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T and E Acres Grows

In Regards to Pie Crust

Erin CPie1

It’s that time of year again — leaves are changing colors, the air is more brisk, pumpkin-spice everything abounds, and it’s cool enough with the windows open that I want to bake all night. It’s also the time of year that so many of us ruin that diet we worked so hard on over the summer.

One night recently, I had finished dinner and most of the dishes, and my husband decided he really needed to do more work in the shop. So I figured what better time to start a baking frenzy? I looked at the five-pound Ziploc bag of lard I have in the fridge and wondered if the taste really was better than shortening. It's been so long since I baked anything with shortening, I couldn’t remember. So I dug out the last dregs of shortening that I had stashed out of sight, and I decided that this was the perfect time to not only bake a little, but to do an experiment. I decided to use both to see how they stacked up.

I chose to bake some pumpkin-hybrid pie. Pumpkin-hybrid pie is what you get when you cook down the innards of the beast of a squash that is the love child of a butternut squash and pumpkin. My parents had a bumper crop of these squash, so we have freezers full. With my filling out of the way, I started on the pie crusts.

Very first, I can tell you that working with the shortening was a little bit easier; it spreads into my measuring cups and out of them easier. This is intentional, of course, and it is part of what makes shortening so bad for your health. The lard is wetter than the shortening to begin with, so you don’t have to add as much water to the dough to get the consistency that you want. I used about two tablespoons less water in the lard pie crust.

After I let them chill in the fridge for a little while, I took out my dough balls and divided them both in half, so I had four total. I put two back in the fridge for pie crusts, and I rolled the other two out into pie tops that I intended to cut shapes into for decoration. The lard crust was more difficult to roll out, again the problem being that the dough is just a touch stickier from the moisture content. I added some flour, but it didn’t eliminate the problem entirely. The lard warms up more quickly than the shortening as well, which makes it harder to work into a crust. The shortening, on the other hand, I had a hard time rolling out without it splitting. As it got thinner, the dough wanted to come apart. I added just a little bit of water to correct for the dryness of the dough, but it still wasn’t as uniform when I rolled it out. It was easier to cut shapes from though, as the dough didn’t stick to everything it touched.

When I went to put the different doughs in the pie pans and get my pies in the oven, the lard crust had the same problems as before — hard to handle. It was soft enough that it tore easily, and when I tried to roll it out again, it only got marginally better. The great thing about the lard crust though, is that if you don’t get too frustrated, you can always go back and put little left over pieces into the crust where they are most needed. I did just that and had good results. The dough is easier to form into the pan itself, and to shape if you are interested in a fancy edge.

The shortening continues to be a little drier and has a harder time spreading in the pan if there are thin spots that need some love. But it holds a shape really well around the edge.

Both lard and shortening have their faults, and it probably just comes down to preference in the end. The lard crust is more difficult to work with, but the result is so worth the extra time and effort for me personally. If it were a mere taste test, lard crust wins every day of the week. The flavor is richer without being overwhelming. And as frustrated as I got working that dough, when I took my first bite of pie, I remembered exactly why I switched to lard in the first place.

Seeing Red

Erin CThere is a meme that says “How do you become a millionaire farming? Start out a billionaire.”

It’s no secret that homesteading and farming are expensive to begin and to maintain. We got lucky with our chicken coop, because that building was already there; we just had to add some windows and a front door, and we were ready to go! But a from-the-ground-up chicken coop can get pricey. Starting out is a delicate balancing act, and there is a lot of hurry up and wait on a new homestead. And there are moments of panic like I had today.

I’m sure at least some of you reading this are familiar with the sensation: I checked my bank balance and discovered I was in the red. It only takes once to carve that feeling of panic into your memory. I have experienced this event more than once, but not recently. When I was in school and waiting tables, I managed to have more outgoing than incoming a few times. On this particular occasion, it was a perfect storm of factors: I had a busy weekend at work and forgot to clock in for a shift, which I only discovered when I didn’t get paid for said shift. So my check was really short that pay period. Then I sat down and paid the bills, and immediately forgot about my car payment. It automatically withdraws, and I thought I had a much bigger cushion than it turned out I did. I also spent some money that I didn’t have to spend, which happens. So as I sat staring at the red numbers across the screen, I panicked. And felt like crying a little bit. And acted like a two year old for a few minutes (OK, maybe an hour).

We had been doing really well with our budget and paying off old debts. I was really excited the other day when I got to tell my parents that one of my student loans will be paid off this month. We were in a pretty good place. But let’s be honest — for most of us, $300 isn’t pocket change. And the unexpected lack of $300 isn’t a comfortable place to be. Well, I got over my temper tantrum and made peace with the idea that we would be staying close to home this week and not raiding the farmer’s markets and thrift stores. Then my husband asked if I was ready to go to the feed store. Oh crap. The ducks, chickens, and the rabbit were all out of feed. Cue meltdown #2. Honestly, I am usually more in control of my temper than this, but this was just the last straw. I had made peace with not having milk for my coffee; I had made peace with not having butter to cook with, but this was too much. My babies were going to be hungry. And on a homestead or a farm, where your livestock are also your livelihood, this is not acceptable.

Thankfully, my husband saved the day; he had just gotten paid from a couple of custom knives he recently finished up. So we could afford feed. And he got milk for my coffee.

When we got home, he went outside to his forge to work on a wedding gift he is making for someone, and I decided to mow. The front yard was looking a little shabby, and I needed to work off some of the adrenaline from the banking disaster earlier. I mow a little differently than my husband does; he is a "get the whole thing done in one big push" kind of guy, and I like to break the yard up into sections so I can look at it when I feel like quitting and see that I only have three more sections to go. As I was making my way around the different sections of the yard mowing, I was also beating myself up about the bank account. How could I be so careless? How had I gotten so distracted that I overdrew that much? I struggle sometimes with money and budgeting; I think that’s probably pretty common. But this hit me a lot harder than any of the times I'd messed up my math and money before. Earlier in my life, when it was just me, if I didn’t have any money in the checking account, I could live on the Ramen noodles in the emergency cabinet. But now, it’s me and my husband and an ever-growing number of animals, both pets and livestock, that depend on me not to forget how to add and subtract.

So as I was about to pass out from pushing that stupid mower around the yard, I resolved that we would take a metaphorical Ramen-approach to the budget for a little while — make sure we build back up to what we had before I missed a whole 12-hour shift on the paycheck, and then we can move forward from there.

I may be in the red until Thursday, but at least my yard looks nice. And, just like most other farms out there, even if my husband and I don’t eat like kings, our animals are fed.


Sick Chicken

If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you know I am a little bit of a crazy chicken lady. OK, I’m a crazy chicken lady through and through. Anyway, we take our fowl very seriously here, and that includes not losing any. We had a sick hen recently, and for a day or two she didn’t look too good. We noticed she was spending a lot of time in the coop, even when we let everyone else out for some supervised free range time. She also didn’t seem to be eating much or drinking. We had a meeting and decided our first step was to separate her from the other birds. Since we don’t have a hospital wing set up, we did the logical thing: we brought her in the house.

When my husband picked her up she didn’t put up a fuss, which is unusual for this bird. And he said she felt like she had lost some weight. We put her in the bathroom on the tile and gave her food and water and watched. She was droopy, didn’t hold her tail up, didn’t move around and didn’t complain about the accommodations. Not eating is bad, but not drinking water would kill her faster, so I got into my bag of medical supplies and found a 3cc syringe. We mixed up some water with chicken electrolytes and I dropped it on her beak. She drank a little, so I tried a larger amount. She drank right from the syringe, and I got two full syringes in her before she refused any more.

Since she kept nodding off, we made a cubby for her to sleep in and left her alone for a little while to get some rest. That night we checked on her every three or four hours, just to make sure she was okay, and each time gave her a little water with the syringe. The next morning she was a little perkier, and I had a surprise waiting on me in the bathroom floor. Side bar: I’m a nurse by trade, so poop is no stranger to me. I’m not squeamish, and I have no problem looking at and poking around in it. Gloves on, of course. Our sickly chicken, Hodor, had left me a giant pile of the weirdest looking chicken poop I have ever seen. I made sure when we got chickens to look at pictures of healthy chicken poop and not-so-healthy chicken poop. That might make me a little strange, but I don’t like surprises, and when it comes to health I like to know what to expect. This particular poo wasn’t within any of the healthy parameters, with the exception of the white urea in it. It was bright green and had quite a bit of undigested food in it. I did what any person in this day and age would do, and I searched the internet.

As can happen when one decides to turn to the digital arena for answers, I got a myriad of different explanations. Cancer was among the most often mentioned, but I wondered if that was even a probability given that this chicken isn’t very old. It is possible, but not probable. Another very popular idea was E. coli. That was not comforting, since it is contagious. And, of course, there was the page that thought maybe aliens, but I discounted that after some careful thought.

It just so happened that the next day we had to take one of the cats to the vet for his yearly check-up. After it was determined that he is indeed still a cat and kind of a whiner, I politely asked my vet if she minded looking at the pictures of the poop I had taken. She very kindly agreed to take a look and, after a fairly quick study, she told me she was going to give me a shot for the chicken. Oh, and don’t eat this chicken for at least two weeks. Hodor is one of our egg hens, so she is safe in that regard. I did ask about eating the eggs, and the vet said that wouldn’t be a problem.

We got home, let the cat out of the bag, and went to check on Hodor the chicken. She was more awake than she had been, and she had moved from her previous spot, so that we took as a good sign. Then my husband picked her up and held her while I did as the vet instructed and stuck that needle in my poor, sweet chicken's breast meat. If everyone was as relaxed as that chicken was, my job would be so easy.

The day after the shot she was walking around the bathroom, clucking and eating. When we opened the door, she just walked on out like she owned the place and proceeded to make a menace of herself in the living room. We gave her some watermelon and sweet corn to reward her for being so good, and then we decided to keep her one more night just to be sure. She has been back with the flock for a week now, and she is as healthy and active as ever. We have been keeping a really close eye on the yard and coop for any other neon green poop, but so far we are clean. I knew when we started this homesteading journey there would be times we would have to treat our livestock’s medical problems, but if you ever told me I would be giving shots to chickens, I would have laughed.

Chicken on the Loose

A Short Word On Ducks

Erin CNew ducks

My husband and I were talking about getting ducks next year, when we had a chance to catch up from everything new we are doing this year. It was agreed up, and a pinky-swear oath was performed. Then that man took me to the feed store. Let’s just say that they had a few older Rouen ducks on sale (not brand new ducklings) and that “on sale” are a siren song to this farm girl. We talked about it while we walked around the store getting the items that we actually came for, and by the time we made our way back to the ducks, we had agreed, that while this was probably a bad idea, what could go wrong? A few minutes later, we were the proud new parents of two ducks; hopefully a drake and a duck.

Let me tell you what I knew about raising ducks before last week: they’re cute and they like water, and their eggs taste pretty darn good. Let me tell you what I know about ducks this week: they are so messy! In all seriousness though, what is different about raising ducks than, say raising chickens? There are a few things about ducks to keep in mind if you decide to raise them, and really the information is almost common sense.

Ducks are a good investment because they will lay eggs year round without the help of a light, instead of taking a small break like chickens. Their eggs have more fat content, and are perfect for baking. Personally, I think the extra fattiness of the eggs make them more buttery and therefore an egg-cellent breakfast food.

Ducks are also more resistant to heat, cold and disease than chickens. They have a layer of fat that protects them from the cold in the winter, dip themselves in water in the heat of the summer and in general, are just easier to keep healthy.

And to go back to what I knew about ducks a couple of weeks ago, they are darn cute. We value our animals for their personalities as much as for the food they provide. It’s like going to the home improvement store; spending money fixing up the house is a little painful, but if the cashier is a ham, the trip is easier to take. We know that cleaning up after the ducks at least three times a day will be painful, but the fact that they are funny helps take some of the pain away.

So what should you keep in mind about raising ducks now that I have you convinced you need some? First, if you have a secure chicken coop and yard, your ducks can live there. They need a lot of water, and will make a mess of the chicken waterer, so what we are doing is inside the coop, we have a hanging chicken waterer with the nipples and the ducks have their own waterer. Outside all the water is fair game. We have started feeding our birds a mixed flock feed so that it meets the dietary requirements of all our different kinds of feathered friends.

Ducks make their nests on the ground, so a little extra hay in a corner would be sufficient for our two ducks. Just don’t put them under the chicken roosts or your ducks will get pooped on, and nobody likes that.

And ducks can forage with the best of them. If you have the space for them to free range, they will mostly feed themselves. They will keep the bug population down in your yard, all without tearing it up the way chickens tend to do. Just make sure you are free ranging on a yard that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.

With a little understanding of their messy ways, your ducks will quickly become an integral part of a mixed flock and hold a special place in your heart and homestead. I look forward to finding new breeds of ducks to raise, as well as watching our silly birds swim and bob on their pond (currently under construction).

New ducks in the bathtub

Mean Ole Rooster

 Erin COur First Egg

I recently shared a joke on Facebook with a friend of mine from work. He had a photo of the original Star Trek up, with some wisecrack about hanging out with Captain Kirk while wearing a red shirt. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the elegantly overacted series, the red shirts were the bit characters that died in an episode. Well, I mentioned that we called our roosters red shirts, for what I believe is a fairly obvious reason. We do raise chickens to eat. His daughter got upset with me though, saying we shouldn’t be killing our chickens, if we don’t want a bunch of roosters, we need to sell them. I just let it go, not wanting to start an online debate about the merits of eating meat or not. The truth is, we don’t name the roosters.

Eventually we will have a rooster that is a good protector, doesn’t mind us in his space too much, and doesn’t abuse our girls. I like to eat chicken, but the first priority around here is the health and happiness of our egg hens. Those girls are royalty. We give them free range of the couple of acres we live on and some oats, and they give us gorgeous tasty eggs. Frankly, Roos, you fellas don’t do much useful stuff. We do want a rooster so we can hatch our own meat birds, but again, the girls come first around here. A couple of our hens are just now starting to lay. I was outside with the chickens the other day and one of the roosters went after one of our hens. Having been around chickens, I understand it can be a little rough when the roosters start mating, but this guy was being a total butthead. Excuse my fifth grade expletive, but what I really called him is not appropriate for this site.

He chased her down, mated her, then proceeded to chase her around the yard, knocking her down a couple of times until finally he had her pinned against the chicken wire fence and beat the heck out of her. He was pecking her and spurring her, standing on her back, just letting her have it. I had already been chasing this stupid rooster around trying to get him to break his focus on kicking her butt, to no avail. When I arrived on the scene I reached down and just picked her right up. She tucked her head under my arm and, not knowing what the heck to do because I was so flustered I took her in the house; my house, not the chicken house. Hubs was right there, having heard the commotion and I described the scene to him. I sat down on the futon with my sweet Kaylee bird and let her calm down and get treats while my husband went out and gently picked up the offending rooster and pulled off his head. Sorry buddy, but you don’t get to beat up my ladies.

We knew we would have to pare down our rooster population; worse than a high school competition for prom king, being the rooster who lived is as simple as being the least roostery rooster. The thing is, for all the people, like my friend’s daughter, who think we are horrible for butchering our own animals, they don’t understand how we do things. This situation left us with a hypothetical quandary; if we sold this rooster, assuming anyone wants one, and he hurts their hens, did we do the right thing? To me, his death was more than justifiable. When we went back out later, the hen that was beaten up got a look-over, and her whole right eye was bruised and swollen. I just can’t imagine keeping any chicken that does that kind of damage to the other birds. So that red shirt met his end, just like in the show.

How do you folks deal with a bully rooster?

Canning Safety

Erin CLucy Helping to Can

I have been so focused on the chickens lately that I haven’t really done a lot of the other things that I am typically doing this time of year. Well and it’s still early. That’s a factor also. Tonight, however I am canning some chicken broth that we needed out of the freezer and after I almost made a huge mistake it got me to thinking about how I need to make sure that I am refreshing my brain on canning rules before I accidentally ruin a nice batch of broth or green beans. There’s more at stake than just the food that would have to be thrown out of course; if we ate contaminated food I canned at home, we could potentially die. Botulism is no joke, and even though people inject their faces with it to look younger, make no mistake, it is deadly in the most microscopic amounts. But my near miss made me think that there are some canning tips and safety rules to follow that probably need to be mentioned again. Maybe every year, like a refresher course. Keeping in mind that I am a home canner that only preserves food for my family to eat, here are some quick safety reminders for your canning experience.

• First, I know that in the past people have done some kind of upside-down canning technique, but the food in the jars really never needs to come into contact with the lids. The head space is to ensure that the air can escape and make the seal. It’s just not safe.

• The step I forgot tonight could be dangerous as well. I got through my third jar when the lightbulb went on above my head and I had to take those jars back out of the canner. I forgot to wipe my rims clean. When you are canning anything, water bath or pressure, after you fill your jar, you need to take a clean, damp cloth and wipe all debris and extra bits off the rims. This helps to ensure a good seal.

• While we are discussing lids and rims, make sure that part of your prep is heating your lids in near boiling water. You want the rubber part underneath that seals to the rim to be warm and springy.

• One other thing you should remember about lids and the jars sealing is to hand tighten the bands. If you twist them too tight, the air can’t escape from the jars, disrupting a good seal. Basically your bands are there to just hold the lids in place while the sealing is occurring. Additionally, after your jars have cooled and are ready to go on the shelves, remove the bands. The bands can rust and potentially disturb the seal, making that food a hazard.

As I sit here writing this, I realized how big of a topic canning is, so I decided that I should probably break it down into sections. Just remember, if you have a question while canning, there are numerous books and web sources out there to help. Before you do anything you’re not sure about, look it up. Be safe, and happy canning!

P.S. This is my favorite part about summer!

Gorgeous Green Beans

Rest Easy, Little Chicken

Erin CSpoiled chickens

I wanted to talk about all the new things we have been delving into this spring. Or I wanted to talk about cooking. I wasn’t sure, but writer's block moved in, unpacked his bags and put his feet up on the coffee table. Then today, while we were outside with the chickens, we noticed the copper laced Wyandotte’s back feathers were missing in different degrees of severity. None of the other birds looked nearly as roughed up as our pretty girls; in fact, nobody else was missing feathers. We watched and waited. And finally, Shawn, our most gorgeous bird snatched a feather right off one of her coop-mates. And she ate it. That’s never a good sign, and can eventually turn into full blown cannibalism in the chickens. We had an earlier problem with this, when Shawn’s twin, Ed was isolated for days on end to help her stop picking feathers, and every time she rejoined the coop fence free, she immediately started feather picking. Since cannibalism is a quickly learned behavior in a flock of chickens, it’s important to separate the feather picking birds immediately. And cannibalism is very difficult to fix once it’s been started. Prevention is always better. So weeks ago, we added Ed to the soup pot. As we watched today, there were two of our Wyandotte chickens that were engaging in the most brutal feather picking behavior, Shawn and one who has not been named yet. My husband and I had a little chicken powwow, and decided it was better to nip this in the bud than watch our entire flock devolve into cannibal chickens, which would have been a huge waste of money and resources. Up to this point, my husband has waited to butcher chickens until I am safely at work for the weekend, two and a half hours away. To say that I am tenderhearted is a fair statement, and maybe even an understatement. We both knew going into the whole homesteading deal what was in store for us; I knew that animals that I name, feed, care for and love on will one day feed us. And my husband knew that when it came time to do the kill, he was pretty much on his own. We walked into this eyes wide open. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still get a touch heartbroken when we butcher. And it doesn’t mean that even though it does make me sad for a little while that we will stop raising our own meat. Or that I will ever stop treating our animals the way we treat them. It’s a huge part of why we raise our own meat. I have read in many different places advice from farmers and homesteaders who say you shouldn’t get attached. Don’t name them; don’t spend the afternoon with a chicken in your lap reading a book. But that’s not who we are; we raise them spoiled on purpose.

I guess the point of all of this is that homesteaders get abuse from numerous angles; I have had vegans tell me what we do is horrific and that we should be ashamed. I have had old school farmers tell me I’m too soft and I should never get so attached to my animals. Neither is truly accurate; if you are going to eat (and my guess is you probably are), then in our minds taking responsibility and really knowing where your food comes from is essential to being good stewards of the land and of yourselves. It is necessary for us to fully understand what is involved in our food choices. Even if that means knowing that our chicken cordon bleu has a face. And if it came from here, it probably at one point had a name. So tonight I will shed a tear or two for Shawn and the bird who shall remain nameless and tomorrow we will enjoy chicken for dinner. Then we will do it all over again as the newest set in the brooder gets ready to move outside and integrate into the flock. That will be a whole other story.

House chickens