Category Archives: Produce

Smallholding and ‘life’

Life has a way of getting in the way of living sometimes. You don’t speak to friends and when you do you apologise because ‘life’ got in the way. With having a little person around 24/7 and a husband who works full time I often find that ‘life’ is getting in the way of smallholding. We try and limit our trips away and make sure we have a few weekends a month to get on with the tasks.

This autumn though ‘life’ hit us hard. My stepfather, Paul, died suddenly. I knew he wouldn’t live forever but I thought we had at least another 10 years. He had been instrumental in my life, he even bought our smallholding for us whilst we sold our previous house, thankfully we paid him back in full a few months ago. My family was hit hard by his loss and as he died abroad the burial proceedings were drawn out. It ended up being a month from his death to his funeral. In that month I was home maybe 2 or 3 days a week, the rest of the time spent with my mum in London. Sam was home a bit more but for the majority of the time we got sitters in.

In terms of the smallholding it wasn’t what I wanted at all, every time we’ve been away previously we’ve had someone staying over. The sitters were coming in for the morning and night runs, checking up on the animals and doing food and water. When I was home I would do the cleaning out of houses, water buckets and some harvesting.

Literally just before we found out about Paul I’d been really happy about how we were doing on the holding. My vet friend Cassie had been over for a weekend and showed us how to trim the sheep’s feet, we’d put up the first of 2 fences to subdivide the sheep field and I was filled with that feeling of pride you get when you see your holding through someone else’s eyes. It felt like we were finally getting on track, I had some things to plant in the polytunnel, our local garden centre was selling old stock of organic manure dirt cheap and a trip with the trailer was planned and the apple and pear harvest were approaching. Life was good. I came in to do dinner and Sam did the night run, as he stepped in the door the phone rang and the world fell apart for me.

On the times we came back to the smallholding we did what we could but you could literally see things falling apart. The first time back after a week away the polytunnel was heaving with fruit flies all over the tomatoes and the peppers, the onions that I thought were ok still in the ground had started to sprout green stems again, the fruit trees we’d impulse bought in  our garden centre’s sale were looking worse for wear, the felt roof of the goose shed Paul had helped us build was flapping in the wind and I didn’t have the energy to make the calls needed about our incoming ram lamb.

I felt awful about it. Paul had been so proud about what we were doing, he’d boasted to people at my daughter’s birthday in June that nothing goes to waste here, but things were. All in all the smallholding survived. The animals were ok. I guess that goes to show that whatever is happening life does go on, and that my gold standard of care for the animals can slip in emergencies without the world ending for them.

Now we are back, have been for about 2 weeks, and we are ‘cracking on’ as he would say. We’ve done the second fence in the sheep field so we now have 3 areas to rotate around. The buying of the ram lamb has been replaced with the hire of 3 year old tup as the owner isn’t sure the ram lamb is up to the job, we’ll buy him in the spring and not use him on his half sisters. We are trying to get on top of the apples and pears but a lot have been lost. We did two large batches of pear wine (neither worked) and 2 batches of apple wine (both very tasty) last year. This year I don’t think we will have enough fruit for wine. We also stored cooking apples through until the new year but we currently have about 3 that are ok to store. Tomorrow we are back out on the land so we’ll be focusing on apples and pears, hopefully I’m just underestimating numbers.

I guess I’m feeling disheartened by the loss that I have seen around the holding in the last month. Or maybe that’s part of the depressed stage of grief. I keep reminding myself that what happened was rare and in such times as ‘life’ gets in the way in such a massive way things will slip. I learnt a few lessons:

~ The smallholding can be managed in the short term by someone coming in morning and night.

~ ‘Life’ will get in the way sometimes, and that is ok.

~ Life is too short – I think we will be going on holiday more than I had originally thought.

~ I do want to do this – sometimes I have thought that smallholding isn’t working but I want to succeed at this. Paul put effort into helping me get into this way of life and was proud of my achievements so far. I want to keep making him proud.

Maybe this is more a personal post than a smallholding post but I am sure this will happen, and indeed has happened, to other smallholders. Before it did I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for me to be there for my family whilst I had the holding to look after but it can be done, sometimes ‘life’ is important enough that you have to allow it to get in the way.

Hopefully more smallholdery posts soon.

Dans

Goose house in the making
Goose house in the making

 

Preserving tomatoes

Well it’s harvest time and with that comes preserving time. I’ve not had much experience preserving foods, freezing, turning into wine a single go at red onion chutney and hawberry sauce is the extent of my dabbling. That needs to change now that I am smallholder. We want to still be eating our home grown foods deep into winter.

We had a little go at pickling cucumbers but then I didn’t feed the plants and the harvest wasn’t great so that was 3 or 4 jars that were only set to last a couple weeks in the fridge. Not going to see us through winter there.

Then the tomato harvest came in and it was truly a glut. The first wave was about 12kg of tomatoes (two different salad types and one cherry) and Sam reckoned that would be about a quarter of it. We needed to get preserving and fast!

Our first tomato harvest
Our first tomato harvest

The cherry tomatoes went into the dehydrator and turned into a very tasty treat that I didn’t even know I liked. I think sundried tomatoes in oil put me off of the idea of dried tomatoes and I’d never been a fan of dried fruit. The smell that filled the room whilst the dehydrator was running was divine and we soon found that the end product was quite addictive.

Drying cherry tomatoes
Drying cherry tomatoes

We still had the salad tomatoes to deal with though. In hindsight most of our tomato consumption is in the form of sauces, both for cooking and condiments. With that in mind we should have gone for very fleshy tomatoes rather than about 15 salad tomato plants. We will learn for next year! We decided to still try and make passata despite our poor choice in variety. After all there was no way we could eat that quantity of tomatoes fresh and we aren’t set up to sell at the gate yet.

We had two methods to try. The first was out of the River Cottage book. Basically chop your toms in half, stick them in an oven for an hour, press through a sieve or passata maker (we didn’t even know these existed), bring to the boil and bottle. The second was from an Italian friend of mine, Cassie. Pop your toms into boiling water to split the skin then peel (a lot easier than it sounds), chuck them in a pot and cook until it’s at the thickness you want then bottle or push through sieve and bottle.

We tried both methods and, although the River Cottage was less labour intensive to start, the pushing through the sieve took a lot of time and effort and I don’t think it was very efficient. We did get a beautiful thick sauce though, maybe more paste than passata. Would be a great base for ketchup, which is another thing I am hoping to make.

The Cassie method was daunting but I actually really enjoyed skinning the tomatoes. The boiling down took forever, was on the hob for most of the day before it got to the right thickness and by that point I couldn’t be bothered with the sieve. It was bottled seeds and all but actually makes  really good base for sauces, I’ve used a couple already. Despite peeling the tomatoes and the length of time it takes to cook it actually feels like a less labour intensive method because you just leave it be for a lot of the time.

We have since harvested 3 more batches of tomatoes and the Cassie method has been the one we stuck with, until the most recent batch. We decided we like making and cooking with passata so much that we should buy a passata machine. We switched back to the River Cottage method and ran the toms through the passata machine when they came out of the oven. Thick seed free sauce that was quite quick to make. I’ll probably do a batch or two each year the Cassie method as I think having the seeds in worked really well for ratatouille, which we eat a lot at the moment thanks to our abundant courgette and aubergine plants!

Passata machine in action
Passata machine in action

So we can now add dried cherry toms and passata to our list of preservation methods conquered. I am hoping to have a go at ketchup as well, but for now I’ll be satisfied that we have coped with our first real glut!

Dans

The story of the missing eggs

Well I said in the broody post that we had eggs turning up left, right and centre whilst Aino was sitting in the favourite nest box. We hoped that once she was gone things would go back to normal but we didn’t and we had hens laying away in bushes and changing the spot every few days. Our egg production went right down and I was convinced there was a pile of eggs hidden somewhere in our garden.

We finally got everyone laying in the house (or under it as one Brown Marsh Daisy insists on doing), except a Brown Marsh Daisy who we thought had a very well hidden nest. We spent days watching the chickens outside to see when there was only one BMD in sight and then go hunting. No luck at all.

The BMD who lays under the house was pretty consistent though, an egg a day. Earlier this week I noticed her under the house. I went back later but no egg. I really searched. The next day Sam found two eggs under the house. We thought I must have missed it but I suspected that both BMD were laying there and we had a thief in our midst. We popped a rubber egg under just in case, in the hopes that it put off whoever was eating them. Sure enough there were two eggs again the next day but no rubber egg. I was hoping that would be the last of it, we put a rubber egg down again but we then had a couple days of only getting one egg and the rubber one. It might be time to block the chickens off from there and hope they return to laying in the house. Although I’ve found some eggs from inside the house outside it so the thief may be going inside too.

After a week of hunting for the second BMD nest Sam finally found it, in the most overgrown part of the garden. There were 9 eggs in it. They all passed the floaty test though so we made a nice spanish omelette with some veggies from the polytunnel. Unfortunately, she hasn’t laid there again so we are back to hunting her! Ah the joys of truly free range chickens.

Any suggestion of who might be stealing our eggs, or ways we can prevent would be warmly welcomed!

Dans

Shopping smallholder style!

We went shopping – smallholder style. A member of our local smallholding group is leaving the smallholding life and offered up a bunch of their stuff to the group members to buy.

A couple of our purchases were to do with future interests. We know we’d like to get into keeping bees, although I’m slightly worried as to how I will react with a bunch of bees flying around me but we should find that out when we go on a bee keeping course. The equipment was at a really good price should get us pretty much set up to go so we went for it. We also want to keep goats for milk in future, but we’d like to see if we like and will use the milk first so a cheese making kit (soft and hard) seemed like a good buy.

On the practical side we bought a scaffold tower as some of our fruit trees are high and it will help us do repair work on sheds, the house and polytunnels. The most useful of all is that we have now bought a trailer! Once we get a tow bar on the car and collect the trailer it will come in handy not just for transporting animals but collecting muck, moving things around the land and crazy spending sprees like this! As it was, somehow Sam defied the laws of physics to fit it all (except the trailer) into the car plus me, Chi and a pushchair!

Our car, aka a TARDIS
Our car, aka a TARDIS

Dans

Chicken update

We’ve been having a few cockerel issues lately. Aramis (as he is now known) has started charging at us during corn feeding times and giving our legs one good peck with his beak. We thought it was hunger as sometimes the pellets would run out during the day but he continued to do it even on days we kept on top of the pellets and even after all the corn had been given out and his girls were still pecking happily away at the ground. Sam ran after him the last time he did it and so far so good but he gets one more chance. If he does it again he is in the pot.

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Aramis – our cockerel

To be honest he may end up in the pot anyway. He’s a lovely looking boy and he does well showing the girls food and keeping them safe (he gets them all on red alert when one of our cats walks by). On the downside though we have to keep the eggs in the fridge and he has a favourite hen who is getting her back feathers damaged by his affections. We’ve had to resort to buying a saddle for the poor girl. On top of that he is another mouth to feed, and a big one at that! Just need to get myself booked onto a course to learn how to humanely dispatch chickens or have someone show me. Whatever happens I want his end to be quick and utterly unexpected for him.

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Our ‘First Lady’ showing off her saddle

We’ve also been having nest box issues with the chickens. We bought two nest boxes to attach to the side of the chicken house but we put them a little bit too high up I think. Nevertheless we did get a couple of eggs in them but then it rained and the boxes leaked. The tongue and groove joints weren’t done very well. We ended up putting an Ikea storage box in there on it’s side which has actually worked really well. We had 5 birds using it though which is too many (one of the Brown Marsh Daisies has made a nest underneath the house). We felted the roof of the box now though and the Norfolk Grey is happily using so I am hoping the others will follow.

On a good day we are getting 4 eggs that are suitable for selling (we only sell them if they are over 50g, not too dirty and not ridged at all). Two of the Brown Marsh Daisies are still laying very small eggs and the Norfolk Grey has a really ridged egg every 2 or three days. Not the best layers I guess. The Cream Leg Bars are doing a great job though, we sometimes even get large eggs from them and the blue shell is a draw for some of our buyers.

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Eggs!

We’re doing quite well selling eggs to family and friends and are now looking at getting some more chickens, laying some eggs that differ in colour to the ones we already have. We need to re-paint the hen house first though and get another nest box in (probably another Ikea box as it is working well). I’m thinking that we will wait until July for more chickens as that’s when the next round of worming is needed and buying then will mean that 1) the new girls get a quarantine treatment, 2) everyone is kept inside to allow them to sort themselves out so they will eat all the pellets and get a good dose of the wormer.

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Happy chickens

Dans

 

Geesey update

A lot has happened since the last update, but this post will focus on the geese.

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From front to back, Abigail, Athos and April

We’ve had a bit of a switch around with names, aiming to have animals named according to their year of birth. All of our animals so far were born in 2015 so they will have A names. Jules and May have been renamed Athos (Musketeers) and Abigail (Hannibal). April (TMNT) has kept her name.

New fence posts going in
New fence posts going in

After a few escape attempts we fenced off a new area for the geese. They now have 0.2 acres to roam. I was worried that they would switch and start laying in the new area but luckily they seem to have imprinted on the ‘orchard’. We are now thinking about digging a pond for them in the boggiest area. We’re hoping that will improve drainage all round.

A wobbly fence in the making
A wobbly fence in the making

The geese have had even more fencing as we gave up on the windbreak fabric we put up in the last post. Abigail went under it too many times, it was starting to break free from the staples holding it up and then Athos went over the top to attack our helper Lis. So 1M stock fencing went up, just need to get a gate in there which will make getting to them a lot easier.

We had a couple run ins with Athos getting a bit more protective but he seems to have calmed a bit since we started walking with a stick and using a dustbin lid to aid in egg collection.

The girls are laying really well. We’re now on 35 eggs from April and 36 from Abigail. The highest egg estimate I saw was 40 so I am hoping that they exceed that as I was expecting them to lay until at least the end of May. Omelette had been our go to goose egg meal but after tasting a fried goose egg I am sold. Still need to have a go at a soft boiled one though!

Lots of goose eggs
Lots of goose eggs

I’m reconsidering the hatching goslings idea. It’s quite likely that Athos, Abigail and April are all related and we’ve no idea if their parents were related or not. However I am still interested in having some goslings. Athos and Abigail are very much bonded which leaves April all on her own a lot of the time. If we got a couple of goslings we could kill one in the winter and keep one as another layer/companion for April. Another girl would also be useful as April is now sporting a bald patch from some rather eager affections from Athos.

Three's a crowd
Three’s a crowd

If we could get the geese to actually lay in the shed we’d be able to sell the eggs. Currently they get quite muddy. Unfortunately they seem to be very fixed in the idea of sharing a nest in a spot that gets wet when we get a lot of rain. If anyone has any tips to get them into the shed that would be awesome.

The last bit of news on the goose front is a mouse problem. They have started getting in to the layers pellets bucket and have been trying to get into the water/corn bucket and drowning. We’ve started taking the pellets away at night but there’s still some droppings so time to find another feeding system I guess.

Dans

Finally here

Ok so we have been here since August but with a baby getting set up has been slow. So slow that I have had this tab open to write this post for nearly a week…

Our journey to smallholding probably began when we moved to our first house in Scotland and started a fruit and veg garden. Self-sufficiency became an interest, wanting to know where our food was coming from, and after a bit we began to dream about our next house, one we would move to once I had finished the studies that had brought us to Scotland.

We have lived all over the UK and whilst I have a fondness for the North West we searched everywhere for the right place, with viewings in Scotland, Wales and England. Six years later we found this place, 2.5 acres of flat, fairly good grazing, with some impressive polytunnels and established fruit trees in Lincolnshire. It was less land than the 10 acres we had dreamed of, and it borders a well trafficked road, but the house wasn’t in disrepair and I was heavily pregnant so we went for it and moved in when our daughter was 10 weeks old, late August.

I had so many plans. We would do any repairs needed to the fencing, buy a 4×4 and a trailer and get the sheep in autumn so they could keep the grass down. We’d also get some veg beds made in the polytunnel and outside in time to get autumn garlic and onions in. Oh and we’ll paint the inside of the house. Oh and chickens, yes we could get some chickens if we’re quick and do it before the light stops them laying. And of course we’ll get some hedges and fruit bushes and fruit trees planted in Jan.

I don’t think we would have done all that even if we didn’t have a house to unpack, my husband had a full time job, I was recovering from severe SPD from the pregnancy (only just off the crutches when we did the move) and recovering from a c-section, oh yes and the small matter of a baby!

To top things off when we got here the fruit trees were dropping their fruit and I’m of the waste-not-want-not mentality. Plums and apples and pears kept us busy well into November. I don’t think I’ve eaten so many apple crumbles in my life! We made 5 gallons of apple wine, 10 gallons of pear wine (5 of Williams, 5 of Conference), 5 gallons of plum wine and 5 gallons of spiced apple. We still have a freezer full of fruit and there are apples stored for me to process!

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One day’s harvest in Sept, with the help of child labour in the form of my niece and nephew

As such we are still knocking fence posts in where there are rotten ones in the sheep field (only one long side left to do!). Still clearing brambles and tall grasses and saplings to actually get to the fence on the boundary side of the sheep field. This past weekend we did make progress on the growing front though, we started on the veg beds in the polytunnel. We now have a 6x1m bed that we’ve chucked some seeds in and the outline for a second bed. The grand plan is to have 6 beds in that one polytunnel. We’re trying no dig, although I’m not sure how well that will work. Will post in detail about it later.

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First no-dig veg bed in the polytunnel, all planted up.

We also made progress on the livestock. Our neighbour moved and gave us his geese and abandoned his cockerel so we took him in too. We now have April, May and June (who I suspect is John) our 2015 born Toulouse geese, as well as Casey our cockerel of unknown breed and age, but I think is quite young.

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The girls, April, May and June.

We managed in true smallholder style to knock up a chicken hut from an old shed in the back garden and things we had lying around. It must be pretty alright as Casey took himself to bed the first night it was done. Need to get some nest boxes, a pop hole and better ventilation before we can get the hens but I’m pretty chuffed with it. We also need to get a shelter sorted for the geese.

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Casey sunning himself in front of his house.

 

We aren’t doing things perfectly, I’m not sure there are any smallholders that do but we are getting there, fumbling our way through. I’m sure we’ll make a lot of mistakes and in years to come I’ll read this back and think ‘why oh why did you do that’, but we will keep trying and we will keep animal welfare as our #1 priority.

I’ve said we a lot in this post. The team behind Six Oaks consists of me (Dans), my husband Sam, baby Chi and our incredibly helpful volunteer Lis (without whom I think we would have only managed half the things we have so far!). If you’re interested in smallholding without a smallholding check out her blog smallholdingbyproxy.

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The Six Oaks team

 

Right as the baby is sleeping I better get myself to bed, I’ve got a chicken to let out early in the morning and some geese to attend to! Hopefully there will be more posts from me soon.

Dans