Cast and Crew

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Completed Gingerbread Farm

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sides and roof.

Fences and naked animals. Oooh, naked!!

Keep those barn doors shut!

Construction, phase 1.

So far, so good.

Looking tidy!

The roof tried to slide quite a bit. Need stronger icing.

A simple cow shed for the neighbors.

Decorate, decorate, decorate!

Good fences make good snacks.

The pig corral is complete!

The rest of these shots were taken only moments before a violent earthquake caused a major cave-in of the roof and walls. No animals were harmed.... until I got hungry.

Free range chickens on the lawn.

Two belted galloway cattle held up the roof for a little while.

Farmer Me!

A turkey shares the pig pen.

I hope your holiday was filled with cookies, too!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let's Have a Ginger Barn Raising!

Christmas this year is going to be simple and quiet. The last few winters have been very hectic, so we're extremely happy to have a simple one to celebrate. No snow, no plane rides, no painting the living room and dining room, no puppies in need of potty training, and most importantly, NO WORK! It's not often that I get weekends and holidays off in my job, so I try to savor them while they're around. I've been super lucky to get extended in my current position, which I've been in since April of this year. Perks include the aforementioned weekends and holidays off, decent working hours, and the ability to commute by train. All this fun won't last, though. I'm back in the ranks of uniformed blue collar labor as of the first of the new year.

But until that happens, it's time for holidays!

Tonight I'll start things off by prepping cookie dough. Gingerbread and sugar cookie dough needs to chill before baking, so it can be made ahead of time. Tomorrow I'll be baking the main body of a gingerbread farm, complete with cow shed and grain silo (I hope). Friday, Christmas Eve, is the cookie bake-a-thon! We've got animal cookie cutters for everything a gingerbread farm needs. I've always wanted to make a gingerbread house during the holidays, but I never make time for it. This year, I'm going all out. Who wants a gingerbread house when you can build a farm??

If you'd like to join me in cookie farming, below are recipes and building instructions (from Let's make some icing!

Don't forget to raise your own cookie cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, llamas, donkeys, horses, and veggie crops!

Gingerbread Urban Farm Cookies


6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup shortening, melted and cooled slightly
3/4 cup molasses
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup water
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. In a medium bowl, mix together the shortening, molasses, brown sugar, water, egg, and vanilla until smooth. Gradually stir in the dry ingredients, until they are completely absorbed. Divide dough into 3 pieces, pat down to 1 1/2 inch thickness, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 inch apart onto an ungreased cookie sheet. (If you're making a barn, silo, house, or cow shed, use the blueprints above and cut the doors and windows with a knife. Leave them in place to cook and remove them after everything is cool.) Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven (and remember that larger pieces may take longer). When the cookies are done, they will look dry, but still be soft to the touch. Remove from the baking sheet to cool on wire racks. When cool, the cookies can be frosted with the icing of your choice.

Makes 1 barn-sized serving

Sugar Cookie Urban Livestock


1 1/2 cups butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
4 eggs
1 tspn vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 tspn baking powder
1 tspn salt

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight). Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shapes with a floured cookie cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 6 to 8 minutes in preheated oven. Cool completely. To stand farm animals up, glue them with icing to the half-round in the blueprints above.

Makes 4 herds (dozen)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Seed Catalog of My Dreams

If you haven't gotten on the mailing list for a seed catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, let me tell you why you should.

Have you ever seen a Backpacker tomato?

Seed catalogs get gardeners through the cold months, the rain, the snow, the wind, and the lack of eggs from lazy chickens. Right about now, when the last few struggling plants have blackened and shriveled back into the mulch that covered their roots through the first freezing nights and blankets of snow, the mind of a city farmer turns to thoughts of spring.

Our trusty Subaru beneath a cozy blanket of snow. Heated seats and all-wheel drive make snow like this a pure joy.

Well, almost every city farmer thinks of spring. There are many weeks to get to that phase, and in the meantime..... I love winter. It's such a wonderful season of darkness and slowing down (when we can), of warm fires and hot chocolate, baking and simmering, twinkling lights and the smell of snow in the air. We took a day trip to Leavenworth last weekend. It snowed at least fifteen inches in five hours. We shopped and walked through the bustling streets of the small tourist town, aka Bavarian Vegas, which was the description offered by one group of people who slid past us on the icy path. The lights came on in the early evening, and we watched children sled down a small hill in the center of town. It sealed the deal that the holidays were really upon us. We might just make that trip a seasonal tradition.

What happens in Leavenworth, stays in Leavenworth.

And while I'm off the subject, let me also mention that I am especially grateful for the three week break from college. I apologize for my lack of presence lately, but essays and exams take over my life at times. Working full time and going to school full time leaves room for little else, so I'm trying to savor as much of the season as I can before the rush comes back to our day-to-day.

But back to the seeds. And spring. I do love spring, despite the fact that I must give up winter to get to it. Spring always starts with a stirring desire to plant seeds in little pots. I get to the point in winter where I genuinely need little green things around me. It's like a desire to nest. I get broody and need to feel dirt under my fingers.

See what I mean? Centerfold. I thought about taking this on my train ride to work, but I think I'd actually blush if I got busted staring at the winter squash.

I know this is coming, and I am armed with catalogs. This year I was especially on top of things, and the seeds are not only ordered, they have indeed arrived. They'll sit in the shortbread tin on the counter until the days begin to warm and the planting itch starts. If only I had known a new catalog was on its way.

Enter Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

In all honesty, I cannot say that I have ever seen a more beautiful seed catalog in my many years of gardening and farming. It was more like a magazine, a full spread of lingerie-like-lettuces and centerfold squashes ready to jump from the pages and plant themselves in the waiting raised beds of my imagination. Page after page of sweet and hot peppers made me salivate for the salsa I've never made but dreamt about. Clusters of bright red, striped green, flat, skinny, round, ripe tomatoes tempted me and made me forget, if only for a moment, that the more tropical plants barely survive in our cool, northern climate. Nine types of rutabaga, twice as many turnips, mysteries from Siberia and parts of Russia, stabilized and imported for you to welcome into your vegetable rows amazed me. I began to rethink that seed order, paid for and received, planned, simply waiting for an opportunity, sitting in a shortbread tin with stray packets of those little dessicants they put in shoe boxes. How could I not include these new (old) heirloom plants? Would I find satisfaction with my meager stock of plain cukes and ordinary beans? More importantly, how could I get away with making another seed order without my girlfriend catching me?

Maybe you don't need this kind of conflict in your life. If that's the case, forget I mentioned this HEART-STOPPINGLY-GORGEOUS seed catalog. Spare yourself the agony of choosing between the hundreds of varieties of names like Hero of Lockinge Melon, or Little Fingers Eggplant, or Crapaudine Beet.

But if you're at a friend's house, and you see this catalog lying around, tempting you with glimpses of full color photographs and delectible descriptions, resist the urge to pick it up before you're ruined like me. I don't think I can ever go back to the pale, two-dimensional life of other seed catalogs again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Is La Niña Code for "Start Baking"?

That's not dandruff, folks. It's been snowing!! And we all know that snow is one of Aengus' favorite snacks. 

We covered the garden with straw just a few short days ago, knowing that cold weather was on the way.

Boy was that good timing! It doesn't snow very often in the Pacific Northwest. Sure, the mountains get covered with it this time of the year, and the ski resorts are always happy when the icy winds begin to blow, but we live extremely close to salt water, so snow is a rare treat for us.

Year-round gardening is usually simple in this region. We currently have one cold frame to see some plants through the winter, but you can see the leeks (in the bed on the left) holding up well even in this sub-freezing weather. The strawberries, just to the right of the leeks and garlic (which has yet to sprout), were still giving us ripe berries only last week. The blueberries (in the foreground) have turned a lovely shade of deep red. There are carrots, turnips, rutabaga, and kohlrabi growing in the uncovered bed, and a few small pots of strawberry runners are in the cold frame bed. Everything else has been put to sleep for the winter.

Straw is a really simple way to cover raised beds and garden space this time of year. It's very inexpensive (usually about $7 per bale), and we use lots of it in the chicken coop anyway, so it's always on hand. I only wish the bales weren't so messy. In the spring, we'll pull all that mulch off the beds and toss it into the paths for extra weed control. It sometimes sprouts a little hay grass when it rains, but it creates a very effective weed barrier.

Is it time to pull out the doggie sweaters, too? We've been baking brownies and making homemade chicken noodle soup all weekend to keep the house toasty warm. It's supposed to drop down into the very low 20's tonight, and it probably won't get above freezing until Wednesday. Here's to hot cocoa and fuzzy wool sweaters!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dark Meat, Anyone?

You may not know much about Dark Meat (whose real name is Esther, named after the famed synchronized swimmer), but you may be hearing more about her over the coming weeks.

See the resemblance? I thought you might. I can't say that Dark Meat enjoys a good swim, but her feathery toes know no boundaries. She's bold, she's brave, and I even witnessed her giving a hearty peck to Portia just the other day. We worried that she would forever be the scared little chicken in the flock, but she seems to be coming into her own.

The real reason we're all about Dark Meat these days is because....
That's right, folks. The silence of the egg is over. After a month of no hen fruits, Dark Meat has come through as a shining example of urban-egg-laying glory. Her first egg came early on Saturday morning, and the second arrived on Sunday. Who knows? There might be one waiting for us after work today. So far her eggs are a bit on the small side, but we don't judge around here. Their shells are a lovely pale brown with subtle lilac specks. If I hadn't been so keen on breakfast this weekend, I'd have snapped a pic or two.

It's funny how we've come to depend on our ladies for eggs in the course of just one short year. Store bought eggs simply won't do. The shells are too uniform, the yolks are too pale, the flavor is flat, and the characteristic bit of feather fluff or chicken poo is oddly absent. I've missed me some farm eggs.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Where has the time gone? Really, folks. I mean it. I wake up and it's dark, my train ride to work is dark, the ride home is dark... It's no wonder the hens refuse to lay eggs when the days get shorter. But the specific time I'm referring to today is the year of blogging we've just completed! The first blog post here was on November 7th, 2009, and we've come a long way since those early days. Ready for a trip down memory lane?

Six tiny chicks showed up at the local post office in the late part of summer 2009. It was August, we had just gotten home from a great road trip vacation to Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, and Glacier NP. (This was the vacation where Aimee really got to get in some serious "wheel time" driving the Subaru. I napped in the passenger seat and woke up to find her cruising along at 83 mph in Montana. Yikes!) The coop was nearly finished, and the brooder box was warm and waiting. Portia, Ellen, Raquel, Ursula, Ingrid, and Norma Jean all thrived in those late summer weeks. By December we had our first eggs.

Sadly, we lost one of our chicks in early 2010. Norma Jean, tragically named after Marylin Monroe, died young of an overdose. If only we could have sensed the foreboding in her name. It was a terribly sobering event after such initial success, and it forced us to come to terms with how attached we had become to our little ladies in the backyard.

Bartering eggs around the neighborhood opened up new lines of communication, friendship, and sharing, and we credit the chickens and the garden in the front yard for much of this. One neighbor was so caught up with the beauty of our hens than he asked us to raise a few for him. He built a great little coop and run, and his three chickens are now happy and healthy, and I think they're probably a bit spoiled.

That same batch of chicks brought three new lives into our own flock, though we could never have guessed how much they would teach us or force us to grow over the course of a summer. Winona, the luckiest (or unluckiest) little Wyandotte I have ever known, started out a little slower than her brooder box mates. I dropped a board on her and nearly killed her, but she simply refused to give up. After a few days in isolation under a heat lamp, she rejoined her sisters and has grown up to be pretty close to normal. As it turns out, her inability to prevent getting whacked by me is probably related to her scissor beak condition. To this day, her beak must be clipped regularly, her eyesight leaves a lot to be desired, and she's extremely shy about portait shots with the camera. Though she consistently peck an inch to the left of snacks on the ground, she's a fighter. In other words, she's really darned plump.

Dark Meat is the embodiment of pure joy. I have yet to capture a video of her antics, but believe me that it will be worth the wait when that movie shows up. Perhaps a dedicated post to our funniest chick is in order soon. Neither of the two youngers chickens have started to lay eggs, and this Friday they will be 33 weeks old. They seem to have the support of the toughest chicken union I have ever negotiated with.

Rusty, formerly known as Milla, was the most robust, beautiful, and biggest chick we had ever seen. We remained firmly in denial about his gender until the infamous "borkle" sound I heard one afternoon. We struggled with our decision to slaughter him, and we learned so much about respect and personal limits, none of which were anticipated. Though we have received some criticism about butchering our own animal, it was an important step for the future farm we will someday own. On a personal level, slaughtering an animal I genuinely loved has changed my internal compass for eating, and it has opened my eyes to behaviors and practices I feel I can no longer ignore.

We cut down the massive, very old, and incredibly frail douglas fir in our front yard during the peak of the summer heat. That seemingly simple act has opened up a world of possibility for our small raised bed garden, and we are now looking forward to more work, more harvesting, and more sunlight in our future.

What's to come in the future? If we have learned anything in the last year of urban farming it is that planning is fun, but the farm will make its own decisions with or without our input. Below is a list of hopes, and some of them feel a bit like New Year's resolutions, which is to say that fulfilling or ignoring them are both viable options.

  • Honey bees are the next big goal. We'll be starting out with a single hive in the front yard in the spring, and we hope to learn much about the lives and organization of bees, pollination, listening to the weather, and collecting honey.
  • Meat birds are the next logical step after Rusty. Though this particular item is under some heavy scrutiny at the moment, it will eventually happen in the coming years, even if next year is not good timing.
  • The garden shed will be getting a concrete floor, and we hope to have this completed before the end of 2010. Both it and the garage could use a lot of love and work, but we'll handle that one project at a time. In the meantime, we need a safe place for storage, and we're looking forward to growing more of our garden starts under cover.
  • The reclaimed "acreage" in the front yard needs to be converted into beds and a mini orchard. Building raised beds can be a lot of work, but we've had such great success with those that we already have, and Aimee really wants a place to grow raspberries. I'm hoping to rig one or more of them to accomodate a mini hoop house for tomatoes, cukes, and possibly some other fun veggies.
  • The line of stumps in the backyard is gone, thanks to the fine efforts of the chickens. A second mini orchard may find its home there.
  • Our parking strip is the last vestige of grass (by which I mostly mean weeds and clover) in front of the house. One bed of herbs is already planted, and at least four more are planned. In my mind (as idyllic and ridiculous as it is known to be), I imagine our neighbors casually wandering over to clip oregano and parsley for their dinners in the summer evenings. In reality, I am prepared for more than a little cat poop.
  • Many of the bedding plants around the house are going to be removed and re-homed to make way for rhubarb, berries, and who-knows-what-else. We both agree that the calla lilies are waning, the single mum doesn't get enough light, and the dhalia always gets infested with aphids. It's time for edible permaculture.
Are we too ambitious? Probably, but it's always funny to watch us try. Stay tuned over the next year to see what really gets done. What are your plans for gardens, farms, animals, and such?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Get Out And Vote!

The campaigning has hit its peak. Signs are in yards everywhere, the TV and radio are buzzing with promotional ads and digs at opponents, and some of us have even been visited (repeatedly) by Labor Neighbors. If you have a union job, you've probably heard of this door-to-door process. If you haven't, be thankful. In the spirit of exercising your rights, we encourage you to vote today. A brief review of the key issues is below, and our recommendations are noted.

  • Referendum Cluck - We, the chickens, hereby propose an increase in food, wherein food is defined as any wholesome substance to be deposited in our communal feeder or distrubuted about the floor of the run. Desired natural foodstuffs include such things as fresh berries, cheerios soaked in whole milk, a hot oatmeal breakfast on cold days, and leftover carrot and turnip mash.
Vote for - That raw food stuff is for sissies. We're tired of brussels sprout stalks and crunchy pumpkin innards. Cook it, already. (Sponsored by Real Chickens for Real Food)
Vote against - You're lucky you get anything but chicken feed. (Sponsored by Humans Don't Have Enough Time to Cook For Themselves, and They're Not About To Cook For Birds)

  • Initiative Egg - We, the humans, hereby demand a shift in the molting schedule of the hens. Summertime is hot, which means it is a much better time to shed feathers and regrow. Additionally, our egg demands are greatly reduced from July to August. We propose that this new molting period become effective immediately to help restore critically low funding in egg capital for holiday baking.
Vote for - Really? You stop laying right when we need eggs the most? This union bullying tactic has gone on long enough. You're shivering and we're having to purchase eggs at the store. (Sponsored by The One Person in the Family Who Would Like an Omlette for Breakfast)
Vote against - It's about damn time you realized you need what we work so hard to produce. We hope you enjoy that lifeless, pale yolk you had in your scrambled mess this morning. (Sponsored by Unified Chickens for an Egg Unrestricted Market)

Well, folks, that wraps up our suggestions and comments on this important voting day. Every voice (and cluck) is important, so let your choices be heard. The poll is now open (on the upper right side of this page). Polls close in one week, so vote early and often!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Did It!

I am officially an Apprentice Beekeeper! I took my test this morning and carried it into Beez Neez, got it scored, and got congratulated by Jim, store owner and regular member and officer of the NWDBA (Northwest District Beekeepers Association). Let the hive plans begin!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No Feathers, No Eggs

It's been a sad time around the urban farm lately. Egg production has never been this low, even when the girls first started laying. We feel lucky to get one egg per day, and that egg is most certainly coming from Portien. Who is Portien, you ask? She would be either Portia or Ellen, one of the Hamburgs. We honestly cannot tell them apart anymore. They are most frequently observed as a high speed flash of polka-dotted-black-on-white streaking through the yard or darting into the coop. Let me back up a bit in the storyline.

When we first decided to raise chickens, I began researching which breeds of chicken to purchase. I knew I wanted heritage breeds. I knew I wanted friendly chickens that would be easy to handle. I also knew I wanted three different breeds, two chicks of each. I hoped this would leave us with at least one of each type after any fatalities or problems in young chickenhood. I was nothing if not realistic. I was also, as it turned out, a bit misguided in my breed selections. How do you choose when there are so many varieties of hens? How do you narrow down the many types you'd like to raise into just three options? I struggled with my wants and needs, I studied pictures of hens and chicks for weeks, and I finally decided on the three we would eventually order.


Golden Campines

Silver Speckled Hamburgs

The list of runner ups included Delawares, Brahmas, Sussex, and Welsummers, two of which ended up in our second batch of chicks early this year. Basing your decision on a website description of breeds is tough. As many of you probably know, breed characteristics come second to the many unique qualities of an individual. It's great to say that Dominiques are friendly birds, but you don't know how your birds will behave until you have them in your coop. I also feel that how you raise and handle your birds plays a large role in their later interactions with you and others. That said, our decision to bring in two Hamburgs was not the best, nor was it based on accurate information.

I told you they were molting.

The cons of Hamburgs:

Hamburgs are one of the most notoriously flighty birds you will encounter. They do not like to be handled. They will avoid being caught at all costs. And, for those of you who've been reading this blog for any length of time may recall, they can fly very well. Catching Portia or Ellen is a skill that has taken a lot of time to develop. I am grateful for one thing: they are bird brains.

Hamburgs don't like to be confined. This is great if you have plenty of room to let them wander, but city chickens usually equal confinement to a coop for much of the day. Once they're out, you're best to just let them find their way home at sunset.

Ellen (or Portia) stares longingly at the loaf of bread. Good luck, skinny bird.

That flightiness I mentioned before necessitates wing clipping every year. This is a valuable skill, and I'm glad to have learned it, but it prevents you from being able to show your birds at events, which is one of the main reasons people choose to keep Hamburgs. They are truly beautiful animals.

Our Hamburgs suck at foraging. I swear. You can tell by the color of their egg yolks. Portia and Ellen's eggs are the lightest in color of all the eggs we collect from our hens. The Dominiques lay the darkest yolks.

The pros of Hamburgs (or, What This Post is Really About):

This bird is sometimes called the Dutch Everyday Layer, and they got that name for good reason. They will honestly lay six eggs a week, unfailingly. In fact, as I mentioned above, they are currently our only source of eggs. We can't tell the difference between Portia's and Ellen's eggs (and, yes, we can tell all the other girls' eggs apart), but there is almost always a lovely, shiny, slightly creamy colored egg in the nest box. Sometimes that egg lands in the compost bin or behind a thorny thistle we forgot to pull up, but these girls are the most reliable layers you will ever meet.

If you do choose to let your Hamburgs out (which we do, due to the afore-mentioned wing clipping), they stand a better chance of escaping potential attacks from predators than the rest of the flock. As I said before, they're impossible to catch. This can be helpful if you have neighborhood racoons, opossums, cats, dogs, etc.

Why aren't the rest of our ladies laying? Molting. And when I say molting, I cannot emphasize enough how bad these chickens look. After plucking dear little Rusty earlier this year, I am reminded of that event every time I see Raquel. She looks like she's nearly ready for the stew pot. Molting is tough on a hen. The protein required to grow all those feathers back makes her moody and hungry all the time, and her body can't keep producing eggs when it's stressed like that. I've heard loads of methods to speed the process up, but I think this is one ailment that only time can heal. Meanwhile, we haven't given out surplus eggs all month (because we haven't had any). The neighbors have been worried. My breakfasts have been boring. Baking makes us worry that we might have to (*gasp*) buy eggs on the open market. Those chickens aren't the only ones stressing in this family.

Dear God, that is one awful-looking chicken. Poor Raquel! She's already half plucked!

On the bright side, Ursula has grown her tail back, her feathers are looking lustrous and full-volume again, and I think she may be contemplating laying once more. Also, *someone* has been doing a lot of nesting in the upper coop. The wood chips are routinely scattered into drifts, and little hollows have been made in corners. Could Winnie or Dark Meat be thinking about laying?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Return of the Punchcumber

You might not remember. It was a long time ago now.

And I think we all conveniently forgot, too, because they got so orange and looked so much like pumpkins.

But can you see that green tint? It's not the camera (though our camera is due for an upgrade).

When I cut into them, the kitchen began to smell like fresh cucumber. I roasted them anyway. One hour in the oven with a tray of water beneath. They're waiting for me in the fridge. I need to scoop out their insides and take a taste. But seriously, what do you make out of a punchcumber?

At least the girls were happy to get the sloppy, seedy insides for a snack. They might get more than that!


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