Saturday, October 16, 2010

Harvesting Chickens

I remember the first time I read the words harvesting and chickens together in Barbara Kingsolver's book about local and home-grown food. Harvesting chickens; sounds nice, clean and simple as though the act of killing a chicken is nothing more complicated than pulling a turnip. Harvesting is a useful word for blotting out the gore and, perhaps, the guilt of killing a living, breathing warm-blooded animal; the verb slaughter hides nothing. I slaughtered 34 chickens today, and, I must admit, it wasn't at all like harvesting a vegetable. Nothing terrible happened. There were no glitches. Everything went as smoothly as possible. But I can't say I enjoyed myself. Starting at about 9am I started taking them in pairs, stuffing them head down into upside-down traffic cones, cutting the veins on either side of the throat, waiting for them to bleed and die before decapitating, dunking each in a pot of 140F water for approximately 50 seconds, tossing them into an auto plucker to remove the feathers and then into a ice water bath to await evisceration. I finished just after noon. Michelle suggested I wash the splatter of chicken blood off my face and neck before I go buy ice at the store down the road. I harvest potatoes and carrots; I slaughter chickens. There is a difference if you haven't tried it.
In the afternoon, our friend WendiLou came to help us process the chickens. The three of us, WendiLou the seasoned professional, Michelle and I the bumbling novices, finished in a couple hours. The chickens are sitting in a bath of ice water for the night. Then we'll bag and freeze them. The three pigs are off to the slaughter house tomorrow morning. It's going to be real quiet around here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The end of decks and the roasters

Finished deck and friends (open area on left just waiting for drain grill to be finished)

Meat birds

Farmers and one imposter

Siding the entryway

New bench made from cherry felled way back when in Brooklin. It was growing up in the foundation of an old house on our old land. We had much trouble getting it milled, but then finally did. Then we did nothing with it for 10 years and now it is a lovely bench. More photos to come.

The beginning of decks

Deck off the doorway

Front deck, framed

I think Michael forgot to mention that he was pretty sick while doing this.

Girls on deck

Girls with monster zucchinis on deck

Almost done

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Not long after the escaped piglet nightmare,we took delivery of two Fresian lambs. As with the piglets I was surprised by the size of them. Hazel and I went to pick them up in the Volvo, and there was no way they'd fit. I'd imagined something the size of smallish dog, and the one's selected for me probably weighed about 60lbs a piece at four months old. The guy delivered them. And today I'm going to pick them up. From the butcher.
The sheep were something of an experiment. These rams were Fresians, a milking breed, and I had in in my head that it would be nice to have a couple dairy sheep. As most people know, ewes have to lamb each spring to start milking again, and I figured that a couple ewes would yield three or four lambs every spring. I was interested to know if I could complete the cycle and slaughter them myself. The second part of the experiment was just to see what it was like to have sheep on our land, and it was the second part that made the first part, the slaughtering at home, unnecessary. We just don't have the real estate for what would amount to five or six sheep maintained on pasture. The neighbors have the space, but the pasture isn't up to speed (and wouldn't be without serious work) and our space is totally inadequate. For their enclosure I'd bought 164' of electric netting and a solar charger to power it. What I didn't fully understand at the beginning was that the ground along the path of the fence has to be perfectly cropped to keep it from shorting and running down the battery. Even under best conditions I had to supplement the solar charger with one that runs off an extension cord. Which meant that, unless I changed the way I powered the fence, I was confined to the space reasonably accessible by an extension cord. After two and a half months of moving them once a week, I decided it was time. And though I was getting professional help to do the job, slaughtering them at home wasn't something I was looking forward to; there was some element of chickening out in the decision to send them away. So now we have lamb chops in the freezer.
The pigs are flourishing on forage, commercial pig food, and food waste from a local Mexican restaurant. After feasting on left-over rice and beans and tortillas, the pigs turn up their snouts at regular old pig food, but they'll eat it if they're hungry. The largest piglet, the one the kids named Boss, is now far and away the largest pig, using it's clout to devour more of the tastiest food, but the runt, Blaze, is catching up to Nibble and will probably be her equal in size come November. Naming edible farm animals is not a good idea; Chloe and Hazel took it upon themselves to come up with Boss, Nibble (because she'll bite your hand given the opportunity), and Blaze (he's got white stripe in the middle of his forehead). And I've already heard pleas for clemency: "Can't we send some other pigs to the butcher and save these?" It is true that these pigs are charming. Starting at the beginning of the summer, we received a series of note cards with photos of adorable piglets nestled in baskets filled with straw. (And I couldn't help wondering if the photographers had to drug the piglets to get them to stay still enough to snap a picture.) The note inside was written by the piglets themselves, proving, apparently, that pigs are intelligent. The piglets just wanted to express their gratitude for having been provided such a wonderful home. The post script, however, was a request to be spared the bullet and the knife. Though we had no way of knowing for sure who had been sending the cards, we had it narrowed down to two couples with histories of vegetarianism. The sting operation took place last week. Michelle and I were to be with both sets of suspects at the same time. (We were only interested in the men; the writing was distinctly male.) Somehow we wanted to get writing samples to compare to the notes. It turned out to be relatively easy thanks to some quick-on-her-feet thinking by Michelle. The Cassidy family will be off soon on another long sailing adventure and Michelle deftly handed Jimmy a note pad and asked for contact information. (Though we already have it.) Jimmy was more than happy to apply his scrawl to paper, and with one glance we knew we had our man. He was thoroughly embarrassed.
Though the note card propaganda campaign was not effective, I have come to a finer appreciation of pigs as animals simply by daily interaction. I've heard the argument that pigs are smarter than dogs. I read the story in the Times about how pigs can use mirrors to discover the placement of a cache of food. It's their capacity for fun, though, that strikes me as significant when I ask the question: Should we raise them for food? The ability to have fun is clearly tied to intelligence. (Though there's no shortage of miserable intelligent people.) My pigs enjoy themselves and each other. It's certainly easier for them to have fun when they've got a half acre of oak forest as opposed to an over-crowded industrial pig farm with a cement floor. I've given them a place where they're free to do what pigs do. As a result I don't think I can raise pigs any more. Whether my appreciation of pigs is stronger than my appreciation of bacon remains to be seen.
Though I hadn't done much to the house for some time, a short burst of activity has yielded two decks, one (8x24) on the south side of the house and another small one at the entry door. Pictures will follow.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Piglet Mania!

Chloe and I picked up three piglets in Ellsworth this afternoon. The ride was fine; nothing like the pig stench of last year when the so-called piglets we got were really pigs and not well suited to transport in the back of the Volvo. I knew these were real piglets, and like last year they came is sizes small, medium and large, the largest being no more than twenty pounds and the smallest no more than 12. I hadn't really thought about the implications of size. I should have. Last year after I hauled the pigs out of the back of the Volvo, they roamed around a bit and then slept for a couple days. These were pigs who'd lived a hard few months. When I dropped them into my pig oasis, they seemed to realize right off that they were in a good place. Today's piglets were another sort. They'd lived a pleasant life in a barn out back of Frank's house. They're mom and dad were there. So when I reached into the back of the Volvo and grabbed Medium and Small and dropped them inside the fence they immediately were looking for a way out. Large didn't wait and bolted right out the back and off into the woods. Catching Large wasn't easy, but we got her when she got cornered between the car and the fence. In the mean time, Chloe and Nadya were inside the enclosure trying to make friends with the other two piglets who wanted nothing to do with them. That's when we learned the real and tragic limitations of our fence; the holes in the fence were just a bit larger than the piglets. They didn't go under or over but through. I followed them through the woods trying to herd them back home, but it was no use. The terrain north of the pig pen toward Camp Stream is thickly wooded with dense underbrush. I did my best to track them, but at some point they got separated and I started to follow one of them. This one, the smallest, made its way back to our house and down our driveway to the neighbor's house. Imagine their surprise when a very small piglet, smaller than Ox (our cat), trotted through their yard. At least I was able to enlist their help. We got the small one, (I can't remember how; it's all a blur.) and then turned our attention to catching the third who could have been anywhere at this point. I thought he was gone, a feral pig loose on Sis Porter Rd. We had one thing going for us: These piglets did not like being separated. The large piglet was in the pig pen, and the last fugitive eventually made it's way back to the fence looking for a way to join his sister. After a ridiculous hour of frantic effort, we had all three. Against the odds, really. Piglets are fast. At one point, tired of dodging this way and that for a little animal who could clearly out maneuver me, I had one of them on a straightaway. Running as fast as I could I couldn't catch her. (Sure, I'll admit I've never been much of a sprinter, but I was running pretty fast.) We put all three of them in a small hastily made section of the chicken coop and barricaded the door with heavy digging implements. I gave them food and water and said good night....
The next day I knew I had to address the piglet problem. They were fine where they were for the morning so I went off with the girls for Chloe's soccer clinic and returned shortly before noon to make a piglet-proof enclosure. I strapped on my tool belt, grabbed my cordless drill and headed outside. Only to see the curly tailed rear ends of three piglets head south down our driveway!!?? I'm not going to write what came out of my mouth; this is a family blog. Fortunately, the neighbors were home and outside. Otherwise, they'd have been gone for good. We fanned out to divide and conquer. The smallest piglet was the first to peel off and get separated from his siblings. I followed him and got lucky when he got mired in grass so tall that I easily caught him. (Plucked him off the ground by his hind legs; that's the only way to carry a fugitive piglet.) Again, the details of catching the other two are blurry, but it wasn't nearly as strenuous as it was the day before. So, how did they escape? Up against the chicken coop door I had piled up a post hole digger, a soil tamper and a heavy digging bar. They had pushed their way out. These piglets have spunk! This time I fastened the door shut with screws. I had been thinking that I should make an enclosure within the pig pen. Something to hold them until they were big enough and relaxed enough about their new environment. But I decided to make them a stall inside the barn. It will be their place for the next few weeks. When we return from our trip to Cape Breton, maybe they'll be ready for the pig pen.
More than once over the last 24 hours I have thought: Is this worth it? I don't think so. They just drove up the price of bacon.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


In case there's still anyone out there checking to see if I'm still posting, here's an update. The greenhouse in the pictures below is still awaiting plastic. We have been eating a little asparagus out of the garden this past week, but everything else is plodding along waiting for warmth. Hazel and I made a pilgrimage to Fedco to pick up the trees and potatoes we'd ordered. Only one item was not available, a cider apple tree of French origin called Medaille d'Or. There was a tree I couldn't remember ordering called Evans. (But there it was on the order form in my own hand writing.) Back at home I looked through the catalog and couldn't find an apple tree by the name of Evans. Then I remembered; Michelle had convinced me to order a cherry tree. Our little orchard is now comprised of six apple trees, two peach and one cherry.

Chickens. We had been plagued by the difficult-to-eradicate problem of egg eating. My guess was that the practice may have started when there were too many chickens for the space and the nesting boxes were inadequate. Also, we could have been feeding them too much scratch (a mixture of oats and cracked corn) and they were driven to supplement their protein intake. It might have been all of the above. Once chickens discover that they can eat their own eggs it's a hard habit to break. There could have been just a few offenders; hard to tell. I suspected that the nesting boxes were the greatest contributor. In a swift and decisive move, I built and installed new nesting boxes and boarded up the old ones in the matter of an hour. The old boxes were too shallow so the nesting straw would quickly get displaced leaving nothing but bare wood. The eggs would drop with a thud and frequently have cracks. Perhaps this is how the egg eating started in the first place. An egg dropped and broke and the chicken looked down and thought, "Oh, what have we here?" The new boxes are 12 inches deep and filled with straw. Since the change, the cracked egg problem has disappeared and there has been no sign of egg eating. Ta!Da! The only other issue is that of the escapee. More or less every day a chicken gets out. We suspected that it was a repeat offender. Flying the coop happens, apparently. I had a lot of practice catching this chicken. The easiest way was working as a team with Hazel. I'd herd the chicken around the perimeter of the fence and just as it approached the door to the coop Hazel would open it and the chicken would hop back in. One day, after days of frustrating chicken chasing, I caught it and brought it in the house and called for Michelle who wrote a bold E on one the the chicken's legs with a black marker. E for Escapee. As we suspected it was the same chicken every time. Eighteen well behaved hens and one trouble maker. I just need to improve my fence to fix this problem. Sooner or later we'll have to address all the fencing issues. Deer protection for the whole place. Chickens out of the garden.

Four of the 12 panels of the screened porch are in place. I underestimated the amount of time and space needed to prime and paint twelve wood doors and their screens. I've settled on a system of addressing three doors at a time and installing them just to get them out of my way. I've been having issues with the paint and primer as well. The primer is a Benjamin Moore oil based and the top coat is water based. The primer was taking forever to dry and it was difficult to apply evenly. I would allow days of drying and it would still feel not 100% dry. The problem is when the latex is applied and dried and then heats up as when the door is exposed to the sun the latex was blistering up in spots. A call to Benjamin Moore was not entirely satisfying. The primer hadn't adequately cured before I applied the latex. The guy on the phone thought that the blisters would suck back down and everything would be ok. I have my doubts. My solution is to give the primer an absurdly long curing time.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Call Cindy

Shortly before lunch today I knocked on our bedroom window to get Michelle's attention. I was outside standing on the roof of the porch and could see her sitting in her office. When she turned around, I said through the window, "Call Cindy." I had to repeat myself. Then she understood. Cindy of Amica Insurance has been calling us every few months since last summer to see if we'd finished the exterior of the house. I had just fastened the last board when I knocked on the window. Finishing the outside took longer than I had expected. Finally, Cindy will be satisfied.

Time to move on to the next project. An hour or so after I had given instructions to call Cindy, the Viking Lumber truck arrived with thirteen wood combination doors. The next project had arrived. The doors will fit into the openings of the screen/glass porch. For the last six months the porch has been my workshop. I spent the next few hours cleaning up and setting up shop around the corner next to the firewood. The screened porch is going to be one of the nicer spots in the house. Michelle has been pining for a porch since we first thought of house building ten years ago. The MQP is finally on its way! (MQP is the acronym we used on house plans to designate the porch. It stands for Michelle's Quest for Porch.) (And it's not a moment too soon because the phoebes have returned looking to nest on our porch!)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Peak

Under the threat of rain, I managed to put up siding all the way to the peak on the west side. Last week I bought three clamps from an outfit in Vermont that sells snow guards and fastened them to the seams of the metal roof. Then I bolted a 2x6 across the clamps and used that as a base for a 16' ladder. It may look sketchy, but it's really quite safe. I've got what looks to be three more days on the siding. At the end of the day today, I started to assemble the base of the green house. It should be up and running by the end of April.

Friday, March 19, 2010


After a less than memorable winter, it seems as we've been enjoying spring for a few weeks now. I set up the old cold frame with spinach and mizuna, and I've already moved the bunching onions I grew from seed into a row in the garden and covered it with cloth. Of course, a spring snow storm could prove a challenge, but when the weather is this ridiculously nice it's hard to hold back. In our old garden in Brooklin, we usually started sowing the real cold hardy stuff in the middle of April. As soon as the ground can be worked. By that rule we could have been out there sowing peas a few weeks ago. Once the greenhouse is up and running, all the usual dates will change and we'll be cheating mother nature on both sides of the growing season.

Mark showed up today to tie up the last of the plumbing. The outdoor faucet, the outdoor shower mixing valve, and a filter. We discovered the need for a filter after our washing machine repeatedly failed to perform. The screens on the water line going into the machine kept clogging with sediment.

I have a long list of things to do from now until next winter. Finish the porch is the biggest project with the biggest price tag. Finish the siding. Install drains along the drip line on the north and south sides. Build book cases. Build desk and shelves adjacent to kitchen. Stairs. Trim everywhere. I doubt I'll get to it all.

Friday, March 5, 2010


With spring right around the corner it's time to think garden. Last weekend I went to a meeting for the local community greenhouse project. They've got a near wholesale price on the materials and great design ideas, and while it's true that I'd like nothing more than to build a state-of-the-art greenhouse, it's also true that I have other uses for what would amount to a couple thousand dollars. When I built our first greenhouse about six years ago, I had to buy a 20' x 100' roll of greenhouse plastic when I only needed about a fifth of that. My plan, then, is to go with what I've got. For a couple hundred bucks in materials I can build a very basic greenhouse (12' x 32') and use the plastic I've got to cover it not once but twice (8 years worth). I'll use the greenhouse project folks to buy enough polycarbonate panels to make some nice cold frames to go inside the greenhouse for the winter.

I been slowly finishing the drywall returns on the windows upstairs. I looked into buying a sander that attaches to a shop-vac so I could finish the windows downstairs without covering everything we own with a layer of joint compound dust. But then I read a suggestion that was worth a try: Sand with one hand and hold the shop-vac hose underneath. For someone doing this sort of thing professionally, I suppose this arrangement would get tiresome, but for what I've got to do it worked like a charm.

Chickens are loving the weather. I've got to fence them in some time soon. We're getting about a dozen eggs a day. Half for us. Half for the neighbors. And every now and then we give a dozen to friends.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Plodding Along

I've been chipping away at a number of things over the past few weeks. As the pictures show, I managed to fashion a backsplash in the kitchen using the stone left over from the cutting of the countertop using a 7$ diamond blade in my circular saw. The blade was useless by the time I was making my last cut; what do you expect for 7 bucks? Looks nice though. Wiped it down with the same penetrating oil I used on the concrete floor. The chicken is no longer using my workshop/porch to lay eggs. I had to board up my exit to the outside to keep her out. I've moved to the next bedroom with the finish work. It's ready for another pink and green polka dot floor.

I've been making sketches of greenhouse to attach to the barn. There's a meeting of a greenhouse co-op this Saturday. A group of people have gotten together to order materials to get a bulk rate and save on shipping. This green house will have polycarbonate sheets for walls and roof, not plastic sheeting. The polycarbonate sheets last a lot longer and have a better insulating value. (A cross section looks a bit like corrugated cardboard.) This greenhouse would serve as winter chicken quarters and a hothouse for everything that needs a hothouse in Maine.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Kid's floor

Lots of pink and green and polka dots.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Day

With temperatures at about zero overnight and daytime highs approaching 20F, keeping a house warm isn't easy. This is the time of year when firewood is consumed at an alarming rate, and you hope that you've got enough to last the winter. There's a saying out there and I don't know exactly how it goes, but the gist of it is that you should have gone through half your firewood by Groundhog Day. By that formula I will burn about a cord and a half to heat our house this winter. It's hard to believe that we have to have a conversation about whether or not to light a fire in the stove on a night with a temperature near zero. But after a string of cold sunny days of pumping solar heat into the slab, it's really not worth it to start a fire when the sun goes down. A little fire first thing in the morning will quickly warm the house when the kids are getting ready to go off to school, and then the sun will take over. Yesterday, I spent an enjoyable few hours cutting and splitting red oak for future winter's use, enough to heat our house into January. So not only am I saving trees from going up the chimney, I'm saving time. Less time operating a chain saw, more time on the couch with a book.

Hazel and I took a trip into Ellsworth today to buy everything we need to start seeds inside with lights. Our garden is going to hit the ground running this year. The chickens are laying more consistently now. Average of about 6 a day. One project on my list this summer is to build a greenhouse off the south side of the barn. It would give the chickens a warm place to run around in the coldest months of winter, and chicken manure fortified soil for spring, summer and fall growing. I could even grow a cover crop in there as winter forage.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fun Floorz

The vacationers arrived home yesterday afternoon exhausted from travel and happy to be home. Chloe and Hazel knew that I was busy transforming the second floor into a more livable space while they were running around on the beach and submerging themselves in the hot tub. What they didn't know was that their room now had a pink and green polka dot floor. They were floored when they saw it, pardon the pun.

I had mixed feelings about the floor as it was going down. It's visual impact was hard to predict. The girl's room is kind of like stepping into a scene in Alice In Wonderland. The rest of the floor is less jarring but is distracting nonetheless. It's durable, easy-to-clean stuff though. Good for as long as we can tolerate it. That may turn out to be a long, long time given the list of higher priority projects. The drywall is no longer shedding dust, and the windows in our bedroom and Michelle's office turned out beautifully. Another marathon of work is over. I spent a good chunk of today reading to Hazel and falling asleep in the process.

Our barn now has chickens. Twenty-eight laying hens busy laying eggs. I have never been close to chickens before, and I'm slowly becoming a chicken guy. A friend lent me a couple of chicken books and I'm learning the in's and out's of chickens. Not much to it really.

Michelle will post pictures of the second floor.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Two Weeks

Michelle, Chloe and Hazel are off to Florida for a couple weeks. In their absence I'm going to try to finish one bedroom (0urs) and paint, or at least prime, the entire second floor. The only unknown in this equation is trimming the windows. It should be perfect joint compound drying weather so at least I've got that going for me. I'm going to leave the flooring as a complete surprise. I was struggling with the options in terms of wood flooring that would fit our budget and produce satisfying results. So I found something that...well, let's just say that the kids will love it.

Today, before they leave we're going to work on a space in the barn for some laying hens in need of a home. I don't know exactly how many yet. Something around twenty. Their owners are off to New Haven for a while, and we, along with a our neighbors, are taking over.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Home Again

We've been back from the holidays for a few days now. Our house was just as it should have been upon our return. If we had a programmable thermostat, we would have been able to see how cold or how warm it had gotten when we were gone. I did note that there was water in the overflow tray of the solar storage tank meaning that the water in the tank had gotten so warm that a pressure relief valve had let a little out. If there is a flaw in the system, it is that the two parts, the solar and the propane back-up, work well together when heating our hot water but not when heating the space. To most efficiently heat the space I have to be here to manipulate the system. If I'm not here to press buttons, the benefit of solar heat going into the slab is lost. One problem is that the heat is controlled by thermostat. Since the house is passive solar, on any day that there's solar heat for the slab it's already warmer inside than the temperature set on the thermostat. So at the time when it would be free (no propane use) to add heat to the slab, nothing happens. When I'm home at a time like this, I turn up the thermostat for a few hours and the excess solar heat flows through the concrete. The result is impossible to measure, but imagine, for example, that the 1000 square feet of concrete goes from 65F to 67F in the few hours I'm able to dump heat in. At 3am when it's in the single digits outside, those two degrees are slowly seeping from the slab, keeping the house just a little warmer. As the day lengthens throughout the course of winter, on sunny days there'll be more and more of this excess heat for the slab. By March the days we'll need supplemental heat from the wood stove will be few.

Michelle and the girls are off to Florida soon. My job is to transform as much of the upstairs space as possible when they're gone. Painting, trimming windows, painting the plywood floors. I should be able to put a large dent in it in ten days.

A nor'easter dumped a foot of snow yesterday and last night. Today might be good for building snow forts.