Treats!

What comes to your mind when you hear the word treat?  You probably begin to think about a slice of cake, a fresh batch of cookies, or a chocolate bar.  We treat our farm animals to vibrant orange, sweet, and nutritious carrots!

I was going around giving carrots to everyone this morning.  The dairy cow, Caramel, happens to absolutely love carrots.  She greedily plucks them from your hand and almost swallows them whole in anticipation for another one.  The pigs quickly squash the carrots, in their deceivingly strong mouths, and munch them off the snow-covered ground. The chickens surprise you with the sharpness of their beaks, as they quickly shred a carrot in minutes with their pecking action.  The ducks bunking with the chickens and sneak in and eat any stray morsels of carrot.  Kuva and Luna, our guardian dogs, obediently sit waiting to take their ‘chew carrot’ to their favourite spot to gnaw slowly on their treat.  This little act of treating the critters of the farm, makes me think about how lucky I am to have a diverse farm.

Let’s talk about diversity! Winter is a time to dream. Donovan and I have been spending a lot of time dreaming about ways to stack enterprises at The Homestead.  In the late summer we worked up an acre of garden, for not this coming summer but the next.  We have the pigs on a section of it already, distributing straw and their “fertilizer”.  When spring comes we can plant a mixed cover crop onto the freshly piggy-tilled soil, which will then in return be grazed by the pigs and worked into the soil to feed the future vegetables.

We have a school bus converted into a mobile chicken coop for the summer, which we plan to be moving around behind the cows and the sheep, where the chickens will scratch through the manure eating bugs and spreading nutrients.  The hope is that we will have three of these boops (bus coops); one will be called Bibbity, the other Bobbity, and our current one Boop.

Caramel, the milk cow, unfortunately isn’t ours.  We are housing her for the winter.  In the future though we plan to have a milk cow or two.  One milk cow produces way too much milk for Donovan and I so we can use any extra milk to feed the pigs and chickens.  The excess butter milk, whey, and skim milk from butter and cheese making, is a great source of protein for pigs and chickens.  Some people even talk about spraying milk onto the grass to help it grow!  Wouldn’t it be nice when someone asks you what you spray on your vegetables you can beam back with the response, “Why just a little bit of milk!”.

Then there is compost.  There are many ways to make compost.  Some people make vegetarian composts.  If all we had was the garden, then we would probably have to consider that. Now imagine how many different micro-organisms and nutrients you can introduce with cow manure, sheep manure, chicken manure, and pig manure!  Let’s sprinkle on some milk.  Wait I have some pea shoot debris.  My mind is exploding with opportunities and they are right at our fingertips with our mixed farm.

We are looking forward to the summer, but until then we will keep handing out carrots and dreaming about diversity.

 

Eat well,

Farmer Lisa

The Answer? Pigs!

Pigs that actually get to be pigs.

The tractor was in the shop and the self-propelled rototiller had just come to a grinding halt. It was the end of the gardening season, there were literally piles of organic matter to incorporate into the garden for next year, and winter was quickly approaching. What to do??? Pigs!

Fortunately, there is an organic pastured pork operation just down the road. Lisa and I loaded up nine Berkshire weaners in a stock trailer and set them loose on the garden. The results were amazing. The bales of straw we wanted to incorporate disappeared in a few days. Once the bales were gone the pigs set to weeding.  Countless hours have been spent pulling quack grass (our gardening nemesis) with little to no success but we may have come across its kryptonite. You guessed it. Pigs!!

I watched in awe as the pigs pulled the plant out of the ground, hooked their snouts under the rhizomes and pulled. I smiled gleefully as the pigs ripped out meters of roots and gobbled them up. A rototiller would have cut the rhizomes into small pieces and exacerbated the problem. Instead, they were disappearing and being turned into, well, pork.

Winter hasn’t stopped these four-legged rototillers. The pigs get their snouts below the frost and rip up chunks of soil. I’m really curious to see the difference they make to the future gardens.

For the past week, the temperature hasn’t risen above -30. Did the Berkshires mind? Not one bit. Before the polar vortex arrived, we put extra straw by their shelter and let them arrange it how they saw fit. The pigs did a swell job because even on the coldest night (-38) steam and contented snorts were billowing from within the nest of straw they built.

A well-marbled pork steak.

As much as I enjoy having the pigs around, some of them have reached the age (and size) where they will reach a higher state of enlightenment. Coming later in January, The Homestead is proud to offer certified organic, free-range pork from happy pigs. Berkshires are a heritage breed and grow slower than conventional pigs, which results in well marbled, nutritious, and flavourful pork.

A Quick Homestead Update

Summer already! The arrival of summer at The Homestead was marked by the changing of the salad. Goodbye 2016 potato salad and hello fresh garden salad! Much has happened since we returned from Cuba and before more time gets away from us here are the highlights of the last few months.

The cows meet the sheep

 

March

After being home for a few days we were joined by four beautiful Galloway heifers. The sheep were wary of their bovine pen mates for a few days but soon were sharing hay bales.

April

Inspired by the year-round abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in Cuba, we brainstormed ways to produce greens year round. A friend and inspiration of ours who runs Sunrise Organic Gardens graciously toured us around her operation and answered our seemingly never ending questions.

Pea, radish, and sunflower shoots

A couple weeks later and we had pea, sunflower, and radish shoots at The Homestead booth at the Grande Prairie Farmers market. Soon after that, we were offered a permanent booth.

 

May

The first ever animals born on The Homestead were a set of triplets, followed by twins, then more twins, then twins again, and a few singles in between. In a span of two weeks, there were eleven lambs bounding around The Homestead.

In the three days between the thawing of the ground and the almost daily rains that followed, we managed to work the garden and get it seeded.

Planted just before the rain

The planting bug wasn’t quite out of our system so we also planted three varieties of apple trees and three varieties of cherry trees. The deliberations on where to plant the trees took about ten times longer that it did to actually plant them.

And now we wait

In anticipation of even more additions to the farm, we towed home an old school bus and began converting it into a chicken coop. Like most of our projects, this ‘weekend job’ quickly morphed into two weeks and it was finally ready for the chicks the night before they arrived.

June

The Homestead grew by leaps and bounds in the month of June. Chicks! More cows! A puppy! Bees!

The chicken bus (we’re looking for name suggestions) was ready the day before the 150  newly hatched chicks arrived.

The chicken bus

A couple days later two more Galloway cows and their calves joined the herd. Just in case a walk around The Homestead wasn’t cute enough with the lambs, chicks, and calves, we added a puppy to the mix. His name is Knute and he is a Maremma and Caucasian Shephard cross but look like a ball of fluff.

Knute

On a sad note, none of our three colonies of honey bees made it through the winter. The early snow and large temperature fluctuations were too taxing and the last colony survived to the end of March. We purchased two nucs of Russian descent that are known for their hardiness. I’ve missed having bees around and it is refreshing to see them flying again.

 

Happy Canada Day to all of the friends of The Homestead! We’re going to spend the afternoon canoeing down the Wapiti River.

A Piece Of Cuba

Although I am standing on the back step of my homestead in northern Alberta, I can picture Cuba as I gaze across the garden. This winter, Donovan and I had the pleasure of spending three weeks exploring Cuba.  It was in Cuba seven years ago where Donovan’s desire to farm was reawakened.   The straw hat wearing, overall-clad voice in the back of his head beckoned him back to the land.

Lisa and Donovan in Cuba.

He first travelled there for a nine-week permaculture course in central Cuba, organized by Ron Berezan also known as The Urban Farmer.  They transformed an unproductive vacant lot that was being used as a garbage dump and turned it into a food forest. Now, the diversity there is outstanding – there are mango trees, bananas, pineapples, vegetable beds, bamboo, tilapia, and much more.

Cuba has been an inspiration to me ever since I watched a documentary on their conversion to organic agriculture, which happened almost overnight. In the early 1990s, Cuba’s primary trading partner, Russia, was unable to continue supplying them with the chemical fertilizers and pesticides required maintain the sugarcane production that occupied the majority of Cuba’s arable land.   Cuba was forced to become more independent and produce their own food without chemicals and fertilizers.

I am inspired by the possibility that such a drastic reversal from the current industrial agricultural model can happen in such a short period of time.  Through composting, crop rotations, inter-cropping, and soil building, Cuba was able to produce a large portion of their own food.

Chickens foraging in Cuba

The reason that I can see Cuba in our garden is because I would see chickens wandering and foraging everywhere we travelled to in Cuba. Now that the snow is gone (for now – that could change in the next few days), our chickens have been exploring and foraging in last year’s garden. It is nice to watch chickens being chickens and indulging in their natural behaviour. I really hope they devour all of the slug eggs!  To mimic summer foraging, the chickens were provided with a fresh supply of alfalfa throughout the winter. On occasion, they also received spent veggies which they excitedly devoured. This kept the yolks thick and yellow, but we missed the summer orange yolks from eating fresh grubs and green grass.  Since the chickens have begun foraging again, the colour of the yolks are becoming a that darker orange and even more nutrient dense.

 

Donovan at an urban gardening project he worked on in Cuba.

Cuba had been a huge inspiration for the second year at The Homestead and improving our self-sufficiency.  One of the major tasks this month is to expand our composting system.   Regularly, throughout the winter we added organic straw and shavings to create a deep bedding in the Egg Chalet.  As the bedding got thicker, the lower layer began to compost and released heat that helped heat the coop.  Now that it has warmed up, we will start actively composting the nutrients that the chickens so kindly deposited for us throughout the winter so we can improve the soil at The Homestead.

 

Stay tuned and follow us on our journey.  We will have a lot to share during our second season at The Homestead!

What Do Seed Catalogs and Laying Hens Have in Common?

Henriettas: Flinging carrots and pecking cabbage!

The vegetable seed order is officially in! This year I am excited to try some new varieties that are sure to add color to the farmer’s market booth. One that I am particularly excited for is the Purple Mist Organic Pea, offered by West Coast Seeds. This pea can be used as a snap pea and shelling pea, but…wait for it…it can be grown to maturity and used as a dried pea for soups all winter long too! Now that is endless meal opportunities right there. I am hoping to grow this pea out to maturity so I can save the seed for next year if I really like it.

This year all of the seeds I ordered are open pollinated! This means that the parents of the seed I am planting are both from the same vegetable variety. For example, the parents (Mr. and Mrs. Pea) of that Purple Mist Pea are both Purple Mist Peas. Therefore, they have the same genetics and continue year after year to produce the perfect Purple Mist Pea (try saying that 10 times fast). It also means that if I really love the variety, I can save my own seed and continue growing this pea year after year.

As I was flipping through the seed catalogs this year, something crossed my mind that never had before. What am I going to grow for the girls next winter? The girls I am referring to are the ever-expanding flock of laying hens.

Let me start from the beginning. This year I started feeding the carrots that were no longer table worthy to the lucky Henriettas. In return, they gave me darker and thicker orange yolks. Now I’m brainstorming what next year’s vegetable crop will be for the hens. I decided on pumpkins, which almost look like egg yolks themselves. I can imagine rolling a 100-pound pumpkin to the Egg Chalet, chopping it up with an axe like firewood, and providing a taste of summer to the girls in charge of our egg supply. I settled on a pumpkin variety that can produce an 80-pound pumpkin so I can have a fighting chance of moving it by myself.

I’m looking forward to the summer, but until then, I will keep sharing our dwindling veggie supply with the Henriettas and telling them of the treats to come.

What do you think is the best vegetable for The Homestead flock?

Permanence

The fact that we have a farm of our own is beginning to sink in.  Lisa and I have not farmed land of our own until this year and now have the opportunity to put down roots, both figuratively and literally.  I recently had an epiphany while attending a workshop on cold climate forest gardens.  Prior to the workshop, I was under the impression that if you desired fruit and nut trees on your farm, you should move to the Okanagan.  Then I recalled the time my ladder fell over leaving me stranded while picking apples for cider from my Grandparent’s tree.  In Grande Prairie.  Only 80 km from The Homestead.  The cider was forgettable but the wheels are in motion – a forest garden on the Homestead.

Moose pruning fruit trees at The Homestead

Shortly after the course, my off farm job picked up and I was only able to spend a handful of days at home over the next couple months.  During that time I started on the stockpile of the literature I’ve been saving for the winter to read.  A book that I’ve found very inspiring is Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard, who has converted much of his farm to a food forest.  Near the garden plot at The Homestead we have saskatoons, raspberries, haskap, and seabuckthorn and I’d like to try some more varieties of fruit and nut trees.

I don’t recall telling that to Santa, but he brought me a couple of apple trees for Christmas!  A friend told me that the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago and the second best time is today.  I think I’ll wait until spring.  Any fruit or nut tree recommendations that do well in the Peace Country?

 

All the best in 2017,

The Homestead

The Homestead at 30 Below

A major test for any farmer is -30°C weather, especially those who live off-grid and are just starting out.  For the last few weeks, the Peace Regions of Alberta and B.C. were under an extreme cold weather advisory.  One trip to the local hardware storm confirmed this; block heaters, heat tape, and space heaters were flying off the shelf!  Block heaters are nice and all, but when you live on an off-grid farm the power has to come from somewhere and the sun doesn’t spend very much time shining this time of year.  We ended up purchasing a super-efficient portable generator that we can use to plug in the vehicles and the tractor when needed.  Problem solved.

The first true test was how the laying hens would do in the cold weather.  While the layers were on pasture in the summer, we built a straw bale chicken house with the intention that they would be cooped up (pun intended) and cozy during the winter.  As seems to be the case when you’re starting out, most projects that aren’t immediately urgent tend to get shelved.  This is why we found ourselves scrambling (another poor egg pun) to build doors and install windows as it began to snow.  Our super insulated design has kept the hens happy and they reward us dozens of eggs a day; except for the time when the ducks figured out how to open the chicken door at -30°C and we came home to dozens of frozen eggs.

image1Like I mentioned before, non-urgent projects seem to get delayed.  This is why, at -32°C we found ourselves extracting honey.  When we collected the frames of capped honey from the bees in the fall, we put them in the cellar so they wouldn’t freeze and crystallize.  Recently, friends and neighbours have been subtly hinting that they’d like honey for their Christmas presents, so the time had come to extract the honey from the frames.  We built a fire in the wood stove we have in our greenhouse and within a couple hours it was +32°C.  It was a surreal experience to be working in a t-shirt knowing that a few millimeters of plastic separates you from 64°C drop in temperature.

One animal that seems oblivious to the plunging temperatures are the sheep.  They come from a long line of Peace Country sheep and have impressive cold weather genetics.  We could have used some of those genetics when we waited in line, at -29°C, for an hour and a half to see July Talk in concert, which was completely worth it.

These extreme cold days have been an adventure for us.  What did we get out of it?  A shiny new generator, 100 kg of honey, and an excellent excuse to stay home and drink egg nog.

Stay warm,

The Homestead