The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Tastes like happy

Chickens grazing in the garden

It wasn’t until mid-summer that I made up my mind to try raising meat chickens this year.  Our good friends Jen and Ben were visiting from Montana and I was laying out my case.  We have the freezer space, and we certainly have the land. But the garden, raised beds, apple trees, and blueberry patches were already spreading me thin. Could I handle the extra work? At the end of the conversation I decided yes. We live in Minnesota, after all, where Summer lasts about two months. If I didn’t do it now, I’d have to wait 8 months before I could try again.

So I called a hatchery and placed my order. The chickens arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

The chickens arrive

Before they arrived, however, I had to build a coop to house them overnight. Not locking your birds up at night is the fastest way to lose your chickens (and feed the local wildlife).

Mobile chicken coop

“How do you get them to go into the coop at night?” is one of the most common questions I get about raising chickens. Actually, I don’t do anything. As soon as the sun sets, they instinctively seek out the shelter of their coop. I just shut the door around 9pm each night and open it again in the morning.

Happy chickens

Caring for the meat chickens was a lot more work than our laying hens. There were a lot more of them for one thing–30 compared to 6. And this breed in particular, Cornish Cross, eats a ton and grows like crazy. By the last week they were eating 20 lbs of feed and drinking 5 gallons of water every day. As they got bigger, they made quite the “mess” in their coop each night. So I also spread a layer of clean pine shavings daily. It’s not a ton of work, maybe about 15 minutes a day. But it gets repetitive after 10 weeks.

Mushrooms sprout in dirty chicken coop

One particularly hot and humid day I opened the coop to find that mushrooms had sprouted from the now-composting wood shavings.

The real chore was moving the coop. I decided to build a mobile chicken coop so I could move the birds around to different parts of the yard and garden. Leaving them in one place too long reduces the vegetation to dirt and is generally unclean. I wanted them to have fresh food but also be protected from predators inside a fence. I also wanted them to scratch and fertilize my garden plot after I finished harvesting (which they did). So hitching my riding lawnmower to the coop, I dragged it to a new location about once a week. Then I coiled up the welded wire fence and repositioned it around the coop.

Moving the chicken coop

We started out buying feed from Mills Fleet Farm but found it cheaper at a feed supply store. We ended up buying about 12 50# bags of feed over the 10 weeks we raised the birds. It would have been less but there was a 2-week wait at the place we had them butchered. All told, however, the cost for buying the chicks, feeding, and butchering came to around $9 per bird. For the weight, that’s cheaper than grocery store chicken. But for free-range organic chickens, it’s a steal. Try googling “free range organic chicken prices” and see what you find. Prices start around $20 per bird and go up from there. One farm is selling organic breast meat for $11.69 per pound!

But the value goes far beyond the money. It’s about the experience. To have raised the food that feeds our family and know they were well-cared for… that’s hard to put a price on.

Free-range chickens in the garden

Our last morning together was dreary. Not in the sentimental way, more in the literal sense. It was down pouring and I had to get 30 chickens out of a coop and into my covered truck bed.

Loading the chickens into the pickup truck

Chicken flapping wings

Last goodbye

With Becca’s help I managed to get ahold of each one and load them into the pickup. Then I dropped them off at a meat locker in the next town where they were butchered. We picked them up bagged and frozen the next afternoon.

We have enough chicken now in our freezer to last the winter. We ought to be expert poultry cooks by Spring. So far we have made pan-friend chicken and oven-roasted chicken with garden veggies. Both delicious meals.

Pan-fried chicken dinner

Oven-roasted chicken dinner with garden veggies

Our neighbor stopped over tonight while we were enjoying our roasted chicken. She had watched the birds grow week by week from infancy to gold’n’plump. “So… how does it taste?” she asked. “Happy.” I said. While it can be a bit disturbing to eat something raised by your own hands, it helps to know they lived a good life, were treated well, and as best we can tell, were very happy birds.

That’s a wrap

Harvesting corn and taking down pea trellis

It’s official: the growing season is over. First frost arrived 3 weeks earlier than average as temperatures dropped to 34 degrees overnight last Saturday. I spent the previous afternoon plucking the remaining potatoes out of the ground (60 lbs worth).

Early frost at the Grovestead

The coldest Winter in 36 years followed by a Summer-cut-short? I emailed my friend Paul Douglas to find out what was going on. His reply to my “incredulity” came in print edition of the Sunday Star Tribune. He doesn’t know either.

Chickens out on a cold morning

The close of the season brings out all kinds of reflective thinking. What worked? What didn’t? What would I do differently next year? I have lots to share. But for now it’s nice to know that the heavy lifting is over, a season of rest is coming, and the planning for next year’s garden starts soon enough.

 

Planting seeds

Shelling peas with Ivar and Elsie

Of all the things we grow here, I try to be mindful that our children are the most important crop. My dad (the world’s greatest) once told me that he knew he only had about 10 years to get through to us boys. After that, it would be too late. The Jesuits have a saying in a similar vein, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

So when my role shifted from husband to husband & father, I took seriously the job of connecting with my kids, building a foundation of love and trust from the earliest possible age. It’s been said that 90% of success is just showing up. I think 90% of good parenting is just being there.

I’m also continually looking for teachable moments–opportunities to teach kindness, courage, and faith. This farm affords many such opportunities.

Last week while I was home with the kids one evening, we gathered up all the unpicked pea pods which had dried on the vine. Ivar and Elsie were excellent helpers. I would had each a section of vine and they would set to work stripping the pods and throwing them into a paper bag. Elsie seemed more interested in opening the pods and dumping the peas on the ground to which Ivar screamed in protest: “NO Elsie!”

After the pods were picked we sat down at the picnic table and shelled all the peas into a mason jar. I explained that these were heirloom seeds, which means they could be saved and planted next year and we’d get more peas just like we had this summer. It was a perfect Minnesota summer evening spent with my two favorite kids.

Ivar inspects the heirloom peas we just gathered

After we finished with the peas I walked Ivar over to a potted string bean plant which also had some dried pods. Earlier this Spring, I helped Ivar plant this bean plant indoors and we watched it grow daily. Ivar took good care of the seedling, making sure it was watered and getting plenty of sun. Eventually we brought it outside so the blossoms could be pollinated and beans could start growing, after which Ivar mostly forgot about it. But this night Ivar was able to see the fully grown plant.

I picked one of the dried bean pods and asked Ivar to open it up. “Do you know what that is?” I asked him after he had a few brown beans in his hands. He knew they were beans, but didn’t catch the significance. I explained that it was the very same bean he planted all those months ago. We divvied up the rest of the pods, Elsie not to be left out, and ended up with 14 bean seeds. Then I explained to Ivar, “You planted just one seed, but God made it grow into a big plant with 14 seeds. And next year we can plant each one of these seeds and they will grow into more plants with many more seeds. This is how good our God is, he provides for us abundantly.”

Ivar holds the beans in his hands

The lesson of God’s abundance is never more apparent than in a garden. So I’ll keep looking for opportunities to plant seeds and trusting God to make them grow.

 

 

Preserving peppers, pt 1

Fresh cayenne peppers harvested from garden

Its harvest time at the Grovestead, and that means getting creative with where to put stuff. And unless you can eat 4.6 lbs of hot peppers all at once, that means preserving them.

So I did a quick bit of research and came up with two ways to save the harvest of our hot peppers. For our cayennes, a simple dehydrated pepper was the easiest.

The first step was to cut into the peppers lengthwise. Not cut in half, just cut into to let the water evaporate.

Cutting cayenne peppers to be dehydrated

Next place the cayenne peppers on food dehydrator racks.

Cayenne peppers on dehydrator racks

Set the dehydrator run for several hours at 135-degrees. I let mine run overnight. This is what they look like when done:

Cayenne peppers after being dehydrated

The last step was to throw them in a mason jar.

Dehydrated cayenne peppers placed in mason jar

That’s it! A full jar of homegrown cayenne peppers ready for any recipe.

First apple

First apple harvested from our orchard

We enjoyed our first homegrown apple from our apple orchard yesterday. The Zestar variety ripens earlier than the rest, by the end of August. It tasted similar to a Honeycrisp but more tart. It was especially sweet since we have so few apples this year, having to pick most of the blossoms to force the roots to establish, then losing most of what remained to wind and worms.

Overall, I’m happy with our orchard’s progress. There were some mishaps to be sure, like the Harralson that got so weighted down with apples that three branches broke. Cedar Apple Rust, a common fungal disease has infected other trees but can be easily treated with a fungicide spray. And of course watering the apple trees every day with 5-gallon buckets for the first six weeks was a chore. But seems like we’ve done ok, overall. From here on out the maintenance decreases and the fruit increases.

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