Community

About a year and a half ago we started up a monthly gathering we called “Piedmont Sustainable Living,” hoping it would be a way for folks interested in homesteading and sustainability to get together for fellowship and idea-swapping.  We joked that we wanted to be able to talk about the things that interest us with a group of people who wouldn’t think we were weirdos.

The gatherings have been a success.  It’s a great group of people, and a lot of fun.

We always start with a potluck supper, followed by a discussion.  Last night we had our April get-together. One of our friends brought freshly-harvested morels and cooked them up at the meeting.  Two couples brought salads made from just-picked greens. There was pasture-raised chicken.  And Cherie made blackberry cobbler from wild blackberries picked on our farm (as we’re trying to clear out the freezers of last year’s goodies to make room for what’s about to come).  It was a delicious meal of locally-raised food, which would have cost a small fortune at a restaurant, but cost the homesteaders very little.  The mushrooms, blackberries and much of the salad grow wild.

One of our friends brought homemade soap and gave a bar to everyone who came.  Another friend gave us some tomato plants she started.  A friend gave Cherie a potted herb.  And we traded knowledge too, discussing the best places to get quality products in bulk–like flours, herbs, tea, toiletries, etc., and exchanging gardening tips.

We sat on the back deck and talked until dark.  A fine way to spend a Saturday evening.

The Revolution is Delicious

Most nights we spend a couple of hours quietly reading before bed. But every once in a while we have a “date night.”

Our date nights are typically as nerdy as our ordinary nights. Last week, on a date night, we went to see Ellen Gufstafson speak at a nearby girls’ boarding school.

We were pleased that the menu included food from our farm.

We were pleased that the menu included food from our farm.

Ms. Gufstafson is an activist in the local food movement. She gave an inspiring talk. She believes, as we do, that by making better food choices we can make the world a better place. I haven’t yet read her book We The Eaters, but it is in my soon-to-be-read pile.

I was pleased that she addressed the commonly-held belief that eating better means having to suffer some sort of privation–that having a nutritious, ethically-sourced diet means being hungry all the time and having to give up tasty food.

Not true, she argued.  Just as we keep telling people, eating well means eating the best-tasting food you’ve ever had.  A good diet will leave you feeling better, not worse.

I liked her punch line, “There is a revolution going on, and the revolution is delicious.”

A Morning

The morning began with a rainbow.

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I fed the pigs.

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And noticed that Wendy’s kids ought to be weaned.

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A muddy morning seemed like a good opportunity to carry some scrap metal in for recycling.

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Then I spent some time in the woods, searching in vain for morels, known here as “hickory chickens.”

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I’ve been looking for them every April I’ve been here.  And I’ve still never found one.

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Even though I came home empty-handed once again, the quiet time in the woods was nice.  That kind of foraging causes me to go slow and pay attention to my surroundings and the things at my feet.

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I should do that more often.

Fence Advice

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When we first started improving our farm I had no intention of farming as a vocation.  My plan was to live here after I retired and I just wanted the place to look nice.  I hadn’t yet begun my journey toward sustainability, so there are many things I’d do differently if I were doing them now.

When I was growing up there was a farm in our county that had black board fences around their pastures.  I admired those fences and when time came for us to replace the dilapidated fences on this farm I hired a someone to build board fences and someone else to pain them black.  I was still commuting and working crazy long hours so doing it myself wasn’t an option, even if I had the necessary skills (and I didn’t).

At the time the fences were intended to hold nothing other than two horses, one belonging to our daughter and the other to her friend.  I had no intention of owning goats, cows or pigs (and probably would’ve scoffed at the notion).

The board fences are pretty.  But that is the nearly the only thing they have going for them, and there are plenty of disadvantages (I now know).  They’re expensive to build and maintain.  Every year I have to repair or replace boards that have warped or broken.  Every year I have to touch up the paint.  They’re not suitable for containing goats, so we had to go back and add hot wires and a charger.

I know some folks who read this blog are in the planning stages of homesteading.  So here’s some advice for y’all.

Think practically about your fencing.  Keep in mind when you’re designing it that your plans may change. Make sure your fences are suitable for any species of livestock you might ultimately keep. So, for example, if you might get into raising pastured pigs, either fence in some wooded areas or design the fence so that you can easily do so later.  Consider the time and cost involved in maintenance.  You don’t want it to be an ugly eyesore, but looks should not be your primary consideration. Keep in mind that you’ll need to keep the fence line cut (unless you’re planning to use Roundup along the fence line–which I highly discourage). One advantage of board fencing or high tensile wire versus woven wire fencing is that you can easily trim under the fence with a weedeater.  When you put in your waterers, keep in mind that the livestock will congregate there. Choose a high spot if possible.  And if you want to do rotational grazing, put the waterer where it can be used in multiple paddocks if necessary. Ideally you’d like to be able to drive a tractor along both sides of the fence line, even though that won’t always be possible.  Keep in mind that you will want your fence to keep animals out as well as in.

For what it’s worth…

World War Chicken

When I was growing up, chicken was not an everyday meal.  Chickens were kept as layers, for their eggs.  The young roosters would become fried chicken, which was often on the table for Sunday dinner (our midday after-church meal).  The old hens were called “stew hens” and became chicken and dumplings.  There were no “broilers,” and we would have regarded today’s jumbo skinless breasts as bizarre and unlikely to have come from a chicken.

I’ve written before about the meteoric rise in chicken consumption over the past few decades–a phenomenon that I have assumed was caused in large part by the invention of the “chicken nugget.”

The story actually began earlier. I recently read an article recently by Allan Nation, in which he discusses Andrew Lawler’s book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?  The origin of industrial chicken is a fascinating story.

Today there are an estimated 20 billion chickens in the world–more than three chickens for every human.  In fact, there are more chickens on the planet than there are cats, dogs, pigs and cows combined.

But prior to WWII there weren’t many chickens being eaten.  Southerners and African-Americans (most of whom were Southerners) consumed almost all the chicken meat eaten in the U.S.  Not many birds were being raised exclusively for meat, most of which were being raised on the Delmarva Peninsula and shipped to New York City.  Interestingly, 80% of the chicken sold in New York City in the years before the war, were sold to Jewish consumers. Southerners and African-Americans outside the south were evidently eating primarily fried chicken and stew hens culled from layer flocks, as I did growing up.  Nation writes, “Outside of the South and New York City the production and the eating of chickens were both considered low class activities.”

It was World War II which changed that.

When the war began, the federal government, fearful of food shortages, seized all the chicken facilities on the Delmarva Peninsula and hired black Southern cooks to introduce soldiers to fried chicken.  Meanwhile, beef and pork were rationed during the war but poultry was not, and the government encouraged backyard chickens for meat production.  One government poster read urging citizens to keep chickens read, “In time of peace a profitable recreation, in time of war a patriotic duty.”

To facilitate the discharge of this “patriotic duty,” the government required the Postal Service to allow chicks to be shipped through the mail, a practice that continues to this day.

By the time the war ended Americans were eating three times more chicken than they were eating before the war.

And thus the table was set for the introduction of wide-scale industrial chicken production.  Because the chicken producers worried that consumers would return to beef and pork once rationing ended, they worked to develop larger meatier hybrids.  It was also during this post-war scramble for market share that a poultry truck driver named John Tyson earned a few hundred billion dollars by creating the vertically integrated model of industrial production still in use today.

Our culture’s increased appetite for chicken then became the launching pad for the skyrocketing consumption we see today. In 1980 McDonald’s began selling “chicken nuggets,” manufactured by Tyson Corporation. Today restaurants account for over 40% of the chicken sold in the U.S., and 60% of that is sold by fast food restaurants.

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But now I know that while chicken nuggets and KFC are certainly responsible for driving the demand for cheap chicken higher, the seeds of industrial chicken were actually sown much earlier.

Chickens

The chicks in our brooder coop have reached that stage of chicken adolescence when they all start to look a little like Bill the Cat.

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Bill the Cat

They’ve also taken to hopping up on the top of their waterer, so that when they poop (and they are prodigious producers of poo), their droppings fall directly into the water intended for them to drink.

Just one of the seemingly countless reasons that a favorite expression around here is (said while shaking head and sighing): “Chickens.”