Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas to all...

.. and to all, a good night!

Wishing everyone a happy, safe and simple holiday season.

An "egg"-cellent Christmas idea

I realize that with the virtual ink I've been giving our four-legged farm friends, I haven't written much about our hens. And that's a shame, because they're the only ones paying their way around here.

When we brought home our ladies in the fall, we expected they'd lay eggs until the weather turned cold and the days became shortened by an ever-growing darkness. Then production would taper off.

Well, we've experienced minus 25 degree Celsius weather and the darkest day of the year is behind us and our 10 girls are still producing between seven and nine eggs each day.

Don't get me wrong -- we love these eggs. We've been frying, scrambling, boiling, poaching and baking with them. We love their rich-tasting yolks and delicate whites. Quite simply, I can't ever see us going back to store-bought eggs again. But regardless of how many we consume, we just can't keep up with production.

I've put an online ad on Kijiji for farm fresh brown eggs for $3.00 a dozen ($3.50 delivered) but so far, no takers. I plan on selling eggs (and other items) at the farmer's market next spring, but in the meantime, I've got a fridge filled with eggs.

Here's what 62 eggs looks like.

Now double that. That's what I've got in my fridge right now.

While I'd joked about giving eggs as Christmas gifts, I decided that might not be such a bad idea.

So I got out some canning jars and my stainless steel pot and I got busy pickling eggs.

I took hard-boiled eggs....

plus sliced red onions, red peppers, green peppers and yellow peppers.....

and put them in canning jars filled with brine made with vinegar, salt, sugar and infused with cloves.

These are simple gifts but they're pretty, especially when I get around to tying the red rafia bows around the lids.

But I'm not giving these just to be practical or to help clean out my fridge. These eggs also represent our first step on our path towards a more sustainable life and that's something we'd like to share with the people we love.

In our student days, Lucas and I gave more homemade gifts than store-bought ones, mainly because we didn't have a lot of extra money. I always felt a bit badly, thinking that recipients of our gifts would think us cheap. As we got better jobs, we tried to give "better" presents and each December, we found ourselves stressed out by the whole Christmas shopping experience.

We did buy some gifts this year but we're moving back to homemade items, this time intentionally. In a world filled with consumerism and disposable must-have gadgets, I hope our gift recipients, the grown-ups at least, will understand that we're not giving homemade gifts just out of economy but also out of ecology.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter prep, homesteading-style: part two

As promised, here are some photos to accompany my Simpler Living column on "Preparing for winter: Homesteading-style".

This was the first sign that we should take our winter preparation kinda seriously. Our house inspector found not one, but two electrical panels in our kitchen. The second is, of course, for the generator. Right.

I'd done some research for an article on generators but it was different shopping for our own. We had to walk the fine line between buying something with sufficient capacity to cover our basic needs in a power outage (fridge, well pump, some lights... we can camp out in front of the wood stove, right?) and spending way too much money on a piece of machinery that sits and gathers dust. (Hopefully. Not likely.)

We settled-on a 5,500 watt gas-powered model. I would have preferred diesel, so we could eventually convert it to bio diesel, but we had a budget to stick to. And to be honest, this model was on sale. We haven't hooked it up yet (we just got the right cable for it yesterday) but we're planning on a test-run before the lights go out for real.

This is our external wood furnace that sits about 100 feet away from the house. It works by circulating heated water, via insulated underground pipes, to a water-to-air heat exchanger in our basement. The exchanger is in turn connected to a conventional forced-air furnace that is controlled by a regular thermostat.

Eventually, we hope to use solar to power the furnace (and everything else) but for now, it's an on-grid system.

This is a somewhat blurry peek into our wood shed. We had to buy wood this year, which was an unexpected expense, but as we moved in July, we didn't have enough time to gather enough from our property AND unpack, settle in and figure out what the hell we were doing.

It's a mix of hard and soft wood in various sizes. Everyone and their uncle had advice on what to use so like most things out here, we're figuring it out as we go. The pile goes back several rows so I'm hoping we'll have enough to last until spring. If not, our 71-acre property is half woodlot and there's enough dead-fall to keep us warm for years. It's just a matter of collecting, cutting and seasoning it. That's all.

This is my favourite piece of "furniture" in our house. It's an old Elmira "Sweet Heart" wood stove. It's not original to the house (which is about 100-years-old) but it was installed by the former owners. There is nothing like cooking with or savouring the warmth of a wood stove. Simply delicious.

While there are ducts on the first floor of the house, which circulate heat from the external wood furnace, they are not connected to the second floor at all. There are only three small bedrooms and a two-piece bathroom upstairs (our "full" four-piece bathroom is on the main floor, off the kitchen -- makes for interesting visits with guests!) but it can get chilly up there.

And yet, it's amazing how efficiently this "peak-a-boo" flap above our fridge works to draw warm air from the wood stove up the stairs.

It's also amazing how handy this is for keeping an eye on the kids.

Finally, we knew once we moved to the country, our little hand-held snow shovel just wasn't going to cut it. Many farmers around here use their tractors to plough, but all we had was our little ATV. Despite its size, it's incredibly powerful (and maneuverable) and we haven't had to call in the army yet (yes, that's a jab at you Toronto folks out there!)

We use the same ATV for hauling wood out of the woods during the other three seasons and occasionally, for a little country entertainment.

Yes, that's Lucas pulling the kids behind the ATV in a snow scoop*. Good times... uh huh.

I recently read somewhere that winter in the city is to be endured while winter in the country is to be experienced. That really resonated with me, for some reason. Most years I've grumbled about the snow and the cold and the slush but this year, it's different.

Now that we've taken steps to protect our family from the storm, there are many times when I look out the window when it's snowing and actually smile. Yes, carrying buckets of water back and forth to the barn in a snowstorm has its own challenges and trying to keep the chickens' water defrosted can be tedious. And sure, I still worry about Lucas (and others) driving.

But in the end, it all comes down appreciating the little things -- a blazing full moon on a crisp winter night, walking through our woods when the trees are covered in a twinkling blanket of white magic, sipping hot chocolate after making snow angels with the kids or watching Gallagher roll in deep powder snow.

All treasured moments of sheer bliss, plain and simple. Little moments that have helped me rediscover the wonder and magic of the season.

So as long as we have a stocked pantry, a roaring fire and we don't have to drive anywhere, I say, "let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

* No children were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Random moments of happiness #4

Sam, at three months old

We're thinking of entering him in a Vincent Price look-alike contest.

But seriously, how many goats have such a distinguished-looking set of eyebrows and a matching"goat"-tee?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's super-goat, getting ready for take-off!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Simpler Living column, part two

The second installment of my Simpler Living column for Bankrate Canada went live this morning. It's about us getting ready for winter, homesteading-style.

Here's the intro:

"This is the first year that the sight of snowflakes made me nervous. While I've never been a "Yay, it's winter, bring on the cold!" kinda girl, I've got bigger worries than my usual end-of-the-season case of winter blues.

You see, this is our first winter on Rowangarth Farm, our modern-day homestead in eastern Ontario. And we're really not sure what to expect.

When my family and I moved here in July, in the midst of black fly season and heat waves, the thought of power outages and 6-foot snow drifts was far from our minds.

But we knew that long, hard winters were part of country life. When we had our house inspection, we discovered not one but two electrical panels in our kitchen: one for the main power and the second for the generator. Living 10 minutes north of a small town, essentially in the middle of nowhere, means that when a tree brings down a power line, we're on our own..."

To read more, follow this link here.

You can read my blog posting about the previous installment of Simpler Living here or read the actual article here.

One thing that I wasn't able to include in the article was photos, so I'll post some in the next day or two, to bring some of our farm's particulars to life.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Back in business... and a thank you

To all of you who have sent me emails or written comments after my last posting, I wanted to give a heart-felt 'thank you'. Your words of encouragement are truly humbling... and I appreciate them dearly.

And to just reassure everyone -- the latest antics at Rowangarth Farm did not cause me to pack my bags and head back to the city. I have, however, been hiding out for a while... in my fleece pyjamas under a warm blanket, snuggled up with some eucalyptus and lemon tea. Yep, I got sick. Big time.

I came down with a nasty chest infection that made my lungs feel like they were being sliced with razors every time I breathed, especially when I was outside in our minus 20 degree Celsius weather. I pulled muscles in my stomach that I didn't even know I had from all the coughing and my nose got miserably chapped from my constant wiping.

I almost always get sick when I push myself too hard. It's just my body's way of forcing me to SLOW down! So I did, after a short-lived bout of feeling sorry for myself. I slept, I read and I didn't think (too much) about all the things I should be doing.

But today, I got back at it. I spent the better part of the day mucking out stalls (a lot of poop accumulates when you're not in the barn!) and getting myself reacquainted with everyone.

This is part of the L-shaped stall that the donkeys and horse use (we leave the north door open so they can come and go as they please.) The larger stall/part is in the rear and to the left, out of frame. It ain't fancy, but it's home!

As I'm writing this, my back hurts, I'm tired as all hell and I had another painful run-in with Oscar the Grouch. And yet, I had a great day. As overwhelmed as I feel sometimes, there's no way I'm giving this life up. When I stop worrying about the details, I realize I'm having way too much fun.

And besides, I'm just getting started.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Overwhelmed and underpaid

One of the things I've found with this homesteading life is that things don't always go the way you expect them. It's a good thing to be humbled by nature but it doesn't make the lesson any easier.

You see, I'm something of a recovering type-A personality, in that I like to be in control and have things go a certain way. But I also know that's unreasonable (and downright exhausting!) so I'm working at paring down my expectations and instead sitting back and accepting where life takes me. It's a recipe for simplicity and yet I'm finding nothing simple about it.

I knew there would be challenges raising animals here, especially those of the livestock variety (even though Oscar thinks he's a dog, he most certainly is not!) and no matter how many books I read, questions I ask and online forums I visit, the only way to learn is by doing.

I could have made the decision to start the doing after we'd been here for a while. To settle into to farm life first, to get through our first winter solo. But I didn't. Each one of these creatures came into our life for a reason and I made the decision to take them. (Whether it was the "right" is still up for debate.)

The learning started immediately. My first lesson in animal husbandry was that regardless of breed characteristics, each animal has its own unique and set personality. While humans tend to think they can bend nature to their will, to align with their expectations, it's just not the case. And I've got the bruises to prove it.

For example, the donkeys, who were "hired" to act as predator protection for our future herd of sheep and goats, like to terrorize the goat.

We got Oscar as a companion animal (because wethers are supposedly more docile than bucks), but he's taken to headbutting me* when he doesn't get what he wants (I think the donkeys are stressing him out.)

Gallagher came to live on our farm because he needed a forever home, we had an empty stall and I'd always dreamed of owning a horse. What's more, I find spending time with him as good as any therapy. Trouble is, he's fallen in love with Cinderella -- the donkey -- and throws a temper tantrum when he loses sight of her, especially when we put him in his stall. At the age of 18, you'd think he'd have a bit more sense. But he doesn't.

Then there's the aesthetics of the place. When we lived in the city, I used to be conscientious of what our house looked like, inside and out. Beds were always made, dishes clean, floors swept, everything in its place. But on a working farm, I've found I've just had to lower my expectations: there's just too much to do and simply not enough time to do it.

Take the barnyard, for example. The heavy snow is now thawing, and overnight everything has turned into a soggy, sloppy mess. No matter how much shoveling of poop and laying of straw I do, it's just not pretty. Let's just say our farm will never grace the cover of Harrowsmith Country Living.

Then there are the times when I find it hard to draw the line between being a responsible caretaker and being overwhelmed by barn chores. Regardless of how dead tired I am, how late I was up the night before or how much work I should be doing, there are creatures that depend on me to feed, water and keep them clean (that's in addition to my own two creatures who need me, but that's a whole other posting on "mummy guilt"!)

To be honest, I have really down moments when I think, "What the hell are we doing?", "We have no right to be here," "What do we know about anything?" and "I've gotten us in over our heads."
I can almost here people telling me, "I told you so" and "You rushed into things" and "Didn't you see this coming?" Perhaps.

But then I remind myself why we came here and what we're trying to get away from. Modern life is so often one of ease and convenience. Too tired to cook? Then pop a frozen dinner in the microwave. Preservatives and excess packaging, be damned!

And yet, this kind of work isn't convenient, it isn't glamorous and it's far from easy. Truth be told, it's exhausting. It's stressful feeling out of control and not knowing what we're doing 100% (or even 50%) of the time. But every day we're learning something new and each lesson, good or bad, is taking us one step closer to figuring out how to make this all work for us.

And every night, under a black sky filled with zillions of stars, I'm learning how to just look at our barn filled with so much life and living and think, "I wonder what tomorrow will bring?"

* Note to self: Goats are dehorned for a good reason.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Full house

I've been told it's poor blogging etiquette to apologize for not posting lately. Everyone gets busy but dedicated bloggers still find time to write. I agree, except that it's impossible to blog when I'm in the barn... and that's where I've been spending most of my time lately.

You see, we've got a full house here. In the past two months, we've gone from a family of four plus a dog and two cats to a family of four, a dog, two cats, 10 hens, two donkeys, three (yes three!) goats and a horse. No wonder I sleep so well at night!

Both the new goats and the horse deserve their very own blog entries -- a place to tell their story and explain how they fit into our homesteading life. But in the meantime, here's a few photos of our new arrivals.

This is Lucy, a three-year-old Pygmy goat, and her two-month-old baby, Sam. We "rescued" them from a farm last Thursday.

Lucy is an excellent mother, especially now that she's being fed properly. Sam is rambunctious and adorable and is teaching us lots about the ins and outs of raising babies.

Here's Oscar checking out his barn-mates. He seems pretty happy to have companions (he's less stressed than when he was on his own), even though they're still quarantined in the next pen. Lucy and Sam were not well taken care of by their previous owners, and I want to ensure they don't have any parasites or anything before being introduced to Oscar.

This is Gallagher (or 'Gall'), a 18-year-old 16-hand thoroughbred, who I adopted from the Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue in Hagersville, Ontario. After two false starts (we had trailer troubles the first time we tried to make the trip and got snowed-in the second try), we finally brought him home last Saturday (after an 11-hour road trip, no less.)

He's pretty skinny (even with his winter coat) and he needs to rebuild his muscle conditioning, but he's lovely, well mannered and a dream come true (Yes, I was one of those girls who wished for a pony every Christmas. It may have taken some time, but it was worth the wait.)

It's no surprise I've got my hands full here at Rowangarth Farm. But at least I'm not going at it alone.

This farm life does wonders for the family. Lucas and I have rediscovered how well we work together as a team and the experience has brought us even closer together. The kids are still enthusiastic about chipping in at the barn -- putting out hay, sweeping, collecting eggs, filling water buckets -- and just spending time with our four-legged extended family members.

So even though our days are long, I'd prefer to be tired from mucking out stalls than sitting in commuter traffic for hours or trolling the malls for the latest, greatest must-have.

But I promise, we're done for now. No more animals until spring -- unless anyone has a barn cat or two to spare.

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