Saturday, March 30, 2013

A big step for Several Gardens Farm

From the day we moved to Several Gardens Farm, one thing was obvious. In true farmhouse style, guests come to the back, kitchen door, not the front guest entrance. When we entertain, people gather in the kitchen, and stay put in the one room where they started. The more guests, the more crowded the kitchen, because no one ever wanders beyond.

The front entrance, the formal door, is only used by people who do not know us: kids selling candy, folks with religious tracts, meter readers, pizza delivery, etc.

And Halloween ghoulies, of course. Each year, intrepid children stagger up the grassy hillside to our dark, imposing house.

The back porch has a clear, simple pathway.

The path to our front door. Nice huh?

The front has a steep, grassy hill to clamber up, and dark, narrow, walkway.

We can make the door inviting once you get there but the property does nothing to get you there.

We have always wanted to modify this, but it's been a little unclear how.

Above all we needed stairs, but that was easier said than done.

Until the day we got the great deal on ten stone slabs from a  demolished building. The stones were big rectangles with rough faces. Perfect risers for stairs cut into the hillside.

The prospect of cutting into said hill, and setting the stones in it, kept holding us back. The stones weigh at least 120 pounds each. They were stacked at the top of the hill and would have to be lifted and settled into place. In addition, we feared doing the job badly and ending up with ugly, slippery, unwelcoming steps.

But we have a tractor, and that helps cut back on the physical labor. So on an early spring day, the sun was shining and we decided to jump in. Well, do some math and then jump in.

We measured the rise of the hill = 34". The run from start to end following the shortest path was 140". The steps were each 4" high, so we needed eight of them to get our height, with 2" left of height to figure out. If we used eight steps, each needed to be 17" deep.

Our stones were long enough, just barely. We then had the idea of slightly curving the path. This would lengthen it a bit, which was fine, as we had extra stones. The extras would be used as path, like stepping stones bedded on grade with no gain in elevation. The curve would let us meet the sidewalk straight on, as it follows a slightly different curve than the driveway below.

So we excavated a spot for the first step. We dug down below grade and filled in with sharp gravel. This lets the stone settle in very smoothly and lay really flat. The first an second stones went in well.

But by the third stone we noticed a problem. The bottom of the steps was the concrete rim of the driveway. The driveway is on a slope, so the rim itself is not level.

We had measured from the top - but there was a difference from top to bottom.

The top walkway is also sloped. We miscalculated our rise! Luckily the mistake worked in our favor because we had the extra stones. We backed down the driveway till we had a rise of 36" and used stone 9 as a stair instead of a stepstone.

Once the steps were in place, the hill is much easier to navigate. Perhaps we will add hand rails or a row of solar powered lights.

Next we should add some pretty flowers along the sides, to hold the earth in place and mark it out as a walkway.

It remains to be seen if more people start coming to the front door, but I feel that they certainly will.

And I know for a fact that we will.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Processing and eating an "extra" rooster

Warning - this story contains serious subject matter and describes the steps involved in slaughtering and dressing a formerly living animal. On the other hand this goes on whether you read about it or not, so you might as well.

One morning about six months ago, I watched a very quiet and personal scene in the chicken barn. One of the hens was ready to lay an egg. The rest of the flock was ranging around the yard, finding bugs and worms. Cosmo, our little rooster, was nearby, but Rose wanted to be with her sister Poppy. The two hens clucked and muttered back and forth with each other for a few moments, then Rose hopped up into the box and Poppy stood watch below, with Cosmo nearby. When Rose showed signs of being ready for the egg Poppy began to make little keening noises at the same time Rose did. Soon Cosmo joined in. It seemed to cheer Rose on, and in a few minutes, the egg came out.

Our hens don't spend much time with their eggs. Rose quickly hopped down, shook herself off, and the trio ran out to join the flock.

The same day  I found myself behind a massive truck full of caged chickens. The cages were covered incompletely with heavy tarp, which whipped around in the wind. A vortex of white feathers swirled in the truck's wake. The hens huddled miserably in their wire pens. I didn't count how many rows of cages there were, but I could have and then calculated exactly how many hens were being transported. Maybe they were going to a nice place where they could run around. I doubted it then and I still do.
My darling rooster Cosmo

Until this last year I've been vegetarian but I do eat eggs. I can't do that without knowing, either consciously or down inside that something happens to the brothers of all the hens who lay eggs for me.

Whether the hens are experiencing reasonably natural behavior, or in big factory farms in tiny cages, only the hens get to be part of the equation.

From watching my own rooster Cosmo, I knew what brave, admirable and passionate animals these birds can be. They do fight, and they crow. And of course they don't pay the bills by laying eggs.

There is never enough room for them all. Add another rooster to our farm and he'd turn Cosmo into hamburger!

So for a family with chickens,  extra roosters are a real issue.

A happy life for a productive hen
I'm not even going to go into the big AG side of things right now. That's a whole other story. For an urban farmer, you are giving one set of animals a very idyllic existence, but does your responsibility end there?

Some of us buy all female chicks. We know the roosters go somewhere, but we don't worry about it. Others buy straight run - an unsexed mixture of male and female chicks. When it becomes clear who the roosters are, either by feather characteristics or crowing, they either eat the roos or find someone else to do the honors.

Today, I became that someone else. I've known for a while that I wanted to. It seems better for the roos to have normal lives, but short ones, than to be destroyed at birth and go to waste or to be caged, fattened, and killed without ever experiencing normal chicken instincts.

It also seemed better for a rooster to go straight from his home to his demise than to get dragged to an auction, listen to all the unfamiliar animals, smell their stress, spend a day getting schlepped around, waiting to die. That sounded miserable.

So I took a couple of extra roosters from another farmer, and prepared them for cooking.

I will not show pictures. This was my first solo experience with what is euphemistically called "Poultry Processing" - slaughtering chickens. I didn't waste a moment taking pictures or trying to make things pretty. I was 100% focused on doing it well, making their deaths fast, and (honestly) being done before school got out. I had timed things a little too closely.

Leaving the first one in the transport box, I started in. I hung my bird by his feet, with his head in a bucket. Then I used a very sharp, very small knife to cut the big vein on each side of his windpipe. I have never been more glad that the knives of Several Gardens Farm are always sharp. The cut was neither deep, nor was the skin very tough. It was comparable to cutting through a mango.

The chickens bled a lot. I had seen this done before but was unprepared for the metallic smell, or the huge mess one of them made when I let him go too soon and he thrashed around. I tried not to wonder about how conscious they were, instead to make it fast. A friend and I talk about 'suspending empathy' in order to do a hard task well. That's what I did. I had expected to spend more time in prayer during the event. I didn't at all. Too busy. Note to self, next time pray first.

The hardest part of the day was going back for the second rooster. But I had committed myself at that point, so I did.

It was pretty clear when the birds were dead. Their feet cooled down almost as soon as they stopped bleeding. I held them in hot water to loosen the feathers, and plucked them. Physically this was harder and more miserable than killing them. It took longer, gave me more time to be sad, and was hard to do with any grace. Also there were lots of brand new pin feathers, which for some reason was very heartbreaking. But it had to be done. Unfortunately I tore the skin while plucking. I really hated plucking. I liked working alone for the rest of it but I would have liked help with this part.

Then I cut off the head and feet. After that, they started to look like something from the store. It was easier now.

I chilled one bird while cutting open the other. This part was sort of cool. All the body parts were just where they should be. I'm a biologist, and it was a dissection, what can I say?  Most of all, I had to be careful not to break the intestines (I did break them on one and had to scrub him when I was done) or the gall bladder. Taking out the inner organs was a calmer time that let me stop shaking, get my focus and say my belated prayer.

After removing the innards, I put the two chickens in a sink full of ice water to get their inner temperatures down as low as possible. Then they went into the fridge to "relax" for 24 hours. They were in rigor mortis and become less tough if they're allowed to come back out of it.

Then I had time to reflect. How did I feel?
  • I didn't feel guilty. I don't tend to feel guilty once I've made my mind up to do something. I've made my peace.I didn't expect to, but you never know. Guilt can blindside sometimes. 

  • I did feel really sad. I wish things didn't have to die. I wish I could ignore it if it has to happen. I think about the other chickens - will they miss these two boys? Sad felt appropriate and I didn't try to block it out.

  • I also felt sort of like a criminal. I was afraid a neighbor would see me and turn me in. I found this interesting because most people eat chicken, but you never see the viscera and the blood. Eating a chicken someone else killed = normal. Killing a chicken = j'accuse!

  • Oh yeah - the blood. I did not expect to feel so compulsive about cleaning everything that might have touched blood. I went into this concerned about the salmonella in the guts - a real, solid fear. But the blood was sort of a melodramatic reaction I don't usually have.

  • I expected to feel gratitude for the roosters, but I would no longer choose that word. Gratitude is for a gift willingly given. When I milk Meggie, and she turns to me and licks my hair as I do it, I'm grateful to her for sharing her bounty. These roosters didn't get a choice. I don't have a word for what I felt toward them in honor of their unwilling sacrifice. But just calling it gratitude is too glib.

  • Hungry. I timed it to be done before school got out, but I forgot to fold in time for getting lost on the way to picking them up. So I didn't get to eat. Anyway I didn't think I'd want to. But I did. I have a very hearty appetite.

Two days later, we ate the first of the two roosters. We had our expectations set fairly low. I could see that he was thinner and stringier than a chicken from the store. This makes sense. He spent his days actively seeking food and interacting with other birds, not resting in a cage being fattened up. His life was spent being himself, not being prepared for slaughter.

The whole roast bird was small enough that our family of three ate every bite in one sitting -  and we are moderate meat eaters. The meat was juicy and chewier than a purchased chicken. But oh my - the flavor was superb. We ate the bird roasted with salt and lime but without extra flavoring. The meat was rich, herbal, meaty, and packed with intensity. This sounds corny but the meat tasted like a concentrated essence of sunshine and fresh air. It was clean and nutty and somehow innocent.

To his great credit, Noah ate every bite of the bird and sucked the bits of extra meat off the bones. He is a fussy eater but  he never wastes meat. When his friends leave part of a drumstick, he gently reminds them that meat is special and should be treated with respect.

I think I will do this again. I expect the mechanics to get easier, and my feelings to reach some kind of steady state. Next time I raise a flock, I will certainly choose straight run and plan to eat the roosters, but I may put my feelers out for people who want their roo's dealt with in the meanwhile.

In a dream world somewhere, every animal can live a long, happy, productive natural life. In the world where we live now, this does not happen but at least we can let them fill their shorter lives with as much meaning and dignity as possible.

Shared on homestead barn hop, backyardfarmingconnection, Gastronomical Sovereignty , the-homeacre-hop-12, simple-lives-thursday-140 , littlehouseinthesuburbs , frugal-days-sustainable-ways-68

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Martha and Mary

I'm going to give myself a short break from writing about the farm. I mostly want this blog to be about our garden and animal successes and failures and what we learn from them, but right now I need a pause for more introspection. Being a part time farmer and writing about it should feel fun. If it feels like work I need to do a little internal housekeeping and figure out why.

In related news, I have been thinking almost daily about the Bible story of Martha and Mary. I am not religious in any conventional sense, but I still find myself seeking wisdom from others who were wise before me. Jesus surely qualifies.

The sisters Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus, are part of Jesus' social set. We see him going to their house in a way that makes it sound like what he would naturally do when he was in the area. He brings a bunch of followers along.

Martha welcomes them and busily starts to serve them. Mary sits at Jesus' feet, listening to him as he presumably preaches the good word. Martha complains about Mary's failure to help. She asks Jesus to intervene, to make Mary help with the chores. Instead, Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.

As so often happens in the bible, the story favors the younger, traditionally less entitled, sibling.

It's almost impossible to read the story without assuming certain things. Martha - an older sister. Maybe bossy. Or maybe just aware of all the things that have to be done. Mary is younger, dreamy, and used to letting Martha take the lead. But inside her is a desire for spiritual richness, something she can't explain to her bustling sister.

Lazarus, when we see him, is often sick, dying, dead,  resurrected, or being plotted against. But even with these pathetic facts, he is clearly a devoted follower of Jesus, and perhaps initiated the special connection between Jesus and their family.

In a male dominated society, Martha seems to have family leadership. Perhaps she is a very strong woman, or possibly Lazarus has been in poor health for so long they assumed non-traditional roles. Maybe both. Their parents must be dead. They are three unmarried, deeply spiritual adults, living together and caring for each other, but not without their tension.

My sister and I both read the Martha and Mary story growing up. Without ever discussing it, we both thought the same thing. "This is unfair to Martha". Also we both thought "Sarah is like Mary. Deborah is like Martha". I thought it was unfair, even though I identified with Mary. I didn't like that someone had to be Martha, but I still wanted to sit at the feet of wisdom and learn!

I used to rebel when a greatly respected story reflected an unfair situation. I thought - "how dare scripture support this. It's wrong". As I get older, I'm more inclined to see  my favorite parts of scripture as describing how things really are.

             Sisters really complain about unfair work loads.

                   Listening with all your heart really is more blessed than bustling about helping.

                        But help really needs to be done, and helping is a blessing too.

                                The tension never resolves.

                                       It isn't fair.

If anything, the idea of fairness is a lovely, human construct, invented to make life more livable but not rooted in the facts of the universe. The bible didn't invent unfairness, and it doesn't exist to enforce it or to put us on the losing side of it. This kind of unfairness is a real condition in the world and we all end up either benefiting or suffering from that imbalance.

I'm grownup now and a lot of Martha has gotten into me. I was recently at a family gathering where I spent far too much of my time planning, taking phone calls, tracking down room reservations -and not enough time listening. At some point I started to feel very Martha. I had to remind myself that I used to be Mary and I still have her in me.

The fact is, I'm an introvert. I don't naturally feel energized by being around other people. So I fall into the trap of acting like Martha - taking care of the physical needs and hoping it will be enough. I use the excuse of being busy to avoid the hard work of listening to people's spiritual needs. Then I end up resenting the tasks that kept me busy. II could call it unfair, or I could seek some way to solve it as best I can.

There are certain moments when I can appreciate my surroundings and friends while knowing I'm being of service. There's an easy camaraderie that I don't need to strain for. I can be Mary and Martha at once.

Mine may not be the same as anyone else's, but I list them to remind myself, and to encourage others to do the same.

  1. My worst bad habit is phone calls. I'm not good at them, and with family far away, they are important. I'll be having a real conversation, till I let my eyes drift to something that needs cleaning. I'm trying to keep my gaze resting on something calm and neutral.
  2. I get to be Mary and Martha when I stay to help clean up after an event or fundraiser. In hindsight, I can reflect and enjoy - while in the moment I find such encounters stressful.
  3. I've had some of my most meaningful personal encounters while doing a task - picking fruit, repairing a fence, cleaning up after a storm, making jam. If you're shy, you know the benefits of sometimes not needing eye contact. Even if you're gregarious, you might be surprised at how much this allows things to be said.
  4. As a parent, I've learned to view "chauffeur" time as spiritual time too. No video games in the car. No radio. Just quiet, and soon a little voice starts up from the back, telling me about his day. 
  5. I like bringing things for people. If the neighbors need me to shop for them, I'm happy to. If a friend is sick I can bring soup. I'm not good at just visiting. That's more awkward - I'm not there yet.

If I can grow the list of things I do for others that also leave me feeling full, I can stop obsessing on whether the workload is fair or not.

What do you do to bring out Mary and help Martha find her peace?

adorned from above

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Yogurt becomes sublime

With Meggie the goat giving abundant milk, our home is never without yogurt. Our yogurt is made without extra dried milk, stabilizers, gelatin, or other additives. Just milk and starter. It is thinner than the kind you buy, too thin to scoop out of the container. Straining if for a few hours yields thick, creamy, Greek style yogurt, plus whey to feed the animals or bake with.

Every day I cut up fruit for breakfast, spoon on yogurt, and drizzle on honey. And every day I wondered if the honey could be mixed in earlier in the process.

Most honey from the store is pasteurized, but at Several Gardens Farm honey is raw, never heated above body temperature.This allows it to keep all its delicate floral profile,but it crystallizes in our cold house. I got tired of our honey's grittiness and inability to mix well with the yogurt.  It forms sweet, sandy lumps, cloyingly perfumed. I  miss the smooth texture, though not the bland taste, of store bought honey.

So as an experiment I mixed the honey in with the milk before I made the yogurt. I also tried a batch of chocolate yogurt. I wasn't sure how it would work. Perhaps the enzymes would interfere with thickening?

Who cares. I am always up for trying something.

Recipe - honey yogurt and chocolate yogurt


2 quarts milk - we use raw goat's milk
1.5 teaspoon yogurt culture, or 1/2 cup cultured yogurt
2 - 4 tablespoons honey, to taste
Chocolate syrup to taste


Place the milk in two, one quart mason jars.

Immerse jars in water to their necks in a saucepan large enough to hold them comfortably

Heat gently until the water just boils. Turn heat to low and simmer  until milk temperature is 175

Remove pan from heat. Let cool naturally till milk is 120

For Pete's sake, don't put jars of hot milk into ice water to cool them faster. It will cause them to crack

Yogurt after draining
Stir the honey into one jar - it should taste sweet but not cloying

Stir the chocolate into the other jar - it will taste like hot cocoa

Stir 3/4 t yogurt culture into a a few tablespoons of the milk from one jar. Once it is mixed, stir it into the whole jar.

Repeat with the other jar.

Place lids on jars

Return the jars to the pot with the water. Put the pot containing the jars into a warm oven

My oven's minimum recorded temperature is 150. I have found if you set it between there and zero it will maintain a warm incubation overnight

Leave the milk for 8 hours, at which time it will have thickened into yogurt.

Refrigerate until cold.
The ducks loved this whey

Line a sieve with a double layer of butter muslin, or with a large coffee filter.

Place a bowl underneath to catch the whey, and pour in the yogurt.

Check it every hour, and when it reaches the texture you want, spoon it into a storage container and refrigerate until serving time.

The whey can be used for baking or fed to livestock. This whey could probably serve as a sweetener for lemonade.

Taste Results

Honey yogurt

This is the best yogurt I've ever eaten. It tasted like the angel wings of baby kittens. It tasted like the Moonlight Sonata.

David said it was better than fancy schmancy yogurt from the store.

 Noah exclaimed that it was "fruity... ambrosial... I can taste how good the milk was. I love our goats!"

I could detect flavor notes from the flowers our bees had visited and the grassy orchard where the goats had browsed. It made me think I was outdoors feeling the warm breeze on my skin.

It tasted like a promise fulfilled. Yeah, it was milk and honey like the Good Book makes you think it will taste.

I will be making more soon. Maybe right now.

Chocolate yogurt

Sour and chocolate just don't belong together, especially when they are also sweet. This tasted fermented and abrasive and just nasty. Also, the cocoa solids sank during the yogurt culturing process leaving a pale brown yogurt with dark crud in it.

It looked exactly like something you find in a diaper. In a rare fit of good taste, I chose not to post my only photo of it.

The whey was sour, and looked like old coffee. I was not pleased with this yogurt. It almost made me not want chocolate for a few minutes!

It was that bad.

I will try making it again because I'm not easily deterred. I think the idea is good, I just missed something in the execution. I used the first soluble chocolate product that came to hand. This was a cheap and not very good chocolate syrup. Next time I will use honey and cocoa with a good dose of vanilla.

What I learned

You can make yogurt with flavored milk and get good results. The flavor will carry into the yogurt, though the sourness will modify it in unpredictable ways. The culturing process is not disrupted by adding ingredients.


Curry yogurt

After my first success, I tried again with curry flavors. Same routine, only I tried stirring in 1 tsp of my favorite blend of curry seasonings into a quart of milk. The yogurt turned a lovely, sunshine yellow with darker golden streaks. The flavor was perfect. The rawness that bothers me in turmeric was softened by the long soak in warm milk, leaving a smooth, satiny texture and a spicy but moderated flavor. The thick, creamy texture felt so rich in my mouth!

Also it was gorgeous dolloped on top of cooked greens, much prettier than cooking the curry and yogurt in with them.



2 bunches spinach or spinach and mustard greens, stems removed
3 T neutral oil or ghee
1 tomato, chopped
1 small hot pepper or to taste, chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cut into strips (optional)
1/4 onion, chopped
salt and cumin to taste
6 oz paneer cheese or halloumi (less conventional but good), cubed into 3/4" dice
Flour for dredging
Curry yogurt from 1 quart of milk


Pat cheese dry with paper towels or lint-free napkin
Lightly coat cheese surfaces with flour
Heat 2 T of the oil or ghee in a pan till nearly smoking
Fry the cheese, tossing and turning it to brown without sticking
Remove to a plate and set aside
Heat 4 cups of water to boil, and briefly blanch the greens
Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid.
Refresh greens with cold water, and squeeze out most of the extra moisture
Chop greens fine or pulse briefly in food processor.
Heat the remaining oil in the pan at medium. Saute onion and optional salt and cumin till onion is limp
Add chopped tomato, greens, optional sweet pepper and hot pepper.
Turn heat to low, and simmer fifteen minutes or till thick
Place greens in a bowl. Top with cheese, and serve with dollops of curry yogurt

What will I try next?

I know this yogurt flavoring technique would work for vanilla and brown sugar, maple syrup, or salted caramel. Could I make ranch dip this way? Or eggnog flavored yogurt? Coffee or Chai tea? Saffron? Maybe taco seasoned dipping yogurt? What, oh what, shall I try next?

Shared on townsend house,Foodie Fridays, wildcrafting-wednesdaysimple-lives-thursday