Self-Sufficiency


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.

Once again, I’ve broken my own record for time away.  Once again, I miss it, and figured I should check in.  So much has been happening around the farm, I don’t even know where to begin.  It seems to me some fun photos would be a good place to start.  We are still suffering through bitter cold and counting the days until spring.  It was a dry winter until February hit, and we finally got snow.  And the snow just keeps coming every couple of days.  An inch here, 6 inches there.  That might not mean much to you, but for me, it means I get to use the horse-drawn snow plow we bought last fall!  Enjoy!!

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Shortly after my last post, I wrote the following, as I’d much rather have a cheery blog rather than a depressed one:

“We are absolutely, totally, and completely IN LOVE with our team of draft horses!  Their primary job around the farm was skidding logs around the farm as we cleaned up our woodlands, but since S’s arm injury, their workload dropped.  We were worried they wouldn’t be quite as good at driving with what we feared was too-light of a workload.  God provided for us, though!

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We were asked to be the “Wells Fargo Wagon” in a theater production of “The Music Man” at our local outdoor theater.  This theater draws crowds from all over the country. Even though they couldn’t afford to pay us much, they offered to give us a full page ad in the theater flyer for the rest of the season.  That was a HUGE deal for us, as we desperately needed the advertisement for our farm products and services.  So, right after S’s injury, almost every evening was spent at the theater.  We spent several nights at rehearsals, getting the horses used to the stage lights, crowd noises, applauding sounds, kids running around in the shadows, and the whole routine (we also had to carry the “professor” in the back of the wagon).  By opening night, they had the routine down.  They could not have been more perfect!!  We were so proud of our boys, and they were such a huge hit, the show was a sell-out almost every evening, and the townsfolk are still talking about it!  We had a great time, and made a few business contacts during the time we spent there.  It was a very small part, but here is a link to our part of the performance.  After this scene, we were set up in back for intermission, where the audience could come pet and ask questions about the horses while we just stood there for 30 minutes, then we were the opening scene for Act 2, as we trotted away.  Enjoy:   The Wells Fargo Wagon Performance

We are doing wagon rides in town every Saturday evening, which is another job to keep them going.  One evening, a local camera-man showed up, asked to take a few shots, video, and interview us for a “small” deal he produces and an article for the paper.  Again, interested in promoting our business, we gladly accepted.  One thing led to another, and he asked to come do the same at the farm itself.  Well, not only did he write a newspaper article, but he used the video footage to produce a mini-documentary that will soon be aired on the Fox station in 5 mid-west states!  If I’d understood that part, I’d of at least worn a little make-up.  After two hours of filming in the blazing sun and humidity, let’s just say that our appearance in the video is very authentic!  I can’t show you that until the footage airs, but hopefully that will be soon.  With the challenges we have faced recently, I have found myself watching that footage time and time again, to remind me why we love the life so much.  It was very well done, I thought!

In between, I am able to find a job or two each week to keep the horses busy and stimulated.  We are trying to wean ourselves off our 4-wheeler, so the horses can take over those jobs.  We are in the process of purchasing a fore-cart so we can take over the last job done by the 4-wheeler–pulling our mower.  Once we have it, though, I will be relieved to not eat so much dust while grading our driveway! Watch the horses grade the driveway here Despite the decreased workload, the horses are keeping their calm, easy-going dispositions.  I still long to ride them (never have), but just never can find the time to do all the needed prep work to get on.  They have never been ridden, and since I don’t have a saddle, I am hesitant to jump on bareback without a LOT of prep work.  With backs 6 feet high, that would be a very LONG way to the ground if they disagreed with me!  Nonetheless, I am enjoying everything about them, and greatly looking forward to what the future holds.”

About 18 hours after I wrote that post draft, the horses were turned out to graze in the orchard.  While grazing, Nick made his way down to where some chicken tractors (with sharp tin roofing) were being stored.  We don’t really know what happened next, but we heard a loud bang and ran out to find Nick’s front leg pouring blood everywhere!  He had punctured his knee all the way to the joint capsule, slicing the tendon sheath, but narrowly missing the tendon itself.  The entire front of his leg was laid open, with tissue hanging everywhere.  Blood pumped from small arteries with each step, so we quickly tried to stop his movement.

I confess, I totally lost it.  With everything from my last post, and now this, with all the fears for Nick and knowing what it meant for us, I absolutely lost it.  I was sobbing so hard, I could hardly get Nick’s leg wrapped and compressed to stop the blood flow.  My poor husband, with painful arms, was trying to hold Nick still and trying to comfort me at the same time.  Eventually I got control and did what I needed to do.

Many hours and a huge vet bill later, Nick is on stall rest for an unspecified period of time. It is touch and go for the moment.  He is using the leg, which is great news, but the opened joint capsule could get severely infected very easily, which would be very bad.  His leg is wrapped, under fairly tight compression, and has a drain to try to reduce the swelling over the next few days.  He is only allowed out of his stall twice a day for a short walk to graze a little, then back to the stall.  He is on twice daily doses of Bute to help with the pain.  He obviously is favoring the leg a lot, and has a tendency to drag and stumble on that hoof.  We won’t know for a couple of weeks if the stumbling is due to soreness or nerve damage.  We are praying it is not the latter.

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As far as our business goes, we are finished with wagon rides for the season, which was possibly looking to be our greatest income source.  I have lost the ability to do the work around the farm that the team was capable of as well.  The horses have been together as a team since the beginning, so I am going to try to re-train Bud to work as a single horse.  Today, I am just trying to teach him to graze alone, which is a feat in itself.  He wants only to stand beside Nick’s stall.  It will limit what I can move around the farm, but he’s still capable of pulling quite a bit of weight, so it’s better than nothing for sure.

Suffice it to say, this was a huge hit for us, financially, practically, and for me, emotionally.  As S said, we can really do nothing but pray, seek direction, and take things one day at a time.  I have faith this is a season, and all seasons will come to an end eventually.  I do have to give mention to the fact that, in the midst of all the crises, God still provides.  Yesterday evening, a group of church folks showed up with a huge meal, several chainsaws, and a tractor, and spent several hours working in our front field to help us get caught up on a big project.  It was a tremendous blessing, and really helped lift our spirits!  If you’d keep our situation in your prayers, though, I’d appreciate it.  We are still blessed in many ways, and have no doubt there are many who have much worse struggles than we are dealing with.  Sometimes–like when my horse is pouring blood, and I’m on the verge of another low blood sugar, we just have to remind ourselves of that.  God never promised us an easily life.  To the contrary, he warns in His word that the life of a believer is a hard road to travel.  He asked us to follow Him and remain faithful, despite the obstacles that life throws at us, but He also promises that He will be there, He will provide, and we will become better because of it.

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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WARNING:  Graphic hog-killing photos below!

With Sean’s arrival at Red Gate, the time had come to say “goodbye” to our first hogs.  Here is their “goodbye” photo (unbeknownst to them):

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It was quite simple and stress free.  I opened their gate in the far end of the pasture, rattled their feed bucket, and called them.  Maple and Honey came running and grunting.  We jogged all the way across the main pasture, down the hill to the barn together (with me praying I wouldn’t stumble on the way, lest those hogs think I was for dinner!).  We got them to follow us into one of the barn stalls, where we awaited a career professional butcher who was coming to show S a new way to do the hogs.  S has slaughtered a couple hogs before, but he loves learning new techniques.  As soon as the hogs were in the stall, they immediately began rooting around in the bedding to find the now-fermented corn I had tossed in several months prior.  The butcher arrived while S was setting up the equipment.  I ran inside to get the kiddos situated and grab the camera, and before I could get back, they had shot the hogs with a rifle and were dragging them to the eviscerating cradles.  I LOVE knowing that our hogs never stressed through this process.  They were literally rooting around when he shot them.  In fact, he even used special, quieter, sub-sonic bullets to reduce the noise level.  That way, the shot for the first hog did not frighten the second hog.  She simply looked up, then went back to rooting.  That’s the last thing she remembered.  No worry, no fear, no stress.  Just the way we like it!

They quickly bled the hogs and cut off the heads, then drug them out to the cradle.  For the record, in the past, S hung the hogs to eviscerate, but this teacher preferred “cradles” to make it easier.  S is now a huge fan of the cradles.  Apparently it made the task much simpler, since it prevents the guts from falling out before you are ready.

A headless hog on the cradle

A headless hog on the cradle

Also, in the past, S learned to scald and scrape the hide, but this time, he learned to skin.  He says it was significantly more difficult that any other animal he has ever skinned–except for maybe the old rooster a couple years ago.  It was still a faster method than the scald and scrape, though.  Obviously, both have their place.

After eviscerating, they hung the hogs on gambrels to skin them.

After eviscerating, they hung the hogs on gambrels to skin them.

Skinning the hog

Skinning the hog

Ready to split and hang.  Notice the lack of back fat.

Ready to split and hang. Notice the lack of back fat.

Another new technique he learned this time was to hang the sides for a couple of days to equalize the temperatures of the meat.  Temperatures were perfect in our garage, where we hung them and, by opening or closing the garage doors, we maintained pretty consistent temps around 38* F  for 48 hours.  Then, the butcher returned to show S some professional ways to cut the meat.

Cutting the sides up

Cutting the sides up

Bacon to the left, ribs in the center, and chops on the right.

Bacon to the left, ribs in the center, and chops on the right.

My job was to collect the cuts and wrap them in the freezer paper, weigh and record them, and get them into the freezer in single, spaced layers so they could freeze as fast as possible.

Me wrapping with R supervising the whole process.

Me wrapping with R supervising the whole process.

Just for the record, my last live weight calculation of each hog was 220 lbs, give or take a few.  We weren’t able to get a hanging weight on the sides, but the final in-the-freezer weight of everything was 154 lbs. (about 78 lbs per hog).  This included about 46 lbs of hams, 2 of which we tried brining and the other 2 we cut into ham roasts, an assortment of chops, steaks, ribs, tenderloins, and misc. other cuts, and 28 lbs of ground pork for making into sausage.  Not to shabby for our first forest hogs, I’d say.  It supports the theory that the average hog hanging weight is about 60% of the live weight, and the average take home weight is about 60% of the hanging weight.  In addition, we got a week’s worth of meaty bones and organ meats for the livestock guardian dogs’ dinners, a couple pounds of lard, and we boiled up several of the back ribs for shredded BBQ pork the first evening.  It was delicious!

Some of the ground pork, ready for seasoning.

Some of the ground pork, ready for seasoning.

Dinner time!

Dinner time!

We learned a lot from the experience.  First, the pigs absolutely thrive out in the forest glen environment, rooting, rolling, nesting, whatever.  They are quite hardy, even in cold temperatures as long as they have shelter and wind breaks in the winter and shade and water to cool them in the summer.  They do so well rooting and foraging for their food, in fact, that even though winter had thoroughly killed off all the forage as far as we could tell, despite the fact that we did not feed them any dinner or breakfast (S likes empty bellies for harvest time!), their stomachs and intestines were quite full of whatever they found out there.  It surprised everyone.  Secondly, we learned that heritage pigs on forage will not gain weight like other pigs.  In fact, at 8 months of age, ours had only about 1/2-3/4 inch of back fat, as compared to 2-3 inches on a 6 month old commercial hog.

We have already reserved 4 pigs for this spring, but as a result of what we learned, we are going to try to do things a little differently this time.  We are getting them in early April’ish for starters, so they can take advantage of the lush spring vegetation.  Shortly thereafter, we will hopefully have a tremendous abundance of milk from 1, maybe 2 cows, and 4 goats, most of which will go to supplement the pigs forage diet.  We also hope to have an abundance of eggs to supplement their diet with, and I may cook them up this time, as I’ve learned that cooking eggs doubles the amount of digestible protein available.  Protein builds muscle (meat), while starch builds fat (marbling).  Eggs are good protein, while milk contains plenty of both.  We are still going to raise them until 8 months of age, but that will only take us to October this year, meaning they should have plenty of vegetation for their entire growth period this go around.  It will be interesting to compare the results with this year.

S's cousin holding a trophy (which later went to the dogs).

S’s cousin holding a trophy (which later went to the dogs).

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