Times are always busy on a farm and "pre-winter" is no exception. In the last two months, Andrew and I have been swamped with projects. This explains our noticeable absence from this blog and for that I do apologize. However, I'd like to fill you in on what's been eating up our time!
In September, we threw in the towel with our pumpkin patch and grabbed every last pumpkin that showed orange or the promise of orange out of that field. Weeds, cucumber beetles and squash bugs had decimated our crop and left us with about a couple hundred various sized pumpkins and a metric ton of gourds. To put into perspective, we had planted about a half acre of plants. We should have been up to our elbows in pumpkin splendor. Now, though, we have learned a lot about the business of chemical free gardening and not reaching for pesticide even when the going is tough. We'll plant smarter next year.
We put together a lovely sign and organized the pumpkins onto a nice wagon in the front yard.
All we really wanted to do was make back our money on pumpkin seeds from the spring. The first week, there were no customers. That was understandable since it was not even October. However, as the days and weeks progressed, people from the area came trickling in to see what we had. "Organically Grown Pumpkins and Gourds" is not a sign readily seen in this area of Wisconsin, so the people that came in our drive were very interested in hearing about our other potential operations. Plus, it was a great way to meet the extended neighborhood! Most of our pumpkin customers this year were folks and families from the 10-mile area who normally passed our home en route to work or school. We were able to talk to them about our future plans and get the word out about our more sustainable farming practices. Hopefully, these people will stop in again. And, we were able to make our money back and then some!
During this time, we were wrapping up the garden produce. Mostly we had tomatoes, but we also brought in carrots, potatoes, broccoli, and a few herbs. We would have had squash, but in letting the sheep graze the pumpkin patch, we discovered that those animals love that fruit far more than we ever could. Honestly, we went to check our squashes (butternut and acorn) and couldn't even find the vines that the fruits were growing on! It was disappointing to be sure, but one of those experiences where all you can do is laugh.
In order to store all the fresh produce, we turned mostly to canning. Andy is an experienced canner, and we worked together preparing various recipes to utilize the many tomatoes we brought in. We now have a stocked root cellar complete with pear butter, homemade catsup, pizza sauce, stewed tomatoes, BBQ sauce, pickles, pickled veggies (Bloody Mary fixin's!) and homemade Bloody Mary mix. (Our winter indulgence!)
In researching ways to be more energy conscious and sustainable, we came across a preservation technique called lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation is a process whereby good bacteria transform sugar and starches into beneficial acids. We have learned that this is an ancient technique in preserving that very much predates canning and freezing. The starches and sugars naturally found in fruits and veggies are transformed into lactic acid by lactobaccilli. Lactobaccilli are found on the surface of all living things and especially on plants growing near the ground. There are a number of benefits of preserving in this manner. Digestibility is enhanced and vitamin levels are actually increased! The bacteria produce helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances. The main product, lactic acid, keeps fruits and veggies in a state of perfect preservation (if done correctly) and promotes healthy bacterial growth in the intestine. On top of that, the whole process requires NO BOILING! That saves a lot on our propane stove and much with time. We decided to start small and make a lacto-fermented sauerkraut and lacto-fermented salsa. We busted open one of our sauerkrauts this past week and it was AMAZING. I never liked sauerkraut in the past; too vinegary and harsh on the tongue. But this stuff, well, it was great. I'll post another blog on our recipes and the whole process. Needless to say, though, we are hopeful to use this easy technique for future preserving endeavors.
As the last few jars of canned goods were being sealed, we embarked on our chicken adventures, of which you are already well-versed. To take over where Andrew left off a couple weeks ago, we have had much learning and success with the new laying hens. After about a week of leaving them in the hen house to acclimate, we let them outside into a small fenced enclosure. For about three more days, we allowed them "free range" outside, but not enough that they would get lost.
Finally, last Monday, we let them loose for real and they were all over that acre field in about 25 minutes! It was a beautiful sight. Groups of hens led by one rooster would wander here and there, pecking and scratching as they went. Each day, they explored a little farther and by the end of the week, those perky birds had the run of the whole farm. They mingled with the ewes next door and the rams in the barnyard. They "raked" leaves in our apple orchard and picked beetles off our front porch. Reinhold, our chief rooster from before, had worked his way up the rooster ranks and is clearly the head of this entire chicken household. (It's odd, but we're more than a little proud of the big guy.)
In the meantime, we have been keeping track of the number of eggs we collect each day. The numbers have dipped and rose a few times, but are hovering at about 55 eggs per day. That's about a 50% average for the flock. It's not conventional standards at all (80%) but we are happy that the hens are happy. Recently, Andy put his sales background into practice and hooked us up with a local fast food chain. We get all their day old bread FREE whenever we want it! This is a chain that makes delicious sub sandwiches and they were more than happy to have a place to dump all the completely edible, but corporately sanctioned bread. (It's so good that we even partake on pick up days). Finally, we have a friend in the woodworking business who has offered all his wood shavings to us for free as well. That will be a boon this winter as we strive to keep the chickens' litter clean and thick.
And, the eggs are SO good! Just by word of mouth, we have been able to sell every last dozen. We are so thankful and blessed.
The farm has been in a state of fall clean-up. Andrew and his father hauled over five hay wagon loads of combustibles to the pasture burn pile in one day. His mother has been continuing the effort to clean up the old dairy barn in preparation for milking cows and my father, Dave, has been tuning up machinery and concluding the fall crop harvest. The animals are looking shaggier and are concluding their time on pasture. And the rams are eyeing the ewes with much fondness lately... We plan on breeding the ewes this November.
Today, we pick up a pair of twin Jersey heifers calves from a farmer friend named Lennie. He and his wife are giving us the two month old babies as our very own cows as an investment in our future. In return, Andy will work with him to build buffalo fencing and other farm chores at a generous rate in order to "pay off" the heifers. But the knowledge Andy will gain and the promise of milk in our future is more than payment enough.
With chickens pecking at our doorstep and calves nuzzling our palms, we really feel like things are starting to take off here at the farm. Harvest time is usually a season of winding down and settling in; saying farewell to the year and bracing for the cold. To us this year, we feel like the hope of spring has just entered our household and warmed us to the bone.