Monday, June 27, 2011

Why do people go camping?

We pulled into the Waterloo campground with a Jeep crammed full of enough stuff to stay a year and an old pop-up camper bouncing along behind it. The place was packed; dirty kids running around screaming and so many dogs tied up you would think this is where all rednecks in the state of Michigan come to gather for some sort of yearly ritual. There was a mix of expensive campers, cheap tents and strange lawn ornaments set up to make each camping space appear unique by their weekend inhabitant. Signs carved from heavily stained wood in the shape of the Michigan mitten with words like "camper sweet camper" and "Welcome to Bob and Sue's." It was a strange culture indeed. I have never been camping in a 'regular' campground with community showers and bathrooms, marked off lots with fire pits and an adorable paved winding road connecting the community of campers with kids of all ages racing bikes up and down from dawn till well past dark. I laughed as we first pulled in and proclaimed we needed to leave promptly; it was organized chaos everywhere I looked. We only lived 20 minutes away, why was I giving up my bed, personal bathroom and full refrigerator to stay 2 days in an old ripped up camper with just a cooler and fold out chair in this bizarre place?

We unpacked the kid, dogs and chairs and settled in. We built a fire and then sat and stared at it for a while. Ok, here we are. We're camping. Now what? We watched what appeared to be a dog show parade up and down the adorable road; Chihuahuas leading their owners that also somewhat resembled the look of a Chihuahua. Obese labs getting their first walk of the year and panting heavily. Hyper Boston Terrier's whining at each passing person and getting on everyone's nerves (ok, that might be my dog).

We met up with some relatives of ours that stayed just a few lots down and had coffee together, then joined back up to share a dinner over the fire, each person contributed something to the meal; taco salad, hot dogs, potato salad, grilled vegetables (for those of us afraid of hot dogs) chips, candy. Meals consisted of anything that could be cooked over a fire or easily assembled from cooler items on a picnic table.

And this is what we did for two straight days. Sat around, ate, watch dogs and kids pass by. Went to the little beach on Sugar Loaf Lake that bordered the campground. And then ate some more. It felt strange the first day, being part of a community like this. It's not that I had not camped before, I just never camped at an actual family campground. I never knew this many people gathered in one area, likely just few miles from their own comfortable home to sleep in campers and eat all weekend. Why? As you look around, what's different here than from being at home? Families were actually talking to each other and spending time together. Everyone was sitting on their 'lawns' and greeting other campers as they went by. I did not see one tv, laptop or video game, even cell phones didn't get service. Kids were getting exercise and socializing with the other camper kids. Everyone had 'unplugged' from their lives and were finding other things to do to entertain themselves. When you look deep enough, it really is a refreshing sight. Our camper is old, not that comfortable and tight on space, but getting out of our house and the daily rituals of checking email, watching tv, texting and cleaning it felt good to just let my daughter run around dirty, eat junk food and completely unplug from our lives. I would say I'm eager to do it again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heritage or Meat Bird Cross?

So far raising chickens seems very easy except for the initial layer of dust that coated everything when I had them as baby chicks in the house. All you do is let them out in the morning, they eat grass and poop all over, and then you shut the door after they put themselves back in at night. You give them fresh water daily and once or twice a week make sure their food container is full and the poop isn't accumulating in the coop. Easiest pets ever.

So why not get more?

I've been toying with the idea of raising some birds for the table. 'Meat birds' in the chicken world. I'm a selective vegetarian meaning I usually do not eat meat unless I know for a fact that it was raised humanely; this generally means I never eat meat because for some reason 'raised humanely' is hard to find and when you do it's expensive as hell. However, there are certain times of the year that I miss it. I miss the bbq'd chicken on the fourth of July over the fire and I miss that beautiful bird coming out of the oven on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. If I could just raise a few birds with love and care to cover these holiday meals, I'd be satisfied.

I'm in my beginning stages of research right now on exactly what kind of birds I should raise and whether or not I will start breeding them so I can raise and sell my own chicks. I've discovered there are two distinct categories: meat birds (cornish x's) and heritage or 'true-breed' birds.

A meat bird is a special bird bred specifically for its quick growth and large size. This is a very economical bird; it is ready for butcher within 6 weeks while many heritage birds can take up to 6 months or more.
This is the most remarkable meat producing bird we have ever seen. Special matings produce chicks with broad breasts, big thighs, white plumage, and yellow skin. The rapid growth of these chicks is fantastic and the feed efficiency remarkable.
Murray McMurray Hatchery
Standard fast growing meat bird known as the Cornish Cross X
Meat birds are commonly referred to as a Cornish X because the parents and grandparents generally come from a selective cross between a standard Cornish and Plymouth Rock. The parents are so specially selected for their size and growth rate that they would likely be unrecognizable as the breeds most backyard chicken farmers would know. From this cross, only first line chicks can be hatched; you cannot breed a Cornish X with a Cornish X and expect the same results, therefore it is not possible to hatch and raise these birds on your own.
Modern broilers are typically a third generation offspring (an F2 hybrid). The broiler's four grandparents come from four different strains, two of which produce the male parent line and two of which provide the female parent line, which are in turn mated to provide the broilers. The double cross protects the developer's unique genetics as strains cannot be reproduced from the broiler offspring. In 2003, approximately 42 billion broilers were produced, 80% of which were produced by four companies: Aviagen, Cobb-Vantress, Hubbard Farms, and Hybro making them arguably, the most popular chicken to raise.
This chicken cross is not only used in commercial/industrial farming, but also by most backyard meat bird producers. It is still considered and all natural bird, it is not genetically modified and it can be raised organically. There are several known health problems with this hybrid bird; due to its large size and fast growth rate even if you did want to breed this bird, it is not always possible or successful. It is not uncommon for a Cornish Cross to actually break its own legs due to its phenomenal growth rate and suffer leg problems in general. It is very prone to heart failure and it's clear the digestive track has a hard time keeping up with its food consumption. A Cornish Cross does not have the instinct and ability to forage and free range as well as the heritage birds, and in combination with its exceptional growth rate it tends not to be as deeply flavored as the true breeds.

The second category of birds is the heritage or 'true breed' bird. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines this as:
A Heritage Egg can only be produced by an American Poultry Association Standard breed. A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a Heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.
There are a few heritage birds that are popular as a table bird, however, most heritage breeds that are used for meat production are actually referred to as 'dual purpose' birds because they will also lay eggs regularly which is necessary if you want to breed your own stock.

Some of the larger true breeds used for meat production include the Jersey Giant, Buckeye, Java, New Hampshire Red, Delaware, Wyandotte, Rock (White, Plymouth, Buff), Dorking, Orpington and Cornish. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages and each farmer has their own preference. The Jersey Giant can reach an outstanding 14 pounds, but could take up to 2 years to reach this peak weight comparably to a Cornish Cross that can weigh upwards of 10-12 lbs in a matter of 6-8weeks and baby chicks from the hatchery can often cost twice as much as the standard X's. Clearly raising a heritage breed is not the most economical way to go; if you are only in this for the money, a heritage breed likely will not be your first choice.

Several backyard farmers who have been there done that give me the crazy eye when I mention I'd like to start raising heritage birds for meat. Economically it just doesn't make sense. But when more and more industrial and backyard farmers are only using these hybrid birds for production, the true breed birds are becoming threatened and some are near extinction. Maybe you're wondering how serving an endangered bird for Thanksgiving dinner is helping it? (ok...good point) Raising awareness and gaining popularity in a breed is what keeps it alive, after all, these animals were originally kept and bred only for food purposes. If everyone tasted a roasted true breed Buff Orpington and thought it was the best thing they had ever tasted, the demand for it would sky rocket therefore the demand to keep these birds for breeding and selling would sky rocket and the breed in general would have a really big boost in popularity and growth; all because it's a really tasty table bird. Eating the birds is what keeps their breed alive.

Dorking Rooster
After reviewing several different breeds and getting some information from farmers who raise them I think I will settle on the Dorking. This is a rare breed that is believed to have originated in Italy during the time of the Roman Empire. It is also believed to have been a favorite of Julius Cesar. During the Roman Conquest it was introduced to Britain, making it one of the oldest English breeds. The Dorking has a medium to large sized rectangular body with odd very short, five-toed legs. To my benefit it lays white eggs; all of my current hens will lay either a brown egg or a blue egg. When it is time to hatch more babies, I will know that the white eggs belong to the Dorking and I can hatch only those.

The Dorking is not only a very old and very rare breed, it is also exceptionally tasty and has won first place in many taste tests; this is obviously very important if I'm putting all this time, money and effort into raising this breed.

As I said before this venture is not necessarily to make money. I want to have that big backyard BBQ with homemade sauce smothered over smoked chicken without the heartburn of guilt from cooking industrial farmed or even hybrid chickens that are so selectively bred they will have a heart attack if you don't butcher them at exactly 7 weeks of age. The heritage breed also offers a deep flavor you just cannot match and the satisfaction of helping a breed that may otherwise become extinct as fast food farming methods become more and more in demand.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

8 tips for the beginning gardener

My personal failures translated as 8 tips for the beginning gardener:
Each year starts ambitious with dreams of sugar beets dancing in my head. And each of the now three years I've had my own garden I've let it get away from me and did not properly plan.... Well not this year dammit! (ok. I kinda did it again this year with the whole 'not planning well' thing... but next year dammit!!!)
  • Make a plan. Not just the week before you buy plants/seeds, but months in advance. There were many seeds I could have started in April and missed the opportunity because I wasn't prepared. If you plant some crops earlier you can actually plant again in late summer/early fall.
    February is a good time to start looking at your garden. 
  • Keep a journal. I have no idea where I got my plants and seeds last year. I don't even recall what breed of tomatoes I tried, cherry maybe? I have no layout of where things were planted and what worked and what failed. These are all important learning tools for having a more successful garden the following year.
  • Water and weed. Sounds basic. Harder than you think. If you want a successful garden you will put in a lot of time. A garden over 5' is not something for someone faint of heart. You must want to garden and you must put the time into it even when it's hotter than hell and the a/c, an ice cream and t.v. sounds so much better. If you're leaving out of town for more than a day or two, have someone stop by for an hour to water it. The reward will pay off.
  • Have a preservation plan. Unfortunately one thing I do recall from our garden last year was that a lot of the harvest went to waste. It's amazing how many beans one plant can actually produce. If you're not regularly tending to the garden with a plan on preserving the access crop, it will go to waste and all of your hard work will also go to waste. I recommend learning how to use a canner, a hot water bath and getting a food dehydrator. Oh, and actually taking the time to use them!
  • Always plan for next year. What worked, what didn't, what type of compost/fertilizer you're going to use, crop rotation, companion planting... all things that need to be in your mind for a bigger success next year. 
  • Plant smart. Sure offering sweet corn from your own garden at your next BBQ sounds exciting. But corn takes a lot of room, a lot of water and a lot of fertilizer. Plant what you cannot readily get from a local farmers market or grocery store. For us, we eat a lot of green peppers and tomatoes, two things that are very hard to find organic at a reasonable price in our local grocery store. And nothing is the same as lettuce picked 5 minutes before you eat it. 
  • Look for  bugs. Really look hard, those suckers blend right into the leaves. One day you have a beautiful cabbage plant and 3 days later its more like a poorly sewn doily your grandma wants you to have filled with holes and wilting. A lot of organic gardening is accomplished by hand. Simply picking off bugs every other day will keep your garden healthy and within a reasonably sized garden won't take long.
  • Bond with your garden. Have a chair or bench near by that encourages you to spend time sitting and admiring your garden. Not only is this relaxing and meditating, it keeps you in tune with potential problems occurring and helps you keep track of what is ripe. Enjoy your garden. Spend an hour sitting by it instead of heading in early for that trashy sitcom you can't get enough of. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How to make a raised garden bed

This year we put in 6 raised garden beds in our 25' x 35' plot of dirt. Ideally we would have added 9-12 beds, but financially it made more sense to start with 6 and if it works for us add more next year. We purchased the fantastic book, Backyard Homestead, along with tons of really useful information it described many of the benefits you can expect from using raised garden beds. I had been contemplating it before but this info sealed the deal. I had to have raised beds:
  • Reduces soil compaction. With a 16 month old and two dogs, our garden is often a highway of ball chasing and wagon rides. Raising areas of the garden will keep traffic out of the planted areas and keep soil loose and aerated for the roots to grow.
  • More space. It may seem the opposite, but raising the beds allows you to place your plants closer together because you no longer need a place to step in between. Also, because the beds are raised and the paths in between are more defined, your walkways can be smaller as well.
  • Controlled soil conditions. Each plant needs specific nutrients. When your plants are organized based on growing needs you can pick and choose where to mulch and fertilize without having to apply it to the entire garden, often wasting it on walkways and un-planted soil.
  • Weed control. Using grass clippings and leaves in the walkways controls weeds and unwanted growth in-between beds. And since your soil conditions are more controlled within the beds, after the first two or so years weeding becomes a thing of the past as long as you are not bringing in soil or compost that is seeded.
  • Easier to tend a raised garden. Bringing the garden up brings it closer to you making it easier to weed, pick and tend to on a daily basis. This is especially important to me being 8 months pregnant in the middle of summer. The less bending the happier I am. 
  • Looks classy. Man our garden looks good now! Really organizes your plants making crop rotation easier and companion planting more effective.
We already had a few 2" x 6" x 8' boards in the garage so we built the first raised bed with those. The hubby simply cut one of the 8' boards in half, using wood screws assembled a box together measuring 4' x 8' x 6" high. The hubby pulled in dirt toward the center of the box making somewhat of a trench on the outside. Using a level he moved earth around until the box was level with the ground. He then began using dirt from around the box, mostly where the walkways will be, and filled the box full. When the first one was complete it seemed a bit low compared to what we had in mind. The Backyard Homestead recommended using a 6" or 8" high boards for the boxes. We decided to purchase 8" high boards to complete the remaining 5 boxes. We spaced the boxes out 3 feet on each side. Using a similar method of pulling dirt in, then placing the box in the desired area, using a tape measure to measure 3' off of the first box we put in and then a level to ensure it was level with the ground, he then used dirt from the walkways and the area of the garden that would not have boxes to fill each one in. Overall the process for creating the 6 boxes only took about four hours, but it was a 90 degree day so I think it felt a little longer to the hubby. We did not use corner supports for the boxes, we simply screwed together the four walls and it seems to be holding the dirt and weight of water with no complaints.
trenching around the garden box to mark where it will go
pulling dirt into the center of the box from the walkways
helping to define where the garden box will go

I told him to 'make it look really hot out'
it was 90 degrees that day, the sarcastic
look is for the fact that no acting was
necessary to portray this

too hot for dogs

Using this amazingly easy and useful tool from Mother Earth News, I planned out what and where to plant each item in the garden based on companion planting and time of the year to plant. I'm very much an amateur gardener and I'm constantly learning as I go, with this map of the garden I can create a journal of what worked best where and what needs to be changed for next year. I'm learning that you not only need to think of this years crop, but plan ahead for next years at the same time.

The  scale of the garden is a little off, I used the garden planner before we actually built the boxes and realized we needed 3' between each box, not 2'. Also (more as a note to my future self) I actually switched the tomato box with the Brussels and broccoli box - I have always had a hard time growing tomatoes and wanted to rotate within the garden the area that I had planted tomatoes previously in an attempt to have successful growth this year. 

So far the raised boxes look great and have already made our garden more organized, spacious and easier to tend. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Toddler 'fast food'

Eating her veggies
I started in a fantasy land; swearing by making my own baby food, adding organic spinach to almost everything, mashing odd foods like quinoa and seaweed together to ensure my baby was getting all her nutrients and vitamins. I avoided processed sugars, never touched artificial colors or flavors and most certainly did not allow any trans fats or other highly processed food types. Then reality struck: this is taking an absurd amount of time and she's only eating what she wants, not what I want her to, hence a lot of my efforts ended in the compost or the dogs dish (dogs were very happy btw). My daughter is 16 months old and only has front teeth, no molars in yet. She is so over eating baby food, but still too young to eat cooked vegetables like green beans, spinach or Brussels's sprouts - they're just too stringy and hard to chew with only her front teeth. I can get tricky and make somewhat of a sauce out of the vegetables and add them to her food, but that's not necessarily appetizing to my husband and I; I am the kind of mother that makes one meal for the family to eat, making individual meals for each persons taste/need is too time consuming when I work outside of the home 40/hours a week with a 1 hour drive each way. Like most mothers I am of course concerned my daughter is not getting enough vegetables in her diet at this time. Fruits, protein, grains and fats are all easy to come by but those tricky stringy greens are what I'm trying to get her to eat. The face she makes is pretty classic, anyone who sees it would swear shes about to turn blue as she chokes to death.

Slowly but surely I'm resorting to 'fast food' for my toddler. I don't mean McDonald's or Burger King, but I am giving into pre-made 'fun' foods that she can eat either with her meal or as a snack in between meals. I never recall my own mom buying such novelty items when we were little. I think options were pretty limited when I was a year old. At first these products seemed expensive, wasteful when individually packaged and likely unnecessary, but more and more I'm finding benefit and starting to trust certain companies.

I read the labels, I check the nutrition facts and pay attention to price as well. So when shopping in Jackson, MI that does not leave you with a lot of options. I feel like it takes two damn hours to get through a grocery store and my eyes burn like I speed read a novel, my husband appreciates my efforts, but is slightly annoyed by the end of the shopping trip and my daughter is usually crying shes so bored and tired. We're a site to see.

All ingredients must be identifiable, mostly organic and always 100% natural. One item I tried yesterday was Happy Tots Green Beans, Pears and Peas. It's the consistency of baby food, but in a squeeze container kind of like a Capri Sun juice box. The container allowed my daughter to walk around and eat her 'vegetables' without spilling or making a mess at all. She loved it! The ingredients are so simple too: organic pear, organic green beans, organic peas, Salba® sahi alba 911 &912 registered varieties of chia seed), organic lemon juice concentrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C). No soy, no dairy, no GEI's and most important to me; in BPA free packaging. I only bought one of these to try when I was in the grocery store this week, at $1.50 for one squeeze pouch, that seemed really expensive. After she loved the product, I justified the price by comparing it to a regular jar of organic baby food being around .99 cents and any 20oz of soda can be upwards of $1.50 these days and I now plan to buy several more on the next shopping trip.

We were right in the middle of planting our garden when I gave her the Happy Tots squeeze container. Usually I would give her some crackers or cereal to hold her over until I could get some dinner together, but during the summer months when it seems like everyday is a really busy day I feel like I'm stuffing her full of just crackers and cereal. When I look at the rise of obesity and diabetes in America, I feel guilty for starting her on a path of life that consists of satisfying hunger with filler foods. I felt really good that she not only ate the entire squeeze pack of veggies and fruits, it was just enough to hold her over until I could make a decent dinner. 

Ideally in my fantasy world I would prefer to buy organic pears, peas and green beans and make this mixture myself and have her calmly sit in her high chair and eat each and every drop. But the reality is that isn't gonna happen. A lot of companies are now offering products that fit choosy vegetarian, eco-conscious organic mom standards in convenient packages. I seriously don't even think I could make a better product at home on my own within the cost of $1.50 per serving. With a busy lifestyle I am starting to embrace the fact that someone has done the hard work for me and I can still be a good mom while choosing 'fast' pre-made food for my daughter.

No, Happy Tots (HAPPYBABY) did not pay or endorse me to write any of this... I just thought it was a great product and I am happy I purchased it. Though if they wanted to pay me or send me free stuff, I would happily take it **shameless self promotion**