Friday, April 26, 2013

Butchering Day

When you wake up at the end of April, after most of your garden is planted, and there's 3 inches of fresh snow blanketing everything and it's falling like a storm, you can't help but wonder if you really are awake.  I was really awake. So on with the to-do list....It was butchering day for some of the chickens, so I got the outdoor butchering table and chopping block unburied and drug the hose over.  I got a huge pot of water simmering on the outdoor propane cooker. I grabbed the hatchet, knife, and a couple of buckets. Ready to go.                                        

Chopping a chicken's head off really isn't as hard as it seems, both physically and emotionally. I have two nails pounded part way into a wood round. They're just wide enough apart for a chicken neck. When I have a bird ready for the block, I grab it by its feet and  hang it upside down. The bird becomes completely calm and it's easy to lay it on its side on the block and fit its neck into the nail hold. I keep backward pressure on its feet so that it can't wiggle it's head  out of place. Then it's just a solid whack with a sharp hatchet.

The chicken definitely has a few headless seconds of instinct to flee, so I hold the bird around the back, clamping the wings to it's body. If you don't do this, or aren't quick at getting a sure hold, the chicken will frantically flap in attempt to flee. It makes a mess and its just not a good, peaceful feeling when this happens. I just clamp the wings and hold the bird upside down over a bucket to collect the blood. When the chicken stops moving (20 seconds?) I put it on the butchering table and give it a few minutes before proceeding.

I used to skin a chicken out like a rabbit, where you make a slit along the underside and literally reach in and pull the meat out of the skin. It's quick and effective, but after doing the hot pluck method a few weeks ago I am completely sold on plucking. The skin has a nice clean layer of protection for the meat. The skin also adds a lot of flavor to soup and makes for a juicy roasted chicken. To make the plucking easy, I heat up a pot of water until it is simmering and dip the bird in by holding it by the legs. I swish it around for maybe 15-25 seconds. I test a wing or tail feather, and when one comes out easily, I bring the drained bird to the table. When done right the feathers will come off easily. They go into a bucket at the foot of the table. 

To gut the bird, I start by making a slit down it's underside, then cut around the cloaca, which goes into the slop bucket. All the guts then get pulled out, with care not to rupture the intestines. Sometimes there will be an egg ready in its shell, so I carefully cut those out and save them. Getting all the guts out is the hardest part of the whole process. I find it real ly challenging to get all the guts scraped out of such a small chest cavity. Gutting a deer and gutting a chicken both take me about the same amount of time. 
Next, I wash the carcass thoroughly with the hose, then put it in a bucket of cold water to cool the meat down. Today I just stacked the carcasses in a huge strainer and layered them with heaps of fresh snow. I bring the meat into the house and rewash each one and pull out any straggling feathers. I cut the neck for ease of wrapping and put them inside the body cavity. I pat everything dry then wrap the bird whole in plastic wrap, label it, and put it in the freezer. 

 Yum, yum, yum! Chicken recipes to come next!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Composting Basics

I wrote this for a school I helped get into composting. Most of it is borrowed from other handouts I've made, but I think this version finally covers how to operate your bin. May it serve you well!

Welcome to your compost bin! It’s a great place full of lots of activity, so enjoy it! It will give you fertilizer, worms, and freedom from the landfill!

To get started, you’ll want a collection bin for indoors. A two gallon bucket fits nicely under a sink and is small enough that it won’t have time to get stinky before it needs emptying.  You’ll also need a cover material tote. This will be outdoors and will house some sort of airy material, such as straw, leaves, moss, shredded paper, sawdust, or weeds. Having cover material is crucial to your composting success, so always have some on hand.

The process of composting is simple. Place your compostable scraps into your bucket. When the bucket is full, empty it into your bin and cover it with the cover material.  With the next addition, pull back the cover material already on top of your pile, dump your bucket, and re-cover. The cover material acts as a biofilter--it will filter out the smell so flies, rodents, dogs, and bears won’t be attracted to your pile.  Pieces of cardboard serve as a nice liner for your bin to keep all material in. 1/4 inch wire mesh is also a good liner.  Cover material along the sides is a good idea if you tend to have food poking out. If you have pest problems, chances are you’re not using enough cover material.

A variety of materials will make the best pile. In composting language, you have browns and greens. Very loosely, if it's dry it's a brown and if it has moisture it's a green. (More accurately, browns are mostly carbon and greens are mostly nitrogen.)  Usually, cover materials work out to be the browns of the pile. Browns provide carbon, add air space, and manage moisture, so don’t forget to add them if your cover material is fresh green weeds. 

Sort for the Bucket & Bin 

What to put in:
Moldy food
Fruits and vegetables
Breads and grains
Egg shells
Coffee grounds
House plant leaves
Garden debris
Small pieces of paper (not glossy)
Used tissue
Finger nail clippings & hair
Dog fur
Dryer lint
Dust pan & vacuum contents
BioPlastics (labeled compostable) 

What NOT to put in:
Meat scraps/bones
Fruit/vegetable stickers
Anything that’s toxic    

Composting is a natural process. Microorganisms will appear and multiply in your bin and break the material down. If you’ve set up the right conditions, there will be billions of microbes working and they will create heat. Hot composting is great because it is fast and it kills pathogens and weed seeds. Cold composting works, but is slow, doesn’t kill weed seeds, and may create a slug problem.

If you are hot composting, the material will quickly heat up to 150 degrees F. It will hover there for a while, then slowly decrease. Once cooled, macro-organisms will appear to further decompose the pile. (This is when fungi and worms will appear.) You can either let the pile sit or turn it to restart the heating process.

When the bin looks full, keep filling it! It will magically take more material since the pile is constantly decomposing and shrinking. When it stops accepting additions use the second side of the bin. Once the second side is truly full, the first side should be done and ready for use.

Using compost is easy. Simply mix it in the top few inches of your soil. It’s good for potted plants, raised beds, and anything you want to have a boost. For creating a new bed, simply mix it with some sand.

If a problem occurs, do some trouble shooting. Composting isn’t supposed to stink, have flies, attract bears, or be difficult!

Pile is Stinky

  • too much nitrogen (food scraps or animal manure) Add carbon, i.e. straw, leaves, shredded paper, sawdust, wood chips. 
  • not enough biofilter. Add more material to top/sides of pile.
  • pile is too wet If it's wetter than a wrung out sponge it's too wet and will compact into an anaerobic stink! Add more carbonaceous materials. 
  • not enough air - jam a piece of rebar into the pile and wiggle back and forth to make an air hole through the pile. Make several holes. Next time add more bulky things like fern stalks or straw.
Pile is not heating up 
  • not the right mixture of greens vs browns. Add greens (food scraps or live plant material)
  • pile is too dry - add some water to the pile
  • not enough material added at once. Add 10+ gallons at a time for a kick start. You can back off once it heats up.
Pile too hot (>160 F)
  • too much nitrogen and microbial action . Split pile in two to avoid killing microbes. Add more carbon.

Basics to keep in mind:

  • Acknowledge that a compost pile is alive. It needs nutrients, fiber, air, water, and protection.
  • Put  a mix of traditional greens and browns in the pile. Divert stuff from the landfill or find stuff in the wild. Manure adds microbes.
  • Add lots of material at once. Get scraps from neighbors--the more the merrier.
  • Give the pile air. Layer bulky things in the mix to add pore space. Feel free to  turn it.
  • Monitor moisture. Add  water as the heat evaporates some; add dry material if the pile is soggy.
  • Have a big, covered pile. This protects the pile from the rain and makes it self-insulating from the cold.
  • Have a biofilter. Put several inches of dry material on top of the pile to filter our smells and keep critters at bay.
  • Have a composting thermometer (~$25). It lets you know what is going on so you know what to do. If it's not heating up, check the above list. If it's too hot split the pile in two and either cut back on greens or add more browns. 

It looks like a lot to think about, but once you are actually composting with your own hands you will find that it‘s a snap!  Composting can be as easy or hard as you make it. Don't worry about what you NEED to do--just experiment! You can read about lots of things NOT to do or ALWAYS to do, but it comes down to this: No one is the boss of composting! Every situation is different: different climate, different resources, different schedules, different set-ups.....Be creative, get to work, and see what you can turn into soil!

Have fun, and let me know if you need a hand!

Ideas for Child Involvement:
  • Make signs for the bin - general “Our Compost” or one for each side, e.g. “Aging,”  “Add here,” etc.
  • Empty the bucket into the bin and cover it with cover material
  • Collect browns for cover material with their families and bring to school
  • Offer to rake neighbor’s leaves as a community service & way to get browns
  • Shred used paper for cover material
  • Keep track of weight and volume in composting log - weigh full bucket on a scale and estimate gallons.
  • Keep track of bin temperature in composting log - can make line graphs of temp vs. time to see the curve
  • Start seedlings in trays on the surface of the bin - compare to seedlings started in areas of differing temperatures
  • Attach window boxes to side of bin and plant something to eat
  • Dig for worms in the finished compost
  • Use the finished compost on classroom plants
  • Observe finished compost under a magnifying glass
  • Analyze the stages of compost - Adults can prep three jars with perforated lids:
    • 1. food scraps layered between browns,  
    •  2. material breaking down,
    •  3. finished compost. (I can give you some)
    • They can look at and smell the jars to note their similarities and differences. Be sure to remind them that all jars started with the same thing inside--the stuff  in jar #1!
  • Read composting books
  • Make a book on how your school composts using photos or drawings.
  • Tell, draw, or write compost-related stories. I.e. The worm who at my banana peels, The day the cheese disappeared
  • Share their knowledge--Invite families and neighbors to see the system
  • Talk about garbage - What really makes something garbage? Categorize objects into where they belong if you don‘t need something -
  •     -recycle center
  •     -salvation army, freecycle, a friend
  •     -compost bin
  •     -art project
  •     -landfill
  • Grow a garden!
  • help apply the finished compost in the yard.
  • grow window boxes of herbs, veggies, or flowers in the classroom
  • plant spring veggie starts for children to take home

Chicken Housing

In light of the Juneau Chicken Summit tomorrow, I thought I'd write about my chickens. I've had chickens for four years and have gone through a few different set-ups for them.

The first year (2009) I had 9 birds. I had started to build a coop out of pallets when I got a call from my husband's uncle. He was on a construction job out at the Silverbow Bakery and said he had to haul off their old dumpster cover. It was a three-sided house-like structure painted pastel yellow. It had a purple bagel painted on one side and "Order here" (with an arrow) painted on the other. It had seen better days. It got fork-lifted into the back of our truck, we drove into our front yard, tied it off to a tree, and drove away. Where she landed she lay, for it was too heavy and wobbly.

We lifted a corner at a time and set bricks around the perimeter to keep the wood from rotting on the soggy ground. I knocked out the rotted cross braces and replaced them. I added a fourth wall, a second side to the roof, a short person door, and a chicken door. In my naivety, I dropped the cash and added ridgid foam insulation between the studs and sheathed the inside. I had a gallon of electric yellow paint laying around (a 70's-themed kitchen gone bad), so I used it to brighten up the inside. Atlin wanted outside to be barn red, so seven coats of paint later, it was red! I added a couple of perches and a light, ran an extension cord and a gutter, built an automatic feeder, and voila!  It's about 3x8 feet and is probably my favorite coop.

Automatic refilling feeder and the third generation of nest boxes (these finally worked)

It was a great coup that got used for one full year before I expanded my flock and moved my chickens up the hill and gave their cozy quarters to the turkeys. Eventually it became a rabbit coop, at which point the fence was added. When the birds where there they were completely free-ranging all the time. They knew where home was and kept themselves safe. Most of them roosted in the huge spruces above the coop at night.  It sat empty for a while, and now it's the annex chicken coop. I put three chickens in it so we can enjoy watching our birds from the window again. 

(stock photo--I wish I had a flat space like that!)
Chickens can take a lot. The second year I had chickens, I moved them up the hill near our newly-built barn. I put them in....a Shelter Logic. I didn't even realized until I got home that it was an ugly yellow one either. I wish I had photos of the sorry scene, but you'll just have to believe me that the chickens thrived in it, even through a cold winter. This is my proof that chickens don't need insulated coops or heat lamps.

The barn
In 2011, after a year of milking goats, I passed them on and space opened up in the barn. I turned the chicken tent into a composting tent and moved the girls into the vacant stall. The stall is 3x8 feet. It worked well enough, but when the sheep got passed on, a bigger spaced opened up, so they moved again. They now resided in the main stall of the barn, which is 8x12 feet.  It's a nice space for them, and it's easy to clean with a pitch fork. They are fenced into a big (Juneau-big) "pasture," which is divided into two sections. They fed in one section last year and they'll feed on the other section this year. More on rotational grazing, creating pastures, and foraging to come later....

The perched chickens. (on 2x2s)
Australorp in a crate--the chicken-preferred nest box

 So the moral of the story is, work with what you have and it will probably work out!

Want a Job? Try Composting!

One day's worth of food scraps  
I've been community composting two days a week for 15 months now. I've put in well over 200 hours of volunteer time into the project, and hauled some 30,000 pounds of material.  But now, I'm tired. I'm over the constant urgency of piling material, and--the worst--washing buckets. I'm done saying "no, I need to compost" when my family asks me to do something fun. I'm ready for something else. I feel like I've proved the point that community composting can work in Juneau. It works in our climate. It works with our wildlife. It works for our businesses. It works in the garden. It works fiscally. I'm just not at a place in my life where I need to start another business. For now my family and commercial fishing is enough. And I need to walk the dogs more.

So, is anyone interested in composting on a large scale? I'm ready to step down and am looking for someone to take over the route! I can provide hands-on "training," and supply logistical and composting advice throughout the process. It's a fast way to build up your compost reserves!

Another idea I've had to handle all the compost is opening the cooperative part up on all ends. What I envision is an online database of businesses who produce compostable materials (food scraps, shredded paper, garden refuse, etc), how much they produce, and when it's available for pickup. Then, users could sign up to pick up so-and-so's buckets every x day. I think it could be a great networking tool to help businesses manage their waste and help gardeners garden better. Even if someone wasn't interested in large scale composting on a continual basis, they could at least acquire material to start a big, hot-composting pile, and periodically add to it as needed.

Broadening off the database idea a bit, if we could end up with site (say a spot out at the Juneau Community Garden) where people could compost, it could really get things rolling. If someone wanted to make some cash picking up food scraps they'd have a place to pile it, and there would be a very local market of buyers right at hand.

In any case, my last official pick-up is next week. If you think you might be interested in picking up some scraps, give me a shout! 

 Goodbye scraps, Hello fertilizer! I've got tons (literally) of finished compost to harvest!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Garden Planning and Hopeful Planting

The rhubarb, chives, marsh marigolds, and crocuses have poked their heads out, and the blueberry buds have swelled and beach grass is coming up. Hopefully the plants haven't called spring too soon. Though it is only 20-30 degrees out, it feels so warm since it's actually dry out.

 My garden map for the year is filled out in pencil with plans of what to plant where. I completely geek out with the garden map and make it to scale on grid paper and color code things. This is the third year I've made a map, and this year I'm stepping my record keeping up with an extra database to make tracking crop rotation easier. I made rock number labels for each raised bed. Now I can simply look in my database and see that bed #1 had kale, then lettuce, then peas in it. Crop rotation is important for both nutrient and pest management.

I have 46 raised beds, with more on the way!

I started a few flats indoors. I can't figure out how to prevent legginess.....I have my lights within centimeters of the lights but they all just want to reach up, up I just not move the lights when the plants touch them? I wish I had more room to experiment with starts!

Potential Peas

I planted a packet of peas under row cover, in a hoop house, outdoors on March 12, and of course the temps immediately dropped to 20 degrees. Peas will sprout and grow in surprisingly low temperatures, but 20 is pushing it. People always wonder how I can plant so early and make it work. #1 is having dry, covered beds that warm up on sunny days. #2 is that many times many things don't work! It's a gamble to plant early, but at $2.50 a seed packet, it's not really risking much if something doesn't sprout. I stick to peas, onions, kale, spinach and lettuce for super early crops. If something doesn't sprout early you can always replant. If seeds haven't come up in a couple of weeks it's usually safe to say it's a bust--don't wait and wait and wait to replant just because you know the seeds are there. Now if the snow that just started falling would stop, I'd say "Get planting!"