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Monday, March 24, 2014

Seed swap, decluttering and waiting - IMpatiently

Spring on the farm is very slow in coming this year.  There is still plenty of snow on the ground.  The driveway is starting to melt, hinting at the mess of mud season yet to come.  The ground in the green house has thawed slightly allowing me to clean out the detritus from last years’ plants and move the dirt around, if only just a little.  Slightly more than the top inch has thawed, teasing me into thinking I could get all cleaned up and ready to plant this past weekend.  If the sun comes out as predicted this week, even though the temperatures are cool, I should be able to start turning in some compost and plant some cool season crops next week.  My original seed starting schedule had me sowing seeds during St. Patrick’s Day week – it is looking like they will be a full two weeks behind this year.

I was also hoping to be sharing pictures of baby piglets right about now…  Best laid plans… <said grumbling>.  Many of the farms in our county and all of the blogs I follow are showing off their brand new farm babies.  I am getting more than a little jealous.  But life gets in the way.  The plans are to still breed Pig.  I was a little worried about her farrowing in late June/early July, but her house is in the shade of a 150 year old maple tree and half of her pasture has some great overflow from the same spring that provides water to the farm house.  Pig is expected to go into heat the first weekend in April and I am proud to say that enough money has been set aside to buy the sperm and pay the vet.  The email arrived this weekend letting me know that the boar I hope to have as a companion to Pig’s farrows was born on the 6th of March and is doing great – I should be able to bring him home right around Easter.

I purposely held off on putting eggs in the incubator in February as the almanac did predict a cooler than expected end to this month – I am certainly glad I waited.  The baby chickens will arrive the first full week of April.  That gives me another week and chance to get the brooder box cleaned off (as Little man’s father has taken to using the chicken wire covered top as a shelf), disinfected, the heat lamp located and tested, and the box ready to house new baby chicks.

The order for meat birds is due into the feed store shortly so talk this week turned to remodeling chicken coops and whether the parts to the old washing machine would work for the motor, belt and drive for the chicken plucker I am planning to make.  Unfortunately the door to the section of the barn where the old machine is stored is frozen shut and blocked by a snow pile still well over six feet tall.  In talking with my cousin yesterday, he is planning on milling some posts and beams for a barn my uncle is building – maybe there will be some left over material that I can salvage for the support structure of my plucker.

As the snow melts I am starting to pick up and clean up from everything that was left outside over the winter.  My old car (my favorite so far in all of them that I have owned) was carted off to the salvage yard today.  Little man’s father went out on Friday afternoon with the tractor and dug out around it then on Saturday afternoon attached the tow strap to it and yanked it free from the ice.  I miss that car!!  De-cluttering continues; perhaps there is a little more money to be made from clearing out the junk to put toward solar fence chargers, metal roofing, or hydraulic hoses.  My monthly project list is being held hostage by the weather and lack of snow melt right now. 

Tomorrow night I am headed to the first (annual I hope) seed swap in Enosburg to trade some seeds, meet some other like-minded folks and to drum up some business for the local farmers market.  Even though I might not be able to vend much this summer, I like the market and hope to get back to it soon.

With forecasted temperatures in the forties next week – here’s hoping for the beginning of a great season!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Back to real food

I miss my garden!  The warm temperatures over the past week have helped the ground inside the greenhouse thaw, if only just a little.  Unfortunately, overnight they are predicting a good nor'easter followed by a couple of pretty frosty nights.  Even though my seed inventory and starting dates are set for each group of transplants for the garden this year; actual yield is still a ways away.  I miss my garden even more at the end of the grocery store and whole foods market checkout process.

Back in September, when I returned to work full time, I focused on weekly meal planning for the family.  One day a week I would sit down, tally the contents of the freezer, refrigerator and pantry and make a meal plan which would use most of what we had on hand and the remaining ingredients would make up the list for grocery store and whole foods market.  The past several weeks have found my freezer unusually well organized.  Too many perfectly rectangular or square packages, intended for quick and easy evening meal preparation, started to take over a lot of the space.  Gone were the irregular packages containing whole chickens or stew meat or venison from this past year.  No uneven bags of chicken broth or peculiarly shaped bags of frozen vegetables.  The cookie jar no longer contained delicious home baked goodies but was filled with perfectly formed off-the-conveyor belt cookies for an after dinner treat.

Peanut butter banana oatmeal cookies
with no added sugar or fat
About two weeks ago I stood in front of the open refrigerator and freezer doors (something my mother would certainly have yelled at me for) and sighed in disgust.  I had gotten lazy and our diets and eventually our health would suffer for it.  That Friday night after both Little man and his father had gone to bed, I headed out to the deep freeze and took stock of what little basic protein and vegetable we had left.  Back into the kitchen for an inventory of the freezer and a thorough cleaning of the refrigerator; pig had a feast Saturday morning of all the leftovers that were not consumed because they were less than remarkable, primarily prepackaged or frozen meals.  I made a comprehensive grocery list and split it between both the regular grocery store and the whole foods market.

When I originally started my meal planning adventure I found  This website had some great meal plans which were derived primarily from a whole food approach – very little came from the center aisles of the grocery store.  As I have refined my approach, I have found and  Both are great websites which also take a real food approach to your diet and meal planning.

Homemade applesauce
Staples like granola to add to my oatmeal and yogurt and great sides like vegetable pancakes have joined our meal plans.  Last week we were much better and this week the plan continues for some more delicious, wholesome foods.  My budget hasn’t taken too kindly to my renewed focus on eating health especially with a large expenditure* looming at the end of the week, but after only one week, I am certainly sleeping better.  My evenings this week will be a little busier as my weekly meal prep time was instead spent outside with Little man but it was certainly worth it.

Here’s what our meal plans look like for the last two weeks:

Fresh tomato cucumber salsa
Last Week
Monday - Marinated venison steaks, frozen mixed vegetables, brown rice
Tuesday - Homemade macaroni and cheese with ham, frozen peas
Wednesday – Pot roast – crock pot with potatoes and carrots
Thursday – Chicken fajitas on homemade whole wheat tortillas
Friday – Goulash, Italian bread, vegetable (this got eaten Sunday night after playing outside and making homemade tortillas for lunch and Thursday’s dinner)
Saturday – Leftovers (we actually had baked chicken – there were no leftovers)
Sunday – Stuffed hamburgers with mushrooms, peppers & onions

BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches
This Week
Monday – BBQ pulled pork sandwiches (pulled pork from the crock pot and homemade BBQ sauce), 
tomato cucumber salsa - made from leftover produce - two tomatoes, one cucumber, 1/2 a green pepper, 1/2 an onion, a little lime juice - all just hanging around after last weeks meals.
Tuesday – Sausage, mushroom & kale pasta
Wednesday – Beef stew – crock pot
Thursday – chef’s choice – it was supposed to be butternut squash ravioli’s but I didn’t get them made on Sunday so chef’s choice is either leftovers or what ever is around and thawed
Friday – Chicken nuggets (homemade, breaded, and baked in one large batch – ½ is frozen for a second meal), baked sweet potato french fries, vegetable
Saturday – Chicken and homemade biscuits – normally we don’t have chicken two nights in a row so chef’s choice might get moved to Friday and chicken nuggets to Thursday.

Our meal plan is very flexible, but having all the ingredients in the house to make six meals per week makes dinner much more enjoyable and a lot less time consuming.   Do you plan your meals?

* The big expenditure - Pig should be in heat this weekend, if we can come up with the cash to order sperm by tomorrow afternoon, we will breed her this weekend.  
Goal - $225 - we have gotten together just about 1/2 with 24 hours to go.
     $60 for the sperm
     $108 for the shipping
     $50-75 for the vet visit - since I have never done this before

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pig, New boar? Summer piglets & Home renovation

I made a promise to myself of no more permanent additions to the farm until we had made progress in some of the projects that we had already started.  That promise might get broken.  In my research for a boar or sperm for Pig, I located a farm within a half a day’s drive that breeds Gloucester Old Spots.  While that is too far to trailer pig for a romantic weekend away, they have a couple of litters coming up and they would be willing to provide me with an unregistered, intact boar for a reasonable price.  I could over winter him and at least one of Pig’s offspring and be able to start breeding heritage pigs here at the farm.  It is a very serious consideration.

The location of this particular farm is proving advantageous; my trip down there will take me only a stone’s throw from Cold Antler Farm.  I have wanted to meet Jenna and talk with her about her journey.  Although I may already have answers to some of my questions, it will be nice to hear what I am doing right, what I am doing wrong and perhaps get a good smack upside the head to put things back into perspective.  Jenna has done what I attempted, unsuccessfully to do, leave the off-farm employment world and dedicate my life to farming full time.  She is a full ten years younger than I, but I don’t think age has much to do with it.  It will be great to spend an ‘Indy Day’ or half day with her on her six acres of paradise.

Photo courtesy of Hidden Nest Farm
Until then, I am working feverishly toward next weekend.  Pig will be going into heat again.  I have lined up sperm for artificial insemination which in and of itself isn’t too expensive.  The shipping, on the other hand, is almost worth my gas to drive out to Ohio and pick it up.  Unfortunately my time is much more valuable so no road trip for me next week.  The goal is to sell a couple of things that have accumulated over time that we no longer use and perhaps I can find new homes for some of the craft items left over from this past summer’s farmers market.  I will also be mixing up a couple batches of jelly if time permits on Sunday (even with losing an hour this weekend, I am hopeful!).   I will be reaching out to the vet to make sure that they can be available and am lining up some panels so that pig can be held still while we attempt to do what the boar should be doing.  If we miss this cycle then we won’t have piglets until July and may have some difficulty finding them new homes.

Some of the swine related projects that are planned for this spring and summer include –
  • Improvements to our current pig housing situation - Pig has been very adamant about not leaving her fenced enclosure, even when tempted with left over birthday cake, fresh grain, whoopie pies, fresh vegetables, semi-rotted vegetables, left over goulash, etc.  Her house is sufficient, but we would like to improve on it so we don’t go through as much hay next winter and perhaps include some kind of solar heated watering device to save from carting water across the dooryard when it is snowing and blowing.
  • Additional fenced pasture and shelter for a boar
  • Shelter for the piglets and new boar
  • Larger capacity solar fence charger for use in conjunction with or in addition to our current solar fence charger
Next week I hope to have an update on our seed starting dates - where we stand and if there is any chance of getting seeds started before Earth Day.

You might have noticed that I have added a donate button to the blog.  If you would like to contribute to some of the upcoming projects at the farm, any assistance would be greatly appreciated.  All donations will go straight to these projects and not be used to for any other expenses.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fruit trees

Earlier this week I was gifted with an unplanned day off from work – I forgot that Town Meeting Day is a state holiday in Vermont.  The weather was an unseasonably cool 10 degrees with a light breeze, but the sun was shining.  I headed out to the backyard with my big snow boots, pruners and loppers and had at them fruit trees.  There are hundreds of how to prune your tree guides out there so I will not regurgitate the how.  Fall and winter are the perfect times to prune your fruit trees.  Pruning keeps the trees healthy and improves their overall quality and productivity.  People have known this for years, but it was only last year that I saw the results first hand.
The spring after I moved into the family farmhouse my father sent us three fruit trees.  Pathetic looking little things, they arrived as bare root twigs in a cardboard box, barely protected from the elements with small little plastic bags tied around their roots to keep the moisture in.  I thought he was nuts for ordering fruit trees since we have forty or more varieties of apple tree on this farm, but who am I to question.  I dutifully dug three holes and planted three, lifeless looking twigs.  Fertilized and watered and protected from pests the little twigs sprouted a few leaves and a couple of branches the first year.
After that I didn’t pay them much mind.  I sprayed them a couple times a year to keep the worst of the pests at bay, but it seemed to be a losing battle with the Japanese beetles.  Dad was up to visit in the fall of 2011 and asked me if I had ever pruned these trees?  I confessed that I hadn’t dared because I didn’t want to kill them.  We discussed whether they had flowered, what if any fruit they had produced and what pest problems they were having.  He took a couple of branches off the first tree, told me to repeat the process on the next two and we should have a better showing the in 2012. 
The flowers that spring were gorgeous and plentiful.  Then there was the late frost; all of the trees had already budded and begun to flower, it hurt the apple industry significantly that year.  Dad said they looked good but that I wasn’t being aggressive enough.  Last winter I armed myself with knowledge – books, magazine articles, the Internet and advice from actual, real people.  Some of the older locals told me I was nuts trying to prune them trees they had been neglected for far too long, they don’t have a chance of good production any more.  I told them that Dad had sent me some baby trees a couple years ago; ‘Now why’d he go ‘n do that?  There plenty o’ trees on that farm.”  In talking with several folks I found someone a little closer to my age and a little less set in their ways to tell me that being a LITTLE more aggressive would be good.  The worst thing I could do is have a bad year and then I knew that I had to a lot more gentle the following winter.  We had a bumper crop of plums, only 2/3 of which I lost to some kind of worm in the middle.  A sad crop off apples – four I think – but they were big, beautiful, delicious baking apples.  And no pears – this is the tree that I thought I had over done it – I didn’t go far enough.
I am still learning and am sure that someone with more experience would have done a much better job, but it worked last year, we’ll see how well it works for 2014.  This weekend I am mixing up a batch of homemade dormant oil spray to see if I can eradicate them pesky worms.  The few plums we had last summer were juicy and delicious, this year the bugs will not get so many!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Life, death, life and rabbits

My thoughts were turning toward Spring this week as we had some beautiful, sunny, albeit cold, couple of days.  Since I can’t put plants in the ground and the spot where I want to build my raised beds this spring is still covered with several snow banks, I focused on minor repairs and breeding the next couple of does.

We are expecting two does to kindle and the almanac has been close to on target having predicted temperatures to be slightly above normal this weekend.  I lost two litters in November 2012 and January 2013 to frigid temperatures and inexperienced does.  This year I have consulted the trusty old almanac each time I considered breeding this winter.  My hope was that it wouldn’t be too far off; it predicted very cold temperatures for the past two weeks so I postponed my last breeding a week or two to try and miss the coldest of weather.  The girls are due this Saturday and temperatures are forecast to be close to normal for this time of year, in the upper 20s and low 30s.

Unfortunately the colder temperatures took their toll on our older breeding does.  We lost two to upper respiratory infections or pneumonia last month.  One of whom had a litter which was only two weeks old.  Anyone you talk to will tell you that if the kits are still nursing solely from mom and haven’t opened their eyes yet then you are wasting your time attempting to feed them and bring them through.  Perhaps I should have listened.  Forever the optimist, I attempted to bottle/syringe feed seven, one and a half week old baby rabbits. 

It was very obvious from the first attempt at feeding that two of them were not going to make it, but I tried anyway and was able to get them to take a very little warm, kitten-milk replacer.  The following morning I took them out of the nest box and focused my attention on the remaining five.  That day all of the kits eagerly fed and went potty and cuddled back together to keep each other warm.  On the third day two more had passed and the fifth was looking pretty terrible but I persisted.  By the fourth day I was down to two, apparently healthy, good looking baby bunnies.  Each day they fed vigorously, processed their waste products and appeared to be responding well.  They did well through day four and into day five. 

When I got home from work on the evening of day five, I was busy with Little man and dinner and the various evening chores which are required to keep any household running; I hadn’t noticed that one of my cats was pretty much absent.  After our dinner I went into the bedroom to retrieve the baby bunnies for feeding time, there was no movement in their box.  A wave of defeat washed over me.  I had been up extra early every morning that week and tried to fit an extra 30 minutes of chores into my already packed evening schedule every day.  I was doing absolutely everything I could for these little critters to no avail.  I reached in to collect them - they weren’t in there!  Where could they have gone?  The blanket covering their box appeared to be in place indicating that the cats hadn’t gotten in there.  I was frantic, as their caretaker I had failed these two little critters, they were my charges and I hadn’t protected them sufficiently from the paws of my felines.  Under the bureau, behind the night tables, under the baseboard heat, behind the hamper, all through the hamper (which they couldn’t have possibly gotten into, but it made me feel better); then a brown ball of fur flew past me and out of the bedroom – my oldest cat.  She originated from the area of a crumpled towel from this morning’s shower.  I cringed as I carefully unfolded it, expecting to see the worst.  Curled up in a little nest that my cat had made out of that towel were the last two baby bunnies, they were very clean and soaking wet from ears to tail.  There wasn’t a puncture mark on them.  Apparently my oldest cat found the babies outside of their box and attempted to mother them.  I don’t know if they were scared to death or if they got cold but the last two bunnies passed sometime during day five.  My cat paced checking the spot where the towel had been and the spot where their box had been trying to find them.  I finally heard her leave the bedroom just after 1:00 a.m.

Would my time have been better spent on other farm chores and to-do list items instead of trying to save a litter of bunnies that, all research had told me, had slim chances if any to survive without their mother?  I remain an optimist and more than a little bit of a sap and will probably try it again if there is any hope of any of them surviving.  It is never easy losing an animal, but it doesn’t seem to take nearly as many tissues and as much time to recover than it did when I started this journey.