Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tallow Soap, Part 2

Here are a few pictures of the tallow rendering process. Not pretty. Uh-uh.

I started with a pot of beef fat, then ran it through the grinder (you get more fat out and it's much quicker this way). The last pic is all that I ended up throwing away out of about 24# of beef fat.

And, apparently, I'm going to be making my own lye as well. Seems that lye has been taken off shelves because it's used to make Crystal Meth. Hrmph. I'll be making my lye contraption thingy tomorrow.
Disclaimer: Everything I'm writing here is my opinion and is worth exactly that. Not everyone will agree and luckily, there is room in the world for more than one opinion. I am writing this to clarify my thoughts - not for debate. I will never tell you that my way is "The Right Way", only that it works for me.

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a poll about whether or not it was okay to use genetically modified food to solve food shortage issues and it sparked a debate between a couple friends of mine. The debate dovetails nicely in to a discussion Biscodo and I had several nights ago about why conventional farmers and organic farmers will likely never peacefully coexist. I've been pondering why exactly I hold the opinions that I hold and, surprisingly, the answer is somewhat of a mystic one. I believe that Mother Nature knows best and that food is better for you the less human intervention it has had. The other part of my answer is more scientific: Human beings evolved because of a delicate balance of (among other things) food sources. If we start playing with the genetics of those foods, we are doing ourselves (as a human race) no favors.

I also believe that all species are better off eating a species-appropriate diet (thus why I spend hours every week working on meat for my pet carnivores). Growing cows and feeding corn because it's cheap & plentiful (and government subsidized) is wrong, as is the administration of the antibiotics they must be prescribed to account for the diet's complications & insufficiencies. Cows that have been fed a diet that their bodies are not designed to handle and that have been shot full of antibiotics cannot possibly be as healthy for human consumption as those that live otherwise. I don't like what antibiotics do to my body when I need them for illness, I damn sure don't want to get them vicariously through my food.

I understand that "Popular Media" has probably been unfair to conventional farmers and painted them all as monsters undeservingly. There are probably way more conventional farmers whose animals are not lying in their own feces than conversely. I understand that many, many families & communities rely on conventional farming methods for their livelihood and I do not begrudge them their living. I try to buy organic from the "Dirty Dozen" list, and otherwise if it's available and cost effective. I will probably always rely on conventional farmers for some of my food and I'm glad they are there.

Most of all, I think we are better off for having this conversation.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I am somewhat known for being a person who will try anything. It comes with the territory of being someone who bores quickly of a routine and is energized by something novel. Sometimes it gets me in big trouble (ask me about my stint in Leavenworth, for example) but most often, the biggest problem is that I get in to something without fully understanding what I'm getting in to.

Thus, the story of how my house came to smell like a petting zoo.

I love Alpaca. I fell in love with them at the Flagstaff, AZ Fair in the late '90s. Their long eyelashes look like a cartoon character. Their fleece is soft and comes in beautiful colors. Over the years, I've dreamed of owning Alpaca from time to time to shear and sell wool to those folks who enjoy the fiber arts. So obviously, when I saw a Freecycle ad for "Alpaca Fiber", I jumped on it! What a great opportunity for me to play with no/little financial investment.

Problem #1:

The fleece had been sitting in a bag on the Freecycler's front porch overnight. SE Michigan has felt more like Portland, OR for the past few weeks so the fleece got wet. Consulting with folks who know this kind of thing led me to the conclusion that the fleece could not live in this plastic bag until I was ready to work with it, lest it become mildewed. OK,then. I'll take care of that.

Problem #2:

"Seconds and Thirds". Ever heard of that? Turns out, that's what my fiber was. The Alpaca Farmers, naturally, sold the "Firsts" or the blanket that came from the Alpaca's back. Second and third cuts are the neck, legs and belly. Less desirable fleece, in fact, possibly not even good for making yarn. Eh, okay. I'll do a felting project.

Problem #3:

Sheep fleece is coated in lanolin. Alpaca fleece is not. Instead, to coat their fleece, they roll in the dirt. And rocks. And hay. And poo. And, apparently, rotten fruit. Consultation with the Fiber Dieties said if you've got a top-loading washing machine, that's the easiest way to wash it. I do, so I did. 5 times, actually, before the water started to clear up. It's still full of sticks and seeds that will come out when I pick it.

As I type, there's about 4 Alpaca worth of Seconds and Thirds drying in my basement.

I figure I'll take it a chunk at a time and hand pick it. Should be awesome, mindless activity.

Even if I'm not able to produce anything useful with it, I still think it's going to be a great learning experience. For when I get my own Alpaca, you know ;)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Yesterday, I went to the Zen Temple for the first time. About a year ago (or more), I started studying Buddhism but this was my first time in a community of Buddhists. I was a little nervous because my only context for spiritual gathering was the Christian tradition and I was afraid I would inadvertently do something offensive. The friend who took me kept telling me, "It's zen, whatever you do is probably the right thing". But my Western mind-set kept me on alert. Procedurally, it was a lot like church, frankly. Meditate, chant, stretch (okay, that part wasn't like church), meditate, stand up, chant, sit down, listen to the teaching, meditate, responsive reading, announcements, leave.

Indeed, I spent the rest of the day quite grounded. A nice feeling when the world is swirling around me.

I was reading over my post from a few days ago and something struck me. While it's true that I am energized by possibilities, I am sometimes paralyzed by uncertainty. Maybe terrified is a better term. My tendency when something is awry is to fix it. I don't suffer well. When something in my life isn't settled, I settle it. Not always in the most healthy or productive way, but at least it's settled and I know what I'm dealing with and can move on from there. It is very unlike me to just "let things unfold", even though I'm sure that is a lesson I should learn. Theoretically, it sounds nice to "observe life unfolding before you", doesn't it? I'm sure it is a virtue, though not one I possess. Having successfully navigated many obstacles in my life, there isn't much that I can't handle once I know what it is. Once identified, I can make plans, sacrifices, whatever to make it work. While it remains unknown, I can't do anything. Except ruminate.

When I'm particularly stressed, I have dreams that I'm homeless. I have for years. Deep down inside, there is a part of me that fears having no safe place to retreat to. There were years and years of my life when that was true -- even "home" wasn't safe. Strangers felt more safe to me than the people I lived with. For at least the past 10 years, my home has been my haven. My physical and emotional safe place. My holy ground.

And I don't know where my home will be a year from now. And there's not a thing I can do to fix it.

It's not about the physical structure my home is in. This is a wonderful house. It's been great to us for the past 5 years. I love its hard wood and natural light. I will have fond memories of it. But I know that walking away from it (and its $3000/mo mortgage) is the right thing to do. A building isn't worth what we'd have to give up to stay in it. A building doesn't make a home. We will create a home in another structure.

More, it's about knowing that I"m losing something and not knowing what will be in its place. Will it be an apartment? A farm? A rental house in the middle of a city? I can handle any of those (at least for a short time in pursuit of a longer-term goal) if I only knew which one I had to handle.

There is a property that I've been looking at for a while now. I've looked at a few, but this one has grabbed & kept my attention. It's 23.5 acres with a nice barn, a chicken coop and a few other outbuildings. There's room for animals (goats? horses?), places to farm (both for the family and commercially if we wanted), a creek running through it and a rolling pasture that would be a great place to plant apple trees, nuts and berries. The house is a DUMP in the truest sense of the word and would need to taken down to studs and rebuilt, but when I look out the back, the sight I see is something I can imagine seeing every morning. I want to live here. And, it's affordable (close to a third of where we currently are). Except for the fact that farm loans only finance at 80%, so I'd have to have somewhere around $25k to make it happen. $35k if I wanted to do a construction loan and include rehabbing the house in the deal. When I started looking, I was thinking $10k. A stretch, but doable. $35k, not exactly doable in any short period of time. They aren't interested in a land contract, either.

So, I struggle to watch the world unfold before me and live in this moment and not the one I wish I was in. The one where I knew that my safe space would be there for me. And I knew that it would be a life-affirming space and not a life-sucking space.

Meanwhile, back on the farm.....

PIGGIES! Lily went in to labor yesterday and delivered one little piggy before midnight who has apparently been named "Easter". I can't help but think her middle name should be "Ham". As of early this morning, there were 2 little piggies and 10 is supposed to be the magic number (or thereabouts). Lily is going to have a long day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

WARNING: I'm 2 glasses of wine in to the evening. Which could mean this is a really GOOD post. Or, it could mean it's an unfocused rant. I DARE you to read on and find out.


Bill has farm duty this weekend so he won't be home. Earlier today, I was ready to call "uncle". Seriously, ready to call the whole freakin' thing off and tell Bill I can't do this anymore and he has to come home. The morning was pretty good, actually. I got blood drawn for my annual physical. Got my hair cut. Had a massage. One would think that things couldn't go wrong from there, huh? Last stop was the grocery so before I went, I called home (the kids were out of school today) to see if they wanted me to bring home pizza for lunch. I asked them to get their housework done, please. 2 hours later I showed up and nothing was done. AND one of the kids thought it'd be fun to catch a tea bag on fire while I was gone.

I think it was exacerbated by the fact that earlier in the week, I had a really long day and when I returned, there were sticky notes pointing out all the places that the dogs had peed. Apparently rather than letting the dogs out, it was more fun to just watch them pee in the floor and make snarky notes so that I could clean it up when I got home at 8pm.

I know that my kids are 13 and that the whole idea of what it takes to run a household is lost on them. But I feel like I'm raising selfish parasites who not only can't pick up after themselves, they can't do anything meaningful to contribute to the running of the house. I can't even go run errands, much less do anything for myself without worrying that they are burning the house down. And these are the same kids who want to talk to me and in front of my like they are grown. Want/expect me to drive them wherever they want to go. Provide "entertainment" for them when they're bored. This is my most UNFAVORITE part of raising children. I've been parenting hands-on, full time for 27 years and I'm tired. When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a "menopause baby". By the time she came along, her parents were old and tired. She got away with all kinds of crap that her 3 older sisters wouldn't have ever dreamed of doing. Her parents just said "whatever" and went to bed. That's about where I am.

Chances are that when we move, wherever we live will be 1/3 the size of where we live now. I'm seriously concerned about how we'll not kill each other, especially during the winter when no one will go outside (except for Bill). 2 adults, 2 teenagers, 2 70# dogs and 4 old, crochety cats.

Meanwhile, back on the farm.......

- I finally found eggplant seeds! 2 different kinds, in fact. Technically, it's spring but Mother Nature hasn't gotten the memo. Today there was sleet & rain.

- I found the book "Wild Fermentation" at Crazy WIsdom today. It has lots of info on bread, cheese, yogurt, miso, etc.....all the great fermented things.

- Rebrined the sauerkraut & kimchi today. Sauerkraut is getting there. I'd say two more weeks on the counter and I'll be ready to put it in the fridge.

- I've got 10# of tallow for soap, but I can't find the stinkin' lye! I was excited today when the chick at Lowe's told me it was on Aisle 4 but when I got there, it was Lime. I bought a few essential oils and some molds. Just lye and I'll be ready to make-a da soap.

- Tomorrow, I'm going to a class on Shiitake mushrooms. Last year, I did Oysters and they turned out great. If I have 2 kinds of mushrooms going this year, I'll be in heaven.....Fungus fan that I am


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Today, I'm going up to MSU to lead a Strengths* workshop with the folks in the Organic Farmer Training Program - my two worlds collide! I'm totally geeked to be working with farmers and I can't wait to see how the experience differs from working with Corporate America clients. Maybe it won't be different at all. Or it could be something I'm totally unprepared for. Oh, the possibilities! I'll also be doing a meat pick up on the way, so as I teach, there will be about 100# of meat rotting in my car. Lovely visual, huh?

Speaking of Strengths, I frequently use Bill as an "example" when I teach classes because he and I are so different that it provides a great analogy for how 2 people can have the same goal but go about it in very different ways and still produce outstanding results. One of the common stories I tell is this:

3 of the Talents in my Top 5 are Connectedness, Input and Ideation and I would like to believe that I have developed these Talents in to Strengths. You can pretty much always count on me to gather information and have ideas about it, even on subjects I don't know a lot about. My brain is always engaged and I see possibilities and pop off ideas at break-neck speed. All my ideas are not viable, but that's work for someone else. I have ideas and can develop them pretty fully. I do it almost effortlessly and almost flawlessly. It's "what I do".

Bill, on the other hand, has Deliberative and Analytical in his Top 5. This means that he is uniquely wired to tell me why my great ideas won't work. His brain works best by noticing roadblocks and potential risks. He is a perfect example of a "glass half empty" person who naturally notices what's missing, out of order or out of synch.

One would think that we would drive each other insane, right? They'd be correct. We do. But we also know this about ourselves. I am at my best when I'm in the world of possibilities and ideas. There's almost no stopping me. Bill is at his best when he's qualifying information. Once he's vetted an idea, you can be pretty sure that all your contingencies are accounted for.

Which brings us to ....


Bill mentioned that part of his Individual Learning Plan at the farm was to develop a software application to support organic farmers. Doing what I do, my brain started to noodle. Before long, I had (if I must say so myself) a BRILLIANT idea that would not only work for his project, but potentially be marketable on a large scale to farmers who are interested in becoming certified organic or using organic farming practices on their farm. I threw it out a couple times, but Bill didn't bite. To be fair, he's doing physical labor all day and working to graduate "with highest honors" (did I mention Achiever is also in his Top 5?). I tucked it away...planned to bring it up later.

Earlier this week I had a visit from a friend and "the project" came up. We talked maybe 10 minutes about it, but for some reason, my brain re-engaged. I woke up several times that night with new ideas. I spent 6 hours writing a Business Plan the next day to pitch to investors. Like that player who can't miss a shot, every word I wrote was gold, everything fell in to place and the product was something I was proud of and excited about.

Now, the Business Plan is with Eeyore, I mean, uh....Bill. His job over the next couple weeks it to qualify it, identify what's missing, the potential road blocks and put some estimates together for how long it would take to build. My job during this time is to keep my enthusiasm up. While it may seem like nothing is happening to me, there's a LOT going on in Bill's head and it's valuable stuff that we will fail without. The Business Plan will be solid as gold when it comes back to me.

Self-assurance is another one of my Talent themes. I'm pretty sure that there isn't much that I can't do if I want to and invest the time & energy. I'm confident in my own abilities. I rock. However, not all projects feel like this one does. This one feels like the moon & stars are aligned. I have no idea where the money will come from, but I know it will come. I believe in this so much, I'm willing to "bet the farm" on it. And if we fail....well, at least we failed doing something meaningful.

* Strengthsfinder 2.0 is a validated instrument that measures your natural talents and ways of approaching problem solving. There is a huge body of work built around how to develop your Talents in to Strengths and use them planfully in your day to day life. This body of work is the basis for about half of the work that I do and it is, by far, my favorite subject to talk about.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lactofermentation: AKA "I don't really like sauerkraut"

Bill & I attended a skill share with some of the folks from the MSU Organic Farming Training Program to learn about lactofermentation. Since I spend about $20 a month on probiotics to keep my gut in check, the idea of being able to do that naturally (and more cheaply!) really appealed to me. Problem is, I don't really like sauerkraut.

The process is crazy-easy. Shred whatever veggies you're going to use and "massage" them with salt to get the juices flowing. Then, pack down in your container until the brine covers the veggies. Put it on your counter. Wait. Wait some more. Taste. Wait a little longer. Viola! You've got kraut.

Ok, there's slightly more to it than that. I've got instructions if you're interested.

Bill and I did 3 different projects: Regular sauerkraut, hot sauerkraut and gingered carrots. At the first tasting after 3 days, everything was definitely still too salty but I was starting to get the flavor. The longer we can wait to eat it, the more lactobacilli will have formed (ie, the good stuff) and the more "kraut-like" it will taste.

Next, I'm going to take a shot at kimchi, which I actually DO like!

Tallow Soap, Part 1

My dogs eat a raw diet using the Whole Prey Model which basically means that over time, they eat all/most parts of the animal. Roughly 80% muscle meat, gristle, connective tissue, etc. 10% organ and 10% edible bone (don't worry - the danger of bones splintering only applies to COOKED bones. Raw bones are pliable and completely digestible). Recently, I connected with a local meat processor to get his butcher scraps and started a small co-op with other raw feeders. Basically I buy the scraps, cut off the fat and package them in 5# bags. I make enough off of this venture to cover my costs and feed my dogs for free. Processing takes about 2 hours of my time a week and though my kitchen looks a little "Hannibal Lecter" I actually enjoy it. Here's the thing: I ended up with about 60# of beef fat (suet) from a couple weeks of processing. I was intent on finding something useful to do with it so that I could make use of as much of the animal as possible. A little Googling turned up rendering tallow for soap.

Step 1: Grind the suet. I tried it both ways and grinding definitely yields more tallow and less waste.
Step 2: Boil it with a little salt. Scoop the nasty brown stuff off the top as is cooks.
Step 3: Strain it in to another container to get out pieces of meat, gristle, etc.
Step 4: Let it cool until the fat rises to the top and water & impurities sink to the bottom.
Step 5: Cut the "clean" fat off the top and discard the water
Step 6: Package tallow in zip lock bags and store in the freezer for up to a year.

Total time spent on this project = 6 hours

I have no doubt that women entering the workforce was a VACATION compared to what they were used to doing during the day.

The process was disgusting and time consuming, but tallow soap is supposed to be amazing. Believe it or not, the actual soapmaking process is supposed to be the hard part. I have to admit after playing in the fat & gristle for a couple days, it'll be a while before I'm ready to undertake it. I'll keep you posted. Next time, pictures, I promise (I know you're dying to see!)


Thursday, April 14, 2011

When Bill was an IT Developer, he had a saying that he used with clients - "Cheap, fast or good. Pick two." You can't have all three in the same product - something has to give. If you need it quickly and don't have a lot of money to spend, the quality won't be there. Want it tomorrow and it has to be high-quality? No problem. But it'll cost you. You get the picture.

My friend Barbara said something yesterday (as she often does) that really got me thinking. You can apply those same principles to food. (In this case, we'll define "good" as food with high nutritional value). If you want fast, cheap food: McDonald's or any number of fast food restaurants are on every street corner it seems and everyone has a .99 menu these days. If you want good food fast, you can go to Whole Foods. Good food cheap? Grow it yourself. Buy seasonally and preserve. Shop the farmer's market. Even chain supermarkets have decent deals on organic produce and pastured meats, but you have to search them out, wait for the sales, etc.

My two big thoughts about this:

1) When Bill and I were pulling down $200k a year, we hit Whole Foods without blinking an eye and filled the cart to the brim. If the spinach got wilted before we used it, I'd toss it in the compost crock. Sometimes we'd have an idea of what we were shopping for, but mostly, we'd go in and get whatever appealed to us that day. It was not at all uncommon for us to spend $300 a week on groceries. We both worked full time jobs. For a large chunk of that, I was in Grad School. The resource that was scarcest was time (or so it seemed).

Our lives are now organized in a different way. Since we got off the hamster wheel, the resource that we have to manage around is money. I have more time to shop around for deals. This year we will be growing more of our own food than ever before between our back yard crops and Bill's plots at the farm. I'll put up sweet corn when it's in season and 10 ears for $1. When the spinach goes limp, I'll toss it in to soup or pasta.

For us, changing the dynamic was a choice. Both of us wanted to slow our lives down, live more simply. We are both educated, skilled people who could, if we chose to, step back on that hamster wheel and before too long, we'd likely be back to earning the "big bucks" (though I suspect the longer we're out of Corporate America, the less true that will be). The point is, even though our household income is about 25% of what it was a year ago, we have a safety net that not everyone has.

2) For some people, the "pick two" choice has been made for them because paying more for food is not an option. And because we've bred convenience in to American DNA, people will likely opt for cheap and fast rather than cheap and good because, after all, you deserve it! You work hard! You don't want to spend so much time finding and preparing food! This is AMERICA for God's sake! Here's a meal that will feed your entire family in 30 minutes for $10. Processed food is cheap but devoid of any nutrients. They heap in the sugar and salt to make it taste like something, but it still is about the same to your body as eating cardboard. Your belly is full, but your body is starving. And I'm not just talking about people who are on Food Assistance here. This is your "Average American Family" food plan. Which leads to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Which leads to astronomical health care costs. Which leads to more poverty. Which leads to crime, drug abuse and child neglect. Which leads to a national crisis.

I wonder.......

Food Education.

Sure, there would be folks who still ate off the .99 menu, just as there are people who still choose to smoke even though they know what it's doing to their bodies. But surely there are just as many people for whom understanding how their food choices affect their bodies would make even a slight difference in their choices. Maybe if just one kid doesn't grow up on chicken nuggets and EZ Mac, they would go on to have better eating habits. Maybe if we talked about it in grade schools the way we do hand washing and covering your mouth when you sneeze, kids would suggest dad shop "around the edges" of the grocery store where nutritional food is more likely to be. Maybe they'd ask for fresh peaches instead of Fruit Rollups.

It could happen, right?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Semblance of a Plan

It's finally Spring in SEMI! Yesterday was our first 80 degree day and Claudia said it seemed like the whole world came out of its shell. I agree - at one point I had to stop and give a "whoo hoo" (accompanied by a vigorous booty shake). I could feel the physical and mental change in myself in just one day of warm weather.

I may have written before about how the lack of a "plan" for what our future was going to look like was causing me great anxiety. Being a person who doesn't suffer well, I pushed (maybe too hard?) for at least a geographic area where we will end up by the first of the year, 2012. That geographic area is right where we are.

The Upper Peninsula is a beautiful place ... if there is a heaven, it's gotta have those rocky beaches and waterfalls that we found in the Porcupine Mountains or it ain't all it's cracked up to be. My soul has been soothed watching the sunset over Lake Superior. I have found peace in the power of the Presque Isle River. And yet, the idea of starting over again feels overwhelmingly oppressive to me. When we first moved to Michigan, I got lost quite frequently. In Memphis, I intuitively knew whether I was heading South or West and made the mistake of assuming that meant I had good sense of direction. After we moved to Ypsi, I realized it was only because I'd spent 40 years using the Mississippi River as my touchstone. Sometimes, I would be so far off route that it felt like I was losing my mind. Add 50% to my travel time to account for this and I was NEVER on time for anything (something else that causes me stress).

Then, there is my community. I have people here. People I can count on. People who really know me (and still like me!). People I can laugh with, cry with, love with. Leaving Memphis was an adventure and I don't regret it, but I miss my people every single day. In a broader sense, I love being surrounded by Universities and all that means. Culture, food, music, art, really smart people, activism, diversity. And beer. We musn't forget beer.

So...I asked Bill if we could stay here. Close enough that I can plug in to all the above when I need to to keep me sane. Of course, he said yes. Or at least he didn't say no. I don't think it would have been his preference, but he is willing to accomodate me, at least for now. Who knows, there may be a point where I feel better about the idea of starting over (again). Right now, this is where I need to be.

Meanwhile, back on the farm....

I put out my spinach and kale this weekend. I'm in search of some Lombardi spinach seeds but haven't found them yet. I've got tomatillos and beans coming up and hopefully I can stick those in the ground in the next several weeks. I'm also really excited about a shiitake mushroom workshop that's coming up. Oysters and shiitakes right in my own back yard? HELL YEAH!