Monday, December 27, 2010

Smart Dog

This is a video that Donielle took of our puppy, Champ. His ball rolled under the bed and Donielle told him to go get it. Very funny.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Raising Chickens (and flies?)

Early in the fall Donielle and I ordered a flock of Freedom Ranger chickens to raise for the freezer. These chickens are able to forage for more of their own food than the traditional meat bird, the Cornish Cross. They grow more slowly and their feed/weight conversion isn't nearly as rapid but we decided to give them a try. Here are the newly arrived chickens in our stock tank. The stock tank stayed on the front porch where we could keep an eye on things yet keep the 'stinky' chickens out of the house. They got new food, fresh water, and a nice heating pad to sleep on. We actually split the order with some friends down the road so we ended up with about 15 birds of our own.

This next photo shows the collection tub of our BioPod. One of the blogs I follow regularly is called The larvae of black soldier flies are actually wonderful composters. What takes weeks or months in a traditional compost pile takes just days with BSF. The adults are attracted to decomposing food scraps in the pod and lay their eggs in the 'egg disc' in the lid of the pod. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop into the food scraps and begin to eat. They consume the scraps and molt several times until they're ready to pupate. Their instinct is to go 'to ground' and they seek a way out of the pod to burrow into the earth. Immediately prior to pupating they 'poop' and molt one last time. The larvae are able to negotiate an incline of up to 45 deg which is something the pod is designed to exploit. The larvae climb the 'exit' ramps and drop into the collection bucket below. What you end up with is a totally clean, self-harvesting supply of grubs that are very high in fat and protein. Take it from me, the chickens (both chicks and adults) love them.

Look for more about Black Soldier Flies and BioPod in the future. Compost for the garden, grubs for the chickens. What's not to love?


Homestead Butchering

Should have posted this one earlier. Several months ago our 'main' tom turkey Albuquerque got tangled up in the electronet fencing during a duel with one of his sons. Actually both turkeys got tangled but we were able to free the younger bird in time. Albuquerque, sadly, didn't survive. We don't regard our turkeys as pets; rather we see them as breeding livestock. When we lost the tom I immediately dropped what I was doing to dress him out for the freezer. We got some nice turkey breasts, legs, and quite a lot of turkey stock. I learned how to butcher my own poultry from my good friend Harvey Ussery in Hume. You can check out Harvey's site at

The first photo shows the turkey mostly plucked of feathers. This was all done by hand as my homemade chicken plucker won't handle a bird as large as this. The larger (primary) wing feathers were plucked first and set aside to be made into quill pens. Seriously, I've wanted to try this for a long time and found that it's not difficult at all to do.

The second photo shows the plucked bird in my processing sink about to be eviscerated. The evisceration or 'gutting' process is actually pretty straightforward. You are removing the entrails and separating them into the edibles (liver, heart, etc) and inedibles (intestines, lungs, etc). My youngest boy Jake watched with great interest and was especially interested in what the heart and lungs looked like. It may sound gruesome at first but it's actually quite interesting. We, as carnivores, are too far removed from how our
food is produced.

The next photo shows what young, healthy turkey livers look like. Chicken livers, though smaller are the same, rich, dark color. The light, anemic-looking livers you find at the store tell a story about the lives those birds lived.

It isn't my intention to gross anyone out with these photos. The photos on Harvey's website are much more detailed, in fact one could learn how to butcher their own poultry just from studying the photos on his site. One phrase from his site sticks with me. It's a rhetorical questions he asks playing the part of the shocked observer seeing a chicken butchered for the first time. "How can you kill and eat a bird that you've known since it was first hatched?" Harvey's response is, to paraphrase, 'How can you eat a bird that's unknown to you?' Literally Food for Thought.


Deer Hunting

So I got up early last Thursday and walked out into the woods, in the dark, and climbed into my treestand. I sat absolutely still for about an hour until I could hear footsteps in the dark. I closed the bolt on my rifle and waited. In about a minute I could make out a small buck and a smaller doe in the small clearing beneath the stand. I watched both but could tell that both deer were very small and decided to give these deer a pass in the hope of getting something larger. I climbed down about 8:15 and walked to the top of a nearby hill. I sat down at the base of a small tree to see what might come along. I immediately noticed a very small squirrel coming down the log in front of me. The squirrel came closer and closer until I wondered if he'd come all the way down the log to where I was sitting. At the last moment he seemed to notice that something was wrong and froze. It was at that moment that I looked beyond the squirrel and noticed a herd of deer on a hillside about 100yds from where I was sitting. I found a large doe in my scope and steadied my rifle to take the shot. The rifle discharge caught me by surprise and I looked up to see a good-sized herd of deer bounding out of sight into the woods. I watched to see if one looked like it might be struggling to keep up with the others. After they were out of sight I walked over to the spot where the doe had stood and looked for signs that she might be wounded. Nope. It was a clean miss. No deer today.

I truly am thankful for the meat provided by any deer I kill. I don't have a preference for bucks over does since I'm not in it for trophies. I'll be out again next week hoping for something to put in the freezer.


Friday, December 24, 2010

New Direction

I've decided to take the blog in a new direction. I used to use the blog to document the going's on of Fern Hill Apiary, the name of our hobby beekeeping business. The business has taken on a life of its own and now has its own site. There we feature the products and prices for the bee-related things we produce. I'll continue to feature beekeeping photos, etc on the blog so you can see what's going on here but the 'new' blog is going to have a more general focus on our family, homestead, projects, etc. We hope you enjoy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

2010 Honey Harvest! 430lbs!

We finally got this year's honey crop harvested. We collected about 12 medium boxes of honey from the colonies in our out yard and here at the

house. Once the boxes were collected we moved them into a screened tent so the bees couldn't get to them. Removing the boxes from the hives involves the use of a fume board. A fume board is simply a plywood lid with a piece of felt stapled to the inside. You squirt some VERY foul-smelling liquid onto the felt and put it on the hive. The smell drives the bees down out of the super so you can take it off with very few bees in it. The boxes full of honey weigh approximately 50lbs a piece. It's an awkward lift so you have to be careful not to hurt yourself lifting or carrying them.

Once inside the tent we begin the extraction. First the wax capping covering the honey is removed with an uncapping knife. This knife is the only heat this honey will feel. The knife slices through the wax sometimes lifting it off in a single white sheet of wax. This capping wax is the most sought-after wax for making candles.

After the capping is removed the frames are put into the extractor. The extractor is nothing more than a little centrifuge. When fully loaded, the lid is closed and you crank the handle, spinning the frames within, which throws the honey out of the cells. It drains to the bottom and flows out of the honey gate and through several filters. After that it's ready to bottle.

Once the frames are empty (you've spun the honey out of them but they're still wet) we put them out for the bees to rob clean. They clean the frames, boxes, and tools until they are completely free of honey. Bone dry! It's total pandemonium when you put the boxes out but it's the best way to get the combs cleaned.

Honestly I sort of dread extraction every year. It's extremely hot, heavy, hard, painful work. You get some stings even though the bees aren't being aggressive for the most part. You pinch bees under the frames when you lift them, roll them against your leg when they come to clean up the honey you spill on yourself, etc. The actual extraction is miserable but the end result is worth it. Lots of pure, golden honey. MMMMMMmmmmmmm.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

So Dry But a Bit of Rain

We finally got a little rain this morning at the house. I was having to go out every evening and water the garden to make sure everything didn't dry up and blow away. The 'lawn' itself went totally brown which is the grass going dormant. It should green up again in the late Summer/Fall, meanwhile I'm enjoying a break from mowing.

A few plants actually LIKE the heat we've been having. Next is a photo of the sweet potato vines taking over the greenhouse. I usually don't have anything growing in there in the summer because even with the door open it gets too hot. Sweet potatoes love the heat. I give them a drink about every other day (via the mist system you can see hanging from the top). I put them in the greenhouse for two reasons...they love heat and the deer/rabbits can't get in there.
It's time to start harvesting some of the herbs I planted in the garden. Many have already gone to seed (dill, cilantro, etc). With the cukes flooding in it's nice to have some fresh herbs to use in the canning process.

Just for the fun of it I let one zucchini plant go and one cabbage too. The idea is to let them get large enough each so that the boys have something to enter into the county fair. The zucchini, I think, is a little smaller than one I had last year but you get what you get. I put my keys on top of the cabbage for scale. This cabbage is supposed to be able to top 50lbs but I don't think we're going to get there. Still, it's pretty big right now.

The corn is coming right along. The tassles have been visible for a week or so and now the ears are starting to show. Corn is air pollinated which means it doesn't rely on bees to get the job done. Tell that to the bees though. I've seen lots of different insects (including honeybees and bumblebees) going from tassle to tassle collecting the pollen. I have two type of sweet corn growing. One variety is Country Gentleman and the other is Stowell's Evergreen. Both types are shoepegs which means the corn doesn't grow on the ears in straight rows but shows up in a more haphazard pattern. The bumblebees are hitting the sunflowers like crazy. Strange but you often find them spending the night on the blooms. I guess if they work late they just spend the night out and return home in the morning. This year's crop of sunflowers are smaller and shorter than normal but I attribute that to the heat and drought. Still, it's hard to find a cheerier sight in the garden than a stand of sunflowers. The next update will likely be in a week or so as we extract this year's honey crop. Despite the drought it looks like we'll have a pretty good year where honey is concerned.


Monday, June 14, 2010

What to do...what to do?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Naragansett turkey hen is glued to her nest. We have about a week until hatch day so things are fast approaching. We also have a cuckoo maran hen (chicken) who has gone broody and should be hatching out a varied clutch of eggs. We value the broody trait since it's so much easier to allow momma to do the work of raising chicks, keeping them warm, showing them what to eat and what to leave alone (bees!).

A very good friend stopped by today and dropped off about 20lbs of fresh-off-the-tree sweet cherries. She and her husband have an 'in' at a local orchard and get access a few days before the general public. I have three trays of pitted cherries in the dehydrator now that will be great in Donielle's homemade granola cereal. What to do with the remainder. Some I'm going to give away but the rest are going into.......what......cherry wine, of course.

I first tried winemaking last year with two Cabernet Sauvignon "kits" from Midwest Supplies. Each kit yielded about 30 bottles of wine which are now aging in the basement. Each year we have an overabundance of blackberries that grow wild in the yard. This year I've decided that I'm going to try some blackberry wine also. I bought 4 gallons of raw apple cider last year from a local orchard to try my hand at making hard cider. The results were amazing. Immediately prior to bottling I added some of our honey to give the surviving yeast a boost. This resulted in sparkling cider that turned out quite dry and very tasty. It turns out, however, that I gave away too many bottles and now I find myself wanting. This year I'll have to buy 8 gallons! Heh Heh.

In other news the garden is coming right along. I harvested nearly 60 garlic bulbs yesterday and our 'monster' cabbage grows by the day. My plan is to allow the cabbage and one zucchini plant to grow to gargantuan size and then let the kids enter them in the Fauquier county fair. The cabbage is known to grow to a 50lb head so I should be able to get a year's worth of sauerkraut out of a single head. We'll see.

Thanks for following our goings on.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Brooding Turkeys

Our Naragansett hen has finally gone broody. She's sitting on about 5 eggs which should hatch in a little less than a month. She's been exhibiting some nest building behavior in recent weeks but she finally plopped down and began incubating in earnest about two days ago. If you approach her or the pasture shelter she puffs up like a balloon and hisses at you. I ignored her warnings last year to my peril and tried to reach under her to check on the eggs. I got pecked hard enough that she broke the skin. Dumb me! I've done it so many times with chickens that I was on autopilot and didn't take into account that I was dealing with a bird 4 times the size of a chicken.

If you look carefully in the picture you can just see her eggs beneath her at the right front.

This photo shows our two tom turkeys. Albuquerque (in front) is the older of the two and is the father of the one in the rear of the photo. The younger tom is the product of Albuquerque (a chocolate tom) and the Naragansett hen. It's our hope that he'll pair up with the chocolate hen in the background of the photo and raise some poults of his own.

This final photo is of Albuquerque. I love his blood-red wattles and combs. He's also growing a pretty significant beard. For those who don't know a turkey's beard is the little tuft of hair that grows out of his breast. Usually the older and more mature a tom is the longer the beard.

We'll follow up with the turkeys in a few weeks. Hopefully we'll have some new poults to introduce to you. It's so much easier raising turkeys when momma does all the work. If it's too cold she covers them up. If they need food, she shows them where to find it. Our hens co-mothered the last batch and did a pretty good job of it. Doting mothers!

Enjoy the photos.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Garden Goodies

We are now entering the time of year I love most. Things are starting to happen in the garden in earnest. You go out and see what's ripe and ready and plan dinner accordingly. Tonight we had beets and asparagus with our pork chops. I sauteed the beet tops in some bacon fat until they were quite limp. I then sauteed the sliced beets and asparagus in the same and topped them with diced bacon bits. There's one way to get a 5 and 8 year old to eat beets and asparagus and that's to do it with bacon. Mmmmmm.

I also harvested snap peas and a few carrots. The snap peas and the asparagus are two things that have a problem making it from the garden to the house. Many are lost to impulse moments after being picked. The snap peas will likely make to tomorrow's salad but the carrots are doomed once the boys find out they're in the house. We also have lettuce, bok choy, and pak choy coming in. The corn is getting some height to it and the little beans I planted next to each corn stalk are up and looking for support. The sunflowers are all up and tracking their namesake across the sky quite studiously. The sunflowers are mostly for show. I usually leave the heads on them for the goldfinches. You've never seen a happier goldfinch than one perched on a head full of sunflower seeds. By that time the males have lost most of their summer (display) plumage and are starting to look a little drab. Oh well.

We got THREE whole cherries off of one of the trees in the yard. I came home to find the central leader broken and hanging. I assume a bear visited during the day since all of the other cherries had been taken. I pruned the tree below the cut and I think I'm going to need to cull all fruit in the future until the tree is of sufficient size to deal with large mammals leaning against it. I could wrap those trees in electric fencing but the amount of electric fencing I have here is getting excessive. I joke with friends that the only place that has more electric fencing than our place is the Supermax prison at Wallen Ridge.

Speaking of bears I hustled home yesterday to get my oldest boy off of the school bus. I was reading the mail when I heard his bus round the corner and when I looked up the bus was swerving a bit and then stopped. When it finally pulled up to the driveway the driver asked me if I'd seen the bear that had just crossed the road in front of him. He stopped the bus so the kids could watch the bear as it marched up the hill. I hadn't seen anything. After the bus departed my son and I drove up the neighbors driveway to see if we could find it. Sure enough....there was a small bear standing on his hind legs looking at us. When he saw his chance he darted across the driveway and into the woods. I'd have to say that judging by its size that it was a fairly young bear. Perhaps a young male newly away from his mother.

Finally the sweet potato slips arrived and I have them planted in the greenhouse. I got a dozen Beauregard and 6 Vardeman. I have them in the greenhouse because they LOVE heat and the deer can't get to them in there. Last year all of my slips were eaten to the ground. Dang! We'll see how they do.

Enjoy and good gardening.

Friday, May 21, 2010

In the Bees!

I got into the bees this afternoon primarily to see if some nucs I had intended to raise for this year's beekeeping students were making progress. Sadly they are not. I haven't gotten a single nuc (out of the 10 or so I started) that's made sufficient progress that I'd be comfortable selling it to someone. Not to worry though. There are other club members who can likely supply bees to the students.

The first photo show me dusting the bees with powdered sugar. You dust the tops of the frames and then brush it gently down between them so as to get onto as many bees as possible. The bees don't like the sugar and begin grooming themselves furiously which knocks loose a lot of varroa mites. They eat the sugar and all is well.

The second photo shows a frame of ripened honey that the bees have begun to cap over. The snow white capping wax you see here is the newest and finest beeswax there is. Just a beautiful sight. The frame full of honey weighs about 4 lbs. When the box is full it'll weigh nearly 45 lbs. A lot of weight and most of it's honey.

Photo number three shows a frame taken from the brood nest where the queen lays eggs and young worker bees are raised by the thousands. Note the ring of uncapped honey around the outer edge. Next closest to the center are cells of pollen. Pollen is the bees source of protein and mixed with honey makes a type of 'bee bread' that's fed to the developing larvae. If you look closely into the individual cells you can see the young worker larva laying in the bottom of the cells in a 'C' shape.

This last photo I included because it just looks cool. Quite often when you pry up the inner cover you find that they bees have built comb between the cover and the tops of the frames below. This wax is usually just scraped off and melted down later for candles, etc. I always take a second to just appreciate the work that the bees have done.

Enjoy the photos.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Garden, Shrooms, & Turkeys

As is typical for this time of year things in the garden have already gotten away from me. I can't resist trying new plants (especially tomatoes) and I always find myself trying to find room in the garden for the seeds I've started. For the past couple of years I've been using a soil blocker to create little soil cubes for seed starting. The first blocker I bought was the 2" model which is perfect for almost everything. Later I purchased a 1/2" mini-blocker for starting flower seed.

So far in the garden I have tomatoes (about a dozen different varieties), garlic, 3 kinds of corn, 4 kinds of potatoes, various cabbages, carrots, onions, brussel sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, cukes, lettuces, beans, sunflowers, PEANUTS, peas, asparagus, and various herbs. This is my first year trying peanuts. I bought seed peanuts through another member of SSE ( and planted them. All are up and running.

The fruit trees are doing well this year. I bought 10 M-7 rootstocks from and I'm going to grow them out for a year and then graft different varieties of apples onto them. My plan is to bud graft 4 different apples onto each rootstock and then espalier them onto a trellis system. I have 5 rootstocks in the ground and 5 in 'pots'. I hope to get the rootstocks in the pots started and then donate them to my son's Montessori school's garden.

The shiitake mushrooms logs are beginning to fruit. I've been collecting the shrooms and drying them for family and friends. So far I haven't gotten any of the oyster or lion's mane mushrooms I plugged last year. That's ok. Shiitake are good, meaty mushrooms and go great in salads, stir fry, and as a meat substitute. Mmmm good.

The turkeys are laying pretty well. Right now we have a clutch of seven eggs in the pasture shelter that we hope our Naragansett hen will soon begin to set on. Last year she hatched 5 poults but only one of those survived to adulthood. We'll see. Both of our hens co-mothered the poults and the Tom (Albuquerque) was an excellent father. I watched him many times very gently handing freshly plucked grass clippings to his poults. He obviously dwarfed them in size but he was very careful to step around them when they wandered underneath him.

Enjoy and good gardening.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

May Swarms

Update Spring 2010!

Well I have finally gotten around to updating the blog. We're starting out with photos of our second swarm of the season. The bees exited one of the colonies in the yard and perched on a branch on one of the cherry trees. We came home from Jake's soccer game to find 10,000+ bees hanging out.

Swarms are a colony's way of dividing themselves. Once a colony reaches a certain size the worker bees collectively decide that it's time to split the colony in half. They begin to make queen cells inside the colonies on the bottom of the frames (or combs in a wild colony) and they begin to 'slim down' their queen so that she's able to fly. Once the cells are capped about half of the colony exits the front door in a massive swarm of bees. They usually settle down on a nearby structure (could be a tree branch, fence post, car, etc) and hang out while the scout bees search for a suitable new home. Once a new home is found the swarm lifts off of the temporary perch and heads for their new digs. Although menacing in appearance swarms are usually totally docile. They have no honey stores or brood to defend and they are usually stuffed to the gills on honey. It is this honey that will give them the ability to draw new combs in their new-found home. Swarms are comb drawing machines.

I got a nuc box together with 5 new frames of pure beeswax foundation. Holding the box underneath the swarm I shook the branch sharply and dropped the majority of the bees into the box. You don't necessarily need to get the queen (but it would help). Once you have a 'critical mass' of bees in the box the others will follow. I checked the bees 3 days after shaking them into the new box and found that they had drawn almost all of the foundation into new combs.

After work yesterday I stopped over at a buddy's house to check on the colonies I keep over there. Harvey and his wife Ellen have a very interesting property and what they have going on there is my vision for my retirement (or post lottery winning) days. You can check out their website at

It was my intention to substitute the honey super I had placed on the colony over there with a super designed for Ross Round comb sections. When I opened the colony I discovered that they were in post-swarm mode with imminently hatching queen cells everywhere. I removed two cells and could feel and hear the sounds of queen bees that are about to emerge. Then, while I watched one of the queens chewed her way out of the cell I was holding and emerged into a queen cage I held over the end of the cell.