Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Illuminating Hunt


This year I went deer hunting for the first time. Growing up I never had any exposure to hunting or venison, but after several delicious meals featuring venison served by Moriah's parents and an invite to go hunting, I decided to try it out. For two days I sat in the cold mostly watching squirrels playing in the woods but on the third day I finally shot a 100 lb doe. It only took twelve phone calls to my father in law, but I finally got the deer cleaned, dragged through the woods, and hung up to cool. We processed the deer a few days later and filled our freezer with steaks, chops, stew meat, and sausage, but there was still plenty of leftover parts that were headed for the garbage.

Raw deer fat

I did some research on uses for the fat, hide, tendons, and hooves. I found plenty of info on tallow candles and soap. Moriah and I love burning candles and lamps, but most of the commercially available options are made from paraffin, which is a product of crude oil processing. While burning a few candles only gives off a small amount of fumes, they are still toxic and the artificial colorings and scents are no better. I decided to process the fat into tallow for candles.

The first step involved cubing the fat into small chunks so the oils would melt out faster. I did a second batch using a meat grinder that made the job a lot easier. The fat was cooked with a little bit of water on medium heat until I was left with oil and cracklins. Cracklins are the leftover pieces of gristle and meat and can be mixed with peanut butter for bird food.

Strained cracklins and pure liquid tallow

The oil was poured through a coffee filter to strain out all of the cracklins and I was left with beautiful amber tallow.

Left-mostly cooled. Right-piping hot.

Wick and mold

Candles can be poured using different methods that produce a variety of shapes and designs. I chose to make pillar candles. Pillars are made by running a wick through the bottom of a metal mold, sealing the bottom hole with plumber's putty and tying the wick to a toothpick at the top. The liquid tallow is poured into the mold and left to cool. I learned an important lesson about pouring temperature after the first few times I watched the tallow rupture out the bottom of the mold and spill all over the kitchen counter. I was pouring the wax when it was over 250 degrees instead of the more appropriate 120-180 degrees. After the mold is filled to the top and allowed to cool, the tallow shrinks away from the opening and a second finishing pour creates a clean, even surface. The candles cooled for about 8 hours at room temperature. A quick stop in the freezer and they were ready to slide out of the mold.

Rendered tallow from one deer

The first two hours of burning went well, but after that the melted tallow began to pour over the edge and made a mess on the plate and table. My next attempt will probably be a container candle so I don't have to worry about overflowing oil. I have much experimenting to do with wick size, candle diameter, and burn time before I'm a pro, but I'm content with these first two. Even better is knowing that I was able to use more of the animal and waste less. From my one deer I rendered enough tallow for two 9 oz candles plus an additional 50 oz for soap and more candles. In future posts I will hopefully talk about making soap from the tallow as well as using the hooves, tendons and hide for other projects.

Tallow behaves just like any other animal fat when heated and should be kept away from direct contact with the stove burner as it will ignite. Careful attention should be paid when cooking tallow to keep the temperature well below 509 degrees which is the flash point of tallow and can cause a grease fire even if no direct flame contact is made (burning the wick of a cooled tallow candle is safe). Take care not to splash any tallow while pouring.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Inspiring Dreams

Sometimes it is hard to figure out what you want in life. Is it money? Is it success? Is it a stable job? I think Eric and I finally have an idea what we want in our life together.

A few months ago Eric and I went on a camping trip. We had a lot of time to sit and talk about our life goals. We really enjoyed the beautiful scenery surrounding us and both knew we wanted to live on a spot with more land. But what would we do with more land? Right now we live on about a half acre. We have ten raised beds, three young apple trees, and seven chickens. But we want a dairy animal and beehives and more space to grow food for a future family. I want a place where I can go for a short nature hike. Eric wants a spot to harvest wood. Basically, we want a place where we can live off the land.

At this point in our life, there is no way we could afford a house on more land that is also near our family. But Eric has been reading in Mother Earth News magazine inspiring stories about people building a house without a mortgage. I don’t think we are ready for building a house right now, but I think it can be a real goal if we begin learning. This goal of ours will help us accomplish so many other dreams. We are full of dreams that would take me forever to write about.

The reason why I’m posting this topic is that the topic of this entire blog is going to change slightly. Instead of just writing about gardening and chickens, we would also like to include the skills that we are learning to help us live a life of a homesteader.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Family Photo!

Last year Eric was deployed in Iraq during the holidays.  We weren't able to take a family photo for our first Christmas in our first house and as a married couple.  Needless to say, we went with the urban farm theme...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Raising Chickens in a Wisconsin Winter

I’m not sure how winter snuck up on us so fast. Winter is inevitable. But preparing the chickens for winter wasn’t something that I thought much about during these past few months.

Most chickens can endure cold weather as long as they have shelter, food, and water. A chicken’s feathers trap in body heat and a chicken will cover its head with its wings to keep its bare skin warm. As a child I watched by neighbor’s chickens scratch through the snow under our birdfeeder or shrubs. Chickens don’t mind the snow as long as they have a warmer spot to go to when temperature dip below freezing. Some people recommend a heating lamp inside the coop, but other people feel that it can be a fire hazard. We skipped the lamp because we want our chickens to adapt to the decreasing temperatures. Instead of a heat source, we added more bedding and cleaned the bedding more regularly.

Even chickens like to jump in autumn leaf piles.

The sneaky problem we were faced with was the freezing drinking water.  On one surprising cold day, I was going to the coop to chip away ice every couple hours.  That method won’t last long for a working family.  Some companies sell heated dog water bowls, but our chickens are too messy for that idea.  I think they like to poop in anything we don’t want them to.  We have a large galvanized tub and mypetchicken.com sells a heater that goes under the water tub.  That would work ideally, but it is more than we can afford right now. Eric bought heated electrical wire that wraps around the water container.  So far everything is working fine.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Urban Root Cellar

A root cellar is a way to store food without refridgeration.  After reading Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Buble, Eric and I decided that we really wanted to have a root cellar of our own.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in building a root cellar.  The authors discuss which varieties of fruits and vegetables store well and the right storing conditions.  (Some vegetables like dry places while other vegetables like humid, cold places.)

Root cellars can be built in many different ways.  At first we wanted to built a root cellar in our basement, but we were aftraid that it would be too expensive and our basement would be too warm.  After a few hours of research, we decided on digging a hole in the backyard.  This option allows us to easily remove the root cellar if it needs changes later on.  We also had in mind that someday we will sell our house and didn't want anything permanent.

Eric dug two holes about five feet deep.  He prepared two galvanized trash cans by drilling a drainage hole and putting in a few pepples for more drainage if needed.  Galvanized cans aren't the best option because they will rust over time, but we didn't have access to anything else at the time.  I piled potatoes in one container and apples in the other container.  I also layered the produce with straw for extra protection.  I left about 6 inches at the top of each container for more straw as a insulation.  We don't want the produce to freeze because it will change their chemistry to something aweful tasting.  After putting the covers on the containers, we place two staw bales. 

We also made another spot to store carrots.  Most carrots can be left where they are growing and insulated with over twelves inches of leaves or straw.  But our carrots were spread over three different raised beds.  I dug a trench about eighteen inches deep in one of our garden beds.  I placed the carrots in one row and covered them with leaves.  Then I placed chicken wire over the trench to prevent any rodents from tasting our wonderful purple carrots.  I covered the trench with another several inches of straw for more insulation.  This trench is great time saver because we will plant our potatoes in it next year.

Last night Eric was outside gathering carrots and apples from our root cellars.  The neighbor stepped outside while Eric was reaching into the carrot trench.  I can only imagine what was going through our neighbor's mind when he saw Eric in the garden at nine o'clock at night.

Curious chicken in the carrot trench.

Only time will tell if these root cellars work.  We look forward to pulling produce out in the middle of winter.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ending our First Growing Season

I can't believe that it is already November. This year went by so fast. During these last few warm days, we have been adding last minute touches to our garden.

This past spring we tore through a lot of grass sod. Digging took up a lot of our time, so we decided to try something different. We read a magazine article about making raised garden beds without tearing up the sod. Eric built four more garden bed frames. Then he added a layer of cardboard, followed by rich topsoil. We also planted a cover crop to add more nutrients to the soil. Hopefully by next year the grass underneath the cardboard will have died, and our new vegetable plants can spread their roots.

Eric also built a small cold frame in the front yard. The southern sun heats up the inside of the cold frame. This will extended the growing season. Unfortunately we are a little behind schedule, so nothing is planted in the cold frame yet.

I love watching people walk by our house and seeing their reactions to our changing yard.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Updated pictures

A picture says a thousand words. Here are a few pictures that I didn't have time to write about.

Beauty in the garden.

A pumpkin growing in our lilac bush.

Dehydrated cherry tomatoes.

Apples found in an old orchard while camping.

A farmer's market bounty turned into jam.

Monday, September 13, 2010

We have eggs!

We found our first chicken eggs! We were so suprised because we weren't expecting them for another month. I opened up the coop and saw two beautiful eggs laying in the nest box. I checked the other side of the coop which we usually don't see, and another egg was there. All three eggs were slightly cracked, so we didn't eat or preserve them. The eggs are tiny, but they will get better with time as the chickens mature. It must be all that wonderful garden produce that we are feeding them.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chicken update!

Our chickens are getting so big. But it will still be a couple months before they lay eggs. They’ve been eating a lot of food lately, and our lawn cannot keep up. We could feed them more grain, but ideally we want the chickens to eat more of what is in our yard.

We removed the sod in a plot in our backyard and planted pasture seeds from Peaceful Valley. The seeds will grow into plants that the chickens will eat. One day we put the coop over the pasture and there was nothing but dirt the next day. So we’ll wait another month for the plants to fill in the plot. This chicken pasture is perfect because it uses a lot of space and we do not need to mow the lawn in that spot any longer.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wild Edibles

Harvesting food from the wild gives us a great satisfying feeling. It makes me feel like I’m standing in my ancestors’ shoes. We enjoy learning about what foods we can eat and cannot eat. One example is berries. Black raspberries grow like weeds in parts of Wisconsin. Picking black raspberries brings back many memories from my childhood, and I couldn’t wait to share those memories with Eric.

My uncle owns some land in northern Wisconsin which supplied great berries this year. We only had at about fours hours of picking time, so we picked as fast as we could. We fought back thorny bushes, biting ants, and fears of black bears….but it was worth it. We gathered about seven pounds of berries. We had enough berries to make 12 half-pint jars of jam and a few berries went into the freezer for later.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Strawberry Season

Strawberry season came early this year and we’ve been waiting for this season since winter. Eric and I don’t have a big strawberry patch, so we have to go to a nearby farm. The big strawberries filled our baskets within a couple hours and we continued to pick until our stomachs were full. We drove home with forty pounds of beautiful berries in the back seat.

Our goal was to make enough strawberry jam to last us twelve months. We already had lots of mason jars and lids from our wedding, but we just needed the pectin. Eric has dreams of making our own pectin from apples, but this year that dream just didn’t fit into our busy lives. After looking at a couple different types of pectin, we decided on POMONA’s UNIVERSAL PECTIN. The box cost $4.29, but we made about ten jars of jam out of it. This pectin was great because it only used ¾ cups of raw sugar per 4 cups of mashed strawberries. We also tried on batch of jam using honey instead of raw sugar (which turned out great!).

By the end of the week we made twenty-one jars of jam, one strawberry-cream pie, breakfast smoothies, strawberry sundaes, strawberry waffles, froze nine quarts of berries, and ended up with a very very messy kitchen.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Raising Chickens

Eric and I had this great idea that we would start this blog as a way of creating a garden journal for ourselves. The journal would be a way of us to look back during future years and fix any mistakes along the way. Well, we failed at that task. But we tried our best.

Lots of things have happened over the past couple months. The biggest event is the raising of chickens. We found out that the town was changing the ordinance to allow chickens and other small animals. I sat in on town board meetings and Eric talked to neighbors to find out how other people felt about chickens.

Talking to neighbors was a bit more challenging because we just moved to town and didn’t know anyone. “Hi, my name is Eric and we just moved in the house down the road…Do you mind if we raise a few chickens?” Even though the topic of conversation was odd, we found out a lot more interesting things about our neighbors. And everyone hopes to receive a few free eggs.

After realizing that all of our immediate neighbors were fine with us raising chickens, Eric wrote a proposal for the town’s Planning Committee. He spent a lot of time explaining the purpose of the chickens, coop plans, and waste removal. Along with the proposal, we had to give the town $200 (which I still don’t understand). We sat anxiously during the planning committee meeting and after two hours we found out that we could have chickens. We didn’t see it as a problem in the first place since we live in a small farming community.

Eric ordered 7 chickens from My Pet Chicken. He also ordered coop building plans. The cutest thing in the world is day-old chickens cheeping at the post office! We kept them inside our house in a box. They grew so fast and as soon as they had their feathers they were outside in their new coop.

Some assembled coops can cost over $1,000, but Eric built ours for about $150. Eric doesn’t have carpentry skills, but with the help of my dad the coop was ready in about three days. If Eric can build a coop, anyone can build a coop. We bought some supplies at the Habitat for Humanity Restore which saved us a lot of money. We choose to stain the wood instead of buying pretreated wood. (We weren’t sure about exposing chickens to chemicals). We buy our chicken feed from a local pet supply store instead of online. The moveable coop plan allows us to maintain chickens in an urban setting and lets the chickens eat nutritious plants and bugs.

The chickens are very amusing and are developing their own personalities. They all come running towards me when I open the coop door. One chicken is brave enough to peck at my 7-month old German Shepherd. We are still having difficulty deciding if any of the chickens are roosters, since we can’t have roosters as part of our permit. Two of the chickens are easy to tell apart from the rest (the only two Easter Eggers). We are naming the chickens after ways to cook eggs, so the two chickens received the names, “Sunny” and “Scrambles”. Let us know if you have any other ideas!
I thought that keeping chickens was going to be a lot of work. But the chickens do most of the work. All I do is open and close the coop ramp, refill water and food, and help move the coop to another spot in the yard. I’m looking forward to beautiful eggs in four or five months!


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Backyard Wine

I’ve been staring at all these growing plants in our indoor shelves and asking myself, “What did I get myself into.” In a couple months we will be up to our ears in tomatoes, squash, and beans (just to name a few). I remembered a homebrewing wine class that we took at Riveredge Nature Center over the winter. At the end of the class we tried a sample of tomato wine and it was delicious!

Inspired by El and a favorite book of ours, The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan, we decided to start a batch of homebrewed dandelion wine.

Making the wine wasn’t as easy as we thought it was going to be. While picking the blossoms is easy, removing all the green parts was time consuming. The green parts of the blossom will prevent the wine from fermenting. Some green parts of the dandelion inevitably made it into our concoction. We followed the recipe from the book. Many recipes exist and we won’t find out if we like this recipe until another 6-12 months.

And once we decide that we like making dandelion wine, we will move onto other wines…!


Monday, April 19, 2010

Slowing Down

Slow Food International

At least five times a day I hear a radio commercial that annoys me more than most. The ad is for a well known convenience/gas station. The narrator portrays a trip to the grocery store for milk and makes it sound like going to the refrigerated section at the back of the store is the same as crossing the Mojave Desert. The commercial ends with a push for customers to enjoy the ease of being able to get all their food needs within a 1000 square foot shop. I would hate to hear their description of making a home roasted chicken compared to a Hot Pocket. That kind of thinking has led to some of the worst excuses for "food" to ever defile the human GI tract. It's sad that most people have moved so far from traditional food preparation and enjoyment that the family dinner is a rare moment and not an every day occurrence.

Sourdough Starter

Recently we have been grinding our own flour to bake whole wheat bread. It took us a while but we finally found a recipe using 100% whole wheat that didn't turn into a brick in the oven. It was also the first recipe we made using a sponge and hand kneaded instead of using a bread machine. Having mastered the basic techniques, we decided to experiment with a sourdough recipe from Nourishing Traditions (Sally Fallon, Revised Second Edition, p.490). Creating the starter takes about a week, but when it's ready the actual work involved is minimal. The recipe only calls for flour, water, and salt, plus the starter which is rye flour and water. The recipe calls for a 4-12 hour rise. We let ours rise for four hours while we worked on the garden beds. We pulled it out of the oven last night just in time for dinner. It has a very dense crust with a definite sour taste, but the center is soft and tasty. We made grilled cheese with left over sauteed bell peppers and onions using the bread and it seemed to bring out the sourdough flavor even more.

Finished Loaves

Speaking of working in the garden, today I dug the sixth and final bed (for this year anyway). In the interest of symmetry this particular bed was about five feet from a very old silver maple which has had a lot of time to develop very large roots. Three of the large roots ran the entire width and most of the depth of Bed #6. All three of these roots were heavily armored with small boulders intent on deflecting my spade. A hatchet would have come in handy but we don't currently own one. After considering dynamite and a few other equally dangerous solutions, I settled for the spade and hand saw, with some cursing thrown in for good measure. Seven hours later the roots were out, the compost was in, and my digging for the season was finished (I hope).

Super Root


Friday, April 2, 2010

A Sight of Green

Last fall Eric and I didn't know where we would be living. We waited over 6 months for the paperwork to go through to buy the house that we are at now. Since we didn't know what was instore for us, we planted garlic at my parents house.

This was the first time for us to plant garlic. The bulbs are heirloom that were given to me by an organic farmer. We also have another type of garlic that we've lost the name of. Both are hardneck varieties. After I planted the garlic cloves in the soil, I covered them with a couple inches of straw.

I wasn't sure if the garlic would make it through the winter. But when I walked closer to the garden I saw little green leaves sprouting from the straw. It is wonderful to see another color besides brown this time of year.

-By Moriah

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Garden Helper

Bob the Robin

For the past few days while we have been working on the beds, all of the digging has attracted a few robins. One of them in particular has gotten the courage to walk within five feet of me to snatch the freshly exposed worms I throw to him. Today he has been sitting in the Lilac bush, chirping loudly for a worm and then flying off with it to his nest. I have decided to name him Bob. I'm no bird expert and it's entirely possible that he is a she. I also know that Bob isn't very imaginative, but it stuck before we could think of a better one.

It was supposed to be in the high 50's today but the clouds had other ideas. Between the cold, watching Bob, and the discovery that bed #4 consists more of grapefruit sized rocks than dirt, we didn't get very far with digging. On a good note, yesterday Moriah direct seeded the spinach, turnips, carrots, radishes, and a lettuce mix in bed #1.

Purple Crocus

The first flower to bloom in our yard this Spring.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

First Post

Onion and Tomato Seedlings

We started this blog late for the 2010 gardening season so here is a summary of the past few weeks.

The seeds we ordered in January are all in the trays under the grow lights in the basement. Most of them are pushing their seed leaves through the soil.

This week we started on the raised garden beds. There will be two 4'x12' beds in the front and four in the back. We're using 12 foot 2"x8" untreated pine boards. We originally wanted cedar for the rot resistance but decided on the pine because of the cost. The boards are joined at the corners with three 3-1/2 inch stainless steel screws. To prevent the soil from pushing the sides out there are 2"x2" pine stakes every four feet on the outsides for support.

Double Digging Bed #2

We are trying the Biodynamic/French Intensive method. Without going into too much detail, this method forgoes the traditional rows and packs more plants into the same area. This allows for less water and space wasted, blocks light from weeds, and prevents compaction of the soil. For a detailed description of Biodynamic Gardening read this article:

Oregon Peas

We are double digging the plots and adding a peat mix to fill in the beds. As of this post we have two beds completed and today bed 1 was planted with Oregon Peas, our first outdoor planting of the season!