Pastured Rabbits

We moved to this farm two years ago with the intention of becoming as self-sufficient as possible. To us, the most obvious place to start was with food. We’ve been building our gardens year by year and preserving food as the gardens produce it, but it became apparent pretty quickly that we could never produce enough for our family with plants alone.  It also became apparent that for our farm to be sustainable, animals would need to be eliminated from time to time or we’d be overrun.

Our decades of vegetarianism came to an end when we began processing our chickens (which you can read about here and here), and now with another farm season stretching out ahead of us, we are looking for more ways to produce our own food. We’d like to sustain ourselves through the winter with as much farm food as possible.

Our front yard is covered in lush, green grass that is not really used for much at the moment. When I started thinking about how to turn that space into food, rabbits came to mind. The children had pet rabbits in the past, but I never felt very good about keeping them in a hutch with wire beneath their feet. I want my animals to live as naturally and comfortably and happily as possible, as close to what Nature intended as I can provide. It occurred to me that something similar to our chicken tractors might work well for rabbits – a rabbit tractor!

There were a few things that had to be addressed: could I bring myself to eat a rabbit, and is it possible to kill a rabbit without any undue stress or trauma to the animal? As it turns out, harvesting a rabbit is remarkably quick, easy and painless (you can watch the process in this YouTube video if you so desire). And when my father-in-law gave us a rabbit he had in the freezer, I did indeed bring myself to eat it – and I enjoyed it immensely!

I thought I was pretty original with this rabbit tractor idea, but low and behold, one of the farmers who has inspired me greatly raises pastured rabbits in a tractor system. Joel Salatin and his son have been doing it for years (check it out here), and a quick YouTube search revealed that plenty of other people are doing it too! Awesome!

Jae built the rabbit tractor very quickly with wood and chicken wire that we already had around the farm. I looked around for some inexpensive rabbits – which are in abundance, who knew? – and within a day we had ourselves some pastured rabbits.

We bought ten rabbits from two different farms, for a diversity of genes. Nine of them are 8 weeks old, and the tenth is a seasoned mama who we will breed later in the summer.

The tractor is 8’x4′ with an enclosed nesting box on one end to provide shelter from the elements and a snug place to sleep. The entire tractor is bottomless to allow the rabbits access to fresh grass all day. These bunnies aren’t hopping around in a small, wire enclosure!

Each morning, I move the tractor to a fresh patch of grass. The rabbits spend their days browsing on the greens growing under them – crab grass, plantain, dandelions, clover and much more – and our lawn is “mowed” in the process (you may recall that we don’t mow the grass around here!). By the end of the day, there is a neat rectangle of short lawn and the tractor is ready to be moved on to the next spot.

I love this system because the rabbits are hopping about on soft ground instead of wire, eating plants instead of pellets, and generally acting as rabbits were meant to act. After observing them quietly for several days, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are pretty darned happy in their tractor. They haven’t dug at the edges in attempts to escape, as some folks have suggested they might. The rabbits have shown no signs of stress whatsoever, and I’m pretty pleased with that.

I’m pretty impressed with the even cropping the rabbits give the grass. It’s not patchy as I had expected it might be – instead, it looks like a lawn mower went over it.

On the left of the photo above, you can see grass that has not yet had the tractor on it. On the right, grass that had the tractor on it yesterday (yes, there are dirt patches. Those are not from the rabbits, they were there prior to the tractor).

I’m pretty excited about this new venture in food production and sustainability. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out. I’m sure we’ll revise and tweak our system over the course of the summer as we see what works and what doesn’t, but for now everything is looking good!

Morning Rituals

For most of my life, I was not a morning person. It was really, really hard for me to get my butt out of bed. But living on a farm means getting up each morning and getting right to it – there’s no time for easing slowly into the day! There are things that must to be done before breakfast is made, animals waiting to be fed, goats waiting to be milked, eggs needing to be collected. These days, I love mornings and the routines we start our days with. Take a peek at a morning on the farm!

Life & Living

Once upon a time, I was waiting for “life’s grand adventure” to begin, something thrilling that would free me from the monotony and boredom of everyday life. I realised, not too long ago, that somewhere along the line “life’s grand adventure” ceased to hold any importance, and I contentedly settled in to the joys and pleasures that everyday life brings. Each new day holds little miracles and wonders! Each new day is a grand adventure!

Every now and then I come across a poem or a photo or a book that sums up my feelings more eloquently and beautifully than I seem able to do. There’s a poem on the very first page of my Encyclopedia of Country Living  (a fantastic resource by Carla Emery) that I return to again and again. It confirms for me that I’m on the right path and reminds me to rejoice in life’s little pleasures.

Mama’s Mama

Mama’s Mama, on a winter’s day,
Milked the cows and fed them hay,
Slopped the hogs, saddled the mule,
Got the children off to school.
She did a washing, mopped the floors,
Washed the windows and did some chores.
Cooked a dish of home-dried fruit,
Pressed her husband’s Sunday suit,
Swept the parlour, made the beds,
Baked a dozen loaves of bread.
She split some wood and lugged it in,
Enough to fill the kitchen bin,
Cleaned the lamps and put in oil,
Stewed some apples she thought might spoil,
Churned the butter, baked a cake,
Then exclaimed, “For Mercy’s sake,
The calves have got out of the pen!”
Went out and chased them in again,
Gathered the eggs and locked the stable,
Returned to the house and set the table,
Cooked a supper that was delicious,
And afterwards washed all the dishes,
Fed the cat, sprinkled the clothes,
Mended a basket full of hose,
Then opened the organ and began to play,
“When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day”.

- Anna Rees Henton, age 85, 1953

 

Of course, my life is not nearly so chore-filled as our poem mama’s is, and I have a few modern appliances that simplify things for me quite a bit. The sentiment, however, touches me deeply – life is a series of days, each day a series of fairly predictable events, and each day perfect with its chores, child rearing and meal preparation.

Spring on the Farm

The weather has been incredible around here for the last several weeks and life is springing forth on the farm.

ImageThe chickens have been going crazy with the laying and we have more eggs than we know what to do with. Pickled eggs, scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, eggs over easy, omelets, casseroles, fritatas, eggs florentine, eggs for baking with… after eating eggs every day, there are still six dozen in the fridge!

 

ImageJeremy and Platypus are pretty thrilled with the sunshine and warm weather, and have been happily quacking about. Platypus has generously donated a few dozen duck eggs for our breakfasts over the last several weeks.

 

ImageDay Lily and Sunflower are pretty darned shaggy. Next month I will try my hand at shearing them (aside from my one attempt at shearing with fabric scissors, I am totally inexperienced in this department). Perhaps soon I will get to washing, carding and spinning the several bags of fleece that are hiding out in my mudroom. I need to find a good project for Sunflower’s lovely fleece.

 

ImageDaisy and Dinosaur are becoming quite large in the middle. We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their kids, and the return of goat’s milk! (Since several of you have asked, Daisy – on the left – is an Alpine doe. Dinosaur – on the right – is a Toggenburg/Saanen cross.)

 

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Oddler is growing whiter with age, losing his hearing, and developing cataracts, but he is still filled with youthful energy and can outrun our sprightly Beagle puppy, Echo. Last week, Oddler taught Echo how to tree a raccoon and chased a coyote out of the yard in the dark of the night. Not bad for an old boy!

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Lynden has caught all manner of small creatures: frogs, toads, snakes. Last Spring and Summer, we had a hard time with Lynden wanting to keep all the creatures he had captured. He just didn’t understand that we have to leave Mother Nature’s children in peace where they belong. Now, he’s come a long way – he keeps each captured creature for one night only, and the next morning releases them where he found them. Progress!

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There’s been lots and lots of bike riding around here lately. Our very long driveway is perfect for this beloved activity, and the kids have been out there every chance they get.

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ImageGaia is wonderful and beautiful, and charming us all. Her older siblings grow deeper in love with her with every passing day. I am amazed by her – so calm, so peaceful, so content. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard her cry since her birth. Gaia is the brightest blessing and I am filled with gratitude at being her mother. How did I get so lucky FOUR TIMES!?

Yessir, Spring has definitely arrived. It’s my favourite time of year, when everything is bursting with the freshness and newness of life, renewed.

Chicken Dinner

You may recall that some time ago, our long-time vegetarian family made the decision to eat some of our chickens. We love our birds, and are so grateful for the eggs they provide our family, but the truth is that sometimes some of the birds have to go. It’s not possible to maintain a closed-loop system without eliminating some of your animals from time to time, and after a lot of discussion we concluded that it would be easier on our consciences to slaughter our chickens here at home as humanely as possible than to sell them and have no idea what their fates would be.

I will admit it was hard for me to come to terms with slaughtering our chickens, at first. Equally hard to come to terms with was how much I loved that first chicken dinner we had. I was not expecting to enjoy chicken so much! Now that chicken has become a somewhat regular part of our diet, I decided it was time for me to help Jae with the slaughtering process, to take responsibility for the birds I raised and the food on my plate. Until now, Jae has done the “dirty work” without me, often with a friend lending a hand. This was weighing heavily on my conscience.

So, with rations dwindling in the kitchen and a rather tight budget for the week, it became apparent that it was time for another chicken dinner – and it was time for me to help Jae with the slaughter.

When I first stepped outside and saw the chosen hen sitting calmly on the porch, I nearly lost my nerve. A panicky feeling settled in on me and I thought, “I can’t do this! I’ll have to go back to being veg!” I took a deep breath and held the chicken in my arms. She looked at me, calm as can be, and I stroked her feathers. I thanked her for the eggs she’s given, spoke words of gratitude to her, and as I looked into her eyes I felt myself calming down. The hen wasn’t panicking, why was I?

I held the hen out in front of me, her head resting lightly on the chopping block. Still she was calm; I could feel her heart beating steadily, not racing, not alarmed. A split second later, Jae’s axe came down on her neck and it was done. No squawking, no panic, no distress. Just a calm bird who was with us one moment and gone the next.

Jae told me he’d be alright to finish the job if I felt I needed to go back into the house, but I wanted to see the whole process through from start to finish. I was surprised by how very OK I felt about what had just happened (truthfully, I had thought I’d be a mess of tears). It felt good to take responsibility for my dinner, and I was so relieved to see first-hand that the hen had not had one moment of distress or suffering.

So now I know how to slaughter, clean, gut and butcher a chicken – and if you have the stomach for it, you can see the process for yourself.  If you’re a staunch vegetarian or someone who hasn’t faced the reality of what it means to eat animals, you might want to skip past the following photos.

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Renew & Repurpose

We’re always trying to cut costs around here without cutting our enjoyment of life, especially since Jae quit his job in favour of being home doing freelance work. So when we ran out of toilet paper the other day, I decided not to buy any more.

In my sewing room, I collect clothing that is looking too worn to make it back into the drawers or the donation bag, in hopes that I can cut them up and re-purpose them. There’s plenty of soft flannel piling up, perfect for making cloth “butt wipes”.

The first thing to come off the top of the pile was an old pyjama shirt of mine, acquired second-hand. It may be too worn to bother patching and fixing up now, but it’s perfect for cutting up! The remaining buttons went into my button box, and the shirt was transformed.

Snip, snip & sew, and VOILA! I give you…

Washable cloth butt wipes, quite possibly the easiest thing a mama could make! They look quite lovely, neatly folded on the back of the toilet. It’s a shame the lighting in the bathroom is so poor.

There you have it, a simple way to reduce waste, cut expenses, and reuse old materials!

Handmade Holiday – Buying Handmade

Let’s face it, dear readers, try as I might, I won’t be able to make everything I had hoped to for this holiday season. Luckily, there are plenty of other folks out there who are making their livings as crafters and artisans, and I’m happy to be able to support them.

For Raina, I just couldn’t resist these items from Ontarian Etsy sellers:

A doll sling, for her babies! Raina loves her dolls, and I’m fairly certain she’ll love carrying them around just the same as mama carries babies. This beautiful little handmade sling is from SewFunky, by Tanja Mackenzie in Guelph.

A Leaf Baby! When I saw this, I immediately envisioned it hanging from Raina’s neck. She swoons over dear, tiny little things. I can’t wait to see her reaction when she discovers this wee precious babe on Christmas morning! It is from EvesLittleEarthlings by Eve Geisler in Guelph.

And of course, I’m still busily crafting away, trying to get everything finished in this last week that I have left. I said it last year (and failed to follow through), and I hereby declare it again – next year I’m starting my holiday crafting in August!

Life Without School

Before our first child was born, Jae and I knew that no offspring of ours would be attending school.  As new parents, we assumed we’d use a curriculum, but as our children grew and taught us more than we anticipated (and after trying out Waldorf and Enki curricula), we realised that a curriculum was not necessary – and actually stood in the way!

So, we became a family of “unschoolers”. We don’t set out each day to teach our kids; instead, we involve them completely in our daily lives and trust that they will learn everything they need to survive in this crazy world.  Just as they learned to sit, crawl, talk, feed themselves and use the toilet without any direction from us, they are learning to read, count, add, subtract and more all on their own. Kids are hardwired to absorb everything from the world around them, to acquire the necessary skills for surviving – and thriving – in the community in which they live. I’ve come to realise that sitting down to teach a child who hasn’t asked to be taught actually thwarts their learning process.

I won’t go into too much depth about unschooling. I could write a whole series of essays addressing our reasons for keeping our kids far away from the school system, our choice to abandon curricula and our trust in our children, but that would take a long time and I’d rather spend that time with my kids. Instead, I’ll share with you what a day of unschooling might look like in our home. At the end of this post you’ll find a plethora of links for further reading and information about unschooling (or, “life learning” as I prefer!) – please do take the time to peruse! You might find your mind blown ;)

What does a typical day look like in this house where school does not exist? That’s impossible to answer, because there is no “typical” day. Each day is different, with endless options nestled snugly inside of the rhythm of our home. There are several constants – family breakfast, daily chores, feeding the animals, collecting the eggs, etc – and within that framework anything else goes.

Most days include a craft of some sort. My kids are wildly creative beings – all it takes is for one of them to ask for paints or crayons or glue, and all three of them are bursting with excitement at the thought of making new art. A perennial favourite that lingers from our Enki days is watercolour painting. The kids will spend up to two hours at a time on a good day – and sometimes only half an hour – quietly concentrating on their paper & brushes, taking their colour choices very seriously.

Some days, the kids enjoy felting. They like needle felting well enough, but really love wet-felting, getting their hands warm and soapy wet, squishing that wet wool between their fingers. Their creations always look more or less the same – oddly-shaped clumps of felt with no real definition – and usually end up in the compost pile. It’s not the result that matters, it’s the process. It’s the joy of creating something with one’s own hands.

Then, of course, there’s fort-making with blankets. What child doesn’t love that? There’s usually a fort monster to go along with the blanket forts – inevitably a big brother trying to scare his younger siblings.

Puzzles! My children are drawn to puzzles. We do several puzzles each week in this house. The kids are getting really good at figuring out how pieces fit together. One year ago, I helped out quite a lot. Now, I might make a suggestion here or there if the kids get stuck, but mostly I sit back and watch in amazement as they figure it all out on their own. It’s so incredible to watch learning in action!

We do a lot of train play, too. This is Robin’s interest du jour, and Lynden is only too happy to help him figure out how best to put his tracks together. The kids have come up with some pretty elaborate railroad arrangements across the living room and bedroom floors. Of course, causing a train wreck is absolutely delightful, complete with epic sound effects and mourning family members.

Reading is a favourite pastime. There is not a day that goes by without reading happening. We’ll all pile on the couch together, snuggled in close, and work our way through the chapters of the Little House on the Prairie series, Roald Dahl books, Narnia, and more. On a day when something lighter is in order, we’ll go through a stack of our favourite picture books. The kids love the nature stories and fairy tales from the Enki curriculum, and often ask for those as well – we read seasonally-appropriate stories and the kids will sometimes draw pictures to go along with what we’ve read.

Lynden has a dinosaur obsession (and I do mean obsession), and has accumulated several dinosaur reference books and dino encyclopedias. He’s learning to read simply because he wants to be able to look things up in those reference books on his own, without asking for help. He has an extensive knowledge of dinosaurs, the various eras, and the creatures that came before & after dinosaurs. He wants to be a palaeontologist when he grows up.

Raina loves music. She spends her days singing and takes Suzuki Method violin lessons. Here’s where I’ll make a confession – as a Suzuki violin teacher myself, I expect daily practice of my students. But my own daughter? I follow her lead. Some days she practices three to four times, some days not at all. There are times when she cries because I just can’t bring myself to do a fifth practice in one day, and times she shrugs because she doesn’t want to play. Our approach to practice wouldn’t work if Raina were in school like my own students are – school changes the way kids approach learning, and structured teaching requires structured practicing (homework/review/etc) to be effective.

Robin’s starting to want to use the toilet like his older siblings. At 20 months of age, he gets really upset if he pees on himself, and will want to get out of the tub rather than pee in the water. All of our kids have “potty-trained” themselves, on their own terms – I foolishly tried to get Raina out of diapers before our third baby was born, and quickly realised the error of my ways when she rebelled against me, hard. I dropped the issue, and months later she started using the toilet all on her own.

There is no television in this house. No video games. Sometimes our kids will use the computer to watch nature documentaries and dinosaur specials. Sometimes they’ll use my camera to take photos, which they use for a “game” they created – zooming in really close and trying to guess what the object in the photo is when it’s blown up 800x’s. Without the distraction that too much technology brings, they are free to be their amazingly creative selves all day.

Of course, we regularly make trips into the wilderness, exploring local woodlands and creeks and trails. Outdoor play & exploration is what we live and breathe for. My children can identify coyote poop, raccoon poop, deer poop, the tracks of a half-dozen different animals, several birds of prey by sight, trees by their bark & leaves, and so much more. They don’t see themselves as separate from nature – they are part of nature, they belong to the woodlands just as much as the coyotes and raccoons do.

Oh, and socialisation? Yeah, we get plenty of that. We’re blessed to have a large network of homeschooling & unschooling friends, a great family, and the Ontario Early Years centre nearby. The kids are regularly interacting with folks of all ages, races and social classes, with people like them and people completely different from them. They’re not restricted to a classroom with 30 kids the same age – the world is wide open before them, and all people are worth saying “Hello” to.

You’d like to learn more about life learning, I’m sure. Who wouldn’t? Here are some great resources to get you started -

Creating Our Own Structure – unschooling.ca
What is Unschooling? – Natural Child Project
Radical Unschooling – Sandra Dodd
What is Unschooling? – John Holt
Are We Teaching Ourselves? – “Yes, I Can Write” blog
Unschooling for Social Change – FreeChild Project

We sure do love our lives. Our days are mostly happy, my kids are mostly happy, we have almost limitless time together to love & support each other. I can’t imagine sending my kids off to an institution every day, leaving their minds in the hands of impersonal strangers who change from year to year. No, thanks. We’ll keep living as though school doesn’t exist, and keep on loving the lives we have.

Oh, and what child would rather sit at a desk all day instead of doing this?

Circle of Life

Some time ago, I mentioned that our vegetarian family was making some big decisions about eating more sustainably and providing for ourselves in an effort to reduce our dependency on the grocery store.  Our goal is to become self-sufficient, and let’s face it: eating grocery store food is not self-sufficient. It’s not Earth-friendly, it’s not wallet-friendly, and it’s not sustainable in the long term.

So we had to make some choices. Remain vegetarian and rely on the grocery store when the garden is out of season, or eat some of our birds & locally-caught fish and put a huge dent in the number of grocery trips we need to make.

We went with the latter.

Jae and I had many reasons for being vegetarian and raising vegetarian children, including a concern for the welfare of farm animals. We weren’t interested in sending our birds to the local abattoir, knowing that they’d be stressed out the entire drive there, stressed out moments before death, and killed by a stranger.  The only way to ensure that our birds were treated with respect and given a stress-free death was to do the killing here at home.

And so, with a sharpened ax and a friend to lend a hand, Jae slaughtered several of our birds.  He feathered them, gutted them, and put them in the freezer.  The kids and I said words of gratitude and respect to the birds, talked about the Circle of Life, and had a very lengthy discussion about why we had chosen to kill & eat some of our chickens.  Each time we have a chicken dinner, we say a few words of thanks for the life that was given to sustain our own lives.  We eat with consciousness and awareness.  We take nothing for granted.

I don’t really know what to say when people ask me why we’ve started eating our birds – the answer is too complex and emotional to sum up in a short conversation.  Our reasons for NOT eating meat were very long, and our reasons for eating our birds are just as many.  There are the issues of food security, animal rights, environmental degradation, industrial agriculture, economic freedom, health and well-being… and how each of those things ties into the next. The world we live in is so complicated and corrupted, and we’re trying to do the best we can for our family and our planet. A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought that would mean eating meat, but now I’m in a place where it just makes sense to do so. Life is funny like that – nothing is absolute, nothing is certain.

It was not easy to make the choice. It wasn’t easy to confront death, to become the bringers of death.  But once we made the leap, we knew we had made the right choice for our family.  In every ecosystem, there is a predator.  Our farm is an ecosystem in itself, and we are at the top of the chain.  That’s just life – everything in balance, everything a circle of birth and death.  The great Circle moves us all.