Homesteading


Have you ever stepped outside, especially if you live near woodlands, and considered the variety of edible foods that may exist there?  This is something we have tried to become more in-tune to since moving to Red Gate Farm.  This year, we really became curious about the bounty of mushrooms we found everywhere we looked, it seemed.  S is always fair game to experiment and sample things.  Mushrooms, of course, can be dangerous if you go about it wrong, so we knew we had to be careful.

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Did you know most edible mushrooms were determined to be so over the years by men brave enough to sample, wait a few days, and see how their bodies reacted?  Now, of course, we have more elaborate tests available to determine toxins and such, but there is still a great deal of information that has just been taught to the next generation for many years.  As it turns out, there really isn’t even one “best” reference book you can purchase to help you, as there are just too many mushrooms, and more importantly, too many “look-alike” mushrooms.  The more experienced mushroom hunters will tell you to get several books so you can cross-reference and compare.  So, that’s what we did.  S, being the adventurous sort, was willing to taste the possible good ones, to help us learn, since many of the toxic ones have a spicy or bitter flavor (though certainly not all!)

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Some mushrooms are widespread, while others are very regional.  And they can grow almost anywhere!  Lawns, forest floors, dead tree stumps, live trees, mud bogs, leaf litter, animal manure, you name it.  Thankfully, those who have gone before us have taken many excellent notes and recorded their findings in the many books and resource science available.

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Giant Morels! An expensive delicacy in most of the U.S., and valued at roughly $40/lb, yet they grow right in our backyard!

We have had a great time this year learning about our mushrooms.  We have oysters, hen of the woods, chicken of the woods, pheasant backs (which taste like watermelon!), truffles, and the much-sought-after and valuable morel mushroom, among others.

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Pheasant Backs….although edible, these were a bit old and tough. We will try to find them younger next year.  These are easily identified by, interestingly, their watermelon flavor!

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Hen of the Woods Mushroom. We found this one a bit late, so it was tough, but we did enjoy a few meals from it!

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A large winter oyster mushroom. This one is now cleaned, dehydrated, and waiting for the next stew I cook up!

We are still in the early phase of learning about our mushrooms, but it is eye-opening, indeed, just how much food is available in nature.  Mushrooms are barely the tip of the iceberg of the bounty we can find if we but look around.

This past 2 weeks, S decided he felt ready to switch roles again.  He wanted to take over farm work and let me go back to being mom, wife, cook, and so forth.  If you’ve followed for a while, you are likely aware that S ripped a tendon in both elbows.  We don’t know how he did it.  He literally woke up one morning with his arms hurting.  Nothing unusual had happened the day before, so he thought perhaps he had a touch of tendonitis.  I won’t repeat everything I posted previously, but suffice it to say, after 3 doctors and specialists and 2 physical and occupational therapists, his condition continued to worsen.  The medical professionals he spoke with all agreed that pain should be his guide.  One doctor told him not to lift over 20 lbs, and all said essentially, “If it hurts, don’t do it or you might tear the tendon completely from the bones.”  As time went on, the pain progressed to the point that he couldn’t do hardly anything.  JR had to tie his shoes for him, I had to button his shirts.  As his condition worsened, my work load increased.  Not only was I running the farm and lifting anything over 20 lbs (i.e. feed bags, hay bales, digging, shoveling, harnessing, firewood, you name it!), but as he worsened, I also had to take over more inside.  I had to strip beds for the younger kiddos, and remake all beds. S could still cook, but I had to move the pots around the kitchen for him. He was left basically cooking, doing light cleaning, and folding laundry.  His biggest task was homeschooling the kids, because it was about the only thing he could do that didn’t cause pain.  Talk about a rough few months!   Just think about everything you use your arms for!  At one point, I desperately needed help moving some hay.  S got resourceful to get the job done without using his arms:

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He had to go and buy a pair of slip-on muck boots and avoid button-shirts, just so he could dress without assistance.  Brushing his teeth hurt.  We had to use our hard-earned savings to hire help to get tasks completed that I just couldn’t do alone.  You get the idea.

At wit’s end, S saw a new specialist.  We don’t know the guy’s full history, but he was an orthopedist who may have had some training in Chinese medicine.  In any case, he scoffed at the advice from all the other doctors and therapists.  He said basically, “Of course it’s gonna hurt!  You ripped two tendons, and everything is going to make it hurt!  For the next 6 months or so, you are going to be in pain, whether you use them or not.  So use them.  Don’t overuse them, and don’t do anything ridiculously strenuous.  Sharp pain is bad, but dull pain and general ashiness is fine and expected.  Work through it, and come back in 5 weeks.”  Crazy as it sounded, nothing else was working, so S decided to try it.  He started working, slowly at first, and gradually increasing.  At first there was pain, but amazingly, the pain began decreasing each day until it just wasn’t there.  A month in, he said he was ready to take over.  He is now using his chainsaw (on a limited basis), hauling things (still tries to keep weight under about 30 lbs.), and has taken over all outdoor chores.  He is even milking the goats to give me a break, which was impossible from the intense pain 2 months ago.

No, his tendon’s haven’t reattached.  We have a few theories, but ultimately, we have to give God credit for the healing that has happened.  S is careful not to overdo things, per the doctor’s advice, but he fully expected to deal with pain for the next 6 months or more.  Yet, it disappeared.  That cannot be explained.  The only time he has an issue now is if he works a bit too hard one day, then he might just have some slight discomfort/achiness at the end of the day.

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S chainsawing logs, while JR and M use the log-splitter to turn the smaller logs into firewood. R and the little boys helped by stacking the firewood. A great afternoon of family team-work!

 

We have discussed the challenges we have faced over the last 6-8 months.  S feels strongly that God has been trying to teach us a few lessons and prune us into what He has in store.  Despite the challenges, it did force us to make some changes for the better.  We realized that all our children were plenty old enough to help out a little more.  We taught the youngest how to strip their beds on laundry day, and the oldest how to re-make their beds.  We bought a bedwetting system for A to help reduce the laundry, and although we are still going through the process, it seems to be working.  We changed chores around a bit to spread the load a little.  We expected a little more from the younger children, rather than having them play any time they weren’t in school.  We joined some great work exchange programs, which I will discuss later.  S even used some of his “free” time to become a bit of an activist on legislative issues around our state.  S values my house-work a bit more, and I have a new appreciation for the tremendous amount of work he does around the farm.  Certainly I had my moments of frustration, as did he.  However, if faced with the right attitude, we believe any challenge can teach us and grow us into better people.  It can improve communication and team work among a family.  And it can make us all stronger in the end.  We aren’t totally out of the storm yet, and still face some challenges, but things are looking up, and we hope this season is coming to an end.

We raised 2 Red Wattle hogs in the forest again this year.  This year, however, we raised barrows (castrated boys) instead of gilts (girls) like last year.  Man, oh, man did those boy grow fast!!  The first hog was sold to customers, and we wound up taking it to the processor several months earlier than planned (the schedule being based on the gilts’ growth last year).  At 6 months old, his hanging weight came to 198 lbs, which is roughly 300 lbs. live weight.  The second hog was destined for our own freezer.  Typically, we butcher our personal animals right here on the farm.  In order to do the larger animals such as hogs and beef, we have to wait for colder weather so we can hang the sides in our garage for a cooling and aging period.  So, after the first hog left, we kept the remaining hog as happy as we could.  We supplied him with happy-hog-staples such as mud, fresh forest forage, roots, nuts, kitchen leftovers, milk and whey, hog feed, whatever we could think of.  Maybe we over did it a little.  Just a little.

OK, a LOT.

When it looked as though S’s elbows were not healing, the decision was made to send our hog to the processor as well.  He was getting to expensive to feed, and he wouldn’t stop growing.  One evening, we bribed him with a little milk, got him up into the trailer (you can youtube “elephant seal trying to climb onto a car” if you want a visual), gave him a pile of soft hay to nest into, and let him settle in for the night.  We just hoped our trailer survived until morning.  Early the next morning, S drove him to the processor.  The workers in the livestock area took one look at him laying all comfy-cozy in his hay bed, and said, “uh, how do we get him out?”  They then proceeded to look at each other with each stating his position that he would NOT enter that trailer with that beast.  So, not wanting to hold up the line, S said, “don’t worry, I’ll get him out.”  He jumped up in the trailer, called him, gave him a scratch behind the ears, and bribed him out of the trailer in seconds.  The livestock guys stood there with their chins on the loading ramp.  Guess they hadn’t seen it done that way before.  It’s so much easier in our opinion, but really, what do we know?  It is only our 4th hog after all.

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By that afternoon, we had a hanging weight of 289 lbs, which equates to over 400 lbs live weight.  I realize that isn’t a huge hog by any stretch of the imagination.  I’ve seen some approaching 800-1000 lbs.  THAT is impressive!  Nonetheless, he was twice the size of a typical hog at processing time.  As it turned out, not only did he have some impressively large pork chops cut out of his sides, but he also had 3 inches of back fat.  Seeing as how S asked the processor for the fat, which is now being stored in my freezer, I’m seeing a lot of lard-making in the not-too-distant future.

Then, by the time I get that task completed, it will be time to start all over.  We’ve already ordered up 6 hogs for next year.  Believe it or not, we are excited about it.  Hogs can be a lot of fun, but there’s no way I can convince you of that.  You’ll just have to try raising one yourself.

If there is a creek to be found, our boys will likely find it.  It just happens that our property has several spots where the boys can easily climb down the trails and play in the mud.  During a recent adventure, they discovered more than water and mud.

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JR came home, asking if I would cook his find up for dinner.  I politely declined.  My adventurous side has its limits.  I don’t even like lobster that much.  Crayfish, or “crawdad’s” as we like to say, are a little too cock-roach looking to me.  S, on the other hand, was willing, and told JR that if he could catch at least 10 or so, he would cook them up for dinner.  To JR’s dismay, this one little guy was the only one found that day, so he eventually released it.  Now he is busy planning his next crayfish hunt.

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We’ve been putting our boys to work around here, doing some very selective logging of our forests.

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Logging with draft power has many advantages.  Horses can maneuver and squeeze into rather tight areas that a truck or mechanical logging equipment never could.  For this reason, land does not have to be clear-cut to remove a handful of very desirable trees.  We can go in as stewards of our land, select trees that are dead, dying, overly mature, clusters that are too thick, etc., cut only those trees, and have the horses haul them out.  The result is land that much prettier, purer, and still appears natural, as opposed to looking like an explosion took place and left everything looking ugly and dead for several years.  Another advantage is that horses leave a smaller footprint–not literally speaking, as their hooves and actual footprints are quite large, actually, but metaphorically speaking in terms of being “green” and earth friendly.  The horses do not compact the soil like the large machinery does, and rather than pollute the remaining trees with exhaust smoke and petroleum fumes, the only waste the horses might leave behind is a pile of manure that will simply serve to fertilize the soils.  It really is a beautiful thing.

For us, it is still a 2-man job.  We are mainly collecting still-usable downed logs from the edges of the timberland for the most part, to either mill or turn into firewood for next winter.  We haven’t gotten to the cutting of standing trees yet.  We plan to do more of that later this summer when other projects are completed.  S isn’t quite comfortable doing the tight squeeze turn-arounds yet, and is still practicing his driving skills.  I, on the other hand, am not good at lifting the heavy logging hook and attaching it to the bigger logs (the thing must weigh 60 lbs plus the evener and chains!).  In addition, when the horses are fresh, they aren’t perfect at standing still and waiting while we get it right, and risk stepping over their trace chains.  So, for now, we log together.  I do most of the driving and focus on the horses, while S does the land/trail prep work and handles the logging equipment.  Also, if we happen to get ourselves in a bind (which we have a couple of times), then it is nice to have help around!

For your viewing pleasure, here is a video S took earlier this week.  We had to haul a stack of fenceposts from the pasture to the barn for stacking.  There was a very tight turn at the end to get them where we wanted them and out of the way for vehicles.

We looked at our budget and chicken expenses for the last several years, and we looked at our goals for the future.  One of our big animal expenditures was purchasing layer chicks each year.  It was also one LESS thing we were doing that moved us toward God-sufficiency in our lifestyle.  Thus, we decided to take the plunge into hatching our own chicks.  Instead of purchasing our planned batch of layers this spring, we used the money to buy a nice, 50-egg incubator.  After lots of research (what else is new?) and a number of phone calls to ask questions, we settled on the Hova-Bator incubator with circulating air fan and egg-turner.  Next, we stole about 21 eggs from our layers over a few days.  One Saturday afternoon, we placed them all in the incubator.  The below photo is actually the day before they hatched, so the egg turner had already been removed.

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After 5 days, we candled them, using the incredibly inexpensive, all-purpose, highly modern…..flashlight.  Whatever works, right?  We were able to see the air cell, the yolk, and in most cases, a little chick embryo.  2 eggs were clearly not fertile, and 1 egg had an early demise (indicated by a reddish ring around what started as an embryo).   That left 18 eggs.

We then candled roughly once a week, added water to the humidifier tray every 2-3 days, tried to maintain a constant temperature, and hoped for the best.

On day 20, about 4 in the morning, we heard peeping.  One perfect little chick had hatched, but was very weak and clumsy.  He couldn’t stay upright.  We tried a few things, but eventually moved him out and into the brooder, where he later died.  I think he was, literally, a premie, who just couldn’t thrive.

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On day 21, as scheduled, 16 eggs pipped (made a hole in the shell to start the hatching process).  One at a time, they began hatching.  This lasted over 24 hours.  Finally, around mid-day on day 23, we removed all chicks from the incubator.  The final result was 15 healthy, happy chicks, 1 chick that died after pipping, 2 chicks that died about a week before hatch (they still had their yolk sack attached).  The kids had a fun biology lesson cracking those 3 open to see what was inside.

If you look closely, you can see of the other eggs that are pipped.

If you look closely, you can see of the other eggs that are pipped.

This was several weeks ago, and the 15 chicks are still alive, well, and beginning to feather.  We have no idea yet if we got hens or roosters, but I am assuming it will be a standard 50/50 for the most part.  We did learn, however, that the feathered-leg trait is dominant.  Our rooster is a feather-legged Dark Brahma, and the hens were a mix feather-legged and clean-legged breeds.   All chicks are feather-legged.  We found it interesting. We also got at least one pure Brahma (our favorite), though it is a cross between light and dark.  We are looking forward to our next hatch, and quite thrilled that we had about a 78% hatch rate (15 out of 19 fertile eggs), which is apparently above the desired 70% that the “pros” consider ideal.

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Loggers

Last week, the time finally arrived for us to meet our new horses.  We hooked up the trailer and drove to The Farm at Prophetstown in Indiana, where we met up with Dris Abraham, owner of RX Acres Belgians.  We have been communicating with Dris at length for about 6 months now, in preparation for this occasion.  We had arranged a private, 3-day clinic with Dris, where we would build on the driving clinics we attended last year in CO, learn some new techniques, and meet our team.

We had a blast!  We literally arrived and were harnessing horses within 15 minutes.  We didn’t even get to unload the suitcases from our truck until after 9 pm!  Dris had us driving farm implements and cultimulching his fields all afternoon.  We also had to assist with farm chores, but this allowed us to handle about 12 different Belgians under different circumstances, which was great experience.  The next day was spent harnessing, unharnessing, hitching, unhitching, ground driving, backing into tight spaces, and really getting a feel for driving.  It felt a little like boot camp, but without the yelling.  It was exhausting and invigorating all at the same time!  Our final day was spent really testing our new skills and our team.  We took to the trails, encountered some really spooky things (you know, things like tree trunks, scarecrows, bridges, and dogs) to learn how to handle different situations.  We did encounter a few issues–like when our trace chain suddenly popped off the singletree for unknown reasons.  For the record, this a VERY bad thing to have happen!  Thankfully, as soon as the horse felt it, he jumped, then stopped immediately when I told him.  Finally, we finished up with some logging exercises to get us familiar with the techniques we would need to log our woodlands.

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Since we got home, we have been harnessing them daily and having a great time.  We have hooked up to our wagon, pulled logs, and toured the neighborhood.  We even gave a horse-loving neighbor a ride in the wagon today.  These horses are incredible, and everything about them impresses us–their size (18 hands to be exact!–that’s 6 feet tall at the withers!), their beauty, their condition, their calm demeanors, their excellent training, their desire to please, their sheer power–everything!  We are dreaming up all sorts of things we can do with these boys.  They absolutely love to work, and we are making big plans to keep them busy.

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Here’s a great photo of a friend with the horses, just to show you their size.  I have neglected to get a good one of use with the horses, so I will have to work on that.  We’ve just been too busy having fun with them.

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