I was never that much of a nature girl when I was growing up, I guess. I always loved animals, but I don’t think anyone in my family would have guessed that I would grow up, quit a hard-earned administrative job, and become a homesteader.
My husband and I have a small-but-growing-more-efficient-by-the-day homestead, and we’ve been working very hard at it for about seven years. During that time, we’ve gone from first having just a small organic garden to raising a very large organic garden, a blueberry patch, strawberry beds, chickens we hatched ourselves, and ducks. And this year we finally added our long-awaited asparagus.
I told my husband, “This is the dawning of the age of asparagus.” To me, planting asparagus means we’re here to stay.
As one might expect, farming things has brought me closer to nature than I ever thought I would be. I hug our Maple tree, talk to the beans and tomatoes, and love hanging out with chickens and ducks. Many of them have fantastic little personalities. Some can be a little rude. In fact, our little hen Butternut just pecked the heck out of me over and over while I was feeding people corn. I don’t even know what she was doing, but I am still thankful to know her.
And I am thankful for this change in myself.
In these past years, I have gone from being the woman sitting through endless meetings to the woman who gets to grade student papers at night and spend her days digging in the dirt, planting seeds, saving seeds, and making jam. I have learned to have so much respect for nature and the way nature works to give us amazing gifts. Humans just have to work some and give nature space to do her thing, but the gifts are there and ready for us.
I’m also thankful for the opportunity to live closely with animals and see how they respond to the world around them, to nature, and I have learned that what impacts our animals often has a direct impact on me.
The winter and our short days and long nights here in Maine give me a perfect example. Some of our hens are older, so they slow down or quit laying in the winter. I can’t blame them. Some days, the weather is miserable. I wouldn’t lay eggs either. Plus, it takes 14 to 16 hours of daylight for a hen to make an egg, so winter is no fun for our hens and means fewer eggs for our family.
But the winter solstice gives me hope for the light—and happier days for our hens and more time in the sun for me. Just as it seems the dark comes so quickly after summer solstice, I love that the light comes back so quickly after winter solstice.
Winter solstice brings the light, and that brings, for me, eggs, happy hens, happy ducks, gardening, fresh berries, and more.
I am so thankful for the solstice. I know the light is coming.
I wish you the very best winter solstice. It seems to me that, this year especially, we all need the light.
My farmer’s tan is fading, so I know fall is upon us. I love fall in Maine, it’s the most special time of year to me, but I don’t know if I feel it in the same way others may. I love Halloween and everything orange. I love apple cider and pumpkin cookies. I love the leaves and the beautiful colors. Oh, how I love the colors in Maine in the fall!
But there’s something even more meaningful to me about fall. Perhaps it’s because I struggle a bit with depression in the long Maine winters or perhaps it’s because the fall is just a reminder to me of another cycle of life—the life, the death, the rebirth of Nature—but I always feel deeply poignant about this time of year.
This year I feel that even more so. This was very tough summer for me on the farm. We experienced a lot of death. The first chickens we got five years ago are aging and from a hatchery (before I understood what that really meant), and we lost several of our original flock this year.
Those were my original chickens, each one so special to me and each one responsible for changing my life. I became a farmer when those baby chicks arrived at the post office. I spoke into the box to tell them I was their mama, and I have never looked back. I honestly can’t imagine myself ever not being a small farmer of some kind. Even when I’m 80, I’m going to have at least a couple of chickens.
Still, I struggled this summer. It was losing Poe that just knocked me down, but it was Poe’s death on top of so much death that took a toll on me that I just didn’t even fully understand.
A few weeks ago, I had a health scare. I was so stressed about life and also still feeling quite down from Poe’s death. It seems the stress got to me a little too much.
My health scare was powerful enough to make me begin to reevaluate everything. I thought I was having a mini stroke; I thought I might be leaving my boys without a mama. Thankfully, it seems the episode was due to some severe stress and some possible dehydration after too many days picking from the garden in the hot sun and was not a mini stroke. Still, ultimately, I think it was a life changer for me.
Living on a farm often has me thinking about my own place in the cycle of life. I used to be an agnostic, maybe even an atheist. I had grown up with a version of Christianity that was scary, stressful, and judgmental, and if that was God, I didn’t want any part of it. But living on a little farm and living so close to Nature, coupled with a deep study of science, helped me find God on my own terms and in my own way, and what a wonderful thing that has been for me.
But my little health scare and the death toll this summer had me thinking extra long and hard about my mortality and my place in the world. One of things I do as a farmer is raise our own chickens. I am with these chickens from the time they are chosen as an egg to the time of their death. It’s a powerful thing to experience, and it becomes difficult for me to separate myself emotionally from these amazing animals. When each one is a miracle to you, how do you keep eating meat? How do you not mourn them when they pass?
After so much loss this summer and my struggle with it, I began thinking that maybe I would need to stop being a farmer. I have been having a hard time eating meat and have struggled with some vitamin deficiencies because of it. I wondered if I was tough enough to do this job. What kind of toll was all of this taking on me?
Still, part of me can’t imagine my life without these animals, and there’s so much joy and learning as well. There’s nothing more magnificent to me than observing a new mama hen with her brand-new babies. She’s so nurturing, so focused on doing her job and doing it well. And what a little miracle those babies are, struggling to pip their way out of that shell. It’s beautiful to see Nature in action like this.
I have learned so much about the cycles of life and death that I have no doubt I am a better human. In the grand scheme of things, our journey on this planet is so short. I have learned that I want to devote my life to being kind to both people and animals in as much capacity as I have at any given moment. With that kindness comes great rewards but also great pain, and some of that pain comes when I lose one of our animals.
So I have decided that the pain is worth it, that I am a good chicken keeper, that our chickens have really good lives where they are deeply respected, and that they deserve to be mourned.
If I have to be the one to mourn them, so be it.
Plus, I feel I grow wiser with each passing year, and that’s so important to me. Living on a farm can pack your life quite full of life lessons if you are willing to learn them. I think I am.
One night, my little boy, who just turned ten, was asking me about my death. He was worried about what would happen when I died. First, I told him to try not to worry too much because I planned to live a long time.
“I have much to learn from this life, so I have to stay awhile,” I told him.
Then, he asked me if I wanted to be buried and if I wanted a headstone. I told him I would like to be buried in a natural way, so my body would go back to the Earth and that I didn’t need a stone. But if he needed me to have a stone, then he should get one.
He asked if I wanted to be a tree, and I told him that would be great.
“What if we bury you on a hill at the base of a tree with lots of grass with no casket and a view of the sunset?” he asked.
“That would be awesome,” I said.
“Then, I am going to put this quote on your headstone: ‘Love yourself no matter who you are. Signed, the Chicken Lady.'”
If you’ve never had a boiled duck egg, the only way I can describe it is that it’s like a regular egg and butter got together and made the most decadent egg in the world.
Last year, we got six Indian Runner ducks for our homestead, five girls and a boy, and they recently started laying. It was a long, icy winter, so they didn’t lay for awhile. After one duck, Ana Sophia, hurt her leg and had become our house guest for a couple of months, she started to lay. When she recently went back outside, I thought we would surely lose our duck eggs–and for a few days we did.
But, then, something awesome happened. Ana Sophia started to lay again–and then everyone else followed suit! We are now getting five duck eggs almost every day.
While duck eggs are fantastic for baking, we have discovered that a boiled duck egg is a treat that should be enjoyed. If you have access to duck eggs, here are the instructions for the most fantastic boiled egg ever!
Place your duck eggs in a pan and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil, and as soon as the water begins to boil, remove the pan from the heat. Cover and let stand for 12 minutes. You will want to adjust your time depending on how you like your boiled eggs, but 12 minutes seems to provide a medium to well-done boiled egg.
Drain the hot water and add water and ice to cool the eggs. Wait until the eggs are cool enough to touch.
Peel the eggs. You will find that fresh duck eggs peel easier than fresh chicken eggs, which is a nice perk. Peeling boiled fresh chicken eggs is a challenge for sure!
Cut your eggs in half, and salt and pepper to your taste. Using course salt and freshly-ground pepper makes this special treat even more special, in my opinion.
Enjoy this decadent treat.
Then, be thankful for ducks!
*Please note that duck eggs are truly decadent. They have more fat and protein that chicken eggs, so I recommend them in moderation. Still, if you haven’t tried one and love eggs, they’re a must!
It’s cold and flu season again, and we’re all particularly worried this year because the flu has been just terrible. I try to always get my flu shot, but I’ve read that the flu shot will only go so far this year. It will help with the symptoms, but it won’t fully protect us.
I usually spend a good portion of the late fall and winter months fairly sick. I seem to always go from one cold to another, fighting off one thing or the next. Usually, my immune system loses the battle about half the time, making for a long winter for me.
But, this year, I heard about a natural remedy. I generally try to listen to the universe as much as I can, and it seemed that, all of a sudden, people I knew were mentioning elderberry syrup as a way to boost your immune system and avoid being so sick every winter. I had two friends from different places mention it on social media, and, within a few days, one of my online students wrote that she had been sick because she “ran out of elderberry syrup.”
It was time for me to take action! But, of course, being the slow, studious person I am, action was really about doing my research.
Here’s what I found out:
Elderberries have long been used as a helper plant for humans. Apparently, there’s evidence of use of elder plants from the Stone Age, and the Greeks even wrote about it.
Elderberry syrup is reported to help with colds, flus, and other respiratory illnesses. The chemicals in the elderberries may help reduce swelling in our mucous membranes, making it easier for us to breath when we have nasal congestion.
There’s some scientific evidence to support this. Separate studies have found that elderberry can reduce symptoms of the flu and even shorten the number of days of the flu.
This was enough to convince me to make my own elderberry syrup last fall, and I’m thankful. I’ve not been sick a single time this winter, and that feels like nothing short of a miracle to me. Of course, I’m knocking on wood as I write this, but it seems to be working.
I simply take a dose of elderberry syrup five days a week. Then, if I start to feel like I’m getting sick, I double the dose for a few days. If I’m feeling like I’m starting to come down with a cold or bug, I’ll usually start to feel a little better within hours of taking my dose.
I use this recipe from Wellness Mama. This recipe calls for dried elderberries, raw honey, ginger, and cinnamon—all ingredients with a wide variety of health benefits.
You can purchase dried elderberries right now if you’re like me and don’t have access to elderberries otherwise. But we’re definitely planting a couple of elderberry bushes this year! If you decide to plant your own elderberry bushes as well, be sure to research to get the right variety. The blue and black elderberries are full of health benefits, but the red species will make you sick.
I feel like universe gave me a little tip this winter to help me feel healthier and happier. I’m now passing it on. It seems like the only right thing to do.
*Please note that I am not a doctor; well, I have a PhD, but I’m not the kind that can give out medical advice. I’ve just researched and tried elderberries and think they are amazing!
We don’t have our feeders out yet. I’m running behind, but yesterday, my youngest son called, “Mama, come here! Fast!” To my delight, a hummingbird was drinking nectar from one of the flowers on the shrub in our front yard by the window. That stocky little ruby-throated bird brought joy to my heart.
To me, the hummingbirds bring hope back to Maine. I love winter until about the end of February, and then, I’ve just about had enough. By the end of March, I’m getting pretty anxious for spring, but, of course, it’s often well into May before it arrives.
Sometimes, like this year, it can be a little hard to tell when spring has finally made its way to Maine. It’s been a bit dreary, a bit chilly, and a bit rainy. I should mention that, like many here in Maine, I also struggle with vitamin D deficiencies.
But, yesterday, I saw my hope that things are about to get better, my hope that, soon, we’ll be in the middle of one of the most beautiful times of year here in Maine—summer.
Every summer for the last few years, I’ve been feeding our hummingbirds with a couple of feeders, and every summer, I do a little more research and learn a few more things about these amazing birds who visit us each summer and how to provide safe nectar for them.
Hummingbirds eat bugs. They don’t live in the nectar alone, so you don’t need to purchase those packets for hummingbird nutrition to add to your nectar. I made that mistake after reading on the package about how hummingbirds do not get complete nutrition from sugar water. That made sense to me. I mean, who can live on sugar water? Turn outs, hummingbirds don’t. They eat bugs. They get their nutrition there, and the nectar just keeps those busy little bodies going. Hummingbirds eat everything from weevils to flies, gnats, and mosquitos. They’re pretty awesome like that.
Although there’s some debate about this and the hummingbird feeder companies say the red dye is fine, most experts agree that you should not put food coloring in the nectar. Although the chemical dye is supposedly safe for humans, no testing that I can find has been done on hummingbirds, and scientists say to assume something that’s safe for us is also safe for hummingbirds is a mistake. And, since the feeders have color on them, the birds will be attracted to your feeder anyway. I’ve never used food coloring in my nectar and have always had hummingbirds move in for the summer.
Keep your feeders clean, and this may mean you need to purchase a feeder that really comes apart and can be cleaned easily. The mold that will grow in and around your feeder (that icky black stuff) is not good for the birds. You’ll want to keep those feeders clean, and since most of them say they can’t be placed in the dishwasher, you need to be able to take that feeder apart and scrub it with water and vinegar.
All you need to do to make your own nectar is boil water and add sugar. The ratio for the syrup is 4 to 1, so 4 cups of water for 1 cup of sugar. Mix while the water is hot, let it cool, and you’ve got hummingbird nectar ready for those little birds to enjoy.
If you haven’t seen a hummingbird yet, you can track them to see if they are in your area by using this site that tracks sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds. We use it every year, and I love seeing the path the birds take.
And, if you haven’t yet decided whether or not you want to do the necessary work to provide a clean, safe feeder for the hummingbirds, just check out this video I took from our deck a couple of years ago. It was near the end of summer, and the male hummingbird was about to leave. Those birds put on a show that brought tears to my eyes and touched my heart with the beauty of it. I hope you enjoy.
When I was growing up, I was taught that dandelions were dreadful “weeds.” I remember picking the beautiful yellow flowers only to learn from adults that they were “just weeds,” and I remember getting into some trouble for blowing on the dandelion seeds because I was spreading them in the yard, which was definitely frowned upon. I remember learning to spray chemicals on the dandelions as a child, and this was something that I carried into my adult life—and then I learned better.
I don’t know when Americans started to hate the dandelion, but according to my research, it was sometime in the 20th century with the invention of lawns. Apparently, someone wrote a book about the “perfect” lawn and identified dandelions as the enemy.
However, dandelions have a long history of being important to human culture, and we definitely need to let go of those notions of the “perfect” lawn. I just can’t see that those notions do anyone any good—not us and certainly not Nature.
My own epiphany about the usefulness of the dandelions came one day when I was making a salad from a giant container of mixed greens I had purchased at the grocery store. I look at the greens and realized there were dandelion leaves in the mix. I checked the ingredients list and found out that, indeed, I had just paid money for leaves that I could easily go get from my back yard.
Then, I learned that bees need the dandelions. They are the bees’ first food, and goodness knows the bees need every little bit of help we can give them. It’s a wonder of the world to me that humans can be so short sighted, and our history with bees is a prime example of this. However, that’s another story for another day.
So instead of working against Nature, let’s embrace it and embrace those little yellow flowers. There are many helpful uses for dandelions, so let’s try one of these options instead.
1. Leave the flowers for the bees and make or get your kiddos to help make a “Bees are welcome here” sign. After all, we really need those bees to be happy because what’s good for the bees is good for us in the long term. Then, you can just let the dandelions do their work of loosening the soil and fertilizing your lawn. It turns out that dandelions are actually good for your lawns.
2. Pick the dandelion leaves for your salad. This is the simplest use I can think of. Instead paying for those dandelion leaves, make a salad from your backyard instead. It turns out that dandelions are healthier than many of the veggies we grow in our garden. According to this article from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, dandelions have more Vitamin A than spinach and more Vitamin C than tomatoes.
4. Finally, you can also make dandelion wine, though it takes a few months for the wine to ferment of course. But there are, apparently, a wide variety of ways you can use the dandelions for food, from jams to baking. Check out this article from Mother Earth News about some of the many ways you can take advantage of those little yellow flowers.
So think of the bees and what’s good for the planet and for you. Let those dandelions grow free in your yard this year!
My husband and I will be embarking on our fifth organic garden journey this spring, and this year, we’re planning ahead. Every year, we learn a little more about growing our own food, and while my husband specializes in the soil preparation in early spring, I specialize in dreaming about what we will plant and finding organic seeds from cool places.
Before it was even Christmas, my husband and I were talking about what new things we were going to try in the garden this year, how he was going to expand our garden area again, and how many rows of our tried and true favorites we would be planting.
And the truth is, while it seems early to be planning our garden for the summer while our driveway here in Maine is a giant sheet of ice, now really is the time to make your plans and order your seeds.
As you’re making your plans this month and dreaming of fresh strawberries and ripe tomatoes, here are a few things to keep in mind based on lessons our family has learned from our own organic gardening adventures.
I took this picture during one of our first fall harvests. I had never had a garden and tasted food fresh from the earth before. I was hooked!
Grow Foods You and Your Family Eat
There’s nothing worse than working for months, cooking something up, and having your kids say “I don’t like that.” That has never happened too much for our family, but it is an issue I’ve heard others talk about. Thankfully, our boys seem to be big fans of the garden harvest, but I have made a few mistakes in terms of the kinds of foods I actually know how to cook.
After a few years of trial and error, we realized that our family really eats things like onions, green beans, dried beans, carrots, and potatoes, so these foods get more space in the garden. If we try something new, we usually limit it to a half row to give it a trial run before we take away precious space from one of our staples.
Remember Some Fruits and Vegetables Need Two Years to Harvest
There are some foods that are going to require some delayed gratification, and this is never easy for me. I’ve been wanting to plant asparagus for years, but I can’t seem to get excited about it because, if you want it to last for years, you have to leave it alone the first year. I’m determined to show some discipline this year and plant that asparagus, but you should be aware that there are some things you have to wait until the following year to harvest if you want them to do well.
Strawberries and blueberries should be left alone the first year as well. And, of course, fruit trees will take some time, depending upon the kind of tree you buy.
Consider Harvest Timing
The seeds you buy will come with instructions for harvest timing or you can research the days to harvest online. You should also keep in mind when the food will become ripe and ready to harvest. Is that during your family vacation or when you have to work extra hours at work? The first few years we grew our garden, we had to work so many hours during the fall harvest that some of our harvest spoiled, and our hearts broke.
Make Your Plan
Once you have considered what your family wants and needs and can handle, you should make your plan. And, since you need a good plan before you buy your seeds, it’s good to sit down and make a plan for exactly what you will plant, how many rows you will plant, and when those seeds need to be in the ground or started inside.
You should also think about if you want to start with seeds or purchase starter plants from a local nursery in spring or summer. We’ve found that things like green beans, carrots, and dried beans grow easily from seeds. But we’ve frequently purchased starter plants for things like tomatoes and broccoli. This year, I’m determined to do some starters inside for those foods, but we’ll see how it goes. I tried last year and still ended up buying starter plants. Our cat kept eating my starters!
Purchase Your Seeds
Once you have your plan, gets your seeds early. You wouldn’t think so, but if you wait until too late, it can be difficult to find some seeds that are really popular. This happened to us last year with our favorite dried beans, so we saved some seeds for this year. But, if you’re just getting started, this can be an issue. I recommend checking with local nurseries and coops to make sure you are getting access to foods that grow well in your area.
This year, I’m planning to write a series of posts about the steps our family is taking to plan, plant, grow, and harvest our garden. I hope you’ll follow me on our journey and share your stories as well.
I’ve always been the kind of person who is hesitant about making New Year’s resolutions, but I made a couple last year that I mostly stuck to. This has me thinking I might try this again. Last year, I resolved to simplify my life and to eat more plants. Although I still have progress to be made in both areas, as we begin a new year, I realize I am doing better in terms of living simply and eating more plants.
With this in mind, I am trying this whole New Year’s resolution thing again.
For 2017, my big goal is to become more of a Maker. You may be wondering what it means to become a Maker, and it’s a pretty broad term. Essentially, just making some of the things you need instead of being a consumer makes you a Maker. But there are, of course, varying degrees of Maker-ness.
I have been working on this for some time, but a few goals have eluded me. I am hoping 2017 will be my year.
Here’s some of the progress I have made so far:
I learned to crochet scarves, and we really use them.
I cut everyone’s hair in our family, and I am not trained in this endeavor. I just watched, learned, and bought some really nice German scissors.
We raise chickens for eggs, and my husband raises some chickens for meat.
I make home-cooked meals for almost every meal. This has saved us a ton of money and had made us healthier.
My husband is relentless about repairing instead of replacing.
And these are my Maker goals for 2017:
Learn how to knit. I want to make socks and hats!
Re-learn how to can jams and jellies. About 15 years ago, I was taught how and did it a little, but I think I’m just going to have to re-learn this year.
Plant apple trees.
And, because I love infographics, I made one to emphasize some of the many benefits of becoming a Maker and trying to leave those consumer ways behind. I also have a few fun suggestions, but I would love to hear more.
What do tomatoes and witches have in common? Where did the tradition of carving pumpkins come from? What ominous events loom if you get a double-yolked egg?
A lot of the farm foods we consider a little on the boring side actually have some fascinating and even creepy backgrounds when you look at history, folklore, and tradition. As we prepare for Halloween, I thought it would be fun to dig into a little produce and farm food superstition and history. It might be a great way to get your kids to eat their meals this Halloween season.
Read on to learn some creepy stories from history and folklore about some of your favorite farm foods.
You might think that there’s nothing more boring than eggs, but there’s a lot of superstition and folklore surrounding our incredible, edible eggs. The double-yolked egg is one of the most interesting.
One of our chicky girls regularly lays double-yolked eggs, and since I am fascinated by folklore, I found out that, while most cultures consider double-yolked eggs to be all good luck and signs of fertility, there’s a darker side to the double-yolkers.
In parts of Britain, it’s bad luck to get an egg with two yolks, and in Norse folklore, it’s downright dreadful. According to the folklore, cracking an egg with two yolks is a sign someone in your family will die soon.
But let’s not think too much on that story. Let’s just focus on the extra protein.
Of course, there’s even more to eggs than you might think. For example, ancient cultures believed it was critical to crush up your empty egg shells. Otherwise, a witch might steal the shells and use them to cast spells and create terrible sea storms.
Garlic and onions
Everyone knows that the best way to keep vampires away is to use garlic, but did you know that an onion in your windowsill will also keep bad spirits away from your house?
But there’s even more creepy and interesting traditions related to garlic and onions. In addition to being used in European traditions to keep away vampires and werewolves, garlic was used by the Greeks in a creative sort of way. They placed garlic on piles of stones at crossroads to keep away demons. And onions, according to some sources, were used during the Plague in Europe. People believed the Plague was caused by evil spirits, and wearing a string of onions around your neck would supposedly protect you from the spirits
Tomatoes have a fantastic back story. I remember learning in college about how people were terrified of tomatoes for a long time, and I remembered imagining the poor soul who had to be the first in an area to try a tomato and say, “Don’t worry. It’s cool!”
But I never knew why people were so terrified of such a delicious fruit or “vegetable,” depending on who you ask. Well, it turns out that tomatoes were closely associated with witches and witchcraft in Europe.
According to Romie Stott’s article, “When Tomatoes Were Blamed for Witchcraft and Werewolves,” tomatoes were a new food in Europe about the same time the witch hunts were in full force. It was earnestly believed that witches used mandrake to fly their brooms and cast other spells, and, well, the tomato plant looks a lot like the mandrake plant. Yellow cherry tomatoes apparently look a lot like mandrake fruit.
So the tomatoes were guilty by resemblance.
It was thought that eating a tomato could turn you into a werewolf or worse, lead to your death. Now, I totally understand the fear of the unknown, but this is a fantastic story. Who knew tomatoes and witches had so much in common?
Of course, no creepy food superstition list would be complete without the most important Halloween food item. Pumpkins are wonderful, right? They bring us pumpkin pie, jack-o-lanterns, and a fall pumpkin spice craze that will surely drive most of us mad. But there’s a cool and creepy backstory to pumpkins as well.
People have been carving pumpkins for centuries, but most of us don’t know where the tradition comes from. According to the History Channel, It all goes back to an Irish story about a man named Stingy Jack.
Apparently, Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to have a drink with him one night, but, because Jack was stingy, he didn’t want to pay for the drink. So he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin, but when the Devil did this, Jack put a silver cross next to the coin, which kept the Devil from being able to turn back into himself.
Finally, Jack set him free but tricked the Devil again the next year and made the Devil promise he would never claim Jack’s soul. When Jack died, the story goes that God would not allow such a character into Heaven, but since the Devil couldn’t claim Jack either, he was doomed to wander the earth. The Devil sent Jack into the darkness to wander with only a burning piece of coal for light, which Jack placed into a turnip he had carved. So Jack carried the carved turnip to light his way for eternity.
In Europe, people carved turnips and potatoes with scary faces and put them in their windows to scare away Stingy Jack, and when the tradition came to the New World, well, people discovered the awesomeness of pumpkins. Of course, the rest, as they say, is history.
And that’s my list of creepy farm food superstitions, but I know there are more fantastic stories from folklore about many of the foods we raise on our farms. If you have some to add, please share in a comment below. Who knew farm foods could be so interesting?
Hopefully, sharing these stories with the family will make for a fun Halloween tradition. I know I can’t wait to tell my son that about tomatoes turning him into a werewolf. I’m sure he’ll be intrigued.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my anxiety surrounding our first “one bad day” as farmers. We had 14 chickens to process, and I had never experienced anything like it before. For me, it was a tough day. A long day. A draining day—and my husband did most of the work.
Still, that one bad day was profound for me, but I wanted to share my husband’s perspective with my readers because he bears the brunt of our farming endeavors so much more than I do. I invited him back for a guest blog post, and he writes about why we do what we do here.
We live in a world where most of us buy our lives from one store or another—the grocery store, the big-box, the mall conglomerate—ready-made and processed by others. Our appetites and desires are crafted and subtly honed; our satiation is often artificial and, at best, temporary, at worst potentially harmful. It is perfectly acceptable to mislead, obfuscate, and flat-out lie in this world. Television commercials, product labels and politicians do it all the time. Our truths are processed for us. The effectiveness of fact-checkers, like weather-forecasters, is subject to the winds.
Truth seemed different when I was young. When I was a boy, I had a step-grandmother. She kept a hatchet; the wooden handle was smooth and polished, and the edge on the head invariably was sharp enough to slice paper. We kept chickens; she came to help butcher the cockerels and old laying hens—she was a tough old bird herself. She would catch a chicken, grab it by the legs, flip it upside down, hold it until it settled, then lay it across the chopping block and whack! Her hatchet flashed like a guillotine. Sometimes, a headless bird would spring up and run, spewing blood around the yard, seemingly unwilling to accept the hardest of truths.
My step-grandmother was not a nurturing woman, but she was particularly grim on the days she butchered. She had no time for a foolish boy, and I did not understand her shortness. It took me many years to fully comprehend.
I left that world as an adult; I became busy, like most, with modern life and all its fixtures and conveniences. I moved with the times. But gradually, persistently, I started paying attention to where exactly “the times” where taking me. Terms like pesticides, preservatives, and factory farms began picking at the margins of my attention. I began to question the costs of my convenience, and with my wife, began to examine the modern truths.
We decided we no longer wanted to support agricultural systems designed around convenience for profit, where animals are abused and foods are poisoned with pesticides. We no longer wanted to support a food industry whose colorful and elaborate claims of health and nutrition form the foundational architecture for products propped up by preservatives and additives. So, as much as we could, we deliberately and steadily began moving away from this modern version of the truth.
We started with a garden. Each year we worked it, the area we planted grew—along with our vegetables—and our reliance upon the grocery store diminished. Three years after we started gardening, we bought chicks—Rhode Island Reds (stalwart layers)—and we began to collect eggs. My wife previously had insisted on buying eggs from cage free, humanely raised chickens. Having our own was a substantial cost savings. A year into raising laying hens, and subsequently increasing our flock with the addition of ISA Browns (the little French maids of laying hens), we bought a flock of Freedom Rangers—a type of broiler chicken.
Broiler chickens are also known by the anti-euphemism “meat-birds,” which is a truth that isn’t processed.
Ironically, the first batch of broilers were the friendliest chickens to date. I initially housed them in our garage in a brood-box I had fabricated out of scrap wood and old, closet doors. They quickly outgrew this arrangement, and I extended their garage area with a pallet enclosure bedded with straw. During this time, I also built a mobile chicken coop (not out of scrap wood and closet doors). I had it finished when the broilers were almost a month old and ready to move outside.
I wanted to keep them separate from the main flock, so I fenced an area approximately 1250 square feet about 50 feet from our back door, and I moved the broilers and their coop into it. There was some initial trepidation and some awkwardness among the fourteen young birds. The contrast between blue sky and 8-foot garage ceiling must have been somewhere north of tremendous. And the coop, being two-and-a-half feet off the ground, made for some precarious, initial forays down the ramp into the new world. Still, it didn’t take long before the fourteen were scratching and pecking and having their little chest-bumping show-downs over the new territory.
We had deliberately attempted to humanize the Reds and Browns. But we did not with the Rangers, for obvious reasons. Despite this, the Rangers regularly crowded the fence whenever one of us came out the back door. I could walk among them without having them shy away as the Reds and Browns tended to. They often came to me instead, and I found, I could pet many of them if I wanted. This was before the treats started pouring out the back door.
Freedom Rangers finish in about 80 days, unlike the Cornish Cross broilers, which reach maturity in six to eight weeks and do little more than eat and excrete. The Rangers lead more of a “normal” chicken life, and I have read, taste better for it. The flip-side—in 80 days, I got to know them.
They were ready in mid-September, a few days before my birthday. I decided I would take care of business the weekend after. But I didn’t. I kept finding other, more urgent things to do, and it wasn’t until the morning of the 25th that I finally settled in to the task. I thought about my step-grandmother that day.
Like her, I am now a chicken serial killer. I slaughtered the fourteen—one after another. I held them by their feet, placed them in the killing cone, cut their jugulars, and then quickly pushed a knife through their palates into their brains. Each went instantly limp. It was one bad day for those chickens and one of many bad days for me. But there is truth in it.
It was late in the day when I asked my seven-year-old son to catch the final bird, which he did, his first involvement. He chased her around the pen then solemnly brought her to me. We talked over that final chicken, and he understood we should be grateful for, and respectful of, her sacrifice. We thanked her, as I had for each, and I explained that chickens do not have much of an opportunity to affect positive change in this world, but that he did. And she would help nourish him on his journey toward becoming a good man. There is truth in that too.