Sunday, December 9, 2018

Food Habits Can Sabatage Self Sufficiency

I have been thinking a lot about food, traditions, habits and unconscious "programming" that we may get as young children today. Food and tradition was on my mind because I was baking cookies for our Yule celebration.

As a homesteader, this is one act in the year when only one of the ingredients was actually grown here. I am using eggs which I froze during the summer, when the hens were laying in abundance. But I do not grow enough wheat for flour, have a milk-beast from whose offering to make butter, nor do I have bees. Of course, sugar (granulated and powdered), baking soda, molasses and most of the candied fruits would have to come from off site, as do the nuts, as my trees are all just babies. For a once-a-year special occasion, I bring in the necessary supplies - as the pioneers did, if they could. I do try to keep as much local as I can; the honey and the sifted wheat flour are both standards in the pantry. 

But I was also thinking about tradition. Some of my friends are grandparents with their grand littles near at hand but not all of them are happy cookie bakers, with or without pint size helpers. While I do remember helping my mom with much that she did in the kitchen, cookie-baking included, "baking cookies with..." was not a designated traditional holiday happening. Mom baked, I helped just like any other day. The root of my holiday baking tradition comes from the year I was 11 or 12 and in 6th grade.  We were studying other countries that year and each of us picked a country to research in detail and present an oral report. I picked France, and included Napoleons that I had made, one for each of my classmates and the teacher, as a "visual (and edible) aid." That got me thinking, later in the year, about Christmas
traditions around the world. I researched many counties traditional cookies and picked a large selection to bake for our
Lebkuchen need to age
with an apple or orange
to add moisture
holiday celebrations. Many we did not like, but lebkuchen from Germany and Thumbprint cookies from Sweden made the cut as did Russian tea cakes and I have
Russian Tea Cakes
made them, as well as the Spritz that were my mom's favorite, for many years. The closest the tea cakes every got to Russia was their name, but I think I included them as a verbal nod to my German ancestors who were among the "Volga Deutsch". I also used to make sugar cookies; they were a traditional staple and I guess I figured they were required in a family with kids. But I sent my cookie cutters to a daughter who collected them many years ago and never looked back. They were far from my favorite cookie. In point of fact, I pretty much dislike icing and they usually kinda need it.

I modified my tradition (yes, even though I am not an experimental eater, I do that from time to time!) years ago, swapping in pastry whole wheat flour for the white stuff and now I just use the Maine Grains organic sifted wheat flour for everything in my kitchen.

Butter cookie suns, moons
(full, crescent and gibbous),
stars and wreath shapes.
After completing some butter cookies (yes, cut shapes! LOL I bought a star and some round cutters last week, with the intention of making star, sun and moon cookies, as well as wreaths with only colored decorator sugar for topping. These cookies I like. They are not overly sweet but boy, are they good. Not the easiest to make though. I still have the spritz to fight with tomorrow (my cookie press does not like me.)

Having got the cookies done for the day, it was time to think about supper. I wanted something quick and easy and do keep a few commercial meat products on hand for such times, in addition to the home grown poultry, local pork from the whole pig we bought from a friend and processed, along with home made sausage, ground turkey and a delicious supply of venison shared by a neighbor who could not fit both the deer she shot and the one her husband took into the freezer.

Since the oven was already hot, I had Tractor Guy halve a butternut squash from our garden, which I baked. And then, since the oven was still already hot, I pulled out a bag of fish sticks (we call them stick fishes just for fun) and put them in the oven. BUT I did not want to take the time to peel and slice and oil potatoes for oven fries -- a common starchy side with the stick fishes -- nor did I have a fresh cabbage from which to make slaw.

Let me take a step to the side here and say how glad I am that Tractor Guy is being able to move away from strictly traditional food pairings -- that quite often would require (a) something processed from the store or (b) eating out of season. It's something many of us may not even be aware of, and others struggle with:
  • sandwiches "require" chips or fries
  • fish "requires" chips and slaw
  • pork "requires" kraut and/or applesauce
  • meat "requires" gravy and gravy "requires" mashed potatoes
  • chili "requires" corn bread and/or cheese
  • eggs "require" meat
  • beer "requires" pretzels
That last one is a bit of a joke, but the idea remains.  Yes these pairings are delicious, but in a situation where your goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible, they need to be reconsidered.

Eating what you have stored, and what is in season, requires change. And in the spirit of this article, our supper consisted of a baked winter squash as a veg and rice, cooked with dried pieces of onion and bell pepper, since I had a lousy crop of onions this year and we used our last fresh onion last week. Typically I cook the rice and then add it to a skillet in which I have sauteed some veg: onions and celery, usually and sometimes frozen bell pepper. And for me, since fish "requires" lemon, (we do have some frozen lemons, but I did not want to take the time to thaw one) I tried the Brit thing with vinegar... our own apple cider version, not the malt. Eh. Not as good as with lemon, in my mind about like eating the fish un-garnished, which I will likely continue to do when lemon is not at hand.

Food is so much more than "just something to eat" in so many ways. It can be consolation, perhaps help us sooth stress (or at least make us think it can) or even bring back strong memories of times of not having enough.  I learned this last lesson from my former husband, who said soup never filled him up. Now, I never served watery or (Gods forbid) commercial soups. My soups, whether vegetarian, with meat flavor or actual meat, are all thick and substantial. In fact, many of them could easily be mistaken for stew, except for the smaller pieces into which the ingredients are cut. In talking with former hubs, I learned that through much of his youth as a latch-key kid, on his own during summer school vacations, his mom would set out a single can of commercial soup for him to warm for lunch. That was it, he said. Just the soup, no crackers, bread or anything else. This continued as he became a teen! Now, maybe not all teenagers have the voracious appetites of legend, but it was obvious from his story that the soup was insufficient. Why he did not "graze" on other foodstuffs or ask his mom for more is not for this story.

I had noticed that he loved and often complimented me on my "hearty, meaty stew" even when the only "meat" in the stew was the flavor from stock and no actual pieces were present.  So I began an experiment. For a month, we ate a lot of soup and stew. It was winter, and that was not that uncommon a dish for us, so no red flags were raised. But what I did was to make my usual run of soups (potato, bean, vegetarian veg, veg with meat, chicken noodle, and even split pea) and made notes on the calendar when I served each one, the side dishes and Hubs' comments if any. Then I used the same recipes (well.. as much as I do recipes LOL) but cut the ingredients in to larger pieces and called the meal "stew." That was the extent of the difference. And yes, we had some strange stews. Potato stew, anyone? Vegetable stew? Chicken noodle stew? Strange thing was, Hubs did not make any comment on the names or the dishes, other than declaring, with great fervor near the end of the experiment, after a meal of vegetarian vegetable stew "now THAT was a meaty, filling dish!" I could not help it, but ended the experiment early, telling him first off that there was no meat at all involved, not even beef broth (which, at the time, I happened to be out of!) I even had to show him the cabinet where the broth and bullion cubes were kept, because he kept insisting he had tasted meat. But then I dropped the bombshell and told him that was exactly like my vegetarian vegetable soup, except cut into larger pieces, and that I had been doing this all month. It took dragging him to the calendar to show him my notes and then he had a hard time believing it. He never did get to the point where he felt satisfied after a meal of "soup" but from then on, we had many fine meals of stew, some with large pieces and some with smaller ones and all satisfied the man.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Not Just a Hill of Beans

Oh, my! The dark season, and the holiday seasons are upon us and things have been and continue to be busy here at the sign of the Fussing Duck and Dutch Hex Sign. I enjoyed a brief break in hex sign orders, which allowed me to catch up on homestead tasks. Indoor ones, mostly, as the dark season ushered in cold and snow much earlier, and with much more staying power than we have seen in the ten years in residence here. We are faring well, as are the beasts and birds, mostly!
Troublemaker Major Tom
got into the feeder, needed
help to get out.
Backyard birds, chickens
and some of the fussing ducks
enjoy breakfast in the snow.
In the hex world, after completing the large (48" diameter) and very challenging design for a Pennsylvania Islamic center, I had several much needed weeks "off" to beat down the domestic chaos before the gifting season of orders for smaller signs began.
Islamic center logo, which was designed with
meaning and prayerful intent, rendered
as a hex sign.
Protection from the Evil Eye
8" diameter

Abundance and Prosperity
12" diameter

Livestock Protection for
Angora rabbits, 8" diam.

Protection for That Which Is
8" diameter

Livestock Protection for
Chickens 12" diam.

While all of that amounts to much more than a hill of beans, my title actually refers to some actual beans. 

This year when I planted the garden, I did not put in separate rows for each of the variety of beans I was growing, but instead just put a marker between varieties. Things got very confusing in the dry bean area, as I had also planted them much closer together than usual. I did not figure it would be a big deal, even though I save seed, as beans and peas are not known for crossing easily. I figured it would be easy enough, once they were shelled, to separate the pintos from the cranberry beans and both of them from the black beans I planted for the first time this year. And it wasn't... just a bit time consuming but taken a bit at a time, it got done.

In the process, every now and then I came to a pinto-size bean with pinto-like marking but they were black in color instead of the typical brown, as shown above. Out of the pint of black beans, pint of cranberry beans and gallon and a half of pintos that I harvested, I ended up with 21 beans with the new coloration. Yes, I separated them out and yes I counted them.

I will be giving my beans more separation this coming year, and planting the "new variety" with great care, hoping to grow out enough seed for a good row in 2020, enough to plant for the future year and some to eat! I am hoping for a more robust flavor in a pinto-type bean, but we will see.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

on getting old

Let me start by saying that I am not talking about getting oldER. That happens every day, every hour, to each and every one of us. Mostly the time passes without much note to the body, as it should. Changes are typically slower, once we mature at least, and I would not hesitate to say that many of us do not notice much difference between our 25 year old body's and our 45 year old body's abilities to do stuff. And if there are notable differences, it's likely because of things we can readily see... those extra baby-pounds, perhaps.

But I am talking about something else. At some point we seem to have an "ah-ha" moment, when we realize something has changed but we can't quite put our finger on it. That point in time is different for every body. And my personal experience says that afflictions requiring medical attention -- like my double knee replacement in 2014 -- are not particularly keyed into that timeline and do not really have cause and effect input on the "old" switch. And, inevitable as it hopefully is, getting old is really no more a topic of conversation than our equally inevitable end. And it should be. Birth, youth, maturity, old age and death are the cycle for all that lives and it's sad that we don't recognize and honor each in its turn.

We glorify and cherish birth -- at least our sanitized, whitewashed version of it, instant happy nuclear family and all -- but that is not the whole truth. We complain about the youth, focusing on their inexperience with life, their experiments and trials with negative eyes to the detriment of us all. We push lock-step expectations upon those in their mature years:  job, family and expectation of cementing one's place in the scheme of things with accumulated possessions. And we ignore or pity the old; ignoring them by viewing old age as simply an extension of maturity, though perhaps more simple and at a slower pace. Or push them out of sight into facilities where we can decry the care while ignoring the people.

I have been thinking about old age a lot lately, because I am old. "Age is just a number" the young folks say, and honestly it is. I am not old because I am 70, but I am 70 and recently I have become old. It does not come to everyone at the same time, though. This I know... though when I was young and my mother was aging, we never talked about it. I am honestly not sure when she became aware of it, though I know my dad's passing when she was 68 aged her. When, shortly after that, she moved to Wisconsin to be closer to me -- an only child -- and took an apartment in a senior high rise, she complained constantly about the "old folks" that were her neighbors, only wanting to talk about their ailments. She did not consider herself to be one of them. I know when my third daughter was hospitalized away from home to treat meningitis in 1982, and she was 72, she eagerly watched the two older girls and still walked the few blocks from her apartment to our house every week or so, carrying her "granny bag" of gin and beer bottles to deposit in our trash so her neighbors wouldn't know she imbibed. I know that at this age she had been being treated for high blood pressure for at least 6 years. And I know that when she made her final visit to us, after we had moved to Washington state and baby #5 was still a babe in arms, in 1985, she had pushed herself beyond her limits and ended up in the hospital for most of her 10-day stay. This stubborn old RN, who put fear into the hearts of nurses nearly her age, from her 5'2" tall status, was easily carried out to the car for a trip to the ER by the kids' dad, who was by far not the biggest nor strongest guy I have ever known. After she returned to WI, and under the watchful eye of her niece -- also an RN -- she died the next year. She spent much of that last year in hospital and nursing home; I was told they were working to "get her strong enough to go home" but of course at that point it was not possible.

I wish I had talked to her about being old, though I am not sure how it would have helped either of us... would I have remembered what she said? Would she -- always one to put aside her own issues as much as possible and very much a believer in modern medicine -- have offered anything substantial?

But for any who would care and might learn from my writing, I will share what I see and feel from my perspective at the moment.

Nothing lasts forever, but there are things -- tools, machines -- that we use, like and value that we want to keep using as long as we can. I've got a old truck like that and in a quiet chat the mechanic, after a recent visit to fix a flat, shared that he figured the old boy definitely had a few more good years in him. It's the rust -- which gets most trucks here in Maine -- that regardless of what we do, will require his being taken off the road. Maybe just a few years... maybe more if we take good care to keep him undercoated and wash off the road salts, since we already don't drive to town that often, or so I was told.

So I can see Artie's end from here. No getting out of it, it will happen, though we don't know when. And I can also see my own end from here as well. Likewise, who knows when, but I am tending to that "undercoating" and "washing off the salts" more often now. I have actually made an appointment with my new doc (I do need to break her in, after all) because I am experiencing some shortness of breath when I try to walk with my former vigor and speed, as well as when I bend double and do heavier work. I can't lift and carry stuff like I used to. I can still effectively move a 50# sack of feed, and upend it in the storage bin, but pulling my smaller garden cart with a load of harvest from the garden to the house requires several stops. Blood pressure sometimes reads scarily high (at least to the nurses working in the eye doc's OR) but wait 15 min and it's back in an acceptable range. I am slowing down, doing less in a day with more breaks and I have zero desire to stop. My arthritis -- most notable in my right thumb and hand -- often causes me to cry out in pain when I move my hand wrong and Gods help me when I jam it on something! Which, being a klutz, I do far too often. And all of the usual muscle aches from a day of physical work hurt more, more quickly and go away much more slowly.

And I dunno if this is old age, or just our currently rather messed up world, but I really don't much want to be out "among the English" as K says. And even if I am attending an event I chose for reasons that I am excited about, with folks I like -- and only encounter friends and friendly folks along the way -- it still exhausts me and I feel "over peopled" for a day or more.

What got me to thinking about getting old, once again, and prompted this long rant happened at the last event I attended. I went to a living history event, specifically to connect up with folks who process and spin linen, a project I have undertaken with this garden season. I knew that the lead mentor in this craft did not attend the Common Ground Fair, as usual, having been sidelined by an injury which she got processing flax, and I was glad to see she had healed enough to attend and demonstrate. It was what she shared that prompted my writing. While I do not know her age, I can say her card which she gave me refers to "elders living in community" and both she had her husband appeared to be retirees. In any case, she told me that she had given herself tendonitis in a knee while processing flax and that, as in the past when she had injured herself, she expected the pain would abate with an evening of heat or cold and rest. It did not. It was the first time she ever hurt like that, that long, that severely in her life. "Be thankful" I told her. "It will begin to happen more often." And I say this to you all as well: eventually it will happen and begin to happen more often.

What I'd like folks to take away from this, if nothing else, is illustrated by an anecdote from when the kids were quite young. There was an older fellow in our church, a bachelor, and looking back he may not even have been of retirement age, or had just retired, who "everyone" viewed as an old grouch. And I will say, he did not have a pleasant attitude or demeanor, but we did not have much reason to interact with him.

One day at church, I had taken the smallest kid out of the service for some reason and was sitting in the foyer. He was there also, and was doing something that required him to cross my field of vision several times, and I was idling watching him, I guess, while most likely nursing the baby. And it became obvious to me, at that moment, watching his demeanor and his movement, that he was in pain. He hurt, and pretty much all over. At that moment the oldest child said something to him, I don't remember what... possibly hello or good morning... in any way she was expecting a generic polite response, but she got a very grouchy one instead and came dashing back to me asking me why he said that. The area was quiet and kids are not known for always using private voices at such times, so I know he heard her question. I told her that he hurt, he was in pain, and that pain often causes folks to sound angry when they are not. He turned instantly and looked at me with an intensity that made me suspect I was in for a good tongue-lashing... but instead he asked "Why did you say that? How do you know?" and I told him I could see it on him, it was that obvious. "I'm a mom. I have to know those things." Turns out, not only was I right but I was the first person to notice and to care. And my kiddo continued to treat him as a friend, ignoring the grouchy responses and over time he and our family became friends. We moved not long after that, so that is the end of that story.

And the take-away: look beyond what you immediately see when dealing with old folks -- and young ones as well, I guess! "Reach out" to folks you care about, if you are able. Not everyone is comfortable talking about what's going on in their lives.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Dishing up the Dirt on Homesteading

One of the very primitive,
back woods locations
where I lived for a time.

I have been a modern day homesteader with two husbands in  three states and as many eras (70's western Colorado, 80's western Washington state and since 2008 here in Maine). My kids grew up largely off grid on homestead #2. I have always been connected to the earth, as have "my people." Some would grow, I'll tell you the story some time) since toddler, in my family's small yard in a sorta small town. Every summer we visited grandparents in Iowa and I helped with their large garden,
My maternal
weeding, picking and getting pummeled with early hail as i helped Grandpa put protection over his tomato plants. It seems I have always wanted to be away from people and close to nature and I have managed to do so whenever I could. Many of my ancestors farmed; others were itinerant workers who seemed to have traveled about several states in the midwest, using their equipment to help plant and harvest grain crops. It's in my blood, it would seem. I was planting things (not always things that

Life does not always cooperate and changes of situation ended me in an occasional city as that was where the jobs were, for my late-in-life chosen career.

I guess I was was a late entry into the "first" back to the land
Building a greenhouse
addition to our home
from PVC, early 80s
movement. Took another turn at it 10 years later and had to bail when the marriage went south. Twelve miles outside a poke-n-plum town is not a good place to try to find work and with heavy heart, I visualized myself as a "potted plant" so that I could follow the work that called me during the dot-com boom.

When given the chance, by unemployment insurance and other factors, I moved to my "dream location" -- or one of them. Maine was closer than Alaska.

Having been tech savvy for ages, I have frequented homesteading boards on a variety of venues. For most of the time that tech and homesteading have been able to share a universe, most of the participants on the boards -- at least those posting and responding -- have been "actual homesteaders." That is, people, whether living on a smaller plot in a town or a larger one "in the boonies" who are actually making a stab at doing the work. Occasionally there would be a "newbie" with questions, but they were much less common.

Recently -- like in the last month, I would say, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of aspiring homesteaders posting on my usual forums. Many are looking for land and all are looking for information, suggestions and direction. So, here goes. From the point of view of an experienced (and admittedly "older") homesteader... numbered but in no particular order other than the sequence in which I captured my thoughts.

1. Homesteading is harder work than you have ever done. I will grant the possible exceptions for those who have/do work in a foundry or the timber industry.

2. You will have longer hours. Unlike a more typical "job" or career, you can not really get away. You will be "on call" 24/7/365 for emergencies that will range from "fox in the hen house" to "hail on the garden." I know some folks have had success with farm sitters in order to take a vacation, but if you try this option, make sure you know their skills and they know your homestead. Milking someone else's goats is never quite like milking your own. Ask me about that some time!

3. "But I will be my own boss!"  WRONG, in so many ways. It's almost as bad as being a church janitor. You will be at the mercy of each and every bird and beast, the season, the changing length of the days, and of course the weather.

4. Unless you have won the lottery or are a "trust fund baby"
Starving Artist With
Food Stamp
I felt like I had won the
lottery when I found this $1
token in an old jacket pocket.
someone will still have to have off-farm job. Maybe both of you.
And while we are on this topic, have you heard the joke about the farmer who won a million dollars and was asked what he planned to do with it? Do you remember his response? Just keep farming until it runs out is more truth than you want to believe.

5. And while we are on the topic of money, monetizing a
Our short-lived
marketing venture
homestead is uphill battle. While you may plan, and hope to sell veg, fruits, home made goodies and even home raised meat, there are often expensive hurdles in the way to do so legally. And even if you surmount the hurdles, most likely you will be competing with others in your area that have been serving the locavore market since before you bought your land. Breaking into a market is not easy. And unless you are lucky enough to have a location where a farm stand by the drive is practical, it will mean more time off the homestead, "babysitting a parking lot" in town.

6. Work at home, on the other hand, can supplement your income. When I moved to my current homestead, I was running a small
At work, painting a
Dutch (Deutsch) hex sign
business doing graphic design and starting a side-line painting "Pennsylvania Dutch" hex signs. Both businesses, being based in virtual space, were quite portable, with a catch. Many of the properties we looked at in rural Maine did not have sufficient connectivity for me to ply my trade and we ended up in a less-optimal location. But compromises are often necessary and we are now planted her. The other issue with working at home -- like an off-homestead job, is that both eat up your time.

7. Accept it: cash flow issues are a given. Even if you are lucky
One of our first "tractors"
"Fergie" our old, used,
Massey-Ferguson tractor
arrives on the homestead.
enough to not have a mortgage, rural incomes skew lower and tools and equipment prices do not. Even the small commercial farmers that I know, struggle to keep old equipment running.

If you decry the cost of living in town, remember that rising prices of necessary tools keep pace with that of consumer goods.

8. You will learn why, back in the "old days" folks had large families. Many hands do make light work and if there are only two of you, get used to the idea of living a life of projects in process. Probably even if there are extra hands, as well. Pioneer kids were raised in a different world, with many fewer pastimes and distractions.

9. To end this list, let me remind us all that we do live in the modern era and can usually, if necessary, count on services like the police and fire departments and for that matter even the relative proximity and ease of access of various stores.  When I was starting on my second round of homesteading, I had three young daughters who were fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series of books. We read, and re-read them all and often when a problem came up someone would ask "How did the pioneers do it." The usual answer was "mostly they died a lot." This kept us appreciative of our position in time and space and the ability to choose "appropriate technology" from various eras, as needed.

So, all this being said, why do I do it? As bizarre as it sounds, it give me joy! Even though I am old and my partner in all this insanity is disabled, even though on any given day we both have to work through serious pain upon arising -- or even just to get up, we both know that the aches and pains represent true gain: fruits, veg and meat in our freezers and on our shelves. Food that we do not have to wonder about where it came from, how it
-- and homesteaders--
DO kick ass!

was grown, how it might have been contaminated between the source and our plates. And digging in the dirt, even more than plying my "trade" as a folk artist or actually spinning and plying the wool that our sheep give us, keeps me sane. I am thankful, though, for those sheep and my love of fiber, as much as I am the rest of our little homestead, as the spinning gives me balance and contributes much to my spiritual practice. But that is a story for another time. 

Good luck on your homesteading ventures!

Monday, August 27, 2018

Finding Time

It's hard to find time to write. I think that must be true for everyone who is not already a published -- and well paid -- writer or working for someone as a writer. The rest of us try to find bit of time to fit the words in between whatever daily life consists of.  Here at Fussing Duck Farm, which is also the home of, things are no different.

The farm has a flow of its own. Most years, at least, spring planting, early harvest and late planting, weeding and final harvest line up at least as well as the ducks on a typical day. I do have self aligning ducks, at least much of the time!

The flow of hex sign orders, over the years, has proven to be far less predictable. Not having a budget for paid advertising and having to rely on word of mouth, an occasional article in the local media, longevity of the site on the Internet and, of late, a social media presence has meant slower growth than most entrepreneurs would accept. But having worked in the tech industry during the early boom and bust years, I have seen first hand what "overgrowth" can do. And I deliberately chose the slower path. During the last few years, each year has seen not only a growth in the number of signs painted, but also the development of a "boom" period of orders during the year. Unlike many businesses, which expect higher traffic during particular seasons, or leading up to a holiday, there seems to be no correlation with anything in my peak times. They have not (yet at least) happened during the winter, when time to cut and paint wood, would not be fighting for a share of the daylight hours with extra chores for animals, vegetables and fruits.

Life on a small subsistence farm/homestead always seems to be a matter of juggling tasks. Aging, and ailing bodies does not make it any easier.

Today I moved the electric pasture fence on account of having had a young sheep on the lam yesterday. I got a late start, and hoped that by moving the fence, I could not only confuse him as to where the unauthorized exit was, but also supply some better green forage. Didn't work, as he was out less than an hour after I finished chores. I got him, and the rest of the sheep and the goats, since they all come running at the sound of the sweet feed being shaken in the jar, and I was glad to see Tractor Guy back from his early appointment in town to help wrangle his goats. I was planning to do a major reset of the fence this late afternoon/evening and that will go on as planned. However, with
Major Tom, being carried by Tractor Guy,
when we collected him and Enterprise
(center back) from the University of
Maine, Orono, earlier this year.
the wooly Houdini in the flock, they will get hay in their confinement pens tomorrow until we get back from another trip to town. We both have to go. Wednesday, you can be sure I will be keeping a close eye on Major Tom, the lamb that goes AWOL.

Meanwhile, I have packaged up the last of the large hex sign
36" Mighty Oak hex sign
orders from the queue, to be shipped tomorrow.  This Mighty Oak sign will be on its way, finally, to a very patient client in NC. I do my best to keep everyone informed during backlog times.  The order queue currently holds 11 individual signs that need to be painted for 9 individuals. After working so long as a commercial artist, both on the web and in print -- where everyone wants everything yesterday (on a good day) and last week (most of the time) I am thankful and amazed by my clients understanding and patience.  When the timeline gets stretched beyond belief and reason, in my mind, I always offer a cheerful refund but I have yet to have anyone take me up on it! Instead I get responses back like this one from a client this week: "Thanks for your reply, and your commitment to artistic purity and motivations. I look forward to seeing your work when received."  In these days of instant this and pre-made that, I am grateful and humbled by the responses I get.

So I guess I better get at it, eh? I currently have one of the 24" sign blanks with primer drying and I have brought one more of that size and four smaller ones in to begin the sanding and priming process, while the heat and sun keep me indoors.

Flax plants
growing in the garden
Flax lays on the ground
"dew retting." The dew and
ground moisture rots part
of the plant so the fiber
can be removed.
Flax laying in a
tub of water for
"water retting."
While I wait for the filler putty and primer to dry, I am going to attempt to quickly sew up a nightgown and a light weight summer dress, copied off an old dress, with some of the wonderful linen fabric that I picked up last month at bargain prices, thanks to a friend having brought it to my attention. As you can see, linen is on my mind this year, because of my attempt to grow flax this year to process into a bit of linen fiber.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rain, Pain, Death and Life

It has been a hot, dry summer thus far, so when the forecast said rain in a reasonable quantity and the elements delivered, we did not fuss. Yesterday was one such day with nearly an inch of rain -- much more than what has usually come on days when it was forecast. Seems for some reason, as the storms move in from the west, they part as they approach our farm and the rain falls to the north and south, but less often here.

Despite the heat, we have been doing out best to continue on the things that demand our attention. For me that's been weeding, digging garlic and potatoes and for Tractor Guy... well his concerns have been on being called for jury duty this past week. Because of health and other issues, asking to be excused was not out of the question, even though his honor leads him to always try to be the best citizen he can be. "Democracy is a participation sport," he says. The timing of the receipt of the notification and the requirement for offering doctors' letters, and the time required to obtain such written opinions were not on his side and so he planned to be prepared to serve, despite having to travel nearly 2o miles, without having any personal transportation. I was prepared to clear my weekday schedule for the next two months to make this possible, but since his first meeting at the courthouse was only half a day, I planned to do our major shopping and run some other errands while he was occupied.

Little did we know that the clerk of the court, despite what was written in the letter from the count, was willing to accept requests to be excused on that half-day orientation day, and I had literally just barely dropped him off and left the area before he was excused. There is no place to wait at the count, and he had no way to contact me once I had left, so he -- on legs that barely work, in the bright sun of an uncomfortably hot day -- began walking to the only place in my afternoon errands that had both a location and a time. I was meeting an Internet friend for the first time, at a local restaurant, to hand her a share of vegetables. His only concern was to make it there before I left; in actuality he got there not long after we both arrived, after soaking up the shade of every struggling little street tree and lamp post (I have said that Tractor Guy is a BIG dude, haven't I... in more than one direction! The idea of there being enough shade from a lamp post to make a difference to his abundant body still blows my mind!) He made it, and by the time I got back out to the truck, he said he could finally feel his hands again and they were beginning to work, after swelling badly during the VERY long walk. But someone with his medical and physical issues cannot do that kind of exertion without having to pay the piper a very large fee, and I am pretty sure he's not all paid up yet, four days later.

This is what 8 fryers, cut into pieces and
chilling/aging in the fridge look like!
Nevertheless, and regardless of the rain -- which should have been the call for a low key, low activity day here in the house for both of us, since I got pretty well worked over by my massage therapist on Thursday and the physical therapist Friday -- I had set yesterday as the day to finish harvesting the meat birds. They have been ready for a couple of weeks, I have been "picking them off" a few at a time, but with the grower feed running short (turkey juveniles eat the same stuff, but there are only 2 of them so it will last much longer than feeding the gluttons in the meat bird pen) I said "today" for what I thought was the remaining 7 birds.

I had been processing outside, which I really like and which was one of the main reasons I picked up the free picnic table last year, but... rain. So my plan was to bring them in for skinning and gutting, and I asked TG to help, since he could do this at the kitchen table, sitting down. You may remember that this is not really his thing, but at the last "chicken plucking day" at our MOFGA chapter, he pitched in on the plucking and even had a go at gutting, which was much harder for him because large hands do not fit well into smaller fowl.

We skin most of our birds and cut them into pieces before freezing, and I have developed a method of processing in which I remove legs and wings and then cut the breast from the back, gently separating the halves. This leaves the innards right out in the open, laying on the back. You can not only easily see what you are doing, but it gives easy access to heart, liver (to avoid the gall bladder) and eventually the gizzard. I knew he could skin the birds and help cut them, and I have no issue with catching, hauling (two at a time), and the butchering, nor with any other part of the process... but I figured extra hands pulling on the skin would save my hands and energy enough to allow us to finish all 7 in one session. Normally I do 4 at a time.

Well... I miscounted. There were 8. LOL But we got them done, the last of that chore for this year. There will be turkeys though; the old hen will eventually be processed for ground meat, and of course Thanksgiving and NewYears -- the young turks -- have their appointed dates.

When I went out to collect fryers #5 and #6, I had the random idea to check in the chicken house, where a banty hen and a Langshan hen have been occupying a nest. There were originally 12 eggs; one got pushed out and was obviously bad (exploded when I threw it out into the field) but every couple of days an egg has disappeared with nothing to show for it. I have been wondering what's up. We do have a rat problem, so they are a concern, both for eggs and potentially for newly hatched babies.

When I disturbed the banty, who was on the eggs this time, I heard cheeping! Baby sounds... but no baby to be seen. I looked all over, inside and out, tried to peer into rat-carved depressions in between the slats of the pallet walls, but found nothing. I suspected that one might have hatched and fallen into a hole, but not been found by a rat, so I asked TG to go out with me and to bring a shovel to excavate next to the holes in hopes of liberating the chick, if we were still able to hear it. He did, and
New baby, under the heat
lamp, now dry.
Yep, it's a banty!
Though Tractor Guy's
hand are big!
we did hear the insistent calling even before I disturbed the hen, but he had barely got started digging outside when a little black chick bolted from under mama towards me and got pecked at by the little hen! The little one was not yet dry, so must have just gotten free of the egg.

I had been planning to move both banty mom and her nest into the house, away from rats, while she attempts to hatch the remaining half a dozen eggs, and now I was worried about the holes and whether the inexperienced young hen might injure the baby, so I handed it to TG to bring in and warm, while I collected the last of the chicken harvest.
Mama Banty on her nest, which I moved
inside, into a tote, currently in the
bathtub, curtain drawn for privacy.

I moved the nest and hen later in the evening, and left the little chick nestled in mulch hay, in a bucket, under the brooder lamp.

Before moving the hen, though a bath was in order, once the messy work was done.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Harvest Season Monday

Oats, sacred wheat for harvest crafting
and flax hang to dry.
We are well into the beginning of the major harvest season here on the farm. The last few days, I have been delighted to be able to take advantage of some cooler -- though still seasonal, temperatures and spend more time in the garden. I like getting up early and I work with the seasons rather than the clock, but since "leveling up" to level 70, I find seemingly more challenges than upgrades. These long summer days, with late sunsets (which denote the time for me to put the animals away, wash the earth off my stiff, sore body and begin making supper) means bedtime gets pushed WAY back. I seem to need more rest than I used to, so I am not up at first light, or even sunrise, in the summer these days. And I do miss it. When I do manage to roll my stiff and aching bones out of bed, I always have lots in mind for the day.

First job today was heading out to pick up some hay. Even though we are conveying the goats and sheep to pasture these days, we need to have a stash of hay, in case of wet weather.  It may happen this week. If it (a) actually materializes and is (b) sufficient that the herd does not want to go out or needs to be brought in from pasture early, we need it. Four bales fit into the Subaru and that doesn't last a herd of 5 very long.

The forecast called for a chance rain this afternoon, but it did
Mulch pulled back, potato hill is revealed.
not materialize. I have mixed
Brushing off a bit of earth, more
potatoes appear in a close clump.
A bit of digging reveals the mass of spuds.
One hill, in the basket.
feelings. I am stiff and sore from the harvesting of late, but the garlic and 'taters won't harvest themselves. I manged to complete the garlic harvest and completed the first, 50' row of potatoes that I started yesterday. I definitely will be planting whole potatoes in the future, rather than cutting them into several pieces as is the custom these days. I got the idea to try the whole spud approach from watching a BBC historical farming program and like the results. I did not do a proper experiment, as there was no "control row" being planted the conventional way, but I lifted a full bushel of red spuds from my row, and the harvest was as easy as the planting! Each of the hills had a good lot to harvest, and all of the eyes having sent up spouts, I had no trouble finding and identifying the hills from the dried foliage. The potatoes were all in a tight clump, so often one spading and brushing the area by hand as I removed the potatoes that I could see was all the work that was required.

I also finished weeding the struggling onions, second planting of brassica tucked in amongst them, and the third planting of lettuce, which is also struggling and wanting to bolt. A sparse 4th planting will go into the ground tomorrow and I will start more seeds indoors as well.
I still have the second row of potatoes to dig, and the other experimental plants, that are growing from single sprouts, picked off some of the potatoes from the end of the storage season. They died back to the ground after an unexpected frost, but came back and unlike the plants from actual potatoes, are still green and fighting the potato bugs to grow; they will get harvested later, once they also die back.

Tomorrow is 28 days from the last weed control cultivation, so with a suitable working temperature and the prospect of rain on the morrow, Tractor Guy and Fergie knocked out that task for the month.

While TG was busy with that task, I attacked the backlog of hex sign orders and cut 3 of the 24" circles, two 12" and two 8" ones out of half inch plywood. I really need to pick up the painting pace and -- hoping for rain as a good excuse to stay inside -- I needed blanks to sand, prime and paint. I can bring them in from the garage in the rain, but have no location that is out of the
Custom colors on the familiar
Abundance and Prosperity sign.

weather for cutting them. With the most recent 48" sign on its
way to its new home, I am contemplating adding the custom paint job on this Abundance and Prosperity sign to my roster of standard offerings. I love the traditional, old timey feel of this version, which substitutes a delightful barn red for both the red and brown colors in my version of the sign. What do you think?

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Not Like a Maine Summer

I have friends all over the world, and all are reporting unusual weather. It's hot in Scandinavia, the UK, much of the USA and here in Maine for sure... along with humidity that I thought I left in North Carolina!

For those of us who do not do heat well -- this IS part of why we moved to Maine, after all -- it is a challenge. We have been relatively dry, as well, so weeding the garden has been hit or miss. Between not being able to pull weeds due to dry soil and the heat/humidity index, non-garden life interfering, and rain (YAY!! Finally!!) we are struggling.

Champion of
England peas
I pulled the main crop Champion of England peas and harvested seed from the Firenza petit pois peas before pulling them. I also harvested a bunch of very ripe Iona petit pois that I will process for use in soup (they get starchy as they age, which is ok in soup, less so as a side dish) but some of those vines are trying to come on with a bit more so I will hopefully have a couple of meals worth. Planted fall peas, again.. still have not got the timing right, but I keep trying.

I managed to weed and add weed block to the tomato plants, and some of them are setting fruit. The vine crops are finally taking
off; I needed to lay down some more cardboard and mulch for them, and fortunately scored some last week when I went to Dover, looking for packing material for the hex signs. I lucked out, really well, as the appliance store also had a half ton of floor tile -- the good kind with no texture that requires a commercial three-stage finish to look good -- for FREE! When I went back to get that (thankfully their fork lift dude was willing to load it into Artie!) they were hauling away the remainder of the cardboard. But I had hauled home enough to finish the vine crop area and package my wares as well.

36" Abundant Prosperity
This 36" Abundant Prosperity sign is on its way to Georgia, and I am on to the next sign in my rather large queue, an Abundance, Prosperity and Smooth Sailing through Life at 24". Orders just keep coming in, so I need to cut circles tomorrow, as well as attacking weeds, laundry and painting. It never ends, does it? But as a working artist, I am GLAD for the backlog of orders and especially glad for my very understanding and patient clients!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Eyes, Sheep and Hexen

After first surgery,
eye protection in place.
New temporary
My journey in the world of cataract removal and
recovery continues. After the surgery for my right eye was completed last week, I fell into a world of the Impressionist school of art. Not as much fun as it might sound, even if you like that school of painting. Nothing beyond the reach of my arm was in focus, which is much more disconcerting, even, than it sounds. It is the stuff that makes a "long term variable periodic housekeeper" into a slob, turns a farmer paranoid (is that black spot in the back field a cat, hunting or is is a loose Langshan chicken or something else that might be hunting both of the above and all but drove me mad.  The good news was that, this week during my one week follow up visit to the doc, I was able to wring an eyeglass prescription out of them AND get they papers for my drivers license eye exam completed and signed! The bad news is that the pressure in my eyes (which leads to glaucoma) was high enough to generate a prescription for more eye drops and a follow up visit next week. The worse news is that apparently the "your vision may take months to stabilize" and/or "these drops can cause blurry vision" resulted in the glasses, that worked wonderfully the day they were prescribed, not working at all yesterday. LOL Fortunately today was better.

Major Tom, left, being carried to the truck by Tractor Guy
and Enterprise, center, in the arms of Dr. Jim Weber
accompanies by Ann Bryant, both of U of ME Orono.
On another happy note, this was the week in which we brought home two new lambs... wethers (former rams) from the University of Maine Icelandic flock. Enterprise and Major Tom (the University naming scheme this year, "stars," was loosely interpreted by the students, as you can see! 
Enterprise, front and Major Tom, back, enjoying a
sweet feed treat in their new home.
Enterprise has proven to be quite a loudmouth... every bit a match for Moose. Between his hollering and Moose's response last night, Tractor Guy did NOT get lots of sleep! I like to give new critters a bit of time to settle in and meet their new housemates through the fence before throwing anyone together, so they will converse with Ribgy though the fence until early next week, when the crazy round of away missions ends and we will be here to keep an eye on everyone.

In the hex world, I shipped out this lovey and hugs Protection from the Evil Eye sign -- a full 4 feet in diameter -- this week as well. It's gone to Indiana and I am hoping to see pictures of it in its new home soon!

Fortunately the mad week of away missions seems to be coming to and end. Sunday is "chicken plucking day" with friends and the local chapter of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association,
so after getting the sheep shelter set up, we prepped for fowl catching after dark tonight. We will head out early tomorrow, with all of the spare roosters, the single remaining meat chicken from our first lot of them and our tom turkey and join in a group effort to butcher, clean and package everyone's fowl. I will be very glad to have the extra roosters out of the way; there have been far too many rooster wars of late and with my vision being less than usual, it has been very stressful hearing their fuss and not necessarily having a clear view of what is going on.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Finding the Flow

Sometimes a slow day is an "in the flow" day.

Since abbreviating Saturday's scheduled away day and passing totally on the event I had volunteered to attend on Sunday, I have been in a slow flow that seems to really be kicking butt in the productivity department.

It all started with Tractor Guy pushing himself to get the final bit of primary tillage done in the west (perennial) garden. He is a true northerner with a pale completion and knows he needs to stay out of the noonday sun... but like the "mad dogs and Englishmen" of the saying (though don't call him English!) he does it anyway. Then gets overly irradiated and suffers the next few days, which puts him off his flow.

Since I had previously made contact with the owners of the two solar powered homes that interested me (totally off grid, one running 120v AC and the other 12v DC) and plan to, some time in the future, get a chance to see their systems, I just took myself to the nearby home to help serve refreshments, and TG stayed home.

It's a BAG!
I still was not really wanting to spend a day away on Sunday, so I contacted the organizer of the event I was going to help with and found out that even without me, it would have sufficient volunteer support. As much as I had been looking forward to attending -- and had even taken part in a "knit along" project for the event -- I stayed at home.

We had much needed rain  Monday and Tuesday -- along with another unseasonable cold spell. At least the mercury only dropped to the 40s; I have heard of 30s this late in the year for a low, and after all, if mid-May is the average last frost date, there needs to be some much later than that, if my elementary school math is correct! It was not yet time to put the transplants out (and they are still on the porch, awaiting proper weather) but I did get the warm season crops seeds in the ground Sunday, in a whirlwind of gardening! I planted multiple rows of beans, corn, experimented with just throwing heads of wheat that I had used stalks from for crafting and transplanted the boc choy into gaps in the brassica rows.  This was the first day I had spent out in the garden all day long, and I was pleased and surprised that, while I was actually gardening, my back did not hurt!
Pea trellis... just in time. Last year's
sunflower stalks hold the plastic mesh.
I also got the pea trellis finally secured, or so it seems. I tightened up the plastic mesh where it attached to the sunflower stalks and used tent stakes and bailing twine to secure the dry sunflower tripods to the earth.

By the time rainy Monday and Tuesday came around, I was ready for slow indoor days. I planned a baking day for Monday and did it up right! Started off with a pound cake mix (strawberry shortcake!) followed by large batches of medicinal cookies for Tractor Guy and chocolate chip ones just for cookies. Even got all the dishes done... twice! And in between mixing and baking, I continued to sort and putter in the kitchen area, getting stuff sorted to appropriate locations.

9 yards of shirt fabric, blowin' in the
Tuesday, my organizing took to my work room, as I have to get ready for a big sewing project -- summer shirts for Tractor Guy! Getting the spinning and knitting stuff in a bit of order, kicking things that need to go to the garage out there liberated enough room to move the sewing machine to a more active location for a while and freed up enough space for the small "market table" (6' folding version) which I will use for cutting.

What amazes me in all this, is that on none of these days did I feel like I was working hard! They all, including garden Sunday, felt like "just loafing along, lazy days!" Heck, on Tuesday when I sat down for my morning coffee break, one of our kitties (Little Girl) hopped up in my lap for a pet-and-purr session and both she and I cat-napped off and on for almost 4 hours! If that's not a lazy day activity, I don't know what to call it -- unless it's "just in the flow" as it surely did not have a negative impact on getting stuff done.

Again, on Wednesday, the day started out slow. With his new edibles doing their job, TG slept even later than I did (those of you with chronic pain know how much it saps your energy. I hope those of you who have never been in that space never have to learn).

Some days start out with a burst of energy and then, just slide sideways into frustration.  After getting the hay burners out to their new pasture with LONG grass (picture very happy sheep and goats) I got busy with the next bit of outdoor projects before the rain, again. I cardboarded and mulched 4 more trees -- fruit trees this time, including two pear trees that got taken back quite a bit by the past winter. With the cardboard and mulch around them they no long blend quite as well into the almost equally long grass. Can I say we REALLY need to mow? LOL But between TG's health, needing to cultivate and rain, well the mower is still not on the tractor. I am thinking a walk-behind tiller will be in the future soon, or at least needs to be.

One of the latest hex signs
at its new home in
South Portland, Maine!
After dealing with the trees, and with Dump Day coming soon (new moon is on Wednesday next, but that is also eye surgery day, so dump run will have to be Saturday) and a need for an away mission on Friday to connect with turkey polts, I decided to empty and sort the contents of the old farm truck. It took a while but I have a bag of recycles, one of trash in the garage from behind the seal and all of the tie down straps are organized in an old, almost dead dishpan. I put my tie downs and ropes in their stash place, along with the jumper cables and we were ready to rock and roll Friday, off to the Maine coast to connect up with some baby turkeys and more meat chickens, all of which are now peeping like mad fools under lights in my work room.  Oh, the joys of being an artist/farmer.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Through the Mists, Dimly

I am celebrating the regaining of an hour plus each day, as I no longer have to endure 4 rounds of 4 eye drops a day. One round of non-medicated doesn't seem much bother, now. LOL

I had been concerned that my lack of vision was making me, as in my person, vulnerable. Now, I live in Maine and in the country at that, so this is hardly a serious issue, as it would be in many other places. But not having a clear view of potential issues here on the farm remains disturbing. I mistook a red milk crate in the neighbor's yard for a dead chicken, which is funny... but on the other hand all but 2 of our 14 meat birds have gone missing in the last two days with no sound from either the fowl or the LGD. This IS concerning. On the other hand, it appears my intuition is alive, well and taking up the slack, as I was confident enough in the "recognition" of a neighbor and her car (her from the back, car by color and general shape) when we passed them, with hood up alongside the road, that I had Tractor Guy, who was playing chauffeur, turn around and go back to offer aid.

48" Abundance, Prosperity and Smooth
Sailing through Life sign destined for
South Portland Maine.
 In the hex world, it has been a bit of challenge to get signs cut and painted around "no dusty environment" cautions from the doc and the impressionist painting that is how I currently see the world, with or without my glasses, but this big sign, a standard design with custom colors, was picked up by its new owner here at hex central this week, and I shipped out a 24" Welcome to Massachusetts early in the week. I have a 24" Protection sign in process, a 48" blank cut for the Protection from the Evil Eye which is next on the list and another 24" sign on order as well. With my next, and last surgery on June 13, I should be able to complete these two and get a good start on the third before then.

Pea trellis, using last year's sunflower stalks!
After the wet and cold early spring, late spring has turned bone dry. I thought for sure that the seeds I had soaked and planted the same time as the peas -- which germinated quickly -- had all given up the ghost, or that my vision at ground level near by feet was bad enough that I could not tell their spotty germination from the emerging weeds. I knew the peas could use a drink, so I had Tractor Guy haul the garden hoses (it takes two, 75' lengths, to reach the area of this year's garden) and added a 4 port hose manifold, with Y splitters on a couple of the ports, to try to maximize efficiency. With many soaker hoses to deploy, I attacked the watering issue and on that particular trip to the garden I was surprised -- and rewarded -- to see seedlings! Every row showed germination, even the spinach, though it is spottier than the beets, carrots and chard. My brassica is still struggling and I will either have to try to start more seedlings or buy some starts. Likely I will do both this coming week. We continue to have occasional lows in the 40s, with Sunday night's forecast low predicted to be 41F so I am loath to transplant the tomatoes and vine crops. Maybe next week. #hopeforagoodseason