The laughing days of summer have given way to the decaying beauty of fall. The summer wine is corked nicely into bottles and aging on the rack. What vegetables can be preserved are preserved. The Valley’s fields of corn have been cut, chopped and stored.
It’s been quite a summer at the Austin homestead. Neither the husband nor I were raised on a farm, but we do what we can, albeit with a mix of traditional wisdom and our own ideas about how to do things. You’ll hear no stories from me about putting up 200 jars of green beans. I don’t spend whole mornings weeding or afternoons snapping beans. On the farm, I do no more work than I have to.
That’s not to say I’m a slouch. My city friend who stayed for a few weeks in August was impressed with my energy. Every morning after my three-mile walk, I picked enough weeds in the garden to fill a wheelbarrow to feed to the chickens. Yup, chickens love greens. Doesn’t matter if it’s Romaine lettuce or dandelion greens.
Remember the chickens? In early summer we ordered 125 peeps: 100 buff orpingtons for meat and 25 leghorns for laying. When the post office called, we drove to Staunton to pick up our chirping cartons. Their warming box was all set for them.
Peeps are so cute, but they don’t stay peeps for long. In a few days their legs were longer. The soft baby down was replaced by adult feathers. When they were big enough, we moved them out to the henhouse.
The husband built an impregnable henhouse from materials we had laying around. He built it Salatin-style, as everyone does these days, to be moveable. He made ours on skids. When he pulls the building with his tractor, it glides right over the pasture. Thus do the birds fertilize our field.
After the husband built another coop for the roosters, we moved the 100 buff orpingtons out of the henhouse. Now all we need do is wait for the hens to start laying eggs and the roosters to get large enough to butcher.
Then came the day when we heard crowing. Our young men had reached adolescence. We were happy about that until we realized the crowing was coming from the henhouse.
What? I thought it was a fluke, that a few leghorn roosters had mixed in with the hen peeps. The husband was convinced that the hatchery had mixed up our order. I shot some digital photos of both kinds of chickens so the husband could e-mail them to the company. Sure enough, they’d reversed our order.
So. Now we have 25 leghorn roosters, bred for leanness and laying, and 100 buff orpingtons, bred to be huge and meaty. The hatchery kindly refunded our money, but still. Not according to the plan, but we can make it work.
Regardless, our summer days fell into an easy rhythm. After feeding weeds to the chickens, I picked vegetables: green beans, zucchini squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers. I ate Greek salad nearly every day this summer. Even now, I’m using Roma tomatoes to make it: English cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh basil, feta cheese, kalamata olives, olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Sometimes a bit of red onion and green pepper. My ideal meal this summer was Greek salad, bass or catfish caught in our pond and fresh-baked bread.
Instead of canning tomatoes, I dried them. As I told the husband, canned tomatoes are cheap, but sun-dried tomatoes are expensive and delicious. I hope to marinate them for use in salads instead of the cardboard tomatoes sold in winter.
I have perfected making yogurt. Using raw milk, I incubate it with the culture in my oven with the light on. In just a few hours I have a bowl of yogurt. Then, to make Greek yogurt, I line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour in a quart of yogurt. Gather the ends, tie with a rubber band, and hang from a cabinet handle over a bowl to catch the whey. It gets as thick as sour cream and is delicious with our homemade maple syrup.
As for ever being self-sufficient, I don’t see that happening. It’s too much work. But there is something to be said about setting the table with vegetables you’ve grown, fish you’ve caught, bread you’ve made with locally-grown wheat and wine you’ve fermented with your backyard berries.