Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Blog

New blog launched. Follow our adventures while interning at a farm for the next year. Www.labourforlearning.wordpress.com

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Galiform Gestapo

Ever since we brought our first two hens home we have been candid about the process of raising them. The major platform for communicating about backyard chickens has been our blog. We have also attended Toronto Food Policy Council meetings promoting the legalization of backyard hen keeping, we have invited people over to meet and handle them, and we have communicated and shared advice with other hen owners. This level of uninhibited frankness has lead to many people knowing about our three backyard hens. We always hoped that the clear evidence the hens gave that they were suitable pets would dissuade anyone who met them from filing a complaint to the authorities. The lack of any bad odor, their calm and gentle demeanor, and the benefits of keeping them, both eggs and manure. Apparently, this wasn't enough, on November the 9th we received a notice from Animal Protection Services that we had to remove our beloved hens on the basis of a complaint.

The notice told us that we had to remove the "prohibited animal" within five days. After the bylaw officer paid a visit my fist instinct was to seek out who had filed the complaint. The reality is that the identity of whoever complained is of no consequence. Curmudgeon's who cant mind their own business will always exist. What is of consequence is that this law exists in the first place.

Restrictive laws on egg production don't only exist in our urban backyards. They exist across the province in many sustainable mixed agriculture farms. These are farms people believe to be the way of the future, that will take us away from our reliance on industrial agriculture. Ontario's Livestock and Livestock Product Act requires that all eggs be graded prior to sale. This means that the farmer has to take their eggs to a grading station. Here the eggs are washed and inspected for defects with the purpose of maximizing the quality and safety of eggs sold to consumers.

This limits a farmer who chooses to forgo the egg grading station to selling their eggs only at a farm stand on their property. The majority of the eggs that one may buy at any farmers market in Toronto are ungraded and so illegal. The reasoning behind a farmer avoiding the egg grading station is that it removes their control over the production of the egg that they provide to their customer at the farmers market, CSA member or a partnered restaurant or shop. This is because the eggs that a farmer takes to the egg grading station, particularly a small farmer who may only have a couple hundred hens, doesn't always get back the eggs that he takes in. This means that despite all the farmers efforts to raise the hens in a manner that is in synergy with the farm, they may receive eggs from a producer that makes none of these efforts. Egg grading also takes time, which reduces the freshness and taste of the eggs for those who will be eating them.

These restrictions to egg production are an affront to a farmers autonomy over his produce, and to the urban consumers food security. It limits our ability to access adequate eggs that maintain a sustainable practice and ecological integrity. Similarly the removal of our backyard hens has impaired our food security. Not only in the sense that it limits us from having a good source of protein from our own backyard when we can't afford to purchase alternatives or if their was a global or local crisis that limited access to food. Removing our backyard hens puts us in a position of dual insecurity in the sense it limits our ability to produce an egg of finest quality, as the farmer does, but also our ability to consume an egg, as the farm member does, that is lower in cholesterol, higher in protein, and vastly superior in flavour.

After brooding about this reality for a couple of days it became time to decide what we should do with our three hens in order to avoid the astronomical fine. Fantasies were abound. We could set up a rotational grazing method that would involve hopping the coop from backyard to backyard around the city leaving bylaw officers confused and bewildered. We could replace our hens with up to 30 pigeons or a dozen meat rabbits just to piss off whichever person filed a complaint. Raising these animals in such high numbers in Toronto is legal, I suspect because the squab and rabbit production boards aren't as influential as the Egg Farmers of Ontario are.

After setting these fantasies aside we decided it would be best to let them retire at our friend Leland's farm in Campbellford. There they would join a motley crew of 20 other chickens, and the lucky gals will meet their first roosters. Prior to their big move to the country we decided we would like to have front yard chickens for a couple of days. The ladies clucked around the front lawn, excited to eat new patches of grass and dig in undug areas of soil. Baylik was also excited to get to know the car, luckily she didn't do any scratching. It also allowed passersby to see the hens and ask questions. It even gave a little two year old her first chance to meet and pet a chicken, her mother was pleased.

Luckily Leland and his mum Debbie had constructed a new coop just days before we took the hens up. They had also removed all the fencing around the coop area allowing the flock entirely free range of the property. Our plan was to introduce the hens at night, but they accidentally got into the rest of the flock. I am happy this accident was made because it was very amusing watching the hens interact with their new flock, and particularly meet a rooster for the first time. I just narrowly missed seeing their introduction to the goats, but I definitely heard their startled reaction, the goats didn't seem to mind much. According to Leland they have adjusted to their new home very nicely and still scratch around in their little group of three.

People keep asking me if a cried when I dropped off the chickens at their new home. I didn't. Nor did I cry when I ate the last egg, fried sunny side up and served on top of braised short ribs from Weber's family farm and shooting thyme from our windowsill, though I was very close. I think I may cry when I have to shell out money on a dozen eggs for the first time in eight months, and after this experience, I'll make sure they are an illegal dozen from a farmer I know.

This will be my last post. I've thoroughly enjoyed this urban agriculture experiment from the gardening to the dinners. It has inspired me, among other things, to go work on a farm for the year of 2011.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chilly Chickens

Before the hens were ever introduced to our urban backyard we have faced the question, "what are you going to do with them in the winter?". Up until a couple weeks ago my answer was consistently "I'm not to sure". The three options as I've seen it have been to send them to a friends farm, insulate the coop and see how they manage, or eat them. All three of the hens being under a year old means that they still have well over a year of consistent laying ahead of them. This makes the "eat them" option seem un-economical to me. Why kill something for 10 dollars worth of meat when there are still 200 dollars worth of eggs to be layed? Sending the hens to a friends rural farm somewhat de-legitimizes our entire urban farm experiment, so this option was abandoned. This left us with keeping the chickens in our backyard throughout the chilly winter season.

The first issue that needed rectifying was finding a friend to keep Samantha company. At this time Samantha had been sleeping in a smaller separate coop, as a result of her precarious position at the bottom of the pecking order. My original intention was to find another hen of similar colour to Samantha and then hopefully be able to house all four together. Prior to moving in a new hen I set up Hepzebah and Baylik in the smaller coop to try and reduce their ownership of the large coop. So for a week I allowed Samantha free range of the large coop and didn't allow the other two in.

One day later in the week while working on the hotbed, I absentmindedly left the large coop door open. I realized that all three hens were peacefully eating out of the large coops feeder. Surprised by this, I sneakily added the other feeder and closed the door. I had learned via a chicken forum that having multiple feeders reduces the chances of fights. But for the odd peck, the three ladies have been getting along marvelously. It has been incredibly satisfying to see all three of them eat, roost and peck together.

Common suggestions from people have been to get a heat lamp to put into the roost to keep the hens nice and toasty warm. From my research and discussions with other chicken owners this actually not the route to go. Providing heat prevents the hens from acclimatising to the cold, and so makes it more dangerous for them to venture out of the coop. All chickens require is a dry, draft free environment. Chickens provide tonnes of body heat, and through huddling together will stay warm on the coldest of days.

Maintaining a dry environment is taken care of by the structure of the coop. To ensure that there is no draft I stapled strong plastic along all the chicken wire. It is also important to make sure that there is still ventilation in the coop. Poor ventilation can result in condensation from the hens breath settling on the comb and waddle and causing frost bite. To avoid this I put in place some small steel vents.

Another important issue with having chickens in the winter is making sure that one doesn't have to continuously clean droppings out of the coop. To make sure that this isn't the case I put in place a deep litter system. This system uses a deep bed of a carbon based material, such as straw or wood shavings. This carbon based bed will absorb any nitrogen that is introduced, such as chicken poop, this mixture will compost and create a nutrient rich soil. As long as a proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen is maintained the coop wont smell and will even produce heat as the compost off gasses.

Our relationship with the chickens is a symbiotic one, I recently imposed a system that will get them to do some work for me. I put a thick layer of mulch of leaves collected from around the neighborhood over the garden bed. I have been scattering feed over the mulch to to encourage the chickens to scratch through the mulch. As they do this they are aerating the mulch and dropping their nitrogen rich manure into the garden bed. This will encourage the mulch to break down and provide a rich garden bed for next years vegetables to grow.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fall Planting

While preparing the garden early this past spring I was surprised to find out that some of the plants I was most excited to grow required seeding in the prior fall. Realizing this in the spring made it difficult to grow onions, garlic, sunchokes and any perennial berries or herbs. Garlic is an allium that I was very excited to grow in the garden. Ontario garlic has a fantastic flavour and stickiness that is incomparable to garlic from China and Argentina. While I love the garlic found at Toronto's farmers markets, growing it will take a bit of a load off my wallet. Garlic also stores wonderfully throughout the winter hanging in a dark, cool place.

So this fall I have made sure to devote a significant portion of the garden to garlic. To plant garlic, all you need is ... garlic. I used garlic from the Stop Community Food Centre's garden at Earls Court Park. The bulb is then broken into cloves and the larger cloves are planted two inches into the earth. The small cloves are reserved for the kitchen, as they wont provide a large bulb. A healthy layer of mulch is then layered over top and in the spring the cloves will shoot and develop nice big bulbs for next year.

Sunchokes are another vegetable that is best planted in the fall. We did have some luck this year with going ahead and planting in the spring, in spite of conventional wisdom. Planting in two old recycling bins in a corner of the front yard, that doesn't receive much sun, yielded almost an entire bushel of tasty sunchokes. We were all floored by the size of the sunchoke pile that sat on our front lawn. To plant for next year, we just left a couple of the sunchoke tubers buried six inches deep. Another wonder of planting in the fall is the work that it saves you from doing in the following spring.

One more fall planting that I decided to do involved something called a hot bed. Hot beds are very similar to cold frames with the addition of fresh horse manure being buried underneath the soil. As this horse manure decomposes underground it produces a significant amount of heat which transfers energy to the plants.

Finding a hundred pounds of fresh horse manure in downtown Toronto isn't as simple as it is on a proper biodynamic farm. The only horses I ever see downtown belong to the police. So I headed out with my bike trailer and a shovel to follow some police horses and collect what my bike tires normally try so hard to avoid. After collecting four loads of horse manure along Queen Street, and a lot more strange looks, I decided this was going to take far to long. So I went where police horses live, the horse palace at Exhibition Place. At first I was worried that I would be laughed out of the stables, but apparently lots of gardeners source free manure from the horse palace. They showed me to a massive pile of manure where I filled my trailer as high as possible and cycled home.

In the hot bed I planted some hardy greens. These included arugula, red and green romaine, and another lettuce whose name I can't remember. Hopefully these will provide us with backyard salads all throughout the winter.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Harvest Time

As we near the first frost the garden has gradually shrunk. Slowly but surely we ate through all of our crops. After several cool nights in a row the tomato vines were the first to be pulled from the ground. Ripe tomatoes were sun dried and preserved in oil and large green tomatoes were made into Governor Sauce. This is an old family recipe of salted green tomatoes and onions preserved with apple cider vinegar, and is served alongside roast beef or pork. Under our next door nona Franka's advice I hung the rest of our green tomatoes in the closet were they will continue to ripen.

Shortly after the peppers followed. The ultra hot red cayenne's were hung in Ristra's to dry over several weeks. The still significantly hot green cayenne's, which this cool September has left us with many, were preserved in a simple vinegar brine.

Beets and carrots were pulled last. The carrots came out beautifully, ranging in colour and size. My favourite are a deep red with a light orange centre. Last year I pickled my carrots, which I felt destroyed all the nice sweet flavours of a carrot. This year, with access to a nice cool garage, I decided to experiment with some burial preservation. This involves removing the green shoots of the carrot and laying them in sand without the roots touching. The carrots are then covered in sand and the process is repeated. I tried a carrot today and they are just as good as they were when they were buried.

Most of the beets were eaten directly from the garden and cooked into salads, risottos and soups amongst other delicious meals served in Chris's Room. Though a portion of the beets were saved to be pickled with cinnamon, allspice and apple cider vinegar.

Onions, sunchokes and watermelons were planted more as an experiment than anything else. The onions and watermelon, which turned out surprisingly well, were eaten with haste and shared with neighbours. The sunchokes, which just began to flower within the last week, will stay in the ground until the first frost at which point they will be dug up and possibly cellared, if the harvest is as big as I hope it to be.

With the harvesting of all the vegetables the fences keeping the hens out has been removed allowing them free range of the entire backyard. They are happy to finally be allowed to dig for all the worms in our rich garden bed.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to Brewing Season

For me, beer and cider making is a seasonal affair. This is because, like many renters, our apartment does not include a cold cellar. It is important to keep temperatures during fermentation between 15 and 23 degrees celsius, if it is hotter than this your brew will ferment to fast and produce funky flavours, cooler and it wont ferment at all. In our poorly airconditioned apartment temperatures often jump up to over to over 30 degrees throughout the summer. As hard as it is to accept that temperatures are dropping it is equally exciting to start taking on new projects as the seasons change.

Last week I was lucky enough to lead an apple pick for Not Far From The Tree in the Vaughn and Arlington area. In a beautiful backyard bordering Cedervale Ravine grew two gorgeous apple trees. Nobody was quite sure what type of apples they were, but the best guess was Red Delicious. The apples were of all different sizes and bumpy and gnarly, not exactly the eating apples, but perfect for baking, sauce and most importantly cider. From these two trees we gleaned close to 200 pounds of fruit. Volunteering to take the windfall, and with the owners of the house not wanting their share, I walked away with a full bushel of apples.

From my cider brewing experience last year I learned that it takes a lot of apples to get a cup of juice. In order to have enough apples Dave and I ventured to the Toronto Food Terminal at 6 am to buy some inexpensive number 2's, the name for low grade apples. I've never seen such an interesting scene at 6 in the morning in all my life. There was a huge amount of energy, with chefs and grocers abound, prices were being haggled, fork lifts were zooming every which way, and even beers were being drank. The entire bushel, about 40 pounds, was only 15 dollars.

For last years attempt at cider I used a juicer. I found that this made to clear a liquid and didn't leave behind any of those intensely appley flavours that cider has. For this year I decided to get a proper fruit press. So when my Grandma asked me what I would like for a graduation gift, I think she was pretty surprised by the answer. The press worked fantastically. First the apples were pureed into a pulp in a food processor and then dumped into the press with a cheese cloth lining around it. The puree was then pressed producing a surprising amount of juice and leaving behind a completely dry and crumbly disc of apple. After an entire day of pressing apples (thank you Shira for giving up your whole day to help) we produced enough cider to fill a 25 liter carboy. This is enough cider to fill just over 30 champagne size bottles with delicious bubbly hard apple cider which, depending on my patience, will be ready to drink in about 8 months.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting "It"

Do you ever feel like sometimes, things just click in your mind, and you begin to get the proverbial "it"?

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the '10,000 hour rule'.  Now, I haven't actually read Gladwell.  If his TED talks speak to anything, it's that reading one of his books might feel like 10,000 hours.  Yet, the concept that after so many hours, one might really begin to understand and develop expertise in a particular field, intrigues me.

Not that I would claim expertise on the subject of meat curing.  Nonetheless, every time I follow a charcuterie project to completion, I feel like I have a much better grasp on the subject.

Take this newest one.  I decided to do my own take on a tuscan salami - "finocchiona".  Toasted fennel seeds, black pepper and juniper provide the spice hit.  I added red wine for colour, fruit, and acid.  Lastly, I hand diced back fat from a Tamworth/Berkshire cross bred hog.

Charcuterie is on of those funny things where you don't know if you made the right choices until weeks down the road.  This time, I feel like it was a real success.  It hasn't been 10,000 hours, and I'm by no means an expert - but little by little, I'm chipping away.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chicken Maintenance

Last week I was lucky enough to befriend a fellow urban chicken raiser. Unfortunately, our reason for meeting was that she was in the middle having her chickens extradited to a rural farm by Toronto bylaw officers. I volunteer in City Councilllor Joe Mihevc's office. Joe is a supporter of legalizing backyard hens in downtown Toronto, and so his office regularly receives calls when people get into trouble with chicken laws. She, and her neighbour's, had happily lived with five laying hens for several years. She had lots of tips to give me on strategies for raising hens, but primarily our conversation was about chicken laws. Her concerns were not only that the law should be changed to allow people to raise hens, but that policy needs to be put in place to ensure that people raise their hens humanely and with an understanding of the amount of work that hen raising requires.

Raising hens is not like raising rabbits or gerbils. Chickens require a lot of upkeep, disease prevention, and protection from the cold and predators. The area that I have had the most difficulty with is disease prevention. I think this is because laws restrict a contraband chicken keeper from taking their hens to a professional veterinarian for assistance. This leads to a lot of internet research and guessing. Luckily I've only encountered a couple of health problems in the ladies.

One of these common problems was our Spotted Sussex becoming egg bound, or eggs-tipated as I like to say. This is when a chicken gets one of her eggs lodged in her Ovduct preventing other eggs from being made and causing the hen discomfort. I noticed something was wrong with her as she wasn't laying any eggs and was lying on her side and panting a lot. I started to do some internet research which, as any hypochondriac knows, can lead one to believe that thousands of diseases apply since so many diseases have similar symptoms. After being convinced that Samantha had the Bird Flu, Marek's Disease, and failed kidneys I realized that the most likely ailment was for her to be eggbound. Further research led me to find the cure, a nice warm bath and massage, which I found more appealing to an alternative cure which was to shove a pencil up the birds vent to dislodge the stuck egg. She really enjoyed the bath, and the following morning produced an egg, and was in much higher spirits.

Another common problem has been the appearance of lice on the birds feathers. At first I thought this was a big problem and it left me worried and itchy. But after some reading I realized that this is very common, and that chicken lice won't transfer to people. Living in downtown Toronto without a drivers license means its very difficult to get to a farm supply store and purchase a delouser. This forces one to get creative. I've used a natural insecticide for removing ant hills in the past called Diatomaceous Earth. DE is ground up fossils of diatoms, a type of algea, which dehydrates insects by absorbing lipids from their exoskeleton and thus killing them. To apply this I put the DE into a pantyhose and powdered the chickens, being careful not to allow the chickens, or myself, to breath it in as its bad for the lungs. From researching DE I learned that its good for removing parasites and worms from and animals and so I've now put a mix of 5% DE into the ladies feed.

With winter fast approaching, I am sure that new difficulties will transpire in raising hens and that the daily chores of cleaning out droppings from the roost will become more tedious. But I am very excited to take advice from my fellow chicken raiser and feed the ladies nice warm steel cut oatmeal with milk on cold mornings, and since this is one of my favourite winter breakfasts, I'll enjoy it with them.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Saving Seeds For Next Year

The seeds that I purchased to grow this years garden have provided me with several frustrations. I don't want to mention the name of the company that I bought most of my seeds from because I respect what they do and understand that starting out a company such as this poses many difficulties. One frustration I ran into was getting beet seeds in a cucumber seed package. This wasn't to frustrating because I recognized the seeds and averted any mistake. What was more frustrating was buying specific types of heirloom tomato seeds only to find out once the tomato vines started to produce the tomato's, they were not the ones advertised. The most frustrating mistake was buying vine beans that turned out to be bush beans, leaving the trellis I built useless, and us without any tasty beans. The other issue is that seeds are expensive when you consider how cheap it is to save them yourself.

The only way I see that I can avoid these issues and save my money is to save my own seeds. This was something that I had always assumed would be difficult. I talked to my neighbour Franka about it and she was surprised that I didn't already save my own seeds. Her enthusiasm that this was an easy task to tackle encouraged me to try saving my own seeds. So far I've saved Mizuna, Cayenne Pepper, and Arugula seeds very easily. Tomato seeds are a little more difficult to save and require a longer process.

First the tomato seeds and pulp are removed from the tomato's. Then you cover the pulp and seed with water and wait three or four days. The viable seeds will sink to the bottom and the pulp and poor quality seeds will float to the top. After this you let the viable seeds dry on newspaper and store in a cool dry place. This has got to be the best way to grow, because it gives the gardener entire control over their garden from the seed at its earliest stage.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Early Summer Preserves

One of the best parts of growing your own veggies is preserving them so they can be enjoyed all year round. In the past I've primarily focussed on vinegar based preserves. This year we'll be doing many different preservation methods using sugar, alcohol, drying, and lactic fermentation. With so many fruits and vegetables ripening early this year, I've already begun preserving many foods whose seasons have come to an end.

My first preserve of this year was one of the first vegetables to appear in spring, Rhubarb. The rhubarb came from Leland's farm whose mothers garden produced far more rhubarb than any one family could consume. I joined the queue of people waiting to receive a box full of fantastically fresh rhubarb. First I attempted to make a jam which resulted in a far to tart and gooey mush that I didn't want to put anywhere near my toast. After this failure my second attempt at rhubarb preserves was a jelly. The jelly turned out nicely, with a more appropriate balance of sweet and tart and a beautiful peach colour.

Toronto's fruit tree picking project, Not Far From the Tree, has provided us with a bounty of sweet and sour cherries. Going on picks with Not Far From the Tree is a great way to get free tree fruit. Not Far From the Tree visits a household that has fruit trees the homeowner wishes to be picked and the fruit is then divided between the homeowner, the Stop Community Food Centre, and the gleaners. With a cherry tree producing as much as 80 pounds of fruit, a gleaner who attends several picks can end up with loads of free produce. We did attempt to eat as much fresh cherries by cooking and baking it in to every dish imaginable, but were still unable to make much of a dent in the 40 pounds of cherries that overburdened our fridge. So we pitted and jarred the cherries doing the sweet ones in a simple sugar syrup and the sour in a rum and sugar mixture.

After having great success with cucumbers last year we decided to devote a large portion of the garden to filling our pickle jars. Last year we did all vinegar pickles. While vinegar pickles are nice, being lifelong fans of Strubs has convinced us to try our hands at fermented pickles. This involves sitting cucumbers in a salt brine with pickling spice and leaving at room temperature for a week or more. After the pickles have been in the brine for long enough to develop a salty-sour taste the pickles are jarred with the brine and refrigerated. If we can master this preserving method I'll be very happy as I've been known to put down a jar of Strubs in one sitting.