Consecration Acres

"If ye labor with all your might, I will consecrate that spot that it shall be made holy."

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Some are gradual and some are sudden. Fall arrived quickly—90+ temperatures one week and our first frost the next. We tarped the peppers and eggplants and row-covered one row of tomatoes and they weathered our first frost quite well. The uncovered tomatoes suffered some frost damage, but kept on growing. We had pulled out some of the uncovered tomato plants and hung them upside down in the bonus room when we saw that frost was approaching. They have continued to ripen, but, unfortunately the grape tomatoes fall off and roll down the stairs as soon as they turn red. There have been some casualties when people go up the stairs without looking down first… This week we will see lows in the 20s and there is no significant rise in sight, so we hung a bunch more tomato plants up in the bonus room and harvested all the remaining peppers (a five-gallon bucketful!), eggplants and frost-tender herbs. It is a mess up there now, but one that makes me happy.

We also started digging up the sweet potatoes. The frosts had started to kill the vines and I read that if they were left in place then they could spread rot to the sweet potatoes, so I went and yanked them all out. When I did so, I saw a lot of evidence of voles in the bed and so I started digging. I got about 1/3 of the way through the section of the bed that we have been digging from already and I have a heaping 5–gallon bucket. I expect that I will dig up another 2-3 bucketsful before I am done.

The carrots are early harvest size (we are perhaps a little impatient) and the radishes have been fun to look at and eat. We planted a watermelon variety with a pale green outer skin and pink or purply-red inside. They are mild enough to eat plain. We are also nibbling at the lettuces. The Ben Shemen variety is my favorite so far—mild and buttery. We also have one good-sized Pak Choi that survived from the first planting surrounded by a lot of babies from the second, a bunch of spinach, chard and beets on their way, peas in need of taller supports and green shoots from the garlic and onions filling their allocated bed.

In the barnyard, we butchered our first batch of chickens and need to get to the rest ASAP. And we will be boarding Penny and Margo in a stall next to our neighbor’s buck beginning early the week after this so that they can be bred. The roof is finally on the stall. We have gotten rain since then and, oh my, how wonderful and dry it is under there!

And so things plug along here. Oddly, we will not be here to see the completion of some of these cycles as my husband has accepted a job in Utah and we will be moving early next year. I have frequent moments of panic. We have worked so hard here and have been greatly enjoying both the fruits of our labors and the unearned blessings of a generous God in this place. I will submit to His will, whatever it may be, but I so hope that we will have land and the ability to do this again. I have so loved it.

And so, expect infrequent posting for a while—until we are settled again.


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Eggplant Explosion

The garden continues to awaken out of its heat-induced coma. I went out to the garden last Monday hoping to find 3 lbs of baby eggplants so that I could make makdous. Elijah told me that there might be that many, plus “a few” larger ones, so I grabbed a one-gallon bucket and headed out. I found that the Japanese eggplants were struggling—the plants were wilting and many of the eggplants were shriveling—but I still got about 2 lbs of small fruits that were sufficiently plump for my purposes as well as some larger ones that could be used in another dish. Next I turned my attention to the globe eggplants to try to find another lb of little ones. I quickly found what I needed and then started harvesting the full-grown ones. My bucket was full so I grabbed an old orchard-watering bucket (from the pre-drip era) and transferred the big ones into it. I picked and I picked and I picked and I picked and I picked and ended up hauling a little over 6 gallons (25 lbs!) of eggplants into the house. We love ratatouille and baba ghanoush and baingan bhartha and moussaka as well as thai curries with eggplant, but there is a certain point… So, I’ve frozen it, and pickled it this week and eaten meals with it, and I still have a bunch left. I think I just need to slice it up and dry it. I hear it’s a little stronger tasting, but still good when rehydrated and I certainly have enough that I can afford to experiment!

And I made my makdous. This one of those traditional foods that, if it ever became popular—say the McMakdous became all the latest rage—it would almost certainly become illegal because it’s just so….non-compliant with today’s food safety standards. Much like cheesemaking, buttermilk-making, yogurt-making, sauerkraut-making—you kind of stop and look at what you are doing and say, “if all that I think I know is true then this really ought to kill me”. But then you eat it and it doesn’t, and it’s delicious too. So I guess sometimes we just have to choose between the risks of homemade raw milk chevre and perfectly safe and sterile cheezwhiz in a can. Tough one. Anyhow, the makdous look right, smell right (except for a couple that smelled moldy that I threw at the chickens) and they are now sitting in olive oil, waiting for someone brave enough to taste the first one…

I also canned my first batch of pears this week. As I am over the womens’ provident living efforts at our church, I came up with this idea of “canning mentorship”. This is that those who want to learn to can certain specific items sign up, and then those who are canning those items let them know when they are going to do so, the newbies come over, lend a hand and learn the process, and then can go home and do it themselves. It’s a little different structure-wise from what we are all used to (mostly sit-in-a-classroom and listen to a lesson stuff) and we’re still working the kinks out (scheduling around ripening fruit is always a good trick), but I think it’s going ok. My group dwindled to just one last week, but, hey, that is one more pear canner than the world had before! I’ll do another batch in a couple of weeks and see if I can get the other three then. I do have to say, I felt a little guilty sending her home without any pears after she prepped three jars for me. Maybe next time I’ll have everyone bring a quart jar and I’ll send them home with a full one.

We are trying to get things all set and ready for winter (whenever that happens…triple-digits again this week). Hay went on sale and we stocked up and then on Saturday my husband and the boys brought home our first firewood. We found someone who lives just fifteen minutes away with a bunch of nice live oak firewood. It was nice enough that my husband committed to buy everything he had left—we’ll pick it up bit by bit over the course of the week. We’ve still got to get the chimney swept before we try it out.

We are also working on infrastructure. I think I have some easy structures to keep the wood off the ground and dry and we’ve finally decided to go ahead and roof about half the stalls. When we bought them shortly after we moved here, we were assured by the seller that it would be easy to add a roof if we ever wanted to…we have not found it to be so… It’s going to be a bit pricey, but it will give us space and protection for all the goats and a nice big area for hay. Enabling bulk purchases of hay should help us get our costs down a little…not enough to recoup the roof costs anytime in the next decade, but still…

Also, Isaiah replaced the bottom of the layers’ coop and set up the second electronet to expand their run a bit. The layers moved into it tonight and the meat birds will migrate into the grazing pen and electronet tomorrow night.   Yay!

And I’ve decided to go ahead and start building again. I have really missed it, and my shoulder is doing a bit better, so I’m just going to be careful (my diastasis is still being rottenly stubborn) and build myself a bed! My husband and I have been back and forth on the Master suite wood stove a dozen times. It is hard to plunk down that much money for a stove that would be used for only brief periods of time (to keep from overheating the room) for only 2-3 months of the year. So plan B is to build a canopy bed and fully enclose it in the winter at night. I think that between that, the heat from the main room and solar gain during the daytime and my much-beloved electric blanket, we should stay sufficiently toasty. If I am wrong, I am sure that the woodstove store will still be happy to take our money later on.

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Canning, sugaring and ravenous beasts

It’s nice to get back to a more normal life. Homestead-wise the neglect and decay were getting to be a bit much. Progress is always slow around here, but I like to see a little movement in the right direction here and there.

It is SO time for goat decisions. The pasture is barely deserving of the name, hay is a little less expensive than a year ago but still far from cheap, and we have six goats! I finally castrated Bud yesterday. He was (gulp) 12 weeks old—he should have been closer to 5. I just hope it took. He’s been acting bucky already. SO, do we sell him or eat him? I am thinking that we don’t want to have more than 3 does in milk at any time.  Penny’s getting up there (I think perhaps we’ve got just another 2 freshenings out of her), so Margo will replace her, Ella’s still young and then one of her girls will be breed-able next Fall (which one to keep??), so there are our three. But do we breed or milk Ella through? We separated the doelings from Ella for the first time last night and got about 3x the milk we were getting the rest of the week (Bud got to have one more night after his ordeal), and whatever was causing her pink milk has resolved (amazing what a few cloves of garlic will do), so milking through is now a possibility. Running the potential numbers for three pregnant goats next year gets a little dizzying—with Ella and Penny both throwing triplets and assuming twins for Margo, we’d be looking at twelve goats for a time next year! I think that may be more than I’m up for…especially with eight disbuddings and potentially eight castrations…ugh. My husband’s been working nearly non-stop this week and all decision-making has been pushed out. We can’t do that anymore.

The chickens have also become eating machines—this week they ate about 100 lbs of feed! I wonder if they weigh 2lbs each yet. At some point I’ll track inputs and outputs and face the numbers (music?), for right now I buy feed, pray for quick growth and enjoy our homegrown meat that has very little fat and such good flavor that you don’t even need to salt it!

I read another article this week about building a DIY maggot breeder/dispenser for chicken feeding—at some point I’d really like to do this. It was a good tutorial, but, unfortunately, they kept apologizing for feeding bug larvae to their chickens, even after noting that this is what chickens are looking for and eating whenever they are scratching in the ground. I have read that the overwhelming bulk of a chicken’s natural diet (based on observations of wild jungle fowl—their nearest non-domesticated relative) is insects in various stages of development, also that old-time pasture management included bringing chickens through to clear the pasture of insects and parasites after the ruminants had come, eaten and “fertilized”. Don’t apologize for feeding them what they are supposed to eat!  Vegetarian hens are crazy-unnatural. I know you wanted my two cents on that…

Wow, am I ever loving having 8 fewer chickens running about! Buying new animals is fun, but the relief delivered by selling an animal problem is an equal joy.

I finally oven-dried some chicken bones this week. They are still sitting on the counter waiting to be turned into bone meal…and doing so very patiently…good little oven-dried bones…

I also finally tackled sugar beet processing. I used these directions. It was as much work as it sounds like from the tutorial and significantly more time as the dehydration took twice as long as he suggested and I never got any crystallization (apparently, that typically takes 3-7 days, how could he do it in as few as 8 hours?). I started with 3 lbs of beets and ended up with 1 cup of very dark syrup. Apparently, I didn’t microwave them for long enough before food processing as they went almost immediately to black. It all looked pretty unpromising along the way, but tasted reasonably good—strong, but not as strong as blackstrap molasses. I like my sweeteners to add some flavor, so I think it would be a good fit for us. The big thing is the work/time factor. For next time: grow larger beets (sugar beets can weigh 1-2 lbs each—mine didn’t and this meant more surface area to prep) skip the peeling and just scrub well and trim, use my electric slicer to speed the slicing, microwave for longer (cook those enzymes!), reduce the water a bit–a 3x water:beet ratio seemed excessively watery, and then figure out some way to use the sun to dehydrate the stuff! We’ve used our homemade solar cooker now on potatoes, yams and beets (food magic on par with cheesemaking)—time to figure out a solar dehydrator. Why have a blistering hot, black, SW-facing deck if you can’t do a chunk of your summer food preservation on it?

I’m looking at all the Fall gardening starts that we haven’t started, the irrigation issues we are still having and the vole-infested melon bed and I am thinking that two beds will be more than enough this year. It/we will be better next year, right?

Elijah harvested our first raspberry this week. It will be just a handful this year.

This week is nectarine canning week. I usually try to spread it out more, but I am afraid we are getting to the end already, so I’m just going after it tomorrow. I got my feet wet this last week with a batch of seven. I have about four dozen ahead of me. I’ve also got 10 lbs of cucumbers to pickle and 12 lbs of tomatoes to sauce. I hope Joseph is feeling cooperative.

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A little planting and dreaming of irrigation systems…

It was a rather slow and not terribly productive week. This next week we have dentist appointments, and egg hunt and the (agony-inducing) semi-annual seasonal clothing switcheroo event so it will probably be a less-productive week as well. Ah well, into every life some slow must fall.

We did hack away at planting a bit. While the little girls planted two packages of radishes in an area about 4’ x 6” (!) I put in the peas, carrots and parsnips. The carrots and parsnips are covered with burlap as a recommended alternative to trying to cover them with 1/8” of soil. I am trying not to be impatient and just sitting tight for their long germination period. I hear that carrots, in particular, can be pretty fiddly to grow so I’d probably better just settle in for a long learning period as well. I noticed after I planted them that the package recommended NOT applying any type of fertilizer to the soil immediately before planting to prevent hairy and forked roots. Oops. If they sprout and grow then we may just have to use them for juicing. Also, I have a zillion or so parsnip seeds and they are only viable for a year on average. Three varieties was probably overkill.

The boys and my husband finished the second raised bed and the seed potatoes arrived yesterday, so that needs to be on the to-do list for the week.

I planted all but three of the blueberries and serviceberries yesterday. I chose a site where they could get a little afternoon shade, but it’s even further away from the faucet than everything else. When Isaiah came in from watering the orchard this week (before I planted the blueberries), he flopped down on the couch and said, “we need to get an irrigation system in!” So true, and we are just going to make it worse as we continue on bed-building. Our dream is to be able to 1) put in a faucet every hundred feet or so in the fenced orchard/garden area so we can water without having to use 300’ of hose, 2) get the berries onto drip irrigation and off of the weed-feeding soaker hoses, 3) get the trees onto drip irrigation—there are 30(?) of them after all, and 4) automate it all. I wish we could that month back when we all had the flu. We could really use the time.

Kitchen stuff—I ordered some Heremes jars for fermenting. The gasket is supposed to do a reasonable job of allowing gases to escape, while preventing oxygen seeping in during the fermentation period. I decided against the pricey Fidos as a couple people said that had gotten good results with the Anchor Hocking brand. Elijah and I both want to try out making kimchi, but I need to track down some daikon radish.

Also, the strawberry/apple butter is a little wet (I should have evaporated it another half day or so), but very good. It will be gone before we are sick of it. I am thinking of trying strawberry/pear butter this week.

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Talking myself out of things and rain needed

We have been struck with illness the last couple of days. Mine is acting like a flu (fever, body aches, swollen glands) while Elijah’s is acting more like a severe cold (congestion, cough). I am praying that it stops with us, but bracing myself for a rough week.

In the groggy places between naps I am supposed to be getting the bare root berries ordered. We are pushing it again. (I hope some day we will be organized enough not to do this anymore….) I have talked myself out of trying to plant 100 or so more strawberry plants in addition to 400 feet of cane berries and grapes. Besides the planting, more strawberries would require more raised beds. Since we’re planning to put in at least 1000 (it may be a lot more than that…I was really foggy-brained last night when we ran the numbers) square feet of raised beds for the vegetable garden this year, I imagine this particular activity is not going to be at the top of anyone’s want-to-do list in the near future. Next year will be fine. I’m even considering skipping putting in blueberries and “blueberries” (serviceberries, honeyberries and other substitutes that might do better here) this year. That one is harder to talk myself out of.

As I look out of my back windows onto a yard taken over by poultry, I am also talking myself out of getting more hens when we order our meat flock. I am having to resist the siren song of Golden Laced Wyandottes (oooh, pretty feathers) and Black Copper Marans (oooh, pretty eggs) and Olive Eggers (more pretty eggs). Let this be a warning to all—buying chickens can become an addiction.

We have been looking into buying an old treadle sewing machine for a while. I like the fact that they were built before planned obsolescence became a thing and that the treadle can provide power to a sewing machine or to other machines with a bit of rigging. I have a couple I am looking at and came across this site with a series of step-by-step questions to help identify Singer models. Nifty. This one’s also pretty good, as this was exactly what I was trying to do.  And then this was good in helping me to decide which ones were worth pursuing.  Although, honestly, probably any of these models, in good condition, would be many times better than the one I’ve got now—and I like my machine, I could just do without all the plastic parts.

In my craigslist searches I’ve had to talk myself out of a pretty awesome 10-treadle loom that popped up under “treadle”. The seven hours of drive time significantly hacked into its appeal. Not to mention the untold hours of learning to use it, acquire or make fiber to weave, etc. Maybe if we had super-long, non-gardening winters here. Not now, not now, not now…

Our neighbor with full-size construction equipment came out and did an initial rough-level of the area where we are going to put in the beds. He confirmed that that area was nearly dirt-less and that we’d made a good choice not trying to rehabilitate the (lack of) soil into garden plots. My husband’s initial estimates put concrete block beds slightly less expensive than wood. Fine, but I wish that blocks were also slightly less heavy. I need to find someone that will deliver them by the pallet.

After a satisfyingly soggy December, our January has been entirely rainless. We keep having little flickers of 10%-chance-of-rain off five days in the future that evaporates before we get there. Bad for us and bad for everyone else as California is the source of much of the country’s food. Join us in prayer.

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Washboards, Winter Canning and Central Leaders

When my grandmother passed away two years ago, my uncle remarked that one of Grandma and Grandpa’s first household purchases was a washboard. It’s taken us sixteen years, but we’ve finally caught up with them. Last week we made the purchase and this week, Joseph (who, lately, needs duct tape around the waist and legs of his diapers) gave me ample opportunity to try out the sink-sized one. My verdict is that it is a nifty tool. For some reason, I expected it to have a rougher surface. The ridges are nice and smooth, but it definitely does the trick. Things cleaned up really quickly without any soaking at all. The only thing is that the wood frames (we bought the Maid-Rite and the Dubl Handi from the Columbus Washboard Company) are bare wood and need a some sanding and sealing. I am pleased with them and want them to last!

California seasons still continue to perplex my inner clock. Supposedly, this is winter, but we have been getting produce for good prices and I have been canning it up. We made pickles (not as many as I had wanted to do, but nearly a box of quarts), last week we took advantage of our farm stand’s January apple sale and did two more boxes of applesauce, and this week we’ll try pickling some carrots. I have to say, canning in January is much nicer than in July and August. The cooler house keeps the food fresher longer before canning (buying me time and flexibility) and the heat put out by the canner is a welcome addition to our atmosphere.

Elijah and Isaiah finished up the chickens the week before last. Fabulous boys. We had a package delivered while they were at it and after the delivery man got my signature, he asked if those boys out there were plucking chickens. When I confirmed this, he grinned and told me that he saw the big pot of boiling water and it brought back memories of his childhood. “Some things never change…” he said. True. We ended up with a bunch more hens than we ordered. I’m not too sad as the hens cost 3x as much as the roos and our freezers are full. Unfortunately, so is the hen house…18 hens may be overkill, even with an additional roost…

I am continually grateful for the opportunity I have to learn-as-I-go with all of this and not to have my family’s health and well-being dependent on my success. Even without that pressure, making decisions about things is difficult. Unless we change our minds again, the plan is to do a bunch of Mittleider raised beds in the area next to the orchard that’s too rocky to plant, to plant some citrus trees in the ground (we had been advised only to plant citrus in raised planters and to shift the berry-planting to a different area (to accommodate more garden beds) and set up 8 50’ rows rather than 4 100’ rows. I’m still working to finalize that berry order. I’ve got to hurry!

And speaking of earth-shaking decisions, I pruned the apple and pear trees yesterday afternoon. I became a little more bold and decisive as I went, but it was really hard to select a central leader where there was not a clear choice and to decide between a vigorous branch in not-the-right-place and a little shoot in a much-better-place. The pressure was terrible. We’ve got some branch spacers that need to go in and a little weeding and re-mulching. I’d also like to replace the plastic nursery tags with something more durable and I’ve got to adapt the feeding/spraying schedule for our neck of the woods. And, of course, I’ve still got a whole slew of open centers ahead of me. At yesterday’s rate, I’ve got at least another four hours of work ahead of me.

And, since our wet December ended, we’ve had nothing. Prayers needed.

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Christmas Past and Opening Jars

So Christmas came and went. It always seems to come on in a rush and leave an abundance of mess and chaos in its wake. I would like to figure out how to make it less so, but perhaps that is just the reality of Christmas with kids. We also had an excellent reminder of why we do not usually eat sugar at our house. Jordan broke out in a horrible rash and Grace went wandering around the house murmuring “where is the candy?” for a good portion of the day we got rid of it. Bleagh. We are all ready for a diet of leafy greens.

In the midst of it all, I did spend time reflecting on the life and ministry of my Savior. I think I learned a bit about Him from reading of His temptations. He was tempted to turn stones into bread and refused to do so. For me, this would not be a temptation as I cannot turn stones into bread when I am hungry. Christ could have, but He chose not to, so that He could thoroughly and completely understand me and help me in my weak, limited, mortal life. I think that is a little bit of what it means when it says that He suffered more than mortal man could bear. He could have stopped all His suffering, struck down His enemies and saved and protected all those He loved, but He didn’t. At the point where all the rest of us would have done whatever we could, He chose not to, and chose instead to live with my pains, sorrows and limitations. What an amazing thing.

Now to shift from the sublime to the mundane…

We had our first hard freeze the week of Christmas. Insanely late, but better than last year. It has finally induced most of the fruit trees to drop their leaves and given me hope that we will be able to prune them. I say most, as there is one little apple tree out there still pretending that it is summer. I’m not sure if it’s the Fuji or the Pink Lady. Tenacious little thing.

I looked out the window on Christmas Eve morning and saw Ella waving her tail about crazily. This is called “flagging” and is a pretty good sign of a doe in heat! We rushed her over to our neighbor’s house and my husband was able to bring her home again after about ½ hour. Soooo, I need to update my calendar and put Ella down for kidding May 23-ish. And it is evident that I will need to be the one doing goat heat watch next Fall. The threat of no milk next year does not seem to be adequate incentive to be thorough and consistent for my farm boys. That’s four heat cycles missed!

My husband went and bought a trailer yesterday. Hurrah!! We can move goats about at will!

We still have ten more chickens to go, but we are going to have a warm, dry week, so this is it. And now we just need to decide whether we are going to do this again this upcoming year…

We broke into a jar of the doubly brined pickle-crisp-less dills. Yuck. They will be chicken food. Cucumbers are on sale this week for .18/lb so we will make more the right way.

We have decided, however, that the star anise cran-apple butter is really good. My husband, who is typically a pear butter devotee, has succumbed to its wiles.

The homemade marzipan was fantastic. I remember dividing up a single, pricey, imported loaf into small slices between our family members when I was a child. It was great to be able to eat as much as we wanted.

And, finally, I have begun putting together our seed order. I hope to have that in by the end of the week so we can start our eggplants, leeks and peppers by the 15th. This place just doesn’t allow for much let-up!