Processing Our First Chickens

When death is a part of homestead life.

We have a goal of raising as much of our food as possible. Being responsible for that food from start to finish. That means providing our animals with the healthiest life possible, and the most respectful death we can give them.

We have purchased dozens of chicks to raise for meat and eggs. I acquired all the tools necessary for butchering in anticipation of that day.

The day came sooner than expected with a sickly hen that was not getting better. Today was the day. We decided to use this hen as a practice and added an extra rooster to the process.

Our original plan for the day was to take down some old fencing, but this sickly chicken became the priority, and all resources were directed towards the effort.

Mr. J unboxed and assembled the chicken plucker. Our middle son nailed the kill cone to the tree and set up our workspace. I cleaned containers, heated water for scalding, and provided ice water for rinsing. I also collected the chickens.

I must say, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I had mentally prepared myself for this day. And it certainly helped that I started roasting whole chickens several years ago. There was a time when I was squeamish around a chicken carcass from the store. Not anymore.

We will make use of every part of those chickens. Nothing will go to waste. The sickly chicken (probably injured, not diseased) ended up in the compost pile We did not want to risk making any other animal sick. The rooster was butchered. The dogs will get the carcass, feet, and organs. The pigs will be offered the intestines and other bits. The water we used to rinse and clean was poured on the plants in the hoop house. The feathers have been tossed in the pig pen. If the pigs don’t eat them, they will end up in the compost.

We need to work on technique. But this is a start. You have to start somewhere.

If you want to grow your own food, you need to do the work. From start to finish. Life to death.

Finding Our Homestead and Smelling Roses

Embracing God’s grace along the way.

We decided to move to Tennessee for many practical reasons, but mainly because we felt we were following God’s plan. But how could we possibly know for certain. This uprooting of our lives, selling our home, and taking a leap was very sudden. And, yes, there were moments of doubt and uncertainty, but along the way God would give us enough of a glimpse to keep us moving forward along the path.

Once our decision to move was made, I quickly set the wheels in motion. We decided to move Thursday (see my December 9th post myfiatfarm.com/2021/12/09/a-punch-in-the-gut/) and I called my California realtor Friday morning. I told her I was putting our house on the market, and we met that day. I immediately began the steps necessary to sell the house – mostly purging, packing, and painting. The weekend was a blur with sleepless nights and house cleaning days.

By Monday morning I was exhausted. I knew I needed to find a realtor in Tennessee, but I had a busy day ahead and told myself it could wait until Tuesday. I made my breakfast and sat down to eat when I felt a prompting to call one of the recommendations I had collected for realtors in Tennessee. I had three numbers. Two of the numbers had names included with the realtor’s number. The third was just a number. I decided to call the third.

I pressed the number into my phone, listened to the rings, and heard a voice on the other end.

“This is Joshua Christian.”

The name Joshua is an English translation for the Hebrew word Yehoshua which means “Yahweh is Salvation.” Joshua is also an English derivative of the name Jesus. (Joshua – Wikipedia)

So, when I heard over the line

“This is Joshua Christian.”

I thought, of course you are. I call a number with no name on a whim, and I get Joshua Christian.

That morning, Joshua Christian became our realtor.

And he did a great job. Joshua understood what we were looking for and we began the search based on a price range and location radius.

But looking at the properties for sale, nothing felt right. The market was slim and anything that was a good deal was getting purchased quickly. After a week I began to worry. So, without letting Joshua know, I increased our price point and expanded our search radius. And I found it.

I found a property meeting our acreage and resource requirements, with pastures and ponds, located on Genesis Road.

Genesis Road.

We were seeking land where we could develop a regenerative homestead following God’s plan and this property was on Genesis Rd.

On top of that, I was “feeling” it. When we had purchased our last few homes, I always had a very visceral reaction. I knew it was the right home despite the wallpaper, paneling, or orange carpeting. I could feel the potential and rightness of the home. I was beginning to get that feeling with this property online.

Joshua said if we were serious about this property, we would need to fly out to see it. We made our reservations and flew out to Tennessee the day our home went on the market back in Southern California.

Arriving in Nashville, we then set off to meet Joshua at the property. There were a few things we noticed as we got closer – cell reception was poor, and the scenery was dramatic.

We found the property, drove down the lane to the front of the home, and got out to meet Joshua in person for the first time, shaking his hand.

“Something has happened since we last talked,“ Joshua began. We find out that two days before, the owner of the property, Jack, had a heart attack and was currently in the hospital having open heart surgery.

Oh, goodness. The gravity of this fell over us. The wife was on her way from the hospital to greet us and would be here any moment.

We then face the home. As I take it in, I smell a strong floral scent surrounding me. I think “how lovely that the plants were designed to greet guests with such a lovely scent.” But this leaves my mind as another car comes down the drive.

Lynda, Jack’s wife, drives up and rushes to meet us. We ask about Jack. She is stretched thin, her husband is in the hospital, yet she comes to help with any questions we might have. I give her a big hug overcome with all she is going through.

“I don’t know what we are going to do,” Lynda shares, “if we have to run this place one more winter it will kill Jack.”

This property had been on the market for two years. And here we are. Right now.

We tour the property trying to take in as much as we can with the time we have left in the day. It is a lot to take in. It is overwhelming. But it is beautiful. Amazingly beautiful.

We leave at dusk with the decision swirling in our heads. Is this the right place? There is so much work to do. The house is much larger than what we are looking for. Such a big decision. We need to think about it. Is this God’s Plan? How do we know?

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Flying home the next evening, sitting next to Mr. J, I am reflecting on the house and the decision we need to make.

And then I remember: I smelled flowers. But not just flowers.

I smelled roses.

I turn to Mr. J. and ask, “When we first got to the house, and we were looking at it, did you smell any flowers?”

“No.”

“No flowers? Did you smell flowers at anytime on the property?” I pressed.

“No.”

“I smelled roses.” I said looking at him seriously. There were no rose bushes where I had been standing, and I smelled roses.

He understood. At that moment, we knew we were buying the property on Genesis Road with the help of our realtor, Joshua Christian. Because I smelled roses.

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Roses? Why roses?

In my Catholic faith, the scent of roses, when no roses are present, is seen as a grace or consolation. It let’s one know that God is there and that His blessing is present.

We continue this homestead journey and embrace our path knowing that when I stood in front of Fiat Farm for the first time, I smelled roses. We pray for God’s continued blessing and are thankful for His grace.

Selecting livestock for the homestead

My thoughts and considerations…for now.

I’m sure more experienced farmers may chuckle as they read my plan, and I will probably look back a realize that, like most plans, it didn’t survive first contact. But I think it worthwhile to share how I am selecting the animals I am bringing on to Fiat Farm. There is a plan, and thought has been put into it. Whether it’s the right plan or not…time will tell.

We have acreage. We have pasture. We have woods. We have water.

Now we need animals.

But not just any animals. As a regenerative homestead our animals will play an important role in increasing the fertility of the land. Oh, yeah, and filling our freezer.

So, what are my considerations as I select livestock for Fiat Farm?

Here goes…

What is their role? As I research and select animals, I ask what role will it play on the homestead? Protection, pasture management, food? Most will have a dual purpose. For example, pigs will help with woods and pasture management along with providing pork for the freezer.

Can they thrive on our land? The animals must be able to thrive on our land with little to no input from us. We will provide water, some feed, minerals, and manage their frequent rotation to new paddocks; but most of their nutrition will be provided by our pasture and woods. I am selecting breeds known to thrive on pasture. I will need to supplement with hay in the winter, but the hope is that this is limited to January and February.

Are they healthy and disease resistant? I look for healthy, vibrant animals from a breed that is known to resist disease and parasites. The goal is to keep medical and veterinary intervention to a minimum. We cannot afford to nurse along a sickly animal. Rotational grazing practices (moving the animals to new paddocks frequently) and hearty stock will help us to raise a herd that thrives on our land. I am also reaching out to small farmers and asking about how their stock is raised before I purchase from them. I am avoiding stock auctions as many times that is where farmers take their problem animals to sell.

Are they a heritage breed that should be preserved? I want to preserve quality breeds from olden days. Why? I believe they have value. Much of the livestock bred carefully over generations to fit perfectly on a homestead have been discarded in favor of industrial production. I am looking for tried and true heritage stock.

Are they docile and low maintenance? Let’s be honest. Until two months ago I had never raised livestock. I have a huge learning curve and I need animals that will make this process easier for me. I am seeking breeds that are not aggressive and pretty much take care of themselves. This means breeds with docile temperaments, strong mothering instincts, and easy births. Honestly, I dream of waking up one morning to find my pregnant sow gave birth while I was asleep, and her piglets are healthy and happy. Mind you, we will be laboring to manage their movement through the paddocks, but I don’t want to have to go all James Herriot with my arm up a cow’s back end because she is having a difficult birth. At least not yet.

Will we eat it? Our livestock will both help manage the pasture and fill our freezer. We will raise what we like to eat. For us that means chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows. I have no plans to raise goats, a dairy cow, or rabbits. But remember that when I say “no.” God chuckles and says, “we’ll see.”

Having said all that, I would like to introduce to you our first livestock.

Piggies!

Magnus, our guardian dog, meets the girls.

For my first foray into livestock I chose the Large Black hog.

The Large Black are a heritage breed of swine listed as critically endangered by the Livestock Conservancy with just 300 breeding hogs as of 2008. They originally came from England, were popular through the 1940’s, then lost popularity after World War II when small farms gave away to industrial production. This breed did not do well in the industrial environment and their numbers dwindled.

I chose the large black because it thrives outdoors and will forage our pastures and woodlands. Our goal as a homestead is to limit the inputs required from outside our property to feed our animals. These omnivores will get most of the food they need from the plants, nuts, and grubs on our farm. They will live out in the pastures and spend their days looking for delicious food to eat.

They are known to be good mothers, easily giving birth to litters of 8-10 piglets. Docile and friendly they are perfect for the small homestead. We will add a boy to this group in a few months with the hope of having piglets of our own in the next year.

These two girls already have an important role to play on Fiat Farm. They are going to be my mobile tractors clearing the area where my gardens will go in the spring. They get to root around in the dirt and I get a tilled garden. Win-win.

The girls at work.

Look back at the first picture. Then look at the one above. Can you see the difference in their pen in just two days? They have been rooting around eating the grass, weeds and brambles from what was a wild and overgrown space. As they do this, they will add fertility with their manure and urine. Tomorrow, we will transition them to a larger space and start the move towards my garden area.

How does a suburban southern California girl decide she wants to raise her own food? About 8 years ago I discovered Joel Salatin. His approach to farming and enthusiasm for the land planted a seed that is coming to fruition now. Here is a short video overview of his philosophy and approach.

There’s a Better Way to Farm

If you like this, there are many more Joel Salatin videos to choose from on the internet. Maybe you will be inspired too.

The fun is just starting on Fiat Farm. I will keep you posted as more animals arrive.

MY GARDENING JOURNEY: Where I Have Been and Where I am Going

Square-Foot, Back-to-Eden, and No-Dig methods

(Be sure to check out my resources at the end of this post.)

In my 20’s and 30’s I had grown the occasional tomato plant, but I didn’t really begin gardening until 2009. At that time, I was borrowing gardening books from the library and stumbled across Mel Bartholomew’s book All New Square Foot Gardening. This was the book that launched me towards being a gardener and it was the first method I followed along my food growing journey.

What is “square foot gardening?” – a method of intensely gardening, using organic methods, in raised beds. The beds are organized in square foot grids so the gardener can provide the right amount of space for each plant, thus maximizing potential yield.

For the beginning gardener, Mel’s book tells you all you need to know. He provides suggestions for making your raised beds. Next, he guides you on mixing the soil for those beds using compost, peat moss, and vermiculite. He shows you how to grow more with vertical trellising and provides you with charts of what to plant and when to plant it. For many years this was my main resource, and his book gave me the knowledge and confidence necessary to develop my green thumb.

I had good success using this method. It was easy to plan my garden and decide how much I could grow with the space I had. The first year was always a success with my brand new “Mel’s Mix” rich in nutrients; however, I did find that my production decreased with successive years. Each season I needed to add more Mel’s Mix to the raised beds, and I learned that additional amendments were required for a successful growing season.

If you are a first-time gardener and don’t know where to start, this method is for you. Mel’s book would be a good investment. I still find myself going back to his square-foot methods when I want to squeeze the most food out of limited space.

After a few military moves and several years of square-foot gardening under my belt, I finally had a little bit of land to work with. We purchased a home on 1/3 of an acre and my green thumb was eager to get started. I was comfortable with the square-foot method and was ready for something new. And with a larger space I needed to find a more economical way of starting my garden. Fortunately, my research led me to the Back-to-Eden method, and it resonated.

What is “Back-to-Eden?” – a regenerative and organic method that looks to nature for guidance. Just like the leaves cover the soil at the end of each year, we too should cover the soil in our gardens.

Paul Gautschi is the founder and inspiration behind this specific method. His journey and the principles of the method can be found in the original Back to Eden Gardening Documentary. It is available for free online and is worth your time whether you use the method or not. This video helped me to pay more attention to the natural order and God’s plan. And I mean

GOD’S PLAN

in our lives as well as our gardens. I became more aware of eating for nutrition and that all we need is provided by our Creator. It was life changing.

To start a Back-to-Eden Garden you layer cardboard directly on grass or dirt, then compost, and finally woodchips. This creates an amazing habit for the worms and all sorts of microscopic life in the soil. My mantra after learning this technique was “build it and they will come.” Create a healthy habitat and the worms will come from all over to live in YOUR garden.

I decided to use this method on an area of my yard that was covered with rocks and had been used to store recreational vehicles by the previous owners. This area was devoid of life. It was just dry dirt and even the weeds were struggling to survive. First, I removed as many rocks as possible. Then in the fall I layered the area with the materials I had on hand our acquired through different sources. I left the area alone over the winter and when I went to plant in the spring there were worms. Lots of worms.

I literally turned dirt into soil.

Well the worms did; but I facilitated the process by covering the soil and giving them something to work with. I am a big fan of this method and its principles have been applied in some way or another in all my successive gardens.

And it is affordable. Much of these materials can be acquired for free or little cost. I used my moving boxes to start and collected cardboard as I went along. I either generated my own compost, found a source of manure, or collected free mushroom compost from a nearby mushroom farm. For woodchips I use an online service called Chip Drop or I flag down an arborist working in my neighborhood and ask them to dump their truck in my driveway. (Note: Chip Drop is a free service, but I get a pretty quick response when I offer to pay a $20 service fee to the arborist.)

My main challenge with this method is keeping the wood chips on top of the soil. When the woodchips mix with the soil it uses up nitrogen and takes away nutrients your plants need. I find that the woodchips also make a habitat for the insects that like to nibble on my new seedlings in the spring, much to my frustration. I will definitely use this method in my new orchard and in areas where I plan to have perennials, but I want to try something different in my new vegetable garden.

The Back-to-Eden method is a no-till approach that recognizes the value of not disturbing the microscopic life in the soil. Most conventional farmers till their land to loosen the dirt and then add amendments as needed. A regenerative farmer leaves the soil undisturbed and adds compost to the top mimicking God’s creation. A few years ago, I found another gardener who uses this regenerative approach in his successful market garden – Charles Dowding in the UK. He is known worldwide for his no dig approach to gardening.

My plan for the garden at Fiat Farm is to lean heavily on Charles Dowding’s methods. I will still cover the grass and dirt with cardboard suppressing the weeds. I will use compost for the beds, and woodchips to cover the walkways. I just need to generate enough compost to cover the garden beds at least once a year with an inch or two of compost. Nature will do the rest. At least that is the plan…I will let you know how things turn out.

I have a challenge…

My blank canvas. Conventional till to no dig garden. Stay tuned…

One of my main vegetable garden spaces has been conventionally tilled prior to our owning the homestead. It has furrows and weeds and overgrowth. And it is huge. At least for me. I don’t have enough cardboard and compost to cover the entire space, but I have a plan. This plan will involve using livestock to help prepare the space for the spring. I look forward to writing about this in future posts.

If you are new to gardening, I encourage you to just start. It is a grand experiment with benefits that go far beyond fresh vegetables.

If you have been gardening for several years, I encourage you to look to nature. God has a plan, we just need to cooperate with it.

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My Resources:

Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd ed.

Back to Eden Film – https://www.backtoedenfilm.com/#/

Charles Dowding’s YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCB1J6siDdmhwah7q0O2WJBg/videos

Charles Dowding’s website – https://charlesdowding.co.uk/welcome/

Chip Drop – https://getchipdrop.com/