All posts by Rebecca Harrold

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.

Welcoming Bluebirds to our Country Home

Posted by Mom on January 5, 2018

Way back as a youngster, I was fascinated by bluebirds. Well, any kind of bird, actually. I roamed about the woods, swamps, and fields searching for bird nests and built up a collection of nests, eggshells, and feathers. But bluebirds, now they were an almost mythical creature.

In hopes of attracting a pair of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) to our yard, I encouraged (read: nagged) my parents to set up some nest boxes. Although we saw a male bluebird sporadically for a day each spring over the following years, no pair ever set up residence in our nest boxes. Not that the boxes were empty, house wrens and tree swallows took possession, and for a budding naturalist, provided many opportunities for observation.  

Fast forward a few decades and now I am the parent with three little naturalists and another chance to attract bluebirds to a country property. While in University, and dreaming about future bluebird glory, I had picked up a book about bluebirds. I cracked it open once more to see what I could do to fulfill that dream. I followed the advice, set up the next boxes and waited. Just as happened with my parents, we had brief bluebird sightings, but none chose to stay.

We speculated, and later confirmed, that house sparrows were preventing the bluebirds from taking up residence. For me, there is no love lost for these sparrows. Native to Eurasia, house sparrows (Passer domesticus) were intentionally released in New York City to control the caterpillars of the linden moth in 1852. Now these birds occur across North America; not being confined by international borders, their range spreads from the subarctic all the way to southern Panama. The birds are so adaptable and quickly colonize new territory that of all wild birds, the house sparrow is the most widely distributed bird on the planet. In all honesty, the sparrows are not to blame, they are generalists and thrive amid human habitation. We humans introduced them to a brand new continent and proceeded to lay out the welcome mat as our farms and cities spread farther west and north across the continent.

Their success at global domination has earned the house sparrow a bad reputation. The bird is considered a pest and threat to native bird species. House sparrows prefer to use tree cavities as nest sites (though they seem to find gaps between letters in storefront signs to be a wonderful alternative) and are in direct competition with other cavity nesting birds, such as bluebirds. Neither bird actually does the excavating, they leave that to the woodpeckers, who create a new nesting cavity each year, leaving the vacant cavity of last year available. These vacant cavities are a hot commodity, and with their tenacious, bully-like qualities, house sparrows come out on top wherever they compete with native birds (you can find some gruesome images online of bluebirds and swallows pecked to death by aggressive house sparrows). Well-meaning humans erecte nest boxes to encourage wild birds, but often these boxes are suited exactly to the house sparrows taste: ready-made homes close to human habitation.

At our country home, we have neighbours with a farm and several outbuildings, including a run-down barn. This property is the source for our neighbourhood house sparrow population. Come winter, a noisy flock of house sparrows  descends on our bird feeders. When the weather warmed in spring, the flock  breaks up into breeding pairs, and in short order, unwanted tenants look to move into the nest boxes we’ve set up.

We have several nest boxes with the 1½ inch entrance hole that bluebirds prefer. House sparrows prefer that size of entrance hole too. My first attempt to deter the sparrows was to cover the entrance holes with duct tape. While effective, the sparrows only waited for the tape to come off, which it did when the tree swallows arrived looking for nesting sites. My next attempt was to remove a sparrow nest from the box, but this only stimulated the male to turn on his neighbours in a revengeful rampage that resulted in all the nestlings in a tree swallow’s nest being killed by the irate male sparrow. In a desperate third attempt, my husband grabbed his pellet gun and shot at the males as they sat atop the nest boxes. None of these methods succeeded in deterring the house sparrows; so I turned to the internet to show me a way to keep the house sparrows from our nest boxes.

I found the website to be loaded with suggestions. On it I learnt that house sparrows spook easily and an effective way to prevent them from nesting in a nest box is to use monofilament (fishing line) attached to the nest box to “scare” them off. By affixing it to the roof of a nest box in an X pattern, the sparrows will not perch on top of the box, something they do to announce that they have claimed a nest site as their own. The monofilament can also be dangled from the corners of the roof so they hang next to the entrance hole (weighed down with a nut or washer so it won’t become entangled in the entrance hole and harm any occupants) and make the sparrows too leery to enter the box. Furthermore, the monofilament can be strung around the entrance hole in a square shape that will also deter house sparrows from trying to enter the nest box.

I can testify that the monofilament worked! The first year we tried it, We did not have any house sparrows using our nest boxes. Instead, each box was the home to a family of house wrens, tree swallows, or, drum-roll, please, … eastern bluebirds! Apparently the bluebirds were waiting for us to fix the house sparrow problem.

Bluebird glory was finally achieved! Our next dream is to entice purple martins to our property. Dad is already working on their apartment complex. But a challenge awaits… house sparrows like to set up residence in the same apartments as purple martins. Sigh! The battle continues…

Embracing Tea – Part 2

Posted by Mom on November 27, 2017

A few year back I had a lightbulb moment when I realized that I could grow and use my own plants for herbal remedies. We began to plant flowers and herbs specifically for drying and storing to use in future teas.

We’ve grown German Chamomile for the past two years for the purpose of plucking the tiny daisy-like blossoms. Once dried (I do this by leaving them sitting on a tray lined with cheesecloth), I add the blossoms to a jar and keep them ready for anyone with tummy troubles. A tea made by steeping dried chamomile blossoms in warm water contains anti-inflammatories that ease digestive upset. The herbal tea is also useful to anyone looking to ease the discomforts associated with menstrual symptoms or simply needing an immune system boost.


Another help for tummy troubles, and one that is readily accepted by my children, is peppermint tea. Like chamomile, peppermint tea will soothe stomach ailments; concentrated peppermint oil is even used as a treatment for people suffering from IBS. And like chamomile, peppermint can also ease menstrual symptoms and strengthens the immune system. It has the added benefits of relieving pain, increasing bile production, and soothing colicky babies. Oh yeah, all of this while leaving you with fresher breath.

We grow peppermint in a planter box on our deck that provides easy access to the plant for use in our cooking. When peppermint is in the blush of growth I cut off stems for drying. To dry them, I bundle the stems together with an elastic band and put them into a paper bag punched with holes, which I hang upside down to dry. The paper bag is necessary to permit air and moisture to escape while also keeping dust from collecting and catching any broken, dried leaves from the dried herbs. I hang the bags in a dry, warm spot and wait, checking after several weeks to see if the mint is completely dry. When ready, I strip the leaves from the stems and put them into a jar for storage until needed.

We have a ready supply of Echinacea growing in our gardens. Commonly referred to as Big Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Purpurea), it’s a common plant in flower gardens. It’s also a plant with a history. The first people to discover and use echinacea were native North Americans. They used the plant to treat snake and insect bites, heal old wounds and burns, and reduce fevers. Sucking or chewing on the root alleviated sore throats, coughs, toothaches, and infections. Pioneers learned from their native neighbours and used the plant as well to treat a range of ailments. Near the end of the 19th century, echinacea’s renown crossed the pond and Europeans were introduced to its healing properties.

This past summer I collected and dried the leaves, buds, and roots of echinacea. I dried them by laying them upon a simply-made drying rack and leaving them for several weeks. The drying rack is also the spot where we dry chamomile and calendula flowers. Once dry, the pieces went into glass jars for storage. Already this year I’ve had several cups of echinacea tea when symptoms of the common cold appear in our house. Echinacea improves the immune system to be able to fight off the cold virus quicker, which lessens the duration of a cold and the severity of its symptoms. We also take echinacea in pill form following their prescribed dosage schedule for the duration of the cold. Echinacea works best when taken at the first sign of a cold and then for the next 7 to 10 days.

Armed with our homegrown chamomile, peppermint, and echinacea dried and ready for steeping, we’re prepared to combat the minor discomforts that the winter season bring our way.

Embracing Tea – Part 1

Posted by Mom on November 23, 2017

I like tea. It’s a simple, soothing drink and it can offer powerful benefits to your physical and emotional health.

The more I learn about herbal medicines, the more I value my tea-sipping habit. I’ve even grown and dried some plants for future sipping; it’s surprisingly simple to do and I find the tea tastier and more aromatic (though that may just be my imagination). At present, I drink tea primarily for the boost it gives to my physical health. I haven’t delved into the teas that specifically address mental health, although herbal teas with ingredients such as St. John’s wort, Lemon Balm, Lavender, or Chamomile will calm the nerves and ease stressful feelings. Mind you, I appreciate the short-term boost from the caffeine I get from in my cup of green or black tea.

Green Tea and Black Tea – Purchased Potency

I start my day off with a mug of green tea and my morning devotion. The caffeine is enough to give me a boost to start the day. While green tea is not the most flavourful of teas, it offers much in the health department; it improves blood flow, helps prevent heart-related issues, helps prevent the formation of plaque that is linked to Alzheimer’s, helps keep blood sugar stable, and helps cell growth. That’s a lot of ‘help’ for the body!

Before it steeps in my mug, green tea undergoes minimal processing; the leaves are picked, steamed, dried, packaged, and shipped. When steeped, the powerful antioxidants within the leaves are released into the hot water for our consumption. I depend on my kettle to heat the water to the proper temperature setting for green tea (175℉) to ensure the tea leaves don’t scald. Adding lemon to a cup of green tea enhances the absorption of antioxidants and, when mixed with honey, produces a tastier drink.

I also enjoy a mid-afternoon cup of black tea, usually around the time when lessons and piano practices are done for the day and I have attended to any garden or chicken chores. Not to be outdone by green tea, black tea also offers a wealth of health benefits. The beverage contains antioxidants and polyphenols that fight disease, work to prevent cancer, support digestive health, and are even beneficial to the hair, skin, and oral health. Drink it up!

I like my black tea with a spoonful of honey and cinnamon (pre-mixed) and a splash of almond milk. I like to think of it as my poor person’s chai latte. As an aside, we keep a container of unpasteurized honey and cinnamon handy and use a teaspoonful per day to help fight off or ease the symptoms of cold viruses. Both honey and cinnamon are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and immune boosting. Furthermore, honey coats the throat and can soothe an irritated and sore throat.

Next: Part 2 – Homegrown Herbal Teas

Artisanal Chicken Finds a Niche

Posted by Mom on November 20, 2017

At our local farm market, The Stand, we discovered a source for local, pasture-raised chicken. We’re excited about Hidden Root Farms and wish to share a little bit about them with you.

While owners Rob and Lori Brown have been raising chickens for years, Hidden Root Farms is a mere two years old. Prior to full-time chicken farming, Lori had a career in accounting and supply management. Her experiences gave her a first-hand look at the pitfalls of an industrial food chain and inspired her to explore ways ts supply her own family with homegrown and home-raised food. For Lori, a passion for humanely-raised animals and locally produced food quickly evolved into growing market vegetables and raising meat chickens.

Soon after, word spread throughout the community and people were seeking out the couple to enquire about purchasing chickens from them. In short order, the couple realized that there was a demand for local, humanely-raised chickens that was beyond their annual ability to supply. At that time, according to the Chicken Farmers of Ontario’s (CFO) Family Food Program, the maximum number of chickens they could raise and sell as farm gate sales was 300 chickens.

In 2015, the CFO introduced the Artisanal Chicken Program, a licence that permits farmers to raise between 600 and 3000 chickens a year. This new licence would allow them to raise more than 300 chickens, as the local demand evidently required, without jumping to the commercial scale. Lori and her husband considered giving up one of their two full-time incomes in exchange devoting more time and energy to their budding chicken business. In Lori’s own words, “We made the decision that life is about happiness and took the leap of one of us staying on the farm full time and going for it. Thankfully, that was me!”

This past summer, with Hidden Root Farms just a mere two years old, Lori was again approved for an Artisanal Chicken licence and raised as many birds as she could to sell to her customers. So, just what is it that is so special about Hidden Root Farms? What made it possible for them to jump from raising 300 chickens per year to over 2000? How were they able to sell that much chicken product to the local community? The answer is in the quality of meat they produce and the care they put into raising their chickens – you taste the difference.

The reason for that difference in taste, which I like to think of as what a real chicken, who has a healthy happy life should taste like is the quality of life for the chickens on Hidden Root Farms. The Brown’s operation is the polar opposite to a commercial chicken farm. Consider the following table, which highlights the quality of life the chickens of Hidden Root Farms enjoy:

The motivation for Hidden Root Farms, according to Lori, is “a passion to raise the best food for our family and our customers. We are giving people a choice of where to buy food and educating them that food doesn’t have to come in Styrofoam or from a factory.” Amen to that!

Where you can find products from Hidden Root Farms
While open during the summer months, you can find Lori selling her artisanal chicken at The Stand in Burford every other Saturday. She offers her customers whole roaster chickens, boneless skinless chicken breasts, chicken wings and three different flavours of chicken sausages. She also sells her products at the Talbotville Berry Farm MarketBailey’s Local Foods, and Fresh City Farms. For those who live closer to Hidden Root Farms, delivery is available, as are farm gate sales by appointment.

But that’s not all, chicken from Hidden Root Farms is also served in some local restaurants. You can enjoy their chicken prepared for you at Burning Kiln Winery in Turkey Point, Links at Dover Coast Golf, prepared by David’s Restaurant, and Indigio Lounge in Tillsonburg.

Yummy chicken for our freezer. I can’t wait to cook it up!