let kids watch beauty and the beast

A day in the life of a wannabe farmer

Recently, leaving the city for a more “sustainable” life on a hobby farm seems to be all the rage. Now, I love our life out here, but I thought I’d provide a little snapshot of life with animals. Both for those considering making the jump into the homesteading movement and for those who are more the armchair dreamer type. Because it is not for the faint of heart. Animals, like children, almost never behave according to plan.

homesteading

A system that works for months will suddenly break down at the most inopportune moment. And so this particular snap shot begins as I’m driving my children to town for tumbling/dance camp. An event they have been out of their minds excited about for weeks.

And I don’t see the cow in the pasture. Or the little bull calf that is her constant shadow.

Now, there are plenty of places in the pasture she could be and I wouldn’t see her. The grass is just tall enough, she could even be out in the open and I might miss her just driving by, especially considering how high above the road our pasture is. This doubt of my own observations sustains me all the way to town, but there is no way that lingering question mark is going to leave me alone. So I instruct the girls what to do if I’m not back when I’m supposed to be and head home.

And as I pull in the drive, Candy pokes her head out of the pig barn to say hello. Not catastrophic. She is technically still in the pasture, just not the section she belongs in. So I get a bucket with a little bit of grain and open the gate to let them out of the barn and the pasture gate to let them in with the sheep.

They aren’t interested in the grain bucket. Not one little bit. They run to the big barn and make themselves cozey in the corner. Which really wouldn’t be that big of a deal either, but this section is overgrazed and I really just need them to go take their morning snooze in the shade provided in the outer pasture where they belong.

So I shake the bucket which alerts the sheep who come running. The ram unnerves me. He’s never done anything, but I don’t know what’s going through his head when he looks at me. He stands too close, rests his head against the side of my leg and . . . thinks. I’m not sure if he’s planning on killing me for the bucket or claiming me as one of his ewes. Or if he’s just a nice ram that isn’t at all like the ones I’ve read about and I really should put more trust in his history of never doing anything than all I’ve read about how dangerous a ram with no fear of humans can be. After all, he only acts this way when I’m holding a bucket.

I finally give up on enticing the cattle out of the barn and lock the door, hoping to keep them in until they’re hungry enough to follow me back to where they belong. And I dump the grain on the ground to be rid of my uncomfortably friendly ram who doesn’t pay me any more attention.

Except now I notice that while I had closed the gates behind me, I had failed to tie the gate to the pig barn shut. This isn’t a quick task. It involves lacing baling wire through the gate and around a post because the gate is really just a collectiong of things we found in the barn and tied to an old metal gate to keep the animals from getting out. I think I had more hoped the gilts would just not realize that all they needed to do was push to get out.

Normally, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal to have happen right there where I can see. Miss Tumble (the one who got out) is a friendly gilt and more than happy to go where I direct her, with or without a bucket. Except that this particular exit to the barn leads to the little “porch” I made for the boars to acclimate them to the electric fencing. And given the odd “songs” Miss Tumble and Mr. Freckles had been singing to one another the night before, I was a little concerned that Miss Tumble might be in heat.

And by “songs,” I mean deep throated growls. Roars, even. I went down in the middle of the night to collect some chickens I knew were out and thought there was a bear in the pig barn.

Perhaps it is relevant to also mention here that the chickens were out because the day before the gilts had knocked over my daughter’s poorly conceived fencing to steal chicken feed, allowing all of our most prized birds to escape. None were injured, but they all eluded capture until nightfall led them to roost. In the pig barn. With the roaring-bears-that-were-pigs. Where I collected them by the light of a cell phone and tried not to imagine all that crossed the boar’s mind when he trotted over to me.

I thought he might be on a murderous rampage. He just wanted scritches so I obliged and escaped before he changed his mind.

At any rate, the little gate that I had propped open to let the boys go in and out of their half of the barn was wide open and doesn’t close as easily as the main gate Miss Tumble wandered out of. So I threw a rabbit cage in front of it, hoping to thwart any attempts at blocking me from extracting the object of his affection.

With all the animals finally secured, I walked out to the far pasture to see how exactly Candy and her shadow had escaped.

The actual exit point wasn’t that bad. I live in continual fear that Candy will cease to even pretend to fear the electric fence and that will be the end of containing her. But the top two lines had been dropped, probably for the short legs of small children who were retrieving a bucket. It was a small hop over and a short walk to the pig barn where they know there is grain available.

What was inside the pasture, however, was a far worse sight. Half a mile of fencing down and criss crossed across the pasture, like a glistening spider web of metal. Worried that the horses would get tangled in it, I shooed them over to the pasture section with the least damage and put up a line of fencing to keep them from walking through the tangled mess. The horses are good. I think they’d stay in a fence made of yarn as long as they were together.

I walked back to the barn and told Candy and Endeavor they were hamburger. Candy walked up to the barn door and stuck her head over the bar. I thumped her brisket.

“You know why this is your brisket? Because that’s what you make out of it. Slather it in BBQ sauce and it is far better than restringing fencing.”

She nuzzled me. I’m pretty sure she thinks the various cuts of meat I have taught her over the years are various pet names for how wonderful she is.

I looked at my phone. 9:45. I would be right on time to pick up my youngest daughter and take her over to her sister’s five day club.

Not even lunch time and I felt like I had already put in a full day’s work without actually accomplishing anything. And I still had a half mile of fencing to untangle and restring before I could begin the projects I had planned for the day.

So if you ever wonder what this whole sustainability-hobby-farm-thing is about, now you know. Working, re-working, planning, re-planning and always learning on the fly.

That and the soft brown eyes of an impish cow who rests her head on your shoulder while you threaten to turn her into hamburger because even she knows you don’t mean it.

And this. Because in the end, it really does all come back to your children.

haybale jumping

let kids watch beauty and the beast

Red clover jelly: recipes and reviews

We have a field of red clover, otherwise known as a pasture, on our property. I’m sure the bees will love it when they get here. The goats as well. Everyone seems to love clover and if you’ve ever sucked on those little purple flowers on the flower head, you know why. If not, well, I’m afraid you may not have had an adequate upbringing. Take a moment to find some nice red clover, pull it apart and share it with your children.

Anyway, it’s a flower and it’s edible so of course I had to make jelly out of it.

red clover jelly

I wasn’t as sure of this one since clover has such a delicate flavor to begin with. It has neither the fragrance, nor the strength of lilac or black locust. That, and I had difficulty finding a recipe. If the jelly were all that good, it seems like it would be easier to find instructions on how to make it.

So I started out with the same basic infusion I used for lilac jelly, black locust blossom jelly and dandelion jelly.

For the clover infusion:

4 cups boiling water
4 cups clover flower heads (This part was way easier with clover. All parts of the plant are edible, and none of them particularly offensive. While it is beneficial to use only the actual flower head, a little green isn’t going to have a noticeable effect on the jelly.)

Place clover in a glass or stainless steel container, cover with boiling water and leave it steep overnight. Strain out flowers and squeeze out excess water, reserving liquid for the jelly.

For the clover jelly:

4 cups infusion (add water to replace what was lost in straining)
8 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 packages powdered pectin
8 cups sugar

Add lemon juice to the infusion, stir in pectin and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Add the sugar all at once and bring to a rolling boil. Boil for one minute, skim and pour into jelly jars. Process like you would any other jelly. Here’s a great tutorial from Owlhaven.

I was pleasantly surprised at the flavor. It was light, but very pleasant. I loved the color, and lamented that I don’t seem to have the whole bubble free jelly thing down, yet. I tried pouring it into the jars quickly, but I think the real issue was that the jelly was already setting before I got it into the jars. You’re not really supposed to double recipes when using powdered pectin, or so I’ve heard. Maybe this is why? Or maybe I’ll just figure it out in time. No one around here really cares, anyway, so long as it tastes good on bread. And it does.

Then I found another recipe for an infusion. And of course I had to try it. Both with the juice and with the wine.

For the clover infusion:

5 cups apple juice or white wine
2 cups clover in a glass or stainless steel dish

Bring juice or wine to a boil and pour over clover. Cover and let sit until cool. Or, uh, overnight if you get busy and sort of forget about it. Strain and reserve liquid for the jelly.

For the clover jelly:

4 cups clover infusion
8 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
6 oz liquid pectin

Combine infusion, sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as sugar has dissolved, stir in pectin. Return to a rolling boil for one minute. Remove from heat, skim foam and process like you would any other jelly in a hot water bath.

I was quite pleased with the results. The jelly was picture perfect. Clear, no bubbles and that perfect wiggle-on-your-spoon consistency. I don’t know if it was the liquid pectin (which is supposedly happier with the whole doubling thing), the juice/wine or just that I was more conscientious about skimming foam during the whole process rather than just at the end. Either way, the jelly was beautiful.

My daughter wants me to enter it in the fair.

The clover infusion made with apple juice ended up tasting like apple jelly. It was a good apple jelly, with a slight unidentifiable flavor that added more character than most apple jellies have, but it was still apple jelly. And all hints at character were mostly lost once you stopped licking the knife and tasted it on bread.

The infusion made with the wine, however, was quite interesting. Maybe it was just the wine, but it seemed to bring out the flavor of the clover and accent it well. And the interesting flavor carries over to the bread, as well, which is a nice bonus since I’m not in the habit of eating jelly by the spoon full.

A word of caution, however. That whole idea about alcohol burning off in cooking? It isn’t as true as you might like to believe. The jelly isn’t boiled long enough to be confident this is actually an alcohol free jelly. White cooking wine doesn’t have a particularly high alcohol content to begin with, but it is still good to keep in mind.

Note: If you go off in search of clover, remember to be sure it is clover that hasn’t been sprayed. Oh, and you can use any kind of clover. I just happen to have tons of red clover. If you don’t have tons, you can halve this recipe. It was doubled to begin with.

Happy jelly making!

let kids watch beauty and the beast

Of garbage and dreams

Sitting on the edge of my bed to put on my shoes, I grumble a bit in my spirit. I’m about to load the trunk of the minivan with a week’s worth of garbage. Smelly garbage because the mice have made a sudden, unwelcome return and there are a few mixed in with packaging and dirty diapers and junk mail. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when we moved to the country, but we never thought to even inquire about trash service.

Who in the city really thinks about things like that? It never occurred to me that there might be places where the trash wasn’t picked up. The do-it-yourself country attitude already set our land on fire. Now it is filling my mini-van with garbage. For just $18.50 a month, we get to haul our own garbage into town to dump in the garbage man’s dumpsters.

What a deal. I never even knew how much I wanted a pick-up until now.

So I’m sitting on my bed, in no particular hurry to get my shoes on. It occurs to me that perhaps I should show a little more patience to the children in their dallying, for here I am. Dilly dallying. They’re all outside waiting on me.

I look out my window. At the green grass, the blue sky, the old barns and the farmland beyond. I smile. The view always does that for me. My husband and I are in agreement that someday, someday, when all the bills are paid, the improvements made, the projects finished, someday we’ll knock out this wall and make an enormous picture window.

And then, there’s my son. Just running. Running through knee deep grass, the wind in his face, joy beaming from his every move. Running, and jumping over stands of weeds. Running back to try it again. Running and prancing and shaking his head. Biting at an imaginary bit, he turns and runs and this time clears the weeds and trots around in a large, victorious circle.

It reminds me of when we first bought this property, but were still living at our old house.

“Mom, when we finally move, we probably aren’t going to be so interested in TV, anymore. There’s just too much to do.”

Indeed there is.

Funny how such small things can change your perspective and remind you of why you are where you are. I load the car with the garbage, make a face at the girls in the back seat as I ask if they want their windows open and call my young stallion to the car.

I leave feeling contentment and joy, even at the reality of driving my garbage in to town. It is such a small price to pay for a landscape on which to build our dreams.

let kids watch beauty and the beast

The joy of morning chores

The sun is barely breaking over the trees in the east and I’m standing in front of the coop, just watching. Watching the sun rise. Watching the dogs wrestle. Watching the chickens dart back and forth, eating our leftovers from the night before. They never just sit still and eat what is in front of them. Their little heads bob, this way and that. I used to think they were picking out their favorite bits, for they certainly do have their favorite morsels, but they behave the same way when the treats are all the same.

So now I know they’re just chickens and that’s just what chickens do.

The birds are relatively quiet. There is a call now and again. A jay squawks in the treeline. A bird I have not yet identified hides in a bush behind me and makes its “peep, prrreeep.” An entire murder of crows rises from the trees down by the river and flies silently overhead, just beginning to disperse on the other side of our property. I wonder for a moment if they are the reason I have not seen any hawks. And I am a little surprised at just how quiet the morning is.

Still, I just stand there. I’m not really sure how long it has been since I opened the coop door, but not the dogs are just standing in front of me, watching and waiting. They’ve already licked the bowl we use to store our leftovers clean, but they don’t know what to do next until I move. If I walk the property, they will romp off that direction. If I head toward the house, they will be waiting at the door when I get there.

Still, I just stand there. I’m not really thinking about anything. The chickens are almost finished with the tuna fish I pulled out of the back of the refrigerator and are moving on to the carrot peelings from the carrots I put in my husband’s cooler for his trip to Ravenna. The sleet turns to snow and I look up at the sky, asking the dogs if they think we really will get five inches.

I’m soaked, and decide it is probably time to get back to the house. It’s warm inside and the children are just beginning to wake, greeting me in their pajamas with sleep still in their eyes.

Where were you, mommy?

Just feeding the chickens.

let kids watch beauty and the beast

Late night visitors, or The attack of the coyotes

A little after midnight, both dogs leap at the window, growling furiously.  For a moment, I think Hunter (the lab mix) is going to go right through the glass.  I run to the kitchen to open the door and let them out before even checking to see what they are so upset about.

Wait.  Back up a bit.  It’s Friday evening and I come home to discover the chickens missing.  I look around with the flashlight and see no evidence of predators and start looking around the coop, in bushes and in trees.

Here, chickee chickee.  Here, chickee chickee.

Two appear from under the coop which I quickly catch and lock inside.  Kneeling down with a flashlight, I can see the feet of the other two, but they aren’t budging.

Do you know how many things there are out here that would love chicken for dinner?

Reasoning with them doesn’t work.  Even as I list the predators for them.

Weasels, mink, raccoons, foxes, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, cougars . . . and you know, I’m not so sure that the tracks all over around this coop aren’t bobcat.  You may have taken over her old home, you know.

They coo at my voice, but refuse to move.  I give up on catching them, but not on getting them through the night alive.  So I bring the dogs down and walk them around the coop several times.  The plan is to let the dogs out every time they bark, following with a flashlight.  They’re pretty much allowed out anytime they want, anyway, but now the stakes are a little higher.  We’ve only been here for a week, and all evidence suggests that the wild things that lived here before us have not yet ceded their territory.

Fast forward several hours.  They’ve already been out twice, chasing who knows what.  Maybe just barking for the pure joy of it for all I know, but if there is any chance of them getting to the chickens before something that would actually do them harm, I don’t mind.  Hunter is lunging at the window and I’m grabbing my jacket as my daughter says,

There’s something out there, mom.  I see something like a dog.

The dogs race to the door and push past me as they round the corner and take on the intruder at a full run.  Make that intruders.  Hunter is immediately on the heels of one coyote, chasing him across the road, across a cornfield, across another road and I finally lose him in a line of trees.  Copper is doing his best to keep up as the rest of the pack disperses.

Yes, pack.  A whole pack of coyotes (at least ten by my daughter’s count) had been lounging in my front yard only moments before.  Mouse watched them lope up to the yard, not twenty feet from the window.  Some sat and stared back at her, some sniffed around, some even lay down.  None were in the least concerned about us or the dogs lunging at the window.

Until they were released.

I heard Copper’s trail call every few minutes, each time further off in the distance.  I grew concerned at just how far they were running.  And while Hunter may give a single coyote a bit of a challenge, he is no match for a pack.  Not to mention the little beagle.  When would the coyotes decide they were on their own turf and ready to fight for it?  Once I could no longer hear the barking, my anxiety grew.  These coyotes were bold, unlike the ones I am familiar with from other places we have lived.  If it weren’t for the night time yipping, I’d never have known any were present at all.

But this pack was lounging in my yard, in the open and nowhere near cover.  When my daughter looked at them through the window, they just looked back.

Finally, Hunter comes trotting up our road, tail held high as he keeps pausing and looking behind him.  He is significantly faster than Copper, but he rarely goes far without him.  Copper, however, doesn’t appear.  Hunter trots to the top of the hill, turns and waits.  I haven’t heard Copper’s bugle in some time, but Hunter begins to prance and lowers his head in a play bow.  Out from behind a snow drift comes those flopping little beagle ears and both dogs bound to me, overwhelming me with affection.

They are keyed up, and unharmed.  They bear no evidence of anything but a hard run.  But they are excited.  Copper comes in with an energy that seems to set everything around him abuzz.  For the rest of the night, he alerts to everything, even the sound of the heater kicking on.  He is tracker dog extraordinaire.  After all, that little beagle just took on a pack of coyotes and won.

And the chickens made it through the night.  And I . . . well . . . I awoke with a little greater appreciation for the role of the family dog out here where he has a job to do, as well as for the wild things all around us.  There are all kinds of things I know are out here, passing through our property on their nightly hunts.  I know it even without the tell tale tracks in the snow.  But it is different to know something, or even to see evidence of something, than it is to see it for yourself, to confront it and to drive it back.

I think about them sometimes during the day, the coyotes which contribute to significant livestock losses out here, as well as the cougars which seem almost a thing of myth.  Everyone talks about them, and sightings, though rarely confirmed, occupy more than a few conversations over coffee.  Then one gets hit on I-80 in Gretna and you know.  You know. It isn’t just talk, like a rural version of the urban legend.  Because there is no way mountain lions are strolling along I-80 if they are not experiencing population pressure out here.

Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck goes up in the evening as I lock up the chickens.  It is almost as if I can feel something watching me from just beyond the shadows.  Hunter’s low growl as he presses himself protectively against my leg and watches the hedge on the property line makes me hold my feed bucket a little more like a weapon, but I stop to stare into the darkness.  Because these wild things that lurk in the shadows were as much a part of why I wanted to move out here as the ability to raise the chickens and goats I will have to work so diligently to protect from them.