Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hillbilly Ingenuity: New Hog Processing Equipment

REMINDER: "Processing" refers to everything that happens to the pig between its slaughter and being ready for cooking. Discretion is advised.


We really stepped up production on pigs this year. Instead of 3 or 4 for the whole season, we are acquiring hogs for breeding, for butchering, and for whole roasting. We have named some of the animals and even brought in partners to help keep things going physically and financially. Our little farm is turning into a real operation.

We are slaughtering and butchering 5 pigs this week, so a better setup was needed. The men put together a bigger, better processing rig that solves many of the issues of the previous arrangement. They started by lashing a large log to two tall trees in the side yard. This new beam is not only far higher than the old metal frame, but it is more secure and even more aesthetically pleasing, since it looks like just another tree when not in use. That makes me very happy.

Very Stealthy, No?

Ergonomically speaking, this system is way ahead of the last. The animals now hang at chest level for easy cleaning and gutting. The low-to-the-ground processing stone has been replaced by a normal height counter top that was salvaged from a kitchen refurbishment and built onto a useful stand. They even welded a barrel stand out of angle-iron that is at a far steeper angle for easier dipping.

Iron Stand for 55 Gallon Dipping Drum
Similar Stand in the Rear for Heating Water

The overall setup is really very impressive:

I'm Very Proud of Them

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hillbilly Ingenuity: Old Hog Processing Equipment

REMINDER: "Processing" refers to everything that happens to the pig between its slaughter and being ready for cooking. Discretion is advised.


For the past few years, we have been processing pigs (and the occasional deer) on a rig in the side yard. The main component was a heavy metal frame from an engine hoist. Mr. Farmer attached a series of pulleys to lift the animal into the air. To the chain or rope, he hung a piece of rebar, bent and sharpened to hang the beast by its ankles. Below the rig was a large, flat rock sitting on logs. The rock was plenty large enough to hold a full-grown hog, and easy to clean with a hose. A barrel of hot water was leaned up against the rock for dipping the animal or burlap sacks to aid in the removal of the hair.

The Old Setup
This is SO Last Year....

The system was not completely without issue. Larger or taller animals would sometimes graze the rock while hanging, so occasional repositioning was needed. The low level of the rock is very hard on the back, requiring constant bending and stretching during the hair removal. Worst of all the rig, while heavy, would occasionally tip if the animal was pulled (i.e. while skinning a deer) creating a dangerous situation and an inconvenient mess of an animal. Clearly there was room for improvement....

(To Be Continued Tomorrow)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Life Is Good: Chilly Weather

Spring is here, but warm weather is not. So, I have to find a way to make the house cozy. The wood stove is now only burning in the evenings, and even though the house is warm enough, it still seems damp and cool. What could drive away the chill and make the house a home again?

Candles, of Course
For a job this big, I lit every candle possible. From left to right: Pink, homemade candle in a mason jar, Hunting Cabin tealight holder, Blue pillar (a gift), Blue taper in a bottle candle holder my daughter made for me, Small vanilla jar candle, large apple/pear scented jar. In the rear you will see a portrait of a very young Young Master Farmer and a handmade plastic-canvas lighthouse that a neighbor made me.

 The light scent and cheery glow from the candles brought the home back to my home. All musty smells were gone, and somehow the illusion of a warmer room was created. That is the magic of candles.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cooking: Easy Venison Dinner

This dinner was so pretty, I just had to take a picture!

Venison can be very delicious if prepared properly. Since it is red game meat, it can be a bit of a challenge unless you know how to handle it. Here are a few basics when dealing with white-tail deer meat:

  • Allow the meat to rest before butchering. If you can let the field-dressed deer hang for a few days before skinning and butchering, the flavor and texture will be greatly improved.
  • Brine or marinate. A soak overnight in salt water or a quick soak in salt, water, lemon juice, and garlic will make your meat far easier to deal with.
  • Remove connective tissue. Silver skin, tendons, etc. are not tasty and no cooking technique will make them edible.
  • Add fat. Venison is notoriously lean, and fat = flavor. Adding fat to a venison dish will make it a real palate pleaser!

The last time I prepared a venison backstrap (tenderloin in the beef/pork worlds), I noticed that its strong iron flavor was similar to a calf's liver. So, as an experiment, I prepared it similarly to the way Mr. Farmer prepares liver.

Venison Dinner

1    pound venison backstrap
1    large onion
1/2 pound bacon
Salt & Pepper

White or Yellow Rice (I used a mix)
Frozen Green Beans

To make everything finish at the same time, start the rice first. I find that yellow saffron rice takes longer than the package recommends, but that may be due to my altitude. Boil the water, add the rice, stir, cover, and reduce the heat to low.

Cut the bacon into small pieces.  I used what I call the ugly ends of a homemade bacon (the point end or where the skewer was inserted for hanging during the smoke process), but store bacon would be OK, too. Fry the bacon until good and crisp.

While the bacon fries, cut the onion into strings by cutting it in quarters, then into thin slices. Once the bacon is crispy, add the onions and cook in the bacon grease.

Remove all connective tissue and "silver skin" from the backstrap. Cut into medallions by slicing at a slight angle to make nice thin rounds. Add to pan and cook until just done. Be careful not to overcook! It will get tough!

Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and allow to rest. About 5-7 minutes before you expect your rice to be finished (about 15 minutes into simmering), stir the frozen green beans into the rice, recover, and return to the heat.

When you are satisfied with the doneness of the beans and the rice, transfer to a serving dish and top with your meat and onions. Young Master Farmer called this "Pure Comfort Food"!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Life Is Good: Snowmen

I am a grown woman who loves to make snowmen. There, I said it, and I'm glad.

I make candles that look like them:

Or I put them on candles: 

I make big snowmen all by myself, usually without the help of the children:

I make tiny little snowmen:

I even made one for Mr. Farmer for his birthday:

I remember making a snowman with my father one time many years ago. He taught me little tricks like how to roll the balls big by pushing them down with their own weight. He also showed me that a marshmallow shape works just as well as a ball, and it is easier to make! I grew up 50 miles to the south of here, so deep snow was more of a treat than business as usual, but it did happen from time to time.

 I only started making snowmen a few years ago. As soon as the kids were big enough to help, they were big enough to have interest in other things, like throwing snowballs at each other and sword fighting with sticks. But I was not to be discouraged. I will keep on making them as long as I am able, and, inevitably, I will be sore and satisfied the next day.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pigs: How to "Weigh" a Pig

Live pigs are hard to weigh. At 8 weeks old they weigh more than a bag of dog food. At 10-12 weeks old they weigh more than a bag of hog feed. After that, the idea of lifting them without heavy equipment is completely out of the question. Moreover, they are squirmy from the day they are born. And since pigs don't like to have their feet off the ground, they scream like banshees when picked up. All this makes routine weight checks by traditional methods hugely inconvenient.

Fortunately, farming is science, and science comes to our rescue once again. Some ingenious farmer at some point recognized a mathematical correlation between the size and weight of a pig. Apparently you can estimate with some accuracy the weight of pigs over 150 pounds by squaring their girth behind the shoulders, then multiplying by length from back of head to tail and dividing that product by 400.

(girth x girth x length) / 400 = weight in pounds

By this formula, a pig that is 40 inches in girth and 45 inches long would weigh about 180 pounds:

(40 x 40 x 45) / 400 = 180

If the pig is less than 150 pounds, you adjust the formula by adding 6 to your result.

(girth x girth x length) / 400  + 6 = weight in pounds

So, a slightly smaller pig, 35 inches in girth and 32 inches long would be 104 pounds:

(35 x 35 x 32) / 400 + 6 = 104

So there you go: your math and science lesson of the day. I hope I got the parentheses in the right places.

Now if only they were easier to catch...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chickens: The Bantams

Three years ago, Mr. Farmer agreed to pick up a few baby chicks to amuse a friend's children for Easter. Day old chicks are not easy to come by at that time of year because most reputable breeders want to avoid exactly what we were attempting. Newborn chicks are very fragile and smother easily. A good number of them die on their own, without the assistance of young children who don't know how to handle them. When we located them, we bought twice as many as we needed.

Just before Easter, we set up some eggs for the children to watch. They checked on them over and over. Then, on Easter morning, something amazing happened. The Easter Bunny left a bunch of candy, and the Easter Chicks had hatched out.

Knowing what we do about city children and baby chicks, we prepared a place for them to stay after spring break ended and the children returned to the big city. They had a nice cage with a warming lamp and all the food and water they needed. There was the expected loss, but most of them grew into adulthood and the hens were integrated with our layers (the roosters were relocated). They even laid eggs for a while, but bantams just don't lay as prolifically as those egg-laying machines, the leghorns. 

For nearly three years, the children came to visit when the weather was nice. They took some eggs home with them on most visits and enjoyed them. They fed them and chased them around like they were in a petting zoo. And they argued over which was his, and which was hers, and which was hers.

When the little brown eggs stopped coming, things changed. Our cute little bantams were still sweet and pretty. But they had taken to sitting on the nest almost constantly. They barely came out to eat or drink, and they discouraged the new hens from laying by being in the way. At first we just physically removed them from the nest a few times a day, figuring they would get the hint. Nature got the better of them, however, and we had to separate them to their own cage in the side yard.

It was a good arrangement. There were 2 left alive and well, so they kept each other warm and company. They loved eating the grass and bugs in the yard that the other chickens didn't have access to. We moved the cage every day or two so that they always had fresh grass, and they kept that bit of the yard tidy. They even laid an egg every now and then.

One day last week our nephew came to visit. He took our two remaining bantams on their next adventure. His two daughters, 5 and nearly 3, have taken quite a liking to them. I understand they even take them out of their cage and into the house to play with them. They are house chickens now. They are happily retired as beloved pets. Let's just hope that no stray eggs are found stashed in corners weeks or months after they are laid.

Our Broody Hens
On the Nest, but Not Laying

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hillbilly Ingenuity: Cooking Maple Sap

The sap stopped running 2 days earlier than Mr. Farmer's March 15 end-of-the-season projection. By that time we had already started cooking the sap into sweet syrup. It is pretty amazing to think that there is anything other than water in that perfectly clear, barely sweet sap that runs out of the trees like water out of a faucet. For at least hundreds of years, however, people have been boiling or steaming off the water and rendering a delicious treat. The season is just a few short weeks; it takes 40-50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. That syrup has to last my pancake-loving family a whole year, so I have had to turn down multiple offers from people who wished to buy some. Mr. Farmer says that next year we'll have to tap more trees so that we can share.

Once we had 10 gallons collected, I lost the use of my dining room side server for several weeks. It was occupied by our 18 quart roaster oven. This particular piece of equipment is extremely versatile. We have used it for everything from keeping beans and kraut warm at picnics to roasting a full sized turkey or ham. My mother bought it for Mr. Farmer years ago, and we take great joy and pride in finding new uses for it. This year we used it to slowly steam the water off the sap. The low and slow method assured us of not burning our precious syrup, and it worked like a charm.

Thanks, Mom!
You are now officially an enabler of my husband's eccentricity!
(Sap in the Cooker)

Each day we added a few gallons of sap to the large cooker. To simplify the straining process later, we ran the sap through a coffee filter. Basically we covered the bottom end of a large, clean, plastic funnel with a coffee filter, held it in place by hand, and poured the sap through the funnel. (Yes, our hands got sticky. We had to wash them before AND after.) When the syrup level went down by an inch, we added another gallon. And another. And another. And another. Overnight we turned the heat down and covered it, since we couldn't watch it while we slept.

The first few days were a little disappointing. The level kept going down, so we knew there was evaporation happening, but the liquid remained clear. Mr. Farmer hovered over that cooker like a newborn baby: checking the temperature, stirring, adding more sap, dipping out a jelly-jar's worth to check the color and viscosity, shining a flashlight to see if there was any burnt sugar or sediment on the bottom of the cooker, and of course tasting. Finally, after nearly a week of care and worry, the syrup started to turn golden brown and sweeter.

After some thought and discussion, we decided to just keep one big batch rather than trying to bottle repeatedly during the process. When the sap stopped running and syrup turned dark brown and deliciously sweet, Mr. Farmer started bottling. There was a bit of sediment at the bottom of the cooker. While I am certain that it was maple sugar and not any kind of contaminant, it doesn't make for pretty syrup, so we strained it. Mr. Farmer rigged a funnel with a clean cloth held tight by a rubber band and set it in the mouth of a clean, half-gallon mason jar. He poured the syrup through the cloth/funnel assembly and I put on the lid and ring.

Our yield was just under 2 gallons this year. Keeping in mind that this pure, homemade maple syrup is far thinner than your traditional store-bought, artificial colored and flavored syrup, I figure we have just enough to get us through the year without ever needing to buy any. It pours so fast that I imagine we will use more of it that you would use of corn-based syrup. Plus, it is a little less sweet, so the kids will likely use more on their pancakes and in their oatmeal than they would normally. How sweet it is!

Our First Finished Maple Syrup
March 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

Life Is Good: First Full Day of Spring

Ah yes, the first full day of Spring. The air is crisp and fresh. The sky is bright. The morning is... wait! What the .... ?!?!?!?!

March 21, 2011
Deer Frolicking in Spring Snow

Snow in March is not completely uncommon here. Several years back on Mr. Farmer's birthday (the 24th) we had 8 inches of snow. It is fleeting, however. In true March Snowstorm fashion, 4 inches of snow fell in less than 4 hours, followed by an hour of sleet and freezing rain. By the evening, as expected, most of the snow was gone. All that is left now is a little wet slush by the roadsides and the memory of one beautiful, if inconvenient, morning.

PS- I took the camera out with me this morning to try to get a pretty shot for the blog. The deer were a complete surprise. I am altogether pleased!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Life Is Good: Blogging in 2011

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

When Mr. Farmer says it, he means it as an insult- in spite of the fact that he is frequently both a doer and a teacher. That's OK, though, because the vows that include "love, honor, and obey" do not state "always agree". After all, there are many things that I cannot do, and others that perhaps I'd like to do, and still more that I can do, but choose not to. About these things, instead of teaching, I write.

The blog has been good for me so far. I have always enjoyed writing, but I always thought my life was a bit dull. I never had a knack for inventing stories, either. I do, however, have a small amount of talent for humor and timing. I understand form and format, and my spelling and grammar are above average. Now that I've found a topic that is interesting to some people, I can exercise my skills.

There have been some unintended positive results of the blog as well. Many years ago, Mr. Farmer and I discussed putting together a family cookbook either for posterity or maybe even for profit. The project just never panned out. I even have an folder in my file drawer that contains just two recipes, both of them mine. This blog has a significant cooking section now, and it is turning out to be an excellent start to a project we have been talking about for over 15 years!

I also like the idea of having a record of the things we have done. Some dates could come in handy for comparison for projects that we do year to year, like the garden. I frequently come back here for my pickled egg recipe (which I do not have memorized yet), and maybe next year we won't have to tear the house apart for the Irish Soda Bread recipe. It might be nice to look back at the things we've done with nostalgia. The children could even look back at this one day in the future and think, "I remember the summer that we did that!"

I do most of my writing on Sunday afternoons. The children are out playing with their friends, and Mr. Farmer is taking a break from housework to tinker with this and that. The house is quiet, and I can think. It gives me a nice break from the housework that I usually take over on the weekends so I don't get too exhausted. Sometimes I'll write 3 or 4 entries in a single day, then set them up to post throughout the week to keep things going.

The most fun part, however, is grilling Mr. Farmer for details and following him around with a camera. I'm his own personal Paparazzo. I take my notes, snap my photos, and run back into the house to compose. So, with all respect for my dear husband:

"Those who can, do. Those who can't/won't... WRITE!" 

I'm a Sunset Paparazzo, too.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gardening: St. Patty's Day 2011

I encountered two of my favorite kinds of green on St. Patrick's Day: I found a $20 bill I didn't know I had, and I saw sprouts in the bulb and herb gardens!

Yesterday was well warmer than it has been in weeks, and I just happened to have the day off work. How could I resist a little time outdoors? The snow had melted away to reveal that the woodpile had taken over the row of hostas that I so lovingly planted last year, so I started by clearing away the wood. I couldn't find a rake to move away the bark, so I busied myself with rebuilding some of the little stone walls that had tumbled down under the weight of the snow. I noticed a sprig of green in the bulb garden, so I moved the fishing poles and rolled away a large, heavy fly-wheel (I think) that had somehow found its way into the bed. I even picked out a large number of acorns that had landed there and were threatening to take root. It was a very rewarding evening's work.

Naturally, I woke up this morning as sore as any overweight, out of shape thirty-something should be after her first day of gardening. So, I took a pill, laid back down for another hour, then rose and bravely faced my day at the office. I can't wait to get back out in the dirt...

My "New" Gardening Gloves
From the St. Patty's Day Gift Basket I won. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Life Is Good: Hospitality

Having Company was a lot different when I was a kid. Friends had to be announced and approved before they could visit. The house had to be perfect (no small feat with 3 young girls and a dog). Someone joining us for dinner was a very big deal, and it didn't happen often.  Even now, you don't just drop in on the family home. Visiting was an event.

It is a lot different in my home. People stop by all the time without notice. The children have friends over almost daily. Sometimes they split their free time between our house and their friends' houses, even changing locations several times in a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Friends and neighbors stop in to donate time or food scraps to the cause of our little farm and sometimes come into the house to use the bathroom or share a cup of coffee. I've come to terms with the fact that my friends and their kids do not think less of me when they see the folded laundry still on the dining table or the dishes still drying next to the sink. They wipe their feet at the door just to see the wood chips that frequently surround the wood stove. It is a welcoming home, though not a perfect one.

The other thing that has changed since I was a child is the issue of visiting at mealtimes. Such a thing was unheard of most of the time when I was young. If a friend's mother started setting the dinner table, you excused yourself and left. If you didn't, you were asked to leave. Saturdays and Summer Days were split into two visits: before lunch and after lunch. In my home, however, I stopped sending children home some time ago. Adults never seemed to leave just because it was mealtime, so I just got into the habit of over-cooking. Leftovers make perfectly good lunches if no one happens to be around to eat the extra portion. Growing children often take care of the excess as well. So, if you happen to be hanging around my house at mealtime, expect to be offered food.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cooking: Irish Soda Bread

*The Tradition*

For several years, Mr. Farmer has been baking bread for the various covered dish dinners that we attend. It started with a Thanksgiving-themed meal, for which he baked white bread. The following Thanksgiving he was asked to bring bread again. When the following dinner was a St. Patty's-themed corned beef and cabbage dinner (with all the fixin's brought by the attendees), he decided to bake something appropriate for the occasion: Irish Soda Bread. It has always been a hit and a source of controversy. The weekend nearest to St. Patrick's Day always falls during Lent, so the annual argument over whether or not Soda Bread is "sweets" is inevitable. I'm not Catholic, but if I was, I would argue that this quick bread is more of a biscuit than a cake, and therefore is no stumbling block to those who are foregoing sweets for Lent.

**Part One: The Buttermilk Hunt**

The search for a store that carries buttermilk is becoming part of the tradition. The recipe calls for it, but it just isn't something that is common in this area. Fortunately, we found out 2 years ago that one local chain (whose headquarters is in Amish Country) carries their own house brand of buttermilk. Up until a month ago, there were 3 stores of that chain within convenient driving distance, and only one of them carries the precious stuff. This year I made the foolhardy assumption that the largest store in the area would have the best selection. But, alas, while they carried no less than a half-dozen varieties of soy milk (including chocolate!) and lactose-reduced milk, there was no buttermilk to be found. So I made a special trip to that one and only store to get it, and I was not disappointed (except about the fact that I had to go out of my way for it).

***Part Two: The Baking***

Baking anything for a covered dish is an experience. The entire kitchen must be perfectly clean before we can begin. After all, it takes a lot of space (which we do not have) to work on a project that is going to require nearly every dish and utensil in the house and also cover every surface with flour. The previous statement may be an exaggeration, but boy does it feel that way! Most family members must assist in some way. Whether it is by cleaning up dishes, wiping counters, or mopping the floor ahead of time, fetching or combining ingredients during the process, or laying out towels for cooling and wrapping and transporting the finished product, we all have our duties.  In the end, we hold our warm loaves close, like treasured secrets, as we rush to the covered dish dinner... inevitably at the very last minute.

****Part Three: The Recipe****

3 cups      flour
1/4 cups   sugar
1 tbsp       baking powder
1 tsp         baking soda
1/2 tsp      salt
4 tbsp       butter (1/4 cup)
1 cup        raisins (or currants, or both - we use both)
1 1/4 cup   buttermilk
1              egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

In a large bowl, combine first 5 ingredients and mix well.

Add butter and mix until butter disappears into dry ingredients.

Stir in raisins and currants.

In a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Mix into dry ingredients.

Turn dough onto a floured work table and turn into itself several time, then shape into a round loaf. Place loaf on baking pan and cut a cross in the top.

NOTE: Loaf will increase in size by about a 3rd. Keep this in mind when choosing a pan.

Bake 15 minutes at 400 then reduce heat to 350 and cook 15 to 20 minutes more. It is cooked when very brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Irish Soda Bread, as baked by Mr. Farmer on 3/12/2011

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hillbilly Ingenuity: Tapping Maple Trees

I got ahead of myself a bit when I put up my post about collecting maple sap. After all, I was both a little excited about the prospect of real maple syrup and also a little put out about getting my feet wet. So, when Mr. Farmer decided to put another tap in another tree, I followed him around with a camera to document the process.

First, he drilled a hole about 4 feet from the base of the tree. The slightly upward angle is important, and the hole should be slightly smaller in diameter than the tap, and slightly deeper.

Then he bangs the tap in with a hammer:

And it starts running almost immediately!

In this case he used a gallon sized mayonnaise jar from a friend who works at a deli to catch the sap.

After some fiddling, he found he could cut a hole in the side of the jar to hang it on the tap. Then he could just screw the lid back on to keep rainwater out!

So there you have it. This very low tech (but truly ingenious) tree tapping method has been used for centuries. The only thing that has changed is the hardware. The first taps were whittled of wood, and the first buckets were wood as well. We won't be cooking our sap into syrup using an open fire or fireplace, either, but that is a post for another day.....

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thrift: Pig Goodies

Pig feed is a significant expense. Our pigs' diets consist primarily of whole corn and ground corn feed. The feed is specially mixed for us and sold to us for bulk pricing, which gives us superior feed at half the price of the feed store. We are able to save even more on feed by supplementing with food scraps that would normally be waste. I call them treats or goodies.

We keep an empty coffee can on the kitchen counter for all non-meat kitchen scraps. Lettuce and cabbage hearts, coffee grounds, tomato and sweet pepper tops, bread ends, egg shells, and all manner of other goodies are put aside for pig consumption. Sometimes we mix them into the slop. Other times, we just give the treats separate from regular feed.

When we got our first pigs a few years back, our partner was a man who, like Mr. Farmer, longed for farm life in spite of living so close to town. He was a youth director for a large catholic church. That youth group had dinners nearly every weekend, and so nearly every Monday or Tuesday he would clean out the fridge. He brought bags of salad and veggies. He brought stale bread. Sometimes he even brought not-so-fresh fruit. The piggies were happy.

He has since moved on, but it didn't take long to find a new benefactor. Many of our neighbors despise waste, and one in particular knows someone who works at the local grocery store. Bakery goods like doughnuts and loaves of bread are hauled to my home instead of put in the dumpster. Fruits and vegetables that would normally rot in a landfill are instead heartily enjoyed by my happy hoard. We have even been given some vegan meat and cheese substitutes that were not purchased by their expiration dates. Such spoiled pigs!

As a rule of thumb, pigs do not seem to enjoy things that grow under ground. This surprised us, since they enjoy digging so much. Just the same, many potatoes, onions, and carrots (and their peelings) have been left to rot on the ground when offered. Those scraps end up in the mulch pile instead.

If Young Master Farmer were to caption this photo, he would call it,
"Two Black Pigs Nomming."
Om Nom Nom