Weekend Homesteader

Creating a sustainable lifestyle, one weekend at a time.

Tag: homestead

Taking Pigs to the Butcher? A New Farmers Viewpoint.

Yesterday the three little pigs went to market.

I’m not an overly emotional man (my wife may say otherwise), but I will admit that the process of raising those piglets with the knowledge of their demise did not affect me until the moment I loaded them onto the trailer. At that point I succumbed to what I imagine any one of our rational ancestors would – who spent a substantial amount of time caring for an animal, ensuring its safety and health, protecting it from the elements, and feeding it the highest quality rations available.

The pigs went willingly into the trailer, following the feed trough I pulled ahead of them, which daily assured them of sustenance, and took their places beside one another for their last supper.

I’ll remember these three, my first, forever, I imagine.

While I refused to name two, one came with a name, “Fast Eddie”. He infuriated me, with his pushy demeanor, that ‘me first’ attitude, and stubborn unwillingness to relinquish just the smallest amount of space beside him at the trough for the runt of the litter. But he was admirable, as a pig goes, for his size, and color, and commanding action in the pen. And that runt, always off doing something else when it was feeding time. Never paying attention to the fact that the other two were half done with their breakfast before he even bothered to get down to the trough. The third, well, he’s probably the one I liked most. Unnamed, average in size, with no distinguishing marks, but curious about everything, daily testing the electric fence, always the first to jump up to greet me in the morning, and willing to share a bit of space with the little guy, even stepping back and waiting for me to fill a second trough as they all got too big to share just one.

They say pigs are smart, maybe even as smart, or smarter, than dogs. And they’re funny too. Even cute. These three were no exception. Good pigs, the lot of them.

As I look out into the yard and see their empty forest pasture pen, it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge to myself where I know I sent them, and I wonder if other farmers ever feel, or felt at one time, the same way, or if maybe I am an overly emotional man…

Available for Sale Now

Please see the bottom of this page for updates, sale prices, and delivery options.

Eggs, rabbits, maple syrup, and more…


February 2017 was a month for the record books. Unseasonably warm days melted away the winter snowfall and a mid-month rainfall caused flooding in many areas. Not your typical February in Minnesota. The last time it was this warm for this long was in 1981, and I was two.

Fortunately for us here at the homestead the warm weather only caused mild excitement. It prematurely caused the maple trees to start dripping sap. It’s the earliest sap run during my short tenure in the sugarbush. Now I find the maple syrup season is already upon us. I am still working on winter projects, but now must divert my attention to springtime tasks.

I tapped half the maple trees on Wednesday the 15th and evaporated the first batch on Monday the 20th. This year I’m using a Brix refractometer for the first time to ensure I don’t over-boil and waste any syrup. Previously I’d been measuring the temperature only and calling it good when the syrup reached 219 ºF. However, with this tool samples were taken at late stages of the evaporation process to ensure a minimum sugar content of 66 Brix. I’m counting on a lot less wasted, over-heated syrup, which has the tendency to crystallize and require the addition of water and reboiling. The sap sacks and sack holders I use can be obtained by following the hyperlinks, although they’re cheaper at a local farm supply store.

For the second year I’m using the evaporator pan I inherited from my father-in-law. Pictured above, it’s been in their family for three generations. My family makes it the fourth generation. My wife’s great grandpa used this pan back before 1953, when that picture was taken, and I’m using it today. The sentiment, “they don’t make things like they used to” rings true with this evaporator. It’s solid, reliable, easy to clean, and a real work of art. It’s a 60 gallon galvanized steel pan that has seen thousands of gallons of sap reduced to delicious syrup over the years. 2016 reserve stock and 2017 quarts of early-season, light amber (Grade A) syrup is for sale now.

The Black Australorp chicks are almost 16 weeks old now. The juvenile hens, which are also known as pullets, have been off the heat lamps for a several weeks. Last weekend I moved them from the heated brooder to the woodshed-turned-coop with a door to the pasture in which they will, snow having melted, explore the landscape for weeds and insects. I expect to see eggs from the hens as early as mid-April and will make them available for sale immediately.

The chick brooder will receive a makeover and will be repurposed as rabbit colony housing for soon to be acquired Champagne d’Argent’s or another similar meat breed. The Cuniculture plan is to start with one buck and two does and grow the herd into a reliable source of protein to offer for sale to restaurants and markets.

Items available from the homestead will vary seasonally and by demand. Look below for current items for sale and contact me here for delivery options in Central Minnesota and the Twin Cities Metro area.

On sale now:

Maple Syrup. Wood-fired, small batch pure maple syrup – $20/qt

Chaga. Wildcrafted beneficial birch tree fungi. Chunks or ground – $3.50/oz


Available beginning mid-April:

Cage Free, no-soy, organic fed chickens eggs – $6.00/doz (discount for prepay)

Rabbit. Pasture raised, organic pellet supplemented fryers – price per lb TBD


Available in late spring – late fall:

Foraged wild mushrooms – priced by variety per weight as items become available

Organic, non-GMO produce – price TBD

Be a Hunter/Gatherer – Part Three

Mushrooms – Part Three

Turkey Tail & Chaga

In the first of this series, “Be a Hunter/Gatherer”, I shared my experience foraging for, harvesting, and preparing mushrooms, namely, the Giant Puffball and Chicken of the Woods. In the second article, “Be a Hunter/Gatherer – Part Two“, I tips for finding and preparing  Lobster Mushrooms and Morels.

Before consuming wild mushrooms you must be able to positively identify them. Get a field guide and get comfortable identifying fungi and their development stages before you handle any. Misidentification can lead to serious sickness and even death. If you’re looking for a mushroom identification book, pick up “Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide”.

 

On to the mushrooms!

Turkey Tail and Chaga mushrooms are very different from the other mushrooms featured in this series, as they are not the type of mushroom you consume for their delicious, earthy flavors. In fact, neither of these two are tasty treats, but are instead used for their medicinal properties. Not as painkillers or hallucinogens, but as natural immunostimulants, with anti-tumor properties, and as anti-inflammatory and antiviral/antifungal remedies.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is very common in most forests around the world. It grows on dead and downed trees, stumps, and branches in fall-colored, fan-shaped, clusters resembling a wild tom turkeys tail. Coloration varies during development, by location, and with seasons. I overlooked these mushrooms all my life until I developed an interest in hunting and gathering. They have gills underneath, with a leather-like or rubbery texture when collected. It’s not an impressive mushroom upon inspection, but as a potential treatment for cancer and a beneficial anti-oxidant that can be added into your diet with ease, it’s amazing.

Turkey Tail Mushroom

Turkey Tail Mushroom

Preparation takes a little time but isn’t hard. After gathering several good species, clean off the dirt and dry it in a paper sack or food dehydrator. Once brittle they can be ground in a sturdy coffee grinder and seeped like any other loose tea. Put as much in as you can fit into a filter and enjoy. For the most benefit, warm at a low heat for several hours in a pot and then filter into your tea-cup. Turkey Tail isn’t a particularly flavorful tea, but that’s not exactly what we’re going for here with this one…


Chaga

Chaga

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) too, is a mushroom that’s sought after for its medicinal properties. It has a high level of antioxidants, B vitamins, and minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, and iron. Is it your replacement daily supplement? Well, if you have enough of it, it’s worth far more at the market than your cute little multivitamins.

Growing from birch trees in northern climates, and only for harvest during the bitter cold of winter, chaga is difficult to come by. When you see it, you might not even recognize it. It looks like a large black woody growth growing out the trunk of the tree. It can easily been overlooked. Fortunately, it doesn’t have any other look-alikes, so if you harvest what isn’t actually chaga, you’re probably just ingesting a dead tree branch. Key indicators are the interior color once sawed off the tree. And yes, you need a saw to harvest this fungus.

Keep it in cool, dry, dark storage and break off chunks to be ground in a powerful grinder. Prepare similarly to the Turkey Tail as described above. For maximum benefit, Chaga needs to go through an extraction process in order to make most of the beneficial properties available to our digestive systems. There are a ton of resources online that explain in great detail the benefits of Chaga. I’ve begun to include this in selection of regularly consumed teas and tinctures. And if I ever have any extra, I’ll sell you some – at a premium…


I hope you enjoyed the Hunter/Gatherer series on Mushrooms and my personal take on some of the greats that I’ve had the joy of harvesting and preparing. If you want to see more content about homesteading and hunting and foraging, follow my blog to receive notification of updates in your email!

Be a Hunter/Gatherer – Part Two

Mushrooms – Part Two

Lobster Mushroom &  Morels

In the first of this series, “Be a Hunter/Gatherer”, I shared my experience foraging for, harvesting, and preparing mushrooms, namely, the Giant Puffball and Chicken of the Woods. Something worth mentioning about these two mushrooms is that, since they are readily available and usually large, it’s uncommon to be able to eat the whole thing at one setting. To preserve any leftovers, I recommend you dehydrate the giant puffball mushroom and either freeze or can chicken of the woods.

Remember, before eating wild mushrooms you’ve collected you must be able to positively identify them. No need to throw experience to the wind because you think you can now eat a mushroom that killed our ancestors a couple thousand years ago. Be smart and do your research. Get a field guide and get comfortable identifying fungi and their development stages before you harvest and eat any. Misidentification can lead to serious sickness and even death. If you’re looking for a mushroom identification book, pick up “Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide

On to the mushrooms…

While cleaning up around a tree that had blown down during a storm this summer, I saw what looked like a red/orange daylily peeking out of the deadfall. Something that brightly colored among the typical browns and greens of the landscape really stood out to me. I quickly took a closer look and was excited when I discovered it to be a Lobster Mushroom. This is the prettiest mushroom I’ve ever seen. Hypomyces Lactifluorum, as they’re known, is actually a parasitic fungus that attacks other mushrooms, giving them that red/orange color and the subtle scent and flavor of, you guessed it, lobster! I was so happy to find this little gem in the yard. Start looking for these mushrooms in mid-summer.

Lobster Mushroom

Lobster Mushroom

Preparation is easy. Gently clean off any dirt and and heat them with butter and oil. Then add them to a dish that complements seafood. Occasionally you’ll find these dried and for sale in specialty stores, too. I’ve enjoyed this paired with creamy or buttery pasta dishes and white wine, or even mixed with more flavorful dishes and red wine. If you can’t eat all of the lobster mushrooms in one meal, drying them is a fine option, as the flavor and aroma of the lobster is intensified when dried.

LOBSTER MUSHROOM IN TOMATO CREAM SAUCE

This is a light tomato sauce, enriched with cream, to be added to your favorite pasta, along with the sauteed lobster mushrooms.

SERVES 4

Ingredients

Large, fresh lobster mushroom
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. of butter
2 small cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
3 fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp. Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. With a dry brush, wipe away dirt from lobster mushroom and slice or chunk.
  2. Heat the oil and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and lobster mushroom and saute until just beginning to color, about 1 minute.
  3. Throw in the tomatoes and basil and increase heat to simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thick and has reduced by half, 15-25 minutes.
  4. Add cream and parmigiano and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with your favorite cooked pasta and enjoy.

Arguably one of the tastiest wild mushrooms around is the Morel (Morchella Americana or Ulmaria). Readily available in stores at a premium price, you will understand why they are so expensive after trying to forage for wild morels on your own. Don’t even bother looking unless the conditions are just right. Look in ‘springtime’ when the temperatures are around 60 during the day and in the 40’s at night. Generally they’ll show up wherever they’ve shown up before, but if you haven’t found them yet, look around ash and elm trees and keep a keen eye. They blend in very well with the landscape. I’ve probably walked over morels for more years than I’ve known to stoop down and pick them up.

If you’re unsuccessful in gathering morels, you likely have a family member or friend that can cue you into the joys of morel mushroom hunting. Positive identification will reward you with a tasty treat.

Morel Mushroom

Morel Mushroom

Like other wild mushrooms, the morels firm texture and strong flavor stands up as it’s own accompaniment to a meal of steak and earthy vegetables. There are many recipes for morels, but I encourage you to clean them gently in water, slice in two, heat with a little butter to saute. If you’re fortunate to find enough of these and don’t eat them all at once, drying them and freezing them is an excellent way to preserve them until the next meal. Enjoy the tastiest wild mushroom I know!

Next in “Be a Hunter/Gatherer – Mushrooms: Part 3”..

I’ll share my experience with mushrooms known for their antioxidant properties, health benefits, and usefulness.

What have you found while foraging for wild edibles? Do you have a favorite way to prepare morels and other mushrooms?

Heating the Homestead

Heat for the Homestead

A reliable, sustainable heat source is a concern of all homesteaders. Wood is a top choice for many off-grid homesteading families. Other sources of heating include gases, solar, geothermal, and masonry heat. Still, many homesteaders continue to rely on the electric power-grid.

To be clear, “homesteading” does not mean that you are completely independent from other sources of power, heat, and water. Nor does it mean that you abstain from using a telephone, cell, phone, the internet, or watching television. Yes, there are homesteaders that will define their success by that measure. Yet many other successful homesteaders take advantage of the comforts that this modern age avails. So is the case with our homestead.

While we continue to work towards become more independently sustainable, including reducing our reliance on outside sources of power and heat, our home is currently connected to “the grid”. While I may run disaster preparedness tests to confirm my assumptions that we can survive without an external power source for hours, days, or weeks, I have not set cutting the cord completely as a goal. Neither is it  a definition of my success as a homesteader. Being in control of that reliance does, however.

How do we heat our home today?

In one of three ways – and that’s what’s important for the prepper/homesteader in us – having multiple sources of heat to keep ourselves warm when the weather cools. In Minnesota, that’s many months during the year.

At the homestead we have radiant baseboard heat (hydronic heating) controlled with an electric boiler, reliant on connectivity to the power company.

In line with that, however, we have a low-voltage (millivolt) propane fueled boiler. It is not reliant on the power grid. Our 500 gallon propane tank sits outside the home, discretely tucked behind some short trees and brush. I can operate whichever boiler I want, and do so depending on the cost of electric therms as compared to the cost of a gallon of propane. Usually it’s more cost effective to run the electric boiler. Our power company offers a discount to dual-source heated homes, and so we take advantage of that credit.

What that means to us is that each day in the winter whenever the power company determines it to be a peak usage for the rest of its customers it will cut the power to our electric boiler. Which they do daily, usually in the evening for several hours, and longer during really cold snaps. At that time our low-voltage propane boiler kicks in without any interaction from us and keeps our home a toasty 68 degrees.

While modern 24 volt low-voltage thermostats and heaters can do the same thing, when they are stripped of power, as would be the case during a power outage, a common 24 volt system will not kick in and you may find yourselves getting a little bit chilly. Don’t worry though, someone has thought of a solution to that and so most heaters will come with a battery backup for such instances.

What heats your home?

If you’re wondering about what you have in your home, either a millivolt or 24 volt system, look at your gas, propane, or otherwise fueled heater pilot light. If it is always lit, it is likely that it is a millivolt system. These are not popular today due to the inherent risk of fire if your furnace room is not kept clean, but they are still commonly found in stand alone gas fireplaces. If you look and the flame is not a standing pilot light (not always burning), you may have a modern 24v system.

splitting wood for heat

Our other source of heat is from the renewable resource firewood. Upstairs in the home are two fireplaces, inefficient and soon to be upgraded. In the basement, a newly installed, high efficiency, wood burning fireplace insert installed where a third fireplace once was. All three fireplace chimneys channel through the center of the home. We can keep toasty, even on cold January days, with just the basement unit burning. The chimney construction gives thought to maximum heat exchange to the core of the living area.

We choose to heat with firewood because we also control the property from which the trees are harvested. As we have a vested, long term interest in the land, we participate in a best management practices, also known as BMP strategies, for timber harvesting. We select for harvest first the already dead, diseased, or dangerously leaning trees. There are still plenty of those categories of trees on our parcel. Therefore, we haven’t had move into the next phase of BMP timber harvest strategies. BMP includes thinning for better growth, considering watershed effects, or the age of trees and usefulness of particular varieties.

Heating the homestead – an ongoing topic

Future posts will discuss this topic further as it relates to best varieties for burning, and chopping, cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood. Then there’s fireplace, chimney, and flu maintenance, as well as useful tools of the trade to consider.

If you’ve already begun your homesteading adventures, or are thinking of branching out to become more self-sufficient, consider your heat source(s), and your ability to maintain those sources should one method or another be compromised. You don’t want to be left out in the cold next winter!

How do you heat your homestead? Do you have plans to convert to a more sustainable alternative source in the near future?

Our Homesteading Journey

Our desire to cultivate our own land and raise our own livestock developed shortly after we decided to join the nearby Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Ploughshare Farm up the road. Once a week during the summer and fall, fresh, organic, in-season vegetables were delivered by the truck-full to the local church. We would pick them up at, take them home and wash them, and then google for hours on how to prepare vegetables we’d never heard of before – rainbow chard, kohlrabi, garlic scapes, along with the typical garden fare like brussel sprouts, broccoli, onions, and tomatoes. After several seasons with the CSA, and wasting a fair amount of weird veggies that we just didn’t like, we came to realize that we would rather grow just the produce we actually enjoyed – and then supplement that with eggs from our own backyard chickens.

But the city said, “NO!” to the backyard chickens.

So we said, “NO!” to the city.

And we sold our home in town and moved to a beautiful homestead on a dozen acres in the woods, at the end of the road, along a private river, only 10 minutes away.

Zoned for the small, family homestead, we immediately took advantage of the agricultural privileges of the parcel and acquired five laying hens from a coworker and carefully selected 25 chicks to be delivered to our new home from a mail-order hatchery in the spring. We replaced one of the three wood burning fireplaces with an energy efficient wood-stove, repaired the propane hot-water-heater which supplies the home with radiant heat, replaced the two leaking water heaters with an energy efficient model, and did minor repair to the roof and siding. We cleaned out the horse barn and pole barn for storage space, and began taking down dead, diseased, and dangerous trees and stacked their lumber into neat piles for the coming cold-season. Thoughts of growing our own produce, cultivating the raspberries and apples growing in the yard, and raising generations of chickens, goats, and pigs raced through our heads. Concepts like solar power, wind power, and reduced reliance on “the grid” for our energy needs are future goals of our homestead.

Meanwhile, we start with what we know, and aggressively expand our knowledge and skills in order to live, at least for part of the week, the simpler life of a modern day, weekend homesteader.

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