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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Alpacas! Everything you wanted to know...


One of the classes that I went to at the Mother Earth News Fair a few weeks ago was on alpacas.  It was by Barbara Banks, from Apple Country Alpacas in Rochester, WA.  No, Redmond does not allow alpacas in backyards, as far as I know; but one day on my Dream Farm we will have them!  They are so ridiculously cute, are good to the land, and there is an alpaca fiber shortage- so there will always be a place to sell their wool.  Interested? Here are some more things I learned about alpacas.  


They are herd animals, so you should have more than two of them.  I'm thinking 4-6 would be a good plan, you can have about 6-8/acre of land.  They live for around 20 years, and weigh between 125 and 175 pounds.  Since they are used to being in the cold of the Andes Mountains, our climate is not so bad for them.  You clip their fleece once a year in the spring, and it's so valuable that about half of it will cover the cost of their care for the year.


When they are happy, they bounce around like Pepe Le Pew.  It's called "pronking" :)


They don't have hooves, they have soft feet that are essentially two big toes.  You trim their nails once a year too.  They can be companions with goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, cats, dogs, and llamas.  Sometimes people keep a llama with them as a "guardian animal"; I'm not sure if alpacas are kind of dim, the speaker was saying that when they sense danger, they make an "alert" noise- but then just stand there making the noise.  With a llama in the group, it will run away from trouble, and lead the alpacas with it.  


Their fiber is very durable, renewable, and sustainable.  Even the bits that might not be good enough for spinning could be turned into felt rugs or garden paths.  They are used to eating grass, but don't actually rip it out of the ground like other grazing animals do.  They only have bottom teeth, so they don't bite, but they can spit at you (like camels).  Even their fertilizer is supposed to be excellent, "I've heard that it works especially well on a plant that was recently legalized in Washington state," the speaker said, cryptically.  And have I mentioned, they are super cute?!  If I get my way, alpacas will definitely be in our future one day.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Seattle Tilth Chicken Coop Tour!

Seattle Tilth's annual chicken coop and urban farm tour is coming up!  It's on July 13th, from 10-4pm, and this year, they've chosen the top 25 urban farms in the area as the stops on the tour.  One of my favorite garden bloggers is on the tour this year, and she recently opened her own Urban Farm School, so I have to check it out for sure!  (Side note: if you sign up for a gardening class with her anytime this summer, you can bring a friend for free! I'm all over this.)

There will surely be lots of sassy chickens like this on the tour: (I especially like the white one)


As you know, we've been planning to get some chickens for our backyard for over a year.  I'm hoping to get some great ideas (and maybe a kick in the pants) to go forward this fall.


I was originally thinking about something like this, where we could grow edibles on top of it... but I'm not sure if there will be enough sun to keep them going. There are a lot of concerns to consider, in terms of coop placement (i.e. safety, too much/too little heat, etc...) so I'm hoping to get some more ideas!


Friday, June 7, 2013

Preserving with Sherri Brooks Vinton, at the Mother Earth News Fair



This was the first class that I went to at the Mother Earth News Fair last weekend, and it started the day off with a bang.  Sherri Brooks Vinton shared her story of how she became interested in canning, and it was similar to mine; we both had childhoods where we visited our grandparents on their farms, and ate jar after jar of delicious homemade jam.  (Her favorite was strawberry, and mine was raspberry.)  I remembered thinking how strange it was (but also wonderful) to eat giant canned pears with breakfast every day.  My grandparents canned everything, because at one point they'd had to; same with hers.  She said that preserving food is the same as "stopping time" on it; I never thought of it that way before.


She then went into several types of food preservation; canning (boiling water, or pressure canning), fermenting, infusing, drying, and freezing.  Some determining factors for what you may wish to do are: type of  food, logistics (how much time/what supplies you have), utility, and taste.

Canning using the boiling water method:
You want to use this method only if you are canning acidic foods- with a 4.6 pH or less.  It is a low investment (you pretty much need a big pot, some jars, a funnel, and a jar lifter-- see below).

 Foods that are canned with the boiling water method are shelf-stable for a year. (This means I have some things to throw out, although I'm pretty sure my aunt still has some jam left from the 80's.  The only reason  I feel iffy about some things I canned is because I did them a long time ago, without an actual recipe, so I can't verify how acidic they might be.)


Pressure Canning:
If you have things to can that are not acidic, or have meat or fish in them, you want to use a pressure canner. Pressure canners are pretty expensive, but they have a very specific use.  You can use them to can vegetables in water, and a variety of other things.  If you are new to canning, I would recommend holding off on getting a pressure canner until you want to make something that needs it.  (i.e. I don't have one yet.)  It can be time and experience intensive, and really, I'm just not up for that yet!


Fermenting: 
You can also pickle a wide variety of foods.  I'm going to try dilly beans this summer, and I've made some fermented pickles in the past.  Some foods will keep on fermenting for a very long time (like this thing called a rumtopf that sounded delicious), and some should be jarred when they are finished processing.  They have a limited shelf life, but can keep in the fridge for months.  If you can fermented foods, it will kill the beneficial bacteria that you've worked so hard to cultivate, so her advice was not to do it.  


Drying:
She also talked a bit about drying food.  It's best with lower-moisture ingredients, and the results often require cooking afterwards (like sundried tomatoes).  Drying takes a long time, but it's mostly unattended.  You can dry herbs, fruits, veggies...and even without a dehydrator.  I already dry out old bread for breadcrumbs, so this sounds pretty easy to do.

Her talk was so informative that I decided to buy her book that day.  I totally recommend it, even if you have other books on canning (which I do).