Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book: The Backyard Homestead, edited by Carleen Madigan

I’ve always kind of had this secret wish to be a farmer, or at least a homesteader, and live off the land. A farmer’s work is never done and boy do they work hard. When I was a kid I remember visiting distant relatives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia who had farms and raised cattle. Maybe my desire to homestead has something to do with those memories of people long gone who raised everything they needed right there on their land. I don’t think Brian agrees with my idea of wanting to be a homesteader, yet maybe one day, if we move where they allow it, I can at least have a couple of sheep, goats or chickens.... One thing I know, I don’t think I will ever be without a vegetable garden. 

The Backyard Homestead (from Storey Publishing) is a basic guide on how to “produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre.” Everything from growing a vegetable garden to raising chickens and cows is in this book — or at least touched on. You can read about how to pick a good egg-laying chicken, make sauerkraut, milk a goat, harvest and save seeds, brew your own beer, make your own cheese, plant asparagus, prune blueberry bushes, grow hop vines, can applesauce, make apple cider or elderberry wine, dry herbs, grow and mill your own grains, raise your own Thanksgiving turkey, butcher beef or pigs (yikes!), make jerky or chorizo sausage, forage for food, tap a Maple tree for maple syrup, keep bees, and even more.

“The Backyard Homestead” book, edited by Carleen Madigan.

I have to admit that I don’t think I could ever eat an animal that I raised. Just saying. I’m sure there are plenty of people who grew up eating their animals, but I’m not sure I can eat something I’ve frolicked with. I eat mostly vegetarian as it is, and sometimes I eat seafood, even more rarely I eat chicken or pork. I haven’t had red meat in years. 

The vegetable and herb gardening sections of this book were mainly a refresher for me. One key thing I did learn, though, is that lettuce needs at least one inch of water per week in order to maintain a mild flavor. Finally I learned why my greens are usually bitter tasting! This year we had plenty of rain in the spring, so the greens were absolutely delicious. I also learned a trick to getting your pepper plants to produce more peppers: “When they start to blossom, spray the leaves with a weak mix of warm water and Epsom salts – a form of magnesium. The leaves turn dark green, and you will soon have an abundance of peppers.” I haven’t tried that yet, but really need to since I always have troubles getting my pepper plants to produce. There’s a section on how to freeze corn that I’d like to try, too. I had tried to grow corn one year, but I really don’t have the space for it. I buy my sweet corn from Hunters, a local farm market. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, they have THE best corn on the cob.

I found the sections on raising animals interesting, since I do hope that one day I will have at least some of my own farm animals. Eating eggs from your own chickens, using wool from own sheep, or making goat cheese from your own goat’s milk would be great – at least you would know EXACTLY where those products came from and how those animals were treated. There’s even a part in this book on how to build your own chicken coop.

“The Backyard Homestead” book, open to the section on chickens.

Here’s an excerpt from the section called “Turkeys for Thanksgiving” that I thought was interesting:
Traditionally, small farmers raised turkeys both for meat production and for pest control (gobblers are avid eaters of insects like the tobacco hookworm and the tomato hookworm.) By 1970, the production of turkeys had dramatically changed from small-scale farm production to large-scale confinement production on an industrial-type farm.

Today, industrial farms produce almost all of the 280 million turkeys required in the United States and Canada to meet the demand for holiday birds and turkey products ranging from turkey bacon to soup. Over 99 percent of the breeding stock, which is essentially held by just three multinational companies, is tied to merely a few strains of Broad Breasted White turkeys that can no longer breed naturally.

This movement toward industrial turkey production has left many of the old heritage turkeys, such as the Standard Bronze, the Bourbon Red, and the Narragansett, in trouble. In 1997, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) considered turkeys to be among the most critically endangered domestic animals and the most vulnerable to extinction.

Since that time, many of the heritage varieties have begun to make a comeback, thanks largely to interest from Slow Food USA*, which has encouraged small-scale growers to increase the numbers of these endangered birds. The irony is that by creating a market for rare breeds, these growers have been able to keep heritage turkeys from becoming extinct. 

Fascinating. I think Ben Franklin would be pretty upset if he learned that his pick for the national bird of the country was vulnerable to extinction at one point in time.

I had bought The Backyard Homestead because Carleen Madigan, the editor of the book, was doing a talk at Longwood Gardens in May as part of their Branching Out Lecture Series. Unfortunately, it ended up conflicting with the celiac walk in Baltimore that I have participated in every year for the past eight or nine years. I’m glad I still read it, though. Although I admit I took a break from it for awhile to read the book Succulent Container Gardens that I posted about previously. Will I ever actually be a homesteader? Eh, probably not. But maybe one day I’ll at least have a couple of small farm animals and my veggie garden to sustain most of my needs.

I think I’ll go make my own cheese press now (p. 314).

* Definitely check out the Slow Food USA website and blog. I had never heard of it before, but I’m diggin’ it. Seems like a great organization and the blog seems interesting. Just found an interesting post on fish emulsion and milk and molasses for nourishing the garden. I knew about fish emulsion, but milk and molasses is new to me. 

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