Monday, July 28, 2014

Same Chicken, Different Day

I freaking HATE being right all the time.  I'm not kidding.  I picked up the three new birds, making the grand total thirteen chickens...and two were missing by sundown.  So, I have eleven birds now, and am still getting only 1-2 eggs a day.

I have decided that chickens are a big old pain in the rear.  Oh well.  Another day, another chicken, right?  It says something that I am more pissed off than anything.  Mostly pissed off that I didn't just buy four instead of three. Fourteen wouldn't have been unlucky, right?  Right?  We are all accustomed to how high the mortality rate of my birds is.  It seems a bloody shame.  The Husband is pretty sure that word is going to get out and no one is going to sell birds to me anymore.  I am sure the birds might agree...if they hadn't wound up as fox food.


We spent several hours this weekend re-designing and expanding the chicken yard.  It is quite a bit bigger now.  By the time we leave, we may have met our goal of turning the ruins of the old garage into the outer wall.  People talk about getting goats to clear land--all we have to do is pen the chickens in and they clear everything for us.

However, we have found another way to clear out areas.  Lawnmowers Anonymous, please meet the Boy.  He is BEGGING to mow the fields daily...although I think it is mostly the tractor.  Maybe I should start him on the push mower and see if he still wants to mow all the time.  Might be worth a grin or two.

I did more canning this week.  I put up nine quarts of marinara sauce, pureeing about 30 pounds of tomatoes.  I have it down to a science now, so it isn't that big of a deal, except I ran out of onions for the sauce.  We'll see tonight how it tastes.  However it came out, the chickens enjoyed the seed and skin mixture that remained after the pureeing.

I also attempted some pure blackberry jam.  I say attempted, because I am terribly afraid I let the jam cool too much before processing.  There was not enough to fill a fourth jar, so I put it in the fridge and offered it to the boys.  The consistency was kind of like a softened Jolly Rancher.  I really hope the other jars didn't come out like that.  I'll get to check, since one of the three didn't seal during processing. Just in case, I labeled the jars "Blackberry Jam/Candy?"  According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, if it is merely a stiff jam, it can be heated and used as a glaze or syrup.  It can also be thinned.  But, I can honestly say that I had not thought to try it on meat.  I found this recipe...and I have a freezer full of venison.  And if it means I will not have wasted all those blackberries, double score.

Because I refuse to follow the Boy's advice when we discovered that I may have botched the whole batch:  "Why don't you just give it to the chickens?"

I may do a lot of things in the name of getting eggs, but feeding homemade blackberry jam to the chickens is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Snakes and Jam

Harvesting is the word.  How I love to walk in the door with a basket, full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, or overflowing with freshly picked lettuce, kale, and Swiss chard.  I use a green pitcher for berry picking, which is becoming a compulsive behavior:  there is no such thing as a fast walk now, only stop-and-pick-and-sidle to the side to get the next juicy wine berry or blackberry.

When I realized I was sitting on over seven cups of mixed berries and had just used four cups two days prior to make an amazing gluten-free fruit crumble, I thought maybe I ought to explore some preservation options.  I went to my favorite book: The Busy Person's Guide to Preserving Food, and then looked at the Joy of Cooking canning book.  I thought about freezing at first and then cooking it.  I discovered that I was afraid of trying to can jam.  

So, I took the bull by the horns and prepared to can jam. I found a simple recipe for Berry Jam, and even learned what the terms "gelling" and "sheeting" mean.  (And I am not gonna share, since I am now part of an exclusive club of people who know what that means...can you tell I am proud of myself?)  Aside from several splatters of boiling hot pre-jam, there was no fuss or drama, and I managed to successfully preserve five jars of Berry Jam.  It was a lot easier than I had anticipated.

Less easy?  Figuring out how to capture the snake that was preparing to eat two eggs in the chicken coop.

We've started free-ranging again, and the chickens seem to love that, but I don't want them wandering come evening.  So, we shake the old cottage cheese container we are using to collect kitchen scraps for the chickens. The chickens appear out of nowhere, desperate to make certain they don't miss a single kale stem or toast crust.  They follow us into the pen and we shut the gate.  Later in the evening, I go and close the chicken door for the night.

So, the night of the 16th, the Boy and I had gotten them back in the chicken pen for the evening.  I went into the coop to get the eggs.  As I came to the favored nesting box, I saw that there was a black nylon strap in there.  I find all sorts of weird stuff in their boxes:  container lids, clots of dirt, bits of plastic or wood, and once, an apple core.  So, I saw the nylon strap, and was reaching for it, wondering where the hell they found that...and it moved.
a black rat snake, I think.

I was inches from a big snake curled around the two eggs.  I screamed.  And then I screamed for the Boy to get my phone so I could take a picture.  Priorities, right?  He rushed back, begging to see the snake.  I showed him, and snapped several photos before it occurred to me that we have a snake handler in a cupboard in the kitchen.  I sent the Boy for it.

And then it got silly.  The snake had already decided that maybe it was time to move to quieter premises, but he was stupid or something, because he kept trying to shove into a crack between two boards.  Yes, there was daylight to be seen...but he wasn't going to fit, no matter how determined he was.  Meanwhile I hadn't used the snake handler before, and I was worried I was going to hurt the snake.  I managed to get him, but in the middle, and I thought I was supposed to get him near his head.  In trying to change the grip, I lost him.

And then caught him again.

And lost him again.

As he was slithering into the corner, I caught him in the last foot before his tail.  But he was strong... and I couldn't drag him out.  So, I tried to let him go.  Oops.  I had accidentally stabbed him with the snake handler, so he was stuck, and I was stuck, and I had seen his head, and it was kind of hooded, and he looked pissed off.

The end result is that I managed to free the poor thing, he left the chicken coop somehow, and I got my eggs.  But I wonder how many of my chicken eggs he's gotten before.  Kinda makes me  I have ten chickens (7 of which are less than six months old, and one might be a rooster, I'm afraid) and am getting only two eggs a day most of the time.

I'm buying three more layers tomorrow.  Lucky thirteen...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Through the Eyes of a Child

I had a very productive weekend!  We ate lots of fresh produce, I weeded and worked in the gardens, and I even re-wound the hose at the outdoor well pump!  Go me!  I am practically brimming with my sense of accomplishment.

And speaking of a sense of accomplishment... our rooster has, ahem, begun to crow about his accomplishments.  The Boy and I stopped to watch the chickens one morning as we began our morning walk .  And he didn't understand why the rooster climbed on top of one of the hens and pecked at her neck.  I was completely unprepared and I panicked, mumbling something about him wanting to give her a baby.  Now the Boy is excited about more baby chicks.

In other bad parenting news, I had the Boy picking berries from the bushes next to the kitchen garden, where I desperately needed to weed.  After an hour, he wanted a break, so I sent him to get water for us.  He came back with...the cocktail shaker, filled with water.  Speechless, I watched him carefully take off the lid, strain water into the lid, and toss back his shot of water.  He said he couldn't find any clean water bottles. 

I let him go back inside as I began harvesting.  In the past, I'd let a few days go by and then panic as I tried to keep on top of the eighteen thousand cucumbers, knowing that the Boy can only eat one a day.  Or, overwhelmed with tomatoes, I would go super lazy and just cook it all for dinner.  (Yeah, I went through thirty roma tomatoes one dinner last summer.)  And I'd still feel virtuous knowing that I was feeding my Boy what I grew.  But I feel compelled to approach the produce differently this summer.  There are no excuses.  I'm not moving in July or August.  I'm done teaching for the summer (probably), and the Boy is in camps for several weeks, learning engineering and computer programming and all sorts of things that I tune out.  I should be canning a few times a week. I should be able to put away several quarts of my amazing marinara sauce, whole tomatoes, salsa, peppers and relish without any problem.  I even have the perfect kitchen for accomplishing it all!  I even want to try doing sun-dried tomatoes.  I need to just do it.

But here's the rub:  life interferes.  Like last week.

The Boy's camp for this past week got cancelled... but I didn't read my email and so I didn't know until the day before.  Oops.  I had doctor and work appointments, and some writing deadlines to meet.  I had to scramble to find something.  Since he was only doing half days, he and I sat down and worked out our schedule for the non-camp days, because I tell you, not much grates on my nerves faster than hearing him, twenty minutes into play time, say, "Mommy, I'm bored.  What can I do?"  He won't like my new suggestion: to go pick berries or tomatoes or cucumbers.

The Boy is finally digging karate again, but last Tuesday, while he was in class, I got word that power was out back home.  We finally got to try out the generator.  The power was out for about eight hours, and of course the temps were bloody hot and humid.  At least it was at night, so the sun wasn't making it worse.  I was hot, but when I went to check on the Boy, he was wrapped up in his sheet, his angelic face relaxed and cool to the touch.  He thought it had been an excellent adventure.

He's a good kid.  We FINALLY picked up my new car this weekend.  He was so well behaved at the dealership, as we did all the paperwork and I got a lesson on how to hook up my phone to the car.  He figured out how to adjust his headrest, and explored all the places a cup could be held.  He loved hearing that this was going to be his first car.  He listened attentively as I explained the merits of driving stick versus automatic, and he is delighted with the rear-view and side cameras.  But, by the time we got home (having stopped for a very late lunch), he'd had enough of the new car, and was quite ready to play Minecraft with Daddy.  So, while they dodged zombies and Endermen (I have no effing clue)  I spent two hours in the car with the manuals.  I admit, I sat there with the windows down, the sunroof open, a nicely chilled beverage, and enjoyed the silence.

There was another storm last night.  The wind and lightning and thunder... wow.  We didn't lose power, but we did have branches down come morning... including the HUGE length of poison ivy that fell right over the entrance to the driveway.  It was close to two inches in diameter, and bushy as any other fallen tree limb, probably ten to fifteen feet in length.  The Boy and I just looked at the branch after I braked, and then he warned in an awed tone, "That's poison ivy."

Thank god for that kid--I'd been about to grab it and drag it off to the side.  I parked, walked back to the house to get boots, gloves, and my gardening shirt*.  I gingerly grabbed the woody part and moved it.  There is still a big broken section clinging to the tree, but at least we could drive through on the way to his invention camp.  He promised to invent a machine that would drag poison ivy away without having to use gloves.  My little hero.

*When you have poison ivy, and you wear a special sun-blocking, anti-bug gardening shirt, the poison ivy can get on the inside of the shirt.  And yeah, they say the specially-treated material will only last 50 washings or so.  BUT WASH IT WHEN YOU REALIZE YOU LEFT TRACES OF POISON IVY ON THE INSIDE OF THE ARM, BECAUSE YOU CAN RE-INFECT THE SAME AREA THAT ONLY JUST NOW HEALED FROM POISON IVY THROUGH THE USE OF PRESCRIPTION MEDICATIONS.  Not that I learned this from personal experience or anything.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Just Another Month on the Farm

I am sorry for being gone for so long.  I was working on a show...and there was so much to do with that: the summer camps, the meals, the karate, the storms, the weeding, the volunteer duties, the chickens, the extra kitty.... 

I was too busy being the City Kitty in the Country that I had no time to write about my adventures on the farm.

The month in review:

1.  We got another four chicks:  two beautiful gold twins, a dark chocolate
one, and a pretty reddish one.  I don't know their breeds:  just chickens.  To be honest, I am not one-hundred percent certain they are all females.  But  our rooster now is part of a flock of ten birds.  And I am still getting only two eggs a day.  But, they are now eating almost every bit of kitchen scrap we produce, and still going through the food.  Thank goodness my schedule is such that I am going to be able to let them go back to free-ranging on a carefully monitored basis.

2.  I once treated any berries that entered my kitchen as rare and treasured fruits.  Now I am swimming in them.  I actually traded a pound of black raspberries for a dozen eggs from Chicken Friend.  (And just so you know,
around here, a pint of black raspberries is going for $4.50.)  We've been feeding what goes bad to the chickens, because we can hardly keep up.  Additionally, we have peaches, Manchu cherries, wine berries, and blackberries beginning to show.  There are peaches and I am swimming in fruit and thinking:  sheesh!  I ought to make some kind of fruit dessert thingy...

3.  I need to find a Lawnmower's Anonymous group and start while I can, and drag The Husband along.  We each mowed for four hours yesterday...and we could have kept going.  Embarrassing!

4.  I ate the first three beets from my garden!  They were each about the size of the first knuckle on my thumb.  I loved them.  I want to dig up more.  I need to wait for them to get bigger.  But they are sooo good.

5.  My first Roma will be picked tomorrow, I think.  My life is about to get cloudy with a chance of tomatoes, I think.  I better double check that I have enough lids for canning!  We just opened my LAST jar of last summers' arrabiata sauce last night for pizza...

6.  The flowers just keep coming.  Country Kitty, my hat is off to you!  There is never a moment without new flowers emerging and making me ooo and ah.  The lilies are killing me, they are so beautiful.

7.  I am supposed to have my new car any day now.  Just like I was supposed to at Mother's Day.  I am a pain in the @ss apparently, because I actually want what I want.  See, if I would just settle for an automatic, we could already be driving my new car, and in red!

8.  We've been hosting Wine Friend's kitty again.  After a few rough days, she settled into the routine. But the Boy cried a little the first night she arrived--he missed Katt.  We went and visited her yesterday.  Her grave carries a certain solemnity, a gravity that made it impossible to speak in a normal tone of voice.  Even the path, untraveled by us for over three weeks, was still there, lonely and yet inviting.  Mue gave her own tribute by using Katt's box, which we still hadn't put away.  Nice.

9.  I contracted a wicked case of poison ivy, no doubt while changing the chicken yard configuration.  As is not uncommon for me, my body went into hyperdrive, and I wound up having to take steroids to get it under control.  It wasn't fun slathering my arm with hydro-cortisone and wrapping it loosely in gauze just to be able to sleep the night through.  But, it is much better, thank you.  Amazing just how many things I used in the name of temporary relief, but my favorite was the Itchy Stick.

There you are.  The highlights of the last month.

But, there is a bit more.  You see, we know our time here on the farm is gradually coming to an end.  Mid-fall, and we'll be gone.  We are spending quite a bit of time as a family reviewing this life we've been living.  It is a delicate subject, to be honest.  We all love certain parts of country living.  We all have things we don't like.  But none of us has the exact same likes and dislikes. 

The decision of what to do looms on the horizon.  What do we do?  Where should we go?  What is important to us as a family?  What is important to each of us?  As we are swept away in the every day living on a farm, we are also having to carefully tread water until we can find a safe place for us all.

The next few months will be interesting indeed.