Six Years and 8 Days Ago – What have we learned?

Six years and eight days ago, I began blogging about our homesteading journey and decided to name this blog, “Incrementally Stepping Towards Homesteading”.

It’s been an incredible journey and it’s still really only the beginning. Today I am looking back. I read back to six years ago, and the things we talked about doing, did not always turn out to be what happened. Things took different shape but that was all part of learning as we went. Nope, we never raised 4 turkeys named; Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, a feast for every season, as I said we would. We also didn’t put the garden in the old goat yard, as it turned out we ended up putting 2-3 hogs a year in the old goat yard instead. Things I found out that turned out not to be easy? Selling our meat and vegetables. We are licensed to sell meat from our farm, and I thought it would be easy to get people out here, and turns out it is not, so while selling our meat didn’t go as planned, we do sell some, and the money we used to spend on meat is just not spent anymore so it’s still a win.

We learned about raising baby chicks, laying hens, roosters for meat, and how to butcher our own chickens.

We learned how to keep hogs, and feed them so they are fat but not too fat (yeah we did that one year).

Hubs had started some Shiitake mushroom logs many years ago, and we loved having fresh and dried Shiitakes so much that we have learned more and now have many, many logs going with them, and we are currently experimenting with several varieties.

We learned how to tap trees, and cook down the sap into delicious syrup…

…and in the Fall we learned how to press cider from our own apples.

My garden 5 years ago, on our first Spring, was much smaller and I am now much better at using the space to it’s maximum benefit. Hubs built an excellent fence around our garden and that really took gardening up a lot of notches. Each year I plan, and think I have it perfected, but I still, at the end of that season, am filled with ideas for the next season.

I learned how to start garden plants properly, and in fact last year I started all but just a few herbs.

I will never be able to believe how all those pounds of foods that feed us, all the rest of the year, came from those rows of tiny starter plants that I start on my plant rack! I have yet to become accomplished in the area of seed saving but it’s on my learn list. I did successfully save pepper seeds and grew those the next year, but they are easy keepers, saving some seeds are more complicated then others.

I’ve learned so much about food preservation! I had water bath canned a bit in the 80s, but had some failures, and the floating tomato and glass soup, after all that hard work, really sent me into a canning spiral. Thanks to a friend, I gave it a go again and have been canning ever since. Recently, I added something new to this area. Despite being terrified of a pressure canner, I started pressure canning, and I love it. I have always depended heavily on my freezers, we have several, but when we process animals we need more space in the freezers and my dozens of quarts of broth and other quarts of finished soups take up crazy amounts of room, and when you want to use them they of course have to thaw. Additionally keeping food in a plugged in freezer that could be stored on a shelf doesn’t make that much sense. I now have more room in the freezer, and soup on the shelf that I can open and pour into a pot to heat up, or to use as a base for other soups. When you raise animals there is never a shortage of soup bones, so there is never a shortage of bone broth and now it’s ready to use, and on the shelf! Hub’s has learned to smoke meat and also built a cold smoker which we need to break into use. His smoked meats have turned out great!

A couple years I began learning about fermenting, and about krauts, kimchi, fermented pickles, kombucha and more. This is a great way to preserve veggies. I make our Krauts and Kimchis in the Summer and they last all Winter in the fridge.

I learned about bread. Let me restate that, I have been learning about bread for 6 years, and I am still learning.

This is my most recent conquest. Unfortunately it was not as tasty as it was beautiful, but I am getting there.

Foraging for food and for learning about medicine…

A few years ago, I felt a draw to become more familiar with what we had here on the farm. As I started learning about the plants and weeds, and found out more about treasures to hunt for, it became a fascinating study. I have jars of at least 40 or more dried plants that have valuable purposes for food or health. I have not made use of all of them yet, I gather them to have them, so that I can spend winters learning about them and I have made various tinctures and salves from them. I have become an Elderberry spokesperson! Don’t say you have the sniffles around me, because I’ll end up on my Elderberry soapbox. The stuff is amazing. Oh and foraging for mushrooms, I can’t forget that. We have always done some Morel hunting, but now we successfully have found, identified and eaten, Golden Oysters, Turkey Tail, Pheasant Backs, Inky Shaggy Manes, Chicken of the Woods, and Puffballs. There are so many others to be foraged for, but this was a big jump in our mushroom foraging education.

When we began all of this, it was a bit of an off shoot from something Hubs started. He got 3 Scottish Highland Cattle 6 years ago. It’s been wonderful watching him get the rhythm of the animals, and learn to communicate with them based on their body language and they way they move. The Cattle were originally purchased to clean up all the scrub brush in our woods. Highlands are great at this, they are browsers and grazers so they clean up the grounds and the brush. When he got our bull a year later, we might have rushed into that, but in the end it turned out well, He and our 3 mamas, have produced many calves for us.

We are still developing the direction of our small beef program here yet, but in the meantime, we haven’t bought beef in years, our woods look much better, and we’ve even sold a couple of calves

We still have a long ways to go, but we haven’t bought meat or eggs at the store in years, and in fact we just don’t buy much at the store. If we don’t have what we need we often get it from local farmers around here. I do of course buy coffee, and baking essentials at the store, and dairy from local dairies as we don’t have that on the farm and of course I definitely don’t see myself making olive oil in our parts of the country, so there are always things we will buy, but it sure is not much, and I never dreamed 6 years and 8 days ago that we could have achieved this level of food sustainability.

All this learning and lifestyle change, has changed me in ways I didn’t expect. The more quiet around me, the more I need more quiet in my life. I find going to the city to be overstimulating, overly loud, and that it lacks the quiet moments I need. My trips to the city for things has been paired down to only 1 time in a month or not even, in some months. I try to get it all done so I don’t have to return too soon. There are weeks where I leave the farm only once, and I love it. Farming has also brought us closer to our community and neighbors. We enjoy trading goods and sharing knowledge. I have a friend who is wonderful about trading her forage finds and I trade her some, of mine in return. I have another friend that came out after a snowstorm to help me drag wood on a very cold day. We have neighbors we would do anything for night or day, and they would do the same for us. This lifestyle has brought me peace and comfort, and unending gratitude for being able to do what we do here. No, we are not off-grid (hoping to expand into solar this year), and no, we don’t live in a tiny house. We definitely live a modern homesteading lifestyle a hybridized version for sure but it’s our definition and it allows us to provide our food, eat close to home, know where our food comes from and be more dependent on ourselves.

It’s been amazing 6 years, and I look forward to continuing my education, everyday is another day to learn.

The Kitchen Brings Such Comfort

We had some fun family time this past weekend, which included a wonderful meal out, which was a gift from my daughter and her husband. It was a delicious meal in a very beautiful, location, out of the way of most everything, apart from some kayakers and canoeists, that we saw. It was a special evening!

The next day while the guys worked on hay, we did some baking. It resulted in amazing goodies. These Challah loaves came from a recipe from my west coast daughter, and it’s the perfect recipe! They turned out quite pretty!

These little squares of cheesy goodness are completely addictive and really very easy, especially after hubs said, “wouldn’t those roll out easier with the pasta maker”? Sometimes I forget to put two and two together! It was a great idea, it helped make them thinner which also, made them crunchier. The ones that didn’t come out of the pasta maker, that I rolled out, taste just as good but I would call them cheesy biscuits, rather than crackers. Absolutely delicious.

I haven’t been on top of my sourdough starter as I should have been. I am feeding it but not as often as I should, it therefore is not active enough yet for making full on sourdough bread. It’s fine though because I have been making English muffins and waffles with the discard from my sourdough feedings.

I have written about these before, but now I have perfected the breakfast sandwich! It took some tweaking to get them right. The scrambled egg kept falling out, and so now I use the muffin cutter to cut the eggs, as well, so the eggs are a circle that just fit and no more egg fall out! Oh and no that isn’t mustard in the sandwich, it is just our bright, beautifully colored yolks that do that! A sign of a well pastured chicken. These are made of our breakfast sausage and eggs, and some amazing local cheddar from a small cheese factory near by us. These are mostly his breakfasts, and occasionally mine if I plan on working outside much of the day.

The beginning of tomato season! Tomatoes can make the meal, this time of year!

This was absolutely delicious recipe. Minnesota wild rice, our dried currants, leeks, celery and lots of homemade chicken bone broth. Healthy, in so many ways, and definitely the best rice dish I have ever eaten. It makes a large recipe, so I froze a few quarts of it for later. I have enough of my dried currants to make one more batch to divide into quarts to freeze for an easy dish on Winter nights.

Gazpacho, a wonderful cold Summer soup. Well in reality it is a wonderful fresh Pico De Gallo that I thought would be great frozen salsa, but since it was not cooked salsa, and because vegetables have so much water in them, when thawed it was too full of liquid and the vegetables were of course not crunchy. Lesson learned. Fresh salsa is way different after the freezer. It did, however, still taste amazing. I had many 2 cup portions frozen, and I was expecting company. I decided to serve Gazpacho, by thawing the 2 cup portions and pureeing them. Everyone loved the Gazpacho. This year I will freeze fresh Pico De Gallo again, but I will know I am going to serve it as Gazpacho.

Pickle season has definitely begun. Lots of cucumbers, and it hasn’t nearly peaked! Looks like there will be loads of them. Cucumbers, beyond what you can eat fresh, either have to be canned or fermented as pickles, chow chows, or relishes. Surely you can’t freeze them. The good thing is that we have hungry pigs and chickens so they get what we can’t eat or process. In exchange they give us pork, eggs and chicken meat. It works.

First kraut of the year, from the garden. It’s been a while since I got my ferment on, and made kraut! I’ve been doing a lot of vinegar pickles, but I think I will start making some Kimchi and ¬†fermented pickles, the kraut inspired me!

I still had frozen strawberries, from a local farm, from last year. Since things last so long in a deep freezer, they are still perfectly fine. This is Sherbet, made from last year’s strawberries, and this year’s wild blackcap berries from the farm. I doubled the amount of fruit the recipe called for and this helped to reduce the sugar per serving, it also has milk in it and I added about 1/4 cup of cream to the about 6 cups of Sherbet that it made, so that it would be a bit richer. It is so good and so refreshing! The great thing is that no ice cream maker is needed. Just frozen fruit, lemon juice, sugar, and milk and it’s all made in the food processor. Takes 5 minutes. Since we always have fruit in the freezer, we will be able to make this all year. I am very happy to have stumbled upon this very easy recipe.

Now just a little bit of farm, since this has been all kitchen, kitchen, kitchen!

There is nothing hubs loves more than a beautiful day to make hay! It just makes him very happy. Yes, he was having a hay day!

Wednesday we will have the mobile slaughter unit out to process our steer. He’s over two years old, which is about time for a Highland. We usually process between 26-30 months. We have had mobile slaughter come out for the pigs for a couple of years now. There is a state inspector here for every bit of it, and s/he never takes their eyes off the animal from start to finish. The people are great to work with, and it goes very smoothly. They use an electrical stunner, which takes the pig down in a literal second. Then they bleed them out. This is the most humane way we have seen. We’ve tried loading and transporting and off loading at the locker, but after a life on green pasture and no stress it is very tough on them with the gates, and the cement floors and the clanking of equipment. We never wanted to do that again, it was hard on them and hard for us to see them stressed. Many people don’t have an option, but we are fortunate to have this mobile slaughter unit. We sell our meat so it must be done with inspectors on board at all times. The pigs though, are with us only 6-7 months, since they are feeder pigs. This steer has been with us, over 2 years, and this makes on farm slaughter harder for us. We really know this guy. We aren’t just dropping him off somewhere this time, we will be here for the whole process. The most important part though is the steer. If he is eating hay one minute, in his normal surroundings, and is out the next second, we know at least that his end is extraordinarily quick, and that is much more important than how hard it feels to us. I have said this in other entries. It should feel hard. Raising animals and getting to know them, makes it harder, come slaughter day, but it should be hard. I never want taking a life for food, to be easy, for me I always want it to be felt.

John Boy and Kleitos have really grown. They will be with us on the farm till their date comes in December. John Boy is the littler one, and he also seems to be the more clever one. Kleitos gets so excited, when I come with food, that he can’t think straight, and can’t even remember that the food is out, at the end of the pasture. ¬†John Boy knows right where it is, and while Kleitos is running in circles excitedly, John Boy runs right for it, and shows him the way. They really are fun to watch!

Between Seasons

Currently it is snowing and underneath the snow is a fine layer of ice. No April fool’s day, its the 3rd, this is just plain old Midwestern Springtime. A day ago I was collecting sap and it was running well, and today I was doing the winter thing, making soup and hot buns to have for dinner.

The cattle are happy in any weather and they have been mugging for the camera. This little fellow is Splash, and below is his Dad, Scotty, everyone has been soaking up the sunshine that we had so much of last week.

This time of year there is little green for the chickens to find to eat. We are looking forward to Spring and Summer, when the birds will start out on grass and we will have nice orange egg yolks again. This day though I got the lucky text from my neighbor who farms micro greens. Often he has trays of the them that are not usable, either because he cut what he needed or they got too tall etc. He filled the back of my car with trays for the birds, and I left him with eggs. The birds were thrilled, and my kind neighbor was happy with the eggs.

This picture goes under the category of…sometimes you need more help. You reach a point in life where you want to keep doing what you are doing but you find it getting harder to do. That is when it is time to upgrade tools so the machines can do the harder work. This new unit will make hubs jobs infinitely easier. Looking forward to my driving lessons when things warm up.

And speaking of getting older…we go through so much of this golden broth!! We are firm believers in the benefits of bone broth for the joints, and so I make this much about every couple of weeks. I make it mostly from our stewing birds we have in the freezer. It is such rich and delicious broth! I know I have mentioned this before but it’s become an integral part of our routines, and so it continues to pop up in my posts.

Each year we hope to learn a few new things to add to our list of homestead skills. This year we expanded into smoking meat. We have so far smoked delicious ribs a few times, brats, pork hocks, that were great in split pea soup, and even a side of salmon from a local who fishes in Alaska. This past weekend though we went for the biggie. We pulled out the two pork bellies we had been scratching our heads about how to properly prepare. We had great guidance from someone with experience, and he coached us well.

Ready for the cure….

I rubbed the cure on the bellies. Then they went into the fridge for 5 days.

Day 5 they got rinsed and then put in the fridge to dry for a couple of hours. It was then smoked for 2 hours.

… and here is our uncooked bacon after it’s been smoked. It turned out really well. We enjoyed every bite. We have some tweaks to do to lower the salt a bit in it, but we are very satisfied with it! A new skill learned!

As the season struggles to show off it’s true colors, I found myself poking in places just to see a sign! Here it was, a sign of encouragement from my Rhubarb, showing me it has full faith in the season! Looking forward to rhubarb crisp already!

This will all look so different in just a matter of weeks!

Sometimes it takes extra hands and heart

February came in like a very muddy Lamb. Our driveway is squishy and sloppy, the chicken eggs are muddy, and the cattle are excited by the warm temperatures but are wondering where the beautiful Spring green grass is that usually accompanies these warm temps. I don’t know where Winter went, it is mid February and I am not ready to give it up! Still hoping for more cool temps and even snow. It is just too soon for Spring yet. The buds on the fruit trees are going to get all confused and I don’t want it affecting our harvests, this Summer and Fall! Despite the fact that it is currently 60 degrees at home right now, while we are out of town meeting our new grandson, and that it will be in the 30s and 40s all this current week, when we return, this was the scene just two weeks ago… 

All this crazy weather that we are having doesn’t change the fact that Spring planning is top of the list these days. There are Shiitake logs to inoculate, seeds to pick out and start indoors, picking out chickens and figuring out where to find more garden space to accommodate us even better this year than last. I reviewed some of last years notes and am focusing on more quantities of what we need/want for the year of food, rather than on the unusual or trial items. I would like to grow enough potatoes, carrots, onions and squashes. I have to read up on how to keep my kale, collards, brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli safe, since I had a bad bout with bugs last year and lost a lot of these veggies. Last year apart from the veggies mentioned, we had a great garden, with loads of beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, onions, basil, thyme, cilantro, parsley, potatoes and more. We had so many cucumbers that we still have fermented dill pickles in the fridge from last Summer!

While I am thinking about this, I am also looking back to last year. At this time last year it was a difficult time with Mom so ill. My family was wonderful. While I was frequently out of town, for a week at a time, over the course of most of last year, they picked up the pieces. They tapped the trees when I was out of town in February and March and foraged for Pheasant Back Mushrooms, and Morels in late Spring. As Summer came they made sure not one sour cherry went to waste and while the green beans went crazy in late June, my daughter was freezing them as fast as she could. Sometimes it takes more hands to get things done, and I felt the love deeply as I saw how they honored the homestead and my hopes and pulled together to get things done. Last year was a long year. It was difficult, and it was life changing. It cultivated new depths to relationships as we all worked though it together with Mom. This is the first year that I can’t tell Mom about my Spring plans, Summer harvests, and Fall pig butchering, she loved listening to all of it. Sigh. She is so missed.

In other news, I attended the Garden Show recently and learned some details about Straw bale gardening. We will experiment with this. It seems that if you follow the prescribed method you can’t really go wrong. Well that’s what they said anyhow. I am not ready to invest my whole garden in the method, but think I will start with the Dragon Tongue bush beans. I don’t like putting bush beans in the garden because they use up so much space. This is why all other beans I do are pole beans, but we do love the dragon tongues. Pole beans require much less squatting while picking too! Oh and on an amusing note, I will grow mostly yellow beans, I decided the green are too hard to find and the yellow ones stand out so nicely in the green foliage. Hmmm, less squatting…easier to find…seems like someone is accommodating the garden to their age, lol!

I hear often from people, who find out that we do not buy much at the store… “don’t you get bored of the same food all the time?” We have freezers full of pork, and beef, all the eggs we can eat, some senior hens that will be stew birds soon, and a large variety of garden produce, cider and juice and neighbors that are always willing to barter. As I put this dinner on the table I thought, nope, we never get bored

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This pizza was called “roll with the punches pizza”…

I prepped all these great foods from the freezer for pizza, and hydrated the mushrooms (the mushroom broth from hydrating them went into beef soup the next day). I was well prepared to make these pizzas.

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The dough was perfect and so I got started. Suddenly, i realized that each time I looked at the oven it kept saying 100 degrees. It took me a minute but I finally got it that the oven just wasn’t working. I was just way too prepared for these pizzas and I was not going to give up! I decided that I would try cooking the pizza dough in my cast iron pan on the stove top and then put on the toppings and slide it under the broiler because although I couldn’t bake , it still worked to broil.

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The pizzas turned out so well that I might just do it again this way!

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The next snowy morning this was breakfast. No there is no boredom here, and it is for a couple of reasons. One reason is because we have so much food here, and because there is such satisfaction in the fact that it, for the most part, is all our food…food that we gathered, grew, raised, prepared, froze, dried, or preserved in other ways. It is an amazing feeling.