Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Our New Book Not Just About Pigs!

I'm so pleased to be writing today about Hank's and my new book, Plowing With Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions, published by New Society Publishers. We just said goodbye to a local reporter who came out to the farm to interview us for a newspaper article about the book. One thing that came up was the fact that the book is about so much more than pigs. There are chapters on poultry, pigs, cattle and other ruminants, tools, building what you need, growing small grain crops, making hay by hand, cooking from scratch, remodeling a farmhouse kitchen organically, and running a small home-based farm business. It's our pride and joy and we honestly can't wait to get started on the next book.
If you would like a personalized, autographed copy of our book for $25 (includes shipping), email me at  God bless!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Prairie Fire Day ... When Fires Attack

This was the small, easy section. No time to snap the big fire!
Saturday morning a truck pulled into our drive. It was our neighbor across the street, a 70-year-old farmer man who wanted to let us know he was going to be burning the pasture that day. Hank decided right away that it was definitely a good day to burn according to the weather conditions, so informed me that would be our agenda for the day. As with so many things, the time to burn is when the time is right. So ... OK, I was preparing for my first burn.
Controlled prairie grass burning is done each year in the spring to burn off the old vegetation and make way for the new green grass. It restores everything and impoves the grass quality and quantity. It was something I had never experienced until moving to the midwest--definitely not in wildfire-prone California.
We pulled our utility vehicle out of the barn and filled its tires (they tend to go flat when sitting all winter). Then Hank loaded the water tank onto the bed and soon learned the water pump was broken. So, he ran to TSC to get a new one. With the water tank and pump working, we set out for the first burn. We drove around the perimeter of the first area of CRP ground that we wanted to burn. It had a nice, green-grass border around it and it looked to be pretty straightforward. So, as Hank drove the 4-wheeler, I ignited the torch and touched the tall grass around the edges. It's amazing how fast the dry grass erupts into flames! Pretty soon there was a wall of flames burning in a circle into itself. In about 5 minutes it was done. We drove around the perimeter and watered any smolderers. 

Prairie fire. How real men water the grass!

With that piece of cake eaten, we set out for a much larger piece of CRP ground. We surveyed the perimeter and Hank settled on his plan of action. We set off fire all around with the intention of it burning itself out when it reached a waterway on the southern edge, and the green grass on the other edges. Well, things don't always go according to plan. The fire obeyed on three sides, but it didn't stop at the southern  waterway as we intended. It jumped the electric fence and continued burning into a massive section of CRP ground going south. We fought it with water as best we could but there were some scary moments when the wind would change direction suddenly and we'd be engulfed in intensely hot smoke. Thank God for the utility vehicle and being able to just motor out of it. Keeping calm (because I completely trust my husband's judgment), at one point Hank said "I don't know how we're going to put this out" because it was so large and there was so much fuel in front of its leading edge. He sent me to fill the water tank so he could study it. When I got back, he had a plan. We cut the fire in half by taking out the middle section. Once that was doused, we could go back and forth to the two smaller fires and chip away at them. This is what we did, going back and forth. Then, we set a back fire starting at the edge of an active waterway and in a matter of minutes, that inferno was reduced to smoldering piles of cow patties (really).    
Armageddon happened! New grass will sprout by week's end.
Whew! With the fire out, we drove around the entire burned area and watered down any smoke stacks. When we reached the wooded area on the northern edge, we were relieved to find the fire had obeyed and burned itself out when it reached the sheep trail and green grass. Or did it? There were patches of burned grass throughout the green grass and a suspiciously smoldering log along a fence line. We drove up and found a downed tree had caught fire and was smoking, as in a dying campfire. Hank soaked it and put it out. As I was watching him do this, the utility vehicle died. Just stopped running. Apparently, it was out of gas. We thanked God that it had gotten us through that intense period of fighting fire and stopped just as we were finishing up. We grabbed our things and walked back to the farm.
What an amazing, adrenaline-filled day. We can check off "prairie burning" on our spring to-do list, and I can count this as one more life-building experience I'd never get if I lived in civilization.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Handmade Gifts From the Heart

This time of year can cause us all a great deal of stress … presents to buy, people to please, and it feels like there’s never enough money or time to go around. A few years ago I started keeping a “gift file” where I keep pages ripped from catalogs and notes on things I’ve seen throughout the year that might make a thoughtful gift for one of my loved ones. I also shop at antique stores for things that will make unique gifts for those people who appreciate things like that. Recently, I also began keeping a “handmade gifts” file where I write down ideas for things I can make that will cost very little but will still fit the bill for Christmas gifts. Here are a few of my favorites that can be done last minute…

*Gingersnaps in a Jar*

Buy a vintage quart-sized canning jar at an antique store (usually around $5) and fill with the following ingredients. Tie on a tag with the baking instructions and throw in a new wooden spoon or vintage pot holder and this gift is good to give.

Re-type or print out this tag and
affix to jar

1 1/4cups packed dark brown sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Assemble the jar ~ Spoon the brown sugar into the jar and press down into an even layer. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt into a bowl. Using a funnel or spoon, add the flour mixture to the jar and tap lightly to form an even layer. Sprinkle the ginger, cinnamon, and cloves on top. Print out (or re-type) a tag with the baking instructions (at right) and attach to the jar with a fancy ribbon or piece of raffia.

*A Selection of Homemade Baked Goods*

Some crowd pleasers:

   * Peanut Butter Balls:

   * No-knead Bread:

   * Iced Sugar cookies (recipe below)

Wrap in tins, baskets, or bags, throw in a card, and hand deliver or overnight the package to special loved ones. Most of the cost of this gift will be incurred in the shipping, and will vary depending on where the recipient lives.

~Iced Sugar Cookies~

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 sticks butter
2/3 cup white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla


1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
4 teaspoons meringue powder (available online or on the bakers supply aisle, even Michael’s)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons water
Sprinkles, optional

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder in a small bowl and whisk to stir.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar. Beat on high speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, beat well. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined.

Press dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Roll out dough to ¼ -inch thickness and cut out cookies. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes until edges are lightly browned.

Icing: Combine the powdered sugar, meringue powder, and salt in a small bowl and whisk together. Gradually add the water, whisking until smooth. Using an offset spatula, spread on cookies and add sprinkles immediately. Let cookies dry for at least 1 hour before handling, preferably overnight.

My handmade soap wrapped in strips of scrapbooking paper,
in a dish stamped “Handmade in Italy” that I found
in an antique store for $5.

*Homemade Soap*  

If you’re a soapmaker or would like to try, check out my soapmaking instructions here: Just make sure to cut the bars neatly (or use a special wavy cutting tool) and wrap with wrapping paper, or the kind of printed paper sold at craft stores (like Michael’s) for scrapbooking. Place the soaps in an interesting container from an antique or secondhand store and tie a ribbon or raffia around it. (I trawl my local Goodwill shop for home goods where they sell for 49 to 99 cents each.)

Note: Remember that homemade soap should cure for at least 2 weeks before using, so if you make it last minute, be sure to tell the recipient what date the soap can be used.

*Homemade Bird Treat Ornaments*

I saw this idea in the December 2011 issue of Garden Gate magazine …

3/4cup white or wheat flour
3 cups bird seed mix
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup raw peanuts
1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 ounce unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons light corn syrup

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Measure the boiling water in a glass measuring cup. Add the gelatin to the water and stir until its dissolved. Add the corn syrup and mix well. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients and mix well. It should be very thick and sticking together. Spoon the dough into muffin tins. Using the end of the handle of a wooden spoon, poke a hold through the middle of each “muffin” while it’s still wet. Allow the ornaments to harden for at least 3 hours, then dump out of the pan and tie a ribbon through the hole for hanging on trees outside. Your loved one will enjoy watching the birds snack on these ornaments all winter long.

One of my walnut cheese boards in the finishing process.
*Something Unique from Nature*

Nature provides some of the most beautiful gifts I can imagine. This year, I made a point to give away some of our farm’s bounty. My husband milled some downed walnut trees and I selected some nice planks to cut into 12” x 8” slabs for bread or cheese boards. I sanded the slabs down and applied food-safe Butcher’s Block wax as a finish. I affixed small rubber feet on the backsides so the board is slightly raised and won’t slip on a countertop or table. For more on this project, see my previous post here:

Enjoy your handmade holidays and don’t stress!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Homemade Reese's - A Halloween Tale & Treat

Peanut butter balls - a delicious little Reese's-like truffle

Remember back in the day when folks actually used to give out homemade candies and goodies to trick-or-treaters? My sister and I would occasionally get a popcorn ball, or a small bag of chocolate chip cookies from the neighborhood old folks and we'd eat them just like the snack-sized candy bars that filled our plastic pumpkins. Then, the "razor blade in the candy bar" incident happened somewhere in America (who knows if it actually did happen or it was an urban legend) and moms everywhere recoiled in horror and suspicion over anything homemade at Halloween. 
As I was out walking this morning I was thinking if there was a way to bring back the homemade Halloween treat for trick-or-treaters. Would kids even want them? I thought, I could put my peanut butter balls (recipe below) in individual little baggies with my return address label on it, then people would know they could "trust" the source. But then, no, I'd have to put an ingredient list on it too because every other child out there is gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant or has peanut allergies, et cetera, so they better know what they're getting. But then if some overly eager child ate the thing before mom could thoroughly vet it, I'd be asking for trouble ... in the form of a lawsuit. What a sad, sad state of affairs we find ourselves in these days.  
So, do your family a favor and make these treats for yourselves ...

I love chocolate. And I love peanut butter. And let’s not forget salt. When I was young, my mom used to make these delicious little balls of peanut butter and chocolate goodness that contain absolutely nothing healthful. But I firmly believe in all things in moderation and eating these once a year—whether that’s Halloween or Christmas—certainly won’t kill you; though they’re so addictive they might put you in a sugar coma! Consider yourself warned.

12 ounces crunchy peanut butter (not the “natural” kind that separates)

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

16 ounces powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 bag semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips (good quality with cocoa butter; make sure the ingredients do not contain nonfat milk)

Kosher or sea salt

In a large bowl, with your hands, mix together the peanut butter, butter, sugar, and vanilla. Make sure it’s thoroughly combined and mixed. Wash your hands. Roll the mixture into balls and drop onto a wax-paper lined baking sheet. Freeze for one hour.

Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler or microwave, according to the package instructions for melting. Using a skewer, a mini spatula, a spoon—whatever works—roll or dip the balls in the melted chocolate and place on the wax paper. You may have to patch up the sides with melted chocolate (this is where the mini spatula comes in handy) if the candies come out a little rough. If you’ve got any fingers free from melted chocolate, sprinkle a pinch of Kosher or sea salt on top. Place in the refrigerator or freezer for a little while to set up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Here's a story I know many of you can relate to ... A few years ago, I was living a life of total deception. Deception regarding money, that is. I was working my editor-in-chief job in an office, believing that I needed all the trappings that go along with that title. If I wanted a new, expensive pair of shoes, well, I had a credit card. If I wanted new kitchen appliances, well, just open a Lowe's credit card! If I wanted new furniture, that's what credit cards are for! I was living well beyond my means, believing that "one day" I'd eventually pay off all those debts and the money I earned would actually be mine. Wrong.
Well, a change in "life circumstances" (as a friend calls it) occurred and I no longer had a paycheck that enabled me to keep riding that merry-go-round. I was faced with a huge reality check. I realized just how crushing and devastating all that debt really was. It caused fear in my heart (Will they come to get me? Will I have to file bankruptcy? How can I save face?) and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I immediately sold on Craigslist anything of value that could provide some cash. It's amazing how things looked differently to me. Why the hell did I spend $300 on that handbag ... those shoes ... that baubble? I ate through my freezer and pantry--no more shopping at Whole Foods--and somehow managed to survive. Every dime, every penny was cherished and every purchase, no matter how necessary (toilet paper!) was scrutinized. I went through a process of transformation. My mindset was that every time I felt the urge to whip out a credit card, I asked myself "Do you really need that? Or do you just want it? Why do you want it?"
Flash forward two years later, and the reason I'm writing this blog is because this morning I officially became debt free. I've been working for about a year and a half as a freelancer, and every time I'd get a paycheck for a writing or editing job, I'd put 3/4 of it toward that monster debt. My newly formed, farm-based bread business, The Local Loaf, funded groceries and provided needed cash flow. (Thank you Shannon Hayes for inspiring me to become a "Radical Homemaker.") The process caused all kinds of squabbles with my new husband ("Pay off those credit cards!"), and many "sacrifices" on my part--can you believe no haircut/color for 8 months?--but for the first time in my life I could see the forest through the trees. My husband's Midwestern upbringing and natural frugality, combined with our ever-increasing mission of self-sustainability and rejection of consumerism has led me to this day. Dave Ramsay's "I'm debt freeeeeeeeeee!" was also ringing in my ears. It has definitely been a journey to get here; but the journeys where I've learned the most have always been a result of having the least.
Now the fun can really start!   

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bling My Barn

barn before
Last Friday, just after finishing mowing the lawn, I was outside with the dogs. A red truck came idling up the drive, which is always concerning (I guess we live off a gravel road for a reason). The man behind the wheel asked if I had any interest in having my old barn painted and if so he could give me a quote and a good price since he and his crew had just finished painting our neighbor’s barn about 4 miles down the road. My first inclination was to shoo him away, saying I wasn’t interested because these types of approaches usually scare me, but then I thought ... it would be nice to have that old eye-sore made over. What’s the danger in getting a quote?

blinged barn
So, we ambled down to the barn in the stifling 95-degree heat and humidity and he described how he and his crew travels around, painting all the barns, outbuildings, even houses in the area every year. He said it would be great for him to round out the week with another job. We talked about the regional differences and colors of barns in the Midwest (red), as opposed to Kentucky (where I moved from, and where all the barns are black, for tobacco) and Tennessee (where he is from). He offered to do the job for little more than what paint would cost, so I made the call to the hubby at work. After asking a few more probing questions like “Are you a gypsy?” (kidding), we decided to take him up on the offer, quietly saying a prayer that it would all be OK. About an hour later, the paint truck rolled up with the crew and instantly our barn roof was being painted with a shiny aluminum asphalt paint. It took about an hour for it to be sprayed and finished. They came back the next morning and painted the body red—in about 3 hours. Incredible!
After they were done, we walked all the way around, pointed out some thin spots, one area of touch up, and asked that one of the pipe gates be wiped down from overspray, and they did it without consternation. Incredible … again!
So, as you can see the results at right, we’re quite pleased with the transformation. I guess sometimes you do have to step outside your comfort zone and take a chance … and give someone else a chance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Double the Fun

A few weeks ago I was asked by Tabitha Alterman, the Mother Earth News and Natural Home & Garden food and gardening editor, to write a blog for their website. So, I asked myself if I had the time or motivation to do two blogs, and decided that I didn't. But ... I'm doing it anyway!
My new blog over there is called "Common Fare" and I'm writing mostly about food and cooking, including my Chocolate-Bacon Muffins (seen at right) and Lemon Polenta Cake. Click here for the recipes. I'm not sure what the deal is with the "Comment" function for the blogs there, but the situation looks a little bleak. Consider opening a user account and then you can Comment away your afternoons!
Hank and I have recently returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington, which was a big hit. I did "The Art of No-Knead Artisan Bread" workshops on Saturday and Sunday from the prep kitchen at the Fairgrounds while behind me, Eating Well magazine's food editor, Jessie Price, sliced fish and prepared appetizers for her demonstration. It was a hoot, and she was great! What wasn't great was the oven at the fairgrounds. An electric range not capable of sustaining 475 degrees (and hardly even reaching it for that matter), yielded less-than-perfect loaves and downright despicable baguettes. Though it did make me want to hug my hard-working Kenmore Elite Pro gas range when I returned home. I realized I would not have my bread biz, The Local Loaf, without that crucial piece of equipment.
All in all, it's shaping up to be a busy summer. Lots of gardening, farming, and projects in the works, which I'll detail here soon. Love and miss you all!