Tuesday, 21 September 2010

You were right, Dad

Labour Day weekend I spent a few days camping at Ragged Lake, a couple of hours Northeast of The Soo, with family and friends. Friday and Saturday were rainy and chilly, but on Sunday the cloud broke and the sun came out. Seizing the opportunity, I grabbed a kayak and spent a few hours circumventing the lake. And gliding across the water with only the kingfishers for company, I contemplated the recent changes in my life that saw me move to the country, keep goats for milk and meat, chickens for meat and eggs, and with a decent little kitchen garden.
Then I realized that I owed someone an apology. This is it.

Ricky the puppy, Dave Sr., Dave Jr. I'm the one in the diaper.

Now Dad, I know I haven’t written to you very many times. In fact, other than scratching Happy Birthday on a card, I doubt that I have written you at all since the days I wrote Father’s Day poems for you in elementary school. But the fact is, I have been doing a lot of thinking, and I owe you an apology.

 I’m living on a little hobby farm these days. I have a small herd of dairy goats, and I get up at 5:30 every morning to milk. I also feed the chickens and walk the dogs, make coffee, shower, and then your daughter-in-law and I have breakfast. All this by 7 o’clock. I remember your stories about morning chores on Grandma’s farm. I won’t compare my little place to hers, but I do appreciate the beauty of doing morning chores in the quiet before dawn. I can still see the gleam in your eye when you told me stories of training new draft horses, and the dull ache in your forearms after milking.

Most of all I remember how you used to complain about the taste of food from the grocery store. “Food doesn’t taste the same anymore!” you always said. "You can have that force-fed crap!” And I would l smirk, barely looking up from my Swanson TV Dinner or my Kraft Mac and Cheese. Man, I thought, it’s awful to be old. You think nothing is as good as it was when you were young. Apparently you lose your sense of taste. And all you can talk about is what’s wrong with the world.

And then by chance, I fell into something of the life you once had. This morning, Dad, I had sliced red tomatoes from the garden with my eggs, eggs that were laid yesterday by my own hens. The milk in my coffee came from one of my goats this very morning. This weekend for dinner we are roasting one of my free-range chickens, with sweet potatoes and red potatoes from our garden. And I've started making goat cheese. My mouth waters just typing the words.

Oh, and you would love our pantry! I get tears in my eyes every time I look at it. Jeanie's Green Tomato Chow-Chow, Chili Sauce, Choke-cherry Jam, Wild Cranberry Jelly, Grape Jelly. All the fruit came from the backyard, the roadside garden, or a neighbor's place.
And the taste... well, it tastes like Real Food. Fresh, bursting with flavor, satisfying. Real food.

And the best part is, there are thousands, millions of people who know what you knew. Some have known all along; others are like me and finally figured it out. But they are spreading the word, and taking to the country, and frequenting farmer's markets, and they are refusing to settle any more for food that isn't food. Every day they vote with their dollars to support local produce and pastured meat. Some of them buy my free-range eggs. Like me, they can't stand grocery store eggs any more, not only for ethical reasons but because they refuse to eat eggs unless they taste like eggs.

So there it is Dad. I'm very sorry that I laughed at you. And you were right all along.
If only you were still here so I could tell you.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Roadside garden

When I was a kid in the city, choke cherries and crab apples were curiosities, or at best an occasional treat. They were few and far between as well.
The was a rumor around my group of friends that if you ate choke cherries and drank milk, the milk would sour in your stomach and you would vomit. So naturally we used to dare each other to do it.
It never worked.
I don't know how the rumor got started. Likely someone's mother said "don't eat those choke cherries. You just had milk" and we extrapolated the rest. Who knows. Needless to say, something you eat only on a dare is not a food you relish.
Always wear your hat outdoors mother said. Luckily I listened. I came back with my hat full of blackberries.

Crab apples I genuinely loved. Once when I was nine, an older boy in the neighborhood came back from a camping trip with a knapsack full of green apples. Three of us sat for about two hours on his back veranda with a salt shaker and that knapsack, and had a feast.
This year we had a really warm summer, lots of humid days, and a fair bit of rain. It was a banner year for the roadside garden.
So far we have made choke cherry wine, choke cherry jelly, rhubarb strawberry wine, blackberry jelly, cranberry jelly. There are still three bags of chokecherries in the freezer, enough for more jelly and a batch of chokecherry/grape wine this time.
I also found a beautiful new (to me) crab apple tree, with a variety of apple I have never had before.  Fantastic just to eat, even without salt. Next year I plan to revisit that tree and try my hand at crab apple wine. We have eaten sugarplums too, the ones the dogs didn't get first. Some folks call them Saskatoon berries or service berries. Around these parts, we, like our neighbors in Michigan's UP, call them sugar plums.
These beauties grow in the next county, five minutes from home

This past weekend we went for a drive on St Joseph Island, 20 minutes or so from home. We were searching for cranberries and crab apples and we weren't disappointed.
A big mess o' cranberries simmering on the stove.

So get out there and explore the roadside garden. There is a ton of delicious food there. Sure it takes a fair bit of labor, and some sugar and pectine. But you didn't plant it, you don't have to weed it, you haven't stressed about it, you've lost no sleep worrying that hail or hoppers would get it before harvest.
All it asks of you is that you stop and enjoy it. And appreciate it. Is that so much to ask?

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Beans, beans

The purple and green beans make a nice contrast when they are raw

Beans, beans, we sang when we were kids, the musical fruit. Those were baked beans, those delicious little things swimming in rich tomato sauce. But today it is string beans about which I - er - wax poetic (sorry).

When I plant the garden in the spring, my head is full of anticipation of the eventual harvest: ripe tomatoes off the vine, carrots pulled and rinsed off with the garden hose, beets boiled, buttered and salted, sweet yellow corn similarly prepared. For some reason, I don't think about the beans. And yet, every year, I go crazy for them when they are ready, and I want them with every meal. And every year, the garden produces enough for every meal for many, many days.

The other night I spent a few seconds picking at the ends of the bean rows to get a handful of beans. Just standing in one place at the ends of the rows. And as I looked at them I realized how great they are. For the last three years I have been growing two varieties of string beans. The familiar green guys, and lovely purple ones.The purple ones turn a deep olive green when you boil them, sort of like a built in doneness indicator. In case you have never had them, I should tell you the taste is similar to the green ones but the texture is different. They are more tender than the green beans, at least the green beans I grow. So I went to the kitchen for a bowl and in no time I had a bowl brimming with purple and green beans.
Two minutes worth of picking
Purple beans turn olive green - time for butter

If you use the beans raw - say in a salad, the green and purple beans would make a nice contrast. Also, the purple ones contrast with the foliage of the bean plant, making them really easy to pick.
We just throw them in the pot together, boil them until the purple ones turn green, then drain them and throw in a little salt and pepper and too much butter. Put a lid on the pot and let them sit for a few minutes while the butter melts and the beans soak up the seasoning. Then toss them around. Then eat 'em. Then cook another batch to go with dinner. Trust me, when you plant beans, you will have enough beans to do this. Everyday.

I planted two ten foot rows of purple beans this year and one row of green beans. Two weeks into the bean harvest both are going strong. Both varieties have flowers still, so there are many beans to come. They are easy to grow, too. Do a reasonable job of weeding, of course, so they don't get choked out. But even in my garden, where I manage to grow as much switch grass and alfalfa as I do vegetables, I have an abundant bean harvest.

So grow some beans. You'll be glad you did. If you can find them, try the purple ones.

You'll have to excuse me now; I have to run to the store. Seems we're out of butter...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Meaties - The Final Chapter

After 3 years of having layer hens I made my first foray into meat birds this year. Disregarding all of the negative things I have heard and read about the Cornish Rock X, I ordered 30 of them for May delivery. Now, when I order from McClelland Feed Store, they order from Frey’s Hatchery in Southern Ontario. There are two choices for a meat bird: Frey’s hybrid meat bird, and the Cornish X.

The negatives I mentioned will turn up if you Google 'Cornish X': They grow so fast that they are prone to leg problems, they are subject to “flip over” or sudden heart failure, they die easily during hot, humid weather, they aren’t active enough, they eat too much, they won’t join the Chicken Marketing Board... okay, I made up the last one.

A friend of mine raised the Frey’s hybrid meat birds, and told me he wasn’t impressed. None of the above happened to his chickens, he just didn’t think the resulting birds tasted as good as supermarket chicken, and they cost more. He elected not to repeat the experience this year.

So Cornish X it was. They sent me 32, and I lost two chicks during the first two weeks. Par for the course, and they occurred a week apart, so no sign of illness. And in nine weeks (yes, nine weeks!) I had 30 very large chickens.

We have eaten two, one on the barbecue and one roasted in the oven, and both were superb. The first, a hen, had a fair bit of fat to be trimmed before cooking. The second was a cockerel and the dark meat was especially good. The oysters were the size of their namesake shellfish, the biggest I have ever seen.

Just for fun I took a picture of the chickens next to the box that held 30 of them 9 weeks ago.

Nine weeks ago this box held 30 of these behemoths!
Here’s the cost breakdown:

30 Chicks + 1 sack starter feed, 3 sacks grower feed $99.00
Delivery $16.50
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
Feeders and waterer $60.00
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
Shavings (5 bales) $29.00
Processing $110.74
Total cost $444.74
Cost per bird $14.82

I had chick waterers and feeders, but I bought two feeders and a waterer when they got bigger. These costs are reflected in the list; arguably I could have amortized that cost over several years.

They really will go outside and forage a bit 
Some notes, in no particular order.

• Thanks to a great local feed store that has good connections at the feed mill and is not afraid to experiment, I was able to use GMO free (no corn, no soy), vegetable protein only feed at no extra cost.
• All feed sacks were 25 kg or 55 lbs.
• I didn’t get the run constructed until the birds were 5 weeks old. I think if I had it ready earlier, more of the chickens would have used it. As it was, after a little chicken whispering, about half of them used the run every day to forage and snap at mosquitoes. And sit.
• For the last three weeks, they consumed two sacks of feed per week.
• I only sent 28 birds for processing. Two weeks earlier I took two hens to a friend’s and learned to butcher a chicken, and gave her one for her trouble. The one I brought home weighed 6 pounds, dressed, at seven weeks.
• I did have one hen that developed a bad leg. That was the reason I decided to butcher two at seven weeks.
• My scale was broken when I had the chickens processed, so I don’t have total weight. I doubt very much that any are smaller than the six pounder; the one that had the bad leg was definitely smaller. The cockerels look to be eight pounds or so. When i get the scale fixed I might weigh some.
• I ordered straight-run, day-old chicks, which was cheapest.
• I stressed a lot during a two-week heat spell during which the meaties were panting a lot and in some distress. They came through it just fine though. I gave them fresh, cold water as often as possible.
• Here’s a fun fact: during the last week and a half, the cockerels started learning to crow. It started as more of a goose honk, and ended up something like honkle-donkle-doooo. I could just imagine them thinking, another couple of weeks and I’ll get it. Little did they know.
• Norm Hughes at Rose Valley Farms loaned me eight chicken cages for free so I could haul the chickens to Northern Quality Meats. If you are ever heading east from Sault Ste Marie on the Trans-Canada highway, stop at Rydall Mill Road and buy some of Norm and Judy’s amber maple syrup. Tell him I sent you.

Would I consider Cornish X chickens again for meat? You bet!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Hey, hay!

Twice in my life I have discovered what I believed to be the World's Largest Air Freshener.

On the first occasion, I was living in Southern Ontario and didn't have a car, having suffered a bit of a financial setback. Determined to have a Christmas tree, I brought home a fair sized one on the city bus. I was up the stairs and past the open-mouthed driver before he could tell me I couldn't bring it on the bus.  London never had such a sweet-smelling vehicle in their fleet as they did that day.

 But there is nothing so fragrant, so sweet and heady -- and so large -- as a stack of fresh alfalfa hay.

Normally there is a distinct advantage to being a hobby farmer rather than a real farmer, which is that some things can be done on a best-effort kind of basis. If your livelihood is not at stake, you can make some decisions on a whim. If the south pasture doesn't get fenced, well, I just won't rotate the goats over there this year. Whatever.

Also, the weather does not quite rule your life the way it does for a real farmer. If a hail storm ruins the corn, we'll make do with roadside stand corn instead of our own.

At haying time, however, we're all in the same boat: when the hay is ready, the hay is ready.

Now, I have discovered a kind of hay-based corollary to Murphy's Law, which states: The hay will always be ready at 9 p.m., with rain due in a couple of hours. So suppose some hobby farmer, in some place -- Tarbutt Township for instance -- has had a long day. It's the middle of the week, and he's tired, and gearing down for an early bedtime. He starts watching a movie -- maybe "9", the animated post-apocalyptic flick.

The phone rings. And of course, it's the farmer up the line, saying the hay is ready. It's after nine o'clock, there is about an hour and a quarter of daylight left, and it will take four trips with the utility trailer to bring home the hay, which then has to be stacked, load by load, in the barn.

Oh... and rain is coming.

He could wait, let the farmer bring the hay in and store it in the mow, then go and buy it and have him get it back out, but that extra handling puts the price up. At fifty cents a bale extra, it adds up. A hundred bales of hay goes from $250 to $300, for the same hay, because it has been handled twice.

So off goes the movie, and off goes our hobby farmer to get the first load.

At midnight the hay is stacked and he is ready for a cold beer, a shower, and a not-so-early night. But as he pauses at the door of the barn, he takes a deep breath.

Mmmmmmm......  sweet, heady hay. The single greatest summer smell on the farm. Everything about it says sun-warmed fields and contented livestock. Suddenly my barn, which used to smell like 30 Cornish X chickens, savors of summer at it's height. Truly, the World's Biggest Air Freshener.

By the way, the first 30 minutes of "9" is really good.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Meaties Part 2

I had heard about the problems sometimes associated with Cornish X chickens, mostly tied to their phenomenal growth rate and associated weight gain. So it was sad, but not shocking, when one of my 30 Cornish developed a leg problem at 7 weeks.

Now, these chickens have an appointment at Northern Quality Meats in a week and a half. But I am raising a year's worth of chicken myself for several reasons, one of which is to ensure my food is humanely raised, so I wasn't about to let this poor hen suffer. So I called Sigrid, my friend, kindred spirit and general animal management mentor, and asked her if she would teach me to clean a chicken if I brought it over. She said sure, so I brought two chickens over, so I could follow along with my own bird - we learn best by doing after all - and left her the second one for her trouble.

Unfortunately, since both of us were up to our elbows in chicken, I don't have a photo record. I will detail what I have learned another time. But what I have been leading up to - and what you tuned in to find out - is, how did the damn thing taste?

As you can see below, we rubbed the skin with seasoned salt and roasted the bird on the barbecue on a stand that is made for what we used to call "beer-butt" chicken because we stood the chicken on a beer can. The stand, however, does the beer can one better by catching all of the lovely drippings in the bottom. If you drop some cubed potato or chunks of onion in there while the chicken cooks (that's onion in the picture), you will be left with something mouthwatering indeed.
The chicken was delicious. It was moist. It was rich. To be sure, there was no shortage of fat, even after trimming lots off before cooking. But the breasts were as moist as dark meat, and the dark meat was to die for. The wings were meaty. I can't say much about the oysters, because Genevieve scooped both of them.

Today for lunch, there was the moistest chicken salad ever. And then tonight, best of all, fresh chicken soup. Remember those drippings that got caught in the stand on the barbecue? Into the soup they went.
Oh. My. Good. God. 

Oh, and this seven week-old hen weighed 6 pounds even. That's dressed, not live weight. And there are much bigger birds to come.

For those who are interested, I will post a breakdown of final costs and yield per bird once they go to be processed.

That's it for now. I am off to write my first chicken review: http://bit.ly/9wuGDH

Monday, 12 July 2010


So 7 weeks or so ago I received my shipment of 30 Cornish X chickens. As with layer chicks, they arrived in the usual cardboard box, not much bigger than a shoebox.

Like layer chicks, they were something like a living marshmallow peep. And when I got them home I dipped each little beak in the waterer and then placed them gently in the wood shavings.

There the similarity pretty much ends.

Oh, they have two legs, two eys, and a beak all right. But they are chickens in the same way that a Hummer is a family sedan.

When I bought the chickens, I had two choices for a straight meat bird (ignoring dual-purpose options): something called a hybrid broiler, or Cornish Rock X. I read all kinds of warnings about the Cornish X - they are subject to "flip over" (sudden heart failure), they develop leg problems from growing too fast, they are boring... But Frey's hatchery, the one my local feed store orders from, has only Cornish X and a hybrid meat bird, in terms of pure meat birds. And a friend raised 25 of the hybrid birds last year and wasn't impressed.

After much deliberation I ordered the Cornish X, 30 of them, and hoped for the best.

After 7 weeks, and 10 bags of feed, they were starting to look like small turkeys. And I understand what some people mean about them being boring. They are not fulfilling like a nice layer hen. I have had a handful of layer breeds, and they all scratch around in the yard and cluck contentedly, streak after flying bugs... but the meaties were more like big white pillows with thick legs.


To be sure, the first day I let them out into their new run, they sat and stared at the door. After an hour, three or four stuck their heads out and nibbled at a blade of grass. But after a few days, I had a dozen or so that reliably went straight out and did their best to forage.

They don't scratch up the ground like other chickens, they waddle from spot to spot, plopping down after a minute or two. They eat the grass around them, stand up, and then waddle, waddle plop! in other spot. They are at least getting some forage, the odd insect, and some exercise. They also keep the pen cleaner by leaving some of the manure outside, and fertilize the ground.

In the late evening I sometimes go out and sit beside the run, and they come over to me out of curiosity. And then, they start to act like real chickens, foraging in the grass, and making contented chicken sounds. And I enjoy them, I really do. I think if I had had the run ready when they were younger, they would be more active. And I can test that theory next year, now that I have everything built.

 Tonight while I sat watching them, a hen and a cockerel walked down to the far end of the run and discovered a small blackberry bush. They ate the budding berries and then tucked into the foliage, gobbling it down with obvious delight. The hen also snapped at some small moths that flew by, and the cockerel muscled up to the chicken wire when my dog got close to the hen.
They ARE chickens after all.

Tomorrow: the first taste of my Cornish X meaties!