Sunday, November 23, 2014

We're not the only ones who dehydrate foods

The goats have been sneaking into the rye grass paddock and eating the tender shoots of ryegrass that are coming up.  We're saving that ryegrass for later in the winter and are trying to let it get lush and thick prior to putting the livestock in there.  So the first order of business today was to run a second strand of electrified poly-wire to attempt to keep those goats out.

As I was attaching the poly wire to the perimeter fence, something caught my eye on the top strand of barbed wire.  I walked closer and this was the macabre sight I observed:


Impaled on the barbed wire fence
It's kind of interesting that just yesterday we blogged about dehydrating bell peppers to preserve them and store them for later use.  Well, it seems we aren't the only creature that dries food to save it for later.  While this might look like there is some sadistic psycho on the loose that is torturing frogs by impaling them on the spikes of barbed wire, no human is responsible for this treachery.

Who is doing this?  I didn't see the perpetrator, but I google searched and found that there are at least two birds in Louisiana that do this - the loggerhead shrike and the butcherbird.  I'm not much of a bird watcher so I can't say that I know what those birds look like.  Who knows, it could be any number of birds.  It's gotta be a bird.  This frog didn't commit suicide.  But why do the birds do this?

Poor Kermit
This unfortunate fellow was a rain frog.  As kids we always called them "pee frogs" because if you catch them in your hand, they pee on you.  This rain frog met his unfortunate end at the hands (err... feet) of a bird that stuck him on the fence so that he could come back and enjoy his meal at a later time. I've also seen small garter snakes impaled on this same fence.

It's not easy being green!
It's not easy being green, indeed!  The frog sits on the barbed wire spike and dries in the sun.  He actually turns into 'frog jerky' and the bird will come back to eat him similar to the way we reach into our pantry to enjoy food we've preserved.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Drying Peppers (and a review of our new vacuum sealer)

Yesterday we picked a peck of frost-wrecked peppers.  What to do with them all? We cooked some of them.  We chopped and froze some more and today we'll dehydrate some peppers.  I like to diversify our storage methods to offer some 'insurance' in the event we lose power and as a result, lose everything in our freezer. That would not be good.

Dehydrating offers another method of preserving the harvest and a way to hold the fruits of your labor in a shelf-stable way.  Drying peppers is easy.  I guess the most time consuming part of the task is slicing the peppers to a 1/4 inch thickness.  I washed up the peppers, got out a knife and the cutting board and got busy.

Slicing Peppers
Once sliced to the appropriate thickness of 1/4 inch, we arranged them on the drying racks in the food dehydrator.  You can see the green color of the peppers as well as the red color and the deep brown color of the chocolate peppers.

Arranged on the drying racks and ready to dry
We set the dehydrator on the Vegetable Setting which blows air at a temperature of about 135 degrees Fahrenheit and turned it on.  According to the directions, you let it blow for anywhere between 4 and 12 hours or until the peppers feel "leathery." Here is a tray of leathery peppers all dried after staying in the dehydrator overnight. These dried peppers can be added to soups, gravies, or any other dish. They are packed with flavor and once re-hydrated and cooked, make a great addition to your meal.

Dehydrated Peppers
And that's all there is to it.  Except for, of course, storage.  You just have to make sure that the peppers are kept airtight and you can store them on a shelf in your pantry for whenever you are ready to cook with them.

This is a perfect opportunity to showcase our new vacuum-sealer.  This unit was relatively inexpensive and was easily to assemble.  It is an energy star appliance that actually uses no electric or hydrocarbon-based energy to operate.  Let's take a look at the vacuum sealer.  All you do is put the dehydrated peppers in a Ziploc bag and seal it tight except for one side on the end.  Insert a drinking straw and seal the ziploc seal tightly around the straw.

The Vacuum Pro Sealer XL
To operate the sealer one must put the straw into your mouth and inhale.  Hold the ziploc bag tightly around the straw and suck deeply.  This action turns the sealer on and you can observe the air being evacuated from the ziploc bag.  Once there is no more air to suck out of the bag, while you are still sucking on the straw, quickly pull the straw out of the bag and simultaneously seal the ziploc bag completely, preserving the vacuum.

Powering up the Seal-A-Meal
And there you have it, folks.  One tightly sealed bag of dehydrated peppers.  The bag is labeled and dated and will be stored in our pantry until ready for use in Tricia's kitchen.

The Finished Product
Our vacuum sealer is useful and comes recommended highly.  A few users of this product have complained about the lack of the bag to hold a vacuum, but that is more a function of a poor airlock on the bag and not a poor reflection on the operator of the sealer, also known as the sucker.  Ha Ha.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The First Freeze of Winter

Well, Jack Frost visited us a little early this year.  The average first frost date for our zone is November 21 - 31.  We had temperatures dipping down to 30 degrees on November 15th and again to 30 degrees on the 18th and 19th.  It gave us an opportunity to get a roaring fire burning in the fireplace and we sat in the den and enjoyed the cozy evening.  When the fireplace is roaring, I like to go outside and just smell the oak wood burning.  Smells great!

I actually like the cold weather.  It is a nice respite from the hot, muggy days of summer.  Some vegetables in the garden don't like it, though.  I walked out to survey the damage.  Our yellow squash plant's broad leaves were burnt by the cold. Those leaves acted as a broad blanket as they sheltered the younger foliage underneath it, but once the next freezes come, this plant is toast!

Frostbite
There was a number of young yellow squash that we were hoping to eat once they matured; however, we'll have to eat them as "baby squash."

Baby Squash
The Contender Green Beans didn't like the cold weather either.  The leaves and blooms on this row took a beating and are all curled and withered.

Cool Beans
There were some green beans ready for picking so I quickly snapped them off the plant.  The plants won't make it, but the beans will certainly make it into the pot for supper.

Mmmmm!
The volunteer tomato plants that grew up from seed from tomatoes that fell to the ground during Spring and Summer shrugged their shoulders and surrendered to the frost.  Never fear, I planted parsley right next to them and the parsley will overtake the area that the tomato occupied.  I snipped off a handful of parsley and cut it up to top a delicious bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo last night. Parsley really adds a nice fragrance and taste to a warm bowl of gumbo.

Tomato is gone, but here comes the parsley
On another row of beans I noticed a stark contrast between the large green bean leaves that were burnt by the freeze against the kelly green tender smaller leaves of the same plant.  I won't pull them up.  Maybe they'll produce a few more beans.  If not, their roots are still setting nitrogen in the soil. If the beans won't feed me, at least they'll feed the soil. 


I did meander down the rows and picked produce that was in danger of being lost. That's the thing about gardening - you've got to stay on top of it.  If you wait one day too late, you risk losing some of the items you grew.  We love homegrown vegetables too much to allow them to waste.  So I brought the colander out and picked a few green beans and baby yellow squash.  We won't see this again until Spring 2015, so we're going to savor every bite.

Fresh Picked Goodness from the Garden
I also picked 8 packed cups of basil leaves off the plants and turned it into pesto.  I froze it in individual family-sized servings as we've found that thawing out a container of pesto and boiling some pasta makes for a quick (and delicious) meal.

Washing basil leaves in the vegetable sink
Finally, I picked all the green bell peppers, chocolate bell peppers, cayenne peppers, and jalapeno peppers off the plants as those plants will be gone after the freeze. Tricia has been making stuffed bell peppers with rice and ground meat inside topped with homemade salsa and the whole family has been enjoying those things.

A peck of picked peppers
I'll show you something else we did with the remaining peppers tomorrow.  Even though some of our plants can't make it through the cold weather, we can!  Stay warm friends!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Nemesis - Fire ants

I hate fire ants.  Seriously.  Our pasture is full of them.  Mounds and mounds of fire ants litter the landscape.  In the yard, I've thrown up the white flag and will purchase a bag or three of Amdro and poison them as I don't like to be bitten by them.  The pasture and garden, though, is another matter. We try not to use any pesticides where our animals roam and eat since we don't want the chemicals around things that we're going to end up eating.

This has led to an interesting dilemma.  The fire ants build huge mounds.  Some of them are over a foot tall.  Being that chickens love to eat bugs, I thought that maybe the chickens would eliminate them.  That proved to be a faulty assumption.  The ants don't seem to bother the cows, goats and chickens, but they bother me.  When it rains the ants ball up and float until they get to higher ground and inevitably I'll step in them and my ankles will be covered with bites.  Or they'll seek someplace high and dry like the nesting boxes in the chicken tractor.  When we go to collect eggs, the nesting box will be full of fire ants.

A huge fire ant mound
Even when they aren't biting you, they cause other problems.  For one, their tunneling pushes up weed seed and bitterweed and other pesky weeds will grow from the middle of the ant pile.  I'll pull those so they don't produce seed and proliferate across the mostly weed-free pasture.  Then, and arguably the most troublesome is just the existence of the mounds.

I have 3 chicken tractors in the pasture that are on wheels.  The meat birds will reside in one and the pullets will reside in the others until they are old enough to lay and then I'll open the doors and let them free range.  The problem with the ant mounds is that when you go to push the chicken tractor to fresh grass each day, you hit an ant pile and you must either lift the tractor up and over the pile or move the tractor to avoid it.  It's just troublesome.


Dadgum ants!
I've tried several 'natural' ways to eradicate them.  Someone said sprinkling instant grits on the ant pile would get 'em.  The theory is that the ants eat the grits and then when the grits get wet in their stomach, the grits expand and blow up, thus killing the ant.  We tried it and had no success.  Not only was it not successful, it was wasteful and blasphemous for a Southerner to do such a thing to grits!

I tried another method that told to use the ants' territorial nature as a weapon against them.  This was indeed a 'shovel-ready job' but wasn't funded by any government stimulus dollars.  You were to take a shovelful of dirt and ants from one mound and put it on a neighboring mound and vice versa.  The theory was that the ants from neighboring "tribes" would battle each other and kill each other off.  No noticeable effect.  Benjamin and Russ have been known to put firecrackers in ant mounds and light them.  This is great fun.  The mound is blown up and it kills many ants, but this isn't really an efficient way to get rid of ants.

We tried putting fresh cow poop on top of ant piles.  We have plenty of that around! You know what?  This actually works - not to kill them, but they all pack up their little suitcases and move (to another location nearby), so it is not a real panacea. One thing that works is pouring boiling water on the mounds.  I'll boil 8 cups of water in the microwave and then carefully carry the bowl outside and pour on top of the mound.  This cooks the ant pile and ants and kills the colony.  This is loads of fun if you are bored, but really isn't practical if you have numerous ant piles spread out over acres of pasture.

So bottom line is, I'm still looking for a natural way to kill all the fire ants on Our Maker's Acres Family Farm.  At this point I'm still searching for a solution and I can't seem to find one of these guys for sale on Amazon.com.
Image Credit
If you have any natural ways to kill fire ants, I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Picking up Pecans

The arrival of Fall means that leaves begin falling from the trees.  We'll mow those leaves eventually and then rake them up and work them into the garden soil.  There is something else falling from the trees besides leaves, though.  Pecans!  What is Fall and Thanksgiving without a piping hot from the oven, delicious pecan pie made with Steen's Cane Syrup? We are blessed to have four pecan trees in our yard and at least three in the pasture.  We end up having much more that we can use.

We also have a pecan orchard on the family farm that was planted by my Great Grandfather.  The pecans at the farm are bigger than the ones that we have at home and they are easier to shell.  Our pecans are very small and difficult to shell, but they are rich, fat, and full of oil.  Our local feed store has a mechanical pecan cracker, but our pecans are so small, they won't work in the machine.  That's okay, though.  I enjoy sitting in front of the fireplace on cold nights and cracking and shelling pecans.

Before you begin cracking and shelling, you've got to get out there and pick them up.  The shortened days don't allow me the daylight to pick up pecans on weekdays, so Tricia and Benjamin go outside and pick every day.  Just look at the ground.  You can't find a square foot area without a pecan or two.  And more fall by the day!

Pecans 'a Plenty!
Now you can pick them up the old-fashioned way - by bending over and picking them up and tossing them in a bucket.  Or you can use a couple of back-saving methods.  We have two different contraptions we use that are both based on what I call the "Slinky" technique.  I purchased this first one from a local hardware store. You simply hold the handle, point the pecan picker upper right over a pecan on the ground, and push down on the device.  The 'slinky' will open, allowing the pecan to enter the holding area.  Rinse, wash, repeat until the 'slinky' is full.  Simple as pie. Pecan pie.

Pecan Picker Upper #1
This second contraption is one from my childhood.  It is the same general principle, except instead of stabbing down on the pecan, you roll it.  When you roll over the pecan, the 'slinky' opens to accept the pecan and closes and will fill quickly.

Pecan Picker Upper #2
On Saturday Benjamin and I got outside for a few minutes and it didn't take long for us to fill a 5 gallon bucket.  He used one of the picker-uppers and I used the other.  It was quick work and soon we had picked up everything under the tree right outside the back door.  A quick glance skyward tells me that there will be more to pick tomorrow, and the day after, and so on and so forth.

Emptying Pecans in the Bucket
You can work fast or you can be slow and steady.  Both methods enable you to collect pecans that we'll eat on for the next year.  We'll also give some away and allow our neighbors to come pick pecans from our trees.  The only reason that you don't want to go too slow picking them up is that you are competing with critters for the pecans.  We have lots of squirrels in the trees that are interested in the commodity that falls from the treetops.  If you work too slow, they'll put a serious dent in your pecan harvest.  You can see some evidence of the squirrels' eating pecans below:

Evidence of Squirrels
So far we have 3 onion sacks (we call them crawfish sacks) full plus a half-filled five gallon bucket. We'll still pick up a few more, but this should be enough for our family for the year. 

2014 Pecan Harvest (so far)
We'll hang the bags from trees on low humidity days and allow them to dry.  One year I jumped the gun and began shelling pecans before they were dry.  I looked in my bowl of beautiful shelled pecans the next day and noticed that they were all molded.  Such is life in a high humidity zone, but I won't make that mistake again. From what I read, you are supposed to let them dry on screens or in mesh bags for 2 weeks.  You can test to ensure they are dry enough by shelling a few.  If the pecan half breaks, you're all good.  If it bends, you need to leave them out hanging to dry some more.

It's a lot of work between picking them, cracking them, and shelling them, BUT when you take that first bite of homemade pecan pie, well... you'll know immediately that your labors were worth the effort! 


Monday, November 17, 2014

Goldenrod Honey

We have a vacant field across from our home that used to be planted in rice and most recently in soybeans, although the field has been left fallow for the past several years.  That is just fine with us. Dewberries grow up wild on the outside levee and me and Benjamin and Tricia are able to go right across the road and pick buckets full of the plump, sweet berries and we turn them into jelly or freeze them whole to make wonderful goat milk and dewberry smoothies for breakfast.  Or pies...  Or cobbler with homemade ice cream on top!

In the summer, beginning in July, the same field that provided gallons and gallons of dewberries also provides something else.  Goldenrod.  Goldenrod is often blamed for giving people allergic reactions. Actually goldenrod season coincides with ragweed season and gets the blame for a lot of what ragweed causes.  Here is a picture of our goldenrod field just north of our mailbox.  A rich golden color glows and if you look closely...

Our Goldenrod Field
You'll see that not only is the field glowing, but it is buzzing.  Bees are flying all throughout the goldenrod field going absolutely crazy with the pollen.  In fact you can scarcely find a stalk of goldenrod without a honeybee or two on it enjoying the intoxicating goldenrod nectar.

Image Credit
The reason I bring this up is something odd happened the other day.  We were having our home re-roofed.  It's a painful subject to be sure.  If you've read our blog before, you know that we have a colony of bees that live in a hollow column that supports the roof over our side door.  They access their hive through a small gap between the top of the fiberglass column and the roof.  If you stand by the column at night, you can hear and feel the vibration of thousands of bees.  It is kind of scary.

Our bees have never stung us, but sometimes they're very active and on those days, our guests don't enter our house through the side door, but through the garage. When the roofers were working on our roof, the bees were very active.  So much so that they put off roofing the side of the roof near the bees because they were afraid of getting stung.  Actually, one of the roofers did get stung when they started removing the existing roof.  I guess the bees didn't go for all the hammers banging and they were going to wait until winter to finish up on the roof.  But Tricia told them that it would be best to begin roofing that side very early in the morning when it is still cool and the bees aren't as active. That's exactly what they did and they got it done without running from a swarm of angry bees.

Entrance to the bee hive
So, what in the world does this have to do with goldenrod honey?  Well, one of the roofers told us that something smelled like spoiled milk near the column of bees. Odd.  We got close to the column and sure enough - it smelled like cheese or something going bad.  What could it be?  I asked my beekeeper friend and he smiled and told me that it was goldenrod honey.  He said his wife absolutely hates it because of the smell, but that he loves it!  Here's an excerpt from This Article regarding Goldenrod Honey:
Nectar sourced from Goldenrod produces a distinct honey. Fellow beekeepers warned to not be alarmed when Goldenrod is in bloom. Even when opening the hive and before harvesting honey, the smell is markedly different. Without this advance notice, I would have been concerned something was wrong. Some written descriptions categorize this as a spicy smell. Others suggest a faint licorice aroma. The leaves of Goldenrod (actually a member of the herb family) do smell a bit like licorice when crushed so perhaps that is a nice way to characterize it. Honestly my best descriptor for the smell of Goldenrod honey is "cheesy".
Goldenrod-based honey is a rich amber color, much darker than honey harvested after the bees have foraged on spring flowers such as clover. It is almost as dark as maple syrup. There is a slightly spicy taste and, thankfully, nothing cheesy. The honey is truly delicious.

A Column-full of Bees AND Goldenrod Honey
I'd like to try some goldenrod honey.  Although the honey smells, it is said to be delicious.  (I've never known honey that wasn't!)  There's only one problem.  I don't know of an easy way to rob the honey out of our column.  I guess the only way I'll get to sample the distinct taste of goldenrod honey is to purchase a jar from my buddy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Last Hurrah

The cows have picked through the remaining grass in the pasture.  What remains is the long, mostly innutritious grass with seed heads.  I contacted the gentleman that sells us round bales of hay each year and asked him to reserve about 24 round bales for us.  He'll deliver 6 bales at a time and we roll out one bale at a time into the pasture and put a hay ring around it and the cows eat it at will.  It normally takes them about a week to polish off a bale.

Our hay man will deliver the first delivery on the weekend following Thanksgiving. We normally try to start feeding hay beginning on December 1, but this year is a little different.  We've already had a light freeze last week and expect a heavier freeze on Tuesday.  This will knock out the remaining grass and we'll supplement with the square bales that we have up in the hayloft until the round bales arrive.

Not appetizing to the cows
We do have a little spot where the grass is still green.  We call it the 'sacrifice pasture' and it is right south of the barn.  I ran a 'jump wire' from the perimeter fence to electrify a temporary electric fence around the sacrifice pasture and moved Daisy, Rosie, and Amy into the area.  They ran into it and stayed, heads down eating, all Saturday.  In the late afternoon, all 3 of them were sitting down, full, chewing their cud. They were very happy and had all eaten their fill.  Later that afternoon, I opened the gate and they lazily walked to the barn.

The Sacrifice Pasture
There is still some good grass remaining in there and I'll move them in there the next time I'm home in daylight hours to watch them.  A couple more times into the sacrifice pasture and they will have it all grazed down.

Rosie, Daisy and Amy eating the last of the green grass
They'll have to be content with hay from now until Spring.  Usually we'll have some clover that will pop up out of the barren, brown, dormant grass and we'll let them enjoy that, but that's not until after the first of the year.  I have hundreds and hundreds of turnips planted that we'll supplement their winter diets with.  They love turnips.

Last night after milking, Daisy ambled up to the gate to get back into the sacrifice pasture.  We laughed and pulled her away from the gate and out of the barnyard and locked the corral behind us. Since the sacrifice pasture only has electric fence, we have to remain outside keeping watch over them as we can't have them escaping. There is a busy road not far away and the old adage about "the grass always being greener on the other side" is always true in a cows' mind. 
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