Spring in Leseberg Holler

Spring has been good to us so I thought I’d share photo overload of the holler.

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I enjoy taking this photo every year to see the many changes!
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Nothing like fresh strawberries!  We made strawberry milkshakes and froze quite a bit for the year.
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I accidentally left the bike out (a habit from childhood you never lose, apparently!) and it didn’t take long for the blackberry and honeysuckle to find it!
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Speaking of blackberries, we’re patiently waiting for summer picking!
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I keep the lemon balm in a pot in the garden because it’s like a weed and will take over if I let it!  Haven loves to garnish her sweet tea with it (and feed it to our goats).
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Speaking of goats, they are still inseparable!
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The tomatoes are coming along nicely.  I’m dreaming of the day we pick our first ripe tomato this year!
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We decided to try our pepper plants in burlap this year.
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And we found a type of corn that is supposed to grow well in buckets so we’re giving that a try, too.  (I can’t believe how much it has grown since this picture was taken!)
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Haven can easily hide in the vine tomato plants now.
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Rhonda and me, just living the dream.
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The hens have been laying so well, we can’t sell or eat them all quick enough!  I like to scramble up extras once in a while and feed them back to the gals.  
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They love it (as well as the crushed eggshells added to their food).
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Speaking of extra eggs, I like to hard boil them in the oven!  I find it’s easier than boiling on the stove top.

For these jumbo size eggs from our Rhode Island Reds (Roxy and Rita), I preheat my oven to 325.  I wash and dry the eggs then place them in a muffin tin and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes and then place them in a bowl of ice water for 10 minutes to stop the cooking process.
I like to eat one or two for breakfast sometimes, or add them to salads and other dishes so I cook several at a time.  I leave the shells on and they’ll keep in the refrigerator for a week.

If you give it a try, be sure to adjust your time based on your egg size so you don’t over or undercook.

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{Easter DIY} Succulents in eggshells

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Eggshells are multi-purpose around our house.  We use them in our garden, compost, and even crush them up and put them back into the chicken’s food for the nutrients they provide.

Around Easter, I plant hens & chicks (a type of succulent) in some of them as a table centerpiece.

My grandmother gave a pot of hens & chicks to my dad for his birthday many years ago and they thrived and multiplied at the beginning of each spring, spreading out and over the pot they were planted in. We started them in new pots and shared them with family and friends.

A few years ago we planted several in an old birdbath outside our kitchen window that would no longer hold water due to a crack.

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The great thing about most succulents is that they are low maintenance and virtually impossible to kill.  These hens & chicks can be pulled up and transplanted almost anywhere, put outdoors in shade or full sun, or indoors with bare minimum window light and they still thrive.  Our outdoor succulents are watered only when it rains and our indoor hens & chicks are watered maybe once a month.  I love low maintenance plants!

I started by filling my eggshells with dirt from a rotted tree stump on our property.  Potting soil or compost will work just fine too!  I pulled up the “baby” hens & chicks sprouting off the larger ones in the bird bath and cleaned off the clumps of dirt to expose the roots and placed them in individual eggshells.  For the larger eggshells, I planted 2-3.

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I watered them generously and then brought them indoors for my table centerpiece.

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I added a sprig of rosemary and some feathers for fun.  Nothing fancy, just things from the yard.

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If you want to take some extra time, you can always dye your eggshells to give it more of an Easter vibe.  If you don’t have succulents on hand already, visit your local greenhouse (or home improvement store) and see what they offer.  If you’re around Columbia County Georgia, I cannot say enough amazing things about Sanderlin Greenhouses.  The have a beautiful selection of plants and my favorite part is the vintage Radio Flyer wagons that act as your shopping cart!

 

Chicken Processing

*Note:  The end of this post contains photos of butchering a chicken.  Please do not read past the disclaimer if you’re opposed or sensitive to the images.*

We’ve been preparing for this since our meat flock arrived at the beginning of October.

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27 chicks arrived safely and over the course of 20 weeks, we lost 2 roosters to a hawk in December and around that time we realized that, surprise!, the hatchery sent us a hen in the mix.  We were left with 24 roosters to process.

Our adorable fluff balls grew rapidly and by the time they were moved from their brooder to the great outdoors at 7 weeks old, they were feathered pecking machines.

While the plan had been to raise them free range, a hawk quickly changed that after making a meal of two roosters.  A fence went up around their coop to keep them safe from predators (and a plan is forming for a chicken tractor next year).

At the end of our first year of chicken processing, we have spent a grand total of $455.95.

$157.29 was spent on construction and supplies for the brooder and the coop, meaning it’s a one-time expense.  This total included hinges, lumber, metal roofing, pine shavings, brooder lamps and bulbs, chick feeders and waterers for brooder, food pans and gallon waterers for the coop.

The remaining $298.66 was the cost of the chicks and shipping, along with 16 bags of chicken feed.

We  chose the heritage breed chicken Black Australorp, which are usually processed for meat between 16 and 20 weeks.  We decided to process 5 chickens per week beginning at 16 weeks so that we could see if there’s a significant weight gain in that time period.  This will tell us whether to process early or later in the future, which could potentially save us money in feed cost if there isn’t a large weight gain between 16-20 weeks.

Based on our chicken and feed costs of $298.66 and our birds weighing an average of 4 pounds each, our price per pound for 2017 is $2.99.

While many companies selling chickens use the term “organic”, it is almost impossible to know what they actually mean since it is used so loosely.  Even seeing the term “free-range” simply means they have access to a small door to the outside but doesn’t tell you if it’s a slab of concrete outdoors or an open pasture to roam (not likely).
I’m tired of the guess work.  
The chickens we raised were given a large outdoor space in the woods, free of human interference besides refilling their water source and giving out additional feed (and lucky them:  our leftovers!).  They were raised free of antibiotics, hormones, or steroids.  When processing their meat, we’re adding zero artificial ingredients or preservatives.

I see “organic chicken” sells in stores in a wide price range, the cheapest I’ve found being $4.99 per pound and upwards of $10 per pound for boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
I’d say that by taking the guess work out of how the chicken I consume was raised by doing it ourselves, our price of $2.99 per pound is a bargain!

I understand many people don’t have the time, ability, or stomach to process chickens themselves.  I understand many people may not care about the conditions these chickens live in before becoming a meal.
This was a personal decision my family made to take control of our food which we believe also means taking responsibility for our health.  As meat eating animal lovers, it means treating all of our animals with respect and great care, right up until the very end.

I read something recently (and I wish I remembered who to attribute the quote to) that will stick with me:  “Every day something dies so that you can live.”

I hadn’t thought of the sharp truth of this before.  Each day, trees are cut down for paper and warmth, animals are butchered, vegetables are consumed, minerals are excavated… the list goes on.  We live in a time when we don’t think of these things because we have removed the majority of the overall population from the equation.  Only a couple of generations ago, people grew their own meat and vegetables instead of driving to a grocery store.  Your supper was hard work and had a face (possibly a name, too?)  behind it.  If a crop didn’t do well one year, you had to go without.  If predators took hold of your livestock, you went without whatever that animal provided, as well as their meat.

So while it is inconvenient in this day and age to consider how animals and vegetables are raised (I’m talking about pesticides, genetic modification, antibiotics, steroids, etc.) before it’s on our plate, it wasn’t so long ago we knew how to raise our own food in order to survive.

At the end of our 2017 processing, here are the final stats:

27 chickens: 1 surprise hen, 2 roosters lost to hawk

16 bags of chicken feed

800 lbs of chicken feed consumed by 27 chickens over 20 weeks

24 chickens processed for the freezer

Each chicken averaged 4 pounds

Based on the cost of the chickens themselves and their feed, our meat cost us $2.99 per pound, compared to the average grocery store cost of $7.99 per pound.

Since there wasn’t a significant increase in weight between 16 and 20 weeks, we will be processing future flocks at 16 weeks, which will cut our feed costs by around $80, if we continue to use the same feed.  This means we have the potential to cut our price per pound to $2.50

We’re researching making our own chicken feed in the future (cost effective by purchasing ingredients in bulk, which is perfect for a large meat flock) and also building a chicken tractor.  We have a few ideas for making feed and water distribution easier.

In addition to the meat in our freezer, we are using the chicken carcasses, necks, and feet in our own chicken stock canned for the pantry.  The gizzards are kept to eat (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!) and sell, the feathers become compost, the hearts and livers are fed back to the remaining chickens, and the intestines and heads are left in the woods for the nocturnal animals to take care of.

I have put together a basic step-by-step with pictures of how to process a chicken.  If you’re morally opposed or sensitive to images of butchering an animal, please don’t scroll further.  For those interested in the process, take a look and let me know if you have questions.  If you’re interested in more processing details, I’m happy to discuss!

We begin each butchering day by saying a prayer and thanking the birds for providing us with food.

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Our killing cone is a traffic cone attached to a board and cut to accommodate a chicken’s body.  In the background is a double sink on a wheeled cart made of scrap wood.
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We have a burner on to keep our stock pot of water between 145 and 150 degrees.
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My husband made our chicken plucker by attaching rubber plucker fingers to a PVC cap on a drill.  A zip tie holds down the power so the drill is hands-free while plucking.
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18 weeks old.  The bird is carried upside down by the feet to the killing cone.
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The bird is placed in the kill cone; neck down, feet out.  An incision is made across the neck.  The bird is instantly unconscious and the organs will shut down as the bird bleeds out over 2-3 minutes. (Photo taken before the cut)
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Next, the bird is placed into the stock pot of water between 145 and no more than 150 degrees for 45-60 seconds.  This loosens the feather for plucking.
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The drill is plugged in and the rubber plucker fingers rotate to pull the feathers quickly from the skin.  The barrel is set up behind to catch the feathers.
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After the plucker, we place the bird in the sink to rinse it and remove stubborn feathers by hand.  The wing feathers are always the most stubborn.
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The feet are removed next.  By bending the leg you will find the joint the blade quickly separates.
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It’s beginning to look like what you see at your grocery store.
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Next we remove the head.  We make a thin incision then twist and pull.
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Once head is removed, we find the crop (also known as the craw) in the neck.
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We make a small incision in the skin above the crop.  The crop is attached to the esophagus and one breast, so you will feel the large sac at the base of the neck and above the breast plate.
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We pull the crop through the incision we made and pull it away from the skin and the breast.
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Next, we flip the bird around and slice off the gland located above the tail.  This is the oil gland, which oiled the birds feathers.
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Flipping the bird on its back, another small incision is made over the pelvis.
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We use our hands to stretch the incision and open the body cavity for organ removal.
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Inserting your hand is the easiest method for removing the organs in one scoop.
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One large scoop should remove all the compact organs at once, including pulling the crop we started with at the neck down through the cavity and out.  Take a look inside the cavity to make sure it is completely cleaned out.  Sometimes the lungs are stubborn and have to scraped out.
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This is just a quick photo I snapped of a few of the organs.  The gizzard is a muscle that is essentially the stomach, but it doesn’t contain bile/acids.  Chickens eat small stones/pebbles which filter to the gizzard that then contracts and grinds down the food before it passes through the intestines.  People cut open the gizzards, remove the stones and muscle lining,  and then fry them up and eat them.  Sounds tasty, right?
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The final step is to begin an incision between the pelvic bones and cut around the anus  to remove the final piece of intestines.  This removes it without opening up the contents of the intestines (which would ruin the meat).
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The body cavity has been completely cleaned.
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This bird is ready for the cooler!  We keep the meat “resting” on ice for 2 days before we quarter it up to cook immediately or freeze for later.

Happening in Leseberg Holler (with a Meat Flock Update)

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Fall has always been my favorite time of year here.  I think the picture above of my walk to the chicken coop explains why!

We’re busy flipping through seed catalogs and preparing to start some of our plants indoors from seeds we saved from the summer garden, raking leaves for the compost pile, and loving on our new baby goats!

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The only raking we do around here is for the compost pile or to keep the chickens busy scratching around during the winter.  I almost lost Haven while taking a wheel barrow full to compost; luckily I spotted her leg kicking up out of the pile.

Hazel and Eloise were born November 21 and they came to our home, along with their mama Choca, on November 23.

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Haven and Eloise.
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Haven and Hazel.
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They are an adorable handful!
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This is mama Choca, nursing her babies.  She’s clearly not amused at my photo taking but she was thrilled with the collards I fed her afterward.  She’ll hang around until Hazel and Eloise are finished nursing and then she’ll go back to her home!

 

Our meat flock is now 11 weeks old!  If you’d like to read about how we prepared for and why we started a meat flock, read my first post here.

We moved the flock from the brooder to their coop on November 19 when they were 7 weeks old.

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The chicken coop
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Free ranging

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Unfortunately, a hawk found our flock on December 11 and we lost our first rooster.  The following day, the hawk came back for lunch and we lost a second rooster.
The evening of December 12, Joe and I created a fence around the coop with a cover until we’re able to trap and relocate the hawk (it’s illegal to harm a hawk so we are trying to do the right thing while keeping our chickens safe).  Unfortunately free ranging is over for now until that’s taken care of.

The chickens are weighing in at 3 1/2 pounds at 11 weeks old; they have been gaining around a half pound each week.

So far we have spent $132 on feed (we’ve purchased 450 lbs in bulk) and they have gone through 300 pounds of that food in just 11 weeks!

Another $145 was spent on brooder and coop supplies (these are one time only costs so this will not be a part of next year’s flock expenses thankfully!)

I’m keeping track of every penny spent on the flock so that I can share the grand total with you in February when processing begins and calculate exactly how much each bird cost us compared with grocery store chicken prices.

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Dried Hydrangea Fall Wreath | DIY

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When I was a kid, my dad stuck some brittle hydrangea stalk cuttings into the dirt here and 20 years later, we still have a thriving “snowball bush” (that’s what we call it here in the South).  The acidic pH levels in our soil keep our snowballs a beautiful blue color that fades to purple before drying.

(You can change the color of your hydrangea by adding or subtracting lime/aluminum to your soil; read all about that here.)

After a long and dry summer, the snowballs have begun to dry and I usually clip a few to put in a vase over the fall/winter months, but this year I decided to try a wreath.

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This is suuuuper simple, y’all.  Like, no-instructions-truly-necessary simple.

I purchased a grapevine wreath and floral wire at my local Dollar Tree and cut some dried/drying hydrangeas from the plant.

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I left a long stalk on the hydrangea so there was wiggle room for wrapping and securing it to the wreath.

I placed hydrangea around the wreath to create a full appearance and secured each piece with the floral wire.

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That’s it.  Seriously!
After you spend some time cleaning up the loose dried petals that fall off and give the wreath a nice “fluff” to make sure it’s full and secured, it’s ready to hang.

For two bucks and some change, I made this fall wreath!

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I found this cute shutter at an antique shop recently and I thought it’d be the perfect place to hang my wreath.  Now I have to figure out where to place this in the house.

Happy Fall, y’all!

Clyde’s Fresh Produce | Grovetown, GA

Clyde’s Fresh Produce opened up their farm in Grovetown to the community last Sunday.  It was a beautiful afternoon for grilling, chatting, and hay rides!  We always enjoy the chance to talk with this sweet family and wander their 15 acres, seeing where all the amazing food we purchase comes from!  The squash had been freshly harvested, green peppers, eggplants, and okra were still growing (and I have to admit with a hint of embarrassment I had no idea it grows on tall flowering stalks!), and they had a lovely fall/winter vegetable patch.
We left with our bellies full and our arms fuller:  butternut squash, jalapeños, a jar of honey, and another 10 lbs of potatoes for the winter.

We appreciate all that they do for our community and for welcoming us to their home and feeding us throughout the year!

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If you live in the Grovetown area, please check out Clyde’s Fresh Produce!  During the summer they have a tent out on Lewiston Road to stop and purchase produce and you can find them downtown at The Augusta Market on Saturdays through the summer and fall.

Venison Roast

October was a busy month around here!
Our chicks are now 4 weeks old and weighing in at a pound.  Our goat kid Darla has finished nursing so her mama NeNe will be returning to her home and soon a new kid and mama will be here so Darla will have a buddy!  Our silkies Johnny and June have matured and June laid her first (and so far only) egg in October.
We’re still picking tomatoes and had our first harvest of collard greens, the carrots are growing nicely — and Joe got his first deer!

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I’m glad he let me take this photo.  Everyone has to have a photo with their first deer in the South.

He did a great job skinning and cleaning this doe by himself.  I was just his cheerleader!
After a few days of rest in the cooler, the meat was ready to be prepared.  We had been told not to freeze the tenderloins so I cooked them roast style in the slow cooker that day before freezing the remainder of the deer after dinner.

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I’ve cooked deer burgers before but never tenderloins so I was concerned about the meat toughening but it was the perfect texture and was neither chewy or falling apart.

Venison Roast

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup BBQ sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1.5 lbs venison (I used the tenderloin but any cut will work here!)
  • 4-6 red potatoes, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • Optional: vegetables or rice as side dish

Directions:

  1. Mix BBQ sauce, honey, flour, soy sauce and brown sugar in your slow cooker.
  2. Place venison in the sauce and give it a good stir to coat.
  3. Add your potatoes and lightly salt.
  4. Pour red wine vinegar over the potatoes.
  5. Cook on low for 6 hours.  Check tenderness as needed; it’s all in what you prefer!
  6. Serve the sauce over venison and potatoes with a side of rice or vegetables.

 

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After dinner we processed our deer after 3 days cooler rest.

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We’re lucky enough to have friends who let us borrow their commercial grinder.

We ended up grinding about 16 lbs of meat into burger (using 3 lbs of beef fat we purchased from Tink’s earlier in the year in preparation for deer season) so we have almost 20 lbs of deer burger in the freezer.

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We ran the meat through twice to get our preferred consistency.  This took about 15 minutes start to finish.

 

20 lbs of ground venison, a few pounds venison stew meat, a couple steaks and two nice roasts is a great beginning to deer season around here!

Raising a Meat Flock

I always thought homesteading was for people with a huge acreage that milked their own cows and drove tractors.  Now I see that it’s anyone who is doing anything in and around their home to take control over or responsibility for a part of their lives and the mark they’re leaving.

Joe and I always start out kicking around an idea for a while, months usually.  Then we’ll begin to plan how we’d hypothetically make something happen; the cost, the benefits, the downfalls, what could go wrong, etc.

We’ve been raising hens for a couple of years for eggs.  We’ve named them and we consider them to be entertaining pets.  We take care of them and tend to spoil them and we enjoy the steady supply of fresh eggs they provide.

When we made the decision last year to begin eating food – real food raised/grown as close to home as possible – that included meat.  We began researching farms that process and distribute their meat close to home.  Thanks to Augusta Locally Grown we discovered we have a thriving food movement with an overwhelming amount of choices.

I’ve mentioned previously that we made our first bulk beef purchase from Tink’s Grass-Fed Beef at the beginning of the year when we purchased a quarter cow and we now also purchase our bacon from them as well.  Spirit Creek Farms has the most amazing pork chops I’ve ever tasted, I’ve pan fried those things and they do not dry out and toughen up!

After the massive recalls in the last year alone on both meat and vegetables, we were extremely thankful for the decision we made.  It felt good to take responsibility for our food, knowing exactly where it came from and that it isn’t riddled with hormones and antibiotics.  I was tired of being bombarded with all the big company packaging in the grocery store with mis-leading labels like “free-range”  or “naturally raised”.  Eating locally means we’re putting money in the pockets of neighbors and keeping it within our community while also supporting the vision of people with a passion for food and caring for animals.

Since we started keeping backyard chickens, our minds eventually wandered to the idea of raising chickens for meat.  We have the room to do so, the cost to raise them is relatively low, and we’d know without a shadow of doubt that they are healthy, free from any hormones and antibiotics, and truly free-range and humanely treated.

There will be some people who ask:  “If you’re going to slaughter an animal,  do you actually care about how they’re treated?”
I’m a meat eater but I’m also an animal lover.  I care for animals and I also respect them for what they provide to us.

Many people look at those who raise animals for meat as cruel or heartless.  So far I’ve found this to be the extreme opposite.  The people I’ve personally met who are raising cattle, hogs, and chickens take great pride in their animals.  They keep them healthy, raise them outdoors (That should be a given, but it’s something unheard of in big company factories that pack animals shoulder to shoulder to grow as fast as possible so they can get them in the freezer of a grocery store near you), and these animals are eating naturally (meaning, what they eat when people aren’t interfering).  These folks appreciate and respect the fact that their animals provide both food and income for them and so they treat the animals with great care.

Let’s also not forget the fact that in the not so distant past, there were no big factories processing and packaging your meat and no big chain grocery stores for you to buy the meat from.  If you wanted meat, you raised it yourself or purchased it from someone in your town.  If you didn’t raise it or buy it from your neighbor, you didn’t eat it.  Period.

It’s safe to say that our country is now far removed from our food sources.  When we buy food at the grocery store, they list a “Country of Origin”.  If it came from the USA, we don’t even know what state it came from.

It’s a personal choice whether or not you care about where your food comes from.  Until about two years ago I never questioned where mine comes from, I just knew I could pick up anything I needed at the grocery store.  Now that I think about buying food that traveled half way around the world, I ask myself why?  If we have people in our own town raising these animals and growing these vegetables, why am I buying it at a store that bought it from another country?  It doesn’t make sense to me personally.  I still go grocery shopping for things like sugar and rice and I don’t want this post to make anyone think I’m “one of those people” who look down on others that don’t bother to buy local food.  Like I said, it’s a personal choice.  (And I still buy Doritos, so really there is absolutely zero judgment!)

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Preparing the brooder for the chicks arrival.  The brooder was built from scrap wood and mesh wire.  The only new costs we incurred were for the door hinges.  Additionally we purchased pine shavings and two lights and a chain to allow for light adjustment.

After months of discussion, Joe and I decided we were ready to take on the responsibility of raising and ultimately slaughtering a meat flock.  This makes people uncomfortable.  I’ve had strange looks and the “…Oh.” response several times.

What I’m hoping to do here is document our journey from beginning to end so that people get an understanding of the process.  It’s more than just killing chickens for food.  I want meat eaters to understand that the frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts they thaw out for dinner or the fried chicken they buy from a restaurant all started out as a live animal; a precious fuzzy baby chick, in fact.
I don’t want to convert a vegetarian to “the dark side”, but I’d like them to respect my decision as I respect theirs and see the care and appreciation I give to these animals even if they don’t agree with what I’m raising them for.

The meat we eat starts out as a live animal.  I’m raising adorable peeping baby chicks that will turn in to full grown roosters by spring and they will be slaughtered and put in my deep freezer to feed me and my family, the same as the chicken purchased in a grocery store.  The difference is I have to care for and raise these animals, beginning to end.

Our goal is to raise 25 Black Australorp roosters with as little interference as possible besides offering protection from predators.  They will be free range with additional chicken food provided in feeders and of course a fresh supply of clean water.

Along the way I’m keeping track of every penny we spend on brooder supplies and chicken feed.  I’ll post a complete cost breakdown in the spring of exactly what it costs to raise a chicken and compare based on the average price paid per pound in the grocery store.

 

Here’s the beginning of our journey:

We purchased 25 Black Australorp chicks (all roosters) from Murray McMurray Hatchery.  You’re given a hatch date and can expect your chicks to arrive two days later at your local post office.  The post office will give you a call to let you know when they’ve arrived.

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Right before they hatch, chicks will absorb the last of the egg yolk (their food during incubation), which gives them enough nutrition for their two day journey through the mail.  The minimum order for chicks is 25 so that the body heat they create will keep them warm enough during travel.

Murray McMurrary provided two extra chicks for us (because unfortunately it’s not uncommon to lose a chick early on due to natural circumstances) but all our chicks arrived safe, sound, and fluffy!

When we arrived at the post office early Wednesday morning, we could hear the peeping from the back room.  “They’ve been singing to us!” the lady at the counter told us.  Haven and I were quite popular walking out with our box.  A couple employees came out “to meet the folks with the baby chicks” and people checking their PO boxes that morning stopped to tell us about their own chickens.

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Haven (with her trademark bedhead) was amazed by the “singing box”.
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She was so ready to peek in the box!
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Meeting the chicks.
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I couldn’t believe I was looking at 27 chicks in that tiny box.  

When the chicks arrive, you have to help them understand where their food and water is.  You do this by dipping their beak in both the water and food.  I did this for each chick and they immediately took to it because by the time I emptied the shipping box they were milling around eating and drinking all by themselves.

Because the babies are covered in fuzz and don’t have feathers to keep them warm yet, it’s important to keep a consistent warm temperature in their brooder.  The rule of thumb is this:

Brooder Temperature by Week

  • Week 1:   95°
  • Week 2:  90°
  • Week 3:  85°
  • Week 4:  80°
  • Week 5:  75°
  • Week 6:  70°

October in the South is chilly but not enough to bring the brooder indoors.  We keep one heat lamp (100 watt) on during the day and two (100 watt and 60 watt) at night.  This is keeping the brooder temperature at a steady 95 degrees at the moment.  The lights are positioned on one end of the brooder so that the chicks have space to fan out and find a comfortable heat level for themselves closer to or further from the lamps.

 

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They arrived on Wednesday and by Friday evening we saw they were already sprouting their little wing tip feathers!
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Black Australorp chick at 3 days old.

Right now my biggest concern is getting attached to these adorable babies and how I’m going to explain things to my 3 year old.  Like most parenting issues, it seems I honestly won’t know until I get there.

If you have any questions for me about the process so far or things you’d like me to discuss in the future, please leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to answer as best as I can!

Harvest Time

It has been a busy season around here.  We’re freezing batches of green beans as fast as we can pick them (we have over nine pounds in the freezer as of last night), every meal includes zucchini — even dessert (in case you’ve never tried it:  zucchini bread tastes just like banana bread), lunch is usually a ripe tomato and mayo sandwich, and we’re busy sterilizing mason jars regularly to fill with spaghetti and marinara sauces.

What we haven’t grown ourselves this year, we are buying locally.  Clyde’s Fresh Produce in Grovetown has us stocked up on sweet non-GMO corn for plenty of soups/chowder this winter.
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I’ve frozen the last batch of the amazing sweet peaches great uncle Fred had left over from the family reunion to make a few cobblers or maybe to grill and drizzle in honey this winter when it feels like the season will never end.

Bernice’s Blueberry Patch in Thomson had a $1/lb picking day so Haven and I ventured out in the triple digit heat to fill up a bucket and came home with five pounds of delicious blueberries.

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We’re busy making a list of the remaining produce we need to purchase locally to get us through the winter, including potatoes and onions (my favorite fall/winter ingredients).  We’re  only half way through our summer growing season but we’re already planning our fall garden, which will involve some guessing since the time between too hot and too cold is kind of non-existent in our little corner of the world.

In the height of bean picking and tomato slicing, we welcomed some new additions to our home!

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We now have two Silkie chicks that we’re guessing (it’s still early) are male and female.  If that’s the case, these chicks will be called Johnny and June.

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Haven has been amazing with these babies.  I’m surprised by how gentle she is, considering she still loves our dog Riley so much she puts her in a sleeper hold for a hug.

And last but certainly not least is our sweet kid Darla.  Or, “Baby Darla” as Haven likes to correct me.  Her mama NeNe is also staying with us so Darla can continue to nurse.

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We’ve grown tomatoes for several years but this year is the first that I’ve studied up on them.  I wanted to learn what causes and may prevent blossom end rot, why some plants seem to abruptly stop producing in the middle of summer, and the differences between hybrid and heirloom tomatoes.

This year we purchased four varieties of heirloom tomato seeds from www.seedsavers.org.  Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Silvery Fir, and Roma.

Roma are probably the most well known and widely used.  They grow beautifully through the sweltering heat of summer and are perfect for canning because they are firm and thicken well into sauces and paste.
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I read about Silvery Fir tomatoes in the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.  She mentioned they were early and prolific producers and I bookmarked the page on a cold day in December to remember to search the seed catalogs that were beginning to show up in the mailbox.
The Brandywine and Mortgage Lifters varieties were researched on Seed Savers Exchange and we decided they were worth a try.

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The fun in growing your own food is that you have a choice in what exactly will end up on your plate.

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Here’s some information I’ve gathered that I’d like to share with you if you’re interested in growing your own tomatoes:

  • Heirloom vs. Hybrid:
    Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been grown for at least 3 generations.  They are produced through natural open pollination (i.e. bees pollinate the flowers).  The plants grown from heirloom seed will be consistent with the parent plant and bear identical fruit.  While these tomatoes are usually misshapen with unusual colors, the flavor is thought to be superior to hybrid varieties.
    Hybrid seeds are produced by artificially cross pollinating related plants to improve on the characteristics of the plants.  Hybrids are easily found in home and garden centers ready to plant, and since they are “bred” for improvement, they are usually disease resistant and yield more fruit than heirlooms.  Seeds cannot be saved and replanted in the future because they will not produce “true to type” plants.

 

  • There are two types of tomato plants:  determinate and indeterminate.
    Determinate plants are vines that grow up to 8 feet tall and typically produce up to the first frost.
    Indeterminate plants are bushy and won’t grow much taller than 3 feet, producing all fruits at the same time.  These are great for small yards or grown in containers on patios.

 

  • Most tomato plants will not set fruit when temperatures are above 90 degrees.  
    If you’ve noticed your plants aren’t flowering as they were at beginning of the season or if the tomatoes on your plants aren’t ripening, it’s probably the temperature to blame!  Once they reached mature size (based on variety), you can pick them and let them ripen on a sunny window sill.
    If you have no flowers or tomatoes on your plants, be patient!  Keep watering and wait for the temperatures to drop.  Dry spells will stress out the plants and discourage further flowering.

 

  • Tomato plants want at least 10 hour of direct sunlight each day.

 

  • The black lesions you sometimes find on the bottom of tomatoes is known as blossom end rot.  Low calcium levels in your soil can be responsible for this.
    When we transplant our seedlings into the garden, we dig a deep hole so about half the plant will be buried and add compost and egg shells (thanks for that extra calcium boost, backyard chickens!)
    Consistent watering is also thought to prevent blossom end rot.  We water each morning before the sun is fully up.  Overwatering will dilute the flavor of your tomatoes and can cause cracks in the fruit.

 

  • Speaking of watering:  try not to spray the leaves of your plant.  Water the soil at the base so the roots are drinking in that water and you won’t blister your ‘maters or discolor the leaves.

 

  • Compost is always helpful.  We add a handful around the base of each plant every month to promote production.

 

  • If you are growing your plants from seed rather than purchasing plants, start them indoors around 8 weeks before the last frost.  (You can check online to find the average first/last frost dates in your area)
    Plant your seedlings outdoors once temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees.

 

So while I’ve been dreaming up all the creative ways to preserve our tomato harvest (marinara and spaghetti sauces, stewed, salsa…), I thought about sun dried tomatoes.  They can be expensive in grocery stores and I just don’t have the patience to leave the slices in the hot sun for three days.  So I found the perfect short cut to “sun dried” tomatoes:  the food dehydrator!

My amazing mom-in-law gave this to us a couple years ago and I’m sad to say it has been stored away in the pantry for far too long.  Now that we’re growing so much of our own food, I’m sure it’ll have a place on the counter throughout the summer.  Or, you know, it’ll set out because I’m too lazy to wash the trays.

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I collected around a pound of Roma tomatoes and tossed in a couple of the “meatier” Brandywines for fun.

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Next, I washed them off in the sink and cut them in to 1/4″ to 1/2″ slices.  Romas are sized so that you could just slice them in half and put them in the dehydrator, but remember that the larger the slice, the longer it will take to dry.

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Love these gorgeous colors!

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Our dehydrator doesn’t have a temperature gauge or timer, so I was kind of winging it, which is how I live my life, man.  I’m just winging it.  (That was my spaced-out Janis Joplin voice there.)

I filled up the four trays included with the dehydrator, plugged it in, and checked back 8 hours later.

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Nice and shriveled!  I think with the thin slices I had, I could’ve gone just 7 hours. I’d say 10 hours is best for Romas sliced in half.  It will all depend on the food dehydrator you use so as a reference:  You want the tomatoes to be bendy but not snap in half.

I chose to pack mine without oil in a sterilized pint sized mason jar* and they should keep up to 9 months in the fridge!  I can choose what to add to mine depending on the dish I cook.  I see olive oil and chopped rosemary accompanying these sun dried tomatoes over a bed of tilapia or chicken in the future.

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*A pound of dried Roma tomatoes filled a pint size mason jar completely.

Thoughts on eating tomatoes:

-If you don’t like fried green tomatoes, you’re wrong.

-Pick each variety of tomato at different stages and give it a taste.  The flavor changes so much as the fruit matures.  You may like them under or over ripe but you’ll never know until you try!

Rain Barrels

There was a lady in a Facebook group over a year ago giving away two rain barrels that nobody had taken at her moving sale and I jumped all over it, thinking of all the rain water we’d collect and use to water our garden.

Fast forward almost two years later and we finally got around to cleaning them up and installing them.

 

This is a basic patented 55 gallon rain barrel.  These two caps come off so you can attach a down spout from your gutter to allow the rain water running off of your roof to collect in the barrel.

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We purchased two 90-degree PVC elbow pieces to direct the water from the gutter in to the barrel.  The elbow piece fits perfectly over the opening in the lid.

Since these barrels have been out in the weather unused for so long, we gave them a good cleaning with some Dawn dish soap.  It’s recommended you drain and clean your barrels once a year.  Our barrels are used for collecting rain water to water our garden only; we are not collecting for household use or for drinking water, there are many additional steps involved to cleaning, installing, and maintenance if you plan to drink the water.

We drilled three holes along the top of the barrels so that rain water will not settle on the lid and draw hundreds (literally!) of mosquitos.  Apparently whoever designed this wasn’t from the South!

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Next, we drilled a hole at the bottom of each barrel to connect our water tap.  This will allow us to easily attach a hose to water the garden or to fill watering cans.  You only get one shot at this so you want to drill the hole smaller than the tap and twist the tap into the hole, the threads will begin to catch and you’ll have a snug fit.

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We added an outdoor clear flexible sealant (100% waterproof and mildew resistant) around the tap once it was in place.  This prevents any leaks around the edges where we drilled.

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With some scrap pallet wood, we threw together stands for the barrels to set on.  This puts it at a comfortable level to place a watering can under the tap.

We placed pantyhose over the lid (where the elbow piece connects) to filter debris that comes through the gutter and also to prevent mosquitos from finding their way in to the water.  Mosquito netting will work just as well!

 

  • To calculate how much water you can collect from your roof, measure the square footage of the area under your roof and multiply by .623 for each inch of rain.
    For example: 1,000 covered square feet can yield 623 gallons with only one inch of rain!

 

  • You can make a rain barrel out of many household items, most commonly a trash can.  A quick Google search on DIY rain barrels will bring up a number of step by step guides explaining how to turn every day items into rain catchment systems.

 

  • If you live in a neighborhood with a HOA, I recommend checking to see if you’re allowed to collect rain water or if specific barrels are required.  There are states (mostly Western states) that do not allow the collection of rain water and can fine residents who do so.  

 

  • Rain water doesn’t contain the fluoride and other compounds that are added to residential water. The water collected from a roof picks up very little contamination, though the roofing material plays a part in how much contamination there is.  This is excellent for your garden!  There has been a noticeable difference in how our plants perk up when given rain water versus residential water.

 

  • 40% of your residential water use during summer months will be on your lawn/garden.  If you can collect an entire 55 gallons from just a half inch of rain, you’ll notice a difference in your water bill.