Till the Cows Come Home

She always says, my lord, that facts are like cows. If you look them in the face hard enough they generally run away.

-Dorothy L. Sayers

I hate cows.

I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. I hate them.

I realize it’s not their fault they’re smelly and dumb, but facts remain, in fact, facts.

I hate cows.

*sigh*

Of course, it may be completely my fault that I hate them. You see, when one acquires an animal, any animal, but most especially a large animal, like a cow, one must be prepared for them. Any five-year-old who has ever wanted a hamster is aware of this. You don’t get a hamster without first getting a cage, food dish, water bottle and wheel. You don’t go to a pet store, buy a hamster, carry the little guy home in your pocket and then set him up in the bathtub. This would be highly ridiculous. By the same token, when one decides to raise a steer, one should build the barn and put up the electric fence before the steer is brought home. In fact, bringing home the steer should be the very last thing that should happen if one would like any hope of enjoying the steer raising process.

As you may have guessed, our steer, Triscuit, arrived on the farm before the necessary preparations had been made. Now, before you go calling PETA on me, just know that he had a cozy home in a lean-to on the side of the garage. He was kept warm and dry and got plenty of food, water and attention. So, y’know, he was OK. The fencing, however, was less than adequate. He soon learned to jump the fence. YES, I said JUMP. When Olive the heifer arrived, they took to just plowing through the fence as she was too small for jumping.

I came home one evening just in time to see them disappear into the woods. I gave chase, but after falling face first into wet mud I went inside and cried for a while instead. They came back on their own.

One morning Cory’s mother looked out the window to see Triscuit heading down the driveway followed by the dog and our kitten, Ruthie. It was heartwarming. Like Homeward Bound or Milo and Otis. Pattie shook a grain bucket and they came right back.

Things got much better when we put up the electric fence. I barely had to see them. I gave them water once or twice a day and they headed out to pasture on their own. It was great.

Except last week.

When the fence charger blew.

Yesterday morning we got a call from a neighbor. Our cows had wandered into his backyard and would we like to come and collect them. Cory drove me down on his way to work. On the mailbox of the house in question was a sign proclaiming LOST COWS FOUND!

I gave the kindly neighbor (who thought it had all been great fun!) some garden produce and a thank you note and walked my cows the quarter of a mile back home along the road.

I’ve told Cory it’s me or the cows.

But I suppose we could just mend the fence.

*sigh*

Lucky Radish

Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
Epicurus
 
I’ve never thought much about radishes. I’ve always admired them as a beautiful vegetable, they’ve just never been a big part of my culinary landscape. Sure, the occasional restaurant salad boasts one or two, and as a child I remember being beguiled by the radish rosettes at the salad bar. Beguiled that is, until I took a bite. Woody and spicy-hot, it was like having a mouth full of discontented bark.
 
 
This year, as part of our market garden shenanigans, we planted many, many rows of the little devils. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that my optimism regarding our huge, overwhelming garden is, well, less that optimistic. I’ve planted the cabbage three times; the kale four. What wasn’t stunted in the first place has been repeatedly assaulted by insects, deer, and a pair of fornicating woodchucks that stare at me from a crack in the garden wall while I weed.
 
So, while many of our crops seem less than stellar thus far, the radishes are FLYING! In bed after bed, perfect candy-cane-red orbs are popping up under a lush blanket of green, leafy tops, and have been doing so for weeks. The trouble is, our little farm stand doesn’t open until this weekend (god willing) and radishes get a bit pithy when left in the ground too long. So we’ve been picking.
And picking.
And picking.
We’ve managed to give a few bunches away, but most of them have ended up in our fridge.
 
At first I was at a bit of a loss. What is a radish besides a member of the green salad gang, and a not-so-popular one at that? I wasn’t even sure I liked radishes.
 
What to do but pull out my very dog-eared copy of The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash? Published in 1982 (as was I! Haha!), this compendium of vegetable recipes, preparation how-to’s, and gardening tips, is easily my favorite cookbook of all time.
 
With Marian’s help I’m slowly learning the delicate joy of a fresh-picked young radish, prepared simply, but not necessarily in a lettucecucumbertomato ensemble.
 
Cory doesn’t know it yet but tomorrow night we’re having Radish Salad with Red Onions and Basil alongside Radish Top Soup. And for dessert it’s got to be Radishes and Oranges. I’m sure he’ll just love it!
 
Radish Salad
 
4 cups thinly sliced radishes
2(ish) tbls fresh basil; chopped
1 small red onion; chopped
3-4 tbls wine vinegar or lemon juice (I used lemon juice) 
1 tsp sugar
1 tbls kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
 
Mix together radishes, basil, onion, lemon juice, sugar, and salt and let marinate for at least one hour. Drain excess liquid and add pepper to taste.
 
 
Radish Top Soup
6 tbls butter
1 cup chopped onions (or leeks)
2 cups potatoes; peeled and diced
6 cups chicken stock
Freshly ground pepper
Sour cream (optional)
 
Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onions and cook until soft and golden. Stir in radish tops. Cover and cook over low heat until tops are wilted. 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook potatoes in chicken stock with a pinch of kosher salt. When soft, add potatoes (along with stock) to radish tops and cook to mingle flavors. Puree in a food processor or food mill. I used a stick blender.
 
Serve plain or with a dollop of sour cream.
 
Radishes and Oranges
 
3-4 oranges; cut into sections with pith removed
2-3 cups thinly sliced radishes
1-2 tbls sugar
Lime or lemon juice
 
Combine oranges and radishes. Sprinkle with sugar. Marinate in lime or lemon juice.
 
 
Enjoy! 
 

Piggies and PB&J’s

When in doubt tell the truth.
-Mark Twain

I had one of those parenting moments the other day. Y’know, where  you’re faced with a hard question and don’t know quite what to say? I wouldn’t mind so much, except I’m not a parent. Let me explain. Cory has nieces. Two little angels that I love more than I think prudent for a merely, two-year relationship, but I digress. Hallie, 5 years old and wise beyond her years, came up to the apartment when Cory was still at work. After hitting me up for a PB&J, we settled in for a nice chat.

We talked about the weather, unicorns, chickens, the staying power of stickers; y’know, good stuff. Then little Hallie fixed me with a look reserved for 5 year olds and Disney Princesses…

“Jen, where did the piggies go? I know you used to have piggies! Where did they go?!”

I froze.

This was the moment I’d been dreading. I had been told over and over, NOT to tell Hallie (the perceived Drama Queen) where the pigs went. I had been warned that any attempt at the truth would result in tears and I was not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES to tell Hallie the truth.

I looked into her earnest little eyes, took a deep breath and said: “Hallie, that’s a hard question. Do you know where bacon comes from?”

She thought for a minute and then she said, wide-eyed, “You turned them into BACON!”

I nodded.

“But…but…why didn’t you just buy bacon at the grocery store?!”

Good question.

“Well Hallie, all bacon, even the bacon that comes from the grocery store, come from a piggie.”

She looked confused.

“Sometimes, the pigs that get made into bacon for the grocery store don’t lead very happy lives. We wanted to make sure the bacon that we ate, came from VERY happy pigs.”

“Oh.” She still looked confused. “But why didn’t you just wait until the pigs died [naturally] and then make them into bacon?”

Another good question. In my opinion more difficult to answer.

“Pigs get very big. After many years they get too big to keep, and the bacon gets too fatty to eat. Pigs are best eaten after about one year.”

“Well,” she sighed and flung her hands down onto the table, “I guess some pigs are made into bacon. I guess that’s just the way it is. It’s sad though. I liked the pigs.”

BACON!

While the above is a bit paraphrased, there were no tears. Just questions. As far as I’m concerned, very intelligent questions. Hallie eats bacon. No one would hesitate to show a child where broccoli comes from, and while there may be a world of difference between a pig and a broccoli plant, I think it behooves us all to teach children a reverence for their food sources. Just sayin’.

I’m not a parent, but I’ve decided that if you’re doing something you have to lie to a 5-year-old about, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

And just for the record…”Daddy (or Mommy) and I need a little privacy right now”, is NOT a lie.

There and Back Again

“Not all who wander are lost.”

-J. R. R. Tolkein

About three months ago, Cory and I traveled down to Ludlow, Vermont to pick up a baby beef calf from Cory’s cousin. His name is Triscuit and he smells bad, but more on the cattle next post.

While Triscuit lounged in a calf box in the bed of the pick-up, five guinea fowl squawked and bleated and pissed all over the cab behind our seats. They were tucked into cardboard boxes but the effect was the same as if they had been running free.  After three hours I hated them more than I can say.

It’s just as loud as it looks

We housed them in the old chicken trailer and debated our permanent guinea fowl accommodation options. Guineas are not like chickens, as they don’t easily “home”. While chickens will head into an established coop as soon as it begins to get dark, guinea fowl will venture far afield, roosting in trees despite your best efforts. Sometimes they will just “leave”, never to be seen again.

I tried training ours with millet, a guinea’s favorite treat, and we had just arrived at the stage of, “at least they looked at me when I called,” when Cory’s father, in an effort to move things along, built them a pen and little house near the garden. We sighed and moved them in.

 Here at least they were a bit easier to care for, but try as we might, we still couldn’t get them all to go into the house at the same time each evening. We had originally wanted them to pest patrol the garden. Guinea’s eat bugs and seeds but generally leave plants alone. In their pen, they not only weren’t eating bugs off our cucumbers, but they were living in what amounted to a barely adequate cage. 

I still kind of hated them. They were loud, mean, neurotic, and ugly, but their feathers were beautiful, and I do get attached easily. It was all a bit of a puzzle.

Then, a little over a week ago, Cory discovered that something had squeezed through a hole in the fence and slaughtered four of our five guinea fowl. One hen remained. We named her Juno. 

As she certainly couldn’t stay in the pen amid the scattered feathers of her fallen companions, we put her in with the chickens. We weren’t sure if they would flock together, but we had to try. She needed company. I took Stan the Rooster aside and explained the situation. (I really did this). He cocked his head, looked me straight in the eye and I think, understood every word. 

Juno stayed close that first day and hopped into the coop with the rest of the girls when it got dark. I gave Stan a nod and whisper of thanks and breathed a sigh of relief. 

I was sure we were  in the clear, but it was not to be. The next day while weeding the beans, I watched as Juno traversed the meadow, passed the garden, and slipped into the underbrush at the edge of the woods. I thought about going after her, but stopped. I realized that she had chosen her freedom and I was not going to be the one to take it away again. She had been through so much, watching her friends get ripped apart while somehow managing to escape the same violent fate. She deserved to walk the journey of her life unencumbered by human constraints. Also, it was hot and my shoes were back at the house.  

She stayed away for two days and two nights. I thought about her out in the world, a great big world for a little guinea hen. I worried; I was feeling affectionate. I thought about the creature that had eaten her friends, and the rednecks with their guns and pickup trucks. But Juno was a survivor, I was sure of it. 

And then… 

When I got home today I immediately heard the unmistakable, bleating horn of a guinea hen. Juno was back! I raced around the garage to see her strutting about the yard, pecking the dirt. She had recognized our benevolence and come back! If she could feel at home here, so could I. All my doubts about our farm, our animals, and our vegetables faded. Surely, this was a sign! 

Juno is now roosting with the chickens, calm and happy. Perhaps the world was just a little too big after all. 

Or maybe she just got hungry.

Lil’ Bit O’ Crazy

“Gardening is not a rational act.”
-Margaret Atwood

 
So, I know it’s been a while, but here’s something I’ve learned recently. When you actually farm, you have very little time to keep up with a farming blog.

Like right now, I should not be on the computer. I should be weeding, or planting or digging a hole or slinging manure. Or something.

There have been a few changes. We have a name, Lil Bit Farm, and a plan, a vegetable stand. A calf named Triscuit, so named for his favorite treat. A confusion of guinea fowl, (yes, that is actually what a group of guinea fowl is called). They’re loud and kind of nasty, but they’re oh so pretty.

And the garden…

The huge, overwhelming garden that is supposed to provide produce for the farm stand this summer.

However, I’ve become convinced that this garden has the lowest production potential of any parcel of land on the face of the Earth. I can hear the bugs chomping and the weeds growing and I’m sure nothing of vegetative value is going to grow to marketable size. I fall asleep with visions of undersized kale plants dancing through my head, and my dreams consist of tiny root vegetables with tiny faces laughing at my expense.

Muahahahahahahahah!!!

Is this normal?

Probably not, but here’s the thing…

I still love to garden.

As distracting as all my doubts and fears are, I still look forward to weeding and planting and digging holes and slinging manure.

As much as I’d love a spare moment to stand around, eat a popsicle, or enjoy a sunset, I still love to garden. And right now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Cock-a-Doodl…Thwack!

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.

-George Bernard Shaw

A few weeks ago I attended a weekend-long beekeeping workshop, (yes, beeeeekeeping!). Cory had assured me that all of the roosters would be gone by the time I returned, but when I pulled in, I heard the unmistakable sounds of scrabbling chickens. I think he realized that it was an easier two person job (or so one would think), so after dinner we got to work.

We set up an old table in the yard and clamped a piece of plywood to the top to make a stable work surface. I had gone to my local kitchen supply store, As the Crow Flies, where the helpful staff helped me pick out a sharp, heavy cleaver to quickly dispatch the boys. We decided to do the most troublesome rooster first, the instigator of most of the worst assaults.

And here’s where I made my first mistake.

Failing to properly calm myself, I barreled into the coop to grab the first rooster. No deep breaths, no contemplative gratitude, just a frenzied struggle to the death. I caught him in an awkward hold, and on the verge of tears (me, not him), I marched him squawking and flailing to the table. Cory told me to flip him upside-down, but I was holding him wrong and wearing large, awkward gloves. I started to panic. I managed to tilt him only by leaning over myself. He tried to bite me.

Finally Cory got a sock over his head. This is supposed to calm chickens but I had mishandled the situation so aggregisly that this rooster was beyond calming. When we had finally wrestled the bird into position and Cory had delivered the fatal blow, the rooster lost his head…and so did I.

You see, being the suburban girl that I am, I thought that “running around like a chicken with its head chopped off” was just something my grandfather compared me to when he wanted me to make less noise. This was apparently my second mistake, because the rooster jumped off the table, and began to running in circles, blood spraying from its neck. It was at this point that I began a mixture of laughing and crying commonly known as hysteria. Cory stood patiently with his arms crossed, and after waiting for the bird to bleed out, he scooped it up by the legs and began to rip feathers from the rooster’s still warm body. I helped in between gasping breaths, but when that headless chicken started clucking, I panicked afresh. Cory calmly (why is he always calm in these situations?!) explained that the birds voice box was in its throat. Oh. I should have known this.

We got through the first bird, somehow, and did a second. This next slaughter went far more smoothly than the first. I even remembered to thank the little creature before we whacked it. I felt thoroughly ashamed of my lack of preparation for this event; the ultimate event in this animals life. I spent days and days preparing for the pig slaughter and I wasn’t even present, but I barely gave the chickens a second thought and we all paid for it. No animal should have to die with me looking on, screaming and panicking, without an ounce of reverence.

But I am human, and still figuring it out.

Chop!

If only all of Rome had just one neck.

-Caligula

So remember yesterday when I said we were waiting for some “definitive rooster behavior”? Well, today when I went out to feed and water my birds, I was violently reminded of a scene from the 1979 movie, Caligula, starring Malcolm McDowell and Peter O’Toole. Far be it from me to attempt a definition of sexual assault for another species, but I’m going to guess 6 roosters to 7 hens is probably not a good idea. Cory is particularly incensed because one of the new roosters went after little Edna. Stan intervened but Cory is determined to avenge her honor. Such as it is.

Heads are gonna roll.

Egg on my Face

We can see a thousand miracles around us every day. What is more supernatural than an egg yolk turning into a chicken?

~ Rutherford Platt

So the new batch of chickens have been with us for about 2 months. This was the free flock of 12, 4-month-old chickens I found on Craigslist in January. After a tragic encounter with a red-tail hawk we’re down to 13 total birds (old and new batch). We suspect solidly half of the newbies to be roosters. They’re huge with upright bodies and long pointed feathers. Stan, our original rooster, is currently the only one who crows (1am -3am, nightly) and the only one who *chases* the hens…yet. Roosters take a bit longer to sexually mature, so we’re just waiting for some definitive rooster behavior to drag out the chopping block. So sad I know, but we only want one rooster, and Stan’s the man.

It’s been especially confusing and frustrating because nobody’s been laying eggs. We had two hens laying regularly, but alas, they’re no longer with us.

So it was with excitement and glee that Cory discovered two eggs in the hen-house yesterday, a large green and a tiny brown. We jumped about like fools, screaming and cheering. We were convinced that the small brown egg had been laid by Edna, our little bantam (miniature breed) and special friend. We were sure she’d never lay, but she was too cute to fry. But here was proof, it had to be, that she was laying at last! Hurray! We were ecstatic.

Little Edna

That is, until Cory’s father informed us that many chickens start off by laying small eggs. It was probably just one of the new hens starting to lay. Apparently they’re called fart eggs. How cute.

I’ve officially labeled Cory’s father, “The Ruiner”.

Seeds of Victory!

To see things in the seed, that is genius.
-Lao Tzu

Gardening Propaganda circa WWI

Cory and I have decided to open a small farm stand in the town of Winooski, Vermont. His father owns an empty lot on a main road he doesn’t use for anything, so we’re going to take advantage. We spent Sunday up to our elbows in the Johnny’s seed catalogue. It took far more time and many more spread sheets than we were anticipating, but we finally have our order organized. Thanks to the magic of excel we were able to compute the number of actual seeds we are going to get. 20,500! To seasoned farmers this may not seem like very many, but we started laughing hysterically. At one point, during the process, I looked over at Cory and asked, “Do we have any idea what we’re doing?” “None at all Babycakes,” he replied.

So I laughed some more.

I’ve Got Worms: Adventures in the Art of Vermicomposting

Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.

-George Meredith

Cory and I have decided to call our enterprise, “Lil’ Bit Farm”. That way we never have to commit. When someone asks what we do, we can just say, “Oh, a lil’ bit a this and a lil’ bit a that.” I like it. Not that it’s much of a farm yet; more like a collection of projects. Sometimes I feel like an aging 4-H student, but regardless, everybody needs a name.

One project that I’ve been working on for quite a while is my vermicomposting bin. Vermicomposting is the process in which worms, usually of the red wiggler variety (Eisenia fetida), eat and digest compostable materials like vegetable scraps, eggs shells and coffee grounds. The worms’ castings (ahem, poo), are then released as a nutrient rich amalgamation of fertilizing magic.

I was first introduced to the idea by my Brooklyn roommate. We lived in a tiny, shoebox apartment, and I was enthralled by the idea that we could compost in such a small space. But we never quite made it to the worms. In fact, all we managed to do was save massive amounts of rotting produce scraps in our freezer. I do not recommend this. These were in addition to the dead parakeet and dead turtle that we also kept in the freezer. I do not recommend this either, but I digress.

I finally got my worms about a year later, after I had moved back to my parent’s house to (re)attend college. I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the kitchen to find my mother, a short (well, shorter than all of her children), surprisingly scrappy woman from the Bronx, waiting for me with a deadpan expression. “Jenny, your worms are hea (that’s spelled right). They’re on the dining room table,” And here her deadpan expression turned slightly less dead, “get them awf (that’s also spelled right) the dining room table.” My mother is a saint and quite supportive of all of my endeavors, but hell, they were worms.

I carefully opened the cardboard box they had been shipped in. A couple of weeks before I had ordered a pound of red wigglers from Wilson’s Worm Farm in Norris, Montana. I really had very little idea what to expect, but what I found was a greyish mass writhing in very clean looking soil. I had prepared a shallow plastic bin with shredded newspaper as per expert’s instruction, and installed them promptly, covering them with more newspaper. I poked holes in the lid for air circulation and gave them a steady stream of kitchen scraps and awaited my black gold.

What I got was mud. Lots and lots of mud. Stinky mud. I tried airing out the box, draining the box, adding in flour, cereal, dry newspaper; anything to lower the moisture content, but for three years all I got was mud. I stuck it out though. I couldn’t stand the thought of chucking my babies. It wasn’t their fault that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. So for three years I carried around a box of mud, from apartment to apartment, not really sure how to solve my problem and have a productive worm bin.

Then I moved to Vermont, the land of all things compostable, and I got a chance to visit a real live worm farm. Down to Earth Worm Farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, promotes wooden boxes for housing vermicomposting operations. The theory is simple: wood breathes. It’s porous and allows for far more circulation then my little air holes ever could. My plastic bin was really good at collecting condensation and letting it pool to create an anerobic (oxygen-free) little swamp, perfect for killing worms. Perhaps this is why every time I opened the bin to check on my worms, several of them would be clinging to the inside cover as if attempting an escape. They were not happy.

Down to Earth also bucks convention by recommending maple leaf litter bedding (Vermont, go figure), instead of newspaper. I’d assumed that there were baddies in yard waste that could hurt my worms, but I failed to realize that there might also be goodies present that help with the composting process. Worms are not the only creature that composts. Also, the forest floor provides more nutrients than dead newspaper, resulting in more nutrients in the finished product.

It’s all experimentation, as always, but if you’d like to try a worm bin for yourself…

1.Start with a shallow wooden box. Exterior grade plywood is appropriate. The exact dimensions are up to you, but keep in mind how much space you have and whether or not it will ever have to be moved. Red Wigglers are surface dwellers and anything more than about a foot deep will be lost on them.

2.Add bedding. Maple leaves work well for this as they break down easily. Mulching them into smaller pieces speeds the process. Soak the leaves in water  and then squeeze out the excess before adding a layer to your box. You don’t want them sopping wet, but worms can’t move well through dry material.

3. Add your worms! I started with one pound. You can order them online or check out local bait shops. Red Wigglers are usually recommended for home composting systems. Cover them with a bit more bedding.

4. Feed them. Appropriate items include fruit and vegetable scraps and peelings (My worms seem to dislike citrus, especially lemons), coffee grounds, loose teas and natural tea bags, egg shells, cereals and flours, soy milk and tofu. Dairy and meat products may make your box smell, and if you have animals they may be more interested in your box then you’d like. Bury all food additions under at least 3″ of leaf litter.

5. Remember the temperature. Worms function best between 50-80 degrees F. They’re also very sensitive to light and vibration so select their location carefully.

6. Harvest your castings! You probably want to wait about a year to harvest your first castings. It’s easiest to begin a couple of months before you want to harvest, by feeding only on one side of the box. Most of the worms will migrate to the food leaving the other side free to harvest. Sift your castings through a screen to remove any large, uncomposted chunks, and any worms that didn’t get the memo.