Mail Call: March/April 2013

Letters to the editor written by GRIT readers include modern homesteaders, Christmas tree recycling ideas, nut cracking tips, keeping chickens, an update from our friends in Chicago, and more.

a chicken tractor in a field

A view of the chicken mansion perched on the field of dreams that Julie and Leonard Hess call home.

Photo Courtesy Julie and Leonard Hess

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The good life  

We enjoy your magazine and have gotten a lot of help from its pages. Recently, Leonard found an ice cream recipe in there, and we now own a shiny new ice cream maker. Because of that article, I get to enjoy homemade, delicious ice cream, and for a fraction of what it costs to buy.

Our garden has done even better than last year, and we have learned so much. We learned that cornmeal in the cabbage will help get rid of the worms and ants. We learned that kosher salt in the asparagus will help keep the weeds down. We’ve pulled a lot of weeds, and carried a lot of water with the dry summer that we experienced. We share our hard work with our children and grandchildren, and sell the rest at the farmers’ market in town. It’s a great time at the market meeting new people and learning new tricks. Our next project is to finish insulating the chicken mansion and hang some solar lanterns in there. We also want to figure out how to catch the rain and store it for the hens and the garden, so it doesn’t drain the well so much.

A little over a year ago, we bought two acres in the country. It possessed a 700-square-foot house, a shed, and a field of dandelions. We called it our field of dreams. We planted peach and pear trees, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapevines and an acre garden that takes up every spare minute of our time. Last April, we purchased 20 little chicks of five different persuasions (silver-laced Wyandotte, Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, Barred Rock and Leghorn) and kept them warm and fed and entertained. It was great fun watching them turn into hens, and we built them a chicken mansion from scrap, donated lumber and an old porch. We went to some auctions as well and came up with the rest.

We’ve gotten into the habit of letting the chickens out and then sitting down with coffee and zucchini bread to watch them, a permanent smile on our faces. This has evolved into feeding them the bread, and they have gotten bolder about getting their share. My husband has charmed them into eating from his hand and from his lap. He enjoys them, as do I. They are laying eggs now, which has become a daily Easter egg hunt for us two kids at heart. We hope everyone who keeps chickens takes the time to enjoy them. They have given us many laughs and much less stress in our day.

Julie and Leonard Hess
Northwest Ohio 

Thy leaves are so unchanging

As a Christmas tree grower, I would like to commend the editors for writing an article (On The Garden Path which appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Capper’s Farmer) to promote the real Christmas tree as a part of the family tradition during the Christmas season. Year after year, families return to our farm to create memories while picking out their tree.

Real Christmas trees are good for the environment and 100-percent recyclable as you mentioned in your article. Another great way to recycle that creates a habitat for wildlife is to stand the tree up in the yard and give birds shelter from the elements of winter, and a place for nesting in the spring. Trees can also be sunk in ponds and lakes to create hiding places and habitat for fish and their young.

I loved the cover, and that is the main reason I picked up the magazine to start with, along with the title which caught my eye.

We grow pumpkins as well as Christmas trees. My children also have a small farm with sheep and chickens. Good luck, and I look forward to the next issue.

Sue Bostic
Owner of Joe’s Trees
Newport, Virginia

Glad you enjoyed the issue, Sue, and we are thrilled to revive a venerable publication with such great history. Keep an eye out for future issues, with practical advice for the homemade life, since 1893! — Editors  

Lard question

Our daughter-in-law has Mulefoot pigs and wants to make lard from some of the fat. Is 45 minutes at 225 degrees Fahrenheit truly enough time? It seems to me that would only warm a large amount of fat in a large roasting pan, not liquefy it.

She also has some Narragansett turkeys. We had one of them — about 25 pounds — for Thanksgiving dinner last year. Our grandson (her nephew) fried the turkey and had to remove the drumsticks to get it into the fryer. Yum! And lots of leftovers.

I grew up on a farm near Meriden, Kansas, and remember the birthday picnics Arthur Capper hosted. Keep up the good work on the magazine!

Alice Beauchene
Knoxville, Tennessee

Thanks for the question, Alice! Forty-five minutes should be about right, so long as you make the pieces small enough and don’t try to stuff more than a large roasting pan in the oven at a time (the author recommends half to three-quarters full in an average-size thin metal roasting pan — not filling to the top also reduces the risk of an accident when removing from the oven). The key is to make sure the fat melts and the cracklings are floating on top, which indicates it is done, and to not cook the protein bits; you want to remove the fat from the oven as soon as most of it’s melted but before you start “roasting” the meat. Good luck, and let us know how it goes (! — Editors  

Country youngster

This is our youngest daughter, 13-month-old Cierra. She picked the magazine up off the table when she saw the “bock, bock” on the cover. Took us forever to get it away from her! She was very gentle though, flipping through all the pages looking for more chickens, smiling, and saying “bock, bock” when she found some. She also liked the tractor ad — “voom, voom, voom” — and the recipe for cookies — “num, num.” 

Suzanne Cox
Smithville, Tennessee

Tea time

I noticed a problem with your article on planting in the woods (Forest Management for the Farm, January/February 2013). The tea plant (for drinking) and the tea tree are NOT the same thing. Tea tree oil comes from Melaleuca alternifolia, an Australian plant, whereas the drinking tea is from the Camellia family, grown in bushes in China, India, Japan, etc.

Mike Rutkaus
Winchester, Virginia

You’re absolutely right, Mike. There’s a BIG difference between tea oil (from Camellia), and tea tree oil (from Melaleuca), like you said. In addition to tea, the Camellia family offers an oil that is a staple of Japanese and southern Chinese cuisine and used to prevent rust on cookware, tools and wooden goods. The tea tree, on the other hand, yields an oil that is an excellent natural cleanser with superb antimicrobial properties. Many Camellia plants are hardy to Zone 7 or 8, according to the American Horticultural Society, but Melaleuca requires lots of warmth and lots of sun, and might be a challenge for growers in the United States. Thanks for pointing this out! — Editors  

Bread special issue

We have to thank you for the bread issue you put out (GRIT’s Guide to Homemade Bread). We bought it a few weeks ago, and today made the homemade hamburger/hot dog buns. Oh my! We are vegans, so we changed the egg, but other than that, it was pretty straightforward. We can’t wait to try bagels and pretzels! Thanks for a great issue.

Rusty and Theresa Morris
Via Facebook

Ogden fan

I just received Vol. 1, No. 1 of Capper’s Farmer. Thanks very much! Another great magazine from Ogden Publications. Delivering GRIT during the Great Depression in the 1930s was one of my childhood experiences, a great memory. We also subscribed to CAPPER’s for many years. By golly, we now have Capper’s Farmer. Everything you print is entertaining and meaningful, especially to the older set like me, at 87 years. Keep up the good work.

Uncle Gene
Branson, Missouri

Nut cracking tips

Connie Moore (Nut Trees Provide Wintertime Staples for the Table, November/December 2012) uses rocks to crack nuts, and she also mentioned a nutcracker. Over the years, I’ve found that a piece of railroad rail works wonders, as does an old flat iron — mine even has a spot to place the end of nuts such as pecans, almonds, etc.

I’ve found that the best way to get the outer hull off of black walnuts is just to place them on a hard surface and let the weather loosen the outer shell. Then, place them two or three deep in a large box and walk around on them — they come right off. Mother Nature does her work with the rain, dew and sun. If you want more activity than walking, stomping also works.

I like to place my railroad rail inside a cardboard box (with three sides) when cracking, to catch the shells so I don’t have to sweep them up. Hope this helps!

E.A. Smith
Downing, Missouri

Update from Chicago

The students are working hard with the chickens, and everything is going well, except we had one casualty. “Owl” (one of the chickens) was ironically taken by a flying predator — not sure if it was a hawk or an owl. We are now down to five chickens.

This led to an important discussion on food chain and energy flow, as well as human versus nature discussions. At first, the students were upset that something would kill one of their beloved chickens. Through our discussions, we learned some valuable lessons about raising animals and also learned about the pressures that native birds have in their survival. We are sad to lose our chicken, but also realize that wild birds need to survive and so our loss became a food source for a bird of prey, and we are accepting of that. However, we are taking special precautions with the chickens now and keeping them in when we are not actively around until this danger passes.

Christine Hill
environmental science teacher
Chicago, Illinois

In our November/December 2012 issue, we teamed with Handcrafted Coops out of Brooklyn, New York, to deliver a chicken coop to Christine’s classroom in Chicago. We look forward to every update, Christine, and we know well that protecting against predators is an ongoing battle! — Editors 

Share your thoughts

GRIT welcomes letters from our readers. If you would like to comment on an article or share your opinions, send a letter (with high-resolution photographs, if available) to GRIT, Mail Call, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609, or email us at