Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Yesterday I candled all the eggs Ellen was sitting on, and with the exception of one that someone from my brood smuggled in under the radar, all the eggs were fertile and growing. (Hens sneak their own eggs into a brooder's clutch regularly, when she goes off for some food and water for a few moments. Pretty sneaky and clever....biological motherhood with none of the work!)

Candling eggs is a time-honored way of checking fertility so you don't have eggs sitting under the hen and going bad if they are not fertile. In the old days, I suppose homesteaders actually did use candles to do this, but to me that seems a bit risky.  The modern homesteader now uses a flashlight for the same purpose.  It's very important to do it in a windowless room or walk-in closet, because the first week things can be hard to see. The first week the eggs are incubating, the only thing you will be looking for is a small dark spot with a series of blood vessels streaming away from it.  
Photos courtesy of
As the egg develops, however, if you candle again you can expect to see a beating heart, spinal cord and even movement.  As the egg gets close to hatching, the inside will appear completely dark, as the baby chick is taking up almost all the space.

I first did this when incubating chicken eggs in my classroom when I was a second grade teacher.  It was great fun showing the children the miracle of how life develops, but hatching eggs using an incubator is also hard work, as I had to be Mama Hen and manually turn the eggs several times a day.  Having Miss Ellen sitting on these is much easier. (Well, for me, anyway. I can't speak for Miss Ellen.)

Monday, April 27, 2015

A fertile time

Things are going like gangbusters here on the homestead right now, especially where fertility is concerned. I am pleased to report that Ellen is sitting on a small clutch of fertilized eggs which I got from the neighbors across the street.  They lost several hens at once to old age and disease about the same time that Ellen went broody for the third time in her three-year life, and so I took four eggs from their non-broody hens and put them underneath Ellen who is happily clucking and mothering them under her fluffy wings.  

We will see if this pans out; if these eggs hatch I am guessing it should be around May 15 or so (chicken eggs incubate 21 days) and I would love to see Ellen become a mother in her golden years. All the other times she went broody I had to break her of it, meaning she did not get to do what she most wanted to do, which in those cases was hatch a batch of sterile eggs, a pretty useless endeavor for something as energy-sapping as brooding is.  We shall see!
Mama in-waiting.

The other fertilization project is going on outside, in the vegetables.  I have some peppers and eggplant with clear nitrogen deficiencies, but before I start monkeying around with organic fertilizer I am going to try a gentle, natural nitrogen booster, which is our own urine, diluted at a 1 to 10 ratio and used to water the plants around their bases.  I do not use this on anything where we'd be eating the crop either from or on the ground, but with peppers and eggplants this is not a concern. (And it's probably OK to use for other crops like lettuce, I'm just concerned about splash-age and don't want to risk it. 
Urine great shape, vegetables! Or will be soon.

So hopefully we will have green vegetables...and maybe even some chicks running around here soon.  Just two of the reasons spring is my favorite season. It's all about fertility...fertile earth, fertile animals, and hopefully fertile crops.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Strange Views from the Vineyards, Episode #779

Giant blimp above Big Ag's vineyard just north of our house. What?  It had the name of a gin company on the side, so perhaps they're scoping out their competition from the grape biz. 

Why buildings matter

Undeniably lovely, but would you want to be here in an earthquake?

One of my favorite type of article in Mother Earth News is when they feature someone who has, by the sweat of his or her own brow, built the house they live in.  Some houses are made with old-style adobe bricks, some are made with straw bales, others are built into hillsides like hobbit homes. Most are adorned with lovely stonework, nice floors and natural wood beams, and look quite idyllic, at least to me.

Someday I'd love to build something like that -- lay out a mere 20 grand or so for materials, and with the help of friends and neighbors, build a home of our own design, using some very cool old-style method to do it. And then live in it forever.

And then I see something on the news like what happened yesterday in Nepal. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which would be pretty bad in a first-world city, but is totally catastrophic in a third-world one. I see the collapsed buildings, the bricks scattered in the streets, and see the news footage of rescue workers trying to dig out those who have been buried alive.

And suddenly I am very thankful for the 2 x 6 wood frame of our house and the steel straps that bolt it to the concrete foundation, because of course we live in earthquake country and know exactly what the shaking of a major earthquake feels like.  Because the one thing you realize once you've lived here is that it matters -- very much -- what kind of house you live in and what kind of building you work in. 

We talk a lot in the homesteading world about preparedness -- we have our emergency kits, our canned goods, our solar ovens and our generators -- but we often don't think about the structural risks occurring within the buildings where we live and work.  When I traveled to Mexico on a business trip many years ago with a boyfriend who was doing a laser light installation in a large discotheque,  he called me up a ladder to look at the crawlspace above the ceiling while doing the installation.  Between the walls and in the crawlspace, everything was piled high with dry straw, used for insulation and soundproofing.  "If there's ever a fire," he said, "this place will go up like a haystack."

It was a sobering shock to realize that other countries do not have the same building codes as we do, but in disaster after disaster you can see it -- in everything from cyclones to earthquakes to fires...what would cause moderate damage and no loss of life in the States causes nothing but those things less-economically blessed countries abroad. All because of the building codes.

And so, while we pray and hope for recovery for all those caught in this terrible disaster, it should also be a reminder to keep building safety in mind both at home and while traveling.  Choosing a boring 2 x 6 wood frame house is uninventive, but I like to think it will keep us alive in a disaster.  Choosing a modern hotel when traveling, built to first-world standards, might be more boring than staying in a 16th century monastery, but if I had to take bets on which would be standing after a quake I know where I'd put my money.

Being prepared means not only preparing with goods, water, flashlights, etc, but also in choosing structurally sound homes -- and the same goes when we are traveling and staying in hotels, pensions, B & Bs or hostels. No one can predict the odds of your just being in a bad place at the wrong time, but anything you can do to improve those odds is a good thing, right?

In the name of safety I'm willing to be a little boring in where I lay my head and eat my meals. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The simple life, or a complicated one?

I have a relative who needs one of these.

This last week I had an elderly relative come and stay with us for several days, which is why posting was a bit sparse.  This relative comes about once a year and it's always a very stressful time for us all, due to their being extremely techno-phobic. For while the Simple Life may be an admirable way of living on the homestead, to completely unplug is to virtually guarantee trouble for yourself and those you love.

This is because the technophobes or Luddites among us continue living in the same world we do, only without the conveniences.  And because of that, their technophobia is, rather than a statement about how simple their lives are, instead a signature characteristic of someone who manipulates, cajoles, or otherwise manages to get others to do their techno-bidding so they don't have to live in the same century everyone else does.

Seems like a good compromise.

See, the thing is,  all those techno-chores the Luddites scorn still need to get done. By someone. The Amish solicit automobile rides, when necessary, from non-Amish with cars, and borrow telephones when they need to.  They also use the bus systems and bring their children in for 21st century medical care when needed. 

Maybe there are people in Alaska or someplace like that, living off the grid and off the radar of the government, banks, etc., but for most people, at some point they need to make contact in a 21st century way, and the way technophobic people do that is to task their connected friends and relatives to do it for them.  So they don't really eschew technology,  they just pass the buck onto someone else to do the heavy lifting when they want or need something.

Take my relative's arrival, for example. I had to go online to arrange transportation from the first US airport they flew into, because they did not have a credit card to book a shuttle bus or hire a car.  If they got stranded, there would have been no way for them to let me know, because they refuse to own a cell phone. And without a debit card, they could not even have used an ATM to take out enough cash to pay a taxi.
Be a Luddite at your own risk.

All of this avoidance of modern technology is actually a source of stubborn pride with this relative -- they actually believe they are living a simpler life because they are avoiding all that technology.  Instead, their lives balance on a fine thread of a) well-meaning people willing to help out, combined with b) the luck that nothing will go wrong.

Because, like it or not, we all need our credit card in times of emergency...or our cell phones...or our checkbook. To live without those things in this day and age is inviting disaster. 

This relative finally moved on to someone else's house after a week with us, and I have to say, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yes, we live the simple life here on the homestead; as I write this there are sweet cucumber and tomato seedlings growing in the conservatory, and a nice strawberry-rhubarb pie in the oven.  Later tonight, I will light the candles and get ready for bed, thankful for another day of home-grown simplicity.

And yet, when I cash my check at the bank tomorrow, it will be at the ATM, and I will pay my bills online after that. Because to try and do otherwise -- to live without computer, without plastic money, without a checkbook, and without a cell phone -- would make my life more complicated, not more simple.  

Yes, we all sometimes long for the days when those things were not part of society.  But not having any of them does not mean you have successfully turned the clock back.  All you've done is made doing life's business more difficult for yourself and, inevitably, for those you love.

Sometimes, living a truly simple life means living a hybrid one, somewhere in between our grandparents' century and this one. So my advice is this:  farm, eat and consume in a 19th century manner...but for heaven's sake,  bank in this one.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fire Safe

Big Ag borrowed the neighbors' tractor this morning and not only cut the grass in the pasture, but also cut a huge firebreak around the rest of the property.  It's not a guarantee this place won't burn in a wildfire, but it definitely improves the odds.

This will be a long, dry summer by all accounts, so it's best to get started and be prepared early. This year was actually wetter than the last two have been, and so we saw a lot more growth of native grasses -- four foot tall native grasses -- than we have in the past.  And so we have finally realized we have two choices:  Buy a tractor or put up some fence and get some sheep.  Or maybe both. Because while I love sheep, Big Ag looks awfully happy on that borrowed tractor!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A little slice of heaven (photo heavy)

Creston, California -- a little slice of heaven just down the road.

I got to spend yesterday with a good friend/coworker, traveling the back roads of our county for a special Industry Afternoon, hosted by several wineries of the "Creston Wine Trail."  The Creston Wine Trail is a relatively little-known area around the funky, cute town of Creston, a locavore's heaven if ever there was one. It's probably what Paso Robles was like 25 years ago -- small, intimate, with uncrowded tasting rooms and fantastic wines and locally grown and raised food.  

If I was recommending this area to someone who wanted to "get away from it all," I would recommend the Creston area. It really does feel like a little slice of heaven as you are driving through the gently rolling hillsides and green fields.

August Ridge Vineyards

One of the greatest parts of my job is that doing things like this is such an important part of it.  In a tasting room your main job is as wine educator; informing people not only about the wines you are pouring, but about wines and the region in general. It's always nice to spend a day like this in the company of knowledgable and competent peers, because I always learn so much about our region and wines it is capable of producing.  There's also always a lot of shop talk about number of punch-downs and pump-overs, specific yeasts and their benefits, as well as talk about where the industry is headed.
Unofficial mascot at Shadow Run Vineyards and Winery

We stopped at several wineries as part of the tour, as well as an olive-oil producing tasting room which also featured locally grown-and-harvested lamb for sale. I am not a lamb person, but my friend David was, and so he talked meat with the operations manager while I sampled some of the incredible flavored olive oils, vinegars, and other products.

Another huge perk to working in the wine business is that we generally receive anywhere from a 30 to a 50 percent discount on any bottles purchased at other wineries when we visit.  And tasting is always free. This allows us to sample other wineries' fare and then make good recommendations to our customers, depending on what they are looking for. I know that just from my afternoon spent on the Creston Wine Trail that it is something I can now wholeheartedly recommend not only to customers, but also to friends and family who visit and want to get off the beaten path of the most popular 20 or so wineries that everyone seems to visit when they come to Paso.
My two favorite wines from Chateau Margene -- Pistolero Chardonnay and Mooney 2012 Pinot Noir.

Not only were these wines great, but you also got the chance, at each venue, to sit and chat with the owner (who is usually also the winemaker) and get to know the character of both the wine and its maker at the same time.  It means that by the time you leave, you feel more like a neighbor or friend than just a customer, which I think is an important (and unfortunately, rapidly disappearing) part of any wine country experience.

Mmm. Delicious salad and marinating possibilities!

I came home full of great food and with a bag of new wine purchases, as well as olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which means not only will I be making some great food, but now have even more options on what I can serve it with. Yes, for us it was just another day at work, but sometimes here in wine country a day at work can also be a little slice of heaven.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Impulse and Romance

Impulse and romance are rarely a good combination. Exciting -- oh my yes -- but rarely good in the long run.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A deal...more like a STEAL!

Mikasa votives -- the whole batch cost a quarter!

Last week my neighbor called and told me the local party rental company was having a "garage sale" at their warehouse downtown.  It was a day I was working, but luckily we got slow in the afternoon and I was able to get off early, head down there and see exactly what they were getting rid of. The call of a good deal is a siren song to me, almost as much as good wine. Usually less expensive, too!

I found three decent tablecloths (the fancy linen kind event producers use) at four dollars each, in white, black and brown.  The black one will need a patch, but the other two are perfect the way they are. I also picked up five Mikasa crystal votive holders (25 cents for all five).
Love these -- and check out the $4 tablecloth to the right!

And the steal of the century was these wooden folding chairs for two dollars each.  I bought sixteen!

So after feeling like a total deal glutton, I headed home and am going to begin refinishing the chairs this week.  Since the white seats are that awful leather-look plastic, perhaps best known for making the backs of your legs always stick to them if you happen to be sitting in a short skirt or some shorts, I am recovering them with fabric scraps I've saved over the years. That should increase the color factor and decrease the "ouch" factor considerably.

 So every chair will have a different fabric bottom.  Since the seat of these chairs remove super-easily, this will be a very easy part of the project.

Colorful seating

The other thing I've decided is that after some sanding, I'm going to paint each chair black, using chalk paint or some other kind of matte paint. The black should really set off the colors on the seats, and will also make them look both elegant and funky.

I can't wait to host some outdoor dinners this year and use these chairs, and I'm so happy they were able to come home with me and start a whole new life.

I can't guarantee what kind of asses were sitting in them at the hundreds of weddings they probably attended, but all the ones here are pretty cool, so I like to think they've found a good home.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

More lawn removal

Here's an ariel shot of the domestic end of our homestead -- our house and yard. Our acreage is off to the left side of this photo and can't be seen in it, but it's there, just down the hill beyond those trees.

If you see the highlighted areas in the image, that represents the second portion of lawn we will be killing and getting rid of this summer, as part of our back yard renovation plan. As you can see, the front yard has already had its lawn removed and drought-tolerant landscaping has been put in.

So if we took out half the lawn in putting in our front yard landscaping, raised beds, and chicken coop/run on the right side of the house, this new project will remove about half of the half that's left. Meaning in three years, we've taken out 75 percent of our water sucking, useless, non-edible lawn, which should bring us to a point of well exceeding the State's mandate that we reduce usage by 25 percent, due to the current drought.  

I'd love to take out even more, but we are leaving a bit of lawn on the back and side of the house, first because we can't landscape over our septic tank, and second because we plan on having a fire pit and want to be able to apply the sprinklers to it if it's ever necessary, since it's rather close to the house.

So I'm already excited, dreaming of what's going to go onto those highlighted areas -- more Spanish lavender, more red hot pokers, and more ceanothus, plus some other natives I've been wanting to try -- including milkweed, main food for the lovely Monarch Butterflies that live around here part of the year. Plus a larger patio area for entertaining. Who says water conservation can't be beautiful?

And the best part is that easiest phase of the project comes  first: shutting off the water in those zones, sitting back and letting the summer sun bake the unwanted portions of lawn into dead, yellow straw, which we can then just landscape over. 

And then the creative planning and real physical work begins, probably next winter.

All part of moving things forward in a (very) dry land.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Onion/Spinach Harvest

My entire spinach harvest.

Yesterday was a busy, happy day spent doing my job at the winery, and today was a busy, happy day spent harvesting my spinach and onions.  You never know how your crop is going to grow every year, and so it's rare that you get the exact amounts of anything that you'd planned on. So it's either feast of famine in the garden.

Today, for instance, I harvested about six spinach leaves and about three metric tons of onions. (perhaps a teeny bit of exaggerating, but that's how it felt.)  I actually got about 3 store-bought bag's worth of spinach, and have about 30 pounds of onions -- half in the fridge and half still in the ground.  

So now I will be hoarding my spinach like a madwoman ("no you can't have a spinach salad! I am saving it!") and giving away onions to anyone who looks like they might need or want one, or even better, a whole bunch. 

The pathetic spinach crop is a shame, because I love adding spinach to different recipes -- lasagna, chicken casserole, omelettes, etc.  but this will be a lean year for that addition.  We do really commit to eating what we grow and rarely shop the market for anything we're able to put in the ground ourselves, so when we have a lot of something, it becomes a regular visitor to the dinner table, and when we have a sparse harvest, we do without. Farewell, spinach. Maybe next year.

.000001 percent of my onion crop.

But since onions are -- face it -- an accent spice and not usually a main dish, I have no use for a lot of this bumper crop. This year I am going to try freezing some for use in cooked dishes, which means I will not need to grow any for awhile, which will be nice. And since I've left half the crop in the ground, we have enough on hand for our fresh needs for several more weeks.

But just like life, the vegetable garden teaches you to be prepared for anything. Those raised beds are as full of drama and plot twists as your average soap opera, and adapting to what worked and what didn't is an ongoing thing.

And so I say a fond farewell to spinach for awhile, and hello to The Year of The Onion. 

There will be lots of onion tops in the compost this year.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Baby Jays

Last year we decided to allow a bush beneath our bathroom window to grow a little taller, and the result is that a couple of Blue Jays built a nest there and we now have a window on their young ones' little world.  There are five of these guys and they are just too cute. You have to look close to see them, they are well camouflaged but definitely there!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The small things


Living during a time of mega-drought, you have to learn to hang on to hope.  The world is finally waking up to the reality of climate change, after many, many years of angry denial and turning the issue into a political football.  Is there anyone left out there who still doesn't believe? Probably, but it no longer matters any more.  Just like the "theory" of gravity, climate change is not something you have to believe in for its effects be felt.

Last night I was driving through some vineyards with Big Ag and looking at the 1000-foot wells, the giant uncovered reservoirs, and the acres and acres of grapes we grow here.  And I thought of another place we used to live, which had nothing but almond orchards, as far as the eye could see.

And I asked my man, who is proficient in All Things Agricultural, if all of this was sustainable, long-term.  He thought about it for a minute -- actually so long I thought he might have forgotten the question -- before answering, "probably not, long term."  And what was long-term in his books, I asked? 20 years until it first gets ugly, he said, and 100 years before most of it is finally gone.

He said that our great-grandchildren would see ghost orchards and ghost vineyards, which brought to my mind how local hikers sometimes stumble upon ghost towns up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains -- the empty, decaying remnants of the boom towns from the Great California Gold Rush of 1849. Maybe our days will be known as the century of the Great California Agricultural Rush, from 1950 - 2050, give or take a few years.  Who knows?

But I will tell you something.  If you focus on those things, particularly if you are a sensitive person who tries to live a "do no harm" kind of lifestyle, you will find yourself enormously depressed at what the future holds.  So my advice is this: Be aware, but don't dwell on it. Here is the one and only thing you can do to make a difference: You can do what you can, where you are. And that's about it, so you might as well stop worrying.

Local, small production vineyard!

The only place you can really change things is what goes on in and around your own dwelling. You can set good limits and you can set a good example, and that is about it.

In an era of decline, you can learn to use less and make do with less, and just go on with your life in that way. Because, realistically, that is all you can do.  You are not going to convince the almond growers to uproot their trees and bankrupt their very profitable imports to China, all in the name of future generations. Not gonna happen. You are not going to convince anyone that there is probably a limit to how deep a well can be dug, and that aquifers that have been around since the glaciers last retreated are not a renewable resource.

So be mindful and do what makes you happy. Yesterday, for instance, I was thrilled to find a nice picnic basket and a used salad spinner at the thrift store, because neither of those things need to be new for me to use and enjoy them.

New acquisitions.

That picnic basket and salad spinner made me happy because I know nothing new -- not the plastic or the wood -- was culled or made for me to buy it second-hand.  And they cost a total of six bucks between the two. Plus it was a sunny day and while a sunny day means no rain, well, that doesn't mean I should feel guilty and not enjoy it.  I'm not in charge of when it rains.

Part of this state of being -- the peace of mind before The Great Decline -- comes because, to some extent, I realize we are all being swept along in a human current that we can only swim against so much.  So ultimately the descendants of the  homesteaders, the off-gridders and the preppers will more than likely share the same future as those of the SUV-gas guzzling, Keurig-cup using, styrofoam plate dining and everything-new demographic, with not much to be done about it.

Your only job is to do what you can, and what will leave you with a clean conscience, knowing you did everything you could.  So use less water, but enjoy the sunshine, and, although it seems strange, enjoy being the last generation for whom everything was once possible.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Portia passed

It happened this morning. She basically got up when I came into her isolation coop, stretched, arched her back ... and fell over dead.  Upon getting a closer chance to examine her, I determined that what I thought were roundworms were, most likely, some kind of early-stage maggot, starting to breed around her back end due to her diarrhea, which she's had for a week or so, ever since she became ill. 

So while I now know it's not internal parasites that killed, her, I'm not exactly sure what did. She was on the older side, and so it's possible some opportunistic disease got to her.  This is the only explanation that I can come up with, since the rest of the flock is parasite-free and healthy. Often worms, maggots or other opportunistic parasites will flourish in a sick bird, which is what I think happened here.

One thing I have realized though, is that when you have a hen who goes into decline this way, the kindest thing to do it cull them, rather than let whatever it is that's ailing them take them to their grave. If you keep chickens as livestock as we do (not pets), a vet call is just not among the treatment options. Portia looked a bit bedraggled at the weekend but I  elected to take a wait-and-see attitude.  Taking into account her age and general state of heath, Big Ag and I should have dispatched her quickly and ended her suffering...and by doing so, also removed a potentially contagious animal from the property. An ailing animal attracts parasites, including those mentioned above, as well as mites, and so keeping a sick animal around helps no one -- not even the animal itself.

Lesson learned.  And now, we have five hens who, God willing, will remain healthy and untouched by whatever got old Portia.  Rest in peace, old girl. You will be missed.