Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tap, tap, tap

After three years of deliberation, we've finally put in our first maple taps. It was a family affair with the baby in a front carrier and the three-year old eating snow. My husband and I did a dance around who would use the battery-powered drill. It was a freebie from my folks, so technically it's mine and I've used it more than him since most of the buildings were my projects. However, after two days of charging, the battery will last for about 10 min. So I didn't want to be holding it when the drill wound down to a low squeal of exaust. I'd rather it petered out in his hand because, frankly, I would have pitched it in the snow in frustration and we wouldn't see it again until late May. Neither of us wanted to do it wrong and be blamed later for our failings. We did our usual thing and shared responsibility. I did the first tree and he got to finish up with the last two. This way, I could blaze the path to my liking and not be holding the drill when it died, and he could follow example thus escaping blame. We've always spit things right down the middle. Every relationship has it's own comfortable nuances.

I marked the sizable maples in our back lot two years ago, in the fall when the leaves were blazing red. Last year, I collected plastic jugs from our apple cider purchases and looked into getting a large stainless steel kitchen pan for the evaporation step. We haven't yet found a pan for boiling outdoors. But I figure that we probably steam off a gallon of water a day on the woodstove and it's still dry indoors, so why not put sap in the pot. It never boils, but there's definitely evaporation going on. It's worth a try. With only three taps we have the potential to get three quarts of syrup at the end of 6 weeks, which in our area costs about $30. Daily collections in knee deep snow is great exercise. So I should be in excellent shape after six weeks AND have three lovely quarts of the "liquid gold" for FREE. In all seriousness, life really doesn't get much better.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New cheesemaking equipment

I really can't say enough about Glengarry Cheesemaking Supply out of Quebec. They have the BEST offerings in terms of moulds, rennet and cultures. Margaret Morris' book, the CheeseMaker's Manual, is now in my library and is fast becoming my favorite book of all-time. We lived in Massachusetts for several years and I attented a cheesemaking workshop by Ricki Carroll of New England Cheesemaking Supply in Ashfield, MA. I have her book, part of the class. I reference it for pastuerization temps, yogurt guidelines and have relied heavily on it up to this point. It's great for the 1 gallon parties, while Morris is for the 3-5 gallon group. The irony here is that Morris' book was less expensive through Ricki's company.

In my opinion, they are in two different worlds, with separate audiences. Ricki is for novices and mozzarrella kit gifts, while Morris offers an economical source for more experienced cheesemakers. While I respect both audiences, I feel like making a batch of cheese should not require it's own sealed package of starter, which is what Ricki offers. This would result in more predictable batches from one day to another, but is not feasible when you make cheese as often as we do. One mesothermophilic bacteria culture from Glengarry has lasted for more than a year and variability is only as big as you make it by imperfect measuring. Personally, Ricki is eccentric and I believe she learned very quickly how much more profitable it was to sell reagents and information than it was to actually make cheese for sale. I remember chatting with her about my profession. It was more of a go-around-the-room and say what you do chat. She was immediately put off by my declaration of being a biochemist. I think it offended her somehow on a very personal level, as though it was counter to whatever it is she subscribes to. On the other hand, I've never met Morris.

All I can say is that I feel like we have graduated from the Ricki department into the Morris club. We purchased more moulds, mesotherm bacteria, and penicillium/geotricum bacteria, for mold-ripened cheeses. The top picture is our 1.5-2 kg Kordova mould, which is for pressing hard cheeses. It has its own mesh lining, so wrapping the cheese with cheesecloth is unnecessary. Cleaning should be a snap and the cheese won't be wrinkled by the cloth. I think it will also make pressing without an actual cheese press much easier. I'll just throw a board and weight on top of the Kordova lid. The bottom picture is of round bottom moulds for chevre, on the left, and camembert, on the right. We also ordered a plastic mesh draining mat for aging the mold-ripened cheeses. I feel like we're getting ahead of ourselves here, but then kidding is just around the corner.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Inexpensive Improvements

Some of my earliest memories are of walking the grounds at public estate auctions and begging my parents for a hot dog from the vendor wagon. Mom and Dad have an appreciation for antiques, although I think their unwaverable thrift was what beckoned them to these events. They filled our childhood home with beautiful old furniture that, as my mom would say, told loving stories of other people in different times. I attented my last auction right before leaving for college. My mother let me bid on a $20 curved leather-inlaid coffee table that I have since carted up innumerable stairs to dorm rooms and later into apartments. It has suffered scratches and dings over the years, but looks graceful in the living room of our home aside some of my parent's favorite antiques.

My best garage sale find was a $2 Hamilton Beach coffee maker that I bought more than 15 years ago and we use to this day. Since discovering Craigslist four years ago, we have made a very deliberate effort to reuse items people don't want or need before buying them new. I recently found my favorite pair of jeans at a consignment store for $4. The front button was missing, but this just gave me an excuse to wear a belt. Great finds are easy to come by when you live near a college town. Students rarely have the time or inclination to barter when they are moving, both literally and metaphorically through a turbulant period in their lives. I've also found great recycled building materials for our goat shed at a downtown shop devoted to reselling deconstruction salvage (two wood frame windows for $5). This hasn't always been convenient, but overall it has been a good experience dealing with sellers in our area. We have bought furniture, baby items and, most recently, a few things for our farm.

Several years ago, we assembled a seed-starting rack from used components. I bought each 6' stainless steel rack, with four shelves, for $25 from a local catholic church. The shelving had previously been used by nuns for storing their canned preserves. They only needed to be cleaned. We use one for books and two others for tools in the garage. The fluorescent light fixtures and bulbs are in rough shape, but they were free from my farm internship.

About two weeks ago, I found a very old and still functioning dorm refridgerator for $40. It will make an excellent cheese aging cave. This was so much more exciting for me than it really should have been. My guess is that it works better and lasts longer than anything I could have bought new.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Helping Hands

Our goat kidding season will begin in less than three weeks! Although we will be warming, however temporarily, into the 40's this week, it's likely to still be around freezing when the babies arrive. Once the newborn kids have been dried off and received some warm colostrum, they will be comfortable. However, with goat birthing there will be quite a bit of watching and waiting on my part. I eschew gloves most days because I'm in a hurry, but after a few hours near freezing my hands start to get cold.

We are very fortunate to have help from a dear friend this year, mostly since she is interested in learning goat husbandry, but also because we have our hands full with a 5 month old human baby. I want her hands to be warm, despite being covered in baby goat goo, so I dug out my grandmother's knitting needles and patterns. I'm a self-taught knitting novice, but I figured as long as they were for goaty chores who cares if they are a little irregular. I found a "hunting mitts" pattern from a Mary Maxim publication printed within a sixty cent booklet of other gifts and novelties in Canada (there's no pub date, but I'm thinking '50s based on the pictures). I made up the mitten flap stitches to mimic the pair I use. This is my inheritance. It's a great resource for those do-it-yourself folks who may be disinclined to by a pair of polyester mittens from Wal-Mart. It took most of my free time away from this past weekend. Once they were finished, I showed my husband with pride. He commented on how much they must be worth, given the time I had spent on them. My rebuttal as usual, "when you're unemployed, your time's not worth much more than you make of it." I'm happy with them and I hope she is too.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Garden Treats

If you have kids or you just have a hard time eating your veggies, these are some of my 3 yr-old's favorites that you might consider growing;
  • Soybeans (edamame)...our first try last year yielded a delicious snack to shell and eat right in the garden. While they are buttery and delicious fresh, if you collect a few more than you need right away, they freeze beautifully and were a big hit that we will repeat next season. Our biggest problem was keeping the chipmunks from taking them all.
  • Husk (or ground) cherries...close relative of the tomatillo, they are happy to volunteer around the garden, after you've grown them once. These plants are hardy and low growing (no staking). The fruit develops inside a papery lantern, which means they are always clean while giving children the joy of unwrapping a sweet delicious and healthful treat. We freeze these like any berry. My daughter loves them frozen, but I've heard they can be made into pies, if you have any left.
  • Carrots and parsnips are a carefree and staple snack. They also give us a reliable long-term storage veg to enjoy during the winter in soups and slaws.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Spending frenzy

This should be a time of year for reflection and relaxation at our chilly and snowy latitude. Instead, I'm fretting over internet orders. Shopping always stresses me out for some reason. Perhaps it's my frugality, but I have never enjoyed purchasing with the excitement and abandon of my generational peers.

So far, I have placed and received my orders from
Johnny's Selected Seeds,
Hoegger Goat Supply,
Glengarry Cheesemaking Supply, and
New England Cheesemaking Supply

On my to-do list are still orders for
FEDCO, and
Miller Nurseries I keep telling myself that this small investment will continue to pay dividends well into the future, perhaps unlike my retirement account.

We're less than a month from our first doe's due date as well as seed-starting and gardening mania (brassica go out in March) . I feel better knowing we have our kidding, milking and cheesemaking supplies on hand. So much for putting my feet up. Bring on spring!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Free-range fiasco

Our first pets were four laying hens that I had waited and planned for months in advance. I was excited to have these birds pecking and scratching away at our yard on insect control, just as Mother Earth News advertised. I wanted to give these animals a better existence than the factory farmer was willing to provide and feel good about where my eggs came from. I have seen miserable caged animals in the laboratory before, with no purpose other than to die. Personally, I believe that they understand their fate. Since leaving the lab behind, I'd prefer to dispatch critters only for my own subsistence with the exception that they are suffering.

It was my first project as a stay-at-home and soon-to-be mom and my very first experience with chickens. I brought the hens home from a local farmer late at night, as they return to roost and are easier to catch in the evening. The next morning I let them begin to roam the yard on my watch. Coincidentally, several hundred feet through the woods our neighbor was repairing some fence rails on his day off...with his birding dog. His dog spotted our White Rock scratching through layers of dead leaves. I heard the scuffle and squawk, then began to waddle at 8 months pregnant in the direction of the noise, making the mistake of leaving the remaining birds unguarded. A few minutes later and less than 24 h after bringing home our new additions, we were down to one hen and even I knew that she would be lonely. I returned to the farmer the very next day to purchase one more hen..."since we liked them so much." I didn't have the heart to tell her the gruesome story.

Since then and many birds later we have lost a total of 4 hens to dogs, 2 to hawks, 2 to fox, and 3 chicks to a raccoon. These do not include the near-miss encounters with a black bear, more hawks and other fox. We have a river corridor wildlife management area and bird sanctuary behind our home. Even the rectangular wire-encased runs that I built have proved insufficient at protecting our birds. The wildlife does quite well, which means free-range poultry is out of the question.

This season we expanded our interests to meat chickens, which proved especially difficult given our predation situation. I built a second coop for the birds to spend the night indoors, but this became problematic for several reasons. First, the birds had to be ushered out into a movable run in the morning and back to the coop at night. This sounds simple enough except that our spring group was comprised of the Cornish Cross commercial breed (this was the only choice our feed store offered), which are notorious for growing so fast that they become unable to walk, aside from other drawbacks. For a month, between when the birds feathered out and their slaughter, I had to catch and hand carry each bird back to the coop because they were unable to do so for themselves. Another problem with this type of management was the crowding that the birds had to endure overnight, not to mention the frequent cleaning that was required almost daily. I began to wonder if I was accomplishing anything more than the factory farm, besides an inefficiency that flirted with ridiculous.

After enjoying roasted homegrown chicken, I can say that we produced something considerably more palatable than what is available at the supermarket. Our birds enjoyed sunlight and dirt baths, but I aim to do better by them next time. My management plan for this fall season will be movable runs (24-30 sq ft) holding no more than 12 birds that are moved twice a day onto new pasture within a perimeter of electric fence for protection at night.