Archive for September, 2012

Wednesday, September 26:

Let us speak for a moment about pigs.  Not the two pastured pigs presently residing by the stock pond, but the pigs in the barn.  It is a serious consideration for the family-scale farmer what to feed his livestock; since he is not raising his animals primarily to sell them but to eat them, it is important that they be fed for just as small a cost as possible.  The meat we raise may be better than anything money can buy, but we whose means are limited cannot consider it a bargain unless we reduce the actual cash outlay to almost, or literally, nothing.  This means little or no bought-in feed.  So what do our pigs eat?

Well, first of all, dairy waste.  Only in a family-scale dairy, there is no waste, there are just dairy products.  The ones that usually go to the pigs are whey, buttermilk, and some skim milk.  Right now, with the cows either going into heat or in early pregnancy and with three baby bulls in the calf barn, there is less milk to spare than we like to see, maybe a gallon of skim every other day, two gallons of buttermilk a week, and whey only by the quart from drained yogurt.  The pigs devour it.

When there is no milk there is swill, or slops, the cooked vegetable and table scraps from our own and the monastery’s kitchens.  This is also extremely palatable to the pigs, as well as to the chickens and dogs.  There is bakery waste usually two days a week, given to us at third hand by the Franciscan sisters to whom it is delivered in black plastic trash bags.  There are windfall apples by the bucketful, gathered from the trees in the pasture.  These have only been ours for two years, just since we bought the field, and the pruning we have been doing, while it helps, has not yet succeeded in making the apples from those trees worth harvesting for our own use, but the bruised fruit, sweet , red and yellow, is prized by pig, chicken, and duck, miniature horse, and the cows.

The garden offers many things for the pigs, and will offer more.  The zucchetta rampicante, or tromboncino zucchini, which has sprawled fifteen feet out of the raised bed where it is trellised, produces far more squash than our households can use.  The overgrown individuals are roughly chopped with a hatchet when we split the firewood for cooking swill and added to the mess in the big copper cauldron.   Bean plants, corn stalks and tomato vines pulled from the garden are thrown in the pig pen where what is not eaten becomes bedding, trampled and chewed to shreds.  In the monastery garden ranks of beets and turnips, maybe a thousand row feet or more, fill the open spaces left when the potatoes were harvested, and these are intended for the pigs winter food.  And the late beans, when we have had our share, will provide good protein for all the pigs on the farm.

This last item seems to us a good idea, and next year any spaces left empty before the middle of Augusts will be sown to pintos as fodder for the pigs and cattle.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday, September 25:

The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold.  The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.

Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden.  Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence:  whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit.  The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small.  The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat.  They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.

The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers.  Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately.  The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning.  The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.

They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining.  We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped.  Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay.  These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they?  The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen.  If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers.  If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay.  So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.

We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.

There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately.  And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs.  And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.

We killed a snake by the pond today.  S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it.  I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead.  It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.

Moral:  if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.

Read Full Post »

Sunday, September 16:

The maple tree at Kenny’s is always the first to turn in the fall.  Today the top of it is washed in shades of peach.  Mossors’ place closes the bottom of the Jeddo’s run hollow like a cork in a bottle, the hills rising an abrupt hundred feet plus trees to the north and south; from there the run flows almost level across a mile of ground that, when Kenny was young, was cornfield, arrowhead-hunting ground.  Now it is cut by state route seven, the cornfield replaced with our village’s one grocery store.  The trees along the river have taken on a jaundiced look, not truly yellow, but with their vibrant summer green gone army drab, announcing their irrevocable judgment that autumn will come.  Goldenrod still froths in ditches and on hillside, more cheerful, but the meaning is the same.

The carrot beds are at the top of the big garden.  That high up the flow from the creek hose is only a trickle; if you lift the hose a foot the water stops completely.  With so little pressure it takes a long time to water the carrot beds, and we have not been as assiduous as we should be, we who have last year’s experience to tell us that carrots need to be watered often.  Yesterday we did what we have known for two weeks we should do.  We took a hose from the collection of damaged garden hoses hanging on the board fence along the drive, closed on end with a fixture, and hooked it up to the creek hose.  Laying it out along the top of the garden, we began drilling holes with a one-sixteenth inch bit and a cordless drill starting at the very end of the hose and working our way back.  At first we spaced the holes about a foot apart; when we reached a point forty feet back, we started over and drilled again, between the first holes.  Crude but effective, it makes a drip hose when laid out along the highest beds, and a sprinkler hose lower in the garden.  We shift it every few hours and finally the carrots are getting properly watered.  We hope they will respond with better germination.

Why didn’t we do this two weeks ago?

Two young pigs are on pasture at the top of West hill, enclosed with sixty feet of polynetting and watered by a hose from the spring a hundred yards further back in the woods, a hose ending in a pig nipple welded to an iron stake.  There was some doubt in the beginning whether these particular pigs were going to settle in well.  They began their lives as confinement pigs and their terror at finding themselves enclosed not by bars and a floor of rubber-coated expanded steel, but by the wooden walls of our infirmary pen on a wood floor strewn with hay, caused some of us to wonder they would be able to make the transition to woodland foragers.  Happily, they have adjusted themselves nicely, turning over a bed of soft forest mould under the side of a fallen tree and snipping leaves from the young sassafrass.  We hope they will thrive.

We have said before that trying to build a farm and learn to farm at the same time, and with no instructor, is like trying to build, without benefit of blueprint, a Boeing 747, at the same time one is taking it on one’s first transatlantic flight – solo.  Now we think a better analogy would be trying to do the above while manufacturing the parts.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday, September 11:

Some days are just like that; they roll over you like a fog, leaving you with the conviction that nothing good will ever happen, could ever happen, again.  Why is that?

Farming means there are a great many things over which you have little control.  When you drive a car, or operate a computer, or bake a cake, for the most part things go where you send them, stay where you put them, time out the way you expect them to.  Not so the farming.  A dozen, twenty, balls in the air.  Feet set on a tight rope which sways this way and that.  The particular is always before you, in all its vagaries, and without the years of experience which would teach you that for all the fluctuation of the small things the big picture is more or less stable, you react with every change, flinch at every air pocket on the route.

Some days you end up air sick.

Only the love you have of the act itself; only that you cannot tear your eyes from the clump of gentians pushing sideways from under a damp rock, that the plodding down the hill with a bucket in one hand, eyes counting the boards in the fence that still need to be mended, still after a year, two years, fulfills some need we have for continuity, stability, connection; only these and things like these tie you firmly to the thing you are afraid of and cannot do without.

Most days are better, though.  There are red apples in the top of the barnyard tree, and if someone climbs up there and shakes the branches the apples will come raining down and send the chickens squawking, Bridget, the sorrel mini, running to steal what she can before the children fill their buckets.

Read Full Post »

Monday, September 10:

This is to answer the question, “What do you feed the homestead pig?”

Corn stalks.  There is a big stack of these in a spare stall, and we throw in six or seven every day or two.  They must be getting eaten, because anyone who has cleaned a stall where they were not getting eaten knows just how miserable and tangled the bedding gets, and the bedding in the pig pen is loose and duffy, with only a few fragments of cornstalk in it.

Windfall apples.  Our farm has five apple trees within forty yards of the pig sty.  Piglets who run from a human being at the fence will poke their noses through the gaps in the wire when offered a slice of apple taken off with someone’s Uncle Henry.  In the season there is always a bucket or two of windfall apples beside the pig pen, and passers-by hand-feed them to the babies, or tip a dozen over the fence if in a hurry.  Apples are good pig food, at least so say the pigs.

Swill, slops, garbage, whatever name you give it, waste food from cooking and the table is good pig calories.  We boil it in a big kettle to increase its appeal – pigs and chickens prefer cooked scraps to a jumble of vegetable waste and leftovers – and the pigs eat it enthusiastically.

Skim milk, buttermilk, whey – dairy waste of all kinds.  Particularly good is to keep a bucket of skim milk by the wood furnace where it will clabber overnight into a thick yogurt full of beneficial lactobacilli and nourishment.

Bakery waste.  Some kind soul in the city brings bags of waste from a gourmet bakery and gives them to the sisters at the monastery; what cannot be utilized there often ends up at our farm, where the pigs love it soaked in milk or warm water.  Chickens love it too.

Cooking water.  When we steam or boil anything – except pork – the water is saved and added to the swill bucket at the foot of the basement stairs.  Pasta water is starchy and full of calories, but the water from boiling corn or steaming green beans is not to be despised, being full of flavor as well as – so nutritionists who want us to eat our vegs raw will tell us – all the vitamins leached from the vegetables.

Hay.  Yes, hay.  Pigs like grass and will eat a good deal of the waste hay from the cows’ manger.

Weeds pulled from the pasture in a spare moment.  Wheelbarrow loads of weeds and vines and half-spoiled vegs from the garden.

That’s all that comes to mind at the moment, but it gives you the idea.

Read Full Post »

Wednesday, September 5:

The young cabbages are set out and watered with the hose off the creek.  Constantly running water – free, and not drawn off the aquifer – is a blessing we feel every day.  Eight dozen cabbages and seven hundred row-feet of carrots, mostly Napolis, need lots of water, every day even, water we could not give them from the house well even if we wanted to burn electricity to do it.  We are properly grateful.   In October we will cover the winter vegetables with low hoops and row cover; in November, or December if the cold holds off, we will cover them again with high hoops of welded wire and six-mil poly twenty feet wide, making a high tunnel about five and a half feet tall and almost ten feet wide.

That’s a big tunnel, much bigger than last year’s, and we hope it works.  In a high wind it could be a disaster.

The big pile of waste wood at the foot of the hill, in the curve of North creek we call “the bonfire pit”, has been reduced to a thin layer of cinders edged by a few half-burned lengths of two-by-four.  It went up in flames thirty feet high, lighting the whole valley with tongues that tore loose from the parent fire and expired in showers of sparks.  The alchemists of the Middle Ages who classified all matter as either Earth, Air, Water, or Fire, can’t have been too far wrong;  at the Sow’s Ear fire is employed almost as often as the other three, multiple times a day.  In the kitchen, of course; and under the fifteen-gallon brass kettle out back where we cook swill for the pigs and chickens.  In the oil lanterns we carry down to light the way when we close up the ducks and chickens, and in candle lanterns on the porch for prayers.  In the grill to sear the good red meat that, with potatoes and fresh vegetables, refuels us after a day of hard work.  In the rock oven by the creek for hot dogs and marshmallows; and, as last night, for joy, and to clear the farm of those things, comparatively few, which cannot be recycled and for which we can no longer find a good use.

Read Full Post »

Saturday, September 8:

The six young pigs in the big barn love milk and whey better than anything.  When we pour the bucket into their trough they get right down to it, urgency making them silent, or as silent as six pigs eating can ever be.  The bucket of windfall apples beside the pen is getting low, and we climb the steep side of the pasture to collect more from the apple tree beside the high water hog.  It is a good year for apples, as the bushels in the woodshed still waiting to be processed will attest.  This time of year there can be no excuse for feeding grain to the pigs.  Everywhere on the farm is superabundance, more almost than these young animals can consume; the scrapings from the hog trough flung out in the barnyard – pumpkin rinds, corn cobs, — are scavenged by the hens who scratch and dustbathe there.

When we are doing this thing right there should be no waste at all.

Both cows are giving less milk this last week.  Both are on excellent pasture, although not the same one, they are in different stages of estrus, we can only venture various conflicting and unsupported theories for this reduction.  The weather cools and Baby gives an additional gallon; Isabel is still low.

Always, mysteries.

The rain last night got us out of bed, shutting windows where puddles were already spreading on sill and floor.  It woke the little girls, too; they materialized like small pale ghosts with worried eyes.  It seems that sometimes when they have thought all the chicks were safely collected from the sliding pens and shut up in the brooder for the night, one has been missed, hiding in some dark corner, there to be found in the morning, probably shaking from cold and nightmare.  Now, sprinkles of rain coming in through their screen have wakened them, and their first thoughts are for the small animals in their care; they have come to us not to pass on their worries, but to say they must go out and look into the chick situation.  In a moment they are both out in the pouring rain in nightgowns and slickers, poking a wet flashlight beam into the recesses of the sliding pen, then circling the house to see that no rain is getting in under the door of the brooder house.  Ten and seven, these two are.  No amount of talk could teach the virtues of faithfulness and mercy as those chicks have done with soft yellow down, bright black eyes, and helplessness.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »