A Blue Egg, a Chicken Tractor, and a Watched Pot

Ever stare at your tea kettle or your pasta water? Even though you’re not supposed to, because that particular old wives’ tale happens to be true. It’s as if the beams of expectation from your eyes are a cold fog that suppresses the bubbles of steam you so eagerly want to see.  Just by looking, wanting, yearning, you smother it.

Sometimes homesteading can feel a little like that.  Not always, of course. If toiling on the land were equivalent to watching the pot, there would be no point in working, no visible results from your efforts. And of course that’s not true. The hard work does produce results, but damned if it isn’t slow sometimes!

I know for a fact that my capacity for patience and perseverance has greatly expanded since I left the city and moved to the woods. I am reminded when city friends come to visit and, though we remain alike in so many other ways (musical tastes, political views, etc.) I have become a little quaint to them, while they have become a little frantic to me.

But still. Sometimes things happen too slow! I can’t help it. I want to think it and then have it be so. Maybe a little sketching and a budget drawn up in between but that’s it. Ready, set, GO! All of this nonsense with growing seasons, gestation periods, and of course having to build things ourselves, they’re a real drag on my progress.  It seems eons ago that I decided I wanted to have a dairy goat so I could make cheese and have raw milk. More than a year ago for sure. And tons of work went into it. Rebuilding the barn. Learning about goats. Finding a breeder. Choosing a doe. Choosing a replacement doe when the first one died. Waiting for her to come into season. Waiting for her to get bred. Waiting for babies to get born. Waiting waiting waiting. I mean SHEESH.

But unlike the pasta water, these projects can’t get set on a back burner if they’re ever going to get done. They need constant tending. Maybe not frantic tending, at least not all year long. But you can’t do a little work and then run off to some new thing when waiting for results gets too boring.  Just because the bees didn’t work out this time doesn’t mean we give up on bees for good. Just because we are doing broilers this year doesn’t mean we don’t also have to plan (and plant) the garden.

Now, of course my whining is about 97% sarcasm. I absolutely love my life, and the slowed-down pace has been so good for me.  I am healthier, happier, and more conscious than I have ever been. I have so much! I am so lucky! But sometimes the excitement necessary to get a thing started produces a side effect of antsyness to see the thing done.  It can’t be helped.

And then, all of a sudden, when you had almost given up, the water starts boiling.

new blue egg

After months and months of feeding a bunch of freeloader chickens, we are finally getting eggs from all of them. Even the Ameraucana holdout.

And in the same week I did the broiler budget, and looked at dismay at my calculations for the cost of building a chicken tractor – not to mention wondering when on earth we’ll have time to do it – this one shows up on Craigslist for $40!

All we need to do is add a partial roof and some wheels and we're in business!

All we need to do is add a partial roof and some wheels and we’re in business!

Funny how one blue egg and a clap-trap arrangement of wood and screws and chicken wire can set a soul on fire, but I will gladly accept that it is true.

Help! A Chickenundrum

chicken lady

Dear Readers, I need advice.

I am trying to pencil out my next project: raising broiler chickens for my freezer. I don’t intend to sell them, or if I do, it would only be to friends and family, not for profit or commercial sale. I very very much want to raise them on organic, soy-free feed, and I’ve found a place that makes it about two hours from where I live.

The problem, obviously, is cost.  Organic, soy-free feed is about $.22 per lb more expensive. Calculating that up to cover 25 birds for 11-12 weeks, things start getting pretty damn expensive, raising the price per pound of meat by over $1.

Now let’s add in the second problem: my lack of experience.  I have to accept the fact that my first crack at raising meat birds is probably not going to go perfectly. I may lose birds due to disease, weather, predators, not picking the right hatchery or the right breed, etc. As I get more experience, I would expect that these losses will go down, but some trial and error must be part of my overall plan.

Aside from the vast improvement in flavor and quality of meat, probably one of my biggest motivators for raising meat birds myself was to get out of the GMO/soy agribusiness economy. So why on earth would I go with conventional feed, ever, even one time? On the other hand, its it more prudent in terms of my long term goals to do this first batch with less financial risk involved, and invest more money into it when I can be more sure of successful results? After all, I’m trying to balance this new project with all the other ones I’ve started (bees, dairy goats, garden, laying hens, horse, etc.) all with their own financial commitments.  Not to mention this first batch comes with the additional expenses of setting up the large chick brooder and building a chicken tractor.

Oy, I just don’t know!  Has anyone out there gone through this before? And if you haven’t, from just a consumer standpoint would a home-raised, free-range but NOT organic or soy-free chicken have any special value to you, or would you just prefer to pick one up at the grocery store? Is it worth it for me to start a project aiming for only half the mark, or should I go all out from the beginning?

A Five Day Fire

5 day fire

Once again, I rose at 4 AM, with the Fella.  As he prepared to leave for work, I crouched in front of the fireplace and with a few breaths, coaxed the coals in the fireplace back to flames. This fire has been going for five days now. Five days in which the nighttime temperatures threatened to freeze the pipes (but thankfully didn’t) and the daytime temperatures never warmed up enough to thaw out the crunchy ice that pushes up the mud and leaves along the path. Five days in which the downstairs of our house remained cold enough to see your breath, this fire kept the upstairs cozy, sometimes even balmy, and the pot of water with orange peels (for the humidity and the scent) on top in constant need of refilling.

It’s the seasonal migration that happens here every year. In the summertime, the upstairs is so hot and stuffy one only comes up here to grab a change of clothes and later to sleep in front of open windows and beside an electric fan.  In summertime, the downstairs is a dark, cool cave; a place of refuge from the crackling dry heat outside. We live downstairs in the summertime. Upstairs in the winter, when the first floor feels like a walk-in refrigerator and there’s literally no concern about forgetting to put away your leftovers after dinner, because your pot of chicken soup will be cold to almost-frozen in the morning.

The days are getting longer. I sit and listen to my five day fire, looking at the frost-flecked leaves outside my office window, but my mind is full of springtime plans. The materials list to make the chick brooder. The seeds to start for the next garden. Red wigglers. Baby goats. Cheese caves. The tendrils are tiny but they are growing, fast and strong, reaching for the sun.

Peaches Isn’t Here Right Now, But if You’d Like to Leave a Message….

Peaches isn’t here because she’s on a getaway with a handsome stranger.  Yes, we finally pinned down her heat cycle, picked out the papa, and drove her up for breeding today!

It's 22 degrees at our house, and 17 degrees up at the breeder's place, so to keep Peaches warm on the journey, we wrapped the cage in old sleeping bags and filled it up with fresh, dry straw.

It’s 22 degrees at our house, and 17 degrees and snowy up at the breeder’s place, so to keep Peaches warm on the journey, we wrapped the cage in old sleeping bags and filled it up with fresh, dry straw.

Peaches trip 2

Tucked in and ready to go!

It was probably still a very chilly trip, but she made it intact and was her usual, unflappable self.

It was probably still a very chilly trip, but she made it intact and was her usual, unflappable self.

At first Peaches wasn't too sure she liked her suitor, who admittedly came on a bit strong.

At first Peaches wasn’t too sure she liked her suitor, who admittedly came on a bit strong.  Tongue-waggling and grunting and being very pushy.  And worse.  Much worse. Hard to imagine a universe in which peeing all over yourself on a first date is sexy.

But within a few minutes she stopped running away and let him get a closer look at her...assets.

But within a few minutes she stopped running away and let him get a closer look at her…assets.

Eventually she warmed right up to him.

Eventually she warmed right up to him.  Kind of amazing, but thank goodness!

She’ll stay there for about a week, just to make sure she definitely gets bred. And in about 5 months . . . little goaties! And milk!







So Lucky


Just look at that. That is the third gigantic pile of farm fresh citrus I’ve juiced up in the last three weeks! For some reason I have been the insanely lucky recipient of multiple bags of oranges, tangerines, ruby red grapefruits, Meyer lemons, and clementines.  People I know with citrus trees just have too much to manage right now, and I am reaping the benefits. Living in California is awesome!

What Have I Got to Say For Myself?

I am acutely aware that I haven’t posted in a while.  The thing of it is, this blog started out as a sort of social outlet, a conversation if you will, about my daily life and my dreams for the future.  It was a way to keep my momentum going.  But I was single then.  It seems terrifically unoriginal, disappointing even, that I feel less inclined to blog now that I have a in-person human partner to share things with.  “Sara got a boyfriend and now she never hangs out with us anymore. So lame.” But it’s true.  I’m not really the type that loves to just talk about myself all the time, so it’s a bit hard to muster up the inspiration to do so when I feel like I’ve been sharing everything with someone all day long already.

On the one hand, I am happy to trade a blogging life for a love life.  Fun as it is to post pictures of my adventures on the internet and receive feedback from this growing community of people both familiar and strange, it’s even better to carry in the firewood and draw up the chicken tractor plans with a real live person.  On the other hand, I don’t think blogging and having a partner are mutually exclusive.  Plenty of other people do it, after all.  I may no longer be able to call myself “a single girl” going back to the land, but the overall mission is still the same.

The truth is, I might not post as often, but there will still be plenty of plans and schemes to share.  Before and after pictures to boast about.  Even some moments to wax rhapsodic now and then.

So with that in mind, allow me to fill you in on the latest Domestead news!

1. We are observing Sober January. Between the Fella and the Roomie and I, we have been known to put away the ale faster than a Shire-full of hobbits.  This merry-making naturally crescendos to a bit of a frenzy during the holidays, and by New Year we’re all a little worse for the wear and in need of some rest and, well, detoxification.  Last year Paul and I were alcohol-free for all of January and it was such a good thing there was no doubt we would observe Sober January again this year. The Fella is on board, as are the rest of the Ranch Folk.

2. We will break our alcohol fast with our own home-made beer! The Fella and I are totally committed to reducing costs and adding creativity by making our own brews.  We won’t break the fast until the beer is ready, and, if I have my way, we won’t be buying beer at all 2013 (okay, except maybe for special occasions.) Turns out my Pa is into the idea as well, so we may have a little Ranch brewery bubbling along in the not too distant future.

3. Peaches is getting bred this month! That means little goaties and goat milk (finally!) by June. Very exciting to know this project will be moving forward after stalling slightly due to my lack of funds.

4. The winter garden is chugging along. It’s been COLD. But the layer of straw on the beds has kept everything – kale, beets, peas, onions, garlic, chard – alive. We harvested the mature kale plants heavily for New Year’s dinner, but they are super resilient and are already sprouting new leaves. God I love kale.

5. We are getting about 1 egg a day from the hens. They are smaller than the eggs Flora and Fauna used to lay. I think the old girls have officially retired. The new layers are the two Barred Rocks I got as pullets this summer.  The one lone Ameraucana still hasn’t started laying, but maybe she’ll start now that the days are getting longer (it’s still awfully cold though, she might wait until spring).

6. The bees, sadly, didn’t make it. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion about that for a while, but the rain kept me from checking. Well, the rain and my dread about facing it.  I’m not sure yet what happened. I feel like I stopped feeding them before I should have. I was confused by conflicting sources of information (i.e., my instructor said ‘don’t feed in winter,’ but did he mean winter as in ‘when it gets cold,’ or winter as in ‘the specific season before spring’?; the organic beekeeping lady said it was wrong and unhealthy to feed bees sugar; the wild bees by my uncle’s house are thriving; etc. etc.). They also could have had varroa, although I hadn’t spotted any when I tested them, and was told that new colonies are usually fine the first year. Sigh. An expensive undertaking that I have to start over with. But I definitely want to try again. Hopefully I’ll be able to reuse the hives and frames (depends on what killed them off.)

7. Haven’t been riding in a long while, although I pass by old Hammer on my walks to the river. He’s just as cheerful yet wizened as ever.  That is definitely something I need to put some effort into this year. No more slacking on riding!

So that’s the long and short of it. Some good, some bad. Such is life on the Domestead.