2015 at the Mother Earth News Fair

Reader Contribution by Jen Ubelaker
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We attended our first Mother Earth News Fair during its inaugural year in Puyallup, Washington. (Mother Earth News is GRIT’s sister publication.) It was a bit of a drive for us but we figured we were starting a new life and the information would be worth the hassle involved.  So, when we saw that this year’s West Coast fair would be moved to Albany, Oregon, we posed the same questions we did during our first trip. Albany is a six-hour drive from our home. We’d have to kennel the dog and wrangle “chicken-sitters” to check on the girls and the garden because the forecast was triple-digit temperatures for the weekend. Not to mention the fuel and lodging for the two of us. Would the benefit outweigh the costs involved? Turns out it was a resounding yes.

It was a little strange for us because the fair didn’t start until 10 in the morning. We’ve grown accustomed to early rising and, even with the hotel’s blackout curtains, we were up with the sun. Hubby got a nice walk in and we tried our best to relax, but we’re not really built for just sitting with nothing to do. We headed for the fairgrounds early in the hopes that we could at least wander a bit there, and thankfully the doors were open.

The first presentation we saw was “Growing Elderberries for Health and Profit” with Terry Durham. A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law introduced us to elderberry tinctures, and after our first winter of healthy respiration we decided to try and grow some for ourselves. It’s kind of our M.O. We try something, and if it works, we try to figure out how we can make it or grow it for ourselves, and elderberries are no different. The presentation was geared a little bit more towards commercial growers than hobbyists, but the information was solid. We learned about cultivation, harvesting, and the different varieties of berries that we could grow. I’m looking forward to applying the knowledge in our own backyard this year. Our plants have grown from sticks and are now beginning to flower, so we’re hopeful that we can become good stewards. Durham also gave us a great recipe for fruit shrub syrup, and I’ve got some strawberry-flavored shrub chilling in the fridge right now.

We were then lucky enough to catch a portion of a presentation about aged cheese with Gianaclis Caldwell. Once again, we’ve tried cheese, we like it, so how can we do it at home? I’ve been making soft cheeses and having some success, and Ms. Caldwell had terrific information about how to make and age cheese. Hubby was intrigued by her home-built cheese press and I could see his wheels turning. I’m expecting a new press in short order.

Next on our list was the presentation “Hot Ferments” with Christopher and Kirsten Shockey. It was an overview and demonstration of how to make fermented hot sauces. Hubby is growing a lot of different varieties of peppers this year, and when I was staring at the seedlings in the greenhouse this spring I wondered just what we would do with all of them. Now we know. We really enjoyed this presentation. The Shockeys are fun and informative, and they showed us the fermentation basics as well as two different techniques for making the pepper mash needed for hot sauces. Our only disappointment was that their book was sold out in the bookstore. 

After that whirlwind, we took a turn around the poultry show and caught up with Pat Foreman for her “Home Poultry Processing” presentation. Pat is fun and funny, and was a great resource for a subject that we have been discussing at our urban homestead. We have a coop and chickens, but we also have neighbors. How can we handle processing our birds in such a way that our home isn’t viewed as the neighborhood abattoir? Pat had a lot of great ideas and tips for home processors that we will be grateful to have when the time comes.

Our only real disappointment, if you can call it that, was the presentation about “Making Beer Using Locally Sourced, etc.” We are home-brewers, and we are definitely interested in making our brews as local as possible. To continue on with the theme of our lives, we are growing our own hops this year and looking for ideas on how to make more sustainable choices in the future brews we make. However, this presentation was geared more towards beginning brewers and dealt with the very basics of what equipment to use. Less about organic brewing and more a primer on the basics of homebrewing in general. It was hot, it was late, and we ended up bailing on this presentation in favor of a coconut ice cream bar.  We’re only human.

Recharged and ready, we were back at the fair early the next morning for the live poultry processing demo with Joel Salatin and David Schafer. This was really the highlight of the weekend for me. I have had friends bemoan the fate of our ‘poor chickens,’ but after seeing that demonstration, and hopefully being able to replicate it in our own lives, I know that our happy chickens will end their lives calmly, humanely, and with as much care as we can give them. It doesn’t hurt that Joel and David work together like an old vaudeville duo and kept the crowd engaged from start to finish. I was particularly thrilled to see the pair interacting with the children in the audience and showing them the steps of processing. Even after telling us, “We have to hurry, we’re running short on time,” Joel stopped for a young man who asked to “see the chicken’s brain” and calmly did an impromptu anatomy lesson for him. 

This is my favorite photo from the weekend: Joel just got this young man to look in the bucket under the table.

Our final stop was the “Craft Distilling” presentation with Victoria Miller. Even though her book isn’t available yet, it’s quickly jumped to No. 1 on my Christmas list. I use alcohol in my small batch brews of lemoncello and elderberry tincture, and it’s always bugged me to buy it in a store. To get the “good” stuff is prohibitively expensive with Washington State’s liquor taxes, and it seems to defeat the purpose to use cheap vodka from Costco. Ms. Miller is a small batch craft distiller and homesteader who has taken up advocacy for small home brewers and hobby distillers. Bless her, because even with her basic explanation of the framework of licensing and fees I found my head spinning.

And, as usual, the Mother Earth New folks seem to gather the best of everything under one roof for the fairs. We spent our time in between presentations by cruising through the booths and talking with vendors. I ran into Bob, of Bob’s Red Mill fame, at a wine-tasting booth and had a nice chat about our trip through the mill on our drive down to the fair. We found a terrific source of organic feed for our chickens that we can get locally through our food co-op. We also got information on solar options for our home, coop and greenhouse. I bought a lemon tree and woolen dryer balls because, hey, it’s Oregon and there’s no sales tax. 

On the drive home (all 6-plus hours of it), we had time to reflect on everything we learned over the weekend and just how far our little homestead has come. I don’t think we ever envisioned all of this on our first trip to the MEN Fair, but we’re eagerly anticipating what we can learn next year. If you have a chance to attend any of the fairs, I’d love to know your opinions and the presentations you liked the best. We might live apart on our individual homesteads, but there’s no way we do this alone! 

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