Spring is approaching rapidly here at Farm on the Hill. After a difficult winter, Bryan and I took advantage of the first warm-ish day in February to work on the Eggmobile, which will be rolled out of the tractor shed and onto the pasture once it’s warm and dry enough out there … and we have a flock of laying hens to live in it! Since ours is a farm start-up, the structures come first, then the livestock will join us. Bryan is modeling his Eggmobile after the one he saw while at Polyface Farms as well as the one he worked with during his internship in New York.
The cats' Winter Quarters are in the tractor shed, so they were excited that we joined them for the afternoon!
The final adjustments for the day:
A neighboring farmer had an old coop in his barn, which he sold to us at a great price. We were grateful for it, as the budget is getting really tight right now. We can't wait to sell some eggs and chickens this summer to ease the strain!
Earlier this week, we ventured into the barn to take stock of what we had yet to do in the room he is turning into the brooder for the baby chicks, which are on order and will arrive the end of March. Last summer, Bryan and a friend worked in brutal heat and humidity to repair the old, original concrete floor of that room, filling in holes with gravel and sand and concrete, then smoothing two layers of Quick Crete over the whole area, taking care to allow plenty of time for the surfaces to cure between steps. They did a great job, and it looked ready.
When we looked at it the other day, we were dismayed to find that about one-fourth of the floor was covered with a slick of ice … a sure sign that we have a water leak from the outside as the snow melts and the rain falls, both of which had happened just a few days prior. In addition, part of the new concrete has a bit of a “bounce” to it when we step on it, meaning that it has separated from the base below, and is likely to crack. NONE of this bodes well for raising baby chicks in there! After dealing with the discouragement, we grabbed all the plywood that we were going to use for the brooder walls after putting in the insulation batts, and hauled it down into the farmhouse basement, which is yet unfinished, and has a solid concrete floor.
It will serve as the temporary brooder until the temperatures warm up enough outside and the ground firms up enough that we can get the little work truck, stocked with concrete, to the barn in order to pour a new floor. Like the astronauts in Apollo 13, I’d love to think that “we’ve just had our glitch for this mission,” but I’m sure plenty of other things will go wrong for us, too, as we do everything for the first time. Flexibility and resourcefulness are key attributes we’re developing, as well as keeping a loose grasp on our plans so it doesn’t hurt so badly when they are ripped out of our grip!
We cannot wait until the sun is warm and we can sit on the deck with a tall glass of ice tea while we look out at our EggMobile, Chicken Tractors, and contented sheep on the lush, green pasture. It can’t come soon enough!
Can we all say it together? WE'RE SICK OF WINTER!!! This one has been especially tough here in the Midwest. Since it's our first winter on our Wisconsin farm, we've had a real education in rural living ... or should we say survival! We are now pros at heating with wood, and I've learned what happens when you try to paint a wall that contains a drafty door when there is a strong, icy wind coming through ... who knew that paint granulates when applied to a cold wall? I suppose we've jumped into the deep end of the rural-winter-pool, and, having survived, it shouldn't be any worse in the future!
Nonetheless, there are some really wonderful winter experiences we've had up here that have made me stop and stare with wonder, even with below-zero wind blowing in my face. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Sun Dog
I can't explain what this thing is, so I'll let Wikipedia do it: "Sundogs are commonly made by the refraction of light from plate-shaped hexagonal ice crystals in high and cold cirrus clouds or, during very cold weather, these ice crystals are called diamond dust, and drift in the air at low levels. These crystals act as prisms, bending the light rays passing through them with a minimum deflection of 22°. If the crystals are randomly oriented, a complete ring around the sun is seen — a halo. But often, as the crystals sink through the air, they become vertically aligned, so sunlight is refracted horizontally — in this case, sundogs are seen.
As the sun rises higher, the rays passing through the crystals are increasingly skewed from the horizontal plane. Their angle of deviation increases, and the sundogs move further from the sun. However, they always stay at the same elevation as the sun.
Sundogs are red-colored at the side nearest the sun. Further out the colors grade through oranges to blue. However, the colors overlap considerably and so are muted, never pure or saturated. The colors of the sundog finally merge into the white of the parhelic circle (if the latter is visible)." (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_dog)
This huge bird is a regular visitor to the field adjacent to our pasture. He watched me as closely as I watched him while he ate his meal. I made sure our 25 pound cockapoo puppy was safely inside of the house before I headed into our side yard to take these photos!
Winter Sunrise, Sunset
I wish I had the kind of camera that could take nighttime photographs, so I could show you the glorious winter night sky, thick with stars and the Milky Way. Even when it has been way below zero outside, I have not minded taking puppy out that one last time before bed...I just bundle up well, and keep my eyes heavenward! It's been a tough winter, but there is beauty in the ice and snow which warms the heart.
This recipe comes from my friend, Rittu, who grew up in India. The first time I was there when she made it, I asked her what smelled sooooo good in her kitchen, and she said "it's chai tea ... would you like a cup?" No thanks, I said. I don't really care for chai tea. She just smiled. "Have a cup of mine, I'll bet you'll like it." Not wanting to be rude, I agreed to try it, but didn't think I'd like it any better than the mixes I'd purchased before.
Ha ha! Oh, did I eat my words! Actually, I drank my words! That was some fantastic tea!!! That was many years ago, and later, during a weekend getaway trip to Wisconsin with Rittu, her husband, and their two children, I finally paid attention as she made her nightly brew, and now enjoy making it here at my home. I've had a few bloggy friends discussing chai, and offered to share the recipe (as best as I can ... Rittu doesn't really measure).
Rittu's Indian Chai Tea
Purchase/Have on hand: Cardomom pods, Fennel seeds, honey, black tea, milk (I use 2%).
***First, put some water in your kettle and start it to boiling. You may want to add a bit of boiling water to your chai mix if you're losing too much in steam in the beginning! This is EXTRA water, it's not the water you put in the pan to start.***
Now, on with making Chai:
I'm using my almost 2-quart pot here, and have added 4 cups water. In it, place 5 or 6 cardamom pods that you have cracked to expose the small, black seeds. (Sometimes they crack with finger pressure, but often times I have to use my kitchen scissors to get them to break.)
Also add whole fennel seeds ... I don't count them, just add a couple/few big pinches ... this is about two pinches in my palm, I ended up adding one more pinch to the pot:
Bring the water with pods and seeds to a boil, and let it boil until the water gets "nice and green" (that's Rittu's husband, Wendall's, instruction!). I let it boil about 5 minutes. I will add some boiling H2O from the kettle if I feel I'm losing too much water in steam. The key from here on out is to KEEP IT BOILING! Here's a "before" and "after" of the water, to see the color:
It will be nice and fragrant now! Keep it boiling, and add 1 teaspoon fresh honey per cup/mug that you're making ... I added 4 teaspoons honey (you could use sugar ... but honey is better and healthier!).
Stir it in, KEEP IT BOILING! Let it boil about 3 minutes to really "cook" the honey flavor in.
Next, add BLACK TEA. You can use decaf black tea if you don't want the "perkys." I use 2 bags ... be sure to cut off the paper tags before putting it in the water!
Keep it boiling for about 3 minutes...
Now, add milk (I use 2%), just to get it about the color of a caramel:
Let it return to a boil, and keep it boiling for a few minutes until the milk scalds (I call it that "brownish sticky stuff on the side of the pan").
The rest of this, in pictures, should be self-explanatory:
*NOTE: Pre-warmed serving tea pot ... your homemade chai tea is special ... BE fussy!!!
Keeping warm under the tea cozy...
One thing I want to try for fun someday is to make this with my favorite black tea blend, Earl Grey tea. I think the bergamot, which reminds me of orange, would be out of this world in Chai!
I hope you enjoy making and drinking this delicious chai tea. It only takes 5 to 10 minutes to make, and it will warm you on the outside as you make it, delightfully fragrance your kitchen, and then it will warm you on the inside and lift your spirits as you drink it.
Moving into a new home is always an adventure. Moving into a “new-to-you” home that happens to be around 100 years old is even more of an adventure. Moving from the mega-suburbs of Chicago into a “new-to-you” home that happens to be around 100 years old that is on a 40-acre farm on a ridge top in rural Wisconsin … that’s the ultimate adventure! Winter here has been a crash course in rural-living …from heating with wood to coping with snow and ice sans the suburban services we were accustomed to, to dealing with the furry creatures who are searching for a warm place to stay and a bite of food…creativity and determination reign.
Fortunately for us, the previous owner of this century farm was a part time builder, and he added on a brand new kitchen to the tiny farmhouse about eight years ago, so we are the blessed recipients of his hard work.
Nonetheless, we find ourselves plagued with the same problems that, I am sure, a farm wife and mother found herself coping with 100 years ago in her then-new farmhouse. This winter, it’s mice.
Since we didn’t believe the pest-control man who told us that we should let him treat the home preventatively for mice at the end of the summer, we now find the furry little critters’ “calling cards” on the countertops and in some of the drawers in the kitchen. After a two-day “away” from the farm, we came home to find a bread bag that we’d left on the countertop nibbled open and bread crumbs scattered about. I began to worry about the many bulk-sized bags of dry goods I had stored in the nearby cabinets and on the countertops, and new I needed to find a solution.
A dear friend had sent an email asking if I might have need of some of her hundred-plus used canning jars that she wanted to get rid of. I offered to take all of them, not knowing at the time when I would ever use them all, but farm-plus-canning-jars seemed like a smart thing. I’ve now used over half of them! To keep the dry-goods safe from mice, I turned to my new favorite pastime: oven canning.
I spent an enjoyable three days oven canning, and ended up with dozens of jars. Not only was it a very satisfying process to make the food supply more secure, but the results were just lovely to boot.
Bryan plans to build a large pantry-storage area in the basement once the mess of an electrical system is all updated down there. Until he gets that done, I decided to *loan* him my 100-year-old pie safe, built by his great-grandfather and rescued by me some 20 years ago from my mother-in-law’s garage. Bryan’s not nuts about the pie safe, which is why I’m only loaning it to him. Hopefully someone will join him here on the farm someday who will see how perfect it is … and then I will let it go. If you look closely, you can see a gnawed-open mouse hole above the drawer on the top right of the pie safe. Perhaps that hole was chew-carved out 100 years ago by a hungry mouse with a taste for great-grandmother's apple pie!
How perfect that a 100-year-old “tradition” of raiding mice in Bryan’s 100-year-old Wisconsin farmhouse should link a great-grandfather farmer from Iowa to his great-grandson farmer in Wisconsin through a 100-year-old pie safe.
I call it a perfect fit. Thanks, mice! I think ...
Want to learn more about oven canning? This is the site from which I learned:
Oven Canning 101
All my life, I've enjoyed a cozy, warm home in the winter. When you grow up in Michigan, you appreciate that warmth after spending time outdoors in the cold and snow! Yes, all my life, I've enjoyed that warmth. And all my life, I've never thought too much about where that warmth came from. In my home in the suburbs of Detroit, we simply turned a dial and pushed a few buttons, and warmth was there.
That is no longer true for me. I’m living in southwestern Wisconsin on my son Bryan’s new farm. Well, actually, it’s an old farm … but it’s new to us! We moved up here in June … so this is our first “rural winter.” We still go back and forth between the farm and the suburbs fairly often, so we've had to be creative with our heating plans.
This summer, my husband got a new furnace for the 100-year-old farmhouse. When we bought the place, there were oil and coal burners still sitting in the basement, though they were no longer in use. We asked that they be removed prior to our arrival ... no small task, but we didn't want them there!
By the time we moved in, only the old oil storage tank remained, with its filling pipe poking through the wall to the outside. (We have since had the tank removed.)
The new furnace is connected to our main source of heat: an outdoor wood-burning furnace. We use the wood furnace for heat beginning in November, when it is consistently too cold to go without a full-time source of heat.
There is also a lovely wood stove in the living room, which we can use in late autumn and early spring, and when the outdoor temperatures are really frigid, as they were a week ago, and will be again this coming week. The drafty old farmhouse sits atop a high ridge, and we get impressive winds up here. I like to call them our “Montana zephyrs!” But the woodstove keeps the main floor nice and toasty.
When we take a couple of days to travel, the propane-fueled furnace is set to “backup” function. Should the fire in the outdoor furnace go out, the temperature in the house will drop to our set point (we keep it low, about 60 degrees), at which point the propane burner will kick in. It’s a comforting thing to know, so we don’t worry about catastrophic things like frozen and burst water pipes.
Bryan has made a wonderful friend up here, a young man his age named Nate, who is from a neighboring farm. When we travelled to Illinois to be with family over Thanksgiving, Nate volunteered to drive the 3/4 mile from his house to ours each day in order to stoke the outdoor wood furnace. This, by the way, is one of the things that I love most about rural living as opposed to life in the super-suburbs … the way “community” happens. Folks reach out to one another here, and take care of one another. That happens amongst friends in the suburbs, but here it seems to happen more often and as a way of living, even with people you don’t know. It’s a beautiful thing.
I think farmers know they have to rely upon their neighbors and their community for help in times of need, whether it’s to borrow a trailer, capture escaped livestock, repair damage after a storm, assist with heavy-lifting-tasks, or take over time-sensitive jobs during times of illness or other crisis. People expect to “jump in and help” a neighbor-in-need, and are ready and willing to do so when asked. At least that’s been our experience here.
A couple of times, we've had the fire in the outdoor furnace die down to just a few embers because we didn't think we needed to stoke it. Each time it's been during the overnight hours. The house temperature drops into the 60s, and we can tell the difference. So we toss in a couple armloads of kindling ... we like to use the 100-year-old lathe that we pulled out of one of the upstairs bedrooms when we took down a plaster wall … the stuff is so dry, it burns like paper!
We let that ignite in the remaining embers, then we throw on some boards from old, broken-down wood pallets that were left in the old garage where we store our firewood, and finally we toss on the logs. It takes about half an hour of “babysitting” the furnace to make sure we're up and running, but we watch the house temperature rise back up into the low 70s, and we think it’s a good trade.
I have a new appreciation and understanding of the phrase, “keeping the home fires burning!”
From our family here at Farm on the Hill to yours … wishes for a warm and Happy New Year!
Christmas on the farm is a new experience for our family, since we just moved to this lovely patch of the Earth this past June, but I already know that homemade farm gifts are exactly what we will be sharing with family and friends. The staggering costs of starting up a farm mean that funds are tight, as they may be for your family, so creative gift giving is that much more important. Gifts in a jar aren’t anything new…I’ve both given and received layered cookie and brownie mixes, as well as soup mixes, and they’re delicious. But I came up with a unique idea this year, and I’m happy to share it with you.
Our “Farm on the Hill” had mature grape vines when we arrived, and they provided us with eight pounds of flavorful, organic green grapes from which I made lots of jam for gift-giving.
Wisconsin Green Grapes
Farm on the Hill Green Grape Harvest
Farm on the Hill Organic Green Grape Preserves
In addition to our farm-made jam, I’ll be adding large jars of home-mixed, good-for-you, flavored instant oatmeal. I’d come across a blogger who shared her recipes for really yummy homemade, healthy instant oatmeal packets (see source at the end of this post). They are simple to make, and scrumptious to eat! I was oven-canning our pantry’s dry goods to keep them safe from the mice that occasionally get past our two farm cats and make their way into our old farmhouse, and I decided to make larger batches of this wonderful instant oatmeal to fill a few quart canning jars.
Healthy Instant Oatmeal Gift in a Jar
As I was enjoying my Coconut-Pineapple Oatmeal for breakfast the other day, it dawned on me what a terrific Christmas gift a jar of this stuff would be alongside of our grape jam! A single serving of dry mix is about 1/2 cup, so I made the recipe times 7 to fill a quart jar with a little headspace. Adding dried chopped fruit takes up extra space, too.
Here is the basic recipe to mix in a big bowl:
2 1/3 cups rolled oats (Instant or Quick)
2 tablespoons chia seeds or ground flax seed, optional
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons oat bran (or wheat germ/bran)
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons powdered milk (I use Organic Valley brand)
2 to 7 tablespoons sweetener to taste (brown sugar, sucanat, maple sugar, coconut sugar)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 pinches of salt
For Coconut-Pineapple Oatmeal, add:
3/4 cup chopped dried pineapple or 1 3/4 cups freeze-dried chopped pineapple
1/4 cup freeze dried coconut
For Mocha Oatmeal, add:
1/8 cup plus 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
3 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
For Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal, add:
3/4 cup chopped dried apple or 1 3/4 cups freeze-dried chopped apple
1 3/4 teaspoons additional cinnamon
(Using pure maple sugar as the sweetener in the base mix makes this “Apple Cinnamon Maple Oatmeal.”)
Attach a label to the jar with the following instructions:
Add 1/2 cup oatmeal mix to mug or bowl. Stir in 2/3 cup boiling water. Cover and let stand 5 minutes, then enjoy!
The shelf life of this oatmeal mix is several months, depending upon the ingredients used. You can freeze the jars to extend their freshness. There are many more flavor combinations available from the source of the original recipe here:
From our family here at Farm on the Hill to yours…wishes of Peace and Joy this holiday season!
Our First Christmas Tree at Farm on the Hill