Friday, January 14, 2022

Hen’s Winter Blues

Hens yucky pen 
Laying hens, as far as I can tell, do NOT like snow…Or cold!

I wonder if it’s because their feet are composed of only cartilage, without flesh or fat for insulation? Whatever the reason, hens generally will not even step on snow. 

Which creates a problem in winter!

Since the Christmas Day blizzard here in the Foothills, our little flock of five has spent most of their days inside the coop—which is a very unusual hen behavior. Their usual pattern is to leave their coop with the sunrise, staying outside until sunset. 

That all changed when we got about two feet of snow over the next week and a half, with temps in the teens and even single digits. One night, we hovered around 0 degrees. Which is a very severe freeze for our area. 

The girls would basically spend almost all their waking hours inside. A load of snow had blown into the girls’ pen just outside the coop, so they had very little roaming area that wasn’t pure snow and ice.

Scratch that: it wasn’t pure! 

Without roaming space, even milling around the pen for only a few hours a day, so few square feet of living space has meant wall to wall hen droppings. Despite my best attempt to clean up what I can, the “stuff” freezes right into the ice, and can’t be collected. 

The girls look pretty miserable, after weeks without their usual free-ranging. They sound a quite hen-depressed as well, making only a few little forlorn chicken noises. Ordinarily, I would cover up the frozen manure with wood chips…but with this long freeze, we’re nearly out of chips—and the snow has covered up all the brush we laid out for chipping.

Adding insult to injury: our new feeder (if you ask me, due to pretty poor design), fell apart. I found the hens one day standing right in the feed tray. Then the heated pet bowl failed too—John guessed it shorted out when water got into where it was plugged into the outdoor extension cord. 

So we thought we were all prepared for winter weather…but we clearly were not.

Interestingly enough, despite their yucky environment, the girls continued to lay eggs steadily during the worst of the freeze, and now, are giving us a couple of eggs every other day.

We’ve seen a bit of melting…our little flock now have about 3’x 8’ of exposed ground to scratch in. The melt also uncovered a bunch of sawdust sitting under John’s chopsaw. So the day before yesterday, I gathered up as much as I could, and got it spread around on top of the manure-laden soil.

If hens could plan ahead, they’d probably be chomping on the bit to get out of the muck, and back to scratching around the orchard. 

I can’t wait myself…as soon as it happens, I’ll be doing a thorough cleaning of the coop and pen!

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Landline Goodbye…VoiP Comes to Berryridge Farm

 We thought the day would never come. The day we could finally ditch the phone company.

Almost everyone we know has let go of their landline, and simply uses their smartphone. Sounds like a no-brainer. But as I’ve mentioned before, John and I don’t have smart phones. There’s no cell signal for miles around, and we only go into civilization a couple of times a week, so why bother?

Our neighbors who have cut the cord go to work every day, and are frequently out and about so they can be reached away from home. The telecommunications conglomerate that originally serviced our area sold their phone division to a smaller company, who then turned around and created a new phone company—this one with legendarily bad customer service.

Every problem or line failure, this new company has blamed the customer, and refuses to make a service call unless you pay them the big bucks.

Our neighbor’s line had failed, but the phone company kept telling her it was her problem, not theirs. She had fought with these clowns for nearly a month, until she finally told them to &%*#@$!!

Over the years, our own phone line had become scratchier and scratchier. Adding insult to injury, the prices of the new phone company had been going up steadily for months. A dollar added here, another 3 bucks there, more fees, more taxes… A bill that had generally run about $68/month gradually ballooned—and last month it was $98!

But all these years, John and I figured we had no option but to stick with this outfit.

The last couple of months, we’ve been dealing with an urgent family matter. And right in the middle of it, weeks ago, we picked up the phone and had no dial tone.

A big windstorm had hit the night before. Our cable is buried on our private lane, so we figured a tree had come down on the lines somewhere in the area. We are pretty philosophical about outages like this, so we didn’t think twice about it.

A couple of days went by, but we still had no phone.

We talked to the one neighbor family who had a landline they hardly used. They had dial tone…clearly, it hadn’t been a tree after all.

So John went to the phone company website to report the outage. They had a phone number you could call—which obviously didn’t help us. And there was no email for reporting problem. You had to initiate a chat session with some bot. This automated system indicated that we should check our outdoor phone company box and plug our phone in there, to see if we had dial tone.

Out John went with his Phillips screwdriver to the side of the shop the box was attached to, and got it open. Well, the line was just as dead in the outdoor box as it was in the house. He contacted the company to let them know…and after two days, had still received no reply.

We had to ask ourselves: did we really want to pursue a repair? Almost certainly, we would have to go through what our neighbor had, going back and forth with the phone company for weeks while they shunted the problem aside.

And did we want to do this while we were already so anxious about our ongoing family crisis?

Surely there had to be another solution. We thought longingly of getting smartphones…but no cell signal was no cell signal.

Our neighbors had used Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology for years. I’d always figured it was a very high techie-techie process—so our satellite internet speed wouldn’t be nearly fast enough. "Even so," I said to John, "maybe it's time we looked into it."

John checked our satellite internet company, and what do you know…

They not only offered VoIP, but they were having a special! Going out of town for caregiving over the holidays, we had to delay the process a bit. But just 2 days after John requested the equipment from the satellite company, the package arrived.

It’s a little box with a phone jack that you connect via Ethernet cable to your internet modem. You can even use your existing phone. Once John went on the satellite company website to let them know we had all the parts connected, we were in business: with a live phone line and a temporary phone number!

We had heard VoIP sound quality wasn’t anything to brag about, but we’ve found it’s far better—no scratchiness—than our late, unlamented phone company’s. It’s true, that when the satellite dish gets snow-covered, the signal will be spotty at best, or disappear. Still, a good northeaster will blow the snow off, and when there’s no wind, John doesn’t mind clambering up on a ladder to brush the dish off.

We’re still waiting for the phone company to “port” over our original number to the satellite company. But it feels wonderful to deal with our satellite people, who’ve provided stellar customer service since the get-go. And don’t charge an arm and a leg for it.

It’s funny, that what you take for granted—like having a phone—can feel really special when you haven’t had one for over 3 weeks.

Forecast for rain…but we get more snow!
And today, after getting another 6 inches of snow last night, adding to the 2 feet that’s fallen since Christmas, we are snowed in. So it feels especially comforting to have a reliable link with the outside world.

PS…The bird-friendly garden is a gift that keeps on giving…Below: a chickadee dining on zinnia and hyssop seeds the northeaster blew off the seed heads!

Chickadee enjoying the winter garden!






Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Unprepared Homesteader...or, Getting Caught with Your (Work) Pants Down

A blizzard was predicted for Christmas Day.

Despite the threatening weather forecast, John and I left Berryridge Farm a few days before Christmas for a very different kind of holiday—an urgent family matter. Since we moved out here, we had never traveled over the holidays, due to weather issues. Besides, we loved our own little holiday traditions, and were happy to see family a few days before or after Christmas.

But this year, leaving wasn’t optional. We set out in a rush, with our concerns for our place on the back burner—far too stressed out to adequately prepare for bad weather here at home.

While we were away, I checked our local forecast—and it was more dire than the original. Nighttime temps way down in the single-digits, which we rarely get in the Foothills. But here we were, far from home, and there was nothing we could do about looking after our place.

We’d planned to return the day after Christmas, driving all evening…but poor road conditions told us it would be far wiser to wait until daylight. So after delaying our trip, we set out the next morning for 300 mile drive home, often forced to crawl along on the snow and ice covered highways.

As we got closer to home, long after dark, John had to punch through snowdrifts covering the narrow county road. Our private lane was passable, but in places, just barely. When John finally pushed through more drifts at the top of our driveway, we breathed a sigh of relief.

We had a over a foot of snow to shovel away from the door to get inside. I kicked off my shoes and went straight to the kitchen faucet and turned it on.

Nothing.

Our pipes were frozen.

We had followed the perfect recipe for a frozen water system. Before we left:

We did NOT block the crawlspace vents, which we always do around Thanksgiving. The frigid Christmas Northeaster was thus totally free to wreak havoc on the pipes under the house.

We did NOT turn on the pumphouse heater to keep the pipes from freezing out there. This is a no brainer, since we generally do this whenever the temps go below 20 degrees.

Lastly, we did NOT leave any faucets dripping in the house.

The next day after our return, in a rush to thaw the pumphouse pipes, I managed to blow the frost plug out of the water meter. Water spewed out, whooshing dangerously close to our new battery system for our backup solar well-pump. 

I atoned for my boo-boo by chopping wood while John sought advice from our neighbors. And after he lined up a plumber, $200 later the pumphouse was back on line. But still no running water in the house.

Clearly, underneath the house, everything was frozen solid. After 15 years in the Foothills, it was a first.

So. Rationing drinking water, and little to spare for toothbrushing. No showers, not even face washing. Dirty dishes piling up in the sink (Very hard for this tidy person). Absolutely no post-Christmas baking and cooking I hadn’t had time for before the holiday. 

And let me tell you, hauling water 180 feet from the pumphouse to flush toilets loses its charm very fast.

Hens pecking for scratch in the cold
Our chickens fared better. For their Christmas gift, before we least, John bought and installed a new, more efficient feeder and a heated water bowl. The girls made it through the storm just fine, although their poor combs were pale pink from the cold.

Our wonderful neighbors who gifted us with our chickens, were the ones to save our bacon. This afternoon, they loaned us a space heater. John got on  his grubbiest gear, and with a series of pretzel contortions, managed to crawl down, snake around the ductwork and piping, and place the heater as near the water pipes as he could and plug it in.

All we had to do was be patient. Just to make sure we didn’t get too overconfident, John hauled in two more buckets of water for the toilets. 

Crawlspace entry…for man 5’11 and 200 + lbs!

I watched the faucets like a hawk, ears strained for the tiniest drip.

Then, four hours later….Eureka! Dripping faucets!

We’d had no running water for 72 hours…and since the pipes very likely froze Christmas Day, our whole water system had been frozen for 5 full days. Another first. 

It took about 20 or 30 minutes for the pipes to completely open and full pressure to return—lots of sediment to flush out as well. But Berryridge Farm is back in business. Showers, dishes, cooking, the sky’s the limit!

This was a hard lesson, that we won’t soon forget. So one more time:Northeaster Deep Freeze, 3-step preparedness:

Block crawlspace vents.

Turn on pumphouse heater.

Leave faucets dripping.  

We already knew there’s no place like home for Christmas—and we plan to be here next time around!

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Little Farm in the Winter Garden

I don’t mind a bit of cold weather.

In a February post, I talked about frilusliv, the Norwegian concept of “open air living.” I’m all for it—if I’m bundled up, that is.

Today, it wasn’t raining, about 37 degrees, and I had a bunch of chores to do before I ran out of light. So I packed on my layers—long johns, two wool vests over a shirt plus a couple of sweatshirts on top, Carhartt pants and the ancient ski jacket I’ve had since 1989. I pulled on my muck boots and a pair of thermal mittens and I was set.

I imagine any of you living in much colder climates are thinking LOL: she thinks 37 degrees is cold! But in my own defense, when I’m working in the garden, my hands get terribly cold—I get chilblains at the drop of a hat—though the rest of me will be fine.

Anyway, I chopped a little firewood to warm up, then tackled the chicken coop. After feeding the hens, I had a pile of fall leaves I’d been saving for mulch to haul out of the carport. Because, gee, we might want to park our car in there.

Next, I needed to add leaves to my compost pile—with all the rain we’ve had, the pile is beyond sodden. But on the plus side, turning all that heavy material is a way to stay strong.

After I’d finished these chores, dusk was falling. Yet, one more important task beckoned: I was 2 months overdue on harvesting my fall carrot crop. There had been numerous frosts, so I knew the carrots would be super-sweet. But with the holidays coming, I wouldn’t have much time for gardening. And leaving my crop in the soil through more rain and frost cycles, I was risking the roots starting to decompose.

My mittens were still dry. Although the temp had probably dropped to 34 degrees by now, I figured even in the fading light, I could get a few carrots out of the ground. So squinting at the bed, I pulled as many out as I could and stuffed them into the little plastic strainer-type tote I use for harvesting. Then as darkness fell, I hosed the carrots down as best I could and took the sopping little tote into the house.

I always process my veggies outside, and this reminded me why: it makes a big mess! Bits of dirt and carrot tops on the floor, all over the counters and in the sink. 

But I managed to get the roots thoroughly washed and the tops cut off. Tomorrow, I’ll toss the tops back onto the carrot bed—they’ll make good winter mulch.

As I cleaned up the kitchen, this harvest felt like a big win—and now we’ll have enough carrots well into winter.

Here in the Foothills, spinach leaves don’t really grow in the winter months; the best you can hope for is that the plant will just stay alive and not get devoured by slugs. Then, in the longer daylight of early April, the plants generally have a big growth spurt and will be ready for picking in a few weeks!

I got my garlic in just after Thanksgiving—a bit later than I wanted. Now it’s covered with layers of chopped leaves, with compost on top for nutrition and to weigh down the mulch.

I have yet to take on finishing my parsnip harvest—I still have about 2/3 of the bed to pick. Unlike carrots, which you can generally pull right out of the soil, the tops of the parsnip roots are at least an inch below the soil surface, and the roots get really lodged into the soil.

Another challenge is that by December, the foliage by now has died back considerably. As a result, a little tug will detach the tops from the roots. You need a hand fork at best, and this week, with the soil so heavy, you have to use a spading fork to loosen the dirt surrounding the root enough to pull on it.

The parsnips will actually overwinter fairly well, at least into late January or early February. So when it’s a bit warmer, and I’ve got lots of time and am primed to get really wet and dirty, I’ll take ‘em on!

 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Prepping is Not Just for Preppers--A Homestead Pantry

Bathroom closet pantry
I’ve always had a relaxed approach to grocery shopping.

From the time I was first married way back in the day, I would buy one of each item I had on my list. Just like my parents always did. When I was nearly out of that item, I’d buy another one on my next trip to the store—which was pretty much all my budget allowed for.

I continued the same habit when John and I got married. Even after we moved out to the Foothills, that didn’t change much. Sure, we had power outages, and were completely snowbound for a couple of days now and then, but we weren’t concerned. 

We’d figure we could get to the grocery store in the next few days—either in the small town 15 miles away, or the big box grocers in the city an hour’s drive from our place.

In any event, John and I would generally have enough groceries to get us through. Plus the homegrown produce we had on hand—root veggies in the fridge and berries out in the deep freezer—and eggs from our hens gave us a sense of security.

Then came Covid.

Folks all over started stockpiling food and household goods (and a whole new genre of jokes was born about hoarding massive quantities of TP!). Common items that had been available—even plentiful— my entire life, no matter where I lived, were disappearing from brick-and-mortar and online store shelves. 

It was time to change my attitude, and quick. We didn’t do it overnight, but John and I began to build up our shelf-stable food stores. Especially as we got further into fall—knowing we weren’t too far away from Northeasters and snowstorms.

For instance, we would shop less often, but would buy more of a given food item than we would use up before our next shop. Also, buy larger quantities: maybe two bags of nuts at a time instead of one. Ten pounds of sugar instead of five. Two cans of salmon instead of one, three if they’re on sale.

Backup grocery shelf is cluttered!
We also began the habit of buying a backup item. Or, as John would say, “a backup to the backup.”
Even if we had a half bottle of olive oil in the cupboard and a full liter in the pantry, we would buy a backup.

As the supply chain has affected grocery items, our habits have veered, it’s true, into more of a prepper mindset. I confess we have six bottles of organic tomato sauce for soup-making on hand. Five jars of nut butter. 

And my personal guilty pleasure, for adding to plain Greek yogurt: a comfortable supply of organic maple syrup in the pantry (at this writing, four large jugs!).

You might be thinking: who has the budget or space? Even with looming supply chain problems?

Budget: For John and me, it hasn’t been easy on our finances; some of the online food purchases have sat on our credit card longer way than I would have liked. Still, I would rather carry a balance on the card—since you never know when certain items might become available either in the short term, or even long-term. 

In any event, our loaded pantry is adding to our net worth, for sure!

Space. Well, you probably guessed our pantry is very crowded. Cluttered, even. Readers of Real Simple magazine would avert their eyes. But on the homestead, practicality takes precedent over aesthetics every time.

More true confessions: We have very little storage space in our house. The biggest closet is off the master bath. Well, guess where I made room for those extra pantry items? But maple syrup in your bathroom closet makes for eclectic closet organization.

When it comes to food shortages due to supply chain issues, I do have a recommendation. Buy as local as you can. It may be items produced in your area or in your state. If that’s not possible, I go for “Made in the USA” every time.

John and I have also gotten into the habit of buying a lot of our groceries from the little mom-and-pop grocery in the village 8 miles away. We know all the clerks and they know us; the personal service is amazing, and they’ll special order things for us.

For sure, the Foothills’ groceries are more expensive than from the big box store (we never go there anymore). But you can’t put a price tag on the sense of community.

Lots of tomato soup in our future!
Stockpiling can lead to another drawback: the a lack of variety, creating meals from your food stores. After all, you can only eat a certain dish so many times before you’re tired of it. 

Where we live, there are no take-out places, delis, or fast food restaurants, so we have learned to eat simply out of necessity. Yet it's one trade-off we gladly make to live in our quiet, peaceful area.

Still, given all the advantages of keeping a full pantry, you might keep this in mind: If you start small, you can gradually increase your stores, while you get more creative with your cooking!

 

 

 

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Hens on the Homestead: Healthy and Happy for Winter

When life feels uncertain, hanging out with your hens always lifts the spirits. 

At our house, between our area's recent severe floods, the new Covid variant, and my being away from home a lot caregiving for family, there's a lot to worry about. But I'm grateful that our five hens are taking the last rocky months in stride.

In a big November windstorm, a sizable Douglas fir fell onto the chicken coop. Happily, the coop was pretty much unscathed--and the hens appeared to have slept through the impact. 

That's one of the great things about laying hens...unless they're being stalked by a predator of some kind, they'll go about their little routines through thick and thin, without getting too bent out of shape.

I'm happy to report we haven't had a broody hen since mid-October--one less thing to fret about. We've had some broodies who lost a lot of weight and color in their combs. At times, one or two of them looked so ill and were so lethargic we were afraid she wouldn't make it though the broody cycle. Right now, I'm guessing the chilly fall weather has cooled their body temperatures enough to stave off the urge to hatch eggs. 

Not that there's much to hatch these days. This time of year, when the days are shortest, some of our hens are molting--losing their feathers to grow a new set. Commercial hatcheries will often keep the hens in bright light 24/7, so they will lay continuously.

Allowing your hens to go through this natural process means their reproductive systems get a little break, and the hens will have a much longer egg-laying cycle. However, during this time, egg production goes way down; our girls are laying at a steady, if unspectacular rate of 1 egg every other day. On the plus side, John and I have about 8 dozen eggs in the shop fridge, which we've accumulated over the last few months.

Naturally, although the girls aren't laying much, they still have good appetites. So, while they're not earning their keep, as it were, it's still nice to have them around for entertainment value! 

However, our flock seems a bit crankier than usual these days: one of hens keeps chasing me and pecking my legs. I understand hens figure out their world through their beaks, so pecking is a natural behavior. I think she's doing this so I'll give her extra feed, but today, she jumped against my leg and flapped her wings on me. Not too happy about that!

The alpha hen has also been snapping at a couple of others when I fill the feeder. They'll make these hilarious little "toots" like a horn--but hens are pretty scrappy and will sneak back the feeder when the top hen isn't looking. 

Going into winter, I've been giving the hens some scratch grains before they go into their coop for the night. I understand digesting the scratch raises their metabolism, so they will stay a bit warmer overnight.  

Scratching for grains in the snow
With our area's recent record rainfall, the soil in the girls' yard is absolutely sodden. They'll do their
usual dust baths, though, then go out into the rain--and all five are looking pretty grimy! While our girls mostly lounge under the roof of their run during the downpours, they're always game to dash into the open yard when the rain lets up. 

And during these very short, dark days--yesterday, it looked like dusk at 11 am--seeing that flash of blond across the garden brightens the day.

Back to predators: we haven't seen any big cats all fall, and haven't even heard any coyotes the last couple of weeks. It could be it's been so darn rainy they're just hiding in their dens. But now that the weather is drying out a little, it's probably time to keep a sharp eye out!

A side note: I'm trying to keep to my regular Thursday posting...but if I miss a week here or there, it's because I'm away again for family.

Whatever your situation--and especially if  you're going through hard times--I hope you're finding ways to keep your spirits up!     

Monday, November 29, 2021

Cyber Monday Book Freebies

Homestead gardening 
Cyber Monday is already half over in the USA, but if you're looking for great deals, "free" is still the best price--especially if it's available all year-round! So I'm just sharing a little heads-up about my free ebooks, that you can get anytime. 

If you're a gardener, Little Farm in the Garden is still #1 in Pacific Northwest Gardening on Amazon! If you prefer a PDF format you can read on your laptop, it's available on my website, www.susancolleenbrown.com.

Breezy Irish novel

Enjoy warmhearted Irish novels and stories? It Only Takes OnceBook 1 in my Village of Ballydara series, is available at all stores...and,  

You can also get my Ballydara novelette-length short story, The Secret Well, by joining my list! 

For a real Irish experience, check out the home page of my site, and you'll find a fun mini-ebook of Irish expressions in PDF!

Fun Irish speech!
Mystical Irish story


Last but not least: For tween readers...or anyone young at heart...Morgan Carey and The Curse of the Corpse Bride, Book 1 of my middle grade adventure series, is free at all online book retailers. 

The next book of the series, The Mystery of the Christmas Fairies, is not free, but the print book could make a fun stocking-stuffer!

Finally, may every book you read be an adventure!

Breaking a Halloween curse

   
A magical forest leads to adventure!