Archives January 2021

Chickens, Children, and Cuddles

Posted by Mom on February 11, 2019

It should not come as a surprise that chickens play an important role in our family’s culture. Four years ago we brought home our first birds. Consequently, for most of their young lives, our children have known chickens. And since we have no other animals or pets, the chickens filled the “pet” void – especially for our eldest daughter.

She had one hen in particular that would put up with her loving devotion. This hen became her doted upon pet. She would take her on walks and attempt to put her in clothes. She would interpret every cluck it made as a murmur of affection. She would nurse it when it was injured and ensure it received its share of the food scraps. And she studied the nuances of that chicken so intently that she could pick her out from among 30 doppelgangers, describe her feather patterns and comb in great detail, and made it her muse and inspiration when sketching. She truly loved that chicken.

However, she had to learn the hard way that chickens don’t make great pets and that favouring one above the rest of the flock leads to problems. Flashback in your mind to grade school: do the girls at the top of the pecking order like the teacher’s pet or do they make her life miserable when the teacher isn’t looking? The pet hen was on the bottom of the pecking order and her constant removal from the flock by our daughter was not helping her assert herself and move up in the order. In fact, a remedy for a bully hen is to isolate it from the rest of the flock so that when she is re-introduced, she finds herself at the bottom of the order; knocks that troublesome hen down a few rungs.

But chickens don’t last forever. Our daughter’s pet hen had a ailment called bumblefoot, which is an infection on the foot that makes walking, scratching, and roosting uncomfortable. She was unable to sit upon a roost and instead slept alone in a nest box. All was well, until one night I unknowingly locked a skunk in the chicken run. After desperately digging and trying to escape under the fence, the skunk wandered into the coop. All the chickens were safe upon the roost and out of the skunk’s reach. All except for the pet hen. That skunk probably could not believe its good fortune! A sleepy, dopey hen sitting right in front of it for the taking. And take it it did.

The following morning was full of stress and confusion as we tried to deal with the skunk. Unfortunately for the skunk, it now had a taste for chicken and had to be permanently disposed of. Dad had been meaning to take the certification course for his Arms Licence, but hadn’t gotten around to that yet. So, armed with only a pellet gun, he spent close to an hour playing hide and seek with the skunk, trying to hit it with a kill shot while protecting himself from getting sprayed by the skunk. In the end, Dad won and the skunk lost. Through the whole ordeal, the skunk did not spray but kept that for its finale; the spray was its swan song. Multiple changes of clothes and showers later, and we were ready to get back to our normal routines.

Back to that pet hen. Our daughter was devastated. She blamed herself (probably some truth to that) for hurting her “pet” so that it could not escape the skunk. Despite our constant reminder that chickens are not pets, they are farm animals, she had grown attached to that hen and grieved its death.

In an effort to protect both our children and our farm animals from another owner-pet relationship, we adopted a different sort of animal for the purpose of being a loveable pet. Something cuddly and relatively low maintenance. We settled on a rabbit. We brought home our new pet and, unlike the chickens, we keep her in the house. Fortunately for us, she came spade and litter-trained (phew) and her upkeep is easy enough that the children can handle it themselves (with some continual reminders, of course). We could even classify the rabbit as a productive farm animal; her manure is a great fertilizer!

The Turkey Trial – Part 2: Preparing Thanksgiving Dinner

Posted by Mom on November 10, 2018

What do turkeys like to do on sunny days? Have peck-nics.

Our turkeys were Artisan Gold turkeys, a breed that likes to be outside foraging. In essence, they acted much like wild turkeys. We put their mobile shelter into our orchard and gave them a safe area to graze within an electrified fence. Every week we moved the shelter and fence to give the birds new pasture.

Given the choice, turkeys like to eat grasses, seeds, berries, and insects; and that’s just what our birds dined upon. Between the orchard rows we have lush grasses and forbs for the grazing (decades ago, pigs lived on that same spot and their marvelous soil-building legacy is still evident). Within the rows are an understory of shrubs, among which grow some currants and comfrey bushes that the turkeys liked to dine upon. Of the two plants, the turkeys showed an obvious preference for comfrey. Every plant within their fence was stripped of leaves. Thankfully, comfrey is very resilient!

Next to the orchard is a line of raspberry bushes and this years was a bumper crop for the berries. We couldn’t keep up with the canes production and would come across lots of spoiled berries when we were filling our baskets with ripe berries. We started filling a separate basket of spoiled raspberries for the turkeys and tossing them over their fence. The raspberry season lasted over two months and the birds quickly clued in that if we came to pick raspberries then they were likely to get some too and would come crowding by the fence hoping for a treat.

Which side of a turkey has the most feathers? The outside!

We marked the date on the calendar: Thursday October 4th, Processing Day. Dad took the morning off work and the Little Harrolds and I took the morning off from regular lessons. The day was to be a firsthand lesson in where our food really comes from. As the day approached Dad scrambled (once again, I admit, we cut it very close) to put together a poultry processing area behind the barn. He ordered lumber, drove over an hour to buy a turkey-sized restraining cone and freezer bags, appealed to his buddy for a stainless steel counter, and ordered the necessary knives and scissors on Amazon. With that done, he erected the frame of a lean-to, set-up the turkey plucker, and asked his accommodating brother to assist on the big day. Phew!

Finally Processing Day was upon us. We brought out of equipment, set everything up and were ready to start. I should point out that we are still very new to poultry processing. A willing neighbour heard about our plans and offered to come assist us. We were grateful for his advice and experience. He informed us that while he was quick and ready to help newbie homesteaders like ourselves, taking the life of an animal is not an easy thing to do and he had to mentally prepare himself before arriving. We also asked Grandpa to help us, which he (perhaps naively) agreed to do. The roll call on Processing Day was Dad, Mom, Accommodating Brother, Willing Grandpa, Helpful Neighbour, and three Little Harrolds.

We started small. Since we still had a surplus of roosters from the batch of eggs we hatched back in April, we began with them and worked our way up to the turkeys. We also had a broiler chicken that we’d dubbed Tub-O’Lardy that was three months past her processing day (of the original eleven broilers we started with, nine were taken out by a family of raccoons and one died from heat stroke). With the chickens finished, everyone was in their groove and prepared to upsize to the turkeys. In total we processed five chickens and six rooster that day.

We have some memorable highlights from Processing Day, for better or worse. First, one rooster was so small that Dad couldn’t fit his hand inside; an eager daughter was happy to give eviscerating a try. Second, willing brother was off to meet a potential client straight after our morning’s work and wore an XL garbage bag to protect his outfit. Third, I wrestled a turkey without wearing gloves and had a talon puncture my ring finger (I still can’t fit my wedding band on). Fourth, Dad looked at his first processed turkey and recalled the story of the Grade C turkey that Dave prepared for Christmas dinner for Morley and the kids… fans of Stuart Mclean and The Vinyl Cafe should get that!

What is the most musical part of a turkey? The drumstick.

We processed our turkeys on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving Weekend. Never before had we eaten a fresh turkey. Our past turkey cooking experiences started by thawing a rock solid bird in the fridge days before we planned to cook it… the same time that our fridge was full of all the other ingredients we needed to prepare Thanksgiving dinner on top of the usual things we already stored in the fridge. But not this year! Our just-processed turkeys were briefly stored in a freezer set to 4℃, a temperature maintained by a special gizmo Dad connected to the freezer. In the end, we sold two fresh turkeys, cooked two for our Thanksgiving dinners (one for each side of the family) and froze the remaining two birds for the future.

We had long anticipated those Thanksgiving turkeys and were not disappointed. One of our hosts, as he cooked our turkey, commented that “there’s enough pressure cooking a turkey for a group of people, but even more when you’re cooking one that people raised”. He need not have worried. The meat was moist and rich in flavour. When carving it we were struck by how red the dark meat truly was. No surprise, really, these birds actually used their muscles and behaved like turkeys, eating what they wanted and their bodies’ craved. These were very nutritious turkeys! Remember all that comfrey they were eating? Comfrey is a bioaccumulator; a remarkable plant that reaches deep into the soil and pulls up nutrients, which then move through the food chain or return to the soil through decomposition. All that comfrey munching while in the orchard made for some nutritious turkey meat.

Beyond Thanksgiving dinner, we made use of the two turkey carcasses for stock and generated 24 cups of turkey stock. Afterward, the remains were given to the chickens, who turned them into delicious, healthy eggs.

In the end, we figure it cost us less than $2/lb to raise the turkeys on organic feed and to power the electric fence. That estimate excludes the infrastructure costs of fencing and the materials necessary to build the mobile shelter. If we want to recoup those costs, we’ll have to grow more turkeys next year. If we consider how we can ethically raise turkeys and end up with nutritious and flavourful food and then compare that to the daily work of caring for the birds and the eventful Processing Day, it might just be worth it to do it all again.

Turkey Trial – Part 1: Growing Thanksgiving Dinner

Posted by Mom on October 23, 2018

Last year around Thanksgiving we thought it would be rather neat to serve turkey that we had raised ourselves. After a bit of research we decided to give it a go. Prior to picking-up our order of six turkeys from the hatchery, we started to build a turkey tractor. I say “we”, but Dad did the research, design, and building. I helped by holding things in place while he worked the drill or stitched together the hardware cloth where he told me to. In typical fashion, we managed to complete the tractor just as the turkeys outgrew the brooder (nothing like leaving things to the last minute and then scrambling to finish the job). The turkey tractor was a mobile coop on wheels, allowing us to move the birds onto fresh grass, provide water and feed, and lock them in at night. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day-old turkey poults arrived on May 8th in a cardboard box along with the some day-old broiler chicks. We ordered six turkeys, and the hatchery sent along an extra as an insurance policy. We placed both the day-old chicks and turkey poults into a brooder box for the first four weeks, during which time they stayed roughly equal in size. Once the turkey tractor was finished and feathers replaced the birds’ downy fuzz, we moved the them from the brooder to the great outdoors. The chickens continued to share quarters with the turkeys for a few days before moving into their own area. 

Unfortunately, we had a problem with a very persistent family of raccoons that reduced our broiler flock from 11 to two. They also got one of our turkeys (turns out that insurance turkey was a good idea). One stubborn turkey did not want to go into the roost area where it would be secured from predators by a sturdy 2 by 4 frame, ¼ in. hardware cloth, and a door that locked. In frustration, it was left free within the turkey tractor. Sure enough, mama raccoon came by with her family and found a weak spot in the poultry netting covering our turkey tractor. She broke in, killed the stubborn turkey, and made off with it during the night. The next morning, the only clue left behind were a few feathers stuck to a bent up piece of poultry fencing.

 To prevent the loss of another turkey to our masked nemeses, we had to ensure that all turkeys were put into the roost every night. This was an annoying, but simple enough task with two or three people working to corral the birds. Especially when our children welcomed an excuse to catch and pick up the birds. However, when we went on a camping trip and Grandpa was left with the chore of closing up the turkeys, he quickly realized it was an exercise in frustration for a single person! It was time to rethink our arrangement. We set up an electrified fence around the turkey tractor. So now, even if we were away and a turkey refused to cooperate with Grandpa, we had some assurance that the spark of the fence would deter a raccoon from trying for another turkey. By this time, the birds had grown so large that they out-weighed any raccoon. However, this arrangement lasted only briefly. 

The growing turkeys needed more space. So, we opened up the door and allowed them to forage within the confines of the electric fence. This gave them the ability to spread out and wander, leading to them exercising their wings and seeking to fulfill their desire to roost as high as they could. And that meant on top of the turkey tractor. Now our nightly routine included taking a rake along with us to “rake” the birds off the roof and herd them through the tractor door, which once closed, allowed us to catch the turkeys and heave them into the safe roost area. In an effort to keep the turkeys from flying onto the roof each night, we clipped their wings. This was semi-successful. A few birds were still able, with a running start, to flap onto the roof. Fortunately, they never tried to escape by flying over the fence. We carried on in this manner for two months, watching the birds feasting on grass, insects, comfrey, and raspberries and estimating how much they might weigh as Thanksgiving 2018 crept steadily closer.

My Little Man Wants To Work

Posted by Mom on September 6, 2018

The other day I offered my children a way to earn some money: “help me dig up the potatoes and I’ll pay you for your work.” “Okay, mommy!” and they all dashed off to put on their shoes. In short order the girls disappeared to make sure the chickens had enough food and water. They did not return. So, it was my son and I who worked away at harvesting the potatoes. I worked the pitch fork and he scooped up the potatoes as I unearthed them. We chatted away and laughed as we completed the chore. He was the only one to add more coins to his bank that day.

My son wants to help his parents with their tasks. I’m glad he does. I know that this willingness to pitch in won’t last and I should encourage it and nurture it now so it will become a habit for later. Habits are powerful. Charlotte Mason said about them that “each of us has in his possession an exceedingly good servant or a very bad master, known as Habit”. Rather than nurture habits of dependence, sloth, or entitlement, we need to take advantage of his interest and grow it into a magnanimous spirit.

Do you like that word? Magnanimous? I’ve only recently learned it myself. The latin construct of the word is a combination of animous, which refers to something alive, like a “soul” or “spirit” and magnus, which means “great”. So, magnanimous is literally, “great spirit.” Some of its synonyms for the word are generous, altruistic, unselfish, charitable, noble, or big-hearted. I would like my son to have the habits of unselfishness, charity, and altruism.

Little boys were designed with a desire to do a productive service; they want to contribute and will feel validated when their efforts are acknowledged. When our son is not busy with a task, he tends to get into mischief with his sisters or pester them until a petty squabble erupts. Keeping him occupied is a benefit to everyone. And having his attention and energy devoted to a productive task gives him a sense of purpose and keeps the atmosphere of our home peaceful. When we welcome his assistance, he also benefits by learning new tasks. Within the last month he’s learned how to use a level, prepare garlic for storage, remove skin from tomatoes, swap batteries in the hand drill, and drive a golf cart.  

Here is a little story of how my son looks to entertain himself when this need to be useful and productive is brewing away within him. Recently, during a visit from his cousins, my son and his fellow male cousin were busy in the yard next to a patch of raspberries and plot of squashes. They were intermittently searching through the raspberry canes to find ripening berries while working away at a pile of just-picked squash laying on the grass with a pair of sticks in their hands. Into the squashes they were drilling their sticks and making holes of an ever increasing size. When I came upon them, while trying to hold my composure as best I could, my son told me they were trying to get the seeds out of the squash so that we could plant them again next year. I promptly informed him that we only take the seeds out when we cut the squash open to eat it. Now we wouldn’t be able to store or eat these squashes with holes bored into them. The boys left the squashes alone and went off to join the girls who were catching toads.

Dad’s Gateway Drug… er, Animal

Posted by Mom on July 14, 2018

By Dad

Let me begin with some background on how we got started at producing our own food. Initially, we bought a country property so our children could grow-up in a wholesome place. We, like most people in a first world country, knew nothing about farming or where our food came from or what it took to produce it. As we learnt about food production we realized that the industrial food chain, with its predominance of corn in various reincarnations, its use of chemical additives, its links to obesity and chronic illness, and its environmental and ethical costs, was not something we could accept as normal any longer.

When we first arrived, our property was a mix of lawn, perennial gardens (well beyond anything we had seen before, let alone planted ourselves), and some buildings. The transformation of our property over the course of six years is what I want to tell you all about. But first, I want to point something out: the idea of a gateway drug and how that concept applies to our food production. The concept being something simple that entices a person to go much deeper into a world they never thought they would be a part of. In our case, vegetable gardens were the gateway into the world of farming and home grown food.

It all started with adding a few raised beds. We put in three and started to grow our own carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes. Then, as we toiled away maintaining all the lawns and perennial gardens, we started to realize just what the vegetable gardens gave us in comparison. So, we added another raised bed (after learning that crop rotation works best with four sections), and planted asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries (perennial vegetables) in our field. This idea of growing some of our own food was exciting and we were eager to try something more. The children liked to search out whatever was ripe and there always seemed to be something that made them check the gardens daily for snacks. We got hooked on homegrown veggies fast. The advantages and benefits coming from the vegetable gardens far outweighed those from the lawns.

This was all just the slow and steady early days. The veggies kept growing, we kept trying new crops and varieties, and we tried to keep up with production by freezing and canning the surplus. But this got us wanting more. So, the next step was obviously animals of some kind. We got ourselves a small flock of laying hens. This was the gateway animal for us. It went crazy from there. And without us even realizing it.

We went through three different chicken breeds until we settled on the productive Red Sex Link variety to give us nice brown eggs with rich, orange yolks. Our interest in eggs led us to search out hens that laid eggs other than the common brown and white. We found someone selling Easter Eggers and bought eight hens and one rooster, which we used to start our own breeding flock. Now we also have green, blue, and pink eggs. Next, we found someone else selling fertilized eggs for Black Copper Marans, which are a chicken breed that lay dark chocolate and sometimes bronze colored eggs.

So where is this all going? Well before we knew it we had to move our Red Sex Link flock out into the chick-shaw to make space for the 24 Easter Egger chicks and eight Black Copper Marans that we succeeded in hatching. On an impulse, we picked up 15 other chickens, including a few Silver Laced Wyandottes. Lastly, we picked up our order of ten broiler birds and six turkeys to graze in the orchard within the confines of the Turkey Tractor I designed and built only a few weeks prior.

See where this is going now? We went from one flock of egg layers to eight chicken breeds, five locations, and at one point, seven waterers and feeders that needed filling daily. We had really gone chicken crazy.  But through it all, I keep thinking: how do I get the right fencing at the right price so we can start doing lambs, goats, pigs, or a family cow?

I also admit that without my lovely wife working so hard every morning and night on the chickens this all would have failed horribly. So, before we move on to other livestock, we need to scale back to two flocks of laying chicken by this fall, that is, after we process our turkeys. After that, well, then we can consider other animals. 

One last note… after learning about what goes into making the food we eat, I really do want to have more control of what is feeding my food; what is my food’s food? Whether it’s the nutrients for my fruits and veggies or the feed for my meat. I’m disgusted by CAFOs, how horribly they treat the animals, how they pollute waterways, how they depend on antibiotics, cheap oil, and global markets… I could go on… But on top of that, the fact that people advertise ‘Corn Fed Beef’ blows me away. Cows, given a choice, would never feed on corn. They’ll take grass over corn any day. But no one asks the cow. CAFOs grow them fat and they grow them fast and that means they feed them corn. The animals are slaughtered before their bodies collapse from the consequences of a corn fed diet. Oh yeah, then we have the problem of chemical fertilizers derived from crude oil applied to conventionally grown produce – that’s really isn’t appetizing either. Let’s get back to the natural way and replicate nature at its best.

We’ve Gone Chicken Crazy

Posted by Mom on May 9, 2018

We’ve gone chicken crazy! After seeing some beautiful images of baskets filled with every shade of brown egg from beige to deep, chocolate brown, with sprinkles of pale blue, green,  pink or white eggs throughout, we too wanted to get more variety in our egg basket. We began to suffer from egg envy, which manifested itself as chicken craziness.

I remembered a little bit of country wisdom, “chicks in April, eggs in September,” that inspired us to get into action and try our hand at hatching some chicks! That tidbit of country wisdom hits on the reality of chicken biology in temperate climates; hens require five months to reach maturity and begin laying, but if that five month mark falls in the autumn or winter, with their short days and long nights, the hens will not begin to lay until the following spring. So, in order to capitalize on warm weather, so the young chicks will not freeze, but still reach maturity and begin laying before the daylight becomes too short, you want your chicks to hatch in April.

Despite the freezing temperatures in March of this year, we were able to collect 32 warmish eggs, place them in the incubator, monitor their temperature and humidity, and eagerly anticipate hatching day. The eggs must incubate for 21 days, over which time the little Harrolds diligently checked the temperature and humidity readings to ensure they stayed within the proper range, 99.5℉ and 50% – 60% relative humidity. On day 18 we removed the egg turning device and upped the humidity to 80%. To maintain the temperature we used a ceramic 100 watt terrarium bulb and added a second pan of water for more humidity.

Much to our surprise, we noticed an egg with a small hole pecked in it, the beginnings of a chick making its way out of the egg. I think Dad was more shocked than anyone else; his little incubator project actually worked! As the day progressed, more eggs with holes appeared. The following morning greeted us with high pitched peeps as the chicks struggled to get out. The children were ecstatic! The excitement of that day was comparable to a birthday or Christmas. In total, 24 chicks hatched from the eggs.

Two chicks were struggling to get free of their shells, and we knew that without our intervention, those chicks would not survive. Another tidbit of country wisdom is not to interfere with hatching eggs – it a chick is not strong enough to hatch, it’s not strong enough to survive. Well, that reality did not sit well with our eldest daughter, a fan of wildlife rehabilitation stories. She helped one chick out of its egg and I helped another. She named her chick Miracle and I named mine Percy (short for Perseverance). Both of those chicks are still alive and today, a month later, and are indistinguishable from the other 22 chicks.

Even before these  Easter Eggers chicks hatched, we started to go chicken crazy. We found someone selling fertilized Black Copper Maran eggs (they lay the dark brown eggs) and purchased a dozen to attempt a second batch of chicks. As I write, these eggs just finished hatching and we now have eight Black Copper Maran chicks to tend to in addition to our 24 Easter Egger chicks. Since they are 3½ weeks behind the Easter Egger chicks, we keep them in a separate brooder so they won’t get trampled by the older, larger chicks.

To recap, we hatched 24 Easter Eggers that will lay pale blue, green or pink eggs and eight Black Copper Marans that will lay dark brown eggs. We already have 28 adult Red Sex Links that lay brown eggs and eight adult Easter Eggers. That is 68 chickens and almost the whole array of egg colours, but not quite. Our egg envy was not satisfied. What about the white eggs? Well, Dad found someone selling an array of hens that just had started laying and we spent a Sunday afternoon driving out to pick up 15 new hens. We came home with five Rhode Island Reds (from heritage stock), two Silver-laced Wyandottes, four White Plymouth Rocks, and four White Leghorns, the hens that lay the coveted white eggs we needed to fill our own egg basket with a rainbow of eggs and finally satisfy our egg envy. Now, the truth is, we only needed a handful of White Leghorns to have white eggs, but why settle for that when you could have more chickens? And beauties like Silver-laced Wyandottes to boot? Our current chicken total is now 83.

But it does not end there… we’re picking up six day-old turkey poults and ten day-old broiler chicks to raise alongside them next week. Apparently our chicken craziness has extended beyond chickens to turkeys.

Happy Hens Lay Healthy Eggs

Posted by Mom on April 4, 2018

This past November we picked up eight hens and a rooster commonly referred to as Easter Eggers because they lay pale blue or green eggs. Given the traumatic move to a new home right at the start of winter, the hens did not lay any eggs until February. Now that they are laying, and we are finding some beautifully coloured eggs, I thought I might compose a treatise on eggs, or more specifically, fresh eggs from happy hens who behave as chickens were designed to behave and why they lay eggs that are better for us. I want to tell you why we keep our own chickens.

Happy Hens Live Better Lives
Hens that can behave as chickens were designed to behave are happy hens. If we contrast them to the laying hens in the industrial food chain, the difference is quite stark. Unhappy hens, from the moment they hatch, are kept in buildings and fed specially formulated food to speed their growth and boost their egg production. They do not have a chance to experience sunlight, fresh air, or fresh dirt for scratching. These poor hens know no solitude or natural rhythms.

From the time they begin laying (about 6 months of age) and until their first molt at 16 – 18 months, the hens are kept indoors. The luckier ones are able to move about freely, and if fortune favours them, may have an access door leading to a small outdoor yard (their eggs can therefore be marketed as “free range”). The unlucky hens, trapped within cramped battery cages, must endure lights continually shining upon them so that their bodies never cease producing eggs. Up until they moult, that is. Come their first moult, egg laying production drops while the bird’s energy is focused on growing new feathers. A drop in production means out with the “spent” hens to make way for the new, younger hens. 

Happy hens, in contrast, have a longer, healthier life. In our flock of hens, the ladies can move freely within a 112 square foot coop and a 300 square foot outdoor run during the colder months. Come the sun and warmth, the flock moves to their summer residence out on the pasture where they live full time in the fresh air, eating what they want and scratching about. The pasture is an area of grass and other herbaceous plants with a few trees for shade and wallows for dust baths. The hens favourite “salad” mix include lamb’s quarters, dandelion, and nettles, with a ready supply of worms, caterpillars, and insects to snack upon. We use a movable electric fence to change the area the hens forage on to keep the vegetation fresh and to give the grazed sections time to re-grow.

Our flock also consists of roosters that protect their harems and oversee the social structures of the flock, keeping bullying to a minimum and enabling the flock to reproduce naturally. In commercial settings, the bills of chickens are trimmed to prevent the stressed out birds from pecking each other to death or cannibalizing one another. All our happy hens are happy to still have their bills.

We do not use artificial light to trick the hens into laying eggs when their bodies naturally want to take a break. When their production slackens in the winter months we enjoy the eggs we do get and look forward to spring, with its warmth and longer days, when laying will resume. For the hens, keeping warm, staying healthy, and surviving the cold weather is stressful enough for and requires much of their energy – they need a break from laying eggs!

Happy Hens Lay Healthier Eggs
All eggs contain protein, Vitamins A, B,and B12, as well as folate, and iodine. Yolks are a source of lutein and zeaxanthin (which help protect eyes from damage from UV radiation). But not all eggs are equal, because not all chickens are equal. Some hens are fortunate enough to live in conditions that make them happy hens. Happy hens lay healthy eggs. But exactly how much healthier are they, you ask. Well,..

  • Happy hens lay eggs with 2 – 10 times more omega-3, which they obtain naturally through foraging on fresh plants
  • Happy hens lay eggs with with 66% more vitamin A and twice the amount of vitamin E than commercial birds
  • Happy hens spend time in the sun, absorb vitamin D, and transfer some of that vitamin into their eggs
  • Happy hens lay eggs with 33% less cholesterol and 25% less saturated fat than unhappy chickens
  • Happy hens lay eggs with seven times more beta carotene

You can check it out for yourself  by taking a quick look here or here.

A hen that can roam and find fresh food to feed its omnivorous self will lay eggs with a deep, almost saffron-coloured yolk. Fresh leafy greens are responsible for the deep colour. Happy hens can eat all the greens they desire, plus some insects on the side, and will lay eggs with rich, yellow yolks. In an attempt to keep up appearances in their poorer quality eggs, industrial producers could include a yellow dye in the feed to tint the yolks. The dye is either a natural product, such as marigold, turmeric, or paprika, or a synthetic carotenoid food dye.

Eggs and the Food Chain
In a food chain, the prey becomes part of the consumer; whatever the prey may have eaten, whether good or bad, becomes the very fibre of the animal that eats it. When the animal consumed contains, for example, heavy metals such as in tuna, those substances pass up through the food chain and accumulate, eventually leading to such a concentrated amount that the top predators suffer neurological disorders, reproductive failure, or mutations. We humans are no different – we are apex predators and accumulate the good and the bad from the food we eat. Many of us blindly consume food without thinking of how it is raised or produced and how the components of that food could heal or harm us. (Hint – the more industrialized and processed the food, the more damaging it is to our bodies).

Ever wonder what the laying hens in commercial operations are fed? What sustains the birds so they can lay your “cheap” eggs? And what passes from their bodies, into their eggs, and into you?

Check our the ingredients of a “16 percent Layer Crumble” for yourself:

Grain Products, Plant Protein Products, Processed Grain Byproducts, Roughage Products, Forage Products [in other words, could contain pretty much anything!], Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Niacin Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Choline Chloride, Folic Acid, Manadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex, Methionine Supplement, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Manganous Oxide, Ferrous Sulfate, Copper Chloride, Zinc Oxide, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Sodium Selenite.”

I realize that eating pastured eggs is not going to change the world, but it’s one thing that my family can do as we exercise autonomy over our food choices and move toward a diet less dependent upon the industrial food chain.

Who wants some eggs from happy hens?

Maple Syrup Harrold Style

Posted by Mom on March 8, 2018

We’ve been talking about trying to make our own maple syrup for years. This year, we finally gave it a go and embraced an element of  quintessential Canadiana. This adventure in maple syrup making was a beautiful way for us to spend time as a family working together for a common (and sweetly delicious) goal. It’s also been a wonderful way to combine our homeschool and self-sufficiency endeavours.

When we first moved onto our property, we found a collection of old sap buckets and spiles, rusted beyond redemption. Although we could not use this find, it put the idea into our heads that we could tap our maples and make our own syrup. This notion stewed away in our minds for years, always re-emerging in late winter when we would find sap-cicles hanging from the maple trees while anticipating the Sugar Moon (the full moon in February or early March).

I’m not sure what made us decide to try this year, but try we did. I think it was our foodie daughter who was the impetus, as well as the fact that February had no full moon but instead January and March each had two. So, eager to give it a try, we picked up a tapping kit for beginners from TSC with 15 taps, buckets, and other equipment.

The first step was figuring out how many trees we could feasibly tap. This meant teaching the little ones to identify a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) without leaves to aid in identification. In the area around our home we found 27 trees we could tap, with several of them large enough to have two or three taps. Not wanting to over-do-it on our first attempt, we made seven taps and hung our buckets. We followed the wisdom of YouTube Syrup Makers and placed the taps on the south side of the tree, 3 – 4 feet above the ground, and positioned above a large root or beneath a large branch to intercept the heavy flow of sap up from the roots and into the branches.    

And then we waited for the perfect conditions to make the sap run. The flow is heaviest when a night with below freezing temperatures precedes a sunny day with above zero temperatures. We had three beautiful sunny days and collected 12 gallons of sap. The little ones would check the buckets numerous times a day and report back to us. Come evening we went out with a 5 gallon bucket and collected all the sap for the day. We stored the sap in a fridge in the barn until we had enough to attempt our first batch of syrup.

On the big day we dug out from Dad’s home brew supplies an old propane burner and a 15 gallon pot. We set them up in our drive shed and poured roughly 12 gallons of sap (after running it through a filter) into the pot and turned on the propane. We pulled up some chairs and got cozy. It took two hours just for the pot to reach a low boil. We kept it steaming away until well after the little ones were in bed. We had reduced our sap by about half but never got the pot any hotter than a low boil. When we decided to call it quits for the day, we put the lid on the pot, fastened it down with some wire to keep any curious critters from getting in, and left it to cool in the drive shed. The next day we brought the pot into the house and let it come up to room temperature before putting it onto the wood stove. We turned on the exhaust fans and let it simmer away. Slowly throughout the day the level in the pot dropped. But not fast enough. So, once more, we moved the pot to our stove top, set the burner on high and waited for several more hours for the the water to boil off. All the while we had a candy thermometer set in the pot and checked it regularly. We were looking for it to reach 219℉, the magic point when your sap becomes syrup.

Finally it happened! But oh the anticipation as we waited. The little ones readily accepted Dad’s offers of samples. A plate was cooling in the freezer to test if the liquid would gel into a syrup. Snow waited on the porch so we could pour hot syrup over it. And all the while a wonderful, maple syrup aroma filled the house. If you’ve ever been to a sugar shack and smelled the steam off the boiling sap, then you’ll know what I’m referring to.

In the end we boiled our 12 gallons of sap into 1.5 litres of syrup. In our eagerness we pulled the syrup off a bit too early (in our defense it was not a digital candy thermometer) and it is a tad runnier than store bought syrup. But the flavour is delicious! We had waffles for dinner tonight just so we could eat more of our syrup.

We still have the taps in the trees and buckets collecting each sweet drip. The sap will continue to run for 4 – 6 weeks. After our first adventure, we’ve come up with ways to improve on the process; a propane burner in a cold drive shed is not very effect and boiling sap in the house for hours on end is a bad idea. At least the reward for all our time and effort is very sweet indeed.

The Best Tomatoes For Your Health

Posted by Mom on February 28, 2018

Among our most favourite things to grow are tomatoes. A tomato plucked fresh off the plant, warm and perfectly ripe, will beat a grocery store tomato every time, hands down! There is a reason that garden tomatoes taste better – they are better. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, freshness goes a long way to improving taste. But those garden tomatoes are also more nutrient dense, and subsequently, better for your health.

Nutrient dense foods are those that are high in nutrients but low in calories. They also contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. When it comes to health, nutrient dense foods are the all-stars.

Back to those delicious, fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes…

Now, lest you think a tomato is a tomato is a tomato, I’ll clarify things for you: not all tomatoes are equal. The type of tomato and the manner in which it grows affect the nutrients available to you when you eat it. Let’s take a look at some of the science behind this fact.

First, organic tomatoes have a higher level of phenolic compounds than conventionally grown tomatoes (1, 2, 3). Phenolic compounds contribute to the proven health benefits that come from eating a tomato. The phenolic content, a measure of the flavanoid, antioxidant, and flavour intensity, is higher in organic tomatoes than conventionally grown tomatoes, up to 139% higher (3). The hypothesis is that organic tomatoes are exposed to more environmental stress, which prompts the plants to fortify themselves against the stress through higher levels of sugar, vitamin C, and antioxidants (3). So, organic tomatoes are more nutrient dense than conventional tomatoes.

Second, field tomatoes contain more beneficial properties than tomatoes grown in a greenhouse because the greenhouses block UV light, which reduces the flavanol content in the fruit (4), not something you want to skimp out on. Flavanols contribute to better vascular function, decreased blood pressure, and improved immune response. In contrast, tomatoes that grow in the open air contain four to five times more flavanols (4). When choosing between an organic tomato that is grown in a greenhouse or in a field, the open air tomato is more nutrient dense.

Third, commercial tomato growers, be they organic or conventional, greenhouse or field, are not growing a tomato for flavour or nutrient density. They are growing a tomato that will endure the harvest, survive the transport and still look good sitting in the grocery store. Food quality and nutrition decrease with the amount of fertilization, irrigation and other environmental means that are utilized by industrial farming (5). Essentially, these tomatoes are grown for high yields, and as a result, have reduced nutrient concentrations; the variability in the tomatoes’ genetics is diluted to accommodate the industrial food chain.

Heirloom tomatoes, though lower-yielding, still retain the nutrients that make tomatoes, well, tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties that existed prior to the green revolution (pre-1940). Heirloom tomatoes are not hybrids designed by food scientists for commercial growing. If you are looking for a tomato loaded with beta-carotene, flavonoids, carotenoids, lycopene, polyphenols, and more, you want an heirloom tomato grown with as few food miles as possible. If you purchase that tomato from a farm market and note it’s more expensive than other options, rest assured, you are getting what you pay for. How much is your health and nutrition worth to you?

The Kid Test
“The best indicator of quality is children. If they really like to eat raw produce you know you are on the right path” (6) I found this tidbit on and it rang true for me. We make sure to grow some small, easy pick-and-eat tomatoes in our gardens for the little ones to snack on. At least once a day during tomato season I will see them climb in among the tomato plants to search for a ripe morsel. Our favourites are the heirloom varieties Matt’s Wild Cherry and Yellow Pear.

Another way we enjoy eating our tomatoes is in a simple tomato and basil salad. When making a meal and needing something to accompany the main dish, I’ll ask someone to scamper out to the garden and pick a handful of tomatoes, the more varieties the better, as well as a small bouquet of basil leaves. Chopped up and mixed with some mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, we’ve got a delicious fresh salad. You can find the recipe here.-


1. Borguini, R. G., Markowicz Bastos, D. A.,Moita-Neto, J. M., Capasso, F. S.and Ferraz da Silva Torres, E. A. (2013). Antioxidant Potentials of Tomatoes Cultivated in Organic and Conventional Systems. Brazilian Archives of Biology and Technology, 56, 521-529.2. 

2. Universidad de Barcelona. (2012, July 3). Organic tomatoes contain higher levels of antioxidants than conventional tomatoes, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from

3. Oliveira AB, Moura CFH, Gomes-Filho E, Marco CA, Urban L, Miranda MRA (2013) The Impact of Organic Farming on Quality of Tomatoes Is Associated to Increased Oxidative Stress during Fruit Development. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56354. 

4. Alarcon-Flores, M. I., R. Romero-Gonzalez, J. L. M. Vidal and A. G. Frenich. (2015). Systematic Study of the Content of Phytochemicals in Fresh-cut Vegetables. Antioxidants (Basel), 4, 345-358.



Following Tracks in the Snow

Posted by Mom on January 16, 2018

We just experienced some very confused weather at our country home. The week prior saw daily highs in the range of -15℃ with a wicked wind chill on top. Then this past week opened on Monday with a rise in temperature to -3℃ and an over 10 cm snowfall. The temperature continue to climb over the following days and the precipitation turned to rain. By Thursday we hit 11℃ and watched as all the snow that had accumulated since mid December disappear into the sewers and creeks. Friday started with 10℃ and more rain, that is until a cold front blew through and the temperature plummeted to -6℃. All the rain transitioned to freezing rain and then to snow. Winter weather was back.

All that melting and subsequent runoff overflowed the creeks, ponds and wetlands. Our fields were flooded by the creek and when the temperature dropped again we had open expanses of ice. We took advantage of the ice for some skating. So long as the little ones avoided the tufts of grass, dried soy bean stalks, and divots left in the ground by the combine’s wheels, they managed to do alright.

Another result of the dynamic temperature swings were animal tracks. On that crazy weather day that was Friday, when we started the day in spring and ended it in winter, the animals around our home felt compelled to venture out. During Friday night they left behind a multitude of tracks for us to follow and interpret. My little ones and I spent time studying the tracks the following morning.

The first set of tracks that drew our attention were left by a short-tailed weasel. We could see where it had scampered along on top of the snow, then tunneled under it for a few feet, then popped up again for another run on top. We followed along with the weasel tracks and found a spot where the weasel had detoured under some pine trees to investigate a collection of feathers and blood droplets left in the snow by a cooper’s hawk when it had dined on its meal of mourning dove. We continued to track our weasel until we came across two sets of coyote tracks loping across the orchard and proceeded to follow their tracks for a spell. We confirmed our ID of the tracks when we happened upon scat in the middle of the path.

You can tell a wild canid (fox or coyote around here) from a domestic dog because they walk with a purpose, typically in a straight line along the most direct, easiest to follow path. Dogs on the other hand run this way and that like an over-stimulated, hyperactive child leaving behind a zigzag trail as they investigate every new smell or sound. Dogs have energy to spare; foxes and coyotes need to conserve their energy and simply travel from point A to point B with few zigs or zags.  

In following the set of tracks we came upon a spot in the centre of the field where the two coyotes we were following had been joined by several more. It appeared a group of coyotes had a meet up in our field before splitting up again and going their separate ways. I rather like the idea that a scene from a nature show was played out a couple hundred meters from our house. It was a good reminder of who we share our country home with.

Our morning of tracking set my eldest daughter on a mission to find voles. By far, the most numerous tracks we came across were left by voles, which run on the top of the snow or burrow underneath it in a network of tunnels that can resemble cursive writing when viewed from above. My daughter wanted to see where each set of tracks led in an attempt to find a vole in its nest. She was rooting around under logs, digging into snow banks, and turning over piles of soy bean chaff that was left behind by the combine. She did eventually find one. Well, actually, her little brother scared the vole so that it ran over the open snow and she was after it like a cat after a mouse. Sure enough, she pounced on it and caught it under her mitten encased hands. She held the frightened creature and desperately wanted to keep it for a pet. I convinced her it would be happiest running freely through its tunnels and she set it free.

Along with the tracks left by coyotes, a weasel, and numerous voles, we also found rabbit, squirrel and bird tracks. While some of these creatures are easier to observe than others, a fresh blanket of snow can give a snapshot into the activities of those that are harder to observe. They are also a great incentive for us to learn more about the ways of our wild neighbours. In my opinion, a morning following animal tracks with my little ones is a morning well spent.