I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Monday, August 30, 2010

Festival Season and an Anniversary

As the activities of beekeeping wind down for the year the educational aspects begin to gear up. The season of Fall Festivals and Fairs is a great time to get out and educate the general public about the importance of bees in food production and to recruit new bee keepers. I am looking forward to being an active participant in this year’s educational process since last year I was one of the unsuspecting masses. It will all start the weekend after next at the Kanawha County State Fair September 9-12th in Sissonville where the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers Association will set up an educational booth fully equipped with a demonstration hive.

If you have ever had any interest in beekeeping this is a great place to come and check it out. You can get lots of free and useful information about how to get started and why beekeeping is so important. In fact, this is where Fred and I got our first symptoms of beekeeping fever almost a year ago. We were trying to decide how to spend a lazy weekend and I had been debating entering some baking contests so we agreed that the fair was close and I could check out some of the possible competition. I was still in a medicated flux at the time, on leave from the FD, fighting depression and just generally at loose ends, desperate for something to give me a little direction.

I wandered around the fairgrounds in a medicated hazy when I happened upon the beekeeping demo. I had actually gone over there to look at the bunnies, goats and other 4-H displays as a way to waste time while Sarah rode the dangerous fair contraptions sure to induce a seizure in my already muddled state. I like to wander around and fantasize about farm life. Little did I know, a year from that fair visit Fred and I would be deeply immersed in the push towards green. The bees would merely be the tip of our iceberg.

It was while staring, transfixed, at the bees swarming about the comb through their Plexiglas walls that I was approached by the president of the KVBA. He asked me if I had any interest in keeping bees and on a pure whim I said yes. Sure I loved honey, and Fred and I had talked since we met about self-sufficiency, I found bees naturally fascinating but becoming a beekeeper had only ever been a fleeting fancy of my imagination. He told me how they could really use some young beekeepers in the association (and since Fred and I are both solidly in our thirties this should indicate to you the general age of the association) and provided me with lots of pamphlets, cookbooks and additional literature on bees. I thanked him and meandered away from the stall in search of Fred and Sarah.

When I found them the bees were already half forgotten in my dazed condition. When Fred asked me why I had all those papers, I told him about the beekeepers and the live bees and that piqued his interest enough that we turned around and headed back to the booth. Fred and the association president became instant cohorts and he promptly invited us to the next KVBA meeting. Fred and I went to the meeting I do not exactly remember when it was but it was sometime later that fall. Although we still had not acquired any bees at that point we were interested enough to pay the ten dollar fee and join the association for one year. This entitled us, also, to a membership in the state association as well as put us on the mailing list and updated us with any special information that may be made available.

We still were not entirely sure that we had the time or money to invest in beekeeping. Often setting up an initial hive or two from scratch can be very expensive. The bees themselves are relatively inexpensive but by the time you have built the hives and bought the necessary protective equipment you have made quite the initial investment. As we calculated we assumed just to get started with two hives (which is the minimum recommended in case of loss or disease) that we would have to invest between eight hundred and a thousand dollars.

Remember, I was out of work and unsure at that point if I would be able to return. Money was tight and that was a lot to invest in the potential failure of what we still deemed a hobby, however, while we were at the meeting we met the elderly gentleman who in due course would sell us his bees and hives and ultimately allow us to get into bee keeping at a much more affordable price. (If you are interested in the drama of how we came about actually acquiring our bees you can go back to the April entries of this blog and check out the details.)

Now, almost a year later, here we are, full-fledged beekeeper with three hives (no honey to speak of) out corrupting the youth of America, petitioning the local government and participating in all aspects of the social beekeepers network. I hope to see some of you at the fair, if not at Kanawha County’s fair then later on at some of the other fairs and festivals in which we will participate. I will try to update the blog as we nail down other dates. Please, if you read this blog and are at a fair, come introduce yourself. I would really love to meet you.

~

If you had asked me last September what my life would look like a year from that date I would never have guessed it would involve bees and chickens and homemade laundry detergent, green living or staying at home. I would have probably told you that I would be back to work at the FD within a matter of weeks if not months. God’s plans are not always the same as ours. I spent a good part of last year in a serious state of depression questioning every aspect of my life. Ir really never occurred to me, on any serious level, that I could be happy living a much simpler existence.

One thing I have come to realize is that I must be able to define myself outside of what I do to make money. I think this was one of the hardest things I had to come to grips with. I had a lot of pride in my career, I had accomplished something that few women before me had accomplished and I relished in the pride that went with that. This year has been humbling for me. It has been a year struggling to redefine our lives and our priorities. We have made lots of material sacrifices but we have gained a wealth of strength and knowledge and the contentment of knowing that we have struggled together and with God’s ever present guidance we have persevered.

Life is not easy. Life is not predictable, you can set a course and be blown off it in a heartbeat by death or illness or loss of a job or a car accident or anything. These worldly possessions that we put so much stock in can fall by the wayside in an instant. What do you have when they are gone?

In our family we had built a false sense of security with our things buying more stuff, going more places as filler, lacking any real satisfaction or contentment. I am not saying it was not tough. It was a serious lifestyle adjustment going from two salaries to one, having medical bill stream in and realizing that eating every meal out became a luxury instead of an everyday option. Being forced to budget when I went to the grocery store was especially humbling. We did not do it without heartache, arguments or tears but we did do it. Yes, we have fought, said mean things, questioned ourselves and God’s plan but ultimately we have grown. We have grown closer as a family and we have grown in our spiritual lives too.

As I have said before, this is a process for us, we are learning. We still hit stumbling blocks we still make mistakes ( I still can only remember my recycled grocery bags about fifty percent of the time) sometimes we still fight or argue but we have seen how small changes, baby steps, can make huge leaps in improving our quality of life. By slowly paring down our existence we have gained immeasurable wealth in our satisfaction with life and our general happiness. We take joy in the quiet moments and the little victories: fresh eggs from our hens, a successful hive split, clean clothes off the line.

I consider the words of Paul as he wrote to the Philippians about considering everything of this world a loss to gain Christ and I think about Christ talking to potential disciples and telling them to leave their worldly possessions behind and follow him. No, we have not given up all our worldly possession, but we have significantly reduced them and our gluttonous consumerism. Some of our reduction was by choice some by necessity, some of it was willfully and some of it was by painful pruning but ultimately the result has improved us as individuals and as a family and for the most part we are happier and healthier for it.

These are just some of the things that have been on my mind as we approach the first anniversary of the birth of our greener lifestyle. We are still in transition and in all actuality it will probably be a lifelong process. I want to thank everyone who has encouraged us with thoughtful reflection, as silent prayer warriors, with a kind word or a helpful piece of advice. I also want to thank everyone who takes a minute out of their own busy lives to immerse themselves in this blog and spend a few moments empathizing with us. Thank you for celebrating in our victories and mourning with us in our trials. We appreciate you.


Thank you for reading,
Much love on this journey to greener life,

Autumn

Friday, August 27, 2010

Harvest: DENIED

Well yesterday evening we got in the hives. Let me start by saying this blog is not entirely negative just severely disappointing. We went through all three hives and we found all three queens (first time ever), workers, a few drones (summer is winding down so drones are being eliminated), capped brood, larva, some pollen and some capped honey. We saw no evidence of mites, brood foul or other disease. Now would be the time that most beekeepers have begun to medicate. Fred and I are choosing not to medicate our hives and I guess this time next year we will know if that was a wise avant-garde decision or a foolish novice mistake. Time will tell.

That is the good news. Here is the bad: the super/shallow that we placed on top of our most active hive had no more honey in it than it did at last inspection. This is really, really disappointing. When we placed that shallow above the queen excluder it was in hopes of harvesting our first honey crop of the year. The bees of that hive were very active and abounding in stored honey, pollen and babies in their brood box and shallows. We actually thought they were beginning to get crowded and running out of room for their own stores so we placed the shallow above the queen excluder in hopes of giving them more room and of harvesting a little honey this year.

We were denied and we still are not sure exactly why. Now granted, our goal this year was not to harvest honey but to raise healthy bees for a bountiful crop next year. On the premise that last year was a bad year for bees in general our goals were simply to sustain and thrive a generation of bees that would raise strong producers next year. We gained a hive this spring during swarm season when we split the larger of our two hives. We requeened our hateful hive with a pure bred, mated Italian queen (after believing the hive to have lost their queen and in need of a gentler temperament anyway) and we have since located all three queens and appear to have a healthy generation of bees.

So why do we not have any honey? I do not know and frankly I am really frustrated. There has been a second late summer bloom which means the bees would have plenty of pollen and nectar to gather. I’ve let the yard go to clover on several occasions to keep them happy at home. They have a source of fresh water in the creek that runs past the house and the weather has been fairly cooperative, if not somewhat too hot, with only intermittent rain showers which should allow the bees plenty of harvest time. So what did we do wrong?

Again, my answer is I just do not know. Yesterday when Fred and I went out to the hives I fully expected to be harvesting an entire super. We dragged a large Tupperware container out to the apiary, stoked the smoker and prepared a heavy concentration of sugar syrup to engage the bee’s attention while we pilfered their hive. We decided to start with the hive whose super we intended to harvest.

We smoked the entrance and popped the outer lid, smoked them a little more, waited a few seconds then popped the top. This is our most docile hive and the one from which we had made the split. These are gentle bees that will curiously crawl around your veil without even attempting to sting. So we can move through this hive and their stores in a relatively slow pace without fear of angering them to attack. We popped the inner lid, sprayed them with a little sugar water and disappointingly gazed into a practically empty super. Virtually no different than when we placed it a month ago.

We fully expected to harvest this entire super but it was just not meant to be. We sat it off to the side and moved down into the lower two shallows and the brood box. We found plenty of late summer stores, lots of bees, substantial brood, lots of workers and the queen. Everything a beekeeper could want, except our own honey to harvest. This hive consists of one brood box, two shallows, a queen excluder and another shallow on top which in theory would be ours to harvest. I have come up with two theories as to why our bees did not make enough honey for us to steal a little.

The first theory is this: we have given them entirely too much room. If you remember back this would have happened when I botched the placement of the queen excluder and inadvertently trapped her majesty above in a shallow for approximately a week. You see the bees should have the brood box (or deep) and one super (or shallow) which belongs exclusively to them. This allows the queen plenty of room to raise new bees and the workers plenty of room to put up stores to feed the hive. I had intended to add a harvest shallow and had put down a queen excluder towards this goal, somehow trapping the queen above it when I could not locate her. This allowed her a week or more to lay several frame of brood in the shallow which basically means it now belongs to the bees (no one wants honey with little bee eyeballs and body parts floating about in it).

So we gave that shallow up for naught and placed the queen excluder above it and added a third shallow. This seemed like a fine idea at the time considering the bees were actively filling up every available inch of space. We figured it would be no time at all before they had completely filled their own stores and begun working in ours. We were wrong.

The other theory is this: The main complaint people have with Italian bees (which all of ours now are since we requeened the mongrel hive) is that the queen never cycles dormant. Regardless of food stores, or lack thereof, an Italian queen will continuously lay brood all summer long. If food starts to become scarce she will continue to make babies, which means more mouths to feed from the stores since nothing new is coming about. So the other option is that they bees hit a dry spell where there was not enough bloom to sustain the new bees that the queen was making so they robbed their own store (or our super) to feed this new influx of mouths.

Although they had drawn out the wax in our harvest shallow (this means they built it up from flat to comb shaped to store honey) I still tend to go with the first theory. I just do not think they had enough time to fill and then eat that entire shallow. I think they simply had too much room and just did not bother with it as they continued to store honey in the brood box an two shallows which belonged to them. Still, regardless of the reason they did not fill it or robbed it, whichever, it was tremendously disappointing to see almost nothing in that shallow.

After we had moved through the bottom of the hive we put the lids back on and moved over into our hateful hive. I think after this we will save the hateful hive till last from now on when we do our inspections. After aggravating them they tend to stay angry for a while and disrupt our ability to move through the last hive which also tends to be fairly docile until annoyed by their more temperamental sisters. The nasty hive seemed to be thriving; we located their new queen easily due to the blue dot on her thorax. I got stung twice as we examined this hive. No amount of smoke or sugar water ever seems to dull their temper. We had hoped after requeening that they would become more pleasant but it seems their new monarch is equally as volatile as her predecessor. They too had all the necessary components to be pronounced healthy and we quickly put them back together to let them calm down.

As we moved into our last hive, this was the split we made earlier in the season, we located their queen almost immediately. She and her subjects all seemed in good condition although they were notably agitated as their neighbors continued to attack me due to the release of potent pheromones from the last two stings. We moved quickly through this hive with smoke and sugar water in attempts to keep them mostly calm and do a baseline check since we had already located the queen and could see she was in good condition. If you remember this was the hive I was sure I had completely annihilated with my beginner‘s fumblings when we attempted the split. Much to my joy they have thrived in spite of my clumsy and inept attempts to manage their existence.

Their stores seemed a little puny compared to the others and after much debate we decided to give them the shallow from the first hive that we had intended to keep for ourselves. Because, ultimately, it is our primary goal this year to keep all three hives in healthy robust condition. Harvesting a crop of honey would simply have been an added boon and apparently it was just not fated for this year. We are trying diligently not to be too disheartened after all they are still alive and we have one more hive than we started out with. This is more than we had hoped.

We will get back in them next week and decide how and when we will begin feeding for the fall and winter. We will probably have to feed at least the smaller of the three and we will probably feed all three just to keep them even and to prevent robbing. For all of you who were expecting a jar of honey for Christmas, I am sorry, maybe next year.

Please keep us and our endeavors in your prayers. Disappointments, even small ones, can sometimes weigh heavily on our motivation. We are not giving up, we know that we have to press forward and that every time cannot be a success but we just want to see a little fruit for what we are doing. We want to know that it is worth it and that we are making a difference, not just wasting time and money.

Thank you for reading,
Much love,

Autumn

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seasons Change

Today has been like a little preview of fall, a cool gentle breeze, an overcast sky, long sleeves and that delicious desire to hibernate on the couch with a warm cup of tea and a good book. I know it is only late August but as I walked through the stalls of the ever shrinking Farmer’s Market this morning I could not help but smell the slightly acrid bottom notes of burning leaves, if only in my imagination, as I bit into what will surely be one of summer’s last peaches. And what a peach it was. This has been a wonderful year for nature’s bounty. Fresh and affordable local produce has been abundant in the market and in our yard.

We have eaten peaches so sweet they could rival candy, dined on fresh corn and tomatoes bursting with flavor and eaten our weight in mouth watering juicy strawberries gathered at the peak of freshness. As I perused the stalls today I saw the fall’s first pumpkins and gourds on one farmer’s small back table. They were squat and round, small and colorfully warty. I was tempted. I really was. Last year was a rotten year for pumpkin and its kin and there was very little to be had at the market or even on the grocer’s shelves via cans. I could taste that warm crust and smell the spicy sweet nutmeg and cinnamon as I thought of all the baking denied to me during last fall’s shortage.

Pumpkins were so scarce last year that I barely had enough to compete in the annual pumpkin festival bake off. I made far fewer loaves of pumpkin bread than I would have liked and did not bake a single pumpkin pie, let alone a savory dish of pumpkin ravioli or curry. No my obsession with the gourd was mostly denied in 2009 as even in our on demand world we cannot produce a pumpkin, out of season or otherwise, if mother nature decides to put us in our place. It is kind of nice to see the corporate manipulation of nature thwarted occasionally, however, it is still not fun to be denied a pumpkin pie.

These were the kind of things going through my mind as I eyed the meager too-early fall offerings of our local WV farmers. I was tempted but I managed to refrain. I hate to go into department and grocery stores and see Halloween and Christmas d├ęcor pushed earlier and earlier every year. I hate to be begged by my daughter to look at Halloween costumes when we have yet to buy notebooks for school and I detest being waylaid by Christmas ornaments and cards while still wearing shorts and t-shirts and putting away Fourth of July flags. I hate the rush and push of the all mighty consumer dollar bullying through every season and losing some of the more precious, less commercially viable holidays along the way. I hate the way Thanksgiving is all but lost as it is crammed into the backside of Halloween rolled into one ubiquitous mess of orange and brown.

So I chose no. I wanted to say yes I really did, I fondled the little knobby gourds and thought of all the clever meals and cute decorations I could have but in the end I knew that buying even one little gourd was a vote against nature and her graceful dance through life’s seasons. I knew that to purchase the early veggie would be silently saying to the farmer, “Yes, this is what I want, and this is when I want it, give me fall’s bounty and give it to me now.” And ultimately that is not what I want. I want to treasure each season and enjoy the nuances and gifts that make each one unique.

I want to eat spring greens and tender peas in the spring. I want to enjoy berries and peaches, tomatoes and peppers in the summer. I want to eat gourds and grain in the fall and I want to reminisce over canned soups and stored potatoes in the winter. I want to feel and savor and enjoy the seasons as we move through them. I do not wish to ski all year round or to swim in the dead of winter. Do not misunderstand me, yes, I enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else but I want to be more a part of the nature that surrounds me and less of an intruder. I do not wish to conquer but to live in harmony.

So with all that in mind I turned away from the early birds and their tempting bulbous flesh and back to the magnificent peaches who, like an opera singer trilling an aria on the very cusp of her prime, were beautiful and beckoning in their almost faded glory. Their smell and plump juiciness more than made up for leaving without a pumpkin in tow. I bought a few of the straggling ends of the summer squash and zucchini harvest and intend to make a squash casserole tonight and serve some of this summer’s last peaches as desert.

In this there is a lesson for all of us. It is something that is often lost in our instant gratification culture. We live to constantly fulfill new desires and we often lose sight of the little daily pleasures made available through God’s generosity in our every day existence. In a few months, we will be longing for those summer peaches we snubbed after our gluttony was sated in the August heat, as we reached our sticky fingers forward into the next season’s bounty without even a sigh of gratefulness passing through our juice drenched mouths. It is a shame we rarely take a moment to be thankful, to enjoy to live in this seasons glory without straining towards the next. But I guess that is life, always grasping in the pursuit of more, rarely stopping to smell the peaches.


Thank you for reading,
Much love,
Autumn

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Clandestine Meetings of Beekeepers

Yesterday was the regular meeting of the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers’ Association. There were more people in attendance than I have seen in a meeting before but as usual there was a huge gap in the age range. Fred and I, generally, are the youngest people in attendance, however, yesterday was an anomaly. Fred and I are normally on time for most things but I have felt bad for the last several days, staving off a rotten head ache that has spread down my neck and into my shoulders so we were late for the meeting by about thirty minutes.

The meetings always start with a little meet and greet and socializing. Beekeepers, like the insects we tend, are social creatures and enjoy interacting with like kind. People bring snacks and coffee and chit chat, for the first thirty minutes or so of the meeting, about their hives and any news of local interest regarding bees. Fred and I arrived right as the social aspect of the meeting was winding down and everyone was beginning to take their seats.

We quickly took our customary seats on the back row and I did a quick glance around as the treasure read his report. I was surprised to see a young woman approximately my age, sharply dressed and sitting on the back row several seats to my right. She had the look of a quirky professional about her dressed neatly in pressed shorts and a blouse. She had a large sleeve tattoo of a gothic looking doll down her right arm which kind of threw off the whole young republican thing she had going on but gave her a much more someone-I-might-talk-to look. I made note to speak to her after the meeting was over.

She had a small notebook on her lap and it looked to already be filled with copious notes. I thought that was a little strange since we were only minutes into the treasurer’s report and frankly, I never find the seven dollars or so he has spent on stamps to be terribly interesting, but whatever. As the meeting progressed the state inspector gave a talk about fall maintenance and medication.

Now Fred and I are not of the same school of thought as a lot of the old time beekeeper. There is this mentality among them that bees must be medicated at regular intervals in case they may be affected with mites or brood foul or some other bee malady. We are of the opinion that this is the same school of thought as giving your children antibiotics twice a year whether they need them or not. All that does is build up better more antibiotic resistance bacteria it does not do much to prevent illness in the first place. Although the state inspector momentarily touched on this theory the general consensus overall is that bees need some kind of treatment every year. So mostly I just sit quietly through these lectures. As the saying goes; as 5 beekeepers a question and you will get 10 different answers.

Our new beekeeping compatriot was not nearly as mum, although her questions leaned more towards the conspiracy theories of Monsanto research and less towards the technical aspects of beekeeping. I have never, in the year of beekeeping meetings we have attended, seen anyone take so many notes through a meeting. It was like she was writing her dissertation on the practices of a beekeeping meeting.

After the meeting we once again indulge our beekeeper tendencies towards social interaction and stand around chatting about how we all disagree with everything the speaker said and with each other. (Note: if you have a grumpy disposition or lean towards being a curmudgeon beekeeping & beekeeper’s meetings are for you!) I spoke to several of the old gents who have been great if not grouchy resources for our beekeeping endeavors and as I was making my way across the room I saw the furious note taker slip out the door.

I could not help but let my imagination wander down my favorite conspiracy paths. I think maybe she was a student writing a paper about beekeeping, or maybe a reporter working on an article about chemicals in agriculture or maybe, even more nefarious, a Monsanto spy, ready to sue us all for misusing their patented soybeans. Obviously, I spend too much time alone in my head with my overactive imagination. I would have liked to talk to her, especially if she really is interested in beekeeping. It would be nice to have some peers our own age take an interest in something that is so vital to our food source. Oh well, if she comes back in November I will make it a point to speak to her (if we are on time).

As for our bees we intend to get in our hives today if the rain holds off. If not I will get in them later in the week. We are considering another hive split before fall and we need to check for mites. We hope to harvest our first super of honey this week but we will need to call the department of agriculture to rent the extractor. All in all the bees are still very much alive and seem to be thriving in spite of or because of our best efforts. Who knows?

Thanks for reading,
Much Love,

Autumn

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Let's take this show on the road

Well here is the downside to collecting more and more animals and doing more and more self-sustaining stuff; it does not sustain itself! The “self” of self-sustaining is really referring to the person caring for the land/animal/project etc not the item itself. About the only remotely self-sustaining animals we have in our menagerie are the bees, and they are not really self-sustaining they are more like temporarily-able-to-be-left-to-their-own-devices-sustaining.

The least self-sustaining, and most high-maintenance, of our brood are the chickens, they must be cared for (at the very minimum) at least twice a day. This twice a day bare bones minimum maintenance includes letting them out around dawn with feeding and watering and then a return trip at dusk to close up the coop, this is really stretching it. In all actuality their water should be changed several times a day (especially in this heat), and the nest box should be checked with regularity.

Like any other social creature they enjoy your time and attention like to be talked to and especially want to befriend anyone bearing a treat so only interacting with them twice a day also leaves them unhappy and unsettled. I will tell you from firsthand experience; grouchy chickens can and will withhold/impede egg production. Happy chickens are much better layers and pets, however, they can be taken care of with the bare bones twice a day routine. If you add to the bees and chickens one dog and five inside cats you can see how going out of town becomes more and more challenging for our family the “greener” we become.

This past weekend my best friend got married in Gatlinburg, TN. Gatlinburg is about a six hour drive from here and we made plans well in advance. Originally we had intended to take Louie with us but our pet friendly cabin fell through and we ended up renting a condo. So Louie got farmed out to Fred’s mom. That left the care of the cats and chickens to my mom. The bees would be fine on their own for a few days. Luckily for us we live within a five mile radius of lots of friends and family and luckily for us my mom still enjoys the chickens as a novelty.

Our “going green” is quite the amusing joke of our family. Everyone wants to know what we are cooking up next so they can point and laugh and talk about us doing things the hard way and at this point everyone still finds it charming enough to indulge us our quirkiness by, for example, tending our chickens while we are gone for several days. So twice a day my mom schlepped up here to have her toes pecked and listen to a list of clucking complaints, for her trouble she was treated to one single egg by Mama who apparently was so put out with us for leaving she went on a laying strike.

This is really the only true “downside” we have reached in our push towards green. In our drive to wrest back our lives from corporate management we have taken on more work, more responsibility and more dependents in the form of animal life. Generally, this is a good thing. It is rewarding to be closer to our food source, to have a product for our labor at the end of each day, to accomplish things, to make things and to realize that everything does not stem from the ground clean and shrink wrapped in plastic but specifically it binds you to the land with an invisible and tenacious umbilical cord of responsibility. That nurturing connection goes both directions and can only be stretched so thin and cannot be completely broken lest one party starve from a lack of attention or nutrition.

Farming, which is what we quaintly call our endeavors, is not easily abandoned and is not something from which you get two weeks paid vacation a year. To leave the land and the animals, and expect them to carry on in our absence, careful preparation must be made. I think this is the only real draw back Fred and I have stumbled on so far. We never did so much “vacation” in the traditional sense, a week spent somewhere eating in restaurants we could eat in at home and sleeping in motels with skeevy beds and noisy ice machines, as we spontaneously camp. We love to just pick a state park or some out of the way campground or hike part of the Greenbrier trail or whatever. That is a little more difficult now. We can no longer just throw down enough cat food for several days grab Louie and take off.

Next year as we grow our endeavors and hopefully get a nanny goat (which will require twice a day milking all year long) I am not sure how we will manage to leave the homestead at all. While my mom finds the chickens amusing and enjoys watching them peck around for treats and what not, I do not think she would be equally charmed by an ill-tempered nanny goat more likely to head butt someone while they were not looking than to sweetly peck raisins from your palm. Who knows, she might surprise me and really enjoy milking a goat, but I doubt it.

So this time next year if Fred and I want to vacation anywhere we maybe in the market for a farm sitter. Is there such a thing? Maybe I have just stumbled upon a new career. If you live within a thirty mile radius of me and are also homesteading maybe we could work up a trade system? You tend my farm for a week or two a year while my family takes a break and we will do the same for you. This could work.

In all reality I think this is what we really need anyway and that is one of the goals of writing this blog; to reach out to other like-minded people and to create a support system. I know there are other people out there doing the same things we are doing, people who are fed up with having mass-produced everything shoved down their throats twenty-four hours a day. Some of these people are doing it on a larger scale than us, some are taking even smaller baby steps but I think, no matter where you are on this journey we all need each other. We need to support like minded people because, in reality, that is the only way we are ever going to effect change on a larger scale. Banded together we can bring the farm subsidies back where they belong and make a difference not only in our corner but in our country and ultimately in the world.

Ok, I will fold up my soap-box, it snuck out on me for a second. But I am serious about the trade everyone needs a break from routine sometimes. So think about it.

Much love,
Thank you for reading,
Autumn

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pecking Order & The Politics of Being a Chicken

If you have never owned chickens you are missing a critical lesson in animal behavior and an interesting and amusing pet. We were thoroughly discouraged by almost everyone we knew when we decide to invest in a flock of laying hens. We were told chickens were dirty, smelly, stupid and generally just more trouble than they are worth. I am here to tell you that those things (excluding the dirty, they do not control where they relieve themselves) are untrue.

I think the smelly/dirty part comes from people who grew up keeping too many chickens in too close of quarters. We have six chickens in a large coop with a sizable roosting area and yard. During the day the chickens free range in our back yard. The smell although somewhat barn like inside the coop is neither offensive nor atrocious. They just smell like animals. I can tell you this they smell a site better than our dog (or us) after four days on the trail.

As for stupid they most certainly are not. I am not nominating them for awards in science or literature anytime soon but they are definitely smart enough to figure out who likes them, from where their food comes, where they go to sleep at night, who is in charge and, most importantly, that cute behavior will get you rewarded with special treats from the kitchen! They also establish a distinct, but fluctuating, social hierarchy that is not unlike junior high school girls and includes not only other chickens but family pets of other species and human family members also.

When we began our chicken keeping endeavor, you probably remember, we started out with four Black Jersey Giant hatchlings. Now I will admit those poor little peeps were dumb. They were terrified of everything and adorably clumsy to boot. They grew into gangly pre-teens that awkwardly tripped over each other and their own feet. They would flap their way out of the box only to find themselves lost somewhere in the nether world between the box and the bathtub wall, peeping their little hearts out in pure terror.


They did not seem to gain much intelligence as we moved them from the bathtub to the coop. In fact they seemed to get slightly dumber as it took days on end to teach them how to use the ramp to get up into their sleeping area every night. We would have to climb into the pen and chase them round and round until we caught them and put them one by one up the ramp and into the coop. This was an especially comical routine because for every two chicks we put up one would fall back through the hole only to be chased all over again. After several nights of this they finally realized they could move up and down between the upstairs and yard of the coop, then their new sisters moved in.

My four little petrified BJGs were immediately cowed by their bigger (fully grown) Rhode Island Red sisters that moved in. Mama and Helga, the two RIRs Fred and I adopted from my aunt, immediately ruled the roost. Mama as the oldest and most established laying hen was large and in charge. Helga deferred only to Mama and Stacy-chicken, Miranda-chicken, Gina-chicken and Autumn-chicken lived in abject terror of both of them and pretty much everything else that went bump in the night (or day).

The BJGs had been relegated to the upstairs of the coop where temperatures reached well above one-hundred degrees, I am sure. I was forced to make multiple trips out every day to switch their water for cooler and to make sure that none of their little panting selves had killed over from heat stroke. They would only come down into the yard for brief moments and then only coaxed by me climbing in the coop and sitting in a chair hand feeding them raisins while they huddled underneath my seat like some kind of giant plastic mother hen. As soon as I left the yard they rushed back into the upstairs to pant and huddle some more.

Mama and Helga for their part were mad as, pardon the expression, old wet hens and meaner than rattle snakes. They did not like me, they hated the dog and they terrorized the little half grown pullets, pecking them and pulling their feathers out as they ran past in heart stopping horror. I was about half sick to my stomach and considered returning my aunt’s two birds on several occasions. But we stuck it out and my how the worm has turned.

Eventually, after keeping them in the coop all together for about a week, we decided that it was time to let them out to free-range. We had not planned on letting our original four out for another several weeks but the RIRs my aunt gave us had been used to foraging and were doubly unhappy to find themselves prisoners in a strange land with four unpleasantly nervous new compatriots. We figured if we were going to have any success at all it would hinge on the chicken’s happiness.

We let them all out and that seemed to ease tensions enormously. They only exception to this was bed time. We placed two large roosts inside the coop but only Helga would perch. Mama slept in the nesting box (and still does) and the four BJGs slept huddled in fright by the door to the yard. Every time they would get up and cross the coop Mama or Helga would give them a sound pecking and send them scurrying back to the pile. There was plenty of room on the roost and frankly even half grown they were of equal stature to their new sisters, it was just their own cowardly natures that kept them from claiming a spot on the perch. But nature has a way of working things out; they do not call it a “pecking order” without reason.

I knew that chickens had to establish this chain of command and so I sat back and tried to relax. We are diligent chicken keepers and I knew no one would starve or not have enough to drink so I tried to stay calm as Mama and Helga basically bullied and tormented Stacy-chicken, Miranda-chicken, Gina-chicken and Autumn-chicken. I would give them pep talks as I sat on the porch telling them that they were big girls and to stand up for themselves. Well I must have been a little too convincing.

They BJGs are now much larger than the RIRs and as the weeks progressed they seemed to begin to realize this, at least as it pertained to Helga. Fred and I began to notice at first that Helga no longer chased them around the yard squawking at the top of her lungs. Then one day, as I was standing on the porch throwing stale bread crumbs to the girls I watched as Gina-chicken (the smallest of the BJGs) ran up and snatched a piece of bread from Helga’s mouth. I looked on, mouth agape, expecting a trip to the emergency vet when Helga pecked her eyes out. Instead Helga put her head down and scratched away looking for some other snack.

I thought it had to be a fluke, Helga was my back yard bully. She was the kid who waited in the playground after school to shake down the others for their lunch money! But it was not. As time wore on I watched Helga slip from high and mighty (second in command only to Mama) to low man on the totem pole. All of the BJGs would take her snacks or run at her like they wanted to flog her. Poor Helga. As I went out, to shut them in the coop one night, I shone the flashlight in only to discover all of the BJGs on the high roost, Mama in the nest box and poor Helga relegated to the low roost all alone.

Ok, I am always going to root for the underdog. I do not know why, something in my DNA is hardwired to go straight for the most pitiful rescue in the bunch. Helga has quickly moved into first place in my heart. I sit on the porch and talk to her and hand feed her special treats I sneak out in my pockets. In return she sits beside me and croons and clucks and generally seems pretty content to eat from my hand where the others cannot steal her goodies.

Mama, mysteriously, has remained in her queenly domain as head of household. This is so strange to me because she is the smallest of all six, even smaller than Helga. But old girl is in charge and don’t you forget it. They are all terrified of her and I really do not know why. I guess it just goes to prove attitude can carry you far in this world. If you believe it you can make it happen. Mama believes she is in charge, she carries herself like she is in charge and so therefore she is in charge. Women with low self-esteem could learn a lot from a chicken coop.

Although at the moment Helga gets special treatment because she has slipped to the bottom of the pecking order you should not feel too sorry for her. Remember, although she may at the bottom of the chicken list they all still consider themselves to be far above our dog Louie on the food chain. Not one of them is afraid now to walk up to him and peck him on the toes or steal bites of his food. Poor Louie, sixty pound sissy!


Thank you for reading,
Much love,

Autumn

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blood, Sweat and Pickled Corn

Today was probably not the best choice of days to pickle the corn but I was seriously running up against the deadline of four dozen ear of ruined corn. They had been sitting in my refrigerator for several days taking up most of the available space and generally looking a little sadder every day. I had several billion things to do this morning including catch the bus to town so the ideal cool temperatures of the before dawn hours passed me by and I was stuck firing up the stove in the early afternoon as temperatures outside crept above one hundred and temperatures inside were not much better.

I finished cleaning out the crock and set the water on the stove to boil to cook the ears. Sunday my friend’s mom informed me that the ears were pickled whole and the kernels not cut from the cob until the pickling process was complete. I put Sarah on salt dissolving duty and I manned the boiling water. I can tell you that if pickling and canning are going to become part of our rituals then we are going to have to invest in some larger pots and measuring devices.

The ratio of salt to water is one gallon of water per one cup of salt. The largest measuring bowl I had held two quarts (there are four quarts in a gallon if I am not mistaken) so Sarah dissolved a cup of salt in to two quarts of water poured that into the crock as I placed the corn in the crock. For every bowl of salt water we added one bowl of plain tap. My largest pot would only cook about six ear of corn at a time so it took quite a while to cook all four dozen ear. Needless to say I think Sarah and I are now significantly thinner due to water weight loss. I am pretty sure I sweated off at least ten pounds crouching over the stove and every time I looked at her she had sweat pouring off her face in rivers as she diligently dissolved the pickling salt into the hot tap water.

After we had finally loaded the pillow case in the crock full of corn and the whole project covered in salt water we sealed it off with a plastic bag clip. My friend’s mom said that if you covered the pillow case with another plastic bag full of water before you put the plate on this would create a seal. I had a turkey bag from last thanksgiving so we filled it up with water and tied it off. This created a mess instead of a seal. I guess the crock was too full and it just caused salt water to slosh all over the kitchen floor. So we took the plastic bag off and put the plate directly on the pillow case.

Then came the problem of how to weight it down. I had saved an empty large pickle jar for just that purpose. Eventually we decided to fill it with rocks from the driveway. We filled it up, cranked the lid on tight and sat it on the plate. WAHLA! The plate pressed down on the corn and the water came up around the pickle jar and over the plate about four inches. Now everything I have read and everything people have told me seems to point to needing at least two inches of brine over the corn at any given time so I think four inches is a nice buffer. We put the other pillow case over the whole thing to keep the bugs out.

That leaves us with one last teeny problem…um…five gallon stone crocks filled with corn and brine are not light! I tried to scoot it and sloshed some more salt water on the floor. Since leaving it in the middle of my kitchen floor until January is not really an option I am not entirely sure where I should put it or how to get it there. I have been told two completely polar opposite things about the storage. One person says to leave it in a cool dark place and the other said if it is too cool it will not ferment so warmer is better. Well warm I can do, there are very few cool spots in our house. We do not have a cellar and I don’t want to put anything we are going to eat out in the barn so I am not sure where to put the crock (never mind how to put it somewhere).

I guess that will have to wait until Fred gets home. I know between me and my beloved spaghetti arms there is no moving it from the kitchen without risking a serious mess. Ah, the struggles to get back to basics. I hope by January to have some decent pickled corn to can because if that whole container rots I cannot promise I will not have a full scale melt down. I tell you Sarah and I literally poured our hearts and sweat into this effort and we look forward to eating the rewards.

One last funny little aside: at my daughter’s expense I will point out the mentality of growing up in a totally fast food culture. In all reality even our home cooked meals never take more than a day or two at the most to come together. So as we stood over the crock wiggling the last pillow case down around its edges she said,

“ I’m anxious to try pickled corn.”

Me, “Well you only have to wait till January.”

Sarah, “January?!”

Me, “Yes, it has to ferment.”

Sarah, ”Well can’t we put it in the microwave or something?”

Oh yes folks, I want it and I want it now. Giggles!


Thank you for reading,
Much love,
Autumn

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Moon Pickles

Well I have a 5 gallon crock, a bag of pickling salt and about 4 dozen ear of shucked corn in my fridge and a big heaping GOB of confusion. I will readily take any and all feedback I can get on this blog so please feel free to tell me any of your family lore, what your mom says, what your grandma says or what your neighbor down the street says. I need some help! I was all set to pickle corn and my friend, whose mom is the pickling guru who has been helping me, casually mentioned that back when she was in school they had canned a whole harvest of tomatoes that spoiled. She mentioned that her mother said this was because one of the cousins was having her period.

Ok, I know that last sentence probably just made most of the men reading this blog immediately delete their bookmarks but I was concerned. That information, in addition to an email I received from another friend who stated that his mother only ever pickled in certain signs sent me into a bit of a pickle information gathering frenzy. This morning at church I told my friend’s mom that I had all my corn shucked and everything ready to pickle but asked her about the whole sign/menstruation thing. She said that whether or not it was scientific was beyond her but that yes she did try to always pickle in any sign above the waist and no to definitely not pickle anything while menstruating. I asked why. She just kind of shrugged gave me a vague answer about old-timer wisdom and said I could try it whenever but it would probably ruin.

So on the way home from church this morning we stopped and bought Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac I was delighted to find it (we had stopped three separate places yesterday looking for it) and immediately befuddled. I flipped through the entire pamphlet and yes it did have moon signs listed but they correlated more to a zodiac chart than anything else. They had absolutely no reference to any segment of the body. I got on line and did a little research. Not a whole lot of fruitful information there.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac web page listed the best dates for canning and pickling in August as the 7th and 8th and the 25th and 26th. Well that is great but it did not tell me why. I look up those dates and how they corresponded to the moon signs in the Almanac I have. It listed the dates as Cancer and Pisces. Ok, I still did not know to what portion of the body they allegedly correspond.

After more internet digging I finally found a Wikipedia article that listed the zodiac signs and the segment of the body to which they correspond. Well, this only deepened my confusion because Cancer corresponds to the breast (ok that is above the waist) but Pisces corresponds to the feet!? Last time I checked the feet are about as far below the waist as you can get. I did a little more research and found some blog posts with comments regarding peoples’ personal opinions and family traditions and some people agreed and said to pickle in the chest or feet. Some people said to pickle only above the waist. Some people said to pickle only in the chest and head and some said pickles in the chest, kraut in the head only. I am so confused. Not a single comment or entry gave any reason why other than if you did not do it their way it would spoil. Several comments also distinctly pointed out that menstruating women should never ever can or pickle anything.

I am so confused! I have no clue now what to do with my corn or when. If I do not get some rock solid advice from someone, backed up with some concrete reasons why, then I am just going to pickle it in the morning when it is cool outside and pray for the best. I certainly do not know what my menstrual cycle has to do with anything other than that seems like a really good reason to get out of some serious manual labor one week a month. Maybe our grandmothers were wiser than even we realize.

I also called my aunt in Kentucky who is probably the only living relative who actually pickled with my paternal grandmother, the queen of farm living. She said it was all a bunch of hooey. "Pickle it when you get it, it is fresh and you have the most time," was her advice, sounds good to me! Now I certainly do not want to ruin four dozen ear of corn but since I cannot seem to pin down an exact answer I am just going to do the best I can. Tomorrow morning, pickled corn here I come!


Thanks for Reading,
Much love,
Autumn

Post Script: Fred just found a chart in next year’s almanac that concurs with the Wikipedia chart so now at least I know what zodiac sign goes with what part. Still sketchy on which sign to pickle in! Still open for debate!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

LOCAVORE! Um, bless you?

I have been reading Barbra Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and I have to say I am intrigued and overwhelmed. I have watched Food, Inc., King Corn, Capitalism: A Love Story and a myriad of other movies that depict what our gluttony (and sadly corn based diets) are doing to American and Americans. Both physically and economically we are slowly (or in some cases rapidly) become bankrupt on a system of unrealistic, unsustainable food wants, however, I do not think I realized just how detrimental shipping our food across state lines, across the country and across the world really is to the environment and ultimately our own heath.

I am intrigued because I love the thought of green living. I want to grow and make more of our own food. I want to support other local farmers in their fight to sustain a variety of plants and animals not just commodity crops. I want to conserve natural resources. I want to use less fossil fuel. I want to live what I preach.

I am overwhelmed because, well simply put, I love bananas.

I know that probably sounds like a random statement out of left field but think about it. When have you ever (excluding the Huntington Museum of Art’s Tropical Greenhouse) seen a banana growing in WV? Well? I am waiting…yeah, me either. I too have succumb to the I want it, I want it now, and I want it all year long mentality of a prosperous society where fresh fruits and vegetables out of season (and out of their natural region) are not a novelty but a way of life. My family eats bananas every day we have for years and not once in that entire time, did I stop to think from where those bananas originated nor did I ever consider the monumental undertaking and expense it took to get them to my kitchen. The little tiny drop of good I do by riding my bicycle to the grocery store is completely annihilated by the gallons and gallons of fuel need to get them to the market in the first place.

We do not buy watermelons out of season because (as my daughter would say) DUH, they do not taste good. We do buy tomatoes all year round and although we delight in the fresh summer ones from friends and neighbors gardens and complain mightily about the tasteless reddish blobs from the grocery the rest of the year, it still does not stop us from plopping them in the cart almost every trip. I cook a lot of tomato sauced entrees all year long. What am I supposed to do without “fresh” tomatoes?

Which really brings me to the title of the blog: what is a “locavore”? It sounds like a bad allergic reaction to me, something that obviously needs a polite acknowledgment and maybe a tissue. I am sure that many of you reading this blog are much savvier than myself and are practicing locavores as I type but up until I started reading this book I do not think I had even heard the term before. According to Kingsolver a locavore is someone who tries only to eat locally grown/raised/produced produce/meat/grain from within their immediate region. Sounds great, until I realized I love bananas and bananas do not grow in WV.

I usually embrace everything green with a willing spirit and open arms but this is even hard for me. I cannot imagine the reaction I would receive from Fred and Sarah if I suggested that we could no longer eat bananas. Kingsolver makes a valid argument for eating only local food and right now, at the height of summer, it is not too hard to get on board. Giving up my grocery bought bananas for fresh melons, peaches and plums from the farmer's market does not seem horrendous, but ask me in six months when I am sitting in the deep freeze of January fantasizing about a lush piece of fruit that is still half a year away from our table.

My family has made a great deal of changes this year in everything we do from the way we use electricity to a commitment to raising some of our own food but I think asking them to give up all food not produced locally (at least at this point in time) is not wise. I admire Kingsolver and her family and they have inspired me to more diligently think about where my food originated but I do not think that we can completely abandon the banana yet. Maybe we will eat them more sparingly, maybe this time next year, when our garden is in full flourish and I have canning and pickling down to an exact science, instead of a wavering hobby, it will be easier to give up our imported luxuries. I do not know.

I do know that it is an unending battle to get (especially Sarah) to give up prepackaged crap for real food, to shun the “nugget” and all it represents is like trying to swim against the tide. If I take away the “healthy” treats because of their environmental impact I think I would send her screaming back in the corn and soybean embrace of McDonald’s. So this is something that as a family we will try to incorporate slowly. Instead of deprivation I think it must be done by inclusion. If we can learn to grow variety and to introduce new and exciting local foods, then as the more exotic things slide away maybe their absence will not be such a blow.

After all, we have given up/cut back on things that this time last year we could not live without. Soda has been relegated to the occasional treat, as has eating out. No longer mainstays of our existence these things are enjoyed minimally or in a pinch. We read labels now with a religious fervency of never before. We eschew all high fructose corn syrup (and let me tell you, it is ubiquitous and that is a mammoth undertaking in and of its self). I love to cook and now I cook more thoughtfully. We choose paper cups over plastic when out and we carry our recycled bags to the store (most days, sometimes we still forget).

So for now I think the locavore lifestyle must be relegated to that category, thoughtfulness. It is something to think about, something to which we can aspire, something to always keep in the forethought of our shopping expeditions. But at this moment it could easily send my family’s bumbling stumble towards green into a tail spin. Even Kingsolver jokingly states that her family’s journey began at the local convenience store buying junk food and bottled drinks. I think that to jump headlong into a locavore lifestyle might collapse the baby-step mentality on which we have based this journey.

Am I making excuses? Yes, probably. Is the irony of the fact that two generations ago things I think I need were unheard of luxuries, and that no special name was needed for people who ate local food because everyone ate local food? Absolutely not. Do I aspire to feed my family from things we have raised or that were raised here in our local area? Most certainly! But do I think I can sit everyone down this afternoon and tell them by royal decree “HENCEFORTH WE SHALL NOT EAT ANYTHING SHIPPED IN ON A TRUCK!” Um, no, I am not a moron (contrary to what some blog readers believe).

All that said I would highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for anyone interested in reading about another family's green and thoughtful adventures. I can wholeheartedly relate to Kingsolver and her family’s woes and triumphs. They too take baby steps and they too are interested in leaving the world a better place for generations to come. It is an interesting book and it is giving me lots to think about and opening up my eyes to the many opportunities to make a difference for the whole world with just our grocery dollar.


Thanks for reading,
Much love,

Autumn

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Pickling, Canning and Composting

These are the things at the forefront of my mind as the busy month of August picks up steam. Mostly my thoughts of late center on a pickling obsession. My friend’s mom pickles corn every year and then cans it. That corn might be some of the most delicious straight from the can goodness ever tasted. She makes it simply, with only pickling salt and tap water, in an old school stone crock. I am fascinated with the pickling/fermentation process. I have only ever made pickles of any sort with vinegar. Last week I made some refrigerator pickles from a MotherEarth News recipe that only required sliced cucumbers, rice wine vinegar, a pinch of salt and garlic. All the ingredients are put in a glass jar, shaken up and placed in the fridge. This is kind of the instant gratification of the pickle world. Within twenty-four hours you have a tangy crispy sandwich topping not unlike a Clausin pickle. (Only much cheaper seeing as how they only cost pennies on the dollar versus their supermarket equivalents.)

While these refrigerator pickles were delicious and easy to make, I long to revive and preserve the arts of my ancestors. As I get older I wish more and more that I had shown a greater interest in these things when there were still people in my family around to teach them to me. My dad’s mother, my paternal grandmother, was the epitome of a country woman. She raised nine children on a mechanic’s salary and a little farm. They raised their own food from chickens to potatoes and nothing was wasted. My grandmother pickled or canned everything. According to my dad she even pickled the core of the cabbage (which was actually the part the kids fought over). In my youth I shunned such “country” living and ate most of my meals in the fast food lane. As I have matured and as I have watched what our fast food culture has done to our health, our wallets and our waste lines I no longer wish to live this way. Instead I find myself longing for the “country” food I once shunned and desperately grasping for the old ways of food preservation before even the memory of it is lost to us.

I have spent quite a great deal of time lately talking to people about and researching pickling and canning. They seem to go hand in hand as the best way to preserve fresh harvests through the long winter months and to cut the cost of store bought goods significantly. True pickling, according to my friends mom, involves no vinegar at all. The sour taste comes from the fermentation of the vegetable not from an additive like vinegar. She says that you can add spices like dill or garlic or hot peppers but that it is best to just allow the flavor of the vegetables to create their own tart taste. Pickled corn goes something like this:

1 large stone crock
1 cotton pillow case
1 c of pickling salt to every gallon of water
Fresh cooked corn enough to fill crock at least half way, slightly cooled
A plate to put on top and a stone or brick to weigh down the plate

The cooked corn is placed inside the pillow case which is tied off and then covered in brine until submerged. The plate is then placed on top of the pillow case and weighted down. This weighing-down process is somehow intricate to the pickling. I am not sure why other that the constant pressure forces the juices out of the veg. She also says that if you fill a food grade plastic bag with water and place it between the pillowcase and the plate this will form a seal and prevent having to remove the scum from the liquid every so often. After the corn has pickled for a few weeks then she takes it out and cans it in a water bath canner. The theory is at this point it is acidic enough to not need the higher temperature of a pressure canner and can be safely canned in a water bath.

I am anxious to begin picking things immediately but I have hit a significant stumbling block in the process. Those stone pickling crocks, so intrinsic to the pickling process, are not easy to come by nor are they inexpensive, if you can even find one. I spent most of the weekend scouring the internet and combing the flea market trying to get my grubby little paws on a couple of decent sized crocks. Several friends and family members have sifted through their garages and basements looking for discarded crocks but have come up short. Several have found crocks but they have been used for storing paints and chemicals or are cracked. Cracked will not work because the fermentation process causes swelling in the crock and it will leak or shatter altogether. I am afraid to use ones that have stored chemicals for fear of poisoning everyone.

My dad even called his sisters in Kentucky to see if they had any of my grandmother’s old crocks, they do still have a couple but that would require a several hour drive to obtain them. The other problem with using an old or antique crock is the possibility of lead in the glaze. At this point I am pretty much stuck with having to buy a new crock, and if I want to make kraut and pickled corn I will need at least two crocks. I have found one local hardware store that sells new pickling crocks and you can figure the price is roughly ten dollars per gallon. I figure I need two five-gallon crocks. The cost of these will be a little over a hundred dollars. More money than I want to spend but after much consideration I have decided that these crocks will more than pay for themselves over the years in the food bill savings provided. Although the initial investment is high, if well taken care of, these crocks should last a lifetime.

So next week I plan to begin my pickling adventure. I will start with two crocks and I will pickle corn in one and make something called green-tomato kraut in the other (my dad’s personal request). If all goes well hopefully by September I will be able to can the contents of the crocks and pickle some other things. On my list are pickled beans, traditional cucumber pickles, pickled onions & peppers, and some plain kraut also. I have decided that since most of the things I will be canning this year are pickles and high acid fruits I will stick with the water bath canner for now.

Next year, if all goes well, I may try to can some low acid food which really will require a pressure canner because it will reach and maintain the two-hundred and forty degree temperature needed to kill anything toxic in the food. I am a little afraid of the pressure canners having read horror stories of scalding burns and explosions but most of the reviews of the new pressure canners insist that they are completely safe and there is minimal risk of fire, explosion or injury. With all that said I think I would still be more comfortable starting off with water bath canning.

~

As for our composting adventures we have yet to obtain the coveted food grade barrel and I am sorry to say our composting endeavors have been somewhat lack luster. It mostly consists of continuing to throw compostable material into one corner of the fence where the dog and the chickens still manage to string it around the yard and it must be re-gathered every so often and tossed back into the corner on a regular basis. The other down side to this is that that side of our fence borders the creek so I have been unwilling to mix the chicken bedding and droppings into this corner for fear of contaminating the water table. One of the books I read advised that dumping chicken droppings near a stream or creek could allow the nitrogen from the droppings to leech into the water and kill the fish. This is the last thing we want to do so as we consider building a permanent or semi-permanent compost pile we must locate it farther from the creek.

I have an over abundance of that orange netting/fencing stuff that the state road crews use. I have no idea where Fred’s dad got these things but our building is often like a treasure trove of odds and ends. I am considering fencing off the upper corner of our yard (farthest from the stream and house) with this netting and building a temporary composting pile there. I am not yet willing to commit to a permanent cinder block or concrete structure until my dream of a barrel composter is completely dead. The good thing about the netting is it can be taken down and the compost stirred around and then put back up, it is also a small enough mesh that it would keep the grass clippings and other small bits contained. Too, in theory, it could be moved from place to place. The bad thing about it is: it is blaze orange ugly and may not actually keep the dog out if there is something he really wants in the pile.

This is my latest idea but I will definitely be waiting to start a new building project until the heat wave breaks. Ninety plus degree days are not ideal for building anything. I have one other small problem: does anyone have any clever suggestions for collecting grass clippings short of me going out and raking the whole acre plus into the wheel barrow after I mow? Our tractor does not have a bag attachment so usually the grass clippings get left in piles where they fall since collecting them is such a chore. However, if I build this structured compost pile it is my understanding that I will need the grass clippings as a neutralizing layer to trap the heat and keep the smell down. Thank you in advance for any tips or suggestions.

Also, several of you sent comments on a couple of the latest blogs and some of them were full of very helpful suggestions that I would like to share but for some reason the blog site ate these comments. When they were emailed to me for approval I approved them but they never appeared in the comment section of the blog. I apologize and if anyone wants to repost I will definitely approve them. I have not denied any comments on the blog to date so please do not feel like I am ignoring you or did not post your suggestions. I am grateful and appreciative for everyone’s advice, love and support.

Thank you all for reading and for helping and for praying,
Much love,

Autumn