Renee-Lucie BenoitPart 1 – The Horse Itself

I have a different attitude about horse-keeping than a lot of people. I don’t glamorize it or romanticize it. A lot of people relate to a horse as if it’s a symbol of freedom and majesty, and it certainly is, but the truth is that horse-keeping is like having a 1,200-pound dog with its own unique set of problems and challenges.


I have ridden horses since I was a kid. My parents never allowed me to own one. It was much too easy to just go over to the local farmer and borrow the horses that lived there. Maybe my folks knew something but they never shared it. It wasn’t until I was fully grown that I came to own my first horse. Now I’ve been in the “business of horses” for more than 30 years. I've bought and sold horses, taken all the natural horsemanship clinics that I could afford, and I’ve done it all on a shoestring budget. Maybe being on a shoestring budget is what helped me form my perspective. If you’ve got deep pockets and can have someone else take care of your horse, you usually don’t learn much about horses.

Horse ownership in the best of all possible worlds should be a hands-on proposition. For example, when my daughter was in Pony Club years ago, one thing they expected was that we got to know our horse’s bodies extremely well. Sometimes the littlest change can spell big trouble for a horse, and, if you don't know what it's supposed to look like, you won't be sure if you have a problem. One time we did not notice a tiny cut on our pony’s hock. Because the pony lived out on a big pasture it was too late when we finally noticed. The pony had quickly developed a terrible infection from an imperceptible wound, and it had to be euthanized.

Of course, if you can afford to have someone else be responsible for your horse, you would hope that the person will take enough care to notice small things before they get too big. However, I have found that no one takes care of your critters better than you will.

Horses are expensive. If something goes wrong you can’t pop it into the car and take it to the vet. The vet usually has to come to you, which is a farm or ranch call and you have to pay for the privilege. Some people say that the purchase price of the horse is the least of your expense. Before you commit to the purchase you will most likely want to have a vet check the horse out thoroughly. This will set you back about $300 to $500. I have gone all the way through the vet check only to have the vet pick up the last leg and the horse trots out lame. So unless you can find a horse from your 100-percent completely trustworthy neighbors, you should factor in the cost of pre-purchase exams. Probably multiple ones because the advertisement will not mention it has parrot-mouth, sarcoid tumors, stringhalt or curb!

Say you find your perfect horse and he checks out fine. There’s regular farrier work if you shoe or trim. Horses' feet grow, and you’ll have to do something about that every six to eight weeks. Most farriers charge $100 to $150 for each visit. Vaccinations and worming haven't gotten cheaper over the years.

Horses can get into all sorts of trouble. You think you might have checked every single inch of your pasture – and you will – but the next time you go out there, you will have found that your horse has stepped on a nail and is walking around three-legged lame.

Don’t get me wrong. All these things I’ve mentioned so far are totally handle-able, but if you don’t know before you commit, it will come as a big surprise, and then you have an animal that is not that easy to get rid of and is a hay burner to boot. Especially if you live in an area that doesn’t have pasture and you have to feed during the winter.

Which brings me to ... if you have an easy keeper – one that gets fat on little forage – you’ll have to have a system to keep it from eating too much. Being fat is another problem for a horse. They can get a condition known as “founder” where their hoof wall begins to separate from the underlying bone. It can be severe or mild, but once you have it it’s something you have to constantly keep a watch on. Keeping weight off an easy keeper is tough especially if you don’t have time to exercise it every day. Just like a person: What keeps fat off is diet and exercise. So you’ll need a stall and a bare dirt – not mud – paddock where the horse can move around. In Thomas McGuane’s great short story “Some Horses,” he writes that if God had a chance to redesign the horse He would. A horse has miles of unsupported gut, and a horse that stands around and can’t move like nature intended is at risk for getting a small or huge belly ache called “colic.”  Sometimes colic can be mild and is only annoying because you have to walk it out and have the vet manually evacuate the bowels. Other times colic can be severe because the bowels got twisted internally, and then it’s a trip to the veterinary surgeon, and thousands of dollars later you have your animal back but now he’s more likely to colic again.

Once your horse gets a condition it’s really hard to sell. If you are an ethical person – and I’m assuming you are – you will have to mention the fact when you go to sell your horse. Many people will not want to get into a horse that has had a serious problem.

Part 2 - You

Many people are not emotionally or mentally prepared for horse ownership. Most people can get emotionally and mentally prepared to own a horse if they’ll take the time to learn. If you’re willing to be the right person to own a horse you can be. It’s all about attitude. If you’re lucky enough to get one of those horses we say is worth their weight in gold because it is sound and has no behavior issues, it will be extremely rare. If you were an owner of such a critter, would you want to sell it? People who have a good horse keep it. Most horses on the market are some kind of “project.”

If you’re a beginner, never, ever buy a young horse (a horse under 8 to 10 years of age). They just need too much guidance that a beginner can't supply. As a matter of fact, I believe if you are a beginner the way to start getting an understanding about how you are with a horse is to lease one. But lessee beware! I once was going to lease a horse. The owner and I went through a lot of talking and discussing. Near the very end the owner finally revealed to me, “I think you are the right person for Cougar but let me tell you that if he starts backing toward a cliff he will back himself right over if you’re not careful.” I walked away from that one.

If you are physically fit and a calm person, then you have a headstart on being the right kind of person to own a horse. People who are nervous should only own a very calm horse. Horses don’t sense fear per se, but they do sense the physical language of a person. Think about it. How do horses communicate with each other? It’s by body posture mostly. They only communicate vocally when they are saying, "where are you?" or "hey howdy, I’ve missed you." All those horses running and whinnying in the movies is just the sound track for effect. When a horse is in pasture, first they give each other a look, then it’s a position of the ear, then it’s the butt turning in, and if the other horse doesn’t get the message, it’s a carefully placed kick or strike.

So your body posture will communicate volumes to a horse. You won’t even know it unless you’re super sensitive. So many horses are purchased by beginners where the horses are calm and submissive at the owner's place and when you get the horse home it turns into something completely different. This is not because horses are evil and ornery. This is because they sense you’re not a leader, and they want to see if you are worthy of respect. They’re saying, “Let me test you.” This is why I say sponsor or lease a horse before you commit to ownership to get experience of how you are around a horse and where you might need to change before you jump in the deep end.

I love horses. I will always have them in my world. I like the challenge they present in handling them, taking care of them and riding them. It’s endless subject matter for learning so if you like to learn new things that’s a very good quality to have.

The only thing I could think of that might make horse ownership seem like a piece of cake is owning an elephant. I wonder what a person who has elephants would say about owning one. I wager that if you’ve already owned elephants you’ll think owning horses is easy. If you have – go for it! If you haven’t, I hope you take my advice. I want you to be safe and to enjoy yourself because when everything is right, it’s the most wonderful experience.


Renee-Lucie BenoitIn most parts of olive country the olive trees are just about ready to bloom. This is the time to prepare for making your own olive oil if you decide you want to try this most rewarding process. It’s similar to sitting in the dead of winter reading seed catalogs. Eventually the weather will be right and you’ll be ready to go.

Making olive oil is for the patient person. If you’re a person who needs things to happen “now,” I would recommend having a picking party and then ship your olives to a public mill for processing. Check out this website: www.oliveoilsource.com. It’s a really good place to get an overview, and, if you do decide that you just can’t wrap your mind around all the things you need to do and the time it takes to do them, they have a list of public mills where you can have an expert with the right equipment press your olives. If you’re thinking "well I’ll just cut to the chase and buy my own press," remember that presses are not cheap. The most basic ones are generally in the neighborhood of $2,500 purchased new.

When making oil you generally use a mixture of the green and black or purple olives. You want at least 50 percent color when you start production. Check the color of your fruit. It should be about 1/3 solid green, 1/3 solid black or purple and 1/3 in between. That is to say, a mix of the two colors. You can harvest the olives by spreading a tarp and knocking the fruit off the tree, but the best method is to hand pick them. Handpicking ensures that the fruit is not bruised or broken. Bruised or broken fruit degrades faster and the oil will not taste as good. Any damage to the olives can trigger oxidation, which creates an "off" flavor. So invite all your friends and family for a barbecue and have a picking party! You’re going to have your own “olio nuovo.”


Photo: iStockphoto.com/nathanphoto

Before you embark upon this it will be good practice to familiarize yourself with olive oil pests such as the olive fruit fly. If your fruit is invested with fly maggots you can still press but them your oil will be “grubby” and to me this has too much of the “yuck” factor. There are establishments that can help you with controlling the fruit fly. Places like Ernie’s Pest Control in Orland, California, can be helpful. Again, oliveoilsource.com online can put you in touch with the suppliers you need.

It takes about 1 ton of fruit to make 35 gallons of oil. Do the math and you get a calculation of about 500 pounds of fruit to yield 8 gallons of oil or 10 pounds to produce about 32 ounces. Another way to look at it is your yield of oil will be about 5 to 25 percent of your volume of olives. It is all depending on the oil content of your olives.

A tree will be about 3 years old when you start seeing pick-able fruit. If you don’t have mature trees, see if you can find a neighbor who will let you glean fruit from his trees. Olive trees are messy, and the neighbor will probably be happy to let you pick to help clean up what will eventually be a mess when the fruit falls off the tree. Remember, either handpick the fruit or knock it off on to tarps. Don’t use the fruit that has fallen off the tree. It will be rotten and bruised.

After olives are picked get rid of any leaves, twigs and stems. Then rinse them. In pressing you’re going to use the whole olive. Pitting is not necessary. The pits themselves have oil in them and depart flavor as well.

Back in the old days, people used stone wheels or mortar and pestle to crush the olives. Today, at big manufacturers, stainless steel rollers crush the olives and pits and grind them into paste. You’re going to crush the olives into as fine a paste as you can using a food processor. I’ve heard that you can modify an under-sink disposal to do this, too. Then you put the paste through a process called malaxation. This means slowly stirring the paste. Malaxation allows the tiny oil molecules to clump together and concentrate. You can do it in a stand mixer. Stir it for about 45 minutes or until you see little pools of oil forming. The paste is ready to press.

Wrap up the mash in cheesecloth, top it with a block of wood and put it under the press. Stacking thin layers of mash works better than adding it all to one bag. Press very slowly. You can press and rest, press and rest.

Use a catch bin with a hole in the side of the bin to let the oil drain out into your jar. It will be a mixture of oil, water and bits of pulp that will quickly separate leaving the oil on top. Let it sit for an hour to make sure it separates completely.

Use a turkey baster to suction off the oil and filter it through a thick fold of cheesecloth a couple times twice. You can also use paper coffee filters.

Here’s a tip: Get everything set up and ready to go a month before you plan to harvest. This is one time when advance planning can save you a world of headache. Then when it’s time, do it on a day where you can go from start to finish without stopping. To have the best-tasting oil, you really need to go from picking to washing to grinding to pressing. If you stop in between steps, oxidation begins and the taste of the oil will degrade or the olives will begin to rot.


Buckets to gather the olives in

A sink (stainless steel would be great)

Work surface like kitchen countertop

Grinder (try a food processor or an under-the-sink garbage disposal)

Power source and cord for the grinder

Press (try Harbor Freight or make one yourself)

Cheesecloth to wrap the mash in

Large blocks of smooth unfinished wood to set the press on and to press the olives with

Filters (paper coffee filters or more cheesecloth)

Some kind of a bin to catch the oil as it is pressed out

Bottles to decant the oil into (mason jars work fine but if you can find opaque bottles they are the best)


“The olive tree is assuredly the richest gift of heaven.” – Thomas Jefferson

Renee-Lucie BenoitWe live in olive country in Northern California. Our ranch itself has eight mature Mission olive trees. Every year I think about making my own olive oil or curing my own olives. I’d cure some in a heartbeat if my husband liked olives like I do. He doesn’t so it seems like a whole big passel of trouble just for a few olives for little old me. However, olive oil is another story. I already buy gallons of it to cook and make things with. Why a person can even make soap with it. So recently I decided to do some earnest research and see what I might be up against. What I found was if you have enough mature trees you can probably start your own hobby oil production easily enough. It takes a bit of equipment, but if you know what to do you can get the freshest oil possible and it’s fun to make.

Right down the road from us in Corning is Lucero Olive Oil. They are the premier olive growers and oil producers in California. How lucky can we be? Their oils are certified by the California Olive Oil Council, which means they produce 100% Extra Virgin olive oil, the highest grade possible. I spoke with Jessica at Lucero on a cloudy spring day. She’s been with the company for three years since Dewey Lucero took the oil production from the family garage to the beautiful processing plant they have now. It reminds me of how McIntosh Apple computers started. First Dewey’s grandfather and father made olive oil for family in friends in their garage. But Dewey had a bigger vision, and he’s made the company what it is today.


The facility in Corning is clean, bright and welcoming. The wall is covered top to bottom with shelves laden with all types of oils, flavored oils, balsamic vinegars, unique mustard blends and olive oil products such as tapenade. In an adjoining room there is a long table spread with various materials and tasting samples for groups.

Jessica gave me a little history of olives in the New World. They were first brought to California by the Spanish. In 1769, the Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded and the first olive trees were planted. Did you know olive trees might live forever? The oldest olive trees are 3,000 years old and are still producing edible fruit. I guess you can say they’re a good investment as long as you take care of them! There are more than 160 varieties of olives, and many are suitable for both curing and oil. Sevillano, Mission, Ascolano and Manzanillo are a few of these. Olive trees generally bloom in May and the fruit is full size by October. Immature olives are green and mature olives are black or dark purple.

Oils are graded in terms of the level that they have been processed. There’s plain old “olive oil,” which is the most processed. Then there’s virgin and extra virgin. Don’t fall for the term “extra extra” virgin. It means nothing and is just a marketing ploy. Extra virgin is the best quality oil. It means that the acidity level is less than .05% for freshness, the oil is cold pressed (under 80 degrees Fahrenheit) and it is unfiltered first press. As I said before, Lucero has earned COOC certification. A panel of independent testers must taste the oil and confirm that it is free of defects and that it possesses positive flavor characteristics. Lucero’s Ascolano variety is the most awarded extra virgin olive oil in North America, for instance.

How to properly taste olive oil

Put a small amount in a paper cup or receptacle that you can warm with your hands. After a brief warming smell the aroma. Is it fruity or spicy? What does it smell like to you? Then tip the glass up, coat your tongue and slurp the oil back into your throat. If the oil is full of antioxidants, the taste and aroma will fill your nose with the scent and the back of your throat may experience a peppery after tone. If an oil is peppery, it doesn’t mean that it is lesser quality or that the process destroyed it in some way. As a matter of fact, peppery can mean it is high in polyphenols and antioxidants. The peppery quality comes from the type of olives used. That’s it. And it’s all personal preference whether you like it peppery or smooth.


How long can good quality olive oil last?

Don’t ever refrigerate olive oil. It speeds up the degradation process. If you have good quality unopened oil, it should keep for up to two years. Once you open it and keep it out of sunlight in a cool dark place in an opaque bottle, it should keep for a year. Or less because you will use it up way before then!

Part 2 comes next week when I talk about a way to make your own backyard oil.


Renee-Lucie BenoitRattlesnakes live all over our fair country. Since it’s our preference to live on farms or ranches, we have to adjust to the fact that we have to deal with poisonous snakes more than city people do. It’s the price we pay for getting to live a pastoral existence. A couple days ago our dog was bitten. He’s the kind of farm dog that minds his own business and is best at chasing squirrels and performing as a watch dog. On Thursday he limped in with a front paw twice the normal size with no visible blood. I immediately suspected snake bite even though it’s still early in the season.

The vet said it could be a bee sting but we thought it best to take him in and when the leg was shaved there was the tell-tale “vampire” bite.


We vaccinate our dogs against bites. We knew that if they ever get bitten the vaccine buys us time to get them to a vet. How bad the bite is depends on whether or not the dog has been vaccinated, the size of the snake (larger is worse than smaller), how many bites the animal gets (many are obviously worse than one), where the snake bites the animal (on an extremity is better than on the face or nose) and how big the animal is (bigger animals fare better than smaller ones). The worst bite then would be many bites on the face and nose of a small animal by a big snake. The big snake is probably thinking “food” when it’s a small animal but "back-off" if it’s a big animal.

Our dog was vaccinated, was bitten once on the foot and is medium size. From the size of the bite it seems it was a medium size snake. The vet gave our dog a concoction of steroids, antihistamine and penicillin. Three days later he’s doing well and getting around just fine. What a trouper! Now he's confined to the fenced in back yard until after snake season ends. Small price to pay.


The snake that got our dog was probably the northern Pacific rattlesnake because we live in northern California. There are many types of rattlesnakes all throughout the United States so familiarize yourself with the ones in your area. Though rattlesnakes are dangerous if provoked, they also provide us with a tremendous service because they eat rodents, other reptiles and insects. So if you find one living around your home or livestock area, think about how much of a threat it poses and then decide if it should live or die. They in turn are eaten by other predators like King snakes and large birds of prey, for instance. But my suggestion is don’t apply liberal politics to this one. Be conservative.

Rattlesnakes are generally not aggressive. When we’ve seen them on our ranch, they just lie there and my husband makes up stories about how they’re saying “make my day” but I think they’re inert because they’ve eaten or because they’re cold. Rattlesnakes will strike when threatened or deliberately provoked so give them room and they will eventually retreat.

Most bites occur between the months of April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors. About 25 percent of the bites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected, but the bites still require medical treatment.

– Wear tall boots and pants that cover your foot and lower leg.

– Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.

– Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see.

– Step ON logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood.

– Rattlesnakes can swim so don’t assume that floating stick is a stick. If you see one when you are in the water, swim away fast and make so much commotion that the snake will avoid you. Don't believe the movies. (If any of you have had other types of encounters I'd like to hear about it.)

– Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side so check out the doorstep before you enter.

–Having someone with you who can assist in an emergency is always a good idea.

– Do not handle a freshly killed snake. Those fangs can prick you and venom can then get into you.

Many a useful and non-threatening snake has suffered a quick death from a frantic human who has mistakenly identified a gopher snake, garter, racer or other as a rattlesnake. This usually happens when a snake assumes an instinctual defensive position used to bluff adversaries. A gopher snake has the added unfortunate trait of imitating a rattlesnake by flattening its head and body, vibrating its tail, hissing and actually striking if approached too closely.

A rattlesnake is a heavy-bodied, blunt-tailed snake with one or more rattles on the tail. When you’ve killed a couple gopher snakes and then come upon a real rattlesnake you will immediately recognize your previous mistake. A rattlesnake has a triangular-shaped head all the time. It never goes from thin to spread out. That is gopher snake behavior. A rattlesnake’s head is much broader at the back than at the front with a distinct “neck” region all the time. Rattles may not always be present, as they are often lost through breakage and are not developed on the young. The tail is “stubby.” A gopher snake tail is long and pointy. So try not to kill one because the gopher snake doesn’t know you are an uneducated human.

If you are bitten stay calm. Usually, the most serious effect of a rattlesnake bite is local tissue damage. Children are in more danger if they are bitten because they are smaller.

Get to a doctor as soon as possible. Frantic, high-speed driving puts you in greater risk of an accident and increases your heart rate.

– Stay calm

– If bitten on the hand, remove anything that may constrict swelling. This might be hard because the area will start swelling right away. Try to remember. If you can’t, the doctor will have to cut them off.

– Immobilize the affected area as much as possible but don’t waste time putting on anything complicated. It’s better to just try not to move it much and get to the doctor.

– Get your dogs vaccinated. The vaccine make antibodies that fight the venom and buy you time to get to the vet.

* Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife "Rattlesnakes in California"


Desperate situations call for desperate measures. The year was 2010. We lived on an acreage in the San Joaquin Valley near Tracy, California. If any of you have been out that way you’ll know this is prime hay country. There’s abundant water and the nice level land of the Delta. When we lived on the acreage, we had fields all around us in every direction. In the spring, we were dive-bombed by low flying crop dusters, and when the farmers were ready to plant, they regularly flooded the fields. That’s my theory of how we came to be overrun by gophers. When living conditions were hostile in the fields, the gophers moved over to our little dry “island.” I even saw a rare California long-tailed weasel pop down a hole one morning and promptly come out with his breakfast. Our medium-sized terrier dog always had something to do. I hardly ever saw his face. Just his rear-end pointed sky high, tail a-switching back and forth his nose down the gopher hole.

You can well imagine this is a challenge for the gardener. It’s also a problem for me because I don’t believe in killing gophers. I think it’s barbaric to kill God’s creatures who are put here for a reason and are just trying to make a living same as us. I also think it’s just buying time to kill them and ultimately impractical. Their relatives will eventually move in to take their place and you’ll have to do it all over again.

So … how to grow a garden in gopher territory? I conjured up all sorts of difficult-to-execute and expensive barriers until one day I was surfing the web and I came upon straw bale gardening. This turned out to be the perfect solution on a number of levels. I’m not going to go into a great amount of detail about how to construct one. This can be found on the web. But I can offer some suggestions born of my trial and error. Some of the problems I encountered have not been addressed anywhere I found so I will pass them on to you to help you have a better experience.


The Straw Bale Garden in May

Basically a straw bale garden is a bale of straw that has been seasoned by making it wet and letting it “compost” for a few days. This makes the straw a better environment for the plants. I read that wetting and letting the bale “compost” for a week or more was supposed to make it easier to dig in between the “flakes” to create room for the sets. However, the oat straw I used was still so “tight” even after the composting period that I had to use a serrated knife to dig a hole in the bale for the sets. You can’t really untie the twine or your bale will fall apart. But cutting a hole with a serrated knife worked out pretty good. Then I added a little soil to the hole and was ready to put in my sets.


The Straw Bale Garden in June

For seeds all I had to do was top dress the bale with soil and sow directly into the soil as you would for any normal in-ground seeding. Then it was time to sit back, watering can in hand and see what sprouted.

Tracy happens to be windy, hot and dry in the summer. Bales are porous, which make them good on the one hand and bad on the other. Good because your roots have breathing room, bad because the bales tend to dry out faster. You can “wrap” cardboard around them or set them in a sheltered place. Of course, you can arrange them however you want so you can set the sides together to keep more moisture in. The fact remains that you are going to have to water them a bit more than you might if you had the plants in the ground. But because it’s all knee high it’s really not that difficult. Just put your drip system right on top of the bales.


The Straw Bale Garden in July

I found that I grew some science experiments. The toad stools and weird fungi I got looked like creatures from another planet. Weeds grew, too, but it’s not hard to deal with them. You don’t have to stoop over. It’s like tending a table garden. Great for folks who have bad backs. I have even heard that people in wheel chairs can now get out and garden because they can access their garden where they couldn’t before. The bales can be placed on cement. Say you have a great sunny place with a water source but it’s untillable. Place your bales there and you’re good to go.

For our situation bales were the perfect solution. I put hardware cloth under the bales and the gophers were completely thwarted. It wasn’t until the very end of the season when I was having cucumbers coming out of my ears that I noticed a wily critter had figured out how to access the bale from the side. Other than that one Einstein we had no other problems.


Garden Bounty

The last great thing about the bales is that once the season is over you can use the now completely composted bale to mulch your ground level garden. As you can well imagine, having a summer of plants growing in your bales makes them very composted. I put my old bales on my harvested corn patch and the next year I had volunteers galore coming up where I threw the leftover Halloween pumpkins.

Have fun!


Renee-Lucie BenoitWhen I was a kid a bazillion years ago we would often visit my Gramma Frieda in Illinois. She was born and raised there, a daughter of a prosperous German farmer and married to the son of a Lutheran minister. She was not excessively religious but she was a terrific cook. I have mentioned her cooking abilities in other things I’ve written. She could do it all and then roll up her sleeves and work alongside the men in the fields. That kind of work is what she actually enjoyed most. Somehow the confines of the house was not to her liking even though she excelled at all things domestic.

She probably got that way because her mother, my great-grandmother, was a stern disciplinarian. As a young girl, she once told me, she stayed out all night at the barn dance and when she crept in at dawn there was Great-Grandmother standing with hands on hips to say the day has begun and you have chores to do. No bed for you young lady. Get to work.

She was the wit and soul of a party and any other time of the day. She had an infectious laugh that was more of a giggle. I miss her every day. When I feel like I need a lift I make up a batch of her twice-cooked chicken. This is a really good recipe for your farm raised birds and is as easy as pie. I offer this recipe with help from my Aunt J who was my Gramma’s youngest daughter.


Gramma’s Twice Cooked Chicken

Rinse a whole chicken in water and towel off. Cut it up into pieces. Dump enough flour to coat the chicken into a plastic bag, paper sack or just put it in a bowl. Season it with salt, pepper and paprika. Use your own discretion in how much seasoning you would like. You can also substitute the salt and paprika with seasoned salt like Lawry’s. Shake a couple pieces at a time until all is coated well. Fry in about a quarter inch of hot fat (lard, Crisco or peanut oil) until browned. Get the fat to just start smoking before putting in the chicken then turn the heat down a bit so the chicken doesn't burn. Turn the pieces once. Transfer to baking dish or casserole and bake covered in a 325- to 350-degree oven until meat reaches 165 degrees and desired tenderness. I add about 1/4 cup water to the pot to steam the chicken for even more tenderness. I go for about 2 hours for 4 to 5 pieces of chicken. You can also do it in a slow cooker.

Gramma liked the chicken to fall off the bone and that’s the way I like it, too.  She always made milk gravy with the chicken browning bits. If you make gravy, scoop out as much of the fat as you can to make the gravy less greasy. Try to leave the cooked bits in the pan. They make the flavor. After the chicken becomes nicely cooked, it can be partially covered to prevent drying out.
If you can’t use your own chicken, try to buy the most natural chicken you can find. They really taste the best. A happy, young hen who has spent her whole life on a farm, in the company of other chickens and a rooster, lots of bugs and worms to eat along with your farmer's chicken feed, good old dirt to scratch around in all day, room to run and jump at will. On Gramma’s farm, the old hens went into a stewing pot for soup or casseroles (often with scrumptious homemade noodles).



Renee-Lucie BenoitOur little ranch is on the west side of the Great Central Valley in Northern California. This northerly part is known as the Sacramento Valley. It is so named because the Sacramento River flows right down the middle. The river issues from the slopes of a dormant volcano known as Mt. Shasta and heads south. The southern part of the Great Central Valley – for all you geography buffs – is the San Joaquin Valley.

You get to our ranch by driving through a bunch of low hills that make up the Great Valley Sequence. These hills are ancient (I mean really ancient!) ocean floor that was scraped up off the bottom of the ocean when the Pacific Plate was going somewhere completely different from where it’s going now. It’s a fascinating subject but we’ll leave that for another blog. Right down the road from our ranch are the remnants of a town called Chrome. It is so-called because chromium mining was a big thing around there in days gone by and not too far gone. So you can easily leap to the conclusion that this is a great area for rocks and minerals.

It’s not easy to build fences out here. But don’t let that thought lead you astray. There are a lot of fences out here for keeping the livestock that graze this marginal land. The soil is horrendous. It’s full of gravel and rock. Local folks say wait until after it’s rained a good deal and then think about setting posts. I am in awe of the sheer physical strength and tenacity of the original landowners who built the fences.

Fencing, as you know, requires a person to dig holes. Digging holes in hard soil is a task for Hercules. We got here in late August a couple years ago and it was very hot and dry and we wanted a fence for our backyard. We didn’t know about the soil yet. It took my husband Marty an hour to go about 6 inches deep before he threw in the towel. He thought, "well I’ll pour a little water in there to soften it up." Three days later the water was still in there and had not soaked in. I call this “soil” pulverized rock. It’s not soil. It’s evil.

That’s when I got the brilliant idea for the Easiest Fence in The World. If you can lay your hands on old fence posts, and a lot of them, you can build the fence very quickly. Of course you can always buy the posts but I think old, almost rotten ones make a rustic look that can’t be beat. This is not a very good fence to hold back large critters or even small critters. But if you have the need for a visual barrier and a decorative touch this fence is for you. We had a lot of old wooden fence posts that were pulled out when the metal t-post fences were put in so in two shakes of a lamb’s tail we were in business.

Here's how you build it. Step 1. Gather a lot of old fence posts. Depending on how acute you want your zig zag angle, you will need about 85 posts for 60 feet of fence. This is a fence 4 and 5 posts tall alternating. You can make it shorter or taller as you see fit. Step 2. Stack the posts. You stack them overlapped in a zig zag pattern. Take a look at the photo and that will help you visualize what you need to do.

The results are beautiful and every day I look at my new fence and feel happy.

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