Sunday, May 18, 2014

My year of goats

  I sold my goats. Yes, I loved my goats, but the fact was that the husband really didn’t. At all. And they were noisy, and destructive, and not really the animal to have in rental with cattle fencing that they can get through in a second. Practicality won out, but I miss them and their antics. Cows are OK, but goats are my thing.


  So, a year in a nutshells? We bought two does, Nettle and Guava, as mentioned here. Both were in kid.

  Nettle produced twin kids, a doe and a buck, with a riveted audience of the whole family. Anglo-Nubian kids would have to be one of the cutest baby animals, even if their bleats do sound like someone’s torturing a human child.

P9045622 P9045615

  The doe (on the left above) became A’s, and she called her Blackberry. We called the buck Grub (because that’s what he was going to be) but decided after a week or so that we’d rather have the milk, and gave him away.

  Now we were at three goats, with Guava due to kid. She did, again with an audience (and a little assistance from me), and produced a single doe. She was half Toggenberg, and a very strange looking goat. We called her Donkey, because that’s what she looked like at birth, and again gave her away very young-we were interested in Anglos and milk, not raising half-breeds.


  So we had lots of milk to drink, we were making cheese and soap, all was going well………then Guava started sending us mental. Never a fantastic forager, she decided she wasn’t going to go looking for food on the couple of hundred acres she had access to, but would stand at the house yard fence and bleat for hours, expecting us to go out and feed her. Every day. We tried a few things to fix this, but after a few incidents involving the husband, Guava, and hurtling shovels and such, I rang up the woman i’d bought her from and asked to swap. Yes, that was fine, but the only other Anglo-Nubians she had weren’t in milk. We accepted the drop in milk for the peace it would bring, and Bracken came home with us.


  She worked out beautifully. Her and Nettle were excellent together, and foraged well. Blackberry adored her as she was still a bit young and fun. But the damage was done, and the husband had no tolerance for any bleating from them. He found them irritating and infuriating, and made that quite clear on a regular basis. In the end I had to shrug my shoulders, admit that they weren’t the best dairy animal for us right now, and family harmony would be better. A agreed, so they were sold to a local family.

  I miss them more than I thought I would. I had a purpose in caring for them and milking them, and . I spent a lot of time outside with them, and I really enjoyed their personalities-I didn’t fully realise how much until they were gone. A also seems a bit lost without her pet-she used to get up at 6am with us every single morning and come out for the milking, but now she mostly stays in bed and reads.


  So I will get goats again-I may have to spend a bit more money and care on the setup to ensure they don’t bother anyone else, but I think they’re worth it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Welcome Xanthorrhoea, with your abundant milk.

  Life really sucked there for a while, when i’d sold the goats, Melaleuca was dry, and no farmer would sell me a decent Jersey cow. Shop milk is absolutely awful when you’ve had the real thing. But I persisted, and harassed one poor man enough that he sold us a cow, probably to shut me up. And what a lovely example she is.


Following the Australian plant names theme, she was renamed Xanthorrhoea. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but the grass tree was the only thing we could think of that really suited her black markings. She gets Xanthe or Zan for short. She’s so quiet she makes Melaleuca look troublesome.


    She did give us a stressful initial 10 days-she wouldn’t eat anything we offered her, except grass. A fresh Jersey making 16 litres a day needs more than grass to keep that sort of production up. She’d nibble a little lucerne, but no grain. The home butcher, who was out here at the time, diagnosed depression (he called it sulking) at her change in lifestyle. We bought a couple of different feeds to try-she snubbed her nose at them. Her milk was dropping alarmingly, and we were starting to entertain the horrible notion that the cow we bought for abundance might end up dropping to six litres a day, six weeks from calving. I systematically went through our pantry until I found she liked barley. Back we went to the stockfeed, bought two types of barley, and she finally began to eat! Only small amounts, but barley with a little copra and some lucerne at least gave her some extra protein.

Then we decided that stripping her out was inefficient and rather stressful, and we’d rather go back to the calf system we had with Melaleuca, where a calf finishes her off at the end of milking. You need to give the calf a fair bit of milk, but in exchange they empty the cow very well and keep the stimulation up so she’ll keep producing more for longer. And you get beef, so really they’re just a delicious long-term milk storage option. Friends with a dairy were happy to send a Friesian bull calf our way, and Xanthe liked him. A lot. So much that she perked up, fostered him without any hesitation, and began to eat ravenously. Her milk supply rose again, so now we take six to seven litres in the morning, then the calf spends the day with her and takes the rest.

  Three weeks in she’s very interested in food-she’s not quite the walking garbage disposal that Melaleuca is, but she’s getting there. It’s been a very good lesson in cow management-and I will never again forget to ask to buy some of the feed the animal’s used to when buying something new!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Leaving Unschooling Behind

  Ah, unschooling. You seemed adequate for many years, but then the flaws started to become apparent. Most of the skills that are supposedly picked up automatically just weren’t-and not through lack of resources or exposure. The girls wanted to write stories and letters, but their handwriting and spelling was below their needed level, so they would get frustrated and give up. They were reading many good books, but had no internal filing system to sort out and categorise what they were learning. Oods wanted to learn Latin and violin, but you can’t really unschool either. The clones were becoming feral children, spending all day on the trampoline or in the sandpit playing pretend. Shorty needed more structure, more repetition, to allow him to master his basic skills. And I was looking at all of that time essentially wasted, thinking, ‘They could be learning so much more’. Which apparently is me projecting unfair expectations onto them based on my insecurities, and not at all based on me thinking that my eight year old really should be able to spell ‘because’ and write it without a reversed b. Because she wants to.

  So I did my usual reading blitz, and we’ve now totally shaken up our home education. The kids get a say in what they learn about, but generally they have an insatiable desire to learn about everything. In the last year they have learnt an incredible amount, and they’re incredibly proud of themselves. They’re challenging themselves and meeting the challenges. Their pretend play has always been varied and complex, but now it’s so educated-seeing Frosty, at 4, re-enact the Iliad is very impressive.

  I’ve noticed that they’re much more content. Arguments are rare when they have their minds challenged and hands busy. This goes for me too-I always felt kind of useless wandering around, giving a bit of assistance here and there, but generally feeling like they didn’t need me. And i’m having the most fantastic time. Not many adults get to fill in the gaps in their learning, and i’m finding it all insanely interesting.  I can see how incredibly useful the chronological history, the formal grammar, and the phonics has been to me already. This sort of stuff may not be on most school curriculums, but it’s the sort of thing I find myself using regularly (and feeling cheated that I was never taught it). And the more I give them, the more they want. Two weeks into this year’s work, I was feeling frazzled with our new workload-and they were asking me if I had anything else they could do. Like Chinese, and poetry, and can I please find some more maths puzzle books for them to do? They want more of everything (except dictation, which they believe is evil torture even as they acknowledge how useful it is to them).

  I have come to the conclusion that unschooling just isn’t for us. Looking critically at my experience, I can’t see how it works effectively for anyone over toddler age, if your goal is to have a well-educated child. I have also come to the conclusion that childhood is by far the best time to learn as much as you can, while you’re young and hungry and have no other commitments, and it is my job to make it easier for them. Unschooling seemed a bit like requiring your children to reinvent the wheel-sure, you can saturate them with words, and lots of kids will pick up reading all by themselves. But it seems a cumbersome, difficult process to require them to puzzle it out when you could sit an eager child down and do some phonics instruction, explain how English works, and have them reading in a tenth of the time. (And so that’s why that’s exactly what I did, and i’ve had three five year old readers so far. Frosty is working on it, and Shorty runs to his own timescale, incomprehensible to the rest of us). I never understood why unschooling seems to require your child stumble around in the dark, until they have their lightbulb moment and can finally puzzle out exactly how Latin verb endings work after much frustration-why not explain it and have them memorise them, and that’s that? Or, to paraphrase Ruth Beechick (because I can’t find the quote), why expect them to be creative when they have nothing to be creative with?

  Unschoolers tend to portray any curriculum work as a violation of freedom, but when it’s by choice, it can be wonderful. Seeing the unbridled excitement and pride of my girls when they finished FLL 3 was wonderful-they had worked hard and achieved something because of that. What a valuable lesson. They have in no way lost any freedom. They have hours every day of total freedom, and now they appreciate it because they feel they’ve earnt it. They have a balance between time they’ve scheduled for learning and free time, so they appreciate and value both much more than ever before.

  So, unschooling? Been there, done that-not impressed. We’re too motivated and eager for that. Bring on the bookwork!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

How to ferment vegetables-without the billion dollar price tag!

  I was all excited a few months ago when I saw Sandor Katz was coming to Australia to run fermenting workshops. I was even more excited when I saw that there’s going to be sessions in Byron Bay. Yippee, I thought, I can go to one! Then I went to the pricing page and nearly had a heart attack. $490!?!?! The intensive sessions in Sydney are similarly gob-smacking. $220 for just vegetables? $220 for just dairy? $792 for the whole lot? Chest pain turned into disbelief. We already ferment a lot of stuff. We regularly make kefir, yoghurt, cheese, mead, sauerkraut, and all sorts of other fruit and vegetable concoctions. And it’s really not very hard. Or complicated. Or time consuming. We’ve learnt it all by experimentation, using books, other than a one-day cheesemaking workshop I did with Elisabeth Fekonia (which was very comprehensive and reasonably priced). How on earth can they justify charging such astronomical prices? All of Milkwood’s prices are at the high end of the scale, but this goes beyond expensive into unbelievable. But then I suppose that’s why they’re still pumping the advertisements for it-it would have booked out months ago at a more reasonable price.

  Here’s my rebellion. I’m saving you by showing you how to ferment vegetables into a deliciously sour and tasty mix. It involves 3 steps and about 15 minutes of your time.

1. Chop thinly, or grate, your vegetables. I have radish, carrots, and beetroot here. Cabbage and other cruciferous veg work well (think sauerkraut). Feel free to throw in herbs, chillis, or anything else of plant origin that you think will taste good. The better quality your ingredients the better the end result-we grew all this. Throw it in a big bowl and mix in generous amounts (a few tablespoons?) of salt-real salt, like Celtic or Himalayan, not iodised table salt. If it tastes quite salty but it’s not crusted, it’s about right.


  Stuff it into jars, and let it sit for a couple of hours. The salt will suck the juice from the vegetables.


2. Then pack it down as much as you can. I use a granite pestle. If the juice extracted by the salt covers the vegetables, then put a non-airtight cover on and you’re done. If not, add enough filtered water to cover it. Taste the liquid-it should be salty like the sea. The salt will exclude any harmful bacteria, so err on the side of too much-you can always rinse it before eating it if you overdo it.


3. Let it sit at room temperature. Each day, make sure the vegies are still covered by the liquid, and pack it back down if need be. It wants to float. Taste it after a few days-if it tastes good, put it in the fridge and eat it at leisure. If you’d like it stronger, leave it to develop longer.


  That’s really about it-you can get fancier with the ingredients you use, but the method is still the same. I highly recommend both of Sandor’s books for making fermenting interesting and accessible. There’s Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation.

  And if you want to send me money as a result of your effusive gratitude in saving you so much money, my bank details are………….just kidding!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why i’m happy to tell my kids that school is a totally inferior way to get an education

  A recent conversation with a friend got me thinking about the justifications for telling home educated children negative things about schooling. I said it was necessary to counter the misguided societal perception (aka propaganda) that school is a wonderfully fun and enriching place where you can gain a wide-ranging and deeply fulfilling education that will serve you well throughout life, as well as providing you with life-long friends. It’s what most people would like to believe, and it’s what they tell us misguided misfits whenever possible. She thought you should keep the negatives about school to a minimum, to not try to influence your kids too much, which is the standard answer. However, thinking about it some more, I started to wonder just why it is that we feel censored from sharing our views of school with our children. Why is it so important to protect schools from criticism that many dedicated home educators feel they cannot speak a bad word against school to their own children, in their own homes?

  In other subjects, such as religion, we can tell our children whatever we like. We can tell them that God created the world, Mohammed was the prophet, we will cycle through rebirth guided by our karma, or that the lot of it is made up by people needing an explanation for things we can’t explain. We have the authority to explain faith in whatever way we choose, consistent with our beliefs.
  So why not with school? I think school is a terrible way to get an education, is more likely to result in abnormal behaviour than well-adjusted socialisation, is a violation of freedom and personal rights, and is all around fairly abysmal. So why can’t I share those (well-founded) views with my children? Why is school seen as somehow sacred, indeed more sacred than religion? Why should I bite my tongue (I don’t) while other people tell them how wonderful school is, how much they’re missing out on, and wouldn’t they love to have a schoolbag?

  What does this say about society as a whole, that we’re so determined to protect an institution that has a rather average track record of doing what it purports to be its aim? Why is it that we can say that the system needs to be overhauled, that we need to do more of this or less of that, that failure is the fault of the students/teachers/method, but we cannot say the the entire system has proven itself a failure? Why don’t people take a long, hard look at their own experience and wonder if school really did contribute to their adult happiness and success, or whether it has left more negative legacies? Why don’t people wonder if their precious time, a whole 13 years of compulsory attendance, or over 1/6 of their projected lifespan, could have been better spent?

  Or, for the million dollar question, why do people accept anything unquestioningly? Keith Farnon has some excellent ideas on why.

  Now I have my justification clear-they’re my children, and I can tell them whatever I like. It doesn’t have to agree with your views, or the majority view of society. As long as I am telling them my honest views with no ulterior motive of manipulation, i’m not doing anything wrong.

  School’s crap. So there. Just ask my children!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

From grass to bulging veggie garden in under six months

  I’ve been reading tutorial posts elsewhere about starting veggie gardens, and no wonder people give up on the idea before they start. Why do people have to complicate things which are actually quite simple? Or turn it into a mammoth shopping list that makes buying vegies for the rest of your life seem like the cheap deal?

  We are experts at starting veggie gardens. Before you pass me off as an up-myself snob, remember that the husband and I have lived in well over 20 houses in our 13-odd years together. Starting them, we excel at. Learning to keep them going well for years………..well, maybe one day we’ll get the chance. Our way involves using your muscles for the initial start-up, but not your wallet. Most people could do with using their muscles more, so don’t be shy-get out there, toughen up, and do some work you can be proud of and reap the benefits from for years.

PC246470    200sq/m, less than six months

Here’s our well-honed method.

  Pick a sunny spot. Here in Australia, with our intense sun, you can get away with some shade. But try to minimise it. If you have lots of shade everywhere, go ahead and do it anyway, but resign yourself to leafy veg. Under trees is also not so good-they’ll steal from your vegies. Start with a manageable size-you can always expand later once your original area is set-up, but beginning with a huge area can be discouraging.

  Peel off the grass. All of the grass. A mattock is the best for this. You may think you want lovely grassy paths, with rocks/sleepers for edging, but you don’t. Well, you won’t once the reality of them sinks in. Grassy paths suck the nutrients and water from your garden, and the grass invades through your pretty edging. Without herbicide, you’ll have a grassy garden fairly quickly. As you’re not a ruminant, and cannot digest the grass, that is bad. Make a compost pile with the sod.


  Dig over the dirt. It doesn’t need to be deeply dug, just rough it up a little. A fork is good for this-sink in the tines, wiggle it around and lever it part of the way up. Repeat. Throw on as much manure as you can get-fresh, old, from any farm animal will do. Manure is plentiful, and there’s always people around wanting to get rid of it-find people who keep animals and don’t garden, try stables, ask any farmers you know. Ask on local online groups if anyone wants you to come around and clean up their mess. You’ll meet some interesting people. We’ve spent a lot of time wandering in paddocks picking up muck-but we most definitely don’t go to Bunnings and buy bagged manure. Actually, we don’t go to Bunnings ever, but that’s another story.  Spread the lovely muck over your dirt, and inhale the beautiful stink-that stink is the smell of fertility, and future food for you.

Cover the lot with mulch. Sugar cane, lucerne, pea straw, whatever’s available in your area. Again, if you look you can usually pick up bales of straw fairly cheaply from the side of the road. Or, you can rake up the council mowings from the side of the road in the country. Water it well, then rest your aching muscles for a week or so.

  Now, it’s time to plan. Decide where you want your beds to be, and tramp paths around them. Stomp down hard and you should soon be able to see them clearly. Your paths will be manured and mulched just as heavily as your beds-and why not? Your plants can spread their roots out there, so lets make it tasty for them. (Admittedly, we currently have bare paths, but we have an unfair amount of local red-bellied black snakes). Make sure your paths and beds are a decent width, but that you can reach the centre of the beds. Water it again.


  Plant seeds, according to season. Scrape the mulch back, make sure the soil is damp, break up any clods if needed, and plant away. Seedlings are too much bother-home-started seedlings have their place, but for now it’s an unnecessary complication. Keep it simple. Plant your plants at random, forget about neat beds of one type of plant. Lettuces grow well in the shade of other plants, radishes grow so fast you pull them before the tomatoes next to them are big enough to be bothered, and so on. In the beginning your germination will be poor, so plant thickly. You can always thin, and eat the thinnings. But you want success, so go crazy. Seeds are cheap. My favourite supplier is Rangeview Seeds.


  Keep in watered, and watch it grow. Attention is the key-go for a walk around it every day. Get down low, and really look. Learn what your plants, and your weeds, look like when they come up. Keep an eye on the bugs and work out which ones are helpful, and which you should feed to the chooks. Learn what grows well together, and what doesn’t. Work out what grows really well in your area and gather lots of recipes containing it. Conversely, learn what you shouldn’t bother with, as it gets struck down with pests/disease, or hates the weather. This step is not optional if you want garden success-it doesn’t take much time, but attention is the difference between success and failure.

 PC286496 A visitor in the corn patch

  There you go. You’re a gardener. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cobb vs Australorp, eight weeks old

  australorp cobb eight weeks

  Well, I can definitely see why there are meat-specific chickens! At the same age, one chicken is almost a meal while the other is a baby. We bought four day-old Cobbs to try out, and they certainly grew quickly. However, we’ve now eaten them, and a few of the excess Leghorn and Australorp roosters, and the latter two definitely taste better. The slower-growing ones have a much stronger taste and firmer meat, with more colour. And that’s with the Cobb being free-range and foraging a lot-not restricting their movement and pumping high-protein feed into them like commercials.

Verdict-we’re happy to eat the excess roosters and leave it at that. If I was going to raise a meat-only small animal, i’d do one that didn’t require much bought feed, like rabbits. I assisted with a friend’s rabbit harvest recently, and I was very impressed at how quick and easy it was compared to a chicken. Chickens are too feed-intensive and laborious to butcher.

  And after writing those last two sentences, i’m giggling at the fact that just over a year ago we were freaking out at our first upcoming chicken harvest. Oh, we’ve come a long way.