When my husband, Kevin, told me he wanted to build a smokehouse, I was a bit apprehensive because I wasn’t sure I liked smoked meat enough to do large quantities for our family of two. Being a homesteader and a Googler, I looked up other things besides meat that we could smoke and found that the smoked flavor adds to almost any food.
So, we found (or more truthfully, stole) an instructional YouTube video that gave us the specifications for building it. The basic cedar house looked like an outhouse with a porch until we added the pizza oven to it. Neither of us had ever done masonry work before, but we designed a wooden igloo form and covered it in the fire brick, then added the exterior pavers, a door and chimney, and we were off to the races. It took longer than we anticipated due to rainy cold weather and our reluctance to make mistakes. Once we saw the finished project, we decided a pizza oven under the pergola was do-ble and soon we will attempt it.
The end result turned out quite nice, and our first attempt at smoking meat was a huge success. Since we raise chickens, we thought smoked poultry would be a good test, but we also added a corned beef brisket, some jalapeno peppers, and some sea salt to add to the first batch!
We brined one brisket for 16 days to make the corned beef prior to smoking it and just seasoned another brisket without brining. The chickens and turkeys were left whole with seasoned skins and smoked on a rack. I have to admit that my husband was a bit over zealous about this project since he started late in the evening, stayed up all night, and then removed the meat when it reached the correct cooking temperature as they were ready throughout the night. Although he rarely cooks these days, he did a fantastic job smoking the meats!
The key to not overcooking is maintaining a 200-degree temperature and lots of smoke over the meat until the exact cooking temperature is reached inside the different cuts of meat.
The water well house was built with the original house in 1947 out of brick cinder blocks and appeared to be falling apart. The original yellow paint was peeling off and several bricks were missing or broken. Upon closer inspection, we found the bricks had been pushed inside the structure due to mortar failure which caused several bricks come loose. The inside was filled with several inches of dirt, three large water tanks and countless mud dauber nests.
It had been unused and was a huge eyesore behind the house so we decided to turn it into a potting shed. We cut the pipes to the water storage tanks and got them out of there and then removed all the old wiring and electrical boxes. We replaced half of the sheet metal roof with clear PVC roofing for sunlight. We took our old stainless steel sink from the kitchen renovation, and then built a long table from scrap. Finally, we added a metal shelf for storage. VIOLA! A potting shed is born!
We painted the exterior and planted a few vines and roses and hung a few birdhouses.
Now we have a place to start seeds and protect young plants from wind and cold until its warm enough to plant them in the ground.
In 2013, we moved from the city, gave up our gym membership and moved to the country to establish our homestead and raise fresh produce and our own meat. Although we finished a lot projects, we also gained some extra weight because we thought we were burning more calories by working so hard. As it turned out, we ate our way out of our most comfortable jeans and put our health at stake. It could happen to anyone! Our new year’s resolutions not only includes completing the projects we didn’t get to in 2013, but also getting back to a more healthful lifestyle so we can literally enjoy the fruits of our labor longer and be physically able to keep up with all there is to do on a homestead.
Life on a farm can make you fat. As with most of the earth’s population, staying fit and healthy is as much of a challenge on a farm as it is in a city. When you have livestock that requires daily feeding and cleaning, as well as tending to gardens, fences, household repairs, and other unexpected emergencies or occurrences, you can burn a lot of calories and expend huge amounts of energy. It also creates a healthy appetite for the honey and eggs you collected, the beef, pork, or chicken you raised, and the wonderful comfort food that we identify with on a farm or ranch.
The calorie count can quickly get out of control and turn our hard-working body into a pudgy round-shaped creature that you don’t want to see in the mirror. We still drive to our office job during the week (for a few more years) and although our jobs don’t require a business suit or dress, our daily attire might consist of very comfortable jeans and a stretchy shirt. What it doesn’t mean is that we have to keep buying a large size every year. Some days the only eyes that will see us belong to four-legged creatures, but we won’t let that keep us from watching our own weight. With access to fresh produce and high quality meats on a farm, our cooking skills can create a wonderfully healthy and delicious menu. We’re thinking of it as a numbers game that can be won by keeping score. Although we try not to keep track of our calorie count every meal, we’re aware of how much food we are actually consuming and how many calories are being burned in our daily activities. It’s also a good way to avoid buying a bigger size every year if you enjoy baking and frying like we do.
First, we decided in advance how many calories we need to consume to keep our body at its optimal function depending on our level of daily activity. There are some days when we burn more calories than others, so we plan your higher calorie meals on days when our activity is also higher. Portion control is a big factor too, especially if we eat meals alone or in front of a television or computer. If you’re like me, you cook larger portions so you can enjoy left-overs for lunch the following day. It makes for good planning and it’s an efficient use of resources. By packing tomorrow’s lunch before I fill my dinner plate, I can control the portion size and avoid eating more than I planned both days.
The way you can fresh produce can also have impact on how much you eat. I was using quart sized jars, but we were more apt to consume the entire contents at one meal. I am considering canning in pint or half pint jars since we’re only cooking for one or two people. Also, canned goods taste fresher, and we won’t be prone to over eat or waste the leftovers.
Losing track of calorie consumption and getting too comfortable in your stretchy clothes can impact eating habits and ultimately your health. My husband and I are no exception, and we are committed to finding more ways to stay healthy and lose the 2013 weight that found us and can’t seem to go away on its own.
We gave up the gym, but we have 5 acres of walking room along with two high-energy Rottweiler puppies that will require lots of training. The weather in central Texas is mild enough to be outside most days and with the approaching time change, we can start working the soil for the spring garden. We are fresh out of excuses for not losing weight. Our biggest challenge will be the amount of food we consume and keeping track of the calories. Good luck to all of you homesteaders who are working on improving your health in 2014!
Among the things that farmers do besides animal husbandry, growing crops, and learning how to maintain farming equipment, is the occasional practice of wine making. We are far from being on the cover of Wine Enthusiast magazine, but we figured out that it is possible to make good tasting wine out of almost anything that will ferment and we decided it might be fun to try. How hard could it be, right?
Acting on our decision to commit to a three-month process, we accumulated several 6-gallon glass carboys and made a trip to the local brewery supply store for wine-making supplies. We followed the instructions on all of the equipment and familiarized ourselves with wine additives, stabilizers, filters, sanitizers and hydrometers. Naturally, when we shared our news with family and friends, we received lots of advice and requests from many self-proclaimed wine experts who had made a batch or two in their lifetime. The first recipe we tried came from my father-in-law and seemed quite simple. The process took only a couple of hours plus the three months of fermentation and aging, but the results were (to say the least) surprising.
“Applejack” wine is basically a hard cider made from unpasteurized apple juice, sugar, and a packet of yeast. In my mind, I saw us as mad scientists, and I remember shouting “Look, it’s alive” when I saw the first sign of gases being emitted from the metabolic process. After the fermentation process was complete, we poured the liquid into to freezer containers and discarded the ice that formed the following day, leaving what we thought would be a beverage similar to wine, but boy were we wrong! After weighing the risk of poisoning ourselves with our own home-made concoction, we decided to imbibe in our first attempt at creating our spirit and toasted to our health. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that we needed further study on the correct method of using a hydrometer to test for alcohol content. Instead of a mild, wine-like cocktail, we ended up with a potent albeit potentially hazardous and highly alcoholic beverage that was off the scale for teetotalers like us! We have kept a bottle of it in the event we ever need to start a camp-fire, but the rest we gave away to brave souls who promised responsibility and signed a waiver (OK, I’m just kidding about the waiver).
Round two. One of our neighbors moved away and left a vacant house with wild Mustang grapes brimming over the fence from edge to edge and overloaded with plum bunches of sweet purple grapes. We Googled for a wine recipe and collected 25 gallons of fruit and we were ready for our next science experiment. We tasted the juice before adding the fermentation additives and to our astonishment; it was delicious so we proceeded to try our new and improved scientific hypothesis and concocted the ingredients. The following morning, we walked into the kitchen expecting the aroma of coffee but instead noticed a pungent smell wafting in the air and immediately turned our attention toward the wine carboys in the corner of the room. The airlock had blown off and there were purple stains on the ceiling. A puddle of purple foam surrounded the large bottle and our next lesson was learned. Don’t fill the bottle all the way to the top.
Finally, the day came when the bubbles stopped percolating and the minimum fermentation time passed. We were anxious to try it. This time, we measured the alcohol content and determined if it would put us in a coma or if it would measure up to our low expectations. I have to admit, it was not great wine, but it was reasonably good and we proceeded to bottle and label it. We have made a few other batches since then and truly believe that practice really does make perfect, or at least better than the previous batch! We will continue to experiment like Dr. Frankenstein until we produce something that we can serve with Christmas dinner or to guest who don’t know that we are new to Frankenstein wine. Cheers!
We love honey! We were very excited to start the apiary on our new property last year because we had the space to increase the hive count. Once we set up a place under the pine trees to protect them from the 118-degree heat, we started offering free bee recovery services so we could capture feral hives. Very quickly the calls came in – lots of them! We started carrying our bee recovery vacuum and other equipment with us to our day jobs and recovered more than 30 hives in less than 10 months. Most of the recovered hives did not survive the heat or the stress of the move, but we ended up with six hives by the end of summer.
Recovery hive in a bucket
In November, I received a call inquiring about bees in general and after a few minutes of conversation, I asked if this was about a bee hive recovery. To my surprise, it was not. A director of a movie was looking for non-stinging honeybees (drones) to use in an upcoming Al Pacino movie. At first, I thought it might be a prank, but as it turned out, we ended up providing honeycomb props and drones for the film and got to meet Al Pacino in person. What a thrill!
We also ended up sharing some of our honey with the directors and with Al Pacino. We hope the scene doesn’t get cut from the film since Al was extremely brave around the robber bees that showed up to take some honey during the filming – I guess we’ll find out next year when the movie “Manglehorn” is released. I have to admit, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness and warmth of the directors and film crew. We also made friends with the animal-actors director too, who now knows where to go when looking for bee props in Austin, Texas! I wonder if they might need chickens or rabbits next time?
Yep, that's Al Pacino (in costume)
So, long story short, you just never know what role you will play when you keep bees. We are hopeful that our hives will yield delicious honey next spring and thankful for the wonderful experience they brought to our farm in a most unique situation.
Our next bee adventure will be teaching children about the importance of honeybees. One of the associations offers a beekeeping scholarship, and we have decided to do the same in our area. We will be providing free beekeeping classes to children under 12 and give them a hive, tools, and bee suit to get started. If they are successful after keeping the bees for one year, they get to keep all of it! Fingers crossed, we hope there is lots of interest!
Beekeeping is full of surprises!
Much of what I have read in the Capper's Farmer blogs is based on other areas of the country, not in central Texas where we live, so I tend to roll my eyes in envy of four seasons. I've been in Texas most of my 50-plus years, and I've come to the conclusion that we really only have two real seasons – Hot and VERY Hot. Occasionally, a Canadian wind will blow through Texas and kill the mold, most of the mosquitoes, and whatever plants haven't been taken by drought and 100-plus heat, but here in the central most part of Texas, it is usually unbearably hot and humid.
Texas November Weather on the Range
Last year, we moved 35 miles out of the city to become "homesteaders" on a 5-acre plot of land that we want to convert to a plush green haven consisting of a 2,500 square-foot garden, 100 grape vines, 20 olive trees and maybe three or four Hereford cattle roaming the grounds near the chicken coop and rabbit hutch.
The original 1947 cinder-block house was abandoned and is now used as a workshop after the replacement house was built over the storm cellar in 1956. The newer house was updated in 2006 with a modern kitchen and bath, but the original oak floors remain along indoor access to the storm cellar that fills with water when it rains. Our main goal, outside of creating a green haven outdoors, was to take the house back to as much of its original beauty and old-time charm. So far, it is easier said than done. The most we've accomplished inside is removing the carpet and patching the leaks on the metal roof.
All in all, our first year on the property has been mostly filled with failure, but we have to admit, we have learned a lot about the challenges becoming homesteaders in Texas. By mid-March last year, we had built a large wind and weather resistant structure for our 18 hens and two roosters, added a rabbit hutch for two pairs of meat rabbits, and amended soil on 2,500 square feet of garden space with a fence and chicken wire to keep the wild rabbits and other critters out.
Battling the Grasshoppers
Although our chickens are great egg producers, the garden was a complete failure. By mid-June, the drought and 110-degree weather, and the thousands of grasshoppers unaffected by Neem oil and other natural remedies had decimated the garden. We soon realized that 1,500 gallons of harvested rainwater do not go very far. This fall, we have reduced the size of the garden to make it manageable adding raised beds and are contemplating a greenhouse. The 18 grape vines we planted were quickly eaten by leaf cutter ants, so a different approach will be necessary to bypass those critters.
The most valuable lesson we've learned so far has been the exercise in patience. Rome was truly not built in one day and neither is this homestead. We realize it will be several years before we can get adjusted to growing our own crops, raising cattle, and growing grapes for our own wine. The wine cellar is still on the wishlist for 2016, and this year, all the canning will be from grocery store sales.
Oh well, there is always next year!
The Loud Girls
Spa Day for a Sick Hen
OK, So I Went a Little Crazy With the Leftover Paint
They Can't All Be White, Ya'Know!
Making Beeswax Balm and Canning