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When Stuck, Make Something

When Stuck, Make Something

Scallion Pancakes
Scallion Pancakes

Ugh — it was one of those days when I Could Not Get Anything Done. I mean, I got some stuff done — the chickens were mucked out — poor babies. It snowed a foot yesterday, then went into the 50s today, so my backyard is a lake. I got the chicken coop cleaned out and nice new shavings put inside, then bought them some new straw for bedding in their run, which seems to have put them high enough to be out of the wet — but my backyard was a lake, and the wind blew gusts into the 40mph range all day, and it was grey and wet and miserable.

So, I gave up on writing, and on the several writing projects on my list, and played with making scallion pancakes. I’m reviewing Carolyn Phillips magnificent All Under Heaven which means I *must* cook from it for a couple of weeks. Really, it’s my job … at any rate, I played around with these this afternoon. I don’t have them quite down yet — I’m not great at modulating the heat in my cast iron pan for flatbreads, but darn if that doesn’t mean I’ll have to try again.

And it got me out of my head, and out of the clickhole of Facebook/Twitter Garbage-Fire-of-the-Republic for a while.

So — scallion pancakes.

“Lifestyle” Chickens?

“Lifestyle” Chickens?

Chicken feed has been a problem lately. When I first got chickens, I bought regular commercial feed from the feed store where I bought the chickens — they carry the Nutrena brand (which is Cargill) and Purina. Regular layer feed runs about $16 for a 50lb sack, and scratch is about the same.

Then a new feed store opened in town, and they carried a local organic feed and scratch milled just north of here in Fort Benton called Big Sky Feeds. This is a photo of their scratch mix — and here’s the label:
— wheat, sunflower seeds and flax  (although there seems to be some corn in there too, but that’s probably because I poured the dregs of the regular feed into the scratch when I ran out of feed).

Here’s what their mash looks like — what I like about this stuff isn’t necessarily that it’s organic, although that’s nice, but it’s that it looks like actual food. The label for this one looks like this: One reason I went into something of a tailspin about chicken feed last week, is because this company actually tells you what the ingredients are. You can’t find a list of actual ingredients on the commercial feed bags — you can find the “Guaranteed Analysis” but not what’s actually in the stuff.

Where the “lifestyle” part comes in is in the cost differential. “Lifestyle chickens” is the term my Sweetheart uses when I try to argue that backyard chickens are cost effective. That’s when the Man-with-no-affinity-for-livestock points out that you can buy ranch eggs for about three bucks a dozen all over town. Backyard chickens, he argues, with some validity have become a sort of status symbol, a marker of lifestyle. Since one of my other gigs is reviewing cooking and sustainability books for Bookslut, I’ve also got two or three years worth of evidence on that front in the form of various guides to urban and suburban homesteading (a term which alone is a sort of marker of class. Drive around Montana and you can see what homesteads actually were — dry, barren chunks of 120 acres where people, mostly unsucessfully, attempted to eke out a living). Most of these glossy books, filled with illustrations of largely white, largely professional folks seem as concerned with the aesthetics of one’s backyard setup as they are with the practical issues. I won’t even go into the holier-and-more-organic-than-thou tone of a couple of recent books, because they just pissed me off and what’s the point of giving them more  publicity?

This all came to a head for me last week when I ran out of chicken feed and discovered my local feed store had as well. The girl here told me she thought the feed stores in Bozeman carried the Big Sky Feed, and when I wound up at the fancy feed store over there, I found myself buying a 28 dollar bag of organic crumbles. As I drove away, I thought “I can’t spend $28 on chicken feed!?!” so I went to the nearby regular feed store to see what they had. They only had the regular Nutrena and Purina feeds, which don’t actually list what’s in them (nor can you find a list of ingredients on their websites). I knew I had some scratch left, and that my local feed store had the good feed on order, and although I felt ridiculous and precious about it, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the processed commercial feed. So I get back in the car feeling pissed off and ridiculous and like some character from Portlandia with my first-world, organic chicken feed problems. I decide to return the too-expensive bag of feed, because although it’s organic, it’s just as processed as the non-organic ones, and what I really like about the Big Sky stuff is that it’s just grains. You can see what’s in it. I figure that I’ve got enough scratch to get through the week, and if the Big Sky stuff doesn’t come in, I’ll just buy the regular feed from my local feed store (which is Payback, another commercial brand).

So the long and the short of it is, that by the time I’d convinced myself that I was being precious, and that I was spending far too much money on chicken feed, the good chicken feed came back in, and I wound up spending $23 bucks on feed, and $22 bucks on scratch. Not really much less expensive than the $28 dollar bag that sent me into a tailspin, and, as someone I live with has pointed out, not any kind of economy. Especially with only 5 chickens in the yard, which really does put me smack in the middle of the least economical end of the spectrum. I’m not getting enough eggs to make selling them worthwhile, and yet, I’m getting more than Himself and I can eat. I’ve been waiting  until I have about 4 dozen in the fridge, then taking them to our local food pantry (if nothing else, I figure this is good karma in a bad economy). I get about 3 dozen eggs a week, and lets say I stretch these bags of feed and scratch to last 6 weeks, that means I’m spending just under $3.00 a dozen to grow my own eggs. Which is, as Someone will be happy to point out, no economy.

Yes, I know, I’m supporting a really good local company (in Montana, 190 miles is local), who are milling and marketing organic products whose food value is apparent just from looking at them. My chickens are healthy, and lay gorgeous eggs. I like my chickens, and the chicken-shitty-straw and compost is great for my garden. But as much as it pains me to admit it, what I have are indeed “lifestyle chickens.” On the other hand, if the revolution comes, I now know how to raise (and slaughter) chickens, which is a useful skill. But for now, I guess I have to accept it. I’m raising lifestyle chickens. Expensive, organic, lifestyle chickens.

Battening Down the Hatches

Battening Down the Hatches

A bushel of black kale, ready for the freezer

My first post-deadline, post-travel weekend and although I was woefully short on new fiction pages produced, I did get some long-neglected house-and-garden tasks done.

First of all, I’m feeling sanguine about winter because, at long last, we got our whole pig! It took a long time this  year because, well, the small packer/butcher operation we buy from sold more post-fair pig specials than they had pigs. So we had to wait for them to get more local pigs (they promised me it wasn’t a CAFO pig), and then for them to make the delicious hams and bacon. There’s nothing like going into a winter with a freezer full of pork. Also, if you get used to buying meat by the share (or if you have nice friends who give you hunks of elk, or venison, or antelope, or their own homegrown beef), and you are a person who works at home, you get really really used to not having to go to the store. It was just weird not having enough in the freezer that dinner is a choice of what to thaw. I found it unsettling. Now we’re fat on pig, the new chickens are laying, I’ve got a pantry full of pickles and fruit, there’s homemade sauerkraut in the fridge, and as you can see above, kale for the freezer.

Putting up greens is a tiny bit time consuming, but worth it. Again — there’s nothing like being able to “shop the freezer” and I like knowing that I’m really the only one who has been handling my veggies. This is black kale, also known as Dino Kale and Laccinato Kale. It’s the long skinny-leafed kale, and I love it for soups, and in the morning sauteed with onion, garlic and hot pepper with a fried egg on top (a little bacon is also welcome in the mix). This was a bushel of kale. I filled the sink with cool water while my biggest pot was coming to a boil, then used garden scissors to clip the leaves into semi-bite-sized pieces. I swished them around, then put them in the boiling water to blanch. The cookbooks say to boil them for 3 minutes, but I just leave them in the hot water, even if it hasn’t come all the way back to a boil, until they turn a deep, electric green. In the meantime, drain the rinse water and re-fill the sink with cold water and ice. The blanched greens go in the ice water to cool off. A bushel was two sinks and two batches in my biggest stockpot. I drained them in collanders, then used the salad spinner to prep them for the vaccuum sealer. Two serious spins in the salad spinner I found, got enough water out that I didn’t overwhelm the vaccuum sealer. I wound up with nine fairly solid bags of kale. There’s probably just as much curly kale out there, which I’m nursing along as fresh playing chicken with the weather. I’ve found I can keep eating kale out of the garden until we get a multi-day spate of below-zero weather — with any luck, I can get through most of December, but really, one never knows.

I also put up some pears this morning — I stole some pears out of a neighbor’s yard. A neglected tree in a rental house. They were small and hard, but after a couple of weeks in a bowl on the kitchen counter they took on a beautiful rosy hue, and smelled divine. I did them before the kale, using the stockpot of water I was bringing to a boil to sterilize a few jars and lids, and then to process them. I made a simple syrup from equal parts red wine (Bota Box malbec) and sugar. Half a vanilla bean, the zest and juice of a lemon, a piece of cinnamon stick and a couple of cloves also went in. I peeled, cored and sliced the little pears, then poached them and packed them in the simple syrup. Twenty minutes in a hot water bath and either I have an instant-dessert (over ice cream?) or a present for someone’s Christmas box.

My last chore was modifying the chicken house door. The chicken house has a much more beautiful door than a chicken house really deserves — but it came out of the Sweetheart’s immense store of salvaged, recycled, bought on sale contractor supplies, and it was just the right size to lean in, collect eggs, and clean out the bedding. The problem is, that in the winter, it was too big to keep much heat inside, even with a light bulb. So today, I took it off and cut a chicken-sized hole in the door, and put it back on it’s hinges. Now they’ll stay warm, and I can still get in when I need to (knock wood, because I’m in the middle of town, so far I haven’t had varmint problems, but it is a risk. I kept the piece of wood figuring I can put it on a hinge if need be).

I also lucked out and the Sweetheart fixed the broken dog door while I type up a bid for him, so the wind is no longer blowing directly into the kitchen. All in all, a very satisfying weekend of house and backyard farming tasks. Winter is upon us, and I do have to admit, I’m looking forward to holing up and carrying the deadline energy back over into my own work, but there’s also something so pleasant about an afternoon in the kitchen, listening to back podcasts of Fresh Air, and putting up food for the winter.

Miss Delaware’s Adventures in Gender

Miss Delaware’s Adventures in Gender

Farewell, Delaware from Charlotte Freeman on Vimeo.

Miss Delaware is the bigger of the two Delaware chicks I raised this year, and although I hesitate to say it, she’s my favorite chicken. I never thought I’d be a person who could tell the chickens apart, much less the kind of person who has a favorite. But she’s kind of hilarious — for one thing, she’s very very vocal. And curious. Even when she was a little chick, she’d come over to see what you were doing, or rather, would come over to supervise whatever you were doing.

She’s also pretty funny with Raymond, who she torments. He knows he’s not allowed to kill the chickens, so she’ll come right up and peck him. Or follow him around the yard. Or charge him just to see him flinch. Poor boy, he’s so good, and he never attacks them anymore — now he just comes and hides under my legs.

One of my Wyandottes was definitely a rooster, and so I arranged for my commercial chicken rancher friend to take him — for real, not euphemistically. But Miss Delaware was getting so bossy, and so vocal, and even starting to crow to the extent that I was beginning to wonder if the bucket I’d pulled her out of was actually sexed at all, or perhaps she’d snuck through somehow. I was very sad at the prospect of Miss Delaware being a Mister, and having to go away.

So my rancher friend shows up and while it’s clear that the Wyandotte is a boy, we decide that Miss Delaware is just a very aggressive hen. She’ll flare her neck feathers at you, and come up and peck you, and is really noisy — but her shanks weren’t elongated like the Wyandotte’s, and most telling, if you went to pick her up she’d do that hen-frozen-in-terror crouch. And roosters, apparently, never do that.

Which means that Miss Delaware is still here, and without the Wyandotte rooster, she’s become a little calmer and quieter. Although she still thinks she needs to hop up on the backyard table edge to see what I’m eating for breakfast no matter how often I shoo her off, and tell her No! Not allowed!

Pullet Eggs

Pullet Eggs

The new chickens have finally started to lay — one wee pullet egg a day. They’re about the size of bantam eggs — maybe half the size of a normal egg. But lovely bright marigold yolks that stand right up off the surface of the white.

It’s such a relief to be getting my own eggs again. No offense to any of the very fine ranch egg purveyors here in the valley, but I there’s no comparison between an egg from your own backyard to an egg you buy from someone.

Next chore, sending the rooster off to his new home (not a euphemism — I do have a new home for him — the rancher I used to buy eggs from needs another rooster for her commercial flock, and he’s so pretty, she’s kind of happy about it.)

Clean Way to Water Chickens

Clean Way to Water Chickens

Red Laced Blue Wyandotte and Clorox Bottle Waterer

A couple of weeks ago a post from Daily Yonder came up on my RSS feed about chicken waterers. It promised a way to water chickens without them wallowing in their own filth. Chickens will shit on anything, including the open water lip of their water container — which has always grossed me out. Plus, you waste a lot of water dumping out the dirty stuff for them and then they just make it all dirty again.

The Daily Yonder article was about a couple, Mark Hamilton and Anna Hess who came up with a way to economically and hygenically water their chickens, as well as make some off-farm money by selling the kits. The product is called the Avian Aqua Miser Chicken Waterer. I ordered a kit, which consisted of the little red nipple device you can see on the bottom of the Clorox bottle, and a drill bit of the correct size (plus directions, a piece of wire for a hanger, and an instructional DVD). You can get just the nipple for $15 or for $20 they put the drill bit in there to save you a trip to the store (unless you’re my Sweetheart, the contractor, who has every drill bit in the universe, but I didn’t feel like making a trip to his house either).

This took two seconds to put together. I drilled a hole in the bottom of the bottle, screwed in the red nipple, drilled a couple of tiny holes at the top so there’s no vaccuum, filled the bottle, and hung it using the coathook I already had on the outside of the coop. The chickens figured it out right away (my iPhone couldn’t catch this one pecking at it for water, but she did just seconds after this snapped, and just seconds before).

And there’s no more disgusting poopy water in the chicken coop! And, I got to repurpose one of the Clorox bottles I’ve been accumulating (I know, I know, bleach isn’t good for the environment, but I love bleach.)I’m going to have to figure out something for winter, but Anna and Mark’s site has a bunch of DIY suggestions for heaters, and I figure I’ll just go to the ranch store and see what they have.

First Real Harvest 2011

First Real Harvest 2011

Here’s my first real harvest — I’ve been eating a little bit out of the hoop houses, some spinach here, a couple of scallions there, some komatsuna as it came in, but this is the first real harvest of the season.

Today I picked a big bag of scallions, probably the equivalent of two big supermarket bunches, a huge bag of spinach, a big bag of arugula, two re-purposed tortilla bags full of broccoli rabe thinnings, and a big bag of mixed Chinese greens. Enough for the week at least.

Here’s to give you an idea of the difference the little hoop houses make. Inside each of them all was green and warm and humid. Outside. Well, let’s just note that it snowed a few moments ago. The peas are only just beginning to sprout, I have a few radish seedlings, and some overwintered onions. Other than that, nothing is growing out here in the endless winter we’re having this year in Montana.

The other interesting thing is that the poor baby chickens were out in their playpen when it started to snow — I ran out to get them, and for the first time, they seemed to get it that I’m not there to kill them. They ran over to my side of the pen for a rescue and although I still had to “chase” them down, for the most part they came willingly. That’s a first. I’m pretty bored with teenage chickens who need to go out every day, but they’re still little enough I think the big hens would kill them, and all this handling can’t hurt.

Ruining my Bird Dogs …

Ruining my Bird Dogs …

It’s hard to see but this is Raymond, and the new chickens inside a wire pen. Everyone’s outside today because it’s sunny and warm, and both the dogs and the big chickens need to get used to the babies.

I’m hoping to get the babies out of the cold frame soon (in part, because I need it) but for now, everyone’s just kind of hanging out out there, separated by a little wire.

Raymond has the most trouble — he really really wants those chickens. For a while this morning he was lying down next to the pen, as if he was guarding them. Then the big chickens came by and sort of pecked around for a while. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to handle two different foods when I integrate them, but I guess I’ll figure that out when I get there.

Chicken Therapy for Dogs

Chicken Therapy for Dogs

Chicken Movie2 from Charlotte Freeman on Vimeo.

I’ve been meaning to post a chicken update, but I was a little behind the curve on the whole video thing. So here’s a short clip of the chickens, in their new, expanded nursery which is, as you can see, made from recycled cardboard. Eventually I want to just let them run around inside the cold frame, but they’re still so small, and there are some crannies in which I think a panicky baby chicken could get stuck.

The cold frame has worked out splendidly. It’s less drafty than the dog crate/tarp setup I used the last time, and when it gets too warm, I just crack the lid. So far, too warm has not been the problem. I hope these little guys can handle Montana, because so far they seem to have the temperament of sorority girls on spring break someplace warm. They like it hot in there. I’ve gone out in a panic when the thermometer has read 110 or even 112 thinking I had McNuggets, and they’re just basking out there.

On sunny days I’ve been taking the lid off altogether and covering them with a couple of heavy pieces of mesh that I found in my shed. That gives them all a little air, and keeps curious dogs out.

So far, so good. They’re growing like weeds, and even starting to try to fly a little bit!

New Chickens!

New Chickens!

New chickens!

I was going to order from my new local feed store, but they didn’t realize they’d have to order really early, especially these days, and they called last week to say the hatchery had run out until May.

So I had to drive over the hill to Bozeman and take my chances. I called to see when their chickens were coming in, and although they told me Monday, they actually came in yesterday, which means that once again, I won’t be raising Arucanas. They were sold out by the time I got there. So, the luck of the draw this year is:

Two Black Star: 






Two Delaware: 





And two Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes: 




The latter are the only straight-run out of the bunch, meaning there’s a chance one of them might be a rooster.

This year, I decided to try putting them in the cold frame instead of the shed. The cold frame is right outside the back door, so it should be easy to keep an eye on them, and I can’t put plants in it for ages. So I built them a new cardboard house with a heat lamp until they get a little bigger:

So I’ll keep you all posted. My second set of chickens. The dogs are both keeping a very close watch on the cold frame!