Sunday, November 25, 2012

Off Topic: The Mouse

By popular demand (and with apologies to Edgar Allen Poe):

"The Mouse"
by Mrs. Farmer

Lazy morning, warm and cozy

Back to bed but not quite dozing
Not a worry, work would not begin for several hours more
Wood fire blazing, blanket calling
Kids at school, ambition stalling
Back to sleep I'll soon be falling
Nothing on TV and damn the chores.

Heard a noise, but not above me
Through the pillow, thinking, "Lovely,
What on Earth is scurrying down below me on the bedroom floor?"
Through the window, sunlight streaming
Wondering if I might be dreaming
Across my head it ran- I'm screaming!
Sat straight up, but still He snores.

Convinced that it was just not real
'Twas not a mouse, a phantom feel
So I rested back upon my pillow undisturbed once more
Heard the noise again and sat up
Saw the mouse this time, and spat up
Wouldn't believe how fast I got up
Grabbed my gear and made for the door.


Well, that's the story of the mouse running across my head as I slept a couple weeks ago. I hope eveyone had a nice Thanksgiving!!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cooking: Apple FrankenPie

Many years ago, when I was starting to get to the age where it was difficult to guess what kind of gifts I might like, my mother asked we what I would like for my birthday. I pointed out, "Pampered Chef makes a beautiful stoneware pie plate. It even comes in my color, Cobalt Blue!" It was indeed beautiful- and expensive. It was certainly something that I wouldn't be able to afford to buy myself at the time. So, naturally, my mother replied, "Yes, but what would you like for your birthday?"

Of course I did receive the coveted pie plate for my birthday (my mother loves me that much!), and I love it. Mr. Farmer has made many chicken pies in it, to the delight of all, and I have even made use of it a few times myself. For the first few years it sat in a place of honor- as much decoration as useful kitchen item. Yesterday I made an apple pie in it.

No, I will not be posting the recipe. I used several different recipes from the Joy of Cooking (1979 Edition) to make this particular FrankenPie. I used one pie crust recipe for the bottom (it came up too dry and a little bit short of the top - thank goodness no one will see that ugliness once it is baked). I used the measurements for sugar, starch, and seasoning for the filling, but more apples than prescribed since it was such a deep dish. Determined not to come up short on the top crust, I used a double recipe of a different variety for the top crust. It was still unbelievably dry, and I had to almost double the recommended water to be able to roll it out. I have quite a bit left over.

In the end, however, the pie came out pretty and delicious, and I guess that is all that matters, right?

Happy Fall, Everyone!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pigs: Skin and Bones

I'm going to have a hard time getting out of bed tomorrow.
We roasted a half-pig in the smokehouse for the Fourth of July, and the other half has been hanging ever since. Things have been busy this past week, and the second half had not been processed. Mr. Farmer just didn't have time, so the job fell to me.  
Men generally handle the skinning around here. They skin deer and pigs and sometimes various fowl, if they don't feel like dealing with feathers. We have a friend who can dress and skin a deer in under a half an hour. He can do it in twenty minutes if it is hung at the right height and his knives are sharp. I guess this is a skill that comes from practice, however. Today I learned that skinning is HARD WORK.
I've never skinned anything before, and skinning, like butchering, can't really be learned from books. Sure, the background helps, but you never really get it until someone puts a knife in your hand and says, "Go to it!" So I did. I put the half-pig on the counter and started trying to peel away the skin. The edges had sealed to the fat as they dried, and it was hard to get the angle right even to get it started. I had to turn it several times and contort my body in ways I didn't know I could just to get the knife in where I needed it. In short, it was a nightmare.
Nearly an hour later, the skin was off and I could get to butchering. I boned the entire thing, including a very tricky shoulder blade. Mr. Farmer said I did nice work, but it sure felt like a lot of exertion for only a few pounds of meat! My neck aches, my back is burning, and I feel like I could go to bed now!
Well, now it is time for a prophylactic dose of Aleve. Mr. Farmer is going to reward me by cooking the remaining fresh ham on the grill tomorrow. I can't wait!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cooking: Everyday Deviled Eggs

Where there are hens, there are eggs. Where there are eggs, there are people who are desperate to find things to do with the excess eggs when they aren't selling well and the family is getting tired of them. What's a gal to do?
Older eggs make better hard-boiled eggs, so when we get overloaded I either sell them cheap or boil them. The children, however, aren't all that excited about hard-cooked eggs as a snack. They can sit in the fridge for days if left unprepared. I have found, however, that it is simple to make them irresistible:
  1. Cut them in half lengthwise
  2. Take out the yolks
  3. Mix the yolks with a few household goodies
  4. Put the yolks back
  5. Sit back and watch the kids devour them!
Deviled eggs are not just for parties! Watch how easy it is to turn them into an everyday snack.
Seriously, this is not hard. Cut 6 hard-boiled eggs in half lengthwise as carefully as you can. Gently remove the yolks and place them in a sandwich bag. Add 2 tablespoons of mayo (click here to learn how to make your own) and a teaspoon of mustard (I like spicy brown). Smoosh up the yolks in the bag. Snip the corner of the bag with scissors, and squeeze the filling back into the divot in the eggs. Sprinkle with paprika.
That's it! So easy! And Yummy!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pigs: Much Ado About Buster

Hi, Ron!!

A friend and fellow farmer had a dilemma. Buster was an old pig- 7 years old if I have my facts straight- and it was time for him to go. The butcher, however, would have no part of him. A pig that old is only good for sausage, and our friend was not in the habit of processing hogs himself, so he offered him to us in lieu of burying him in the back field. We accepted.

Sadly, once the skin is off a pig, the clock is ticking. Yes, the meat is served well by resting a few days, but after that it is a race against spoilage, especially with an animal this big.

All was going well until Mr. Farmer had a car accident. He was not injured, but the car was totaled. Since we only had the one vehicle everything was put on hold, including the making of sausage, until the transportation issue could be handled. So, while Mr. Farmer scouted an alternate vehicle, I spent my day off alternating between calls to the insurance company and packing the already boned meat into freezer bags for longer term storage.
Over and over I rinsed the sink, rinsed the meat, labeled the bags, filled them, stacked them in the freezer, and re-sterilized the countertop. I managed to get half of the meat safely stowed before I ran out of freezer space. (On a side note, if the neighbors thought the sound of piglets protesting being put into the back of a truck was disturbing, imagine if they could have seen what I was up to in my kitchen that day!!)

Once again my enemy, Waste, has been thwarted. YAY ME!


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cooking: Concord Grape Syrup

The kids and I picked a lot of concord grapes this summer. Somehow they got loose in the woods and were growing up through some trees. Most summers you can smell sweet grapes, then wine, then vinegar on the breeze in late August. Most summers we smell them before we remember that they are even there, and by the time you smell them, it is too late.

Concord grapes are fairly acidic and very seedy, and therefore not great for snacking. In the past we have made wine out of them, but Mr. Farmer was not in the mood. Many years ago I made jam and jelly, but there was a recent coupon/sale combo that resulted in this:

There are 16 of These

So, having what appears to be YEARS worth of concord grape jam and jelly in the house, for thirty cents per two pound jar, which is less than what the glass alone would cost me if I made my own, it just didn't make sense to make jam. But I remembered my attempt at jelly when Young Master Farmer was just about two years old. I did something wrong, and the jelly didn't gel. The result, however, was a delicious syrup that we enjoyed on pancakes and waffles and French toast. Syrup made a lot of sense.

Concord grapes are very seedy. Those seeds are stuck really well to the flesh of the grape, and removing them is a chore. The seeds also have a fairly strong flavor, so you have to choose your battles when removing them. Cooking them will impart some of the seed flavor into your juice, but removing them raw is a lot of hard work. I chose to take the easy road this time and cooked the grapes whole (seeds, skins and all).

Of course if you want to cook a bunch of THESE...

You must first pick through a lot of THESE.

After picking through all the stems and leaves, I washed the grapes thoroughly and simmered them for a couple hours. As they cooked, I mashed them in the pot and stirred them so that the seeds broke loose. When they were done, I was finally appreciative of this weird seive that Mr. Farmer has always insisted was important:

This worked SO well!

I had to do almost NOTHING to get down to just seeds!

Look at all that beautiful juice!
I returned the juice to the pot and simmered some more, adding alternate cups of white sugar and corn syrup. I lost track of how many, and I think I burned my lips from all that acid, but it came out to be quite delicious. I poured it, still hot, into jelly jars and canning jars, wiped them up, and stuck them in the fridge. As expected, we ate it all so fast that there was no point in canning it properly.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gardening: Mum Mum's Day!

It is a generally accepted rule of thumb that it is not a good idea to buy women gifts that represent work. Vacuum cleaners, stoves and the like are generally frowned upon. To a woman who enjoys gardening, however, a live, plantable flower is far superior to the gift of the kind that dies slowly in a vase. My children did well in purchasing a beautiful flowering mum (or, since I am traditionally called "Mum Mum," a beautiful flowering mumumumumum) as my Mother's Day gift.

After enjoying my breakfast in bed(with company), I went straight to work on it. Sunshine is scarce here in the woods, so the only available sunny bed outside the herb and vegetable gardens is at the base of the so-called "mother-in-law rock" at the end of my driveway. (Mother-in-Law Rocks are so called because of the propensity of visiting relatives to knick the marker boulders with their bumpers when they cut the corner too close when departing.) The rock, however, had not been painted in years, and was faded, dirty, and covered with mold. Likewise, the small bed was full of small stones, weeds, and roots from a nearby tree. There was a lot to be done.

I started by repainting the rock. I scrubbed the mold off with a brush and bucket, and I knocked off as much of the old, flaking paint as possible. Mr. Farmer located a small can of leftover white paint from some previous project, but other supplies were lacking. So, like with most spur-of-the-moment projects, I improvised. A disposable takeout container from some Chinese food made a suitable paint tray. There were no large paintbrushes available, so I used a rag made from an old towel. In no time, the rock was sparkling white on the flat side that faced the road.

Next I had to see to the bed itself. I dug out what seemed like miles of roots and sifted out the driveway stones that had been splashed into the bed. I repaired the stone wall. I dug a deep hole on one side of the bed, and lined the bottom with straw, as suggested by Mr. Farmer. I set in the beautiful, flowering mum(mum) and backfilled it with aged pig manure. I leveled the dirt, touched up the paint, and the job was done.

Now this is the beautiful sight that greets me when I come home from work in the evening:

I Can't Wait to Choose the Flowers for
the Other Side of the Bed!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Life Is Good: Breakfast in Bed? No, Thanks.


I know my blog appeals to women and mothers in addition to others that are interested in the Rural Arts, so I'm going to step off topic a little today, if you will indulge me. The tradition of serving dear old Mom breakfast in bed on Mother's Day is sweet and quaint. The idea behind it, I suppose, is that Mom probably makes breakfast (or at least coffee) for everyone in the house every day for a large number of years. Therefore, on her special day, she should be treated not only to a breakfast that she did not prepare, nor needs to clean up, but that she should not even need to tidy up her appearance or even so much as get out of bed to enjoy it.

But wait- Shouldn't I enjoy it? Shouldn't I be pleased that I get to eat a hot breakfast on a Sunday morning? Shouldn't I be overjoyed that I get to sleep in a little and still eat breakfast long before noon? After all, if I wanted to make a hot breakfast on a Sunday morning I would first have to clean up the kitchen, wash up and get dressed, deal with whatever drama the kids could create during that time, and then feed everyone else their hot breakfast before I could eat mine. This is the reality of Sunday Morning Hot Breakfast on any of the other 51 of the year. The reality of Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed is a little different.

Mother's Day morning, on more than one occasion, I have been awakened by the well-meaning giggles of little children. It doesn't take long to figure out what they are up to, so I stay in bed. I can't sleep well, since it is somewhat late in the morning already and there is much clinking of glasses and banging of pots and pans, but I stay put. I strain to hear what is going on- desperate to discern something that assures me that there is adult supervision in that kitchen. I doze off a little, wait a little, and doze off for a while longer. Then, when the meal and small, darling, hand-made gifts arrive, everyone wishes me a Happy Mother's Day...


Suddenly I am alone. Father and the children eat their breakfast at the dining table, quietly so as not to disturb me. I have adorable little cards or paper cups with precious little sprouted pea plants in them, a hot breakfast, a steaming cup of tea, and no one to enjoy it with!

Many years ago I explained this to my family. I made them bring their breakfasts along and we all had a picnic in my bed. On Mother's Day, the last thing I want is to be alone. Before my daughter was born, I was so excited for my "day off." I couldn't wait for that day in the hospital where the nurses would take care of the 2nd child, my parents would take care of the first, and I would sit back, enjoy the quiet, and rest. By 10 am that morning I was crazy with loneliness and boredom. I wanted my crazy toddler to chase around! Having a day off on a day when the kids are in school is the same: If Mr. Farmer is out and about, it isn't long before the empty house seems... well... empty.

So children young and old I implore you: DO NOT abandon your mother in her bed alone with a tray of food on Mother's Day. Eat quietly with her. Tell her happy stories about how you made the breakfast or the paper-doily greeting card. Joke and laugh and say kind things to your siblings in front of her so she feels like she brought you up right.

Then do the dishes.

Homemade English Muffin and Tea

UPDATE: The kids did great. I got my breakfast in bed, with company. Little Miss Farmer was her usual clever self, Young Master Farmer did the cooking, and they both (via Mr. Farmer) got me a beautiful flower to plant. I had a blast playing in the dirt and making the bed at the end of the driveway beautiful. What a perfect Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pigs: Get a Life, Lady.

For most of the day I thought I was too depressed to write, but I'm not. However, I'm still unhappy, so this is not going to be pretty. Mom, if you are reading this, you might want to stop now.

***Seriously, Mom, you aren't going to like this. Go play on Facebook or something. I mean it. ***

It was hard for Mr. Farmer to give up the pigs. I know this. But when we got evicted from the Beta Site, there was no choice. We knew we couldn't bring them home; our neighbors have been laying in wait since we sent them away some months ago. We quickly put some down and shoved the rest into a less-than-ideal situation where they await their fate, which has yet to be determined. There was some small comfort in knowing that some of the piglets were being sold off for a very worthwhile cause: the 4-H Club.

That comfort did not last, however. In the process of transferring them to the going away vehicle in our driveway, the understandably distressed piglets kicked up a fuss. It wasn't a half hour later before the phone was ringing off the hook (again), and the nosiest of our neighbors were peering over from a safe distance through the trees.

***Last chance to turn away, Mom.***

Don't try to tell me it isn't personal. Was she really that upset and frightened by the noise? I don't think so. It is far more likely that the stupid cow was so bored on a Sunday afternoon that she had nothing better to do than overplay the inconvenience of 30 seconds of squealing. Perhaps she is such a loser that the only thing she can do to socialize is complain about us. I guess I should feel sorry for her, right? I mean, if you need to make up excuses to call your "friends" on a quiet day, then maybe you really are alone in the world. That is truly tragic, don't you think?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cooking: Super Hero Potato Salad

This is Super Hero Potato Salad because making it made me feel like a little bit of a hero(ine). You see, Waste is Gluttony's ugly twin brother (or at least that cousin that always ends up in the shadows in family photos), earning him a spot among the 7 Deadly Sins as far as I'm concerned. When I made this Potato and Egg Salad, I saved red potatoes that were starting to sprout, celery that I accidentally put on the top shelf of the refrigerator that partially froze, and the hard boiled eggs that didn't peel pretty enough to be pickled. Rescuing those perishables makes me their savior, right? Ok, so if you have little kids, feel free to tell them you are making "Super Hero Potato Salad" just to get them to try something new. I won't tell.

Family/Party Size (I always cook this way. Sorry.)

3 lbs red potatoes, cubed small & boiled (peel if you like- I'd rather not)
4-6 stalks celery, chopped
6-8 hard boiled eggs, chopped
fresh chives, snipped
1 cup mayonnaise (Wanna make your own? Here's how!)
1 tbs prepared mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp granulated garlic
1/4 tsp cayenne or hot paprika (skip this if you used spicy brown mustard)

Quick Method

Cube the potatoes small and boil in salted water until just soft and not too starchy.
Drain, then plunge into cold water. Drain again.
Toss together potatoes, celery, eggs, and chives.
Chill thoroughly.
Gently fold in mayo, mustard & seasonings.
Chill again or serve. Don't leave out more than an hour, unless you can sit the bowl in a bigger bowl full of ice. Mayo can be a breeding ground for bacteria that causes a large amount of food-borne illness.

The first to show up to the party, and the last to leave!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pigs: Closing the Beta Site

As much as this culture loves its hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets, I am continually surprised at how hard it is to raise a few animals for your own consumption. We're a big, fat, bacon-loving country, but when and where you can raise pigs is regulated almost to impossibility for the common man. It's fine to get over-processed, low-quality eggs on a muffin for breakfast every single day, but it is an imposition on one's neighbors to raise chickens and enjoy fresh, delicious breakfast protein from your own back yard. Even if you are operating completely within the rules, one overly sensitive neighbor can make your life miserable with threats and unpleasantries, no matter how unfounded.

That's exactly what happened at the Beta Site; one small-minded neighbor overreacted and ruined the whole arrangement. Our host loved having the pigs in his back yard. He could show them off to family and friends, he had a constant supply of high quality pork, and he didn't have to do any of the work. All that changed the day his dog- a big, overfed, lazybones of a Rottweiler- wandered into the neighbor's yard and startled an adult caregiver. The homeowner threatened our host with making complaints to the authorities about the dog and about the pigs, and now the pigs must go.

That's right, we are moving the pigs... AGAIN.

The bad news (for you, good news for us) is that we have gotten very good at relocating the pigs. That means there is no funny story like the first time (story here). There is only the news that once again we are being persecuted for our lifestyle. Slaughtering and fence-building are being completed in a rushed manner, not the measured, thought-out way we prefer. The Gamma Site is being set up in a hurry, and the adult pigs are being put down rapidly. Speaking of which, I really must be going. I have to rearrange the freezer... again...


Saturday, April 21, 2012

In Memoriam

I actually knew my brother-in-law before I ever met Mr. Farmer. For most of my young life he was head cook at a ten-table, Mom & Pop pizzeria a few miles from where I grew up. Every time we would go there to eat, we would see him come out of the kitchen for a break. As soon as he was out of earshot my mother would say, "He broke his back, you know. He fell off a roof. That's why he comes out and leans- to stretch his back." She told that story on every visit, without fail, as if it was news we had never heard.

Back in January, Mr. Farmer's brother went into the hospital for a very serious illness. The usual tests ensued and all seemed to point to liver trouble. It was nearly a month before the cancer was confirmed, the treatment planned, and the paperwork handled. In late March, however, after a few hospital stays, his health took a quick and irreversible turn for the worse. My enabling brother-in-law passed away quietly, in his sleep, with his teddy bear, his closest brother, and his youngest son at his side.


This year I will have to plan my garden based on past years' experiences, not what was on sale when Mr. Farmer's brother took his lunch break at the flea market. Mr. Farmer and I will have to decide what plants we want and when to plant them on our own. Of course we are capable of doing that, but seeing what was going to arrive unexpectedly at our door was part of the fun of spring. This year, there will be no such surprises.


Our garden rarely produces enough to be preserved. Most of our home-grown preservation is of meat and eggs. My skills in canning and freezing are largely due to gifts of produce past its prime, rescued from destruction by The Enabler. This year there will be no boxes of bell peppers: half good, half rotted. There will be no flats of strawberries or cucumbers. There will be no two-dollar heads of cabbage the size of basketballs with just one or two bad leaves.


My brother-in-law loved his backpack leaf blower from work. He used to come up on fall weekends just to clear my driveway, my neighbor's driveway, and even the whole street! He napped on the floor in front of the woodstove, and when he got chilly, he would wake up and add wood to the fire. And perhaps most importantly, he kept Mr. Farmer company while he did outside chores on cold evenings when I would rather stay inside where it's cozy. The leaves that are just now budding on the trees will eventually fall, and we will have to remove them ourselves. It will be a chore rather than a source of joy.


Mr. Farmer's older brother lived with us for 3 years. He helped us remodel the bathroom. He kept an eye on the children when we wanted to get away for the evening. He bought fencing for the pigs when we were short on cash. We cremated his dog here. He moved out a while ago but his visits were still frequent. I will miss those visits. I will miss his little surprises. I already miss him.

My Brother-In-Law (1959-2012)
Doing the Plumbing on my Bathtub
(in 2006)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cooking: Hard Candy Improvements

Ok, broken glass candy (recipe here) is fun, pretty easy to make, and inspires happy memories for lots of people. Still, I find it difficult to eat and messy to transport. So, over the past few months I have been trying to come up with a better shape for the candy that doesn't require me to hand roll the candy into balls. I tried some silicone molds, but the pieces were just too big. I tried to pour the candy in straight rows, which is tricky to do, then score it with a knife and break apart after it has cooled, but that still resulted in a sharp edge.

Then one day, inspired by a cooking show that showed commercial candies being made in molds made of pressed cornstarch, I decided to try that method- replacing the corn starch with confectioner's sugar. The process is very simple: I dumped a few cups of powdered sugar onto a hoagie serving tray that I kept just in case it might come in handy one day. Then I pressed circles into the sugar with the back end of my pestle (you know, that thing you use to grind spices with by hand), which was far easier to use than my thumb. I made them at varying distances apart from one another, and I found that the closer they are together, the better. Then I just drizzled the candy into the individual cavities. Once they cooled, I shoveled them into a flour sifter to remove the excess sugar, and put the sugar away for the next run.

There are a few drawbacks. For example, my wrist was a little tired after all that pouring. And not every drop came out perfect, but it is still far better than a whole load of sharp-edged candy. My regular recipe of candy make enough drops to fill two huge catering platters- probably 4 or 5 standard cookie sheets. But the feel of the candy in your mouth is amazing- smooth on one side, and slightly rough on the side that touched the sugar. It still has that homemade look without all the discomfort. I think this is a great improvement!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Life is Good: Sunshine?

No one can argue it anymore... Punxsutawney Phil was WRONG.

Like all good fortune-tellers, Phil's predictions are just vague enough to be accurate regardless of the outcome. If he sees his shadow, as he usually does, there is to be "6 more weeks of winter." Since Spring doesn't officially begin until late March, there are ALWAYS at least 6 more weeks of "winter," regardless of the weather. If Phil does NOT see his shadow, then "Spring is right around the corner." In a 52 week year, certainly anything between 2 and 8 weeks could be considered "right around the corner," couldn't it? He can't be wrong!

Most people, however, take Phil's prognostications to be an indication of a greater prevailing weather pattern for the next 6-8 weeks. If you take that view, and if you live in his home state of Pennsylvania like I do, then he was wrong. Dead wrong. The sun is shining. The trees are budding. My spring allergies are a full 2 months early. The garlic is sprouting. The songbirds are raucous in their singing and the hawks are screaming overhead. Canada geese are stopping by a bit early on their way back North.

All this sunshine means that we are walking a bit slower between cars and houses. I've been noticing the toll that the warm winter's cycle of freeze and thaw has taken on my stone walls. I'm starting to daydream about how I want to set up the yard for the summer. Where will the fire pit go? When will I find the time and energy to start picking up the many rocks that the pigs dug up? Is that grass seed that Mr. Farmer brought home the other day? I had better hurry. Wow. It is barely March and I am already starting to hurry. There is still sausage to pack up and freeze. There are still pigs to slaughter and preserve. There is much inside work that isn't finished yet, but still...

Outside is calling...

Our only REAL snow this season... October 2011

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pigs: The Man Returns

Our goals in our little family farm have never been to upset anyone. We raise animals for the sake of a better product- an exceptional (yet affordable) food source. We do it as an assertion of our independence and proof of our ability to survive. And yes, we do it because we can- for bragging rights. Of course we always knew that there would be some upturned noses by the people who prefer not to know from where their food comes, but the kind of persecution we have faced lately goes far beyond the consternation of the squeamish few. This is personal.

Sunday evening, while walking the dog we were babysitting, I saw that one of the slaughter pigs was grievously injured. She had somehow gotten her hip hung up on a protrusion in a fencepost and tore a foot-long, two inch deep gash in her ham. The slice went through skin, fat, and meat. It was too deep to use the liquid bandage and too wide to sew. So, to cut our losses to a spoiled ham versus a completely spoiled pig, I delayed our dinner guests, and we prepared to put her down immediately.

It screamed. The process is usually quick and quiet. A single, small caliber round to the head, followed by a cut in the throat, a couple squirts of blood, a few kicks, and it is over in a minute or two. This pig, however, screamed. It screamed loud and long, during dinner hour, on a mild-temperatured evening, on a holiday weekend. Someone called the police.

When my parents and several of Pennsylvania's Finest arrived, I showed my guests inside to relax before dinner while Mr. Farmer apologized for the noise and explained what had happened. Once they saw the animal and heard the explanation, they seemed satisfied and went on their way. We had a lovely dinner and my mother seemed pleased with her birthday tulips. The adrenaline wore off sometime well after midnight, and I was finally able to sleep.

Sadly, it was not over. Two days later, more law enforcement arrived. This time they were investigating a complaint of animal cruelty. Mr. Farmer confidently showed the officers to the well-maintained pen with large water barrels being filled constantly with fresh running water. They could easily see that the pigs had ample space, food, water, and shelter. Then, out of nowhere, one of the six-week-old piglets wandered out into the open with a severe gash in its belly and entrails hanging out. We fear that the sudden disruption from the arrival of the unexpected visitors while the pigs were eating may have caused it to get trampled. That surely did not help our case any.

Later that night, the police arrived again. This time they were questioning us about a hysterical neighbor. Cars had been racing around our usually-quiet neighborhood. Someone leaned on a car horn at 9:30 at night. The neighbor was repeatedly screaming, "why are you on my property?" to no one in particular. The whole thing was very strange, and we assured the officer that we didn't know anything about it, except that we had been outside because we were helping a friend move into a new house up the street. We were being targeted because of the previous days' events.

So, the pigs are on the move again. Some are off to the Beta site where they spent last summer. Others are are on their way to what we'll call the Gamma site, another suburban farm where a few of our other pigs currently reside as a result of a previous sale. We're downsizing. There are still four to slaughter and the three breeders whose fate is still unknown. These are dark times for us; I am thankful that we have friends and supporters who stepped up to help us with this catastrophe.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pigs: Wilma's Second Litter

We were pretty close on our estimation of Wilma's due date. We had been on piglet watch all week. All the signs were there. She was very hungry and thirsty. Her milk sacks were full, and her belly nearly touched the ground when she walked. The day before she delivered, she bit two other pigs that were contesting her supreme rulership of the water barrell. We had predicted that Wilma would deliver the second week of January; she gave us 10 piglets on January 8, 2012.

Piglet Cuddling with Wilma

Wilma is proving to be a fine, solid breeder. Her first litter came in the night while we were home relaxing. Mr. Farmer and Young Master Farmer went to feed and water her and there they were! This second litter came with just as little excitement. She just settled into a corner of the hut and started popping them out, one after another. I watched many of them being born, including a breach that was out and on the ground before I could say, "Oh, no! That's a foot!" The entire process was drama-free and incident free.

The only difficulties came from the remaining pigs from the first litters. They were only mildly curious while Wilma did her thing, and they did not bother her. Still, Mr. Farmer was concerned; so as I watched the little piggies come out one by one in the freezing cold, Mr. Farmer closed off the larger pigs into a separate part of the enclosure. By nightfall, however, they became restless and unhappy. Pigs are social animals and do not like to be separated from one another. So, to keep the peace, he allowed them to be together for the night. He closed in the third side of the hut and put up fence rails on the fourth. He fed and watered Wilma inside her cage, and it seemed to be working well to keep the others out without making them feel separated.

The following morning, one of the rails was down and one of the piglets had a cut on its head from being knocked by it. Wilma had forced her way out (or a younger pig forced its way in). Mr. Farmer repaired the rails and added a door to let Wilma in and out. The younger pigs found there way in anyway (over the rails this time), and sometime over the following night, two piglets were lost. Crushing deaths are not unusual with pigs, but we were pretty upset since we didn't lose any at all from the first two litters in the summer.

Several days later, we had another casualty. One of the piglets had a significant injury. A flap of skin covering a quarter of its belly was hanging loose. We brought it inside to see if we could stitch it up, but the wound was too far healed to sew and appeared to be infected. It could not be saved, so we put it down so that it would not die of starvation or further maiming. That leaves 7 piglets.

The babies are starting to wean now, and all but one of the males have been castrated. They are putting on weight quickly, as they should. And, of course, they are cute...

Piglets Pestering Mamas

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hillbilly Ingenuity: The Roto-Flogger

Inspired by mechanical chicken-plucking machines, Mr. Farmer was determined to invent a device for easily removing the bristles and outer skin from pigs. The design was similar to the standing poultry-plucker, which has a revolving drum embedded with rubber fingers that beat and pull the feathers from a chicken. However, you can't just pick up a two to three hundred pound hog and lean it up against a rotating drum; that would be a bit much to ask of even Young Master Farmer, who is brutishly strong. Out of necessity, a mechanical pig stripper would have to be portable.

The scaled-down, portable design began with a 4 inch, PVC pipe end cap. Mr. Farmer drilled 4 equally spaced holes in the sides of the cap and inserted 4 rubber bungee cords as a replacement for the rubber fingers. The reinforced ends (with the hooks removed, of course) held the cords in place.

He drilled another hole in the center of the cap, inserted a long, threaded rod, and capped it off with a nut on each side. He attached the device to a hammer drill, and was ready to rock and roll!

We call this the ROTO-FLOGGER because of the long, whip-like rubber ends.
Other names we kicked around included the Hair-Whip and the Squealer-Peeler.

As usual, the hog was dispatched, and a 55 gallon drum of water was brought to a boil. Since Mr. Farmer and the Boy were handling this one alone, the old setup with the large, flat rock and metal A-frame were employed for the processing. The pig was dipped for the prescribed amount of time, and the Roto-Flogger made its maiden voyage:

(WARNING: I took this video of the second attempt, the side and back end of the pig, so it is less disturbing than the head view. BUT it is still a video of hair and skin being torn off a hog's hip with a homemade, miniature weed-whacker. Discretion advised. )

Ok, so maybe seeing the dark bristle and skin turning pretty pink looks impressive, but after the first minute, and the second, that small patch of pink was still the only progress that was being made. In fact, this was faster:

(If you were ok with the first video, you will be fine with this one, too.)

Actually, even THIS was faster and more productive than the Roto-Flogger:

(PG at best)

So, in the end, a couple clean patches on the side of the face and a couple cool-looking test patches on the hams were all that the machine produced. The rest of the processing was done the old fashioned way: Dipping in hot water, scraping with a knife, soaking towels in hot water, and picking off hair by hand. Even Mr. Farmer's attempt to improve the process by cutting notches in the rubber bands to grab the hair a bit did not help much.

We are not giving up, however. We are working on the design a bit. We may add more flails. Perhaps we will change the length or shape of the whips. Perhaps a leather whip would be more effective. We'll be doing a bit of research and testing, and I will report back.

Back to the drawing board...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pigs: More Fun with Castrations


Mr. Farmer: Aww... you ruined your yoga pants!
Mrs. Farmer: Nah... it's just a little blood. It will wash out.

That's right, it's castration time again. Wilma's second litter was 18 days old today. Since I was off work and Young Master Farmer had a short day because of mid-terms at school, we finally got down to the business that various emergencies had caused us to put off. We castrated 3 of the 4 males, leaving the last for possible breeding stock for another location.

Averaging 12.5 pounds each, the piglets were, once again, very strong for their size. I held the first, a white, spotty, splotchy little guy, while Young Master Farmer assisted and Mr. Farmer performed the operation. But the process was a little slow, and I soon tired. My right arm, holding the critical back feet, started to ache, then go weak. I could feel the blood draining out of my face as I held on as best I could, and dizziness soon set in. In the end, I had to ask Young Master Farmer to take the back feet while Mr. Farmer finished up, cleaned the wound, and applied the liquid bandage. It was exhausting!

The second and third castrations went better. Young Master Farmer took my position in the chair and held the squirmy piglets by the legs, while I assisted with the head and repositioned him as needed. The operations went fairly smoothly, and Young Master Farmer managed to avoid getting bitten by the sows when snatching the piglets from the pen.

Once again, when all was finished, we were tired and dirty- except for Mr. Farmer, of course, who was as clean as any vet would be after performing surgery. When I went for my shower afterward, I started by pre-washing the blood spots on my pants. I then found that I had a matching blood spot on my leg (yuck!) and dirt on me in places I couldn't believe those muddy little pig feet could have reached! I believe Young Master Farmer still has a muddy smudge on his face that I can't explain either. But the job is done, and we can move on to the next project.

It's a Dirty Job, but Someone's Gotta Do it!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thrift: The Homemade Shampoo Experiment

Several months back, my dear friend Jenn posted a hilarious blog entry about getting sucked into purchasing an overpriced haircare product. At the time I seemed to be getting hit from all sides with haircare: she was bewailing how hers failed, and a number of other blogs I read were going on and on about homemade shampoo and conditioner. I'm a creature of Habit, but I am also a creature of Thrift. So when multiple blogs featuring women with many different hair types exclaimed that shampoo and conditioner could be replaced with water, vinegar, and baking soda, I just HAD to try it.

The recipe was simple:

Rinse out the last shampoo bottle you will ever buy. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar. Fill the rest of the way with warm water. Shake. Rinse out the last conditioner bottle you will ever buy. Add 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Fill the rest of the way with warm water. Shake. Use as you would normally, skipping the lather step, of course.  That's Strike One for most people: You have to do a little work. It took about 2 minutes, so it wasn't really a negative for me.

The premise sounded too good to be true:

For pennies a month, your hair will be as clean and manageable as it was when you used commercial shampoo. There will be no chemicals on your hair or going into the ground. You will make less waste because you won't be throwing out bottles.

How it worked:

My hair was clean! I have fine, oily, poker straight, dark blonde/light brown hair. After using the homemade combo, my hair was as fluffy and oil-free as it is after using shampoo. I did not experience the static-cling fly aways that conditioner usually handles for me either. In short, it was pretty good! It did not leaving me smelling like vinegar at all. I did not tell Mr. Farmer that I was doing it, and he never knew until I told him.

Why I'm not still doing it:

I remember a very long lecture in high school about the American fascination with scented products. Some report or other determined that more than half of Americans choose their shampoo by scent alone. Another quarter or so choose them by other subjective factors, like how their hair feels while using it and after using it, the brand name sounding luxurious, and the like. In my case, however, it was largely a comfort issue.

It didn't take long for me to get used to squirting a runny liquid over my head instead of lathering. The results were good, and bubbles just end up in your eyes anyway. My problem was with Day Two, Three, Four, etc. You see, on the first day, when you make your products, you mix them with warm water, and go take a shower. After your shower, you stow them in the corner of your bathtub, or in my case, the floor behind the toilet (remember, I was trying to see if Mr. Farmer noticed a smell, so I didn't want to let on that I was doing it). Both the tub and the bathroom floor get cool when not in use. So, on the second day, I get into my hot, steamy shower, get wet and warm, then squirt a generous amount of freezing cold, vinegar-infused water over my head. EEK! Then I rinsed that out quickly, warmed up again, and had to repeat the process with freezing cold, baking soda-infused water.  The shock was terrible, and it made the chore of showering almost unbearable.

And did I mention:

...that for the past 17+ years, ever since Mr. Farmer introduced it to me, I have been using a shampoo and conditioner that top out at $1.29 a bottle? In fact, this stuff routinely goes on sale in my area for as low as $0.69 a bottle! I think it is OK to splurge on this less than two dollar a week luxury for the sake of not squirting ice-cold liquid over my head twice a day.

I can afford this small luxury.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But for me, it just isn't worth it. Of course, if I run out of shampoo, I am never out of luck!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hillbilly Ingenuity: Replacement Parts

Well, it's that time of year again. Many of our friends have "bagged their limit" of deer, and those deer need processing. Since we're the only game in town when it comes to a large smokehouse, we became very popular just before Christmas. Friends and their families came by, some with bag after bag of chopped up venison, ready for grinding, stuffing, and smoking. We have made many MANY pounds of ring bologna and kielbasa (click meat-treat of your choice for a recipe).

The downside of doing all this work is that we are very hard on equipment. The average household grinder, for example, is not designed to handle a hundred pounds of meat each year. So, we should not have been surprised to find that the bearings in the grinder had worn down so small that they were falling out. When the other grinder that we had on hand for parts was disassembled and its bearing retrieved, we found this:

That is NOT going to work. Nope.

So, Mr. Farmer did what anyone would do: He went to the Auto Parts Store. He was sure that they would be able to sell him the right size bearings to get him up and running again. He was mistaken. So, undaunted, he went to the bike shop, just to find the shopkeeper locking the front door. She was sympathetic to his plight, however, and re-opened the store. She found the right bearings and rung him up. The total was just over a dollar. Mr. Farmer had no cash on him, and she had already settled out the charge machine. The Christmas spirit was in her, however, and she agreed to trust him to come back and pay her another day.

He did go back and pay her a few days later (much to her surprise) and the day was saved. Another hundred pounds of meat became another pile of treats. Now if only there were spare parts available for vacuum-sealers... (or coffee grinders... or many of the other items we have purchased and flagrantly ignored the warning, "For Household Use Only," printed on the box!)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pigs: The Coughing Pig

I was really excited about going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show. I have watched it on television a number of times and really enjoyed it. Mr. Farmer looked at it as part research for a possible entry next year and part family vacation. I didn't even mind that the distance meant that I would have to get out of bed at 3 am to leave at 4 am so that we wouldn't miss the early morning pig exhibits that Mr. Farmer wanted to see. I even begged someone at work to cover my shift that day so that I could go. One of the pigs had other ideas.

A certain black and white pig started coughing about a week prior to the Farm Show. With Wilma expecting, Mr. Farmer wasted no time in finding the culprit. One morning, all the pigs came running out to be fed as always- except one. The last one wandered out, glassy-eyed and visibly thinner than the rest. So he did what any pig-farmer would do: He injected the sick pig with strong antibiotics, and he added a prophylactic dose to the drinking water for the others.

It was too late, however. The sick pig needed a second dose injected, and Mr. Farmer couldn't bring himself to potentially infect the prize pigs at the Farm Show if he himself carried the illness. So, instead of getting up at 3 am, slogging through a cup of tea and fighting to stay awake on a 4 hour drive to Harrisburg, I slept in until past 8 am and... well, that's the story I sat down to write for you just now.

Mr. Farmer's syringe looks like something out of a cartoon. It is an old-fashioned, reusable glass monster with metal rings on it so that you can keep a good grip. He told everyone how he bent a needle doing the first injection, so I figured that maybe those rings were a good idea. The large size allowed him to overfill it a bit, which also turned out to be a good idea...

You see, the first dose was a big help, and while the coughing continued, the pig was feeling better. He was so much better, in fact, that Mr. Farmer knew he was going to need assistance holding him still for the injection. So Young Master Farmer and I put on warm clothes, gloves for better grip, and gear that could get muddy, and went along to assist. Mr. Farmer dumped some food on the ground, we identified the sick pig, and Young Master Farmer grabbed him by the leg. The other pigs were too busy eating to pay any mind, and the sick pig wasn't well enough to squeal or scream. After some shuffling for position, I was able to grab the other leg and hold on. Once I had a good grab I dug my back foot in to keep the kicking from pushing me backwards, and I told Mr. Farmer that we were ready.

The rest of the process was a blur- literally. My hat slipped down over my one eye, but with both hands on the pig's ankle and Mr. Farmer already wiping off the ham with rubbing alcohol, adjusting it just wasn't an option. I held on as best I could, dug in, and waited for the all-clear signal. Out of one eye, under the bottom edge of my hat, I could see the medicine come back out of the needle-stick, then a little blood, then the bent needle going for a second stick, then more liquid running down the hind end of the pig. After what felt like five minutes, Mr. Farmer stepped back and young Master Farmer and I could let go. The sick pig went back to eating as if nothing had happened, in spite of the trickle of blood and extra antibiotic running down its leg.

As with any interaction that involves holding pigs still, there were the usual repercussions. The aching back kicked in just after we came home from the evening out, and I took a few pills before I went to bed. My clothes stayed pretty clean, but my rubber clogs have seen better days. They served me well, though, and I am pleased to announce that all pigs have a clean bill of health once again.

This Kind of Thing is Bound to Happen

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cooking: Homemade Hard Candy

If you follow my Twitter or Facebook, you already know that I burned myself making candy this year. I was testing for "crack," that magical (ok, it's science, not magic) change from gooey melted sugar to hard, suckable candy. I dipped a spoon in the goo, waited a couple seconds, then touched it with my finger (better test method described below). IT. WAS. HOT. I blew on it. The goo stuck to my finger and continued to burn me. I knew I had to get it off. So I did what any panicked, burning, too-proud-to-yell-for-help woman would do: I put my finger in my mouth. In my haste, I smeared some of the burning sugar on my upper lip. I quickly put my burning finger under the cold running water in the sink. I burn myself all the time. I'm a pro at this. The relief flooded over me. That was when I realized that my lip was burned. I guess the endorphins kept me from feeling it right away. As soon as I was able, I looked in the mirror to see what looked like a herpes blister on my upper lip. Four days before Christmas. Great.

This is my second year of making hard candy, and I think I have it down now. My first two batches burned this year, much to the dismay of Little Miss Farmer and the delight of the local wildlife who enjoyed licking the burnt sugar off a rock in my yard. Then I located the recipe I used last year and had much better success. Here's what worked for me:


2 cups white sugar
1 cup water
3/4 cup light corn syrup
flavorings (optional)*
food coloring (optional)
confectioners' sugar

*Flavorings that have worked for me:
  • Mild Ginger Flavor - 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • Sweet Cinnamon - 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Peppermint - 1 tsp peppermint extract
  • Fruity - one (0.15 oz) packet of unsweetened drink mix, any flavor (adds color, too!) 


In a heavy 2 quart saucepan, combine the sugar, water and corn syrup. Cook, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved; then cook without stirring, lowering the heat and cooking more slowly during the last few minutes (seriously, do not rush it; sugar burns easily!), to the hard crack stage (EVERY recipe I have seen calls for 300-310 degrees F, but at my altitude, it is about 250 degrees F). An easy (and safe!) way to check for crack is to dip the tip of a dinner knife into the the candy, then plunge into ice water for a few seconds. If it is ice cold and rock hard like a lollipop, but not sticky, you're there.

Remove from heat, add flavoring and enough food coloring to color; stir only to mix. Pour into a cookie sheet or shallow baking dish that has been generously dusted with powdered sugar. Allow to cool slightly, score with a butter knife, and allow to cool completely. (Many people skip this step, but I find little squares more attractive than the "shards of glass" look accomplished by the traditional method of allowing it to cool then hitting it with a hammer.)

I'm not sure if dusting the top helps or not, but I did it...
Break the bits apart after it is completely cooled. Who am I kidding? Some of it is going to look like broken glass no matter how you do it. Toss in a small amount of powdered sugar to keep it from sticking together.

Now the hard part... try to keep the kids out of it!