Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Chickens Like the Coop, Not the Nest Box

The chickens are making themselves right at home at the little farm.  They've found places they like to take dirt baths near the barn, which makes nice muddy holes for the dog walk in when it rains.  They patrol the mowed areas around the house and out buildings, and inspect the compost daily.  They know to follow me to the corn crib each morning when I let them out of the coop so they can have breakfast, and they know to come to the sink in the yard where I keep a dish of water for them to drink.  

All of those things are on the list of approved chicken activities.  Laying their eggs in the outhouse, and on Brandon's table saw, are not on the list!  Finding a whole clutch of eggs in the bucket of grass clippings and wood chips in the outhouse is one thing, but having a chicken come scooting under the door of the outhouse while it's occupied by a human is startling to everyone involved.  I don't know why they don't like the nest box we provided them in the coop.  

They seem to like the coop for sleeping.  Each night, as the sun begins to set, I can find them inside the coop, perched on the roosts, and ready to be locked safely inside.  I'm glad for this, because there are barns, outbuildings, and trees around the farm that might look more appealing to the chicken mind, and after my experience with Helen and Mrs. Hall, once they start sleeping somewhere else, like on an elephant, it's a battle to get them back where they belong.   

I wondered if the chickens would mind having glass windows instead of solid walls around their roosts.  I thought maybe they would like it, since Mrs. Hall and June preferred sleeping in the open.  I like that I can easily look inside the coop from three sides and see what they are up to.  

I can walk up and look Poncho in the eye while he's on the roost.  The coop we built seems more like a big bird cage than a mini barn.  

I hope their coop feels like home.  Our little farm house feels like home to me now, even though I automatically started driving to our old house after work they other day, during rush hour, and ended up taking a long detour to get headed in the right direction.  I only made the same drive nearly every day for ten years, so surely in another ten it will be automatic to go the right way!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pear Bounty

This funny looking floppy doughnut shape is one of my first attempts at making pear roll-ups.  Don't worry, it tastes much better than it looks! 

The big old pear tree in our front yard, while not as overloaded as last year, still had more pears than I could handle.  

Picking the pears this year was made easier by the handy fruit picker basket that Jamie gave me.  

It fits nicely on the end of the swimming pool skimmer pole, and can hold two or three pears at a time.  The claw like pieces that stick up are handy for popping the pear off the branch, although it's also easy to pop the whole branch off if I get too rough with it.  

What to do with all this pear bounty?  I like to make jam, but I haven't mustered up the energy to gather up, and figure out where to store, my canning gear, which is still at our old house.  Since Tamara had good luck drying pear slices last year, I ordered a food dehydrator and though I would give it a try too.  

In the meantime though, we've been eating pear pies.  Healthy, and easy, pear pies, even.  I haven't nailed down the perfect recipe yet, but I've been enjoying the luxury of having enough pears to get experimental.  I melted butter in the bottom of the pie plate, then mixed in almond four and pecan pieces to make a nutty crust layer on the bottom.  I loaded in as many pear slices as possible, and then pour an egg mixture over that.  Pears, nuts, eggs, and butter - what could be healthier?!  For this one, I mixed a quarter cup of sucanat and a half a can of coconut milk with the eggs, and sprinkled raisins and coconut flakes on top.  It smelled like warm sun-tan lotion, and Brandon liked eating it just about as much as if that was one of the ingredients!  I might title this one A Pie of My Very Own.  

Once the dehydrator arrived, and I got motivated to unpack it from it's box, I decided the easiest thing to do was to cut out the pear cores and bug holes, and put them in the blender and make fruit roll ups.     

I just poured the blended pears onto roll up trays I greased with coconut oil, spread it around with a spoon, and turned the dehydrator on over night.    

The instructions said it takes four to eight hours for fruit roll ups, but I left mine in for almost ten hours.  They looked brown when I opened the lid.  

But, they still have that flexible texture that I expected of a fruit roll up.  And, they taste good too, like pears.  I offered some to a friend and told him that I made them out of blended pears.  He said "I can really taste the pear in this!" Ha!    

I didn't get fancy with rolling them, I just pulled the circles apart in quarters, and put them in a zip lock bag.  They are almost gone, so I think this is a pretty good way to use up some of the pear glut.  Maybe I'll try some slices too, now that I'm inspired by this success.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sculpture Installation at the Farm

Brandon's friend, coworker, and fellow artist, gave us one of his ceramic sculptures.  Brandon brought the sculpture home un-assembled last winter, and it's been patiently waiting behind the barn for the time when we would assemble it in it's new home.  

When the artist came for a visit last weekend, we took advantage of his kindness, and put him to work helping assemble the sculpture.  Brandon had bags of sand at the ready, and with Jamie's help, they made quick work of carrying the sand, the sculpture pieces, and the concrete paving stone to the spot we selected.  

They put some sand on the ground, to made the paving stone site level and firm.  

The bottom piece of the sculpture, which is hollow, was filled with sand with the hope that this will anchor it in place, and we won't have to worry about it falling over.  

The sculpture pieces stack together, and make a tall totem shape.  This sculpture was never intended to be displayed outside, exposed to the elements.  It's made of clay, but the surface is coated with colored wax.  Already some of the wax is blistering, running, and changing color.  In a few places the wax coating has chipped away, and the white clay underneath has a green tint from algae.  It's going to be interesting to watch this piece evolve over time.  

I got distracted by cooking and missed most of the action as they assembled the pieces, but I did catch them in the act of placing the very top piece in place.  It's so tall!  I didn't realize it was, since this is the first time I've seen it completely assembled.  I really like the location we selected.  The sculpture is visible from the kitchen window, the campfire, and the front yard, without being so close that it might get bumped or dominate the scene.  

Ta-da!  Hmm.., it kind of looks like a .... well, I'll let you finish that sentence on your own! Once we had it all together, we stood around sipping our tasty beverages and admiring the color, texture, and placement.  We were all quite pleased, even Hunter, the artist.  If you would like to see some good pictures of Hunter at work in his ceramic studio, check out his webpage, here, and click on "Studio Images" on the left side of the page.  There's also some good photos of giant ceramic kilns he built in Alaska and other places on the links to the left on his website.  I've dabbled in ceramics myself, so I'm really appreciative and impressed with the strength and skill it takes to work with clay pieces at this large scale. 

I think it looks really nice with my chickens!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Newt and I have Trust Issues

This is Newt requesting that she be allowed to go outside.  I say she is requesting, but it sounds very much like she is demanding to go outside! She extends her communication beyond verbal language by pacing at the door until I look her way, then standing on her back legs while she grabs the door knob with her front feet and meows.  She wants out.  She wants it bad.  

If I don't allow her to go outside, she positions herself so that she can make a mad dash for the door when I'm not paying attention.  Like a calico lightning bolt.  And she runs away from me if I try to bring her back inside.  Sigh... 

Max was never allowed outside when we lived in apartments and subdivisions, and now that he's the age of coyote bait (eighteen) he's smart enough to enjoy gazing out the window from a soft blanket.  Ditto is such a scaredy cat that even when the door is wide open he doesn't venture beyond the threshold.  A gentle breeze sends him scurrying for safety.  

But Newt wants to go outside.  She wants to hunt.  Especially right at dusk, when the little critters are beginning to move.  I laughed while watching her first interaction with the chickens.  She stalked them, slowly creeping through the grass toward them, with her tail bushy and twitching and her ears  held down to her head, and then she pounced on one of the poor hens.  She was awarded with an exciting commotion in the flock, but hasn't tried that trick again.  Maybe she needs to wear a bell...

I've been trying to restrict her access to wildlife by only letting her outside in the evenings when I am home, even though it goes against my love of critters to unleash a predator in their midst.  The death toll so far is a dead vole and, as special gift for Brandon, an almost dead mouse.  She's no dummy, and asks to come back inside if it's raining and when it gets dark.  After all, she doesn't want to miss dinner!  

Considering I only get a few hours of freedom myself each day, I don't think it's too cruel to protect the wildlife by restricting her access.  At least she's allowed to take naps and play with her buddies all day instead of having to sit at a desk.  She even has windows in her office!

Brandon said that Newt and I have trust issues.  I don't trust that she's not going to kill the wild birds and critters I am trying to promote.  I don't trust that she won't get hit by a car, or eaten by coyotes, either.  She doesn't trust that I'm not going to lock her back in the house, so she darts away from me when I get within grabbing range when we are outside together.  Brandon is right, we don't trust each other.    

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hot Tub Signs

Frost on the grass in the mornings when I feed the chickens...

and flocks of geese on the move over the farm under the cold October moon.  These are signs.  Signs that it's past time for our hot tub!

Brandon has been working hard to get in position for moving the hot tub from our old house to this one.  We started by laying a piece of old carpet where we wanted the hot tub to live.  After several months, the grass was dead and the soil was fairly easy to level.  

The chickens were really dedicated to this project, and spend much of their free time helping with the excavation.  

Once the paving stones were in place, then it was time to arrange the hot tub pick up.  We had no idea how difficult this would be since professionals installed the hot tub the first time. 

With help from Jamie and Byron, the tub was rolled on it's side through the yard to the waiting trailer.  Thank goodness we have a round tub!

Guess who else got to move to the farm?  The cement elephant that my aunt gave me!  For some reason Brandon was less than enthusiastic about moving it, but with Jame and Byron there to help with the heavy lifting, they made short work of it.  

The guys placed the elephant so that it has a nice view of the surrounding fields.  

The hot tub is in place, but we aren't getting to soak up the starry nights just yet.  There's a problem with the water pump.  Over the years, Brandon has replaced the heater coil, and some other parts, so he wasn't surprised that the pump finally went out too.  

When we were cleaning up at the end of the day, I asked Brandon about the pile of tiny parts he left out.  He said "those are garbage, but I'm going to leave them there for a while."  Hmm.... I'm always suspicious when there are left over parts, especially leftover parts that we need to keep around just in case they aren't garbage after all!  

And if leaving hot tub guts lying around isn't messy enough, Brandon has begun excavating a trench for the electricity to the barn and to the hot tub.  So now we have a hole and big pile of dirt right outside the front door!  It's a handy location for the dog, who like to make sure he gets all four feet coated before he comes inside.  I really hope it doesn't rain before the dirt gets put back in the hole.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

Is There An Option Other Than Flushing It Away?

If you remember, mom and I built a composting potty for use while we were working on the little farm house.  It was just a seat tucked into the edge of a tree line, with some toilet paper in a jar and a pile of raked lawn clipping to use for covering deposits and adding the organic matter that made it compost.  Well, nearly a year ago, Brandon and I moved the composting potty nearer the house, and used some scrap lumber, an old door, and a couple of sheets of metal roofing to create an outhouse for the composting potty to reside in.  We even added a decorative glass box with a light in it that some friends gave us.  

We modeled our design like some of the outhouses we used when hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which leaves the upper half of the outhouse open, but gives you privacy when seated.  

We tucked the outhouse to the side of the barn so we only had to sink two posts and build three partial walls.  

We've been using the outhouse potty ever since, and we've hosted several parties with lots of guests, and it's worked very well.  We have a water hose and outdoor sink between the outhouse and the house, so it's been a convenient for hand washing.  

This is what the inside of the outhouse looks like if you were to peak over the back wall.  Brandon and I even got fancy, and paved the floor with some nice flat rocks that we found on the farm.  Of course, a crayfish immediately excavated a hole in the outhouse floor, and he likes to leave a big pile of dirt on my paving stones.  

Brandon rescued this green display cabinet from a dumpster at school, and we mounted it to the wall so we have a dry place to store cleaning supplies and toilet paper.  

I've let the weeds take over behind the outhouse, which doesn't just encourage spiders, but also keeps anyone from walking so close to the outhouse that they can see anyone who is sitting down.  

Before we lived at the farm, and were only there for work days, one of my chores was to rid the outhouse of spiders, clean the toilet seat, and re-stock the buckets of grass clippings.  I keep a handy spray bottle of vinegar for cleaning, and an old broom for battling the spiders.  I've even been known to use the broom for raking up grass clippings.  What kind of farmer can't even find a rake when she needs it?!  

The box the potty is sitting on is approximately three feet by three feet, and it's about the height of a toilet.  This is enough volume, that even being very generous with the grass clippings or wood chips, we've only emptied it once in over a year.  The compost has direct contact with the soil underneath, so the soil organisms can access the compost easily.  After a party, the grass clippings would be piled quite high, but by the next weekend, the pile would be composted to half it's size.  I would sometime add a little water before we left for a few days, to make sure the composting organisms had plenty of moisture to work their magic.  

And it is like magic!  The one and only time Brandon and I emptied the composting potty, in preparation for a party, when we wanted to make sure we had maximum holding capacity, we armed ourselves with pitchforks and a wheel barrel, and braced ourselves to be disgusted.  But, thankfully, it wasn't disgusting.  Not that we inspected anything very closely, but we didn't even see any un-composted toilet paper.  We dumped the contents, which looked like really good compost, on the ground near the back edge of the farm, and covered it with a plastic barrel.  We recently removed the barrel, and couldn't even tell there was ever anything there but dead weeds.  Magically disappearing poo!

Now that we live at the farm house, the disadvantages of an outdoor outhouse are more apparent.  For instance, I find that I'm a little tense when I've just swept a spider from the toilet seat, and I don't like being tense.  Also, it's cold in the mornings, so it didn't take long for Brandon and I to start to complain about having to find a coat and boots just to go to the bathroom in the wee hours.  It was time to move our system inside!  

Why not have a regular flush toilet?  After all, we are fairly certain we do have a functioning septic tank.  It's a good question, and I've been asked it many times by folks who know we are opting for an alternative toilet situation.  First, I remind myself that nothing is set in stone, and if we decide we want a normal flushing toilet, all we have to do is build a bathroom or get creative with adapting the bathroom we have, which is on a slab of cement, which doesn't make it easy to install a toilet with underneath plumbing.  

The composting potty design that we are using is the easiest of all the designs I have looked at to install where I want it.  It didn't cost any money, requires no energy, and we don't have to add any rooms, or chisel through a cement slab, to install a box with a seat over a bucket.  But this isn't my biggest motivation for attempting an alternative to a regular toilet.  I fancy myself a grower of green plants, and green plants love compost, but even my compost greed isn't enough to inspire a desire to empty a bucket of wood chips everyday.  I really just want to know, for real, if there is a reasonable alternative to putting waste in clean water and flushing it away.  

In my line of work, as an environmental consultant, I have visited "away" many times.  I've been on sewer treatment plants, I've been in the creeks that are polluted with the effluent of sewer treatment plants, I've seined fish downstream of straight pipes, and I've seen the lab results of e. coli tests in stream water that is contaminated by groundwater from septic drain fields.  "Away" is a disgusting place, and you know what else lives there?  The water we drink!  And all the poor creatures that make their home there.   

Sometimes I think that if the general population could see their drinking water in the state that I see it, there would be mass revolt, and we would demand that someone come up with a reasonable way to handle waste that is better than flushing it away.  As gross as it seems to poop in a bucket of wood chips and cover it with more wood chips, like some sort of human litter box, it's way grosser to poop in water, treat the water with toxic chemicals, and then drink that water, which is what we all do when we flush it away.  Even animals in captivity don't poop in their water, but somehow as a civilization, we've decided that it's the thing to do.  And it's a huge industry.  I've attended conferences with thousands of professionals who are all striving to manage the waste stream of all the people flushing it away.   The infrastructure it takes to keep us from getting sick as we drink our own waste is massive, and I'm not always confident that we can maintain the infrastructure in a working condition.  It might be good to know if there's another option.  It would be nice if the option didn't prevent our friends from coming for a visit, though.  

So, with a desire to stop participating in the flush it away system, coupled with my compost greed and the complexity of putting a flush toilet in the space we already have, we have decided to try the composting toilet in the house.  At least for now.  I can tell you that in the few weeks we've been using it, we haven't yet started drawing up plans for a bathroom addition.  
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