11.03.2019

How about a chicken roundup? Our pullets are laying regularly now, so “gather eggs” has been added to the daily homestead activities. I can’t bring myself to call it a chore, though, because it is really pure delight. Dean pointed out how it is similar to the mail for me. It’s rare that I get really good mail these days, but the anticipation of checking for it never grows old.

How many eggs are there today? Which nest box did they all use? What color? Any tiny ones or giant double-yolks? All the delight without any of the annoyance of junk catalogs.

Our egg supply has been just matching our demand the last couple weeks, so that we had to make a giant frittata to use up the last of the store-bought ones languishing in the fridge. We use an egg skelter on the counter, and it’s been an interesting mirror into my scarcity mindset. By the end of many days, we have been down to just a few, and I find myself thinking, “oh, we’re almost out of eggs, I should save them” But we get more. Every day.

They don’t come by the dozen, so it hasn’t felt like we are awash in eggs. We have had a dozen or more in the skelter several times, but then we top dinner with a couple and bake a banana bread and suddenly it looks perilously low. Until mere hours pass and another handful get added to the supply.

It’s such a different experience, to trust this steady daily replenishment of a resource, instead of the abundance/scarcity cycle that I am so much more accustomed to.

I am also appreciating how good chickens are at cleaning up the scraps. This pumpkin was especially good entertainment as they transformed the face into increasingly creepier versions of the original. But we’ve found that they are happy to peck at all sorts of things that the pigs scoff at, and it’s a special kind of satisfaction to watch them turning kitchen castoffs into the treasure of fresh eggs in nearly real time.

In other chicken news: We culled three roosters a few weeks ago and roasted one right off. (Perhaps my first never-frozen chicken meal?) Seeing the difference from the meat birds we’re accustomed to was educational – the roosters had big ol’ thighs of rich dark meat but comparatively tiny breasts. And the skin inspired conversations about rendering schmaltz.

We still have a few roosters to send to the freezer when we get a chance. But maybe a couple fewer than we thought. Two of the Barred Rocks that we thought were slow-developing roosters seem to be leaning hen. The joys of being novices!

09.08.2019

I woke up this morning to clouds at tree-top-level and mist hanging in the air. It rained overnight; not enough to really soften the parched ground, but it feels different underfoot.

We have had a more abrupt transition to fall than usual this year. Summer often lingers, at least until the equinox, around here, but this year September brought a noticeable shift. The last week has been all seventy-degree days but it’s a weak seventy, like the air is too thin to really hold it close to you.

September has also declared itself the month of the rooster. We still have 18 chickens, and 9 of them are roosters. A month or so ago, the first started really crowing, and slowly the rest of them joined the chorus. You might not be surprised that nine roosters competing to be heard can make some noise. Then whatever the chicken version of testosterone is really kicked in, and our friendly chicken yard became a near-constant drama of rooster courting and pecking order discord.

The plan has always been to raise the roosters to full size and then put most of them in the freezer. A couple weeks ago, I wasn’t sure when the right time for that transition would be. This week, it is apparent that it’s time. Unfortunately, that became obvious at the same time that our schedule got really hectic, so it might be a few weeks until we can make time for that chore.

Upside, mature roosters should indicate mature hens so we could start getting eggs very soon!

I’ve read two books recently that I can’t seem to stop recommending. Both are the sort of non-fiction that string together a bunch of interesting stories and somehow manage to fundamentally change the way you understand the world.

Far From the Tree explores children who are different from their parents in some important way – deafness, dwarfism, autism, prodigies, etc. It’s an exploration of relationships that span the differences, but also a broader take on how we understand these differences – as illnesses to be treated or identities to be embraced. (Full disclosure, this one is a bit of a tome. The link is to the young adult edition, which I got from the library by accident but found a great option – it’s a little shorter but didn’t feel simplified.)

Why We Sleep is a pretty self-explanatory title. I didn’t expect to love this one. I don’t need any convincing of the importance of sleep – I have always needed and prioritized sleep, and been lucky enough to be able to get it. But I have learned so much and I’m fascinated by the details of what sleep science now understands about how it all works. I can’t seem to stop telling everyone about it (or thinking about it myself).

And I knit a hat! Not always a big event, but this one was my first project using the yarn I’ve been dyeing. I wasn’t sure how it would be for colorwork since most of the shades are pretty subtle in tone but I’m really pleased with the result.

I dyed tiny skeins (like 10g) so that second photo is a bit deceiving, but I did end up with a pretty good pile after several weekends of experimenting so I’m looking forward to a few more knitting projects highlighting these natural dyes. And while I imagine the outdoor stove set-up won’t be back until spring, I do hope to try some bark dyes that are long soaks without heat this winter.

07.24.2019

Good morning. This is how the sky looked just after I woke up this morning. After the long pause that is the weeks around the solstice, I can feel the light shifting toward autumn, just a little. Which feels a bit off, because July has been uncharacteristically cool and cloudy, so part of me is still waiting for summer to fully arrive. But then we have a couple of days like this last weekend, when it was 80 degrees and sunny and my bones soaked in the heat and it felt so good to get rid of the jeans in favor of a lighter layer. And I remember how there’s an ease and a sweetness that comes with the slightly shorter days, how the heat of the day gives way to a summer night. In early summer, I’m asleep before sunset but a summer night is something to savor… a reminder to savor it all, really.

I spent a good portion of this past weekend playing with natural dyeing for the first time. Equal parts thrilling and humbling, as I suppose any new craft should be. I experimented with two dye plants I could collect from our property – Oregon grape and rhubarb. The Oregon grape was my first experiment – the left half in the photo above. After producing a satisfying shade of yellow on my four mini-skeins, I tried a few modifiers to see what other shades I could create, and managed instead to turn three of them back to a muddy version of the natural I started with. Call it a good lesson in the effects of acidity.

Rhubarb root was my second attempt, on the right above. I got more of a beige than the orange I was hoping for from my initial dye, I’m guessing because the temp got too high. But a range of alkaline modifiers gave me orange and pink undertones to the beige, which felt like glorious triumph after the Oregon grape.

In other homestead news, the chickens are charming and full of entertainment and surprisingly difficult to photograph. Our most recent delight has been feeding them wild berries from the brambles around the edge of the yard. Potential egg-laying is still a few months off, but I have caught myself imagining the joy of our own eggs while I cook my breakfast in the morning, so it feels a tiny bit more real.

PS – For those of you who suffered the glitch of the last post publishing many, many times – I’m sorry! Fingers crossed that it’s sorted now.

06.26.2018

Postcards from a June life…

A June-uary walk through light morning mist hardly registers as gray when there is green grass and bright flowers and a high likelihood of blue skies by afternoon.

Changing weather means so. many. good. clouds. to wonder at and ponder.

These engineered-to-grow fatties are headed to freezer camp this weekend, our first real harvest from the homestead in a long while (unless we are counting two quarts of maple syrup, which might register by a measure of effort but certainly not volume).

And speaking of harvest, this lavender was a first little taking from the herb garden this week. And after giving up on the idea, I managed to find some time and a sunny spell and a mostly recovered shoulder and got a few annuals planted in mid-June. A bit of veg, some more flowers… it’s good to have something to fuss over and watch grow right out the door.

More skies. Hay being cut in the fields. June, glorious June.

06.16.2019

A quick tale from yesterday:

7a: I crawl out of the tent and start my day with a quiet walk along the shore. One of the eagles that we had delighted in listening to around the campfire last night is sitting on a branch over the beach. It sees me but doesn’t stir. It has my full attention, and I instinctively reach for my camera looking for just the right angle. Too many branches obscure it, so I’m a little disappointed, but mostly just amble on, inhaling the brine of low tide.

4p: Sitting at the kitchen table eating some strawberries and chatting with Dean. Movement catches my eye out of the window, movement like a large eagle in full wingspread lifting above the roofline with one of our young chickens in its talons. We run outside, just in time to see it disappear down the driveway. We give chase but of course it’s futile, they are gone and there’s no sign of where they went.

Neither of these encounters with an eagle are more true, but the proximity is a stark reminder that neither is fully true on its own either. The world is more beautiful and complete and awe-inspiring for having eagles in it. The homestead is more vulnerable and there is one less chicken on it for having eagles near it. Like so much else in life, the truth is both/and.

(Not exactly related, but this reminded me of a recent piece about wolves that I really enjoyed.)

06.09.2019

June skies. So far, it’s been the sort of month where it’s raining AND the sun is shining at the same time. The sky is full of grey clouds AND amazing light. There’s no in between, there’s little transition. It feels like an apt metaphor for life at the moment.

The homestead is humming along. The meat birds are only three weeks away from their adventures at freezer camp (already!). The layers are exploring their new yard and eating all the bugs and turning from delightful balls of fluff to actual birds with individual personalities. The pigs are adorable and contradictory, running towards us excitedly and then getting too close and running away scared or chasing each other in circles and then flopping down into a pile.

It took a few weeks to settle into animals this year. The ritual of morning chores was immediately familiar, but it also felt like an endless hustle to stay half a step behind. Some part is probably attributable to the year off and just being a bit rusty on the details. Some part is definitely adding the layers into the mix, complicating the old systems and needing to build new ones. I didn’t realize the anxiety I was holding until I felt it release. Early one morning this week I was walking down to the chickens with a 40-pound bag of feed on my shoulder mentally ticking off the tasks of fermenting feed and sprouting peas and filling waterers and cleaning the coop and it was all taken care of, and I just felt… capable. It’s a nice thing to feel once in a while.

In unrelated news, I’ve read a string of good books and have been meaning to share those things more frequently, so let’s start with a few today:

  • Educated by Tara Westover – I’m late to the party on this one, but joining the chorus. It’s really good. And not because her childhood is a fascinating story and so different from mine and yours, but because she describes the human experience with clarity and insight that was mind-expanding. Like this: “Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those give to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind.”
  • A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza – A story of an Indian-American Muslim family, with parts told from each member’s perspective. At some point, I was sure that I was four different characters and that it was describing every major family-type relationship in my life. The story is compelling but the real star here is the nature of relationship itself.
  • The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton – Hope and humanity from a man who spent thirty years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit.

05.29.2019

Sitting down to write this post feels overwhelming, which probably explains why it hasn’t happened sooner. The days are full around here. Full of moments, full of (little) changes around the homestead, full of stories. I’m also in a season of eventful internal life, shifts in perspective that I’m not ready to try to put words to for the internet, but nonetheless contribute to the feeling of ohmygod, so much is happening and I can’t possibly catch up. So… now that we all agree it’s impossible, let’s see what happens.

We have pigs! They arrived without drama and are settling in (still a relief each year, the chases that started our pig-raising adventures aren’t fresh but they aren’t forgotten).

The meat birds are on grass! We had to replace all the netting on their yard this year and it turned into a crazy-quilt of netting and zip-ties and a whole lot of time spent holding our hands over our heads. Ugh. But also… done.

Poppies! This is the vegetable garden, which is growing nothing but a bumper crop of feral poppies this year. It feels like such a relief to have given myself this year off to re-evaluate how I want to garden, what parts of it really feed me and what parts just feel like another obligation on the long list.

Salmonberries! Summer berry season kicked off last week and the salmonberries are giant and abundant. Not everyone gets genuinely excited about salmonberries but I really do. I think the best ones are like a grapefruit-berry. I’m not-so-secretly hoping it’s an indicator of the berry season in general, despite knowing just how unlikely that is to be true.

Also off to a stellar start: picnic season.

05.19.2019

May skies from May happenings. A picnic, a beach hike, a couple morning walks.

April feels like a distant memory already. I think it’s mostly the chicks that are responsible for that. They arrived on the second of May, just after the weather turned warmer and sunnier. It’s less that there’s so much to do and more that there’s just so many bits to occupy your attention. We got layers for the first time, which are so different from the meat birds we’ve raised in the past. Which I knew, but it’s a different thing to know something and to watch it right in front of you.

We had one injury early on that meant we had a house chick for nearly two weeks while he recovered. A day or so in to the regular soundtrack of tiny chirping, I understood the draw of pet birds better than I ever had. After it was obvious that he was recovering but lagging his peers’ growth, we brought home a companion from the feed store and watched tiny chicken friendship unfold. As Dean was putting the finishing touches on the new coop yesterday, I had to call out, “Can I get your help? There’s a chick in the middle of the living room.”

We bought unsexed chicks so I’m watching raptly as they slowly feather out, trying to figure out who will grow up to lay eggs and who will grace the table.

Last night there was a giant owl sitting outside the new coop in broad daylight, plotting how he could get past our defenses (I assume).

So many tiny dramas of feed and temperature and housing and well-being, that’s the story of May around this homestead. You?

10.04.2018

Home.

We arrived just after sunset last Friday night. I set my two small travel bags down on the floor and exhaled with the kind of relief that comes from knowing that you belong right where you are, and you don’t have to leave anytime soon.

We walked through the house and assured ourselves that it was all here and then I sunk into that particular comfort of my own bed. By 6a the next morning I couldn’t stand waiting any longer, so I explored the yard by headlight to see how all of the trees and gardens had fared through a whole season apart (mostly just fine).

The trip home was a cross country drive. It was only the second time I’ve driven from coast to coast, the last one in the opposite direction not long after the end of my first long hike more than a decade ago. This time we were helping some dear friends move house, so the chariot was a 15-foot U-Haul truck. A bit of a transition for me who had resisted any driving for the first month off trail, but I can’t help but get a little romantic about any long road trip (and frankly, I was mostly a passenger). All the better with friends. And especially when it involves watching the season change quite literally before your eyes. I wouldn’t have guessed it but somehow the fall colors emerged more and more as we drove west.

The days since have felt disorienting – a whirlwind of organizing the chaos in the silverware drawer, re-folding all the towels, and generally putting everything back to just the way I prefer it; reconnecting with friends and neighbors and this place generally; long stretches of just needing to sit on the couch and stare out the window and slowly settle in. Discovering the little ways that we changed and things around us changed and how it all fits together slightly differently now.

It’s good to be home.

02.11.2018

The early signs of spring are popping up in all corners right now. I am delighted by these signs when I remember to get outside and notice them but between the moments when I remember are plenty full of gray and rain and the kind of desperate psychic hanging-on that is February.

But this bit of wattle fencing has been an unexpected balm. No, really. The simple act of constructing it has been so happy-making that it’s pulling me off the couch on even the gray days. I have a handful of elderberries that I started in pots last spring and need to get into the ground, but they’ve been languishing for lack of deer protection. Sure I could go with welded wire hoops like the ones that are littered around the rest of the yard, but frankly, I just can’t bear to see any more welded wire hoops. So after re-watching some Tudor Monastery Farm, I decided on a whim to try my hand at wattle fencing. We have an abundant supply of sprung maple and really, what could have improved about fence technology in five hundred years?

Well, my post pounder made setting posts a lot easier than the wooden mallet I watched them use, but after that it’s taken nothing more than a pruning saw and a hatchet. The weaving is the sort of thing that is hard to walk away from… you find just the right length or get just the right tension… and need just one more here and then one more there and then… I do not aspire to craftsmanship or beauty, I’m happy with functional and whatever materials are at hand, but even so, I really like the look of it.

Of course I’m still assuming that it will keep deer out but there are enough easy pickings to be had around here they don’t tend to challenge defenses too much. We’ll see. Now if I could just figure out how to construct a deer-proof hedge around the perimeter of the orchard, I’d be really smug about my sixteenth century property management.

Freezer camp

I took these photos last Sunday morning, when we got more early snow. Shortly after I returned from my morning walk, I tried to post them here and discovered our internet was out. The snow lingered for a few days but was still gone before our internet service returned.

Tomorrow we send the pigs off to freezer camp. Never easy, and I’m afraid I’m more attached to this batch than any we’ve had. I’ve been feeding twice a day for the last couple months, fretting over their rations and measuring their growth. Scratching around ears, patting backs, and ok, using a few well-placed knees to encourage a hungry pig that outweighs me to move aside. A few days of frozen hoses and troughs were a good extra reminder that it is time.

So tomorrow we’ll wake up with pigs, feel the complicated feelings that go along with raising animals for meat, and end the day with pork to process. It’s never easy, and I hope it never is; but in the end it’s mostly gratitude that I’m left with, and that’s a pretty good place to end up.

A bench, part 2

The bench that I built last summer, only to finish it just when summer ended, finally found a home. It is tucked up above the orchard under a big leaf maple. A spot to watch the sun rise over the far-off mountains or to enjoy the cool shade on a sunny afternoon. I finally moved it up there a couple weeks ago, and then properly leveled it a week later.

It’s a simple thing and it is giving me so much joy. Another perspective on this homestead, another excuse to just be outside, another reminder of how powerfully our environment influences our days.

I used to think that I excelled at efficiency, that I got things done. But I think I mistook what I thought I should be for what I was. I meander, I get distracted, I come back. Usually. It’s only about a year after I thought I would have that bench, but there it is, giving me joy. I’ll take it.

Homestead report: July 15

The homestead report feels… quiet for mid-July. Which probably tells you more about where I am than where the homestead is, but you knew that.

The pigs seem to be doing well. To my continuing consternation, they still shun pretty much all vegetable scraps. But they have caught up to where I expected on the grain feed schedule, so most of my anxiety about their eating has eased. Those two above are pretending not to like getting wet while standing directly in the hose spray, an activity that is good for some solid entertainment on any warm afternoon.

The herb harden is yielding a pretty constant trickle of small delights, like this trug of lavender. (And can we all take a moment to appreciate the beauty of that trug? A recent gift that I adore…) I’ve also been keeping the dryer running and stocking the pantry with lots of lemon balm and mint, chamomile, a bit of arnica and calendula, and the like. Nothing big or exciting, but plenty of goodness.

The vegetable garden is a very mixed bag. We’ve had some bad luck, and I haven’t had the energy to keep up with it. I think it’s time to re-evaluate our vegetable gardening enterprise, but I’m just at the point of recognizing that I don’t love it enough right now to pour in the hours of labor our current garden requires. While that sounds simple, it feels like a big messy tangle of ideas and expectations to unravel. So in the meantime, I’ve given myself permission to neglect the parts of the garden that just feel like a drag and spend what energy I have on the parts that I’m still enjoying. I brought in our first three zucchini this morning, along with a big haul of lettuce. The late-summer crops like squash and tomatoes are looking a lot more promising than the early summer ones (broccoli, peas, etc), so I’m holding out some hope yet.

It wasn’t a great wild berry season, especially compared to the bounty of last summer, but the trailing native blackberries, always a bit of a hunt and peck for a few jewels, are surprisingly abundant. Dean and I picked a few spots around the edges of our clearings this afternoon and ended up with maybe a pint to top our ice cream for a treat.

I think that’s about it for a homestead report. Nothing exciting, we have slipped into summer and while it feels a little quiet, there are all sorts of sweet bits.

Homestead update: 06.10.2017

It’s June, also known as “peak jungle” around here. Any novelty of spring and all its new forms of life is gone, but we haven’t yet reached a point of getting anything in return for our labors.

Chickenfest is only a week away, so I find myself mentally plucking them and trying to assess how they will compare to the gallon ziploc standard. I thought I had given up trying to guess chicken weights after the year when I was sure we had a batch of giants and they turned out to be pint-sized, but I can’t seem to stop myself. For the record, they look small to me, but I’m sure I’m biased by the fact that our hatchery order got messed up, so we ended up with all females a week later than I planned. All will be revealed in a week.

At least the chickens seem to be doing their part by eating every speck of food we give them, which is more than I can say for the pigs. We somehow ended up with a batch of pigs who are picky eaters. They have shunned pretty much all the vegetable scraps we have tried to give them, and are eating less grain than I expect. They are just as social as our past pigs, though, which means that they will eat more if one of us is standing next to their trough. Which has left me in the unfortunate role of a caricature of an Italian grandmother, hovering over the food telling them how if they really cared about me, they’d show it by eating more barley. And then nagging them to share nicely.

I don’t even want to mention the garden, but I will briefly. About ten days ago, some local ravens discovered our garden. For several days, they visited to pull plants out of the ground. They didn’t seem to eat anything, just pulled the plants up, roots and all if they could, or cut them off at ground level if they couldn’t. The first morning it was kale and lettuce, then the cabbage and chard, maybe half of our 150 or so onions, all the cucumbers… They seem to have moved on so I think we can salvage parts of the garden, but I haven’t recovered from the heartbreak of it enough to take stock of just what.

The herb garden, on the other hand, is full of all sorts of joy. From the mutant valerian (over 7′ last time I checked) to my first-ever arnica blossoms to the near-constant parade of bumble bees on the chives… Basically, I could list every single thing growing there and tell you how it makes me happy to watch it grow. So I rescind that comment about getting nothing back yet – the herb garden is giving out delights, which explains exactly why it’s my favorite these days.

 

Reassured that summer is on its way

A couple days of sunshine coaxed the lilacs open. And if you look again, you’ll see that the grass is actually taller than the lilacs. Which feels like a pretty good metaphor for the state of things. (They’re not especially small lilacs.)

This was the May weekend that I’ve been hoping for. Seventy degrees, sunshine, and no commitments beyond the homestead. I have a bit of sunburn on my arms, a few blisters on my hands, and stubborn dirt under my nails that even an extra-long shower didn’t dislodge. It is mildly uncomfortable to sit, walk, or stand and I hope not to kneel for several days.

I spent 5+ hours on the garden yesterday and another 4 today. Dean put in a couple-hour stint of hard labor each day as well. We still didn’t get everything done, but it’s a hell of a lot closer and for the first time in a few months, I feel good about the state of the garden.

Which mostly means that almost all the planting is done and the weeds aren’t too out of control yet. That feels like a pretty good definition of gardening to me… I almost finish one task before the next is overdue. Over and over all season.

We got out for a good bike ride this morning, which feels like another hallmark of the season. We just need a picnic on the bluff and I will be fully reassured that summer is on its way.

Also reassuring? The pigs are settling into being pigs…

Meet the campers

This homestead got approximately 400% more adorable yesterday. Somehow I completely forgot how tiny new pigs are and how endlessly entertaining it is to watch a tiny pig… well, do anything. Perhaps they also seem cuter because there wasn’t an intermediate step of cursing and chasing a remarkably agile tiny pig through the spring jungle. The whole transition was completely uneventful this year, and I’m only crossing my fingers and knocking on wood as I write that.

The most important part, of course, is that it is my turn to bestow names this year. I tried to convince Dean that since we couldn’t possibly top Kevin and Bacon, we should really just stick with them, but he was having none of it. Luckily there seems to be an endless supply of porky puns, so I think I’ve settled on Mia, Jon, Virginia, and Hamilton.

The top picture is minutes after they landed in their new digs, the second how when I greeted them first thing this morning.

And lest the pigs get all the attention, the chickens would like you to know that they are just fine, thanks for asking. They are ugly bird-brains, but I try not to hold that against them.

The bees also arrived last weekend, so we’re at full occupancy. The rest of the homestead report is more mixed, this endless cool and wet spring throwing wrenches in all sorts of plans. So let’s save that for next time, and go back to squealing at pictures of the Hams:

An incoherent jumble

Well, that’s a hell of a photo collection for one post. I’ve been meaning to write here for the last week or two, but every time I started to collect my thoughts, they would turn out to be an incoherent jumble of things I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Since that seems to be the state of things, it’s a jumbled list sort of post…

  • Today was the most joyful mail day of the year, the day the chirping box of chicks arrives. It feels like the official start of another season of homesteading. I’ve been slow to find my rhythm this spring, but after dashing out between rain showers every couple hours today to make sure the new crew weren’t too cold or out of water or starving for attention, I feel like they are already pulling me into the season.
  • I finished the toddler hoodie nearly a month ago, but never showed you the final photos. It was my first time adding a zipper and ribbon to knitting, and both took time but were easier than I expected. The hand-sewing complemented the knitting well, and I would definitely like to add more ribbon to reinforce sweaters. I was a little concerned the green and white ribbon would look completely out of place, but I think it works, and I love the charm of the vintage French design.
  • We marched for Black Lives Matter in Seattle last weekend and almost felt guilty for how enjoyable it was – walking through the streets of downtown with several thousand friends soaking in the sunshine and standing in solidarity on one of our first truly springlike days. Get out there for Science this weekend if you can!
  • Dean spent a week in Maine so I spent a week here on my own and figuring out what I was going to eat next. I had all sorts of grand plans for how I would fill the expansive hours and space of being having the house all to myself, but then spent about 90% of that energy on feeding myself. So when he left again after less than a week at home (to visit some friends in Oregon for several days), I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for. He did leave me stocked with 3 1/2 bunches of kale raab, though, so I quickly settled in to a routine of kale and eggs three meals a day. Which seems like a decent option, if you’re going to be so repetitive. And just when the kale supply was waning, I went rummaging through the freezer and found a quart of leftover chicken curry from a few months ago. Victory!  So just in case you were worried, I think I’m going to make it through this week without resorting to popcorn or saltines (both of which I stand by as totally legitimate meal options, if employed sparingly).
  • “Make soap” has been on my to-do list approximately every weekend since mid-October, when I thought it would be nice to have a supply for holiday gifts. I am down to the final near-transparent shard of my last bar, so went to buy a bar when I was at the corner store yesterday. After picking up every single (local, handcrafted, beautiful) bar, I couldn’t bring myself to spend money on any of them so I came home and made my own. It took something like 30 minutes, dirtied a handful of dishes, and nothing about it was difficult or smelled bad or was in any way unpleasant, just like I knew all along. Of course there’s still the small fact that it should cure for a month before use, but I made a couple extra small bars that I think will get me through the gap. So there you go, I’ve managed to take care of feeding and bathing myself this week. I don’t know what more you could expect of me.

Level Up

While I was out at a knitting class this morning, Dean took delivery of our new tractor, which I’m pretty sure means we have leveled up at this homestead thing.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that I can’t look at it yet without a swirl of feelings that I’m still sorting out about spending out for it. But I am also really excited to see what we can accomplish with a tractor to help. There are ideas, some might even venture to call them plans.

Rendering lard

I took these pictures when we rendered a batch of lard a month or so ago, and then completely forgot until I was transferring some other images the other day. So you get a random bit of homesteadiness today.

I am by no means an expert at rendering lard, but I’ve done a few batches now, and it is pretty simple. This is the bag of fat as it came back from the butcher, in whatever sizes and shapes they trimmed:

The vast majority of the work is just chopping it up. A well-sharpened knife is key, and some patience. We have aimed for about a half-inch cube based on what I read, but I think finer would be better. (I’ve also heard from one person that you can put the fat through a meat grinder to chop it for rendering, which would be a fantastic labor savings. I’m tempted to give that a shot next year.)

Once chopped, add about 1/2 cup of water to the pot and put it over low heat. Stir as needed to avoid sticking; otherwise just let the fat melt. It always feels like it’s going quick at the start, but it takes a good hour or so on the stove to fully render.

The hardest part of the whole process is deciding when to call it “done”. Too early, and you’ll miss collecting all the fat; too late and the finished lard will smell more “piggy”. When I’ve made the call, I just pour it through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into jars.

The remaining solids are your crackling:

And the clear fat will turn white and set as it cools:

That’s it!

I would have never considered stocking lard before we raised our first pigs, but I was quickly converted. It was the only part of the pig that we ran out of between our first and second pigs – and we were empty for a good six months. Our absolute favorite way to use it was making tamales, but it is also my go-to cooking fat for eggs, greens, popcorn… I swear it doesn’t have a taste, but it makes everything tastes better!

According to the butcher here, they nearly always have extra pork fat to sell for cheap if you’re willing to render it yourself. So if you’re the least bit curious or inspired, I encourage you to give it a go.

The week of pig

The mobile slaughter truck returned early Tuesday morning to take care of the last two pigs. I woke up relieved that the snow had held off overnight so that our driveway was passable. An hour later as we were cleaning the slush out of the nozzle on the hose and watching the skim of ice reappear on a tub of water as we stamped our feet for warmth, I was a little less relieved. They arrived early, before the sun was fully up, and I watched them work for well over an hour, until I couldn’t ignore the summons of my desk any longer. I walked up the driveway juggling an armload full of plastic bins – a couple liters of blood, a liver, a heart – that were deposited in the kitchen on the way to my desk. And so I began, unsuspectingly, the week of pig.

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After the slaughter guys were done and gone on Tuesday, we soaked and then brined the head. After work, we made the blood into a proper English-style black pudding.

Wednesday, we used a (fantastic) local facility to do all the cutting and wrapping.

img_1729 img_1732 img_1733Thursday, we were back to our home kitchen. We got the hams and bacons curing. I made a liver pate. And we simmered a pig head for many hours, picked it clean, and made head cheese.

Friday Dean did the final load of dishes and cleaned the kitchen. And we exhaled. We survived Pig Week 2016. We still have daily care of bacon to do, and smoking of all the cured parts, and lard to render at some point. But for today, I’m just breathing in the relief of having taken care of anything perishable.

It was overwhelming, and I underestimated how much we were taking on. I did not plan for Pig Week; I anticipated pig processing amidst the usual December bustle. In retrospect, I think my blind spot was failing to account for how many things in that scope were completely new to us. Do you have any idea how many ways you can turn pork belly into bacon? How crippling it is to think about a year’s supply of bacon at risk? Yes, I am fully aware that it would be difficult to take homegrown pork belly, apply salt and smoke, and not end up with something that tasted good. But “good enough” doesn’t seem like the right standard for bacon.

It takes so much more energy to learn to do something new than to do the thing – the reading about how to do it, deciding who to trust, which recipe to follow, doubting, worrying, finding the right tools and the efficiency of motion that only comes from practice. In the same span of days, I fought a cold, it snowed, and our kitchen faucet sprung an impressive leak.

And here we are on the other side, with a jam-packed freezer, pages full of notes for next year, and the first traces of learned memory engrained in our hands and backs. I love how much this homestead asks me to learn, and after weeks like this one, I can’t help but wish there was some shortcut to knowing.