We Don’t Waste Enough Food

Part of the appeal of chickens on a homestead is that they are low-maintenance and low-input livestock that create valuable outputs: manure, eggs, meat, pest control…

They feed on kitchen scraps, weeds, bugs, and some grain. What more could you ask for?

The chickens–the big Buffs, Australorps, and SL Wyandottes–are now happily spending most of their days in our mini-orchard eating many weeds and grasses and all the bugs they can find. They still head into their coop and feast on their usual feed as well. And I have them trained to come running when they hear a bell, which signals that there are special treats to be had.

The problem is that I’m having a hard time coming up with those special treats, which should be the kitchen scraps. We just don’t seem to produce any!

Honestly! Our compost bucket is full of coffee grounds, egg shells, banana and orange peels, onion and garlic skins. That’s pretty much it. There are, occasionally, a few kale stems, broccoli stalks, and lettuce heels, and I have tried to put those out for the chickies, but they don’t seems interested. “Really?” They seem to look at me and ask. “Greens? But we eat all our favorite ones everyday! That’s not special!” And the greens stay littered on the ground in the run.

They LOVE leftover porridge, rice, noodles, bread, and cereal. And I do try to save them some. Really. But aside from the bread heels a couple of times a week, those don’t really qualify as scraps. Friends gave us a pile of beautiful mangoes a few weeks back, and there were more than we could eat before they got overripe, and the chickens LOVED those.  But otherwise, normally I just buy or make enough for us to eat, or I add leftovers grains to a soup at the end of the week. So now I’m either making extra for the chickens (which makes me happy, but isn’t exactly the economical equivalent of waste!), or I’m not making soup.

Sigh. So now I’m torn. I either spoil the chickens by making them their own meals, or I give them more scratch as treats, or they don’t get any treats. All sad options. 🙂

What’s a wannabe farmer to do?

Hap-py Blogiversary!

Yep, I made it to 100 posts!  And thanks to all of you who have been reading along and commenting, we also cracked the 300 comments mark!  It’s been quite a year.

One of the things I like best about reading people’s blogs is that they can chart amazing transformations in people’s lives in such short periods of time.  When I find bloggers who have similar interests and goals to mine, I am inspired to see what they accomplish and how their lives evolve.

I never thought I’d have a record like that for my own life, and it’s very rewarding to be able to look back and see some big shifts over this last year.  It’s even more rewarding to have those same bloggers that I follow commenting and creating supportive networks that help us all move forward on our journeys.

This mini blogging marathon has also taught me a few things these last couple of weeks.

Writing almost every day has been good for my other writing projects.  I never quite belived that writing a journal or morning pages was that useful for me when it came to my other writing; I often felt like the time I spent journalling got the writing bug out of my system for the day and allowed me to procrastinate better!  But I think blogging has been more effective because, for me, it’s not a journal per se.  I’m not just recording what I’ve done each day; I’m working through the ideas that preoccupy me and trying to put them into some kind of logical order for others to read.  In fact, (as you probably noticed for better or ill) I’m writing mini-essays.  I have an academic paper to write this week, and I’m feeling better prepared than I ever have to write it, because of all this practice.  As I haven’t written an academic paper in a few years now, I’m really feeling the value of that–I know what it feels like when those skills are rusty!

On the other hand, I don’t think at this point that I’ll keep up with posting so often.  Not because I’m tired of the self-imposed pressure; I clearly have a busy mind, and I haven’t run out of things to write about yet!  But because when I do craft one of those deeper posts, I think there’s some value both for me and for others to have it sit out there for a little while.  My readership is up a little from the consistent posting, but comments have been down.  I know I don’t have time to read and comment on blogs every day the way I used to, and I suspect I’m not alone.  Sitting down to catch up with a favorite blog and wading through a pile of posts each week is not only a little daunting, but it makes me feel like the conversation has passed and I keep my responses to myself.  I like the rhythm and space to reflect that comes with posting once or twice a week.

On another note, it feels like there’s a kind of synergy in the air these days.  My passions are coming together and becoming more and more concrete; I can’t wait to see where they lead next!  When I started this blog a year ago, I was contemplating a forced career change, and wanted this space to be writing practice and a potential food hub page for the Cowichan Valley.  I expected to be posting a little about my own backyard garden, sharing recipes, but also reporting on food events, restaurant reviews, and culture in the wider backyard of my community.

But in these last months, what I’ve realized more than anything is that I’m not content to be a detached “reporter” of others’ efforts to build food community in the valley.  I want to do it too!  I don’t want just to write about food production and admirable young farmers, I want to be a food producer myself–I want to get my own hands dirty! 🙂

So watch for some big changes over the coming year, both to my life and to the blog.  I have a vision taking shape, and I’ll be working on a new website to reflect that vision.  Thanks so much, once again, for reading and following along!

The Learning Curve

Just a quick link to this truly wonderful post that I came across thanks to the blog hop hosted every Thursday by Sustainable Eats, among others.  I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Chandelle’s blog at Chicken Tender:

We Suck at This!

I hope I never have to farm under quite the same circumstances as she and her family are experiencing right now, but there’s so much here to relate to about the learning curve that any of us contemplating the move to farming (on any scale) from our “normal” 21st century urban lives…Enjoy!

Watching for Bees

There was a brief item on the news this morning that caught my ear.  Blueberry farmers in the Fraser Valley (which produces a LOT of berries for North America) are three weeks behind in their crop and harvest because of the cold weather.  No surpise there.  But they are also concerned because even though the plants are now flowering, the temperatures have been so much colder than normal that farmers aren’t at all sure that they will get normal levels of pollination, which could also mean a much smaller crop.

Here I am, trying to wrap my head all the time around the intricate interconnections of the natural world, and I hadn’t even thought about the bees!  I saw bees around our place a while back, probably the last time we had a warm day.  According to the farmer on the radio, bees start flying around at about 15 degrees (C).  Just yesterday, the Skipper and I were exclaiming over the beautiful showing of apple blossoms erupting on our many trees.  Last year, crazy weather meant that we were hit hard by powdery mildew and most of the blossoms didn’t open at all–they were stunted and rusty and we got about 5 apples total from several trees.

This year, my theory has been that even though it’s been cold, it’s been consistently so.  No wild temperature swings between February and May to fool plants into thinking it’s safe to come out and then getting blasted by winter once more.  So I was hoping that we might get lucky with the slow creep toward warmer temperatures that might be more normal from a plant’s perspective.  And so far so good–the trees are covered in perfect pink blossoms, and the blueberries, strawberries and cherries are all starting to flower up nicely.

But now that I think about it, I haven’t seen a single bee in those beautiful flowers in days!  And when I have noticed one, it’s been remarkable, which means that there aren’t many around.  Usually I’m not noticing bees one at a time, I’m remarking at the sight and sound of swarms over the available blooms.  And as I’ve been getting ready to plant all of the summer “beneficial insect attractors” from seed in the newly cleared beds, I hadn’t even thought about these early plants that will be long past flowering by the time those new annuals come up…

So there’s another reason to keep our fingers crossed for warmer weather.  Come on out bees!

Depletion and Abundance: Building Resiliency

Prepare to be poorer.

That’s one of the most central messages in Sharon Astyk‘s book, Depletion and Abundance. And it’s really not a message of fear and doom, but a new way to look at the whole question of self-sufficiency.

Last year, I did a little blog series On Self-Sufficiency, where I worked out my thoughts around what self-sufficency means. At the end of the series, I decided that I was going to move toward thinking about self-reliance instead. After all, once you work through the idea that you want to run away and create a little kingdom where you can survive anything on your own, most of us pretty quickly decide that divorcing ourselves from the wider community wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. Self-reliance became more about learning to be able to provide what I could for myself, while not needing to do it all, and recognizing that building community is where real security lies in uncertain times.

Astyk, though, has painted a picture that has me thinking a little differently again. It’s all the same dots–climate change, peak oil, food costs rising, etc–but she connects them in a way that’s fresh for me.

The upshot is this. Climate change means more “natural” disasters more often. More flooding, more tornadoes and hurricanes, more intense storms, more droughts. Sound familiar?! But the realistic impact of these is that in our wealthy Western world, the government will declare states of emergency, send in the troops, provide emergency reimbursements for losses. In other words, society will expect our leaders to take the same steps that it traditionally has when a major disaster hits, only it will be called upon to spend that contingency money more often. Again, this sounds eerily familiar this week…

So one major impact of climate change is that higher levels of government spending are needed.

Peak oil, of course, is going to make everything more expensive. Again, this is happening already. In Canada, at least, a recent report confirms that everything is costing more, even when gas is isolated (which, of course, it isn’t!).

I don’t know about where you live, but the general state of things at the momentalso  seems to be that governments are already facing massive debts and budget deficits. The US is barely functional, if the recent federal budget debacle is any indication!

So we take governments that are already in debt, combine that with heavier demands for emergency funds, and higher costs for everything under the sun, and we get….yep, you guessed it… higher taxes and spending/program cuts. And we get those at the same time that we as individuals are facing those higher costs for everything too.

So whether all of this happens quickly and apocalyptically, as many thought was happening during the big crash in 2008, or whether this is indeed a “long emergency,” and regardless of the whole conversation about mitigating climate change and shifting away from fossil fuels, most of us are facing a financially challenging future.

What I like about Astyk’s response to all of this, is that she doesn’t suggest that we are all doomed, or that we should run away and learn to live in the woods. Instead, she just says in a practical way, you’re going to have less cash–so how are you going to earn it, and what are you going to spend it on?

Becoming resilient is not about becoming totally self-suffienct as an individual or family. It’s about finding your own balance of how you might meet the challenges of the future. Most of us will continue to work for some money, and we will still need money. But we need to think about where that money will need to go. Will you be able to afford a long commute? Or perhaps doing that commute will enable you to meet all of your other needs without money. Can you save your money to buy staples like grain and grow the rest of your food yourself, rather than needing to move to a really large property that would make growing those grains yourself possible? Maybe you want to save your cash to run the computer and the washing machine and not put in the expensive solar panels because you can meet most of your other needs yourself. Maybe, like us, you have family across the country and you will need to save cash for what undoubtedly will be more expensive flights. We can make that happen if we make trade-offs in other ways.

Prioritizing is one important part of planning; diversifying is another. This is a psychological shift that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I grew up thinking about finding vocation, career, calling. In reality, I’ve always done a lot of things, usually working at a couple of different jobs over the course of a year while in school. Though my job is still insecure, I have nevertheless had work full-time or close to it teaching for the last 5 years. As I disclosed in an earlier post, I also want to farm for some of my income. I also love to write, and always have a few projects on the go. For a long time, I thought all of this needed to be either/or. I struggled thinking I needed to BE a teacher, or BE a writer, or BE a farmer.

Now, though, I’m finally coming around to the fact that all I need to BE is myself, in a happy life with the people I love. That likely looks like doing a variety of things to earn some income, building resiliency through growing and harvesting food–domestic and wild–devoting time and energy to good relationships with family and friends (who, after all, are the ultimate safety net), and building relationships and strong networks of support in my community, to ensure that we all survive together.

Resiliency means having a wide range of skills and resources available, and the flexibility and creativity to adapt.  No one can have all the skills and resources necessary for a fulfilling life (plain survival is something else, I guess), so we gain resiliency–and security–through networks and multiple ways to meet our needs.

All of this also makes me feel a little better about our finances.  Although we could/ should be building up a reasonable cash cushion when possible, our money is going into building our resiliency in other ways.  Saving for the future is good, but putting in a woodstove means one less need that requires money to meet.  Storing emergency food is important, but having a garden with some reliable perennial crops, knowing our wild edibles, and being able to save seed makes a big impact in how much food we might need to store, and how varied and healthy a diet we might have should we ever have to survive off those stores.  And both protect us from needing to be wealthy should food costs soar in a crisis.

So, oddly, all this reflecting on an uncertain future ended up making me feel more empowered by the choices we’ve already made, and more confident in making decisions to come.

How about you?

I Could be Harvesting…

A couple of days of much warmer weather and sunshine after some intermittent showers have meant that many of our early spring crops are growing by leaps and bounds.  Let the record show that as of May 10th (give or take!), I can start harvesting crops in reasonable amounts–ie not just herbs etc for garnish!  I could be snipping lettuce, spinach, chives, rhubarb, pea shoots, sage, purple sprouting broccoli, radishes, arugula, asparagus….all the early spring edibles that we’ve been waiting so long through the winter for.

But for some reason, although I’m thrilled beyond measure to see all these lovely treats growing each day, and though I’m excited to see the carrots, beets, chard, kale, and scallions sprouting up nicely, I’m just not inspired to start eating.  Every time I’m ready to get a meal together, I contemplate the options in the garden, and none of it seems appealing.

Could it be because even though the plants say “May” the weather still says “March?” And consequently I’m still cooking simple pastas and soups, and craving storage crops?  Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been so busy finishing up the teaching semester and squeezing in all the gardening time I can that all I can bring myself to “cook” are sandwiches?  Or perhaps it’s just being out of the habit of eating out of the garden after a winter of being back at the grocery store?  It’s only been a few months, really, but I do feel a little out of sync.  It could be that I’m so wrapped up in the planning and planting that my stomach’s forgotten what it’s all for.

Maybe it’s all of the above?  Anyone else in a food slump despite the excitement of the burgeoning life outside?

By the way, I realized today in glancing at my blog stats, that if we all work together I could pass TWO milestones on my blog-iversary.  I’m just a few posts away from 100, but I’m also just 10 comments away from 300!  So if you’ve been lurking and looking for a reason to say hi, please do!  And thanks so much to my regular readers and commenters for all the thought-provoking and chuckle-inducing messages over this year! 🙂

More Spring Projects: Check!

Just a few pics and updates.

When we moved the chicks out to the coop, we were hoping to integrate the two “flocks” fairly smoothly.  But it became obvious quickly that the new ones were just too small to defend themselves against the older birds, even those that aren’t aggressive.  They don’t stand a chance right now against the older Wyandottes or those 3 Buff roos.  But we needed them out of the house, and we also needed a simple set-up for our housesitter to manage the two groups while we’re away in a couple of weeks.

So the Skipper partitioned off the coop with some wire to keep the two groups in contact in all ways except physical.  And then he had the stroke of genius to open up the nest boxes and take out the partitions between the 3 boxes to creat a little extra space where we are keeping the food and water for the little ones but that we can conveniently access from outside.

After a couple of days in this arrangement, we noticed that everyone was roosting up on the top roost together, right through the wire. 🙂

At the same time, we wanted to get the older birds some regular access to their summer forage area–our developing orchard.  So Skipper fenced off a large area, put in a gate for us and a little latchable door out of the chicken run.  And they were off!  I posted pics earlier of the happy chickens enjoying the weeds and grass, but here’s a pic of the fence:

Pretty!  Just outside the fence in front here is a cherry tree, and then our transplanted rhubarb.  There’s a little patch left next to that that I’m going to sheet mulch and plant probably some quinoa or amaranth.  A sunny spot for a tall plant that the chickens will enjoy eating later in the season.  And the fence may enable some more space for tayberries or other climbing/training food plants…

Yesterday, one of the Wyandottes finally discovered that the apple trees don’t just provide some cover and tasty treats on the ground.

Unfortunately, she also seemed to find the leaves and newly-emerging blossoms quite tasty!  Hopefully they won’t do too much damage.  Famous last words… 🙂

The next project was to figure out how we were going to cover the raised beds in order to move the tomatoes outside asap.  We decided after some experimentation to go with 6 ft lengths of 1/2″ pvc pipe in simple hoops, to which row cover is clipped with 1/2″ irrigation pipe, which seems to clip quite tightly (much better than clips made of 3/4″ pvc).  Should work well!

We can’t stake around our beds to keep the hoops up, so Skipper fastened some pipe clamps to the side of the bed, and then created a sleeve out of 3/4″ pvc that the hoops slide into.  Nifty!

All this infrastructure–irrigation is next–will have the garden in full swing over the next couple of weeks.  I’ll have the tomatoes out, the potatoes in, artichokes transplanted, the peas trellissed, more carrots, mesclun and lettuce seeded, and then I’ll start my corn, beans, and squash in order to transplant them out on the first of June (or so!).  Then it will be time to start the fall crops!  No rest for the wicked, I guess!