Monday, October 20, 2014

Yearly Catch-up

 Time to play yearly catch-up. With more than enough projects to keep us busy, blogging doesn't happen much, but I thought I would post some highlights of the last 13 or so months...
We finally renovated both bathrooms-out of necessity at their 40 year old grossness...but I'll save the decor photos for another day. We did put in a bathtub, which is a great luxury and a needed thing for creaky joints in winter, all water going to graywater sites with useful plants in them.

All of our food plants and trees are getting visibly bigger now. The Burmuda grass continues to spread. We can thank or curse Ganesha-as apparently it's his favorite herb and a useful medicine as well...The pear tree got a hit of blight and needed extreme pruning but my efforts to have a tiny bit of lawn under it manifested as giant JUICY pears, so win-win!
Glass Gem Corn 2014 harvest
Cherokee Purple corn 2013 harvest (with a
bit of pollination from the neighbor's feed corn we think...)

We had a surprising bit of snow in early December last year, which actually snowed us in for a day or so. Here's Hobbit wondering where to pee in all that white stuff.

 Various visitors to the site include our resident hawk who we think was a baby a few years ago is now a very LARGE adult. He wheels overhead almost daily, sometimes catching the updrafts over our creek along with all the turkey of whom likes to stand on the top of a nearby phone pole every morning and stretch out his wings-it's weird...
The wild pigs did quite a nice job of digging a pretty
wide firebreak along the fence (left)-too bad they
didn't do the entire length! The chickens did the same with scratching on the right side.


This guy got one of our chickens about four o'clock one afternoon. Alder chased him, and got the chicken back, LOL. Needless to say we had chicken stew that night, and the next day, the coyote was back in broad daylight, looking for a dinner invite.

Alder's grain crop kicked down a good bit, enough for him to start baking his own wheat/acorn bread weekly. So he has farm grown, freshly milled grain. (Me, I can't eat wheat or corn.)

 The potato harvest from one of the three raised beds was huge-and the wire mesh at the bottom of the beds keeps the gophers, moles, voles and other ground critters out.
Here's the raised beds, holding carrots, sweet potatoes and okra, late summer 2014.  The two solar cookers see daily use. 

Late summer harvest
Spring buds on the nectarine

The fruit trees have really grown, and after three years started giving out some amazing fruit. We had "Canning quantities" of apricots (jam), nectarines (sauce) and plums (jam and wine) from new trees, as well as a few nibbles of almonds and one precious apple! 

We created a "nibble garden" right outside  the front door. It serves two functions-lazy greens collection when your in your slippers and also as a fire-break. One of our main goals has been to create either pavers, gravel, bare soil or greenery all the way around the house as a fire-break, since fire is such a huge concern here.

The annual gardens are becoming perennial ones-with the addition of things like blueberries and asparagus as well as plants that have perennialized like onions, kale, chard, leaf celery, horseradish, etc. The fruit trees are interspersed and will eventually provide a bit of shade in the heat of the summer.

And my favorite view-what I see from my living room...It never gets old, and it is constantly changing. Watching the seasons or the morning sun reflected in those mountains, watching the sunsets and the place of setting varying with the seasons and the moon settings too...I never tire of that view. (Mule fat in the foreground not withstanding-once we have sheep it will be coppice for animals).

Life is slow on the farm, but never dull...and we are blessed.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Acorns for ChickensToo!

With easily over a ton of acorns harvested last fall, I set out to establish whether and how I could contrive to feed them to my layers..... making them more self-sufficient on the homestead and removing the imported grain subsidy.  Here in CA I never see the big bags of popcorn in the movie theater dumpster, like I did in GA (these were my main poultry feed there).
      Simply smashing them open and throwing them in there didn't work.  They would peck here and there and largely ignore them, and would quit laying if I refused to give them other feed to encourage them to eat them.
      So I began to soak them for varying lengths of time.  This improved their consumption somewhat.  But still no eggs.  It was still winter though, so they ordinarily take a break from laying then.
      So I determined to give it the maximum amount of willing effort, and get the acorn pieces mild-tasting even to me, and prove to myself that the bitter tannins were not preventing them from eating them.  Each morning I smashed a ration of acorns with a hammer on the concrete floor of the barn, picked out any loose shells, and put these to soak in a gallon paint can.  By trial and error I found that seven such cans, changed daily, would render the acorn bits mild enough for me to chew.  This research took place in midwinter, with ice often forming on the cans at night, so there was no danger of them fermenting.  The last days' soak, I added some wood ash (which I also add to my own acorn) and then after that I would put them into a cast iron pot with fresh water, more ash, and some clay and bring them to a boil, either on the embers of the wood stove or in the solar cooker, weather depending.  (Thus the energy for this is "free" or at least multitasked)....  The ash and the clay additions were techniques I had read that various CA native people used in acorn preparation.
      This, plus a bit of cottonseed meal (for protein supplement....due to be phased out as soldier flies come on line),  our kitchen scraps, plus garden weeds and trimmings, plus half days on free range, brought them into laying (along with springtime coming on) within a week or so.  Since then the challenges have been whether they will stay laying with any reduction in this amount of processing. As my partner says "that's a lot of work for three eggs a day!"   Going a day or two with non-boiled acorns or acorns soaked a day or two less doesn't seem to diminish their laying, but I have noticed a slight reduction as spring has begun to turn toward summer....I suspect this is due to their finding fewer insects during their hours loose.
       Marginal yields include acorn shells and acorn leach water, both of which I am putting on my eleven or so blueberry plants, since I believe both are acid, and blueberries like acid,  which is not the default state of our soil.  And, at seven gallons a day,  it's a significant water recycle.  The water from cooking them, containing ash (and therfore not as acid), is dumped on whatever handy plant is there....a small mulberry and apple getting most of it.
       Early on, mostly just after the acorns were being harvested, weevil grubs would come out of them and accumulate in numbers in the bottoms of the buckets and boxes that they were in, so I would pour them from one container to another and feed these to the chickens also.   Storing the acorns successfully in the shells is also an avenue for, at six months out and coming into hot season, the average is about 1/3 moldies (which I am setting aside and re-drying if need be, for the soldier flies).  Blue and valley oaks were not the favorites of native people for long term storage....usually they would go to the foothills and gather black oak acorns for this purpose.   These are more tannic, requiring longer leaching, and higher in oil, and apparently would store for a full year in shell.  One thing I may try is smashing a bunch right at harvest time and sun-drying them hard, similar to what I do for my own, but accelerated in not bothering to remove the shells yet.  I need to try this, but I have a suspicion that when dry, most of the shell might float and the nut bits sink.....

UPDATE 10/23/14:  Now in the final growout stage of the 10 remaining young chickens, plus the two old Araucana layers we've kept.  I harvested the old rooster and the old Buff hen last month....they were due for replacement and were the two biggest stomachs in the flock.   At this stage, I crack and separate from the shells about 1/2-3/4 of a gallon paint can of acorns daily (depending on how many are set aside for being moldy).  I have a square wooden frame of 2x6 boards that I lay flat on the concrete floor of the barn and "work" the acorns in, to keep pieces of acorn and shell from flying everywhere.  First I lightly tap each nut with a 3# sledgehammer to crack it open, and sort the moldies to one corner, the good ones with any clinging shells to the opposite corner, and the loose shells to the third. (the pile of acorns I'm working with is at the fourth corner where I'm sitting).  After the bunch is shelled and sorted, I spread out the pile of "keepers" and pick out the pieces of shell from the nuts.  Nuts go into a paint can, shells into a 5 gallon bucket (which goes to mulch selected plants when full) and moldies with shells into another bucket (which eventually get soaked, smashed and fed to soldier fly grubs, along with coffee grounds and dog manure....this then produces a yield of protein chicken feed supplement).  These nuts, mostly in halves, get soaked in water overnight.  The previous day's nuts then get brough back into the frame on the floor, spread out (after draining off the soak water) and smashed with a heavy wood-splitting maul, wielded lengthwise so it's flat end face smashes the acorn against the floor.   These are then gathered up and put back into the paint can and taken back to the soaking area.  In the soaking area are six more gallon paint cans, each with soaked, smashed acorn.  The water is changed in these each day, and each day the last can...the one that has been soaking, altogether, a week or so, is drained and taken away for cooking.
This lot of acorn is usually put into a cast iron pot with about 3/4 cup of dry cowpeas (from a bumper crop several years back that has since been superseded by other legume yields), and some wood ash and clay (perhaps two heaping tablespoons of ash and one of clay) to help neutralize remaining antinutrients in the acorns and the peas, and the whole covered with water and either put into the solar cooker ( in sunny weather), the embers of the woodstove ( in cold weather), or in the in-between time, heated to boiling on the propane canning stove, and the wrapped in old sweaters and blankets to slow-cook on the residual heat.  The next day, or in the evening if I'm behind and the birds have run short, this is opened, drained if there is excess water, and a bit of oystershell (left behind when we came here....more ash would do as well as a calcium supplement), a heaping spoonful of kelp meal, and a half-cup of cottonseed meal ( a protein supplement---if I had more and more reliable soldier flies, this would be unnecessary)...all mixed in and the whole troweled into the feeding trough.   I've had to quit free-ranging the birds after losing 2 or 3 to coyotes and foxes....better fencing for sheep in the coming months will enable the next hatch to be out more.....and so I've been diligently taking them greens of some kind twice a day....various weeds, vegetable thinnings, and general kitchen trash...
       All of this, particularly the acorn processing, takes upwards of an hour daily.  It seems like a lot of work for ten chickens most of which are destined for the freezer.  The older two hens still lay one egg every couple of days.....this should increase to one egg per hen by next spring, for the same level of feed, which will seem more efficient.  I'm also growing my own wheat and corn on site, and the amount of work I put into these things makes it seem all the more astonishing that they are used to feed poultry.  What it all points to is the fairly incredible subsidy of energy into grain contrived by mainstream, fossil-fuel powered agriculture, destructive as it is.  I can, with my abundant wild food, withdraw from the purchase of wheat or corn for my poultry at $15 or so per 50#.....( which my ten birds would go through in about a month, I'd guess), but at the cost of an hour of my time each day.
Permaculture preaches solving problems of work, money, and sustainability by means of design....and the fundamental design shift is that the chicken isn't the best animal to be eating surplus acorn....pigs, sheep, goats, even turkeys or geese, would serve better, being able to use the acorns with less processing...  But we like our eggs!  And if I didn't use the acorns from the yard, they would attract deer, pigs, squirrels, and other unwelcome critters into the system.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Balanophagy 101.....

I've been discovering and working with one of the huge abundances of the new land....ACORNS!   They drop literally everywhere on the property somewhere every late summer into fall.   Even when many oaks in the wider landscape produce little, at least a few of the trees in the yard produce enough to process for a significant part of my diet (and, more recently, that of my chickens....more on that in the next post) I think some of this is due to the moister niches available here, either from roof runoff, the drainage gully going through the property, or roots accessing irrigated gardens and septic field (now being phased out for graywater mulch basins).
        I tried to process acorns a few times living in Georgia, but there, the crop often entirely escaped my notice.  But here they clatter down on the roof for weeks and weeks, hit me in the head a few times, and carpet the ground in spots thickly enough to make walking perilous.  What a yield! 
        So here is my way of utilizing them for human food,  perfected by research, trial and error over the last three years.   I begin to gather the nuts once I see, upon cutting them open (normally I use a sharp pair of hand pruners) that a significant amount of nut meat is present.  The acorns don't have to be completely filled out or brown....the first ones are usually still green.  These early ones may be a significant part of the crop in a non-mast year (a year between heavy crops).  Many sources will say to reject these early drops as being wormy, but I've found them to be no more wormy than others, and since my normal method of processing separates the visibly wormy ones and kills any worms in the invisibly so,   I will make use of them.  After all, I'm after staple food here (currently I eat something or other with acorn in it twice a day), and am sedentary (as opposed to semi-nomadic, like many native peoples, who would simply move from heavy mast area to mast area, among other locations) so I'm interested in making use of off-mast crops and the early drops. 
        Whether early or mature, once I have enough to be worth processing for storage, I clip them in half with the pruners, and then in quarters.  At that point, I set aside any wormy or otherwise dark or decayed looking pieces.  Normally a worm will only damage a quarter or half of a nut, leaving the rest usable.  Once quartered, it is then easy to separate the shells from the nutmeats with one's fingers.  I often make evening work of this,  and with practice can do it (especially the final separating part) while reading, surfing, or watching video.
         Here again, many resources recommend grinding and leaching the acorn right at this stage, and then proceeding to cooking and immediate use, or re-drying, freezing, or other preparation for storage.  Traditional native people would store harvested acorns in the shell, sometimes with preliminary drying.  I am experimenting with this for the chicken feed acorns, and so far, a few months into storage, a significant number of acorns are moldy.  Perhaps I did not dry them sufficiently, or perhaps they had so many they sorted these out, or perhaps some other factors are at play.  I do know from research that traditional burning would reduce the number of worms in succeeding years' harvests....perhaps this is true of molds as well.    In addition, acorns vary in fat content, and the favorite of native people was the black oak (Q. kelloggii), which has a higher fat content and stores better in the shell than the lowland oaks we have here (blue oak: Q. douglasii, and valley oak: Q. lobata).  Being lower in fat, perhaps, lends them to dry storage out of shell with less danger of rancidity.
          So at this stage I spread the shelled quarters and pieces on trays or screens set out in the sun, bringing them under shelter at night or in the (rare at that season) rain, for several days until they are shatter-dry chips.  Then I put them into a bucket and stir them around with my hand, which separates the thin, reddish brown skin that clings to the nut meats (which, like the shell, is bitter and rich in tannin).  And then I put them up in tightly sealed jugs to store in our pantry shed, just like grain or dry beans.  I'm still eating on the jug put up in 2012, and have two 5 gallon jugs full from last year's heavy crop.
         So when I want to "do" a batch, I get out the desired amount (usually, like corn, we fill a smaller glass jar from the stock jug, and keep the jar in the kitchen, which holds several batches' worth), I grind them in our Vita-Mix blender.  Before this, I would use our hand-crank coffee and grain grinder usually passing the stuff through it twice (once on a coarse setting, then finer).  I dump the resulting flour onto a coarse piece of fabric in a colander, and then leach it by leaving it under a hose dribbling, preferably outside next to a thirsty plant.  I've done it in the sink, too; although it takes up the space in the sink for several hours, and the tannin can leave a brown stain.  With out comparatively mild tannin species, a few hours leaching is sufficient.  You can simply taste the meal.....if it tastes bitter or like tea leaves, leave it leach more.  Then I shut off the water and let the last of the water drip out for another few hours. (Ordinarily I grind in the morning and leave it to leach all day, then shut off the hose in the evening, put the dripping colander up off the ground somewhere and let it drip out overnight, preferably covered against bugs, debris, etc.)
        Now comes the cooking.   I use two methods, boiling, which yields a product very comparable to corn grits or polenta or grain porridge, and can be used any way one would use those things.  I have added it to chili, curry, soups, etc.  My traditional "from farm" lunch is acorn gruel, sweet or white potatoes or winter squash, cooked greens, cooked beans, and a bit of curry paste.  The type of potatoes or greens varies by season, though ordinarily there is some such around.  So far favas and teparies are the dry beans we grow, and ordinarily I soak, cook, and can large batches of them, so all I need do is open a jar when I need beans.
         The second method is baking, which I've been playing with for a while using a basic corn bread recipe as a template.  The acorn meal is mixed half and half (though I've been pushing the acorn towards 2/3 lately) with another flour (started with homegrown corn, and have some winter whear coming on this year....both work well; as well as various gluten-free flours such as quinoa, amaranth, etc.)  This is a powder raised bread and uses egg and baking powder to rise.  More recently I've been doing sourdough....making up the dough (before adding baking powder, salt, or oil) and adding inoculant (some saved from a previous batch, and if this fails or gets forgotten, some kefir, wine vinegar, homebrew, probiotics, yogurt, etc. all work, as well as the wild microbes that find their way in!).   This sits around for two to four days (the cooler, the longer) until it gets bubbly and tastes good and sour.  Adding some wood ash or baking soda along with the powder will react with the sour and help it rise.   Usually, I attempt further sustainability by doing both the boiling and the baking in cast iron pots, either in the solar cooker or in the embers of a woodstove fire,  depending on weather.    The resulting bread is usually part of my breakfast. 
        Isabel has also had success mixing acorn meal into ground meats, and I've also made her banana bread with quinoa flour and about 1/4 acorn meal.....

Too Busy to Blog! or My Once a Year Post!

As bloggers, we suck.
This little acre+ parcel and our high-input lives keep us very busy.

We continually work on fire suppression-which means keeping all vegetation-or at least dry vegetation away from the house and other outbuildings. My small flower and stinky garden continues to grow. There are some small areas that we keep a bit of lawn (now nearly 1/2 sweet grass) so the non-sweetgrass part gets mowed.
We have fenced the last side of our triangle, and then fenced the entire thing with plastic chicken wire, mostly to keep small animals out, and our own cats from going on "walkabout".  There are so many different wild animals about, and we've already lost one furball to a mountain lion (we believe) so we're doing everything we can to keep our animals safe.
Recently we've seen what looks to be a cross between a bobcat and a domestic cat (yes they do crossbreed), numerous coyotes, dear, turkeys, and one very large feral hog. We have a game we play when we see a hog-we try to sneak up on it as close as possible and then I like to SQUEAL at it really loudly. They will usually run away like they've seen a ghost pig or they think you're out of your mind. Country entertainment at it's finest!

There is also a lot of bird life out here. I'm not one for categorizing and photographing but I see a lot of different kinds, some very unusual and hear lots of birdsong during the day, and owl calls at night. And our local hawk finally seems to have a partner and they've settled in the area. It's nice to see the two of them flying around together.

We've also been working on renovating parts of our old mobile home. Not because we fancy high-end toilets or anything, but because the kitchens and bathrooms really really needed help. They were pretty gnarly. So the last two winters we worked on indoor projects when it's been too cold to be out. Last winter we did the kitchen which is wonderful and we just finished the master bathroom. My one splurge was a 6 foot bathtub, really only because I'm getting older and some days my bones hurt so bad I need a giant vat of hot water to soak in. I felt bad about the water use, but Alder has created a wonderful graywater and it has lots of happy edible plants. The plants in this graywater are edible because the water coming from the bathtub is very clean, where the laundry and kitchen graywater's are more water loving non-edible plants. We have one closet and a half bath left to go. I am redesigning a few things in this space simply to make sure that we are using every inch of available space for storage and putting it to good functional use. We will also have to change out all of the flooring eventually, because the previous owners put down terribly inexpensive, basically cardboard and laminate flooring and it's already buckling. Any water spilled on it causes more buckling. We're replacing it with inexpensive vinyl mostly because it's easy to clean up.

Alder has been continuing to improve the gardens, plant asparagus, replace a few trees that didn't make it, and he built three raised metal beds that have been wonderful for carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes etc. He has been working on getting to know the local bounty (acorns) intimately-which he's going to share about here on this blog soon. He continues to improve and work on drip irrigation, chicken arrangements, and eventually we hope to fence off about a third of the land so we can have a couple of sheep-more for fire suppression than anything-they're beautiful lawnmowers.

Speaking of using sheep for fire suppression, it's interesting that that one feral hog seem to selectively root all along our fence, which makes a wonderful firebreak and I also noticed that the chickens have been scratching on our side of the fence also making a wonderful firebreak. The idea of "animals doing what they do" and working WITH us is kind of awesome. Interconnected systems function!

It is so beautiful and quiet out here, and I would not trade it for anything. I guess the Universe seemed to know what I needed and gifted me with it, and I am extremely grateful. This place is so full of peace and I can see the mountains out my window-I watch them change daily...I can't ask for anything else.
We've beaten the "asparagus curse"....It's happened twice before that when we start asparagus from seed and grow them to about 2 year old, one gallon pots, we seem to move. That's happened twice before. But this time Alder planted them. They are in the ground. Rooting. As are we. We have also, by now, broken another curse. My last two long-term relationships lasted approx. nine years, and by that time in each of those, I was ready to cut and run. So I must have mellowed a great deal, learned a lot, and found a bit of humility, as well as another strange pea to share my pod, because Alder is a keeper, and our relationship is good, and settled. Rooted.

That's life on the farm. One year summed up in a few paragraphs. Now you see why I post once a year?