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Month: October 2012

Samhain 2012

Samhain 2012

This Samhain (that’s the Gaelic word for Halloween) is a bit special for us.  It’s not the first in our new home but it is the first that will be fully celebrated.  Last year’s Samhain passed us by a bit in a blur of moving house and exhaustion.  Not so this year.

In the old traditions this festival celebrates the end of the old year, and what a year it’s been!  The first year of living in the home we designed and built ourselves, our first year of farming and harvesting a good portion of our own food, the first year of knowing we’re here, we’ve arrived and we are not going anywhere.

We’ve raised 4 pigs, 90 meat birds and had a laying flock that reached 67 at it’s peak.  This time last year we had a sum total of 7 chickens and the only earth that had been turned over was as a result of the house build, it’s quite a change!  We also grew salads and greens that kept us full all summer (that looooong hot summer), 300 onions, 2 1/2 sacks of onions, processed at least 50 quarts of tomatoes, made jams and used the abundant green tomatoes for delicious, spicy chutney.  The acorn squashes were a triumph (next year we want to grow a lot more of them), we’ve got enough carrots in the freezer and stored in sand to keep us going until next summer and the parsnips promise to be equally fabulous.   And let’s not forget the 75lb bucket filled to the brim with honey sitting cosily in my living room; it’s been a busy year.

 

As well as a growing farm we have growing boys, both of them thriving in the wide spaces and fresh air.  Both are expert chicken wranglers and egg collectors, they’ll happily run around with pigs and love to help dig in the earth; there is no doubt this is the right place for them.  They’ve also loved the visits from family this year, Stephen’s Mum and Dad, my Dad and my beautiful sister who surprised me with a week long visit in May.  Bliss.

 

It’s been an amazing year, one I doubt I’ll ever forget.  As we end this year, and enter the period of reflection and dreaming that exists in the suspended time between this year ending and the new one beginning at the winter solstice, we all have much to feel proud of and rejoice in.  We are fulfilled, we are exhausted.  The work of the harvest is mostly done and now it is time to retreat to the fire side, to share our bounty with family and friends, to rest.

But Samhain isn’t just a time for remembering the year’s work, or even just for celebrating with crazy costumes and illicit treats.  The traditions of this festival run much deeper and it is they that resonate with me the most.  It is the time to remember those who are not with us, those who crossed the bridge to the Summerlands ahead of us, those who wait on the other side for our return ready to welcome us back.  But not yet, they say, not for a long time yet.

So in amongst the fun and the dressing up and the celebrating, as we paint t-shirts, make decorations and head off for a night of trick or treating, there is time for remembrance.  There is time to make a fire and flick through the photo albums, to tell stories of my grandparents and of their parents.  The stories my Mum and Dad shared with me as a child, all building my sense of history and of belonging.

 

But mostly I remember my Mum laughing, the sound of her voice is clear in my ears, I know if I turn around quickly enough I will see her there.  Tonight as I watch my boys running along the dark streets with their friends, as we share with them the traditions that mean the most to us, I know the ones we love are walking right beside us.  Their love beats in our hearts, their stories run through our bones.

 

 

 

 

Preschool Preparedness

Preschool Preparedness

A certain 3 1/2 year old person has decided that school is for him too and is now arriving at the school table full of expectation and ready to work.  O…kay.  So I’m ramping up on the preschool action and we’re all loving it.  Whenever Neirin does anything he does it full throttle so he’s suddenly recognising letters, numbers, patterns and generally being a clever little bean all over the place.

I already have the preschool curriculum from Confessions of a Homeschooler (it’s ridiculously good value) but I want to make sure that we’re not all paper based.  So I’ve started researching different approaches and have pinned about 4 million activities on Pinterest.  I’m really drawn to the montessori style activities for Neirin, they are complete, simple and allow him to develop skills in a natural way.  I also like the minimal likelihood of finding the tray stapled to the cat and painted red.  This is the sort of thing I have to worry about.

For this tray I mixed coloured and white beans in a container, then put a couple of each type in the other bowls.  Without being asked Neirin sorted the beans by colour using first the strawberry huller (encouraging the pincer grip) and then a large spoon.  Eventually he found neither suited him and so finished sorting them ‘with my fingers‘, he happily sorted all of the beans into the two bowls and not a single one ended up attached to the cat.  Perfection.

I’m hoping to do a different tray or sensory activity for him each day as well as using both paper based and ipad activities.  I’ve found some lovely letter tracing and word building apps that really compliment all of the other work we are doing and use similar montessori methodologies.   I think the key to keeping Neirin interested is variety and using simple things we already have around the house will keep me from becoming overwhelmed.  It’s going to be busy at the school table from now on; just the way I like it.

 

Pumpkinpaloosa

Pumpkinpaloosa

There’s something of a theme running through our activities at the moment…

After seeing me needle felt my first pumpkin (after watching this great tutorial), Huwyl was desperate to have a go, so he made his own over the weekend.  I can’t say watching him wield the needle was a stress free experience for me, but he got the hang of it and has now declared that he wants to needle felt every day from now on.  Ok.

 

Continuing on the pumpkin theme we did our second round of pumpkin lanterns this weekend.  I’d hoped to enter our first ones into Movita’s pumpkin carve off, but before I could get my act together and buy candles they, well, rotted.  It really doesn’t take long does it?  Ahem.

So we missed our chance for glory but will hopefully have working lanterns for our Halloween celebrations, I’m calling the previous ones a science experiment on the process of decay.  Planned it all along.  Yep.

 

Ah, kitty cat pumpkin, how sweetly you glow.

Filthy Lucre and the Lost Art of Chicken Herding

Filthy Lucre and the Lost Art of Chicken Herding

For as long as I can remember, I’ve liked money. To be more specific, I’ve liked being given money. Now of course, everyone likes being handed cash. Unless you’re Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, there aren’t many people who would say “oh no, I’ve actually been trying to get rid of a stack of fifties for bloody days. Can’t seem to give it away, mate. Pray keep your money, for I need it not.”

 

Unfortunately, I’ve done some fairly embarrassing things to get my hands on money. At the tender age of 15, an application for a shelf-stacking job at Iceland Frozen Foods was rejected for my being under age. Apparently they had a policy of not employing child labour (novel, but it was the 80s). Not to be thwarted, at the more mature age of 17 I was employed by a nightclub to collect glasses in my hometown of Middlesbrough. No one explained to me, a slender and naive young lad with nice legs and clad only in a pair of tight fitting black shorts, a skin-tight Bacardi t-shirt and a bow-tie, of the dangers inherent in bending over to collect glasses from tables surrounded by drunken middle-aged women who really should have known better. But, I endured because of an unquenchable thirst for the filthy lucre. Even though my arse still involuntarily clenches when I hear a drunken female cackle and screech right behind me and I was paid beneath minimum wage, at least it was in cash.

At 19 I was employed by Swervey Mervey, the landlord of the Stainton Inn pub who was less careful with his hands than a newly formed cadre of Dramatic Arts undergrads with a Twister board, a bottle of baby oil and way too much home-brewed sherry. Mervyn was particularly swervy when a few of the better-looking barmaids were on duty but thankfully never required me to don the Bacardi t-shirt or be swerved. And as with the nightclub owner, his redeeming characteristic was a habit of paying in cash, no questions asked. He even put it in a tidy brown envelope. In an electronic age when I rarely even see my wages anymore, being handed an envelope with the reassuring pad of rolled-up promisory notes is very special my friends.

So, I think you can agree that my passion for being given money transcends temporary discomfort, which is why it’s baffling to many people that I chose to start a hobby farm. I mean, there aren’t many organic farmers driving Mercs and quaffing 20 year old single malts while they count the stacks of cash they’ve just made from selling pasture-raised chicken. Of course I might be wrong. I have an Aston Martin DB1390 convertible tractor after all and I worked out how to get it into fourth gear this summer.

Alas though, after experimenting for the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is money in farming but unfortunately all of it is pouring outwards. So far we must have dropped about $20,000 into farm infrastructure, machinery and livestock…and we still don’t have a barn or fenced pastures. As the missus likes to remark, that’s an awful lot of trips to the farmers market.

ImageBut today we actually made some cash and it was a triumphant moment. Our chicken flock has grown significantly from last year when we had a meagre four birds, one of whom was Custard the Cockerel who limped whenever anyone was watching. The flock peaked in the summer at around 60 and if you count the meat birds, was closer to 120. Sure, we made some money selling those broilers and our pigs, but in all honesty that cash had all already been spent on purchasing them, building their housing, fences, feed and herbal medicine not to mention the astronomical butchery fees. But I digress. Today we made some real cash by selling our surplus laying birds and “downsizing” for the winter.

We got most of the girls we sold for free in the spring from a neighbour who was going on an extended vacation and had planned to slaughter them all. We also offloaded ten of the disappointing Barred Plymouth Rocks we raised from day-old chicks (I should have realised that nothing good ever came out of Plymouth…perhaps there is some truth after all to the rumours that it was originally settled by wandering French garlic farmers in 1973 only to be targeted by an influx of out-of-work itinerant Belgians in the great circus performer migration of the early 80s).

Our new cockerel wasn’t too pleased with these outbound transitions. I think he was ok with the first batch of 5 Rocks leaving just over a week ago. After all, he still had over 50 girls to pleasure. But when I used my secret powers of chicken herding and Jedi mind control to separate 10 of the reds into a holding pen, things went downhill fast. I think he was partial to a bit of the older red sexlink because after they went and I’d claimed another five Rocks this afternoon, he looked ready for murder. When I took a further 3 reds this evening, clearly enough was fucking enough and he did the side shuffle thing at me. I swear could see him calculating the trajectory for a raptor strike at my face. If I hear a tapping at the window tonight with the muffled words “knock knock, motherfucker”, for sure I’m not opening the door to see who it is.

But even should he somehow manage to beak his way past the guard dogs and slumbering children without alerting anyone to his presence, I’m sure after a cup of tea and the chance to calm down I’m hoping he’ll accept that a big stack of cash buys a lot of pellets and a fresh batch of nubile young reds when the spring finally arrives.

It’s just such a travesty that my novice blunder with the tractor, a meteorite and the bush hog last week, plus our UV water purification bulb expiring yesterday, has wiped out what profit we made. But then, he doesn’t need to know that. For now at least, I have a stack of cash to keep us happy.

Friday Morning

Friday Morning

Would you like to take a walk with me?  There’s some chores to do but we won’t notice that, it’s such a beautiful day.

After checking on the animals (feeding, watering, cuddling) it’s time for a little walk around, taking in the view.  Everything is bathed in red gold light, the air is fresh but not cold.  The perfect day for a wander before breakfast.

The bees are being wrapped up for the cold season, despite the warm days we are still having.  We know the cold weather is coming so we bask in every mild day we get.  It is the golden season and we are loving it.  Now our walk is done we can head in for a cup of tea before the busy day begins; looking out of the windows at the evolving day, knowing there is nowhere better to be.

Wood Fired

Wood Fired

Just shy of two weeks ago we had a very special delivery.  It was large, it came on the back of a truck and it’s going to keep us cosy and warm for a very long time.

On an appropriately cold and frosty morning the wood arrived, bathed in the glow of autumnal morning light.  Large logs (or more accurately small trees) were piled up in less time than it takes to brew tea; there they are in all their glory.

This weekend Stephen made a start on chainsawing and splitting the wood, with the aid of his birthday chainsaw and a splitter loaned to us by a lovely neighbour.  The work was pleasant in the afternoon sunshine and I even had a try with the splitter which was nearly as much fun as a kitchenaid appliance with the added bonus of firewood at the end instead of, you know, cake.

But why all the wood?  I hear you question curiously.  Well, as well as keeping the house cosy with our wood stove, we are going to add a wood fired water gasification unit to heat radiant floor heating through the deepest parts of winter.  While the stove keeps us very cosy it is a secondary source of heat and doesn’t fully heat upstairs or right through the house on those -40C days we get here in the frozen north.  With the unit we have our eye on we’ll be extremely cosy and warm throughout the snowy season and the wood pile that sits happily next to the hay should keep our house heated for about 3 years.

Yes years.  For half the price of a season of propane we hope to stay cosy and warm with the added advantage of using a renewable resource that exists in abundance here in Canada.  It also exists in abundance on our land, so in the long run we’ll be taking wood from our own woodlands and forests to heat our house with only the cost of our own labour attached to it.  By clearing dead wood from the forest and managing our wood lot we will improve it’s health and support new, healthy growth.  Our current store of wood will last us for a good long while giving us time to collect and season the wood from our own land.

Knowing that we can heat our house from the resources we have right here is an extremely cosy feeling.  The less we have to bring in from the outside world the happier we are, especially when that thing is the economic equivalent of grinding up diamonds and ferraris and shoving them in your boiler. It will be a bit more work, adding wood each day, cleaning out each week, checking creosote levels, wood moisture content, dials and readouts.  But it is the right kind of work, like making bread or growing food, the kind that fills you up and makes you satisfied at the end.

 

It’s been a busy season and I think we are all ready for some restful hours by the fireside.  Though I’m in no rush I admit I’ll welcome quiet afternoons of falling flakes and flickering flames.

Thankful

Thankful

2 years ago this weekend we put in an offer on what is now our home.  At the time it was derelict land, barely visible from the road because the weeds and brush were so high.  After it was finally ours, and the snow came so we could see the land, we realised we had a field we didn’t know about.  We call that Bonus Field.

1 year ago we were barbecuing outside on the driveway as we still didn’t have a working oven or properly clean water to drink.  We owned 7 chickens and hadn’t planted so much as a pansy on our property, having invested every ounce of energy we had into building our house.   The desperation I felt to move in was like a physical presence.  We spent every moment we could here, only returning to our suburban rental when it got too dark to stay out.  We preferred camp fire beans and fresh air to a more plush dinner in town.

Today…

I woke to a dark smudge of dusky pink on the horizon, by the time I went out to sort the chickens (wearing a big coat for the first time since spring) the ground was thick with white frost and frozen hard.  The crisp, icy air pinched my cheeks, but the stunning view kept me captivated.  As the sun rises in the east the thick light slowly trickles down the trees of the forest; the forest we look at every day with joy and reverence.

In the last year we moved in, started a farm, raised 4 pigs, 60 meat birds (with more to come), an organic garden and a laying flock of over 60.  Alongside that we’ve homeschooled, adventured and lived together in this wonderful place.  For this, and for the people who  make my life such a joy, I am truly, truly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

Bringing Home The Bacon

Bringing Home The Bacon

Historically September is a month in which you can be assured of several of life’s certainties. There’s the drop in temperatures and the first misty mornings; an increase in commuter traffic which accompanies the new school year. Jumpers and coats get dug out from the back of the closet where inexplicably they managed to mate and produce random unpaired gloves. And of course there’s the inevitable disappointment of being a Boro fan which kicks in after a brief few weeks of hope.

This year there are some new events to add to the list. The first is my vegetable harvest. Now, I’m not one to blow my own trumpet. As Bill Hicks observed, there’s at least one vertebrae in the way for a start. I have to say though…my veg is bloody amazing. Most of you won’t have experienced them, since I’m tighter than a gnat’s chuff when it comes to sharing but believe me when I say that if you’d tasted them, you’d die happier than a Belgian with a British passport. The stuff you buy in the shops is the equivalent of a droning French poem about French poetry in comparison to the Shakespearean sonnet that is my potatoes, carrots, parsnips and assorted legumes.

This year we used no fertiliser or pesticides and just experimented to see what would grow. Granted, like back in ’90 when my brother successfully cultivated a number of marijuana plants on his bedroom window having persuaded our mother they were a variety of rare fern, it turned out to be a particularly good year for the weeds. However, we also managed to get 2.5 bushels of potatoes, roughly 300 onions, beans, turnips, parsnips, carrots, mesclun leaves, more Romaine lettuce than a gypsy with five hands could steal, spinach, swiss chard, bok choi, cabbage, curly leaf kale, broccoli, melons (OK, they were tiny small but yeah baby! melons! Try growing those in the north-east of England), courgettes, acorn squash, enough tomatoes to bury a small Italian village and a few beetroot that the rather snobbish mice in my fields discussed but finally ruled as unfit for rodent consumption by five votes to three.

In the interest of full disclosure, my peas and garlic were an abject failure and I lost most of the strawberries, gooseberries and rhubarb to the weeds, but I’m confident that the soft fruits at least can be saved now that the tangle of grass, spikeys and big sprawly things are in retreat. My mate Shawn The Hunter has left his bush whacker complete with its optional 10-inch steel blade and it’s the Chuck Norris of weed control machines. I can’t wait to have a go and hope to not amputate my foot in the process which would be unfortunate to say the least.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Emma process those tomatoes. She started the month happier than a school girl in Team Edward but as the weeks have gone by and the volume of untouched tomatoes continues to grow, I’m sensing a certain air of “ask me about those tomatoes mother fucker and you’ll be plucking them from a special place about five seconds later”. Given I’m quite protective of my special places, I’ve decided to not press the subject of the half-dozen bins of ripening tomatoes in the garage, or mention the other four or five sackfuls still on the vine. It’s a self-defence mechanism most married men are born with.

The second event that I’m adding to the September List is livestock processing. When I worked at Accenture there was a phrase used after each performance review of being “counselled out”. What it basically meant was the person had been judged to have reached the end of their useful life and was deemed not good enough to progress further with us beautiful people. Those counselled out were ejected faster than a lightweight Belgian in a bar crawl and we all tried to not speak about them thereafter. It turns out that “livestock processing” is basically the same thing except it’s a good deal messier and you can’t re-apply a year later.

Our four Long Black pigs and almost 60 chickens were taken to slaughter and “processed”. Despite our neighbour Nelson The Farmer offering to take the pigs when he did his, I chose to do the job myself. These were our first meat animals and it felt shabby and disrespectful to let anyone else complete what we had started especially since I’d decided the day they were to die. So, we borrowed a trailer from Big George, which was about as road-worthy as my Expandable, Foldable, Portable Dog Basket but did the job and didn’t cost us the $2,500 a new one would have required. In the dark at 5AM, I caught and loaded up the birds into chicken crates which was no mean feat since each bird weighed around 8lbs live and there were eight in each crate. Running against the clock, I only just managed to get them all loaded up in time to set off at 6:30AM. We used a local poultry abattoir called Berube Poultry in South Mountain, ON, that I’d highly recommend. They were friendly, no nonsense and the birds were done within minutes of arriving.

I’d expected the pigs to be a nightmare. I loved having those pigs and while I didn’t make the mistake of regarding them as pets, it was still hard to order their deaths. It helped that we’d pre-sold at least two of them and I crave proper English back bacon. The Gods of Small Agriculture were certainly smiling on me because I’d expected to have a real struggle getting all four into the trailer but instead three went in willingly for a bucket of feed and the fourth followed after a gentle nudge with my knee. Unfortunately the abattoir I took the pigs to wasn’t as good as the poultry one. It’s currently being sold and the man running the place didn’t share my desire to treat the animals with utmost respect. He didn’t butcher them the way I asked, kept the offal despite my instructions and also charged me 60c per lb to butcher despite his price list showing 50c per lb. When I called to complain I got a grudging acknowledgement that he owed us the offal and a lot of attitude from him. Given the escalating price of feed and unexpected butchery costs meant the pigs came close to costing us money, it was such a disappointing way to end what should have been a hugely rewarding experience, especially since the pigs turned out to be much bigger than we’d expected and there was more meat to go around. Needless to say, I’ll be taking Nelson’s advice and travelling the extra distance to try out his butcher next year.

Despite those final problems, in addition to the vegetables we now have two freezers full of chicken and pork not to mention the barrel of honey and unending supply of eggs. There is cured back bacon in the fridge and we bought ourselves a meat slicer to cut the perfect rasher. If the vegetables taste divine, then the meat we’ve produced is out of this world. The chicken has flavour and substance, the pork is rich, dark and fatty. In the next couple of weeks Shawn The Hunter and myself are going to have a crack at building a smokehouse to cold-smoke the hams and bacon and I’ll bring up the subject to more processing with Emma and try to make some sausage. September was a crazy busy month, but it’s been worth it to to see the culmination of the effort we’ve put in. We’ll be celebrating with some close friends on 5th November, it’s just a shame I couldn’t get a batch of beer brewed in time. But then again, I need to leave at least one big project for next year.

Moving Along

Moving Along

Is it me or are the months spinning by?  Already it’s October (my favourite month of the year) but I’m not sure where September went.  Perhaps it’s hiding in the boxes (and boxes) of tomatoes that are waiting to be processed?  Who knows.

 

 

 

Huwyl spent his first night away from home since his brother was born this weekend.  He attended a camp in the woods and came back utterly exhausted.  Monday saw him wake with a temperature and a head cold that’s leaving him feeling a bit tired and in need of TLC.  To add to that Daddy is away so we’re managing the farm by ourselves.  Luckily there is a lot less to do than even a month ago but it’s still enough to keep us busy.

And then there are the tomatoes, we currently have boxes of them in the garage waiting for my attendance.  Stephen stripped the plants in the rain on Sunday, the frosts are now regular at night so we wanted to claim as many as we can.  Yesterday I made 4 quarts of passatta, another 6 quarts that I turned into tomato ketchup and then 5 quarts of crushed tomatoes were canned.  It barely made a dent.

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that we wont’ get through them all, but we’ll certainly have many happy chickens as they love dining on the extras.  I’m having a morning of just spending time with the boys and tidying round, then this afternoon I’ll be making some green tomato chutney, Stephen’s favourite.  Now I’m off to bring the fire back to life, it is keeping us company as the days turn colder and the damp clings long past the early hours of morning.

October is here!  What will you be doing with it?