Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Whirlwind Farm Tour

First off, I want to thank all of you for hanging in there with me.  My brain is overflowing with topics, thoughts and ideas, but I simply cannot for the life of me find time to write regularly.  It's almost like I'm trying to run a household, cook all our meals from scratch, raise two small children, tend and harvest and preserve the bounty from a 4000+ sq foot garden, and care for 33 animals.  All at the same time :)  Let's just say we're a little swamped right now. 

I've been meaning to update the blog about various events that have occurred in the last month or so, but just ran out of time.  So here is a whirlwind update, by subject matter.

Garden: I don't mean to brag, but the garden is awesome!!!!  I'm absolutely thrilled with it.  Somehow, it turned out better than I could have ever dreamed.  Oh, of course, it's not perfect.  I have some insect pest issues ( I discovered a bunch of tomato hornworms on my tomatoes, potatoes and tomatillos. ICK!!) and some tomato plants are dying of a bacterial wilt.  But overall, it just fills me with pure joy to walk around and work in the garden.  We've been harvesting a steady stream of tomatoes for the last 2-3 weeks (including some Brandywines- delish!), but I can see that in about 2 weeks, there will be an explosion of red in the garden. Several of the tomato plants are taller than I am!   I'm excited... and nervous about how I'm going to handle all those tomatoes.  Canning sounds so simple, but I'm not sure how to manage it and care for my small children at the same time. 

My daughter "helping" in the garden.  She likes to pick all the flowers.  Sigh.

My son on "Cabbage Moth Patrol".  We buy him butterfly nets and turn him loose in the garden to catch (and squash) those pesky white moths.


My daughter with a head of "Belstar" organic broccoli, from the Seeds of Change catalog

Chickens:  We successfully transferred the 12 chicks (no longer chicks!) to the new and improved chicken tractor.  After leaving them locked in the tractor for a week or two to adjust to living outdoors, we finally opened the door and set them free to mingle with our existing flock of 9 hens.  We were not sure how this transition would go.  According to all the books, introducing new chickens to an existing flock can be a bloody, violent mess.  To put it mildly, chickens are not kind to each other.  Thankfully, there were few problems, mostly because the chicks were able to free-range and escape from the older chickens.  If they were in a small enclosed area, I think it would have been a different story.  There were a few chicken fights, as seen below, but they slowly seem to be working out their differences.  In a few weeks, we plan moving all of the chickens into the new chicken tractor and retiring the old one for the season. 

Chicken fight!

There have been a few disappointing surprises with the 12 chicks we brought home this spring.  First of all, one of the Aracaunas (a rather exotic chicken that lays blue, green and pink eggs) turned out to be a plain old Rhode Island Red chicken. Boo.  Not sure how that mix up happened.  Then, two  of the twelve chicks turned out to be roosters!!!  We specifically bought "pullets", which are supposed to be all females, not "straight run", where you get a mix of hens and roosters.  I guess it's not a huge deal, but still annoying after feeding them for months and counting on having a certain amount of laying hens.  Apparently whoever was on chicken-sexing duty that day (the person who examines each chick to tell if they are male or female) was a bit distracted.  Turns out the chicken we had aptly named "Gigantor" was a rooster (no wonder he was so big!) and also one of the Buff Orpingtons - my niece named him "Bruce".  We gave Gigantor to our step-dad, but Bruce is still hanging around... for now.  He may end up in the stew pot sooner than later.  I don't mind his crowing, but he chases my ladies around the yard all day, playing "leapfrog" (that's what my 5 year old son thinks they are doing) and the ladies are clearly annoyed with him... and so am I.  Your days are numbered, Bruce.

Bruce, the rooster, strutting his stuff

Crooked Beak, the Aracauna with the, well, crooked beak (real original name, huh?), is still alive, but half the size she should be.  We just can't bring ourselves to kill her.  Her crooked beak makes it nearly impossible to eat.  It's sad to watch her peck at the food and see it all fall out of her deformed beak.  She's done better since being allowed to free-range, where she can eat grass and bugs, but I worry that she will starve this winter.  She is the most skittish chicken we have, but lately, for some odd reason, she has taken to flying up onto me and sitting on my head while I'm doing chores in the yard.  Yes, it freaked me out at first, but now I'm getting used to walking around with a chicken on my head or shoulder.  Silly chicken.  

Crooked Beak

Pigs:  The hogs are getting fat! We have no idea how much they weigh these days, but I think they may have tripled their size since we brought them home in June.  It's been fun to watch them grow and develop personalities.  We make it a point to go in their pen several times a day to talk to them and give them affection.  They LOVE to being scratched and will grunt and groan in delight.  But boy, oh boy, are they messy!  I have to make sure I wear my "hog pants" when I go in there because they seem to enjoy smearing mud on my legs.  Sometimes I go in with shorts and mud boots instead, and inevitably end up with mud covered legs.  It's yucky.  My husband laughs at me and says "You've been hogged!" 

Pigs are fun, but also a lot of work.  Since we don't have waterer or feeder, we end up having to visit them several times a day to fill their food trough and make sure they have enough water.  These 100 degree days we've been having recently make us nervous.  Pigs don't handle heat well, as they can't sweat and don't pant.  We've heard more and more stories about people's pigs that simply keeled over and died in the heat.  So we make sure the pigs have a big mud wallow/puddle to roll in or sometimes we just run the sprinkler for them.  Demanding little buggers. 

Pearl.  She may look sweet, but she's a mischievous one!

Goats:  Our little goat, Toro, has been giving us a run for our money lately... not that we are shocked.  When we were exploring fencing options and looking at electric fence at the farm store, we laughed at the chart that listed animals from easiest to contain to hardest.  It went something like this:

Big Cats/ Exotic Animals

We're not laughing anymore.  They were not kidding.  Toro runs through our electric fence like it's fishing line.  We know the fence is working.  All the other animals are deathly afraid of the fence and won't go near it.  I accidentally touched it the other day, and let's just say it was EXTREMELY unpleasant.  I cannot wrap my head around how he can continue to go through it several times a day.  We just don't know what to do.  He doesn't wander far and comes running back when we call him, but it's still not a good situation.  I'll let you know when we figure out how to contain our escapee.  


Enough for now.  There is much more to be said, but this post is too long already.  I'll try to do better at keeping up with the blog.  Ha! 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Meet my hero, Joel Salatin

My initial reaction to Joel Salatin was "Good grief, that man is a nutcase."  John and I were watching  "Food Inc." (the movie that changed our lives forever, as I explained here )  and when the movie featured Salatin's farm, Polyface Farm, I immediately fell in love with the farm, but not so sure how I felt about that crazy guy who ran it.  He seemed terribly opinionated and just a little too "out there" for me.  After all, he is a self- professed "lunatic farmer".

However, in my researching of sustainable farming and eco-agriculture (even before we sold our house and moved to the country, I dreamed about running a small farm), I kept running into his books, along with countless magazine and Internet articles about this man and his amazing farm.  Many people praised Joel Salatin and some even dubbed him "The High Priest of the Pasture".  Ok, well, if he's that great, I suppose I should give this guy a second chance. 

So I did.  And for the first time in my life, I have a hero.  His creativity, his ingenuity, his ability to grasp the larger picture, his integrity, his compassion for living things, his thoughtful stewardship of land and animals - all these things and more have made him a man I admire deeply. 

John and I were able to meet Joel at a book signing in 2012 and talk to him for a few minutes about our new farm (can you tell I was super excited?!? My hero!  In person!  *Swoon* I think people thought we were a bit nuts asking to have our photo taken with him).  When we asked for advice on what kind of animal would make us the most money on 3 acres, he jokingly (not really) suggested escargot.  Next best option, he said, would be meat rabbits, then meat chickens or laying hens.  Perhaps we'll have a rabbit operation someday???

I have been fortunate to hear Joel speak while he was visiting Michigan.  The first time I heard him
was at Hope College in the fall of 2010.  My husband and I were in the process of selling our home in the city and purchasing our farm.  The timing could not have been more perfect.  Joel's presentation, "Ballet in the Pasture"  showed John and I how to manage a farm according to the natural, seasonal rhythms and how to be the best stewards of our land and animals as possible.  It was exciting, challenging and inspiring.  I could feel God shaping and equipping us, preparing us for our new life at Third Day Farms. 

The second time I heard him speak was January of 2012, when he was invited as a presenter at the Calvin College January Series .  His theme this time,  "Dancing with Dinner", focused on our interactions (or lack of interactions) with our food and how America desperately needs to move towards a more sustainable food system.  Around this time, Joel had also published his latest book "Folks, this ain't normal" and his talk covered many of the themes and ideas presented in this fabulous book (here  is the link to the January Series lecture, if you have an hour to spare and want to be enlightened - it's well worth the time).

My autographed copy of "Folks, this aint't normal".  You can borrow it and read it if you like, but I want it back!!!!  Read more about how this book changed my life (and made me feel normal) here.

I found "Ballet in the Pasture" to be incredibly entertaining, educating and informative.  Even people who have no interest in animals or farming would be fascinated to hear how Polyface Farm is run.  "Dancing with Dinner" was more philosophical and thought provoking, exploring the themes of broken food systems and cultural issues, as well as farming.  He talked about how historically, we have had an intimate relationship with our food - eating required personal participation as one had to grow, hunt, harvest, cook and preserve their own food.  Everyone knew exactly where their food came from.  These days, hardly anyone knows where their food comes from... or cares.  This is not normal. 

Oh, I could go on and on... I took extensive notes both times I heard him speak and I want to share what I learned with everyone... but I know not everyone is as geeked about sustainable farming as I am.  At the end of "Ballet in the Pasture", Joel had some moving statements that brought me to tears. I could hardly see my pen and paper, I was so overwhelmed by emotion, but he said something like this: "Farms should be land redemption facilities, not land destroying facilities.  God created us to be loving, caring stewards.  To display God's goodness and beauty.  To live in communion with the earth."  This statement shows just how lost we are - we've forgotten the command (command, not a suggestion!) in Genesis 1 to be caretakers and stewards of creation.  Conventional farming these days is the exact opposite of what Joel described.  Conventional farming destroys land and soil structure.  Instead of goodness and beauty, it produces ugliness, death and disease.  Instead of loving, caring and communing with the earth, it seeks to take whatever it can from the earth, with no intention to give back.  People, we cannot continue to farm this way - it simply is not sustainable.  We cannot continue to live this way.  We cannot afford to not care how our food was raised and where it came from.

Again, I'm not saying we need to change our lives overnight.  Nobody can make the right decisions all the time.  The important thing is that we are aware and seeking change.  It's important for us to put our money where our mouth (or heart) is.  Support what you believe in, as much as possible.

I leave you with this interview of Joel Salatin on Inner Compass, produced by Calvin College, called "Creative Farming".  It is about 25 minutes long and will give you a brief look into Joel's world and his farming philosophy.  He answers some tough rebuttals, such as "You are an elitist.  Only rich people can afford to eat organic" and "But we need conventional farming to feed the world.  Without it, we would all starve."  Watch it.  Good stuff. 

"Creative Farming" with Joel Salatin
Inner Compass, by Calvin College

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rain. Sweet, sweet rain.

Have I mentioned we haven't received rain in almost 2 months?  Seriously.  5 miles to the north and south of us, they have gotten a few showers and sprinkles, but us?  Nothing.  Nada.  It is dry as a bone around here.  Our lawn is a burned to a brown crisp (not that I mind - dead grass means we don't have to mow it).  All my landscape flower and plants are shriveled up and dead.  Our once lush and thick pasture grasses are a thing of the past.  Poor Babette, Tacori and Toro (the cow and goats) hardly have a thing to eat.  I think we're going to have to start feeding them hay.  It's frustrating, but what can you do?  Nothing. 

This weather has been a good lesson for us as we embark on our first season of farming.  It is a harsh reminder that we are totally and completely dependant on the weather.  Michigan has had a brutal growing season.  First, we had an extremely mild winter, with hardly any snow (we need that snow melt to saturate the ground).  Then we had 80 degree days in the middle March.  While everyone around me was thrilled with warm weather, I was growing more and more nervous by the day.  With the warm weather, the fruit trees went into bloom early.  And of course, we received a late frost that killed most of the blossoms.  Michigan's tree fruit crop has been decimated.  There is hardly anything left.  Michigan is one of the leading states in apple, cherry and grape crops.  I cannot imagine what this is going to do to our economy... or how many farmers will have to quit farming and look for other work.

Then along came this current drought.  Fields of corn are parched and dying.  All my raspberry and blackberry bushes were dead before I could harvest a crop.  Farmers are hurting, big time.  We are just a small hobby farm, trying to provide our own food (for the time being).  If our crops die, then we say, "Oh too bad.  Better try again next year."  But for people who earn their livings by farming... they need your support and prayers right now.

I obsessively check the weather reports several times and day, hoping that I might see a chance of rain.  Some days I see dark storm clouds rolling over the house and I run outside waiting to throw my arms in the air and do this (well, I'd keep a shirt on):

Nothing.   It like the clouds are taunting me.  Pray for rain, my friends.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Homemade Lara Bars

If you've never tried a Lara Bar, then you don't know what you are missing!  We first discovered these tasty treats at the health food store.  My kids gobbled them up like they were candy bars and I was happy because the bars contained less than 5 ingredients - in fact, some bars only had 2 ingredients!  Which got me thinking, "These can't be hard to make at home".  And I was right.  They are incredibly easy to make and while I have not done the exact math to figure out a cost comparison, I know that I'm saving a wad of cash.  Lara Bars cost anywhere from $1-2 a piece!  Doing some rough estimates in my head, I can make a batch (12-16 bars) for $5-6, which seems like a good deal to me, especially since the bars only take about 3 minutes to make. 

There are several different varieties of Lara Bars and I think they lend themselves nicely to experimentation.  Basically, you need a mixture of dates and nuts (or nut butter).  From that base, you can try adding all sorts of different ingredients, like dried fruit, chocolate, flax seed, etc.

My kids LOVE this recipe that I make.  It's their absolute favorite snack.  I love them because they are filling, travel well and are easy to make... and I like knowing exactly what they are snacking on. 

Peanut Butter and Jelly Lara Bars (a.k.a. "Power Bars/Balls")

- 2 cups of Dates (remove pits if needed)
-1/2 cup of raisins
-4 tbsp of smooth peanut butter
-3/4 cup rolled oats (not quick cooking)

*I also add a scoop of protien powder, 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed and 2-3 tbsp of cocoa powder, but this is completely optional. 

Ingredients prepped and ready... I forgot to set out the cocoa powder!

1.  Add all the ingredients to a food processor.  Process until the mixture comes together and forms a ball that chases itself around the food processor bowl, like the photo below.  If the mixture seems too dry, add a few more dates or a bit of peanut butter.  If it seems too sticky, add some oatmeal. 

Mixture is ready... forgot to add cocoa powder, so I added some and processed a bit longer

2.  Remove mixture from food processor bowl.  Decide how you want to prepare the bars/balls.  You can place the mixture between 2 sheets of wax paper and roll it out, then cut into bars.  Or you could do it the easy way, like me.  Simply roll the mixture into golf ball sized balls.  This recipe makes about 12-16 bars/balls, depending on how big you make them.  I usually store them in the fridge, but I really don't think it's needed.  If you make them into bars, you could individually wrap them in wax paper or plastic wrap and store them in the pantry in an air-tight container.  If you're like us, these bars are never around long enough to go bad!

The finished product - admittedly not much to look at , but they taste great!

-I really think you NEED a food processor to make these.  I've never tried making them in a blender or anything like that.  Use this as your excuse to go out and buy a food processor! 
-Play around with different combinations.  I don't think it's possible to mess up.  Try dates, cashews,  dried cherries and cocoa powder for Chocolate Cherry bars.  Dates and peanuts make Peanut Butter bars.  Experiment!
-Dates can be hard to find.  Costco has good deals on them, but don't always have them in stock.  If you live in West Michigan, Smart Choice Market in Byron Center has bulk food bins and you can purchase dates there, along with all the other ingredients you would need.  They have a huge variety of nuts, seeds, grains, flours, dried fruit, etc.