Farm update: March 22

We are sorely disappointed to report that we did not receive even one paltry inch of snow from the massive spring storm that walloped Denver and the Front Range last weekend. To add insult to injury, snow was in the forecast again today, to no avail – I promise you that it is clear and dry outside right now. We joke regularly about checking (In)AccuWeather on our phones, where it’s always “currently snowing in Delta County” – no. No, it isn’t. We have learned from our time here to only trust the weather that we can actually see and feel. All other promises and forecasts ring hollow.

So what we’re not doing on the farm right now is plowing or shoveling snow. But here are a few other things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d care to see.

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Farm update: August 3

“This pandemic feels like a relay race and if that means that every once in a while, you need to break down and freak out, that’s fine. We can carry the baton for each other while we lose it, gather strength, and then carry on. The world seems out of control, but we can control our kitchens and the good things that come out of them. That’s something.”

-Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

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A daily harvest last week.

It’s reaching that point in the season when all of our hard work starts to pay off in abundance. Harvests now happen daily, rather than weekly or every few days, and a small bucket is required. Although the stars of summer – tomatoes and peppers – haven’t really come on yet, we’re swimming in greens, carrots, beets, onions, zucchini, fennel, kale and fresh herbs. It’s not going to be a great year for either winter squash or sweet peppers, much to our disappointment, and we fear that the squirrels have pre-harvested many of our potatoes. But we’re looking forward to cucumbers and fresh beans along with a (hopefully strong) tomato crop.

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Chick lit

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an article about how, in addition to guns, seeds, toilet paper and yeast, Americans have “stress-bought all the baby chickens.” For the record, N and I would like to point out that raising chicks was always in our 2020 plan, even before this pandemic wreaked havoc on the universe. And so it happens that ten chicks now reside in a makeshift fort in our sunroom, deftly constructed of cardboard, repurposed pallets, a vintage metal fireplace guard, free Harbor Freight tarps, and salvaged window screens. This chicken palace is a thing of architectural beauty, make no mistake.

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Bielefelder

What distressed me most about that NYT article – and to be fair, this happens every Easter – is how many people buy chicks (and puppies, and kittens…) without thinking beyond their cuteness stage. Do you know anything about keeping chickens? Where do you plan to house them? How will you keep them safe from predators? What if you end up with a rooster, which are illegal in most municipalities? This flock will be our fourth, and before we had chickens at our old house we did a ton of research on how to keep them safe, healthy and happy.

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Kitchen substitutions

A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.

It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.

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The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

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I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

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Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

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The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.

  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

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The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

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Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

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  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

Chick

  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.

Backyard chickens

We have made no secret here at Finding Quiet Farm of our love for backyard poultry. Honestly, what is there not to love?

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A Black Star from our most recent flock.

They monitor the rodent population. They keep weeds under control. They are ridiculously entertaining. And most importantly, they turn food waste into incredible eggs.

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Our young Silver Wyandotte pullet at about six months.

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Lovely, but these chickens are NOT supposed to be in these raised beds.

Okay, sometimes they (repeatedly) escape the run you’ve so carefully built and they eat your tomatoes. But the eggs are worth it, we swear.

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A Barred Rock (upper left) and a Silver Wyandotte.

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A strong, proud Australorp, one of our favorite breeds.

We’ve had two flocks now at our suburban home, and we encourage the entire universe to keep backyard chickens. They’re less work than dogs or cats, with more reward. They need food, clean water and shelter, of course, plus the ability to run around and eat bugs and weeds and kitchen scraps and what-have-you, and they need protection from predators. Where we live, those are unfortunately rampant – hawks, owls, raccoons, foxes, dogs – but thanks to N’s superlative coop-building skills, we never had a single bird taken.

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The windfall apple clean-up crew.

If you’re thinking of adding chickens to your family homestead, check your local regulations first. We’re allowed five hens and no roosters where we live, but laws vary widely from city to city. Know what you’re buying, too; many a rooster has ended up abandoned at a shelter because it was sold as a hen. It’s not common knowledge, but you don’t need a rooster to get eggs – and they’re illegal in most communities.

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Winter is coming. Seriously. And the chickens need to stay warm.

If you live in a particularly cold area, make sure to buy cold-hardy breeds and that your coop protects your birds from winter drafts. It’s actually easier for birds to stay warm than cool (those trusty feathers) but icy winds can be very detrimental to their health. When planning your coop and run, keep in mind that chickens also need adequate shade in hot summer months. Keeping their space clean and dry doesn’t take much time or effort, and you’ll be amply rewarded.

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Chickens are not vegetarians, no matter what your egg carton says.

Oh, the “vegetarian-fed hens” you see advertised on your egg cartons? They’re only vegetarian because they’re crowded into miniscule cages and don’t have the opportunity to eat what they actually want to eat, which is mice. And bugs. And lettuce. And sandwich crusts. And overly ripe peaches. And leftover sausage bits. And the aforementioned tomatoes. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. Please remember that the next time you buy eggs, and don’t be swayed by meaningless packaging terms – or by bucolic pictures of peaceful, verdant farms. In the U.S., at least, laying hens have by far the worst lives of any production animal.

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Small pleasures: collecting still-warm eggs from nest boxes.

None of the other labels on your egg carton mean anything either, by the way. Whether “farm-fresh” or “natural” or “pasture-raised,” not one of these is regulated by any governing body. You can pretty much slap whatever you want on an egg carton and call it good, and people will pay more for pretty words that make them feel better. “USDA Organic” is actually regulated – if they can find enough inspectors to do some real inspecting – but it only indicates that the chickens consumed organic feed, not that they had any sort of decent life. Well over 95% of all commercially produced eggs in the U.S. were laid by hens who lived their entire lives in less space than a standard piece of paper. They never went outside, they never hunted or pecked, they never dust-bathed,  they never saw sunlight or grass, they never even flapped their wings because they didn’t have enough room. That’s why eggs are cheap, and also why salmonella outbreaks are rampant. Bottom line: buy your eggs from someone you know.

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Eggs for sale at a Thai market.

Americans are often shocked when eggs in Europe and elsewhere in the world aren’t sold in the refrigerated section. Yet another example of our obsession with “safety” and “hygiene,” in this country we wash all eggs prior to shipping and sale at grocery stores, superstores and warehouses. This removes the protective coating that eggs are laid with, and reduces their shelf life, thereby requiring refrigeration. Eggs in the rest of the world aren’t washed until they’re used, and so can be stored at room temperature.

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Although brown eggs will cost you more at the grocery store, there is no nutritional difference. The color of the shells is determined by the chicken’s breed, not by what it eats or where it lives. Most supermarket eggs are white because they were laid by Leghorns, the most common breed in the U.S., whereas brown supermarket eggs were probably produced by Rhode Island Reds. Blue and green eggs come from Araucanas and other unique breeds. You’re not getting any extra nutrition by paying for brown eggs.

Eggs Comparison

There really is a difference between eggs laid by battery hens and those laid by true free-range birds. Notice the backyard egg, on the right: the white is thicker, with more color and viscosity, and the yolk is definitely more yellow. This indicates a varied diet, including foraged protein.

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And when they’re cooked, the backyard egg (again on the right) stays true and tall, but the battery egg sort of melts. Supermarket egg yolks are weirdly chalky and sticky when cooked, while backyard eggs have a buttery creaminess. The taste difference, honestly, is night and day. Good eggs taste the way eggs ought to taste, instead of some insipid manufactured version thereof.

Eggs

According to legend, the one hundred pleats in a chef’s hat represent the number of ways they know how to cook eggs.

Whether or not you keep chickens at home, know that eggs from well-kept hens are one of the best inexpensive protein sources available. Ask at your local feed store or farmers’ market to find eggs raised near you and support backyard poultry, or start your own flock! Go here to learn more.