The Wrath of Grapes

We have a White Concord grapevine growing up our south facing deck at the house.

The vines run along the metal cable railing.

The raccoons have been raiding the grapes for the past couple of weeks which means we have not enjoyed a decent nights sleep during this time. Magpie literally explodes into a barking, snarling frenzy when she hears them on the deck.

The grapes were still a bit too tart to pick, so I kept hoping Magpie’s recent face off with one of the raccoons would keep them away for a couple more days allowing the grapes to ripen enough for us to enjoy. That didn’t happen. The first family of raccoons must have decided to tell all of their friends because we started having several visitations a night this past week. Needless to say, we are sleep deprived and it’s getting a little cranky around here. I finally decided to try and salvage the remaining grapes but truthfully – it was more about getting sleep than getting grapes. To my surprise I still ended up with about 12 lbs. of grapes – our biggest harvest to date, but I’m pretty sure the raccoons ate at least that much.

Be careful of what you wish for.

So what do you do with 12 lbs of candy sweet grapes? They are a bit too sweet for me but M likes eating them fresh, as do the chickens. I decided to use a portion of them to make grape jam. I’ve never been a grape jelly fan – much too sweet for me but several people wrote in their blogs that homemade concord grape jam is nothing like the store bought kind so I gave it a go.

The whole kitchen smelled like a grape candy factory – I thought I was going to keel over from the super sweet smell. But I pressed on. First problem – I couldn’t get it to gel despite bringing it to the 220 degree temp Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving directed. I kept it going and took several “wrinkle” tests all the while afraid I’d end up making it too thick. After five attempts I moved on to the canning stage.

Second problem – I used half pint jars as we just don’t go through jam that fast. Unfortunately I forgot that the canning rack really only works well with quart jars so most of the jars fell in. I fished them out – all seemed to be ok.  After the jars had cooled and all of the lids had popped indicating they were sealed, the jam looked a bit runny. Hrrrumph. By that time it was time to start dinner, so I  decided I’d wait until the next day to deal with the runny jam.

Dinner was seared Tamworth pork chops with a grape pan sauce – I deglazed the pan with vermouth, added shallots, thyme, fresh concord grapes and a bit of chicken broth – cooked that down then tossed the chops back in for a minute. This was served with mashed sweet potatoes. It turned out quite nice although I think I might add a little Dijon and a splash of balsamic vinegar if I make it again.

I heated the hot water bath canner up again this morning.  Opened all of the jars, dumped them back into my stock pot, brought it back up to 220 degrees and performed the “wrinkle” test. Still runny. Several attempts later I finally achieved the “wrinkle”. By this time, the jam had cooked way down and that was when I had my Aha moment.

I was bothered by the fact that it took so long – so many people complained that they had cooked theirs too long and it was much too thick.  I think that was what clouded my judgment. It finally occurred to me what the problem was. Our grapes are seedless. All recipes for Concord Grape Jam involve a process of squeezing the pulp and seeds out of the skins, cooking that down and straining the seeds out, then adding the skins, lemon juice and sugar and bringing that up to the gel stage at 220 degrees.

My first clue should have been that the recipe is supposed to yield about five to six half pint jars of jam and I had six half pints, a full pint plus a little more. By skipping the pulp squeezing part – I just started out with the whole grapes and sugar – I had way more juice from the start that hadn’t been allowed to cook down. My second attempt was on the money – six half pint jars.

The other thing I wasn’t expecting – our grapes are white Concord grapes and throughout the most of the cooking process, they were their usual light green color, but right at the end of the cooking stage they started to turn a rosy color and by the time I  completed the second attempt to reach the gel stage the jam was much darker – not as dark and opaque as a regular Concord grape jam but you’d never look at this jam and think it came from green grapes! It looks more like a plum jam.

Despite adding extra lemon and lemon zest to help cut the sweetness, it is still pretty sweet. I did enjoy it with peanut butter on toast though – the peanut butter certainly helps to cut the sweetness. I also like the rustic texture – you can still see grapes in it.

I imagine I’ll be using it more in savory dishes. I love fruit and meat together. Just add a spoon of it with a little Dijon, maybe a splash of vinegar to make a quick pan sauce for chicken or pork. You can also make a vinaigrette with it. I did strain off a little bit of the syrup and set that aside to make grape sodas – just add a drizzle to a glass of seltzer – Yum! A little dab will do ya – this way you can enjoy a soda that isn’t sickening sweet or made with high fructose corn syrup.

Tonight I’m going to ask my bartender (aka M) to make me Grape Gin Fizz!

 

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Ditch, Water, Smoke

Just a quick update. We have finished backfilling 700 feet of ditch while carefully separating power conduit from phone line and have partially backfilled and compacted the section which will receive a portion of our septic line. I wonder what else I could stick in there to take advantage of the ditch before closing it up.


We trenched around the transformer box to keep the phone line clear.

But there is still a pile of work to go.

Everything is so dry now that we moved a water tote near an especially droopy chestnut. Hopefully it keeps dripping through the week. A few trees are suffering from sunburn, but with the cages we set up we plan to add a little shade held in place with bulldog clips to give them some relief.

The sky is a little smokey here. Big fires well east and south of us have clouded the sun. The light was a red hue all day long.

Take a close look at this picture and you will see the blue dense smoke in the horizon. I think I snapped this around 4:00pm but it looks eerily like sunset.

Posted in Barn, Construction, Farming, Homesteading, Preparing the land | 10 Comments

Good guys

On the long uphill climb of backfilling our power ditch and the subsequent unfilling after I remembered we still needed to run a phone line (someday I will dig a ditch only once) I pondered and was visited by a bunch of good guys. 

We’ve got garter snakes, salamanders, and frogs. There are two pair of swallows in residence in the shed of the barn. These guys are all pretty entertaining but I’ve always had a soft spot for swallows. Swooping and eating and their little V tails wobbling to balance their aerobatics. Goldfinches which seem to sag mid flight with crops full of weed seed and bugs.

Bats silhouetted against the clear night sky seem to flutter and fall, twist and get their little jets started again when they catch moths and termites.

Bald faced hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets are cleaning up the bad guys too. We tolerate them as much as possible. Don’t attempt to dislodge a nest while wearing flip-flops (zoris, thongs, jandals)

Even the pair of red tailed hawks and our local pack of coyotes do their part keeping the rodent population in check. While I’ll have to take extra measures to protect future poultry flocks I am happy for the help for now.

This weekend a little guy flew to my backhoe. I stopped work to walk up and show L with him climbing through the endless tunnel of my hands as I moved one over another in succession.

 

And this little tough guy, the Northern Aligator Lizard. They eat lots of bad guys even baby mice! At 6 inches long he has quite an attitude.

   

It’s nice to have helpers on the farm. Now if I could only get some help with this ditch.

Posted in Farming, Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture, Sustainability | 4 Comments

Faded Beauty

My hydrangeas were getting way too leggy and the blooms were so heavy I had to keep tying them up. We have several huge plantings of them around the house.

It kept getting worse – branches were starting to break, blooms were dragging on the ground, walkways were being blocked – so I gave them a severe pruning. I’m hoping I did it before they set their buds for next years blooms.  Fingers crossed we get some blooms next year, but I’ll be very happy with bushy growth and verdant green nonetheless.

I really didn’t want to do it as it is nice to have the blooms throughout the fall, but it needed to be done so the next blooms can be enjoyed instead of battled. To make myself feel better I came up with a few ways to keep them around a bit longer.

A giant bouquet by the front door

“Chop and drop” mulch

Not wanting their early demise to be for naught, I am using every last bit of the prunings. The woodier branches are in my chipping pile to be used for pathways in the garden.

Even though the blooms had already started to fade when I pruned, the colors are still quite amazing.

They went from this

to this

I guess some of us just improve with age…

 

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Ta Da!


I just finished refinishing and recovering my ottoman – yippee!  Ok, so not really farm related, but I was just so pleased I had to show someone (besides Harlie – obviously she likes it).

I purchased the fabric last January and just now got around to tackling it. The ottoman was in pretty bad shape back when I took this pic – imagine how bad it got by the time I got around to recovering it. I was getting pretty close to duct taping it – not something I really want to admit to, but in my defense there are some pretty fun rolls of “duck tape” available these days. I could have gotten creative.

“You looking at me??? I didn’t do it – you should talk to the dog.

I pulled fifty million staples out, sanded, primed and gave the legs four coats of paint (Magpie had chewed them up when she was a puppy), then reupholstered with the new fabric. The foam and webbing were in great shape so I was able to skip those steps.

Good thing I had help or I might never have finished it.

According to Harlie, the webbing and foam are still pretty sturdy

Looks done to me

 

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Sustainable Pets?

We have two house cats and one dog. Some of you may have already met Magpie our dog, but the cats have yet to make an appearance – mainly because they have never been to the farm.

Magpie likes rocks, climbing, digging, swimming, hunting, barking and jumping

Magpie likes rocks, climbing, digging, swimming, hunting, barking and jumping

 

Siena is the sun worshipper

Siena is the sun worshipper

 

Harlie prefers the shade

Harlie prefers the shade

Both are about 7 years old now and extremely spoiled. I adopted them from a rescue shelter when they were kittens. Although the cats are my “babies” and I could go on and on about how cute and funny they are, that is not really the subject of this post.

As we hone our sustainability skills and think about the things we regularly purchase now that we may not be able to afford later when we are full-time farmers or that don’t really play into the new “closed-loop” lifestyle we are moving towards, purchased pet food was high on the list. I’ve always fed all of my pets high-end food which is, of course, expensive, making it a good candidate for reassessment.

We discussed the “by-products” of the planned pig and poultry operations and M said we could feed the pets from that. An occasional deer would help too.  At first I balked. I thought it was probably fine for the dog, but the cats??? I just couldn’t see it going over very well. In the spirit of being efficient and thrifty I agreed to try and keep an open mind but between you and me – I was skeptical.

Around this same time we were starting to research growing all of our own grains and vegetables to feed our future livestock. I currently purchase locally grown organic feed for our small flock of backyard chickens at home. I sell our surplus eggs to a few friends and always go on and on about how well my girls are treated and fed – only whole grains, kitchen scraps and lots of delicious forages are provided – no nasty chemical/gmo-laden over-processed food goes into those eggs. No siree!

That’s when it hit me. All of these years thinking I was feeding my pets the very best food to suddenly realize I had been feeding them really expensive over-processed crap! I started to read up on it. I never thought about it before but when I read that the pet food industry was born from a need to do something with the waste products from the human food industry, I knew things had to change sooner rather than later.

It turns out the worst thing you can feed your pets is dry food – especially cats.  The ancestral diet of muscle, bone and organs was 70% water whereas dry, processed food contains at most 10%. I also read that cats mouths are not designed for drinking water efficiently. In the wild they derive most of their water needs from their prey.

As with anything – the internet is full of info on the raw food diet. I started out with feeding raw meaty bones (NEVER feed an animal cooked bones). Magpie loved the new diet and happily crunched meaty bones at every meal. The cats – well, Harlie would have nothing to do with it. She would just look at me as if saying “Seriously? You’ve GOT to be kidding yourself if you think I’m going to consider THAT THING my dinner”. Siena was totally into it but she wanted to drag her raw chicken wing off to a more private place. More often than not that private place would be my closet or my bathroom. It was pretty easy to get Magpie to stay on a mat at her feed bowl, but the cats – well they just don’t operate that way.

I started chopping the meaty bones into smaller bits with a meat cleaver for the cats. That was a complete pain to do twice a day, plus chickens bits were flying all over the kitchen. There’s also the issue of me being prone to accidents around sharp objects (and I have the scars to prove it!). Magpie was pretty easy because I just had to toss her a few bone-in meaty parts. The hard part was remembering to take it out of the freezer before I went to bed and that didn’t always happen. Needless to say meal times were taking up a lot of time.

I continued my research and checked out a few books from the library. One of them hit the sweet spot for me – Dr. Becker’s Real Food For Healthy Dogs & Cats. It is easy to understand, the recipes aren’t too complicated and it deals with both cats and dogs. I ended up buying my own copy.  Dr. Becker’s recipes call for grinding the meat and bone. You can also purchase bone meal to add to ground meat if grinding bones doesn’t work for you but we happen to have a pretty decent meat grinder that can handle it. This sounded like an easier way to manage feeding the cats and the dog without a lot of fuss two times a day.

The dog diet is 75% meat, organs and bone with 25% veggies and fruit. For cats it is 88% meat, organs and bone with 12% veggies. I make large quantities  of the raw meat mix and the raw veg mix every couple of weeks or so. I can use the same recipes for both the dog and the cats – I just vary the percentage of meat mix to veg mix when I serve their meals. I freeze the meat and veg mixes in quart-sized containers to make varying the percentages easier and just add things like raw eggs or sardines (to provide them with omega-3 fatty acids) at meal time. I also occasionally add cottage cheese or yogurt and I sprinkle nutritional yeast over the top every other day.

The meat mix includes meaty bone-in parts from various animal as well as kidneys, hearts, gizzards, liver, etc… and I make a vegetable puree with raw vegetables (except for sweet potatoes and squash – I steam those first to make them more digestible) and fruit. The book has a lot of detail about the amounts, types, substitutions, etc… – it is crucial to provide a balanced diet. Just tossing them chicken backs or feeding plain ground meat is not the idea here. You are trying to recreate all of the nutrients they would obtain from a natural prey diet. Adding the fruit and veg provides them with nutrients they would have derived from eating the stomach contents of their prey.

Apple Ball – one of Magpie’s favorite games! She thinks it’s super duper when you can play with your food.

There are lots of recipes for both the meat and veg mixes to mix things up which helps while I still have to shop for organic meaty bits and vegetables. Luckily my local grocer sells organic organ meats, plus we always get the extra offal from our pastured pork provider’s other customers that don’t partake of the “nasty bits”. The last time we took home three hog heads, which in addition to providing us with six delightfully delicious pork cheeks, M yielded at least 16 lbs of extra meat for the dog and cats. Magpie spent several days gnawing at what was left of one of the heads. I composted the other two because I couldn’t bear to stumble upon a bloody hog skull in the yard any longer.

magpies hogshead

It took Harlie a couple of weeks to switch over to the new diet but I just mixed in her normal canned food and just tapered it off over time. Now she wolfs down her raw food with glee. Magpie & Siena both liked it from the start. In addition to the animals liking it and me having found an easier way to manage it, there have been several other even more important benefits to feeding them a raw diet.

Both Harlie and Siena were a little plump despite my efforts to cut back their serving sizes on the store-bought food and purchasing lower fat versions. Harlie also threw up a lot (not counting hairballs). The vet said some cats just have sensitive stomachs – it was nothing to worry about. They were both a bit lazy too – I figured it was because they were house cats and their age. In less than a month of eating the raw food diet both cats dropped down to a healthier weight and had way more energy. They became playful again and much more social. There is lots of running through the halls and new found interest in their toys. Unfortunately there is also a keen interest in anything we eat. I’m not sure if that is attributable to their taste buds “waking up” from the new diet or if they’ve been closely observing the dog getting leftovers after our meal times.

When I first started feeding Magpie raw meaty bones the plaque that had started to build up on her teeth was completely gone in a week – she had the whitest teeth imaginable. When I switched over to the ground meat and bones recipes I noticed her teeth starting to color up again, so now I give her meaty bones (chicken or turkey drumsticks or backs, lamb necks, etc… every other day to keep her smile brilliant – and Magpie does have a brilliant smile!

Posted in Dog, Homesteading, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Son of a Ditch

No sooner than the 600 ft long trench to the well is filled in we now find ourselves with an 845 ft ditch to bring power to the barn and building site.   

 

Off grid is not cheap or green

This follows long discussions about our power consumption and pure speculation on what it might be at peak usage when the farm is fully operational. 

We could easily rationalize 9,000 to 10,000 dollars in solar panels and micro-hydro but the batteries are another thing altogether. 

More expensive than the rest of the system, huge and space consuming, heavy, and another thing to maintain, these guys just aren’t reasonable for the flexibility we want. Worse they are a 10-15 year consumable if you are constantly vigilant on use and maintenance schedules. 

“The lead battery industry consumes more than 80% of global lead production and is responsible for exposing thousands of workers and millions of children to harmful levels of lead. It is also the fastest growing lead-consuming industry due to a convergence of rapidly increasing demand for vehicles, cell phones, back-up power supplies, and renewable energy systems.” – The Life Cycle of Metals: Improving Health, Environment and Human Security

Even the best system requires a standby generator – another single purpose purchase and maintenance requirement.

For less anxiety and to remove another (car-sized) bill from our future we plan on being grid-tied for now. We will be providing local power for our neighbors, and the power company will pay us for the privilege. 

A Ditch By Any Other Name

A long open hole, a terrible mess, the cost of progress looks like destruction to me. I will be glad when all this digging is done and what we do with the land grows things besides piles of torn earth. 

that is the pull tape provided by the power company

This ditch would have taken me two or three weekends to dig, and one tricky part might have been impossible. We paid our dear friends Joe and Sandy to tackle this, and he was done in a day and a half. There was also a “while you are at it request” a few trees left on the building site hadn’t fared well. Roots and all he pushed them over. I’ll save limbing and bucking logs for another day.

   
 

The conduit was laid in 10 foot pieces – dropping the pull line through as I went. I started early to get some done before the heat fired up. It was 99 degrees Fahrenheit when I finished. 

 

enough conduit to get to the transformer

 
  
    
 

The job was finished by 4:00, I could have moved faster but the line in the conduit added steps and I wanted to get this done right. After a quick solar shower and locking everything up I hopped on my motorcycle and headed out.

“Son of a Ditch!”, I muttered.

… But I pronounced it differently. 

As I was unlocking the gate I noticed the spool of pull tape provided by the power company was completely empty. The line I had been carefully threading through conduit hadn’t been long enough. 

Like every other project here this one is not going smoothly. I stewed on this and tried to come up with solutions on the long ride home. Currently I am considering a ping pong ball on heavy fishing line with a shop vac on one end of the conduit. 

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