Sunday, December 30, 2012

Time-sensitive material: Call for submissions!

If you follow me on Facebook, you already know that I recently received a draft contract for my first book. It stipulates a tight time schedule: the finished manuscript is due on February 1, 2013. Obviously I've got my work cut out for me in January, especially since our business taxes and the renewal of our organic certification are also due by the end of the month.

When I originally was planning my first book project, I was envisioning the possibility of including first-person anecdotes from people who grew up around heritage-breed poultry. I would love to hear your stories, or even stories you might have heard from your grandparents or other relatives. Particularly valuable would be stories dating to before World War II; this was before modern production hybrids were generally available.

I have a great anecdote from my mother, who grew up on a farm in Illinois. She was quite young during the war, but remembers that virtually everyone had chickens in those days. Her family raised New Hampshire Red chickens for eggs and meat. The "egg money" from farm egg sales was an important supplement to many families' income during the lean war years.

This is the kind of story or recollection I'm looking for: location, type of poultry, what purpose they served (food, money, etc.). Please contact me through Facebook (Victoria Redhed Miller) or post a comment on this blog with your contact information if you'd like to submit a story for possible inclusion in my book. Don't wait too long, though; I'll need to hear from you no later than January 10, 2013.

Thanks a lot, and I hope to hear from you soon!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Chicken broth and meat: Making the case for pressure canners (Part One)

We slaughtered some chickens yesterday, and we'll be doing more Monday morning. The roosters we slaughtered yesterday are all between 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 years old, so they're definitely stewing birds (I feel a pot of coq au vin coming on...). As my supply of homemade chicken broth is dwindling, and winter is a short step around the corner, my plan is to cook up those 4 birds and can the meat and the broth. The roosters to be slaughtered next are younger, all hatched this spring, but they will probably all be cooked and canned as well.

You may be wondering why I would bother canning the meat and broth rather than freezing it. Well, as you know, we live off the grid. This means (among other things) that we do not have full-time electricity. Our house runs on propane, including a small propane refrigerator. How small? A total of 8 cubic feet, of which barely 1 foot is the freezer. We have about enough freezer space for a couple of ice cube trays and a few packages of meat. Honestly, though, even if we had the space for a chest freezer, I'd be inclined to do without, and stick with canning. Here's why.

In the fall of 2009, I had the opportunity to participate in an intensive training course to be a Master Food Preserver. Part of this course was learning about freezing food. I heard story after story about how wonderful chest freezers were, how you could put so much food in them, how easy it was, etc. I also heard (from the same people) how it was inevitable that some food was thrown away because it had gotten "buried" in the freezer and forgotten. By the time some of this food was unearthed, if the label could still be read, it wasn't unusual for it to be 2 or 3 years old, or even older. Then, fearing it was no longer any good, the person would discard it.

Also, when there is a power outage, there's all that frozen food to worry about. If the power is out for any length of time (think SuperStorm Sandy), and the food thaws, it can quickly become unfit to eat.

So that's one reason for not freezing food: to avoid potential waste.

Another big factor for me is convenience. During these short fall and winter days, it's simply delightful to go to the pantry, grab a jar of homemade minestrone, or spaghetti sauce, or whatever, pop the lid and heat it up. In a few minutes (less for you on-gridders who have such things as microwaves) you have a meal on the table. I also have jars of smoked local tuna, smoked brisket, corned beef, and tongue. If we have leftover baked or boiled potatoes, my husband David loves to cut them up and make hash with smoked brisket. If we're in the mood for chili dogs (see the relevant post on the Canyon Creek Farms blog), it's great to be know there's jars of it ready to heat and eat. You get the idea.

But wait. I know what you're thinking. How do you can meat and fish and chicken broth? I thought you could only can things like pickles and tomatoes and jam at home. Well, that's true, if you limit yourself to canning only high-acid foods. But trust me, if you're really into food preservation, you'd be doing yourself a favor to expand your horizons as far as canning low-acid foods.

Yes, you'll need to use a pressure canner. And yes, I know, you have anxieties about it. I've heard lots of pressure canner horror stories too. Every single one of the stories I've heard seemed to me to trace back to not following directions. It took me a few sessions before I stopped worrying about making a disastrous mistake, but I kept at it, and now I am canning year-round, not just in the summer.

Have you ever used a pressure canner? Would you like to? Please post your comments and questions, and I will be glad to address them on this blog. It's my hope to convince you to get out that pressure canner that's been languishing, unloved, in the back room, or get together with someone who has one, and give it a try. In my next post, I'll go over the process for canning chicken meat and broth, just to give you an idea of how simple --and rewarding--it can be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I-502: A good example of why you should get the facts before you vote

 [Disclaimer: The following is an op-ed piece. All opinions are mine alone, and unless otherwise indicated, are expressed as generalities. I welcome your feedback, but ask that you please read this article in its entirety before you contact me.]

Two weeks from today, Washington state voters will decide on 3 Initiative measures, 1 Referendum, 1 Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution, 1 Senate Joint Resolution, and 2 Advisory Votes. Of course, there are also a few state and federal candidates to pick from as well, but I really don't want to talk about them right now.

No doubt my position will seem harsh to some (possibly most) of you, but I am frustrated with the apparent ability of voters to be influenced in their choices mainly by advertising. In advertising, he who spends the most wins. And it seems to me that voters are perfectly content to allow someone else to tell them how to vote.

Here's a recent example. If you voted in favor of privatizing Washington State liquor sales, believing that a "yes" vote would result in lower liquor prices, how do you feel about that now? Why do you think Costco spent well over $20 million in advertising in favor of this measure? Because they knew that ultimately it would pay off, in a big way, for them. And look -- it worked. The measure passed, and my favorite Irish whiskey went from about $21 per bottle to about $35. (I've refused to buy it ever since.) Yet most people I know voted for this measure, and it passed by a comfortable margin.

We live off the grid. We have neither a television nor full-time Internet service. We don't subscribe to a daily newspaper, and choose to listen to public radio. Think I feel deprived? I do not. Of course, I'm missing out on all the attack ads, the biased sound bites that conveniently leave out critical details, and the bold-face headlines that purport to accurately summarize the issues (or the candidate's position).

So, you may be asking, how in the world do I make an informed decision when it comes time to cast my vote? Here it is: I read the Voter's Pamphlet. I study the Explanatory Statements, read the Argument For and the Argument Against (and observe who actually wrote those arguments -- very illuminating), discuss anything I'm confused about with someone I trust who won't judge me, and make an informed choice.

I think an example from the upcoming election is appropriate here. Please understand that my intent is not to influence your vote; I simply wish to illustrate the frequently vast difference between the headline (the short description on the ballot, and, incidentally, in the advertising) and the way the proposed law actually reads.

Ask anyone on the street about Initiative Measure 502, and they will likely say, "Oh, that's the one that will legalize marijuana." I have heard one or two ads (when I inadvertently landed on an AM radio station in my car) that emphasize all the new revenue that will gush into the State treasury from related licensing fees and new taxes. They say that too many law-enforcement resources are being wasted on such minor crimes as marijuana possession, and we should be prioritizing those resources to deal with more major crimes and criminals.

[For the record, I don't use marijuana. I've never even tried it. I have no personal axe to grind here. I simply believe this is a badly-written initiative that will set some disturbing precedents if it's passed.]

Here's the headline: "This measure would license and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over twenty-one; remove state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities that it authorizes; tax marijuana sales; and earmark marijuana-related revenues."

I was frankly appalled when I read the statement explaining the effect of this measure if approved. If you don't have the time to read the whole thing, please read the "Argument Against" following the Explanatory Statement in your Voter's Pamphlet. It does a good job of summarizing the numerous red flags in this measure; among others, the one detailing the changes to the present DUI laws. And at the very end of the explanatory statement, hanging out there with no additional information, is this amazing sentence: "Federal marijuana law could still be enforced in Washington."

Huh? So, let's say this initiative passes. If you're over 21, you can now legally buy and use marijuana (although you can only buy it from a state-licensed producer, processor or retailer). But wait! Start getting used to looking over your shoulder, because the Feds could swoop in at any time and charge you with a felony. The "Argument Against" further explains that "[I-502] conflicts with federal law, voiding the possibility of any newly-generated tax revenue."

Supposedly the money to pay for the additional administrative costs involved in processing license fees, taxes and penalties will come from these revenues themselves (you know, the ones that are void under federal law). However, in "License Revenue Assumptions", we read: "We lack sufficient data to estimate the number of marijuana producers and marijuana processors who will apply for a license." In other words, the best they can do is guess.

There's a lot more to I-502, and the other issues up for consideration on the November 6 ballot. I believe that voting is a privilege as well as our right in this country, and privileges come with responsibilities. Who or what you vote for is up to you. Whichever way you vote on I-502, for example, please consider carefully exactly why you're voting that way.

What if voters had to pass a test before each election, to show that they understand what they're voting for or against? Realistically, many people simply don't have the time to read the entire text of proposed laws (the text of I-502 goes on, in small print, for over 17 pages). Here's an idea: Turn off your TV. Turn off your iPhone. Pick up the Voter's Pamphlet. If you want to know what you're really voting for or against, you'll have to put in some effort.

As I said, my intent is not to persuade you to vote one way or another on I-502 or any other issue or candidate. As a society, we are far too easily influenced by advertising, even when it comes to issues of civil rights and personal privacy. I'm suggesting we shut out the noise for a minute, and think for ourselves. It's our responsibility.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

If you missed the Mother Earth News Fair in PA...

...well, let me tell you, you really did miss out. I hear there were over 15,000 visitors over the three days of the Fair, and the energy and atmosphere were consistently positive. If I'd been swift enough to bring a camera, you'd see one picture after another of smiling faces, families having fun with each other, and altogether a sense of eagerness to learn and connect with other people aiming to live life more sustainably and meaningfully.

As for me, I had a terrific time. The Seven Springs Mountain Resort is quite an amazing place: 5,000 acres of ski slopes, golf courses, tennis courts, indoor swimming pool, even an indoor arcade. I stayed in a large and beautiful condo with three other women: my friend Jeannette Beranger from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, her colleague Alison Martin, and Pat Foreman, author of Chicken Tractor and City Chicks, among other books. It was lovely seeing Jeannette again, and getting to know Alison and Pat a little was wonderful. I learned a lot just hanging out with these three women, and they all have been generous in their encouragement of my writing projects and ambitions.

My two presentations, one on raising turkeys and the other on raising ducks, went quite well. Considering it was raining occasionally on Saturday afternoon, I was surprised at the crowd that showed up to hear about turkeys. I really enjoy the interaction with the audience; in each of the three times I've done presentations at the Fair, I've learned something new. Even if you raise the same kind of birds that I do, something about your situation or experience will be different from mine, and this is where I think events such as the Mother Earth News Fair are so valuable. There are more and more people who, for various reasons, wish to start taking control of their own food supply, and no matter how many books or Internet pages you read, it's always helpful to connect with someone with  real-life experience. (This, by the way, is just as true for me as for anyone who attended my presentations.)

Thanks to James Duft and those of you at Mother Earth News whose names I don't know, for offering me this opportunity once again. Your generosity in arranging for housing, as well as a ride to and from the airport, is truly appreciated. Thanks also to those of you who attended one or both of my presentations; I loved having the opportunity to share and learn with you.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Days are getting shorter; should you have lights in your chicken coops?

As we move into fall months, and days are getting noticeably shorter, many of our birds have begun to moult. Our turkeys actually started moulting in August. Our older ducks and chickens are definitely moulting now as well. We always hope that the moult will hold off until later in the fall, since the later it starts, generally the shorter the moulting process is.

Why does this matter? When the birds are moulting, the egg production slows to a trickle, and many birds completely stop laying for the duration of the moult. Since we are in business selling our organic duck and chicken eggs, any drop in production is naturally a concern for us.

So what, if anything, can we do about this? Most books and magazine articles I've read advocate lighting the interior of chicken coops when the days get shorter. The theory is that peak egg production is related to the number of hours of daylight; thus, hens should be laying at their highest rate during the early summer months when days are longest. So it seems logical to add light in the coops as days get shorter.

However, we have chosen not to do this. Why? Most people who know us are aware that we live off the grid and are in the process of installing our solar electric system. They say, "Well, as soon as you have electricity you're going to light your coops, right?"

Wrong. We have spent a lot of time over the years debating this question. In short, our conclusion is that the moult is a natural part of the annual "rhythm" of these birds' lives. We simply feel it's better for them to have a break from egg-laying and not try to artificially circumvent the important moulting process.

As I mentioned, we are in business selling eggs. So how do we address the issue of dropping production in the fall and winter months? Our strategy is to plan the hatching of new birds at a point that ensures that the young birds will be starting to lay around the time the older birds are slowing down. Yes, this involves a lot of organization and management. Yes, we are sometimes caught off-guard by odd weather patterns and other factors that can influence when the moult starts and ends. But overall this strategy has worked quite well for us.

I think since everyone's situation is different, you should ultimately do whatever works best for you and your birds. I would just encourage you to keep an open mind and consider alternatives to putting artificial lighting in your coops. Even if you can't hatch or buy new chicks each spring, the moult usually lasts only a month or two. Cows get a break from milking every winter; think about giving your hens a break, too.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Stop calling me a twit!

I know, I know. But here's the thing: This week I finally got around to signing up for a Twitter account.  I don't really know what took me so long, especially considering I don't have much to do other than lie on the futon with my feet up eating bonbons all day. Just lazy, I guess.

Anyway, you can find me on Twitter at @offgridwriter. Feel free to tweet. Just keep in mind that I am, in fact, an off-grid writer, and do not have such luxuries as a full-time Internet connection. So don't be surprised if I don't tweet back instantly. I'm still getting used to it (and the page loads slowly). Besides, I'm busy eating bonbons.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Preparing (again) for the Mother Earth News Fair

As you know, I've had the privilege of sharing my presentation on raising turkeys at the Mother Earth News Fair twice now. This past June I had a great time at the Fair in Puyallup, and was invited to come to the Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, later this month. I will be doing my turkey presentation again, and also a new presentation on raising ducks.

I hope you can make it to the Fair. It runs 3 days, Sept. 21-23, and I hear they are expecting 20,000 people to visit.

It should be a really fun weekend. For anyone trying to find ways to live more sustainably, consume less and experience the satisfaction of moving toward self-sufficiency, the Fair offers a huge selection of workshops, demonstrations, products and books for sale, and the opportunity to connect with the growing number of like-minded people.

One of the keynote speakers this time is Temple Grandin, the well-known animal scientist who has been responsible for many innovations regarding the humane treatment of livestock and other animals. I am looking forward to hearing her talk; what an inspiration.

So come on out if you can! I will be speaking on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy stage, once on Saturday and once Sunday. I hope to see you there!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Northern Goshawks prefer organic chicken, too

Young adult male Northern Goshawk.

Last week I was able to get some decent photos of a Northern Goshawk at our farm. Unfortunately it was standing on the dead body of one of our young New Hampshire cockerels, but what can you do.

We're guessing that this is a young adult male Goshawk. Looking closely at my photos, it appears that this bird is almost completely into its adult plumage. And like most raptors, the male Goshawk is smaller than the female, and this one is definitely smaller than the chicken  it killed. In fact, the hawk couldn't get off the ground with the chicken. (The adult Goshawk tops out at 2.1 pounds, and this 14-week-old cockerel was easily twice that weight.) The photo below shows the hawk trying hard to move the chicken, but it only managed to jerk it a few inches across the grass. I wonder if the hawk learned a lesson from this? Hmm.

The Goshawk tries unsuccessfully to fly off with a chicken twice its size.

I've been trying to get photos of a Goshawk for a while now. Our friend Shelly Ament, a wildlife biologist with Washington's Fish and Wildlife Department, told us that Goshawks are not often seen by humans in the wild. (Ha, I thought. Try letting some chickens free-range in YOUR backyard.) I retrieved a primary wing feather, which I saw fall from the hawk while it was flapping its wings, and we saved it to give to Shelly. She had asked us to be on the lookout for Goshawk feathers. Her department is interested in comparing the genetics of Goshawks in our area to those of hawks in British Columbia, so she was quite pleased to have the feather.

The white supercilium (eyebrow) clearly identifies the Northern Goshawk.

Since we choose to free-range our chickens, turkeys and ducks, we do lose birds to predators from time to time. Still, we feel fortunate to live in a place where we sometimes see beautiful animals like the Northern Goshawk. What a gorgeous bird.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cat on a hot chick brooder

Poor Cosmo. Our cat suffered through a bout of empty-nest syndrome this spring, after we moved our 51 New Hampshire chicks from their indoor brooder to an outdoor transition coop.

For more than two weeks, faithful Cosmo curled up atop the warm brooder, watching the chicks inside for hours at a time. Naturally, being a cat, he took frequent breaks from this strenuous activity to take naps. No doubt he dreamed about what he would do if the lid were left off the brooder one day. It must have been tantalizing, being literally a few inches above the heads of a lot of tiny little birds. He's a good cat, though, and he didn't really try too hard to get in there. At least, not while we were looking...

As the chicks got bigger (New Hampshires grow fast), occasionally one of them would reach up and peck at Cosmo's tail through the screened lid. It didn't seem to bother Cosmo much; in fact, I wondered if he actually enjoyed these little interactions. He certainly seemed to be fascinated by the little creatures, and I'm sure he got used to hearing their non-stop peeping.

When the day finally came for the big move, it seemed to be a bit of a shock to Cosmo. Suddenly his nice warm perch, complete with soothing background music, was gone. We felt a little bit guilty when we saw how out of sorts he was. But after all, 51 growing chicks do poop, and even with daily cleaning, frankly, we were ready for the babies to move outside.

Now the chicks are going on 9 weeks old, and Cosmo sits on his perch by the living room window, watching them in the sun. Aww.... they just grow up so fast, don't they, Cosmo?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Canyon Creek Farms: we're certifiable

 3-week-old Khaki Campbell ducklings

You've suspected that all along, haven't you? Now we can confirm the truth: Canyon Creek Farms is on the verge of being certified organic.

After wading through the paperwork and waiting for the results of our application review, we are now awaiting the final inspection. There is a huge lot of record-keeping that is required, so I have been working hard on a database system to handle that part of the certification process. We will be inspected at least once per year, and we must be able to show records of basically every single thing that we did or bought or used during the year. Feed purchases. Every application of fertilizer or compost. If we vaccinate or otherwise give medical treatment to an animal, it must be documented. When we buy seeds or plants they have to be certified organic.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? So why are we doing it? Well, partly it's a matter of pride: We have been working hard on our farm for six years now, and we're producing top-quality chicken and duck eggs, as well as Tamworth pork. We have been managing all our animals and crops organically from the start, so we figured that the next logical step would be certification.

 Tamworth piglets

If you've bought our duck eggs recently at Sunny Farms or Nash's Farm Store, you probably noticed that they are labeled "organic." How can we call them organic when we aren't yet certified? The National Organic Program (NOP) rules state that if a farm sells less than $5,000 per year in organic product sales, it can label its products organic. However, we can't use the USDA Organic logo, and we are subject to inspection to ensure we are complying with the organic standards.

Now that more of our eggs are being sold at local retail stores, we anticipate that our farm product sales will soon top $5,000 per year, which would make us ineligible for this exception.

New Hampshire pullets

Up to now, we've thought of our little farm business as more of a hobby, but it's time to step it up a notch and take ourselves more seriously. We've worked hard to provide wonderful eggs and pork for the local community. It's time we honor the loyalty of our customers as well.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Duck eggs now available at Sequim stores

 Our 4-year-old Blue Swedish ducks still produce 5-6 eggs per week!

As our laying ducks came into full production earlier this spring, we were collecting 30-35 duck eggs per day. Sequim's wonderful Alder Wood Bistro, which has been buying our duck and chicken eggs for four years now, was still a couple of months away from the start of their busy summer season.

What to do with the extra eggs?

I started making phone calls. As a result, Canyon Creek Farms' duck eggs are now for sale at Sunny Farms Country Store on Highway 101, as well as at Nash's Farm Store north of downtown Sequim. Sunny Farms sells them by the half-dozen; Nash's offers both half-dozens and full dozens.

Duck eggs are higher in several vitamins, minerals and amino acids than chicken eggs. I recently learned that some people who are allergic to chicken eggs can tolerate duck eggs. The higher viscosity of the whites makes duck eggs ideal for baking, and customers have told us that duck eggs seem "richer and creamier" than chicken eggs.

In addition, duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs: a large chicken egg is 2 ounces, while our duck eggs average between 2-3/4 and 3-1/2 ounces. This means more food value for your money.

If you've tried the Alder Wood tart (the house quiche) or the Chocolate Bliss (a fabulous flourless brownie) at the Alder Wood Bistro, you've eaten our duck eggs. Now you can buy Canyon Creek Farms duck eggs at local Sequim stores to try at home!