Thursday, March 26, 2015

Honey and Honeycomb

Psalm 19:9-10  King James Version (KJV)

9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

Word pictures.  I like them.  I am a visual person.  If you really want to get me to remember something, draw a picture using words.  That's what the Psalmist did. When talking about the Law of the Lord, he said the commandments are everlasting and just and represent absolute Truth.  He didn't stop there.  He went on and compared the Word of God to gold and honey.  What is more desired than gold - especially in hard and uncertain times?  The Gold Standard.  Gold is a store of value. What can be sweeter than Honey?  Sugar, you say?  Nope.  Honey is twice as sweet as sugar.  If you are substituting honey for sugar in recipes, you use half the amount of honey.

A friend of ours came by the other day and had just robbed some honey from a wild hive in the woods and he shared with us 3 big pieces of honeycomb.  Our friend is a beekeeper and told us stories about bees.  Did you realize that bees are the only insect that makes a product that is edible? The honeycomb was heavy, sticky, and aromatic.  It was dry on the outside, but the bees cap off the cells with beeswax. When you cut into the cells, the honey oozes out.  I cut a chunk off of it to get a closer look:

You can pop the whole thing in your mouth and chew it up.  It is waxy, because of the beeswax, but it is edible, but you can do other things with it as well.  For instance, we put each a chunk of honeycomb in our coffee cups on Sunday afternoon to sweeten our coffee.

A little cream and sugar HONEY!
Upon pouring the hot coffee in the cups, the honey immediately dissolves.  What remained on top of the coffee was a swirling mass of stuff that didn't look appetizing.  It wouldn't hurt you to consume it, as it was merely beeswax, but it was just weird to have something floating in your coffee so I skimmed it out.

The coffee, of course, sweetened by honey, was delicious and satisfying.  We don't use much refined sugar at all and substitute honey, so we didn't notice much difference in the taste of our coffee, but...

Waxy cups - a mess to clean
When we were finished with our coffee and the cups cooled, there was a coating of wax all over the inside of the cup that proved to be quite difficult to clean.  Tricia scrubbed and scrubbed and used very hot water to finally remove all the beeswax from the cup.  Since honeycomb used to sweeten coffee resulted in too much work, we won't do this again.  Instead, in the next few days, we'll show you what we did with the rest of it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Having an Outdoor Supper

It was cool the other night.  Tricia made homemade tortillas, chicken and Mexican rice and suggested that we build a fire outdoors and eat outside.  Good idea!  While she finished up with supper, Benjamin and I got a fire going with numerous oak and pecan branches that had fallen all throughout the yard during winter storms.

We arranged several cut logs that we used as seats and set them in a semi-circle around the fire.  Then we sat down with our plates full of food, said "Grace" and enjoyed supper around the campfire.  It was nice to do this while the weather was still cool and before the swarms of mosquitoes arrive.  We looked up at a beautiful starry sky as we ate.  A cloudless night sky made the stars seem extra-bright and we remarked how looking up at them always makes us feel so small and insignificant. We also discussed the constellations and Benjamin pointed our Orion's belt.

It would have been a real trick to hold our plates while we ate, but Tricia served us on TV trays.  Do you remember those?  At my grandmother's house when we were young, she had some large TV trays that had legs that folded out and you could sit in a chair and watch Carol Burnett, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Rockford Files, or Wonderful World of Disney.  Now we try to eat at the table so the TV trays don't get much use.  Actually, our TV trays were made for 'breakfast in bed' as the legs are very short.

Gazing into the fire on a crisp, starry night 
As we enjoyed the evening and each other's company, we looked at the dwindling firewood pile that has less than 30 pieces of wood on it.  That is all that remains of the firewood we split from the large water oak tree we felled in the front yard 3 years ago.  We've burned a lot of firewood in the fireplace, but the wood inventory from that tree is low.  Fortunately, we cut 3 trees down this past summer.  If you look closely to the left of Tricia's back in the photo below you can see the stack of logs that need to be split.  Benjamin and I will work on that project before it gets too warm.

A campfire supper
We weren't alone for supper though.  Nosy Rosie showed up to enjoy the fire as well. The whole time we were there, she camped out right by us, chewing her cud and eavesdropping on our conversation.

Nosy Rosie joining our campfire meal
But she wasn't the only creature joining us.  The 3 hens that roost on top of the brick pile stretched and preened their feathers before fluffing them out and taking a seat for the night.  Up until December, they would roost on top of the firewood pile, but since that pile disappeared, they moved over to the brick pile.

The big water oak tree we cut down 3 years ago reminded me of something that I hadn't though about in a while and I told Benjamin about a job that existed back when I was in Elementary School that is obsolete now.  Back then, we didn't have Dry Erase boards or the computer boards.  We had blackboards (some were green) and the teacher would write our lessons on them with chalk.  The erasers were made of felt and after writing on the blackboard, she'd erase the board.  After a while, the erasers would be filled with chalk dust.  What to do?

Well, she would call on students to go outside and "dust erasers" against the big water oak tree that was just to the east of the school.  We would dust the erasers against the tree, banging them on the bark as billowing white chalk dust covered the tree and us with dust.  The tree seemed to always maintain a white tint that only disappeared in the summer.  The job of dusting erasers has gone the way of the buggy whip makers as time marches on.

Barred Rocks Roosting
After a little bit, Amy the heifer, sidled over and took a seat on what remains of the last hay bale. I'm sure this talk of dusting erasers was riveting and she had to come listen closer.  Although laying on the bed of hay is comfortable for her, it is a reminder to me of how wasteful cows can be.  Even with a hay ring, I estimate the cows waste a good 10% of the bale.

Chewing cud on a bed of hay
Finally Daisy came and sat down behind Amy and Annie, the dairy goat, did as well.  

With all the barnyard animals bedding down for the night, we realized that it was about time for our bedtime as well.  We told the animals good night, picked up our TV trays, and walked back inside, happy for the opportunity to enjoy the simple things in life like starting a fire and sitting around it with the ones you love, talking, laughing and enjoying the evening together.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

The cupboard is bare!

The Empty Hay Loft
Early last week I climbed the ladder into the hay loft and threw the very last bale of Jiggs Bermuda hay down for the cows.  It echoes up there now.  Cavernous.  Empty. Like the Aesop's fable of the Ant & the Grasshopper, in the summer we (the ants) work very hard to put up hay for the cows knowing that even though it is sweltering, winter is coming and the cows will need hay.  We stack the bales of hay 3 bales wide and four bales high and it fills the loft until no more will fit.  Then we don't touch it until December.

We know how many bales of hay we have in inventory in the barn and we know how many days until Spring arrives.  We ration the hay in the loft and give the cows round bales free choice.  The square bales in the loft are a higher quality hay and our cows are hay aficionados.  They smell the hay, sampling it for aroma and then taste it, letting it linger on their tongues.  They tell me that the hay has hints of apricot, blackberry, and finishes with a smooth oakiness to it.  (Joking)  They are spoiled, though.

For several days after we had fed them the last of the square bales, they waited in the same spot where we would bring it to them after cutting off the baling twine. Only none came.  It was all gone. The cows moo'd in a melancholy tone.  Finally, defeated, they ambled off to the round bale and began picking at it slowly.

Oh well, a few days in the seventies and I can see the grass growing.  The cows have been increasingly in the pasture, heads down, eating, but for now they are eating it as fast as it grows.  We also have been rotating them throughout various sections of our yard.  We've fed them all of the turnips and I'll start feeding them Mammoth Mangel beets probably this weekend.  In short course, the grass will come in strong and I'll put up the cross-fences to separate our pasture into paddocks for our rotational grazing program.

The life of a farmer is filled with cycles - the seasons, the annual sowing and reaping, routines, just like clockwork.  Last week we pulled the last square bale down from the hay loft.  I passed by our neighbor's beautiful hay field the other day.  The Bermuda is thick and green and putting on nice growth during this first week of Spring.  Before we know it we'll be stacking hay back up in the loft...

Monday, March 23, 2015

One of the world's healthiest vegetables

The broccoli and cauliflower have all been harvested, along with the carrots.  We're finishing up the last of those veggies in our refrigerator crisper.  One vegetable that is just starting to come in strong is Swiss Chard.  It is one of the world's healthiest vegetable and is chock full of nutrients.  Not only is it nutritious, but it is absolutely gorgeous growing in the garden.  Just look at the pictures below!:

Swiss Chard
If you look at the leaves, they are somewhat thick, shiny, and resemble beets or spinach leaves.  This is because they are all in the same family.  The ribs are brightly colored and the veins in the leaves contrast against the green leaves.  To be honest, I don't know why they are called Swiss Chard since they didn't originate in Switzerland.  Actually, they are from the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Sunlight filtering through the Swiss Chard leaves
You can tell I have several different varieties of chard growing.  On the far left you can see some chard that is green with white ribs.  Some has red ribs and others have pink ribs.  When the leaves are relatively small, we'll eat the whole thing, ribs and all.  When the plant gets bigger, the ribs get tougher and we'll cut them out and feed them to the cows and goat.

Here is a close-up of the pretty ribs that are all different colors from the bunch of chard I picked for supper tonight.  The leaves/stems were nice and tender and I was able to just snap them off with my hand versus using a knife.

Chard stems/ribs
I brought them inside and Tricia cooked them down in a cast iron skillet with some butter, water, and kosher salt.   The leaves and stems were delicious.

Chard - a delicious, nutritious, beautiful side dish
We've found that Swiss Chard is very similar to kale in that as you pick leaves off the plant, they will grow more and more.  You'll get more and more to harvest as the season goes on.  That's a good thing, because we'll be able to enjoy eating it for a while.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Hardening off Tomatoes

With the weather warming up, it's about time to start thinking about moving our tomato plants into the garden.  The onslaught of rain that we've had over the past couple of weeks, however, has made the garden seem more like a swamp.  That's okay, though. While the ground is drying out, we'll move them out from under the grow lights in the utility room and outside into the 'hot-house' or cold-frame I made by putting a couple of hinges on some old windows that someone was throwing away.

I moved out half of the tomato and pepper plants from under the grow light and put them in the cold-frame that I set up on the back patio.  The process of hardening off just gets the plants acclimated to the variety of outdoor weather that includes warmer days, cooler nights, wind and rain. I'll put half of the plants in tonight and the other in on the next night.

Here are the remaining tomatoes that we'll leave under the lamp just as insurance. I'd hate to move them all outside and then have them all crash.

I watered them real good, but notice that the leaves on the tomato plants are yellow.

I think they are telling me that they need some fertilizer and I have just the stuff to give them what they need to green back up and grow.  I use fish emulsion, which is essentially ground up, dried fish. I add a tablespoon of fish powder per gallon of water into a garden sprayer.  I pump it up and will spray it on the tomato plant leaves tomorrow once I have all the plants moved outside.  The downside to this stuff is that it stinks.  If you don't use it all in one spraying and have some leftover, I'd suggest dumping it out.  If you leave the fish emulsion fermenting in your sprayer for even one day in warm weather, you will have a powerfully smelling stew of nastiness on your hands.  (Experience talking.)

The following day I moved the rest of the plants into the cold frame.  They filled up the whole area.

Now that they are outside I sprayed them with the fish emulsion.  Hopefully, in a couple of days we'll see a nice transition from yellow leaves to healthy green ones.

In a few days, I'll remove the glass sides from the cold frame.  Then, as soon as the garden dries up, I'll get these plants into the ground in the garden.  The weather is supposed to be really nice this week.  Can't wait for that!  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The 2015 Meat Birds - Five Weeks Old

Five weeks old.  I brought them to the scale for the weigh in in the blue bucket that I carry their feed out to them in.  The birds are growing.  Next time I'll likely need 2 buckets.  The Cornish Cross can crane his neck over the edge of the bucket.  He tried to fly out as I was crossing over the fence and I had to push him back down into the bucket.

The Red Ranger looks to be about half his size, but that is par for the course.  The Cornish Cross is supposed to mature at around 8-10 weeks and the Red Ranger around 12 weeks.

I took them both out of the bucket so that you could see the size disparity between the two.

Well, let's get them on the scale.  First up the Red Ranger.  A grocery store sales circular was used to line the top of the scale in the event that the bird pooped.  

Zooming in on the scale, you can see that the Red Ranger weighs 1 pound 2 ounces today.  Last week he was 12 ounces, so he gained 6 ounces over the past week.

1 pound 2 ounces
Now it's the Cornish Cross' turn.  When I placed him on top he started squawking.  

Looking at the scale closely, we see that this old boy weighs in at 2 pounds 4 ounces today.  Last week he weighed 1 pound 4 ounces.  He gained a pound.  He's not having any problem finding the supper table, is he?

2 pounds 4 ounces
Speaking of the supper table, I wanted to show you their supper tables.  This week I actually slid an additional trough in.  They are growing and all of them were having difficulty reaching the food with only one.  The trough on the right is made with a corner piece of a metal barn and the trough on the left is actually a pvc rain gutter. 

The birds will hop up in the troughs and eat while sitting on top of the food.  They aren't much on manners.

We'll check in on their growth in another week.  If I had to guess right now based on current weights, I'd say that we'll be butchering the Cornish Cross birds at the 10 week time frame.  I don't have enough experience with the Red Rangers to venture a guess.  We haven't lost any birds this week and they seem to be active and growing nicely.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Root Crops before the Spring Grass comes in

I was reading an article about early farming practices and they were talking about how many small family farmers in the Middle Ages had to dry off their milk cows and essentially butcher most of their non-breeding stock in order to make it through the winter without grass to sustain their animals.

A man named Lord Charles "Turnip" Townsend (nice nickname!) around the year 1730 instituted a crop rotation system that included wheat in year 1, turnips in year 2, barley in year 3, and clover in year 4.  This crop rotation helped improve the condition of the soil as the different crops have different nutritional needs.  It also helped the animals and farmers.  Around the Middle ages, farmers found that using beets and turnips as feed for cattle and this enabled them to better carry their livestock over the winter when forage was slim to none.

I wanted to mimic this practice and began rotating root crops like turnips and mammoth mangel beets that we use as a livestock feed to supplement the hay that we keep over the winter to feed the animals.  This is a welcome treat for the cows, goat, and chickens as the Spring grass hasn't come in yet.  We have patches of clover that we rotate the animals into with temporary fencing, but they gobble it up quickly and bellow for more!

As you can witness, the leaves of the turnips are large and succulent, a real treat for the cows, goat, and chickens. Then there is the large roots that the animals love to eat.  They all line up at the fence like you would at a buffet line and feast on both leaves and roots as I toss them over.

Here is what's left of the turnip crop.  This was entirely full of turnips a couple of weeks ago and now I have approximately 15% left to pull and feed and the turnips remaining should buy me a few more days until the grass comes in.  I give the cows about a 1 foot deep swath of turnips every afternoon and they look forward to seeing me eating turnips everyday when I get home from work.

I'll pull handfuls of turnips up and shake the topsoil off of them back into the turnip patch.  Most of the time I'll cut the long, skinny tap root off.  I find that growing root crops loosens the soil, alleviating compaction and prepares the soil for planting the Spring crops.  I'm thinking that I'll plant tomatoes here this year as I haven't planted tomatoes in this patch in four or so years.

I'm not sure that I need to do this, but I do it to 'baby' the cows.  I take a garden knife and cut the turnips up into disks.  Those greedy cows might try to eat too fast and choke on a big, fat turnip. While I'm cutting them up, the cows begin to beg, pacing back and forth.  It's pitiful, really.

And finally it is chow time.  I hand over turnip disks and spoon-feed them.  First to be fed is Daisy as she's the matriarch of the pasture.

Then it's Rosie's turn.  There's lots of crunching, chewing, swallowing, and then begging for more. That process continues and is punctuated by frequent cow belches.  I'm serious.  Their belches stink. I'll continue doing so until I am tired of cutting up turnips or standing in the cow belch vapors.

They enjoy the turnips while they last and by then the grass will be coming in.  If not, I have a half of a row of Mammoth mangel beets that I'll cut up for them.  They like them a little bit more because they are much sweeter than the turnips.  Either way, cows love to eat root crops!

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