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Cultivate a Slow Food State of Mind with These Kitchen Practices


Photo by Sarah Joplin

Cooking is not only a skill set but also a mindset. Slow food is actually a way of life. I used to be a workaholic with a mild eating disorder. Now I’m a cook-aholic comfortable in a country kitchen with a stocked pantry and meal planning a common train of thought. In the arc of that transition, I’ve learned not only how to cook, but how to plan menus, shop effectively, be my own prep cook and integrate cooking (mostly) from scratch into my day-to-day. What follows are some practical tips to cultivate the cooking state of mind. If I can befriend my kitchen and steadily turn out tasty meals, so can you!

Plan Ahead

Carve out some time to think about breakfast, lunch and dinner for the coming days or even week for you and those you feed. And for goodness sake, don’t forget snacks and dessert! Think up what meals you’ll prepare so that you aren’t caught at the last minute without a meal or get overwhelmed in the preparation process.

Planning ahead allows for eating fresh ingredients instead of resorting to packaged or frozen food. Make a shopping list from your menu planning so that you don’t find yourself running out of items you might use up or lacking special ingredients not in your pantry. Before you go shopping, check your staples and replenish where you are running low. It’s a big disappointment to embark on a recipe only to find that you are out of flour or sugar!

Seek Inspiration, Be Creative, and Have Fun


Photo by Sarah Joplin

Having a garden is a great way to get inspired by food. A container or kitchen garden or full-fledged vegetable garden can provide ingredients that prompt specific recipes. Or see what is in season at your local farmer’s market or grocery store.


Photo by Sarah Joplin

Build a cookbook library if you are a bookworm or log onto one of countless cooking or chef websites to peruse recipes.

Let yourself play in the kitchen. With kitchen accessories if you’re a gadget person, with dishes or platters if you enjoy artful presentation, with international foods if you’re adventurous or decorate your kitchen if you are artistic by nature.

Invest in a set of cooking tools and utensils that work well for you including a sharp paring knife, chef’s and/or utility knives, right weight and size of cutting board, glass or ceramic mixing bowls, pots and pans. Try assorted items and outfit yourself with tools that are suited to you and your cooking habits.

Make note of meals that you enjoy if you eat at a friend’s or a restaurant. Don’t hesitate to adapt recipes and add your own twists to suit your personal taste or diet.

Listen to your favorite music while you cook. I have a happy Buddha on the counter to cheer me on!


Photo by Sarah Joplin

Experiment; try new spices and dishes. Learn from any mishaps!

Motivate yourself with what makes cooking appealing to you so you don’t get stuck in a rut of drudgery with this ongoing task.

And as Julia Child said: “No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.”

Prep-cooking & Standard Procedures

Being your own prep cook is a trick I’ve learned that helps save time in the long run, gives me a jump start on recipes and improves the taste of my meals as ingredients have a chance to settle a bit before I use them in my recipes.

It seems that I’m always roasting a chicken. Once I’ve taken the meat off the bird and have it on hand for multiple meals, I store and refrigerate the consommé before making bone broth out of the carcass. This is so much better than buying broth and makes full use of the animal.

Often, I’ll cook rice or quinoa ahead to use as a side dish or have available to add to soups, salads, and casseroles.

Another item to cook in advance is spinach. Place a bundle of fresh spinach in a frying pan with no oil or butter over low heat and cover. Wilt/cook it for about 5 minutes or until it is fully cooked, including stalks. Remove from heat, leaving covered and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. The water in the vegetable will steam it and keep it from sticking.

Carmelized onions add richness to dishes and can be made ahead. Rather than labor over the frying pan, I cheat and add a small pat of butter per chopped onion and roast in the oven in a corning ware dish for about an hour at 350 degrees, stirring once or twice to incorporate the browned edges. This secret ingredient is especially delicious when added to potato salad or dips.

Mushrooms that have a short shelf life can be cooked ahead and saved for several days, all the while their flavor deepening (see below for jar method). When sautéed with butter and a splash of Marsala or Sherry, they really sing.

Instead of plastic containers, use glass jars to store food. The rubber rib in canning jars lids will reseal for longer storage if you fill them when contents are hot. Besides, the clear glass makes it easier to see what you have on hand as we’ve all forgotten what leftovers we have and unintentionally let food rot from it being out of sight and out of mind. I prefer wide-mouth mason jars as they are easier to fill. Another advantage is that glass doesn’t leach toxins into your food. Refrigerate as you would plastic containers. This is a “mother-knows-best” suggestion that took me years to finally adopt and discover that she was right again: it works like a charm!

To transfer cooked dishes or items into the jars, I swear by a wide-mouth funnel. Splurge for the stainless steel canning type which will stand up to higher temperatures without leaching and maintain its shape after repeated dishwasher cleaning.

Generate a short list of your specialties that become your signature menu items. Mine include chicken cacciatore (extend by serving over egg noodles), chicken enchiladas (with quinoa instead of rice), chili (extend by serving over spaghetti), butternut squash soup and lasagna. These will give your meal planning a jump-start while getting your cooking juices flowing if not your mouth watering.



Photo by Sarah Joplin

One of the most important ingredients I’ve found for making food taste good is time. Cooking ahead and letting the flavors in food mature, blend and mellow makes most of my dishes exponentially better than pumping extra seasoning into a “rush job” meal. Each week, setting aside a few hours or half-day to prep-cook and then another half to full day to prepare multiple meals ahead allows their flavors to mature and avoids me scrambling to prepare each individual meal. It reduces stress and increases the joy of cooking!

Involve Those You Feed

Institute a night a week when everyone cooks together. Make a pizza or taco night, a stir-fry night. Enlist help with the prep-cooking that day of the week having someone make dough, someone chop, someone sauté. This can become an enjoyable ritual and take pressure off the full-time cook in the household. You can adapt this to dessert, too.

I used to be a bachelorette and pick up take-out at 9 o’clock p.m. on my way home from the office. Now, restaurants with take-out aren’t right around the corner and I feed others as well as myself. Whereas my refrigerator used to look like someone just installed it, I now have two, along with three freezers and a well-stocked pantry. Slow food is not a trend but a way of life now. Even if you work full-time, some of the aforementioned tips can improve your relationship to food and cooking while cultivating a slow food state of mind. Give them a try!

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.

All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Homestead Archaeologist: Unearthing History on a Rural Property

Welcome to the Boonies

The table on our front porch that greets you with the “Welcome to the Boonies” sign is also decorated with odds and ends showcasing items of interest that we’ve found over the years. There is something about making discoveries on the land, of finding artifacts both natural and human-made, that mimics the joy of what Buddhists call beginner’s sight or Christians observe in a child on Christmas morning. Such finds also often pave the way for unanticipated creative meanders and side projects.

Over the years of living on the farm, we’ve come across a number of ‘finds” that have brought about childlike wonder and/or adult reflection, reminding us of our place in the natural order and the history of this particular piece of land. It only seems fitting to display our found treasures for all to see as we foster a spirit of show-and-tell.

Clay, Hematite and Geodes, Oh My!

Clay pot  geode

Clay. For a gardener, clay can be a blessing or a curse. It didn’t take long to determine that we had the latter in our garden, but as we continued to investigate soil types around the farm, we found several types of clay, especially near a hillside spring which feeds our well. Like many before us, we dug and soaked the clay to purify it before trying our hand at sculpting. A small coil vessel resulted which led us to think about how we might fire our rudimentary creation into pottery. Before we knew it, we were well down the road much traveled by humans over the ages, down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. We nestled the coil vessel in a sand-filled cast iron pot and “fired” it in the heart of our burn pile. Intrigued by the results, we signed up for a pottery class at a local adult education program! Such are the journeys unleashed by the joy of discovery on the land; you never know where they will lead.

Hematite. Rock hounding or amateur geology is a common pastime at the farm. When even a walk down the quarter-mile driveway invariably yields some new treasure, it’s hard to resist learning about objects that sparkle or reveal unique colors, inclusions or patterns. One rock that we’ve found in abundance is hematite. A quick internet search on yielded the fact that hematite is one of the most abundant minerals on the Earth’s surface and the most important ore of iron. Next thing I know, we’re looking into methods of forging or smelting the raw material, investigating Celtic forges to extract the ore, newly cognizant of the bounty of the land.

Crystals. Occasionally, we’ll find round rocks of varying sizes and heft them back to the house with the intention of cutting them open to see if they have any crystal formations inside. Though these rocks look ordinary on the outside, we’ve learned that they occasionally contain minerals including quartz and agate inside cavities hidden within. Our property has some areas of exposed sedimentary limestone, a feature which indicates the possible presence of geodes. Though we haven’t exposed any crystals yet, we’re looking forward to it with high hopes.

Spear Points and Fossils


I’ll never forget the day we established our main vegetable garden in a patch of the field just below the house. After a whole day of my boyfriend’s working the site with the tractor, I went out to check on his progress only to find a perfectly intact spear point laying in plain sight on top of a deep furrow he’d made with the plow! Digging about 2 feet down in the thick clay to level the garden, he had unearthed the point from deep below the surface; it was pristine.

Our research indicates that the sharp point is made of Burlington chert, the lighter-colored relative to flint. Natives of our region include the Osage Indian tribe which dates back to approximately 700 BC and as we live in Buck Hollow, the arrowhead could easily have been used in hunting. After a failed attempt at making a kill, this overthrown spear probably went missing and was only rediscovered when I found it. We’ve been on the lookout ever since but have yet to find a specimen as fine as this treasure which I took as a good omen for gardening.

Our home is also on the site of an ancient inland sea which dates to the Paleozoic period. We’ve found fossils of what appear to be crustaceans embedded in rocks as well as what could have been the tooth of an enormous sea creature. We’ve also mused over finds of what appear to be fossilized bone and trees, knowing that giant mammals roamed the area where we live which was spared the flattening advance of glaciers during the Ice Age.

Remnants of Daily Life: Hardware & Farm Relics, Pottery, Glass and Toys

Antique Farm Implements

Homestead items

Not all items of interest come from the distant past. As we renovated the old barn, have taken walks on the land or even mowed the lawn, we’ve found objects that invite scrutiny. Among them are abandoned tractor and other mechanical parts, antique hand-made nails and hardware, fragments of pottery, pieces of vintage colored glass, old toys and furniture parts. Each of them reference former residents of this land and farm as physical links to the past lives lived here. Each tells part of a story and begs the questions of who they belonged to and when and how were they used.

Natural Wonders: Beetles, Butterflies, Moths and Mantis

Butterflies  Moths

In summertime, the air is aflutter with the color of wings. My boyfriend resumed a childhood passion when we moved here and collected over 400 specimens of various moths, butterflies, beetles, insects and true bugs over the span of 2 years. Slowly, the fanciful winged sprites of my youth were demystified, their beauty frozen, pinned and named, resulting in an artful and educational display of Mother Nature’s creativity and spectacle. Every hue of the rainbow, often accentuated with metallic sheen is coupled with striking design and form mostly intended as camouflage. We’ve collected, hatched and released numerous batches of luna moths for the sheer wonder of watching them emerge, pump their bodies full of life and majesty, and take flight.

Praying Mantis

Similar interest has been paid to the Praying Mantis. These bio-predators hold a special place in my gardener’s heart as they feast on many of the insects that prey on my tender greens. If you are on the lookout, you can often find mantis cases (ootheca) deposited on tall grass stalks and small branches. The practical side of collecting them in a jar to hatch in spring provides a whole batch of allies which can be distributed as bio-protection in the flower and vegetable garden. Then there is the awesome sight of watching the small casing hatch an ooze of hundreds of tiny mantis babies which grow rapidly right before your eyes. We’ve even caught a male and female mantis, watched them couple and the female eat the male before proceeding to lay her egg sack and then die. As the stream of minuscule mantises emerge 3-6 weeks later, the life-cycle continues.   

Living in the country invites us to delight in discovery as we learn and build a relationship with the land. Whether taking a walk in the woods, weed eating, repairing a broken pipe, establishing a new garden bed or refurbishing an old building, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll come across an unexpected discovery. We can’t help but become part naturalist, part archeologist, part geologist. We come to glimpse the history of our surroundings through research inspired by finding relics that offer clues into the past. With each new finding, we learn about or are reminded of what defines this singular place and its cultural and natural history. Our connection to and appreciation of the land deepens as our own roots reach a little deeper into this place called home.

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.

All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Reap What You Sow, Eat What You Grow with a Full-Circle Kitchen Lifestyle

Canned goods by Sarah Joplin

It’s New Year’s Eve and the frost of morning overlays the green world gone dormant. In Mid-Missouri, now is the time we avoid weather forecasts and instead look outside to see what Mother Nature has in mind for the day. Though we are tempted to dream of spring, it is best to stay present in the natural state of hibernation.

Our (human) version of this season of survival largely involves catching up with ourselves before forging headlong into a new cycle of dreaming-turned-doing. Blades need oil and sharpening, sheds need cleaning and sorting, books need to be read by the fire, seed stocks need assessment before succumbing to the promise of seed catalogs. It’s time to reflect and take stock as much as time to dream.

A jaunt to the basement is an easy way to see the year in review: Potatoes, squash, garlic, onions, basil and shelves lined with canned zucchini, tomato, ratatouille, vegetable soup and dried beans provide a quick glimpse at the growing season that started with seeds sown in the greenhouse early last spring. Such is cause for celebration! For on these shelves lies the culmination of planning, tending, sheer grit and the ongoing toil necessary to grow and put up food.

The freezer offers further testament to the bounty of the land: pesto, elderberries, eggplant cutlets, and blanched zucchini. All of this amounts to evidence of triumph over insects and other pests, extreme weather, molds, mildews, fungi and other assaults on precious plants that must be tended and protected in order to achieve an edible yield.

Butternut squash by Sarah Joplin

Shelled beans by Sarah Joplin

Gardening is an experience unto itself. It amounts to a committed relationship and one of consequence when the result is feeding yourself. They say that when you cut your own firewood, you warm yourself twice. Eating what you’ve grown takes this idea to a new level of interrelationship.

As I haul in bushels of produce at harvest time, muscles grown strong from months of garden tending, there is a satisfaction in my body and mind.

Tomato harvest begins 2020 by Sarah Joplin

As I soak up the golden rays of Indian summer sun shelling dry beans for hours, my appreciation grows for the value of this labor. Processing tomatoes and zucchini for days and weeks on end, I dream of meals to come and how they will taste of summer and equally of harvest.

Food prep for canning by Sarah Joplin

It strikes me how mindless we’ve become about the sources of our food. I marvel at the extraordinarily low grocery store price we pay for, say tomato paste or frozen peas, thinking of all that goes into such products. When I estimate the monetary value of a single jar of homegrown spaghetti sauce, my figure comes in somewhere around $35, factoring in seeding, watering, weeding, fertilizing (and repeat), harvesting, processing and preserving.

We wander “supermarket” aisles, plucking cans and packages from overstocked shelves of food priced proportionate to our global industrial food supply and distribution channels, not thinking of the land or the farmers and producers and oblivious to the extraordinary feats necessary to manifest such bounty.

Thus, when we consume the goods from our homegrown pantry, each meal embodies intrinsic value. Not only has great effort gone into dreaming, growing, harvesting and preserving the food, but a relationship has been forged between the land and its stewards. If good stewardship practices are employed, a symbiosis exists between the land and its people. This inter-dynamic is consummated at the table and such a dining experience could not be further from eating out or even eating store-bought food. While eating what you grow requires an extraordinary amount of work, it is equally a privilege; eating what you’ve grown brings the life cycle full circle.

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.

All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

A Secretly Decorated Forest Evergreen Becomes a Farm Family Tradition


While winter and the holiday season holds many allures for each of us, my favorite seasonal rituals center around trees. When I was a wee girl, we lived on a 50-acre farm in central Missouri. Much of the property was woodland comprised of oak and hickory interspersed with cedar. From a very young age, my brother, 6 years my elder, and I owned the task of providing our family farmhouse Christmas tree. We were responsible for choosing, felling, and retrieving the tree that would adorn the house for the holiday season. Suffice it to say that we youngsters shared quite the adventure each year!

In addition to those memorable annual escapades, another tree provided a centerpiece of magic in my youth. One of our neighbors came up with the idea of decorating an evergreen selected somewhere in the snow-covered woods and making it into a sort of treasure hunt. The kids in the neighborhood (that is, several neighboring farms) would wander the forest with parents following along, chiming in with, “you’re getting warmer” or “you’re getting colder” as we darted here and there in search of what was deemed The Sugarplum Tree.

In Search of the Sugarplum Tree

Somewhere around the winter solstice, a few of the adults would select and decorate an evergreen growing naturally in the woods. It was laced with garland and adorned with shiny and handmade ornaments, woven decorations, and hung with candies and sweet treats for our delight.

Our entourage would set out into the woods with thermoses and flasks in hand, all with our best boots and heavy coats. Sometimes it would be snowing. Other years it was crystal bright blue sky overhead. It was such a wonderful adventure to see the forest for the trees, most decorated by Mother Nature herself, shining with ice crystals or fluffed with snow piled atop branches. I vividly recall the sound of all of our boots tromping through the snow. Sometimes it was dry, powdery snow that almost squeaked when you walked on it. Other times it was heavy, wet snow which sloshed as you traipsed and trudged through it forging your path.

There was always lots of laughter floating through the air, merriment shared by the adults and the handful of children. Aside from a rare rabbit, fox or deer that we’d encounter, the forest was pristine and silent. In my estimation, it was extraordinarily beautiful, a veritable winter wonderland.

Secluded Evergreen Tree In Snow

Glorious Discovery

After wandering around in what was probably circles, up and down the hills talking about sled rides to happen later in the day, how expert our ice skating skills were getting, and the pure joy of warming up by the fire after the chill of outdoor excursions, we would at last spot the coveted tree. First, we would freeze in our tracks as smiles of awe and delight spread across all of our faces beholding the marvel of this decorated tree amidst its pristine surroundings.

We were overcome with absolute childish enchantment, sheer wonder, boundless joy. Then with unbridled glee, we would rush to the tree and pluck the sweets from the branches: cookies and candies tied with ribbons and even some ornaments which had our names on them. We would proclaim that it was the best tree ever and dance around it hand in hand. Such a splendid and fairytale ritual marked me forevermore and instilled an essence of magic into the season of waning light. It animated the rhythm of the seasonal hibernation and offered a collective celebration of winter’s austere offerings. Trees are glorious, even, and especially in winter.

Photos by Sarah Joplin

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.

Snow Custard

Sarah JoplinThey say that tastes and smells are evocative of early memories. That was certainly the case when I was inspired to make a recipe from my childhood.

Snowy, Mid-Missouri winters in the 1970s often stretched from December through March or April. In our “neighborhood”, which consisted of 5 farms spread over nearly 500 acres, families came together and devoted entire days to sledding down the steep hill which connected our homesteads. Such occasions would culminate at a neighbor’s kitchen table with steaming hot chocolate shared in high spirits. Other neighborly happenings were more somber and occurred when someone slid off the ice-rink-like roads into a ditch and needed to be rescued with a tractor or when pipes froze and whoever still had running water would share their good fortune.

I didn’t know then that snow could be an ingredient. At 5 years old, I rarely concerned myself with cooking at all unless Mom engaged me in kitchen tasks, asking that I mix a bowl or stir a simmering pot while she fed our wood-cook stove. One snow-day, home from school as I hovered around her, she showed me how to knead Irish Soda bread and braid Challa strands into their traditional loaf shapes prior to baking. Other times when she enlisted my help, we made egg noodles from scratch to complete her signature chicken soup. With her kind gestures and loving ways, my mother taught me some of the most vital ingredients for the recipe of a contented life—humor, gratitude, and patience.

One wintry day, as fresh snow accumulated on already-fallen mounds and drifts and I made a snowman in the yard, Mom got a gleam in her eye and said that we were going to make something special. Then she did an odd thing, getting two bowls and directing me outside to do as she did, scooping fresh snow into her bowl. “No yellow snow”, she chuckled, as our dog poked around nearby! I happily followed instruction, filling my bowl and trotting back inside behind Mom.

I remember the house was warm from wood-heat and smelled of sweet vanilla. Once in the kitchen, Mom showed me the custard that she had lovingly concocted made with sugar, eggs from our hens and milk from our neighbor’s cow. In turn, I proudly held up my bowl of snow. She nodded approvingly and told me to set it outside by the front door, nestled in the snow next to hers. Now was the time for patience, as we waited for the mixture to cool. All the while I salivated in anticipation. To pass the time and expedite the process, she brought the custard pot outside and nested it in the snow. We both delighted in making snow angels to pass the time.

Finally, Mom did a surprising thing; she fetched the bowls of snow, returned to the kitchen and invited me to help mix the two ingredients together. I squealed with pleasure, thrilled by the novelty, eager for the treat. And in that first bite of snow custard, I could taste the mellow flavors of country living and the secret ingredient of love.

Mom’s Snow Custard Recipe


  • 3 cups Milk
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • 2/3 cups of sugar
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla
  • 6 cups Fresh Snow


snow custard

1. Combine milk, sugar, and vanilla in a medium sauce pan. Whisk eggs together and then add to the aforementioned mixture over medium heat.

3. Beat mixture while cooking over medium heat. Heat until mixture starts to rise. DO NOT let boil.

4. Scoop fresh snow into a mixing bowl.

mixing snow custard

5. Once liquid mixture is ENTIRELY cooled (you can leave covered in snow to cool), pour mixture over snow and mix thoroughly.

finished custard

6. Serve immediately and Enjoy this rare treat!

Photos by Sarah Joplin

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.

All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Eureka! Success with Fallowing, Raised Beds and Fall Gardening

Success with raised beds in the garden

If you haven’t tried fallowing your garden, using raised garden beds or planting a fall garden, I’m here to make an introduction and to sing their praises. After 15 years of gardening, it was a great joy to employ these methods which yielded numerous benefits. Mind you, these are not new techniques, they’re just new to me. If you’ve been contemplating these approaches, I’m here to cheer you on to go for it! They really work!

Life had other plans for me that prevented me from putting in my annual veggie garden the last two growing seasons, so I used that time to solarize my garden plot and let it fallow. Such old-fashioned methods of leaving the soil mulched, growing a cover crop for green manure or even covering it with plastic are believed to be more natural ways of improving the soil without the use of chemicals. Nutrients can be replenished and soil balance restored when production crops aren’t grown and harvested. Solarizing fallow ground also kills insect eggs and larvae, breaking pest life cycles. Though we introduced raised beds this year, we also reserved sections of the garden for direct-sowing in-ground. Yields were plentiful while bugs were minimal. Glory be!

Fallow garden

Poor soil has been an inherent part of gardening here in the clay of Mid-Missouri. Building the soil has taken time, strategy, ongoing effort and patience.  After years of discussion and contemplation, my boyfriend constructed twelve 3-by-5-by-18-foot raised beds, laying them out in three rows of four boxes separated by 3-foot paths in between. It was refreshing to have control over the soil composition in the beds. We dug out the 8 to 10 inches of “good soil” we’ve built that was about to be covered by pathways and shoveled it into the beds, thus creating sunken walkways around the boxes which were then filled with fast draining creek gravel bringing the top of the paths back to their original level.

No longer would the flash floods of spring and summer drown our plants; raised beds alleviate root rot as they provide improved drainage. The individual boxes make managing specific soil amendments easier, too. You can acidify, deep mulch, or fertilize each bed individually. We topped each box with a partial bag of commercial garden soil whereas next year we’ll incorporate the compost/chicken manure blend we started this year. Not only does my back thank me for not having to stoop as far to tend all the various aspects of the garden but I even found that elevated boxes seem to deter some crawling insects.

Raised beds get underway

Unfortunately, soil quality has only been one of my challenges. Another formidable foe is weeds. I’ll disclaim here that I’m not known for doing things the easy way. My garden method has long  been direct seed planting or seedling transplanting into bare ground. This is followed by mulching little by little with grass mulch as I intersperse mowing the lawn with mulching and sowing more seeds or starts.

This process takes time in my 32-by-75-foot garden often resulting in the bare ground sprouting with weeds before I can get to hoeing the rows, planting and mulching. Weeding thus becomes my first task in spring and the race continues all season long with the weeds inevitably outpacing me. Our permanent raised beds created a new infrastructure (and paradigm) with drainage walkways in between which we covered with professional landscape cloth and topped with ½ inch, river-tumbled pea-gravel to reduce all of that area that has historically been a perpetual battleground with weeds.

My garden now looks and feels like a nursery! Weeding in the beds themselves was virtually non-existent. Now, I can actually focus on the plants I’ve chosen to grow rather than on all of the weed volunteers that have gobbled up disproportionate amounts of my time in the garden.

Landscape cloth covered with rock minimizes weeding

Though I’ve long wanted to try a fall garden, planting a garden in the height of summer was not  my intention this year. Let’s just say that it took some time to construct our new raised beds. My seed starts (and I) were patient. Finally, on July 1, I transplanted my starts into the new beds and watched them grow and flourish. It was amazing that I had cucumbers about the same time as fellow gardeners who had planted months earlier.

The primary challenge I found to the raised garden achieving its growth potential in the heat of summer was the obvious: water. Blessedly, we had generous seasonal rains to keep the plants growing steadily. Next year we’ll use a drip system to keep water flowing as needed. Another risk facing a fall garden (and gardener) is an early frost; you have to hope for a long growing season in order for plants to reach their full harvest potential. It could have been my imagination, but I found my late-summer harvest yield seemingly had a stronger, certainly more robust flavor to the fruit and vegetables. Whereas you can always taste the soil and the sunshine in fresh produce, this yield also had an infusion of dense flavor unique to the end of the season. Harvest is easier on your back with raised beds though I’ll admit a little more frenzied as the threat of frost loomed.

We did end up harvesting tomatoes green and hanging them to ripen, a method I found to work quite well as long as you have ample room to store these clusters while they take their time to ripen. At the rate they are going, I’ll have ripe fruit into mid-November. What a treat! Canning season has been extended with the fall garden but I’m thankful to take full advantage of the bumper crop. Plans for next year are already germinating in my mind.

Since so much of gardening seems to be learned the hard way, it is nice to share success when you manage to achieve it. Eureka! is the theme for my garden this year with positive discoveries made from fallowing, expanding into raised beds, and mixing it up with a bountiful fall garden. I wish you well on your own journey of discovery in the garden.

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.
All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Sticker Shock for the Home Flock: Costs and Rewards Raising Chickens

Feeding & watering in the chicken run 

Chickens have been on the agenda for some time and with the pandemic posing risk to our food supply, it seemed the perfect opportunity to venture into animal husbandry. With factory farms producing most of our meat supply, we’ve long been interested in raising our own chicken while investigating what it would take to become a small, local meat producer and/or develop farm-to-table relationships with a sustainable number of restaurants.

High Costs Raising Backyard Chickens

To that end, our foray into chicken-raising had an eye toward commercial production. This approach factored into our cost and admittedly there are corner-cutting and budget saving options we did not explore and economies of scale that would help but our finding was this: It turns out you don’t save money raising your own chickens! In fact, our costs calculated out to be a shock: almost $5/pound. With an average bird at 5 pounds and our per-pound cost at $4.89, that put our birds at around $25/each. An important note is that figure doesn’t include our labor. It does underscore the value of what you pay for chicken at the grocery store!

Which Breeds Did We Raise?

Research indicated that the Cornish Cross chicken is the meat bird, hands down. They are bred to grow at an astonishing rate and to yield large breasts. Since the 1950s, these birds have been singled out as our national meat source in commercial production. We were interested in investigating heritage breeds as well and opted for the Silver Laced Wyandotte, which is touted as a dual-purpose egg layer and meat bird. They also had the added characteristics of being strikingly handsome and good-natured.

Coop set-up at 2 weeks

Living in Missouri, we opted to patronize Cackle Hatchery and hoped to be able to pick up our chicks in person, but Covid-19 had other ideas. Instead, we received the most amazing package in the mail: a cardboard crate of 51 day-old chicks. It was unseasonably cold that mid-April day so we’d set up our brooder inside the (somewhat) climate-controlled shop. In hindsight, this wasn’t necessary, as heat lamps and huddling suffice to maintain their body heat.

What we found was that these spring chickens are reasonably hearty other than their risk of contracting Coccidiosis. The Wyandottes had been inoculated, but we opted to feed the Cornish Cross with medicated feed. This method proved faulty when we lost 7 birds in 10 days and had to augment their water with Amprolium to fend off the disease. Luckily it didn’t wipe out the entire flock.

Cornish Cross & Silver Laced Wyandottes

Chicken Nutrition and Notes on Care

Things proceeded fairly steadily once the death toll stabilized. A routine of feeding high-protein chick starter/grower crumble a couple of times a day while replenishing and freshening water set in. We augmented their water with powdered vitamin supplements and raw cider vinegar to boost overall health. In addition to the crumble, we fed cracked corn, ground flax (for its high omega content) and the requisite kitchen scraps as well as hand-gathered pink and white clover. My boyfriend teased me about how I brought the chickens flowers every day.

Feeding and watering were punctuated with changing the bedding in the brooder, then in the coop and finally in both the coop and the run. This was our first experience with the rhythm and rigor of raising animals. It’s not the most difficult work but it is also not lenient. Truth be told, I’m more of a gardener than a farmer and I learned quickly that chickens aren’t vegetables; sleeping in is a thing of the past knowing that you have hungry mouths to feed. Monitoring their body temperature until they begin to get their feathers and then providing constant and appropriate amounts of food and water become a driving force in the day. Making sure they are safe in the coop at night is critical so that predators don’t make off with birds or damage the infrastructure trying.

It’s amazing how fast the Cornish Cross grew in comparison to the Wyandottes: at least 2-3 times the rate. This may have had to do with their gluttony. Whereas the Wyandottes were entirely feathered out and had proportionate overall body growth, the Cornish Cross were still getting their feathers when we butchered them at 8 weeks and underwent multiple growth spurts during which they seemingly doubled in a week’s time. To go from a couple of ounces when hatched to 3-5 pounds at 8 weeks and 5-7 pounds at 10 weeks (dressed), the birds seemed more to inflate than gain weight.

Home Processing

As the time approached to harvest the first batch of birds, we sketched out our processing methods, rounded up materials, purchased equipment and determined a division of labor. It would be my first experience butchering animals. Being a carnivore and wanting to raise our own food, it seemed important to participate in the full circle of life of these animals. The process is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach but it is necessary if you want to eat chicken.

Having the birds processed commercially is an option but it adds cost and removes the self-sufficiency aspect. Instead of skinning the birds, we bought a scalder and plucker, both which we found well worth the investment. We were most concerned about sanitization and decided to take two additional steps in an attempt to minimize the introduction of pathogens. First was dipping the birds in a bleach bucket after they bled out and before placing them in the plucker and second was adding salt to the ice water bath which chilled them prior to vacuum sealing. Multiple fans to keep flies off of the butchering block station were also employed.

Butchering station set-up

Capitalized vs. Amortized Costs

Our 33 birds (harvested in two batches two weeks apart) yielded 167.75 pounds of meat.

Some of the project cost was capitalized and included the purchase of the chicks, feed, Amprolium, pine chips and straw bales, vitamin supplements, vinegar, disinfectant, ice, salt and propane while other project costs were amortized.

Other costs were amortized and included heat lamp and bulb, feeders and waterers in several sizes, disinfectant sprayer to clean between bedding changes, scalder, plucker, restraining cone, deep freeze, vacuum sealer and, of course, the materials and labor to build the coop and the run.

Even if we didn’t save a dime for our efforts and faced sticker shock in the process, we believe that our chickens taste a whole lot better than the store-bought birds. We’re on the fence about going into the chicken business but the experience was a valuable, hands-on education in the matter. We’ll see how things go with the layers and where the journey leads us.

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.

All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

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