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!

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!

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.

Giving Thanks

Tonight we enjoyed our most local Thanksgiving dinner to date – a stuffed chicken from our flock, mashed potatoes from the neighbour, wild peas foraged by Jae, and grilled zucchini from our garden.  Our absolutely delicious meal was followed by an even more delicious pumpkin bread made by my mother-in-law (thanks!!). We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Our list of gratitudes is very long this year. We have been so blessed, in so many ways, and I’m overwhelmed just thinking about everything we have to be grateful for:

~ New life. This year we’ve been blessed with another pregnancy and the anticipation of a new child joining our family. No matter how many times I go through this wild experience of growing a fetus, I never cease to be amazed by the miracle of life.

~ Garden bounty. Despite the craziest growing season I’ve ever experienced – flood-worthy rains late into the spring making it impossible to plant “on time”; a mega heat wave sweeping through in July (with not enough rain); a record-breaking wet and cold September causing the last of the garden not to ripen – we still got quite a lot of food from our garden.  We enjoyed tomatoes throughout the season, mountains of cucumbers, watermelon, zucchini, salad greens, dry beans, peas, garlic, several varieties of chives, basil, and so much more. Mother Earth is amazing and we are so thankful for every bite of food She has provided.

~ Healthy children. ‘Nough said.

~ A strong roof over our heads.

~ Sheep and goats. We love our livestock. We enjoyed delicious, rich, raw goat’s milk in the Spring and I’ve carded up some delightful locks of wool for spinning. These lovable ruminants keep our grass (somewhat) in check, provide great company, and always give us a laugh.

~ Family togetherness. I never could have imagined how much I’d come to appreciate having Jae home every day. Quitting the rat race has been the best thing for our family, and I am so grateful for everything that comes with having two parents at home. With my horrible pregnancy sickness (which seems to be passing, hooray!), I’ve come to rely on Jae more than ever before, and I am eternally thankful for everything he’s done over the past two months. I can see how much the kids love having him home, too, and it fills my soul.

~ Abundance. Despite living on less money, our cupboards are filled with healthy, wholesome food. Our freezer is full of free-range, organically-fed chickens. I have a closet full of yarn for knitting winter wear. I have a sewing machine for creating new clothes. We have everything that we need, and everything that we want. Life is very good.

~ Loving and supportive family, on both sides. We are blessed.

~ Loyal egg customers. We’ve had so many steady & supportive customers purchasing our eggs, that our chickens now pay for themselves and bring in a some pocket change each month, in addition to feeding our family. We’re SO grateful for the folks who buy our eggs week after week, who send emails with awesome feedback, who spread the word to friends, and who support local & organic food. Thanks, guys! You add such an element of awesomeness to this life we’re living!

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers. I hope you are just as overwhelmed by the blessings in your lives. May the Earth always provide well for you!

On Living with Less

You may recall that Jae quit his job over the course of the summer in order to be free, in order to live the life of our dreams.  What, exactly, does that mean?

It means we are living on a lot less money, but that we have a lot more time together as a family and a lot more time to do for ourselves on our farm.

It means we are making a casual income. I teach violin lessons a few hours per week. We sell eggs our hens have laid, I knit hats that folks have ordered, I spin yarn to sell. We are fortunate to live in a country that gives mamas a child tax benefit, and that helps to pay for our car.

Beyond that, being jobless means we have much more time to take care of life for ourselves instead of buying things. I’m knitting the kids some winter sweaters, instead of working to buy them, with yarn that I’ve spun instead of purchased. We’re preserving food from our garden, instead of working to buy groceries. We’re foraging for wild edibles, and even ate one of our chickens the other day – a decision that I was completely comfortable with after nearly an entire lifetime of vegetarianism (stay tuned for a post on slaughtering your own animals – it may not be what you think!). We are doing what we can for ourselves instead of paying corporations to do it for us.

Despite the cold and rainy weather, we’ve got produce coming out of the garden, ready to be canned and enjoyed on a cold winter’s day.

Hot peppers - salsa in waiting.

Tomatillos, soon to be salsa verde.

Living on less also means living with less – and we’re ok with that. In fact, a life with less is a freer life. It is liberating to free oneself from STUFF, to deny the urge to spend money, to appreciate what you have and find new uses for old things. We’ve also realised how much of what we do have, we don’t really need. A large-scale purge is in process, and soon bags full of things will be donated to the local thrift store.

Living on less means working with your friends and neighbours to get things done. It means exchanging a helping hand on a friend’s farm for some bales of hay to get your livestock through the winter. It means trading a hand-knit hat & mitts for some cloth diapers. It means giving some eggs for basket of produce. It means forming lasting bonds & friendships and creating community.

Living on less also means having plenty of time to enjoy life’s beauties and wonders. How amazing the little things can be! So much to marvel at in something as small as a bouquet of wildflowers.

For our family, living on less means more togetherness, and there’s nothing I cherish more than the time I have with my loved ones. These are the best days of our lives.

Fruit of the Land

August has been a tumultuous month.  In the middle of horrible pregnancy sickness, I took the kids on a week-long camping adventure, while my dear husband stayed home and quit his job.  Yes, that’s right, he quit his job.  After years of working in an office, Jae and I decided it was time for him to break free so that we can live the life of our dreams.  No more schedules! Two adults to run the farm! Both parents home full-time with the kids! And, a lot less money.

I could write a very long essay on all the reasons Jae quit his job, but I’ll hold myself back.  The long and short of it is that having the majority of his daylight hours sucked away in an office has meant that Jae has not been able to do the things with his life that he truly wants to do.  His family time was limited to a few hours in the evening before putting the kids to bed, and we never seemed to have enough money anyway.  Why sell the hours of your life away when the money’s  not enough?  Now we are free and all of our options are wide open.  It’s the dawning of a new age for our family.

We’ve had to think long and hard about how our money gets spent, over these last few weeks.  Our feeling has been that being jobless is the kick we need to REALLY live off the land.  Sure, we’ve kept a garden and a flock of hens, we’ve eaten local food, we’ve tried to provide for ourselves, but at best it has been a practice round.  We still shop at the grocery store on a regular basis, eating food that has been trucked in from lands far away (yeah, so what if it’s organic? It still traveled far too long and gobbled up far too many resources getting to us!).  Our grocery store dependence needs to end.

Jae and I have been vegetarians for a great many years.  Our children were born vegetarians.  Now, our diets are changing.  In an effort to live off the land, we’ve decided to do some fishing in the local creeks, marshes and rivers.  We are blessed to live in an area with an abundance of waterways – why not make use of them?  Our goal is to fill the freezer with fish to eat throughout the winter.  So, today we set out with the kids in the canoe for our first attempt at fishing.


Our oldest son, Lynden, was very hesitant when we told him what our plans were.  Being a lifelong vegetarian, the idea of killing a fish was upsetting for him.  I had a good long talk with him, explaining that we are trying to have a small footprint on the Earth, and that after lots of thought and discussion, Daddy and I thought the Earth would be happier if we caught our own fish down the road than if we bought avocados from South America.  By the time we were out on the water, Lynden was brimming with enthusiasm.

We enjoyed the canoeing (as we always do!) and were treated to plenty of wildlife encounters – ducks, geese, Great Blue Herons, swans, egrets, water snakes, frogs, snails – and we felt so at home on the water that any doubts I had started out with simply vanished away.

Swans, keeping a safe distance.

American Egret doing some fishing of her own.

After a time, we realised how silly we had been to do our fishing from within the canoe, while trying to manage three small children and keep our lines from getting tangled.  When over an hour passed without anything more than snag after snag, our toddler screaming between my knees and trying to throw himself overboard, we decided to head back to shore and fish from the banks instead.

Instant success! Jae and I each caught a fish almost immediately.  Mine was a small sun fish, his, a small catfish.  They were both too small to eat, so we threw them back and kept trying.

Before long, Lynden caught a catfish.  He reeled it in all by himself, pulled it up out of the water, and started hollering to me that he had caught a fish.  His excitement was enormous!

Granted, the catfish wasn’t very big, but Lynden was so thrilled with himself and couldn’t wait to eat it.  A far cry from the nervous boy who didn’t want to kill a fish earlier this morning!

We took the fish back to Jae’s parents’ house, where “Papa” knew just what to do (Papa is an expert fisherman!).  Lynden got hands-on lessons on how to clean a fish.

Papa fried up the little catfish filets, and added a bit of pickerel that he had caught.  I never thought I’d enjoy fish as much as I did this evening.

There is much to say about sustaining a family of five (almost six!) on the land, divorcing the system we’ve been raised in and slave to for so long, living without regular employment, and having the life of our dreams.  There’s not room in one post for all the thoughts that are swirling through my head – you’ll have to bear with me as I sort through this new stretch of our life’s adventure!

Reflections on Our First Year

I realised something fairly monumental the other day: we have lived here on the farm for a year now!  Holy smokes, I can’t believe it’s been that long (and yet not very long at all).  Time sure has flown past and we have been busier here than ever before in our lives.  The past year has held so many amazing moments, challenging moments, stressful moments, exhausting moments, joyous moments – tears, laughter, more tears, more laughter.

I have learned so much in the past year, I don’t even know where to begin.  What immediately comes to mind is the ways in which our family rhythm has changed.  We now flow with the sun & the moon and the weather.  I do my laundry on sunny days.  My kids tend to sleep when the sun is preparing to set, and as time passes we get farther and farther away from an established bed time.  I weed the gardens during the coolest moments of the day, which is generally in the morning but sometimes in the afternoon when a cool breeze sets in, and sometimes at dusk.  Our prepared foods are more seasonally appropriate, too.

I’ve learned to really go with the flow, especially with our animals.  The books will tell you that if you do this, this and this, you will have more eggs, you will get more milk.  But you know, our animals are not production machines and I find they are happier when they live their true nature.  Sometimes that means that we don’t have many eggs, or that the milk pail isn’t very full – and that’s ok! We do our best and treat our animals well, and they are happy creatures.  And most of the time, they give us an abundance of good, healthy food.

I’ve learned that much of what we thought was essential when we lived in the city, really is not.  I’ve happily and joyfully hung the laundry on the line each day – who needs a dryer?  Never once has laundry felt like a chore when it gets hung on the line.  Instead it is a peaceful and meditative task that calms me.  And who needs a lawnmower? A dishwasher? A bread machine? Who needs a television? We’ve happily gone without these things, and life is better for it.

 

Remember this one? The best of everything - sweet baby, laundry on the line, long grass, blue skies - bliss

 

I’ve learned that sometimes, the best thing to do on a snowy day is just stay put.  Cancel plans, get the animals fed, and bunker down inside with some hot soup and lots of art supplies for the kids.  We didn’t have this luxury in the city – snow or not, there were places to be and things to do, and no time to worry about the weather.  I have a whole new appreciation for winter, now.  This past winter certainly was much more difficult than I ever imagined it would be, but there were many wonderful aspects to it, too.  I had moments of desperation in which I wondered how the heck I would feed all the animals when I had three very small children in the house and no other adults around to keep an eye on them for half an hour.  Somehow I managed, and I realised that I’m stronger and more resourceful than I previously thought.

Despite the challenges, there is so much beauty in winter, isn't there?

 

I’ve learned that there is nothing more satisfying or more delicious than producing your own food.  One of my greatest joys in life is collecting eggs and gathering produce from the garden.  I feel really good feeding the products of my labours to my children, watching them grow and thrive on healthful, real foods that were grown right here at home.  When I read about GMO’s, or wood pulp filler in foods, E-coli and salmonella poisonings, pesticide poisoning, birth defects caused by Roundup, rising rates of obesity & diabetes and other food woes, I am so grateful that we are able to produce at least some of our own food and that I am able to provide good, nourishing meals to my children.  What a  blessing!

So much more than just an egg - a promise of health & nourishment, a delicious meal...

 

I’ve learned that sometimes I need to stop carrying the world on my shoulders and rely on others a little bit more.  Jae and I have grown so much together over the past year, and I’ve learned what it means to really rely on another person.  I’m impressed by how much Jae has done around here – from thatching the roof  of the chicken coop to fencing in the gardens – there is no way I’d be able to do it all myself, and sometimes just having another brain to think on a problem means that the solution is so much greater.

And, of course, I’ve learned so many skills – milking a goat, trimming hooves, pitching straw, storing hay, eliminating tomato hornworms & cabbage moth caterpillars, growing a garden without needing to water, the best way to hang laundry, how to use power tools, basic carpentry, how to contain goats, how to can peaches, how to make mulberry jam, what to do with frozen eggs, how to tap maple trees & make syrup, how to hatch chicks, how to keep a baby happy while mama works in the garden (babywearing is a mama’s best friend!), spinning great yarn… and that’s the shortlist.  There really is so much more.

I feel so blessed, so lucky, so full of gratitude when I think on the past year of farm life.  My children have grown and thrived and we’ve all settled into country living beautifully.  I can’t wait to see what the next year brings!

To farm life!