We had our first snow accumulation this week (with more called for over the weekend). Winter, though not officially here ’til next week, is definitely getting a jump on things. During winter, activities on the farm slow down. We’re done with harvest and dealing with spring animals and plantings is months away. We still have to keep all our animals fed and watered over winter, something that gets more difficult as liquid water turns to ice. Once the snow starts, however, we get one big benefit — we can use our sleds to pull heavy loads (like food/water) around the farm to our animals. Plus, the kids love it.
Enjoy your winter, wherever you are!
The 2013 garden season has been over for a few weeks. We went strong well into October. I have never put so much time and effort into the garden and it really paid off. Usually by this point in the year, I am completely done with vegetables. This year, I felt like when the garden was finished, I was nicely satiated and am very much looking forward to the next growing season. In the meantime, we have shelves and shelves of delicious preserved foods to eat all winter and spring.
I thought I would share what came out of our garden this year. The way I see it, there are two main goals that we have currently and two more for the future. The first goal is to consume as much fresh produce as possible all year long. We certainly managed to do that. The spring found us relishing the early radishes and lettuces. All summer long we feasted on corn, tomatoes, greens, beans, and fruits. We bought fruits and veggies very rarely, and it was things like onions, avocados, and bananas. We are still eating winter squash and kale and will do so for the next few months. The second goal is to preserve enough from the garden to supply a large amount of our needs through the winter and spring. We did that as well. The only things we needed to buy were apples to make sauce and peppers for making jelly and salsa. Everything else we preserved from the list below was grown here. The last two goals, which are ones for the future, are to also grow enough to preserve our own seeds and then to think about growing enough to have some to sell. In all honesty, selling is not something I have any plans to do, and the only thing I can think of to do that with will be fruit from the orchard as it continues to mature. Our main goal is simply to provide for ourselves.
So, in addition to gorging on fresh vegetables and fruit all summer long, here is what we were able to preserve. These numbers are all rough as sometimes we ate a jar or two that didn’t seal properly, so add about +2 to each item.
- 50 quarts tomato sauce
- 63 pints green beans
- 12 quarts peach sauce
- 14 quarts pickles
- 8 pints dilly beans
- 100 pints salsa (tomatoes from us, onions, garlic, and peppers store bought)
- 15 pints pepper jelly (store bought peppers)
- 6 pints catsup
- 12 quarts apple butter
- 36 quarts apple sauce (from a local orchard)
- 4 pints peach butter
- 2 pints elderberry jam
- 7 pints peach jam
- 12 pints plum jam
- 10 pints strawberry jam
- 4 pints wildberry jam
- 10 pints pesto
- 50 quarts shredded zucchini, frozen
- 4 quarts corn, frozen
- 4 quarts green beans, frozen
- 4 quarts roasted pumpkin, frozen
- 2 gallons peaches, frozen
- 2 gallons plums, frozen
We still had some pickles and jams left over from last year as well, so we will try to eat through those quickly and then enjoy this year’s preserves. We also canned 14 quarts of beef stock so far and will be canning more. It makes me feel very good to know that the basement is filled with such delicious foods and that all of the time and effort I put into the garden is going to pay off nicely.
Every year or so, we’ve been ordering chicks from hatcheries, such as Murray McMurray. We usually get some layers and some meat birds, plus throw in the various duck, goose or turkey. We tend to lose layers to natural predation (the blasted fox!), so need a regular replenishment even if we aren’t doing meat birds. Since we’re going to be up to our eyeballs in meat this year (two cows, lots of lamb), we decided to skip meat chicks and turkeys this year. But we only had 10 laying chickens and only one rooster, so we were still concerned we’d need more layers before long. We had the idea to incubate our own eggs. The price is right (our own layers can provide the fertilized eggs), we would just need an incubator (a one-time expense).
When considering which incubator to buy, I looked at everything from homemade designs (which I decided not to pursue) to the high-end home models such as those from Brinsea. When incubating eggs, it’s important to keep the temperature and humidity at certain levels and rotate the eggs several times a day. Starting at the low end are still-air incubators, which simply have a manually-adjustable thermostat. In the mid-range, incubator’s add fans to make the temperature more even throughout. Automated egg turners are available on some models and the highest end models offer automated humidity control. The Octagon 20 ADVANCE EX digital egg incubator looked so cool (pretty much automating everything), but at more than $400, I decided that was just too much money to justify.
After considering the options for a while, I decided to go with the simplest still-air incubator and manage the egg-turning and humidity myself. I picked up the Farm Innovators Model 2100 Still Air Incubator from Amazon for less than $50. I also added a digital thermometer and humidity monitor to keep in the incubator to help me make sure I was maintaining the temperature and humidity correctly.
The basic rules for hatching chicken eggs are these (other species will have different temp/humidity/duration):
- Maintain temperature at right around ~100° F (I’ve heard it recommended to go with 102° F for still-air incubators, which is what I went with)
- Maintain humidity between 40-50% until hatching, then ~65%
- Turn eggs three times a day, stop turning after day 18
- Eggs should hatch starting on day 21, but may take several days longer to complete hatching
I charted all the values, which helped me remember to rotate the eggs three times each day. I drew X’s and O’s on the eggs, so I could keep track of which ones were rotated each time.
I started 30 total eggs on September 5, 2013.
On day 9, I candled the eggs and saw that many (if not all) of them were viable and growing (in the image below, the dark spot and veins indicate a viable embryo). I could more easily candle the white eggs, the brown eggs were mostly opaque to me.
On day 21, we were hearing odd noises coming from the incubator (chirping and tapping). On day 22, the first eggs were cracking open and chicks were hatching.
That same day, our first chick was completely out of his/her egg.
They started hatching pretty quickly.
The egg hatching project was shared with my daughter, who was thrilled the whole way. She helped turn the eggs and take care of them since we started collecting the eggs from the coop to set.
By day 23, more chicks were out and they were starting to dry off. We’ve never done this before so we were very nervous about what to do and when to move them to the brooder. I guess I shouldn’t have been too nervous about this, because commercially hatched chicks are shipped airmail and somehow survive. All I needed to do is move them 10 feet across the room to their brooder when they were dried off and able to move around on their own (they need to be able to move around on their own, so they can move towards or away from the heat source in the brooder as they feel necessary — without that, they may freeze or cook to death if they find themselves stuck in one spot).
And here are the chicks in their brooder a couple weeks after they hatched, looking happy and as normal as any chicks we’ve ever had.
Finally, today we moved the chicks from the basement of the house (where they were starting to smell) to an enclosed area in the chicken coop. They’ll have a heat lamp out there and lots more space, so I think they’ll like it. The children helped with the move.
This was a pretty good experience. We set 30 eggs. 18 live chicks were put in the brooder. 1 chick died half-way out of its egg. 1 chick died after emerging. 3 eggs looked like they might have died very late. 7 eggs looked to have no action, or died early on. I’d definitely do more chickens, but would also consider ducks and geese (especially if we can collect eggs in the spring). As far as automation, the only thing I think would be helpful would be the automatic turner, but that’s only a matter of convenience. The manual model was completely sufficient to task.
This was definitely a fun project, but practical besides. Since we started the eggs, the fox got two more of our chickens, including our rooster. If we’d waited any longer, we wouldn’t have been able to do this at all. Phew!
I have been wanting to write this story for a few weeks, but I couldn’t do it until I knew how everything ended. That finally happened today. This summer, we had been intending to get a bull on the farm to breed our cows. We didn’t do this last summer when we were supposed to and we knew we would be off cycle. With two cows, we found that breeding every other year and taking in a cow for meat every year worked best. Last year was tricky as we had two young heifers in addition to our two cows and weren’t sure how we would manage things. One of the heifers went in the freezer this past January, and the other one has turned out to be very sweet, like her mother, our “Sweet One”. This prompted us to consider breeding all three cows; the two dexters, and the one dexter-belted cross heifer.
We were given the name of a family who had a 2-year old angus-hereford cross bull they were looking to get rid of. The kids and I went and checked him out and he seemed perfect for what we needed. His owners were a very sweet older couple who had some recent health issues and needed to downsize their herd. By getting rid of the bull, they solved this problem, as the rest were all female. The problem was that he had never been in a stall or on a trailer. Our friend John, an amazing farmer and neighbor, offered to help us with transport. The day we were set to pick up the bull, he came by our farm, loaded up our cow, Sweet One (she was in heat and we hoped this would lure the bull onto the trailer) and we drove over to the farm to pick him up. We knew it was a long shot, and after a few hours and no success we called it. The bull would get a hoof or two on the trailer, but then back off. We took the cow back home and John took his trailer back to the other farm and left it, hoping the family could coax the bull on.
The next evening, we got a call that the bull was loaded and ready to come to our farm. Mike went with John to bring him home. We got him here and off the trailer into the pasture and here is where this story gets crazy. We have leased a bull before. That bull was older and very experienced and was super calm and didn’t take any crap from our cows, especially the bossy one. This poor bull was young and stressed and confused and when the bossy momma started challenging him with her horns, he got scared and ran. First, he went right through the electric fence into our back yard. We were able to walk him back through the gate. Then, he got scared again and jumped over the 4ft field fence with electric on one side and barbed wire on the other separating our property from our neighbors. I cannot even begin to express the feeling of panic that I experienced in that moment. Here is a 1500lb+ bull on the loose. It instantly brought back flashbacks of the time the Boss was missing for 2 days. Shivers.
So, the bull is loose in the neighbors pasture, but seems calm. John and Mike and I were trying to figure out what to do. As they were cutting open the fence to get the bull back through, we got a visit from what can only be described as an angel. Our other neighbor’s daughter was visiting from out of town. This is an amazing woman with over 30 years experience in rodeos and with horses. She was like a bull whisperer. She got on one side, and I got on the other, and luckily, we were able to walk him back through to our property. She seemed to sense that the bossy momma was the problem and suggested I get her in the barn. It took a bit of extra effort. Normally, she would come running for grain, but she did not want to budge. Once she was locked in the barn, the other cows were very friendly with the bull and he calmed down right away. It felt like the whole thing took hours, but in truth it was 45 minutes from the time that they pulled into the field with the bull to the time where everyone was calm again.
Before this all happened, we had talked about bringing the bossy momma to the butcher next fall, assuming the belted heifer bred and calved well. This plan was RAPIDLY accelerated by her behavior. We scheduled a date for her with the butcher for the following day. She hung out in the barn for a day and a half, getting lots of nice hay and grain. On the morning of her departure, we were able to easily get her into the trailer with some nice green corn stalks from the garden.
Mike picked up the meat from her yesterday after almost two weeks hanging. The butcher also commented on what a mean cow she was, but how her carcass was incredible and well fatted. He brought home about 230lbs of ground, 20lbs of bones and 5lbs of tenderloin. I immediately roasted the bones and made them in to stock. We grilled up some meat and had burgers. They were super yummy. BUT, we wanted to run a taste test. This is because she was a bit older and we just weren’t sure how her meat would compare to the premium meat that we get from our other cows. She was 6-7 years old, and they are no more than 2.5 years old when they are brought it. Even without doing the taste test, we liked her meat, however, we wanted to be certain it was a comparable product.
Here is what we did. We pulled off a pound of her meat, a pound of ground meat from the freezer from the last cow, and I bought (shudder) a pound of ground beef from the Better Valu in town ($3.99/lb).
Mike prepped and cooked each of the three meats and I designed a blind test for myself and the kids. We had four categories (appearance, taste, texture, mouth feel) and ranked each of the three meats and tried to guess which was which.
We all thought she was the tastiest, best textured, and best looking meat.
The store bought meat actually came in second (boo) and the meat from the freezer came in third. We think a fair bit of this was due to it being frozen and falling apart on the grill. This was probably due to the fact that we hastily thawed the meat in the microwave, otherwise we are sure it would have come in second. It had great flavor and texture.
We have a number of friends who we lined up before we brought her in who want shares, so we will be getting that sorted out over the next week or two. We are taking about 30lbs of the ground and the lamb from our ewe that kept orphaning lambs and having that made into hotdogs. We will keep about 100lbs of ground, the stock, and the tenderloins. The bull will be going to the butcher in about a month, so we will be full up on beef. It is a very good thing we decided not to raise pigs, meat chickens, or turkeys this year. We will have zero room in the freezer.
Last winter we thought our bees had died. Well, we’re pretty sure they did die! When Jamie checked on the bees in April, the hive was completely empty — it appeared that our bees had fled or the colony collapsed. Sometime mid-Summer, I was out checking on the back of our properly, by the bee hive and I saw lots of nice activity by the hive. It appeared as though another local swarm had colonized our hive. What a wonderful surprise!
Since then, we’ve been meaning to suit up and check out the hive. Today we finally got around to it. We were rewarded with our largest-ever honey harvest — 17 ½ pounds. The history of our harvests goes back to August 2010, our first harvest (with our previous bees). At that point, we got about 10 pounds. The second harvest was June 2012 (we skipped a year because of poor production) and we got about 11 pounds. Both times the honey lasted about a year. With more than 17 pounds this time, we’re going to definitely be on the lookout for honey recipes (including delicious breads and treats). Also, these “local” bees seemed a lot nicer than the bees we had previously (we bought them, shipped in, from Georgia). Don’t know what that’s about, but it was really pleasant working with them today.
We’d start the process by collecting the honey super (the hive body that sits on the top, that holds the “extra” honey that the bees don’t absolutely need) and “capping” the frames. This removes the wax cap on the comb and lets the honey flow out. We’d load our frames into our spinning extractor.
The honey would ooze from the frames as soon as they were capped.
After spinning, we’d pour the honey into our filter bucket. In the top is a strainer, which separates the wax, bug bits and plant matter from the honey which flows to the bottom.
From the filter bucket, we pour the honey into cleaned-and-dried jars. The larger size are 2-pounders and the smaller size are 1-pounders.
Our finished honey. We had another half pound besides.
The honey was darker than we’ve ever seen it. Every other time we’ve harvested it’s been earlier in the year. We wonder if the different bees and later harvest time yielded such a different honey. The flavor is more “earthy” and less “floral” than our previous honeys.
The bees were definitely buzzing around while we were working. They absolutely love the honey and wax and will clean up all the drips and drops.
Enjoy the sound of our bees while we were working in this movie.
Our daughter was so captivated by our honey harvest that she commemorated the event with some drawings!
It feels like the summer blew by. This time of year all our hard work in the garden really starts paying off. We’ve been getting our “cash crop” — tomatoes — for almost a month. The ordinary end product for our tomatoes is quart jars of sauce, which we use all year. A couple years ago we made a salsa that was delicious, we thought we’d replicate again.
Our basic recipe is this one, adapted from here:
- 8 cups tomatoes,
peeled, seeded, chopped and drained
- 2 1/2 cups chopped onion, peeled
- 1 1/2 cups chopped green pepper, seeds and ribs removed
- 3 – 5 chopped jalapeños, seeds and ribs removed (we augmented this with some cherry peppers from the garden, obviously more if you like hotter, less if you like milder or need to make the salsa kid-friendly, like we do)
- 6 cloves minced garlic (we go heavy on the garlic)
- 2 tsp cumin
- 2 tsp pepper
- 1/8 cup canning salt
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup vinegar
- 16 oz. tomato sauce
- 8 oz tomato paste
Mix all ingredients, bring to a boil, boil 10 minutes. Pour into hot jars, process at 10 lbs of pressure for 30 minutes for pints. Makes 6-7 pints.
We scale that basic recipe up by about quadruple. This winds up making ~26 pints, so we need to run a couples batch in our pressure canner (we can fit 16 wide-mouth pints in the canner at one time). We’re using about 15 pounds of chopped tomatoes, not including the sauced tomatoes, 3-5 pounds onions, 2-3 pounds green pepper, etc., each time.
We’ve also found that you can skip peeling the tomatoes if you don’t mind the visual (seeing tomato peels in your finished salsa), as it doesn’t seem to affect the texture. We’ve experimented with the coarseness of the chopped vegetables and we don’t think they need to be as finely chopped as you’d think. That said, we think our vegetables were a little too coarse in our second batch (though it’s still delicious). It’s probably best to imagine eating the vegetables on a tortilla chip and scale that up by 10-20% (because everything reduces in size after being cooked).
Another big milestone this time of year is getting our wood delivery for winter. We heat our house with about 4 cords of wood every year. The kids get so excited about it and love to help. The older two are actually helpful (our little one just likes to watch).
It’s taken a long time to get here, but the garden is finally starting to over perform. We’re getting regular harvests of beans, squash, corn and tomatoes — in addition to the lettuce, greens and brassicas we’ve been getting for some time now. It’s all really delicious. Every year seems to run a little different from the one before and maybe one year all the stars will align and we’ll do everything right.
With any luck, our bounty will keep going well into the fall.
Update: our finished elderberry jelly!
We’ve had a bit of a fox problem ever since moving out to the farm more than 4 years ago. We’ve ended up losing quite a few chickens, turkeys and even some of the waterfowl (though they’re normally pretty safe if they can get to the pond). We’ve chalked it up to the cost of doing business, because we free range our poultry. Surprisingly, it’s just the fox that’s been bothering us. We’ve never had any trouble with hawks or eagles eating our chickens.
This year got really bad. We eventually lost our entire flock. A couple months ago, we started a new batch of 15 baby chicks and we’ve been raising them int he coop since then. We got bold the last several days and let them out, but we lost 3 chickens on 2 separate occasions — so the fox is getting bolder (and possibly hungrier, since our free-roaming chickens were all eaten)*.
I think for the time-being, we’ve resigned ourselves to not being able to free-range our chickens, but I don’t want them to stay cooped up (so to speak) with no access to fresh air, grass and bugs. We need to build them a run.
Using some scrap fencing, posts and wood, I fashioned a prototype off the back of the coop. There’s a door on the side and this will give them a small area for exercise and fresh air. I definitely win some points for building something out of scraps.
Eventually, if this works (i.e., the chickens don’t all die), I think it would be good to buy some new materials and make the run 2-3 times bigger. Oh the ever changing challenges to raising small farm animals.
*We used to see wild rabbits running around, but I haven’t seen a wild rabbit on our property for a couple years now. It’s not just our chickens that the fox is eating. I think the fox lives somewhere in the field, too.
This year, the word “cultivation” keeps bumping around in my head. I finally feel like we are to the point in our lives, particularly as parents, when we aren’t simply just hunkering down in the trenches trying to emerge from the battle unscathed. Not that the last decade has been *all* like that, but growing, birthing, and raising babies is certainly taxing. Our kids are at the age when they can be largely self-sufficient for a while, allowing both Mike and I to work on a project together, or at best, they are helpful. It is a very nice feeling.
We are currently in our fifth growing season on our farm. We had a small raised bed garden in our previous house as well, so this is officially our thirteenth growing season. My interest in the garden often waxes and wanes. For the past few years it has felt more like a chore than something I enjoy. The rewards are certainly worth it, but it hasn’t brought me enjoyment in the way other things have (like sewing or cooking).
This year is different. Part of this is due to the fact that we have spent the past year getting our bodies back in shape. Clearly, eating mostly vegetables is key to maximizing nutrition while at the same time feeling full and satisfied. We still eat our fair share of meat, but vegetables are certainly the bulk of each meal. Additionally, spending 4-6 hours (or more) each week hoeing the garden does some amazing things for your arms and waist. I feel like I have put more into this garden, than any garden in the past. Part of that is the motivation I have, but a large part of that is learning what does and doesn’t work for us and our land. And so, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the previous five growing seasons.
*all of the garden pics for each year were taken during the last week of June/first week of July
This was the first year of our garden. We raised a pair of pigs over the winter, and come spring, we fenced them in on the land that would become the garden. They turned the soil and fertilized for us. Mike got a tiller for his tractor, and we put up fencing. This was our first summer on our farm, and like many new farmers, we bit off way more than we could chew. We had so many projects going on. We planted the garden, and did manage to get some food from it, but not much. We had fencing issues, and thus cows and poultry frequently invaded the garden. I got pregnant that August and therefore completely ran out of steam. I learned I have a pretty severe allergy to ragweed, which was our main crop of 2009
This was probably the most productive garden we have ever had. Our youngest was born in late April, just one week after we put in the early crops. A few weeks later, Mike and the kids planted all of the warm crops (tomatoes, peppers, corn, etc) and also put down black plastic as mulch, knowing we wouldn’t have much time for weeding. That year was HOT. We had 80F days in March and what I remember most about that summer was spending hours and hours in the basement or air conditioned bedroom with all the kids reading, watching movies, and sleeping. When I wasn’t doing that, I was harvesting. The big crop of that year was tomatoes. I must have gone through 500lbs, turning them into canned sauce, salsa, catsup, and barbecue sauce. I think I petered out towards the end and just started feeding most of the crops to the animals. We planted things too close together which made harvesting really difficult and that year we really learned what crops work best as neighbors. The black plastic kept much of the weeds down, but it is expensive and then dirty to pull up.
This is a very infamous year for our garden. Our youngest was now a one-year old and I didn’t have the time or energy for a garden. We planted anyway; early crops in April and later crops in May. Instead of black plastic, we used old hay as mulch. We got an amazing strawberry crop that year and I think some good lettuce. Then, just around July 4th, Mike accidentally left the garden gate open and the sheep all got in and ate everything. It was complete and total devastation. I remember being doubly upset b/c it happened after I had spent two days weeding. That was the end of the 2011 garden. As it happened, it was a year of heavy rainfall, including Tropical Storm Irene and our pigs’ area flooded. So, we just put them in the garden and called it a wash.
This was a good garden year. We had missed having all of the fresh produce from the year before, and knew we wanted to get in shape so felt motivated to make the garden productive. We had learned so much from the past few years. We spaced things out better, used a combination of black plastic put down early, but then pulled up before it got covered with the plants, and mowing paths between rows. We got our first big asparagus harvest that year and for the most part, everything (except tomatoes) grew really well and we had all we wanted for fresh eating and were able to can tons of pickles and freeze tons of squash. The weather wasn’t the best (alternating dry and wet spells) and it was rather cool. But, all in all, we were very happy.
As of this moment, this garden is doing okay. It was been very cool and wet this year, so the more heat loving plants are all a bit smaller than normal. All of the early crops are flourishing, however. This has been my most weed-free garden ever. I go out and hoe the entire thing about every three days, and this weekend, I was able to get the oldest child to take a first pass in the rows, while I followed behind him getting right around the plants. We haven’t put down anything for mulch, except for hay around the space we are dedicating to pumpkins and gourds. We have been eating our fill of lettuce, asparagus, radishes, chard, kale, peas, and beets. In the next two weeks I expect we should have squash and cukes. Our potatoes seem to have some issues, either a blight, or just issues due to all of the rain. I am hopeful that the corn, tomatoes, and winter squash all take off soon. We also hope to finally utilize the grow tunnel for crops later this year to really extend our growing season.
We were lucky enough to get a visit from a bald eagle a couple weeks ago. These are the best pictures we could get. We saw something down by the pond, waddling awkwardly on the ground. He/she looked pretty big compared to our geese and ducks. Mike ran to get his camera with zoom lens and caught him just as he was flying off.
We’ve heard that bald eagles live along the Connecticut River (which is 20-30 miles west of us). Perhaps this guy is passing through or lives along the closer Quinebaug River.
Here’s an interesting snippet from the CT DEEP Fact Sheet on bald eagles.
The bald eagle was no longer a nesting species (extirpated) in Connecticut by the 1950s. When Connecticut’s first official Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern Species List was passed in 1992, the bald eagle was classified as an endangered species. That same year, the state documented its first successful nesting of bald eagles since the 1950s when a pair raised 2 young in Litchfield County. Leg bands revealed that the nesting pair came from a reintroduction project in Massachusetts sponsored by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Five years later, a second pair of bald eagles successfully nested in Connecticut. The nesting population has increased gradually and, in 2010, 18 pairs of bald eagles made nesting attempts in the state. Nesting attempts or territorial pairs have been documented in 6 of the state’s 8 counties. Due to the increase in nesting pairs in recent years, the bald eagle’s status in Connecticut was reclassified as threatened in 2010.
It was very exciting seeing this visitor to the farm, hopefully the bald eagle population will continue to increase.