Windy Chickens

The Gold at the End of the Rainbow

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettIt is every year about this time I start to question exactly why we choose to live the way that we do. I am utterly exhausted, and there has been something in a basket that needed to be preserved for what seems like months.

 

Sunflowers 

Though I’m always ready for the end of canning season, I wouldn’t change our lifestyle. The “gold” at the end of the rainbow is being able to go into my canning room and see all the natural, healthy food for my family, not to mention all the money we save in groceries throughout the year.

Pear Tree

This year has been no different, but I am finally able to put away the home preserving equipment. With the exception of the bucket of sweet potatoes waiting to be canned in my basement and the 5-gallon bucket of honey waiting to be bottled, the garden is finished, what is left on the trees will serve the deer and chickens well, and the honey has been harvested.

Garden Boxes

I must also send a special shout out to all the mothers who do this every year; you are my heroes! Who knew that working a homestead with a toddler could be so difficult, and here I thought doing it all pregnant was going to be the challenge. My little man is a typical boy and into everything! I have to extend a special thank you to my mother for providing lots of grandma/baby time so that I could get it all done.

Though homesteading and living a self-sufficient lifestyle is at times trying, the benefits far outweigh the expense. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

Homemade Baby Food: Getting Started With the Good Stuff

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettI decided early when pregnant with my first child, a son, that I would make all of his baby food. For some reason, the typical “nesting phase” of pregnancy for me came in the form of food gathering and preserving. Even when overdue, and ready to be induced, my focus was on canning the pears that I had picked. I was a mad woman, canning hundreds of quarts of fresh food from our garden and orchard. In the end, all that work paid off; my son not only got to eat good, wholesome food, but I saved a TON of money on buying baby food.

It's All For Me!

The process was very simple, about once every two weeks I went to the canning room and gathered up a variety of fruits, vegetables and meats, then just processed each in my food processor adding water as needed until smooth. I then poured the pureed food into small 4-ounce jars (the same as store-bought baby food) and put them in the freezer. When I wanted to offer him more variety than my canned goods allowed I would purchase fresh produce and meats from our local grocery store and market and then prepare them at home; puree and freeze. Daily I selected a menu for my little man and then just microwaved until warm and served. My son now loves fruit and vegetables, and refuses to eat store bought (I bought a couple jars in a pinch).

The Freezer is Full 

In addition to a healthy beginning, making my own food also saved me a ton of money. My husband and I are rather self-sufficient and purchase very few items from the grocery store. At anywhere from $0.50 to $2 per container, a single quart of vegetables that costs mere pennies would make anywhere between six and 10 jars of baby food. A store-bought butternut squash costing $4 makes 12 jars of baby food (33 cents per jar).

Though it may require a little extra effort, the healthy benefits of a good beginning, and the money saved are more than worth it!

And the Bees

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettIn addition to the new birds at Shifflett Farms, I have also begun my journey with honeybees. I have wanted bees for a long time and finally have the time (and the money) to get them. My adventure with honeybees got off to an interesting start. The bees were hauled from South Carolina to West Virginia in a horse trailer; during the trip a couple of boxes were damaged and the bees released.

When I went to pick up my two packages of bees, the outside of each box was covered with loose honeybees. A little apprehensive, I was assured that the hour and a half trip home would be fine; and so I made the trip home surrounded by honeybees exploring the interior of my car. After getting the bees home, I did a quick refresher on introducing them to the hive and got to work. I have to admit taking the “lid” off of 12,000 honeybees (a 3-pound package) is a rush that I will not soon forget.

Bees in Box 

At the end of the day, the bees were successfully introduced to their new homes. My advice to someone introducing bees to a hive for the first time:

1. Keep calm, and walk away if you have to.

2. Don’t expect for ANYTHING to go like it does in the video.

3. Wear your protective clothing, or at least something tight fitting (I wore a T-shirt and managed to squish a bee that found its way into my sleeve, a sting I definitely deserved).

4. You can do it, just remember once you get started there is no turning back (this helped to get me through!).

Hives 

Since installing the bees, I have worked with the hives many times, mostly out of curiosity; bees require little maintenance, without any stings or issues. I love checking on my bees and seeing what they have been up to. Though I am never quite positive that I know what I am doing, the bees have nature guiding them along and don’t really need to much help from me anyway. I have found a local apiary association as well as the West Virginia Department of Agriculture apiary specialist to be very helpful in answering questions and providing reassurance. I can’t wait to harvest my first honey!

The Birds

Chickens pecking in the woods

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettThis spring the bird population of Shifflett Farms grew exponentially! First with the addition of eight peeps, followed by 15 Road Island Red pullets, and now two Royal Palm Turkey poults! With each new set of birds, valuable lessons were learned.

 

Peeps

First, with the peeps we learned that those cute and fuzzy little balls turn into “real” chickens fast. From the time I brought them home to the point of getting feathers was less than three weeks. At first the peeps were at home in a large plastic tub in my kitchen. With their heat lamp on and plenty of starter feed, chick grit and clean water, these little birds were very content. However, this arrangement was only temporary. After about two weeks, the peeps were no longer so small and fragile and began to require more space. Still needing the heat lamp, we moved them to a much larger crate in the basement. Within a couple of days, we figured out that this crate needed some form of a lid to keep the small chickens from free ranging in our basement. Gradually, they no longer needed the heat lamp and could be moved to the big chicken coop.

For several weeks, we kept them in their crate inside the coop. This allowed for the older chickens to get used to them without being able to peck at them. We maintained this arrangement for two weeks before turning them out with the other chickens. The other chickens did very well with their new coop mates and did not bully them at all. The new chickens were a little skittish, and I jokingly still refer to them as my “vampire chickens” because they refused to leave the inside of the coop and go into the run or out into the yard for several days; but now they are doing great and are just another “old hen” in the coop.

Next came the pullets. They were much easier to get accustomed to the coop. After bringing them home, we immediately turned them out with the other chickens. There was a little bullying, and I stayed close by for the first hour or so to make sure no one got out of hand, but by the next day it was like they had been there all along. The most difficult task with the pullets was catching each to put on the colored leg tag marking them for this year.

Royal Palm Turkey Poults

Finally, my most recent additions are two small Royal Palm Turkey poults. The turkeys have been a surprise from the beginning. Expecting two rather large (chicken-sized) poults when going to pick up the turkeys, what I got were two tiny little birds about the size of a robin. Of course, I couldn’t put such small birds in a crate in the coop, so I decided that they would also make a tub in my kitchen floor their home for a week or so. After the first night, I awoke to an empty tub. Panicked that two small turkeys had had free reign of my house for who knows how long, I began the search (with no success).

Finally, after giving up, I sat down to contemplate the situation. That’s when the “gobbling” began, and I was able to narrow down at least what floor they were on. I eventually found both, but with no lack of effort. I found out that turkeys are very smart, and will hold absolutely still in an effort to blend with their surroundings. Needless to say, the turkeys were then placed into the crate with the lid. Though the turkeys are still in the house as of now, they will be introduced to the coop the same as the peeps, first in the crate in the coop, and then free to range with the other birds.

Though each new set of birds was an adventure, I love never having a dull moment. After all the new additions, the coop is getting full, but I saved a little room for some guineas!

Making Maple Syrup

Spring is Here!

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettA couple of years ago in my usual fashion, I cheerfully returned home from work announcing to my husband that I had bought a set of taps, and we were going to make maple syrup. Being the good sport that he usually is, he just asked me exactly what that meant for him. I explained to him that there wasn’t really that much to it, just drill a single hole at a downward angle with a 5/8th-inch drill bit in each tree we intended to tap, attach a milk jug with a hole drilled in the cap for the hose to run into and tie it to the tree; then just check on a daily basis to collect the sap. The tree does the majority of the work.

Though at the time he appeared doubtful that that was all there was to it, after my second maple syrup season, he has accepted that it really is that simple.

Though every year I do get a little overwhelmed with all the sap that is collected, around 60 gallons each year so far, making maple syrup at home is something anyone can do. It takes around 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. Trees should be tapped in February, and pulled in late March or early April before the trees begin to bud. As the sap is collected, it has to be kept cold, otherwise it will sour. Luckily, we have a second refrigerator in our basement that works perfect for sap storage, but for those who are less fortunate, it just means you will have to cook the sap down more often.

Cooking sap refers to boiling the sap until the water is evaporated, and what is left behind is dark, sweet syrup. I have found that there is no way to cook all the sap in a single day, so I cook throughout the day, allow it to cool before bed time, and place pot and all in the fridge until it is time to start again tomorrow. Cooking all the sap in a single pot I have found works better for me. I just fill my large stainless steel pot three-quarters of the way full of sap, and put on the stove on medium high and allow to boil, stirring seldom. When the sap has cooked down to half the pot, I add enough sap to bring it back to three-quarters full. I continue this process for however long it takes to cook down all the sap and the syrup left behind is a very dark brown, sweet liquid.

Syrup in the Pot

This process can take days to cook all of the sap, or may need to be done several times for those with a storage issue. Just leave the cooked sap in the pot and put the whole thing in the fridge until you are ready to add more sap and cook again. Once the syrup is finished cooking, heat to boiling, remove from heat and strain through cheese cloth into quart jars, place hot lids and rings on jars and hand tighten.

Straining into the Jars

Jars will seal, keeping the syrup fresh. Though a tedious process, it is well worth it to taste fresh maple syrup made at home!

Pasta Time

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettIn the pursuit of frugality and self-sufficiency, I realized that the first thing I needed to take a good hard look at was my shopping cart. I quickly realized that two of the most frequently purchased items are pasta and bread. I was already enrolled in a bread-making lesson with a local farmer, but was uncertain about making pasta at home. With a little motivation and reassurance from my good friend Danielle, who said she had complete faith in my abilities, I decided to give it a shot. I tend to never do anything the “normal” way, so at a little past midnight one night, my husband and I decided to break out the pasta maker that had been a gift several years back, but had never been used. The pasta maker, of course, did not come with a recipe, so I found one online that seemed simple enough. Once I got started I couldn’t stop!

Several hours later, just shy of the sun coming back up, I had pasta drying on every flat surface of my kitchen. We made fettuccine, spaghetti, rigatoni and lasagna noodles. No fancy pasta dryer necessary, I laid them out to dry on baking sheets, and a make shift rack I created out of a large pot with a wooden spoon resting across it.

Pasta

Rigatoni

Spaghetti

Lasagna

The recipe is very simple, and if you don’t have a pasta maker, you could just mix the dough, roll it out with a rolling pin, and cut to desired noodle. I dried the pasta thoroughly so that it can be stored in the pantry, but for those who are less patient, or don’t want to fool with the drying process, you can just allow the pasta to dry enough that it doesn’t stick together, and them put in freezer safe bags and store in the freezer until time to use it. You don’t have to thaw the pasta before use, just straight from the freezer to the pot of boiling water.

Personally, I love the fresh pasta, and plan to make an effort to never buy pasta again, especially now that I know how simple it can be to make, and how much cheaper than buying the store-bought stuff. If you are anything like me and tend to “go big,” enough pasta can be made at one time to last at least a couple of weeks, depending on how often you eat it.

Pasta Recipe:

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large eggs

2 cups flour

First, whisk wet ingredients together, then slowly add flour until a dough is formed. Add dough to pasta maker, or roll out thin with a rolling pin, cut into desired noodle. Allow to dry thoroughly if planning to store, or allow to dry enough to prevent sticking and place in the freezer.

I look forward to coming up with my own variations to this recipe, by adding herbs and spices as well as different vegetable juices in place of the water to make my own unique combinations! It’s a recipe to have fun with and make your own. Not to mention all that premade pasta will come in handy with spring in the area, and the busy season about to begin.

Say Cheese

Another Snowy Day on the Farm

Marlena Chestnut ShifflettSince the winter weather doesn’t look to be approaching an end anytime soon, now is the time to experiment in the kitchen before the work of summer begins. Looking for something to do with the excess raw milk in the fridge, I quickly came across a recipe for ricotta cheese, but it required citric acid, which is not something that I keep around the house, nor is it something that I would choose to work with if a natural alternative is available. After a little digging, I found just that; the same basic recipe with white vinegar instead of citric acid. For my first attempt in cheese making, this seemed like the perfect recipe. Though I found the finished product to be a little bland, I added some salt, sundried tomatoes from last year’s garden, and basil – it was delicious! I can’t wait to use this in some homemade ravioli. As an added bonus, and in the spirit of not wasting a thing, the whey that is drained away from the cheese can be used instead of water in making bread. I put mine in the freezer for the next time I feel like baking.

Ingredients:

2 quarts whole milk

3 tablespoons white vinegar

Herbs, spices, and other addition,s as desired

First, heat the milk to 200 degrees, stirring regularly to prevent scalding. Add vinegar and continue to stir. Bring mixture back to 200 degrees and then remove from heat and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Pour mixture through very fine cheese cloth known as cheese muslin or other fine cloth such as a pillow case. Allow to drain thoroughly (you can also squeeze gently to remove moisture quicker). The longer you allow the mixture to drain, the “dryer” your cheese. Add additional ingredients for flavor as desired. Use or freeze for later.

Curds  We Have Cheese

The Finished Product

It is always exciting for me to try something new and discover one more thing that I can make at home for my family that is natural and healthy. For a first time cheese maker, this recipe is simple with immediate results!