these traits are, the deciding factor in my choice to cultivate wine caps was that they love wood chips. And we have lots of wood chips lying around these days. In fact, I had two large piles of sweet gum chips sitting right beside the little garden plot I mentioned earlier--under some trees at the edge of the woods (and thus in what seemed like a perfect spot for a mushroom bed). So I got online and found the website of Mushroom Mountain, a mushroom farm in Liberty, South Carolina. The nice folks there confirmed that wine caps would be a good variety for me to try, so I sent off for a bag of spawn. It arrived on our doorstep two days later.

To prepare the beds, I spread a layer of cardboard and newspaper on the ground between the two wood chip piles. Then I added a good amount of chips, leveling them out with a rake. Next, I scattered about half of the spawn I'd received over those chips and gently mixed them in. I then added another layer of newspaper, another layer of chips, and the rest of the spawn. Finally, I covered the finished bed with a layer of rotting leaves (to protect the chips from drying out and keep the mushrooms from freezing when the weather turns cold). Jeepers; that wasn't so hard.

Of course, I won't know for quite a while if this new venture into the world of mushroom gardening has been successful. It will be several months--maybe more--before the mushrooms can be harvested. In the meantime, all I have to do is keep shooing away the chickens (it took all of about 7 minutes for them to discover this new dining venue); remember to water occasionally; and dream quiet, delicious dreams of nibbling fresh, homegrown mushrooms.

--Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tattooing the Kids

My twin sister was back for another visit this weekend, so a variety of long-delayed tasks finally got done. I try to always be ready for Jules with home-cooked delicacies in one hand and a hefty to-do list in the other. She doesn't seem to mind the latter and unabashedly delights in the former. (Is there a better combination than that in a houseguest? I think not!)

We started with the smaller jobs: hanging bulletin boards in the Discovery Room; nailing up a bird house in the Enchanted Garden (the name the girls have given to the circular island in front of the house); and installing a Mason Bee lodge in the woods near the area where I'll plant a vegetable garden in the coming weeks. We then moved on to helping my husband (bless him) tear out the dilapidated chicken run and spread extra wood chips around the coop and behind the barn. 

At that point, we couldn't put off any longer the most critical and most dreaded task of the weekend: tattooing the goats' ears. This is one of those tasks that--like bringing home our first load of hay and collecting our first egg--feels like a sort of rite of passage into farmerhood. While I have been a bit nervous about some of the other new responsibilities I've "winged" during the past few months, such as trimming the goats hooves, this time I was positively shaky. Perhaps the process reminded me a bit too much of the mutilation and scarification rites of passage I used to teach as an anthropology professor and, thus, seemed to have an aura more profound than most of the other tasks I've had to figure out how to do. I think I was mostly afraid I would goof it up and irreparably traumatize and/or disfigure our little friends.

Of course, I could have asked a goat breeder or a vet to come do it for me, but I figured I might as well learn how to do it myself. So I read and read, and read some more, about the importance of tattooing (it's a must for registered dairy breeds) and how to do it correctly. And I called in Jules. There's nothing as helpful in facing a daunting task as having someone by your side who thinks you can handle it, who will help you in whatever way you need, who will encourage you as you stumble along, and who will later know just what parts to laugh about.  

First we spent nearly an hour getting all the letters and numbers lined up correctly for the "applicator tool"--a devise that looks disconcertingly similar to a medieval torture instrument (a toe smasher I'd say). We then gathered up the ink, some rubbing alcohol (to sterilize the ears), a few rags, and a box of rubber gloves, and headed out to the barn. As we approached the gate, all three little goats came running toward me maaa-ing just as they always do, begging for some TLC and a bit of grain. I started to get weak in the knees. Did they look that small and vulnerable when I fed them earlier that morning? Was I really going to do this to them?

I won't relate all the gory details, but in summary can report that:
  1. I have a much greater capacity for causing small creatures piercing pain than I had imagined;
  2. My twin sister has an iron grip and a startling knack for wrestling livestock into submission (I got the feeling she could have handled a calf just as nonchalantly); and
  3. Goat kids get over trauma much more quickly and seamlessly than adult humans.
Despite all the fighting and screaming that went on during the "operations," within seconds afterwards, the goats were hopping around and chasing one another through the barnyard. They didn't even cower from me (as I'd feared they would) that evening when I went out to feed them and put them in their stall for the night. I gained a new respect for those little critters that day. And perhaps grew a bit taller in my new-farmer boots. 

In any case, I am immensely relieved to have this latest ordeal behind me. And almost ready for the next item on the "wing-it" list.

Finally done!