31 July 2012

Feeling Ducky

three ducklings with adorable little flippers

We were given three abandoned wild wood ducks a few months ago.  They are very good at hiding.  We learned this recently when one escaped the chicken yard.  She had freed herself from the confines of the duck pen inside the coop early in the day.  Upon discovering her happily quacking around the yard, we decided to let her roam to see if the ducks are ready for a free-range lifestyle.  They're not.  When we tried to encourage her into the coop before dusk, she frantically ran through a small opening under the gate and into the garden.

She is still very small and I doubt a night on her own would end well for anyone other than the raccoons.  As she bolted down the waterway, her flippers a circular blur, I set out in a sprint behind her determined not to lose sight of the little rascal; she's faster than one might expect.  I followed her down the waterway, across the tomato bed, and to the wormwood bush in which she had brilliantly camouflaged herself.  We searched and searched the bushes in which she disappeared, but she didn't make a sound or move.  We were quickly realizing that we'd lost her!

I got a sick feeling as the sun sank further behind the horizon.  I knew the next day I would probably find bits of her strewn across the yard.  I berated myself for all the small mistakes that led up to her escape.  As Nick brought Viv in for bed, I decided to make one more attempt at the duckling rescue mission.

I slowly walked back to the spot where we last saw her and quietly sat down waiting for any small cry or movement.  Sure enough, there was shuffling in the bush.  I carefully moved the branches and found her hidden almost in plain sight under a small branch less than a foot from where I was sitting.  I inched closer; she remained perfectly still.  If I pulled the branch away, she would surely run.  Furthermore, I wasn't confident in catching her with my hands.  That proved difficult when she was living on the porch; I almost always had to catch her with a box to trap her first.  I was wishing I had a net, but I couldn't yell to Nick in the house.  It was too far for him to hear me and I would most likely startle her into another mad dash.  So there, in the middle of the garden, I took off my T-shirt in attempt to catch her in it like a sack. 

It didn't work.  She bolted and I bolted after her through the garden in nothing but shorts and a bra.  I was cognizant enough to grab the shirt and get it over my head as she dashed towards the highway.  I cut her off. She ran around the garage and found a new hiding spot behind the wheelbarrow.  There happened to be some wood next to the garage that I arranged into a barricade around the wheelbarrow so she couldn't escape.  Then I yelled my head off for Nick to come help me.  Once we were certain that she was blocked off, Nick reached in and grabbed the squirmy, frightened little thing and put her back in her pen with her two brothers.  I slowly walked back into the house with my shirt inside out and backwards relieved that our little duck was safe. 

huddled together per usual

27 July 2012

State of the 'Stead, July

small cucumber harvest


As predicted, the July jungle exists where a perfectly manicured garden was planned.  Between the heat and the drought it's difficult to maintain, but the past few weeks of weeding and pruning have returned it to a more recognizable condition.  The heavy mulching must have paid off because we still have producing and maturing plants despite only an inch and a half of rain since the beginning of May. 

Marveille des Quatre Saisons blossoms

The spring crops faded weeks ago and we are harvesting July vegetables: zucchini, beet, broccoli, cabbage, chard, cucumber, onion, garlic.  The string beans are just coming in and we're still waiting (fingers crossed) for sweet corn.

clockwise from top: golden beet, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, cucumber, bright lights chard

In addition to rampant weeds, we have many volunteer plants, plants that self-seeded from last year's crops.  Among them were at least (I promise I'm not exaggerating) one hundred tomato plants, a handful of Hopi tobacco plants, and parsnips which somehow made it from one of the southernmost beds to the very northernmost bed.  I was impressed.  We kept the tobacco and about ten tomato plants.  The rest went to compost and the chickens.

tobacco blossom


The chicken harvest is over, or so we thought.  The fifteen laying hens have been happily scratching and pecking in their yard.  And then one started crowing.  I'm not an expert at this homesteading stuff, but I'm pretty sure hens don't crow.  We have a rooster, and I love him.  I know I just butchered over forty chickens and I should be over growing attached, but I love him.  It's the crowing--it's so darn charming! And he's just the happiest little rooster ever with his fourteen beautiful heritage hens.  He rounds them up and struts around the yard.  It pains me a bit that we can't keep him.  If we do I'll end up collecting fertilized eggs--let's just say you don't want to make a frittata with those.  And we're not going to breed him.  As my father-in-law keenly pointed out, one doesn't breed the runt.  So although I love the crowing, I think it's time for coq au vin.

rooster and Rhode Island Red hen

rooster and his ladies

The ducks are getting big.  We moved them into their own pen in the coop several weeks ago when they were eagerly escaping their little pen on the porch about ten times a day.  My day was looking something like this:  wake up, catch the ducks, make breakfast, catch the ducks, feed the chickens, catch the ducks.  I'm sure you see the pattern.  By the way, ducks are fast.  They gave me a run for my money every few hours. 

wood ducks

Also, we had some excitement with the bees.  Around sunset a few weeks ago Nick discovered that their boxes were full.  They needed another box to continue happily building comb and making honey.  He thought he would add one more box before sundown and found out bees don't like to be messed with in the dark.  They got mad.  They found a hole in his suit, flooded in, and stung him--many times.  They also chased him across the property and back as he ran flailing and removing his bee gear.  Later he told me he couldn't help thinking of how accurate the 'bee scene' in Tommy Boy is.  He's lucky he got out with only a dozen stings or so.  I don't think he felt lucky at the time, or when I was removing the stingers from his beard, neck, and chest.  What a night.

angry bees, the morning after


This is the summer of cucumber and beet.  We eat plenty of cucumber and beet.  I've been preserving loads of cucumber and beet.  I make a crock of spicy dill refrigerator pickles every week or so for a cool side or snack.  I've canned about thirty pints of them as well.  Canning in the middle of a heat wave in an unairconditioned house is a great way to make yourself crabby and to start drinking beer before your husband comes home from work.  Our homemade IPA pairs well with pickles.

cucumber and dill prepared for pickling

My favorite cucumber salad lately is seeded sliced cucumbers tossed with feta, olive oil, dill, and cracked pepper.  The chickens have loved the cucumbers that were too large and overripe for us.  They manage to peck it open and eat the entire inside while leaving the skin perfectly intact.  We have genius chickens. 

cucumber climbing trellis

The beets are magnificent this year.  The red Bull's Blood Beet grew very well,  but the Golden Beet, which I actually prefer due to the milder flavor, did not germinate as well.  Still, we had several good pickings.  My favorite way to prepare them is boiled, sliced, and topped with caramelized onions and goat cheese.  I've also sweet pickled them for winter and tucked a few servings in the freezer.

romaine, pickled beet, blue cheese

preparing onion for curing

Our zucchini has peaked and is already at the mercy of the squash beetle.  Although I enjoyed the new cultivar of zucchini I tried this year, Romanesco, I'm just not feelin' it.  I can't say I'm terribly sad to see it go.  We had it roasted, a la parmagiana, and in this cake.  With eighteen plants, we harvested our share. 

zucchini a la parmagiana

spiced zucchini bundt cake with crunchy lemon glaze

So, that's July on the 'Stead: hot, dry, pickly, stingy, and crowy. 

radicchio blossom

01 July 2012

From Beginning to End

The first rooster

Before I moved to the country to embark on our homesteading adventures, a very good friend of mine gave me Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which, in my opinion, is a cornerstone of the real food canon. It is beautifully and poignantly written and brilliantly reveals the illusion of the American food system. Although I read it a few years back, there are several lines that have stuck with me throughout our adventure. One of them is in the chapter regarding harvesting turkeys entitled, You Can't Run Away On Harvest Day.  And we didn't. For over a week we have been harvesting (ie, slaughtering and butchering) our chickens.

This has, of course, received mixed reviews. I welcome you into our logic. First, we eat meat, culturally and philosophically.  The philosophical part is accurately and concisely said in this New Tork Times Ethics of Eating Meat Essay. After living a vegetarian lifestyle for several combined years, I concluded that my vegetarianism was not a result of the if we should eat meat, but the how we should eat meat. I'm not making a novel statement in saying that the commercial meat industry is unhealthy for both consumer and consumed or that the standard raising and processing operations are inhumane and furthermore, unsustainable. If this is news to you, go pick up The Omnivore's Dilemma, a masterpiece of our time and required reading for any American that eats.

a small portion of the large area our chickens have to run, peck, and scratch

In order to have healthy meat for our family, seek a sustainable system, and take full responsibility for our food, we decided to start raising chickens, a manageable first step in livestock. This allows us to determine the manner in which our food is raised, but that's only the first part. Regardless of how meat is raised, it all goes to a slaughterhouse.  It would have been much easier to do that than slaughter and butcher the chickens on our own; it's a huge undertaking. But how could I do it in good conscience? How do I say I want to humanely raise animals knowing that they will be processed at $2 a head? I pay more than $2 for a latte for crying out loud. I won't get into the details because it's graphic, but slaughterhouses are not happy places. There are errors made, as in any industry, except making an error on a widget is different from making an error on a living creature. Not only do I not want to ultimately take responsibility for that error, but I don't want to ingest it either.

We learned how to slaughter the chickens on our own, which also is not happy. Death isn't happy. And while there is an ugliness to killing our chickens, it is a part of earthly living.  Living organisms feed on living organisms.  Regardless, that ugliness has a spectrum.  Our backyard practice pales in comparison to what our chickens would experience elsewhere. Believe me, I'm far from an animal activist.  I don't even like having pets.  It's about the food:  good food comes from good practices.  Processing animals is a crucial part of eating animal products from eggs and dairy to flesh. 

cutting the membranes around the crop

Scalding, defeathering, eviscerating, wrapping, freezing, and all the clean-up involved left much time to ponder the many angles of eating meat.  If everyone had to eat meat with both eyes open, would we eat as much? Would we waste as much?  I understand the thought process behind slaughterhouses--efficiency, profit-margins, etc, but has it truly benefitted our overall food system: quality, nutrition, sustainability?     

The truth is, you can run away on harvest day, but as a society we can only run for so long. It is often said that it is important to vote because it will determine the country we leave for our lineage. The same logic applies to our food. We can further entrench the existing food system by handing more money to huge companies that lobby our government to help industry instead of people. We can support cheap food instead of healthy food. We can patronize fast food instead of good food. Our money and our practices shape the future of American food. I like to think that if my husband picks up an ax and I'm willing to be wrist-deep in chicken entrails for several days a year, that one day my baby will have better real food options, that I won't have to bring her abroad to show her good cuisine, that she'll understand that cheap chicken isn't good chicken, and that she'll accept that having an animal properly processed may cost a little more than a latte.

photo break while defeathering