Monday, January 23, 2012

The value of a mentor

 "Psst! Lemme give you some advice!"
Although I made a lot of mistakes when we started homesteading, there was one thing that I got right -- and it was totally by accident. I wound up with a great goat mentor. I bought my first three goats from someone who had been raising them for more than two decades. Although she didn't currently show or milk her goats, she did make conscientious breeding decisions, and she stayed on top of the latest goat care information. She also encouraged me to call or email whenever I had questions, and she even had a goat care forum on her website.

There were probably times those first two or three years when she got sick of hearing from me, but in addition to learning a lot of good basic information about raising goats, I also learned the importance of having a real live, knowledgeable person to give you suggestions when you don't know what to do. I always tell people not to feel dumb about any questions they have because I'll never forget the time that I emailed my mentor in a panic, thinking there was something terribly wrong with our first baby goats because they were pooping yellow. I felt so dumb when she told me that was perfectly normal -- just like human babies that are breastfed. Oh, duh! Not only had I breastfed my three children, but I had been a certified lactation consultant for ten years!

Whenever I thought one of my goats was "off," she would always ask me about the goat's temperature, rumen sounds, respirations, activity level, last time it ate, etc. The first time I called the U of I vet clinic with a truly sick goat, I rattled off the symptoms and other information so effortlessly that the vet asked if I was a nurse. I laughed and said, "No, I just have a really good goat mentor who always asks me these questions whenever I call her."

I sometimes talk about how blindly I dove into a lot of our homesteading activities, and I really do not recommend that anyone else do that. In the end, it appears to have all worked out okay, but you'll probably make fewer mistakes if you read a few more books than I did before you bring home your animals. Find some Internet forums to join, so you can ask experienced breeders and homesteaders what to do when you aren't sure about something. And if you're lucky enough to buy animals from someone who is willing to be a mentor, don't hesitate to actually contact them when you have questions.

Of course, all advice is not necessarily good advice, so you have to be somewhat selective about whom you ask. It is best if you can find a mentor who raises their animals the way you want to raise yours. Keep in mind that if you ask ten people how to raise any animal, you will likely get ten different answers. Ultimately, you'll have to take the information you get and adapt it to work on your own homestead. A really good mentor will understand that nothing translates one hundred percent from one farm to another and will give you the information you need to make the right choices for your animals.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Choosing livestock for your homestead

It is that time of year when many of us are curled up with a cup of something warm and a hatchery catalog or we're on the Internet looking at classified ads for other livestock. Whether you will be bringing home your first livestock this spring or just adding to your herds and flocks, there are some important things to keep in mind.

Last night I arrived home from the Illinois Specialty Grower's Conference, which over the past couple years, has started to include some livestock sessions as people realize that a diversified system is the backbone of a healthy farm. Jennifer L. Burton, DVM, gave a talk on "Animal Health in Organic Systems," and I found myself constantly nodding throughout her talk. I realized that I've been doing what she was recommending.

First of all, buy from someone who has a similar management style to yours -- or similar to what you plan to have. I have long advised people buying dairy goats to buy from someone who milks their goats regularly and keeps track of their milk weights. And in the back of my head, I've always thought it was a good idea to buy from someone whose health protocols matched your ideal, but I don't think I ever voiced it much.

If you want to have an organic farm, you should buy from a breeder with an organic management style. There are a lot of breeders out there who are injecting kids with various supplements and vaccines within minutes after they hit the ground. If they really need to do that to keep their animals alive, then those are not the genetics you want on an organic farm. Those are also not sustainable genetics. If an animal has been vaccinated for a disease, you have no idea if that animal has any type of natural immunity or if it could develop immunity on its own.

Ask the breeder about birthing complications in the dams (mothers) of the animals you plan to buy. Did they require assistance at birth? I once saw a woman on Facebook say that she'd had her arm inside every goat on her farm. My first thought was that either she was way too involved in her goats' birthing or she needed to cull her whole herd and start over. Every animal could get unlucky and have a baby that was positioned poorly once or twice in her life, but if they seriously need assistance every year, this is unsustainable.

What about problems like retained placentas, mastitis, and lameness? Those all have genetic components, although nutrition can also play a big role, so it is important to ask about the breeder's feeding program. If it is vastly different from what you are planning, then the animals might not do well on your farm -- or they might do better.

Is the breeder frequently using chemical dewormers, or do the animals show resistance to worms? Do they rotate pastures, or do they have the animals on a dry lot? Again, if this is very different from the way the animals would be living on your farm, it's hard to know if they'll thrive.

If you are planning to allow mothers to raise their babies, what kind of mothering ability does the animal's dam have? This is especially important if you have plans for pasture lambing, calving, and farrowing.

And finally -- if you want an organic farm, you may have to close your herd or flock at some point. At a minimum, you will have to stop bringing in new animals every year. The animals that live on your farm develop resistance to the germs on your farm, and they pass along that immunity to their babies. When I heard the vet say this, the light bulb went on in my head that it is no surprise that modern commercial weaning-to-finish operations have to rely so heavily on drugs to keep the animals alive. They are constantly bringing in new animals from different farms with different pathogens. They're all stressed because they've just been weaned and moved to a new place, so diseases like shipping fever seem like a logical problem.

I was also talking to a pastured beef producer that I know, and I asked him why my butchering book says that if you butcher calves around nine months, they'll be tough and stringy. We just butchered two bull calves at that age, and it is the most tender, delicious beef I've ever eaten. He immediately said that in modern confinement beef operations, calves that age would be tough because of all the stress they endure -- castration, weaning, moving to a feedlot, losing weight, and then starting to gain again. It's quite different from our calves who were not castrated and stayed with their mothers until they were taken to the processor, which is a twenty-minute drive.

It can sometimes be a challenge to find organic producers from whom to buy your stock, and I certainly wasn't lucky enough to be able to do that with all of my animals. So, if you do buy animals from a different management system, be aware that your results may vary, and you may need to include "hardiness" in your list of reasons for culling. And no, culling does not have to mean butchering. In many cases, an animal that's not right for your farm will be just right for someone else, perhaps even just as a brush eater or pasture ornament.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why make it from scratch?

Would you expect Tropicana Cherry Berry Blast to contain some cherry and berry juice? Should Betty Crocker Carrot Cake Mix contain carrots? Apparently there is no rule that says a product must contain what the name implies because there are no cherries, berries, or carrots in those products. Without the use of artificial coloring, however, neither company would be able to get away with the ruse, so the Center for Science in the Public Interest is petitioning the FDA "to require food companies to disclose on the front of food labels whether a product is artificially colored."
“Betty Crocker is certainly free to make virtually carrotless carrot cake, and Tropicana is free to make berryless and cherryless juice,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But consumers shouldn’t have to turn the package over and scrutinize the fine print to know that the color in what are mostly junk foods comes from cheap added colorings.”

I'm not holding my breath waiting for the FDA to force corporations to admit that they're using cheap, artificial ingredients to increase their profits. The FDA has been turning a blind eye to misleading labels for decades. If you've been to one of my book signings, you probably heard me talk about how shocked I was 24 years ago when I discovered that Jiffy Blueberry Muffin mix contained zero blueberries, so it was one of the things that caused me to start cooking from scratch. Red dye 40 and artificial flavors are way cheaper than cherries, and the same is true for artificial blueberries and artificial carrots. That just sounds so wrong -- artificial carrots! What's in an artificial carrot, anyway?
corn syrup, flour, corn cereal, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil, a small amount of “carrot powder,” unspecified artificial color, and Yellow 6 and Red 40

And what exactly are you saving when you buy the mix? You're not saving money. Even if you used real carrots in your carrot cake, it would cost you less to make it from scratch. You might be saving five minutes because you have to grate the carrots. One of the first things I realized when I started baking from scratch was that it was only saving me two or three minutes for most things because it only reduced the number of ingredients to be added by three or four.

The really unfortunate thing about these so-called foods, however, is that they are filled with artificial ingredients, empty calories, and genetically-modified ingredients (corn syrup, corn cereal, and partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil in the artificial carrots alone) -- and they are completely void of any nutrition. And if we eat empty calories, we have no room left to eat the nutritious food that our bodies need.

You will even find nasty surprises in convenience foods that seem to be good for you, such as mashed potatoes. What more do you need other than potatoes boiled in water, a little milk, butter, and spices? Well, if you're making mashed potatoes that will be shipped for thousands of miles to be served in a fast food restaurant, apparently you need far more than 25 ingredients! This is what you're eating when you have mashed potatoes at KFC:
Potatoes, Salt, Maltodextrin, Whey Product [Containing Whey Solids, Sodium Caseinate (A Milk Product), Calcium Phosphate, Calcium Stearoyl-2-lactylate, Calcium Hydroxide], Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Soybean and Cottonseed), Mono and Diglycerides, Artificial Colors, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Calcium Stearoyl-2-lactylate, Spice. Freshness Preserved with Sodium Bisulfite, and BHT. Liquid and Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Soybean Lecithin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, TBHO and Citric Acid Added to Protect Flavor, Beta Carotene (Color), Dimethylpolysidoxane, An Anti-foaming Agent Added.

It's been 24 years since I read the ingredients on that muffin mix box and started to wonder if my unborn baby might grow up healthier if she didn't eat all the convenience foods I grew up eating. Starting to cook from scratch seemed like a winning scenario all the way -- it would save us money and we'd be eating real food. I had nothing to lose. And today I am so glad I decided to try! My children all reached adulthood without any of the "normal" childhood illnesses that plagued me as a child, and as I'm getting uncomfortably close to the half-century mark, I'm healthier than I was when I was a teenager.

There are so many things in this world that we have little or no control over -- like air and water pollution and who-knows-what is being emitted from cell phones and all of our other beloved electronics. With so many diseases at unprecedented levels in our society, and with so many things in our lives that did not exist half a century ago, it's hard to always know which variable is causing what disease, but we do know that diet plays a huge role -- sometimes being the primary cause of diseases like heart disease and many types of cancer, and sometimes contributing to the disease by not keeping our immune system in top condition to fight off things like the common cold and influenza.

And the other completely unexpected benefit of cooking from scratch is that you will eat far less junk food. I am not going to take the time every day to make french fries and cookies, which means I'll be spending my time eating nutritious food and filling up my body with the best fuel available. Plus, when you're making foods from scratch, you will be highly unlikely to make something that has a disproportionate amount of sugar and fat. Do you know anyone who puts TEN teaspoons of sugar in a glass of iced tea? Probably not, yet that's how much sugar is in a can of soda -- or more accurately, that would be the sugar equivalent of the amount of high fructose corn syrup that is in a can of soda. Most soda would taste absolutely disgusting without all the sugar.

The more you know about your food, the better you will eat -- and research actually proves this. But I didn't really need a study to tell me that people will eat better if they are more connected and knowledgeable about their food. It just makes sense. Who really wants mashed potatoes with 25 ingredients or carrotless carrot cake or blueberry muffins with artificial blue bits rather than real blueberries?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Goals for 2012

Happy New Year! Some smart person once said that if you don't know where you're going, you'll probably wind up somewhere else. So, it is important to know your goals. After I write down my goals, I start figuring out how to make things happen, which means I make a list of all the things I need to do to reach the goal.

Although we've already done a lot on our homestead, there is more that I want to do. I think there may always be more because  just think all of this stuff is fun! I can't think of anything we tried in 2011 that was completely new, but I did get a book published, so that counts for something. We did work on improving a lot of the things we already do, such as improving the flavor of our cheddar cheese.

Now that 2012 is here though, my goals for the new year are --

1) Start producing our own honey. Bees have been on the to-do list for several years. Although I tend to be the person in charge of the livestock on our homestead, I wanted my husband to take care of the bees. I used to be pretty frightened by bees, even though I really wanted their honey. I figured I'd have Mike put the bees way out in the woods somewhere, and he could deal with them. You see, bees really like me. I've been stung three times, which somehow made me think that I should not have to work with them. But as each year passes, and the bees don't magically show up on the homestead, I've realized I need to take a more active role in making it happen. I've started to learn more about beekeeping and become less afraid of them. Now my attitude about bees is that I've survived three stings, so I know I'm not allergic to them!

To meet the bee goal, I need to get another book on bees and buy hives and equipment. That should not take more than a few hours online some afternoon later in January after I've sent the Ecofrugal manuscript to my publisher.

2) Start making our own wine. For Christmas, I gave Mike all of the wine making equipment and a kit. I've been procrastinating on this one because we've planted grapes a few times, and they've always died. In the meantime, I feel guilty about all of the wine bottles we send to recycling, so I figured that even if we are not completely self sufficient with wine, we can at least learn the basics and start re-using wine bottles by making wine from concentrated juice, which ultimately cuts down a lot on packaging and transportation costs.

To meet the wine goal, we just need to start making the wine since I've bought everything we need. We've already watched the video that came with the equipment, and we've started reading.

3) Build a garden shed! We came so close to getting it done this year. Mike bought all of the supplies, but we ran out of time before the weather got unpleasant. I've been practicing having a garden shed, and anytime someone asks me where something belongs, such as pruning shears, I say, "the garden shed," and they just give me this look, and then I say, "but that is where it belongs!" Hopefully everyone will be motivated to get 'er done this year!

And of course, I want to improve a few things. Katherine wants to grow more tomatoes. Last year, we had enough frozen tomatoes to last all year, but we didn't have enough pizza sauce. This year we kind of went crazy with the pizza sauce and pasta sauce, so we have enough to last a year, but we don't have a lot of frozen tomatoes left, so we're rationing the tomato soup this winter. I always want to improve the garden in one way or another, but that's a post for another day.

I will probably also need to look at reducing the livestock on the farm because we may be officially childless by fall. That will be a tough adjustment on several levels, but it's unavoidable at some point, so I need to think about how we're going to handle that.

What are your self-reliance or homesteading goals for 2012?

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