Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oyster Mushrooms

Our newest crop is mushrooms! This afternoon we planted three kinds of oyster mushroom spawn in 18 rolls of toilet paper. It sounds like a kind of wacky idea until you realize mushrooms grow on dead trees and toilet paper is made from wood.

The mushroom project was an ingenious gift from our friend Pat, who thought it would be the perfect crop for a future pizza farm. The oyster mushroom spawn came in bags of grain, colonized by mycelium, that we have kept refrigerated since Christmas.
We used plain, simple toilet paper, no perfumes or dyes. Sara immersed each roll in boiling water until saturated, then set it onto a cooling rack. Once cooled, each roll was placed into a "spawn bag" - a plastic bag that has a small square filter patch to allow air exchange.
We filled the center of each toilet paper roll with the grain spawn, labeled each bag with the type of oyster mushroom (Italian Brown, Golden and Gray Dove) and closed up the top of the bag with a rubber band.
We put the planted bags in a cool dark room inthe basement. In three weeks we should see mycelium growth. Between the 4th and 6th week we will move the bags to the refrigerator for at least 48 hours. When we take them out, open them up to fresh air and leave them in a well-lit room, they will fruit in 7-14 days. Stay tuned for our mushroom crop update in 5or 6 weeks!

Our mushroom spawn came from Field and Forest Products, a small company in Wisconsin that sells many types of mushroom spawn and kits. Pat also sent us shitake mushroom plugs, which we will insert into logs a bit closer to spring.

Plop Goes the Weasel

Our little feral cat, Weasel, continues to settle in and make herself at home with us. She has become good buddies with Orange, the fuzzy cat that adopted us last us spring (formerly called S'cat, but his name has evolved.) This is their favorite chair, where they often nap in a yin/yang position.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bitterly Sunny

After a week of spring-like melting and grayness, we are back to sunshine and COLD. I am sure it seems colder than it really is after that teaser January thaw, but the radio did say we had -35F windchill this morning.
Hauling water continues to be our most demanding chore. Our faucet bib is frozen up, the heated hose doesn't work worth a darn, and now the geese's water heater is kaput. We are providing bins of tepid water a few times a day to the geese -it freezes into a huge ice cube in couple hours. Of all the animals, I suspect the geese and ducks most fervently anticipate spring when they can play in water once again.
The cows drink about 30 gallons of water every day. We fill the 5-gallon buckets in the kitchen and pull them out to the shed on a little plastic sled, two at a time. The water is poured into a round plastic pool with an immersion heater to keep it from icing up. A couple times a week, I find the pool frozen solid and the heater on the ground--Reuben must sometimes catch the cord with his horns and flip it out.

On these very cold days the cows consume nearly 50% more than in more temperate weather. On a nice day they may eat one bale of hay and on a very cold day a bale and a half. Both calves still nurse occasionally - even though the Jersey steer, Reuben, is now taller than the cow Lariat, a Dexter (Dexters are a very small Irish breed.) In this photo, Lariat is looking at the camera, her calf Lasso is the small one in the center and Reuben is the tall, gangly teenager calf behind. Reuben and Lasso were born on the same day!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Some of our animals have been causing trouble lately. Reuben, the Jersey steer, has decided he likes climbing up onto the compost pile (the bin is open on one side and the contents frozen) so he gets a high vantage point. I was worried he might be able to jump over and out of the pasture, so I barricaded it with some old wooden trellises-- which he transformed into kindling. Then, he began reaching over from his compost platform and pulling apart the roof of the loafing shed! Time for some serious barricades.
The other day I noticed Cocoa carefully carying a small tan ball and I called her over to play fetch with her--however, it turned out not to be a ball but an egg! That's how I discovered she has been serving up her own breakfast - fresh eggs from the chicken coop. Now we are making sure to close the coop door so she can't get in, hoping she forgets about this delicacy by spring.
Our foundling rooster, Knickerbocker, has seriously frostbitten his comb. He lives inside the coop with the other chickens but he is the only rooster suffering from significant frostbite, maybe because he is the only rooster who sported such an outrageously large, fancy comb. It has turned black and I am told that part will fall off and he will look more like a rose-combed rooster. He still acts like a dandy, though.
Ptarmigan, the Brahma rooster, is not really causing trouble, other than being his naturally bossy self. I just included his photo because he looks so cute in the snow. His feathered feet are like big snowshoes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Feather Frost

Nature has been playing variations on the theme "Frost" this week - today everything was covered with delicate white fluff that Cadence described as being like feathers.
The frost was also very fragile. I discovered I could blow gently from four feet away and it would flutter like snow to the ground.
Photographs cannot really capture how magical it is to walk through this landscape, but I'll post them anyway.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Another Frosty, Foggy Morn

Once again this morning, everything is frosted. Today the frost is more fuzzy, not spiky and crystalline as it was yesterday.
Trees along the road on the next knoll to the east.
Yesterday afternoon the cows plowed their way through the deep snow all the way to the far east end of the pasture. They haven't been in this part of the pasture since October, so they must have been in an adventurous mood.
They hung out for a bit on top of the hill where the snowcover is thin, then complained before plowing their way back to the loafing shed - they really do not like wading through such deep snow.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Crystalline hoarfrost coated everything this morning. Cocoa and I tromped through the snow to take a few photos.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Big Thaw

We are in the midst of a January thaw -- very welcome after the long stretch of frigid cold we have just endured. With the melting snow, I smell delicious spring in the air, although I know it is still a few months away. Best of all, the daylight hours are getting noticeably longer - wahoo!

The snow is melting and sliding down the barn roof. If we are lucky, we will be able to catch the dramatic moment when it avalanches over the edge. I hope no critters are standing beneath when it goes.
There is a moon crater texture below the Norway pines, where snow on the branches has melted and dripped into a dappled pattern.

This morning I trudged through the pasture to check on my beehive. I was pleased to discover a few dozen dead bees scattered atop the snow. Bees take advantage of warm spells in the winter to clean out their hives and carry any dead bee bodies outside. I take this as an indication that the hive is still alive and healthy and behaving as it is supposed to.

Meet Hobart

A lot of guys might have preferred some high-tech gizmo or macho toy, but my sweetie was thrilled with his Christmas gift--a huge, homely Hobart 20-qt. industrial mixer. Well, I guess it IS kind of macho, for a kitchen appliance. It came from a Peruvian restaurant in the Twin Cities and has many years' experience making tamales. I ordered a dough hook from the local Hobart dealer, who also sold me a used table designed specifically for this model of mixer.
A couple nights ago, we hauled the mixer into the house from the barn (much easier said than done) so it could thaw out. Rog spent last night thoroughly cleaning it and this morning he rolled it into the kitchen to try it out on our first batch of sourdough bread of the year.

The mixer on its table takes up half of our kitchen floor space, so it will definitely not be a permanent kitchen fixture, but it operates surprisingly quietly. Using the mixer to knead the dough for 36 loaves of bread took half the time it used to take, with just one person kneading instead of two. I think we are going to grow very fond of Hobart. He could use a new paint job--maybe Squash Blossom Yellow?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dreams and Schemes

This year is zipping past-it's already the middle of January. It's a bit late to write about New Years resolutions and dreams, but I want to document them so next winter we can look back and see which dreams materialized.

All of our future plans hinge upon whether our daughters will be around (no guarantee they will) and upon one key decision: whether or not we start a pizza farm this year. If so, we have to get loans and permits and start construction now so we are ready to launch the business and begin making income early this summer. After a soul-searching family meeting, we decided not to pursue the pizza farm this year, but to continue gradually transforming our barn shop into a commercial kitchen. With that decision finally made, we are dreaming about these 2010 projects:

Poultry: We will not raise 200 broilers this year. That was a few too many free-range roosters trampling and devouring the gardens, roosting on the patio and worrying us about becoming owl snacks. We will keep our 20 laying hens and allow them to hatch out some eggs, if inclined. We will order about 50 chicks to raise for meat. We may get a few more ducklings and goslings because they are so much fun. We hope to acquire a couple of guinea hens.

Cows: We are contemplating selling Reuben, our Jersey steer because he is 650 lbs. of friendly rambunctiousness - it makes us nervous to work around him because he has scary horns now and we have to be on the alert in case he unexpectedly comes up to playfully butt us. We would love to have a gentle family milk cow...but are not sure yet if we want to commit to the milking schedule demands.
Apiary: Add a second beehive. Harvest our first honey.

Veggie Garden: Our vegetable garden was a stupendous success last year. We will do the same no-till, deep mulching method next summer, but grow more potatoes and onions and slightly fewer tomatoes and summer squash. We will plant more blueberries and rhubarb, add grapes. We will experiment with growing shitake and oyster mushrooms.

Orchard:In addition to replacing any fruit trees that do not make it due to harsh winter or cow damage, we want to plant a small hazelnut orchard with a few chestnuts, pine nuts, and hickories.

Flowers: This year, with fewer destructive chickens, I want to tackle some flower garden dreams: a large perennial garden on the east side of the house with an arched entrance, work on the shady wildflower garden by the big rock, create a hidden fairy garden in the woods, plant hostas in the foundation of the silo and exuberant flowers lining both sides of the driveway. Prune the overgrown lilac hedge. Sunflowers in front of the barn. Build an herb spiral. Protect the daylilies along the chicken coop from the chickens. Seed bee-attracting native perennials in the prairie. Roses clambering over an arbor.

Willys: Get this truck on the road! We are almost there--just brakework to go...

Commercial Kitchen and Pizza Oven: Complete the transformation of the barn shop into a commercial kitchen--need heat, windows, water, septic and electricity. Find good used NSF range, hood, and dishwasher. BUILD WOOD-FIRED BRICK OVEN! We will use this kitchen to expand our baking for the Farmers Market, possibly sell bread to retail outlets, and host occasional events on the farm.

Granary: Finish tranforming the granary into a cabin. Install recycled wood flooring, wire for electricity, install a composting toilet and plumb for water. Solar panels...? (If we win the lottery!)

Pond. Create a small pond by the big rock. The water table is very high and the area is full of canary reed grass, indicating it would work well. This is probably the biggest 2010 pipedream of all. But what could be finer at the close of a day than watching the sunset over the pond, sitting atop the big rock, glass of wine in hand, surrounded by wildflowers?

2010 is going to be a busy year!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Being Cold is Getting Old

It has been pretty darn cold ever since Christmas. Although I don't mind doing the chores in the the cold - I have devised a very warm chore-doing ensemble - it sure is hard getting out of bed on these cold mornings. It warmed up to -2 degrees F today. You could see everybody's breath - the cows', even the chickens'.

On Wednesday, a veterinarian came to do a pregnancy check on Lariat. It was unlikely, but she had been briefly exposed to the bull before coming to our farm. She has a naturally barrel-shaped figure, so you couldn't tell by looking at her. I had just learned that if she WAS pregnant, we would need to immediately wean our calves so she could have new milk and colostrum for the new calf. Lasso and Reuben mostly eat hay, but they do still snack from Lariat even though they are nearly 9 months old.

The vet visit was an experience. First, Sara, Cadence and I got all the (very reluctant) cows haltered and tied to the loafing shed for their vaccinations. Then, picture that old public television program, "All Creatures Great and Small," when the vet has his arm up to his shoulder inside the back end of the cow. It felt very authentically farmerly. Well, Lariat is not pregnant, which is a relief... but it sure would have been exciting.
When I walked along the pasture to take a few photos, the brave cows ventured out this far. They are not getting much exercise these days. When we go in to feed them we have to constantly pay attention because sometimes they get frisky and start romping around inside the loafing shed. It is a bit unnerving when an ungainly 800 pound calf with horns romps toward you in a confined space!
Don't let that pretty blue sky above the chicken coop fool you - it is much colder than it looks. The snow is not fluffy--it creaks like styrofoam when you walk on it.
Inside the coop, the chickens have been spending most of their time lately up on the roost (an old wooden ladder mounted sideways) snuggled together. Out of the 24 chickens in the coop, we have way too many roosters: our old Americauna rooster Chagall; Big Red whom we could not bear to harvest; a sneaky black one that escaped being caught for the harvest; a large Buff Orpington we kept because he was one of the hens' favorite protectors; Ptarmigan - a now gigantic Brahma whom I discovered trapped and starving in the garage last fall, and Knickerbocker.
Knickerbocker is a spectacular rooster that we acquired by accident while delivering chickens to the processor. Several chickens had escaped during the transfer and he was the last one to be caught, but when I picked him up, he scarcely weighed two pounds - too small to harvest. I put him back in the truck to take home.

When we got home we realized he was unlike any of our other chickens; he must have escaped from somebody else. I named him Knickerbocker because he looks like he is wearing black knickers. He has grown to be a favorite. So far having so many roosters hasn't posed a problem but come spring we may have to worry about fights.
You might expect that during this extra cold spell our pampered pooches would prefer to stay inside. Nope - they have to make sure everything is safe and in order, with no obnoxious rabbits or squirrels scampering about.
They do appreciate their warm soft beds when they finally come in, though.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Profitable Poultry Painting

Some of the farm-themed paintings I created last summer are hanging in the Crossings sales gallery in Zumbrota. I just learned that two of the poultry paintings sold last week! I painted this series "plein air" --outside, in front of the barn, with real-live critter models. This one is called Chicken Feather and I am especially fond of it because while I was staring at the blank canvas, wondering where to start, a rooster ran by proudly brandishing a feather (from the previous day's chicken harvest, but that didn't seem to bother him.) My chicken muse! Later, when I went to varnish and frame this painting, I discovered a tiny feather embedded in the paint--it seemed so appropriate.
The other painting that sold is "Chuck Dickens," inspired by our chicken who thought he was a duck. As an adult, Chuck has finally merged with the flock of chickens living in the coop. He must have finally gotten fed up with all the swimming the ducks and geese did.

While I was painting this series, we had a young hen, Kazoo, that was mercilessly attacked by the other chickens. After she realized I was her protector, she would come running to me whenever I came outside. While I was painting, Kazoo kept getting into my paint, so I created a fabric sling and painted with her on my hip. I am sure the neighbors driving past and glimpsing me out there painting with my chicken around my waist might think I am a bit eccentric.