The Other Brown Flour (Part 2): Baking with Acorn Flour

Dang, y’all.  My last post was from January 7th – over ten months ago…  Since you’ve all been nervously anticipating this entry for so long, I’m sure your expectations have been growing with each passing day.

“He must be crafting a masterpiece of a blog post since he’s taking so long!  It’s going to be amazing!”

Let’s go ahead and dispel any of those thoughts now.  It’s going to be mediocre.

Before moving on, let me tell you why I haven’t posted in a long time:  I wrote two more novels!  One, The Dirt Walkers, is the sequel to my first book, The Surface’s End.  The other, Victor Boone Will Save Us, hasn’t been released yet – I’m sending it to Literary Agents to see if I can get any bites.  If not, I’ll self-publish early 2017.  I also wrote and recorded a bunch of songs, have gone to a bunch of Comic Cons to sell my books, acted in some short film projects, and probably some other stuff I can’t think of right now.

But let’s be honest – you’re not here to hear about my normal goings-on.

Off-Grid related, I got two more beehives (lost one), sixteen speckled sussex chicks (lost seven), and two dogs (still have both of them).  Also did some experiments in solar panels, aquaponics, a mini-foundry, and using a indoor grow light.  Hopefully I’ll post about those things soon, especially now that it’s finally getting colder and we’ll all spend a little more time inside.

What You Came Here For

I’ll just act like I needed to let my acorn flour “age,” over the last ten months.

In case you don’t remember where I left off, I made two tiny batches of acorn flour, one processed with the skin on the nut meat, and one without.  After looking at them for a long time and realizing just how small of an amount I had, I decided to combine them.  I mean, seriously – there was no possible way I was going to be able to do a taste test to tell the difference between which had skins and which didn’t.  Besides, the biggest test was to simply see if this acorn flour thing was any good at all.  That said, I put them together, ground them again in my designated coffee grinder, and ended up with a whopping 3/4 cup.

acorn-flour

Jealous?

I was pretty sad that’s all I came away with, especially because I had grand plans of using numerous recipes to finding the one.  Instead, I split it three ways, leaving me with three bowls of 1/4 cup each.  That way, I could possibly try three tiny recipes to test it out.

I scoured the interwebs, and unfortunately almost everything I found called for acorn flour AND wheat flour – usually more wheat than acorn.  That felt stupid.  The whole point of this experiment is to see if man can live on acorn bread alone (which, I already know isn’t true), not simply add a little acorn flour to an existing recipe for flavor.

I finally found another brave blogger who apparently had the same concerns I did.  As I looked at the first recipe for short bread on her page, I noticed no wheat flour.  Success!  I was just about to start gathering ingredients, but decided to read down the page a bit.

Good thing I did, because apparently her first recipe ended in disaster.  Not like the-kitchen-exploded disaster, but in the sense that the resulting short bread was so bad that she almost gave up on acorn flour in general.  Three cheers for my elementary school teachers who always taught me to read ahead.

Luckily, the second recipe – this time for chocolate chip cookies – ended much happier.  And so I pressed on.

I wanted to compare acorn flour to wheat flour directly, so I decided to try two batches that were exactly the same except for the two different flours.  The recipe (at the bottom of this post) called for an exorbitant amount of acorn flour – 1 cup!

Since I would only be working with 1/2 cup of flour in total (1/4 acorn & 1/4 wheat, separately), I followed the recipe with half-amounts until I needed the flour itself.  Since it called for an egg, I literally whisked an egg, poured it into a some fancy Pampered Chef measurement tool, then poured half into my concoction.  I threw the other half away, because I didn’t know when I’d ever need half an egg again.  After cleaning the fancy measurement tool, I used it again to get half of my overall batter (a fourth of the total) into two separate bowls.

cookie-batter

Don’t be fooled by the picture – that’s a close up of a half of a half of the recipe.  The whisk is actually tiny – it came from a hot chocolate mix we got from a friend.  I use it a lot for individual omelets because it’s so small.  Our big whisk basically requires a five-gallon mixing bowl.

Then, enter the two flours plus 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.

cookie-batter-acorn

The baking soda is the white stuff, in case you couldn’t tell the difference.

cookie-batter-wheat

Don’t blame my photography skills – the wheat flour is actually out-of-focus by nature.

A little bit of chocolate chips later (forgot to take a picture), the results were on a cookie sheet, ready to bake in my laboratory.

cookie-sheet

I made sure and wrote down that the acorn cookies were on the left, because I was sure to mix them up after they were done, am-I-right?  Also, I’ll be waiting for my advertisement check from Calphalon®, since they’re featured as much as the cookies.

Beside a drastic difference in color, the wheat cookies stuck together much better.  The acorn cookies were basically scooped and poured onto the cookie sheet, and spread out evenly without my permission.

Because we have a convection oven, I almost never wait the full amount of time that recipes call for, so ten minutes later…

cookies-done

Consistency wise, the acorn cookies continued to even out as they baked, whereas the wheat cookies rose an kept their awkward shapes.  I should’ve spread the wheat cookie batter out a bit, because they were cakier, resembling more of a short bread – but I’m no baker.  Or – I guess I am?

But how’d they taste?

Great!  The acorn flour brings a mild nutty flavor to them, and my wife actually asked if there was more chocolate in them than in the wheat ones.  (I think that’s partially because your eyes play tricks on you, considering the only time I’ve eaten similar-looking cookies they’ve been completely chocolate.)

Don’t take my word for it – I had three other people besides myself eat them, and two of them said they actually preferred the acorn cookies to the wheat ones.  The other didn’t say they didn’t prefer them – they just had their mouth full.

Overall, I consider it a huge success.  I still have a half a cup of acorn flour waiting for more recipes, but I’m already inspired to gather some more acorns and try the whole thing again.  After all, it’s been a year, and I’ve forgotten just how much of a hassle the whole thing was…

Chocolate Chip Acorn Flour Cookies Recipe
Originally from Making Our Sustainable Life

  • 6 tbls of soft butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Cream butter, sugar, salt, cinnamon and vanilla together. Add egg and mix until the batter is lump free. Add  flour and baking soda and mix just until the flour is completely moistened. Add chocolate chips.

Drop 2 inch balls onto cookie sheets with plenty of room for the cookies to spread out.  Bake in a preheated 350º oven for 12-15 minutes.

The Other Brown Flour (Part 1): How To Make Acorn Flour

This post is a looong time coming.  So long that I’m trying to piece together my pictures to remember what happened.

Last fall (2014), I gathered some acorns and pretty much just wasted a bunch of time.  All of them turned out to be garbage, with worms laughing in my face.  But, I’m stubborn, so I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

Last Christmas, my brother gave me a book about eating things in the wild, and wouldn’t you know it; there was a whole section on acorns!  I had a renewed sense of hope in acorns now that I had a mentor on paper.

Apparently, the first time I tried it I went about everything wrong.  All of my instincts led to the acorns that were definitely bad.

  1. I went out entirely too early, which means I was only gathering the rejects rather than waiting for the fully matured ones.  (The tree releases an acorn if it knows that it’s no good, rather than waste energy on a dead seed)
  2. I was mainly picking up acorns that still had the tops attached, but it turns out that’s actually a sign that they’re bad.  (When an acorn matures it loses the top)
  3. I was grabbing them willy-nilly, rather than checking for the super obvious hole in the shell (which means a worm has already eaten the nut meat and skipped town)

So, this time around, armed with new knowledge and a slight confidence, I filled my pockets once again.  The results were much better.

acorns-green

Many of the acorns I gathered at first were green.  I don’t really know what that means, but I expect that they were slightly under “ripe.”  Some that I let sit for a few days darkened up, but most of them I just cut into fairly quickly.  Unlike before, when I had what I thought to be a 10% “success” rate, the first acorn that I cut into this time around was perfection.

acorns-perfect

acorns-harvest

Now, I ran into plenty of non-perfect acorns in this batch, mind you.  But what I thought were my keepers before were ones that I threw away pretty quickly this time.  If it had a small trail of brown that I could cut out, I’d keep it.  Otherwise, it would be a lot quicker to just go outside and find some more acorns rather than trying to butcher the save-able “meat.”

acorns-shelled

I shelled a bunch, and then came the fun part.  In the book, my new mentor said that “some people insist that you must remove the skin from the nut meat.”  But he didn’t follow it up with, “but it’s ok if you don’t” or similar, so I figured I’d better do it then, if some people insist.

That.  Took.  For.  Ever.

acorns-skinning

Left side is skinned, right side is shirts.

Early into this part of the process, I was no longer having fun.  I think that small amount of acorns took me about two hours to skin.  It’s not like a peanut, where you can just twist or squeeze the skin and it falls off – these little jerks have wrinkles and folds where the skin would be clamped into.  The mentor said it would be easy, and said I could just dip them in some water if I had any trouble.  I started thinking my mentor was full of crap.  I also seriously started wondering if it was worth it to skin all of them, or if I should just take my chances with the skins.

acorns-ground

After the horrible part was over, I tossed them into a coffee grinder (my wife made me buy one so that I wasn’t using the same one as her for some reason).  It quickly ground the nut meat into “flour.”  I had to take some time scooping everything out of the grinder, because the oils in the acorns were keeping some clumped at the bottom.

Unfortunately for me, acorns contain a large amount of tannins, which is used to tan animal hides.  It also makes the acorn very bitter, and you can get sick if you ingest too much of it.  The process of removing it is fairly simple, though (again) tedious.

acorns-leech1

There are two ways to get the tannins out of the acorns, according to my mentor: Hot and Cold Leeching.  For Hot Leeching, you just boil the acorns in water for a while, then drain.  I think you can even leave them whole if that’s the case.  However – apparently that process removes a lot of nutrients from the flour – and who needs those empty calories?

For Cold Leeching, you just soak it in water then drain it until it stops tasting bitter, usually 6 to 20 times.  I’m no expert on this part, and I really didn’t want bitter acorns on my first go ’round (especially since I’d already invested so much time into it), so I let them sit for days, and did the whole process eight times.

acorns-leech2

I think the above is was just the first time.  Surprisingly, the color of the water changed drastically each time.  Not to say it was getting darker or lighter – it just changed back and forth, so I don’t know what to say about it.

acorns-tannins

After I decided each leeching session was done, I would strain it through cheese cloth and do the whole thing again.  After it wasn’t soaked, but still moist, it caked together just like wheat flour.

acorns-leech3

After using the cheesecloth a handful of times, I noticed I was losing a lot of flour in the layers of the cloth.  That sucked a lot, considering how much work I had already put into what was going to amount to very little acorn flour.  And not only that, when I tossed the cheesecloth to the side, waiting to be used again, it still had junk in the folds.  It ended up getting really nasty and moldy, so threw it away.

acorns-mold

For the next several batches I used coffee filters, which took forever to drain.  I mean, I’d let it sit for hours and it would still be letting just a single drip through.  With the cheesecloth, I would be able to squeeze the water out to speed up the process – but if I did that with the coffee filters, I would bust a hole and everything would fall out, which meant I would have to start the draining process all over.

acorns-spill

I had an accident

I was still losing a lot of flour with each drain, too…

acorns-filter

Anyhow, after all that – which took a couple of weeks, by the way – I spread my findings on a plate to let it dry out.

acorns-patty

And after that, I did another batch with skins on them, so I could find out if I would be one of those crazy people who insists that they be removed.  After they completely dried out, they turned pretty dang dark.  And the saddest part was that there’s maybe a 1/4 cup that made it through each process…

acorns-done

I haven’t actually made anything with the flour yet, so unfortunately this is where I leave you.  Will I cook something that cures ebola?  Will I find that I’ve actually made gold?  You’ll have to wait until next time…

Keep the Change, Ya Filthy Animal

I love raccoons.

I grew up in the country, and just like every other average American kid I had my share of pets.  There were dogs, cats, fish, hamsters, squirrels, a leopard gecko named Yoda, and more dogs and cats.

Oh, yeah, and raccoons.

raccoon-garage

Don’t all kids have raccoons?  They’re absolutely awesome, so all kids should have them.  They purr a lot like cats, and are much more social.  Cats are jerks, and only care about you when they want to.  I don’t remember our raccoons ever walking just out of arms length, then sitting down to mock us while we stretched out to try to pet them.

I think my dad isn't smiling because he's super embarrassed by how short jean shorts were in the 80's.

I think my dad isn’t smiling because he’s super embarrassed by how short jean shorts were in the 80’s.

I don’t remember the timeline, but I had pet raccoons at several different points in my childhood.  At one time, we had four that were fairly young.  They were in a cage that my dad built, and we’d have to move the cage every once in a while because they would start digging their way out.  One morning, though, they were gone. My mom said that she watched the mommy or daddy raccoon come several mornings to try to dig them out, and she was watching the day that they got away.  She said she felt so sorry for that raccoon mommy or daddy, knowing how hard it was trying to get it’s babies back, so she let them go.

raccoon-family

Apparently my mom even took a picture of the four little rascals getting away!

I was so mad!

Forget the precious momentary connection between and human and raccoon parent, and the unrelenting love for their furry children…  I wanted my pets!

I got over it eventually, though – probably because we had another pet raccoon soon after.

raccoon-david

I got a little raccoon crazy around that time, doing a school project on them, which included going to school with a tail and mask.  I thought I remembered a random fact from third or fourth grade – that raccoons have no salivary glands – but I just googled it and found it to be false.  Don’t judge – we didn’t have the internet back then.  They often dip their food into water, but apparently that mostly only applies to raccoons in captivity (which ours obviously were).  The German word for raccoon is Waschbär, which literally translates to “Wash Bear.”  I also did a school project on Germany.  And on UFO’s, but that’s beside the point.

Anyhow, this is all a really long setup to a much different, darker story.

A couple raccoons have been hanging around our house at night, eating our cat food.  You might wonder how I knew it was raccoons that were eating the food…  I know because we would flip the lights on and stare at them from a foot away through our kitchen window, and they would just look at us like we were waiters asking how their meal was going.  “Needs more water,” I could hear them say.

My wife didn’t like it one bit because she has a soft spot for our cats.  Because of this, I’d try to sneak out a different door with a BB gun to scare them off.  Usually, they’d hear me approach before I had a clear shot and would run off – but there were the occasional times that I unleashed the fury of my 1991 single-pump Daisy.  The gun is apparently strong enough to kill woodpeckers (oops!) and carpenter bees (that’s right – they call me eagle eye), but it’s only enough to freak out an unsuspecting larger animal.

They’d usually just come back thirty minutes later or so, after all the lights went off in the house.

When they really started bothering me, though, is around the time my chicks started disappearing.  It’s one thing to eat our cat food; it’s quite another thing to eat our chickens.  I wouldn’t have have minded it as much if they just ate our cats instead – those guys are freeloaders, and don’t give me any eggs.

So, one night I again went out with my Daisy BB gun, this time staying far enough back to make sure I could get a good shot off.  I assumed that if I could shoot it square in the face, it would be a little less brave approaching our house.  I stood on a chair to line up the shot and…

Bang – right in the face.  And it was the cutest thing ever.

The raccoon looked up in my direction; it couldn’t really see me because the light was in it’s eyes and I was still in the shadows.  It raised it’s hand and rubbed it’s head in a “Why would you do that?” kind of way.

Unrelated “First World Problems” meme – this is how the raccoon looked while rubbing it’s head

But it didn’t run away.  So I pumped again, and shot it once again.  Still, it just looked out in the shadows, wondering what in the heck was going on.  I shot it again and it finally ran off.  Cleary, the Daisy wasn’t packing as much of a punch as I thought.

I went inside, and less than ten minutes later the little punk was back.  Usually, I would give it a little grace, but this one was just mocking me.  So I pulled out the big guns.

Well, by big guns, I didn’t actually get a gun.  In order to take a shot, I’d have to aim towards the house, and I’m not that confident in my middle-of-the-night-with-the-house-as-the-background target skills.  So I got the next best thing: my crossbow.

The murder weapon

The murder weapon

I got in the exact same position and kind of took aim.  Because it was dark and I was fairly close, I couldn’t really use the electronic scope.  There are three red dots in the scope, and choosing the wrong one would definitely embed an arrow into my shed or my exterior wall, so I just judged where it was aimed as if I wasn’t the one holding the crossbow.  X/Y axis sort of thing.  Squeeze the trigger, and…

Bam.  Perfect shot.

The raccoon looked up when it heard the trigger, otherwise my arrow probably would have been a direct hit to the face.  As it was, though, it went through its chest, then through it’s gut and out its butt.  It was obviously a little terrified and jumped off the shed attached to the house like it was committing suicide.  It ran out in the woods, limping and scraping the arrow on the ground.

Then I realized that it still had my arrow.

I started following it, knowing that if I lost it in the moment, some other animal would drag it and my arrow away before the morning light.  I used my phone as a flashlight, and following the sad sounds of a dying raccoon, its eyes reflected back at me in the distance.

About the same time, my wife came out to see if I’d gotten it – and I realized there was no possible way I could finish the little dude off with my crossbow – so I sent her to the garage to fetch an axe.  She came back with it, and I traded the crossbow for the axe and made my way into the underbrush.

The... other... murder weapon

The… other… murder weapon

It was freaking out, and I felt bad because it was definitely suffering.  Still holding the phone-flashlight in one hand, I try to finish the job with a swoop of my axe.  Unfortunately, a one-handed axe swoop while the other hand holds a flashlight is not very accurate, and I pretty much just chopped at it enough to insult it.  So I turned the axe around to bludgeon it until it was gone.

It was sad, and I felt pretty bad because I like raccoons.  I was also sad because the meat was so messed up that I wasn’t even going to attempt to clean and eat it.  But something enjoyed it, because the next day I came out there and all that was left was a puddle of fur.  (I should have gotten a picture of that, but didn’t think about it until later)

The other raccoon learned its lesson, apparently, because it stayed away for a long time.  It has recently been showing up again, though.  Which stinks, because I really do love raccoons.

raccoon-david2

day-in-the-life

Dark Times: A Hen’s New Outlook on Life

I should be updating my blog a lot these days, because I have fewer obligations – but I seem to be filling my time with other on-grid things.  I need to remedy that.  But this time, I’ll again share a guest post from new notes that I found scratched in my chicken coop:


Day 437

I won’t lie.  I’m glad the chicks are gone.  They were really annoying, and sometimes they’d try to eat their own food.  I’m bigger, so of course I should have first dibs on anything they would want to eat or drink.  Anyhow, they disappeared – one by one.  I’d go to my perch for the night, and I’d wake up with one less annoying cheep cheep rattling between my ears.  Eventually, there was only one, and Farmer thought it would be a good idea to put it in here with us.

We showed Farmer who’s boss.  We’ll never tell him what really happened to it.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep


Day 440

RooTwo disappeared last night.  No notes, no calls.  I think he was the father of all those chicks, so either he was afraid of everyone finding out how much of a deadbeat dad he was, or maybe he went out looking for them.  Either way, more food for me.  He wasn’t nearly as nice as Roo was.  RooThree has some really cute tailfeathers.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep

Hmmm....

Hmmm….


Day 452

Farmer put a big perch out in front of our coop today.  At first he was riding around on it, cutting up all of the green stuff growing in our playground, but then it stopped tossing the green stuff around.  I don’t know why he does that to begin with – the green stuff tastes better without cutting it.  And every time he cuts it, it’s harder to find bugs.  Farmer is really selfish.

He stopped it, and kept reaching under it.  He was really insistent on trying to get something underneath, even with big metal sticks – maybe there was a big worm under it or something?  Eventually, he sat back down on it, but it never made the loud noise that it used to make.  He covered it up with a HUGE blanket that doesn’t let water through.  I checked it out, underneath the blanket – it’s pretty comfortable.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep

Lawn mower still won't run. Don't tell my dad - he would be ashamed of me.

Lawn mower still won’t run. Don’t tell my dad – he would be ashamed of me.


Day 457

I love the new perch!  I always try to sleep there, but for some reason, Farmer comes out every night with a glowing stick and grabs me.  He puts me back in the coop.  I don’t think he understands that I WANT to sleep on the new perch.  I’ve made it my own – I’ve been laying eggs there, and pooping in it a bit just to show that it’s mine.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep


Day 464

Farmer keeps dumping big buckets of food right by our coop.  Well, I say food, but I mean old crusty, soggy food.  But – it’s still food!  There’s so much I don’t even have to worry about sharing!

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep

In retrospect, I think I was just attracting other animals with these scraps...

In retrospect, I think I was just attracting other animals with these scraps…


Day 482

RooTwo was definitely the father of all those chicks.  RooThree has been here by himself, and we’ve been sitting on eggs for a LONG time.  None of them are hatching.  In fact, after we’ve laid on them longer than we needed to, Farmer took them out and threw them in a bag.  Some of them exploded when they fell into the bag and smelled TERRIBLE!  

Looks like RooThree is not very good at his job.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep

It smelled like it looks

It smelled like it looks


Day 485

RooThree is strutting around like he’s the cock of the walk, but none of us really eggspect him to pick up where RooTwo left off anymore.  He used to have some gorgeous tail feathers, but it seems like he loses one a day.  Is premature tail baldness a thing?

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep


Day 490

I don’t like where this is going.  RooThree is gone.  Is everyone being invited to some bawking party without telling me?

I’m in charge now, and even Farmer can’t change that.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep

They were aggressive with me, but they'd stay by my side - even staying near the window when they could see me inside!

The new head chicken (Peepnelopeep) was aggressive with me, but they’d all stay by my side – even staying near the window when they could see me inside!


Day 493

Ummm…  Bruuke, one of the other girls, disappeared yesterday.  Not sure what happened – we all left the coop for our daily buffet when Farmer opened the door.  I didn’t see her last night, and when we woke up today we found that she never came home.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep


Day 496

Things are getting weird.  The hairy white one is gone.  It’s definitely not a party, because SHE wouldn’t have been invited before me and Henrietta.  Honestly – nobody liked her.  None of us even knew her name.  I’d be glad that she’s gone, except that I’m not sure what’s happening.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep


Day 499

It’s down to me and Henrietta…  The other girl, Rebeaka, was acting paranoid yesterday, but I didn’t think anything of it.  Kept saying “they’re coming back” and “I just know it’s my turn.”  I don’t know what that means, but apparently she knew.

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep


Day 505

Farmer doesn’t open the door anymore.  We just sit here and scratch tic-tac-talon into the ground.  Henrietta is always scratches and I’m always eggs.  I want to be scratches.  Why won’t Farmer let us out?

Clucks and Scratches,
Peepnelopeep

The Surface’s End: My Book is Out!

For those of you who haven’t heard yet – my book is out!

I released The Surface’s End on Amazon last week, which is one of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a while; all of my writing efforts have been spent getting it ready.  Luckily, I now know how the dog-and-pony show goes.  That way, when I’m ready to release my next book, I won’t spend three weeks screaming at no one about why my bottom margins are forcing my text to look like a postage stamp on a poster board.

fb-available7

Please share it on your favorite social media site, and review it (on Amazon, Goodreads, etc) if you read it.

Unless you hate it.  Then never speak of it again.

That’s all for now, but don’t worry.  I’ve got plenty of fun off-grid stuff to talk about, ranging from such topics as:

  • Rendering lard
  • Killing pesky (but super cute) raccoons
  • A new (and different) worm farm
  • Making a mini metal foundry
  • And much, much more!

Unexpected Chicks! Part Two: The Bad and the Ugly

At the end of my last post, I had seven adult chickens in my chicken tractor, and nine new chicks in a temporary brooder.  The brooder is literally just a storage container with a heat lamp hovering above it in my garage – because 1) I’m busy and 2) I’m cheap.  Cheep cheep.

I’ve been planning for some time now to build a glorious permanent coop and spacious chicken run that is split into four quadrants.  I’ll rotate the chickens through each of the run quadrants, so that they’ll eat everything in sight in one section, then move through the others while vegetation grows back.  At the same time, my plan is to allow one quadrant to double as my garden (or a portion of it) because the chickens will fertilize it and because I plant to cover it with netting to keep birds out of the run anyways.  The garden would move through each quadrant as well, so the the chickens could eat the old plants and scratch at the dirt, basically tilling the soil, composting and fertilizing it for me.

But that’s the future plan.  Immediately, I had nine chicks crawling on top of each other with nowhere to go.  To make matters worse, I was out of town here and there, so I was constantly just figuring out what to do with them immediately, rather than long term.

They were ok for a while.  Early on, they need to stay warm anyways, so they would be fairly cuddled up even when they didn’t have to be due to space.  It didn’t take long for them to simply have nowhere to go, though.  And a couple of them figured out how to get out of the brooder (which had some chicken wire laid on top to give the false sense of a ceiling), so I’d sometime find a chick on the outside looking in.  They’re extremely territorial, so even when they escaped, they really just wanted to get back in, which was prevented because of the chicken wire.

My first bright idea was to put them back in the chicken tractor with the adult chickens, since they were a little older and I thought they might be able to fend for themselves.  Not a good idea.

I came back in the evening and two of them were gone.  I assume they ventured too far away from the flock (or technically, the clutch of chicks) and were a predator’s dinner.  But even worse, two of the chicks had been shown who was boss in the chicken tractor…

bald-chick

Yes – you’re looking at that right.  One (or more) of the other chickens took the skin right off of it’s head.  I’d like to think they were just getting a jump on preparing a boneless, skinless chicken breast, but the reality is that they were simply laying down the law.  I found that one balled up in a corner under the ‘stairs’ up to the coop, terrified.  The pecking order is real, folks.

I felt terrible, and wondered if the little guy (or girl – I can’t tell) would make it through the night.  Luckily, it did!  By the next day, its head was fairly scabbed up and healing well.  I frantically searched for another broody box so I could separate the two wounded birds so that they didn’t get sick, then infect the other healthy chicks.

chick-segregation

I found a shelf that I had taken down from the garage, threw some newspaper down, and laid the shelf on the ground.  It gave them probably ten times the space, but they were just chirping at each other, hoping to be reunited.

As they grew, I knew that my temporary pen was still…  temporary…  I kept putting off the eventual permanent coop, and trying to figure out what to do in the immediate timeframe.  I even tried to let them outside again – not necessarily into the chicken tractor with the others, but just outside to roam free.  Unfortunately, the same scalping occurred, and I knew i couldn’t do that again.  But, man, were they stinking up my garage.

disgusting-chicks

I ended up building a step between the brooder and the chicken tractor, which was pretty much just a fenced in run without a coop.  It was a simple frame with chicken where stapled around it, with a piece of wood laid across the top to give them a little shelter.

temp-run

Apparently, I didn’t staple the chicken wire enough, though…  After the first night in their new outdoor home, I found remains of two of them where a predator had pulled them through the spaces between the wire and wood.  Well – one of them had been mostly dragged through the spaces, while the other laid decapitated in the corner.  That’ll teach me to think “close enough.”

I stapled every inch of the chicken wire to the wooden frame, and assumed all was well for the remaining five chicks.

The next morning, however, I came back out to the same sight – the only variation being that two had been pretty much eaten through the chicken wire.  Whatever had done it (I think a raccoon or a possum, because of opposable thumbs.  I’m betting on raccoon.) had grabbed them in the corner and probably munched one what they could, even with the wire separating them.

If I were a chick in this redneck run, I’d be terrified to close my eyes.

I assumed the reason the predator got the chicks is because the chicks gather in the corners of the frame, so it had to be easy for them to reach in their hand for their dinner.  The other chicks would have basically blocked in the victim – and chickens are surprisingly calm at night.  I’ve had very skittish birds allow me grab them with no trouble after the sun went down.

So – I stapled feed bags all around half of the frame, so that the chicks could gather in a safe, covered portion.  No way anything would happen now!

temp-run-closed

Wrong.  The predator returned and literally peeled back the corner of a feedbag as if it were tupperware, keeping his leftovers fresh from the evening before.

temp-run-escape

I was down to two chicks.  I then thought I was losing them because chickens generally roost at night to avoid predators, and I had no roost.  I figured I could add a roost so that they would stay away from the corners, and the predator wouldn’t be able to reach them.

temp-run-roost

Nope.  The next morning I was down to one chick.  For some reason, the newly deceased chick was drawn to the edge of the frame instead of the safe metal pipe in the middle of their covered shelter.

I decided I need to completely rethink my temporary run.  And for the time being, because the other chickens had been around the chicks for the last few days and had gotten used to them, I figured it was time to put the last remaining chick in the chicken tractor.

This worked.  It was obvious that he was an outcast, but there were no blood-drawing fights. Anytime I went out to check on them, the others were out and about, enjoying the cage-free, free-range, non-GMO bugs that were available to them.  The chick, however, would be pacing inside the coop, wondering when the monster’s claws would find  him.

A few days into him integrating into the coop, I thought I would help nudge him outside to enjoy the benefits that the others already knew.

That was the last I saw him.

But hey – I’ve got a couple chicks going broody again!

Unexpected Chicks! Part One: The Good


Taking eggs from chickens is a little strange when you think about it.

Obviously, an egg forming in a chicken’s body and then ending up on our plate is magical or whatever, but I’m talking about the actual experience of getting the egg.

My small coop has three nesting boxes, so anytime I swing by, I lift the little roof I made over the boxes to see if there are any presents for me.  There’s always a lot of poop, often some eggs, and usually a chicken screaming at me.

Think about it…  It’s as if you’re minding your own business, sitting in a public restroom, when the entire ceiling lifts up and a giant peers in each of the stalls.  I’d scream, too.  Creep.  But the screams don’t seem to deter him – he awkwardly keeps looking, completely disregarding your personal space.

Even weirder, the giant grabs something that others have left in the stalls.  And you know that he’ll come back for what you leave as well.

Sorry – this is simply where my mind goes.

I’ve had a number of chickens go broody over the summer, which I did not anticipate.  If I haven’t already said it, a broody chicken is one that simply wants to sit on eggs for the purpose of hatching them.  They’re quite determined to stay there once they start – you can pick them up and move them (as long as you’re not deterred by their screams) and they’ll go right back to the nest.  They will forego eating and drinking for the sake of sitting on the eggs.

At first, I only had one broody chicken.  For a week or two, she sat there by herself, staring at the wall.  I looked up how to ‘break’ a broody chicken and found that it’s difficult, because it’s a hormonal stage.  Basically, the underside of hen heats up, and when she’s not sitting on eggs she wants to be.  In one video I found, a family dunks the belly of a broody hen under chilly water for a few minutes, lowering her body temperature.  Apparently, when the temperature of her belly is lowered, she just forgets that she was broody.

No such luck for me.  After sincerely freaking my hen out (she got me as wet as I got her), and finally getting her mostly under water for five minutes or so, she makes a bee line right back to her nest.  I tried this multiple times, and it never broke her.

Not long after that, other hens went broody.  I only have three nesting boxes, but I’d sometimes peek in to see two or even three hens in one box – totaling four or five broody hens at a time.  Though I don’t know if all of them were truly broody, or if a couple of them were faking to be part of the ‘in’ crowd.  Apparently – like sneezing – broodiness begets broodiness.  Some farmers put curtains over their nesting boxes to prevent non-broody hens from seeing their broody sisters – that way they’re not tempted to join in.

Anywho, eggs need to incubate for twenty-one days before they hatch, and as I was strolling by the coop one day, I heard a few tweets from the coop.  And since they don’t have access to my wifi (#TwitterYolk!), I opened up the nesting boxes to find a cute chick tucked under a hen’s feathers.  The hen was even more scream-y than she was before the hatching.

new-chick

Right before a chick hatches it eats the yolk, so it doesn’t need food or water for a couple of days.  Because of this, and because I figured the hen knew what to do better than I did, I just left it alone.  One hatched chick can encourage the other unhatched chicks just by moving around and tweeting.  Well – as long as the other chicks are following its tweets.  (#AnotherTwitterYolk!)

The next day, I found this!

two-chicks

The order of events is fuzzy at this point because it was a few months ago, but another hen hatched two more eggs right within the next couple of days.  Around the same time, I started putting chick feed in the broody boxes, because there was really no other way to get them to eat.  (Side note – the other hen had apparently stopped eating while broody, because its beak was elongated and pointed down.  I put food right in front of her and she had a hard time eating, but the next day her beak was back to normal size.)

The chicks started jumping out of the broody boxes, which caused the hens to also jump down to protect them.  Because there were four chicks and two hens (and one “aunt” – a hen who stopped going broody and was basically trying to act like the mother of the first two chicks), there were some fights.  At one point, I noticed that one of the chicks was bleeding, most likely because the rival hen wanted to show it who was boss.  Because of this, and because I was hoping that the hens could show them how to scratch and eat from the ground, I put them all outside.

chicks-outside

They did pretty well – they were always close to their respective hen, and it was really interesting to watch the hen act out what she wanted the chicks to do over and over.  (By the way, I keep simply saying “hen” rather than mother because the hen who hatched them isn’t necessarily their biological mom.  Whoever is sitting on the egg when it hatches is identified as its mom.  So I might use “mom” from here on out to make things easier.)

All of the truly broody hens had completely abandoned the unhatched eggs because they had to take care of the chicks, so I put the rest of the eggs in my incubator, just in case some were on the brink of hatching.

Because I had to put them back in the coop each night (the chicks specifically – the hens would follow), and then put them outside again the next morning, it wasn’t necessarily the best situation.  There was a little bit of chick feed in the coop, but the adults kept eating that quicker than their own feed, so the chicks were having to fend for themselves.

On top of that, because they’d be awake in the morning well before I let them out, there were still some rivalries and fights that I couldn’t stop.  I ended up putting the chicks in a little brooder box so that I could keep them safe and fed.  And not long after that, two more chicks hatched in the incubator!

brooder

Over the next week or two, three more chicks hatched in the incubator, totaling nine chicks!  I definitely didn’t anticipate having that many…  Heck – I didn’t anticipate even one hatching, because I still only have the one chicken tractor.  I’ve been planning on building a stationary coop for a while, but just haven’t had the time or motivation.

So – I figured as these nine chicks started growing, I’d quickly need to find the time and motivation.  And you’ll have to wait until the next blog post to see if that happened!

Bee Addition and Subtraction

It’s been a long time since my last update.  Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.

For a while, I planned on a new blog post about once a week.  But as it often does, life kept getting in the way.  So, for the next handful of updates, I’ll try to recall all of the special details from past geek-off-grid-iness situations.

Months ago, I got a message from a friend in town who had honeybees in his porch ceiling.  And he needed them gone.

Sweet!  It just so happens that I want honeybees, so this seemed like a win-win-win situation.  I already had most of what I needed: extra hive bodies and the proper equipment need to peek your face into a bee colony.   I bought a couple other things (a queen cage and some lemongrass oil), gathered all of my stuff, and planned on making a day of it.

Sure enough, when I rolled up, there were tons of bees going in and out of the porch ceiling.  Keith said that they were pretty calm and they only sting Jehovah’s Witnesses in the six or seven years that he’d known they were there.  Add me to the list, though, because while I was invading their space (before I had my veil on), one got caught in my hair.  After it panicked for a a minute or so between the forest on my head (i.e., it was nowhere near my bald spot), I thought I’d try to help it get unstuck.  It wasn’t a fan of that, and died in order to let me know.

keith-porch

I forgot to get many pictures, but you can kind of see the hole that they were using as an entrance in the corner.  So I removed the soffit, hoping to see a glorious amount of honeycomb, considering they’d been there for so long.  Here’s what I saw instead:

keith-porch2

Yup.  Nothing.

Apparently that was only the gate to their courtyard.  I walked through his house, putting my ear to the ground (literally) and walls, and determined that the glorious honey was somewhere in the floor joists between two bedrooms.  This was above my pay grade, so I packed up and left.  Sad day.  Sting and no honey.  (Which would have been a much better backup band name for The Police)

Since that produced no extra bees for me, I decided to go with phase two: splitting one of my healthy hives.

It’s not rocket science…  Nature does this all the time, and as a colony grows a beekeeper must make sure to give them ample space to continue to store honey.  If they outgrow their house, a new queen is reared and the old queen takes about half of the bees with her to find a new home.  Or – the ’emergency’ situation is that nurse bees start rearing a new queen if the old one dies, disappears, is sick or just not laying eggs like she should.  Splitting a hive is pretty much just forcing a bunch of nurse bees to make a new queen because they’re cut off from the old one.

I’ve watched YouTube, folks.  I’m an expert.

I took five frames out of my strongest hive – three frames of larvae, one frame of honey, and one empty frame so they could have room to grow – and put them into one of my original Nuc boxes.

healthy-nuc

There are a lot of different methods online – but it seemed like the general consensus was that the existing queen simply needed to stay with the old hive.  Of all of the bees that came over to the new hive, a bunch of them would go back to the old hive (just because when they leave the Nuc, they’d fly back based on their memory) and the nurse bees would stick around and make a new queen.

split-hive

Easy peasy, right?

Well, I came back maybe a week later, and the Nuc was pretty low on honey.  I still had a lot of wax from when I extracted my first harvest of honey, and it was probably actually a 1:1 ratio of honey to wax.  I had planned on heating the honey wax to separate them, possibly to make candles or something (and of course eat the honey) – but instead I decided to give it to the honey-hungry Nuc.  Over the next few days, I left this honeywax at the top of their hive, as well as at the entrance.

If I haven’t said it before, bees do not waste honey.

wax-dust

Each time I gave them a clump of sticky-sweet-waxy goodness, I returned to find that they’d sucked every ounce of honey out of it and turned it into dust.  The above picture has just a little bit of honey left (the darker spot by the bee).

Here’s a short video of them incredibly focused on the task at hand:

Anyhow, it was all for naught.  I realized at one point that it was a losing battle, because no queen cells were starting to form.  And as the hive grew weaker (no new bees to take over as the older ones died off), wax moths and other jerks started taking over.  It was a complete loss.

At least the chickens took advantage of the situation, though…

So I tried again!  Exact same method, but this time I noticed three or four in-progress queen cells when I transferred the frames over to the new Nuc.

And the same thing happened.

jerks

But, even worse: apparently, in all the commotion in transferring frames, the healthy hive’s queen was lost.  I should have thought of that when I took literally all of the potential queen cells out, but I didn’t.  So, when I went back to check the Nuc two weeks later, a once bustling hive was now almost completely empty.

empty-hive

I wish I had good news to end on, but I don’t.  I completely dismantled the hive (it had wax moths and other critters as well, so I didn’t want to combine it with my other still healthy hive) and left it out for the chickens.

dismantled-hive

Perhaps the tiniest bit of silver lining is that the other hive found the now exposed honey, and stored it for themselves.  But, they’re not nearly as productive as the hive that I lost, so I’m not even sure they’ve gathered enough to make it through the coming winter.  Hopefully I’ll have good news later!

stealing-honey

censored-meat

Another Level of Crazy: Why don’t you raise maggots?

[***WARNING – if you have a weak stomach, skip this post***]

I don’t often scare myself, but I might have just tipped the scales.

Obviously, everyone that knows me pretty well thinks I’m either crazy or…  Well, crazy in a weird, responsible way.  I’m not sure which camp would be right in this scenario.

Remember the free meat that literally fell at my doorstep?  Well, what I ate of it was really good!  Unfortunately, the rest of it was in the freezer in my garage, which one day decided to stop working.  :(

I won’t lie – I was very upset.  Lane and I spent a lot of time butchering that thing, and after it had been sitting in a room-temperature container for who knows how long, it was ruined.

I was complaining to my friends Walter and Matt about it.  Luckily, they happen to be a little crazy, too.  (Sorry for throwing both of you under the bus, guys, but you know it’s true.)

“Why don’t you raise maggots?,” Walter asked with dead-pan seriousness.

I can’t say that it had crossed my mind, even in my wildest off-grid homesteading dreams, but it made sense.  My chickens love eating little bugs, and these specific little bugs love rotting meat…  So, I started thinking about what I might do to start my own hobby maggot farm.

Around that same time, there was a little bit of uncooked chicken in our fridge that had gone bad, so I just tossed it and the deer meat in a bucket.  (Meat doesn’t often spoil in our home – pretty much never, in fact – so maybe it was a little nudge from the Man upstairs to try this thing, eh?)  I hadn’t thought much about my plan, so I left the bucket in the garage until I could figure out what to do with it.

I concocted a plan to basically construct an elaborate cage in the woods on the edge of my property, so that predators aren’t attracted to rotting meat beside my living chickens.  I’d start with a tray at the bottom, then wire mesh that would allow maggots to fall through but would catch pieces of meat.  Above that I’d hang the meat, which would give greater surface area for the maggots to slip off and onto the tray.  Around that I’d put at least one sturdy cage (possibly two), so that animals couldn’t get inside.  It would be a self-sufficient maggot factory after I hung up some old meat.

That was the plan, anyway.  The reality is that I left the bucket of rotting meat in my garage for weeks.

uncensored-meat

The packaging was frozen to it (because I was testing the freezer), and I didn’t hassle with getting it off.

Yes.  It smells exactly as you would expect.  Every once in a while I would go into the garage, forgetting that I left the bucket in there, and would very quickly remember.  I’d step back outside, suck in a large amount of air, and then hold it in while I retrieved whatever I needed from inside.  Over time, I guess I just expected the garage to smell like that.

My wife didn’t really know that was going on until while I was away from home one day I asked her to get something from the garage for me.  I received a text soon after that, which said she almost threw up after stepping into the building.  I texted back a smiley face with a halo above it.

At that point, I realized I should probably do something about it.  The first thing I realized was that I hadn’t even asked my chickens if they specifically liked maggots.  Since my chickens don’t speak English (despite what you might think from previous posts), I realized the only way to get that answer was to present those maggots to them.

So, one Saturday, the experiment continued.

meat-maggots

I opened the garage door to let it air out a bit and brought the bucket outside.  Sure enough, moving the meat around revealed a gob of the little squirmy things.  I could easily put my hand in and scoop a hundred up.

So, of course I did.

maggot-hand

Yes, I realize there aren’t a hundred in my hand, but it’s hard to take a picture of a handful of maggots with the other hand holding a camera.  The little boogers were incredibly slimy, and I could feel them squirming through my fingers as soon as I picked them up.  It was disgusting.

I tossed a few to my chickens, and they were delighted!  If I threw a clump of maggots in front of them, they didn’t really know what to do, but if there were stragglers outside of said clump, they didn’t last very long before a beak would dispatch this from this world.  I assume the chickens’ eyesight isn’t so great, and a giant ball of pulsating slime probably isn’t as appealing as an obvious gyrating worm.

Not long after I started doing this, I noticed at least a dozen vultures circling overhead.  It dawned on me then that that was the reason I’d been seeing a lot more of them perched in the trees on my property lately.  Lucky for humans, our sense of smell isn’t nearly as ken as theirs, because I’d say that they had sniffed it from miles away.

maggot-bowl

I continued to scoop the maggots into some tupperware, thinking I might store them to give them to my chickens over time.  But then I started to consider how would store them.  I suppose I can put them in the fridge, but I didn’t know if that would kill them, or if they needed some meat with them to survive (and I didn’t want to purposely make my fridge smell like rotting meat for the rest of it’s existence).  So, I ended up giving all of the gathered maggots to the chickens, storing none.

Actually, I used the maggots to entice the chickens back into their coop, because I had to leave for the rest of the day and that was a lot easier than chasing after them.

And, yes, I put the bucket of rotting meat back in the garage.

Don’t worry, though – I have a plan.

honeyjar

Harvesting Honey the Old Fashioned Way

I have honey!

Over the winter, there really isn’t much you can do with honeybees.  Except for poking your head in during very warm days to make sure they have enough honey stored to get them through the season.  I tried to stay out as much as possible, realizing that they know a lot more than I do about keeping themselves alive.

However, spring has arrived!

As such, soon after it looked like we were in for consistent warm weather, I poked my head in with a much different intention: robbing them of their honey!  I didn’t want to take too much – but dang it, I’ve been at this for a year and have spent a lot of money, so I want some honey!!  Sunny, runny, bunny, funny, money, honey.  (Sorry – the line before last rhymed and I couldn’t stop myself.)

honey-frames

They’re doing great, and I saw some frames packed with brood (larvae/eggs), so it looks to me like they’re healthy.  I only took one frame from each, and those frames weren’t 100% capped and ready but they weren’t too far from it.  (Don’t worry – there was plenty of honey left in the hive.  I’ll take more after everything’s in bloom, though)  I didn’t even get stung, even though I was brushing them off of the frames pretty aggressively.

honey-stand

After I got the frames, I realized I had no idea what to do with them.  Most legit beekeepers have access to an extractor and other fancy tools to help them efficiently remove the honey.  However, I don’t know if I’d consider myself a legit beekeeper yet, and since those things cost money I figure I’d try to have a go without them.  (I’m really excited about the Honey Flow system, but that’s a lot of money, too…  One of my frames costs $1, and a frame from the Honey Flow costs about $80.  Basically, I don’t want to spend a bunch more money until I know I can pay myself back with honey.  I’m rhyming honey with money a lot in this post.)

My first idea wasn’t a very good one.

honey-first-try

I basically just stood them up like a teepee over a pan and used a spoon to scoop the honey out.  It wasn’t very quick, and I got a lot of spoons dirty because I tended to stick them in my mouth.  Don’t worry – I’m no double dipper.  If a spoon went in my mouth, it didn’t go back in the honeycomb.  I promise.

honey-scooped

I got pretty impatient, because I felt like I wasn’t getting very far even though I was scraping a lot of wax off.  So, I simply looked at a few websites on how to harvest honey without an extractor and got some much better ideas.

honeycomb

I just scraped everything off the frame into a colander.  I didn’t want to use a strainer, because when you filter honey you actually lose some of the benefits.  Unfiltered raw honey has pollen in it, and this is the pollen from my own back yard so it can help with my specific allergies, since I’d be ingesting the same pollen that my sinuses have a problem sorting through.  When you filter, those chunks of pollen can get thrown out.  (I should have taken a picture of some of the pollen, but I didn’t think about it.  I will next time.  Unless I forget again.  (You can see the pollen on the next picture, but it looks more like dirt.)

honey-mangled

The picture above is after I scraped from one frame all the comb that contained honey into the colander.  There’s still a lot of pollen, but I don’t think I missed any honey from that one.  I’ll get the wax later.

honey-drip

After that, I crushed the comb, forcing a bunch of honey, pollen, and some small chunks of wax into the bowl below.  I ate more wax in that day or two of extracting honey than the rest of my life combined.  Not that I’ve eaten a lot of wax in my life, nor that I just munched on wax all day – I just figure the little bits and pieces added up, since I was sucking the honey off of them.

honeycomb-dry

I poured the honey out into a mason jar, then crushed more comb, then poured, etc.  Finally, I just let it set for a long time dripping down, and the comb was fairly dry.  I’m planning on melting the wax in a cloth in the sun, which would let any trapped honey run out, but it’ll take a while.  On top of that, I had an ant problem when I left the whole setup out overnight.  (Well, technically my wife had an ant problem…  I just came home to an unhappy wife who dealt with an ant problem.)  So – if I set it out somewhere to melt and separate, I’ll need to make sure our six legged friends don’t have access.

To clean up, I left the frames on top of the hives, because bees will suck absolutely any remaining honey off of it.  I read somewhere that it can take bees collectively flying up to 40 million miles to make a pound of honey, so it would make sense that they would spend the time to get even the slightest amount of honey close by.  Sure enough, I left the frames overnight, and they were bone dry the next day, with bees still checking it out.

The honey has a very interesting taste, with a little bit of a kick to it, because all (actual) honey is flavored by the pollen and nectar that the bees gather from.  For a while I tried to analyze it to figure out what plant I wast tasting, but then I realized I was basically not seeing the forest from the trees.  Honey!  I have honey from my back yard!  I’ll figure out plant-flavors later!

I ended up getting three pints of honey, and I have been eating more honey than ever!  My friend Chris gave me some bread that his family baked, and I pretty much ate that with a 1:1 ratio of honey to bread.  My intention was to sell honey, but at the rate I’m using it, I might have to hoard it all…  I’ve been putting it in coffee, and I figure if I can replace all my sugar intake with honey, then I’ll be healthier.  Right?

Right?