Thursday, February 19, 2009

Simpler Living column, part three

When I submitted February's Simpler Living column to my editor on Tuesday, I realized that I'd never posted January's installment about making do with less.

"One of the reasons we moved to the country was to get away from the buzz of modern suburban life. Even though we knew the dangers of living next to the Joneses, there was always that pressure to keep up or, even worse, get ahead. But that usually meant spending money, and it had us stretched to our limits.

We wanted off the consumer merry-go-round. We wanted to spend less and live more."
(Read more here.)

Truth be told, I probably forgot because we've been pretty busy lately trying to figure out how to make more. Money, that is. While it's true that we've cut down our variable spending quite a bit since moving here, there are still nasty things like mortgage payments and property taxes.

Making a living, while living our life, remains our biggest challenge and while we've got loads of possibilities, this darned "global economic downturn" isn't helping much.

So between that and dealing with various kid infections and the inevitable fallout (turns out we've done a great job teaching our kids to share: unfortunately that means sharing nasty little microbes and viruses -- with us) I haven't been blogging much lately.

So sorry, folks. Just bear with me a bit longer.

In the meantime, click here for the previous month's installment of Simpler Living.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Random moments of happiness #6, 7 & 8

It's been a few days since my last post but we've had a week of kids sick with nasty colds and parents fighting them off (the colds, not the kids.)

But rest assured, the goat hasn't turned us off farming.

I've got loads to write about -- our farewell to the goat (tomorrow, bright and early); our first "successful" visit with the farrier (notice the quotes around the word "successful"); the solution to our "how on earth will we be able to manage our 30 plus acres of hay field with no tractor?" problem (no, we did not buy a tractor); the organic growers meeting I attended last night that connected me with some local farmers doing amazing things with market gardens, hops and even yaks (yes, yaks!) and the crazy weather we're having that is bringing new meaning to the words "poopy mess." (I'm listening to a torrential downpour of rain right now... did I sleep through the rest of winter?)

But in the meantime, all I'm good for is posting a photo.

Here's one of Henry's random moments of happiness, keeping watch over his farm.

Okay, two photos. Just look at those ears!

Maybe, just one more: It's an equine conga line... cha-cha-cha! Okay, time for bed... I'm starting to find myself far too amusing.

Click photo to enlarge

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What else can I say but "thank you"

I've got to say, there are some amazing knowledgeable people out there in the blogsphere and I feel very privileged to have connected with them.

I wrote this post about Oscar mostly to get the feelings I was experiencing out of my head and on to paper (the process helps me work stuff out.)

As I said before, I was quite nervous about writing because I didn't want to come off sounding foolish or weak. Or worse -- like this was "my fault" due to ignorance or inexperience.

There was quite a good response in the comment section on both the GRIT blog and here -- and it was some of the best advice, both practical and philosophical, I could have expected.

One reader wrote: "Believe it or not it's harder if you name the animals. Something about giving a name more than “brown kid” or “leghorn rooster” makes it easier to get attached to the animal. I’m an animal lover and have a bad tendency to name even the stray cats we find sharing our own cat’s food bowl on random occasions so this was a hard thing for me too. By not naming the animals like the pigs and chickens we aren’t going to keep its easier to be reminded not to get too attached."

A friend of mine wrote: "My old farm gran said "goats can kill a child; they can be mean as hell; and they are sure not going to change if you got a bad one" and she has been around a farm for a long time- 76 years on hers and 93 in total! You hardly want top live in fear of a freakin' goat and have the kids and you wearing helmets in the barn... So don't feel bad- get on with it, it won't be the first or last. Even if you were in the petting zoo business- that goat would have to go!"

Mama Pea wrote: "I believe that animals don't spend one second thinking about when they will die. They are creatures programmed for living in the moment. Although I can hardly stand to think of any animal suffering, I do feel killing animals for food is a necessity that must be done but as humanely as possible. If you and/or your husband aren't able to come to terms with this, you may want to reconsider having animals. But also remember that as long as you have an animal on your farm, it will have the best life it possibly could."

And finally, Barbara wrote: "It really does get easier and even the best farmers have to learn where to weed out the unproductive or hard to get along with animals. It's not a matter of failure or success. Every animal has it's own personality and it's idiosyncrasies. Some are just naturally flawed and even the most dyed in the wool farmer can do nothing with them. It's just part of nature. So don't feel guilty over something that you can't control. Instead feel good about the smart decisions you make to better everyone else's lives on the farm be they people or animals."

I often feel like we're working and living in something of a vacuum here. We haven't yet connected with any local, small-scale farmers (though I'm working on that.) So while books are all very informative and first-hand experience is imperative, I really appreciate hearing from the been-there-done-there, "I know what you're going through but get on with it" set.

So thank you for being firm, yet gracious, with your advice. I appreciate it. And I've decided to keep raising goats, at least for a while. We'll continue to give them the best life that we can and not feel guilty when it's time to say goodbye.

P.S. After I wrote the post, I knew what I had to do with Oscar. He's going, one way or another -- and pronto. Lucas is going to call around on Monday to see if someone will butcher him for us (eventually, I would like to do that ourselves -- that's what self-sufficiency and reliance is about, right? -- but not with one that I'm so emotionally entangled with.) Failing that, he's off to the sales barn on Tuesday. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Goat troubles, as posted to

My second posting to went up today and it's about troubles here on the farm. Goat troubles, that is.

It seems that I've got to figure out what to do with our first goat Oscar, now that he's become something of a nasty fellow -- and I'm finding it a harder decision than I expected.

What's worse, I've realized that this is just the first of many decisions that I'm going to have to make if we're going to breed animals (such as goats for milk and cheese) here on the farm.

While I wanted to share this story with the GRIT community, I also wanted to share it with you as I know there are some experienced goat people out there (you listening, Mama Pea?) and some homesteaders that I respect (yes you, Chicken Mama) who have or are raising animals and making decisions about culling and/or consuming them.

To be honest, I've felt quite uneasy about writing on this topic at all. It's probably that critic inside my head that says "didn't you think about this before you started getting goats?"

Well, yes I did... in theory but I'm finding the practice much more challenging.

I guess it stems from a fear of coming off sounding weak or foolish. But, this is my life and this is where I am in my thoughts right now. I started this blog to document our homesteading journey, bumps and all.

So, without further ado, I've included the text below (I omitted the photos as I've already posted most of them here before.) Or check it out here at

And if you're new to this blog, you can read some more of the back story here, here and here.

As seen on "Homesteading Tales from Rowangarth Farm"

We’ve got goat troubles … and it’s the chickens’ fault. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to blame the chickens but if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here trying to figure out what to do with an ornery, head-butting pygmy goat named Oscar. So in my angst-ridden state I’m holding them responsible. Okay, partially responsible.

It all started back last October when we finally got around to cleaning years of previous owners’ junk out of the barn. We had a great set-up – a few goat pens, a large horse stall and two areas to keep poultry – but no livestock.

So like many new country folk, we decided to get us some chickens. Because it was fall already, it was too late to place a chick order so I went online to look for some laying hens.

Not long afterwards, I found a lady willing to sell us 10 mature barred rocks, Rhode Island reds and black rock hens.

We brought them home and within days we were collecting tasty, rich and gorgeous eggs from our girls.

About a week later, the lady who sold us the chickens emailed me to ask I’d be interested in buying a six-month-old male pygmy goat. Although Billy was still intact (as in, a fully capable male goat) she said he was very friendly and not at all aggressive.

I admit it – I’ve always loved goats, especially the little ones. Yes, my only exposure to them before moving to the farm was in petting zoos (there’s my disclaimer, right there), but I’ve always loved their personality. But that’s not a good enough reason to buy one, I reasoned, as we are not ourselves a petting zoo. So I decided to do some research.

I discovered that although pygmy goats are only 16 to 23 inches tall at the withers and does weigh approximately 55 pounds, pygmies can produce as much as four pounds of milk a day (equal to half a gallon) or 600 to 700 pounds a year, quite enough for a homesteading family of four.

Since one of the reasons we moved to the farm was to become more self-reliant, raising goats seemed like a good way to ensure a steady supply of goat milk and cheese. While purebred dairy goats such as Nubians and Saanens produce a much greater quantity of milk (averaging 1600 pounds annually), they are larger, require more space and more feed. Plus, registered proven producers (milkers) would be significantly more expensive.

Because we had absolutely no experience raising goats, we decided to try the economy version first.

But the question remained, should we buy Billy? I know there’s a lot more to selecting an animal for breeding than upbringing – pedigree and conformation are key but again, we’re just getting started here. The sticking point was, did we really want a buck?

While intact male goats start out as lovely little creatures, they quickly mature into bucks with somewhat objectionable habits, smell being the least of them. I mean, once you learn that a buck likes to spray his own beard and forelegs with urine, you may think twice about owning one. I know I did.

Finally, we decided to go ahead with it. We’d buy Billy now and get a doe in the spring and we’d go through one breeding cycle and see how things went.

We weren’t able to get Billy right away so in the meantime, I found another pygmy goat for sale: this one a three-year-old wether, or a castrated male.

I thought that it would be a good idea to get a wether as a companion for Billy. Goats are herd creatures and don’t do great on their own and once Billy matured, he’d be off limits to our future girls.

So on a cold, sunny day in November, my daughter and I brought home Oscar.

I liked Oscar immediately. He was inquisitive and friendly and took to following me around the barnyard like a puppy. While it was endearing at the time, that was probably a sign of things to come. I hadn’t bought livestock – I’d brought home a pet and a pet isn’t what I bargained for.

A few days after arriving at the farm, we tried introducing Oscar to the donkeys (they came after the chickens.)

Already we’d heard the coyotes circling the farm and we wanted to have predator protection in place before adding anyone else to the barnyard. Let’s just say it didn’t go well.

Cinder, the older and more sensible of the two, didn’t much mind Oscar. Lee, the younger and more insecure donkey, laid into Oscar like a fury, sending him cart-wheeling across the barnyard. It was unexpected and truly dreadful. We put the donkeys in the back paddock and tended to Oscar’s bruised ego.

Worried about what we were getting into, we were relieved when the chicken lady decided to keep Billy. That was fine with us because breeding was farthest from our mind at that moment.

But then a few weeks later, along came Lucy and Sam.

We purchased Lucy, another three-year-old pygmy goat, and her two-month-old baby that we named Sam, from a less than scrupulous owner. The idea was that Oscar would now have a companion (he was starting to show signs of stress and anxiety that we assumed was because he was an only goat), and we could keep Sam intact and have our own buck.

While we hoped the addition of Lucy and Sam would reduce Oscar’s growing agitation, it seemed only to heighten it. Although we kept them in adjoining pens for the first few weeks (we’d now moved everyone into the barn, out of the harsh winter weather) he became even more aggressive, not less.

Then the aggression turned on us. All my sources say that wethers were supposed to be docile and friendly but whenever we went into Oscar’s pen to collect his water bowl, he’d growl, head-butt and even once tried to down me. It left me with a nasty bruise and a growing worry that something was wrong. But what should we do about it?

The vet told us to take him to the sales barn. My dad offered to eat him. I even tried to sell him privately. But none of these options seemed to assuage my guilt that we’d failed. If only we’d done something more or differently, if only we weren’t so inexperienced, he wouldn’t have turned on us. (Looking back, he did seem pretty high-strung and codependent for a goat, right from the very beginning.)

So here I am today, learning my first lesson in animal husbandry – what to do with an animal you no longer want. I’m finding it a hard decision to make (now’s probably a good time to disclose that I’m a vegetarian – I’m something of an oddity around here), but it’s the first of many if we decide to continue raising goats or any animal.

If 50 percent of goats born are male, our options are: castrate every one of them and open a petting zoo (not an option), sell them privately (which may be harder to do with animals that are neither registered nor proven), butcher them or sell them to a sale barn (where someone else in turn will probably butcher them.)

It’s not like I didn’t know we’d have to dispose of excess animals even before we got into this goat business. I’m all about paying your own way around here and if you’re not contributing then you’re taking away from making this farm sustainable. I’ve even said it myself that once our chickens are done laying, they’re headed for the soup pot.

It’s just there’s this disconnect: the self-reliant side of me that knows full well that livestock are not pets (repeat after me: livestock are not pets) and that I can’t keep every single one of them; and the other side of me that has a soft-spot for four-legged creatures.

Maybe it’s time to get out of goats, but the barn would sure be empty without them. We’d miss out on our own milk and cheese too. Seems like a pretty high price to pay for my squeamishness.

So if anyone has any perspective or advice to share with this greenhorn, I’d love to hear it. Should I stick to growing vegetables or does culling animals, even the cute furry ones, get easier?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Random moments of happiness #5

Nap time on the farm. That blue lump on the right side is Gallagher (and this was the first time in three months that I've seen him sleeping in the snow. Rolling around, yes, sleeping, no.)

Click photo to enlarge

As I watched them soaking up the sun's rays and dreaming about whatever equines dream about (I'm sure for Cinder, it was something to do with food) it was like the world stopped spinning, just for a few minutes. It was a moment of calm, quiet and simply savouring that peaceful, easy feeling.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Vinegar pie... oh my

I was looking at some of the GRIT blogs the other day when I came across a posting called "Foodie Thoughts" by senior associate editor, Jean Teller.

I'm all for thinking about food and with one click, I was instantly rewarded with a tantalizing photo of homemade macaroni & cheese, one of my favourite comfort food indiscretions. (I'm also partial to the occasional fish & chips meal. I'm sure cardiologists and dietitians everywhere would scoff at this revelation, but there you have it.)

I'm always on the lookout for new recipes and while I didn't find a mac & cheese recipe (a cookoff for the best recipes is apparently in the works) there was another one that caught my eye.

Vinegar Pie.

Vinegar pie? My first reaction was, BLECHHHHHHH!!!! And that's coming from a self-avowed fish & chip fan. But vinegar pie? I just didn't get it. But it peaked my curiosity so I read a bit further.

Apparently, vinegar pie (a popular request among GRIT readers and I'm sure many of them could teach me a thing or two about country living) was traditionally an "adversity pie" eaten before the spring rhubarb was up and after the winter supply of fruit was gone. Like many "pioneer"-style recipes, its origins are disputed (some say Texas, others New England) but it was from a time before freezers, fridges, pressure cookers and eating out of season.

It was from a time when the 100-mile diet was everyday -- not revolutionary -- thinking.

While the sound of it made my face pucker, I loved the idea of this imitation lemon pie -- how it embodied the idea of making do with what's in the pantry and respecting the boundaries of seasonal eating.

So, I decided to try making it.

Here's the recipe, for 1889 Vinegar Pie:

1-1/4 cups sugar
3 tblsp corn starch
1-1/2 cups hot water
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 tblsp butter
2 eggs, separated
1 baked pie shell
1/4 cup sugar, mixed with 1/4 tsp cream of tartar

1. In a saucepan, mix sugar, cornstarch, water, vinegar and butter. Bring to a boil, stir constantly until thick and clear. Remove from heat.

This is probably an important step. I don't think I cooked the mixture long enough as the filling never did firm up properly.

2. Stir a small amount of hot mixture into beaten egg yolks, return this to the saucepan and cook another two minutes.

3. Cool to room temperature and pour into a pie shell. (I didn't cool it as I'd read somewhere else that it's best to apply meringue to a hot pie filling to help make a seal. I poured the filling in still warm (it did cool a bit while I was fussing with the meringue) and it worked fine.)

Yep. That's a store-bought shell there, folks. While I may be good at making many things, pastry just ain't one of them.

4. Beat egg whites with sugar/cream of tartar mixture until very stiff. Apply meringue over pie and seal meringue to crust edges.

My first attempt at meringue was a total flop (it never stiffened). So I did some reading and apparently, the best meringues are made with older eggs (three to four days old -- now whether that's three to four days for fresh eggs or three to four days for store-bought, which would actually make them over a month old, I'm not sure.) I tried again with some "older" eggs and some modifications to my technique: first you beat the egg whites, then you add the cream of tartar until you get the stiff peaks, then you add the sugar.

Clear as mud? Good.

5. Bake 10 to 12 minutes in 325 degree (F) oven until lightly brown.

I had to admit, from the outside, the pie looked lovely. But what about the inside?

Taste test #1: I gave the first piece to my dad, who was visiting for the weekend. He has an adventurous palate so I thought he'd be a good person to start with.

"It's not bad. It [being the filling] is better with the meringue. What is it?"he asked, finishing off his small piece.

He was quite surprised to discover that the mystery ingredient, the one he couldn't quite put his finger on, was in fact, vinegar. He called it "a success" though once he'd had a few minutes to savour the aftertaste, commented that it may have been a (wee) bit too vinegary. Scottish men (especially dads) can be so diplomatic.

Taste test #2: Buoyed by this apparent success, I tried the second piece. I, however, was all too aware of the vinegar. I could smell it and taste it and couldn't get past the first bite (though the meringue was yummy.) My piece ended up in the bin.

Taste test #3: Knowing that Lucas' favourite pie is lemon meringue, I thought he'd be a fan for sure. Unfortunately, he also knew that the main ingredient in this filling was vinegar.

His piece ended up in the bin. (Though he did report his sinuses felt clearer.)

Taste test #4: Wanting to know what all the fuss was about, my four-year-old daughter asked to try it. She took one bite, screwed up her face and ran away with her hand over her mouth.

Her forkful ended up in the bin.

Taste test #5: By this time, my son was really intrigued and wanted in on the action too. As I knew that no one else in the family was going to eat any, I told him to take a bite directly from the pie plate. He scooped a bite... and he liked it.

I suggested he take another bite, which he did. Still good.

I challenged him to take a third bite but this time I did the scooping and made sure there was a fair portion of filling and not just meringue.

The rest of the pie ended up in the bin.

While I loved this experiment in pioneer-style eating and there was something of a lemon-like appeal to it, the next time I'd use half the vinegar.

Trouble is, I don't think I could convince my family to try it again. Maybe it's best to leave the vinegar to my fish & chips.

P.S. If anyone has any experience with this or any other "imitation" recipes, I'd love to hear about it!
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