The poultry

As a part of the war on the mosquitoes, I started researching every type of bird that we could raise.  There are 100 chicks ready to transition to a pasture pen.  We’ve been raising chickens for years and they hardly seem like something special.  We get chicks, we raise chickens.  Half of the birds are a modern broiler hybrid that are supposed to do well free ranging.  A quarter are Araucanas and a quarter Welsomers.  Araucanas are the easter egg chickens.  We got all hens, and they lay blue and green eggs, which are just fun.  The chickens are interesting looking as well, a variety of colors and barring.  The Welsomers are a new breed to us, a Dutch breed that is dual purpose.  Large enough to have a little meat on their bones, but good foragers and good layers of dark brown eggs that are speckled.  All the chicks are feathering out nicely and doing a great job at attacking the mosquitoes.  The bugs don’t stand a chance.  Whenever we open up the brooder they fly in and the birds immediately start hopping about, trying to eat every insect that they can.  It’s a beautiful thing.

We also raise a lot of other poultry.  I love raising interesting birds.  Our son loves geese, so we got him 7 Pilgrim goslings.  They are spending their days outside now, loving the grass and sunlight.  He has also really wanted peacocks.  Decorative birds weren’t really something we were interested in, but when the opportunity to get 2 pea chicks came our way, we had to jump at it.  We now have two little baby peacocks.  We also got 30 guinea fowl last week.  They are voracious little bug eaters, so we decided to give them a try to help keep mosquitoes under control.  If they only keep their favorite food in check, they will be worth it.  They love ticks, which are plentiful here, and I’d love to not have to have them removed from the dogs anymore.  Any day now some Moscovy ducklings should arrive.  They are supposed to be particularly good at eating mosquitoes.

We’re finding that they all love eating any bugs that fly their way.  The guineas and chicks hop around trying to eat as many as they can catch.  We’ll see how the ducklings do.  Either way, they are all interesting to have around.

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I miss my kitchen

One thing that we knew we had to do in our new house is replace the kitchen.  As the home inspector said, the kitchen cabinets are in rough shape.  They are just falling apart.  And although there are a lot of countertops, it just isn’t laid out in a way that works for the way I cook.  As my friend Sheila says, she has a one butt kitchen.  I like mine to be that.  I want to hardly move, and be able to reach almost everything.  That is what is designed and we are about to begin implementing.  I’m excited to begin, and tonight I realized exactly how much I want and need the new kitchen space.

Cooking is what I do.  I cook all our meals.  We home school and we all work at home, so that means 3 meals a day for 5 or more people.  I do all the cooking.  It’s just easier that way.  It’s far more work for Scott to cook than for me, and I enjoy it, so it’s my job.  But it’s more than that, it’s my stress relief.  I didn’t realize until this evening exactly what that entails.

I suffer from anxiety.  It’s part of being pan hypopituitary.  One of the many hormones that I don’t produce enough of is cortisol.  A major symptom of low cortisol is anxiety.  When my medications are balanced, I don’t have anxiety, but when they are off it’s really hard to avoid having anxiety.  I work towards balance, but I know that I will live many days with anxiety as I try to achieve balance.  Today was one of those days.

When I have anxiety, I doubt myself.  I know I’m doing it and that it’s probably all in my head, but I begin to think everyone doesn’t like me.  Usually I don’t care, but when I’m suffering from anxiety, I begin to really care.  It’s probably all in my head, but it’s something I have had to learn to live with.  Cooking is that one thing that I do that I do for myself and myself alone.  Being in the kitchen, cooking something new and interesting and cooking it for my palate is all that matters.  I don’t care if anyone else enjoys it.  I cook for myself.  I think my family enjoys the results, but I’ve succeeded if it’s something I enjoy eating.  The rest of them can make themselves something else if they don’t like it.

Part of the calming nature of the experience of cooking is in doing it in my kitchen.  I need that kitchen to be bright, cheerful and mine.  Everything needs to be in the right place, and I need to feel comfortable there.  I was comfortable in my last kitchen.  It was small, cramped, but I owned it.  I made it mine, and I was comfortable in it.  Everything was in exactly the right place.  I’d head out to the garden, bring in a basket of treasures and begin cooking.  I never knew where I would end up, but I enjoyed the ride.

I can’t do that in my new kitchen.  It’s someone else’s kitchen.  Part of it is comfortable, but the rest just gets cluttered and messy and difficult to use.  It’s dark.  It’s not me.  I’ve lost the one thing in life that I learned to use to help calm the anxiety.  I didn’t realize until tonight exactly what that meant.  I’m glad we have all the cabinets for the new kitchen.  I’m eager to get started.  I have a lot of work to do, but I can’t wait to get started.  I’ve had to put cooking on hold, forcing myself to make simple dishes that get the job of feeding us done without wasting time on creativity.  That’s hard to do for me.  But the end result will be a place that I can be creative again, a place where I can calm down, breathe and enjoy doing the one thing in life that I do for myself and myself alone.  And I’ll be back to inventing recipes for vegetables again.  I’m thinking I need to hurry a bit.  It will be worth it.

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Yesterday I had a new friend say ‘you’re crazy!’  and I didn’t even notice.  I’m so used to doing things my own way, which is usually a bit on the insane side of things, that I don’t care.  I mean, I brought back a Saanen dairy goat on the airplane a few months ago.  It’s kinda fun to be a bit eccentric.

We are homesteaders.  We raise most of our food.  Our diet consists mostly of vegetables and meat with some dairy.  We have large gardens, goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, geese and ducks.  We haven’t had sheep for a few years and decided it was time to start up our Icelandic sheep flock again as well as switching dairy goat breeds to Toggenburgs because I think they will do better for us on the island.  I also needed a new rabbit buck, so it was time to make a trip to the mainland and pick up some animals.

In the last two months I’d arranged to get a Toggenburg milking goat, a doe kid and a buck kid, three Icelandic ewe lambs, and a rabbit buck.  Yesterday was the big day to pick them all up and bring them back.  We have a station wagon that we had on the mainland.  The idea was to pick all the animals up, pack them in the station wagon and drive them all on the ferry and bring the car and the animals over together.  I asked my friend, Sheri, to come with me.  She’s our neighbor and keeps goats and chickens, and I thought would be some help as well as companionship on the trip.

We made the trip down on Tuesday, picked up the rabbit buck and also got two doelings as well.  Sheri decided that she wanted one too, so we each got a pretty gray Silver Fox doe as well as my 6 month old buck.  We stayed the night at the farm with the sheep.  A tarp over the bed of the car and two large dog crates were used to pack everyone in.  The three ewe lambs went in the larger of the dog crates.  We drove to the farm with the goats, packed the two kids into the smaller dog crate and put the milking doe on a leash and tied her to a hook in the back of the car.  The rabbits were in a small dog crate and a box.

Three hours later we arrived in Charlevoix.  Sheri had a large black suitcase, that she jokingly called her ‘coffin’ that we had to pick up.  With only 10 minutes to spare, we rushed to her car, threw the suitcase on the luggage rack of the car, tied it down with dog leashes, and rushed off to the boat.  We are supposed to be at the dock a hour and a half before it leaves.  We arrived just in time and parked our very full car to wait to be put on the ferry.  Mic, the dock master, rolled his eyes and said’ what’s this Jules?’  He’s no longer surprised by me.  At least all my animals were caged up properly.  A few weeks ago someone brought over a goat in their car that wasn’t caged or tied up.  That wasn’t much fun for the dock hands.

When you go to the mainland, one thing you learn is to pick up produce.  With so few people on the island, it’s hard to keep the produce section stocked with a large variety of vegetables, so we always get interesting vegetables to bring back.  This past year we weren’t able to grow and preserve as many vegetables as normal because of the move, so we’ve been having to buy a lot of them.  Sheri and I walked to the grocery store for some veggies after dropping off the car.  But we didn’t leave all the animals in the car.  We had the baby bunnies in a shoe box to take on the boat so we could work on taming them.  But that meant that we had bunnies in a box that we had to take to the grocery store.  So we walked 4 blocks to the store, put the shoe box in the cart and a purse on top to keep them from popping out, and proceeded to load up the cart with a variety of interesting vegetables.

With our hands full of bags of produce, a box of rabbits, and our purses, we walked back to the dock to board the boat.  Now, we not only had the car of livestock, a suitcase strapped to the top, but also two soft coolers of vegetables.  Two hours later we arrived on the island, piled into the car, packed to the gills, and drove home.

It’s good to be back.  Everyone is settling in beautifully.  The car is almost clean.  Only one more trip to the mainland for livestock.  I have two ram lambs waiting for me.  They won’t be ready to leave their moms until late July or August.  Getting them isn’t going to be exciting at all, unless I find something else I need to get to make the trip more interesting.  Two lambs in the back of the pick-up seems almost boring.

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Heirlooms impact our world

Living as remote as we do, you don’t expect to encounter the problems of the world at large.  And when I think about it, most of us don’t encounter much beyond our own communities.  But last Sunday after church we met someone very interesting.  He’s in the military and is part of the public relations branch of the army.  His mission is in sustainability, something I wasn’t really aware that the military was interested in.  And he was VERY excited that an heirloom seed company was here on the island.  He’s been working with the farmers in Afghanistan.  Before the war, each valley had it’s own heirloom wheat variety, cultivated over the centuries for the microclimate of each valley and tailored to the growing conditions and farming practices of each region.  When the war started, the people dumped out the wheat seeds to use the jars that the wheat was stored in.  They didn’t realize that they were dumping out their precious seeds and throwing out the years of work that their ancestors did to create each strain.

Now they have a problem.  They lost their wheat varieties.  The modern, American varieties don’t work for them.  They work well here, with our intensive commercial farming practices with machinery and chemicals.  They don’t work with primitive agricultural methods and in their climate.  And the army is working to find them seeds that will work.  And in the next few weeks we’ll be talking with him to help figure out if we can help find some varieties that might work.

It is so important to keep these old varieties around.  You never know when they’ll be needed.  The modern, commercial chicken breed is a cross of two heritage breeds that were almost lost because they weren’t considered valuable.  And now almost all of our chicken that we eat is the result of these two rare breeds.  They aren’t rare anymore, but we almost lost them.  All of us working to keep heirlooms alive and thriving are in part working to keep these options available.  You never know when they’ll be needed, but I know that I’m doing my part to keep them around.

So our farm is a collection of heirloom vegetables and fruits, heritage sheep and goats, guinea fowl, chickens, geese and ducks.  Each is chosen for a reason, and each is being preserved on our little farm.  We are doing our part, as all of us are who are keeping a flock of chickens, a herd of goats, or our favorite tomato.

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And so it begins…

It’s been a tough winter.  Most people live here on the island in the summer.  Very few stay for the winter.  I’m the odd duck that has been here for only a winter, no summer.  Make that the worst winter in record, with record snow fall, very cold temperatures and more ice than normal.  We survived, and now it’s time to make this old farm our own.  To reclaim it and make it into the forever home that we dream of.

This winter was very hard for me.  Three weeks before we moved my muscles gave out.  I was doing yoga every morning for 8 months, and then one morning I couldn’t get off the floor.  My muscles wouldn’t hold me up.  I started tripping and falling on my face.  It was scary.  We didn’t know what was wrong.  But we had to move, so the whole family worked together to get us packed up and moved.  It took until this spring before we put all the clues together and figured out the muscle weakness.  I have a severe zinc deficiency.  It was more than just the muscle weakness, although that was the most obvious problem.  My asthma was horrible.  I couldn’t breath.  I had to stop working and rest.  I was confined to a room with a very strong HEPA filter so that I could function.  I had lung damage.  My X-ray looked like that of a smoker, but it was from mold and scents.  I couldn’t be by anyone who used laundry soap with perfumes.  I had to wear a carbon filter mask to church so that I could breathe.

I’ve since learned that on top of the zinc deficiency, I have a sulfite allergy, I’m allergic to nightshades and cinnamon as well as a host of other foods.  And then there’s the miracle food.  I need to drink goat milk.  I can’t explain why, but everyone notices that my asthmatic cough stops when I drink the raw goat milk.  Things are getting better and I’m starting to get excited about the future here.

It was a hard winter because I was beginning to associate all my health problems with our new home.  It’s not the island and our home that was the problem.  It was me.  I was too tired and sick to figure it out, but I had to.  So we buckled down and tackled it, like everything else we’ve had to tackle.  And now I’m getting better and I’m falling in love with the island and our home again.  It will take a while.  The romantic feeling that most people have for this place isn’t something that I’ve had.  I didn’t get to start out with the good season and the fun.  I went straight into the cold and misery.  I was sick.  I couldn’t go outside because the cold hurt my lungs.  I couldn’t go up a flight of stairs without hand rails on both sides to pull myself up.  I couldn’t breath.  Now I’m starting to get better and I’m starting to see all the wonderful things that this island has to offer.  I’m starting to make some very good friends.  Annie’s has some new employees that are more partners in the future than just people who work here.  We’re all getting excited about what we are going to be doing.

What’s on the agenda?  Right now, we have to make compost.  Mounds and mounds of compost.  We need manure, so 100 chicks arrived today.  We need to start raising worms for making compost.  We need to contain the mosquitos.  That will require a bit of research, but we’ll figure it out.  Poultry and ponds will be a large part of solving that problem.  We need to build up the soil, build raised beds, learn the soil, and learn the colder climate with a shorter growing season.  We need to fine tune the type of livestock that we keep.  We need to perfect rabbits, sheep, and goats for this island.  We need to fix up the house and make it our home.  Annie’s needs a permanent home.  We’ll see what we get done this summer.  I’m eager to get started.  I can’t wait to see how this place evolves.

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The Solution

Now I’ve had to settle for good enough right now, but that doesn’t mean I have to settle forever.  My first step was to make sure I had enough food that was good enough to feed us throughout the winter.  My second step was to figure out how to fix the problem.  What is the problem?  Fresh vegetables in the winter.  I learned that it’s just not possible to get good fresh vegetables in the winter on the island.  Everything is flown across, and if the weather is bad, the plane can’t fly and the vegetables sit in the hanger and freeze.  It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of life on the island.  But I’m not going to let that stop me from eating a salad in the winter.

What is my solution?  Hydroponics.  I want lettuce and tomatoes.  I’d be happy with just lettuce, but if I’m going to grow stuff indoors, why not some tomatoes too?  So I now have two small lettuce rafts, 10 Tiny Tim tomato plants, 5 full sized tomato plants, 2 Mini Bells pepper plants and a Kamo eggplant.  I decided to grow some microgreens as well.  I’m having a lot of fun growing things indoors.  With proper light and nutrients, the plants are thriving.  I have a lot to learn, and each day I come up with another experiment I want to do.  Which variety of lettuce is best?  Which ones perform best under low light?  Which tomato variety is best?

I’ve learned a lot so far and have a lot more to go.  I’ll go into details on the different systems I’ve decided to use and why, information on lighting choices and why I chose what I did, as well as growing medium and nutrients in future posts.

A fresh salad in January while watching a blizzard blow outdoors?  Why not?


Good Enough

I take things to extremes.  When I get excited about something, I pursue it with my whole being.  I immerse myself in it.  I want to know everything about it.  And then I can become a bit of a purist about things.  I have to do it completely, obsessing about the details, getting everything perfect.  I’m a perfectionist.  I admit it.  And this is something that I’ve been working on, and the move to Beaver Island has forced me to confront this in our food.

I’ve made all our family’s tomato sauce for over 10 years.  I started by buying bushels of tomatoes at the farmer’s market and making sauce.  Then I grew our tomatoes and made sauce, and eventually switched to all heirloom tomatoes, grown organically.  That is the best sauce ever.  Each batch had a couple of varieties of tomatoes, but the big batches had over 20 varieties of tomatoes, each adding it’s own flavor profile, making for the best, most complex, delicious tomato sauce.

And this year we sold that garden, and I moved in August.  No tomatoes.  I didn’t even bother planting heirlooms at the old farm because I knew that I wouldn’t be there to harvest them.  And no tomatoes at the new farm.  The soil is too acidic to grow much.  We have a lot of work ahead of us to make the gardens that I know we will eventually have.  But the big question, how was I going to feed our family this winter?

And then I started to explore ‘good enough.’  We have to eat.  Tomatoes are a staple of our grain free diet.  I use tomato sauce and lots of it.  We don’t eat spaghetti, which is what most people do with tomato sauce.  I make tomato soup, curries, salsas with eggs, serve sloppy joes over mashed potatoes.  Tomatoes and tomato sauce are so versatile and useful.  I needed canned tomatoes, sauce and paste that was acceptable.  I needed to buy canned food!  I hadn’t bought canned tomatoes in over 10 years.  Well, maybe once or twice a can here or there, but not like this.  I needed cases of canned tomatoes.

After doing some research, I figured I had to just try different brands and types and see what was acceptable.  I believe that our taste buds can tell us where the nutrients are.  The best tasting will be the best for us.  I had also heard that the San Marzano tomatoes grown in Italy on their rich volcanic soil are excellent.  One friend even claimed that they are better than any sauce he’d made from locally grown tomatoes.  So I tried some.  They are good.  Not as good as my heirloom sauce, but pretty tasty.  And I found my answer.  Good enough.  I bought cases of San Marzano tomatoes grown in Italy.  Hopefully next year I’ll be able to make my own tomato sauce again.  But the perfectionist in me had to learn a lesson, sometimes we just need good enough.


Salad Dressing

I used to hate salad.  My mom would tell me stories of the leaf lettuces she grew when I was very young.  But after we moved, the neighbor’s tree shaded the yard so much that she had to give up on gardening.  After that, it was just grocery store vegetables, and back then that meant iceberg lettuce.

I wasn’t a fan of iceberg lettuce.  My mom dressed her salad up with canned pickled beets and three bean salad, both of which I hated, so I hated salad.

I have since come to love a good salad.  Heirloom lettuce, I don’t care what kind, homemade dressing and an assortment of toppings.  Salmon or shrimp with dried fruit and candied nuts or a beef taco salad with homemade salsa are two of my favorites.

There is one recipe that I get the most requests for, my salad dressing.  It doesn’t matter which one, it’s always a favorite.  And it’s really easy and really only one recipe with a lot of variations.  It takes less than 5 minutes to make, so there’s really no reason to buy expensive dressings or those full of bad oils and bad ingredients.

You can use a whisk or for to blend the dressing, but those dressings are more prone to separate later on.  The oil just doesn’t emulsify as well.  I love my mini-food processor for this.  It costs about $25, and is well worth it for dressings as well as chopping small stuff and grinding spices.

Honey Mustard Viniagrette

  • 1 T. Mustard
  • 1 1/2 to 2 T. honey
  • 1 T. cider vinegar
  • splash of water
  • pinch of salt
  • olive oil

Put the mustard, honey, vinegar, salt and water in the food processor and blend until mixed.  You might have to scrape the honey off the bottome to incorporate it.  Turn on the processor and fill the top drip tray with olive oil.  You will probably needed to fill it two to three times.  It will start to get thicker.  Stop and taste it from time to time to see if it’s to your liking.  The harsh flavor of the vinegar will mellow as you get more oil mixed in.  Adjust with honey and salt if needed.

Mustard is one of the best ingredients to aid in emulsifying the dressing.  If you want a thick dressing, add some more mustard.

The variations are endless.  I routinely make a balsamic vinaigrette with less mustard, balsamic vinegar instead of cider, and using more vinegar.  To make it creamy, add a little yogurt or sour cream.  Sometimes I use a fruit jam instead of the honey for a strawberry, cherry or raspberry viaigrette.  Just try things.  I find most are good, and rarely ever do I throw out a dressing.


Growing Carrots

Carrots are one of the first vegetables people mention when I ask them what they want to grow.  The problem is that they are one of the hardest to grown and are not a good place to start for the beginner gardener.

There are many different ways to plant carrots, and one year I decided to try a bunch of them and figure out a way to get a reliable harvest.  The following is the method I use that works for me.  Really, whatever works for you is the right way for you.

First, carrots are slow to germinate.  They typically take up to 2-3 weeks to pop up their little heads.  This causes a lot of problems, mostly in watering and weeding.

The first thing you need to do is prepare a bed that has as few weeds as possible.  I struggle with quack or orchard grass.  I use a pitch for tup pull up all the roots I can so that the grass doesn’t come up before the carrots do.  You also want the bed as light and fluffy as you can get it, giving the roots a loose soil in which to grow straight and long.

I like to plant my carrots on both sides of a drip irrigation tape.  I make a small trench on either side of the tape, about 4 inches away.  I lightly scatter the seeds in the trench and then take my finger and just run it along the trench.  I don’t lover the seeds.  The really don’t want to be buried, only maybe covered by a little bit of soil.  Covering them will be too much.  They just won’t be able to come up.

And the most important thing is to keep them watered.  They need to stay wet until they come up.  That means a good soaking every day if you have sandy soil, or every couple of days if your soil has more clay.  I watch the dirt, and if it’s dry, it’s time to water.  I get up in the morning and I if I still see the wet path around the drip tape, I know it can go another day.  And by a good soaking, I mean you want that soil to be saturated at least a foot down.  Not a light sprinkle.  With a light sprinkle the water evaporates off the surface and doesn’t plump the seeds, giving them the moisture content they need to germinate.

When the seedlings are up, about 4 inches or so, it’s time to thin.  I usually weed and thin at the same time.  It takes a while, but is worth it.  Thin to one carrot every 1 1/2 to 2 inches.  The patch will look a bit pathetic, but give it some water and wait a week and you’ll see a sea of little carrot seedlings thriving.  I usually don’t need to weed much after that, only wait for a big harvest.

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Scott had a very special relationship with his grandfather, Pops.  Pops was a wonderful man.  Kind, generous, but feisty and full of fight.  Nothing could crush his spirit.  He had an aneurism that killed him, but they brought him back from the dead to give him 15 years of life.  A life that he enjoyed despite severe emphysema.  It was at the end of those 15 years that I met him.  He couldn’t do many of the things he once enjoyed, so he set out to find new things to enjoy that he could do with his reduced health.  His wife lived those 15 years as borrowed time, enjoying every minute with him, wasting not even a moment on the things that aren’t important.

We were living in Chicago, pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Chicago.  At least once a year we’d make the treck up to Northern Michigan to visit Pops and Grandma.  They were very social people, and we loved to see them as much as they enjoyed us visiting.  On on of those visits, after listening to Grandma’s story about visiting Chicago, Pops said “The city is no place to raise a family.”

That phrase stuck with us and has been a large driving force in our lives.  Dreaming, planning and working towards a life that Pops would be proud of.

We’ve done it, Pops.  I know he’s looking down with pride in the life we are able to give our children.  Not in the city and the rat race, but on an island in Northern Michigan, at home with their parents, surrounded by friends.

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