Farmgirl School

"It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life." -Tolkien

Before we moved here, the chicken coop’s prior life was as a tool shed and workshop. It is 15×10 with a window across from the heavy door. Doug stapled wire fencing over the window to keep predators out and chickens in. No raccoon can open that door in the wee hours of night for chicken snacks. Rafters and shelves allow the chickens to roost. It makes an ideal coop.

It is surrounded by dog panel fencing so that we can keep them confined near their coop if we are leaving or if there is risk of predators. That opens into a huge pasture for them to free range and find bugs and accept bread thrown over from the neighbor’s balcony.

It was painted blue to match the house. That must have been some years ago, because the ply-board and planks had begun to show through the chipped and faded paint. I went out one early spring day and began to paint it orange. It was not the shade I intended and I ran out of paint three sides in, so it has sat, a horrid orange and faded blue exterior with chipped paint gables, for months.

I have the most fabulous wwoofer at the moment. You shall get to know Annie and her lively spirit over the next few weeks. She helped me paint yesterday. The goats assisted, as goats love to do, and we totally transformed the derelict looking coop into a gorgeous outbuilding. The goats are now the same color as the coop.

Yes, that is wet paint.

The chickens approve of their new haven. It is easy enough to transform and freshen any building or wall. Just grab a goat or two and a brush. We even freshened up the farm sign while we were at it!

Colorado can be harsh and it can be breathtakingly glorious. It can be twenty below zero, a hundred and five, with a severe drought, or a wild flood. A month without rain then torrents then clear. A mere few miles to the south and also to the west of me, hail completely destroyed the gardens of friends and family. A few sprinkles hit our corn. In Colorado, you never know what will happen. The weather is as fierce as its beauty.

My grandfather, my father, Doug’s parents are from here. We were born here. Our children were born here. Our children’s children were born here. Despite our dreaming of other places, Colorado is home. It holds the people that hold our hearts.

Because of this, we choose to homestead here. I realize after talking to perspective wwoofers that the perceptions of Colorado range greatly. Denver is not in the mountains. We are in the high desert. We rarely have snow. The mountains are where the snow is. We are often in drought. We have a four month growing season. Cactus and cedar grow best here. The wind blows most of the time. It is cold most of the year, but with the sun shining on your face, even winter days can be wonderful. If you can learn to farm here, you can farm anywhere. The views are staggering, the weather this summer quite pleasant, and the gardens doing well.

In the morning, I rise, let out the chickens, throw them scratch and watch them run free. I let out and feed the ducks and watch them flap their wings madly in the morning light. I throw hay to the goats and a scoop of food to their faithful guard- an oversized Great Pyrenees who watches his fortress with grace and a bit too much tenacity. I feed the cats and give them fresh water. The kittens chase flies and toy mice. Our oldest kitty endearingly watches Dad work. He is so happy that Doug works from home presently.

Coffee on a homestead is next, of course. If it is winter, the wood stove would be stoked. In summer, I stay outdoors as long as I can, writing, reading, putting the hot, dark liquid to my lips.

Weeding, watering, killing squash bugs, harvesting, replanting, making sure the resident toad has water, admiring the foliage, the colors, with gratitude for the sustenance contained within a mere seed that will fill our bodies and pantry with food. I watch the hummingbirds and listen to the song birds. The ducks swim in their pool, the dog sleeps in the shade of the barn, the chickens bathe in the dirt. The heat comes quickly so I work faster.

Canning, housework, cooking, laundry all fill the summer days of a farm wife who is also the farmer. The busyness feels good and I stretch to relieve my tired muscles. When my farm interns arrive this week, we will tackle the larger projects of painting the large chicken coop, mucking the coop and mini-barn, and starting keyhole gardens. Making sure we still have time to sit on the porch and admire the view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and watch as a hawk lazily glides overhead. The breeze through the trees and the fresh air of country caress as we enjoy sweet tea.

I work on my weaving in the late afternoons. Or maybe read a magazine before I realize another task undone. Winter is for resting. Summer is for doing and my mind and body love it.

I love homesteading. Up with the sun. Working with my hands. Doing things from scratch. Dedicating my life to hard work, family, animals, and creating beauty and sustenance. To be grounded with hands in the soil, my eyes on the horizon, my heart at peace.

The yeasty, earthy smell of bread wafts through the house. The sourdough rye will be perfect to sop up the soup I am making. A little butter on the still-warm bread is worth every step of breadmaking. A small glass of cold wine pulls it all together. We eat outdoors while watching the swallows swoop and call. The mountains in the distance are beautiful in the summer light. Our homestead is safe and comforting and filled with many balms for the soul- homemade bread being one of them.

On our first homestead, we bartered for a hand grinder. It was equipped to attach to a bicycle, which certainly would have been easier than the seemingly endless cranking, but I do like things that are non-electric in every instance I can. Off grid is the goal here. I do wish we still had it, but there are other great choices out there.

A Vitamix is a must-have on any homestead. This small car engine of a blender makes delicious smoothies, purees soups, makes non-dairy queso, and pulverizes tomatoes for canning sauce so that I don’t have to peel them! There is a separate container that I have under-utilized thus far. It is for grains and nuts. It makes nut butters and grinds grains in an instant. Our Vitamix is a dozen years old and is rather tired, the engine puttering along. We will probably invest in another one next year. It is a great way to have one machine that does many things.

My friend recently gifted me with a Whisper Mill grain grinder. It sounds like a jet engine, but in seconds gave me the most velvety soft and fine flour for my bread. I really like this mill. You can choose how fine you want the grain ground and it works very fast. I highly recommend this one.

Bread is easy enough to make once you have the feel for it and there are many ways to make bread faster. Jim Lahey revolutionized the bread making world with his techniques in his book, My Bread. And from there, you just make your way. Always use 2 parts white flour (organic, unbleached please) and 1 part whole grain. Any whole grain can be used. Try oats, or corn, rye, barley, or whole wheat. They are very inexpensive in bulk at the health food store or online. A vendor at the farmer’s market gave me a bit of his sourdough starter and that is making our bread all the more wonderful.

Grains have always been a part of homesteading. They are a source of valuable nutrients that fight cancer, provide fiber, and carbs for energy. Protein isn’t energy, carbs are! You need a balance of foods to keep up on a homestead, y’all. There are escaped goats to catch, a chicken coop and barn to muck, gardens to weed, straw to haul, and hours at the stove canning. That warm bread is just one of a million things that make it all worth it and wonderful.

Some of my bread recipes: Grain Mills and Rye Bread, Basic Quick Bread Formula (and Cranberry Walnut Bread), Maple Molasses Whole Wheat Bread

Have you ever stood in front of a row of grapes? The crisp lines marching up hills? The leaves lovely in autumn? Have you ever sipped a glass of wine in a vineyard and thought of the journey from planting to harvesting to magic in a glass?

Temecula wine country in California

Something about it fascinates me. I am a one-glass-of-wine a day kind of girl, but I appreciate that glass of transport. I have taken some amazing sommelier classes that helped me see, smell, and swirl my way to unlocking the mysteries of one of the oldest drinks in the world. The rings at the edge of the glass speak of vine age. The color foretells wine age and varietal The smell whispers terroir and place and of oak barrels or steel. The taste goes on about the farmers, the roses at the end of the rows, of the farms nearby, of the toil and prayers and careful blending, and the people who made it.

Napa Valley

I’ve long dreamed of a vineyard. I have read more books than I can recall on the subject. I know we should try to run our rows north to south so they gather as much sun as they like. I know they like difficult soil. I know they need a longer growing season. The very soil that is so difficult to grow crops in here is the very same that grapes would love. Spreading their long roots into the limestone earth gathering nutrients and flavors of our home.

Northern California

We have explored many a vineyard with different friends through Napa Valley and Sonoma, through Temecula, and New Mexico. And down the road to local wineries with fine and different varietals and blends and unique Colorado flavors.

We think and we ask questions of other wine makers, of vineyard owners, of Mother Earth. Could we sustain a vineyard here? Would it be too much work for me? Would it cost too much in water? Eight gallons of water per week required. We scarcely get rain. A local winery will buy all of our grapes. But you know me, could I make good wine from my own grapes? Would the start-up cost be exorbitant?

Life is an adventure. If you have a dream, just go for it!

I love walking out onto the back porch and being greeted by the ducks. Sitting with my cup of coffee in the mornings watching them splash in their swimming pools and quacking at the goats and wagging their tail feathers (they love the goats!) just makes me happy.

It looks like we may have one female and two males. Sandia is a little louder and smaller. The boys, Serrano and Big Jim (all named after New Mexican chili peppers) are quieter, bigger, and less agile.

We chose Pekin ducks this time around. We always had Runner ducks and they are hilarious to watch as they run by, a herd of bowling pins quacking along. We never did have ducks past five months of age because inevitably, we would have to move and circumstances would require us to re-home them. We chose Pekin ducks because they are suppose to be friendlier and more pet-like. Ours are very sweet but they have no desire to be snuggled. Pity. They are so dang cute!

Farm ducks lay anywhere from 60-200 eggs a year. The eggs are larger, and I hear quite good for pastry making. I suppose you could eat the ducks themselves, but we aren’t really into eating our animals around here. The boys are pretty docile. My runner males were a little nippy with the chickens but were excellent companions to the female ducks (hens).

They sleep in a large dog kennel with an old Mexican blanket over it to keep wind and rain out of the holes. They go in on their own at night and we close it to protect them from marauding predators in the night. My past ducks did not go in on their own and had to be herded into the chicken coop at night. I am this group likes their shelter.

We buy an All Flock feed that the chickens and the ducks eat. Ducks love fresh veggies chopped up and put in their swimming pool. Lettuce is among their favorites. They don’t have teeth, so smaller pieces are best. They eat by nibbling then drinking, so leave their food near their water. They will chomp on weeds, sometimes dragging them to the swimming pool.

Homestead ducks don’t typically fly, but certainly research duck breeds before choosing one. Some are dual purpose (meat and eggs), some are better egg layers than others, some are better at flying over fences than others, some breeds are more docile than others. Our Pekin ducks are considered dual breed. They were readily available at the feed store in the spring. Ducks are sold straight run, which means not sexed. Pekin ducks lay 150 eggs per year.

In the Appalachians, homesteaders would pluck the ducks of their down feathers once a month or so for pillows and mattresses. Just grab them and pluck ’em. I very much doubt we will be doing that here though.

Ducks are excellent insect control. They dig into the mulch and will eradicate eggs and bugs. They can clear a field of grasshoppers. I will employ them in the fall since they ate my tomatoes this week and were promptly evicted from the garden.

Ducks are very easy to care for. Eggs, entertainment, and bug control are all great reasons to get ducks for your homestead.

Ruth and Joel’s house was cozy and warm. The sun shone through the large windows looking out on the cold mountains just yonder, the wood stove stood guard against the chill, in front of a wood cabin wall. Their children played with simple toys and brought me books to read them. Ruth had sewing waiting for her- a task she dislikes despite her very fancy sewing machine plugged into the outlet that is supplied by propane. She brought us out sweet rolls and a drink. We talked of her husband’s job, canning, her makeshift root cellar under the house, and about the animals. It was really no different- to my surprise- than if you visited my farm some January morn. Except that her husband rode his bike or hitched up the horses to go to work, whereas my husband starts the Fiat, which is much smaller than Joel’s buggy.

Ruth and Joel are Amish. We have a small community not far from here and a good number of Mennonites as well. Tourists snap photos of their buggies and horses and sweet caps and darling children.

I, myself, was rather fascinated by the Amish. The simplicity. The family focus. The back-to-earth lifestyle of gardening, chopping wood, living off grid, and staying away from the chaos and destruction of social media and television. Living on faith and hard work and enjoying the slow, simple life of a happily busy existence is something most people these days are searching for, which just adds to our fascination of people brave enough to live that way.

The Amish didn’t create anything new. The pioneers lived that way out of necessity. The indigenous cultures of each country lived that way at one time. Some still do. The back-to-land dreamers of the 1970’s saw the benefits. There are men and women who quietly live this way today.

People choose to live a homestead life for many reasons: food security, and health, to live closer to the earth (therefore feel closer to the Creator), and to walk softer on the planet. The focus is on simple life requirements such as: growing food, saving water, raising animals, being close to family, having faith, and providing basic necessities for oneself, like heat, medicine, clothes, and other handmade items.

It starts with the buying of a few cute oil lamps at the antique store. Next thing you know, you’re weaving scarves and sewing quilts and making baskets. Soap, body products, cleaning products can easily be made. Then you are cooking on a wood stove and have your crocheting nearby. Instead of fine art, you display five hundred stained glass-looking, sparkling jars of food. Researching rain barrels and organic methods to gardening and increasing the size of the tomato rows is next. Then you are making mead, inviting friends over for farm suppers in front of a bonfire, or getting the instruments out to strum some music for the ducks while watching the sun set neatly behind the mountains, splaying splashes of vibrant summer colors across the clouds that you pray rain will come from.

It is a good life, and every year we strive to become more and more self reliant while still immersing ourselves in our community. The reasons that people do not choose to homestead are things like: no time (didn’t you just post that you binge watched something like eighteen hours of some ridiculous show?), no skills (no time like the present to learn! There are lots of great books in the library or you can order mine here!), too hard (you can reverse ailments and get super healthy farming), and then there is the age old don’t-want-to-give-up-anything. Just remember, that big house, green lawn, fancy electric appliances, gas guzzling multiple cars, credit card bills, manicures, hair dye, and restaurants all have to be worked for. They cost hours of your life. I’m not saying those are bad things, but if we want a life of peace, then we must choose what we want to spend our life working for. If homesteading is on your list, this is a great time to get started.

We processed three bushels of corn this weekend. Forty-six jars of corn and two gallons of frozen corn were added to our winter stores. In addition to the edible kernels, there are other by-products of canning corn ourselves.

After cutting off the kernels, the majority of the cobs go to the chickens along with any under-ripe ears. My very large soup pot gets filled with the best looking empty cobs. I keep onions, ends of leeks, floppy carrots, anything just starting to turn, in the freezer for broth. This morning I will add all of the onions and lots of garlic to the pot of cobs and will end up with around 18 quarts of corn broth. Then the cobs from the pot will go to the chickens as well. After the chickens are done with the cobs, we will let them dry out in the sun in the chicken pasture. When dry, the cobs make perfect fire starters, so they will be gathered up and stored for winter fires.

The husks can be used to make tamales ( I ought to learn how) or fun corn husk dolls. Around here, they will go in the compost and add a much needed “green” addition to our mostly straw compost piles.

There is yet one more product that corn gives us. As an herbalist, it is a very important one in my medicine stores. Corn silk. Keep the corn silk after shucking and store it in a paper bag with a few holes punched in it. Mine is hanging in the garage to dry. Once completely dry (give it a few months), store in a resealable bag or jar.

Corn silk is specific to the urinary tract system. It is a common tea in Japan. It is quite tasty with a hint of corn. Corn silk helps keep the kidneys, bladder, and urethra free of infection and acts as a mild diuretic. It is not an antibiotic- for a full kidney medicine add juniper berries, echinacea, cranberries, and dandelion. Corn silk tea each day can help prevent infections of the urinary tract. It is basically free medicine. It is so easy to save it after shucking corn to throw on the grill or to preserve.

It is high canning and gardening season around here and I do love to be busy. I love how Mother Nature feeds us and medicates us with simple plants from the wild and in our own garden.

Crispy, delicious eggplant slices on top of spaghetti with a rich tomato sauce. Fried pickles with ranch and a cold beer on a hot summer day. Fried zucchini and mushrooms are another favorite that take me back to Grandma’s house. Swinging my feet at her dining room table waiting for a plate of fried mushrooms, cauliflower, and zucchini.

Crispy eggplant

I rarely fill the Dutch oven with oil. The grease and dripping fried food doesn’t appeal to me as much as it used to. Here is an easy way to transform vegetables into crispy, baked, “fried” foods perfect as a main dish, side dish, or great snack after watering the gardens. This basic recipe works for pretty much any vegetable (even chicken if you didn’t name yours).

I mixed cornmeal with flavored bac’n bits, flour, and salt and pepper to make fried pickles.
  • If you are starting with something moist, like pickles or chicken, get three cereal bowls out and put flour in the first one.
  • If you are using drier veggies, like zucchini or eggplant, take out two. Crack a few fresh eggs in one bowl and whisk (if you are vegan, almond milk works just fine).
  • Pour panko in the last bowl. I sometimes like to mix panko with cornmeal, or if I am out of panko, I mix cornmeal with flour. Add any blend of spices you like into the panko. I add salt, pepper, nutritional yeast, then add Italian spices, Mexican spices, or curry depending on what I am making. Maybe just a little rosemary or thyme, or Parmesan, or just salt and pepper! Cooking is a sensory experience, so just add by feel.
  • For wet vegetables (or the unnamed chicken breasts), cover in flour first (rinse and pat dry before dipping into flour).
  • Dip everything in egg then in panko mixture.
  • Place vegetables on an oiled (olive oil) cookie sheet. In the summer, I love to use my toaster oven for cooking. (If you are baking chicken, cook at 375 degrees for one hour in a casserole dish. When poked with the tip of a knife, the juices should be clear.)
  • Bake vegetables at 425 in the toaster oven for 10-15 minutes, turning once, until crisp and smelling heavenly.

Fresh vegetables are abundant right now and salads are fabulous, but sometimes we need to bite into crisp, battered vegetables dipped in something cold and savory to really enjoy the good life!

I read a great book recently called, This Tractor Life; A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Woofers by Pamela Jane Lincoln. I was initially a little disappointed that it was primarily a cookbook (I have a zillion cookbooks but this one is rather good!) but it was more than that. Those little things the universe does to subtly direct our paths is always fascinating to me.

We had heard of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a great program that helps farmers find much needed help and up and coming farmers find mentors and places to learn. This Tractor Life takes place in Australia on an organic farm and vineyard. The author tells stories of the recipes she shares, most coming from young people that shared her farm for a weekend or a month. Stories of woofers from all over the world intrigued me.

Stephanie and Emily holding a very little Maryjane

We watched the old Winnebago with bikes attached to the back roll past our little farm in Kiowa some six years ago. The New York plates gave away that our visitors had arrived. I had received an email from Ethan, who read my blog, asking if he and his girlfriend could come learn herbalism from me and if they could help on our farm.

Our rented farm in Kiowa

They were twenty-four years old, excited to be in Colorado, and were delightful. Ethan had on overalls and his long, blond hair was up in a beautiful man-bun. Stephanie’s long, blond locks were tucked behind her shoulder and her lovely Swedish face was always smiling. They camped out in our driveway for six weeks.

The local policeman (knowing full well that they were our farm interns) would harass them constantly in good humor. Ethan was on the phone at the fairgrounds, up in the stands to find good reception, with his jar of iced tea by his side. The chief approached him and asked him if it was moonshine and gave him a real good ribbing before letting him jump the fence back to our house. They were entertainment for our tiny town. They were young and dramatic and fought and made up loudly for all the town to hear. They were fascinated by our large western sky, something I had always taken for granted. They would yell, “It’s time!” each and every evening, grabbing lawn chairs and their glasses of wine and would go sit in the pasture with the goats to see our fantastic sunsets. We had wonderful meals and good company.

I still keep in touch with Ethan. He is a farmer in upstate New York. Last I heard, Stephanie had started an herbal business.

I very nearly gave up last week. Was just ready to get a small raised bed of tomatoes and a hot tub. Our gardens are much larger than before and I am at the very edge of what I can do mostly by myself (my husband does things as he can while working 40+ hours a week). I also know that our gardens are not nearly the size they need to be to sustain us. I admit I need help. We thought we would be able to find a local kid to help, or even a farm intern, but that hasn’t been the case. Our children live a touch too far to come help their mom and it is not really what they want to do on weekends anyway.

This program might be just what we need. We applied yesterday to be hosts. We have an orientation Tuesday and then we will be ready to receive guests. The WWOOFing program is set up as a directory where farm interns can find hosts. They choose anywhere in the world they want to go to, then contact a host there. The hosts provide room and board and the willingness to teach and the guest puts in 3-4 hours of work a day to help with the farm. The farm has to be organic (certification not necessary) and sustainable.

Even though we are a small farm, there is lots to do and learn here. I am a practicing Master Herbalist, we are putting in a vineyard, greenhouse, and rain barrel system. We have large gardens and medicine plants and wonderful things to see and do around here. We are excited to meet people from all over the world and host like minded people who feel farming is as important as we do!

Yesterday, while lamenting the incredible overpopulation of destructive bugs, I posted a picture of the gardens with three adorable ducks sitting outside the closed kitchen garden gate, practically yelling, “Put me in, Coach!” They were employed this morning and have been doing a great job eating grasshoppers. I am afraid they take way too many breaks to go swimming. I think they will really help us out though.

While they attacked grasshoppers, I turned my attention to squash bugs. They are easy to catch with tongs and then drop into soapy water. Look on the undersides of the leaves for tiny red eggs and scrape them off. Spray the base of each plant with a 27 oz water bottle filled with a teaspoon of castile or dish soap and 15 drops of peppermint essential oil (thanks, cousin Janet!). It makes the little buggers come out so you can catch them and repels them from the plant (for awhile). Grasshoppers hate the spray too but they come right back and they are harder to catch. So, that is the ducks’ new job.

Sandia, Serrano, and Big Jim (named so because they love chili peppers!) save the potatoes from grasshoppers!

We always used to shrug and count on next year. We never proactively fought for our gardens. We didn’t have to. But these days are a little weird, y’all, as you may have noticed. Empty shelves, rioting, and social media craziness makes us homesteaders sit up and take notice. Might be a good idea to fight a little harder to feed ourselves. This is our first year on this particular homestead, and I know from experience that the third year of compost and growing is really the very best. So we will get there. We have come a long way on this little homestead in the past eleven months.

There’s no place like home.