The clock is ticking!

As we feel summer rapidly approaching, we have been working hard to finish our spring projects. There is so much to do around here, it is hard to know where to even get started. During a spell of nice weather we finally got some more things done outside.

The chicks were moved out of the back of the pickup in the garage and into their new home. They are getting ridiculously huge, some of them have bigger feet than our fully grown hens.

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The garden bed project is partially done. Our tomato starts are officially in their forever home and seem to really enjoy it there. Paul put some permaculture principles to use and built a miniature Hugel mound on contour (for the unfamiliar, you can search either of these terms to learn more). He did the same for the raspberries by digging a garden bed, pilling a bunch of tree branches and wood chips on the “hole” and then adding the soil and compost on top. Our yard is on a fairly steep grade. We are hoping this design will fill the need to terrace the beds, while collecting and storing free water. Not only will the water drain to the last garden bed but the wood and the wood chips will keep the soil wet longer.

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Along with the tomatoes, we planted Walla Walla sweet onions. We checked, tomatoes and onions make good companions.

The peppers and cucumber starts will go into pots. Last year they thrived in our pots so we decided to try it again, changing the soil of course. We find that bugs don’t pester the plants very much when planted in containers.

The potatoes are going nuts we can barely keep up with adding of the soil. Needless to say, we are very hopeful for a great harvest.  Hash browns, here we come. We are excited at the prospect on relying on 100% homegrown potatoes to get us through this coming winter.

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Oh our dear Debbie the broody hen!! She has not lost interest sitting on her “empty egg babies” and our egg production is down.  After reading about getting broody hens back to laying-scavenging hens, the option that appealed to us was to isolate the hen and keep her away from the nest.  A few nights ago Paul recreated the chicken suite in our garage.  Debbie spent the whole night on a perch and was there for her breakfast but when I came home in the evening, she had flown over the netting and some how got into the chicks space.  Naturally, the chicks were all huddled in one corner and Debbie in the other.  We thought that she simply wanted babies and allowed her to stay there for a while, but before too long decided we had to pull her out. Once she was introduced back into the flock, she hung out with the other gals–we were happy (thinking that one day of isolation was enough for her) but later saddened to find her back on the nest for the night.  So, an isolation box it will be for her–we tried to be nice, she made her choice.  The five days she was broody, we were getting about 4-6 eggs per day. With her out of the box, we got nine.  Egg production is not the only reason we are concerned.  She does not eat or drink unless she is physically removed from the nest.  She eats a bit and then rushes back on the eggs.  We worry that she is not getting the resources that she needs.  She is also not producing any eggs, most likely due to that.

Paul and I have been dreaming of an aquaponic system for some time now.  We would love to raise our own fish for meat, but right now we have to much on our plate and not enough in our pocketbook. So we are using what we currently have and can afford– a 40 gallon fish tank with guppies and plecos.  When I change their water for them, I use their dirty poopy and nutrient rich water to water tomatoes and other vegetables. This stuff is like liquid gold for the garden.  We try to do this twice a week but honestly, as of lately I have been slacking. Right now is a good time to get on top of it as the garden is in need of all the fertilizer it can get.

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The next few weeks we will focus on stocking our freezer with partially prepared meals, as we have been frequently running out of time for dinner during the week.

Also, Happy Memorial Day! Thank you to all the Veterans and their families for their service.

Thanks for reading!!

Happy Mother’s Day…and we have a winner!!

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Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms and moms to be!  We celebrated this holiday the whole weekend and had a blast. Since there are a few mothers in the family, we did our best to make sure everyone felt special. We decided to celebrate Paul’s Mom’s day on Saturday with a blinis brunch. This included savory blinis stuffed with herbs and homemade farmers cheese and fruit blinis with the same cheese, berries and a hint of cinnamon.

The preparation began on Thursday, by buying milk and yogurt, to make the cheese. We needed one gallon of milk and one quart of genuine Greek yogurt. This means reading the ingredients is essential. They should include only milk and bacteria. Many companies add pectin, carrageenan, artificial flavors, Splenda and all kinds of other stuff that doesn’t belong in your food.

Greek yogurt is meant to be thick because of the process and all the bacteria. By adding thickeners the companies are ripping you off, frankly. We went with Whole Foods’ 365 brand Greek Yogurt, as they are the most affordable we have found. Be sure to get the Greek Yogurt, because their other yogurt contains a lot of these fillers, and the thing we are after to make delicious homemade cheese is the bacteria.

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We recently picked up a buttermilk starter from Portage Bay Grange, our favorite chicken food supplier, among other things. We hope to soon rely on our own bacterial cultures to make cheese. But until then, the 365 brand Greek Yogurt works well.

Recipe – ~3-4 Pounds of Farmer’s Cheese (or unsalted Ricotta)

1 gallon of Whole Milk

1 quart 2% or Whole Yogurt

Time, heat, patience, love and cheesecloth.

In a large pot warm milk, but not hotter than is comfortable to touch. Integrate yogurt. Let rest 12-24 hours, at elevated room temperature, if possible (75-85 degrees Fahrenheit). We keep ours on the stove on a hot day. If you can, loosely cover with a lid, or cheesecloth to make sure no insects or particles can contaminate the culture. Also make sure not to seal tightly, as this is a biological process and requires oxygen and gas exchange. IMG_20140426_185115676

To determine when to proceed, use a spoon to check if the consistency has changed to that of the yogurt that you started with. If it has thickened considerably, continue. If not, wait and possibly increase temperature. You can do this by turning your oven on pre-heat, as low as it will go, turn it off when it feels warm to the touch, and put the pot inside. Proceed the next day if thickened. If it hasn’t by then, start over as the bacteria are probably dead by now. 

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Next, we will make curds. On a low setting on your stove, bring the culture to a slight boil. With time, you will notice the curds separate from the whey. The whey should be clear and yellow. This is a good indication that things are working properly. One word of advice; don’t go too far. If this boils over, it will create a big stinky mess. Be sure to stir, and if it starts making a lot of motion, turn it down. When you feel that you have a lot of curds and the whey has cleared to a yellow color, let it cool for a half and hour or so. Line a colander with cheese cloth, and place it over a vessel. Ladle the mixture into the cheese cloth. Depending on the size of your colander, you may have to wait a bit to let the whey drain before adding more, or even squeeze a bit out towards the end. Then tie the cheese cloth and hang from something convenient to let the whey drain out. We use a wooden spoon placed across a big pot as a frame to hang the cheese, and a convenient place to catch the remaining whey. This will usually take around an hour or two, depending on how dry you like your cheese curds. If you over do it, you can add some yogurt or sour cream to make it creamier.

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Once the cheese was made we are left with around a gallon of whey. Whey can be used for many things. It can be used as a substitute for water or milk in baking. You can water your garden with it. It can be used as an animal feed, including a nutritious chicken feed (use moderately, as chickens are not built for lactose). It can also be used to make ricotta!

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Recipe – Ricotta from leftover whey

~1 gallon of whey from making cheese

1 pint of Half and Half

1/4 cup white vinegar

Bring the whey and half + half to a rolling boil, being careful not to let boil over. Once rolling, take off heat and stir in vinegar. Cool until the mix reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Run this through the cheese cloth, and strain as before. After straining, you can add salt or herbs to taste. This process will make a *tiny* ball of “cheese.” Four ounces is the HITS record so far. We are doing more research on how to increase our yield.

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The ricotta ends up with a slightly sour taste due to the vinegar. Store bought ricotta often has things in it other than milk or bacteria, and often has a suspiciously long shelf life. We have had a container of this in the fridge for over a month, and the expiration date says that it will be good for still another. The homemade stuff will go bad IN A WEEK. Since there is little bacteria left after all the boiling needed to produce this ricotta, it spoils quickly. However, if you need to keep this or the farmers cheese long term, they both freeze and thaw very well.

Back to the blinis. For the savory we added finely grated garlic, chopped cilantro and dill, mixed with the farmers cheese and let sit overnight in the fridge.

For the fruit blinis, we chopped up blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries, dusted them with a tablespoon and a half of sugar, and mixed with a pinch of cinnamon. That mixture was put in the fridge. Overnight the berries and the sugar produced a syrup. In the morning this was combined with some of the farmers cheese.

For presentation, the savory filling was spread over the blinis, and then folded into quarters. The fruit blinis were filled and rolled like a burrito, with filling in the middle.

We feel like these turned out great, and will be repeating the recipes in the future.

On Sunday, the plan was to have dinner with Lina’s family  We had very little prep work to do since we were bringing baked asparagus  and black bean brownies made by Lina’s coworker.

Sunday began with Paul and the girls letting me sleep in followed by a nice family breakfast. Then off to the Carpenito Brothers we went–that is where I requested my mother’s day flowers to come from.  What kind of a homesteader wife would I be if I wanted cut flowers?   No, I had my eye on some good looking tomato, pepper and cucumber starts! We had high hopes to grow our own starts this year, but our experiment with the fish tank has turned out to be a total failure. Carpinito’s will have to do for our fair-weather plants this year. We got eight different tomato plants, mostly heirloom, and four varieties of each, peppers and cucumbers. Sometime in the coming week we will build a home for all of these. 

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WE HAVE A WINNER!

As our regular readers know, we had an opportunity to give away a fantastic prize from Palouse Brand products. On Friday we drew the winner. Trying to keep the drawing honest, Lina wrote down all the email subscribers down on pieces of paper, balled them up and put them in a canning jar (sorry, no hat, just jars). Paul drew at random one of these. The winner is Lina’s sister, Era. Though a little awkward, being a family member, Era was our first subscribers, and our biggest fan. We are thrilled that she won, and look forward to dinner at her house! Thank you to all of our readers for participating, and we look forward to being able to do similar give-a-ways in the future!

Thanks for reading!              

Flew the coop

It seems like forever since our last update on the blog.  We had a few days of sunshine which seemed to completely change the appearance of the garden. In three days of weather above 70, everything doubled in size and looks a lot more luscious.  The strawberries are still looking a bit pitiful but they haven’t been in the ground for long, so they have an excuse.   The potatoes are exploding with greens, we already had to add some more soil to cover them up a bit—hopefully this technique will produce a good crop of potatoes to enjoy through the winter.  However, the peas that we co-planted together with the potatoes are not doing so hot.  The chickens outsmarted us by plucking all the side seeds, leaving the few that I dropped in the middle of the cages and those got covered with soil along with the potato plants.  Peas don’t like that.  I will sow a row of peas in the pallets soon—we are getting really close to finally planting my salad bar and herb garden.

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About two weeks ago I got a text from a neighbor complaining about our chickens (Chicoletta, my favorite chicken to be specific) harassing her guest by trying to get into their vehicles.  Chicoletta is a special bird in many different ways.  She was the one with the impacted crop and spent some one on one time with Paul and I for two days (getting fancy soft foods and lots of hugs and pats) so as of now, she has lost her chicken-ness (although she still lays eggs) and considers herself a human.  She follows me around the garden and tries really hard to get into the house.  She actually snuck inside the garage and was stuck there for a few hours, terrifying the young chicks and eating all of their food.  While I find it endearing (and highly amusing), others get easily annoyed with my pet.   Because of the complaints we decided we had to do something right away, to prevent them from leaving the back yard.  A few days before, I found a gentleman on craigslist.com selling used fishing nets.  Paul picked up two thinking we would use it in their new run.  Boy, were we glad to have gotten them when we did because now those nets are keeping the birds in and the neighbors happy.

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I don’t blame the gals for wanting to get out, there is nothing fun in the back yard and they get bored.  Never in a million years did I think one of my daily chores will be providing entertainment for a flock of chickens.  Every day I try to feed them in a more creative way by scattering their scratch in different places so they have to look for their treats and spreading salad greens all over the yard again, to send them on a scavenger hunt.  One day I was desperate I had no greens, only one head of very expensive organic cabbage, so I used that as their treat by hanging it up for them to peck at, sort of like a piñata.  That cabbage was on my menu board for the next day so I had to do some meal reorganizing.  On the weekends I picked a bunch of dandelions for them to snack on.  Before even having a chance to get out into the backyard to scatter their tasty treats, the birds knocked the tray out of my hands and engulfed the greens in less than hour.  Good thing we have a lot of weeds on our property!

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Along with the chickens harassing the neighbors we also noticed a few weeks ago that their egg production was decreasing.  This confused us as nothing has changed.  The days got longer and warmer so in theory, they should be laying like crazy.  And of course they were, a few days into the low egg count, I went on a hunt.  We had four regular chicken escapees so I figured they were too lazy or busy to go back into the coop to lay, therefore finding other places to nest and lay their eggs.  I looked everywhere and just when I was ready to give up, something caught my eye in a pile of leaves in our compost pile.  It was a nest that had been filled with eleven eggs in three days!  I called Paul and we both had a good laugh.  We kept the eggs separate to make sure they were ok.  I am glad to say we ate them all.  Eggs are amazing. They keep much longer without refrigeration than your government and the egg council would have you believe.  Check out this discussion on one of our favorite forums.

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The last interesting chicken keeping issue we have never dealt with before is one of our hens is getting broody.  I am not sure how often or how much of her day gets spent sitting on eggs but the last two days when I’ve gone to close the coop and collect the eggs, she is there keeping her babies warm.  I know it is a difficult habit for them to break, so I had to take her off the eggs and collect them to not encourage such behavior.  She did not put up a fight at all but I did feel like I was stealing her babies.  We have no rooster, so having her sit on perfectly edible eggs seems wasteful. It also affects the other hens, because while she is occupying the nest, they will not lay eggs in it. This could lead to a condition known to as “egg bound.” I will give her a few more days and then refer to my chicken guide on how to handle a broody hen.

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This weekend and for the next few weekends Paul will be working on the new chicken run.  If all goes like planned (haha!!) it should look very awesome!  We decided to go with the hog panels and have already purchased them.  We will use these for the walls of the run, and string the netting over the top to make sure none of the girls can leave through the roof. Come back soon for updates and photos of the run!

Also, don’t forget to sign up for our mailing list. We will be drawing the winner of our Palouse Brand giveaway this Friday! We won’t solicit you or sell your email address to anyone. It is just a convenient way for you to get notified when we have a new post.

 

Thanks for reading!