Raising Solar Chickens?

Chickens come in all shapes, sizes, colors, purposes and breeds.  Why shouldn’t their homes?  This is the chicken coop that I built as a personal project while here at Spring Rain Farm and Orchard.  Though most onlookers have commented on the “hoop house,” it’s actually a light-weight chicken tractor, sans wheels.  It mimics two other chicken coops they have on the farm that are moved about in the apple orchard; this one is actually tall enough that you don’t have to crawl through it to enter.  It has no bottom, is easily moved by 2 or 3 people and will hop around the pasture every week or two as the birds peck, scratch and fertilize the footprint of the coop at each move.   John, the farmer, has been more than helpful offering me his guidance, patience and carpentry knowledge every step of the way.  So here I present to you, my first farm building project!

First time using a Skil Saw

To begin with we used reclaimed lumber from a barn that used to sit on the property and leftover pieces of plywood.  These I cut into angled pieces for end walls and gussets to sandwich panels of chicken wire.  The chicken wire was also stapled in along the length of the boards and further sandwiched with skinny pieces of lathe attached with an air-compressor staple gun.

WWOOFer Julia, Farmer John and me before PVC was installed

The side boards we attached at the base of the end walls and reinforced at each corner with brackets and bolts.   These bolts proved to be the most time-consuming effort of the whole project as the thread was rusting and tightening the nuts down the length of the bolt was a process only as fast as the arch of a hand wrench could leverage – an arch impeded by tight corners, other screws and the low situation to the ground.  To these side boards we screwed in and clamped eight 1- 1/2 thick PVC pipes bent over 2 top-supporting boards, also connecting the end walls.

Chicken wire panels were stretched out along the length of the coop (15 feet) and sewed together with light gauge wire at the seams to critter-proof our vessel.

The finishing touch; sewing the last pieces of chicken wire together

And finally, we constructed a door out of one leftover board, a strip of plywood, one piece of lathe and the last pieces of chicken wire.  Two freshly oiled hinges were attached at the top and bottom and we had ourselves a finished mobile chicken coop.  It took 4 of us, 2 hand trucks and some strategic guiding to get it down the driveway, through the pasture gate, and up and over the hill to its first setting in the field.  But now the 50 or so Rhode Island Red’s who were growing more crowded by the hour in the chick brooder are now happily at home outside in the pasture.  They have free-range during the day outside and at night are partially covered by a tarp pulled tight over one half of the coop to provide shelter.

And now I can add using a circular saw, air compressor and staple gun as well as structural support knowledge to my farming repertoire.


How to Clean a Chicken

REALLY sharp knives are imperative

Spring Rain Farm is now down to only 492 chickens (give or take.) The culprit? An owl we think, though there are many natural predators in the area: coyotes, neighbor dogs, the occasional cougar and eagles.  Yesterday evening as farmers John and Roxanne were making the rounds and shooing the birds back into their coops for the night, they found the Unfortunate 8 and brought them home to the cooler.  The first task of the morning? Firing up the hot water bath, bringing out the knives and finishing the job. 

First you get the water up to at least 145 degrees – you don’t want it boiling because that ruins the skin of the chickens.  A 45 second plunge for each bird and then onto the table to pluck out all the feathers, and this is no small feat, tedious as it may be.  Chicken pluckers were invented for a reason (a vat with rubber “spikes” with a centrifugal motor spins the chicken round and round and gets pretty much all the feathers on a bird).

A Freedom Ranger going into the hot water bath

Once you’ve gotten the bird as clean as you can, clip off its feet at the “knee” hinges and its head, turn the bird belly-up and make a slice (poultry scissors look like regular scissors except they have a metal ball on the end of one of the legs, this is so you don’t have to worry about puncturing something inside the skin where you can’t see it) just above its anus to just below the breastbone.  There’s a lot of fat here and you can clear that away, then eviscerating is just a matter of pulling out and tossing everything except the liver (be careful not to puncture the gall-bladder, it spills over everything with the neon-green bile and leaves a nasty taste in its wake) the heart and possibly the gizzard, if you’re into that.  Also, don’t forget to nip out the little oil gland on the bird’s behind just above its tail, removing this little pocket makes for a better tasting chicken dish.  The bird is now ready to be given a good rinsing to the inside and either frozen or cooked immediately.

We froze 2, put up 4 in crock pots to slow simmer a stock which we will can in the next couple of days, and the other 2 birds were further cut up and baked.  Sorry for the chickens, but they had a quick end of it and will nourish us with young, free-ranged meat for the next few weeks.

*Note: the term “Free-Range” on packaged poultry or eggs in the grocery store DOES NOT mean what you might think; it only means that somewhere in the birds’ pen they have an opening that allows them the option of going out into natural sunlight.  But most birds in larger operations may never venture out that far and can be just as packed as conventional chicken.  The best thing is to KNOW YOUR FARMER and even go see how the animals are raised.

L to R: Gizzard (where the birds store bits of gravel for breaking down their food), Liver, Heart

The Zuke-tini

Due to the abundance of zucchini that farmers and home gardeners have on their hands this time of year, people have had to get creative with ways to actually use it up.  Bryce and Eagan, the 2 other WWOOFers here on Spring Rain Farm are excellent zucconsumers and have consistently served forth the zukes in at least 2 different forms at each meal.  Drawing from their experiments and expertise, and a quick internet search I have come up with more than 35 different ways to munch, dip and even drink this heavy-bearing summer vegetable:

Chocolate zucchini cake
Zucchini bread
Chopped and simmered with a grain, like quinoa or millet
Marinated with onions and yellow squash in a raw salad
Steamed and mashed with olive oil, tahini and spices as a dip
Zucchini pancakes
In frittata, omelette or Quiche
Spinach and zucchini soup with cilantro
Zucchini apple relish with onions
Strawberry pie with zucchini and walnuts:
Kabobs, with eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, etc.
Sliced thinly as noodle-free layers in lasagna
Zucchini hash browns (shredded, drained and skillet-fried)
Stir-fried with chickpeas, kale and tofu
In fried rice
Grilled (with paprika or curry powder!)
Sautéed (with cumin or nutmeg!)
In salsa (especially with corn and black beans and tomatoes)
Zucchini patties (with breadcrumbs)
Shredded into meatloaf
Curried zucchini burgers
Zu-canoes (hollowed out zucchini, stuffed with any number of things from ground meat to grains and other veggies)
Scalloped zucchini
Breaded and fried
Zucchini pickles
Zucchini relish
On pizza
As pizza (with cheese, tomatoes, or other toppings and toasted til the cheese melts)
Grilled, topped, rolled and sliced (with cold-cuts, hummus or other spreads)
Grated into tuna/chicken/potato/egg salad
Sliced and marinated (either for raw or cooked consumption)
Zucchini potato latkes
w/ potatoes and nuts, shaped and baked as croquettes     and

-zucchini water: grate one large zucchini and salt it to draw out the water, press the water out through a sieve after about 10 minutes
-honey simple syrup: 2/3 cup honey with water added to make 2 cups; stir briskly to mix
-cold, unfiltered sake
-dry gin
-zuke slices for garnish

mix 1/3 cup zucchini water, 2 tbsp honey syrup, 1/2 cup sake and 1/4 cup gin in a tumbler (or mason jar with a few ice cubes.) strain and pour into cocktail glasses with a wedge of zucchini for show.  *a dash of lime juice is also quite nice.


A Day in the Hive

They say that if you get 10 beekeepers in a room and ask them a question, you’ll get 11 different opinions.  This is solid truth.  I’ve attended beekeepers meetings, helped as a volunteer at bee schools, read a few books on the subject and have been a beekeeper myself (with my dad) for about 10 years off and on.  There are so many, many variables when you’re dealing with a single colony made up of several thousands of members who all are innately programmed for specific tasks that can change with the direction of the sun, the climate, the country, the food source, the chemicals present in their environment, the time of year and potential outside threats.  That’s why no matter how many bee-related sessions I sit in on, I always learn at least 2 new things.

My dad and I started keeping bees when I was in about 7th grade. We went to the WNC bee school one February at the Ag. Extension Center and learned about bee breeds, hive components, pollen and nectar sources, diseases and pests and honey extraction and marketing.  We took a test at the end of it all and came out ‘Certified Beekeepers.’  We started out with 3 hives, got a good harvest of honey the first year (they tell you not to expect anything the first year because the bees are taken up with establishing their new home and won’t often have extra for you to steal) due to a magnificent nectar flow year and have kept ourselves in a steady home supply of honey since.  Even for the few years we didn’t have any hives due to curious mountain bears, we had enough stock to always be able to run down to the basement and pick up an 8 or 12 oz. jar when a mug of hot tea scraped our last spoonful or when honey truffles or cookies called for the last few slow drops.

We started with hives again 3 years ago and got 4; 2 Russian Carnelian hives and 2 Minnesota Hygienics (an Italian variety.) No honey our first year back this time, and only one super this past year.  I haven’t been home in 5 months now, so I have no idea how they’re faring this hot summer back in the mountains of NC.  But the bees here in western Washington are having the time of their lives (albeit relatively short ones) dancing and pollinating about in the unusual abundance of wild blackberry flowers.  Lavender, clover and fireweed are also in the mix for this time of the year.

Uncapping the waxed-over honey on a frame with a hot knife.

John of Spring Rain Farm here in Chimacum has about 20 hives in various places on his 2 properties; mostly survivor stock of swarms he’s caught and boxed.  Due to so many having new homes in which to draw comb out, he’s able to harvest 6 medium (Western) supers of honey for home-use.  He hosted a company of about 6 interns on different farms in the area for a bee management class on Thursday.  He touched on everything from pollen and nectar sources and the gaps in the year when there isn’t anything blooming in this part of the country, to the position of the ‘brood nest’ in the hive body, to why he doesn’t use queen excluders, to how to combine or split colonies and insulate the hive itself for overwintering. It ended in all of us helping to uncap the frames of honey (from just 2 supers) and place them in the extractor to spin out for a final outcome of one-and-a-half 5-gallon buckets of honey.  It’s the lightest, clearest honey I’ve ever seen. Most honey has a darker, amber or ruddy color to it, but this looks like lemonade.

Bees are the ultimate community gardeners, not only for their colonial community, but for the great communities of us and the other insects and plants nature has all around us.  They pollinate, are super-hard workers, operate as a finely tuned team and make one of the sweetest end products imaginable. (Just don’t dwell on the fact that honey is actually regurgitated nectar.)  They’re necessary for the life and next generations of hundreds of plants and they all look out of each other in the hive too, doing specific ‘dances’ to alert the other bees of intruders or dangers in the hive.  They all work together to keep each other warm and cool and fed.  They’re a great element of diversity on farms and gardens for their pollination performance, raising awareness of what’s in bloom and what type of pollination is suited to certain plants and of course honey.

Summer Reads

I am a book whore. Let’s just get that out of the way. Sometimes I’ve had to up to 7 books in my repertoire at once.  I have my mother to thank for that.  Being the avid reader she has always been, she instilled a love of reading and all things books in me.  From the time I could hold my head up as a little girl and focus my eyes on a page, she had me in her lap reading book and after book and making me want to learn to read, which I did proudly before I started kindergarten.  It was ‘All By Myself’, by Mercer Meyer, a Little Critter book. And how appropriate, it was all about Little Critter learning to do everything from dressing himself to making his own breakfast.

I remember going to the North Asheville Library every 3 weeks to the due day and checking out upwards of 15 books each time and reading all of them before our next trip.  Books on tape, ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’, ‘In the Stone Circle’ Louis Sacchar books, anything by Ann Rinaldi; I even volunteered at the library for a while in the summers helping with kids activities.

Once, my little entrepreneurial self even decided that I was going to do my own book-a-thon and had no problem asking my parents’ friends if they would donate a dollar to me for each book I read one summer that I would then in turn give to ABCCM, one of the homeless shelters in Asheville.  I think I raised $25.  I was 8.

Over the years I’ve read series, singles, self-help books, books on Biblical interpretation and thought, books on beauty and natural skin care, fiction, non-fiction, and I’m known to read cookbooks from cover to cover.  Most recently my literary leanings have been to the area of gardens, farming and cultivation, with some nutrition and holistic health books (thanks to school) seeping through.  But when my eyes start to glaze over due to repetitious sentences and ideologies, I know it’s time to break it up with some pleasure reading.  And, what better time than summer for a quiet break in the race to find my ultimate urban-homesteading-land-theological-food-and-farming philosophy?

First, I began with My Life in France’, by Julia Child.  A fun and fast-paced memoir of her newly married life to her first cooking expedition to the testing and publishing of her first and second cookbooks with lots of blunt and straightforward commentary and observation along the way.

Next, from the co-op in Mount Vernon, this title caught my eye: Radical Homemakers’.  I was enthralled with the idea of “Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture.”  The themes of interdependence, shared household tasks, society as starting in the home and a respectful regard to finite resources and honoring relationships above materials is what this book features, and so much more!

“At this point in history, the work to heal our ecological wounds, bring a balance of power into our economy and ensure social equity starts with our choices about what to eat, what to buy (or more importantly, what not to buy), what to create, and how to use our time and money. Indeed the major work of society needs to happen inside our homes, putting the homemaker at the vanguard of social change.”

And lastly, and most recently: ‘A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table’, by Molly Wizenburg.   A wonderful array of essays that subsequently build on each other to relate to the reader an idea of her home life from childhood with her foodie father, to college and travelling phases centered around food and France (and a boy or two), to the improbable meeting of her husband-to-be and their relationship as told through the fusion of food habits, to their nuptial bliss and wedding-cakery.  Her blog, Orangette, will fill you in on all the other goings on in a foodie’s life in Seattle.  When coming to stay at my friend’s house in Port Townsend, WA and watch her dogs for a week, she left a copy of it the book on my nightstand thinking I would be interested in reading it.  Was I ever!  This is how I want to write about food and life.  This is inspiration that leaves me energized to write, sad that I don’t have time or funds to try my hand at all the recipes she records, and more than a little rumbly-in-the-tumbly during the late-night reading sessions in bed over a cup of tea.

Strawberry Jam, For Adults

Strawberries have always had a special place in my heart.  From being a “strawberry-blonde,” to wild strawberries at my grandparents’ lake house in Georgia, to the row of strawberries my great-grandmother had in her garden in Bethel, NC, to the frozen strawberries and freezer jam my grandmother makes every year.  We eat that stuff on everything from her biscuits, to her strawberry shortcake (basically, just a big pancake version of her biscuits,) to our cereal and sometimes just off the spoon.

She picks boatloads of strawberries every year, either at regional farms, or buys them from roadside fruit stands.  When I was younger and my great-grandmother was still alive and growing her patch, all our berries and jam came from her garden.  It was always something I took for granted when going to visit ‘Nanny & Pappaw’; that and her most excellent baked macaroni.  And as I got older and started delving into the world of food and cooking and meal prep and then into food preservation, I finally came to Nanny and asked if we could make jam together.  Let me just say, there are many memories I have with my grandmother; riding in the car with my grandparents to the lake house when I was but a wee lass and singing such family hits as ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Baby Beluga’ for the entire 2 hour drive out, making little marbles out of pieces of bread and throwing them to the fish and ducks off the side of the dock, fanning out over the top of my bed one of the many hand-sewn quilts that she’s produced in her lifetime and watching her show off her ‘buck-dancin’ skills in the kitchen to old gospel or bluegrass music.  And there are many more memories I want to create with her and my Pappaw; recording our history and forming a family tree from the 4 or so generations back that they can relate, finding our way together to the top of the ridge where hang gliders set off to soar down over the lake, and to finish a patchwork quilt I started with her from her assortment of old scraps last year.

When it comes to food, Nanny and Pappaw like what they’ve always liked and I can always count on the same foods when I go to stay with them.  And one of those old standbys is her strawberry freezer jam.  Just Sure-Jell pectin dissolved in boiling water, strawberries and sugar, all that mixed well and  dumped in freezer containers and down to the chest freezer in the basement along with frozen berries, frozen sweet corn and black walnuts that they crack every year on an anvil beneath the house.  Easy peasy and reliable.

That’s strawberry jam with my grandmother.  Jam has many other faces when it comes into my kitchen (whichever kitchen I happen to be inhabiting at the time.)  Lavender-blackberry was a favorite last year, yellow tomato jam turned out a bit too set but the flavor was sweet and complex and the wild blackberry jam (aforementioned) is a great go-to with the pectin-rich tarties.  This summer, my strawberry picking has been waylaid a bit as the farms I’ve stayed on either haven’t grown strawberries or they weren’t producing yet.  I am overjoyed to say that on August 4th, I finally picked my first strawberry.  And along with that one about 4 pints more – 2 of which made it to the baskets.  When I got home I knew I wanted to preserve them somehow and jam is my go-to method.  I had some ripe apricots from the farmer’s market sitting on the counter and had recently seen a salad recipe with strawberries and balsamic vinegar.  Lightbulb!  Strawberry-Balsamic Jam with Apricots!

A box of Pomona’s in hand, I mashed together 4 cups of fruit in a large bowl, added a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and threw that into a pot to slowly come to a boil with 2 tablespoons of the calcium water mixed in.  Meanwhile I mixed 3/4c of evaporated cane juice with 2 teaspoons of the pectin and once the fruit had reached a boil, dumped it in and stirred for a good minute to incorporate the pectin thoroughly.  Then into sterilized 4 oz. jars I ladled the jam, wiped the rims clean and situated the simmered lids on top, wound the screw lids on and set them upside down on the windowsill to seal and set.

Delicious; not-too-sweet with a good taste of the innocence of strawberries and the rounded, earth-fruit-almost-persimmon taste of the apricots melded with the subtle rich, tanginess the balsamic the offers – this makes for a very grown up jam indeed.  Enjoyed on a bagel, waffle or hearty grain toast.  Or you just might juxtapose it with peanut butter between 2 fluffy pieces of sandwich bread.  You’re an adult, you choose.

She Eats Seaweed by the Seashore

My family loves seafood. My father especially. Loves shrimp, scallops, any kind of fish, crab meat, lobster, and he really likes to compare clam chowders (vastly different dishes from New England to the Outer Banks.)  One of his favorite restaurant’s in town is so because they have all-you-can-eat oyster specials on Monday and Tuesday nights.  He also loves to fish and spend time at the family’s new beach house on Ocracoke Island.

Growing up, I remember not really liking the meals we had that consisted of shrimp and scallops at home.  And I didn’t really like the crab legs I would order at Joe’s Crab Shack or any of the other generic something-or-other-Bay seafood restaurants that were a favorite for Sunday lunches after church got out.  I really just went for the hushpuppies and the fun plastic bib and shell-crackers.  It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 years old that I realized the reason I didn’t like those meals was because I have an allergy to shellfish.  They make my mouth and throat itch incessantly for the rest of the day and night.  I don’t break out in hives and my passageways don’t close up on me, my mouth just annoyingly itches and I take to clicking my tongue in a way against the roof of my mouth that renders it similar to hard plastic by the end of the day.

I remember it took my Dad awhile to accept this.  He loves to share food and fellowship over food.  He loves being able to share things and common interests with my sister and me and I remember him asking if I didn’t just want to try some of his shrimp, or try a bite of the crab cake.  But once I finally sat down and explained to him that I thought I might be allergic to a component in the shellfish – iodine perhaps – and that it bothered my mouth every time, he accepted it.

It must have been an even harder blow a few years later when I declared I would never, ever eat fish again.  On a trip to Ocracoke he had caught some flounder and prepared it at the house for us for supper.  After 2 bites my mouth was filled with tiny little shards of jagged (if pliable) fish bones and I was completely taken aback and disgusted.  At that point in my life I must have been used to Long John Silver’s fish platters (where for me it was more about the cracklins of breadcrumbs at the bottom of the kid’s meal bag) or something. *Important note: to my memory my mother never served us those horror of horrors called Frozen Fish Sticks. Thank you, Mother.

So for a few years I went without eating any seafood whatsoever.  It must have been about the time that I became a vegetarian and donned fish an appropriate protein alternative, namely the very trendy wild caught Alaskan salmon that I began thinking of ordering fish again.  And it must have been about that time that my family discovered sushi.  My dad had been frequenting sushi restaurants some when he would go on business trips, and for heaven’s sake Asheville has some amazing sushi establishments.  It was even a place my sister (one of the world’s pickiest eaters) consented to going – now she’s a sashimi fiend.  My mom isn’t terribly fond of sushi itself, but she can usually find a nice rice dish or pad Thai for her meal.  But above all, the thing my dad and I like most is the seaweed salad that’s offered on the appetizer menu. 

I’ve never heard of my dad having food cravings, he doesn’t have an unusually large or active sweet tooth, he likes his meat and he’s been known to put away some good amounts of salt ‘n buttered popcorn.  But when dad wants seaweed salad, our family’s going out for sushi.

It’s a wonderful blend of sour, sweet, salty, green and meaty.  The fusion of rice vinegar, a tad pinch of sugar, some sesame seeds and the natural salty bitterness of the streaks of wakame itself (the most common type used in seaweed salads) lends itself to a deeply satisfying – if deeply stuck in between your teeth – dish.  I’ve made recipes of it at home, and they’ve been good, but we still prefer to go to a restaurant to get our seaweed salad fix.  It’s a great, healthy, tasty food item we can share together.  Many of my date nights with my father have been to the various sushi restaurants around town.

So I’m sure my dad would be very interested to hear about the latest wild forage on my travels.  Walking down the farmer’s market street last foggy, Saturday morning I came across what looked like branched-out horsetail sitting in a display basket.  When I inquired, the vendor told me it was Samphire, or more appropriately, Salicornia virginica; sea asparagus.  It’s wild-harvested off the coast of Vancouver Island, BC and in the surrounding waters (aka, here in Puget Sound.)  I bought about 1/4 lb worth (about 2 grabs of the hand) to take home and try my hand at it.

Market purchases. The Samphire is between the loaf of bread and the sweet corn

It’s a thick, vibrant green seaweed with stalks about 4 inches long and 1/4 inch thick in diameter, hence the tributary name to its landlocked cousin.  I’m told by the ether behind my laptop screen that it’s normally served in ‘fine dining establishments as an alternative to green vegetables, either fresh or sautéed.’  Also, that it pairs well with butter and garlic (um, what doesn’t?)  Nonetheless, Dad, this is not your normal seaweed salad.

It keeps well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, I had it stored in the crisper for about 4 days before I pulled it out and plopped it into the steamer basket and let it go for about 20 minutes; it’s awfully salty and this is recommended in all the recipes I found for it.  Next I matchstick-ed some carrots and tossed them into the basket for about 8 minutes so they could get softened up a bit and meanwhile whipped up a dressing consisting of Dijon mustard, some rice vinegar, a HUGE clove of (local) garlic, some Bragg’s Amino Acids, a dollop of honey and some olive oil.  This I spooned over the (rinsed) seaweed and carrots in a bowl and immediately put the bowl into the fridge to chill the salad.

It was a great, meaty textured side dish and the only things I would have done differently were using not quite so large of a clove of garlic, and adding some toasted sesame seeds to the veggies. And with nary a sliver stuck between my teeth.

Now, how to get northwest Samphire seaweed to a southeast seafood aficionado of a father?