Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

I thought I’d pick up on Jason’s “Farm of Horrors” theme and write about the truly frightening animals that live out here.  And by “here” I mean our own land – sometimes very close to the house.  Luckily, we knew ahead of time about these creatures, and immediately upon moving we confined our house cats to the indoors every night from dusk till dawn.  Forever and ever, amen.

But I will start this list with the large, numerous animals that are not predators.  Our white-tailed deer.  Every evening (and occasionally during the day) we will have several deer in the apple orchard in front of the house:

These two bold ones didn’t even wait until dusk.  Here’s a closer photo:

And here’s a pretty good photo taken another day:

By now you’ve figured out that we’re not the best nature photographers.  In our defense, they usually come by at dusk and run away when they see us.  Just imagine three or four of these lovely creatures ambling about every evening right down the short bluff in front of the house.  Now that it has started raining more often, we can see the hoof prints EVERYWHERE on the property.  And the forested areas are criss-crossed with deer trails.

The only problem with that is, the more deer we have, the more predators come who’d like to eat them.

But I’ll work up to that slowly.  Next up on our list is Bobby the Bobcat.  This summer we saw it about every other day, mid-morning, also in the apple orchard.  Bobby did NOT run away when it saw us.  Bobby ambled.  It didn’t give a damn.  Very unnerving when one’s cats are outside.  After all, the sun was up and they theoretically should have been safe from predators.  Luckily the cats mostly stay close to the house.  I didn’t take this photo, but it shows a bobcat beautifully:

Next I’ll show you the creature who is going to eat our chickens, once we get them.  Well, I shouldn’t say that.  There are LOTS of creatures who will be trying to eat our chickens, and it will be an interesting experiment to see if we can keep any alive at all.  My (foolish?) hope is that the fence with electric wire around the top, plus the bomb-proof coop for nighttime will take care of all but one main predator.  But that predator lives on the property.  Not far from the coop.  The fence won’t help at all against:

The red-tailed hawk.  Since moving in we have seen it in its redwood tree, soaring across the property, or circling something on the property almost daily.  And we hear its cry, of course, that high descending note that I now associate with dread.  I have (again: foolishly?) decided that our chickens, when we have them, will be in a large, fenced, but uncovered yard during the day.  Their only defense against hawkie will be running under a nearby tree.  Wish us luck.

We have only seen this next friend once, but it was memorable.  It was 8:30 am on a sunny Summer morning, and we were in the driveway getting ready to take Sarah to school.  Jason saw a glimpse of something near the back of the house and I ran to take a look.  It was one of these:

Except ours was much skinnier, and skulking away quickly.  Again, the cats were out.  We have only heard coyotes howling at night three times in the five months we’ve lived here.  But just a few days ago two guys working on our land said they saw a big one down by the barn.  During the day.  We were down there today and there are HUGE paw prints in the mud.  How big do coyotes get, anyway?

The above shows one of the many huge paw prints down by our barn.  It isn’t the neighbor’s dog; I checked.

On a lighter note, here are two friends whose fates are intertwined.  Predator and prey:

Here is the gopher snake, one of which I actually saw and almost raked up while raking grass this summer.  I’m not afraid of snakes, but these guys are rather large and it was a bit of a shock.  I decided to leave him alone.  After all, he will hopefully eat lots and lots of gophers.

I think I need to explain about the gophers in this area.  There are GAZILLIONS of them! Everywhere!  I mean, you can’t walk two steps on any part of our land without twisting your ankle on a hole or bump of dirt caused by the digging of said hole.  And who did the digging?  Yes.  The gazillions of gophers.  And we foolishly think we’re going to grow a garden in the spring.  Similar to the chicken situation, we are going to find out that our garden will be almost completely at the mercy of these vegetable-killing creatures.  Sigh…

Last week a buck was hit by a car and killed, and it wound up on our property.  The coyotes had started chewing on it, and we heard from the neighbor that it was our responsibility to deal with the carcass, so we hauled it on to the back of the pickup and plopped it on the upper pasture.  The coyotes made short work of it for two nights, and then the next two days we got to see these guys cleaning off the bones (not my photo):

We had three turkey vultures, not four, but they were still really cool.  And really big!  When we got too close, they flew away over us and they flew really low so we got to take a good look.

Anyway, on to the coup de grace: the thing that can eat PEOPLE.  When I first heard these lived in our county I thought: “Oh not near us, surely.  Maybe farther into the protected forest lands, way up away from houses and such.  But not near here.”  Turns out I was wrong.  Someone working on our spring saw one in our upper pasture.  And then another day Jason, Sarah and I found and collected these:

Bones from a six-point buck.  The femurs are broken in half.  This buck met his fate some time ago, but still it’s an unmistakable sign.  Then last month Jason was walking to get the morning paper and he saw a killed and freshly EATEN fawn right by the driveway.  In fact, down by the road.  I will spare you the photo I made him take.  The consensus among the neighbors was that it was the work of this noble creature:

The mountain lion.  This is the biggie.  Forget about house cats, this one could eat ME.  I really hadn’t planned on having this guy on our land.  Luckily, there are plenty of deer around for it to eat, but hopefully it won’t make a habit of eating its dinner at our place.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually really love living in the country and seeing the native wildlife.  It’s still a thrill each time I see a deer even though I should be bored with them by now.  But I hope that I myself don’t become part of this wonderful “circle of life” I keep telling my daughter about!

– Lizzy

Wind Storm!

As you might have noticed in the news, we had a big wind storm here in California, and it made for some excitement up on the farm.  Sustained winds of 40 mph and gusts somewhere around 70.  I hate to admit it, but Jason and I had NO IDEA the storm was coming, and were quite surprised when, Gosh, it sure is windy today!  Once the neighbors clued us in (they actually have a TV) we thought we’d go for a walk and hear/see the branches falling down.  Which was fine, until we had to run to prevent being knocked on the head by them.  It was just like an action movie: we were walking up the driveway, through a beautiful stand of Redwoods, when Jason heard a crack and yelled, “Run!”  We all ran through, immediately followed by two huge branches falling where we had just been.

After the first night I had to have Jason help me clear the branches away enough for me to drive down the driveway to get to work.  Wish I’d had the sense to take a photo – it was crazy.  Huge branches knee deep.  When the storm finally blew itself out, we started cleaning up in earnest.  Here are a couple of pics:

Here we’re mostly done: this was truckload number four, I think, of the big green branches to bring down to the burn pile.  That didn’t include those I put away for future kindling:

Nor did it include the big dry branches we set aside for Jason to cut into firewood:

And that was JUST the branches that were on the driveway, at one group of Redwoods.  Here’s the burn pile we made that day, although it’s hard to tell how huge the branches are:

The other clump of Redwoods is, luckily, next to the driveway rather than surrounding it.  We haven’t dealt with all the branches in there.

This is usually just a stand of trees with a lovely carpet of pine needles on the ground.

That slanted thing in the middle is actually the top of a tree that came down.  We’re glad it didn’t go across the driveway.

Usually that’s a nice empty place for Sarah to play, with a ditch down the middle through which all the water from the upper pasture goes when it rains.  We have a little cleaning up to do in there.

One of our neighbors had a few trees down that used to be between their house and ours:

We used to not be able to see their house.  Now the downed trees block the little bridge which leads over the creek to their driveway.  Here’s a side view of some of their downed trees:

Sarah had fun hanging on them.  As of this writing they haven’t removed those trees yet, so we might have to clamber over them when delivering their Christmas cookies!

And lastly, our only structural damage: the half-burned, leaning over, illegal car port.

Hey!  Where’s the roof?

Oh THERE it is!

Anyway, we are safe and sound and very thankful to be so.  And we sure have a lot of kindling!

– Lizzy

Thanksgiving!

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving this year, our first at the new property. We invited two families (the most we could fit) from Long Beach, ordered a 26 lb turkey, and hoped for the best. The result was three of the best days we’ve had up here!

As you might imagine, we had plenty to do to prepare for the long weekend. Once Monday came I went about working on my shopping lists, recipes, menus, etc; Lizzy focused on the cleaning and preparation of the house (I think she got the short end of the stick on that one).

I managed to bang out three pies by Wednesday: key lime, apple and pumpkin. Nothing fancy, but we got to use our own apples, which was nice. We’re hoping to have our own pumpkins come next year, and maybe even our own limes someday. We’ll see…

As I said, Lizzy wound up doing most of the cleaning, which was a lot. I did my part by cleaning and organizing the guest bedroom, which had become somewhat of a “man cave” since football season started. It’s also where my desk is, along with the printer and shredder, so it’s ostensibly where I do my “writing.” Riiiiight….

Anyway, by the time the guests showed up on Wed. everything looked great. We even got the turkey in on time, though at 26 pounds it took some doing. Fortunately, we had found a nice recipe for an apple cider brine that would work perfectly for us (we’ve got gallons  of cider in the freezer).

Here are a few pics:

Sarah hadn’t seen her friends since July, but once they were reunited they didn’t miss a beat. Two and a half days – with minimal supervision – and no fighting, no crying, no hogging; no pushing, poking or whining …heaven!

Here’s the turkey in all its glory. You can see that it’s been roasted to perfection…what you can’t see is that, hours before, it had been dropped on the kitchen floor – twice – while Lizzy and I tried to squeeze it into a Reynolds 24 lb-capacity oven bag. Hey – I never said I was good at this stuff…

It looked great at the table, though, with Apple Rosemary Mashed Potatoes, Glazed Root Vegetables, Green Beans with Walnuts and Cranberries, stuffing and gravy.

Of course the kids had their own table…

We ate at a late-ish hour, so by the time we finished up the pies the kids were ready for bed. Getting them to fall asleep was another story altogether, but we figured they could lose a little sleep, just this once.

The next day we got out of Dodge and hit Santa Cruz for some boardwalk action, if only to stretch our legs and work off some of the meal…

New sunglasses for everyone!

Then back at home for one of our last apple-picking excursions of the season…

Which, of course, meant more fresh cider…

On the third and final day (Saturday) the kids got together to make a gingerbread house…

And we ended the holiday weekend with some tractor rides (naturally)…

What a great couple of days! The adults ate and drank wine like nobody’s business, and the kids had the time of their lives. And as far as I know, no one has gotten salmonella or e. coli…

…which, in my book, makes for a successful Thanksgiving!

Cheers!

– Jason

Little Farm of Horrors Part II

Alright, Halloween was over two weeks ago, so obviously this post isn’t going to be related to those kinds of horrors. This Farm of Horrors is about something far scarier.

Living in the country brings all sorts of danger. I fully accept that on any given day I could find myself in a Jack London-like struggle with some wild beast, most likely while on my way to get the paper wearing nothing but a robe and Hello Kitty boxers. Hey, I’ve seen “When Animals Attack.” I know all about the fauna we can expect to run into. What I didn’t expect was that we’d live in absolute fear of the flora.

That’s right – the damned plants. It turns out that there are enough of them out there to make anyone’s life pretty miserable. We have to live with the day-to-day realities of abrasions, rashes, splinters and puncture wounds – as well as other, more troubling threats.

Here are just a few of our leafy antagonists, starting with the most familiar:

Rubus fruticosus

Here’s your average Blackberry bush. Who wouldn’t want some of these? You could frolic through the fields, wicker basket in hand, happily gathering countless pints of this plump, sweet fruit! Let’s take a closer look:

Jesus God almighty! What the hell is this thing defending itself against? A Mongol invasion? I mean, Blackberries taste good and all, but is this really evolutionarily necessary? Bananas taste pretty good too, and you don’t see them arming themselves with horrific, flesh-tearing spikes. And like weeds, they swallow up every inch and every acre they come near, blanketing the land like that tangled barbed wire you see in old war movies. We’ve got them all over the place (the Blackberries, not the WW II-era barbed wire), and I’ve been stuck about a hundred times. I used to think these were neat. Now I want them all to die.

Next plant up:

Picris echioides L.

This one is known as Oxtongue, and if Oxen actually do have tongues similar to these leaves then it’s no wonder they avoid kissing each other on the mouth. Again – lots of spikes. Painful. The one pictured above is just starting its antagonistic life; eventually it’ll grow a couple of feet tall and flower, not unlike:

Onopordum acanthium

Ah, Thistle. Eeyore likes them, so how bad can they be? I seem to remember something in “A Visit from St. Nicholas” about their downy spores. The problem is that these babies have sharp prickles that cover almost every part of the plant – stem, leaf and flower. The point, it seems, is to discourage herbivorous animals from eating it. All it really does is discourage us from ever leaving the house in anything less than knee-high rubber boots. And those downy spores floating angelically through the air? Just creating more thistles. Even the sprouts hurt, and right now the little sprouts are everywhere.

Next:

Urtica dioica

This is the succinctly and unambiguously named Stinging Nettle. If you look closely at the picture above you’ll see that there are, again, more spikes to deal with, covering both the leaves and the stems, but there are two major differences here: one, the pointy bits are much smaller, cilia-like hairs (called trichomes), and two, they don’t poke you so much as they inject you with painful histamines. It stings, alright. Like crazy. And we have an actual field of it. Just brush past one of these and you’ll feel it for an hour.

Now we’re getting to the real painful stuff:

Toxicodendron diversilobum

Poison Oak, our Bete´noire´. Touch one of these for even a second and you’ll wind up with unbearable itching and numerous red spots all over your body. And it’ll last for weeks. For the first couple of months out here Lizzy and I, having spent many a day exploring the property, were pretty much covered with the stuff. Some days we hadn’t even been near it, but still managed to contact it. I swear it senses our presence and physically leaps out at us.

This is where it starts to get scary:

Datura stramonium

They call this one Jimson Weed. This isn’t the best picture I could have used, as it gives the reader the impression that, as with the Thistle, spikes are its only threat. If only. In truth this plant contains a powerful poison that, when ingested, causes delerium, hypothermia, photophobia, amnesia, and a bunch of other things I read on Wikipedia. A trip to the hospital would be pretty much guaranteed. This might sound like an average Saturday night for most young people, but for me – not so much.

And finally…

Conium maculatum L.

This is what is known as Poison Hemlock. Here, as with most of the other pictures, the plant is quite young. At maturity it will shoot upwards and produce tiny white flowers not unlike Queen Anne’s Lace. It’s rather pretty, actually, until you realize that this is the plant that killed Socrates. It contains a dreadful – and deadly – neurotoxin that will wreak havoc on your central nervous system and result in total respiratory collapse. In fact, it is so poisonous that if a full-grown adult were to ingest just a handful of leaves, that adult would probably die. I particularly like how it resembles carrot greens when it’s young. That’s convenient.

Oh, and see those cute, little green shoots around the Poison Hemlock in the picture above? Baby Thistle.

Nice.

-Jason

p.s. I’ve been haranguing Lizzy to post something soon, so stay tuned for something from her!

Little Farm of Horrors Part I

Happy Halloween, everyone! It’s our first real holiday here at the farm, and of course we just had to do a little decorating. Nothing too crazy, just a few old gravestones and some of Lizzy and Sarah’s homemade ghosties floating about…

Don’t let the “home-made” thing fool you, though – these suckers are pretty high-tech. There are literally no strings attached; not only do each of these benign-looking, unthreatening ghosts contain the latest in hovercraft technology – pairing ultra-cooled superconductors with powerful, permanent magnets in a process known as “magnetic pinning” – but they also house the tortured souls of actual drifters whom Lizzy has taken in and given our home-made elderberry wine as an act of “charity.”  Pretty neat!

The gravestones, of course, are those cheap, Styrofoam things one finds at any drug or department store. We’ve had these ones for a few years now, and it shows. Still, they get the job done, and are a fine addition to the landscape, at least until we get around to filling up our real graveyard. Time to get that “Room for Rent” sign back out!

Oh, and we carved pumpkins, of course. This is always my favorite part of the holiday, though I have to admit it’s a little tougher when you’ve got a kid involved. For one thing, there’s the potential danger of letting her handle a sharp knife – I mean, last year Sarah held one of our Henckels for barely five minutes before she snapped and went on an hour-long stabbing spree up and down the neighborhood. And that was on Easter. Imagine what troubles a holiday celebrating death could bring?

But we pulled it off, somehow. And the results were great!

That’s mine on the left, and Sarah’s on the right. So yep – that cubist beauty in the middle was actually carved by Lizzy.

We saved most of the seeds and Lizzy salted them and toasted them up nice. Next year, if we’re lucky, we plan on growing our own pumpkins – both for carving and for food. No more canned pumpkin pie mix for us…

Now our neighborhood is too sparse, and our house is way too far off the road (and uphill) to attract any trick-or-treaters, so come Halloween night we left our area and joined one of Sarah’s friends (and his parents) for some trick-or-treating in another neighborhood, this one well-known for the most foot traffic, the coolest decorations and the best treats. Sarah had a great time, and took in quite a haul. There was so much candy that I got nauseated just looking at it…

We ended the night back at home with steaming cups of fresh mulled cider – one of my annual traditions. Toss in a shot or two of spiced rum, settle in for a scary movie, and you’ve got yourself a night. I highly recommend it!

Just don’t forget to keep your kids away from the knives – and the Elderberry wine.

Trust me, that stuff’ll kill you!

– Jason

P.S. If you’re interested in some of the other scary things we deal with every day here, keep your eyes out for Little Farm of Horrors Part II, coming soon! Muaahahahahahahah……….

In The Trenches

Sorry we haven’t posted in a couple of weeks. A lot has gone on, as you would imagine, and it’s hard to keep track of everything. For the sake of this particular blog, though, I’ll stick to two projects…

First I’d like to ask you to join me in imagining a simple concept: digging a trench. Say you had to run electricity from your house to a barn about a hundred yards away. Shouldn’t be too big a deal, right? Sure, a hundred yards is kind of far, but according to the electrician the trench would only need to be 18 inches deep and a few inches wide. It turns out this is the sort of thing you could probably do yourself; walk-behind trenchers are easily rented and operated, and will dig a nice, clean, deep trench up to eight inches wide – perfect for laying electrical lines. Should be a snap, right?

Well, it would be, unless you were one of those lazy-types who let your next-door neighbor talk you into hiring one of his friends to do it. You know, the friend with the backhoe and no communication skills? Yeah, that guy.

Well that’s what we did, naturally, and this is what we got:

So much for eighteen inches. I’ve seen smaller trenches in WWII movies, for God’s sake. Here are some more pics, for perspective:

That’s Lizzy looking thrilled inside the trench. It’s also, we’ve since determined, Lizzy looking thrilled inside the trench surrounded by poison oak roots, but that’s a story for another blog….

The funny thing is, we payed the trench guy by the hour – which probably explains why he did such a…thorough job.

Anyway, the idea is that the electricity will run down from the house, past – and to – the chicken coop, connect to the (eventual) solar panels (which will be mounted on the ground near the chicken fence), continue straight down to the barn, then, after a sharp right turn, end at the small stables we like to call the “goat shed.”

As it is now, none of these areas has any power, so you can imagine how convenient it’ll be to finally hook up any number of modern electric-powered conveniences. Things like lights, heaters, power tools, a 65-inch flat screen t.v, amplifiers, strobe lights – you know, normal farm-type stuff.

The point is, having electricity around there will be a good thing, so I probably shouldn’t complain about the size of the trench. I guess I’m just bothered by the fact that not only did the trench guy waaay overdo it, but that digging this thing was something I could have done. Don’t get me wrong –  it would have been difficult, time-consuming, and I may have struck a gas line and blown up the whole house – but I could have done it. Oh well – live and learn!

Which reminds me – one of the other big projects that we wanted to brag about was the addition of a terrific deck at the front of the house. This is another example of something I had almost nothing to do with (other than having a hand in it’s design), only in this case I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I mean, let’s face it – I’m as likely to build a durable and attractive deck as I am to build a functioning teleporter. Which is to say, not bloody likely.

But the guy who did build the deck did an awesome job. Here’s a before & after:

And a couple more pictures…

This deck is one of our last big-ticket items, along with electric work, fencing, and the forthcoming solar panels.  After this, we’ll be rationing driveway purslane, malformed apples and parboiled nettle just to survive.

But it’ll all be worth it!

J.

Animal Farm

I just want to start this post off by getting something off my chest:

I AM REALLY, REALLY SICK OF HAVING CONTRACTORS AROUND!!!

 

Phew. I kind of feel better now. Sorry about that, but it’s been three months since we moved up here, and it seems as if a day hasn’t gone by when there isn’t someone – either a plumber, an electrician, a general contractor, a chimney sweep, a spring/well/water guy, a landscaper, an arborist or, with our luck, a combination of them all – trudging around the property, asking for glasses of water and signed checks.  We’re so used to being walked in on, it’s gotten to the point where we consider it a good day if the guy strolling into our dining room unannounced is even wearing a shirt.

Anyway, what I really wanted to write about was all the animals around here. I had forgotten, having been in Long Beach for several years, what it was like to live in an area so heavily populated by non-human critters. Sure, we had the typical suburban scourges like racoons, skunks, and the occasional opossum waddling through our lives (and sometimes our kitchen), but nothing like we have out here. I’m not just talking rabbits and mice (which of course are everywhere), but larger things, with pointier teeth. Red Tailed hawks circle the air constantly. Bobcats, which we were surprised to learn have a habit of wandering around, sometimes only feet from the house, have been a regular sight. There are coyotes, as well – but more on them later.

Not all the animals are predators, of course. Like most people who live away from major cities we have an abundance of deer:

These adorable little things started showing up each evening just before dark, apparently to take advantage of our surplus of apples. Oftentimes we see them in the middle of the day, looking at us like we’re trespassing on their lawn.

As alluded to above, coyotes have been heard, too – packs of them howling eerily in the middle of the night, celebrating after some moonlit kill. Mostly they remained unseen – that is, until one recent morning, when we caught the tail-end of one slinking across the hill behind our house as we were getting Sarah off to school. The experience was both scary and comical: scary because our cats were out and about (they would be choice snacks for any predator), and comical because of the general demeanor of this normally nocturnal creature. In truth the poor coyote was far from threatening; it had the look of a teenager trying desperately to sneak past his parents on his way to his room upon returning home waaay late for curfew. The whole thing was actually kind of awkward. I felt so bad for the little guy that I almost gave it a cat.

Speaking of cats, ours have been bringing in all sorts of prey themselves: lizards, mostly, but also a bird or two, some moles, a mouse, and even a chipmunk. Usually we’re able to rescue the critters, but not always, as the following picture illustrates…

Poor chippy. Sarah made me take this one out and give a proper burial, complete with a stone grave marker. Fortunately she hasn’t seen some of the other things our cats have tormented.

Which is not to say that the girl doesn’t have a healthy awareness of death, at least in the “circle of life” kind of way. One of our more exciting experiences, in fact, came last week when we went for a little after-dinner walk around what we call the “upper pasture” –  several acres of additional, undeveloped land next to our property that came as a package deal.

We were happily hiking around, dodging poison oak, when we discovered, in the dry, dusty dirt and fallen leaves, what appeared to be a large section of jawbone. Excited, we went on to unearth almost an entire deer skeleton, including the antlers. The bones were quite clean, so we surmised that the creature had met its end some time ago, most likely at the hand – er, paws – of one of the aforementioned coyotes.

Being the irresponsible parents we are, we of course let Sarah handle everything  – without even a single drop of Purell. Someone call DSS!

Alright, who ate all the venison?

We spent a good hour out there, digging around and generally behaving, in Sarah’s words, like “archaeologists.” When we were done we hauled everything back to the house (Lizzy had run off and grabbed some plastic grocery bags to facilitate the return trip) and dropped the loot in a utility sink to soak in bleach. Once cleaned and dried, the take was pretty impressive, if a little gruesome:

Everything went into a sturdy cardboard box, into which we placed a hand-written note that read: “These have been washed and bleached. They CAN be handled.” The very next day at school we signed Sarah up for the following week’s “Sharing” (what we old-timers used to call “Show And Tell”). That day actually came and went just two days ago, and by all accounts Sarah killed. Apparently the kid who shared after her had brought a rock. Poor kid.

Best of all, we found out that her classmates did handle the bones – and with gusto. There’s hope for the future yet!

– Jason

Picking, Canning, and the County Fair

It is now high season for apples around here, and it’s become obvious that we will never get to them all.  We have now pressed 25 gallons of cider and canned 10 quarts of apple sauce, and we have barely scratched the surface.  The apple trees remain stubbornly full.  But we sure have fun picking!

We are giving away cider as fast as we can, plan on making a lot more apple sauce, and are even making 3 gallons of hard apple cider (more on that below) with plans for 3 more gallons soon, but we are going to call it quits sometime.  We have the phone number of a nice guy who wants to pick apples for making hard cider, and we know of at least one apple juice company down the street who will pay us (a pittance) if we bring them our apples.  But it’s even worse with the three pear trees.  All three pear trees are hopelessly entangled in poison oak vines and are too tall to boot.  We ordered an orchard ladder but it hasn’t come in.  We tried canning some not-yet-ripe pears in cider, but they didn’t turn out that well.

But when we let the pears ripen, they become mealy.  Of the few we have managed to collect, that is.  Maybe we’ll tackle the pears next year, when the poison oak has been dealt with and the trees have been pruned to a more reasonable height.

The three plum trees produced barely a handful of fruit this year and, frankly, I’m counting my blessings on that one.  We’ve got our hands full.

Regarding the hard apple cider, it will have to be a serial tale.  Apparently it takes something like two months to ferment, although some resources say two weeks, confusingly.  We bought a book, read about it online, bought lots of things at the brewery store and asked questions, and still have no clue what we’re doing.  Jason and I setting up the 3 gallons to ferment was like something out of “I Love Lucy.”  You can’t tell from the photo, but there’s an extra cork floating around inside the bottle.  I’m not going to say who did it – let’s just say “mistakes were made.”

This photo was taken the day after it was set up, and it’s bubbling away nicely.  It is now three days later and the cider is an unsettling bright yellow color and is bubbling out a nasty sulfur smell.  Maybe we shouldn’t have set it up by the dining room…  Anyway, we’ll keep you posted as it progresses.

We all had a wonderful time at the Santa Cruz County Fair two weekends ago, which should be re-named the Santa Cruz COUNTRY Fair.  The rows upon rows of farm animals took up nearly half the fair, and highlights included a parade of old tractors

and Sarah getting to pet a 3-day-old calf

I was thrilled to see the spinning demonstration – no, not the stationary bicycle exercise class.  It was neat to see several women adeptly spinning wool into yarn with old-fashioned-looking spinning wheels that, it turns out, were fairly new and are still being made.  Who knew?  We also learned that our area was the biggest exporter of apples in the USA around 1910-1920.  The most popular varieties at the time were Newton Pippin, Bellflower and Red Delicious.  Guess which kinds we have?  Yup.  And several of our trees are 100 years old.  Now it all makes sense.

Well, that’s about it for today’s update.  I’ll end with a couple of photos from a hike on our own land.  We went to the “upper pasture” where, for some reason, I was pointing to the left

and we even ventured into the woods at the back of the property to the top of the ridge.  We followed a deer trail and found a beautiful stand of mature oak trees at the top – sorry no photo of that.  But the most fun was had by Sarah who found a delightful patch of mud.  Our spring-fed water tank has a crack in the top and there’s so much water that the excess escapes out the crack, cascades down the tank like a waterfall and pools in one muddy spot in the upper pasture.  Sarah had a blast!

We’ve got to fix that leak.  But meanwhile we’re working like dogs trying to clear brush/trees in the chicken yard area (which is huge) before the fence is put up around it, which would make dragging dozens of small trees out of there much more difficult.  We are in a race against the contractor whom we hired to put up the fence, and we’ll let you know who wins.  It’s going to be a squeaker: one side of the rectangle-shaped yard was fenced in today, and we have about three quarters of the yard cleared.  Wish us luck!

– Lizzy

If Only Drilling Was More Boring

Sorry that I haven’t posted sooner, but there’s been a lot going on. Admittedly, most of it is just your typical around-the-property chores like clearing brush, driving around in the pickup, chainsawing dead trees, and chasing bobcats off the property with a hoe (I know, booooring), but it’s still pretty daunting. Sure, most farmer-types probably bang these things off their to-do lists before breakfast, but for us – this stuff takes time!

We did tackle one task, however, that was pretty exciting…

As you know we had a large chicken coop built on the property. We plan on having about 40 birds, and with the number of predators we have around here, we knew that not only would we need plenty of room for the birds to free-range, but that we’d have to invest in some serious fencing as well. So we marked off a quarter-acre (or so) rectangle between the barn and the house (land that rises steadily at about a thirty degree angle), then got ourselves a contractor who would do most of the work installing 4×4 posts and polypropylene deer fencing around the perimeter.

The contractor, who happens to be a neighbor, told us we could save some money if we could dig the holes ourselves, and since we do have this nice, new tractor…well, long story short, we went and got ourselves a large auger with a PTO attachment for the Kubota. If you’ve never seen this kind of thing let me tell you – it’s huge. Twelve inches in diameter and about four and a half feet from top to bottom.

It’s actually quite fun and simple to use, once you get a tutorial and assuming you’re digging on flat, healthy land. For this job, though, we’d have to navigate the tractor across some really steep patches of arid and loose earth, pock-marked with gopher holes. So not quite so fun and simple to use after all, it turns out.

Our neighbor had already marked the spots where we were to drill, so Lizzy directed me while I drove the tractor and operated the auger. We had to drill nine or ten holes along a path that traversed the property horizontally, then about fifteen running down the hill to the coop, then several more along the bottom (the final vertical length, which runs dangerously close to our gas line, will be dug by hand). It was the first bit – the row near the top of the hill – that carried the most risk.

The experience was harrowing. I had to back the tractor across the hill sideways, and even though the spot we had chosen was on somewhat of a plateau, the angle there was still around 15 degrees – steep enough for me to feel like I could tumble port over starboard at any second.  In fact, I experienced several moments of sheer terror and near-slips before I even backed up to the first hole.

Unfortunately I was unable to take any pictures, as the mechanics of the act – that is to say, boring massive holes with heavy machinery on a brittle and steep bluff while narrowly avoiding rolling to my death amid a couple of tons of metal and diesel – left very little room for holding a camera. Somehow, miraculously, we managed to finish the task unscathed:

This picture was actually taken a couple of days later, after the several posts had been set, but you get the idea. It’s a little hard to see here, but look at the posts in the foreground. See the drop? Now picture me, strapped to a tractor, rolling all the way down the hill, stopping only after crashing through the paper-thin walls of the old barn. Now picture Lizzy, suddenly wishing she had looked into that offer for a life insurance policy we got in the mail the other day…

Anyway, as I said we pulled it off, if only just barely, so that’s that. More to come on some of the moderately less-dangerous things, like canning pears, that have occupied our time these last few days…

Jason

Busy Homesteading Weekend

We have awesome neighbors.  They are not only friendly, kind, generous and are practically like grandparents to Sarah, but they know our property inside and out.  Which is wonderful, since we’re still bumbling around regarding all things farm.  Diane’s parents used to own our property (they passed away a few years ago) and they farmed it: mostly apples, corn and cattle.  So, when we started to pick apples for more cider on Saturday, they came out to help and showed us how to shake the apples down off the trees, which is much more efficient.  And, wow, did we get apples!

This truckload was from mostly emptying four trees, and a few apples from various other trees.  So, maybe five trees worth, added together.  We have 35 trees.  Just sayin’.

On Sunday, we pressed 8 gallons of cider and we still have two FULL trash barrels worth of apples.  Jason did all the hard work of hand-cranking the press, and Sarah and I ladled the cider into gallon containers while fighting off the yellow jackets.  We have no more cider containers, so we’ll have to buy cheap gallons of water and empty them.  The two barrels of apples might make around 15 more gallons of cider.  Time to plug in the chest freezer!

The leftover smashed apples from pressing those 8 gallons filled up our compost bin (layered with leaves, of course).  We have one more empty bin, but after that we’ll have to start a big compost pile down the hill.  I envision a farm-sized compost pile that we’ll turn using the bucket on the tractor – and this apple smash stuff will be perfect to start it up.

Anyway, Jason couldn’t just rest on his laurels after hand-cranking 8 gallons of cider, oh no.  That same day he also hand churned butter:

Okay, there’s really not much butter in this picture, but you can see Sarah likes to help Daddy clean the bowl.  And, also on that same day, Jason made Pork and Apple Sausage:

The recipe uses sauteed tart apple and leek, as well as reduced apple cider.  The results were amazingly delicious.  This photo of the raw final product does not do it justice, but I had to include it anyway:

We ate some for dinner on Monday and decided they’re so sweet we’ll use them as breakfast sausage from now on.  Yum!

And now, I must admit my big concession regarding organic farming.  On Monday I sprayed poison on the poison oak.  After my pitiful attempt at pulling it out by hand landed me at the doctor’s TWICE, with less than 1% of it pulled out, I came to the conclusion that there is a limit to my organic orthodoxy.  Poison oak is where I draw the line.  I am supremely sensitive to the stuff, needing a long course of prednisone every time I get near it, and boy oh boy do we have our fair share around here.  Since the property wasn’t taken care of for many years, the poison oak has really taken over.  I geared up and sprayed for 2 1/2 hours on Monday morning, and got a good amount done, but not all by a long shot.  Here I am in my getup:

I was protecting myself from the poison oak as much as from the poison that I was spraying.  I think it worked well in that regard, but I probably started to get heat stroke by the end.  I stopped when I started to feel nauseated, and after I took off the jumpsuit I found I’d sweated through all my clothes – totally soaked.  And I weighed two pounds less.  Needless to say, I drank a lot of water afterwards!

Luckily, that was all the important poison oak spraying, and the rest can wait until cooler weather.  What is also lucky is that the poison oak is growing where we don’t plan on growing any crops – it’s mostly under redwoods and live oak trees.  Our future vegetable garden area is completely free of the stuff.  And certain areas, like the back forest and the upper pasture, are infrequently visited so I think we’ll wait until we have goats that can eat the poison oak up there.

Ah, my theoretical future goats…  For now, I’ll be happy when we can finally order our chicks.  The coop is done, but the HUGE chicken fence is still in process – but that’s a subject for another blog.

Meanwhile, I owe our wonderful neighbors a gallon or two of cider for all their help with the apple tree shaking.  And next time they offer to help, I’d better be ready for a whole truckload of apples!

– Lizzy