Archive | April 2015

Signs of Spring

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Although snow flurries visited us just a couple days ago, signs of spring are everywhere.  The crocuses opened their petals wide to the bit of sun we saw this morning.  The spring peepers, tiny frogs with big voices that live in our pond, have been getting louder every night for a week.  Yesterday I heard the first male grouse thumping out his mating call from deep in the woods.  Male woodcocks hold their nightly aerobatic shows in the skies above the orchards.

The snow has all melted except for tiny remnant patches in the shade where once tall drifts stood.  Today I set up the outdoor cage so our house cats can enjoy some safe time outside.  All three cats have ventured out the pet door to sit in the wind for a few minutes.

After nearly a week of dreary clouds and sporadic rain showers, the weather is finally changing.  Once the high winds die and the sun comes out, we might even see temperatures in the 60s, the weather people say. For sure that will bring the worst sign of spring:  the bugs–black flies and mosquitoes.  Until then, let’s enjoy the crocuses.

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Puppy Love

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Molly is a sweet little 9 pound cat who loves everyone.  One of her besties is Otto, a 120 pound German shepherd.  Here she is with Otto enjoying the morning sun.  The dogs were raised with cats so they are conditioned to respect the little balls of fur.  They even allow cats to take food from their dishes as they are eating.  We have to chase the cats away if any try to bother the dogs when they eat.

Molly spends lots of time in the dog area.  She purrs for her canine friends and rubs her head on them.  They nuzzle her in return.  Often I find the cat and dogs sleeping curled around each other.  Such friendship is a rare and lovely thing.

Lost Babies

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Raising animals is mostly happy times, but once in a while things go wrong.  Jade, my angora rabbit, was due to give birth yesterday.  About six days ago, she suddenly stopped eating anything except hay.  She wouldn’t touch her fresh fruit and veggies, those are always her favorites.  She was barely drinking.  When this happens, it is a very bad sign.  I worried that she might die.

One expects that breeding rabbits would be fairly simple.  They breed like–bunnies, right?  Well, raising purebred angora rabbits is not so easy.  I have lost three does to pregnancy-related problems over the years. Every time a doe is bred, there is a chance she will be dead within a month.  Breeding rabbits always makes me nervous.  Unfortunately, it is the only way to get new generations of rabbits.

Jade has given birth successfully twice and raised two big litters of fawns.  There was no reason to suspect she would have a problem.  She stopped eating soon after she spent several hours roaming free around the hay barn.  Then, yesterday she gave birth to seven stillborn babies.  They looked nearly full term.  I would say they had about five days development left.  For some reason the entire litter died inside her.  Luckily, she was able to pass them all and not get sick or go into shock as can sometimes happen.

A doe might have one or two dead babies in a big litter of eight or ten.  To have the entire brood succumb is very unusual.  I don’t believe the deaths were due to trauma.  Perhaps a few might have been killed if she had been injured somehow.  Not all of them.  How she could have been injured is anyone’s guess. There is really no way for her to get hurt hopping around the floor of the barn or living in her cage.

The babies do not appear diseased, they look normal.  The mother also is not sick now that she has given birth.  So it was probably not disease that killed the babies.  My best guess is the doe found some toxic plant in the hay covering the barn floor.  What plant, I have no idea.  It would have to have been toxic for fetuses but not adult rabbits.

Happily, Jade is eating again and drinking and being active.  Looks like she will pull through fine.  I found a few blades of the first grass of the season for her.  She gobbled them up and looked for more.  After she recuperates for a few weeks, we’ll try again to get some live babies.

Apple Maple Pudding

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Yum, Apple Maple Pudding is so scrumptious!  My husband thinks the name is hard to say, but he has no trouble eating it!  We use our own maple syrup and eggs for this and when in season, our own apples.  This is excellent served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

I found this recipe in Yankee magazine years ago and have adapted it to suit our tastes.  It might be better to make this in a slightly larger dish, this is a two quart bowl.  Might want to use a 2.5 qt or 3 qt dish next time since it overflowed a little.  The recipe has three steps.

Apple Maple Pudding

2 large pie apples, peeled, cored and sliced thin

1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons flour

cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger to taste

Toss apples with dry ingredients and arrange in the bottom of an ungreased 2-3 qt casserole dish.

3/4 cup maple syrup

3/4 cup apple cider or other complimentary pure fruit juice (I like orange/tangerine juice)

Combine in a small sauce pan and bring to boil over medium heat.

1 1/2 cups flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons oil

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk

Combine all ingredients and mix well.  Pour over apples, spread evenly.  Pour hot syrup mixture over the batter.  Bake at 350 F for 40-50 minutes until the cake tests done.  Serve by placing cake in bottom of bowl, covering with the apples then spooning the sauce over all.  Don’t eat too much!a2

Pruning Apple Trees

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Spring finally arrived this week and with it came the start of spring work.  Right now I’m pruning some of our apple trees using the new chainsaw I got for Christmas.

The orchard is full of mature apple trees that are badly overgrown.  Many have heavy limbs right near the ground and are a mass of tangled growth.  It is very difficult for me to mow close to the trees.  To keep the orchards all apples, every year any wild tree sprouts must be cut.  Otherwise our orchards would soon be woods.  Since there are so many limbs in the way, I have to cut invasive saplings under the trees by hand before they become too big.  Being unable to mow close to trees also allows the Virginia creeper, wild grapes and nightshade a chance to climb up the trunks and weigh down the branches.

Every spring for the past several years we have limbed up a few apple trees.  Each tree that is pruned makes my mowing job that much easier.  So far this year I’ve done seven trees.  Much of the brush will be chipped. The best brush is sold for apple wood Gnawers in my online stores.  The smaller limbs I cut up for our firewood.  The larger limbs are left long, anywhere from two to six feet long.  This wood will be sold to meat smokers.  I have already sold the first cord I collect.  A man saw me working in the orchard today and stopped to buy the wood from me.  There must be nearly half a cord already cut.

In the before photo, above, and after photo, below, the difference in accessibility after the pruning is obvious. I will be able to mow right up to the tree.  The lowest limbs are high enough for the tractor to pass beneath. When the ground is a little drier, I will return with a trailer hitched to the tractor.  I can stand in the trailer and reach some of the higher limbs that still need pruning.  To finish the job, I will use a pole pruner, or climb the tree and cut away excess growth with a pruning saw.  Right now clearing the low limbs for mowing is the priority.

Note the assistant pruners in the photos, Holly and Otto, the German shepherds.  They are never far away.a2

Grandma Times Two

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At 2:00 am on April 10, Chloe Alysce came into the world, granddaughter number two!  Such a perfect little angel.  I was there for the birth, almost the only one assisting.  The midwives arrived about 10 minutes before Chloe.  Poor dad missed it by two minutes.  I was so glad to be there for my daughter.

If Chloe is anything like my first grandchild, Lia, she will bring joy to our lives.  Lia is my little buddy.  She loves everything about being outdoors, animals and farming.  Just like gramma.

Lia and gramma at the sea

Lia and gramma at the sea

So far Chloe has been full of surprises: arriving precipitously in the middle of the night, learning to nurse quickly, sleeping four or five hours at a time so her family can get some rest, and then needing to go to the hospital on her third day of life.  She developed a big case of jaundice and the midwives wanted her to get the blue light treatment.

So Chloe spent her fourth day lounging in a special blue light tanning bed.  She even got to wear some neato goggles.chloe2

Mom said the baby took it all in stride, alternating napping with nursing.  She’s doing fine now and back home.

I think Chloe is going to be as delightful and unique as her older sister.  I can hardly wait to hold her again!  What fun we will have, as soon as she can stay awake!

Thanks to my daughter for these photos!

More on Maple Syrup

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Maple syrup season is nearly finished for us.  Today is the last day.  We hope to gather enough sap to add to what is already in the boiler to make a gallon of syrup.  That will give us three gallons for the year.  We would have had four if I hadn’t burned the first batch.  Didn’t make it down to the maple orchard in time and the syrup boiled too low and turned to caramel in the evaporator pan.  Oh well, can’t cry over burned syrup.

The two samples above are from April 5 on the right and the 8th on the left.  The color is a lovely medium amber.  The body is thick, the way we like it.  No runny syrup for our pancakes!  The 4/5 syrup has settled out all the maple sand to the bottom of the jar, while the 4/8 still has small amounts of either suspended sand or sugar crystals making it cloudy.  I’m hoping it’s maple sand since that is an easier problem to deal with. Sugar crystals mean the syrup is too concentrated and it will be prone to forming large crystals on the bottom in storage.

Maple sand is the bane of syrup makers.  It is the naturally occurring minerals in the sap that the tree needs to live and is comprised mainly of calcium.  Maple sand does not affect the flavor of the product in any way while in storage.  It is just ugly to look at and grainy in the mouth.  No one wants maple sand on their pancakes so it must be removed from the syrup.  During the syrup making process in large evaporator systems, the sand forms sludge on the equipment that must be periodically cleaned away.  In our operation, the sand makes its presence known right after the syrup is bottled.  As the syrup cools to a certain temperature, the minerals are precipitated from the solution as tiny crystals.  These slowly settle out to the bottom of the container.

Our syrup is always filtered twice, but we rarely clear all the sand with filtering.  I run the sap through a strainer as I draw it off the evaporator to bring up to the house to finish.  This clears out any debris collected with the sap such as tiny bits of moss or bark from the trees. Then the syrup is strained again right before placing in the glass canning jars.  This catches some of the sand that has started to form.  The bulk of the sand precipitates after it cools for a couple minutes in the jars.  Syrup should be sealed before the temperature drops to 190 F from the 219 F it reached when it became syrup.  Allowing it to cool too much while exposed to the air will let mold or bacteria form in the sealed jars.

I’ve read two theories about what causes maple sand to precipitate.  The first is that this happens when the syrup reaches a certain density and the other theory is cooling causes the crystal formation.  I suspect it is due to both causes.  The best method I’ve found to remove the sand is sedimentation.  The syrup is allowed to sit in glass jars for several months.  When I’m ready to bottle for gifts, I open the glass jars and pour off the syrup, leaving the maple sand behind.  The syrup is then heated to 190 F, poured into new, fancy plastic syrup containers and sealed.  For home use we just pour from the glass jars until we reach the sediment. Then we enjoy it on pancakes, waffles, French toast, oatmeal, and my in favorite, apple pudding.

Pint and half-pint of Phoenix Farm maple syrup.

Pint and half-pint of Phoenix Farm maple syrup.